Fierce wind whipped the salty ocean water into a frenzy, sending waves crashing against the rocks. The freezing rain that had berated the little island since twilight had ceased, and the moon could be seen hiding among the clouds. All that remained was the wind, sweeping away the remnants of the storm whose thunder groaned with resistance in the distance.
The island, barely the size of a baseball diamond was a jagged landscape of sharp and callous rocks that rose steeply from the ocean. On the high-ground, precariously close to a cliff, stood an old lighthouse. Through the years it had seen many storms such as this. It had been lashed by sleet, scorched by the sun, and worn down by wave after wave from the oceans masses. Yet faithfully and without fail it had shown its light for ships and lost souls to find their way home. It was a sole landmark of solidity in a desolate world of turbulence.
Along with waves, tonight’s storm brought something else to the shores of the little island. A man had washed ashore laying face down among the rocks. He remained deathly still until a wave washed over the open wounds on his back and violently shocked him to consciousness. He coughed and spat, expelling both water and sand. Unable to muster the strength to stand, he lifted his head just enough to look at his surroundings. A dark and dreary cove entered his gaze. He was surrounded on three sides by jagged and wet rocks.
The cove was channelling the oncoming waves. He knew that he should get to higher ground, but he could see no way out—the rocky walls being at least ten feet high. He tried to push himself up onto his hands and knees, but the moment he tensed his muscles, searing pain shot through his back. He felt a rush of blood, as if someone had pulled the plug of a drain in his head. Darkness began to wash over him like another ocean wave.
He fought to stay conscious, but the battle seemed hopeless. Alone, with no idea as to the extent of his injuries, in a foreign and hostile place, the man began to accept his fate. His vision narrowed to a long black tunnel. He could barely make-out the shape of his hand just inches from his face, when suddenly a soft glow illuminated in the distance. It appeared through a previously unseen gap in the rocky wall of the cove. The man tried desperately to focus, but his mind slipped away, and he fell unconscious.
The lighthouse attendant, a wiry old man, descended a crudely carved staircase into the cove. Shifting the lantern from his right to left hand, he reached out and grabbed the unconscious sailor. With a strength that seemed miraculous to the old man’s physique and age, he dragged the injured survivor back up the slippery steps, to the base of the lighthouse. Opening the door against the wailing wind was nearly impossible, but the old man mustered the strength to do it—while never releasing his grip on the sailor.
Setting the unconscious man upon a soft bed of fur blankets on the floor, the old man went into the kitchen. Several spiders scurried away from the light as the man opened the cupboard doors. He grabbed several jars of spices and roots, and crassly mashed the ingredients into the bottom of a tin mug. He then filled the glass with water already boiling from the kettle on the stove. Going back into the main room, the old man lifted the sailors head, and poured the concoction into his mouth. Using his hands, the lighthouse attendant closed the sailor’s jaw, and forced him to swallow the liquid.
Within seconds the sailor’s eyes shot open and he gasped for air. He lashed out and grabbed the old man’s hand, causing the elder to drop the mug.
“Good, good. You still got some strength left in ye.” The old man chuckled.
Perplexed, the sailor released his grip and looked around.
“Where am—What happen—Who are—”
“Slow down, me boy,” The old man interrupted, “Or the darkness’ll come o’er you again.”
The old man stood, rubbed his wrist where the sailor had latched on, and took the glass back to the kitchen. The sailor looked around the room. It was small, barely big enough for a bed and table. A winding staircase in the corner undoubtedly led to the beacon of the lighthouse. The furs he laid on were in front of a small, but warm, hearth. The wind coming down the chimney made a ghoulish howl and stirred the fire. It stoked the flames and made them dance with impish unpredictability. Not wanting to get burned, the sailor grabbed the blankets and moved to a chair at the wooden table in the center of the room.
“So your back’s better then, eh?” Asked the old man, returning from the kitchen.
“My back?” The sailor had failed to notice the pain from the beach. In fact, he didn’t have any pain at all. His only complaint was a general throbbing in his head. His perception was off, and his memory was hazy at best. He commented on this to the old man.
“Here,” replied his savior, handing him another small glass.
“Is this more medicine?”
“Aye, you could say that.” The old man snorted, “Procured at the local apothecary down the lane. ‘Drink up my tattered travelled friend. It seems your quest is at its end. Through treacherous seas your odyssey inevitably ends with me!’”
A queer glint shown in the old man’s eye as he sang. The sailor noted this, but decided to do as he was told. He tilted his head back, and knocked down the full glass of liquid, immediately regretting the decision.
“That’s some right nasty stuff,” He sputtered through bouts of phlegm-filled coughs.
