Last year or the year before, they were agitated years that still get mixed up in my memory, I went to the old country for business, which these days I guess is the only reason left for any of us. Already southbound as it were, I invited my colleague to take a few days off work and journey on with me to one of these warm and quaint regions that used to be individual countries, full of cities and regions people repeatedly insist that you to need to visit, but only after they have been there themselves, and whose unfamiliar names rarely outlive a night's sleep. She said yes, as I figured she would, despite the fact that she was going to pay double or triple for transportation and accommodation not reserved in advance. Perhaps she felt she could still save money on the latter.
When we got there, we got everything we had expected and paid for, assuming that there's still room for discrepancy. Everything that makes a holiday unforgettable and interchangeable. It seems increasingly difficult to go wrong with these things. After spending uncomfortable hours in various confined spaces and building up adrenaline, walking towards the shore, taking off pieces of clothing every two hundred metres to the extent our lingering urban decency permitted, we came upon an undulating beach of white sand and glistening sea shells, a roaring bay with only a few heads bobbing up and down in the water and the odd, unabashed display of freedom. Realising we've finally made it, my colleague honours her semi-improvised speeches along the journey on how capricious it is of her to have come on this trip by, dragging me towards the fizzing layers of foam that the surf leaves on the bay. We throw the baggage and excess clothes we've been carrying on the sands where the waves gather and lose momentum only yards away. Her pile of clothes keeps on growing as I watch her prepare to stagger into the water with strings of shouts and encouraging smiles directed at me. In the water she's gliding away from me, waving, pushed down by the booming tide, shooting up, beaming and shouting again. I don't budge. Just watch, let it play out coherent.
A bit later I already looked at her with the confidence she required. We still hadn't slept together but I had grown used to her half-naked body and my blood vessels tensed up less frequently now. I sat opposite her, a tiny wooden table and a dirty tablecloth between us. She was very much like the other women in the office, beautiful, intelligent, but ultimately moving in tracks laid out by others. A grin escaped me as I realised that again I had proved a point to myself. She registered it despite my efforts to drown it out, so I played it off, answering her questions with oblique questions until she lost track of the distant stirs in my face. The sea keeps booming as sea birds fly by.
After getting settled, our clothes in spare wardrobes, her wet ones out to dry in the coastal breeze, we finally went for a walk along the coastline to take deep breathes of briny air, exchange straying glances and the odd barely audible sigh. Quite a few of the foreigners we passed on the beach seemed to live here, or close-by, making money off other foreigners and minimising the interaction with the indigenous population to the benefit of everyone. We passed the familiar faces of countrymen and local beauties who gathered in groups to play leisure sports and listen to guitar play while others prepared bonfires in the approaching dusk. One of them, more unkempt than his already fairly unkempt looking peers, was sat somewhat apart from a large group, staring at the growing bonfire as if to find something he lost in the fire. I only noticed him because he reminded me of a childhood friend until, after slowing my pace and staring at him for a little while longer, I had convinced myself that it was him. I walked over greeting him, looking to start a conversation that I hoped would settle the matter. But no. He didn't display any signs of recognition or familiarity. Nor did he respond at all. When I noticed my colleague looking at me like I was the one who was behaving strangely and one of the folks from the bonfire had gotten up to tell me to leave him alone, I felt like he was making a point of showing me up and I gave him a tender little push.
His sad eyes fixed mine for the first time and he mumbled a few words I couldn't understand. For a second, I thought he might have lapsed back into the old tongue but, if that had been the case, I think I would have understood. Though the familiar stranger showed no reaction, his fellow from the bonfire and another one came between us and started haranguing me. They were evidently in a mood to turn everything into an aggressive display of responsibility for their group without any disposition to actually understand. I stood my ground for a bit, first to get them to answer the questions my strange friend refused, then, when it had become clear that they didn't know more about him than I did, except that he neither spoke the old language nor the common voice, I kept on going to beat them at their own game, to show them up a little and spin the situation to my advantage. When I returned to my colleague she looked at me with eyes full of apprehension waiting to be laughed away.
We built a bonfire on an abandoned heap of embers, watched the sun set and went back home. I had put my hand on her thighs and she had moved closer. We didn't kiss but it was clear to the both of us that we were going back without detours for sex. Thoughts of the stranger had crossed my mind more than once, but I tried to concentrate on things close at hand. When we passed the group on the way back, I returned the defiant glance I owed but suppressed the urge to seek out my unknown friend because I had already risked enough getting into a row with the beach folk. But then, maybe that got her in the mood. One has a broad idea, but really, in the end you never know what exactly it is that gets them going. Back at the shack, though, it didn't take much.
She fell asleep after a while and I tried. But since I have trouble sleeping outside of my own bed, I got dressed and got out. Smoking one of her bland cigarettes, I watched the ocean. Someone had put up torches on the sand and their flames illuminated an erratic semicircle in the gust. I finished the cigarette and threw it into the winds. I contemplated going for a little walk until I saw the custodian was still up, reading, as it appeared, under the light of an oil lamp. When I came up the path to his lodge, I noticed he was asleep. Sensing my presence, his eyes opened and filled with life in a matter of seconds. He greeted me unfazed and commenced small talk with such an ease that it took me a while to assume the same lightheartedness prescribed for such conversation. When we had worked through the invariables, I asked him if he knew of the northerner that didn't speak the voice. He smiled, as he seemed to enjoy my description of him, but when I mentioned that he'd only spoken to me in the regional language he wouldn't stop laughing. When he did, he changed his tone and explained to me that whatever the northerner spoke was not the regional language - he used its actual name, which escapes me now and I can't pronounce or spell anyway - nor the old language, but that he knew his story, although it was a long one. I didn't have to assure him that I had the time, he started right away.
