Part Three

Seahorses. I did not know the first thing about seahorses except they are an aquatic animal and that they are funny-looking. I was only familiar with them through school text books and nature channels on TV, but I had neither a like nor a dislike for them. They were not a part of my life in any way whatsoever, so they rarely, if ever, featured in my thoughts. But I was dreaming again, and in my dream, I was a seahorse. I had to pretend like I was part of a seahorse clan—they were apparently living in clans—and not get found out that I was an imposter. I could see myself from a third-person perspective and it could not be more obvious that I was not a seahorse. I was an awkward naked human being a hundred times larger than my clansmen, with knees bent and toes curled to imitate a seahorse’s tail, my hands were flat to my side so it looked like I had no hands, and I was thrusting my hips forwards and backwards and kicking my feet to move around. I had been living among them for some time, but a few of them were starting to suspect that I might not be one of them. I had to escape, but the ocean was a strange and hostile place and I did not know where I could even go. For a moment I thought I could swim up to the surface and some human fishermen could find me and pick me up, but the dilemma I had was that the fishermen might mistake me for some kind of a sea creature—I was sure they would not mistake me for a seahorse—and they might not be so kind to me. So it came to pass that one of the clansmen finally came up to me to confront me. I tried to defend myself, but I had human anatomy and I did not know the language they were speaking in, so it was impossible for me to respond or to even understand what the fish was saying. Instead, I swam away in panic, up towards the surface. But when I was just about to surface, some fishermen caught me in their net. They hauled me up onto their boat and they laughed at me because I was naked. However, one of the men took pity on me and brought me a blanket to cover me up. He put it over my shoulders, but the blanket smelled of spoilt fish so I refused it, telling him that it was better I went back into the sea. He bid me farewell while the others still laughed as I jumped back into the depths below. I swam for a long time, looking for my clan, but they were all gone. Seahorses had short lives, I reasoned in my head and it made sense to me. Still, I kept on searching, swimming to the deepest depths and to the farthest currents. Not all of them had been mean to me, I thought to myself, and they might take me back if they knew that the fishermen had been laughing at me, that was if they were still alive somewhere. But I never found them, and in the end, I did not hope to. The ocean was a wide and empty place, and I was all alone. I was crying in the water, and instead of tears, tiny air bubbles came out of my eyes and floated up towards the faint light above. Dejected, I swam up, following the trails of those bubbles until I came out to the surface. Then I felt a light tapping on my shoulder. I looked around, but nobody was there. Another tap. I turned. Nothing. I was being shaken now, but there were no waves to shake me and I was starting to grow scared. Then I felt a sudden sharp pain right across my cheek.

I jumped awake.

‘There you are,’ a voice said.

My vision was blurry and my senses were still hazy as I hastily tried to get up and stand my ground and defend myself against this new entity that, in my shock, I perceived to be hostile.

The voice only laughed as I wobbled on my feet and fell back down but before I staggered back up and raised my clenched fists.

‘Relax kid, I’m not here to fight you,’ the voice said, which I discerned was female as the person put her hand on my fists to bring them down.

I did not fight it. I rubbed my eyes and I back away a couple of paces. The blur of her figure was forming into a defined shape. She stood no taller than I did and she had one hand on her hip, and I could almost see an amused smile on her face, but the dim dawn light made it hard to be sure.

‘What was it?’ she asked. ‘Jellyfish?’

‘What?’ I asked back, having no idea what she was talking about for a moment.

‘Your dream,’ she said. ‘Or was it starfish?’

‘Seahorse,’ I muttered, the absurdity of the situation barely registering as the memory of the dream flooded back to my head.

‘Ah,’ she said, as if it was something revelatory. ‘That is cool. It’s always jellyfish for me, but starfish’s really the most common.’

‘What are you talking about?’ I asked.

‘The window to our subconscious selves,’ she said matter-of-factly as if that explained everything. But I did not question her further.

‘Who are you?’ There was a strange and uncanny familiarity on the woman’s face with that of the man I met before. The eyes were the exact same, and so were the nose, the mouth, the cheeks, and everything else, and there was nothing about her that I could definitely identify individually as different. But somehow, she was without a doubt a woman, and the man had without a doubt been a man.

