The Pursuit of Happy Meals

“And what to drink?”

“A Diet Coke.”

“Will that be all, sir?”

“That’ll do it.”

“Okay, sir, let me repeat the order: two large cheese-burger, a side of freedom fries, a Diet Coke, and a medium ice cream cone.”

“Not freedom fries, just freedom.”

“A side of freedom, sir?”

“Right.”  There was a brief pause as the man without a face presumably entered the order into the register.  In theories of rhetoric, it is widely believed that a detailed description of a particular scene will generally facilitate vivid mental imagery.  This in turn will cause a greater impact on the reader or audience.  So while the man without a face is entering the order, allow me, like a good writer, to take this moment to describe the scene for you—before the story gets ahead of itself and has to wait for itself to catch up.

The sky was like an ocean that a giant, who prefers particularly creamy tea, had filled with the proportionate amount of milk for a brew that size.  That is to say that the sky was, as it usually is, a light shade of blue.  Can you picture that?  Under the blue sky, there was a horrifying, ceramic clown head—certainly no excuse for a face—held up by two purple metal poles, with a bright shiny speaker like a bad root canal in its mouth.  The man without a face was speaking through this speaker.  He had a young, innocent voice, almost childish.  Beside this head and speaker was our gentleman’s red convertible.  The gentleman’s convertible had converted itself so that the top was down, since, as we have noted, the sky was blue.

“Okay, sir, and would you like to oversize© that today?”  The man without a face interrupted our description.

“Do I not sound American to you?”

“Very good, sir.  Do you want the toy that comes with the meal?”

“The toy?  What is it?”

“It’s a car, sir.”

“Oh, gee, um, I would, you see, but I’m a busy man.”  He was hesitant at first, but then he gravely added, “I don’t have time to play with toys.”

“Sir, I really think you should take the toy.”  He spoke sincerely.

“I’m telling you I don’t have time!”  The gentleman was a bit annoyed.

“Sir, do you have any young ones, sir?”

“One.”

“A boy or a girl?”

“What difference does it make?”

“Maybe your little boy or girl would like the car.”

“Hm…I suppose that’s a valid point.  Hold on.  He’s right here, let me ask him.”  The gentleman turned to ask his son whether he would like the toy that comes with the meal.  “He says he wants it.  Throw it in I guess.”

“Throw what in where?”

“The toy!  Throw the toy in with the meal!”

“Oh, I’m sorry.  I don’t throw things sir.” The gentleman didn’t even respond.  “It’s a matter of policy.  A Cadillac or a Corolla?”

“What makes you think an eight-year-old boy is gonna know the difference between a Cadillac and a Corolla?”

“I’m sorry, sir, but if you’re only eight years old, then by law I am prohibited from serving you in the drive-through.  It’s a matter of policy.”

“My son, you idiot!  Not me, my son!  I’m a forty-year-old proletarian breadwinner, past his prime, and suffocating in my bleached-perfectly-white collar of choler, which grows tighter every day!  I only have half an hour to take little Jimmy out to lunch before I have to drop him back at his enriching grade school and return to my tiny, sweaty little office.  I don’t have time for—”

“—would you like that for here or to go?”

“To go, you idiot!”

“Sir, I really think you should eat it here.”

“You what!”

“It’s just, people usually tend to enjoy it better here.  Especially—”

“Enjoy!  People usually enjoy!”  The gentleman was hysterical.

“—Especially when they order a side of freedom.”

“Did you not hear a word I said?  I don’t have any free time at all.  The most I can afford to do is take the freedom to go.”

“But sir it doesn’t work that way.  It’s a matter of–“

“–Give me one, clear, practical reason why I should stay here.”

“Sir, there is a play land out back.”  He nearly pleaded.

“I’m too old for play lands.”

“No sir, it’s not that kind of play land.  I really think you would enjoy it.”

“The nerve you have!  It wasn’t long ago that your average, decent man would be ashamed even  at the thought of a play land for adults.  Now, thanks to the clever Freudian intellectuals and what have you, they’re proud to shout about the sort of thing freely from loudspeakers in front of children!”

“Sir you misunderstood me.  It’s not a play land just for adults either.  It’s a play land for everyone.  All ages, all kinds.  It’s something that Freud could never have dreamed of—and that man certainly knew how to dream.  But this has nothing to do with dreams.  It’s real.”

“Oh, I’ll bet!  I know exactly what this has to do with!  I’m taking my freedom to go—thank you very much—and when I get home from work, I’m yelping about you for false advertising!”

“Do you have time for that sort of thing?”

“You better believe I do!  I have time for whatever I want.  It’s a free country, isn’t it?”  The question was clearly rhetorical, but the gentleman seemed almost unsure.

“I don’t know.  Do you feel free?  I thought you came here looking for freedom.”

“Here?  Here is the last place I’d look for freedom!  That’s why you’re advertising is false.  You tell the public that you can offer them life, freedom, and the pursuit of happy meals, but then when someone asks you to deliver, all you can talk about is some imaginary play land.”

“I told you it’s not imaginary.”  He pouted.  “They serve apple pie.  Part of the healthy-eating act.  You can probably smell it from there.”

“A fantastical play land, floating in the sky, where they serve healthy-eating apple pie.  I’d sooner die.”

“Sir, it’s no such thing.  If you would come in, I could show you it, and you’d understand.  Or really…I can’t say if you’d understand, but you’d definitely believe what I’m telling you.”

“No thanks.  Nothing could be so spectacular that it’s worth the time it would take me to park the car in this sketchy part of town, climb every last one of those brown-tile steps” (of which there were two) “and creek open that slimy smiley-face-door to come in.  That’s not to mention the danger of leaving my car unattended around here.”

“I assure you, there is no need to worry about your car.  There is a car that comes with the meal if you need one.  But what I want to show you is a lot better than that.”

“You’re full of lies.  If I leave my car here someone will hot-wire it and drive off.  Don’t think the internet wouldn’t here about that!  I’ll write everything.  I’ve also heard you’re culinary methods are unethical.  I’m reporting animal abuse and auto-theft.”

“It’s true that our products use a lot of resources.  But I assure you nothing is wasted.”

“I knew it!  You’re killing perfectly innocent cows, aren’t you?  You ought to be ashamed!”

“No, sir, not cows.”

“What then?”

“Men.  Actually, just one man. One perfectly innocent man.”  He was entirely frank.  “That’s all it took, but many others followed him on their own.  All volunteers of course.”

“Look, don’t mess with me.”  The gentleman’s tone changed drastically.  “I have a gun.”

“Sir, it’s the freedom.” Both parties were dead serious.  “You see, it’s hard to come by.  You can’t just get it to go.  It’s a matter of policy.”  By this point, the gentleman had realized that this was no ordinary drive-through.  He and his son had gotten a little lost on the way over, when they came to this place instead of another.  He had assumed the whole ‘freedom’ thing was just some kind of joke.  A funny name for a menu item, exaggerating just how wonderful the potato squares must be, or something like that.  Now, however, it clearly must have been more literal.  Frighteningly so.  He would have left right then and there, were he not overwhelmed with a morbid kind of curiosity.

“You’re killing men?”

“For freedom sir.  That’s why it doesn’t cost anything.  It comes with the meal.”  This was indeed how it was listed on the menu.  “But as a courtesy, if you do order the freedom, we ask that you be willing to go next.”

“To go next?  What do you mean?”  He was afraid to ask.

“To follow the man.”

“But I want to get away from The Man!  That’s why I’m asking for freedom in the first place.”

“No, I mean, you must be willing to die, just like the innocent man was.  You won’t have to die, not really.  Certainly no one will force you to die if you don’t want to.  You just need to be willing to die if you order the freedom.”  This was the most ridiculous thing that Jimmy or his father had ever heard.  There was something eerie too about the way it was said.  The gentleman could have sworn that the man speaking had suddenly become possessed.  Or perhaps it was the ceramic clown head itself that was possessed.  Perhaps he, his son, and that horrific, haunted head were really the only ones there, and this mysterious acousmata, this dire, disembodied voice was insinuating something much more dreadful than anything he could imagine.

“I’ll take my meal now.  How much do I owe?”

“Nothing sir.  But would you like the freedom?”

“Yes, but to go please.”

“You can’t have freedom to go.”  Was that the man talking or the ceramic clown head?

“What on earth could be in this ‘freedom’ that makes it worth all that?”  He laughed uncomfortably.

“Well, I’ve known many people to get a lot out of it.”  The cashier’s innocent, childish tone resumed.  “One fellow, much like yourself, sir, was in a bad marriage, a bad job, and a bad mountain of debts, and this changed everything.”

“So it’s a loop-hole?”  The gentleman had been meaning to get a divorce, quit his job, and file for bankruptcy, but who has the time?  If this ‘freedom’ could take care of all that without any rigmarole…

“—Sir, I didn’t finish.  In that fellow’s case, the marriage, the job, and the mountain of debts still went on just the same.  This only took the bad out of them.”  The gentleman was confused, but he didn’t know what to ask.

“But why do I need to die?”

“You don’t.  Like I said, someone else already volunteered for that position.”

“That’s right.  I forgot.  I only need to be willing to die.  Well then, what if I—how about this: if you give me this freedom…to go…then I’ll be willing to die for now, but then, since no one will force me, I’ll just—if anyone asks, I’ll say—”

“—Sir, that’s not how it works.  Don’t you get it?  That’s what the Freedom is.  It’s complementary—a down right gift, really.  Someone perfect died for you—he died to fix your whole situation—and if you accept that he was willing to die for you, then you’ll be willing to die for him as well.  It’s only natural.  And that right there is the gift, that’s the freedom.  This fellow with the bad marriage, he didn’t suddenly escape from a civic bond imposed on him by the law.  He was liberated from a self-imposed kind of bondage.  For years, he’d been protecting himself from his wife’s attacks.  She was spending all their money, taking advantage of him, robbing banks, and chewing with her mouth open just to annoy him.  A wicked woman, there’s no doubt.  He had nearly lost his mind to paranoia over the next thing she might do to injure his precious self.  But when he accepted Freedom, his perspective slowly changed.  Little by little, he began to realize that he wouldn’t be worried if she came at him with a knife (much less if she spoke with food in her mouth) since he was willing to die.  That’s the gift.  It’s not a loop-hole.”

“But that doesn’t sound like a gift at all.  It sounds like a malady.  Depression or maybe Gothism.”  The gentleman hardly cared to realize how late this all was making him and Jimmy.  Maybe he wasn’t in such a hurry after all.  People often act like their in a hurry only to make themselves seem important.  However, this sort of pretense always betrays itself as soon as something more interesting comes along.  At the moment, this prospective death seemed more interesting than affectations of business.

