The “Nine Years Mystery”

The first time I saw him, I was nine and a half years old. It was the end of October, on Sunday.

I remember it well, because it was the weekend before the day of St. Martin, which in the center of Italy, where I’m from, is quite important and celebrated with great sentimentality, by a population of predominantly rural roots; it celebrates the new wine, and my father was preparing a lunch in the countryside with friends, which I was not invited to, because they drank a lot in such circumstances, until evening, and even into the next day. I was so annoyed at not being able to participate! I couldn’t wait to be sixteen, eighteen, something like that. Time never passes quickly enough at that age.
I had gone with my father to fetch his own father, my grandpa, at the central square bar, and I stayed outside playing with my Supertele ball,  kicking it awkwardly with the ugly, rounded shoes children once had.

It was one of the rare occasions when I was without my brother, who was in bed with a fever, and my mother with him, as he always pretended to feel terrible. I was approached by a strange man, he didn’t frightened me at all, despite the fact that his appearance could have been considered somehow fearsome.  He was rather rough, tall, with his dark overcoat, somehow severe. Plus, he seemed a poor man, wearing shabby clothes, a big wide-brimmed leather hat, long unkempt beard, his face wrinkled and with narrow, almost Charon eyes, and bushy eyebrows. Nevertheless, he exuded something good-natured, he seemed ironic and irreverent; to see him, I remember it well, awoke laughter in me more than fear, and I considered him nice.

He called me by name: -Do you know me? – I asked.
-Of course!-
-Are You a friend of my father? – I said.
-Sure! – He said: -Even more than a friend! –
-He’s inside there, with grandpa, do you know him? I’ll call him for you! – I suggested.
-No, no, there’s no time for that.-he said quietly, but with authority, then added: -Listen, listen to me, do not worry if you feel different from the others, that’s not even a bad thing. In fact, it is a good thing. You do not have to change to please anyone. You have a strange name, and everything else strange as well, but do not be ashamed! And now remember, believe me, when you grow up a bit, do not just study. Do some sports, and be aware, also remember this, remember it when the time comes: the first loves are not what they seem to be, not really worth it to feel so bad for all that. Agreed?-

Except for the first part, given that many people made fun of me for my unusual name, and I did not like soccer, I was the only one who, when I’m a “grownup” did not want to become  a “top scorer”, I didn’t understand that he meant; I nodded, but then I felt a bit ashamed for the advice, perhaps, though I really had to appear like someone who needed it, I thought. And it was quite strange, “love”? But what is it? The “females”, as we called them at school at the time, we just couldn’t stand them, but I also felt as if I was being treated as an adult, so that was cool.
He smiled, straightened my coat, as if he knew me well, with a manner strangely similar to that of my joker of an uncle, he looked at me as if he cared that I was clean and perfect, so naturally that he seemed one of the family. Then he left, calling me by name again, and pointing his index finger as you do with children, or at least how it was done at the time, at the twilight of the “Paper Heart style” education, but he did so in jest, laughing a bit, and so I did, too, laughed and waved.

I remember everything so well due to a combination of circumstances, as well as because children are so bright, and some events, for whatever reason, remain etched forever in your mind; it is also true that it is not every day that people would put their hands on me, indeed, to me that has never happened.

My father didn’t know who he was, I asked insistently, but he just told me not to talk to strangers. At that point, I felt both stupid and lucky, since nothing happened to me. –You hear of so many nowadays- he added.
I cannot say it changed the positive impression I had of the old man, but maybe it was blurred because of my father’s suspicion; if I met him again, I decided I wouldn’t say a word.

That did not happen, so the thought of him left my mind after a while, and didn’t return again until I fell in love. Then his strange words came back to my mind, and I contemplated them, thinking that all the commotion, that desperate passion, not reciprocated and unfortunate, was not real, that the situation had to be very different from how I saw it.
I was thirteen, what did I expect? She was four years older, and as it happens, a few years later I would never have even considered her. I wonder what is it that makes us perceive things in such different ways, depending on age and experience.
However, in less than four years everything had changed. I kept changing.
It was the first time I thought about that, or perhaps one of the first, the first time was when I stopped liking toys that once seemed invaluable to me. I came to suspect that perhaps you should live life as if everything had happened in the distant past, and get right to when you don’t care anymore about what happens there and then; sooner or later it happens, sooner or later, I could see, nothing matters to anyone. Who gets angry when they’re forty years old because a classroom test went wrong when you were a kid?
My thoughts were not the thoughts of a child now, but of a teenager. Whining, like all teenagers.

