12. Between Lines
The house had eyes as it stared back at him. The bolted windows were unwelcoming and familiar. He was afraid if they opened, the stopper on his bottle of memories would come loose. It seemed entirely unoccupied, and yet, even from afar, Quicksilver could see the polished wooden deck. And when he remembered his sense of smell, a touch of roast meat filled his nostrils. The smell was even more familiar than the house itself, and his stomach grumbled in response. He clambered down the crudely cut steps and into a clearing bounded by a rickety wooden fence. In the center, at the very base of the clearing, with snowy peaks and trees surrounding it, was the house. It was wooden, and on first impression looked fairly fragile. But he knew the solid floorboards like his own house. He knew them better than his own house.
And yet, there was something different about it. The setting was, to be perfectly fair, absolutely perfect. The snow had fallen thickly, and yet, summer clung to parts of the clearing like an infection refusing to get cleaned out. All around him, the Professor saw the paw prints of the wolves that had avoided him. Great big indents in the snow led to a line of bowls, placed serenely before the wooden cottage. Seven of them there were, of which four had been scraped clean. Three bowls sat steaming in the cold- even the fine layer of ice forming on the grass did not touch their heat. The three bowls stuck an unusual figure in Quicksilver’s mind, as flashes of similar objects ran through his mind. He tried to focus on what was before him, but filling his mind were sudden movements- hands, feet, hair, all slender and sleek, holding bowls, laying them down, ladling stew into them. Like beams of light striking his eyes, they blinded him as he attempted to concentrate on what was real.
He knelt, smelling the untouched stew like an animal. The smell was rich, spiced, and luscious, but there was an ingredient he could not name- and it was either missing or overly used. Disregarding any possible eyes on him, Quicksilver grasped the heavy bowl with both hands, tilting it to his lips. He took a great gulp, letting the hot food burn as it raced down his throat. He swallowed with difficulty, tasting the soft meat before it disappeared into his stomach He nodded as if his suspicions had been confirmed- he could feel it in his tongue- a peculiar taste, one that seemed to not belong, laced through the stew. When he tasted it last, it was absent of this. And in its absence, was more balanced. As he sat before the bowl, he could not stop himself. He consumed the contents of the vessel, sighing with gratitude as the richness and the warmth blossomed from within.
There were boxes disguised as lampshades in the café. Every bulb had, hanging over it like a mask, a crudely made box. The yellow lights glowed through the paper, escaping through intricate cuts in the material. There were crescent moons and stars, and so the entire café seemed to exist smack in the middle of a swirling galaxy. The previous year, the boxes had little hearts cut into them. And the previous year, mugs of coffee. Quicksilver wondered if he liked the food or the lights more, or if he liked the lights only because of the food, or if he liked the food only because of the lights.
Across from him, she was a picture of perfection. There was confidence beneath her timid smile, giving him the feeling that a treasure trove of beauty lay locked before him- all he had to do was find the key. With the lights seemingly floating around them, he did not know if her eyes sparkled as much as they seemed to. There had been no change in her, and he loved that. He did not say a word, because he knew he was not allowed to.
Three years before, they had been sitting in the same café, presumably at the very same table. The lights with coffee mugs gleamed around them. By some stroke of luck, a colleague had, with surprising success, snagged a date with two lady friends. Quicksilver had received an urgent phone call, and his friend told him rapidly that by no means was this date cancellable. It was at this point in life that Quicksilver had made his decision to spend his life teaching. This was a crucial phase in his all-round development, for it was in this mindset that he refrained from cancelling. When he arrived at the place in question, it was entirely different from what he expected.
He had hoped, and prayed, for a loud, scurrying, busy little restaurant. A buzzing place helped conversation move steadily. Tonight, there was no buzz. The café was by no means empty- couples occupied every nook and cranny, but voices were soft, affectionate, and pleasant. The romance in the air was the first thing he noticed, and it struck fear into his heart. He was hardly prepared for a romantic evening. If he were to sit across from a beautiful woman in this situation, he would explode- how was he supposed to match the wavelength of the room? He would, he feared, be reduced to a mute, and the men around him would think, in their petty minds, that he was a fool sitting with beauty but failing to acknowledge it. All his life, Quicksilver had failed to acknowledge it, preferring to acknowledge the intricacies of words on paper, of voices in spacious auditoriums, of chalk scraping on a blackboard.
