Elegant Union (John Clark Smith) - 12

John Clark Smith
A Novel by John Clark Smith

VIII

 

30


 

Titus and Oriana were imprisoned in The Towers for joining and helping the Arbiters lead a revolt. Titus was also jailed for teaching how to create incendiary materials and to set up groups to initiate guerilla activity against the Council. The Arbiters had failed in their first attempt to overthrow the Council and had gone into the underground.

The Towers prisons were made from a unique flexible material that allowed the building to sway and bend. The material was invented to withstand harsh tornados and earthquakes that had become more and more frequent. Originally designed as inexpensive housing units, the regime converted many of them to tall cylindrical prisons for dissidents, protestors, rebels, and a few violent offenders. The Towers swirled over the land like monstrous thin and cylindrical weeds flaying in the wind. Some people compared them to the crucifixions Rome used to line the roads, particularly because at the foot of these Towers were bodies that had jumped or fallen.

If friends, family members, or lovers were imprisoned, the guards separated them but intentionally placed them in Towers that were next to each other. Occasionally the Towers would come so close, it was possible to jump from one to the other when the windows were open. The authorities told the inmates that they were free to jump over and exchange places with someone in another Tower as long as there were two men and two women in each unit. Many were tempted, even though one of the jumpers had to be bribed or threatened to participate in the exchange. Since the Towers were always moving, such leaps were dangerous, but most jumps succeeded.

Once each day, at different times, the prison authorities would open the windows. The open window was now part of the torment. If the prisoners were not alert while the Tower swayed, or if a cell mate happened to be homicidal or suicidal, in a sudden gust of wind a prisoner could be flung out of the open window to their death. Suicide from falls was so common a special button was present in each floor to alert the staff when someone jumped or fell—in case the guards missed it on the surveillance cameras.

There was no privacy and no place to hide. Everyone had to sleep on the floor. Food was delivered by a device that ran up the outside of the tower and stopped twice a day at each floor. An elevator spiralled and wove itself around the outside of the building to bring and remove inmates and for maintenance. There were four units to a floor, and four inmates to each unit, two men and two women, starting at the ninth floor. Below the ninth there were floors unused but capable of being turned into future cells. The Towers were so high, occupants on the higher floors on cloudy days could not see the ground.

Four floor-to-ceiling windows circled each floor. There was an inbuilt television screen for propaganda, but which also served as a camera from which the entire room could be viewed. There were no utensils. All food came intended to be eaten with the hands. A waste disposal slot was on each floor, but there was little waste. No paper, including toilet paper, no towels or cloth were available. An open shower and toilet were in the middle of the floor. Each toilet was a hole with a spray to clean the body areas when it flushed. A drier was beside the shower in the ceiling and from two vents in the floor. The shower/toilet area was self-cleaning. It would warn the residents that it was going to clean and then disinfect itself with toxic soap and UV-C.

Though violence of any kind was punished by being thrown out the window by the guards, punishment was rare except if the violence created work for the guards, such as making a mess. The guards used the cameras for surveillance and entertainment.

Beyond suicide, no one had found a way to escape. A thick metal separator cut off the empty lower floors from the rest of the building. All ploys involving the elevator to lure guards or staff to the floors to overcome them had failed. On occasion, a seemingly empty elevator was sent to each floor to tempt prisoners. Once stepped into, the guards would turn on the UV-C, an ugly and immediate death to anyone who entered its invisible death rays. Punishment for anyone who did not comply immediately to any rule had to endure open windows.

Titus and Oriana considered jumping to other Towers to be with each other but had rejected the idea until an inmate on Titus’s floor wanted to be with her son on Oriana’s floor. Titus then successfully made the jump to Oriana’s floor.

Oriana lived with two psychopaths—a male and a female—who had tried every form of mental torture on Oriana to lure her into their sexual games. The man who exchanged places with Titus had teamed with Oriana to keep the maniacs at bay, but he was losing his own mind to their torments. They were slowly cutting him with their nails each night so that he was unable or afraid to sleep. He was happy to join his mother.

The exchange still left Titus and Oriana with the two psychopaths. Titus attempted to reason with them without success. Each night they tried to molest Oriana to make a show for the guards. Each night Titus would intervene. They promised they would stop if he would convince Oriana to comply. Titus refused. They tried to suffocate him by covering his mouth with their hands. They failed. Both of their hands were burned; both lost the sight of one of their eyes. Titus warned them to leave Oriana and him alone. They attacked him again the following night and each became deaf in one of their ears. Titus cautioned them again to stop their attacks or they would become crippled. They did not listen. Two nights later they attacked Oriana. Both lost the use of one of their legs and crumbled helpless to the floor. From then on, they hobbled around the space and were harmless.

