The Wastes

There were very few things David feared at his tender age. The tales of the Great Mother had instilled in him the courage and foolishness to disregard fear as a coward’s tool. There was no fear in the story of Rogan the Red Faced, whose temper contained a heat so fierce it could make the ice melt. There was no hesitation in Aleouac’s fable, whose strength was so great and her warmth so intense that she pierced the sky with the tip of her spear, allowing the long-forgotten Sun to shine one last time over the war-torn clans. Such was the beauty of its light, the power of its glow, that it extinguished the fires of war in the hearts of men and rekindled the flame of kinship and unity, as everyone wept at the idiocy of war and embraced one another like brothers and sisters.

            Once, when the clan was asleep and the cave was alive with the sound of a thousand quiet breaths, David went to find the Wall of Thoughts on his own. He wanted to study the alluring shapes on its surface, rest his hand on the dents of the stone and decipher its secret meanings. But when he was crossing the Chamber of Echoes, he realised how cold and silent it was, how far away the walls were from each other and scurried out of the room, following the comforting night-whispers of the clan back to the common chamber. It was only when he was back within the warm hurdle of the clan, right before falling asleep in the hollow of his mother’s arms, that David wondered about the strange feeling that had turned his stomach into a knot and made him walk faster than he would openly admit, and it occurred to him that it might have been the beginning of something akin to fear.

It was not until he saw the Frozen Wastes, ten years after having been poured into the world from the great dark by his first mother, that David experienced fear for the first time in his life. As soon as he set foot on the unfamiliar hardness of the icy surface, his first impulse was to run. Run back to the cave, away from the unnatural cold that bit through his furs and plunged its fangs into its confused skin, back to the embracing comfort of the clan. But when he saw James standing tall right behind him like an impassable wall, David understood that there was no way back. Turning his head towards the impossible vastness that were the Wastes, he felt the sudden urge to drop to the ground, to find the deepest crack on the ice and bury himself there.

Yet, David turned his back towards his first father and faced the Wastes.

Up until that moment, his world had been composed of several shades of brown and grey and many gradients between hard, soft and harsh. His hands knew of the smoothness of the cave walls, of the rough patches and odd dents in the Wall of Thoughts. There was a lifetime of touch and warmth beneath his skin, a layered universe of sensations and stimuli that told him who he was and where he belonged to. He was David, one of the Oikumen, inheritors of the Ice and the Earth, and the cave was his home. For as long as he could remember, that thought had been the pillar that held his mind together, the fundamental truth around which the walls of his inner cave had grown and expanded with thoughts and secrets of his own making, as he listened to the stories of the Great Mother and learnt from his mothers and fathers.

When David stepped into the Wastes, the pillar broke. There was no audible crack or sudden collapse, no broken stone or shattered walls. His mind remained structurally intact, yet something had changed. “The world is a cave without walls”, Janira used to say. He had always dismissed the thought as a quaint saying from the stories of old, because how could one even imagine such a thing? But as his eyes failed to process the surreal landscape before them, the small thing that had slipped into the stony chambers of his mind-cave became suddenly noticeable. There was a new echo within the halls of his cave, something subtle, lighter than a whisper. Yet, when David tried to listen to what it was saying, he could hear nothing. Nothing. That was it. The world was not a cave. It might have been long ago, but the only thing that now remained was an endlessly stretching space filled with the thresholds of bending arches long extinct and the hungry hollows of forgotten chambers left behind by walls turned to dust. Nothing. And it was now within him. Like the whispers of the Great Mother, this unfamiliar presence carried with it a story of its own. But the portrait it painted was not of great deeds and wise parables. As this new story told itself, it borrowed the walls within his mind cave, eating away at the ones that were already there. Eating away at him and all the names that came before him.

When David finally understood, it was already too late. He tried to cling to the names of the great warriors of old, to invoke the warmth of the clan with the secret words that he had learnt from the Wall of Thoughts. But as he tried to recall the faces of those he loved, he found that they were leaving him, as were their names and all that had come with them, until the cold filled everything he was and the only thing that was left for him was the frozen white of the eternal Wastes.

It was the voice of his father that brought him back. As soon as he felt James’s hand on his shoulder, David remembered. Through the spiteful cold and the monstrous stillness of the Wastes, through the thick furs and the old leather of his lamellar armour, David felt the warmth of all his brothers and sisters, as if the hand of his father carried not only its own weight and meaning, but also the fierce determination of Rogan’s temper and the flaming strength of Aleouac’s courage.

