“From childhood’s hour I have not been
As others were; I have not seen
As others saw”
― Edgar Allan Poe
I lose my footing and fall to the ground. These damn stones. My lungs burn. I can hardly breathe. I must go on. Must not look back. On no account must I look back.
When it shows itself so plainly, why would you confront the face of horror?
I know it. No doubt. The monster is behind me. Very near. Its moudly stench searches out my nostrils, fills my lungs with foul air. Disgust rises in me, takes possession of my whole body. I must escape. Escape from out myself. Escape my body. To cease fighting the unavoidable.
A simple thing it would be to stand still. The smallest moment, no more than the time it takes to close an eye, and all would be forgotten. Essentially simple. Yet no, something in me rejects this. Something in me does not want to give in, rather to fight. This small essence battles on. Asserts its somehow necessary existence. My legs run, powered by the inherent survival instinct shared by all living things.
Naked survival instinct – it is this that compels me not to give up, compels me to run across this desert of sand and stone. Such heat. A relentlessly blazing sun seeks to liquefy the stones. Yet long before this my skin will fall victim to its fire.
I burn. My lungs. My skin. Flames ravish. I smell charred flesh. My flesh. I cannot go on. I cannot walk further. I must walk further.
Yes. I will choose the moment of my death: now, I will die.
My eyes. They deceive me, as they have so often – a trick. A white house before me. Standing there, as though it has done nothing else but to stand in the middle of a desert, waiting. Waiting for what?
A Fata Morgana? What should a house wait for here? In the midst of nowhere. I must be dreaming. Is everything merely dream? Is death itself a unique dream? Was that it all? A house? Nothing more? Is death waiting inside? For me? Yes, do wait for me, please. For I am coming. My legs cannot carry me faster, but I shall soon be with you. Just these steps up to the veranda. Now is not a time to stumble.
A monstrous shadow over me. The maw opens wide. The creature is nearly upon me, about to devour me, yet it is its sickly breath that drives me on, gives me the necessary strength to rip open the door, to plunge headlong into the innards of the house. With a profound thud the door slams shut behind me.
I listen. Around me it is still. The beast appears to have no intention to burst through the door. I lean myself against it. Nothing. All quiet. Not even a scratching. No rasping breath. Nothing. Does it give up so easily? Am I worth nothing to him? Is there more behind? Am I merely one prey of many? A curious feeling of jealousy slides over me, into me.
‘Did you see the monster?’
‘Only its shadow. I saw its shadow, sensed the beast, without it having touched me.’
‘I am so relieved that you made it here. Not everyone succeeds.’
‘Here? What do you mean?’
‘Here. To me. You have not quite managed to reach safety. You have failed in your senses somewhat. Failed in your own understanding. Or better still, failed to understand what there is left to understand.’
‘I have doubted my senses for such a long time.’
‘Did you not once turn to face the beast?’
‘No. Why should I? Although I knew, of course, that she was there, that she stalked me. Not for an instant did I mistrust myself. She let me sense her. I simply knew. I sensed her breath on my skin. I knew her from her greedy glance, and I was afraid of what lay twisted behind it.’
‘Come. Take a seat.’ He gestured to the sofa behind me. ‘You must be exhausted. I get so few visitors. Not that I could tolerate too many guests at once. Yet the pitfalls of loneliness are not alien to me.’
I accepted his offer with gratitude. ‘Thank you. I am so terribly tired. Will it come back?’
‘The monster? But of course it will come back. It fears the house. Stay as long as you wish. We are safe here.’
‘We, my dear. I was also once a fugitive. Once…ah, but that is another story.’
‘You need to know something. That creature outside, it can change its form. It allows you to see into your deepest self. It has many techniques to find its way into your fears, yet worse than this, it knows its victims intimately. At first, barely noticeable, it will appear as a shadow. It allows you a glimpse at dusk, but not until night does it fully manifest itself. It grows with every spark of your fear, gaining strength all the while. It slinks its way into your dreams. Also by day. But only in your dreams do you see the full picture.
‘You recognise the bridge. You come to know that between the worlds the borders are porous, fractured. Everything is different, yet the same – at that very moment when sameness returns. You have no name for the thing that happens to you. You strive for words that would explain it, explain what is occuring around you. Your realities are smudged. And they finally disappear while the light of your world is scrutinised by others. A world that you no longer hold as true. Many people equals many realities, each one distinct. Different to mine. Different to yours. Different to…ours. And yet all are one.’
‘Of course. Or do you think yours less real merely because it exists outside the knowledge of others? To be sure, you’re not so badly off with your own. Here we’re well protected.’
My gaze becomes lost in emptiness. Plainly, too much information.
‘Help yourself.’ He nods at the glass of water that stands before me on the small table.
‘Everything that you see, that you feel…just take it.’
