Lessons From Stories: Zorba The Greek

Zorba The Greek is a novel written by Nikos Kazantzakis. It was first published in 1946 and it is essentially an interaction between the narrator, who has learned about life through books, and Alexis Zorba, who has learned about life through actual experience. In the course of the story, which centers around re-opening a mine in Crete, the large practical philosophical questions such as: how to live life, what is happiness, what it means to be free, how to reduce anxiety, how to be yourself and many more are discussed.

Lessons:

On Living: Live in the moment

“Look, one day I had gone to a little village. An old grandfather of ninety was busy planting an almond tree. ‘What, grandad!’ I exclaimed. ‘Planting an almond tree?’ And he, bent as he was, turned round and said: ‘My son, I carry on as if I should never die.’ I replied: ‘And I carry on as if I was going to die any minute.’ Which of us was right, boss?”

[…]

I kept silent. Two equally steep and bold paths may lead to the same peak. To act as if death did not exist, or to act thinking every minute of death, is perhaps the same thing. But when Zorba asked me the question, I did not know.

[…]

“Everything in good time. In front of us now is the pilaff; let our minds become pilaff. Tomorrow the lignite will be in front of us; our minds must become lignite! No half-measures, you know.”

Two paths that lead to the same peak, meaning either way what is being taught is to live in the moment. Whether you achieve this clarity by reminding yourself of death every day or you reach it by forgetting that death even exists, it doesn’t matter.

Pilaff now. Lignite tomorrow. Whatever you have to focus on in the present moment is life. Everything outside of it doesn’t matter. In this manner, life is also simplified.

“A fresh road, and fresh plans!” he cried. “I’ve’ stopped thinking all the time of what happened yesterday. And stopped asking myself what’s going to happen tomorrow. What’s happening today, this minute, that’s what I care about. I say: ‘What are you doing at this moment, Zorba?’ ‘I’m sleeping.’ ‘Well, sleep well.’ ‘What are you doing at this moment, Zorba?’ ‘I’m working.’ ‘Well, work well.’ ‘What are you doing at this moment, Zorba?’ ‘I’m kissing a woman.’ ‘Well, kiss her well, Zorba! And forget all the rest while you’re doing it; there’s nothing else on earth, only you and her! Get on with it!'”

On Finding Happiness:

“This is true happiness: to have no ambition and to work like a horse as if you had every ambition. To live far from men, not to need them and yet to love them. To take part in the Christmas festivities and, after eating and drinking well, to escape on your own far from all the snares, to have the stars above, the land to your left and the sea to your right: and to realize of a sudden that, in your heart, life has accomplished its final miracle: it has become a fairy tale.”

To leave the rat race behind. To get off the track of materialistic pleasure, which forever seeks the new thing that will bring short term gratification. Instead, lose yourself in what you are tasked with, enjoy the company of your neighbor, and build a refuge within yourself that you can always go to.

We stayed silent by the brazier until far into the night. I felt once more how simple and frugal a thing is happiness: a glass of wine, a roast chestnut, a wretched little brazier, the sound of the sea. Nothing else. And all that is required to feel that here and now is happiness is a simple, frugal heart.

Happiness is a constant search. You have to seek out the small, minute, frugal things like eating roasted chestnuts and find happiness in that fleeting moment. If you tie your happiness to grand moments like a promotion or buying something expensive or achieving a long term goal then in your entire life you will only have a handful of happy moments because those grand experiences are few and far between. While searching for happiness in the every day occasions can result in a handful of happy moments daily.

On Living: Be Passionate In The Moment

“You can’t understand, boss!” he said, shrugging his shoulders. “I told you I had been in every trade. Once I was a potter. I was made about that craft. D’you realize what it means to take a lump of mud and make what you will out of it? Ffrr! You turn the wheel and the mud whirls round, as if it were possessed while you stand over it and say: I’m going to make a jug, I’m going to make a plate, I’m going to make a lamp and the devils knows what more! That’s what you might call being a man: freedom!”

Live with passion. Whatever you are presently doing, you should do it with your entire existence. The aim is to achieve a flow-like state where a whole day passes but to you it feels like it has only been a few minutes. That’s when you know that time was spent wisely.

“Throwing yourself headlong into your work, into wine, and love, and never being afraid of either God or devil…That’s what youth is!”

On Living: Be Yourself

“As for you boss,” he said, “I think you do your level best to turn what you eat into God. But you can’t quite manage it, and that torments you. the same thing’s happening to you as happened to the crow.”

“What happened to the crow, Zorba?”

“Well, you see, he used to walk respectably, properly–well, like a crow. But one day he got it into his head to try and strut about like a pigeon. And from that time on the poor fellow couldn’t for the life of him recall his own way of walking. He was all mixed up, don’t you see? He just hobbled about.”

