Chauncey Gardener was here. (Cole Thompson)
I dreamt of death smiling down upon me.
It is still dark when I open my eyes, and there is not a hint of dawn. There is not a hint of soft morning clamor. Not a chirrup. Not a rustle of leaves. Not a sense of place. Not a sense of time. Not a sense of life. Not a sense of anything that is anything.
There is a murmur. It is Theo, talking to his dreams of other places, other times, and other things. I become aware that I lie next to him. I seem to fall within my head. I feel the bed I lay on, the floor upon which lies the bed, the walls between which spreads the floor, the roof, the house entire, the earth, and the darkened sky. I know where I am at this very moment. Here, upon my bed, beside Theo, awake before dawn. There’s a soft chirrup, a rustle of leaves. Knowledge that dawn shall soon follow. Perhaps it is time, I say to myself, my insides beginning to curl with apprehension.
We leave home empty-handed. Bare and unburdened. Suddenly, on a whim, we leave because we think that it is time we do, though we may be entirely wrong. Theo sees I am not averse to the idea of venturing outside (at least, I am less rebellious than usual), and he does not wish to miss the opportunity, to overlook my lack of tenacity. We leave behind the home I have known for so long, known in exclusion to everything else.
There is grass everywhere, tall grass that surrounds our home from all sides and seems to extend all the way till the end of things, ends vertical and horizontal. I know the sun is somewhere up above, patient and mild, but I cannot see it. The grass hides everything.
Is this all there is to the illustrious outside — tall grass?
I follow Theo as he makes our way through it. You haven’t seen what lies beyond, he said this morning. You don’t know what it is like, yet you’re afraid. I acquiesced. I had known at dawn that I would. I plunged.
I hold his hand because the grass is tall, and I’m afraid of losing myself. And what could be more absurd, more foolish than losing oneself amidst tall grass! Or am I afraid I might lose him? That would be foolish just as well, perhaps more. I can see only the back of his head as he holds it straight and focused on the parting blades. He seems confident, sure. He has that sixth sense everyone talks about so much.
There is a road beyond, he says. This he knows from experience. You walk any which way and you’ll come upon a road, he’d say. It may not be the road you’re looking for, but there’ll be a road, right there, waiting for you, stretching along like a friendly yawn.
The blades of grass wave about as the wind tries to push through, as Theo tries to push through to the road he sees in his head. They wave slowly because they are tall. They dance, waving all the way from the bottom to the top I can barely see. I feel we’re in the midst of a slow shimmy, a ripple that slides all the way through, through the blades, through us. The blades are like solitary waves trapped in thin green frames, sinful waves condemned to heave in a windy wave-penitentiary for a minimum of one lifetime. I feel sorry for them, because I sometimes discern a similar sense of condemnation upon my own being. It’s just grass, says Theo, when I tell him about my sinking feeling, just grass.
Here it is, he says, his hand pushing aside the waves. I see the road that stretches out, a narrowing line reducing itself to an imperceptible point, far beyond the back of his head. It is long, straight, and looks difficult. I cannot see the end of it.
We seem to be at the edge of the windy wave-penitentiary — ill-fated, ill-prepared prisoners who dwell upon their options before diving into an escape. I’m scared. The delinquent waves seem comforting, like long caring arms of dying grandmothers, and I don’t want to leave them, for once the road begins, they shall fall behind. I want to turn back and head home. I almost turn to run, but Theo holds me by the waist. The strength of his grip, the warmth of his hands overwhelms me. He wants to be reassuring; I can feel the ferocity of his emotion pulsing through his palms, bursting into my waist, spilling into my stomach.
I seem to stop, though I haven’t moved. My contemplation seems to stop. It’s the death of the very thought, the very notion, of turning back, not out of faith, but out of fear, confusion. All I have known is reassurance. But now it seems to be a rather demanding word, with high character, impossible standards. His emotion seems to fade before it can find a place within my heart, before it can be called reassurance. Perhaps I haven’t known it at all. Come, he says. I follow, because I do not know what else to do. I follow, kissing the waves goodbye.
