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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Literary Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
A poet finds himself in a strange new setting and tries to adjust.

Submitted: November 29, 2011

A A A | A A A

Submitted: November 29, 2011



These need to be completed by Monday," the red-haired man casually announced. 

He gestured toward a stack of papers on the metal desk in the small apartment Zarish was to call home for the next semester. The red-haired man, whose hair was very closely cropped, nodded. He then turned, walked to the door, and without another glance, left, leaving Zarish to face the terror of being completely cut off from anything he had known before. 

It had been a grueling thirteen-hour plane trip. He was finally alone. His suitcase lay on the floor. Opening it would be an act of acceptance. Zarish was not ready for life as a teacher of poetry on another continent, he who had never traveled, never taught. 

Vulnerable as a snail without its shell, he checked the door and finding it secure, sat down at the metal desk where a stack of papers lay. 

Zarish walked to the bedroom and without taking off his shoes, decided to lie down on the narrow bed. Little knobs on the bedspread pressed on his neck, but he could not find the strength to get up again and throw the bedspread aside. 

What were they doing at home? He thought. Somehow, the fact that his uncle was professor of mathematics on this campus and rented a house nearby, seemed little comfort. Radjoni was the reason Zarish came here in the first place. The stack of papers on that desk reminded him of the uncle's warning. 

"There will be paperwork, of course, but you will get used to it," Radjoni wrote in his last letter. "Rites of passage of higher education, you might say." 

Zarish appreciated how Radjoni had encouraged him as a youth, bought him a short wave radio to discover the great world of which he was a small part. The youngster, fascinated at what went on outside their sleepy little village in the Middle East, picked up languages and facts with amazing speed. There had been little structure, no need for forms, rules or schedules. That would soon change. 

"You are too bright to stay here," Radjoni had often told him. "Look at these people, doing the same thing for hundreds of years. Where has it got them?" 

Radjoni, brilliant in numbers and concepts, memorized long formulas and knew the number pi to sixteen places. He spoke eight languages and was renowned in global circles, receiving many honors. 

Zarish felt he owed it his uncle to accept the one-year fellowship in the prestigious overseas university where Radjoni was visiting professor. Everyone thought it was a great opportunity. Zarish was not so sure. 

After Radjoni left the village, Zarish sent him many letters, always including a poem or two. Sometimes he would translate them into other languages. Capturing their essence might be difficult, but Zarish enjoyed interpreting them in different languages, each with small changes in nuance. 

That had been his mistake. Had he not sent those poems, the translated ones, he would not be here in this nondescript apartment, ordered by a stranger to complete obscure forms. 

It may have been an hour, perhaps two, Zarish had no idea, but he was still lying on the bed, eyes closed. A muffled sound snapped him out of his reverie. Was it a mouse? That would have been a welcome reminder of home, where little creatures were an integral part of the household. His eyes, now wide open, moved toward the window, the only source of light. The light was warmer, as if it was afternoon. There were no further sounds. Had he been asleep? 

During the trip from the airport, he had not looked at the surroundings. He was too overwhelmed by the air-conditioned, powerful vehicle and its driver, businesslike, aloof. Now, alone, like a green plant reaching toward light, he moved slowly and looked through the neatly set panes of glass. A yellow leaf fell from a nearby tree. So it was autumn here, too, he observed. 

Surely the trees and plants here would help him, save him from a terror arising in his chest. He was still on planet earth, so how could he not strike a primordial connection here? But he did not really believe this. Like some people already had, could it be flora and fauna would also succumb to technology? Like the red-haired man and his vehicle, would they also metamorphose into formal entities, whose realities were steel and micro-chips? Had trees and flowers here taken on the mantle of robot-like, power-driven society? 

This tree looked quite different from the ancient, gentle trees back home; its colors garish orange, yellow and red; the atmosphere clear, harsh, unlike the soft glow of the misty, dew-filled air he grew up in. 

Now he was sitting at the desk. His arm felt cold against the metal of its surface. It's dark gray smoothness was so unlike the well-worn wooden table he was used to. A sharp pain ran through his chest. It was at this time of day, before supper, he would sit down and excitedly pen a verse or two, finally putting the pen down when the family could wait no longer to begin their evening meal. Then, skipping conversations afterward, he returned to his corner and as often as not, woke up to the early morning twitter of birds; the cot, the table, even the floor littered with incomplete poems, ideas, ramblings that might someday turn into something, things jotted down in a semi-dream state, undecipherable, some not to be remembered. 