When I was fifteen years old, he came back to my memory again, when I decided to fight against school bullying by attending a weight lifting gym. My situation changed radically in just a few months. How petty human beings are!
Inside me I confessed that those recommendations had really been spot on. And I still had not figured out who the hell had given them to me, because my father is not that easy to insist with, patience has never been one of his more pronounced virtues, nor mine.

When I turned eighteen, in the same square, I met the weird guy again.
There was the custom, at the time, to walk up and down for hours and hours on that rectangle of the Italian province, with friends, never alone, or perch on one side, and comment on the girls who showed off their skirts, sandals, hairstyles, asses. We could have spent hours, days and months, probably, if one of us didn’t insist on doing something else, years and years, without improvement at all; It was all so freakishly absurd, in hindsight. The fact is that I never really liked that place, its rhythms, its values, its people.

Spring, hormones, lots of light and fresh air, I was there in my plaid short sleeve shirt, a bit narrow to show off the biceps, looking smug as a free-range turkey, while my friends kept themselves apart a little, but I didn’t notice. I stood a few meters away, against a column, when the elderly man reappeared.
-Hi! – And again he spoke my name.
I looked at him, amazed, and immediately remembered seeing him nine years before; how can you forget a person like that? He seemed to be wearing the same suit, he was old in exactly the same way, but it couldn’t be!
-Do You remember me? – He asked.
-I don’t! – I replied, pretending the perplexity of those who strive to remember. I do not know why I lied, maybe I was embarrassed to confess to having given some importance to him. He smiled and did not insist, but I had the impression that he knew exactly everything that was going through my head, and that’s why he did not even try to refresh my memory.

This time I spoke with him longer: -How is everything going? – He said.
-Well, I’m not complaining! – That was my favorite phrase, no one ever answers “good”, but the complaints have always annoyed and bored me a lot, so, when I thought about it, I began to always say “I don’t complain” , because, well, well was not going, you could say.
The guy paused, and then said: -See, life is not always easy, but you have to be brave. After all, you have no choice but to move forward, you have to overcome adversity, like, like … like it’s a hard workout! Wouldn’t you try to lift more weight than you did the day before? Never surrender.- he made a strong motion with his arm, clenching his fist, while his fierce face inspired a certain reverence, I must say.
I nodded my head, uncertain what to say. I didn’t understand what he wanted, who he was, how he knew me, and why he cared, but he wasn’t bothering me at all. In fact, I felt “important”; it was unusual for someone to be so considerate, certainly not the custom of the place to be open and friendly, and in fact, people are so proud to be popular because it is not easy.

-I Want to tell you one thing that can be useful- he went on, and I listened carefully: -Be prepared for the worst, but remember one thing, never think that pain, or more correctly, suffering, is a “celebration of love”. This is a stupid idea that only those poor, deficient Christians can believe.-
He said it exactly like that, I remember it word for word, because the reference to Christianity exalted me.
It was the age at which one may discover, and generally misunderstand, Nietzsche, “Ecce Homo”, “Human, All Too Human”, “Beyond Good and Evil” and all that nonsense; religion seemed like oppression to me, and especially the Catholic Christian one, whining, and full of beggars, martyrs, or violent fanatics, bones, sadness, blood, punishment. I couldn’t stand it!
I still can’t stand it, to be honest. Not that anything changed in my mind, but the resentment of being born and raised among “a different kind of Taliban” lessened a bit over the years.

