story by idio
He has the marks of a traveller: a long gaze, a twitch like he might need to get out of the way of something, a stained, greasy swollenness under his eyes. He does not know where he is right now. Sometimes this happens, and when it does there is a secret delight that plays about the vesicles of his middle back. He can live off this delight when it comes, sipping it lightly for some time.
He’s ventured into new territory and it brings him to a sand beach. There is a wide glade of tall grass running headlong down the cardioid field of his vision. Breakers sound and turn in their echo. Gulls cry. There is a woman sitting on a dune looking out to the ocean not very far from him. She’s looking through him, but he’s sure that she is aware of his presence.
Walking toward her, but keeping his distance, he calls out, “Are you from around here?”
Without any change in her position she says, “No, are you?”
“Well, no,” shouting over the surf. “I’m not even sure how I got here. I have a map but apparently things have changed since it was made. My name is A’naf.”
She motions him closer. When he’s come to within a conversation’s length, he stops to take her in. She is a slight woman in a caftan hoodie sitting on her haunches, hands on her thighs, sandals neatly arranged. He can see her mouth and angular jaw coming out from of the shade of the hood in the strong afternoon sun.
She says, “There’s no slow way of telling you this A’naf, so I’ll just say it. I am your death.”
“Hm.” His eyes hunker down into his sockets. “Really?” He scans for weapons and other signs of malice.
She hasn’t moved other than to move her lips. “You might say I am that part of you that can see the ocean.”
“Sounds appropriate, even poetic,” he offers.
“I’m not here to take you away or anything.” She lingers. “Anyway it’s not like I take you anywhere really. You simply become me,” pausing. “Or I simply become you. It’s hard to tell, as there’ll be nobody left to do the telling. At any rate, it’s not time.” A’naf makes a deep throaty sound, and she asks, “Do you see that ship out there?”
He does not turn.
“Well anyway it’s been looking ominous there for some time.” She then says, “I didn’t think that you were going to get here.”
“I didn’t think that you were here to be gotten to,” he says scrying her more closely.
“I look beautiful now, no?” Pulling back her hoodie, she turns to look at him. It’s not so much a look as a glance. She smiles quickly and turns back to the ocean. Her Asian-black hair blows up behind her, and with a quick graceful gesture she ties it all in a knot on the top of her head. Her features are wide and cut with fineness. Her lips are peaked with the slope of a French curve, her cheeks the gentle rise of the Mongolian steppe.
“It’s a big moment for me too actually,” she says. “I’m told most do not meet their death until much later.” She raises her eyebrows. “Some advice? When it comes time for the ocean, to actually get in, when it comes time for us as I was saying, just take your clothes off and get right in,” she says.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” asks A’naf, sensing, perhaps, a come-on vibe.
“Are you ready for that?” she answers.
“Who are you?”
“I am your death. I told you that already.”
A’naf sees that the woman is no immediate danger to him, and he is, indeed, somehow attracted to her. At any rate, he wants to hear what she has to say. He realizes that such things do happen, that such conversations are written in the book of the possible. The veil has been lifted more than a few times on the lines of that book. He has peered into the sucking emptiness of it. He wants this situation. He is, after all, a traveller.
“Okay, I accept you for what you’re saying.” He narrows his gaze. “I’ve cooked enough in this sun today. I’ve been cooked enough to play the cards as they come.” He pauses to hear his words. “What shall I call you?”
“You needn’t call me anything.”
He wants to come at the question again from a different angle, but rolls his lips instead.
Her tone changes, “The middle is disappearing. The middle is always disappearing, of course, but people often don’t see that. We’re on a peninsula here, an isthmus between two oceans. Soon it will be one ocean. They’ll come to meet. The land is shrinking.”
“I’d like to say that’s helpful. Where’s the other ocean? In my mind?” A’naf asks with some bluff.
“Come and sit, A’naf. Really that was very kind of you earlier, giving me my distance, letting me know that you were not a threat. Anyway, come and sit.”
When A’naf is sitting beside her, he sees that there is no ship and says, “No ship.”
She responds with, “No ship. Just checking for stray curiosity.”
