The sun was shining in through the skylight above my bed when I awoke. I had overslept and judging from the angle of the sun it was already mid afternoon. As I sat up and brushed the hair out of my eyes, I lazily tried to reconstruct the events of the evening before. What was it about Ilias, I wondered, that made me this way? I’d been with other guys, included a few that I didn’t care to remember, but this was unlike anything I had ever known. It wasn’t a butterflies-in-the-stomach sort of feeling, or a basal sexual yearning. When I thought of him, nothing else mattered.
Of course I was also afraid; I was clearly losing myself to some unhealthy obsession. Logically speaking, I should have labeled my feelings as unremarkable trivialities. What reason did I really have to feel so strongly for him? I had spent so little time with him, and knew next to nothing about him. Then again, fixating on a nonexistent obsession could be equally problematic.
I’ve been in love before, right? It must be different, with him.
Sure, I could have known a little more about him, but what would mundane details really change? Would learning about his life in the chains of the world of men really change the way I saw the colours of his soul? I knew that there were things, of course, that a person could do in the waking world that would matter to me; but I could not see him committing those sorts of crimes. I forced myself to believe that his detachment was similar to my own, that he was merely struggling in this “reality” of ours.
If only I could find a way to reach him.
I conjured up a flimsy image of the wretched shadows that lie in wait, behind his eyes. Even the flat replica that lurked in my memory gave the impression of an unspeakable horror, one that could easily devour an army of men; but this was a pain that he managed to endure. Surely we were not all that different, but then my pain was not one that had a basis in this world. What if he had experienced some great trauma, one that left him inexorably bound to our shared waking dream? Though I had experienced things that were enough to produce profound anxieties in others, I knew that my “madness” was an intrinsic characteristic. But what if he were just a fiend, lying in wait, ready to consume me the moment he had the chance? I caught myself over-analyzing once again, exhaled sharply, and forcibly cleared my head.
As I experience my fear, my paranoia, I acknowledge that I am merely a witness. These thoughts of mine are not me. We have the ability to choose what aspects of our environment are worthy of self-identification.
After I had finished my morning primping routine, I slothfully descended the narrow flights of stairs to find that the Master had long since opened shop.
The sunlight lazily dribbled in through the clouded basement windows on the storefront. The Master was leaning against the counter, smoking a sweet-smelling variety of his favorite pungent herb rolled in blackened tobacco leaves. When the Shop smelled of marijuana and cloves it was always a good sign; I lit a bit of the Old Lady’s sandalwood incense near the door, and propped it open to let the place air out. Considering that the fishy smell of the city never managed to find its way inside, this may have been a futile gesture. The smoke blew through the sunlight, casting fleeting beams of shade through the air around me.
“What, so you’ve got to go and cover up my beautiful smell?” the Master joked stupidly, throwing a billow of dank musk my way.
Insert incoherent grunting here.
“You know, you really shouldn’t smoke that in your place of work.” I flipped my hand, as if to brush his complaint away as I chided him, then thrust my arm to my hip menacingly.
“Hm!” He exclaimed, pretending to contemplate the seriousness of it all, before giggling to himself yet again.
After taking the obligatory hit from his pipe, I filled a pot from the electric kettle and steeped some breakfast tea, yawning all the while. Sometimes when one dreams deeply, it takes time to reconcile with reality; as if there were actually a distinction between our “self” and the endless sea of memories that comprise it.
Unfortunately, as I couldn’t even begin to recall the dreams of the night before, that was hardly a valid excuse. Still, I was overcome by the sensation – like a powerful spell of déjà vu – that I had just been born into this world for the first time; as if some god somewhere had just now decided to dream me up out of oblivion. I ran through arbitrary memories of my life, and realized that I happened to be incidentally reconstructing myself in the process, rebooting webs of memory from an idle state. I decided that in the worst case scenario, I myself would have to be that author.
