Everyone watched in joy and amazement as Tarra and Shirley intertwined trunks and made ‘purring’ noises at each other. Shirley very deliberately showed Tarra each injury she had sustained at the circus, and Tarra then gently moved her trunk over each injured part.
Carol Buckley, cofounder of the Elephant Sanctuary, Tennessee
My first date with Soren was a kind of private dare, a challenge I set myself. He popped up on Tinder in a torn and saggy sweater with a face like a wet weekend, the light harsh, the angle unflattering. His tagline read, ‘I don’t like being on this stupid app, but I need to reach out.’ Not much of a come-on, is it? It was especially inapt for the platform. I should know, I’m in marketing. But more promising users had turned out to be duds and, perversely perhaps, I swiped right.
My thoughts went something like this. I’d left London for New York looking for change. Things had happened at home — an upsetting development with an old friend, my failed marriage — events that made my head spin. Life had been bobbing along quite merrily, but all of a sudden I could hear the roar of rapids ahead. I was getting older. The years were sweeping me onward, and on either side was possibility, territories unexplored, adventures that would drift by if I let them. Then this pallid, skinny dish appeared on my phone, his crystal-blue eyes striking even on the tiny screen. His bio said he loved elephants. He was definitely to be filed under ‘alternative’, and I thought, ‘Do something out of character, Joan.’
We met at a vegan restaurant in Bushwick, a halfway house for reformed grad students. The whole place smelled of Marmite. Boosting that Friday feeling, Leonard Cohen was grizzling through the speakers. My yoga gear seemed like the best outfit for the venue, and I arrived straight from class, a bit pink in the face. That didn’t stop me feeling overdressed. But Soren put me at ease before we even spoke. When I came in, he was curled up over a book. He wasn’t posting updates about being kept waiting by his Tinder date. He didn’t even look up when the door opened. Next, when I said his name, he was unexpectedly attentive, standing to extend a hand. He pulled out the table so I could take the banquette, and when he started standing up, I thought he’d never stop. He was extremely tall, something which I’ve always found very handy in a man; I like my partners to be visible in a crowd. And his Tinder portrait didn’t do him justice. His looks were aristocratic, face narrow and long nose aquiline, floppy flaxen hair receding ever so slightly in a way that made him look raffish and vulnerable.
The conversation stumbled at first. I tried to keep it light — dating escapades, the shows I was streaming. He was no better than polite. But his ears pricked up when I mentioned my friend back in London, the one who’d disturbed me so much. She heard voices in her head. She’d rejected conventional treatment and visited an ashram or something. The whole experience had been very upsetting.
The idea of an inner voice stirred Soren. It doesn’t have to take the form of actual words, he said, like a hallucination. Messages erupt from within at times, like an instinct. He talked about Plato, and this idea that we know everything before we’re born and that birth is a kind of forgetting. He said children entered the world trailing clouds of glory. Kids instinctively see animals as beings with an inner life as rich as ours, Soren thought, and that truth was suppressed as society closed in on them.
He got quite intense, fixing me with those lovely, clear eyes. With a little spit and polish, he would have been a knockout. That was obvious. Words tumbled out of him and, along with his theories about nature and the sublime and whatnot, I started to pick up the outlines of a life.
At a university in Vermont, one of his teachers had set up a climate change action group, an organization that grew fast and gave Soren his first real job. When his mum got cancer, he quit and returned upstate to his family home near the Finger Lakes. After her death, he worked at an elephant sanctuary in Tennessee, the memory of which made his eyes glisten. He had spent time with Buddhist monks in Japan. As he moved from place to place, he was all the time haunted by thoughts of the damage being done to the planet; it kept him up at night, filled him with remorse, tied up his guts and put him off food. He’d been arrested on protests several times, and the District of Columbia was pursuing criminal proceedings against him for incitement to riot. He said what the human race was doing to the planet broke his heart.
I concurred, of course. The environment is something I take very seriously.
‘People need to think about what it’ll do to GDP,’ I told him.
Among the Buddhists of the Yamagata Prefecture, he picked up some peculiar dietary habits, which I learned a little about that evening, although not enough to understand what was in store. While I looked over the menu and its various means of bloating, he explained that he had brought his own meal, prepared beforehand, and was paying the staff as if they’d made it for him. He had done this before, although not on dates, he quickly added.
‘Perhaps I should have the same thing,’ I said. He smiled ruefully and waved his hand over a little bowl of pine needles and nuts. It took me a moment to register that this gesture was an invitation. His dinner was basically a condiment.
‘You can’t live on that?’
I’ll never forget his smile — wry, sad, and a bit shy.
‘You don’t expect everyone to eat like a mouse to save the planet, do you?’
