He was a prince in his own palace. That was what I thought the first time I went to see him, in the old colonial style mansion, deep in the heart of the garden district, where he lived. I stood at one end of the huge hall and he at the other. And he introduced himself rather ponderously, with a regal formality which could not fail to amuse.

Even then I knew better than to show it. There was something in his face which forbade all laughter, which even frowned on smiles, and I did not want to risk losing his regard before I had gained it. He had very large, very clear grey eyes, and when they fixed on me, even at a distance, I was subdued into a kind of obliging readiness to do his will.

I remained where I was and he came down the hall towards me, with his characteristic gliding walk, dressed in the blue tunic and trousers he always wore; and he held out his hand, which was unexpectedly cool. His face was unmarked, and it seemed to me even then, not entirely human. He had what I thought of, without prompting, as an unearthly beauty.

I had been told that he was difficult to be friends with, difficult to know. I have to say this was not my experience. There sprang up between us an almost immediate trust. And yet for all that we shared I cannot claim really to have known him, who did not more than partially know himself. There was always about him something unknowable.

Perhaps it was my status as perpetual foreigner which attracted him from the beginning, from that first walk around the garden during which he so endearingly held me by the hand and won, I think, a part of my heart which had never yet been conquered, some tender place which until then I did not know I possessed. And what a paradise that garden was, with its vines and roses in the cool courtyard, the fountain which ran from the mouth of a stone fish, and the live gold ones swimming in the pool below; a place where it seemed anyone might have been happy, but where he, for such unaccountable reasons, was not. So that when he asked me to tell him about my travels it was with real interest, as one who not only shared my sense of displacement but who actually believed I might have journeyed all this way just to encounter him. And I could not help being filled, as he was, with a feeling that we had been meant for each other.

I think it was at this initial meeting that he confessed, quite frankly, that he was prepared to learn whatever I had to teach, but only on the condition that I was ready to learn from him too. There must be no false hierarchy in the relationship. His imperious manner made me smile inwardly, but I agreed without hesitation. I said that I fully expected the arrangement to be reciprocal. I only hoped he did not expect me to refund my fee.

The solemnity with which he nodded approval on this made me think that he must have lived a life entirely without humour. That was when I began to feel truly sorry for him. The air of sadness which hung around him was almost palpable. When I held his hand it communicated itself with mournful, teasing insistence.

But he expected no sympathy. Before I left that day I was requested to sign a Draconian business contract. I went away feeling a little angry. The next time I saw him he was sucking up melted ice cream through a straw, in the huge upstairs room where he spent most of his hours because, apparently, the weather hardly ever suited him. It was not a scene calculated to reawaken my more tender feelings. The windows were all closed and the room was unbearably stuffy. He sat at a low table at the far end, and I waded towards him through a sea of flung clothes and discarded objects, banging my knee against a priedieu. He watched me through one eye and said not a word. A maid in a black uniform was standing next to him with a tub under her arm, adding, at intervals, another scoop of ice cream to his bowl; and she too watched my approach as though I had just landed from a distant planet.

While I waited for him to acknowledge me I took in the full awfulness of that room, in which perhaps his whole life was contained, from the bottle he had sucked on as a baby to the shoes he had discarded last year, and in which the sheer squalor expressed so much that could not be said about his existence. Later he would tell me that the servants were forbidden to touch anything, apparently because it was in his own interest, but this was one lesson he had never learned. In fact it had become a matter of principle to let the chaos accumulate. Nothing he had ever possessed had mattered to him one iota. He had paid a momentary attention to things and then thrown them down, and that was where they lay for ever broken and finished with. But I was shocked to find other evidence of his strange detachment, the rotting food and soiled items scattered amongst the debris, to which he and even the servants themselves, from long custom, had become quite oblivious.

Yet it was my duty to ignore these things, to focus only on him, in whose curiously vacant face I could read nothing but ignorance, bewilderment, an appeal which did not know how to frame itself; whose large eye seemed to challenge me and then, coolly lowered, did not seem to care.

