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The Tale of the Negative X

posted Feb 26, 2016, 12:02 AM by Noa Shmueli   [ updated Feb 26, 2016, 10:52 PM ]

“Grandpa, tell me a story,” begged the little boy, toddling up to him with outstretched, pudgy arms. The old man reluctantly bent down from his worn chair and took the boy into his arms. Both the man and the armchair were old, and faded - so faded, in fact, that when the man shut his curiously bright eyes, nearly no one could distinguish man from chair. The man’s earthy smell had seeped deep into the folds of the armchair, marking it eternally. Man and chair seemed to have grown into each other, become each other - often, they both were still and silent, listening intently. For what, no one knew.


At the time, however, the old man was rubbing his eyes and nestling the boy as best he could between his bony frame. The boy’s eager eyes looked up trustingly. “Story!” He demanded. The old man searched his abyss of a mind for a suitable tale. He contemplated this for a minute or so while the boy looked on in growing frustration. “Sto-ry! Sto-ry! Sto-ry!” He chanted, and the old man finally consented to his wish. The story he remembered was old, ancient, yet the old man remembered; and after a moment’s hesitation, he began.


A long, long time ago, when my great-grandfather’s grandfather’s grandfather was not yet conceived, and people believed in magic, a baby boy cried his way into the world. The proud mother held him up in trembling hands, swaddled in feathery blankets, and named him X. Yes, child, I know you think the name silly, but pray do not laugh - listen. At that time, all common children - ones who were not known to everyone - were named X, Y or Z. Only the king’s children could be named differently - and at that, only A, B or C - because they were known to all. The unspoken law: all unknowns must be X, Y or Z and knowns must be A, B or C. It was unspoken, but nobody thought to question it.


Our little screaming hero was a commoner - unknown, and unadvertised, born not-so-quietly in a little cottage just on the outskirts of town. Which town, you are asking, child, and rightly so for I have forgotten to tell you. The land’s name was, curiously, Equation.


The baby boy was so usual, so average that nobody noticed him. He was just another mouth to feed, another scraped knee to kiss. Nobody noticed anything out of the ordinary. How he cried when he was well-fed, and well-rested. How he brushed away his mother’s caresses and cuddles. How he refused to look in anybody’s eyes.


Until he began to talk. Then, it was as obvious as the sun rising in the east. The boy was never happy. When his mother made him a steaming, creamy soup, he pushed it away and said he wanted stew. After the mother had sighed and groaned as she ought, and cooked him a simmering, fresh vegetable stew, he scrunched up his angelic nose, tipped the plate onto the handsewn rug and stated he hated vegetables. As the long-suffering mother set a marvellous treacle pudding, gleaming with golden syrup, he yelled that he was not hungry and stomped away, leaving the mother to shed a few tears and tear out her graying hair in silent frustration.


As the boy grew up and changed, his nature did not, and the parents finally called for a doctor. The doctor hemmed and hawed under his bushy beard, inspected the child (from a respectable distance - the child had refused, of course, to take a bath) and left, still hemming and hawing. The desperate parents knew now that only one solution existed. The witch doctor.


The witch doctor lived even further from Equation, in a mud hut that was strung with beads and bones (of what, no one knew). As the weary trio trudged their way there, the witch doctor shimmered into existence, a mere 5 feet away.


Greetings, travellers. I know your ailment, and I have come all the way because I fear you will be disappointed. There is no cure.


The anguished mother was the first to speak up. “Pray tell us, wise doctor. What is wrong with him?” The witch doctor paused for so long, they thought he was asleep. At last, he spoke.


I am not certain, for I have not seen this in my lifetime. But… my grandfather told me of this, as I was just a little boy.


He took a deep breath, more rattled than anyone had ever seen. The old man’s eyes shone as bright as the witch doctor’s, and just as maniacally.


The boy, he is negative. And he will stay so until he crosses to the other side of Equation.


Then his eyes rolled back into the whites and the witch doctor was gone. The bewildered parents looked at each other, then at the child who was rolling around in the grime, evidently not enjoying himself.


