Gusts Karlsbergs is from Riga, Latvia. He holds a Master's degree in philosophy. Although he has mainly studied philosophy his true passion lies with literature. His literary interests primarily revolve around modern and postmodern literature.
A man lives alone. His wife left him before his beard had started to grey. His children rarely visit. He has only one passion. He collects toys. He's done so for sixty three years. He has a room where he keeps his toys. They are meticulously kept. The room has no windows. It is dimly lit so not to discolour the toys or packaging. The temperature and humidity is well monitored. All the toys are vintage and in mint condition. Most of them are unopened and in original packaging. He keeps them behind a vaulted door. Only he has the code and the key. The man has little money left but the collection is worth millions. "It's all worth it. You will thank me. Those toys will be worth a fortune in a couple of decades. We will all live in a mansion. Then we will enjoy life. You'll see." He said it to his family when they were all still together. It was Christmas morning. He'd given his children toys they were not allowed to open. "Santa wouldn't want that." The same happened on birthdays. If the children received toys and they always did from their father, he stored them in his vault. "Don't worry. You can still see them. That's why we have the window in the vault door."
However the children, who would daily stand on their tiptoes shoulder to shoulder looking sorrowfully at the many toys through the small display window until their little legs tired, grew dissatisfied. They begged their father to let them play with at least one toy, JUST ONE. But he thought it stupid. He tried to explain that toys were means to exploit brainless parents who would buy them to exploit their dumb children, neither aware of the autonomous and perpetual cycle of capitalism that birthed obsession with material goods from very young age never to be let go after. "Toys are dead so they make people dead." But children did not understand him, so he tried in another way. For a whole day he made small cardboard cut-outs from the different figurines in the vault – they were rough representations of the real things. He removed their arms and legs and reattached them with pins and needles so the limbs could move. Then he brought his children in their pyjamas, because it was night and they had been long asleep when he awoke them, to the attic that was far darker than during the day along with the cut-outs and a torch. He assembled the cut-outs in a line along a stage he had prepared beforehand. Then he lit the torch against the tilted ceiling and the cut-outs that stood in the way of the light came alive. He lay behind the stage and moved the cut-outs with his hands, but the children did not see him or the inanimate things, with their mouths agape they gazed at the scene that unfolded on the ceiling.
The skewed shadows, deformed by the corrugated ceiling and the inconsistent shimmer of light, rose one by one, congregated into rows of five or ten or even a larger number despite there not being enough cut-outs yet magically so, until, as if controlled by more hands than just two, with swords and muskets erect over their shoulders or aimed forward as if ready to attack, with flags flailing in a wind that was not really there, with the sound of drums and trumpets that was there only for the children, begun to march in uniform back and forth gradually splitting and arranging into two opposing armies growing larger, denser... a deadly silence ensued... an ephemeral deadlock... the children patiently waited, their eyes glistened... a shot rang out... multiple... then the armies fought with their swords and bodies fell... some stood back up only to circle as if in a wild dance with their swords before falling again never to raise up after and the children applauded and laughed, confused as if unable to differ dream from reality, yet sober enough to hear their father narrate the battle and speak of a general that had never lost: Napoleon... who sat on a large steed remote from the battle giving out orders to the shadows on his side until the distraught enemy soldiers ceased to engage in a battle that was already lost centuries ago and the man then rode through the battlefield on the black steed that seemed to understand the grandeur of the moment and the man on its saddle, the soldiers bowed in front of the man and the steed and jubilated when they had passed them... The children did not know how much time had passed when their father who had reappeared as if from nowhere beckoned them back to their rooms. "What gives us joy are not the toys but what is already within us... our shadows that we must safekeep. The whole world is in our shadows. Never let go of your shadows or you will lose yourselves in the world. Toys try to replicate the shadows and replace them. But we won't let them. Therefore we are above the toys, above the modern world. I purchase them, because I don't need them but I will capitalize on those who think that they do. We will be rich and also free," he explained to them as he returned them where they did not think they had left the very moment their heads touched their pillows.
