Almost a Thief

“Hold this! Keep holding it. Don’t let go!”

The young boy looked on with surprise as he took it in his hands. All I gave him was a tiny piece of white paper, torn at the edges. It had a number written on it. I found it lying among all the broken pieces of furniture in the room. I was no detective. It wasn’t the usual crime scene. The police didn’t arrive yet. I didn’t call them either. I hesitated to the point of confusion, fear and regret. Something within stopped me from doing so. I wanted to fix things, set it up, before the police were called in. I looked around frantically in the room, walking with my socks on. I asked the boy to stand guard at the door and give me a shout if anyone came. Another pair of socks acted as gloves to hide my hand behind the act.

It was two in the afternoon. The sun never shone in this part of the city. It made the apartment a dank and smelly place. The lights had to be kept on. The kid was too young to understand what happened. He thought the man was sleeping. I kept it that way for now. Poor chap! Why should he know the truth! I was still skimming through the rubble. I couldn’t find it. Another fifteen minutes and I would need to give up, but that would be too risky. The police are smarter nowadays. They smell a rat before they see it! I smelled one too. It just ran over my feet and I screamed aloud. The boy shushed me. He thought the man would wake up. The neighbors would have been alerted. I should be more careful. It was blunt force that did him as there was no bleeding. It was all internal. Probably one single blow to the head. After all, the steel pipe was large and heavy. Was it a break in? I checked the kitchen. There was water still running from the tap. I closed it. I checked the bathroom. There was a saw blade on the floor. The smell was overpowering and the door had to be closed as soon as it was opened. I took a few deep breaths, held it strong, stepped inside, checked and came out. Nope! Couldn’t find it. I was losing hope. God! There had to be a clue somewhere.

I knelt down for a moment to rest. I was standing for over an hour now. But, I didn’t want to sit anyplace. Ensuring no evidence of my presence was the mantra. This was an old apartment in a building that was ready to collapse any day soon. It had a few residents who were probably more dead than alive. Some old men, no families, shady criminal records, unholy relationships, unknown and unwanted by the government. Normally, the police would be happy if there was one less resident. But, this guy was different. He had the evidence!

“Did you find what you were looking for?” asked the boy. He startled me.

“No! a few more minutes and I shall give up. Now, quiet kid!” I said.

I was losing hope. The man lay flat on his face, his feet at odd angles and his hands spread out like wings behind his back, palms facing up. He was the only unchecked thing in the house. How did I not do that!? Anyone smart would have first checked the victim and then the room. Boy, was I an amateur! The man left a subtle impression on the soft brown carpet. If I changed his position, it would become evident. Using a pair of socks as gloves was a stupid idea. But, it worked. Except for the difficulty I had in lifting the shirt and reaching in the pockets.

“You will wake him up!” the boy whispered, playing along well so far into the idea that the man was sleeping.

“Don’t worry. He won’t. He is probably drunk. Don’t be scared,” I reassured while still reaching out deep into his pant pockets.

I felt a sharp object and carefully tried removing it. After some struggle, I pulled it out. It was a key! Made of brass, with circular perforations of various sizes and uniquely shaped protrusions. This was no ordinary key. Certainly, this house didn’t have a lock. It was just free to open anytime. As a bank assistant who handles safes for rich customers, I could say that this was a key to a very well-designed safe. The kind of safes that keep very precious things. Something for which a life could be taken! Now, wait a minute…Did they make their own key to the safe!?

“Is this what you were looking for?” the boy enquired curiously, as he was getting impatient with the silent searching and the odd sleeping habit of the man on the floor.

“No! it isn’t. I don’t need this. But, someone might have wanted this badly,” I said while reaching further deep into the other pocket. The attacker must have left the place in a hurry and missed taking the key.

“Aaha!  I got it! This is what I was looking for…,” I said with a triumphant glee, raising the trophy in my hand and flashing it towards the boy.

“What!? Another piece of paper!” The boy almost screamed aloud in surprise. He was obviously anticipating something more dramatic, like a gold coin, maybe!

“Yes! But, not just ‘a’ paper. It is ‘the’ paper!” I said, while adjusting the folding of the paper to open it up.

“What does it say? Does it say anything?” The boy asked as he got more curious seeing the excitement on my face.

“Give me the paper in your hand. That will solve the missing link,” I said after straightening the edge of the paper from where the smaller piece was removed.

“That does it kid! All the numbers are there. The last number was faintly scribbled on the paper in your hand,” I said while reading the rest of the writing.

“Now! We should leave this place immediately. Don’t touch anything on the way out. No noise. No one should know we were here. Let us use the stairs to go down and leave using the backdoor. We won’t be seen there,” I said while carefully closing the apartment door behind me.

“Ok! But, what were those numbers on that paper? You never told me! What about that sleeping man? What if he wakes up and finds out that you stole his paper??” the boy asked as he tried to pace himself to my rapid steps by jogging along, holding my hand for balance.

“I will tell you. But, not now! That man is dead. He won’t be waking up,” I said.