That life now seemed far away, as if it had been someone else who did those things. That world had been filled with undefined areas, not clear or orderly. It had been a kind of muddling through rich odors of a simpler land, meshed with untamed actions and emotions of country people and, like a golden, rustling poplar, a rising from the rich, dark, manure filled soil, soaring toward heaven in rhymes, sentences and most commonly, fragmented thoughts, not completed. 

This metal was smooth, unscratched. Words like pristine, mannered, structured, came to mind. He did not like those words, had never used them in his poems. Would this university, this desk, turn his poems into things pristine, mannered, structured? Would he be able to write at all? 

He did not blame his uncle for sharing those poems. Mathematics being a universal language, Radjoni had few if any culture gaps, easily conversing and explaining principles, using research, formulas from all over the world. Loved by colleagues, he was unaware of differences in others, what they wore, ate, or how they lived or believed. 

Zarish was not like that. His writings were personal, part of the fabric of what he saw and felt. Any little change would become a new poem idea, a new feeling not previously explored. It did not occur to him that someone else might see them. At home, most people either could not read or were not in the least curious about what he scribbled, considering it, if anything, a waste of time. 

Radjoni had not intended to violate his privacy. That issue had never come up before. In his own field, he was only too anxious to share a new breakthrough in an approach to a problem, write articles for journals suggesting how one concept could be applied to another. A scientist, he had no concern with privacy, for was not knowledge a universal right and gift, helping to better mankind? Was science not enhanced and expedited by sharing? Of course it was, and always would be. 

One evening, at a monthly get together of the faculty, Radjoni had mentioned his nephew's poems. A member of the creative writing department expressed interest. Radjoni decided to show him several of Zarish's poems. 

"This is fabulous," the faculty member exclaimed, bursting into Radjoni's office the next day. "Where is he? We must bring him here. This is the best I have read since the quatrains of the Maker of Tents. Unbelievable!" 

After the initial shock of having his writings shared with a stranger, Zarish, he began, somewhat hesitatingly, to consider this offer. There was jealousy among his peers and the village gossip mill buzzed with suspicion and nay-saying. In his gut, Zarish felt like a piece of sandalwood rocking on a rough sea. Finally a force, fueled by not wanting to disappoint his uncle and mentor, made Zarish let go and let the process take over. 

Now, confronted with a cold metal desk, trying to find something to hang on to, perhaps the scratching of a little mouse, anything to make him feel some kind of an anchor, he wanted to throw the papers out the window. The symmetric perfection of the screened window frames, however, intimidated him. Next he wanted to smash his fist on the desk, but its cold surface was threatening, taunting. 

When had he been this upset before, on the verge of violence? He could not remember. These people here valued his poetry, or so it seemed. Had they not made it possible for him to come here, to share what he had with young recruits? But what was his poetry? It was not something to be conjured up at a moment's notice; something much study or a belly full of good food would improve. 

He had no idea what it was, what nourished it. There had been moments, short lived, when his mind was blank, blocked. Fortunately those moments were few. Soon inspirations would come forth in giant waves, flooding mind and soul. Then rhymes and patterns poured out. He could not write fast enough to capture them all. But that was in another time, another place. 

Now it all seemed like a far away tale about someone else and he a hunted animal, pummeled into hiding by the overly stimulating airplane trip, its energy, its passengers so many hammers beating on his brain. 

He had been the last one to exit the plane when a militarily stiff figure approached from the tarmac. 

"Hello," the red-haired man had said. "I'm here to take you to the campus. Where is your luggage?" 

All Zarish had was a small suitcase he carried with him. The man, who did not give his name, wore a woolen tweed jacket somewhat tight on him and a starched white shirt whose top button was open. Climbing into a large, black vehicle, he rolled down a window and said, "Hop in." 

Radjoni took Zarish to lunch the next day at a little off-campus diner and they spent hours in a window-side booth, talking about old times. The uncle later helped him fill out the package of forms, as well as suggesting places to shop, locations of offices and classrooms and whatever else he thought might be helpful to his nephew who obviously suffered from homesickness, if not outright culture shock. 

