It was the land of Kafka and the city of cats- Prague. Not like Istanbul, of course, or ancient Egypt, where cats were worshipped, or even Norway, where all the cats were extraordinarily fluffed out butterballs, but just a city overrun with starving, feral, stray cats. And one of them, a strikingly vicious looking specimen with scruffy black fur and a grumpy expression, now blocked his way.
Tuco tried to side-step it, making a wide loop on the cobblestoned path, but the cat was having none of it. It yawned, stretched out its body to an impossible length and then with a look of supreme dignity, cut directly across his path and disappeared into the thick hedge on the right.
“Aaah…shit!” he murmured to himself, for a black cat crossing your path could not possibly be an auspicious start to a dream holiday.
Tuco was on his way to the Strahov Library, a long-time dream of his. He had been fascinated with the library ever since he saw its pictures on Instagram six years ago. Being, as he was, an artistic type, he had immediately promised himself a trip to this library as a reward for finishing his first novel. And now, here he was. Of course, he had not quite finished writing it yet, but at least he was more than half way there. He was also very committed to the craft, even though he did not get enough time to write regularly. Life just kept getting in the way. But now he hoped that this visit would give him some fresh inspiration, a final push that would enable him to finally finish his novel and get on his way to literary superstardom.
And then, and only then, would he post a selfie taken at the library across all his social media handles. Only a picture taken at Strahov Library, and specifically in the Teologický sál could properly communicate the authorial weight he must radiate after he got published.
But where the hell was the entrance to the library? He hadn’t seen any tourists around, and he had put it down to the recent heat wave that made it unbearable to be out during the afternoon hours. Well, not everyone could be as dedicated to literature, art and culture as he was, of course. Even his wife had refused to accompany him today, citing the heat and his inability to take good pictures of her as the reason. Apparently, she took great pictures of him, while he made a mess of every pic he clicked of her. How could he explain to her, that he was no longer the young university student, that ten long years had passed since they first started dating, and that he had grown older over this period. Perhaps his hands shook when taking her pictures now.
Well, good riddance! Now he could wander as he pleased and spend as much time in the library as he wanted. He was finally in front of the library building, but the big door, which he remembered from numerous pictures and videos appeared to be shut and there was no one around to ask for directions.
Perhaps the library was shut today? That would certainly explain the absence of anyone around. He looked around for some shade and decided to try his luck at the monastery which apparently also had a brewery. But here, too, the main door was closed. As he went around the building, he found a narrow wicket gate built into the wall. Pasted next to it on the wall was a big sheet of paper with arrows and the word ‘ENTER’ written in red.
Well, what the hell, he might as well get inside and see what attraction this was. At least there would be some shade inside, he thought to himself.
He was right, for it was dark and cool inside the stone building. A narrow passageway led into a large, well-lit stone room. Tuco stood on the threshold, peering in and saw a room that seemed to have been hit by a hurricane. There were clothes everywhere, covering what seemed to be a bed as well as a chair. A small, square table in the middle of the room was piled high with books and magazines and there were other books on some cheap looking shelves that lined the wall. A baby crawled on the bare, stone floor, while a thin, serious, almost sad-looking young man sat at a desk and scribbled away on a notebook. From somewhere further inside came the sound of running water, and the whole place gave the impression of chaos, scholarship and a genteel poverty. Even the desk on which the young man was writing was overflowing with single sheets of paper, books, magazines, receipts, a wallet and small boxes of what looked like medicine.
His coming had not been noticed, and the young man was utterly absorbed in his work. So Tuco stood silently on the sidelines and stared, for something about the young man and the whole scene unfolding before him was fascinating. Presently, as he watched, the baby started crying and the young man tore himself away from his writing. Picking up the baby, he sat down on the bed, crumpling under himself the assorted bric-a-brac of clothes and bed linen that lay on top of it. Then, retrieving a child’s feeding bottle from somewhere under the pile of clothes, he proceeded to feed and talk to the baby. It was several moments before the baby finally dozed off and the young scholar gingerly stepped away towards the table and started writing again.
Tuco wondered what the young man was writing about. For some reason he did not dare announce himself or even look away, as he watched everything with almost bated breath. The man seemed to be in a world of his own, and was obviously working on something important. There were a couple of disturbances, such as when someone called out something from the interiors of the building and the young man hollered something back in a language that Tuco could not recognise. There was also a phone call, that too on a landline phone that Tuco had not noticed earlier. However, each time the young man dealt with the disturbance quickly and then immediately went back to his writing.
A lot of time had passed and Tuco could feel one of his feet going to sleep. Should he announce himself and ask the young man for directions or should he just back away quietly and go back? This did, after all, seem to be a very private scene, even though something about it seemed both intriguing and very off to him. He decided to find out who this man was.
He was just mulling over how to introduce himself, when the young man looked up towards him and broke into a smile.
“Tuco, you’re here…”
“Whaaa….?” thought Tuco to himself. “How does he know my name?”
“Of course I know your name Tuco. I gave it to you,” The man answered, almost on cue, “You know, I spend a lot of time naming my characters.”
“What? Can he read my thoughts now? What’s going on?”
“Of course, I can read your thoughts Tuco…don’t you see, I am your creator and you are my character.”
“Your…… character?” Tuco had finally found his voice.
“Yes, I am an author and you are a character I created, Tuco. And now that you are here… Hmmmm!” The young man now stopped talking entirely and started scrutinizing him very closely. It seemed as if he was making up his mind about something. Tuco stood dumbfounded, too stunned to react.
Finally, the young man shook his head, frowned and headed back towards his chair. “You need to go, Tuco,” he said almost offhandedly as he began to write again.
“Go?,” thought Tuco. “Go where?”