“The Goths certainly did have something about them, but it wasn’t depression.  An honest monk in a monastery, what do you think he has to live for?  Just this bizarre, mysterious gift.  A gift that consists in being taken from rather than being given to.  An anti-gift, if you will.”

“But freedom is a commodity, not a liability (excuse me, but I’m a business man).  A market is only really free when it has a surplus.  If people don’t have any disposable income, then competitive marketing doesn’t exist, since everything must be sold for essentially no profit.  What I mean to say is that if you take away my car, my time, and my life, I won’t be a freeman—I’ll be a slave, a sucker, and a specter.”

“Not at all—”

“—Let me take it a step further.  Freud suggests that the ultimate legal tender for the economy of human affairs is…something you alluded to earlier.  What I mean is…to be blunt…the man with the most mates is the freest.  In that light, I’m almost tempted to think it a shame…about the play land and all…”

“Let me tell you something.  (I’m speaking to you now not only as your personal cashier—however honorable a title that in itself might be—but also as your fellow human being.)  I once thought exactly the way you just described.  I tried having a surplus of everything.  The modern world insists, after all, that these sorts of lower appetites must be satisfied, if we are ever to be free from pain.  But for some reason I found that the more I possessed, the more I was in turn possessed.  Each commodity was also a liability, and at that, a debt twice as great as its own worth.  The lower pleasures I satisfied, the impulses I acted on—these began to control me.  I believed that pleasure was the way to happiness, and so I was compelled to pursue pleasure, and I could be happy doing nothing else.  In short, I believed in Freudian psychology, and that belief was precisely what made it a reality for me.”  The man without a face had a bachelor’s degree in philosophy.  This job of cashier, as some readers may be aware, is one of the most highly sought after vocations of people in that field.  One can understand why.  The faceless philosopher went on:

“But it was one day while eating a happy meal that it suddenly hit me.  It was a fly swatter slightly misguided by an old man without his glasses.  He apologized right away and explained that he had been aiming for a fly that he had heard buzzing in my general direction.  For my own part, I didn’t hear a thing.  But after that happened, I got to thinking about my life, and I realized that I had been calculating my net worth all wrong.  A surplus was exactly what I needed, but not of money or luxury or sex.  I needed a surplus of something else.  I couldn’t really say what it was, but I knew at that moment that whatever it was must be inversely proportional to the kind of worth I’d been pursuing in the past.  Maybe it was a surplus of hope, or something like that.  A surplus perhaps of reason to act.  When we have no such surplus, we can only act to maximize our own pleasure.  But if we have extra reason to act and to exist, we can do both freely.”

“But Freud suggests reasons to act—”

“—Not reasons so much as causes.  Neo-Freudian and popular psychology assumes that human behavior is caused by external events.  That may be true of any individual who believes it, but I have found reason to act in spite of those events.  I have reason to relinquish every pleasure and still be satisfied.”

“And what reason is that?  A dead man?  Is that your reason?”

“It is now, but when I first accepted freedom, I didn’t really understand—”

“—I’m sorry to say that this sounds like the most morbid bit of hogwash I’ve ever heard.  Which reminds me, I forgot to order a drink for Jimmy.  But as to your philosophy, I must say that I will never follow any ideology related to death.”

“Then you are an ignoramus.  Every ideology is related to death.  But let me tell you, when I first came upon this whole philosophy, it had nothing to do with—”

“—Buddhism doesn’t have to do with death.  It’s about inner peace, rebirth if anything.  Come to think of it, Buddhism is about freedom too.  The freedom found through meditation.”  The happy meal seemed a long ways off.

“That’s still related to death.  Call it rebirth if you like, call it anything really, death is still death.  But when I found Freedom, or rather, when Freedom found me, it had nothing to do with death.  It was the farthest thing from death.  Some sentimental people like to suppose that the opposite of death isn’t life but love.  I can’t say I know whether that’s true, but I do know that love his how I found freedom.  These days I feel like I kind of have a surplus of reasons for living.  I’m free to do things that don’t satisfy me at all, and even then, to be completely satisfied.  I used to be a helpless romantic, but now I’m ashamed to admit I’m a helpless altruist, and there’s nothing else I’d rather be.  I wish I could say I figured this out on my own, but really it was all a big, embarrassing mistake.  You see there was this one girl, well…you don’t really want to hear this, do you?”

“Not really.  I’d actually just like my meal now.  You can leave out the freedom.  It’s honestly more than I bargained for.  I’ll take just the happy meal, just the happiness to go, please.”

“Very good, sir.”  He spoke with a cold civility.  “I hope your son is a licensed driver.  It’s a matter of policy.”

The Remarkable Accoutrement

It was quite a remarkable accoutrement, the hat that Andrew wore.  It was of that eccentric, French fashion that only a select few can seem to pull off; and if anyone were so aptly placed among those choice and fortunate few as to be rightly labeled the paragon of that class, it was none other than this most formidably sophisticated fellow—that is to say, Andrew—on the head of whom, when placed, that hat seemed to transform the otherwise average gentleman into a nobleman of noblemen, venerated of the venerable.  Upon wearing it, he looked like Frank Sinatra, the Jolly Green Giant, or someone of that remarkably handsome sort—perhaps Peter Pan.  And all around him the sun shone bright and the autumn winds danced with a new-found vivacity, sprinkled with the ambrosial aroma of florid fields.

For this reason, it is not in the least a bewilderment that Larena Lee should have fallen head-over-heals in love with him when first she laid her hazy hazel eyes on the youthful lad.  Indeed, she should have done exactly that.  But unfortunately, as is not strange to any of us who hold our heads just below the clouds, things do not always workout so romantically and perfectly in real life, but the true nature of reality is full of such deformities and decrepities as are not otherwise found in books or fairy tales.  No, instead, Larena Lee fell quite heals-over-head, only slightly bruising her pretty little ankle on the fourth stone step.

“Are you okay?” Andrew, being of the errant and quixotic sort of nobility that he was, hesitated not a moment to aid the damsel in distress.  Helping her to her feet (and not failing to notice her irresistibly petite and pallid ankle—fair, even bruised as it was) he offered her his name and a pleasantry, a reasonable courtesy to be expected in such a situation, “That was quite a spill—I’m Andrew by the way.”

“Larena Lee,” she offered him her hand (so that he might shake it, as people often do), “O dear, you’re rather right, it was quite a spill indeed; I scarcely noticed it.”  Whereupon the immense lake of tea that she had inadvertently flung across the entire room became conspicuous to her.  But enraptured, she soon disregarded the tea again, and it became just as inconspicuous as it was from the start—and would be for all the rest of eternity, inconspicuously filling the room with an inconspicuous aroma (as aromas generally are inconspicuous, evading the eyes in their pellucidly pungent manner) that could be anything but equated to the aforementioned florid ambrosia, finding a congeniality much more fitting in the highly uncongenial odorous force of a fungus-suffused felt, or carpet.  She shifted her focus back to whom she was certain, beyond the shadow of a doubt (and doubts tend to have rather long shadows these days), would hereafter be the love of her life—assuming he kept his hat on.  “I like your hat.”  she smiled at him.

“O thank you; I put it on my head myself.”  Andrew was clearly an exceptionally quick-witted fellow, remarkable in his charm, grace, and choice of wardrobe.  The couple stood there in an awkward silence for a while, lost in each others eyes (which is a difficult state to accomplish, considering how small an eye is, how large a person, and how much larger still a sense of direction).  Then finally Andrew spoke: “Larena Lee?”

“Yes, Androstenedione—I mean, Andrew—yes, Andrew?”

“I couldn’t help but notice you staring at me…”

“Yes, androgenic Andrew.”

“And well … I was wondering …”  This was it.  They both knew he was about to ask her out on a date (of course, he would have, himself, been too grammatically pedantic to use the phrase ‘ask her out’, but too eloquent to say ‘ask her outward’); they could tell what was about to happen by means of the prickly, augurial butterflies flapping wildly through their stomachs (once again presenting a feasibility issue much like the optical disorientation mentioned earlier).  “Well … here it goes …” he swallowed hard, wiped away the perspiration, and closed his eyes tight (I suppose, trapping Larena inside—depending on your own, personal convictions about what’s going on in the story right now) “How would you like to have a romantic kettle of Sanskrit-Breakfast Tea with me?”

Larena Lee was eager to accept the invitation, but found herself restrained by but one thing: the grammatical construction.  It took her a while to think about his use of an adverbial interrogative and the appropriate response.  Of course it might seem too forward if she were to reply adjectivally, too compendious—and also grammatically fallacious—if she were to offer a mere affirmation, and too philosophically irritating if she reciprocated interrogatively.  So she settled on an adverbial response, which she thought would create a nice parallel construction in the dialogue—romantic, without being overly candid: “Well.”

There was another awkward silence—though not quite as awkward as the last (for it is not strange that awkwardness grows week with wear).  Andrew replied, less mindful of where things stood grammatically (though he is, indeed, like really grammatical and stuff): “Well?  Well what?”  Enamoured, his ardent arteries yet undulate with an amorous ardor.

“Well.  Precisely well.  I would well like to have a romantic kettle of English-Breakfast Tea with you.”  Alas, as we often see in everyday discourse, a keen observance of grammar had completely compromised her consciousness of the content of conversation.

“No, not English-breakfast, Sanskrit-Breakfast.  It’s just like English, only its Sanskrit.”

Larena Lee, somewhat embarrassed that she had not taken better note of the language, and thinking herself a foolish, uncultured girl, blushed apologetically; “I’m quite sorry,” she said, “I um … I thought … I thought that by ‘Sanskrit’, you meant ‘English’.”

“Oh.  I see.  No, I did not.”

“Well in that case, a warm cup of Sanskrit-Breakfast Tea sounds delightful.”  In this she spoke most truly; Sanskrit is indeed a charmingly euphonic tongue.

“Very well; then let us be off.”

And they retired to more private quarters for their tea, leaving behind a gentleman in the corner who has been left unmentioned hitherto.  His name was Don Ulysses Darius Epsilon (though he went by Themistocles, or Phillip, because he was a law-abiding man who was particularly fond of horses).  He sat in silence, pondering what a great difficulty that singular encounter had made of itself.

In a small, dusty kitchen, with a creaky wooden floor, Andrew set up a brew, while Larena Lee admired his remarkable hat.  It was made of a soft, but distinguished, grey fabric on top, which hung casually over whatever was beneath it, sewn with a sturdy seam to the oblong brim.  All in all it was a perfectly charming piece of cloth—rugged, yet tender, tough, but sensitive.  And she couldn’t take her eyes off it (that is, of course, because her eyes were in their sockets—though this matter may have been confused to some degree previously—and therefore, they were not touching the hat, which meant they could not either be removed from it).

