A Desire To Learn

Pyter ran through the cobblestone streets and safely into a deserted alleyway. He surveyed the path behind him to make sure he wasn’t followed then made certain he had an open route of escape should he need one. Satisfied he was alone, and would be for a time, he sat on a pile of trash and got comfortable. His bare feet were black with grime, his pants shredded from the knee down, and his shirt so threadbare any onlooker wouldn’t believe he wore one.

He could have stolen a new shirt or even a coat for the upcoming winter, and he had planned on doing so when he came upon something he treasured more than warmth and protection. He convinced himself the contents of the book in his hands now might even be able to give him everything he needed to stave off the cold better than a piece of cloth or even a house, though he had never known the luxury of shelter. The possibilities within this book were virtually endless. He just had to learn its contents. His hands traced the symbol on the spine and caressed the cover before thumbing it open to the first page.

“Where’d you find that, boy?”

Pyter fell from atop the trash heap and landed on the cool stone. His heart fired rapidly within his chest. He quickly stood and peeked around to the other side of the pile where the voice had come from. Either he didn’t notice the man when he sat down or he didn’t notice the man come sit next to him. Both options scared him because the man had evaded his keen awareness developed on the streets. He should have heard the man’s breath as soon as he entered the alley.

“Who are you?” Pyter asked.

The man’s head shifted but remained hidden beneath the leather hood. Pyter could see a peppered, thick beard hiding the man’s face.

“Just a beggar wondering what kind of book you have there, and where you happened to get it,” the man said.

“All you need to know is that I have it, right? Which you can plainly see.”

The man gave a chuckle and his whole body moved with it. Pyter could see there wasn’t much to the man, but it was more than what would be found on any beggar in this city.

“May food find you,” Pyter gave him the poor-man’s goodbye and turned to make his exit.

“Perhaps it can find you,” the man replied, and held up a whole loaf of bread. It was more than Pyter had eaten in a month and almost enough to tempt him into making a mistake, but years of fighting for scraps warned him of the easy take.

“I think I’ve got all I need. Thanks.” Pyter tapped the book and continued toward the open street. The man didn’t move. Pyter grew far enough away to turn his back on him. As he did, he froze and watched the cobblestone rise before him until it was eight, ten, twelve feet tall. He turned back to the man sitting by the trash pile, but the man still held up the bread in offering. He hadn’t moved at all.

Pyter warily returned to where the man sat and feigned interest in the bread before bolting down the alley and toward his only remaining way out. Again, the stones rose from the ground. He scanned the street for a drain but there were none. He was boxed in completely. The realization of this came upon him and he tried to calm himself. The man was obviously powerful, but he wasn’t going to give up without a fight.

The man rose slowly and removed his hood. He was bigger than he first appeared when sitting. The beard was black but with prominent streaks of white at the edges of his mouth. Vivid, clear eyes the color of an ocean in storm stared at Pyter. A hair-thin scar ran from his left ear, up his cheek, and through his left eyebrow where a few strands of hair were discolored.

“I propose a trade,” the man said, “I’ll give you the bread if you answer my question.” He was still holding the loaf out in offering.

Pyter saw the bread in his peripheral vision. He refused to break eye contact with the man, but then thought to try a sizable risk that could possibly provide the advantage. He looked away and feigned interest in the situation before prompting the man to repeat the question.

“I asked where you got that book.” The man reminded him. He remained in place with the bread offered. Pyter realized the man was also wary of their standoff, but he decided to play along.

“Why do you want to know?”

“Because I prefer to hear a man confess his crime before I punish him for it.”

Pyter’s senses returned to high alert. His act abandoned, he prepared for a fight. He just hoped he might still be alive after he lost this one. He prepared to use the only spell he’d been able to learn. His last resort. He muttered the words, summoning the air within the alley around him. He could see the man’s robe flutter toward him and the air obeyed his commands. The man’s eyes never left his own.

When he conjured all he could, he unleashed it down the alley in gust strong enough to send even a horse several feet into the air, but the man remained eye contact before he vanished behind a wall of flame. Fire shot skyward. The wind Pyter had created fed the fire and joined its path upward and beyond the alley. The heat grew and it grew hard to breath.

Pyter fell to his knees cutting them open, but he was too exhausted to feel the pain. He heaved air in and out and was afraid he’d pass out when the flames disappeared and air once again entered his lungs. His vision was blurred but he heard the boots of the man approach. The man picked up the book he hadn’t realized he dropped.

