It may be that it is Tuesday, December 31, 2013. It may be that winter is well underway, and that a chill runs through everyone and everything. It may be that I am sitting on the floor as I type these words, and the tiled floor beneath my legs is very cold.
It may be that a Chinese lunar probe is on its way to the moon. It may be that the government of Thailand is in a state of transition. It may be that the NSA’s surveillance of Americans’ phone records has been declared illegal. It may be that tensions increase between certain ASEAN nations and China. It may be that Joaquin Phoenix stars in the movie “Her.” It may be that the Seattle Seahawks are well on their way to the playoffs.
It may be. It may be.
It may be that through the winter chill, through the imminent New Year, through the nationalism of Chinese nationalists and the insecurity of national security organizations, I am thinking about him. It may be that I can see him through all of the words. It may be that I can see him through the present tense. It may be that I can see him through all of the events he tried so painstakingly to organize, from beginning to end.
It may be that in the present I see the past, and in the past I see the future. In the future I see the present and the past reaching an uncomfortable agreement. Between the points of their intersection I can see his handiwork, and in the present time I can see his past misfortunes, played out just months before the time when all of this was never written.
It may be that I think about him, and that I feel a sadness over what he’s done. But then again, it might have been beyond his power to choose from the beginning. As I sit here in my room, typing or not typing these words into a laptop, I have room enough and time enough to regret him. I know that he was always doing his best. I know that he had the best intentions. But he was handicapped from the start. Like so many of us, he was doomed before he was old enough to walk.
It may be that I am wondering where he is. I am looking for him, in my thoughts. I feel that if I could turn inward just enough I will see him there, staring back from the other side of the world. I can feel him in the present moment. I can feel him in all the hundredfold things that have been witnessed, and all the thousandfold things that have not been witnessed, or written down, or remarked upon afterward. I will not see him in the future, because that is not where he wants to be.
It may be that we taught together at the university, the professor and I. Or it may be that I was his only friend. It may be that I was the wife who bore him two daughters, or it may be that I was her jealous lover, coveting everything that he thought was his. It may be that I was male or female, as the scene requires, and that I am both everywhere and nowhere all at once. It may be that years have now passed between us, and that I sit here in this white room with its flaking paint, and that I am trying to remember what has come before today, which may or may not be Wednesday, July 4, 2007.
It may be that I knew him. We struck up a conversation one day, he and I. I found him in the university one afternoon, and it may be that I came upon him as a stranger; it may be that I was a long lost friend or else the person he saw at the beginning and the ending of every day. I saw him staring at the cover of the book I was holding, and I ventured to ask him if he’d ever read Poe.
“Why of course,” he answered in his high, nasal voice, “But I was only a kid then. I don’t remember much.”
It may be that the two of us were sitting outside in the springtime, on benches which occupied the quad where the world famous cherry trees blossom. It felt like the Ivy League, but wasn’t. We were on the wrong side of the Continental Divide. We were on the wrong side of the Rockies. We were just a hair’s breadth from Canada, and the Pacific was only an hour’s drive away. He was sitting on a bench near the entrance to the Humanities building, while I sat on the next bench over. As we spoke, students passed us by. I glanced up and saw seductive girls in denim skirts, and laughing boys bearing a thousand logos.
It may be that he was wearing brown slacks and a reddish-brown wool sweater. One could tell that he was inclined to corpulence, but that there was a wife somewhere, trying her best to keep him slim. He had pale skin, gold-rimmed glasses, and a thin head of auburn hair. He looked like someone meant for northern climates, where warm rooms are an adequate substitute for outdoor recreation. One could also tell that the sun rarely burned its way into his solitude, and that he was a man more comfortable with lectures than with conversation, more at home in the midst of books than in the midst of friends. He was clumsy. He was shy.
It may be that we began talking about unimportant things. We might have talked about our work, if that was something that we shared. We might have talked about our family life. We might have talked about the writings and the doings of the great Edgar Allan Poe. I was immediately struck by his vast command of facts, not only in his area of specialization – the Middle Ages – but in other time periods and subjects as well. His knowledge ranged from the earliest cultures to the present day.
It may be that he was a difficult man to talk to, and our conversation struggled, but I found him engaging that day. I found a warmth in him that I would not see again. It is often like that with people. Try as we might, we usually fail to see them as they truly are, until one day – through what combination of circumstances we will never know – we are granted a window into their souls. We look upon them at that fateful moment and there they are, in all their virtue and frailty. For just that instant, we see them as even they cannot see themselves.