“Oh God! Dead like in killed or dead like in he just really died, like just fell down like that and died?” the boy asked, shocked and confused that he stood next to what he thought was a sleeping man all along.

“Just dead. Look, remain calm. We don’t want to catch anyone’s attention at this time. We have to be like a cat stealing milk. Like a mouse stealing cheese. Like a…”

“Like a man stealing paper from a dead man…” The boy concluded my sentence and chuckled at the dramatically silly comparisons I was making.

We finally reached the backdoor. Once outside, I slowly looked around, above the building and across the street. No one could be seen. I removed the socks from my hands and put it in my pocket. We acted casual like nothing happened and slowly disappeared from the building and from the street on which it stood. A few tense steps, fast paced and deliberate, and finally we mixed into a crowd of revelers celebrating a religious event. There were one too many of such events nowadays. Literally every other day. Worked out fine today as we could blend into the crowd.

“I wish I’d been there earlier. It might have made all the difference. So all I can tell you is why he was murdered.” The boy now started pestering me for all the gory details. Don’t kids fear anything nowadays? I would have expected him to shut completely out of fear or shock or whatever seeing a dead person should have done to a ten-year old kid!

“That man died due to a strong blow to his head. A person attacked him. One single blow and nothing else. Hence, it was deliberate and well-rehearsed. The attacker was also known to the victim. He was let inside. Let all the way inside the kitchen and even the bathroom. He picked the steel pipe from there. This was no bad argument gone wrong. This was meant to be a violent attack,” I said while dragging the boy closer to me, placing my hands on his shoulder, while we walked slowly and peacefully on the pathway.

“Why did the bad man attack the dead man?” the kid asked.

“Well, did you notice the key? It was never taken. It could have been easily taken if the attacker wanted to. It wasn’t so. Because, it was the attacker who placed the key in the dead man’s pocket. He wanted the police to find the key there. You know why? Because, both were bad men!!” I said while tossing my hand in the air for dramatic effect.

“What? Why? How?” the kid asked more surprised as ever.

“Oh! They were both thieves. They picked on the safe in the nearby bank, emptied all its contents, cash, gold and what not. Then, they proceeded to the dead man’s apartment to count their bounty. The bad guy realized that this was a bounty worth keeping it all to himself. So, he pretended to first go to the kitchen for grabbing some food. There was none. But, he left the tap open so that the water would catch the dead man’s attention. Then he went to the bathroom, dislodged the pipe that connected the sewer with the saw blade, and then waited for the dead man to rush to the kitchen on seeing the sink overflow. This the dead man did, while the bad guy came from behind and whacked him on the head!” I said, trying to wrap up the climax. The kid’s eyes brightened in excitement.

“Well, then. Then, what happened?” he asked.

“What else! The bad man had the key to the safe. He planted it in the dead man’s pocket so that it would prove him as the thief. The bad man then kept a part of the bounty in the draw nearby, mostly cash, scattered things that didn’t matter to him on the floor and left with the rest. Nobody knows what’s inside this safe except for the customer who kept them. The bank doesn’t keep a record. But, no owner of the contents in the safe will be willing to divulge the details of the gold jewelry and diamonds that lay inside. That, the bad man went away with knowing the police will not chase him. For upholding justice, everything else would be recovered from the dead man’s house!” I said.

“Wow! So that explains it all! No, wait! Then, why did you panic? What about the paper you desperately searched for?” the boy implored.

“Huh! You are a clever boy…You still remember that! Now, go home! We are already there. There is nothing about the paper. It just had my phone number written on it. Now, don’t talk about this incident with anyone else. Swear to God! Swear on the dead man’s grave!” I said, while shaking up the boy to make sure he got the message in all seriousness.

“I will! You are my hero! My guide! But, tell me this before I leave. Why did the paper with your number end up in the pocket of the dead man!?” the boy asked in one final relentless attempt at clearing all his doubts.

“You are a kid. You will never understand. Now go home or your sister will panic. I don’t want to be yelled at and abused by her every night! I want to sleep peacefully. I have work to do at the bank tomorrow. I have a real job too, you know! Now, go on!” I said, almost shoving the boy towards the direction of his home. He still looked confused, but that was fine. He was after all a kid.

As for me, well, what can I say. The evidence was taken care of. The police will never call me. I reached my apartment and settled down on the rocking couch. I made some tea for myself, took a deep breath, had a sip, while rocking away in peace.

Hmm…what idiot would give his number to two thieves asking them to call him if they had any doubts? What idiot would hire two thieves to steal something from a safe and eventually get nothing in return except for an empty safe to deal with next day in the bank? Well, the idiot rocking his chair and drinking tea sounded like one bright candidate for that!!!

The police didn’t bother to chase the other culprit. The bank awarded me for mysteriously leading them to the dead man’s apartment to recover the lost bounty. The owner of the safe complained about the bad service at the bank and talked no further about what else he lost. The bank realized the safe was tampered with as a duplicate key of the owner was made without his knowledge. I cleared all the waste in my house overnight. The boy met with me the next day.

