The room was small and stuffy and he had now sat so still and said nothing for so long that I wondered whether he was still awake.
He was though. I could see his eyes, and they were open. Open and resting on his hands, on his hairless hands one on top of the other, in turn resting on the cluttered table. He could have been inspecting them, could have been figuring something out about them, or pondering on what to say next; it was anybody’s guess.
Then, after another warm while, he finally looked up from his musing or inspection, found me again and smiled, though I believe mainly to himself. Then he shook his head slowly and said—with emphasis on I: “I think.” Then he tapped his temple with his index finger. “I think that this all took place up here. I think you imagined it.”
Then, after another brief silence, he added, “You’ve always had a vivid imagination.”
When I still didn’t answer him, he said, “Come on, Samuel. You don’t really think this could have happened, do you? That it…,” but there he stopped, as if struck by another thought, too important to pass up.
He always called me Samuel, never Sam, like the rest of the world.
His right hand had returned from its temple-tapping and re-covered its mate. And they were hair-less, his hands. I had often noticed that before and now I noticed it again. Odd. They almost shone. He still smiled, and still to himself more than to me, as he studied me over the rim of his glasses, apparently done talking after all, waiting for my response.
I shook my head, wasn’t really sure what to say. I had thought, or at the least had hoped that he would believe me. I looked away, at the curtained window, and as I did I heard him draw a long, audible lungful of air. “What you have to realize, Samuel, is that sometimes, even though you think you see or feel something, it’s not necessarily the case. It may be, and in this case it most certainly has to be, some chemical or other playing tricks with your brain.”
Turning back I saw him give me another long, searching look before he summed up, “I’d hate to disappoint you, but there has to be some biological, some chemical explanation. There has to be.”
He had moved since I saw him last. Prior to that, for as long as I had known him, he had either lived with his aunt on 2nd Street or in that warm little room he had rented from Mrs. Finch on Lake. Now he had his own place. I think they call them studio apartments, or is it bachelor pads, or bachelor apartments? Not sure, but this, too, was small, and warm. This, too, struck me as a den of sorts.
And it was almost as badly lighted as his room on Lake. His drawn curtains kept the day out and the only sources of light were the cold fluorescent over the kitchen counter timidly spilling into the room and the reading light by the table which was still highlighting his hands. The rest of the apartment lay in shadow and smelled of a day or two of not much cleaning up.
Yes, I had hoped that he would believe me. I really had. But he didn’t. Not even a little.
“I know what you’re saying,” I said at length, “and there’s a part of me who wouldn’t mind it so much if you were right, it would make things so much simpler. But this took place, Walter. It was too real to have been an illusion. It was not some sort of biological aberration. It wasn’t. The thing is I know, I mean k-n-o-w. This happened.”
He was watching me more closely now, as if appraising me. I studied him back. I knew those eyes very well. Light blue, although hard to determine through his glasses in this light.
Light blue and slightly mocking. That was Walter Abbot.
We used to be inseparable. Used to be. But life intervened eventually, and until recently we had not seen each other for, well, it had been some time.
Inseparable. Ever since that morning roll call in seventh grade when I first heard his voice and turned around in my seat to see who had just answered to Walter Abbot.
“Ah, yes,” said the teacher. “Our new man in town. Walter Abbot, a word or two about yourself if you don’t mind.”
Walter stood up and said he didn’t mind at all; then told the class in clear and unhurried language where he and his aunt had moved from, that he was glad to be here, and so on.
I sat up in front, partly due to my size and my not perfect eyesight, but also due to my many opinions which, so the story goes, I was overly fond of sharing with my classmates. My teachers preferred me on a short leash as it were, the better to see me and the better to shut me up. Walter, taller (and apparently not opinionated), had been placed in the back of the class.
I glanced back over my shoulder several times during that first hour, math as I recall, to get a better look at him. Our new man in town. If he noticed my glances he gave no indication, intent instead on the teacher, or on the problem at hand.
I sought him out at first recess. He was walking alone along the edge of the grounds and I called out to him.
He stopped and turned. Light blue eyes met mine, curiously.
“It is Walter, right?”
“I’m Samuel, well, everyone calls me Sam.” I gave him my hand and he took it. His hand struck me as a little feminine and it had a weak, slightly damp grip. “So, you just moved here, huh?”
“Yes, we did.”
“How do you like it, so far?”
“It’s a little too early to tell,” he said with a smile: I should know that.
I laughed, “That’s true.”
“But so far,” he added. “No complaints.”
Then the bell rang and we filed back into the classroom. We met up again at next recess and then the recess after that. We had lunch together and then, a couple of weeks later—I forget who asked, though it was probably my doing—he was allowed to swap desks with the girl on my left, and that’s how we came to spend the next six years—the balance of high school—pretty much side by side.
On to college. We both elected to stay in town and attend the local university, there was never much talk of anything else. For me it meant that I could continue to live with my parents, which would keep expenses down. Walter, by this time, had moved out of his aunt’s place to that little room on Lake Street. His aunt had taken up with a local guy, a postman I think, who had moved in with her, and her apartment was not large enough for the three of them. Not even vaguely, as Walter put it. And not very sound-proof, he added.
We had both settled on careers in civil engineering. He, because he had an unquestionable aptitude for all that stuff and really liked it. I, because both my grades and my parents thought I should, and because I wanted to go on sitting next to him.
But I soon discovered, painfully and embarrassingly so, that I did not have what it takes to be a civil engineer. And while Walter—pragmatic to the core and willing to spend those long, dark autumn nights over integral calculus and trigonometry—did just fine, I spent that fall semester trying to live up to what my teachers, and my parents, referred to as my “tremendous technical potential,” and coming up terribly short. If that potential did in fact exist, I had neither the will, nor the tenacity to ferret it out.
Now and then I would voice my doubts to Walter, but while he listened sincerely enough I’m not sure he really grasped the severity of my situation, for his almost stock reply was for me to study harder, to focus, to concentrate, to apply myself. Brotherly, fatherly. And then, sorry, Samuel, it was always Samuel, he had to get back to his books. Our courses were grueling, our teachers were sadists when it came to homework, and there always seemed to be a test first thing come Monday.
Early that spring semester—it was still deep winter—I knew with some certainty that the classes I had to take simply scoffed at what I had always thought of as my knack for numbers and demanded real sacrifices: blood and sleep and absolute devotion. I also knew by then that these were things I could not, would not, offer, not to any god, and one morning, I remember it very well—it was February and it was very cold and clear outside—I refused to go back to school.
Walter stopped by on his way home that afternoon to make sure I was okay. I’m not ill, I told him, I’ve quit. I’m not cut out for this, Walter.
I’m not sure what reaction I had expected from him, but I found him less sympathetic than curious, which was a bit upsetting. I had sort of looked for a shoulder to cry on, but his wasn’t it. And he actually seemed surprised, as if he hadn’t seen it coming, as if he hadn’t heard a thing I’d been saying over the last several months.
Once he did realize that I was indeed serious about not going back to school, he did his best to persuade me otherwise: Had I considered the consequences and ramifications? Had I thought it all through, carefully? Yes, to both. Then some fatherly questions: How could I squander such talent? And, what was I going to do now? How was I to support myself? Leaving school of course meant no more grants.
I say fatherly, because when I told my dad, he asked me the very same questions, near enough verbatim. I had no good answers for either of them.
They were valid questions, though. For of course, money was short and government grants would cease the moment I was officially struck from the school roster, I knew that. And since my father wasn’t going to keep me in the comfort to which I had grown accustomed—he soon made that pretty well clear—I needed a job, and the sooner the better. I thought of working for the local paper where I had done some freelancing and also worked part time during breaks, but the thought of staying in town, now the scene of my life’s first real—and rather spectacular—failure, did not much appeal to me. I had to get out of there, away from school, away from parents. And, I realized, a little astonished to tell the truth—away from Walter.
That’s how life intervened. And while Walter returned to his books, where he excelled, Samuel, ready or not, entered the world.
