Eyes See It

Eyes See It by N.K. Rajanala

It was certainly those eyes. Yes, those big, dark, beautiful eyes staring back at me. I can never miss them. They stay with me whenever I look at them. Luring me into its deep mesmerizing spell. Taunting me with reflections of the past. The pleasant experiences that even forced a feeble smile on the lips and a heave of comfort to the heart.

People say the eyes give meaning to this world. They are the truth seekers. They run stories in your memory. If they haven’t seen it, then you haven’t seen it, forever! There is no vividness to history without them. Those eyes staring back at me. Two equals, physically separate yet together, working in unison. Soulmates forever. They never deceive each other. They are eventually one. So is her mystery! Let me give her a name, Netram. I know…it isn’t a fancy name. Quite obvious to the knowledgeable few I would say. But, it is not about the name as much as it is about what happened that day.

Netram saw many events in life. She packed a few for remembrance while mostly letting go of the rest as and when she passed them. Sometimes, the choice isn’t easy. It is hard to ignore but yet impossible to retain. Like the first time she was infatuated with someone. Such moments have no future but are so full of hope. But, the events on that one particular day was different.

Netram woke up in the morning, reluctant to open her fluttering windows to watch the bright light of the Sun overpower her senses. She would soon adjust to the brightness of the day. But, she was tired. She needed her windows to be closed, soaked in darkness, watching nothing, for at least a good eight hours. But, smartphones, television and other inanimate objects also demanded her attention. As if the interaction with living beings wasn’t enough, as did her ancestors in the past, she had to keep up with dreams too. The ones that she thinks she is seeing but knows she isn’t but it doesn’t matter as she still has to see them no matter what!

Netram began the day doing her usual stuff. Nothing special. Nothing unusual. It was a routine she got used to. What to look for and where? Whom to see and when? Her bakery was in the corner of a silent street in an otherwise bustling city. She was lucky to get the shop for lesser rent as her mother had initially set up the business in there a decade earlier. The landlord became friendly since then and allowed the place to be rented almost free of cost. The street was closed to vehicles. So, anyone who wanted to visit the array of shops that sold everything from hand towels to candles had to park their vehicles at a distance and walk. This made it a pretty setting as the trees were let to live without fighting for space with parking spots. Giant Gulmohar trees and other varieties all grew to their majestic gait, unbothered by human interference. Her bakery was hidden behind a lone mango tree that probably grew there before buildings, roads and even people habited that place. This tree was witness to a lot in the history of human progress. It had a wide trunk and branches that almost tested the strength of the walls of her shop. It didn’t bother Netram. She used the juicy fruits the tree bore every summer to add to her pastries. In fact, her bakery was known for mango tarts and mango cakes. The bakery wasn’t far from where she lived. A quick ride in her car was all that was needed. She had a habit of watching out for her cash box even while driving. She took it back home every night, emptied it into a vault she installed at home and brought it back empty to the shop in the morning. She had her usual set of customers who came in regularly. Sales were strong during the summer season, thanks to the mango tree outside. The rest of the year saw the customers trickle in once a week with an odd day when someone new showed up at her shop. Business was never bright but it wasn’t bad either. She managed to cover her expenses but it wasn’t enough to reap profits. For several years, Netram struggled with the monotonous life she led although baking was her passion and possibly the only reason she still had reason to remain cheerful.

Then, it was this day. Netram planned her stock for the day and started preparing the ingredients for them. Her usual customers came in the evening and they knew things were prepared fresh for the day by then. She was done preparing her cakes in about two hours. She had the rest of the afternoon to sit down, relax and lazily pass the day. The silence in the street and the emptiness of her shop allowed her to slowly enter phases of darkness and light. As the darkness of her window was about to completely take over, the sudden chiming of the bells at the shop’s door shook her up to attention.

Standing at the door, with the bright light of the sun obscuring the full view of the person was a little girl. She was alone. Probably about seven years old. She wore an orange colored frock, tattered at the edges below but otherwise beautiful with designs of white flowers printed all over the dress. Netram looked at her with curiosity. She never had anyone come at this time of the day. Moreover, she never had a kid come alone to her shop. Kids came with their parents in the evening. Never alone. This kid looked poor. Maybe she was here to beg for money or some food?