“Say, I couldn’t sleep last night! I woke up in the middle of the night and was bothered by one question. May I ask?” he pleaded.

“Fire away! But, remember, that will be the last question I will entertain regarding this matter,” I said with a stern voice, raising my eyebrows for effect.

“Sure! Sure! Now, you said that the safe contained gold jewelry and diamonds. The dead man didn’t have them and hence it wasn’t in his apartment. You said the bad guy took them. How did you know about the diamond and the gold…?” he asked, dragging along the last words in serious thought.

I smiled back at him. I didn’t respond. Sometimes, a little mystery for a ten-year old kid doesn’t hurt. He can learn to live with that. As for me, I had to live with my own little misery.

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Second Nature

This short story was written after I was impressed by a massive cleanliness drive in India undertaken by its Prime Minister, Narendra Modi. I wanted to show the importance of that initiative through a story that talks about the World’s most polluted river – Ganga (The Ganges).

BOOK TITLE: SECOND NATURE
The rickety bus struggled to hold itself together on the bumpy highway. The overnight ride traversed the dull landscapes of sleepy villages. Prakrit sat by the open window seat of the bus watching outside. He was on his way to the temple town of Varanasi. His son, Prithvi, cuddled next to him, the head resting on his dad’s chest. Prithvi always wanted to see the mighty river Ganga. He could not make it in the past. He always became sick when he had his summer break at school. This time he was lucky. However, Prithvi’s mother couldn’t join them. She was fragile and sick for the past several months. A wish for drinking the water of the Ganga to purify her body pushed Prakrit to make the journey to Varanasi. Prithvi was ecstatic that he could see the Kashi Vishwanath temple and swim in the pure waters of the Ganga.
Prakrit was a knife thrower at a local circus. He performed in shows as part of a troupe that toured the big cities of Lucknow and Kanpur. This profession gave enough to keep his thatched hut intact but didn’t provide much for any luxuries in life. Recently, he had to sell his cow to pay for his wife’s medication. With his wife now sick, Prakrit was pinched to make more money. She nudged him to seek the blessings of mother goddess Ganga- the sustainer of life and the cleanser of sins, all made possible with a holy dip in her waters. Prakrit was initially hesitant, not believing in hearsay about magical powers in river water. But, he was desperate and hoped the water would do wonders that life on earth otherwise denied him!
The bus came to a weary halt after passing through the busy markets of Varanasi. The father and son got down the bus and stretched their tired bodies. They walked over to a nearby choultry and managed to get free food. The young boy had nothing to eat for the past twelve hours as the blistering heat made the carefully packed food his mother gave stale. The sun was shining bright and Prithvi was already pumped up to see the mighty river. He was always fascinated by the beautiful mythological tales his mother narrated about the river Ganga descending on this earth from the matted hair of Lord Shiva.
The duo walked barefoot towards the ghats narrowly missing broken pieces of glass on black, dirt covered streets along the myriad tiny shops that busily tended to tourists. Prithvi imagined the temple town to be as clean as the river. It was a disappointment. He kept looking back as he walked hastily along. People seated in shops threw trash wherever they wished. Some chewed and spit betel leave juice on the road. As they went down the flight of stairs near the river’s ghat, Prithvi was in for one more shock. Dark, black waters of a massive river calmly flowed in front of him. The watery body was dotted with crowded, colorful boats with patches of shoddy woodwork done to hide their damaged exterior.
“Papa (dad), is this our Ganga maiya (mother)!!?” Prithvi almost screamed aloud in shocked disbelief at the ghastly sight of the river.
“Yes, it is! Why are you shocked? Now, pull your towel from the bag. We will take a quick dip and head to the temple. It can get crowded very soon,” Prakrit instructed his son.
Prithvi sat down on the wide stone steps laid along the river banks. He didn’t want to get into the water and made a deep disappointed sigh. He expected to see a pristine lively river like his mother described. He was dismayed at the sight of littered flowers, baskets, food and scavengers on the shores of the river and beyond. He saw several people bathe and spit into the river. Far away, he saw some people discard a greyish powdered ash they held in a pot into the water. Deep in the misty horizon of the river he saw what looked like a man floating with his face down, a few pestering crows trying to pluck something from him. It surprised Prithvi as he got curious about the careless man swimming aimlessly in the water. Prithvi tugged his father’s hands, pointed at the floating man, and asked what he was doing, only to be angrily reprimanded and asked to look the other way. Everywhere, there was the sight of people and their careless acts of uncleanliness. Among them, there were a few who conducted themselves with care, but alas it was like a rain drop in the ocean. His village lacked several amenities but he expected a bigger city to be cleaner and better. Staring at the moving streams of water with waves raised by the rocking boats in the river, Prithvi felt sick to the stomach. He did not want to get into the water and refused to take a dip.
“Papa, I will get dirty and sick in this water. It is not even as clean as our village tank! Why don’t the cleaners take care of the filth? Why are they calling the river their mother if they have no love in their heart to keep it clean? I will not step in!” said Prithvi with a pained look on his face.
Prakrit looked kindly, sat down next to Prithvi and said, “We are all responsible for making the river better. If we do our part and help someone follow our actions, we achieve the goal of making the river pristine, as it should be. It is a choice that we make as fellow humans. Did you notice the animals on the street? Even they follow what we do. That is how we used to train them in the circus. We are the elite guiding force for betterment in the World and it all starts with each one of us.”
