— This is a chair, said the examiner. A person is made in such a way that he can sit where he likes. He can sit on the ground,
she knelt and patted the floor.
— Or even on the table itself,
she patted the table.
— However, if you are in company, it is best to sit in a chair unless there is a good reason to sit elsewhere. In a chair, one can sit with good posture, that is, with the skeleton set into good order.
He looked at her with puzzlement.
— The skeleton, she said, is a hard substance, hard like wood, like the wood of this chair. It is all through the inside of your body, and mine. It keeps us stiff, and allows our muscles something to pull and push on. That is how we move. Muscles are the way the body obeys the mind.
— Here, she said. Come sit in the chair.
The claimant came across the room slowly. He moved to sit in the chair, and then sat in it. He felt very good sitting in the chair. Immediately he understood why the house was full of chairs.
— They put chairs wherever someone might sit.
— They do, she said. And if your needs change, you can move chairs from place to place. Come, let us eat. We shall walk to the kitchen, and there we will get the things we shall eat; also, we will get the things on which we shall eat, and the things with which we shall eat. We will not eat our food there; we’ll go to the dining room, or to the enclosed porch. This will be a nice thing for us. Having gotten the food and the implements, we will decide whether we want to eat on the porch or in the dining room. Do you know how we will decide that?
The claimant shook his head.
— You do. Think carefully. Say what comes to mind.
— If it is a nice day, outside . . .
— That is one reason, one of many reasons, why a person would choose to sit outside. It is a good reason. It is always best to have a good reason for doing things, a reason that can be explained to others if you must. One should not live in fear of explaining oneself – but a rational person is capable of explaining, and even sometimes likes to do so.
— A person whose life is lived on the basis of understanding rather than ignorance.
— Am I ignorant?
— Ignorance is not about the amount of knowledge. It is about the mechanism of choosing actions. If one chooses actions based upon that which is known to be true – and tries hard to make that domain grow, the domain of knowledge – then he will be rational. Meanwhile, someone else who has much more knowledge might make decisions without paying any attention to truth. That person is ignorant.
— A mechanism, she continued, is the way a thing is gone about.
They went into the kitchen. On the wall was a painting of a woman feeding chickens with millet. The millet poured from her hand in a gentle arc. Around about her feet the chickens waited in a ring, looking up at her. When the arc made its way to the ground, they would eat.
Beside it was a photograph of a hill. There was a hole somewhere in it.
The claimant paused at these wall hangings, and stood looking. The examiner came and stood by him.
— What is different about these? she asked him.
He thought for a while.
— About them?
— What’s the difference between them? I should say. When I say, what is different about these, I am making two groups – them and the rest of the world. When I say between them, I am setting them against each other. Do you see?
— This one happens less often.
He pointed to the woman with the chickens.
— Less often?
— If you go looking for them, outside the house, he said, you could probably find the other one, no matter when you looked. But, you can’t find this one.
— Why not? Because it is a painting?
— A painting?
— Because it is made by hand – with strokes of a brush? Or for another reason?
— I didn’t mean that, he said. I am tired. Can I sit down?
— Yes, let’s go to our lunch. We can return to this later.
The claimant sat watching her. He was in something she called a window seat. She had her hands folded and was sitting in a chair. They were in a room with what she called a piano. It made loud noise and also soft noise.
The examiner was a girl. The claimant didn’t know that word, but it is how he saw her. He had known others, he was sure of it. Her soft yellow hair fell about her shoulders, and her bones were thin and delicate. He felt that he could see where the bones were through the skin. His own bones were larger.
She was helping him. He didn’t know why. It occurred to him that he hadn’t asked.
— Why am I here? he said suddenly.
The examiner looked up from her book. She smiled.
— I was waiting for you to ask that. Actually, she looked at a little clock that lay across her leg, it is just about the right time for you to be asking that. Nearly to the minute.
She laughed – a small, distinct laugh.
