Once upon a time, a brother and a sister lived in a village far far away. The village was situated on the edge of a steep cliff and the villagers believed they lived in the farthest corner of the earth. The brother’s appearance would mysteriously transform almost every single day. Every morning he would wake up a stranger to himself, and every time the sister did not see her brother smile, she would comfort him. Maybe it was only because of her that he woke to the same smile many times. Some days he would wake to a crude face. Some days he would wake to such beautiful complexion that it made him feel sad the whole day and he would try staying up the whole night, but to no avail. A new face would greet him the next morning.
The sister would go out into the forest and pick all sorts of plants and herbs. Sometimes she would come across rare mushrooms and it would make her day. She traded spices and medicines with whatever they may need in the village. The brother had never gone out of their hut. He stayed inside making spices and trying to discover useful medicines.
One day, the sister began to fall ill. It started as a low fever and eventually progressed to something worse.
“I feel a sharp pain in my heart,” she told her brother, “a pain that is constant with each passing second. When the pain comes, nothing can relieve it. Even when the sharp pain is gone, there is a dull pain lying underneath. It seems all that’s left of my fate is suffering”. The brother tried all sorts of herbal medicine but her condition did not improve. The brother would wake up in the middle of the night drenching in sweat. He would have nightmares about her sister rotting away. It was the vividness and recurring of the same dream that terrified him. The image of the skeleton of her sister rid of every flesh calling out to her brother; her hands in jerky motion, perhaps signalling to take away the pain, no matter the cost. The idea that even death might be better haunted him. Was he harbouring some ill will towards her sister because of the hardship? Was he wishing for some easy unholy relief?
The sister herself could not sleep a moment, the tiredness would creep up her eyelids, and in that moment she thought rest would finally come, pain would wake her again. The sharp intense pain similar to the constant pricking by a needle. But every time her brother would wake up terrified by his nightmares, she would comfort him. She would say that slowly the pain was becoming a part of her, maybe she could live with the pain all her life, maybe the pain itself would keep her alive.
The brother knew, of course, that pain was only a reminder of her being alive, maybe a warner of the coming death. Despite her own encouragement, she was dying. In utter hopelessness, he ventured out to seek the old physician he had heard of in another village. He told the physician about her condition, the pain in her chest, the uncontrolled movements of her arms. Thankfully, the old physician had knowledge about the condition. A few years back, he had a young girl who had suffered from a similar disease, she had an infection of the heart, and rashes appeared on her arms and limbs. Her condition seemed irredeemable, and in desperate hopes, the old physician had experimented with various treatments. He had recorded all his experiments whether they were successful or unsuccessful. And it was only out of luck that the young girl, her granddaughter had recovered from the illness, with a minor side effect; the skin of the once pale girl had turned yellow in recovery. The brother had met the girl and she was white again.
The brother returned with the possible remedies that could cure the disease. When the granddaughter of the old physician’s was sick, he had tried all sorts of remedies in succession, sometimes two or three overlapping each other. In the coming years, he had a few girls who suffered from similar diseases, whom he treated with the possible remedies, but never getting to figure out the sole remedy for their subsequent recoveries. The brother treated her sister exactly as the physician’s instruction, starting with a single remedy and extending to other remedies along with the first for a total of two weeks. The sister was nursed back to her original health gradually.
The mushrooms she had picked the day before falling ill had all dried. She thought herself well enough to cook again, and she made a soup with the dried mushrooms. The soup had a pungent smell and she could not drink it herself. She made her brother drink all of it.
The next day, the brother woke up to the same face he had the day before. The brother and sister were overjoyed. They had been rid of all ills, all maladies that once shaped their lives. The brother wondered what could have cured him of his disease. Then, the sister remembered the soup she made with the dried mushrooms. Maybe the mushrooms had special healing effects.
But the next morning, the brother woke up to a different new face and he was very saddened again. This was perhaps the greatest sorrow in his life; to be given a moment the sweetest relief in the world and to be stripped of it the next. That was the worst curse indeed, the hope of redemption. He knew then that he would wake up every morning with a hope to remain the same again, his hope being more real would cut through like a knife every morning his wish were not granted. Ordinary daily joys would never be his again. This was the final fatal blow of his life.
