The Zen of Bottle-Smashing

One evening, my friends Xus and Eleya (a boy-girl couple, both 17 like me as reckoned in Earth years) came out with my boyfriend Yith and I on one of those reckless-youth occasions – a drinking party around a campfire out in the wilds far from town.  Xus, our local highschool wildman, was the instigator.  We got to telling each other weird stories that had truly happened to us or to people we knew in real life.  Here’s me telling my weird story.  The events described actually did happen on the planet Earth.

**      **      **

“Windstorms will just make our weird stories spookier,” Xus declared, “Marrik, have some jow (alcohol; he had some bad, nasty vodka) for your throat and tell a story.”

“I’m ok,” I said. “Still got my sour crabapple wine here.” It just tasted like that. The flavour plus the bubbles gave a sensation that reminded me of when I shocked my tongue with a 9-volt battery as a kid. Real party supply.

“I brought pomegranate juice,” Yith said, and pulled out a good flagon of it from his backpack. He poured some of the crimson fluid into a cup for me and whispered
“dump that other crap into the sand.” But I was raised not to waste food, so I just set the wine aside for now. I dug the bottom of the bottle into the dirt.

“This story,” I began, “isn’t about something that happened to me. It happened to my dad when he was a student.”

“The planet Earth has more countries than you can shake a telescope at, and one of these is Spain. You probably have heard of it from Diversity class. (‘Diversity of Earth cultures,’ a required class at our highschool so that we’d understand our ancestral planet)”

“Si, si,” Eleya responded, “keiso myncheigo.” Yes, our local version of Spanish manchego sheep cheese, queso manchego, was a good souvenir of this long-lost land, if you needed a quick reminder. 

“My dad was 20 years old and he was a university student. He said he’d taken a year off to go live out of his backpack with his friend Rick in the continent of Europe. There were very large trains there that could carry hundreds of people closed inside like in a bus.” [We had a small number of electric/solar buses that were the only motor vehicles using our one graded gravel motorway, Regntum-Korabaas.  Our planet is terraformed and thus has no fossil fuels, hence, no cars.]

“These two guys were living on the cheap and they had a three-month pass so they could take any train, any time. Other than that, though, they had to walk from place to place.”

“I thought they had horses in Spain,” Eleya said quizzically.

“They did, but at this point in history, most people travelled around by cars that burned gasoline, which is sort of like liquid wax, and the horses were all just kept on their owners’ farms. No one rode around from place to place on them, and no one would trust anyone to
loan them out, except to personal friends. That’s how Earth was. Also, if the horses went on the roads they’d be in danger of being hit and killed by the cars. Cars were sort of like ultra luxury buses for four people, and they went very fast. Collisions between them were like
… you’ve never seen anything like that … let’s say, like what would happen if you hurled two big watermelons at one another and they met head-on in mid-air. It was the main cause of death in our lands because people always felt safe in the cars, no matter how fast they drove them or how distracted they were. The car was like a drug that made you feel you were in control and invulnerable and could go anywhere.”

“I can never get over it that you went in those things!” Xus marvelled. I had told him about cars before. He’d seen Earth movies featuring them, naturally, but in that context, they seemed fictional. He found my personal testimony more vivid.

“Yes, we did it all the time,” I said, for Eleya’s benefit, “– to the store, to the lake, to visit relatives, and just for a Sunday drive around the country. If there were highways and cars here, you could go from one end of Diyyana to the other in a single long day, so they
covered a lot of territory.”

“The Earth people were ga-ga about them,” Yith noted. [In his mechanical alien form, before he became human to become my boyfriend, he was part of the interstellar crew that rescued me on the Earth and brought me here – see blog posts below].  “The atmosphere of the whole planet was completely altered by their smoke. That’s why our crew nicknamed the planet ‘Wh!wh! helikhwhmwulkhwh,’ ‘the place where crowds live in smoke.’ The official name was ‘N’ejem’t!ei-nomem’t!umom,’ ‘Green-blue ball,’ but we thought our modernized name was better. While we were in orbit, we had a ‘rename the Earth’ contest, and that suggestion won.”

Huh. Rename the Earth. The things entities do for amusement when they have no television.

Actually, what am I saying? They did have television while they were there. Oh well, then, the things entities get up to when they only have the same boring old 300,000 channels to choose from. Mom, I’m watching the whole universe and there’s nothing good on.

“I should make one of those cars; I like speed and fire,” Xus mused. Eleya whacked his head playfully, sending a sheaf of hair into rise and fall.

“Don’t even think about it,” she warned. “It’s hard enough keeping you out of trouble at normal speeds.”

If Xus could only know how much he would dote on his wheels if he had them. He was lucky to escape. He would have been a car-caine addict par excellence. Even thinking about them made him take a long toke off his bottle-neck.

A warm gust of wind blew my hair around and also turned Yith’s bangs into a momentary firelit halo. I decided to keep going.

“One day my dad and his friend decided they needed to see some limestone caves that were up on a hill above a tiny village where the local train stopped. The caves had some prehistoric art in them, something my dad was very interested in seeing. They were called the Cuevas de la Pileta, I remember him saying.