The old man let out a deep and rolling laugh, “Aye, ‘tis me own brew. Finest whiskey on the isle, guaranteed!”
Recovering from the immediate shock of the harsh liquor, the sailor looked down at his empty glass and found himself wanting another. The warmth of the drink had permeated from his stomach like a warm ember. He looked up at the old man, who knew exactly what the sailor was thinking.
“Got a hankerin’, I see.” Said the man as he grabbed the glass. “Think I’ll join ye for this next one.”
Returning from the kitchen, the old man handed the sailor the glass and took a seat opposite him. He set a large jug on the table and filled two glasses.
“Thank you,” said the sailor as he graciously accepted the mug. “What may I call you?”
“Oh I’ve held many titles in my day, but you can call me Lucius.”
“Lucius of the Lighthouse,” pondered the sailor.
“Aye, that’s about it.” Replied Lucius, taking a sip of crisp whiskey.
“Is it just you tending the lamps?”
“Just me on this whole island, me boy.” Lucius responded. “Been here since ‘fore you were born, I reckon.”
“Doesn’t it get lonely?”
The old man took a swig of whiskey as if it were nothing more than water, “Oh, there’re times of want and times o’ plenty in my little kingdom. Poor souls such as yerself ain’t no precious commodity, if you catch my drift. They come to me from time to time, and I help them along—on their way home.”
The two men sat in silence for a moment, staring into their cups as if they were reading tea leaves. But the sailor wasn’t trying to divine his future. Instead, he was caught sifting through the dense fog in his muddled mind, searching for his past. He had no recollection of the events of the night. Waking up in the arms of a strange old man on the floor of a strange old place was the furthest into his past that he could remember. His face grew consternated in thought, and a queer feeling rose from the pit of his stomach.
Who am I? He thought. A definable identity was somehow eluding him. He knew, in his gut, who he was. But it was an emotional understanding. Ephemeral. As soon as he tried to focus and think about his life, all sense of self would vanish. He vaguely understood that someone—somewhere—was missing him. Perhaps a wife? A child? But no matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t remember.
“You ‘ave the look of a man whose been found but ain’t quite done being lost.” Commented Lucius.
“It’s queer. I can’t really explain the feeling.” I can’t really explain anything, thought the man.
He looked up at Lucius who was already gazing back at him. The old man’s face was worn like the wind-whipped and salt-lashed rocks of the island. It seemed as though Lucius wasn’t an inhabitant on the isle, as much as a part of it. He had the same agelessness that the lighthouse carried with it, as if he had been here for centuries. Yet something in his eyes made the sailor feel as though Lucius were still in the prime of life. He was neither too old nor too young. After all, how could a frail old man carry him up to the house in the midst of that storm?
He wondered who the man sitting across from him was. What was the story of Lucius? How did one acquire such a lonely occupation, cut off from the world and civilization?
Why am I thinking about this? wondered the man. He was so desperately at a loss for answers, that his mind was making up questions in distraction.
How did Lucius know to check the cove? The lighthouse hadn’t been visible from where the I washed ashore. Could I see the lighthouse from the ship? Did I swim here on purpose? Why can’t I remember anything?
“You’re having trouble letting go, aren’t ya?”
“Huh,” The sailor had been so absorbed in his thoughts that he had failed to notice the passing silence between the two men.
“Mind’s a bit fuzzy, eh?” Chuckled Lucius.
“Yes. Well, I’m sure this whiskey isn’t helping.” The sailor jested in reply.
But instead of laughing, the cheery demeanor left Lucius’ face. He looked hard and cold at the man and said, “It ain’t the spirits, lad.”
“How do you mean?”
“You’re thinkin’ about your past—I know you are. But what you don’t realize is your past ain’t what you think it is. It doesn’t exist. At least, it doesn’t exist in the form that you’re looking for.”
Feeling unsettled, the man took another large sip of whiskey. He swished it around his mouth like fluoride before swallowing, but it failed to rid the foul taste left by Lucius’ words. He didn’t understand what the old man had said, but somehow it had resonated with truth.
Something wasn’t right in the lighthouse. The sailor felt uneasy. Maybe I’ve had too much whiskey, he thought. But the alcohol hadn’t affected him at all. Despite having drank nearly three tall glasses, his motor-skills were uninhibited, and his mind (albeit clouded from what had happened) was unimpaired.
What, then, is the cause of my amnesia? He wondered. Maybe I was hit in the head when the ship was sinking? That has to be it. Yet he couldn’t think of any details about the wreck, nor could he remember the vessel that he had been aboard. Furthermore, he had no knowledge of maritime life. He didn’t know “starboard” from “port,” or “jib” from… whatever the opposite of a ship’s jib is.