‘Oh, just a stranger passing by,’ she said, then added, ‘if that makes it easier for you.’

‘You look familiar,’ I said, choosing to ignore the latter part of her answer, know better at this point than to go down that rabbit hole.

‘Huh, that’s exactly what I’m thinking about you,’ she replied with a light-hearted smirk. She took a deep breath to signal the end of this strain of dialogue, took a look around, clicking her tongue at the decimated creature, and then back at me before she said, ‘Well, shall we get going, then?’

There really was nothing else that I thought I could do than to go along.

The sky was growing brighter by the minute and the heat rising with it. I narrated to the woman the events of the day before and the days that preceded it after her prompting, seeing no reason to keep anything from her. I was still deeply affected by the death of my canine companion, but somehow, beyond the mental acknowledgement that I missed the good boy, beyond the stark comprehension that his absence left a void in my heart, I did not feel even a shred of the crushing grief and the blinding rage that I felt after I buried him that led met to commit the carnage on the creature’s carcass. Instead, there was a strange sense of calm, like I was experiencing all of it second-hand and that the rage and grief only affected me indirectly, and in that calmness was . . . not exactly illumination, but more of a clearer view on what it might all mean, or what it was supposed to me, or what it should mean to me. Perspective would be a better description, but there was no peace in that calmness either within this new perspective. It was no joy being reminded of my act of mindless savagery in the past that probably inspired the dog’s cameo, but one thing I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt was that remorse would be a part of my life for a long time to come.

I related to the woman in detail about the dog and the creature, about the hallucination and its ecstasy, and I did not shy away from the monstrous emotions that took hold of me after, but somehow, when the conversation went on and we explored further into the recent apocalyptic past, I could not bring myself to be honest about the man for reasons I could not identify. Maybe it was to do with the uncanny similarity of their features. Even her gait was identical to the man’s; the way she would put one foot slightly ahead of the other whenever she halted, the one hand on her hip and the other on her knee; the way she would bend or squat to inspect something on the ground; the way she would put her hand on her hip in reverse when she was thinking. Although I did not really take concentrated notice of the man’s grab, I was almost positive they wore identical clothing. So, whenever she asked me anything past my meeting of the dog, my answers remained succinct.

I asked her questions as well, more out of obligation to keep conversations going, and given that I had no idea how long we might be travelling together, it was better to be amiable than dour. I had nothing against her or against trying to make a connection. It was the said uncanny feeling that seemed to put a barrier between me and her. Nevertheless, I engaged in dialogues that I was not surprised by. Already accepting of the many similarities that she bore to the man, I knew her answers would be vague or philosophical or metaphorical or completely nonsensical most of the time. But the more distance we covered, she either dropped the veil of ambiguity with her answers or I was able to understand her better. And the more I understood her, the more comfortable I felt with her and the lesser the uneasiness became. Or maybe I was better able to identify distinguishing personalities between the man and the woman.

We sought shelter on the inside of a rusting bus sheltered by large slabs of concrete as the day passed and darkness gained on us. The hours of light were spent on walking and nothing else, but it somehow felt eventful as I finally had the time to sit down and stretch my legs and reflect on it, and it was all to do with the woman. She was not shy about answering any question I had, and towards evening, I was already running out of questions. I felt like I knew her from my life before the end of the world, like I knew her better than anyone I actually knew. She had a childhood of ease, born into a family with money in abundance. She was the oldest of five siblings and she played no small part in the upbringing of her younger sisters and brothers. Her childhood and teenage years were the epitomai of excess and opulence, and from the outside, it looked as though the silver spoon would never turn to brass. They were the envy of everyone in their society, especially because of their unconstrained contributions to their community. She and her siblings were no less than local celebrities, and she herself liked the attention, liked the name that she had, and she was proud of it. Everything was sunny and perfect. But perfection was only an illusion. It was a slow and subtle decline at first, starting with her father’s love affair that led to a troubled marriage, that further led to alcohol abuse and a troubled home, which graduated to a decline in their father’s business due to bad press and social stigma, prompting an attempt to halt the rapid slide by making bad investments after bad investments that backfired and led to near-bankruptcy, and that further progressed the alcohol abuse to domestic abuse, and after that there was a cycle of regret and regression for a period of time with the regression growing worse with each cycle before the eventual and inevitable complete corruption of the liver that sent a once seemingly perfect and infallible family to the depths of despair and infamy. All her mother’s strengths and will was nowhere near enough to save them from ruin, and it fell on her, still barely an adult, to carry the weight of her world on her shoulders. It took a toll on her.

