Sally sat on the park bench carefully peeling the crusts off her sandwich and tossing them to the pigeons. She kept trying to get some of the bread to the crippled one, but he never seemed to quite catch it in time, even when it landed right in front of him. When Sally realized that nearly half of her sandwich was gone, she sighed and ate the rest. Fortunately, it hadn't been anything she especially liked.
She finished the sandwich, emptied the crumbs from the paper bag, neatly folded the bag, and put it in her handbag to recycle. Then she settled down to eating her apple as a Zen meditation. It took too long, she had found, to eat all of her lunch that way, but she always tried with her fruit. She wasn't exactly certain that she was doing it right, but she did her best to experience the here-and-now appleness.
Just as she finished the apple, an old man sat down on the far end of the bench. They eyed each other from the corners of their eyes, trying, like most city people, not to be seen to be looking at each other. It wasn't just any old man. It was the tramp that haunted the park, muttering incomprehensible but calm comments. She'd have known with her eyes shut. Even though he sat downwind, his reek fought and overpowered the gentle breeze.
Sally tried to think charitable, positive thoughts. She wished she knew what to do. It seemed rude to just get up and leave. She broke her apple core into bits and tossed them to the pigeons. The crippled one still didn't get any.
"You oughtn't to feed them that," the rusty old voice croaked. "Grain is what they should have. Good fresh grain."
He pulled out a handful of grain from a pocket that Sally would have sworn was too ragged to hold anything and tossed the grain in a wide arc to the pigeons. The crippled one got as much as the rest, and Sally made a mental note to stop at a pet shop and buy wild bird seed on the way back to the office. Or would it be better, she wondered, to stop at a health food shop and get organic grain?
"You!" the old man said peremptorily. Sally jumped, then tried to pretend she hadn't. She looked at him, wide eyed and too startled to say anything. He was looking straight at her.
"You probably think I'm mad," he said calmly. She began to babble an incoherent protest, but he cut across her voice. "I'm the emperor of the Earth, I am. I've a crown made of moonlight and an army of ten thousand eagles to do my bidding." His forefinger touched a nothingness in the air above his head.
For a fleeting moment, Sally thought she could see a glimmer of light there, but she blinked and it disappeared. "It was an hallucination or a trick of the light", she thought. "It couldn't have been a vision."
"Aha!" he said, eyeing her piercingly. "You saw it. Thought you would."
He reached up again and carefully lifted the nothingness from his head. He held it in his two hands for a moment, his expression a curious compound of grief and joy. He stood up and advanced toward Sally. She froze like a frightened rabbit. He leaned over and gently placed the nothing crown on her head, stood back, smiled wryly, and collapsed in slow, lingering fall to the earth. As she watched, his clothes began to sink inward, and the gentle breeze blew smoke or perhaps a fine dust away from him. In a few moments, nothing was left to show that he had existed except for a few coins on the pavement. The pigeons pecked at them hopefully.
Sally looked upward. There were eagles perched everywhere in the trees. They flapped their wings at her, and screamed in salute. She gingerly touched the crown, which felt solid enough. She stood up with great care and began walking back to the office. The eagles soared around her, but of course no one seemed to notice them. It would be days yet before she really began to allow herself to think about this — what it meant, how it would change things. For now, she truly experienced a state of just being in the here-and-now, at least in a tense kind of way.
"Well," she thought with a detached, unnatural, and monumental calm, "mustn't grumble. I've been wanting to achieve inner stillness for long enough and here it is."
Copyright © 1995 by Jessica Macbeth. All rights reserved.
This fable originally appeared in Otherworld Arts, 1995