I remember exactly what everyday life meant to me at that time.
It was an unceasing and coquettish relationship of day and night, their secretive glances and supposedly accidental brushing of arms that were promptly forgotten, as the stones thrown into a lake, and then brought back to the surface. It was just a promise of fulfillment made by the intimacy of rocks in a gully, above which I was walking on a tightrope in search of my own image of beauty. However, I had a feeling that I would have burnt in its fire if I had only found it. I was afraid of it; I was afraid of death. That’s why I decided to live a normal and boring life, neutral as a dry leaf lying somewhere deep in the forest. Believe me, I had done a thousand of incredible things but never in reality, in fear of the truth destroying the figment of my imagination.
I was nobody. I woke up every day at the exact same time, being proud of myself for the fact I always anticipated the alarm clock that was supposed to ring a couple of minutes later. My Dad told me I was being woken up by the ghosts but I didn’t believe him – he used to read a lot of books, a bit too many, which made him talk nonsense.
“Are you going to school with Simon?” My Dad often suggested to me the things I didn’t even think of. It didn’t help me in any way. It only magnified my irrational anger and exasperation fueled by all the fictitious problems I produced.
“I don’t know.” I would then shrug my shoulders. I didn’t care; I didn’t care at all.
I was eating my breakfast and looking out of the window at the rising morning sun. There weren’t many thoughts in my head; I didn’t need them. I just was there, nothing more – a bit like not being there at all. Mum bustled around, telling me to enjoy my meal and have a good day, and I replied to her like a parrot, without even wondering about the meaning of the words I uttered. She drove me to school and then back home so I didn’t have to worry about anything. I couldn’t even notice whether something was in order or quite the reverse… And emotions? What are they, actually?
I existed in a mindless listlessness, I was deaf and mute, and I didn’t desire anything specific. I couldn’t breathe the air in this place, I got the hiccups every time I walked down the streets I already knew so well but, fortunately, I was able to conceal my feelings and hide myself in the safe darkness of unconsciousness. I was only a page of the book that had been torn out and thrown into the wind. I hoped that all of this was transient, just a short advertisement one has to bear with in order to watch a good movie. If not, I get to make another attempts, don’t I? Don’t I? Everything can be mended. I need to be able to make further attempts. How could it be otherwise? After all, I can’t miss my own train. I can’t miss myself.
I always waited for something – a bird that landed on the crossroads. I stood on the desert and called God to make him send me manna from heaven.
Saturday evenings were my rescue. On Mondays, while being on my way to school, I already thought about Friday and the ability to fall asleep and wake up in the fantastic land of Saturday, along with its euphoric rapture, the people, the music, and the lights, with all the baubles that appeared so trivial but enchanted me so much. I felt like myself at those moments but this state of joy was short, and I was pained by the fact that I eventually had to surrender it to the hands of the past. On Sundays, I was still absorbed by the previous day but Mondays denoted five consecutive days of tortures.
My life wouldn’t change if it hadn’t been for the Master.
The beginning of this story is related to one of my Saturdays. As usual, our house was open and the doorsill was crossed by the close and those not-so-close friends of my parents, a bit breathless and looking cheerfully, stepping into the world of good time and conversations where the passing hours were struck by glasses of champagne. I was there as well. I befriended a group of students – actually, I made friends with them again since I did that every Saturday but they appeared to forget me during the following week. Therefore, it was a surprise to me when one of them told me they were going to a concert the next day. I was invited to come along. We arranged to meet around four in the afternoon near the fountain.
“See you tomorrow,” I said when they were leaving.
The following day, I was near the fountain at about quarter to four.
I waited. It was past four and nobody came. I tried to recognize faces of my friends from amidst the passing pedestrians but they all looked the same and then became blurry and meaningless, which only irritated me more. I waited. Half an hour later, nobody appeared, except a Gypsy woman who tried to sell me a rose, and a vagabond who wanted to give me a little volume of poems. Nothing more. As long as I could, I kept avoiding the truth.
