Dream of the High Mountain — Final Part

arcticFront line reports from the Artic war. The light from Proxima Centauri. ‘This is my Husband. Have you seen him? Can You Help?’ The first images from the wastelands of Tehran. A blue whale cub, swimming in the Atlantic. A pod filmed from the ground, its vapour trail unzipping a clear blue sky…

The alarm worked its way into Morgan’s sleep. When he opened his eyes, the bells sounded out in the corridor. Approaching the door, he felt like a crossover had been achieved between two distinct worlds. Outside the residents moved down the corridor towards the stairs; the evacuation happened quietly, without complaint. Probably there was a small fire somewhere in the building. The retreat took its responsibilities very seriously; Morgan had signed a release form when he’d first arrived. ‘Just because we’re searching for something higher doesn’t mean we can ignore our legal obligations,’ the elder had said, the same man who had asked for Morgan’s handset. As he joined the procession down the corridor, he thought of how much simpler this would have been if they’d allowed him to keep it. The thought felt like a pleasant rebellion. Probably it’s time for me to leave.

The sky was clear as Morgan walked outside. Maybe it was the last trace of the pills, but as the crowd swarmed around him, he felt elevated and removed. His mind turned to three months before, when he’d sealed samples of his hair, blood and semen into a small plastic vial and transferred all of his savings to an account based in Mumbai. His insurance, his secret: he’d pushed it to the back of his mind, not sharing it with his daughter or with his friends, trying to hide it from himself. Now, as he stood under the dramatic arc of stars, Morgan pictured those pods as they drifting through the cold and the dark of space, for years, for centuries. Most would certainly fail, but there was always the chance… He thought of something Elena had said. ‘How does it feel to be one of the kings?’

People ahead of him were chattering excitedly. At first, Morgan couldn’t see what had caused this flutter of panic, but as everyone moved around the side of the house, he found himself on the edge of the crowd. Across the back garden, a section of the coast had given way. The wall had simply disappeared and half of the maze had been ripped apart as the earth had given away. A couple of elders waved the residents along the narrow shale-filled path, while the alarm continued inside the building. ‘Make your way around the front,’ one called out. ‘And keep calm… there’s no reason to panic.’ As Morgan shuffled along, he glanced over at the ruined maze. To be on one side, you would see its shape as exposed, ruined and open, but that side was now only the space between the sky and the sea. To enter into it now only meant finding a convoluted path towards the void.

One of the elders stood on the path, hurrying the crowd along. He looked anxious, distraught. Morgan was thinking about his expression when the man next to him nudged his arm. ‘You know what’s happened, don’t you?,’ he said. ‘People were over there when it gave away…’

As they moved around to the front of the house, Morgan looked out for Elena, but the path was too narrow and each time he stopped, the crowd pushed him on. Once he thought he saw her further ahead, but when the woman passed under the lights from a downstairs room he saw that he was mistaken. His group were among the last to emerge onto the lawn. The alarm continued to sound from inside while the crowd milled around, friends looking for one another under the light from the greenhouse. Morgan had been walking towards the front of the crowd when someone reached out for him. It was the Bangladeshi woman.

‘I’m so glad you’re safe…’ she said.

‘I’m fine,’ Morgan replied. ‘I was sleeping in my room and then the alarms sounded.’

They’d moved to one side. The woman stood very close to him. ‘I heard the ground fall,’ she went on. ‘And I knew, I knew that something terrible had happened, even before the alarms.’ She looked up at Morgan, her fingers tight upon his arm. ‘People were killed. You know that, don’t you? They came here to escape. And this happens…’

Suddenly, she grasped at Morgan’s hand. Her fingers felt fragile, her skin cold. They stood together, awkwardly, almost surprised to be in one another’s company. A group of elders took position on the raised ground in front of the greenhouse. One held a handset, the cold square of light giving a blue tinge to her face. As the crowd continued to murmur, she waited for quiet: the quiet which would allow her to speak, and the quiet which would answer her call. Underneath the night sky, holding onto a stranger, Morgan waited for the names.

