Karma

The scale of the moon carp gleamed in Katashi’s palm, flashing like polished porcelain, or perhaps lacquered bone. He returned it to the pouch hidden beneath his breastplate. The bamboo breastplate was charred and scarred, haunted by the battle from which Katashi had forsaken his sworn service to the Tanaka clan. It had been a sardonic retreat into the woods. He fancied the idea of finding another clan to serve, such as in Kyoto, but halfway there abandoned the plan. Having no home, he made a home for himself here, in this valley beneath the howling mountains, and earning his life as a bandit with a dull blade and sharp threats.
The valley was an ideal place to stake the tearaway remainder of his life. Cutting through its wooded beauty was an important road that led to Kyoto and, so, was frequented by both riffraff and riches. There was a river that flowed like a sacred serpent nearby, replete with fish and frogs and such, and the woods was an assembly of the loveliest trees. Cedars, pines, maples, sakuras, dogwoods, plum, cherry trees. There were momiji trees with their leaves like a fan of sharp spear blades, and mountain ash, and the mighty oaks, their strange limbs frozen in kabuki dances. Katashi cherished trees, and the lovely landscape. He may not have adhered to Bushido now, but the appreciation of beauty still burned warmly in his breast long after all other things—like etiquette and Zen Buddhism—had extinguished. Sometimes, too, when the moon rode the clouds high like a princess in a palanquin, Katashi composed poetry in his head in celebration of the beauty of that hour. Sometimes the poetry visited him in the hot noon when he cooled himself in the shade of the woods, or drank water from the pools that spooled together from the waters of the mountains looming over that valley.
And yet, Katashi was not happy. He could be content, and even feel vacant of want, but such moments ebbed away as the flames and smoke rose again in his memories, reminding him of the Tanaka estate collapsing to ash. Whereas he used to meditate, now he could never sit still long enough to find inner peace. Rather, the memories assailed him on raven wings, like Tengu hellbent on mischief. In many ways, Katashi was a bitter man, and tasted much of bitter fruit. His life under the Tanaka clan had been a sweet fruit of privilege fed on the bitter duty of blood. This was why he had always enjoyed persimmons, whether ripe or unripened. The bitter and the sweet had their place. Green tea, too, was what he enjoyed, and the bitterer the better. It awakened his senses and concentrated his mind before battle. And after each battle in service to his lord, when he had often returned to the Tanaka estate, he was pleased to eat sweet rice and candies. He had taken pleasure in the indulgence of life in all of its diametric opposites.
Nowadays Katashi gathered and dried his own tea, and fished, and stole sacks of rice as he needed them during the Winter. He had few possessions, but they were enough to sustain him: his dull blade, a fishing spear, a tea cup, and a pot with which he cooked his fish, his rice, and brewed his tea.
And then came a day of yet greater change for the ronin. It had begun like all others. He rose, brewed tea, speared his breakfast in the river, cooked, ate, and then surveyed the valley road for passing spoils. He soon found them.
It was a group of monks, three in all, escorted by two samurai. The three monks surely had coins for their journey. The eldest monk looked especially old and presumptuous. The middle-aged monk looked chubby about his jowls and had a protuberant belly, meaning he ate well. The third monk was a young man; slender and almost feminine of feature. Surely, Katashi thought, these monks had coins.
Katashi then studied the two samurai closely, wondering which one he should dispatch first. Before he could come to a decision, however, a volley of roars rose and a group of bandits besieged the small group. They must have been new to the area, for Katashi had never seen them before. They wore bits of stolen armor here and there, used axes and kamas and secondhand blades. One used a fishing spear. Katashi watched grimly as the samurai were overwhelmed. He would have, at least, killed them honorably, not dishonorably ambush them with lackeys to assist. Face to face duels were his way. This, on the other hand, was a shameful display. Even so, one of the samurai managed to deflect the ambush and maim one of his attackers before he was cut down. He died with hatred etched on his face, and without a yelp of protest. Katashi would have felt honored to kill such a man, but the bandits did not indulge such thoughts. The moment the samurai fell the bandits fell upon him like dogs, arguing over who would claim his blade. There were five bandits in all, but the fifth was weeping on the ground, his lifeblood spilling out of his severed arm. The monks huddled together, but were untouched. Either they had nothing the bandits desired or the bandits feared hurting holy men.
Katashi never feared hurting holy men, nor killing them. They were often possessed of more wealth than their escorts.
At length, the four bandits had taken what they desired and fled into the forest. The fifth remained on the road, coiled like an infant and clutching the severed stump of his arm. The youngest monk attempted to tend to his wound, but the other two monks upbraided him.
“Let the dog die,” the eldest monk said. He wore a white robe and his eyes were hard, cold, and black like onyx. “Karma dictates his fate, and his fate will see him as a dog in the next life, or something worse.”
“But master…” the young monk said.
The other monk spoke up, his voice authoritative. “Do not question your better. You must remember how fortunate you are to have been taken upon this journey.” This monk wore a black robe and was of an age between the eldest and the youngest. “Let the dead lie, and let the dying follow suit.”
The youngest monk rose reluctantly and went from the bandit to the two dead samurai. The latter two had been stripped and bled freely from their fateful wounds upon the road.
“Do not touch the dead,” the black-robed monk commanded. “You will taint yourself with the corruption of death, and so doom us all. We must return to Kyoto and acquire another escort.”
“But the mountain…” the young monk protested.
“It will remain until we return,” the middle-aged monk said. “We must not dare the mountains unprotected. A hasty foot leads to a foolish fall. And youthful feet are hastiest of all.”