With the kettle boiling away, Andrew turned to Larena Lee, who was sitting at the table, expectantly, and he walked over to sit with her.  They sat, facing each other, at the table, in another awkward silence (which is, of course, where novel daters often tend to sit), and he thought of points of conversation.  He went through a number of possible lines in his head—for he was, indeed, quite fond of geometry—and mentally, he tried each one on for size: “so I was calculating the hypotenuse last night and … ” No, that one was too simple; he wanted to impress her.  “I was considering the projection of a seven-dimensional cloth into four-dimensional space for an integration problem …” No, that was too fascinating; he didn’t want her to think him unbearably engrossing.  “I was reading Catullus …” No, that was too gross.  Finally, she interrupted his thoughts:

“So, do you often drink in Sanskrit?”  He looked at her, not quite finished calculating.  Then he realised she had said something, and he played it back in his mind, whereupon he quickly fashioned a response so as not to seem rudely irresponsive:

“भवतु”  He said, or at least tried to say—the only problem was that he didn’t know any Sanskrit, so he couldn’t read his response aloud.  But on the bright side, he thought of something to say to her: “I wrote you a sonnet.”

“When?”

“Just now.”

“How?”

“In my head.”

“Oh.”

“Would you like to hear it?”

“Yes.”

“Okay,” he thought quickly, “here it is:

Let…

Let me get the tea first.”  He got up, walked over to the stove, picked up the tea kettle, put the kettle back down, walked over to a cabinet, opened the cabinet, found nothing inside, closed the cabinet, walked over to another cabinet, opened that cabinet, found nothing more or less than exactly two tea cups within, took out the tea cups, put them down on the counter, closed the cabinet, picked the tea cups back up, walked over to the table, set the tea cups down on the table, walked back over to the stove, picked up the teapot, walked back to the table, poured tea in Larena’s cup first (for he was a courteous gentleman), and then, trying to pour tea in his own, he missed, spilling it all over the table.  “O dear!”  Larena found this very romantic, but perhaps it was a bit improper of him to be calling her by such an intimate appellation so soon.  “It seems I’ve spilled.  Let me go get a towel.”  What happened next needn’t be described.

He sat back down, and the two of them sipped their tea together.  Larena spoke, “I feel ashamed to admit it, but in a spirit of utter transparency, I must tell you I’ve never had Sanskrit-Breakfast Tea before.  What’s in it?”

The tea is made of whatever herbs Andrew might happen to find lying around on any given day.  “I’m afraid I can’t tell you that; it’s an ancient secret.”

At this, there was nothing more to say.  They sipped their teas.

Then Andrew started again: “So I was formulating an infinite geometric sequence that equivocates to a sinusoidal—” His voice broke off.  What was he doing!  One can’t bring up such a controversial topic on a first date; it’s abominably uncouth!  He thought quickly, “—I mean, what I meant to say was…I’m delighted that I finally asked you outward.”  He stuffed his foot in his mouth—much to Larena’s amazement, and slight disgust—in the great haste of recovering from one misspeaking, he had fallen into another much worse.  What had become of his former eloquence?  Something was depriving him of it.

Larena blushed, “So, do you mean…this is like…a date?”

Andrew thought for a moment, while Larena Lee looked at his luxurious hat.  “Hm,” he says, “That’s quite an interesting metaphor.”  They both thought about how the metaphor could be extended.  “I suppose, it’s a bit drier than a grape, but certainly more juicy than a raisin.”  They were both tickled by the literary implications.  And the Homeric metaphor began to grow.

“It’s sweet.”  Larena added, and they were both thrilled with amusement of double entendre.

“But its dangerous.”  Andrew cautioned her abruptly.  The smile absconded from her face.  “You must be extremely cautious to avoid the pit!”  Whereupon, they both started laughing wildly, though unsure of exactly what was so funny.  It is at times like these that one must recall the adage of a great sage of old: ‘I’m so clever that sometimes I don’t understand a single word I’m saying’ —Oscar Wild.

The laughter settled down soon enough, and they both sipped their teas.  Andrew started thinking of something else to say, but as fate would have it, Larena was the next to speak, which she did, only momentarily sneaking another glance at his hat: “Well I am glad to have been asked outward, but you will have to pardon me, I don’t mean to pry; however, I couldn’t help but notice a peculiar qualifier buried in your wording.”

“What qualifier was that?”  Andrew began to grow anxious.

“Finally.”  They were both silent for a moment, but moments as these had long since given up the arduous task of being awkward in nature.  So they sat in a strangely unawkward silence; one, in fact, that was so peculiarly unawkward as to verge on being awkward in its unawkwardality.

“Now isn’t that an interesting adverb?”  Andrew thought quickly, but no ideas seemed to come to him.  “It has such a sense of—” As he thought, Larena admired his hat, “—of … a sense of finality.”  His eloquence had left him a fool of itself, but it was no matter, for Larena Lee hardly noticed the lexical gap, finding herself utterly enraptured in an androcracy; that is, a dreamy universe ruled almost entirely by the charms and apparel of Andrew.

“Indeed, it does.”  She sipped her tea, “you are quite right.”

It is at this point fitting that something be said as to the appearance of these two.  Indeed, it has been highly indecorous of the author to leave out such a detail thus far, and so, he humbly and apologetically offers this consolation, first speaking in regards to Larena: she was unspeakably pretty.  And as for Andrew, his charm has already been sufficiently spoken—remember, tall, dark, handsome, and green…dark green.

“Were you not intent on reciting a sonnet?”  Larena spoke again.

“Ah, yes;” Andrew cleared his throat, “I most certainly was.  Ornatus usurpandus est.

“O, it’s in the romance language of Italian; how romantic.”

“Um actually,” this moment was nonetheless awkward in spite of the couple having already conquered so much awkwardness in the past.  “Actually, that was the vulgar language of Latin.  It means that I must, in a spirit of total cordiality and decorousness, regrettably and temporarily excuse myself, as I am really—though not uncomfortably so—quite due, in a professional and formal sense of the word—that is, the word, ‘due’—yes, quite due for an appointment with the necessary.”  At this it was certain to both of them that Latin is indeed an extremely concise language.  There was a silence; the reader is left to determine the awkwardness of it for himself.

“Oh, of course, by all means; go right ahead-I mean—I don’t mean go ahead, but I mean…well, let yourself go—no…” she couldn’t think of a euphemistic way to say it, “have a pleasant temporary absence.”  They both felt a bit ashamed of their wording, but they knew deep down–all the more to their shameful bliss–that it would in truth be a very pleasant ‘temporary absence’, especially because it would allow them each time to recover from that traumatic experience, having very nearly brought both the English and Latin languages to utter waste.

Larena sat back in her chair and looked down at her thumbs, which she twiddled around one another.  Andrew got up and left, and what followed needn’t be described.

Upon his return, tragedy ensued.  Larena looked up and saw—miserable to behold—his head lay open, naked.  He had, unbeknownst to her, removed his hat and set it on the table before leaving for the loo—though the author failed to describe this pivotal moment.

“What are you doing?”  She pressed urgently.  “Your hat!  Your glorious hat!  What has become of it?”

“Its okay, Larena.”  He tried to comfort her, but words wouldn’t come.  “I-um … I’ll say the sonnet now.”  This helped mildly mitigate the situation, for Larena was always excessively pleased to hear romantic poetry, though she had never before had any addressed explicitly to her—unless you count an anthology that she ordered to be sent by mail.  He began directly:

I shall tell you candidly, as a gentleman of crossed intents

That I find it difficult to suppose there be a thing more lovely,

Or indeed, a wretched horror altogether more intense,

A good or ill that’s so more fully,

A passion’s fire of greater vivacity or effervescence,

Than as dreams expiring, or antithetical the hour,

That graceful, glorious, ineffable—though of such evanesc-

But no, the word ‘s too long.

I’m appalled by long words.  Life is so insufferably abridged and abbreviated and short as it is, we oughtn’t waste our time pronouncing such long words to express that matter.  Let me start over.”

“Indeed, further, the meter was not all that becoming of a sonnet, and I can’t say I was particularly fond of the rhyme scheme.”

“Right you are; it was an utter failure, and I’m glad it’s over.  Allow me to begin again.

If eternity were present in an instant

And perpetuities were quintessential moments,

If fleeting dreams sufficed as permanent,

Etherial realities inconstant,

Then actuality and certitude

Were but a dream and love were but a fact,

Eternity were Love’s beatitude

To adorn with what its beauties never lacked.

So let us dream, my love, that dreams were true

Your essence, substanceless, were real as Eve,

A sunset never setting, forever new,

And the charming gloaming at dusk would not bereave.

If but that love were painless, ever-present,

But love were not itself ‘less evanescent.”

“Hm.”  Larena pondered.  “It’s pretty good.  But—”

“—I know, I know, I said the word again.”  He almost put his foot back in his mouth, but Larena stopped him, gently.

“No, it wasn’t that…”

“—What was it?  What is it—the rhyme scheme again?”

She thought.  “No.”  She looked him directly in the eyes, and stood there, much the way she had when she first lay eyes on him.  “No—the problem was—that I didn’t understand it.”  They were both quiet, in a silence much resembling the one that DUDE had observed earlier.

“Oh.”  Andrew was lost for words.

“Say an easier one.”

A brief hesitation (perhaps in the manner of that aforementioned word), and he began: “Okay.

What is this thing, for which—or one, for whom—

I haven’t left a word—or thought’s medallion—

To ornament the beauty—I have not room—

No remnant wit—in Sanskrit or Italian—

This is she—she of the fairest ankle—

With whom e’en cruel Achilles cannot compete—

I must confess—I haven’t a rhyme for ankle—

To end the line—I made the word repeat—

Larena, this is terrible—I’m sorry.”

“No, don’t stop; keep going—I like it.”

“Why?”

“I don’t know.  It’s simple.”  She tried to think of a better way to describe it.  The main liking she took to it so far was, of course, the flattery it offered concerning her ankle—about which she had been mildly self-conscious since the fall, but now she was even verging on considering allowing the cuff of her jeans to rise a little once more, which she had pulled down just before leaving the other place (the name of which place, the author failed to mention, on account of a want for creativity or fear of exposure).  “It’s honest.  It’s clear.  It’s a stilnovismo.  It has the modern voice of candidness.  It’s transparent.”  She now realised she was running on at the mouth, wasting time.  “Say more about my ankle.”

