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The inner battles

I guess I must tell you 'bout the old man I met the other day
While strolling the country, across hills and valleys I came to his place
Quite unexpectedly I should say I ran into a forgotten, unbeaten path
I knew I was lost, but not scared or worried or hungry or weary.
Lost as I’ve always been, bereft of guidance or beacons
Indeed it gave me some comfort strange as it may sound.
The house was larger than I expected
Smaller than other buildings in the surroundings
And definitely modest and unpretentious
No dog barked at me when I unlatched the fence
No hummingbird was flying in the whereabouts
There was something in the air that beckoned my attention
Which I could not determine at that moment.
The man came to the door before I was able to knock two times.
He greeted me as if he knew me for years
The way he greeted all visitors I reckoned,
given the solitude in which he lived.
You’re on time for tea and biscuits, he said
I just put down the kettle from the fire.
That's when I noticed it was chilly
The sun had gone down at a turn of my path.
He walked slowly as old men always do.
A limp and a walking stick,
A rough beard and uncut hair above his ears
A large forehead shiny of wisdom and regret.
I washed my hands in a basin in the kitchen
And he invited to sit down at a large table
which served for dining and reading and writing and chatting.
If you had come in yesterday you would have missed me, he said.
I'm just in from the battle, the war is not over and I must return.
It quite didn't look like he’d ever left the place in years
nor I knew of any battle or war in the whereabouts.
The man is soft in his thoughts, his reasoning falters, his memory plays tricks,
I explained to myself and sipped at the tea.
Green tea, warm, mild, fruity
which brought me to a Saturday evening at a place I had forgotten
Where I used to linger, love and rest.
You’re an old man; war is not your thing, I said.
No. War is my place, and will always be.
Men have lived in war ages before
they came to live together in tribes or clans.
Yes, young man that is so, you should know
I am not young…
I was due to protest but I listened
as he refilled my cup and the tea tasted stronger
It was not mild anymore but vigorous and almost sweet.
I am a veteran of many battles, he said.
No need to count how many
It seems my destiny is to fight
Over and over, endlessly, absurdly...
Like Sisyphus, I ventured.
Like Sisyphus he echoed but was not listening
It was me who resonated in anticipation.
But if you have survived one battle and again
You must have won all or most of them.
He stared at me.
I mean, if you lose the battle you usually can't make it to the next...
He stared at me again.
You should be happy you are alive and ready for the next battle.
You must have a box full of medals,
The generals and field commanders must have honoured you once and again.
A key man for their purposes, loyal and never faltering, I smiled.
You, he said.
You, he repeated, are not understanding, young man.
He insisted in calling me young.
My battles are within me and he pointed to his shallow chest.
The war is with myself, that's where the enemy lies.
Within me.
Can't you understand?
Beliefs and values and identity fighting against
Instincts, and human nature and yearnings
I was taken aback.
The old fool had fooled me.
I silently finished my tea.
I had nothing to say.
Neither did he.
We sat together in silence, in darkness.
All of a sudden I had become a little wiser.
An endless time elapsed.
I could hear the old man breathing
Slowly with no hurry, with no break either.
Just breathing, almost like an infant in his sleep.
But I could tell he was not asleep even though the place was dark as a cave.
He was vigilant, sharp and listening like an owl at midnight,
staring at me in darkness, intuitively reading my mind, my own battles.
My own war.
I was sure he was reading, listening, deciphering
word by word,
Thought by thought,
What was going on in me
As if I were a large-print book,
An audible book.
We sat, hearing each other breath.
It took me some time to slow down to his rhythm of breathing
Not that I was looking forward to it
But it just happened, unexpectedly again.
An hour or so must have passed before the moonlight entered the room,
Uninvitingly but decisively.
The war within, I pondered.
How stupid of me.
How blunt, thick, ignorant.
The war.
Yes THE war.
And then out of the blue the old man spoke,
As if we had interrupted the conversation seconds ago:
'Till I learn to understand these forces within me
I’ll be at war.
'Till I bring together these enemies within me there will be no peace...
And.... I ventured, is there any hope?
It seems you've spent all your life in this long war.
No. I have no hope. I have learned to live without expectations.
But I keep fighting.
I stop fighting I die.
But it could be the other way around... I tried to make a point.
You surrender and you free yourself, at least from that enemy.
You are right,.. from that enemy...
And then you run into the next, and the next, and next...
So what is there to be done?
I don't know, young man...
That's why I must be ready for the next battle...
I looked at him and could not decide if he was wise or fool,
But in either case he was speaking from the heart
As I listened to him my guts stirred within me.
The kettle was cold and waterless. The biscuits were gone and my stomach was empty again. But I was not hungry. I tried to listen to my body, to atone my understanding to the language of my blood, tissues and organs, not to my mind or thoughts, but to my body, to the rest of my body...
What’s the sense of this visit?
Why am I here?
I pondered over and over but the answer was elusive, like a fly that's quicker than your hand in your sleep.
The old man had nothing else to say.
I still sat there, not waiting for anything in particular.
Neither of us was uncomfortable with the other.
Breathing in rhythm.
At one point in the night I lost my place in the situation,
I could not tell if I was visitor or host, the mature man or the old wise man,
the student or the sage.
I was both and neither, I was confused but calm.
I was there.
I am here, I said to myself, now and here.
The old man stood up, for sure he had had enough of the visit.
I sprang to my feet, and blushed for my extended intrusion.
Thank you, sir, he said, thank you. I must return to the battle. War does not wait for you. He grabbed his walking stick, opened the door and waved goodbye. I saw him depart. There was an air in him of confidence, of resolution. He knew where he was heading, for sure. He closed the door behind him and I sat down again. After a while I stood up to fill the kettle with water and fix some more tea.

Philip Potdevin



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