Helen Weir
September 19, 2017
With apologies to Jack alone (Chapter Nine)
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By Helen Weir

"But when is it going to be our turn?" I nudged Ned, who could do no more than shrug in reply. The eagerly anticipated Question-and-Answer Period at the shiny new (despite the drizzle) Fletcher Center was stretching into something like its second hour by this time, only nobody had had a chance to ask anything yet. Instead, the Speaker himself had gone on doing most of the talking, blithely offering ideas including, "Where Do We Draw the Line?" and "Who Am I to Judge?" as assertions to be monologically expounded upon (by him), rather than as issues to be profitably investigated (by everyone).

This seemed unbalanced.

After all, I myself had long since mentally formulated several incisive inquiries which, I felt assured, would be of interest not only to myself but also to the larger congregation; and I couldn't have been the only one. Was I – were we – to be afforded no opportunity of airing our views?

True; the Speaker occasionally permitted participation by addressing a given question of his own to a given audience member singled out by him; but this peculiar procedure proved more disconcerting than beneficial (by which I mean, its purpose seemed to be the discomfiture of the addressee, rather than the resolution of the intellectual dilemma at hand). I wasn't exactly sure why those selected were then beckoned on Stage, either, and made to be seated next to the Podium at a long rectangular table that seemed to be set for the taking of a meal, but the audience members – mainly to get out from under the Speaker's gaze, I felt – all seemed relieved and pleased when at last they took their chairs.

This process continued unabated long after the point at which I had ineffectually, as reported above, addressed the person who may or may not have been Mr. MacDowell. Still, those seats never seemed to get filled up. That is why – by the time our Worldwide Expert on All Things Exhortational had embarked upon an investigation of "Whose Life Was It, Anyway?" – I do admit to having experienced just the slightest touch of impatience, not to mention distraction.

But ennui jarringly morphed into embarrassment, and then utter mortification, as I realized over the course of several escalating seconds that all eyes – including the inscrutable ones lurking behind the Speaker's own pair of convex and octagonal lenses – were presently trained on me.

"I'm sorry . . . I beg your pardon?" I stammered. Ned leaned conspicuously over to the far side of his seat as the generalized snickering set in.

"And you, Young Lady," the Man behind the Podium repeated, leaning hungrily forward until one couldn't imagine how it (how he) could still be standing erect: "Who do you say He is?"

It wasn't fair. It wasn't right! And it mattered not a whit that, never before in my life had I held to the existence of any such distinction. Here I was at long last – I, who had invested everything (as a Regional Manager, as a Coach, and as a woman) in the service of omnipotent Consensus – being asked to stand alone in the reaching of a final determination? And this final determination, of all things! Then what had been the point of burying myself in the crush of the crowd in the first place? No one, no matter who, had a right to make such a demand of me. The very idea was nothing short of obscene.

"Come up here," the Speaker was saying, reaching out his long-fingered right hand; and on it was worn a wide, red-jeweled ring. "Come to the Table. Come, let us reason together!"

I know now – having had a chance to reflect, of course – where the following snippet comes from. Still, in that situation, with the limelight of the Fletcher Center before me and only the hint of the Sea from the East at my shoulder, I mistook the words that arose unbidden to my mind for my own. No one learns to speak all by himself.

"You are neither the Speaker nor Ned," I pointed out to myself; "you are yourself, with a choice to make, and one moment left in which to make it." My indecisive neighbor with the heavily knotted brows was watching me so closely at this stage that I thought his stare might actually begin to burn.

What I meant to say out loud was, "My dear Mister Speaker, I beg your pardon, but there seems to be some mistake. Since it is evidently my turn to say something, for which opportunity (however delayed) you are to be thanked, I find that there are several points regarding your presentation which require additional clarification, and they are, in my estimation, as follows," but what I actually heard myself saying was, "NO!"

" NO,
I tell you; NO to all of it! NO to your questions! NO to your bribes! And NO to your rainbow promises, when all we ever get is this damnable dripping down our noses, and no end to any cloud in sight!"

And then, to Ned: "Come on; we're getting out of here!"

And I rose and began to push my way out, tripping past the thin-wristed woman looking all haggard and aghast. I had nothing to follow but the freshness of the one trail of living air, so I stumbled towards the little-used door – the one which was always locked, yet never closed. I gave no heed to the torrential tirade of expletives being spewn forth from the Speaker's mouth, either ("Who do you think you are, Peasant Stock?" he kept screaming, and "Don't you dare turn your back on me!") and I managed to evade – although there is no reasonable explanation for my being able to do so – the hands reaching out to hinder me, and the legs stretched forth to make me falter. But I believe I saw, in that turbulence of faces that moved like the foam on the sea during a storm, a not inconsiderable number of pensive countenances, and more than several nods.

I knew I couldn't look back to find out whether my only friend was actually following me, and I didn't even try. I only staggered on, although the aperture I was trying to reach looked further away and tinier with every step gained, and the very air seemed to seize up inside my lungs. Who will say when the salt scent transformed itself into the plunging of white-crested waves, above which my drenched head suddenly emerged in triumph? All I know is that I did make it through in the end.

