(And in the darkness there are
lights and sounds, magnitudes and dreams; ghosts
of infinite caring, kind and wild creatures.
And really, are there? Are there?)
I knew it was coming.
Sooner or later, it didn’t matter; it was just a matter of time.
It’s not that it happens to everyone in my profession. Many of us yes, but certainly by no means all. Calculate the odds of it happening to me, and you’d have to say that it was really pretty unlikely.
But all the same, somehow I just knew. Speeding along each day, watching my train gobble up the track, the efficiency of motion: speeding up, slowing down, coming to a stop, station after station after station. When your life becomes part of such a rhythmic pattern you start to flow into the future, to be able to sense disturbances waiting up ahead. Not precisely enough to know when, I didn’t know when. I just knew that it was there, that it was going to happen.
You might say, Oh, you’re just a pessimist. But I’m not. Sure, the world’s got its problems, anyone can see that. But it also has its fair share of people trying to solve those problems, people who in all sorts of little ways try to make the world a better place. The clerk at the cash register runs after me to give me the change I forgot, the boy takes his little brother’s hand as they cross the street.
I’m not a doom-and-gloomer.
But this was different.
I wouldn’t say, for instance, that I was afraid, or fearful. That’d be like saying I was afraid that the sun wasn’t going to rise in the morning. Why be afraid of that? It’s just part of the intrinsic nature of things. And that’s how certain I was that this was going to happen, I knew it in my bones. Each night I’d go to bed, and as I’d fall asleep my bones would say to me: It’s coming, you know. It’s just a matter of time.
Well, you might say; well then, if that’s the case, if you were so sure of this, then why didn’t you stop? Why didn’t you quit, find a different job, do something else? If you knew that someday, at some point, someone was going to throw themselves in front of your train; if you knew that was coming, then why did you just wait for it?
Well, of course. Of course that’s a good question, one I asked myself more than once. But each time, I came to the same conclusions.
I could quit my job, but what else would I do? Sure, there are lots of other kinds of work, but I like what I do, carrying people’s lives around the city each day.
And even if I quit, someone else would simply take my place. The trains would keep running along the tracks, and there would still be lonely, hopeless people jumping in front of them. In the end, who am I to interfere with fate? If it wasn’t me, it would just be someone else behind the controls that day, someone who wasn’t expecting it, someone who wasn’t supposed to be there. I felt a responsibility; as though I had been chosen to play an important role.
Of course, this isn’t to say that I was looking forward to it, by any means. It’s not as though I’m the type who craves any kind of excitement to relieve the boredom of daily routine, who pores over the details of the murders reported in the newspaper. I’m really a pretty normal person. It’s just that, as I mentioned before, the kind of work I do builds a specific feeling about life after awhile. Being the companion of a machine like a train, you can’t help but begin to see how much you don’t really have control. Once something gains a measure of momentum, it can’t simply be brought to a halt at a moment’s notice. It takes the same amount of work and energy to stop it that it took to get it started. Once you set something in motion it takes on a life of its own. The paths of millions of lives cross each other each day in the stations my train stops at, affecting each other in ways that will never be fully seen. When I get off my train at the end of my shift I stand for a moment, and feel as though the stillness is an illusion; time is still moving toward and beyond me, whether I can see it or not.
So no, I didn’t quit my job. I just kept going to work each day, accelerating and decelerating, watching the sun pass across the sky.
And then, just like that, it happened.
A normal, ordinary day. Just like any other. My alarm clock sounded at six-
thirty, rousing me from a dreamless sleep. I rose, stretched, and opened the curtains. I went through my short morning exercise-routine. Took a shower, fried a couple eggs with toast and some fruit and coffee for my breakfast; put on my uniform, closed and locked the door to my apartment behind me and walked to work. The morning went by as usual. Schoolchildren, men in suits and ties, women in skirts, all waiting together on the platforms as I slowed down into the stations. The doors opened, people got off and on, the doors shut, the slight groan as the train began to move forward again; a day like any other.
I took my lunch on a bench in a park in the early spring sunshine. Young mothers were pushing their babies in strollers; old men sat reading newspapers, smoking cigarettes; people going about their business, simply enjoying the day.