Much of life can be uncertain which causes us to seek out other people to follow and be like them. Although this isn’t inherently a bad thing, you still have to be careful not to abandon your own individuality in order to gain comfort. It’s easy to do and mimic what other people say. It’s much more difficult to trust your own way of walking. You don’t want to spend so much time being like someone else that you forget who you are.

How To Live And How Not To:

“Life is trouble,” Zorba continued. “Death, no. To live—do you know what that means? To undo your belt and look for trouble.”

I still said nothing. I knew Zorba was right, I knew it, but I did not dare. My life had got on the wrong track, and my contact with men had become now a mere soliloquy. I had fallen so low that, if I had to choose between falling in love with a woman and reading a book about love, I should have chosen the book.

The truth is that by being active you open yourself up to trouble. By acting you have to face the possibility of failure, disappointment and even humiliation. However, the passive way of life is no way to live. You are merely an observer when you live passively. And passivity isn’t a habit you want to master for like all habits, it will be difficult to break.

On Freedom:

That’s what liberty is, I thought. To have a passion, to amass pieces of gold and suddenly to conquer one’s passion and throw the treasure to the four winds.

Free yourself from one passion to be dominated by another and nobler one. But is not that, too, a form of slavery? To sacrifice oneself to an idea, to a race, to God? Or does it mean that the higher the model the longer the tether of our slavery? Then we can enjoy ourselves and frolic in a more spacious arena and die without having come to the end of the tether. Is that, then, what we call liberty?

To try and be better than who you were yesterday is the beacon of light that we need to move towards. We have to overcome ourselves, constantly, to overcome lowly passions which are purely driven by pleasure in order to get the opportunity to achieve higher passions which enrich our souls and our lives. These high passions have to be tethered to our souls rather than to a concept or idea made up by others. That’s the only way to escape slavery.

On Living: Simplify Life and Thus Reduce Anxiety

That man has not been to school, I thought, and his brain has not been perverted. He has had all manner of experience; his mind is open and his heart has grown bigger, without his losing one ounce of his primitive boldness. All the problems which we find so complicated or insoluble he cuts through as if with a sword, like Alexander the Great cutting the Gordian knot. It is difficult for him to miss his aim, because his two feet are held firmly planted on the ground but the weight of his whole body. African savages worship the serpent because its whole body touches the ground and it must, therefore, know all the earth’s secrets. It knows them with its belly, with its tail, with its head. It is always in contact or mingled with the Mother. The same is true of Zorba. We educated people are just empty-headed birds of the air.

The universe for Zorba, as for the first men on earth, was a weight, intense vision; the stars glided over him, the sea broke against his temples. He lived the earth, water, the animals and God, without the distorting intervention of reason.

Often stress and anxieties are man-made. We overthink and over-complicate our lives. We give in too much to the mind and don’t use our bodies to feel.

“Boss, everything’s simple in this world. How many times must I tell you? So don’t go and complicate things!”

Our mind gets overwhelmed easily especially in our current information age. In reality, what we actually need is simple, the basics, and if you listen to your body and feel life it’s easy to realize this.

Many are the joys of this world—women, fruit, ideas. But to cleave that sea (Aegean Sea) in the gentle autumnal season, murmuring the name of each islet, is to my mind the joy most apt to transport the heart of man into paradise.

On Living: You Only Have One Life

Once more there sounded within me, together with the cranes’ cry, the terrible warning that there is only one life for all men, that there is no other, and that all that can be enjoyed must be enjoyed here. In eternity no other chance will be given to us.

A mind hearing this pitiless warning–a warning which, at the same time, is so compassionate–would decide to conquer its weakness and meanness, its laziness and vain hopes and cling with all its power to every second which flies away forever.

Great examples come to your mind and you see clearly that you are a lost soul, your life is being frittered away on petty pleasures and pains and trifling talk.

Simply put, you have one life and it can go quickly so don’t waste it chasing petty pleasures and pains and trifling talk.

I was a long time getting to sleep. My life is wasted, I thought. If only I could take a cloth and wipe out all I have learnt, all I have seen and heard, and go to Zorba’s school and start the great, the real alphabet! What a different road I would choose. I should keep my five senses perfectly trained, and my whole body, too, so that it would enjoy and understand. I should learn to run, to wrestle, to swim, to ride horses, to row, to drive a car, to fire a rifle. I should fill my soul with flesh. I should fill my flesh with soul. In fact, I should reconcile at last within me the two eternal antagonists.

Great Lines/Quotes:

“As far as I can see, your lordship’s never been hungry, never killed, never stolen, never committed adultery. What ever can you know of the world? You’ve go an innocent’s brain and you skins never even felt the sun.”

