The Far Side of Breathing
After much haggling and some give and take (the give mainly—actually, I’d go so far as to say exclusively—provided by God), He finally relented: “All right, all right,” He said (twice—so four “all rights” in toto), all right (a fifth) we could leave if we wanted, if we really wanted. He sighed as he said this.
This is how:
For a full comfortable and thoughtless (as in no thoughts at all, not even a micro-one) sixty seconds do not breath in.
Then, slowly expel this new air while intending, wholeheartedly, to let go.
If done right, you will hear a soft, well-oiled click (that’s the invisible lock) and perhaps some creaking (old, rarely used, not well-oiled hinges) and the door will swing open and you can step through and out.
“What happens to the body?” we asked.
“It’ll stay where it is. We’ll set up cleaning crews to collect and dispose.”
“Deal,” we said.
How did it come to this?
She had not asked to be married. In fact, she had secretly hoped that she never would, and certainly not him, but mid-nineteenth century’s northern Sweden was a long-established and uncontested patriarchy, and Father said she was to marry, so marry she must.
And not only marry, but Father said she was to marry Tomas, even though it was well-known that Tomas was not a little prone to violence. It was in fact was common knowledge throughout the district that he had beaten his own mother severely on several occasions and that he had laid violent hands on both his sisters as well. Of course, his father was too large to set upon with any kind of guaranteed outcome, so Tomas shied away from that, coward that he was.
Indeed, Tomas was, for miles and miles around, for more miles and miles around than you could easily count, the very-least-desired husband-to-be.
However. Tomas’ family was rich and Anna’s family was poor, and part of the deal was that a dowry of ten cows, two boats, fourteen acres of good, fertile land, two new plows, and a promise of ample and free help at harvest time would buck tradition and go to the father of the bride rather than from.
This was an offer Anna’s father simply could not turn down—his family, after all, was starving.
Still, Anna pleaded and cried and pleaded some more but her father said he had no choice. Yes, Tomas would not have been his first choice, no he certainly would not be, how could she even think that, but would she not think of the rest of the family, of her parents, of her siblings, not only of herself? “So,” he said, straightening his back and clasping his hands behind him, “I have decided and my decision is final. Come May, you two will be married.”
Came May, Anna and Tomas were married.
Came June, Anna sported bruises.
Came July, some more.
Came August, Anna—bruises and all—fled her new home and begged her Father to take her back, to let her come home. He refused. Indeed, he took her back to Tomas’ house that very afternoon and apologized profusely to the young man for such a wayward daughter. Once her father was well on his way back home, that is, safely out of sight, Tomas saw fit to teach Anna another good lesson, this one for running away.
Came September, Anna realized she was pregnant.
That winter was bearable. Someone, most likely Tomas’ mother (or his father), had implored her (or his) son to control himself lest he hurt her (or his) grandchild. Tomas swore he would watch himself and wonder of wonders he managed to do this all the way through and into March. But mid-March saw more snow and cold than anyone could remember and for some reason (in Tomas’ mind—who always had to assign blame or find fault) this was Anna’s fault and one night, one inebriated night, Anna and her unborn child took the brunt of Tomas’ feeling much too cold and uncomfortable and snowed-in.
A week later, after two days of severe bleeding, she miscarried and almost died in the process. The doctor said it was a nothing short of a miracle that she survived. The good doctor also voiced his opinion as to the cause of the disaster, an opinion not appreciated by Tomas nor by his father. So not appreciated in fact that the doctor was paid ten times his normal fee to keep his opinions to himself.
Anna, recuperating, pleaded with her parents to take her back and away from her private hell, and though they refused to agree to take her back permanently, they did allow her (with Tomas’ father’s reluctant blessing) to return while she regained her strength.
So, Anna spent April (a beautiful month that year, heavenly) and May with her parents, but was delivered back to her husband in early June.
By mid-June she sported bruises again.
By July she had lost three teeth.
Late one July night (nearly as bright as day this far north, but darker than any hell for Anna), she was hiding in the barn that Tomas might not find her when he returned from the public house. She could hear him screaming her name from inside the house and threatening death and broken limbs if she did not come out from where she was hiding right now, right now.
