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Short Story

Miranda and the Meaning of Life

An existentialist fairy tale by Nolan Whyte.

Miranda was a girl who lived in the time of kings and kingdoms, swords and sneak thieves, wizards and charlatans. She was quick on her feet and quick with her sword, and most important of all, she was quick with her mind. Miranda traveled far through the wide wide world, and she always had her eyes and ears open for adventures, which were by far her favorite thing.

On a warm sunny day late in spring, Miranda found herself traveling through a country that she had never visited before. She was very happy to pass through new places, because Miranda always enjoyed meeting new people and learning new things.

The road she walked upon was very long, and the sun was almost setting when she came upon a beautiful city, which lay upon both sides of a wide sparkling river. Miranda’s heart leapt with joy at the sight, for she was tired of walking and sorely wanted to sit and eat a nice supper and rest.

Miranda walked into the heart of the bright city and found a place near the river, where many people were sitting at tables lining the street, eating and talking and sipping black drinks from steaming cups.

“Welcome stranger,” said a man who stepped out of a café door. “I can tell by the dust on your boots that you have traveled far. Won’t you sit down and rest?”

“Thank you,” said Miranda. “I have indeed traveled far, and would very much like to rest and eat a good supper and refresh myself.”

“Sit down then,” he said, “and I will bring you something from our kitchen.”

Miranda thanked him and sat down, joining a table with many other young people. Miranda, who loved bright, colorful things, quickly noticed that many of the young people wore only black: black shirts, black hats, black skirts and black pants. “Very curious,” she thought to herself.

“Please stranger,” said a black-clothed girl. “Tell us your name and where you come from.”

“My name is Miranda,” she replied, “and I come from no place in particular, but travel all the world looking for adventures.”

“You will find no adventures here,” said a black-clothed young man. “We have no time for adventures. We only have time for trying to answer important questions.”

“Sometimes finding the answer to a question can be an adventure,” said Miranda. “But I have a question myself: why do so many of you wear only black?”

“We wear black to show people how we feel on the inside,” said the black-clothed girl. “You see, our city, our country and our people are in the grips of a terrible malaise.”

“But why?” asked Miranda, who was very curious. “I walked all day through your country, and found it very beautiful. The flowers of spring are in bloom, the grapes are beginning to grow on the vine, and the sun shines warm on every face.”

“Yes, it shines warm on our faces,” said the black-clothed boy, “but not on our hearts. You see, ours is a great nation, and we have done great things. We have fought wars and won, and we have fought wars and lost. We have built up great empires and watched them crumble, and built them up again. We have answered many great questions of science, but we have not been able to answer the one great question that vexes us.”

“But what question is that?” asked Miranda.

“The question of why we are here,” said the black-clothed girl. “We need to know the reason that we exist in this world. We fear that without knowing what the purpose, the meaning of this life is, we shall never feel joy, or feel the sun shine warmly upon us.”

“Sometimes,” continued the black-clothed boy, “we fear that there may be no purpose at all, and that we have no reason at all to be alive. That frightens us very much, because if there is no reason to be alive, then there is no reason for us not to jump into our river and drown.”

“Well I’m not sure if that’s true,” said Miranda. The proprietor of the café set a plate of delicious-looking food in front of her, and she thanked him kindly. As she ate, Miranda did her very best to think of a solution to the problem of the black-clothed people of the bright city that lay on the beautiful wide river.

When she had finished her supper, Miranda looked at her new friends and asked them, “Have you presented your question to your king? Of course, many kings are fools, but some are very wise. Perhaps your king could answer your question.”

“We had a king,” said the black-clothed boy, “but as you said, he was a fool and long ago we asked him to stop being king. Now we have a head administrator instead.”

“Well,” said Miranda. “I have no answer for your important question, but you have made me most curious indeed. If there is a meaning to life, perhaps it is important that I know it too. I would be happy to help you find the answer that you seek. Tomorrow I will go and speak to your head administrator.”

“Thank you very much,” said the black-clothed girl. “And of course, you are welcome to stay here with us while you help us.” And with that, the black-clothed girl led Miranda to a bedroom above the café, where the tired traveler immediately went to sleep upon a big soft bed.

