The Art of Living

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8: All Writing in a Notebook

There is no truth in the shadows,

For I have climbed through them.

They surrounded me like shards of glass hit the floor-

Finding every crevice to lodge themselves into.

I persisted, and found myself in the home of my ancestors,

And they spoke to me

In almost Macbethian tones, crushing my will to theirs,

But I have only one answer I seek-

The key to my soul,

Or the lock to my heart

Which has beat for an extended period,

Now becoming a dull war drum signaling bloodshed.

Do I venture forth?

Or do I rescind into the classrooms that have held me still

As I remain in darkness.

The Professor sighed and closed his little notebook. He had only small phrases to describe his life at this moment- nothing could push him to write out details like he usually did. Details no longer mattered. He wrote in his notebook to keep the symbols of his life with him- so he might, on forgetting, read a verse and recall. It had destroyed him, in truth. His verses had been so dark and muddled, filled with the mistakes of his past that they lulled him into terror every time he read them. His hopes for happiness had largely depended on the verses he wrote, and every line had sunk him lower.

The streets were crowded, as if the world had decided to reappear. The Professor grimaced inwardly, for the people on the streets were as spectral as the Chinese phantoms that plagued his mind. But perhaps it was safe to assume that his ghosts were done twisting his thoughts- and he was well alone now. It comforted him- the isolation made the earth feel a little more solid, as if he only had to depend on himself to keep it steady. There were no holes in his heart now, just an intense longing. An itch irked him at the back of his mind, pointing him in a direction he knew not. It urged him to move, to collect his thoughts and progress.

By the time he had arrived home, the house already smelled foreign. Wisps of smoke blew through its confines, as if his absence had rendered it mystical. The mist collected in hurricanes by his feet, twisting around his ankles like stray newspapers on morning roads. The peeling walls no longer seemed as perfectly flawed as he had always thought they were. Once, he had enjoyed its decay. Things stayed the same for far too long; sometimes, it was wise to shake it up. He enjoyed the peeling walls for they reminded him that he had peeled away many years ago, and the result, the vulnerable flesh beneath, lay exposed now.

Time ticked by as slowly as possible, and the old man began to pack. The old brown suitcase was dusty with lack of use, but it could still hold the few things he needed. He tossed his little book in, watching it bounce on top of the few clothes pressed into the luggage container. The harsh sound of the suitcase being zipped up penetrated the silent house. The Professor lugged the bag out of the door, hardly bothering to pull out the heavy lock. He simply slammed the door shut. It comforted him to think of it remaining open to the world; why did something so old and ancient need to be secret? He left it unlocked, and maybe, just maybe, he would return anew to find its decay halted.

The spirits in the coffeehouse had called him a child. The word had resounded within his eardrums strangely. It had been so long since he had heard that word and not used it. Time had become as fluid as a vial of water tossed in a hurricane; one minute he lay an old man trembling with narrow bones that quivered, and one minute he lay a young man rolling on the ground ferociously to end the life of the flames that encapsulated him. The taxi driver spoke endlessly, it seemed, as Quicksilver made his way through the messy streets of the city. The airport loomed ahead, large and gigantic in its splendor. He felt like he had never seen the structure before, but he knew he had at some point. He had, if nothing, read the numerous articles in every newspaper of the massive undertaking that the government had prepared. Millions and millions all devoted to glass windows and sleek floors that combined to form terminals that looked a whole lot better than any living establishment, and it all looked disgusting to him. Human beings tried so desperately to climb upward, to soar into the skies, so much so that they resisted looking down at the mess they leave behind. It must have been terribly ironic, thought the Professor, as the dingy shacks of the poor zoomed past him. It must have been darkly funny in a way, when one realized that the airport was beautiful like a young woman, but the rest of the city was an old man coughing phlegm into a handkerchief. The world we live in is ugly, thought the Professor, but the instrument of leaving it is glamorous. What was the tourist attraction, he wondered? The sight of the groaning machines taking to the sky, or the dusty roads beyond the airport? He supposed that he was an individual with a different thought process- for he had seen many a foreigner gaze upon the poverty riddled houses with rapture. They would point and click photographs of the beggars on the street, and they would find beauty in small things- eyes, smiles, teeth, or even the tint of dirt that lay upon the skin of people too unfortunate to bathe. They would raise their expensive cameras and click as many pictures as they could, of beggars outside their abodes, beggars sleeping within, even children who stand in startled surprise at this horrible show they seemed to be putting on for a bunch of foreigners. Quicksilver had always turned his head away from the scene. It had looked far too much like a family pointing fingers at animals in a zoo. For these unfortunate men and women lay in invisible cages, held back in every possible turn of the road by circumstances that they simply could not control. And not one of these foreigners saw these invisible steel bars. Or perhaps they did, and that was what piqued their dark interests.

The ramshackle houses soon disappeared in a blur, to be replaced by the beginning of a long section of streetlights that looked far too expensive to be out here. The road smoothened out into a long flat surface, black and grey and painted in white and yellow lines. The airport loomed above him, almost suddenly. It’s glassy arms stretched out into the sky, beckoning Quicksilver into a suffocating hug. He could not breathe, all of a sudden. But then he remembered his youth, and he straightened his young spine, lowered the windows, and breathed in the disgustingly clean air of the terminals.