“But the demons will kill again,” the young monk said. “We have waited too long to protect the people of the village. Too many have died, and many more will die tonight.”
The two older monks reddened at the young monk’s words, scowls drawn on both men’s faces.
“We could not address this problem until now,” the middle-aged monk growled. “Lord Noteru had no Samurai to spare, as you know, and now we must report to him the deaths of two of his loyal men. He will not be pleased and will likely not be urgent in sparing more men in our mission.”
It was then that Katashi emerged from the shadows of the woods.
“The boy has bamboo for a spine,” he said, “or perhaps bamboo for his head.”
Katashi was pleased by the surprise on the monks’ faces. The two older monks stepped back as the imposing ronin approached. The young monk stood defiant. Katashi looked him up and down, grinning.
“Perhaps both, though he looks more a woman than the last I rutted upon.”
“What do you want?” the eldest monk asked. “Did your gang not spill enough blood already?”
“I do not belong to them,” Katashi said, a grim smile upon his face. “If I did belong to them I would have cut them down rather than see them fight an outnumbered force so cowardly.”
“A murderer with principle!,” scoffed the middle-aged monk.
“What is a Samurai except that?” Katashi said. “Though also with a master, and since I have none, I am simply a ronin.”
“What do you want?” the eldest monk demanded. “Our escort has been slain and stripped of all possessions. There is nothing we can offer you. We are holy men. We have no need of earthly possessions, and so no wealth to tempt your wickedness.”
Katashi laughed mirthlessly. “The thick robes of holy men have always concealed secret wealth, and secret wickedness. I ask only for wealth, however. Coins. Now.”
The two elder monks exchanged irritated glances, then disdainful glances toward the corpses of their guards. The eldest monk nodded to the middle-aged monk. The middle-aged monk withdrew a pouch from his robe. It jingled.
“You profane man,” the middle-aged monk complained. “It will buy you only your way into the next life as a worm.”
The monk handed the pouch of coins to Katashi.
“A peaceful, needful life,” Katashi said. He put the pouch within his breastplate, beside the pouch with the white koi scale. “Tilling the earth and helping a fisherman’s hook to feed his family. Much more needful a life than that of a monk, I should think.”
“You despicable blasphemer!” the middle-aged monk ejaculated. “You do not deserve that gold!”
“Or perhaps I could devise a need of you, after all,” Katashi said. He drew his katana. “My blade is dull and wants testing. Perhaps I should test its sharpness with a holy man’s neck.” His eyes went from one monk to the other. “But which one?” His eyes fell upon the eldest monk. “The oldest? His is sure to be tough enough to test a blade. His neck is so corded with age, like a tree’s trunk.” He looked at the middle-aged monk. “Or perhaps the fat one would be a better test of a blade. His neck is thickly swollen and surely as difficult to severe as a hog’s head from its body.”
The middle-aged monk backed away, as did the eldest monk.
Katashi turned toward the young monk. “Your neck is young and strong,” he said. “It might prove to be the best test of all. What do you say to that?”
“If you must test your sword,” the young monk said, “then please do so. But please do so after we have cleansed this mountain of corruption.”
Katashi was taken aback, but did not let on. “You care very much about this mountain,” he said.
“It is not just the mountain,” the young monk said. “It is a matter of the villages near here. This is crucial for saving lives and easing suffering.”
“The mountain must wait,” the eldest monk said.
This caused the youngest monk more upset than anything the ronin had said to him thus far. “But master! We must purify the mountain!”
“We cannot even defend ourselves against this wind-blown ruffian,” the middle-aged monk said, turning on the young monk. “How are we to defend ourselves against what we will face in the mountains?”
Katashi sheathed his blade, and laughed.
“Why would you not simply trust in the Buddha to see you safely to your destination? Why would you need armed warriors for escorts? Or is it that Buddha is a matter of your occupation rather than your belief?”
“We do believe in Buddha,” the middle-aged monk retorted testily. “But not everyone believes, and not everyone who believes behaves as if they believe.”
Katashi laughed again. “Very true. Just so, I believe in Buddha, and I carry a blade with me, for Buddha does nothing for us. He is too lost in the bliss of his own Satori to care for us or anyone except himself.”
The monks gasped. The middle-aged monk glowered and spoke with scorn.
“You are an endless well of blasphemies!” he snapped. “Your soul is lost! You will never break the cycle! Instead, you will descend into blood-madness and become an Oni!”
Katashi nodded gravely. “Perhaps I have descended and become an Oni already. I have killed hundreds, you know, and the Buddha never interfered on their behalf. Nor on my own. Rivers of blood have flowed and, in the center of it, like an unfeeling stone, the Buddha has slept, indifferent to the world.”
The two older monks exchanged looks again.
“It is time to depart,” the eldest monk said, folding his arms and turning away. “Come. Leave the wretch to his fate.”
“Do as you please,” Katashi said. “Your coin has bought you your way. Tread your path as you wish, but know the Buddha does not care.”
The two monks began to walk down the valley path. The youngest monk did not follow.
“I will not forsake the mountain,” the young monk said. “I will continue on alone.”
“It will be dark soon,” the elder monk said. “And you have no protection.”
“I have faith in the Buddha,” the young monk said. “I need nought else.”
Katashi should have laughed, and yet he did not. There was a steel-edged resolve in the young man’s tone that reminded Katashi of the battlefield. And while he may have dismissed the Samurai code and the Eightfold Path of the Buddha, he did not dismiss the courage of a man, especially combating that devil known as Circumstance.
“A fool, then,” the middle-aged monk said. “I will dedicate a Lotus Sutra to you in the hope that you will be reborn into a fairer realm. Farewell.”
The two monks went their way. The young monk went his way, through a torii gate and up a long-forsaken mountain path. Katashi, curious, followed the monk from within the woods. He was in want of diversion, and would find it.