He found an unoccupied table, and seated himself at it. The empty chair across from him looked as comfortable as he felt in his- but it seemed rather ominous as he waited. There were no tables for four available; immediately, his fear of untoward social situations grasped him firmly. He glanced back to the entrance of the café. From his seat, he could see a couple seated beside the reception area, possibly waiting for a free table. Beside them, he tried leaning back as much as possible to see, was a lonely figure- a slender waistline and a summer dress-
In his pocket, all of a sudden, his cellphone gleamed and violently rang in the silence. Before the other diners could throw him looks of disgust, he held the phone to his ear. When he put it down again, sweat beaded his forehead. His colleague had canceled. There was no double date- in fact, there was no date at all. He was halfway out of his chair when his panic-induced mind began to realize how foolish he would look if he walked out of the café. His eyes roved the diners’ faces, but they were far too engrossed in their meals to notice his discomfort. He calmly seated himself again.
When he looked up, she was there, in her summer dress and slender frame. A timid smile played across her lips as she held out her hand. A waiter appeared, pulling out her chair before Quicksilver could so much as raise a finger. Once she was seated, he could not look straight. His eyes found everything but her, and the drops of sweat began to trickle down his spine. He loosened his collar, breathing heavily. Across from him, she was amused. A trace of laughter seemed to appear on the curves of her lips, but she did not let the sound escape her. Feeling extremely foolish now, he tried his best to smile. He did not have to try much, for when he looked up, the light caught her hair, and it was the first time he saw sunshine in the darkness- as her hair turned to golden strands of a harp.
Now, three years later, on the very same day, they sat, and he was as nervous as before. Something about the whispering voices and delicate lights left him breathless, even with her hand pressing his on the table top. They did not speak a word, until the waiter brought food. The food was the solution, or rather, the conversation starter. On that frightening day, the first day he met her, she had sat in silence, until the food arrived. Once the hot food settled in their stomachs, the cloud of nerves disappeared. He had always regretted the way the night had progressed- what sort of man was he, to only facilitate conversation with a full stomach? He only learned much later that the night had begun the way it was supposed to. She had understood, when she had first walked in, what the rose-scented air had done to him. And she had waited for comfort in the form of food.
Every year, they sat in silence until they consumed the first bite. The first bite was relished, slow, and beautiful, for it plunged Quicksilver back into the first night he had met Sunshine- the night he had etched her name into his heart. Once the first bite disappeared down his gullet, the memories came pouring in, and he remembered his love, and he remembered to smile.
Crouched upon the cold grass, Quicksilver traced the insides of his mouth with his tongue. Sunshine had been right- the presence of hot food in his stomach had brought him back to life. The cloudy images in his mind seemed to sharpen, and he felt the exhaustion seeping out of him. She had been right, but he saw very little of her in his mind. Were he sitting in that café- the lit up beauty that he avoided with a vengeance after she died- he presumed a very different sort of feeling would have run through his body.
He only saw sudden flickers of her, and those flickers pained him. Every time he saw her hand reach out to him, he felt another’s touch. As he sat before the wooden cottage, he remembered more than he should have. He remembered all that he had tried so hard to forget. For Sunshine, he had made sure to forget. As he clambered and trekked up the mountain pathway, he had tried to hold the barrier in his mind as solidly as he possibly could. The barrier had all but shattered now, for the spices and the smells and the wooden cottage reminded him more and more of Sunshine’s empty chair. Soon, the chair in the café was empty. Soon, it was as if on that nervous night, he had not glimpsed Sunshine. Her absence hung over him so heavily now that he needed to remember something else. Suddenly, it was possible. Suddenly, even as her voice floated in his mind about eating and remembering, Sarah’s voice echoed, its volume decibels higher.
Like a whip, something clicked in his mind. The burdens of hearing Sunshine’s voice all these years had all but disappeared, and a new melody had begun. He recognized the music, and it was different. He crossed his legs in the cold, assessing the difference. He was filled with the lovely feeling of the new, mixed in with the feelings of what was old and forgotten. He felt like he had, rummaging through his old things as he usually did, found an old toy that he had played with as a child. Every touch of the old object brought to him waves of feeling and understanding. It was a confusing set of emotions. He felt like he had in front of him swathes of dying flowers, each representing a different thing he was feeling. Individually, they made him feel like he was delving into the pieces of the past he should not delve into. But when they sat together like they did now, he could picture them converging into a gorgeous bouquet. Like he had when he was a teenager looking at his childish old toys, he was thinking of how he could have done it better. He was thinking of how he could have arranged the flowers to make something far more beautiful. It reminded him, even more so, of all the children’s tales he had loved reading. When he grew out of them, he looked at them not with disgust but with a new perspective. He began placing these childhood images in more mature scenarios, more logical situations, and he began to fall in love with them again. He would find himself filled to the brim with the desire to rewrite countless stories, and tell them in better ways. To him, the magic did not disappear as he grew older- it only grew stronger. He wondered if this was part of the answer to everything. Perhaps he was being tossed a pen and a fresh piece of paper, white and untouched, to rewrite his own story.
