“He won. Get over it.”
These were the last words of The Prophet at dinner before he’d slunk off to smoke his Lucky Strikes at the cave entrance, leaving the rest to clean up what was left of the spit-roasted carob. Then they’d all retired to their own chambers with little discussion (if they discussed in any context other than mealtime they quickly ran out of things to say). Or so they thought until they found The Prophet at breakfast time, slumped over the large, flat boulder they used for a table, mouth clotted with dried blood, quite dead.
A brief inspection found he had been shot in the stomach with a silver bullet. The Scholar and The Jester wasted no time rushing to The Sage’s chambers despite his mumbled protest. But a quick search of his possessions, few and esoteric, revealed to be missing the holy man’s six-shooter, which he swore to have last seen beside his sleeping head.
The three eyed each other with suspicion; either the sage was lying or another had stolen the gun. This was quite possible; righteousness sleeps heavy but is furious when roused. The Scholar demanded to search The Jester’s small nook with its fingerpainted walls and he, in turn, demanded to run his knobbly fingers behind each of The Scholar’s bookshelves looking for the murder weapon, and so the sun already touched the common room by the time they shoved Prophecy’s cool corpse to the floor and The Jester began to fry carobs for their breakfast (since it was his turn). He whistled while he worked the pan and The Sage and The Scholar that once they ate his cooking they’d have trouble taking anything seriously for several hours.
The Sage tried to pray as The Scholar paced across the cave entrance, stroking his substantial grey beard where it protruded from his hood. He walked to the left, all the while looking at The Prophet’s corpse, then, once he’d left the sun’s light, would turn on his heel and walk right, staring across the blasted plain to the distant silver glimmer of the sea. He had been doing this every morning for a very long time and had rarely seen the sign of life, though occasionally a very sweaty archeologist would walk by without sparing the spindly old man or the gaping cave the slightest glance. That morning, however, there was only the sun, and the wind, and the sea. Solid and eternal, as all things ought to be. The Scholar paused at this thought and harrumphed. Behind him, the slightest of furrows crossed The Sage’s bald brow. The Scholar thought once more and harrumphed once more.
The Sage’s left eye sprung open, full of fire, though he did not shift from his balance upon the stool. “What,” he asked, full of, of all things, impatience, “is it?”
“It’s just,” said The Scholar, running his sandal along the groove his pacing had worn in the brown rock, “none of us had ever died before.” He looked uneasily between his two remaining companions (The Jester was juggling spoons) and added, “Have we?”
Their memories were notoriously jumbled, or at least, so he recalled, but he knew they had set out together, the four of them, a long time ago to do something terribly important, but then they were in a cave where the only thing that remained consistently true was that it was impossible for any of them to leave. He had been here long enough to wear down the stone (though, oddly, never his sandals) with his pacing, and now The Prophet was no longer.
The Sage and The Jester were never quite as bothered by the inconsistencies, though for different reasons, and even though The Sage shook his head in agreement and The Jester shrugged among his spoons, they hardly seemed moved by the violent turn of events. The Sage said something under his breath about different unfoldings of the One Eternal Truth and went back to his prayer.
Later, when most of the carobs were finished and the day was unbearably hot and flies, somehow able to enter the cave, had begun to swarm The Prophet’s decaying remains, The Scholar said, “How will we know when the flood is coming this year?” He knew many things, but the weather was not knowable, and to survive the sudden waters of winter they had always relied on The Prophet’s warning and spent weeks trying to remember how to breathe water, The Jester always seeming to struggle ’til the last moment before pulling through. Now they would not know, and the waters might catch them by surprise. Even The Sage preferred not to drown.
The Jester belched, but when he did so it wasn’t ugly but rather the very joy of a fine meal. He said in his sing-song voice, “There’s no Prophet, so no rain either. Dry, dry, dry, all the way down to the end of the road!” His words, combined with his cooking, sent his compatriots into fits of giggles, not because anything was funny but because life was grand and they were at the center of it and what could ever happen?
