Following the Songline

My first-ever work of flash fiction!  2015 Challenge 1:
Mystery, A homeless shelter, and a shovel.

Amazing to see how my writing has evolved – in part,
because of my participation in these contests!

 

A social worker whose early idealism has been lost in the endless, steady stream of people in need chases the riddle of a homeless man’s final message.
Can a dead man help her discover the answer to the Riddle of Life?


 

Jana watched the coroner’s van pull out of the parking lot as she pulled in. Lost another one, she thought without much feeling. Clients did occasionally pass away at Serenity House. Homelessness, years of not having basic nutritional and medical needs met and, often, the deprivations of mental illness were hard on their bodies.

When she got inside, she was dismayed to find that it had not been ‘another one’ – it had been Ben. In a different era, she supposed he would have been called a rascal or a rogue – not dishonest, but charismatic, funny, and wholly disinterested in living a normal life. He didn’t seem mentally ill, didn’t seem to have any family – just seemed to prefer “la vie dansante.”

Jana could clearly envision Ben strolling past her desk on his way to the dorm, pausing to ask “when you gonna get out from behind that desk and live, kiddo?” Sometimes, if she was feeling energetic, she would sit with him for a few minutes before she went home at night, listening to tall tales. He seemed to collect obscure history, and she always learned something new.

She had asked him once why he didn’t settle down into a healthier, normal life. “Following the songlines is a lot healthier than the life you’re living,” he had replied, launching into an exploration of aboriginal Australian beliefs about walking in the footsteps of the Creator. Jana quietly came to the conclusion that Ben probably had lived on a commune in the 60s, and just couldn’t handle the modern world.

She was glad, she realized, that he had been here when he died. At least he was warm and comfortable, and it was better than him disappearing one day, leaving them to wonder what had happened to him.

Arriving at her desk, she leaned down to put her handbag in the lockable drawer and found herself eye to eye with an oddly-shaped bundle perched atop the mountain of manila folders on her desk. Rick, the night shift manager, had taped a piece of paper to it with a hand written note reading “Ben wanted you to have this.”

“This” was a canvas case with a belt loop, containing some sort of fancy shovel. Why on earth would Ben want me to have a shovel? A small interior pocket held two pieces of paper: a photograph, and a grocery receipt. The black and white photo showed a very young Ben with a balding, bespectacled man in a ruined stone building. On the back was written “with Nicolae, Turdas, 1961.”

Jana set the photo aside and examined the store receipt, which looked like it had been retrieved from a waste bin. On the back, in spidery cursive, was written:

What do Roma and Pila Nguru have in common? Their greatest lie is their greatest truth.

It’s a riddle, kiddo. Dig up the answer, and you’ll know what I know – that what you’re doing isn’t living.

Jana threw the note away – it certainly wasn’t the first time a crazy homeless person had left her a weird message. But Ben wasn’t crazy. In fact, he was the only one who had noticed her growing cynicism and dissatisfaction. She rescued the note from the trash, then put Ben’s shovel in the drawer with her purse. Dig up the answer, very funny. Turning to her computer, she found herself opening a web browser instead of the records database. She typed into the search field.

T-u-r-d-a-s-1-9-6-1

Skipping the unexpectedly long list of results, she clicked “image” and scrolled until she found Ben’s photograph. Clicking on it, she learned that Ben had been “Benedict Maeko,” an up-and-coming archaeologist. That explained the obscure history knowledge. He and Nicolae Vlassa, who worked for a museum in Transylvania (as in ‘Dracula’, Jana observed wryly), had discovered stone tablets with the world’s oldest writing on them while digging in Romania. Guess that’s where the reference to the Roma came from. And then, in the 70s, Ben just… dropped off the radar.

Jana tried to focus on her work, but her mind continually wandered back to Ben’s note. He’d thought he had the answer to the Riddle of Life. Nonsense! But if Ben and this Nicolae had discovered the world’s oldest writing, who knows what else they might have found….

Jana gave in to her inner Nancy Drew, abandoning any pretense of working. Poor Nancy, she thought with a smile. Sleuthing is a lot easier with Google! She couldn’t imagine how to search for the ‘great truth’ – or lie – of the gypsies, so she tried the other phrase, quickly discovering that

p-i-l-a-n-g-u-r-u

was an Australian native tribe. Australian? She added ‘song line’ to her search and began to read, wondering if Ben had been on some sort of 40-year…

w-a-l-k-a-b-o-u-t

She read several articles on this ancient custom – and then encountered articles explaining that it wasn’t ancient at all, but a recent invention – possibly the colonial Brits’ way of understanding why their aboriginal workers occasionally got up and left their settled work places to wander in the wilds.

Suddenly, Ben’s riddle made perfect sense.

Following the ‘song lines’ through the wilderness; a spiritual journey – their greatest truth – had been turned into a caricatured wanderlust. Wanderers… gypsies… cursed to wander? – or just living their lives according to their ancient values, rather than modern capitalist priorities?

Following the song lines is a lot healthier than the life you’re living.

Jana stared at the stacks of files on her desk, recalling how contented and serene Ben had always been. She tucked Ben’s photo and note into her handbag, then ran its strap through the shovel’s belt loop before hanging it over her shoulder.

He couldn’t get me to look at my own life – but he knew if he gave me a riddle – a mystery to solve – I wouldn’t be able to resist looking at his… Lesson learned.

Jana began to sing softly to herself as she walked – serenely – out the door.

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