Sunshine’s voice had always had a certainty to it. She always had that right thing to say at the right time- and she always made complete sense. Students of his had often told Quicksilver that he answered questions in a flash, and quelled all doubts instantly. He had always assumed that this one quality he had derived from his intimate conversations with Sunshine. He could never achieve the confident dialogue she always managed, though. She had the ability to cut tension with logic, sever silence with reason. If Quicksilver pictured the essences of both of them, he saw a sturdy oak tree in Sunshine’s place. In Sarah’s place grew a tiny dandelion, glimmering in gold powder. As he watched, the dandelion was picked up by the gentle breeze and carried away. Unpredictable like the flowing ocean, she was both its crashing waves and its gentle swell.
A window seemed to suddenly quiver, and the still cottage was alive to Quicksilver. The window moved again, and as he stared, he saw it open very slowly. An old woman’s head peeked out. Her hair was a dirty gray, splashed with puddles of silver. Her head, gleaming in the sunlight, was crowned in steel. She peered at him through narrowed eyes, until he saw those eyes widen in astonishment. Her mouth was agape, but she emitted no noise. From where he crouched, Quicksilver could see her eyebrows furrow together in a frown. Immediately, the windows were thrown open. She disappeared from sight, and with a crash, the other set of windows flew open. There was a creak of old wood, and she appeared at the doorway, her bent figure wrapped in a colorful robe. She had the face of a woman that had frowned too much in her lifetime. Wrinkles, like contours on topographic maps, stretched across her skin. From afar, Quicksilver could see that this old woman was almost ancient.
“Approach, so I may see which face has come to my cottage of the mountain,” her voice rang out.
Quicksilver climbed down the stone-slab staircase, his eyes fixed on the old woman. As he walked closer, he realized just how gray and old she actually looked. Her hair, now easier to scrutinize, resembled melting steel. It seemed almost as if the streaks of silver running down the blue-gray canvas of threads were feathers clinging to an old bird. This old bird regarded Quicksilver with cautious concentration. Her eyes clung to every step he took. Finally, he stopped before the wooden deck of the cottage. As they looked at each other, both stopped breathing, for recognition sharper than a knife passed between them- a strange sort of reunion.
If her wrinkles whispered her age, her eyes wrote it on the skies. Quicksilver found himself enchanted; for as he looked into them, he stared into diamond orbs, clear and sharp-edged, but so multifaceted that looking inside felt like you stared into an endless corridor of mirrors, where every reflection revealed a different memory. He was sure, if he looked harder, that he would see every experience etched in her eyes. It seemed like there were centuries worth of wisdom in them. The more he was captured by her glinting gaze, the more he felt like one of the facets in those crystal orb-eyes showed his face, and soon he was sure of it- beneath the wrinkled face and ancient pupils, he knew the face he was looking at.
“You come at a strange time,” the old woman whispered, her face thoughtful.
Quicksilver nodded; none of this was ordinary in the least bit.
“You came at a strange time the last time, as well,” she admitted, more to herself than to him. As she said it, he remembered it.
“But you didn’t eat their food the last time you came, did you?” she asked, her voice suddenly turning from a whisper into a cackle as she regarded the empty bowl on the grass.
The sudden switch from the quiet whisper to a sharp slap of a question took Quicksilver aback, but he enjoyed the witch’s cackle that came from her. He smiled sheepishly; he felt embarrassed, like a child being scolded for misbehavior. She disappeared into the house, after waving him in behind her. The echoing sounds of bottles clinking together and metal scraping on wood erupted from the cottage, filling the previously dormant clearing.
The sunlight streamed through the now open windows. During the day, there was no need for artificial illumination within the cozy cottage. The wooden corners were occupied by cool shadows, but the rest of her quarters were lit up in beams. Quicksilver was glad. For at this moment, he associated hanging lanterns with the darkness, and he kept seeing fragments of paper boxes glowing from within with light. He was glad, at the very least, that he was feeling less confused in a well-lit place.
The old woman hobbled away inside, maneuvering between the comfortable mess easily, while Quicksilver tried and failed to gracefully take a seat. In truth, there were no places to sit. There were no fine grains of dust or dirt hanging over the house, but it felt like nothing had been moved for a very long time. In place of a seat, Quicksilver found himself balancing on a stack of very thick books. Wrapped carefully in old newspaper, the pile of books was not alone in the cottage. The walls and floors were lined with numerous volumes, thick and thin, colorful and gray. A stack of magazines rested, untouched, beside a tiny stove. A kettle whistled good-naturedly atop the stove, spitting out steam like a train. Smells of boiling herbs surrounded Quicksilver, and each whiff was an energizer. Each inhalation seemed to clean a part of his lungs. He was conscious of how lovely the house smelt, and he was even more conscious of the packet of cigarettes resting in his pocket. It weighed heavily on him; he was half afraid he would get thrown out after she detected the odor of tobacco on him. Whether she knew or not, she did not reveal to him, as she bustled around the house, fetching various ingredients, ingredients that were inevitably tossed into the kettle. As she wandered on her journey for ingredients that were scattered through the various crannies of her abode, Quicksilver could see that she searched with fervor. He supposed that she did this often- refused to cease the hunt for the perfect ingredients. That would perhaps explain the unwelcome taste lingering in the stew he had tasted.
