A pressing, distressing narrative this is not. It’s 1570 Spain, and I’m a missionary building a church in the middle of the forest. It’s 1960 southern United States and I’m a policeman shining the beam on a tree, and its leaves, as the sky shines bright with stars and people sing in the distance, a new music. The new music.
But really it’s just today, and I’m in a cab. I’m sleeping against the window. Drifting. Outside, people are walking about in suits and dresses, with laptop cases over their shoulder. Umbrellas ready just in case. And people are selling food along the asphalt, puffs of steam erupting when they open the lids of their devices. Typically, I’m with them, emerging from the underground into the light, then rising into the sky via a tower to watch it fade. I can see it all from where I live: the city, the mountains in the distance, the ocean beyond, the fault lines underneath us, the air currents that circulate above. All of it.
I lean on the window. Drift. It’s 1482 Japan, and I’m sitting on the ground. Sitting on the ground. Today is a time for tea, and under a tree, that’s what I have before me. My father is sitting next to me, pouring tea into cups as my mother walks towards us over a bridge. There is some story about the shogunate pinned to the tree, and it’s flapping above my head, where I can’t read it. Can’t imagine what it says. My father is talking to me about troubles, and war, a whole hundred years of war that is coming, as though he knows these things. As though he could possibly know.
My mother has crossed the bridge and is kneeling in her robes. I’ve never seen her like this.
“You have to be calm,” she says. “To close your eyes and to sleep in peace.”
“Otherwise what?” I ask her.
She is sipping tea. The note above my head is flapping. On the mountain in the distance rises a tower and from it glimmers a light that sweeps the horizon filled with villages and streams. Mother touches my knee, asks me to drink, and then she says: “Do you know what Zen is?”
On the other side of the bridge, the daimyo’s men are marshalling. They are trampling the ground. There are too many to cross the bridge, so they are wading into the stream as they come forwards.
“We have to go,” I tell Mother and Father, rising.
“No, sit down,” they tell me, as the shogun warriors approach. Swords are raised. Eyes glimmer.
“This is crazy!” I tell them, pushing back against the tree, as though it will save me and my parents too, maybe get me home, wherever that is. But then the soldiers are here, as my parents kneel. Swords rise. Swords rise all the time. But I’m not there. I was never there. So I drift, and that is all that I seem to do anymore.
The tire is flat. Exploded into bits of rubber on the grass, underneath the heat. I have a gun, a long barrel over my shoulder.
“This is rather startling,” says the woman in the jeep. I blink at the image of her, and shake my head of sleep. “We’ll be late for the banquet, and you’ll not have any stories about your catch to tell. What a shame. What a damned, terrible shame.”
“Emily,” I tell my wife, “why don’t you shut up?”
She smiles. “Because that wouldn’t do, not after you dragged me out here for your sport. So I’ll continue to talk, and you will continue to listen. We’re alone on this savannah, forty miles from anyone who can help us, and the last I knew of it, my husband has no idea how to change a tire.”
I look at the short grass of 1890 Nigeria, so fertile, so endless. So British. We own this land, I think to myself. It’s ours, and thus it can’t hurt us. But in the distance, something is moving in the grass. I catch a hint of it and turn towards it, but it stops. Every time I look away, it moves.
“Emily, bring me extra cartridges. Right now.”
“Oh don’t be so dramatic,” she says, reclining in her chair. The length of her beckons, and she knows this. “This is so tremendously romantic of you, my dear, that I fear I must dedicate an entire section of my journal to it.”
“There’s something in the grass.”
“Of course there is, my dear. There is always something in the grass.”
But it’s hot. I’m so hot and here I am, on the savannah, the rifle over my shoulder. I stare at a spot of taller grass, yellow and quiet but for the wind that makes a throne on it and feasts as music plays and the clown tumbles. The grass moves. The clown tumbles. Then the grass erupts, and a shape is hurtling towards us.
“Emily!” I cry, as I raise the gun. “Cartridges!”
The beast is fast. I never saw it coming, don’t know if it has been stalking us as we stalked it. I shake my head of the weariness, the hints of the dream.
Emily is next to me, breathless. “Here,” she says, putting bullets into my pocket. I take aim with the gun and fire. The savannah, this land that I own, hears me. I fire again and again, but the beast comes on.
“Oh God,” says Emily. “Oh God please let us survive this, in whatever fashion you deem. But let us be so that we may be better.”
But I don’t know what she means. What better is there than this, I wonder? I fire, and the savannah ravages itself with heat as the beast approaches. Then I’m out of bullets and turn to my wife. She’s pale, beautiful, determined. She urges me to drop the rifle – and then we run, streaking over the savannah. In the distance, there is a stand of trees, wide flat-topped acacia. A wind is sitting in their branches, lounging in a chariot with a broken wheel, the horses grazing on the leaves.