The next morning, Miranda woke up bright and early. She put on her traveling boots, and after a quick breakfast at the café, she set out to find the head administrator of the country where everyone was so concerned about finding the meaning of life.

Everyone that Miranda asked about the head administrator pointed her towards a big stone building at the center of the city. When she arrived there Miranda saw many people rushing in and out of the front door, all carrying bundles of papers. “The head administrator must be very busy,” Miranda said to herself.

Inside the building, Miranda followed the stream of rushing people until she reached a big office. Peering inside the door, she saw a tall thin man with thick glasses and long robes. He was standing in front of a gigantic wooden desk, looking over the many many papers that people were bringing to him. Sometimes he would shake his head in disapproval at what he saw on the papers, and the person holding the paper would rush back out of the office with a sad look, but sometimes the tall thin man would nod his head with approval, sign the paper with a long feather pen, and the person holding the paper would rush out with a big smile. The tall thin man with the thick glasses and the long robes was the head administrator.

Miranda entered the office and approached the desk. No one paid any attention to her, and she had to wait for a long time. When there was a moment that it seemed no one had a paper to show to the head administrator, Miranda cleared her throat, and said, “Excuse me sir, but I have a question to ask you.”

The head administrator peered over the top of his thick glasses. “Yes?” he said. “Well, what is it young lady? I haven’t got all day. Who are you? And where are your papers?”

“My name is Miranda,” she said, stepping closer to the gigantic desk, “and I have no papers. I have a question to ask you. Many of the people in the city are sad, because they do not know the meaning of life. I have come to ask you, do you know the meaning of life?”

The head administrator looked thoughtful for a moment. “That is certainly a very important question. It takes a very wise man to answer such an important question, and I am wise enough to know that I could not possibly answer such an important question. I answer only questions that are of little or no importance.” When he saw the disappointed look on Miranda’s face, he softened.

“Look, young lady,” he said. “I have no answer for your important question. But there are many wise people in our country that you should ask. I will write down their names, and where you can find them. Perhaps they will be able to answer your question.” And the head administrator took his long feather pen and scribbled a note on a piece of paper. He handed the note to Miranda.

“Thank you very much,” said Miranda, taking the note and putting it in her pocket. “If anyone should be able to tell me the meaning of life, I’ll be sure to come back here and share it with you.”

“Not necessary, not necessary,” said the head administrator, already beginning to look over papers that people were holding in front of him. “I’m just an administrator, and I have no need of answers to important questions. I’m too busy with the unimportant ones.”

Outside of the big stone building, Miranda inspected the note the head administrator had given her. There were some names of very important sounding people, and directions where to find each of them. Without delay, Miranda set out to find the first person on the list.

A long, long way outside of the beautiful city, and after a long, long walk up a winding mountain road, Miranda made her way to a shabby little wooden house high up on the side of a mountain. The area around the house looked very dirty, and the house itself looked as though the wind might blow it over at any moment. There was a small, painted sign next to the door, which stated “Rababbala Nit, Ascetic.”

Miranda knocked on the door, and was surprised to hear a crabby voice shout out: “Hurry up! Come in then, if you’re going to come in!”

With a push the door opened, and Miranda stepped inside. The single room was very dim, but Miranda could see a little table, a little chair, and an uncomfortable looking mat that Miranda guessed must be the bed. In the middle of the room was kneeling a wrinkly little man with long gray hair. He was wearing old coarse clothing, his eyes were squeezed tight shut, and he held a small whip in his hand, which he strapped across his back every few seconds.

“Well? What do you want? Hurry! Speak!” he cried at Miranda, whipping his back all the while.

“Are you Mister Nit?” asked Miranda, quite taken aback by what she saw.

“Is that all? Of course I am! That’s what it says on the sign, isn’t it?”

“This man is most strange indeed,” thought Miranda to herself, but aloud to Mister Nit, she said “I have a very important question for you.”

“Well then! Spit it out! I haven’t got all day!”

“I need to ask you if you know the meaning of life.”

“What? Is that all? Of course I know the meaning of life! Don’t you?”

Miranda shrugged her shoulders, but remembered that the little man had his eyes closed, so she said, “No, I’m sorry, I don’t.”