Dream of the High Mountain — Part Seven

20140420-voetpad-old-vines-credit-swartland-region-wines-of-south-africaHow many more indignities can be heaped upon the divine memory of R Kelly?’ A girl in a red coat running the aisles of an indoor market. Baggage collated from Flight 45. Dawn over the flooded wind farm. A blue car at sunset driving across a deserted seafront. 

Morgan spent the next day working in the vineyard. He wore a straw hat to protect him from the sun. He’d found it in one of the rooms on the ground floor, a split yellow panama encircled by a red paisley band. He clipped grapes from the vines. His shoulders ached. He could hear the sea. The shift finished after two hours, but when someone came to replace him, Morgan refused to be moved. ‘No,’ he said. ‘I’ll stay. I want to stay.’ He threw himself into the work. He tore the plump green fruit from the vines into a plastic drum. He drank water from a dirty cup drawn from a bucket. Sweat soaked his shirt. Pain spread across his shoulders, up his back. The vines surrounded him, the trunks elegant and atrophied.

He felt, for the first time, complete. My arms are hardening, he told himself. Each time I lift them above my head I develop the muscles. I am improving myself, daily, both physically and mentally, and when these too are combined, with attention and devotion, then I can truly say that I am feeding my self. The pale financial worker he’d once been disgusted him, like something poured from the inside of a bin bag, some pale piece of fetid life nourished on the dust upon old computer screens and the fibres of office furniture, on the crumbs wedged inside the keys of handsets, on stale bottled water, brackish, tainted and old.

It was growing dark by the time he walked back to the house. He could still feel the sun upon his skin. He had a splinter in his thumb. His palms felt dry, like sandpaper. He remembered when he was a boy, when minor wounds— the scrapes, scratches, and those cherished things, scars— were trophies of experience, the desecration of perfect skin. As he walked through to the dining room, he examined the marks upon his hands and arms— cookery burns, accidental nicks from knifes and broken glass— the banal details on a map of a life. He ate his meal alone. A man played the zither on the stage. Morgan had never heard the zither before, but he enjoyed the sound, it felt pure. A group of people at the next table were talking about Kant. Morgan ignored them. He ate beans with brown rice and drank iced mint tea. Lines for a poem formed in his head, but strangely, Morgan didn’t feel the need to write them down. A poem should stay in the mind, he said to himself; the mind, after all, is a poem.

He thought of Elena fleetingly as he climbed the stairs to his room. He hadn’t seen her all day. She had left hurriedly that morning, making excuses about a shift in the greenhouse. She’d seemed distant, almost awkward, missing her usual self-assurance. Morgan wondered if he had said or done something wrong. Wearily, he feared that he’d made a fool of himself. He lay down upon his bed, expecting to fall asleep immediately, but the exhaustion failed to overtake him. Instead, it remained immovable like a dog: a dog that could be shouted at, beaten and kicked, but which would always remain in place. Morgan stared at the ceiling. He saw the sun upon the white paint, even though the sun had now set. A man and a woman walked past his door. Their voices receded into the chasm of this old house, this old hotel at the end of the world. The gentle mellifluence of the voices affected him. He felt tears in his eyes. ‘I am alone,’ he said. ‘I face all of this alone.’ He thought of all the reasons that he had come to the retreat and none of them seemed valid. He wondered what he wanted to achieve. The examined life, which previously had been so important for him, now felt pointless. Probably, Elena was right. This is an illusion, he told himself. And this is all there is. He reached over to his bedside table and took a couple of pills.

