Specific Nothings From a Treetop Café

brown trees on green grass field during daytime

by Patrick Hurley

He always had an otiose memory. For as long as he could remember, he couldn’t really remember.  He seemed only able to recall details that indicated nothing of significant value or occasion. He could remember the color of a piece of food stuck in a tooth, say, or the speck of brown in the iris of a delivery boy’s eye. He couldn’t remember names, never recall a face, only immeasurable and seemingly irrelevant details could switch on his hippocampus. He is currently sitting at the window of a cafe that sits atop a tall tree at the end of Main Street. The Treetop, as it is known to the locals, is a converted treehouse made entirely of glass. It is said to have originally been built as a military fort two centuries earlier. The exact details are not at all clear. It’s also rumored to have been built by an eccentric millionaire in the 1930s to impress a Hollywood starlet. Whatever its genesis, the Treetop is a magical place. From a distance it looks like a giant Christmas ornament. It dangles near the top of an oversized beech tree, a lit up glass bulb with tiny figures lurking about inside. You have to climb a ladder up the massive trunk, then traverse a series of staircases which are built into the protracted branches, until, at last, you reach the entrance which sits over three stories above the ground. The door to the Treetop is located at the base of the structure, and once inside, patrons are instantly wowed by the floor to ceiling windows that circle the massive main room providing a 360-degree view of the entire town.  The Treetop serves coffee and tea, but classy tea of the high British variety, complete with trays of finger sandwiches and petit fours all smoothly covered in shiny pastel frostings, pinks and greens and yellows like miniature square Easter eggs. They used to serve liquor, but a dozen or so drunken falls led the owners to change their business model, and The Treetop has since become a trendy hangout for teetotalers and writers and readers alike.

C.L. finds himself sitting at a corner table, firmly wedged between two windows, sipping a chamomile and honey. He’s been coming to the Treetop for as long as he can remember, and as far as he knows, he has always come alone. He’s been alone for as long as he can remember. Ever since the love of his life died. Carole, his childhood sweetheart and constant companion, had drowned in front of him when they were both eighteen. Ever since, a kind of inertia had settled upon him. He finds no joy in life, only comfort in what he assumes is his daily routine. As if by rote, he goes about his days with no deviance, and no hope of any future. Life continues around him, but he has been stuck in the deepest of despairs, in the sorriest of sorrows ever since Carole was lost to the sea.  He doesn’t know anyone, and so asks for nothing of them. He doesn’t work, he steals what he needs from affluent enough people not to notice. He squats wherever he can, and he cannot care about anyone or anything. Poor C.L. is all his mother would ever say about him until the day she died of a broken heart. Neither of his parents had seen him after Carole’s death. His father never spoke of him again, and to this day lives in a rocking chair in an old folk’s home where he is mostly ignored, fed only enough to keep him from starving to death. As for C.L., he hasn’t been interested in anything for so long, that the passing of years is no different to him than the blink of an eye. The owner of the Treetop has been taking pity on him and never charges him for his chamomile and honey, which is the only thing C.L. drinks.

Which brings me to his odd memory. When he was a child, his mother thought the odd details he could remember was the sign of a disorder. And their family doctor agreed. It must be some kind of head trauma, the doctor said, he must have been injured. His mother swore that he was never injured as a child, and she was precisely the kind of helicopter parent that would surely have noticed. Perhaps it happened in the womb, then, the doctor said, calling into question the very womanhood that C.L’s mother held as the only thing of value she possessed. She never recovered from the good doctor’s casual suggestion that her womb could have been inhospitable, even violent. When C.L. was ten years old, he started to exhibit signs of being antisocial, and again the doctor entered the picture. It could be a brain tumor, he said, and C.L.’s mother, at just the words fainted dead away. After dozens and dozens of tests, the doctor finally concluded that brain tumors can sometimes be impossible to locate. He wanted to open up C.L.’s brain and “explore,” and in her fitful fear, C.L.’s mother agreed. In a strange twist of fate, the doctor died of an aneurism the day of the operation, and it was only after hours and hours that C.L. finally got up and left the hospital when the nurses promptly forgot to tell him his doctor was dead.

C.L. was always the person you forgot was in the room. People looked past him all the time. After he left the hospital that day,  he never got another brain test again. His memory still proves to be bizarre. He tries to stick to routines, so as to minimize the need to recall specific details about things that he just can’t seem to remember. His chamomile and honey, for instance, is only his regular drink because it’s the first item on the menu, and he can’t remember anything past it. He also can’t remember if he likes tea or coffee or both or neither. He actually doesn’t like chamomile and honey. It’s like someone spat into a cup of potpourri and then boiled it. He is often commiserating with himself about the dreadful flavor between egregious sips.  And so, he remembers only what seems like random details. Carole’s death, on the other hand, and the romance they shared, he can remember every minute of. Every tiny nuanced detail seems to stick to his brain like rice to sushi, a fate worse than death, if only he could forget her. He saw it as a cosmic reckoning.  As if the experience of the loss that he was doomed to relive day after day was some kind of punishment from god or whatever god might be. For it was true that nearly every waking moment of his life he was lost in some thought of Carole. Why was his memory so perfect of her, and so faulty with everything else? He had memorized every part of her, every patch of skin, every strand of hair. He hadn’t tried to, it just happened. He often considered that given the chance, he could recreate her entirely. If he were an artist, say, a sculptor or painter, he could make her likeness in a kind of verisimilitude unseen in most representational art.  But alas, another burden of his was the he in fact had no talent whatsoever for anything.  He was the personification of tap water. Plain, flavorless, as common a thing as exists in the civilized world. He also often hopes that the doctor who never showed up that day was right, he has a brain tumor and so he’ll surely drop dead soon.

The tree branches, just outside the window creak as C.L. feels the gentle sway of The Treetop in the morning breeze. At least, he thinks it’s morning.  He pulls the unbuttoned cardigan he’s wearing closer to his chest to warm up, and then slips his hands into the pockets. His left hand immediately feels the sharp edge of a business card. That’s odd, he thinks, but of course he has no memory of anyone giving him a business card. He pulls out the card, and it’s a deep emerald green colored card with only one word written on it, LETHE in all caps. And because of his unusual inability to retain useful details, the only memory the card issues forth is the image of a man with a mustache. Not helpful, he thinks, for surely, there are many men with mustaches who have no attachment to this card whatsoever. It’s less than ideal evidence to pursue, not that he had any interest in pursuit of any kind. Oh well, just as well.  He puts the card on the table in front of him, face up, and he stares at the letters. He doesn’t know what the word Lethe means. He’s pretty certain it’s not a real word, but he doesn’t really have a good reason to believe this, he calls it a hunch. His hunches are almost always wrong, but that has never slowed him down from readily believing them. Like most humans, he was not gifted in the art of estimation. And, as previously stated, he has quite given up the idea that he will pursue the meaning of this strange card or its owner, who may or may not be a man with a mustache.

Just then, as if by some cosmic force, a man with a mustache is suddenly standing in front of him.  C.L. looks up and wants to be struck by the coincidence, but promptly forgets that he was in fact just thinking about a man with a mustache, and then, as if he conjured one, voila! Here one stands. But no, he just stares awkwardly because he’s already forgotten, and so the irony, or the coincidence, depending on your cosmic outlook, is entirely lost on him. Luckily, the man in the mustache speaks first.