Was I even in a shipwreck? Am I even a sailor? He looked down at his hands in thought. They were smooth and soft—not what he expected of a sea-hardened sailor. How did I get here?
Slowly, what Lucius had said began to take hold. The man looked up at the lighthouse attendant who smiled back at him.
“There we go,” goaded Lucius. “You have to accept it before we can have a meaningful conversation.”
“I’m not alive.” The words left his mouth like a wisp of smoke.
“No, you ain’t.” Lucius confirmed, shaking his head. “But you ain’t dead neither. In fact, I reckon in some ways, your more alive than ever.”
“How can that be? I’m either dead, or alive.” The man was perplexed, “Unless I’m in a coma, and this is some sort of dream.”
He said this after-thought aloud. In the back of his mind he had been hoping this ever since waking up on the shore; this was a dream, and some time he would wake in a hospital bed. His wife would be sleeping next to him with her head resting on his body, holding his hand. The doctor would come in and say something like, ‘Glad to have you back,” and there would be much rejoicing at his recovery. He was hoping this—Lucius, the lighthouse, the storm, the shipwreck—would all just be a strange dream.
“No, you’re not in a coma.” Lucius said, shattering any such hope. The mans heart sank, and he downed the whiskey that remained in his glass. Even without the effect of inebriation, the swift burn of the alcohol was welcome warmth to his cold reality.
“You ain’t got no memory because they weren’t your memories to begin with. You ain’t alive and you ain’t dead because you aren’t who you think you are. Or really, who you were is not who, or what, you really are.”
“You’re not making any sense. None of this makes any sense. What the fuck am I doing here?” The man was growing agitated with Lucius’ folly. “You’re speaking in riddles. If I’m not what I think I am, then what am I?”
“That’s just it. I’m not the one spouting absurdities here, you are. The question, ‘what am I?” is worthless. There is no “you” or “I,” or “me” and “my.” The distinctions and arbitrations of that world break down here. You humans base everything on comparison—and rightly so in most cases—but it causes a lot of problems down the road. This is what you are experiencing; a refusal to accept that what you ‘know’ isn’t true. You have defined yourself as an individual based on the ‘observed’ separation between ‘self’ and ‘not-self,’ but no such distinction exists.”
The man stared blankly at the lighthouse attendant. What had happened to the gentle old man with a soft southern drawl?
“Forgive me, lad, but who do you think you are?” Lucius asked the now deeply confused man.
Caught in the midst of pondering who Lucius was, the man was taken aback. The question seemed both blatantly obvious, yet inexorably inexplicable.
“I’m… me.” His answer seemed laughably childish, yet Lucius didn’t guffaw at the remark. Instead, he pursed his lips and nodded before continuing.
“Precisely, my boy. You are you. A word and nothing more. An artificial moniker that holds no tangible meaning.”
“That’s not true!” the man nearly shouted as he rose to his feet. Rather than taking offense, Lucius leaned back in his chair and sipped his whiskey, allowing the man to proceed.
“I am not just ‘a word’,” He began pacing the room in frantic thought. He was rejecting Lucius’ words so violently that he was going to be sick. “I—I have a name!”
“Oh? And what might that be?”
The man glared at Lucius in consternated rage. The old man knew just as well as the sailor couldn’t remember his name. “I have thoughts—and feelings. Yes! I have conscious thoughts that are special and individual to me, and me alone.”
“So you are the sum of your thoughts? You are your mind?”
“Yes. I’d be no different from a beast without my mind.”
“Then you must surely be your body as well. For the mind connects to the body and is sustained by the body.”
“Yes, I am surely my own body. This is my brain, my thought, my voice, and these are my hands.” He said, raising his palms on display.
Lucius sat in thought for a moment before beginning again, “So you are your thoughts which come from your mind, which is connected to and part of your body, which produces your voice… Is your skin ‘you’?”
“It’s a simple question, lad. Your skin is as much a part of your body as your mind. By your logic, your skin is you. It is connected to you.”
“Yes, I suppose it is.”
“So you are your skin.”
“Well not when you say it like that!”
“Oh, have I misspoken?”
“Well, no. My skin is a part of me. You’re twisting my wo—”
“Words!” Lucius exclaimed almost in unison. Now he was on his feet as well, with his arms raised in exultation. “We have come back to the heart of the matter. All these labels you’re using seem to be doing the opposite of their intended purpose. How can you be so sure that you are of a single identity when the only way in which you can talk of yourself is in parts? Instead, you insist that you—the singular ‘you’—are the sum of many things that aid your existence. You are an individual entity of thought, but that thought only occurs in connection with a myriad of other things: your mind, body, skin. And as you follow those connections outward you realize there is no end. Instead of being the casing that encompasses the body, your skin becomes the tangible connection to your world which influences your thought as much as your body or mind. At what point would the connections switch? Could you not say that your skin is connected to the world?