Oriana planned an escape to disable the guards, end the Tower prisons, and free the non-violent prisoners. Only the elevators and the food trays came to each floor each day and were the only means to escape. Yet neither came when the windows were open. She had to find a way to climb outside the windows and remain there after the windows shut. She would need some protruding object to grip and stay attached to the Tower once the windows were closed. Oriana found that anchor in the vents for the dryer and the air conditioning system. It was a large square opening that had grated slots through which her hands could wedge themselves temporarily until the elevator came.

When the guards noticed she was gone, Titus said that she had fallen.

Nevertheless, Oriana had several difficulties. She had trouble holding on to the vent as the Towers swerved and the wind ripped at her. Her hands were bleeding from the grate metal. The food conveyor mechanism proved to be too small for her to use.

The elevator did not come for a long time, far longer than she expected. She hung there, cold from the wind, and bleeding from the grate.

Finally, the elevator came. Oriana rode it to the ground. Once there she surprised the two guards, rendered them unconscious, tied them up, used their uniforms, and began to release the political dissidents, including Titus. The violent criminals remained.

The released prisoners formed an underground group to sabotage and free others who were wrongfully incarcerated, one Tower at a time. The Regime had no choice but to transfer the violent criminals to other prisons. After many attacks by the Arbiters and the underground group, the Council in their paranoia decided to act. From desperation, they believed the only way to win was to use nuclear weapons.

This tactic not only crippled the Arbiters but ended the Regime. Their rule eventually fell to the Arbiters, a group who wanted a new society but were not political leaders and had no prior interest in matters of state. They had few ideas how to turn around the suffering with which the Regime Council had left them. The society was devastated by the radiation, which left most men impotent.

The escape from the Towers may have stopped the Council, but the cost from the nuclear devastation was severe. Suppose Oriana had escaped but not supported the Arbiters, Titus wondered, would many lives have been saved and the future generations not plagued by genetic abnormalities? Yet had he not forced the Arbiters to oppose the Council—they were already a guerilla group doing their damage—eventually the same result may have occurred. But by encouraging Oriana to escape, he had also interfered with the psychopaths by stopping their attacks on Oriana.

 

31

 

Titus and Oriana stood at the corner of Queen Street West and John Street, beside the path up to the Citadel. The gold disc that Jan had made was around Titus’s neck.

The path seemed to disappear into the sky. Billy had already begun the climb. He was waving at Titus to join him.

As Titus stared at the path, in the distance someone was walking down it. As he came closer, Titus recognized Karna.

“I will accompany you,” Karna said. “You deserve this rest. Let others continue.”

Titus did not move forward. He felt out of balance, almost dizzy, as if he did not trust his existence, as if suddenly there would be another shift and he would need to adapt to that situation. When would the shifts stop? Asking such questions did not bring any security. The only true feeling was that the large continuum of life before his teaching job was emerging to reveal his real life. Each existence was a preparation for another existence, like the caterpillar before the butterfly. Which was true? Which was real?

Karna called him a “god.” Certainly, without a childhood or adolescence, without a history, there was no proof he existed as Titus Ketkar. The words ‘Titus Ketkar’ had no meaning to him. He once looked up the word Ketkar and found only one person in the world with that surname. Not that it mattered. The feeling was that he did not belong anywhere. His name was unimportant. Where was his family? Bees were his family. At one point he seemed to recall a father-like figure. Even more worrisome to him, these shifts did not bother his mind. They seemed normal.

Now, once again—he was certain he had made this climb before and turned away—he was invited to climb up to the Citadel with a man named Karna—the same name as the man in the Mahabharata—and a woman Oriana, whom he knew he loved but he couldn’t recall any history with her. And then there was Fischer, Wang, Gretchen, and Ratanna. And what about the phantoms? Phantoms? Each of those beings were in his history. That was the reason his inner mind could easily accept their appearance and purpose.

As he froze in place, unwilling to and uncertain whether he should move forward, he wondered again what being a god was. Could a god be a god and not know it? Would being a god feel like a god? Or would a god think his condition was the normal condition for everyone because he would know that the godly condition was a possibility for everyone? Would a god recognize and be saddened that others did not see things as he saw them? How does one become a god? There had to be a moment, a bridge, a lightning flash when a being moved from pre-god to reality to god. What was that moment? Does a god stop being a god at some point? What happens to the retired god?

