between the earth and the river lethe

Down by the River Lethe

 

There was nothing unusual about that day, except, in retrospect; I was more aware of his body moving closer to mine in the ascendant staircase. By the fifth floor, his stride quickened and as I passed the sixth, he edged around me as if he were in a great hurry. He swept in front of me at the seventh floor and his coat turned in a circular motion akin to the dramatic flourish of a cape. He reached into his pocket and extracted a medium-sized dark red fruit. He held it out to me and said, in a gravely articulated manner,

“A pomegranate, in exchange for a kiss.”

“What?” I stammered.

For several weeks, the heavy sound of his boots had followed me up the stairs. He always paced himself so that at least one half-turn of the staircase was between us. When I reached the seventh floor, I never held the door for him; he was always too far behind me.

The sound of his footsteps would reverberate in the hall before he entered the classroom, his shoulders bent in an awkward stoop as he walked through the doorway. He never corrected his posture after passing through the aperture; he continued a few steps, hunched as if awaiting a blow, and sat in the first available seat nearest the door.

A quick glance revealed nothing of his features. I could see that the desk was ill-fitting to his frame. His long black coat tailed on the floor, the edge dirty and stained. His clothing was a blur of blackness. He kept his face downcast, obscured by lank dark brown hair. When the class began, I averted my attention, and I didn’t give him another thought until the next week, when his presence assaulted me in the flight of stairs.

“A pomegranate, in exchange for a kiss.” He repeated his previous request, though his voice seemed a little more strained.

If the ground had opened up before me, revealing a winged chariot, I would not have been as surprised.

I looked directly into his face and searched for a hint of a smile, to let me know he was joking, but found nothing. His skin was without colour and the iris of his eye was so brown it was hard to locate the circumference of his pupil; as a result, his eyes appeared so dark I questioned the depth of his soul.

He stood patiently, his palm outstretched, unwavering.

The usual before-class noise dimmed and within moments, there was a certain stillness that could only mean that classes had begun. I hadn’t answered him and he still stood before me. Neither one of us moved or seemed to breathe.

“We’re late for class,” I finally said, “I hate walking in late.”

“Will you accept my offer?” He asked quietly, as his eyes fell to the floor. He picked at the hem of his pocket with his right hand, the left still outstretched but wilting.

“I don’t know,” I said honestly. “I’m no Persephone.”

He smiled, and his face shone with a rare light.

“Would you like to go for a walk or something? I hate walking in late to class too.”

I nodded in agreement and we began the descent down the stairs. He put the pomegranate back into his pocket, but it weighed between us, an unanswered question.

We walked out of the building and were thrust into the city street. The sidewalk was crowded with people and I started to get anxious. My therapist had suggested that I take a class, once a week, as I was making progress with my social phobias. I started to walk left and he started to walk right, but then he stopped and reached for my hand and led me in his direction.

For all his awkwardness, he appeared to negotiate himself on the sidewalk with ease. Whereas I could not walk a block without stuttering in my step and nearly slamming into the people hurrying towards me from the other direction, he moved effortlessly through the chaotic rhythm of the street.

“Have you lived in New York long?” I asked.

“All my life. I grew up over by Central Park. My parents still live there, but I don’t see them anymore,” he said, his voice edging discomfort.

“Oh.” I answered, not knowing how to respond. I thought that I could tell him about my own parents, since he mentioned his. However, I didn’t have parents, well, not exactly.

I found out that I was adopted in my early twenties, when my mother and father died in a freak car accident. But that wasn’t exactly the type of thing you would talk about to a stranger who cornered you in the hallway, was it? I wasn’t even sure why I agreed to take the walk with him. I wondered what my therapist would say. She would probably think that it was an important step for me. I hadn’t gone out on a date or had sex or even kissed someone in over two years.

After we were quiet for a while, he asked me where I was from.

“Not Manhattan.” I answered.

“I figured,” he said, “you kind of have an accent.”

Of course I had been told that before. I didn’t want to tell him where I was from or that I didn’t know who my birth parents were or that sometimes I still looked into the mirror, trying to piece together a picture of my birth mother, thinking perhaps she had the same shape lips, or the same nose, or the same pale fringe of eyelashes that didn’t seem quite capable of protecting the eye.

We entered the park at the north entrance and walked the path, past the undergrowth and grass, to the benches. I was immediately comforted by surrounding nature. The sky was darkening and there was a chill in the air. We sat down and he put his hands into his pockets. It was a little colder than I had first realized and I rubbed my hands together, careful to pull the sleeves of my sweater over my wrists.

