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Oystermouth Whispers

Chapter 1: The Legionnaire 

 

I wondered if my memories were what made me, me. If I had the memories of another, would I be less than me, or more? As a boy, I had good reason to ponder these questions, particularly as I grew to realize the thoughts, that had always swirled in my head, were not quite normal. Fortunately, I had the sense to do what everyone else did, ignore the problem and adopt a pretense of normality. This lasted until the day I realized that you couldn’t merely imagine yourself into fluency in an ancient dialect of Latin. Nor could you merely imagine the location of a long-lost Egyptian temple buried thousands of years ago beneath the burning sands. And most definitely you couldn’t just imagine a hundred ways to kill with a Roman short sword. This was only the start. I was just a normal boy, I went to school every day, watched too much TV, did too little homework, secretly liked a girl and wasn’t particularly talented at anything as far as I knew. If I was normal, however, how could I know these things? I was fifteen years old and about to find out, about to wish that I had never asked that question.

The memories sharing the chaos of my adolescent thoughts were mostly from a man that I knew to be named Alair. This name meant ‘the joyful’ and I sensed the irony in this name as I recalled his painful memories as a centurion in a cavalry regiment of Rome’s seemingly unstoppable military machine. The story of my own life is intertwined in his and it is impossible to understand the paths that I have taken without knowing the paths of the centurion, Alair. His story connected to mine at a moment in time when he chose to defy the might of the Roman Empire to save a girl. This single decision set in action a series of events that ultimately, over 2000 years later, changed my life forever. It all started with a peculiar door that Alair found on one of his distant campaigns.

Alair came to Wales with this door. It was very difficult to have anything but a long and arduous journey in the days of the Roman Empire and Alair had good reason for bringing a door, not generally an easy travel companion, for it held the key to many mysteries that occupied Alair’s thoughts, and later mine. By the time he had the door in his possession, he was a renegade, hunted by the Roman Army. His escape from the Romans had brought him to a point less than three days walk from the site of the future Roman fortress at Caerleon, Wales - ruins now. Alair with a single companion brought the door here, to this very spot on this isolated coast, at the very edge of the Roman Empire, which meant to Alair, the end of the world. The door, after thousands of years, came to stand in the upstairs corridor of my house. It could not be opened, nor could it be damaged. As I grew up, it stood perfectly still and whispered to me the memories of those whose lives it had touched. Through these whispered memories I gradually began to see the story of Alair and the door. I also came to realize that it was not the door that whispered, but something that lay in wait, behind. 

In the days when Alair had ridden into battle for Rome, the Empire was at the height of its magnificence, at the pinnacle of its glory and power. Wales was about as far from Rome as a place could be. It was a wild territory, a cruel and violent land, at least for a Roman soldier. It was an impoverished place in which no Roman would think to look for a jewel, a very dangerous jewel; a solid oak jewel in the shape of a door. It was the perfect hiding place for the door that Alair had stumbled upon on a tour of lands that were yet to be subsumed into the Empire of Rome. 

As Julius Caesar was heading the main force of the Roman Army along the banks of the Nile toward the ancient cities, into the heart of Egyptian power, Alair was part of a mounted contingent sweeping through scattered populations in the isolated delta areas. It was in a small, desolate Egyptian outpost that Alair’s story begins. It would be a long ride in the months ahead, after securing the delta, on their way to the famed ancient cities built for both the living and the dead. A Decurion by rank, he was in the process of leading a squadron of thirty mounted soldiers into a temple complex when he came across the door. Although there was no other soldier in the cohort who even gave this gateway a second glance, Alair was drawn to it instantly. He had long felt himself being drawn toward an unknown destination. Ever since his departure from the mighty city of Rome, he had been drawn to this spot at the foot of the door. It was a destination wrapped up in a fate written for him as a young boy, stolen from his mother’s arms to fight and die for an unknown cause. Alair had assumed that the place in which his fate would play itself unto its bloody conclusion would be in the battles for these sun-bleached lands. Deep down, however, he felt that he had reached his destination; this didn’t make sense and he, above all things, loved the nonsensical. I could see all of this in these secondhand thoughts of Alair that filled my mind. 

I could tell from these thoughts, or fragments of thoughts, that Alair knew there was something special about the impossibly smooth oak door when he had come upon it during the requisition. I use the term ‘requisition’ as it is my best interpretation of the concept embedded in the thought of Alair. There were parts of this thought that I thankfully couldn’t seem to reconcile with my own experience. I could catch glimpses of a mother’s screams, the blood of a brother smeared on a wall, the wail of the daughter carried away, the smell of the burning flesh cleansing the last of the former occupants who had tried to resist the intrusion. Now it was a Roman home, formerly Egyptian. This was my first experience of war through Alair’s memories, defeat and victory, subjugation and release. It was a secondhand thought and within it there was horror. 

The thoughts told me much about Alair. He followed orders. He did what he was told to do. He mostly refrained from doing what he was told not to do. He was a good soldier. He was a respected legionnaire. He was a man who could be trusted and counted on to be brave and loyal. He was all this, at least until the instant the thought that was now in my mind, Alair’s secondhand thought, had formed in his. 

Alair saw the man, senior in rank, carry away the girl while the mother screamed and the beaten brother picked himself up only to be brutally pinned down once again under Roman feet. Hands tied roughly they could only watch in terror as the girl was carried away. They were all now slaves. The pretty young girl was bound for a different market. 

Alair knew from experience that this is what happened when a healthy family was taken. The old and the resistors were killed without mercy and the young and the saleable were taken. How else was the Empire to expand and thrive? Everybody knew that; knew it and believed it, for there was no other possible truth. Alair however had always felt that he was slightly different from the other soldiers in his unit. He had always had difficulty accepting these truths that he was told, the truths that everyone around him believed without question. 

He was leaning against the ancient oak door, perfectly smooth, glistening like the lake of his dream, the one he had seen since childhood, as a boy on the high plains of Hispania within the mighty fist of the Roman armies. It was a magnificent door, without a mark despite its obvious age. The door was cool and gave him a peculiar feeling; it was peaceful, ironic considering the work in which he was currently engaged, destroying a people and their culture to rebuild it in the image of the great Roman dream. Yet even though he had seen death and destruction within the last hour and could still smell the stench of the burning, he felt alive and yes, it was hope that was stirring, hope that it did not always have to be this way, at least for him. 

This was how he felt as a boy before he learnt to shut away the doubt, the question as to what was true and what was not. He had learnt to expel the thoughts that made him seek his answers and this allowed him peace, for a child who sought his answers lasted but a little while in those savage times on the plains. It was a peace that left him feeling hollow. Those thoughts were stirring once more, although this time he had the body of a warrior and a sword at his side. This time he let his doubts rise and he saw the world anew. He let the distant coolness flow through the door into his body and he knew that there was no going back. His sky would never again be of the same hue and at this, he smiled for the first time in many a year. 

