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The child was exuberant.
He was free. Free. Unshackled from his disapproving parents. Released from that relationship built on gain and pride. Through this, he was also liberated from his step siblings, and so henceforth need not again bother with their bickering or competition. The child was finally his own man, sort of, standing proudly on his own spindly young legs. The road ahead was shadowed by uncertainty and doubt. But glittering hope also lined each step of the way. Hope as promising as the shine of a new crescent moon. Hope as beckoning as the glow of the evening night sky.
The child got to work. To survive, to thrive, so much needed to be attended to. Where to stay, how to stay, whom to do work for and when and where. In order to prevent the mistakes of his disassociated parents, mistakes birthed from ego and disregard, the child took exceeding efforts to never avoid the worst and to always confront the most harrowing head-on. Not once did he shy from a stand-off. Not once did he shrink from a fight too; conversely, he found the euphoria of a skirmish invigorating. This hardiness, this unfaltering resilience, did not immediately pay off. But reward in the long run it ultimately did. The child earned respect from those he fought his way to stand amongst. He earned the nods and praises of compatriots and seniors alike. He was now truly his own fellow. His own champion. His own best defender too.
The child grew up. He became a proud teenager, strong both physically and mentally. With the onset of adolescence came a new set of challenges. Foremost now was not the question of how to survive, but which was the best way to survive and to live. Friends, from near and far, started gathering at the teen’s nifty habitat with suggestions. Some came with gifts. Other came with demands for gifts. Quite a few also came with gifts that demanded better gifts in return. Not unfamiliar with the workings of the world, he was after all from a dysfunctional family, the teen was always cordial and careful with whoever he spoke with. “Yes, I love to be friends,” was his usual opening declaration. “But only as friends who are equals. I am no longer anybody’s kid brother.” “Of course not!” Those friends cried. “We have always admired you. Your accomplishments humble us! If only, if only! We grew up as shrewd as you!”
To which the teen would smile and offer his handshake. He offered many such handshakes over the new few years, as he segued into adulthood, into manhood. And then he started to smile less often. He started to find lesser and lesser reason to break into a grin. Most days, he was irritable and annoyed throughout his waking hours.
This happened not because of his friends. Some had left, embittered by jealousy and envy, but no relationships ever became so irredeemable it upset him too much. It was also not because of his step siblings, who had gone from being antagonistic, to encouraging, to disapproving again, and finally back to their usual bickering selves. Instead, it was health issues. The insidious takeover of his constitution. Little aches and pains that feel so insignificant in their infancy, but slam with the might of a bulldozer upon maturity. More and more so, the man found himself helpless in the face of any outbreak, and by the time he swallowed enough of his masculine pride to acknowledge something needs to be done, too many of those bumps and aches have worsened into cysts that would never heal. “What must I do?” The man went to his closest friends. “I don’t want to live life this way! I don’t want to be a slave to this maladies.”
“We warned you about them,” his friends said. “We warned you. But you refused to heed our advice.”
“You said nothing!”
“We warned you. But you turned a deaf ear. You dashed when we told you not to sprint. You leaped when we told you to wait. A lot of times, you were too eager to demonstrate you are better than us.”
“Rubbish! That was not advice. You were jealous of my greatness! You were interfering with my life!”
“If that’s the case, why ask us now?”
Infuriated, the man turned to his house Servants. He had many by then, almost a hundred. He needed that many to maintain the vast estate he had built.
“They are jealous of your accomplishments, master. They seek to overtake you,” the servants droned in unison. “Throw a party! Build a monument. Remind them you are still their superior!”
“That doesn’t make sense. And it doesn’t get rid of this pain in my back,” the man grumbled.
“Throw a party! Have a celebration! You will be too overjoyed to remember the pain!”
And so the man, middle age by now, threw a party. And because one needs to at least sweep the floors, and paint the walls, before hosting such an event, all seemed fine for a while. But with the ebbing of the jubilation, the cracking of the speedily applied paint, the old problems soon returned. The cysts swelled up again. The aches spread and deepened. Worse, many began to speak of the man in less than flattering terms. Rumour was, even some of his devoted servants were looking at him in a different light.
“What must I do?” He held another conference with his servants. “What must I do to preserve my reputation? To preserve my accomplishments?”
“We will remove those who speak ill of you, my lord,” the servants replied. “We will not allow any man or woman, or animal, to continue sullying your great name.”
“When did you …” The man was puzzled. “When did you start addressing me as your lord?”
“Why, we have been doing so for years!” The servants exclaimed. “Do you not deserve this glorious title? Do you not rule us mightily from this great citadel of yours, cognisant of everything that happens before your feet?”
The accolades confused the man. What was happening? What has happened? While he struggled to comprehend, an elderly servant, a wizened, ugly one, stepped forth from the horde assembled and bowed respectfully. At the sight of this crinkled face, the man cringed in distaste. Vaguely, he remembered assigning this ugly one to scrubbing the toilets in the lowest Basement. It was something about keeping him out of sight. Something about not upsetting the whole household.
“Who … are you?” The man couldn’t remember the unsightly one’s name, and he was unsure he wanted to. “What … are you?”
“Why, I’m you of course, my lord,” the terrible looking one answered cheerfully. “Do you not recognise me? I am your will and your conscience. I am also your father and your son. Rejoice, for all is not lost, my lord. Your problems can be resolved, simply by facing and acknowledging me.”
“What rubbish are you talking about?” The man snapped. “How could you be me? You’re the one I banished to the basement! To keep you out of sight! I have not stepped into the basement for years.”
“But it’s still your basement, is it not?” the servant reminded, still cheerful. “Are you not the lord of this citadel?”
The man could withstand no more. Screaming hysterically, he demanded for the horrible one to be removed and that was swiftly done. The enigmatic words, however, already affected him, and so later that evening, the man found himself quite unable to sleep. Wandering to his mirror, he gazed in bewilderment as a child looked back at him. A whimsical looking child. So pensive, yet also so haughty in the way he stood with folded arms. Fascinated, the man reached for this mirage. The child retreated a step and clucked his tongue.
“I need to be you again,” the man, now very old, whispered.
“I don’t want to be you,” the child grimaced.
“I do not want to end up like him. I do not want to scrub toilets in the basement. Tell me. Tell me please. How could I be great again? How do I return to being a child? How do I return to being you?”
The child did not answer. Because, how could a reflection possibly have any answer for anything? And so the man, and the image he pined for, stared at each other for many hours. From that night onwards, the man found it impossible to rest or sleep again. This insomnia persisted no matter what he tried. None of his servants or remaining friends could do anything about it.
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