This is when Anna wanted more than anything to leave. Not just leave her husband, leave her life. There was nothing, not a single thing left to live for. Each morning was another cold room filled with dread and fear for what pains the day might bring. She cast about for some light, some little reason to go on living but could find none.
And that is when she found the door and banged on it—the door leading out of her life, leading away from this stage, this theater of misery. She banged and banged, and even screamed. She implored God to open the door and let her out, but God, if He heard (and she sensed, very much so, that He, just the other side of the door, did hear) ignored her. Well, if He did not want to let her out, she would take matters into her own hands.
She slipped out of the barn and followed the edge of the field down to the lake and the small boat tied up there. As quietly as she could she loosened the rope and pushed the boat out onto the lake, then heaved herself into it. She placed the oars in the oarlocks and, again, as silently as she could, rowed towards the center of the dark, still water.
Here she pulled the oars back in and returned them to the bottom of the boat. She then wrapped the anchor chain around her waist and secured it—and with it, the anchor itself—with its padlock. She tossed the padlock key into the dark, now hungry water. She was a good swimmer and she did not want to take the chance that she might change her mind and refuse to sink.
She then cast a last—and relieved—glance toward the house where she could still hear Tomas’ storming.
She lifted the anchor and tossed that in ahead of her and then she followed into the still, now welcoming water.
She did not change her mind.
God frowned when she arrived.
Benjamin was a Tasmanian wolf. He was the very last Tasmanian wolf.
He died in captivity on September 6, 1936, as alone as a creature could possibly die alone.
He was the last of his kind and he knew he was the last of his kind. With him gone, so was his kind.
Technically Benjamin was a Thylacine, and—also technically—Benjamin, though everyone thought of him as him, was female.
Although dubious sightings of thylacines have been reported since 1936, none have been confirmed and the scientific consensus remains that, yes, the species is, and will remain, extinct.
She knew she was the last of her kind and that with her gone, so was her kind.
No human knows what goes on in the minds of thylacines. Only they know, and she knew, truly knew, that she was the last of her kind, and being the last she knew there was no one to mate with and that with her going, they were all going.
Once a proud and prospering animal having the run of Tasmania, with the arrival of white men and their hundreds of dogs (who were good thylacine hunters and killers) and their sheep that we on occasion helped ourselves to which put a government bounty on our heads, our once large population decreased catastrophically over a few decades to only a pack or two, then to only an animal or two, then to only me.
Now, in this small cage (where I can barely pace in a circle) each new day harbors pain so deep and so pervading that I barely manage to force my eyes open to face the long, lonely stretch of dread ahead.
Knowing that each day is one day closer to the utter extinction of my kind leaves me only one wish: to leave right now. To simply fade away and forget everything. But life will not allow me to do that. Insensitive to the mounting truth, cells still cry for oxygen, stomach still rumbles for food, heart still rushes blood through veins and arteries as if there was even a slightest point to their efforts.
Of course, the heart—that faithful little pump—cannot know, neither can cells, and the stomach, well the stomach is always hungry, our kind rarely if ever ate our fill even in the best of times.
But I know, and I have tried to put and end to this. I tried, for days, to ignore the increasing screams of my belly and to refuse both food and water but in the end the belly won (with help from my keepers, who seemed to know what food I loved the best, and insisted on piling small mountains of it in my bowl and putting the it next to me so that all I could smell was food and all I could hear was belly. Even as I damned myself for my weakness, and even as I hoped I would simply die, I ate, a few bites at first, then more and then more and so I stayed alive for another few days at least.
With food in my belly I resumed my pacing, pacing, pacing, pacing round and round and round my cage, imagining freedom and forests and packs and packs of my kind welcoming me, if only I could pace another circle, then I would arrive, just one more, then just one more and then just one more after that.
Late at night, after my keepers have turned out the lights and returned to their (not extinct) families, I try to escape to sleep and dream but some nights it takes all of the night for me to shed the day and the doom I inhale with every breath and sleep and dream never come.