“Mr. Dodson, I presume.” The man with the mustache removes his rather squarish hat from his rather roundish head and nods at C.L. who continues staring blankly back at him. The fact that the man knows his name does not startle C.L. for he has had many encounters with people who seem to know him, people whom he has either forgotten entirely, or just never bothered to remember in the first place.

“You’re a rather slippery fellow, aren’t you?” the man says playfully as he motions to the empty chair next to C.L. “Do you mind?”  The man holds the back of the chair waiting for C.L. to give him permission to sit.  C.L., having not socialized for as long as he could remember, isn’t quite sure what to do, but he eventually nods, granting the man access to the chair. The man with the mustache smiles and sits. He takes a moment to take in his rather odd surroundings. After all, how often does one find himself in a glass bulb dangling from a tree branch? The man with the mustache is immediately struck by the incredible view and the sound he makes conveys as much, a kind of approving moan.

“Mmm, impressive,” the man with the mustache scans the scenery and nods approvingly.

“I suppose you want to know who I am,” the man says, and C.L. doesn’t really have an opinion one way or the other.

“I work for an organization that helped eradicate the terrible government program known as the EROS Project,” the man deliberately pauses, he stares at C.L. to see if the word Eros strikes any familiar chords.  “Does that name ring any bells?” Of course it doesn’t. C.L. doesn’t have normal human bells, if he has any bells at all. Suddenly, he is caught in the memory of something. A scent. Lavender, maybe jasmine.  Then without thinking he blurts out, “Eros means love.”  The man with the mustache smiles. C.L. is uncomfortable and keeps talking, “I must have known that before…” he realizes he can’t trust a total stranger in a treetop café who has appeared out of nowhere with an ominous mustache. “Before what?” the man asks almost menacingly. C.L. isn’t sure how to interpret the man’s tone.

“Did something happen to you,” the man asks gently. C.L. is ready to change the subject, “How do you know who I am?”  He asks more curtly that he’d intended, and he immediately drops eye contact and stares at the lace tablecloth, the green LETHE card staring at him.

“Did you give me this card?” C.L. asks as he picks up the card to show the man. The man just smiles.

“I need you to listen to me very carefully,” the man whispers and leans in close to C.L. The rest of the Treetop seems to go silent and still. The man continues, “Something happened to you when you were eighteen, something you were not supposed to know about.” There’s a gravity to his voice, pulling C.L. into orbit, and suddenly he feels something akin to aggravation.  The man continues to speak in a low monotone, “you were one of the test subjects in the EROS project. A pilot experiment aimed at rehabilitation, but something went terribly, terribly wrong.”

“Rehabilitation?” C.L. interrupts, “from what?”  The man leans back, his face kind of drenched in pity.

“We met briefly one night before the Eros Project was shut down, at the Highland facility,” the man says, “I gave you my card and told you to find me when you got out.” C.L. does not remember this. He looks at the card on the table, and before he can stop himself, “what’s Lethe mean?”  The man smiles and corrects him, “it’s pronounced Leethee, it’s Greek.”

“Do I speak Greek?”

“Do you know how old you are?” the man asks. C.L. almost scoffs at such an insulting question, but the truth is he doesn’t know. He hasn’t really paid attention to any of the days limping by him. Since Carole died, he has not marked the passage of time. Under the heavy weather of years, monotony and routine have become their own dimension, their own kind of eternity.  

“What does Lethe mean? In Greek?” C.L. asks, and he’s becoming somewhat impatient.

“Before I can help you,” the man says, disregarding C.L.’s question, “you need to tell me what happened. I can only help you if I know what happened.” This sounds to C.L. like he wants to know about Carole, and that’s not a subject he wants to broach with a total stranger.

“I can help you, if you tell me,” the man says, and C.L. suddenly feels threatened. Help me? He wants to say. Help me with what? Who does this man think he is? This man with a preposterous mustache

“Was it a death?” the man asks, “it’s usually a death.”

Usually?

“If you don’t tell me, we’ll never be able to move forward.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about!”

“You must have had some tragic event that has changed the course of your whole life. Now, what was it? Was it someone you loved?”  The man with the mustache is growing frustrated, which in turn is making C.L. grow frustrated.

“I loved her more than anything,” C.L.’s voice cracks, he hadn’t intended it to. His face quivers, he didn’t know how to stop it. He hasn’t spoken of her out loud. Not to anyone. Not since that day.

“She died,” the man with the mustache says, and C.L. closes his eyes and nods and says, “I think I did too.”

“How did she die?”

“She…drowned. On her eighteenth birthday.”

“How?”

“What do you mean how? In the water!”

“Where was she?”

“We were taking a boat to the island.”

“What island?”

“I can’t remember the name of it.”

“What body of water?”

“What kind of a question is that?”

“Was it a lake, a river?”

“A river? There’s no island on a river! It was the ocean.”

The man with the mustache stares at C.L. “the ocean?” he asks. “Yes,” C.L. says sharply, “the ocean.” 

“Why were you at the ocean?”

“It was her birthday. We went to the beach all the time growing up. It was our favorite place.”

“You grew up in St. Louis.”

“So?”

“What beach do you think you went to?”

C.L. is about to answer, when he realizes he doesn’t have one. No, he thinks, no, this is not right. He does remember everything about his time with Carole, how are these little details missing? He closes his eyes, and as he so often does, he loses the outside world to the sound of the tide, and the warmth of the sun and the sharp joy that is Carole’s laugh.

 When he opens his eyes, he and Carole are on the beach. They are alone. It’s midday on a perfect day, the sky is painted Egyptian blue, and not a single cloud to be seen. It’s suddenly too perfect. As he describes it out loud, he hears the artifice, like when a child makes up a lie in the heat of a moment, and it’s as see through as the pristine glass of The Treetop. He keeps describing it, nonetheless. The water sparkles in the sunlight, all deep blues and greens, and the crashing waves are as effervescent as champagne. The sand sparkles like crushed cream-colored diamonds, and perfect palm trees with cellophane fronds sway in the just right breeze. Nostalgia is one thing, and he’s not prone to it, but this feels more like treacle. It must be that memory is sweetened by tragedy. He sees Carole laughing. Something funny was always just happening, or had just happened. Her laugh was music.  He feels her hand, soft and warm. Her smile hits his chest with a tinge of something otherworldly. She is perfect. Too perfect. All this is out of a book, a fairy tale. All he can think is that he’s made it perfect to hide the awful, awful ending. He pulls her perfect hand to his face to kiss it gently. He closes his eyes, the smell of something sweet and brackish, a sweat and sand and sea and something soft, lavender.  He opens his eyes, and smiles. Her lotion smells like lavender. Her hand goes cold. She jumps to her feet. The boat’s waiting, she says,  last one there, she says, come on slow-poke. The sky darkens, the sea dulls, and the novelty of summer becomes the sleet grey of winter. Clouds appear, a chill in the air, the sand feels like broken glass on his feet as they rush toward the dock. She doesn’t turn to look at him, which is different, he thinks. She’s supposed to turn her head and smile at me, as I try to catch her.  The memory suddenly moves backwards. She’s running toward him, with her back to him, and he’s backwardly running away. They fall onto their blanket, he’s kissing her hand, his eyes close. Darkness.