Inside the airport, a fog seemed to swirl at his ankles. The scene closely resembled a far-too-dramatic film set, almost the establishment of mystery for an audience that scrutinized the atmosphere rather than the characters. For there were no characters here, Quicksilver noted. There was far too much happening to focus on a single, specific, thing. Stories upon stories in faces and security batons, but everything was more or less the same.

A woman, clutching her baby in her arms and lugging a suitcase behind her, seemed to be feigning a comfortable smile. But from his vantage point in the center of everything, Quicksilver could see the faint imprint of tear tracks on her cheeks. The sadness of pretending joy lay heavy on her shoulders, but her bubble was intruded upon by no one. The world did not care for subtle tear tracks on aging faces; instead for smoke rising from the bottom of film sets and weeping women. Quicksilver had realized a long time ago that being invisible in a crowd was no task; people ignored most of what they saw, even if it appeared, screaming for attention, right before them. It was this mentality that allowed his existence to thrive, to grow, and to grow younger.

He followed the woman with his eyes for several moments, until she disappeared out of sight. He could still hear the cries of the little baby in her arm, as it echoed through the airport. He climbed the staircase gingerly, setting foot in front of foot as he watched the screens around him flash with different numbers and names. The men walking in front of him were dressed in sleek coats and creased trousers, and spoke decisively to each other.

“..Sounded very clear about it. Doesn’t sound like he’ll take no for an answer”, one was saying, shaking his head.

“Then we must make him take no for an answer”, the other replied rather grimly.

“Money”, the first said, drawing out the word slowly like he was pulling it reluctantly from his mouth, almost like a magician tugged multicolored cloth from the depths of his throat.

“Money”, the other agreed, his attractive features suddenly marred by a grimace.

From his vantage point in the sky, Quicksilver heard their conversation replayed in his mind. The endless worries each human being carried with them; how does one understand another? How will human beings work as one, and unite as a singular system, when the burdens we carry are all so different? He had not a clue what to do with the burden on his back. It was an immense pressure, like a time-bomb ticking away until he found himself. But was that even the key? There seemed to be locked away in some chasm of darkness an unspeakable truth, an unspeakable truth so far away that he could walk miles and still never get close. Would that the truth slept somewhere inside him, for him to understand where all the years went, and why he was rewinding them.

With the numerous expanses of green and concrete appearing one after the other with increasing irregularity, the Professor felt very old indeed. The paintings below him seemed to unveil under the clouds so perfectly that it gave him a feeling of immense wisdom. He yearned for an answer, but in truth he knew not what the answer would cause him. How does one rid himself of the tension he holds in his heart? The Professor had enjoyed teaching because it expelled some of the dark energy inside him, energy that grew and blossomed inside him until he wanted to do nothing but explode, but the art of teaching had escaped him years ago. He now failed to recall his first lesson. Or his second, for that matter. What was his last lesson like? What did he teach? Was it the endless complication of Thomas Hardy’s Mayor of Casterbridge, or was it the broken halls and ripped paintings of Ted Hughes’ Wind?

He did not believe in god, or a god, or gods at all. And yet, something or someone rather magical had sent him back over the lapses of time to discover something, or maybe change something. But the Professor did not remember what to change, or how to change it. What required change? Could he, in some way or the other, stop the death that had left him gasping for air for years? Did Sunshine die in this life? Lush grasslands rushed by below the steel cage of the airplane. Grass grew with rough kindness, sprouting through the earth in singularity to form a carpet so green it wasted paintings. And when the grass grew old and withered, new shoots took its place. Could humanity live this life, where parts break off and decay, but are replaced soon after by stronger limbs? Was he the embodiment of this lovely fantasy? His mind had indeed fallen into pieces. He had lived the last few years a spectator, watching the world crumble around him while he remained quite permanent. When Sunshine died, he had watched. He had let it go on, for was that not the way to live life? Had we not been told as children that life was not something to be controlled according to one’s whims? The first potted plant you water with every shred of care could leech the nutrients from the soil only for a small period, before it keeled over and died. Or the first puppy that nestled its soft paws in your soft hands would eventually grow into a beast that would bark no more as soon as your hands turned hard.

We are told of life and its ending, and how we can improve the in-between, but of what occurs when the process is repeated, no one knows. Sunshine lived much of her life reading books and watching intelligent films, but even she could not put a stop to the cycle. It was cruel, thought the Professor, for him to be left behind to discover an answer that he didn’t think existed. He had not believed in a heaven until he met Sunshine, and so he believed that people’s beliefs were not right or wrong, they simply existed. He knew that for Sunshine, a heaven existed. He could picture her floating endlessly on soft beds of clouds as sweet melodies played from harps and lutes, and a benevolent God stroked her hair from time to time. If he believed in it, he would have liked that sort of ending. At some point after he first met her, he had told Sunshine that in death, he wanted to be buried with a good book.

