A Sort of Homecoming

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Literary Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
A short story about a young man who finds himself in an eerie palace on a stormy night. The protagonist meets a strange old man and enters into conversation with him. The surreality of the situation slowly dawns upon the young man as the night unfolds.

Submitted: November 29, 2011

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Submitted: November 29, 2011

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He had never been extraordinary in any way, a fact he unfortunately knew all too well. The eternal orb of optimism which resides like an insolent child in the darkest recess of the human soul, making a mockery of all the despair surrounding it, had been slowly ebbing away of life in the recent past. He had never been ungrateful in his life; neither was he now, but the impending demise of the Eternal Orb was more a result of a burgeoning feeling of insignificance, rather than any suffering or loss Fate had subjected him to. Ironically, the only faculty he felt he had been gifted with was an above average ability of self-assessment. He remembered the last time the Orb had throbbed with life, when he had first been exposed to Greek philosophy and read about how Socrates prided himself for being able to acknowledge his own ignorance. I must be special, if I think like Socrates, he had thought. That elation had endured almost a whole week.

The rain was coming down more erratically than ever now; torrents of heavenly tears in one instant, and drizzle dancing around in the air like a joyous ballerina, as if orchestrated by Terpsichore herself, in the next. The rain had always given solace to him; it lifted his soul out from the shadow, if only ever so briefly, and afforded him those rare instances of pure joy which the human spirit lives for. But the joy which the opening of the heavens brought was as transient as it was potent. Sure, it threw a cloak over the demons of the future and the ghosts of the past, and he was able to, as Ausonius phrased, "collige rosas". But once the rain stopped, it was not long before the cloak slid off. The measure of his angst may be realized by the observation that not even the rain could transfigure the demons into angels; it only hid them for a while like a cheap illusionist.

It was thus perhaps because of the rain, which seemed like it had been pouring down forever, that he smiled as he pondered over the eventful night he had been a part of. It seemed like it wasn't over yet, as he stared at the looming castle set against the treacherous night sky. It was like he had been dropped in the middle of a book he had been fond of in his childhood. His own ordinariness might have been endurable, had his life been full of some adventure and excitement. But his life was as ordinary as himself. He had been working for a local bank for the past three years now, and while he made a respectable enough living out of it, his work was almost unbearably mundane. His life was so void of incident; he sometimes almost wished some disastrous fate upon himself. An experience of the bizarre, the terrible; even of the grotesque; anything which would break the numbing mediocrity of his life. But like I have already explained, he had never been ungrateful, and so he never made the mistake of succumbing to the temptation of wishing for these sordid things.

All of this led to him smiling, as he stood there all alone drenched in rain. He could feel the distinct call of the Eternal Orb, as his mind dangled the possibility of the manifestation of those restrained fateful wishes in front of his yearning soul. The sound of thunder cracked loudly, followed by a bolt of lightning so bright it seemed to cleave the heavens permanently in half. This magnificent effect was accentuated by a strong gust of wind and a sudden surge in the intensity of the rain, as if Kausar itself was pouring out through the crack in the sky; as if the gaping wound in the blue above had opened a lane to Paradise, and Paradise was bellowing its fury at being tainted with the ugliness of this world. He shivered as he stood there, not because of the cold, but as he contemplated the utter insignificance of Man. For once, even his own insignificance as a person seemed completely insignificant.