As she moved, Quicksilver found himself doing the usual- finding a name. Names were everything- they had always been. Sunshine had turned into the embodiment of the sun itself, and he had been reduced to a planetary body revolving around her. In his classrooms, he named his students himself. When he called the roll, he struggled to address them by their true names. He preferred his nuances- to call the tall, lanky child with a large head Postbox instead of a name that by now, he had entirely forgotten. Perhaps he enjoyed creating names because he forgot them so easily. After teaching all the years he had been teaching, he knew he should have been good with names. A confident teacher could name all his students, even if the names changed with every passing year. Quicksilver was always confident, but he never bothered with the names.
The old woman had transformed over the years, undoubtedly. There was an unsettling discrepancy between her voice and her body, and it bothered him. He could not recall the exact circumstances of their previous meeting, much less remember the things they talked about. Even with her oddity, Quicksilver knew that over here was a connection he was supposed to make, though it seemed like he grasped at straws. In those crystal eyes, there was something he should have recognized, he knew. She talked as she made the tea. He did not listen to the words so much as the way she said them. Her accent was peculiar- here and there but not from any particular place- and her sentences rose and fell in volume and energy unpredictably. Once in a while, he would catch her muttering to herself- but he did not fear that. He was quite sure he had been caught many a time whispering words to himself absent-mindedly. It amused him in those situations, for he pictured how mentally unstable he could look- an old man, smoking endlessly, mumbling something or the other to himself.
The old woman constantly stretched out to tidy a part of the house. Her bony hand would all of a sudden grasp a pile of books and straighten them so they stood erect and straight, and this would happen every few minutes. She was still talking, her words meshing into each other loudly, but her words meant nothing to him. He was aghast, because he realized what he was observing. Alone in the coffee shop, he had felt this way- the never-ending need to straighten things, touch things, hold things, the surging feeling of too much energy running through too old a body. She was in a hurry, but she did not know where she was going. And Quicksilver had to admit, her hands moved in blurs- so quick was her cooking skill that at one point her hands flew like the arms of a windmill. It wasn’t because she was old and fast and that combination seemed out of the ordinary. To him, it seemed like every human being climbed the ladder of age never fully understanding the pressures of the highest rungs. When you climb into the thinning air surrounding the topmost, it is an abyss you cannot climb down from. Breaths are harder to take, the world is far too small from this height to make out what lives and what does not, and it is cold and silent. When he climbed into this abyss, he knew his youthful energy still lay within him. But his mind had long since forgotten the actions of the young, after climbing rung after rung. It seemed to him like old people could move as fast as they wanted to, but fear, like glue sticking to the rungs of the highest ladder, made their minds the death of their bodies. She had, presumably, comprehended the same thing, and had broken through its walls successfully. It was either that or…
She was, all of a sudden, staring straight at him, and her mumbling had stopped. She frowned at him, as if trying to measure him up. She did not have the penetrating stare that he expected to see, interestingly. He had always held Sunshine’s intense gaze in high esteem, for her eyes were spears at times. In contrast, the old lady’s crystal eyes did not scrutinize his every pore. But she was, perhaps, questioning his thoughtful expression. Once she realized she had caught his attention, she motioned to him to follow, and her robes billowed past him and out the door. Straight into the light of day, the Professor followed.
On the deck of the cottage, she set the tray. The surface of the milk in the jug had not even lightly trembled in the old lady’s firm grasp. But all was not silent across the mountain. The day’s unraveling had brought with it the awakening of an entire organism. Funnily enough, the Professor did not remember much of this. If he had been here before, why was it that the roar of sound that reached his ears sounded new?
His ears caught that which had never been exposed to before, as if all the life force in his body had accumulated in his head, spreading wings to see the world around him. The groaning of the mountain, the soft verses of the trees as they stared up at the sun, the fluid sound of a million drops from a million leaves joining together to trickle down her rocky side, all seemed very real to Quicksilver, but it made his head spin. The light snowfall that had been quietly floating down was insignificant in the wake of the sun and the life of the mountain. There was heat in the mountain suddenly, surging out of it.