Still leaning against the door he saw, in this new world with its most welcome hue, the young girl on the soldier’s shoulder. A deeply polished wooden bangle about her wrist caught his attention for it was the same as the oak upon which he leant. He felt something else besides the refreshing doubt rise from the depths of his soul, a sense of rage at the injustice, at the cruelty, at the inhumanity of this scene in which he had been a willing player. He did not expel these thoughts; repress them as he had done so successfully, so many times before. It was the mother’s tears that beckoned this rage from deep within, the mother’s tears that would alter the course of his life forever. He left his position at the door an altered man, a man with a cleared vision, following the soldier who carried the Roman prize with her polished wooden bangle. 

The house was large with floors and walls of rough-cut stone absorbing all sound, refusing to allow an echo in their cool aloofness. The tone of the solid house was that of begrudging acceptance of these minor human events that one way or another would soon pass. The pair was moving quickly through the house toward a fate that would not come to pass, not if he still had blood in his veins, of this he was sure. The girl was struggling up on the shoulder of the soldier although her bound hands and feet prevented her from hindering her abductor. The soldier gave her little thought; she was merely a prize, of little interest outside of his orders to intern her in the waiting cart. They were nearing the entrance and if they passed through the door into the light of the street all would be lost. He did not know how he knew this, how he sensed the finality of the loss of this girl to this particular fate. He ran in an arc approaching them from the side. The stone floor swallowed his steps; the shadows concealed his movements until it was too late for the unsuspecting soldier. For a man who had survived the bloodshed of a dozen close battles, and had inflicted countless fatal wounds, there was no mistake in this simple affair. He dragged the fallen soldier into the corner; eyes still open with surprise, staring accusingly from the death mask, his last thoughts apparent in the frozen features. 

The girl with the wooden bangle was lying on the ground staring straight into his eyes and hers were not the eyes of a young girl as he had originally thought. She was slight but looked to be a young woman, not a girl, with eyes much older than her slim body suggested. He could sense no fear in those eyes. It was a stubborn resignation, but not of defeat, it was more a resignation of the moment. She would wait. There was danger in those eyes. She was expecting no mercy and there was something in her stare that sent a chill down his spine as he could see that she would offer none either. Wisely he decided to keep her tied up. 

Dragging the spent soldier to the dark corner away from the entrance and throwing sand on the blood trail, he picked her up and placed her between a set of shelves, looted and left in tatters. No one would be back to search through this shortly he thought. She would be safe for the moment, although now his life and hers were inextricably linked. Their fates were tied and she would only live now if he did. As those chances seemed very slim at that particular moment in time he wondered briefly whether it would have been better for both himself and the girl if he had chosen to continue leaning on the strange door and let her go, as he had let countless others to their fates in the past. He realized that he probably would have let the moment pass if it had been any other door than that cool, ancient shining oak that let the doubts rise; that cleared the mind. He had not let the moment pass, and he suddenly realized that life is just a series of countless moments where we either act or we do not, he began to smile for the second time that day. He knew now that he had to take control of his life as well as of this unexpected situation. Now it was time to hunt, an activity at which he excelled. 

He could have kept up the pretence of his duties and murdered the six Romans left in the house one by one, but this was not in his nature. He walked from room to room and slew the soldiers as they came. Although he wore the uniform of a legionnaire it is the eyes that identify the enemy, they saw him and they knew. The slaughter saddened him for many were mere boys, just like him a few years ago, stolen from the arms of a wailing mother, short sword at the throat of a defeated father, by the towering, gleaming legionnaires. The oldest sons of all the defeated were to fight for the Roman Empire, for an idea of Empire and Civilization, to fight and die for a mirage that they all knew for a lie.

 

Fifteen years of age, from a long defeated people, ashamed of his tears, hiding his face, his last image of his parents was his father’s riding boots and his mother’s tears, splashing in the dust of their faded leather. The soft, forgiving leather that he knew so well, the leather he had oiled every night since he was old enough to mount a horse, for the boots are special on the plains, an honour to touch. Worn, honourable, honest leather, cleansed with a mother’s tears. Ten long and bitter years had passed and he had not returned. He was saddened that the remaining soldiers in this house would never live to see the leather of their father’s riding boots, nor the yarn of their mother’s fishing nets. Death awaited them as it does us all he thought. He moved on to yet another room of ancient rough sandstone awaiting its fresh, coating of sickly sweet blood. 

When it was done he dragged the bodies of the slain soldiers into the fire, which still smoldered with this morning’s dead. This morning it was an Egyptian home, a Roman home by lunch, once again Egyptian. The house was right to silently mock these petty human affairs. The only change for the house since morning was death, and the desert air would soon cleanse its sticky aftermath and unpleasant smells. It was but a passing moment. As the Roman bodies melted, fueling the fire already engulfed by flames amid the cooking oils, Alair heard Roman shouts from the front room and a woman scream. It was the first time he had heard her voice as she had been roughly gagged since morning. ‘Perfect!’ he muttered to himself as he walked to his doom. Not even with the newfound clarity of thought that he had so recently gained could he see any way out of this house alive with the garrison alerted to the presence of a traitor. 

Never being one to dwell on bad luck he drew his sword and ran into the room thinking the same thoughts that he did every time he entered battle. These thoughts were not of blood and violence, nor death and destruction. He drifted to the lavender fields of his youth, the barley grown head high, the singing at the gatherings, the neighbours’ daughter with whom he had an innocent and secret understanding, his horse, a young foal that had been left for dead after injuring her leg in a fall but had gradually recovered under his watchful gaze and tender care over many months. These were his thoughts as he ran into the room, just like all of the other battles, so he could survive the blood and violence. With the warmth of these thoughts he almost wished to be released by an opponent’s sword and ironically he knew that this was what had prolonged his life and made him such a successful soldier over the years; not martial skill, although he certainly had this. Rather, it was a reckless abandon for his own life that allowed him to live to this seemingly ripe old age of twenty-five amid the senseless violence of the colonial conquests to which he had been enslaved in the name of the Roman Emperor. As he ran into the room an already dripping sword placed skillfully at his throat abruptly halted his charge. He thought of his old horse and closed his eyes ready to join her. 

