The Cheerful Man
By Simon Barget
There was a man who once lived in our town, a very cheerful man, the most cheerful man I knew. The man was so cheerful and so full of hope; everything he did was laden with joy and suffused with enthusiasm; the man loved life because he knew life was him.
Our town sat at the edge of a forest, and this man loved to walk in the forest, in fact he loved everything about it, he loved to prepare and he loved even to come back. He loved to put his shoes on and to take them off, he loved the first steps as much as the ones just shy of half-way, but he loved stopping and taking stock just as much as he did the moments when he thought he best get back before sundown.
Equally though did he like the days he wasn’t in the forest, because he knew he’d soon go and be back. He felt no sadness at not being there, no hint of despair, even in the rain and the snow or when our town suffered a fire and the forest was closed off for forty days was the man as cheerful as usual.
And for this man the forest was one. It was a bed of gold and green and the trees were phantoms, the sky a magic brush and everything in and of the forest was precious and special and cast of one hand. Every tree came together, every leaf and the floor of the forest was a network of mud and mulch and wonderful things and the air was a cloak, flooded with treasures.
When the man walked inside the forest he saw the animals, he saw elks and badgers, he saw all type of bird, he saw ants and tiny spiders wriggling their way under the bushes, he saw foxes too and wolves, he saw owls, there were all sorts of animals in the forest that the man saw and those he didn’t notice too. But whether he saw or didn’t, what he saw or didn’t, it didn’t make a difference to the man because this man was cheerful and the forest was life and life was the forest.
One day the man went to the forest, many years after he had started. And then he looked at the forest, and he looked at the trees, and from where it came, nobody knew, but that morning, the man felt a slight urge to be in the forest, and when he put on his shoes he was certainly still cheerful, but he wanted to be in the forest and not just in the process of getting there as he now was, and the excitement and the hope was pulling him forward, it overcame him somewhat, and when he tried to tie his laces, he had some trouble, and he cursed himself for not being able to tie them more quickly, something he’d never done before in his life, because he wanted to be in the forest already and he was wasting good time.
But the man arrived at the forest and he felt some relief. The forest was there, it hadn’t changed, but as he walked in to the very outer bits of the forest, as he came under its cool calm shadow, amongst the leaves and the whispering wind, as he walked further, he looked up at the big sycamore and as he looked at it, he thought it looked beautiful and he wanted to come closer. As he walked, the leaves crackled under him and the man kept his eye on the sycamore. And he came closer, inching ever closer, till within a few seconds he was right under it, under its bulk. And the man looked up, and he looked at the sycamore but all he could see was a tree, yes it was beautiful, yes it was vast, but it was only a tree.
But the man was not deterred and he saw a majestic oak just up in the distance, and he thought to himself that he could walk up to that oak there in the distance, and as soon as the thought crossed his mind, the cheerful man had forgotten about the sycamore and was intently approaching the oak.
As the man walked, the canopy cleared, and the sun peaked in to the forest. There were shards of light and if the man had looked up, he could have seen the clouds traversing the sky, casting shafts of sunlight into the clearing.
There the man walked, approaching the oak. And inside himself, he started to wait for something to happen, it was something subtle which he hardly noticed, but as he walked, he was very intent now on reaching the oak -- he had indeed made a firm decision to go there -- and he had no other thoughts in his mind, of the forest, of the gold and the green, of the treasure-filled air.
And the oak came close, but as he did, the man saw it was only an oak. He was right by it now, and as he looked up, he saw it was a tree, and he came closer so that he was standing next to its roots right by the trunk and all he saw were roots, and then the bark was just bark, and when he looked up the branches were just branches and the leaves merely leaves.
There was a pond, and a house by the pond, and the man so loved that pond that he thought he must go to the pond now, and though it was starting to get dark and the man was beginning to tire, the man was not to be dissuaded and he started to make his way to the house and the pond with its wooden gate, and as the man walked, he thought about the pond, he thought about the house and how it looked, he pictured it in his mind’s eye, and the more he pictured it, the sooner he wanted to be there already, already standing in the vicinity of the pond because he knew how cheerful it would make him feel.
And he turned the corner by the brook and there it was before him. The house as he knew it, with its green latticed windows and the pond with its water lilies and it was as serene as the man remembered and the man was happy to be there.
But as had happened with the sycamore and then with the oak, the man couldn’t help noticing that when he finally reached the front door of the house, well, it was only a house and the door was just a door -- he even touched it to check -- and when he looked round to the side at the pond, there was just water there and even though he bent down to feel what the water was like, it felt just like water and the man was still happy but he was no longer cheerful.
And the man decided to go home. And that night he slept quite well though not as well as he always did.
The man liked other things, and not just the forest. He liked the city and its pavements, he liked the shops, the people, he liked the noises things made, so he went into the city, looking forward to going, in fact he couldn’t wait to get into the city, and he had soon forgotten the little house in the forest, and the man walked in all the way from our town from the north down by the river, and slowly the city started to envelop him, and he saw buildings grasping ever higher, higher than he could possibly imagine buildings could reach, and they towered over him, and when the man saw all these buildings, he realised he had truly made it in to the city.
The man walked on into the heart of the city, and sure enough, when he looked at the buildings, when he came even closer to them, he saw that they were just buildings of granite and steel of reinforced concrete, and the windows were just glass, and the man walked on to the lights in the heart of the city, and he thought he must see the lights then, because he so loved the city, and he was looking forward now so much to seeing them that he quickened his step even further.
Without almost even noticing, he had made it to the square, and the lights were blazing and wild and they shone through the sky like infernos, and as the man saw them he was impressed, how they reflected off the buildings, how they blinked on and off in all their neon colours, but as the man came closer, as he came right under the lights, he saw they were just lights, bulbs in a glass-piece and the bulbs came on and they went off, and though the man had been impressed, he thought there must be something else to see in this city that he hadn’t yet seen.
Exhausted, the man walked home, and he so wanted to get home because he was tired and he scantly noticed the sky and the forest as he went past, he hardly noticed the oak as he thought about getting to bed. And when he got home he was glad to have got there.
And then one day the man started wondering about the sun. He had spent quite a lot of time gazing at it, still he didn’t understand it, and though he knew it made him warm and made things light, and cast shadows, he couldn’t really understand what the sun was and felt he needed to investigate.
So he decided to go there, and though it took him many many years, he flew into space, past all the planets, past Venus and Mercury and the space craft came closer and closer to the sun.
Now when the man was very old, the craft reached the very outskirts of the sun itself, and though the man felt now very hot and irritable from the burning heat and from being stuck in that spaceship, he still couldn’t see anything, so he decided to go even closer, as close as he could possibly be. He stared right at it, desperate to get to the heart of it, to touch the sun; being close wouldn’t cut it, he needed to touch it.
But as the craft starting disintegrating, as it burst into hot flames, the man hardly even noticed. And as the man’s flesh bubbled and charred, and as the soul made its exit, the man was certainly no longer cheerful. But there had been a moment in the blinking of the eye where the man had finally understood there was nothing to get to. And the soul wound its way back to the melting pot as the sun continued to burn.