As always, the sister was optimistic and comforted him. If it was indeed the mushrooms that prevented his transformation, maybe he only had to take it every day to remain the same she told her brother. After drinking his soup, the brother waited for the dawn, even though it was yet morning, he waited perhaps for a dawn that might never come.
The next morning, the sister found her brother’s face unchanged and let him sleep. When the brother finally woke, he spent most of the morning in front of the mirror examining every little detail of the face that could be forever his. He had no feelings whatsoever about his look, it did not matter whether he looked good or bad. All he cared about was that he finally had a face of his own. As long as he was eating the dried mushrooms everyday, even a tiny leaf, his transformation would be prevented. Whenever his sister thought of her brother, his face would come to mind. It was almost as if he had been given a chance at love, except for the fact that it wasn’t true. The sister loved her brother in every shape and form.
The brother had a newfound desire to explore the world. He went out into the village for the first time. It was early in the morning and the market place was a little crowded. Many people seemed to be aware of the presence of a stranger in their midst. Everywhere the brother went, eyes were examining him, was it his appearance that was drawing attention to him, the brother wondered for a moment, then he thought about how the concept of beauty was alien to him now. The feeling for beauty used to place in him a still joy. Now he had found this new exciting feeling of curiosity.
With the brother out and about and doing most of the chores, the sister had time to herself, time she did not know how to spend at first. She would sit under the shades of trees up a hill near the fountain. Sometimes she would take a nap beside the stream to the serene sound of flowing water. She would often wake to the ‘snap’ sound of the trap she had set up and took home a dead rabbit. Once an ooing sound frightened her awake. It was a wandering dog caught in her trap and she had to set it free. On the days she couldn’t catch any animal, she took home leaves and herbs to add to the flavour of the soup.
At the end of the market under an oak tree, the brother came upon a book place. The place was a bit dim, longer and stood as a separate entity from other shops. In fact, it was just outside the market place. There were circular holes in the roof to let the sunshine in. A boy was up a ladder pushing open the last hole in the roof. He closed the umbrella, drew it in and handed it to the lady holding the ladder. The lady helped him down the ladder, thanked him and said she would see him in the evening. The brother wandered about the shop for a moment, there were all kinds of books, they were mostly old and rugged with the bindings loose. Some books did not have a cover and some had a few pages missing. At the end of the tour, he came upon the lady staring at him attentively and smiling. It was only out of shyness he looked away and rushed out of the book place.
The sister was sitting by herself under a tree when a man carrying woods approached her. “What’s your name?” the man greeted. The sister looked at the man for a moment, he appeared to be of the same age as her. “I do not have a name,” the sister replied looking up in his eyes. The man smiled, said “okay” and went on his way. “What’s yours?” she wanted to ask but hesitated and before long the man was far gone. She stood up and headed for home, her steps pacing quickly almost in a run.
She found her brother at the doorsteps of their hut. She entered first and told her brother that she needed a name. Her brother named her Jasmine from his book of Plants and Herbs for the Sick. He realized he needed a name for himself. He decided to use the name of the author, Marcus.
The next day, the sister waited at the tree where the man greeted her. She eventually became impatient and started to look for him. She found him at the edge of the forest chopping leaves off branches. She went and greeted him “My name is Jasmine, what’s yours?”. The man’s name was Gary. His father was a baker. He was in charge of collecting woods and slow burning them in a hole to make charcoals.
Once he was preoccupied and forgot to close the lid on the charcoal making chamber in the ground on the edge of the forrest. It caused a panic in the village when his mother yelled for help to put out the fire. Although the flames were tall, the fire was contained and in retrospect she really did not need the help of the whole village. Some villagers arrived late and they only got to watch the fumes of the fire that had already been put out. Gary could not believe that Jasmine had not heard the story. Jasmine appeared almost surreal to him, like a strange character some amateur writer had conjured up in his mind, yet the way she laughed was very real, as if it was jumping out of the reality frame. It reminded him of the picture his uncle hang in the kitchen.
