“I am a winged creature who is too rarely allowed to use its wings. Ecstasies do not occur often enough.” Anais Nin
It has gone midnight when I cross the park but he is quite visible by the street lamp. Stick limbs. Wild hair. The sickly-sweet scent of honey. He is filthy and beautiful, this Monarch-Man, my Emperor of Flies.
I have been following him for months now. Sometimes it feels like my whole life has been lost to his search. Rather, it has been lost to my search for him. He takes no part in my hunt. I would be surprised if he knew that I sought him at all. But I had, I have; from the first moment I set eyes on him, crawling from the tube station.
I alone watched him tumble through the turnstiles and into the street. He reached the curb on his side of the road at the same time that I did on mine. I could not have said what it was about him that made me stop and stare, but stare I did. For a second he lingered there, hovering on the spot between pavement and road. Lifting a bare foot, he seemed to test the air, as though tasting the city with his soles. Then his legs gave way beneath him and he fluttered to the gutter.
He looked small at the roadside, smaller even than I was sure he was. His coat was much too large, and I was reminded of a child wearing his father’s clothes. In another life he might have been carved from marble; smooth lips, blonde hair, eyes vast and shadowed in the hollows of his face. But he was no classical beauty. His skin was pale and marred with fatigue. Hunger had made him lean, and in a darker street I might have mistaken him for a woman. A taxi braked beside him, its headlights in his face, and for one moment his eyes shone like gold. Then he recoiled, his hands flying to his face, and the taxi drove on.
I saw him many times after that first encounter. Perhaps it was chance. Perhaps it was that face. I can see it now, upturned to the street-lamp, bathed in the orange glow. I see his tight lips, his dusty skin. His eyes are like two orbs of polished stone. I see myself in them a thousand times over, growing larger as I approach through the park.
The third time we met was at rush hour. That day I had waited for him, and I thought my heart might burst when I saw him stagger from the station. A dozen men and women swept after him, throwing his face back at me from the polished toes of their black shoes. It was the evening commute, the streets busy, and his reflection was a hall of mirrors in their gleaming footwear. I am not sure that he saw himself, whether he can see at all, in fact, but I saw. Standing outside the large bank on the opposite side of the road, I listened to the drone of traffic and the chatter of conversation and the raw voice of the Lebanese singer on the street corner, and I saw his face a hundred times over.
When I think back to the dozens of times I have seen him, it is easy to imagine the world fast-forwarding around me. I see streets filled with blurred shapes as people speed home, streaming through the city in a black tide of business suits and smart shoes. Traffic becomes one long course of light and motion; a film strip racing on a reel. Everything stretches and grows, even the dying sun melting in the sky, except for the man on the pavement, my Monarch-Man, the Emperor of Fractured Faces.
The Lebanese singer frequents the station at least as much as me. I suspect she does well for herself there. On those occasions when we are both there at the same time, her songs carry clearly across the street, made stronger by a microphone, and I imagine her voice is the wind. Sometimes I turn to her while passion spills from her mouth. Her eyes are usually closed while she sings. Seeing this, I close my eyes too and allow myself to be carried away by her voice. The sound is heat and flowers and dry summer air. I can smell roses, taste honey on my tongue. When I open my eyes again, I am always staring at the man in the gutter.
I fancy that I can smell roses now. It is not an impossible notion, in the park, and yet I know rose-beds are not the source. In thirty seconds I will be standing underneath the street lamp beside him. It will be the closest we have ever been to each other, and I imagine it is honey making my throat stick. Outwardly he is no different to the dozens of other homeless men and women whom I have encountered throughout my life in the city. His clothes are soiled but well-cared for. This close, I can see that rips in his jeans have been neatly stitched. The jeans themselves are faded almost to death. As I marvel at the needlework at his kneecaps, I wonder if he stitched them himself, or if he knows someone who fixes them on his behalf. I wonder how much the jeans mean to him, and when the last time was that he took them off. I wonder if I have ever cared about anything as much as he must care about the denim on his legs. I know that I have, because I have found him.
He smiles as I swarm in his eyes, this Monarch-Man, my Emperor. I smile back. Slowly he turns from the street lamp to face me. His arms are thin, bare bones really, concealed inside the loose sleeves of his old coat. I do not know for sure that the coat is old but it looks it; beige and filthy and treasured. He shifts slightly and I think I glimpse colour; a vivid flash revealed by his collar. I glimpse other things, too, under the coat, under the flesh, too much for me to take in all at once: the flailing limbs of a drowning spider, an egg as it cracks and drips with bright yolk, the sound of the egg’s shell as it breaks open and the crunch of mandibles and a cloud of butterflies, swirling silently over a flowering field. In the face of him, and in the fractured surfaces of his eyes, I am annihilated a million times over.
I realise I am cowering on the floor. My heart rages against my aching ribs. The first I feel of his touch is his hand against my own. I know it’s not a hand in the true sense, any more than those are fingers clasping mine, but that is what I can liken it to most. His fingers slide up my arm, dry and smooth like velveteen laces, until they come to rest beneath my chin. They hover there briefly, stroking my neck, their featheriness soft against my skin, before gently lifting me upwards. Then he takes my hand again, and together we dance around the street lamp, and the night whispers with wing-beats.
~ Thomas Brown
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