The old man’s boat was too small for all of them to fit, so they devised a system of having two people go over and one person return with the boat, until everyone was across. The first two across were the twins.
As they rowed away, and the sound of their bickering faded in the distance, Hugh realized how rash of a decision this was. It would take a few days at least to get to the sea, and he wasn’t entirely sure of the way. He had only been there once when he was young, and the memory of it was vague and patchy.
He looked at the old man, wrapped in a bed sheet, the contours of his face barely visible under the cloth. Where had he come from? Why did he come here? What was a blind man doing alone in a rowboat?
In any case, the dwarf was back to the shore in a bit to pick up the old man’s body, which he stayed with on the far shore while his sister, the giant, returned for Hugh. After the whole ordeal was over, so much time had passed that the Sun was beginning to approach the horizon.
“So, which way do we go?” asked the dwarf.
“It’s definitely that way,” Hugh say, pointing at a forest. “The woods aren’t very deep, and there’s a well travelled wagon path, so we shouldn’t get lost.”
They headed towards the forest, and before long they saw a winding road leading into a narrow clearing of the trees. Contrary to what you might expect, there was nothing special about these woods. They weren’t ambushed… they didn’t encounter any magical creatures… nothing slowed their progress at all, really. They just walked through the forest, talking about which would win in a fight: a centaur or a minotaur?
“I’m telling you,” said the dwarf. “You have to give it to the centaur. His body is a freakin’ horse. He could kick the minotaur to death easily.”
“You’re an imbecile,” replied the giant. “Why would the minotaur be behind the centaur unless the minotaur was kicking the centaur’s butt.”
The dwarf huffed. “The centaur has the best part of the man, his head, so he can out-think the minotaur.”
“The best part of a man is his head?” asked the giant. “That’s the part that gets him into the most trouble. Besides, the minotaur has horns, so I would take him in a literal head-to-head match-up any day.”
“What about a unicorn?” asked Hugh.
“Shut up, Hugh!” the twins said in unison.
It went on like this for some time, with the dwarf exhorting the superior qualities of the centaur while the giant insisted upon the minotaur as being an ideal combatant. Hugh quietly imagined a centaur and minotaur arguing about who would win in a fight, the world’s tallest dwarf or the world’s shortest giant. Hugh thought the minotaur would actually favor the dwarf, on account of being shorter, while the centaur would probably side with the giant.
As they reached the end of the forest, there was a fork in the road. Since the sun had all but completely set, they decided to make camp at the forest’s edge in the waning twilight. After killing a few jackalopes for dinner, they made a fire, ate, and lay down in the grass.
“Tell us about the sea, Hugh,” said the dwarf.
“Yeah, tell us all about it,” said the giant.
“Well,” began Hugh, “It’s not all that different from our pond. I mean, there are differences, like the water is salty, and the air smells different, almost more crisp. And the waves. The waters roll up the beach, then recede back, causing an endless cycle of the ocean licking the sand, accompanied by a rhythmic crashing sound that just makes you so relaxed.
“I remember as a child running into the water and turning back to try to beat the next wave, and my mother yelling, ‘Look out for the under-tow.’ I never really understood what that was… anyway, we sat on a blanket and had a picnic, and I just remember everything being so wonderful. Even if there is no mansion for him under the sea, the beach is pretty close to perfect. I wouldn’t mind living there after I die.”
Hugh then heard a chorus of snoring. “Goodnight, guys,” he said, smiling, looking up at the stars.
In the morning, they picked breadberries for breakfast and began on the road again. They decided to take the fork in the road that appeared to have a house beside it up ahead, hoping they might be able to ask for directions there.
When they arrived at the home, it appeared to be empty. They knocked on the door, looked in the windows, and the giant finally shouted, “Hello?”
There was a muffled reply, but it wasn’t coming from inside the house. It seemed to be coming from the backyard. The giant yelled again, and they all heard the reply once more, even louder. They walked behind the house, following the sound of shouting.
Out back, they found a well, and at the bottom of it was a man.
“Oh thank you! Thank you, thank you, thank you!” said the man in the well.
