The absolute quiet wakes Simion with a start. Not wanting to let the least bit of heat out of his sleeping bag, he moves very carefully to face the pingo’s door. It looks OK.
The little ceramic heater is clicking its way toward cold.
He makes a minor but critical adjustment to a flap of blanket that covers the back of his head, up to his night toque.
Minutes, or tens of minutes, go by. Simion goes over in his mind what happened during the day; what he could have done better; what he wished he had been quicker about doing; the hot, monstrous mouth that was inches from his neck…
“This is going to be one of those long nights,” he mumbles.
“Dah,” answers Andrei.
“You awake too?”
“Heater wake me. Click, click, click. Never end. Get warm, get cold. You snore. Never end.”
Smiling, “I try hard. Perhaps if I lay on my back I can manage to let out some formidable snorts for you… At least it could keep the animals away.” Simion debates whether he should speak frankly. Something, anything to take his mind off that hot gaping mouth.
“Still here, my friend.”
Pensively, “Good… Do you ever wonder, ah, if people can hear, like, what…” He trails off.
“Like what what?”
“Things have happened to me, sometimes, so that I’m certain that, well, people can sometimes hear some of what I think.”
Andrei tries to remember the word. “Telepathy.”
“Yeah. Probably silly…”
“Know about squid?”
“Eight slithery tentacles; good camouflage; whales consider them a delicacy.”
“Speak with colour. Every cell on skin can change colour and, and texture. When nearby squid look sexy, colour shimmers in pattern. When food come in big bunch, squid tells other squid with shades of colour. When you catch squid for table, turn red ‘cause it mad as hell. Very smart – to control all of skin needs lots of neurons.”
“I didn’t know that, Andrei. I promise, the next time I have sushi, I’ll give it some thought.”
“What about colour-blind squid?”
“What if one squid see no colour? Only grey. This squid see other squid talk and do thing, but colour-blind squid only see grey. Think other squid know what they say ‘cause of telepathy. Must be something like telepathy, ‘cause language of grey say little. Everybody must speak with telepathy, he think. He is wrong.”
Simion is stunned by the analogy.
Andrei carries on, “Is like Asperger symptom.”
“Ok. Ok, but I might have a little bit of that, yes, but why can people hear me?”
Andrei ponders that. “If true, prove. Think word. No – need science study…” He is about to launch into a research proposal.
“Thanks, Andrei, but never mind. I’ve already gone through that at a university. Did an intensive four hours of trying to beam my thoughts at research subjects. Nothing. Then, when the oh-so-skeptical assistant prof was wrapping up and telling me about random chance and probability, and I was so tired I just wanted to go and flake out on a couch, I was thinking, what the hell time is it? And he looks at his watch and says, ‘Four o’clock.’ I asked him why he said that. He said, ‘Because you asked me.’ I said, no I didn’t. The argument went on for a while, but nothing good came of it. So I’ve never brought it up before…”
Now, Andrei is wide awake. He tries to make a conscious effort to not think – which, of course, entails strenuous thinking. Soon he slips back to sleep, exhausted.
Simion ponders the Aspergers analogy. He thinks that it explains a few things… Sleep.
Next morning, Simion is still thinking about the colour-blind squid. He puts it into a letter to Laura. His and Andrei’s letters are saved in a mail packet.
Another listless night for Simion in the pingo. It is warmer, so he rolls over with less care about his blanket.
“Warmer! What’s wrong?” he thinks, sitting up with a start. “The amount of light bleeding in around the door looks ok . Andrei is… breathing ok . Did the weather change?”
Listening intently, he hears nothing out of the ordinary. He settles back down, causing the plywood under his sleeping bag to creak against the gravel.
Andrei’s head turns toward him slowly. “Shto?”
“Nothing. Too warm. It woke me.”
Now Andrei does a perimeter search with his head raised. “Ok?”
“Yeah, I think so. Must be warmer outside.”
“Dah.” He rolls to his other side.
Several minutes pass.
“You’re not sleeping, are you?”
“No, my friend. Adrenalin do good job to keep head spinning. Thank you.”
Pause. He carries on, “Jebem. What is? Smell wood cell burning.”
“Grey cells. Just… thinking.”
Simion sniffs. “About, well, I have this funny way of thinking.” He cuts off Andrei’s retort, “Yeah, and you’re crazy too, but it’s like…”
“Like vodka fog?”
“Shiraz is better for you. No. You know, I have this feeling/idea/certainty someplace in the back of my mind that if I can only take time to drag it out from back there, that there’s something that’ll be really important… That it’ll be an important contribution to how we see our society in the context of why we’re here.” He started slowly but ends with real feeling.
Andrei’s mind is thrown into visions of Paluntov saying the same thing, then he frantically races his mind in a dozen directions at once to avoid what he imagines is “transmitting”. Outwardly, Andrei is tensely stiff, focusing on a sliver of light from the door.
The lack of a voiced reply makes Simion think Andrei is ignoring him.
