A Prologue

A Prologue

A Chapter by Dan Wheeler

 A  Prologue

       Kushinagar, India.
       479 B.C.E.
       A rich and grassy woodland through which a mild and wholly unremarkable waterway runs.

       In fact, it is the most exceptionally unremarkable waterway known to exist anywhere, or at least as far as anyone has ever traveled, which, for most, isn’t far at all. 

       Too small for a river, too ample for a brook, it is never taken for what it is (a peaceful, nondescript ribbon of water), but always for what it is not (everything else).  For this simple reason it has never been named officially.  It"this so-un-called waterway, in which the muddy, grey ashes of the recently-retired have been carried out to sea; in which the protruding, expectant bellies of young wives have been dipped; in which the naked cherubs of hopeful mothers have been cradled and bathed and nurtured; in which the solemn ablutions of the washing ritual have fulfilled themselves daily, laundering the dusty clothes, heavy breasts and undisclosed sins of an entire community"this characterless meandering thread of water abides in the minds of the future Nagar Panchayat’s denizens as something of a communally-acknowledged enigma: That which is beyond identity for its very nature seems to defy identification.

       “Where Cheese Does Not Come From” is how the rug mender Meetka Vakshna refers to it.  “Neither A Pomegranate Seed Nor An Infected Gland” comes from the wife of the town caller, Xmi Baknavashamapalon, who himself refers to it by holding silent for a full thirty-three count.  To the ever-righteous and always pompous Amir Amir Amir, it is simply: “Not Feet.”  It does not matter how people do not refer to it; it is always understood to be what it is.  Or, more to the point, what it is not.

       It is on this particular day, Diwali, the annual Festival of Lights, and at this particular time, mid-afternoon, that one particular Old Man is hobbling along the western bank of the aforementioned “Opposite of a Grievous Ingrown Toenail,” listening intently to the story being told by His companion, a worrisome and beleaguered man who happens to go by the name"though not by choice"of The Worrisome And Beleaguered Sanjeev Sanpoor.

       It is important to note that at or around the time he was born, this man"or, at that point, that child"was not yet known as The Worrisome And Beleaguered Sanjeev Sanpoor.  Then, he was simply Sanjeev Sanpoor; although he was also known to have answered to My Little Sannee whenever his mother spoke it in his direction.  He was simply referred to as Sanjeev by the general populace, and, on occasion, when circumstances dictated otherwise, Stupid Annoyance by his much-harangued father.  It would not be until a handful of years later, when the young man would achieve puberty, around thirteen (late by his father’s impatient standards), that Sanjeev would pick up the extra moniker owing to a sudden"and highly public"realization to which he would ultimately come: an inevitability with which he simply could not live.

       “What if there is no Heaven?” was the query posed by the boy to his mother on a day that normally would have been described as being like any other.

       That the question originated during a shopping excursion at the marketplace, in the most public of places imaginable, wasn’t, in itself, particularly vexing to the woman who continued calling him My Little Sannee.  (This despite his already-five-and-a-half-foot frame . . . the hair surrounding his scrotum may have shown late, but the breadth and length of his bones had not).  What did seem immediately worrisome to his mother was what she saw in the boy’s newly-altered complexion.  A face normally reserved for little more than a mild grin or half-hearted grimace depending on the ebb and flow of his languid moods was now wan and near panic-stricken.  He seemed unable to move his dark brow from its presently furled condition.

       “My Little Sannee, such a thing to say!  Of course there is a Heaven!”

       “What if there is not?  What if we are all wrong?  What then?”  He was not looking at her, but in the opposite direction across the road.

       “Is not what?” interrupted The Intrusive Fishwife Harsha.  “What is this thing of which there is none?”

       “If there is none of it,” chimed The Milk Vendor Madhav, “then it does not exist. No more and no less.”  He wiped his hands of invisible grime as if to close the subject.

       “I’ll have a jar of your milk, Madhav,” said Harsha, pointing an accusing, long finger at him.  “You can keep your nonsense to yourself.”