Well, sort of.
Turns out I was not ready to settle down to any one thing, so instead, over the next four years, I worked as I could and had to, living on improvised shoe-strings and not a little charity, while by thumb and other (not always legal) means I saw the better part of Europe and a little bit of Northern Africa and the islands out west from there: Madeira and the Canaries, even a short stint on the Azores.
And these travels changed everything.
You can see pictures and read about other places but still, they are just pictures, concepts to you, until you arrive there. Until you see the Pyrenees with your own eyes and wish almost achingly that you could speak Spanish and simply stay there. Until you take a swim in the Mediterranean. Until you set foot on Africa, which for me was like treading on something colossal, something dark and massive.
Like treading on history.
Until you meet the people and touch other lives. And the more I saw of what I had come to think of as the real world, of her skies and cities, of her fields and rivers and forests, and the more of her peoples that I met, the more this world became a wonderful place for me. And the wonder of it was that as the world grew for me, as I absorbed and assimilated everything I faced, so did I grow, too.
Walter, meanwhile, made his way through college with excellent grades and steady strides towards his civil engineering degree. We did keep in touch. I wrote to him on and off, long letters about what I saw, and he replied as best he could with letters shorter than mine by far and where he always sounded a little pressed for time and, well, very much like a fatherly engineer.
Southern France somewhere, Marseilles I think: That’s where I began my journals. That’s where I bought my first black notebook and some pencils to go with it, and into it I began to spill my thoughts and feelings—in whatever fashion and however strangely they occurred—and when it was full I bought another, that would have been in Spain.
And then yet another. And as they accepted me and took me in, my note books, that is—for after a while they became places where I could dwell—I began to hear, faint at first but with gathering strength, a call. A soft and distant voice that spoke of questions and secrets and which suggested that in poetry and in literature, for those who truly pursue them, lie answers.
I was in Austria the day I made my mind up. The sky was overcast and rain wasn’t far off. A few patches of snow lay scattered here and there but only along the northern slopes. The wind was warm, carrying spring. I lived and worked at a ski resort, and had just finished my morning chores.
On a break now, standing with a coffee and a cigarette by the veranda railing, surveying the hills. Surveying, too, the peaks in the distance, thinking of Italy not far beyond them. I say I made my mind up, but it was more like my mind made me up. All this that you see, it said—softly at first but with strange authority—this beauty, this world, while it awes and thrills you, while the sky and the hills and the Alps fill you, they will never, ever complete you. Only writing about them will. Only absorbing them fully, understanding them, and setting them down on paper will. Only by letting them filter through your eyes and your understanding and your imagination into story will you be complete. That’s who you are: a writer.
Then and there I decided that whatever it took I would become one. I would study the craft, I would learn, and I would write. That would be my life, what I would do with it. And here, at last, was purpose, something that found and engaged every part of me, something that civil engineering, for one, had never even begun doing.
I decided to return home, to go back to school. I would study History. And Literature. Maybe even Latin and Greek. Whatever it took.
That afternoon I wrote Walter a letter that said to expect me home soon.
He was up to his ears in finals when I called him from my parents’ house and this was actually not such a good time, Samuel. How could he reach me? He’d call me as soon as he could see daylight again. When I didn’t hear from him by the next day, I tried him again. Same story.
Daylight returned to Walter a few mornings later, but I had been up most of that previous night reading Hesse’s Glass Bead Game and though Mom swears she tried, she could not stir me, she said. By the time I did wake up and got his message, there was no answer. In the end it took five days and change before we finally synchronized and saw each other.
It was a strained affair, this reunion, at least at the outset. We behaved a little how I imagine former lovers would, running into each other by chance years later, another town, another life, agreeing on a quick cup of coffee, but once by the table finding they have nothing to say. There should have been so much to talk about but we had difficulty spanning the many and awkward little silences that blossomed.
We tried school, his paper (due day after tomorrow, as it happened, still lots to do on it); girls, nothing going on in that department for either of us, though Walter had dated Astrid someone for a few months a year before, he said; the food, nothing to speak of; the restaurant, empty this time of day, no one here that either of us recognized; people we both knew, which soon bored us; anything within common reach, but it all felt contrived, forced upon the moment, and nothing would engage.
Until he said, between two of his carefully chewed bites, “So, what is it that you hope to find?”
I looked up from my plate. “What do you mean, find?”
For the first time that evening his eyes held mine for any meaningful length of time. “You mentioned in your letter that you were looking for, or were hell-bent on finding, is how I think you put it, some truths. I remember you used the plural.”
“Yes,” I said, and remembered the letter clearly. “I did. I was referring to answers to the real questions, you know, what is this all about? What are we doing here? The perennial ones.”
When he didn’t answer, I continued. “Those where the truths I meant, and still mean. And I’m growing increasingly certain that many of those answers, those truths, can be found in heartfelt, honest fiction. Some even call fiction the lie that tells the truth.”
“Lies that tell the truth,” he repeated, as if tasting it.
“I’ve decided to write,” I said. “Well, learn how to.”
“You mentioned that.”
“Yes. And I’m reading a lot, too. That’s part of learning. And right now,” I said, then took a quick sip of the wine, “I’m deciding on which classes to take in the fall.”
“So you are going back to school?”
“Yes, I am. The humanities this time around though. Literature, for sure. History, probably. Latin too, I think. Or Greek. Would be nice to read those classics in the original. I am definitely done engineering civilly.” An attempt at a joke.
“That’s too bad,” he said, dead serious in return. “You’re wasting your talent.”
“You keep saying that,” I said, smiling, meaning the fatherly lecture he gave me as I was abandoning my civil engineering studies four years back. I wondered if he would remember. If he did, he didn’t show it.
Instead, he put his knife and fork down and asked again, as if he hadn’t asked it before, looking at his glass for most of the sentence, then up at me as he said my name, “What do really you hope to find, Samuel?”
“What, the truth isn’t enough?”
“Truth or truths?”
“Well,” I said. “Both.”
“Ah,” he said. “The truth, the capital-tee Truth?”
“Yes,” I said. “That’s the one.”
“The capital-tee Truth,” he repeated. “It strikes me a little nebulous.”
It was my turn not to answer.
“But if that’s what you’re looking for, why writing?” he asked. “Why not religion?”
It was a good question. “I’m not sure,” I said. “I’ve thought about religion, too, believe me. I’ve tried to picture myself a monk or a priest. You know a Saint Augustine pouring over tomes. But that’s not me.”
“No, I don’t see that either,” he said.
“It is more of a feeling than anything else,” I said, “but the one thing I’ve arrived at from bumming around and seeing, well, the world, is that there is a lot more to life than a job, a house, and making a living. And whatever it is, writers and poets seek it and I have found that they share their findings as they write. It’s almost as if the process of writing helps them discover what they’re looking for. The capital-tee Truth as you say. It’s as if the imagination helps them look for it. Someone once said that the imagination is the light the writer sees by. I think it was Flannery O’Connor.”
He was intent my words now. He had stopped eating and his blue eyes glistened familiarly.
“I am convinced that there is a lot more to life than appears on the surface,” I continued. “There are important questions. And they have answers. There are reasons why things are the way they are. And there are secrets. I am sure of it. And I feel that in the arts, and particularly in literature, I will find these answers.”
“To those important questions.” He wasn’t smiling.
“To, what is this all about?”
“To, who are we, and what are we doing here?” He made the questions sound faintly ridiculous.
“Yes,” I said, “Those questions.”
He pushed his unfinished meal aside and carefully laid his hands on the white cloth, one on top of the other. Fine and hairless.
Then he said, “I would beware of things you can’t touch or measure.”
There was more to come, and I waited for it.
“You may get lost among them.”
He hesitated, as if deciding whether or not to let me in on something. Then he took a deep breath, I may as well know: “You may not believe me,” he said, “but I have asked those same questions.”
“Why wouldn’t I believe you?” I protested mildly, “Of course I would.”
He held up his hand, and smiled briefly. It was a real smile, the first one of our meal.
