It is on one of our immeasurable miles together that ‘our journey’ ceases to exist, returning to its singular, exclusive form of ‘my journey’. I explain that it is nothing personal.
Together, we have gone from North to South to East to West of the 243,610km2 that makes up the area of the United Kingdom; we have drove down A-roads and motorways and dual carriage ways and over bridges and under passes; we have walked down country lanes and crawled through forests and ran through shallow rivers and climbed higher than any motor vehicle could take you.
We have seen the views, we have cried, joyous and out of breath, we have clung to each other out of happiness and fear and devotion and cowardice.
We have done all this, and it has not been enough.
We have sailed, from France to Norway to Finland to Greenland. Above crashing waves and through seas filled with graceful pods. With thunder as our bass, rain as our marching band and wind as harrowing vocals.
From Turkey to Islamabad, Argentina to Egypt. Nigeria. Thailand. Romania. Belarus. China, Japan, the Philippines, Australia. India, America, Canada.
From the highest points to the lowest; snowy peaks to damp crevices, caves that flow beneath and within.
Deserts that lie barren and wastelands that ring full, rainforests that buzz with an explosion of all the diversity life has to offer. Glaciers and valleys, gulfs and peninsulas, coral reefs and volcanoes.
I have many favourite places, and a multitude that I shall vow to never return to.
Nothing satisfies me. Fleetingly, at each new destination, I feel the same thing: this is it. But then the moment is over, the glamour fades, and I realise that this isn’t it. And my journey begins anew. I do not know what I am looking for, I do not know where I shall find it; but find it I shall, come hell or high water, rain or shine, life or death.
She tells me, before departure, that she hopes I will find what I am looking for. I assure her that I won’t.
For the most, I travel in silence. I record my findings, my viewings; on paper, electronically. With both photos and video recordings, paintings and postcards, tacky souvenirs and stolen pebbles.
I walk for kilometres and I sit for hours, I listen to everything and I hear nothing. I search for colours and I find darkness, I revel in the solitude and I long for company. I trek and I run and I walk and I fly; I crawl and I leap and I fall and I cry. I smile and I laugh, I scream and I yell.
I visit monasteries and temples, old and new, ruined and refurbished. I stroll amongst the living and I glide amongst the dead. I stay in ghost towns and I pass through thriving metropolises.
I taste animals and plants I have never heard of, I am subject to flus and viruses not native, I learn words and dialects that sound so painstakingly foreign that I fall in love instantaneously. But still, it is not enough.
I sleep on the ground and I sleep in beds, under nylon covers and silken sheets. Under the pitta-patter of rain and comfort of gentle winds. I wake to vicious tornadoes and glowing serenities; I smell foul odours and sweet aromas, I sweat and I bleed and I ache.
And then I end up at the Ear of Dionysius, Sicily. It is a pull that drew me here, one that I did not notice until I was staring at the sign for ‘Uscita’, and knowing, without a hint of doubt, that I was heading for closure. For the exit.
The Ear is nothing special. It is a limestone cave, it tells the story of hardships gone by, of duty and imprisonment.
No one speaks, people dare to move. Footsteps resonate like gunshots, words like avalanches. One too many, and the walls will come crumbling down.
She is standing at the far end, below where the ceiling tapers like a teardrop. She is not looking up; but at the wall, as though reading inscriptions and imagining battles and raging wars inside her head. Her hair is pulled back into a pony tail, and for a moment, I stop and stare. The wind stays stagnant, the climate warm.
Her shoes are the same worn out and scraggy boots that she wore the day she walked away from me; or, more accurately, the day I asked her to walk away from me. Her clothes are new. It is a backpack I have never seen before, one that is slightly bulkier and a deep shade of violet, resting like an appendix draped to her spine.
I look at her, and the glamour stays.
“Natalia,” I whisper. She turns not toward me, but finally up to the ceiling, and even from this distance, I see the smile upon her lips.
I tell her my journey is over. It is what she has been waiting to hear.