The temple is empty. That’s the point.
“I open this awful machine. To nothing.” — Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, ‘Heart’s Arms’
How long has this been going on?
Waking bleary-eyed and cotton-mouthed. Empty bottles clinking with every stumbling step. Pulling open the blinds to swear at the sun and beat a clumsy retreat, one hand raised in a claw over eyes filled with sand. How many pointless decisions or non-decisions, how many bleating fears, how many missed chances and stony regrets does it take to make a life out of simple protoplasm?
It all trails out behind us, the contrail of a gleaming silver jet leaving fading scars across a shrugging sky. Everything matters, or nothing does.
Everything mattered once.
In a cheap hotel room in Portland, I saw a vast future opening up in front of me through a tear in the filmy gray curtains. I said goodbye for the last time to a silver-eyed woman on the platform of a subway station in Vancouver, then saw her again and wished that I hadn’t. In a tiny hotel room in the worst part of town, the carpet smelled of bear spray. The staff knocked on the door every day at noon to check that no one had died in the night. Sometimes they had.
Everything mattered. Desire reshapes the world — jet fuel can’t melt steel beams! — and weakened structures collapse under their own weight. Mike Tyson, bull-necked and bristling, spitting and snarling his way through a chaotic press conference. You can’t last two minutes in my world, bitch! It’s been longer than that. Much longer than that.
They say life is short. They say your childhood is the best time of your life. Wrong on both counts. I’ve been in my thirties for centuries. I’ve been alive forever. Ring the bell tomorrow. Cut the gloves off. I can’t complain.
I don’t complain. I’ve been too close to the grinding wheel to be afraid of it anymore. After a while,it’s just background noise. Spent cartridges are hot enough to burn, but not for long. Let them cool and shrink. Let the piles grow. The brass still remembers the semi-second of immolation. The glory of the burning. The empty shell that misses the bullet it once held.
It doesn’t matter anymore
Today, I was watching a rugby match from the other side of the world. I was thinking about Saturdays. My dad used to take me to the rugby club to play with other kids. The grass sharp with frost, crunching with every step. The sky as shallow as a bottlecap. Shivering in the cold and praying the ball didn’t come to me. Only to feel the slimy leather slip through my flailing arms.
Outside, a storm was raging. Blown in from God knows where. Dragged by the wild wind from some hateful hollow of the mountains to spit hail and blue lightning all over the valley. The windows rattled. For a brilliant semi-second, the garden stood out in the ghostly white flash, shadows shrinking and instantly swelling back into a wave that rolled over the world.
On the TV in front of me, the green team were winning. By tomorrow, I’ll have forgotten the result.
This is the part where I’m supposed to tell you pretty things
One-third of the way through. Introductions can be vague or confused or even poetic. They just can’t be boring.
But sooner or later, I need to start talking about you. Hopefully in short sentences. Hopefully in easy steps. Like I have some answer I’m withholding. Five simple steps to get everything you want. The stinger the bee doesn’t know she has until rage overtakes her and rips out her sterile guts, leaving her light enough to vanish forever into the unstained sky.
It doesn’t seem likely. Sure things are boring. It’s the unlikely win that gets our hearts pumping, that tears our throats with unexpected joy. I was alone in an Irish pub in Canada when Jonny Wilkinson kicked a drop goal between the Australian posts in the final minute of extra time to win England the World Cup.
A table of drunken Australians howled in protest. I screamed my joy at the TV and at the world. Because back then, it mattered. Even though, even then, I knew deep down it didn’t.
Three minutes left
It was the same then as it is now. Everything looks different, and everything is the same. Skinned and reskinned, cloned and repackaged. You can spend a long time falling for this. The all-new formula. The best ever. That final score so high and wild you’ll never have to kick again. The unending vibrato that will play you out, that will go on singing when you’re broken open and hollowed out and smiling at the sky you no longer see.
You know this. You know it as well as I do. When I’m talking to you, I’m talking to myself. And it’s you you’re listening to. You already know everything. You just forgot.
And one day, as the light blasts through the blinds and you trip cursing on the treacherous bottles of a month ago, you’ll remember it all in a rush. The frosty fields and the slippery ball and the cheap hamburgers sizzling on the grill in the clubhouse after, too. The tiny wins and giant losses. The tackles that knocked the wind out of you.
Language is sacred.
When my father was a child, the priest still muttered in Latin. Anything that moves must be alive. And anything that lives must die. Anything that can conjure the entire world out of air can’t fail to be holy.
When the Romans left Nimes, they took the keys to the temple back to Rome with them. When we broke open the door to the sanctuary, we found nothing inside but empty air.
Constant contact numbs us. That’s what the child pickpockets in Rome rely on. With a dozen tiny hands pressed all over your body, you won’t notice the one that slips into your pocket, into your purse.
And I come away smiling with a blanket over my arm and your cash tucked into my belt.
Two minutes left
There isn’t a word I can say you don’t already know. Each one is written inside the pulsating dome of your heart, the ninety-nine beautiful names of Allah spiraling up to the sun-filled oculus in the roof of the temple. The fulmination’s adscititious phosphorescence gives the anguilliform thoroughfare a nacreous luster, but you knew that already, didn’t you? You’ve seen it before.
And that’s the point, if you need one. If you haven’t given up already and gone off in search of someone who gets straight to the heart of the matter. Here we are, you and I, in that dim vibrating chamber. We got there eventually.
It took me all this time to figure out who it was I was talking to. The frozen fields receded, replaced by filthy pubs and TV screens. Everything mattered, then nothing did.
And then the shell breaks open. There never was a prison unless you made one for yourself. Everyone you love and everyone you hate is you. There is no me to write these words for you to read. There’s only you, reading to yourself. Moving your lips slowly the way old people pray, to make yourself think what’s within is without.
Give me your hand: you are now within a foot
Of the extreme verge: for all beneath the moon
Would I not leap upright.
Let go my hand.
One minute left
The only way to play the game is to pretend that it matters. Even when you know that it doesn’t. Especially then. The bruised and bloodied athletes striving against one another on today’s rutted field will be on the same team tomorrow.
The only way to play is to pretend you don’t know what you know very well. That the words the echo inside your head, the abstract symbols on the screen that form sounds in the depths of your skull by some mysterious magic, don’t come from me but from you.
Some part of you has always known this. The holy of holies is empty. This awful machine contains nothing. When Gloucester jumps from the cliff, we all know he’ll survive. But our hearts rise into our throats anyway.
And this is the part where I’m supposed to wrap everything up nice and neat.
Ideally with a reference back to the question posed when I started, but with an answer this time. Or at least a different angle.
But tomorrow, I’ll rise to trip over today’s empty bottles. Tomorrow, I’ll learn all over again what it costs me to sting. I’ll forget who’s listening when I talk. I’ll forget to listen when I should. And the watery veil will be drawn around us again, the curtain that separates one act of the play from the other.
But that won’t change anything. The sea cliff will still be there, bending its high head over the confinéd deep. Nothing will have changed, and nothing will be the same.
Once you see inside the temple’s vacant heart, you can’t go back to not seeing it.
© Ryan Frawley 2020.
All proceeds from this article will be donated to Doctors Without Borders/Medecins Sans Frontiers.