It was like talking to a very large, very shy, yet very arrogant encyclopedia, or perhaps like talking to some kind of robot, which has at its disposal certain unconvincing mannerisms, and the entire history of the world. He evinced a knowledge of the most obscure people, places, and things I could imagine, and his ability to summon up the most esoteric information seemed to occur without any real effort on his part, as if he could remember – really and truly remember – everything that had ever happened to every person that had ever lived.
It may be that we exchanged phone numbers, and that after that initial conversation he took to calling me at odd intervals, once or twice a semester. We would also run into one another in other places, at other times. But when I saw him in the malls and coffee shops and parks of our city, it was as if we were strangers all over again. I later realized that our first encounter had been an unusual occurrence for the professor, and that he had little meaningful interaction with either his colleagues or his students. Perhaps it was only the beauty of that spring day that had thawed him. I can never be certain. Yet I do know that after meeting him on subsequent occasions he was even more difficult to talk to, even more remote. He stuttered or mumbled, he looked for excuses to leave, or he pretended not to see me waving at him from afar.
It may be, however, that when he called me it was like talking to another person, and on the phone I found it possible to talk to that remarkable man from the quad yet again. On the phone we talked for hours, and on the phone I learned much of what follows here. It was on the phone that he told me the story of his life, not so much in bare details as in casual remarks, in his choice of topics, or in the questions that he asked me. He told me the story of his life, without meaning to do so.
It may be that in the telling of his story you will come to see my professor as an immoral man, if not an evil man. Let me only say that he lived his life for a purpose, and that purpose was to prove the world wrong. When it came to most other people – all of their feelings, and motivations, and dispositions – he was entirely at a loss. He never claimed to know the human heart, least of all his own, and for this reason guilt, and the moral sense that guilt implies, were for the most part outside of his experience. He lacked a compass, yes, but I don’t think that he was evil.
I call him the Tail, for this is a name that he sometimes gave himself. He wrote to me that the tail is the hindmost part, carried far behind the seat of consciousness, carried far behind any sense of right or wrong or good or bad. In this he saw himself as a rearward action, as an aftereffect, with all of his motives and reasons and second guesses removed into both the past and the future. He saw himself suspended somewhere beyond these things, fearful and uncertain, unwilling to contemplate all those accidents that had culminated in both his being and in the tragedy that struck his family. He was the Tail because he was a stranger to himself. He was his own extremity.
Reflecting on the emails he sent me – these, few, ephemeral documents that form his personal history – I am continually surprised at what a remarkably lonely man he was. He was, as far as I can ascertain, the only man I have ever known who truly lacked a single friend. My recounting our correspondence in this manner might imply some kind of contradiction, but in this respect I feel that I was more an outlet for his despair, a kind of confessional. He felt safe telling me the stories of his life, because he knew that I was too far away to hurt him. No, I was not his friend, and if his messages to me were true, he had none.
It may be that much later I also learned about his troubles from a shared acquaintance, a man who I later learned was very close to my professor. This man’s narrative also forms much of what follows, for reasons which will become obvious later. I have of course also changed his name to protect his identity. Not that it matters much now. Some secrets must be kept however, even beyond their dates of expiration.
But it may be that I have digressed too far from my original intentions, and that I should instead explain what the Tail was searching for, in the wake of his tragedy. Perhaps I should begin at the beginning, with the Book.
This book was is and will not be like other books. This book is was and will not be secret. None of the other scholars in the Tail’s field knew where this book reposed, though some had theories. It was a mystery, this book. It was an adventure that he chose to embark upon.
It may be that he had only ever seen this book described in the writings of others, and that most of those privileged – or perhaps cursed – to know of its existence had died hundreds, if not thousands of years before the Tail’s birth. Almost every scholar in his field considered this book to be a myth, something not unlike Noah’s Ark, or like Cibola, the city of gold. It was, however, a myth that he chose to believe in, and as both science and history are ever ready to teach us, myths can often be proven true.
It may be that after leaving behind everything he knew, the Tail set out on his search for this book. Perhaps it was a sense of panic which led him to do this. Perhaps it was an unsatisfied desire for revenge. Whatever it was that led him, it led him to the very ends of the Earth. He walked, or drove, or flew over the globe, and his thoughts were every moment upon his goal.
His book, which had been written to bring about the end of the world. His book, which is being written to bring about the beginning of the next. His book, which will be written for another, idealized age that never should have been. His book which I am remembering. His book, which remembers.