Prithvi liked what his father said but still refused to budge. He showed his father how nobody cared to look at what the other person was doing in the town. They were all in their hurried pursuit to take a dip and melt away through the crowds. None had the time for learning goodness from another person. Prakrit smiled back. When his son even refused to wash his feet instead of taking a bath, he patted proudly on his son’s back for his honesty, uprightness and deep concern. He sat next to Prithvi ignoring the temple visit and the swelling crowd of people around them. He then went ahead and narrated a story to Prithvi.
“In a jungle not far away, a beautiful river, like the one your mother described, flowed past green meadows, flowery trees and rugged mountains. There lived a lion, an old elephant, a pig and two monkeys. The lion was the king, the elephant was the wiseman, the pig was a scavenger and the monkeys were sentries who watched over the forest. In happier days, the river was swollen with fish and abundant water that satisfied the needs of all animals in the jungle. The pig rolled in his own filth and washed himself in the river, never caring that he was polluting it. The elephant drank a lot of water and playfully sprayed on the other animals, never caring about the water going waste. The monkeys watched all the fun and frolic from a tree above the river. Every day, in the evening, the duo climbed down the tree, drank only what they needed, cleaned the banks of the river of the dirt that collected and made sure that the river was always clean. They also dug a pit by the riverbank every day that none knew what purpose it served. This they dutifully did irrespective of the jeers made by the pig. There was a smirk on the face of the lion, who was satisfied that he always got his share of the water first, no matter what. He didn’t care much about what the others got in turn.
For several years the monkeys dutifully did the same job every day while the rest were their usual selves. This continued until things turned for the worse one day. For two years straight, a massive drought nearly dried the entire river and only left a tiny stream of water. The fishes died and not all animals had water to drink or bathe. Several animals lost their lives while the rest rushed to the lion king and pleaded for help. The lion listened to all and realized his mistake. He decided that the animals must keep the river clean and use it only for drinking until the drought clears. However, he also decreed that animals will share the water, will take turns to drink and will do so based on their importance in the jungle.
The lion decided that as the king, he was all-powerful and hence could drink from the river whenever he pleased. Since the wise elephant was considered the smartest in the jungle, he could drink next. The pig made a ruckus about being ignored, but since he was the filthiest of all, he was allowed to drink after all were done for the day. The two monkeys chose to share their water by taking turns at the stream. As usual, they carried on with cleaning the banks of the river to ensure that if rain did fall, the water is retained in the bone-dry soil. They also continued to dig the pit besides the river. Several months passed by with no sign of any rain. As the animals grew desperate, the king became restless. He did not want to let go of his privilege at the river. He decided that some animals would be sacrificed to reduce the burden on the forest. The elephant was wise, but was blinded by the desire to be entitled to the river water. With no solution in sight, he decided that he would pray to God along with a few other animals for the rain to fall. The pig could not survive without his filth. He refused to listen to anyone and secretly drank the water in the night when none looked. The pig blamed God for the misery and cursed the river for not supporting the animals that depended on it. The two monkeys watched this happen for several days. They stopped drinking from the river but managed to get water from nearby bamboo shoots that held water from the morning dew. They continued digging the pit as usual and ensured the banks of the river were well maintained. As days passed by into months, several animals perished. The lion started killing more animals and kept the river to himself. The elephant also died from the dire need for more water to quench his enormous thirst. In his dying moments, he lamented that alas God did not help! The pig cursed God and everyone in sight. He moved out of the jungle. But, he couldn’t let go of his filthy habits. It was later learnt that he met his fate at the hands of some hungry hyenas. The two monkeys built a loyal team of animals, who on realizing the cruelty of their king, sided with the monkeys and helped with digging the pit and tending to the banks.
On one beautiful day, a miracle happened. The pit the monkeys dug nearby the banks was swollen with water oozing from the earth below. The animals who teamed with the monkeys rejoiced in joy on seeing such plentiful water. The monkeys always knew this day was bound to come and had patiently worked towards making clean water available even if the entire river dried up. The lion, who watched what happened, realized his mistake, apologized to the monkeys for his arrogance and lack of fortitude. He then equally shared the water with the rest of the animals and built a stronger bank for the dried up river. Very soon, the rain gods smiled and the river made its way through the jungle again. The careful tending of the banks ensured that the water was not lost, did not break any barriers and sustained life for years to come. The animals kept the water and its banks clean. They also watched out for each other and ensured that everyone shared the water. The river was alive again and so was the jungle and the animals that lived in it.”
Prakrit continued, “A river is blind to the user and the abuser. We people choose to use it for food, to drink, to bathe, for transport and other needs. A river makes no choice; we force our choice upon it. While it is our first nature to survive and sustain ourselves, it is our second nature to protect and preserve what we have.”
“Dear, tell me now. Do you want to be the pig or the monkey?”
Prithvi nodded in approval that he would love to always be the monkey. He held his father’s hand, walked down towards the river and started picking every undesirable trash that he could lay his eyes on. The duo continued doing this for a few hours, encouraging people who were curious or cared to join in to follow their path. Then, they prayed for the health of their family at the temple. Before leaving, Prithvi went to the river, touched the water and poured a little on his head seeking the blessings of the mother goddess. Prithvi headed back home with pleasant memories of a trip that he could never forget in life. The river carried on nonchalant with its own tireless journey.