He said in ancient Greece there were philosophers who lived like vagrants, sleeping in barrels, dressing in rags, mocking the lifestyle of the rich. They wanted to show people how little they truly needed, in a consider-the-lilies-of-the-field kind of vein. They were like personal trainers, except they drove people to build virtue instead of muscle, pushing ordinary men and women, by the force example, not to become as exceptional as them but simply to go a little further in the same direction. The story didn’t mean much to me at the time.
I was meeting someone far outside my normal circle, someone other. Soren was interesting, and I felt like a reporter, which made the date an odd sort of success. Of course, he was very serious. I was careful not to wind him up with anything indelicate or, well, funny. The only joke I tried came just as we were leaving.
‘I read a story online that some scientist thinks plants feel pain,’ I said. ‘What are the people at this place going to eat if that turns out to be true?’
On the sidewalk, very matter of fact, he asked if we were going to sleep together that evening. There was nothing cocky in his manner; he posed the question in a gentlemanly fashion.
‘Oh, yes, I should think so,’ I said.
That’s when he asked me to punch him in the face.
‘Is that one of those American expressions?’ I said. ‘You know, like “Gag me with a spoon”?’
But no. He genuinely wanted me to lump him one. A bit of rudimentary sadism was much more the kind of thing I’d expected from Tinder. That didn’t make it appealing.
‘I didn’t realize you were into kink.’
He didn’t either apparently. He’d never, so he said, made this request before. I declined, because it was too weird. That made him embarrassed, and when he described having a block emotionally that needed to be broken, I took pity on him and went along with idea. Perhaps we were both after something new. I slipped off my repurposed engagement ring and caught him with a jab from my right. After a lifetime watching make-believe fights on the screen, a real punch is probably always a disappointment. The sound is wet and muffled compared to the metallic cracks and wallops of the action movies. But my punch sent him staggering, which was quite impressive; he was a full head taller than me.
‘Yoga and Pilates,’ I said, flexing a bicep, ‘two classes each, every week.’ Wary, I added, ‘This punching thing is a one-way street, right? I’m not getting into a fight, okay?’
On hearing my concern, he became very solicitous for a man who’d just been punched in the face. He told me not to worry. A little pain cleared his head. That’s why he asked me to hit him. It was a sudden urge, and then he told me he hadn’t been with a woman for three years.
‘Are you into boys?’ I asked.
No, he had simply, so he said, lost the urge. He was too sad. But then something happened. He’d injured his rotator cuff doing farm work at an intentional community near the Finger Lakes. A woman doctor had examined him. Her touch on his shoulder, probing the muscle, awoke such a plaintive feeling within him he was close to tears. After that came the Tinder profile.
Under the streetlights, a little bruise started to take shape on his cheekbone. Lost and confused despite his impressive intelligence, a ghost of childhood in his eyes, he looked quite lovely.
‘Let’s go back to my place and look at that shoulder,’ I said.
In my apartment, his naked body made me gasp. Soren was so thin. His pelvic bones put me in mind of insect exoskeletons; you could count every rib. But he was still lovely, in the right light. He was cool to the touch, and it was good to feel flesh so hard and smooth compared to the well-upholstered gents I’d dated so far in America.
There was no more violence that first time, except when he asked me to dig my nails into his skin, which I did until the blood threatened my manicure.
He was gentle and attentive making love. Engrossed in my body one moment, he would raise his head the next and look around, breaking the surface to draw breath before throwing himself back beneath the bedsheet. We fucked three times that night. When he left in the morning, he held my hand in both of his and thanked me like I was a nurse or a nun helping him through a final illness. Back in the office that day, I was all sweetness and light. That sad man had put a spring in my step.
We saw each other at intervals of between three and five weeks, by and large. I was travelling a lot with work, and at the time I believed that was the only reason we met so infrequently. For my friends and colleagues, he was a shadowy figure. He didn’t meet more than a couple of them, but because he gave me so much to talk about, he became a constant factor in my life. Despite rarely being present, he cast me in a new light. Prior to that point, I probably came across as an über-careerist, a sleek professional, a category that doesn’t win many friends. And once people see you in a new light, you have the power to change.
We never ate out again after that first date. We would meet late in the evening or during the day and take walks together or watch old movies. He asked me to hurt him in some way almost every night we spent together. Once, things started to get steamy in the kitchen and, at his prompting, I clobbered him with a ladle and raised great saucer-like purple bruises on his upper arm and thigh. I felt terrible. But, to be honest, there was something exciting about that little taste of violence.