The kid was cute-looking. She was barefooted and didn’t carry anything in her hands. The girl stopped short of approaching Netram. Instead, she turned around and walked about carefully observing the glass shelves that displayed all the cakes on sale. With her hands to her back, she trotted about checking the cakes making sure she didn’t touch the glass and make it dirty. Netram continued watching the girl in silence. It was delightful to watch a young girl, barefooted and all, walk about as if it was serious business. Netram gave her all the time she needed. The girl now started checking the paintings on the wall. She stopped at a few places where there were interesting pictures of village scenes where women with pots on their heads walked towards the horizon. The girl pointed her fingers towards the women in the painting as if to show it to someone. There wasn’t anyone there except for Netram. The girl continued uninterrupted as she now checked the floor, the modest tables and chairs and even the ceiling. She went back to watching the cakes after the inspection was done. She locked her attention at one particular cake. It was orange in color. The same as her dress. She picked the front of her dress, checked the color, looked at the cake, looked back at her dress and pointed her tiny finger at the cake. Netram watched wondering if this girl would ever buy anything or open her mouth and beg for something!

The girl watched the orange cake to her utmost satisfaction. Once done, she clapped her hands and looked towards Netram. They exchanged glances for a long moment. There was complete silence in the air. The fan in the ceiling stopped spinning as the electricity was down. It was a usual thing. The power was gone for about an hour in the afternoon during winters. Then, the girl slowly extended her hands towards Netram. That very moment, Netram saw brightness, more and more light, blinding in its strength, as if someone shone a powerful lamp on her face. Netram struggled, adjusted to the light and then looked ahead. The girl was gone! She checked in the shop, checked her cakes and stepped out to see if the girl was on the street. All her cakes were intact. The girl couldn’t be found. She was gone for sure.

It was early evening by then and Netram had to get things ready for her customers. Very soon, an old couple showed up at her bakery. Probably in their seventies, the husband and wife were all smiles as they entered the shop for the first time. The pair looked sweet. The old man had a limp and supported himself with a stick. The lady was draped in a bright orange saree, neatly pressed and elegant to the look. They held their hands together and walked about the shop. They looked at the cakes behind the glass casing and talked to each other in a hush tone. Then, they walked towards the paintings on the wall. Their eyes sparkled with admiration as they studied the paintings and looked towards Netram with appreciation. They even studied the shapely carvings of the furniture in the shop after which they turned their attention towards the cakes. The sight of the orange cake caught the old lady’s attention as she checked the matching color with her saree. She was happy and pulled her husband’s hand to show it. Then, they turned towards Netram, held their hands out in deep affection, and said, “We will take this orange cake dear! Today is our wedding anniversary and we want to celebrate it in peace. This place is beautiful and so are you and the cakes. It’s so lovely!”

Netram looked back in gratitude. The old couple made her day. Many customers came to her shop but never took the time to talk to her, to appreciate the work she put in setting up her shop and in preparing those tasty cakes. They never sat down to talk to her. They never made her feel like she was useful, of any relevance in the big, bad world outside. The couple sat down at one of the tables, enjoyed eating the orange cake and took a couple of them for home. They placed a tip on the table, wrote a note of appreciation on a piece of paper, thanked Netram again and left. Netram watched the couple slowly walk down the street. Adjusting her apron and feeling a sense of pride at her achievement in satisfying a customer, she then went about resuming her business.

I never had great customers come my way in the years of business I did at my bakery. At least, not until the old couple showed up at my door. Full of life, happiness and having a genuine appreciation for the good things. Ever since that day, I had a great customer come in to my shop whenever the little girl visited my bakery and Netram caught a glimpse of her. Ever since then, I took the girl’s visit to my bakery as a good omen. My heart raced with excitement on the days that happened. It was rare but was always a blessing for me. It made my lonely heart prance about like a lamb near its mother. I also took it as a sign that I have to be at my very best. I cleaned up the shop repeatedly, shined the glass casings, took extra precautions to present my cakes in the best way possible and ah! yes, the color of the little girl’s dress was my winning cake that day. So, I created a special deck with a spinning base, a sparkling glass enclosure and placed my happy cake on that. It always attracted my special visitor, an unknown stranger, always a new customer and yes, the customer enjoyed the experience at my shop.