The afternoon went by in much the same fashion as the morning. I was driving the express, passing through the smaller local stations at just slightly less than normal speed, people on the platforms waiting for the local just a colorful blur. It was on my last run of the day, approaching the end of the line. I was thinking about what I needed to buy at the grocery store on my way home. Coming into a local station, speeding along, my next stop the station beyond. Eggs, juice, rice, spaghetti…
And then I saw him.
Suddenly, he stepped into view, alone at the edge of the platform not more than twenty feet beyond me. Middle-aged, wearing his suit and tie, still holding onto his briefcase. The world stopped moving. In that suddenly still space he looked up, looked directly at me. I saw into his eyes, and they were empty. And then he closed them, and stepped forward into the empty air.
It’s not as though there is any time to see what happens, the train gives no recognition of the role it has just played. Suddenly there is a slight smattering of blood and bits of flesh on the window, just there as though it has always been there, a sense of papers scattered in the wind. I pulled the brake lever as he fell, the train shrieked and finally came to a shuddering halt just beyond the far edge of the station. I stood still for a moment, breathing. Then I opened the door, stepped down, walked a few steps away from the train; stopped, bent over, and emptied the contents of my stomach onto the ground.
When I got home that night; when I got home, I shut the door behind me and just stood there for awhile, a long while. Finally I set my bag down on the floor and walked over to the window, looking out at the lights of the city, stretching off into the distance. All those lives out there, all those variations of the dream. Who could guess the length of any of them? At any moment the alien spaceships could arrive, incinerating all of us. Or a great plague of disease. Perhaps the earth itself has a life-span, will be shaken to pieces by earthquakes, will simply explode. Human bodies drifting in the cold vacuum of space, becoming frozen and brittle until they just break apart.
I went to the couch and lay down on my back; stretched out and folded my hands over my chest. I hadn’t turned the lights on and I lay there, staring up into the darkness. His face seemed to hover there, just beyond sight: I could feel his empty, expressionless eyes looking down at me. I thought about him. He’d emerged into this world at some point, out from a mother’s body and into her arms. Had he been a hope, a dream, a burden? He’d been taken care of, in some fashion; been given the space to walk and talk, shaped in relation to specific forces. All of it a mystery to me; the years went by, wrote upon the blank pages in his heart. Was his end foreshadowed? Could the close, attentive reader have seen it coming? Now more than ever I felt as though it wasn’t simply an accident of time and place, but that the task of solving this puzzle had been given specifically to me, and to no one else.
And suddenly I froze, my body suddenly as solid and full as a great stone. Something had fallen on me from out of the darkness, something so large and deep that in an instant it had penetrated every single pore. I knew this man. I sat up and closed my eyes, trying to think, but each door I tried opened into an empty room. I could picture his face as clear as day, but, try as I might, it was a face to which I could attach no other memory, an image which conjured up nothing more beyond itself.
I sat like that in the dark room for a long while, his unwavering image floating in a trackless, otherwise deserted landscape. His blank eyes staring at me from within his blank face, asking some wordless question. Before long I found myself worn, tired out; I lay back down, and within a few moments I was deep in sleep.
There he stood in that landscape, facing me. A part of it and yet not. And as he stood there a forest began to grow up around him. At first only tiny shoots breaking up through the ground, but it kept growing. The years went by unnumbered and it grew and grew and grew, the trees reaching with a silent love towards the sky; and still he stood there, still looking straight into me, still unmoving. The sun went down and the stars came out, the forest became a silhouette and shadows, and still he stood before me as though chiselled from the air. A great brown bear appeared at his right side, on his left a tall and silvery-white wolf. A host of nameless birds rose above the trees, carrying the crescent moon with them and bearing it high up into the sky. The forest became a city and the birds fell like snow, a white blanket softening the edges and corners of everything. The bear gone, the wolf gone, the city gone, he stood there still, alone against the snow-covered sleeping world beneath the dark depth of sky and the curved and shining moon.
Ever so slowly, he closed his eyes.
Ever so slowly, he turned his face upwards toward the heavens.
And from the tip of the moon fell a single drop of moonlight. It fell down from the sky, straight down towards his upturned face, and as it fell the darkness grew; the darkness grew and the single drop of moonlight, still falling.
