Short story

The Silk Is Soft and the Stone Wounds

Orson was a sensible man. This much I can assure you: I have known him from the time when I believed in the storks and Mother Goose and I can attest to it. I decided at one point that it is absolutely necessary that I begin with this assurance; and perhaps one can later see why.


Orson was a sensible man. This much I can assure you: I have known him from the time when I believed in the storks and Mother Goose and I can attest to it. I decided at one point that it is absolutely necessary that I begin with this assurance; and perhaps one can later see why.

There is an idea of an Orson, or so I believe, just in the way there is an idea of me, you, and everybody else. That is to say, we bonsai every depth and every precious human feeling until all that is left is a collection of grotesque markings. A man, then, is an almost accidental collocation of curious adolescent stunts and questionable fashion sense and odd facial features, a caricature of his own totality. From there we can deduce that there is an idea of an Orson, too, and it is less than what he is. (Contrary to public opinion, this might not be so terrible — for otherwise we must demand everyone to grant to everyone else a degree of uncomfortable intimacy. This is a thing you leave to children, hippies, and creatures of equal sophistication.) Now, a homunculus of Orson’s is what one might describe as a careful being: he takes his drinks in sensible portions, his job secure and moderately rewarding, his family fairly happy, and his hours reasonably eventful; that is to say, straddling the line between uneventful and almost eventful. He was not even a noted Apollonian, nor did he place reason on a higher pedestal than most sensible folk, in which case there would have been an interesting irony to his fall from grace. No. Orson was a sensible man and that’s all there was to it.

And so it came to me with great confusion when Orson invited me for a cup of coffee just to mumble the sad, incomprehensible thing. This was almost a year after his retirement and just over two months after he gave up fishing and golf as his post-career diversions of choice: Orson had told me in a coffee shop that he wanted to just disappear completely.


Old Orson mumbled to me, while making this sour wince with an inappropriate duck-face, that he wished to just disappear completely. Perhaps it would have been more dramatic, not to mention apt, if I were to follow the rules of the cinemas and take a short, pensive pause before answering it, but I brushed it off with a swift movement and replied; this sounds like a sick desperation, Orson; then proceeded to crack a joke about a hypothetical, repressed terminal stress accumulating over years of toiling in white collar nonsense. Had this been a film, it would be a very unconvincing scene.

Orson frowned.

I have introduced you to my concept of the bonsaification of man, and, ridiculous as it seemed (and pretentious to a sickening degree) I do believe in such a thing and Orson’s bonsai — or, homunculus, for it is tangentially relevant and I love how the word sounds — is that of a sensible if otherwise unspectacular person. Nevertheless, sensible is a thing he was and therefore I concluded at the time that this sudden collapse of will was due to some kind of misguided thinking process. He had, after all, all the time in the world, so it’s very suspect that he picked up a book with a bleak outlook on life and it was downhill from there. I reckoned it’s a reasonable, sensible guess. Out of character perhaps, but sensible.

Less likely was that it sparked from a terrible event happening in his innermost circle. This was still in the morning and I have not heard anything like that prior, so I also considered the idea that he was about to deliver to me news of death or disease and all this was a build-up; except he didn’t have any. Orson told me he saw an apparition. This was what stirred his cry of lament — an apparition.

Now. As a rule, a hole is a thing you fall into at least twice and again I reacted much the same with my previous error by making another pointless reference to the amateur diagnosis; that this man had just unearthed a disease from within his head and he ought to consult a medical professional. This time I made my case rather more strongly than before since I believed it made even more sense, but Orson said no. Fuck you, he said, I saw an apparition.

Orson was a sensible man, and he said he saw an apparition. He saw an apparition and not in any metaphorical sense, too. This seems to be too obviously a joke but there was something about him that day which convinced me to at least play along. Maybe, I thought, this was a thing he moved to from fishing and golf. Or it could be that time had dulled him, so I inquired: all right, Orson, what was this apparition. Was it a fox posing as a whore? Did you see a procession of corpse candles? Or dabs of light in your photographs? Orson said no. None of those, he said, he was visited by this faerie. He toyed with his cup and cast his eyes up to the streets, squinting as he did it, as though there was certain gravity in the situation.

I, however, thought otherwise. Faerie my foot. I replied, did she sprinkle you with itchy sparkly dust. And then he sprinkled me with his hours of exposition about the horror this witch had brought upon him.

“All my life,” so he began, “why I do things, was because that’s the only way I could have done it.”


