The Wonderful Potion that Calls One’s Name
by James L. Secor
Even the moon all too soon sets and spreads the shadow of mountains across the once highlighted landscape and life is lost in the ensuring darkness. Often enough, the blazing dawn breaks too late and the enlightening sun reveals desiccation and the taut stretched skin of a once exuberant life. Is this chance masquerading, bells ringing and tambourine popping and jingling, as fate? For fate is more easily understood as a power than chance which, in its transiency, is without form, direction or, most importantly, meaning. Or is the desiccation due to a man-made impetuosity? Reason is a thing we all need in order to cope with living. Reason is predictable as the moon’s setting and the sun’s rising. And then there is the occasional eclipse to throw a pall over the world of man, the world humanity has made in his image.
Hundreds of years of war gives life a shallow arid bowl to live in, sifting through the fine dust of civilization for a gleam of hope, for Pandora’s box cannot be far off, certainly not beyond reach and certainly no longer full of the plagues and infestations that so beset humankind upon its first opening. War being the carrier of the diseases. War and fear that rise up out of even the basest ground to strangle like noxious weeds the flowers in their innocence. Yet, after the horror of wars’ devastations, life again blooms, shoots and tendrils spreading the plenteous nature of humanity to the far corners of the world. But as smiles soon fade and prophets come with dire predictions, so the gaiety of reprieve is eclipsed.
The higher the monkey climbs, the more he shows his tail and people can rely on others about as much as a monkey who falls from a tree.
* * *
Only one ferry ran from the mainland to Rún Eyll and back again. A day trip on an old tug that had seen better days and received none of the benefits of the new world. Creaky, slow and reliable, the Obygo Ferry plied the calm waters delivering little in the way of goods and returning with barrels of olives and olive oil, purportedly the best in the land, albeit Rún Eyll was all but forgot in the merchants’ rush for enrichment.
Aside from the richness of the olive business, Rún Eyll was considered a mysterious island inhabited by ghosts and ghouls and other creatures wailing and crying out in the night to freeze the blood of the most inveterate trader. The people, too, were considered weird and all but ignorant, for they spoke little and grunted often. Stories abounded nevertheless that more normal, that is more human, inhabitants abided there. But since they were never encountered, the stories were deemed without merit, silly folktales. If you only see short, bowlegged and bespectacled Japanese with black hair, buck teeth and of superior intellect, all Japanese are thus so. It stands to reason.
The leaves of the forested hills of Rún Eyll were faded yellow and reds falling to cover the ground in crisp brown suggesting to Mr. Jada the evanescence of life, filling his heart with a vague feeling of grief. Mr. Jada, a man of 50 or so, sighed at the drab and empty life on Rún Eyll and felt the pull of irrepressible yearnings unfulfilled. He was a man of means with no outlet to enjoyment. As such, his riches and the making of more held no fascination for him in a backward island. Overwhelmed by the bleakness of this life, he set out for the Capital. Appropriately disposing of his assets, with light step Mr. Jada, along with his house servant of many years, boarded the Obygo Ferry on the way to his dreams of leisure and pleasure as he’d been told were for the asking–for the man with the means and will to satisfaction–in the Capital. Tasty as the peaches on the lower limbs, true succulence resides higher up in the canopy.
Mr. Jada bought a little but appropriate dwelling in a moderately fashionable district in which to begin his new life. A great adventure opened up before him, a roaring good time of luxury all aglitter with rainbows of color only ever dreamed about on dusty, dusky Rún Eyll. The stories told by the merchants and ferrymen were true after all.
Mr. Jada was ready to dive into the exuberant life of the Capital, throwing off all chains of restraint and good judgment that so bound him upon the little island. Now! Now, Mr. Jada was in paradise, no longer blind to temptation and no longer bound by tradition from enjoying himself in the name of making money that, in the end, was no more than a dragon’s treasure–where could the dragon spend it? Sitting on money did not hatch more and even if it did was it not worthless and useless on the floor of a cave beneath the heaving abdomen of a great beast?
Even so, Mr. Jada did not comport himself like a popinjay during the day, strutting about the city calling attention to himself in order to satisfy a vanity he did not have. During the day, Mr. Jada could be found lounging before his house, sometimes sleeping, sometimes waking. His hard working neighbors called him “The Man of Dreams.” Everyday life was so filled with duty and obligation and the rush to make a living that no one bothered with Mr. Jada except to tell themselves stories of his indolence and rustic origins. Secretly, in their deep hearts, Mr. Jada’s neighbors envied him. No one wished to spend all their days working and yet never getting ahead, never rising beyond the essentials of living, with neither money nor energy for more than a frugal existence while the Capital blossomed fireworks and raucous laughter nightly heedless of all care. So that even sitting about enjoying the weather daily as Mr. Jada did was a mouth-watering dream of paradise.