“Well.”  Andrew was somewhat reluctant, but he conceded, with a concessive clause.  “Although I don’t find it so beautiful as you just described—I mean the poem—your ankle is utterly beautiful—I’ll finish it for your sake:

O fairest of the fair—ankle of ankles—

Noble, small, white—what else can I say?

I still don’t have a word to rhyme with ankles—

So I guess I’ll end the line again that way—

My knees grow week in the presence of that ankle—

Because, for medical reasons, they’re weaker than my ankle.

Oh dear.  That last line had too many syllables.”

“I know, dear.  It’s better that way.  You look nice without your hat.”

The Sage

“FORLORN!” he often drunken said, “Forlorn are they that roam the chasms of the mind!  Forlorn are they that stand in pause without!” and then a tipsy grin would trip across his face, “and between them,” he’d interrupt his wandering speech and laugh a luxurious and drunken laugh—a laugh of indifferent wisdom, the breed of scoff as often fills a vasty space of silence with the intoxic foam of apathy, “between them stands a chasm,” he’d try once more: “indeed, there is a chasmic chasm between the roamer and the stander standing—a chasm as great and as profound as the stander’s pause and the roamer’s roaming mind.  So that he that roams is lost and he that stands knows not where he’s standing.  Forlorn,” he’d raise his bottle again, “forlorn are they.”  And then he’d drink.

They called him the philosopher, or the sage.  And often he was hated and often too drunk to know he was hated so.  I’ve heard him called ‘malignant’ and ‘a corruption to the youth’, and many would spin a sumptuous length of impressive, lengthy adjectives to hang derisively before his title, but regardless, regardless of if they called him a “profane, disgraceful, distasteful, despicable, detestable, deplorable, malevolent, misanthropic, abominable, insufferable, insubordinate…” and many seemed reluctant to finish their impressive thread, perhaps being unsure of what noun to attach to the end of it, and so regardless of with what profoundly expressive words that lengthy list was comprised, at the end was always attached—whether out of a want for creativity or an abhorred veneration for the man held darkly in the deep chasm of the heart—attached to the end was always the four-letter word ‘sage’.

And venerate him they did.  Though they were disgusted by him beyond the measure of words, they listened.  And when they listened, he spoke.

I went to hear the man speak once.  Far off in his study I found him, laying atop a crooked mountain of books.  Indeed the whole room was filled with books and other strange objects.  The books were all laying out carelessly, opened or closed, with multiple volumes scattered throughout the small, dark room and pages missing, which could be found here and there intermixed with the rest, and sometimes even covers were torn from their places, again laying among the rest, which would have led one to question whether the poor condition of these books was the consequence of mere carelessness or deliberate destruction and disdain.  Other strange members of the gallimaufry included a golden pocket watch; a very nice, victorian-styled smoking-pipe; a beautiful, ceramic, full-body sculpture of Athena—missing only its nose and laying sideways; a gel model of a human hand; fine china and silverware—all of which was broken if it could be; a fine romantic portrait of a noble lady—the frame of which lay in pieces mingled about the portrait, and one of which pieces was stabbed directly through one of the pearls that made up her necklace; and among all of this mess were of course a number of corks and many shards of smashed liquor bottles scattered between everything else and ready to pierce the foot of the first man foolish enough to walk around in that room without exceptionally precautious footwear.  All in all it was a shamelessly gaudy mess that displayed an equally careless monetary extravagance as treatment of valuables.

As we have already mentioned, the room was dark.  Indeed, it was quite dark, and musty.  This was because on that night that I went to visit the man, as on all other nights, the exclusive sources of light in the room were a crooked chandelier of candles, made of gold, with garishly ornamented arms, and hanging almost just above the sage’s head, and a plethora of other small candles on silver or golden candlesticks, all of which were sitting among the rest of the mess, with no particular care being taken to avoid setting fire to the many highly flammable paper items—and indeed, it smelled as if such an occurrence was not uncommon.  These luminaries but scarcely lit the creaky wooden floors and pealing yellowing wall paper, making it hard to see and dangerous to step.

That night, as on all other nights, the philosopher lay on his back on the top of a mountain of books in the centre of the room, drinking his liquor and babbling to himself.  We must be careful when we use the word ‘drinking’, as this does not seem to fully describe what it was the drunken man did—he was indeed drinking, but only a small quantity of the liquor that he poured directly out of his bottle; the rest dribbled back out of his mouth, as he murmured on with a soft droning voice, and trickled over his ugly face and ugly grey beard.  That liquor which escaped seeped its way deep into the philosophical pages of the books upon which he lay and accounted for the overwhelming aroma of alcohol that filled the room and seemed to inebriate everything in it, so that from the noble woman in the painting, to the sculpture of Athena, to the very walls and candlesticks, everyone, and everything, seemed drunk.

When I came upon this scene, for a long time I merely stood in silent awe, observing it all.  Then, approaching the man in the centre, I began to slowly make my way into the large mess, which reached so far out from the mountain of books in the middle that it filled the entire room and made it impossible to speak to the man from a comfortable range of distance without being dragged into the heart of it.

As I advanced, I began to hear the man’s musty murmuring only slightly better, and focusing too much on trying to make out what he was saying and too little on where I was stepping, I inadvertently kicked something over—I’m not sure what it was—and it made a hearty crashing sound.  At that, some intelligible words began to just scarcely emerge out of the drunk’s babbling, much like the pile of books in the centre that gradually erected out of the confused mess that surrounded them:

“Is that you, Samuel?” he groaned, “You’re such a rat, you.”

I didn’t know what to say, so I remained silent.

“Well, you rat?  What do you want?”

Still silence.  He lifted his head and looked at me.

“Oh.  It’s you.  You’re not Samuel.  You’re … who are you?” I stared at him blankly, “Pah!” he waved me away with his hand, “I don’t care who in the god-forsaken physical universe you are.  Go away.”

I still didn’t know what to say.  He started babbling again, and went on for a good moment or so before he turned and looked at me once more.

“You’re still here?  Well, what in the name of existential idiocy do you want!”

“I—” I didn’t know what I wanted.

“You what?” he looked at me impatiently, “You are who?”

“I’m—” I furrowed my brow.  What right had he to ask me who I was?  “Who are you?”

“Ah,” he laughed a brassy laugh, “so that’s what you want, whoever you are.”  he turned away and lay on his back again.  Taking another drink in the same manner already described, he began to speak, making a grand, narcissistic show of the first few words: “I am one who knows.  Not one who thinks, but merely one who knows.” he laughed, “I am a man who, as Isaac Newton once said, ‘sits on the shoulders of giant idiots’.  Every kind of work and every kind of thought of every kind of man of every kind of mankind sits below me, all worthless and gargled about,” he spit out some liquor and waved his bottle, spilling much of its contents about, “and I,” he went on, “I lie on top.  Before me were men of honour,” he said this with a sarcastic emphasis on its triteness, “hard-working men, with all sorts of ridiculous virtues and passions.  By all the laboursome labouring and such mores as are congenial to progress, they’ve heaped together a massive pile of—of what?  Wisdom?” he laughed again, as if this notion itself were exceedingly humorous and even entertaining, “What man has constructed is a pile of words.  It isn’t worth much, and it doesn’t mean anything, but it makes for a comfortable throne on which to stretch out and lie.  And that is exactly my purpose here; I have every intention of stretching out and lying so much that credulous men will think my lies are true.  But what is this to you?  What’s your business in coming here?” as he spoke these last questions, he rolled over onto his belly and turn to look at me, supporting his head with a tripod formed by his two arms, each holding up either cheek, and swinging his feet back and forth behind him, so that he very nearly resembled a school-girl at a sleep over, eager to hear the latest gossip.

“I have no business.  I just wanted to hear you speak—to know if what they say about you is true.”

“And what do they say about me?” he asked this as if he had never been told before and was excessively eager to hear me say it.  We can only assume that this eagerness was the result of a strange pride that he took in his deplorable reputation, causing him to delight in hearing about it, for there is no doubt that others had told him of it countless times before.

“That you’re a cynic,” I replied stiffly, “and an ignoramus.”

At this, he laughed hideously, “Ah, yes, well I must admit I am.  Some people have their heads in the sand, others in the clouds, and still others haven’t heads at all.  I confess to you with barbaric shamelessness that I belong to this third category.  So let them call me an ignoramus, for I am one who knows, not one who cares.”  He rolled onto his back again and began preaching, raising his bottle to the ceiling as if he were addressing the chandelier, “A wise man,” he said, “is a man who cares.  Indeed, the substance of wisdom is passion, not knowledge.  I am not a wise man; I am an ignoramus—an omniscient ignoramus.  That outside these decaying walls there are men, women, and children, suffering, anguishing, starving to death, is of no significance to me.  This is simply because I don’t care.  I know it very well—I know everything very well—but I am not wise in it because it signifies nothing.  Knowledge without perspective is not wisdom but a mere mess of words.  And this I know very well.”

“But why?  Why doesn’t it mean anything to you?”

“Why?  Why should it mean anything to me?  Indeed, why should it mean anything to anyone?  A man is a peculiar arrangement of dust.  From all other things he is only peculiar—not extraordinary, mind you—but peculiar.  He will exist in his particular form for a time, and perhaps even cause another arrangement of dust so strange as he to arise, but very soon he will begin to grow old, and as he grows old, his form will start to change, and as it changes, it will gradually become evident that it was nothing so extraordinary after all.  For soon, it will lie in the earth once more, where its form will continue to change, and change, until, one day not far off from the man’s birth, his form resembles nothing less peculiar to himself than to anything else.  Then, all that’s left of him may be a couple of peculiar words, which we might set down in a book—if they should be so peculiar as to merit such an exercise—and then, we may throw that book somewhere among the rest of the meaningless heap, where it will slowly, at its own rate, decay into the forgetfulness of other men.”

“But what of his soul?”

“His soul?  Now come, my charming idiot, even to you it should be obvious that the soul is something wise men made up to entertain themselves.  There is no soul.  This I know well.  If a man had a soul, why would he have a body?  Everyone acknowledges this simple fact in ordinary life, but when they turn to philosophy, they suddenly invent this ridiculous conception of a ‘soul’ in order to give themselves something to talk about.  If I bump into you, and you say, ‘excuse me’, and I scoff at you in reply (as I am most apt to do), this is because my body has exerted force on your body.  Not even the most unknowing of wise men would think that ‘bumping into a person’ refers to some abstract collision of normative concepts.  A man is his body, or else he is nothing.”

“So is there then no god?”