Maybe everyone has a story to tell! About something less than a miracle, less than spectacular but yet special. Sometimes, it makes me wonder, who was telling the story? And whose story was it anyway? The words fluttered and flew in the wind. Imagination? Reality…Who knows? Who cares? It was time to get back to work. It has been a while now. Netram may soon catch a glimpse of that pretty girl and I have to get ready for my special customer. Anticipation of happiness is a wonderful feeling. Everything looked set. I adjusted the loose strand of hair falling on my eyes and walked away from the mirror.

*The End*

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The Coracle Rider

Ramu sat by the banks of the Cauvery River on the rocky, uneven steps of the Bhiksheswara Temple. The temple surroundings were a silent remnant of the ancient past of his home town, Narsipura, dating back to the Neolithic age. His empty coracle spun around gently in the waters of the river. The Cauvery was swelling with energy following the first monsoon spell. Ramu’s job was to take tourists on a hopping tour from one ancient temple to the other alongside the river banks. Another week of incessant rains and it will be the end of the tourist season, at least for a few months. The sun was blazing hot, but Ramu was used to it. He wore a white toweled turban on the head, while his white shirt and dhoti kept him cool. Ramu knew he was growing older by the day, touching maybe seventy, but he never counted. He probably had a few good years left before the coracle could no longer be controlled by him. There were no tourists today. It had been so for quite a few days now. The younger boys from the nearby villages took up this profession and were trusted more by tourists who couldn’t sit without screaming in the tiny spinning boats. Some of the boys used their broken English skills to lure foreign tourists who paid handsomely for a ride. Ramu sat patiently on the temple steps near the banks just like the herons waiting for their meal in the river.

This was the only source of livelihood for Ramu. He lived alone in the village near Narsipura, having recently lost his wife to bad health, while his two sons chose to settle down and work in a garment factory in Mysore. They never showed up to check on him except during the Dussera festival towards the tail-end of the monsoons. Ramu was used to being the less preferred coracle rider, but he had his own tricks of the trade that he unleashed to attract tourists, especially during such lean periods. Unlike the others, he had customers who came back again just for ‘the’ special ride he offered to them!

As a kid, Ramu used to swim in the river, resting on the temple steps, catching fish, cooking them to eat by the bushes and then continuing with his swim. He swam aimlessly for endless hours in a day and sometimes the only way he could be spotted in the village was if someone called out for him at the river banks. He spent so much time in the water that it was like the Cauvery knew him like a mother who knows her child. He knew when the crocodiles arrived, at what spots in the river the current picked up and when it was safe to go to his secret place, an island unknown to anyone else, hidden from the view of the villagers, adjoining a forest, and one that wasn’t easy to reach in a boat. Sometimes, the village boys tried to follow him to the secret place but they couldn’t keep up with Ramu’s wily riding abilities. It was no easy game. This secret, Ramu kept to himself for almost fifty years.

Ramu almost dozed off and was about to fall off the steps as he gained back his footing. The waters were much calmer than ever before. Today would be a tourist’s delight, except that there were none around. He walked towards the coracle and picked a plastic bag tied on the inside to the bamboo frame. Wrapped in cloth within the bag was his daily meal, two balls of ragi mudde, which he got packed every day from a local hotel. The hotel owner was an old friend of his and gave the food for free to him. Ramu picked a shady spot below a huge Arali tree and began to have his meal. Hunger drove him to gobble the first ragi ball and he slowly struggled with the second one, the lack of two front teeth making it difficult for him. As he put the ball again in his mouth, the voice of a woman broke the silence of the surroundings.

“Brother! Is that coracle yours?” she asked.

“Yes, I am the rider of the coracle madam! Do you want a ride?”

“Yes! Why don’t you finish your food? I’ll wait here by the side for you.”

“Oh! Never mind madam. This will take ages to finish with the few teeth I have remaining. My stomach is full. We can get started right away.”

The lady was middle-aged, probably in her late thirties, and wore an elegant yellow cotton saree. Ramu never had a woman tourist ride alone in his boat and that too wearing a saree. It was not an easy thing to handle, but he used to take his wife around and knew all the precautions to take.

“Watch your steps around those loose rocks madam! You may want to carry your slippers in your hands.”

Ramu released the rope of his coracle and held it steady for the lady to climb into.

“Madam, sit a little inside and not lean over too much on the sides. I will stand opposite to you and balance the boat. No quick movements please. Where shall I take you? The usual temples?”

