It is my forty-second birthday today. For the third straight year, I have composed a birthday story for myself, written from the POV of someone who shares this birthday. This year’s story features two birthdays. I hope it sheds light on people who are often overlooked by our Western world.
Two Birthdays, Two Dreams, A Story
Time travel is not possible and never will be. I learned this while fumbling through Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time. I understood little of that book, and the few parts I did understand, I’ve since forgotten, but I do recall this particular bit of info: according to the immutable laws of physics, human time travel can never happen. Sorry sci-fi fans.
This relegates time travel to our senses. Most people know that the ears and olfactory do an excellent job of taking us back to the past, providing the emotional impact of an earlier day, while foregoing the need for a flux-capacitor equipped DeLorean. For me, nothing is so therapeutic as the aroma of fresh cut grass, accompanied by the rapid chat chat chat of a pulsating sprinkler as it spouts cool streams of water across the lawn, and the patter of overspray on the asphalt drive. As a child, these were the sounds and smells of summertime that drifted through my bedroom window, welcoming me to each new morning.
Now, lounging in my backyard hammock, a part of me is taken back to those simple times––those peaceful, magic times. I am thirty-three years old today. According to myth, at least the way my mother once told it, this is one of a handful of magic birthdays I will celebrate in my lifetime. Magic birthdays are not sweet sixteens, or eighteens, or twenty-ones. Magic birthdays are those with matching digits, starting with the most magical day of all––birth––zero-zero. But thirty-three years on earth have led me to believe, if there are such things as magic birthdays, the magic must fade with age.
On my eleventh birthday, Mom threw a Lord of the Rings themed party, and I dressed as Legolas the elf. My mother heartily approved, remarking, “Nothing’s more magical than an elf.” By that age, I was old enough to be embarrassed over the neighbors seeing me play dress up with my friends, but something overcame my inhibitions that day, and I became immersed in the story. That’s when I first realized I wanted to write stories of my own. There certainly was magic that day. In the years following birthday number eleven, I’ve learned it is much easier to dream of writing a story than to actually write one. No one ever told me that behind the appeal to Dream Big!, is the unmentioned necessity of a lot of hard work.
No one likes to admit that creativity is boring.
For my twenty-second birthday, I made my own magic by proposing to my girlfriend. She said yes, and now we’re married, with three kids to show for it. Even on hard days, I can look back and say birthday twenty-two was pretty damn magical.
Now I am thirty-three, and I can’t help thinking the magic that sparked inside me on day zero-zero has finally run out. No new life today. No fantastic stories, and no expressions of love eternal. There is just me, my hammock, and the hypnotic chat of the sprinkler. And my phone, of course, buzzing birthday love inside my pocket.
My wife is in the kitchen, making birthday cake––coconut with sweet cream frosting, triple layer. My favorite. All of my kids hate coconut, but tough shit for them. It’s my birthday. I may be all out of magic, but I’ll be damned if I’m going to let number thirty-three go by without indulging in a slice or two of my favorite cake.
The day is the right kind of warm––sunny, with the sort of breeze that caresses the skin like a cool blanket. Makes me drowsy. Sometimes, when you’re nearly asleep, but not quite there, you become aware of things you otherwise wouldn’t. The shallow parts of the brain prone to distraction go silent, allowing the deeper parts to take over. And the senses––those parts of the body capable of taking you other times and places, they become sharper, more powerful somehow.
It is the grass, and it is the ground beneath the grass. I not only smell them, but hear them as well––the water, turning emerald blades into tiny waterfalls, dissolving into soil, replenishing the green, perpetuating Life.
I feel myself drift, drawn by the water, by earth and breeze, to places beneath. To places old that remain always new. To places alive and dead and alive again. I drift into known and unknown, knowing and not knowing. I drift until the only sensation I have is that of my breath, rising and falling, falling. I drift until my recumbent body becomes a distant anchor, to which I’m tethered by a hair thin line, spanning plain, mountain and ocean…
Dust and blood. The dust is crusted inside her nose, and the blood is in her mouth. I taste them both. She bit her lip when she tripped on a stone, distracted as she was by my arrival. She’d nearly fallen down, but she caught herself, saving a spill that would have cost her much more than a skinned knee. It would have cost her hours of life. She grunts as she straightens herself, her slender, chapped hands wrestling two loops of rope meant to cross left and right beside each breast. The rope went crooked when she stumbled, and now presses on her jugular. I know things about this woman; I don’t why.
