An Aversion to Heights

by Zahid Daudjee

Zahid Daudjee is a theorist and historian-in-training, dabbling in scripts, historical linguistics, and recently, short fiction. In his PhD research at Princeton University, he studies the history of literary and linguistic discourses on the relation between speech and writing in 19th- and 20th-century Japan, in pursuit of which he can be found reading anything from sickbed diaries to literary manifestos. More generally, his research has spanned the fields of linguistics, archaeology, and literature, and his nonfiction writing on Chinese archaeology can be found in Volume 59 of Asian Perspectives (University of Hawaii Press, 2020). Upon completing his language training as a Nippon Foundation Fellow at the Inter-University Center in Yokohama, Japan, he hopes to devote more time to creative fiction, and also to his ancillary interests in calligraphy and the paleography of Chinese characters.

It occurs to me now, as I put to paper both the first and last of my thoughts, that there exists a peculiarity to the art of storytelling, in that all narration is the bearing out of a grand dramatic irony—that is, the narrator herself, by necessity of the medium, must understand the unfolding events not as some living, active process, but rather as teleology. The point, perhaps, of any tale, is that every development in the lives of the characters is indeterminate and real, and that the sum of their every action will ultimately culminate in resolution (or perhaps, if the author is so inclined, irresolution). But you cannot begin a story without first knowing how it will end, as storytelling is by its very nature retrospective. The product, as I see it, of this burden of knowledge, is that the narrator cannot avoid a certain fatalism in her retelling—that in effect no event as she tells it will ever truly be real, nor will it faithfully reproduce the perception of free will by which it was realized. So as I tell you now that this is the story of my life, you must remain vigilant in interpretation. That is, you must understand that this is in fact the story of me, my current self, as I understand my past—as I try in futility to represent the ignorance of a character caught in the middle of a tale that has already unfolded and whose ending is immutably etched in memory.

Or, perhaps, I could abandon the endeavour entirely. What would happen then?

What if I were to tell you that I am already dead?

—October 30, 2013


My life takes place at night. Not the night of a salaryman, gazing across the street over his burger in a yellowed New York diner, and not the night of Shanghai, punctuated by the whispers of rich men trading their souls for worldly pleasures—but a night of the spirit, a slowly extending shadow under which one’s humanity dims commensurate with the setting sun until it is blackened like the soot of a long-dead fire. This is the night of my imagination, the encapsulation of my life as I choose to experience it. My life takes place at night because the daylight is too artificial, too surreal, too fake to express anything of the character of the time spent within it. The sun is like a lamp that you light in the small hours to forget that you are alone, to pretend that your wakefulness is rational, to wish the insomnia away—to convince yourself that you too are normal, because the lamp makes the walls white again and everything becomes bright.

The defining character of night is that it is the great equalizer, the emancipator, the assurance that at least once per day we shall all be alone, isolated, cleft from the protective net of society and left to the emptiness of our own minds. Night is night because it represents the antithesis of human civilization—it is the systematic deconstruction of every safeguard which we have placed before us to prevent loneliness, to create a sense of warmth and solidarity and community. In the dead of the night, whether surrounded by trees or by tenements, the prevailing sensation is one of distance—of the psychological barrier between oneself and the world, of the immensity of the gap between the individual and those others just metres away, nestled behind drywall, behind curtains, behind covers just thick enough that no sound would ever reach. Night, in fact, is less a time of day than a state of being: it is the reduction of the individual to her primal self, making her a stranger to everything around her. It consists in trepidation and angst, in uncertainty and fear; in short, it is the most natural of human emotions …

—August 17, 2013

Lillian twirled a leaf between her toes as she hung them over the cliff, wondering to herself why anyone had ever suggested the idea of “too young to die,” and if they also believed one could be “too old to live,” or perhaps “too comfortable to experience hardship.” She suppressed a giggle, looked around and saw no one, then began to laugh raucously, the echoes extending far into the valley below. The sound eventually subsided, prompting her lips to reprise a more characteristic grimace, but still a hint of the wry smile remained, satirizing her features in demonic fashion. Her pale figure filling the blank in a moonless sky, the effect was dramatic indeed, and on this placid Halloween night one could scarce assert that she was not an apparition after all. How unfortunate that there would be no witness, she thought, craving briefly the allure of a spectacle and the grandeur it would bring. But how appropriate, she thought, sobering up only in acknowledgement of the futility of her procrastination.