He continued, “Several times last fall, especially late at night, facing three hours of assignments still to go, I seriously wondered where on earth I was headed. Whether my slaving over the books was just a mammoth, empty exercise, without relevance. Seriously, Samuel, it was getting to me.”
I nodded that I understood. All too well.
“Did it really matter, you know? Bridge spans, metal stresses, did these things actually matter a damn? No pun intended.”
I had to laugh at that. He smiled, too. Then continued:
“Trigonometry? Where was it taking me? And at those times I must admit I did think of you, wondering if ditching the whole thing and taking to the road, seeing the world as you were, wasn’t actually the smart thing to do after all.”
I smiled, but didn’t answer.
“Why was I doing this, driving myself crazy with all these numbers? Where was I going? And, yes, those bigger questions, too: Who was I anyway? Why are we here? What is this all about? Then, finally, this February, I hit upon something.”
He paused long enough to prompt my question, “What was it?”
“It may or may not make any sense to you,” he said, “but I realized I had been asking myself the wrong questions.”
He was right, I didn’t understand.
“I had been asking How? and Why? when I should have been asking What?”
Still, I didn’t get it, and my face must have said as much.
“I had been asking myself ‘Why am I doing this? Why are we here? How did we get here? Why all this, the Earth, the universe?’ you know, and none of these questions had concrete answers.
“That night I took a sort of inventory, my life so far: a long, hard look at all I had studied and learned. At my Chemistry, at my Physics and Mathematics, at my Biology and Algebra, at my Trigonometry, and as I was doing this, counting off what I knew, all of a sudden—it’s as if I’m seeing this from above now, it was a strange sensation—a pattern emerged. A sort of relationship emerged, an intricate one. All these disciplines, these sciences, all these facts took on a life of their own and formed a cohesive whole.”
I must have been frowning, and he noticed it.
“I know I’m not describing it very well, but things fell into place for me. It was strange, but when it happened, when it all fit together, it fit so well that I actually shivered. It was like a, what is it the Zen students get when they solve their koan riddles? An epiphany?”
“Yes, a satori. It’s like an epiphany.” Not quite a question.
“That’s what it was like. I suddenly saw very clearly that I had been studying the right answers all along, only I had been asking the wrong questions. I saw what we are, I saw what the universe around us is. I saw that existence is indeed the sum of all these knowable parts.” He tapped gently on the table top with his middle finger to underscore the word knowable.
“And this pattern, the pattern, the interconnectedness I perceived, and still do, is quite something. It is beautiful. And it did answer my questions.”
I didn’t know what to say.
More than anything, as I saw what he was telling me, I felt a loss. For in understanding him, and I really did understand what he was telling me, I also understood how far apart we had drifted. How wide the gulf between us had grown.
“That’s why the word of advice, Samuel.”
“Beware of things you can’t touch or measure.”
I shook my head, slowly. Not quite smiling.
Yet, in his confession—and it did feel a little like a confession to me—I also glimpsed our old relationship and I didn’t want to say or do anything that would frighten it away. Still, I had to be honest with him, and with myself—as carefully as possible.
Our waiter was now clearing the table next to us and I heard the little tinkles as empty glasses touched in his hand. He scraped the table cloth clean with a knife and then looked over at Walter who indicated that, yes, he was done with his meal. The waiter then picked up his plate too, and was on his way.
I looked at Walter, smiled again. Then took the careful plunge.
“I’m not sure that you can abandon the how questions altogether. The how and the why may show the underlying causes, or the higher meaning, of the what.”
“I am sure,” he replied immediately, almost cutting me short, “that when we fully understand the what it will lead to the how. Without a doubt.”
“How can you be so sure?”
“I just am,” he said.
“I’m afraid I can’t agree with that.”
He chuckled at that, and then, as if to bless our disagreement with a touch of the familiar, he said, “Well, at long last, Samuel. We are having ourselves a discussion. It’s been a while.”
I chuckled, too. He was right. I had been a while.
No, we didn’t resolve our differences that night, but we did end the evening with the promise to see each other again soon, and often. But then I managed to land a few assignments from our local paper in addition to a fairly lucrative one from a national weekly, all of which took me out of town; this while his class schedule intensified for the home stretch. In other words, the world refused to cooperate and the time was never right.
So, for whatever reason, and there always seemed to be a good one, we seemed unable to hook up again. At one point I thought that perhaps our expressed philosophical differences had something to do with it, but I dismissed that thought. Time just wasn’t right. And this was his final year after all. And I had deadlines to meet.
Yes, we did manage to catch the occasional quick and somewhat strained lunch here and there, but that was about it. We never made it back to our capital-tee Truth conversation.
Then, early that June, I got a call from Denmark. Some friends of mine who owned a small farm out in the country (where I had stayed and worked for a summer) invited me down to spend some more time with them. A week or two? Longer, if I wanted to.
Summer’s back, they said, nice and warm, would be great to see me, and since I was between assignments at the paper and no others on the horizon just then, and since I was feeling a little restless anyway, I decided to take them up on the offer.
The strange thing was that although I could now afford the train, there I was hitch hiking again. And really enjoying it.
As it happened I stayed longer than the two weeks I had intended. The place was hard to leave. The weather remained spectacular throughout June, and the entire countryside was a celebration in greens and yellows and whites. As before, I helped them on the farm, I read a lot, and I wrote a lot. We had many a long discussion about everything under the sun. Other friends came and went, and I could easily have stayed there all summer, if not all year, but as the second week of July rolled around I simply had to get back. There were college applications to consider and I was running low on cash. So, I said my farewells and hit the road.
It was on my way home from Denmark that it happened, that my life up till then came to a close, that my new and inexplicable life began; and one of my thoughts afterward was: Wait until Walter hears about this.
I arrived at his place early evening and Walter was surprised to see me. Well, I suppose he had a right to, he hadn’t seen me all that summer, and now I simply showed up at his door. Could have called first, I guess, but I didn’t even think of that.
Surprised and perhaps something else, something that lingered for a moment in his eyes as his face appeared from behind the door to see who it was. It was odd: my first impression was that I was someone to be got rid of, an impression that seemed to survive even his recognition of me, if only by a fraction. Then Walter, the happy-to- see-me-again Walter, regained charge of that face with a big smile as he opened the door wide.
“Samuel. What on earth are you doing here? Aren’t you in Germany or somewhere?” His delight was genuine and left no room for that something else, which I dismissed as perhaps a play of light and shadow. He gave me a bear hug and invited me in. “I thought you were down south.”
“I was. Denmark. I just got back. Literally.”
His place was as messy as always, especially the table that served as his desk. Obviously busy studying something or other before I came. Had it been annoyance at being interrupted, perhaps?
Then I reached into my bag and fished out a small bottle of vodka I had brought and held it up for him to see.
“Ah. Good,” he laughed. “Time to call it a day anyway. Make some room on the table.”
I surveyed the disaster. Something was very much in progress. “Easier said than done,” I said.
“Well, a square decimeter or two is all we need,” he says from inside some cupboard. “Enough to put these down.” He returned from the kitchen—which really was not much more than a stove and sink along the wall to my right—with two small shot glasses.
I shook my head, wasn’t really sure what to say. I had thought, or at the least I had hoped that he would believe me. I looked away, at the curtained window, and as I did I heard him draw a long, audible lungful of air. “What you have to realize, Samuel, is that sometimes, even though you think you see or feel something, it’s not necessarily the case. It may be, and in this case it most certainly has to be, some chemical or other playing tricks with your brain.”
Turning back I saw him give me another long, searching look before he summed up, “I’d hate to disappoint you, but there has to be some biological, some chemical explanation. There has to be.”
Light blue and mocking, those eyes. And again that something else in them. This time I felt sure of it. Light blue and now holding mine steadily.
I wanted to look away but forced myself not to, and for one short irrational instant I felt afraid. Then he smiled again and the odd spell was broken. Again I thought that it must have been the light, perhaps the way the reading lamp cast an odd gleam, and a shadow odder still across his face.
