You keep asking me what changed. Is that your question of the week, or something? Why didn’t I want to keep running for my life, changing towns, changing identities every time things got hard? Why didn’t I want to keep up my lonely, scared existence? Good question, lady. Tough one, isn’t it?
I’ll tell you, alright. It was a lot of things. It was the way the university campus looked nice no matter what the weather was, the kind lady next door who kept wanting to invite me over to dinner, the cat that always scratched against the windowsill, the trees in the garden, the rent on the apartment, my reflection in the mirror, that time I made a girl cry, the dream I had the night before. I’ll start with the dream.
It started out and I was in the city, running. Running towards the outskirts, like always. Then I was out of the city and I felt relieved, but I thought I might not be far enough so I kept going. I came to a big river with forest all around it. All the city noises were gone, even though I hadn’t really gone very far. There was only the wind in the trees and the sounds of birds and insects. Nothing sounding like voices. That was nice. I thought I could stay there maybe, but it was still too close. I was afraid that if I climbed a tree or something then I would be able to see skyscrapers somewhere on the edge of the forest. So I built myself a raft out of wood and vines. It didn’t take very long and when I took it out to the river it stayed afloat. Before I climbed aboard I took off my shoes and my shirt and rolled up the bottoms of my jeans. Became a new person, sort of, without all those clothes, trying to look fashionable or whatever. Then I got on the raft and floated down the river.
There was sun keeping me warm and I could collect fruits from trees overhanging the river to eat, cup water in my palms to drink. My hands became all sandy and brown from clutching the wood of the raft all the time. I rubbed this brown all over my face, my chest, my arms. Somehow I felt cleaner that way. I was there for a couple of days, just floating down the river. I was never hungry, never worried. I slept in the sun or stretched out like a cat sometimes. I loved the motion of the raft on the river.
I watched as the landscape around me slowly changed. I had drifted out of the forest, into bushland where the river was smaller and the muddy banks around me were slippery and steep. Then the banks became baked rock with perfect footholds, canyon-like and full of shapes. The forest noises of insects and birds and wind in the trees had gone. There was nothing except the sound of the river. Every sound I made echoed and echoed.
I left my raft made in the forest. It didn’t fit there and I didn’t want to travel any more. There was a place where I knew I wanted to stay. There, the river joined another river. I had heard that river for a while, sometimes seeing glimpses of it snaking through the landscape. And now this was the place where it joined me, in front of a triangular slice of rock. There was a flat space on top where I could lie in the sun. There was a little nook below where I could shelter from the rain. All around me was water. I could see for miles. What did I see? Nothing. Nothing but baked rock, maybe a few trees in the distance. I could yell and the sound would travel for miles and miles and no one, not a single person, would hear it. I did yell. I shouted and screamed as loud as I could. I sang and I yelled meaningless, gibberish words. Things I’d never said before. Things I never planned to say. I shouted and I sang because I was alone, more alone than I ever had been before. More alone than I could ever be in real life.
I built a fire on a bed of twigs and dried leaves. I burnt branches and watched the embers travel, the sparks swarm in a cloud when I blew on them. I compared their light with the light of the stars in the sky. I couldn’t tell which I liked more. I slept curled around my dying fire, feeling its warmth on my belly like a feeling inside of it, some emotion I couldn’t understand.
In the morning I admired the mist on the river and broke off shards of rock to throw and watch disappear without a sound. I dipped my feet into the mist and liked how soft and cool it felt. I played with it in my fingertips and made animal sounds to hear them echo. I painted my face with dirt and laughed to imagine what my reflection might look like. No one to see. No one to care.
When the midday sun came out, bright and strong, I bombed into the river and let it wash the dirt from me, tug at me like playful hands, rip at my jeans, comb my matted hair. I loved the feeling of the water on my eyelids. Then I opened my eyes under the water and watched the mandala of the sun on the ripples above me. I think it was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen. I didn’t want to share it. I wanted to keep it mine. It was my secret.
