An extraordinary journey through the world's religions that does for spirituality what Sophie's World did for philosophy.
- Arcade Publishing
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- 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 6.00(d)
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A Martha Kind of Story
A Crazy Aunt
The second week, Theo went back to the hospital. Waiting room, blood test, waiting room, scanner, waiting room, X ray, ultrasound, waiting room ... there was no end to the routine. Theo was so frightened that he let it all wash over him. An object, that's what he'd become: they stretched him out, plugged him in, spread a clear cold jelly over his chest, stood him up again, whisked him off to another room, and so it went. From time to time, Theo would ask whether it was a serious illness he had, but the question only got him noncommittal smiles. The nurses were kind, and Mom so gloomy that in order to stave off his own anxiety Theo had brought his Egyptian mythology book with him.
"How can you read such dreary stuff?" his mother sighed. "Why don't you try a good story? Something like The Three Musketeers."
"Um," replied Theo. "I've read it. It never even happened. All make-believe. Athos and Milady aren't real people."
"Exactly! When it's not real it's more interesting! Anyway, what about your Egyptian gods? Do you think they really existed?"
"Well, yes," Theo mumbled, and plunged back into a universe where ibises were scholarly, lionesses loving, and vultures were mothers. All the same, by the end of the day he was exhausted. Those big machines in the shadows, and those long, long silences.
One evening, when they came home, Dad waved a telegram to greet them.
"This time, at last, it'shappening!" he cried. "She'll be here tomorrow."
"Who will?" asked Theo.
"Aunt Martha," Mom replied. "She's coming from Tokyo."
"Tomorrow? What for?" he asked again.
No answer. They sent him to bed and shut themselves up in the study. There was something fishy going on, but then, when it involved Aunt Martha, that came as no surprise.
Aunt Martha was a rolling stone. When she was twenty, Martha Fournay had married a Japanese man whom she had met on the road in Thailand, while she was bicycling round the world. Five years later, the Japanese husband had exited her life as unpredictably as he had entered it, and Aunt Martha had remarried, this time a rich Australian banker she had met in California somewhere between Los Angeles and San Diego. Aunt Martha had moved to Sydney with John Macquarie, and nothing more was heard from her, except at Christmas time. Then Uncle John had been killed in a car crash, and Aunt Martha had come into a huge fortune. Out of loyalty to John, whom she'd adored, she had sworn never to marry again, and because she had no children of her own she had transferred her affection to her nieces and nephew, bombarding them with gifts from all over the world. Kimonos for the girls, American vitamins, special Japanese knives for slicing raw fish, matrioshkas, turquoise from China, spices from Indonesia ... Her inventiveness never ran dry.
But then she traveled all the time, keeping herself busy. After losing her husband, she had drawn on her knowledge of oriental languages to take up the study of traditional textiles. Aunt Martha had no need whatever to work, but she loved to roam the world, for her family's greater pleasure. Her personal life was a complicated fabric: she had friends all over, and she talked about them with a wonderful directness that utterly exasperated her sister-in-law Melina, who felt she was pretentious.
Aunt Martha was plump and very lively, a sloppy dresser who adored jewelry, smoked cigarillos, and practiced yoga. She was great company, but Dad thought she was a bit nutty. "Oh, it's another Martha kind of story," he would say when he thought something odd was going on. They seldom saw her, but she made a lot of phone calls, especially when a visit was due. "I'll be with you in a month." Then next day: "No, in a couple of weeks, I've just come back from Katmandu." And the day after that: "I'll be there on Friday night at eight, on the plane from Toronto." And now Aunt Martha was flying in without any warning? The last time she'd done that had been when Granddad died.
For sure, she must have learned of Theo's illness.
Aunt Martha Arrives
Draped in an Indian shawl that she unwrapped like a royal robe, Aunt Martha sank heavily into an armchair.
"Children, I'm frozen stiff," she proclaimed. "Melina, would you mind finding me some aspirin? Irene, what about making some tea, dear? Look in the big bag and you'll find a packet from Japan -- it's green tea. Attie, in my attaché case the little red satin bag is for you, but you must look at it in your room. Now then, Theo, as for you ..."