— You are here because you have been very sick. You almost died. But, you realized that you were sick, and you went to get help. You asked for help, and you were brought here. It is my job to make you better. You and I shall become good friends as you grow stronger, and as you learn. There is much for you to learn.
— But, he asked, where was I before?
— In a place like this, she said. Or in some place so different as to be unknowable to us when we are here. I can’t say.
— Why do I keep falling asleep?
— You are learning – learning a great deal. It is too much for you, so your body bows out. Then you wake up and you can continue. It will be like this for a time. I have seen it before.
— Are you the only one like me? he asked.
— No, no, no.
She laughed to herself.
— There is a whole world full of people like us. Soon, you will meet others, when you are ready.
— How will we know?
— I will know, she said.
On the third day, she pointed out to him a gardener. The man was in the distance, trimming a bush.
— There, she said. There is one.
He stood and watched the man for at least an hour. The man had gone away, and the claimant stood looking at the bush that had been clipped, and at the place where the man had been. He asked the examiner if the gardener was likely to be in that spot again. Not that exact spot, she said, but another near to it. This was the gardener window, then, he said. I can watch the gardener from here. They are all gardener windows, she said. There are others, and others. It’s a matter of how far you can look, and if things are in the way. She took him to another window. Out of that one, he could see three people in a field, in the extreme distance. They were scarcely more than dots, but they were moving. At this distance, she said, you can’t tell if they are men or women. They could even be children, he said. It might be hard to see a child that far off, she said. They could be, he insisted. The examiner did not tell him: there are no children in the gentlest village.
On the fifth day, she told him about fire, and explained what cooking was. He found fire to be very exciting. He could hardly bear the excitement of it. She wrote this down.
On the sixth day, he closed a cupboard door on his hand, and cried. She explained crying to him. He said that it felt very good. In his opinion, it was almost the same as laughing. She said that many people believe it is the same. She said there was perhaps something to that view, although of course it appeared to be a bit reductive.
She wrote things in her notes, things like: Claimant is perhaps twenty-nine years of age, in good health. Straight black hair, grayish-brown eyes, average height, scars on left side from (childhood?) accident, scar under left eye, appears to be a quick learner, inquisitive. Memory is returning relatively quickly. Claimant is matching given data with remembered data – a troubling development.
On the morning of the seventh day, he refused to get up. She told him to get up. He refused.
— What’s wrong?
— The other day, you said that I almost died. That I was sick and that I almost died.
— You were sick. Now you are convalescing. You are regaining your strength. You are young and have a long life ahead of you in a world full of bright amusements and deep satisfactions, but you have been sick, and you must regain your ability to walk far and parse difficult things.
— What did you mean when you said I almost died?
— It isn’t very much. It is a small thing. The world is full of organisms. You are an organism. A tree is an organism. These organisms, they have life, and they are living. They consume things, and grow, or they have no life, and they become the world in which other organisms live and grow. You almost became part of the world in which organisms live, rather than that which lives. It is nothing to be afraid of – just . . .
— But it would be the end? he said. There wouldn’t be anymore?
— It would be an end, she said. Do you remember the conversation we had, the second night? About going to sleep?
— What happened?
— I went to sleep, and then in the morning everything was still here.
— Death is like that. Only, you work in the world with a different purpose. The world works upon you.
— How did I die?
— You didn’t die. You nearly did.
— We will talk about this later, when you have more to compare it with. Here, get out of bed. Perhaps it is time for us to go for a walk. Perhaps we should leave the house.
He got up and she helped him dress. They had clothes for him, just his size, in a wardrobe that stood against the wall. They were simple, sturdy clothes: trousers, shirt, jacket, hat. She wore a light jacket also, and a scarf to cover her head. He had never seen her do this. I often cover my head, she said, when I go outside. One doesn’t need to, but I like to.
They went into the front hallway, an area that he had not understood very well. It appeared to have no real use. But now when the door was opened he could see very well why there should be this thing: front hallway. He went out the door and down the stairs and stood by her in the street. He could feel the length of his arms and legs, the rise of his neck.