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THE QUEST FOR BODHI

Reality and Illusion are intermixed in a World where time and space are not constant, a dimension where events overlap in the past, present and future. Can the creator manipulate events in many Worlds of the Universe?

It was a freezing cold morning in Buffalo City. Several inches of snow pounded the entire state of New York after an unusual storm the previous night. Cold winds from the Arctic conspired with a frigid Canadian storm to turn anything that stood straight on the streets into icy popsicles. Alfred Fickler just returned home from Boston. But, he had to drive soon again in the storm to the JFK airport.

Alfred enjoyed being single. At thirty, he was happily wedded to his profession, a not so ubiquitous one though. He was a “Fantasy Hunter”, a profession that ensured that no date of his ended on a serious note or molded into a meaningful relationship with women. Alfred was probably one among a few hundred in the World who managed to survive with an odd career. The few friends he had mockingly called him as the “Jobless Indiana Jones,” since the whip-wielding adventurer at least had a tenured job as a professor to support his flamboyance. For the average man, Alfred did not come through as a serious person in life, his last name not boosting his personal image either. He just took up an assignment for a new client, a wealthy Jewish Businessman based in New York City. The two met in Boston the previous day.

Alfred chased fantasies, but only the ones that had an aura of mystery surrounding them. He did not chase elves but did go unsuccessfully after Big Foot in the mountains of Colorado and Nepal. He scraped dirt for years in an Egyptian pyramid to find an elusive cat’s mummy buried next to a less famous Pharaoh, which boasted of supernatural powers to the possessor. He was unsuccessful then too as he ended up digging the wrong grave. Everything that Alfred did fit well for someone who lived in 18th century Europe or in a Hollywood movie, but not the modern 21st century. Yet, Alfred somehow found clients from some corner of the World, willing to pay for his travel, food, clothing and shelter to do exactly this in life!

His new client, a Mr. Soderberg, never addressed himself by his first name. He met Alfred at the Andover-Harvard Theological Library in Cambridge, in a silent corner less visited by even the most curious of bookworms. Mr. Soderberg wore an expensive suit with a distinctive red tie that had delicate patterns of the Hindu symbol, Om. He had a tan on his face, probably from exposure to the harsh Sun over the years, suggesting that he was a well-traveled man. He was old, with silver-white curly hair, a freckled face and big, brown eyes. Mr. Soderberg did not share details of his current or past profession, but Alfred could take a guess that he was an adventurer and a part of high society in New York City. Mr. Soderberg made an offer that Alfred could not refuse- a jaw-dropping ten million dollars to find a mysterious entity – “Bodhi.” Alfred was all ears when Mr. Soderberg spoke about Bodhi when they met in Boston-

“Alfred, there are very few people of your kind remaining in this World. I know how you circled the World to discover Tiwanaka, in the eastern extremity of Siberia, a remote lake mentioned in centuries’ old Gothic literature. You fetched the seeds of the Gorshova, a rare plant that only grows near this lake and can cure certain kinds of cancer, a secret long lost but for among a few tribes in Siberia. However, I am interested in something different and I want you to get it for me, for real, and in person.”

On hearing this, Alfred raised his eyebrows and straightened his back to pay keen attention.

“Years ago, I traveled on business to the island of Tinos in Greece. One day, at the famous Church of Miracles of Virgin Mary, I met a heretic priest named Andreas Clemens. We shared a passion for adventure. He had an energetic radiance on his face. This priest raved about meeting a certain “Bodhi”. Some of the supernatural powers that the priest attributed to Bodhi amazed me! Bodhi was capable of disappearing into thin air and materializing whenever and wherever needed. The priest received a fruit from Bodhi, eating which a person begins the journey into a different World, an alternate dimension, the details of which I will not trouble you with. You will know about it when the time is ripe! A few days back, and I do not know how, I received a mail from Andreas Clemens. He had handwritten the following- “Found peace in life…need to escape maaya. Come meet Bodhi! Visit Tinos at the earliest – Clemens”

Alfred stayed glued to his seat. The eerie silence of the library added to the excitement as it was recounted in the soft, raspy voice of Mr. Soderberg.