“Who are you?” the man asked.

“Nobody.”

“Every man has a name.”

Pyter continued to regain his breath. The exhaustion threatened his consciousness. He hoped his silence would prompt the man to leave.

“It’s no matter, I suppose, but I hate to see wasted talent. Here.” The man lifted Pyter into a sitting position and gave him the bread and a water skin. He helped Pyter eat and drink a little. The food restored some energy and Pyter finished the meal himself. The man knelt on one knee in front of him. The vivid eyes staring. Pyter found he couldn’t remain eye contact for long, so he looked at the stone beneath him.

“Pyter,” he finally said, “My name is Pyter.”

“Good. You haven’t lost the ability to trust completely.” The man stood. “Well, Pyter, how would you like to leave this behind you?” The man gestured around him before offering his hand to help Pyter up. “I can show you a place filled with these types of books. You can learn as much as you want, and even learn to forget what it means to starve.”

Pyter looked from the hand to the man’s eyes. They no longer seemed rigid, but fluid and warm and even welcoming. They were like a fire on a winter’s night. Pyter took his hand. The two stone walls receded until the alleyway was once again as it had been before their interaction. The man patted Pyter on the shoulder then offered him his robe.

“This will keep you warm until we can get you cleaned up.”

“What about you?” Pyter asked.

The man thumbed the book and winked. “I’ve got all I need, and if you pay attention, you will too.”

Book Recommendation of the Week

This week’s book recommendation is The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery. This book is classified as a children’s book and, at only 83 pages with illustrations, can be read in one sitting (which I did in about an hour). The Little Prince was first published in 1943 and captured readers world-wide. It has been adapted into film a few times with the most recent being in 2015 as an animated movie produced by Netflix, which is where I first discovered the story. I was browsing when I came across it. I watched the trailer and thought it was interesting, added it to my queue, and decided to read the book before watching it. I never knew this story existed before I saw the trailer. I didn’t know anything about Antoine de Saint-Exupery either. Again, I find myself discovering new things because someone liked a story enough to adapt it into another medium in hopes of spreading the story to a new/larger audience. I myself experienced it for the first time.

Honestly, I’m surprised I’d never read this book before. Maybe I appreciate it more now that I’m older than I might have when I was younger. This book is one that holds elements that entertain children but remind adults something we may have forgotten. A reminder about what is important. It also reminds it’s okay to grow old, but we should never grow up, even when there is plenty of adulting to do.

What’s so great about this book is its transience. It can be picked up, read quickly, and read many times throughout one life to help keep a stable perspective in the chaotic world we inhabit. There are infinite points within this book that can by analyzed and broadened or delved into to make a grand allegorical statement, but it is also something that can be enjoyed without the need to build it into something beyond itself. It is a story that goes beyond the page, and these types of stories are important.

If you’ve read this story before, then you know what I mean. If you were like me a few months ago and had never heard of it, spare an hour to give a read and see what you might get out of it. Some books are meant for children. Books like this one remind us that we are all children.

Happy Reading.

Lemniscate

“Are you sure?” Remiel asked.

The old woman before him nodded.

“Place your hand here,” he continued. She followed his order and placed her hand on the smooth tablet he held before her. Then he ushered her to the door behind him. The door closed with a thud that echoed through the great room. It was all white. Even the lone table and two chairs. There were no windows or lights. The whiteness of the walls, floor, and ceiling seemed to reflect each other in a way that illuminated every inch of every surface. No shadows existed anywhere.

He sat down to find another dossier had replaced the last. He rested the tablet on the table then picked up the file and flicked through its contents reviewing the information inside. The information that would allow him to pass judgement on his next guest.

When he was satisfied he had seen enough to make an accurate decision, he dropped the dossier onto the table and rose. The human named Francis Nguyen arrived through the door in front of him. A hint of confusion was visible on the small man’s face as he strode across the large room. Each footfall echoed within the chamber and Remiel made an adjustment that softened the noise. Then, as he approached Mr. Nguyen, he reduced his own size to be identical to his guests by shrinking a few inches and thinning himself.

“Mr. Nguyen,” Remiel greeted his guest and showed him to the lone table. Mr. Nguyen bowed graciously before taking his seat. Remiel took his own seat before formally beginning the conversation. Mr. Nguyen had been composed so far, which was an excellent sign.

“Do you know where you are Francis?”