Slightly disappointed, feeling air still moving through his throat, he opened his eyes to see what was causing the delay. At once he realized that he would not be dispatched on the blade of a Roman sword although he may well breathe his last breath on the edge of an Egyptian blade. A dead centurion lay at his feet. From behind the blade at his throat, very large and very dark eyes were staring at his face, as they had a short time before. She was wondering what to do with this somewhat unpredictable centurion, the man with curiosity in his eyes where fear and hate should have been. As a legionnaire, he had been taught, if in doubt, to kill. It was a pragmatic and effective strategy for reducing risk. He was hoping very much in that instant that she had not read that particular manual. What followed can only be described as an uncomfortable silence while she decided and he waited, both quite patiently considering the circumstances. Sandals on pavers outside forced a decision. 

He spoke her tongue, which probably saved his life, ‘Your family!’ he whispered as the blade drew blood, even from this tiny movement. Language indeed binds us in strange and unpredictable ways. He thought that it was not that she trusted him or particularly wanted him to draw another breath, in hostile territory where friend and foe are as much defined by culture and language as by the cut or colour of the uniform, a shared language is a powerful bond; at least powerful enough to spark the curiosity of this mysterious Egyptian with the ferocious and somewhat unforgiving stare. The blade was dropped to his stomach, giving him room to turn around in the narrow hall into which he was pushed until he felt the sharp sting of a pointed blade in the small of his back, just above his kidneys. She had not spoken but the message was clear. She would never be accused of subtlety, he thought. 

Moving down the hall they heard knuckles rap on the entrance door, followed by shouts and much movement around the fortified sides of the house. As they reached the inner room where the family lay tied, awaiting enslavement or death – unfortunately for them probably both, first one, and then the other – the rap on the front door had become a monstrous crash as a small ram went about its steady work. One occupation in which an invading army excelled was gaining entry into places where residents offered no invitation. The breach would be made within minutes he thought. He had, in his reckless attempt to save them, doomed them all. Was death better than slavery? He noticed that she had dropped the blade. The girl with the wooden bangle had realized that there were more pressing concerns than this troublesome Roman. It was also possible, he thought, that she sensed his reception with the awaiting soldiers who would be joining them shortly would be even more unpleasant than hers. This gave him a temporary air of respectability in this house under siege. 

The girl with the wooden bangle held her mother’s hand and walked toward the door that Alair had leaned on and felt the strange coolness. The mother, old and frail, took the brother’s hand and placed it gently in her own. The brother stared straight ahead and smiled, not at the old lady but into the distance. Alair realized at that moment that the boy was blind. He took the hand of his mother and followed. This strange procession seemed pointless, as there was no place to go. They were heading toward the shining oak door, the twin of the bangle. It seemed to Alair that they had better take up defensive positions for their last few moments of life. As usual, his breathing slowed and thoughts of the young horse of his childhood swirled through his mind, the horse that shouldn’t have lived but did, just like himself on so many occasions. Warm, comforting thoughts of family and meals and purpose; building instead of destroying, caring instead of indifference, asking instead of blind acceptance. These thoughts flowed from the image of his horse. Yes, he would join her soon, wherever her light had flowed. It was no use cowering behind a door, even one of solid oak. He would stand and they, these hardened boy soldiers stolen from their families in the name of the Empire, would remember the day he chose to ask why.

Short sword held in front, ready for whatever came down the hallway, he looked around to see the family beside the door, still holding hands in that doomed procession. The girl raised her hand and the wooden bangle on her wrist shimmered as it neared the twin polish of that deep, impossibly smooth oak. The bangle was pulled toward the door and hit with a loud metallic thud as if two broad swords were meeting in an angry full swing, an unforgiving sound. The girl moved the bangle around the surface of the door in an intricate pattern that spoke of the easy familiarity of routine. Pulling her arm back, she removed the bangle from the door without resistance and the family, holding hands, waited. Holding a small smooth stone in her hand, she finally looked up at Alair and with a cautious smile spoke in a soft voice, the first time he had heard anything other than a defiant scream leave her lips. It was gentle and patient, ‘Do you wish to know?’ A moment’s silence was followed by a soft, inviting, ‘Come, your fate has not yet been sealed centurion.’

 

Chapter 2: A Dream

 

Early in the twenty-first century, more than two millennia after these events the repercussions of this meeting in the Egyptian desert were still being felt in my subconscious mind. I had come to know Alair and the girl he saved intimately, through their thoughts whispered to me by the door over the years, yet I could never really know them. I had come to doubt that I even understood what it was to know. 

Growing up with Alair’s memories constantly emerging in my head, I tried to ignore them the best I could. I just wanted them to go away. It was the way I dealt with most problems and it had proven effective for most other things. I couldn’t ignore the growing clarity of my dreams, however, and there was one recurring dream that stayed with me during my early days growing up close to that whispering door. 

I had been increasingly thinking that when my dream took on a sense of clarity that my waking hours lacked, it would be time to worry. I was fifteen and I was suddenly very worried, longing for those times when my days were clear, my dreams obscure. I only had a vague idea at the time that I was living with the memories of someone else and it was this that I couldn’t face. On one particular day, I woke up understanding that it was not just my imagination. I woke to the realization that I had the memories of another.

My recurring dream centred on a lake, that like many places and events in our lives, on the surface was beautiful and inviting unless of course the surface was scratched. Shimmering, smooth, reflecting only what I wanted to see, no more, swallowing all else in its silky blackness, I drifted. I saw myself lying half-submerged on its gentle surface, calmed by the soothing flow of water on my skin, eyes scanning the pale blue sky above, from horizon to horizon, searching only for the answers I wanted to find. The answers to the only questions of which I was brave enough to ask. I listened to the whispers. In this dream, I asked myself, as I watched this scene from unknown heights, ‘Why don’t I roll over and look down, peer into the depths of the icy blackness?’ I knew the answer was there, lingering, waiting for me to just glimpse; the source of those soft voices. It would be that terrifyingly simple to know the truth. Even as I watched, detached, and asked myself this question, I knew the answer, for I had dreamed this dream a thousand times. Of course, it wasn’t because I didn’t want to know, I was simply afraid of never seeing my beautiful, reassuringly familiar sky again. As fond as I was of self-denial I had to admit at least this. I knew that once I rolled back, my peaceful, cloudless blue sky would never be the same. 

So I watched and waited, listening to the endless whispers, looking upwards for the answer that I knew I would never find, as the answers lay below. Yet I was unprepared to let go of the beauty and the innocence in which I was enveloped. I clung to my familiar sky and avoided the darkness, that brooding silence that lurked beneath, from where the voices flowed. I knew, even within the dream, that the time to look had finally come. It had always been the same until that moment. It was just a glimpse that I stole. I woke, heart pounding; the name of Alair was on my lips. 