The dream was like a new part of me. I could feel it when I awoke in the morning, like someone had climbed inside me while I slept and painted it inside my head. Someone who was giving me answers, but they’d given them in a language I didn’t understand. It was like an ocean that had appeared within my body overnight; implacable, whole unto itself, the images carrying towards me like breakers tumbling
I’d been placed on administrative leave at work, pending the results of the standard inquiry. I picked up the phone and called in to find out how the investigation was going. Routine, I was told, except for one strange detail. The man was unidentifiable. He’d carried no driver’s license, no business or credit cards; fingerprints and dental records had turned up nothing, either. As of yet no one had filed a missing persons report, or made any such inquiry to the police that matched the man’s description. Further investigative work was being done, but so far he was a total mystery.
I got off the phone and closed my eyes; pressed in on my temples with my fingertips. Unidentifiable. Somehow, I wasn’t at all surprised. But, like I said, I’d lived a pretty normal life up to this point. Nothing like this had ever happened to me before. I didn’t know what to do, how to think. After awhile I raised my head, opened my eyes, took in my surroundings. Pretty mundane, standard bachelor’s living space. I’d slept late, and the bright late-morning sunshine mercilessly illuminated everything.
I went into the bedroom to get dressed. Jeans, a t-shirt and sweater, a light jacket. Wallet, keys; I pulled a knit hat over my head and left the apartment.
Outside it was chilly despite the sun. I walked down the block to the convenience store, went inside and bought a pack of Lucky Strike Lights and a Bic lighter. Back out on the street I removed the cellophane wrapper, opened the box and took out a cigarette. I looked at if for a moment, then put it between my lips, flicked the Bic, and lit up. I took a long drag, held the smoke, and then slowly blew it back out, watching it drift and dissipate in the air. It had been nearly two years since the last time I’d smoked. I hadn’t quit cigarettes so much as they’d quit me. One day I smoked the last of a pack, and that was it. I just simply didn’t buy a new one. Whatever train I was on had continued on beyond that station, leaving cigarettes behind. But now, for the first time since then, I wanted to smoke. Did it mean that I’d returned somewhere, was I revisiting one of the earlier stations of my life? The dream coalesced before me again: the man standing there, his blank eyes asking how I could’ve forgotten him, how I could have possibly forgotten who he was. I shook my head and let the cigarette fall to the ground, ground it out beneath the sole of my shoe.
I looked up and down the block for a moment, and then I started walking. I had no specific destination; I just needed motion. Needed movement to clear my head, to shake off accumulated debris. It was clear to me that things had changed, irrevocably. That I’d woken up into a different life than the one I’d been in the day before.
I walked for a long time, without any kind of direction; random right turns and random left turns, up one street and down another. People everywhere walking and talking, going about their general, normal business. It made me feel intensely aware of secrets; after all, I doubted that anyone who passed me by could tell anything about the state I was in, much less know anything about the experience I’d just gone through. Was it the same for everyone? Did every placid expression mask some tremendous, ongoing inner struggle? How was it that we managed at all to function, why weren’t people crying and screaming on the street, breaking under the strain and pressure of having to effect this constant performance? Maybe that’s what hope was; something that kept things tied together. I mean, hope is a feeling you have. But maybe it’s an action, an invisible force like gravity that holds everything somewhere, that causes everything to be rooted in a meaningful correspondence.
I’d walked into a park, and I sat down on a bench. Pulled a cigarette out of the pack and lit up. I exhaled slowly, watching the smoke leave my body. I’d never had thoughts like this before. I’d taken a philosophy class or two in college, but that was mostly just kids in black turtleneck shirts who wanted to hear themselves talk.
I sighed, took another long drag. Found myself staring down at the ground between my feet: the flat smooth pavement, the tiny stones frozen in cement. Patterns. The layers of patterns, both random and ordered gathered together. An ant made its way across the ground, intent with purpose. Suddenly I felt a deep sadness, welling up from somewhere down inside me. With a single movement I could end it. Bring my foot up and back down and suddenly the ant’s life would be over: plans, designs, purpose, in a single instant all rendered meaningless. I chose not to, but did it matter? Would he escape all the possible deaths awaiting him that day?