He opens his eyes. The diner they used to sneak away to for chocolate malts and French fries, how unoriginal, he thinks. The lacquered tabletops and plush red booths reminded him of something from a time long lost, but not his own. He can’t taste the ice cream, but he can feel the cold like mushy ice cubes freezing the roof of his mouth. The ketchup on the fries is like mucous, no flavor just a thick, viscous gel. The music in the background indeterminate, like a million melodies of a million mediocre musicians. And they, sitting as if posing for some sentimental artist hoping to recapture his own youth through his subjects, shoulder to shoulder, sipping from the same fountain glass. He can hear her the sound of her, but no words. What did she say that day? Whatever day of the hundreds of days this was? Was it all of them? Was his mind melding every individual moment into this mess of abstract nothingness. What did she say? Do you love me? Will you run away with me?  What would you do without me? The absence of her was as big in his mind as if the sun stopped rising suddenly. How, he thought,  do people get over it. Do your eyes really adjust to that kind of darkness? He was lost in the curse of memory, but in what was now a washed and anodyne medley of nothing specific.  But the pain attached to it was so great that the searing heat in his chest was a permanent fixture to his days.

And then, he’s back at the beach, that last day, with the grey of a dropsical sky descending upon them as heavy as a lid. He chased Carole to the dock, where a few boats were tied. Carole jumped into one of the smaller ones, gloating that she was the victor of the race.  C.L. untied the boat from the dock, raised the sail, and off they went toward the drooping rays of the sun. They sat on the bow of the boat, with their feet dangling in the warm water, his arm around her, as they eyed the horizon hoping to catch the sun slowly drip into the sea. But the sky had turned dingy, the sea beneath them sloshing against the boat like dirty dishwater. The sunset was not to be, but that only proved an exciting challenge. Carole had a plan, god knows why. One of her virtues, he thought, was her spontaneous love of life. She stood up, resolutely readying herself for a dive off of the boat.

“What are you doing?” he asked.

“Would you save me if I started to drown?” she said with that grin on her face that implied more than mischief. That grin that kept him up nights.

“Of course, I would,” he responded belligerently.

“Prove it.” She said as she removed her shirt and plopped into the water like a stone. C.L. didn’t panic, he didn’t think much of it in fact. This was Carole. This was what she did. He got a little nervous when she started to swim away from the boat, but was calmed by her singing “Come Sail Away” at the top of her voice.

“Okay, that’s far enough,” he said leaning over the edge of the boat and waving her back in. He was still smiling as she dunked her head underwater, and splayed her legs into the air. He was still smiling when the whistling wind whistled a decibel higher. He was still smiling as the water started rocking the boat more and more.  He stopped smiling when he lost footing and slipped and fell. When he hit the ground, he heard thunder, and panic found him almost immediately. He could hear Carole laughing as he pulled himself to his feet. He could hear Carole laughing as he turned toward her, but it started to rain, and he couldn’t see her anymore. He could still hear Carole laughing as he threw the lifeline off the port side, and the wind carried it to starboard, and it landed with a splash on the opposite side of the boat. He thought Carole was laughing at the sight of the wind carrying the little inner-tube like a kite. And at some point, when he still thought she was laughing, it must have been that her laughter had turned to a panicked scream. He reeled in the life preserver. More rain, more thunder and now lightning. He couldn’t eye her in the water he didn’t know where to throw it. His heart was racing, he was screaming her name over and over again. He doesn’t know if it was the sound of nature, of the rain and the water hitting the boat, but soon the wind would take her screams, dissolve them into one high pitched wail.  Nature at her worst, a furious howl. The rain was falling in sheets so thick that it blinded him. He couldn’t even see the water now, save for the buckets of it that were pouring into the boat at his feet. The waves were intensifying quickly enough to nearly capsize him, and he held on. Why had he held on? Why didn’t he jump in after her? He never stopped screaming her name. Somehow he’s still there, still holding onto the small boat, and still screaming her name into the unforgiving blue-black Agony that had taken his only reason for living. When the storm relented and the dark world grew calm and silent and cold around him, he slid to the bottom of the boat, his eyes cast heavenward at the waning moon, and he drifted off into the night, hoping he would never be heard from again.

“When did you get back to shore?” he hears the man say, though his eyes are closed, and it seems like a trick question.

“What does it matter?”

“Do you have any memory of the Eros project?” the man asks. C.L. doesn’t care, and he shakes his head slowly to give the answer and the impression that he’s not interested in wherever this is going.

“Do you remember a Dr. White?”

“Why won’t you just leave me alone?”

“They really did a number on you.”

“I don’t know what that means.”

The man with the mustache nods quickly, and then reaches down into a small valise next to his legs on the ground, and pulls out a brown file. He opens the file and takes out a small bunch of papers. He rifles quickly through the packet of papers until he finds the page he’s looking for, sets in on the table, takes a breath and reads, “the subject has trouble discerning right from wrong. He often shows no guilt or remorse for his behavior. He lies and manipulates for his own gain. Both his mother and father have expressed worries bout his intense apathy.”  C.L. shakes his head again, and turns away from the man. He looks out the window, and stares at the thick brown tree branches, totally devoid of all life, cracked and useless, he thinks.  And then the smell again. It’s definitely lavender. The man with the mustache turns the page and scans it until he finds and reads the following, “Dr. White, your assigned psychiatrist, suggested that you were a prime candidate for the EROS project and you and your parents all signed the release. Is this your signature?” He shows C.L. a form with his signature on it, it’s definitely his signature, and C.L. tries to remember anything he can about EROS, or Dr. White. He comes up with nothing,

“Why don’t I remember any of that?” C.L., for the first time in a long time is curious. “What is the EROS Project?” The man takes the file back, closes it and sets in back in the valise. He then folds his hands on the table, and smiles. “The EROS project,” he begins, “was a government project meant to eliminate violent crime.”  The man pauses, C.L. reaches in his brain for something familiar, but it’s not there. The man continues, “test subjects, such as yourself, were given an experimental treatment that would serve as a kind of preventive medicine.”

“What do you mean,” C.L. starts, swallows slowly, and finishes, “such as myself?” The man waits a moment, and then reaches back to the valise and grabs a different folder. He holds the folder to his chest as he speaks, “It was a two-day procedure, developed by an army scientist, who specialized in a certain kind of combat training. He called it Wonderland.”

“Why Wonderland?”

“Because,” the man says, “it creates a fantastical alternative to reality.”

“So it’s brainwashing?”

“The scientist, along with dr. White, started using the technique to worked with terrorists to de-indoctrinate them if you will. He discovered a rather severe treatment that the government deemed worthy of trials on non-criminals. But on those who showed a high capacity for psychopathy. The Wonderland project soon became EROS.” When the man stopped talking, he started looking through the folder. C.L. was completely dumbfounded, he was pretty sure that this man had just told him that he is a psychopath. The man pulls a sheet of paper from the folder and reads it, “Empathy Rehabilitation Operating System, or EROS is a memory implantation meant to change the chemicals of the defunct brain in an effort to restore empathy.” The man looks up at C.L. who is shocked but riveted, so he keeps reading, “test subject M,” he motions to C.L. to let him know that’s him, “has been diagnosed by Dr. White with antisocial behavior and narcissistic personality disorder.  He also shows aptitude for cruelty, his mother brought him to Dr. White after she discovered that he had buried their cat alive.” The man looks up at C.L. once again. This time, C.L. is in total disbelief. His face gives away that he knows none of this, and he’s horrified to hear it.

“I buried a cat alive?” he asks in a broken whisper. “No, that can’t be. I would remember that.” The man quickly looks back down on the page and scans it for more information “How could I not remember that? Why would I do that? What are you telling me this for?!” C.L. slams his hands on the table, startling everyone in The Treetop, the man included. C.L.’s eyes scan the room and everyone is looking at him, after a long awkward silence, the man goes back to reading and the room goes back to normal.