Sleep didn’t come immediately. His mind wandered. It was almost like a dream, except that he could still feel the sunburn upon his face and the aches in his arms and back. He saw himself standing upon the hillside above a great city. Glass towers stretched into the sky, traffic steamed in the canyons, an advert chattered upon a billboard. When a great wave surged in from the coast, Morgan watched as people scattered from the fury of the surge, the primal, sacred power. He saw bodies falling from buildings, bodies crushed against brick, bodies pushed under traffic, drowned with other bodies. He saw people fighting, screaming, dying. It was hard to form any judgement on it all. He felt very cold: the wave brought with it a biting prehistoric chill. Something suddenly shifted. Morgan was standing in a room with his daughter. She worked at her desk, headset on, staring at the liquid light of the computer screen. In the window behind, sea water swelled amongst the buildings: a mountain range of simmering glass, quivering with a hesitant intelligence. Morgan watched it for minutes, maybe hours until finally it poured in upon them. At the very second before impact, before the building around them was obliterated into glass and concrete, his daughter looked Morgan in the eyes.

‘I am thinking of a way to make you less guilty,’ she said.

Dream of the High Mountain — Part Six

beijingAn unconvincing Elvis impersonator lighting a cigarette in the Luxembourg Gardens. Sudden snowfall in Beijing. The desecration of the Vatican. Initiation rituals of the Texan rape gangs. A frail Paul Coelho, addressing the crowds in the Maracanã stadium.

Morgan came too quickly. The pills were too strong. He lay upon the bed, almost feverish from his high. Elena lay beside him, stroking his shoulder, whispering soothingly into his ear. Humiliated, when Morgan finally came around, he tried to deflect her attention.

‘You don’t seem to have settled,’ he said. ‘I guess this place isn’t everyone… I had doubts myself when I first arrived… I have to say, I don’t know why you’re here.’

He may have been hoping to goad her into an argument. Instead, Elena sat up from the bed. ‘I want to show you something,’ she said. Morgan watched as she walked naked towards the far wall, her movements graceful and erotic. In comparison, he found his own body mean and unsightly; he covered himself with a sheet. Elena retrieved a black paperback book from the shelf upon the far wall.

‘What is that?’ Morgan asked.

The I Ching. A book that’s followed me around the whole world.’ She sat down next to him on the bed. Morgan reached out and laid his hand upon her side. She had a large mole the shape of a triangle upon her hip. His fingers brushed against the raised, chaotic flesh.

‘I was at work,’ Elena said. ‘I’d just covered something on the Beijing Conference. There’s something in the I Ching about trusting in the small, about the time for great acts being passed. After watching those people, world leaders claiming to act in our interests when they are so far from being answerable to us… I felt I needed to get away. I decided to come here.’

Morgan could see a vein underneath the pale skin of her right breast, a curved blue cord. ‘And now you’re here,’ he asked. ‘Putting faith in the small. Do you feel better?’

She tossed the book back onto the bedclothes. ‘Now I’m here, I can’t quite escape the feeling of guilt.’

‘I thought this was meant to be a time of self-reflection?’ Morgan sang a little irony into the words, but he felt irritated. Why can’t she just relax into things?

‘Well, there’s guilt in action,’ Elena went on. ‘But there’s guilt in inaction too. You can’t ignore it. Sit still in the middle of an empty field and you’re affecting someone’s life.’

‘I don’t see how…’

Elena didn’t even let him finish. ‘Just because you’ve retreated from the world doesn’t mean the world stops feeling your influence. There’s an intimacy of connection which I don’t think you understand.’

‘Like I said, you obviously haven’t taken to the place.’ He felt confused, threatened, exposed. The evening was ruined. They bickered tiredly. Finally Elena said:

‘I just want you to admit that everything you want to achieve out here is an illusion of time. Your poetry, for example. Do you think you’d worry about that when a mudslide is coming for your home? Or your plane is heading into the sea? Or your children are dying of dehydration?’ As she lay back, Morgan found her nakedness provocative and intimidating. ‘Check your history. The chance to lead an individual life has usually been the province of kings. So tell me. How does it feel to be one of the kings?’

Dream of the High Mountain — Part Five

maxresdefaultA tour of an abandoned Russian city. Tanks patrolling the remains of Gatwick airport. Petrol fumes rising over chipboard. ‘Remember Finkelstein!’ The remains of an obliterated mosque, the dome cracked like a blue skull. Conspiracy theories about the second autopsy of Tom Cruise. ‘boy_13_first’.

