He looked to a sky the color of slate. It was a color that matched the blanket draped across his frail shoulders. He breathed in deeply as a cool breeze lifted his snow-white wisp of a beard. With thin fragile fingers, he tore a slice of bread apart and tossed the pieces to the crows scattered around the park bench. One tried to take flight with a large piece, but was quickly accosted by thirty more. A noisy squabble ensued as they pecked the piece into a hundred bits.
He didn’t hear the group of young men coming up the trail until they were upon him. His ears were not what they used to be.
They strutted up to the bench to tower before him."Oh, what is this? You lost, Ghandi? There ain’t no temples here?"
He gave a regal bow of his head before straightening to face the four young men. "My temple is here," he said, placing a hand over his heart. His accent was heavy, his voice soft, barely above a whisper.
"Oh, a holy man," one said in a bad imitation. He bowed to him and the others followed suit, bobbing up and down. "So sorry, your holiness. Please forgive us, your holiness."
The old man broke off a piece of bread, tossing it. The crows pounced, fighting amongst themselves for the meager morsels, their wings flapping. "I am not a holy man," he informed them. "I was a teacher for many years. Forty-two to be exact."
One sat down beside him. He was very young, not even a man, fifteen, maybe sixteen. Pulling out a switchblade, he snapped it open. "Tell me, teacher," he said as he began to clean his nails, "do you know what they call a group of crows?"
The man tossed out the last of his bread. As he dusted the crumbs from his hands, he eyed the three still standing. They were older than the boy. One was wearing a cowboy hat and a silly grin. His teeth were gold. One wore a black hooded jacket and dark sunglasses even though there was no sign of the sun. He was tall and very thin. The third was wearing a t-shirt with no sleeves, willing to suffer the cold to show off his tattooed muscle arms. He had a scar running down his left cheek. His head was shaved.
Leaning back against the bench, the old man stroked his beard. "Do you know what is called a group of weasels?" he asked. "A gang."
"Oooo," the three standing members howled, their eyebrows shooting high.
"I believe the old man just called us weasels," the boy seated beside him said. "Do you think that is wise, Teacher?"
He folded his hands neatly in his lap. "A group of mice . . . is called a mischief."
The three men yelped and stuck out their chests. "Mice? You calling us mice, Ghandi?"
A cold draft wafted from the north, rustling the leaves on the ground. The crows ruffled their raven wings. The boy stopped cleaning his nails and looked to the gray skies as if searching there for something. "Three blind mice," he said. "A pack of rats. A mob of emus, long-legged brainless birds that have forgotten how to use their wings."
The old man nodded. "Hmm. Smart," he said. "Smart is very good. But smart and wise are two different things. Wise would be. . .go back to school, get more smart."
The muscle man bristled. "Old man, don’t preach to him about school! School’s a waste of time."
"School is very important. Knowledge will open your eyes to the marvels of the world around you. It is not wise to walk through life with eyes shut. You cannot see the danger that lies ahead." He gave another pensive hum as he stroked his beard. "A group of fish is called a school."
"Hey teacher, you know what sleeps with the fishes means?" the one with the cowboy hat asked and his two buddies chuckled.
The old man continued to stroke his beard. "Also catch of fish, shoal of fish, haul of fish, and run of fish."
"How bout we gut you like a fish, old man," Cowboy growled. "How bout we. . ." With a yelp, he began to dance a jig. Snatching his hat off, he used it to swat at his legs as he hopped away. Kicking off his sneakers, he stripped off his jeans to brush frantically at his legs.
His two friends howled and doubled over.
"That . . . is a colony," the old man said. "As a young boy, I fell in an ant pile. I got many bites. It gave me a bad fever. A group of stingrays is called a fever," he added as an afterthought. "My father, he takes a sharp stone and runs it down my arms and legs until I bruise. He says it will pull fever out. I say . . . it hurts so bad I will myself better so no more stone." He tapped his temple. "The mind . . . is very powerful medicine."