“Don’t thank us yet,” said the dwarf. “We haven’t gotten you out.”
“Here, grab this,” said the man, before flinging up a bucket on the end of a rope. Even bending in as far as he could stretch with his sister holding his legs, the dwarf was not able to reach the bucket being hurled up by the man in the well.
“We need something else, is there something in your house we could use to lower down to you?” asked the dwarf.
“I can’t think of anything that long, maybe the bed sheet,” said the man.
”I found something,” said Hugh. Slowly, he lowered a tree that he uprooted into the well. The man grabbed hold of the branches and Hugh dragged him up without much effort.
“Thank you! Thank you, thank you–”
“Yeah, we get it,” said the giant. “How long were you down there?”
“Seven days,” said the man. “I’m so hungry. Come inside, I’ll fix us something to eat. I haven’t had anything but insects and a frog in the past week.”
Once they were inside and seated around a table, the man began cooking.
“So, what brings you folks out this way?” asked the man, moving about the kitchen in a frenzy.
“We’re helping out a friend,” said Hugh.
“Oh yeah? A big, strong group like you, probably off to build something huge or move something heavy, huh?”
“We’re going to throw our friend’s dead body into the sea,” said the dwarf.
“Well, maybe,” said the giant. “We’re not sure, but we’re headed to the shore and we’ll hopefully figure it out before we arrive.”
“What do you need figured out? Maybe I can help?” asked the man.
“What happens when you die? Do you need to do anything special with the body? Our friend believed he would live in a mansion at the bottom of the sea after he died, so we figured… it makes sense to put his body there,” replied the giant.
“Well, I know this: he doesn’t need his body anymore,” said the man. “Besides it’s not really his body anymore, since he’s not using it. It belongs to the world now. Whether you buried it in the ground here or dumped it at sea, the result would be the same: it would be used like clay to mold something else. You could even burn it to smoke and ashes, and it would still be reused somehow.”
“So… there’s no point?” asked the dwarf.
“I didn’t say that… this is just what I believe. If he wanted that done, I think it’s right to fulfill his wishes. I’m not familiar with mansions under the sea, so I don’t know what someone like him would have wanted.”
“What do you believe happens after we die?” asked the giant.
The man began mixing something in a bowl and turned to the three of them.
“I believe… I believe we’re like this dough. It started as a little seed, which I planted in the ground. Then, it grew into wheat, which I harvested and grounded into flour. Then, I added some water and yeast to it, and when I mix it up and put it in the oven, it will turn into bread. So, what is it we’ll be eating? Is it wheat? Is it dough? Or, is it bread?”
“Clearly when we eat it, it will be bread, I hope,” said the dwarf.
“Indeed, it will be bread, and yet, it’s not bread right now, it’s dough. It won’t fulfill its full potential until it becomes bread, though it has been many things before. And even though it will be bread briefly, then we will eat it, and it will cease to be bread anymore.”
“I don’t get it,” said the dwarf.
“I believe in reincarnation,” said the man. “I believe that who I am has been many other things before, and that when I die, I will become something else.”
“What were you before you were you?” asked the giant.
“The earliest thing I can remember being was a ram. Then I was a bull, then much like yourselves, I was one of a pair of twins, then I was a crab, then a lion, then a girl who died young, then a wealthy merchant who became a judge, then a scorpion, then a centaur, then a goat, and finally me. Oddly enough, though I almost died at the bottom of a well, my next form will be as a fish. How ironic would that have been?” asked the man.
“I’m not sure that’s irony,” said the dwarf.
“Of course it is, you twit,” replied the giant. “If he had been a fish, he would have survived just fine at the bottom of that well.”
“But he would never have fallen in a well if he had been a fish in the first place, you nincompoop,” said the dwarf.
“It’s alright. Maybe it’s not irony, it’s just a strange coincidence,” said the man, putting the dough aside to rise. He sat down at the table with them. “How about yourselves? What’s your story?”
“I’m the world’s tallest dwarf, and this is my twin sister, the world’s shortest giant, or as I like to call her, the giantess.”
Before he could brace himself, his sister’s fist made swift contact with his throat. He pushed away from the table, leaned forward and began coughing loudly, holding his neck with both hand.