I closed my eyes, shook my head. I knew that it was pointless to think this way, but I couldn’t help myself. So much depended on the world’s kindness, but the world wasn’t kind. A million things were born and a million things died each day on this ball of rock turning in the darkness; no kindness, no cruelty, no order or shape to any of it. Just things that happened or didn’t happen, and being able to ask what or how veiled the fact that there was no real answer to the question of why.
I sat there as still as a stone; bent forward, head in my hands, eyes closed; alone and lost in the darkness. And something moved. Almost imperceptible, a sound almost unheard; but definitely there, alive and moving in the dark. I sat up abruptly, opened my eyes. These thoughts weren’t mine. When the man stepped off the platform something had come into me, or wrapped itself around me; it wasn’t me, I was still in there, still here. But it was growing, a voice in pain asking that question of why, and unless I could answer it would swallow me up.
And suddenly I realized where I was. Not just any park, but a park I had been to many times before. Lost in thought as I’d been walking, I hadn’t recognized it until now. Next to the park was a temple that my family had often come to on holidays and other special occasions when I’d been a boy, and after visiting the temple we would usually have a picnic in the park.
As a child I’d felt very small at the temple; I would go through the rituals as instructed by my parents very seriously, somewhat afraid of the solemn and secret nature of the gods. Then there was a period in college where I had actually become somewhat serious about practicing meditation, a phase I’d gone through. I’d wandered away from it when I met my first girlfriend, though, and it had been years now since I’d visited a temple for anything beyond the most perfunctory occasion. But in the moment I’d recognized where I was the memory of this temple had rung out like a single tone struck on a crystal bell.
I stubbed the cigarette out in the ashcan next to the bench, stood up, and walked through the park towards the temple. The afternoon had become evening; the trees cast long shadows, the sun setting silent fire to the clouds in the western sky. I walked out of the park, across the road and came to a stop before the temple gate; gave my short bow of request and respect, and then walked through into the open courtyard.
Inside the walls I paused for a long moment, gathering in the structured peace of the garden. Trees, carefully pruned shrubbery, small ponds rimmed by stones. Stone deities here and there in various aspects; some with flowers laid at their feet, along with other charms and small papers with carefully written prayers. Quiet, unobtrusive invitations came from various corners, according to the nature of someone’s need. This place was well-tended, allowed to ramble and play in some parts and crafted to define an intention in others. Someone’s hand moved here with attention and care.
There were several different buildings within the courtyard’s walls. I took a last, long deep breath of the cool evening air, and turned towards a small plain building off to my right. At the entrance I stopped, removed my shoes and placed them together neatly outside the door. Then I stood, feet together, before the doorstep; bowed low and held it for a long moment. It was calming to find that the motions were still there within me, completely intact, mechanisms inside that sprang into life without any apparent effort, as though someone had been taking care of them through their long period of disuse. I straightened up, let my prayerful hands fall back down to my side, and stepped across the threshold, entering.
The four walls and ceiling enclosed a single small room, built for and intended to engender isolation. Isolation from the exterior world, and isolation with the interior one. As a boy it was a place I’d experienced only from without. Walking past the entrance I’d glimpsed people sitting within, sitting still and deep with something I couldn’t see, and I’d known without having to ask that it was not for me, not a place for the small and still-unfolding child’s spirit. But it was as though it had still then silently spoken to me, spoken into me: No, not yet. It is not for you now. But your time will come, and it will be here waiting.
Inside the light was low; came from candles, both gathered together in groupings and then here and there set singly apart. All burning quietly, giving the single light that consumed them. Wax tailings ran down, clumped and mounded in randomly intricate whorls, the flow of natural forces frozen into small monuments.
And what the flickering candlelight illuminated was a house of gods. Eight of them sat along the walls to my left and right, four on either side and close enough for me to reach out and touch. Full-sized human figures rendered in dark and ancient wood. They sat with legs crossed, their faces turned towards me where I stood. Gods of fire, of hope and wind and water; gods of the earth, their silent eyes acknowledged my presence in their world. Beyond them, directly facing me, on a dais that brought him above all else, sat the God of gods. He was golden and he gathered the light; it came back from him neither bright, nor shining, but simply as the light of godhood. Surrounded by candles and scattered figurines, graced with flowers and the scent of incense, his countenance a studied composition of invitation.