Thus, David took a step into the Wastes and then another, as the warmth exiled the cold from his body, as the names and faces of the clan flooded back to the halls of his mind. Yet, somewhere within the depths of his mind-cave, a wall remained to be claimed. It was a wall not unlike the rest, as it also told a story. Or rather, the beginning of one. It was the story of nothing. And it would stay with him for the rest of his life.

The Cave

The first thing David ever felt was the cold, hard surface of stone. His first memories hosted no hint or trace of the warmth and comfort that were to fill his later years, but only the blind bluntness of naked rock against soft skin. The second thing David remembered was a voice, a delicate melody soothing and taunting him with the sound of what he would later call hope, as he groped and cried in the dark of the cave. The third, perhaps more compelling feeling David ever experienced was that of all-encompassing warmth, as he was passed along the arms of the clan and words of comfort and welcome were gently dropped into his ears by the people he would learn to call family.

            Years later, in the brutal cold of the Frozen Wastes, under the imposing weight of an unforgiving sky, David would often recall that moment of near peace, summoning the warmths he had learned to love and name through the cycles, humming the melody he had always remembered but never really learned, as the comfort of the clan filled his body and eased his mind.

            There was Janira’s warmth, calming and reassuring, an anchor to the world and himself. Although all the women in the clan that had ever given birth were his mothers, Janira was the one to pour him from the great dark into this world. From her, David learnt to find strength in compassion, to draw a circle big enough to embrace the whole clan in the arms of his mind, to feel their warmth as if it was his own. She also taught him the history of the world beneath the ice, back when the gods walked the earth and there was still earth to be walked on.

            There was also James’s warmth, silent and distant, never too obvious yet always there, like the faint glow of smouldering ember. From all his fathers David learned many great things about the world, such as the meanings of the different brightnesses of the great cloud that was the sky or the words spoken both by the mouth and the body. But James was the one to pull him from the dark into this world, and from him he had learnt about the Frozen Wastes and its lurking predators, as well as how to defeat them in combat, and for that he was grateful.

            Zenobia’s warmth was of another kind. It started like a familiar comfort not unlike the one he felt amongst his brothers and sisters, until one night, sitting together on the Chamber of Echoes as they listened to the tales of the Great Mother, David discovered a newfound warmth in Zenobia’s smile that stuck in his mind like a feverish thought. It was after one of these tales that she took him against the hard surface of the Wall of Thoughts, their warmths tearing ravenously at each other like the fabled Sun had done with the heat of the world uncountable cycles ago.

            And in all those memories, with their many corners and turns, their high ceilings and low archs, their comforting surfaces and unnerving hollows, the walls of the cave stood like a quiet witness to their unfolding lives. It was there that David had learnt to look at each of his brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers, as if the warmth in their eyes and hearts was worth protecting with his own life. For they were the Oikumen, one of the last remnants of a world now buried in ice, inheritors of the ice and the earth, and that was their home.

The Fiction of Distance

Dear sister,

I am writing to you with the hopes that this letter will reach you before Spring is over. The weather here is harsher than in the stories father used to tell us. The cold is cruel and sharp, and it has a malicious intent bordering on human nature. It somehow seems to me that, if I gave it the chance, it would tear the words from this letter and spirit them somewhere far away to keep it company. No wonder, though. When I first set foot in this town it was like stepping into one of those paintings at the Blue Gallery, where everyone seemed to have fled to the furthermost corners of the frame and the town was trying to inhabit itself by keeping a semblance of life.

The snow on the street is riddled with trails of wandering footsteps leading to all kinds of thresholds on the opposite site of which warmth and custom keep life barely awake, like small pockets of familiarity connected by lines of motion and absence. The whole town seems to be enveloped by a mantle of silence, broken only by the occasional treading of a solitary figure walking back home or the muffled toll of the church bell.