Then he selected a pen from the rummage on his desk and toyed with it briefly. Clicked the ballpoint in and out a few times as if to test it. Apparently satisfied with its mechanism, he replaced it deliberately, making sure it rejoined the mess just so, and said, “Listen, Samuel. You have to look at this logically. I don’t know what actually happened, or how it could have appeared to have happened, but what you experienced could not have taken place, simple as that. Not in this…” and here tapped the table with his middle finger a few times. “Not in this world. Remember what I told you once? Beware of what you cannot touch or measure.”
“Yes, I remember.”
I felt a little talked down to, fatherly lectured, and it must have shown.
“Trust me, Samuel. Don’t go looking for ghosts. If you cannot measure or weigh it, if it doesn’t cast a shadow in bright light, it simply does not exist. Stay with what is real, with what you can take apart and analyze or put under a microscope and take a closer look at. Stay with what you can view, touch, hear, smell, taste. As for the rest, trust me, it doesn’t exist.”
He sounded amazingly certain.
But, for a change, so was I. “I’m not looking for ghosts,” I said. “All I am saying is that this did take place. Real or not, by your definition,” I indicated the table, then gave it a tap or two to make sure. “It happened, Walter.”
“Samuel. It couldn’t have. For one, it would be a violation of the laws of physics. Out of nowhere?”
“I know,” I said.
“It couldn’t have happened,” he said again.
“But it did,” I heard myself say, slightly on the defensive.
“Did he cast a shadow?” he asked.
“I don’t know. The sun had set.”
“Ah.” The way you say Ah when followed by how convenient.
“But he touched me,” I said. “And I felt that. And I heard him, saw him.”
“I take it there was no one else around.” Again, how convenient.
“No. Just me and a few gulls.”
“They didn’t notice anything unusual?” he asked with such a straight face that I had to smile.
“No,” I said. “They saw nothing out of the ordinary.”
“Objectively speaking, it simply could not have taken place. It could not have been real,” he said. He was tapping the table top again, perhaps reflexively, for he stopped when he saw that I noticed.
“But what’s to say that this,” I indicated the room, the table, with my hand, “What’s to say that this is the only reality there is?”
A quick laugh, just a touch condescending. And that something else again, that fleeting something in his eyes. Just a flitter of it, then gone. “Science,” he said.
“What do you mean?”
“Science has proven that this is all there is.” Again, his finger met the table.
“Maybe science hasn’t looked hard enough?”
“Ah, come on, Samuel.”
“No, Walter, I mean it. Seriously. Just because science hasn’t discovered it yet, that does not mean that a deeper, or a higher, or another reality does not exist.” Walter was shaking his head as I said this, enough already, but I pressed on:
“Look, most people see color, right? But some don’t, some people are color blind. Does color cease to exist, objectively, just because some fail to see it, subjectively?”
“Of course not.”
“Well, that’s my point. Just because science, or you, in this case, does not, or cannot see any other reality, that doesn’t mean other realities can’t exist.”
Walter frowned as he lined up his words. “Color, as you well know, is an objectively proven phenomenon. It does exist, independently of subjectivity. Color is how white light, for example sunlight, as you know, breaks down through a prism.”
Again, he was lecturing me. “The rainbow exists whether seen or not. You can put it under a microscope and examine it, well, not literally, but you can run light through a prism and measure the emerging wavelengths. And it sticks to photosensitive film. It’s got a physical presence, particles that hold up under scrutiny. That’s more than you can say for ghosts.”
“He was not a ghost!”
“Well there’s one thing we agree on.”
“He was real.”
He leaned back and scrutinized me again. A new smile formed, widening slowly as he leaned forward on his elbows, halfway across the table toward me.
“Were you stoned?”
“Stoned? Jesus, Walter. Of course not.”
“It’s okay, I don’t care.”
“Walter, I was not taking any drugs. It happened. It was real.”
He shook his head again. Gravely, this time. “Then I think you should seek some professional help.”
“What are you saying? That I’ve lost my mind? I’m not crazy, Walter. It happened.”
“Okay. I believe that you believe that it did, but truth is it cannot have. It cannot have been an objective occurrence. It simply cannot have taken place.” And then he tapped the damned table again.
“Yes, I know. Beware of what you can’t touch or measure.”
“But that does not always hold true.”
“What doesn’t always hold true?”
“There are things you can’t touch or measure. That do exist.”
He scrutinized me again, interested, and a flash of that something else, “Enlighten me.”
“Well,” I said, “Take music, the beauty in music. When you record, say a string quartet, all you actually capture on tape are the sound waves produced by the two violins, the viola, and the violoncello, which are then stored magnetically on a physical medium, or digitally nowadays. Still, when you play it back, there is more on that tape than sound waves. There is message, there is vision and there is beauty. These completely apart from the physical recording. It’s there, it is a known fact. Now, you can’t measure that, that beauty, but it’s still there. Irrefutably. Millions of people have experienced it.”
“But is it recorded?”
“What do you mean?”
“Is the beauty on that tape? Is it a physical thing which has been recorded?”
“No, of course not. What’s stored on the tape are the sound waves, the physical aspect of the music. Not the beauty. That’s my point.”
“No, you said there is more on the tape than sound waves. Message, vision, beauty, you said.”
Perhaps I had. “What I meant was that the beauty is not recorded, it’s not physical, but it is still present, accompanying the physical.”
“And how does it accompany, this beauty? Where does it come from, and where does it go?” I could not tell whether he was leading me on or wanted to know.
“It comes from the composer. And,” I added, “the listener.”
“So it’s not recorded.”
“No. Well, yes. Sort of. It is captured but not recorded, if that makes sense. It is a non-physical part of what is recorded. And that is what I mean by another reality. It’s a reality that forms in the composer’s mind and then accompanies the physical sound to the listener who perceives and recreates that same reality in his mind. Or hers.”
“Well, then it’s purely subjective, is what you’re saying?”
“Yes, you are. You’re saying it’s gendered by the composer, but doesn’t actually leave the composer, and then it is re-gendered, if that’s a word, by the listener.”
“No, it does leave the composer.”
“If that were so, Samuel, if it was an objective reality traveling from composer to listener, then every living person listening to the same piece of music would experience the exact same beauty—the same way everyone sees the same rainbow colors. I bet you they don’t.”
And he had a point, they do not. “The interpretation of that beauty is individual,” I said, but I knew that as an argument that was a mite weak.
“Subjective, in other words.”
“Partially,” I agreed.
“Wholly,” he insisted.
“No, Walter, not wholly. If it were wholly subjective then there could be no telling what interpretation, or re-gendering as you put it, any given person would give a given piece of music. But I think you’ll agree that there is one kind, or flavor, of beauty that all who hear, say a Haydn string quartet, will gender. It is tender, refined, although individual. And this would be different from the beauty gendered by, say a Handel’s Organ Concerto. This beauty would be louder, more dynamic, powerful. A stronger beauty. Those who hear the organ will all sense and share a beauty different from the string quartet. Another kind of beauty has accompanied the sound. If it were wholly subjective, as you say, then someone might gender the same beauty from a Coltrane improvisation as he would from an Irish ballad or from a Beethoven symphony, and you know that’s just not the case. So something travels.”
Something does travel, and Walter had to concede that point. Which he did, as he always did, by not replying directly. Instead he smiled a concession that said I had not lost my argumentative edge and refilled his glass, held up the bottle for me. I nodded and he reached over and filled mine, too. “They’re working on that,” he said as he put the bottle back in its designated spot among the clutter.
“Thanks. What do you mean working on that?”
He made a quick survey of the floor around him, then he bent down and came up with a magazine. It was not the one he wanted. He dropped it, reached for, and brought up another. That was the one. He held it to the light for me to see. It was a medical journal. “They’re researching that very point. The emotional correlation to music.”
I noticed that he pronounced his words carefully, and with a slight bite to them. He was getting a little drunk, I thought, or perhaps I was. One or the other. Or both.