His health was a concern. I’d not have thought it possible, but he got skinnier and paler. What I’d put down to diet and indoor living started to look like a serious illness. But as soon as I touched on the subject, he went to get a blood test for pretty much every communicable disease on the planet, bringing back a clean bill of health, which he seemed to think closed the discussion. I took to bringing pastries whenever we met but gave up on the idea when I ate three eclairs unassisted.
There was at times a bit of a block between us when it came to conversation, but I learned to find the distance between our outlooks funny.
‘I’m working with this Japanese tea company,’ I might say. ‘I’m trying to come up with an English name for their beverages. What do you think about Fidelitea?’
He just wondered why anyone would spend five dollars on a drink that was so easy to make yourself; the seas were choking on plastic bottles.
We trundled along in this manner for some time, with Soren becoming a regular intermission in my life. I adored those crystal-blue eyes and that tender, slightly ugly body, its pallor and slenderness at odds with his stature. There was no time to see anyone else, and frankly there was so much intensity and passion in Soren, I didn’t feel the need. The difference between us had come to be a draw for me, like visiting a foreign country. To ask for him to be less strange would be like visiting the Amazon and pining for a Starbucks.
Then came a long period of absence, perhaps three months. There was no explanation, when normally I’d get a text that he was up at the Finger Lakes, at the commune. Then one day he reached out to tell me he’d be going up there and would be gone a long time. There was no suggestion we should meet. The Finger Lakes were meant to be beautiful, and to my surprise I’d really come to miss him, so I offered to drive. He said that would be helpful.
When I picked him up, he looked worse than ever. His collarbone was jutting out, and the circles around his eyes were black.
‘You need to see a doctor and get off that awful, stupid diet,’ I said.
But he just reeled off a litany of environmental horrors: Siberian Tundra on fire; rainforests burning; seas acidifying. He said the oceans were losing their capacity to store carbon, which has been slowing down the effects of climate change; and they also produce two-thirds of the world’s oxygen, without which large mammalian life won’t be able to survive.
‘You can’t hope to remedy any of that if you’re just wasting away.’
But he just laughed ruefully. After that, he slept through the whole five-hour drive.
It’s hard for me to describe the commune at the Finger Lakes, because for most of my stay one giant word was flashing red across my mind’s eye: BEDBUGS. To be fair, the place was very clean. Someone was always busy doing the housework, which was shared. But people dressed like the homeless. They might have been trying to advertise how contemptuous they were of appearances, which is pretty vain in itself.
There was one big house and some little cottages scattered around. When we entered the main living space, about half a dozen people mobbed Soren as if he were a conquering hero. I made myself scarce, retreating to an Airbnb I’d booked earlier. I was disappointed when Soren said he was too tired to join me. I’m in shape and fairly easy on the eye, and from a man in his early thirties that kind of demurral would normally sound the alarm. But Soren could barely stand for five minutes, and he looked genuinely apologetic.
Cassia, a woman from the commune, visited me that evening. She found me in the only passable restaurant in town.
‘Girlfriend or fiancée?’ I asked, bracing myself. ‘I don’t think Soren is the man to cheat on a wife.’
She shook her head and frowned; my deduction was clearly way off target.
I offered to buy her a drink, but she declined and started telling me about Soren’s interest in Buddhism and the time he’d spent in Japan at a Shingon monastery. The Shingon monks take asceticism to an extreme that many people consider deranged, but Soren was fascinated. Hundreds of years ago, the founding patriarch of this monastic school had brought back a practice from China called Sokushinbutsu, a tantric ritual that takes a minimum of three years and which is not only thought to bring enlightenment but to leave the body in a state that serves as a reminder to others that spiritual strength can overcome any demand of the physical realm.
Her description of Sokushinbutsu was very abstract, and it was clear she was tiptoeing around the big reveal.
‘I’ve seen what Soren eats and how little,’ I said. ‘It’s killing him. So, I hope he’s almost done with this stupid ritual.’
In a manner of speaking, he was almost done, she explained. His diet was designed to minimize the amount of fat in the body. The pine needles he ate deposited traces of resin in the flesh. In the final stage of the ritual, Soren would stop eating altogether and drink a special tea made from tree bark, the source of Japanese lacquer, which contains the same toxin found in poison ivy. This would make the body inhospitable to bacteria and would, as she put it, ease him through the final stages.
‘Final stages of what?’ I said, starting to feel nauseous.
At the end of Sokushinbutsu, the monk descends into a pit three metres deep. He climbs into a pine casket packed around with charcoal (Cassia’s voice started to crack). Then the casket is sealed up and buried. Rising to the surface is a breathing tube and a string attached to a bell.
‘How long does a monk stay down there?’
Long after the bell stops ringing, she said. Three years longer, to be exact, after which the monk is exhumed and, if everything went well, with the deterioration of fats and the introduction of tannins into the flesh, his body will have become mummified, a testament to the soul’s triumph over the trials of this world.
