Once upon a time there was a man who had too many thoughts. He had so many thoughts that he didn’t know what to do with them. He piled them up until his head was fit to burst. He tried to forget about them by diving headfirst into his work. But at the end of the day, when the man looked up from his work and saw that he was the only one left in the office, the thoughts woke up and danced, fought, yelled so loud that it drove him crazy.
One evening, while he was driving home from work, the thoughts were battling so violently that he took the wrong turnoff by accident. The unfamiliar route led him through a dense forest to a lake. It just lay there; round and still. The trees shielded the lake from the wind so that there was not a single ripple on the water.
The man got out of his car and walked to the edge of the lake. When he looked down, he saw his mirror image looking back at him. He bent down and placed a hand on the cheek of his reflection. The mirror rippled when he touched it, but he didn’t move his hand away. The water was cool and gentle. It was calling to him.
He took his shoes and his grey suit off and stepped, stark naked, into the lake. Ripples spread out from his body across to the other side of the lake. The man didn’t stop to think about what he was doing, he couldn’t; his head was so full that not even one more thought would fit.
He kept walking until he was barely able to stand anymore. The sun was slowly setting and the sky above was painted with every colour from orange to purple. The trees around him blended into a dense, black mass. He turned onto his back, shut his eyes and floated. He couldn’t say how long he’d been in the water, but when he woke up, his head was clear.
The next day at work, the man felt rejuvenated. He’d forgotten what it felt like to just turn on his computer, without feeling like he had to keep his nose to the grindstone. The mountain of paperwork actually seemed to shrink as he started working on it. Thoughts would crop up, but not too many and his head wasn’t too full.
But the new thoughts wouldn’t leave. The man piled them up and after a few weeks he suddenly found himself by the lake once again. He didn’t hesitate, immediately undressed and slipped into the water. This time he kept his eyes open, and while the night sky above him changed colour, he felt the thoughts sinking out of his head, one by one. When he was back on dry land, he breathed in and out and in and out. Like nothing had happened.
From then on, he went back every few weeks. Each time, the thoughts emptied out of his head. They stayed at the bottom of the lake, twitching but too weak to swim to the surface. He kept going back, even as winter approached and the water grew colder. Only when a layer of ice covered the lake did he give up and stay on the shore.
The winter was short compared to previous years, but not for the man. He worked harder than ever, trying to block out his thoughts. But the longer his days were, the worse the yelling and dancing in his head got in moments of rest.
As soon as the snowdrops had fought their way through the frost, the man drove to the lake. The cold stung his skin and froze his toes, but the water swallowed him up. As soon as his head hit the surface, the thoughts began to drain away.
At the bottom of the lake, the old thoughts were fast asleep. They’d hardly been able to move all winter, but the arrival of the new thoughts woke them up. They swarmed around in circles, turning the bottom of the lake into a billowing cloud of mud.
They struggled harder and harder and all of a sudden shot up, to the man’s body. They grabbed hold of his chest and legs. The man tried to break free, but it wasn’t enough. The thoughts clung to him. They felt dark and sharp, just like they had when they were in his head. He thrashed about, looking for something to grab on to but all his hands could find was an oak leaf. Before he had realised it, he’d grasped it. He managed to take one last gulp of air before he was dragged under.
The cold, which had offered him a tingling welcome just moments earlier, suddenly pierced his lungs. The man couldn’t see anything, the thoughts barricading him in. He couldn’t grab hold of anything, no matter how hard he fought against them. They whirled around him, too fast, too loud to tell one thought from another.
He pressed his hands against his ears to block them out, and then he suddenly felt, between the palm of his hand and his cheek, the oak leaf. He pictured the leaf spending the entire autumn and winter watching his brothers and sisters fall, until he was the only one left hanging. He’d clung on, until the very last, perfect moment.
The leaf was scratchy but still the man relaxed. He let the thoughts whirl while he sank deeper and deeper. He waited until he reached the bottom and pushed off. With the last of his energy, he swam to the surface.
The thoughts didn’t follow.
The man who hauled himself to shore was hollow. An empty shell. He couldn’t remember how he got home. He was so ill that he couldn’t work for a week.
As soon as he felt better, he got the oak leaf framed. He kept the frame on his desk. He often looked at it before a performance review or when one of his colleagues bragged about quarterly reports or a new promotion.
He kept away from the lake.
The man had hoped that the sinking would have changed something inside him, but it was so easy to get carried away. The days went by, one after another, just like they’d always done and his head got fuller and fuller. After six months he looked at the oak leaf and saw nothing. Just a shrivelled, brown leaf in a far-too-expensive frame.
That was just before the rain began.
No one had predicted the rain, it just came. So violently that it was as if someone had hacked a chunk out of the sky so that all the rain that would ever fall came down all at once. The man cupped his hands and stuck them out of the office window. It was full to the brim in no time.
He brought his hands back inside and looked at the water, how it rippled slowly and then eventually stood still. A wave of desire washed over him. He bent forward and pressed his face into his hands. The water fell to the ground, trickled down the back of his neck, into his suit. He quickly straightened up and looked around to see if anyone had seen him.
On the day that it finally stopped raining, the man looked out of his bedroom window and saw that the other side of the world had been cut off. The water wasn’t draining, the rivers had burst their banks and the water lay still, in the streets. Only the tops of the houses and trees were still visible.
The man screamed, wished that he could press the oak leaf to his cheek. But the frame was still on his desk, and between him and his desk lay the water.
He gathered his thoughts and looked around. He couldn’t stay here, in this house that now had no bottom floor. There was no other option. He got dressed and tied his briefcase to his ankle with a necktie. Then he opened his bedroom window and lowered himself into the water. It was cool and gentle, just like the first time in the lake. He swam carefully, not wanting to let his head dip under the water. Everything went reasonably well, every now and then a wave would come and take a thought from him.
He reached his office and did what he had to do. When he was back home that evening and his suit was hanging out to dry, he had already made peace with his new situation.
From that day forward, the man swam to work everyday. He tried to fight against the water, but sometimes he surrendered himself to it and would just turn onto his back. One leg sank a little deeper thanks to the weight of his briefcase, but he kept on floating. Alone, while his thoughts sank to the bottom.
The man thought that if he kept drifting from place to place and left his thoughts somewhere new each time, it might be for the best. Or even better still, he thought sometimes, what if he swam away. Just left and never looked back…
But these thoughts eventually left his head too, and sank.