To Acknowledge Distance (A Letter from Ferdinand)

 

By Chris Wells

NDQ is proud to publish, in serial, Chris Wells’s novella, To Acknowledge Distance, which originally appeared in volume 84.3/4 (2018). This is part 2; here is part 1.

2. A Letter from Ferdinand4

Dear Charles,

In this letter, which you will never read, I will paradoxically divulge a secret: I do not exist. Ferdinand is a fictional character. As carefully as possible, you have designed me to be mysterious, but you could not design me to be completely unknowable, lest I cease to be a character in the story you have written, in which you have also made me your antagonist. Any characteristic I appear to have you intended to be metaphorical for what is otherwise inexpressible, or as you might put it, ineffable. I am the breaking in of the unknown, the delimiter of your world into the same world I delimit. In my disfigured face you will see, or think you see, your world collapsing. But this is not my doing. Any existence I have is purely in the realm of sign, of imagination. Whoever I am you have brought into being to call you to your destiny. Is this destiny inevitable, or something you are creating? Are you inevitably creating it or are you called to create it, in which case you can refuse the call? You cannot know if it is inevitable. This is part of the condition of your finitude. In fact, you strongly suspect that your destiny is hanging by a thread, that the thread may break of its own at any moment. You fear that once it is severed, your destiny would be irretrievably lost—and your fate would thus turn into failure. I am not one to say whether your suspicion is true. As one whose existence is delineated by the limits of your own imagination, and as a sign that has broken into your world to point beyond its limits to something inconceivable, please allow me to say that your desire to embrace your destiny may be either foolish or wise, but I doubt that it is ordinary. It does not seem so. It is hot or cold, but not lukewarm, nor apparently conventional. It is as if you have attempted to reject all of the programming which society has kindly offered you as its gift. You fear, perhaps rightly, the gift has been poisoned. The double-bind, of course, is that in any case, no matter which direction you turn, you lose. You lose yourself—or you lose because you never created a self to lose.

The irony of our relationship is that you are imagining the person you believe is key to your own liberation. As you are imagining me to know you, to embody all the wisdom and compassion and courage that you seek, I will continue telling you whatever secrets you pretend I know. And here is one you will believe: these leagues of chicken players are just as fictional as I am. In the world you are inhabiting, Charles, I know exactly where you are. You are sitting on a bed in a large house perhaps twenty miles to the east of town, far enough into the country. You are trying to finish the story of which you have written at least one draft, a fanciful nothing about the game of chicken, what it might mean to you, into which you gather all sorts of disparate notions in an attempt to solve a problem by means of some quasi-Melvillean prose—this bungle that does not quite hold. Through this text you are hoping to make sense of the ideas that have, unfortunately, made up your life. The main characters even bear your own name and that of your wife, Tara. She is your wife currently, by which I mean in the fall of 2003, but the future of your relationship is not certain.

Some time ago, perhaps weeks (you know exactly how long ago; there is no need for this game) Tara left you and moved in with her mother. The circumstances around her decision to move are not fully known to you, but the most important thing—to you—is that she left. What little you do know about your own wife is this: she has many struggles, the nature of which you do not understand, or perhaps you cannot know, and some of which you should not seek to know too deeply. Despite Tara’s unsearchable depths, what has she been to you in your real life but a character who plays just another foil? And how do you cast her in this role? By your pathetic insistence to be dependent upon her for your own well-being, and thus to blame her for augmenting your problems by no intention of her own. You have refused to take responsibility for your own meaning-making, and, therefore, you could never have loved her in the true, deep, solid way that would otherwise be available to you. It is true that she does not fulfill your impossible ideals for your wife, or even your friend. In this story you have written, notice how she sits in the back seat, so devoted and submissive. Insofar as this remains your ideal for her, you have failed to acknowledge her. She is merely a character here, but the real Tara who exists in your world is as much of a  microcosm as you are, an entire universe.