I opened my eyes from the dream and for the first time in my short life, I could see everything. It took a second to realize that my life would never be the same. Everything I had always wanted, had always dreaded. I was getting them both and it took just a quick glimpse; yet of the infinite possibilities that suddenly opened up in front of me in that curious moment, the only one that was truly appealing, closing my eyes and retreating into the unconscious, was the one that was truly out of my reach. After all, I was just a kid and it was a school day. 

My dilemma had started the afternoon of the previous day. It was in the last rather forbidding corridor of my parent’s house, in front of the room that I had come to frequent, to which I was incessantly, inexplicably drawn by the whispers that I was not sure I could even hear. They felt as if they were on the edge of my consciousness; a noise that I could only vaguely discern and only if I concentrated very hard, something I tried to avoid, as in those days it reminded me too much of school. As I approached the door these almost silent voices didn’t exactly grow louder, my consciousness of them grew. It was difficult to explain and the only one who knew about these whispers was Clarrie, my ever-faithful, accepting little sister. The whispering from behind the door was something that belonged to her big brother’s world she thought, something she didn’t question, as it was just one more piece in the puzzle of an older sibling that needed to be left alone. It was the belief that she would one day come to understand this ‘big people’ business when she was older. She was too young to know that most people would think me insane and that in fact, I had my doubts. Luckily we tend to measure our sanity relative to the judgments of those close to us. Clarrie’s innocence kept me sane.

The whispers came from behind the door and I wanted to know more. As I grew, so did my obsession with the door, fed by a single purpose, a strange mix of curiosity and stubborn restlessness. The door came to define a purpose, a specific purpose for a growing lad looking for meaning in life through the revelation of secrets. Strangely, adolescents look for meaning in secrets, in forbidden knowledge whereas by mid-life that curiosity has not been sated so much as abandoned. This is the true crisis of middle age. As a boy, however, I was relentless in the pursuit of this single purpose, which was an end and a means in itself. I think you could say I was not only sane, I was happy. 

The purpose wasn’t seeing what was on the other side; the purpose was the passing of a barrier, the defeat of an obstacle. I was curious to see whether it could be done and whether I could be the one to do it. The whispers were an excuse. It was the only door that I had not breached and even though, curiously enough, it was the only one from which I heard these unearthly whispers. The contents of the room were a secondary consideration, merely providing additional motivation; not that it was needed. I did not have many talents, yet I had always possessed a certain knack for gaining entry. For a young boy, with what many would describe as a somewhat excessive sense of curiosity, growing up in a house with an inaccessible space, the following series of events were inevitable, fated. It was only later however that I came to dwell on concepts such as fate. At fifteen years old there wasn’t time for such pondering. The door and the space it protected so well became an obsession, one that still lingers all these years later. 

Our house, on a small rural property just outside the town of Oystermouth on the rugged Welsh Coast, had a history my father liked to say. When asked about this ‘history’ he often mentioned the names of various dead people and he always lost me at this point, which seemed to be the intention. I had always thought that if all we knew were their names and the particular triumphs and disasters that they happened to experience, it wasn’t the past. It was just death. Death to me wasn’t interesting; life was. My only interest in history was where our house and in particular that door came from and why the whispers spoke to me in a language that I had never studied nor spoken yet understood perfectly. I valued my apparent normality so I kept this to myself of course. What fifteen-year-old can understand Latin? Yes, I guarded this secret closely.

Latin - it was a dead language, a part of history. I didn’t think that we would come to understand anything of substance from the past unless we linked the dead to the living; how these events and people who lived in different times and places affected us. I found that teachers at school had taken exception to this particular, apparently problematic outlook for some reason and after a few stern and excruciatingly boring lectures I had learned to keep these thoughts to myself. I don’t mind sternness, you get used to that, and I knew that my poor, somewhat misguided teachers couldn’t help themselves but I had always had a physical aversion to boredom. The past to me existed in the crumbling walls of Oystermouth Castle or the excavated Roman ruins at Caerleon where I could lie on the beautiful grass banks of the ancient amphitheatre and feel the history. I didn’t need names and dates cloaked in death to make the past real. I needed to run my hand over the crumbling rocks and lay my head on the soft grass of the ruins. Sometimes I could almost feel the thoughts of those ancient peoples in the whispers. I could never feel this in the classroom. History, real history, was the thoughts and ideas of those peoples, who lived and died, lived and died, and lived and died yet again. 

My constant battle against the pressing tide of classroom boredom shouldn’t be blamed completely on my teachers. They were not so much the cause of it; rather they were merely complicit in its aggravation. I had always felt as if I was set slightly apart from my peers, different in an unidentifiable sense, if you could ignore my fluency in a dead language that I, as far as I knew, had never heard before. Of course, I rationalized that if the other students felt this way then I was perfectly normal. Deep down I suspected that this feeling I had originated in my seeming inability to accept widely acknowledged truths and social customs. This would be difficult even for an adult so imagine what it would do to the world of a young boy navigating the mysteries of formal schooling and the social institution of the playground. I just couldn’t help myself. I always needed proof. I always needed to know how I knew something and why I knew this and not something else. To make it worse, I seemed to have an uncontrollable urge to ask myself, ‘Should I believe this?’ Of course, I just assumed that there was something wrong with my brain and my classmates and teachers supported this interpretation of my mental state, although they didn’t know the worst of it. 

There was only one exception, Brona, a girl in my class who always seemed to listen when the others would yawn or sneer. She was the only one who looked like she wanted to hear an answer too. Unfortunately, neither of us got even close to an answer and we never discussed it. I was so shy I couldn’t find the courage to talk to her, although I wanted to do so more than anything. She kept to herself at school. Under that delicate lock of hair beneath which she hid from the world so effectively, her smile was beautiful and I was terrified of her. So, I just kept asking those questions and my teachers and classmates kept rolling their eyes. Life went on with my thoughts orbiting the girl with a beautiful smile. Life was confusing, yet simple. 

 

Chapter 3: An Accident

 

With this affliction, as I had come to view my form of critical curiosity, history as a subject at school posed certain difficulties. These connections of the present to the past weren’t something that I consciously thought about, rather it was a feeling that I had. It was something that I intuitively understood. I couldn’t quite explain it, but I had a sense of the past, a sense of beginnings. I had a feeling that the things that had happened long ago were connected to the present in ways that I couldn’t explain; in ways that perhaps couldn’t be explained. I am not sure that even if the teachers had taken the time to listen that I would have been able to explain it then. I had a sense that our house and that room in particular were connected to things of great importance. I sensed danger as well but I knew that I was no more capable of practicing restraint than my teachers were capable of accepting ideas that weren’t bound in musty books. Unfortunately, my parents and my teachers couldn’t help me understand the history of my house, the past within which it was bound, and how it connected to my present. I would have to find out myself and this was what led me back, again and again to the door...

