The River: Part 3
“You know, they say that when people get old, some turn to wine, but most turn to vinegar?”
John looked at Mal with sparkly eyes. Eyes which had not lost hope.
“Yes, but sometimes the vinegar is useful,” replied Mal, aching all over, as old men who have turned to wine must.
There was only one story left to tell (although it was true that there could have been many more). It had been difficult. Life, that is. Mal and John were in the winter of their lives. Mal… ( strangely short for Malachi rather than Malcolm). John, short for… oh I don’t know, for some New Testament prophet perhaps… Please let us return to the Halloween story… this is not a night to have an intrusive narrator… we must crave comfort in this dark hour…
The two men watched the river as it rolled on and Mal dreamed of reaching the other side, in so many ways.
Urban Myth #1
It is said that the devil can take many forms. One of the strangest was documented during the horrific scandal of the Salem witch trials. People testified that the devil appeared at night to them as a hog. As a black bristling boar, racing towards them. I cannot say whether or not such a thing would be possible on a night like this. But the moon is full and perhaps nothing is impossible. Perhaps unseen things could be made visible.
Back to the story… The day passed with that strange feeling that a holiday is about to end and the common sensations which always come with that knowledge. And so the ritual of storytelling began once again.
They were fishing. That’s what people do when they don’t know what to do. After what seems to be an ending. I hear it happened once in the scriptures…
And the river sang to the two old men. It sang a story into the ear of John…
“Huckleberry refused to die.”
“Who the hell is Huckleberry?” asked Mal.
“I don’t know, he just dropped into my head… like a pebble.”
“Okay, you old loon, we are here to do some fishing and have a bit of fun before we kick the bucket… seriously, though, do you allow characters to drop into your head like pebbles. Why pebbles even? What is your head, a pond?”
John sighed with an old man sigh… “Huckleberry refused to die until he had found the meaning of life….”
“Ha!” laughed Mal, “The meaning of life, good luck with that!”
John looked at the river and sighed. “It’s getting dark and the eerie silhouettes of the trees here worry me… There seemed to be no way to find out life’s meaning. There was no one to answer the question that burned in his heart. So Huckleberry went on a journey as all those who want to know the meaning of life must do. Huckleberry didn’t just want to know the meaning of life, he wanted to know the meaning of his own life. And when such questions arise, if God will not answer there is only one thing left to do.”
Mal sighed, “Must we speak through stories? It’s a strange dusk and the river looks as if it is empty.”
John pretended to be mysterious…. “A person must find a hermit to ask. This has always been the way for those who want to know the meaning of life.
Huckleberry was a lazy man at heart and he did not like the idea of going to the Himalayas to find a wise old man who would tell him the answer to his questions. He felt he had died in so many ways before. He much preferred the idea of googling the answer but the truth of the matter was that no matter which philosophers he read or how much he looked at all the versions of the meaning of life in the Wikipedia page, nothing satisfied him. The answers of the religions didn’t satisfy him either. The Christian answer that we are here to praise and glorify God seemed to be a non-answer. He had watched a famous comedian rubbish that answer, classifying it quite rightly as a mystery. The comedian’s mystery at least seemed sane. The answer that we were here to love and be loved was a maudlin non-answer too. The trouble was that no answer was good enough. And he didn’t even want to know the meaning of everyone’s life or the meaning of life in general, he wanted to know the meaning to his own life.
So, he would have to drag his sorry arse from his London house (which was never a home) and he would have to seek that answer. As we must all do… if the river did not press in. It seemed to him that there were wise men and women to be found in London. And he happened to know that there was one particular man who lived as a hermit who people considered to be wise. Some people at least. This man lived in the middle of a roundabout in the outskirts of London. He was homeless and he was old. So very old. Like us. But without the pension. The local people thought that he was some kind of wise man of this age because he treated them kindly and would always be kind to children and animals. And unlike many of the homeless, many within the local estate would give him food and provide for his needs. It was the kind of act which goes unnoticed and unreported in the media. And the wise old homeless hermit would live in the centre of the roundabout, in a tent, sheltered by the trees. And it so happened that Huckleberry learned about him through talking with others. He learned that this man seemed to have answers to questions where other people would not hold the answers. So he determined that he would go to visit him and take a gift with him. A gift of gold – because there is no other gift to give a true prophet who is largely rejected by the world. And so Huckleberry set out to the homeless hermit who lived in the middle of the roundabout. ‘How could such a man live in such a busy place?’ he wondered. But Huckleberry made the pilgrimage to this man and found him pitched in the middle of the tree-filled roundabout in a tent.
The hermit looked up at Huckleberry with the face of a life that could tell a story of its own. Faces can do that. Faces like ours. With wrinkles and eyes which spoke of both suffering and hope. A face which a man could trust. A face which Huckleberry instinctively trusted. And our hero reached into his pocket and took out a timepiece, a gold watch on a gold chain and offered it to the homeless hermit. But when the hermit saw the gift he shook his head as if to say he neither wanted or needed the gold. And that was when Huckleberry knew for sure that this man was either mad or that he held the answers to all his questions. It seemed like fate. It seemed like destiny.
There were greetings but the small talk which Huckleberry made was met with a silent acceptance. There was nothing else. There were just the two men, one who was content and one who was not content. It was a scene that had been played out before.
And so Huckleberry sat, with the noise of the traffic all around and the birds in the trees above them and he asked the question that burned within his heart:
‘What is the meaning of life? Actually no, what is the meaning of my life?’
The old hermit nodded and began to smoke a roll-up cigarette. Using Rizla packets with torn corners. He gazed at Huckleberry, as if coming to a decision, and then he spoke with a low gravelly voice.
‘Why d’ya ask?’
