The Art of Living

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9. Escape

Sloping rocks polished clean and shiny by the waterfall looked bronze underneath the setting sun. Like the spider from the fable, he tried and tried to scale the rocky heights. His hands found the edges and wedges he was supposed to find, but every time he found himself higher up in the sky, his vision grew clouded. He could not make small decisions; to grip to the left or grip to the right, to go on or not go on. Every time he found himself facing one of these trophy-like polished surfaces, he would stare in shock at the man he saw looking back at him. In the rough waters below, his face was hidden by the foam of the powerful waterfall. But over here, everything seemed quite clear to him. The lines in his face were as evident as the crime etched through them, and he winced again. Reaching out for the shiny rock to the right, he slipped and tumbled through the air. With a gigantic splash, he submerged. The last thing he saw was the stormy waters foam around him.

The cold air that streamed through his windpipe stung Quicksilver into alertness. It was cold that he was unaccustomed to, cold that made him treasure the lean flesh on his body. His younger body seemed taut in the freeze, but he felt the sensation of the cold far more than he ever had in his older form. It seemed like his wrinkly skin had covered him well. Now, his fair skin pulled over his bones, coating them thinly. He looked like those well dressed foreigners who dig out of their savings to purchase every possible piece of winter clothing, only to shiver in the cold anyway. An entirely pointless existence ruined by the burdens of being young, it seemed.

The cabbie operated robotically, not casting a single glance in the Professor’s direction from the moment he entered the taxi to the moment he left it. The driver’s eyes left the road ahead only to rifle through bills of money. As he drove away, leaving the Professor standing quite alone in the cold, clutching a bag, it seemed as if the only familiar human contact had disappeared. Like the Professor, the driver had had wires running through him and from him and to him. The wires were invisible lines holding him together, like many pieces of machinery surging with power through colored plastic-coated strings. The body connected to the wires did what was needed, and nothing more. It was not the first time the Professor had felt a similarity to an individual like this; many of his students seemed more trussed up with wires than even him. It had filled his heart with pity to witness young ones operate with systematic efficiency, but only to do what was asked of them. An essay could be written in so many ways, and the creation of anything with substance required the wires to be disconnected- to give the arm a free way to maneuver. The Professor had given up on his writing as soon as the wires began unraveling themselves from the pores of his skin. He had given himself over to a different sort of control, one that kept him going, but not alive.

He had discussed the prospect of human beings walking around with invisible wires to Sunshine, but she had rubbished his claims. She had shrugged, wondering nonchalantly of how fragile those wires seem to be. By no means was Sunshine ever controlled by some other power, which gave her the privilege of looking at his theory from a different perspective. Wires were not crawling out of her body. She mused at him. “So pull them out,” she had said to him, flicking her wrist with a snap, as if it were a simple decision, just an act.

He did not explain to Sunshine back then that it was those wires that held him together while disease crept into her soul. When her eyes could no longer see him, the wires let him move on with his life. They pulled his legs to the sidewalk, and they pulled his eyes to the blackboard. The wires had been the most solid structure he had ever had in his entire life. And to simply pull them out would have been suicide- how does one disconnect from a part of him? It was far simpler to disconnect from a human being, to cut off and forget. But when ordinary functioning had become almost subconscious, how did one break that routine?

When the wires eventually broke off, Quicksilver knew, he would be a different man. It could be so that the wires wrapped him in a cocoon and he was soon to be fluttering out a fully formed beauty. It could also be so that he was ripped to shreds by cords that held him too tight to ever let go. If they did let go, he would float aimlessly in a space built just for him.

Once again, his thoughts had escaped his body with too much purpose. His body had remained motionless for too long, and the freezing temperature had crept into his bones. Unmistakably, he felt alive. Unusually so, he was energized by the shivers that racked his body.

The final glimpse of home he had in his mind was permanent in his mind: a gleaming silver dustbin, with the sleeves of his most-worn shirt hanging out like a dead man’s hand. The thin stripes running down the shirt had become commonplace; when one went out of the house once a day, one shirt was more than enough. It was never anything but clean, but it was, after years of use, stained with every old memory, memories it was time to cast off. The clothesline at the airport shop had been enticing only for its freshness; the clothes smelled of new. He did not feel new wearing them, but he felt light, like he had replaced his burdens with plush feathers. As he stood shivering in the cold, his clothes hugged him lovingly. His skin had never felt so soft, so vulnerable, and above all, so young. When the rains had washed away his age, it had left him clutching so many unending strings, wires that perhaps could be disconnected at will. The rains had cut some of his wires, but he walked with them tangled at his ankles. He felt them hanging about somewhere in his vicinity now, but they were too far to hold his limbs.