The rope settles into familiar divots in her flesh; a moan escapes her lips as an unwieldy burden settles home between her shoulder blades. Heat flares across her body. I feel it. In the same way the pain of a memory can hurt you, even years later, I feel the woman’s pain––her shoulders, her hands, her freshly sprained knee, her feet, her hip.
Her whole body is on fire.
Do you know where you are, Abel? she asks from within.
I scan the surroundings with eyes that aren’t mine. Gone is the green grass, the peaceful sprinkler, my hammock, the scent of coconut cake––those comforts replaced by a fathomless realm of brown and gray, dirt and rock––a world unfriendly, hard. This is not my home.
I am in Africa, I respond. Or part of me is. What did you call me? Abel? You must have me confused. My name is––
Today is your birthday, yes, Abel? the woman interrupts, her breaths quickening as she begins to walk, and as her weary legs push her forward, the weight strapped to her back wants to drag her back the other direction. But she’s stubborn. She’s pushing onward, and she’s taking that burden with her. And me––she carries me as well.
Of course, I am only dreaming. When you’re one moment lazing in your own backyard, and the next stowing away in the mind of a strange African lady, there is no explanation other than you’re dreaming. So I do what everybody does when they dream––I keep dreaming.
Yes, it’s my birthday, I respond, but my name is not Abel.
You come to me like air, like breath, she says. Abel is a name like breath.
“Air” and “breath”. These sound like dream words to me, and since the only explanation for all of this is that I’m dreaming, I suppose I’ll consent to being Abel today.
Where are you going with this heavy thing strapped to you? I ask.
Home. Always, I am going one of two places––to the source or to home. Now, I go home. She sighs, fiddles with the ropes, coaxing the weight on her back to find a fresh resting spot, then continues. But you ask the wrong question, Abel, she says in a tone like laughter.
And what’s the right question?
The right question is a good question, she says. Who is this woman? And here is another––how am I here? And the best question of all, for you and for every soul alive––why am I here?
Those are good questions, I say. I’d love to hear the answers. Especially the last one.
That is good, she says. So we start. I am Winta. I am a storyteller, and you are here for my story. I have called you, Abel, because you are a storyteller as well. And the “how”, I believe you know the answer.
My thirty-third birthday.
A magic birthday. Today is my birthday as well. Thirty-three. We both have the magic today. Only my today is your past Winter, and your Winter my future Summer, but today we are thirty-three together.
This is impossible, I say.
What is impossible? Life is impossible. The world is impossible, yet the substance of earth is the substance of you and me, and this is impossible, but we are here nonetheless. We walk this world thirty-three years now, and for a time, we walk it together. We connect through our dreams. Yours is a sleeping dream.
But you are not sleeping. How are you dreaming? I ask.
Mine is not a sleeping dream. It is the daytime sort. She strains her neck against the pinch of the ropes. Hear me now. The water is heavy, and I need my strength to tell this story.
For even the strong among us, this walk takes many hours. I was strong once. When I was young, I would arrive home before coffee time, but it is different now. I have young ones of my own, and my strength passes to them. Now each day grows longer. Each day grows lonelier. It is the stories trapped inside me, you understand? Nothing is so lonely as a story lacking ears to hear it. My stories grow lonely inside me.
There are other questions I might ask, but I don’t need to. I’ve read about women like Winta. She’s in her thirties now, and no doubt, she’s been fetching water over half her lifetime. I’ve donated money to charities so fewer of these girls are forced to spend hours every day carrying water to their villages. Apparently, none of that money made it to Winta’s house. But she’s not looking for money. She’s a storyteller with a story. Apparently, I’m along to hear it.
Tell me, Winta. What’s your story about?
The space between home and the source is long, as every girl knows, but even more it is wide. Few know much of The Wide, what abides in those parts, but I know. I have seen it in dreams. My story is of another who has seen.