It’s too far, I tell myself, but I don’t say those words to Emily. I have a knife in my pocket. A knife and nothing more. Nothing else or less. I’m holding her hand as we run. But then I’m not next to her. I don’t know her. Never did. And I drift.
I’m awake. It’s a subjective term, but a real one. This is something we all do – awaken to the world in which we actually live. Outside, it’s raining. Thank God for umbrellas. Thanks the Lord that we have them, otherwise what would happen? Raindrops obscure the city through the window of the cab. The car lets me out at a tower, and I’m in the lobby. I’m soaked. I’m dry. I’m bleeding, and dead; I’m alive, but barely. And now I’ll go up, to the high place, and tomorrow… That’s just a thing, a notion that possibly I’ll do something wonderful tomorrow, with all the grandeur that I didn’t expend today, with the might and wonder I was ready to put forward today but somehow didn’t.
Somehow I just didn’t.
I shake my head.
The elevator takes me up. And I drift.
I’m sitting on a hammock in the shade of a column. It’s risen as high as it will need to go, but others are being erected. I can hear the work being done on them. I can feel dust in the air.
Next to me, Father is pouring tea. He’s wearing rags, and his head is bald. “Thank you,” I tell him, as he hands me a cup.
“This will be a notable temple,” says Mother. She’s holding a ledger, writing in it. “We are quite within budget on materials, but there’s a certain matter of money for the laborers that we will have to discuss.”
“Mother,” I ask her. “How did you get here?”
She writes in the ledger and then her eyes come up and look at me, as though she knows how absurd this is, as though to say that we’ve slipped too far this time – that 470 BCE is too far, and we should not be here. But she writes in the ledger as I drink my tea. The columns are going up, the main floor of the Temple being laid. In the center are three sculptures, one for each of the Gratiae, and it seems to me that Splendor looks so much like a woman I have known, a wife I never had, a name I never knew. I shake my head of the dream.
Mother keeps talking about numbers and figures. I watch a new segment of a column go up. “We can requisition forces from the coast, but it will take five days for them to arrive. Better to conscript men from nearby villages, in order not to lose time. We cannot lose time.”
“No, we really mustn’t,” I tell her.
“A schedule must be kept, if we are to progress.”
“Yes,” I agree. “We must progress.”
What do we have to say for ourselves today, though? Here I’m building a Temple for gods that have granted our human creativity. Thank God for this. Thank the Lord.
“And we will need stronger men to deal with the inlays,” says my mother. “We require those who have true strength, and that can climb the columns. Do you know what Zen is?”
I look at her. “No, that’s wrong. It’s wrong.” But she just stares at me, as the Temple grows larger. I shake my head of the dream.
But I’m a policeman, and it’s night. And a black man is hanging from a tree, and I want to cut him down but I don’t. So I stand there and watch him swing, and I want to shake my head of the dream. I want to pray and I want to create, and I want to make it better but I just stand there with the flashlight as my car hums behind me, and in the forest not far away, I can hear people moving as they sing. Fleeing, just as the lion pounces and rips me to shreds. But the church is not finished, so I survive. I kneel, and bring the word of God to these people before me, just as the shogun warriors reach me and cut me to pieces. I want to shake my head of the dream. I do.
But it’s actually today, and I’m in a tower. Looking on the city and everything beyond it. From here, I can see everything. I can see exactly what it is that I can do. I can see everything anyone has ever done, I can read all about it, over and over again. I put my hands on the glass, and it pushes back, as the lion pounces and the sword falls and I shake my head of the dream. The words are written in the buildings, in the roads, in the scenery beyond, the very requirement saying that we must shake our heads of the dream in favor of this: in favor of the steel and the brick and the concrete and the asphalt of the proper way to live.
The next day, the phone rings. The world sings. I stand in the same place, another day of nothing exceptional. Of just living, and that’s all. Of having shaken my head of the dream, even as I drifted through 1704 India and defended the Raigarh fortress, or built a hospital in 1148 England as people told me that human disease came from mis-alignment of the planets – and each of these a stone placed in the construction of our history, to result in this present date, to this life that I lead and with which I do what?
This story is not about God or gods. It’s not about history. Or mortality or existence. It’s not about race or colonialism or feudalism. It’s not a philosophical piece. It’s not even really a story. It’s a question. I know it’s strange and disjointed and doesn’t lay things out easily, but that’s the nature of the questions that are asked at times, the ones we prefer, more or less, to answer well or badly, but more commonly not at all. It’s a question. A long, strange question, and nothing more than that.