2. IN THE RIVER OF TIME
Home was no longer home but a place empty of life. Living in a world I no longer belonged to, feeling trapped, I started hanging out with a new set of friends, a rougher crowd. Every sentence sounded like a put-down of parents, every display of wits was to mock grownups, laughing at them was a boisterous proclamation of our independence. These kids experimented with drugs and sex.
Sensing what was going on, my parents said little, yet their anxious glances disturbed me. I never doubted their love for me or that I loved my mom and dad. That was established but no longer enough to keep me tied to home. There was a world out there to be explored, experiences to be had and shared, much to see and much to learn. I had to distance myself from home to start thinking for myself.
Going home after a downpour I watched water rush in the gutter. A leaf twisting and turning made me see myself being carried with the rest of creation in one direction—from the past into the future. In this river I was knocked about by all in whose way I happened to drift. Everybody was fighting tooth and nail to stay afloat in waters that were utterly indifferent to what happens to those caught in its flow.
A narrow current carried me to the fringes of humanity where the helpless and the hopeless gather like flotsam. Here the stench of doom, the wailings punctuated by feeble screams hung like a cloud. Everyone was gasping for air and when a long-armed undertow reached for me and started pulling me under, it felt like the sweetest way to escape this wretchedness.
I was ready to give in when a kick in the face made me grab the foot, and holding on to it I was towed into mid-stream. I did not fare better there, for I was battered by those whose progress my presence delayed. In this river the nimble fingers of change altered everyone separately, every man and woman waging a personal battle against each other and the indifference of the world around them. Here the laws of the mob prevailed. Wanting no part of it I was about to give in when somebody took hold of my hand.
Facing me was a woman with a deep olive complexion and graying hair.
"You must be new here," she said.
"I am... I've never seen people this mean. Is there a way out of here?"
"There is. Some people make it but most never look for other ways of living, are not aware of the options available to them."
In spite of what was going on around us the woman looked calm. "Have you been here long?" I asked.
"I came back to look for my daughter. We haven't heard from her in several years..." Adding after a pause, "You reminded me of her... the way she was when she left home."
"Why would anyone want to be here?"
"Sooner or later most people fall into the River of Time and many get stuck in it for life."
I looked at the people shoving and hitting each other.
"Why do they take this abuse?"
"They don't know any better. Those that watch others learn the rules of the game and stay out of harm's way. And those who use this predicament to their advantage don't see why they should leave the river. Having secured a position in these treacherous waters they see themselves as superior and enjoy wielding power over others. They would not know what to do with themselves elsewhere."
"Secure a position? Here?"
"Have you noticed that at the moment you are less battered than when you first fell into the river?"
"It's because I am looking for my daughter. Having an objective is my stronghold and it makes the grind and struggle bearable."
"The stronghold... "
"Look around and you'll see."
The river was filled with people up to their chins in water, heads bobbing separately or in clusters, limbs entwined forming masses of humanity, masses plowing through the thick of people.
A corpse floated by face down. No one paid attention.
The woman pulled me closer. "See that small group of people, children riding on their shoulders? This is a close-knit family, kids observing and learning from their parents how to navigate these waters. The parents' stronghold is in the wellbeing of their children."
"See the group in back of them turning round and round? They are infighters, as if arguments could prevent them from going under. Every member knows what needs to be done to stay afloat yet everyone expects the other to take the responsibility, all blaming each other for the misery they suffer."
"And who are they?" I asked pointing to the massive cluster of people pushing everyone out of their way, a man raised on their shoulders finger-pointing in a direction, screaming. "Hangers-on. The man riding on their shoulders? Those who raised him to this position have no aim, no vision of their own. So they follow the personal vision of the appointed leader. Having entrusted their lives to him they cater to his whims as long as he pleases the many. Look!"
As she spoke the man was pulled down from on high.
"See the mass crumbling, infighting, scattering? That's what happens to hangers on. Not used to thinking for themselves, they flounder until they find someone willing to lead them. You suffer endless indignation for letting others take the responsibility for your life. In the River of Time change affects everybody. If you don't learn to think for yourself, your chances are slim.
"Is competition the key?"
"Not really. It may work for a while and those who compete may gain a short-lived advantage. It depends on who you are competing with."
