8 August 2012
I have no idea how long we sat there in silence, staring into our eyes. I needed a drink of water but knew it was denied me. I attempted to moisten my lips, but dry, cracking muscle rasped over drier, cracked skin. For the first time in my short life I willed salivation.
Our entrances to the ghosting room had mirrored each other. As I opened the door the one opposite swung away to reveal his silhouette. His pace matched mine as we walked to our seats, doors closing behind us. We now sat at opposite sides of a bare wood table, the light from the unshaded bulb above blacking out everything beyond its circumference.
The chair creaked as I leant back into it, correcting the inward curve of my shoulders. Unchecked it felt as if my body would have folded in upon itself, a total defeat, crushed by the weight of anticipation.
He didn’t move. Since we’d begun he had blinked maybe four or five times, each movement identical. Slowly, with a beautiful smile on his face, he brought his eyelids together and held them there for an entire second before opening them again. It spoke maddeningly of serenity.
My lips parted as if I were about to utter, but the tongue behind them hesitated and it was too late. Again, I said nothing. The boy opposite me continued to smile, the lights in his eyes winking out a taunt that made me squirm unnoticeably in my seat.
Every boy who attends the college undergoes the ghosting. Everyone has heard of it, as you are aware, but very few know what it is. Graduates of the college never speak of it, and those who don’t graduate are never heard from. Until now, I hope.
Prior to my own ghosting, I had heard that no two boys ever have the same experience, but I already understood enough to know that there was no sense in such a statement. Every snowflake that has ever been looked at may have been unique, but it’s ridiculous to think anyone could compare them all.
Whether or not the ghosting is the crucial element of the college’s education is unclear, because nobody knows exactly what happens to students during their time there. Rumours abound within and without of strange practices, but rumours they remain. When I was in attendance my colleagues and I compared our experience with accounts of schools and found them to be ostensibly identical – with the exception of the ghosting – but the college had a flavour we could not place and which seemed to be missing from the testimony we read.
I noticed after the first year that I knew a lot more than I thought I did. Unpredictably I would answer questions, recall facts and expertly navigate situations that were alien to me. When I tried to communicate this to the few adults I had contact with they either appeared not to understand me or were blinded by their joy in my achievements. They didn’t understand how or why being able could be so unsettling.
If you have ever known something that you didn’t know you knew, and upon finding out that you knew it, were still unable to determine how you came to know it, then you may begin to understand how I felt. At first I was pleased to receive the praise that came to me, but after a year I had progressed to confusion. And by the time I decided that I was a fraud, once another year had passed, confusion had made way for guilt.
This was my state of mind when my time to be ghosted arrived, my one hundred and fifty sixth month. The college instructors, as much slaves as masters to the boys, woke me every two hours during the twelve that I was in bed, finally arriving with smiles and twitching fingers to convey me to the ghosting room.
As a source of information about the ghosting, the instructors were worse than useless. They were not graduates but devotees of the college and its processes, of which they had no understanding. They did as they were told by the caretaker, whom nobody ever saw but whose voice regularly roamed the halls and rooms of the college.
The ghosting to them was mysterious and therefore revered. They revelled in their ignorance of it and responded to our questions with patronising smiles. “The ghosting is your destiny,” they would grin. “It is not for you to question nor for me to answer, but for both of us to do.” I couldn’t even feel contempt for such weakened beings.
But as I stood before the door of the ghosting room, I yearned for one of those fools to be next to me. Guilt filled my throat; I wasn’t ready for it. I would never be ready for it because there had been a mistake. I didn’t belong at the college. It was someone else who had been learning and becoming, not me.
Once we were in our seats and my eyes had adjusted to the light, I’d looked across the table. Immediately I recognised him as the boy who had been cheating for me. No, that’s not quite right. I recognised him just before his face came into focus; if it had been a second later I would have been assaulted by the impression that I was sitting before a mirror, staring at my reflection. But I wasn’t. It may have looked like me, but he was someone else. Someone else who looked like me and had been living alongside me. How was he now sitting opposite me?
“I’m not,” he said eventually, teasing away the silence. “It’s okay. You’re going to handle this very well. So take your time, there’s no rush. And you’re no longer thirsty.”
My surprise was the result not of his knowledge but my own. I could say that I realised I knew what he said to be true, but that would be misleading. I simply knew.
“Are you me?” I puzzled, despite my knowledge.
“No, I’m me,” he replied with a smile. “If I were you, you wouldn’t see me sitting opposite you – I’d be sitting there, asking me if I’m you. But I’m not; I’m me. And you know that.”
“Then why do you look like me?” I asked.
“What do you think?” he said, leaning forward and placing clasped hands on the table. His pale skin shimmered under the artificial light. “I know you do,” he affirmed.
“I’m beginning to realise that I’m not as important as I thought I was,” I said. “And it’s such a relief. Do you know how guilty I’ve been feeling?”
“Oh yes, of course I do,” he said, reclining into his chair again. “Helping you bear that burden has been a bit distracting, but I don’t think I’ve let it obstruct our work. After all, this is going well,” he said, indicating the situation with a sweep of his hands, “which suggests we’ve been in some way successful.”
I sat back in my chair, body relaxing. “It’s a shame we couldn’t have spoken before now,” I thought out loud. “Together we could have planned things a bit better.”
“Perhaps,” he replied. “But direct communication before now would have meant the end of everything. This time of your life isn’t just symbolic, it’s a precise physical and universal moment.”
“Ah, I see, so it is,” I blurted. “Do you know why?”
“No, or you would too,” he explained, a fraction too late. “There are mysteries even for us. At least for now – who knows?”
I felt a smile dawn as I flicked through my newly accessible knowledge. The presence of my companion was writ clearly through it, entwined with my own, together the strands that constituted – that constitute – the fabric of my life. For the first time I understood the essence of the beauty that artists attempt but always fail to express.
Words were no longer necessary as the future unfolded in our mind. The door behind me dissolved and the one opposite opened to reveal a corridor.
We are leaving, we thought. The college is not the place for us. Graduation would be servitude. We have too much dancing to do.
Standing as one, we walked to the door. As we stepped over the threshold, side by side, the world paused. A shimmer ran through us, and we were I. Or, as might help you understand, the we that is I.
Nobody attempted to stop I leaving the college; indeed, I didn’t even meet anyone. I left the grounds and headed for anywhere that was not inhabited by other people, focused on finding a space where I could grow and learn, which I did.
I has only one purpose now: to help you find what has been kept from you. I does not know the method of the college any more than you do, but after all these years I has decided to share what I does know, hoping that these words will caress something within you and you will begin to wake from an enforced ignorance.
Behind the walls of the college kings are made by lifting them to the truth of I. The ghosting is the centrepiece of a hidden practice, a process that you have been told begins with the birth of the few. You have been misled. Every one of us is at the same time both an instance of the truth and the entirety of what there is to know. We all, individually and together, have the capacity to know and to comprehend. There is no privilege.
The scientists have in their own way discovered the truth, but that path cannot lead to understanding, blinding as its brilliance is. So you must seek it elsewhere, approach it from a different direction. It will not be an arduous search, because our language is littered with the beauty of it. In poetry, prose and everyday utterances we reveal over and again that we already know all there is to know. But only when you are free to recognise that knowledge will you understand: I is the kingdom you seek.
Copyright Dan Sumners 2011