November 2011 was a month of sickness, work, and grief. Not bad, but sad. Right on time for Halloween I was struck down by a mighty virus. Falling under the category ‘communal funk’, a term we use in our community to describe the downside of sharing almost everything in our daily lives, it had been going around, hitting everybody at their weak spot - in my case thrusting its pointed blade straight at my left tonsil, an easy target, which, along with the other one should have been pulled out when I was a child suffering from tonsillitis every other month.
This particular funk had an especially powerful beat to it. It knocked me out so thoroughly, I could not even muster up the strength to leave my bed and drag myself to the desk, never mind sit and work. Once again it opened my eyes to how vulnerable we are. No health, no wealth. I did, however, have something to cheer me up: I was filled with confidence that whatever had snuck into my system would retreat within a matter of days or, at worst, weeks.
As my dear friend and mentor P. was on my mind, it struck me how my situation stood in sharp contrast to his. Suffering from something that according to the specialists would not heal, but take him rather rapidly to his grave, he was preparing for his departure. Having just met him in this condition, seen him laugh and make jokes, teach and practice aikido, sit and drink whiskey with his friends, gave my admiration for him another boost.
I have always loved costumes and jumped at any opportunity to wear one. I once imposed a super hero theme on a Bath aikido party. Nobody else shared my excitement, which resulted in me being the only one wearing a costume. P. had come as himself, however, beating the heroism of my Lara Croft hands down, in spite of authentic gun holsters and pellet guns.
This year I was forced to leave my love of costumes in the darkest corner of my wardrobe and forgo the spooky costume craze of Halloween. Instead, the face of life unmasked presented itself to me, grimacing like a reflection in a trick mirror, silently screaming out the blunt reality of being mortal and living in a circle of friends and loved ones who share this trait with us like the creeping shadow of communal funk, bouncing and bobbing in the sun, while we drag our cursed bodies along in the heat.
This resulted in a truly spooky Halloween. My fever-shaken body fell into an uneasy sleep, heat threatening to coagulate proteins, shivers hammering in the pending reality of eternal cold like a jackhammer, mind maneuvering through the stormy strait between this world and that, between sleep and wakefulness, dream and reality. Then suddenly, into an expanse of calm, a vision unfolded.
At first, I could barely make out the silhouettes of the two figures sitting opposite each other at the small table. But as I drew closer, the scene brightened like an oil lamp had been lit between them, and before I knew it I could see them as clearly as if I was right there with them, first hovering, then clinging on to the grapevine.
At one side of the table sat my friend P., bent over slightly, clasping a glass filled almost half way with golden liquid, turning it left and right, left and right. Opposite him sat a tall skeleton wearing an ornate late 17th century tricorn on his head, sporting two perfect round eyeballs still attached to their sockets. Next to this grotesque pirate leaned a saber, which he swiftly picked up and swung about in a masterful circle, swishing past P.’s face, whizzing through his own spine at the neck, making his head jump up a foot before it landed crooked between his spine and collarbones. His eyeballs rolled around in their sockets, looking for help. His bony fingers picked up his head and re-attached it to his spine.
He picked up his own glass of golden liquid, and raised it. ‘Tis the last day of autumn, my brother,’ he said with a voice worn down by liqueur and tobacco, then upgraded with the echo of eternal life. ‘The time has come to take stock and prepare for the cold winter months ahead. Come drink with me to that!’ He clanged his glass to P.’s and poured its contents through his jaws, from where they dropped straight down his rib cage.
This captured P.’s attention. He had so far been watching the light play in his drink, dejected. Prepared for anything, but tired and unsure what to expect. Now he was following the drops of rum down his interlocutor’s vacant body, licking them with his eyes as the last trickle ran across his vertebrae. With refreshed curiosity, P. now lifted his own glass, raised it to the other, looking him deep in the eyeballs, and took the smallest sip. Testing and tasting it on his tongue, his teeth spread like pearls into a rare and precious smile. ‘Excellent.’ An explosive sound of monosyllabic laughter jumped from his throat, ringing bright and clear in the air, making the bones across the table vibrate loudly against chair and floor.
In lieu of clearing its throat, the skeleton quietened its rattling and spoke up again. ‘I am not here to show you the sense-void emptiness of death. You are aware of it. You taste each sip of life with all your senses, you make each moment rich with deed, you exercise your flesh and work it through your spirit.’ ‘Spirit!’ P. chuckled quietly, and a mischievous look of love permeated his facial features. ‘I’ll drink that. I mean TO that!’ He clanged his glass on the pirate’s, looked him in the eyeballs, and relished another sip, joy and intentional indulgence spreading across his features. ‘YES, rub it in!’ The pirate retorted, crossing his arms in front of his rib cage, having poured down the contents of his own glass in one loveless sweep of futility.