“You must realize that everything is dependent on everything else to ‘exist’ as humans see it. Where is the line drawn? You need oxygen as much as your body to live, yet you would laugh if I said, ‘you are oxygen.’ As you said, ‘without thought, you would be a beast.’ You define yourself as much by what you are not as by what you really are. ‘Black and white’, ‘in and out’, ‘man and beast’, can only be defined in contrast to each other. One cannot exist without the other to define it. Even Life is dependent on Death. How would we ever know what it means to be alive if we didn’t know what it means to be not-alive?
“You can’t remember your past because it is connected to your body—in the same way your mind was—but you are not only your body. There is no ‘self’ because there can be no ‘other’. Similarly, we define the past and future in contrast to each other, when the only thing that can possibly exist is what’s happening now. There is no past because there is no future. One exists in contrast to the other. Attempting to remember your individual past is like trying to understand the contents of a book from a single word on a random page. It only has significance in connection to the words around it, and is utterly meaningless and malleable otherwise.”
The man hadn’t noticed himself sit down while Lucius was speaking. Yet, he was back at the table, mindlessly staring at his empty whiskey cup as he lightly traced its contours with his finger. In spite of the depth of what Lucius had said, the man was not really thinking about it. More importantly, one question was dominating his psyche.
“Are you God,” he asked, looking up at Lucius, “or the Devil?”
Lucius smiled. The man desperately tried to read the reaction, but the smile was ambiguous. It had neither the compassion of a god, or the deception of a demon. The man didn’t feel as though he had been religious, but the answer seemed of the utmost importance. It just seemed to fit that, if he were dead, the lighthouse was the end of the tunnel, where purgatory awaited. Maybe this is like an audition? he thought.
“I am neither,” Lucius replied. “You might even say I don’t exist—None of this does—and certainly not God.”
Lucius noticed the mans face contort in rejection more violently than to anything he had already said. He quickly continued, “It’s just as I have been saying. No individual God exists apart from the collective idea of what a god is. Everything is of one nature, and in that you might say that God is everything. Not that God is in us, but God is us, and we are God.”
“So what are you then?”
“I am nothing. I am you. I am here to show you that you must look past a single word of the book. I am here to help you understand the fallacy of the divisions and separations that you are so desperately clinging to. Let go of the ledge and see that you are not dead because Life is still happening. You were a part of Life, just as your body was a part of you. You gave Life experience, as your body gave you the senses. But now you are done. No longer are you a word on the page, devoid of significance and meaning.”
“So, you’re saying I can ‘read’ the whole book now? I can find what my word means within its sentence? I can read and understand the meaning of Life?”
“No, my dear friend. There is no need. You are the book.”
The mans heart was racing. His vision was becoming hazy. He couldn’t make out the edges of his glass on the table; it appeared to be melding with the world around it. He tried to grab it, but his hand went right through. He looked up at Lucius in a panic, but the old man was hardly there. It looked like a Rothko work of abstract expressionism—nothing but colors blending borders with each other.
“Do not have fear. You are only realizing the truth.”
The man wasn’t sure if Lucius had said that, or if he had.
The shapes and lines around him continued to fade. He looked down at his hands only to realize he couldn’t see them. He couldn’t see anything. Yet somehow, he could see everything.
Hello my tattered travelled friend.
It seems your quest is at its end.
Through treacherous seas your odyssey
Inevitably ends with me.
The vigor of youth has left your bones,
Your aching muscles have lost their tone.
For many years you’ve struggled and strained
Through the pain of battles fought in vain.
Hush now my withered weary friend.
The time to resist is at an end.
There is, no more, a need to fight.
Let down your guard, and enter my night.
For years you’ve clung to the ledge of Life
In fear of falling upon my knife,
But now you are free to relax and see
It was only a friend you feared in me.
It’s alright to be timid, my tired friend,
But rest assured, Life will not end.
Listen and hear your final note glisten
In the eternal symphony continuously written.
Indeed, your Earthly tenure is through,
The daily toil won’t begin anew.
So long you’ve pushed that burdensome boulder,
Rest now, my child, on Death’s soft shoulder.
Let us meet this eve as life long friends,
With open arms embrace your end.
I’ve watched over you through day and night
Since birth you’ve been under my guiding light.
So let go the past and be at peace.
Let go your Loved, for theirs won’t cease.
Let go Life’s ledge and take my hand,
You needn’t traverse that trail again.