“It’s God!” Mister Nit screamed, making such a face that for a moment, his eyes almost opened. “The meaning of life is God! And you have to pray to God all day long. Every moment that you’re not praying, God gets angrier and angrier. That’s why you have to whip yourself when you’re not praying, so that you can show to God that you know how angry he is! Are you finished now? Because I need to pray!”

“How very strange he is,” thought Miranda, but decided it would be best if she left. “Thank you very much,” she said to Mister Nit. “If you please though, I do have one more question.”

“Hurry up then,” said Mister Nit, still whipping himself.

“Why do you have your eyes shut so tight?”

“Isn’t it obvious?” he shouted. “I don’t want to accidentally see anything that God doesn’t want me to see. Don’t you keep your eyes shut?”

“No, I don’t,” said Miranda. And with that, she walked out of Rababbala Nit’s little house, and closed the door behind her. She stood on Mister Nit’s doorstep for a long while, thinking about what the old man had said. Perhaps, she thought, God was the meaning of life for some people like Mister Nit, and even for some people who were not as strange as him. But she had met too many people who did not believe in God, or believed in God but were not concerned about God, and many, many people who had very different ideas about what God was and what God wanted people to do. So perhaps God might be the meaning of life for some people, but it could not be the meaning of life for all people, and was, therefore, not the right answer to the question.

That night, Miranda returned to the city, and was sad to report to the black-clothed young people that she had not yet found an answer to their question.

The next morning, Miranda ate a good breakfast and set out to find the next person that the head administrator had named in his note. That person lived in a mysterious laboratory in the oldest part of the bright city that lay on the wide river, and as Miranda walked there she could see a big telescope staring out into the sky from one of the laboratory’s windows.

The sign on the laboratory door read ‘Doctor Fishtree, Scientist.’ When Miranda knocked on the door, she heard many crashing and banging sounds and a tiny woman’s voice shout out “Just a moment!” At last the door opened and a shriveled little woman in a white laboratory coat stepped out. “What can I do for you?” she said, squinting up at Miranda.

“I’m sorry to interrupt you, Doctor Fishtree” said Miranda, “but I was hoping to speak with you for a moment.”

“Certainly, certainly,” the woman said. “Come in, come in.”

Inside, Miranda saw big tables piled high with papers, chalk boards covered in scribbled writing, and on many high shelves stood every kind of test tube and bottle and jar and canister that one could imagine.

Doctor Fishtree began rushing around the room, picking up papers and inspecting them, discarding them and looking through more papers. “So what is it, my dear? What do you want to talk about?”

“Well,” began Miranda, “I have heard that you are a person who has studied a great deal, and you have learned many things.”

“True, true,” said Doctor Fishtree, reading over what she had written on one of her chalkboards.

“I was wondering,” continued Miranda, “if you had discovered during your studies what the meaning of life is.”

“Well, of course I have!” laughed Doctor Fishtree. “Everyone knows what the meaning of life is!”

“I’m afraid I don’t,” said Miranda. “Could you please tell me?”

“Certainly, my dear,” said Doctor Fishtree. “The answer is science! Look over here,” she said, leading Miranda over to one of the chalkboards. “According to these calculations, the world is going to explode in only five million years. We need science to help us build a giant barrel that we can use to travel through space, and a catapult big enough to fling the barrel all the way to a safe new planet. If we don’t, we’re all done for!”

“Well, that does sound serious,” said Miranda. “Thank you very much for your time,” she said to Doctor Fishtree.

“Think nothing of it, my dear, and remember: science!”

Outside of the laboratory, Miranda stopped to think about what she had heard from Doctor Fishtree. “Certainly science is important,” thought Miranda. “And perhaps the world may explode five million years from now, but I can’t see how that affects me very much. Besides, even if people did reach a new planet in a giant barrel flung by a giant catapult, what would the meaning of life be then? It seems to me that the meaning of life shouldn’t change.” Miranda shook her head. “No, I just can’t believe that science is the meaning of life.”

The next morning, Miranda got up, ate breakfast and began walking to where she could find the next person on her list. He was a very wealthy man, and it took no time at all for Miranda to find his home, for his name “Fortimus Muchly,” was written in big letters across the top of the building. Miranda entered through the front door, and found herself standing in front of a huge desk, behind which a tiny assistant sat perched upon a stool.