I looked at him with admiration and, being so immature and not knowing what else to say, I exclaimed: -Great! – Lengthening the vowels. He smirked and turned to leave, but added –Get away from this city, it is not for you! –
I asked politely: -I am sorry sir- using the formal title so as not to appear like just another local gym idiot: – who are you, if I may…? How do you know me? – He smiled again as he walked away, and said: -I am a friend, what else could I be? –
-To My father? – I said confused.
-Also! Goodbye.-

I was puzzled. I did the math, nine, eighteen… Once home, determined to get to the bottom of it all, I asked my mother if, when I was born, or in the first year, had she ever come across a tall, elderly, or rather very old, emaciated, but energetic man, with a long, gray beard, shabbily dressed and with a big hat.
-I don’t know- she said: -I don’t think so. But I wouldn’t remember, it’s been almost twenty years, how could I remember?-
-But he is someone that you definitely notice!- I added –He looks like he came out  of the Lord of the Rings! –
-But Twenty years ago he would have been different… When did you see him?-
The objection was more than reasonable, and I did try to explain. This went on for a while, but she said she had never seen a man like that.

Three years later, my brother died in a car accident.  “Prepared for the worst,” I thought. The worst years of my life followed, in which I also made the decision to leave my hometown. I did as the man had advised, even if at first no one was happy.
It could still be just a coincidence, I concluded, although, of course, it was a strange coincidence.

At the age of twenty-seven years old, having lived in Spain for four years, I found the guy sitting at the counter of a bar in Madrid one night. I couldn’t believe it! He was still alive! Still with his large hat. But how could that be possible? Was I hallucinating? Who was he? I was pretty drunk, this time, so I went to meet him: -Sorry, maybe I’m wrong, but, but aren’t you the guy I saw that afternoon in the square…? Are you Italian?-
-No, I am not Italian- he said in Italian: -but yes, we already met each other- and again he spoke my name.
I was shaken: -This is very strange! Is this some kind of miracle! What is going on?-
-Don’t get excited- he said: -Everything is ok.-
-How Did you get here? How old are you? What is this, the Truman Show? Are there cameras? – I realized I was being pushy and rude: -Will you give me some of your advice now? – I said boldly, despite my bewilderment, but trying not to show disrespect to the elderly, who often still hold some authority.
The one smiled and said: -Do you want some advice? –
-Sure! – I said.
-Well, dedicate yourself to what you feel is your passion; you know why? In addition to some legitimate ambitions and personal pleasure, because in every activity that you will do, including the most unthinkable and idiotic ones, you will always end up competing with people who are really passionate, and this will give them a great advantage over all the others, you’d always be a outsider.- He actually used the term “underdog”, but I did not know it back then -Find something where the advantage is with you.-
Or at least that’s what I remember him saying. I have no other memory, he simply disappeared. I don’t even remember if I said goodbye to him.

What I do know is that in years to come, at some point, I wondered if all my efforts in the legal profession were really worth it, if it made sense to insist on something that I wasn’t convinced of at all, or if I was being just stubborn. Did I really want to spend my life repeating theories that, while they might seem wonderfully inspiring to others, didn’t hold any deep meaning for me? Was I there to improve them, change them, replace them? It was all garbage! I was really wasting my time. Here, too, the influence of the old man seemed relevant; I cut all ties with the law and devoted myself to writing.

One evening, however, while on a visit to Italy, I told this odd story to my best friend, thinking he would say I was crazy and in need of medical help. I laid it out in a simple, no-frills way: A strange thing happens in my life, I meet the same person every nine years and he gives me some advice, which in the next years, prove to be crucial to what will happen to me. He has the look of an old man, but he is always the same… and for twenty years now, he’s been like this, never changing, never aging, he reappears exactly as I remember him from the time before.

I thought we would have ventured into psychological theories, dreams, subconscious, phobias, hallucinations, imagination which was implanted as a memory, the trauma of loss experienced in a strange form of schizophrenia, and many poor, but more or less scientific, or pseudoscientific ideas. Instead, he took everything seriously: -A wise old man! – he said, intrigued but perfectly calm.
-What? You actually believe it?! – I blurted, eyes wide with astonishment.

