Today is my birthday, and rather than writing reflections as an essay, I thought I’d create a sort of parable to gather all the different thoughts I have about celebrating this day. This sort-of story is a little surreal and a lot cryptic and very experimental but closer to the confusion I always feel on this day. For me, writing often means settling things, which sometimes feels false. I grow so tired of conclusions. As strange as this piece may seem, perhaps it mirrors what’s in my head today better than an essay might…
Every citizen cycled through the duty, so the remnants of waiting littered the post—half-written notes, tiny totems built of splinters or carved from fragments of shattered wall, a stack of reading well-worth abandoning in the middle. You were to sound a bell if you saw anyone outside the town walls, but someone long ago yanked the bell’s rope down. It lay in a shadowy corner like a sleeping snake.
His turn came once a year like everyone else’s, but his stay there felt continuous. He’d just been pacing in front of the narrow window, just craning his neck to stick his face out and catch scents borne by the wind’s new direction. Out there were winds. They whipped tiny circles of dirt in the expanse surrounding the town. In the absence of anyone arriving, those ghost dervishes came closest to company. He imagined they were trying to tell him history no one knew. They’d traveled and he hadn’t, after all.
And he imagined a figure walking out of the horizon, a blur at first, a flicker that could be something loose in a current of air, and then actually a thing with legs and volition moving consciously, purposefully toward him. Not everyone took this duty seriously anymore—most spent the time sleeping and dreaming—but he’d never been able to accept being alone. Someday someone would materialize in the distance, and he’d watch, each step of the strange shape erasing a little of the calm forbearance he’d been taught to value.
The hours at the post made his eyes sore with watching and his psyche tired with longing. He may have dozed a little because, for just a moment, he was sure the figure in the distance would be himself, coming into focus like a reflection in a bowl of water as it comes to rest. That picture of fate seemed fleetingly right to him. He was really looking for himself, another self who came from the outside instead of projecting itself onto nights of black and stars.
He shook himself awake, and the fantasy evaporated. Out on the horizon, the line of trees thinned for fall. A week ago, he knew, some trees must have seemed to burst into flames as their leaves changed, but that hadn’t been on his watch. He always arrived just after, and sometimes whatever changed in his life since his previous duty felt as wan as trees graying in anticipation of winter.
Soon he’d hear the knock signaling the next watch. He lifted a little statue from a crowded shelf and studied its shape, a woman’s figure whose belly and breasts promised fertility. Her head and face were unfinished, but he read her inscrutable expression as concentration on the moment she would be two, herself and her child. His own mother had that moment, and he wondered, for perhaps the first time, how her waiting felt, the inevitable arriving so slowly as to seem invisible and yet rushing up with an undeniable, physical urgency.
And the thought roused him. He gathered his things to go. When the door opened, he would be relieved for another year of living. His eyes off the horizon, he thought of all the different arrivals the world offers. He thought of his own children, sitting near the windows, looking for their father’s figure rounding the corner.