But you desire to break free of these limiting conceptions of her and of others, all of whom are mere ideas of others and not themselves as they are. What you have had me do in my quite rightly flat “existence” is by my being, not my doing: I am a sign of infinity, and therefore, by contrast, your creatureliness and mortality. Perhaps it could soften the blow of death to realize it does not come all at once. Moments die with every new moment. Such small deaths accumulate into larger, but still small, deaths: the noticeable flux in human relationships to others, to one’s environment, to oneself. The conditions of one’s life changes, but our own life seems to go on, and so we do not believe death has yet touched us. In the ordinary, ultimate sense of the word, this might be true: the most obvious mark of death is the finality which comes with the destruction of your own microcosm, your private Ragnarok in which all your experiences, thoughts, and memories of all you ever loved, all you wanted to last forever, will have vanished. This is what you and others fear, to experience firsthand the finality of death, but ironically this is something you will never experience. Death is not, in itself, a subject of experience.

Your relationship with Tara has irrevocably changed, and so in the small sense it has died. A fantasy to which you have held for years, the fantasy of the possibility of a perfect completion and affirmation of your being in someone else, has also died. Because I know everything you know about yourself, I know that at the very threshold of your adulthood and therefore still in your youth, you met another young woman. She gave you faith in yourself, gave you the courage to confront your enemies, and awakened in you the will to fulfill a sort of heroic ideal. You had fantasized about being someone who could protect her, take care of her, play the role you imagined you wanted for yourself. You wanted to protect the source of your own urge to protect. And then, because of circumstances you only vaguely understand, she also was lost to you. Perhaps this was the beginning of an entire death-in-life for her, one moment flowing into the next in a continual collapse of all her potential, but you do not know. Before you came to this country inn, at your own house in the city a car accident happened in your backyard, destroying your fence. This experience, through which you briefly met a woman left behind in the accident, in addition to a flirtatious and forward encounter with a university student the day before, had primed your mind to believe that this woman from so many years ago had come back to you, that in this time of Tara’s seeming abandonment, your true mate had made her return, the one who could give what you wanted Tara to give but which she never could. These recent encounters made you delusional until your illusions broke in the mirrors of the world around you, especially the literal mirror in your own bathroom as you looked at your own real face, your mismatched eyes and acne scars, confronting again your particular position in time and space—what Heraclitus would call the world of those who are awake and not sleeping, this one and shared world, not the world as you would have it.

One last opportunity for a false belief in your own heroism presented itself at the inn. To distract yourself from the guests staying across the hall, a woman and a boy whom you learned was her son, you looked at the items on the shelves and in the nooks of your room. The gloom was settling. There was no way to stay it. Somehow these items added to the gloom, therefore you needed to make them part of your story as a sort of catharsis. A music box sat on a shelf of knickknacks, and upon playing it you found it to be out of tune. The original tune must have been “Fly Me to the Moon” but now it was strange, for some of the tines of the interior comb seemed to be broken. And mixed in with the oversize books of Mongolia and the Blue Ridge Mountains was a children’s book of mazes, filled with partial solutions. If only every maze had a way from one end to the other that a child could find! But the labyrinth that makes up one’s life is not so easy to get to the center of and back out again, and no reliance on syllogisms or dialectic can get us to what we imagine to be the center of that labyrinth. And you found a letter, hidden behind the armoire. You retrieved it with a hanger from the closet. The letter was addressed to another man named Charles who lived a state away, and the return address was also from a Charles. It had been postmarked more than a decade ago. The letter was never opened, nor did you open it. It is from this instance of serendipity that you were inspired to create this fictional device—a letter from one version of yourself to another. These words are the imagined contents of that letter, a missive from me whom you created to reveal to you the brutal truth about yourself. But all of this was only a brief distraction from the guests across the hall, the woman and her boy.

Each morning you would encounter these guests in the dining room and nod politely. The woman looked to be in her early thirties. She would nod and smile back. The boy would look at you not politely, nor impolitely, but oddly, as if he knew you already and was trying to remember your name. Breakfast at the inn was usually a creative concoction of French toast, biscuits, sweet rolls, or doughnuts accompanied by fruit and some bacon or sausage which your hostess was always sure to remind you was from a farm just three miles from the inn, and a serving of muesli with a carafe of coffee and an assortment of teas and half-and-half. After this generous breakfast, you would return to your room full. Sometimes you would lie back down on the bed, but not for long, as the position eventually caused a pain in your back. On occasion you would try to remember true relaxation, what it felt like to have no concerns whatsoever, something you must have known for brief periods as a child. Inevitably through the walls you would hear their muffled voices, interrupting your attempts to feel completely rested. The woman and her boy would go outside where he would play with his toys or she would help him through the woods as they looked at the trees and the birds. The weather had been cool but agreeable, not too sunny or windy.