He had hoped to recognize the pathway he stood on, but he was dismayed to find that everything looked brand new to him. The leaves collecting dew seemed a staler green, like olives nestling in a jar. His fingers caressed the veiny leaves as he trekked down a road that seemed as untrodden as he had left it. He knew its presence; he was sure he must have walked it on that day. As he walked it, he felt the overwhelming feeling of absence. There was a hole in this air, a hole that seemed to filter the atmosphere one gust at a time. He held his right hand up to the sky, and the face of his watch glinted like steel.

4:00 in the A.M.

His fingers numb, he tugged out the little notebook, the only weight he lugged around on his person.

I stand here,

Not quite the alone I would like to be.

Would if she were here,

Like a flower that sprouts up in moss,

Called by the sun.

The sun does not call me now,

But I am still following sun-soaked footsteps.

***********

There was much to say to the trees, even to the rocky road. Every time he came to a turn in the path, a crossroads even, he made sure he did not hesitate. He took his path by instinct and instinct alone, hoping he had taken a road he had not taken forty years ago. If, by chance, he took a different road, perhaps he would end up in a different destination.

“All roads are the same,” the trees whispered to him, bending their trunks. The sight warmed him. When last he had stepped between their long loping limbs, he had felt attacked, like they menaced over him, egging him on until he hung from their branches, lifeless. Now, the arms of the trees welcomed him like a mother stretching out her affectionate hands. Many mothers on either side of him called to him now, whispering words of comfort and consolation.

“What you lost can never be won again,” they hissed softly.

“What you win can never be found, for it was left behind,” some hissed back.

“I will find it again,” he said out loud. Sloping away from him, the trees leaned back, sighing. Their shadows no longer cut the grass and stone in front of him, black lines slowly gave way to shimmering granite. The moon hung like an orb cloaked in veils of silver, still high in the sky. Soon, it would sink below the mountains, and the sun, triumphant and newborn, would emerge. Quicksilver had no particular reason to want the sun again; it was too harsh, too all-revealing for his mind.

Soon, he passed the first thing he recognized. It was certain then, that the diverging paths he had walked through had been facades, for all roads led to one. A tree had fallen, and now lay permanently asleep and lounging. He had never known how long the tree had survived, for it refused to decay. And right through its middle was a hollow with sharpened splintering edges. Beyond the hollow was only darkness, for the tree was a massive specimen. He had not followed its entire expanse; back then, he had had a final destination, a place he needed to get to before it was too late- he did not care how long a tree was. But now, there were several things pricking at the back of his mind about the dead creature lying on its back. Forty years had left it as mottled and moss-filled as it had always been, as if time had constructed a bubble of air over it, pausing its slow progress to the afterlife forever. On its side, waiting for death, was no way for a great beast like this tree to be. The Professor ran a hand over the strong bark, wet with moisture still. The sharp edges around the hollow scratched at him as he reached in blindly. There was no blood he felt trickling down his arm, but he wouldn’t have felt it if it were, for his fingers traced an outline he knew. He gently pulled it out, the bright blue scarf that now looked more like a dank and musty night sky than the ocean it had closely resembled once upon a time. Feeling rather empty, he raised the scarf to his nose, where he took in a great whiff. The sharp scent of moss and all sorts of creatures too small to see filled his nostrils. The scarf was, unlike the tree it lay dormant in, broken.

In another time, the Professor knew the scarf had been more than a cloth of the ocean. Once upon a time, it had filled his nostrils with freshness that he expected would last a lifetime. It all seemed far too ironic, then, that his lifetime had been lived, and it had lived with him. But while he had been given a new lease, her scarf was blackening further, a lifeless object dead in a dying tree. It comforted him to think of it that way- to believe that her scarf had given life to the tree, feeding it until it faded. If he had come but a few days later, perhaps it would have been nothing but withered tangles of string, once blue and lively, now black and hard. He crushed the scarf in the palm of his hand, feeling it crumble into powder.