“Are you cold?” He asked.

I shook my head in an ambivalent way, meaning yes, but no. He looked at me for a moment, as if turning a question over in his mind.

“We could get some coffee, if you want.”

“No, that’s okay. I can’t really stay that long.” I said. I knew I wasn’t contributing to the conversation, but I simply didn’t trust myself to say anything.

I had been practicing my conversation skills with my therapist, but the same rules didn’t seem to apply with him. I tried to remember his name, but couldn’t. I thought about asking him, but figured we had already spent some time together and asking now would be somewhat awkward.

We fell into an uncomfortable silence. I absently kicked at the twigs and dried leaves that had gathered around the legs of the bench while he sat with his legs straight out onto the path. He stirred, crossed his leg over the other, and then, moving again, he settled into a more upright position, but remained slightly hunched over.

“I didn’t mean to offend you,” he suddenly said, his voice so soft that I had to strain to hear him.

“What?” I asked.

“I didn’t mean to offend you by my offer,” he said again, a little more loudly.

I began to wonder if he had social anxiety as well, because he didn’t seem much better at conversing than I. In fact, I couldn’t recall him ever speaking out in class, or answering a question, or talking to someone nearby.

“I wouldn’t say that you offended me.”

“Because that really wasn’t my intent.”

“What wasn’t your intent?” I asked.

“To offend you,” he said.

I paused for a minute, and a slight smile crossed my lips. “Oh, I thought you meant … to kiss me.”

“No, I intended that.”

He laughed nervously, which made me laugh a little nervously as well. I stole a glance at his face and wondered what it would be like to kiss him, thinking how strange it was that between two bodies, the most insurmountable wall was something as simple as touch.

He took his hands out of his pockets.

“Look,” he said, “at the moon. You can see it just behind those trees.”

He pointed in the direction of the moon, and I could see it rising low on the horizon. The branches of the trees, reaching desperately for the sky, were outlined crisply against the fading light. Looking at the trees in the park, I felt suddenly sad.

“Where I’m from,” I said, “Nature is something you live in, not something you have to find, tucked away like an ill-forgotten secret, battling for space against buildings, bricks, and concrete.”

“Everything is confined in one way or another, isn’t it?”

We had been sitting for almost an hour, our silent conversation growing more comfortable, when he suddenly said, “I want to show you something,”

He hesitated, then brushed the hair out of his eyes. Holding his arms out in front of him, he pushed up the left sleeve of his coat with his right hand, and then the right sleeve with his left.

He held out his arms to me, and I instantly recognized the disfiguration of his skin. Each of his arms were scarred badly with several deep lines, starting at various points at the wrist and continuing upwards.

“I’ve been dead for a long time,” he said, “Each time, I put a coin in my mouth, and prayed that Charon would accept his fare … but I can’t seem to leave this world.”

He pulled down his sleeves and put his hands back into his pockets. He exhaled and shifted his position on the bench.

“All my life, I’ve searched for the river Lethe,” I said.

He nodded and whispered absently, “The river of forgetfulness. The stream of death, the tributary of rebirth. I would surely wait one thousand years to be called to the river Lethe and cleansed of my memory.”

“There’s something I should…” I said, fingering the sleeve of my sweater.

“You don’t have to show me.”

He took his hands from his pockets and reached for my hand. Then he placed his other hand on top of our joined hands, so that my left hand was enclosed in both of his.

“How did you know?” I asked.

“I recognized you from the moment I saw you.”

We sat on the bench, turned towards each other, as the evening fell later into night, and the moon rose high and bright in the sky.

“Can I hold the pomegranate?” I asked.

He nodded solemnly and untangled his hands from mine to reach into his pocket and extract the fruit. He held it out to me reverently, as he had earlier, when he made his offering.

I took the pomegranate and held it with both hands. It was slightly warm from being in his pocket. I held it as if I were holding a very small globe. If I accepted his offer, could I survive the months of darkness, the black rivers and bare earth reflected in his eyes? Would my mother, then, try to find me?

I brought the pomegranate to my mouth and brushed my lips against the hard rind, tasting the scent of the ancient fruit. I imagined the labyrinth of seeds and the dark red pulp hidden inside, waiting to be revealed. Then, cradling the world between my fragile hands, I turned to answer him.

 

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