Funadhoo and Hulhumale. Credit: anonymous.
I walk to his house by the seafront, the home of an old man leaking loneliness, desperate to be heard, I think, because he can sense his last moments at arm’s reach. He lives alone, in comfort with his help but on some days, his soul would long for someone else, someone who comprehends his urgency and who am I if not one of them?
He is already talking as he descends the stairs, coming into the dining room and taking a seat across from me, the words spilling from his mouth onto the embroidered lace of the tablecloth.
'You build a scaffolding around yourself,' he is saying, looking at me intently as if I may attempt to refute his statement. Pleased with my silence, he proceeds.
'After a while, you see the scaffolding as natural though it was an artifact of your intelligence and instinct that built you from the ground up to face the world.'
He smiles, an old face worn smooth by the elements, bringing to mind a fleshy pebble on the shore of a great sea. He takes a spoon and puts some mashuni on his plate. He eats noisily, his tongue clacking against his jaws, and I imagine roshi turning to slush and finding its way into the crevices of his small, nicotine-yellowed teeth.
'So, we must reject this exoskeleton then for growth,' I say.
'Exactly. For rejuvenation.'
'But how do you know it's time?' I ask, believing I have got to the heart of the matter.
'Ah,' he says. 'I think you'll understand when you feel out of sync with the world.'
'What do you mean?'
'It's when your core truths get challenged. When you sense the unravelling of your interior.'
'Hmm,' I say. He gets another roshi and continues to eat.
'Do you like the mashuni?' he asks between repulsive clacks.
'Yes,' I say, trying to ignore the sound and attendant imagery.
'Why are you so tense?' he asks.
He nods and says: sometimes the mind deceives.
He tears off a piece of roshi, takes a pinch of mashuni and chews. Our gazes meet briefly, and I sense something unknown, unencountered within his charcoal eyes.
'What I'm trying to say is that sometimes the mind will try its best not to listen to the body.'
'What do you mean?'
'What I mean,' he says, straightening his back. 'What I mean is your mind can act on its own, because the laws that govern it are different. For instance, you may have survived some terrible ordeal. And your mind might repress the experience though your toes are clenched from anxiety and fear of something that’s buried in your mind. Yes, it still affects you. Your mind may choose not to acknowledge your body’s reaction to these, denying that it is affected. So, you carry on as though nothing has happened.'
He pauses, drinks water from a heavy, ornate glass, smacks his lips and motions for me to stand up. We take the stairs to his office where he has installed a mid-sized wooden swing. He takes a silver case out of his pocket and opens it. Inside lies a hefty joint.
'Your body exhibits fear, for instance, before you are aware of the qualia of fear,' he says with obvious fondness for the word, one leg crossed on the swing. 'Now imagine if you are aware of fear consciously but suppress it to move on with life. Imagine this continuing for months, years.'
He smiles at me then drags deep from the joint, which he offers. I take a small puff and that is enough for me. Too much and I spiral into intense self-doubt. Now, however, it lends a lightness to my thoughts.
'Suppose,' I say. 'Suppose there is a person in complete harmony with themselves. What I mean is there is nothing their unconscious can throw at their consciousness that would make it flinch. Everything's been dealt with. How long would it take for a person to be like this?'
He stares into the distance, mulling it over, this trivial thought.
'There are people for whom the inner is as the outer,' he says. 'There must be. They aren't prophets or saints – hell, they’d slip through the latticed fingers of the pious. They are unburdened enough to bear the pain of those around them.'
'To bear their pain, they must first know it,' I say.
'They have borne so much a man's face becomes like parchment,' he replies. 'They know right from the first sight.’
'And these people, how do they end up?'
'Dead and forgotten.' his face shows some strain, some sign of unwelcome thought.
'Wouldn't people want to sing their praise?' I ask. He slows down the swing with his right foot.
'No one wants to preserve the memories of those they turned to in complete hopelessness and despair,' he says. 'These people, they are not heroes. They vanish with their pain and secrets. You might say they even refuse to be remembered.'
As I reflect on this I begin to feel restless and wait for it to pass. Instead, it deepens, tightening the skin around my temples, my chest.
'I need some air,' I mutter and walk out into the open balcony. I breathe slow and deep and focus my attention on the world. The clouds are touched with gold. The sun, invisible, will soon be lost behind the bristling buildings on my left. Down below, the surf slaps the seawall.
To depart in quiet, no cleaving of the forest to mark their path, wanting nothing save easing the burdens of those that sought them out. And in return?
A bat flies towards the small island nearby. It will settle in a tree, inverting itself. And it occurs to me that my own life needs a radical shift and realignment, an inversion of values. The force of the thought leaves me reeling, as though someone had dealt a powerful blow to my chest. Slowly, a desperate longing comes over me for one who can with a glance understand all.