There was a man, a city dweller, who rose early each day, went out and drew pictures, which he sold in his shop. The city people named him Seeker, for always he was walking the streets, seeking sights to capture with his pencil––buildings and people and cars and people on their way to buildings in their cars. For many years, the city sights inspired Seeker, and he sold many drawings of these, but as he grew older, the city began to feel tight around him, and the scenes appeared thin to his eyes, like withered grass. His art became tired, and while people still purchased his drawings, it pained him to create while feeling so confined. He needed new sights to draw, or soon his passion would be squeezed away by the thinness.
In the village where Seeker had grown up, the women walked to the source each day to get water. The idea came to him that he should leave the city, go to his old village and follow the women into the wilderness, where space is plentiful. He brought along his book and pencil to capture what he saw there.
It was here, on the road between home and the source, where Seeker and I met. My steps were light at the time, for my jug was not yet filled. Though he carried nothing aside from his book and pencil, Seeker appeared to me a man under a great burden. The carrying of the water is only for women, so his presence on the path was strange to me.
“What brings you walking out here?” I asked him.
“I come for inspiration,” he said. “For my drawings.”
“You choose an odd place for inspiration, sir,” I said, and I laughed. I felt wrong for laughing. I could tell he was a decent man. An earnest man.
“You may be right,” he responded, his head low. “All my pictures are from the city, and that place has grown thin to me. I come here with hope to find Space.”
When he used this word––”Space”––I knew then it was The Wide calling him.
“Out that way.” I pointed eastward, into the land that stretches until vision is nothing but what a person imagines. “Out there you may find what you are looking for.”
“What is out there?” he asked.
He said nothing more, just trekked eastward into nothing, his book and pencil in hand.
One full day walking in The Wide, he spotted a magnificent creature in the sky––a bird of great beauty, with wings so large and powerful, they left swirls in the ground as it flew. Seeker’s heart leapt at the sight of the great bird. He determined to follow until it landed someplace, so he could view it close and sketch its likeness. He pursued the bird all through the day, until the sun went down. Finally, in the distance, the creature touched down, and becoming still, began to sing. Seeker wept at hearing this, for the bird’s song was a key to his secret heart. All that had ever made him sad or joyful, wanting or satisfied––all that had ever inspired him to make pictures––was stirred by the song. He ran until he reached the bird’s resting place, and there became so drowsy he could no longer stand. He fell down and drifted into a deep sleep.
When he awoke, he was unable to determine how many hours had passed, for time works strangely in The Wide. The bird was gone. In its place stood a mighty tree. Seeker was disappointed at the loss of the bird, but he was awed by the sight of the tree, which had roots like the fingers of God, gripping fast the skin of Earth, and its branches reached high into the mists of heaven.
“I must have slept a hundred years, for such a large tree to have grown where there was none before,” Seeker said. The tree’s branches spread far beyond the comprehension of any human eye. Seeker longed to capture its likeness, so he camped at the foot of the tree and began to draw.
First he sketched the tree’s roots, which were so enormous, they overwhelmed the page. He sketched the trunk, and here, realizing a single page would not do, he tore several more loose from his book and placed them beside one another, hoping to create enough surface to contain the tree’s measure. He sketched the branches, introducing new pages as necessary, finding them innumerable, nearly impossible to re-create. But Seeker had been re-creating his entire life; he was good at it. He took great care to reproduce each leaf and bramble as accurately as possible––counting every limb, just as a mother counts the fingers and toes of her newborn child.
He completed those parts he could make out from the ground, but he knew the tree grew much higher than he could see, so he climbed. He climbed for days. Among the leaves, fruit grew, and whenever Seeker became hungry, he would pick the fruit and eat. The tree was large enough to be a shelter, so when he grew weary, he slept among its branches. It was in these moments, when he teetered on the edge of slumber, that he heard the song.
“It is that magnificent bird,” he whispered. “It’s perched somewhere in this tree. I will climb until I see it again.”
Seeker climbed so long, he lost track of the days, and the more he climbed the more his longing grew, and each night, as he drifted to sleep, the song. To Seeker, it sounded like the song of living and dying. One night, the beautiful bird approached him in his dream. It lifted him and placed him on its feathered back, and carried him through the heights and depths of Creation, until he could not distinguish up from down. For just as time, space works differently in The Wide.