Would my two parallel selves actually affect each other, or could it just be some endless cosmic dance? Would we endlessly refine each other, or in the end be destroyed? And as for free will… Nothing like confounding a circular flow of thought with the question of determinism to start your day. How could I – why would I want to ask: which of us is “real?”
“Whoa, it’s after noon and you’re brewing Yorkshire. You must be feeling terribly groggy.” He said, prodding at me as he drifted by, leaving a thick trail of smoke behind him.
the Master and I both preferred green teas. Their subtleties were better suited to unadulterated enjoyment, but nothing knocks your socks off quite like a thick black English tea. I must have laughed to myself, realizing that even my choice of tea had long since begun to carry meaning for him.
Here it comes, creeping our way.
That man, Kevon, walked into the store just as I began to strain the tea leaves. He nonchalantly tossed his hideous briefcase onto a nearby table, and threw his arm around the Master’s shoulder in some semblance of a greeting. I had always assumed that they were lovers, but had yet to see the two of them so much as kiss.
Kevon called the Master by his first name, an act which seemed vulgar to me. The Master nodded his head and waved vaguely, apparently indicating that they’d like to have some time to themselves. He handed me a lilac shoulder bag as I passed through the veil of sandalwood to the street above. From the weight, I guessed that he had managed to pack my tea for me. He must have flashed a guilty smile as I grumbled, waved, and walked away.
“Have a safe trip.” Kevon had called after me, squeezing out all of the gentle formality he could muster.
I thought of the Ethereal Beastie, and it smiled at me from nowhere.
I hit my reset button again and forced a smile as I made my way down the street. There was something wrong with Kevon, but it was still beyond my ability to see. I felt guilty for my private disdain, but whenever he was around I was completely overwhelmed by that sort of unpleasantness. I assumed that it came not from myself, but from him.
I once had a teacher who was an art therapist – a legitimate, licensed clinician – who worked with men who battered their wives. They painted in order to learn to understand and express their emotions properly. The program was run by the same organization that provided safe refuge to the victims of those “patients”. Obviously the men were all criminally ill, but the idea behind the program was probably to rehabilitate them. For a person to be driven to such behavior surely required some degree of internal pain, but was there really any hope for real “rehabilitation?” Some of the men had been beating their spouses for years, and for most it was not their first abusive relationship. Still, they weren’t just going to disappear from the world, so the people who ran the program probably did their best to help them with the hope that they could minimize the suffering that these men were sure to inflict in the future. Even beyond the pragmatic side of it, part of me wants to see a world where everyone can be helped, no matter how despicable they might be.
When I thought of Kevon and the Master together, it was like seeing one of those dysfunctional couples. I pictured Kevon thrashing about on the ground, repenting for his sins and begging for some god’s forgiveness. The Master would lay his hand on the man’s back and softly tell him to let it all out. Kevon would embrace the Master in a fit of tears, attempting to mask the darkness that still swirled inside of him. As they went through this process repeatedly, Kevon would become unsure of his own intentions; no longer knowing whether he was there to hurt or heal, losing track even of the object of his actions.
Still, I couldn’t see the Master consorting with an evil person. Then again, I didn’t really know that people could be evil. Evil actions could be explained away by sickness, by misconception. Could it be the same for spirits, too? Were there gods that had false-consciousness and inferiority complexes? Either way, “morality” is a bitch.
A brown rat darted across the alley before me, exposing its scaly tail to the bright light that beamed down directly from above. The rats were getting brave, as the neighborhood – and the world – seemed to be declining.
Industry had gradually ceased to require the laborers of the last era, and the idiotic masses of the “first world” were still taking time to adjust. They spent their days filling out meaningless paperwork, fouling the air, and killing each other in the meantime. Other parts of the world were still “modernizing,” enveloped by the “advanced” cultures that they served. Some people even managed to see the seemingly impossible transformation from pastoralism to digitalism firsthand. The whole process was foolish, but I had come to feel that hating them for it would be even worse. I wish that I could live with the faith of a technocrat, but despite their promises, none of our advances are actually changing the rules of the game. In the end, no matter how the world might have grown in size or complexity, we haven’t managed to free ourselves from the bonds of our own power.