I remember I followed him down the long corridor topped with heavy cornices to the old brown verandah at the back of the house, a glassed-in verandah where they used to hang the washing but which became our place, with a chipped table and a couple of chairs, and a bit of a breeze which blew in the afternoons. He was like a long-term invalid leaving the sick room for the first time, cautious and careful of his lungs, covering himself up, though I knew there was nothing physically wrong with him. It was there that he described to me, piece by piece, his partial sense of who he really was: not this person he appeared to be, of course, but something quite other; and his absolute certainty that he did not belong in this place. It was not a matter for question, as I found out very quickly, but, so far as he was concerned, a rather mundane matter of fact, and the fundamental reason for his strangeness.

All this emerged somewhat haphazardly and without drama. In fact, for a long time he seemed more interested in talking about my past than about his own. I sensed from the beginning that he expected me to know instinctively what he himself was barely able to tell me, both from its being inexpressible and also from a kind of embarrassment. And the truth is that I did know, I did feel it, though I also could not put it into words. If I had attempted to do so I would have thought it ridiculous, and as I soon discovered, that was his inhibition too.

Harsh experience had made him cautious, and he had good reason to be afraid of laughter. That was why he did not say a great deal. Perhaps even I listened with too much patience, for he would break off, on the edge of confessing something, and pay renewed attention to our game of chess; and a faint line of frustration would appear between his nearly invisible brows.

But I did not bother to protest my belief in a melancholy which was so obvious, nor could I deny that I was deeply affected by his alien state. At the end of our session I would let myself out of that house, which was always oddly deserted yet where one felt perpetually watched; I would be chilled to the bone, and it was not until I returned to the normality of the streets that I realised what kind of weird influence I had been under.

Occasionally, too, I would go in search of Mrs. Mendoza, along numerous immaculate and empty passageways, finding her more by instinct than intention, for the house seemed endless, big as a ship and just as complicated, studded here and there with odd busts and religious paintings, like a gallery no-one ever visited. I would find her tending her plants or arranging flowers, or looking businesslike behind a large desk, and always in a room I had never seen before: some perfect room decorated in oyster pearl or forest green, with long windows reaching to the floor, and an air of timeless, undisturbed gentility.

She would smile at me sometimes and sometimes not, for she was not generally pleased to see me. She would make no enquiries, but wait for me to speak. For if she lived in the bow of the vessel, he was in the stern, and she did not particularly wish for news from there. I believe they met occasionally amidships, in the dark baronial dining room I had glimpsed once, hung with hunting regalia, but these encounters she kept to the minimum. They must have been awkward affairs. While I talked she half-listened, or perhaps did not listen at all, but kept her head cocked prettily and shuffled some papers; and afterwards she would repeat whatever she usually repeated, that Jacky was moody, that Jacky was difficult, that Jacky was always accustomed to be strange. Perhaps I too did not listen, or did not believe her, which was why we were doomed to replay, as though for the first time, the same unreal performance in so many different rooms.

I would walk away from those meetings angry and disturbed, disturbed at her detachment, angry at myself, for failing once again to convey the seriousness of my concern. For it would be almost certain he was not eating again, or not getting out of bed, or on the other hand not sleeping, but sitting up all night staring at the moon. That is why they call it lunacy, the maid once had the insolence to tell me. He is not mad, I very sternly replied. She shrugged her shoulders. It did not matter to her whether he was mad or not; she had her own opinion. But she would pass me on the stairs sometimes, carrying a mess of slops, and when I asked to examine it would answer: I am not supposed to talk to you about that. So that I became convinced there was some kind of conspiracy I was not allowed to enter, which prevented my ever truly helping him.

It was a matter of common knowledge, after all, on the street, in the neighbourhood, that that Jacky Mendoza who lived in the big house, the last of an old family who never showed his face, was touched – 'touched,' as they called it – though touched by what, they could only speculate. Nor did I know what invisible wing had brushed him, though I might have guessed sometimes, on the nights we sat up gazing at the stars from the big window of his dressing-room. Then the cold light, marking the hollows of his face, seemed to make him something ethereal: he would meditate on the planet lost in space, the people riding it, gaily almost, almost oblivious, ignorant of where they were speeding to. Their complacency struck him as nearly incredible. Clinging to the bars of his iron bed his knuckles were white, his expression a silent scream. He appeared to me then as one who might fly off, spinning, into the universe, from sheer inability to stand the pace, like a child flung off from a playground whirligig.

