Rope Trick

Second Attempt at writing this short story. Thanks to Matt for a tiny detail of one who may well have succeeded (but may well have failed), on top of a gas tower in London.

Daniel had been sat on top of his eighteen foot pole for eighteen hours and thirty-two minutes, when he began to suspect that this particular method wasn’t going to work either.

For two days, Daniel had trekked over arid terrain with his custom built pole, his chest swollen with pride at the thought of the goal he was aiming for. He had travelled halfway around the world to find the perfect spot in which to receive the blessings of the ancients, to demonstrate his yogic prowess and attain the enlightenment his foolish companions back in Cambridge aimlessly strived for. He would pitch his pole on the banks of one of the world’s great rivers, at what felt like an auspicious location, and then place his raffia and rough silk cushion atop of it and sit alone, in his greatly rehearsed half-lotus position, without eating or drinking, several feet above the base level of men. He would sit, and wait for enlightenment. That was his goal.

Daniel had finished the last of his cereal bars by the time he had found the place he stop and stay, and the pockets of his tailored robes bulged with empty wrappers. He had reached his destination, and within an hour had erected his future home, scaled the height and assumed the position. To the East he could see the great river meandering over the horizon, its waters glinting opalesque, reflecting in the half-dozen mystic pendants he wore around his neck. “And so, it begins” he spoke aloud, hearing no reply but the rumble in the distance of water buffalo and the quiet screams of the wading birds, cracking their freshwater oysters at the ends of slender beaks, as their spindley legs negotiated the labyrinth of reeds. The sun was reaching its highest, and Daniel set about following his breath through his body, as he had read in a pamphlet once. Taking the humid air deep into his lungs, he closed his eyes and felt it permeate through his form, trying to push thoughts of his ex-girlfriend out of his head (whose carnal temptations were now on the other side of the world; petty, small, materialistic girl that she was. She wouldn’t be laughing at him when he returns, he thought, saint-like and possessing knowledge she could only dream of…) and concentrate on reaching self-realisation. Daniel adjusted his pose, pulling his left foot further up over his right thigh, his soft, white sole pointing upwards and beneath his palm. An hour passed in which he followed his breathing, and tried to empty his head. “How they would all suffer”, Daniel whispered to himself, “when they see what I have achieved.”

For a while, the memories of lust would not shift from Daniel’s head. He could not help but miss her, even though she was pointless, a waste of space who claimed to have been elevated to modern sainthood by a gap-year placement in a leper’s home. Every time  Daniel’s mind came close to a harmonious state, the smoothness of her thighs would creep in behind his closed eyes and threatened to ruin everything. But this was a part of the process, wasn’t it? Even the Buddha had to feel lust in order to strip it away beneath his Bodhi tree, Christ met his temptation in the desert. So it was alright to feel arousal, mingled with bitterness. It was expected. Daniel straightened his back and took another deep breath, and concentrated once more. After a further half an hour, a tune began playing in Daniel’s head. At first, this tune was barely there, a tiny seed of distraction taking root. After a few minutes, however, it was thudding inside his brain, and it took several more minutes for Daniel to identify it. This was no transcendental sound vibration, no mantra or piece of divine arrangement – it was the shrill and tinny music playing during the end credits of the shallow Arabic film he was subjected to on the flight over here. What had made the micro-cinematic experience even more intolerable was the fact that a small Arabic man who smelt strongly of rose water and carroway insisted on explaining in minute detail exactly what was happening in the film, even though his English was stilted in its earnest, over-confident pace. Somehow, the predictable, saccharine music had burned itself into Daniel’s subconsciousness, and a frustrated anger rose within him as he sat atop his lofty perch. He tried humming a single, low tone to focus his thoughts and streamline his breathing, and this helped with the distaction for a while. The song in his head would come and go like waves, indeed, an odd synchronicity began to occurr as he moved into his third hour of penance. The tinny melody would start up in his head after fifteen minutes of relieving silence, but only when the wading birds returned to collect more muddy bivalves, after flying away to feed their young. So this cycle of frustration and anger would be heralded by the squawking of curlews and the cracking of beak on shell in the distance. Not only this, but Daniel was beginning to grow hungry, and his leg was getting sore.

The hunger and rumbling of his stomach was a particular annoyance to Daniel. “This is nothing but an illusion. I am here to experience aesceticism, enlightenment. It is the illusion of attachment to sensory satisfaction that is causing this hunger” he said aloud, to nobody in particular. Daniel thought of his former friends (for he was sure he would no longer need any of them when he returns, changed beyond recognition and unable to commuincate on  their crass level) and their own petty attempts to gain what he would surely attain. He thought of Jessica, who every day would sacrifice something to the sea. He thought of poor, misguided James, who  told his dreams to strangers and thought he received the love of god by dancing in the street and pulling chariots up hills. He thought of the other young man who they had all known, who ended up on top of a gas tower writing letters to himself which claimed to fall from the sky, and he thought of this man, falling to his death onto an imaginary pile of bodies belonging to his imaginary companions. None of those friends had got it right, he thought. They hadn’t done their research. It only takes an hour of looking on wikipedia to find the great list of Sadhus, Brahmin and Saints who had revealed themselves to the divine by ostentatiously sitting on top of poles and refusing all food and water. This, he thought, was definately the way to do it.  

