Soul Sweeper

A worn soul swept the restaurant floor at the end of the day. This activity consumed every last sinew of Mi Na’s body. He dashed about the space, back and forth, until it was spotless and then he mopped with greater will still. When it was time to lock up, the urge to leave was so strong that simply turning the key and stepping outside the front door did nothing to relieve him. He stood waiting to be washed by a wave of euphoria but it did not come. Alarmed, he unlocked the door and went back inside the restaurant to clean it all over again. But no matter how much he cleaned he was not pricked even by the edge of enthusiasm. ‘I must leave now,’ he thought. ‘The restaurant, this town and everybody in it. I must go to a place far away, where sweeping and mopping are a distant memory.’ Opportunity, faith and love had fallen by the wayside and it was the end of this journey to recapture them to a degree more pure than ever before. He slept soundly that night, dreaming of a tropical island thick with jungle, its inhabitants going about their daily lives where the lush trees parted and made way to expanses of sandy beaches.
The morning sun rose and he informed his deputy of the plan, who greeted the idea with confusion and contempt. Failing to dissuade Mi Na, he finally conceded that this was a necessary venture. ‘When will you return?’ he asked. Soon, not-for-a-while and never became one in Mi Na’s mind. ‘I don’t know,’ he said. By midday he had informed each and every one of those close to him of his decision. His mother was anxious and warned of the dangers ahead, his brother dismayed and his lover heartbroken. Numb to all of this, Mi Na sought a semblance of calm in the few possessions he packed in a small leather bag. Among an assortment of clothes, each item rolled up into a ball no larger than a fist, nestled a small book containing the writings of a monk. ‘I will understand these words,’ he said to himself. ‘To observe nature and describe it so plainly as to capture all of life’s wonders at once. How such insight dangles over my poor head as a low-hanging fruit bobbing stubbornly beyond my grasp!’
A train pulled into the station and Mi Na travelled south through the countryside. The sun’s rays sparkled among the flooded paddy fields and the young man felt sure that this was the most beautiful moment to which he had ever been privy. He retrieved a pen and notebook from his bag and pondered the disconnect between his life at home and the harmony of the elements with the farmland. ‘A sodden field owes its fate to the rains, to no man does it yield, this sodden field.’ Pained by the trite nature of his words he punished himself by thinking of nothing but nothingness for the rest of the ride. Even this was no mean feat. Mi Na grappled with rushing thoughts about man’s neglect of nature, flooding and the miraculous properties of skin until his head finally fell into his lap.
The train driver woke Mi Na at the end of the line. The terminus stood on a hill that overlooked a turquoise sea and a small harbour of exactly one boat. ‘Hurry and you will make the next trip out to the island!’ called the driver. Mi Na held his bag to his chest and ran down the hill as quickly as his legs could carry him. At the base of the hill lay a creaking wooden boardwalk where fishermen smoked. ‘Please come along now,’ said a boatman. Mi Na thanked him and climbed aboard. Sacks of rice sat in the bay of the boat and a disparate band of travellers gathered around them. Some turned to the sea and others to their comrades but Mi Na was transfixed by the sacks of rice. ‘The poetry lies in the process,’ he thought. ‘What are the paddy fields and the farmers without the sacks and the boats and the boatmen?’ A seagull circled the boat and came to rest on the bow. She stood with such poise that no one aboard could fail to notice. Even the boatmen saluted the bird as she flew between the rice sacks and inspected them one by one to rapturous applause. When she was done, she flew to the stern and stayed there for the duration of the ride.
