This looks a good spot, we won’t be bothering them here. More to the point, they won’t bother us. The ones who never met him in person are the worst, and there are more of those every year. Yes, he was extraordinary, he changed people’s lives. Of course he did. Hell, look at me, I’m living proof. But he wasn’t all sweetness and light. Sweetness and light only get you so far.
It’s all about perception, isn’t it? Outsiders hear things and get hold of the wrong end of the stick, talk about cults and con artists and god knows what. But sometimes good choices turn into bad memories. And vice versa.
That’s why I’m telling this to you, away from the others. I think you’ve the depth to understand. It’s a true story. A lifetime ago, but straight from the horse’s mouth. For your ears only. Don’t repeat it.
It starts with a young woman. I’ll call her Alma. Alma doesn’t know where on earth she is. It’s arid, dark. Huge plants, abandoned junctions, wide empty roads. The air is murky. Must be dust from the desert she knows is only a few miles away, in some direction or other. It spatters the street lamps like flypaper.
She grips an address slip as if it were a talisman. There ought to be students, wayfinders, night-time bustle, somewhere to get directions and a bite to eat. Instead there’s nothing but concrete and tarmac, blank buildings that could be anything. She checks her phone, but the map on-screen bears no relation to the address on the paper. Sweaty fingers fumble at street names as she tries to identify the hall of residence where she’s booked a cheap room. In the end she resorts to guesswork and hopes for the best. Perhaps a passer-by will show up and take pity on her.
The campus sprawls enormous. Some of these blocks might be libraries or lecture theatres, but there’s no signage. Even if there had been, she can’t read the language anyway. Gravelled banks edge the pavement, jags of agave and prickly pear. A parade of plate glass lobbies. A car park where trolleys break surface like reptiles. A garage forecourt, inert machines. Dusty construction site biding its time. Her Converse crunch on grit, the suitcase drags behind her. In the distance a fox barks. Slabs of artificial light make strange intersections, scatter her shadow.
And Alma herself is no less scattered. While one part of her watches for street signs, another races away through sweet hereafters. She’s thinking this is it, my big break, my chance to join the Ivy League jet set. All she has to do is get through the interview without coming off like a dipshit. Informal interview. Remember that, Alma, informal, no biggie. It’s not going to be like the ones you flunked, this guy does things different, that’s what’s so exciting. Think of it this way: it’s a chat over breakfast. That’s all. You can chat over breakfast, can’t you?
The road seems eternal. She’s been trudging for twenty minutes and hasn’t seen a soul. There’s a pinch across the bridge of her nose, a tight ache over her eyebrows. She wants to swallow but her throat’s blocked. The corner ahead looks exactly like the one where the taxi dropped her. Same oblique angle, same crack in the kerbstone. Maybe all the kerbstones here are cracked like that. Maybe every road here is this flat, this featureless, this endless.
But no, wait. There. There’s something. In the road up there. Immobile, low to the ground. Size and distance impossible to judge. The highway stretches on and on, inscrutable. A speed bump? A heap of dirt dropped by a freak wind – even as she has the thought, a breeze scuttles to her left. A dog? But as she draws nearer she sees it’s human-sized.
Somebody’s in the road. Hurt, or worse.
Her heart slithers as she remembers how quickly her taxi shot away, how easily it could have clipped a pedestrian in the dark. How easily this whole trip might already have become a catastrophe.
Full stop. Breath stop. Suitcase teeters on the pavement. Please, she thinks, let there be a movement, a sign. Let me hear a voice, see the person stand up and dust themselves off and be ok.
Shrubs fidget at her back, chatter to each other in another gust of wind. There’s a bottle of water in her suitcase. She knows she should offer it, should go to the person’s aid. Didn’t some famous serial killer lure his victims by pretending to be injured? The street elongates itself into emptiness. This prone body could be anyone, friend or foe, dead or alive. If they’re really hurt, there’s no one else around to help them. The ache uncoils between her temples, ripples behind her eyeballs.
She calls: “Hello? You all right?” And then, with a dry croak: “Habla inglés?” Rattle of fan palms. The figure’s on its side, feet towards her, head in shadow. Black clothes, dark trainers. The ribcage moves, ragged, irregular. Whoever they are, they’re breathing. But not freely.
Clinging to her suitcase, she stoops to peer at the face. The feet jerk. She skitters back. Seconds pass.