“I do,” Mr. Nguyen said, briefly taking in more of the modest room. “It is good to see you again, Mr. Remiel, though I do not seem to recall the last or first time we met.”

Remiel smiled. “That is to be expected. I am familiar because we have met on multiple occasions.” Remiel himself did not know this until a moment ago when he reviewed the dossier and regained his memories of the previous Francis Nguyen, who had been called Lindsay Williamson. She had been eighty-two years old, whereas Francis was thirty-eight.

“Can you remind me why I am here?” Mr. Nguyen asked.

“Your time has ended, for now, in the land of the living.”

“Ah, I see, and I am here for my final judgement.”

“Not yet, Mr. Nguyen. You have lived just over two hundred years across five lives. You have a few more to experience before the final judgement is given.”

“I will go back then?”

“Not as you are currently.”

Mr. Nguyen’s eyes narrowed and he turned his head ever so slightly.

“What do you remember of your previous lives?” Remiel asked.

“Nothing.”

“That is because you cannot take your memories with you. You must start again. A clean slate. No prior experiences and under new circumstances. You have done this several times already. Only when you have lived your three hundred and thirty-three years will you be ready to receive your final judgment.”

Mr. Nguyen nodded. “Yes, I’m beginning to remember, but please forgive me. Why so many years?”

“One life is too short to accurately pass judgement on a soul. Multiple lives are required to collect the necessary information to make a proper assessment.”

“Then I have no choice but to accept?”

“There is always a choice.” Remiel picked up the tablet and rose from his chair. Mr. Nguyen stood as well. They walked a few paces before Remiel turned to face Mr. Nguyen and present the tablet.

“When you place your hand on this, it will absorb all of your memories. Then you will pass through the door behind me to begin your next life. The choice you have in this moment is where you will be born and how long your life will last. You cannot choose who your parents will be or how you will be born or any aspect of how your life beyond where it will begin and how long you will live. You will have no control over how your life will end and no memory of the length you had chosen. You will be born into the world you just left. Nothing will have changed. You currently have 129 years to live before we meet for the last time. Knowing this, make your choice.”

Then, as if from a particle of dust in the spotless room, a miniature earth grew into existence above the tablet until its surface could be seen in detail. Mr. Nguyen examined the moon slowly circling the planet and was tempted to pluck it out of orbit and look at it closer, but he quickly returned his gaze to the world before him. He remembered everything he could about what the world was like. After a few moments he made his decision. Niue. A small island in the Pacific Ocean. He loved the water and hoped to have a simple, yet enjoyable life there.

“Seventy-two years.”

“Are you sure?” Remiel asked.

Mr. Nguyen nodded.

“Place your hand here,” Remiel continued.

Mr. Nguyen followed the instructions and placed his hand on the tablet. Every memory withing him transferred to the tablet. As did Remiel’s memories, through his own hand placed on the underside of the tablet, until both of their collective memories had been extracted.

When Mr. Nguyen removed his hand. Remiel looked up at him and smiled. Then he guided his guest to the door behind him and ushered him through. The door closed and Remiel returned to the table and placed the tablet on its surface. All memories of his previous guest were gone. A new dossier was sitting on the table. He sat down and flicked through the pages absorbing the memories of his next guest. Remembering each time they met and the lives this one had lived. Once he felt prepared, he placed the information back on table and rose to greet his new visitor as she walked through the door.

Against the Current

Garreth picked up the metal pipe that had fallen from his overloaded leather bag and kept going. He was late with his meeting before the Thinkers. He hoped that he would be able to join their ranks should they accept his invention. It had been a dream of his since he was a boy. To be a Thinker meant he would be given access to all resources to improve the city. He could travel to nearby cities as well and be given the same treatment.

He stumbled through the door to the massive Citadel in the center of the city. It was the largest building ever made, and it consisted of an amalgam of precious metals, solid stones, mixtures that dried harder than even marble, and other mysterious substances that held the structure together in certain areas. Many of which had been lost to time. Garreth believed some of the formulas still lay within the vaults of the structure. Locked up where only a Thinker could gain access.

His mind wandered at the thought of all the knowledge stored beneath his feet. His absent stride echoed through empty halls. A figure burst forth from a room further down corridor and his attention returned to the present. He eyed the figure as he approached and realized it was woman. She had stopped in the middle of walkway with her head held low as the door slowly closed behind her. Before he was close enough to ask her a question, she huffed and threw the object in her hands against the stone wall and stormed off. Garreth remained silent as she raged by. She gave him no mind at all while he observed how her black hair fluttered about her face as she took forceful steps. He even caught the soft green scattered within her otherwise brown iris.

