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The Rug of Many Colours
A story by ETHAN J. NIEMINEN
It was a lazy day. The sun was hot, the air was hot, my house was hot; and instead of doing useless tasks for worthless pay, I was sulking. I lived for days of idleness—but when miserable weather ruined them? I wondered whether suffering through the days of toil was worth it. Life gives just enough nice days for you to keep slogging forward, hoping the next really nice day will make it all worth it, but that day never comes. A knock disturbed my boredom, one that only grew more insistent the longer I ignored it. I angrily sat up on the couch, cursed my creaking bones—I’m not that old!—and must have had a face like a storm when I opened the door, for the fat postman nearly turned tail and ran at the sight. He didn’t, curse him. “What is it?” I snapped. “Can’t you just leave it in the mailbox?” “Er, sir or madam—” the man stammered, “does this look like it’d fit in a mailbox?” I refocused my eyes and looked at what he carried. It was an enormous roll of some kind of textile, twice as long as he was wide—and the postman couldn’t have fit through my front door if he tried, even with all that sweat to grease his entry. Idly wondering if this piece of junk would even fit in my house, I asked, “Who sent me that?” “There was no return address, sir or madam,” stammered the postman. “Not even a note.” “Bah, give it here then and get out of my sight,” I muttered, reaching forward for the roll. The postman dropped it into my arms. I staggered and nearly cursed again, but I was determined to not give so much as a hint to the idiot in front of me that I could barely carry the rug—evidently it was a rug; no other roll of anything could possibly be so heavy. Feeling like a fatter fool than my audience of one, I tried for half a minute to rotate the thing so it could fit through my doorway. I’d have accepted his offer of assistance if he hadn’t had worn such a smug look—boy, did it feel good to slam the door in his sweating face, following my eventual success. Even if I did have to sit down on the roll in my hallway and wipe my own face the instant after. I sat there a while, eventually hearing the postman squeeze back into his mail truck and drive off my street, and I sighed. Well, someone had given me a free rug. Yay. It was probably a piece of garbage. Maybe even a mistake on the part of some company, and they were going to find me and sue me for more than their stupid product was worth. And now I had to find a place to put it, too; I stood and cursed my life. I looked into every room of my congested house but found no place where the rug even seemed like it might fit. So I resigned myself to hauling the thing outside again, back into the burning light of the noonday sun, thinking that at least I could destroy it more easily out here than I could in the confines of my house. That being done, I cut the cords holding the rug in its coil, and kicked it, sending it unrolling across the lawn. … This was not the worthless thing I’d expected it to be. The rug was a strange concoction of brilliant woven rainbows; so glorious were the sunlit colours that it almost hurt my gazing eye. Colours, colours, colours. What colour had been neglected in its creation? It rippled from red to violet along the longer axis—valiant red, vehement orange, vibrant yellow, verdant green, vigorous blue, venerable indigo, victorious violet—and it flowed from darkness to light upon its shorter edge. All colours and all shades of those colours had been used with reckless abandon in this master’s work. And master’s work it was. For all my adjectives, I have not even really begun to describe it. The rug was patterned into cells of tessellated hexagons, and the colours flowed like streams of living, breathing water through and around those cells, mixing with each other into yet more colours, and dancing about a thousand thousand scenes of… well, everything, I suppose. Each hexagon held a scene, but some scenes leaked out of their cells, too powerful to be so constrained. I knelt to examine them more closely. Like a shield of ancient make, embossed with scenes of all that its owner had sworn to defend—a sower sowing, a shepherd herding, a marriage feast—as well as scenes of what the warrior expected to happen to him someday, I suppose—scenes of battle, of death, of victory—all of that was here, and more. All of human existence seemed to be represented. And even as I examined, a greater image formed out of the lesser began to stand out to me, the image of a dark blue sea dragon locking horns with a fiery golden ram. I stood, frowning in confusion, fingers massaging my wrinkled brow. My initial idea that I had been delivered this rug by mistake seemed to be the most likely theory of what had occurred; the weave was too fine and the colours too vibrant to have cost anything but a fortune. And who would send spend a fortune on me? I didn’t even know anyone that rich! Yet the idea that this had been sent to me as a sort of legal trap also recurred, and I grew worried. The odds of that being the case weren’t nearly so likely as me simply being sent this by mistake—I hoped—yet it was too possible to ignore. I rolled up the beautiful rug, glancing guiltily at my neighbours’ watching windows. Would they be jealous of me? Would thieves break into my house in the middle of the night and steal my rug away? How much more would I have to pay when the owner came to reclaim it, if that happened? I dragged it back into my house and stuffed it into the darkest corner I could find, the one behind my couch, but even that corner didn’t really seem large enough, or dark enough. My house has too many windows. I went and tried to close all the shutters, but they’ve never worked properly. So eventually I gave up, and just sat on my couch with the rug rolled up behind me. Worrying.
