Don’t fear for me, the letter read, if I don’t text. Don’t fear for me if I don’t call. I’m going away, precisely for how long, I can’t tell, until I’m better. Until I’m healed. I’m aware that you and everyone else who cares for me would like to know where I am, how I’m holding up, when I’m coming back. All those important details. But I need to be alone. Once again, my spiritual strength has fled me, and is in dire need of conditioning.
As a result I’m temporarily taking leave of society. Not quite to live in the boonies, however, and to subside off roots and plants. I’ll live where there’s electricity, where there are supermarkets and people, where I can gain employment. Only I won’t know anybody, nor will I make any concrete effort to get to know anyone. I’ll meet people, obviously, and they’ll learn who I am, and I them, but I’ll be as reclusive and distant as possible.
If a society is a place where many people are connected, where I will go there will be no such connections. At least not on my part anyway.
I will live simultaneously within and without society.
If you hear from me prematurely it is for both good and bad reasons.
I’ll see you where it’s brighter.
This was as far as he got. He didn’t know where he was headed. As far as he was concerned, he had nowhere to go.
Yet he had to go somewhere.
To stay put was no longer an option. This was unfortunate because he was past getting to know the place; he’d made it his home. He’d made other friends. There were those he knew before and those he came to know, and now these ties he’d cleave and annihilate.
It was a tiresome project, this act of turning one’s back on everyone. There was the physical side, sure, the easier part, but the continuous psychological slug of pretending that these people never mattered, that the places in which their being collided with his were inconsequential, was both exhausting and upsetting.
It was as if he were an operating system in the process of an update that he wholeheartedly chose but only halfheartedly wanted.
For the first time in his life, the uncertainty of his future seemed less a path to transcendence and esteem than an elaborate pitfall to an excruciating and pointless death.
Nonetheless, this was his choice. This was the direction in which his feet were treading.
When he got there it was cold. To the lower temperatures and breath catching winds he’d acclimatised, somewhat, over the past year.
But this was worse.
It was not the dull misty greyness with which he was familiar, but a damp and oppressive snowfall, and a blinding one to boot.
The current challenge was to embrace the landscape, this environment, as his own. Before it was borrowed, a lived-in placeholder—now it was no longer the wintry tableaux that once made sense, but was rather, for nine months of the year, a constant and confusing winter.
And yet, he wondered whether this personal claim of the land was entirely necessary.
If he was to make good on his promise and become a non-member of society, it would follow that the area he lived in would not be his own. Still, there had to be a degree of connection to it. If not to other people, then at least to the earth, to the place.
This stumped him slightly. On this chore he’d have to work some, and he willed himself not to forget it.
Within a month he landed a gig that allowed him to indefinitely turn off his phone. It’d been steadily blowing up since he informed every one of his departure.
None was in favour of his move.
In fact, were it not for the swiftness with which he departed, his friends would have physically prevented him from leaving the city.
Not telling anyone where he was going also helped. The clandestine setting of the village was pleasurable; its secrecy stirred the embers of his soul. And once he could retire his phone, he felt even greater relief.
Being employed by an elderly couple to chop wood and run errands, he lived comfortably. They supplied him with food and a modest hut at the end of their field. It had electricity and running water and heat, and enough room to house the few books that he could bring with him.
But now that he’d found the setting, there came to question of what to do within it.
Walton had given little thought to this stage of his plan. His priority was to run away. After that all else was incidental.
For all his talk about spiritual conditioning, he was not a religious man. Nor did he care for meditation. His ambition was to see how much solitude he could withstand before he cracked.
Conversely, he felt there was a chance that he might not crack at all.
There was a possibility, he told himself, that his future would have in store for him not a split, but an opening, a flourishing in which he would achieve greater insight into the workings of the universe, the processes of the mind, and then return to everyone, sane, with the learnings he had uncovered.
But this was wishful thinking.
No such epiphany would occur. Instead there would be only menial work and brooding.
To keep himself occupied he began to write.
The words came instantly. Later he’d spend an inordinate amount of time pondering their significance—where they came from, their relevance to him—when it was clear, even at that moment, that he was still obsessed.
