~ a short story

~ The old man walked up the steps in rumination. The winds of winter swept along the stone slopes, further chipping away at their regress. Greyed out and patchy clouds shifted in spurts overhead. Their demeanor reflected a glooming rain that did not fall. Eddies of damp auras circulated in a recurrence about the passengers on this stairwell. The specter of a chill penetrated past the old man’s layers. Through his strength of will alone did he not let it reach his back. He remained upright.

I am strong. In a world so cold, so dour, I am yet strong.

In spite of his creaky knees, he took the steps because they were the only way. He took the steps because he needed to get up to there. The man had made an appointment to be up there and he intended to meet his obligation. A matter of habit. Meeting them was long ago how he’d ordered his chaos.

Bright pink blossoms fell onto the stone steps at his feet, right into his sight line. They trickled down from the trees overhanging the ornate wood railings on either side of the climb. These particular trees used to be his favorite, the coming of the cherry blossoms a sacred day due its sacred service. Days long past. The man did not even glance at the things now. His rigid body, strengthened by a time-honored and calcified resolve, waded through the blossoms like a great warrior through lesser opponents.

As always, the old man fixated his eyes down, casting his look upon the ground as he walked. He couldn’t help but stare down at his own steps and their work in elevating him. One after another, he took them; blinking maybe every tenth step, breathing after every third. Covered by a pair of tightly-laced old black boots, his flat feet carried him to where he had to go.

The old man came upon a collection of cracks within the stone steps, spreading out before him as a dark web of traps awaiting a single misstep. He avoided them deftly, stepping in between the cracks consciously. Each one he passed over left him with a feeling of stark satisfaction. He drank these feelings up quickly, consuming their mental energy and converting it to the physical. As a result, his pace quickened.

The old man long-believed he regarded the ground when he walked for good reason. In a matter of mutualism, the exercise held singular benefit. What had started as a simple tendency from his youth, to prevent distractions and forewarn of potentially shaky footing, had become an iron-clad, lifelong habit. A warm-welcomed one very much invested unto. The practice focused his mind, like blinders on a horse, to his coming passage. “If you can see what is coming, then you can better plan and traverse the rocky grounds.” A paraphrased witticism from his father, the old man believed. Yes, that was it. That must’ve been where he developed the tendency originally, following the words of his father. ’Twas as good a foundation for a life philosophy as anything else.

The old man smiled satisfactorily at these thoughts, until someone bumped into him. Someone faster than him, someone younger. Startled by the jostling, he looked up. It was a person walking the same direction as him, up the steps. The stranger stopped and turned to apologize. Insincerely. The old man met his eyes wide with shock turning to disdain, and tacitly accepted the apology with a nod. He forgot the other’s face immediately because he did not really see it.

Not a nod. He had simply turned his head back down to the his feet in defiance of the brutish man’s empty words. No, not defiance. Instinct. A retreat.

My signature.

An old fear surfaced; the old man recognized it with spite, with hatred, with something known as pain. Pain. An old friend to the old man. A forgotten medium for a forgetful soul.

He did not like doing that. Retreating, on instinct. But staring into people’s eyes made him nervous, anxious. It always had. In anxiety, came chaos, and in chaos came wayward choices. It wasn’t just people’s eyes though, was it? The old man questioned internally, but then stopped himself. He tried to blink it away. On instinct, he stared up and around him, perhaps to turn himself away from that familiar rut of his rumination. Other individuals, other groups, couples and families, men and women, olds and youths, surrounded his experience. All kinds of persons made the same walk up the wide steps as he did, within the overcast of the midday gloom. Some walked down too. Many smiled, sincerely, insincerely. I can’t tell. I don’t want to know. Stop looking. Stop walking.

For the first time since he started the climb, their voices and their own shuffling feet made their presence known within his consciousness. Loud conversations of nothing and of everything hit him hard. The blossoms fluttered in between all this noise and interactivity. And possibility. Yes, all of the possibility of these people. Possibilities made the man fearful. At this, a disquiet struck the old man like a thunderbolt, seeking the heat of his soul, and meeting it with a fervor unprepared for. Its power was so strong as to riddle him into near unconsciousness. The blossoms fell faster and faster about him. He stopped walking, waves of realization reaching the shores of his awareness, bringing in old thoughts, old ideas, the haunts and half-remembered dreams of the old guard of his old life. Why stare at the ground when you walk? Why evade eyes? Why stare at your own steps? Why walk up in obligation, but never stare up in volition? Why fear possibilities?