Thankful, I take the first sip, only to greedily empty the remainder of the cool liquid into me.
‘That thing outside…’ I stutter.
‘Do you know something? That thing, as you like to call it, that thing outside, well someone once actually turned to face it. In fact, everyone thus far has turned to face it. What good did this do them, do you think?’
‘Are they dead, the others?’
‘Dead – yes, dead.’
‘Let’s just say they tried their utmost to escape the beast; albeit the attempt in itself was already condemned to failure. You wonder why? They were already long dead without even noticing it. They’d been so distastefully eager to live, that Life itself had fallen by the wayside. Everything they were preoccupied with became unnecessary burdens to drag around, dead weights to constantly shift about. Unceasing fear of death blinded them. It was impossible for them to either understand or even experience death. They could feel nothing. While they were desperately running after life, death had long since caught them up.’
‘If I wasn’t already mad, then…’
‘Naturally you are. You are mad. Mad on account of the road you’ve travelled. Mad from the way you’ve come, a way that was never yours. We all have our own way, crazy and far apart from the ways of others. Precious few tread their own path. So very few find the courage to do so. They prefer their compulsive tramping along such foreign paths as they mistake for their own; a false inheritance.
‘They diagnose you as spiritually disturbed, as sick, because you don’t fit into their world. They have only one world. And this they protect with all their narrowmindedness, with all their crushing hate. Hate of the unknown. Hate of their fear. Hate because of their fear. Hate because they see nothing, know nothing. We don’t need to look closely in order to know. And we must never turn to face our predator, for we are our own predator.’
‘But doesn’t everyone want to be free in their choosing, in their actions? Free to determine which way they might go?’
‘How free is a goldfish if you hurl it into a lake?’
‘I’m sure it’s not happy in a bowl either, but at least it’s alive.’
‘Or perhaps it is happy about what it takes for a life. It has no other. And for this creature, the supposed freedom of a lake would mean its certain death.’
‘I was always in search of another life. I was always somehow…I don’t know…somehow different.’
‘Different to whom?’
‘In any event, different to the others. Not different to myself. Yet sometimes I can be wholly different to myself.’
‘Are you sure about that?’
‘Yes, of course. No. Somehow I’m often different than I…’
‘We’re all different to ourselves. We’re many in one. Many inside us. The many constitute the singlular whole. This is why we’re superior to the others. If only they would try, try to think around the next corner, they’d see that we’re already countless corners ahead of them, streets ahead. Many see more, see differently.’
‘As a child, I desperately wanted to get away from here. From the world. From this life. Away from myself. Escape. But always the thought, where to? I was sure I didn’t belong here. I waited in vain. Nothing happened. Despair and rage alternated until eventually I became resigned. Nobody came. Nobody was searching for me. Not once did they want me there; whatever or wherever there is.’
‘Are you certain of that? Look around you, you’re already there. You are precisely there.’
‘At times, I really think it’s only all in my head.’
‘Only? Just because it’s in your head, doesn’t it exist? Does it make the monster less real just because the people out there can’t see it? Because they’re blind and deaf. Because they know of nothing but their distorted ideas, which they take for reality. Because they wish to preserve their illusion of life as valid? Their self-deception mutates into unshakeable belief; to contemplate a life that’s founded on lies.’
‘All these things are only happening in my head.’
‘Just things. Things like these. Things that aren’t normal. Things that I feel. Things that I see. Just things. Things that no one else can understand. Things – such as you. In my clear moments, I know that my whole life and my whole being do not fit here. Although I’m no longer a child, and no one will save me, no one will collect me.’
‘Save you from what? You don’t need to be saved. You’ve saved yourself. My house stands in the middle of here and now. I was just sitting here. You found the way – completely by yourself. You opened the door. You alone.’
‘So many thoughts, so many questions and never an answer. So many answers to questions I never asked. Why? Why? Why? Why? I never wanted to be here; neither did I want to be there.’
‘Everywhere the same madness. It makes no difference where you were born, or what circumstances you grew up in. Merely a different seasoning. A pinch more of this, a soupçon less of that. You learned to feed your soul. You gave it the necessary nourishment so that it might survive, which essentially means that you’re able to survive now. And that’s not to everyone’s taste? Shouldn’t bother you. Are you choosy? You ought to be. One experiences so that one may know. One learns to understand.
‘You know what your taste is. You tried everything, sampled every dish. And you spat each one out again, and even then some of them gave you indigestion. Too sweet, too bitter, too salty, too hot, too cold…you’re one of those people that needs to know what’s cooking. You choose the ingredients – then cook! Never let yourself be cooked for, let alone be on the menu.’
‘I don’t know anything anymore. I know nothing more than that which I do not know. Everything sounds like a cookbook, a recipe. I no longer have any idea of my own. Most of the time, I don’t know what I want, but…’
‘But you do know what tastes bad.’