“A young neighbor girl told your mother what you’d done. She said that you made her watch. That you forced her to watch as you put the cat into a plastic grocery bag, tied it, and then dug a hole in your back yard to-“  C.L. snaps “That’s enough!” He tries not to raise his voice, so as not to garner any attention, “I don’t want to hear anymore.”

“The young girl, the neighbor-“

“I said I don’t want to hear anymore.”

“Her name was Carole.”

C.L. sits upright and back into his chair, his eyes are wide. He slowly starts shaking his head, “no,” he whispers.

“She was very young,” the man says as C.L. continues to shake his head more and more vigorously. “No,” he says. a little louder.

“You must have been thinking about her when they…installed the memories.” C.L. can feel tears welling, the inside corners of his eyes feel hot, and he can’t quite catch his breath. He is still shaking his head, “No,” he says, “No, none of this makes any sense.”

“I know. Believe me, I do. You’re the not the first patient of Dr. White’s that I’ve found.”

“I don’t-what do you mean installed the memories?” C.L. has stopped shaking his head, and glares at the man waiting for a response. The man doesn’t know how to sugarcoat it, so he says it plainly, “Carole. Your memories of her. They’re not real. Carole doesn’t exist.”  In the silence that seemed to be punctuated, C.L. tries to imagine what this man’s motives could be for such an elaborate and cruel lie.

“I know this must be shocking,” the man says, “I do. But I promise you, that we at Lethe can help you.”

“Why should I believe you?” C.L. says, and his voice has an eerie calm to it. “Why should I believe a total stranger when he tells me that the only person I have ever loved is a figment of my imagination?”

“She’s not a figment, she’s proof.”

“Proof?”

“Yes.”

“Of what?”

“Your ability to love.” They both stare neither sure what to say next.

“My ability to love?”

“True sociopaths do not harbor the kinds of feelings you have for Carole. It’s awful, but the government thought if they could get psychopaths to love and lose someone then they could prevent them from killing others. Because they would know how it feels. That is the essence of empathy. When you think about it it’s a frighteningly small detail that stops people from murdering each other in the streets. I for one don’t sleep very well knowing the line between life and death is so fucking small.”

“They thought I was going to kill someone?” C.L. tries to remember anything he can, but all he gets are random details, specific nothings, and Carole. “Why can’t I remember anything but her?”

“One of the side effects of EROS is memory loss and dysfunction. The only real memories some subjects were able to retain were the false ones. Other memories tended to be reduced to strange and seemingly random details. The system does quite a number on your brain. But that’s where Lethe comes in.”

C.L. can’t imagine participating in anything this man is peddling. “You must think I’m crazy,” he says, “you must think I’m a fucking crazy person, if you think I’m just going to believe you.”

“We can get rid of the memories of Carole,” The man says as matter-of-factly as if he’d just ordered toast. “The government has approved and fast-tracked our extraction modality. We offer Legal and Ethical Targeted History Extraction, either real or artificial. PTSD is soon going to be a thing of the past. It is a state secret, of course, so I’m afraid now that I’ve told you, you don’t have a choice in the matter. The CIA is running LEHTE, and we can’t let any civilians have any knowledge of it.”

“I won’t remember anyway,” C.L. says, and he knows it true, which gives him some comfort. “I won’t remember any of this.

“Yes,” the man agrees, “but that’s not a chance we’re willing to take.” 

“Or you can just shoot me. I won’t resist.”

“I’m afraid not.”

C.L shakes his head calmly and takes a deep breath. “I’m not losing her again.”

“You won’t know that you ever knew her, because you didn’t. You can start your life all over.”

“But I’m a psychopath!”

“No, I told you, you were most likely misdiagnosed.”

“And that’s a chance you are willing to take?” C.L. is certain he’s got him on a technicality. “I barely have the will to live,” he says, “If you take her away from me, I don’t know what I’ll do. I don’t know who I would be. I’ll be nothing. I’ll be even less nothing than this? What’s less than this?”

“We’ll create a perfect environment, you’ll feel completely safe,” the man says to reassure him, “and then we’ll explain everything as we extract the memories. The only downside is you will have to relive her death. We don’t know how to remove it without targeting it completely and that means, you have to experience it. But then it will be gone.”

“Did you not hear me? I’m nothing without it,” C.L. says with more pity than he thought he possessed.

“Well, that’s the thing about trauma,” the man says, “it usually defines us.”

Then the man leans in to make his selling point, “I’m offering you the chance to literally wake up tomorrow and be free of pain. Yes, you may be a sociopath. That’s not for us to decide. Without your actions, we can’t just assume you to be. You have to have some say in your own life. That’s what free will is. Now, I don’t normally do this, but I can see that you are desperately wounded by the loss of this woman, fictional though she may be, so, I will walk away from here and let you carry on in your agony,  if you can give me one good reason why you should want to live with the memory of such pain.” The man sits back, fairly certain that his argument was a solid one. C.L. doesn’t know what he’s going to say, but he knows he’s going to say it. “Because,” he begins slowly, “I’d rather sit in this Treetop in implacable pain knowing I was loved. It may be that I can’t move. The world may hurt too much. But there is no world at all if you take her away from me. You can’t have her.”

“She’s not real.”

“She’s real enough.”

“And what if you remember this? What if you remember she’s not real?”

“I won’t. As soon as you leave, all of this goes with you. That’s how it works.”

The man looks at C.L. with a mistrustful glance, “how do you know that?” he asks.

“How do I know what?”

“How do you know you won’t remember this? How do you know how your memory loss works?”

“I don’t…I don’t understand.” C.L. says and he quickly becomes frightened. The man with the mustache stands up, and puts the hat back on his head and stands looming large over the small table C.L. is sitting at.

“How do you explain this café?” the man asks in a parental tone suggesting he already knows the answer. “What are you doing here, C.L.?”

“I’m having tea,” C.L. says, and he wants to sound certain, but it comes across weakly, though not as weak as the tea, he notices, as he begrudgingly swallows a big slug of it.

“And how did you get up here? C.L.?” The man stares down at him waiting for his response. C.L. closes his eyes, and he knows. And his heart sinks into the brine of his own despair. He feels the Treetop swaying in the breeze. He hears the murmuring of life around him. He sees Carole’s face, younger than he remembered, and he cannot recall where or how. One more time, he thinks, just one more time. And he opens his eyes and the world has gone white. And he knows the answer, “I climbed the stairs,” he says, and that’s that.

The Intruder

By Patrick Hurley

Some men are born posthumously, and only when the world has altered to their superior wisdom can it accommodate their genius. Such a man am I. And such a wisdom I now impart unto you. For I hold the greatest truth of life. I have lived in solitude for several lifetimes and have learned all I can. I have summited the mountain of wisdom, I have defeated the relic who lay claim to it, and I have extricated meaning from every drop of color in every aspect of all of life. And I have done so completely alone. What realizations, you may well ask, fuel the soul of the man who has defied nature? Who has lived in perfect condition for hundreds and hundreds of years? I had not thought to write anything down until this very day. And with lifetimes of knowledge, which can only be translated as truth, so says Socrates, I impart the truth unto you. What proceeds from this precedent recountal is an ending. As all stories must, so too will mine come to a sudden and permanent stop. That which I have learned is a detailed list that if enumerated would be long enough to prove unreadable. So, truths, unprovable by any living science, in order of their importance, I will lay out before you now.