“And,” he went on, “they are now determining which parts of the brain are affected by which musical sound waves which then in turn direct the endocrine secretions that we in turn sense as emotions. In the end, my friend, it’s biochemistry, pure and simple. Which, of course, you will admit, is something that you can measure.”
He leaned forward, towards me, making sure I heard this, and went on:
“It goes, music, sound waves, eardrum, brainwaves, endocrine system, emotional response. And in that scenario, of course there will be families of reaction, if you will, depending on the type of music. Jazz will gender one family of responses, symphonies another. Though each response will be subjective as to the details, since were are physically all a little different. Genes, et cetera.”
No, I thought, he was not getting drunk. He was all there, all analytical, and I realized, with a little inward shudder, that in all the time I had known him I had never actually seen him drunk, or not in full control for that matter. Rather, I would be the one in need of salvage while he made sure I got home in one piece, and tucked into bed.
No, Walter, as he carefully enunciated his view, was not getting drunk at all, not even close. There might be the glow of vodka on his cheeks, but that was about it. And now he was waiting for me to answer. Alert and waiting.
“I don’t agree,” I said. But no more.
I knew what I wanted to say, but couldn’t get a firm grip on it. I tried again. “I don’t think it’s a brain thing. No, I don’t think the brain has anything to do with it. If the musical experience, and you do agree that it does exist…?”
He nodded, yes, he agreed.
“Well, if the experience of music was purely chemical, or biochemical as you put it, then everyone hearing a particular piece of music should react identically, experience the same thing. There should be no variations in your families of response. Chemistry is chemistry, one stimulus equals one response. But that’s not the case at all with music. One person may cry, another will be elated. And a third may not feel a thing. The same piece of music, the same recording even. The identical sound waves.”
“You’re not listening to me,” he said.
“I am,” I protested.
“Genes,” he said. “This is where genes come in,” as he topped my glass again. “The brain of one person is chemically, genetically, different from that of another. Each brain is rigged, by his or her genes, for a slightly different emotional response to given stimulus. And some, as you said, may not even feel a thing. Genes.” He lifted his glass. “To genes. Those little objectively subjective genes.”
I lifted mine and guided it to meet his with a reluctance that said: Okay, I’ll drink to that, not that I agree. He noticed and smiled and we downed our glasses.
I shook my head, and spoke again once the burning had subsided:
“Still, I don’t think it’s genes, or chemistry. I think it’s more than that. It has to be more than that. Beauty, and I think you agree, lies in the eye of the beholder. It is a relationship, or a symmetry, or a dimension to an object or a sound or whatever that when perceived strikes you as beautiful. And I think neither the artist nor the composer, nor the beholder, nor the listener, is the brain. I think that the true genderer, if that is a word, is the spirit.” Easier thought than said, but I think I got it said well enough.
“Whoa, slow down.” He sat up straighter, looked hard at me. “The spirit? Where did that come from?”
I held up a hand to ward him off, “No, please let me finish.” He didn’t say anything, but remained what seemed like a little offended.
“If beauty was simply a given chemical reaction to a given stimulus, then the response to a given String Quartet, for a given person, would always be the same, and that’s simply not the case. The response, the emotional response to beauty, rather depends on how closely, or how clearly, the listener is paying his attention, how free he is, or his attention is, to perceive all the details, all the symmetries, all the relationships. The beauty.
“One day a specific listener, not paying too much attention may hear the music as a background drone, pleasant perhaps, but nothing more, sort of colored silence, like the one you hear in high-rise elevators. On another occasion he may be listening intently, may catch every nuance, every fine variation, and this may transport him entirely into the musical universe that the composer envisioned. Elation. Same guy, same music. Different responses, entirely.”
I had given this quite a bit of thought recently, music and poetry and beauty, and I was happy to hear myself manage to voice this somewhat coherently. Then I added, “And this beauty is a quality. It is not a quantity. Not a thing you can measure.”
Walter had leaned back in his chair again, partly into shadow. He did not answer but I could see that I had his attention, so I pressed on.
“So there are qualities, there have to be qualities that you cannot measure, that refuse to offer themselves up to inspection. And these qualities are judgments, opinions if you will, made not by a chemical reaction but by the person himself, or herself, by the spirit.”
Walter remained silent.
“They cannot be measured, these qualities. Not per se. But that does not mean they don’t exist, does it?”
“If they exist, they can be measured,” he said from shadow.
“Maybe they can,” I said. “Maybe one day they will be able to measure this beauty. But that’s not the point.”
What was the point? I felt myself slipping a bit. The vodka, warm and careless, doing its best to distract me. I pushed back, concentrated, and picked up a slightly different thread of what I think I had been trying to say all along.
“A thing does not have to exist for everyone in order to exist. Beauty undeniably exists for one person but perhaps not for another. The fact that no one else perceives it does not mean it does not exist. Does it?”
“You seem to forget the notion of subjectivity and objectivity,” said Walter. “If only one person perceives it, it’s subjective. If all persons perceive it, it’s objective.”
“Not really,” I said. “The point is that even if only this one person, this only one person in the entire world, perceives something, even if he’s the only one who sees it, no one else does. Even if this is the case, I am still positive that what he perceives can exist objectively, whether others perceive it or not. It can still be actual.” I wasn’t sure I was getting across, but I was pleased with the word actual.
Walter said nothing.
I tried again. “The fact that someone else, or that the entire rest of the world does not perceive this thing does not necessarily make it not there, does it? It simply means that they don’t perceive it, that their perception is not up to seeing it.”
This brought Walter back out of shadow, shaking his head. He topped my glass yet again, and then, after a slight hesitation, his own. “Even you must agree that if you are the only one who sees this thing, who perceives this objective or actual thing as you call it, and no one else in the entire world does, not another single human being, then… well, it must have crossed your mind, at some point or other, that we already have a word for that. I believe we call it hallucination.”
Then added, “If not insanity.”
When I didn’t answer right away, for he was right: it had crossed my mind, he said, “When you are the only one who sees something, not another soul in the world does, then you’ve stepped over to the far side of some sort of line. And that line, I’m sure, has a chemical origin.” Again he held up his glass, “To reason.”
He downed its content, and I did not. Instead I tried a new tack.
“Walter, for heaven’s sake. It’s me, Sam. Look at me. I’m serious. And I’m not crazy, if that’s what you’re saying. I did not hallucinate. And I was not dreaming, nor not all there, or not quite awake. And I was definitely not on drugs. In fact, I was fully awake, more awake than I’ve ever been in my entire life. It was an awakening.”
He did not answer, but again leaned back and away from me. Though partly in shadow, I could tell that he was smiling, listening and smiling. I smiled back.
Then I thought of leaving. He was not going to believe me or take me seriously, that was becoming quite clear. I was wasting my time. But then again, this was Walter, my long-term and for the most part best friend. Surely I could make him see, or at least grant me the possibility, benefit of doubt.
“Listen,” I said. “There are precedents. Lots of them. I’m not the first one who’s ever experiences something like this. But we don’t come in groups. Seekers and seers, they never came in groups, do they? Always individuals, almost always outcasts, opposing, and violently opposed by, groups. The rest of the world.” I wasn’t sure I made sense.
I must have though, for he leaned forward again, back out of shadow, and I could see that he was listening intently. So I pressed on. “There was only one Socrates, only one Plato. There was only one Plotinus and one Origen. And their views—their truths, really, at least that’s what I, and good part of the world, have finally arrived at—did not win acclaim overnight. Rather, were they not refuted, sometimes violently? Even killed. At least Socrates was. And,” I added, “come to think of it, so was Jesus.”
Warming, now, to my new argument, I continued, “And I don’t think that just because we’re in the 20th century now, that all seers and seekers have simply packed up and fled, ceased to exist.”
Walter now struck me as an observing stillness.
“I think,” I said. “No, I know, that what they sought, and what some continue to seek to this day, does in fact exist. I know there is a higher reality—or at least a different one—which, and I’ll grant you that, fewer and fewer see. But I think that’s because most of humanity have stopped looking.”