It was not long before the sun set and the shadows stretched, darkened, and pooled as a lake in the valley. Despite the darkness of the woods, the monk did not falter, but continued up the mountain at the same determined pace as when there was still sunlight with which to see.
To Katashi’s surprise, there were lights along the path up the mountain— burning blue lights here and there among the trees and along the path. Voices whispered and murmured as the monk approached. Katashi heard them, too, coming from behind him, beside him, above him, below him. He was used to opponents of flesh and blood, not apparitions which a blade could not wound. Yet, he would not cower so long as the monk did not.
The monk pulled up his orange sleeves, exposing his hands. Within them he clutched prayer beads. As the burning blue flames encircled him, he bowed his head and raised his hands, entwined by the beads. Within the angry convergence of the blue light the monk prayed. The flames drew nearer, as if to engulf him, but he did not mind them, continuing with his prayer. The flames began to dwindle, and their voices became desperate. They cried and they wailed. They vowed revenge, and enumerated their sorrows. Nonetheless, the monk prayed, his voice a steady lullaby in the otherworldly light. By and by, they diminished, becoming so small that they were like fireflies among the trees, and then faraway stars, and then glinting embers. At last, the flames dissipated entirely, leaving only the monk on the path, and Katashi in the woods.
The monk turned and looked directly where Katashi concealed himself behind an ash tree. The ronin stepped forward
“Your blade will not always protect you,” the monk said. “Often it will harm you, even if it never spills one drop of your blood.”
Katashi stepped forward onto the mountain path. “What were those flames?”
“Onibi,” the monk said. “Lost spirits. The victims, I believe, of the evil that lurks atop these mountains.”
“Where did they go? Did you destroy them?”
“I sent them forth from their suffering,” the monk said. “I hope they find peace in the next life to come.”
Katashi snorted. “Doubtful. There is no peace in this life or any other. They go from one storm to another, and there is no refuge.”
The monk withdrew his hands and prayer beads into his sleeves, then crossed his arms. “Why do you shadow me?” he asked.
Katashi ignored the question. “I am surprised you could sense me. I am silent as a fox when I desire to be.”
“Your walk is not of the woods, however much you wish it to be. You are a man too much in disharmony with himself to ever be in harmony with the world.”
Katashi frowned. “You speak with high-hand when you wish. Were you born of a noble family?”
“No,” the monk said, continuing his uphill walk. “I was born of a humble fisherman.”
“And yet the Buddha was a prince,” Katashi said, following the monk with an easy gait. “He knew nothing of suffering, yet is supposed to somehow teach us how to overcome it. Not all of us have castles and kings to keep us sheltered from suffering.”
“You wish to antagonize me,” the monk said. “But you only succeed in revealing the extent of your own suffering.”
Katashi grinned mirthlessly. “I have not suffered more than most, except, perhaps, those whom I met and slew upon the battlefield.”
“You relish in death,” the monk said. He shook his bald head with pity. “Just so, I will pray for you, invoking the Buddha to guide your soul to its inmost peace.”
“There is no peace hidden there, either,” Katashi said, his tone harder now. “No more than there is peace in the inmost of a storm. Lightning crashes all around. The winds howl. The rains fall. The sky grows dark and the people tremble in their splintered homes. Life is dynamic. Only after death is peace attained, and even then it is not stillness, but decay as Life again eats away restlessly upon the ruined flesh.”
“You do not respect the Buddha’s teachings,” the monk said.
“Nor the teachers of those teachings,” Katashi said grimly. “If you only knew how many holy men I have slain, you would quiver in your robe.”
“Why have you not slain me?” the monk asked. “Why did you not slay my brothers? You could have easily done so.”
“I did not slay your brothers because they will return with more coins,” Katashi said. “And you…well, I did not slay you because I judged it more entertaining to witness your failure upon the mountains than to kill you outright. Or, perhaps, I may just test my dull blade on your neck after all.”
The flapping of large wings and the strange cawing laughter of a crow interrupted their conversation. They looked to the treetops and saw a winged shadow pass over the pale moon. Its laughter echoed within the woods; at one moment behind them and another moment ahead; to the left, then to the right. The creature’s laughter was as coarse as an old crone’s cackle.
At length, a branch shook overhead and creaked beneath the weight of the figure.
“What a pair to see!” the coarse-throated voice crackled. “A monk and a ronin. What fun to be had! I can scarcely decide what to do first! Should I eat the monk’s eyes and replace them with his prayer beads? Or should I remove the ronin’s genitals and place them in his mouth?”
Katashi unsheathed his sword and pointed it toward the shadowy figure. The dull blade gleamed white in the moonlight. His voice rang out in challenge.
“Come and face me first, you presumptuous creature! I will cut your grandstanding pride down as a sickle the sapling!”
The branch shook and a great gust of wind rushed downward with the winged figure that landed before them.
“Face me, mortal,” the creature said, “and we shall test how well that dull blade cuts.”
The winged creature wore a black robe and a black raven’s hat, like a priest, but had a long nose extending out from a red face. In one clawed hand it held a black-bladed katana; in the other it held a scroll such as would adorn a temple. Written upon it was the Lotus Sutra, but distorted. Perverse.
Katashi stepped forward as the Tengu grinned. The monk interceded.
“Tengu,” the monk said. He held up his hands with the prayer beads entwined. “You must not face him. You will not win. Tengu were the demons that taught the warrior arts to Man.”
“I can fight him,” Katashi said, “and I will.”
“You will die,” the monk said.
“Then it shall be a glorious death,” Katashi said.
“And a glorious feast, too,” the Tengu said, laughing like a crow. “As are all the feasts provided us by the pride of Man.”
The creature slipped its blasphemous scroll into its black robe and held the handle of his katana with both clawed hands. Katashi dropped his sword into a low stance. The moon disappeared behind a wayward cloud, plunging the mountainside into a sea of darkness. Blade crashed against blade, and the darkness was flecked with flashes of light. Three clangorous strikes sounded and then the moon reappeared. Katashi and the Tengu had switched places. The young monk stumbled back in surprise, the Tengu only a few paces away from him.
“Clever creature,” Katashi said, “to use the darkness against men. But you fail to understand. I am no mere man, for you face a demon also.”
“Your boasts are most unseemly,” the Tengu said. The laughter was gone from his coarse corvine voice. Now remained only dreadful menace. “Luck struck thrice for you, and so is gone. Now only your dull blade and your skill remain, and what paltry things to safeguard your life! It will tatter like the flimsy threads of a spider’s web.”
“So says the firefly,” Katashi said, readying his blade in the high position. The moon gleamed, reflecting off of his blade to illuminate more clearly the dark eyes near which the blade arced.
The two warriors faced each other silently for a long time, as if waiting for another cloud to blind the moon. When the cloud came, at last, like a raven’s wing, there came five shrieking strikes of blade on blade, and sparks that seemed to alight upon the leaves of trees and burn a moment before fading once again into the uniform darkness.
The moon emerged again, and with her emergence came a gasp from the monk. Katashi stood beside him, and so, too, did the Tengu. But the Tengu remained standing only because Katashi’s blade held him up. The Tengu’s blade dropped to the ground and the Tengu slumped backwards, toward his crumpling wings. The Tengu’s words were mingled with blood and pain.
“Bested by a lowly man. What a pitiful thing.”
“No,” Katashi said, withdrawing his blade and letting the creature collapse upon the ground. “Bested by a superior demon.”
The Tengu dissipated into a flurry of black feathers, all of which were subsumed into the shadows. Only the demon’s sword remained. Katashi stooped and picked it up. Surveying its black blade for a moment, he discarded his old, dull sword and claimed the new black blade in its place. He sheathed it and was pleased by the shriek of its blade in the scabbard.
“A demon’s blade befitting a demon,” he said.
“You may yet be a demon,” the monk said, reproachfully. “But I will thank you all the same.”
Katashi faced the monk with a sardonic frown on his face.
“If the Shogun wished to exterminate these demons,” Katashi remarked, “he should have sent an army, not three defenseless monks.”
“Bloodshed only feeds the demons,” the monk said. “You win only a temporary victory at best. This Tengu will return with the new moon, as will any you happen to slay this night. The portal to the realm of the Oni must be closed with an exorcism, otherwise neither the mountains nor the valley nor the villages will know peace.”
“When I kill someone,” Katashi said, “he remains dead.”
“A human, perhaps,” the monk said, “and perhaps not even then. Perhaps you have peopled this mountain yourself with the deaths you have sown upon previous battlefields. Perhaps you have a burden in all of these ill-begotten creatures and their insatiable bloodlust.”
It was Katashi’s turn to feel perturbation, yet it passed quickly. He had no time or patience for emotions that might disadvantage him on the battlefield. The monk continued up the mountain. Katashi followed.