Lying on the living room sofa, Theo warily returned his aunt's stare. They had all been dismissed without protesting, even Irene, who hated making tea. Aunt Martha heaved a mountainous sigh.
"Your present? We'll see about it later," she said. "So, you're not playing tricks on us, hmm? You're really sick? It's no joke?"
"How should I know?" answered Theo, twisting a lock of hair around his finger.
Squeezed into a tunic a size too small and wearing an embroidered felt hat from Nepal, Aunt Martha looked more ridiculous than ever. As if she were reading his thoughts, she met his eyes intently, and Theo felt guilty.
"But honest, Aunt Martha," he stammered, "nobody's told me a thing, nothing at all."
"But you do have some idea, all the same."
"Yes," he admitted.
Caught in the beam of Aunt Martha's stern gaze, suddenly Theo was sobbing.
"My poor child," she sighed, and folded him in her arms. "You don't suppose I intend to stand by and do nothing?"
Theo couldn't stop the tears.
"My love," Aunt Martha whispered, "oh my little " Then all at once she pushed him away from her. "Stand up," she commanded.
"I'm not allowed to," he hiccuped.
"Rubbish!" she snapped. "Come on, on your feet!"
Theo was goaded to his feet and stood there like an idiot.
"There, you see," she said with satisfaction. "Now, take a few steps.... That's it. Very good. Now, jump."
Aunt Martha really must be nuts. Jump, when he was ill, confined to his bed, doomed? ... Okay, why not? Theo performed a tiny jump.
"Good. Not very high, but a jump all the same. You think you could manage that knapsack?" She pointed at a piece of overlooked luggage.
Without a murmur, Theo worked his arms through the straps of the black bag. It was quite heavy, and he tottered.
"It gives you some trouble," she noticed. "No wonder, you spend all your time in bed. It's just as I suspected."
So what was Aunt Martha thinking? What did she have in mind? A thrill of sudden excitement raced through him.
"Really, Aunt Martha, did you bring me something?" he asked, running back to her welcoming arms.
"Yes, my boy," she answered fondly. "you'll know in a little while, at dinner time. Meanwhile, go and get dressed. I prefer you in jeans."
Surprises on the Menu
Theo chose a red T-shirt and beige jeans. All right, they were warm weather clothes, but Aunt Martha was capable of switching on the summer in midwinter. In case it came in useful, while he was on his feet he turned on his computer, put Wrath of the Gods on the screen, and consulted the Pythia.
Smiling her catwalk smile, she charged him five points for the hint that might crack the riddle of the day. Theo paid up, and scanned the answer. "Not your lucky day," shrugged the Pythia, with a teasing grin. "First you must journey through the Sacred Wood." The Sacred Wood? Yet Theo thought he had explored the whole scenario. He exited the game and headed for the kitchen. Mom was tossing the salad.
"What are we having to eat tonight?" he asked her.
"Why, are you hungry, darling? There's minestrone, mesclun, and I've made a pie. Will that do?"
As long as there was no red meat on the menu, it suited Theo. He prowled around the apartment, drifted into Irene's room, but as usual she had the cordless phone clamped to her shoulder, deep in conversation with her boyfriend. He backed out quietly and mooched off to tease Attie, as he had in the good old days, but Attie would only submit without a fight. That left Dad's study.
"What are you doing out of bed?" he scolded. "Listen, Theo, you can't be serious. Go lie down, we'll call you when it's dinner time."
Feeling discouraged, Theo skulked back to the living room and lay down on the big settee again. Dinner was dreary. Mom talked with phony cheerfulness, Irene ate nothing, Attie just picked at her food, and Dad kept quiet. Aunt Martha, of course, was unstoppable, and over dessert she launched her attack.
"So, Theo," she began, and ran her gaze around the table. "I've decided to take you around the world, just the two of us."
Around the world! She really was a screwball!
"Do you know what you're saying?" Theo almost squeaked. "What about school?"
"Phooey!" said Aunt Martha. "School can wait. But I can't, I'm not immortal. Correct me if I'm wrong, but you're a year ahead with your schoolwork, aren't you?"
Theo was tongue-tied. He looked at his parents, who were staring at their plates. As if in response to some invisible signal, Irene and Attie stood up and left the table.