Perhaps it is moving too fast for you, I said. He agreed that he did seem to find it difficult, and that the air, too, did not breathe well for him; that the weather was always too warm and the atmosphere too dense, and the scent of some bush, growing in the garden, made him feel as if he would suffocate. Those times, also, when he rejected his meals, it seemed that all food sickened him; the thought of eating was utterly disgusting. Even when well he could only take those slops and messes they boiled up for him in the kitchen, and they could think what they liked, but that was the nourishment which came most naturally – baby food, as the cook disapprovingly called it. But the reason he could not eat was that he was filled with something so uncontainable he was ready to choke on it: the terrible feeling he had always known and which he could only describe to me as homesickness.

But the doctor had been called in and had found nothing, except what he termed a slight neurasthenia. He recommended plenty of exercise. Then, there is nothing particular about him, nothing strange? I had asked once, thinking of some characteristic, a webbed foot or a second heart perhaps, to indicate his true nature. The doctor was brusque. He is perfectly normal, he said. Do not encourage him in his fantasies.

I did not need to encourage him, though I did listen where no-one else would, and was torn by compassion at the things he told me. He showed me, too, the wounds the doctor had refused to see, the bruise of rough handling and the blush of heat, which filled me with fury on his delicate skin. And yet I was obliged to silence by those other injuries, the self-inflicted slashes, the needle-pricks, by means of which, he said, he experimented to discover what he was really made of.

I asked him once what he expected to find. Nothing, he replied with a sigh, and the disappointment of years was in the answer. These were, after all, old wounds, old scars. He had long since abandoned the search for practical evidence. His body was a trap without exit, his true identity a feeling merely. And how could one prove the truth of feelings? From the day he first looked in the mirror and knew that the face he saw was not his, he had been engaged in an endless and futile struggle.

These were the secrets he chose to share with me. They filled our lessons and spilled over into the evenings. Often, at his own request, I would not leave at night, but would watch over him patiently until, suckling on his own little finger like a wizened teat, he fell asleep at last; and I would go wandering then through the silent house, its heavy sideboards laden with pale silver and its old mirrors shining with many moons. Room after room the furniture lurked in darkness, the monstrous sofas, the inlaid escritoires, the hideous porcelain stoves imported from a French chateau. I saw that all these ancient objects, this clutter of artwork to which he laid no claim, were as much a part of himself as his famed madness, that without them he would not be half of what he was, be it the buhl timepiece, the carved elephant's tusk, or the portrait in oils of his dead father, to whose Spanish features his own bore no resemblance.

But I would tire of exploring these things, whose tawdry weight began to bear me down, just as they did him, I supposed, without his even knowing. Time and again I escaped to the dark garden, where the sound of invisible water lured me on, and the scent of the flowers intensified in the tropical night; time and again I would bury my face in the heart of some alien bloom, as if to drink in the full quality of that perfume. I thought then that I would drown in pure distance, that I too might choke on this foreign air, having come so far from everything I once knew and being, now, so irrevocably a stranger.

I cannot even remember how long I stayed in that house, obliged by a rigorous and unfair contract, according to which I was made to sit for hours in an empty room, turning the pages of some book bound in patterned leather, the Confessions of St. Augustine, the Visions of the True Cross, the Life and Campaigns of Simon Bolivar, to be told at the end of half a day that Jacky was not available for lessons. I would emerge then, reeling, into the crashing heat of that latitude at that season, not knowing what to do with myself; angry, I would sit at a bar till evening and drink minerals. But the next day I would be back, slavishly dazzled by the white cruel house amongst its green lawns, asking after the health of Mr. Mendoza, and Jacky, who might be lying flat, or sitting up, or wheeling himself in a ridiculous wheelchair, would want me to read poetry to him all morning.

I would wonder then whether I was not the one being duped, a foolish victim of his whims and vagaries, and I would recall with a shudder the times I had listened reverently to his bizarre dreams which he mistook for memories: of falling, at tremendous speed, from a far point of light, or of nestling comfortably in some womb which was not his mother's, or of floating bodiless among the stars; all snatches, as he thought, of some other existence. These were, I considered, visions of which anyone might be capable, except that he had an unusually fluid mind. And then he would touch me with that light hand, and fix me with those eyes of indefinite depth, and I would be forced to draw back, instinctively, from a contact too uncanny.