A slow, hydraulic sigh. The body rolls over, sits upright. Slender, wiry, a runner’s build. Fur, snout, sharp ears, gleaming eyes. Makes no sense and she’s six years old again, terrified at the pantomime while her mother screams with laughter. Thick black whiskers splay beneath the snout like roads on a demented map. More black strands bristle above the brows. White fur frames the neck, drapes the shoulders.
Finally she gets it. This is a man. His head is encased in an enormous fox mask.
He inspects her through what may or may not be his real eyes. It all happens in trancy slow motion. A skein of sand rises between them. The grains pour onto his chest, create a pattern of roots and branches. His left arm hangs contorted, his right hand is in his lap.
In front of that poised hand, balanced across his thighs, pure and sleek, rests a naked sword.
The becoming of the catastrophe.
Impossible distance from one street lamp to the next, legs ready to give way at any moment. Sodium light turns the night to mulch. She can’t pick up speed. The suitcase crashes along, twists her wrists and fingers. Fronds rigid as fibreglass smack her arms and snatch her clothes. She peeks over her shoulder and he’s there on the tarmac, head cocked, muzzle in her direction. She flounders on. The wind rises against her, blows grit into her eyes and mouth. She looks back a second time and he’s vanished.
This campus or industrial park or whatever it is, no idea, utterly bewildered, hopeless labyrinth. He could be anywhere. Stalking in the shadows, lurking in the bushes, taking shortcuts, making plans. For all she knows he’s already looped ahead of her, he’s waiting for her to run into his jaws. She lurches onto a broad junction. Car showroom to one side, ricochet of colours. Parched, panting, she braces on the balls of her feet, takes out her phone. The map makes even less sense than before. Tangle of roads, business names, symbols for hotels and restaurants, all conjure a human world that doesn’t exist. She scrolls left and right, can’t see the marker to show where she is. No choice but to keep going regardless. Sweat snakes down her back and between her breasts, suitcase heavy as a corpse.
Another snarl of junctions. A roundabout rears up at the centre, a thicket of succulents rising to a serrated peak. She skitters over the first crossing, then the next, another, another, and again, and yet another, she loses track, convinced she’s crossing the same road over and over. Aloe limbs scored with graffiti, beetling wind, chirr of dust. Mammalian shrieks from afar, or not so far. Round and round until at last an interchange flings her out onto a plaza.
Impassivity and silence, like an instant pressure drop. The plaza is lined with pale buildings that give nothing away. Slit windows pierce brick facades. Broad steps lead to a revolving door, and above it stand the blessed words of refuge: Residencia universitaria.
So into the hall of residence she flees, my Alma, almost in tears but keeping her shit together. Turns out there’s no receptionist, no night porter, no lights on even, but all she wants is to put locked bolts and distance between herself and the maniac. The revolving door flumps to a standstill and she’s alone. Dull light from outside trickles over a reception desk. It all seems so untenanted, she’d go and double-check the sign on the building if she weren’t so afraid. But she is very afraid. So she waits to catch her breath, stays as still and quiet as she can, keeps the weight off one suddenly painful knee. The slit windows rattle, high and unseen; sand gusts beneath the door, forms drifts between its glass wings. The thrum in her ears subsides.
As her eyes adjust, she sees the reception desk is not entirely bare. Centimetres from her fingertips there’s an envelope. Her phone torch reveals her own name handwritten in block capitals. Inside are her booking confirmation and a plastic key card bearing the number 1008. A dark staircase opens to her right, a lift waits across the lobby. If the damned thing breaks down she might be stuck in it all night, but between the heavy suitcase and the swelling knee she’s little option.
A fluorescent bulb flickers above the lift’s sandy floor. In the corner beneath the control panel lie two cigarette butts and a single broken tooth. There is no inner door. The lift climbs, the shaft falls, the chains thump. She’s sure she’s risen through many more than ten levels before it scrapes to a halt. The exit yawns into a blackness so deep it threatens an eternity of tunnels, endless gateway after endless gateway. But her torch reveals an ordinary corridor with brick walls and beige carpet. Flimsy fire doors divide it into segments.
The numbers on all the rooms begin with a ten. So far, so good. She finds 1008. The key card works.
A ceiling lamp oozes mustard light. Small, boxy, a single bed jammed along one wall, desk and chair wedged beneath the only window. She needs several minutes to figure out how to lock the door, and it dawns on her that her hands are shaking. Her knee hurts like hell. She has a good cry, then wipes her eyes on a sour denim sleeve. Longs for sugar, a hospitality tray, a packet of biscuits, any damned thing, but there’s not even a kettle. Best she can do is top up her bottle in the communal bathroom across the hall. A bathroom which, she soon discovers, has no hot water.