“Can I help you?” asked the assistant, looking down at Miranda from over the top of the huge desk.

“Yes, please,” said Miranda. “I was hoping to speak with Mister Muchly. I have a question for him.”

The assistant laughed. “You must be joking. Mister Muchly is the most important businessman in all of the country. If you want to speak to him you need to make an appointment long, long in advance. Now if you want to, you can make an appointment to ask him your question sometime this coming winter.”

“My goodness,” said Miranda. “I certainly had no idea he was so busy. Perhaps I should come back another time.”

“If you like,” said the assistant. “But don’t bother coming back without making an appointment first.”

At that moment a door flew open and a great big man walked into the room. He had a tremendous stomach and a great curly moustache, and he smoked a long brown cigar, which filled the room with smelly smoke. “Miss Pennypincher,” he said in a booming voice, “I must go for lunch. Make sure all of my appointments wait until I return.”

“Yes, Mister Muchly,” said the assistant, and Miranda saw her opportunity.

“Excuse me, Mister Muchly,” she said to the great big man, “I know you’re just heading out to lunch, but I have a very important question I need to ask you.”

“Hmm? And who are you?” asked Mister Muchly, peering at Miranda through a cloud of smelly cigar smoke. “Do you have an appointment?”

“My name is Miranda, and I have no appointment, but I hope you can spare time to answer just one question. As I said, it is a very important question.”

Mister Muchly checked his pocket watch, and said in his booming voice, “All right young lady, go ahead and ask your question. Be quick about it, though. I don’t like to keep my lunch waiting.”

“Certainly sir,” said Miranda, nodding her head. “I need to ask you if you know what the meaning of life is.”

“Goodness me, child,” said Mister Muchly. “Everyone knows that the meaning of life is money! You need to work hard to earn money! And then, when you have some money, you use that money to make more money! And then you take that money and use it to make even more money still! That’s what life is all about! That’s it, and that’s all.” With that, Mister Muchly inspected his pocket watch a second time, and walked quickly out of the office, off to find his lunch.

“Thank you,” called Miranda after him. She went outside, and began walking back towards the place by the river where her black-clothed friends sat. She thought carefully about what Mister Muchly had said, and the more she thought about it, the more untrue it seemed. Yes, she thought, money is important, and so is working hard, but there are many, many people all over the world who are perfectly happy with very little money at all. So although perhaps money might be the meaning of Mister Muchly’s life, it certainly could not be the answer for everyone, and therefore, could not be the correct answer.

Miranda was very tired of asking different people the question, and always finding the wrong answer. She was so discouraged, that she sat down on the side of the road and wondered what she should possibly do next.

“Why so blue, chum?” asked a voice, and Miranda looked up to see a kindly old street-sweeper smiling down at her.

“Oh, I’m feeling discouraged,” said Miranda. “I’ve been trying to discover the meaning of life, and everyone I ask gives me a different answer. It seems that everyone has an answer that is true for him or her, but could not possibly be true for everyone else. So how am I to possibly find the one true answer? I just don’t know what to do.”

“Well,” said the old street sweeper, “It seems to me that if each person has found an answer that is true for them, then that’s all they need. Everyone is free to choose, aren’t they? So if you’re looking for just one answer that’s true for everyone, maybe that’s it: Choice.”

Miranda thought for a moment, and slowly nodded her head. “Why, I think you might be right,” she said, and after thinking for a moment more, she sprang to her feet. “That would mean that no one has a meaning to their life forced upon them, and they would be free to choose a meaning for themselves!”

“Yes, I guess that’s true,” said the street sweeper.

“I must go tell my friends,” said Miranda. “They’ll be so excited to hear.”

“Maybe,” said the old street sweeper. “But if they’re waiting for someone to tell them what the meaning of life is, do you think they’ll be ready for your answer?”

“Hmm,” Miranda said. “Do you think perhaps I should let them discover the answer for themselves?”

The wise old street sweeper just smiled. “That, my dear,” he said, “is your choice.”

© Nolan Whyte 2006

Nolan Whyte is a writer, artist and musician from Regina, Canada. More information about his work can be found at nolanwhyte.com.

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