The virgin page lay on the sun-lit desk before me and although I had not a single word to write, the pleasure I knew which would be derived from such a task, as writing a few lines on an empty page, remained. Nothing of importance crossed the tides of my thoughts all morning except an image of a sylph in some lost Fairy Wood that I could not bring my Montblanc pen to touch the page and ruin my imagination’s theater with a stroke and splash of ink. Instead, I pushed my chair away from the drift-wood desk (seemingly away from the very tools of my beloved craft) and stood barefoot by the glassless window thinking of the quote “We make the acquaintance of the Stranger whom we hear coming and going in our brain” from Proust’s The Guermantes Way while looking out across Chefchaouen and its blue-washed buildings and lanes until I felt myself more devoted than ever to the reconquest of my ambitions and dreams and desires, as if that were all I could ever grow to be at the end of a long life well-lived.
Far from the Moroccan coast, because of that Blue Pearl founded in 1471, my memory stretched and unfurled itself far away to Tangier and Tetouan and to the charming blue sea where in my mind’s eye I saw from a few weeks before as I knelt on the sands of Agadir a lone sailboat cruising among the waves like a slice of coconut cake on a blue platter. A woman stood with one hand against the mast as a man quested the sailboat through the watery avenues by gazing forward as he manipulated the rudder, and the man and woman appeared at ease on their triangular world moving atop a flat universe of water. I thought of dancing, sport, travel, and maidenhair ferns. I thought of the dream I had last night that foretold my death because I’d been sitting on the back of a boat speeding across the water at night with fireworks off to my left and I felt the boat leaning to its side as the speedboat thrusted faster forward to get to the bay where we were expecting to see the historical space-shuttle launch transporting women and men to Mars and how someone got up to walk to the front of the boat as it was speeding and leaning and I said to her, “Be careful,” and I felt myself leaning heavier and heavier, as if going to my death, and then I woke heavy in bed and remembered the fireworks. The rich and lazy gold of the now late morning pulled me back from the sea and settled itself on the mountains and blue village and instantly recalled to me the sunlight from years too far gone now to name places, dates, times. Such is the writer’s life.
Having been at my writing since five that morning, I decided to take a walk before lunch and soak every ounce of pleasure from the amaranthine alleyways and their potted plants and sky-pink flowers hanging along the aquatic-blue walls often gilded by the sun and impregnated with a sense of that somnolence that I, quite frequently, would forget that I was on my daily walk and instead accept the suspension of disbelief that convinced me, in the fullest sense possible, that my life was in fact a dream being dreamed not by me but being dreamed, a shared dream at that, by the shadow gods who once existed in the fears and hearts and beliefs of human creatures who were forgotten centuries before memory slumped itself out of cold instinct and into sharp reason and later into discernible language—a shared dream being dreamed by the gods in the language of the gods who were but dreamers themselves. Such were my thoughts on this walk on this particular morning. Such are my thoughts as a writer.
By the time I reached the restaurant for lunch the mordant and collateral atavism that had carried away my thoughts, just as my feet carried me down through the blue walkways, as if swimming in a clear river, left me at ease and seemingly refreshed and craving a hot meal and a glass of wine. The waitress came to take my order.
“Talk of the Saint,” the waitress said as she handed me the menu. “I was but a moment ago speaking about you. Yesterday, you came to lunch, no?”
“I must say, then and now, and what I was only shortly past saying, that you reminded me of someone.”
“Someone close to you?” I thought of her lover. “Someone you still think about?”
“My holiness no,” she said, not quite able to suppress the reddening of her cheeks and neck. “You reminded me yesterday, when you first came, and now I’m most certain of it today, you remind me of a man from my childhood some twenty years ago. I dare say he could’ve been your twin or your father perhaps? I was thirteen at the time and I’ve never forgotten a face or a beard. He was so full of life, he was.”
“I’ll have the goat with wine and a little bread,” I said with an articulation coming more from an epicure and less from a conversationalist. “Thank you.”
She received the menu and quizzed me with her eyes a moment longer in what appeared to be studied surprise before spinning on her toes to go back inside the front entrance to the restaurant and leaving me to the fresh air of the deck outside.
