There is a street festival going on and I am looking at the various tables of merchadise, hearing the street musicians, smelling the fried foods, and so on. As I'm strolling along I hear laughter from a side street so I move toward it. Laughter is appealing, it draws us.
There a woman is standing on a makeshift stage in fancy dress. She is dressed like a thirty-something Welsh bar maid from a Renaissance Faire. Behind her is a handcrafted banner reading in brightly colored letters: "Share Your Tale!" Next to her is a nondescript man holding a microphone. Several people are gathered in front of the stage listening. A general merriment is in the air, the audience is clearly enjoying his story. As the man on stage concludes he says, "...So what was I going to do? I did what she asked!" The crowd was ecstatic in their applause as the man, grinning widely, handed the micraphone back, bowed from the waist, and left the stage.
"Whose next?" the woman asked in an overdone mock cockney accent. "Come on now!" she barked merrily. "Give it a go! Let us hear your tale! Everyone has one you know." She didn't mention of course that public speaking is one of most people's greatest fears.
From the crowd a man emerged, making his way slowly to the stage. Sensing his general demeanor the excitement began to quiet. His hair was slightly long and disheveled but his face was clean shaven. His clothing was a bit wrinkled and worn but appeared to be clean and sufficient.
Now standing on the stage he looked silently outward as if examining each face, perhaps looking for someone in particular. That was my sense of his presence. But soon enough he began his tale.
"My name is Dan. I grew up in a religious household. My mom and dad were, as they liked to say, people of faith. So, I guess that went for my sister and me too."
People began to quietly drift away.
"This ain't gonna be religious so there's no need for ya'll to leave," the man explained. The exodus abated. "This is about life, my life, as the good lady here requested, he added in an even less believable Cockney accent than her own. The woman smiled warily, probably hoping his tale would not turn religious. Nothing disperses a crowd faster than religion! She didn't say this last bit, I read it in her face. But it is true regardless as any modern hawker of wares will attest.
"As I grew up I found I could not believe what I had been taught, so I left religion the same way I had left Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny. But I needed to believe in something. I soon found that I could believe in the lies of whisky, skunk weed and not-so pretty bar room girls. So that became my religion." The crowd nodded approvingly. "I was no longer that naive, I naively told myself.
But when I heard on the news that they had captured some of our soldiers -- I don't recall now who they were but at the time it seemed important, I felt I had to enlist and defend my country." He made air quotes as he said them and defend my country. "Don't worry," he added, "this ain't going to be political either.
"So I signed up and went over there, after some training. I lived on a base that I mostly never got to leave because apparently my religion and my politics offended the locals; even though I no longer had any religion and my political certainties feel apart shortly after landing in that god forsaken desert. At first I hated being stuck on the base, now I wish I had never left it, or better, had never gone over there in the first place. Biggest mistake of my life!"
He looked the crowd over again with an oddly 'hairy eyeball' of suspicion. Now they were listening. From his pocket he withdrew a military decoration of some sort. He waved it briefly, then returned it to the seclusion of his pocket.
"One day we got the call. Some dilapidated village, they told us. Seems some of our brothers in arms had gone into the town from one direction but not come out the other end. No one knew why, what had happened to them, and so on. So they sent us in. We went in the other end, my brothers in arms and I. I didn't know what to expect. At first the village seemed empty but then, in the distance, a few ally ways over and ahead, we heard the watery sounding chant of their god call, I forget what they call that, and then some mumbling response. It was at that eerie sound that I knew this was the real thing. I was scared to death as you can imagine!
"But we headed towards the chanted mumble. As we moved around a corner in the interior of the village this woman, dressed like you see on television, all wrapped up in black, was standing there surrounded by young ones, maybe six of seven of them kids. Some of us yelled for her to stop, even though she was not moving. I didn't say anything, I was too scared to tell you the truth. A bunch of our guns were pointing right at her, and then she yelled that phrase they seem to like so much that means almost everything under the sun depending on the circumstances.
"It looked like her right hand was going up fast like it was supposed to, but the left one -- well, it started to go up too, but then it didn't. The official report said it went into her clothing and was pulling out a hand grenade, the reports even says what kind it was supposed to have been. But to me, what I saw, was her left arm moving to this little girl at her side who was suddenly screaming in terror. Same as I would have done, had it been an option, poor kid! That's what I think she did. But the military said I didn't see what I saw, so I guess I didn't. What did happen though was that that momma and all her young ones fell down hard to the ground and died on the spot, as the quiet was filled the noise of our guns. I fired mine too. That was my training, but I don't think I shot anybody, I hope I didn't, I pray I didn't." Dan pulled out and flashed his medal again for an instant. "They said I'm a hero. That part I know is not true."
In the crowd there was awed silence mingled with disjointed and uncertain claps here and there.
"I don't know what happened after that, nor what happened to the lost soldiers. I heard they just walked out after dark, no harm no foul, but I don't know. I also heard the incident, as they called it, disrupted the religious service we heard in the distance. Some of them people came running to see what happened and I guess a bunch more people died for no good reason, but again, I can't say. I don't remember anything else.
"Back in the states they kept me under observation for a long time. But they finally decided I had not gone nuts after all, and released me when my time was. up. I came back here to where I was raised, but nothing seemed the same. So after a while I decided to stay up the hills. I had enough to live on from the military, so I built a little place up in there, just big enough for me and Buster, my dog. He was waiting for me at my mom's when I got back. Ain't nothing like a good dog. We lived up there a while, Buster and me, a few years I guess. I'd come into town supplies, I caught a few movies at the theatre, and then headed back up to the sanity of the hills."
He paused, looking down at his army surplus books for an extended moment. "I came down this morning to see the doc. I knew something in me weren't right. I was just there at his office, heading back up to the Ridge now when I saw the street fair and that sign." He pointed over his shoulder to the hand painted Share Your Tale sign. So figured I'd check it out." He paused again.
While there was not a tear in his eye nor a revealing quiver on his lips, there was something. Something even more disturbing, something that seemed to cry out the word "Betrayal." But of what? Betrayal by whom, of whom? There was no context to consider the question, only the sense of it, and the underlying feeling that the accusation was correct. Then he concluded his tale:
"No, this ain't about religion and it ain't about politics." He paused again. "Doc just told me I'll be dead in six month's time, maybe less. Cancer got me," he said, "and nobody caught it. They wanted me to stay there, but I left. I figure if I'm going to die I'd rather do it up on the Ridge with nobody but Buster and G-d." Another pause. This time I thought perhaps there was a slight tear, as he said, "No, this ain't about religion, but I sure wish I'd gotten to know G-d better, seeing that we'll be meeting soon."
He handed the microphone to stunned woman, left the stage, and disappeared into the crowd. No one replied to him. No one sought to comfort him. we just watched him walk away, to die.
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Rabbi Shlomo Nachman