I was admiring the boutique from outside, contemplating entering the shop to pick up a pair of cordovans on display, when the dim reflection of a man in the window interrupted my thoughts. His stride left no doubt that he was headed towards me, and I turned to face him. I was startled, though not frightened by what I saw.
He was dressed in what I could only describe as 18th-century garb: breeches, laced-sleeve shirt, sensible inner vest enclosed in a light earthy coat, all topped off by a ridiculous classical wig. His soft face gave him the air of a gentle man, though his smile betrayed a keen wit. Despite my ongoing surprise, I soon felt at ease.
“Going to buy those?” He spoke with a rich accent that was clearly European, but beyond that I couldn’t place it.
“Will it bring you much joy?”
The notion of happiness hadn’t really crossed my mind. I could well afford the shoes, and they were there for purchase.
“No,” I admitted. “Probably not.”
The peculiar stranger nodded in understanding.
“Come with me.”
Before I could protest, he was off towards the street, and I can’t really say why, but I followed. We walked just a few yards over to a manhole, where he stooped down and pushed the cover aside. Without a moment’s hesitation, he climbed in, beckoning for me to follow.
We landed a few yards below, on a walkway lining the edge of a wide storm sewer. Murky water flowed purposefully through the middle of the tunnel, headed for a faraway nowhere.
“What exactly did you want to show me?” I asked, trying to wipe the grime off my hands. I noticed that my companion looked sparkling clean.
“Where the water ends.”
“It’ll be worth it?”
“I can’t promise you, I’m afraid. But I believe so.”
Glancing down below us, I imagined swimming in the grimy sewage water.
You’re swimming in the wretched drainage water. All around you, the sludge flows restlessly towards a faraway zenith, a zenith hopelessly beyond your reach. You don’t know how you ended up here, but you know you have no choice but to sink, or swim.
We walked, his boots and my shoes clanking on the worn steel path. I wanted to ask more about the unknown man, but I wasn’t sure where to begin. So we strolled in silence and near-darkness.
We passed by smaller canals, tools left by workers, and assorted litter. A good time later a meow was heard in the shadows, and the slender figure of a gray cat emerged, took a good look, then stepped tranquilly past us.
“Beautiful, isn’t it? Uninhabited by our worldly problems, our sense of righteousness; a creature whose only charge is to live its life. A noble savage.”
I didn’t care for the cat, but it finally clicked for me.
“Rousseau?” I could feel the satisfaction in his smile as he turned to look back at me.
“Jean-Jacques,” he beamed. “Come, we must continue our way.”
You’re fighting your way through, trying to keep your head out of the water. You’re young and strong, so it’s not too tough—for now. A few fish swim alongside, and you can’t help but notice how well they take it. Their lives aren’t easy, yet they remain blissfully unaware of the beyond. But this is no time to be staring at fish, because you must be on your way.
I struggled to catch up with Rousseau’s brisk pace. I had so many questions: Why are you here? How could you really be Rousseau? And why take me? He deflected all of them: It doesn’t matter where I’m from; it matters only where we’re going, and that we get there. The only question he would entertain was offhand: I wondered about his taste in music.
“Stravinsky,” he responded resolutely. I almost choked.
“Stravinsky was born a century past your death!”
Rousseau cast a sideways grin.
“But his work depicts well the natural state of man, does it not?”
That was true, though it didn’t address my point.
As we continued, there were fewer and fewer lamps illuminating the path. By now the unlit gloom had become more familiar than the light, so that when we did pass by a lamp or a crack from the outside, it was as if the light was the shadow, cast over the darkness. And when this did happen—the few moments we could see something—I caught a glimpse of a once-splendid metal ring, a pile of shattered glass, and what appeared to be a long leg bone.
My brain maintained that we hadn’t been walking for long, but my body and mind were collapsing. They wanted to stop and rest, and I asked, but Rousseau wouldn’t hear of it.
Your body is tired and your mind is worn. Every push to stay afloat is quickly denied by the slosh of brown water, and some makes it down your throat. You grow wary of the light, whose only effect is to give the water its vile color. You thought you were young and strong, but now you know that even the mighty have their limits. Your arms and legs beg you to stop, to rest, but you know you can’t trust them. Because what they really want is to quit.
“Rousseau, I’ve been thinking,” I said, breathing heavily now, “we don’t choose to be born. Couldn’t one argue, then, that we don’t owe the world anything? That we…have no responsibilities?”
“It sounds logical,” the philosophe admitted, with a calmness that surprised me given my seditious thought. “But it fails even to comply with Kant’s categorical imperative. You can’t universally allow people to think and act this way, you see?”
“Yeah, I see.” In my exasperation, I tried to recall whether Rousseau and Kant had been contemporaries at all, but I realized it would be a useless objection anyway.
We were rounding a long corner now, and I blurted in frustration:
“Rousseau! When will we get there?”
He didn’t speak; just continued to stroll briskly. But when the canal straightened again, a distant point of sunshine came into view. It beamed proud and pure, and the air smelled crisper, fresher already.
The air smells crisper, the water feels softer already.
We were running now; I was running with the little energy I had left.
You’re sprinting now, with the little will you have left.
We finally reached the opening, where the drainage ran out into a vast sea, green-brown near our feet, silver-blue towards the horizon.
“Marvelous, isn’t it?” I heard Rousseau proclaim.
I turned to face him, but Rousseau had disappeared. I glanced back into the tunnel, but there was no one there either, nor anywhere he could have escaped to or hidden himself.
Pellets of rain started to fall and drip onto my clothes, and I figured I should find a way towards shelter—but not the way I came. A long, narrow path ran around the exit of the tunnel, maybe towards a beach in the distance, maybe somewhere strange. I didn’t care; I set off.
Beads of rain start to fall and drip onto your face, but you couldn’t care less. A vast and wide ocean runs out into the sun, maybe towards a cliff in the distance, maybe somewhere strange. You don’t mind anymore; you’re not afraid. You set off, and you go. Because deep down, you’ve always wanted to.
This story appeared in Trouble Sleeping, issue 2.