“Ha!  My boy, now have you ever asked the question!” he became quite excited at this, and in his frenzy, he flung liquor everywhere, so that an unsettling quantity fell even on me and began to seep into the fabric of my attire.  “You’ll want to sit yourself down for this one!  Grab yourself that monkey’s butt and use it as a stand for yours!”  I looked around and realised he must have been referring to a large, taxidermal figure of an ape, bending over to reach out as if for a banana on a lower branch, making its bottom an excellent place for sitting.  This I used as a stool, according to the sage’s advice, and listened as he began to degrade the fundamental principle of all mankind to utter dust.

“Gods,” he began, “are the inventions of dissatisfied minds.  A mind that wanders and a mind that sits idle is a mind without a reason to exist.  There is nothing of substance that the human mind may observe, so it resorts to making things up.  If there were a soul, then why would there be a body?  And if there were a perfect god, then why would there be an imperfect man?”

“So man is imperfect?”  Sitting in the hunched position which seemed most conducive of the ape-seat, I began to stroke my chin with one hand, looking, I suppose, rather like an ape myself.

“Of course.  Why, do you suppose he is perfect?”

“Well, no.  I just wonder—if you have some definition of imperfection, then you must have a concept of perfection, in which case, you have perspective, and in which case, you are wiser than you give yourself credit, for everything around you must have significance, and—”

“—Woah woah woah woah woah!  I see what you’re doing.  Don’t try that stuff with me.  I’m the Odysseus of philosophers—I’m well traveled, and I can cheat my way out of anything.  Perfection and imperfection are merely physical properties.  Like colours.  Colours exist relative to other colours.  We know that red is red because it is not blue, but this doesn’t signify anything, it’s just a part of the meaningless nature of the universe.  It’s the wise men, like you,”—at this point, it was clear that ‘wise’ was to be considered a derogatory term—”who assign these properties meaning, with your gods and such.  But simply because I acknowledge that the properties exist, I am not therefore obligated to care about them.”

“I must say, you are quite a postmodern philosopher.”

“Most philosophers are so postmodern that they deny the existence of postmodernism as a philosophy; others are so pre-modern that they don’t even believe in it.  I am neither.  Postmodernism is simply a quality of philosophy, you may assign it to me or not as you please, but it signifies nothing.”

There was a pause, and I used the time to think.  It was growing late, and the candles were growing short—something that I suppose only candles can do.  A few had even burnt out.  But the aroma of alcohol didn’t cease to fill the air, and all the splendour of mankind still sat below the disbelieving sage.

“Then let me ask you this, my cynical sir,” I restarted our dialogue, “How do you know these things?”

“What do you mean?  Through observation of course!”

“So you observe other men and have found them to be meaningless?  Then, I take it meaninglessness is a quality assigned just like imperfection?”

“Indeed.  Maybe you’re not so stupid after all.”

“Then what is so meaningless about meaninglessness?  You are a self-aware being in a world full of other self-aware beings, all of whom are making observations about the world around them and holding those observations against certain normative conceptions in order to assign them qualities.  Isn’t that the very definition of meaningfulness?  Perfection, imperfection, meaninglessness, meaningfulness, these are all perspectives held on the normative and empirical world, giving it significance.”

“I take back what I said about your intelligence.  That ape was smarter than you; at least he has become a subject of taxidermy, extending the existence of his peculiar form for a number of years after his death.  Your words, on the other hand, are so ordinary and unpeculiar, that they shan’t even find their way to the memory of mankind.  The normative qualities of things are just another realm of things—normative things, mind you, but things nonetheless.  If I have decided that physical things are meaningless, what makes you think I should find normative things meaningful?”

I took no head of his argumentum ad hominem, “Precisely because they are universal.  All men find things to have the same qualities.  The concepts of perfection and imperfection are transcendent of the things they describe and necessarily exist in the minds of all rational creatures.  But such concepts are transcendent even of the minds in which they exist.”

“There you go—you wise man—making up dogma about gods and significance!—”

“—And what of love?  The ability for a rational creature to substitute his own existence and well-being with that of another?”

“What of that?  It’s rubbish!  It happens, sure, but it doesn’t mean anything.  The ‘well-being’ of a man is really of no significance, so how can sacrificing it or saving it mean anything?”

“It has to mean something.  We call it well-being because, according to the transcendental principles of the normative world, it is good for things to exist.”

At this the man hesitated.  He had in fact submitted that there is such a thing as well-being.  So the Odysseus of philosophers, the man of ‘poluntroppos‘, took the discussion for a turn,  “Well I must say, you have me there.  I do in fact find love quite entertaining.”  He took a drink casually, and another few candles in the room quietly flickered out.  “Love,” he began again, “love is perhaps the most interesting part of this meaningless universe.  At least the universe is interesting.”  He wavered around from one idea to another like a drunk man wandering the streets.  “Of course, the only true love is unrequited.”  Now he spoke with more purpose, “Any old lethargic narcissist can love when it feels good, but only the man stupid enough to choose to love even when it causes him agony, only he can be called a true romantic.  Romeo and Juliet was only a good love story for the first two scenes—the rest is ridiculous rubbish.”  He took another drink and looked off into the distance, suddenly quite placidly, peering through a skylight in the ceiling, as if into his memory, and he tried to recall an ancient adage, “A wise man once said,” Suddenly his look of ponderance left, and he frowned, as if he had forgotten himself, “What am I saying?  Quoting a wise man?  What I meant to say is this bit of foolish knowledge: If you love something, let it go; it won’t come back, but do it anyway—it’s mildly entertaining.”  At this he chuckled, but only softly, and mildly.  “I did that once,” he began again, “I—I wrote a poem about it.  Would you like to hear?”  He turned and looked at me.

I was quite simply enraptured as I marvelled at this man and the profound range of forms he could take on.  Once he was as a drunk, then as a mad man, and he was now as an innocent dreamer.  I nodded gently, as if in a trance, to encourage him to continue.  At which he began to recite his poem, droning in his drunken way, but gently:

How she was sweet as zephyrs in the autumn

In cool caress the arboretum’s dead

And raise, those careless currants, dancing dead

Among the hesitating arboretum boughs.

“How she was pretty as hesitating branches

Will bend and blush embarrassed, ashamed to smile

At dancing dead who rise to raise that blush

As handsome roses in the sun at evening’s end.

“How she was beautiful as autumn’s romantic, flaming gloaming

Habitually robes the desolate scape in celestial rays,

And hesitating rays of sweetest, golden evanescence,

In passion, they die among the leafs to rise no more—

And all is lost.

There was a long silence during which the lovely guiltlessness of this man’s melancholy dissipated through that dark, inebriated room.  Suddenly the misanthropic smirk had turned to a romantic frown.  But darkness yet lurked in the far corners of the room, and many more candles had gone out while I was entranced with this man’s charm.  They were now extinguishing with greater and greater frequency.

“Then isn’t the sheer beauty of that experience worth living for?” I asked softly, “It has begotten such exquisite art.”

“Worth living for?  Living?  The only difference between art and ‘real life’ is that we live life for the mere fun of it.  Sure, love is entertaining, but it isn’t even real.  It dies.”

“But isn’t that part of its beauty?  As you said in the poem… what did you say?  ‘How she was beautiful as … hesitating rays … they die’ … didn’t you say that she was beautiful because of her evanescence?”

“I don’t know.”  Said the man who knows everything, “I can never know what she was; there was no way for me to peer into her mind.  What is love if it can’t even know of its object?  What is love if one can never truly know what the other feels, suffers, and thinks?

“My dear idiot, I am not a wise man, but I know this:” he took a drink before continuing.  Then, drunken, he abruptly shattered the tranquil atmosphere that had so become the room, “Forlorn!” he cried, and more candles went out, “Forlorn are they that roam the chasms of the mind!  Forlorn are they that stand in pause without!” the candles died, all but one, “and between them,” this last candle flickered.  He laughed, as one who knows, “between them stands a chasm–indeed, a chasm as great and as profound as the stander’s pause and the roamer’s roaming mind.  So that he that roams is lost and he that stands knows not where he’s standing.  Forlorn,” the last candle died, “forlorn are they.”

The room was very dark, lit only by the ominous glow of the moon, which gazed down through a skylight from high above, in the heavens, casting a long shadow of the sage across the floor as he preached and spat, laying atop his glorious mountain of knowledge.  The portrait of the noble lady and the statue of Athena looked sinister and menacing, lit there in the silver darkness of knowledge.  The man went on preaching and seemed to forget me as he spoke.  I too seemed to forget him.  Little by little he seemed darker and darker to me, till he was only a silhouette, and then a mere shadow.  His speech likewise faded from intelligible words to murmuring, so that he seemed as a wretched demon, imprecating a horrible curse on all mankind from atop his throne.

I started for the door, and hearing me leave, he shouted out after me, “Is that you Samuel?  You rat!”

As I rushed out of that place, dawn approached from the East.  The horizon slowly faded from black to purple to grey to red, according to each contrasting quality of its ascension.  The cold, wandering zephyrs crispened the morning dew and carried with them the sweetest sounds of church bells ringing far off in the distance.  And the perfect, broken harmony of all of nature cried in steady solemn tones, “Behold, there is a God in Heaven, forlorn among the fallen men of earth!”

The Venture

Mr. Bowden was short and stout.  He had thick, dark hair that reached awkwardly all the way across the top of his disproportionately large head and would have very nearly lavished his eyes in a dense forest of itself were it not for the two dry and bristly black eyebrows that sat just above them, looking rather like a pair of bushes restraining a sea of vines from his line of vision.  Below this he wore a jungle of facial hair that was fastidiously combed in at least eighteen different directions, and below this was a short neck and a broad pair of shoulders from which hung a shamelessly gaudy suit that was equipped with almost every sort of ornamentation imaginable.

He walked confidently—as if he owned the place—making his way from a considerably large hall or building into a small, dusty room, labeled with a sign tentatively resting above the threshold which read “office”.  There he found, whether to his surprise or expectation, two skinny gentlemen, one of whom sat with his hands decorously folded on the only desk in the room, and the other of whom sat in a chair, furiously writing away on a small pad of legal paper—which was a curious sight considering the normal lack of lifelessness with which chairs are characteristically portrayed.  The man at the desk bore a specious, physiognomical quizzicality, and the man in the laboriously vital chair appeared confused (perhaps because he didn’t understand specious, physiognomical quizzicality, or even the words used to describe it).  The man at the desk was probably wondering why he wasn’t also described as a man in a chair, for he seemed to be sitting as well, but perhaps this was merely due to his exceptionally average height.  Both men stood upon Mr. Bowden’s entrance, which was difficult to do considering how short that was.

“Good noon to you,” the quizzical one said, extending his hand.

“Good noon,” said the confused one.

“Good noon?” Mr. Bowden asked, confused.

“Good noon,” the confused ones said again.