‘There was a point somewhere in there,’ she said as the darkness outside deepened, ‘when the very thought of the next morning would bring me to tears. I was failing in class, I was behind with my fees, work was eating me up, and week by week, I was becoming more and more the mother. I had to find a way to cope.’

She did not continue for a moment. I could hear her shuffling in the darkness. But as the silence of the night began to grow louder and just as I was about to say something, she sighed heavily and went on. ‘I was in rehab for a time. The pain felt like it would last forever, and I had dark recurring thoughts that make me shudder remembering them now. But despite all that, despite the terrifying cravings and the constant damning ideas, a part of me always knew that I needed to get better for my brothers and sisters. Once the worst of it passed, I was determined, and I knew I could get better. I did, for a time. Maybe I was complacent, but what cannot be ignored was how much of a fuck life does not give about you or your problems. Inside, we were in a safe controlled space. You had other like you going through the same things, people who could empathize, people you could count on to listen to you and help you. But outside, you’re naked in a storm of needles and broken glass and the only protection you have is your willpower. How effective do you think that is?

‘I always knew I was hurting my family, but I guess I refused to truly acknowledge to what extent. What use was guilt when I couldn’t help doing what I did? Maybe if there was a guarantee that accepting and acknowledging the dire circumstances of it all and accepting my responsibilities would lead to some kind of a revelatory illuminating moment that extinguishes all cravings and bypass the pains of withdrawals, sure. But there’s none, and the only thing that acknowledgement would lead to was a quicker death.’

‘Did you really believe that?’ I asked when she didn’t go on.

‘To be honest, I didn’t know what I believed.’

‘What do you mean?’ I asked.

‘I’ve been sure of many things about myself, and I’ve been wrong time and again about those very things. So, I believed whatever I wanted to believe based on how I felt in the moment, although some thoughts linger in your head much longer than others, that’s to say, the bad ones endure.

‘The truth underneath it all for me was that I was scared shitless of reality,’ she continued. ‘If it hadn’t been drugs, it would’ve been something else. I would still have had to find a way to make everything else not matter, or matter less, just so I could wake up in the morning and not wonder if I would make it to the end of the day, or go to bed at night and not wish for the morning to never come. It was not a path I was led onto or pressured into. It was a path I chose, a route for escape that I paved on my own. I don’t blame it on anyone or anything. I used to, but not anymore.’

‘What changed?’ I asked.

‘Well, ten years of loneliness, self-hate, self-reflection, guilt, remorse, you name it. Everything came to a head one night I got desperate. I was twenty-five. In all the time I’d been using, I’d never stolen from my own family. We were barely keeping afloat and what little we had went to our mouths. My youngest sister had recently found a job and she was bringing in good money and she was helping out. I couldn’t be prouder of her.

‘One night I went to her, wanting to borrow some money. I told her I’d pay her back, but she knew me too well and she didn’t want to be an enabler, so if course she refused me, and I never blamed her. She wasn’t unkind. She was sympathetic and understanding and wanted to talk to me, but I was growing more and more desperate by the minute. What could’ve been a heartfelt conversation led to an argument, a shouting match, which, I’m ashamed to admit, eventually led to a physical fight. And the worst part of it all was, she did not fight back. It would be easy for me to say that I was not in my right mind, that I was blinded by my cravings, but that wouldn’t be true. I knew what I was doing. I knew the consequences it would lead to. But in that moment, I just didn’t care, or, I just cared more for my fix.’

‘You don’t think your sister has forgiven you?’ I asked after a while.

‘Would you?’ she asked me back.