So as it seemed, our Orson had taken up armchair philosophy. I take it you’ve been reading some funny books, I accused him, but this he denied vigorously, as he jumped like a startled horse. He’s not a book man. He does read the papers very religiously, he proclaimed, but that is besides the point. Instead, it had to do with the faerie. I informed him that I much prefer the term “apparition” if we must discuss it, because it sounded substantially less ridiculous — this was to be my condition. He agreed and then off he went. I was of the sincere opinion that he had been plagued with a particularly bad case of wahm, but there was no stopping the man. And so we spoke of this apparition for about an hour, and of its implications for another.


The apparition that drove Orson to soil himself was of a particular kind which, had it approached him in his fresh youth, would have been the greatest thing that can happen to his life. It was benign in nature, it must be said, and if it seems otherwise then it was Orson’s mind which made it so. Nevertheless, the revelation, seen through Orson’s weary eyes, I can imagine to be indeed something to turn a man into a shaking, nervous wreck. Soiling oneself thoroughly is only appropriate. A very human response.

Orson was a sensible man, and then a remorseful one. Intensely so. The reason was this.

I asked him about the nature of this apparition, in what form did it manifest and how did Orson come across such a thing in the first place. He said he didn’t quite remember, for accompanying their meetings (it happened repeatedly, four times to be precise) were these dreamlike states where everything felt uncanny, as they assumed the forms between the familiar and the alien. You feel weightless as though swimming in the open air or, in more accurate terms, floating above ground. A better description still: treading the floor with all the physical exertion of lying on the sofa. He had visions of himself walking about his neighbourhood, only his surroundings were slightly unfamiliar and “misinformed” as he called it. There was a non-existent store a block away from his residence, which specialised in fine enormous harps, and during this parapsychological stupor he had with himself “knowledge” that he frequents this oddly overspecialised establishment even though he never played a harp in reality before: this more reliable sort of knowledge he only regained after he sobered up, or so to speak. He was himself, only in a more-or-less sense, and surrounding his being was a world where the rapture seems to have taken place. There was no sound and yet this was not unsettling, in the way that a silent film is not unsettling. Of course, all these are but an extension of the adjective “dreamlike” we spoke of earlier, for that’s how dreams are like — which prompted me to raise the obvious conclusion. Orson, you were dreaming.

Came the protestations again. You fool. I was not dreaming, I can discern, I wouldn’t discuss it with you otherwise, you have no right to say that, and so on and so on. Yet afterwards he stopped, breathed, then looked at me with a half-defeated sort of face. Perhaps I was dreaming, said he, but this is not a white flag of defeat, for it doesn’t matter whether it was a dream or trance, a vision or hallucination. What the apparition gave him was an idea, an argument, and it matters little if it came from the world outside the natural order or from within his own balding head. Fair enough. At this point you may very well infer that his case is not so much an apparition than mere visions or even wahm, but “vision” sounds presumptuous and it unnecessarily invokes the idea of being given by a higher order; “apparition” sounds like a freak accident and therefore feels more appropriate (to consider it wahm requires a higher level of self-deprecation than readily available on Orson).

The reason was this.

Orson was shown by the apparition his life.

Shoved down the old man’s throat were not mere biographic blips of his entire history — they were leaps and bounds more savage and foreign. If he was to be believed, during this trance he did away with the concept of time entirely. He was derailed from the normal human experience and able to view his life as a series of choices and consequences from the start to this point in the present. It was both a revelation and a recapitulation . . . and furthermore a very bad managerial decision, to be honest, if you are shown your guide to life and living only when you have not much use of it. But it happened. At least, it happened to Orson. It happened to Orson and it scared the living mangosteen out of the man.

Now, this is not a new idea, and he didn’t recognise it as such. He’s like Marlon Brando on On the Waterfront. He could have been a contender. But he told it to me like a preacher, a prophet sending a message of his visions, Mohammed returning from the cave and having frantic fits. Swung his arms about in excited gestures and showed me expressions of unadulterated terror — perhaps the images were vivid, I cannot say. Or perhaps a man already prepared to write an epilogue to his fulfilled life would be especially terrified with a renewed sense of purpose and choice. I also cannot say.

I ordered some water; I needed an aid as I gathered enough courage to interrupt his sermon. So things could have gone the other way, I said, But everyone knows this, Orson. You know this. Always have, as I always have known. Nobody really believes in predestination anymore, sometimes by reason, sometimes by creed, some other times by sheer force of will. Not by much, anyway. And if you’re among those who don’t, that’s even less of a problem. Then I recalled his lament that he did things for it was the only way he could have done it. Is it possible, came the idea then, that he had believed in the minority opinion? Was he a fatalist? Orson the Sensible. Orson the Fatalist. Are those concepts even compatible with each other? A fatalist’s sensibility, after all, will spring from something more resembling ignorance and laziness. Nevertheless, you can easily imagine how a fatalist will take the hardest blow when compared to most people.