The mattress is thin and the sheets are too warm. Her armpits stink, her torso is gritty. Dirt pills beneath her fingernails. The room is airless but the windstorm is gaining force, it clatters the window and pummels the bricks and there’s no hope of sleep, no, no hope at all, and her mind beats its tempo, bumps onto the track between nightmare behind her and morning to come. How many contenders, and who will they be? Am I the frontrunner, how will I perform? Disaster scenarios, glorious dreams. What if he wants me to make conversation? What if he pays no attention at all? Which is more likely, and which would be worse? How will I find the goddamned breakfast venue? Her train of thought disintegrates. She wants to check Google Maps again, but the phone’s too far away and the mattress is sinking at an angle and she can’t sit up. The wind must have got inside the building, she hears it rummage in the corridor. Corridor of animals. Whiskers quiver in the weft of the carpet, snouty things sneak past the foot of the bed. Grunts and squeals, louder bangs, rasp of greasy pelts against cheap wood. Stealthy hiss as a blade slips under the door jamb and skims side to side, side to side, side to side, side to side.
This is where I come in.
The next morning, Alma walked into the bathroom just as I stepped out of the shower. She tried not to stare. No, I didn’t have my famous bite mark tattoo back then. Matter of fact, I got that tattoo to celebrate my advancement, so I do have Alma to thank for it in a way. But all that came later. Now she swore, apologised in English, and tried to speak to me Spanish. I wrapped myself in a towel to spare her blushes and said, “What a relief! I’ve been coming here for years but my Spanish still sucks. You a student?” She laughed and said no, or at least not any more, she was over for an interview for a postdoc job, and we soon established that I was attending the same interview, and wasn’t that a coincidence, and yes I did know where breakfast was, and why not travel together, and oh there did seem to be hot water this morning, and wasn’t this hall of residence the pits, and long story short we arranged to meet in the lobby.
See, I was on task, right from the get-go. I’d no idea how things would turn out for Alma, but I had no intention of messing up my part.
In the dapple from those slender windows I waited downstairs while she dressed and panicked. Broken tooth glowed like a lotus petal on the lift floor. When she emerged, I smiled and said, “My, you look snazzy”, but she didn’t feel snazzy at all. The tartan skirt suit and vintage blouse she had thought flamboyant back in London were merely second-hand and ill-fitting now. She noticed my Lululemon yoga pants and soft hemp backpack.
Outside had become another world, spacious and bright. Southern heat belted out of glass frontages and boldly coloured signs. The roundabouts towered lush and vital above the rush-hour swirl. I tried to put her at ease. “Have you met the prof before?” I asked, leading the way.
“No. I mean, a big seminar thing on Zoom, and loads of his lectures on YouTube and what have you. But this will be the first time in person. I’m super-excited”.
“Certainly is exciting. Nervous?"
“Sure. But not intimidated. He gives off an aura of... not just intelligence. A kind of higher knowledge. If that doesn’t sound weird”.
“It actually doesn’t. Shame his university funding isn’t as infinite as his mind, though. Maybe we wouldn’t have to go through this horrible selection process”.
“I feel a bit bad about it, to be honest”.
That caught my interest. “How do you mean?”
“We’ve got this amazing opportunity because someone pulled out at the last minute. Something awful must have happened to make them quit before they’d even begun”.
“Yes,” I agreed, “something awful”.
Bless her heart, she didn’t breathe a word about the night before.
The bus arrived in a woozy heat haze. It was crammed with commuters, and we had to take seats far apart. I kept a discreet eye on Alma as I chatted to my neighbour, an American postgrad with a buzz cut and horn-rims and a deep fascination with his own notions. Alma, to her relief, was sat beside a silent local. The dual carriageway crossed a brown landscape where monstrous agave clambered out of the scrub. Several miles of this and then palms began to assemble, transforming the carriageway into a boulevard, summoning the city of Alma’s dreams. Low-rise buildings, powdery white, pollen-yellow; cafés with street terraces, people drinking from tiny cups; elegant avenues to left and right; coy flashes of churches and galleries.
