Mars

I knew this would happen. I knew I could stay this, but not forever, I knew I would have to confront it, I knew I would not get away with staying away: I’m on my way home. The fact that I entertain a notion of ‘home’ is in itself a symptom of growing up, surely. Growing in. Growing through. Through the crises, the awaynesses of it all, the doubts and the fear.

Between Horror and Terror I stand on the Seat of the Gods and I feel me a warrior. Hah! Who would have thought that I could answer the call. Hold my head high and keep my gaze straight and look upon Earth in the distance and say: I salute thee, Mother, and I charge thee to welcome me back. “Be a Man” he said, and I knew what he meant. No controversy, no hesitation, no confusion and no offence. This rust coloured dust, this thin-skinned robustness. This unflappable sense of the just. Of the righteous. Of the direct, of the cause and the anger. The Anger. The wrath.

The outrageousness of it all. There’s nothing twee about it, nothing humorous, fun, camp, harmless or charming. Ere I lose my sense of proportion I shall steel my spine to this ire. Stupidity, wantonness, cruelty and fear. The stubborn ignorance of greed. The tyrants, the egomaniacal butchers and keepers of slaves. They are an outrage. One as destructive, as unenlightened and as inhumane as the other. There the slaughter of innocents, the imposition of rule; the indoctrination, the violence, the cult. Here the wilful deception, the making of unholy myths, the falsing of facts, the aggrandisations and the buffoonness; the rhetoric, the gestures, the meaningless phrases, the orange, the hair.

The beateous soul in my sinuous body wishes it were not so, but “nature is war,” and until I dissolve into the particle waves and the unnamed insubstantiality of connexion, I have to make a stand and be counted. Too long, maybe, have I tried to avoid this. Too long shied away. Too long have I hovered above ground thinking it all – the dirt, the blood, the grit (that word I never, ever, liked or was even willing to use), the bone and the marrow, the shit, the severed limbs, the crushed skulls and the unwanted guts spilling into the mud, the jealous, the mean, the preoccupied with survival – thinking them and it all quite beneath me. It is, of course, quite beneath me, under my feet: will I or no, I trample the trodden no less than the soldiers who scavenge the field, I only know how to behave. Politeness. There is virtue in civil conduct and in a refusal to simply succumb, but form on its own now won’t function. Sad, sincerely, but so.

The scorn. To be put in this position. To not be released. To have to respond. To be set against something so real. So unavoidably ugly. In this land of the alien. On this inhospitable neighbour. My sense of humanity and what I want it to mean here is challenged, de-ranged. I am out of joint but not out of scope. These forces can not be contained, perhaps, but they can be conquered. With spirit, with wisdom, with core. With arguments? No. With reason? Not likely. With strength (not with force) and with purpose. But it is still a war. There are battles that need to be won.

I survey the Plane of Utopia and pronounce this my moment of muster. Here of all places. This desert has nothing that I want to own except my presence, and that is now no longer negotiable. There comes the instance when you know that all else is mist. The haze doesn’t clear yet, in the distance, but I do sense the bridge. This tying together of thoughts with the elements that are also in me, lest I ignore them. The substance that I fashion to my own design. Titanium and graphene. If there be materiality, let it be exquisite, sophisticated and strong.

There is no feebleness in wanting good.

There is no harm in seeking softness. No despair in keeping faith.

There is no shame in hope, no loss of self in selfless love.

Embracing all of it, being it and sending the signal. I take me a clue from the lingering trojans and inwardly smile, even laugh. Haha! Now is the time to go forth. I have no fear and no loathing and nothing to prove. Less, still, have I to lose. I have quite left me behind my despair. I see me one coming towards me whom I may yet be willing to join, or he me, and if that be so then so much the better, there is a lion yet to the eagle, but it is not the content, and not the end, it is but a chance to make some things completer, and I’m sure now of the simplest of things: I am.

The Snowflake Collector – 11: He Was, Now More Than Ever, His Own Man

Winter did return to the valley, a little later each year now, it seemed, and with winter returned the snow and with the snow began in earnest The Snowflake Collector’s work.

He applied his formula and mixed according to it his extraordinary liquid that had just the right qualities, the exact consistency and molecular structure to capture snowflakes as they sank into it, without melting them, without damaging, harming them, but able to, so far as the continued existence of George suggested, preserve them for not only seconds or minutes or hours or days, but for months, maybe years. And he quickly found that the differentials of success over failure were minuscule. It took him many days and every day several attempts just to recreate a small quantity of the solution, and even then the snowflake that sank into it only kept its shape for a moment before it melted and passed.