Another hour passed, and the hunger was growing slightly painful. Daniel was growing thirsty too, his tongue swelling like a clam inside the shell of his head. The same song was still rising and falling, despite the humming and the breathing and the array of pendants designed to aid his meditative state. For a while, well into the fourth hour atop the pole, Daniel had the hiccups. They passed after twenty minutes of distraction, after employing every technique he could remember from his childhood; holding his breath, counting to twenty, and trying to find ways to shock the convulsions away.

Finally, a moment of peace descended upon the young man. His breathing regulated, his yogic position precise and technically perfect. “Now”, he whispered to himself, “Surely now my eyes will open, and my soul shall walk free of my body”. Daniel even fancied he could hear a flute playing in the distance, as the first wash of relaxation passed over him, despite the crippling hunger in his stomach which was only just being ignored. A nutshell hit him on the back of his head. And then another one. Furiously, Daniel’s eyes flew open, and slowly, purposely he turned himself around to see what had pulled him from his divine state. Looking down, he saw two children, brothers dressed in identical yellow wrap-around garments, each carrying a stick of bamboo and staring intently at the pale youth eighteen feet above them. In the distance, a quiet lowing and the clunking of a simple bell announced the plodding arrival of a white cow that, with a strained grunt and a cloud of dust, lay down at the children’s feet. Daniel was appalled; he had carefully selected this spot to reach his goal of enlightenment and to meditate based on the fact that there were no people for miles around. The nearest settlement was thirty miles to the West, over the sandstone outcrops that leered on the horizon, and yet here were two young beggars, no doubt from a shack down the riverbank, determined to interrupt his tranquility. “What are you doing?” asked the smaller of the brothers, in his fluting voice, practising his English. Daniel turned his back to them, refusing to acknowledge their insolent presence. “My brother Bally and I, we have food and water, coconuts and rice. You are welcome to take lunch with us. Come down from up there and eat, converse with us.” Daniel closed his eyes and resumed his humming. His mind was muddled with anger. “How dare they offer me their petty charity! How dare they interrupt a holy man in the middle of his journey to spiritual awakenment!” He tried to concentrate on the nothingness that had so far eluded him, even after nearly six hours of isolation. “It is because I am a white man, they refuse to take me seriously. They think I cannot exist on meditation, that I am trapped in the material desire they are aloof to. I shall not even look at them.” Daniel squeezed his eyes tightly shut and ignored the now crippling hunger that now wracked his stomach. To add to the distraction, the wading birds half a mile away had returned to the mud bank, and with them the tune in his head struck up its unrelenting distraction. Half an hour of irritation passed before he heard the cow stand up, an awkward four-point process of hump and hoof, and the sad clunking of the bell held amidst jowls grew fainter and fainter until it was beyond earshot. Tentatively, Daniel turned around to see if the intruders still sat beneath the pole. The space was empty, exept for two coconuts and a banana leaf, on which lay rice and fruits. The boys had left him food with which to further patronise his noble efforts, and anger him even more.

The sun was growing heavy in the sky as Daniel continued to make excuses for himself and push unwanted thoughts out of his head.  The hunger had become something tangible, a thick, frayed rope weaving its way out of his solar plexus, tugging him off balance with a rasping dryness. “Any moment now, the flash of light would come”, he told himself. “Just a few more minutes to reach the goal”. He simply didn’t believe that he needed any of this, here, eighteen feet above his inferiors, sat in a sacred position he once saw in a pamphlet.  The sun dipped below the horizon, and the threat of sleep loomed around his ears. “Let us wait a few more minutes…”

Daniel had been sat on top of his eighteen foot pole for eighteen hours and thirty-two minutes, when he began to suspect that this particular method wasn’t going to work. He climbed down, felt his aching legs touch the ground and quickly gorged upon the food left behind by the boys who ruined everything for him. Putting on his custom-made sandals, and licking the wrappers of the cereal bars in his pockets, he walked back towards the road, fighting back tears, back the way he came. One day, he would show them. He would show her, and he would show them all. He was doing the right thing, he was sure of it…

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About Benjamin Norris

Published writer of short stories, long stories, poems. Well received art critic and cultural commentator for Berlin magazines. Collaborator with operatic societies. Co-writer of fictional historic psycholinguistic journals. Lecturer of architecture and art history at a Budapest University. View all posts by Benjamin Norris

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