I caught sight of a man paddling a floating devise against the current and shouting.
"That fellow sees change coming from a different direction. Paddling against the stream he actually stays in one place while everyone else is passing him. What keeps him going is the shouting. Listen—
"People! Agitate, organize, unite! The world belongs to you! Demand! People, wake up!"
"Shouting keeps the contraption afloat. It will sink the minute he shuts up." Then added, "People like him open channels through which many slip out unnoticed and so begin to think for themselves."
Another corpse floated by, pockets full of silence.
"You said there is a way out of here?" I ventured to remind the good woman.
"See these swimmers moving through the thick as if nothing stood in their way? Watch the one on the left. I can tell already that he's not going far—his furtive glances measure his progress against those who swim beside him. Were he to lift his head, he'd see others beating them by a mile. It's what you compare yourself to that determines your progress. The higher you aim the more you are apt to achieve. Life is not a competitive race, it is a chance to make living worthwhile."
"Can you tell who might go the distance?"
"See the one swimming off center at a pace suitable for her? She is not distracted by who does what on her right or left. Unwavering in her course she swims without missing a beat. This happens only to those who hold an objective or aim steadfast in their minds. Their vision is their stronghold."
"And after they reach their objective?"
"They escape this grind and bustle, the common stresses and discomforts no longer bother their minds. Yet they have to attend to and guard that earned peace of mind which generates a new set of worries laden with new fears and new anxieties which impose new rules and new restrictions." After a pause she added, "Everyone wishes for so called happiness, and when the set-up seems just right, something comes along to upset the good life. But if a suspicion creeps in that they might have missed something important in life..."
Eyes riveted on a group to the left her words froze in mid-sentence. She shouted,
"The redhead! She looks like... my daughter!" Squeezing my hand she said, "Good luck!" and dived into the mass of bobbing heads.
Taking a cue from her I aimed straight across the river and reached the bank in no time, the bulging bundle of memories still under my arm.
After climbing the steep and slippery bank I found myself at the edge of a luscious meadow—gentle breezes combing tall grasses, processions of clouds drifting in a predestined direction, the song of a lark stitching heaven and earth together. Moved by the simplicity of things untouched by human hands I entered the meadow ready to embrace the world anew.
After a few steps I slipped. Several steps further I stumbled and fell into a tall and narrow shaft. Gaze fixed on the patch of blue above me I sat down and listened for signs of life but heard only grasses rustle in the wind.
"Help!" I shouted and heard my voice fade into the silence.
Hearing footsteps, I stood up in time to see a young man spread the grasses and look over the edge.
"You called?" he asked.
" I did! Can you get me out of here?" I said.
"Let me see... You picked a deep one to fall into. Don't worry, you're not alone, the meadow is full of pit holes with people stranded in them." Said the stranger positioning himself to jump.
"Oh no! Please, don't jump!" I begged him, "Get help, please!"
" I'll keep you company," he said and jumped in, sitting down across from me, knees touching.
He introduced himself, "I'm Jimmy. Welcome to our territory!"
"I'm Alya. I didn't know the meadow was full of treacherous pits. I could have broken my leg."
"Foreseeing the worst already?" he asked, eyes keenly prying as if he were a student of important matters. "The meadow looked so luscious, so inviting you could not resist the temptation, right?"
Rumblings underground locked our eyes.
"What was that?"
"It's the River of Time. Here it runs underground, no one knows how deep below the surface." Jimmy's voice hushed, as if he was about to divulge a secret. "When it rumbles like that, it's best to ignore it. You'll hear water sounds once in a while but usually the river is quiet. And that's even worse, because this underground river is more treacherous than the one above. Here you don't see the dangers coming at you, they creep up unnoticed."
"Is there a way out of this pit?" I asked in a whisper.
Brushing dirt off his pants he changed the subject,
"So you crossed the Big River alright. Isn't it something what people are willing to put up with? No other species on earth is more ignorant, more gullible and more hell-bound than human kind. Altogether I find this business of living very disagreeable."
"How did you get here?"