When he awoke from his dream, he was on the ground, and the tree was gone. Seeker thought he must have slept another hundred years for such a large tree to have withered and disappeared.
Standing and stretching his stiff limbs, he said, “When I return home, people will ask what I’ve been doing all this time in The Wide. How will I explain what I’ve experienced here?”
Before leaving that place, while the image of the bird and the journey were fresh on his heart, he made pictures, and even as his pencil moved over the pages, Seeker knew he had never drawn anything so profound as this.
When Seeker returned home, he was amazed to find, though his journey had appeared to him as several lifetimes, for the people in his city, merely a handful of days had passed. Still, his family and friends could see that Seeker was different from the man who had left them, that he was older in some way, the knower of deep things.
They were enraptured by his telling of the experience in The Wide, and they praised him for his skill with the pencil, the way he represented the bird and the tree on the page.
“Seeker has created good work before,” they said, “but none so fine as this work he brought back from the wilderness.”
Demand for his art increased. It seemed everyone in the city wanted to purchase Seeker’s drawings of The Wide. He spent much of his days at his shop, drawing these same pieces over and over, and those who watched him as he worked could see his face was wet with tears. Often, the people watching became moved, and they wept too. Across the entire city, there was no artist’s work more coveted than Seeker’s. His success was beyond any he had ever dreamed.
Yet in the quiet times, when he was alone, a shadow loomed in Seeker’s mind. His drawings began to appear to him as little more than pieces of art. The Magic he’d longed to capture and convey to others through his pictures was difficult to see. More and more, he saw nothing but lines on a page, skillfully arranged, but still just lines.
“All they see are clever pictures,” he said to himself. “They do not see The Wide. Not as I did. To them, these drawings represent nothing but an elaborate dream.”
In these lonely times, Seeker questioned whether he’d truly seen The Wide.
One night, while the city slept, he wandered back to the wilderness. He left his book and pencil behind this time, carrying only his questions. He located the place on the path, halfway between the source and home––that place he first met me––and from there veered East, toward the early sun that appeared like a thin, capsized boat atop an endless, petrified sea.
One full day walking, he expected to see the great bird soaring above, but there was no bird, and as the sun began to set, he began to worry he was lost. Or worse. Perhaps there was no bird. Perhaps there never had been, and the experience had been nothing but a dream––the delusion of a tired artist whose inner eye had grown dim, so he could no longer see those hidden secrets an artist is tasked by his own spirit to reveal.
“My usefulness to this life has come to an end,” he said, and he collapsed, not from exhaustion, but despair. He slept.
When he awoke, he hoped for a moment that he might see something different––the giant tree, perhaps––but the world was the same as it always had been. The same as it has been for centuries.
“I knew it. There is nothing out here,” he cried. “There is only this empty land, cold and indifferent. I knew it all along.”
‘I knew it all along.’ These are the words of the disappointed human soul. The words of one who has given up on his own story. In the story of Seeker and The Wide, they are words of abandonment. What Seeker would tell you, and I tell you now is this: sometimes abandonment is not the end; it is the beginning.
The man trudged westward toward home, downcast, his skilled hands numb and dangling at his sides. His progress was slow, steps labored. There was the wind, you see. A wind had crept in, quietly at first, but it built strength quickly, and though it blew toward the East, Seeker did not feel its force before him; rather, he felt it at his back, pulling him, as if the land itself had come alive and grown lungs, and now it inhaled, a deep yawn.
And the sound. The wind sounded to him much like the city at the peak of day, when the streets are rife with people, all of them chatting with one another as they go to the market, to school, to church.
Amidst the chattering of that odd wind, a single voice slipped through and found his ear. A whisper. “Stay. Stay and speak with me,” the wind said.
“Who are you?” Seeker asked, not because it makes sense to talk to the wind, but because it is difficult to remain silent when a voice whispers in your ear.
“I am what you came here to meet,” replied the wind.
“Where are you? Why can’t I see you?” he asked. Now he stood motionless, a man in the center of nothing, speaking to nothing.
