7: The Mind's Eye
It was as old as he was. And he had no explanation for how this was. He was completely sure that it belonged in the entirely other direction, but he was also sure that this was the same coffee shop standing in front of him. The wood was not damp as old wood became. Instead, it was withering. He looked upon the coffee shop and wondered how it stood, for the roof looked like it would collapse. It would collapse like he had when Sunshine had gone. He quickly stopped, in case she flooded his mind again. But the memories did not reappear. He did not see the pain he saw in Sunshine now. All he wanted to do was walk inside the dilapidated coffee shop. He did not know if he would walk out ever again.
He ventured in, wondering if his young body would have the speed to rush out in case the roof collapsed on him. He had not tested his own limits yet, but he didn’t want this to be that test. He had faced enough examination and reassessment of his physical limits, each ending with negative results. He told himself just then that he was Quicksilver, and a new one at that. He had walked through darkness to find a coffee shop that he thought he would never lose. He wondered if the objects around him remained the same. He had transformed, but what of the coffee shop that he had spent so much of his life in? Was this, by some dark chance, exactly what it looked like fifty years ago? Had it risen from ashes to become this? Or was this some backward growth resulting from his own. Was this another sign, The Professor wondered, that all people became this at the end? And what of his end? Would he now live another fifty years? Or had his life already ended, for the possibility that this was one long-winded illusion had not escaped him yet. Even though the world around him felt so real, he found trouble accepting it fully.
The coffee house was far from dead. In fact, it thrummed with life. The decayed boards under his feet seemed to hum, as if the wood still breathed. He could see, all of a sudden, the ghosts that haunted his dreams. He had been fine until an ill-timed holiday- a trip into Chinese hills that involved plenty of drug-soaked tea-leaves and spicy food. The Chinese believed in their ancestors and the blood each extensive family shared. They had struck him at first as awfully idealistic, until he came to understand the beauty of generations upon generation piling onto one another. The wisdom of fathers and mothers were never lost- Chinese ancestors were far better teachers dead than he was alive. He listened in the villages when the elders talked, reciting Chinese words he did not understand, intoning them with pieces of their own soul, it felt. He had wondered if the key to true speech was allowing pieces of your soul to engulf your language. Perhaps that was how all good speakers touched audiences.
The Chinese had made the Professor question his values, specifically the values his parents had taught him. He had no particular remembrance of their words in his mind, but he had justified that with his age. He needed no reminder of their lectures because he had been around for far too long to care. But as he walked among the Chinese villagers, they had taught him of family, of ancestors, of pride, of the heated blood that flowed in his veins. Now, when he dreamt of his family and his ancestors, he dreamt of them like they were Chinese gods, even though he did not know of Chinese gods. He confessed in his mind that he did not really know of any gods.
But he had always had an annoying habit- the habit of not wanting some of his questions asked. Or rather, his failure at being able to ask the right questions. He knew not what he wanted of his life, and he had never known. Some part of him had accepted that with Sunshine’s presence. But after her death, a vacuum had emerged in his mind where she had left. He had tried to fill in the spaces, and he attempted to explain that to the Chinese couple he stayed with on his journey. They shrugged him off snappily, as if he was saying the wrong things. It struck him much later that they could be urging him to try a new perspective; think of something in a new way, but the Professor could not decipher their messages. He hated being asked questions like “Who are you?”, simply because they tugged him into a new sense of confusion. In the depths of his mind, he knew he had no answer.
The Chinese had seen that in him, as if there were a wall that blocked his mental progress. It was commented time and time again, in what he assumed to be ancient proverbs, that when a man built the wall he could not scale, he could only find another path. The words had been carved into his consciousness after that, and he could focus on naught but them for a good while. He was forced to leave the village, and return home, but he always held in his heart that somewhere in those Chinese villages, he would find himself.
He wondered, as he stood in the coffee shop, if the Chinese believed in a concept of individuality- where one must never depend too much on another soul. If that ended up happening, the bond would either break or fade away. His love had grown far too strong, so much so that it blinded him into making the decisions that haunted him all his life. And the bond had snapped like pine-needles crushed underfoot. The Chinese in the village he had visited had all been in pairs, floating around gracefully arm in arm, robes intertwining to create beautiful floral patterns interacting with each other like an animated figure. He had felt like the odd swan, though he felt no grace in himself as he sloppily walked around them. He remembered their gait to detailed precision.
Suddenly erupting from the decaying floor, they appeared. Clad in robes of grey and blue, with skin so pale it appeared translucent, they levitated, wrinkled faces nodding silently at him. Stone faces seemed to stare through him, and he absorbed the expressions. He had been looked at like that all his life- with such blankness. The students at every class he had taught had stared up at him in much the same fashion. But the stares began to bore into him, creating an annoying buzzing in his ears that would not cease. He began to be bothered by them.
His dreams had been easier to deal with. When the Chinese ghosts originally showed themselves, they could not spare him a glance. It had infuriated him- the people that had all his answers, standing conveniently in front of him, and he could not extract a look from them. He later on accepted that the answers were not forthcoming- he concluded that they were here like spectators, to watch him get torn down by life itself.
But today, in the coffee shop, they seemed to believe he was worth the attention. The Professor took a step forward, his feet causing the wooden floorboards to creak dangerously. The air flickered all around him, and he was surrounded.