The young man looked up from his writing. He had a kind smile on his face “Your part in this story is over, Tuco. I just needed to see you fully to make up my mind.” He went back to his writing, and then added, as an afterthought “The story will continue, of course.”
A vague sense of panic and horror suddenly took hold. Tuco’s head was reeling- he needed to sit down somewhere. The young man was scribbling away furiously now. Tuco felt his heart beating faster and faster, he broke into a cold sweat as scenes from his childhood came flooding back. Here he was as three-year-old, playing in his mother’s lap, surrounded by warmth and comfort. He was feeling happy, calm and extremely drowsy as a warm, comforting unconsciousness seemed to beckon. One by one his senses were slipping away, swallowed by a void. Till all that remained was nothingness upon nothingness, utter annihilation……….
Luke woke up in a panic. His heart was beating like a hammer, and he just knew that he had been gnashing his teeth in his sleep. Every cell in his body was screaming silently this feeling of utter horror and the desperate desire to cling on to life.
As he came to his senses, he could make out the comforting familiarity of his little room. The world was still dark and peaceful. He closed his eyes and took deep, measured, slow breaths as reality slowly took hold. It was just a dream. He was Luke, not Tuco, and he hadn’t died. Yet why had it all seemed so real? That part about his wife, his desire to live and that feeling of terror and powerlessness. And yet he wasn’t even married, and had never been to Prague.
How could a dream terrorize him so? As he turned on his side, his hand went to his pillow and he realised that it was wet. He must have been crying in his sleep. Why had it affected him so much? He knew what the problem was, of course. It was the Philosophy course he was taking this semester. All that endless hair splitting about the nature of reality and the grand purpose and meaning of life had been putting these weird thoughts in his head lately.
I mean, why did anyone even need a grand purpose to life? What if life was just like that, you visit a library and then you die- Poof. And you don’t even finish your novel. He thought about the parable of the butterfly that he had once read. In it- a young Chinese philosopher went to sleep and dreamt that he was a butterfly. He saw himself flying through the air, flitting from flower to flower, doing what butterflies do. Then he woke up and saw that in reality he was Zhong Lee, a young Chinese student, and not a butterfly. He was disturbed by the dream, however, and when he went to his master and told him about his dream, the wise master replied that he really could not tell him anything concrete, for how could his master know if his pupil was a man dreaming about being a butterfly or a butterfly now dreaming of being a man.
Or something like that. This story always amused and intrigued him. Indeed, he thought to himself, how could he know if he was Luke dreaming about being Tuco or if he was Tuco dreaming about being Luke. But then Tuco (if he was Tuco) was dead, so he couldn’t possibly be dreaming about being Luke or anything else. So clearly, he was Luke, a student at the University of Agder, who was having all these weird dreams as a result of taking a philosophy class.
To hell with it all, he thought to himself; to hell with reality and the meaning of life, I need to get some sleep. So, he closed his eyes and tried very hard to go back to sleep. Of course, the result of this intense effort was that he just laid awake in bed till he could finally see faint slivers of light pouring in through the sides of the curtain. It was almost 8 AM by the time he finally found some sleep.
It wasn’t until later in the day, at his part-time job that he thought again about philosophy and the meaning of life. Luke had a part-time job working for Foodora, and as he went about his work, picking up food from restaurants and delivering it to hungry clients, he thought about the meaning of his life. What if the purpose of his life was just this- to deliver food to often hungry people? Well, it wasn’t a particularly bad one, but was that all there was to his life?
This and other such thoughts were running through his brain as he was on his way back home after an exceptionally busy shift. It was the damn philosophy class that had tunnelled its way into his sub-conscious again. As he was thinking all this, he saw the signpost for ‘Bernt Holmes Vei’ up ahead, and chuckled reflexively. Every time he saw the name of this road, he wondered if the road would just have embers and ashes piled up in a row instead of the neat line of whitewashed Norwegian houses.
He would pass by this road every day on his way to work. And, every day, he would see the sign, laugh to himself and make a mental note to google and find out who this inauspiciously named Bernt Holmes really was. But he would always forget about it by the time he got back home (usually through a different route) after a tiring shift. So, even after one and a half years of seeing this sign, he still did not know who the road was named after.
But, luckily, today he was passing this road on his way back, so it was on the top of his mind when he got back home. And the first thing he did was to switch on his laptop and google Bernt Holmes. A Wikipedia link came up as the top result and he clicked on it. Finally, he would know who Bernt Holmes was!
As he started reading the article, his head suddenly started reeling. Luke could feel his heart beating faster and faster and he broke into a cold sweat as scenes from his childhood came flooding back. A warm, comforting unconsciousness beckoned, and his senses seemed to be slipping away, swallowed by a void. Till all that remained was nothingness upon nothingness, utter annihilation……….
The huge screen exploded into stars and points, as Neo looked at it and grinned. His avatar had just achieved the journey’s goal and he could now move up one level, on to the next quest. He yawned, stretched and decided to get some food, for he had been playing for six hours straight.
The ball lay in middle of the garden for eons of time. Millions of microscopic lifeforms lived out their incredibly short lifespans on its surface. The scientists of their community peered into the vastness beyond using their microscopic telescopes and tried to decipher the laws that governed the Universe. They set down precise theories of how their sphere had come into being, intricate formulae governing the nature of the physical world and continuously scanned the vast space stretching beyond their planet.
One day, little Vikram, who was the youngest child of a house that lay across the street from the garden, found it. He had lost this football many months ago, and now immediately kicked it across the gardens and towards his house.
As their world spun this way and that, all the microscopic scientists went wild with joy for they were witnessing an anomaly, an impossibility that negated all their carefully studied conceptions about the Universe. It was time for them to come up with new theories.
Meanwhile, Vikram was delirious with joy as he ran after his football. And inside his little body bloomed a million different universes.