When he came here, he spoke the common voice and the old language - some of us also spoke the old language, some never lost it and even speak it still, as you know (I didn't know that, I didn't know they ever spoke it) and some words of the regional language, which no outlander bothers to learn let alone pronounce correctly. People liked him and his peculiar ways... at first. Because foreigners who come here are of a certain kind (he forces a smile at me) and he was refreshing in a certain way. But he outstayed his welcome. He fell in love with a beautiful girl, the village beauty some would say. A friend's daughter, actually. He got obsessed soon after. She played along with it. Like we do here, play along with everything. He fell out with a lot of people. First the other outlanders. Then with us, one by one. The girl - she was famous for her teasing, you should have seen her - she had told him she would never entertain a lover that spoke the common voice to her. He believed her. He didn't know that she spoke the old language, too. Heh. People had already stopped bothering with him. People were fed up, you must know. So... she had told him that and he was eager to learn. And so he learned from her. Except what he learned was pure gibberish. Well, in a way. She came up with an entire system of sounds, grammatical rules, all that. Wrote it all down in secret, I think. Apparently, she took it with her and published it at some institute. I don't know if that's true. I wouldn't put it past her. But that doesn't mean anything... m-mm. What was I saying? (The guy.) So, he was learning that ... language, if we want to call it that. I think the outlanders started to respect him a bit more for that, although maybe it was just because he was spending so much time with the village beauty. Wait, maybe I have a picture. (Don't go into the lodge. I don't need to see what she looks like. This will take forever.) Nay, no luck. I'm sorry. (I'm surprised to find I'm relieved.) But someone will have a picture, if you're interested. Are you a journalist. No? Okay. Why are you interested then? Mm, okay. What happened then? ...what happens then? Well, this went on for some time. We would laugh at him when he came to us, spouting gibberish. And he wouldn't mingle with the outlanders when she wasn't with them. So, we would see them together, talking their language. People said they were able to communicate all sort of things of daily life. More than that even, according to some. What happened in the end? Everything fell apart at some point. Maybe that was her plan from the beginning. Some say she openly cheated on him with another outlander. But... they were never a couple if you ask me. That's what her father says, too. But then he has a reason to say that. What I know is she was gone one day to the next, to study somewhere in the north. Everybody thought he would go after her. But he stayed. Retreated into himself. Completely broken. She didn't leave a message for him. Only told her father and left. I think that's why most think she planned it. M-heh. Could just as well been something he said to her, for all I know. Anyhow, he just keeps gibbering that language of hers, of theirs. Won't say a word in a language anybody actually speaks. I think he's still expanding it, now that she's gone. Can't see what else he'd be doing in that mind of his. He's a husk now, if anything. Another shell on the beach, eh? Well, some of the outlanders took pity on him and care for him at times. They don't hold grudges against their own. He's still one of them. One of you
I went back. Angry. At what was hard to say. That it was him. That it wasn't. That he let himself be treated like that. Treated me like that. Showed me up. Maybe not. We used to rule this this country, region, doesn't matter where you draw the border. I trotted along the shore. If he's still there I'll find him. Washed up on the beach. I started cursing in the old language. I thought I had shaken that habit. But there it was. All the words I had heard my parents say as a child and now only beggars in the street. Ugly words. When they miss the train. More ugly words. Ugly meanings. And precise. Meanings the voice only implies, always there but only implied, for yourself to think to term. I was still cursing when I made out the indistinct figure lying in the sand. I had gotten here all the way, all the way without realising. Without feeling time pass. Without feeling the distance dwindle until there was none. Standing right before him, I recognise his face glowing dimly golden in the embers of the dying bonfire. He's asleep, lying on the ground. I wonder if he's dreaming. Dreaming in gibberish. Dreaming gibberish. Curled up, hugging himself in the cold of the night. I move my foot closer to his face.
Stopping short of pressing the shoe and the dirt on it deep into his face. He'll be smelling the leather, I reckon. Smelling the dirt on it, putting it into his dream. Turning it into gibberish. I lower my foot until it hovers over his neck, savour the urge to lift it once more and push it down on his throat. Slowly. Watch him wake up as his windpipe tightens and the airflow stops. As his eyes fill with fear and with the last bit of air his lips form words. Begging me to lift it. And I will. If he pleads in the voice. Or better, in the old tongue. I don't know anymore how to plead in the old tongue. He would, though. If not, he just needs to let the voice come through again. Like the first time. Everybody did that first time they really needed to. But what if he just spouts the gibberish again? What if he wants to die? I shudder and lower my foot. Put it down on the ground and turn around. The whole way back I think to myself I should have done it. That way I would have known. But there is no point in going back now. In facing this moment again. Nor in staying here another day. Better be done with this place before it is done with me.
From Letters To Entropy by Mattias Schael