“When he and his friend got off the train, they discovered that there were no local buses or anything like that that went up the hill to the caves. You either had your own car or you walked for an hour and a bit. The guys started hiking up the nearly deserted road even
though the sky was heavily overcast. Chilly November rains started coming down when they were just far enough from the station not to want to change their minds. They didn’t know the Mediterranean region could be so wintery. This was way down in the south
of Spain near the ferry terminal to Morocco. My dad said it was funny walking along the road with the cold, cold rain starting to saturate his clothes (these young guys were too proud to use umbrellas) and seeing all the spiky-leaved little palm shrubs along the road glistening with chilly water. Totally unexpected. The road was uphill all the way, and wet and miserable all the way, and they finally arrived at the cave mouth, dripping, bone-chilled and tired. There was no one there and a locked steel grate sealed the cave mouth. The cave was supposed to be open for visitors, according to their book, but it was dead as a grave. The rain kept slashing in the wind and they had come for nothing.

“The one sign of human presence was that there were some crates of pop bottles there, commercial drinks sold in glass bottles; these were all empties of drinks that had been consumed sometime earlier. My dad and his friend talked briefly, complaining to each
other, and my dad felt so frustrated that he picked a pop bottle out of a crate and threw it with full force against the rock wall near the cave mouth, so that it shattered broken glass all over.

“You have to know my dad hated that sort of thing. He was an intellectual guy and something of a neat freak, and he thought people who broke glass bottles in public places were the lowest of the low. Guffawing yahoos, thoughtless giddy adolescents – he was the opposite of that. So this surge of frustration that struck him and made him smash that bottle was all-encompassing and extreme. It was something completely new in his personal world.

“He said that not two minutes afterward, he and his friend heard a noise far down the hill. They looked and they could see a small white car climbing the loops of road that went up the hillside. Then there was another sign of life. A house that was far down below at the
base of the hill emitted a human, and he started to stride straight up the side of the hill on a path. The house was much too far away for anyone down there to have heard the bottle smashing. And then, unexpectedly, the sun broke through a rift in the clouds and
the rain began to let up. The day was clearly moving on to being more agreeable. All of this happened in less than five minutes.

“The car arrived first and a young woman got out. She explained, in French, that she was there to see the caves. She was nonplussed that the gate was in place, but clearly the fellow who was climbing towards us might know something. He arrived, and explained in reasonable English that he was the custodian of the caves. He had noticed the car, but not the climbers on foot, and it was his duty to meet visitors and show them the caves. My well soaked dad and his friend then went in and had the personalized cave tour of a lifetime, watched over by pictorial horses and ibexes drawn around 15,000 years before, at a time when ice covered most of the continent. At the end, they shook the custodian’s hand in the sunshine at the mouth of the cave, and then the young woman happily gave them a ride back down the long hill to the train station. They didn’t mention their glassy littering incident.

“My dad always felt there was something strangely significant about the coincidences that happened when he threw the bottle, but he couldn’t convince himself they had any meaning. Later on in his college life, he had a bad patch and became very discouraged
and depressed. One especially grim night he suddenly had a burst of inspiration that the things he thought of as being ‘myself’ just limited him for no good reason. Many of the things he had seen as his limits, things he couldn’t be or had to be, were illusions. He was actually free to be just about anyone he wanted to be. As soon as that thought burst out of him, he felt lighter, larger and not just happy, but even ecstatic. And as he put it, ‘I realized I’d smashed the bottle of who I was.’  The incident at the caves was like a lesson to him, a prototype intended to teach him something.”

“He liked to say, ‘you can try to be logical, you can be careful that you’re being realistic, you can be true to yourself, you can be a good, solid, steady, reliable person – but sometimes, you have to smash a bottle. You simply have to smash a bottle.’”

Xus toyed with the bottle on his lap, which still had a few centimetres of liquid in it. “This bottle is smashing me,” he commented with a suppressed belch. I ignored this and carried on.

“That’s the whole story, but one day I heard him telling it to an old buddy from his literature classes who came to see us at our house. The man commented, “that’s much like one of those stories of sudden enlightenment in Zen Buddhism. You know Basho’s poem about the frog?”

“My dad was an old-fashioned English lit guy and he hadn’t heard of this. His friend said, ‘well here it is:

‘The old pond….
now! –
Frog jumps in –
Water-sound.’

“Sounds very woodlands to us, but the view from Japanese culture is that it comments on enlightenment. Even those who meditate to find enlightenment may just go along steadily in their old human mode, which in a way is like suffering – just like what you went through. Then a sudden crack of reality lifts them into the enlightened state. The ‘splunk’ of the frog in the meditative old pond is a moment like that. There are a lot of zen stories that have this theme – student monks who became enlightened after they’d heard one rock ping off something or got one clap on the head from their teacher.’

“My dad was very impressed that he’d these two zen incidents in his life, one of which was just as tangible and visible and audible as the frog jumping into the pond.

“I was never moved by these stories at all and you know how it went – I smashed my bottle in a very bad way that was intended to kill me [Yith and his fellow aliens had rescued me as I tried to commit suicide at age 14 by jumping off a railway bridge]. Now the stories give me the shivers. I should have known better. Everything was there, laid out for me. And I still went for the rocks rather than enlightenment.”

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