The bush, the stela, Vikings and music
The "small-leafed, very dark green" shrub with berries that Berger found on Borges's grave was Buxus sempervirens (boxwood), the Bosnian gardener told the English writer.
"I should have recognized it," Berger says. "In the villages of the Haute-Savoie one dips a sprig of this plant into holy water to sprinkle blessings for the last time on the corpse of the loved one laid out on the bed. It became a holy plant because of a shortage. On Palm Sunday there were never enough willow leaves available in the region, and so the Savoyards started to use the evergreen box instead."
Wikipedia reports that three burials dating back to the Roman era in Britain feature coffins lined with sprays of the evergreen box, "a practice unattested elsewhere in Europe". The evergreen may be the hardest wood growing in Europe, but some people, like Queen Anne, find its scented foliage offensive. It was once used as a fever reducer. Though found in southern Europe, northwest Africa and southwest Asia, and locally naturalized in parts of North America, it seems not to be an Argentinian plant.
The stela, Vikings
Mike Culpepper of British Columbia reports on his website that the headstone seems to have been mostly the design of its sculptor Eduardo Longato and vaguely has the shape of a rune stone. The face with warriors in armour echoes the Lindisfarne gravestone, which apparently depicted the Vikings who sacked the monastery. Borges in his Geneva youth read Icelandic sagas in William Morris's translation and learned Old Norse.
The inscription on the front reads "and ne forhtedon na", a quote from an Old English poem "The Battle of Maldon" which Borges translated and often discussed, Culpepper tells us. It means "Be not be afraid". It comes from a Viking chief's words to some doomed young warriors.
The back of the stela shows a Viking ship, which, Culpepper notes, is associated with death in Norse sagas and may be derived from a Gotland runestone. Above it is a line from a Norse saga, which translates as: "He took the sword Gram and laid the naked metal between them". Underneath the ship we can see the words "De Ulrica a Javier Otàrola"
"Ulrikka and Javier are characters in Borges’ story 'Ulrikka' which is prefaced by the earlier lines from the Volsunga Saga. The story is about the romance between a young Norwegian woman and an older man," Culpepper reveals.
Ulrikka "was the name Borges lent [his young student, secretary and, eight weeks before he died, his wife Maria] Kodama, and Javier the name she lent him," Berger writes.
Culpepper adds: "In Argentina she was not legally married to Borges. She spoke of herself not as Borges' widow, but his 'love', which also drew some criticism."
Berger writes of riding a motorcycle with his daughter up to the Col de la Faucille immediately after visiting the cemetery. "I remembered how she had recently quoted Zeno of Elea in an SMS message to me: What is in motion is neither in the space where it is, nor in the space where it isn't; for me that is a definition of music."