Longtail boats anchored at the shore cast their evening shadows and fluffy clouds danced with the evening sun over the sea. The boat was tied up and everyone disembarked. No sooner had Mi Na felt the sand between his toes than a young boy cried out to him — ‘Hey you!’ Startled, Mi Na realised that he had forgotten how to speak on the voyage. ‘Do you want fried noodles or noodle soup?’ Mi Na repeated the words noodle and soup after the boy. ‘Do you want chicken or pork or beef?’ Pork, please. ‘Do you want water or cola or iced coffee?’ Water, please. ‘Please take a seat.’ It was only then that Mi Na noticed three benches lined up on the beach. A single space remained on the middle one. With the words noodle and soup and pork and water rattling around in his ears Mi Na observed the boy. ‘Never have I seen such a command of a restaurant,’ he thought. Remembering his own restaurant he shook his head in shame. ‘It is true that this boy only offers two dishes, which are practically the same, and that three benches is a small capacity, but never mind it! He is working alone and cannot be more than eight years old.’ Chicken or pork or beef and water or cola or iced coffee became all that Mi Na knew. The boy ran up to the cauldron of steaming noodles stirred dutifully by his mother and back to the benches relaying bowl after bowl of fried noodles and noodle soup with chicken or pork or beef. Carrying the drinks was so effortless for the boy that he skipped between tables and climbed among customers to give them water or cola or iced coffee. The food was delicious. Mi Na chewed up the noodles and slurped down the soup almost as soon as the glorious scent had wafted under his nostrils. ‘Three dollar fifty, please.’ The boy stood still and smiled sweetly. ‘The humility of this child is unlike anything I have ever seen,’ thought Mi Na. ‘I must reward him at once!’ And so he handed over a five dollar bill and explained that the change was for him and his mother. The boy shrieked with delight and made for his mother’s arms, who cradled her son with boundless joy.
That evening the island cooled and Mi Na found a hut to rest in by sundown. All manner of creatures knocked about in the rickety old hut from bugs and rats to lizards and bats and this continued through the night. Despite the cacophony of jungle noise surrounding Mi Na he could not hear any of it. All he could think of was the boy. ‘To call him a boy would be to pay him a disservice. He is an adult in any meaningful sense of the word. He runs his restaurant with consummate skill. How can one achieve this level of professionalism at such an age? Love. Love is the only conceivable answer.’ With that thought, Mi Na decided that he would eat fried noodles in the morning and noodle soup in the evening as long as he remained on the island. Each time the boy would command his space with greater authority. One time he apologised for the chickens had not yet been killed that day. Another time he berated a fully grown man for killing a chicken in the wrong way. ‘Not like that! Like this!’ he would shout. The man appeared to be the boy’s father and one morning Mi Na decided to introduce himself. ‘Hello, sir,’ he said to the man. ‘Hello,’ the man replied. ‘Your boy is one of a kind.’ At this the man recoiled and revealed a toothy grin. ‘Thank you for your help,’ he said. Mi Na explained that he was the one who should be grateful, for the man’s boy had inspired him and made his journey worthwhile. ‘Thank you for your help,’ the man repeated. ‘What is his name?’ Mi Na asked. ‘Su Rong.’
Mi Na ate his noodles and Su Rong appeared before him when the bowl was empty. ‘Three dollar fifty, please,’ he stated, like clockwork. Checking his pockets, it occurred to Mi Na that on this occasion he only had three dollars and fifty cents to offer the boy. He acknowledged that his tipping had become customary and so he broke it to him as gently as he could — ‘No tip this morning, double tip this evening.’ At that Su Rong let out a primordial scream and sobbed to his heart’s content. His veneer of composure par excellence had been shattered into a thousand irreconcilable pieces. ‘I must leave now,’ thought Mi Na. Numbed once more he packed his bag, locked his hut and boarded the next boat back to the mainland. He did not marvel at the sacks of rice, nor did he wonder at a seagull. Instead he mulled over the illusion of purity that had been wrested from him. ‘The island was a mistake but I cannot return to sweeping. My soul cannot sweep any longer. I must continue this venture.’ The train was waiting at the station when the boat pulled into the harbour on the mainland. Mi Na held his bag to his chest and ran up the hill as fast as his legs could carry him. He boarded the train and travelled north through the countryside. ‘To the mountains,’ he said to himself. ‘That is where truth can be found.’