 

Zorba sees everything every day as if for the first time.

 

At the far end of the room a ladder or a few wooden steps lead up to the raised platform, where there is a trestle bed and, above it, the holy icons with their lamps. The house appears empty, but it contains everything needful, so few in reality are the true necessities of man.

 

“Ha! Man is a wild beast,” Zorba said suddenly, overexcited with his singing. “Leave your books alone. Aren’t you ashamed? Man is a wild beast, and wild beasts don’t read.”

 

“All those who actually live the mysteries of life haven’t the time to write, and all those who have the time don’t live them! D’you see?”

 

When everything goes wrong, what a joy to test your soul and see if it has endurance and courage! An invisible and all powerful enemy—some call him God, others the Devil, seems to rush upon us to destroy us; but we are not destroyed.

 

I walked rapidly along the beach, talking with the invisible enemy. I cried: “You won’t get into my soul! I shan’t open the door to you! You won’t put my fire out; you won’t tup me over!”

 

Short Story: Times They Are A-Changin’

I was ten years old when I finally went fishing with my grandpa. He had promised the fishing trip for months. Before we left the house mom handed me a black Nike baseball cap that once belonged to my dad. She said it was going to be sunny and to keep my face out of the sunlight. She asked my grandpa if he had enough sunscreen. He showed her the bottle in his bag. Alongside the sunscreen, there were a couple bottles of water, a few small packets of chips, a four-pack of Jameson, an orange juice and two sandwiches which he had made that morning. Mine was without pickles and olives.

During the drive, I kept on looking at my grandpa. I was trying to sit like him, to look at where he was looking, to match the same expressionless features that were carved into his face. My dad passed away when I was young so I never really knew him. Grandpa became the man I wanted to be like. Every now and then he would glance in the rearview mirror as he switched lanes and I would look too but all I could see where the tips of the fishing poles sticking out in the back of the pick-up. They seemed naked and out of place.

We fished at lake Issac. We rented a small two-seater boat and rowed to the middle of the lake. There was a heart carved on the seat with the initial A + D inside of the heart. I traced it with my nail. I sat in between my grandpas’ legs and rowed or at least I thought I did. I went through the motions but my grandpa did the pushing and pulling. Once we were far away from the shore, somewhere in the middle of the lake, grandpa stopped rowing. We cast our lines and then waited. Grandpa said to be patient. He said that’s what fishing was all about.

“We learn to be patient and to sit still,” he said. “We learn to feel the motion. To go along with the movement of the water.”

  The breeze picked up and the mist from the water occasionally fell on my sunscreen covered arms and legs. We listened to Bob Dylan songs on the portable radio that my grandpa had brought along.

If your time to you

Is worth savin’

Then you better start swimmin’

Or you’ll sink like a stone

“How are you doing in school?” He asked.

“I got an A in history.”

“In Maths?”

I looked at the oblique dancing light of the sun in the water.

“B-.”

He tapped the brim of my hat. I pushed my hat back up.

“You need to study more.”

“Yessir.”

He tossed me a bag of chips and he took one for himself and we both ate listening to Dylan’s raspy voice, watching the fishing lines slowly move up and down with the rhythm of the water and feeling the warm touch of the sun. Every now and then my grandpa would hum parts of Dylan’s tunes and mimic the raspiness as he sang a few words out loud.

The sun was passed it’s prime for the day and fell on my back. There weren’t any clouds and the sky, in a way, mirrored the lake water. Clear, blue, endless and daunting.

“Mom said you were sick,”

“Did she?”

“Are you?”

He crumpled the empty chips bag and stuffed it into his bag pack.

“I am.”

“Are you going to be okay?”

“I don’t think so. Not this time.”

The sunlight seemed only to fall on me. Grandpa smiled.

“Want some orange juice?”

I fell asleep sometime in the afternoon. By the time I woke up, grandpa was rowing back to the shore with an ice bucket full of fishes. He said that I snore a lot for a kid my size. I said I didn’t snore. He smiled. Bob kept on singing about war, death, and change and I ate my sandwich and washed it down with the last sip or two of the orange juice.

Since that day I’ve had this reoccurring dream. I feel like this trip was the catalyst for my perpetual dream because in my dream, I am rowing in a little two-seater boat just like my grandpa’s and the wood is chipped and scratched in the same places and it even has the same love initials carved into it. I am rowing in the middle of an ocean and I can’t see land at all, no birds, no fishes, the water is perfectly still except for the bit I disturb with my push and pull. The only other thing that is a constant in my dream is the sun. No clouds to block it’s touch, no hat to cover me. It was me, the boat, the oars, the water, and the sun. Those are the only qualities that are the same. My attire changes every now and then. No more shorts and stained Mickey Mouse t-shirts, they are replaced by buttons ups and khaki pants. Sometimes the empty seat is occupied. But what never changes is that I am there, the sun is there, the oars are there, the boat is there and all of us are floating on an ocean, even the sun seems to float on an upside-down ocean.

