Far Beyond the Stillness - Short Story

Far Beyond the Stillness

I remember him vividly. And it is not because he stood out for any particular trait. No, it was what he asked me that I remember so clearly now. He thought himself a man but he was no more than a boy. Eighteen years he lived before our chance encounter.
            I daresay he was confused, even puzzled by his surroundings, as they all usually are. But his first thought was not to ask me where he was, how he had gotten there, no, his first thought was the question he put before me.
            Would you like to hear his story? I promise it is one that will stay with you until you too will meet me. And if you take nothing else from him, remember his name. It was Eckhart.
            On the sands of that beach, he sat down, looking into the distance. For a moment I thought he was at peace, but the peace was that of oblivion, not that of understanding. I approached him from the left and my footsteps woke him to my presence.
            “Who are you?” he asked. His voice was even, I could only sense the disturbance I had caused in his mind as I looked in his eyes. He was afraid.
            “That is a moot question, Eckhart” I replied, stopping my approach and looking back at him. He saw me in my usual black tailor-made suit. He should have understood by then why I had come to him, but he was trapped so deep in his mind that he did not want to comprehend.
            “How do you know my name? Who are you?” he asked again.
            “You are not asking the right questions, Eckhart. I could tell you what you have asked of me, but it would not help you now.”
            “Very well” he said, shifting his gaze away from me to look at the crashing waves. They moved so slowly, so evenly, it was a beautiful vista he had chosen. I have seen better, but I have also seen much worse, at least this one was peaceful.
            Moving closer, I took a seat next to him, on the soft, warm sand. Dusting away the grains from my hands, I bent my knees in order to rest my arms on them. This was strange. For one that started with a question, he was surprisingly quiet now.
            “Would you like me to tell you what the right questions are?”
            “Where I come from, it is considered rude not to introduce yourself when speaking” he replied indignantly.
            “I see. In that case, you may call me Tod.”
            He waited for a moment and something seemed to trouble him. Finally, he looked back at me and replied: “That is a very odd name...In my language it means death.
            “What a strange coincidence” I said, grinning from ear to ear, a gesture he noticed and did not understand. “And what language is that, Eckhart, where are you from?”
            “I find it surprising you do not know. After all, you seem to know my name.” A breeze passed through the trees behind us and the shades moved just like the waves. A slow, peaceful movement, a dance of shadows, entertaining my guest and I.
            “I would like you to say it. It will help you remember.”
            “Remember what?” he asked, shooting a glance in my direction.
            “Why you are here, of course.”
            Looking beyond the horizon, he exhaled. It was a breath he had kept inside for a long time, but now it was time for it to come out. “I am from Nuremberg, in Bavaria.”
            “Yes, I’ve seen it. A rather beautiful city, is it not?”
            “Of course” he replied without hesitation. “How does that help me realise why I am here?”
            “That is merely the beginning.” I paused and tried to guide him further by drawing his attention from the footpath to our left to the rock formations to our right. “Does this place look familiar?”
            “No, should it?” he snapped abruptly. But his eyes knew it. He blinked once and then continued, “Wait...I remember this place. My father...yes, my father sent me a postcard from Cyprus. I have never been there...”
            “...But this is how you imagined it would look like” I said, goading him on, pushing his mind to realise where he had been that morning.
            “Yes, this is exactly how I thought it would look in person...” For the first time, he smiled, as the breeze passed again and refreshed us. But his smile faded. “Where is my wife? She should be here...” he said, looking around. Then, as if a surge of anxiety struck him, he got up from the sand and moved towards the trees.
            “What is your wife’s name?” I asked, hoping it would finally jog his memory.
            “Christine!” he shouted, looking back at me. “What? you think I would not remember her name?”
            “I did not imply anything of the sort” I responded in a calm tone. Getting up would mean that he would be free to roam around the area. Instead, I simply shifted my weight back and put an arm out to rest on the sand.
            “Where is she?! I would not leave without her?”
            “But you did leave without her, Eckhart.” I’ll admit, that remark was cruel. But it was necessary. He needed to realise where he was.
            “No!” he shouted again, running away, stumbling along the beach. “What do you mean? I love Christine, I would not leave her!”
            “Is that so? Tell me, Eckhart, how long have you known Christine?” I led him right to it and now he was closer than ever to that dark sensation of knowing. Knowing that something is not quite right.
            “We’ve known each other since we were children” he said, in a calmer tone, as he came back, towards me.
            And the final piece of the puzzle was on the tip of my tongue. “When did you marry Christine?”
            “I...I...no, it can’t be” he looked into my eyes with fear and apprehension.
            “Say it, Eckhart, you must say it!”