I spent the next week working more overtime than I usually did—which is to say, I actually finished my shift without leaving early, and did any overtime at all—but the thought of that rug kept eating at me. The weekend evening found me sitting at my table, looking over my balance statements along with some appraisals that I had gotten my hands on—appraisals of other rugs, of course. I couldn’t let anyone see own my rug lest they witness against me in court. But these appraisals… I’d never known how expensive rugs could be, especially when they were considered ‘works of art’ like mine undoubtedly was. The sums were stupendous. And not one of these so-called artistic rugs could even compare to the beauty of the one I had gotten. I did some fake math with imaginary numbers, and concluded that, were I to work a thousand years at my current job, maybe I could afford a single thread of my rug. I could almost feel my hair greying. Well, maybe I could get a better job. I’ve never had motivation to before—a life of ease has always seemed better to me than a life of wealth—but with the weight of this terrible rug bearing down on me, I didn’t see how I couldn’t. I glanced to the side, where lay my rug on the couch, still rolled up. I had moved it there, off of the floor, just to remind myself why I was making myself work as I did. I stood. In the dim electric darkness of my shuttered home, I walked over, and unrolled the rug. There wasn’t enough room to unroll it all the way, nor to unroll it straight, but the golden ram peeked out his wrinkled face from the folds outlining the cushions he lay atop. Even in lighting this poor, the rug was still a marvel—and its colours even seemed to glow. I stood there for a fair few minutes, just looking at the rug and examining the scenes it portrayed. One of them particularly stood out to me, one woven in both dark and bright yellow strands—it was of a man standing in a dark room by a table filled with coins, but looking out to a field filled with sunlight. I couldn’t help but think his situation analogous to mine, only, he had a door which led to the sunlight, while I had none. He was free, and I was not. I suppose I could have thrown out the rug. Destroyed it. Claimed to anyone who came along that I never had it. That would be a sort of freedom. But… there was something in me that wanted to keep the rug, no matter the cost. No matter the cost. But if I had to work overtime every day for the rest of my life to afford this, would I? I didn’t know. Yet there was something in me that wanted to. A knock at the door in the middle of the night. I nearly screamed. “Please!” I cried out. “I’m not ready! I’ll pay you everything, just give me time!” The door opened and— —and I awoke, sweating in the burning night.
I worked. Hard. For a decade. A decade of nightmares. Promotion’s not so hard to achieve when your coworkers and managers slack more than you do and the man trying to lead the company to success is getting angry. I understand that anger, now, because now I have to deal with idiots who had the exact same mindset I once had. And probably would have even now, if I wasn’t still worrying about the rug. I sipped my wine and sat down on my couch. The same couch, but in a new house. One with large windows, spacious rooms, and furnishings befitting one of my position. I hadn’t bought any of these things; my boss had given them to me as a reward for my labours, and I think as incentive for my coworkers to show the same initiative as I had. Well, I’d sold the house I’d once lived in gladly enough. And when my debts come knocking, I’ll sell this one too. Frankly, the sooner that knock comes, the better—no doubt the company that gave me the rug means to collect interest for delayed payments, and I can almost feel the fees piling up. Let them pile. Let them pile as much as they want to pile. I’ll pay. I looked down upon my spacious floor. My rug lay there, wondrous as ever, surrounded by furniture but covered by none, easily visible to anyone who cared to peer in through one of my many windows. “In a way, I have you to thank for my success,” I murmured. “Just as someday I will have you to thank for my utter ruin.” I stood and set aside my wine, unable to enjoy it. I returned to work the next day. My boss had said to take a few days off and enjoy my new house for a while; even my underlings were beginning to tell me that I should loosen up, stop taking life so seriously. But no. No vacations for me. No vacations, no luxury, and the least amount of nightmarish rest I can get away with. Let them stare at me with concern. Let them! I can’t tell them—any of them—about the unbearable weight that tears my shoulders downwards and drives my sleepless efforts onwards. Though my balance climbs, though my expenses choke and shrink as I grow ever more frugal, my worries will never diminish. I have no sense of progress. How close am I to paying off my indefinite debt? How much will my rug’s true owner charge, when he does eventually come for me, to ruin me?