“What on earth do you mean,” Mr. Bowden exclaimed, “by saying good noon?”

“The same thing as that which is by it meant by you.” Replied the man in his quizzical manner.

“And what is that?” the stalky man of the one in quizzicality inquired, confused as he was.

“Only that it is noon, and this is good.”

“That’s ridiculous!  You are never to greet me in this way again!”

“But what, then, are we to say to each other if we should come upon you another day at noon?” asked the other.

“Wait until twelve o’ one, and then greet me like a normal human being—good afternoon.”

Upon this commandment, the room grew oddly silent, making the short man, Mr. Bowden, feel even more uncomfortable.  After a formidable passage of idle time, the room had grown so unbearably silent that it was quite sure to lose its balance very soon and come tumbling down in a loud crash had it not been for the quizzical man’s sudden breaking of that silence:

“Good afternoon sir.”  Everyone in the room assumed that the minute must have struck.  Mr. Bowden rolled his eyes.  The quizzical man continued, “Allow me to introduce this man.”  He made a gesture to the man.

“Please do.” Mr. Bowden said.

“I’d love to; simply allow me to do so and I shall.”  At this, Mr. Bowden realised that he had accidentally been prohibiting the quizzical man from introducing the other man and so he immediately withdrew his prohibition.  That done, the quizzical man pulled out a bottle of scotch and some glasses that had been hiding in the desk.  “I’ll pour us some drinks before we get started.”  He said, putting the glasses on and squinting very intently at the cups as he poured, trying unsuccessfully not to spill.

“I’m Sir. Dr. Pro. Rev. Mr. Its. My. Cat. Master Ellsworth Hal Wilhelm Junior the Third PhD.,” said the man who had not yet been introduced, “but please feel free to call me Duncan.”

“Very well Ellsworth,” Mr. Bowden said, “I’ll feel free to do so.”  Upon this exchange the quizzical man ran out of scotch to pour and consequentially decided he must have filled the cups high enough—though they hardly had anything in them.

“Here sirs,” he said, handing the other two gentlemen each a cup, “how about a tall glass of scotch.”  Mr. Bowden, somewhat insulted by the obvious slight that the man had made to his height, accepted the offering concessively, small as it was; Duncan did the same, mindful of Mr. Bowden’s shortage.

“Of course you both must know me,” Mr. Bowden said.

“Indeed, we must.” replied the quizzical one.

“And you’ve clearly been expecting me.”

“Oh, have we ever.”

“Oh yes, have we ever?” Duncan added emphatically.

“So since we all know why I’m here,” Mr. Bowden went on, “I suggest we get started right away.”  At this he casually sipped from the drop of alcohol in his cup, “Macbeth,” he said, looking at the quizzical one, “—do you mind me calling you Macbeth?”

“I don’t mind.” said the quizzical one, “I’m not mindful of much anything at all, but I’d much prefer you called me by my name.”

“I’m glad to hear it.  I’ll just call you Macbeth then, for simplicity sake.  You may call me Mr. Bowden,” he took another sip from that drop. “So Macbeth, I propose that you start us off.”

“Very well.  I’ll just start us off by asking Duncan here to give the opening words.”

“Certainly.” said Duncan, “The opening words are these: ‘Mr. Bowden, please begin when you feel ready.'”

“Thank you very much, gentlemen,” the gentlemen did as he told them to and thanked themselves.  Mr. Bowden continued, “I see you have done a considerable amount already, so why don’t we begin by taking a look at what you have so far.  Is that it right there?”  He pointed at the legal pad that Duncan, the confused one, had been scribbling on earlier.

“That?” said Macbeth, quizzically, “Oh yes, of course.  That’s it!”

“Oh, is it?” said Ellsworth, confused, “Oh is it ever!”

“Very good.  Might I read it?” Mr. Bowden asked.

“So be it.” said the confused one, and it did as he told it to and was.

Mr. Bowden looked over the legal pad.  The confused man and the quizzical man exchanged looks.  “Do you like it?” asked the quizzical man, looking rather confused thanks to the recent exchange.

“Oh do I ever.”  Mr. Bowden muttered, browsing the yellow pages intently.  Putting away the phone book, he turned to the legal pad and pointed at a particular line, “What does this mean?” he asked Duncan.  Duncan stared at the marking quizzically.  He wasn’t wearing his glasses, and that laboriously vital and confused chair was a notoriously bad hand writer.

“I’m sorry,” he said, “Are you able to read this Charles?”

“Of course I am able to read!” said ‘Macbeth’—the confusedly appearing quizzical one—realising that Duncan must be referring to him, “Don’t be absurd!  Let me just see here.”  He took the legal pad in hand and, after squinting at it for a moment, turned it up side down and said, “Oh, this is simple.  It means that we must turn the page for more information.”

“Oh, that’s simple,” said Duncan.  “Why couldn’t I think of that!”  The two looked at each other quizzically and confusedly for a moment, hoping that Mr. Bowden would buy their little charade.

Charles turned to Mr. Bowden, “Is there anything you would like to add to the discussion before we turn the page?”

“Well,” Mr. Bowden began, “Let me just say that this whole venture is off to exactly the kind of start we should have expected.  I am passionately indifferent to the kind of work you two have done so far, and I think that, together, we are going to do an extraordinarily ordinary job on this thing.”  Mr. Bowden sold his charade for much cheeper than did Charles and the talking chair.

“So what do you suggest we do next?” Duncan asked.

“Hm,” Mr. Bowden stroked his sharp beard, and then looked at his injured hand in terror as he realised what he had done.  Quickly, he produced a comb and brushed the beard back in the nineteen different directions which it had originally been flowing.  “Why don’t we begin by getting to know each other a little bit.”

“That sounds like a great idea!” Charles said.

“Indeed, a marvellous example of euphony!” Duncan added.

“Very good.” Mr. Bowden took another sip of his drop of alcohol. “Let’s begin with you, Charles.  Um, tell us about yourself.”  They all looked at each other awkwardly.  Charles couldn’t think of anything to say.  To be completely honest, he didn’t actually know anything about himself.  “What do you have to say for yourself?”

“Well…” Charles could feel himself sweating.  The salt drops beaded up on the back of his neck and in the deep, dark crevices of his armpits, rolling down his body like little ants crawling back into the ground after a long day of work, drenching him in more description than he had yet been allotted in these pages.

Seeing that Charles was having something of a hard time with this question, Mr. Bowden decided to get a little more specific, “How are you doing today?”

“Oh, I’m pretty good.”

“You’re pretty good?  You most certainly are not if that’s the kind of English you use!”

“It’s okay,” Duncan attempted to placate Mr. Bowden’s grammatical pique, “He meant it adverbially.”

“Adverbially?” Charles asked, “How do you mean that?”

“Adverbially.” Duncan replied.  “I mean ‘adverbially’ adverbially.”

“He is doing adverbially good?” Mr. Bowden asked.

“No, he is doing ‘good’ in an adverbial sense.”

“That doesn’t make any sense.”

“It made perfect sense—and I meant that in a perfect tense.”

“There is no such thing as ‘perfect sense’; it used to be common sense that all language was imperfect.”

“Yes, but Common Sense was responsible for the American revolution.  Having learned from our past mistakes, society now ensures that sense is, among people at any rate, quite entirely uncommon.”

This bantering took place rather quickly, so that Charles could scarcely get in a word.  Finally, he managed to wedge his way into a slight brake in the conversation:

“Well,” he said, “I’m doing well.”

“Very good.”  Mr. Bowden tried to think of another question to ask—something that would help them on their project.  Unable to think of anything exceptionally relevant, he asked something of equal relevance to everything else, “Do you have any children?”

“Oh yes.”  Replied Charles, panicked and thinking quickly, “Duncan here is my son.”

“I am?” Duncan asked.  “I am.  Of course I am.  I’m his sun, I mean son.  I’m his son.”

“Really?”  Mr. Bowden marvelled, looking at Duncan, “You’re rather young for your age.  How old are you?”

“I’m a year younger than I should be older than I am.”

“Wow.  That’s a terribly wonderful age.”  They all sipped their drops of alcohol.  Mr. Bowden looked around the room.  There was a massive painting of a man hanging from the left wall, which led Mr. Bowden to believe that the room must have formerly been a prison where sick-minded artists would come on execution days in order to paint paintings of the convicts which were hanged from the left wall.  “Well, if I can’t be of any further assistance, then I think I’ll just get going.”  He stood up.

“No, you mustn’t!” Charles pleaded zealously.

“Why not?”

“Why not?  Um … Why not not?”

“What?”

“Why not stay?”

“Oh I don’t know.  Why should I, why should I not?  I might as well leave as stay, but I think I’ll leave because I can.”

“No, you must stay!”

“Why?”

“Because we’re having such a grand time.  Aren’t we Duncan?”

“Oh yes, a marvellous time.”  Duncan hesitated as he spoke, but seeing Charles’ pleading, he said it nonetheless.

“But we aren’t getting very much work done.”  Mr. Bowden stood half way between the door and his chair.

“Oh, we’ll get plenty of work done.  Here, I’ll turn the page.”  Charles turned the page, “You sit down now—have yourself another drink.”

Mr. Bowden sat and took another sip of his drop.  The three of them all sat there a while as Charles scoured the second page of the legal pad.  Mr. Bowden noticed the clock ticking.

“Well?”  Duncan asked, “Does it have anything written on it or not?”

“No, it doesn’t.”

“Here, give it to me.  I’ll write something.” With Duncan writing something, Mr. Bowden turned to Charles.

“Charles, was this place ever a prison?”

“No, not that I recall.  Or if it was, it wasn’t often so.  Duncan, do you know of the last time this place was a prison?”

“The last time is yet to come if it never was.”

“But was it?”  Mr. Bowden appeared to be growing a bit nervous (a form of growth that only occurs horizontally).  He raised his eyebrows, allowing the dense forest of hair to come tumbling down over his eyes like water tearing through a floodgate.

“I think it was.”  Duncan began, “or maybe it still is.  I’m not sure.  Let us say that it is sometimes, but other times it is not.”  Mr. Bowden was slightly relieved by this.

“I must say,” he said, “I am slightly relieved by this.  But tell me Charles, how far back does your knowledge of the history of this room stretch?”

“To be reasonably honest in my affectation,” Charles began, slightly offended by the slight that Mr. Bowden had obviously made to his lack of flexibility, “I have quite an extensive record associated with this room.  Indeed, it is almost criminal how long my record is.”

“But do you remember when this room was constructed?”

“Well—”

“—what about this building, do you remember when it was built?”

“Well—”

“—and how about the plot, do you remember when the rocks that make it up were first formed?”

