“So Long, Friend” is the latest dream-memory from Kaim that really made an impression on me and also marks the 18th day of the 33-day marathon.
I have been on Tobal’s shoes many times in the past 10-15 years. Who here hasn’t had childhood dreams of traveling the world and leaving all the worries of day-to-day life behind. No responsibilities and just enjoying what the open, wide world had to offer. It’s a dream I think every young child and teenager dreams of as a way to cope with the regimented life we all went through at that age.
But as we grow older and gain more responsibilities which ushers us into adulthood do we still long for that open road and abandon our responsibilities. These responsibilities could be financial obligations, but more than likely it’s familial one’s. Part of becoming an adult is forming a family either early in one’s adult life or later, but in the end we become responsible not just for ourselves but others in our lives.
Yes, we’ve all been in Tobal’s shoes, but in the end those who can truly call themselves adults know when childhood dreams must remain just that as we begin our new lives as adults. It doesn’t mean we lose sight of youthful exuberance and a zest for life, but that we temper it with hard-won wisdom.
So Long, Friend
Even when he is trying to look detached, his true feelings show through.
He is timid, cowardly and gentle.
He might try his best to put on a threatening expression, but the smile that comes afterward is indescribably sweet and almost worshipful.
This is why Kaim is always telling him to “Forget it!”
This happens when they are perched on bar stools or earning a day’s pay in the quarry, or walking through the marketplace, or standing on the stone-paved roadway.
“But why, Big Brother?”
Tobal says with a pout. He always calls Kaim “Big Brother.” and though Kaim has never asked for his companionship, he takes every opportunity to follow him around. He is “Worshipful” in this sense.
“Please take me with you, Big Brother Kaim, when you leave this town!” he begs like a child even though he is old enough to have a regular job.
“Sailing over the ocean, crossing continents, traveling anywhere you like… my heart starts pounding when I imagine that kind of freedom,” he says, his eyes shining like a child’s.
“I’ve always wanted to meet a traveler like you, Big Brother. Take me with you, please! I can’t stand this hick town anymore.”
He would grab Kaim’s hand and cling to it like a little boy, and often he would look around at the people on the street or at the crowds in the tavern, openly making boyish faces at them to show Kaim his disgust.
“You come from another town so you know what I’m talking about. The only thing this place has is its history. Sure, it’s old, but it’s half dead. Look at these people’s faces. Not one of them has any spark. All they want is to get through one ordinary day after another without any problems. It’s the worst place in the world. If I have to stay cooped up here much longer, I’m going to have moss growing on me.”
No spark? Kaim doesn’t see it that way. People here behave with the refinement and mild manner appropriate to a historic city know as “The Ancient Capital.” They simply have no taste for the kind of ambitions that go with high hopes or danger.
Having never set foot outside this place is where he was born and raised. Tobal knows nothing about other towns.
Kaim knows all too much about them; there are those that used to be the left and right banks of a single town separated only by a river but which now clash in hatred in intense and ongoing war; towns in the grip of famine where the residents snatch food from one another; economically flourishing towns rampant with crime driven by greed; towns of rotting houses abandoned by their people in search of wealth and prosperity while, just over the hill, there sparkle boom towns where the people celebrate their riches all night long.
On his endless journey, Kaim has seen towns without number. And he not only thinks to himself but says to Tobal, “This is a good town.” But praise is the last thing Tobal wants to hear about his home town. “You must be joking.” he says.
“Not at all,” says Kaim. “This really is a good town.”
“I’m telling you, that can’t be true.”
“No place is perfect, of course.”
“I’m not talking about perfection. You’ve only been here six months or so. You don’t know. I’ve been stuck here my whole life. You can’t know how I feel. I’m bored out of my mind. I’m sick of this place. I can’t stand it anymore.”
Kaim is not unaware of what Tobal is trying to tell him.
Still–but no, Kaim shakes his head and gives Tobal a sour smile.