Soon, things became easier. Time has a way of softening sharp edges and Zarish became caught up in the energy of excited young poetry students, full of hopes and dreams, some to be fulfilled, some not. His lectures were well attended. A small group of 'die-hards,' as they called themselves. stayed after class, often carrying conversations to the grassy areas of the campus, chattering about innovations and grand plans. They enjoyed listening to Zarish's suggestions and ideas. He felt a kindship with these students, something he desperately lacked in an otherwise formal institution. These students were thirsty to listen and to have someone listen to them. Had their parents not? Neither had his, he mused. 

Holidays, unfamiliar to Zarish, arrived with colorful displays, songs and gifts. The provost's office sent him a velvet-lined box of fine liqueurs during a winter holiday. Students gave him special tokens of appreciation. The faculty member who had arranged to bring him here, presented him with a stainless steel watch. 

"It never needs cleaning," he announced. "It will always look nice." 

To reciprocate, Zarish gave a basket of almonds, apricots and figs which his family had sent. 

Spring came with no letting up of the intense momentum of campus life. Zarish was beginning to feel a part of this powerful flow. It was not until the summer holidays, when most of the campus emptied out for vacations and study abroad, that he realized he had not written any poetry. 

Yes, he had read many efforts by his students, gently advised and steered them to vistas beyond the ordinary, respecting those who wrote about the banal, the industrial, although it was not something he understood. He was amazed how each individual had a different concept of reality. Here and there he recited his old poems. There were no new ones. 

What was wrong? Was he too old, too different from this ebullient and sometimes confused throng of young souls? Why could he not write as he once had? Perhaps his time for expression was over; maybe it was his time to teach, help others achieve what he no longer could? 

The provost's, delighted at the reception of his classes, invited him to stay on another year. Radjoni was at a symposium in another continent, so it would be a lonely summer here on campus. He wandered aimlessly around large, well-trimmed areas around the main buildings. Then he saw a bench where he and the 'die-hards' had often sat, talking for hours. He decided to sit there and reminisce. 

"Hi, teach," Peter said. Peter, one of the die-hards, had received a coveted scholarship at a newly formed school focusing on bringing students together from many countries. He planned a challenging vacation in an arctic mountain range before going off in the Fall. 

"What are you doing here?" Zarish asked. "I thought you went mountain climbing?" 

"I can't leave till next week," he said. "My father is on a business trip and he will be making all the last minute arrangements." 

"Well, have a great summer," Zarish said. "Congratulations on that scholarship, too." 

"Remember Lance?" Peter said. Lance, another die-hard poet, was an exchange student who roomed with Peter's family. 

"Of course," Zarish said. 

"He died." 

"What? That can't be." 

Peter said nothing. His face was wet with tears. Without looking at Zarish, he handed him a piece of paper. "The ambulance came to our house and the hospital did everything they could. They can't figure out what happened." 

Peter pulled a crumpled piece of paper from his pocket. 

"This was on the night-table in his room. I want you to have it. Of all the stuff he wrote, that's all we found." 

Zarish took the crumpled piece of paper, tightening his fist around it. He watched as Peter headed to a distant parking lot. 

Zarish found himself in his room. He sat at the desk and slowly opened his palm. The paper was stained, perhaps with coffee spills or some other liquids. There were rough drawings surrounding words formed with light lead marks of a pencil. The handwriting was unmistakable. Lance had always used the same style, angular and strong. Though barely able to see the words, he slowly began to read. 

'You lose yourself in a million faces 
I cling to the raft of myself 
It's all I've got 
I'm defined 
By my incompatibility 
With society 

Seething lava passion within me 
An upstart who dares to claim 
The hot iron words 
Which normally reside 
In the rosy wooden box 
Some people have reached out to me...' (poem by Lance aka Michael Morrison) 

There was more, but his eyes were too blurry now. He carefully folded the piece of paper and put it in his shirt pocket. 

Then he saw the package. Another of the 'die-hards,' who was spending the summer on a ranch in a western state, had mailed him an essay. He ripped open the thick envelope and placed the work on the desk. This work was not crumpled, not stained. It was done on a word processor. 

From somewhere deep inside, like an ominous rogue wave, a very dark and cold thing was rising in his heart too strong to resist. Somewhere far away, he could hear a scream. Was it his voice? He knew he could not out-swim this. There was no lifeguard, no lifeline. He clutched the neat stack of papers and tried to read, saying the words aloud. 

The essay was titled 'Creativity Today.' 

