The Ashes

Part One of Two

Illustrations by Neil Peter Dyck.

“Any man’s death diminishes me,” John Donne.

Look you’re already doing it, Seb said, perfunctorily, pointing under Kyle’s feet where the open air buffered the ground. Kyle Giesbrecht hadn’t flown since he was a child. Why he hit puberty and the dreams stopped, he couldn’t say. When he’d tried to launch, the earth just became a magnet and his feet were lead. But, in this dream, he was finally airborne again and in complete control of his movements.

Kyle took to his dormant skills with caution at first. A few measured lift and balance experiments. A moderately paced figure-eight pattern around two hemlocks. One hand out at an oblique angle cut into the air like a paddle. With the basics confirmed, he blasted vertically up a willow, the branches and leaves rippling in his wake. He hovered for a good minute above the top, surveying the perspective change, the heights, the park below, the glistening ocean and the deep green forest on the mountains beyond.

With much self-satisfaction, he settled back down beside Seb at the foot of the tree. They spoke of how they were going to deal with some grave matter across the bay of water where the green-glass skyscrapers shone in the lessening light. They would have to fly there under night’s cover to avoid alerting an enemy air force. A mission such as that. With the mood ratcheted down, Kyle started to give Seb the impression of being unprepared for such an undertaking. Seb, in response, waved a hand across the park before them. A slow tracking shot, indicating all the people bursting into summer frolic. Kyle nodded uncertainly, but he already understood. He was just buying time to compose himself.

Each individual was there for Kyle. That’s what he understood. It was like a birthday, but a birthday he would only get once in his lifetime. Each person an event, a memory, an explosion of emotion, a complex rational thought from somewhere in his life, from point of past origin to point of future diminishment. Seb tapped him on the sternum and pointed out towards them again, like someone play-acting the sagacious deaf-mute. Before battle, an initiation task to prove his mettle.

There were approximately sixty people among the ash trees, the slope downward toward the beach and the sparkling ocean. Kyle was briefly saddened by the low turnout. Sixty represented the number of impactful moments so far in his life. Were he to describe himself, he’d say he was of a nature wishing every second to be more stimulating than the last; therefore, sixty fell shy of the thousands he assumed he’d accrued to the age he was, thirty-five. Were he to say his cup was half-empty or half-full, he’d have chosen the latter. And in this he was right, realizing he’d only have one chance here. He’d do well to focus on narrowing down the selection.

He walked in among them and assessed each via appearance. Each had precise qualitative differences regarding age, clothing style, sex and race. Many were alone; some shared their space with others. The trick was knowing which aspect would be the most beneficial to him.

An elderly couple, surprisingly limber, walked together on a stroll. He took this to mean age-old wisdom, the golden years in good company. A last stand against loneliness. Perhaps, in sophisticated humour, they could give advice on enduring lengthy periods of togetherness.

Next, Kyle inspected a hunched bulbous bilious mass, almost fungal, sprawled in a wheelchair. It was, in fact, human, but so ugly and degraded to be almost unclassifiable. This could be the worst of his own deterioration, humiliation, and suffering. Kyle shuddered and moved on.

Forgetting what he’d seen, he fell in line with a woman whose radiant purple hair bedazzled him. What wonders could she reveal? But with some anxiety he tore himself away from her, rationalizing that attraction would always be there. That if he had one moment to reveal some truth about himself, it was not in the arena of lust. What Kyle did not know was that each was an equitably balanced component in his life, of which nothing contained therein could be prioritized.

To the woman’s left, there was a group of children throwing a ball around, back and forth, around the circle, catching it in the nets of lacrosse sticks. Perhaps this was community. Perhaps forgiveness.

Over to their right, and set further in among the ash trees sat a little girl, an air of nobility about her. Perhaps fourteen, no more. Kyle imagined she was the daughter of some foreign dignitary. She was bent over an electronic device, her face scrunched up in concentration. What was she? Ulterior experience? Dislocation? Dispossession?