“You know,” he says, “there are some people in this world who would give anything to get a taste of what it’s like to have enough peaceful days to make you bored.”
“Well…that may be so…”
“I think you were lucky to have been born in a town like this, where the people are so happy.”
When you sleep in an inn in this town, you don’t have to keep your ear cocked all night for threatening sounds in the hallway. Young women can walk the streets at night without a dagger for protection. The children have plenty of plain but nourishing food, and they can play outdoors until the sun goes down.
Life on the road teaches you these things. The more towns you see, the more deeply the lesson leaves its mark on you. The kinds of things Tobal takes for granted are in fact the indispensable keys to happiness.
“I’m not so sure, Big Brother. Isn’t happiness making your dreams come true? If all you need to do is to go on living in peace and security, what’s the point of living at all?”
Tobal is not just being perverse and arguing for the sake of arguing. Eyes locked on Kaim’s, he is asking these questions in all seriousness and sincerity.
Kaim recognizes that Tobal is an absolutely straightforward fellow and that, precisely because he had a comfortable, untroubled upbringing, he has come to feel constrained in the town where he was born.
The irony of it calls forth a twinge of pain in Kaim’s breast.
This in turn provokes him to challenge Tobal.
“So tell me: what is your dream?”
“My dream? That’s obvious, isn’t it? To get the hell out of this place as soon as possible.”
“And go where?”
“Anywhere. Anywhere but here.”
“And what will you do when you get there?”
“I don’t know.”
“What if you end up some place that’s not at all what you’re expecting?”
“I said I don’t know, didn’t I? Stop being so hard on me, Big Brother.”
“I’m not being hard on you. These are things you have to think about.”
“Well, I’ve had enough! An outsider like you can’t possibly know how I feel.”
Though he stalks away in anger, Tobal will be back in the morning, as worshipful as ever of his “Big Brother.”
He has the simple, care free personality of a child.
Tobal has a wife–the young, still girlish Angela, whom he has known since childhood.
Angela carries within her the crystallization of their love.
Tobal will soon become a father.
Tobal’s parents, relatives, and friends shower there blessings upon the “young couple” who will soon be “young parents.”
But Tobal says to Kaim, “I don’t want this.”
Glowering, he all but spits the words out as the two sit at the far end of the tavern’s bar.
“Don’t want to be a father?” Kaim asks, which only increases the bitterness of Tobal’s expression.
Tobal nods, but as if to negate this answer he mutters. “No, I’m glad enough to have a kid. How could I not be happy about that? But… I don’t know… I just don’t want this.”
He can’t quite put it into words, he says. He cocks his head a few times as if to explain himself, and then he swigs down his liquor.
“You don’t have a family, do you, Big Brother?”
“No I don’t…”
“What does it feel like—to be all alone in the world?”
Kaim only answer is a strained smile.
Tobal interprets Kaim’s expression and silence to suit himself.
“You’re absolutely free, right? Of course you are! No loans to bear, no leg irons…”
“You think kids are leg irons?”
“In a word… yes. To tell the truth, Angela is too. And my parents; when they get old, they’ll be another burden. Working every day for Angela and the kid, raising the kid, taking care of my old parents… and my life ends. That’s what the birth of a child is: it’s like a life sentence. You’re stuck.”
Kaim does not nod in agreement with this.
Neither dose he try to argue against it.
Tobal interprets this silence, too, as he sees fit.
“I know what you’re thinking.” He frowns. “Shut up, kid, you don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Kaim says nothing.
Tobal, uncomfortable, looks away, “I’m glad,” he says, more to himself then Kaim. “I’m glad to be having a kid with Angela. I’m going to do everything I can for them. It’s true, I wouldn’t lie to you. You have to believe me, Big Brother, I really am happy, and I know I’m going to have to work hard.”
“Yes, I know.” says Kaim.