Not only were the proportions of the ingredients to each other of critical importance, but the stillness of the liquid inside the cube – one inch by one inch by one – and, particularly, the precise temperature at the point of entry made the difference between death and a continuation of life, in some sense, of the snowflake that was being captured. Even how long it took him to seal the cube after capturing a snowflake mattered to how likely the snowflake was to stay intact.

His task, he soon realised, was not just immense, it was also extraordinarily difficult and demanding. But he did not mind. And he no longer despaired. He had, on his shelf in his hut, one pristine, perfect specimen of a snowflake, the one he had named George, and George was still there, he still shone like a tiny beacon that whispered of the attainable, and as long as he was there, there was a point, there was a purpose, there was a reason, and if it was one reason only, to persist.

Innumerable may be the failures now – and innumerable, though they weren’t, they felt – before The Snowflake Collector would succeed in capturing even just one snowflake as exquisite as George, but he knew now it was possible, and that was all he needed to know. And as he persevered he was able to, slowly, gradually, attain other, similar miniature triumphs. None, perhaps, felt as glorious as George had felt, that surprising day in the wrong season when he had landed upon him, but each brought its own little joy, its own advancement, sometimes followed, shortly after, by a setback, a failure, even a minor catastrophe. But none now were in that sense a disaster.

He carefully crafted more sturdy boxes for the glass cubes that he made, and he filled one, then another, with snowflakes that he named, each as he caught it; and regularly Yanosh would come up to his hut, and now they often found they had something to talk about. They still mainly just nodded at each other to signal ‘hello’, and then when they parted they signalled ‘goodbye’ in a similar way, but as The Snowflake Collector himself now spent so little time sitting outside his hut and so much time cutting glass plates, assembling them into cubes, building boxes, mixing liquids, studying the effects these liquids had on the snowflakes and the effects that these snowflakes had on the liquids, and perfecting his practice, Yanosh seldom now simply sat outside The Snowflake Collector’s hut to watch him, or watch the world go by – which didn’t go by here, as both of them knew, even though both of them knew also that it also never stood still – but helping him, if there was some way to help, or, if not, then photographing these snowflakes in their exceptional beauty.

And as The Snowflake Collector honed his technique, he became not only better at what he was doing, he slowly turned into an expert at snowflake collecting and beyond an expert he became a master at it. He began to understand these snowflakes as they spoke to him in their silent presence, and he learnt to absorb and to internalise their essence. He still wasn’t able to communicate it, but he felt that maybe that wasn’t so necessary now, because as he was becoming a master at snowflake collecting, Yanosh kept taking pictures of them, and he too got better at taking pictures of snowflakes, and although he did not have any desire to become an expert at snowflake photography, or let alone, in these young years of his, a master at anything yet, his pictures were astonishingly compelling, and, as he did with any picture he had taken and of which he thought that someone might like it, he posted some of these snowflakes online, and predictably people were struck by their wondrousness.

Without knowing it, The Snowflake Collector acquired a following. Yanosh didn’t make much of the fact that the picture collections he set up on his social network began to spread and attract the attention of admirers all over the world. To him, that was just what happened when you posted pretty pictures online. But there was something about these snowflakes that set them apart from other pictures of snowflakes. Maybe it was the way in which they were kept, in these glass cubes, floating, it seemed, in a gel that lent them their luminous sheen; maybe it was the names that The Snowflake Collector gave them and that Yanosh faithfully transferred when he labelled these pictures; or maybe it was just the unfussy tenderness of Yanosh’s framing, the gentle exposure and understated postproduction that made them look as complex as nature and as simple as geometrical art: it was impossible to tell.

What was certain was that The Snowflake Collector’s snowflake collection grew, and as it grew and grew more captivating, it captured the imagination of more people, and it wasn’t so long before some of these people, either because they happened to be in the relative vicinity of the valley already, or because they felt this was as good a reason as they needed to come to the valley, started to visit him. The Snowflake Collector was not keen on visitors, by and large, but as they were few only in number, and their appearance in the valley was infrequent enough, he welcomed them and introduced them to some of his snowflakes, individually, selectively, and by name; and the visitors would tell their friends about these encounters in conversations and post their own pictures of the snowflakes and of The Snowflake Collector, recounting their stories; and invariably, as The Snowflake Collector’s reputation spread, ‘the media’ finally cottoned on to him. At first it was just a young journalist who took an interest in these curious tales she’d heard and who was fascinated by the pictures she ‘discovered’ when doing a quick search online, and she came to the valley and did a sensitive portrait of him that appeared somewhere in a paper that few people read.