Just forty six years old, his beard about to grey, he awoke next to his wife unable to get out of the bed. He'd been at home for several years. He had convinced himself that the collection was too valuable to be left alone for too long. Thereafter he had perpetually spent time in his vault simply staring at his toys and only at odd times emerged in the sunlight – pale, dazed and hungry. He rarely spoke anymore and showed great dissatisfaction when he had to see his children who already lived on their own and were the only and rare guests they had. "You're literary turning into your collection! You've become just as stiff as your toys! Where's your pride and freedom you materialist swine!?!" His wife was ferocious as she attempted to dress him that morning. Her words upset him. Eager to spite her and when having regained the ability to walk he began to wake up before she did and prepare coffee for both of them only to spit in her cup but by the time he had delivered them to their bedroom he always forgot which cup was which and, for what he knew, she may have never drunk the tainted cup. For years they had drifted apart, the course never favourable had entered its final phase. The trip was her idea, her attempt to salvage the marriage. Her hurtful words had not yet left him and disposed to prove them false he agreed to accompany her despite unwilling to part from the collection even if for a few days.
They returned to Paris. The spring was in full bloom just like it was the first time they had gone there. They wore the very same shorts and shirts they had worn back then that had now become too small and they struggled to walk. She tried to recreate the past. She wanted her husband she fell in love with back – the man who would teach shadows to their children and not the stiff idiot who resembled the worst kind of person he taught his children to despise. But her attempts were futile. The patterns that were still there were not sufficient to align present with past. He had drifted too far, too many patterns of life had come between them, too many for her to navigate back to him or him to her, so close yet ultimately strangers they walked across the Jardin des Tuileries where he had proposed to her so many years ago, so many patterns ago, a far simpler time with nothing in the way between them, not a single pattern that could set them apart, the sun had been right above them, an instant of time without shadows, just them, truly, "Run!" he had grabbed her hand and they had run as if they could keep pace with earth's rotation, remain directly under the sun, never as if lose their shadows by retrieving them in the sun and in that moment, that in many ways felt eternal to her, she believed they had actually passed the periphery of time. Saddened by the memory she stared at her ever growing shadow, doing nothing about it, just letting it go. "I want to go back. I want to see the store. I won't buy anything. I promise. I just want to see where it all begun." Unable to keep up with the sun they had hid in a toy store just because they happened to stop by one, a mere accident, as a jest he purchased his first toy: a Napoleon figurine. She agreed to return there because she disliked how long her shadow had become in the setting sunlight. She hoped that he wanted the same – to return not because of the toys but to recapture his own shadow just like he had in the past. A glimmer of hope, perhaps, she thought.
Back home after the Paris trip he was reluctant to open the suitcase. He had clutched it in his arms. He was rocking back and forth on the bed repeating the same line over and over: "I couldn't help it." He didn't let her open it. They tussled for it. It flung open. Little French soldiers scattered across the room. The suitcase was filled with nothing but them. "Where are the gifts for the children? Where are our things?!" She was crying. It was her turn to rock back and forth on the bed. "What has happened to you? I don't understand. I don't understand." "Those things were worthless," he stoically responded. "This is one of the oldest collections of the battle of Waterloo." Whilst he collected his fallen soldiers, she vehemently packed her belongings. Before she walked out of the house she turned to him: "At Waterloo he lost, didn't he? And SO DID YOU! Your shadows were no match against the modern world. You shouldn't have been ambitious to conquer both worlds when one was already too much for you. I hope you choke on your precious collection!" She left. His sorrow was mild, passive, captured only by the colour of his beard the following weeks but not expressed by a single tear that night. Perhaps he knew that the past would eventually align with the future.
His children are worried. He's very old. His beard is long grey. They haven't heard from him for several weeks. They all come to his house. Something's wrong. They all feel it. They walk through an empty and dark house. No sign of their father. They call his name but silence remains stout. They come to the vault door. Through the small display window shines light. Inside the vault their father sits on the floor. With a child like grin he plays with his toys. Open packages are strewed across the room. He laughs and makes noises that only a child would know to make. Sporadically he attempts to eat some toys, some are swallowed others spit out. But madness is not alone. His joy is real. A gleeful spark glimmers in his eyes that his children had never seen before. Laughter they had never heard before. Father they never knew or had. With tears in their eyes they bang at the door that is locked from inside. Their father is deaf to their pleas. Thousands of dollars worth of toys are consumed right in front of their eyes. Every toy has become practically worthless. Then he becomes still. His face slowly turns blue. His hands tumble to his sides. Toys fall out of his grip. He looks up to the door where his children weep just like they did when they were young and stood on their tiptoes. A Napoleon figurine is stuck in his throat, only the distraught head of an emperor peaks out of the crevasse. It seems the man recognizes his children. With pleading eyes he mumbles something to them, then mumbles the same thing again and again, words, even if inarticulate, subjugated to eternal repetition seem to escape their intrinsic redundant meaning and reach somewhere further where their true meaning may lie: a world yet unspoken, a world that eludes defining.