One evening, Morgan and Elena walked in the gardens. She led him down to the maze, past the residents, even now, tending to the vegetable beds, where the damp earth was the blue-grey colour of faded ebony. ‘It’s why we’re here, after all,’ Elena laughed as she walked towards the entrance. ‘Isn’t all of this a quest?’

They spent an hour inside the maze, tracing the paths formed by the high box shrubs. At the centre, a bench stood upon raised podium, a frieze of the words ‘Cultiver Notre Jardin’ arranged in seashells and stones. Morgan sat down, while Elena remained standing. Beyond the wall, a stretch of stubbly grass led across to the cliff-face. He could smell the sea.

‘Did you know the hotel was abandoned?’ Morgan said. ‘A resort town along the coast flooded ten years back. When I asked about it, one of the elders said the hill was too far above sea level to worry about. Nice to know they have so much faith…’

Elena wasn’t really listening. She stood staring up at the sky. The sun had slipped beneath the horizon and the stars were now distinct. Finally, Elena seemed to remember that she wasn’t alone. She sat down beside him on the bench.

‘How long do you think we have left?’

Morgan shrugged. ‘I have no idea. A hundred years? I don’t think anyone does, really.’

‘I always thought that we’d escape,’ Elena said. ‘That we’d build ships and head for the stars. But that doesn’t look very likely now.’ She let out a sarcastic laugh. ‘Of course, there’s always the eggs.’

‘You don’t approve?’ he asked, while thinking: I’m living through something that I’ve already seen.

‘No. Not at all.’ She shook her head. ‘The very people who trapped us to this planet turning themselves into gods? I don’t find anything comforting in that at all. In the old days the rich would preserve their heads in a California freezer. Now they send their DNA up into space. Tell me, what’s the difference?’

She was quoting herself: the part about gods came from her clip. Morgan didn’t reply. They sat in the growing dark, listening to the sea, the sound of the waves like amplified silence.

‘Come on,’ Elena said, finally. ‘Let’s head back to the house.’

Dream of the High Mountain — Part Four

e53c2a020824b7fde17312e9f4ce1a81‘On waking from a dream of the eating the last banana.’ A live feed from a security camera in a supermarket somewhere in the northern hemisphere. Helicopter wreckage discovered in the desert. An advert for a DNA temple: ‘We Speak Your Code!’

Over the next weeks, Morgan threw himself into the retreat. He tended to sheep and chickens. He mucked out, washed up and washed down. He rescued eggs from straw. He gathered vegetables from the garden. He popped beans from a shell. He mingled with the other residents. He discussed the present and the prospects for the future. He listened to theories and ideas. He offered some of his own. He meditated. He took MDMA, and an opium derivative which made him throw up on the floor of his room. He explored the corridors of the hotel, the aged furniture, the signs emblazoned with the brand of what had once been a globally successful chain. Upon the fourth floor, he discovered a set of tables and chairs looking out over the grounds. He took to spending his afternoons looking out over the gardens: the glass building of an old health spa adapted as a greenhouse; the small maze planted out of box shrubs; the residents tending to the gardens, or working in the vineyard. Inspired by these scenes, Morgan wrote poems about the waves and the sun, about the stars and the first woman he’d seen naked. He felt satisfied, vindicated. This was the reason I came.

Only during the next week did his mind turn to the outside world. It was his daughter’s birthday. Ever since they’d been reunited, he’d tried to mark the occasion with a little gift or a message. Not this year. Before he’d entered the retreat he’d called her. The conversation was halting, the signal terrible. She was heading out for a meal with her latest partner, who turned out to be her manager, a man in his fifties.

‘Perhaps, you really are going to miss me,’ Morgan had said.

But the joke had been too intimate, misjudged. His daughter had clicked her tongue. ‘Very Freudian. Your new friends aren’t going to like that at all.’