‘I’m an only child,’ I said as an excuse to wiggle out of the question.

‘You wanted a sibling, didn’t you,’ she said after a short pause.

‘Yes,’ I said, ‘but not that much.’

‘Why not?’ she asked.

I was a little surprised by the question since she, and the man before, seemed to know every bit about my life. Nonetheless, I answered, ‘I didn’t have a happy childhood, and if I had a younger sibling, I knew the kind of childhood they’d have had to go through, and I didn’t want that.’

‘You were a lonely child, weren’t you?’

‘No,’ I said, but I was not convincing. My mind raced, trying to think of things to say, the words in my head stumbling over each other. Eventually I added, ‘I had friends. There was a boy in my class that I usually hung out with. He was smart. He was kind. He was sharing. He never . . . he never hurt anyone.’

I clenched my fist around my collar and pulled at it as I tried to make no sound with sobs rising up my throat. Hot tears streamed down my face, and there was a blooming heat in my heart, illuminating the dark corners of the shadow within me. It burned and it hurt, but at the same time there was also a certain kind of warmth that offered comfort as the flames burned away the dark deposits inside. A sob escaped my mouth and I tried to mask it with a cough.

I gritted my teeth and pursed my lip as I curled up and tensed every part of my body when I heard the sound of shuffling of the woman approaching me in the darkness. She placed a hand on my shoulder and another sob escaped me, but I did not try to pretend it was anything else.

One hand still on my shoulder, I could feel her body lying down close behind me. She said nothing as she gently rubbed my shoulder.

I cried myself to sleep.

I had yet another dream. I was in school and there was a new student in class. He was a young seahorse who perpetually looked like he’d lost his way. The teacher had instructed that the seahorse would sit with me and that I should orient him to our ways—he had come from a far-off place and he was a stranger to everything around him. He did not speak the same tongue we did, so communication was not easy, and he looked different from the rest of us, so he quickly became a curiosity. The other kids made fun of his strange looks and his gibberish words, and due to the fact that I was fated to be his friend, I was made fun of too. I tried to get rid of him by hiding from him or walking fast—he had no legs, so it was hard for him to move like normal humans did—and leaving him behind, and he would attempt to run after me or look for me, and I would be hiding somewhere close by, looking at him desperately searching for me. I would feel sad for him, but I did not want to get bullied by other kids because of him, so I would stay hidden. One day after class, as soon as the bell rang, I grabbed my bag and hurried out of the classroom, leaving my seahorse friend behind. He tried to catch up to me, making strange wretched noises, and he tried to run. But due to his anatomical shortcomings, he could not move as fast as he wanted to, so he fell face first to the ground. I felt sorry for him and I was about to go back and help him up, but the other kids were pointing and laughing at him and making fun of him and I didn’t want their attention directed at me. I kept on watching from the doorway with a dilemma. Then the seahorse began to cry, which made the other children laugh harder and their jokes meaner. Instead of going back in and helping him, I ran away crying as well. I kept on running until I came to the shore of the ocean which was where the young seahorse washed up on. I sat down on the wet sand and wept, the waves licking at my feet and the water slowly travelling up my body and soaking me through. I wept the kind of weeping in dreams that felt starkly real, the kind that induced a certain kind of pleasure, a certain kind of release that seemed to clear your mind and your heart. I kept on weeping

until I awoke to a gentle shake. It took me a moment to realize where I was.

It was early dawn and the sky was still more black than red but there was light enough from the eastern horizon to see things clearly. The woman was hunched over me with a smile on her face and an eager glint in her eyes. ‘Come on. I want you to see something,’ she said.

I rubbed my eyes, glad that I’d been woken up from the dream, glad that the dream wasn’t real, glad that I had no seahorse friend I had to think about. As I got up, I felt my fingers and I was glad that my eyes were dry.

I followed the woman out of the bus and we entered a nearby building. I did not ask her where we were going—I had refrained from asking questions such as those a long time ago—and she did not speak either.