‘Well…sure, I’m making progress. Occasionally, I can recognise the things I don’t want. That’s true. You’re right there. But I don’t always know what suits me, what tastes good to me. Then again, I’m able to tell when something tastes wrong, and then I know what’s missing, what would make it better.’
‘Excellent. So you do know what you want, not merely what you don’t.’
‘Hm, looking at it that way…don’t confuse me now! There’s no room in here for any more insanity.’
‘I’m not mad, okay? Don’t assume that about me. Sometimes it’s hard to work out the boundaries, but that’s okay. Somehow. I like to explore my boundaries, my limits. Quite often. Even though I don’t like to, I sometimes transcend them. On a whim. And also…no, let’s leave it there.
‘Different. Not different. Everything surreal. Is this reality? A delusion? It that really all it was? Is that the reason for my mistrust of people? Is that the reason for…for so many things. Did I want that? Do I? These boundaries that I always fail to hold in place. And still I fail. Don’t want it.
‘There are so many things to discover. Things that others can’t see. For me, they’re tangible, visible. These fragments form a piece of my world. You said so.’
‘Mine, yours, ours…it’s utterly immaterial. Regardless. Where does your world end? Where does mine begin? Who can say that it’s not all one thing, one world? Made out of many pieces. Numberless pieces, and only a few of us have mastered the game, only a rare few have the ability to put all the pieces together, so to create the whole.’
‘A blessing and a curse? Same as always. Anyway, I believe everything is just imagination. That includes you. That’s all that’s just happened. Absolutely. I’m imagining everything. Are you real?’
‘Of course I’m real. For you.’
‘Back when I was a child…I can’t deny it, I used to create my own world, as children often do. And this world was surrounded by walls, by minefields, by monsters, the most hideous creatures that I’d encountered in the abyss – I brought them all back with me. They let no one get too close.’
‘Did they ever try to hurt you?’
‘Never. They weren’t vicious. I wanted them just the way they were. They followed in my footsteps. They obeyed me. They were my friends. All these monsters were my friends. They didn’t pester me for whys or wherefores. They looked after me. I looked after them. I let them all live with me. They lived together with me in my world. It became our world. We were together. How might it have turned out…if these monsters had never left me, if they’d remained in my head.
‘I’m still imagining everything, like when I was a child – both the here and the now. Perhaps it’s all just self-deceit. Like you said? Human beings are blind. Eventually, I could no longer find my way out. Maybe I didn’t want to find it. Perhaps I was too afraid; I’m still afraid. I don’t know anymore. It’s not important anyway. Not anymore. I don’t understand it, even though I’ve tried. Again and again, I struggled to understand it. And I always find myself back there, wanting to understand it. You should have seen my house.’
‘Tell me more about the house. Was it like mine?’
‘No. It wasn’t white. It was see-through – but only for me. Domed. No one could see me there, and no one could hurt me either. It was empty, no furniture. Nothing you could see. Nothing that others would be able to see. I simply sat there. Observed what was going on around me. At night, I could see who might be creeping around outside the house. All these people. And I was invisible to them. Safe in my house.’
‘What happened then? Where’s your house now?’
‘There came a time when I didn’t want it anymore, when I didn’t want to hide from other people. I didn’t want to be gawped at anymore. Scrutinized like an animal. I never wanted to see them again. Never hear them. Yes, I wanted them to know what I was. From that point onwards, I strove to be bad, to be mean. I swore then that I’d hurt them before they even had the chance to think of hurting me. I needed to be constantly on my guard, always on the lookout. I wanted to read their thoughts, and once I had, I’d drive them into darkness. I wanted to play with them. Cat and mouse. As long as I was always the cat, always the predator.’
‘Whom did you wish to hurt?’
‘I would have said everyone. I remember so much; but I’d rather not talk about it. I simply didn’t want to be weak anymore. No more tears would flow. I’d never again turn and look behind me. It was no longer necessary. And I knew that. I’d suddenly understood.’
‘And why the tears now?’
‘It’s nothing. Just memories. I’ll make new ones. I’ll choose my memories. Never again will I allow anyone to dictate my memories to me. I’ll be a different girl, one that grows into a different woman. I live in a beautiful, well-protected home. I sleep in a warm, soft bed. A cat purrs beside me. I have many friends.’
‘A beautiful life.’
‘No, no, no. A deep madness, one that many fall into. Why should it be? Why should my life be beautiful? Is it written in some book? I never read it anywhere.’
‘You write the book. Write yourself a new life. A new book.’
‘Well, maybe. Would you help me?’
‘It’s all I’ve ever done.’
S. Kerling meets E. A. Poe (Meeting I – Excerpt from ‘Only a game’ )
Author: Svea Kerling
Translated by Jürgen Olschewski