Friday, October 16, 2009

shadows ( A Short Story )

This is something I wrote in the dim mists of time several years ago. Back then, I was a writer with half a first draft to my name, no job and a lot of fire and passion for writing that I couldn't be bothered to actually do. In those dim recesses, when I was trying to gain some sort of writing habit for the first time, I was charged with writing a short story by a mentor of sorts at the time.

I believe the prompt was to write a short story that dealt with some form of historical event. I'm pretty sure this doesn't exactly qualify, but it appeared nearly fully formed and I committed it to paper where it remains one of my favorite short stories I've ever written (admittedly not a huge claim).

It's not much like anything I'd write today, but I figured I'd share it in its original form. I did little more than excise nearly a hundred misused commas. More likely remain. My comma use is decreasing over time, but they're still the zerg rush of puncutation that I just can't seem to shake.

I hope you enjoy it! And next week, you'll get a proper FridayFlash of original fiction like you all deserve.

~ Matt



The sun shone down upon the lone figures walking along the beaten path. The rains had not come for weeks and the men left clouds of dust in their wake. The figures moved slowly and the wind blew from behind them. If they were not careful, they could choke on their own dust. Yet these men were not careful.

“With this dust, we will breathe in the anguish of the world,” the eldest of the men said. He was a shriveled thing, no more than a shambling corpse. The words that came from him could have been the wind through the barren trees.

“As we choke and spit up this dust, we spit up our anguish and return it to the world,” the youngest of them replied. He was not as thin as the old man, but he was also shriveled and malnourished. What would have been a handsome young man in normal circumstances was no more than a slowly decaying shell.

“Returning our anguish to the world, we cleanse ourselves of it, and the dust does not find us,” said the third member. He was not so young as the young man, but he was not old. Like them, he was thin and worn. Yet, unlike them, he did not walk with a bent back or the air of a broken spirit--he held his head high. He tread the path ahead of them with a subtle confidence and the other two men were satisfied to follow.

This was a day like any other day. The three men made their way in the wilderness. They had all forsaken towns as cesspools of human suffering. Out here, so close to the earth, it was more possible to face your suffering head on. Here, you could easily find it and cut it away from you.

At least, that was the theory. The third man was tired of walking. They had been walking since before the sun had risen, and they would continue until the stars were clear in the night sky. It was just now past the height of the day, and yet his feet were sore and his mind was troubled. For him, it was an all too common occurrence as of late.

“Siddhartha,” the old man spoke sharply. “What troubles your mind? You stray from the group.”

“It is nothing, revered one,” Siddhartha answered.

“Do not lie to me. I know your thoughts when they are mindful and I know your thoughts when they are not. You are troubled by them. You are running from it. You cannot do that. You must embrace your pain. You must relish it and use it to scour your sins from you.”

“Yes, revered one,” Siddhartha answered.

“Good, good. When you scour your sins away with the pain of them, you will be cleansed. You will be holy. Only then, will you experience rapture.”

“Yes, revered one,” Siddhartha answered for the final time.

The men walked in silence once more. Siddhartha tried to focus on the suffering of the world. It was not difficult. All about him was suffering; his past had been strewn with visions of suffering. For years, he had walked among the poor and the afflicted. The old and the sick and the wounded and the dying—all of these had been subjects of study. Study in the abject pain of humanity that he had taken to with vigor.

As he walked, he tried to use his knowledge of human suffering to cleanse his spirit. To use the pain it caused to scour his own suffering from him. The hope was that by subjecting the body to such physical and mental exhaustion and suffering, it would be possible to burn away the impurities and leave only what was good and happy. That bliss came to those who subjected themselves to the worst deprivation.

The three men continued along the path, chanting together. It had been days since they had seen another person. They were out away from villages. Here was just fields and fields, with only a few farms interspersed between them. When they found a farm, they steered clear away from it. They did not need to poison their pure acts with the common, petty suffering of everyday life.

Now that it was afternoon, they foraged for their meal. The season had been dry and each day brought about a struggle to find food. Today providence had provided, as they found themselves coming upon a grove of wild fig trees.

The three men looked up into the boughs. Branches creaked in the wind. The leaves were mostly shriveled and discolored. These trees were dying. Yet perhaps they still bore fruit. One last act to continue to exist, if only through offspring. Siddhartha wondered to himself if perhaps it was not too farfetched that the trees and people were so different.