At night, like an owl emerging from his barn hideaway, Mr. Jada ventured out into the gaiety of the pleasure quarter losing himself amidst the flashing lights and bright ringing laughter. People clothed in colors ranging from eye-opening splendor to tasteless gaud roiled around him in waves, catching him up on whirlpools of partying and flinging him back out into the street to repeat the same dizzying experience. There seemed no end to it.
Yet Mr. Jada was no nearer the realization of his dreams than he was on the ferry crossing. He could not break through the translucent curtain that kept him from the most prestigious tea houses and restaurants, he could not gain access to the best seats in the theatre and he was barred from the more exquisite women of the night, those who shone brightly and chose their companions as suited them. Mr. Jada, for all his money, was a foreigner. He did not know the culture of pleasure, the language and teasings that were appropriately the keys to accessing heaven. Nor had Mr. Jada found any friends likely to teach him the much flaunted ways of extravagance and dissipation, a form of forgetfulness of great worth, albeit as fleeting as a shooting star. As soon as you note it, it is gone.
* * *
One fine night, sitting at a gaming table in the common room of a certain tea house, Mr. Jada fell under the supercilious gaze of a young rakehell. This splendidly dressed peacock, known to all and sundry for his loose ways and lack of judiciousness, was yet known simply as Maurice. Maurice had no stable employment, if he ever had any, for there was no memory of his ever having worked a day in his life. The spoiled son of a prosperous cloth merchant and money lender, Maurice came into an enviable inheritance when his father suddenly died. Even the most robust fortune deemed to last a lifetime can be squandered in loose and care-free living and giving no heed to the businesses until they begin to fail and he is made a modestly good price to take them off his shoulders. An unfettered life is like the caged canary set loose that flies higher and higher until there is no oxygen to keep its frantic heart beating and then plummets to the ground. Thoughtlessness, too, is a prominent characteristic of humanity. Brain size is of no consequence.
By the time Maurice’s fortune ran short and threatened to thrust him into the direst poverty, a place so low that life rubbed roughly against the soft, calf skin caused Maurice to shudder–at this precipitous overhanging to hell, Maurice’s well-made acquaintances, sons all of prominent, prosperous families, favored him with their support, fearful of losing their meal ticket to the best that life had to offer. Friendship at such heights is an expendable thing. Often enough a cumbrous thing in the world of utilitarian pleasure-seeking.
Maurice fancied himself the possessor of an acute sense for ferreting out the moneyed fool. To be honest, Maurice had never yet been steered wrong. A veritable bloodhound. So it was that Maurice insinuated himself to the left shoulder of his prey, Mr. Jada. Mr. Jada did not appear to care whether he won or lost, enthralled in the playing of the game. Yet, Mr. Jada quit the tables nightly with more money than he began, as Maurice gathered from the gambling regulars. Looking over Mr. Jada’s left shoulder, Maurice occasionally approvingly touched the old man as he bided his time, for sooner or later Maurice divined he would be of use to this foolish old man.
Mr. Jada collected his winnings and passed out into the glare of the Capital’s night life that he so longed to be an integral part of. For all his will and determination, for the loss of home and the throwing around of his riches, Mr. Jada could only wander through the crowded and lively streets vicariously living his dream. He sighed as his senses were over-run by the ebullience of the nigh-nonpareil. An itch eluding his spider-like groping fingers.
At this point, Maurice caught up to Mr. Jada and put a hand on his shoulder. Mr. Jada turned to face Maurice.
“I could not help taking notice of you at the gaming table. You do enjoy gambling, don’t you?”
“Why yes, I do. But I am limited to such second rate places, so it palls.”
“And why is that? You certainly have the money.”
“That is true. But I have moved to the Capital from. . .the provinces. I do not know the ins and outs and have no friends who might help me along.”
“I can solve that problem.”
“I am quite well-known in these pleasure quarters. With a snap of my fingers I can get you the answer to your dreams.”
“This is too good to be true!”
“I know. I know. I am your humble servant and, I hope and pray, your friend.”
With such ease does the snake slither into the hen house.