"I'm ill, Aunt Martha," Theo told her bravely. "I don't think ..."
"That's just it," she insisted. "These doctors are fools. We're going to travel around the world and consult my kind of doctors but not in hospitals, all right?"
This was another Martha kind of story! If not in hospitals, then where?
"Because this is no ordinary trip," she pursued. "Don't you go taking me for a tour guide! You won't be seeing the Great Wall of China, or the Taj Mahal, or Niagara Falls."
"Mom," Theo appealed. "Tell her."
"I'm not a kidnapper either," she broke in. "You surely don't imagine that your parents aren't in favor? Isn't that right, Jerome?"
Theo's father gave a silent nod, but what would Mom say?
"Come on, Melina," prompted Aunt Martha. "Be brave."
"Then I'm cured?" cried Theo, wild with delight.
"We'll call every day," Aunt Martha ran on. "I have a mobile phone I bought in Tokyo, an amazing gadget. You'll see, there won't be any problems.... "
"And you'll have blood tests done at every stop," Mom continued. "I have the names of all the hospitals and "
"Ah," said Theo.
"There are excellent doctors all along the way, and you'll be taking the medicines with you, and "
"Ah," Theo sighed.
Aunt Martha shot a furious look at Melina.
"I don't want to hear another word about hospitals and drugs! Come on, let's clear the table. Girls! Come lend a hand."
Aunt Martha could lay the law down when she wanted. As if by magic, Irene and Attie reappeared, and the table was empty in a flash. Jerome fetched the big world map that was in his study, and Aunt Martha spread it out. "Now, we start by "
"Are we going to see the pyramids?" Theo cut her short, suddenly very excited.
"Don't interrupt me! Attie, in my handbag there's a sheet of red stickers."
"And the Kremlin?" Theo asked.
"You're interested in Lenin in his tomb?" replied Aunt Martha, busily sticking on the paper disks. "I warn you, it's not on my itinerary."
Fascinated, Theo watched the appearance of little red dots on the map of the world. Rome, Delphi, Luxor ...
"I get it," he said. "It's a tour of the ancient world."
"No, it's not," said Aunt Martha. "Look here."
"Am-rit-sar," Theo deciphered. "What's that?"
"The sacred city of the Sikhs," Dad intervened. "It's in Punjab."
"Sikhs? What are they?"
"People who follow a religion you don't know about," said Mom.
"Oh yeah?" said Theo. "You'd be surprised. With all the hassle it causes at school Friday for the Muslims, Saturday for the Jews, Sunday for the rest. All that, and I don't know about religions!"
"We're listening," smiled Aunt Martha. "Go ahead."
"The Jews are the oldest in the world," Theo began. "They pray on Saturday in a church they call a synagogue, and they were murdered by the Nazis in the war. It's called the Shoah. They lived in Jerusalem and they were forced to leave. Afterward they were given back their country, Israel, but they fight all the time with the Muslims."
"You might say that," sniffed Aunt Martha. "Who is their god?"
Theo fell silent.
Aunt Martha gave a silent ironic clap. "Very good!" she said sarcastically. "The Jews have only one god, and they aren't allowed to make any sort of image of him, on any account, or even to name him. That's one point to remember. They are the chosen people of God, who made a covenant with them. That's two. And they're waiting for the Messiah who will come at the end of time, that's three. Keep going ..."
"Wait," said Theo. "The Messiah, who's that?"
"The savior of the world."
"Then it's Jesus!" cried Theo.
"Not for the Jews, though, you see. Jesus is the Christians' messiah. The Jews are still waiting."
"But for the Muslims, no problem," answered Theo, feeling put out. "Their god is called Allah, he is great, and Muhammad is his prophet. They pray on Friday at the mosque, facing toward Mecca, their sacred city, where true Muslims go on pilgrimage once in their life. Then they become hajjis. They don't have priests, but marabouts."
"That's better," Aunt Martha conceded. "But where did you get those marabouts from? They're only found in Africa."
"My friend Fatou explained," he answered proudly. "She's a Muslim from Senegal."
"And what about the Christians, Theo?"