            “No, why should I?!”
            “You want to see Christine again?”
            “More than anything...”
            “Then, say it!”
            “I...I married Christine...two weeks before...”
            “Yes, Eckhart, say the words.”
            “Two weeks before I was sent to the western front...” The fear in his eyes only grew larger. As I stared into those blue orbs, they lost hope and he knew why he was with me at that moment. But he would not admit it: not to me and definitely not to himself.
            With the realisation he collapsed to his knees, he was still in denial. I lifted myself up and walked towards him, the sand slipping away beneath my feet. When I reached him, he moved his gaze up, to meet mine.
            “Why am I here? What happened to me?”
            “What is the last thing you remember, Eckhart?” I asked slowly.
            “I don’t know, I don’t know...I...we were entrenched near Ypres. It was so cold...”
            “Of course it was. You were there in October, were you not?”
            “Yes...it was October. God, it was so cold and lifeless. The guns raged in the distance. We were supposed to take their position...that is what the officer told us.”
            “And what happened after that?”
            “No, it can’t be...how can I be here? Unless...No!” he shouted again. “Please don’t make me remember, I don’t wish it!”
            “I cannot help you unless you remember, Eckhart. Think back, what happened?”
            “Please, don’t! Why are you doing this to me?”
            “I am not doing anything. I can only show you the way...it is you that must walk it.”
            His gaze moved down again, a single tear slipped his eyes and it coursed down his cheek. If I could feel anything I would have said something comforting, but that is not my place. I was there to make him understand and accept.
            “You want to go home, don’t you? I can see it, Eckhart.”
            “Yes, I wish to be with my wife. I want to see her blue eyes again...to touch her soft skin. Can you take me to her?”
            “I can. You can see her.”
            “Then, please, take me to her” he sobbed. With one hand, he brushed aside the tears and looked up again.
            “She’s here, Eckhart” I said, as I snapped my fingers loudly.
            Lifting himself from his knees, he looked towards the undulating trees. She was in her nightgown, walking slowly towards us. Her long nut-brown hair being caressed gently in the wind.
            “Christine!” he spoke her name with such affection. In his run, he seemed to be forgetting everything else. All that mattered to him at that moment was their reunion. Reaching her, he flung his arms around her, taking her in an embrace. His hands moved up to her statuesque and beautiful face, he kissed her passionately and then moved his head back. “I’m here, Christine, I am with you” he said as he took her hand up and kissed it gently.
            “Eckhart” I said, raising my voice. I was trying to warn him, but he would not listen.
            “Christine, my love, please...say something...please” he uttered in a low tone, grasping her shoulders.
            “Eckhart,” I repeated, “she cannot speak here...”
            “No, please darling, say something, anything...I want to hear your voice again” he continued, as he ignored me and spoke to her in vain.
            “She is not fully here, she cannot respond to you.”
            “No, you’re lying!” he shouted at me. “She is here...please...let her speak.”
            “I don’t make the rules, I simply follow them” I said, trying to make him understand. It was much to my surprise that all those rules were put aside in this case.
            “...Eckhart” she said softly, “where are you Eckhart?”
            “I’m here, Christine, I am here...”
            “Please come home, Eckhart...please come home...” was her last phrase as she embraced him and slowly faded away.
            Realising she had disappeared, he staggered back, looking around, turning to face me. “Where did she go? Where is she? Please, bring her back!”
            “I cannot do that. She chose to leave. You must realise this is more painful for her than it is for you.” It was then that I realised something that he would have wanted to know. “She loves you, Eckhart. Otherwise, she could not have acknowledged you the way she did.”
            “I know...” was all he could reply back, as he stood there, facing away from me.
            “I have fulfilled your wish, I believe it is time you faced that which you fear.”
            “Why must I do it?” he turned back and I could see the tears frozen on his face.
            “Because you cannot stay here forever, you must make a choice. You must move on.”
            With a heavy breath, he looked up, to the burning sun and then said: “Very well...”
            Walking towards him, I placed my left hand on his shrugging shoulder and then, snapping my fingers in one swift motion, I took him back to where he had been that fateful morning. He looked around, seeing the smoke in the distance.
            “I remember this place” he said, still disoriented. “I was...there, by that ditch.” Walking away, he left my side in order to make sense of his surroundings. I hoped he would finally understand. “Yes, here, I was right here” he said as the ambiance of the fading light returned to him the memory of his last stand.
            “And what happened next?” I asked, moving in closer, to follow his lead.
            “We...we got our orders...we were supposed to advance...but...nobody told us.”
            “Told you what, Eckhart?”
            “They had...they had mined the entire area. We stood no chance” he said, coldly.