It was difficult for him to assess the size of the castle in the ominous black of the night, and his vision was blurred by the curtain of rain in front of his eyes. He shuddered again, a bit harder this time, as images of unearthly phantasms excited his starved soul and sent sharp chills down his spine. The thought of turning away from the deathly stone structure was not once entertained by his zealous mind. He looked up at the black sky once more, and started walking briskly towards the only shelter in sight. The castle was set at the top of the hill he was standing on, and the remaining climb to it was short and obtuse. As he hurried along he cast a look at the surrounding wilderness. Being near the top of the hill, he had a bird's eye view of his surroundings. As the world momentarily lit up with another fierce flash of lightning, he could make out uncultivated fields in every direction as far as his sight allowed him to from that vantage point. He never wondered how such a secluded place came to be in that bustling city of his, or how he had not known of it until now. By all measures, that place, and the eeriness it evoked, seemed far removed from any semblance of human civilization or society. But he was too thrilled to question these things at this time; the surrealism of that place only added to his excitement and rationalizing it all was the last thing he was concerned about. As he approached the large wooden door of the castle, he saw that it was a modest sized structure. It was simple but majestic, and it looked ancient. The brass knocker on the door was huge and looked to be built in the shape of a lion's head. As he moved forward to take the knocker in his hand, he suddenly let out a gasp and backed off from the door in a sudden, sharp motion. The shape of the knocker indeed resembled a lion's head, but upon closer inspection one could make out its excessively ghastly features. The teeth protruding out of the gaping mouth seemed nothing like those of a lion's; they were large and uneven, giving the face a frightening countenance. But the eyes of the unearthly figure were what had caused him to convulse with such disgust and horror. They seemed to contain all the evil man's world had to offer, plus a good deal more from various subterranean hellish worlds. There was also something carved out immediately below the knocker. He looked at the carving with his heart still fluttering, trying not to glance again at the demonic knocker. The carving puzzled him; it looked like a combination of completely unfathomable primordial symbols. He thought the symbols looked like an array of wine glasses; some set out horizontally and cutting into the upright ones. The idea of taking that knocker in his hand was not appealing to him in the least, and he quickly moved to his left towards the end of the door. With clenched fists he banged on the black wood fiercely. He wanted to get in before the imp of the perverse urged him to cast his eyes once more upon that which was still making his heart beat unusually fast. As he banged on the door, he felt it give a little. He realized the door was unfastened from the inside, and he graciously pushed it open and stepped hurriedly inside.

He was standing in a spacious hall with a staircase set near the middle. There were two large stained windows on both sides of the hall. Opposite from where he stood a fire crackled quietly inside a large stoned fireplace. There was a large painting hung above the fireplace, but he could not make out what it portrayed from the distance. He cautiously approached the painting, wary of what he might find after his unpleasant experience with the grim knocker outside. Despite his prudence, what he saw shocked him once more, but this time for the very converse reasons. The painting looked as ancient as the castle itself, and it depicted a young woman with flowing brown hair, clad in a simple white dress, standing in the middle of the most verdant meadow imaginable to man. A lion sat majestically at the feet of the woman, and a small donkey was standing by her side eating the grass. There was a third animal the artist had given to the woman's entourage; a plain looking bird which sat perched on her outstretched hand. But more than the odd composition of the painting, what struck him was the illimitable beauty of the woman in white. He had seen a few (truly) beautiful women in his life; even fallen in love with one, but what this goddess seemed to radiate was more than simple earthly beauty. It was evident that the artist's virtuosity (if he had any) had nothing to do with this painting. He had simply been lucky enough to have this image of perfection revealed to him, which was so divine even an uncultured lout could have transferred it onto the canvas. The artist had clearly been a simple vessel for the divine, a fortunate channel through which beauty itself had passed and manifested onto the canvas. He stood transfixed for an elongated moment, staring into the face of the woman who seemed to calm every tingling nerve in his body. His trance was broken by a sudden voice from behind:

"Enchanting, isn't she! I've lived in this place for thirty years now and she still sends my entire being on a tranquil journey across the seven heavens each time I lay my eyes upon her!"

The words were uttered by an old, yet sprightly man who was descending the staircase with a smile on his face. He was wearing a large coat which reached down to his knees and covered almost half of his slightly worn out trousers. His imposing, large figure was impressive upon the eye, and the long white hair flowing at the back of his head gave him a markedly regal look. As he glided down the stairs with an ease of movement which seemed to defy his age, the young man stepped forward and returned the speaker's smile:

"Indeed, your lady had me dreaming of a world with the wildest of fantasies and purest of truths. Although if I may be so bold to say sir, she strikes quite a contrast to that beastly thing you have out there on your door! It almost made my poor heart stop, that unseemly thing!"