Going outside, he thought – it is so nice! The things that he had seen through the window were much closer. He could see houses opposite and, suddenly, there were people inside of them, and lights on. There was no one in the street, though. He walked with the examiner, arm in arm, and they went up the street a ways.
The houses looked very much the same. He said so.
— Do you know, she asked – do you know which one is ours?
He looked back in fright. The houses were all the same. They were exactly the same. He had no idea which one was theirs. She saw his fright and squeezed his arm. I will take you back to it, don’t worry.
I know which one is ours.
The street wound past more houses, and they gave way to buildings that she called shops. No one was in these shops, but the windows were full of things that she said might be bought. He did not understand, and did not ask.
On down they went to a little lake. Fine buildings were in a circle around the lake. There was a bridge in the lake to a little island (as she called it), and on the island there was a small house with no walls. They sat in it, and she poured him a glass of water from a pitcher that sat on a tray on a bench at the very center.
When he woke up, he was back at the house again, in bed. It was the afternoon, he guessed – as light was all in the sky.
— Did I fall asleep again?
But she was not in the room. He went out to the landing. There was a carpet, but the old wooden boards of the house creaked beneath his feet. He winced, trying to step as quietly as possible. The railing ran along the top of the landing. The balusters were worked with lions and other beasts. He knelt by the edge and listened.
She was speaking to someone else. He couldn’t hear what she was saying. The door shut, and she came up the stairs. When she saw him kneeling there, she smiled.
— Did you wake already?
— Who was that?
— Friends. They helped to bring you here. You didn’t think I could carry you all by myself ?
— Can I see them?
— Not yet, she said.
— What about the other people – the people in the other houses?
— Not yet, she said.
— How will you know?
— I will know.
She wrote in her report:
As I stated before, in the case of this claimant, the dream burden of his treatment was severe. His every sleep period is marred with nightmares. He is still in the first period, prior to Mark 1, so he remembers little to
nothing of this, but it is a cause for concern. If it continues this way, I may need to directly address it. He talks in his sleep, muttering about a person who has died, and speaking with a vocabulary that he does not possess during the day. It is my hope that reprocessing is not necessary. He is mid to high functioning and could do very well as things stand but would lose much after a second injection.
She leaned back in her chair and her gaze ran along the wall. There was a stopped clock, an embroidered handkerchief in a glass case and an antique map. The map showed the known world as of a time when nothing was known. How apt for the Process of Villages.
The previous case that I worked on involved a woman prone to violence and anger. None of that struggle is evident with this current claimant. It appears that his difficulty may have been entirely situational. If that is so, there is a good chance that our process will bring him to balance, as there may be no flaw whatsoever in his psyche.
— Gardener is there! He’s there!
She came to the window where the claimant was sitting.
— Is it the same one – or a different one?
— This one is wearing . . .
— The other didn’t have them.
— Is that a good way to tell them apart? she asked.
— It is one way.
— What if I were to wear glasses?
She took a pair out of a drawer and put them on.
— Would I be a different person?
She did look like a different person with glasses on, but he didn’t want to say that, so he said nothing.
— It is usually safe to assume that a person is different if their physical characteristics are different, said the examiner. But even then sometimes people change – by accident or on purpose – and the same person can look different. Likewise, two people can look very alike.
— Or be exactly the same, he said.
— What do you mean?
— Twins are alike. They are the same.
— But even if the bodies are the same, the minds inside are different – their experiences are different. They are different people.
— Even if they can’t be told apart?
— Even then.
— I knew someone, I think, who was a twin.
She looked at him very seriously and said nothing.
— She had a twin, but the twin died.
— How do you know this? asked the examiner.
— I remember it.
— But not from life, she said. You remember it from a dream. When you sleep at night, your mind wreathes images and scenes, sounds, speech, tactile constellations – anything that is sensory – into dreams. One feels that one has lived these things, of course one does. But dreams are imagined. They are a work of the imagination.