“Brother, take me along a path where there is no crowd. I just want to sit peacefully in the boat enjoying the ride. No touristy places please!”

“In that case, I shall take you to this special place I know. I am famous for offering this ride that none do in the vicinity of this entire block of villages. It will be a calm ride and will help you relax.”

Ramu had not been to this place for a long time. He was more excited to go there, a place he named “Nandavana”. The lady looked pale and didn’t show much enthusiasm although she agreed to the ride. Something seemed to bother her as could be seen from the silence she maintained thereafter, even though Ramu went about his usual tourist guide preaching of the nearby places and their history. Resting her chin on her folded knees, hands tied together, she stared into the open world that the river offered as the coracle slowly drifted away from land and humanity.

“Don’t worry madam. It may feel lonely but this is the most peaceful ride you will get. I was enchanted by Nandavana ever since I was a young boy!”

That evoked a mild smile on her face. Once the coracle coasted along a good distance, the duo reached what seemed like a dead-end. The river narrowed down to a stream passing through two giant trees with girth as wide as a truck. The trees seemed to hug each other at the canopy like two sisters embraced in loving affection. Beyond them, the water was still visible and seemed to grow back to its original size as it winded through a dense forest. Only a human or animal could pass through those two trees.

“This seems to have come to an end! Are we going back that soon? That’s a pretty short ride!” the lady exclaimed in surprise, hoping for a few more hours of relaxation in the river.

Ramu chuckled. As the coracle headed towards the trees, he jumped out into the shallow waters and guided the coracle towards a bushy area that had a sand bank.

“Madam, we get down here and walk on foot to pass through the trees.”

The lady looked nervous for the first time and Ramu understood. He hid his coracle among the bushes and took a stack of dried coconut leaves to cover the boat from sight. He had this all figured out and set up for the rides. The lady reluctantly followed Ramu and passed through the trees. Waiting on the other side, hidden from sight until he cleared the coconut leaves, was another coracle.

“Madam! This is the secret. Only a few select customers of mine know this and they keep it a secret too. Everyone thinks a coracle can never pass through this place and hence declare my secret ride is a sham. My competition never thought even for a second that all that was needed was a second coracle!”

The lady hopped on to the coracle again and they resumed the ride. She was stunned by the views in front of her. The water was so clear, she could see the bottom of the river bed, colored pebbles smooth and round lay scattered around. Silvery fishes swam right below their boat. It was a silent ride. They were surrounded on both sides by forest trees that provided shade from the burning afternoon sun. There were birds that were never seen before, rare, beautiful, some with pink feathers and a red sparkling beak. The lady lost the gloom in her face. The sights of nature made her happy.

“Madam, this is the most peaceful place one can ever find. Isn’t it an irony that this isn’t far from the noisy towns nearby but none know about it! Sometimes you find peace if all you do is look at a different place, just turn your head away from the pain in front. It doesn’t take much effort. I found mine when I discovered this place!”

“True! I agree. What else is there for my eyes to feast on? This is such a happy place.”

Ramu steered the boat against the direction of the river flow. They now entered a lagoon with the forest closing in behind them as they moved forward. Towards their left was a cave on top of which spring water flowed like a fountain from a crack in the rocks. The musical notes of the water that eventually snaked its way into the river was mesmerizing. The access to the cave was through a row of black stones laid out in a perfect line. White daisies covered the surroundings while butterflies, orange colored with blue-eyed patterns, large and elegant, hopped from one flower to the other.

“What is this cave? Did you make this pathway?”

“Yes Madam! This is where I come to calm my mind…Let go of any pain I face in life…Listen to my heart…Close my eyes and meditate…Seek happiness…Talk to my lost ones…Spend time with them…Chatter about the good times in the past…Then, I leave the place after gaining more strength to go by with my remaining life. Would you like to sit and meditate in the cave? I can stay here. Take as much time as you want.”

“Sure. I hope there are no snakes or scary insects in that cave? I hate the sight of them!”

“Don’t worry madam! These creatures never bother us as long as we leave them alone. I see that you are bothered by some thought. Something that is making you look sad! Spend time in this cave and you will be relieved of any pain in your heart.”

“I didn’t know that my face showed what was going inside of me. I will head to the cave and spend some time in solitude.”

