The Voice of an Echo

Konstantinos Doxiadis

There is a fine line between fiction and reality, and it is here that truth resides. It covers no ground, appropriates no names and establishes no rights. All it does is demarcate, pulling apart one idea from another; splicing the world in two camps - that of affirmation, and of negation. But truth has a further purpose, one that is often overlooked and even rejected. One, that some minds, unable to taste its boons, refer to as ‘faith’.

They talk of faith as the rejection of reason - and they are right in doing so. They talk of faith as the paradigm of irrationality - and they make no mistake in this either. But they fail to see the conceptual core, the essence, of faith, if you will. And that, is illumination. The necessity to forego any reliance in logical connection. The unwavering conviction that two seemingly unrelated properties, are inextricably tied together. And it is only in this way, that truth can transcend convenience. That progress will entail discovery, and not mere redescription.

It is of this truth that I shall speak, and of the mind that strives to uncover it.

There was once a story about a bridge. Or rather, the idea for a story about a bridge, for no words had yet been written. Now, this idea had been brewing in the writer’s mind for months, twisting and writhing to take its first shape. But its truth - the demarcating line, if you will - had yet to be drawn. The voice it would adopt, yet to be clarified. It was this process of constructing a line that most troubled the writer. The stultifying desire to construct his own aesthetic maxims from nought.

And indeed, as the days turned to weeks, and Summer to Autumn bronzed, the writer had not produced a single word worth reading. All he could do was fret of theory and morality. Of intangible things like tone, direction and literary value. As expected, all that these obsessions resulted in, was an inability to push past the first few sentences. Phrases and words: crossed-out and underlined. Repeated periods, lone capitalised letters and exclamations of ire and frustration peppering the margins. After all, his mind was a complete blank! A void of vagueness and indeterminacy, of incomplete forms and washed-out colours. There were no voices, and not even the slightest of sounds. All motion was stilted and halting - a barren wasteland of blandness.

How then, could he be expected to possess strong convictions? To procure whole worlds and characters, hopes dreams and passions from nothing? He could struggle, one might to coax the life out of those thin slivers of an idea. To lift them on their own two dull feet and stare them straight in the eyes. To command, shout and bring them to order. To give them purpose, meaning - a reason to exist. But such things are easier said than done, and when it came to putting pen to paper, the same mire of banalities would arise.

‘There was a bridge…’ he would begin, and then stop in frustration. It’s more than just a bridge.

‘There was a bridge but it was more than just a bridge…’ Horrible! Awful! Trite!

He’d continue in this manner for hours, sighing, huffing and groaning.

The worst thing of all was that he could picture the damn thing. A small, stone-stacked arch, rising sharply above a narrow stream, and surrounded by lush forest. It was early Autumn the way he saw it (always early Autumn), and the corners of the leaves had just started to turn. Some a light brown, and others further along their fate, embracing the first tinges of red. The light was slanted sideways, and he would always be standing with his back to the rays, practically feeling the dying warmth enveloped around his neck. He was elevated, ever so slightly, and could just about hear the trickle of water below. Much louder would be the whispers of the evening breeze, calling to him from amidst the stirring branches.

And sometimes - although he still shuddered at the thought - he could make out a lone man’s shadow, steadily approaching from the opposite bank. Sometimes, when the shadow neared enough that is, the writer could even hear the soft crunch of its feet on the gravel. And, as the shadow emerged from the forest path, feet, legs and a torso protruding from its edges, the writer would quickly cast his eyes gaze downward and stand stock still, doing his best to remain silent.

The writer had never felt this way before, never sensed the force that this shadow of a man seemed to be exuding. And as the sound of foot on gravel grew, the writer would feel the very air around him changing, tightening, growing warmer. He was no longer alone. No longer the inept sovereign of a barren wasteland. He was an observer - a mere inhabitant of a world that pressed forward with a will of its own. A world that did not need, and indeed, seemed to pay little heed, to his desires. But, every time the man reached to place his shadow-linked foot on the bridge, the writer would be stirred from the spell, finding himself at his desk once more, pen in hand and blank paper afore him.

He was afraid. Not of the man or his shadow, for there was nothing ominous in the atmosphere. No, he was afraid of not returning. Of willing himself to imagine the very same scene, but, finding only a frozen postcard. Of never again hearing the trickling stream, the soft, indiscernible whispers of the wind. Of not seeing the dying leaves, stirring helplessly amidst the encroaching gloom. He was afraid of the bridge turning into one more of those barren wastelands he had grown so used to roaming. Those with trees that did not sway, and shadows only of lifeless objects.

What if this ‘force’ proved to be nothing but a figment of his imagination? What if the shadow belonged to no man? A faceless illusion, a play of light, obscured by the shifting branches. And even worse, what if the man existed? If the writer raised his chin and strode boldly towards him, grabbing him by the shoulders. What would he see then?

Nothing of real value can be pulled blindly from the void.

The writer was aware of this.

Truth won’t come of its own accord.

He was aware of this too. But still, he held back. For once a sequence of events has occurred, there is no returning to the past. No way of feigning ignorance. The curse of the present will have taken hold, and all else will be far beyond his grasp. And so he waited, oft burgeoning with expectation, and other times, for a few hours or days, forgetting about the bridge altogether.