“Well—”

“—well what?  Do you remember it or not?”

“Obviously he does;” Duncan chimed in, “clearly, one cannot remember something ‘well’ without remembering it at all.”

“I don’t think that’s what he meant by ‘well’.”

“Then what did he well mean?”

“I believe he meant well.  The ‘well’ was serving as an absolute clause, prefacing an answer to my question.”

“Or, perhaps the ‘well’ was serving as a metaphysical absolute, prefacing the existence of this room.”

“What do you mean that he would have meant by that?”

“I mean simply, that he would have meant that before this room or building or plot existed, there was a well to draw water from—or rather, from which to draw water—which must have existed in order that the builders of the building were able to survive.”

“But is that actually what you think he meant?”

“I certainly can’t be certain, but given that our only evidence is the manner in which the ‘well’ was pronounced and the context in which it was said, I suppose the matter is one of great ambiguity, which creates much room for a wide range of views and inquiries, and that is only further obfuscated by the additional weight of each perspective that our inquiry bestows on it, and which must be rhetorically analysed and thoroughly debated in order to arrive at a sufficiently satisfactory conclusion about the well in question.  Now, I suggest that we begin this undertaking by producing a number of hypotheses and performing a series of hypothetical tests in order to merit or demerit each theory.  My hypotheses are as follows:—”

“—What I was going to say is: Well,” Charles cut him off, “I suppose this room has been here for much longer than I’ve been alive,” (at this, Duncan was mildly insulted by the obvious mild insult that Charles had made to his age), “but I can at least speak for its prisonhood or lack there of from my birth date onward.”

“That’s very well,” Mr. Bowden sipped his drop, “in all senses of the word.”  Duncan was confused by this comment, as it seemed strange to him that Mr. Bowden should say anything relating to a place from which water is drawn at this point in the conversation, but he chose to let it go on the grounds that he was too tired to initiate another experiment.

Mr. Bowden began again, “I suppose I might just as well be going now.  I think we all have a clear picture as to what needs to be done before the next time we meet.”

“But you can’t leave now,” Charles pleaded.

“Why not?”

“Because we’re making so much progress on the thing.”

“Are we?  How do you know?  What if there’s way more left to do than you think?”

“Then we could never know that until we’ve done it.  So we might as well just keep working in order to find out how much work there is to do.”

“That sounds reasonable to me,” Duncan commented.

Charles turned to him, “Indeed, Duncan, why don’t you read to us what you’ve written so far.”

“Certainly,” he cleared his throat, “‘The twenty giraffes wearing bow ties must be stored immediately in the nearest gas station.  For details, see the large moose.'”

“Wow,” Charles marvelled, “you’re quite a prolific writer, you’ve entirely filled that other page with strange symbols and obscure words, and now you’ve written an entire coherent, or very nearly coherent, sentence.  How do you have so much to write?”

“He’s probably just making stuff up.”  Mr. Bowden snuffed.

“You don’t know that, perhaps he’s plagiarising.”  Charles spoke excitedly.

“Is that better?”

“Well it’s better than if everything he wrote were random and meaningless.”

“But how can it be meaningful if the words were already planned out by someone else in advance?”

“I would suppose that if the plagiarised authors knew what they were doing, it should be quite full of meaning indeed.”

“But then there’s nothing in it that’s purely Duncanian.  What’s the point of copying shakespeare onto a legal pad?”  This left Charles pondering a moment.  He looked at the legal pad.  No where on it did he see the sentence Duncan had read to them.  This was probably due to Duncan’s helplessly illegible handwriting.  The pad appeared, to Charles, to contain only a considerably large, and very poorly crafted, portrait of a young chicken.

“Perhaps the writers from whom Duncan copies are Duncanian enough.  Goodness knows I could have never plagiarised such an obscure sentence as the one Duncan read to us, let alone find it in the endless repertoire of literature that the English language has accumulated throughout the ages.”

“Enough with the age comments!”  Duncan finally spoke, “I’ve already told you my age!”  It grew awkwardly silent—much to Mr. Bowden’s offence—and everyone seized the opportunity to take a sip of their scotch droplets.

“In any case,” Mr. Bowden began, “I see we’ve made a sensible amount of progress on this thing after all.  Maybe we should just stop and call it finished.  It seems good enough to me, what with the philosophical rambling and all.”  At this point, Charles was beginning to feel a bit confused (even for the quizzical sort of person that he usually is), for he didn’t understand what was particularly philosophical about a young chicken.

“Don’t be absurd!” Duncan objected, “We can’t stop now!”

“Why?”

“Because it’s unethical.  We would be passing off as complete something that is clearly incomplete.  Just think of the consequences!”

“But perhaps this thing could actually be categorised as completed; how are we to know?”

“It’s quite a dilemma;” Duncan produced a pipe—in much the same manner that Mr. Bowden had produced a comb earlier—and began smoking it (which is a rather odd way to use a musical instrument), “it seems we don’t have enough information to even know which action is most ethical.  Ergo, I believe we have arrived, gentlemen, at an opportunity for serious philosophical discourse.”  At this, Charles considered consulting the young philosophical chicken, but decided against it after a brief and in-depth philosophical deliberation about the matter.

“We must begin this decision process,” Duncan continued, “by developing a metaphysics of morals.  So we must consider a plausible alternative situation to the one we are in now and, in that alternative situation, determine what would be the best course of action and why.”  They all thought for a while, sipping their drinks and smoking their pipes.

“Eureka!  I’ve got it!” Charles exclaimed, thinking of a hypothetical but plausible situation, “Suppose there are thirteen people standing on the back of a wild kangaroo as it jumps over the summit of Mount Everest in a magnificent acrobatic stunt.  While they are in mid air, you remember that earlier that morning, you had received notice from an impatient inpatient that unless he was strapped to a violinist very soon in order to use the instrumentalist’s kid knees (tragically, the patient’s own were broken and he never grew into his adult knees) to clean his bodily fluids and survive his terminal illness for another few days, he would go to the nearest airplane terminal and fly a plane to Kansas, where he would throw a hysterical fit over the matter.  The problem is that the path that such a plane would need to take would go directly through the path of this acrobatic performance, and the results could be fatal.  You also remember that there is a violinist who said he was up for the task under the condition that he be compensated with the tooth neckless of Mr. Smith, a rather curious gentleman who takes great pleasure in turning his body parts into pieces of jewellery.  You know that you can obtain the neckless from Mr. Smith by beating Mr. Jones (a con-artist) in a game of poker and having him do the dirty work as a form of compensation, but you are hesitant to engage in gambling.  Is it ethical for you to gamble under these circumstances?”

“I object!” Duncan objected.

“On what grounds?”

“Your situation is absurd.”

“How so?”

“It’s not realistic.  You couldn’t beat Mr. Smith in a poker match to save your life, let alone the lives of thirteen perfectly innocent, however unfortunate, acrobats and their kangaroo friend!”

“Very well.  You raise a good point.  Let us suppose then, for the sake of argument, that I have you there with me to do the gambling part and beat Mr. Jones.”

“I say the answer is no.”  Mr. Bowden said, “It is morally impermissible for you to use Duncan to gamble for the tooth neckless.  Besides, its unethical to beat Mr. Jones in the first place, or to beat anyone for that matter.”

“I disagree,” Duncan disagreed, “A wise man once said that ethics are a metaphysical construct of the human mind as a normative instance of the incalculable conception of the human experience—”

“—What on earth does that mean?” Charles asked.

“I don’t really know, but it sounds cool.  Anyway, acting under that maxim I suppose that it is morally and rationally permissible for you to proceed and use me to gamble for the tooth neckless.”

“But what about the other people waiting for the plane to arrive in Kansas.”

“Oh, I didn’t realise—is it a passenger plane?”

“Of course it is.  And there are three children waiting to take it to Kansas to be reunited with their mother; a lady in labor needs to take it to the hospital that is attached to the Kansasian airport; and a pair of philosophers intend to ride it there in order to meet a man for a poker match as a part of a strikingly similar situation to our own.”

“So that’s thirteen acrobats, three children, two philosophers, a mother, a pregnant woman, Mr. Smith, an impatient patient, Mr. Jones, a violinist, and a kangaroo?”

“That’s right.”

“Hm, this is more difficult than I thought.”  They all thought silently for a time.  Mr. Bowden noticed a deck of normal playing cards and two jokers that had been sitting in the corner inconspicuously hitherto.  This was a somewhat mortifying realisation for him—no one wants to suddenly notice a pair of hideously pallid jokers sitting in the corner smiling and listening in on one’s conversation.

“I’ve got it!” Mr. Bowden broke the silence, “Why don’t you explain the situation to Duncan, since he is the only competent gambler on the premise, and then let him decide what to do.”

“But I already know the situation, why would he explain it to me?  Besides, that would just be a way of passing the dilemma off to another moral agent.”

“You have a moral agent?”  Mr. Bowden was clearly happy to hear this.  “Why don’t we just call him then and ask him what to do?”

“I agree,” Charles agreed, “Let’s just call your agent.”

“No, I don’t have an agent.  That’s not what—I don’t think that’s what that means.”  Needless to say, they were all rather disappointed to hear this.  Everyone sipped their drinking droplets.

“Well anyway, I think I’ll get going now.”  Mr. Bowden said.

“But what are we to do about the moral dilemma?”  Charles asked.

“Oh, I’m sure you’ll think of something.  Why don’t you just approach it mathematically.”

“What do you mean by that.”

“I mean use math to solve it.”

“Oh, I see what he means,” Duncan interjected, “Let’s assign each person’s interests in the case a quantitative value of importance and then act proportionately to the greatest values.”

“But what are these values based on?”  Charles asked.

“Utility.”

At this everyone was silent.  The discussion had reached a dead halt, as no one in the room, including Duncan, had any idea what ‘utility’ meant or how it had anything to do with morality.  Everyone sipped their droplets.

“Well there you go.” Mr. Bowden began speaking again, “Just do the biggest utility or whatever.  And do the same with the thing we’re working on; let’s just make the biggest utility bill we can.  And I must say, at least on the part of my own moral agent, he and I have agreed that it is the most utilitious to consider the work here completed.  I really must get going.”

“But shouldn’t there be some kind of truth to the matter?”  Charles pleaded ingenuously.

“How so?”

“You can’t just decide that a particular course of action is most ethical because you like it the most.  And I do not feel that we could any more so decide by vote what is most ethical, because then we would just be doing what the group likes, which cannot objectively be called moral.  There must be a difference between acting as one pleases, or even as a group as big as the entire world pleases, and acting morally.  Perhaps sitting out in the universe somewhere, watching us, there is a massive, completely objective chicken, like the one Duncan drew there, a philosophical fowl, bigger than this room, this building, or even the plot upon which the building rests.”