He watched her exit. A sudden sadness came over him. One that made him wish he had spoken to her, but the thought was fleeting. He had come to join the Thinkers and that decision was soon to be made. He approached the door she had left behind. He reached for the handle and was stopped by the sight before him. The object she had thrown. It looked like fabric stretched taught between wooden rods. He found he could only guess as to the purpose of it.

Muffled voices penetrated the large wooden door. Garreth had cracked it open without noticing. Through the slit he heard the Thinkers arguing about the woman.

“The device could be useful,” a high-pitch voice said.

“It doesn’t matter how useful it is,” a deep voice boomed, “no woman will ever be a Thinker. It’s unheard of. No text has ever hinted at such a thing being the case and there must be a reason for it. We must maintain the integrity of our forebears.”

The murmuring of small conversation ensued until a composed voice rose above it. “Perhaps we should investigate the nature of Howell’s argument. If research should show even one idea within the archives was founded by a woman, we will admit Cassandra within our ranks.”

“But even then…” the deep voice sounded, then trailed away.

“You may come in now,” the composed voice called out.

Garreth knew he was the recipient of the command and entered the hall. It was a large atrium filled only with a tall, semi-circle dais and a small platform of stone one foot from the ground. Garreth came forward and stepped onto the platform. He looked up at the Thinkers, all wearing the robes of their rank, and they looked down upon him.

“You wish to become a Thinker?” The composed voice said. It came from the man seated directly in front of him. He was older and wore the signature medallion on his left breast signifying him as the Primary. The head of all Thinkers.

“I do,” Garreth managed.

“Come, show us what you have there,” the Primary requested.

Garreth pulled the pipes from his bag and began assembling them. He began his presentation as he fitted the first few together.

“This model will show you how I believe it is possible to harness the river north to provide water throughout the city.”

“Harness the river? How?” The deep voice called. Garreth noted the man immediately. He was toward his right. A larger man with a mustache which still contains remnants of the man’s breakfast.

“Here,” Garreth said, pointing to the open pipe at the top of his contraption, “is where it begins. We build this structure at the beginning of the waterfall north of the city. The water flows into the pipe where is can be diverted to various spots around the city.” He pointed to several points along his matrix. “Where the water can be stored in containers for regular use.”

“The river would be fully diverted? This would prevent water from reaching the irrigation channels further south.” It was the higher pitched voice. Garreth registered the man. Young, thin frame with large eyes. A genial look on his face that Garreth believed to be both an eagerness to learn despite a deep well of knowledge.

“The water,” he lifted a jug and poured it slowly into the open pipe at the top of his contraption, “would be diverted through the city, past the collection points, and guided back to the riverbed before it reaches the channels, therefore it would not disrupt the food supplies.” The water exited the web of pipes into the collection pan he had set at the base.

“Impressive,” the high-pitch voice said.

“What would this structure consist of?” the mustachioed man asked.

“Marble.”

“Why?” the Primary followed.

“To prevent contamination. The water would be river water, but if the materials were metal or a baser stone, then we would risk particles being released into the water that could be harmful even when boiled.”

“You’ve tested materials?”

“Yes. Marble proves the best suited for this project.”

“It would take years to complete such an undertaking.” This came from the fat mustache.

“Perhaps too long,” the Primary said.

“No longer than it took to build the bath houses,” Garreth said. He meant it as fact only but could see from the look of the bigger man that offense was taken.

“You know the intricacies of masonry?” the deep voice boomed.

“Not all.”

“Then do not falsely claim to know deeply of things you have only seen in passing.”

“I made no such claim.”

The bigger man rose from his seat on the dais to grow a few feet more above Garreth.

“You dare to-”

“Calm yourself Baron,” the Primary called, “You do not act your station at the moment.”

The mustache rumbled as Baron let out a huff at the Primary’s words and returned to his seat.

“Garreth, is it?” The Primary asked.

“Yes sir.”

“You have brought an interesting proposal before us. We thank you for this. We shall deliberate upon it and make our decision momentarily. We ask that you wait outside the Citadel for our response.”

Garreth thanked each of them and gathered his contraption. He wandered outside before stopping to properly dismantle the remainder of his model. He slipped a pipe into the bag. The clink of metal on metal was followed by a woman’s voice.