"Oh, such a sad story," the man in the hooded jacket said. "Very, very sad. See, I cry for you." Bending down, he pulled down his sunglasses to show off two tattooed tears dripping from his right eye.
"Hmm," the old man mused. "Do you know what animal is group called cry?"
With a smirk, the tear man pushed his sunglasses back into place and looked to Cowboy who was shaking out his jeans, slamming them against the ground again and again to rid them of any remaining ants. He was grumbling under his breath as he slipped them back on.
"Hound," the boy beside him answered. In the distance, a hound howled, a chilly cry that cut through the wintry day.
The old man nodded and looked to the sky. He adjusted the blanket, pulling it tighter about his neck. "The sun veils its beauty with clouds," he said, looking back to the crows that were drilling him with beady black eyes. "There are many who think it is wise to veil beauty. Sun can blind if one looks with eyes too wide. So can beauty," he said, looking to Cowboy who had picked up his hat and was inspecting it for ants. "I did take a wife once named Suravi. This means sun in English. My Sun did not think it was right to veil beauty. Does muster of peacocks hide feathers, she asks? Does rabble of butterfly hide velvet wings? Does exultation of lark keep song hid inside?" He nodded as he stroked his white beard. "Like a leap of leopards, I leapt. I basked in warmth of my beauty, Sun. A group of crocodiles is a bask," he informed. "They have tears like him," he directed to the hooded man who was busy watching Cowboy. "I shiver to think of such tears. It makes my skin prickle," he said, rubbing his arms through the blanket. "A group of sharks is called a shiver, a group of porcupine . . ." He looked to the boy beside him for the answer.
The young boy thought for a few seconds. "Prickle?"
The old man nodded.
"Hurry up and do this shit," Cowboy huffed as he tromped back, his face inflamed. He plopped his hat back on his head. It was bent horribly out of shape.
The boy leaned in close, bringing the tip of the blade to the corner of the old man’s eye. "I’m tired of your little game, old man."
The old man turned away from the blade and shook his head. "You will not cry a painted tear for me this day."
His three comrades whooped. "Ooooo," they howled, "Ghandi says you’re chicken! Maybe he knows you!"
"Shut up, weasels! He don’t know me! He don’t know shit!" The boy sounded frightened. The blade shook in his hand.
The muscleman thrust out his chest. "Then prove it! Be a man. Make your brother proud."
"Pride. What group is called a pride, smart one?"
The boy was agitated. "Lions," he spat.
"Very good. Pride is good if kept here," he said, placing his hand over his heart. "But if it moves here," he said, pointing to his forehead, "it can crowd out sense."
"Do it, or I will," the muscleman sneered.
The old man looked to the sky. "Do you see the many vultures that circle overhead?" he asked. "That is called a kettle. My beauty, Sun, owned a kettle. It was very big, very good for lentil soup. Lentil soup is very good with curry leaves and garlic. Association is a good learning tool, but . . . you know this, don’t you, smart one?" He nodded and folded his hands in his lap, looking past the men to the pond and the trees beyond. "For sixty years she stirred lentil soup, stirring round and round, round and round . . . like vultures."
"The vultures must smell death," the muscleman said. His arm shot out. Quick as a rattlesnake, he snatched the blade from the boy and ran it across the old man’s throat.
The boy gasped.
They heard them before they saw them, an angry buzzing that grew louder as the dark cloud descended upon them. The men stumbled backward and turned to run. They didn’t get far.
The boy could only watch numbly as the dark cloud enveloped them. He watched them stumble around in circles, swatting like lunatics, shrilling like girls.
"Swarm," the old man sighed.
The boy looked to the old man who should not be talking so calmly. His hands were folded neatly in his lap. Blood had stained his white beard and was flowing down the front of the blanket.
The crows cawed in unison and took to flight, making a beeline toward the three men. They were swatting once again, and then they were gone, lost in a black sea of flapping fury. The caws of the crows were deafening, drowning out even the screeching men. A lone figure crawled from the midst of bedlam. His face was bloody. It was Cowboy. His hat was gone. So were his eyes.