Steam in wisps crept out of the kettle as she poured into the brown cups. Out of a flask at her side she dribbled gorgeous, thick, golden honey into the hot tea. Quicksilver watched the layers of honey slowly sink below the surface, his eyes fixed. A splash of white and the swift stirring of a wooden spoon happened so quickly he barely caught it. When he looked out in the mountain again, he began to feel like they were an ordinary pair of individuals, drinking tea like tourists would. He felt half a tourist because there was so much he did not recognize, but he supposed the old lady knew every blade of grass, even if every stretch was blanketed with snow. As if he had not thought to himself but spoken out loud, the old lady knowingly shook her head.
“Even I do not know these mountains as well as I wish I did,” she said, almost to herself.
He looked at her with a raised eyebrow.
“I used to walk down the paths in the summer, when it was safe. But I do not walk anymore.”
“Why do you not want to walk anymore?” he asked.
“I didn’t say I don’t want to walk,” she replied, frowning.
Quicksilver had not heard wrong; he was simply very confident in her physical abilities. He knew her reasons would have to do with her mind, and not her aching joints. He wondered if she had any aching joints. He nodded.
She peered at him curiously, before taking a sip of her tea. When he took his first sip, he was swept off his feet. After the initial moment of panic, where he winced as the heat struck his taste buds, the blurry process that she had indulged in made complete sense. He did not see which herbs she tossed in, but they were the right herbs. A breath of mountain air felt even fresher after a sip. He felt like is lungs had inflated, like little microorganisms scrubbed and cleaned them as he inhaled and exhaled. Every contraction and relaxation of his trachea made him a relieved man. When he realized that he was lucky enough to have canceled out half a century of daily nicotine consumption, it felt even better. He felt like he wronged himself when the next thought entered his mind, for he was far too used to sipping tea with a cigarette in hand. It just seemed the right thing to do now, to smoke a cigarette and then take a sip of tea.
Silently, they sat, after that initial poke at conversation. There was no urge for the Professor to talk until a realization came upon him. As she refilled his clay cup, it struck him that the last cup of tea he had the opportunity to taste had been a life-changing one. The unsweetened tea came to mind just then, but the taste did not. Instead, the waitress’ face blurred into view, with her sparkling eyes and tear-stained cheeks. In his mind’s eye, he saw her face melt into his young one as he gazed at himself in the bathroom mirror. On the airplane, he had wondered if her tears had somehow caused this. He had thought deeply about the coincidence of the tasteless tea and the never-extinguishing cigarette, but he had never questioned the oddity of the next moments. He had been so incredibly relieved to receive her grief that he had refused to look at the incident as anything but real. He would never know now, if the key had been hot tea or hot tears.
He wondered how his life would change after this cup. Would he grow old again? Perhaps the wrinkles would reappear, drawn on him like children drawing charcoal lines across art paper. Would they mass around his eyes and leave his cheeks pale and stretched, or would they create maps like they did on her face? He would have thought that the idea of growing old was one he was used to by now; he had done it once already. But the rejuvenating feeling of being young had created a whirlwind of emotions inside him, emotions he thought he’d never feel again. The thought of being closed in by his wrinkles made him almost claustrophobic, choking his insides.
The old woman gave him the rather disconcerting impression of an X-Ray machine. Even when she wasn’t looking at him, he felt like the corners of her eyes were endless. He did not suppose she was thinking about him, but at the same time, she seemed to be thinking of far more complex things, things that ended up somehow culminating in him. For every now and then, a piercing eye would find him. Perhaps, Quicksilver told himself, she was just unaccustomed to less-than wolfish company. In his own head, he began counting the years- there were as many separating then and now than the wrinkles on her face.
As the last of the dregs swirled at the bottom of his cup, the cottage was swept away. The stacks of books disappeared, leaving open space in abundance. Clean hardwood floors shone maroon, but the smell of tea remained hanging in the air. Outside, a clinking of dishes and the roar of a fire. Inside, four legs very close to each other, but not touching. Even in memory, he could feel her slim hands enclosed in his, and her head on his shoulder. Every now and then, her fingers would trace the outline of the silver band on his ring finger. She would never touch the shining stone, instead bypassing it entirely. The ring, he realized, always remained on his hand. It had become a part of him, and it never occurred to him to ever take it off. Sarah did not mind, though she gingerly avoided the diamond.