The ghosts gleamed uncomfortably close to his face, and they spoke as if they lived and stood before him.
“Long have we walked to see the world,
And long have we searched for our taken sight.
The golden sun gleams, light filling crevices in our souls,
Until we burn away to nothing.
The smoke has clouded our minds,
But we have the answer you desperately seek,
Though we encourage it not.
Long have we stood in halls brighter than these,
And men with burdens lighter than these
Have extended their souls, which,
Brighter than the moaning moon,
Have caused the waters to quake and fall.
Have you the power to extend your soul?”
The question did not irk him as he thought it would. He had long since relinquished his hold on the world around him, only caring enough to float through it, much like the ghosts floated through the room. He knew the answer, but he wished he understood the consequences behind it.
“I have,” he simply said, his words received with faces carved from grey marble.
“When the steel feathers fall,
Find us beneath the eaves.
Find us before the sunlight ends,
Before the harsh glow makes our forefathers burn.
We can guide you to the answer,
But not give it to you,
For we have it not.
Find us, child.”
He only saw the flames when they began licking at his feet. The wood was damp, but the piercing flames seemed to cut right through them. Dust was tossed into the air, and with it streams of heat that spiraled to the ceiling. The coffee shop had become, all of a sudden, like a massive cup of tea. The wooden surface he stood on began melting and boiling, simmering like in a saucepan. He slipped and slid, attempting to find a handhold in the mess. The steam turned silvery grey, until every breath felt like arms of smoke reached inside him from the throat, constricting around his internal organs, bruising his body from inside out.
The ghosts disappeared altogether, as if the fire fed on their existence. For the moment the translucent beings faded into nothingness, the flames rose even higher. Spires of orange licked the walls, and part of the roof quietly caved in. Quicksilver ran, sprinting through the burning wreckage. It felt, instantly, like he ran on a rocking ship. The fire consumed the vessel from underneath, almost as if the entire wooden structure had fallen into the very depths of a volcano. And just like his current situation, he feared stepping out of the burning wreck. What if the front porch opened out into magma so hot it burned his soul. Trying his best not to imagine how twisted a seventy four year old soul could become, he closed his eyes and barreled through the splintering wooden pillars.
The impact winded him, and he rolled onto the floor quickly, suffocating the flames with friction. He was on the street outside the coffee shop, on his hands and knees. Before him, the flaming building had taken on the shape of an enormous orb. The sphere swirled like a hurricane brewed within, but the decaying wood was still loath to fall into cinders. The roar of the fire in his ears, the Professor stared as the bright lights were burnt into his pupils. And then he saw it- it appeared and disappeared in a flash, but he saw the walk, the shining eyes, even the long tress of hair. The waitress had stared out at him from the flames, her eyes finding his through the inferno. Or was it her? In the fire, flashes of different faces flickered endlessly. He could not be certain if he would have run into the burning structure for her.
It lingered in his mind. Just how old he was didn’t seem to matter anymore, for he felt like he had degraded. He frowned. Not ‘degraded’- there was nothing wrong with childish thinking. And yet, he wondered how age had absolutely nothing to do with his innermost feelings at this moment. He realized that in his haste to get out of the blazing inferno, he had perhaps missed her out. The ghosts had risen to speak to him, but a sensation in his mind told him that they had hidden another answer from him. Had he missed her out, as she stood behind the grey beings of death?
Or worse, had this been a disgusting lesson, all over again? Just like God snatching away his childhood adventures every time he passed into the dream world, was a thread of fate winding its way around his neck yet again? Had she risen with the fire? Had they burned her as they burned him?
The thought of her slim body curving with the fire made him shiver. Of all the females in his life, the Professor had never seen one come alive in flames to burn him to cinders. He could no longer see her as the vulnerable young woman kneeling on the roadside, cradling her head as it dripped tears uncontrollably. He saw fire in her eyes now- and there was suddenly danger in her existence. He was chasing something as fleeting and fatal as fire- she could appear and disappear like wisps of smoke, but her touch left him grasping for breath. For the first time that day, the Professor felt old. His young body felt like stone, because he understood that he had fallen into a chasm he had managed to climb out of many years ago.
He gazed into the sphere of fire, hoping to catch another glimpse. Had he receded so much that he no longer thought with caution and safety? The recklessness that filled him astounded him. He knew that if he saw her one more time in the fire, he would run headlong to his fiery death. He desperately wanted to see the curve of her hips, the flicker of her eyes, even if her flames would consume him afterward. Madness took a hold of him, and he considered finding her inside. He rose, his feet finding surprising strength. Before he could launch himself into his final moment, the gust of wind changed everything. The heat disappeared entirely, and the coffee house was whole again. Gleaming and polished wooden posts held it up. It looked brand new, as if it had not gone through the twisted transformation that reduced it to a decayed outpost for the dead. As if he had not walked through the darkness- as if the shadows that had clung on to him and held him back had done so for nothing.
Not nothing, he reminded himself bitterly. He knew now he was engulfed in an inferno he could not escape- because he was launching himself into it as much as he was pulling away. The reappearance of the new coffee shop had changed the world around him, it seemed. The structures around him had far more depth, far more identity now. Fresh and new, the world was ready for a new inferno.