Even if I could hate “them,” who were they? Would I hate the small minded plutocrats who believed that they had earned their wealth? The laborers who bought into the system in order to survive? The impoverished souls who lacked the ability to feed themselves, let alone organize a revolution? I always liked to imagine the “enemy” as the ill-defined group of immoral players in our world-game, but I couldn’t really justify hating them either. When you meet someone “bad,” they’re usually full of hate. To revenge against them would probably be meaningless, if not evil in and of itself. “An eye for an eye leaves the world blind”; Besides, it’s too hard to split people you don’t know into clear cut groups.
Sick of pondering my Master’s obligations and the state of the world, my thoughts returned to Ilias. His hair, his voice, his eyes, and his pain. Before I knew it, I was once again dangling my feet of the side of the rickety old pier; I could feel the faintest sensation of someone’s soft lips pressing against mine. I sat there, for a while, dreaming of crafting a brilliantly selfish personal paradise, and drank a bit of tea.
Am I just another self interested actor in this world of ours? What gives me the right to pretend moral superiority over an abstract group of nobodies, while I continue to participate in this system?
A conveniently timed wind blew just the right way, and the huge red crane creaked behind me. I turned my head to the right, contemplating my destination. A ghostly visage of Ilias stroked my neck with the wind, tracing the angle between the protruding tendon in my neck to my collarbone, tugging at my shirt. I shuddered as the wind died down, dropping airy bangs over my right eye.
The Crane was a short way from the river, two streets past the Shop. It was the first time that I had really taken a close look at the building, and it occurred to me that it being unfinished might actually improve it. As I approached I surveyed the area around it, determining that there was absolutely no one in sight. The street was strangely deserted for the time of day. Unsurprisingly, no one was working on the building itself. There was no door at the entrance, nor windows in the walls; just a strange hunk of concrete and metal, a complete waste of labor. As I ducked through a hole in the fence, the bag on my shoulder began to weigh me down. I stepped inside the husk and looked up to follow the walls until they stopped abruptly halfway up the building’s skeletal form.
The sun was creeping along so slowly; it seemed as if it had become fixed to a single point in the sky. I tried to take a look at my phone, but it claimed that only twenty minutes had passed since I had left the Shop. I was mysteriously out of service. How typical, that I lose reception in the middle of the city, whilst gazing at the sky.
There was a ladder that went all the way up the finished portion of the inside wall, giving easy access to consecutive levels of steel beams where the floors would have been. I climbed three stories then stopped to take a sip of tea. The sky was full of fluffy clouds, trickling along as the wind picked up. I crossed over to the center of the structure, and climbed another few stories to the crane.
It was mounted near the top of the skeleton, with one of those bizarre adjustable climbing contraptions that would normally be reserved for much larger structures. Surely no one could have even considered building a skyscraper on this side of town? They had started the work only a few months ago, but the place had the taste of something that had been forgotten by the ages, the sense of an ancient ruin hidden deep under whistling sands. But no, this was definitely the city.
I swung my legs over a steel bar, and leaned against the crane’s control cabin. Down in the city below, a pack of teens came out of the bookstore owned by one of the Master’s many acquaintances. They looked like they were laughing about something, enveloped in their collectively blissful ignorance; one particularly lanky girl was left behind. She seemed to be staring hard at a shivering shadow on the ground. I imagined her trying desperately to remember something. Suddenly, she spun around to look straight at me, her hair flipping around in a whirly-wind jerk. Though moderately unsettled, I blankly returned her gaze for a moment. She waved; her hand was carelessly suspended in the air, and remained completely still for a breathless moment. In another awkwardly swift motion she turned and ran to catch up with her group, turning a street corner out of sight.