Placing the package on the desk, which still had no scratches on it, he began mouthing the sentences. 

'With the introduction of global communication, creativity is no longer an issue, in the sense that everyone is now a creator. If all water consists of hydrogen and atom molecules, there is no reason to single out one molecule as different, or creative. I intend, with the following examples, to expound this thesis, which, ironically, is a most creative way of looking at reality. 

'Firstly, if everyone has in the palm of his hand, the power to communicate, respond, buy, sell, send and receive images, as well as design, write and topple or put governments in power, there can no longer be a unique class of 'creatives' or 'movers and shakers' or any other specific group of people or disciplines. We are, as it were, each a molecule in the world of water. We are all equal and equally valid, without distinctions of more creative, less creative, etcetera. 

'Secondly, as the ability to express is given to each individual, to be distributed worldwide at the touch of a little key or button, the question of more or less becomes moot. Is your grouping of words, his color distribution of signals, her choice of music, of any higher or lower consequence, than the choices of anyone else?' 

Zarish looked up. Now the large, black wave he so feared began to roll over his head, filling the room. He looked outside, toward the light. Everything looked peaceful, sunny. Then he heard the almost imperceptible sound of his steel watch. He had never heard it before. The faint clicks became louder and louder. The scream now blended with the clicks. Was it his voice? Who or what was it? Then all went dark. 

Was this the end? Was this the nuclear holocaust they talked of, wrote poetry about? Now, he was in it, that devastation. 

Then, like a passing thundercloud, the darkness vanished. The watch was silent. Everything was as it always had been, as if there had been no black wave, no ticking, no scream, as if nobody had died. 

He picked up a pencil, clutching it like a flimsy raft in a raging sea. It felt comfortable. He felt a strength rising. 

"Where was a piece of paper?" he whispered and then began shouting. He looked at the neat papers in front of him. They were blank on the other side. 

"No," he screamed. "I don't want those papers. They don't belong to me. I don't belong, I don't belong." Somewhere inside him layers shifted, like sedimentary rocks of shale, grinding, moving, exposing things he had not been aware of. He could not name them but he knew exactly what they were, their importance. There were no words to them, nor ever would be. He knew and by knowing, accepted. 

He looked at his arm. His arm. It belonged to him, only him; Not this room, these neat pages with progressive ideas, this campus, this country, these holidays. His arm, his scrawny body, his soul, damaged, trapped for so long, was all he really had, all he really wanted. 

He felt the point of the pencil pierce the skin of his forearm, then the watch burning on his wrist. He pulled it off and placed it on the papers. 

A feeling of relief came over him, as if he had shed a winter skin. 
He could feel the pencil, now gently, brushing over the inside of his arm. It formed a word. He could not see it, for the pencil was light and his touch gentle, almost tickling. 

He noticed from the movement of the pencil what the word was. It was 'help.' 

Now the room filled with light, so bright he could see scratches on the desk. So he had left traces after all. He was pleased. Lance had left traces too. The raft of himself. Of course, that was the lifesaver. Why had he not grabbed it sooner? 

He would write poetry again. Lance, whose words disdained papers and pencils, had gone where things did not crumple or stain. Zarish now felt a kinship with Lance, the kinship of poetry. Lance had left that poem for him, he was sure of that. 

The path ahead was so clear now. Why had he not seen it sooner? Zarish would begin again, begin to find his own poem. There was no doubt now, no obstacles any more. 

He walked to the one closet in the bedroom, pushing aside clothes and shoes until he found the small suitcase made of cardboard, by now needing two belts to hold it together. It looked beautiful. 

Zarish packed his suitcase that night, hitchhiking to a harbor he noticed when the fateful plane had landed. He took a freighter, working for his passage and by summer's end was back in his village. He did nothing during the cold months but sit around the hearth and listen to his mother and the rest of the family talk about what happened when he was gone. 

In Spring, he settled back into roaming the woods, writing, scribbling, staying up all night. After a while, he resumed correspondence with Radjoni who had joined a research team in an ancient desert location, thought to be the birthplace of mathematics. Zarish's letters were informative, for he kept up with the short wave radio. He no longer included poems, nor did Radjoni mention them. 

"Well, another failure," said the Provost, when the subject of that poetry teacher came up at a recent faculty meeting. Some just don't have what it takes. Too bad." 

© Copyright 2018 Liilian. All rights reserved.

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