Charles Darwin, in a gorilla mask, behind thick metal bars.
Thomas Merton, lips sewn shut and locked up in a windowless room with Ayatollah Khomeni.
Henry David Thoreau, confined in a white padded cell. The only sound he hears is a looping soundtrack of midtown Manhattan circa 1972 that is piped into his chamber by his tormentor, a necromancer-ring-master known only as Mr. Mandala.
Three brilliant men, in life. Men of principle, who went against the grain of their times. Men who won't be going anywhere for a very long time. Not until this season is wrapped.
Mr. Mandala dug them all up (no small task, in this day and age). He sneaked into a Tehran mausoleum and Westminster Abbey, all in one night during World Cup. No guards at either tomb that night when Britain staved off an Iranian offensive to eek out a zero-zero tie, and so off went Chuck and 'Meni. Poor Merton, buried beneath Kentucky bluegrass, was the easiest catch. Hillbilly monks were no match for Mr. Mandala (himself a monk, on another continent, many centuries ago). He knew their vow of silence would halt them from alerting the authorities. From there, all he had to do was traipse off to Thoreau's grave and slip a blot of acid to the night watchman.
A whisk of his hand, a half-bottle of gin, and a dozen incantations later they stirred.
That's how he got them.
Now to the question of why. Watch Mr. Mandala and you'll see. He's inviting the television crews in now (eye-candy “journalists” from one of the more obscure cable television networks, which will feature his prisoners on a reality show to be shown in their two a.m. time slot). He is directing his agent to try to get it called The Mr. Mandala Show (co-starring Dave Thoreau). Instead, the network goes with Three Ring Rot Circus and schedules it to follow re-runs of the old '70s and '80s series Circus of the Stars. He is thinking this is poor marketing, and that if his ratings suffer the network is to blame. He frets that most viewers led into the show by Loretta Swit on the trapeze or Ed Asner taming lions won't know even recognize the names of his captives. What a waste, he thinks, but it's a start.
If his audience doesn't know who these men are, there really isn't a point. Mr. Mandala is an existential terrorist with no other goal than sabotaging quaint notions of identity. He is a master of meat puppets. His sabotage, his show, is designed to make a point about impermanence.
He's been thinking about impermanence a long time, as it is a subject of great focus in the East. That's how he got his start, after all. That's how he got his name. Once he was a mystic in the high Himalayas, where he worked for days to bring form to chaos. He could take thousands of fine grains of colored sand and construct from them the most stunning artistic representations of the Buddha-Nature. A large circle, wound rope-like around ornate squares and fractal petal-shapes that symbolized the heart of Enlightenment.
When finished, he'd do as his superior commanded, and whisk his palm over the entire piece of delicate, corruptible art, until it was no more. Then he would toss the sand into a mountain stream, so that its blessings would flow to all creation. Such was the tradition.
He'd liked the destruction part more than the creation. He'd liked doing it with people more than sand mandalas. He'd found that, if one looked deeply, one couldn't really determine much of a difference between the two. Both weren't really whole, unto themselves. Both were impermanent, constructed from millions of tiny, invisible, meaningless pieces. He'd started teaching this doctrine to the novices under his charge.
His articulation of that twist of orthodoxy led the first Dalai Lama to expel him for heresy. So Mr. Mandala might well be more nihilist than Buddhist. Some of his detractors have even called him him “The Anti-Buddha”. Either way, he wants to make a point: that there are no great men. That there are, in fact, no identities at all. That change is the only constant.
He wants to break Darwin's spirit, and the brainwashing is now almost through. He has succeeded in training Darwin, through the administration of rot-scorching shocks, to not take off the gorilla mask. He has extinguished Darwin's use of human speech, and through administration of rewards such as bananas and grapes, he is reinforcing Darwin for walking hunched-over and affecting a gorilla-like grunt. Good monkey.
Of course, Mr. Mandala knows Darwin never claimed direct descent of man from apes. But that's hardly the point. He wants to play with “truth”, and he wants to deconstruct heroes. He wants to show feet of clay. As he observes the network's cameras filming the Risen Darwin devolve (not evolve) as a survival strategy, he takes great pride in this enterprise. He has made nature work backward.
He has high hopes for Merton as well. He wants to see the pacifist crack. And with the Ayatollah, he's introduced the perfect provocateur. Merton, a younger man at death than Khomeni, is able to easily fend off the Risen Ayatollah. But the Iranian sees chinks in the peace-loving monk's armor. Each time Khomeni approaches stealthily from behind and flicks the Kentuckian's ample ears with his decayed index finger, Merton gets a little closer to losing it.
Merton, for his part, wants to pray for strength. It would have to be an unspoken prayer, of course, but this is no hardship to the man who has taken a vow of silence. He is more disturbed that he cannot make any of the usual gestures of even silent Christian prayer. For clasping his hands together or making the sign of the cross would incite wrath in the Ayatollah. So he closes his eyes and tries to meditate, leaving his meaty ear vulnerable to another sneaky flick from you-know-who. Soon, too, Merton will snap.
Thoreau is now naked in the padded cell. He he tried to hang himself from a light fixture three times now, using every remaining shred of his ragged clothing. A hanging corpse is good t.v. for only so long, so Mr. Mandala has confiscated Thoreau's high collar shirt, his vest, his jacket, his pants, socks, shoes, and underwear. He has left this best mind of another generation alone with his terror. Starving, hysterical, naked.
Thoreau doesn't know what's growling through the streets. What haunts him more than anything is how the horns and the rumbling distort something he hears in the background that sounds vaguely human. It is like hearing a loved one cry out to you from the bottom of a well, and it vexes Thoreau more than he has ever been vexed. Even the grave was less vexing, he thinks.
Mr. Mandala has hopes for Henry – that he'll be a madman soon. He always was a bit flaky, but soon the Risen Thoreau will be absolutely certifiable. Thoreau's eccentricity is ripening into mental illness. He is now more decayed than decayed. Decay2..
The necromancer smiles as he realizes the cameras are recording for all posterity that the men's characters are now much more decayed than their flesh. He has done more than a murderer ever could do – he has robbed each thinker of their soul (for lack of a better word). Even better, he has televised it – just in the two a.m. time slot for now – but he'll call his agent and work out something better.
None of the great men are aware of the presence of the other – and Mr. Mandala thinks that's for the best. He fears that if they knew they weren't alone, they'd try to swap torments. He fears that Merton might delight in the city-din, for example, or that Nature Boy Thoreau might get a kick out of the monkey costume.
Yet another good reason he resurrected the Ayatollah. Neither Darwin nor Thoreau would want to be locked away with him, and the necromancer suspects the feeling is mutual. So no one would trade places with Merton, even though he'd probably jump at the chance.
Mr. Mandala thanks the television crew for their time and makes inquiries with the director. The klieg lights dim, but the torments do not end. Deconstruction is a full time job. He does it well and he likes it. Still, he'd be lying if he didn't admit part of him yearned for legitimate stardom in the prime time hours. Who knows what magic such notoriety might bring? Perhaps, if this small venture were successful, he could convince the network to produce a spin off – a reality show in which contestants would vie to become his successor.
For you see, Mr. Mandala is possessed by both a need for intellectual consistency and a sense of humor most would label unconventional. What would be funnier, he scribbles in the notepad he reserves for ideas that he'll pitch, than if someone, some day, could deconstruct me?