“Now, Alfred. I am not sure if you see where I am going with this. There is a reason why the priest wants me to meet Bodhi. I would not have cared about this message but for this “fruit” of Bodhi’s. This is bigger than Science! This is bigger than reality! This is fantasy embarrassed by its own illusion. This is the true reality; I want you to help me get Bodhi. I am too old to travel on my own. I want to nudge humanity to rediscover the World yet again, this time by fighting against nature, the ultimate battle, the David of life versus the Goliath of death! Alfred, go on my behalf and let us change this World forever…”

Alfred took the earliest flight from New York to Athens. Once in Greece, Alfred planned to call Mr. Soderberg the moment he came into acquaintance with the still mysterious Bodhi. After a long flight across the Atlantic, Alfred reached Athens and took the last ferry in the evening to Tinos. It was late in the night when the boat tugged along the port and anchored. It was unexpectedly cold in Tinos and there was a chilly breeze blowing from the Aegean Sea. However, it was much better than the cold beating he received in Buffalo. He retired for the night in a tiny inn overlooking the ocean. The hosts were kind enough to make a late night meal for him. After a sumptuous Mediterranean feast, he sank into his bed. The next day was a big day for Alfred. He was planning to meet Andreas Clemens and then Bodhi too. If all went well as per the plan, he planned to chill out in Athens for a few days before flying back home.

The next day, it was a brisk and beautiful morning at Tinos. Alfred woke up early and prepared himself for the day. After having breakfast, he took a stroll along a narrow, rugged, stone lane on the Island on the way to the famous Church of Panagia Megalohari, the holy shrine of the Virgin Mary. This was Alfred’s rendezvous point with Andreas Clemens. It was the time of the year, when fewer tourists visited the shrine. Alfred reached the Church, walked around appreciating its architectural beauty, went in and approached a priest next to the altar.

“Sir, I am looking for a priest by the name, Andreas Clemens. Do you happen to know him?” Alfred asked.

“Well, yes, I am Father Clemens. Who are you? Do I know you by any chance?” The priest turned back and enquired.

Alfred beamed with joy in his face. He explained to Andreas as to how he came on Mr. Soderberg’s behalf to take Bodhi along with him. Andreas silently pointed towards a small garden outside the church and walked out with Alfred.

“Mr. Alfred, it is exciting that Mr. Soderberg sent you to Tinos! Bodhi gives only to a chosen few and they cannot share with others. I hope your mission is a success,” the priest said in a calm tone.

Alfred watched with a slight smile on his face as the priest continued.

“There is a reason why you were sent here…Nobody comes to this shrine without a reason…Bodhi told me to expect Mr. Soderberg soon. I am supposed to depart into my inner sanctuary, high up in mount Prophet Elias, far away from this maddening World! All I have to do is pass on Bodhi’s legacy to the next worthy contender.”

The priest had a broad smile on his face. It looked like he deduced in his mind the reason Alfred was here and felt at peace about it. But, Alfred knew he was just the delivery boy. He had nothing to do with Bodhi beyond the handover to Mr. Soderberg.

“I realized that you mentioned maaya in your letter to Mr. Soderberg. I simply could not contain my curiosity. What does it mean?” Alfred asked inquiringly.

“Ah, who can explain it better than Bodhi? Let us not waste time any more. We must get to Bodhi at the earliest. We shall start trekking the mountain of Prophet Elias the first thing tomorrow morning. Retire early and get some sleep tonight. Let us meet 5am sharp at the foot of the mountain,” the priest said before he gave a warm hug to Alfred and parted ways.

Alfred could not sleep the entire night. There was unabated excitement about the unknown and the unseen! He checked local maps identifying his destination and learned from the innkeeper that the mountain had a church of the prophet Elias that several tourists visited. Would it not be crowded? He wondered.

The next day, Alfred woke up early and headed towards the mountain. It was still dark and he stumbled on the loose rocks at the foothills. A faint voice in the distance called him. As he strained his eyes to look, he saw the priest waving his hand at a distance. He was wearing a white robe that showed in the surrounding darkness.

“If you trek east, you will arrive at the church where visitors crowd during the day. We will take the western route nearby. Watch your step for any snakes as this is not a path that many take. After all, this is called as the island of snakes, ophiusa! You tread the treacherous path overcoming enemies filled with venom to reach your goal…,” the priest explained as he pointed towards two adjoining mountains and paced his steps along a familiar path.

The Sun started rising across the Ocean behind them. The beauty of the black rocks glittering from the sun’s light amazed Alfred. The wind was crisp. They trekked the slippery slope for hours until Alfred grew tired. The mountain was decked with loose pebbles separated from ancient rocks, perhaps cut by the strong winds from the Sea. Alfred did not have anything for breakfast and he was famished. The priest looked at him with kindness in his eyes and handed over a small nut to munch on. It looked like a dried fruit, felt chewy, like a fig! Within moments of eating, Alfred felt a surge of energy in his body. They continued their trek and finally reached the mountaintop in the evening. The Sun started descending into the Ocean and it was becoming dark. All that Alfred could see was the faint light in the distance of the Prophet Elias church. There was a huge tree, alone on the mountain distinguished by miles and miles of dried mountain grass. Right next to the tree was a small shack built with the same grass that acted as a camouflage. Alfred believed the priest probably built it as his final resting place!