And there I treaded water, drawing in one great, irrevocable breath, and trying to get a good look around. Besides the muted crashing of the briny water against a far shore which I could intermittently descry but which I also realized I would never have the strength to reach, there was nothing to be heard but the crying of a the gulls.

I have heard it; I can remember.

Ned wasn't there. And I was glad of the fact, in a way, as lonely as I was. While I would not have changed my own choice even if there had been a chance to, I didn't want to know myself the one to have sealed his fate as well.

Above me stretched a vast expanse of azure sky, cloudless and pristine. The swell was far stronger than I was; there was no use fighting it, even if I had not already been spent. It was not a decision to die, but a yielding to Something greater than life and death, that permitted me to find intense happiness in the thought that, any moment now, in the immensity of that blue embrace, I was inevitably going to drown.

* * *

"I thought I was going to drown," I said, seemingly lifetimes later, to the young man, barefooted and oddly clad, who was tending a small fire next to me on the beach, and cooking one small fresh fish. Although I could tell that my own back was pressed into the sand, I couldn't avoid the perception that he was sideways, while I was the right way up. He was looking down upon me with eyes the same green as the troubled ocean itself, and equally evocative.

"Why would you think that you haven't?" was his incomprehensible remark, as he crouched to feed me a few bites very gingerly, and to give me a cool sip from a flask – the very last one it held, I had the distinct impression. Then he consumed the rest of our sparse meal himself, quenched the smoulder with a handcup of wave, and kicked the blackened sticks away.

It took a yank from his burly hand to help me to my feet; but I found the nausea of standing up again to be – shall we say – beyond all bodily endurance. After this humiliation, he gestured that I should wash my hands and face in the breaking surf, and I did so. Although his expression was stern, his words to me as I turned to face him again were: "I don't know anyone who hasn't started out that way, so don't worry about it. I did that same thing once myself, I will have you know." At least, that is what I understood him to have said. His own manner of speaking struck me as quite stilted, although clearly unaffected.

We stood a little longer, until I asked, "Where are we going?" and he answered, "How should I know where you will end up? I am to escort you to the Mountains; that's all. Each one's place is his own to find."

"How did I get here? To the shore, I mean. Did I wash up?" I wondered aloud, looking down in dismay at what was left of what I was wearing. I must have been there for some time, because the front of my jeans jacket was already dry. My jeans themselves, still rather soggy, had some really impressive new slices in them. But I had no idea what had become of my socks, not to mention my favorite pair of boots.

"It was the hippocamp. He has waited for you with great faithfulness, you know."

And after another pause, "Where's Ned?" is what I wanted to know.

"Where he has elected to be as of yet, I would imagine. Who's Ned?"

"Who are you?" I retorted; persisting, "You aren't – you're not Jack Lewis, are you?"

"Why on earth would you posit such a thing?"

"Well," I forged ahead, unable to keep a certain belligerence out of my tone, "that's the way it happens in all the books. Dante is led by Virgil, and Lewis himself, as his own fictional ghost, meets up with George MacDonald. It's like, the person who had the most literary influence on you turns out to be your guide in the Underworld, or the Valley of the Shadow of Life, or wherever you end up in this weird kind of dream. The Great Divorce is the book that had the most impact in my life, so naturally, I just thought – "

"Oh, I see. But I am not he. And I can't speak to his present location, either. You will have heard that he never did convert."

"But who else could I possibly know up here?" I demanded, with my voice quavering, and stamping my foot. "It's not supposed to be a stranger that comes to get you. You're not Mom; and you're not Mr. MacDowell, either. Are you Ned's friend, Mark; or maybe Michael, Pam's son?"

"No strangers are here; and neither is Peter, for your information. Do you wish to go on?"

That set me back a step. I looked down for a moment, and fiddled in the seafoam with my left big toe.

"Is he . . . . ever going to arrive in the Mountains, too, would you think?" I inquired, trying to sound relatively unconcerned.

"How should I know? All I was told is what I am supposed to reveal. The question is – are you?"

"That all depends," I dithered. "I am quite happy here, you know. Why couldn't I just stay, living near the shore?"

"Waiting for him, you mean?"

"Well, no. Not necessarily. It's just that, I rather like it here. That would be good enough, wouldn't it? One would think I am to be commended for having come this far, in any case."

"NO is only the start. It is the YES that follows, on which everything really depends. You would starve. There are only scattered fruit trees within walking distance; and except for the streams way up in the foothills, you won't find any fish, or fresh water, either. Which is another reason we ought to be on our way, without delay."

What was I going to do – try to go back? How, if I even wanted to? And to the Fletcher Center, with its polished privations? I had already turned my back on all that; and I meant it, what's more.

"All right," I acquiesced, reorienting myself (with something approaching maximum effort) away from the water and towards the distant peaks, rose-glinted by some celestial light source unseen. "But who are you, anyway – Yoda or something?" I frowned, as finally we set off. It was a good thing my companion was very strong, for the blades of grass beneath my soles as we left the beach behind turned out to be every bit as sharp as I had been literarily warned they would be.

"Oh, sorry," my companion shook his golden head while carefully grasping my right arm. "I forgot. I am Gareth, nephew of His Majesty the High King. And I'm afraid I am not acquainted with this other friend of yours – this Yoda – either."

© Helen Weir

 

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