Suddenly as if his words had had magical power to gift him immortality the malnourished body jubilates to its feet. With hands flailing, saliva squirting from his mouth and Napoleon's head bouncing up and down as if the emperor were on a wild horse in a hail, he runs amok in the room. An hour or so passes before the fire brigade arrives and opens the door. The man is still deranged but calm. He tired himself to a horizontal position on the floor. For twenty minutes he floated face down in his own drool, only his hands did the occasional flail splashing drool across the walls. The floor is white, slippery as ice, completely soaked in his saliva. His children raise him. They aren't worried about the figurine nor is he. The toy is left in his throat as if his life clung to it. His children rush him outside and push him into a taxi. "It's Santa! Hello Santa!" Their deranged father exclaims. The driver is old with a long grey beard that has wrapped around the wheel. He's trying to untangle it. "Not fuckin' again..." he's mumbling to himself. The whole car is dusty and reeks of mould. The driver seems to have lain in wait for an eternity at their house. Now they've come. "How'bout a flight, dad?" daughter sneers into her father's ear. They all laugh. The loudest is the driver with a distinct ho-ho-ho. Even Napoleon looks content in the rear-view mirror. "Let's bring 'm back," she speaks of the toy. "His life is not yet finished... or yours."
He's on a plane. He has a bucket in his lap. It's practically filled to the rim with his drool. A voice comes on the intercom. He's just half way to where ever he's going. He does not know where. His children never spoke of his destination but he feels as if he had participated in their purpose even if it still remains unknown to him. As the plane begins to descend it dives under and out of the clouds until city lights become visible in the night that had followed him from home. The lights form a familiar pattern that is unique only to Paris just like fingerprints are unique to each person. But the pattern is old. It doesn't exist anymore. But he's not mistaken. It's Paris but from much further past. Instinctively, as if following a familiar routine, he reaches out to take her hand but she's not next to him although the pattern is the same. The whole plane seems abandoned, not piloted but hung in the air as if suspended by a string. There is no one to even take the full bucket off him. It has begun to overflow.
"Nice figurine," the taxi driver speaks in broken English. Besides that the driver doesn't seem too concerned about the figurine that is stuck in his passenger's throat. He doesn't even offer to stop for water. But there was no other driver. And the same felt too familiar to have chosen another. The car looked familiar too. They don't make such cars anymore. Paris looks different, as if taken from a recent history yet despite its maturity seems not aged enough, as if it still had ways to go. The dawn is definitely the very first he remembers from Paris just like the one he photographed when they had just got off the plane, she had stood laughing, making faces in the camera perhaps because her clothes fit her and she wasn't restrained by them. The patterns from the past are everywhere. The purpose is set in the image of the past. There can be no other ending. He need not say a word nor has words left to say. The car rushes along a route that cannot be changed even if he promised more money or put a gun to the driver's head. Everything returns to the past. The windows are open. The sun has finally come fully above the horizon leaving no doubt that the night is over. He leans out of the car window. The oncoming gust of wind rips wide open his mouth and excessive amount of drool bursts out. Drool strings hang from his lips and stretch relative to the speed of the car until the very ends snap off and hit the traffic behind and the drivers frantically honk in retaliation but not much else even after the same strings stretch some more and hit them again. "Pardon!"
He's early. He's in the Jardin des Tuileries. The sun is not yet directly above him. It still has some ways to come. Some clouds have yet to go. He stares at his slowly shrinking shadow. Napoleon's shadow is there too. It is cast by the sun and the toy but not limited by either. It is alive as if on its own accord. The shadow moves more jaggedly than it is moved by the still rising sun or the man. Its frantic movements are reminiscent of its past... any past. With hands flailing the shadow commands troops that are not there. The shadow perpetually re-enacts a past that is greater than that of the object. The shadow hasn't aged any since he last displayed it on the ceiling even though the toy is now chewed up and deformed. In its dancing shadow he can hear his children laughing, their little hands clapping as if they were still in the attic as if he had never set them to sleep. Nothing ceases to exist in the shadow. There are many faces, voices, sounds and words he does not know or recognize – patterns from another time and place, perhaps. Everything has come to a singularity. Napoleon himself is there. It is his shadow, not the figurine's. The whole world has succumbed to his shadow. The children are part of Napoleon's life because they saw his shadow once. A more recent past has invaded an older one. The children have become united with the emperor as much as he has become united with them. The world exists as if backwards... time moves backwards... everything emanates from the shadows. The material transient world has no precedence over the shadows. It can only hoodwink men into preferring it because of its plainness and clarity but no true superiority over the shadows can thus be ever achieved. Not even Napoleon himself is greater than his own shadow nor can his shadow be greater than any other shadow because all shadows are one and the same shadow perpetually redistributed as many. The shadows are at the core of everything, the rest is a mere addendum.
