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The Winter Academy by Peter Holm-Jensen

The Winter Academy by Peter Holm-Jensen

Fiction, Vol. 2.2, June 2008

When he was young and jobless, he’d leave his flat and walk the streets like a ghost: it was their world, he was just passing through. He’d walk from pub to pub, having a drink in each. He’d walk himself into the ground. Back home, he’d stand at his window while he waited for the doddery shower to warm up. The window gave on a slant of the river that wound through the town. He often stood watching it carry its grimy load seaward.

*

Sometimes a kind of mental mist would steal over him. As evening fell, his reflection would appear in the window, slowly replacing the river. The more he examined it—those empty unblinking eyes, those straight lips—the harder it was to feel it was his. It was a thing among things, untenanted, watching him from another bank.

*

He dreamed of a caged animal in an empty room. He dreamed of hearing his name called by his own voice. He dreamed of floating away.

*

In bed in the morning, a hundred images of pretty women hovered in his mind, their bodies like a hundred roses: women he’d seen on the streets, in a store, turning a corner, boarding a train paraded through his secret self as his sex stretched seeking somewhere to put itself. A downy nape of neck, a Milky Way of freckles on brown breasts… Was it Love or Lust that visited him as he turned in bed, was it coy Bethlehem or brazen Babylon that looked down on him? He begged Magic to unlock his loneliness and grant him a smooth open body.

*

But who would want to lie down in the mist with him? When two people came together, would it dissolve?

*

He thought there must be someone out there for him, someone just like him. But they’d told him that to find her he’d have to go out and do things, meet more people, even travel. And he thought that if he went out and did these things, he might be taken out of himself, become like all the others, and then he wouldn’t know her if he saw her. If he met her right now, if she came to his door or if he picked up her keys when she dropped them on the street today, they’d both know instantly, they’d see it in each other’s eyes, that thing that made them different from the others, that the others couldn’t understand. But, he thought, I’ve been alone for so long I’m becoming a stranger to myself. Maybe she’s living in the same way, thinking these thoughts at this moment, somewhere in this city, the one among millions, and maybe she too feels that if she doesn’t find me soon it’ll be too late, she’ll become a stranger to herself and won’t be able to see herself in me if we meet.

*

Just another Saturday night in panic town. Loneliness stalked the streets, weaving between the drunks. Anxiety danced around like a kingless jester, driving the people closer together, further apart, gorging on their weaknesses. Pockmarked pavements, steam from vents, a smell of kebabs and stale beer. How do people meet people? Through friends of friends. You surprise yourself: you open up past fear and leave yourself behind, if only for a night. People are drawn to you in a blur of alcohol, noise and faces. You surprise yourself, if only for a night.

*

There were hordes of people on the summer evening streets, and many more faces. Stitched-up faces at war with the uglier ones beneath; faces that only dropped and fell into their natural folds in safe company; false faces quickly exchanged; faces numbed by drugs. Her faces didn’t battle or conceal each other. They weren’t put in place or seeking escape, they simply were. He could hardly believe her courage when she put her lips to his ear and, silencing the pounding beats, whispered that she had the world’s most beautiful belly button, like the inside of a tiny seashell, did he want to see it? His first instinct was to hide, and guard these words spoken by the lips of a real girl that would have kept his imagination churning for days. But she pulled him into the sunken garden behind the cathedral and showed him her tiny swirl and more besides, showed him her hungry mysteries, took his breath, took his dignity, and laid his secret life to waste.

*

When he awoke the next morning the world had been cleaned by rain and he found he was clinging to an ugly little totem of his past life. He threw it at the wall and it shattered in a cloud of dust. He drew aside the curtain and let a new sun flood his room. The things in his room stretched on their toes and looked around like a clutter of cats. He walked through the day picking up windfalls from ripe, silent trees, thinking of how long he should leave it before he called her.

*

They moved in together without much thought. It felt natural. Every early day with her was breathtaking. They wandered around the house feeling each others’ presence. Every room was safe. They took each other’s pride; they were transparent to each other. They breathed love in and out in the gardens where love is sealed. Flesh to flesh, thought to thought. He kissed her eyelids in easy silence, he blessed everything around her: the very ground beneath her, the slipstreams of their breath: the one breath, the one heart. She overthrew him and gave him a map of himself. This was how the eunuch dreamer of his past life had imagined it must be like. Sunlight split open his mind. The mist evaporated and his soul re-entered the body that had felt vacant for so long. Fear fell away and he moved straight into life. His senses sharpened. The world came into focus: the tree outside, his fingerprint on the window. His reflection was only a reflection.