“This is a wonderful lesson,” the older man said. “These trees stand here, suffering. In fact, they are suffering, not just experiencing it. Living beings who cannot survive, existing together in their pain. Even the wasps who come to create the fruits we are about to consume have all fled. It is worth taking to heart. We take from their suffering, we eat what they offer us, so that we may continue on our own path. They are here to add to our suffering. We should add their pain to ours.”

The men searched the trees and found several figs. They were small and dry and hard, but there was enough to keep them going. Each of them had two figs and they sat there under the trees to eat and reflect on their lesson. Siddhartha ate his figs slowly, looking up at the trees. These beings would soon be devoid of life, after what looked to be a long and torturous fight. Once that had happened, no more would their be any fruit for wayfarers along this path. The grove would die and fall into the dust and there would be nothing left.

Yet here they were, parasites consuming the last hopes of this grove. Their fruits would end up in their stomachs and the trees would die. Suddenly, Siddhartha felt loathing for himself and his companions. Without their presence, perhaps the trees would have dropped their fruit. Perhaps new trees would have been born out of the rains that would come before too long. But now there would be nothing. In trying to devour suffering, they had devoured all the life of this place.

While the other men sat and meditated, Siddhartha looked down at his remaining fig. This would be all he would be able to eat until they found their next meal, probably the next day. And yet, as he looked upon the tiny fruit sitting in his palm, he could not imagine himself living with having eaten the fig.

He stood up and walked away from the others. They all typically indulged in walking meditations, so there was no question raised. He wandered the grove, looking for a suitable spot. Finding a patch of soil that wasn’t strangled with roots, he cleared a hole and set the fig into the ground, scooping up soil and covering the fruit. “You will suffer, but you may live yet. That is what is important,” he whispered to himself as he buried the fruit. That done, he dusted the soil from his hands and returned to his companions.

The other men were ready. “Siddhartha,” the youngest spoke. “We are ready to be off. Are you satisfied?”

Siddhartha nodded, looking up at the trees above him. His stomach protested, but he smiled. “Indeed, I am. Let us resume our journey.”

The men made their way along the dusty path once more. Some hours later, as the sun was nearing the horizon, they found a river. It was slow and shallow, but it was enough. The older man looked at it and up at the sky. “There are rains in the mountains in the north. Perhaps they will come here. But we should take this opportunity to wash the dust from us. Then we can rest.”

The men all agreed and set to bathing in the river. The water lazily made its way across the land. It was not deep, perhaps waist high at its deepest point. As Siddhartha waded out to this point to bathe, he saw the land on either side that had made up the riverbed when the rains had been strong and the water flowed freely.

As he washed, his thoughts drifted. The water reminded him of his life before. Before all the suffering he had seen. He remembered the water flowing from great stone fountains in the palace of the rainy season his father had built for him. The palace was built to hold the water, with small streams of it carved into the stone, falling from the roof on decorated spouts into lagoons in the main courtyard.

He remembered bathing in pools of scented water, back when his clothing was fine and his hair clean and fresh. When his body had been strong and full and his mind carefree. That was before his eyes were opened. Before he had become mindful of pain and suffering. Siddhartha remembered those days with a bitter fondness. The attendants, all young and healthy. His life, sheltered and structured to keep him free of pain. It had been ideal; a perfect life.

Aside from the fact it was not true.

He had been a full adult when he finally discovered the truth. His own will had taken him out into the world. And there, the suffering of all things rushed upon him like a storm. Until that point, he had never laid eyes upon an old person before. Yet among his eventual subjects were hundreds of them. The horror of their existence had torn his life forever from his eyes.

Siddhartha smiled to himself as he bathed. It had been some time since he had thought of his life before. There was so little in common between that luxury and his existence now that it seemed as thought it had been a story happening to someone else. There was no more proof of who he was upon his person. He was a man without a past, a man of the present, suffering like all the other followers suffered.

It was as he was remembering his life that he forgot himself. In that moment his body betrayed him. He could not say after whether it was the soft river sediment or his legs weak from his observations of the rules of his path. But before he knew it, he no longer had his footing and his legs buckled from underneath him.

He fell into the water and as he struggled to right himself he found that he could not muster the energy to. He flailed about but his mind had been unprepared and he panicked in this moment. The water was above him and though he could reach down and touch the bottom and reach up and crest the surface of the water, he could not find the strength to stand upon his own feet and raise his head above the water.

His breath had failed him and he inhaled the water into his lungs. As he did so, his mind seemed to sharpen though the edges of his thought were fuzzy and dark. He saw the sun shining on the water above him. He saw the water around him, the sediment kicked up by his struggles. Yet he also saw his life before him.