The train pulled up at the northernmost stop. At this juncture in the valley the milky brown river flowed slowly. ‘This evening will be devoid of cool air,’ said Mi Na to himself. ‘Perhaps there will be some freshness in the deep of the night.’ This time he did not concern himself with finding a hut before dark. Walking along the riverbank, he circled the village again and again. ‘He walked alone through the night, seeking fresh air with all of his might.’ Mi Na was bothered by the ordinariness of his poetry but he would not punish himself for it. ‘The river moves slowly but it will make it to the sea,’ he pondered. Once he had been able to inhale a breath of fresh air he found a hut to stay in by midnight. Off the beaten track this hut was part of a small cluster. A swing swayed in a courtyard decorated with potted plants and covered by palm trees. Mi Na rested on the swing and just when he was on the verge of drifting away he was greeted by a young man about his own age. ‘Hello, I am Xeng Xong, the caretaker. Could I take your bag and bring you coffee?’ In no mood to sleep, Mi Na accepted the offer of coffee but insisted he carry his own bag. Xeng Xong smiled sweetly and showed his guest to his hut. Sitting on the edge of the bed, Mi Na rambled to himself, ‘Beware of those with sweet smiles singing songs about coffee, he’d better not be wretched too lest I feel the urge to flee…’
Xeng Xong knocked on the door. ‘Please come in,’ Mi Na called. The caretaker gestured to his guest to join him in the courtyard. The coffee was ready. The pair of them sat on the swing and let it sway slowly back and forth. After several minutes of silence Xeng Xong was moved to speak. ‘Please teach me,’ he said in a hushed tone. ‘There is nothing I can teach you,’ replied Mi Na wearily. ‘Teach me to speak like you.’ As far as Mi Na could tell, Xeng Xong was able to articulate everything he needed to. ‘You already speak like I do.’ Xeng Xong hunched over and stared at his hands. ‘I can speak to guests when they arrive and leave. I can take your bag and bring you coffee. But that is all.’ Looking over at him Mi Na noticed that Xeng Xong had exceptionally large hands for a man of his size. He was short and lean. ‘My hands are the hands of my father,’ he said. ‘Are you from the mountains?’ This was the first statement to evade Xeng Xong’s comprehension. It was then that Mi Na became captivated once more. ‘I must be understood by this young man — this good man! All he has done is what I have asked, yet here I sit assuming the futility of it all. But why? This malaise has been brought on by a worthless setback. No — fatigue is the culprit! Well, the coffee is kicking in, so let’s do this!’
Xeng Xong and Mi Na stayed up all night talking to each other about the worlds they had left behind to meet that night in the courtyard. Setting off long before sunrise, Xeng Xong would say good bye to his parents and trek down towards the valley. On his way he would practise mental arithmetic and ponder the questions of science. School ran from sunrise till mid-afternoon. Then he would swim in the river with his classmates and take a meal before crossing the village for the night shift at the inn. ‘But the river is muddy,’ noted Mi Na. ‘Some parts are clear.’ Mi Na wondered how the river was affected by the seasons but Xeng Xong did not understand what he meant by this. ‘Well, I am from a town on the other side of the mountains. There, we have four phases of weather each year.’ This seemed impossible to Xeng Xong, who proclaimed, ‘There is a rainy season and there is a sunny season.’ It was true. Rain and sun are pretty much ubiquitous on this planet of ours. ‘But,’ continued Mi Na, ‘where I’m from we have a snowy season and a season when the leaves of the trees turn from green to brown.’ This astonished Xeng Xong. He had heard of snow and the process of water turning to ice at freezing temperatures was familiar to him from his studies. But green leaves turning brown? This was beyond his understanding. Mi Na explained that the tree itself does not die when this happens. ‘Only the leaves die?’ asked Xeng Xong. Mi Na smiled. ‘Yes, just like hair that falls out of your head.’
