Past Waves

by Lawrence M. Schoen

Content Note: This story includes ableism and references dying and death.

This story was originally published in Strange Plasma, 1990

On a typically gloomy October Tuesday I was sitting in the park tossing popcorn to the few pigeons around and feeling generally sorry for myself. Not surprisingly the park was, but for myself, deserted. As I sat there wondering just how much popcorn a pigeon had to eat before it fulfilled its minimum daily requirement of eight essential vitamins, I heard a faint and far off squeak. It was the merman.

The squeak repeated itself, louder this time, and began to occur in a regular pattern, drawing closer all the while. I quickly began to distribute the rest of the popcorn to my audience in an attempt to leave before the merman appeared; I was in no condition to see him, to share my recent news with him. I wasn’t fast enough. From around a bend in the path a rickety, squeaking wheelchair rolled into view. The merman was seated in it.

When I say a merman I don’t mean a barrel-chested, fish-tailed gentleman with a long flowing white beard and a trident. The merman in the wheelchair was old, very old. Accordingly he did have a long white beard, but any muscled torso he might once have known had long since faded with time. I suppose he could have had a fish tail, what little I ever saw of his legs was kept wrapped in a heavy woolen blanket; you can’t really ask a cripple to show you his legs. And instead of a jeweled trident my merman always carried an ancient leather bound book and a portable chess set. The reason I call him a merman at all was due simply to his insistence that he was the last survivor of legendary Atlantis.

We had met a few years earlier in that very same park. I had just lost my job, my lover, and my driver’s license. It hadn’t been a good day. I had been sitting on a bench at the other end of the park when the merman had squeaked his chair up to me.

“Rain.” He said to me, “Not as good as an ocean’s breast, but the body takes what it can get.”

Not having heard him approach, and not really hearing him when he spoke I looked up in confusion.

“Huhh? There’s no rain. What are you talking about?”

“Give it time, the water comes to those who yearn.”

As I looked at him in still greater confusion I was about to reply when I felt the first drops. Having already had a miserable day I didn’t feel a need to be rained on as well and so I leapt off the bench and dashed for the nearest tree. When I looked back the old man was still there. He had taken out an old cardboard chessboard and was arranging the pieces of it on his lap. The rain began to come down much harder but he remained there, shaking his head back and forth over the board seemingly oblivious to the rain.

“Do you need help? Have the sense to come out of the rain, it’s dry under this tree!” I called to him, feeling perhaps a bit guilty for having left him out there.

“Help? You’re the one what wants for help hiding in the dry as you are” he replied. “You’ve a glow about you as weak as I’ve seen. Come out in the water, it’ll ease your spirit. Come on now.”

I still don’t know quite what happened next; one minute I was safe and dry under the tree listening to the crazy old man, and the next I was standing next to him soaked to the skin watching him shake his head over the soggy chessboard moving the pieces here and there with both hands. All at once though I did begin to feel better, almost like the rain had washed away my despair. What was a job? What was another lover more or less? What possible use could I have had for a driver’s license?

“Aye, much better indeed,” he said. “Now give me your hands a moment and we’ll see if you’ve reason to have been so gloomy.”

So saying he reached out taking my hands in his, turning them palms upward, and looked first at one and then the other and back and forth again.

“Aye you’ve time enough yet; fullness is not measured in days. No indeed, you’ve no cause for such an outlook. Cultivate music, you’ve a gift you’ve been neglecting. See to it.”

He let go of my hands then and began rolling his chair away from me through the park and through the rain. I just stood there, watching it all in a dream, and then looking down at my hands after he rolled around another bend and out of sight. That was how I’d met the merman.

He’d been right of course, but in a roundabout way. After he had left I walked back to my dark apartment in the rain, puzzling over and eventually forgetting what he had said. Despite drying off, changing into fresh clothes, starting a warm fire, and brewing myself some tea, I had caught a definite case of sniffles by the time I went to bed. When I awoke in the morning, it had miraculously changed into that year’s variety of influenza.