I was alone. So I began to wander aimlessly along the alleys, discovering the unknown and observing the street lamps that were lighting up as the dusk stepped in. I wasn’t brave enough to ask a pedestrian for directions, to ask anyone for help. I simply wasn’t capable of doing that. I shuddered with cold and I kept immersing into the darkness, which led me to the quiet and deserted-like part of the city where you could almost hear the old tenement houses whisper. Wandering exhausted me and I felt the desire to find a shelter. I was freezing cold and my legs were shaking when I knocked on the small inconspicuous door with a bolted-on plate that said “Old Toys Store”. Even now, I still don’t know what made me choose this particular house instead of any other. I waited for a moment but there was no answer. I pressed the handle. It turned out the door was open. I pushed in gently. Ahead of me, there was a long and dark corridor with the stocked-up bookshelves guarding it like hoary watchmen. There was a light at the end of the corridor which radiated the warmth that I can’t put a tag on. The squeak of the closing door broke the silence, and I made the first step towards the mysterious light.
There, I made the acquaintance with the Master.
He was sitting in a rocking-chair, holding his glasses with one hand as if they would slide off if he took the hand away, and playing with a wooden jumping jack in his other hand. Actually, he didn’t play with it but rather twiddled with it carefully, as if he was examining its texture to learn its history and feel all the people who had ever touched this toy. A small lamp illuminated his figure, he resembled a torch in the ocean of darkness. He didn’t even look at me when I entered the room.
“So, there you are. I’ve been waiting for you. I knew that sooner or later you would find your way.” He gave me a perspicacious, owl-like look. He put aside his glasses and the jumping jack, combed the remaining hair on his head with his fingers, and began to stroke his gray beard.
I looked at him in astonishment.
“But… I’ve just got lost. You’re probably confusing me with someone else,” I stammered out.
“Quite the opposite, you’ve just found yourself, my boy.” The beardy storekeeper smiled at me. He was intriguing. I knew that I should have left that building and that I shouldn’t have been there in the first place. These were the rules. “I bet you’re tired, aren’t you?” I shrugged my shoulders. You just can’t divest yourself of some reflexes. “You must be, so don’t pretend you’re not. I’ve made a bed for you. Sleep will do you good, believe me. Come, let me show you the way.” He encouraged me with the warmth of his baritone voice.
I should have refused. Vehemently. I had been told not to talk to strangers. But he… he wasn’t a stranger. No, I had the impression I had known him before, that he had somehow been accompanying me all the time. It seemed to me that I knew him better than anyone else. So I minced after him like a somnambulist, obedient to the whispers of my subconsciousness. I fell asleep once my head landed on the pillow.
I woke up in my own bed at the exact time I always do. I switched the alarm clock off but instead of getting up, I rubbed my eyes and kept staring at the ceiling for quite a while. It couldn’t have been a dream. Without a single doubt. Everything seemed so real. I decided to tell that from my parents. They were definitely about to say something about the previous day.
There wasn’t anything out of the ordinary during the breakfast. The usual ersatz coffee, the usual cereal with milk, the usual sun on the other side of the window as well as the usual conversation. I was the only one standing out of the ordinary but I didn’t show a sign of it.
After the breakfast, I rode to school together with Simon but I didn’t stop where my friend did – I kept cycling further, like Odysseus returning home.
Actually, I didn’t know where to go. I hoped for some kind of a sign but nothing seemed to be one. So I decided to walk straight ahead. I should have got lost. I couldn’t say whether the city was beautiful. It was definitely enormous, at least I perceived it that way.
A broad hill overgrown with the ocher-colored houses, a maze of the streets that ascended only to descend once again and form a single, long string of chaos, a lane of shadow and light. Sunny squares filled with laughter and the sound of breaking the bread; the dark church interiors where the homeless slept. And the people, those crowds of gray and colorful individuals, always hurrying somewhere, to the unspecified destinations, with briefcases and baguettes under their arms, those masters of facial expression, recognizable only by the old ladies who used to open the almost colorless window shutters at seven in the morning.
I stopped over under a plane tree to get some rest in its shadow. I heard a bird singing from one of the branches – an exceptional singing, as if meant only for me, a singing through which the bird wanted to strike up a conversation with my heart. I noticed it raising from the branch, then it encircled me and bolted straight ahead. Further, higher, above the roofs that were weary of being exposed to the sun. I jumped back on my bicycle and, remaining in the state of enchantment, followed the trail of music the bird had left behind. The hustle and bustle of the city died away as did the conversations held in cafés and even the murmur of the fountain. I kept listening attentively to the bird’s singing and it showed me the way like inspiration directs the writer’s hand.