Fleet footed and graceful, the old woman was at work outside. Slicing vegetables deftly while seated on the cool grass, she hummed a tune, every now and then attempting in vain to hear the soft conversation coming from within the cottage. Even then, Quicksilver supposed, the old woman had not approved. When she entered the little room, her face would turn up in annoyance. Her eyes would rove across their bodies, searching for anything she could condemn. But alas, to her, their interlocked hands told the innocence of children bumping together in puppy-love, unaware of their surroundings and pure. Sarah had her eyes closed, but she never slept when Quicksilver had been around. In her head, he supposed, a great many things must have been transpiring. She had to move from moment to moment, for life was like a spark to her- it appeared like magic, and disappeared like magic. He preferred looking at life like the moon. Appearing slowly, quietly, softly, swathing the world in pearly rays, before sinking slowly into invisibility. It seemed ironic now, to him. For like an extinguished spark, Sarah had fled the cottage, and like an invisible moon, he lingered on. He wondered, were she alive, if she had the same number of wrinkles as the Old Woman of the Mountain.
The wrinkles on Sarah’s face, in his wandering mind, reminded him of the rolling hills he had seen in picture books of England, and Switzerland, and New Zealand. He had watched those movies- not those artsy ones somehow comparing life’s endless strife to the landscape – just the ones that revealed to him that he had, in fact, seen nothing of the world. He remembered, in the little cottage, that Sarah had told him that this place that they sat in had nothing to do with a real location or a real place. He had asked, then, outright and bluntly, as he always was with her.
“But is this not China?”
She had laughed, that rich sound seemingly filled with all of life’s happiness, but still contained in a small jar that was her body.
“This is the sum of all your sights and perceptions.”
“I see. So it is, in essence, something that exists and something that does not.”
Her nod told him he clearly did not understand, but he still felt that he did. It was this perspective that made him forget her- made him forget this place, this cabin, this slope, this grass, even this sky. It made him justify his infidelity, telling him that it was indeed not wrong for him to be here, for here was in his own head. It was no crime to fall in love inside your mind, or perhaps, fall in love with your mind itself. Even as he sat, holding her warm hand, smelling her fresh honey-like scent, he told himself that it was not real, and because it was not real, there were no angry gods looking on him from above. Obviously, this contradicted most heavily with his admittance that gods did not exist. He shouldn’t have said this at all, but he did.
“And if the gods don’t exist, why should you worry about their fury?”
Just like that, she had cast him off of his sins. He hadn’t had a steady climb into atheism, like most of his philosophical teacher-friends. He lied to them, in fact, he lied to everybody, letting them know that his belief in the non-existence of gods had been a slow understanding, molded by years of experience. As a teacher, you could lie about these things, not only because you have the ability to teach, but because everyone knows a teacher has plenty of time to think. Agreed, no teacher, for his own good, should admit to incompetence or even idleness, but Quicksilver knew this was most true. Even as he filled his class with the treasures of knowledge, he would think in between sentences. Subjects he loved more than anything did not hold his focus entirely. In his own mind, he felt like he tainted the most beautiful literature by digressing internally. Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird became a catalyst to him, prompting him into revealing far more about himself to his class than he meant to.
In hindsight, most of his class would not have understood. He tended to overestimate their philosophical capacities, assuming that all students grew up like he did, with a penchant for thoughts that belonged in old manuscripts of thinkers older than the building they sat in. His rant on To Kill a Mockingbird transformed, against his own will, into a sermon on fatherhood. Fatherhood had always been a topic he enjoyed exploring. Truth be told, he never explored it, he rather defamed and abused it. He liked to believe he did not believe in fatherhood. And in the small walls of the school classroom, he liked to explain his anger. It was a relief, he now realized, to let his emotions out. Whether they enjoyed it or not, his students had nothing to do but listen. His tirades overflowing beyond the syllabus he was employed to teach, he soon realized his words were for another.
Fatherhood had always been on Sunshine’s list of black crosses. In her mind, this list occupied much of their married lives. There were things he could say, and things he could not, much like every relationship. Fatherhood had once been a beautiful concept to her, Sunshine had explained once, and never again. At this point, he had not known her, for she had been little, smaller than the students he woefully taught. At the tender age of ten, her father, a cloth merchant living in Russia, had lost his life. This had been a topic of terrible interest to Quicksilver. At this point, he had been a young man exploring the world of private tutoring, positioning himself in new families every year. And though his father had been quite alive and kicking, there had been a gulf between them that had never quite been addressed. And so, while his father lay alive but still far away, he pondered over his lack of existence. He wondered how he would feel if his father, just as Sunshine’s, hung himself from a ceiling fan.
His father had been a writer, not some local businessman that thrived on prices raised far too high for an ordinary person to realize. As he grew up, Quicksilver had determined that there was no greater life than the life of a writer. He quickly came to recognize the distaste with which his father treated his mother with regularly. It seemed almost as if the words on his papers had become suddenly far more attractive than a womanly, smiling face. And when Quicksilver found himself going past the rough ages of puberty, finding the curves of the schoolgirls far more pleasant than the schoolteacher, he found himself asking the selfsame question. None of the schoolgirls could identify the pain with which Ted Hughes wrote his punctured, heartfelt poetry, so wasn’t it perfectly alright to think of them as peasants when compared to the rick curves of italic letters as they wound their way across paper?