The first time I had this dream my grandpa was there. His foot tapped along to his own humming and he hummed Desolation Road. The oars peacefully dipped in and out of the water. I wanted to say something but no sound came from my lips. We just stared at one another as I rowed nowhere but there was no sense of worry. The light from the rising sun fell upon my grandpa’s back, he shielded its rays from me and he had a smile on his face as he glowed from the light. His crystal blue eyes teared up but I felt like the one who was crying. After he passed I stopped dreaming about him. It was like he had fulfilled some rite or ritual by showing me how to row and now he could move on.

When I graduated high school I took a year off from studying. In that year I went to Vietnam and Thailand. I spent a week visiting my cousins in Australia and I had plans of going to Japan but those fell through. I had the same dream often that year. But for some reason it was unclear like I had been staring at the same spot for too long and the surroundings became blurry. I could clearly see my hands on the oars but the oars themselves were out of focus. The water was lighter. The horizon foggy but there was no fog. The sun seemed to be a distant star from another galaxy.

Once that year was over, I started university. The dream started to return to its clarity again.

I once mentioned my dream to this girl I was seeing. We were laying in bed, her head on my chest, we were coming down from both a literal high and a spiritual one, having just made love.

“You ever feel like you’re just floating around, not knowing where you’re headed?”

“How much did you smoke?” She laughed.

I brushed away her hair so I could look at the side of her face.

“I mean in general like in life or something.”

“I’ve got a pretty good idea about that.”

“You do?”

“I’ve already started sending applications for my summer internship. Once I get that, along with my grades and volunteering hours I’ll be able to attend Columbia for my graduate program.”

“That simple?”

“I don’t think it’s simple. It’s going to take a lot of work but I’ll get there.”

We listened to some Beatles and then I told her about my dream. 

“That’s a pretty dream,” she said.

“You think so?”

“Sure. We should go fishing sometime.”

“Just pretty?”

“What else could it be?”

“I don’t know.”

She raised her head and looked at me.

“Do you want to talk about it some more?”

I shook my head.

“Not if you don’t find it significant.”

“Is it significant?”

“You tell me.”

She reached over to my bedside table for some smokes. She took a cigarette out and I helped her light it. She smoked and passed it to me.

“It’s kinda silly,” she said.

“What’s silly about it?”

“I don’t know. You just rowed around in some water by yourself. Doesn’t it seem silly?”

I handed her the smoke.

“It doesn’t to me. I think there must be some meaning to it if I keep dreaming about it.”

“Maybe.”

“You don’t understand.”

“Explain it to me.” She let me finish the cigarette.

“I can’t explain it. I don’t know. It’s not silly, that’s all I know.”

“Okay, it’s not.”

I had told her about my dream because she had been in the boat last time I dreamt it. She was wearing a sundress that revealed her slim ankles and a cream coloured straw hat which she wore on our first date. She needed that hat as the sun was above us. She was humming Yesterday. I suppose that’s why I told her about the dream. That song came on as we lay in each others arms and she began to hum it, I felt the vibrations from her throat in my chest, in my heart.

I probably dreamt of that boat more than twenty times but less than thirty and each time she was there, even after she passed away in a car accident. Only after I graduated did I find myself all alone on the boat. The sun blinding me without her being there to shield it.

There were other women in my life but none managed to come aboard. I waited for a couple, especially my wife, I thought surely she would meet me there but she never came.

I once brought that up during our couples therapy session. My wife, still my girlfriend then or was she my fiancé? All I know for sure was that she was pregnant with our first child and the stress of the unexpected kid coupled with our work lives and perhaps her hormonal imbalances resulted in us seeking therapy as advised by my wife’s friend.

The therapist asked for a lot of money in exchange for simple questions that you may find in a fortune cookie. What’s bothering you? Is there something you wish to say but haven’t been able to put into words? Have you tried seeing things from her perspective?

One time we were asked to come alone so it was me and this therapist who seemed too young and too pretty to know about problems let alone have ways to fix them. When I think about a therapist I think of sages, old wise men, hell, even Gandalf or some wizard who can snap their fingers and make all that is wrong, right again.

The therapist asked if there was something I wanted to tell her now that my soon to be wife wasn’t in the room. I shook my head. This was her idea and I had nothing to say.

“Nothing at all?” She asked.

“Nada.”

“Just try and think of anything. Even something as small as the way she says hello or perhaps the way she sits.”

I thought for a moment.

“She never came on the boat,” I said.

“Excuse me?”

