Conqueror of the World
Amira hadn’t had the nightmare since she was twenty. It hadn’t even crossed her mind in the two years she was living in the city. Now that she was travelling each weekend back to Waldmeer, the nightmare was occasionally returning. It was strange because nothing could be more charming than Waldmeer; going to sleep and hearing the distant sea, waking to the forest birds, walking to the rhythm of the breaking waves. Once, she had come face to face with the nightmare malevolence when she went to see her teacher, Erdo, in the forest. That occasion, also, marked the first time Amira spoke to Maria. It was the beginning of many years of instruction. These days, Maria was back in the Homeland and Amira had sole charge of the body they had cohabited. Some years were lost in the transition and Amira was now in her late thirties. Like all the secret ones who claim their inheritance, she seemed somewhat ageless.
Amira hadn’t seen Erdo since her weekly return to Waldmeer. Occasionally, she thought she saw him in the distance but it didn’t look exactly like him.
“Erdo is that you? What are you doing here?” said Amira one afternoon while coming out of the post office.
There before her was a smiling Erdo. He was dressed like one of the local dairy farmers, complete with muddy boots and felt hat. Erdo was somewhat of a shape shifter. It dawned on Amira that it had been Erdo those other times. She recalled that last week he looked like a forty-year-old business man, Armani suit and slicked back hair. Another time, he looked like a seventy-year-old, retired city dweller visiting his holiday house, less hair and plumper than the previous sleeker version. Yet, it was the same unmistakable Erdo-expression; a cross between amusement, exasperation, and compassion.
“I have come to see you,” said Erdo.
That’s a privilege, thought Amira. Erdo rarely leaves the forest. His students go to him.
“Let’s walk,” said Erdo. “Do you remember before your twenty-first birthday you met Alamgir?”
“Alamgir?” said Amira recalling no one of that name.
“Yes, Alamgir, the darkness from your nightmare that day in the Leleks.”
“Oh, is that its name?”
“Yes, it means conqueror of the world,” said Erdo.
“I hope it isn’t,” said Amira pulling a face.
“No, but it tries. It takes every opportunity it can. The few years you have been away from Waldmeer, it has been winning quite a bit,” said Erdo.
“Can’t you stop it?” said Amira.
“I am not allowed. The Advisors of the Homeland forbid interference with human choices. They say it is how humans learn and they must sleep in the bed they make until they make a different one.”
“I see,” said Amira.
“One day, everyone will realise that they don’t even need a bed,” laughed Erdo, “because sleep is a respite from a tiresome world made up of the problems created in the day.”
Come to think about it, Amira had never seen Erdo’s bed and, for that matter, never seen his house. He had always just appeared in the forest after she crossed the old, walking bridge and next to the peaceful pond with the black swans. She looked up at him to ask about his house but he was gone.
Thomas was tearing out pages from the local Waldmeer paper to use as kindling for his fireplace. He glanced at one of the pages and saw a small ad at the bottom of the page.
Healer available in Waldmeer on weekends. Call Amira.
The address given was Lucy and Lenny’s old house. Maria must have changed her name to Amira after her parents died, thought Thomas. I guess Amira is a more exotic name than Maria for a healer. He imagined a crystal ball and heavy, closed curtains. Healers were not exactly his style but he stuck the ad on his fridge.
That morning, Thomas had stopped his car at the end of his street outside Kathleen’s house. The bull dozers were there. The house was already half demolished. He sat transfixed as if the machine was methodically ripping out pieces of him with each assault on the house. He couldn’t bear to watch it but nor could he drive away.
“You better hurry up Mr. MacArthur or you’ll be late for your own staff meeting,” yelled one of his young teachers as he drove past on the way to Waldmeer State Secondary School. “I can run it if you like,” the teacher said boldly. Thomas waved him on with a forced laugh and started up his engine again. He knew by the time he drove home, the last trace of Kathleen would have vanished. It was painful. He didn’t want to go to school. He didn’t want to go home. He just wanted to crawl up in a little ball and die. How could he have let this happen? He didn’t even know how it happened.
Kathleen was tall and slim with shoulder length, slightly curly hair. Although she was always beautifully groomed, she never looked “groomed”. She just looked beautiful as if she woke up like that. Possibly she did because she rarely wore makeup. She had more than a touch of the wild woman in her. She was never happier than on the beach with the wind wreaking havoc with her curly locks. She didn’t hide from the sun and so her face had a healthy glow. She was willing to accommodate the lines in return for the benefits of being outside. Anyway, she owned her lines. They added to her appeal as if to say, “Don’t mess with me lightly. I am no insecure, young kitten.”