I came forward to the cushion that lay before the altar, came down gently to my knees and bent my body to the ground, giving up the world I’d left behind when I’d stepped through the door.
Bent forward, pressed against the floor, I felt something unlock, begin to flow. Time seemed to drift, to disappear. The smell of burning incense, the flickering light and shadows, the profound stillness; the quiet had become complete, closed itself around me. I raised myself to a sitting position, folding my legs beneath me in the position of meditation and prayer. My body found itself just as it was supposed to, became still. My eyes saw but did not see; the breath of air flowed in and back out. My awareness dimmed, drifting. An unknown time passed, unhurried, like water flowing somewhere in a small and far-off shadowy forest stream. Unhurried, little water sounds, trailing off into the darkness. Slowly it came up; began to rise and unfold, to coalesce out of the air.
Just vague outlines, shadows, shifting movements in the pattern of darkness and light. And then, slowly and suddenly at the same time, there he was. Again alone, motionless; again just standing there, and those empty eyes staring out and into me.
The forest gathered and grew behind him, still beneath the night sky, the same deep green mystery as before. But this time I felt it; felt it all around me, could smell the trees, the scent of bark and pine needles. And up from the darkness they swam, I felt them coming. Heard their soft and heavy footfalls at first, and watched as they emerged from the shadows, the great brown bear and the tall white wolf. They came forward and stood next to him, the bear at his right side and the wolf at his left, and I could hear them breathing; strong, low, the heartbeats in their wild animal bodies.
They stood there, still and impassive, watching me. I looked back at them, and I looked back at the man, and without any shock or surprise I saw who he was. Saw myself staring back at me. Older, changed, but unmistakeable. A future-mirror, a photograph from some unknown when; there I was, standing there. It was me, as clear and obvious now as it had been such a complete mystery before. But something was wrong. I stared into his eyes, into my eyes, and they were empty; the light was simply gone.
And the bear lifted his head and began to speak.
Do you know who I am?
Yes. You are me.
And the bear nodded, once, slowly. And his deep, low voice came again.
Why have you come here.
Because I had to. Because there was nowhere else left for me to go.
You should not have come here. You should go back to where you came from, to the world of living things.
But there is nowhere there left for me to go. When you stepped in front of my train you stepped into me. I was only me before, but your ghost now walks in me, takes my breath, and I do not know how to let it go.
The wolf spoke now, his harsh voice cutting into the air.
My ghost? I am you. Nothing here belongs to or comes from anything else but you.
I don’t understand. I was just living my life. A good life, doing my job, fulfilling my role each day.
Again the wolf’s voice rang out, harsh, bitter.
A good life? A life empty of dreams, lived alone. You once had purpose of your own. Now you have simply given up, given your own momentum over. And where are you going? You have lost any track of either where you are going or where you have come from; the momentum of your own life is barely even a memory.
Without a sound, the birds began to appear above the tops of the trees before me: a great and nameless host, bearing the sharp and curving crescent moon up into the starless dark of sky. The pale white moon, but it somehow gave no light. The forest began to shift, to change, the shapes began to harden. The bear and the wolf began to disappear, dissipating ghosts who stared back at me, whose gaze remained unblinking, unbroken as they became the surrounding air. Immobilized by the fear as it gripped me, grew, I could not move, could not speak, could not make a sound. Almost nothing but those eyes now, still staring into me. And the bear’s voice spoke out, each word landing like a single footstep in the silent world.
You should not have come. But you came, you are here. And so you will see it to the end.
And gone. And then they were gone. The forest, the bear, the wolf; not there, never there. Only now the man, that ghost-me, and beyond him the city, the never-ending city. Great, ageless, reaching back into the lost invisible depths of time; everything was in it except one thing, that single lack the source of the city’s endless hunger, its relentless, unceasing struggle. An impenetrable mystery, it fell and grew and shifted and was still, all in the same unbroken moment beyond me.
It terrified me; spoke the full terror of existence into my heart, into where my heart should have been, but there was nothing there. Nothing to withstand, nothing to stand up, and the terror flooded my body, broke wide and open.
The birds began to fall from the sky. The city with its dark and endless hunger called them down, consumed them as they fell. But as they fell they became as snow; their bodies shifted, a final curse, a consequence. And in a moment the city was simply gone. And everything was gone. Never was, never would be.