As Kyle passed each person, couple or group, they would turn to look at him. Deliberate, reptilian focus. The funny thing was all eyes were grey, but not only grey irises, but a patina of grey glazed over their pupils, like contact lenses from make-up departments on horror movie sets.

Kyle chose a figure in fatigues, inclined under a tree, smoking a joint. His pants were dark green, baggy, a hunting knife clipped to the belt. His army jacket was open and he wore a buttonless percale shirt with a purple floral border around a v-neck collar. He watched Kyle’s approach, sitting up to half-slouch, albeit methodically.

The man looked somewhat older than Kyle. Black hair, black stubble. He seemed to have an attitude of sacral formality, but maybe that was just in his face. Or in this initiation. He had the same grey eyes as the others, but upon further inspection, the eyes seemed to swim inside themselves. An ever-changing greyness, like dark clouds moving quickly across the sky. He seemed to look deep into Kyle, as if into his brain and into a sub-atomic reality and out into a multivalent universe.

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Then, the man with the grey eyes spoke to Kyle:

“We didn’t meet as I would have hoped,” he said, “or I don’t remember that we did if we did — but I knew it was your world. The garage where the uncovered mattress lay in the dark. An oil stain where a car had once been parked. A carpeted area by the tool bench. It was all framed the way you saw things.

“Then, a woman slipped onto the edge of the mattress where I lay as I slept. She pressed her pink lips to my cheeks. Auburn hair. She was pressing into me. Her hair, suffocating, and everywhere. If I was half my age, I’d have felt regret that she wasn’t you.”

Kyle was about to say they hadn’t met before and that this was all highly unorthodox but something stopped him and pulled him into a seated position in the grass. He sensed it was the grey eyes that were were pulling. Kyle dared not think they were exploring his own most personal subconscious recesses. A plodding front-crawl into caves in his unknown coasts.

“I was tossing in and out of sleep,” the man continued. “I had taken to sleeping in the study, which I’d converted into a bedroom. Moved a desk out, moved a single bed in. The books on the shelves warmed me then. I didn’t know why. That’s just the way it was. It was that sort of a period in a life. But always that aggravating triangular window at the wall to my right above the bed. A necessary casualty on behalf of the addition adjacent to the study, which I’d put in for my wife. The new roof cut a diagonal across the former placement of the full window. It still bothered me with its imperfect design. I could still see where the lower half of the complete rectangular window had been plastered over and painted. If I chose to, I could raise my hand and run my fingers along the ridged right angle on the uneven wall.

“Among these intervals between dreams, grey hands turned my body over. I think there were at least two. Perhaps more. But two at first for sure. Since I wasn’t dreaming I could swear they were real, but since I wasn’t awake fully I couldn’t swear that I wasn’t still dreaming. The touch was familiar. Windy. Rough. And the hands were unknown, promising rest in the next position. Always promising.

“Among these intervals, I received pings on my phone, which were friends emailing from far-off time zones, and I’d habitually check my messages. I was in the habit of supposing survival depended upon any news at all rather than any serious attempt at a decent night’s sleep.

“Four pings were received that night. The fourth was you. Somehow I knew it perhaps because I’d been wanting to know it. Waiting for the knowledge. I couldn’t understand the language you wrote in, but I recognized the implacable serenity of the message. So I knew it was you.

“And just as the serenity faded, the promises of the grey hands returned, moving through me. Inside of me. Kneading my guts. Gently then constrictively. This kind of solace was inhabited by no one. It was not for the living. Strangely, what became unsettling was that this place between pings and the wind blowing in through my infernal triangular window and the moonlight setting my sheets aglow was no longer under your control.  Was this the start of terror? No, I was far past that.”

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Kyle realized then that this man was himself. He recognized the cadence of his speech and his own interests in the man’s monologue. His voice was deeper than Kyle’s, his face different, his hair black, eyes grey, as mentioned, but the pronoun “I” he spoke with was Kyle’s own. As disarming as this was, to be addressed as “you”  was more so. The manner in which he looked at Kyle, incompatible with his sorrowful tone. You, he called Kyle from his repose against the trunk. Even so, if not morbidly eager, Kyle believed that nothing could proceed if he did not hear him out and keep staring into the grey churning eyes.

