In the very early hours, the mountains were almost still with inactivity. On occasion there were faint caws, shortly followed by the huge birds, wreathed in feathers, that were their source, flying from crevasse to crevasse in the jagged peaks. One such bird alighted from its nest down the mountainside, to enjoy the view from the top of the tall temple that lay on a plateau, bathing in the morning light. It waved lazily at the lost girl as she finally climbed the last of the five hundred steps that led from the toll gate far below up to the temple. She waved back, then felt enamoured to sit down for a few minutes.
The elephant troupe had been kind enough to give her a ride to the foot of the temple, but hadn’t consented to take her to the top, stating that it was part of the experience, and also that the temple’s sole occupant had installed anti-elephant missile silos after a previous disagreement. She had then been left to make the climb herself.
Now, at the top, she was enticed further into the temple by the familiar smell of bacon. Inside the peaceful interior garden, amongst a variety of small animals that appeared to be living in harmony with nature, she found a tall man, casually roasting a pig on a spit whilst wearing an apron upon which was emblazoned in neon lettering the words ‘the steaks are high!!!’
“Good morning,” the man said.
“Morning,” the lost girl said groggily. “Do you have breakfast, and/or the meaning of life?”
“Sure. Which would you like first?”
“Breakfast,” the lost girl said, with feeling.
The man turned to the pig. “Hey, Oink, any chance of some bacon?”
The pig, rotating carelessly on its spit, rolled its eyes. “Now? I’m kind of busy tanning. Oh fine.” And it coughed up a steaming fresh rasher of bacon onto the sandwich that the man held out in front of it. He wordlessly handed it to the lost girl, who eyed it warily for a minute or two, and when it didn’t move at all during that time, gave up and ate it. She almost asked for brown sauce, but decided she was better off not knowing where that would have come from.
“So,” she said between mouthfuls, “you’re the commune with nature sort?”
“Oh no, not really,” the man said. “Not like my tree-loving brother in the west, if that’s what you mean. I just find that living in isolation gets a little dull, and if you talk to animals long enough, eventually they give up pretending that they don’t understand you out of exasperation. Oink and me are good friends now, have been for years.”
The lost girl scratched her head. “What is your meaning of life, then?”
“A complete absence of responsibility,” the man said happily. “Look around; in this place, far away from a world driven by money, a life that consists of work, bills, mortgages, two point five children and a far-off retirement as the only thing to look forward to, there are no such obligations. Who could honestly feel complete living a life like that? I ran away from it, and found this place, an entirely self-sufficient paradise that doesn’t need anything from me but doesn’t mind me living here. Now I’m free to live my life as I choose, away from the constraints that endeavour to hold us so firmly in place.”
“I have to admit,” the lost girl said, after considering his argument, “you have a point. But don’t you get bored, or lonely up here?”
“Nope,” the man said. “If I need someone to talk to, I’ll talk to the animals. The conversation isn’t too thrilling – no offence Oink my old boy – but it passes the time. Animals usually just want to talk about food and sex, really, so they’re not that different from us.”
“I don’t think I could live without my friends,” the lost girl said. “They come and go as I wander but they’re always there waiting for me when I return.. The thought of never seeing them again would depress me, not enlighten me.”
“Ah, but you’re approaching it from the wrong angle. You only say that now because you are too attached to them. Cast them off, and enjoy yourself!”
“No,” the lost girl said firmly. “Your philosophy just sounds like escapism to me. There is nothing noble about running away from your responsibilities.”
“That is certainly a point of view,” the man said quietly. “But not one I follow.”
There was a moment of still silence, where the only motion in the garden was Oink, as he slowly rotated on his spit and studied the two figures with curiosity. “I think I should go,” the lost girl sadly confessed after a minute. “Is there a quicker way down those damn steps?”
“Sure,” the man said, cheerful again. “I keep toboggans just over there. If you launch yourself evenly from the top you can get enough speed to send yourself almost all the way over the lake. It’s really rather good fun, sometimes I launch them with no passenger and see how many tourists I can knock out.”
As it turned out, the lost girl only got enough speed to clear the steps, roll down the mountain pass and get halfway across the lake, although she was able to avoid getting her dress wet by using the wreckage of several abandoned jet skis as stepping stones that took her to the shore. Curiously, she found herself exactly where she had started, at the mysterious tall man’s tourist information office, and little better off for her wanderings.
A little angry, she decided to go and have a word with him. The inside of the office was almost full to the brim of used jet ski parts, and impossible to navigate; she found him instead around the back, trying to extrapolate a heavy suitcase from a particularly stubborn set of handlebars.
“Where are you going?” the lost girl asked.
“Oh,” the tall man said, glancing over his shoulder, “it’s you.” With a final effort, he pulled the suitcase free, wiped his brow, straightened the sunhat he had swapped for his tribal headdress, and turned to her. “Did you find what you were looking for out there?”
“No, I didn’t,” the lost girl said. “I spoke to a man who communed with nature, a man who spurned social contact, and a man who ran away from his responsibilities. All of them had interesting points, but none of them had a meaning of life I could get behind. Where are you going?”
“I’m getting out of this damn place. Finally sold enough jet skis to afford a plane ticket. Shame you didn’t find anything. Part of the problem, really. You see, no-one’s really interested in the meaning of life, or the magic of the land, any more. It’s a dying trade, and I’ve been dying in it for hundreds of years.”
“Hundreds of years?” the lost girl asked, getting comfortable on a nearby abandoned seat. “Who are you?”
The tall man laughed. “I’m the king of this land, the king of carrot flowers. I’ve tended to it and the people seeking wisdom, those who have come here over the years.. and I’ve watched it die out. Nowadays, people just want to rent jet skis, or lay around on the beach and read. Well, that looks pretty desirable to me, so I’m off to go and do it too, somewhere else.”
“What about me?” the lost girl asked. “I didn’t come here to lie on a beach. I was looking for meaning, and I didn’t get anything from it. Can’t you at least help me before you leave?”
The king eyed her for a moment, then sighed. “Alright. Now, the point of telling you to visit my three sons, out there in the wild, was not for you to inherit any of their philosophies, because that’s simply not how it works, even if they think it is. No, ask yourself this: despite their differences, the three all had one thing in common. What was it?”
The lost girl thought about it. The king produced from somewhere an oversized pocket watch, which ticked loudly as he watched it with one eye and the lost girl with the other.
“They were all equally convinced that they were right,” she said.
The king grinned. “That’s right. And that’s the meaning of life. All you need to be perfectly happy in your life is the sureness that the path you have taken is one you are happy with, a form of life you can be enthusiastic about. There’s no intrinsic meaning, no greater application that we should spend our lives in pursuit of. Intrinsically, life is pointless, and the sooner we accept that, the sooner we realise what the point is.”
“Couldn’t you have told me that yesterday?” the lost girl asked, exasperated.
“Yes, but you wouldn’t have believed it. Do you now?”
The lost girl thought about it, but she knew the answer already. “I do. But I.. I always thought I would feel some sort of warmth inside, or everything would fall into place, but I don’t feel any different, knowing this.”
“That’s because you’ve always known it,” the king said wisely. “This knowledge is inside all of us, but most of us have to be shown it before we can believe it. Some might choose to believe in other things instead, and suppress the knowledge, but it’s always there. Now, if you will excuse me, I have a plane to catch, a book to read and a beach to lie on.” He shouldered his suitcase, and tipped his hat to the girl. “Maybe I’ll see you on the other side.”
The girl sat on her jet ski stool by the waterside, watching the impossibly tall man slalom off into the wandering crowds, enjoying the midday sun.