It was a long hike, and the moon guided them. As the night progressed the howling of the mountain increased. It was a faraway whisper at first, but soon became as a wind just on the other side of the trees. The monk spoke suddenly.
“If you do not commit yourself to the Eightfold Path you will never reach Satori, but will continue in the cursed cycle of reincarnation.”
“It matters little to me,” Katashi said. “I do not care to be part of some divine realm. Does the tiger wish to be declawed and defanged? How happy could such a pathetic creature be?”
“If you persist in violence you may indeed become an Oni.”
Katashi shrugged. “I am worse than an Oni, little monk. Most men are. For we are shameful hypocrites. At least the Oni do not pretend to be anything other than what they are: blood-drinkers. They eat men without justifying it. They do not say, ‘I kill for my master,’ or ‘I wage war for the sake of peace.’ They kill and they enjoy it and they do not taint their tongues with falsehoods to ease their conscience.”
“And you enjoy killing?” the monk said.
“I enjoy surviving,” Katashi said. “And you must kill to survive.”
“It seems you enjoy little,” the monk said, “not living, and maybe not even surviving.” Katashi scoffed.
“And that is the hypocrisy of monks. They claim to live for peace and to avoid bloodshed, but all the while they must employ warriors to kill their foes on their behalf. Monks do not live more peacefully. They simply burden needful violence upon others, like a lord sending his peasants to the paddies to harvest and store the rice.”
The monk was thoughtful for a long moment, and then sighed. “You are not wrong,” he said. “The burdens of this world are often unloaded upon others. And we monks are as guilty.” He took a deep breath. “And, so, if you wish to leave my service, please leave. I will not burden you with the karma entailed in this task.”
“I am not in your service,” Katashi growled. “I am merely sharing the path for a time. I seek entertainment. Nothing else. Well, no, that is not true.” His hand went to the handle of his new sword. “This new blade pleases me. For that, I suppose I am grateful to you.”
“I would rather have died than led you to further bloodshed,” the monk said solemnly.
Katashi snorted. “How did such a one as you come to be a monk? Did the Buddha come to you in a dream?”
“How did you become a warrior?” the monk countered. “Did Hachiman put a sword in your hand and a blood-thirst in your belly?”
“I kill men,” Katashi said. “It is what I am good at, so I do it.”
“What of women and children?” the monk asked.
Katashi took the monk by the arm, halting them both. He looked at the monk directly, and in his gaze was a hardness that cut quick and sharp like a blade.
“If a youth dares to fight me, then he is a man in his own estimation, and I would not dishonor him by refusing his challenge. And I never harm women. Ever.” Katashi scowled. “You did not answer my question. How is it that you became a monk?”
The young monk said nothing. He put a finger to his lips, hushing any talk. In the howling wind of the mountains there was a strange sound of chattering—a creeping, crawling, chattering among the trees. Katashi peered at the shadow-swollen trees. Things uncoiled there; things with sharp claws and gnashing pincers and long segmented bodies.
Katashi drew his black blade as the long-bodied creatures came billowing through the darkness on their many legs. The nearest creature lunged for the monk, but the monk ensnared its pincer-snapping head with his prayer beads. With a quick prayer the beads glowed with white fire, radiating energy as the chattering centipede blazed and burned away to ash.
“Namu Amida Butsu,” the monk said.
The other two demons undulated toward Katashi like long ribbons, their movements interweaving with one another so as to confuse and dismay their intended prey. But Katashi’s senses were sharp, splitting the shadows with which the demons concealed themselves. One lunged, and then the other, and with two slashes Katashi had split the giant centipedes in two, their bisected bodies writhing wildly upon the ground. In two subsequent motions he plunged his blade into one head and then the other, swiftly silencing their chattering once and for all.
The monk and the ronin continued up the mountain path.
“You did not answer my question,” Katashi said. “How did you come to be a monk? Was it in search of respite from agonies? Or was it to seek agonies through self-denial?”
“Life is hard and full of agonies,” the monk said. “That is the purpose of Buddha. To offer respite and refuge from the sorrows of Life.”
“What do you know of sorrows?” Katashi demanded. “Monks live apart. They are chosen as children, raised in monasteries, provided protection by the same warriors whose means of life they shun.”
“I was not always a monk,” the young monk said. “I was, for the longest time, an orphan.”
“Born from a bamboo stalk?” the ronin mocked.
“My father was a fisherman,” the monk said. “My family lived in a small fishing village on the coast. I do not remember my parents and siblings very well. They were drowned in a tsunami. I was found afterward, clinging to a bundle of bamboo that floated in the aftermath. I was found by a kabuki group, of all things. They made jokes about it, saying I floated into the Floating World. From then on I grew up in the kabuki theater. I learned how to perform and how to play music on the shamisen. I became a very popular kagema. I performed in the dress of a woman, and even played Amaterasu, and dared to think I could shine as brightly as the sun. Men hungered for me, and paid for me. They used me as they would a woman, and wealthy women paid for me as well, and I made money for my kabuki group. But I hated it. My life was suffering.”
“And so your precious Buddha saved you? Or did he visit you in the night? I have heard that monks enjoy kabuki, too, and hold private audiences when the world is silent except for the chirping of lonely crickets. They enjoy kagema as well.”
The young monk ignored him.
“I shuddered at the touch of men and women both. I wanted to run away, but felt guilt and shame at the thought of selfish flight. The kabuki players had rescued me as a child. I felt that I owed them my life.”
Something in Katashi’s posture shifted. It was not so rigid, even if it was as flint-to-flame ready.
“Why did you leave?” Katashi asked, his voice neither soft nor harsh.
“I was violently abused by one man. When I attempted to tell the others they told me to keep silent about it. The man was very wealthy, and was a noble. Thereafter I cut my hair and fled to the monastery. The monks refused to take me at first, knowing who I was. You are correct, ronin; the kabuki actors are paid to visit monks— some monks, but not all—and I had been very popular among the Zen masters. They hated the shame of my presence on their holy grounds, but I persisted. I invoked the sayings of the Buddha, and the Sutras I had learned while in the kabuki theater. Still, they refused me.”
Katashi may have sighed, or hissed. Something in his bearing shifted. The monk continued.
“Then one night I met an old monk while wandering the woods. He told me to speak his name to the monks. His name was Eiji. I spoke his name the next morning and the monks were astonished. They asked me where I had heard his name. I explained that I had learned the name of the man from the man himself. They immediately accepted me. Eiji, they said, had been the great exorcist in the monastery. He was respected even by the Shinto priestess of a local village for his ability to exorcize malevolent entities.”
“And now you exorcize demons,” Katashi said. “Where is this Shinto priestess? Could she not aid you in your quest to cleanse these mountains?”
The monk inhaled and exhaled. “She was slain but a week ago by an assault of demons in her village. Many holy men and women have been slain lately while trying to protect their villages against the demons.”
Katashi thought about all of the many nights he had spent in the woods, a mere raven’s flight distance, from this mountain. No mischief befell him. No malevolent spirits had stalked and attacked him. Why?
“What hope have you in standing against the source, then?” Katashi asked the monk. “It seems as foolish as a fish trying to hold back the river.”
“It may be foolishness,” the monk said. “But I refuse to stand aside and let more people die from inaction. The Shogun is too concerned with destroying the warlords plotting against him to concern himself with demons. And so long as men wage war the demons shall invade and feast and prosper in our lands.” The monk paused, turning to look Katashi in the eye. “So…you now know this to be a doomed endeavor. Do you wish to continue shadowing me?”
Katashi did not hesitate. “I am bored of stealing from peasants and holy men. I wish for more excitement, and more blades against which to test my mettle. Folly invites much diversion.”
They continued up the mountainside. Summer’s blooming abundance cluttered all around them. The slivers of moonlight led them onward and upward. The night was warm and balmy, the mountain forests thick with foliage and mystery. Long abandoned huts reared here and there, the dilapidated structures sinking into their own bamboo bones and haunted by unnatural fires in their dark depths. A temple, too, sat behind a torii gate. Eyes peered from within its cobwebbed shadows. Whatever kami were worshiped there had long given the temple over to more malignant entities.
“A man’s soul is like a woodblock,” the monk said. “Each life we live, reincarnated, is a print from that woodblock.”
“Another lecture, is it?” Katashi remarked.
“The Buddha helps us cut away the details,” the monk said, “removing the jutting imperfections used to stain the page until all that remains is a flat, smooth expanse until a pure whiteness remains, the impurities of this world slipping off of us, untouched by the ink.”
“I am rather fond of woodblock prints,” Katashi said. “Especially those of Mt. Fuji. Why should we not enjoy what imprints our lives and makes us who we are? Why would anyone not stain the page with the beauty of this world?”
“Why are you a ronin?” the monk countered. Before Katashi could answer, the monk spoke again. “Because this world is transient and fleeting. It is fickle. One day you have a place with a master, and then next day you are adrift after a great calamity. Not even the peaceful trees are spared. The seasons are restless and wait for no man, however painful the cold Winter winds are on his old bones.”
“Even so,” Katashi said, “I love this world. It has beauty. It has strength. Perhaps I will never reach Satori, but what of it? I would rather stay earthbound with the changing of the seasons swirling around me than elevate to a realm of sheer consciousness. The world is a fickle mistress, but she remains beautiful, whether a maiden or mother or old crone.”
The monk was silent for a long time. He stared at the beads entwining his hand. At length, he spoke.
“And that pouch you clutch within your armor? What is the meaning of it?”
Katashi bristled. “There are secrets dear to a man, and he would rather die than reveal them to anyone. Even to your precious Buddha.”
The silence between them opened around them and they leaned into it as they ascended. It did not comfort them, but it did not provoke them either, covering the soreness between them like a scar. Distantly they heard the howling of the mountain’s summit.
They continued to ascend the high path up the mountain.