The sun was well past its zenith when The Sage sobered and, still lying on his cot, began to tinker with his favorite toy, a small pebble that “equaled,” in some mysterious act of interentanglement, anything in the Universe. He knew that the author of this story had read Borges because the pebble had once equaled the author, so he knew not to called it the Aleph for fear of being called unoriginal. The pebble allowed, through its deep window into the unity of all realities, to see how the temporal and the particular reflect the transcendent eternal and at that moment he suddenly remembered the last supper the night before, The Prophet before his betrayal.
The Prophet had been wearing atop his hood a strange red hat with a broad bill he’d produced from his chambers. This itself was ordinary, as The Prophet was always producing odd objects and ideas he had foreseen. But then The Prophet had prophesied, and a great argument ensued, with The Scholar growing louder and louder and The Jester alternating between a cackle and a whimper and eventually he’d blocked them out because he needed to pray and escape the pettiness of their collective presence.
The Prophet had always understood how right and wrong lay under all questions and had never acted with anything other than the utmost rectitude. The Jester, thought The Sage, is mercurial, hard to predict, and an old enemy, but he loves life. No, only The Scholar knows death, and could use his wisdom to conceal a firearm, and hated The Prophet for his stupid hat. The Scholar is the murderer, and that’s that, he thought. Evil will grow even in the desert. The pebble showed him that his conclusion was true in all possible worlds.
The Jester, meanwhile, drew dirty pictures in charcoal on a freshly-washed section of his bedroom wall. The primitive skeletons were particularly crude, and above his goat beard the trickster’s face was twisted in a rare frown. He had quite liked The Prophet, who had smelled so much of the life-scent of the world and always produced the most colorful souvenirs from across the times. The Jester loved the tin soldier and the aquamarine ankh and Stretch Armstrong. It was hard for him to even imagine one of his friends hurting The Prophet who knew so much of life. The very thought warmed his blood. They stole the joy. They stole the love. Sounds like The Sage, he thought to himself. Rules and sanctimony. But, he thought, spinning in circles for emphasis, The Scholar had his rules, too, and not rules about killing, either. The Sage had his limits but knew the ultimate futility of making things fit. The Scholar had no such qualms. “Hm,” he said, sketching an obscene symbol with his finger. “Wherein lies death?”
The Scholar, for his part, was frustrated that he’d written no records of the previous night’s debate, and his memories were slipping from him like an eagle loosing from its perch. There had been an argument, certainly, but he hadn’t murdered The Prophet, for two reasons: (1) He had no reason to disrespect The Prophet, no matter how unreasonable his sight may have been; on the contrary, the prophecy was in some sense the highest form of wisdom. (2) It would be unreasonable to murder any of his friends; this just meant more work for him, and besides, what rational basis was there for such an unprecedented occurence even being possible? Clearly they had lived far beyond the usual years so far…No, it was certainly the others, though they may not realize they don’t even remember it. But which one, and where would they hide they gun? Who could be so foolish?
Supper was a sullen affair and, they slowly came to realize, a contingent one. The Prophet no longer existed to know what would take place in advance, which led them to wonder whether any of it needed to take place at all. The Scholar’s carob soup made them thoughtful and quiescent. The Sage discoursed upon righteousness and the escape of the self through obeisance. The Jester picked his nose and recited a list of his favorite textures to rub against his cheek. The Scholar wondered whether everything could fit together after all and whether he could prevent any future murders, working, as now he must, from uncertainty.
It was only a week later, after The Jester had held a knife wide-eyed to the Scholar’s throat, shouting, “You kill! You kill!” that they thought to check The Prophet’s own room. There, among far fewer possessions than they remembered their friend owning, on the center of an inexplicable plywood desk, sat the gun, pinning under its weight a note to the table. Written in carob oil on goatskin, it said quite simply that he had received word of a great temple’s destruction and the end of an age and that the time of “must be” was giving way to “can be” and that though they could no longer predict the floods, the three of them together would perhaps learn to breathe, and that this cooperation would be good, far better than what is certain in its own right. Somehow, it said, they, too, were supposed to become necessary.
So that night they turned to one another with a newfound humility and respect, aware for the first time that themselves was not all they could be, while outside on the dusty plain with its freshly dug grave, hidden, for the moment, from all the armies of men, the first drops of rain began to fall.