The lady stepped out of the boat and walked barefoot on the stones. She headed towards the cave. The steps had to be climbed up and at the entrance of the cave, she had to bend down and crawl inside. The cave wasn’t dark as expected. The roof of the cave had a small opening from where rays of the sun passed through like a white streak of light. In a corner of the cave was a platform that she sat on. She took a few deep breaths and looked straight ahead. She failed to notice it the first time, but in front of her, right across the other end of the cave, was a stone sculpture of an unknown goddess. Made of sandstone, it was carved intricately with the features of the face evidently beautiful; large eyes, a nose ring and the lips closed in a delicate smile. She sat down in admiration of the idol, almost invisible in the dark corners of the cave, the faint light revealing the celestial form as her eyes adjusted more and more to the place. The lady sat hypnotized by the idol almost like in a trance and proceeded to close her eyes.

As she meditated on the beautiful form of the goddess, she could feel her breath slow down, beat by beat, as the hands fell by the sides and the neck slumped relaxed. Vivid images of her childhood, the lost friends, the games she played on her dad’s lap, her doting mother attending to her illness, the festivities and celebrations, the visits to the temples, fairs and the movies, everything flashed like vignettes of pure gold in front of her eyes. She could sense the smile on her face, the joy that comes from thinking about good things. She even realized how much she missed her own smile for ages. As she drifted away in her thoughts, she saw a faint image in the distance that came closer and closer to her. She sensed her eyelids quivering. But, they calmed once she realized it was her mother. Her joy knew no bounds. She immediately started talking to her.

“I missed you so much. Where have you been amma? Life hasn’t been the same since the time you left!”

“I know my dear child! What mother would like to be away from her children. Not even in her dreams. Unless other ideas of God separate us!!”

The two hugged and kissed each other in longing affection. The lady could feel the soft touch of her mother’s hands on her forehead. Tears rolled down her cheeks. It was sheer happiness.

“Why don’t you come back home with me? I will take great care of you as always amma.”

“I know my dear! I am in a peaceful world, confined to its whims, unnatural and impossible to break away from. But, I am always there for you, ready to protect and serve you, hug your kids, bless your future…anything I can do to make your life brighter. You and I came together here for that very reason. Go back home my child and do the good things you have always been loved for doing in this world.”

The lady watched as her mother turned back and walked away into the faint darkness of the surroundings. She slowly opened her eyes. The cave was now much darker. She lost track of time and took a while to understand where she was. She slowly stepped out of the cave. It was evening and the sun was setting down in the distance. Ramu was sitting by the boat, lost in his own thoughts.

“It has been a few hours madam! That is what happens when people meditate in this cave. I hope you liked the experience?”

“Oh, liked? I loved it! I met my mother. You know, I was distraught and broken on the inside as I couldn’t meet my mother on her deathbed. She was my only true companion. We led a lonely but joyful life together. But, on a day when my duties as a government school teacher took me away to a faraway village, I lost my mother to an illness that no doctor could cure. I couldn’t be near her when it mattered the most. Such is fate! But, today, I am finally at peace with the loss and have come to terms with the separation. I am like a free bird now. Ready to fly again in this world!”

“It gives me a great sense of pleasure to learn about this madam! Even I had a touching moment with my lost wife at this same cave. There is something about this cave madam! It lured me to it when I was a boy. Ever since then, it has been like my secret companion. The temple that my mind always longs to visit…The solution to my grief, the path to my happiness, the abode of reason and the goodness of mother nature.”

“Brother! I cannot thank you enough for this beautiful day! You put a smile back on a child who lost her dear mother. You gave reason for a lonely woman to go back into this world, stronger and happier. I am now more than ready to further pursue my teaching career, and lead a life of fulfillment. Thank you, Sir!”

Both smiled at each other and headed back in the coracle towards civilization. They remained calm and silent through the rest of the journey, leaving the secret place, getting onto the other coracle and heading towards the town. As the boat waded in the now stronger currents, wobbling and dancing to the beating waters, the lady made a final parting statement.

“Life is an exam where the syllabus is unknown and question papers are not set. But, once you overcome your fear, your grief, the weakness holding you back, you have the willpower to take it on. Unseen forces bring along people, circumstances and opportunities to move step-in-step with you. The exam is passed with flying colors as the answers reveal themselves in front of you. Today, I had the unique luck of passing one such exam!”

