Spring break may release the undergraduates, I muse as I return to the coffeeshop, as by habit, not even considering my route, but not the grad students. Do I come here by choice? Or perhaps something calls me? These questions are best left to philosophers, perhaps. My smile is not as broad as it should be as I pass through the rickety wooden and glass door into the coffee shop. The cheerful greeting of the purple haired girl working the counter fails to stir me. I order my hot chocolate, monotonously, as if reciting the order by rote for an oral exam.
She doesn‘t get a chance to tell me that it‘s two fifty. I know it‘s two fifty. It‘s always been two fifty. Probably always will be. I already have it, exact change even, out and ready.
“Thanks,” she says shortly. I imagine she senses my discomfort. Does it make her uncomfortable too? Does my foul mood spread like a virus onto all these people? I scan the coffeeshop. A few people talk softly in the corners. The coffeeshop is far sparser now than it was during finals week. Far sparser... than when I met Arthur.
The purple haired girl hands me my hot chocolate. It‘s a ritual. We‘ve played this ritual, her and I, for a very long time. Yet I don‘t know her name, and I suspect she doesn‘t know mine. I meander, drawn once again toward The Mermaid hanging above the plush green chairs. I sit, sinking slowly into the chair, hoping it will suck all the misery out of me. Somehow... Somehow... I close my eyes. The brightness of the sun outside is unwelcome, and I seek to shut it away.
Voices come and go. People laugh. How obnoxious. It grates on me as if I were cheese. If I were moldly like cheese, maybe they wouldn‘t laugh. They‘re probably laughing at me. If only I were a plant... A fruit tree, perhaps. I spend all this time, studying plants, and all the plants do is bask in the sun and live out their lives free from any cares. If only things were different...
“No book today?” the voice shatters my bubble, intruding upon my precious personal space.
I pry my eyelids open, and a blurry man sits in the plush chair opposite me. I struggle to lift myself up to a more respectable posture. Why? Just out of habit, I suppose. The image comes into focus... Yes, it‘s Arthur. “Well,” I slur, “What a coincidence to see you here again.”
“Quite,” he responds with a smile. He was like that last time too. Fancy free, footloose. Ah, to be a... what was he? A history major? No, an English major I think... Something like that. I stare at him blankly, and for a moment only the sounds of other conversations and the espresso machine are heard.
“You look upset,” he prompts.
“Yeah, you wanna hear my sob story and pretend to care?”
“Like strangers so often do?” he asks rhetorically.
I stare away. Into the wall. Into the painting. In my eyes, it breaks down, becoming merely waves of oils of various colors. The components of a painting aren‘t very interesting.
“I‘m not supposed to be here,” I open.
“Where should you be?”
“In Eastern Washington, gathering seed samples for my research on the introduction of GMO into local potato populations.”
“And why aren‘t you out there?”
“Because,” I roll my eyes back to him, “My trip funding fell through. My research is stalled for at least six months. The committee will be upset as hell when they find out. I might lose my assistantship position. This could even be the end of the line. So much for my degree,” I toss my hands up.
He watches me silently for a moment. I sigh. “I think this is like the worst thing that could happen to anyone.”
“How about a break? Let‘s go; you and me. I promise you won‘t have to worry about your school work while we‘re gone.”
I look down at my hot chocolate. Untouched. The whip cream has settled and melted into a bland, white covering. “Sure,” I reply. Why not?
“Watch your step,” Arthur calls out to me. The words are well spoken but heeded too slowly -- I trip over the unearthed root and crash into the mud and moss. Something slithers away quickly. “Argh,” I twist, my stomach aching from the fall. Arthur is quickly back and helping me up. The full moon shines down upon the trees, but their heavy folage filters most of it before it reaches us. The path, if you could call it, is dark, muddy and obstacle prone. We‘ve been travelling slowly for ... well, it‘s kind of foggy, a while at least...
“Thanks,” I nod to Arthur, though it‘s unlikely he could see that.
“No problem, we‘re almost there.”
Onward we press, the dense jungle cowling around us. Owls hoot in the distance and occasionally shafts of beautiful moonlight cut through the high foliage to shine about us. In the distance, I hear drums beating. Boom-boom-boom-boom... silence... boom-boom-boom-boom. Big drums.
“This way,” Arthur whispers. He‘s obviously excited. He‘s also far more talented at climbing through dark vegetation than I am, his feet always finding purchase. I struggle along, grasping onto trees and branches to pull myself through especially difficult and slippery spots. I can hear singing now, and the drums even louder. The pulse fills the air with a strange energy. Yet Arthur leads on unfailingly, and I follow him.