There was a waterfall somewhere. Its rushing music swelled as they neared it. The land beneath their feet leveled for a time, and the forests opened wide, falling away to let the moonlight play vastly in the mist. Neither the ronin or the monk spoke. They heard the strumming of a koto mingled in with the waterfall’s cascade. Approaching, they saw the heavy breath of the crystalline cataract aglow with moonlight, and, within that heavy breath, the large figure of someone sitting upon a rock in the pool.
“It is a demon,” the monk whispered. “It will not let us pass.”
“We shall see,” Katashi said. “Wait here.” He approached the waterfall.
Strangely, the nearer he came to the waterfall, the less he heard of it, and the more the beautifully sad music of the koto echoed in his ears. At length, the music continued, but the figure leapt from the rock. Still shrouded in mist and shadow, it walked slowly forward. It grew taller as it approached, cradling the large koto in its long arms and still somehow plucking at the strings to haunt the mountains with its melody. Such long, unfolding arms. Such long, unfolding fingers.
A figure emerged at last, tall and imposing, her kimono black and her long hair white. Her face was like a grotesque Noh mask, only it was not carved of wood to frighten children. The sad, fang-cluttered smile was her own as well, as were the horns upon her crown and the glowing red eyes. Even now her long, blood-stained claws plucked and struck at the strings of the koto. She was a kijo: a mountain ogress.
Somewhere behind him Katashi heard the monk muttering incantations. The ronin hushed him with a wave of his hand. He then walked toward the tall creature, listening to her song as if it was the most beautiful music he had ever heard. When they came face to face he did not flinch, nor did he unsheathe his sword. Instead, he unsheathed himself, casting his sword, armor and the robe beneath aside. He stood boldly naked in the phantom-spun moonlight. The only things he wore were his scars and the pouch whose string hung from his neck, its singular content being the scale of the moon carp.
The kijo stared at Katashi, her red eyes glowing with hunger. She ceased playing her song and set down the koto. The koto was as long as Katashi was tall. Its board was made of bones and its strings made of sinews and tendons. The ogress gazed at him for a long moment, eyeing him up and down, her grotesque face full of hunger, and sadness.
The ogress raised a taloned hand high above her horned head. Katashi awaited its fell plunge, but when it plunged even he was startled by its boldness. Her hand went to the fold of her black kimono and peeled it away from her tall, angular body. She stood before him as naked as he dared stand before her, her breasts pendulous and her womanhood glistening. He did not flee, but stood fast before her as her long, bony arms embraced him. He embraced her in turn, and she pressed her fetid mouth against his own, tasting of blood and death; a familiar kiss he had tasted many times on the battlefield; a taste that thrilled and repulsed him, enlivening him and sickening him with that katana blade sharpness of contrast. Her fangs cut his lips sweetly.
Katashi sucked at her breasts while she pressed herself atop him vigorously. She kissed him many times, and with each kiss he recalled a blade or arrow or spear that kissed his skin, leaving a scar. He no longer felt repulsed, nor even thrilled. This was familiar; this was his life written in the characters of kisses and scars and terrors, all tracing the imminence of death. Even her grotesque face did not repulse him, nor was it truly ugly after a time. His whole life had been ugly and bloody, soaking battlefield after battlefield; enough blood to drown a dragon. But when the Tanaka clan fell, he saw the fruits of his efforts wither and decay on the shorn vine.