       “I would sooner have nonsense than no sense,” countered Madhav.  It was not the best of comebacks, but he was not inclined to accept the judgment of an old woman who clearly was losing hers.

       “Supposing there isn’t Heaven,” the boy added. “What happens then?”  Sanjeev’s gaze was fixed and low, wavering in neither its position nor its poisonous intensity.  His mother peered over the careful part in her son’s well-oiled head, following its line of sight to what appeared to be an empty rice sack on the roadside.  A sack?  What is upsetting about a sack?  “What is this about, Little Sannee?”  The “My” in his mother’s pet name for him had run astray""already he had been reclassified.  The “Little,” too, would disappear soon enough, she knew, and what then would be left of her child?

       “He speaks of Heaven?” the fishwife again interrupted.  “And in the middle of the afternoon!” she added, for somehow that made it all the more an affront to her decrepit sensibilities.

       “He is a silly boy,” said his mother.

       “Not with a question so serious.” said Madhav.

       “You’ve swallowed too much of your own questionable merchandise, Milkman,” said Harsha.  “Perhaps so has the boy.  Everybody knows your cows feed on the hemp that grows wild in the field.”

       “I’ve nursed most of the children in this village on my milk,” he countered, “including your own.  If it is to blame for their wonderment, perhaps I should charge extra.”

       “Perhaps it is I who should be charging you!  My children are incorrigible!”

       “Better you should blame the cow who birthed them,” chided Madhav.

       Ignoring the milkman with a deliberateness that could crack a betel nut, the Fishwife spoke to the boy’s mother. “What is he looking at?  Boy!  What is it that enchants you so?”

       “It is nothing,” said his flustered mother.  “He is silly!  That is all!”

       “Perhaps it is not nothing after all.  Perhaps instead it is the absence of something,” offered the milkman.

       “That would still leave nothing,” growled Harsha, whose verbosity could ignore a thing only so long.  About eight seconds actually.

       “It is much worse,” answered Madhav.  “It is less than nothing.”

       “Maybe it is a dead animal that is distressing him,” said The Goat Herder Paneev, who had overheard the commotion and decided to add to the general confusion with what little of his own he had to offer.  “Why doesn’t somebody go and look?” was his expert advice.  Nobody moved.  “Why do you hesitate?” he said to everyone in particular.

       “Why don’t you go?” advised Harsha.

       “It is impossible,” said Mr. Paneev.

       “Why impossible?”

       “As you can see I am not properly attired for such a task.  See my new pants!”  He held them out at the sides, allowing them to balloon up, giving the thin man a much improved air of fatness.

       “They are fine pants,” admitted Madhav.

       “Indeed, I appreciate your flattery, Mr. Milkman, and I concur with your appraisal of the pants.  Nevertheless, it is their misappropriation with which I am now concerned.  You see, these are my goat herding pants.  They are pants intended for the purposes of keeping and herding goats, and, likewise, such concerns as are deemed necessary to the consideration and general improvements of said goats, which, as you all are aware, is my profession.”  Nobody could argue otherwise.  “Now,” he continued, “had I worn my walking pants, I can assure you I would waste no time in walking straight over to the other side of the road in order to ascertain what it is that is lying dead in the dirt.”

       “Or isn’t!” added Madhav, always the devil’s pessimistic advocate.

       “Yes, quite!” said Mr. Paneev.  “Also what is not lying dead in the dirt.”

       “Perhaps, then, you could take your goats with you?” offered the milkman, to which the group, which now had grown in number to a dozen or so, offered its unilateral concordance in a staccato chorus of yesses.

       “Alas, I have left all of my goats at home,” said the man in the fine goat herding britches.

       “What are we to do then?” asked the exasperated fishwife.

       “Is there nobody here who is wearing adequate walking pants?” asked a concerned, anonymous voice from within the crowd.

       No answer came.

       “Well?  Anyone?”  Again the fishwife.