The boy shot to his feet, his arms hanging useless by his side as he watched his comrade struggle to his feet and begin to lurch blindly forward. The cawing cloud cleared, the crows taking to the treetops. Tear man was screaming, writhing on his back, clutching at his face. He no longer wore sunglasses. He didn’t need them. The boy’s brother lay face down, his arms thrown over his head. Both men staggered to their feet to join Cowboy in stumbling aimlessly in circles.
Slowly, the dazed boy took his seat again. "See how they run," he whispered to himself.
"It is too late for your three blind mice," the old man said, motioning to the three staggering stooges. "Not too late for you, smart one. I am proud to close my eyes if it means that yours will open." He swayed slightly, listing left before righting himself. "A group of buzzards is called a wake. Are you awake?" he asked, giving him a sideways glance. He sighed and pulled the blanket tighter, not seeming to notice the blood that stained his hands. "I have been to many wakes, three my own sons, two my daughters, one . . . my Sun. But I will not brood . . . a brood of chickens. I do not ask for pity . . . a pitying of doves. Cast eyes to the sky . . . cast of falcons. Hear the exultation of larks. We all must lie in our bed of oysters."
A breathy moan escaped the boy as a pride of lions bounded from the woods. Streaking past, they pounced on Cowboy, throwing him to the ground and cutting his cries short.
Still screeching, Tearman went barreling blindly into the pond. The water tripped him up and he fell floundering on his belly. A crocodile shot from the dark depths, a huge beast, its jaws gaping wide. It snatched him by the head, pulling him to deeper waters. It began to roll, a death roll, trying to dismember its prey. Other crocodiles moved in and thrashing ensued as the bask battled over the meager meal. One swam away with a stolen snack. It was an arm.
Cowboy was being consumed as well. The pride, settled on their bellies in a circle about him, were feasting from his belly.
Muscleman began to howl. He was pivoting in a circle, his arms outstretched. He was surrounded by coiled snakes. One struck at his leg and he kicked it away with a howl of pain. He went down to his knees, and another snake struck, its fangs sinking into his arm.
"Rattlesnake," the old man spoke.
The boy nodded weakly. "Nest."
"Rhumba," the boy repeated.
"Do you know what is called a group of jellyfish?"
The boy thought for a moment. He shook his head numbly.
The blow snapped his head around and rocked him backward, the connecting of palm to cheek ringing loud in his ears.
"What’s wrong with you, man?" his brother growled. "Let’s get out of here!"
The boy looked to the three men who stood before him; Cowboy, Tearman, his brother in his silly undershirt. Their faces were not bloody and their sockets still held eyeballs, and all looking at him as if he had lost his mind. He brought his hand down from his cheek, his eyes darting around the clearing and beyond to the pond and the bordering trees.
The crows cawed their raucous call. Blue-black wings flapped in unison as they took off to roost high in the treetops. In the distance, a hound howled.
He looked at the knife in his brother’s hand. It was smeared with blood. He looked to the old man who was slouched back against the bench. He studied the wrinkled face, the dark brown skin, the snow-white brows, the ancient eyes now glazed and empty, really seeing him for the first time. He was a great man, the greatest man he had ever known. Now his drab grey blanket was stained dark. "Teacher?"
He knew there would be no answer. Still, he thought he heard a soft hum drifting in on the chilly breeze.
"I am awake."
"Come on, man," his brother urged. "Leave the piece of shit."
"Go away," he whispered. He repeated it when they just stood there gaping, screaming it at the top of his lungs. The crows scattered from the treetops as he screamed it again and again. And so did the three blind mice take flight, scampering down the trail and out of sight. He screamed until his voice was gone, until his breath was coming in choked gasps. He beat at his thighs with balled fists. He wept, wept a thousand tears until he was weak and trembling and could weep no more.
Standing on weak legs, he gazed upon the frail crumpled form. "Mine are open now, Teacher," he whispered.
Reaching out, he gently closed his lids.