The monk ventured further up the mountain path, moving slowly beneath the cover of the trees. A wide berth he gave to the two lovers. To him it seemed their lovemaking was both sacrilegious and beautiful—grotesque and sincere. He was reminded of the many nights he had pleased men and women after his troupe’s kabuki plays. He never enjoyed any of these encounters, save one. And the pleasure of that encounter scared him, even now.
There had been an older woman that had often attended his plays. He had seen her in the audience, distinguished by her gaze, for she was transfixed upon him, her eyes as bright and hot as two toro lanterns. She paid only once for him, and even then seemed shy and embarrassed as he disrobed before her. Yet, once she had begun to touch him her passion kindled and she was as lively and ferocious as any woman half her age. But there was a tenderness to her, also, and genuine love in her lovemaking. She sought to please him as much as to enjoy him, and he found that he was genuinely affected by her care. Afterwards, when the sakura blossoms had been shaken fully from her desires, she lay within his arms, her forehead against his chest. She sang a song—an old folk song—and sounded almost as a child. The lines beneath her dark eyes had smoothed and she looked fresh and young though she was old enough to be his mother.
Even now her song haunted him.

“Cherry blossoms take flight
like butterflies,
the stars of Obon night
like lovers’ eyes
awake in bed, though soon
to drift asleep
beneath the lantern moon
where dreams will keep
living on—ever on
after we part
at the coming of dawn
and the dimming of my heart.”