“Well, then that’s that,” said the father. “Our little negative X will have to cross Equation, and it is not our duty to go with him for we have other children to take care of.” The mother countered fiercely. “That is not possible, and you know it. The way is many days’ hard travel, and he is but a boy. And…” she hesitated. “Nobody has crossed Equation before. No negatives.” The father smiled bitterly. “Then he will be the first,” he said.


Everything was packed in under an hour. And so the boy set off. As he left the village, he did not look back. Ahead of him lay a dense, dark forest. And he walked. Curiously, he was silent, uncomplaining. Perhaps, he felt the aura of the woods, ominous with the unspoken threat of predators. Perhaps, he realized his negativity and decided to fight it. But probably, he did not complain because there was no one to complain to.


For many days, the boy traveled, and his food grew scarce, and his ribs began to show. The woods grew denser and denser, and the barbaric sounds of the forest echoed in the gloom. And yet he walked. Further and further into the forest, knowing that there must be an end to it.


After three moons had passed, his food was all gone, and he was forced to scavenge for wild berries and mushrooms that never filled his swollen belly. He was too afraid to try and capture the animals of the forest.


At last, it seemed that the forest was thinning. The boy walked, if you could call it a walk, that pathetic shuffle of misery. His eyes stayed on the ground, never looking up. A thin ray of sunlight pierced through a gap in the trees and fell upon his arched back, and the boy looked up and saw what he had not seen before.


A heavenly meadow spread out in front of him. Flowers of all colours grew there, and fruit trees. The boy ran in ecstasy towards the meadow, his hunger and fatigue forgotten. He filled his belly with the fruits, and found that one was enough to sate his appetite. As he rolled in the flowers, a buzzing bee stung him in fright but he did not mind. Finally, he fell into a fitful sleep. It seemed like hours had passed before he woke up, startled, his eyes squinting and adjusting to the bright sun after months of waking up in the dark forest. A few steps ahead of him was the fence of Equation. Oh, and what a fence! It consisted of two long, loooooong blocks of metal, one above the other. Curiously, a gap was between the two, like the creator had run out of metal. The fence stretched as far as the eye could see. It looked something like this:



The boy looked on in despair. Four months ago, he could have easily rolled through the gap, but now his belly, swollen from months of hunger, would not allow it. Defeated, he sank to the ground, and all the days of hard travel came back to him, and all the unslept nights, and the boy cried. Contorting his face and shuddering, pulling out the grass and tearing it into the tiniest pieces. His chest heaved and tears flowed like the ocean.


Finally, his mask of tears diminished and he leaned back against the fence. There was a sizzle and the air suddenly vibrated, like an electric shock, but there was no pain. Instead, it seemed, his belly had contracted and he stood a little taller. He reached out to the fence again, ignoring the little shot of pain that increased the longer he held the metal. He bit his lip and bore the pain, concentrating on his slowly diminishing frame. The pain increased and increased. The boy threw his head back and bit his lip in agony, but he held on. Finally, the pain was too much to bear, searing heat shooting up his fingers all the way to his arched back. He leaped away with a cry. His hand was red and scarred, all welted skin, but his stomach had gone down so much it was hard to believe it was his any more.


Cautiously, on all fours, the boy crawled up to the fence. He put one leg through, then the other. Then an arm and hand, then his scarred, deformed other. A finger brushed the fence and he cried out, panicking, and hit his head, bumping over to the other side. Once he hit the ground, something miraculous happened. His thoughts were erased, and all that was left was a pure white, like a baby’s. Then they returned, but changed. Nicer thoughts. Better thoughts. Positive thoughts. He had crossed Equation, and he had become positive from negative. And the boy knew, he had been cured.


The old man finished with a heavy breath, and turned to the little boy on his lap. “The end,” the man said, as was his custom. Then he noticed the rhythmic breaths of the child. He had fallen asleep. The man shook his head with a small smile, slowly removed the child from his knees. Then, he sat as he always did. He shut his eyes with a little contented sigh, and nobody could now distinguish between the old man and his chair.
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