When Gary got home he went into the kitchen to examine the frame on the wall. It had a scenery background with a hill and trees and a woman perfectly proportioned up till the neck, the head of the woman was out of the frame, her face was made into a cone as if someone had deliberately pressed his fist on the back of the canvas, her two eyes were pressed into the cone, her nose protruded a little and she seemed very distressed. Now that Gary had examined the frame, he realized that it was definitely much more surreal than Jasmine. There were no resemblance between the picture and Jasmine to speak of. The strangeness of Jasmine was unimaginable now, an element of her that stood in front of him could not be called to mind. The immediate liveliness of her could not be summoned in her absence, and Gary started to miss her. How puzzling it is that not only can we not call back the dead, sometimes we cannot recall the living; their essence eludes our senses.
The brother went to the keeper of books again, this time with a plan. “Hello, my name is Marcouse,” he introduced himself. The lady found his name strange, “Mar cus?” she asked. The brother thought to himself, “Yeah, shouldn’t it be Mar-cus?” but he decided against it, shook his head and replied “Marcouse”. “Hello, Marcouse, I am Sarah”.
He found the lady to be very charismatic. She was smiling every time he met her and her smile conveyed a certain kind of warmth. At the same time, there was a certain uneasiness about her. She was paying too much attention it seemed to Marcouse. Her eyes fixated on him the whole time he was talking and even when he was looking away, she was watching him breathe. Marcouse had to shake off some thoughts fearing that certain changes in his facial expression might give him away as to what he was thinking.
As the keeper of books, Sarah had met almost everyone in her life. She had seen all sorts of characters; there were those who were friendly, constantly asking her how she had been, then there were those who kept to themselves. She had also seen some strange characters, some would be friendly one day and gradually became strangers, some characters who were hostile for no reason; they had the look of mischief on their faces instead of a smile. But Marcouse was the new strange character in her life with a fresh mode of strangeness. There was something intimate about him, as if the whole of him was woven from some intricate fibre, the secret of which he was too anxious to hide.
Gary and Jasmine would sit by the stream and he would tell her stories about the village. The stories were mostly bizarre and unrealistic. She suspected that they were of Gary’s own making. One time, Gary and his friends were out fishing and they had caught a lot of fishes that day which they collected in a basket. Then when the four of them were distracted, a bear came and tried to steal the fishes from the basket. When one of them realized what was happening and yelled out to scare the bear, the bear ran off with the basket of fishes. The bear’s name was Fluffy. Fluffy was owned by Bob who isolated himself in Bob’s territory when his wife left him. Bob’s territory was fenced off from the rest of the village with part of the fence slicing off the stream. Bob and his wife Miranda had a fight long ago, with his wife insisting there was more to the world than their tiny village and her wish to explore falling on Bob’s deaf ear. Miranda saw there was no convincing Bob and eloped with another man. Gary told Jasmine he would show her the triangular fence a little further down the stream when they had the time.
Marcouse had to summon enough courage each day just so he could talk to Sarah. It was a strange kind of fear, which disappeared as soon as he started talking to her. But this time the fear did not seem to be retreating. It manifested into its potent reality. Marcouse forced a smile and greeted Sarah, who returned a casual smile. “Can you point me in the direction of the prettiest girl here?” Marcouse asked, trying to be funny and hoping Sarah would point at the mirror opposite her. But it fell flat and Sarah just looked at him suspiciously. Marcouse chuckled a little and tried to start a normal conversation. “How was your weekend?” he asked, to which Sarah replied with a more puzzled and curious look. Their eye contact was now intense, full of questions and wonder, and lacking meaning all the same. Marcouse tried to think, as if thinking alone could get him out of this awkward situation. He broke off eye contact which by now would only seem rude. He turned his head and zoomed out into space. Sarah asked a very unbelievable question, which was filled with absolute horror the moment he believed it. When Sarah asked the question, focus returned to his eyes and he was looking in the mirror. Sarah asked “Do I know you?” and Marcouse realized he had been looking at himself. His face had changed again.