I will never forget the night he insisted on taking me on his own tour of the house where for so long now he had remained a prisoner, and which he knew so intimately it was almost an extension of his own body; leading me into rooms I had never guessed existed, into whole wings I would not have suspected from the outside. Somewhere, in the far reaches of that strange palace, Mrs. Mendoza slept in a tall, gauzy bed, a blue nightlight beside her; and down in the depths of the servant quarters the silent, moustachioed butler and the sour maid lay ignorant of our nocturnal ramblings. In an unvisited library he showed me the case of dinosaur bones his father had collected, hidden beneath a piece of green felt, and for a long time he lingered over the fossils of ancient sea-creatures whose vertebrae he traced with a spatulate finger. He opened books to display the rings of the Inferno and the far reaches of Heaven, and pointed out to me the pictures which most haunted him: those in which the clouds opened to reveal a pillar of fire, or people ran from before a deluge with the eyes of frightened animals.

As he glided next to me his pale, luminous face seemed to hover above the darkness of his body, like a small moon casting its faint radiance onto everything we saw, and I was conscious, at odd moments, of the powerful presence of something other, accompanying me through the river of dim rooms to the heart of the house. He would stop sometimes to rub his cheek against a velvet hanging, or to feel with his own hands the satin of some ancestral robe, and also to pick up, with a vague air of significance, a rosary of teeth which lay in a forgotten drawer of one of the upper chambers. It seemed to me then that he was touching for a moment the unremembered rituals of a lost age. But the moment passed, and we moved on to other items, other bric-a-brac.

Never did he pause so long as over a yellow globe of the world which sat on its side in one of the last lumber-rooms. He seemed to recognise it as though from a great distance. Perhaps he had stood on tiptoe once, from some point in space, and seen it hanging like this in its full glory; or perhaps it was only in one of those dreams of his. But he examined it now, not on his own account, but because of me, and touching the wildest and remotest places with his finger he foretold that I would soon be there. Taking my hand he applied my own finger to the green jungles, to the vast deserts which lay in store for me, and I did not argue, because I feared he knew better than I did what the future held.

Then, turning, for the first time he embraced me, quite tightly and without words. His skin smelt sweet and so real, I could hardly believe he was anything other than the commonest, most tender flesh and blood. In fact I was certain of it. I knew then that he would never solve this mystery of his own identity which was all he knew of himself. I had asked him to tell me once, if he was able, what if anything he wished to be. Something beautiful, he answered, Something loved. But you are loved, I had told him. You are beautiful.

I was mistaken however, or at least, it would have taken more than my love to save him. How can I ever forget the impression created by that last interview, when I stood on the green carpet at the feet of Mrs. Mendoza, whose hard hair was drawn back into a cage of iron, whose teeth showed slightly as I tried to explain, how hopelessly, the truth about herself and him? She was beyond my reach, she was an ice woman. Her scorn was palpable as I said the words: Your son believes that he is not human. Yet I thought I saw in her eyes a moment of real fear. Then she tossed back her head in a splendid laugh. But surely you do not listen to such nonsense! He is only a child - he is only twelve years old. Of course he will soon grow out of these fantasies.

I think she was glad then that I was leaving, that if I had not left of my own volition she would have given me notice, removed my influence hastily from the boy. She did not wish to encourage his strange behaviour. In children, of course, we do not call it madness; but there was enough talk already, and from that time, I knew, she would keep the shutters closed on the windows of the Mendoza house.

Yes: I knew he would sit there now, in that catastrophic back room, which day by day he would be more constrained to. That no tutors or visitors would come. That eventually perhaps even the doctor would cease to attend him, or only a strange man from the hospital, bringing syringes, would plunge him deeper into the refuge of dreams. He would grow old; his body would age, but his face would always be that of an innocent boy. For that reason alone, those who glimpsed him would speculate about his weird origins. But the maid who attended him would know the truth. I hoped she would be kind, that she would talk to him sometimes; and that even if he never answered she would endeavour, once every so often, to make him smile.

This story first appeared under the title 'The Unmiraculous Life of Jackie Mendoza' in Nemonymous magazine.