Belhaven Stories, I

PIPE DREAMS

“For it is not necessary for thee to see with thy eyes those things that are hid.”
Ecclesiasticus 3:23


While working on my masters at Belhaven, I recall meeting a freshman named Camden Westmoreland who aspired to the image of scholarly excellence more so than its substance. Being a TA, I would linger after the medieval literature course and speak with the undergraduates. On more than one occasion I remember Camden hijacking the conversation into a vein in where he had minor competence. I admit, I am not without pride, and it is frustrating to have someone who is unwilling to admit their ignorance discourse on topics which you know considerably more, but to have it done disruptively and to the diminishment of the spirit of the discussion is not a mere instance of bruised feelings.

Nevertheless, I took an interest in him, if not to correct his errors, then at least to lead him to the prudence of not making them so often. Which is why I remember his seemingly genuine question in my carrel,

“Have you ever smoked a pipe?” There was a Puckish glimmer on the edge of the question.

“No. My insurance doesn’t cover cancer treatments.”

“All real academics smoke pipes. Have you ever seen that picture of Derrida?”

I felt like Derrida and Barthes would both had been chagrined to hear the master’s name spoken of in this context.

“My favorite is the one of him and Borges.”

“Were they smoking pipes?”

“No.”

“The one I’m talking about is a picture of Derrida gazing into the camera, solemnly penetrating the mysteries of the modern, withered by the desire and violence foisted upon him by a childhood in Algiers and young adulthood in France, in a perpetual diaspora from home and self, compassionately yet stoically engaged, smoking a marvelous bing pipe.”

I was impressed.

“I have to get a pipe,” he said.

“There’s that pipe store off Lakeland, Beknighted. They sell smoking tobacco and pipes,” I offered, always a teacher.

“I might check it out,” he said, not to be outdone.

For nearly two weeks I lost touch with him. The weight of the semester set, and the professor I was assisting enjoyed taking ‘educational sojourns’ with one of the other TAs, so my work load was heavier than it might be otherwise.

Behind one of the campus dorms, there’s a swamp. One imagines it was meant to be a lake: placed before the terrace of a residence in order to have the tableaux designed into a brochure, to promote the idyllic experience of learning at Belhaven, insulated from the outlying poverty. But the planning board hadn’t gotten around to finishing the beautification project. Sitting on its gouged edge, next to overgrown thistles, I took in the view of man’s attempt to hew collegiate paradise out of Mississippi moor. The early autumn cicada howled in the distance. Students with earbuds cradled by the nibs of their ears milled about campus as aimless as any of us. While grading papers, Camden sat beside me and produced an ivory horn with a stem. He looked at me and raised his eyebrows suggestively. Within my soul, I rolled my eyes. Gripping the pipe in his teeth, he took out a round tin with a picture of an odd looking cross on the top; I felt like I recognized it, but my mind was too absorbed in pre-Reformation poetry analyses, or undergraduate attempts, at any rate. He said the tobacco was imported from Languedoc, France. He began to fill the horn with it still in his mouth: I felt pity for his canines. He packed the pipe’s contents with a small metal instrument; afterwards, ceremoniously, he struck a match and began to pump volcanic plumes from the white chamber. The smoke appeared blue and had a pleasing fragrance: much like the flowers one always smells at wakes. He coughed, but continued, undeterred. I went back to my papers. After five minutes, I noticed he hadn’t spoken.

“Good tobacco, no?” I asked without looking up.

When he didn’t answer, I twisted my head to see a young man in hideous rapture: his face had a sort of stunned grimace and his eyes were glassy and remote.

“Are you okay?”

He mouthed something I couldn’t make out.

Just as I was becoming concerned, he seemed to come back to the present.

“This is incredible stuff,” he said, coughing.

“Oh?” doubtfully.

“Yes. The tobacco is soaked in the wines made from an adjacent vineyard to the tobacco fields. It’s a small, family operation.”

“Must have been expensive.”

“’The cynic knows the price of everything but the value of nothing,’” he quoted.
I shrugged my shoulders, miffed.

That was my last encounter with him.  Some of the story’s gaps were revealed to me by a mutual acquaintance of ours. According to testimony, Camden became reclusive. His roommate revealed that at night, he would shout in his room. Concerned, the roommate would stand in front of Camden’s door and knock until he answered. Camden appeared as if he had just woken up and acted confused when questioned about the hollering. His answers were deflective and he suggested that his roommate must have been hearing the neighbors.