The perfect blanket of snow. The cold, the infinite silence. And that me, that ghost of me, a statue, a godless world. High above sat the lightless moon, a terrible wound in the darkness. I knew, and could do nothing. The fear had driven in stakes and nails, had wrapped me in ropes and chains. I stared at me, stared into the empty eyes of what I had become. Ever, ever so slowly, those eyes began to close. Ever, ever so slowly, the head began to tilt back, the face to turn up towards that brightness, a single point. And it fell; from the very tip of the moon it fell, a single drop of moonlight. Alone, pure, unnameable it fell, from so far away it fell straight down towards those closed eyes, towards that upturned face. As it fell, the darkness grew; the darkness grew, and the single drop of moonlight, still falling…
And it spoke.
In that utter and complete darkness, it spoke.
A voice without qualities, an all-sound. It spoke a hope; a joy that was contained within itself, untouchable. It spoke mercy.
The universe was still. Quiet. And I found that the sound had been spoken from the very last part of me. A bell rang, a stone cast into the stillness. Gentle ripples spread outward, rose, I found myself in a small room, in flickering candle-light, and with a hand on my shoulder. I blinked, twice; swallowed. Brought my hand to my face, found that it was damp with perspiration. I felt the hand on my shoulder softly withdraw. I felt myself, my heart still beating, my body still breathing. And I turned to see.
A man sat there. A man of indeterminate age: no longer young, but not yet old, either. His head was bare, shaven, and he was wrapped in a simple dark brown robe. He sat with his legs crossed, very still, and his eyes were closed. As I watched him, his eyes opened, and he was looking back at me. His face was serious but calm; his eyes asked and answered at the same time.
And then he rose, stood up, and with a slight gesture indicating that I should follow him, he stepped back out through the open doorway. I moved to stand up and suddenly found that I was quite weak; it was an effort to come to my feet, and my body trembled as I did so.
Outside the night had fallen. How long ago I couldn’t tell, I had no idea how long I’d sat there. The air in the garden was cool, and as I looked up I saw the moon through the branches of the trees, nearly full, shining among thin pale-silver clouds in the deep night sky. I looked around and saw the man standing a few feet away, watching me, and again he wordlessly indicated that I should follow. We walked through the garden towards a simple building tucked back in the corner; I had left my shoes behind, and the grass and earth and stones felt cool against my bare feet.
The man walked a few steps ahead of me and as he came to the building he opened the sliding door and entered, disappearing inside. I hesitated for a moment, and then followed.
The interior was a single small room, simply furnished. Along one wall lay a bed, covered with a quilt. Against another a sink, cupboards, a small gas stove. In the center of the room was a low table with cushions on the floor at four sides. The man stood at the kitchen counter, busy with something; he turned to me, indicating that I should take a seat at the table. I sat, taking the seat which faced him, and waited. I felt drained, empty; fully dependent on this unknown person’s intention to carry me forward.
After a minute or so he turned and came to the table at which I’d taken a seat, bearing a tray with a teapot and two small cups. He set the tray down and poured the tea into the two cups, setting one before me and the other before himself. Small night-sounds came in from the garden outside. I brought the cup to my mouth and drank, and as I swallowed I felt my body respond; felt the hardness begin to melt, felt the heat run into my cold bones. I closed my eyes and drank again, a long drink. When I opened them I found him watching me, the same serious yet calm expression on his face, in his clear eyes.
“Thank you,” I said. And as I spoke out, the sound of my own voice startled me. As though I’d forgotten, as though I hadn’t been sure that I’d be able to speak anymore. He nodded in acceptance, and after a moment I spoke again.
“How long were you there?” I asked.
“Shortly after you entered into the dream world. I felt that you were here, and so I came to sit with you.” His voice was gentle, and yet strong, it supported; the sound of it came into me like a kind of answered prayer.
“You have been here before?” he asked me. I nodded. “Yes,” I said. “When I was a child. I would come here with my family.”
He nodded, and then said: “Death and life are the same thing, and yet not the same thing. Two halves of a whole, yet only a whole. Each exists only within the other.” He was silent for a moment. And then he said: “And somehow you walked in-between; somehow you walked into the in-between world.”