He would spend days watching his mother as she went about her business. He found her every movement layered with some kind of sadness, as if she hoped that her husband watched her industriousness. Quicksilver would catch his mother glance at his father every once in a while, only to be saddened further by the latter’s complete disregard for anything but the typewriter sitting before him. Clack clack clack went Quicksilver’s father’s fingers, absolutely oblivious. The sound of the typewriter dwarfed even the howling rains outside their house, and it was this that enraptured Quicksilver. It was only much later that he began to hate, with an angry, dark, trembling feeling, his father. The pieces of paper that flew out of the typewriter stopped glistening gold, but rather, began looking old and pasty and crumbly. On the other hand, his mother began to glisten in gold, and he began to, finally, understand that the writing that his father did was done with fresh blood and not ink, and that his mother seemed dry and withered with every page.
An explosion ripped the household apart when his mother, cradling him and his older sister in her arms, made the daring trip outside into the wilderness. It was the last time they heard his angry voice, but not the last time they heard his voice. For in her leaving, his mother had left his father the permanent, incomparable feeling of loss, and he had rendered that slowly into his typewriter, and the story had come out full of feeling and pain and understanding and compassion. And as Quicksilver read the best-selling book, he wondered who had walked out in the first place.
It was this incongruence that filled his head with writer-like dreams. But when he put pen to paper, he found he could write about nothing but the man that had left him the nightmarish dreams. His pen became weighted, and his father’s image swam before him hazily, but the details he would write about remained. He would write, page after page, heap of paper upon paper, but every detail concerned the man. He would not sacrifice a sentence for his mother, because she had not enveloped him in so much passion. In his ignorance towards a son, Quicksilver’s father had pinned himself onto him much like a post-it; all he had to do was rip it free, but for some reason, it reminded him of things he needed to remember. Whether he liked it or not, he remembered them, and he attempted, with repeated failure, to bring them to light in Sunshine’s presence.
Alas, she did not want to hear of hateful fathers, warm fathers, kind fathers, steely-eyed fathers, because she could only think of dead fathers. He needed to say things, things that in the saying would disappear from him, but she would not allow it.
In her refusal to hear about his most painful thoughts, Quicksilver began to wonder if men and women could interact at all. All his life, he had learned that to find a woman was easy, but to find a woman similar to him was almost impossible. He had been told, time and time again, that if he found that similarity, he should latch on and never let go, for he would never find it again. And so he did.
It took a certain amount of time for Quicksilver to fall in love with a face- her face. He enjoyed the way her eyes tensed up when she looked at him, as if she tried to determine his weak points. He melted inside when she touched him, because her touch was like oil on water, rising above. When she let him inside her walls, and he found out that she had been young when her father had been taken by death, and he realized that she had grown up, much like he had, with no father, he knew he had found the one. It had been too much of a good combination- their pains matched their joys, what else could one ask for? It struck him very quickly that their similarities held dark memories for her. When he mentioned the emptiness his old man had left in him, she would scorn at him.
“I don’t have a father, I never did. If your memory has been lost on you, he is dead.”
He yearned to reply saying that he understood, that he felt the same pain, but it became clear to him that she did not want to hear that. Of all things, he understood what must be said and what must be thought, though it ached him terribly to know that he could not voice his pains to his wife. He thought of it as a just sacrifice, for who was he to complain when she curled up within the frame of his body at night? Why would he worry when her soft, firm body encapsulated him within hers? Why would he care for his pains when they connected, almost like numb fireflies bumping against the side of a glass jar, like lovers who had not touched for centuries? In the night, Sunshine was a ravenous lover; her touch was not gentle, but hard and forceful, as if she wanted to squeeze the love out of her husband like an overripe fruit. Within the confines of his bed, she was love incarnate. His insides felt whole with her beside him, and his body pulsated with pleasure when she climbed atop him, perhaps wondering where all this loving fury came from.
Every night, when they frolicked under soft bedsheets, he forgot his father in entirety. In those moments of passion, a man such as his father never existed. A strong hand, muscled and rippling with a writer’s sweat, no longer connected with his body when Sunshine held it. He could no longer see his mother’s face, her strong cheekbones weakened by grief, as it wept at his side. At long last, he felt like he had found the sun underneath the night sky, and no man had achieved such colossally beautiful dreams. He felt like he nestled in a forest fire. With burning boughs crashing around him, he heard not the noise but the soft rustling of the flames as they licked and wrapped their arms around his cold body. He was a coal, black and rough on the outside, but glowing with fevered flame within. Every now and then, his heartbeat would make it pulsate with light. This is how he felt when Sunshine wrapped her arms around him, and her flaming body pressed against his bare chest. What better feeling could he have?