After a minute or so it came to me that the waitress held a strong resemblance to the subject of my favorite Raphael painting called “The Portrait of a Young Woman” which I had the honor and pleasure of seeing in person at the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica at which time I had been in Italy working on three novels at the American Academy in Rome for a few weeks. As I was reflecting on “La Fornarina” the waitress reemerged from the restaurant with my glass of red wine in one hand and a photograph pressed to her chest with the other.
“I was only a young girl,” the waitress said to me. She stood over me by the table as I drank the wine. She looked at the photograph clutched in her hands and continued, “I didn’t understand all he said but he often played with me and took me to a field of flowers outside the village where he often spoke of simple but important things. Things so old and so true that I’m still not sure of what he had said but he said these things in a sincere way that made me never forget him. So, I’m wondering, sir, since you look very much like this man I once knew if you know him or came across him at some point in your travels?” She held out the photograph and I took it.
A sublime feeling swept over me when I looked upon the black-and-white photo of the waitress as a young girl in her flowery teens and an older man identical in appearance to myself, as though I had taken the picture yesterday. But I did, after all, recognize the man in the photo because the man in the photo, after all this time, was me.
“No,” I told her, and added, “You’ve not lost that childish beauty in all these years. But I can see why you’d make the mistake as you did. I do share a striking resemblance to this man.” I handed the photograph back to the waitress. “Refill my cup,” I told her.
She bowed and went away. When she returned with my wine, she said not a word more and left me to my reflections and to my lunch. I did not ask for her name and she did not disturb me further.
After lunch, I took my daily walk outside the blue village and into the mountains where I could escape the quotidian routine of society and find an ally in the profound constancy in Nature that I knew would put me once again at ease.
Up the mountain I climbed, keeping all the while a local shepherd, an old man, off to my left. As I changed course, however, so did he, and after several minutes there could be no mistaking the fact that he was following me. Finding a proper perch on the edge of a large rock overlooking the valley and blue village below, I waited for the old man to come. Curiosity is predictable, and at the same time a nuisance.
Fifteen minutes or so later (I’m guessing because I never wear a watch to keep time) the old shepherd with his climbing stick came up the path towards me. He waved and hollered, “Hallo!”
I waved back and hoped he’d continue onward; but deeper down where reason and logic wait to be counseled, I expected he desired a bit of conversation to pass his idle day in an activity other than sleep. The old shepherd crutched his way around the large rock and leaned against its side as he wiped sweat from his arms and face with a rag. If he wanted to talk, then talk I would.
“Beautiful day, isn’t it?” the old shepherd said, and he spoke to me as if we were the closest of friends resting in the middle of a long journey. “Lucky I’ve a few more days like these to spend.”
“You don’t have long now,” I replied and tossed a pebble off the cliff at my feet. “Not long at all.”
The old shepherd traced the pebble down as far as he could and then spoke as if he misheard me,
“Ever since I was a small boy, I’ve been all through these mountains and caves. Never could get myself to leave. Too much beauty can be chains, I suppose.”
“That’s the choice you made,” I replied in earnest. “It has nothing to do with chains, Abbas.”
The old shepherd had been scratching his climbing stick into the dirt but stopped when he heard his name spoken. “How do you—?” He used his rag to wipe more sweat from his bald head and ears. “Have we—? No.” He studied me a bit longer. “Now that I think of it you do remind me of a man I met when I was no more than eight. Yes, that’s right. He must’ve been your great uncle or grandfather perhaps. Is that right? Yes, you do appear to me to be similar in many ways, but I don’t—but I, too, was like my father. It’s most hot today.” He drank water from a crude bottle.
I paid Abbas no mind.
“But tell me, Stranger,” Abbas continued, “How is it that you know me? I must be getting too old in the head. I’m imagining things, aren’t I? It’s the heat you know.”
“You’re not imagining things, Abbas,” I said. “Tell me: What did this man say to you when you were a boy? He seems to have made a lasting impression on you, no?”