In some places and times A’naf might be sitting trying to figure this whole situation out, this situation of him sitting with his death just now. Yet, he is looking out to the ocean and simply taking in the curious strange sensation of sitting with his death. He knows it may well be a fiction. After all, where are the facts? She’s a woman on a beach talking mysteriously, and he’s the kind of sucker that falls for such things. She might be an escapee from a local institution. For that matter, he might be an escapee from a local institution. Nevertheless, as near as he can tell, she is playing all of the cards.
They sit for a long moment in the gaze of the ocean. He begins to feel a pain, not a body pain, but a feeling pain. His mind flashes to moments of bald stupidity: things he said that he needn’t have, moments of being caught out beside himself, the stupidity of private fixations and lies told and untold. All of this balls up in his gut, his collected stupidity. The failure to see and be in the same moment curses him. It bursts up like something he may well puke out. He finds his breathing and swallows a salty mouthful of air.
“Hmm,” she offers philosophically, “don’t you find that we so often take responsibility for things that are not really ours? We find it so hard to see without getting caught up in the seeing. The wise person is wise enough to see that he’s riding a donkey, although many times the donkey is smart enough to see that it is riding him.”
He grits his teeth. “You said earlier that you are my death,” he manages.
“So you’re not death in general,” he wonders.
“All of a sudden you’re sitting with me, and really starting to have a good conversation, and you’re wondering whether that’s enough?”
“Yes, I am.”
“Better now than never,” she smiles. She looks at A’naf a long while. “This is all well and good, but I need to tell you that soon you may find yourself somewhere else, starring at the shadows on another ceiling,” she gestures to the sky. “You may find yourself in a beautiful house, with a beautiful wife, and you may ask yourself — well…how did I get here?” She pauses. “Letting the days go by. Let the water hold me down.” Gesturing to the ocean. “Letting the days go by. Water flowing underground, into the blue again, after the money’s gone, once in a lifetime, water flowing underground.”
Laughing, A’naf says “My death knows Talking Heads. That’s perfect.”
She turns to him and with a candid purse of her lips says, “Why not? I know everything that you know,” she pauses to catch his eye, “plus I know much that you don’t know.” She laughs now too, and says, “But really A’naf, I’m not here to mess with you.”
A’naf is getting that puking sensation again. Though he cannot quite picture it, nevertheless he feels the truth of who she is.
She continues, “The ocean is here. All of the underground water is flowing here,” she points with her chin. Her voice catches when she says this. A’naf gets a sharp pain in his side. She says, “This is a peninsula, an isthmus. The ocean is coming in from both sides. The land is shrinking.”
The wind blows a strand of her hair over her face. “Say listen, there’s a beautiful walk over the dunes there. She motions over her right shoulder. It might be just the thing for you. I have to say, you’re looking a little pukey.”
He catches her eye. She is my death. Instinctively he kisses her hand. It is cold. A shiver falls into his depths.
“Now you know,” she says.
They part. He walks up and over and through the tufts of grass pawing at his clothes. There is a line of trees not far, and he finds a way through to them. The sound of the ocean fades. There are songbirds singing. They sing so high that they clear a path directly into the coolness of the upper octaves of the atmosphere. The lightness in his head congeals into a slow pulse, like a hand clenching and relaxing, clenching and relaxing. He can sense animals in the brush. There is nothing to stop him, and so he moves on. He finds a path and walks for a long while through the trees.
Suddenly, there is a buffeting of the air, a quick pulse of pressure, then the distant sound of waves flows into the sphere of his awareness. There is the musk of salt water. The path carries him along.
Coming out from the woods, he is back among dunes and grass. Climbing to the top of a nearby dune, he looks out over a large body of water breaking in pulses on the beach. Has he walked in a circle?
It is an isthmus between two oceans.
It is late afternoon now. Not far down the beach the inky structures of a seaside amusement park rise out of the mist, obscure and rare, like the fleeting evidence of life on other planets. As if on cue, the lights on the big Ferris wheel come up. In his mind’s eye there is a greasy carnie with a sideways grin, hand on the stick, ratcheting it up. The idea of seeing people at the amusement park amuses him, here in this place where he sat with his death not long ago as a beautiful woman by his side. He picks up his pace.