As the days passed the young men bonded over their diverse backgrounds. Mi Na dazzled Xeng Xong with tales of cities comprising millions of citizens. The sheer number of zeroes, all six of them and sometimes seven, made Xeng Xong smile a great deal. When he found out that there was a country, nay two countries, each playing host to over a billion people, he was blown away by a crescendo of hearty laughter. ‘But what of your home?’ Mi Na asked. ‘How is it there?’ Xeng Xong slumped back on the swing. ‘When my mother falls ill, my father sacrifices a chicken. When my father falls ill, my mother sacrifices another chicken. Many chickens die like this where I am from.’ Mi Na wondered what his friend thought of this purported correlation. ‘We get better after the chicken is sacrificed but I think we would get better anyway,’ Xeng Xong pondered. ‘It is a tradition,’ thought Mi Na. ‘We have traditions too,’ he said. ‘Where I’m from,’ he began, ‘we ask ourselves why.’ Xeng Xong did not understand. ‘Why?’ he repeated. ‘Yes, why. Why are we here? What is the purpose for all of this?’ Xeng Xong’s confusion showed no sign of abating. ‘Put it this way,’ Mi Na continued. ‘The sun causes heat. It is the reason plants and trees grow. You could say that the sun is why we are here.’ Xeng Xong nodded attentively. ‘Now, given this, I put to you Xeng Xong of the mountains, why are we here?’ After a moment’s pause he replied, ‘I am here because of my mother and father.’ He was correct. His mother and father were indeed his reason to be. ‘But what of them?’ Mi Na pressed on. ‘My mother is here because of her mother and father and my father is here because of his mother and father,’ Xeng Xong reasoned. ‘Yes! But what of their mothers and fathers?’ The men gave each other a knowing look and laughed wildly all at once. Then a serious expression painted itself over Xeng Xong’s face. ‘We come from monkeys,’ he concluded. Mi Na felt like he had been punched squarely between the eyes but adrenaline coursed through him and he felt nothing. ‘Did you learn that at school?’ he asked. ‘No,’ replied Xeng Xong.
That night Mi Na lay on his back in bed. The sounds of wildlife around him passed through him as one. ‘Xeng Xong is a phenomenon,’ he thought. ‘He deduced the theory of evolution as though it were a matter of pure logic, though I’m sure his exposure to a multitude of animals has something to do with it. Regardless! I am sated at last. I shall reside at this inn till the end of my days and teach Xeng Xong everything I know. He does not even demand a cent for my wisdom. Oh, how much more pure could an exchange be than one in which money does not change hands!’
Mi Na awoke to the sound of clucking hens. He spent his day as he had become accustomed to, walking alongside the milky brown river, circling the village again and again until the deep of the night, for which he waited with bated breath. When it was cool enough to inhale the succulent night air without inhibition, he returned to the courtyard to meet with Xeng Xong. Tonight, however, the caretaker had changed his tune. ‘What business do you do in your town?’ he asked. Mi Na told him that he had a restaurant and that he was enjoying some time away from the place. It was in good hands. ‘You make money in the big town from the restaurant business. Here, there is no money. I learn math and science at school. I learn to speak better with you. All of my friends do something like this. But in the end we are poor and the government is rich. Why?’ Xeng Xong launched that why deep into Mi Na’s heart with all of the skill of someone who had wielded that weapon his whole life. ‘That is a very big why!’ ‘Why?’ the caretaker repeated. Mi Na went to great lengths to explain supply and demand and capitalism and socialism and corruption and justice and good and evil but none of this satisfied Xeng Xong. ‘Why?’ he repeated. ‘I’m sorry, I have no answer for you,’ Mi Na replied. From that moment onwards the men would no longer speak as equals. Xeng Xong insisted that he would leave his home and join Mi Na on his travels. They would visit the world’s great cities and make a fortune. Mi Na shook his head in shame. ‘I must leave now,’ he thought.
