The Athiest and the BelieverNovember 8th, 2009
by Kip Tobin
LA RIOJA, SPAIN
The atheist and the believer walked together on the path that followed the highway, looking for light.
Everything visible was dampened gray, as if some colossal waterlogged blanket was thrown on top of their sky and hung there, dripping. Incessant raindrops had been pricking their faces for over two hours, and the cutting wind foretold the road ahead without visible end. The others had gone ahead, and they couldn’t see anything except for the highway to their right, the miry path directly in front and the snow-quilted fields to the left that were melting reluctantly in the cold rain.
The panorama was muddy, leaden, soppy.
“That’s the thing,” the believer explained, whose face was hidden behind his poncho, “Of all the religions in the world, even though they say different things, you know, in the details, the principal belief –what everyone believes– it’s the same.”
“Really?” the atheist questioned. “Didya know that of the twelve official world religions currently in the world, one doesn’t agree.”
“Jainism.” The atheist looked at the believer, who kept looking ahead. “From India,” he continued, “it’s the only religion that’s completely atheistic,” he detailed. “They don’t believe a God exists, nor do they believe in life after death. And in order to obtain salvation, instead of amassing wealth to guarantee a comfortable ending, they give up all their worldly possessions and go on ascetic pilgrimages. They wear surgical masks over their mouths and towels are their only clothes. They hold a little broom and carry a bowl to beg with. They sweep, walk and beg. The surgical mask is so they don’t swallow insects when they breathe and they use the broom to keep their paths clear of insects so they don’t step on ‘em as they walk. They have complete respect for all sentient life, as if it were a part ‘uh their own redemption. In fact, they believe that every soul’s the architect of his own salvation.”
A long silence passed. The only sound heard was their plastic ponchos crinkling in the cold wind, constant and indifferent. The wide face of the atheist fully protruded from the hood. His white skin foregrounded the wrinkles that had been ridging around his eyes and his constantly contorted brow, as if he were perpetually aghast of everything around him. His enormous round head almost buried his moist face, and his unkempt beard gave him an air of indifference. He raised his walking stick and, looking at the believer, asked, “Whaddya think?”
The believer, whose friends called him B, did not meet his look and kept walking.
“Interesting,” he responded, looking straight ahead.
Together they walked on without more words. The wind intensified. Suddenly a monotonic whistle resonated.
The atheist, whose friends called him A, tensed his brow and focused on B.
B looked at A; A extended his hand and tugged on B’s poncho softly.
The whistling stopped.
“You know,” B spoke, “ever since we got out here and started walkin’, I’ve spent a lot of time alone. And when I’m walkin’ through all this nature –even when it’s rainin’ like this— and I hear nothing but my own footsteps, and the breeze, and the birds chirpin’, or cows mooin’, and I’m surrounded by all this incredible beauty, all I can think of’s how much everything—even the silence—is God. There’s nothing in any of this experience that isn’t.”
B looked at the A and added, “God is everywhere.”
The atheist just walked, his head cocked upward.
After a long pause J asked, “What do you think?”
B looked a little to his left and caught A a few yards behind him in his periphery.
Further down the path A had to stop to readjust his boots, and before he bent down to do so he told B that he didn’t have to wait for him.
“No, man,” B replied.
From time to time they drew a waft of pollution from the cars; apart from that, they only breathed the cold, the absence of scent. They kept walking together at a labored pace.
B asked A when the rain was going to stop, and B said he had no idea.
A asked B how far they were to final town for the day’s walk, and A said he really had no idea but would guess around 8 kilometers, which meant 2 or 3 more hours depending on the stops.
Without realizing they arrived upon a simple, lonely village adorned with a only few houses that was completely deserted.
The rain had diminished to a drizzle. B said he had to stop to attend to something.
“You can go on, if you want,” he offered.
“Naw, man,” A declined, shaking his head and reaching into his pocket, “I’ll wait for you.” A pulled out a pouch, grabbed some tobacco and rolled it into a piece of paper.
Both stopped in front of the only bench in the village. J removed his poncho, unhooked the straps of his backpack and threw it on the bench. Standing without the mass of gear and adornments he looked like a pallid cartoon rabbit. He took out a black kit, undid the zipper and, with a machine inside, pricked himself on his index finger and squeezed quickly with his other hand’s index finger and thumb. He sucked the blood dot that formed. He lowered his eyes on the apparatus and squinted.
To A, B always seemed like he was on the verge of smiling even when he wasn’t. Around his mouth, with the twenty-few years he had, wrinkles were setting in early from too much near-smiling. Concrete lines of happiness at which A looked with distant curiosity.
A scruffy dog emerged from behind the opened slit of a barn door and slowly approached the pair. A lit his cigarette, reached into his pocket, pulled out a plastic sack and dropped down to his knees like a catcher. “C’mere boy,” he said smiling, the cigarette perched unlit between his lips.
The dog approached A, sniffed the dried fruits that were proffered and turned away trotting down the path from where the travelers came from. A threw the nuts toward the dog, who looked back in feigned interest and then kept moving on.
Suddenly the rain picked up again. B put away the kit, strapped on the backpack and, with the help of A, the green poncho. He pulled out a candy bar from his pocket and unwrapped it.
The backpacks under the ponchos gave them hunchback appearances, like a pair of erect human-sized turtles.
They returned to their heavy pace, still looking for light.