The monk came to the cresting crown of the mountain. A pagoda gleamed white in the moonlight, towering like a mountain unto itself. It was made of human bones. Perched atop its many eaves were Tengu, their black crow wings arched behind their backs. They cackled and cawed riotously. Down below, and standing on the pagoda’s various stories, were Yokai and Tengu. Worse of all, there were Oni. They were large, grim-faced ogres with sharp teeth and long claws. The monk knew that he had now come to the place of evil infection in the mountains and would need to exorcize the place of infection.
Looking about, he found a circle of oaks. There was a natural power here. He could sense it. It was powerful with benevolent kami. They would lend him their aid. He readied his incense burner, his kindling, his prayer beads, the Lotus Sutra, and his nerves. He began the purification ritual, chanting and rolling his prayer beads in amongst the incense smoke.
The monk went unnoticed for a time. Yet, he was soon spotted by a Tengu flitting about the skeletal pagoda. The Tengu squawked like a crow in alarm, pointing to the circle of oaks. Soon the Oni and other Yokai descended from the pagoda. They came in a languid tide at first, and then rushed on like a wave. The monk knew, then, that he had no time to complete the ritual. He knew he would soon die.
And then Katashi arrived, crashing into the beastly creatures like a divine wind. He drew his blade and slew a handful of the twisted creatures without ever clashing swords. He moved like water through a sieve, seemingly untouched by the horde. But the horde was numerous and boasted many formidable foes. His initial attack was effective, but the element of surprise was gone. The larger Oni gathered around him, even as the smaller Yokai attempted to slip past him only to be cut down. The Oni grinned and could have easily overpowered him, yet their pride did not allow it. One by one they faced him, and one by one he tested the black blade on their thick hide and horns and heads.
The moon reddened, like a basin of blood. All that was touched by its light was stained with a crimson glow. The mountains seemed drowned in blood. A strange castle could be seen in the night sky. It, too, was made of bones and sat in a lake of blood.
Katashi’s black blade dripped blood, and his ferocity was whetted by his bloodlust. He struck at the Oni and Tengu with such power that it forestalled them, even pressed them back. But Katashi could not truly defeat them, and soon suffered injuries. Slashes and lacerations bled him; the trenchant pains of war staggered him and belabored his breath. He felt so alive, though, and determined. He exulted in the battle.
But then the demons began to mock the ronin. They called to him by his name.
“I remember you, Katashi!” a two-headed Oni said. “You slew my brother and I upon the field! We did not expect to see you here!”
“Did I slay your courage as well as your bodies?” Katashi said. “Why did you never seek me when I was so close to you?”
“The Oni value your contributions to their armies!” the two-headed Oni said, grinning his canine fangs. “You have been a faithful servant of blood and carnage!”
As before, Katashi cut down the two brothers, though now he was more shaken than when he had dealt them their first deaths. For the first time in his life he paled and trembled. Another demon sprang forward: a one-eyed giant with a spear and gnashing fangs. Katashi tightened his hold on his sword, raising it upright beside his head. The blood oozed down the black blade. It was red like human blood; like the countless crimson ponds Katashi had spilled upon countless battlefields.
“Katashi!” the giant yelled in joy through his fangs. He laughed a deep, bellowing guffaw that shook the heavens. “So many warriors and generals!” The giant gestured to the expanse of demons. “And all because of you, Katashi! You have made the demon world strong! So strong! So numerous! So unstoppable!”
“I will cut you all down again!” Katashi vowed.
The giant laughed. “Cut me down and I will return! I return every night, Katashi! Every night since that night beneath the sakura tree! Remember? Remember me? The one whom they called the Spear-Tongued Giant? You challenged me for the honor of being Lord Tanaka’s personal guard! You slew me without mercy, though the duel was meant to be bloodless.”
“You drew blood first!” Katashi roared, slicing at the giant with his sword.
The giant deflected the strikes. “True! If only I drew enough to kill you! Then, perhaps, I would have been the one peopling the demon realm and be esteemed among the legion! But you won, running your sword through my eye and killing me!”
The giant laughed again, seemingly as joyful of his fate as if he had won the duel.
Katashi circled the giant. “I will run you through your other eye, fool!”
The giant swung his club and Katashi rolled beneath the knotted wood, rising to his feet with a slash of his sword splitting the giant’s eye. The giant roared, his bellowing voice staggering into lunatic laughter as he clutched his ruined eye.
“Katashi!!!” he laughed. “You have not changed!”
The giant swung his club blindly, his muscular arms whirling in a frenzy. Katashi retreated discreetly while the giant’s blind attacks struck the other Oni rushing past him to confront the intruders. Small and large Oni were flung away, broken and crushed by the giant’s club. The horde did not baulk, but laughed as if the carnage was the greatest merriment to be had. Eventually a Tengu swooped down and beheaded the giant with his blade, if only to cease his flailing, and the blinded giant’s head fell to the mist-glimmering grass, still laughing.
“I will be back, Katashi!” he vowed. “Upon the next moon I will eat your eyes and drink your blood and welcome you among your true brethren for all eternity!”
The Tengu that had slain the giant now flew toward Katashi. Katashi raised his crimson-cloyed blade with one hand. With the other hand he stealthily drew his tanto blade from its concealed sheath. As the Tengu swooped, Katashi threw his tanto, piercing the crow-demon’s chest. The creature collapsed to the ground, barreling over the smaller Yokai below in a tangle of limbs and feathers. Stepping through this cobbled road of mangled bodies was a horned Oni with red skin and a large scythe. He seemed in a good mood.
“What are you trying to be now, Katashi?” the Oni said. “A nio? Laughable! And where is your fellow guardian?” The Oni looked past Katashi, seeing the monk in the woods. “Ah! A monk? To think you would ally yourself with a monk! I will sully his soul with the filth of his own flesh!”
The Oni dashed toward the trees, his scythe raised for a bloody harvest. Katashi dashed after the Oni, slashing the demon’s leg. It was a feint, however, and the demon spun about, his scythe seeking Katashi’s neck. Katashi twisted sideways, throwing his left arm up against the crescent blade. The blade drank deeply and Katashi nearly fell. Instead, he rallied himself through the blinding pain with a flaming fury and swung his black blade with his one good arm, beheading the Oni at a single stroke.
The Oni’s body fell, and beside it Katashi sagged to one knee, clutching his sword. The wounded arm hung limply, bleeding from the shredded socket. He was pale and a clammy sweat drenched his forehead. His eyes blurred in and out of focus and he felt drowsy; so tired that he should sleep forever.
The horde of Oni gathered around. They did not rush. They pleased themselves by mocking the ronin and his . Their taunts roused Katashi. He glanced back at the monk, his figure wreathed in white fire as he continued his chants. In among the white fire he saw other figures: small and large, strangely shaped; some humanoid, others not nearly so. These figures clustered around the monk protectively, driving back the smaller Yokai that had slipped past Katashi. He realized, after a moment, that they were kami. Nature spirits. It was then, at this realization—when he knew that Nature itself was aspiring to protect the Buddhist monk—that Katashi could not surrender. If the land of Nihon would aid the monk, then Katashi felt that the monk was worthy of Katashi’s service, even if the Buddha wasn’t.
Grimacing, Katashi wobbled as he righted himself up to his feet.
“I will rest in my death,” he told himself. “But for now…I must test my blade.”
The exorcism continued in earnest, and the battle continued in desperation. The floating castle began to fade, as did the howling of the demonic winds. The crimson moon waned, bleeding out until it was pink, and then dull white. Katashi bled out, too, and paled as he weakened. Still did he swing his blade against the horde, even as he fell to his knees again and again. Blood flowed from one eye, and blood clouded the other eye. His whole being was fury and pain.
The Oni and Tengu realized what the whitening of the moon meant. They fled in fear, as if from the chittering of a hungry Shinchu. It was too late for them. The castle faded from the sky and the pagoda faded from the mountaintop. With the latter faded the cursed creatures that had inhabited its towering stories and eaves. Soon all that remained was the mountain, the moon, the monk, and a dying man. The young monk hurried to his side.
“I will perform the rites,” the monk said, kneeling beside Katashi. “You have served the Buddha well and should be rewarded.”
“I served…Nihon…” the ronin said. A burst of blood in his throat shook him. Dropping his sword, he withdrew the pouch beneath his shattered breastplate. Out of it he took the white koi scale and held it up to look at it with his remaining eye.
“Your secret,” the monk said, softly.
“Yes,” he said. “The joy of my life…a smiling face…reflected in the moon pond…” He coughed up more blood, his breathing labored. His face was white and his lips red, like a kabuki actor. “Her smile…she loved the koi…”
“She was your lover,” the monk said.
“And my master’s concubine,” Katashi said, his voice slowing. “She…loved the moon pond…the koi…she said…she was like the koi fish…gave me…gave me this porcelain scale from…her hairpin…”
“She cared for you very much,” the monk said.
“Yes…she would…play the koto for me…sometimes…before we made love…” His bloody brow furrowed with pain. “During the invasion…she killed the lord of the Tanaka clan…herself…and fled to the woods… I do not know…what happened to her…”
“I will pray that both of you are united in your next lives,” the monk said.
“I do not…wish for much,” Katashi said, grimacing as a laceration in his gut broke and bled freely. “Just…just a peaceful life…of isolation…silence…without violence… without…wrath…and with the…beauty of the seasons…all around…such as when…when I told her…she was my moon…”
Katashi’s final breath faded away. The monk prayed over the ronin, repeating the Lotus Sutra to bless his passing. When morning came, so, too, did the sun, and the mountain was bathed in purifying light. The Oni and Yokai were gone. The kami rejoiced in their silent, subtle way. The monk purified Katashi and buried him, marking his grave with a stone. He then descended the mountain path.
Where the monk passed he met with no demon or ghost. The mountain had been completely cleansed. When he came to the waterfall and its pool he did not see the kijo anymore. Rather, the place was serene and uninhabited. He glanced at it for a moment, then turned to leave. The gleam of white motion caught his eye and he turned to look at the pool again. Floating in the pool, serene and content, were two pale white kois. They gleamed with a porcelain luster as they floated up. They were so white that the carved edges of their scales were invisible in the sheen along their flanks.
A leaf fell from a maple tree—burning orange like a phoenix’s feather. The monk bowed and then left the kois to their reward.