The Words of Trismegistus, also known as The Three Days. It may be that these were but two names for the same book; a book copied, transcribed, or transliterated into a language that all men can understand. A book written, some say, before the days of Homer, before the pyramids of Egypt, and before the baths of Harappa. It was once a scroll kept within the Library of Alexandria, perhaps given to one of our ancestors from the hand of another race, or else handed down to us by a god. It was a scroll before it was a book, and then it was carefully divided into sheets, and these sheets were bound into a single volume. This book, once rendered, was then placed within a jeweled case that sparkles with strange gems, and it is in this case that the book still resides, somewhere, waiting to be found.
It may be that the Tail had learned of this book long before his tragedy, while ensconced in the recesses of a library, pouring over the history of the world. It may be that he told me as much himself. One of the more ancient, more obscure authors had made mention of it. In Arabic, in Greek, in Aramaic, and in Sanskrit he found hints of it, enticements. He followed the clues through centuries of books, and along the way he discovered some of the secrets that would make him a famous man, a celebrated man, and a noted man within his chosen discipline.
It may be that it took him a while to put all of the clues together. It was certainly not until after his misfortunes took hold that he could connect all of the dots, and see the larger picture. By then he was well away from his university and from the life he had known. By then he was ranging through the world, and the home he had left behind was only a memory that singed the corners of his heart.
It might be that if you had seen him in the midst of his search, if you had seen him in a library somewhere, you would have wondered at this solemn, feverish man with the shock of wild white hair, this man who appeared to belong to nowhere, and to nothing, save to an unspeakable future that even he dared not utter aloud. You would have wondered who he was, and how he could go about unwashed and in such filthy clothes. “A professor,” someone would have said, “He must be a visiting professor.”
Yes, he was a visiting professor, and in the midst of those libraries I had friends, who later mentioned seeing him hunched over a table somewhere, his concentration bent upon piles of dusty books. They would have remembered his face from the jacket of one of his own books, or perhaps from a lecture he gave, and they would have remembered the talk of how he had disappeared, only to be seen in that particular library later on, with his eyes peering into the depths of yellowed pages.
And it may be that from such beginnings he widened his search, crossing the oceans and seeking out forgotten places. It may be that news of his travels reached me, secondhand. It may be that I was seeking him out in some fashion, and that as he searched for his book, I searched for him – one shadow chasing another.
It may be that where texts ended he found both stories and hearsay, where books failed to illuminate he found markers in stone, and pictures chiseled into ruins. Where archaeology ended he deciphered clues in the workings of nature, and in the alignments of the stars. He became a true alchemist, my professor, and who better to discover that great work, lost for so many thousands of human years, than an alchemist?
It may be that he wandered, at times he wept, but at crucial moments there were always signs to point the way.
It may be. It may be.
When the Tail was a boy, his father told him a story about stories. To his father, everything was a story, right back to the beginning of the world. The Tail had once disagreed with this point of view, mostly out of youthful rebelliousness, but as he grew older he saw the rightness of it. He began to see all the little stories that made up his own life, and also how these stories – both his own stories and those of others – made up the larger story of the world.
And every story had a moral. Every story had a hero or a heroine. Every story had a villain, even if that villain was often flawed with a good character. Aristotle’s rules of drama could be applied, depending on where one drew the line between one story and the next.
“When I was younger my father told me many stories,” the Tail wrote to me one day, “And then he died.
“He told me stories about how it all began. He told me stories about how all stories end, if only to begin anew. He told me stories about all of the things that people think and feel. But he never let me forget that they were just stories, and as such were easily contradicted and contraindicated by other stories, or what you might call other versions of the truth.
“Stories, my father said, were all that people really had. Everything that people thought, or wanted, or felt, or believed could be traced back to a story, and this story could be traced back to other stories, without end. Everything, he said, was reducible to a story.
“My father taught me to love stories. Even the sad ones. And when he died, he became a story himself. This was a story I carried within my person, no different from any other heirloom.
“And it never seemed to me that by making my father into a story that I was diminishing him, because as he himself said, even the living are stories, and their status as such in no way alters the objective truth of who they are. Even where and when we are wrong. That too is a story, and that is our truth.
“Stories grow and grow, and after my father’s death I grew into other stories. In a few of these stories I was the hero, while in others I was only a supporting character. In some of these stories I was the villain, while in others I played a more ambiguous role. Sometimes I never knew what role I was playing until the end of a story, which is always only the beginning of another story. Or so my father would have said.