Looking out over the precipice, Lillian imagined her grandmother, wordlessly waving incense and praying for the longevity of their family, not so much as placing a hand upon her shoulder to still the wayward impulse and yet silently prohibiting the act. She imagined her counselor, telling her that she could have bright prospects if only she would “apply herself,” if only she could “direct her creative and intellectual forces for the good of mankind.” She imagined her friends, telling her of parties with boys, of parties she no longer went to, of the colleges they would apply to, of the cars they would buy, of the beautiful suburban houses that were in store for them—trying to seduce her with the American Dream itself, and going on about a life with cocktails and cocktail parties and cocktails dresses and what have you. And she didn’t find the thought compelling at all, but she would smile at the suggestion, and say, “you know, you’re right—there’s a lot left to look forward to.” And her friends would feel better, and she would feel guilty—and as the smile tapered, she would look off into the distance, where there was no one waiting to discern the sullenness in her facial expressions. She imagined her father, anxious but unyielding, asking her why she didn’t practice piano anymore, if she wanted to become another worthless townie, if she was content with wasting away like this until there was nothing left for her but corner stores and welfare checks. Lillian chuckled at this, trying to imagine herself, middle-aged and plump, the skin around her eyes pleated with age and cheeks doused in rosy makeup, suggesting one brand of foot cream over another, one lottery ticket over the next. But what else could possibly remain? Long gone was the bright young girl of six, winning the district spelling bee; the prodigy of nine, composing sonnets in the margins of her notebook; the self-assured lady of twelve, publishing her work in magazines, looking almost contemptuously upon a world which every teacher and mentor had dismissed as beneath her. Before her eyes, an unassailable future had sublimated into mere memory. And in its place lay an assemblage of grotesques: a hall of broken mirrors in which a hundred repetitions of her pallid face pleaded inexorably for mercy, mercy above all.

Indeed, if he had once been somewhere, now, he was everywhere…

Far below, the town flickered in the evening mist, appearing and disappearing at its own caprice. The barren trees of the valley whispered faintly in the breeze, and where the mist parted, the dim orange of the town prevailed, glimmering like the open maw of a jack-o-lantern. Perhaps this was what Wilde had meant by “life imitating art.” But as she gazed fixedly upon the town, the town, in turn, gazed back at her; and even here—especially here, upon the brink of escape—it was impossible to avert her eyes. In every effort to renounce this world, she had but come to face it more clearly: in abandoning her friends, she had succeeded only in creating enemies; and in eradicating him from her sight, she had only forced his lingering presence into the confines of her own mind. Indeed, if he had once been somewhere, now, he was everywhere: in the tangerine haze of the town below, in the laughter of each campfire passed on her ascent, and most of all, in every diseased, fetid thought by which she felt her sanity gradually perish. He was the pronoun without qualification, the first and last point of reference—and in the leering will-o’-the-wisp of a town below, he was the shadow of Death in whose stagnation she languished. And though she hated herself all the more for it, it was his visage which she discerned in the fog—not her bedridden mother, nor her pathetic, selfish father, but the face of a living nightmare, now equal parts imagination and memory. In life, she could only excommunicate him; in death, she could be rid of him. She had stared into the abyss for long enough; now, she simply sought refuge in its embrace.

Through the blanket of the night, the murmur of a nearby bonfire disturbed the quietude of Lillian’s rumination. Momentarily, she was overcome with indignation: how absurd, how recalcitrant, that those abandoned by Halloween should congregate in such fashion. Were they in denial of their own obsolescence? Did they believe that by dressing up like children, they could reclaim the candor of their youth? In their drunken stupor, a party of four had accosted her as she climbed the mountain.

“Hey! Where’s your costume?”

“Come join the fire!” the devil said, grinning.

“I’ve got a bone for you,” spoke the skeleton.

She refused to dignify them with a reply. 

“I’m sure we’ll be seeing you later,” said the reaper, with a wink.

She desperately hoped they would not. For weeks she had deliberated, choosing this date for its potential as cover. Who indeed would come looking for a seventeen-year-old girl on Halloween? The town in its entirety was well-occupied: parents plodding morosely through featureless neighbourhoods, children in tow; and yet others, attending parties, which, under a veneer of festivity, existed only for the liberation of adolescent hormones. Despite everything, she herself had received an invite; for her parents, this alibi had sufficed. Yet how infuriating, that it should be obligatory to lie, to her parents and the world—that her parents should need protecting from their own sentimentality, and the masses of moral chauvinists in turn from their own. For every insufferable psychologist, every bulletin invigilating against “suicidal ideation,” Lillian could conclude only that despite Orwell’s conceit, he too had lived in a world of thoughtcrimes. But who was the victim? Who was unwilling, who denied consent—who was wronged? Western morality, for all its posturing, was profoundly Confucian. Her body belonged to her parents, blood, flesh, and bone: consent was never hers to give at all.