The building was a three-storey structure that looked like it was on the verge of collapsing completely. The stairwell was dark and the stairs were absent of their railings, and great chunks of the bricks and cement were missing all the way up to the very top, exposing the metal bars underneath. We negotiated our way with ease, although I was constantly in fear that the structure would give at any moment, but we made our way in continued silence until we were on the last flight of stairs and standing behind a door that led out to the roof.

The door barely seemed to be hanging on with a single hinge holding it in place, and the brightening dawn light filtered through the gaps without any obscurity, illuminating the look of delight on the woman’s face as she said, ‘Prepare for something amazing.’

She pulled the door open, the one hinge creaking and the bottom scraping against the concrete floor, and she exited.

I followed her out to the edge of the flat roof. She was standing against the parapet and facing out towards the western horizon with a wide smile on her face. I stood beside her, looking out in that general direction, searching for something amazing.

‘Do you see it?’ she said, barely containing the excitement springing from whatever it was she was seeing. But I saw only darkness that the dawn light hadn’t yet reached.

‘I don’t see anything,’ I said.

She stepped up right beside me, put one hand on my shoulder, and with the other pointed out to the far distance.

I followed the line of her finger, squinting my eyes, and after a moment, I saw it. I saw what she was so excited to show me.

Not high above the dark eastern horizon, there was a spot in the sky where there were no clouds. It was a tiny spot, easy to mistake for another shade of the grey clouds, but with a careful gaze, in the opening I could see the blinking of stars. They were faint, easy to lose even with a brief look away, and they wouldn’t last long with the daylight fast approaching, but the stars were there, and they were beautiful.

‘You see it now?’ she whispered, as if afraid to disturb their delicate shimmer.

‘Yes,’ I whispered back.

The longer I stared at it, the brighter the stars twinkled and the wider the clouds moved, revealing more and more stars in the sky behind them, little galaxies and nebulas and clusters, expanding steadily, their colours more vivid with every passing moment. Comets, meteor showers, and supernovae riddled the widening expanse above like celestial fireworks in the sky as the stellar beauty of it all held me spellbound and speechless. A single solitary moment seemed to stretch to infinity as within that singularity the heavenly bodies moved and stars died and blackholes formed and new galaxies were born and entropy reversed and the cycle continued for eons and supereons and would continue on for infinity and beyond like it has already for infinity, and within that moment which filled me with indescribable awe was also a realization of the utter insignificance of the atoms within my body and of the neurons and the electricity and the chemicals in my brain and the thoughts they formed; the anger, the hate, the sadness, the happiness, the love, the peace, all of it mattered less than a supercomputer of today to the Jurassic giants of the past. But the cycle did not end there, as the worth of the mind is not measured by its ability to recognize the inconsequence of its imperceptible blip of an existence in the face of the infinite time and space and the dimensions beyond, but by its capacity for a balance of humility and pride against the dance of eternity. So, it all came all the way back down to a little patch of dirt and the beings that walk on it. The clouds slowly closed in and obscured the stars one by one until the last glimmer was hidden behind a thick grey mass that slowly turned to red as the sun broke in the east out behind us.

The woman and I stood standing there motionless for some time as the light and the heat washed over the atmosphere once again, until she moved her feet on the gravel to signal me that it was time to go.

I turned towards her, but she was already going. Her skin glowed like the glitter of a million diamonds in the sun, reflecting and refracting the rays into a display of mesmerizing colours, and as a light breeze blew, stardust floated off of her existence steadily. She was smiling at me as her essence was reduced to a translucent form until, eventually, she has completely disappeared from my side. I stayed standing there, speechless and empty-headed, staring at the space the woman left in the wake of her departure. But my heart was filled with sensations and emotions, strange and familiar alike, swirling in chaos and confusion, all the bad and the good coexisting in that small yet infinitely expandable space. There were no thoughts in my head, no questions that I wanted to ask, no confusions or ambiguities that I wanted to crystalize, and there were certainly no apprehensions about what was waiting for me ahead without the woman to guide my heart. There was a feeling, however, or a sense, that I did not have far to go any more, that the journey’s end would soon be in sight, that the end of the world could soon be coming to an end. But despite the lucidity of that sense, I refused to take any comfort in it, or at least give myself any triumphant false confidence because I knew the end of the world was not the end of all things.

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