His grades dropped. Placed on academic probation, the winter following our last encounter, he went home to Louisiana. When Camden didn’t return for spring, the roommate got in touch with his parents. Like their son, they were cagey and didn’t give any definite details. Another friend eventually revealed that he had moved to the northeastern United States, and then disappeared from there.

While researching my thesis, I found the symbol I had seen on his tobacco can. It was an old symbol for the Cathari, an extra-Christian sect that existed in medieval southern France. Contemporary scholarship saw them as a neo-Manichean movement that had became embroiled in the geopolitics of the time: they were largely massacred; the end results were the further unification of France under the crown, the solidification of Catholicism in the area, and the advent of the Inquisition initiative throughout Europe. I was compelled to go to the tobacconist and see a canister for myself.

Beknighted was operated inside an old shopping block outside of Jackson. There was a suit of armor beside the door when you walked in. Hanging over the shotgun styled store was the universal odor of grandfather’s studies, or at least what one imagines that odor to be. Display cases housed exotic brier and ivory pipes; the walls were lined with canisters; atop shelves were large glass containers with miscellaneous tobaccos. The clerk wore a long bear and glasses. His nose was red.

“May I help you?”

“Yes, I’m looking for can of tobacco. It has an odd cross on the top and it’s imported from France.”

He eyed me suspiciously, considering what he should say next. “The blend you’re looking for is called Consolamentum.”

“That’s a long name for some smoke.”

“It’s good smoke.”

“Do you have any?”

He sharply inhaled through his red nose, “They don’t make it anymore. The farm it was made at burned down.”

“No kidding?”

“Nope.”

“Interesting. I knew a guy who had bought some. He seemed like he enjoyed it.”

“Several people did.”

“Do you have anything else from that part of France?”

“Afraid I don’t.”

At that point, he stared at me, as if prepared to answer negatively anything else I asked. I didn’t have anything else to say. Tension mounted. I began to notice bitter notes in the grandfatherly smell of the room, as if it was growing older while I stood in there. I noticed a curio cabinet against one wall. Under the steady gaze of the proprietor, I sauntered up to the case and beheld several eerily carved pipes that were lacquered deeply crimson. One was in the shape of a goat’s head. Another was scorched with what I can only assume were alchemical symbols. There was a black dagger with a stag-horn handle. I looked at the bearded red nosed man. The room’s smell became oppressive. I coughed. the jars of tobacco on the shelves looked like jars of dirt. I muttered something about the time and bee-lined to the door. While I had been inside, I hadn’t noticed how shallow my breathing had been: I nearly gasped when I stepped into the fresh air. Safely inside my car, I filled my lungs to capacity.

I googled the name the proprietor had told me. It was the term for one of the rites used in Catharism.

When walking through the Belhaven neighborhood this time of year, I’m impressed by the fireflies that hover, blinking in and out of time, over gardens and shrubbery. In memory they are time-lapsed, phosphorescent brush strokes, the same that people midsummer night dreams with fairies. They are forgotten until seen again. The air was hot and there wasn’t a breeze that night. I was walking back from a graduate dinner party where the discussion had trod onto the macabre commonplace of Camden’s fate. Among us Camden had become the holotype of the undergraduate who collapses in college: the pressure of school is greater than their emotional resources can withstand. It is difficult to not have mercy or feeling for the students who are under-equipped. I mentioned the small piece to the largely empty puzzle I could contribute. Another guest, upon hearing my story, sunk back in her chair and said that was utterly peculiar. The table turned to her and arched its collective eyebrow. She related that two months before Camden’s disappearance, she had read about a tragic incident where five Algerian refugees had been found inside a shipping container that had been half filled with freight. Two of them had died from asphyxiation, an it was revealed that they were in the course of a human trafficking scheme; their lives were spared from what would have likely been a short and wretched fate. The crate had been shipped out of southern France. For nearly a month, the cargo was impounded until courts cleared that the manufacturer had had no prior knowledge of the crate’s human passengers. The only mention in the article of the cargo’s contents was high end tobacco; the artisan from Languedoc. Despite myself, I shuddered.

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