"I would suppose so young man", the old man said as he let out a deep, jovial laugh. "But as unpleasant as that thing may seem, you have to acknowledge its sturdy craftsmanship. It's been hanging there since the day this magnificent old castle was built, and God knows how long ago that was!"

The old man had completed his descent by this time and walked up to his addresser. For some odd reason, the young man felt strangely comfortable in the presence of that peculiar stranger. He didn't appear to be upset at finding an unwelcome guest in his house. In fact, he didn't even seem surprised; almost as if he had been expecting him. The young man was slightly bemused by his accent, as it did not appear local. However, it did not resemble any foreign dialect he was familiar with either. It was almost as if, like the strange place he was in, the old man belonged to a world different than ours.

"Ah, it has been such a long time since I have seen a fellow soul wander into my grand home! You must stay the night young sir, as there is no point trying to face the ungodly weather out there tonight. Besides, I would be so delighted if you would humor this old man with some tales of the outside world. As I have said, so rarely do I find someone to talk to nowadays. Come! I shall give you some hot tea and you will entertain me with fascinating stories of your life."

The young man followed his host as he led him through a wide passage at the end of the hall. The passage opened up into a large room filled with antiquated wooden furniture. A large, curtain-less window was situated near the desk, through which the fury of the storm raging on outside could be seen. The room seemed to primarily serve as a personal library, as there were countless texts arranged neatly on the shelves. The old man took pardon of his guest as he went to get a kettle of tea. While waiting for his host, the young man started looking at the books in the room. He was surprised to see that the shelves were filled with mostly obscure texts written in equally obscure languages. He was an avid reader of literature and philosophy, and he was a little embarrassed at feeling like a complete ignoramus standing in the middle of all those books. As he dejectedly looked around, a dusty old book caught his eye. He realized that the symbols on the book somewhat resembled the inscription he had seen outside. Just as he picked up the book, the old man returned with a tea trolley. He looked at the book the young man was holding and let out a boisterous laugh:

"Recognized the symbols from beneath the knocker, did you? Do you know what that language is? It is cuneiform script, probably the earliest form of writing known to man. It was developed by the Sumerians almost 6000 years ago from today. Astounding, isn't it? To think what man was like back then, and how one would feel if one could somehow meet his earliest ancestor. Modern man as a specimen of how miserably ancient man would fail in his evolution through time. Ha! Now that would be a burden not even the most resolute of souls could bear. Knowing that you were doomed to fail, and fail utterly and miserable at that! But why do I speak of such dismal things, you are so young and full of life! Such pessimism should not be allowed anywhere near one so young." The old man put his arm around his guest's shoulder and led him to a couple of comfortable looking chairs in the middle of the room.

The young man smiled at his host's presumptuous remark about his youth's vivacity. But he didn't say anything; partly because he thought it inappropriate to correct his host's comments, who he had barely known for minutes and was being so hospitable, and partly because he was more interested in the inscription beneath the knocker.

"So what does the inscription say?"he asked eagerly as they sat down.

"Lamashtu,"the old man replied offhandedly, "but let's not speak of that right now. Rest assured we will get to the mystery of the knocker later, and you will have all your questions about that and the painting answered. But for now, pray tell me of yourself! The very fact that you are here indicates to me quite clearly that you are a thoroughly fascinating young man."

Upon hearing the zest in his host's inquiry, the young man couldn't contain himself and laughed heartily, "Believe me sir, nothing could be further from the truth. My life is as fascinating as the sheep which graze upon your hill!"

The old man smiled, "Like I said, the very fact that you are here assures me to the utmost that you are a much more intriguing person than you would yourself believe. But let us not quarrel over this; tell me about yourself, about your life, so that I may pass a more informed judgment on the enthrallment of your life."