Why do I crave to be asleep? Why do I wish to be alone? Why do I seek to destroy myself?

Lost in thought one moment, rolling and reflecting ruminations captured his unconsciousness into a reverberating roil, and then, in the next — a snap to the present. The mind is there, and back again. A single breath, taken mindfully, changes many cloudy moments into a single, solid, mountainous moment. At the beckoning of an unseen and unknown transformation, the old man is all-of-a-sudden residing within presence. Standing, while others move over the steps, the old man collects himself. Need some breath. Get some breath. And he thinks that he knows that he understands this is important. He almost gets it. There are more levels to this than he can garner. Nevertheless, the old man digs in. One breathes and remains still, recovering. He recovers more than just his breath. The mind swells and crashes unlike ever before.

The mind is there, and back again.

Layers and layers peeled away from his purview. He saw them as clearly as the steps themselves; cracks or no, he took them.

In the old man’s immobilized, mobilizing state, the other happy people, the sad people, the indifferent people, the unknown people, moved in slowing motion upon the neighboring steps. He remained fast, however. He remained strong. He felt an indestructible urge to keep walking, eyes up. The walk soon became a sort of sprint, two steps taken at a time. Miraculously, the old man’s knees offered no resistance to this decision.

Now he smiled in his run up the steps, staring up and up, towards something he did not know what. Something worth seeing. Tears flowed unceasingly from his eyes, streaming down onto his coat and the layers he’d wrapped himself in to protect from the cold. But the winds were gone so he doffed it, releasing the layers down to the last. The tears were warm-welcomed, the latent sheddings of coats the old man did not know he wore.

He finally drew his attention to the blossoms and their trees releasing them so. Each fluttering blossom a potential season of his time, each of their trees a potential life. Potential. The man saw the persons motioning recursively, slowly, each motion and emotion articulated in a step-by-step progression for him. If he so chose to pay the necessary attention, their stories played out right in front of him. Their faces changed as their bodies did as their voices did as their souls did. Lighting up and blinking out, the persons flashed unto him. They represented an integral, imperfect set of forms within his experience. Relative to his own self, they provided the necessary context for new revelations to arrive during his sprint to that effervescent peak lying somewhere far ahead. What did it hold? What does it mean?

Each of these persons filled with illimitable potential. Possibility.

I am no different. He wiped tears in repetition, drawing the sturdy sleeves of his overcoat across his eyes. He kept running up, kept ruminating, kept awakening.

His feet churned up the steps, boots clamping down on one level after another. The blossoms fluttered about him, some of them touching down onto his coat, his hair, his outstretched hands.

Possibility is chaos, unchartered movement towards unknown isles. I fear possibility, because it carries the potential for things greater than I have managed. I fear my own possibility, because I wholeheartedly believe that I have squandered my potential. I am old and soon to die. I walk up these steps for no reason other than to accelerate that ending. I am ready to die because I am filled with regret and do not wish to unconsciously despair any longer. This is all my un-introspected self meditates upon, my past and my alternatives untaken, and it is killing me. In this twilight, I have the drawn the curtains closed upon my life. No. I did it long ago, well before becoming aged. Somewhere, somehow, I made a decision. From the outset, I had talent, know-how, sense, passion, a burnishing art for a life worthy of its own passage. I could see it. It was right there before me. A part of me even had the wisdom to think to act upon these things to their effective endgame. But another part of me didn’t. Because I didn’t act. I lacked something necessary to proceed into that being — that tree, fostered to release those desired blossoms. I lacked the conviction to burn through those fears. Of possibility, and of potential, I am a perfectly dark exemplar. A paragon of all the potential misses, the untraversed paths gone dark from the light of my reluctant one. Are all men so defined by a single choice? I am. The unexplored territories cut off from me forever within the decision damn me even now upon these steps towards a meaningless meeting. Things I do not care about have come to define me. Those things, the innumerable and unavoidable possibilities relinquished from, those damned potentialities unto me — they all put me on this path.