Was this some kind of test? Huckleberry was thrown once again. And replied:
‘I want to know. I want to know what it is all about. I want to know why I was born.’
The old hermit smiled as if the right answer had been given and then he replied:
‘There is a meaning to your life…’
Huckleberry’s heart leapt within him. At last, he knew that there was a meaning and finally he was about to get the answer he wanted. The cacophony of vehicles surrounded them.
‘What is it?’ prompted Huckleberry.
‘A question has an answer and a longing has a way to be satisfied. Or else the question would not be there and the longing would not be there.’
The old hermit took another drag of his cigarette.
‘But what is it?’ prompted Huckleberry.
‘I dunno.’ Replied the wise old hermit, ‘All I know is that there’s a meaning to your life as there’s a meaning to everyone’s life. A small side effect of me condition is that I don’t happen to know what that specific meaning is.”
‘You’re lying!’ shouted Huckleberry, suddenly angry, ‘Why did you make me come all this way and not answer my question!!!? Why did you make me travel past the M25 – it was really busy and I got stuck in a jam!’
‘I did answer and I dunna think you’ve journeyed very far anyway. I’m telling you that your life has a meaning but that as a created being meself that I don’t know the answer to your question. And I can’t tell you what will happen when you die either. And do you know why? It’s ‘cause almost nobody knows. Not really. Sure, people say they know and people say they aren’t ‘fraid but almost everyone is ‘fraid. And I can’t tell you ‘cause there is only one person that knows and he answers questions when he feels like it. But if I were to guess, I would say that it’s to try to live life to the full, to attain eternal life and to try to alleviate suffering.’
‘Who is this person?!!’ asked Huckleberry in frustration. And then he slumped as if defeated. ‘It’s God isn’t it?’.
Urban Myth #2
In Britain when a revivalist wanted to share important things, such as the meaning of life and visions to better the country and individuals, others would try to drown out their words. It was even done through church bells. Revivalists would try to help people and try to tell them messages from God, but there were some who did not like this for reasons unknown. As a result, the messages of revivalists were sometimes drowned out by church bell-ringing. It is said that the same thing goes on today, although not always through literal bells.
That was when the bells started to ring from the cathedral. Huckleberry had to listen so much harder underneath the sound of the bells and the traffic.
‘I dunno,’ replied the old hermit, equally annoyed by the bells. He began to shout. ‘I’m quite mad! And I would like to go to visit a small man named Jehovah who lives in a rather shady place beside the tree. Beside the tree, beside the tree we all live beside the tree. I’ve once spotted a machine with a limit to its capabilities who once became a master of gone away. Gone away now. All gone away now. A bore, a boar, me soul is tore. We live we die, we each have a spy and the spy is in our head and we’re all a little dead. Troll under the bush, troll in our head, troll is coloured red. And in the shadows… in the places where there have never been any shadows and a loose a loose my life for a noose.
By the way do you have any tobacco? By the way… you have a silly name. Let me tell you a story…’
And so Huckleberry left that place unsure of what the meaning of his life was still and only continuing in the hope that there was some kind of meaning, that there was an answer. Because he realized that the only way he was going to survive was by believing that there really was an answer out there. One day he would find out, but it seemed a cruel irony that he would never know before he died. And so he returned to work and he returned to his lover and he returned to his house which was not quite a home and he realized that the only thing he had learned was that there was an answer but that no created thing knew what that answer was and that they were not hiding this truth, they simply didn’t know because the only one who knew the answer was keeping all the cards close to his chest. And Huckleberry sat in his house surrounded by his riches and he laughed and laughed and laughed at the madness of it all. A life without rhyme or reason which said that there was a rhyme or reason and a world full of people who held no answers only questions. And even then, it wasn’t satisfying enough for him and the laughter turned to tears.
Such is the fate of civil servants.”
“Why the last sentence to the story? Is that it?” asked Mal. “Is that the only answer? You’re crazy. Stories are crazy… This river looks wild…”
“How would I know?” replied John. “I’m not God.”
“You’re an arse,” said Mal.
And they remembered then… That they were fishing.
But the siren song of the river began…
“I don’t have any waders,” said John.
In the distance church bells rang.
“Why are the bells ringing?” asked Mal.
“Is it Sunday? A wedding? I don’t know.”
“All Saints for tomorrow? Bloody religion.”
“The river is hard to cross! I hear that people have died here.”
“Two young men, I heard! They had no opportunity to turn to wine or vinegar.”
The river called to them. It does that, I hear. There are all kinds of rivers and the last one is the one to focus on. But the others can be beautiful. You and I shall both cross it whether we like it or not.
As for this particular river…. it sang a siren song like the call of bells.
And that was when the black hog came, bursting out from the undergrowth near the trees. Two small silver bells hanging from the ring of its nostrils. The moon bright and full. The light fading. A bristling dark shape running unnaturally fast towards the two elderly men.Before he knew it, John found the hog had raced straight to him and bashed into his legs, snorting with a snort which sounded like a laugh.
John fell forwards into the river and a current took him.
Mal turned to face the black hog. The hog turned to face him, raising its head, something like smoke, or possibly cold air, rising from its huge, wet, bristly nostrils.
Then it raced forward and Mal too was pushed into the river. The current taking him too. The hog raced back to the trees and the two men went under, the moon staring down on the scene aghast.
The black hog, laughing, raced through the trees. Jangling and snorting. But there was a pull which even the hog felt. The river called to the pig too. And it stumbled and fell down the bank. A ringing in its ears. Endings are not supposed to be this way. But it, too, fell under the power of the river, its trotters unable to keep it afloat.
The invading unclean spirit did not escape from it as it went under.
I dare say that at least the old men were able to breathe underwater. But I do not know for sure… perhaps if we get older we shall know.
For the river takes us all.