The warmth of the drink began to glow through P.’s cheeks, and he straightened his posture facing the pirate. ‘I like your eyeballs. Do I get to keep mine too?’ A gust of held back indignation swept against the pirate’s eyeballs from inside his bones and pushed the left one out, where it bobbed up and down, hanging on to a thin nerve like a spider on a desperate thread. He took the tip of a handkerchief tied around his left wrist and carefully rubbed the fallen eyeball clean. He popped it back into its socket like a lost contact lens and looked at P. with fresh brightness. ‘If you take good care of them, you might be lucky.’ P. blew a puff of amusement through his nostrils.
The skeleton continued: ‘Now as I mentioned, ‘tis time to prepare for the cold winter months ahead.’ ‘I am a diligent wood chopper.’ P. replied and took another good look at the two eyeballs across the table. The pirate’s jaws opened into a garish display of shrill laughter. Two ribs clattered to the ground, and his spine cracked as he bent back and forth in frivolous spasms of senseless amusement. P. picked up a rib that had fallen on his side and clicked it into place as the skeleton was repairing his other parts. ‘You take good care of yourself!’ P. smiled and took another sip of rum. ‘Such a handsome body.’ The pirate’s jaw dropped onto the table, while P. laughed, indulging in his own joke without holding back. ‘Sorry,’ he finally managed to say. ‘I just had to see your jaw drop once. Go ahead. Speak.’
‘Thank you,’ said the pirate, cracking his jaw back into place. ‘Now, my diligent wood chopper friend, this is your lucky day.’ ‘One of them, no doubt,’ P. replied, gaining more and more color as the liquid in his glass receded. ‘What gives me the pleasure?’ ‘Tis Halloween, the time of year when the physical and the supernatural worlds are closest, and magical things can happen with ease.’ ‘Such as our meeting?’ ‘Such as our meeting.’ the pirate confirmed, now obviously talking business.
‘So it is magical, not fated?’ asked P. The pirate clarified. ‘An opportunity, but not an imposition.’ ‘What a charming host,’ P.’s eyebrows rose. He grinned. ‘Let’s drink to that.’ He held up his glass and spotted irritation in the eyeballs across the table. ‘I’m sorry,’ he forced down his chuckle with another sip.
The skeleton spoke up. ‘You have been feeling the tug of your final sentence on your days, and then the tug of your days on your final sentence. Your life is shrinking yet expanding.’ ‘I am my own event horizon.’ P. completed the pirate’s accurate description of his recent experience.
‘You are an expert at Japanese martial arts,’ said the skeleton. P. raised his eyebrows, wondering what he was getting at. ‘You know the Japanese custom of seppuku?’ ‘A gruesome custom, yes.’ ‘Gruesome like your condition. But with an inbuilt clause of mercy. A helper who cuts off the disemboweled’s head to end his pain and shorten his throes.’ ‘O mercy.’ ‘You’ve seen my skill with the saber.’ He offered. ‘I felt it swish past my forehead,’ P. confirmed. The pirate elaborated. ‘I have come on this propitious day to tell you, you may call me if you need me, and I shall assist you.’ The room darkened as face and skull approached each other across the table, illuminated eerily from below by the waning flame of the oil lamp. ‘Who do I call?’ P. asked, and the pirate answered: ‘Saber!’
The light went out, leaving the room in complete darkness, and I suddenly felt cold. I woke up, cold sweat covering my body, teeth clattering like rattling bones. Chilled to the bone, my fever was receding.
A few days later I got a message from P. ‘My life is getting shorter, but at the same time stretching. Maybe I am my own event horizon. One of these days I will have to invent my own version of seppuku. But not quite yet.’
My brave friend and mentor P. passed away between Halloween and Thanksgiving. I was drowning in an exceptional flood of finance and alien cult translations when I got the news, struggling to keep my focus, digressing again and again into conjuring up memories, mopping up tears, talking and writing to my dear friend. Work - like life: a blessing and a curse.
Addicted to the shape I take on, the shape my words draw when I address him, I still write to him. No new feedback can contribute to the way I keep shaping myself. I can hope for no more custom-tailored advice. No more shared laughter or practical jokes played on each other. My task from now on is to cherish his life, his teachings, and his friendship, including the grief his passing has left; to keep putting his advice into practice, and encourage myself and others to emulate the essence of his teachings. He summed it up in a nutshell after informing me he had been diagnosed with cancer:
‘There are good things about this business. I have discovered that all I want to do is carry on doing what I am doing. This is good because it means that I always have been doing exactly what I should have been doing.’
In his native Bath, a host of friends, loved ones, and family saw him off with sparklers to Bob Dylan’s song ‘You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go’ as he had requested. I was unable to attend, so on Thanksgiving day, I used the occasion to give thanks to him on our lava platform, introducing him to Pele, Goddess of the Volcano, lighting a little fire, and imagining all his new shapes and adventures.
I once met a man in Bath
He put me onto his path
With a left-handed punch,
An enlightening crunch,
And a thweep that that me on my arthe.*
*note to the reader not to be read: = “a sweep that sat me on my arse” said without front teeth