            Walking forward, the smoke gave way and the first signs could be seen: a bloodied rifled, hanging from barbed wire. Then a helmet, on the ground, a piercing shot had gone through it from front to back. Then the limbs came into view, and finally we reached our inevitable destination.
            “No...no!” he shouted and looked away. “It can’t be, it’s not real!”
            “You must face it. You must look into the eyes which once belonged to you.”
            “No, please, it is...it is so...”
            “Barbaric, Eckhart? Was that the word you wished to use?”
            “Yes...just please, don’t make me look at him!”
            “Why, because you do not want him to have been you? Because you are ashamed of having been part of such carnage?”
            “No...I had no choice...we were at war...”
            “No choice? You always have a choice! And you made yours when you decided to stay and fight rather than leave the country with Christine as she asked.”
            “It wasn’t that simple! We were at war...” he repeated.
            “And that makes it alright? Tell me, what were you fighting for? Glory? Country? Archduke Ferdinand’s honour?”
            “Stop it!”
            “All I am telling you, Eckhart, is what you have already thought for yourself but did not have the courage to admit.”
            “I know...I know...” he said, tears flowing from his eyes, as he turned around to look at the body of his former life. “I can’t go back, can I?” he asked me as he finally broke the final wall in his mind and acknowledged what had happened to him.
            “No, not the way it was before.”
            “And what if I wish to stay?” he asked, as he stifled his sobbing.
            “I cannot lie to you and I cannot force you to make this decision. All I can tell you is the truth. You will wonder this world formless and boundless and even though you may see life all around you, there will be nothing to tie you to it.” I paused to give him time to understand. They all needed time at this stage, whoever they were before, this realisation was difficult for all of them. “Because you will not be seen or heard, you will grow bitter and you will lash out towards all that you see. The world will pass you by and will become dust and yet your rage and your bitterness will remain.”
            Trying to understand what I have told him, he looked to the sky, to the reddened sun of the dusk and I could feel his awareness reaching out, to what was beyond, to acceptance. His eyes then returned to me and he asked once again.
            “Who are you?”
            “You have asked me this before, Eckhart, why do you wish to know the answer to this question?”
            “I...I suppose I wish to know what to expect...once I am no longer here.”
            “As you wish, but I can warn you that you will not understand all that I have to say. I am the leveller of rank, wealth and thoughts. I am all that was and is no longer. I have seen a billion lives and their end. I am all that is left once the link is ultimately, inevitably broken. I am in the world that exists far beyond the stillness.”
            His eyes blinked and he looked away, back at the sunset. He was trying to understand me, trying to see something that he had never set his eyes upon before. At first, I thought he was foolish for trying to try but then I saw a glimpse in his eyes. His search for understanding would lead him away from the mistakes of his past, he would move outside the vicious circle of petty vengeance and misunderstanding. He would become greater than himself.
            “Can I ask you one last thing?” he said, his expression now serene. “Can I see my Christine one last time?”
            “Let us see...” I replied, as I took a hold of his shoulder and brought him back to where he wanted to spend his last moment of cognition. The breeze returned, the trees moved and danced. The ruffling of leaves brought a smile to his face as I let go of him.
            He pressed his feet into the warm sand and laughed: he was finally letting go. As he shifted his eyes across from the footpath, he took in the view of the sunset across the crashing waves. The soft sand broke the water’s approach and the sound seemed to give him hope for the moment. Then, fixing his eyes on the spot he had sat, he saw her.
            Moving slowly towards her, he took a seat next to Christine and put his arm around her. Acknowledging him, she smiled and hugged him closely, holding him tight. Looking towards one another, they shared one last kiss before their eyes moved towards the setting sun, above the horizon.
            I knew this moment would be the last they would see each other in this form and I gave them a last chance to bid farewell. When they sat holding each other on that darkening beach, I moved closer and with a final movement, I gently touched their foreheads. One returned to her natural place and the other went forward, into the endless cycle.
            It was the last time I saw Eckhart in that form but I can still see traces of him in all the subsequent variations that arose from him. The cycle continued and they met again, sweet Christine and him. They did not know they had met before and had been separated so violently in those cold years. But the change I noticed coming over him on that field stayed, he never again took the path of aggression.
            His transformation has been affected by me, unwillingly, but not because of what I did. All it took was that first thought that passed through his mind the moment we met. The question that burned in his mind, to ask me who I was, to understand for the first time what it all meant. I sometimes see him in forms that are not his, but his mind remained the same, eager for more answers, for greater knowledge. And every time we chance upon one another, I always bid him farewell with our favourite phrase: “To many more meetings, Eckhart.”

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