THE FUNERAL…ODYSSEUS…AND THE BEGGAR…AN APOCRYPHAL TALE BY BANKOLE JOHNSON

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Sometimes, things are not as they should be but as they seem.  The early morning sun glistened on the bonnet of Bertie’s car, reflected by snowflakes, into a seeming hegemony of crystals. It was as if small cracks were appearing on his windscreen, bursting like rain drops, and smearing the view in front of him. Messy, fussy, light indeed. From inside the car, these tiny bursts of light were like rainbows, each dancing to their own tune, never uniting, but producing an aura of seeming foreboding. But this was all light, no darkness, just different hues, playing their tricks to create a mood quite different from how Bertie was feeling that morning.  He looked down at his left-handed, wound, mechanical wrist watch – 7.00 am – must speed up to catch the first meeting early.   Bertie did not like to be late.  For him, 10 min late was all that was tolerable.  It was the cut-off between being just a little late and being careless.  Bertie’s motto was to be no more than 8 min late, 8 being a magical number that exuded calculation rather than tardiness.  Any later than that, and Bertie would have felt that the day had been lost. As for being early, in Bertie’s mind, that was just plain aggression. It was imposing on another person or being imposed on. Thrusting oneself into another’s personal space and time.  Time being the only elemental occurrence that could not be reversed.  Anyone burning time was simply hastening death, and that was, by any measure, not a productive thing to do – dying that is!  At Bertie’s age, he felt he was now in the countdown to the inevitable end.  Every moment had to count. So, not using time wisely was simply sacrilegious.  If time was to be squandered, it had to be on just one useful purpose, and with great generosity. For Bertie, there was no higher purpose than love of family and God.

 

Bertie was in a mood that called for “more”.  He knew that his day would be shaped by the events as they unraveled during the day.  A day with limited control.  He did not like days like this – too imprecise. Yet, Bertie resolved to meet the day like a blank sheet of cloth, waiting for the first impressions to yield its true purpose.  He reached down to the dashboard and turned up the volume to full blast. Bertie did not understand why anyone would listen to opera or classical music in the background – it defeated the point, and was perhaps a bit anti-intellectual. Opera halls went to great lengths to seal all the doors in the days before amplification to create the “right” sound and mood, so the audience could feel the music. Why neuter that? What was playing was one of Bertie’s favorite pieces – Maria Callas performing Geatano Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, come scritto (i.e., as scripted, in F major). So haunting, so moving, so poignant, so reminiscent of Scotland with its long history of inter-familial strife where he had gone to school.  And as life meets art, Geatano Donizetti’s own personal life was tragic. He had three children by marriage all of whom died, and just a year after his parent’s death – his wife also died. All this was too much, and he was taken ill with a serious mental illness in 1848, and died a shortly afterwards (see also: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gaetano_Donizetti).

 

Suddenly, it dawned on Bertie, he was in a rotten mood – perhaps more better termed as a  “rubbish” mood. He had to attend the funeral of a dear friend later that day. He dreaded funerals. All those people with mixed emotions, and no one having the right words.  All attendees, just like at weddings, seemed to him as people in some sort of role play, with all the customary gestures and conversations being almost, as if scripted.  Bertie did not like emotional dishonesty.  It was a corruption of the soul, and he had been reminded of this in an earlier encounter that year.  Bertie had received the news of the death of a famous scientist by email and had sent well wishes and a beautiful card to his widow.   A couple of days later he got a call – “Is that Doctor Bertie?” “Of course, yes” Bertie had replied.  The widow continued “I am Martha, Josh’s widow.  You obviously did not know my husband.  I am glad he is gone.  A horrible man.  Every chance he got, he humiliated me, stole work from his post docs and their innocence to boot, and…” Bertie interjected before the widow could continue with the colorful metaphors that she was obviously preparing to utter. “I am so sorry, I never knew”. Then, bang, she dropped the phone.  At first Bertie was cross. How could she? But then, he came to have peace with this encounter. Her phone call to him had perhaps done her a power of good, more so than the card and the nice words, more so than any flowers she may have received, and above all, she had been emotionally honest, which he appreciated. Good for her!

 

Bertie knew he had to get rid of his rubbish mood, even for his own sake. As his car pulled up to a stop sign, a gaunt looking man with a lopsided beard approached him. The expression on his face seemed to deepen the scar he had on his left cheek, and then there was the hobbling gait – not reminiscent of any neurological condition that Bertie was aware of.  He was a beggar but perhaps not a real one – just an opportunist. The beggar was carrying a placard that read “Hungry, need food. Have not had a meal in days. Please help!”.  Bertie turned down the music and lowered his window.  Perhaps a good deed would cheer him up, and hopefully, the beggar more so.  Bertie started a conversation with beggar – “I’m Bertie, who might you be sir?”  The beggar seemed startled and withdrew his outstretched hand – “I’m John” he said. Just then, Bertie remembered that his secretary had sent him a text message a few moments earlier to say his 7.30 am meeting was cancelled and he was now not due in until 9.15 am.  What a relief, he had been running 11 min late – truly a horrifying prospect! Bertie continued – “Well, hop in John and I’ll take you for breakfast – anywhere you like within the mile”.  “No” responded John who continued – “Capital N and O. I know your type. You just want to kidnap me. Then, perhaps thinking no one is looking for me, beat me, and discard me like trash. Just give me some money and be gone”.  Bertie knew he had to keep a calm demeanor. This could get serious, or even dangerous.  His first thought was why in the world would anyone think someone would stop in broad daylight, at a traffic stop with multiple cameras, and then proceed to kidnap a beggar on the street? After all, he had been friendly enough.  Bertie took a dollar from his center console, handed it to the John, and drove off.

