The world is not a skeleton. It does not ache bone-deep with our atrocities, nor is it fragile and ready for the breaking. It knows nothing so human, except perhaps to forgive our pride. Let me explain:
Young, I am a bright star with small, pudgy hands for guiltless flower-crushing. Before even that, I am a wispy squall for food, unused to knowing anything but myself, and warmth, and hunger.
The concept of a hero is a natural progression from understanding speech. I am Me. I am the one all the stories talk about, born special, to whom both innocence and wisdom are possible. I am so great a part of my own self that I do not know it can be detached.
I am eleven, narrow-boned and alone in the red earth, when I first feel it.
A seagull slews out of the bright sky and pegs its beak to the stones, draws it up wriggling. I watch its gullet bob. My hand floats up to mirror the lines of its head against the air. There is a cry, and its eye is a pond of yellow fire staring at me, the air a storm of white with its wings until it is nothing, a paint-smudge in the clouds. My fingers are left folded in clumsy imitation while the trees shake farewells out of their branches.
I tell my father about it, later, and then I understand: that he does not see it as I did. That he never will, and I do not have the words to tell him.
His hand is large enough to cover two of my own. I try to put my fingers round his. I try to feel what happened into him, like in the stories, and his laugh is a blanket between us, teaching me isolation. I have a self that no-one else will ever know, and part of it belongs to the seagull that no-one else saw.
From that epiphany it is easy. As a child alone in my secret places, I do not see my self as alterable; rather, a communication with the woodland caves and seaside dens. I am Me, and even if there are things I can never share, I am going to be admired, loved, and nothing the world has ever seen.
A bird-bone stranded in the sand gives me a metaphor. I am a needle and thread, stabbing Me bright into the skin of the earth. Later, I think that I did not mean to be careless about it.
I grow, of course. I come to know unkindness.
The day I see soldiers dying on the news is a day full of bright, clean air, and there is no rain mourning them. They go down in mud browner than their splattered combats and dark enough to absorb their blood, faceless to the camera, toy figures ending for the sake of my compassion.
I spend three hours on the hilltop by my home, and it is well-paid time for the way it changes me. I am still going to be a hero, but of a different kind. Older now, I cling to the great thinkers and catalysts of history and wish for wars, mysteries, carnage to prove my own quiet strength. I am going to save thousands of lives. I am going to trail joy wherever I go. A nonconformist, a truth-teller, I will have answers even for the things that seem insoluble in stories. A cloud drifts across my hilltop, agreeing with me. I am just thirteen years old.
How easy it seems.
I love freely, and gather layers – people, stories, music, ambitions – as protection against the sense of my self. Being made of things that only I have seen all of, it has pulled away from the person I am to others, and so I am no longer sure of Me. It is a shadow following, guarding my sins and fears.
When it comes too close, I turn my tastes to naďveté in defiance. The false innocence of rainbow crayons, grass-stained knees and minimalism is enough comfort; enough, too, that I think myself unique for it.
Perhaps it begins – or ends – when I make a mistake that is not fixable; or when I understand that not everything has an answer. It is a kindness to myself, or a safeguard against suicide, to believe that the fault is the world's rather than my own. The world, or what I know of it, has never seemed so generous as when I claw at its sky and scream about injustice. Rocks and trees have long been mute to us, but I imagine they are saying, I know. I know.
I cannot hide from my self. It comes to me, not as a realisation but as a grim conquest of innocence, that there is something dark and satisfying in using words like knives, sharp and perfect on their target. Of eyes gaping and mouths gulping and tears, of the thrill in winning and hurting; this is the self I have grown into. This is the nebula everyone finds on their virtue, inexorable.
So I give up being a hero in the face of my own deficiencies. That is personal. For appearances' sake, it is a segue into adulthood. I search for the failings in everyone to make my own more bearable; it is easier, now, to identify with flawed heroes. Perfection is a distant and abandoned dream.
There is a day when I think of the needle on the beach, and hindsight gives me this gift: I did not discover it. It was simply there. Then I realise that I have been sewing my presence nowhere, only been sewn upon.
It is a Tuesday. I steal a moment of breath, and watch reflections swaying on the airport tiles, and life does not stop for me. Life jolts and wobbles on the board in neon lights and flights from Chicago to Madrid. Constellations. So I go on, too.
One day I will fall apart. The essence of my self will drop out from around me, my skin will sag, and my bones will break; and I will be lying burnt out with no knowledge of anything but myself, and cold, and quiet.
I would like to think that the world will give a little sigh, that the sky will be quieter, and the stars one greater for the soul that has passed on, but I am, if nothing else, important enough to deserve punishment for my hubris. For the world is not a framework holding the wishes of people. It is not even a myriad of our souls; as each person can only know their own, it is also something beyond imagining.