I lay myself out to dry on the flat rock, let the sun brown my skin and bleach my hair. Then I climbed and climbed and felt the strong muscles pulsing underneath my skin. I crossed the left river and explored the land, running up mounds of dirt, sprinting across bushy scrubland, eating my fill. Then I crossed the river again and fell asleep on the warm, flat stone. When I awoke it was night and I told stories to the stars in the sky. I tried to tell them about my past life, but they didn’t believe me. I didn’t believe myself.
But then one day someone else floated down the river. She came from the opposite side and she had made a raft just like I had. Her skin was browned and her face was covered with the juice of fruit she had just eaten. She climbed onto the rock and met me there. We spoke a little. My words were disjointed and I couldn’t remember how to say much. Even when I’d practiced to the stars, I hadn’t used normal words. I couldn’t remember a lot, but I think she understood. She said she couldn’t remember much from her past life either. So we didn’t talk about that.
She had very dark hair. Still some clothes, all tattered like my old jeans. She spoke in a low voice. A quiet voice. We didn’t ask each other’s names. What use was a name? I was boy. She was girl. Names wouldn’t have meant a thing to us.
I told her she was beautiful. That was the first thing I said. Then she shook her head and said her face was too bony, too many pimples, her mouth was too big. I said no. She touched my face and she said I was beautiful. I sort of realised I’d forgotten what beautiful looked like. I had really old memories of bad haircuts and picking at pimples in the mirror. But my face was smooth to her touch. I must have changed, become a different person, morphed in appearance somehow. She said she thought she recognised me from somewhere. From somewhere in the forest or the muddy bushland, perhaps.
There was nothing to teach her. She knew it all already. She knew how to talk to the stars and how to see the mandala in the river. We told each other stories. In her eyes, I saw the sparks from the fire. I don’t know what she saw in mine. One day it rained and we sat together under a ceiling of rock with our hands clasped, watching as a pale screen of water tipped from the ledge above us. We let our feet catch the rain and wash off the dirt and dust, cool the hardened blisters. I felt the touch of her hand on mine. I knew nothing of her except girl. She knew nothing of me except boy. There wasn’t anything else to know. There weren’t any words and there didn’t have to be. She asked if I was alone before. I said no. Alone only has meaning when you remember there are other people out there, somewhere. Secretly I hoped no one else would ever come to disturb us. No one ever did.
She lay next to me when we slept under the stars. I shared my fire with her, but we had our own warmth and didn’t need its heat.
I remembered something from the past one night. Something about other people and danger. I woke because I was scared. And when I woke she clasped my hand and listened to my confused words. And she helped me remember that now we were the only ones. No one else belonged to this world, our world of rock and river. It was only ours to share with each other. So I went back to sleep and didn’t dream of the past, but of her and of the river.
But it was only a dream. And when I awoke, the world hurt, it hurt so much.
When I awoke, I felt the light filtering in through the smudged window and it was cold and grey. Only hours had passed, only hours. I reached across and could not find the hand of the girl. She was gone. She never had been there. Maybe if she had been there, but then gone away, I might have felt better. But she never existed, never existed at all. The rock and the river and the forest, the mud and the sun. It was never there and I never lived that life.
I couldn’t work out what was real, at first. I sat there, on my hard bed, not even able to look up at the grey light coming in through the window. I heard the city, I heard the people next door, I heard my own angry breaths. Swallowed salt water, rubbed at my face with shaking fists. Sat for a while, for a very long time, like I do sometimes when I’m having a really bad day. But eventually I got up and I washed and dressed and shaved and made my little bed in that cramped apartment. I kept my eyes to the ground all day and I didn’t speak to anyone. I did the right thing, I did what I was supposed to do. I didn’t talk to anyone, I didn’t look at anyone, I didn’t meet anyone, made no friends, found no lovers. So I’d never have to leave again, never have to get hurt again.
So, you asked me what changed my mind. The dream helped. Someone said something I can’t remember once, about dreaming in colour. I dreamed that dream in colour, so then I realised that my world was grey. And after that, I suppose, then I realised I couldn’t run away any more. So I didn’t.
BELOW: this song helped me write it. Basically on repeat in the background. Bon Iver is great.