|This is the second chapter of what is evolving of its own accord into a strange sort of mystery novel. The first chapter, Miro, is published here. The third chapter, The Faeries of Morpheus, and the fourth chapter, The Card Game, are partly written and will be published shortly. The novel consists of a set of fragments, recollections and memorabilia, that are discovered by Inspector Tom·s Moreno LÛpez in a carved box in the home of Miro, an engineer who has mysteriously disappeared and is now assumed dead. The carved box was apparently made by Miro’s estranged wife, a famous artist, who has turned up at a country inn, incoherent and delirious, and fallen into a mute trance, oblivious and unresponsive to everyone, including the couple’s two adult children. So Inspector Moreno must try to piece together the puzzle from the ‘clues’ in the box, each of which is contained in a numbered envelope, and each of which, as Moreno reads and ponders them, becomes a chapter of the novel. The fantastical but apparently autobiographical short story published earlier was contained in envelope #1. Here is the contents of the second envelope:
My beloved Ariela:
I know I have let you down, and do not blame you for the bitterness and disappointment I know you feel towards me. Everything that I am, everything I have done, my very existence is owed entirely to you. When we met I was a wreck of a man, a shadow, a wraith, and you saw the promise in me and put me back together, made me whole, useful, a part of the world again.
I tried to repay that debt, and for many years I thought I was doing reasonably well. Our children turned out quite wonderfully, and even though that is mostly your doing I believe I played my back-up role competently. We have never suffered for want of anything, and although we had to work long and hard for many years, we have managed well and are now both admired greatly — you for your extraordinary artistic work and me for my engineering accomplishments.
We have, both of us, always been our own worst task-masters. But, thanks to your help and guidance, and the requirements of adjusting to cope with chronic stress-induced illness, I finally learned to be somewhat content with and proud of my accomplishments, satisfied and willing to ease up on my expectations of myself, and allow myself to relax, have fun, do less, and live more in the moment. You never gave yourself permission to do that, and, when my health deteriorated, you merely drove yourself harder, dug in deeper, set even tougher goals for yourself, convinced that my illness, rather than a consequence of not easing up on myself earlier, was instead a sign of weakness, lack of guts and perseverance. A failure of resolve.
For that reason I am much more worried about you than I am about myself. I want you to learn the lesson of how stress can kill you before you must learn it, as I did, the hard way, a little too late. Your mind and your body can only take so much, no matter how fit you try to keep yourself. And if you, like me, hit the wall, you will hit it oh so much harder than I did, since you are headed towards it so much faster and more relentlessly.
But of course we have talked about that, and I respect that you do not see it that way. The fact that you view my illness, my capitulation to the demands of my mind and body to cut back, to relax, to give myself some slack, as shameful, as a character failure, a weakness, causes me grief, but it does not surprise me. Remember our early years together! It was as if we were locked in competition to see which could exhaust the other — sleep the least, get the most work done, drink the most, dance the longest, push ourself the furthest. Your stubbornness, your intransigence, was always both your greatest strength and, potentially, your greatest vulnerability. And, even back then, when that frantic pace first took its toll on my health, and I cried Uncle — you win, Ariela, I concede, I cannot keep up with you, your reaction was not one of triumph but of disdain for my ‘failure’. What contest has no winners, only losers?
And, over time, your goading me forward, which when we first met had pulled me out of my self-loathing and despair and brought me back to life — saved my life, even! (for surely in those dark days without your example of courage and perseverance and determination I would have ended my own life), began to exhaust me, frighten me, repel me, even. And finally, unwilling and unable to try to live up continually to your ever-increasing expectations of yourself and of me, I began to withdraw, disengage, become apart, from exhaustion and disbelief, disconnecting from what we were, what we had become. Instead of arguing, fighting, I just shrugged, and did what was, by then, right for me. And I felt so selfish, so ungrateful, for doing that to you after all that you had done for me! But for me that race was over, I could not go on. I would not. So you went your way, and saw it your way (never changing), while I went my way, and saw it my way, with new and less ambitious eyes. Had I, out of selflessness or gratefulness, gone on, the very unyielding, indefatigable energy of yours that had saved my life in those dark hours of my youth, would surely have killed me as I tried to keep up with its insatiable demands in the wondrous and less taxing years of my recent life. How can I make you understand this irony?
So I do not blame you for doing what you did, without me. You had to do what you had to do. You were always that way, and I would never presume to try to change you. I only hope your recent private life, surely frenzied and exhausting, though I never asked about it, nor really want to know, at least gave you the happiness that I, the flagging partner, no longer could. I know it bothers you that, even when you flaunted it, I would not rise to the challenge, get back in the race, fight with you or for you or about you. You see that as proof of my not caring, but it is just the opposite. If I can’t keep up with you, at least I owe it to you to give you the space and opportunity to keep running, pushing harder and faster, to win the race you have set for yourself, and not to hold you back on my account.
I love you, have loved you since we first met, and nothing will ever change that. I am sorry you think I have let you down, but, like you, I had to do what I had to do. My body and mind, with its breakdown, reminded me clearly that what I had to do was different from what you have to do. I am not ashamed of myself for doing less than what I had once hoped to do. I am sorry you are ashamed of me. I just wish you peace, success by your own standards, and freedom from anguish. Life is too short to live without these simple but difficult things.
I don’t know where you are, now, or how you are. I hope you are well, and happy (though I fear the opposite, terribly). There is a fine line between relentless self-drive and self-abusiveness, and I worry, most of all, that something will happen that will cause you to cross that line. It’s only human.
Everything you left is still here, and will be, always. Everything that is mine is yours, and my life now is so simple I use up very little. The children need nothing from us, so what we have accumulated, the ‘stuff’ that means so much to so many families as their measure of achievement, but which means nothing to me, will remain here for you, if and when you want to reclaim it. Our beloved little piece of land, its serenity, the wonderful neighbours, human and animal, are precious to me, as you know, and I will steward it as best I can in your absence. I could never again live in a city. When you let land revert to its natural state it requires remarkably little tending — it looks after itself, though not, of course, in the ornate and manicured and spectacular way that you would prefer it — artificially and ‘perfectly’ maintained, drawing gasps of wonder and admiration from all who draw near.
I do not know what else to say. I will leave this letter for you on the table by the front entrance in the hope that you will find it if and when you come by. Take care of yourself, my love, please. You are everything to me. Be happy, whatever that may take. Do what you must.Though you probably feel otherwise, I am on your side.
Illustration is Magritte III in Heaven, 1998, a work in wood, oil paint, plaster, charcoal, and cloth by Venezuelan artist Marisol Escobar. I imagine the artwork of my fictional Ariela being something like this.
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