The next several days whirled by in a continuing dream, made up of weakness, herb teas, and inordinate amounts of sleep. At some point amidst the haze I’d found an old alto recorder my ex had left behind. To my fevered head the light shrills sounded soothing and I’d played and played, waking and sleeping. The music made me forget how miserable I truly felt, and it seemed I had a true gift for the thing. That’s when I remembered the merman.

A week later when I was feeling better I went again to the park. I had to find the old man. I searched and searched, but never saw him. In despair I sat down upon a bench and pulled out the recorder, I’d taken to carrying it everywhere, and began to play a low mournful song.

From down the walkway there came a slow squeaking sound. I looked up and there he was again, the same rickety chair, with the chess pieces spilling (but not quite falling) all across his lap.

“What a sad melody you’ve chosen to greet me with,” said the merman, “I’ve not heard the like since the continent fell and I played such a one myself.”

“What continent?” I replied, both startled by his sudden presence and again confused by his words.

“My home, of course. I am, sorry to say, the last survivor of long lost Atlantis. Surely you’ve heard of it?”

I dropped my recorder. Non sequiturs can do that to me. I hadn’t really evaluated what he’d said, but I answered him casually, like you might talk about the weather.

“Yes, of course. But wasn’t that quite a long time ago?”

“To be sure.” He smiled, “But then, I like to think I wear it well.”

He gave out a great sigh then, and his eyes seemed to cover over with a wistful mist. Then just as suddenly he recovered himself, moved a chess piece with his left hand and looked at me again.

“I was a chronicler,” he said to me. “For more than seven centuries before its fall, I researched and recorded all the citizenry of my home. The great and small alike, for all of us have our stories to tell.”

“I see,” I replied. I began to feel more than a little uncomfortable talking with this obviously confused (if not deranged) man. And yet he was not in the least bit threatening. He spoke with the calm surety one used to explain tying shoelaces to a child, not the intense seriousness of a fanatic. He was, I decided, at the very worst a touch senile. He had found a better world to live in than this one, and who was I to deny such a thing of an old man. Better to humor him, I thought.

“And what became of all your chronicles? Were they lost as well?”

He smiled then, as if I had asked just the right question, and reached beneath the worn blanket which enveloped him from the waist down.

“No, not all,” he said, pulling forth a large leather-bound book. “I managed to take some of them with me. I began this volume less than a month before I left. I made it myself. The pages are as thin as gossamer and as strong as silk, more than you could count in a week’s time.”

I was hooked now. Even sitting across from him I could see that it was like no book I had ever seen. It was large, like a renaissance folio, and the lettering along the spine was tiny but immaculate and in no language I had ever seen.

“What exactly is in it?” I asked.

“Ah, many many things. It is a collection of biographies mostly. I had originally begun to write down the lives of the members of the court, but in more recent years I have added accounts of the people I have met in my own travels through life. I have been fortunate enough to have known a good many persons, and those that have been closest to me I have kept alive in this book that I might have them with me forever.”

We chatted like that for a while, nonsense really, both of us going along with his ramblings. I felt like a conspirator, an accomplice he had taken into his confidence. He was telling me his darkest secrets in such matter-of-fact tones. Throughout it all he played with his chess pieces, carrying out several games, one hand against the other, shaking his head to and fro over the board all the time he spoke to me.

After a long while he sighed and packed his set away. Taking my hands into his he again studied them, first palms up and then down, head to one side and then the other.

“There is a time for all things. This is not so profound. But for you there is fuller time than for most. Few are those who have stopped to talk with me, and fewer still those who listen. I do not mind. I have my game, and I keep my own company as few can. Even so, it is good to hear another voice. Will you come to talk to me again?”

I gathered my hands back to myself and looked at this queer old man. There was something so compelling about him, and yet I could not say just what it was.

“Of course,” I told him. “I’ll look for you here in the park, all right?”

“Splendid!” he said. “I will find you by your music. Till then.”

He rolled away then, creaking down the paths of the park while I retrieved my recorder from where it had fallen earlier.