"They believe in Jesus Christ, who was crucified by the Romans because he called himself `king of the Jews.' Jesus was the Son of God the Father, who sent him to earth to redeem other people's sins. Christians go to mass on Sunday, they swallow the host, they kiss at the end, and the priests wear weird embroidered robes."
"Let's say that's right," sighed Aunt Martha. "What difference do you see between the God of the Jews, the Christians, and the Muslims?"
"Apart from the Jews and the Muslims seeming to believe in only one God, I've got no idea," he replied in a puzzled voice. "Because for the Christians there are two, plus a dove called the Holy ... I forget. Holy Father?"
"The Holy Ghost," Melina corrected. "You haven't been listening to Granny Theano."
"What about other religions?" whispered Aunt Martha.
The Christians, Jews, and Muslims he had already mentioned. Aha, there were the Protestants, then the Orthodox church, since the family was Greek, and then the Buddhists, the animists ...
"Very good, Theo," said his father.
"It's Fatou," said Theo. "She told me about the old gods of Africa. Well, when I say old, I don't mean ..."
"And then?" Aunt Martha cut in.
"Then? Uh ... Do you mean the Indians?"
"Which ones, in America or India?"
"America," said Theo right away. "Because I've got the Sacred Spirits CD. And also, there's an episode of Walker, Texas Ranger when the ranger goes into a fire lodge and has a vision of an eagle, and he finds the boy who's been wounded by gangsters. But the Indian religion also exists on the other side, in India. What about that?"
"There are eight religions in India," said Aunt Martha gently. "You see, you don't know everything."
"Zen!" announced Theo triumphantly. "Irene's always saying that she's Zen."
"All right," Aunt Martha admitted. "And in Brazil?"
Theo dried up. On China, he finally came up with Maoism.
"Not bad," said Aunt Martha. "A little bit out of date, perhaps, but that makes sense. You didn't mean `Taoism,' by any chance?"
But Theo didn't know the word. The map caught his eye once again.
"Darjeeling?" he asked in surprise. "I don't even know where it is! In Burma?"
"But Martha," wailed Mom. "What sort of hospital will Darjeeling ...?"
"Don't start again, Melina. It's six hours by road from Calcutta and two hours from Delhi by plane. I've thought of everything."
Silence fell around the table.
"I've got it," said Theo. "We're making a tour of world religions. Is that it?"
That was it.
But not all of it. The following day, as if the whole thing had been planned ages ago, the preparations started, and some really funny things began to happen. Aunt Martha made lists. Nothing odd about that. Lists of hotels, friends, trains, planes, boats, just what you'd expect.
But what about that list she mentioned only to her nieces? As soon as Theo appeared, Irene hid these sheets of paper and Attie blushed to the roots of her red hair. Why all this mystery? Theo tried to grill Fatou.
"Theo, it's a secret. I've sworn not to tell."
"Does it have to do with my illness? Medicines or something?"
"No way!" Fatou insisted. "It's a lot more fun than that."
One night when they thought he was in bed and he had come downstairs to get a yogurt from the fridge, he overheard an odd conversation in the dining room.
"A scarab I said, not a tortoise!" Aunt Martha was insisting. "I had it on the list. You'll have to go back to the shop."
"All right, I'll find you your treasure. What stage is it for?"
"It's to hide under the "
Intrigued, Theo stuck his head into the room, and Aunt Martha stopped in midsentence.
"Back to bed, shrimp!"
Theo racked his brains for days, wondering why on earth Aunt Martha wanted to hide a scarab. He hunted for the list, to no effect, but he did notice that Aunt Martha had added a big padlocked bag to her luggage and a locked casket. More secret cargo, twists in the plot. Were they presents? Surprises?
A month to go. Aunt Martha was spending her time in travel agencies. Some evenings she'd come home in a flap: "Do you realize there's no air link between Bagdogra and Jakarta? You have to go via Calcutta. I don't believe it!" Or else she couldn't get a room in the hotel she'd chosen, which turned out to be either full, or closed down, or nonexistent. At home, you'd find her using her cell phone in impossible places, jabbering away at the top of her voice in English or German, with peculiar accents.
"Mahantji," she bellowed into the phone, "it's so good to hear you.... Yes, I'm coming. No, in Paris for the time being. But I won't be alone. My nephew will be traveling with me. Yes ..." And here, all at once, she lowered her voice.