“It is not in your nature to see me. You are a maker of pictures, so your eye works differently than most, but even the artist’s eye does not see the likes of me. You only interpret.”
“Interpret to what?” Seeker asked.
“Into something people can see. Like a singing bird or an enormous tree,” the wind responded.
“That was you, then? You were the bird and the tree, both?”
“I was both, and I am neither. Those are images, ways of seeing what you cannot see.”
“Why those images?” he asked.
“The bird is a musical creature. I am like music,” said the wind. “Tell me, Seeker, what does music look like?”
Seeker had seen music written down before. There were lines, and attached to the lines, circles with stems on them.
Knowing his thoughts, the wind said, “What you have seen written on a page, this is not music. It only exists to help the Musician find the music. In the same way, the pictures you created of the bird are not themselves the bird. They are mere symbols. Reminders of what you experienced. You long for them to be more, I know. Symbols are necessary for life, but a human’s nature is to cling to them too tightly, to mistake them for the greater. This leads to disillusionment. Or worse––certitude.”
“So, what of the tree then? What is the tree meant to symbolize?” Seeker asked.
“The tree is a living personification of The Wide. It is part of the earth, grows up from the earth, but it is much older than this or any other world.”
“Too old to describe. And it is too large for an artist to draw sufficiently. One could climb its limbs for millennia and never reach its top. It is ever growing. It is ever changing, because your view of it is ever changing. If you were to sketch its likeness again today, your picture would look different.”
This disturbed Seeker. He had taken great care with his drawing of the tree, studying its every detail so he could represent it most accurately. “Then my pictures are irrelevant,” he said, and he thought then that his years as an artist were wasted.
“Not irrelevant. Incomplete.”
And here, the force of the wind lessened; its sound began to fade.
“Don’t go yet!” Seeker cried. “I don’t understand. Why bring me to this place only to leave me without answers?”
Silence, save that one voice, which spoke so quietly, Seeker had to strain to hear. “Some questions are meant only to pull you in,” said the voice.
“Pull me in to where?”
“Here, to me.”
“Who are you?” Seeker pleaded.
“I am that which cannot be captured or described, that which cannot be counted or prophesied. I am both too small and too large to be broken down or divided.” Then, the voice became so faint, Seeker could not be sure if the next words were real, or he imagined them. “I am one who cannot be known. Only loved.”
At this, the wind left him, leaving Seeker alone in a silence so dense, he felt as though all the world had fallen into deep slumber.
In the aftermath of his conversation with the wind, Seeker’s first thoughts were of his art, how his heart burned––as it always did when he encountered something profound––to recreate this moment on the page. He had plenty of paper and pencils in his shop at home. How would he represent this experience in The Wide? He pondered this question, and his feet took him westward; he walked through the remainder of the night and all the next day. To him, the journey felt as mere minutes, so enraptured was he by thoughts of the one who ‘cannot be known, only loved’. When he neared his shop, he took a route he knew would avoid any people, for he did not want his inspiration dulled by human interaction, not until he had a chance to create a new picture. Once home, he immediately retrieved a page and laid it on his work table. With pencil in hand, he stared into the blankness, awaiting his artist’s eye to tell him what to draw. The city sounds crept inside–friends together on their way to have coffee, mothers with small children; some laughing, some crying, a street musician plucking notes on a single string, singing a song about the most beautiful woman he ever saw–but to Seeker, these sounds barely registered, no more noticeable than the sound of his own breath.
How many breaths came and went while Seeker stood there lost in himself, I cannot say. But I can tell you that particular page remains blank to this day. His passion for drawing remains strong as it ever was, and he has transformed many blank pages, but not that one. This I know, because it hangs on the wall of his shop, untouched. It is given a place of prominence among his greatest works. People often ask, “Why do you display this paper with nothing on it? Why don’t you draw something there?”
In answer, he remarks, eyes glistening, “That piece is my favorite. I would hate to ruin it.”
Here, Winta stops her progress along the path, and she lets loose a guttural sound––a disturbing hybrid of wail and moan. A streak of fur resembling an oversized guinea pig bolts from a crevice in the nearby rocks, some native critter disturbed by the woman’s cry. It is a cry spoken from a place more elemental than flesh, muscle fiber, or bone.