“I’m happy, but at the same time I don’t want it. It’s not that I’m embarrassed about it or anything. It’s just that, I don’t know. I want to give up this whole business and run away somewhere…far away…”
“So now the truth comes out.” Kaim says with a laugh.
“What do you mean?”
“You just said you want to ‘run away’ not ‘travel’.'”
This is probably Tobal’s true feelings, to which he gives grudging assent.
“I suppose so…how else can I put it?”
Kaim almost wishes he had been a little tougher on Tobal.
How would Tobal answer if he said, for example. “You know, Tobal, you started talking about traveling with me around the time Angela’s belly started to swell”?
What would the look on Tobal’s face be like if he asked, “If a family is leg irons, why did you even propose to Angela?”
How would Tobal shift his gaze if he confronted him with,”You know, Tobal, if you want to get out of this town so badly, you don’t have to travel with me. Just take off by yourself”?
But Kaim doesn’t have the meanness to ask such questions nor is he given to meddling into people’s private affairs.
Instead, he drains his cup of its last few drops and says only, “Let’s get out of here.”
Even after they have left the tavern, Tobal goes on about the stupidity of living the rest of his life in this town.
The broad night sky is clear. The moon is out, and perfectly round.
“I’m asking you again, Big Brother. When you leave this town, just say the word to me. Wouldn’t it be better for you, too, to have a traveling companion?”
Tobal is starting to go in circles again when Kaim interrupts him.
“Don’t you want to get out there all by yourself? Traveling with a companion is not exactly a solo trip.”
“No, well, you see, uh, you’re right; I’d just go partway with you. You can let me tag along a little while, and then I’ll take off on my own.”
“You’d just slow me down.”
“I know that. I know that. Traveling is hard, sure, and my life might even be in danger sometimes, I know that. But that’s what makes it so thrilling…”
“Risking your life is no game.”
“Look, if I turn out to be a drag on you, you can just leave me behind. That’s it! I wouldn’t mind that. I mean, look, I’m ready to leave my parents and my wife and my kid behind.”
This is never going to end. Kaim nods and with a sigh says, “All right.”
“You’ll take me with you?”
Tobal’s face lights up.
“I’ve been in this town too long.” says Kaim. “It’s about time for me to get out there walking with the wind in my face.”
“Yeah, that’s it, that’s it. Walk with the wind in your face. Life on the road! When do we leave? It’s getting pretty late in the year. You don’t want to be on the road in the winter, do you? Say, how about after the snow in the pass has melted?”
Kaim points to the moon hanging in the night sky.
“Huh?” Tobal seems puzzled as he looks up.
“The night this moon is perfectly round again after it’s waned and waxed.”
“Exactly one month from tonight.”
Tobal’s face starts to move as if he wants to say something. He probably wants to say ‘That’s too soon.’ His face betrays a look of hesitation and confusion that was absent when he was engaged in his usual endless chatter.
“A month from now? That’s the middle of winter, Big Brother.”
“I know that.”
“Won’t it be hard getting through the pass?”
“You don’t want to go?”
“No, that’s not it…”
“If you don’t like it, you don’t have to come with me. I’m leaving the night of the next full moon. That’s all there is to it.”
“Okay, then, Big Brother, I’ll go. I’m definitely in.”
The night of the next full moon. Angela would be having her baby right about then.
The month slips by.
Toward the beginning, Tobal is excited, and whenever they meet he reminds Kaim, “Don’t forget your promise, Big Brother.”
After the waning moon has disappeared from the sky, however, he begins to grow more reserved.
The vanished moon reappears in the sky, and it waxes little by little, Tobal stops trailing after Kaim. Sometimes he goes as far as to slip away through the crowd when he sees Kam approaching in the marketplace.
Kaim notices Tobal’s change in attitude. It is something he expected to happen and was even counting on.
Hands upon her swollen belly, Angela wears a smile of deep serenity as she shops at the market.