I do not sleep, but each morning I open the faded curtains of the windows of my small cabin to greet the sunrise. I equally greet the sunset on its departure at the close of each day, and gently pull the curtains back across the glass, keeping the darkness safely indiscernible. For I am the daybreak, but also the dusk. We are, all of us, either day or night, dark or light, wise or ignorant, but it is only the truest of us that can be both, to exist in the magic twilight of immaculate dawn. This is the first truth.

How startled and solemn the sunset seems, when night, enamored with day, rises up to greet her, only to just brush against her cheek. Rejected day after day, he will not relent, for surely, after so many millennia, he must accept the cyclical inevitability of his own fate. The deep sadness that accompanies some knowing, makes the knowing gray. And so, it can be stated that sometimes not knowing is the better of the two worlds. If light is knowing, then surely, darkness is ignorance, and so it is when these two forces briefly touch that the universe reveals its secrets. At the moment of birth and the moment of death. We must pay most attention to these. Sunrise is the antithetical life to the melancholy death of sunset. For when else is nature furnished with such potential? When blackness is lost to the pastels of a new day. But this morning, the world slowly awoke not to the blush nor violet, but rather to a stone gray. Spoken with softer words, the subconscious is a sneaky devil. And when I peered through the sleet blackness, the chalkboard sky of new dawn,  it was then that I first saw him.

A man, the first of his kind I have seen in longer than I can remember. I have been found. He is too far to have any real discernible features. In fact all I could tell, from my liminal view was that he was a man of some medium build and undetermined but clearly middle-age. He was wearing thick clothing, dark and heavy. Standing in the clearing of trees directly in front of me, facing me. Was he challenging me? This is the answer that must be so. For if greater truth lives in those of us who experience more, and I have lived eternally, I have the higher ground of truth between us. Who are you, man creature of the forest? Weatherworn and haggard. The first other I have seen in so long I cannot recall. Locked in an ocular showdown, a spiritual stare-off, a current of electricity touching both, moving neither. Am I exposed? If this stirring is danger within me, it must be so. But which of us is predator and which is prey? I am reminded of how I came to this repose. Images of my former self appear in the glass before me. Faceless propagators of basest need, of hunger, and fear and lust, of retraction and reproach. So much of being human is being unsure. So much of certainty is not knowing. The images flood past, burnt out flashbulbs snapping one after another after another. So many eyes, and none of them seeing. But now, on this ashen morning, the inconceivable has happened, for there is little doubt that he sees me. Dark nights of my former life spew forth like the overflow of shook champagne, and with as much unreliable, however intoxicating belief. And words that I have read, not created, rush to greet the informal feeling of something like nostalgia. False lights that on men’s faces play, distorts them gruesomely. And they always say “I”, “I,” but to whom they are referring, they know not. This is why I sought the emptiness of this new world. The “I” I was could only be I alone. And yet there is us. The wondrous, impossible penetrability of the Unum. A paradox: “I” can only fully exist as the middle letter of unity. I sought refuge away from the bosom of my mother, the fists of my father, the madding crowd that seeks to recruit and reform you, and into the arms of my mirror self. But now I see all of what I once thought to be true, staring at me in the blurry face of this stranger.

We, the us that is born of subjugation, must see the world as misanthropes. Where deeds are aimed at our Achilles heels, and intent is as black as slavery. Now, in the gray light of midmorning, I stand strong against the stare of the intruder of my forest atop the mountain I claimed so long ago.  I am overwhelmed by his enmity, though no such betrayal can be glimpsed from this distance, I cannot see his face, I know why he has come.  We are caught together, an invisible thread from there to here, from him to me, from dark to light. An inversion is taking place, a reduction of my eternity, my deepest solitude laid threadbare in the vulnerability of his evanescent gaze. I will not relent. He has climbed this mountain to lay his claim to it. I recognize the insistence in his stance. But I will not relent.

Nothing is so firmly believed as what we least know. Faith is a kind of blind prophet perched in our souls. But who is leading who? Imperatives echo conviction, and imprison knowledge, save for when the conviction is righteous. Such demands for certainty will impede true knowledge. Another paradox. I strain to elucidate my inchoate imperative: I am truth. For it must be true that he who is true is clothed in the garments of authenticity of this claim. Knowing this, one must trust that the blind prophet of their soul will guide them without fail. When one is correct, as I am, one will instinctively surrender. Keats said beauty is truth, and vice versa, which is technically a tautology, but Keats died at twenty-five of tuberculosis so we should probably disregard his attraction to the aesthetic for what it was, youthful ideology. Still, if language was the sea of life, the allure of his verse I could swim laps in for all eternity. Oh, to be young again. But this is inauthentic. It is in the presence of another, of this stranger, that I have begun to long for thoughts that are not mine. I am falling backwards. I have come too far to relent. The book of my life is not complete, nor is it written by any hand but my own. But this is false. It is not my thought. Others ideas like poison is seeping back into the cracks between my thoughts. Our lives are only like books when the last sentence is written. And I have learned in my immortal solitude, that alas, our lives are not books. We are not so grand. They are mere sentences. And the punctuation at the end of the sentence that is your life, however labyrinthine, if you were able read ahead of time, could only be a question mark. Ink is permanent. The soul must not be. Time is not moving. It is fixed forever in one spot. This is the truth of my immortality. Have I lost my way in the dark? Has gray morning and this stranger’s sudden appearance taken wisdom away from me? What am I? I must remember.

I’m not young. I am eternal, a lapidary construction, I am the chrysoprase moss of the ancient coral reef. I cling to something greater. I have survived time. No, not survived. I have discovered time is not real, and the passing of it is only imperative if you refuse to see the truth. The herd will only watch the clock. Tick-tick, tick-tock, tick-tock. I have no herd. Having become immortal, I feel it my duty, nay, my obligation, from the reflection of my deepest solitude, to maintain my hold on this mountain, lest my truth is stolen. I see this intruder as all who wish to diminish my glory. I will hold the justice of history and of wisdom,  an order taller than Hyperion, older than Methuselah, as true as anything in nature. And I will not let him pass.  Histories contain wisdom, so said one of the Brontë sisters, and sometimes the kernel of wisdom that emerges from the husk of history is scarcely worth the effort of cracking it open in the first place. I find that the very center of my thesis, protecting the greatest truths of life from the enemies who seek to challenge it, makes the nutcracking well worth the centuries-long effort of revealing the meat.

