Chapter 11 : On the Threshold
I look back on that journey with a sense of awe and wonder. A child’s experience of the world is a mystery some men spend their whole lives trying to understand. Mostly they are shut out of its secrets, no matter how honest their intentions or how hard they try to peer beyond the veil between the child’s world and their own.
As a young boy the world had seemed impossibly vast and even the hills surrounding my village were as tall as mountains. In time, as I grew bigger and bolder, those mountains turned back into hills and the world grew smaller. Distances shrank and the empty spaces of the desert were no longer endless. I was taught to measure the land not with my imagination but with the knowledge I had acquired of it. My father showed me how to plough and harvest, how to work the soil and fear the wind that burns the seeds. I was initiated into the life of the village, tethered to the seasons and the expectations of my father who only ever wanted to be a farmer. In his mind I would grow up to become just like him. I would plant wheat and barley, tend my crops and never want for anything more. But something inside me rose up in defiance. It led me away from the village and into the wild places where I could be alone and free to explore another world.
There are times in life when the child in us is reawakened, when our learning and our faith in certainty are simply not enough. The mysteries we abandoned all those years before threaten to break through into our present, upsetting order and challenging our notions of what is real. As I followed the cloaked men through the gardens, past the statues with their fountains, I became a child once more. As I walked I continually fought the urge to turn back. Many possibilities ran through my mind: that the men might turn and ask my business or I would be forced to explain myself to a guard, a grim-faced man who would march me back to the entrance gate and throw me roughly onto the street. None of these things came to pass, however, and I managed to keep pace with the group, unhindered and largely unnoticed. The closer we came to the building the more intimidating it seemed, its grey walls appearing to grow out of solid rock. Soon, the sun was blocked out by that great mass of stone and I found myself walking within its shadow. Everywhere I turned I saw impossibilities: stone arches as big as tree trunks, suspended in the air, walls stretching into the far distance and merging with the horizon. Everything I set my eyes on seemed to defy my expectations. It was as if the world had split apart and from inside its dark core another emerged, more beautiful but also more terrifying.
Eventually we came upon a flight of stone steps that rose steeply towards a great iron door. As tall as a giant, this door was enclosed by a stone portico, part of a much larger porch decorated with statues and elaborate engravings. On either side, colossal pillars of marble guarded the entrance. I watched the group ascend the steps, uncertain whether to follow. I could still hear their voices deep in conversation, and was desperate to know what they talked about. They spoke mostly in Greek, although some words that reached me sounded strange and unfamiliar. Gradually, those voices began to fade. In a few moments the men would enter the building and I would be left outside. Was I ready to follow them through that door without assurance of what I might find? What would I say if I was stopped and questioned? I had no plan, no story, and would struggle to explain even to myself what I was doing here. My actions since leaving the hostelry seemed entirely unreasonable and I could think of no motive that would not arouse suspicion.
Reluctantly, I turned and walked back to a secluded corner of the gardens, where fig and almond trees offered welcome shade from the sun. Here, the gardens climbed steeply. Narrow stone paths cut into the hill, winding their way among boulders and rocky outcrops. At this elevation I had an uninterrupted view over the city, its streets and houses glowing softly in the late morning sun. Beyond the city wall I could make out the vastness of the ocean reaching towards a cloudless sky. Where the two met a fine haze hung between air and water, so indistinct it was hard to tell where one ended and the other began.
I decided to rest a while beneath the trees. For the first time since leaving the hostelry I had an opportunity to pause and take stock of my situation. In my haste to leave that place and in following the men across the city I felt I had left behind my only refuge. I pictured my parents, my village and the distances I had travelled between my desert home and the city. It was strange to feel so alone in the world yet so connected to the people and places I loved. A rush of emotion seized me and I felt suddenly overcome with tiredness. I allowed myself to sink to the earth, leaning back against the trunk of an almond tree. I closed my eyes and allowed what little energy was left to drain from me. It was a relief to put down my satchel. Though not heavy, its weight had seemed almost too much to bear. Unburdened, I lay there sensing the heat of the sun on my face and arms and enjoying the gentlest of breezes. A heady scent drifted in the air, something I did not recognise, sweet and pungent like over-ripened fruit. Tiredness, tension and the ever-present shadow of uncertainty had robbed me of my strength. If the earth had opened up or waves from the ocean overtaken the land, it could scarcely have made a difference to me.