On one of the days of your stay, you were overtaken with loneliness and frustrated with your inability to find, or create, peace. You tried to work on this story but you could not sufficiently concentrate. It was three days before you were to return home after your excursion, “home” used loosely, as you did not feel that way about the house you owned anymore. On this day, when you heard the woman’s voice outside talking at a distance to her son, who was trying to throw a boomerang, you descended the stairs to the lawn to sit, say hello, and if invited, perhaps you would converse with them. You took a seat at the picnic table with her and greeted her.

It’s not working! the boy shouted from the lawn.

You’re trying too hard. Or maybe it’s broken. She turned to you. He is obsessed with this boomerang. Sometimes I wish his grandma hadn’t gotten him one.

You answered, I used to play with boomerangs when I was a kid. I didn’t know what I was doing until someone showed me, someone who taught me many things—many tricks.

I’m glad he’s keeping his mind on— She began to weep, and you had felt ashamed, as if something you said were wrong.

You said, I’m sorry.

She said, How did you know?

And you wondered how your awkward apology led her to reveal perhaps more than she intended. I mean, I’m—sorry. I don’t know why I said it. Maybe I shouldn’t have.

You’re fine.

And you speculated why the boy’s father was not here, if he even had a father, and you wondered if his father recently left, if he somehow disappeared, if perhaps he died, but you feared to ask.

As a youth, you stood with your friend at the top of a hill in a field once used to grow beans. This friend was stronger than nearly every one of your peers, against whose arm you could never wrestle more than fifteen seconds before succumbing. This friend in every respect seemed fearless. He had a large frame and fiery red hair and a perfect quiet confidence. This friend, Ferdinand, had taught you many games, and he also taught you unfamiliar rules of the games you already knew. He taught you how to say garde when the queen was in danger of capture. Even when extending this courtesy, he still defeated you in chess nearly every time you played. When you happened to defeat him, he would take it so graciously it seemed as if he had secretly won.

On top of this hill, Ferdinand taught you the proper technique to throw a boomerang, which was not the way you had thrown toy boomerangs in the past. The worthless but instinctual technique is to throw it horizontally, not unlike treating it as a species of balsa-wood glider. Throwing it in this way made it nothing but a stick travelling from one place to another, although the path may be unpredictable because of the warp of the material, making it even useless as a throwing stick. This Ferdinand taught you to throw the boomerang nearly vertically, hard, almost as if you were throwing it in frustration to the ground, but you let go while your arm is still parallel, or just above parallel, to the ground. Thrown properly at an angle to the wind, it would then return in a not quite circular path. With his great strength, Ferdinand threw toward a grove at the edge of the field. From the top of that hill, the boomerang traveled just above the trees and returned to him, but not exactly to his same position. It returned to a point near its origin, but not to its origin. He often had to move to catch it, but not far, sometimes just a few inches. You tried also to throw it like him. With practice you developed some skill, but your throws would never reach the grove or fly over the trees.

You walked out to the boy in the yard. How’s it going?

I can’t get it to come back to me.

Let’s try something different. Do you mind if I show you some things?

Will it work for you?

I can’t promise, but I’ll try.

You faced the direction of the harvested field from which the wind was fortunately coming and you did a practice swing of your arm. This is the way you throw it, you told the boy. You threw it, but it soon hit the ground.

Let me try again. I’ll let go of it a little higher this time. It takes a little bit of practice.

Practice, the boy repeated.

You threw it a little higher, and it went farther, curving to the left before it hit the ground. Did you see how it curved that way?

But it didn’t come back.

True. They hardly ever come back to exactly where you stand. For that to happen, it takes a lot more practice.

The boy’s face put on a look of realization.