The truth is I didn’t really care: Orson had a case of wahm and I must do something within my power (and convenience) to knock some sense into him, so that he may return to fishing and golf and not bringing himself, his family, and myself much trouble. Traditions dictate that an old man shouldn’t be expected to venture to new lands, gratuitously or otherwise; he’s expected to stay and stand his ground. He’s a finished product, one can even say in the business of forgetting things rather than learning them. But if you were to ask my take on the subject, I will reply like most sensible folk, for I am one: predestination is what you have when you slithered from your mother’s womb. Everything else is, I suppose, an amorphous cluster of freak accidents, or something close to it. Or maybe we just want to believe such is the case, for it gives the comforting sense of control. I cannot vouch for anything of great importance, really, although I am prepared to testify that the water served there tasted of soap. I ordered some more still; the man’s old lips were dry.

I protested further. How is this relevant, Orson? Provided that everything was a roll of the dice, a sensible goal would be to try to land a good number (and a fatalist has no sensible goals apart from hoping and anticipating). Orson was happily married and had lovely children sheltered under a comfortable home. His partner cooks a mean breakfast and that I considered to be a winner in itself. Unless he was haunted by a deep regret from the past, there is no sensible way to react apart from being content. Orson was lucky. Billions others, not so much. He had little right to say that, unless.

The second complaint he waved off without much argumentation. He had his share of regrets, yes, but “nothing to keep me up nights.” To the first he said to me that he was not a fatalist and never subscribed to such a way of thinking, although it never occurred to him to reject it either. It was just not a thing that crosses the mind unless he actively searched for it. And to him it sounded kind of retarded and so his way was always the sensible way: things happen, let’s put the bad behind us and celebrate the good when they come. So he was to be Orson the Sensible after all, even if the epithet took a slight dent due to him confessing to have seen an apparition. Except we put things behind us because we are confined to the present and cannot have access to either a revelation at how it would have gone otherwise a few years down the line, or a chance to repeat the choice-making all over again. It was a no-brainer anyway, but suppose now he had the option to get that revelation.

This was where the apparition came into the picture. Whether it was a gift or a punishment he cannot say, yet for some reason this damned ghoul visited him every now and then and gave to him visions of the complete idiot’s guide to himself and everything he could have been a part of. In the first day of December 1985 he could have had two more lumps of sugar for his coffee and it would have made no difference apart from one more gulp of water before leaving the restaurant. It would also give a certain aeroplane conversation thirteen years later a bit more flavour, where he could have made a snide remark on coffees with too much sugar and won a certain measure of laughter from a dull businessman sitting beside him, but that’s about it. On the other hand, if he had added three lumps of sugar instead of two, and do such-and-such so that they amount to giving the neighbourhood widow a ride to the convenience store, his eldest daughter will have dated another man. Of better means. On paper, of course, it could also mean something much more sinister.

To be fair, I could have (you could have) caused somebody’s death or misfortune by way of some freakish domino effect nobody but an apparition can predict or explain. No, this shouldn’t bother me (or you). At least in theory. It just doesn’t work that way, unless if you happen to be in Orson’s shoes.

Which Orson totally did. So there was that.

Hey now! Have you caused some harrowing, terrible events or could you have prevented one but didn’t? He said no. There was this route where he could have saved his eldest brother from his early death at twenty, but it was rather complicated and there were elements of chance, so he managed to come to terms with the situation. And there was this car crash: He maimed a man somehow. Yet a child, along with an innocent mother-labourer, were involved too in this vague tangle of guilt and causality only he could see, and so he came to terms with that one just as he did with the first.

I am not quite certain, to be rather frank, of how did I take Orson’s story that day. I didn’t quite believe in his story — nobody should, really, given the circumstances — but I did take it at least as a passing thought, worth thinking about. Not quite certain, too, of whether Orson took himself as a prophet, a madman, or only a fellow who found himself with an idea — coming via a convenient series of art-house dreams. Be it a revelation, a delusion, or a mere rumination, however, this thing for him was evil and it brought about him some kind of an unwelcome clarity. This is like high-definition smuts which give you the sight of unbecoming warts and sunspots in otherwise unspoiled skins. There are things man just doesn’t want or need to know.