Coming into a small cluster of houses he sees they are well kept. It is old suburbia, a dream of the future etched in yards and murmurs. People sit out on the front steps in the early evening keeping company with the twilight. A woman in blue jeans calls out to him and waves. People know him here, and he feels like a returning hero. There is the smell of dinner cooking, corn on the boil.
He cannot stop to eat. His feet are carrying him somewhere, and he simply cannot stop. He’s a train passing through with a dopler-note of longing. He leaves the cluster of houses walking toward the entrance to the park. The big wheel rises out of a jumble of signs, turning like someone stopping to think mid-sentence.
He walks into a parking lot. There is one car, in the corner. It looks like it has been bombed out. He’s not sure. Something is wrong. He runs in panic through long shadows. The doors have been blown off. The paint is charred. The windows are cracked and sagging. A moment of recognition. It is his car. What is my car doing here? The computer in the trunk is nothing but a blackened shell. All of his data is gone. His data is gone. He does not remember leaving it here.
Suddenly it is as if he is lost in the middle of the ocean with no land in sight. There is no one but himself and the unfathomable depths beneath him. There is no one but himself, and he is shrinking.
He narrows his eyes to the charred bits and then widens them to the gaping mouth where the trunk once was. Why this? Why this? Where will he go? What can he do? It’s more than the car. Much more. The grief of it cuts his legs out from under him. He falls to the pavement in a shudder.
After a long while of trying to remember, of trying to remember himself in bits and pieces, he hears the birdsong again like a prayer. He follows the overtones up into the blue again. Slowly getting to his feet, he walks toward the carnival gate.
There are a few carnie people around. No one notices him overly. Setting up or tearing down, he cannot tell. A man behind a coin-toss game sits with a guitar playing the blues. A young woman in a velveteen bodice looks like she must be on her way to the beer garden. An enormous man in a Nehru jacket and goatee beard stamps vouchers. And there he is, the greasy carnie at the base of the big wheel. He is brilliantly tattooed in the Irezumi style. Gesturing with a quick chin, the carnie wants a ticket. A’naf has no ticket. Reaching into his pocket nevertheless, he finds a playing card. It is the three of hearts. The carnie nods as he takes it. A’naf is the only rider. He asks the carnie his name. It is Stewart. The Ferris-wheel man is named Stewart.
He reaches the top of the first go round. Suddenly he finds his body beneath him and sinks deeper into the seat. He’s just in time to see the sun sinking into the ocean, the other ocean, a good distance across the strip of land. The gondola then comes down into the coolness of the trees. A’naf calls out to Stewart to ask whether he can slow it down. The big wheel tumbles into a gentle swirl. A’naf exhales. The big wheel climbs out of the trees and into the night above. He calls out to thank Stewart.
Just as A’naf reaches the top, the big wheel bumps to a stop. In just these few moments, the sun has dipped below the horizon. He relaxes back into the seat and looks up to the stars coming out of the falling light. Are they the signposts of higher intelligence or are they the ceiling lights in an apparently vast theatre? He clears his mind and becomes watchful over it. The only thing he lets in is the air and after a while he even holds onto this. He drifts and falls away from himself.
* * *
He is back in his room releasing his breath. Where did he go? The meditation is over and a fine thread of experience lingers in the room, though his mind is blank. It is the presence of something cool and familiar, though with the taste of a foreign land. Some new contact has been made in the wires and fibers of his body that is not entirely clear to him. He is wearing a hoodie sitting on his haunches, hands on his thighs, house sandals neatly arranged. He sits on his haunches as if he is sitting atop the big wheel of life surveying the land between the moments of time, the land from which time comes. Strange. A torrent of energy rushes up and down his spine and he shivers with its flow. In the pit of his gut he feels that death is not far, it is so not far that it is close, very close, even living within him. He cannot reconcile this into a clear thought and he wonders at the incongruity of the impression.
There is a gentle knock on the door, “Stewart?” his wife calls softly. “I’m going to bed now.”
“Yes, I’m coming soon sweet,” he responds.