"Alone in the Big River, I was about to go under when I bumped into what felt like a root, and figuring I was near the shore I grabbed it and climbed out—" A thunderous rumble made him stop. Eyes fixed on my face, Jimmy continued,
"—only to wallow in mud on that slippery shore. When I heard of the meadow higher up, I managed to climb out and the spread looked truly divine. But like you, I also fell into a pit. At first I was disappointed, as you must be now, but nowadays I'd rather talk to someone like you than take part in those demeaning morbid struggles above the ground."
Sounds of water churning filled the pit. Prompted to say something I raised my voice,
"Is there a purpose to this?"
"Purpose to what? Does misery need a purpose? Misery is the same everywhere, why look for it? Why suffer endless humiliation or put up with struggles that only sap your energy and drag you down no matter how hard you try to escape it? No thanks. I'm a fast learner," he said brushing the dirt off his sleeve.
"Aren't you curious to see what life has to offer?"
"You must be kidding!" Jimmy retorted. "Life has nothing more to offer than more of the same struggle whatever direction you take. And what's the purpose in that?"
The wall of dirt by Jimmy's elbow was crumbling and soon a hand groping the air appeared.
"Is that you, Auntie?" Jimmy sounded relieved.
"You here already?" Asked a high-pitched crackling voice, and the head of an elderly woman's face caked with dirt appeared. "What's up? What's the underground rumbling about? "
"Auntie, meet Alya!" And turning to me, Jimmy said, "Down here we get around, the place is riddled with tunnels leading from pit to pit. Life down here is not as dull as you might think."
By then Auntie dug through, and in the dim light of the pit I was taken aback by the grin on her leathery face.
"Hi! Welcome to our world!" she said eyes fixed on me as she wiggled in between us.
"I do not intend to stay—" I began to say but stopped when Auntie's face leaned into mine.
"Let me tell you, none of us did at first." The underground river grumbling insistently, Auntie raised her fist and shouted, "Oh, shut up, let me talk to this creature, haven't seen one so young for years!"
To my surprise, the river did shut up but now an iron-heavy stillness encased us. Auntie looked up and down, sized up the pit, sized up me and broke the silence.
"You picked yourself a beauty to fall into, wouldn't you say so, my friend?"
"Our luck!" Jimmy answered, and they both burst out laughing. I was not amused.
"Do people dig these pits themselves?" I hardly dared to ask.
"They do," whispered Jimmy, "Some of the pits are ancient, dug deeper and deeper by generations of people. The truly desperate are best at it. Convinced that if they dig deep enough they will reach the river and then all will be as usual again, they dig relentlessly. But it never works, for as you dig deeper, you reach a point where the dirt you throw out starts falling back on your head and that's the end of digging. Unless you want to bury yourself alive!" The two burst out laughing again.
"It happens, it certainly happens," said Auntie, and turning to Jimmy she said, "This place is plastered with best intentions, right?"
Jimmy nodded and his voice took on an edge.
"Right. And there are plenty of good intentions to entertain us. Down here the mind is truly inventive, imagination crackles non-stop, offering most elaborate most delectable ways to keep away the nuisances of life. Above ground they put you on a merry-go-round until the machinery breaks down!" he said brushing his sleeve again. "Our way of living is by far the best."
Auntie sighed, "A conveyer belt, that's what it is up there. The merciless progression of changes is what grinds them all to pulp. Those that manage to secure a place for themselves, spend their lives fighting the changes that pile up around them so high that they can hardly see the world beyond. Those that give in, take whatever life dishes out or puts in their way. Those that resist the onslaught of changes struggle against the flow all the way until they go under. And still the world goes on as if there were nothing to it. Right?"
"Right," agreed our studious companion leaning back.
"Who says one has to take part in this bottomless struggle? We avoid the crunch by distancing ourselves from it. We do not put up with the injustices, indignations and the indifference to life above ground. We are in a different ballpark altogether—we have found a way to beat the system and let those who enjoy clawing at each other's gut do their dirty work. Here we can live as we please."
Auntie looked at me sternly. "Once you start thinking about it, you too will realize that only dimwits take life in the river seriously."
"But this isolation, this darkness?" I asked, already thinking that their kind of life was no better than in the river above.
"We feed off each other," said Auntie, and grinning into my face she asked, "Admit it, our presence is comforting, no?"