Kathleen’s husband was a prominent doctor in the city. He had an extensive career and much of his work was with the underprivileged. Although Kathleen had spent the bulk of her time raising children, running a busy home, and supporting her husband, she was no second fiddle. Accomplished in her own career before children, she was a constant source of wise advice to her husband and contributed greatly to his professional success. Although they had more than enough money for their needs, Kathleen and her husband refused to live in one of the cities wealthy suburbs. They did, however, allow themselves the luxury of a holiday house in Waldmeer. They bought it more than twenty years ago. It was a few houses away from Thomas and his wife.
Kathleen and her husband did not enjoy the company of Thomas’s wife. She was the opposite of Kathleen. Short, fine boned, and fragile. She complained about the sun and equally complained about the cold. She always seemed ill in some way, if not physically than emotionally. Whereas Kathleen’s attractiveness seemed to grow with age, the years were not kind to Thomas’s wife. Perhaps, she was not kind to the years. In retrospect, she even seemed old when they all first met and were less than forty.
Thomas’s wife often remarked, “Marriage is for life.” She was dismayed that, “These days, people seem to have no loyalty or perseverance.”
Kathleen thought, People who have the most to gain out of a relationship are the ones who say, “Marriage is for life no matter what.” They say it as if they are so virtuous when really they are warning their partner that if they leave, they will be held accountable. It was enough to keep a man like Thomas in check. Thomas worried what many people thought, not just his wife. There was no question of leaving.
As tedious as it was to tolerate Thomas’s wife, it was easy to love Thomas. He was their first friend in Waldmeer and made sure all the other locals accepted and welcomed them. He kept an eye on their house when they were in the city. He was a genuine and good person devoted to his school and his community.
Thomas couldn’t help but secretly fall in love with Kathleen. He probably fell for her the first time they met but he would never allow himself such thoughts. Besides, he was as much in awe of Kathleen’s marriage as he was of her. It was so honest and productive. Kathleen and her husband were true friends and survived the ups and downs of life and marriage with the grace of two well balanced, focused, and altogether lovely people.
Thomas’s wife often seemed on the verge of a life and death sickness. Eventually, she got one that killed her. Several years later, Kathleen’s husband, who had almost never been ill, died from an unforeseen medical issue. It was only natural for Thomas and Kathleen to continue their friendship.
“You are punching above your weight,” joked a friend to Thomas as he and Kathleen walked into the restaurant for dinner. Thomas knew he was. He was so thrilled to be in a relationship with Kathleen. When Thomas first asked Kathleen, she was hesitant. However, seeing his need, she decided to accept the offer.
Although Thomas was thrilled about the relationship, almost no one else in Waldmeer was. They were used to Thomas being with an ineffectual person, not someone with as much dignity and intelligence as Kathleen. It seemed to them that they had much to lose by Kathleen’s influence over Thomas and little to gain. Alamgir whispered nasty thoughts into their ears and they heeded them. They could not hear the other voice which told them that Kathleen had their best interest at heart.
The first outright enemy was a young teacher at school with short skirts but big ambition. She was a very attractive woman in her early thirties. She was also highly manipulative and easily had Thomas wrapped around her little finger. Over a few years, she had wooed, flirted, and seduced her way into the top spot of his favourites. Although Thomas told himself that the young teacher was a great asset to the school, everyone could see that he had allowed himself to be hoodwinked by a ladder-climbing filly. Of course, Kathleen realised this instantly and tried to help Thomas rectify the situation by putting the girl back in her rightful place. Her eyes glued on the prize of easy power, the girl would have none of it. Thomas, she could handle. Kathleen, she could not. Kathleen had to go. It was a matter of survival.
The young teacher lied her way through the teachers, school administrators, and townsfolk. Her malice was only equalled by her ambition. One may think it strange that people would believe her lies. People choose to believe even the most irrational of lies if it suits them. They knew the girl was a liar but they were intimidated by Kathleen. They preferred the girl’s seductive foolishness to Kathleen’s self-assurance and courage. Alamgir was delighted with the choice.
The school and townsfolk refused to invite Kathleen to events as Thomas’s partner, even though everyone else was invited. Thomas said nothing. They would walk past Thomas and Kathleen on the street, paying their respects to Thomas and giving Kathleen a sour smile, if anything at all. Thomas said nothing. Thomas should have fired the girl but he wouldn’t. He did nothing. In the end, it was the girl who had all the firepower.
One evening, Thomas couldn’t sleep. He was sitting on his balcony listening to the night sounds wondering what to do about the situation which had been escalating for the last two years. Just as he got up to go back to bed and wrestle with sleep, he looked over to Kathleen’s house. He could see the furthest point of her back garden from his balcony. He was startled to see a flame. Maybe, it’s a light flickering, he thought. It was a fire and quickly gaining momentum. Oh no, Kathleen’s back shed is on fire. He ran barefoot up the street to her house while dialling the fire brigade.
“Kathleen, wake up. There’s a fire in your backyard,” yelled Thomas as he banged on her front door. The Waldmeer Fire Department didn’t often have emergencies and so in a relatively short time, for a department unused to emergencies, they were there with hoses and put out the fire.
