We could see the parable, even with all the vertigo it offers, as a seamark, or known face, a remembered gesture: we look at it, we go away, we travel (to China), we come back. It has not changed, but perhaps we have.
– Michael Wood
A man is sitting in his house when the thought comes to him to take a bath. He walks to his bathtub and draws it full. He removes his clothes and sighs when the warm water meets his body.
Minutes pass. He could get up, but he does not want to. That is, he does not want to rise from the tub and he does not want to not rise from the tub. He is not thinking about anything in particular. Which is precisely the problem, he thinks to himself.
The water cools, sunlight fades and then reawakens from the bathroom window. A week passes. A thin layer of dust floats on top of the water. Outside, a gust of wind blows a small seed into the tub from the open bathroom window. The seed fastens to the man’s leg and sprouts a weed.
The man thinks of a Hassidic saying he’d learned as a child at Hebrew school: A man should carry two slips of paper at all times. On one, it should be written: “The world was created for me alone.” And on the other: “I am but the dust of the earth.” He tries to think of a third slip of paper, one that he could carry to replace the two, but he does not know what it would say.
In a month, a swath of weeds reaches the man’s torso. In a year, the water in the tub is feeding a floor of crabgrass and tree ferns, and a young willow tree reaches its roots down the drain to the damp earth below. An ant colony emerges from the ceiling lamp, its thin columns of workers tracing curves across the white plaster. One day, the man closes his eyes and when he opens them, there is a bird.
The man lies in shallower water, thinking of a woman he once loved. Or has yet to love.
A decade passes and the bathroom is a forest. Squirrels jump from tree branches into the bathtub, which now holds just a puddle of murky water. Shrubs reach up from the ground and tangle towards the sunlight. The air is humid and smells of mulch.
Motionless, the man thinks of his parents. He does not know where they are, or if they are alive, but still he imagines them applauding. Soon, the neighbors join in. Then the entire town. Then the whole world, clapping and cheering, ecstatically, just for him.
When the trees sap the last of the tub’s water, the forest begins to brown. Branches crumble and the bird flies away. The ant colony dwindles, its survivors marching down the tub drain, into the damp earth. Time passes, and gusts of wind sweep the final relics of the bathroom forest out the window and into cold air.
For a while longer, the man lies in the empty tub. The sky grows dim then dark and then lightens. The next day, the sun rises early. The man stands up from the tub, walks to his bedroom and dresses for work.