‘My stories grow lonely inside me‘––that’s what she said to me earlier. Some people say that stories come from a mystical place inside, through a passageway of sorts, between material reality and the realm that gives meaning to that reality. And storytellers like Winta possess a rare sort of sight––a secret eye––by which they see and interpret the stories that emerge through this passageway. I believe her cry comes from that mystical place inside her. It is the cry of labor and release. The cry of storyteller, birthing story.
Winta? You alright? I ask from within.
She responds with a wheeze and a cough that conjures something foul tasting from her lungs. This maddening daily tour is sapping the life from her, and she knows it. That’s why I’m here. All that drives her forward is story, and she needs me to hear it. She needs me to pass it on.
Alright Abel, her mind mutters. I’m alright. I will just stop a moment.
Seating herself upon a knee high rock, wincing at stony jabs to her backside, she flicks the ropes from her shoulders––a practiced motion. The water jug sags from its perch on her back. The relief is exquisite. Winta sighs. Twin streams descend her sun dried cheeks; the left stream reaches her lips, depositing there a salted kiss. She thirsts. I feel in her a thirst more intense than any I’ve experienced in my life. Resting beside her, five alluring gallons of water. Likely, it’s unclean water and would taste foul to my Western lips. But I long for it. I long for a swallow of that dirty water to pass down the throat of this strange and beautiful storyteller.
She speaks, the voice inside a melody within the din of weariness and thirst. Tell me, Abel, do you ever think about time?
Did I make a joke?
No, Winta, sorry. It’s just, where I’m from, people are obsessed with time.
Yes, I have heard this about you, she says. In America, everybody is afraid of missing something, so they carry their phones everywhere, in case they need to take a picture, to keep that moment forever. But you know what, Abel? I think a moment cannot be captured, just like Seeker could not capture his time in The Wide by making a drawing. I think the only way you can hold an experience is to carry it inside you.
She’s right, of course. I know she’s right, just as I know that, despite her insight, I’ll eventually wake from this curious dream, and I’ll continue on through life with my techno wonder device in hand, attempting to capture that which refuses to be captured.
She rises. The rope becomes taut again, fiber and flesh straining against that persistent aquatic curse. As she stands, I feel her knees pop. But the feeling is distant, dull in a way it wasn’t before. Whatever it is that’s linked us through miles and seasons––it is fading. If this is a dream, at least one of us appears to be waking up. I’m being pulled away now, that foreign world peeling back, giving way to the warm fog of the in-between. An urgent question rises in me. I can’t leave before asking, Winta! That final page! Why did Seeker leave it blank?
From across the void, her voice chimes clearly in response. I cannot say for certain, but this is what think, Abel: I think there are no blank pages. Not really.
I’ve never been a quick waker. Like many, the line for me between sleep and awake is nebulous, so I’m prone to confuse my thoughts in dreams with those of coherence. Not so today. I am awake, eyes open, and I don’t remember opening them. My phone is in my pocket, buzzing. Likely it’s someone sending a happy birthday text, or perhaps it’s one of a couple hundred cheery Facebook well wishers. Buzz Buzz. Buzz Buzz. I plunge my hand into my pocket, find the power button, press.
With the distraction silenced, my mind is clear to hear Winta’s cry, still echoing in a corner of my heart. “My stories grow lonely inside me”. It is clear to me now. It isn’t just her stories that are lonely. It’s all our stories. She’s just more aware of it than most. While we dull our loneliness with nonstop entertainment, she’s creating stories in her head while she hikes for hours with water strapped to her back. She makes stories no one will ever hear. Until now.
Sitting up, I catch an intoxicating whiff of sugared coconut. My wife is singing casually as she frosts the cake. The Beatles’ You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away. Beautiful––a magic moment. I consider picking up my phone to record her, but I remember it’s off now.
Accompanying her sweet melody, the sprinkler chats percussively, and another sound––the echo of water, trickling down the alley storm drain.
“My stories grow lonely…”
I go to the faucet, turn it, squelch the extravagant flow.
The day is eternal, and it is fleeting. I breathe deeply, savoring the forever and the gone away. It is a good day. And I have work to do.