He did not think taking the climb had a purpose beyond a celebration or end of some sort. Yes, at the Citadel, in the golden building, some form of end would happen, as it perhaps will happen for Ratanna and others. Had his existence ended or had his real life ended? Appearing in a certain shift without knowing how he arrived is different from intentionally doing something without purpose. The final climb to the Citadel either seemed a loop he had experienced or an end. Even the wars that Karna mentioned were familiar from eons ago. Wars were archaic to him.

“Why do you hesitate?” Karna asked. “I know you’re not afraid. Is it not what you want?”

It was true. He was not afraid. The climb was either a discipline or an end, but it seemed unnecessary and repetitive. Gretchen knew the truth, that he was tired of the many shifts in the past few days (or was it centuries or hours?). He wanted to return to the time before the gold disc. He wanted to be nothing more than a teacher of philosophy and go to the Charity Café with Oriana. Being a professor meant nothing in the shifts. Leading a quiet life of books and companionship with Oriana was of little worth. What he wanted, what some book told him, what seemed a good life, even what the groups of phantoms offered, made little difference to his destiny and responsibility. Bees taught him as much as the phantoms.

“Do you sense deceit?” Karna asked. “Because I certainly smell deceit. Or is there something I don’t sense? Tell me.”

“Do you see the cycle?” Titus replied. “As for me, I’m tired, that’s all. I would like to rest. But does that mean I should?”

“Like Ratanna?” Karna asked. “Or do you now prefer Fischer’s way?”

“I’m indifferent to both,” Titus said. “I seek a way that transcends their or my way.

“What if,” Oriana said, “taking the Citadel will bring our lives back, will return the city to normal, even if illusory. We’ll again have the book, the incense, and the messenger. Perhaps the end, the retirement, can transform into another beginning.”

“But not reach pamoghenan,” Karna said.

Karna, Titus thought, was the only one who used ‘pamoghenan’ as if he understood it, though he assumed a journey was required to reach pamoghenan. A journey was not always required. Sometimes it sufficed simply to know where one was.

“And you think that’s the reason I must fight?” Titus asked. “To reach pamoghenan?”

“A god must do nothing,” Karna answered, “but a god will do everything without trying. The god’s being is to do but not do from coercion.”

“Yet this climb?” Oriana said. “Is it necessary?”

“No,” Karna said. “Not for a god. For a god there’s ten thousand cycles. The difference is that on occasion, all shifts merge, the continuum is obvious, and so it is good to take advantage, even for a god. Is this climb such a continuum? I don’t know. Only a god knows. Yet there is never necessity. Even for Ratanna, as we can see with the creature, she expresses the continuum.”

“Why do you know all this?” Oriana asked. “Are you too a god, Karna?”

“No, but I have knowledge. At one point the choice will stand before me, but it will happen without my knowledge. It will be what I cannot know. I hope that I will be given that choice.”

“Is this true?” Oriana asked Titus.

“You know it’s true,” Karna answered her. “You’re part of it or we wouldn’t know each other.”

Titus moved away from the stairs and sat on a nearby bench in front of a closed café. Oriana and Karna joined him on each side.

“I will return to my life as a teacher of Global Studies. The Great War, the Spanish Civil War, the nuclear enigma, the environmental cataclysm all haunt me.”

Karna and Oriana looked at each other, unsure what to say.

“If that is your wish,” Karna said.

“And you?” Titus asked. “What will happen to you?”

“There are many things I don’t know,” Karna said, “and that is one of them. I don’t know what will happen to anyone. But are we your concern? Would you climb and rest so that we would grow?”

“Yes.”

“Then the climb is indeed unnecessary,” Karna said.

Titus rose from his bench and began to walk home. Oriana and Karna did not follow.

When he arrived home, his apartment had returned to normal, as had the city. The only recognizable element from what he had experienced was the gold disc still hanging around his neck. Nothing on the disc had changed. Still there appeared the numbers, the word ‘pamoghenan,’ and the statement, ‘Ketkar, Savior of Humanity.’ Nonetheless, Titus went to sleep feeling a silent calm. He could rest.

 

In the morning, when he looked in the mirror, he noticed that he had a lot of gray hair and wrinkles.

After eating his breakfast, he went to work. While crossing the quad, students and staff of the university passed him by with little or no sign of recognition. The bench and the glass sculpture were there. He was pleased to see them.