Silence followed. I stared into his gentle brown eyes, and they accepted my gaze. Time passed. The night spoke softly. The world turned in the dark of space, carrying the burden of cities and forests, the bones of the ancients in the earth. And he said: “And then you walked back out again.” He nodded, once; drank his tea, and then poured more into the two cups. I drank, thinking. And then I looked back up at him.
“Would I have made it back out if you hadn’t been there? Or would I have been lost in there forever?”
He sipped his tea, thoughtfully, before he spoke.
“I don’t know. It’s not something I know, something I can answer. But you had given yourself up to something, were following a path. And that path led you here, and this is where I am.”
I nodded in response. Considered carefully for a moment, and then asked, “Was that me? Was that ghost me? And where did he go? Where is he now?”
The monk shook his head, slowly.
“I don’t know,” he said. “The world of dreams is in your body, and your body is in the living world, and the living world is in the universe. Separate qualities of the same whole. And it was yours. My spirit was with you, but it was all in your body. The walk, the choice was yours.”
I took in what he said, what he was saying. Heard it. Heard the leaves of the trees outside in the breeze, the gentle song of response. “The city,” I said. “The city frightened me.”
“The city cannot conceive of its own death,” he said. “Even though it will die, that death is beyond its imagination. And so it cries out. But the city is only people. Even though they seem to walk its streets, to work and live in its structures, it is only of them, only of human beings. It was born as they were, and it will live and die just as they do.”
I thought for a moment; drank the tea. I looked up, across at him, looked into that calm, that apparent kindness. Something was returning to me. Something I thought I’d lost, but was now seeing that I had not; that it had never been gone, that I had only forgotten it. I looked at him, sitting in calm repose across from me. And he smiled. Or rather, a smile came into his face, rose at the corners of his eyes.
“Why are you here?” I said. “Why is it that this is where you are?” And as I watched him, I saw the smile increase, slightly; as though there were increments, checkpoints on the road to happiness.
“Why do you think I am here?” he said. He picked up the teapot, re-filled the two cups; his motions purposeful, simple and honest.
“Because you are happy here,” I said. And his smile grew; seemed to be rimmed with a kind of light, to contain an invisible sparkle. And in the same moment I felt it touch me; felt it touch me, my face like a mirror reflecting the invisible light.
“Everything has a reason,” he said. “A reason for being that thing. There are all kinds of different gods and there is one god. An uncountable number and kind of songs and one song. I cannot really tell you what you walked into, what you walked back out of again. But you are what you are, what you have been and what you always will be. And wherever you go, it is there with you; it is what you will always carry.”
And as he said this, as the last of his words came into the air, I felt it. Felt it move; a gentle pressure like an unborn child in the womb, a quiet ache like a ghost walking in my bones. An animal, a nameless, living quality. Why does the heart beat, I thought. Why does the heart just keep beating? And I looked at him, looked at him as he looked back at me. And the smile was full now; those eyes, those full and immeasurable eyes, just quietly shining.
Notes: This is the first story I ever wrote. Winter/spring of ‘09, living in Tokyo at the time. There were two seeds. One was this sense of aimlessness, as life in Japan hadn’t gone according to plan, and as such I had a need to attach myself to something, some kind of work. The other was “train-suicides”, at one time the most popular/common form of suicide in Japan. I started wondering about what it was like to be the driver of one of those trains, being in that position; how you wouldn’t bear any actual responsibility, but how it must affect your life, all the same. So, those two seeds (aimlessness plus a specific idea) produced this story: I thought, shoot, it’s an idea, I might as well sit down and see where I can go with it. What surprised me was how the story, by and large, just came out. It took about three weeks, I think, afternoons in a few different cafes around town. And when I finished, I was like: “Huh. That’s interesting. I just wrote a story.” I’d never really tried to write a story before, and was surprised, in some respects at least, to see how much technical ability I had. I mean, don’t get me wrong, it’s totally imperfect, and parts of it come across as mildly embarrassing to the writer I am now. But there is a lot in it that works, and that I still like a lot, too. It definitely has a very Murakami-ish feel, but that’s fine with me, I mean I love Murakami. And it still has my own imprint, for sure. If nothing else I’m fond of it because it opened the writing-door for me, in terms of the idea that it was something I could/should take seriously.