I'm a sucker for stories within stories. Anytime I see them, my eyes light up. Here is one such story that I found in the book that I am just about done reading.
It began at a time of famine. Even the Brahmins were affected. A starving Brahmin, all skin and bones, decides to leave his community and go elsewhere, into the hot rocky wilderness, to die alone, with dignity. Near the limit of his strength, he finds a low dark cavern in a cliff and decides to die there. He purifies himself as best he can and settles down to sleep for the last time. He rests his wasted head on a rock. Something about the rock irritates the Brahmin’s neck and head. He reaches back to touch the rock with his hand, once, twice, and then he knows that the rock isn’t a rock. It is a hard grimy sack of some sort, full of ridges, and when the Brahmin sits up he discovers that the rock is really a very old sack of treasure.
As soon as he makes the discovery a spirit calls out to him, ‘This treasure has been waiting for you for centuries. It is yours to keep, and will be yours for ever, on condition that you do something for me. Do you accept?’ The trembling Brahmin says, ‘What must I do for you?’ The spirit says, ‘Every year you must sacrifice a fresh young child to me. As long as you do that, the treasure will stay with you. If you fail, the treasure will vanish and return here. Over the centuries there have been many before you, and all have failed.’ The Brahmin doesn’t know what to say. The spirit says with irritation, ‘Dying man, do you accept?’ The Brahmin says, ‘Where will I find the children?’ The spirit says, ‘It is not for me to give you help. If you are resolute enough you will find a way. Do you accept?’ And the Brahmin says, ‘I accept.’ The spirit says, ‘Sleep, rich man. When you awaken you will be in your old temple and the world will be at your feet. But never forget your pledge.’
The Brahmin awakens in his old home and finds himself well fed and sturdy. He also awakens to the knowledge that he is rich beyond the dreams of avarice. And almost immediately, before he can savor his joy, the thought of his pledge begins to torment him. The torment doesn’t go away. It corrupts all his hours, all the minutes of all the hours.
One day he sees a group of tribal people passing in front of the temple compound. They are black and small, bony from starvation, and almost naked.Hunger has driven these people from their habitations and made them careless of old rules. They should not pass so close to the temple because the shadow of these people, their very sight, even the sound of their voices, is polluting. The Brahmin has an illumination. He finds out where the tribal encampment is. He goes there at night with his face hidden by his shawl. He seeks out the headman and in the name of charity and religion he offers to buy one of the half-dead tribal children. He makes this deal with the tribal headman: the child is to be drugged and taken to a certain low cave in the rocky wilderness and left there. If this is fairly and honestly done, a week later the tribal man will find a piece of old treasure in the cave, enough to take all his followers out of their distress.
The sacrifice is done, the piece of old treasure laid down; and from year to year this ritual goes on, for the Brahmin, and for the tribals.
One year the headman, now better fed and better dressed, with shiny oiled hair, comes to the Brahmin’s temple. The Brahmin is rough. He says, ‘Who are you?’ The headman says, ‘You know me. And I know you. I know what you are up to. I have known all along. I recognized you that first night and understood everything. I want half your treasure.’ The Brahmin says, ‘You know nothing. I know that for fifteen years you and your tribe have been carrying out child-sacrifice in a certain cave. It is part of your tribal ways. Now you have all prospered and become townsmen you are ashamed and frightened. So you have come and confessed to me and asked for my understanding. I have given you that, because I understand your tribal ways, but I cannot say I am not horrified, and if I choose I can lead anyone to the cave with the bones of many children. Now get out. Your hair is oiled, but your very shadow pollutes this sacred place.’ The headman cringes and backs away. He says, ‘Forgive, forgive.’ The Brahmin says, ‘And don’t forget your pledge.’
The time comes for the Brahmin’s annual sacrifice. He makes his way at night to the cave of bones. He turns over and polishes every kind of story in case the tribal chief has informed on him and people are waiting for him. No one is waiting. He is not surprised. In the dark cave there are two drugged children. The headman has, after all, behaved well. With a practiced hand the Brahmin sacrifices the two to the spirit of the cave. When he comes to burn the little corpses he sees by the light of his wood torch that they are his own children.
If you are curious, this story is embedded in 'Half A Life' by V. S. Naipaul.