And just like that he packed his bag and left the following morning. One recollection of his travails mopping the floor at his restaurant spurred him on. ‘I am not yet ready to hop on top of a mop. Ah, blasted poetry — how you flatter to deceive! The solution does not lie with words at all! Nor with anything comprised of them — theory and reason be damned!’ It became his sole mission to find a tuk-tuk driver who would take him westwards to the monastery deep in the rainforest. In any case, there was no use in waiting for one, so Mi Na set off on foot to the west. Soon he was surrounded only by mountains and valleys and no people at all. When he passed someone who sold water or rice the dollars he offered them were met with bemusement. Mi Na possessed one hundred and fifty thousand of the local currency but decided not to spend it on water or rice. ‘If I see a driver I will need every last bit of it,’ he thought. A tuk-tuk driver rode past Mi Na and called out to him. He insisted on three hundred thousand of the local currency but this was too much for Mi Na. It was not because he deemed the value of his labour to be less than three hundred thousand but because he only had one hundred and fifty thousand. This fact was lost on many a driver until one old man in a vehicle that had seen better days pulled up by Mi Na. There were no longer roads at this stage of the route. ‘One hundred thousand for you,’ said Mi Na. ‘OK,’ replied the driver. ‘Where?’ After some confusion about the purpose of a journey to a monastery, Mi Na had had enough. ‘There is no reason for my journey. I simply must go to the monastery, at once!’
The tuk-tuk hurtled between potholes as the old man pushed his vehicle to its limit. Surrounded by motorcycles and scooters, the limitations of this beaten up tuk-tuk were all too clear. They rolled down a dusty track shrouded in its entirety by tree cover. Little light penetrated the force field of the forest though this did not deter the elderly driver who seemed to revel in the challenge. Eventually they rolled up limply to the foot of the monastery. Mi Na was covered from head to toe in orange dust. ‘At least we made it by sundown,’ he said to himself. He gave the driver a hundred thousand and he made off with it into the night. ‘It is not Xeng Xong’s fault,’ thought Mi Na. ‘After all, why must I burden those so young and innocent with the task of fulfilling my nightmarishly whimsical fetishes of the mind! Why ever would I do such a thing! Why, indeed.’ His stream of consciousness was halted by chanting. A smooth melody slipped out of the temple and imbued Mi Na with a sense of peace unlike any he had experienced before. A monk in an orange robe descended the steps of the temple and stood in front of Mi Na. ‘You come to stay with us?’ he asked. ‘Yes, I came to stay with you.’ The monk studied the outsider through the darkness. ‘You come to meditate with us?’ he asked. ‘Yes, I came to meditate with you.’ It was agreed that the best thing for Mi Na to do was wash himself and rest before the gong would sound several hours before sunrise the next day. ‘What happens when I hear the gong?’ asked Mi Na. ‘You come to temple for morning prayer and meditation.’
By the time the gong sounded Mi Na had been lying awake for a while. He had spent the night cleaning himself as swiftly and thoroughly as the facilities permitted. A small bowl floated atop a larger bowl itself filled to the brim with water. This water would be replaced manually by the unsteady trickle of a rusty tap. The hole in the bathroom floor would function as a toilet. ‘It is helpful that it flushes with two small bowlfuls of water,’ thought Mi Na. He napped intermittently but had woken up each time with aches and pains. ‘It is because I am not accustomed to sleeping on the floor,’ he mused. ‘I move in my sleep when I sleep in a bed because I will spring back into place from whichever position I please. Only when I can sleep on my back with total stillness will I awake pain-free.’ All of these thoughts mingled in the mind of Mi Na against a cacophony of jungle noise louder than the noise of the island and louder still than the noise of the valley. He made his way from the hut to the temple by memory as only darkness pervaded the forest.
Upon reaching the temple Mi Na stopped in his tracks at the sound of a single monk chanting. ‘I should enter slowly,’ he thought. Climbing the stairs one by one a vast hall revealed itself to him, its walls adorned with all manner of decoration and splendour. A large monk, who seemed to be an important figure in the monastery, sat at the front of the hall cross-legged, orange clad, his back to an array of dazzling paintings and statuettes. He looked across the hall at Mi Na. ‘Welcome,’ he said. There was nobody else in the temple. Mi Na bowed his head slightly and walked slowly towards the monk who had since averted his gaze and closed his eyes. ‘Stop,’ he said. Mi Na stopped. ‘Sit,’ he said. Mi Na sat. He mimicked the posture of the monk and closed his eyes. The hall filled with monks the gamut of shapes and sizes and they chanted together and they meditated together.