He saw the days of his youth, with the finest things around him and his head full of bliss and ignorance. It was ideal, it was happy, yet it was not true. Now that he knew more of the truth, he knew that it would never be his again. Never again could a man who has seen be content with blindness.

He saw the years of walking among the suffering. He absorbed their pain, catching up on years of learning about a kind of life that he had never seen before. Aging. Sickness. Death. Violence. Suffering. It was all terrible, all horrifying. Yet many of these people were still happy. Many of these people carried on with their lives regardless of their afflictions.

He saw his life now. The life of an ascetic. The years of begging for his food, existing through the good will of others. He observed every regulation of the path. He owned nothing. He survived only on what fate provided him. He lived a life of suffering, depriving himself of all things. When he contributed to the suffering of the world in a way unbefitting his existence, he punished himself as he should.

It was with the vision of himself as a decrepit old man, skeletal and broken by the weight of years, that he was hauled from the water and laid upon the shore. Hands pressed at him, trying to push the water out of him. He was detached from it and for a moment weighed whether or not he would bother expelling the water from his lungs. Perhaps it would be easier to simply allow fate to take its course. There would be no more suffering, no more quest for truth. All the truth he would ever need would swallow him into nothingness.

It was a recent memory that struck him, then. He planted the fig into the soil. The rains were coming. The fig would suffer, but it would live. He had commanded it to live, despite its pain. If the fig would live, so should he, despite the suffering he might face.

He coughed water up, his body shaking and heaving with the effort. The men before him looked relieved as they watched Siddhartha slowly regain his breath. He lay there, staring up at the sky as the stars slowly emerged in the dome of the sky. His chest was full of pain, the blood in his body pounding a heavy rhythm. Yet he was breathing. He breathed in and smelled the truth of the world around him. He breathed out and he was himself again, alone in the world as he had always been.

The men said nothing of this event and soon they continued on their quest for purification. Finally, the lack of things to forage for drove them to the next village by their most dire need. Here, they would ask for what dried bread and clean water the people could spare. And the people, either through pity of the men or fear of denying men holier than themselves, always opened their hearts and offered far more than the men would accept.

It was as they wandered the town to look for food that a young girl came up to Siddhartha. The other men had decided to spend the morning meditating in the middle of the town, making a display of their deep piety. However, Siddhartha’s mind and eye were full of wanderlust and he would rather see if he could find some other thing to focus on than the same meditations he had been doing in the featureless wilds.

He noticed the girl only as he finally realized she was approaching him. She was young and her arms were laden with a bowl and a pitcher. When he realized that yes, it was to him she was coming, he stopped and looked at her. When she realized she had his attention, she hesitated before coming towards him.

“Excuse me, but I hoped you would appreciate my offering,” the young girl said.

Siddhartha was taken aback. “For what do I owe the offering?”

“I made my wish, as I was supposed to, and it is said that a spirit would come and make the wish come true. My wish is true and I had hoped you would remain so I could thank you with an offering, spirit. This is the best I could do, I hope it is sufficient.”

It took some moments of reflection before he realized that it was his extreme appearance that had prompted the girl to mistake him for a spirit. But he was not surprised. He was rail-thin and worn to the bone, but he knew a vigor that the other ascetic scorned. Siddhartha looked at what she had brought. In the pitcher was milk, white and pure and thick. And in her other container was some sort of pudding, pale and creamy and sweet looking. The smell wafting up from the food made Siddhartha delirious. His stomach ached to look upon the food. His body yearned for it. Yet his mind again tried to hold fast to its current path.

“I’m afraid I cannot accept this,” he said slowly.

The girl looked up at him, with tears in her eyes. “But … but you must. I have to thank those who do undeserved good towards me. That is the law. You helped me, spirit, when I didn’t do anything to deserve your kindness. I must thank you, or it will come ill of me. Please, I know it is not much, but please accept this.”

Siddhartha finally nodded and took the offering. Why he took it, he could not be sure. Perhaps because fate had provided it. Perhaps because he could not inflict the pain of his refusal on the girl. Perhaps because he simply wanted a good meal, despite his devotion to his path. Yet when he sat down and ate and drank from what she had brought, it was as though a whole new world had opened up for him.

For those minutes that he ate and drank, he only tasted the sweetness of the food. He only smelled the thick smell of the meal. He drank the milk and it renewed his strength. He had been unaware he had been so weak until he felt vigor returning to his limbs. During that meal, he thought nothing of suffering. The world was the world, he was Siddhartha, and he felt a satisfaction in the simple act of eating a peasant meal such that he had never known.