I told the therapist about the dream. The sun was descending. It no longer blinded me and yet I could not help but feel even blinder, lost, alone rowing endlessly watching the water swell as if something was about to break the surface, break the calm and I wanted, I needed, someone there with me.

The therapist normally had this rhythm about her when she talked as if she were a calculator and one had to punch an equation in and the answer appeared instantly. The only difference being that instead of answers she spat out more questions. But now, at least for a moment, an error sign flashed as if I had plugged in an incomputable number.

When she finally spoke she asked if I dreamt of this often.

“When I was in college I kept track of the dream for a year and in that year I dreamt of it a hundred and sixty-five times.”

“The same dream?”

“For the most part.”

She picked up her notepad. “Please explain any change or differences.”

“Well at first the sun was half consumed by the shoreline.”

“First?”

“When I was about ten or eleven.”

She wrote that down.

“When I started keeping track of it that year in college, the sun was directly above me.”

“And now?” She asked.

“It had started to descend.”

“It’s setting?”

“No, I wouldn’t say it’s setting but it’s on its way. Maybe in a normal day it’s about four pm, I think, so a couple hours before it really sets.”

“I see.”

Her pen scribbled with quickness and she flipped the page of her notebook.

“Does it anger you that your wife isn’t there?”

“No,” I said. “It doesn’t make me angry or sad or petty. I was just curious that’s all.”

“You believe if she were on the ship—”

“Boat.”

“Boat. If she were on the boat then the two of you would have fewer problems?”

I thought about that for a few minutes. The therapist was used to awkward silences but I wasn’t so I answered even though I was still thinking about it.

“No that sounds unlikely.”

“Have you told your partner about this dream?”

“No.”

“Any reasons why?”

“I don’t think she’ll understand.”

“Understand what exactly?”

I took a sip of water.

“Do you think it’s silly?”

“Not at all,” she said.

“Did you always know you wanted to be a psychologist?”

“Not always but when I sat down to think about it I was drawn towards helping people.”

“So you always knew where you were going?”

“For the most part, I guess.”

“That must be nice.”

“You don’t feel the same?”

I finished the glass of water. “When I sat down to think about it I couldn’t really find anything I wanted to do. Things just kinda happened, you know, I never planned for none of it, I feel like I’m always catching up to things, trying to steer the right way as the wind changes. Sometimes it feels like it’s all for nothing. Sometimes I feel like I wasted my life. I don’t know. I feel like, I feel like—-” I don’t know why I started to cry.

The alarm on her phone buzzed. Time was up. She said that we had made good progress and that next time she’d like to discuss what I said along with my wife. I asked her what she and my wife talked about but she said she can’t tell me that.

It was soon after my wife gave birth to our son and we stopped going to the counselor. I didn’t dream my dream for a long time after. Probably because of the stress of raising a little human and not knowing the instructions for it. Then came our marriage and then our daughter. In that time I realized I was an adult and that I was old.

I dreamt of it again after I took my son on his first fishing trip. It wasn’t even the trip that triggered it but rather the Dylan song that randomly came on. It’s strange how sometimes what we consider important and significant can slip from our memory. I had spent a good part of my twenties thinking about this dream and then it’s significance almost left me. I guess having kids can do that too you. Their needs takeover your own and you spend your time thinking about them to the point where you forget to think about yourself. I told my son about my dream and like a kid he asked about the boat and what it looked like, if it was wet, if the water was cold, if I had sun screen on, a life jacket and if I was afraid of sharks. If it wasn’t for his line catching I would still be answering his questions.

That night I dreamt it and my son was there. Almost identical to what I had worn when I first dreamt of the dream. I could not see the sun but I felt its presence behind me. The setting sun cast a faded blood like image on the sky.

Another thing I noticed was that I was no longer rowing. My son was. He didn’t know how to. I could see the strain in his face and feel the rhythmless pushing and pulling. I wanted to reach out and show him how it’s done. To tell him how to breathe in and out with the oars and feel the water, using it to help you rather than fight against it. But I woke up before I could say or do anything.

As we ate breakfast that morning my son started to hum Times They’re a Changing.

“Where’d you hear that?” I asked.

“You were singing it in my dream.”

He said the sun was rising behind me.

Short Story: The Bus

Recently I experienced my first car accident. It was just an ordinary winter day and the roads were a little slippery from the snowfall the previous night. I was driving downhill towards a set of lights that turned red and I applied the brakes. Everything was normal until my tires locked and I couldn’t stop and I hit the ford pick up truck in front of me. The crash was so slow that the airbags didn’t even go off. The driver of the pick up got out and came by my window with a smile on his face, waving his hand, I could see him mouthing it’s all right but that smile left him when he saw me and I imagined I mirrored the paleness of the snow which surrounded us and he knocked on the window asking if I was okay, his voice muffled by the window pane. I mustn’t have said anything cause he quickly called 911.