Intriguing thoughts these were, but from the way I saw it, it was no more potent than, say, a man in a white coat telling me that it is proven by rigorous calculations that I must abandon driving and other forms of convenience in the name of our children. The children! Ice age is coming to get the children! Or, that it is binding in a moral sense to do such-and-such and give up so-and so. Fortunately (or not, depends on the viewpoint really) this modern guilt subsides after a while, though not before resulting in an infinitesimal improvement; a degree just enough to avoid encasing the word progress in scare quotes. Then again, I had the privilege of not witnessing the apparition firsthand, if it happened at all. Perhaps if you do witness it through your own eyes, you will lose a few days’ worth of sleep.

Yet according to Orson’s report, which persisted in subverting my expectations, this was not the case. He was ordinarily a good sleeper and no amount of catastrophe short of armed warfare is sufficient for him to justify laying awake at night and staring at the ceiling for hours to come — this much is true, but he knows a dire situation when he sees one and this was not the case. He can live with that, said he, and he was both surprised and disappointed to find out that he was not missing any big thing in particular. There was this cautionary tale where a nobody finds out in his deathbed that he could have been a force of nature in some field or other, but no such thing with old Orson. “Although it does appear that . . . I could have picked up ping-pong for modest results,” he whispered, “But fuck ping-pong.”

What really bothered him, what moved him to consider disappearing completely, then, was how his losses would snowball like a bad science fiction plot and spoil little precious things in the coming years. His brother who passed at only twenty, for instance; he came to terms with that. His time had come, or so a clergyman will say, and that sits just excellent with Orson, who believed it was beyond his duty to preserve his brother’s life — to do so he might as well needed sorcery. Still there was one particular possibility which he saw during one of the apparition’s visits: there he could see his son having an animated conversation with his late brother. This apparently moved him so much that he could not remember what the conversation was even about. This point he murmured to me with such heavy footnotes denoting I may not understand the significance, out of fear that I may dismiss it as sappy or trivial. Coming from his fourth encounter with the ghoul-thing, it was the first time in which he legitimately felt cheated. It seemed to him that it was a thing he was promised to by right and a reality where he, his son, and his brother were all condemned never get to present at such a scene is a transgression. Who could have profited from such a loss? Will it be compensated somewhere? He needs this, he said, and wondered if there is a way to compromise. Does it even work that way? Pick another precious thing to restore another?

That he could have had a better career, that he could have saved many a broken relationship with people, that he could have raised his children in greater comfort, all these don’t concern him, much less ping-pong stardom. But for missing out on that particular scene he might as well vanish.

And what a short journey from astonishment to irritation and from irritation to sheer terror: after the fourth time it seemed he developed a crippling fear of the apparition and began losing sleep. It had not arrived yet after the better part of the week, but it follows that every day it skipped makes it all the more likely that the following day would be the fifth and it will not do at all. It could be that this time the apparition will reveal progressively worse possibilities — perhaps something similar but now involving his parents — and frail old Orson might just snap. That will not do.

So after that we discussed football. As per his request. Orson consumed a copious amount of coffee for some reason (black grit, rather, with all the soap) and I dared not warn him against it.


Day 15. Orson called. This felt like it was yesterday. He confessed to me as though I were a Catholic priest that, sure enough, he sinned, and I replied we all did; but apparently I didn’t quite understand where he’s going, which was a fair assessment.

He had phoned me as a way of reporting the damage to the outside world. For a good minute, so he went, he felt this surge of malevolence and tiredness when he was surrounded by his family. This he blurted out without warning, and I took it as inappropriate (though by no means offensive), as this seemed like a personal revelation best reserved for a very close family member, or perhaps a doctor, or indeed an actual priest. I referenced a doctor twice before and those were false steps, so I refrained from mentioning it again. What of a priest then, I thought, but that might come off as sarcastic. So I said to Orson, he might want to discuss this with his wife and children first. Then he told me that was stupid, since what he truly needed is someone without any stakes. Very well, strike three; it didn’t sound as reasonable as it did at first. But hang on, I said, why me though? Orson replied that it’s almost accidental at first, and now that I’ve already heard of his newfound prophetic stint, I was most convenient.

After all, with the priest it’s square one all over again. “I’ve seen an apparition . . . ” Then two hours of exposition punctuated by tangy soap-water.

So I gave in. Orson felt this surge of malevolence and tiredness — he was disgusted, for some reason, at his family, and then when it passed, at himself. Felt thoroughly disappointed at how this could have taken place, swore very liberally while describing it. He felt evil. There he was in one quiet Sunday, with his wife and children about him, chirping at each other about everything from his abandonment of fishing to the youngest son’s studies, when at one moment he felt disgusted. He did not know why; there should be a kind of warmth in this sort of conversation, but his idea of an ocean of possibilities had overtaken him. No fifth vision still, yet the wahm flowered inside his head and took him to suffocating conclusions. Maybe Orson gave in, too; fell in love at last to another possible version of himself, even if only for a good minute. Who knows — Orson wasn’t clear, he sounded as if he spoke to the phone with a mouthful of spit.

