SHORT STORIES AND NOVELS

27 March 2015

The Free Will

Paul sat languidly in the driver’s seat of his car, staring at the dashboard without really seeing anything. He still hadn’t figured out how or why the powerful S.U.V., regardless of its brand new tires, slid and got stuck into the snow heaps beside the road, engine dead, ignition useless. It was snowing heavily for almost three days now, piling up, covering everything to the point that the narrow road was practically invisible. He glanced absentmindedly at his cell phone just to be sure it was still out of range. He was cold, and outside it was already getting darker. If he didn’t want to be found frozen he had to think of something. But the closest village was kilometers behind him, and up the road ahead was all empty houses followed, eventually, by his own villa.
He smiled faintly. Until Monday at the weekly meeting, no one would care enough to wonder where he might be. Of course they would be surprised, him having been always at the office before everyone else, they would give him an hour, his secretary would try to reach him on the phone, and probably by noon someone would call the police who would most certainly send the obligatory patrol car up to his villa. Sure, the board was going to be gracious enough to pay for the expensive coffin, colleagues and acquaintances would cover him with flowers, and three days later, everyone would’ve forgotten him, the new guy being already chosen in his stead and all that. The King is dead, long live the King! Missed by nobody.
That was the reason why, years ago, he chose this remote mountain location for building his luxurious villa, his own personal shelter where no one could trouble him. He was tired of all the people pestering him with invitations for fashionable events–their one and only purpose, getting to his money and connections. He had seen it all; the so called high society not unlike any other disease, had his share of double-crossing friends, had long since learned to sever away everything connecting him with the polished emptiness of people chasing after their usual agendas of fame and glory by means of scheming and treachery.
He turned on the windshield wipers and peered into the gray afternoon outside where the twilight of the dying day would soon turn into impenetrable night. All around him there was only bluish whiteness, walls of it both sides of the road, punctuated by the trunks of the pine-trees. He wasn’t afraid, he didn’t feel any kind of alarm, and he didn’t care. The elegant dashboard clock showed almost 5:30 pm on the 23rd, the numbers gleaming in the gathering darkness.
And yet, he had to decide what to do. He eased back, and was about to close his eyes when, through the muffled silence of the falling snow, he heard the sound of a car engine while at the same time next to him an old pick-up truck slowed down and came to a stop.
Feeling his legs numb from the long wait, he stirred, opened the door, and got out.
“You okay?” the heavy old man with a thick, short beard called at him from the truck. His worn-out leather coat was unbuttoned. “Car troubles?”
“It’s dead, the ignition’s useless,” shrugged Paul. “I have no idea what might be the problem.”
The stranger circled the S.U.V., looked closely at the snow heap, and stood up. “This road won’t lead you anywhere.”
“It leads to my villa, but it’s a long way off.”
“I see. I could give you a tow,” the man scratched his beard. “But it’s dark already and the snow’s getting heavier. We won’t make it far. I am doing some repairs at a cabin nearby. We could go there, and tomorrow we’ll see what we can do.”
“Absolutely not! I am not accustomed to sleep in other people’s houses... Look, thank you for your trouble, but you don’t even know me, I don’t want to be of any inconvenience–”
“Not in the least,” the man said without looking at him, already bringing the tow cable from the truck. “Get in your car, and off we go!”
Paul’s brows knitted. He couldn’t stand to be ordered around but he didn’t have any other choice. Now that the chance to spend the night under a roof had presented itself, the thought of freezing to death wasn’t all that unimpressive.  While the pick-up truck towed him he made a couple more unsuccessful tries to start the car engine, and eventually gave up, gradually realizing his dependency on this complete stranger.
He couldn’t see anything beyond the chaos of snow-flakes darting about the lights between his car and the truck, holding the steering-wheel with numb hands, staring hard at the truck’s red lights which floated in front of him in the surrounding darkness. It wasn’t long before he started to relax. The last thing he would have expected was getting anyone’s help in such a remote place. Нe could hardly believe his good fortune. Sometimes life offered nice surprises indeed.
They were making way slowly and with extreme caution but twenty minutes later the pick-up truck headed away from the dirt road and the head-lights bathed one of the abandoned houses which seemed to be undergoing some kind of renovation.
“My name is Assen,” the man offered his hand after they got out of the cars, and then unlocked the front door and disappeared inside. “Electricity’s out again.”