Marcouse was overwhelmed with emotions, even though he could not tell exactly what he was feeling. The horror. The unbelievable strangeness of it. He could burst right then and there. It had the inflation of anger, yet it was not anger. It was hopelessness, yet it was not paralyzing. The uncertainty of what was to come, yes, that was the sting of it. The bewildering uncertainty, the great possibility of doom engulfed by a thin layer of optimism. The familiarity of despair awaiting its moment. Life waiting for him to step into the great unknown. And Marcouse too waited making sure to drink his soup day after day.
Jasmine feared her life was moving by far too quickly. She lived only in certain moments, and the spaces between them were routine. She would see Gary whenever they were free, and she would enjoy the company of the forest when she was alone. Most of the times, Gary would be in her thoughts and though Gary would never say so, Jasmine would invade his mind throughout the day.
Marcouse thought about his options, he wondered if he could tell Sarah his condition, then he worried if she would understand. Would she understand that since at birth, his face would change every morning, that his sister would discover the miraculous mushrooms which prevented his transformation, and in grand luck, he would meet her and fall in love with her, whom he was sure reciprocated his love, and before getting to profess his love, fate in its sick irony would make him the culprit of his own tragedy when he forgot to drink his soup for a day. Marcouse considered every possible outcome. He wondered if he should make the best out of his circumstance and spy on himself, to know for certain where things stood with Sarah. He finally decided he could never know his fate if he never went out to meet it.
Sarah remembered the strange encounter, and the man introduced himself as Howard. Howard apologized incessantly about his misbehavior, he said he did not know what came over him. He said Sarah was very familiar to him, but he couldn’t quite place where he had met her. He also wondered if she felt the same, to which Sarah replied sincerely that she did not. Perhaps they had met in another life, Howard insisted. Howard had the impression of being unformidable, his mannerisms were commonplace and he came off as being friendly and forgivable. He was eager to get to know Sarah and a mutual acquaintance developed over the following days.
One late afternoon, in the quiet center of her shop, Howard asked Sarah, “Have you ever been in love?”.
“I still am,” Sarah replied “very much in love.”
“Who’s the lucky guy?”
“His name is Marcouse.”
“Where is he?”
“I don’t know. We haven’t seen each other in weeks.”
“Where does he live?”
“I never thought to ask.”
“Tell me about him.”
“I don’t really know him. I think that’s the most appealing thing about him, he has the charm of a stranger.”
“How can you love someone you don’t really know?”
“I don’t know. You tell me. Maybe that’s how love is after all.”
The brother did not know whether he should be happy or sad. Sarah was in love with him and that was the only thing that mattered. Maybe the satisfaction of knowing it was enough. He was no longer Marcouse, and there was no way of convincing Sarah. But Jasmine would not have it. She told her brother, “There is only Marcouse. Sarah is not in love with Howard and therefore Howard doesn’t exist. You must tell her the truth.” The brother was still afraid of something going wrong. Jasmine convinced her brother, “If it’s written in the stars, then it must be the names. You must tell her you are Marcouse.”
The next day, the brother told Sarah, “I have a confession to make”. Sarah asked “What is it?” After giving a sigh, the brother looked in Sarah’s eyes and told her, “I am Marcouse”. Sarah was distressed. “Why are you saying this?” she asked. “Because I love you.” “Look, I know you have feelings for me. But this is no way to go about it,” she tried to reason with him. The brother persisted and told her the whole story, detail by detail. But Sarah had a fatal flaw; she could not understand something which did not make sense. She said “This is well thought out and flattering, but I must tell you as a friend, honesty is the only way to a woman’s heart. And mine is already taken. Don’t pretend to be someone you are not. If you start lying to yourself, you will be lost. You will lose who you are and that’s the only thing that matters.”
Jasmine was furious when her brother told her about his day. “You can’t accept this,” she said. “It isn’t fair.” “Love and justice are not the same thing,” the brother said thinking to himself. “If there’s only justice, the world would be a terrible place.”
(to be continued…)