We have been walking for days, and I believe the road shan’t redeem itself. This isn’t a picnic, I tell Theo. This isn’t fun. This isn’t anything at all except latent footprints on a black line of a road in the emptiest painting there ever was. And where shall this lead? This isn’t fun, I say again. It wasn’t supposed to be, he says. It’s just different that’s all, something new, something that must be done.
I do not know what carries me forward, what pushes me or what pulls me, but I do move, with the back of Theo’s head bobbing in front of me. We seem to be in the middle of the road, walking forward, away from the middle. Yet, if I turn around, I feel like we’re walking backward, away from the middle. Away from the middle; forward or backward, it makes no difference. God sets his sun.
One morning, we come upon a dust path that leaves the road, and curls away as if to meet another secret dawn. We have grown old on this road, Theo and I, grown faster than we’ve ever grown. The path is charming, and we follow it as if willing ourselves to turn young again. The path is lined with healthy trees, bursting with purple flowers. They shield us from the sky, letting in only a bit of sun, forced to peep through bunches of leaves and petals, losing strength before it can touch us, drown us in yellow. There is something about the path, and so Theo and I walk on though we still don’t know where we’re headed. This is going to take us away, he says, sighing as if finally blessed with a wish of a hundred years. Where to? I ask. Where have we been going all this while? I wish you’d tell me things. Away, he whispers, as if away were a place, a place with a path leading to it, a place with people and lives and history. Away, he says again. I look up at the sky.
At the end of the path, at dusk, we come upon a silent river. It is silver and wide — we cannot see the other bank. The water is calm, quiet — a stolid warrior looking upon us with poise. It seems to mock us with all its composure, and I’m not sure I take too well to its disdain.
What now? I ask Theo warily, for these days are his, this jaunt is his. It is he who has chosen to show me what he wants me to see. We look for a boat, he says, treading upon the pebbles that make the bank. He is careful not to upset the smooth, round stones too much, and his caution unnerves me a little. He looks upon the river, his brows furrowed, as if questioning its depth, its integrity.
We must cross the river, he says, it is the only way. It is the only way. I follow him as he makes his way down the bank, looking for a boat, though I’m not really helping at all. I gather pebbles and put them in my pocket, trying not to look at Theo, for I know if I look at him, I shall only doubt him. To trust him, I must not look at him at all. I must pretend he is a voice.
With the delicacy of a falling snowflake, night descends upon us as the boat makes its slow way across the river. Theo has the oars, one in each hand. I sit across him, staring away into the night. The black is thick; I feel I should be able to caress it with my fingertips, but I do not try for I can feel Theo’s eyes on me. The oars kiss the water repeatedly, upsetting the silver surface. We seem to invade the river, upset the staid warrior’s night of peace. Each slap seems to cut through the silence, killing a bit of it each time; bits of silence gone for good.
I feel as though I have surrendered myself to Theo. The entire exercise begins to seem futile. I feel cheated into Theo’s quest. Perhaps he does not have anything to show me, but himself. Perhaps there is nothing to be shown at all, nothing to be seen or believed in, except him. Perhaps this is all there is — Theo and I.
As the fog begins to rise, I drift into sleep. This is the first time I have slept since I dreamt of death, and I know that I shall dream of him again, him alive and looking into my window. He is cheerful, though, and quite young himself. He asks me not to worry at all, and that he is there. What are you here for? I ask. I am here for you, he says. As he turns away, I see that he is life too.
When I open my eyes, it is still dark. The fog has lifted. The soft stars shimmer through.
Theo sits upright at his end, but his head has fallen forward and his hands hang from the side of the boat, fingertips kissing the surface of the water. He could be asleep, but I know that he is not. He is dead.
The oars float beside the boat, one on either side. I lean forward and grab them. Holding one firmly in each hand, I begin to row, heading for someplace Theo wanted me to see.
A note from the author
I have tried to exhibit the suffering caused by miscommunication within the mechanics of a relationship. The protagonists of the story depart on individual quests, though superficially it may appear to be a common one. Regardless of sexual orientation, I believe a man or a woman needs to find his or her "place," so to say. There is no singular, underlying theme or philosophy underlying the story, and the deliberate vagueness will, I hope, allow the reader to interpret it in a manner personal to her or him. — Ashish Mehta