In one of the reincarnation chat rooms I visit occasionally, I asked a question: if I can recognize a man, younger than myself, who played an important role in my previous life, why doesn’t that person who lives again in present time also recognize me? Allowing for differences in manner and style, do we not all return in the same bodies? The answers are various and unconvincing: there’s no guarantee that everyone from one period comes back at the same time with everyone else, He could have lived again in the 19th century. You may be confusing this man with the man you want him to be from the past. Even if he has come back as the person he once was, he may not remember you. It could be that he does know about your past existence and doesn’t want to resume where you left off. Maybe this person also has fragments of recovered memories but chooses to ignore them, putting them down to mere coincidence or déjà vu.

Memories are faulty; memories are sieves, even though we believe our own are real. Time plays tricks with memories. You have to be certain that you remember what really happened to you, just as I am certain about how I lived and what happened to me in the past. The latter answer, spoken by a young woman in California, who remembers her past life as a Carmelite nun guillotined in the French Revolution, struck me as amusing in the extreme. As for memory, yes, it’s faulty and nebulous and we lie to ourselves. My memory of my neighbour, however, is now hard and clear like a marble sculpture of an armed Praetorian Guard. It’s as real as the scar on his muscled thigh and the various boots he wears. If his sword penetrated my flesh, even in fantasy, I would bleed.

No help to be found on the Internet, I am nonetheless determined to make him acknowledge my existence and lead him back to those times when he wore a red-crested helmet and made me shake in my sandals. Engaging him in conversation is unlikely. If he’d invited me into his condo, I could see if it contained secrets that would unravel the mystery of his past like a scroll in a chest. If I could enter his condo during his absence, then I’d be free to look around, to fondle his clothes and caress his boots, certain of finding necessary proof. When I wake up after another dream-wracked night, it’s hard to decide what to do with myself; if I can’t follow my neighbour, or if I have no medical appointments to keep. I am marooned in my present life without purpose.

A few days after the hardware store, I once again follow Marc to the train station, the young lady not with him this time. I board several metres behind my neighbour. Keeping my head down, wearing a new mask imprinted with the image of a Roman eagle and a dark blue hoodie, I am convinced he can’t know me. Most of the time he’s fixated on his cell. Passengers are still few in number, so there are many empty seats. At the hospital I can’t follow him because I have an early appointment with the oncologist in the opposite direction.

With any luck, I’ll see Marc in the cafeteria, I think, even as the doctor once again goes through the chemotherapy protocols. I want very much to establish my claim on my neighbour, or to re-establish what we lost so long ago, to confirm his ownership, before any ill effects of my treatment begin. I still have energy. I still have capabilities, my age notwithstanding. I can please; I can serve. I can polish his helmet and sharpen his sword and wait for his pleasure, or pen letters to Rome with the stylus I remember keeping in an intricately designed box fashioned from the cedars of Phoenicia.

The news from my doctor is not terribly good; it’s not good at all. It’s not clear to me if going back in time would eliminate my current health issues. No longer frequenting the reincarnation chat rooms, I’m not inclined to ask anyone about the transference of illness from one century to another. In any case, I have no idea how to go back. I have yet to discover a magical doorway; I don’t live in an H.G. Wells novel or a movie about time travel. I need to deal with what I have in the here and now. What would be the point, if it were possible, if my neighbour also didn’t return to ancient Rome and took charge of me once again?

The quandary is more than I can muddle through, so I pretend the only problem is my neighbour’s lack of acceptance and recognition. I go to the hospital cafeteria and wait for him while I nibble at a ham sandwich and drink black coffee. Most of the time I don’t eat much, my appetite diminishing daily. He’s wearing the regulation blue and white hospital mask when he appears. On his way to the food counter, he pauses almost directly in front of my table and takes his phone out of his jean pocket. Keeping my head down, I am nervous. Suppose he finally recognizes me? I can of course explain that I had an appointment, but I prefer not to.

He is so close I can smell his strength, an enticing odour that unaccountably leads me to imagine a blood-soaked earth. He’s wearing military-looking boots the colour of desert sand. I also catch the sight of a gold-and-silver signet ring, which I had never noticed before. I can make out the image: stylized, miniature eagle wings and thunderbolts, and what looks like a shield or chariot. I make no move as he pockets the phone, quickly glances at my table, and moves on to collect a tray. Leaving mine on the table, I find my way out of the hospital and back to station in time to catch the last train home before noon.

Early next morning, Saturday, washed and prepared, my ear pressed to the front door listening for sound, I hear Marc. I meet him in the hall, both of us masked and dressed for the cool, last day of October. Occasionally someone else wants to use the elevator, but we have it to ourselves again. I covered my face with a brand new mask as red as blood, and Marc wears a coal black one, snugly fitting over his chin, cheeks and nose, with a silver aquila, the Roman military eagle, imprinted on one cheek.

He doesn’t acknowledge my presence, not even a good morning, and I keep my eyes down, again noticing the ring, and his black boots and momentarily imagine that in summer he must wear shorts and sandals, perhaps sandals with laces wrapped around his calves like a legionary. In the elevator, I stand in a corner as if being punished, and he positions himself directly in front of me, making it impossible to move without pushing into his back, his black leather jacket exuding a faint animal smell. In the lobby I pretend to open my mailbox as I wait for him to walk out, but pause momentarily because he looks quickly behind, as if he is searching for me, before going out the door.