The fact that he could believe a story like that, instead of giving me courage, scared me a bit. I immediately denied that I was telling the truth: -Man, you sure are gullible! How could it ever be possible for someone to see the same mysterious person every nine years, and that a decrepit old man wouldn’t grow even older in twenty years? –
He shrugged in reply: -There are strange things in the universe, you know! What do you know of it, really? – Well, I was missing Hamlet talking to Horace! I thought.
-Yes, But then, what would it be? – I said in a mocking tone, but in fact, interested in knowing what his opinion would be: -Who is that? A magician? Who is he? Gandalf? And why does he care about me? Is it a joke? And why would anyone make a joke like that? It takes years of preparation for nothing! What the hell kind of a joke is that?-
-I don’t know- he said: -Maybe he is a distant relative of yours that keeps tabs on you.-
-If he existed! – I clarified.

When I reached the thirty-sixth birthday, I began waiting for him. I didn’t know how, I had no idea why, but I knew he would reappear. And so it was. I found him as I turned a street corner, on an afternoon like many others, smiling, the same old man, no more unsteady, exactly the same person for whom time seemed not to be a factor.
-You were waiting for me!? Right!?-
We both would have been able to say that sentence, but he said it first. And it was true. I confessed to have waited with some impatience. This time, he had to tell me who he was, the meaning of the story, what the hell was going on.
He vaguely answered: -Let me understand, does it bother you so much to have an ally? One who is your friend?-
-Yes! That is… no! But why?- How, then? It’s not natural thing: -People… people… –
– People die!- He stated bluntly: -Yes, people die, and before they do what they are capable of doing.- He said dismissively.
The fact was that I still felt some respect, and didn’t consider it polite to continue pressing him with my curiosity, even if my questions were more than legitimate, and even though the circumstances were unique, to say the least.
-If you do not want to see me anymore, I will not show up! – He threatened. The thought of that bothered me. In the end, this bizarre situation was so absurd and “miraculous”… it was a huge secret that made my life something different from that of anyone else, even magical. Although I did not believe in magic at all, it was still something unique and exclusive. I felt part of a great adventure, like in a novel, it made me feel… privileged! Even if I also felt I was the wrong person for such a thing. It was wasted on me, a rationalist!

This time he told me that my decision not to have children was for the best, but he also suggested giving a meaning to my life, something greater than passively accepting the idiotic and superficial spirit of the times; it was not for me, to just spend all the time that separated me from the grave between bottles and skirts.
This time I didn’t appreciated the advice very much, and it seemed to me a little offensive. He understood that immediately. We understood each other immediately. I wanted to reply that I… well, I was a thinker of a certain caliber, but it would not have been true, and also I felt that on the subject, I would start a fight with an opponent who was beyond my reach, so I kept silent.
He ended, saying only: -Well, I am not trying to force you to change your life, just do not be afraid of anything, not even to change again, and especially to take some responsibility if the opportunity arises. That’s all! Men who avoid responsibility by principle, muscles or not, scholars or not, are nothing but kids after all!-

Obviously, this time I had the occasion for a change, as well,  and today, for the umpteenth time, I’m glad I listened to his point of view, and that I didn’t succumb to panic when I decided to get married and take care of my wife and her child.
I feel a happy and complete man now, and this is partly due to the mysterious person, who I met most recently at the age of forty-five.

I was in Boston for work, sitting on a bench in a park, watching some ducks floating in a pond, fat by retiree bread, and carefree, lucky them. I heard him coming from behind, and I was almost waiting for him to appear. Same face, same clothing. But not me, I had changed a lot, and now we could almost treat each other as equals. He didn’t give me any advice this time, we had only a brief chat. He was glad to see me well, I was in “good shape”. As always. I looked at him with a smile: -Look who’s talking! An immortal!- He laughed.
-A Immortal- he repeated. And he went, always friendly, always, allegro or perhaps mockingly.

Of this character, over thirty-six years of sporadic, albeit significant, attendance, I have formulated an endless series of speculations, and I’m sure now that, if I get there, I will see him at fifty-four, at sixty-three, seventy-two, eighty-one, ninety, ninety-nine, and, how he seems to be old, one hundred and eight years of age.