Walter came to life. “You’re not telling me, I hope, that you are a new Socrates? Or, heaven forbid, a new Jesus?”
“No, of course not. All I’m saying is that I believe that there is something realer, or more real, rather, than the top of this table, than this glass, than these books, whether it casts a shadow in bright sunlight, or not.”
“You believe or you know?”
“Know,” I said. “Know.”
“Realer than real?”
“Like beauty, perhaps?”
“Yes,” I said. “Yes, like beauty. That is, at least to me, and many others, a reality more real than the physical reality. That’s what I mean. Sometimes I feel as if this world,” I indicated the table, “as if this reality is sort of second hand, a lower form. A sham, a fake, a dream. A prison.”
Walter flinched at that, pulled back somehow—though not physically. He reacted though, I am sure of it. It was the word prison. As if it had stung him. But when I looked closer at him there was no sign that it had.
Instead he said, “So you think this is all a dream?”
“I didn’t say that.”
“So, what are you saying then?” He was smiling again.
I hesitated, unsure now of what I was saying precisely, unsure even of what I had just said. The vodka was getting to me. I had to focus now, focus, and I did focus and then I found it again, yes: a reality more real than reality.
“What I am saying is… what I am saying is that I think there is a more encompassing, a larger, perhaps ‘truer’ is the word, a truer reality than all this. A fifth essence.”
“A fifth essence.” It was a statement, whispered almost. As if to himself.
“Yes. You know, the Pythagoreans had earth, water, fire and air. The four essences that everything was made from. Then there was the fifth essence, the celestial essence, the true nature of all things.”
“I know what it means, Samuel.”
His assertion startled me, it came with force, nearly anger. Then his answer left a second crater. When had he studied the ancient Greeks?
He was quick to answer, and it was as if he had read my mind. “Pythagoras was a mathematician, remember?”
“Yes, of course. But a lot more than a mathematician, I might add.”
“Yes. He did have his shortcomings.”
“Actually,” and I realized that I had landed a great case in point here. “Pythagoras is a good example, a very good one in fact.”
He didn’t answer.
“Here’s a scientist—a philosopher too, but a scientist first and foremost, at least by today’s opinion; one of your guys. He breaks evolutionary ground with his theorem about right-angled triangles. He is about as real and as scientific as you could wish for. And still, and still he claims that there is a fifth essence. Not only that, one of the greatest scientists to have lived was also convinced of both the existence and the immortality of the soul. And, of course, he was a firm believer in transmigration.”
“He was a kook.” Walter made this statement with authority.
“What do you mean ‘he was a kook’? How can you say that? He’s one of yours.”
“I told you, he had serious shortcomings.”
“Ah, come on. How can you hail some of the man’s work as brilliant and then simply dismiss what you don’t agree with?”
“The man was a fool.” Walter made it sound as if he had known him personally. “This little triangle theorem of his had been around for some centuries before he happened to stumble on it and ‘discover it.’ His fascination with numbers had nothing to do with science. He was nothing but a mystic fool.”
I just couldn’t let this one pass me by. “You were the one that brought him up; as a mathematician, remember?”
“I know what I said.” Walter was not easily upset but his annoyance showed now. It was a side of him I was not all that familiar with.
He didn’t answer. Instead he again raised his glass in mock salute and looked at me over its rim. “To religion.”
He threw his head back and downed the full content in one swallow. I mimicked him, and shuddered involuntarily as the liquid again found my chest a little too cold for its liking and turned up the heat. He did not shudder at all. Calmly, he put his glass down, and refilled them both. He held his glass up again. “To the opiate of the people.”
“No,” I said and shook my head emphatically. “Not religion. He had nothing to do with religion.”
“No?” He was smiling again.
“No. Religion, at least in my view, is faith; implies faith. Belief without proof.”
“And you have proof?” He nearly snickered the word “proof.” It was a sudden small eruption of ridicule that died as abruptly. Again: I had a notion to leave. This had not been a good idea. He had changed too much. We had drifted too far apart. I could not reach him, not him, not the person I had known, or had thought I had known. But I found I couldn’t leave, not yet. Not without giving it my very best. It was as if I owed him that.
“Proof? No, I don’t have proof. I didn’t take photographs, if that’s what you mean. I didn’t have a camera, or a microphone, or a microscope. I didn’t measure anything. But neither do I believe that it happened. I know that it happened. I know. Can’t you understand that? There is an incredible difference between the two. I am as certain that it took place as I am certain that I now sit here facing you. And that has nothing to do with faith, or belief. Nothing.”
“Okay. So let’s say it wasn’t drugs, and let’s say it wasn’t faith. What was it then?”
“That’s what I don’t know,” I admitted. “I just know that it happened.”
“A hallucination, then. Isn’t that what it boils down to?”
I shook my head again. “If sitting here talking with you is an hallucination, then, yes, it was an hallucination.”
“What are we to do with you?” he said, and smiled as if at some private joke.
“How can you be so damn sure that it didn’t happen?”
“Because I know it couldn’t possibly have.”
“Yes, but why?”
“Because there is no fifth essence.” He used the words with a certainty which surprised me, as if he had researched them, and thoroughly at that.
“Yes, says science.”
“Four thousand years of thinking men, four thousand years, says there is a fifth essence, or a higher meaning, a transcending truth. Something more than this.”
Again my hand presented the table, the lamp, the shadowy room. “Less than a century of modern science has utterly failed to find it, has in fact never bothered to look for it, and now you tell me that what this jealous little neophyte called science proclaims is in fact the senior truth?” I hoped to sound incredulous, because I was.
“This jealous little neophyte of mine deals in proof, not in speculation. And proof is something your dinosaur never bothered much with. Which, of course, is why it is heading for extinction.”
I chose to ignore that. “When I said science never bothers to look, what I meant is that it does not dare to look. Afraid, most likely, of what it might find, of what pet theories may crumble if they actually looked beyond the mere physical.”
“But that’s just the point. That’s where you’re wrong, Samuel. We have looked. Science has looked. There just happens not to be anything beyond the physical. Nothing.”
Full circle. I almost rose to leave then. Almost did. But didn’t. I just had to give it another try. One more try. A final one. Then I’d leave.
“Walter,” I began. “Please follow me on this. You are the smartest person I know and I’d really like for you to follow me on this.”
He didn’t answer. But he looked directly at me: Okay, I am listening.
“There has to be a way things are. What I mean by that is: there really is a way that things are, there is a way that all this happened. This table, this room, the Earth, the Universe. You and I talking. And there has to be a way that things are, a way that things happened, for the simple reason that it did happen: it’s here. And there are not two ways this all happened or fifty ways. There is a particular way this all came about, a one true way, a one true sequence of events proceeding from one particular A to this, here, particular B. Has to, because it did.”
He nodded slowly. Yes, he followed.
“So, there is this true state of affairs, independent of our or anyone’s opinions, guesses or assumptions about it. A sort of divine objectivity.” I paused. “Do you agree?”
“Wouldn’t be my word choice, but, yes.”
“Well, the universe was either created by one god or by many, or by utter accident, or by the big bang, or by a spirit cooperative, or we’re dreaming it all, or by none of the above. I mean, it does not actually matter how it all came to be, the point I’m making is that fact remains: it is here, we perceive it, so it did come to be. That’s the point. And since it did come to be it must have come to be a certain way, or it would not be here. And that certain way is the way it came to be.
“Not two or three or five ways, it arrived here following a single specific path of occurrences, and that is the true state of things.” I looked at him closely and found him scrutinizing me as well. He nodded slowly, go on.
“Now, whether this was through a specific and long chain of events, or through a single huge occurrence, or by some mammoth unseen cloud sneezing itself into existence, that would still be the way it all came about, because: here we are.” I tapped the table top echoing Walter. “And this, as you pointed out, is truth.”
He had stopped nodding but held my eyes steadily. He held absolutely still.