Not just Tobal but everyone who encounters that smile of hers must surely come to realize this: the dreams of the young, to be sure, involve doing what you want to do, but that is not the only kind of dream there is.
When people grow up, they see that there is another kind of dream, and that is to wish for the smile of the one you love and who loves you in return: to long for it always and forever.
That is another kind of dream that people come to understand when they grow up.
The moon is full again.
In its perfect roundness, the moon floods the empty stone-paved road with brilliant light.
Tobal comes running, out of breath, to the empty room where Kaim has completed his preparations for travel.
Tobal is carrying nothing. He has not even changed out of his everyday clothing.
“Big Brother, I’m so sorry!” he pants, gasping for breath.
He ducks his head repeatedly before Kaim in apology.
“You changed your mind?” Kaim asks, trying not to smile.
“No, not at all. I’m going to go. I’m planning to go with you, Big Brother. Only…”
Angela went into labor as the sun was going down, he says. They called the town’s most skilled and experienced midwife, but Tobal still hasn’t heard the baby cry. The birth is taking much longer then it should.
“Angela is giving it everything she’s got. My mother and father are praying for all they’re worth. So at least until the baby’s safely born, I want to stay with Angela. She says it calms her down to hold my hand, so, well, I really can’t leave her now…”
Kaim nods to him with full understanding.
“So please Big Brother, wait just a little longer. As soon as I’ve seen the baby born, I’ll leave home, I swear, I’ll definitely go, so just a little longer…”
Even as he speaks, his feet are stamping impatiently on the ground with his eagerness to rush back home.
“I understand.” says Kaim. “I’ll wait until the moon is directly overhead in the night sky.”
“Don’t worry, it won’t take that long. You’ll just have to wait a little while, just a very short while.”
“No hurry. But on the other hand, I want you to promise me one thing.”
“When the baby is born, I want you to hold it in your arms. Don’t come back here until you’ve held the baby. Understood?”
Tobal looks at him with a puzzled expression, but he nods in agreement and says, “Understood, I will do exactly that, Big Brother. So be sure to wait for me!” Tobal charges out of the room with even greater force then when he came in.
The sound of his footsteps running on the stone pavement draws away, and when Kaim is sure he is gone, a smile slowly spreads across his face.
Tobal never comes back.
As the moon reaches its zenith and begins to dip towards the west, signs of light appear in the eastern sky. Kaim approaches the mountain pass on the edge of the town.
He will be traveling alone.
Heading up the pass, he walks swiftly as if to shake off the sound of Tobal’s voice remaining in his ears:
Big Brother Kaim! I’m so sorry, Big Brother. I’m sorry….
He can imagine the voice all too clearly and Tobal bowing his head in abject apology. There is no need for him to hear the actual voice.
Long after he has left the town, he will continue to see Tobal’s worshipful smile in the eye of his mind. Tobal would not have provided much support as a traveling companion, but a long journey together would likely have given them both much to laugh about.
But never mind. This is just fine, Kaim tells himself and ups his pace even more.
He is not the least bit resentful or angry at Tobal for having broken his promise. Quite the contrary, he would like to bless Tobal for having chosen to stay in his native place and protect his home.
All the more so because this is a dream that can never come true for Kaim himself.
A frigid wind tears through the pre-dawn pass.
If the cries of a newborn baby could ride on that wind to be heard up here…
Kaim chuckles at the thought.
Will Tobal abandon his dream to leave his home town? Or will he start looking for another “Big Brother” who will help conceal his of going on the road alone?
Kaim has no way to tell. Best to leave it unresolved.
Tobal could not take to the road the night his child was born. The hands with which he held his newborn baby were useless for travel preparations.
If only for that reason, he took one step toward becoming a grown up.
“Let’s go.” Kaim mutters to himself as he crosses over the pass.
Look, Angela, he’s smiling…
The happy smile that Tobal fixes on his baby will be a travel companion enough for Kaim untill he reaches the next town.