Paul hesitated on the doorstep. After a while he saw light flickering from a lantern on a wooden beam.
“Come on in, and close the door,” Assen said. “I’ll make a fire. Give it ten minutes, and it’ll warm up. Nothing better for the job than some live fire, I’ll tell you that much.”
He lighted up a few more lanterns until the inside of the room was bright enough. Paul closed the door and took off his long leather coat. “Does it happen often, the electricity I mean?” he asked.
“Well, yeah, quite often.” The man shrugged. He was putting more wood into the fire. “One of the reasons I’ve adapted the fireplace for cooking. I’ve set my eye on a pretty little portable generator for cases such as this but – can’t seem to make the time of finally buying it. It couldn’t be cozier though. Not that it’s worth mentioning it anyway. Make yourself at home. It could’ve been worse, right?”
“Sure.”
Paul glanced around the room while Assen took the task of cooking them some dinner. The huge fireplace filled most of the left wall; in front of it, in the middle of the room, there was a heavy couch with two massive armchairs. To the right of the front door stood the table with it’s four chairs. The wall straight ahead of him had two half-opened doors leading to their modest rooms. Not your typical luxury flat but it was clean and tidied up.
“I’ve got only wine but it’s quite nice. I’m sure you’ll like it.” Assen offered him a glass. “Risky business there, your adventure into the mountain on a weather like this?”
Paul nodded taking the glass of wine. The man sank in one of the comfortable looking armchairs.
“Like everything else,” Paul said. “Yet, you’re not at home for the weekend, too.”
“I live here.”
“And I thought I was the only one crazy enough to go straight for the woods. Though even I visit occasionally. Talking about adventures.”
“I’m used to it, and I am ready for everything. And that old truck would never give up on me,” the man said, a thin smile in his beard.
“I don’t know what’s wrong with this car,” Paul said. “The electronics must’ve gone haywire. Would’ve definitely done the same for me if it only had managed to start.”
“It happens,” Assen nodded. “Why did you decide to build your villa so far away from the city?”
“Away from the city, away from civilization... It’s peaceful here.”
“The civilization?” One of the eyebrows of the older man went up. “Tired of all the people’s nonsense?”
“Something like that.”
“I see. People often could be – “ He sipped from his wine and stared for a moment into the fire. “ – a bothersome lot. Can’t live without them, though.”
His guest shook his head. “On the contrary. It’s even better without them.”
Silence, punctuated only by the crackle of firewood and the sizzling meet over the improvised grill. When the older man didn’t answer Paul stirred on the coach.
“I am better off without all the pest, always trying to get what they want, never remembering of you except when they need a favor, oblivious to your own problems, not interested in the tiniest bit of who you really are.”
“Yes, but they could be of help if there’s need.”
“That would be the smallest fracture of the whole, and even they would consider doing it only if they’d gain something out of it.”
“You speak like La Rochefoucauld. He had that theory, in his Maximes, that every virtue’s just a vice in disguise.”
“La Rochefoucauld?” Paul gave him a long thoughtful look. “You may be right.”
All of a sudden he had the feeling that he might have offended the other man who had just saved his life, so he added up.
“Though it’s only natural for anybody to be of help in such situations.”
“Of course,” Assen said. That little smile again. “And you – are you of any help, or do you seek in turn your own personal gain?”
“Well, yes. I do help. Although these days I often come to regret it. They’d suck up for anything, and then they’d just disappear, sometimes before that – maybe even try to trip you up.”
“And you’ve never sought anything for yourself out of it?”
“Never,” said Paul, firmly. “I don’t need anyone’s help, nor I seek anything whatsoever for myself from them. I already have more than I’ll ever need; there’s nothing they could give me.”
“And then you decided to leave The Pied Cow...”
His host got up to fetch an empty plate, and then took the meat and the vegetables out of the fire. Paul gave him another long look.
“It seems like you’ve read a lot of books,” he said as they were sitting on the table.
“Obviously, the same goes for you, too. Let’s eat while it’s hot. Cheers.”
Their glasses rang.
“Which doesn’t answer the question why do you want to get away from the people.”
“Do I have to explain it?”
“I think that you have to explain it to yourself first.”
Paul frowned.
“You said it yourself: the city, the one which is called The Pied Cow.”
“I hope you don’t fancy yourself a prophet?”
“No, but this doesn’t mean you don’t have to be sick of constantly considering everyone else’s fussiness, when you are swamped with their problems and you are expected to solve them all, while at the same time no one cares you have your own work to deal with, that you have so much other things to do in the first place... You are always obliged to watch your manners, you have to mind your socially accepted behavior, you have to be what you are expected to be, you have to make nice to every fool who thinks themselves the salt of the earth...