— What is the imagination for?
— It is a tool for navigating life’s random presentation of phenomena. It enables us to guess.
— But I am sure that I knew her.
— Know her you did, but it was in a dream. You may dream of her again. That is the world where you can meet such a person. The actual world is different. For you, it is this house, and the street beyond. It is the lake at the center of the village, and the gazebo in the lake. It is the meal we take together at midday, and again at nightfall.
She sat for a moment quietly.
— Do you remember the book that I was reading to you from?
— About the poacher and his dog?
— Yes. You remember how real it seemed? Well, it is not real. It just seems to be real. And that is just a toy of words on a page – not anything close to the vibrant power of the mind’s complete summoning that you find in the night. Is it any wonder that you believe it to be real? That you confuse memory and sleep’s figment?
He shook his head.
She took off the glasses, and put them in the drawer.
— I still feel that you are different with glasses, he said.
— People do look quite different with glasses, I suppose. I suppose that must be true.
— Will you play for me on the piano? he asked.
She went to the piano and opened it.
— I can know that it is you because you play for me on the piano, he said. Someone else wouldn’t do that.
— So, she said – you believe an individual’s function and service are identical to their person?
She began to play.
He looked out the window again. It was open, and the air was moving now and then, sometimes in, sometimes out. Or, it must move out whenever it moves in. It couldn’t just move in, or it would all end up inside. But, he supposed, that wasn’t entirely impossible. After all, he was completely inside.
He put his arm out the window and felt the air on it.
Below, the neatly trimmed yard lay flat on its side. The street unrolled from left to right, and beyond the houses, other streets could be seen by the white chalk of their surface. The tops of houses could be seen downhill, the glint of light off the lake in the distance. In the long fields of the distance, and in the canopies of the trees, in waves at their edges, he felt a coy energy. It was as though the edges of things were where the greater part might be hidden – where he could find more.
— There is a thing I want to tell you about, she said. It is called naming. Many things have names. You know that. The bottom post on the staircase is called the newel post. The staircase is called a staircase. The post is called a post. The bottom of the staircase is called the bottom. These are all names. People can have names too, and naming is a privilege. In human history, names have been used as a form of power. Poor families, for instance, would sometimes have three or four sons, and those sons would simply be given numbers for names. First son, second son, third son. Some people would be named just for their position. Blacksmith, or Miller. In fact, that naming system was so strong that there remain people today who have as part of their names those old positions.
— Can you think of someone you speak about in that way?
— The men who work outdoors.
— You call them gardener. And if you spoke to them that way, they would understand. This is why it is useful – because it is effective communication. You speak to them, and they understand. Now, let us imagine that such a person had a different name – a name that had nothing to do with what he or she did. What would you say to that?
— It wouldn’t make sense, he said. How would you get such a name? There would be no reason for you to have it instead of a different name.
— That’s true. What would you call me?
— I would call you examiner.
— That’s right, and why am I an examiner?
— Because your work is to examine people and things and help to achieve balance.
— That’s what I told you, and I have shown it to be true through my actions. So, to you, a sound name for me is examiner. However, that is not my name. That is the name of my position. In the world, there are many examiners, but there is only one person with my particular allotment of cells who stands in my geographical and temporal position. That person is myself, and so I have a name to help differentiate me from other people who are similar to me.
— But, if you are the only one in your circumstance, why do you need a different name? Shouldn’t your circumstance alone be the name itself ? If it is specific to you?
The examiner laughed.
— Very good, very good. But it isn’t necessarily so, because not everyone has perfect information. So, if they saw me on one day at the lake, and then a week later by that distant field, they might not know that I was the same person, unless I had told them my name. If I had, they could speak to me and use my name, and thereby confirm that it was me.
— But what if there were two of you with the same name?