We descended onto a hot blare of pavement in front of this very building, with its forest of colonnades. Buzz cut got off at the same stop but headed in another direction, towards a throng of canvas tote bags and conference logos on the opposite side of the square. Alma’s pulse began to race, and I did my best to be encouraging. “Lovely, isn’t it?” I said, and it was all I could do not to hold her hand.
Through the hallway and into the cloistered courtyard. The fountain played amid flowers and creepers sparkling with butterflies. You’ve seen for yourself how charming the courtyard is, how tranquil, how beguiling; you can imagine how entirely at home I looked, cool and calm in that radiant setting. Someone somewhere was playing a guitar, or perhaps a lute. Renaissance music. I breathed in the roses, absorbed their Himalayan sunset colours, although Alma’s mental associations stretched only as far as her nan’s allotment. “Come on,” I said, “let’s go and enjoy breakfast”.
The refectory was impressive, even in those days. White walls soared to the glass canopy roof. The sky was sublime that morning, birds danced and blazed in the blue. The space amplified the swoops of voices, the cluck of cups on tables and counters. Stands of clean crockery punctuated the room, some crowned with displays of lilies and roses. More flowers decorated the long rows of scrubbed oak tables where young people ate and smiled, everyone dressed alike in green or lilac.
Far beyond all this stood a lacquered screen, its panels ranged out like spinal ridges. Agitated as she was, Alma failed to register its gold-painted decorations, the darting dragonflies and tender nymphs. I was moving more quickly now, it was showtime, and as we entered the private arena behind the screen I said, “Here we are, here he is,” and Hyakujo rose to welcome us.
The slender build, the sharp features, the russet hair and beard, the unplaceable accent, all this she recognised from the videos she’d watched, but she was fazed nonetheless by his charisma, his enigmatic gentleness, his air of transience. “There you are, Zoe,” he said, “always fresh as a daisy, and this must be Alma, good morning, good morning!”
That was when she realised I wasn’t her fellow applicant, and no other candidates would be joining us. But she kept her composure as the prof swept her into her seat.
I took my place at his right hand. The tablecloth was a zen garden of perfect creases. She struggled out of her jacket and scraped together plausible replies to his polite enquiries. Have you had a long journey, how was your flight, where are you staying, did you sleep well? Don’t get up, Alma, they’ll bring breakfast to us, relax and get your breath back, would you like some water? She sipped from her glass and avoided my eye. Hyakujo was playing things soft and smooth, just as he’d told me he would. Holding his horses, urging me on. Enjoying himself.
Eager students in pale green robes brought fruit and fancy pastries. The coffee was stronger than Alma liked, it muddied her mouth. Last night’s headache tugged at her eyes as he and I warmed up for the fray. No, she hadn’t seen much of the city yet, she’d only just arrived. “In the nick of time, eh?” I said, splitting a pomegranate with a small knife, and Alma felt Hyakujo’s gaze shimmer her way. She had chosen a melon slice and now wondered how to eat it in front of us. I grabbed a dish of croissants, took one for myself and tipped another onto her plate. “Oh, no thanks,” she said, picking it up and forlornly putting it down again.
“Hellfire, surely you’re not as nervous as all that!”
“I am sure you must be hungry,” said Hyakujo, and he piled more food onto her plate, burying the melon beneath a charnel mound of cheese.
“Please don’t. I’m vegan”.
“The venerable old professor has bungled”. He beamed. “Zoe, will you cover my shame and fetch Alma a new plate?”
“I’ll get it,” said Alma, but I was on point, jolting the table just hard enough as I got up. Coffee slopped from Alma’s cup, splattered her white cuff and pooled black on the tablecloth.
Hyakujo kept his face bland and popped a chunk of pastry into his mouth. “It does not matter, no one is judging you on appearances today, hmm?” Alma became more self-conscious about her outfit than ever.
“I’ll pay for the dry cleaning,” I said as I returned triumphant from the crockery stand. “I’m most terribly sorry”.
“It’s not serious. Hardly show when it dries”. She hoped she sounded breezy.
“Oh yes, it could have been much worse,” said Hyakujo. “Thank goodness Zoe had already put down her knife. A slip of the hand and she could have stabbed you between the ribs and killed you outright”.
She flushed at the shock of it. He and I watched and waited. A billow of noise from beyond the screen emphasised her silence.
“Accidentally,” she said at last.
I lounged in my chair, left arm jutting.