You try it. You handed him the boomerang. Throw it just like I did. In that direction. Hold it up and throw it down, but let it go.

The boy threw it, and it went farther than it did before, and it curved, but much less than it did when you threw it.

Did you see that?

I saw. It didn’t work.

But it did work. It moved to the left, like mine.

But yours moved more.

That’s okay. I’m stronger than you. If you keep practicing, you’ll also get strong and someday you’ll get it to go farther out and come back to you.

Did you?

Did I what?

Get a boomerang to come back to you?

Yes, but not exactly. When I was a little bit older than you, I threw a boomerang and it came back to me but I had to move to catch it. But I had a friend much better than I was. Sometimes he hardly had to move at all.

What was your friend’s name?

The question surprised you, as it did not seem relevant. Ferdinand.

Ferdinand, he said, smiling. How long has it been since you’ve seen Ferdinand?

A long time. Even before you were born.

As the sun began to set, you and the boy returned to his mother. Did you have fun out there? she asked.

Yeah, the boy said. It takes practice.

Thank you so much for teaching him, she said to you. She turned to her son. It’s almost time we got you dinner and a bath and into your pajamas, don’t you think?

I can’t promise, but I’ll try, he said.

The path of a boomerang is one half of a figure eight, the lemniscate. If a lemniscate is a symbol of infinity, just as I am, then the boomerang’s path may be a symbol of finitude. It is an imperfect circle. It is true there is an infinite number of paths a boomerang may take to arrive at the place where it began, but despite this number being infinite, an imperfect, not-quite-circular path is always taken in your imperfect world. Even if, in a perfect world, a boomerang could travel in a perfect circle or even the full figure of infinity, you would know that such a world were not truly complete, for you would be outside of such a world, seeing it from the world where you are now sitting and writing. Perhaps you long to be me, standing outside all worlds but breaking into any given world as a sort of deus ex machina whenever called—that is, perhaps you long to be an impossibility, to be no one.

Now that you know you are not a hero, that the possibility of heroism is entirely lost to you, may I ask why have you come to this country inn to pay your hostess for privacy, when your own home is so private? You have come for a distraction from the crushing terror of loneliness, and you did receive a brief respite from it, but now it will be greater than ever, will it not? You have also come for fresh air, a new perspective, one more attempt to be an artist. In art you can face your vulnerability but only in the form of an invulnerable representation, not as something immediate, raw, or subject to decay. In art you have represented your desire to be open to other human beings, but not to human beings in your world. Rather you allow me to be open to you, a mere character, a badly and flatly drawn character at that, whom you portray as having traversed through regions of ultra-masculine aspirations and pretensions to embrace you as the only way out of our otherwise insoluble dilemma. The boomerang I sent you was briefly mentioned in your story, but its meaning could not even be contemplated without dissolving my identity into the memory of the real Ferdinand, who reminds you of all you have lost. This real loss can never be got again. All that ever returns to you is whatever is different from what came before.

Perhaps there is still hope, but not in your narcissism, nor your desire to live forever. In the contest which I pretend in this sentence that your fictionalized self has not yet commenced, I now implore you to turn from me, back toward the details of your finitude, back inside the limits which delineate you. To lose this contest is to win your life, as life consists in turning. To stay the course may prove your mastery over your fear of death, but this proof is a Pyrrhic and illusive victory. It has never been Ferdinand you have been competing against, nor Tara, nor any of the figures which haunt your memory. It is with death that, as a fool, you contend. The windings of the maze, the labyrinth of the intestines, the rotation of the music box in its perichoresis were meant to guide you back to your life. If you had read this letter before our contest, your options would have been opened up to you before they had been fully revealed to you in our embrace. But you already knew them. I am merely a phantom you have created, and you alone, to give you your choice. The path I would have you take now is the path I myself can never take: the road back toward the business of living.

With love,
Ferdinand

~

Notes:

This is the letter Ferdinand had sent to Charles. It was never opened.

~

C. R. E. (Chris) Wells is an artist who lives in central Ohio. His debut novel, White Kitty, was published by Flaming Giblet Press in 2009. He shares visual art and poetry regularly on his blog at faintpress.tumblr.com.

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