Three Empty Shells

Up to this point, three scenes defined his life.

The den of thieves grew silent as the pair walked in. Their clean, simple robes, cut perfectly, contrasted with the unwashed peasants about them whose clothes were stained, patched, and well-worn. A blind beggar peaked out from under the dirty rag covering his clear eyes to see what had so impressed his jaded peers.

All eyes watched as the two approached the man shuffling shells.

“A game of luck? A little wager? Can you spot the bead?” the oft rehearsed words filled that quieted alley.

A boy, who was piteously thin, squatting next to the blind man, holding out a bowl containing three bright coins, whispered, “Are they going to kill him?”

The two men sat before the box.

“Spot the bead; double your wager.”

For some time no sound was heard but the shuffling shells scraping across the wood. Eventually, even this was overwhelmed by silence, and the three shells stood in a line before the two men. The three sat speaking not a word. Finally, one of the robed men pointed to a shell.

Without glancing up, the conman spoke, “You have to make a bet first.”

“We have no money,” came the reply.

“What?” returned the mocking retort. “Oh yes. You have no possessions or attachments to this world, if I remember. And yet you’re fatter than most. On whose bread did you grow fat?”

“We carry only knowledge.”

“It seems a healthier diet on you than I found it.”

“Your father is dead.”

“Our father. . .” he repeated slowly. Turning over the shell, he tutted. “Empty.”

The second of the two pointed to the next shell.

“And what will you be betting?”

“His final words.”

The man’s quick hand reached for the shell. Hovering just above it, he said, “I assumed he would go quietly.” Letting his fingers touch the shell, he continued, “At least he said nothing when I told him I was going.” The shell was turned over, empty.

“He called for you. He said, ‘Van, Van, my son.’”

“How touching. One final sentiment he’d forgotten to purge. His only failure weighing on him, I suppose.”

The two men stood, and walking side by side left the sorry pit. The conman turned the last shell over, revealing nothing.

The lover walked away, tossing the roses into the street. There was no sudden inclement rain, nor did the stoic youth let the tears come forth. Retreating, he let the sidewalk guide him, let the bustling crowds direct his path until the night called every man to his own home. The streets empty, Van wandered under the flickering lamplight.

Two night-watchmen interrupted this meanderings.

“Halt,” said one stepping in front of him.

“What are you doing out at this hour?” asked another behind him.

“What I will.”

“What are you doing out after dark,” said the first.

Looking up to the lamp, Van said, “It doesn’t seem so dark.”

“No one is allowed out after dark.”

“Save you,” the youth whispered.

“What?” the guard spat.

“Why light these lanterns if not for us who wander in the darkness?”

“It’s for us to catch thieves,” said the voice behind him.

“And simply by seeing these thieves can you catch them?”

“No. We grab ‘em. Like this.”

Van felt his wrists constrained in tight grips pulling his arms back.

“And when they make trouble, we hit ‘em, like this.” The guard in front of Van balled up his gloved hand and swung it against the youth’s mouth. Forcing his jaw shut with a snap, Van stared up into the guard’s eyes. Gritting his teeth, he made some imprudent comments regarding the two men’s mothers.

A bevy of blows rained down on his defenseless head. As the first guard grew tired, the other said, “I want a turn.” Letting go of Van’s wrists, he lifted his foot and pushed the dizzy youth over.

Rolling onto his shoulder, Van gracefully rose to his feet. Gazing up at the orange flames above them, the youth proclaimed, “Then let there be no more light.” Spinning, he kicked the lamppost, twisting the iron with one blow. The fire went out and night reigned.

The old man sat cross-legged on his couch, three rising plums of incense mixing their smoke in the air. The white threads weaved about each other, braiding together as they climbed to the temple’s ceiling. The boy came before the master, and kneeling down, said nothing.

He had not been picked, again.

“I think I’m too old now,” he finally said.

“Which of us is old?” said the white bearded man.

Grinding his teeth, the boy continued, “No one wants me.”

“We learn—”

“No one loves me,” interrupted the youth.

The old monk was silent.

“I know I was ‘donated’ as you all put it, but we all were ‘donated.’ I was ‘donated.’ Some lady of the night donated me, abandoned me. The others, they know their parents. I’ve always been here. No one wants the bastard for his apprentice. You’re the only one I—” he stopped himself. “You’re the only thing keeping me here, the only thing I’m still attached to.” Standing, the boy continued. “And today I was there, waiting to be chosen, and I saw that all the children—they were children. I’m not a child anymore.”

Turning, he walked toward the doors of the temple. As he reached the decorated archway, he glanced over his shoulder at his father. The man sat there, silently, watching the wisps of smoke dance their way into heaven.

“Damn you all, and damn me,” the youth said, tears running down his cheeks. “Damn the day I was born. Damn my mother who didn’t kill me when she saw me. Damn my father. Damn the whole damn world. Damn this hell.”

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