— That is a problem. It is – and it comes up. In any case, I have a name. That gardener has a name. Everyone has a name. Everyone but you.
— Why don’t I have a name?
— You don’t have a name because you are starting over. You are beginning from the beginning. You are allowed to make mistakes and to fail. You don’t need to do that under a real name, a name that will stay with you. We give you the freedom to make every conceivable mistake and have them all be forgotten. So, for now you will have a conditional name. You will have a name while you are here in this first village. Here your name is Anders.
— Anders. Anders.
He said it quietly to himself.
— Can you say it again? Say it again, she said.
— Anders. Anders, he said. But what shall I call you?
— You can call me Teresa. That is not my real name either. It is the name for the examiner that orbits you. Teresa and Anders. Names always function this way, though people don’t think about it. They only exist in reference to each other.
— I’m not any more Anders to that gardener than I was a moment ago.
— You aren’t. And his name is hidden from you. Perhaps forever.
— Where did my name come from? What does Anders mean?
She thought for a minute.
— I believe it is a Scandinavian name, or perhaps it is German. Let me say completely how it was for me in the moment I named you Anders. That is as close to the meaning of this use of Anders as we can get.
She stood up and went to the window.
— When I was young, there was a girl who lived on the same street as me. Her name was Matilda Colone. She was very pretty and she wore beautiful clothes. She was the envy of everyone at my school, and she was blind. How can that be? Of course, it isn’t silly for grown people with circumspection and wisdom to envy a blind person who happens to be extraordinary. However, for children to do so – when the world is so bright and good to look at . . . you may imagine that it is surprising.
— She was elegant and calm. She learned her lessons perfectly. She had a seat in the classroom by a window, and the breeze would ruffle her hair or the scarf she wore, and we would all look at her and look at her and look at her. Matilda Colone, we would say under our breath. The teachers adored her, and everyone wanted to be her friend. But, she needed no friends, and would have none. Of all the things she had, and she had many, the best thing was that she had a brother, named Anders, and he sat beside her in class. He walked beside her to school. He brought her her lunch. He held her coat; he held it up, and then she would put it on. He was very smart, smarter than anyone in the class, except perhaps Matilda, but it was hard to say, because they would never cross each other. It was a school for the smartest children in the region. We all loved her so much that we could almost weep.
— What happened to her?
— This was in the old days. Her father shot himself, and she and Anders were separated and put into homes. Some years after that she died of pneumonia.
— Anders, he said to himself.
Each night, the examiner would say to the claimant something like this (not this, but something like it):
Tomorrow we are going to wake up early. I am going to wake early and you are going to wake early. This will happen because I am sure to do so, and I will come and see to it that you are woken up. Then, I shall dress and you shall dress, and we will go downstairs to the kitchen. In the kitchen, we shall have our breakfast and we will enjoy the morning light. We will talk about the furnishings in the room. We will talk about the paintings and the photographs that we talk about each morning. You will have things to say about them and I will listen. I will have things to say to you about the things you have said. In this way, we shall speak. After breakfast, we will wash the dishes we have used and we will put them away. We will stand for a moment in the kitchen, which we will have cleaned, and we will feel a small rise of pleasure at having set things right. It is an enduring satisfaction for our species to make little systems and tend to them.
Yes, she would continue, we shall go on a walk to the lake, and perhaps this time we will walk around it to the small wood at the back. There we will find the trees that we like. Do you remember them? Do you remember that I like the thin birch that stands by the stream, and that you prefer the huge maple with the roots that block the path? Do you remember when you first saw it, and you ran to it? We shall go there tomorrow, and spend as much time as we want to sitting with those trees, in that quiet place. And when we have done that, we shall come home, walking fast or slow, and we shall . . .
And in this way she would go through the day and give him a sense that there was something to look forward to, and nothing to fear.
The above is taken from Jesse Ball’s A Cure for Suicide, published by Pantheon in the US and the Text Publishing Company in the UK and Australia.
Artwork © Catherine Anyango