I examined all options that could be considered about him, before I thought he was a relative who always pretended to be older than he was, and then, with time, he had become old for real; maybe he was my real father, or perhaps his missing brother, of which no one knew or wanted to say anything. That theory does not hold water at all, as anyone would understand.
Then I thought that the man existed only in my imagination, or in my mind, it was the product of some of my unresolved mental situations, that I was dreaming, but then I remembered him as being very real, indeed.

Perhaps today I would say I think he is a real man, but I cannot be at all certain. I discarded the other theories, and there remained only a few options.
If he were a real man, he could be an alchemist, who found in old age the famous elixir. It is from there, by the way, I got the idea for my unfinished work on ” Immortal Alchemists”, one of the first stories that I wrote.
Supporting this hypothesis is his clothing “magician-like”, that perhaps it is specifically chosen to suggest this conclusion, since in the imagination of fools, magicians, astrologers, sorcerers, alchemists are the same thing, and they all are dressed like Gandalf. But I am not a fool, or not so blatantly, and he seems to know that. And so? I did not know what to think.
Whatever the reason, in this case, why a complete stranger should be interested in me is unclear. However, he is, and that, perhaps, should be enough, as he himself says.

The last time I saw him, however, I perceived something in him that I had never noticed before; I sensed a familiarity that goes beyond that of a jokester relative, deeper, more entrenched. As well as that strange feeling of respect and, at the same time, of extreme trust, a trust taken for granted, that I perceive only when I’m with him.
I feel, in fact, that “he loves me”, or rather he is “rooting for me” and “cares for me”, in a very special way, with very little poetry and idealism, as only one who must see and know everything about you can love you, with the confidence totally devoid of lyricism of one who might, and forgive the expression, “wipe your ass” every day, get you dressed, prepare your breakfast, and who knows perfectly all your virtues, but also all your flaws, imperfections, everything that, as it is with everyone, makes you human, dull, dirty, and even odious, from time to time.

The only person in this position is myself! Am I the only one who loves me with such impatience and with so little emotional impulse, the only one who knows the limits and absurdities of my person, and that nevertheless insists on caring… we are required to! Do we not all take for granted that we love ourselves? We never celebrate this union.

Of course, I also thought I might be a schizophrenic, and at this point, I would be a very episodic schizophrenic, since I never had any other sign of imbalance. In this eventuality, it would probably be a case worthy of a scientific text, earning awards for some psychiatrist.
This, however, is hardly the only conclusion to reach, though possibly the most reasonable from my point of view of protagonist.

That character, that is, myself, probably, may have found a way to come back to talk to himself, that’s all… back in a physical way, since it is not an apparition, but a person who can be touched, that is corporeal.
I don’t know how this is possible. I should be the one to find a way, but still haven’t reached that point.

But what this theory implies is not only that I appear to be very long-lived, but I’ll finish in a rather lamentable state: alone, destitute, malnourished. I really don’t know how that can be possible after having such a valuable adviser and being able to return to speak to myself in the past.
What will happen to me in the future? Is this not a question in everyone’s mind after all? But not everyone has had the fortune to see how they will be in the end, and in my case is not at all pleasant. And perhaps it wouldn’t be in any case.

P.S.
I firmly exclude the idea that the subject can be both me and an immortal alchemist, namely me becoming an alchemist, and moreover, a very successful one. For many reasons, but primarily because I do not believe in, nor do I devote myself to alchemy. But then, too, because if the subject who appears every nine years in my life is myself, it could be that all the appearances are made sequentially from the future in different parts of the past, at the extreme limit of my life, and there would be no reason for thinking that the subject (I) “does not age”.
Data also left vague by the individual.
I would not be, in fact, along the same current timeline, but I should be a time traveler. What is an even more complicated thing to achieve than finding the elixir.

P.P.S.
On assuming that I am long-lived, since I appear to myself as an old man, and therefore I should reach that situation, I also am extremely dubious, due to reasons that every analyst and expert on issues concerning interactions in the past by time travelers knows well, and about which even I am vaguely aware of, but I will not repeat due to my lack of competence in the subject.

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