“The first ping was Enoch…” the man said. This verified it. Enoch was Kyle’s lifelong friend. He’d known him since age ten, and close friends since fourteen.

“Enoch in his email wrote that he’d found the snowdrop flower he was looking for in the Colchis region of Georgia. Galantamine was available with a prescription but he’d become so absorbed in lucid dreaming techniques he wanted to go directly to one of the four remaining sources of a species of Galanthus. He was writing from a hotel in Tbilisi while concocting a high-density solution. He’d mix the snowdrop extract, take B12 supplements, drink a sleep aid and put his earbuds in for his binaural beats and see what the combined effects were. It sounded so overly dramatic to me, and to be honest I had tired of Enoch over the last two years after Darnia died.

“He’d been experimenting with active dreaming as a method of taking his life. It was some convoluted form to justify giving up. Enoch had tried to find some positive things to do or ways of being but nothing could rid him of the daily aching. In his head, his chest, his guts and his bowels. Even the moments flashing after laughter, the wrenching throughout his organs came on more intensely. Religion didn’t do it for him, nor did the sunny ways of his society. So he claimed.

“Enoch repeatedly spoke of Darnia’s preternatural perceptive abilities. Her analysis of exterior and interior stimuli. How she read Enoch. The harmony they’d had. To no longer be the recipient of such gifts made everything else sub-standard. He’d convinced himself that this was not a life.

“What he could never include in his rationalizations for killing himself covertly under the cover of sleep was that the intent was the same. If not actionably self-injurious, it still cut a swath across his compadres and his family, as Darnia’s passing had done. He couldn’t see, wouldn’t take note of the evidence, that his trauma would be our trauma. And in this way, in all his motivations, he was rooted in ignorance.

“He spoke about plans to die in dreams ad nauseum until one day I noticed that I’d lost the will to object anymore. Althea and Manny (the second and third pings) were much on the same boat. Is this how the assistants in assisted suicide are ordained? Must it all be so much against our wishes? I reviled Enoch’s accentuated grief and sometimes — only sometimes — wished he’d just shut up.

“It had been over a year since Darnia had left us. An absolute freak accident. The kind that makes one turn from atheism and believe in a vindictive god. A being who causes suffering and spurns people on in the use of words like heathen and infidel.

“Darnia had been on the docks of Nanaimo watching fisher-people dropping crab and black cod traps into the water. Impetuously curious. She was a flashpoint to each new setting she graced. And in a flash she was gone. A cable from a steel trap tightened around her ankle as the cage was dropped into the water. The pressure from the water rushing into her had been so great her lungs burst. A non-medical way to put it.

“We couldn’t believe it when Enoch brought Darnia around for the first time. Whip smart, attractive, definitely out of his league. Manny said that aloud, and that was true. Darnia, a cosmologist at a notable Vancouver university. Athletic. Passionate about the wilderness. Second-generation Georgian. She and Enoch were so happy for awhile and Enoch a better man for it, but Darnia appeared to have one of those presences of body and mind determined at birth, unwavering and unaffected by the vagaries of time and influence. What I mean by that is she was always the same except in boredom, and the long term question was whether Kyle would be able to keep her.

“We all — Manny, Althea and I — revolved around this beautiful spirit for awhile, each  of us developing close personal bonds to her, each secretly wondering when she’d go off and find better friends (or better amusement) until we each realized we had to make our own lives interesting for ourselves. She would fill hers with whatever was available, while we/I were/was only waiting for what was right, morally speaking. This became entirely more clear when she disappeared into that sablefish water.

