The Book of Numbers
ESTRAGON: Where shall we go?
VLADIMIR: Not far.
ESTRAGON: Oh yes, let’s go far away from here.
Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot
Two men walked alone in the desert.
Up one dune and down another they went.
They walked in single file, though the one in front was not necessarily leading.
They had come from a place where leaders do not exist.
They rarely spoke, though they did speak now and then.
Most of the time they found they had nothing to say.
“How about some water?” one would ask, and whichever was holding the canteen, which for some reason never was empty, would drink first and hand it to the other, or would hand it to the other and wait to drink until it was handed back.
“Thanks,” the one who was handed it would say, and the one who did the handing would say, “No, thank you.”
They needed to do something to keep their spirits up.
This politeness had become their little joke.
It made them laugh when they knew they needed to laugh.
Or it reminded them that laughter could still exist.
When one would become despondent, the other would provide the question that begat their little joke.
And so they would continue, up one dune and down another, sleeping at night and walking during the day, neither of them knowing where they were going, or knowing where they were going but not knowing if they would arrive.
It was noon.
The sun was high in the sky.
It stared at them without blinking.
It spoke to them of an indifferent kind of anger.
The first man, or the man who on this day happened to be first, said, “Look, there’s an eagle,” and pointed straight ahead, but at an angle, toward the sky.
“Where?” said the second man, who was unable to see it.
And when the first man stopped and tried to point it out, the second man said, “I cannot see it. Are you sure it’s really there?”
“Yes,” the first man said. “It has a white head and brown feathers, and it is gliding in a way that reminds me of the way all birds glide.”
Thus they came upon their first conundrum.
Until now, there had been nothing about which they’d disagreed.
That is, the things about which they’d disagreed had been, through discussion or conversation, resolvable.
They had been minor things, things that didn’t matter, or things that mattered but that could be proven or disproven over the passage of time.
How long until nightfall, for instance.
Or whether the moon would rise from this direction or that.
On the question of the eagle, however, neither of them knew where to start.
Or they knew where to start, but not how to proceed beyond that point at which they’d started.
Each was convinced that the other was wrong.
And yet evidence as to how either of them was wrong was not apparent, or was equally apparent to them in opposite ways.
“Let’s sit,” said the first man, who, of the two, was older.
He thought that by quitting their upright positions, and taking a moment to reflect or recuperate, they might figure out what was going on.
But the second man, who was now in possession of the canteen, and who, without intending to, had begun to exhibit signs of paranoia, said, “What? No. We need to keep going. We need to find our way out of here.”
The first man looked at the second man placidly.
He liked the second man, but he did not love him.
Or he loved him, but he did not like him.
And yet, for the sake of his journey with the second man, or for the sake of the second man himself, he was willing to make concessions that under normal circumstances he wouldn’t have made.
In terms of the eagle, which appeared to him to only be circling in the distance—not doing anything special or remarkable—this meant denying its existence, or admitting its existence only to himself.
And so he said to the second man, in a tone that made the second man look at him distrustfully, as if he couldn’t bring himself to believe him, “It’s ok, a trick of the eye, I never saw it anyway. What do you say we keep going till nightfall?”
At this point something surprising happened.
Or something more surprising than what already was happening happened.
The second man, from whom the first man had not looked away since uttering his last sentence, began to disappear.
That is, a slow but persistent vaporization of his body occurred, so that his very flesh seemed to disintegrate before the first man’s eyes—going from solid to transparent to utterly absent.
One moment he was there, and the next moment he was gone, though to where he was gone was not something the first man could explain.
“Hello?” the first man said, as if wanting to remain calm, or as if wanting to maintain the semblance of calm.
“Follow the eagle,” he heard the second man say, though he still could not see the second man.