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Tainaron by Leena Krohn, 1998

Mail from another city

© Leena Krohn

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Tainaron - Mail from another city





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King Milinda's question - the twentieth letter


My immediate neighbour, on the same floor, is an extraordinarily old person; much older than the prince. Some people claim he is already over one hundred and fifty years old, while others, like Longhorn, say that he is only one hundred and twenty-five or one hundred and thirty. But everyone who sees his frailty understands that he has lived past his own time, and it is incomprehensible and even cruel that he must continue living here in the city of Tainaron.


He has a servant - or perhaps he is one of his descendants - who takes him out every morning. He is dry and light and has shrunk so small that he is carried in a kind of bag or sack. The bag is set in the sun on a park bench and its sides are turned down a little so that the old man can take the air and look at the flowers and the passers-by. There he is left, and after a couple of hours he is taken home again. In his bag he looks, with his thin limbs, like nothing but a bunch of straw, as dry as kindling.


Do you think there is a place where people do not grow old? I wonder if I ever met an inhabitant of such a country when I was quite young? And will he met me again when my age is as great as that of the old man in the sack?


What a shock he will get. 'My dear friend,' he will stammer. 'What dreadful thing has happened? Who has treated you so badly? Where is your thick hair? Why do you walk so slowly and with such a stoop? Tell me who is to blame, and I shall make him answer for his deeds.'


Childish, ignorant person! Let him go back to where he came from!


I have seen a vision that came from the sack. It looked just as if there were a mirror in it. And the straw rose to give a sign; it beckoned to me. And so of course I went, I went and sat down next to the sack, which was very humble considering that one hundred and fifty years fitted inside.


The sack's voice was so weak and hoarse that I could not immediately understand it. The sack asked where I was from, and said that it had not been born in Tainaron either. And I had only sat there for a moment when I realised that the bag contained someone alive and remembering. And when I had sat there for another moment, I knew that he was not old. Old age was merely his disguise, as childhood had once been. I knew it as I once knew that a certain very small creature was right when she shrieked: 'I am not a child! I am not a child!' I knew it because I had not been a child myself, either; I knew it because I shall never be old. I knew it because I had heard King Milinda's question: 'Was he who was born the same as he who died?' and heard the answer, which was not yes or no.


And now the park's trees waved the shadows of their fluttering over my years and over the years of my companion, leaves that were still fastened to their branches, but were already yellow and would soon be dead, detached, absent.


I asked what had been most difficult in life, and the bag answered: 'The fact that everything recurs and must always return and that the same questions are asked again and again.'


But before I could ask more of the same questions, the servant or descendant approached us with purposeful strides. Lightly he lifted his burden - its years were feathers to him - and, grinding the gravel under his feet, took him back home.


I had got hot and, forgetting the old man in a moment, strolled slowly toward the harbour. There I saw the same white ship that once brought me to Tainaron; but why, I cannot remember.



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