Pleasure, the least hateful form of dejection, is a habit, an addiction more potent and insidious than sugar, alcohol or drugs. Pleasure sinks into your skin and without noticeable effect besots you until all you know is stimulation, stimulation, stimulation. Elation to leave you blind drunk. All the easier to obtain such inebriation because Mr. Jada wanted to experience the Capital Dream before he died. There was no reason why others should wreak the wonders of civilization and not him. To live such a life, to pursue happiness was everyone’s right. A life of drudgery, a life of trials and tribulations is a wasted life. It is spirit abuse. With pleasure and satisfaction at the tip of one’s fingers, there is no flight or fight syndrome. High blood pressure, heart attack and sleep apnea are also silent killers. The only pleasure here is for the family members who are relieved that you are gone. Mr. Jada had no family. Nor no friends, if truth be told. But what is truth in the face of gaining the gates of paradise?
Friendship is, after all, a ship built big enough for two in fair weather but only one in foul.
Maurice was the one-eyed man in the forest of Mr. Jada’s blindness and he, bell-weather like, led Mr. Jada a willy-nilly trail through the gambling houses, exquisite tea houses, public baths with washers and masseuses and into the best brothels. Like a happy dog, Mr. Jada followed Maurice and his friends as they ran after one treat or another. Discrimination was thrown out the window. Besides backstage visits with the leading actors, Maurice managed a meeting–one night only–with the Queen of the Courtesans who, because she repulsed Mr. Jada thereafter, left the old man writhing in fits of unrequited lust. Mr. Jada was beginning to discover happiness.
* * *
Into even the most enchanting fairy tale, reality–or a sort of reality–must inevitably intrude. Reality being no more than that left in the filter if one assays a phantom, Mr. Jada could not discern the shiv upon insertion. But he was an open and jolly old fool, as far as that goes. Not all fools are gallows-bound when their usefulness is gone, however, and horror comes wearing a fair mask more often than a grisly one. Pretty words are the most acceptable form of hypocrisy and Maurice had an unparalleled silver tongue. So charming could he be, he could wrangle a smile from Medusa and live to tell about it.
One fine evening, Maurice and his five friends arrived early at Mr. Jada’s house before sallying forth for another night of excess and exhaustion. Maurice had a little favor to ask. To ask weighed heavily on his heart, he said, but he knew Mr. Jada was an equable man and a good friend of unequaled means. Of course, any niggling guilt Mr. Jada might harbor because of the wondrous life he, Maurice, had opened up could not be discounted. Guilt was perhaps too strong a world. Debt might be better–and more conducive to the business at hand.
Maurice explained a rather complicated series of events that led to the unwonted and unwarranted financial distress in which his friends now found themselves. Without too much obsequiousness, Maurice, wondered, on the off-chance, if Mr. Jada could possibly bail them out. Of course, it need not be mentioned that these five friends were rich and not at all in need. They were, however, greedy and devoted to the god Mammon, a faith in which the making of money and more money was the only form of worship. These five also had a hot tip on high interest investment but did not want to lighten their own purses in the venture. Their fine-feathered friend Maurice had let them know that Mr. Jada possessed an enormous fortune and was a soft touch.
Mr. Jada did not think long on the request as he had adapted himself, like a harlot, to the urges of the moment. This was an attitude Mr. Jada found refreshingly different, thinking back on his rustic frugality on Rún Eyll where a wayward, capricious thought was a criminal act and shut away in some dark dungeon corner of the brain. Mr. Jada had discovered since coming to the Capital and immersing himself in the various sensuous delights, with Maurice’s help, what he had denied himself for so long. This discovery of the unabated joy of living would, he felt, extend his life some years past his expectancy. Mr. Jada had more money than he could ever use and had a knack for making more–mostly at the gaming tables–so that offering the loans was of no consequence. The more dandy friends along on the night’s dissipations, the better, though in this looking glass world the desmaine of the fop is a passing show. But in the world we have made for ourselves to live in, we lie to ourselves with great gusto to hide the pain.
So Mr. Jada agreed–but he had one condition.
“I am lending you each $5,000. Since this money is part of the fortune that is to last me to the end of my days, you will return to me each and every month enough to pay for my personal expenses with a bonus to be determined at the end of the year. If, before the loan is fully repaid, and I should–heaven forbid–quit this world, I have no one to whom the balance owed should be paid and I therefore charge you for giving me memorial services every year thereafter for the repose of my soul.”
The five friends deferentially agreed, for a dead man is no longer cognizant of this world and they did not believe in vengeful spirits. Mr. Jada would never know whether his wishes were honored or not. Spending money on the dead is money used to carpet the bottom of a bird cage.
Mr. Jada went into the back of his house and returned with the money. Maurice raised a well-manicured eyebrow. In such manner, Mr. Jada believed he would be protected against robbery as so much of his fortune was now elsewhere. His needs were taken care of and he could, at any time, call in the loan. He felt good about himself.