I arrived at the door with a plate that said “Old Toys Store”. The bird landed on the handle, knocked on the wood with its beak, and the door opened slightly, making it possible for the bird to fly inside and disappear in the eternal dimness of the corridor. My legs took me automatically through that corridor – the storekeeper was sitting in the exact same spot as the other day, in his rocking-chair. He looked as if he’d been waiting for me.
“Oh, there you are,” he sighed with relief, only to knit his brows once again. They never stopped moving. “You’re on time, that’s good.” A mysterious stream of words slowly came out of his mouth to penetrate my heart and embrace it. I felt as if each sentence he formed went beyond its standard meaning, swelled, melted, and broadened its borders. I was beset by the words I didn’t understand.
“But… I just…” My words got swallowed by the silence, held back by abashment. I was able to ask only one question: “Who are you?”
“Interesting question. And who are you?” He looked at me with an analytical eye.
I remained silent. I didn’t have anything to say.
“I am known under a variety of names,” he continued. “I have many names and I know many names. I know yours, too. I can even say I know it better than you do.” He stood up and chafed his hands. He stood right in front of me. In his presence, I felt like a blank sheet of paper that only he could write on. A very strange feeling. “Come with me. I will show you something.”
The floorboards creaked under our feet. I walked almost blindfold, trying to avoid making a false move. The shutters were opened a crack and let in only faint streaks of light. I could feel dust flying in the air and a scent of the past spreading around. A scent of a mystery.
He took me to a large room with the bookshelves that touched the ceiling and there he opened the windows. The sunlight flowed in, exposing hundreds of old toys: dolls, cars, wooden houses, playing cards. Some of them were broken, torn or faded, while others looked like new. I stood still and tried to comprehend the vastness of the past treasured in the room.
Toys have always existed, from the beginning, both long ago and today, in childhood and adulthood. I don’t mean this place evoked in me the desire to play. No, it was far from that. I sensed some connection between me, between all of us, and those toys. They might have been used for other purposes as well, not only for playing. It was like witnessing the creation of the world.
I turned around to face the Master but he wasn’t there. He disappeared as the rainbow vanishes from the sky. It was then that I used this name for the first time. I gave him a name and felt as if part of me was rediscovered along with his birth.
I didn’t look for him. I knew he was around and thus, there was no need to search for him. A feeling of bizarre serenity and, simultaneously, curiosity accompanied me, the inexpressible hunger casting off its chains. I felt like a larva metamorphosing into a butterfly. In a single moment, I found more than myself within myself.
I started to stroll among the bookshelves crammed with toys. They were rather scattered around chaotically than arranged in any way, having become somewhat combined through their entwined broken arms and fleeting stories. I repeatedly came to a halt in order to study the details of each toy, as the Master had been doing when I had first met him. I stroked them with my fingers, exploring the soft texture of their small bodies. I was immersing myself in the past, in another illusion, that I had already become a part of – I was trying to keep my balance on a plank that connected two separate worlds, and only the glimmering darkness that had dispersed across the world appeased the flutter of the wings of my soul, taking me back home in its arms.
Since then, I visited the store on a daily basis. Each day after school, I rode my bicycle home to eat dinner, and then cycled back to the town through the dust lying on dirt roads and the scent of lavender, among the cicadas singing on the branches of olive trees that were being roasted under the scorching sun. However, I never shared my secret with anyone.
“Maybe it’s time to return to reality?” My mother encouraged me but she could only guess what I was doing.
“I’ve had enough of reality and I don’t really need it,” I would reply.
The promise of life had been growing in me for a long time and it was the day of blossoming, at last. The time of life had come, not the time of death. So far, I had been a ghost, afraid of these flames that now I wanted to burn down in, with sparks sprinkling the ground and smoke rising up into the air. Oh God, I hope this atrocious, nondescript and indifferent mist never again takes my seat.
In the old toys store, I found the light and began to feed on it. Yet, it wasn’t about the toys themselves – they were dead and despite the fact they contained the past, they didn’t have the power to alter the world anymore. The light I found was the Master.