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Chapter 1: The Legionnaire 

I wondered if my memories were what made me, me. If I had the memories of another, would I be less than me, or more than me. As a boy, I had good reason to ponder these questions, particularly as I grew to realize that the thoughts, which had always swirled in my head, were not quite normal. Fortunately I had the sense to do what everyone else did, ignore the problem and adopt a pretense of normality. This lasted until the day I realized that you couldn’t merely imagine yourself into fluency in an ancient dialect of Latin. Nor could you merely imagine the location of a long lost Egyptian temple buried thousands of years ago beneath the burning sands. And most definitely you couldn’t just imagine a hundred ways to kill with a Roman short sword. This was only the start. I was just a normal boy, I went to school everyday, watched too much TV, did too little homework, secretly liked a girl and wasn’t particularly talented at anything as far as I knew. If I was normal however, how could I know these things? I was fifteen years old and about to find out, about to wish that I had never asked that question.

The memories sharing the chaos of my own adolescent thoughts were mostly from a man that I knew to be named Alair. This name meant ‘the joyful’ and I sensed the irony in this name as I recalled his painful memories as a centurion in a cavalry regiment of Rome’s seemingly unstoppable military machine. The story of my own life is intertwined in his and it is impossible to understand the paths that I have taken without knowing the paths of the centurion, Alair. His story connected to mine at a moment in time when he chose to defy the might of the Roman Empire to save a girl. This single decision set in action a series of events that ultimately, over 2000 years later, changed my life forever. It all started with a peculiar door that Alair found on one of his distant campaigns.

Alair came to Wales with this door. It was very difficult to have anything but a long and arduous journey in the days of the Roman Empire and Alair had good reason for bringing a door, not generally an easy travel companion, for it held the key to a number of mysteries that occupied Alair’s thoughts, and later mine. By the time he had the door in his possession he was a renegade, hunted by the Roman Army. His escape from the Romans had brought him to a point less than three days walk from the site of the future Roman fortress at Caerleon, Wales - ruins now. Alair with a single companion brought the door here, to this very spot on this isolated coast, at the very edge of the Roman Empire, which literally meant to Alair, the end of the world. The door, after thousands of years, came to stand in the upstairs corridor of my house. It could not be opened, nor could it be damaged. As I grew up, it stood perfectly still and whispered to me the memories of those whose lives it had touched. Through these whispered memories I gradually began to see the story of Alair and the door. I also came to realize that is was not the door that whispered, but something that lay in wait, behind. 

In the days when Alair had ridden into battle for Rome, the Empire was at the height of its magnificence, at the pinnacle of its glory and power. Wales was about as far from Rome as a place could be. It was wild territory, a cruel and violent land, at least for a Roman soldier. It was an impoverished place in which no Roman would think to look for a jewel, a very dangerous jewel; a solid oak jewel in the shape of a door. It was the perfect hiding place for the door that Alair had stumbled upon on a tour of lands that were yet to be subsumed into the Empire of Rome. 

As Julius Caesar was heading the main force of the Roman Army along the banks of the Nile toward the ancient cities, into the heart of Egyptian power, Alair was part of a mounted contingent sweeping through scattered populations in the isolated delta areas. It was in a small, desolate Egyptian outpost that Alair’s story begins. It would be a long ride in the months ahead, after securing the delta, on their way to the famed ancient cities built for both the living and the dead. A Decurion by rank, he was in the process of leading a squadron of thirty mounted soldiers into a temple complex when he came across the door. Although there was no other soldier in the cohort who even gave this gateway a second glance, Alair was drawn to it instantly. In fact, he had long felt himself being drawn toward an unknown destination. Ever since his departure from the mighty city of Rome, he had been drawn to this spot at the foot of the door. It was a destination wrapped up in a fate written for him as a young boy, stolen from his mother’s arms to fight and die for an unknown cause. Alair had assumed that the place in which his fate would play itself unto its bloody conclusion would be in the battles for these sun-bleached lands. Deep down however, he felt that he had reached his destination; this didn’t make sense and he, above all things, loved the nonsensical. I could see all of this in these secondhand thoughts of Alair that filled my mind. 

I could tell from these thoughts, or fragments of thoughts, that Alair knew there was something special about the impossibly smooth oak door when he had come upon it during the requisition. I use the term ‘requisition’ as it is my best interpretation of the concept embedded in the thought of Alair. There were parts of this thought that I thankfully couldn’t seem to reconcile with my own experience. I could catch glimpses of a mother’s screams, the blood of a brother smeared on a wall, the wail of the daughter carried away, the smell of the burning flesh cleansing the last of the former occupants who had tried to resist the intrusion. Now it was a Roman home, formerly Egyptian. This was my first experience of war through Alair’s memories, defeat and victory, subjugation and release. It was a secondhand thought and within it there was horror. 

The thoughts told me much about Alair. He followed orders. He did what he was told to do. He mostly refrained from doing what he was told to do not. He was a good soldier. He was a respected legionnaire. He was a man who could be trusted, counted on to be brave and loyal. He was all this, at least until the instant the thought that was now in my mind, Alair’s secondhand thought, had formed in his. 

Alair saw the man, senior in rank, carry away the girl while the mother screamed and the beaten brother picked himself up only to be brutally pinned down once again under Roman feet. Hands tied roughly they could only watch in terror as the girl was carried away. They were all now slaves. The pretty young girl was bound for a different market. 

Alair knew from experience that this is what happened when a healthy family was taken. The old and the resistors were killed without mercy and the young and the saleable were taken. How else was the Empire to expand and thrive? Everybody knew that; knew it and believed it, for there was no other possible truth. Alair however had always felt that he was slightly different from the other soldiers in his unit. He had always had difficulty accepting these truths that he was told, the truths that everyone around him believed without question. 

He was leaning against the ancient oak door, perfectly smooth, glistening like the lake of his dream, the one he had seen since childhood, as a boy on the high plains of Hispania within the mighty fist of the Roman armies. It was a magnificent door, without mark despite its obvious age. The door was cool and gave him a peculiar feeling; it was peaceful, ironic considering the work in which he was currently engaged, destroying a people and their culture in order to rebuild it in the image of the great Roman dream. Yet even though he had seen death and destruction within the last hour and could still smell the stench of the burning, he felt alive and yes, it was hope that was stirring, hope that it did not always have to be this way, at least for him. 

This was how he felt as a boy before he learnt to shut away the doubt, the question as to what was true and what was not. He had learnt to expel the thoughts that made him seek his own answers and this allowed him peace, for a child who sought his own answers lasted but a little while in those savage times on the plains. It was a peace that left him feeling hollow. Those thoughts were stirring once more, although this time he had the body of a warrior and a sword at his side. This time he let his doubts rise and he saw the world anew. He let the distant coolness flow through the door into his body and he knew that there was no going back. His sky would never again be of the same hue and at this he smiled, the first time in many a year. 