Some nights, though, I find the door, the one leading out of here, but it is locked. So I knock and knock and scream for it to open—and I know that I am heard, and I know that I am ignored. Sometimes I even think I can hear footsteps on the other side of the door, on the far side of breathing, as if someone walked up to the door and put an ear to it the better to hear my anguish. Why he or she or it does not open the door when he or she or it knows, clearly knows, I wish nothing more than to leave this earthly cage, this I do not, cannot know. I cannot even imagine a cruelty so deep that it would foster this ignoring, this—I would go so far as to say—relishing of my anguish.
I find this door almost every night now, but I have stopped banging, I have stopped screaming, and instead I walk up to it and press my ear against it the better to hear the cruel puppet master that resides on the far side of this prison.
Three days ago, my legs gave way. I fell down for no reason I could fathom, and I rejoiced. Was death finally, finally coming for me?
Two days ago, the pains set in and I rejoiced again, even more. This was death, surely, the merciful killer come to end this agony.
Yesterday I could no longer move, and I was very, very happy.
My keepers were wringing hands and pacing their own worried circles. Nothing they could do or offer me could entice my belly—it was as ready as I was to leave this sad cage, this sad stage.
And today, now, my heart is struggling, and missing beats and now slowing to a pathetic crawl and now stops altogether. I am now by the door again, but it has yet to open. It will not open, not this door. Another door, at the end of a long corridor to my right opens instead: come, it says, and so I go there, leaving Tasmania and the world behind.
But when they hear the guards lock the wide, heavily insulated metal doors from the outside and then hear a gaseous hiss like imprisoned air now rushing for freedom rather than eager water escape the many shower heads, they know: one by one they realize that they are not in this large, tile-infested room for the repeated and repeated purpose of hygiene and when those closer to the hissing shower heads begin to fall down gasping, many, many desperate fists find he hidden door and begin to knock and bang on it, please let us out—and if not us, then please let the children out. Please, please, do it for the children.
But the ear the far side of this door, the far of breathing cannot care much less. The white, silent door, as if welded, remains shut.
As the small mother house sparrow approached her nest, a successfully harvested earth worm in her beak to share with her three fresh hatchlings as diplomatically as possible, she saw the crow flex its gigantic black wings to leave her very nest with one of the chicks in its claws.
That so much emotion and one of such strength can fit in a body so small is in and of itself nothing short of a wonder, but the tremendous force that now suffused the little mother knew neither size nor impossibility and tore from her throat a scream—yes, a scream—as she dropped the worm and set out after the rapidly departing crow to rescue her little one.
She knew, of course she knew, that the cause was already lost—it was lost the moment the crow alighted on the branch by the nest with her gone and eeny-meeny-miny-moed his lunch. Crows normally have their way with sparrows, especially single mothers—no flock to pester and annoy the bird twenty times its weight and size. Yes, crows can be chased away by outraged and desperate sparrow parents, but never if the crow is very hungry—what’s an annoying peck or two compared to silencing a painfully insistent stomach?
Yes, of course she knew, but a mother fighting for the life of her chick knows neither logic nor odds, so the little bird set out after the outpacing crow, screaming again and again what one can only hope to understand as hold on, hold on, mother is coming.
But the crow, wings the size of a dozen sparrows, was up to speed now and outwinged the little mother by a growing distance, its only aim now to get far enough away from the annoying little bird to settle down in peace and kill and down its lunch.
This was not the first time the little mother had suffered this catastrophe. It was the third time. She had also seen two of her eggs stolen by squirrels. It does not get any easier, if anything the outrage and the grief and the pure panic of seeing your own blood crunched away to mammoth scavengers grows stronger with repetition and as she finally turns around to head back for the nest and the now one-less gaping mouths to feed her heart sank as low as any heart could ever sink.
Gently, she walked up to the white door and, so, so tired of this life now, of the fruitlessness of being sparrow, of its ongoing toil and grief, and she pecked on it with her little beak: please, please open. I’d like to leave now.
It wasn’t that the pecking could not be heard, it was plenty loud enough for beyond the door, as far as any ear could hear, spread nothing but pure silence.
It was just that the Hearer chose not to open.