Despite the fun and games of their carousings through the pleasure district, Maurice became rather droll as he began obsessing about Mr. Jada’s money. The old man had so much that it must have rained down from heaven in great gouts of magnanimity. Mr. Jada was no more deserving of this benison than he, Maurice, so why did Mr. Jada benefit and not Maurice? This was patently unfair. In fact, Mr. Jada was less deserving than Maurice, according to Maurice–and the old fool was not giving any of this gold mine to Maurice in spite of all he had done for him, though Mr. Jada did indeed pay Maurice’s way now and then. Maurice nevertheless nursed a wound until it festered. His vanity was hurt. So it was that a young will-o-wisp who had ingratiated himself in order to polish up his self-image grew to cherish evil thoughts and turn himself into the worst sort of rogue: a traitor. A man with a travelling ethics commission.
Maurice became so obsessed with Mr. Jada’s stash that avarice flooded over him filling his veins with a bubbling poison that burned for fulfillment. The ship of despite with Maurice aboard set sail for a limitless horizon from which there was no return.
So, one evening at the height of pleasure when Mr. Jada was drunk to satiation, Maurice slipped some of his blood lust poison into the old fool’s wine. Mr. Jada did not feel its effects until he returned home where his friends abandoned him to his house servant and loudly wended their ways home.
The following morning, Mr. Jada was unable to move his body and lay abed mumbling incoherently. Mr. Jada’s house servant, fearing the worst, rushed off to the doctor and to the police. He swore out a statement as to the people with whom his master had spent the night, carousing until the wee hours of the morning.
“They are his constant companions,” he said.
The old servant, the police and the doctor returned to the house to find Mr. Jada foaming pink-tinged spittle. In no time at all, Mr. Jada passed into a coma. The doctor spent some time examining the unresponsive Mr. Jada and shook his head. He sent the old servant to fetch two more doctors of his acquaintance for a second opinion. Upon further examination, the doctors stood around Mr. Jada’s death-like form nodding in unison over their diagnosis.
“He is not long for this world, I’m afraid.”
“This is the effect of some poison, I think.”
“This is a case of willful murder, then. Go and fetch the six,” said the policeman to the servant.
The six friends, dressed to the hilt and suspecting nothing, gathered round Mr. Jada’s death bed and the policeman began interrogating them, believing that the guilty, come face-to-face with his crime, would break down and confess. However, success was not to be had, for Maurice was a master at deception, at hiding behind a well-made and appealing mask. Maurice was so detached and dissociated it was not he who spoke but the becoming lips of the mask that mouthed the appropriate lies. Maurice had abrogated his skin to a smooth carapace in order to save his bones, for he had no soul. Maurice had convinced himself that he was not at all responsible. Someone else had done this terrible thing to his friend. Maurice’s nights would never be the same, he lamented.
“There is little we can do at this point but wait for the inevitable,” said the first doctor.
“I know of an amazing potion we might try. There is nothing lost if it does not work.”
“This miracle is. . .”
“No miracle. This is a potion whose ingredients have been handed down from the ancients of China.”
“Oh pooh!” exclaimed Maurice. “Everybody knows those old remedies are worthless. You’ll poison him.”
“He is already poisoned, young sir.”
Maurice pulled himself more erect. He liked being called sir.
“This potion is made from the tinder of old drums dissolved in pomegranate juice, boiled and left to steep with a certain number of laurel leaves in the brew. It is written in the ancient treatises on medicine that once in the stomach of a poisoned man, he will speak the name of his poisoner.”
“Do you have this potion here?”
“As chance would have it. When the servant told me he suspected poison, I brought a vial with me just in case.”
“Shall we then?”
The potion was poured into Mr. Jada’s slack mouth and his nose held closed to insure the natural function of swallowing would be activated.
The gathered waited expectantly, one with growing anxiety.
A collective sigh of disappointment and relief floated about the near-corpse. But as the attendees to Mr. Jada’s last moments moved toward the door, a long, low moan issued from the near death lips.
Everyone stopped dead in their tracks.
“Maurice. . .Maurice. . .you fool. . .”
And then Mr. Jada died.
Maurice was immediately clapped in irons and carried off to jail, sobbing and protesting his innocence every step of the way.
“It was not me! It was another!”
A man who has so earnestly pursued pleasure must ever come face to face with the misfortune of overtaking that life. The greedy and avaricious are seeking the water level both day and night without rest, leaving the landscape littered with empty wells. In the end, there is not a drop to drink.
this was written in the style of old Chinese tales
(c) James L. Secor, 2016