I ordered a Stoli, pronto.
‘That’s not what Soren’s going to do?’
But she nodded, very grim, telling me how he’d told her I had been kind to him and deserved the truth. He hoped I’d understand that this was a protest, a gesture designed to wake people from their apathy to the damage being done to the planet, which sustains not just ourselves but every living being, an intricate web of life, a vast family of existence, bound in kinship by an evolutionary family tree spanning aeons.
Soren had been preparing himself for more than three years, slowly reducing his intake of nutrients, ridding himself of the fats that decomposed fastest in a corpse. He was very weak now. Within three or four weeks, he would be buried alive.There was no police station for miles around. The next day, I put in a call to 911, but found it hard to explain a tantric ritual of starvation to the dispatcher. I was told a patrol car would, at some point, visit the commune. Knowing how little this meant, I drove back to New York in tears, a danger to traffic. As well as sad, I was angry that a man with so much to offer would throw his life away.
My feelings developed over the next week or so. Soren wasn’t hurting anyone, and perhaps his gesture would be meaningful. I toyed with the idea that it was a triumph of the will, a source of inspiration. For the next two weeks, I was crushing it at the gym every single day, pushing myself harder than I’d ever thought possible. When Pilates or yoga ended, I went straight to the cardio room. An instructor named me Joan of Arc Trainers. I was ripped like a gymnast. Yoga gear became my uniform.
I owed it all to Soren. His otherness, so distinct from me, threw my own personality into high relief. He’d allowed me to understand myself. And he’d given me so many new statements to make on social media. Do you know that half the carbon in the atmosphere has been put there in the last thirty years, since Al Gore wrote his first book on climate change? People had started to look at me differently since I’d got to know him, and what I had learned really opened doors.
Had Soren actually gone through with that crazy ritual? I’d texted him, but he never replied. In the end, about a month after my trip to the Finger Lakes, I decided to go back there. I was scared of what I would find, but I had to know.
Once at the commune, I was left alone in the common area of the central building until Cassia arrived, the community’s ambassador. She looked drawn and fatigued. Very firmly, but not unkind, she told me to go home. There was no point my being there. Soren was beyond the assistance of anyone, but he could still be perturbed. I think that was how she put it.
‘He’s been buried, hasn’t he?’ I said, my fingers clamped over my mouth in horror.
‘Is … the bell still ringing?’
Eventually, I prevailed. Tears didn’t work, but I threatened to stay indefinitely and make a nuisance of myself, to call the police and generally spread the news that the commune was helping a man commit suicide. Having extracted a promise not to talk about what was going on until the time Soren was exhumed, she led me out across a field. A light mist hung about the distant wood where we were heading. The path between the trees was marked out with cairns and graced with wooden steps leading to the top of a bare hill. There, beneath a little gazebo weaved together from untreated branches a bell was mounted on a post. Beside it a plastic tube the size of a sink’s drain protruded from the freshly broken earth.
The bell tinkled. Soren was alive, perhaps even aware, deep below, that he had human visitors.
Cassia retreated a few feet, and I knelt at the breathing tube conscious of being observed. It dawned on me only now that Soren was beyond rescue. I was here, I understood at last, to say goodbye. And, so, I spoke to him through the drainpipe, and as I did so my heart lifted out of my body.
‘It’s Joan. I want to tell you something. You’ve taken me on an amazing journey.’ My voice was clear and strong, though the tears were flowing. ‘I’ve been somewhere I never knew existed: to the inner parts of myself. There’s something about you that’s opened up a world of possibilities. I can’t tell you how much I’ve achieved in the office in the past few weeks, how hard I’ve been working out, how strong I feel — and I’m going to keep it up, I’m going to have a more vital, productive life and realize my full potential, in my career and in everything. It’s all thanks to you. I understand how much I want a family now, a big one. And you know what else? I came up with a name for that Japanese tea company: it’s going to be called Greenest Teas. The name keys into environmental themes, which are resonating really powerfully with all our focus groups right now. The logo is going to be a bell — yes, like this one — in tribute to you, and your story is going to be the secret narrative to all our marketing, helping it to get picked up on all kinds of platforms. Next week I’m flying out to Sydney for a conference about environmental choices in consumerism. And I’m getting a cat. I’ve even got this amazing robot thing to keep it company while I’m away. Getting to know you has been life-changing. Thanks to you, I’m attuned to nature like never before.’
After that, there was only silence. In was early evening. Shadows creeped from under the trees. I stayed on my knees until the chill had worked its way under my sweater. Cassia led me back to the commune and my car, not saying a word, too overcome with emotion to look me in the eye.
The bell didn’t ring again.
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