I must have slept for I dreamt I was back in my parents’ house. It was night-time and I was a young boy again. Something – I knew not what – prowled silently around the building as I lay fretfully in my bed. It was not the first time it had come. I could neither see nor hear it yet I knew it was there, just as I knew my father and mother were asleep in the room next to me. In my imagination that thing was neither human nor animal but something in between. I held my breath for what seemed an eternity, desperately trying to work out why it was here. In some vague, far off way I realised it must be appeased; that I, and only I, must find the thing that would satisfy its appetite.
When I awoke the sun had shifted several degrees against the distant hills. There was a hunger in my belly and I realised I had eaten nothing since the previous evening. Searching my satchel, I pulled out half an old loaf of bread and a goatskin of water, and ate and drank all that was left. Refreshed, I took a deep breath, releasing air slowly through my cheeks. Gradually, I felt strength return to my body. I rose to my feet, picked up the satchel and slung it over my shoulder. Retracing my path back to the entrance steps, I skirted the western flank of the building, passing beneath one of the four towers that guarded its corners. I was lucky: so far no one had noticed me or so much as glanced in my direction. People passed by, mostly young men wearing the same dark cloaks, but they walked straight past me as if I did not exist. When I reached the foot of the steps I immediately began to climb. Halfway up I paused to look back over the gardens. I could just make out the iron gate in the distance, set within the boundary wall. On the far side, the city sprawled all the way to the ocean. Beyond the horizon there were other cities, other countries I could scarcely imagine.
At the top of the steps I stopped to catch my breath. As my breathing slowed my courage also ebbed, as though the only thing keeping me going had been the momentum of my body. My legs felt as heavy and solid as rock, and I worried the door would burst open and I would find myself in the midst of a storm of angry questions. Sweat ran into my eyes and I wiped them roughly with my sleeve. Again I thought about turning back and leaving this place, returning home and picking up the threads of my old life. I pictured myself pushing open the door of my parents’ house, seeing their expressions of surprise and joy, eating warm food and drinking wine from the vineyards on the edge of the village. It was a comforting scene and my heart yearned for its familiarity, but does not every traveller dream such dreams at some stage in their journey? The more I pictured that homecoming the more those comforting images faded. How could I return? Since leaving home all those months ago I had travelled further in my soul that most men travel in a lifetime.
I do not remember how long I waited on the threshold, unable to move forwards and incapable of turning back. My thoughts were so conflicted that I had failed to notice I was no longer alone. As I became aware of a presence at my side I turned quickly and found myself gazing into the face of an old man. The stranger looked back at me quite calmly with eyes that did not waver. There was no challenge in them, no threat, only curiosity. The eyes of a man cannot lie. They reveal his secrets and intentions as plainly as if they were written in sand. What I saw in this stranger’s eyes told me everything I needed to know.
“I am sorry if I startled you.” He smiled and I could see in his expression many subtleties and shades of meaning, too many to comprehend. After a short silence he waved an arm as if to direct my attention back across the city. “You see those hills in the distance? That is where I was born. I was fourteen when my family moved to Alexandria and I have lived here ever since. Now, I am an old man.”
If the stranger was trying to put me at my ease, he succeeded. Instinctively, I lifted my arm and shook his hand. He showed no surprise but simply smiled as though we were old friends meeting after a long separation. Looking back now I remember his eyes, alive and present, as though holding the answers to every question a man could conceive. Allowing my gaze to rest in his, I seemed to enter that moment more deeply and completely than I could ever have thought possible. I fancied I saw my life spread out in front of me like countless threads woven into cloth, patterns and colours shimmering and shifting in the light. That was the point at which I knew my journey had begun. All that happened after remains no less vivid than if I were recalling the events of yesterday. No doubt some will question my story while others may call me a liar, but none of this matters, not any more. I tell my history exactly how I remember it, and that is all I can do. Let any man judge for himself whether it be true or false.