They were engaged to be married. Marie called him her prince, and naturally and reciprocally she was his princess. He had (somehow found the money and) bought nice (and heavy) matching eighteen karat plain gold rings which they, sitting by the edge of this green May field and blessed by the sun and further warmed by sweet champagne, had placed on each other’s fingers. A long, sweet kiss sealed the deal. Yes, they would stay true to each other forever, and they would get married—as soon as she returned from England.
London was the only cloud in this glorious spring sky.
They had met cold mid-winter. They had fallen truly and irreversibly in love, and then, buoyed by the sweetest and longest wave of pure bliss that humankind has ever known (a common claim among those freshly in love, to be sure), had promised each other undying devotion.
Just one thing, Marie brought up early March. She had been wondering how to put this, how to break this to him—in fact she had tried to uncommit but her friend Monica would not hear of it, a promise was a promise and they were going. You’ve known him for, what, five weeks, and you’ve known me for twelve years, Marie. You cannot go back on your promise. You must not. You cannot, you simply cannot. I would never forgive you.
So, there was nothing for it, she had to keep and deliver on her promise to spend the summer in London with Monica—hotel cleaners by day, pretty Swedish dancers by night. To be perfectly honest, in one of her heart’s many hidden apartments lingered still the pre-him excitement of going, she would enjoy it (she loved dancing) but she would be true to him, of course she would be true to him. Of course, you will be true to him parroted Monica, though with detectable cynicism.
“I have something I must tell you,” she said.
“What,” he smiled.
“You know Monica.”
“Sure, your friend.”
“Before you and I even met, last fall, Monica and I made plans to go to London this summer.”
“For how long?”
“The whole summer.”
His smile waned. “How whole?”
“We’re to leave late May and return in August.”
“That’s the whole summer.”
“But you’re not going, right. Plans have changed, haven’t they?”
“Well, that’s just it, you see. We made plans, we made promises, Monica and I, and we are going. Monica will not hear of a change of plans.”
“So,” he said after a long, heavy pause. “You’re going to leave me?”
“No, of course not,” she said. “You’re my prince, you’ll forever be my prince. Nothing will ever, ever change that.”
“If that were true,” he heard himself saying—and regretted saying as the words fled his mouth, “you would not go.”
“Sweetheart, I have no choice. Really, I don’t. Monica is my best friend and has been for years.”
“And I’m what?”
“You’re my prince.”
What could he say? Of course he was hurt. She, the love of his life, was leaving him for the whole summer, and God knows that might happen in London—it was the swinging 60s after all. But on another level, he knew that she ought to be true to her friend and keep her promise, it was part of the honesty in her that he loved.
It was all very confusing and unsettling and unpleasant and slippery.
He said all he could say, “Okay.”
Then she said what he was trying not to think, “Don’t worry sweetheart. I love you and I will stay true to you, my prince.”
“You love to dance,” he said.
“Yes, I love to dance,” she said. “But dancing and loving is not the same thing. You can dance for the sake of dancing, for the joy of moving, for the love of dancing.”
However, they both knew this to be a lie for dancing was, no matter how platonically cast, at least to some extent, sex—whether at a distance or near or intimate—set to music.
“I know,” he said.
“Let’s talk about something else,” she said.
And they did. Talked about something else. And as the winter wore on and into spring, and as the spring wore on and into early summer, he forgot, or chose to repress more likely, London, and as their love blossomed, he even hoped that one day, one day soon, out of the blue, she would kiss him and tell him that, after all, she had decided not to go.
No such luck.
But to cement their love (and to assuage his fears, she added to herself) they decided to marry as soon as she returned, and so he had found the money and bought the rings and they had gone out into the young-May field and under the smiling sun and to the clink of champagne glasses and the soft susurrus of a million freshly minted leaves they had promised each other true, true love forever and his mind was eased, but only a little.
But only a little: her departure was not far off now—and he didn’t really trust Monica (same as Monica didn’t really trust and outright—and quite obviously—resented him for stealing her best friend). Dancing, any type of dancing—tango, disco, whatever—is always fueled by sexually tainted energy, he knew that, he knew that. They were going to London to dance, to dance. He knew that, and Monica would (he had not even the tiniest doubt about this) do her best to pry Marie away from him, permanently.