“I mean, you can never predict the consequences of your own choices,” said Hyakujo, helping himself to more fruit. “An action that seems innocent, or even positively virtuous – a Samaritan aiding a stranger, a student obeying a teacher – may lead to horror. Each choice is a creature that begets further creatures, an animal that hunts other animals. How then should one choose to act?”
“Karma’s a bitch,” I said. Not the most elegant bon mot, as Hyakujo complained later, but I was keen to push the argument.
Sun pierced the canopy and turned Hyakujo’s hair still redder. “Remind me,” he said, “how did you handle the issue of cause and effect in your thesis?”
She put down the napkin, and I swear I could feel her heartbeat through the earth beneath us. Her moment had arrived.
“That wasn’t really my focus. My research was simply about people who could remember other lives”.
“Yes, of course. I, ah, remember. From your letter,” he added. “And these past lives they claimed to remember, I suppose they were all Roman centurions and Antarctic explorers and handmaidens of Nefertiti and all that sort of thing?”
“I didn’t say claimed.”
“You didn’t say past either,” I said, and I hoped my tone was kind.
“Well, quite,” said Hyakujo. “In any case, not all the lives one looks back on are one’s own”. He and I touched hands under the table. A part of me longed to blurt everything out, to tell her what I knew about the night before, to tell her what Hyakujo was and what I was becoming and what she too might eventually become, if she could just get this next part right. But he sensed my sudden weakness, a weakness begotten of hers, and he did right to shut me down: “So, Alma, how do you rate your chances?”
This breakfast is a bloody car crash, thought Alma, and her chair squealed back from the table. “Perhaps I need to do something about this stain after all. Which way to the bathroom?”
Hyakujo raised an eyebrow at me. He wasn’t ready to give up so easily; he wanted to give her one last chance, one last glimpse. I knew what to do.
“I’ll take you,” I said, and I escorted her out of our screened enclave and into the space beyond.
Her knee ached, the refectory doubled in size with every step. Our path took us between cutlery stands like stupas on a plain. Onwards past the servery queues, robed diners, flowered tables, into the gloomy backstage corridor that hid the bathrooms and emergency exits. There I left her to follow the signs by herself.
As Alma rounded a corner she found her way was blocked. Eight or ten students huddled in congregation, their green and lilac backs towards her. They stared down in silence at something she couldn’t yet see. She nudged through to the front. Then her mind fuzzed, and like a seed in a fold of tablecloth she fell, fell, fell to the ground.
Curled on the beige carpet before her, in the depths of that illogical floor, lay a fox. Its breath was slow, laboured. A gash seeped in its side, sticky as pomegranate; dark blood pooled beneath, stained its white belly. Alma cradled her jacket to her chest like a cub and gazed into the heart of the dying animal. The gleam of its teeth, the etched glass stare. The perfection of each strand of fur, pristine around the ugly wound.
I felt her fingertip uncurl towards the whiskers. I felt the whiskers quiver. Almost, they almost, we almost made contact. But she pulled out at the last minute. She stood, stepped over the body, and limped away.
We never saw her again. Caught the next plane home and disappeared into the woodwork. Did I cause her failure, did she cause my success? Whose then was the failure, and whose the success? Where do my past causes end, and hers begin? I’d hoped – we’d hoped – she would choose to investigate that for herself. Hoped she’d reach out to us.
So she wasn’t ready this time, but that’s ok. She’ll get another chance sooner or later, what goes around always comes around, as Hyakujo himself told me. He gave me his feedback straight after breakfast. I had passed the test with Alma, and in doing so I had secured my place in his lineage. There was still one more test to come, dark and gruelling, both for him and for me, but he knew I would not fail him at the last.
At dinner that evening he publicly announced my appointment as the new director. Perhaps not his replacement, but at any rate his successor. The following morning they found him dead in the street. Red hair, red blood. I’ll never get over the horror. Not until my own turn comes. Then I guess I’ll find out whether the horror of dying is worse than the horror of killing. Whether our two deaths will have been punishment for our mistakes or the reward of a final release.
In the meantime, I’m never without him. I hear him breathe. In quiet courtyards, on empty roads, in dark corridors by night. That’s why I chose to turn this annual conference into his memorial: to keep him alive, or to mark his death. Or both at once. I don’t know which is worse; I don’t know which is which.
Anyway, I wanted to tell you that story. I’m not exactly showing you any favouritism. No, not exactly. But like I say, I’m acknowledging your qualities. Your particular promise.
So, how do you rate your chances?