Years, long years of hard labour. I had taken the company from poverty to riches. I had bought it. And then I had sold it. And for the first time in what felt like a hundred years, and might well have been a hundred years for all I really care—I smiled. The sun set in the windows of my house, shining upon the paper in my hands: a bank balance in the millions, a magnitude higher than the price of the most expensive rug I could find. A pathetic, wheezing laugh came out of my lungs. I had conquered, conquered at last. If I couldn’t pay off the maker of the rug now, I could pay off lawyers and assassins. I had done it. I was safe. I was free. Free. There’s no word like it in all the world. Free. … Only, the next day, I heard the news of my bank’s financial collapse. The harsh winter wind blew past my home’s insulation, through me, around my bare living room. The old, tattered couch. A table, piled with a pitifully small sum of money. And two chairs—one for me, and one for the visitor whom I know will someday come. That’s all the furniture I left in the house; I sold the rest for what lies on the table. I sleep on the couch now sometimes, but more often, I sleep in the chair. It’s not worth getting up. It’s been a while since I’ve eaten anything; I suppose the taste of defeat is sufficient enough sustenance. And it’s been a while since I’ve felt warm… In a rare moment of activity, I looked over to the couch. The rug, rolled up once more, was stuffed behind it, in an attempt to hide it, I suppose. Its ends still poked out a good foot in either direction. I could unroll it and drape it over my shoulders, if I really wanted to be warm… but I don’t. I don’t want anyone to see the rug. I don’t want to see the rug. I just want to prolong the inevitable. I just want to hide.
The night passed as it always does; I woke to the sun shining through the windows on the last remnants of my wealth. And on me too, I suppose, though I hardly felt worthy of sunlight. But as I looked up, I saw a man with a long golden beard sitting across from me. For a long time, neither of us said anything. “You should have come sooner,” I eventually muttered. “Then I could have paid you.” The man roared with laughter, and his face cracked wide with the biggest smile I’ve ever seen a man wear; he stood, and I realized that this man was also the biggest man I’ve ever seen—seven feet tall at least, with a presence that filled the room. In his arms, he held the rug. “Friend,” said the man, “you could never have bought this.” “I could have paid you,” I whimpered. With a single motion he unfurled the rug, and set a second wind flying through the room which tore through my table and scattered the money to the floor, where it lay glinting in the morning sunlight. But brighter than my coins was the rug, rippling like a flag in the wind, shining with all its many colours as the ram and the dragon came to life and battled. The man flung the rug upon the bare wall, and it caught there, hanging like a tapestry. The wind grew ever stronger and warmer; the tapestry rippled, as did the man’s golden beard. A last coin remained on the corner of the table. I reached for it, but he flicked it to the floor and laughed a second time. “Friend,” said the man with the golden beard, “you could never have bought this, because it was a gift.” “I could have paid you!” I cried. The man shook his head. “My brother crashed your bank. I didn’t want payment, and I didn’t want you trying to offer it. After all, if I only gave gifts to those who could afford them, I would have to give far fewer gifts than I do. But if you insist on payment, you can pay me with a smile.” “But that’s not worth anything!” I snapped. “I’m wealthier than you could possibly imagine,” said the man, leaning on my table. “Gold is worthless to me. But your smiles are not. I can pay men to do much, but no man can truly be paid to smile. No man can truly be paid to live. I speak not of ransoming him from the gallows—that’s only the price to save him from dying. I’m talking about giving him the will to live after he’s been saved from the gallows, after he’s been through the Valley of the Shadow of Death. Would you accept mere gold, mere pennies from a man whom you’ve saved from that? Would you not rather have his gratitude? Would you not rather see him able to live once again, borne up in flesh as well as spirit by the power of your gifts?” The man paused a moment. “Have you really lived, friend? Or have you died trying to ruin a gift you could never afford, by paying for it? Have you known a moment of peace since you undertook your impossible task?” I was silent. He made a wide gesture. “It’s free. You’re free. The only thing you’ve ever been enslaved to, friend, was yourself.” I bowed my head and wept. And when I lifted it again, he was gone. But the warm wind remained, and the tapestry rippled still.
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