Still, their love was truer and stronger than dance, wasn’t it? Wasn’t it? He hoped so, prayed so, doubted so, feared that perhaps not so, then again wished so—no matter how swinging the London scene with its hundred clubs all made for dancing through the night.
Sometimes he dared not even think in that direction, in the London direction, and sometimes he did and then he was ready to kill Monica for insisting Marie keep her promise. Sometimes he managed to lift his thoughts beyond the summer and up to wonderful September and October when Marie was back and they were married.
And then they were another day closer to parting.
And another day closer.
This was their last night together. She and Monica (a somewhat gloating Monica) were leaving first thing in the morning; well, around ten. Monica’s dad was to drive them to Gothenburg where they would take a ferry boat to England. Marie was staying the night in his rented little room with its high bed and barely sufficient writing desk, where he penned his poems and now his agony at Marie’s going away in, what, eight hours now.
Marie was sleeping, he was sitting by the desk writing yet another letter to fate and the goddess of love asking them to somehow intervene. He looked over at his sleeping fiancé, who—he reflected with a deep stab in his lower guts—unlike him, had no trouble sleeping. Probably dreaming of dancing.
He tried again to sleep, but just could not.
He thought of waking her (again) but she had been a little annoyed the last time. He thought of crying, perhaps loudly enough to accidentally (as it were) wake her, but he didn’t want to appear that pathetic (and didn’t want to give Monica the satisfaction should Marie tell her about it on their way to dancing London).
He finally fell asleep and in the next moment Marie was shaking him awake, “Got to go now, Sweetheart. Do you want to come and say goodbye or do you want to stay here, sleep some more?”
“Of course I’m coming,” he said, and slid out of bed and into jeans and sweater.
At Marie’s house, everything was set for the majestic departure. Monica and her driving dad had just arrived. Marie’s dad (the cook in the family) was serving up freshly baked (and really delicious) cinnamon buns with the perfect coffee; everybody was smiling and laughing and wishing Marie and Monica a safe journey and a good time and don’t forget to write her mother told Marie at least a dozen times that he could hear.
And then Marie’s dad carried her suitcases—two, lots of dancing outfits—to the car and fitted them (barely), while laughing at own his efforts, in the trunk of the blue Volvo.
“Ready then?” wondered Monica’s dad aloud.
Monica smiled and smiled at him at everybody at him again. Marie’s parents (a little apprehensive, to be sure) smiled too. Marie said, sure and looked around to catch his eyes. Found them. Came over to him and kissed him squarely on his mouth for all to see. “Don’t worry,” she said. “I love you, I really do.” And he believed her, of course he did.
And then she turned and vanished into the back of the Volvo, Monica in front (owner’s/driver’s daughter’s prerogative, obviously). The Marie-kidnapping Volvo’s engine fired up (first try) and just like that they turned left at the end of the drive and Marie was gone.
She had not looked back what he could see.
It was a lovely day, the sun was high, birds were singing their hearts out all over the place, barely a cloud, and those that had ventured out sailed high up there like ridiculously happy babies discovering they could fly.
It was the worst day of his life.
Perhaps, he was later to consider, he had suffered a mild shock, for he remembers very little of the rest of the day. Had he stayed with Marie’s parents (who were not all that keen on the wedding plans, to be honest) to be consoled or had he gone back to his room to revel in his misery. He just could not remember.
But what he does remember is the hell that set in as the evening aged into Marie-less night.
It was not that his heart was sailing away, it remained and ached, it was everything it had to live for that grew more distant with every beat, and he yearned, yearned, for her arrival in London so that this distance between would finally stop widening.
He physically felt the vastness between them increase, it was a ravaging chasm: he felt the light dim, his love flicker—fainter, fainter.
It was a grief beyond grief.
In that moment, sitting at his desk watching his own reflection in the window on the not-quite-dark night outside he was not sure that he could take more of this: each breath drew new loneliness, new desperation and fresh need to have her here, in this room, right now, smiling at him and calling him her prince.