“You are still in a dream.”

The words boom into the old man’s consciousness, setting him off balance. A voice, but not my own. Or is it, and it’s simply something I long ago silenced … The silence. The deafening silence of my existence up to now was like those final dreams of the morning, when one imagines their own awakening as a reverie, the early morning routine and the departure, all from the warmth of the pillowed fortress.

You are up and adam, walking about and preparing for the day. Water is splashed upon the face, coffee prepared, breakfast consumed, dressed, brushed, laced. You are ready to walk out the door, ready to start the daily segment of your life. But something is amiss, you look back into your abode. You open your eyes and you stare from within your bed, to that dream-self at the door. Instantly, it dissipates. You have been asleep. You merely imagined all that motion. You have yet to start your day. You stood at the cusp of consciousness, basking in imagination, never awakening. Still asleep. You are still in a dream.

I must’ve dreamed the dream of being a person, but never awoke.

The man looked back, all the way back, to the first step of the stairs far below. There he was, clear as day, the old man — himself — awaiting that first step up. But the man upon the stairs far ahead did not dissipate at the meeting. Instead, he kept running up, even while he continued to look back. He ran towards something, something waiting for him, though he did not know it, seeing only that specter at the base, awaiting a known fate. New tears came, they were not welcome or expected or capable of being coped with. With the man’s layers peeled and the veil lifted repeatedly, the blossoms fell faster, the other smiling and frowning and neutralizing personas about him upon the steps dissipated into nothingness. Their exile went unnoticed, for they no longer carried his attention. His sole focus became that of getting up the steps. Until their ending.

Or until something stopped him. Something did now. A figure grasped the old man’s shoulder, stopping him in his ascent. He turned forward once again, to face this guardian. A woman, ebony of skin, the graceful lines of experience crossed across her uncross face. She does not smile but nor does she frown. The old man tries to look past her, to the ascension, to his steps he wished to step. But he finds he cannot look away, he does not wish to. The woman stares into his eyes, and he stares right back, and of his own volition.

In her eyes, a red spiral of energetic movement wades into the spaces of his mind like a light filtering into a long-standing darkness. The visceral feel of a fall, forward and in a miniaturization of self, occurs transparently, consciously, in knowingness. The old man feels himself releasing into this great woman’s crimson visage. He lets go; surrendering to this carmine glory, or maroon doom, welcoming either, beckoning both.

The old man does not blink.

He watches the movement of the woman’s eye with grandiose, amplifying attention gathering at the shores of his consciousness. The world around him changes as he does, charged with a fresh energy for esoteric work worth doing. The blossoms return to their trees. The people fall back to their motions up and down the steps. Clear sunlight basks the steps in a newfound warmth. The old man no longer exists. A child does. This child stares into the eyes of this woman’s motherly embrace. So starkly differentiated from himself, her skin, her hair, her height and age and apparent wisdom, yet so warm, so dearly familiar. The child sees her as a wizard, a kind of illustrious god. Her cloak wafts in the breeze of another affable summer day. The child remains in awe for a spell at her towering stature relative to his own. With the sun at her back, for many moments, all the boy sees is a grand silhouette.

The child shakes his head and blinks. The woman speaks to him, her voice is pleasant and rich with care.

“You should not let your mind wander.”

Instinctively, child stares down at his sneakers. Dinosaurs with swords and armor and colorful catchphrases spot their white and plastic surface. The sides of the soles still blink from his most recent steps.

The child remembers everything. Warm waters flow into his eyes unconsciously. He raises his them back to the woman, consciously, with conviction. He smiles. She returns the sentiment.

“Be grateful for the second chance, child.”

At these final words, the woman is engulfed by her cloak, one of bright pink and cherry chromaticity. In her stead, a collection of fresh blossoms fall upon the boy. The boy puts out his hands and closes his eyes from his surroundings, taking in their touches upon his body, grasping them where he can.

When the child opens them again, he looks neither forward to the top of the steps, nor backward to their base. He looks about spontaneously, to the persons and their possibilities. ~