I arrived the same way anyone else did. It wasn’t painful or difficult. In fact, I didn’t need to do anything at all. I was told that two others were responsible for my arrival. I just had to believe them, I couldn’t remember either way. The first few years were blissful. I needed water and I was given it. I needed food and was given it. I needed warmth and was given it.
When I gained the ability to remember; that was when it started because I noticed it. As soon as I noticed it the pain began. A hole in my chest. Wide enough to squeeze my hand through from the front and right out of the back. A part of me was missing. At first the taste of the pain was sharp and piercing but I think that was mostly the shock. Eventually it diminished to a dull throbbing ache. Yet it was still impossible to ignore.
“There are subtle imperfections there; it will take some time to notice. Instead you should take this.” He brandished a delicate, silver cylinder and offered it to me.
At night I tossed and turned trying to ignore the soreness of the gap. When I ate I found no pleasure in the taste and no fire seemed warm enough to prevent the shivers the aching had somehow prompted. I was afraid to tell those two what was happening, afraid I might be punished or mocked for losing a part of myself. But it was hopeless. The continuous stinging, always there but barely felt, pushed me through my fears. I told them everything.
When they lifted their shirts to show me the gaping holes in their own chests I felt a little comfort. Everyone, they explained, loses a piece of themselves at my age. I asked them to help me find my piece. I felt I might shrivel to nothing if I was forced to endure the gap much longer. They both smiled sympathetically. The piece is gone for now they said.
“But there are reasons you don’t understand. Tomorrow we will take you somewhere and you will see.”
I slept none that night but there was hope in my mind.
We arrived at what looked like a collection of market stalls early the next day. The place was heavily crowded and the deafening noise of haggling and exchanges surrounded us. Those two took me deep into the throng towards a large stall and genial looking owner. Atop his workbench were several large, beautiful gold cylinders. He smiled at me as the two selected one of the smaller ones.
“Try this for size,” they encouraged.
It fit the hole perfectly. I felt the aching subside until finally it was gone completely. Waves of relief washed over me and my body felt weak from exhaustion. Those two lifted their shirts to me again yet this time each of their holes was also filled with a perfect cylinder of gold.
“Is this the missing part of me?” I asked them.
“Yes,” they told me. But why did this man own so many people’s missing parts? They told me the man had discovered them all on a beach far away, many years ago. He had brought them here to return them to their owners.
“But what if it isn’t mine? What if that man just fashioned a cylinder that happens to fit?”
Well that’s not the case, they told me.
“The man said he found them and why would he lie? Besides, look how perfectly it fits you.”
It was true. The gold bar fit so snugly it made sense it was meant to be there.
A man from a nearby stall had been listening intently to my conversation with those two.
“You’re a smart one!” He ran over to talk to me, casting the gold stall owner a disdainful look.
“Do not be fooled by how easily it fits,” he lectured.
“There are subtle imperfections there; it will take some time to notice. Instead you should take this.” He brandished a delicate, silver cylinder and offered it to me. The silver gleamed purely in the morning light.
“I found these a long time ago, in a desert many leagues from this place,” he explained. I stretched out my hand to touch the silver bar but those two quickly pulled me away.
“Don’t listen to him,” they scolded me.
“That man fashioned his crude silver with his own hands and tries to trick people into buying.”
“How do you know he didn’t find them?” I asked. Everyone knows about him they assured me. With the help of some other customers at the stall they chased the silver salesman away.
“Now we can finish our business,” they told me. It seemed the gold salesman wanted no payment for my cylinder. Those two explained everything of course.
“He will give you your missing piece for free because he admits that you are its real owner anyway. All he asks is that you return to his stall every week to allow him to polish and maintain the metal. If it isn’t kept clean and sterile there’s a danger it won’t fit anymore. It’s necessary for you to feel the ache every week so he can do this.” Those two assured me it was well worth the trouble. As I considered my options carefully the gold salesman demanded I return the cylinder. Until I decided, he said, I would not enjoy its comfort.
