4. IN STAGNANT TIME
The last few months I had been out of sorts. It started when Mom got sick, which happened just before spring break, and instead of taking the trip we had planned for months she was hospitalized. After school I cooked and did the chores, Dad did the shopping. Although Mom was recovering as expected the turn of events shook me up. What if Dad fell sick too, or worse? What if a tornado struck our house as happened to my cousins in Kansas? I knew enough about disasters to know it was foolish to think that we were in control of our lives.
Before Mom's sickness the world felt solid. Seeing how fragile our lives are took that solidity away. Every speck of dust every creature small and big and every star in the sky were spinning toward their own separate annihilation. Nothing made sense anymore. Everything I was taught in school was useless. What was the fuss and bustle all about if it leads only to more of the same? Why was I pushing myself so hard, what was the rush, where to if everything could collapse in a blink? Why suffer if every expectation is stained with pain, every success marred by its own peculiar frustration? In the end, what difference does it make how I amuse myself in the meantime? The confident self I was last year was now a left over idea, an echo adrift in the mind.
Mom was recovering well and the end of drudgery was in sight. But by then my head was on a different track. I had withdrawn so far into myself that when spoken to I hardly heard what was said and when I spoke no one seemed to listen. My feet took me to school, the body remembering the way from one street corner to another. Even to brush my teeth became an ordeal—every move called for a separate memory of what to do next.
I didn't think much about it. Alienation had advantages—it made me inaccessible to others which gave me comfort. Yet by now I was no longer able to respond to people even if I wanted to. Like the other afternoon when I walked in from school and Mom turned to me and hugged me, holding me tight. Sensing emotion swell inside me I wanted to hug her back but restrained myself—it felt like my will was weakening, as if hugging Mom would drag me back from what I was escaping. The other night Dad suggested we go to the movies, but instead of saying yes or no, I just sat there looking at him. He took my hand and led me to the car and I can't say I didn't enjoy going out with the family or seeing the movie. It simply made no difference where I was or what went on around me. The head was somewhere else.
Silence offered protection from the pressures without and within. Silence gave me a much-needed vacation from dealing with the world. Silence enveloped me like a cocoon and after much twisting inside, the cocoon felt warm against the skin. It fit me better than my shadow which had a life of its own.
Was there anyone anywhere in this world I could trust?
A shadow landing atop the cocoon cawed,
"You can trust time. Time brings change, time is on your side."
"Who are you?"
"I'm the raven from Nevermore."
Unsure how to respond I remained silent.
"Stop peering into a midnight dreary," said the raven from Nevermore. "Look at yourself!"
At myself? I was waiting for something significant to happen. But to do nothing wasn't that easy either for flashes of an active self disturbed the present while the present undermined the future. With hope swaddled in ridicule, doing nothing was like carrying boulders uphill and watching them roll down. The stagnant and crushing deadweight of time was heavier still.
Snippets of my past were drifting across the mind. On my left were family members, familiar faces of past generations gathering, words uttered in passing flickering like subtitles in a silent movie. On the right my future was assembling—tomorrow's sunrise was to find me in the cocoon, a year from now in some unfamiliar place in some other state of mind, two years later in college. College. Yes. Then a job and probably marriage. And children. Yes. And then in the solemn procession of births and funerals my children were having children—yes. The yeses stringing lives together like beads. In that chain of predictable events I was just a link. In a shudder I was back in the present.
By then the cocoon was encasing me so completely I could hardly move a limb. Somebody tapped overhead.
"You there, still wallowing in self-pity? Speak up!" It was the raven's raspy voice. Detecting a sinister note I looked up and there was the raven's black eye pressed against a hole in the shell staring back at me.
"Would you rather be dead than alive?" It asked.
"I was sleeping when your tapping woke me up, and..." The shocking question struck home.
"And?... What were you going to say?" the raven insisted, black beak pecking at the edges of my melancholy, widening the breathing hole.
"...I'm waiting for change. You said, time brings change."
"Did I hear you right? Did you say you are waiting for change to come to you?"
"Changes have taken place around you all the while you were sulking and you're waiting for something special to be delivered especially for you?! Don't you know that things change as they must? Haven't you heard that nothing lasts forever and that includes your precious self? Unless you start noticing changes coming and going, unless you change yourself, and welcome change, and go for it, nothing will happen."
"For one, the cocoon has grown so thick that by now you are trapped in it."
"Trapped?" Yes, breathing had become difficult. "How much longer will this last?"
The raven, perched above the breathing hole, spoke no more. An inkling of change forthcoming felt like the promise of a spectacular escape—change was my savior, change was the redeeming force, change was to bring me back to life and rescue me from some pending calamity—
Head pushed hard against the breathing hole popped out into a jet-black night—a breeze touched my hair, a splash of water cooled the face. Lifted by a rolling wave, the cocoon tilted and took on water.
The futility of human arrangements struck me now full force: hadn't I built the cocoon to protect myself from the outside world? Look at me now. Hadn't my desire for isolation imprisoned me? Wasn't I trapped in a shell of my own making?
By daybreak the cocoon was already half submerged, lulling in a vast borderless ocean and tilting precariously.
"Act!" a seagull shrieked fluttering above me. "Don't think—act!"
I slipped out of the cocoon in time to see it sink. A few bubbles of air on the surface and my safety, my discomforting comfort was gone.
I was swimming straight ahead looking neither back nor ahead when, lifted by a slumbering wave, I glimpsed a stretch of cliffs—the wave was heading for the rocks lining the shore. Ready to crash I shut my eyes. But no, before reaching the shore the wave subsided and it washed me up gently onto a narrow stretch of sand under the cliffs.
Some distance away a flame was flickering. I approached it, and through a split in rock could see a bonfire, people young and old huddled around it. Over the fire hung a cauldron with a thick liquid bubbling, the sweet aroma of honey heavy in the air. Those sitting closest to the cauldron held wooden spoons, those standing around them long-handled ladles, and those behind them long sticks—all dipping their implements into the hot honey and scoop after scoop drip after drip anointing themselves with it. Those who had spoons or ladles poured the hot liquid over their heads, their ears their faces and shoulders blistering. Woeful moans filled the cave, yet no matter how painful was the ritual, none could resist the taste of honey. As if the self-inflicted pain was worth the suffering, the pleasure justifying the pain.
Alarmed by echoes of self-mutilation I slipped away unnoticed. Sobbing I ran back along the cliffs until I came across a narrow tongue of sand pointing inland.