As time went on the merman and I met many times. I told him of the changes in my life, the mundane trivialities of a new job, new relationships, etc. He in turn told me of his past, the humble role of a chronicler, always on the edge of the events he recorded but never took part in. He described the towers of Atlantis, the history of a glorious race, the culture and art which were forever lost. He spoke of the people he had known, the people he had written into his book, making their stories come alive with the telling, his words creating light and color, sensation and insight. Now and then, ever so briefly, he brushed over a reference to the destruction of his homeland, the desire of a few for powers which proved uncontrollable by ordinary mortals. Eventually he spoke of his illness, epilepsy, and how it had changed his life.

“Like all of my people I have been very long-lived,” he said, “but still the body weakens and changes with time. One morning years ago I awoke and began thrashing about violently, a sight to behold I’m told. The doctors then said there was little they could do, not like it is now. They wanted to operate, they said, separate the sides of my head. They told me it would stop the seizures. When they were done it was like half of me didn’t know the other half.”

“What do you mean?” I’d asked.

“Why, one hand might be buttoning a shirt, and the other unbuttoning it at the same time. But I learned to talk to the other side of me, and in a way I’ve learned to hear him too. Now we’re the best of friends, and we both enjoy a good game of chess now and then.”

I’d stared at him in astonishment!

“You mean you’ve really been playing chess all those times? You against yourself.”

“Aye. Since the operation I’ve never lacked for company. But both of me enjoy visiting with you. You bring me back to the now when I might lose myself in the then.”

He looked up at me then, taking his eyes off the game on his lap, and gave me a slow wink, first one eye and then the other.

And so it went. I visited my merman in the park every weekend for the better part of two years. Each time he repeated his ritual examination of my hands. We talked and shared ourselves and it never seemed strange to hear the things he said. Somehow in the way he said them they made obvious sense. Sometimes it seemed that he actually spoke little, that all the talking was my own; the merman listened, and in his listening communicated a kind of peace and understanding.

But today, today I was not really looking forward to seeing him. It wasn’t even our regular day. I had come to the park fresh from my doctor. What he’d told me was hardly cheerful. I guess I had associated the park with feeling good, and I desperately needed to feel that way now, but not with the merman. I couldn’t bear to share this news with him.

The merman rolled his chair up to me and looked through me. He pulled out the ancient leather book I’d always seen him carry with him but never open. He opened it then, slowly, carefully. The page was filled top to bottom, right to left with the same minute and curious characters that stretched along the book’s spine. They had been written in a silvery ink that all but glowed back the light from the cloudy sky.

“This is you, see. I’ve written here all the things you mean. All the things you’ve said, and all you’ve meant to say. These are the things you like, and the things you don’t like, and the things you’ve always wanted but have never had. Here is a list of all you’ve done, and here one of all you never quite got to do. I’ve written it all here.”

“Wh-why?” I stammered. The merman was confusing me, just like he had done when we first had met.

“To show you, to show you that when you’re gone a part of you will be left behind. And I’ll share this part with the others who stop a moment to be with me as you have done. You’ll touch them too. That’s immortality.”

“When I’m gone? How do you know?”

He took my hands again, like he had done so many times. He pointed to different folds and lines.

“Here,” he said, “and here. It’s soon, isn’t it?”

“Yes,” I murmured, “it is. They told me it would be sudden, and any time. I’m scared. I never expected to die that way.”

“Which of us really expects to die. Look, it’s starting to rain. Would you like to play a game of chess?”

The merman closed his leather book, tucking it under his blanket away from the rain. He began setting up pieces on the board on his lap. I looked at the lines on my hands, at the chess set, and finally at the merman. I took out my recorder and began to play.

© Copyright Lawrence M. Schoen

Lawrence M. Schoen holds a Ph.D. in cognitive psychology, is a past Astounding, Hugo, and Nebula, nominee, twice won the Cóyotl award for best novel, founded the Klingon Language Institute, and occasionally does work as a hypnotherapist specializing in authors’ issues.

His science fiction includes many light and humorous adventures of a space-faring stage hypnotist and his alien animal companion. Other works take a very different tone, exploring aspects of determinism and free will, generally redefining the continua between life and death. Sometimes he blurs the funny and the serious. Lawrence lives near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania with his wife and their dog.

Read the Rest of the November Issue

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