Usually, when I came to the store, he would sit in the rocking-chair, reading a book. He always greeted me with his inscrutable eyes and a couple of words from time to time. Then, when I went out in the evening, he simply said “goodbye” and wished me good night. It provided me with a sense of security and infinity, as if the beauty of the day was never supposed to be gone. A warm, sometimes trembling, voice of the Master endowed me with faith and hope although I never told him that.
I started to walk along the bookshelves, this way discovering the corridors that I hadn’t known before. I wandered among the old walls with the drooping spiderwebs and snooped around the rooms with the dust flying in the air in order to touch the rust-covered keys, pick up the scattered sheets of paper from the floor, and unveil the mirrors covered with bed sheets. The building that housed the store was much bigger than it seemed. It resembled an abandoned castle where the warmth of our fingers revives its past. A castle where the Master wandered along the corridors, struggling through the dark boscage to reach the light, vanishing only to show up in someone’s imagination – found, recognized, and already named.
One day, when I came to the store, I didn’t take the corridor into the depth of the building but remained with the Master and took a seat next to him. That’s how our conversations began. They started as coy exchanges of short sentences, the process of taming the words, discovering their power. Then, they turned into a common truth-seeking voyage.
“You know that I have always been close to you but you could not notice me. Every time you looked at your reflection in the mirror, I was there as well. In your mirror and many other mirrors. Sometimes we see so little…” he would say.
He looked at me, breathing heavily, as if in the result of physical effort. I didn’t answer and I didn’t have to. After a minute of silence, he turned on the radio and the classical music started to flow from the speakers, somehow freezing the moment to gently transfer it into the album of eternal photographs.
Yet, I still didn’t know anything about him. I wanted to talk with him for long hours to learn everything there was to know about him but after a couple of days I became convinced that the truth about his existence was unattainable – it was just a flame that shows the way. I felt a growing desire to capture that flame, hold it in my hand, but the Master sensed it as well and withdrew, as if he was afraid that this recognition would make all his powers melt away.
“Don’t come here anymore. It’s time to proceed,” he told me once without further explanations. I couldn’t stand opposed to him. I felt as if he had slipped into my heart and had temporarily taken control of it.
The Master opened the door and observed me as I walked away, faded in the sunlight and the rustle of leaves, and disappeared around the corner of the building.
I returned the next day but the store was empty. There wasn’t a living soul. I sat there for a while and then went outside. The wind slapped me in the face, bringing a fresh scent of herbs. I looked around like I was examining myself in the mirror, for the first time and the last time, standing both there and in the past, in order to fully appreciate everything. Then I understood his words. I came back to the world and started to live my life to the utmost. Something changed in me. I felt that everything had a point, that each of us had a destination to reach, even if it was a store with old toys. I was myself. My life was on cloud nine but I experienced some deficiency, at the same time. Therefore, I soon returned to the store like a child that always comes back to its mother. When I opened the door, the light greeted me for the first time. In that light, I saw a girl – she was standing there with her back turned to me, dressed in a floral dress. I felt her power to distribute happiness or misfortune, the power to change lives and provide them with specified goals. Suffering and quandaries were with her, as were our joys. I heard her voice – sweet and clear like a singing of a nightingale.
“I’ve been waiting for you,” she said. “You must be looking for the Master. I’m taking care of him, he doesn’t feel that great. He keeps saying he’s being called by something, some kind of music, the singing cicadas… but there’s no need to worry. It’s going be alright.” I still couldn’t see her face.
I can only remember that she started to blur, my vision was becoming misted over, and all the toys piled up in the store blended. I can also remember that I felt dizzy and saw a sequence of scenes from my life flickering in front of my eyes, then I felt an all-embracing warmth, and dropped gently into the chasm of whiteness.
I woke up in a hospital. I heard my name being called and saw an exercised face of my mother. I was able to recognize her but her face was misty – I was afraid she could disappear any second.