 

Bertie arrived at the synagogue on time for the funeral.  He admired the simplicity of Jewish funerals, and this one was for a dear friend. He had not known him long, but he had been so loving and warm to Bertie, they could have been brothers.  At the service, Bertie heard the Jewish legend of the two brothers who wanted to give selflessly to the other, each believing his brother’s crop had been lost (https://www.ou.org/jewish_action/08/2013/whats-the-truth-about-the-legend-of-two-brothers-and-the-temple-mount/). It was a story of true love!

 

Bertie reflected. How could his gesture to John, the beggar, have been so badly misinterpreted? He had discounted any notion that there was something “wrong” with John, which would have been all too convenient really. Bertie, being somewhat of a scholar of antiquity, allowed his mind to wander just a bit.  He recalled that the idea of a beggar being offered food and then beaten had Hellenic roots. Indeed, in Greek mythology, the role of the beggar was somewhat odd. Beggars who were brought home were invited to beg for food from table to table, with much encouragement. It was as if the beggar was attending a feast all for himself, whereby he would gorge on food and drink. Eventually, some of the hosts would tire of the beggar, and he would be beaten by them. Ergo, the role of the beggar in that instance would be to take the abuse, as some form of catharsis for some of his hosts. At the same time, the role of the beggar  was to give thanks to those who had fed him, and heap opprobrium on those who had humiliated him (see also: http://baringtheaegis.blogspot.com/2012/08/the-peculiar-place-of-beggars-in.html). Perhaps, thought Bertie, there was a universal mysticism, or some kind of a mandala, or symbolism, that permeated the role of the beggar through cultures, from ancient times to the present time, which ended up in a feeding and beating cycle.  Also in mythology, the role of the beggar could be perceived as one of disguise. Indeed, Ulysses/Odysseus disguised himself as a beggar so his wife’s pursuers would not set upon him, and kill him (http://baringtheaegis.blogspot.com/2012/08/the-peculiar-place-of-beggars-in.html). So, even the Gods were aware of the potency and ritual of the beggars’ disguise. This chimeric role of the beggar was not to be taken lightly.  Bertie knew from his time at Oxford, that even the person doing the most mundane of tasks could be a scholar of no modest repute.  Indeed, one of the folk who helped collect the rubbish from his tiny apartment at Oxford had been an astrophysicist who had become disillusioned with it all and had sought what he considered a more fulfilled life – working with his hands. Bertie found all this daydream rather fascinating and amusing, albeit  puzzling.

 

Nevertheless, whatever the reason for John’s anger at Bertie, Bertie worked on the premise that the error was his and his alone!  And, such an error, to cause someone else to vent such spleen, was probably psychological in nature, and less to do with fables of antiquity. Then, Bertie got it! It really was quite simple. His offer to help John by the suggestion of food was not perceived by him as a demonstration of love but one of selfishness.  The mere act of “feeding” itself was controlling and robbed the recipient of freewill.  Money on the other hand allowed the recipient freewill, to do with it as he deemed fit. Bertie also found himself guilty of presumptive arrogance – that John would understand his motivation and act accordingly, as if without self-will, and that he would be fearless, and disregard his own personal safety to get into a car with a stranger. More so, living on the street, Bertie considered, must be the harshest of realty, and nothing could be taken for granted.  Bertie was disappointed in himself.

 

The next day, at about the same time, Bertie parked his car a block away from the traffic stop.  He got out of his car and walked towards John.  “Good Morning John” he said, and continued “I’m so sorry for yesterday. Must have been such a fright for you. Please forgive my arrogance”.  John’s face lit up, and he placed his hand on Bertie’s shoulder. “I’m sorry too” he said. “I could have been more polite.  I could have given you the benefit of the doubt and accepted your kindness. After all, we are all sons of Zeus. Please pardon my manners.  Six long years out here would do that to you”.  Did Bertie hear “Zeus” or was he just imagining it? Bertie looked into John’s eyes, now seemingly a decade younger looking, and smiled– “Fancy breakfast and a chat then John?”.  “I wouldn’t, have it any other way”, replied John. Now, this was going to be a better day for both men!

 

The Image above is: Ulysses Fighting the Beggar (1903); Credited to: Lovis Corinth (1858–1925). In the picture,  Odysseus returns to Ithaca disguised as a beggar.  The beggar, Arnaeus, stupidly picks a night with Odysseus and ends up on the floor, grasping for life. Further credit to: https://eclecticlight.co/2016/05/03/the-story-in-paintings-lovis-corinths-ariadne-on-naxos/