“Wait a minute,” Assen said. “That’s a lot of ‘you have to’s. Why do you have to?”
“What else?” Paul said with a surprised look. “Because – you have to – because if you disturb their order, the society’s order, and you start to drop off gradually. They are voiding you, looking at you with suspicion. Personally, I don’ give a damn but it’s bad for business. After all, you have to work with them, otherwise you wouldn’t be making any progress.”
His host put down the fork and the knife, leaned against his folded fingers and took a good look at his guest.
“Their order... And who’s to say that’s the definitive order? For them, it’s a given some things must be done in a particular way, but who are these people?”
Paul shrugged.
“Why – everyone!”
“Nah, you don’t really believe that at some point all the people gathered up on a big clearing in the woods, and then pulled together a large list of proper ways to do things, a prescription for every possible situation which might occur, do you?”
“Of course not, but in time the common order of things has been enforced and–“
“Yes, but there has to be a certain person who, so to speak, has had the final word to each point on the order of the day?”
Paul blinked.
“Well, probably, or at least a group of people.”
“You see? Nothing is a given from the beginning. Every point from the order of things has been thought of at some time, at a time before it actually existed, and then applied.”
“But if it’s accepted, then it’s been proven that it works.”
“Why do you oppose things once proven and accepted, then?”
“I–”
“I’ll tell you why,” the man stopped him. “Because you think a lot of things could be done in another, better way. Which is good, although you have to direct your discontent more properly.”
There was no answer.
“You’re no longer happy to be just the camel. You stand before the great dragon, with its “Thou-shalt” written all over its scales, but you haven’t given your holy “Nay” yet.
Paul was still staring at his host, silently.
“What’s stopping you? Haven’t you heard that great people are great because they have given the finger to everything and everyone?”
“It’s not that easy when you are responsible for a few hundred people. You cannot just turn into an innocent child when you are the head of a large firm.”
“What could be better than this!” Assen said, now even more excited than before. “You have the authority to do it. How do you know that it wouldn’t be for their own good?”
“The time of the pioneers is long gone,” Paul shook his head, returning to his dinner. “Now everything is more dynamic, you do things the fast way, there’s no time for pioneering when there are working models. Such a thing might be done only by an extraordinary person, some kind of genius acknowledged by all.”
The room shook by the roaring laughter of his host.
“Show me a genius who’s ever been acknowledged by everyone unless he have thrown back first all common acceptance!”
“Oh, come on! First off, geniuses are not born every day, and second, they are acknowledged by people. This is the reason they are followed and revered.”
“Nothing could be farther from the truth!” Assen’s laughter continued. “Most geniuses are what they are because they’ve accepted themselves as geniuses. Don’t you understand? The world feeds itself on fashion, the world needs its idols! Sure, the riff-raff stand in their gray line thinking exactly like you, but there are also those few who have spat in the face of the multitude, took on their own way to be noticed after the fact. Furthermore, they’ve been idolized by the same people they’ve spat on – some of whom also destined to be turned from the gray line.
“Yeah, right! Ruler of reality! I’ve heard that. How many have perished taking this path? How many of those who’ve been turned, as you called them, were idolized, and how many of them ended up drunkards?”
“Those who end up this way don’t know what they are doing, or where they are going. They don’t realize they are actually right. All they want is some change but they’ve got no goals, nor any kind of strategy. They’ve reacted like kids: I have no idea what I want, but I don’t want this. Exactly the thing you are doing now: you are not satisfied with the status quo of your life, you want it to be different, but instead of changing things, you run away from everything!”
Both men looked at each other over the table. Neither of them moved. Assen sighed, took a sip from his wine, and leaned back.
“Who you are – that’s determined by whether you have a goal, what kind of goal it is, and your own conviction while attaining it. Have you forgotten all of your dreams?”
Paul thought for a little while.
“And ‘Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law’?” he muttered after a moment.
“More precisely: fulfill your own will, and the law will be fulfilled,” Assen smiled. “Which doesn’t mean that everyone should do whatever they want, by shear impulse, that they could satisfy the whims and desires of their souls without doing harm. ‘Love is the law, love under will.’ And this means working and doing things with joy, finding joy in life. In any way – right now, you are at the very opposite of all that.
