February 09, 2006

Generals on their Knees

His ancient enemy is dying: the general who overwhelmed his army, executed his officers, sacked his city, raped his womenfolk, castrated his sons, enslaved his family, and kept him alive in humiliation to see it all. Now the losing general receives a messenger from his conqueror: “He asks you, as an act of honor toward a dying man, to forgive him.”

Laughter, and the messenger is thrown out. The following week another messenger comes: “He is in his final agony. He begs you, if you forgive him he will free your family, restore your lands, and bequeath you half his treasure.”

“I forgive him.”

“Will you pray for him as well?”

The losing general descends on his creaky, stiff knees. “You see, I’m doing it.”

The winning general dies the next day. Laughing, the newly freed loser calls for a feast, and carouses for seven days with his bruised and haggard daughters, his halfbreed grandchildren, and his sterile sons.

But something nags at him. “If I forgave him, why did he still die?” His forgiveness feels impotent. Was that a last cunning humiliation imposed on him by his conqueror? When forgiving an enemy, you want the act to have power.

He dwells on it continually as his family spends his treasure, as neglect ruins his lands. What is the lack, the weakness in him, that makes his forgiveness futile? It teases him, it mocks him: “Your words mean nothing anymore.”

The reason comes to him: his forgiveness didn’t work because it was a lie. He will have to forgive sincerely in order for it have effect.

“I forgive you,” he prays to the ghost of his enemy. “Forgive me that I didn’t mean it before.”

The treasure is all spent. The lands lie parched and bare. The losing general spends his days wandering his courtyard in a torn, trailing robe grimed with sand and dyed with old bloodstains.

He prays all the time now: “Forgive me, that I could not forgive you. Please let me forgive you now.” Over and over he begs the man who overwhelmed his army, executed his officers, sacked his city, raped his womenfolk, castrated his sons, and enslaved his family to forgive him.“I too have done those things. Forgive me.”

His tears dampen the robe and mottle the sand. He knows the dead general has no power to forgive him. He longs for the day when they will be together again, not on a battlefield this time, but in a green vale by a cool spring, served by lovely maidens. He daydreams of their great reunion -– their allied victory -- till it becomes the only thing he can think about.

His family has fled his house; one last remaining servant brings him bowls of millet with withered cooked leaves. He spends all his days on his knees, mumbling.

One day he finds his old enemy kneeling beside him in a clean white robe. And from then on they pray in unison, “Forgive me, forgive me,” to whom they do not know, with what effect they cannot guess.