“Sure enough, he did,” Abbas answered. “A man, much like you, came upon me one night as I camped by the fire where my goats rested nearby. I know he cannot be you. That’s been over eighty years past and you are no more than forty. The world is getting hotter, you know?”
“Tell me,” I said, “What did he tell you that night?”
“The Stranger spoke to me of Life and Death and how he wished to die. Who wishes to ever die? He must’ve been drunk.”
“Who wishes to die?”
“Not me,” Abbas said, and he nervously wiped the back of his neck. “The Stranger spoke to me for hours of all he’d seen, and I enjoyed his storytelling because I knew his stories could never be true.”
“Why not?” From my perch on the giant rock, I tossed a few more pebbles over the cliff at my feet. “How do you know? What makes what he said so very incredible?”
Abbas poked his climbing stick into the ground a few times and looked far into the valley as though he could see that night long ago clearly before him in the broad daylight. “The Stranger spoke to me of his one wish, and it’s stayed with me ever since.”
“Do not mistake, kind sir, my wild imaginings for belonging to a mad man. I know what has happened has in fact happened. But boys do create fantastic stories in their childhood dreams, don’t they?”
“I don’t argue against it.”
“The Stranger and the reason I recall him fondly, and mistakenly thought you were him a few moments ago, was the impression he left upon me, like meeting a young girl at a train station and never seeing her again. Some people stay with you for life even when they’ve gone.”
“Why do you remember him?”
“It wasn’t so much his wish but how he spoke of the centuries as though you and I might speak of the years, and late into the night I swam in his mad delusions as any small boy would until he told me his one final wish, and that has haunted me ever since. He wished—”
“To grow old with a woman and die in her arms—”
“To die in peace together with the woman he loves—”
“To live out eternity as ghosts with the woman.”
“To live together with the woman as ghosts for all time.”
Abbas stumbled back and I reached in time to grab his shirt and pull him to safety, but his climbing stick tumbled down to the rocks far below and broke in half.
“No, no, no,” Abbas stuttered. “The heat’s getting me. Or my age is at fault. Yes. This is what I believe. I’m cursed by bad luck and lost time.”
“Believe what you like, Abbas,” I said as I erected myself atop the rock. Abbas fell back and clutched the ground while I spoke, “Believe what you wish. Reality is in the illusions we tell one another anyway. But tell me the last thing this Stranger spoke to you about on that night so long ago.”
Abbas frantically shook his head and the sweat dripped from him like rain. Either his mind gripped him in fear or his tongue was too dry and struggled to make sound. Regardless, with all his vital energy exhausted, Abbas couldn’t respond.
“In the presence of Life, far too many have chosen to be cowards.” I turned to the old shepherd and he locked eyes with me. “I told you that when we met again, Abbas, it would be near the end. And that’s why you sought me out today and that’s why you still remember me after all this time, isn’t it?”
Abbas crawled up the side of the large rock and begged as all do for more time. “Not today,” Abbas said. “Not today. Please. Not today. Not today.”
I reached down and touched his head and said, “It is a beautiful day, isn’t it? So appreciate life while you still can, you crazy old fool.”
Abbas nodded that he would, and he dropped his face to the side of the large rock where he sobbed and wept without tears. I suspected he’d wasted far too much life already.
With nothing more to be done, I jumped off the large rock and trekked down the mountain path with the sun low at my back, and as I made my way back to the blue village I finally thought of a few sentences to write that would begin another story no one would ever believe was true.
The American novelist CG FEWSTON has been a Visiting Scholar at the American Academy in Rome (Italy), a Visiting Fellow at Hong Kong’s CityU, & he’s a member of Club Med & a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) based in London.
He’s the author of several short stories and novels. His works include A Father’s Son (2005), The New America: A Collection (2007), Vanity of Vanities (2011), A Time to Love in Tehran (2015), and forthcoming: Conquergood & the Center of the Intelligible Mystery of Being; Little Hometown, America: A Look Back; A Time to Forget in East Berlin; and, The Endless Endeavor of Excellence.
He has a B.A. in English, an M.Ed. in Higher Education Leadership (honors), an M.A. in Literature (honors), and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing & Fiction. He was born in Texas in 1979.