“I grew up in Seattle, my city, and a few other places besides. I moved away from my father’s house and went to college. I studied history, for this was a discipline ripe for story-making and storytelling. I learned. I loved. I tried to live. Then I was a teacher, a professor even, and I saw in my profession nothing less than the fulfillment of what my father had told me about stories, all those years before. I, like him, was enmeshed in stories. And because I knew them to be stories, I came to feel like a spider at the center of my web. I knew, somehow, that my story was the story of all stories, and that everything in my past stories had combined to make my present. Everything in my present combined to spell out the future.
“But one evening I came home, and my world ended. It didn’t matter what had been obvious to others before that point. It didn’t matter that I myself had been deluded. Whether the past embodied a collective falsehood or a collective truth was not the issue. What mattered was the shift in my perspective, and the fact that after this shift in perspective I could no longer continue on as I had been doing. I could no longer persevere in the old conceits. I could no longer hide within my ambitions, within my family, or within my fragile world – all pieced together from a forest of misunderstandings. I had to make an ending that evening, and that ending was only the beginning.
“That was a moment when stories almost stopped being stories, and when I realized that life is often so much more and so much less than an amusement. All of my stories fell apart that day, and I was left on the verge of something else, something foreign. I floated in the middle of a void.
“I cannot tell you what I thought after that evening. I cannot tell you what motives guided my actions. I was outside of myself from that point onward. I was outside of all my stories. I was also the hand of much larger things.”
Yes, he was a hand and a tail both. He was a cause and an effect, an object viewed and the viewer. Within him lay the entirety of the world, as the world lies within every man, and every woman. He could see right back to the origins of the cosmos, and from these origins he could view himself as the product of so many certain improbabilities, so many happenings and failures to happen. Yet within this acknowledgment of his true scale lay a sense of destiny, and beside this sense of destiny lay an unavoidable purpose. He knew that he was the large within the small. He knew that a storm begins with a single drop of water, and that actions at any distance are never distant, but rather close, impenetrable, and inseparable from oneself.
He had to find the book.
He vanished into the world. He became everywhere. He took up strange passports and learned new languages. He walked into places where men such as himself were more often than not murdered, or held for ransom. Even so he was not touched, for the purpose gleaming in his eyes put him beyond such molestations. They saw him, and were afraid. So it was that he went into the most lawless of lands, untouched for all his storied value.
He walked, he drove, and he flew across the oceans, until a certain day when he finally found his book, lying in the ruins of a house that overlooked a lake, a house removed from almost everywhere. He lifted the jeweled case from the midst of other, ordinary books. He opened the worded leaves, and he began to read about the end of everything human.
He knew that this was the one book to end the world. He knew that this was the book he had been searching for. This was the book to end all stories. This was the book that was the story of the world yet unwritten. His story was a part of that old world’s story, to be unraveled along with all the others.
A tired tapestry, the threads pulled from the weave. No death could ever be so complete. For after one’s death there is the memory of others, still living, passing their memories of the dead forward through time in words, in pictures, and in books unlike this one.
But here, here was a book to unmake all other books, and to strike silence into the mouths of the speakers and the keepers of tradition. Here was a book to reinvent the past by erasing it. Here was a book to wipe away his sadness, and every wrong idea he had ever pursued and magnified. Here was a book to end the story of the world. He took it up with trembling hands, and began to read it.
He takes it up with trembling hands, and begins to read it. He will take it up with trembling hands, and he will begin to read it.
As he read, he knew that this was the Third Day: the day that never comes.
It may be that when I think about him I feel free. But then again he held all of the cards from the beginning. As I sit here in my room, typing or not typing these words into a laptop, I have no space nor any moments left to regret him. I know that he was a failure. I know that he often wished me ill. But he was given his opportunities. Like so many others, he was free to choose or not to choose. Even if he wasn’t.
It may be that in the past I see the future, and in the present I see the present tension. In the presence of tension I see the past and the future reaching an ultimate understanding. Between the points of their intersection I can see our collective futility, and in the future I can see nothing, nothing at all. He has undone all of that.
And it may be that through the winter chill, through this first day of the last year, I would that he was thinking about me. I would that he could see me through the words of his fabled book. I can see him through the passing of tenses. He ought to see me through the events he has succeeded in erasing.
It is Saturday, March, and it is the last first day of the first last year. Winter has always been underway, and the passage of time has been halted by the opening of a single book, on the other side of the world. I am sitting on a chair as I type these words, and I can feel the weight of what he will do.
He did it from the beginning.