I was frozen in place. My knuckles were white from gripping the steering wheel. My heart felt as if it were trapped underneath a layer of ice and it was hammering against the icy sheet, trying to draw attention to itself while on the other side of the ice, gentle wind blew harmlessly without care.

The paramedics said I went into shock. They said it happens, it’s the fight or flight response but because I didn’t have anywhere to go, I froze up. They had to get my wife on the phone and once I heard her voice I began to unwind, the frost thawed out and my heartbeat slowly settled and I came back to myself. The whole thing was embarrassing. I was sitting in the back of an ambulance with a blanket around my shoulders and a cup of hot chocolate in my hands. I kept on apologizing to everyone but they were all too kind. They suggested I head back home and rest but I had work to do so I kept on going. Maybe that says something about me.

When I got home that evening, my wife asked if I wanted to talk about what happened. I told her not to worry about it. I made some half-hearted attempt at a joke which got a sympathetic laugh from her. She suggested that maybe I was overworked and stressed and she said that it’s a good thing Christmas was just a week away. Christmas rung a bell. Maybe the bell was always ringing but I piled on so much other noise on it that I stopped hearing it. That night I sat down with a pen and paper, slowly shovelling away at the flakes of clutter which I had knowingly or unknowingly gathered in order to repress a moment, a memory, an incident which happened on Christmas day when I was eight years old, back when I still lived in India.

Mama tell him to give them back, I said as I tried to get the bus tickets from my brother. The three of us were sitting on a bench waiting for the bus to come. I was wearing a grey Nike jumper which my brother once wore. My brother had on a navy jacket which he got for his birthday a month before. Christmas time in India was much different than most countries. The sun was blinding and yet there was a coolness in the air that required most people to layer up. Under the layered clothing the warmth caused me to sweat but my mother told I couldn’t take my sweatshirt off.

Mama, mama, mama, my brother mocked me.

I pulled at the tickets again and he dug his boot into my shin which made me cry out for my mother again.

Stop it you two, she said with quiet anger as the other passengers stood around us. She took the tickets from my brother.

But you said I can hold them, I said.

She ignored me. My brother smiled because I didn’t get what I wanted. He got up and I followed him with my eyes, keeping a track of where he went but all he did was go a few feet from us to kick a rock towards the edge of the road.

A patch of dirt separated us from the road. We sat on the bus bench alongside an old grandmother who covered her head and ears with a shawl and I thought it wasn’t that cold. Cars, bicycles, rickshaws, trucks and buses passed by in a continuous loop. The smell of manure was heavy and a few people had their noses covered with their shawls or handkerchiefs. To the left of us were a couple cows lounging under the trees, their tails whipping away the flies that hovered around them.

How long will it be again? I asked my mother.

Four hours, she said.

A silver Honda honked as it went around an old Fiat that slowly made it’s way up the road, hissing and moaning as a wisp of smoke snaked from the hood of the car. The Honda squeezed back into it’s own lane just in time before the oncoming traffic barrelled by, its honking lingered in the air along with the manure smell which stayed once the hoking left. The normalized danger went unnoticed by everyone but me. That morning, when we went to pick up the tickets, I caught a glimpse of a news story on the TV in the back of the ticket office. It was showing a car accident where a Suzuki had been flattened completely. My brother came and sat down beside me.

I leaned closer to him and asked, are you nervous?

He didn’t reply.

I poked him to get his attention and he swung his arm, striking my hand away.

Mother told us to stop again.

The bus came with a sticker of a Pepsi advert on its side. An actor, Salman Khan, was drinking the Pepsi or had just finished drinking it. He flashed a smile at everyone and good thing it wasn’t a colgate advert because his teeth were painted with specks of dirt.

Mama you said I could give them the ticket.

Mother sighed and handed them to me. I immediately showed my brother that I got them and he tried to punch me in the shoulder but I moved quickly to the other side of my mother.

The bus doors opened in a mechanical fashion as if it were just going through the motions and it made a yawing sound, tired of working. The conductor wore a grey jumper and a fuzzy maroon toque which made my brother and I laugh. His brow glistened with grease and sweat. The other people quickly formed a line and the three of us fell into place. I stayed close to mother, sheltered by her hip. My brother led the three of us and I felt as if I should be like that too. I edged my way by my brothers’ side.

You think it’ll be fun, I asked him.

I don’t know.

Mama said they play a movie now. What movie do you think it’ll be?

Probably some boring one.

You think so?

He didn’t reply. He was older than me by three years and this was his first time too. I wanted to ask him if he was nervous again but I didn’t. He was like me but he was older so I followed him.