The ache and pain returned worse than ever. Those brief moments of its absence had let me forget its sting. The crowd pressed in deeper around me. Row after row of man and woman waited to remove their gold and allow the salesman to polish and clean it. Those two began to disappear from view as the others towering around me pitched forward and shuffled their feet in an effort to reach the stall faster. The noise of the crowd swelled in all directions. A hand grasped at my arm and pulled me forcibly away. The man’s grip tightened menacingly around my wrist as I tried to wrestle free. Those two were lost in the bustling host as my abductor whisked me around corners and through narrow alleyways; further and further from the market stands and the churning masses. Finally the old man stopped and turned to face me.
“Let me show you a trick,” he said.
We stepped into a dingy bar populated by no more than two or three sullen faced adults.
“Now pay attention and you may learn something,” the old man began.
“You don’t need gold and you don’t need silver. Or bronze or platinum or copper or aluminium. Traipsing back there every week is for saps. Are you a sap?” he asked me. I shook my head.
“Now watch carefully,” he told me. The bartender slid a tall mug of some dark beverage towards the old man. After receiving the mug he pulled up his shirt to reveal his hole. Tipping the contents gently he started to fill the hole. To my amazement the liquid seemed not to leak from the gap. Instead, as though invisible walls contained it, it continued to pour inside until the entire space was filled with the frothy fluid. The old man released a contented sigh.
“Try it,” he said with a smile. He offered me a smaller glass filled with the same cloudy concoction. Doubt crept into my mind and I was suddenly very frightened. If those two were here they could have told me the truth about this. I took a step backwards and the old man’s eyes narrowed.
“Like that is it?” he almost spat. “Well be gone with you then.” He turned back to the bar and paid me no more attention. I noticed a stain on the back of his shirt where the liquid had somehow leaked. He would need to fill himself again. I left the bar and tried to make my way back to those two.
I was lost. It seemed everyone was selling or giving away something to fill the gap. I saw men and women huddled around a young man demonstrating how to pack the soil and earth into their holes correctly. Another group were practising shining a light through. It seemed the trick was to use two thin lids at exactly the right moment to trap the light inside the hole. As I moved further into the stalls and stands I saw things which began to terrify me. Couples who reminded me of those two used long, sharp knives to cut themselves apart. They then used their cuttings to fill each others holes until they each were satisfied. Other people followed the same practice but used their personal cuttings to fill their own holes. One man had convinced a group of others to all donate their flesh to complete his gap.
It was all too much for me. I began to panic and tears ran hot across my face. I ran. I knew it couldn’t help. If anything I would find myself more lost but the movement and the wind against my skin helped me forget the things I had witnessed. My chest burned with longing for the comfort of the gold cylinder it had tasted so briefly. I wanted nothing more than to go back home, fall asleep and forget everything that had happened.
A small hand caught my arm. The delicate wrist twisted and gently pulled me into a young woman’s embrace.
“I have been watching,” she told me and her words brought me unexpected relief. She asked me to follow her and I obeyed. I was beyond reasoning with myself.
“Look here,” she instructed and lifted her blouse. Her gap was empty and much larger than mine.
“None of what you have seen here today is meant for you,” she told me earnestly. “You must find the part of you that is missing. I have been searching my whole life for mine. It is not an easy life. You will never become accustomed to the aches and stings of the void and the longer you search the larger your hole will grow and the more you will bear its burden. But before we can fill these holes we must discover what it is that is missing. You can live forever with gold in your chest but it can never tell you what it has replaced. Use your own judgement. If comfort is all you desire then return to the market and make your choice. If you desire to be whole again, completely yourself, and to know yourself entirely, then come with me. I can promise you nothing for even after all these years I have not found my missing piece but one thing I can tell you is this. I know my pain in a way that none I have met have achieved. Every day my understanding of this gap narrows my search for what once filled it. Perhaps it will continue to narrow forever in tinier and tinier measures…but…perhaps not.”
She walked away into the brightening day, leaving behind the cacophony of the marketplace. I put one foot in front of the other and stepped forward. Not behind her, but beside her.