An imaginary journey to a very real place.
An invented conversation with a legendary man.
I stumble through a landscape steeped in history, permeated by magic. An idyllic clearing named the place of the green wand in the Forest of the Old Order. Yasnaya Polyana, Bright Glade.
My host has woken from a century-long sleep to greet me. Tolstoy occupies an old garden chair, settled in the clearing a few feet from his grave. A picture of the Old Russian gentleman. At ease, enjoying the simplicity of his natural surroundings. Fierce gaze filled with deep perception. Understanding.
‘Dobroye utro,’ I call, nervous, eager to demonstrate my limited knowledge of his father-tongue.
‘Good morning,’ he replies, his crisp tone shredding any notion that our conversation will be carried on in Russian. We have important matters to discuss and limited time. None to waste in butchered pronunciation. ‘Sit or stand, as you please.’
I stand. There is only one chair and dew lies heavy on the grass beneath my feet.
‘May I ask you some questions? Sorry, is there anything you’d like to ask me?’
‘Such as what?’ he asks, the question throwing me. ‘What knowledge which you possess would I need where I am going, where I have been going?’
Of course. What do the living have to teach the dead? He is irritable and I should hurry, but not rush.
‘May I ask how you did it?’
‘More specific,’ he says, staring in bored abandon up towards the light-speckled canopy.
‘How did you create such masterpieces? What do you think made you one of the great authors?’
He smiles at that, spreading his legs out and crossing them at the ankle.
‘Has no one written better since then?’ he asks.
‘Some would say so,’ I change tack as the corners of his mouth twitch in a momentary frown. ‘But I would disagree.’
Now his brow draws into a map of creased skin. Thoughtful, his gaze pierces mine.
‘Why is that, do you think?’
‘Perhaps,’ I say, thinking of an answer as I speak. ‘Authorship has improved. The creating of a story itself. Some writers become as great as you, or better. But none can turn the page itself into an adventure, forge words into experiences, quite how it was done in your day.’
‘Do you not read?’ he asks.
‘Well, writing is reading turned around. How many books did you read this week?’
‘This week,’ I begin a silent stammer. What answer can I give which will not lower his opinion of me? None. ‘I haven’t. I’m sure I could, but who has the time? Maybe one in the last month, or two.’
My voice has become an ashamed whisper, but there is nothing more sinister than soft curiosity in his eyes now.
‘What do you do, if not read?’ he asks.
‘Any number of things. Television, internet, work, films…’ I let my words trail off. A vacant expression has come over his face.
‘These things… They are written?’
‘Some of them, yes.’
‘Some,‘ he repeats. ‘Then some day you might write as well as I did.’
‘How often did you read?’ I ask.
He laughs and claps his hands together.
‘How often? Let me think.’ A long pause. ‘Do you know why I asked to be buried here?’
‘Because I wanted to be sure it was real. The place of the green wand. My brother named it that. But, do you know, I never could remember if it was a real place or somewhere we had read about. Does that seem strange to you?’
‘It does, a little.’
‘Well, do away with these distractions. Your television and such. Leave off it and spend your life in books. When you no longer remember where the stories end and reality begins, you may be ready to write your novel.’
We parted ways shortly after. I’m sure he was right. To this day, I do not doubt a single word he uttered. But how could I become like him? How could I sit in the shaded forest, a book planted between my hands, while the entire world and more lay at my fingertips?
He was free in his lifetime. They all were back then. Free to spend their days in idle thought, losing reality in the printed page. Free, but chained.
Perhaps we have taken a step back. Being an author could grow more difficult with every screen, flashing light and whirring hard-drive which enters our lives. Distractions. But we can reach through them and touch every corner of our world. A world both real and imagined.
I feel sorry for him these days. Then again, I’m sure he pities me just as much.