His head suddenly spins. His legs give out. He falls but he can't tell how far... or where. A black figure has eclipsed the sun. He's not sure where he is or who's towering above him. He feels nothing... his body that is... he can't see his hands or the rest of him... he's vanished as if within the body of the figure above. He tries to stand up but there is no way to do it... there never was... not from where he's fallen. He's too far away to ever return upright. Another figure appears above him. It's his wife... not yet that is. He sees her clearly. She's in the sun. He reaches out with his hand that he doesn't have or can see... to take hers... but the shadowy figure does it for him instead. But he can feel her hand as if he was the one holding hers. A brown tress falls over her eyes. It has happened before... many years ago in the Jardin des Tuileries in this exact way... but it is also happening now as much as it did back then. It's not a matter of reminiscence as much as is it is the past lived now... not again but for the first time now... there's just one present, it is now, made now. There would be no memory of the past if he wasn't here now... it is all connected... chronology does not exist where he has fallen. That figure that towers directly above him is he himself. He's in charge of what he now understands to be his own figurine. But he never moves it alone... other movers... puppeteers... are next to him in the dark just like he's become a puppeteer to other transient things as well. He has no precedence over the sum of the other movers... he can only as if follow their path. But it is also his path. He has always belonged to it from the very moment he was first conceived as an idea by his parents... not even born yet. But to have no precedence does not entail to have no will at all. He wants to have his way... to move his own figurine despite the other movers... to have what he came for. The purpose that has led him to this very moment was always there with him from the beginning but hidden, inexpressible with words that were meant solely to express the transient world. He couldn't act upon something that didn't exist for him before. Now there are no words... In the darkness he and the other puppeteers move his figurine so that with a gentle motion it moves her tress to the side.
"Run!" He knows the pattern. He's already lived it at least once before. The same path... perpetually replayed... never to an end. He's running towards the store. He had thought their visit there an accident but nothing's an accident. There's always some puppeteer making the transient world move a certain way. The visit to the store was the indubitable, but not necessarily the true, beginning of his downfall. Everything spiralled out of control from there onwards... regrets built upon regrets... with no escape in sight... but to go as if back in time... beyond time... to rewrite just one moment... this moment... thus rewriting everything. He must move the figurine beyond the point that had led it into the store... move it just one step past the store... take his figurine just for a split moment out of the hands of the other puppeteers. The store is already in sight. The figurine is shrouded in hands... they are jabbing it and pulling it in all directions like vultures set upon a corpse. Most are still moving the figurine forwards but an increasing number of them are already attempting to stop it. The path is known. It will stop where it has always stopped. He sets himself in front of the other puppeteers. It's not difficult to do because he's the closest one to his own figurine although entirely outnumbered by them. He raises his hands that he still can't see but he's certain they're there for the other puppeteers to see as if he's about to command some troops. He musters words that perhaps were said before they were said out loud... he exists long before he died... his words will be said in the future but they have already been said in the past... the cycle has to end... begin anew differently... with his hands raised... gesturing commands... he repeats words that have already been said... he repeats them clear and loud... he doesn't know what they will sound like on the other side... but he keeps going... keeps repeating them... he doesn't want to stop until the desired effect is reached... he repeats them again... and again... and again... louder with each time... clearer... again... and again. He's not sure of his success. He can't tell if they are perhaps still running in the sun or have already stopped at the store. But suddenly he feels faint again. He can feel his limbs move... grow. He stretches as if along the ground... away from the figurine above. It becomes visible... it's not towering directly above him anymore but it still eclipses the sun. He keeps stretching taller and taller... whilst the transient body falls shorter and shorter in the ever growing distance ordained by the sun that has begun to set. At this fading moment there is just one thing he knows for certain. He hasn't let go of her hand.
Back home the children stand amidst the chewed toys. Their father has already been taken away. Although the children are not certain what his last words were, they all seem to have heard the same thing repeated endlessly: