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Parashurama, the Slave
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The settlement where Rama’s journey ended had no name. There were about eight huts in it, most of which were lined up on the south side of a path that went through it. On the other side of the path was a steep decline to the river, and the path went downhill both to east and west.
The river was the source of the settlement’s water, and the women who lived there had to go down to it every day to get what water they needed. It was a hard climb. The river was about two hundred feet lower than their homes, and the path had several turns in it. The actual length of the path to the river might have been as much as eight hundred feet. Unless it was raining, they had to carry water for themselves and their livestock up that path in jugs.
The path by the village was used from time to time by people who were travelling from one place to another. Since there were very few merchants, and no one travelled for pleasure, the women saw very little of people from other parts of the world.
Those they did see were mostly soldiers, who came annually to conscript the boys as they approached manhood, to satisfy the kingdom’s need for more soldiers. That need was so great that all the boys were taken off.
It was perhaps a matter of bad luck that in this hamlet none of the young men ever returned. They did not have special skills of any kind, such as smithing, which would have made them valuable in any way except as foot soldiers. Of those that went away, none returned disabled. There were no men with missing limbs or eyes. So there were no fully grown men in the settlement.
There were only a few children, of course. The settlement’s boys managed to father a few before they were taken off. And there were a few others, born to men who passed through only briefly, mostly the same soldiers who took the boys.
Among the children was one named Adi, a boy of about three who had a joyous way and a vital interest in everything he found. He ran along the path, chasing the chickens, who knew how to stay out of his way, and among the goats, who he had learned to avoid offending. He laughed and sang, as he played, engaging whomever he could to play with him.
In his first days there, Rama came to know a young woman named Masumi, who cared for Adi. “Is he your son?” Rama asked. When she told him he was, Rama asked, “And his father is away?”
Masumi suddenly stopped what she was doing and sobbed quietly. “He was taken before Adi was born,” she said. “That was over three years ago, and I have not heard anything about him since that day.”
Masumi might have been sixteen when Adi was born. She certainly looked like she was not as old as twenty-one. She was small, and she was sad. She had fallen in love with a boy of the settlement, but he was gone. With the loss of him, the greatest joy had been taken from a hard life. And she knew that the only joy that remained would be one day snatched from her, as her son grew to manhood.
There was a second path through the hamlet. It was not there by any intention, but just as a matter of convenience for the women who lived there. Each of the huts had a small plot of land behind it, and they were all connected together so the women could visit among themselves in an easy manner. They all knew what chickens or goats belonged to whom. They all helped each other with cleaning and mending clothes.
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“Let me guess,” Justus said cynically. “Rama had his way with every woman there in one night.”
August looked at him coldly for a moment. Then he said rather mildly, “Vishnu is a god known for his dedication and loyalty. He was still in rather shocked mourning for the woman he loved. At that point, he would have considered taking up with another woman a sort off desecration.”
Justus said, “Oh,” and looked away.
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One night, a very few days after he arrived at the settlement, Rama heard a muffled sob. He got up from the pile of straw where he was sleeping and went into the open land, where the second path lay.
It was very late. The full moon was very bright and almost directly overhead. He could see very well to walk around by its light. He heard the sob again.
He passed along the path past two huts. When he came to the third, he saw that a lamp was burning inside. He could see Masumi through the open back window.
Before her on a bench, Adi lay sleeping. Something about his posture looked unusual. He was not stretched out as one might expect a sleeping child to be. His pose seemed unnatural.
As Rama watched, Masumi picked something up. He did not see what it was until she brought it down hard on her little son’s ankle.
It was an arrow. Masumi had stabbed her son, who Rama now clearly saw had been drugged. Working quickly, with intense emotion nearly blocking her, she used the blade of the arrow to cut the tendon.
Rama rushed into the room, but the deed was done. Adi would never walk normally again. Masumi had collapsed into a state of heavy sobbing. Rama asked her urgently, but quietly, “What have you done?”
“I have saved his life!” she said.
Masumi had taken a big chance. If the authorities in the army understood that she had maimed her son, they probably would have killed her. They might even have killed him as a warning to anyone else who might have the idea of doing such a thing. But he was young enough that they probably would not pay much attention to him for years. By the time they did, the wound would have long since healed. The scar would be the jagged sort of thing that the arrows they used left, and they would be told he had been shot accidentally at an early age by a soldier. So in her intense despair, she had hope for her little boy.
Everyone knew what had happened, when they saw Adi, but no one ever spoke of it. Rama saw the perplexed look on his face when he tried to run, as he had loved to do, and found he could not. He had to learn to walk again, and when he did he did it painfully and slowly. But he would be able to father children and see them grow.
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August looked toward Justus. He was just sitting there with his mouth open, as though he had something to say, but no words were coming out of his mouth. “Are you all right?” August asked.
“I will be,” Justus said quietly.
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Rama was made useful. He worked, doing a few things the women found difficult. He was very strong, and he could lift things that would take two of them.
But every day, as he did chores, he saw Adi, who had grown dejected because of his inability to run and play. His physical wounds healed, but his soul had wounds of its own.
As time passed, Rama became increasingly outraged. His loss, he understood, was only a small part of what was happening to many ordinary people.
They were victims of parasitic governments and the mindless greed of the men who ruled them. The people who ruled were victims of their own greed and lack of compassion. The wars they pursued were consuming everything, including themselves and their own families, destroying nearly everything of value.
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“War,” Justus said, “is like a game of poker. A lot of it is chance. You can win or lose. But it produces nothing of value. If you win, what you are getting is something someone else earned or made.”
August replied, “Actually, I think you are almost right, but there are a couple of big differences. It would be more like a game of poker, if the pot in the poker game were made of cast iron and hung over a fire. If you don’t win quickly, then the thing you are gambling over is destroyed. The other thing is that it is not just money or property that is lost. It is the health and lives of the people.”
The moon was well above the horizon by now, and it was shining brightly enough that walking about in the night was easy. The two men went back to the store to fetch another glass of beer. August brought out some bread, two knives, cutting boards, and a hunk of cheese. It was stinkkäse, a type of very smelly schmierkäse, a spreading cheese that was made on one of the local farms.
As they settled down, they heard a voice say, “I hope you don’t mind that I was listening just now. That is quite a story. Do you mind if I join you?”
It was Tom Allenby, one of the town’s residents. He had been out for a walk in the moonlight after a hot day. August and Justus invited him to sit down on the porch with them. Before they returned to the story, August fetched a glass of beer for Tom. And they all settled down as the story continued.
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In his anger, Rama decided that something had to be done about the incessant wars. The ordinary people of the land were not greedy, but they were being made the objects of greed. In his soul, Rama realized that he had been wrong. It is not enough to prove that to be free of greed was an important step to happy living. Something had to be done to stop the incessant cycle of fighting and enslavement.
Rama was still not over his mourning. Perhaps if he had been, he would have tried a different way to try to stop the destruction. But the passing of time did not make things easier, because he had the constant picture of Adi in front of him, to remind him of how bad things were.
In the end, he came to the conclusion that he had to destroy the armies that were ravaging the countryside so as to render the petty kingdoms in that land powerless. He decided that he had to do this himself.
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Justus laughed. “Yes, this is one of the things that I really love about Hinduism. Vishnu was a Mahamaharathi. I couldn’t get over this; I remember the numbers well. According to the Hindus, a Mahamaharathi is able to defeat 207,360,000 ordinary soldiers, all at once.”
“Hindus love numbers, I think,” August said with a smile. “But I am not sure that anyone ever took that number to be exactly accurate.”
“Well,” Tom interjected helpfully, “this is a mythological number. We don’t have to explain it.”
“And even if we could, it would not mean anything to anyone. After all, who understands such a number?”