As he walked on, he let the powder sift through his fingers, leaving a trail of blue-black bruises on the ground. When the sun rose in the morning, it would reveal the blackened trail, even though the prospect of him being followed was empty. He smiled to himself; if he were followed, who would he be followed by? It was haunting to think of her walking this path again. Her ghost gracefully dancing among the trees would not recognize the young man trekking his way up the mountain.

He feared, as he flew over plains and hills and rivers, that walking this path would be dangerous for him. His eyes were not easily deceived, but his mind lied to him more often than not. He had considered the worst- that a wraith of who he was forty years ago walked beside him. After so much change, he could not see the body, ephemeral or not, that he had lived in. It would have made his mind explode; three forms of himself co-existing in the same place- his own time-riddled soul in a body just old enough to be called a man, and the body he had made his mistake in. His feet immediately came to a stop.

Mistake?

The word stung even as it climbed out of the abyss of his mind and into his conscious. There were no mistakes in his life now. He had not made them as yet.

There were no new landmarks to see now, even as the dawn began breaking. The greens would become harsher to look at clothed in golden, but the greens were not the same greens he had known so well. Heat did not touch them in the cold winter sunlight. The first snow had not fallen over the pathway, and so the leaves did not tremble with unanticipated weight. Was he as free from his weights as the leaves as they danced in breeze that he could not feel?

Here and there, he thought he saw signs of an older journey. Footsteps that could not be his littered the ground, it seemed. When he peered down at them, he could not decide its humanity. For all he knew, the wolves had finally left their cage of trees.

He had stood not far from where he was now, if his theory was true, when the wolves had come to give his cause a new sense of urgency. Snow had been fresh on the track, soft and thick enough for the sound of their clawed paws to be masked by silence. If they came now, he would hear them, their quick moving claws scraping stone and grass alike. If they came now, he would laugh, for how lucky could a predator be? A victim that had escaped death with but a few tears now returned to them fresh and full of life-giving blood. Quicksilver knew the wisdom of wolves; they would taste the age in his young blood, and they would recognize its scent, and as their taste buds clamored with familiarity, they would howl, as one. He had returned, finally, but he did not fear the wolves, even though their white coats and silver eyes moved like wind.

At long last, he found the will to move on. If the wolves did come, he would speak to them as he would friends. But in retrospect, he had no friends. He only had the trees, for they spoke to him more than people ever did. She had spoken much to him, and he had listened, but not only listened. He had listened and answered, spoken and asked, smiled and frowned, and he had been alive with her. He pulled the lobes of his ears down forcefully, pausing to hear her voice, but her voice did not wander through the trees like it had so many years ago. Forty years ago, he had found himself listening to her voice as it softly floated through the trees. Whispers of the plants did not hinder the carrying of her powerful notes.

The human mind was a remarkable thing, marveled the Professor. Images that he had chanced upon still lingered in his mind, and a pathway he should not know simply unraveled before him. He had walked it, back then, as night fell. The snow had been bright in the moonlight, but he had found his way with her voice. And now, her voice had been replaced by silence, yet he still walked the paths like he knew them- like he had walked them all his life. The human mind treasured itself, Quicksilver knew. He had left a part of himself here, perhaps that was why the trees knew him so well, why they spoke to him like a long-lost friend.

The brief conversation about the pathway carved in the mountain he had with Sunshine was never forgotten, for he knew she never forgot things. The anger in her eyes burned into him when she revealed the impossible to him- that he had in fact left a great part of himself there. He had come back to her broken, she said. He had come back to her corrupted and not pure, she said. Like a vessel filled too many times and riddled with too many holes to ever be full again. He had never agreed with her, not then, and he had decided in his stubbornness that he would never agree. How could he leave himself behind? He was standing right there, in front of her, flesh and blood and mind and soul. He was whole, he had told himself.

Now, standing on this broken pathway a broken man, he realized that Sunshine had, as always, been right about him. She had still known, with her keen senses and her lack of factual information. And when she had comprehended even part of his deed, she had looked at him with hatred that he felt would whittle him down until he was no more than a skeleton. The anger had lasted, and it was replaced by loathing, and the loathing degraded into indifference. And forty years passed, and he was back at the beginning.

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