[a short story – by Sha’Tara]
As he requested, I met him in late afternoon on the Skaard boulevard. It was snowing lightly with a north-easterly gale that bit right through your clothes. The night was moving in fast and I thought, maybe even hoped, he wouldn’t show up. Then a taxi pulled up to the curb and he stepped out, hunched over and staggering slightly. I couldn’t believe how debilitated he looked, how frail. I walked over and helped him straighten up, holding his arm. Still the same Vassily, though, with a smile that could light up a room. And I could feel that same old feeling of adulation, and perhaps of love, for the man.
“Oh, and how are you, Tom?” His voice still retained that resonating bass that had held audiences captive as it thundered from the stages of the world. And the lecterns.
“Fine, fine, Vassily. And you?”
“Oh, you know. As good as can be under the circumstances. That last fast left me somewhat weakened. But I’m recuperating now. It’s so much nicer here.”
Nicer here? I thought sarcastically. Nicer than what? This was the armpit of the universe as far as I was concerned. But I remembered quite quickly that Vassily never saw the world the way other men did. He had eyes that saw, that really saw, and that’s the secret I’d hoped to get out of him. How did he do that?
“Look at that, Tom. Look at those buildings, those rectangular mountains full of eyes that reach up into the darkening sky. Those endless vistas of eyes, some alight, some still dark, some never to see again. Look at that hotel across the street. No, look up, up. Yes, that’s it. Look. If you look into it, you can see right through to the other buildings behind it, and behind that, forever. That’s the city, Tom. The world is full of cities but there is really only one. The others, they’re illusions, reflections, doppelgangers. They don’t really exist, you see, not until you are right there, inside one. Then it manifests to hold you prisoner – prisoner of your hopes, your dreams, your beliefs, your lusts, your desires, your possessions and your families. Within that prison you are free to do whatever you want. And the world is full of identical prisons so no matter where you go, you are always free. But when you are in-between the city, that’s when you must watch out because that’s the no-man’s land that can take you and alienate you. Do you understand me?”
“Vassily, I’m freezing to death and no, as always, I don’t understand you at all. I don’t know what you are talking about. We need to get out of this snow and wind. I found a comfortable, clean, small hotel for us and reserved two rooms. Come on, I’ll carry your bag.”
“Ah, Tom. Always the practical one. I always liked you Tom. One of the best students I ever had. But you’re so American! I despair often for you, that you will never know, never see, never understand. How well you know the surface of things; how much of the material and the menial you can manipulate, and how much that attention to detail robs you of life. Yes, let us go then. You lead.” And I heard a definite heavy sigh.
How long had Vassily been a conscientious objector, I could only speculate. As long as I had known him, some twenty years now, he’d been a vegetarian. “It’s completely wrong, a grave error, for anyone to harm any other for any reason other, perhaps, than self-defence, or in the protection of the weak. How terrible it is that on this world people who would be healthier without ingesting meat, accept the mistreatment and killing of innocent animals because they like the taste of their flesh. But there is so much more that is wrong here. People who know nothing of each other kill each other because they are taught or ordered to do so. Others die of famine and mistreatment because the few desire to get rich – to get rich! And how can anyone be rich whose gains were made by shedding the blood of the innocent worldwide? Don’t you see how sociopathic that is? And you accept this as normal? You do nothing to distance yourselves from this horror?”
He thundered his thoughts at us as we sat through his lectures. He had been a well-known and respected actor until his public rejection of our ways turned agents, publicists and directors against him. When he could no longer act, he taught, wherever, and for however long, he was accepted. He must have been about fifty when I attended my first lecture and was literally assailed by his voice denouncing the status quo and our sheep-like acceptance. I was shocked, intrigued, then hooked. For the first time in my life, at twenty-five, I encountered something truly meaningful. But like my fellow-students and contemporaries, I completely failed to realize the costs involved in incarnating his views. It was nothing short of the rejection of everything I knew and understood. And what did he give us in exchange for giving up everything? Nothing! What did he promise us? Nothing.