The sentences that opened the yellow notebook were:
Those who live in the past, someone once said, live with regret; those in the future, anxiety; those in present, peace. But I never agreed with this. Time, to me, has never truly held up under this tripartite structure. There has been, and there will always be, only one time. Where we are connected to others and the earth, we do not live in time but across it—and therefore across regret, anxiety, peace, among countless other emotions. In coming here, and in starting this journal, I can ensure that I live exclusively in the present. Severed is my connection to the past. On the other hand, the future is but a continuation of my humdrum present, and the Doaks whom I socialise with only to earn a crust, so to speak, are not people to me but sentient AI. They provide me with the necessary tools to forge for myself a perpetual present. And that and nothing else is my business here. I am meagre blacksmith of time.
The journals would later be of scintillating interest to Walton’s extended family and immediate friendgroup, though many of them found the subject matter too difficult to read. Not for the philosophical tone but for the manner in which he presented his troubled thoughts and equally distressing plans for the future—or, as he would have put it, the latter stages of his perpetual present.
Thankfully he included, in the notebook’s overleaf, a list of people to contact should a misfortune ever befall him. In it were the phone numbers and email addresses of his parents, sister, best friends, and former lovers, of which there five.
The arc of the journals were clear; Walton realised he was not destined for glory, as he naively believed in his churlish youth, and that his time in hiding would have long-lasting, disastrous consequences for himself and those who knew him. And while he didn’t fear for his mortality, he suspected that his mind would ultimately yield to a force far darker and more inscrutable than that of nature or God.
And after many years, this is exactly what appeared to have occurred.
Ultimately the journals were a concentrated act of forgetting.
But in order to truly forget one’s history, he wrote, one must replace it with another—all the while dismembering and discarding the past with great care and precision.
To this end he moulded for himself a new biography, one devoid of all people who, however formatively or minutely, had shaped his personality and direction in life.
This proved to be an arduous task.
Due to his derision of interpersonal connections, he wanted to give reason for the preceding twenty-five years of his existence without referring to humans of any sort.
Naturally, then—according to the journals—his birth was the first example of what he termed individual parturition, meaning that he was born of neither man nor woman but, instead, came into being as a result of some unworldly power.
I am not Jesus, so read one entry, but somebody greater. I am the evolution, the amplification, of Immaculate Conception. No one conceived me, no mother birthed me, no structure raised me other than nature. I am an angular crash in the mouthpiece of my creator. I am a body carving forward and back. I am an I am sheared from nothing: a disparate, natural God.
In spite of this sustained obliteration of his identity, he was conscious of his actions. He knew he was the son of Noel and Maire Walton, brother of Lisa and Susan, and so on. No amount of rejection and disbelief could shake these foundational facts from his system. But after years of repetition he succeeded in convincing himself otherwise.
All the same, he remained conscious of his roots, as his final journal entry makes clear. By this point his parents and grandparents were no longer alive, dead over twenty years between them. He’d been subsiding off the modest legacy that the Doaks, bereft of children themselves, had left him in their will. His days were filled with meditation and writing, now incoherent and elliptical, an aimless descriptive assortment of trees, body parts, clouds.
The last note came one week shy of his fifty-ninth birthday, in the form of a quatrain whose dactyls and triplets soothed his strife in the events leading up to, during, and following the pulmonary embolism which befell him that week.
On the frozen snow he envisioned his family coat of arms, which in his parents’ home depicted three swans, though he’d read about one in which a wild man held a green trefoil in his right hand and an oak tree in the other, and he mumbled respectively the unfortunate yet insightful words:
This was a fool to think he was special;
This was a fool to think he could bind
The hoardings and callings of unforeseen mystery
That justified all and made everything kind.
Declan Toohey is an Irish writer based in Halifax, Canada, where he bartends and writes in what little spare time he has. He posts flash fiction on his blog (https://declantoohey.wordpress.com) and Instagram page, which he often uses to blur the lines between his life and his fiction. ‘Light in Winter’ is his first fictional publication.