When she had finished her conversation with the invisible contact halfway around the world, she put down the handset with an air of satisfaction and proclaimed to all present, "Mahantji is delighted." Nobody knew who Mahantji might be, but Aunt Martha seemed so pleased that no one asked questions, especially because every day the phone was roping in another bunch of strangers delighted by the prospect of her visit Miss Oppenheimer, Mrs. Nasra, Rabbi Eliezer. "Okay," she'd sigh, and riffle through her bulging address book. "Brazil, let's try Brutus: Brutus Carneiro Da Silva ... ," and so it went.
Theo's father, who had connections in the Foreign Ministry, arranged a series of visas for his son, which took some fixing. Melina plucked up her courage and tackled the school principal. Mr. Diop, Fatou's father, tackled the African section. Theo allayed his worries by consulting the Pythia on his computer.
The Pythia Delivers a Message
The flame-haired oracle wasn't giving too much away. Theo whizzed through the opening tests, which he knew by heart: giving a diamond to the beggar, putting an apple on the altar, and summoning up the serpent that taught him the language of the animals. Quickly the Hero ran northward, carefully avoided the Kingdom of the Dead Theo felt uneasy in the place and plunged into a wood, a dark, uncanny place that had never come on screen before.
The Sacred Wood!
The Pythia winked, and put her finger to her lips. Then she gave her standard message: "That will cost you five points...." Okay, thought Theo. Come on, girl, spit it out. Click on the Pythia. She continued, "Take a ring and meet the king.... "
The Pythia vanished and gave way to a heavenly country strewn with flowers and bathed in sunshine, a dream landscape that stretched beneath Greek olive groves. Near a ruined temple a shrouded figure awaited him. "Have you brought the ring?" it asked in a cracked voice. "If you have the ring and you meet the king, you will not die and you will meet your family again. If not ..."
But Theo had no ring, and the scene faded into absolute darkness. Game over. For once, Theo had lost. He clicked and kept on clicking, but the Pythia did not wink again, and did not speak of a ring, and the shadow with the cracked voice did not reappear.
It gave him the jitters.
Christmas Comes Early
For over two days, Fatou never left the apartment. On the final evening there was a long commotion in the kitchen, where Theo was forbidden to set foot. Twenty minutes before dinner, Dad came in to warn him to "look his best," and Dad was wearing a dinner jacket, as if he were going to the opera. Theo complied: black jeans, T-shirt printed with a glorious tiger, white sneakers, and Fatou's pearl scorpion.
When he opened the dining room door, you'd have thought it was Christmas. Mom was wearing a long dress, the green one. Irene was a grown-up lady in a red bustier, Attie a ballerina in a blue tutu. Aunt Martha wore a black gandoura embroidered with white, and Fatou ... Ah, Fatou. She had put on Theo's favorite robe a boubou, she called it the vermilion one with circles of gold. On the table, the couscous was ready, and in the corner a decorated Christmas tree twinkled above a nativity scene.... Already?
"But it's too soon for Christmas!" he cried.
"We decided to celebrate early," Melina replied. "Tonight is the tree and the presents."
"Ah," breathed Theo. "Because by Christmas there's a chance I won't be ... I mean ..."
"Don't be such an idiot!" Aunt Martha exploded. "At Christmas we'll be off on our travels, that's all!"
"So where will Christmas be?" asked Theo suspiciously.
"You wait and see," she hedged. "And after that it'll be up to you to work out where we go next on our journey. All by yourself, like an adult."
"No buts. I've seen you playing that American game on your computer what do you call the thing, with the red-haired Pythia?"
"Wrath of the Gods," said Theo. "What about it?"
"It's a real game you'll be playing," his father told him. "You'll have riddles of your own to solve."
"In each town we come to, you'll have to find something or meet someone," Aunt Martha continued. "It's you who'll work out our next destination."
"No problem," he answered. "I already know about Rome, Luxor, Amritsar, Darjeeling, and Delphi. You shouldn't have shown me!"
"I'm not as slow as you think." She grinned. "It's not going to be as easy as all that. For starters, I did show you various places on the map, but that doesn't mean we're going to visit them. Also, you'll have to solve riddles to find out where we're going next. For instance, suppose I told you, `Go to the Sacred Heart of the city with the pyramid.' What would you reply?"