       And then, “What about the Beggar Bharat?” shouted an anonymous voice.  “He wears no pants.”

       “This is true,” offered a third anonymous voice.  “He has no legs at all!  He wears only a simple napkin to hide his shame.”

       With that, all eyes were on the beggar, whose shame was indeed being concealed by a tattered cloth napkin.

       “Do not be absurd!” the beggar shouted back.  “This is not my walking napkin!”

       With that the boy finally looked up from the empty sack, which, after all, was indeed what had so spellbound and horrified him.  Speaking in a voice that was quiet and calm, but also sad and sweet and touching and pathetic to the ears that had gathered around him, he said to no one at all, perhaps not even to himself, “But if we are wrong, and if there is no point, then we are doomed.”  He let go of his mother’s hand, which continued to hang in the empty air, several inches away from her hip.  “And what is the point then?”  He walked the two and a half miles to his home alone, never raising his gaze from the dirt path below him.

       The Old Man with the staff and limp is aware of the story, of course.  (He is not alone in this""the entire town would know of it in mere days, The Intrusive Fishwife Harsha, no shirker of duty she, saw to that.  The ancient cerement of superstition would remain in situ, and the atheist in their midst would be called out and marked for life.)  And while a thirty-three-year-old reputation for existential nihilism might be sufficient cause for the look of despair on the middle-aged man’s face, it is the memory of the empty sack lying in the road that continues to cause The Worrisome And Beleaguered Sanjeev Sanpoor both his torment and his title.  For it was, after all, that damned bag, which contained nothing at all, in which he would subsequently invest all the emptiness of the universe.  If, say, the soul did not exist"if there was nothing waiting for us after our earthly demise"then we are no more than empty vessels ourselves, giving precious names like “Eternity” and “Heaven” to concepts that are of our own making because we fear the truth"the truth of unconsciousness, the injustice of non-existence.

       And it is precisely this argument that The Worrisome And Beleaguered Sanjeev Sanpoor is now making before the Old Man, vomiting it up, all 33 years worth of unsavory questions, hoping against hope that this Gangling Old Sack Of Skin And Bones with an unlikely reputation for miracles can somehow put an end to his curiosity and finally, at long last, let him sleep.  For in the end, that is really all that he is searching for""merely to sleep.

       “You know,” says the Old Man, “I think that you worry too much.”

       “Yes, Teacher.”

       “This is your problem,” He concludes.  The Old Man then goes silent.  

       Is that it? wonders poor The Worrisome And Beleaguered Sanjeev Sanpoor.  Is that supposed to put my mind at rest?  What am I to do?  Not worry?  How in hell am I to""?

       “Death is not a thing, you know,” says the Old Man, startling His miffed companion out of his pouting stupor.  “It is . . . ‘no thing.’  Do you understand?”

       “No,” says The Worrisome and Beleaguered Sanjeev Sanpoor with eyes so wide they speak of a thousand years of insomnia.

       And with that the Old Man lifts His staff high above himself.  “Pay attention,” He says.  Holding the staff in one hand, the other hand held motionless in the air, as if pointing, in particular, at nothing at all, the Old Man brings the staff down to His waist, grabs it with both hands now, swishes it back and forth in slow, methodical arcs, then hauls off and clocks His companion hard on his left shoulder.

       “Ow!” screams the newly-bent-over man.  Then, as if in reappraisal of the effrontery,
“OW!”  He rubs the injury with his hand, attempting in vain to diffuse the hot ball of colic in his shoulder.  “What the hell did you do that for?!”

       “Oh, dear.  I apologize,” says the Old Man.

       “I think you may have dislocated my shoulder!”