Finally, Arthur pulls up short at the edge of a clearing. I huddle next to him. Before us, the moonlight brightly fills the clearing, revealing a truly bizarre sight. The ground in the clearing quickly turns rocky and dry, and in the center, steam plumes rapidly from a volcanic vent in the ground. Seated around the vent are at least dozen people... Dressed not in clothing, but in paint; red, black and brown. One of them carries a large drum. Boom-boom-boom-boom! He beats it in a regular rhythm, then pauses, then beats it again. The others sing, energetic, upbeat and in tune, a song whose words I cannot understand.
I watch in awe and silence for a few moments.
“Arthur, what‘s going on here?”
“This,” he whispers, although the noise of the drum and singing would easily mask his voice anyways, “is the celebration of birth. Every year, once a year, the fumarole comes active for a few days. These people believe that the steam from the fumarole settles down on the village as the morning fog, and this is what makes women pregnant. And so they come here once a year when the fumarole is active to sing and praise it so that they may receive more children in the year to come.”
“That‘s bizarre,” I shake my head.
“For the two to four days that the fumarole will spew steam, there will be villagers there around the clock, singing and beating the drum. They have done this for over two hundred years now, with only minor changes to the tradition. It‘s amazing. It‘s awesome. I love to watch this.”
“Who are these people?”
He smiles. I can see it in the moonlight. He loves to smile.
“If I told you, you wouldn‘t believe me. Don‘t worry about it. Just realize what is happening here.”
The singing continues, as one woman gets up and begins to dance in a circle around the billowing steam. Her breasts bounce in time with her hands clapping. Her voice carries on and on, a joyful tune, echoing across the jungle landscape.
“She‘s celebrating her daughter born four months ago,” Arthur whispers in my ear.
Soon enough the woman sits, and a man, painted in elaborate body paint from head to toe, rises and begins to sing. His voice is deep, in contrast to the woman, and the rhythm is different. Slower. Almost sad.
Others around the circle begin to clap or sing along with the man, their bodies rocking from side to side as if kelp swayed by the waves.
“His son is ill, and he‘s asking that the steam of life be renewed in him,” Arthur narrates.
The sound rolls over me like a flood. My spine tingles and my hair stands on end. “This is too strange. This is like some crazy cult.”
“No, there is no deception here,” Arthur responds calmly, without turning his eye from the dance, “These people are all heartfelt and honest.”
“But it‘s not real,” I protest.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, they‘re worshipping and praying to... to a steam vent! This is a minature Yellowstone and people are singing and praying to it!”
Arthur watches the show. Well, it‘s not intended as a show, but it certainly seems that way from here. Like a circus act.
“Who are you to tell anyway they are wrong?” Arthur finally asks.
“Because I know better, I know that fumaroles are just steam vents caused by magma under the earth. They don‘t bring babies and they don‘t answer prayers.”
The man singing near the vent quiets and sits, and the entire circle falls into the silence. The drummer sets aside his drum quietly.
The silence seems to extend out into the forest. The owls are silent, the wind calms and the trees themselves grow quiet. Everywhere, an unnatural quiet. The minutes pass. I shift uncomfortably, but dare not speak. It seems that everyone and everything is motionless, save the steam silently billowing from the vent. The steam seems to taper off, little by little... I assume that the vent is going dead, and these people will get back to farming or herding or whatever backwards things they do....
EEEEEEEE!! The steam vent erupts with renewed vigour, sending a piercing whistle across the forest. The people around it drop quickly unto their faces. I am too startled to laugh. Quickly, they rise up and resume singing, drumming and now dancing as well.
I look at Arthur, and he turns to me and smiles. “The man‘s son will live.”
“How do you know?” I ask sharply.
Arthur looks at me for a moment, as if debating whether or not to speak. Finally, he simply says, “Follow me. There is one more thing I want to show you.”
And off we go, again, into the darkness of the jungle. I slip and fall a couple more times, getting thoroughly covered in heavy mud. Far from the singing and drumming, into the dark of night. It feels colder here, and I begin to shiver. Shapes seem to move in the darkness around us. Arthur is unconcerned and continues to press ahead, and I hurry so as not to be left behind. At one point, a green snake drops onto my shoulders and hisses at me.
“ARGHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!” I scream.
Arthur turns, undisturbed, and picks the snake off me. It stops hissing. “Don‘t worry, it‘s just a harmless little guy,” he chuckles and tosses the snake into the bushes.