For the sparsest moment, he had a glimpse of some truth. Something that seemed to him to feel so utterly right that he stopped eating. He stood up, and his mind reeling to try to recapture his thoughts, he walked away from the girl. The thought that this might disappoint her did not occur to him, such was his mindset. The girl, though, looked into his face and was satisfied that she had done her duty. She collected the uneaten food and returned home.

Siddhartha was troubled when he returned to his companions. He did not tell them of what had happened. They would have looked down upon his indulgence as going against the path. Yet, what he had felt in that moment … had he really been in the wrong? The thought of it gnawed at him for the rest of the day.

His thoughts were still troubled when they finally departed for the town. They continued, yet the other men could sense Siddhartha’s disquiet. The old man scolded him for his unmindfulness, but Siddhartha paid him no mind. He cared not for the rote ritual of the ascetic, that morning. His own thoughts kept him occupied.

As they walked, they happened upon a Bo tree next to their path. The men decided to sit and meditate under it. As they did so, Siddhartha looked up into its leaves. The tree was healthy, and flourishing. Yet, it was old and bent, and Siddhartha could see the years of pain and suffering writ into its very trunk.

The men focused inward, trying to purge themselves of suffering, but Siddhartha focused his attention fully on what was before him. Here was a tree that had lived longer than he and had experienced much worse deprivations in its lifetime. Yet, here it stood, it’s leaves full and green. The wind blew the boughs and the tree rustled with a joy that Siddhartha was astonished by. This tree existed in the world of suffering, but sitting under it, Siddhartha felt as though the tree was happy despite its existence.

Again he grasped at the thought that had barely escaped him as he ate the meal in the village. He felt a great truth, just out of reach. If only he could lean further than before, if only his grasp was longer, perhaps he could take a hold of that truth and bring it into himself. Here, he felt that truth again. There was something that he was missing, some great thought that would put everything into perspective. He only had to find it.

It was like catching a fly in the dark. It danced about his head, so close and yet impossible for him to find.

In time the men were ready to move on, but Siddhartha remained unmoving. When they looked at him, they saw a man they barely recognized. Siddhartha looked deep in thought, yet his face was full of an emotion they did not recognize.

“Siddhartha,” the old man said. “Come away. It is time we resumed.”

Siddhartha shook his head. “I cannot. I feel that I am discovering something, some truth that I cannot ignore. Here, under this tree, I feel a thought swelling in my mind. How can I leave now?”

“What are you speaking of? Nonsense. Come away. We will walk and you can consider your truth. What can you hope to gain sitting here under the same tree?”

Siddhartha breathed in and out steadily, but said nothing. The men were uneasy. Here was their companion, acting completely different than he ever had. The old man pushed him further.

“Siddhartha, please. Do not fall into this path. To sit forever and contemplate is a way of madness. How can you hope to cleanse yourself when you do not take the world’s suffering and pain as a vehicle to purity?”

Siddhartha smiled. “I am not sure that I wish to do that anymore. I do not need to take the world’s suffering into myself.”

“What are you speaking of? Come, Siddhartha, follow us. This path you are on leads only to delusions. It is the wrong way. You are lost. We shall help you find your way.”

Siddhartha opened his eyes and looked upon them, and saw them as they were, and found himself moved to pity by the sight. “I told you, I cannot. You may curse me for a heretic if you will, but I must have my truth. It is important to me. I will sit here. I will think. The shade helps me concentrate. When I find my truth, only then will I stop and return to what I was doing, taking my truth with me. You are free to wait and you are free to go. You are not held to me.”

“If you take this path, you will walk alone. I will not sully our efforts with your disregard for our belief,” the old man shook with what could have been fury or could just as easily have been fear.

“Then I will sit alone,” Siddhartha said.

The men argued amongst themselves, but they said nothing more to Siddhartha and he said nothing more to them. He simply sat and watched as they finally gave up their struggle to bring him with them and decided to continue on without him. As they returned to their path, Siddhartha watched them go. They were empty, moving but already dead, continuing their funeral chant as the dust blew up around them once more. They were like ghosts, moaning to validate their existence as they shuffled along. But there was nothing to them.

Then they were gone and Siddhartha was alone. He sat and closed his eyes. He breathed in. There was the tree. The tree that had seen suffering for years. The tree that still laughed when the wind blew through it. It was of the world, and still itself. It was a thing of wonder to contemplate.

Siddhartha breathed out and he was himself. There was Siddhartha, of the world and still himself. Apart, to be sure, but still a part. It was a thing of wonder to see.