Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Encounter 4/9


By Yehuda Berlinger. Copyright 2005, Yehuda Berlinger. All rights reserved.

(Chapter 3 is here.)

Chapter 4: Mind

"Rabbi Nachman of Bretzlov told the following story: Once there was a King who had everything he wanted, including a good son for a prince. The prince was about to be a man. Soon he would be married. The future of the kingdom seemed assured. And then, one day, the prince took off all of his clothes, crawled under the table, and began to crow like a rooster."

Sarah shivered in her bed, her head fuzzed like her NetMind. Sweating, she reached for her bedside table, knocking a Snickers bar to the floor and upsetting the half glass of tepid water for which she was reaching. She wi'd the table's halogen light to a dim diffuseness. The water glowed black on the edges of the table as it seeped over.

Mom?, she sent.

What do you need, dear? I’ll send David up.

Briefcase swaying with the rhythm of her long legs, Sarah briskly walked the hallway with her usual, purposeful stride. Behind her, Sarah and Mitchell followed side by side. Beneath a fresco of peeling white paint, yellowed in the timid hall lights, Sarah walked hastily, glancing furtively at Mitchell, whose eyes casually took in both the cracked walls around the door frames and the alternating light and shadow on the back of the figure before them.

"For days, for weeks, for months, the prince would do nothing but crawl around under the table, without any clothes, eating scraps off the floor, and crowing like a rooster. The king didn’t know what to do. He brought in all the great advisers, scientists, philosophers, whomever he could think of, to help cure his son. He offered a great reward to anyone who could solve the problem. Nothing helped. The prince continued to act like a rooster."

Moments later, a hesitant knock, and her brother appeared in the dim light by the doorway. Her brother, two years younger than her, was short and sandy-haired, with a speckled, convivial face. He was holding a tan towel and full glass of water. Refracting his navy shirt in the faint light, the water looked like a glowing cobalt tube of energy.

Sarah's wi winked and the door slid open while they were still ten feet away. They entered a short hall which opened on the left into a kitchen and then on the right into a large living room. The floors of the apartment were scraped up old-style hardwood and the furniture covered in old faded and starched fabric of an indeterminate color and yellowed plastic. The cobwebbed black light fixtures were just bright enough to read by. A heady air of pizza, humid metal, and shampoo permeated the room.

There was a table in the middle of the living room, and a tall thin unshaven man with a kippah and a slightly shorter woman with a blue kerchief laced with gold were sharing a beer. They were resting their hands on the head of a pretty young girl between them who appeared to be asleep, and talking over her head.

Isn't that uncomfortable for her? Mitchell messaged.

That's Avital, their daughter. She's asleep, so I guess she doesn't mind, Sarah messaged back.

"One day a little Jew was passing through the town and heard the story of the prince. He went to the palace and presented himself before the king. 'I can cure your son, but you must let me do it in my own way and promise not to interfere' said the little Jew. Everyone looked at him and laughed. This little Jew thinks he can cure the prince, when all the great advisers, scientists, and philosophers couldn't? But the king was desperate, and was willing to let the little Jew try. 'After all, what can it hurt?' the king thought. The king promised the little Jew a great reward if he succeeded."

David's smile faltered a little when he saw her damp forehead. "Hey, how are you feeling?" he asked.

"Don't you start. You sound like Mom," Sarah answered, raising her arm towards the glass in David's hand.

"Heh. Oh, here," he said, handing the glass to her. Held in her hand, the water was once again clear liquid. It was cool and felt like honey to her hot throat. She placed the half full glass on the bedside table, avoiding the black puddle.

Others sat around the table; Mitchell already knew their names. The couple was Daniel and Marla. The blond, Swedish looking guy on Daniel's right was Chris. The two brothers on Marla’s right were Charlie and Alan. After the quiet of the hallway, conversation erupted around them like plane engines starting up.

"Hey! Hi! Hi, Sarah. Mitchell! Good to meet you. Same here. You're looking great. How are you feeling in Long Island? Where's uptown Sarah? Yeah, she's starting a class on Hassidut, remember? It goes for nine weeks. Aw, that sucks. Did they get your order right for once? I think they got it right for once. Really! That's a surprise. They never get it right! What are we playing?"

"The little Jew went straight to the room with the prince, took off all of his clothes, went right under the table, and began crowing like a rooster, just like the prince! The prince, who assumed that the little Jew was a rooster like himself, was very happy for company. All day long for a week the prince and the little Jew sat under the table without any clothes, eating scraps from the floor and crowing like roosters."

David pressed the towel onto the black surface of her bedside table, and then threw it onto the floor near the bed, moving it around with his foot. He turned to go, and then back as Sarah said, "Wait. Want to play a game? I can't sleep." She smiled up at him, weakly.

"Sure." David grabbed a chair from her desk and sat down on the opposite side of the bedside table. The black table surface changed under the water glass, displaying a black and white menu of different games. The water now looked like newsprint.