“I’m sorry, Kathleen,” said the head of the department, “but this was no accident. Someone poured petrol on your shed and lit it deliberately.”
Kathleen and Thomas knew who it was. The girl had many young, male fans in Waldmeer, any number of whom could have carried out a favour in the hope of a return favour.
That was the end for Kathleen. She knew that to continue would end in her own destruction. Thomas either couldn’t or wouldn’t stop it. She told herself that he couldn’t but, somewhere in her heart, she wondered if it was that he wouldn’t. The next morning, she went to the real estate agent and asked him to put her beautiful holiday home up for sale.
“I think it’s for the best,” said the real estate agent in a kind, resigned manner. “You have a wonderful life in the city. You don’t need us. It is we who could have benefited from you.”
In the end, few were Kathleen’s friends. It was only those who were confident enough to stand before her and not feel intimidated, afraid, jealous or inadequate. Few indeed. The young teacher remained at Waldmeer Secondary School. Thomas told himself that it was best to keep the peace and not cause any more trouble. Alamgir laughed.
Conqueror of Nothing
Kathleen’s brother was a Zen Buddhist monk. He lived in the hills outside of the city and helped to run a retreat centre. Now that Kathleen no longer had a house in Waldmeer, she visited him weekly to have contact with nature and solitude. His monk name was Aishi meaning compassionate service. He was true to his name.
“They were so damn mean,” said Kathleen to her brother as they walked along the winding path of the hermitage.
After listening for some time Aishi said, “What is it that you want? An apology?”
“Apologies are cheap,’ said Kathleen.
“What is it then?”
Kathleen stopped walking and looked at her brother. “It’s Thomas. I want to know that I didn’t waste two years of my life.”
Aishi smiled. He had the serenity of one who lives as part of the ongoing, never-failing transformations of nature.
Thomas decided to ring the number on the ad stuck to his fridge. It’s worth a try, he thought not knowing what else to do.
“I suppose you have heard about Kathleen and me,” said Thomas somewhat awkwardly in Amira’s lounge room.
“We are a small town,” said Amira by way of affirmation.
“Don’t believe everything you hear,” said Thomas. His words rang hollow.
“I do not believe everything I hear,” said Amira in a tone which surprised Thomas. “She was a gift to you. I hope you looked after her.”
“Of course I did,” said Thomas not sure of the direction this was going. Thomas attempted to tell the story in more detail and Amira was silent. Eventually, Thomas blurted out, “I just want her back.”
“Kathleen is not coming back,” said Amira. “Why would she? You were willing to take everything she had, which was a lot, and then let the wolves eat her so long as they didn’t eat you.”
Thomas was shocked by Amira’s bluntness and what she was implying. “Are you suggesting that I wanted to hurt her?”
“I am saying that you wanted to use her for your own advantage without paying the price for that.”
“What sort of person would do that?” said Thomas not waiting for the answer. He stood up to leave. “Thank you for your assistance but I won’t be requiring your services anymore,” he said as if he was firing an out-of-line employee.
Amira knew she was being tough on him but she had to be. This was his chance to make progress. If not, he would slip into the next few decades with decline and loneliness as his companions. Thomas gave Amira her money and abruptly left.
Two weeks later, he was back. “I have been through every emotion,” he said wearily. “Mostly anger. I was angry that you implied I could be so selfish and gutless.” Amira remained quiet as she was not sure where he was up to in his healing. “It took me a week to stop being furious with you. Then I started to feel very sad and, worse than that, guilty. I still feel overwhelmed with guilt and I will probably never be able to get rid of it.”
“Don’t get bogged down in the guilt,” said Amira. “It is as egotistical as the anger. Have you not yet realised how fragile and brutal the ego is? No one is safe from its betrayals. It helps to know that it is not just you who does such things. This is the normal functioning of everyone’s ego. It will always choose what it perceives as in its best interest for the cheapest price. It may be as blatant as short skirts and lies. It may be more sophisticated and hidden behind “kind” words. But it all comes from the same place of either using people to get what we want or trying to eliminate people who get in our way.”
“I don’t have anything else but school and Waldmeer,” said Thomas by way of explanation. “The last thing I wanted to do was hurt Kathleen but I can’t afford to lose the only thing I have.”
“If that were true then your choice would be understandable,” said Amira. “However, what you are holding onto is quite worthless. You must already suspect this or you would not have come to me and certainly would not have returned after the first bruising visit.” They both laughed. “Although Kathleen was a gift to you, learning this is a greater gift. Reach for it and you will be far from disappointed.”
As Amira waved to Thomas from the front gate, she looked down to the beach at the bottom of the street. The sunlight was playing on the water. “You are not conqueror of the world, Alamgir,” said Amira. “You are conqueror of nothing.”