He walked on but then he turned around and went back to sit on the bench. The sky was so blue he felt he could reach out and spoon it into a bowl. The sun baked upon his face. A slight wind swept by. The scents of the daffodils and roses that had been planted around the sculpture once again filled his nostrils. He took a deep breath and exhaled. Life was so refreshing.

When he entered the classroom, he expected to see his graduate students in the front row. Instead, the classroom was full. All but one of his students were looking at screens built into their tables. Their ages indicated they were undergraduates.

In the front row sat Oriana. She looked up at him and smiled.

Titus turned and faced the blackboard. Someone had written, “What is reality? It’s when we can get through this damn course.”

 

After class, Oriana caught up with Titus as he walked toward the library.

Seeing her come toward him, he waited for her at the entrance.

“What can I do for you?” he asked.

“I just wanted you to know I enjoy your course.”

“Thank you. I appreciate that.”

“Don’t let that message on the blackboard bother you, Professor. I was going to erase it, but you came in sooner than I thought.”

“No worries,” Titus said. “Not everyone likes philosophy. It’s my job to change that attitude.”

“I heard from someone that you were retiring next year. Is that true?”

“Yes, I am.”

“I wish I could have been here when you first started.”

“I wish I could say I was a better teacher back then.”

“No, but…I was hoping to have you as my advisor when I go for my Ph.D. in a couple of years.”

Titus looked over at her youthful, enthusiastic face.

“I would have liked that too. But there are plenty of other choices. You’ll be fine.”

“What will you do?”

“I don’t know. I still have a year to think about it.”

Titus turned toward the door to enter the library. Oriana grabbed his arm.

“Could I ask you a couple of questions?” she said.

“Of course.”

“Why don’t we see you at the Charity Café anymore?”

“Getting too old for that place, Oriana.”

“You would always sit alone on the blue couch, as if you were waiting for someone. I would always wonder what you were thinking about.”

“Just relaxing. Thinking of other times and possibilities.”

“And what’s that disc you always wear around your neck?”

Titus removed it from his neck for her to see.

“What does it mean?” she asked, examining it.

“You decide. Someone made it for me.”

“Pamoghenan?”

Titus nodded.

“That’s weird,” she said. “That word is at the entrance to a building on Adelaide Street. I have a friend who lives near there.”

“Ketkar, Savior of Humanity,” she read. “Wow! What did you do?”

Titus shrugged and did not reply. He took back the disc from her and placed it back around his neck and under his shirt.

Oriana did not push for an answer. She said goodbye and walked away.

That evening, after he finished his classes and library research, on his way home to his apartment on Palmerston Avenue, he walked on the northern side of College Street and passed just a few steps from Bathurst Street an herbal medicine clinic for Chinese medicine. In front of the clinic, sitting cross-legged on a ragged coat, was an old man with a long grey beard. An old hat with 1911 and a silhouette of Sun Yat-Sen printed on it was sitting open in front of the man for money. A book was beside him. Titus took out some money and dropped it in the hat.

謝謝,”[1] the man said.

Titus nodded.

Titus continued, crossed Markham Street, until he came to a sandstone building, once a church, on the corner of Palmerston Boulevard and College Street. Normally Titus walked along the southern side of College Street, and rarely walked by the church. But he saw the beggar on the entrance steps and was curious. This beggar was young. He had a knapsack beside him and for money used a baseball cap with a black flag on it. He too was sitting cross legged as if ready to meditate. On his lap was a book.

Neither of these beggars had he seen before.

Again Titus dropped a few coins into the hat.

“Gracias, Señor,” the fellow said.

Titus crossed College to reach Palmerston Avenue. A third beggar was cross-legged in front of a retail furniture shop. This beggar was far more disheveled than the other two. He was sitting on newspapers, a plastic water bottle was beside him, and his skin was pasty, with red rings around his eyes. His hat was a Phrygian cap. Like the previous beggar, a book was sitting on his lap.

Titus again reached into his pocket to offer some coins.

“No, no, monsieur,” the beggar said, “pas d'argent[2].”

Titus looked at his sad eyes and discolored skin.

“Perhaps some bread—” Titus said.

“--pas d'argent, pas de nourriture,” he said, “N'êtes-vous pas Titus Ketkar?”[3]

“Yes.”

The beggar lifted from his lap the book, worn from many readings.

“Votre livre suffit,”[4] the beggar said.

Titus looked at the cover of the book: “How to find Freedom by Titus Ketkar.” On the back cover was a color photo of Titus when he was much younger.