Finally we arrive a large, meandering river silently winding through the jungle. Arthur walks along the banks, which is more difficult than it sounds, owing to the heavy foliage and giant plants of kinds that even I have trouble recognizing. Finally, we reach a stone bridge crossing the river. It‘s simple, and doesn‘t look extremely sturdy. Arthur treads fearlessly unto it. I follow.
“I would have never guessed you were an adventurer like this,” I muse.
“Oh yes,” he replies, “I‘ve been all over the world.”
“This is a nice river,” I say, banally.
“This is the only river for quite a ways. Most of the villagers have never seen a river other than this one. They aren‘t really world travellers, most of them,” he chuckles.
A moment of silence passes. An owl hoots in the distance.
“So... what are we waiting for?” I ask tentatively.
“Various members of the clan will come and go from the fumarole over the course of days to ask for children and health. But tonight, all at once, the clan has their ceremony for the dead.”
“Ceremony for the dead?”
“They believe that when people die, their souls are trapped in the village. So, once a year, the villagers build a small boat for each person that has died and they set them off in the river. That way the soul can escape the village and make it to the ocean, where it will be free.”
“People do weird shit when someone dies.”
“It‘s interesting that humans classified themselves as ‘homo sapiens’... Wise men... Really, that isn‘t the main distinguishing trait of humanity.”
“Oh?” What does this have to do with anything?
“Human wisdom is simply a matter of degree. Other creatures have their own wisdom. But there is one thing which sets the human animal apart from all the others.”
“Spirituality,” Arthur replies. “The correct designation for humans, in humans’ own system, would be homo religioso. All other animals, when one of their herd dies, they simply leave it as dead. Or, in some cases, they eat it. But only humans mourn. Only humans bury the dead, or cremate them, or set up altars to remember them. Even before there was writing, when humans lived in caves and hunting with sticks and rocks, much like some ground monkey, they had sacred burial.”
I stare into the distance, watching the river slowly flow up to us and past us.
“And what if people advance beyond spirituality?”
Arthur follows my gaze into the distance. “Perhaps that species will be called homo stultien.”
In the distance, I see a light. I open my mouth to speak, but Arthur raises his hand, motioning for me to quiet. “Listen,” he whispers.
Another light... and another... and another. A flotilla of tiny wooden boats, each with a small flame of burning oil, inch toward us. Soon the entire river is dotted with specks of light, intermixed with the moon light, as the tiny boats approach the bridge. And in the deep silence, I can hear voices. All around me, voices mix and rise and fall. Speaking a language I do not know. As the boats begin to pass under the bridge, I notice that each one is carved with symbols. Different symbols. A name.
Each one is a person. Now gone.
And the voices surround me, coming and going, rising and falling. They sing, they whisper, they moan, they cry. A sea of lights, tiny lights, all around me. Everywhere around me. And voices. They are not angry, they are ... comforting. Like an old friend, or a welcome stranger.
Each one is a person. Now gone.
The last boat floats under the bridge, and it‘s voice fades into the distance. Silence reigns king again. Arthur and I stand in silence, watching the boats merge into indistinguishable blur of dim light, until finally I can see nothing, no matter how hard I strain in the moonlight.
The silence lasts as long as it can. I am the first to break it.
“What was that?” I ask.
Arthur begins to put his shoes back on, which is kind of startling, because I don‘t recall seeing him take them off.
“Just as I said,” he responds, “The souls are sent on the river to find freedom.”
“But that‘s a myth,” I nag, “We actually heard voices.”
“You‘re hearing voices?” he jokes. “I think the line between myth and reality is not quite as clear as you would like,” he says more seriously.
We stand in silence for a few more moments. The owl hoots again.
“Well,” Arthur says, rising from the chair, “I should probably be going.”
I squint in the bright sunshine. Normally there would be a substantial crowd outside the coffee shop on a day like today, but due to the break, there are not too many people. “Ok,” I reply, “Have a good day.”
“You too!” he waves and starts off down the street. I raise a hand to wave at him, and realize... I‘m covered in mud. Head to toe, dripping with it. My mind races. Images, sounds, feelings all flash through me.
“Arthur!” I yell, standing up, “Hey! Wait!” I run after him, drawing stares from the few people walking the street. A screaming, muddy man running through downtown is always worth a second look I suppose. I catch up with him. “Arthur!”
“Yes?” he prompts.
I look at him for a moment. A long moment.
“Will they find freedom?” I finally ask.
“They will.” he asserts.
Standing on the bridge that crosses
the river that goes
out to the sea.
The wind is full of a thousand voices;
they pass by
the bridge and me.
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