At the end of the service Mi Na approached the large monk who had been sitting at the front of the hall facing rows and rows of monks and a single line of nuns dressed in white. ‘Thank you,’ said Mi Na. ‘At sunrise,’ the large monk began, ‘we collect alms from the village.’ Mi Na could not conceal his excitement but this had been anticipated by his advisor. ‘Not you. Not yet.’ Mi Na bore the look of a lost soul. ‘You will go to the dining area. It is close to your hut. Instead of turning left as you leave, turn right. At the end of the path you will come to a clearing. The nuns will be preparing the kitchen and the tables for breakfast. They will show you what you need to do. When you have completed your chores you will join us for breakfast. It is important that you know you can spend your time here at the monastery as you please. After the gong sounds in the morning, there is only morning prayer and meditation, the alms walk, breakfast, lunch and afternoon prayer and meditation.’ Mi Na nodded his head and thanked the large monk. ‘Oh, and one more thing,’ he went on. ‘You must report at once to your neighbour’s hut. He will shave your head. It is too hot to carry around all of that hair and besides you cannot keep it clean here.’ Mi Na nodded his head and returned to his quarters to wash his face and have his head shaved.
Feeling decidedly fresher post-shave, Mi Na strode down the rainforest path and out into the dining area. Four stone tables stood in a row under a bamboo shelter. A wooden table was set up to one side, unsheltered by bamboo. The nuns waved Mi Na over to them with smiles as wide as the sun. ‘Good morning,’ said Mi Na. The nuns laughed as one. ‘No good morning for you!’ Afraid of confusion striking as it had become accustomed to at the most inopportune moments of his journey, Mi Na simply stood and smiled. But for once no one was confused. ‘You see the leaves?’ asked the most elderly of the nuns. He could see the leaves. They were everywhere, covering the paths of the dining area, the tables and the stools. ‘Sweep the leaves into the flowerbeds. Well, what are you waiting for! Here is the broom! Sweep!’
Mi Na took the broom in his hands and swept without blinking. His arms and legs pushed and pulled against the motion of the brush’s bristles as though they were automated. In no time, the dining area was free of leaves. The nuns were impressed and the most elderly of them presented Mi Na with a small banana. ‘For night time. You are not allowed to eat then but you are new here. You will need it tonight.’ Mi Na offered his hands to her and she put the banana in them. ‘Now take it back to your hut! Quickly! Before the monks return from alms walk!’ Mi Na did as he was told and returned to the dining area for breakfast. He sat in front of a large bowl of noodle soup with no chicken or pork or beef and savoured the scent of the coriander and chilli. A smaller bowl containing sticky rice was laid down next to him by the large monk. ‘You did well today. Tomorrow you will walk with us. But first you must obtain the correct garments from your neighbour’s hut. Please make sure you do this by nightfall.’ Mi Na nodded. He chewed his noodles and slurped his soup and made sure he completed his sole remaining task of the day.
Many months went by and Mi Na arose to the sound of the gong several hours before sunrise. He attended morning prayer and meditation, collected alms from the village, ate breakfast and lunch with the other monks and attended afternoon prayer and meditation. After some time he stopped attending lunch for his stomach was still full with breakfast. He came and went as he pleased until one day the large monk took him to one side after morning prayer and meditation. ‘How is meditation going for you, Mi Na?’ It was going well aside from the pain so Mi Na told the large monk of the pain. ‘Ah, yes, the pain. Now, when you experience the pain you will instinctively try to resist it. This is normal. But this does not have to be normal!’ he laughed. ‘So next time you feel the pain, dwell on the pain and the pain will cease.’ Mi Na did as he was told and the large monk was right, the pain ceased, and it ceased sooner and sooner each and every time. Many more months went by and Mi Na decided it was time to go home. This time, however, he did not feel the urge to leave, nor did he wait to be washed by a wave of euphoria. Mi Na thought of nothing and every last sinew of his body was still. He returned home and swept the floor of his restaurant with his soul for all of eternity.

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