*The End*

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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 as it braved ditches that dotted the dull landscape of sleepy villages. The state transport department recently purchased a new fleet of refurbished Tata buses. Alas, drivers used them for testing their speeding skills and passengers tinkered with the windows to spit better. Prakrit was on his way to the temple town, his son, Prithvi, tagging along to enjoy the summer break. His wife was forced to stay back at home to take care of his ailing parents.

Prithvi rarely traveled and his father barely managed to find time or money to take his only son outside their hometown of Badarpur. Prakrit was a knife thrower at a local circus. He also performed other random acts as part of a troupe that toured the cities of Lucknow and Kanpur. This profession kept his thatched-roof hut intact. Recently, he had to sell his cow to pay for his ailing parents’ medication. They were old but tilled the farms of the local landlord and provided badly needed monetary support to the small family. With his parents now sick, Prakrit was left with few choices to make money. For long, he tried his best to avoid Prithvi’s pestering demands to visit a place other than a circus. Finally, Prakrit’s wife nudged him to make the trip to the mother goddess, Ganga- the sustainer of life and the cleanser of sins, all with a holy dip in her waters. They hoped the holy water could do wonders that life on earth denied them!

Prithvi was ecstatic that he could see the Kashi Vishwanath shrine and swim in the cold waters of the Ganga. The bus came to a squeaky halt after passing through the busy markets of Varanasi. The two got down the bus and stretched their tired bodies. They walked over to a nearby dharamshala and managed to grab some free food. The young boy had nothing to eat for eight hours straight as the blistering heat made the carefully packed food his mother gave stale. It was nine in the morning and Prithvi was already jumping with joy to see the mighty river he heard about from beautiful mythological tales his mother narrated.

The father and son duo walked barefoot towards the ghats narrowly missing broken pieces of glass on black, dirt covered streets along the myriad shops that busily tended to tourists. Contrary to his town, Prithvi imagined the temple town to be as clean as the river. As they went down the flight of stairs near the ghat, Prithvi was in for one more surprise. Dark, black waters of a massive river were dotted by crowded, colorful boats with patches of woodwork done to hide their damaged exterior.

“Papa, is this our Ganga maiya!!?” Prithvi screamed aloud in shocked disbelief.
“Yes, it is. Why are you shocked? Now, pull your towel from the bag. We will take a dip and head to the temple,” Prakrit instructed his son.

Prithvi sat down the steps and took a deep disappointed sigh. He expected to see a pristine river like his mother described. He was dismayed at the sight of littered flowers, baskets, food and scavengers on the shores and beyond. He saw several people bathe, spit into the river and even discard whatever they had in a pot filled with a greyish powder. Farther out in the river he saw 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 pulled 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. His hometown 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 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. 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 trained 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 a person next to them. Prakrit smiled back at his son. When his son even refused to wash his feet instead of taking a bath, he patted on his son’s back for his curious honesty and uprightness. 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 through flowery trees and rugged mountains. There lived a lion, an old elephant, a pig and two monkeys. The lion was the king of the jungle, 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 about polluting it. The elephant drank a lot of water and playfully sprayed on the other animals, never caring about wasting it. The monkeys watched all the fun and frolic from a tree above the river. The duo climbed down the tree, drank only what they needed, cleaned the banks of the river of the silt that collected and made sure that the flow was not disrupted. They also dug a pit by the riverbank every day that none understood for what purpose. This they dutifully did irrespective of the jeers made by the pig and the smirk on the face of the lion.

This continued for several years until things turned for the worse. For two years straight, a massive drought nearly dried the entire river to leave 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 decided that the animals must keep the river clean and use it only for drinking until the drought clears. 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 blinded by his 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 come. The pig could not be without his filth. He refused to listen to anyone, secretly drank the water, and bathed 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 thirst. He lamented that alas God did not help. The pig cursed everyone in sight and moved out of the jungle. 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 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. 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 river was alive and so were 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 Prithvi, tell me now. Do you want to be the pig or the monkey?”

Prithvi understood his father. 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 cared to see or listen to follow their path. They then prayed for the health of their family and the mother goddess. Finally, Prithvi headed back home with pleasant memories of a trip that he could never forget for the rest of his life.

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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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