The book was not a work he recalled writing. He eschewed writing about practical politics and problems of society. The only politics for him was activism. Metaphysics, Global Studies, and languages were his main interests.

The paradoxes were piling up in his mind. They seemed infinite.

Titus quickly walked down Palmerston to his apartment. Sweat began to appear on his forehead. Was he having another panic attack?

In the front of his building was another beggar, again in the same position. Beside him was a box of crackers, a water bottle, the same book, another book even older and more worn called The Works of Xunzi, and some random newspapers and magazines. He wore a coat too big for him and a painter’s white hat. There was no doubt, even though it seemed centuries had passed, it was Karna.

Titus froze and was numb. He could not speak.

“I’m an old man,” Titus finally mumbled out words.

“You and I know that’s untrue,” Karna said. “You’re a stubborn god, I would agree, but only those of superior courage know when to be courageous. Refusing the climb? Refusing Gretchen? Refusing to retire? Braving a life of existence? Only a god can be that brave. You mastered time and wouldn’t let time steer you away. You’re ageless.”

A car drove up in front of the building.

Karna gathered his books and belongings, placed them in a bag, then gently led Titus to the car.

Karna entered in the back seat. Titus stood at the door.

“Come in, sir. Dalworth awaits.”

“Why are you reading the Xunzi?” Titus asked.

“It’s comfortable. Xunzi reminds me of you.”

“How is that?” Titus said, finally getting into the car.

“Because you know what not to do and what not to ponder. These are the gifts of the godly man. Such discipline I need to learn.”

When they arrived at 252 Adelaide Street East, they stood before the entrance, below the sign, ‘Pamoghenan.’

“Enter!” the voice said.

They walked into a large room in which there were several rings for boxing. A few contests were underway.

Titus stared at the boxers and coaches, all hard at work, and laughed.

Gretchen was there, in shorts and halter top, sparing with another woman.

The sight on some level also saddened him. He would have preferred the throne room of Ratanna.

“I see you miss Ratanna,” Karna said.

 

32

 

In an instant he found himself in the Amazon jungle. He chose a direction and started walking. On his walk he felt as if he was wearing an oxygen mask from the fresh and rich air. The air was bolstered by the scents of so many plants, the sounds of so many animals, though he could not see any of them, and the vibrancy of so many colors. The experience was overwhelming and inspiring.

Titus continued for a half-hour until he heard the noise of farm equipment. He stepped out of the jungle on to a vast open space of farmland, where an operator was cutting down the trees and creating more farmland.

He crossed his arms and shook his head.

“What are you doing?” he yelled at the operator.

“What I’m told,” the operator replied. “This is my job.”

“The new war,” a voice said quietly behind him.

He turned around and saw Ratanna.

“This is the Great War now, Titus, the battle of wisdom against ignorance, survival against extinction.”

“I thought you went to the Citadel.”

“It was not possible, I discovered,” she said, smiling. “This is the lungs of the planet and a virus is trying to infect it.”

“Virus?”

“Greed. The same greed that lies behind so many other battles we’ve fought.”

“You’re alone?”

Ratanna shook her head and pointed to a large group of young people farther down the edge of the jungle.

“And neither are you,” Ratanna said, pointed at the massive swarm of bees behind Titus. “The youth come from around the world. We only have one problem.”

“The conglomerates?” Titus asked.

“Your brother.”

She pointed at the group of men around the farm machinery. There in their midst was Fischer.

 

33

 

At the Charity, Oriana and Titus sat together on the red couch and listened to the conversations around them. Gretchen sat beside them.

“How long must you exist before you see reality as your life and work?” Gretchen said. “Have you not learned enough? We have immense work to be done and we must not rest. You saw how Ratanna is alive again. Choose your battle. Reality awaits.”

“So,” one of the men on the blue couch said, “who’s going to win the World Cup?”

Titus invited Oriana to go to the window and pointed to the sky. Then they walked outside to get a greater view. The bright sun and a glowing moon were glittering together.

They sat down on a bench in the dark facing the street. Behind them was an old crab apple tree. High in the tree was a bee’s comb. As Oriana and Titus talked and stared at the sun and moon, and his ten arms wrapped around them, a few bees swirled. Oriana and Titus thought about ‘pamoghenan’ and experienced union with reality.

Last segment of

Elegant Union

 



1. Thank you.
2. no money
3. --no food. Are you not Titus Ketkar?
4. Your book is enough.

 

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