“I’m not here to hold your hands, people. I’m here to teach you to question your values, all of them. I’m here to destroy your lives as you’ve known them. I’m not here to build anything for you because if you do not build it yourself from the base rock of a life stripped of everything, it will not be yours and it will not hold you. The world you have lived in is all illusion; pain-filled, painful illusion. It wasn’t always so, but when it was high-jacked by the System, it became oxymoronic, then turned into a loud, dirty, soul-constricting angry, mean and hate-filled hobgoblin. Your cities, your systems, are mists parading as roadways and edifices; fog as backdrop for computer animations. The only thing real in your world are the cries of the oppressed and the dying. Those you must hear or you will never, ever, change anything. Can you hear? I know that when you listen to me, you hear them, but that’s not good enough. You must be able to hear them when you are dining in a restaurant; when you are at a hockey game, when you are partying on a beach; when you are making love; when you are at the opera; when you are at work; when you are flying over your world. If you cannot hear them, you are more deaf than the densest stone. Do you hear? If you do not hear, ask yourselves, is it because I am afraid? Is it because I really don’t care? Know that the oppressed of this world are talking to you in order to save you, not themselves. They are already beyond anything you could do. If you do anything in trying to help them, you will only make their conditions worse. Don’t entertain yourselves with childish illusions of heroic intervention within the workings of the Machine. Change yourselves, that’s all you can ever do. If you manage that, the rest will surely follow.”
We arrived at the hotel and checked in. Then I took my old professor to the dining room and waited for him to order. We had a very simple meal. I had a glass of white wine, he had water. Water! For a brief moment there, I was angry at him. I felt as if he was showing off his superiority. He saw through me.
“Tom, you know I love wine, but I can’t drink alcohol anymore. My body rejects it rather violently. So please don’t be offended if I have only water. I am enjoying this meal immensely.”
“Can we talk about your latest fast, Vassily?”
“Oh, Tom, if you want. You want to know why I did it? No particular reason. I needed to think, that’s all, and I wanted as few interruptions as possible. It did provide me with some interesting insights. It felt as if I was a child and learning everything for the first time. Everything so bright, new and wonderful. It seemed to me I became whatever I touched. Whatever sang to me, or talked to me, wasn’t separate from me, but really it was all with me. It and me, different but inseparable. I touched the Other and we were no longer strangers. Ah, Tom, you thought I’d entered into that fast as a protest for something or other, didn’t you? Tom, Tom, did I teach you nothing at all? Protests are meaningless. They’re attention-getters, not fixers. If you have nothing to give; if you have no talent to fix whatever you would protest against, just hold the sorrow within yourself, like a slow-burning bog-fire under snow in winter and let that cleanse you. Then you will come to your real senses and begin the long journey up from your own ashes.”
“What caused you to end your fast then? Learned enough, or seen enough for a time?”
There came a youthful sparkle in his eyes and he laughed, a loud, hearty laugh.
“I didn’t want to die and embarrass my hosts, Tom! Besides, whether you jump off a forty-story building or starve yourself to death, it’s still suicide, don’t you see? No one has the right to do that, not unless driven to extremes of pain or despair. Then it’s understandable. But not just because. Not out of selfishness. I’ll die soon enough. Well, come, let’s go. I need to rest.”
We returned to the rooms and talked a bit more. Then he went to sleep and never woke up. I was glad I was the one who had those last hours with him and who got to attend to him following his death. When I went through his belongings in his bag, there was precious little. A passport, a small box of chocolates labelled, “For someone who may need love” and a letter with my name on it. Basically, he reiterated his admonitions, berated me for being a die-hard materialist and closed with, “I still have some hope for you, that you will let yourself go far enough that you will see. Don’t give up. I know how difficult it is to become as nothing in your own eyes; how much more difficult it is to remain in that state. Of all people, you can do it Tom.”