It was on such an evening that the writer felt a strong chill take hold. At first, it nipped softly at his fingertips, and then the chill began to spread, up his arms and down his spine. The stabs were now burning, and the writer felt his surroundings dim. He was back at the bridge, within the very same scene he dreaded, but this time he wasn’t elevated above the ground. This time his feet weren’t frozen to the ground. In fact, they drove him forward, traversing swiftly across the bridge, and reaching the zenith of the arch before he even had time to register his surroundings. He felt his heart drum against his chest. Try as he might, he couldn’t clear his mind. Maintaining the vision, focusing on the approaching man, was taking up all of his mental fortitude.

When he did manage to calm himself, he heard the unmistakable crunch of the shadow-man’s feet on gravel. Only this time, the writer raised his eyes.

The shadow lay dormant on the stone, half of it visible, and the other half hanging off the bridge. From its edges sprang the body of a man, a man of flesh and bones, whose chin was cupped within closed fists as his elbows rested on the railings. The writer inched closer, tilting his head sideways to get a better look. The man must have been around forty - but the type of forty that ages prematurely, with weathered cheeks and a creased brow. Bushy brows broke out through his unkempt, umber hair, and below that dark gray eyes, resolutely fixed to the horizon.

The man was called Jan - Jan Kowalcz - and as he shuffled the weight of his body against the railings, his movements betrayed the listlessness of a man who had no more dreams.

There was no desperation in his gaze, no pain, and no regret. Any of these would have signalled hope - the desire for salvation. No, Jan possessed the eyes of a deadened husk. Of a man who had grown used to forfeiting his decisions to the tireless, arbitrary currents of life, devoid of any dams of purpose or conviction.

He had not always been like this. In fact, these very same eyes were once stoked purely by ambition. But, as the years passed, the roaring flames had subsided. Now, in their place, remained two dry, cold chunks of coal, darkened by the bitter dullness of failure.

If the change had been sudden - a drenching with a bucket of cold water, as opposed to the gradual deprivation of oxygen, Jan would not have ended up like this. He would have understood - realised the predicament his life had in store for him, and done something to change it. But fate is a crueller mistress than premonition, and she had snuck up behind him with nary a snicker nor a misstep.

Now, you may ask: How does a man with such a strong sense of purpose manage to lose it without noticing? The answer, unfortunately, lies in the desperation of love…

Anna was nigh on twenty when I first saw her. Dark flowing hair and a lithe body that seemed to deflect the light from whichever angle it struck her. And her eyes. Oh, her eyes… Glowing black cores that would enthral and enrapture. How they shined when she laughed! When she threw her head back and her shoulders convulsed with mirth. How joyous she seemed - how utterly in control!

Jan didn’t want to say he fell in love with her then, for if things had been as simple as all that, the past would not have materialised the way it had. He had been allured. Drawn in whenever she spoke, aching to find himself in her company, to follow her movements and catch the glint in her eyes. To hear her laugh…

And soon, even that wasn’t enough. The desire for Anna turned into a desire for a connection with Anna. He had to be the one to move her, to make her laugh and smile and lock her eyes on him. To tell her of his dreams and inhibitions, of the countless nights he had spent roaming the streets alone. Of the deep solitude that would lie in wait in the corners, straining to haunt him. Of the darkness in his room, and the warmth with which he would greet it, whenever he returned.

He ached for her recognition. For that soft smile that would barely crease her cheeks, just when she thought no one was looking. The sad, mystical smile of recollection, borne of a past that no one else was privy to. The ultimate concession that she too was mortal, that behind those impenetrable eyes lay a swirling mass of thoughts and emotions, of hopes, desires and regrets much like his.

And what regrets indeed! What a fool I had been. What a coward. How I had delayed the decision and deliberated. Appeased myself with the promise of ‘tomorrow,’ starting from that night before the graduation, and extending to the countless evenings thereafter. As we skirted around each other at parties and dinners, until I finally mustered the courage to ask her for a date. Then came our walks in the parks - we must have worn the dirt-paths out in every single one of them, endless hours of walking, each time getting closer to divulging my feelings, and each time stopping myself at the last moment, giving in to the mouting pressure.

She was the one that finally made the first advance - something that I can never forgive myself for. Raising herself up and giving me a swift peck on the lips before rushing up the stairs to her apartment, casting back a shy grin and breathing out a soft ‘goodnight’. I stood there for the better part of an hour. Oh, what a fool she’d  think I was if she had seen! Just standing there, eyes fixed on the shut door.

Their first night together, their first holiday, their first quarrel. Each and every one of them, replaying itself constantly in his mind. The variations shifting, the possible actions and words changing, the emotions fading and resurfacing. It was truly a curse that had befallen him, for once that most unlikely of futures had materialised - the one that he had dreamt of for so long - all he could do was delve into the past. Attempt to savour each and every moment in retrospect, twisting the sounds, the images, the shy glances and laughs over and over in his mind. Until the line between truth and falsehood had vanished. Until imagination was memory, and memory a living, breathing feature of the present.