*

Some time later, after all the dirty dishes and lazy faces, all the snubs and half-hearted peace offerings, he gave her directions to the crossroads meant only for them. He turned up late and empty-handed. By the old savage route they started becoming strangers to each other again. She asked him, Why was I made to use your greed against myself? He asked himself, Why do I let myself sabotage her joy over and over? They groped and there was nothing but groping. A voice said, Take a bite of this wormy fruit and hold each other close in your suits of armour.

*

She said, You don’t know what love is. Hence you don’t love me. He said, Stop poking your finger in my nerves. Talk, she said. You let me do your dirty work and give me the crumbs of your love. Talk if you dare. Why when I always want what you want do you never want what I want? And you wonder why we become enemies, he said, is this what you want? She said, It doesn’t matter anymore, does it? I learned your needs better than you. Now look where I am. In this place you told me to go. Even then you let me go first. And you arrive still the same, you never let the journey affect you.

*

Listen to yourself, they shouted. Fuck you, they shouted.

*

Some days were worse than others. On bad days she left him notes:

Though I pant beneath you and unfurl like a nightflower, you’ll never have me. Though I offer up my body and flatter your pride, you’ll never have me. Though you try to change me, you’ll never have me. When you try to change me I’ll change myself and change again before your eyes. I’ll unmask myself forever. Because you boast of possession, you can’t own me. This isn’t a world of spoils, don’t you know that yet? Do you know who you are? No matter what status or Himalayan purity you think you’ve achieved, I’ll always be a lie to you. Even when you clutch your Madonnas in bed. Especially then. Don’t think you fool me with your talk of being shipwrecked between my legs, the Rose or the fullness of my lips. Your outlook is weak, your methods are rude. You’re in the wrong universe.

*

Like so many lost men he threw himself into his work. The harder he worked, the more work they gave him. He forgot how to sleep. Something in him shut down. One day he left them to their disorder and anger. Soon after, he left her: his map-giver. He closed his ears to her accusations, walked as far as he could and lay down with mutts. Everything he’d been learning had gone from him. He forgot how to laugh and cry.

*

He started travelling. He passed through hot countries and torpor descended on him. He saw nothing but sand and dust and bars. Like the dust torpor was everywhere: it covered him if he didn’t keep moving. There was nothing to do but force the hands of time by drinking. He told the hours by the number of bottles he drank. He followed beautiful brown-skinned girls with his eyes, but could no longer distinguish desire from despair. He knew he’d soon be back on the road inside himself that he’d always hated, which would lead him relentlessly back to himself. He walked through churches to maintain his guise as a tourist. Sitting in the pews reading brochures, he thought heaven itself must be deathly dull. He thought God himself must be bored half to death by having to exist for all eternity—only prodding us into action when we start to remind him too much of himself. Yet he kept returning: the church was the first place he visited in each new town.

*

One day, drunk, he wrote her a letter he never posted:

It seems like a lifetime since we lost each other in the rough… since I built a house in your arms and stole it from our love. I still go to the chapel of partial remembrance now and then, when I’ve got nothing better to do. I don’t come out light on my feet and all that, just empty and needing a drink. It’s not like it’s going to bring you back, and I doubt, as I’m sure you do, that that’s what I really want… I’ve spent seasons in dusty villages praying you to a place where all things are playthings and every room is safe, every star beams down on your beauty and your dreams are freer than when you slept inside my breath… I sit here going nowhere fast, toying with plans to wade through the world’s floods, live under corrugated roofs with other singed souls: nothing special in dark glasses, the golden boy in the mirror defeated at last. Now I have the freedom I deserve, right? I made my choice, even if it didn’t feel like a choice. So now I’m back to what they call square one. Some days it seems like a valid option. At least one doesn’t live in fear of getting ahead of oneself… This ripe fruit is bitter to the taste… Think of me some day, as a hand from your crowded past that I hereby give you licence to cut off. I’ll feel your anger like a thorn in the side and laugh myself to sleep for once… I’ll laugh at the hooks you always tried to reel me in on, the sentences you always tried to impose on me. How dare you try to hold me captive, bitch. My worst enemy. My love. Take my hands: look how I keep them clean for you. Tell me what you want. Tell me what I can do for you.