I drew back, "It's not comfort I am after... I must go on."
"She must go on!" The two were in stitches again.
To escape their mockery I looked up, and there was a face staring down at us.
"Need help?" the stranger asked.
"Yes! Please! Get me out of here!" I shouted standing up.
"I'll be right back!" said the stranger and disappeared.
Jimmy and Auntie exchanged glances and, clapping hands and slapping each other's knees, enjoyed another spell of laughter.
"See what we mean?" said Auntie, catching her breath.
"That's how people are. They promise anything to get you off their back and that's the last you hear from them. At least down here we make ourselves useful by welcoming newcomers. Believe me, what people call living up there, isn't worth the effort."
Voice drifting, Jimmy said, "I would add that only the grandest dreams are worth the trouble." He looked downcast, fixing the non-existing pleats in his jeans. "But since that's not in the offing, the best life has to offer is to have someone like you two to talk to—people who have stared misery in the face, who know how humiliating life can be and can laugh about it! There are no losers here."
Auntie chimed in, "Because we know how to avoid the entanglements life sucks you into!"
" I haven't seen that much misery to be that hopeless," I said in a low voice.
"You must understand," Auntie responded quickly, "it's not hope we are talking about. It's about having a mind sharp enough to cut through the muck dished out on every corner and intended to tame and harness you for good, to make a useful dummy out of you. Don't you understand? It's about seeing what life is really about." She said pushing her face into mine. Seeing me cringe, Jimmy intervened.
"Pay attention to what she says—you've got to be really smart to see through it all. There are no dumb people down here," he added proudly. Then, pointing to the bundle beside me, he asked, "What do you have there?"
"Some memories... Glimpses of what I saw, where I was. I hope to learn more..." I said trying to sound thoughtful. To change the subject, I asked, "Aren't you curious if there is another world beyond this meadow?"
"Ha!" Auntie laughed. "Curious, she says? You must be pumped full of those big-eyed ideas they spread thick to smother the young and kill the slightest flicker of joy and pleasure. All they want of you is to push the wheels of change that grind you to dust and be proud of it. You pay highly for such extravagant ideas. I mean, ideas of others, of those who push you around and rule over your life. No sane person would come up with such fancy ideas by himself. What's beyond the meadow?" she repeated my question in a mocking singsong tone. "And what good is curiosity if the stuff you are curious about doesn't help you to live, does not change your life but merely distracts you from living?! Unnecessary baggage, that's what it is."
Avoiding her eyes I looked up and saw the stranger's face. He threw a knotted rope into the pit. Holding the bundle of memories under my arm I grabbed the rope and started climbing up. Near the top the stranger helped me out of the pit and I thanked him for coming back. While Jimmy and Auntie were clambering up, I asked,
"Do you also live underground?"
"Not me. I comfort the hopeless."
"Hopeless? You mean, no one gets out of here?"
"I wouldn't say never, but very few make up their minds to leave. They stay because they like the company down here."
I looked around but neither Jimmy nor Auntie were to be seen.
"Don't mind them," said the keeper. "They must have jumped into some other pit. The meadow is full of people like them, always looking for someone to wisecrack with. Commiseration justifies their own misery."
"And what keeps you here?"
" I make myself useful. That is more than I could muster in other places. I don't dwell on the bad parts of life. It's like scratching the wound that itches to be scratched. It never heals."
Hearing this, I pressed the bundle of memories tightly to my chest and felt a stir. Not all was lost.
"And how do you find your way in this meadow," I asked him, "How do you avoid falling into the pits?"
"I place one foot in front of the other—like this—and before I shift my weight to the next I test the ground with my toes—like that—and if the ground feels firm I shift my weight to the forward-pointing foot and do this step after step. Once you get the hang of it, you have the sky to yourself and the luscious green and the lark to greet you every morning. Taking care of those unfortunates keeps me busy. What else could I wish for?"
Whistling a jolly tune, dancing his funny step-by-step walk, the keeper led me into the meadow. Imitating his gait I followed, stopping here and there to explore a pit. And when I saw dirt flying up and falling back in, I'd talk to the desperate digger but he or she did not hear what I had to say. Although my confidence in people was shaken I had the bundle of memories to keep me going.