“Quite the heresy...”
“And why is that? The free will. Ask, and you shall be given. Your own namesake has already established that although everything is allowed, it’s not necessarily good for you.”
Paul leaned back in his chair. His eyes wandered over the flames in the fireplace, followed absentmindedly the flickering shadows, stopped at the light of the lanterns.
“When you put it this way, it sounds logical – the principle of correspondence, right?”
“Actually, the all seven of them,” Assen nodded. “At the end, everything boils down to them.”
The crackling of the burning wood has all but died now, the embers pulsing in different bright red nuances.
“I am tired.” The older man got up and threw a few more logs into the fire. “Time to rest.”
“Do you need help here?”
“Thanks, I’ll take care of it in the morning.”
Assen opened one of the doors to the inner rooms.
“You can sleep here. I’ll be in the other room.”
Paul spent a night full of strange dreams of which he couldn’t remember anything, but he felt refreshed. It was still early so he tried to sleep for a little while longer and when he realized he couldn’t, he decided to take care of the fire in the dining room, thinking he might also check on his car, though he already guessed the problem with the failed electronic ignition had to be beyond any immediate repair. He left his bed and looked at his phone. Still out of range.
He opened the door and crossed the dining room. The table had been cleaned up already. His host probably had done it last night after all, or maybe he, too, hadn’t slept much. Paul went nearer the fireplace, looking for more firewood. There wasn’t any. The fact that the fireplace had been also cleaned surprised him. Crouching in front of it, he took a closer look. It was not only clean of ash, it was so clean as if it hadn’t been used for a very long time. He stood up and turned around. He started walking slowly around the room, looking at different objects. The lanterns were all covered in cobwebs, the table had a thin layer of dust on top of it, the sink was full of congealed plates. He felt a chill running down his spine.
Paul put on his coat and opened the front door. Outside, it was sill cloudy but the sudden whiteness of the snow blinded him for a moment. He needed to find Assen, to ask what was going on here, but there was no one. The pick-up truck had disappeared, there wasn’t even tracks in the snow. For a second he tried to decide whether to search around the house for his host, though he could already see it would be pointless. He ran to his car, got in, and slammed the door. He was tense, he didn’t know what to make of it all, but after a few minutes he felt safe and relaxed a bit.
He closed his eyes in an attempt to comprehend the situation. He couldn’t. The cold made him drowsy. He had to get away from here immediately. Then he stirred in the driver’s seat, looked around him and stiffened in surprise: it was still snowing heavily, piling higher and higher, the narrow dirt road almost completely blocked; the gray light of the day seeped away into the dusk which would soon turn into a pitch-dark night. All around him there was only bluish whiteness, walls of it both sides of the road, punctuated by the trunks of the pine-trees. There was no sign of the house.
He glanced at his elegant wrist watch. It was past 5:30 – the shimmering date on the dial being the 23rd. He allowed his arm to fall slowly, and then laughed out loud, but he already felt better and stood up straight at his seat. He had to do something unless he wanted to freeze to death here. He reached for the keys, and hesitated, his hand in mid air, wondering whether the ignition would fail him again, but then he took a long breath and turned the key.
The engine gave out a dull roar and the familiar muffled rumble filled the compartment of the S.U.V. while at the same time, next to him, someone’s pick-up truck slowly went by, its red lights gradually disappearing after a moment into the distance ahead.
He got out of the snow pile. For a second he thought of catching up with the truck, to make sure, crazy as it seamed, but in his mind, he once again heard the conversation from last night – or rather, from the last fifteen minutes – and that made him stop. He thought of all the things he’d dreamt of, the ones he never made the time doing. His eyes searched for his villa high into the mountain and he smiled. He’d get there some other time. He turned the car around and started back for the city.

Share

2 comments:

Keyara Aisling said...

That was amazing! You grabbed my interest from the beginning and held onto it till the very end! I loved it and as this is the first story I read from you,I'm looking forward to reading the rest too :) Keep up the good work,and keep enjoying what you do,cheers. ^_^

Филип Данчев said...

Thank you, Keyara, for your kind words. I do the best I can, but I always feel as I can be better. I hope that feeling never ends, it's great. :) A week ago I uploaded the second translated story which is in another genre:

http://philipdanchev.blogspot.com/2015/04/zama.html

And on Monday I'll upload a third. I hope you'll have nice moments with them. :)