Somewhere within his head, a hypothetical Orson, ping-pongist extraordinaire, loves his hypothetical family just as much. A beautiful grandchild sings for his birthday and forgot the lyrics at some point. This doesn’t mean anything. Or rather it shouldn’t but Orson gave in, if only for a minute.

He was basically quite miserable from the sound of it, regressing to an infantile state where all he wanted was his mother and his father to pat his head and assure him that all is well — predestination, after all, is what you have when you slithered from your mother’s womb, and that includes his parents and little else. The eldest brother, too, how he missed the eldest brother. These people you will have anyway no matter what choices you make, unlike his wife and children who were fruits of his labour. And his labour has begun to frighten him for some reason. From my end, I imagined him sucking his thumb. What a short journey indeed from a cup of black grit to assisting an old man overcoming his existential dread.

I wish this was real and could be exorcised. Indeed I wish I could do more for Orson, but surely I’m no more capable to soothe his suffering than, say, a footballer is to remove a tooth? A footballer plays ball and so to remove teeth you go see a medical professional . . . Speaking of medical professionals, third time’s the charm: I suggested to Orson that he should consider seeing a doctor of some kind, since if anything they could offer him a hand in remedying the depressive bouts. I didn’t know what to do with the prophetic visions, so I advised him not to think much of them. He has been living a good life, had neither reason nor right to fret. To my surprise he said yes, even if it was a dull yes. Then I invited him for more coffee, preferably not in the usual place, but Orson declined and thanked me for listening to him. Came a stretch of silence; neither of us had anything to say. Despite the thought of discussing football again crossing my mind, in the end silence prevailed.

And as far as words from his lips go, there marked the end of the dread, with but a whimper.

An affirmative whisper.

I cannot remember whether I hung up on him or was it the other way about; one of us did. This was improper, it’s as though somebody muted the latter half of an otherwise regular telephone conversation, but we should make an exception in more desperate cases. While I do not know what was taking place in Orson’s head, I can testify to what was taking place in mine: Orson. I imagined a frail old man forced by circumstances to wrestle with . . . to just wrestle, the circumstances being God, an apparition, a bad case of wahm, or indeed himself. There is bliss in unfreedom and unknowledge, for I cannot for the life of me imagine happiness without some measure of ignorance. My mind still wanders to my own version of the son–brother vision from time to time, but unlike Orson I never decided to take the blame. Perhaps sensibility. Perhaps cowardice. This doesn’t matter anyhow. But there I sat and thought of this whole stupid enterprise for the longest time I ever did.

Orson was a sensible man and a sensible man arrives at sensible conclusions. I decided to have faith in him and with a little help from a lack of courage I trusted the man to exorcise the apparition on his own and hopefully with it he would free me from my own small demon-faeries, too. Was it a kind of remorse that he felt? Or was it anger, or its much quieter variety disappointment? I decided to have faith also in the psychiatric enterprise, but the reality is Orson never did went to any medical professional and instead attempted to live his life as though nothing had happened. As it came to pass it did not go as he planned as one day, I suspect, the fifth encounter took place at last. So on the next morning he picked up his fishing gears once more and set off in the first light of day. He arrived home after it’s well past seven (as in nineteen hundred hours): wet as a drowned sponge, cold as corpse, pale as death, shivering from the evening air and calm and messianic as the Buddha. He had with him no fish. The family was forced to resort to takeaways.

Days, weeks came and went without him contacting me and in one morning he invited me for a meal, where I recognised him as a man who might as well had his head lobotomised to specifically discard any memory of the wahm. Hello, it’s been a while. Let’s go get something to eat before the rigours of the day begin! The apparition, the vision of that conversation, the unborn child, the eldest brother, the idea, the ping-pong career, he never quite referenced these things anymore in conversations. If you were to ask my opinion as for why, I reply I do not know. Ask me to speculate and I will try to attribute it to resignation, wisdom, or mere aversion to face the question. At times it tempted me to raise the issue once more for the sake of resolution, but I would feel like reopening a can of worms or an old wound. I cannot say for certain whether he emerged as a victor or a defeated and disgraced, but Orson did went to a kind of war, where he returned and not perished. Should a man finds himself haunted by the same apparition, I suppose he would do one thing if he is wise, another if he is a coward, and so varyingly on; this could mean anything from assuming a state of pure ecstasy to eating his gun. If he is anything near being sensible, however, I can tell you with confidence what he will decide to do: no-thing. Which was what Orson decided to do. For Orson was a sensible man.

Image: Pexels

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