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You Will Live to Grow Old

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The world wavered with a rhythm broken, unwedded to the pulsing press of the ache that rode his eyelids. He was ill again.

One thinks, many times, that an illness is over. But the days marked themselves, a metronome under the harmony of disease... Or if they didn't, there was the diary that told him Dahoum had come, every day. Little: in the affectionate sense: loyal, always not quite there. One could be alone with him, truly alone: yet he was there every day, proving the solitude internal by quieting the external urge for others.

Something was off and Ned couldn't place it. It must be early, or perhaps this chill was born of fever. His skin was as cold as London: that last time he rode Boanerges out of the chilled and artificial canyons of her streets. He'd harangued newspapermen, and planned a visit from EMF as they stood under an insufficiently pigeoned sculpture.

They would always be bothering him, of course, bobbing their heads and pecking their typewriters. They'd crack him open if they could, they'd crack his head to peer inside, then patch the pieces together, patch you up, let me patch you up...

...he's too far gone to patch the damage. If he wakes he won't be his old self...

We're never our old selves again, who are they to say what self I am? I have a host of selves, or had, or at least two. The airman and the frustrated pedagogue, those at least I tried to be. But 14 year olds who have to teach you their language so you can teach it back are hardly...

No, he's almost 21 by now. 2 and 1 and 1 and 2, a world of dysentery and mathematics. I do wonder what he'll think of all of this once we are done, and the work is finished: if he will know without my telling him what he has gained. My feet have stopped registering the ache, or my mind has forgotten them in favor of the boils and the dysentery and the stripes and the filth and I'm far, far too ill to continue my tramp, I shall have to consider going home, I suspect. Amazing how poorly one sleeps when one's ill and cannot gather strength to do anything else! It is well our donkey boy comes to visit me or my mind would fester with my innards as I endure the well-meaning of the Hoja. But one's nurses are always well-meaning, and Dahoum has been so very ill. The quinine has no effect at all, without the arsenic he might now be dead. But yet he resists his matronly Englishman, moving about to clean in the airy strains of the violin.

The invalid will play, despite Doctor's orders to stay quiet and still.

...hold him still, just on the chance. He shan't move I'm sure but we don't want to be wrong about him and waste our error by leaving him free to break the stitching...

Break? Something's broken in the works, he's running out of tune. But Will shouldn't poison himself unless the malaria's chronic and acute. Or was it his friend? No, Will is the one who is broken, long ago in the war my will was broken.

A cloth lay over Ned's face like a shroud, brushing it roughly as the sandy wind while voices murmured urgently. A white stone will mark your visit. The flowing sand grains (can the granular become fluid?) tingled and stabbed, and his whole body crept like a mass of worms. He fled the terrible sensations, until the world seemed more distant and white, more empty than he could ever recall it being.

"I really must be ill," he told himself. "It wasn't like this when I was at the Hoja's house." Ned blinked, or thought of a blink, because he no more felt his eyelids move than he had felt his lips produce the words he had clearly heard.

If he focused, he could still feel the pricking, pressing, heating sand of before. Scents and tastes flowed in and out again, as worried voices drifted. "All that fuss," he mused, "hardly worth it. If this body fails me, I shall break it..." and then he paused, wondering if he had. He was old now, was he not?

Yes, Ned realized, he had lived to grow old. He was 46, and it was beyond strange that he had been thinking of Dahoum being present just moments before. Dahoum had been dead, now, for longer than he had lived. Ned's heart sank, for a moment, irrationally wishing for that daily visit the 14 year old had freely gifted him, on a nauseous roof near the Euphrates.

"Oh," came his voice despite motionless mouth, "what a strange acquaintance that was. So much my joy of him was the ease of it. He was there to speak when I wanted it, bendable to new thought, open to be taught. And I the pedagogue... what a pompous Greek notion, to press and mould the free child into some refined state, where can I have got it from?"

The Odyssey had come after. Most things had come after. Lawrence, Ross, Shaw, all well after the Ned the boy had known. After, too, had come this disenchantment with education, this conviction that the development of mind took the same lustful path as the bodily passions.

Perhaps that might have been it. The sweeping eye of learning devouring the clean expanse of unaltered mind, the never-sheathed blade of thought borne against untorn virginal territory. He shrunk from the idea. Horrible, it was, the righteously noble structures of the pedagogue made the rotten and crumbling facade of the pederast.

"No, no," he mourned, "No I couldn't." But there had been that keen hope to greet Dahoum in victory. "No, I loved no person, all my life." But surely there must have been love there of some kind, if not for him alone then for his country or his race. Some form of love, for place or idea, something more than that might forgive the passioned shame...

His thoughts silenced themselves, and he listened to the chilled whispering voices without, which wondered if he was going to pull through. Footsteps clacked nearer and farther again, some matron eyeing her trapped and quiescent patient. In the stillness there was less of himself: less and less except that part which most wanted to have dissipated, crowding him with emptiness, a rushing wind through the abyss of insufficient and broken motives in that perverse purity of white: ten months before, five months before, too late, too late...

As a curtain at a doorway, the void was softly parted by sound. "Have you always been so selfish when you remember me?" Not his own voice, but surely this was the voice of Death. A language he should have long ago forgotten, a dialect Lawrence must surely have lost. He would not turn to look, as stubborn as Clesant and as sure to give in.

"What other perspective could I have? All thoughts are more private than mine, wantonly spread on the page: and the past without relics must hold his secrets forever," and involuntarily added, "I am talking to myself and imagining him."

"Your imagination knows itself, then, and your thoughts are not private to it. So why would it ask you?" The voice held a smirk Ned could see without turning. The vision seemed clearer than the heel clicks in the hall of the external world, despite being drawn in pencil lines of memory.

"It's a comfort," he mumbled, and his memory quoted, "'He is an illusion, whom you created in the garden because you wanted to feel you were attractive.'"

"What garden is that? Damascus or England? But I was not created by you, and not destroyed either." The warmth of the voice, like sun-warmed earth, radiated gently at his back. "And you may feel yourself however you wish. But it is not like you to hide," the voice added, "not from your fears, at any rate. So perhaps that answers your question about your motives."

"But I would never have been afraid of you," Ned answered, and realized it was true, to the spite of all fears of intimacy. There was never any intrusion in the boy's company and proximity, ever seeming less like the presence of another than a full sense of self.

He turned.

The eyes held him, not old, but neither the youth of memory, as a hand stretched out to welcome his. As his fingers slid into the waiting palm, Ned was certain he felt every ridge of their pads, every atom that touched, as the world behind blazed white.