The war grew nearer. Rebels were said
to be massing along the other side of the river - hiding in the rice
fields waiting to launch their attack on the City. The backpackers
and their fellow travellers began to desert the hotel and take to
the ferries going down river. The police seemed more jittery than
ever. Now they harassed everyone they could stop except the big
dark-windowed limousines that might contain important people or
high-ranking officers. But the cyclo drivers and motorcycle riders
were constantly stopped and had to pay on- the-spot fines. Then the
police started asking to see identity cards (which none of the
street people possessed) and demanding money when they couldn’t
Some people continued about
their business apparently unconcerned. Each day the boy had been
watching a man building a simple two room house. Are you building a
shop?” asked the boy. I am building the house of Life and Death.”
replied the builder rather sadly. and invited the boy to come and
see. One room was already completed and furnished, the othcr room
was empty and half-built. “That is death?’ asked the boy, pointing
to the empty room.
The builder shook his head gloomily.
“The room full of my useless possessions is death. The empty room is
“I don’t understand,” said the boy.
“Just look around,” said the man.
“Everywhere you look one is persuaded to fill one’s life with junk.
One can cook just as well on three stones, but no, one must have a
cooker. And it’s not just material rubbish - the movies and
magazines all make us believe our life is empty unless we fill it
with romance and greed, lust and intrigue.”
“We are so convinced by this
propaganda that a life without such things seems an empty and lonely
prospect. And because we clutter our life with such rubbish, death,
which means the end of all those silly things, seems so negative and
frightening. So we acquire more and more to help us pretend we are
more secure.” He chuckled. “It is like sand bags against a flood.
However much we try to stop it, death will burst through in the
“Look at this room with all its
trappings - many of them represent things you cannot recognise - but
I do. They symbolise all the worst aspects of my life: cravings and
desires, and self-importance. Although I keep meaning to throw them
all out I never do.” “So why don’t you just move into the other
room? There can’t be any memories for you there.”
“I have tried,” the man sighed. “I
have even tried locking the room of death and throwing away the key.
But after a while my craving to go back, just for a glimpse, was too
powerful to be endured and I broke the door down to get in.”
“Then couldn’t you make the life room
more comfortable?” suggested the boy. The builder nodded, “Of course
I could. Yes, indeed! I know exactly what I would put in it - I
would fill it with kindness, self control, patience, compassion,
-“ he stopped, close to tears. “Only
where can I obtain such things? I am like someone who wants to make
music so much he buys the instrument, only to discover he cannot buy
the skill to play . If only there was a shop - an ‘Emporium of the
“I have often imagined just such a
shop.” He closed his eyes and pressed his hands excitedly together.
“When the door opens an old-fashioned bell tinkles and a little old
lady, her hair primly in a bun and spectacles perched on the tip of
her nose, comes in from the back. The dusty shelves are lined with
jars labelled with everything the soul needs to be healthy.”
Come on in…
“The little old lady measures out the
amount of each you want - a little of this, a little of that.” He
made a deep sigh and his eyes opened. “But there is no shop - not
even at the temple. Such things you have to make yourself and I am a
“When I try to make them they fall to
pieces at the first tremble of my real nature, the first murmur of
impatience, the first snort of indignation - and all my best
intentions vanish and the room is bare and empty as before.”
As the boy left the builder was
shaking his head over the house he could never complete.
That night the boy had the strangest
dream. There in front of him stood an old-fashioned shop named
‘Emporium of the Soul’ and the door opened with a jingling bell and
a little old lady with spectacles and hair in a bun came forward to
serve him. “Do you have a bar of soap?’ asked the boy. “My body is
“No, no,” the old lady shook her
head. “This is not a shop for the body. Here you will find
everything you need to satisfy your soul.”
“But I can’t see my soul,” argued the
The old lady suddenly transformed
into the Black Swan, “But your soul can see you,” said the Black
Swan. “And perhaps it is sad when you neglect it.”
When is it?