We stopped in front of the conductor. I handed him the tickets. He looked at the for a quick second and then nodded, giving the tickets back and motioning us through.

We followed my brother in.

Go to the back, mother said.

All the seats were painted blue and you could see the white plastic underneath the peeling paint on most of the chairs. There was a red and black cushion placed atop the seats and particles of dust shot in the air when you sat down on it. The bus smelled like the deep part of the attic where you keep all your old photo albums and luggage that you don’t use. That area which is best of hiding when you play hide and seek.

My brother picked out the seats and began to scoot inside, going to the window seat.

I quickly turned to mother, you said I could have the window seat, I said.

Does it matter, she asked.

You said I could have it.

Let your brother have the window seat, she said in a tired voice.

My brother looked to protest but before he could mother raised her hand and I knew I had won. He threw himself onto the middle seat.

As I walked by him he stuck out his leg and tried to trip me but I knew that was coming and I stepped over it. I smiled at him, letting him know I won. When I sat down he leaned over and pinched me under my arm where mother couldn’t see. I cried out to her but she ignored the two of us.

I looked out of the window, rubbing my arm. It was like a school bus, I told myself. I had been in plenty of those. Every morning at eight I waited for the bus outside my house along with my brother. I rode the same bus back in the afternoon. So twice a day…for…I tried to count how many times I had ridden the bus in the past three years but I ended up settling on a lot. The door closed and the bus started, jerking us all back. The windows opened slightly at the top to allow the air to circulate. Mother was right. There was a television at the top corner of the bus, straight ahead. It played a bootleg movie that was still in theatres. You could see the silhouettes of the heads of the people in the movie theatre watching the movie and occasional a shadow stood up and sat down. My brother was right too. It was boring.

How much longer, I asked my mother.

Almost halfway done.

So two more hours?

More or less.

My brother was asleep. His head tilted back, his mouth slightly open, arms crossed over his chest. I tried not to laugh. Apart from the occasional fit of cough from one of the older passengers, there had been the usual sound of the movie playing and people snoring. I played my game most of the ride. Trees lined both sides of the road and their shadow fell on the road. The objective was to not let the shadow hit the bus. Whenever the bus approached the shadow I would unclench my teeth, separating the bottom row from the top and imagined the bus jumping over the shadow and when it cleared it I would clench my teeth again which meant that the bus came back down on the road. Then, once more I waited for the next opportunity to jump and land. I always played this game on the school bus. I was concentrating on the road, my teeth clenched, when a truck rushed past us, I caught a glimpse of the driver smoking a cigarette as the red and white stripes on the side of the truck almost grazed the bus. I stopped playing that game.

The bus slowed down. I asked mother what was happening. She told me not to worry. The bus came to a stop at the side of the road.

Mother asked If I needed to use the bathroom and I shook my head. I did need to go but for some reason I felt as if I left the bus it might leave me and I would be left alone on the side of the road. I stood up and leaned over my brother to see where everyone was going. There was a restaurant on the other side of the road.

My brother woke up and he elbowed me in the chest and told me to get off of him. I sat down rubbing my chest. He saw that mother was not here.

I told him not to worry, mama will be back soon. She just went outside.

He stood up to leave as well.

I called his name and told him to sit down. Mama said to stay here and don’t go anywhere.

Mama said—

He left.

I sat alone gripping the metal railing in front of me, trying to look outside the window to see where my brother was going, I wanted to go after him but mama said to stay put and I wanted to go find mama and let her know that he left and that we should find him because what if the bus left without him but I told myself It wouldn’t, it wouldn’t leave, I repeated it over and over but the other thought stayed firm, It might leave, It might leave now, without him and without her, It could, some of the people had returned and took their seats and I was still alone with the fear growing in my heart I felt it itching in my throat as the conductor came back and I wanted to go up and tell him not to leave but I couldn’t move because mama said not to, he was talking to the bus driver and as the noise grew in the bus, the more noticeable the lack of sound of my brother and mother became and the more alone I felt, I saw the conductor looking, counting the people, I tried to draw attention to the two empty seats beside me and I wanted to ask him where the bathroom was, the feeling reaching deep inside of me and the thought of it made my ears burn and I wished the windows would open some more as I felt my body shaking but didn’t know if that was from inside myself or from the motor of the bus, which had just started up again, and my feet wrestled to be in top position as I felt the need to cry.

An older man came up the steps and the conductor helped him. Behind him was my mother and I stopped shaking. Behind her was my brother, drinking from a juice box, holding a bag of chips in his other hand and I let go of the railing and sat back. I looked out of the window as if I had been doing so the entire time.