It was a question many a man had asked himself- and a dangerous question at that. It is humanity’s curse to desire more, and perhaps, Quicksilver thought as he sipped his tea, he had desired more than what he could accomplish. But hadn’t he done this all through his years? He didn’t want to teach, he wanted to inject in his students as many of life’s answers as he possibly could. When he met Sunshine for the first time, he wanted much more than a conversation under glowing lanterns. At some point, he decided, he had regressed, for he wanted to run. Like a child, he wanted to sprint until he was breathless, only to look back and see the life he left behind. Of all things, Quicksilver wanted to leave his life behind. At every instance, he pictured himself turning away, hiding in shadow, quivering in fear when the sun shone.
Eventually, he assumed, it had become rather clear to his wife that he desired nothing more than to be away from her. When she asked him, and he answered with the utmost honesty, she did not cower like he would have. Instead, she simply nodded, as if she understood. It soon became clear that her comprehension filled him with envy, like a cup that’s become too full, so much so that it overflows onto the clean white tablecloth under. He wished it were that easy- to speak and be understood. Soon, he began to hate her understanding of him. Her reactions became muted, expected, because that was much of what she saw in him. Her smiles dulled with every passing compliment, like the coming of winter- slow, silent, until the sun was covered in shade. As a young man, he might have called it falling out of love.
As a young man, he might have called it falling out of love with him. It did not crush him. It snowballed until he realized, one fine day, that her emotionless smiles had nothing to do with him. Her lackluster affection held him almost in contempt- as if he had resulted in her sadness. Somehow, in his feeble attempts at romance, he had created a regular pattern for them. The pattern, like a chisel on smooth stone, riddled away at the solid rock that formed the base of their marriage. Eventually, there was nothing remaining but scattered pebbles, clattering all over the hardwood floor of their home. Their love had become a cluttered mess, for them to step on and slip over.
And then came the rushed years, days and months that melted together like so many grains of sand on a beach. Coarse particles that rubbed together and created friction between them that seemed never-ending, their beach was no paradise- the grains soon turned black and crimson, like crushed charcoal. Once a burning ember, now a sea of cold black powder, he ended it in fury. His sprint lasted days, as he jumped from city to city, village to village, until he found the mountain path. Scratched and bleeding from the inhuman trek, he found himself withdrawing into a shell, becoming a human ball for the animals of the forest to play with and gnaw. But before the wolves could sink their ravenous fangs into his skin, he felt it- the tender embrace of death wrapping its cool arms around him. He had smiled in his exhaustion; who would have thought that Death could be such a comfort?
When he awoke, his head was on a pillow of such softness it seemed to cut the weight of his burdens in half. His eyes, no longer burning, opened up to a face he was not used to seeing. It was a face he hardly recognized, and yet, it seemed familiar. He spent the first few seconds locked in her gaze, enjoying the strangeness of the encounter. His hands, resting on cold wood, were almost immobile as she smiled at him. There was nothing warm about the smile- not the mind-enriching friction that Sunshine’s curved lips brought to him, but a sense of coolness, as if he had been in the sun for far too long and had chanced upon a patch of shade. She did not glow; a halo of light had always seemed to surround Sunshine, like the gods she didn’t believe in had blessed her. Sarah seemed to be sitting in a circle of dim light that a wasteful eye would pass over with nonchalance. The dimness did not blind a soul, instead becoming a refuge to Quicksilver as he lay in her lap.
It reminded him of all the cafes he had sat at, isolated and alone, after hours of dispersing his knowledge to a bunch of irritable kids. He would make it a point to pick the perfect place- for no seat was more comfortable than under the shade. He liked, in his silence, to look at the lines separating the harsh sunlight from the pleasantly cool shade. Like borders separating countries these days, they represented two different worlds for him, and he enjoyed the ability to stare at this border from above like an omniscient God. He would move his chair, and the shadows moved to accommodate him, creating new lines. As if he could create countries just by moving his clumsy feet, it made Quicksilver feel immortal. Sarah’s shadow fell over him like a soft wave of an ocean, foaming on his skin like velvet.
Here he was, still an old man, his mind swaying like a pendulum between two countries- one harsh light, and one cool shadow. He knew, as all old men know things, that it was far too late to make a choice. Of all times, this occurred to him now. When Sarah had long since disappeared, when Sunshine had long since passed into a world without him, when he had grown old and grown young again. There was something all too mysterious about his life, as if he were a novel whose pages grew more strange and wild with every page. There were many beginnings, and no ends in sight.