POETRY: Atlas and the Fatman, by Thomas Merton

On the last day of a rough but fortunate voyage, near the farthest end of the known world, I found my way to the shores of a sentient mountain.

There stood the high African rock in the shadow of lucky rain: a serious black crag, at the tip of the land mass, with a cloud balanced on its shoulder.

O high silent man of lava, with feet in the green surf, watching the stream of days and years!

We saw the clouds drift by the face of that tame god, and held our peace.  We placed our feet on the hot sands as the ship ran aground on the edge of night and of summer.

This was Atlas at his lonely work!  I never thought I would have seen his face!

His head was hidden in cloud and night.  His eyes were staring darkness.  His thoughts were full of inscrutable waters.  His heart was safe at the bottom of the green ocean.  His spirit stood silent and awake in massive silence.  In one deep thought.

He held everything in massive silence.  In one deep thought without words he kept the continents from drifting apart.  The seas obeyed not his eyes, not his words, but the beating of his heart.

His only utterance was one weak light in a lighthouse.  Small sharp words, no commentary on the pure mystery of night, they left the mystery alone: touched it and left it alone.

From time to time he spoke (but only to the distance) with the short bass clangor of a bell.  The neutral note was uttered, and said nothing.

Yet it was this dim bell in the heavens that moved the weather and changed the seasons.  A new summer grew upon the ocean, before our eyes, closely followed by autumn, then winter.

The waves moved by with white hair.  Time rode the secret waves, commanded only by Atlas and by his bell.  There were ages passing by as we watched.  Birds skimmed the white-haired ages.  Young birds kept the morning young.  The silence of this unvisited shore embraced the beginning of history and its end.

We made believe that it was five o’clock.  We made believe that it was six o’clock.  We made believe that it was midnight.  Atlas must have deigned to smile on our efforts, since it was now dark.  His eyes gave hope to the tumbling ocean.  Once again, rain began to fall.

When it is evening, when night begins to darken, when rain is warm in the summer darkness and rumors come up from the woods and from the banks of rivers, then shores and forests sound around you with a wordless solicitude of mothers.  It is then that flowering palms enchant the night with their sweet smell.  Flowers sleep.  Thoughts become simple.  Words cease.  The hollows of the mind fill with dreams as with water.

In the sacred moment between sleep and staying awake, Atlas speaks to the night as to a woman.  He speaks freely to the night he loves, thinking no one is at hand.

He speaks of his heart at the bottom of the ocean.  He speaks of his spirit at the center of the world.  He speaks of fires that night and woman do not understand.  Green fires that are extinguished by intelligence, that night and woman possess.  Golden fires of spirit that are in the damp warm rocky roots of the earth.  White fires that are clear outside of earth and sky which night and woman cannot reach.  And waters that are common to night and to woman and to Atlas, ruled by a bell in the moon and by a bell in the sun.

Atlas puts out all those fires with his one bell, and looks at nothing.  This is the work that supports the activity of seasons: Atlas looking at nothing.

“How lonely is my life as a mountain on the shore of ocean with my heart at the bottom of the sea and my spirit at the center of the earth where no one can speak to me.  I ring my bell and nobody listens.  All I do is look at nothing and change the seasons and hold up the sky and save the world.

“No one will come near to one so tall, no one will befriend one so strong as I, and I am forgotten forever.  It is right that I be forgotten, for if I were not forgotten where would be my vigilance, and if I were not vigilant where would be the world?  And if night and woman could understand my thoughts, where would be my strength?  My thoughts would draw up my spirit from the center of the earth and the whole world would fall into emptiness.

“My stability is without fault because I have no connections.  I have not viewed mankind for ages.  Yet I have not slept, thinking of man and his troubles, which are not alleviated by the change of seasons.  I wish well to mankind.  I give man more seasons and pray that he be not left to himself.  I want him not to see my far lights upon the ocean (this is impossible) or hear my dim bell in the heavens (this is not expedient).  But I want him to rest at peace under a safe sky knowing that I am here with my lights and my bell and that the ends of the world are watched by an overseer and the seas taken care of.

“I do not tire easily, for this is the work I am used to.  Though it is child’s play, sometimes I hate it.  I bear with loneliness for the sake of man.  Yet to be constantly forgotten is more than I can abide.

“Thus I intend not only to watch, but to move watching, and I shall begin by moving the theaters.”

At this there was a stir in all the distant cities of the world and the continents heaved up and down like the trays of a scale, as all the great countries were suddenly weighed by Atlas in the middle of the night: the lands of Europe and the lands of Asia were weighed in the hands of a tall hidden power, and knew nothing of it.  The shores of America waited in the mist to be weighed in the same balance.  It was Atlas, the guardian of nights and seas moving and watching.