            Looking through the window of my temporary quarters, I can’t help but think about our time in the summer house with Philipp. The fixity of this place reminds me somewhat of those long days that seemed to stretch into a benign and placid eternity, when all that mattered was playing hide and seek in the moors and our greatest worry in the world was getting home on time, lest mother became upset. It is curious how, as I grow older, the silliest memories keep springing in my mind like a stubborn yet welcome bed of elderflower, while the darker, less enjoyable moments recede with increasing success to a relegated corner of my mind. With the passing of time, however, the flowers wither and die, and only those dark thoughts remain to keep me company.  Like that time when mother reprimanded you for stripping the skirt of your dress because it kept getting stuck on the bushes. As soon as her hand left her mark on your face, I could see the regret mounting on the corner of her eyes, on her other hand reaching for a daughter that she had already lost. As I ran after you ignoring mother’s pleas, I swore to myself that I would never let anyone hurt you like that again. I would protect my big sister just like she had done with me since the day I came to this world.

            Little did I know that I would be the one to break your heart again. Father was waiting for you when you got back to the house. Looking from behind the curtains, I was afraid that he would hit you, and I was even more afraid that it would be my fault. But the sight of your vanishing smile hurt one thousand times more than the blow that never came. Somehow, in ways that I would only later discover, the look in his eyes told me that he had known all along. The next day, someone came and took Philipp to the city. There were no good byes, no hugs or shared tears, just the raw and exposed finality of a pair of hands that would never hold each other again. I never told you, but I think you always knew. When I saw you and Philipp kissing among the tall grass, the unbearable thought of losing you took a hold of my mind, as I imagined you running away with Philipp, leaving me behind and alone. I guess none of it mattered after all. You left for the city anyway the next winter and we never went back to the summer house.

            I wonder if the trees miss our laughter sometimes, just as much as I miss running along the stream, holding hands with you and Philipp, and the peace of our secret spot near the bent of the river. Do you think the rocks miss the touch of our skin drying in the afternoon sun? Sometimes I wake up with the distinct sensation that it all happened yesterday, but then I feel the weight of the years bending my back and my voice ever so slightly, and I realize that that peace will never return. If only I could have made those days last a little longer…

            I hope you are well, Sabella, and that you remember me with the same fondness my heart feels for you. I don not expect to redeem myself by going out in this hopeless expedition of sorts, but to bring a semblance of peace to you and maybe even myself. I do not know what answers await on the other side of the vale, if any, but I have the feeling that there was always more to the stories that father used to tell us, and that’s what I have set off to discover.

If my calculations are any close to being right, I will be coming back home in one year. Although the vale in itself is not great in dimension, the winding path that goes through the mountain pass turns into something resembling a frost labyrinth during the winter. I must tread carefully if I want to make it back and bring to you whatever I find on the other side, even if it is only my empty hands and a heart full of remorse.

Ever your affectionate brother,

William Barker

Passing By

When the old man’s intrinsic self-contained cognitive field finally dissolved back into the background radiation of the Universe, his last thought was that of sunlight passing through a flapping curtain and childhood warmth.

The youngest daughter found him. She had gone to check on her father on the hospital bed. She had come the day before from another country. When she tried to sit him up, she found his breath was gone.

Time of death: 6.30 am

There would be no ceremony. The siblings saw to that. They had had enough of them in the last year. The neighbours didn’t understand, but they respected it. Mourning is a strange thing.

The oldest son went to check the empty flat the day after. He turned off the electricity and closed every door and window. It didn’t make much of a difference though. Many of those lightbulbs hadn’t been turned on in quite a long time. Later that day, he told his wife that he had forgotten to check whether there was any food in the fridge that could spoil. He would drop by the following day.

The cremation took place after lunch, though no one ate much that day. Only the family and a couple of neighbours were there. They met next to the parking lot, where the sun was warm. The oldest grandson stood in the shadow with his mother.

The smoke was white and unceremonial. It didn’t have odour, or taste. The eldest son stood firm. The youngest wanted to cry. The eldest sister found the air on her left hand a bit too cold and a tad too empty. The sister that had come from another country held her right hand. The sister in the middle didn’t understand. She had never understood much.

The eldest son let himself fall on the couch and told his wife that there had been two eggs and some fruit in the fridge. He also told her that the flat was crowded with pictures. Dozens of pictures of all of them. Every brother and sister, every grandson and grandaughter. He closed his eyes. He wanted to cry but didn’t.

The siblings met once more after that. They agreed to sell the flat and find a smaller, closer place for the sister that didn’t understand much. She agreed. She had never understood much.

Some time after, the flat was sold to some couple with lots of spirits and not that much money. The pictures were still there when they moved in.

They threw them away and filled the frames with their own.