“Did you hear what the doctor has just said?” I shook my head and she clenched her lips. I could read the suffering from her face. “You will need to wear thick eyeglasses but… you are… your vision is going to deteriorate. That… I don’t know why… it sometimes just happens. In the end… in a couple of months, maybe just a couple of weeks, you will lose your sight completely. And…” She didn’t finish her last sentence. Instead, she held my hand and started to weep, soaking the bedclothes with her tears.
I closed my eyes and plunged into darkness. Then, I recalled the interior of the hospital room, started to picture it; once I opened my eyes, I saw the exact same room that I had just pictured. I didn’t want to think about it. No, no, no… I could not lose my eyesight. Such things doesn’t happen just like that. Not to me… why me, anyway? What about the Master? What about her, the Princess, whose face I hadn’t even seen. What would happen to them? Would they disappear? It’s not possible. I won’t go blind… I will be blind. Yes, I will be blind. Be brave and say it one more time: I will be blind. These words kept coming back to me and penetrated my body like shining and cold daggers. How much have I seen in my life? Has it been really important? Would I have enough memories? What do I want to see before… Suddenly, my body was seized by fear. The future petrified me, I wanted to exist only once, in the safety of the present. I could feel a big lump coming up my throat but I tried to ignore it since it seemed so insignificant, completely insignificant… Directing my thoughts to the Master composed me. He was my light. I wanted to see him and talk to him but the more I thought about it, the more I realized I didn’t think only about the Master himself. He wasn’t alone anymore – there was the Princess and together they formed an inseparable couple; I perceived them as the Sun and the Moon. I wanted to meet them one more time. Yes, I wanted that so much. On the day when I was supposed to be discharged, my father came to my room and sat on the chair next to my bed.
“We’ll be home tomorrow,” he said, quite evidently in an attempt to cheer me up. “And… I wanted to ask you… whether there is anything we can do for you? Would you like to see anything? I’ve also given some thought to… if you could choose, do you know what would you like to see as the last thing before it happens?
“I’d like to meet the Master and the Princess one more time,” I replied and upon seeing his baffled face, I explained who they were.
However, I didn’t let anyone to accompany me on my way to the old toys store, where I went on the following day. I walked alone while the bird’s singing directed me as it had done the first time. I reached the tenement house I knew so well and opened its front door.
The store was completely desolate.
There was no trace of all the toys. The Master and the Princess hadn’t left anything behind, nothing that could prove they had ever been here. The only things I found were a volume of poetry and a rose that were lying on the threshold. I picked them up and came out into the street. I noticed that a woman was watching me so I approached her to get some information.
“Have you seen your neighbors leaving this house?” I asked.
She looked at me as if I were a complete loony.
“Yes, a couple of years ago. The building has been empty for some time, now,” she answered with confidence.
“But… I was here not even a week ago and…”
“Nobody lives here, my boy. As far as I know, it’s not possible you’ve met anyone in there.”
I didn’t believe her. I thanked her for the information and continued to walk down the street, alone with my reality and my imagination.
There were a lot of things I held against me. I felt that I should have done something. Something passed me over; I must have overlooked it. I was too certain there would always be time and that it would never be too late. I didn’t tell the Master how important he was to me and I didn’t even properly meet the Princess.
I knew that it wouldn’t happen again but I wanted to fix it by walking ahead with hope under my arm.
I held the sparrow in my hand, laboring under the delusion that it would never fly away. Now, I was striving to believe that it got accustomed to me enough to return the next minute.
I sat on a bench in the park and opened the volume of poetry, releasing the scent of the rose. I started reading and didn’t stop until I read all the poems. When I finished, I knew exactly what to do.
The Master and the Princess had gone on a journey. They couldn’t have traveled far away. I felt that I had to follow them, staking everything on one roll of the dice in order not to lose it. I wanted to make a decision, any decision, good or bad, only to stop hesitating, take that decision and believe.
I talked to my parents and friends and managed to convince them. I didn’t have much time – I was losing another fraction of my eyesight with each moment. So, when May came, I set out to find the last thing I would see in my life. I’m still wandering, passing vineyards, and resting under olive trees. I’m drifting from town to town, meeting different people, writing poems for them, and collecting friendly handshakes. So I keep wandering in search of the Master and the Princess, believing with all my heart that I will run into them on my way, and that the volume of poetry will show me the poetry of life and the rose will bloom with love.
To be continued