We expected movement only after it had already begun and we looked for power when the strong were already overthrown.  We saw the dance begin secretly in genteel houses, under the kitchen oilcloth, and leap to the tops of the most public monuments.  Some buildings woke and walked downhill and would not stop until they came to water.  Churches and banks begged pardon as they slipped and fell.  People in the unsafe doors set out for earth that escaped them, and trod too late on streets that hurried away.  It was more than most men could afford but far more than they could avoid.  It was a lame evening.  No taxi would take any man to the right place.

This was what happened everywhere when the movement began.  The title of the earthquake was “Atlas watches every evening.”

Then up jumped a great Fatman in one of the stadiums.  He thought that he was god and that he could stop everything from moving.  He thought that since he could, he had to.  He cried out loud.  He swore at the top of his voice.  He fired off a gun and made the people listen.  He roared and he boasted and made himself known.  He blew back into the wind and stamped on the rolling earth and swore up and down he could make it all stop with his invention.  He got up in the teeth of the storm and made a loud speech which everybody heard.  And the first thing he said was this:

“If anything moves, I am the one to move it: and if anything stops, I am the one to stop it.  If anything shakes, I am the one to shake it, and not one being is going to budge unless pushed.”

At that moment everything stopped.  No one had heard the dim bell at the edge of the sea (which Atlas had struck, in his dream, at this very moment).  No one saw the lights in the dark at the edge of the ocean (which had gone on and off with a passing memory in that far place).  No one thought of anything, the Fatman had all their attention.

Now this Fatman had been brought up on oats and meat and his name was secret.  His father was a grocer and his mother was a butcher.  His father was a tailor and his mother ran a train.  His father was a brewer and his mother was a general in the army.  He had been born with leather hands and a clockwork mind in order to make a lot of money.  He hated the country and loved stadiums: a perfect, civilized man!  His number was six hundred and sixty-six and he worked hard building up the stadium Atlas had destroyed.

All the people brought him money and played music to him because he was rich.  And the music was so loud no one heard the bell ring again.  Once again the houses began to tremble.

No one lo0ked at anything, but fixed their eyes only on the Fatman in his rage.  No one heard Atlas far off thinking in the smoke.  All they knew was that the city began to fall again and the Fatman roared in the tumbledown theaters: “If I had my way there would be RAIN.”  He held up his hands and had his way.  Rain came down as sudden as a black mountain.  The clock struck ten.  The world stopped moving.  Everyone attributed this to the Fatman whose name was secret.

Then in the holes of the broken city the sergeants smiled safe and guns became a thing of the present.  Gas was mercy then to many a Jew mother and a quick end came to more than a few as a gift of the popular state.  “Here comes a chemical death, with the smile of the public Father.  You shall be cheaply made extinct as a present from economy, and we will save your hair and teeth. Cyanide hopes are the face of a popular tomorrow, with ever more fun in the underwears.  Everybody has dollars in the home of well-run Demos, and more for cars than for Sunday.  But Sunday is public also where Fatman has his office.  Only a different name, that’s all.

“Here comes chemical Sunday, with a smile of the Fatman’s ghost father.  They take the girth of the Fat Father’s own gas, on top of the ancient marsh, in the name of a new culture.  Toy thugs jump out of every cradle with weapons in their hands.  They swing by hard and mean in the name of popularity and boy, that popularity is going to make you jump.  It is already famous what they can do with guns, and more so with a piece of small invented pipe, all for the fame and benefit of the new police.  Fatman, Fatman, blow us a gassy kiss from the four chimneys of your new heaven!” 

From the four sides of the wind there came together in trolleys a set of delegations in the name of Dad.  “Not forgetting Mom,” they blowed, “we come to hail the Fatman in the name of Dad.”  And old Dad sat up high in the memories of the police, a nineteenth-century legend, a corncob angel measuring the west.  A piece of true-blue old-gold faked-up fortune.  True Dad is all fixed up in the mind like a piece of Real Estate, but Mom (cries the Fatman) Mom is real heart and all soft in the easies.  Mom is fat from toe to toe, and slimmer than an ankle.  Good old American Maw is Father’s boast on wedding-cake afternoon, in the days of Coca-Cola.  Maw is safe in the new car and Paw cares for corners.  The eyes of the innocent sergeant salute Maw with pride as they draw Negro blood.  And we will have a clean America for our boys, clean as the toy toughs punished in rugged Lux.  Tomboy Mom is the magic of Fatman’s perpetual boast. 

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