When Morgan had first told her about his move to the retreat, she’d laughed, accusing him of losing his mind and joining one of the DNA cults. He’d felt affronted, ridiculous. Even when he’d tried to explain that the retreat only aimed to allow residents time for a little self-examination, she’d mocked him.

”Inner space not outer space,” she laughed. ‘Yeah, I’ve seen the adverts.’

She worked for the Chinese in Lagos. Whenever she mentioned her job, it was to anticipate the big deal that would finally establish a career, which, Morgan guessed, was drifting badly. When they’d first got in touch he’d felt a kind of hope, a faith in the future which until that point had been missing. But somehow it had never been expressed.

That evening he took pills with a young Bangladeshi woman who refused to tell him her name. ‘I want to remain a stranger to everyone for as long as she was here,’ she’d explained. She had the kind of spooky, addled seriousness that Morgan had found attractive when he was a student; he’d enjoyed every minute of her company. The significance also wasn’t lost on him: on his daughter’s birthday he’d gone to bed with a woman almost half his age. I’m making new discoveries, he told himself, exploring the limits of my subjectivity.

They lay together naked in Morgan’s bed. The woman explained how she had advanced her meditation to the point where she felt she had moved beyond her own life.

‘I see a woman wiping her neck with a white rag,’ she told him. ‘It is very hot. I can smell dust from corn. My eyes sting. I think I am… it’s hard, but I think I am allergic to the pollen.’

Morgan rested his head against her shoulder. Her skin smelled bitter and sweet, like some kind of resin. A chemical wave swelled inside of him.

‘It’s these sensations that you have to focus upon,’ the woman went on. ‘The heat, the dust. I’m really lucky to have the hayfever, which, incidentally, I don’t suffer from normally. It’s something special.’

‘So this is what? A past life?’

‘I don’t really like that term. It carries a lot of baggage. I prefer to think… Have you read Schuller?’

Morgan shook his head. The drugs had filled his blood, his blood surging down into his groin.

‘Schuller is fantastic. His theory is that consciousness is only the dream that our DNA has itself.’ She rolled onto her side and began brushing her fingers lightly over Morgan’s penis. ‘Our brains are like the sea. That’s what Schuller says. Ancient and unknown, with depths we will probably never understand, you can see both as metaphors for our survival. Of course, this survival shouldn’t be seen in purely subjective terms…’

‘The eggs…’ The question slipped out of him, troubling Morgan’s high. Static fuzzed at the periphery of his vision. ‘Did you…?’

‘I could never afford it.’ She pulled her hand away. To punish me, Morgan thought. ‘I enter the lottery now and then, but… What about you?’

The static had increased, teeming diamond patterns refracting aspects of the room. ‘I don’t play…’ he said. ‘I’m not…’

‘Don’t worry.’ As the woman moved her fingers back down to his penis, she placed her lips precisely upon his shoulder, as though the matching their shape to a tattoo upon his skin. ‘Like I always say, in some ways, all of us will be there. Like I always say…’

Dream of the High Mountain — Part Three

1448459633639A blue door flapping in a hurricane. Gordon Brown blowing a kiss. ‘Why Do You Continue to Love These Evil Doers?’ The surviving footage of the goals of Ferenc Puskas. A man in an orange jumpsuit beheaded upon a concrete floor. A golden beetle, crawling over a window pane. Eight solid hours of a Martian rock.

He met Elena that evening in the library, an attic room in the south wing. Morgan had been alone, picking through the small literature section when the door had opened behind him and she walked inside. Slowly, she moved around the shelves— through natural science and psychology, the weighty shelf of Jung— until they stood together. Up close, she looked younger than on the clips. She surveyed the collection closely, as though it were swarming over a screen and she was having trouble pinning it down. When he picked up a copy of Sorrows of Young Werther, she spoke.

‘Oh no. No, no, no.’ She reached out and took the book from his hand. ‘Anything but that.’

‘You don’t like Goethe?’ The question would later strike him as hesitant and absurd. You don’t like Goethe: a flavour of ice cream, a type of beer.

