Virtual Chapbook

Mark Abley

I want to inform you, I am not here to inform you.

All I am on the Net is a voice you see. Patterns of light and darkness on a screen. I am typing these words on a grey keyboard in one corner of a newsroom, the place where I make other patterns of words that buy me bread and pay my mortgage. As I write, I hear a voice from the sports department behind my back: "Arizona's got no timeouts left. I think they're ranked second or third in that conference." And then the voice fades. I imagine the man was talking about basketball, a sport that means nothing to me, but I'll never know if Arizona won the game. When I get up, the colour TV that the voice was watching has been turned off. Silence on a blank screen.

I write these words on the fifth floor of an office building on the flanks of Old Montreal, small flakes of snow skittering down outside. From my blue chair, I cannot see the sky, only a fragment of a tall brick building across an alley. The building has ranks of identical windows. I can look through the spotted air at three of them, all with identical grey curtains drawn to shut out someone else's view of wall and newsroom. The snow falls at crazy angles according to the wind currents of the moment. I have seen it, on certain days, fall upwards.

All I am on the Net is an electric memory of the fingers typing in these words. But the memory contains the hint, or promise, of a story. And you--yes, you--have happened upon these words in search of what, exactly? "Information", a mind replies? I don't think so. We are drowning in information, it melts around us like April snow; we struggle through it, gasping for air, hoping to reach a place, a condition on the far side. This website you have discovered is nowhere that news breaks; perhaps, for a moment, it gives you a chance to breathe. I hope you may be looking for a story. Not facts to learn, information to assimilate, but a tale to imagine. A respite.

Imagine, then, a cloud forest on a mountainside in Central America. Mushrooms grow from the horse-dung on the sides of a muddy path. I am following the path up to a volcanic crater. The volcano is said to be extinct; its crater houses a small lake. A thrush calls from one of the high trees I have no name for, trees that nourish a world of orchids and bromeliads and the quick creatures of the air. The light at ground-level is silvery, mossy, and the rain against my face is warm. Drops of it slither down the back of my neck. The trees are old, haunted by lichen, and occasionally they block the path. High up the mountain, the mud below my shoes turns to wet black ash. I have to clamber over a couple of fallen trunks in the half-light of the final stretch, the stretch that leads me to a viewpoint above the crater. Ferns ravel and unravel down the green slope. Tiny circles of airborne water, hundreds of them, appear in the lake below; ripple out; endlessly dissolve. I catch my damp breath watching them.

Later I will think: "The air was charged with water; the water was gathering in a bowl made by fire and rimmed by earth." At the time, I don't think any such thing. At the time, I think: "I ought to start back down the path, or else I'll still be on the mountain when the tropical night sets in." But in my memory, I'm not heading down the ashen path. In memory, I'm climbing; or standing above the crater, leaning on a railing, watching the lake accept the rain. The moment stops.

Technology made it all possible. Technology permitted me to fly to Costa Rica--a fine quirk of language--technology permitted an airplane to fly me to Costa Rica, permitted me to ride in a landcruiser up a pitted, sinuous road beyond San Jose de la Montana and Sacramento until the Catholic surface petered out and the ancient path began. Technology permits me to type these letters in the newsroom, and you to read them on a distant monitor. But it's not technology--this faith is oxygen, the air I breathe--that enables me to go on struggling up the cloud forest in my mind. Only something deeper and richer and larger than the Web--the power of language, story, imagination--does that.

I, the body and mind behind these shining words on your screen, I, the absence you choose to persevere with, I work as a journalist. In this case I had travelled to Central America to research a feature article about a man from my part of the world who has lived there for many years. Part of the work he does is to give cloud forests like the one where I walked a better chance to survive. This is important, yet this is information. You are not here for information, I assume; but if by now you are sick of this story and starved for facts, you are free to go, you are nobody's prisoner, may I recommend the websites of the World Wildlife Fund and the Costa Rica Internet Directory. Hasta luego!

The man from my part of the world who has lived in Central America for many years has six children, practises martial arts, and is passionate about snowshoeing when an airplane flies him back to Montreal and the ground is as white as a cloud. He interested me. But his words defeated me. I have before me a copy of a document he wrote. It says: "The multidisciplinary technical staff of the Project, under the concept of transdiscipline and the horizontal integration of the roles, functions and responsibilities, participates as catalyst or facilitators of the communal consulting process for the formulation of productive projects." (Birdsong in the moist, grey-green air.) It says: "The systematization and publication of socio-productive experiences leads to the creation spaces of interchange of information and technology." (Ash slipping under my feet.)

I began to write, "I am not here to contribute to the interchange of information." But I'm doubtful what that means, doubtful where my voice has come to ground. If I'm anywhere, I am where you are, reading these words, this printed voice, these letters on a humming screen. I am not clambering up a mountainside in Costa Rica. I may, it is true, be in the newsroom, looking out on a tall brick building. But the snow will not be fluttering sideways and down like cold confetti, and morning light will not be striking the sill at this exact angle, and the curtains across the alley might even have been flung open. The body that wrote these words belongs already to the past. The words are mortal, too. You won't find them in a used bookstore or recycling bin. They survive at the mercy of a webmaster. All I am on the Net is out of my hands.

The reporter next to me answers his phone. "Oh, is this for real? It sounds so amazing." I can hear only his side of the conversation, so I have no idea what his story means. "Yeah, yeah. Really. Amazing." A silence. "He seemed to think there was more than one of them." A further silence. "Where could I see it?" The snow is flying upwards. The reporter gives a fax number. "I'm gonna be there until it comes."

Patterns of light and darkness. We're near the end now, thank you for our time. Earth and rain. The hunger at the pit of language, not to inform, but to touch. Silence on a blank screen. A song, heard once, in a cloud forest. Snow and fertile ash.

© Mark Abley 1998


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