I have been sitting here, at this table, in this Baltimore establishment of dubious repute and doubtful merchandise and gutrot, for two hundred years now, lurking in the shadows where such as I are never seen, only sometimes sensed by the insensible, or sought by the dissolute, who never find me. The insensible can sometimes feel my presence, an invisible breath on their necks, the faintest of soft feather-brushes, softer far than the gooseflesh that follows, always just beyond their reach, and their reasoning.
So I, who have been doomed to exist as a shade, a thought trembling on the brink of consciousness, have seen them all come and go. The men and the women, the worthy burghers of this worthy town, the consumptive and the caring, the destitute and the debauched – I have seen them all come and go, these past two hundred years. I have seen hunger in all its human forms, I have seen want in all its lascivous shapes and sizes, ages and aches, I have seen the endless ambition of humans, and their blackest, darkest despair.
Yet never did I see, on all those endless vigils, such a one as that man, sitting over there, huddling over the candle, pulling at the frayed sleeves of a shabby black coat, a coat that should have been turned to rags or paper many years before. I know, as he does not, that that glass of sack in front of him will be his last, that in a few mere hours, he will no longer be, his death attracting no notice, nor causing much grief, until later.
He was a man you would pass on a busy street without a second glance, a man with no remarkable demeanor, no striking presence or compelling talent that would force you from your workaday reverie. Unless you should chance to look upon his eyes, and then, you, yes, even such a one as you, will stop for a heartbeat, or two, perhaps, before going on your way, perturbed by an emotion you cannot quite define. You might draw back, struck by the equally powerful fumes of alcohol and desolation, or else struck that those eyes, that flaming, burning soul you glimpsed, were the eyes of a madman – or a genius.
We, who live among the shadows in these places, will tell you that they are, to all intents and purposes, one and the same.
For that shabby, sodden man, spending his last few cents on the only brand of Nepenthe he can afford, does not belong here, in this time or this place. So unremarkable he seems, seeking a few fitful hours of oblivion or inspiration, and those two, I also tell you, are all too often one and the same.
He walks through the crowded city streets knowing he has never belonged, that the crowd he pushes against so gently, so apologetically, will never understand that his alienation, his unyielding, undying lack of compromise and conduite, is precisely what makes his eyes burn with that mad, incessant fever.
He is a writer and a poet, you see, and in this puritanical age has the temerity to believe that regardless of his reception, no matter the ridicule and derision his contemporaries have heaped upon him, his voice will be heard, it will be read, it will out, willynilly, and all he can do is to still himself for the storm to come and let it pass out and into the world, or else that all-consuming urge that fever-hot compulsion shall devour him alive, as indeed it has, and is, even as I whisper these words into your ear.
Being a shadow carries some unique advantages. I have hovered just over his shoulder, in those white and endless nights, and the whiter and even longer days when he would also write, to spare the expense of candles. Two hours for a story, with not a pause to reflect or consider a progression, nor to ponder a turn of phrase. Just one smooth, flowing descent – into the maelstrom, into a world where everything familiar is most passing strange, where everything strange carries the taint of the familiar. It is a world, or even a cosmos, where all things possible have already happened, and events long passed exist, not as memories or fleeting glimpses of a paradise you shall never know, but as states of being that reflect the outer world into the interior of the mind. It is a world of dreams that carry the dark-red taste of nightmares, and where even nightmares become transparent and shimmering dreams of such incandescent beauty that even angels could weep, and even the damned, such as I, might be redeemed.
In those burning eyes lie a lesson for you, who never did appreciate that shabby man with the burning soul and the flaming stylus. Never to judge one whose visions you would fail to comprehend. Some day, some future, some other lost and burning soul will come, in some other, transcendent age, and find himself, his nightmares and dreams and even some shuddering reflection of his soul, in the flawless words and rhythms left behind by that unremarkable man in the crowd.
I have lurked here, among the shadows, watching for one such as he, for twice a hundred years. I shall be lurking, in those same shadows, for many, many more. I shall be lurking, hoping against hope that some other day, or some desolate, desperate night, another such genius might appear. So far, I wait in vain.
(With apologies to the esteemed and much beloved ghost of Edgar, whose story, “A Man of the Crowd”, inspired a little birthday pastiche!)