So the young man started telling his fervent host about his life, starting with the mundane details of who he was and where he came from. For the same odd reason he felt at such ease with his strange interlocutor, the young man felt he could confide in him his deepest insecurities and obscurest thoughts. Hours flew by like minutes as the young man poured out all his soul's angst and despair. The old man listened with compassion and understanding, almost as if his own soul had once been privy to the same inexplicable anxieties.

"You have to understand, I am not a thankless child who has it all and just needs a reason to complain. I thank God everyday for all the blessings he has given me; I take very little for granted; I appreciate the health I have, I appreciate my youth, I appreciate every single penny of my wealth, and I appreciate my loving family. And when I say I feel ordinary, I mean it in the metaphysical sense. Yes, I have been endowed with ordinary looks and an ordinary intellect; in fact there is no activity I can think of which I have a particularly strong aptitude for, but I understand that these are all simply natural endowments. Why should I feel ashamed if I did not win big at the grandest of lotteries, and ended up being the way I am? I may feel angry at God, or dejected, but it is illogical for me to feel ashamed about it. And it would be very ungrateful of me to feel even angry or dejected, since there are so many people who have been blessed with so much less than me! So when I say ordinary, I mean ordinary in spirit. Ordinary in strength. I am suffering from such existential angst, I cannot explain to you! I feel so insignificant in the grander scheme of things. I work in a place which may be excessively dull, but I share my labor with some lively and good natured folks. I come home every day to the best family anyone could ask for; I go out and indulge in refreshing recreations every week with my dear friends, but at the end of it all my soul is in anguish! What am I doing?! I have lived a third of my life, and the rest will pass by just as listlessly. What have I done in life? Have I touched upon one truth worthy of God? Have I fulfilled my purpose in life? Have I even strived to find out why God put me upon this world?"

He was becoming exceedingly distraught now, and he got up from his chair and walked over to the window. The storm was raging on as furiously as ever outside, as if impervious to his suffering. Thunder rolled ominously in the distance, followed by an unusually long flash of lightning. The old man remained quietly seated for a few minutes.

"You say these things, and I believe you are being sincere. But when you speak of being ordinary in worldly ways, I doubt you are really as indifferent as you claim to be. Surely, you must wish sometimes you had been blessed with a greater number of faculties than you purportedly are with?"

"That is beside the point," he replied with a dismissive wave of his hand, still looking out the window, "Of course we always wish we had more. That is human nature; you cannot rid yourself of this greed. But as long as you are in control of it, you have nothing to worry about." He paused for a moment, before continuing much more calmly, "But no, I am not in control of it. Material desires have never been a problem for me, but I long for some exhilarating experience in my life. I know it sounds silly, but I want one instance of escape from the dreary realism of this mechanical world."

"But look at where you are!" the old man exclaimed loudly, "Isn't this a bizarre enough experience for you young man?"

He turned from the window and chuckled, "Well, to be honest, this has been an odd day. I am still not sure how I exactly feel about it, but yes this has been a bizarre experience."

"Don't worry, before this night is over, you will have what your soul desires so lustfully!" the old man said laughingly, but this time, for some reason, his laugh sent a little chill down the young man's spine, and he wondered silently who this strange old man was in this strange old place. "But tell me, you spoke of God and your duty to him. Are you a religious man?"

The young man thought a moment before replying, "I would say that religion is by far one of my most important - no, THE most important priority in life, in the sense that I want to follow my religion the way it is supposed to be. But I do not know what the right path is; how can anybody in these perplexing times! The path to true faith has always been arduous I guess, as it is supposed to be, but I do not have the strength to strive for it. I am in fact sure that my salvation lies on this road, where I can be rid of my existential angst in trying to choose between the aesthetic and the ethical life. But I am weak; I am too attached to the mediocrities of this world; I am common."

"Besides, I can tell you're a decent man, and I'm sure you must wonder sometimes, 'What's the use of religion, if you're already good?'" the old man said.