“Andrei! This is important!”
He relaxes a bit. “Three times important. Good job. Thank you – you make me sleep now.” He produces a snore, wide awake, still on the defensive.
A minute passes.
The effort is exhausting. Andrei rolls to his other side to calm down. He uses Simion’s technique of tossing out a non sequitur. “At night, I wake up sometime and think, ‘Bozhe moi! Is brilliant idea! Have to write idea down! Do in dark. In morning, words and scribble make no sense. Think grand idea in sleep. In morning light is all mish-mush. Mean nothing. Just nice dream… Go to sleep. Have more nice dream.”
Simion shakes his head. “Something weird is going on, Andrei. It’s not like I can hear voices in my head…”
Nodding, “Is good.”
“It’s that I find myself – I don’t know how; mostly when I’m tired – I’m actually inside somebody’s mind…”
Renewed panic scrambles Andrei’s thoughts. Simion waves at a buzzing sound around his ears.
“Is dangerous. Very dangerous, my friend.” Andrei sits up awkwardly, focusing on the outline of light around the door. He pulls his legs from out of the sleeping bag and sits on the box next to his bed.
Suddenly Simion feels a hot panic that he hadn’t felt since the three bullies from the block near his house caught him in an alley contemplating a twenty-dollar bill he’d found outside the local pub.
Heart racing, “What… what do you mean dangerous? Andrei?” Unwelcomed words push forward in his mind: cold death-trap, Russian soldier, rifle, middle-of-friggen-nowhere. He fumbles franticly with his sleeping bag, getting the extra blanket caught around his good arm.
Andrei turns toward him. Quietly, “Stop.”
Simion finally extracts himself, standing and breathing heavily on his side of the beds.
Staring back at the door, Andrei pulls out thoughts he never knew he had.
“Do not know if you hear me in ears or head. No matter – in pingo, in Mofin, attack by bear, we are friend, always.”
He turns again to face Simion. “Have poor English. But need to tell important thing. Man from Oceanographic Institute, Director Paluntov, very smart. More smart than anybody I know. He study philosophy, like you. He know much more.” Andrei smiles kindly at Simion. “Maybe you learn more in future.”
Simion is about to say something but Andrei holds up a hand.
“Paluntov tell me this philosophy very hard for understand. When he say this, I think he joke. Is impossible for simple Andrei to understand. Can say this. Philosophy guys always try understand what means person and what means community. And what connection is.”
Simion lights up. This is his favourite topic, with which he has turned many a party into stone.
“Ok. Like the presocratics, and then Sophists…”
“Only Sophis I know is last name Loren.”
Completely undeterred, Simion catches fire. “So the Greeks started the rational movement by questioning what an individual could do to change the course that their fickle gods had put him on. They came up with the idea that free will was something separate from the will of the gods or even the will of the community. And that it must be some thing that went along with your body but wasn’t really part of your body.”
“Paluntov have same eye like you. See thing not there.” Andrei, at this point, dearly wants to be speak and understand these concepts with Paluntov in Russian. He wants to engage intellectually with Simion, and yet the language barrier is palpable.
“The monotheistic religions…”
Andrei jumps in, “Tradition guys. Close-mind tradition…”
“Ok ok. You’re right. It was the traditionalists in the main religions that always took power away from the thinkers.” Simion shakes his head. “Why do we always end up getting led by closed-minded, as you say, power-hungry people with only enough vision to stay in control! Self-appointed gatekeepers!”
“You read this? My, my teacher say…”
When Simion is excited about a topic he forgets to be respectful of the other’s opinion. “I took this in university. Philosophy, religion, anthropology, biology, psychology, linguistics…”
“All interesting class. Problem I give you at start is why you want to jump both shoes into my mind?”
“If punch face, I punch better. Or put on mask. Can do nothing if you stomp in brain.”
“Huh?” Simion is taken aback, like someone just told him to get his hands out of a lady’s purse.
“Is hard.” Andrei tries to dredge up Paluntov’s argument about free will. “What you think is your private. What I think, my private place. Want no stomp. Want no eyes, comment, troll. Private… Friend tell friend, if want, what private thing is in mind. If not want, must be locked door. Yes-no?”
Chastened, Simion rolls it over on his tongue, nodding as the concept coalesces. “Your private thoughts are… private. We all have those things that we must keep that way. So, as you say, when a friend decides to tell you those private things, it is that person’s free will to do so.”
“Is not free will if someone see everything private. Is dangerous. Get you dead.”
Simion is having an epiphany. Stepping over this line, he looks back to see how blind he has been to people around him. Not simply in the matter of wanting to look into their minds. He sees that he was imposing his own will on them in so many ways, without giving it a thought.
“Respect is at the heart of it.” He nods again. “Everybody has their own private thoughts and their own desires. If they want – if they want – to engage with me as a friend, it is their free will to make that decision.”
They sit on their boxes thinking it over.
Andrei flashes an impish grin. “Not all have enough brain for free will.”