This was picked up by another and soon yet another, and without ever wishing it so, The Snowflake Collector found himself famous. He did not understand the reason for this. He was The Snowflake Collector, what he did was collect snowflakes. He was generous with his snowflakes and he would introduce them to anyone who came to him curious to meet them, but he did not think that what he was doing – although as a task immense and demanding – was something that anyone else so disposed as he could not easily do.

The people who came to visit him, most particularly those who came from ‘the media’, found this quaint and endearing. The Snowflake Collector knew they were patronising him, but he did not mind about that either. He felt no anger towards them, and no contempt. These were the same people – not the same individuals, of course, but broadly speaking representatives of the same culture – that had for decades ignored and belittled him. Even ridiculed him. But those long years he had spent in the big city among them, trying to be taken seriously by them, attempting to create, wishing himself noticed by them, they had washed away with the meltwater that had rushed down the stream by which he kept his small plot of land with the trees that he planted, two for each one that he cut down to use for his modest needs. He had no fear of them now and no regard other than the regard he had, and had kept, always, for all human beings: they were friends in as much as they were certainly not enemies, for to grant someone the status of enemy is to give them power over you, and The Snowflake Collector had long ceased to give anyone power over himself. He was, now more than ever, his own man.


10: George <

> 12: There Was Nothing Now But the Snow


12 The Sultaness (Revisited)

She doesn’t leave me alone, this woman, plausibly because she’s so womanly. With a regrettable paucity of experience, I retain an abstract notion at best of what Woman is. Or Man, coming to think of it. In all likelihood and compared to most, I retain a largely abstract notion of what anyone is. Are we human? Or are we dancer.

I imagine her on a mountain of cushions, brushing her hair. A dwarf eunuch wafting air upon her with a Pergamon fan. As I enter the room – is it a hall, a tent, a boudoir? – she looks up at me with an aloofness that is both superior and benign. She doesn’t know who I am, and neither do I, although she has spoken to me already, in mysterious ways.

Woven into the pillows are the sorrows and tears of the virgins that were slaughtered in vain and the hopes and aspirations of their betrothed princes, kept and murdered as slaves. I hear the din of the bazar and I smell its scents which are, as expected, exotic and I hear the muezzin’s adhan. This call I heed, though I am not a believer, and leave her waiting, once more. She knows, and stifles a yawn, but inwardly she delights.

It occurs to me that it does not matter. It matters not why The Sultaness has taken up residence in my mind any more than it matters why I have come to Istanbul to encounter my thirty-years younger self. It matters not that I make no sense to myself at the moment and it matters not that looking at George here who is me at the age of about twenty, I can’t be in Kingston-upon-Thames at the same time, and it never ever mattered what I was going to go there for in the first place; or second, or third.

What matters is just that I don’t get these next fifty seconds wrong. If I don’t come up with a question that has at least some weight, some inquisitive purpose to it, he’ll not only think me lame but he’ll be bound to query my motives. And although I know and remember myself as someone who will for as long as possible give anyone the benefit of the doubt, I also know that once that bond of trust is broken it cannot be repaired, not easily; maybe never. I don’t want to let myself down.

And so asking him how he is doing, or where he is from, or what he makes of this city, or where he is headed next, or how he enjoys his Mojito, none of these will do (although I am in fact interested to know how his Interrail trip ended up landing him here on the outside edge of Europe, and what might have happened to his friend, and which friend it was, since I clearly would know him; but that also holds me at bay: I should not enquire about our mutual friend, as that would very obviously demand some explanation). Nor do I want to ask him some random question, such as what is the meaning of life, or pretend that there is some information he has that I need to know, or anything utilitarian, like where is a good place to eat. (Besides, we are at a good place to eat already and I know we both are creatures of habit, so unnecessarily asking for a different one would make me sound either disingenuous or stupid.)

I wait until he has taken another sip from his cocktail – only now does it really occur to me that’s what we are doing: drinking cocktails – and ask him, ‘where do you imagine yourself in, say, 30 years from today.’

No sooner have I spoken these words than I realise just how absurd this is: thirty years from now I’ll be eighty and he will be fifty; what is he supposed to answer? Will thirty years from now be thirty years down his timeline, or mine? And won’t that depend on how the next fifty seconds, and then fifty minutes and maybe then fifty hours pan out?

I sense that my reality is about to implode, when he does something unexpected. Having been him, it shouldn’t come unexpected to me; having been him I should have seen this coming, in a more normal situation perhaps even remembered, but he nevertheless catches me out and fairly floors me:

‘Here,’ he says, laconic and calm, with his innocence and nascent wisdom and a curious sparkle in his eye, ‘talking to you.’