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Her death reinforced to me that her great trick in living had been her facility with memory and the ability to put together the most arcane details told to her. For instance, for Althea’s reassignment surgery anniversary she brought a plum tree in a small pot grafted with several peach rootstocks — their shared interest in botany — or after staying in our study for eight days (the first time someone slept there) while waiting for her condo to be renovated she left a copy of The Almagest, saying every library, whatever its size, needed one. This was on the principal that, similarly, cities without key character neighbourhoods were left wanting. Now, when we reconfigured her in our painful recollections of her alive, we saw the poignancy in how she saw others, as one collective whole. She drew strength from each person, which is why one could never be enough. Why Enoch was doubly damaged by her absence though he didn’t see the mirror side of it.

“As I think of each of my friends, jets passing through the contrails of the other’s passing, I am twisting in these sheets between wakeful awareness and sleep, light and dark, here and then, the space-time between dots, the physical and the thought, the cold hands flopping me over like a wet fish, the chemical reaction of fire on your cold flesh drying you out, burning you to ash. The ash which Enoch spread on some mountain in the Caucasus, which was his primary reason for going there, actually. The snowdrop, to Enoch’s fragile mind, was a fortuitous coincidence. Purportedly, he scattered you near your grandma’s village at a high elevation where the better of the eighty-eight constellations were visible, southern hemisphere notwithstanding. Red and blue stars unperturbed by city glare. The place where past was seen and you fluttered innumerably.

“At 2:18 am, I received the second ping. It was from Manny.

“Manfred, a cineaste and small theatre administrator, emailed me then just as he was coming to the understanding that his knee-jerk reactions and irritations to small “l” liberal progress were more an effect of A, a trajectory that had risen above him and left him behind, and B, an annoyance with the irrational inconsistencies within the libertine ethos, especially when it came to the free-the-nipple cause/celebration and the desexualization of the female body, which predominated over any real discussion over the evolution of the human moral code as it evolved in areas of minority rights, women’s rights and lgbtq rights. What he had “come to grips” with was that he should still be more irritated, not by how the left couched their terms, but those big violations of the human species that debased, degraded and denied various dignities. Lack of freedom, arrogance, injury, sexual violation, murder. Those ones. An adjunct to this eureka moment was that he was an idiot to not have asked Althea to marry him earlier. “Problem was” Manny wrote, “Althea doesn’t believe in marriage, let alone relationship definitions or gender limitations. Problem is Althea is sexier than all the women she has dated combined. Don’t tell her I said that.”

“My next ping notification arrived shortly after three a.m. from Beijing. As predicted, it was Althea. She was attending a Chinese literature symposium. I was a decent friend to both, they much better towards me. Both kept me in their confidence. Both knew I knew both sides. I admit there were times I found it hard to care for their histrionics. Especially when some issue pressed, for I’d suddenly be bombarded by both.

“Apparently, Manny had already asked for Althea’s hand in marriage, but she had neither said yes or no, citing work obligations at the university (a different university than Darnia’s). Althea wanted an opinion on her strategy of reply. Since she lectured on Chinese literature and her specialty the T’ang Dynasty era, an anthologist — former girlfriend she’d met in undergrad in pre-non-binary definition days as the womanizing Albert — had given her the run of the T’ang Dynasty poetry section in her  forthcoming book overviewing a history of Chinese verse. Althea was going to forge a ssu-yen shih, a four-line poem, in answer to Manny. She’d give him some leads, perhaps an inscription in a copy of the book for him, or something more subtle still. Just a mention of the book and the poem in order to see if he sought it out. Only if he understood that she had written a poem for him under poet Li Shang-Yin’s name. Only then would she marry him. I wasn’t sure if that determined a right match in partners but I never really gave my opinion with them.

“Althea included the poem in her email. It read as such:

“On the other side of earth/Sleeps my unchanged friend/With yes to say if/We begin or if we end.

“Gaglardi Way, I thought. But quickly I eked out the good in the situation: Manny would never find it.”

The man with the grey eyes spoke to Kyle with the dullness of confession and the eyes roiled like distant angry oceans. Of what he told, Kyle knew only of Enoch, but none of this suicidal association. The others — Althea, Manny, a wife even, and Darnia, who was more and more undoubtedly the “you” addressed at Kyle — were like stories about a distant shore he would never visit.

End of Part 1 of 2.

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