I follow him, not to the plaza this time, but several blocks to the semi-wild park. For some reason, neither one of us removes his mask. It is called Parc Charles de Gaulle, in honour of the famous President of France who during his visit to Quebec proclaimed Vive, le Québec libre to an enthusiastic crowd, but I can’t help remembering Caesar and his armies in Gaul. I had my students translate passages from De Bello Gallico, especially the part where he boasts and probably lies about the number of Celtic warriors Roman soldiers slaughtered. I thought they’d be motivated by violence and bloodshed. I could have driven to the park, but I think a slow-moving car keeping pace with a pedestrian would be too obvious. Anyway, exercise is good for me. I need to build up my strength for what’s to come.

The wind is sharp and shivers the bones. The hoodie also helps keep me warm. No one else seems to be around. If he turns, he will see me. I don’t wish to hide. It is, after all, a public park and I could, if asked, simply say what a coincidence that we have both walked to the park this morning. Let’s walk together, I’d say, and chat through our masks about COVID-19 and when it will all be over and things will return to normal. He quickens his pace in black military boots, and I try to pick up speed in my thick-soled, orthopaedic running shoes, but he’s is swift, as swift as the god Mercury who escorts spirits of the dead to the underworld.

I am breathless, an old man winded by racing after strength and vitality. He slips into a copse of trees where, moments later, I follow. As if completely abdicating all sense of discretion and secrecy, I want him to stop, turn and do something to me. Amidst the cedars with brown branches suffering from winterkill, weedy Norway maples and slippery elms, I lose him, the chain no longer pulling me. I cannot go back, I cannot do anything except stay, as if silently commanded to do so.

There are paths between the trees going in three different directions. One path leads to children’s play area with swings built out of hideously coloured plastic, and one path leads to a forest of several acres through which one can meander. It has a reputation for secret and various couplings, some of which I have spied upon. A murder occurred here last year, a man found with his head bashed in as if hit repeatedly by a club. A third path leads to the scaled-down imitation of the Trevi fountain surrounded by picnic tables, although they drained the pool last year. Two weeks ago I saw the same withering leaves, plastic bottles, fast-food wrappers and used condoms. Sweat trickles down my temples and behind my mask, which I take off and gasp, my lungs hungry for breath.

At that moment, Marc looms in front of me, appearing taller, his dark eyes over his black mask penetrating me. How odd, I think, that we both wore masks outside. I step back, shaken, nervous, unable to speak even though I have been longing to say the right words to him. His jacket is open, revealing a black T-shirt imprinted with a white fist clenched in the sign of victory. I believe he can read my mind. I no longer have to pretend. He has ineradicable power over me. There’s no need for words now. The hand with the ring tightens into a fist, and if Marc strikes me, he will draw blood. The other hand touches his black belt with a silver buckle that in my confusion looks like the helmeted head of a battle-scarred gladiator in the Coliseum. Right here, on this spot, he could pummel me.

He could ram his sword into my soft belly, another, disposable victim in the arena or ancient Gaul. Certainly, he can give me a well-deserved whack with the back of his hand. Or belt me until I cry for mercy. My body tells me to prepare for the assault. I sense this has happened before, that somewhere, sometime, he has taken out his rage on me. As if chained, I remain fixed to the spot, unable to move without his permission, and raise my eyes heavenwards where I think an eagle screeches in flight. There are no eagles in this part of the world but the screech tears into my brain like claws.

Excitement and fear surge through my veins. He knows; he must know. Bracing myself for the first blow, I wonder what it will be. Will the force of it knock me down? Will I grovel before his boots, which at last I’d be able to touch, or will he press a boot against my head in the muddy path? Will my blood flow? For several minutes he stands, dark like a powerful phantom in the shade cast by the trees, and behind him I see an old couple with an unleashed dog strolling in our direction. The sign at the park entrance clearly states that dogs must be leashed. Leashes are good, necessary for proper training. Instead of striking, Marc motions for me to follow him, to keep several paces behind, and I do so, unable to refuse, avoiding the couple’s dog that is now sniffing around my shoes.

I keep my distance all the way to the condo lobby. In the elevator he stands for the first time facing me and keeps me locked in his gaze. I can’t look away, nor have I put my mask back on. My entire body shakes.  All present considerations of my life vanish as if they don’t really exist. My head spins from the smothering odours in the confined space: leather, sweat, dust, blood, and aftershave lotion. It drums with the noise of chariots colliding, spears entangling, and the clatter of a general’s armour as he, thrusting a fierce sword towards my throat, forces me to my knees to beg for my life. The elevator door opens and he turns without a word. As if dragged behind with a leash firmly attached to a collar locked around my neck, I follow, my mind devoid of argument or protest.

Removing his mask, he unlocks his door. He enters and leaves without looking at me or tugging the leash. I pause on the threshold, uncertain about what to do. Is he inviting me in? My heart skips between terror and joy. The light in his condo at first seems cloudy, seeping through fog, rendering shapes indistinct. I can’t make out what I see, but the light changes and becomes brighter and blinding.

I hear cries of a distant battle; I inhale the dead air of a tent; I smell animals and sweat. I want to remove my clothes, ill at ease in modern dress. Words, words, spoken in a foreign tongue, words I remember. I don’t know what to do, unable to cross the threshold, unable to retreat, as if waiting for the right command. And then, from the depths of the golden light, from the midst of commotion, the liberating voice of Commander Marcus erupts: “Enter, slave.”

I obey.


For all installments of “The Commander,” click here.

Previous installments:

  1. Part 1
  2. Part 2