This is an entry received as part of The Great Victorian Write Off. The following piece received the 2nd place award in the competition. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of The Victorian Press.
AT FIRST, HE WAS NOT.
And then he was. The man opened his eyes and became aware of the world, he gazed inwards and became aware of himself, he looked around and became aware there were others much like him.
Up the hill, he followed them. As he trudged up its muddy plain, his burden grew and grew, until there was a miry stone of clay and mud that had accumulated at his feet which he had to push if he wanted to continue going.
Before long, it was wider at the sides and taller at the front than him, and he pressed his forehead into its sticky surface to keep up his ascent. His shoulders strained and clenched vigorously, but the ache was pleasant and he soon acquainted himself with it.
Some time had passed – he was not sure how long. He had quite forgotten that he was pushing up a boulder and did so absently, as if in a motion not registered. His eyes had fixated on tiny fissures running along its sides like a brook, each one the surface of his world.
He marvelled at their clumsy intricacy, hardened now by time – for a while he lost himself and he was the boulder and the boulder was him. Who was pushing whom, no one could tell.
His eyes had dimmed like old pebbles from all the dust that had gotten in them and he found it hard to see clearly.
Not that he would know any differently, though. To a man long accustomed with his fate, the boulder encompassed his life and the hill encompassed the world. To say otherwise would be absurd.
In one of those strange moments that come about as the inexplicable stirrings of nothing, in the same way that a toymaker’s puppet once grew aware of itself, some unseen, wrenching voice came as a prompting from the very depths of the man himself.
“Was this all?” he asked himself. “Surely, there must be more.” The days had blended into months, and the months into years, and he felt wetness on his face like the startlings of spring breaking through stone.
He was now aware that there were words carved on the hill as he was passing by them. Each person who had gone by this route had scarcely looked at them; their impressions were weathered by the elements and indifference.
But if the man strained, he could still make them out. His eyes were not accustomed to such detail, but he learned and eventually taught himself how to read them.
CAMUS, NIETZSCHE, HESSE… they read, and there were innumerable others after them, so many that it seemed that no matter how the man tried, he would never make them out.
His eyes had grown wary, his face like a mask. He carried himself like a wretched spectre, afraid that the slightest false movement would betray him. The lowings of some great beast had sounded in the distance, and he could feel the yellow, predatory eyes staring at his back.
A great fear had seized him, he began to run. But after some time, as with the failings of all mortal men, his legs slackened under him and he fell, trembling, his arms rubbery.
When he finally dared to raise his head, he noticed, with great surprise, that there was someone crushed under his boulder, buried into the mud.
But what was more alarming was that the figure had always been there, flattened on the underside of his boulder – and he was only realizing it now.
He budged, and gasped, and fought heavingly, until he had extricated the figure from under the rock.
His heart stilled.
He had found none other than himself. This figure was the Self. It looked like a madman to those who did not know it; but to the man, it was both his ruin and his redemption, his guilty crime and his greatest triumph.
The Self yearned for others like it. Yet, turning around, it found naught but stumbling half-men and the shadows and ruins of the past and the future.
The Self had slowed its pace, had registered a break in the sequence of repetition.
And others had noticed.
The phantom men around him – all whom were also pushing up their own boulders – opened their mouths, and an army, a sickening mass of flies poured out to alight on the man.
They whispered sweet poison into his ear, telling him plaintively of responsibility, of how glorious it was to push the boulder up the hill, of valleys and mountains that he could venture up to to push the rock over and over again!
For a while, he almost succumbed. But the writhing night swarming his arms could not dare compare to the living night within him. He killed them all, shaking away their bloody and disease-riddled lies.
But after that, having recognized the shape of the fly, and knowing its bitter touch intimately now; he realized, with a convulsive jolt, that every inch of his body was covered with flies.
And these were not new ones, they were cunning and had been there all along; decades, perhaps even centuries old, feasting off him and blinding him all this while.
Their names were Nation, Religion, Race, Culture, Morality and many more. It took him ages to kill them all, kill himself, and when he was done, his body was an agony of bruises, more bone than flesh.
But his eyes were now free of the flies that had latched onto them, and for once, he really saw the world.
He stared around blindly, seeing things for the first time. He was a hunched figure among millions, on a tiny hill among billions, and he was pushing a stone upwards into eternity for no conceivable purpose at all.
And the flies.
They gathered heavily unto the unblinking slaves on the hill like a thick, pulsating blanket; upon those whose passive, bovine disposition made them chew onto these ascribed paradigms unthinkingly and mindlessly.
They grovelled and fawned as supplicants in the mud, calling the boulders and the mud around them their god and masters, clutching onto them desperately to keep from screaming into the ragged dark.
Often a times, the man noticed that a particularly crafty and slinking fellow would belch out his own flies. Then, these flies would soar out and sting others.
A few people would die.
But for the others, their bodies would be covered with new flies, flies freshly born from the gravedigger, and these new flies would chase away the old flies.
The transformation on these people were most extraordinary. All the pebbles that they had praised as good and most worthy, they now cast away and reviled as evil and reprehensible.
And the sticks that they had once despised, they would now worship with as much adulation as their previous playthings. And so the cycle went on, again and again and again.
The man had gazed into the world.
But the world had gazed back into him and exerted a terrible price.
For you see, the man who has gazed into infinity, who sees that the world is nothing more than a wriggling moment caught in the net of time; he finds it hard to close his eyes again and go back to the business of worshipping sticks and stones.
The man was now weary and tired, so very tired.
His heart felt like it was about to surge out of his chest; and he yearned for someone to just hold him, to just see him. But even amidst the roaring crowd and all the multitudes of people, he felt so very alone.
It struck him, then, how he was in the midst of a graveyard of living statues
He did not know why he was born.
But more importantly, he did not know what he was living for.
Not for this absurd comedy, a tale with no reason to keep going, a song that was soon reaching its breaking point.
It would have helped if there was someone like him who understood the poetry of his soul, who could create a language of their own with him.
He would have died to have just someone look at him.
But there was no one at all.
With a resigned, despondent sigh, the man let his arms fall to his sides.
The rock bounded down.
When the boulder reached the crest of the incline, it was a jagged red.
Kelvin Hong Jun Hao, 19A12