How did I get here? It is only natural that you would ask. It started with a question. As things do. What am I? A conglomeration of others, of ancestors, of history, parents, grandparents, friends, lovers, strangers who have fueled feelings of animosity and lust and pity? Am I made of the city I was born in? The first sounds I heard? The first taste I swallowed? Of all the sunrises, and sunsets? The music I’ve heard that has enlightened, shaken, and unnerved me? The art that speaks a secret language that sometimes I also speak? Like an archeologist of words, of symbols, and of the sublime. The indescribable. Am I the ocean? The rivers? The lake I peed in when I was a boy? The fireflies on a muggy midwestern night, the smell of wet pavement, the creaking of a porch swing? The sound of my grandfather stirring his morning coffee? Fresh cut grass, bug repellent, and a campfire? My nose twitches when I smell wood burning. Is that happening now? Nostalgia is cradled gently in the smell of warm cinnamon bread and banana pancakes, and mom’s chocolate chip cookies. I am instantly displaced by the smell of burnt butter, and teary-eyed from onions and smoke and jasmine. The solace of bacon frying, of whole day roasts and turkeys on holidays blurred together as one long grievance. And sage, and pine, and bleach each hold their own sedimentary sentiment in the catalogue of my history. Whole days of rain and snow and that feeling of summer, of freedom. The smell of books, the library of my middle school years, of synapses whirling into the first idea of what is possible. The gravelly ground by the railroad tracks of my teenage years. The smell of diesel from the trucks on the highway near my youth. And coffee brewing. And the ink on the page of a notebook meant to contain instruction but instead rambles of my subconscious. An overpass under a scorching sun, barefoot and bleeding. Of the ten stitches I had in the bottom of my foot after jumping off a fence and landing on a broken Coke bottle. The feel of ice-cold dog shit squishing between my toes on the neighbor’s grass. And sliding down a snowy hill, sledding with my father. The stolen glance, the arousal inside of me. The need to feel with my hands the urge that starts a fire just south of my stomach, a region that I hadn’t considered before, an unexplored continent. The release of my first orgasm. The fantasy of all firsts. The shape of adolescence, and the desire, the deep, deep desire, like a foreign language I would learn whether I wanted to or not. The first time I saw the ocean, sparking my need to always return to that scent, that sound. The spectacle of vast symmetry, of blue and green and of everywhere. The first time I tasted saltwater when a wave crashed over me like an animal tackling me to the ground. The first time I cried because I had to go home. The first time I didn’t have a home to go to. All the places I’ve called home. Teachers who told me my answers were wrong. Teachers who changed the chemical conversations inside my brain, whose ideas electrified my synapses. And books and words and images that spoke greater truths than the invisible faith demanded by the invisible hand of an invisible ruling force. The first time I tasted crème brûlée. Secret kisses in darkened rooms. Of icy dread, and frozen terror. When death was something that didn’t just happen to other people, but lurked on every stoop, around every corner, haunting the dreams of every man that has ever lived. Prophetic loss carries tokens of future converts, manifests of emotion, striations, like ribbons of dread torn in bloody patches, entwined in the mephitic fingers of death himself. But these thoughts are not mine. My search for meaning dies always in the colloquium of the collective. I’m straying from the kernel, lost in the casing, the thickness of the shell, and I come up with nothing but the universal. So what am I? I recognize that I am too consumed with the false idea of universal truths. I must reject how others see the world and trust that my soul is the truest of all truths.

When I was a boy, I swam in the sea, fully clothed, beneath a graying canopy of protracted autumn. In even intervals of the rising tide, up and down, the horizon would extend and the shore disappear. For slight instances when I would ride over the backside of a wave, I was completely alone, an anomaly of earth-bound particles struggling to stay afloat a liquid galaxy. I can’t help but wonder, sometimes, if that sea still holds a piece of me. Did I leave something behind? Did the salt water exfoliate microscopic DNA that could somehow still prove to some scientist in some lab somewhere that once upon a time a small boy swam a little too far off shore in the October Atlantic? Surely, they must, for the sea on that day existed for no other purpose. Is that what I am?

When I was a schoolboy I learned nothing so much as the necessity of suppression. A knee-jerk reaction to the objective truth of obedience. I didn’t speak the right words, I didn’t assert the right versions of things, of myself, and how to survive became an act of mimicry. I was certain of my superiority, and of what ought to be, but I cloaked my veracity veraciously inside the cult of the herd. But I was immutable in my virtue. I acquiesced and even rescinded the high ground to the puppets of opined dogma whose versions of the truth, like a termite-infested dwelling could only, one day, eventually and totally collapse on itself. I just had to wait. So I sat alone, and I chastised my thoughts, and I moralized my desires. Friendless and without faith, I altered the path only I could wander, to better match the paths I so desperately wished were mine instead. I heard the nicknames, I felt the fists, I stayed on the ground feigning the position of beta, like the prey of some vicious dominant master. I ran, I didn’t walk. I laughed, I didn’t cry. I covered scars with lies, and learned how to speak in a voice I didn’t possess. I dropped the act of me until I was the me that could survive them. The very existence of those who oppose the righteous is only alive as proof of something false. When they rise in greater and greater numbers, they strike out only to prove their iniquity. They serve no other purpose. I knew this is what I wasn’t.

When I first became an adult, I dared to speak out against the voices of unreason that had filled my head with their poison. Knowledge was rooted in the fertile ground where truth should prosper. Had I begun to believe the lies of the everyman? In the darkest of nights, in the coldest of winters, between two isolated streets, tucked between towering brick walls, where every sound heightened the possibility of danger, I first used the fist of reproach. Animosity from an inherent place, from years of silent abuse, of violence against piety, a primal instinct unleashed, and tore into the flesh of a man who dared to tread the ground of virtue alongside me and raise an accusation of hate against me. Was I wrong? No. For it can only be the impious who may wrong their superior opposites. Which is what I am. Piety, like oxygen, goes into our bodies as one thing and comes out another. Both necessary to the continuation of beauty and truth, or as Keats might say, the interchangeable sameness of virtue. There is only one truth, and it is only knowable to the observer of injustice. So, I lashed out, at long last against the inhuman instinct of a group I will only refer to as “them.” The darkness deepens the memory, cloisters it in a kind of protective bubble that lives just outside myself.

It was a cold night. Tucked in the safety of easy street, a place I called home away from home. Lowly lit and patronized, the air filled with sweat and gin infused whispers, and suggestive bodies, and the faint drone of a Victrola turned too low. Illicitly providing a service that some deemed immoral, it was a place for us. The us that had been rejected by them. The them that had made the rules for themselves, as if we, the we that is us, didn’t even exist, or existed as something beneath the law. A quiet rebellion was brewing, and with it the resolve that in our victimization, we were just in our calls to resist. Resistance is the same as violence to someone on the other side of it. But is it not justified to burn the forewarned heretic? Self-defense is not the same as hate. On this night, this cold January night, I had lost the ability to overlook the indefensible affront to my kind any longer. He and his friends were drunk, as tourists tend to be, and though by the very nature of their appearance, I did not want to serve them, I did my duty. I tried to ignore the comments, I closed my eyes, grit my teeth and disengaged, until I could last no longer. A wayward hand, a threatening smirk, his inimical instincts overthrew my reason, and the last thing I remember, before feeling the contact with his skin was the dragging of him out into the cold unforgiving night.

I remember the squishiness of flesh, my hand moving with the momentum of my entire body. I remember the hardness of bone. The pain jolting through my hand. The sounds of shifting feet on asphalt, and a hollow crack like a firework. I felt the wetness of him, it sprayed like mist onto my face and neck. A spewing of his original sin, an excavation of spiritual cancer ridding itself from his crooked tongue, because I had exorcised it. I heard a crashing thud, the weight of him all at once. Though it was dark, and I couldn’t see them, I could sense the spectators were growing in numbers. They were baying for my blood. So, I ran. and I ran. And I ran. And ran.

I ran back to the mountain of my youth, where truth first revealed itself to me. And I summited the hidden trail I had taken years before, to the edge of the tree line, near the edge of the world. And it was in this place, in the mountain forest, deeply darkened by nature, above the mortal world, where my spiritual ancestors first laid their roots, that I came to find the beauty of stasis and immobility. It took me I know not how long to traverse the wild country to find the small cabin that my ancestors had built, in the deep green forest of time, verdant and permanent, the needle-sharp Kelly of an evergreen, a fortuitous glimpse of my imminent future. I closed in one moonlit midnight, with an angry mob in tow, unseen but very close behind. But I alone knew the path, and so they could not catch me.  I clambered up the steps of the porch, pushed open the heavy oak door, and in the first of several certainties that would follow the decades and decades of my insistent youth, I closed the door to the world outside, and began to finally live truth.