Mother came and sat in the middle seat. She opened her purse and took out a juice box for me and she was smiling. She always brought the same lemonade flavour. I could smell the fruity lotion on her hands as I took the juice from her. I took it without giving away what had just been in my head. She also placed a bag of chips on my lap and then leaned back in her chair, watching the movie as the bus got back on the road.

I tried not to think about the thoughts I just had but they kept creeping back into my mind like thoughts always did, especially the bad kind, the kind which kept imagining what will happen at night if the closet door was left open. I wanted to stop thinking and thinking about that made my ears burn again. I was older now. I should be more like my brother. He watched the television screen, gently rocking back and forth with the rhythm of the moving vehicle. I had finished my food and washed it down with the juice box. I placed my head against the cool window and watched my breath fog the glass. The sirens grew louder at once and an ambulance went past us and the sirens died away.

When I woke up it took me a moment to realize the silence that lay inside the bus. It was almost crushing if anyone spoke it would bring it crashing down upon us and I knew this instinctually for when I awoke I grabbed my mother’s arm and asked her with my eyes what happened and she slowly shook her head.

We were no longer moving. My brother was gripping the metal railing in front of him with one hand. Outside the only thing that was still unconcerned were the leaves of the trees. They kept going with the gentle wind. The uneasiness inside the bus made me want to move around. I felt the same whenever I took a test at school. The quietness of classrooms always made me more nervous as if everyone could hear or sense the little boy in me. I wasn’t a little boy anymore, I reminded myself.

I heard then the squeaking of metal chain. In the quietness, it spoke loudly. An old man, with a checkered shawl wrapped around his shoulder and head, rode his bicycle down the side of the road. He was hovering slightly above his seat and he was not looking ahead of him but rather at the inch of concrete directly in front of the rubber tires. I still remember those unblinking eyes. He disappeared.

The bus door opened. A family of three walked up the steps and the conductor did not bother checking their tickets. The family stood still for a second at the front of the bus, like new school children waiting to be told where to sit by the teacher. The father’s face resembled the colour of his white shirt which was neatly tucked into his trousers except for this one part at his right hip which was coming out as if he had been leaning to the other side for too long. The mother was holding the daughter’s hand and she was looking straight ahead but not looking. My mother put an arm around my shoulders. The daughter’s open jacket showed a pretty blue dress, the kind you wore in school plays. Her hair was done in the style of a ponytail which was held together was a butterfly pin. The mother clutched the daughter tightly. Both her hands were gripping the daughter’s shoulders as if she let go, the little girl will float away like some balloon at a fair. I noticed then the tears from the mothers’ eyes. Even they fell in silence. The father put his hand on his wives back and motioned her to go to the backseat. The three of them were in unison as they walked down the aisle, heads turned to watch them from the back. When they passed us my brother stared at the ground and so did I. My mother kept her arm around me. There was something haunting about them. It was as if we feared to look at them because whatever haunted them could haunt us too.

People made room for them in the back. Giving them plenty of space as if they were also aware of the haunting thing that accompanied them. The mother sat in the corner and then the daughter and the father beside her. The father leaned in towards his daughter and wife and kept a tight hold onto them. I could see the part of his shirt that was wrinkled.

The bus jolted in motion. The television started once more but the conductor turned the sound down. People’s heads turned towards the windows as we went past the scene. The back end of the bus came in view and soon after, too soon, the front. The bus had been compressed as if it’s inside had been taken apart, accordion like it stood, with its shattered glass sparkling on the ground, it looked so pretty, the sun glinting off the glass, fallen stars, hints of the setting sun painted upon certain glass pieces which had been stained with blood. Where the front of the bus ended, the front of the truck started and my mother made me look away.

I looked back and I saw them too. The white cloths covering something on the side of the road. So many white cloths covering the same thing. The image of the flashing lights from the ambulances engrained in the darkness of my eyelids when I closed my eyes.

Even now I can see those lights. I see the cloth peacefully fluttering with the wind and above them, the leaves of the trees still moved, unconcerned and above it, all the sun was so wonderful. That family was together but with the addition of something else, something new they had to carry with them but they couldn’t carry it alone so everyone who was there that moment had to take a small piece of it, to lessen the burden which would always be the heaviest on those three. Knowingly or unknowingly I had participated in some kind of human obligation and after all these years that thing that had haunted them showed itself. A part of me was exchanged for a part of that burden. That part lies under those covers. The part that wished to be sheltered by my mother’s hip. Know I know what that old man’s look meant. He was trying to erase what he had seen, to forget what was imprinted on his mind but it doesn’t work like that. We can’t pick or chose what affects us, what shapes us, what leaves a mark on us. We don’t have the will to decide. I wonder what kind of ripple I have started in the life of the man whose truck I hit or the paramedics who came after or all those cars that drove by and turned to look at my ashen state inside my own car.