But no man can live in two realities at the same time. Thus, as Jan threw himself into the security and comfort of that which has been, so too did he neglect and forego his occupation with that which is. After all, Anna was with him, and he with her, and life was beautiful. What did it matter if she didn’t understand him any more? If his actions seemed piteous, weak or inadequate? He could always revisit them in his head. Always make sure to think, to truly think and see what was meant to be. He had convinced himself of this. Or rather, he had become convinced, for by this stage he was barely capable of adequate reasoning.

As the banal practicalities of life kept forcing themselves upon him - jobs, family, debt, obligations, illness, strife - so too did his aspirations suffer. By the end of their first few years together, his visions for the future, once so potent and proud, were naught but withered stumps, barely dragging themselves above the ground.

He paid Anna no heed, for Anna was an ideal. She was perfection personified, and perfection needs no tending to flourish. But the more Jan dug himself into his worries, the more he forgot the reason he had fallen in love with Anna in the first place. The ache of recognition had dulled by now, and the desire to understand, to bond with one another had all but faded. All he could think of was himself. The endless mire of problems that plagued him, and the increasingly overbearing world, looming above his head. Sometimes, as she softly slept beside him, Jan would force himself to lie awake, watching the shadows flitting through the shutter slats and playing across the ceiling. Moving in the very same way that Anna once had, when the mere sight of her had been enough to enslave him.

The next day the writer awoke early. He dressed and sat at the table, staring blankly ahead. He had made progress, there was no doubt about that, but in many ways, he now had even more ground to cover. An existence to fulfil, and a world to recapture. Last night’s efforts had merely produced an inkling of life, and the dried words masked a much deeper truth beneath them. What would Jan do moving forward? What did Anna think of all this? And what was the role of the bridge, shrouded and masked as it was by the evening mist?

He tried to return half-heartedly, as he sat there on the table, but of course, nothing happened. Yes, he could picture the bridge, and Jan’s features were much clearer than before, but there was no movement. No colour, no sounds. Most importantly, there was no independence. He was the sovereign mover once more. He imagined a tree, and a tree appeared. The river started flowing, and with a flick of his wrist, Jan’s head snapped around to stare at him. But this time, the creases of pain were gone from his face, and the regret that flecked his irises was lost in the fading light.

The writer shuddered. Where was the fire that had consumed him yesterday? Why was the man afore him exuding no influence, no force?

He stood from the desk and filled his kettle with water, drumming his fingertips on the counter as it boiled.

But even the momentary return evaporated, slipping from the corners of his mind as the kettle whistled and steamed.

The writer cursed himself and focused on the same image once more. Jan. The bridge. The shadow slowly creeping. The water flowing below, the soft wind rustling through the leaves. The sunset, dark crimson hues colouring the Autumn leaves, and the light gleaming over shallow waters. The stones beneath the current, always immobile, but their image rippling alongside the shifting rapids.

But he knew it was doomed. That the life he had witnessed could not be rebuilt on a whim. His chance had passed, and the moment had passed. For without a doubt, creation relies on conviction, and conviction cannot be misplaced. It cannot be guided or ignored, and commitment to the finality of truth, entails commitment to the everlasting stench of failure. Jan was gone. The bridge, was gone. The writer knew he could not return. It would only be a farce, a meaningless, pointless farce.

There is no second chance with time. No reversing the effects of temporality.

And so, the writer forced himself to forget. First of the movements and the sounds, and then of the ideas, of the very images themselves, until Jan was once more a complete stranger. Until his youth with Anna a fable, and the bridge a prop in some fictional reality.

There was no longer hope or dejection. An unquenchable sense that something must be done. The story was gone - it was as simple as that - and thus, it could not be completed.

The writer tunnelled onward, pulling out new sheets and inking his nib once more. He moved onto new stories, forcing his mind to sharpen and focus. The pile of forgotten lives cast away into the furthest corners of his mind.

The whispers rose and curled around the arch, and the mist whet its light touch against the stone. As the trickle broke through the silence, the man raised his head. His eyes, grief-torn and burning with darkness shone ahead. His knuckles paled as he gripped the rails. His nostrils flared, and the images ravaging his troubled mind burst forth - all the lies, the truths, the claims the promises.

They stood proudly before him, and he, without a single hint of familiarity, stared them down, watching as the faded with the light. They were no longer a part of him, not really.

You see, the writer had not been entirely mistaken. The story had evaded him, and it was certain that he would not be walking across the same bridge again. But somewhere within that curved line, splitting apart reality and imagination, stood Jan, standing resolute on the bridge and thinking of Anna. Of her billowing hair and the glint in her eyes. Of the eternal whisper of her laughter, and the echoes that would persist, dancing across the forest for eternity.

Konstantinos Doxiadis

I’m a recent philosophy graduate from the University of Cambridge interested in philosophy of language and formal logic, with an emphasis on the relation between formal and natural languages. When not writing about philosophy or logic (which I suspect will be quite often!), I will be focusing on prose and verse, where my main aim is to investigate the malleability of voice in narrative, and what effects this has on literary works.

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