As if to remind myself that this brief interaction was a strong indicator that I had likely yet to fall down the rabbit hole, I gulped down the rest of my tea. The clouds of steam billowed out of my thermos into the dry air around me, whistling a strangely nostalgic chord. They sang to one-another, not of desert sands, but of a lush green that was miles away and yet right beneath my feet.
A high altitude wind blew down from the heavens, the only evidence from my vantage point being that a cluster of clouds above me suddenly burst apart; from a bubbly puff of cream to a set of conspicuously smooth wisps. The clouds and sky cracked apart, and out came the Crane.
Of course, this symbolic crane was of the ornithic variety, the pieces of the fading cloud became its wings and it spread out into the sky before dissolving into nothingness; I followed closely behind it. Normally, when a person finds themselves in a dangerous situation, say they’re falling asleep while sitting on a steel beam ten stories above the ground, an alarm goes off somewhere. Fortunately for me, I rarely had time to worry about such things. I listlessly drifted off towards the world of the Crane.
At first the world around me resembled a strange directionless combination of a cloud and a pond. A pale blue seemed to transmute itself from the weightless waters into a dense fog and back again. Then came the green things, spinning everywhere around me. The Crane that had called to me from the heavens was now standing before me, suspended above the murky-clear waters on one leg. I, on the other hand, found myself thoroughly wet. They crane’s eye seemed to pierce into me, as it enveloped me with a soft calm. Its life force stop-started and gradually washed over my consciousness like a swift-chilling breeze. I sank into the waters, as whatever had held me up gently lowered my shell down into the deep nothingness.
I awoke once again, staring up out of the cubicle lords’ tower. Two of the inside walls were shrouded in shadow now, and the Master was staring down at me with a curious expression on his face. He was probably trying to decide if I was alright, but after a moment, he returned his usual silly grin to its proper place on his face.
Ulric was there, sniffing a homeless man who was sleeping with a violin case on his lap a few feet from where I had been. The Master deposited a wrapped parcel, presumably containing something edible, onto the violin case. He then offered me his hand, helped me up, and the three of us strolled back to the Shop. He whistled all the way. I thought about the homeless man, still sleeping there.
When we returned, I brought the delivery bag back to the Master’s desk, retaining the thermos under my arm. There were a handful of books that were usually out in the front room strewn over his usual work. This sent an unmistakable chill up my spine. There were a couple of psycho-pharmacological texts accompanied by a shoddy looking journal titled with nearly illegible Chinese characters. The words blended together to form a long cursive stream with a blunt beginning and a soft end. It appeared to have something to do with herbal medicine, but there were a few characters that I couldn’t make out.
“What sort of concoction are you brewing up now?” I cautiously called back into the main room.
“Oh,” he chuckled, “you’ll see.”
I shivered again; The last time I drank one of the Master’s “special brews,” I saw God. Either “God” or my internal representation of the sum of reality. Call it what you will. As with most things, the truth was probably neither, both, and somewhere in between.
Just think, me and my alternate self, constantly dreaming each other into unreality. We don’t exist, and that’s what makes it all so interesting…
As if the psychotic episode that was sure to come wasn’t foreboding enough, I would probably be bedridden and defenestrating vomit for three days after I came to my senses. Even so, those kinds of experiences can be indispensable.
If nothing else, they teach you to appreciate those days when you can eat solid food; speaking of which, I probably only have a few days to build up my strength.
“By the way,” the Master called slyly as I climbed the stairs to my room, “Guess who’s coming to visit?”
I made myself a light meal, brewed some Da Fang tea, and lit some rose incense. I spent the rest of the day puffing on a brass pipe, listening to music, and skirting the lands between dream and day. Images of noble leaders, lovely flowers, honorable laborers, and flowery loves filtered through my eyes, as I drifted in and out of a shallow meditative bliss.
©2011-10-15 Joseph Alexander Fournier
[to be continued...]