I continued, “Even if it all is dream, like some maintain, well then that would be the way it is, objectively and, ultimately, subjectively. Without exception.”
Walter’s stillness assured me that he understood and I pressed on. “The fact that we don’t know for certain what this true state of affairs actually is, or how we arrived here, doesn’t matter. The fact that we did arrive proves that the arrival took place.
“There is, in other words, an actual state of existence, a state that exists completely independently of anyone’s hopes, or denials or dreams or speculations about it. I guess another way of saying it is that there is, in fact, a true truth.”
He remained completely still, observing, absorbing. Understanding. And, as far as I could tell, agreeing.
“So, with the risk of beating this particular horse to a pulp, let me ask you this: Right here and now, things are and exist (again, I indicated the table, our glasses, the lamp, the room), and were brought about in a certain way, which could not possibly be any other way because they have been brought about and do exist. Do you agree?”
“Yes. Put that way, yes.”
“All right then. So we agree that there is such a thing as, let’s call it divine objective truth, the way that things are, whether we agree or not, whether we in fact care or not.”
“Yes. To that I can agree.”
I carefully offered up my closing thought. “Now, say we cannot, do not, or for some reason do not wish to see the full extent of this truth head on, as so don’t understand the true way things are, does that make them any less, or no longer, the way they are?”
He did not answer. Nor did he move. But I could tell that he knew exactly what I was talking about. He had followed my argument, he had listened intently. And he was certainly intelligent enough to grasp it.
“Do you agree?” I asked.
Instead of answering my question, he posed one of his own. One that surprised me a little. “And where do you see science in all this?” With emphasis on “you.”
Well, I knew what I thought about that. “I think science demonstrates and explores only one facet of what is. Science investigates and acknowledges only that layer of manifestation which either covers a fuller, truer existence—the existence, perhaps the fifth essence—or is the result of it. It dares not look deeper than that layer, or beyond it.”
His next words surprised me even further.
“So, tell me again.”
“What I just said?” Which I wasn’t all that sure I could.
“No, about your visitor.”
The night was warm and light. There was hardly any wind, and what wind there was only stirred now and then, both settled and settling for the night.
I was on my way home from my friends in Denmark and my last ride, a talkative man I had met on the ferry, had dropped me on the outskirts of a little town by the sea. Sorry I’m not going farther, he said. No problem, I said, thanking him, and climbed out.
It was late, a little after eleven, and traffic was sparse. A station wagon full of sleeping kids (I imagined) lumbered by, then there was silence. A minute, maybe two, three, maybe more, went by while I tried to decide what to do. In the distance I could hear the frustration of a diesel engine as the trucker down shifted his gears. Coming my way. I decided to try him. He came into view but rumbled by without as much as slowing down, ignoring my pleading thumb. The engine, happy to stretch out again it seemed, faded into the hidden distance and then there was just me and the road and some houses set back on large lawns with apple trees and little plots of vegetable gardens on them.
The bluish hue of late night television reached out, ghostlike, from a window or two, but for the most part the houses were all dark, retired for the night.
A gull swept by on silent wings, going nowhere in particular by the looks of it. The world seemed content, and I decided not to worry about hiking farther that night. Instead, I walked half a mile or so down the road to clear the last of the houses, and then stepped off the asphalt and onto the dirt shoulder, heading for the beach.
Ten minutes of negotiating sand and grasses and reeds, some with sharp leaves, saw me there.
The sea, narrowed here to a sound. Its shore.
The sand here was dry and powdery as it stretched in a long wide curve to the north, protected here and there by scattered gangs of shrub, tough little things ready for the worst of winds, sleeping now though. It was very still.
I removed my shoes and socks and splayed my toes through the cool top layer and into the warmer sand below, remnant of a hot day lingering, still awake.
At first it seemed like the world had gone motionless, then I noticed the soft and slow ripple of the water as it silently lapped the shore. And I saw another gull, high overhead, on silent wings looking for something. And higher up still, way up, two small, stationary clouds—pink-bellied by a sun set not long ago somewhere far beyond Denmark to the west. Another gull to the north, also high in the air, maneuvering, as if exercising, showing off.
I sat down, hugged my knees, and looked out across the water. The sound, its quiet motion, spread out before me as a vast, almost metallic sheet. On the other side of it lay Sjaelland; I could make out houses, the shore, as still and sweeping as mine. Above me, as I turned my head, in the darkening east, I could make out first one, then two, then several constellations, each one nebulous in the dusk of the northern summer night, but each one still there, caring nothing about my time of year, twinkling.
As I gazed, I wondered at the vastness around and above me. At the beauty of the water. At my travels. At the soft sand beneath my fingers and toes. At the distant sound now reaching me of a tardy fisherman returning to harbor far to the south. At the faint, high pitched language of gulls, following the boat, screechy bickering carried across the water. Then the boat must have made dock for the gulls made peace, and I could hear them no more.
With a bit of luck I would be home again tomorrow. At least by tomorrow night. Home again. It was a nice word that, home, and I wondered again about the true meaning of it, that little word that meant so much. Tasted the concept, tried to plumb what it really said. Home, my home. Did I in fact still have one of those? I smiled at my question, then set out to answer it.
I thought about my parents, about the brown brick house my dad had built by that dark little river where they said somebody had drowned himself (after killing his disabled son) just before we moved there. Was that my home?
I thought about the little one bedroom apartment I had found just before I left for Denmark. The first place I could really call mine. Was that now my home?
And I thought about the tranquil silence surrounding. The lapping, lapping, lapping of the water. Was this home?
And this last thought grew.
What about hotel rooms? I had known a few. Or the many rooms in the many houses where I had been invited to spend the night over these past four years. Had they not been homes too?
I looked deeper in search of the feeling of home, of what made home home? What was it I had felt when as a child our little house, my parents, my room, my things were all taken completely for granted? No, they were more than that, more certain than that: there was no need to take them for granted. They simply were home, with a feeling that does not know, and cannot conceive of, any other feeling.
I returned to that first house, to that room, to that feeling. I absorbed it with focus and desire to know, and then I caught it, and then I sensed it, tasted it, and then I recognized it, and then I pronounced it because I knew: The feeling was belonging. I belonged there. And there belonged with me. I had belonged in that town, in that house, and they had belonged in my life.
As my room faded, the water, still lapping, slowly returned. Belonging. Yes, that was the right feeling, the right word. I savored it and held to its certainty. Belonging, the essence of home.
But where, I wondered then, where did that leave me now, where did I belong?
Truly belong? And I saw that it was not where I was heading, nor was it all those places I had been. I saw, and not sadly, that there no longer was such a place for me. I had left, for good, the ones I had known, and I had not found another. Yet, as I felt the rhythm of the water with some undefined sense, as I breathed the cool, salty air and heard the still, light, night, it occurred to me that I had never belonged so completely, felt so completely at home as I felt at that silent moment. Home, it came to me quite gently then, is here. Home is where I am. Home, it said, is the one place you have never left, and cannot leave. This thought shifted and gathered strength, rising. And then, culminating, it entered air, lifting me, washing over me: I have never left. I’ve always been home! I am my home.
And somewhere a door opened. Onto something vast.
And someone touched my shoulder.
I should have startled, for I had been unaware of his approach and arrival. But when he touched me, even before I turned to face him, my feeling was not of alarm or surprise, but of recognition.
I have since tried to discern whether that sense of recognition had indeed arrived with his touch or whether it came with seeing him. Mostly I think it was his touch: that I didn’t startle because the touch was familiar, even expected. Other times I’m not so sure.
But for certain, when I turned my head and our eyes met, the sense of recognition was acute. Seeing him also brought that wonderful sense of never having left. Of home.
“Sam,” he said.
Then I did startle.
Given even the remotest of signs, I would have known I was dreaming. But there were no such signs. The water remained, slowly lap, lap, lapping the sand, the salt was still in the air, the clouds, a little darker now, still sat waiting for who knows what, and some gulls—closer this time—were still awake. As was I, there was no doubt about that. Wide awake.