Alfred entered the shack and sat down with the priest. He wondered what Bodhi was doing in such a lonely place. He was not to be seen anywhere either.

Looking at the curiosity in Alfred’s face, the priest explained, “It is night time…Bodhi is asleep now…We have to wait for Bodhi to wake up in the morning. You should also get some sleep. You have traveled far beyond time to reach here!”

Alfred and the priest rested in the shack. It was modest in set up. They had to sleep on an elevated mud platform that seemed suspended from the ground through some means along the two corners of the room. Alfred grew restless initially as he never embarked on such a journey in his life. But, there was something peaceful about the surroundings. While the full moon shone bright, the leaves of the giant tree outside made a pleasant musical sound as the calm wind blew from all sides. It made Alfred feel at peace with himself. In a few hours, it was time to meet Bodhi.

However, the night seemed unusually long. Alfred carefully rolled on the narrow platform bed every few minutes. Alfred was not feeling hungry since the time he had that little nut. He felt something weird as well as special about this place. As the night lingered on, he eventually caught up with some sleep.

A brisk shake of the body woke up Alfred from his slumber. Alfred opened his eyes and saw the priest silently point towards the window. The Sun had risen. The priest stepped out and stood in front of the giant tree, humbly folding his hands in obeisance. Alfred watched the priest and stared at the tree. As he was about to turn the other way and view the ocean, he heard a stranger speak.

“Welcome Alfred. I was waiting to see you for years. I am glad that you have come,” said a voice coming from the tree. Alfred looked at the priest in surprise and tried to peek behind the tree to see who was talking. Maybe it was Bodhi, he thought!

The priest saluted the tree with palms together. His cheeks were flushed with delight as he lifted his hands and touched a leaf from the overstretched branches of the tree.

“Who is talking to me? Is it Bodhi? Why can’t I see him,” Alfred asked the priest.

The priest looked at Alfred and laughed.

“Who do you think is talking with you? It is Bodhi indeed,” the priest said with a twinkle in his eyes.

“You mean the tree! I do not see anyone else here,” Alfred said with a stunned look on his face.

“Whom do you think I was talking about all along? Didn’t Mr. Soderberg tell you?” The priest asked.

Alfred opened the palms of his outstretched hands, shrugged his shoulders and nodded his head sideways.

“Why in the World would a tree talk? It is absolutely impossible!! What will I do with a tree? How can I take it to Mr. Soderberg?” Alfred whispered in a low voice to avoid being heard.

Alfred raised his eyebrows in a pensive mood as the tree started talking again.

“I am Bodhi. You came looking for me as much as I wanted to see you. I was never created in this World; I exist from a time beyond creation, a time with no beginning or end. I bear a special fruit once every century that only a few creatures get to benefit. I am the tree responsible for the creation of humanity through mutation of matter and energy in my nucleus. I am the agent who created knowledge of the scientific Universe, interpreted through Nature by all living beings. My roots control the Earth, my leaves control the Wind, my branches control the Ether, my radiance controls Fire, and my canopy controls Water. My flowers spread wisdom and my fruits aid in escaping maaya, the illusion I imparted to my creation to survive in this World. It is this illusion that makes Man think he is in control of his self, the World, the plants, the animals, the mountains and the space around him! Science, is a mere mirror I provide to the curious to identify my actions.

It was under me that the Buddha achieved enlightenment. I am here, I am there, and I am everywhere, wherever you want me to be. Man does not know me, as he never tries communicating with trees, the only beings and the true source of sustenance. Man’s five senses are limited in their capabilities. He only knows to use his limitations, not fathom the limitlessness of his opportunities. Alfred, you are ready to take my fruit as you chose to pursue it with all sincerity through ages of your soul’s existence. You led a selfless life over thousands of years in pursuit of me, the ultimate wisdom. The materialistic wealth you gained in this lifetime, you chose to relinquish. The power you earned, you chose to ignore, all for me… Instead, you pursued the ultimate truth- that the essence of all existence is non-existence; the body is just a cover around your soul. The body fools your soul to accept the unreal; you are now ready to be you, peeled away from your body, to unwrap the ultimate reality!”

Alfred blinked his eyes rapidly and stood dazed. Staring at a talking tree on a bright, sunny day on a lone mountain was surreal. He wondered what deeds he did in the World that made him the chosen one, and why not Mr. Soderberg, the man responsible for him coming here.

“Forgive my skepticism. I see no benefit in talking with trees to gather wisdom about an unknown life. I neither am aware of any acts of mine that deserve this special attention. Anything I receive should truly belong to Mr. Soderberg. The fruit you give shall be his,” Alfred said.