Straining her ears, Lillian suddenly realized that drone of conversation from the nearby encampment was only getting louder. Unsettled, she turned to face the forest, only to find that the once pitch-black pines had now taken on a faint auburn hue. It was still early in the night—far too early for any natural illumination. Lillian felt her heart rate jump. Her distractedness had come at great cost; she could brook no further delay.

She wanted to vomit, to tear out her insides: to regurgitate her soul and fall, an empty, threadbare cocoon, into her beckoning grave.

Leaning back against the rock behind her, Lillian carefully retracted each outstretched leg. The cliff face was precarious, and more than the drop itself, she feared the possibility of a botched attempt. If the act had seemed trivial, she was now not so sure; the cliff face was uneven and jagged, and a snag would mean far worse than death. Slowly, gathering her courage, Lillian rose to a squat. She reached for a handhold to still her trembling fingers, and gradually, laboriously, extended her head over the precipice. Below her, the five-hundred-foot drop of Settler’s Point descended interminably into a black nothingness, an unsubstantiated void in the fabric of reality. She suppressed a gulp, shivered, and began to feel dizzy. Here it lay before her, after all this time—freedom and absolution both, but not without their price. The vertigo was crippling. She looked up at the empty sky. She thought of Akutagawa’s “vague sense of unease,” of Conrad’s “impalpable greyness;” she felt sick, and collapsed to her knees. She was weak and inadequate, useless and fragile. She wanted to vomit, to tear out her insides: to regurgitate her soul and fall, an empty, threadbare cocoon, into her beckoning grave. But as she struggled to actualize her intent, a foreboding shout resonated across the plateau.

“Aha! We meet again!” said the devil.

Those idiots. Lillian was paralyzed with trepidation.

“Yoo-hoo, no-costume lady! We brought a costume for you!”

It was only a matter of time before they realized. She had but moments left.

“Aren’t you going to come and get it?”

The staccato of her breathing, eerie and unlifelike, filled the silence.

“What the fuck is she doing?”

“Get the fuck away from me!” Lillian screamed.

The skeleton chuckled, whooping in the background.

Lillian crouched, trembling with pain, shaking with humiliation and defeat.

“Wait, is she… what the fuck, is she going to jump?” The reaper’s mouth hung open in disbelief.

Lillian opened her mouth to scream again, but nothing came out; her throat was dry, her vision blurry.

“Oh my fucking god, she’s going to jump. Don’t jump!”

“Don’t jump!”

“Don’t do it!”

“We’re coming!”

“Life is precious!” bellowed the skeleton, between shrieks and chortles.

 Lillian felt faint. She thought of Eros, and Thanatos. She thought of sleepless nights, of the days and weeks where she skipped school, of the gossip behind closed bathroom doors and the sneer on the face of her ex-best-friend. She thought of her first F, and her fifth—of her father’s disdain, her dying mother’s grimace, of the years she spent learning nothing in Chinese school. She thought of him, and the day they met, and the day she ruined everything—and the ceaseless, needless, meaningless suffering, day after day, night after night, unending, unyielding, unbearable and how.

She looked down at the unfathomable depths of the valley. She retched, pumpkin pie and bile. She heaved and contorted, and everything went black.

Like a broken toy, she collapsed.


She awoke to red lights, and a shrill, familiar wail.

And there was nothing—no blood, no bone, not sinew nor entrails. Only the shriek of a siren, the chill of the night, and the grip of an insolent wrist on her forearm, prying her from most gracious Death.

As the tranquilizer slowly kicked in, for once—and perhaps for the first time in seventeen years—Lillian could accept one thing: all that had come before was only a mild torture, mere antagonism in the face of the living hell she was about to endure. Indeed, this was no longer the end of a failed beginning, but rather, as she had only begun to concede, the beginning of an insufferable end.

 


Zahid Daudjee is a theorist and historian-in-training, dabbling in scripts, historical linguistics, and recently, short fiction. In his PhD research at Princeton University, he studies the history of literary and linguistic discourses on the relation between speech and writing in 19th- and 20th-century Japan, in pursuit of which he can be found reading anything from sickbed diaries to literary manifestos. More generally, his research has spanned the fields of linguistics, archaeology, and literature, and his nonfiction writing on Chinese archaeology can be found in Volume 59 of Asian Perspectives (University of Hawaii Press, 2020). Upon completing his language training as a Nippon Foundation Fellow at the Inter-University Center in Yokohama, Japan, he hopes to devote more time to creative fiction, and also to his ancillary interests in calligraphy and the paleography of Chinese characters.

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