He was about my age, with eyes—far too vivid for dream—black and deep. He was casually dressed, jeans and a shirt, as he sat beside me hugging his knees, too. His eyes held mine for a heartbeat or two, then he smiled and returned his gaze to the sea. He seemed calm and peaceful, tranquil, as if appearing out of nowhere was the most natural of things, and as each moment passed more and more of this calm—it was like an aura, almost like an embrace—took me in, and with each breath my unease—it may have been fear at first, but I don’t think so—gradually dissipated until, in the end, the unnatural had turned natural.
It was then, and not until then, that he said, “I’m sorry I startled you.” He still gazed out across the water, darker now, and all settled as midnight approached. “I just wanted to let you know that we are still here.”
His voice rang with more than voice. Each word, as I absorbed it, brought an almost painful beauty. Impossibly known to me.
“Who are you,” I said finally.
“Charles Baudelaire.” He said.
“Oui.” He smiled as he said it, still regarding the water, as if at some gladder inner distance.
Charles Baudelaire. I said the name softly to myself. It was familiar to me, of course. I had read him, studied him, in fact. His mention brought back the flowers of evil and his many other word paintings, and I touched again my very real dream at the time: ah, that I could have met him, that I could have consoled him, could have shared with him my own private anguish in turn.
“Who are you?” I demanded, more abruptly than I meant to, afraid suddenly.
“I told you,” he said, turning now to face me and taking me in with still eyes. “I am Charles Baudelaire. I am also Jonathan Weaver and Marianne Hedenmann, but I don’t think you’ve heard of them. And I am Francois Guitaux, Denzu Zabreih, and Timothy Black. None of them household names.”
His smile was gone, and his eyes almost threatening as they searched and probed and reached. His calm had turned icy stillness and a distant echo now, deep, and deeper still within me, sang again of recognition, and I held my breath as I began to know.
“But you,” he said, and touched me with both hand and words, “you know me as Aalaar. And I am, above all else, your friend.”
A curtain melted with the water. All traces of gulls and sound vanished, and all I could sense was his ancient stillness. His eyes held mine, and for the span of seconds, or hours, floodgates stood open, and I, at their mercy, remembered Aalaar: comrade, fighter, brother. Across wide systems of stars, unruly planets and two vast empires, hundreds of parsecs apart, conflicts of titans. Yes, Aalaar, my brother in arms.
His voice called me back to the seaside.
“I managed to shed the mask a few centuries back,” he said. “Some of the others have too.” His eyes held us fused. “I know your agony, Leela. I know your questions and your search. But all I can tell you is, you must keep looking. You must keep looking. That is the only way out. You must not give up. Never. Keep looking.”
Leela. The mask.
“What mask?” I asked.
He didn’t answer. Instead he stirred, and I realized that he meant to leave.
“No,” I said.
“I have to,” he answered.
“Take me with you. Show me where to look.”
“I cannot. Each must find his own way, that is the anatomy of their trap. Believe me, Leela, if I could melt your mask I would. Of course I would. But I can’t. I shouldn’t even have made contact. I am taking a chance just reminding you.” Then he added, almost to himself, “But it was something I had to do, especially now that you are so close.”
And I, Leela—for, yes, I was Leela—could say nothing.
He said, “I know that in a sense I’ve made it harder for you, reminding you, but you must stay aware. You must strive to remember everything. I will try to see you again, but I cannot promise that I can.”
He looked back out over the silent water. All still now. “We’re trying to regroup, and I’m looking for the others. But,” he paused, “they’ve caught my trail. I know they have.”
He shifted his gaze upward, toward the stars. “Just remember, Leela, keep looking. That is the way out, the only way out. Once you remember the fusing, the exact sequence, the mask will melt and you’ll remember everything. Then you’ll also know where to find me, and how.” Then he added with urgency, “We need you.”
He fell silent again, hesitating, as if deliberating whether to say more. Decided to. “They have discovered that some of us have managed to shed our masks and they have organized search parties. They cannot let us leave, they cannot let us tell others what they have done, and they will stop at nothing to track us down and re-fuse us.”
He stroked his long hair back in a slow gesture. “Eere shed her mask too, but they found her. I was there when they did. I had come to warn her, but I arrived too late. I came only to see them seize and subdue her. As usual there were five of them. The four guards pinned her down while their Kala re-fused her mask.
I saw Eere die another death as the mask settled but there was nothing, nothing I could do.”
He was shaking his head as he spoke and I felt his despair as a physical pain. Then he touched my hand again.
“You were the best we had, Leela. You knew them well. You could shake any pursuit. No one knew their strategies better. No one knows them better than you. So hurry. You must melt your mask. And soon. If we are going to make it off this planet, we’ll need you.”
“And,” he added, again with urgency, “if I could find you, so can they. They may already know who and where you are.”
At that he looked back at me, held my shoulder as a brother would a brother’s. “Hurry,” he said, and, for all intents and purposes, vanished.
“Why?” I asked. “I’ve already told you?”
“Humor me. I’d like to hear it again, all of it, from beginning to end. Be sure to leave nothing out.”
“You believe me then?” Not quite a question.
“No,” he smiled. “I’m looking for holes.”
A feeling, it was more like a faint nausea, told me that he did in fact believe me, that he did know the Visitor, and that he did understand. But the feeling was too faint to find footing. Too faint a hope, too faint a dread.
“Walter,” I said. “There are no holes. How can there be holes in a revelation? I know what I saw. I knew him.”
“Humor me,” he said again. “You know me. If you want me to take you seriously, you’ve got to do better. So you saw this strange guy, and you swear you were not crazy or on drugs. And now you come here as the new Socrates to tell me that there is more to life than vodka and civil engineering. You argue your case on philosophical grounds, but so far you have offered no substantial proof whatsoever. So what I’m asking for is the blow by blow version of what you believe happened. Don’t leave anything out this time.”
So I consented.
The blow by blow version: I told him everything. From the very beginning. The road. The shore. The night. The visit. And as I told him, as I revisited the moment, by having another human being to tell—another understanding to share my experience—it all came alive again, rushing back. The visit grew in strength, grew real again, as real as—no, actually more real than—the moment itself.
For while I was recounting the visit, distant and long subdued memories flooded back, too. As I spoke, and as I was understood—for I realized that Walter did in fact understand—a long hidden span of life opened fully, as real as the now: comrades, battles, escapes.
Was I in fact telling Walter all this? Was I even talking? I don’t know. Trance-like I remembered: the Confederacy, the final oppression, our failed revolt. Chases across worlds as we were pursued through space and finally into this system, dodging ship after ship, trap after trap, hiding in caves on small asteroids, running again when their detectors honed in on our vessels, and again, the running, the chase, the hiding.
And as I spoke—or perhaps I did not—I re-lived our final stand, trapped in a mesh of Confederacy ships and their net of energies. I re-lived our capture, our subjugation. And, as vividly, I again saw the guards that caught us and carried us aboard their ship.
And I re-lived the blinding light of the mask lowered onto my face and the full sequence of fusing, fusing, fusing.
They brought us to this blue little planet. And I saw, in this rush of knowing, how the masks, firmly fused, stripped us not only of memory, but of all sense of self, of direction and truth. How they provided false memory, false hopes, false lives. How the Kala left us here to suffocate and flounder in this drug of flesh and bone.
And as I told him, as I saw the way things truly were, as I saw the entire sequence of fusing, I could feel my mask melting, I could feel myself emerge, the real me. Leela, the spirit. Leela, my home.
By the time I had finished my telling, my mask had melted. But I don’t remember reaching the end, or falling silent. I don’t remember Walter’s intense interest. Not until I startled.
Not until a movement behind me seized my shoulders. Not until gloved and strong hands found my arms.
And that movement was not Walter’s, he was still sitting across from me, now fiddling with something. Swiveling in my chair, I could count four of them.
They turned me back to face Walter again. And Walter, the Kala making some final adjustments to the new mask, made five.