“You are a sum total of your collective actions beyond what your memories carry in this life. You did one thing that none does in this World, the act that separated you from the rest. You let go of your present, to go back to your past and relinquish this World for the future,” Bodhi explained.

Alfred could hardly comprehend what he heard. Something within his mind made him more eager to understand the depth of Bodhi’s message.

“Well, I guess we may never agree on anything here. You may please give me the fruit. I shall take it to Mr. Soderberg and end my quest,” Alfred said in a delirious state of mind.

“Pick the fruit from the inner branches of my canopy. Eat, for it is “you,” who is destined to consume it. The fruit is the path to the other World you seek to travel. Your adventures in this World are now complete!” Bodhi explained.

Alfred picked a ripe purple colored fruit from the tree and bit into it. As he finished eating the tiny fruit, he suddenly remembered that the fruit was meant for Mr. Soderberg. He looked back at the tree and found there were no more fruits to pick!

“It is now time to say goodbye! You have accomplished what you came for,” Bodhi said.

It was getting dark. Bodhi went silent and Alfred got no further responses to his request for another fruit. Alfred wondered what he would tell Mr. Soderberg after going back. That he met a godlike tree and its name is Bodhi, a tree and not a real person! That he ate the fruit meant for Mr. Soderberg in a state of trance while conversing with a tree!

But, the fruit did seem to have mystical powers. Alfred had this strange feeling that he was now an accomplished person. He no longer saw anything as wanting in life. At a very young age, there were people who helped him travel the World, see things and do things that an ordinary mortal would have seen as sheer madness and avoided. He never hurt anyone, helped many people and never had any regrets. All he had to do now was to apologize to Mr. Soderberg for the failure of yet another mission.

Alfred suddenly noted that he forgot about the priest this entire time. He turned around and could see no one. The priest did mention that his mission was over once he handed over Alfred to Bodhi. Alfred called out the priest’s name but to no avail. The priest had disappeared. Alfred called aloud once more, much louder, until his sleep broke! He took a few moments to realize where he was. He was sitting in the same hut, but the priest was not there. As he stepped out, Alfred was almost blinded by the bright Sun. He could not see Bodhi, the tree, either. It was just plain, dry, brown grass all around the mountaintop. He again called out for the priest and only heard his voice echo. He strolled around the mountain unsuccessfully looking for the priest and then descended. Alfred had no idea what was real, what he had to believe and what he had to toss away as a fantasy!

Alfred finally reached the base of the Island and walked towards the Church. It was indeed a miraculous affair for him. Alfred entered the Church and enquired for Andreas Clemens, hoping that he may find the priest there. A Head priest and nun looked surprisingly back at him and said there was no one by that name ever in the history of the Church. Alfred’s repeated argument that he indeed met the priest and walked with him to the Mountain merely amused them. It was now late afternoon. Alfred walked back to the Inn and picked his phone to call Mr. Soderberg. The call repeatedly went to his voice mail. He tried again and received no response. As he sat in his room at the Inn wondering what next, he recognized that he had no other means of reaching Mr. Soderberg. They only met at the Theological Library in Cambridge and never exchanged any other information about their whereabouts. The next day, Alfred took his bags and flew back to the United States.

It was a very tiring yet adventurous week for Alfred. He stepped into his apartment and accidentally kicked an envelope placed at the entrance door. He tidied up his apartment, took a shower and walked towards his desk to open the envelope. It seemed strange; there was no postage stamp and no details of the sender. He tore open the cover and pulled out a banker’s check for ten million dollars in the name of “Alfred Fickler Soderberg”.

Alfred Fickler Soderberg was a wealthy New Yorker, an adventurer, a man who performed many great deeds in life with a selfless attitude. Mr. Soderberg learnt about Bodhi when he visited Tinos. The priest, Andreas Clemens, gave Mr. Soderberg a peek into the many Worlds that humans exist in, alternate dimensions of reality that do not connect with each other, blind to the other entity’s comprehension, but still interconnected through events happening at superluminal speeds. Andreas Clemens was merely a mental illusion of Mr. Soderberg’s own making to realize Bodhi’s existence.

Through a series of dreams, communicating with Bodhi through the priest, he realized the only path to catapult him into the other World, the one where illusions are no longer a reality, is if he could go back in time and sow the seeds of his future. Mr. Soderberg had to readjust time to get to Bodhi. He needed his younger self, Alfred Fickler, to venture into that dimension. His past and his present had to cross each other through maaya. Mr. Soderberg met his younger self and sent him off on the journey to Tinos. The young Alfred himself could only fathom the presence of Bodhi through the power of his dreams, initiated in the hut through the guidance of the priest. The illusionary priest, the guide to the miracle fruit, lived in Mr. Soderberg’s past and his present, eventually disappearing into the other World through Bodhi’s illusion. Alfred Fickler Soderberg entered his desired destiny in the present through the help of his own self in the past. All that the young Alfred had to do in the past was to add a new last name to his identity and enjoy the benefits of his materialistic wealth, in an unknown anticipation of his inimitable future!

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