The World as Palimpsest

Here’s an excerpt from my novel-in-progress, Mr. Robert’s Bones, in which the world is revealed as a palimpsest, with images of the past living and breathing in layers all around us, covered only by a thin veneer of the present …


It was early morning, dense and dark. The view from this side of St. Peter Street was of a palimpsest, with all the cosmic folds of history present, like all the rings of a tree. Furthest back, the stars, fresh and bright in our own night sky, the flash and sparkle of millions of years ago just reaching earth. Closer and newer, the cool silver moon, the same moon the Greeks saw as Artemis, the Romans Diana the huntress. Our moon. Layered on top of that primordial goddess, the leaves and branches of oak, waving behind the dormers and gables of the house across the street, expressing themselves from trees a few hundred years old, a few hundred feet away, give or take. Those dormers and gables, the very surface of our palimpsest, a mid-city house from perhaps the 1890s, perhaps once full of life. Once white but now chipped and weathered, four wooden columns creaked and bent to sustain the gloomy pediment, clawed at by half-dead webs of ivy above the porch. One window was boarded, the rest lay carelessly unattended, some with glass panes, some open to the elements, gaping mouths to an unimaginable emptiness. The house had turned since the death of Robert Marigny, and represents not only the 1890s but some more recent layer of our palimpsest. Somehow, in its abandonment, this house represents above all the present, upon which dawn began to rise over low-flung clouds, over dank smells of peat and earth long neglected under the house, over the immediate sound of crickets, frogs, pigeons scattering before a feral cat, and other, more dark and secretive creatures, scurrying in the bowels of the house itself. The eeriness of the present, dawn-scattered scene, indeed, cast an ominous pall over our entire palimpsest, making it very difficult to look upon without a swamping melancholia of the soul.

And yet dawn must come. And with dawn, the brighter sounds of well-fed dogs running into front yards to do their morning business, car engines cranking for the workday, and children playing. In this case, three children zigzagging down the street kicking a soccer ball. They suddenly bunched to a scrum, and the oldest, whom we know as Melissa, kicked hard. So hard that the ball broke through the side window of a house. Luckily, the house was currently inhabited by no human form. Unluckily, it was the Robert Marigny house.

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