Still leaning against the door he saw, in this new world with its most welcome hue, the young girl on the soldier’s shoulder. A deeply polished wooden bangle about her wrist caught his attention for it was the same as the oak upon which he leant. He felt something else beside the refreshing doubt rise from the depths of his soul, a sense of rage at the injustice, at the cruelty, at the inhumanity of this scene of which he had been a willing player. He did not expel these thoughts; repress them as he had done so successfully, so many times before. It was the mother’s tears that beckoned this rage from deep within, the mother’s tears that would alter the course of his life forever. He left his position at the door an altered man, a man with a cleared vision, following the soldier who carried the Roman prize with her polished wooden bangle. 

The house was large with floors and walls of rough cut stone absorbing all sound, refusing to allow an echo in their cool aloofness. The tone of the solid house was that of begrudging acceptance of these minor human events that one way or another would soon pass. The pair was moving quickly through the house toward a fate that would not come to pass, not if he still had blood in his veins, of this he was sure. The girl was struggling up on the shoulder of the soldier although her bound hands and feet prevented her from hindering her abductor. The soldier gave her little thought; she was merely a prize, of little interest outside of his orders to intern her in the waiting cart. They were nearing the entrance and if they passed through the door into the light of the street all would be lost. He did not know how he knew this, how he sensed the finality of the loss of this girl to this particular fate. He ran in an arc approaching them from the side. The stone floor swallowed his steps; the shadows concealed his movements until it was too late for the unsuspecting soldier. For a man who had survived the bloodshed of a dozen close battles, had inflicted countless fatal wounds, there was no mistake in this simple affair. He dragged the fallen soldier into the corner; eyes still open with surprise, staring accusingly from the death mask, his last thoughts apparent in the frozen features. 

The girl with the wooden bangle was lying on the ground staring straight into his eyes and hers were not the eyes of a young girl as he had originally thought. She was slight but looked to be a young woman, not a girl, with eyes much older than her slim body suggested. He could sense no fear in those eyes. It was a stubborn resignation, but not of defeat, it was more a resignation of the moment. She would wait. There was danger in those eyes. She was expecting no mercy and there was something in her stare that sent a chill down his spine as he could clearly see that she would offer none either. Wisely he decided to keep her tied up. 

Dragging the spent soldier to the dark corner away from the entrance and throwing sand on the blood trail, he picked her up and placed her between a set of shelves, looted and left in tatters. No one would be back to search through this in the near future he thought. She would be safe for the moment, although now his life and hers were inextricably linked. Their fates were tied and she would only live now if he did. As those chances seemed very slim at that particular moment in time he wondered briefly whether it would have been better for both himself and the girl if he had chosen to continue leaning on the strange door and let her go, as he had let countless others to their fates in the past. He realized that he probably would have let the moment pass if it had been any other door than that cool, ancient shining oak that let the doubts rise; that cleared the mind. That he had not let the moment pass, that he suddenly realized that life is just a series of countless moments where we either act or we do not, he began to smile for the second time that day. He knew now that he had to take control of his life as well as of this unexpected situation. Now it was time to hunt, an activity at which he excelled. 

He could have kept up the pretense of his duties and murdered the six Romans left in the house one by one, but this was not in his nature. He walked from room to room and slew the soldiers as they came. Although he wore the uniform of a legionnaire it is the eyes that identify the enemy, they saw him and they knew. The slaughter saddened him for many were mere boys, just like him a few years ago, stolen from the arms of a wailing mother, short sword at the throat of a defeated father, by the towering, gleaming legionnaires. The oldest sons of all the defeated were to fight for the Roman Empire, for an idea of Empire and Civilization, to fight and die for a mirage that they all knew for a lie. Fifteen years of age, from a long defeated people, ashamed of his own tears, hiding his face, his last image of his parents was his father’s riding boots and his mother’s tears, splashing in the dust of their faded leather. The soft, forgiving leather that he knew so well, the leather he had oiled every night since he was old enough to mount a horse, for the boots are special on the plains, an honor to touch. Worn, honorable, honest leather, cleansed with a mother’s tears. Ten long and bitter years had passed and he had not returned. He was saddened that the remaining soldiers in this house would never live to see the leather of their father’s riding boots, nor the yarn of their mother’s fishing nets. Death awaited them as it does us all he thought. He moved on to yet another room of ancient rough sandstone awaiting its fresh, coating of sickly sweet blood. 

When it was done he dragged the bodies of the slain soldiers into the fire, which still smoldered with this morning’s dead. This morning it was an Egyptian home, a Roman home by lunch, once again Egyptian. The house was right to silently mock these petty human affairs. The only change for the house since morning was death, and the desert air would soon cleanse its sticky aftermath and unpleasant smells. It was but a passing moment. As the Roman bodies melted, fueling the fire already engulfed by flames amid the cooking oils, Alair heard Roman shouts from the front room and a woman scream. It was the first time he had heard her voice as she had been roughly gagged since morning. ‘Perfect!’ he muttered to himself as he walked to his own doom. Not even with the newfound clarity of thought that he had so recently gained could he see any way out of this house alive with the garrison alerted to the presence of a traitor. 

Never being one to dwell on bad luck he drew his sword and ran into the room thinking the same thoughts that he did every time he entered battle. These thoughts were not of blood and violence, nor of death and destruction. He drifted to the lavender fields of his youth, the barley grown head high, the singing at the gatherings, the neighbors’ daughter with whom he had an innocent and secret understanding, his horse, a young foal that had been left for dead after injuring her leg in a fall but had gradually recovered under his watchful gaze and tender care over many months. These were his thoughts as he ran into the room, just like all of the other battles, so he could survive the blood and violence. With the warmth of these thoughts he almost wished to be released by an opponent’s sword and ironically he knew that this was what had prolonged his life and made him such a successful soldier over the years; not martial skill, although he certainly had this. Rather, it was a reckless abandon for his own life that allowed him to live to this seemingly ripe old age of twenty-five amid the senseless violence of the colonial conquests to which he had been enslaved in the name of the Roman Emperor. As he ran into the room an already dripping sword placed skillfully at his throat abruptly halted his charge. He thought of his old horse and closed his eyes ready to join her. 