“Hugh found us in a big basket when we were infants, floating around the island he lives on,” said the giant.
“I was meaning to ask if you might know who lived on that island, being a cyclops and all,” said the man. “I have to say… I’m surprised, because it’s local legend that the cyclops on that island is a murderous beast.”
“I assure you, I wouldn’t hurt anyone,” said Hugh.
“You saved my life, you don’t have to prove anything to me. I’m in debt to all of you. Please, let me aid you in some way,” said the man.
“About that,” said Hugh. “We’re trying to find the sea, like we said, but we’re not really sure how to get there. I sort of know the general direction, but that’s about it,” said Hugh.
“Well sure,” said the man. “Walk in any direction for long enough and you’ll hit a coast. But I can map out some directions for you so you get there in, oh, I’d say… about two days from here. Maybe three. You said you were going to bury your friend at sea, is that what you were carrying? His body?”
“Yep,” the giant said, glancing at the body wrapped in a sheet laying near the door.
“I’ll tell you what,” said the man. “I can’t just give you directions, I should make your journey easier. So, I’ll give you herbs to wrap your friend’s body in to help stave off some of the decay and smell. Then, I’ll give you guys my old wheelbarrow. It works just fine, and it should make the trip that much easier.”
“Thanks!” said the dwarf.
“Tell me,” said the man, “How does that man know he will have a mansion under the sea waiting for him?”
“The Eagle rewards people who thank him,” said the giant.
“The Eagle controls everything,” added the dwarf.
“But… if the Eagle controls everything, and the Eagle wants thanks, why does the Eagle not convince everyone to thank him? In fact, why have I never even heard of this Eagle?” asked the man.
“Well, the Eagle is invisible,” said the giant.
“And the Eagle lives far away,” the dwarf chimed in.
“I don’t know,” said the man. “It sounds to me like this is some sort of tribal cult. They often rely on the power of imaginary animal beings to explain the world. It’s okay to admit that we don’t know everything.”
“Well, how do you know you used to be all those things, and that one day you’ll be a fish?” asked the dwarf.
“I don’t,” replied the man. “I wasn’t born able to remember my past lives, and I imagine you weren’t either. However, by attaining inner peace, I have been able to remember things I didn’t know I even knew. I’ve been able to unforget memories from almost a dozen past lives.”
“Why don’t we remember our past lives?” asked the giant.
“I have no idea,” replied the man. “Maybe people – and perhaps cyclopes – are unable to remember their past lives. Maybe animals remember. Maybe we forget because the knowledge of past lives is harmful or detrimental to a young living thing learning to live as a new organism. Maybe the trauma of having lived and died many times is so great that we repress the memory. Or maybe that’s the point of life, to discover your past.”
“And your future,” said Hugh.
“What?” asked the dwarf.
“Very astute, cyclops,” said the man.
“Please, call me Hugh.”
“Well, Hugh, it occurred to me that the world is predictable. Some call it destiny, or fate, and being able to see it is prophecy or soothsaying. I just watched the patterns, and I predict I will be a fish. If I turn out to be something else, it won’t bother me. What I turn into after I die is not something I worry about, because whatever I turn into will only last for a finite time before it changes again.”
“How do you… watch the patterns?” asked Hugh.
“I annihilate,” replied the man.
“What is that?” the dwarf asked.
“I empty my mind of all thoughts for long periods of time.”
“My brother is an expert at that,” said the giant.
“My mind… isn’t… go piss up a rope,” said the dwarf.
“There’s no need to bicker,” said the man. “Here, I’ll put the bread in the oven and start gathering herbs. Hugh, if you come with me, I’ll show you where my old wheelbarrow is.”
Once outside, Hugh turned to the man. “What’s your name, by the way?”
“Everyone calls me Sid,” he said.
“It’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance,” said Hugh.
Sid walked a ways to a thick patch of shrubs and began picking leaves while Hugh examined the wheelbarrow, not noticing two crows watching them from a tree in the distance.
“Is that them?” one of the crows asked quietly.
The other crow nodded.
To be continued…