       “That would be unfortunate.  Please turn this way.  A little lower.  Bend your knees here.”  He gently manhandles The Beleaguered’s body, molding him into a more prostrate position, pulling him closer toward the ground.  He moves back a step, changing His angle so as to be slightly behind the other man.  Feet planted, staff steadied once more, which He brings slowly to the younger man’s sore shoulder, practicing the invisible arc before committing fully to it.  Again He rears back""

       “Nonononono!”  The younger man covers his shoulder, puts up his other hand to fend off the impending assault.  “Please do not hit me again!”  He backs up a bit.  “It is okay!  Yes, I get it!”  He exhales a forced and unconvincing laugh. “H-Ha-aah!  Okay, yes!  I understand completely now.  You were clearly intending to teach me!  And . . . everything is good now, I can assure you.  I must stop worrying, yes?  Well, Sir, lesson learned!”  Still crouching, backing slowly away, while the Other is keeping step with him, ready to strike.  “It is all quite clear to me now.  Pain and and and the universe and and the cycle of . . . life . . . and death . . . and, uh, uh, all . . . of those things”

       The next blow comes down squarely on his shoulder, as emphatic as its predecessor, and at precisely the same spot.  It sends the younger man tumbling helplessly over the embankment, splashing""one might say almost comically""downward into the gentle, flowing water of the Not A Bowl Of Cold Gajar Soup.  For a moment he is entirely engulfed in it, disappearing below the glimmering ripples of its sun-speckled surface.  The Old Man waits for a good half a minute.  He does not seem overly concerned""nor does He appear at all surprised""by the length of time the younger man seems to be spending under water and sans air.

       Then a second splash, followed by a spasm of wet, violent coughing.  The Old Man watches in silence while His younger companion breaks through the surface water as if tearing through a membrane.  He ejects the fluid from his lungs and fights to suck in air through spasms of staccato hacks.  Catching his breath he at last manages a scream. Still the Old Man watches with light bemusement, nodding His approval.

       And then the younger man manages words.

       “WHAT IS THIS ABUSE!” he sputters, nearly crying now.  The pain in his shoulder, more blinding than before, creates a mosaic of moving black specks of light before his eyes.  His vision now altered, he looks, squinting, up to the Old Man standing higher above on the embankment.

       “Now you are merely ‘Sanjeev,’” the old man chirps.

       “And what does that mean?”

       “It means you should give more credence to the musings of milkmen is what it means,” He says instructively.  And then, “You show far too much concern for things that are not.”

       “Are not what?”

       “Are not,” repeats the Old Man.  “Things that ARE NOT.”  He points to his head and grins.

       The Old Man turns and sets off down the path, still grinning.  With imperceptible resolution He slows His step, just a bit, inching over to one side to allow the right of way to a khapra beetle walking against Him on the byway. 

       There Sanjeev sits, his hair and clothes dripping.

       There he sits, the water riffling past him in silent determination.  He thinks of many things.  He thinks of the intense pain in his shoulder.  He thinks of the Old Man who clearly has lost His mind.  He thinks of the water, swirling around him, the folds and bends of his clothing creating a hundred tiny eddies, each working concurrently with and against the forward motion of the current.

       He thinks of the Milkman, Madhav, who spoke of nothing.  

       He thinks of the empty rice sack in the road.  And of nothing.

       No thing.

       He thinks of death.  Then of the idea of death.  That it can even be an idea seems a peculiar notion now, at odds with what had antagonized him so.  It no longer fits into his previous model of life and death, it seems.

       He thinks that if death is, in essence, nothingness, how then can it actually be?  How can nothing be a thing?

       Sitting there, in the gentle, flowing water of the Not Worrisome Nor Beleaguered, during Diwali, the annual Festival of Lights, the man who is now merely Sanjeev Sanpoor rubs his shoulder and considers the water wafting past him, carrying with it the detritus of a village, where it will mingle with other waters, collecting, swirling into a vastness of oceans, ever churning their whispered professions, mingling, blending, secreting away, and always moving, always moving.

© 2015 Dan Wheeler

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Added on August 30, 2015
Last Updated on August 30, 2015
Tags: postmodern, novel, buddhism, india, tourettes, OCD, fiction, humor, dark humor