“But how could we ever know anything about that?  We don’t even remember when this room was built.  In fact, I’m having a difficult time even remembering what happened this past noon.”

This brought out the philosopher in Duncan.  “Then maybe there’s just no such thing as morals.”

“But if that is so,” Charles asked, “how could we know if it is permissible to say we are finished with our project.  Is it true to say we are?”

“There is no truth.”

“Is that true?”

“I don’t know, but it’s fun to say.”  They all sipped their droplets.  Mr. Bowden peered deep into his glass.  He realised that he had been drinking about half of the droplet every time he took a sip.

“I really must be going.”  Mr. Bowden said.

“But you haven’t even finished you’re drink.” Charles very nearly taunted him, “It would be rude to leave without finishing your drink.  Besides, we haven’t finished what you came here to do.”

At this Mr. Bowden removed his wig.  “If I may be perfectly candid with you gentlemen,” he looked them in the eyes, “I can’t say I’m entirely sure what we are trying to do here.”

“What do you mean?  We’re working on the project.”

“But what is the project?”  They were all silent.  Everyone sipped their drops of liquor, once again dividing the quantity of alcohol left in half, but no one was able to finish his drink.  Mr. Bowden looked from face to puzzled face; they were all just a group of quizzical and confused men (and jokers and talking chairs).  Finally Duncan spoke up.

“I can’t say I really know either.”  At this, the charade had ended, and all proceeds were returned.  “I suppose that’s the problem with beginning a short story in medias res, or for that matter, walking into an office or some sort of room in the same manner.  No one knows what on earth is going on.”

Charles replied, “So what is going on; you know, on earth and all?  What are we supposed to do?  If there is no big chicken, and all we’re doing is whatever a bunch of people feel like, then that’s just silly.  If that’s the case, I think I’ll be leaving; I want no part in such a venture.”

The Coward

There is a place that I should much like you to know of, though you in your better wisdom should wish to know it not.  And were it not a real place, I would be entirely content to write of it and relieve my weary heart.  But that it is real, I am forbidden to so do.

So I will write of it as if it were a fantasy, and in the mystery of your mind’s enchanted places, the vision of my story will reside—for you to judge and give it life or death, that if you let it live, and believe it to be truth, you alone will be to blame for this outrageous, unlawful act.

If you are to come to know this place that may or may not be real, you must first begin to understand the Royal Courts of Wise Men.

If I am not lying to you, the Royal Courts have been around for many a millennium, providing wisdom for the fool and ruling over all the earth.  Many a man who has lost his way has come across the Courts, and with a trembling soul and desperate heart, he enters.  There he finds the Noble Men who sit in the seats of mockers, and when he pleads his case before them, it is not until after much scornful laughter and disdainful condemnation that they take his soul’s adversity and put it in a box.  They package it with proverbs and tie it shut with merit, and with this done they give it back and send him on his way.

He leaves in utter confusion, not sure if he should be sad or glad.  He cannot tell whether the Royal Men were his dearest guides and friends or his tyrannical adversaries.  Of only one thing is he certain: he will not reject their advice, which seems more like commands, for it has relieved him of his duty to think, and for this he is very grateful.

So do men come in and out of the Royal Courts in an assembly line of ignorance, and in those days—if there ever were such days, for remember, all of this is only true if you let it be—there was such a man who came to the Courts in desperate search for wisdom, for his heart had bore a grief much greater than it could hold.

And so the man came, in utter despair, through the forest of confusion; in lonely, solemn march, he made his way through those dark and winding woods.  So thick and dense is the foliage that none who enter can hope to keep their bearings.  Lost and wandering in aimless surrender, he came upon the Courts.  Looking up he saw their construct towering above him as high as to the heavens, promising answers from the secrete places, and he, at the end of his will’s determination, seized the door and pulled it open with a force that came from the bowels of his heavy heart.

Upon his so dong, the massive doors began to open on their own, as if compelled by fate or moved by the supernatural force of wisdom.

With caution, he entered and beheld the most glorious sight his eyes had ever seen, for before him stood the Royal Courts in such majesty.  He gazed across the endless palace ceiling decorated with Royal paintings and scenes of such beauty that the pen would reach beyond his means to try to write them down.  The Court was structured with magnificent ionic columns and ornamentations of silver and gold that, from the outer perimeter, grew thicker and thicker until, at the centre, the room expanded into an immense flood of space with a domed ceiling of infinite hight, equipped with many skylights through which shown a sun that seemed much brighter than the one that barely graced the forest floor outside, all rising upward, ever upward.  And at the very centre were three monstrous thrones upon the high tops of which sat the Counsel of Wise Men.

Our weary pilgrim, in speechlessness at the sight, fell on his face before the thrones in grievous, piteous solicitation.  The Wise Men looked down on him.  They saw his wrinkled tunic and equally worn brow, and taking him to be a common beggar, poor in wisdom as he was in wealth, they asked him his desire.  And trembling, he lifted his head to try to speak, but no words would come out.  At this, the man on the middle throne, whose voice was like thunder, commanded him, “Rise humble servant.  What is it you wish?”

And rising to his feet, the peasant pleaded, “I have come, o noble ones, in want of an answer to my endless woe, that I might ease me of my pain.”

At this, the wise man on the left, seeing that the poor man had noble desires and being well pleased at so virtuous a solicitation, said to him, “It is good of you to seek the advice of wiser men, and we, as friends, shall be glad to grant you help.  Please proceed.  How came you to this state of desperation?”

The lesser man replied, “It was not long ago that I used to dwell in the safer hidden caves of this world, living there in silence and safety.  Daily I secluded myself in their mysterious crevasses, taking care to never bother another soul.  Though others called me selfish, ignorant, and dead to life, I was, for a long time, perfectly content with my invisible life, or non-life, of secrecy.  I think I should have gladly gone on in that secluded state to this day if I had been so allowed, for I had no desire to leave.”

The man paused as if unsure he could go on, for the painful memory of his tragedy, he thought, would surely grab his tongue, shortly, and forbid him speak it.  But the wise man on the right, who spoke in a gentle whisper encouraged him to continue, “How did it happen, then, that you should find yourself here? What demon’s curse could have compelled you from your blissful state?”

“No demon’s curse!” the man rebuked him, forgetting himself and his respect for the Royal Court, “but divine blessing of beauty beyond compare withdrew me from my cave.

“It was a glorious evening.” he continued, easing his tone, “The sun was setting on the horizon, painting every tree and plant a fiery shade of red and gold.  The warm summer’s air blew fragilely across the landscape, hesitating before entering my cave with a gracefulness that was only mildly dampened by the harsh construct of the rocks.  Moved by the sweet fragrance of lilies, as many are often moved, I thought it would be good to enjoy the evening’s air and peek to see what beautiful scene must lie beyond my cavern.  I crept with caution to the mouth of the rock, a decision I would forever regret, and leaned against a protruding stalagmite to grace my eyes with the vision that lay beyond.”

“Aye, so it was the sun that drew you out” said the wise one on the left.

“No,” responded the amiable fool, “it was something much more than I could ever have imagined, for just outside my dark and hollow cave, I saw the most glorious angel that heaven could design.  Her brown hair, tinted gold with the sun’s gentle beams, danced in the wind while she walked, as one of divine origin, through the open field, admiring the breathtaking view.  Her delicate figure and grace was surly something of heaven, for the world is not equipped with such tender beauty.  In her hand, she held a bouquet of lilies that she must have found among the many that were growing in the field.  Though they smelled like heaven, and the evening looked more majestical than the glory of Rome, none compared to the incomprehensible beauty that I saw in her.  And as she looked upon the field in awe, so did I look upon her.

“At last, I could bear it no more; I had to go become a part of her.  Without thinking twice, I left the comfort of my home, which now seemed a prison, and pursued her with all my heart.  When I had reached her across the field, I placed my hand on her shoulder.  She turned and unveiled to me her divinely beauteous face that seemed to shine on me with beams from heaven itself.  I felt my knees grow weak, and I could not speak.

“I wished to tell her how radiant she was.  How her face was like the sun, and her body like that of a goddess.  I wanted to tell her that she, a nymph, was the most glorious thing my eyes had ever beheld and that I had not known joy until that very moment.  I wanted to ask her to never leave me but always stay, that I could provide for her every need and grant her every wish.  I longed to tell her so much, but all I could not, for my breath had left me.

“Gentlemen, I may not be a nobleman of wisdom, but I do know this: the sun sets.  And once it does, all that’s left is darkness.”

Upon saying this, the man grew silent, as if his words had run out like a music box whose spring becomes slack, and he began to weep.  But the man with the thunderous voice roared, “You fool!  You should have never left the cave, for the cave is small, and one may know its structure well and in it, may never get lost.  But the end of the cave is the end of wisdom, and to leave was utter folly.”

“When you departed,” added the one on the left, “you left the one place where you were sure to live in peace.  You should have never gazed over the edge of that rock, for the rock was all that kept you safe from this vain illusion.”

“This fantasy is folly,” whispered the one on the right, “and your overlooking your ignorance is what caused your vain desire.  If you hadn’t left, you would never have desired that which you cannot have.”

“You must return,” the middle one thundered, “to your cave, even if it seems a hell, for you brought this on yourself, and for it you must pay.  Away!  To your prison!”

The man could not believe the words he heard, and he chose to believe them not.  “No,” he said, “you misunderstand me.  My mistake was not seeing her but remaining mute before her.  I would never take away my memory of her, but the grief I bear is because I am a coward and would not speak.”

“You fool!” the council rebuked him again, “there is no sense in what you say, for she was an illusion.  She was not joy, but the destroyer of happiness, for she lay beyond the reach of wisdom.”

Though the memory of his cowardly act gave the peasant much grief, this thought gave him more, and so he drew his breath in pain: “Well perhaps that’s what joy is,” he replied, “perhaps joy is the destroyer of all happiness, who lies beyond the reach of wisdom.”

And for that thought alone, the man was exiled to the place that isn’t real—the place where cowards are sent for crimes of treason and folly.

For the Noble Wise-Men of the Court, if there were such men, were very joyous, and all who said otherwise, if there were such people, were guilty of high treason and sent away to the place that lie beyond that kingdom ruled by wisdom, a place which, if there is such a place, must be dreadfully miserable, for there could be no happiness there.

However, my dear reader, there probably isn’t such a place, and all this probably never happened, so don’t let it bother you too much.  For it, lying beyond the reach of reality, cannot bring much joy because it is the destroyer of all happiness, and only a coward would choose anything over happiness, and only a fool would believe such a thing exists.