By C. S. Lakin

General fiction, Literary fiction

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Chapter 1
June 1986

The conundrum went like this:

A man walks into a nondescript restaurant tucked away in an alley. It’s taken him years to find such a place, and his agitation is palpable. He orders albatross—broiled. With trembling hands, he picks up his fork and knife and slices off a piece of the seared white flesh. Juices drip onto his plate as he brings the morsel to his mouth. The aroma nauseates him as he squeezes his eyes shut and bites down.

The man’s weathered face relaxes. He sighs, sets the knife and fork down on the starched linen tablecloth, and places a hand over his heart, as if to calm its beating.

He smiles at the waiter, who bows politely and attends to the other diners. Relief washes in absolution. He raises his eyes to heaven and whispers, but no one hears him.

“Thank God, I’m free.”

Of all the wacky conundrums Raff piled on us over the years, that was the hardest—if I discounted the convoluted tale of the surgeon who performed a highly skilled operation, yet was supposed to be missing an arm. It took Neal and me three days of battering Raff with desperate yes-or-no questions to arrive at the answer. I remembered him gloating, sporting that sixties’ Beatles haircut so popular back then, his black straggly bangs falling into his brooding pubescent eyes.

He never relinquished hints—even when we begged out of frustration. Even when we beat him with pillows and punched his arms as hard as we could. Raff loved to wield his secret knowledge over us measly peons of his intellectual kingdom, a king with the power to wave his scepter and send dissenters to the gallows of humiliation—something he often did.

And the answer was so simple, as most of those conundrums were.

A group of starving shipwrecked soldiers during World War II resorted to cannibalism before an unexpected rescue. But to alleviate guilt, one group ate human flesh, and the other, albatross—the only meat they could find on their deserted island. No one knew which they were served; thus, they could assuage their consciences, live in blissful ignorance. But the man in our conundrum had spent his life in anguish, needing to know. Until that question was answered, he would have no peace. He somehow had to find a way to taste albatross before he died. The truth—so late in coming—set him free.

I wondered—as I tromped up the fourth flight of stairs—what would have happened if he had taken that bite and didn’t recognize the albatross, recoiling in the realization he had eaten various body parts of his friends? Would he still have felt free? The gist of the conundrum implied no, but that fabricated story begged the question: does freedom lie in the absolving of guilt . . . or in the liberating wings of truth?

Was discovering truth what really set him free?



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