Slightly disappointed, feeling air still moving through his throat, he opened his eyes to see what was causing the delay. At once he realized that he would not be dispatched on the blade of a Roman sword although he may well breathe his last breath on the edge of an Egyptian blade. A dead centurion lay at his feet. From behind the blade at his throat, very large and very dark eyes were staring at his face, as they had a short time before. She was obviously wondering what to do with this somewhat unpredictable centurion, the man with curiosity in his eyes where fear and hate should have been. As a legionnaire he had been taught, if in doubt, kill. It was a pragmatic and effective strategy for reducing risk. He was hoping very much in that instant that she had not read that particular manual. What followed can only be described as an uncomfortable silence while she decided and he waited, both quite patiently considering the circumstances. Sandals on pavers outside forced a decision. 

He spoke her tongue, which probably saved his life, ‘Your family!’ he whispered as the blade drew blood, even from this tiny movement. It is true that language binds us in strange and unpredictable ways. He thought that it was not that she trusted him or particularly wanted him to draw another breath, in hostile territory where friend and foe is as much defined by culture and language as by the cut or color of uniform, a shared language is a powerful bond; at least powerful enough to spark the curiosity of this mysterious Egyptian with the ferocious and somewhat unforgiving stare. The blade was dropped to his stomach, giving him room to turn around in the narrow hall into which he was pushed until he felt the sharp sting of a pointed blade in the small of his back, just above his kidneys. She had not spoken but the message was clear. She would never be accused of subtlety, he thought. 

Moving down the hall they heard knuckles rap on the entrance door, followed by shouts and much movement around the fortified sides of the house. As they reached the inner room where the family lay tied, awaiting enslavement or death – unfortunately for them probably both, first one, and then the other – the rap on the front door had become a monstrous crash as a ram went about its steady work. One occupation in which an invading army excelled was gaining entry into places where residents offered no invitation. The breach would be made within minutes he thought. He had, in his reckless attempt to save them, doomed them all. He noticed that she had dropped the blade. Apparently the girl with the wooden bangle had realized that there were more pressing concerns than this troublesome Roman. It was also possible, he thought, that she sensed his reception with the awaiting soldiers who would be joining them shortly would be even more unpleasant that hers. This gave him an air of respectability in this house under siege. 

The girl with the wooden bangle held her mother’s hand and walked toward the door that Alair had leaned on and felt the strange coolness. The mother, old and frail, took the brother’s hand and placed it gently in her own. The brother stared straight ahead and smiled, not at the old lady but into the distance. Alair realized at that moment that the boy was blind. He took the hand of his mother and followed. This strange procession seemed pointless, as there was no place to go. They were heading toward the shining oak door, the twin of the bangle. It seemed to Alair that they had better take up defensive positions for their last few moments of life. As usual his breathing slowed and thoughts of the young horse of his childhood swirled through his mind, the horse that shouldn’t have lived but did, just like himself on so many occasions. Warm, comforting thoughts of family and meals and purpose; building instead of destroying, caring instead of indifference, asking instead of blind acceptance. These thoughts flowed from the image of his horse. Yes, he would join her soon, wherever her light had flowed. It was no use cowering behind a door, even one of solid oak. He would stand and they, these hardened boy soldiers stolen from their families in the name of Empire, would remember the day he chose to ask why?

Short sword held in front, ready for whatever came down the hallway, he looked around to see the family beside the door, still holding hands in that doomed procession. The girl raised her hand and the bangle on her wrist shimmered as it neared the twin polish of that deep, impossibly smooth oak. The wooden bangle was pulled toward the door and hit with a loud metallic thud, as if two broad swords were meeting in an angry full swing, an unforgiving sound. The girl moved the bangle around the surface of the door in an intricate pattern that spoke of the easy familiarity of routine. Pulling her arm back, she removed the bangle from the door without resistance and the family, holding hands, waited. Holding a small smooth stone in her hand, she finally looked up at Alair and with a cautious smile spoke in a soft voice, the first time he had heard anything other than a defiant scream leave her lips. It was gentle and patient, ‘Do you wish to know?’ A moment’s silence was followed by a soft, inviting, ‘Come, your fate has not yet been sealed centurion.’

 

Chapter 2: A Dream

Early in the twenty-first century, more than two millennia after these events the repercussions of this meeting in the Egyptian desert were still being felt in my subconscious mind. I had come to know Alair and the girl he saved intimately, through their thoughts whispered to me by the door over the years, yet I could never really know them. I had come to doubt that I even understood what it was to know. 

Growing up with Alair’s memories constantly emerging in my head, I tried to ignore them the best I could. I just wanted them to go away. It was the way I dealt with most problems and it had proven effective for most other things. I couldn’t ignore the growing clarity of my dreams however, and there was one recurring dream that stayed with me during my early days growing up in close proximity to that whispering door. 

I had been increasingly thinking that when my dream took on a sense of clarity that my waking hours lacked, it would be time to worry. I was fifteen and I was suddenly very worried, longing for those times when my days were clear, my dreams obscure. I only had a vague idea at the time that I was living with the memories of someone else and it was this that I couldn’t face. On one particular day, I woke up understanding that it was not just my imagination. I woke to the realization that I had the memories of another.

My recurring dream centered on a lake, that like many places and events in our lives, on the surface was beautiful and inviting unless of course the surface was scratched. Shimmering, smooth, reflecting only what I wanted to see, no more, swallowing all else in its silky blackness, I drifted. I saw myself lying half submerged on its gentle surface, calmed by the soothing flow of water on skin, eyes scanning the pale blue sky above, from horizon to horizon, searching only for the answers I wanted to find. The answers to the only questions of which I was brave enough to ask. I listened to the whispers. In this dream I asked myself, as I watched this scene from unknown heights, ‘Why don’t I roll over and look down, peer into the depths of the icy blackness?’ I knew the answer was there, lingering, waiting for me to just glimpse; the source of those soft voices. It would be that terrifyingly simple to know the truth. Even as I watched, detached, and asked myself this question, I knew the answer, for I had dreamed this dream a thousand times. Of course it wasn’t because I didn’t want to know, I was simply afraid of never seeing my beautiful, reassuringly familiar sky again. As fond as I was of self-denial I had to admit at least this. I knew that once I rolled back, my peaceful, cloudless blue sky would never be the same. 

So I watched and waited, listening to the endless whispers, looking upwards for the answer that I knew I would never find, as the answers lay below. Yet I was unprepared to let go of the beauty and the innocence in which I was enveloped. I clung to my familiar sky and avoided the darkness, that brooding silence that lurked beneath, from where the voices flowed. I knew, even within the dream, that the time to look had finally come. It had always been the same until that moment. It was just a glimpse that I stole. I woke, heart pounding; the name of Alair was on my lips. 