At first, I slept for days and days, and the dreams that accompanied my slumber sometimes seeped into the in-between world. I saw the faces of those that wished me harm, of the bellicose flock I knew to be circling just below my sanctuary. The path to the where I am is hidden, and so try as they might, they will always be too far down the mountain to ever find me. Or so I thought. Days turned to weeks with very little effort, and day and night could sometimes seem indiscernible as the thickness of the natural world shielded me. When I finally woke, I didn’t need to sleep again.

I midnight foraged, so as to not be seen. The blueberries I gathered, I placed in a small bowl and set in a cupboard to keep them cool and dry. When I was satisfied with a handful of them, I didn’t need to eat again. And as days proceeded, I forgot about the surplus berries in the cupboard. It would be at least a year before I opened the cupboard and, to my astonishment, found the perfectly preserved spheres waiting for me. Impossible, I thought. They were existing beyond what was physically possible. Physics being the basis of nearly all of the beliefs of the herd, perhaps was not immutable, I suddenly realized. What I see is truth, not what a mass of group minded drones sees. The facts were incrementally beginning to stack against logic. Since my arrival here, I have defied at least two rules of existence; I have not slept, and I have not eaten. And then the nature of eternal existence stared me in the face in the perfectly taut azure skins of a bowl of year-old blueberries. I cannot certify in any certitude as to the exact duration of time the berries were, in fact, locked in the cupboard, but it was longer than science can give reason to. The magic of the four walls that now encased me, began to reveal itself on that day. But it is not magic when it is reality. It is a greater truth than any man is willing to seek. After long hours of contemplative analysis, I opened the small kitchen window, and I scooped the berries from the bowl into the midmorning air. As gravity pulled them into her arms, so too did time, and in all his unforgiving sine qua non, drained at once the life from the small orbs, shriveling and contaminating them in the blink of an eye. By the time they touched the Earth, they were gray and rotted. It was when the breeze tickled my cheeks, that I felt the breath of time whispering into my ear that I was next. I shut the window, and have not considered returning to the outside again. At least not until now.  

Time has passed outside these walls, but inside, I am untouched, unburdened, as fresh as the day I found my salvation. All remnants of mortal vassalage evaporated long ago. I need not sleep, nor eat, nor lust after the cheap pleasures of distraction, and above all, I needn’t seek god. I am a god unto myself. As all man was created to be. Man invented God as a means of worshipping himself. I have simply cut out the middle man. What else should anyone need but the wisdom of his own truth? What seemed impossible in my first youth, now the very foundation on which my beliefs are built. If I see it, it must be so. This is the truest truth of all. And in truth, I do not see as much as you might expect. There is a divine simplicity in the absence of time. Though the day and night repeat in cycle, as nature dictates, there is no succession, no accumulation, only euphony, the melody of fealty. Faith is truth and truth a kind of faith, syllogisms have to go both ways, hence, the dialectic that what I believe is what is true must also be true because I believe it. When the galaxy of what you would call time encircles you, as it has for me these past centuries, it is impossible not to create a self-philosophy. And in the absence of scientific time, there can be no subjective ought, only cold hard is. It is true, however, that, for the most part, I have found myself lost in a crevice of stillness. I have seen dust form on the edges of sills, a painted wall slowly suppurates, like an infected wound forming scabs and blisters, and only from enduring its own existence. This is the cruelty of all of life. White lace curtains yellow with antiquity, and the spines of books turn brittle and abraded. My sanctuary takes on the burden of time, but I am exempt. Where the world decays, my certainty prospers, the rose of my faith effloresces in my senescent soul.  I am a butterfly that has lost its quiescent tribe, and so has come to immortality without fanfare, without the crucial ingredient of being seen. But doesn’t this explain my seclusion? Much like the butterfly, who are solitary in their daylit flights, yet sleep in groups of hundreds. They may fly solo, but when the world is most dangerous they acquiesce to the tribe. This I do not want to do. This stranger has appeared to challenge all of my truths. I will face this challenge and act to substantiate my greater wisdom. Thus, in my final act, I shall prove myself deific in an Empedoclean leap of faith. As a martyr of real truth.

Though he is not encroaching nor relenting, the stranger is, nevertheless, still there with the breath of a new day. We have been staring for at least twenty-four hours. I try to see past the distance between us. His posture is that of a victim. He is hunched, he is belittled in his corporeal presentiment. A picture is worth some set amount of words, but a still life is more than just a picture. Representation is more than the totality of one life or two, it is the hand of reason reaching out to cradle, to shelter an entire people from a blurry archetype, from a poisoned version of the truth. Is that who this man is? Not a man at all, but a whole group of men? I stammer through the fog of my own charity only to discover the small kernel of what feels like pity. I daren’t avert my eyes, lest he will seize the virtuous high ground. And the comparison to my own discovery of truth is suddenly brought back to my conscious mind.  

I was eighteen, freshly matured, with a sense of the world I had neatly folded up and put into my back pocket. It was the morning after my eighteenth year began. I woke before the sun. I dressed as quickly as I could, grabbed only what I would need for the climb, I slipped into my boots, and headed for the mountain. At first, it was all trees and rocks, with the icy waters of winter melted into the rushing river dividing the terrain. The incline began almost immediately, and did not relent. The trailhead twisted and turned in an epically Homeric fashion. Birds of prey perched just above the rocky path that wound razor-blade thin alongside the edge of the world. Halfway up the thinnest of paths, the trail turned toward the outer edge of the mountain and I was left face to face with the wide-open vista of the outstretched Earth below. Patches of land demarcated like squares on a telluric quilt, and seemingly random bursts of color, of reds, of greens and browns scattered like fallen autumnal foliage. I ascended a little farther toward a stretch of clouds that were hanging down, touching the trail. The feel of mist tickled my face, and my eyes cast down to the ground to keep sight of the terrain beneath my feet, and of the impossible dropping off of the world only inches away. Something in the calm air changed, a moisture rose up from some eternal place, and from this height, clouds enshrined the whole side of the mountain.

The world suddenly wrapped in gauze, a cloud seemed to land right on the trail, like a vaporous marshmallow befogging the world.  I stopped midstride, heavy in breath, and heavier still in apprehension. I could hear the rustling of tree branches, the gentlest of breezes, the whirring of the massive cotton billows that muted the universe. I reached my hand toward the mountainside, and felt the cold permanence of the rock. I felt my way along the face of the mountain, until I saw the shape of a man only a few feet in front of me. I stopped, and to his silhouette I spoke.

“Good morning,” I said affably.

“Why have you come up this mountain?” his voice gravelly and soft at once, “did you not know of the dangers?”  The white swirled around me, and I saw the impending dark gray of the clouds just on the horizon of my vision.

“You must turn around,” he said, “for I cannot let you pass.” This to me was preposterous, for, by the sound of his aged voice, I would most assuredly be the stronger of the two. I say with no small amount of arrogance that he cannot stop me.