‘Goethe maybe. But this book has a lot to answer for.’

‘Like what?’

‘Like inspiring a whole genre of boring men who thought they were Jesus Christ when really they were Hitler.’ She gave the cover a derisory glance before tossing the book back onto the shelf. ‘That’s a lot to answer for.’

‘Self-examination,’ Morgan replied. ‘Isn’t that why we’re all here?’

Elena screwed her nose up. ‘Self-absorption. That is surely one of the things we want to escape.’

They headed down to the bar, and helping themselves to a bottle of a white wine, they talked about what had led them to the retreat. Born in Helsinki, Elena had worked as a consultant for a one of the large news portals, but she hinted at various other roles. Morgan guessed that she was active in green politics, perhaps as a fundraiser for the militants. As they sipped from glasses of the wine and picked at a bowl of sunflower seeds, she lectured him about his choice of reading (‘Fiction is the last thing you should be distracting yourself with in here’) complained about the organisational structure of the retreat, even bemoaned the loss of her handset. Morgan guessed that he wasn’t the only one to find Elena aggressive and prepossessing, but with her ready all-encompassing dissent, perhaps he was the only one to find her slightly lost. She lacked the blind enthusiasm of the other retreat members, their capacity to dissolve into whatever search they had set themselves. Still, she was enthusiastic enough about some of the tenets of the place: after they finished the bottle of wine, she asked Morgan up to her room. ‘They have some good pills here. I mean I’ve had better, for sure but…’

But Morgan turned her down. It was late, he was tired and, still struggling as he was with the after effects the hallucinogens, he was scared of humiliation in company. They walked up the stairs together, talking about what they hoped to achieve from the retreat.

‘I’m not hoping for anything remarkable,’ Elena explained as they stood on the landing outside of Morgan’s room. On the wall beside them, one of the original fittings of the hotel warned about fire. ‘I don’t think I’m even expecting to find any answers. I worked in country after country,’ she went on. ‘I travelled the world but I lost a sense of things. If I can start to pay attention, then, probably that will be enough for me.’

Dream of the High Mountain — Part Two

satellite-original-originalJunk satellites, burning in the atmosphere over Jakarta. ‘Why I prefer Murray Perahia to Glen Gould.’ A handgun fired at Michelangelo’s David. A pressed red flower discovered in an abandoned archive. Anthrax breeding upon a slide.

Morgan used his own clips as a way to think aloud. Over the year, he’d come to enjoy the way his opinions on a subject would change when he viewed them as a spectator. He could talk about work, or the events of the day, or even the return of some memory, long suppressed. He’d recorded close to fifty clips about the eggs, from the time the company had announced the project, through to the protests and the lottery. Most he would eventually delete.

Elena must have recorded hers during the first of the launches. Cutting between a close up of her face and news-clip images of the protestors, she spoken directly to the camera; behind her head the sky glowed, a bright fluctuating pearl. ‘I don’t know why anyone is surprised,’ she’d said. ‘This the survival of the species, we’re talking about here and in any disaster people will always buy their way to the front of the queue.’ A cut to a news clip of the launches, the curved white pods, the silver engine trails making slices into the fabric of the sky. ‘Eggs,’ Elena had laughed on the voice over. ‘Tell me they look like anything else but sperm. Forget the lottery and the good of the human race spiel. This is an old-fashioned patriarchy we’re talking about.’

As he drifted from the dining room, Morgan was tempted to view the clips again, but he’d given up his handset when he’d first arrived. Such things were seen as distractions. Already, outside the main door, workers for the next shift in the garden were gathering up their tools; a group of people were meditating on the front lawn. With an hour to spare before his shift in the greenhouse, he debated whether to head up to his room and read, or take a walk in the grounds. The coincidence continued to nag at him, however. He was almost tempted to wander down to the administrative office and request his handset, but whether he wanted to check Elena’s clips or to see how strongly the retreat’s suggestions were enforced, he wasn’t sure.