I opened my eyes from the dream and for the first time in my short life, I could see everything. It took a second to realize that my life would never be the same. Everything I had always wanted, had always dreaded. I was getting them both and it took just a quick glimpse; yet of the infinite possibilities that suddenly opened up in front of me in that curious moment, the only one that was truly appealing, closing my eyes and retreating back into the unconscious, was the one that was truly out of my reach. After all, I was just a kid and it was a school day. 

My dilemma had started the afternoon of the previous day. It was in the last rather forbidding corridor of my parents’ house, in front of the room that I had come to frequent, to which I was incessantly, inexplicably drawn by the whispers that I was not sure I could even hear. They felt as if they were on the edge of my consciousness; a noise that I could only vaguely discern and only if I concentrated very hard, something I tried to avoid, as in those days it reminded me too much of school. As I approached the door these almost silent voices didn’t exactly grow louder, my consciousness of them grew. It was difficult to explain and the only one who knew about these whispers was Clarrie, my ever faithful, accepting little sister. The whispering from behind the door was something that belonged to her big brother’s world she thought, something she didn’t question, as it was just one more piece in the puzzle of an older sibling that needed to be left alone. It was the belief that she would one day come to understand this ‘big people’ business when she was older. She was too young to know that most people would think me insane and that in fact I had my own doubts. Luckily we tend to measure our sanity in relation to the judgments of those close to us. Clarrie’s innocence kept me sane.

The whispers came from behind the door and I wanted to know more. As I grew, so did my obsession with the door, fed by a single purpose, a strange mix of curiosity and stubborn restlessness. The door came to define a purpose, a specific purpose for a growing lad looking for meaning in life through the revelation of secrets. It’s strange that adolescents look for meaning in secrets, in forbidden knowledge whereas by mid-life that curiosity has not been sated so much as abandoned. This is the true crisis of middle age. As a boy however, I was relentless in the pursuit of this single purpose, which was an ends and a means in itself. I think you could say I was not only sane, I was happy. 

The purpose wasn’t seeing what was on the other side; the purpose was the passing of a barrier, the defeat of an obstacle. I was curious to see whether it could be done and whether I could be the one to do it. The whispers were an excuse. It was the only door that I had not breached and even though, curiously enough, it was the only one from which I heard these unearthly whispers. The contents of the room were a secondary consideration, merely providing additional motivation; not that it was needed. I had not many talents, yet I had always possessed a certain knack for gaining entry. For a young boy, with what many would describe as a somewhat excessive sense of curiosity, growing up in a house with an inaccessible space, the following series of events were inevitable, fated. It was only later however that I came to dwell on concepts such a fate. At fifteen years old there wasn’t time for such pondering. The door and the space it protected so well became an obsession, one that still lingers all these years later. 

Our house, on a small rural property just outside the town of Oystermouth on the rugged Welsh Coast, had a history my father liked to say. When asked about this ‘history’ he often mentioned the names of various dead people and he always lost me at this point, which actually seemed to be the intention. I had always thought that if all we knew were their names and the particular triumphs and disasters that they happened to experience, it wasn’t really the past. It was just death. Death to me wasn’t interesting; life was. My only interest in history was where our house and in particular that door came from and why the whispers spoke to me in a language that I had never studied nor spoken yet understood perfectly. I valued my apparent normality so I kept this to myself of course. What fifteen year-old can understand Latin? Yes, I guarded this secret closely.

Latin - it was a dead language, a part of history. I didn’t think that we would come to understand anything of substance from the past unless we linked the dead to the living; how these events and people who lived in different times and places affected us. I found that teachers at school had taken exception to this particular, apparently problematic outlook for some reason and after a few stern and excruciatingly boring lectures I had learned to keep these thoughts to myself. I don’t mind sternness, you get used to that, and I knew that my poor, somewhat misguided teachers couldn’t help themselves but I had always had a physical aversion to boredom. The past to me existed in the crumbling walls of Oystermouth Castle or the excavated Roman ruins at Caerleon where I could lie on the beautiful grass banks of the ancient amphitheater and feel the history. I didn’t need names and dates cloaked in death to make the past real. I needed to run my hand over the crumbling rocks and to lay my head in the soft grass of the ruins. Sometimes I could almost feel the thoughts of those ancient peoples in the whispers. I could never feel this in the classroom. History, real history, was the thoughts and ideas of those peoples, who lived and died, lived and died, and lived and died yet again. 

My constant battle against the pressing tide of classroom boredom shouldn’t be blamed completely on my teachers. They were not so much the cause of it; rather they were merely complicit in its aggravation. I had always felt as if I was set slightly apart from my peers, different in an unidentifiable sense, if you could ignore my fluency in a dead language that I, as far as I knew, had never heard before. Of course, I rationalized that if the other students felt this way then I was in fact perfectly normal. Deep down I suspected that this feeling I had originated in my seeming inability to accept widely acknowledged truths and social customs. This would be difficult even for an adult so imagine what it would do to the world of a young boy navigating the mysteries of formal schooling and the social institution of the playground? I just couldn’t help myself. I always needed proof. I always needed to know how I knew something and why I knew this and not something else. To make it worse, I seemed to have an uncontrollable urge to ask myself, ‘Should I believe this?’ Of course I just assumed that there was something wrong with my brain and my classmates and teachers supported this interpretation of my mental state, although they didn’t know the worst of it. 

There was only one exception, Brona, a girl in my class who always seemed to listen when the others would yawn or sneer. She was the only one who looked like she wanted to hear an answer too. Unfortunately neither of us got even close to an answer and we never discussed it. I was so shy I couldn’t find the courage to talk to her, although I wanted to do so more than anything. She kept to herself at school. Under that delicate lock of hair beneath which she hid from the world so effectively, her smile was beautiful and I was terrified of her. So, I just kept asking those questions and my teachers and classmates just kept rolling their eyes. Life went on with my thoughts orbiting the girl with the beautiful smile. Life was confusing, yet simple. 

 

Chapter 3: An Accident

With this affliction, as I had come to view my own form of critical curiosity, history as a subject at school posed certain difficulties. These connections of the present to the past weren’t something that I consciously thought about, rather it was a feeling that I had. It was something that I intuitively understood. I couldn’t quite explain it, but I had a sense of the past, a sense of beginnings. I had a feeling that the things that had happened long ago were connected to the present in ways that I couldn’t explain; in ways that perhaps couldn’t be explained. I am not sure that even if the teachers had taken the time to listen that I would have been able to explain it then. I had a sense that our house and that room in particular were connected to things of great importance. I sensed danger as well but I knew that I was no more capable of practicing restraint than my teachers were capable of accepting ideas that weren’t bound in musty books. Unfortunately my parents and my teachers couldn’t help me understand the history of my house, the past within which it was bound, how it connected to my own present. I would have to find out myself and this was what led me back, again and again to the door.

Oystermouth Whispers

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