*

He returned about a year later in the dead of winter. He rented a flat at the cheap end of the coast, where the wind blew strongest. He was living on his dwindling savings and a small inheritance and had taken to reading religious books. He bumped into her from time to time when he was in town. They exchanged awkward questions and answers, their faces barely containing a tangle of hard and tender feelings. Back home, the judge, face to face with himself in the night, sentenced himself to himself in his own court: he was a wormfeast, a heap of wasted time, his every footprint left a stain. He drew the curtains tight against the dawn, but it was death came in through the window with its air of fate. The mornings were all wrong; he sensed the noonday demon sliding under the front door and up the stairs to his room. Sure enough, darkness would come into his room in the middle of the day, sliding over him as he read. He’d fall asleep and dream that a black rain pattered his eyelids. When the moon found him everything in his room was the same colour. He ended with nothing at 3 am, his grand quest to grow up dragged out on the floor before him like a sick animal. Nothing came to him. He brought nothing to nothing.

*

Then maybe it would start from nothing. Maybe the first things that would whisper to him, from so far away, would be the thistles half-uprooted by the offshore winds; and the winds themselves, always plunging homeward through new strange places. What would they whisper? The nights were like dreams in which some task was demanded of him that he failed to understand. Nothing to do but stay still among the dusty things in his room, reflected like him by the black indifferent window; stubbornly hold night to his heart until dawn chose to break through from where he was not and speak. To stay still until dawn touched his window and told him, I swallow the dark.

*

One morning while he was walking along the coast, a storm gathered. The sky rumbled, the clouds broke and spilled floods of water, the drains swelled. He stood still and smiled up at the sky. It got colder and more clouds came, but heavy with unshed snow now, and the snow came down to muffle his inner babble and from this winter academy his heart somehow stole joy like a thief.

*

Something was with him. Something he couldn’t define and didn’t know how to approach. It was in his sinews and nerves. It was closer than the vein in his neck. It stayed up with him in the soft night when everyone else on his street had gone to bed; the morning after, reared up before him like a frightening responsibility. It was the dawning deep down in things. It was the immense black space at all sides which knows nothing of us. Even in tiny doses he reeled from it. It transfixed him, unmade him.

*

The black dogs started losing his scent. He started dreaming at night again. Was this real life returning? The wind blew the dust off his tables. He could no longer ignore them, the calls—his guides, if that’s what they were. They called him from the other bank, pulled him into a new uncertainty he couldn’t refuse. He couldn’t woo the voices or master the current, but maybe feel his way in, listening to the roar.

*

He decided to go away. He’d heard of a place that took in people like him, a place where the trial might resolve in mercy. He’d read their tracts and became convinced that was where his guides were calling him from. Fear covered him like a cage as he walked into a new life, a new community. He began with questions, doubts and a broken idleness.

*

After several phone calls, she finally got his address. She sent him a final letter:

When I first saw you after all that time, after the earthquake that cracked the ground between us, you were going nowhere fast, just as you had predicted. You looked up at me with puffy eyes and said you thought you knew what you needed but weren’t ready to start looking for it; you’d tried, but always fell back to the bottom of the ladder. To me it looked like you were sticking your head in the sand so the black dogs wouldn’t find you. You were digging for freedom but with truth nowhere to be seen. The next time, you told me you were going to lock yourself away to get clean and thin. When I saw you a month later, you were bloated with drink. The last time, I didn’t recognise you at first. You’d been up all night and were talking too fast, but you were thin and happy. You said you’d finally got your orders and were going away. I was dumbfounded when you told me where you were going. You told me you’d found a way to live for next to nothing, that everyone had their own desert and you’d found yours. You were finally ready to patch things up between soul and world. It was all a question of finding a place with the right temperature. Walking backwards, you shouted that you’d keep a record and send it to me, a magic distillation of your trip that would help me with my own, that would help everyone. You haven’t, of course. I didn’t think for a second you would. And now you think you can make yourself holy—but I know you, better than you know yourself. You’re only leaving what you can’t control. You want a perfect little life with no demands from other people, but right away you get caught in lonely snivel: a narcissist fantasy. You’re drifting from shore. Your cries sound like someone else’s and I can hardly make out your features. You’re not flailing yet, but I know the currents are strong. Don’t look back for help. Turn around and search the horizon for the banks of your fake Jericho while you still can. I’ve spent far too much time thinking about you, waiting for a sign that you loved me and wanted a real life—with me. Now I know the only person you really love is yourself. This is goodbye. Thank you for showing me the trickery of love.

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