"Bring the TCP board. I don't want to have to lean forward so much." Sarah told him where to find it in the closet. Shutting off the table, David rummaged the game out of the closet. He pulled the board from the box with a clatter of plastic pieces falling onto the table and floor and plugged the board into the side of the table. David's face glowed in the soft white light that illuminated the three thin levels of clear plastic hexagons. He sorted the pegs into colors and gave her half of them.

Sarah apologized about the twists. At the suggestion of Daniel, the group started off with two light games.

While Mitchell played, he leaned back in his chair in the hot apartment. Sarah saw that his face wore that same damn ever-present grin. Mitchell messaged as often as he opened his mouth. While his eyes and attention gave due respect to all players in the group, they generally returned like a compass to his pretty classmate.

Meanwhile, the two Sarahs' eyes met frequently as they shared thoughts that required no NetMinds to convey.

"One morning the prince woke up to see his new friend wearing a pair of pants!

"'What are you doing wearing pants? Roosters don’t wear pants!' he said to his new friend. 'Aren’t you a rooster like me?'

"'Yes, I am a rooster,' answered the little Jew. 'Just because I wear pants doesn't stop me from being a rooster. Besides, it's cold on the floor. So I'm a rooster wearing pants, big deal!'

"The prince thought about this and decided that his new friend was right. He also decided to put on pants. For more days they crowed under the table, eating scraps."

Each of them chose their winning row of colors. David started placing pegs first, sliding a blue peg into a slot on the lower level on his side of the board. Sarah followed with a blue and a red into two of the middle slots on her side. As they played, the colors slid towards the center of the board, crossed, and changed from blues, reds, and yellows to greens, oranges, purples, and browns. The colored pegs dropped out of the ends of the board as new ones entered.

After some discussion, Sarah found herself seated opposite Mitchell for a game of Mugwump, together with Daniel and Marla. The others played something called Tigris and Euphrates, a game pronounced "not for beginners". Mitchell was unfazed at this pronouncement. Sarah was slightly disconcerted to be playing alone with Mitchell without her other self, having expected him to play, if not exclusively, then generally with the other Sarah. She gave him a friendly smile, but sent "Help!" to herself. Down on the other end of the table, Sarah stuck her tongue out at her.

Mitchell played with the graciousness of a prince and the cunning of a fox. His pieces always seemed to be positioned so that he collected what he needed, while giving away useless items in return. Each round he collected his disks, allocated what he needed for battle and kept the rest reserved for energizing. His battle allocations were prudent but sufficient. By the time the Mugwump appeared on the board, he had two thirds of the crystal cards he needed to win, twice as much as anyone else.

"One day the prince woke up in the morning to see his friend eating with a fork!

"'What are you doing eating with a fork? Roosters don’t eat with forks!' he said.

"'I am a rooster eating with a fork, so what?' answered his little friend. 'Just because I am a rooster doesn't mean I can't eat with a fork. And just because I eat with a fork doesn't make me any less of a rooster. I'd just like to see someone try to tell me that!'

"And so the price also began to eat with a fork."

David spun the middle level a third of the way around and added another blue piece. Sarah picked up a yellow and red piece, one in each hand, and moved them towards each other at eye level until they overlapped. They became orange.

"Are you ok?" David asked.

"Now it gets tricky," Sarah warned Mitchell, "since the Muwump always chases the leading player. You're playing very well. Are you sure you haven't played before?"

"Not that I know of. Can I get this microwaved?" he asked, holding out the last limp untouched slice of pizza.

"Sure. I'll get it," said Daniel. He took it and headed for the kitchen.

"Time went on. Eventually, the little Jew got the prince to wear a shirt, sit in a chair, and so on, until he was acting like a prince again. The king was overjoyed and paid the little Jew a handsome reward, for the prince was cured."

Sarah closed her eyes, and opened them again.

"Who am I, David?" she asked.

David's eyes narrowed. "What do you mean?"

"Thank god for the microwave," Mitchell remarked, smiling.

Avital raised her head, and recited:
We thank thee happy microwave
That speeds us on to early grave
By radiating vegetables
And other fine comestibles

And went back to sleep.

"That's part of a poem Avital wrote last year for school," said Marla, her hand lazily stroking Avital's straight brown hair. "You can Google the rest. We don't know whether to be proud of her or to drop her off somewhere in the Amazon rainforest to finish out her childhood."

"Marla doesn't know," added Daniel, returning with the pizza. "I voted for the woods ages ago." Eyes still closed, Avital's hand swung out, swatting her father.

"But was the prince really cured?

"The prince was acting like a prince, but he still thought he was a rooster. If you act like a prince, talk like a prince, and eat like a prince, does this make you a prince? What you do on the outside is good enough to fool everyone else, but can you fool yourself? Who are you, really?"

"... Never mind." Sarah paused looking at her yellow piece. After a moment, she spun the top board 180 degrees, slid the red piece into the top level, and said, "I've won." She lay back down on the bed.

"Let me see," David said. He uncovered her winning row and quickly found the corresponding colors on the board. "Hey, good game."

But Sarah was already asleep.

Keeping one step away from the Mugwump at all times, Mitchell won easily three turns later.

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