“You want to become one of those idiots?”

Garreth turned to see the girl from earlier. Her cheeks slightly flushed from recent tears. The name he overheard flashed across his mind. Cassandra.

“To become a Thinker is great honor. There is much to learn in the Citadel.” He looked up at the large doors he had just left. Cassandra followed his gaze.

“You are right. Too bad it’s all a farce.”

“How do you mean?” He asked it despite knowing she was telling a truth she did not fully understand.

“They are all old men. Too tied up in traditions to live up to the reputations created by those before them. I’d say the Citadel lost its ingenuity a few centuries ago.” She sighed.

“What was it?” Garreth asked impulsively.

“What was what?”

“The thing you left behind.”

“Ha,” she huffed, “It was a device that would let us harness the wind. Turn it into a mechanical force.”

“Really?” He stepped closer to her eager to hear more about it.

“Doesn’t matter now,” she said, “It’s impossible to build anything new without the Thinkers money. It wasn’t even hard to build.”

“Could you show me?”

She stared at him. Slowly the suspicion faded from her eyes as she realized he still held the spark of curiosity. She picked up a piece of straw from the street and began drawing in a patch of dirt at the base of the Citadel wall. She explained the intricacies simply and Garreth found himself inspired. He couldn’t fathom how she hadn’t been granted the robes of a Thinker. Then he remembered the discussion he overheard before his own presentation.

“This is fascinating.” He meant it, and she must have accepted his words honestly because she smiled. “As you said, this wouldn’t be hard to construct. Have you considered building it yourself?”

“Even if I had the money, only Thinkers get permits in the city.”

“What if you built it outside the city?”

She looked at him as if he had asked her to build it beyond the stars. The doors opened behind them and a courier presented Garreth with scroll. The Thinkers seal was pressed into the wax. Inside would be their decision. He held in his hand the answer to his future.

“Have fun being a Thinker,” Cassandra said as she got up. She smiled at him and walked away.

He watched her walking away, then turned his attention to the scroll, then down to the drawing in the dirt. He shoved the scroll into his pack without breaking the seal and ran after her.

“Wait,” he called as he caught up to her.

“What? You want to gloat?”

“I know of a town about a day to the east that could really benefit from your idea.”

A dubious look filled her features.

“I’m serious. You could really improve their lives out there. Isn’t that why you wanted to be a Thinker? To help others?”

“Don’t you have business in the Citadel?”

He shrugged. “It can wait. I’d hate to see your idea lost. It’s a Thinker’s responsibility to preserve ideas. To help those with the spark flourish.”

“You think I have the spark?” she asked with an incredulous tone.

“I know you do, and I know this world can’t afford to lose it.” He smiled in an attempt to convince her.

A moment passed before her own smile spread across her cheeks. “Where is this town?”

Book Recommendation of the Week

This week’s book recommendation is Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll (whose real name was Charles Lutwidge Dodgson). With Disney’s animated movie based on this book, released in 1951, and their two live-action versions of based on this book and its sequel Through the Looking Glass, I think nearly everyone knows of this story. However, I think the number of people who have read the book would be surprisingly low, which is why I’m recommending it. Have you read this book?

It is an easy read. You can usually find a version that includes both Alice’s Adventures and Through the Looking Glass in one volume (as I did). The first book was published roughly 150 years ago and was influenced by an actual girl named Alice. I’m much less certain about the origins of other beloved characters such as the Cheshire Cat and the Mad Hatter.

I believe so few actually read the story nowadays because there are so many versions out there (mostly movies). Several books have been based on the original Alice stories as well. I have yet to read them, but I know about two “retelling”s of the story itself that take the story in a drastically different narrative. One I believe is actually quite dark. (Side note: A quick Google search produced at least 83 modern versions of this story which is insane, but it is popular for many reasons.)

My reason for recommending the original story is twofold. It is a good story and it’s always good to read the original content, and it is a glimpse into history. Sure, this book probably seemed insane when it came out 150 years ago (I mean, they did have drugs back them too), but Queen Victoria like it! They didn’t have nearly as many forms of entertainment back then that we do now, and it was definitely not as accessible, but this fun little story has persisted through the years to entertain us. I hope it will entertain you as well.

Because it came out that long ago, and Mr. Carroll/Dodgson is long gone, I can provide a free copy of both books to you without an ounce of worry. Feel free to jump right in.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland & Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll

Happy Reading.