“What book?” she had asked, almost innocently, for she knew the weight of the question. You never answer a question like “What book?” without a reasonable amount of thought, Quicksilver had told himself quickly after she asked it. It could determine everything. Ones interests are not the key to beginning any union, he had realized a long time ago. Small questions that determine similar interests and loves do not get two people anywhere in love. The Professor had met multitudes of women that read the same books he did, listened to the same music he did, or even thought the way he did. At first impression, it all seemed so wildly magical- to find a piece of your soul in somebody else. But the truth eluded him for far too long, until it made sense to him that souls were like pieces in a jigsaw puzzle. Two similar pieces did not belong together; sometimes, they did, but most often, they did not. Two pieces of a jigsaw puzzle could be so twisted and different from each other, and still press together like the lips of two lovers. And when connected in that bond, they created a picture so wondrous that you seldom looked elsewhere for beauty.

“Any book.” He had answered that day, after thoughts upon thoughts had been breezed through in his mind. The answer had indeed taken her aback, for it was a frankly stupid answer in many ways. But he had not meant it. He confessed to her much later that his answer was vastly different from the one he really meant to give. In truth, he wanted to be buried with a notebook. The notebook would have pages so white and empty that even in death, his hand would rise to write words in it. He had never told Sunshine the answer, though. He had told her that he lied to impress her, to seem wholly unconcerned about life but still filled with depth. She had laughed and told him his ploy had worked. She did not venture for the real answer, for he believed at that point she did not want to know.

He almost missed her funeral, when it happened. He had made the proper arrangements, but the service began without him. They had assumed he was too torn in his grief to see her final rites, but it had been a different sort of morning that day. He had woken with great difficulty, immediately remembering that it was this day that he would be bidding farewell to her. And the “What book?” question accosted him again. She had not asked, and he had not told her. And so he hobbled over to the stationary store at the far end of the road. No questions were asked when he deposited the empty notebook in her lifeless hands a half hour later. The casket was closed with her hands on the new notebook, and somewhere on the road home it occurred to Quicksilver that he had not left a pen for her to write with. She would have a notebook to write the one story he could not be with her to read, and she had no instrument to write it with.

The image of her gold-rimmed casket would forever remain with him, even now, as he zipped above the clouds. It was quite ordinary, a small wooden structure with nothing intricate about it. He had chosen it just for that reason. He had always loved Sunshine for her simplicity, for her honest to heart stableness. There had always been a rawness to her that he had enjoyed, like the sleek touch of wood untouched by the hands of those that would aim to complicate its beauty. Much like the ordinary casket, she was an ordinary human being, and she liked being so. And when she began to speak, gold words poured out of her, and it made him think of her differently. The casket was ordinary wood, and she was an ordinary person. In death, she would not like it to be different. But he had the casket company etch in a small outline, and embed in gold a thin line. This thin line was what he saw in her every day of his life with her. That a beauty as solid and beautiful as gold encompassed her ordinary being. She would forever be encompassed in this beauty, and the casket remained a simple thing in the ground.

It had given him some semblance of peace to think of joining her in heaven, where he could while his time away reading the pages she had filled in. He thought of a lovely sequence of events, of her pressing the soft book into his rough hands, its pages no longer white and pale but brown and filled with rich sentences. Her musings were a part of his heaven, and he suspected, every day of his life, that he was edging closer to listening to her thoughts. Every time he walked out of the grey school into the grey streets and into a black coffeehouse, he wondered if his time was coming soon. When he slipped on a wet patch and crumbled to the pavement, passersby sprinted to him in concern all the time. An old man falling is a dangerous thing. Falling loses its humor when one grows old enough, Quicksilver felt. In the beginning, we smile and ridicule ourselves, and we pride ourselves in the ability to get up no matter how hard we fall. But as the years snowball into decades, a soft fall is impossible to rise from. Every instance he fell, or clipped his side on the edge of a table, he wondered if his bones were cracking. How easy was it to break a bone? It couldn’t be so difficult; he had broken his heart and brought it together so many times, it felt like bones breaking were nothing but skin peeling, almost easy to handle.

As he looked down onto the earth, the terrain began to transform. Grasslands and cities disappeared altogether, and tall trees sprouted up like spiky barriers, reaching for the clouds. The roads were carved right into the forested areas until the pathway climbed into the mountains. There were so many mountains that the Professor began to feel young again. They climbed into the skies like the endless knucklebones of a colossal giant, or so the Professor liked to believe. Green and brown and splotchy in places, the mountains turned silvery grey and flashing white as one raised his eyes higher. Somewhere beneath a layer of clouds, the icy whites melted into dull greens, but from such a distance, nothing seemed real, everything seemed painted on by the strokes of a master’s brush.

The glowering presence of the mountains had sent a stab of panic into Quicksilver’s heart. He remembered them, almost like they were a person with a mouth to reply to his rambles; for all he knew, the mountain had talked back. Like water dripping through a funnel, he started seeing the mountains as he had years and decades ago. He could not ascertain when- but he knew that at some point in his life, he had conversed with the mountains.

There were answers in its jungled fortresses, even more questions on its icy peaks, and the Professor felt like a student. He reminded himself, now that he was done thinking, to buy a pack of cigarettes at the airport shop.

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