"Cairo, of course!"
"Well, it's Paris," she laughed. "In Cairo there are several pyramids, but in Paris only one, the one in the Louvre courtyard. And didn't you think about the church of the Sacred Heart in Montmartre? You see, it's not so simple."
"But I don't know anything!" croaked Theo. "I'm going to make a mess of it."
"Oh no you won't. We're taking a suitcase full of books to help you through. It'll be hard work, but your parents and I are agreed."
"And if I can't work it out, then we go home?" asked Theo plaintively.
"Not on your life. If you're stumped, you can make a phone call to Fatou. She'll have some clues for you. Like the redhead on your screen."
Fatou as the Pythia! That was the best news yet. Theo cheered up. But then she must already know everything.... He jumped up to give her a hug, and Fatou backed away.
"Don't rely on me to tip you off," she warned.
"No, but just a cuddle for five points," he murmured, and led her away to his room.
"Sit down!" said Melina. "You haven't finished your dessert."
"Let them go," said Jerome. "They won't be seeing each other for a long time. If they ever ..."
After five minutes Jerome went to fetch Theo and Fatou.
"Now, Theo's presents," he announced.
Crawling under the tree, Theo fumbled in the nativity scene. He jostled the donkey, overturned the ox, knocked down the Magi, gently shifted Mary and Joseph, and lifted the infant Jesus. The envelope was under the straw. A plane ticket from Paris to Tel Aviv, business class.
"Is that all?" he blurted in surprise.
"What more do you want?" Aunt Martha snapped.
"The rest is in your luggage, Theo," said Dad. "You'll find the presents in Jerusalem. It's the first test."
"What for?" he cried. "That's not fair." And before he knew it, Theo was in tears.
"Mom," he sobbed, "I'm going away...."
Such ordinary words, "I'm going away," but everyone in the room was close to tears: they all knew the other meaning, the meaning they must banish from their thoughts. As Melina walked him to his room, Theo whispered hoarsely:
"Mom, can I have one of your rings? Just any one, it doesn't matter which."
Melina was puzzled.
"One of yours, please, Mom."
She looked down at her hand, which gleamed with a single gold band, her wedding ring. "This one?" she murmured. "Yes, of course," and without hesitation she slipped it off her finger and slid it onto Theo's index finger. "You know what it means: you won't lose it?"
"Promise," breathed Theo. "Now I'm sure to return."
The why was still a mystery. The reason for the journey must have to do with those strange doctors who didn't work in hospitals. But surely Aunt Martha didn't mean to rely on miracles? It was another Martha kind of story, this whole trip.
All Theo knew was that he wasn't any better, that he was very ill, and that high hopes were pinned on the journey. He knew that, when it came to leaving, it was better to travel with Aunt Martha than to leave for the next world. And he also knew that here in Paris there would be lots more crying while he was solving the riddles.
He couldn't get to sleep. Now that he had the ring, what would the computer Pythia have to say? How could he escape the Kingdom of the Dead, how was he to avoid a meeting with the guardian of Hades, the ghastly skeleton called Charon?
He was still shuddering when Aunt Martha pushed the door open and poked her head through.
"Aunt Martha." There was dread in Theo's voice. "I want to ask you something. Am I going to die?"
"Now that is forbidden, my boy," Aunt Martha replied, and ran her fingers through his curly hair.
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NOT THE DYING PART THE PART ABOUT LIKING COMPUTER GAMES AND MYTHOLOGY
I purchased the book from a discount section of a bookstore. I thought it was just another book that I was going to add to my bookshelve to make it look fuller and make me look like an avid reader. I decided to take this book with me on an international flight. When I started reading it, I couldnt stop. It captured my mind as well as my spirit. Theo was a very intriguing character and the things that he experienced made me want to know more about him, his aunt, his family and his life. With all the traveling and experiences, his aunt gave him a full life, if nothing else. The thing I enjoyed most was how his family allowed him to choose how he worshipped and believed. His aunt exposed him to many different religions, and he learned and accepted a part from all of them. I have yet to find another book that impressed me as much as this one.