Once upon a distant time, in a land far far away, there was a great king.
He was a great conqueror, this king. From the time he came into his kingdom, while still in his teens, he led his armies against all the neighbouring kingdoms, and subdued them all, and moved further – much further.
The years rolled by, and the green shoots of spring gave way to the lushness of summer and the dreary promise of cold days as Autumn carpeted the ground with leaves, but still his armies moved outward, onward, subduing more and more kingdoms, overthrowing their kings, and using their treasuries to fund his further conquests.
In land after land, over burning deserts and in deep mountain valleys, his great horned helmet and huge bronze sword became known and feared as the harbinger of death and destruction. He came, he killed, he took what he needed, and then he moved on.
In time many, many years had passed, and still the earth shook to the passage of his armies, and from the ramparts of city after doomed city, sentries saw their bronze spears flash in the morning sun.
Suddenly, one day, when the king looked at his face in his mirror of polished bronze, he saw that his beard and hair were flecked with grey.
“I’m old,” he murmured to himself, numbed with shock. “I’m old.”
He had conquered the known world – and yet there were so many worlds still left to conquer!
He decided he could not let age creep on him and deny him his empire.
So he called all the wise men, both from his own nation and from the peoples he had conquered, and he put the question to them straight.
“Find me a way to live on through eternity.”
The wise men conferred and thought and finally said to the king, “Sire, we are none of us here immortal, so we cannot help you with this. We suggest, with all humility, that you ask someone who is immortal.”
“Who then is immortal?” asked the king.
“The wind,” said the wise men. “You should ask the wind in the Valley of Winds.”
It was a valley where the wind never rested, where it stripped the iron hard soil of all vegetation, where it screamed and shrieked like a soul in torment. It was a valley where nothing moved but the wind, where even the mountains that crowded around had been stripped down to the bare rock. It was the Valley of Winds.
And it was here, one summer night, when even the light from the moon seemed as if it was being ripped away by the wind, that the king came, alone and with his bronze sword in hand.
He stood upon a crag and called. “Here I am,” he said. “Will you answer a question?”
Instantly the wind dropped and a strange hush fell on the land.
“Ask,” said a voice, a voice comprising all the whisper of breezes and the howl of tornadoes, a voice that came from everywhere.
“I want to be immortal,” said the king. “Will you tell me how?”
There was a long pause.
“We are not immortal,” said the wind at last. “We are constantly born and as constantly die. We cannot answer this question. You must go to the Centre of the World. There is an Old Man there who can answer.”
“How can I go to the Centre of the World?”
The wind told him the way.
The king stood, then, in the middle of a vast chamber. All around flickered flames, red and orange and yellow. Fire grew out of the walls and up from the floor and hung from the roof, but the king in his bronze sword and his horned helmet was untouched.
On a high throne of obsidian in the centre of the chamber sat an old, old man, and his beard was as white as his clothes, and his eyes were the colour of flames.
“I know why you are here,” said the Old Man. “I cannot make you immortal; but if you so desire, I can take you to a place where you can make yourself immortal, if you should still so wish.”
Slowly, the flames shrunk away, it grew dark, and then little by little there was a blue sky overhead and grass underfoot, and the king was standing in sunlight, alone. He looked around. Just beside him was a shattered sundial, all around him great tumbled walls of marble, and in the middle distance a fountain in which no water flowed.
“It is here,” said a voice by his side, “that you may find immortality.”
The king turned, and beheld an old, old woman, who smiled at him with her toothless mouth.
“Who are you, Old Mother?” he asked.
“I am everything and I am nothing. Who I am is of no importance. You come seeking for immortality, and here you may find it – if you so desire.”
“I so desire.” The king paused, but she said nothing, just looked at him with her ancient lips smiling slightly. “What should I do, Old Mother?” he asked then.
“Go to that fountain,” she said, “and scoop up some of that water from it. Drink that water and you shall be immortal.”
The king walked over to the fountain. Despite its age and decrepitude, the water in the bottom was fresh and as clear as air. The king reached down and scooped up a handful. He raised it to his lips.
“Stop,” called the old woman. “Are you sure that you want to drink the water?”
“Yes,” replied the king, surprised. “Of course I am.”
“Then,” said the old woman, “before you drink it, may I ask why you want to be immortal?”
“Because there are worlds to conquer,” said the king, “and a single lifetime is too little time to do it in.” he raised his hand towards his mouth again.
“And when you have conquered those worlds,” said the old woman gently, “what then?”
The king paused. “Why…” he could not think of what to say. “Then I will rule them all.”
“Like you ruled your original kingdom?”
“Yes,” said the king. “As I ruled there.”
“You had a kingdom,” said the old woman. “I see. You want to rule the kingdom as you ruled. Were you happy with your kingdom?”
“Ah, but why not?” The old woman’s voice was gentle but compelling.
”Because there were other worlds to conquer.”
“And when there aren’t any other worlds to conquer? Will you be happy then?”
“I will rule. I will find a place in history.”
“But there will be no history without you. What will you do then?”
“Sooner or later there will be something to do.”
“Yes,” said the woman. “Listen to me. This water that you are about to drink is the water of Time. If you drink it you will be a part of Time and Time will be a part of you. it will sweep you into the future along with it. Drink it and there will be no turning back. Do you understand?”
“Yes,” said the king, and found his palm empty. He reached down for some more water.
“I don’t think you do,” said the old woman, smiling. “You will be a part of Time, but your Empire will not. And just as time sweeps all away, it will sweep your empire to dust. Just as the sun burns out and the universe and all in it dies, your empire, and all you know, everything you ever had, will die. Blue skies and singing birds, the touch of a woman’s body, the very power you are grasping for immortality to find – all this and more will pass away. Will you be willing to live like that – disembodied, because your body, too, shall pass? Will you be willing to live like that, for ever and ever and ever?”
The king listened, and thought. He looked at his hand and the scoop of water in his palm, as if he had never seen it before, and he turned his palm over and let the water fall back into the fountain. He turned and walked away, not looking back at the woman, walking away till the sky went dark and the wind howled and he was back in front of his rude campaign tent inside which the wise men till waited his return.
And, though he had the glimmer of tears in his eyes, the wise men saw that he was smiling.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2008