In that moment he truly wanted to leave. Simply up and leave. He wanted to leave this sad game altogether. No, not kill himself, that never entered his mind, no. Yet, he found and stood by the white door, that large locked door that did indeed lead out of this theater and he knocked and knocked and knocked.
He sensed life (intelligence, awareness, call it what you will) on the far side of that very locked door and he now pleaded with that awareness, that life, that holder of keys to please, please open the door and let him out. Let him wake up from this terrible, terrible dream. Please.
He could sense more than hear movement on the far side of the door, but it was an interested, a curious rather than compassionate movement, as if something moved closer to the door and placed its ear against it the better to make out his suffering.
The door remained shut, and the boy remained tormented.
He was eventually to recover, and Marie was to eventually return (almost two months late) from swinging London, somewhat pregnant—the embryo had not settled in and was easily dislodged by their first rather passionate and a little wild act of love.
But she had betrayed him. She had not been true to him. She had broken her promise. She confessed this and cried a little as she did, cried at her girly weakness, but, my Prince, that is all over now, I’m back home and the summer is behind us.
“Where’s your ring?” he had asked her.
She had lost it, she said—pawned more likely, he thought. But despite everything, he discovered that he still loved her, with a freshly blossoming heart and so—although they did not marry—they re-united and remained Prince and Princess for nearly a year, when he was the one to leave to seek love and truth elsewhere in the world.
“Let me clarify,” I told God. “We’re to breathe out and then not breathe in again?”
“For a full comfortable and thoughtless sixty seconds,” said God.
“For a full comfortable and thoughtless sixty seconds,” I repeated. “Then breathe in.”
“Correct,” said God.
“Exhale slowly while intending…”
“While wholeheartedly intending to let go.”
“That’s it,” said God.
“And there will be a soft well-oiled click and perhaps some creaking of not so well-oiled hinges and the door will swing open and we can step out.”
“Yes. Correct, correct, correct, and correct,” said God.
“So,” I said, wanting to be very clear about this. “There is a door?”
“Of course, there is a door. Otherwise, how would it swing open.”
“You’re questioning me?”
“I’m questioning a lot of things.”
“I might be hard to take, but I never lie,” said God.
“So, there is a door,” I said. This time mostly to myself. “I sometimes sensed it,” I said, mostly to God now.
“That’s perceptive of you,” said God.
I shook my head in a mix of wonder and dismay, “We never agreed to this.”
“It’s not like you’re unionized,” said God. “What you agree or disagree with is of no matter, and of no concern to me. This universe is not a democracy.”
“But does it not strike you as cruel?” I said. “Bending and breaking people like that, for… for your own amusement.”
“Not amusement,” corrected God. “Research. You’re an experiment.”
“An experiment?” Not sure I had heard correctly.
“I wanted to see how far I could push you before your off’ed yourselves.”
“You mean killed ourselves? As in suicide?”
I could not believe what I was hearing. And I could not keep cynicism out of my voice when I asked, “And what has your experiment brought to light?”
“That you’re tougher than you look.”
“All that unnecessary and inhumane suffering.”
“Not unnecessary,” said God. “Research. Experiment. All in the name of heavenly science.”
“But you created all this, wouldn’t you know our breaking points?”
“I’m not so sure about that.”
“Not so sure about what?”
“That I created all this. I more like stumbled upon it and took charge.”
“And it came with doors.”
“All universes come with doors.”
“But you locked these ones.”
“You are not a very nice God,” I offered.
“Never claimed to be.”
Shaking my head again, I wanted to confirm: “But you’ll keep your promise. Sixty seconds of comfortable, non-thought non-breathing and then a heartfelt let go will open the door?”
I drew breath to have him confirm this again, but he abruptly terminated the interview and I was back in my own house, at my own desk, at my own laptop, typing away.
One thing I soon discovered: a full minute of comfortable, non-thought non-breathing took some training: to ease and calm the body to the extent that it does not thirst for even a single molecule of oxygen for a full sixty seconds. But eventually, yes, I managed. And I also managed a truly heartfelt let go as with the ensuing outbreath, and, indeed, true to His word, the door swung open, and I’m writing this coda from beyond that irritating, but actually openable door that we all have access to.
I am not breathing as I write this.
My advice is, start practicing.