"What?" he spun around from the window with a confused look on his face, "Isn't that....a line from a song?"

The old man let out one of his typical boisterous laughs, "Well, even if it is, just because it's a line from a song doesn't mean it's not true!" He winked puckishly at his young guest, who was looking more and more unsettled now.

"Doesn't mean it's not true.....and that's a line from a movie! Who.....who are you? What is this macabre place!?" He turned around to glance out the window before turning back and addressing the old man again, this time with his voice extremely edgy, "And why does the thunder sound before the lightning strikes in this devilish place! Where am I? Who are you old man!?"

The old man remained seated calmly as he let out another loud, eerie laugh, "I am only giving you what you desire so feverishly."

Just then an explosive clap of thunder made him scream and jump around to look out the window. Moments later a blindingly bright bolt of lightning struck the ground merely feet away from the window and set the entire ground ablaze. He backed away in horror and swerved to face the old man. There was nobody there. In a fit of panic which engulfed his senses he ran out the passage and into the main hall. The grotesque apparition which confronted him there almost terrorized him to death. It was standing near the staircase, breathing heavily and unevenly, as if its lungs were damaged. The appearance of the apparition was so horrendous it froze him in his stride. The phantasm had a disgustingly hairy female body, the feet of a bird with terrible talons, and the head of a lioness. As he stood there transfixed, he convulsed with horror as he saw the same large, uneven teeth in her mouth....and the same evil eyes as that ill-omened knocker. As if all this was not enough, he seemed to sense with an uncanny certainty that this abhorrent thing in front of him was somehow the same woman as the goddess in the painting! It moved spasmodically forward until it was within a foot of him. He was completely paralyzed with fear now, and when he felt its putrid breath upon his face, he knew that this was no apparition. The creature dug its unnaturally long fingernails into his gut, and he screamed silently in agony. In the next moment the thing had sunk its teeth into his neck and was feeding on his warm blood. As his life ebbed away, he sunk to the ground with naught a thought in his mind, which had been inundated with absolute fear.

There was a flash of lightning outside, followed by rumbling thunder. The rain pattered noisily on his window-panes. He squinted to his right and saw that he had forgotten to turn off his iPod again. It was playing "Mercy" by U2. He sat up and stared out through his window. It was completely dark outside, and the rain was still pouring down relentlessly. A book titled "History of Iraq - The Sumerians and Akkadians" was lying on his bedside. The clock read 3:33 am, 23rd of April, 2007. He was completely lucid now, and he sat there for an hour in the dark thinking about his vivid, enigmatic dream. He was someone who dreamed a lot, and he had had weird, vivid dreams before. But this felt completely different. He felt it was a message; the dream had a purpose, and a pretty darn important one. He remembered every little detail. He had longed secretly for something like this ever since he had been a child, and it had been given to him in a dream. The irony of this was not lost on him. But even though it wasn't real, he felt its purpose had been served. It had given him the perspective he needed on life. The strength he wanted, he would have to build. The yearning he had for the extraordinary, he knew would remain forever. But he was wrong to be pessimistic about the fulfillment of his dreams, and about life itself. Life was uncertain, man was flawed, and man's struggle was all that mattered. He sprang out of his bed, and ran out onto his balcony in the rain. As he stood there looking towards the heavens, he felt the Eternal Orb shoot up through the stony ground in full bloom, and he felt joy and hope together, in the same moment, for the first time in years.

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(The Daily News)

Man Found Dead In Home, Possible Suicide

15th November, 2007

A young man aged 25 was found dead in his room last night with both his wrists slit. Although no suicide note has been found, no evidence of foul play was detected. The man named worked for a local bank in the city. The deceased's family, devastated by the loss, said he had always appeared perfectly happy and they were sure he did not have any depression problems. Police have launched an inquiry into the matter.

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And so, like all things eternal, the eternal orb of optimism shattered silently, and unceremoniously.


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