“What you will find on this mountain,” he says slowly, “will make all of the rest of your life completely unbearable.” Had I not been so indignant, I may have been intrigued. I said something like, “I don’t really care.” Still shrouded in a diaphanous haze, as the voice of some kind of god, he continued, “It is a paradox. Shall I tell it?” We stood in the silence of the imposing blur. I wasn’t sure if he was asking me a question, or playing a trick on me. Either way, I was completely stuck.

“You have been instructed,” he began, “by the creation of a perception handed down to you by those you claim as your own.” He inched a bit closer, I could hear the gravel beneath him crackle with his subtle steps. I stayed immobile. He continued, “And now what you see is determined by the creation of how others told you to see it.” He inches even closer. “And so now you have to decide, how much of what is true is actually false.” I can almost make out his face, but it is a blur, like a picture out of focus. “Above this nebula of obscure homogeneity, this clouded abyss lies the clearest view of the world, there is more to be seen at once than your mind can invent in a lifetime.”

            “That is what I came looking for,” I say determined to match his ominously wizened tone. His chuckle is at once condescending and genuine, and he says, “It is not as simple as a desire. That which you seek, being so great a vantage point must come with a heavy, heavy, price.” Again, he inches closer, this time, I take a step back. I’m suddenly filled with the sensation of falling, and the whiteness disorients and dizzies me.

“I can’t just let you go up there,” his menacing tone wreaking havoc on my newly discovered awareness of vertigo. I grip the solid wall of rock next to me, and turn slightly away from him. I can hear his footing as he steps again closer to me, and says, “herein lies a dilemma: only one of us may reach the top of this mountain, and I am already there. You have a choice, submit to my greater will, or turn around.”  Leaning back on the cold rock, I felt a flush of heat across my face. Why should I think myself less than any other? Why should I be obsequious to one who claims to have a greater knowledge of this mountain? The latter question seemed to answer itself, but my indignation was anything but stifled.

“I will find my own way,” I said, and then, “I need no help from you.”  After a moment of stillness, amid the cawing of a distant bird, he said, “I, and I alone, know the path to the summit. Would you fall to your death to satisfy your pride?

“Will you not give me directions?” it was then his stride increased, and I saw his face. I recognized the philosopher as soon as I saw him. I would know his face anywhere, and even here in some other worldly realm, the madness of his legend still lives in his wild glare. His fixated stare haunts me to this day.  He moved close to my face to tell me that there are no directions to the top of this mountain. He told me that if I were authentic, I wouldn’t have traversed the treacherous trail, but would have instead gone the gentle way. He then told me that he would lead me to the top, but that I would only be able to see the view he created for me. That anyone who does not climb alone, can only share what someone else already sees. I told him this was impossible. I told him he was a crazy old man. He began to seethe with rage, foaming at the corners of his mouth, his eyes ignited by a fire of unreason. He told me that to think myself as one was the earthliest of all sins. “You are not one!” he grabbed me by the collar and pulled me toward the edge of the mountain. Scrambling to grab hold of the rock behind me, I could feel my feet sliding as if the gravel were as slick as ice. Again, he stops moving and pushes his face close to mine, “You will try to change my view?” My face trembles with fear, my hands are gripping his hands gripping me. “You must go back down! You cannot seek to claim what you cannot understand! Leave me to my mountaintop or I will throw you from it!” It was then he jerked me forward, and I lost hold of the mountain. A whip of wind across my face as he spins me with my back to the edge of the world. He is gripping my shirt, I fear, not tightly enough as he pushes me back toward the void. When he stops, I can feel the vacant space just behind me, I am dangling at the edge of the path, over the edge of the world.

“Vainglory,” he spits his words, “Vainglorious bastard!” He begins to shake from the distress of keeping our collective balance. He tells me that I am not special, that I am no different than a grain of sand on a shore that stretches on for eternity. “The smallest speck that makes up the cells that make up you, is larger to your being than all of your being is to the universe.”  He keeps screaming that I am nothing. That he has seen the end of my kind, and it is in our collective delusion of some inflated self he keeps calling “The Vanished People.”  I hold onto his arms, in what I am sure is a futile attempt to keep from letting gravity seize us both. Before I gain enough strength to overpower his ancient grasp, he tells me that he has seen the end of me.

“Villain,” he bellows at extended length, as if he’s throwing the word into the valley beneath our feet. It was then, I was able to find my footing, and twist in such a way as to reverse our positioning and with all of the weight of my body I shove the old philosopher off the mountain. He falls backward and grasps hold of the edge, barely suspended by the tips of his fingers, so that his eyes just jut above the ground. Out of breath, and lying on the trail facing him, we are still eye to eye. Before he falls to his oblivion, he says, “You cannot see.” He strains, he pulls himself just high enough for his lips to reach above the rock, “you will never see.” He smiled, and with a deep kind of satisfaction he let go of the mountain, and disappeared.  Vanished into the soft white nothing. Relinquishing his place on my mountain.

I will never see. I say this out loud, but I know the man in the woods cannot hear me. But something in the vulnerable expression of my entire being must be communicating to him through the empty space that distances us, past the glass that separates us, for just as I say these words, he nods. And at once the glass, the distance, the antipathy vanishes like the old philosopher off the side of the ancient cliff. Is there a more perfect moment two human beings have ever shared? It is not apathy, nor is it its opposite, for there are no stakes that fuel our coexistence, only just this. A moment where neither is anything but the thing he is. He cannot see what I see. He will never see it. And with that, he raises a hand, a gentlest of greetings, but also a kind of surrender. He nods again, turns his back to me and disappears into the thick green ever after.

Now it is my turn. I will explain to you, as it happens, and in doing so, will reveal the meaning of all of life. I have no business left to attend. No goals to accomplish. Every nuance of every daily chore has been wrung as dry as a desert stone. I could stay, I think, I could stay and learn more. I could make the duty of menial tasks as beautiful as any work of art. But I no longer know how. In these my last moments, I am suddenly overwhelmed with sadness of all I have not seen, nor will ever see. It is true that this stranger will never see what I see, but what of the things, the infinite number of things I will never see? Winged Victory blanched by time, by her very survival still seemingly mid-stride against a faceless enemy. The goliaths of Giza, monuments of time touching history to the modern world. The ceilings of Rome, and all the tearstained floors beneath them, wrung from the eyes of all who have gazed upward at them, like the invented deities of a bygone people. What monoliths humans have rendered. How much I do not know. What does it smell like on the mouth of the Dead Sea? What textures in a handful of the Amazon? The chimes of Notre Dame? The caw of some exotic island bird. The tick of Big Ben. The cacophony of a street bizarre. And the touch of rare silk. And the taste of foreign fruit. The buzz of the watery ascent of the Hungarian mayfly. My mind is greater than any one of these, and yet the totality of their absence outweighs any idea I might hold. The shelter of my certainty has collapsed. I will seek the man that had sought me, and I will tell him the certainty that was once imparted unto me and you and all who come hereafter. I was truth. I was certain. I was alone. I was able to see what you could not. But unwilling to believe the same.

I place my ageless hand upon the door, and with so gentle a pull, no more than a nudge, I open it. How easy a titanic decision can be. I smell the dawn- it is new, damp and green. Oxygen overflows into my nostrils, my eyes water, my knees quake. I step my foot outside, and it is with great hope that my other foot will follow.  And it is with even greater hope, and maybe something bigger that I shut the door behind me, and I leave the place I never dreamed I could leave. And in my first external breath in so long a time I do not remember, taking in the world I thought I’d lost, the thought fills my head, covers the morning…

I do not know which way to go.