Three Myth Riddles

Firstborn, yet never born,
scooped from a womb of earth,
yet from me would be torn
she who would first give birth.

To give blood, and yet not the first
among killers, nor the one cursed,
but the first among the slain,
blood for blood—sacrifice in vain.

A wager cost him dearly,
though not a wager he made,
losing it all, or nearly,
except his faith which repaid
his losses, although not all
those who lost, and were thus laid
to rest to prove him God’s thrall.

Dawn

Of many names, of many lands,
praised by both Germans and by Greeks
as I ascend the earthen peaks—
rosy-fingered, my outstretched hands.
From my bed in the East I fly,
flaring colors, crowned with sunlight,
bringing an end to the dark night
as my raiments cover the sky.
Eos, Eostre, Aurora, Dawn,
by many tongues I am thus praised
as I bring the warmth, my arms raised
and my radiance shining on.

Swallow

Her bioluminescence casts shadows

on the cavern’s cold, wet deep-sea walls,

reeling round like a carousel that glows

in Neptune’s silent, coral-toothed halls.

There are terrors written within the light

of her heart, that jellyfish aglow

and aquiver in endless depths of night

within the sea’s saltwater grotto.

Tongues twist and twine like sea slugs from conch shells,

tasting the other, a frank meeting

that stirs the blood to race in ocean swells—

a frenzied shiver of sharks eating.

He does not know how long her appetite

may be stayed, nor the strength of this love

that brought him low, away from sunlight,

but knows it better than most above,

for when her hunger waxes like the tide

and she swallows his heart at long last,

she will add it to the strange glow inside

and be brighter than day by contrast.

Simple Life, Sinful Death

The monk had come to greatly savor the simple things in life.  The wind ’s music through the mountain ’s maple trees.  The trickle of creek water sweeping lazily between the mossy stones.  The fine taste of hot green tea with ginger and the soup made of onions, seaweed, soybeans and radishes.  Simple things expanded his awareness of larger things —of greater things.  And so he was contented.  His days spent serving the old temple alone in the mountains consisted of sweeping the old wooden floor, tending to his bulbs of onions and ginger roots like chicken feet, long walks down to the sea to harvest seaweed, and the long walks up the mountain, harvesting mushrooms from the woods.

 And, of course, he spent many hours in prayer and meditation.

 As the sun set in the West he would pray to Buddha in thanks and admire the warm glare of the setting sun peeking through the windows of the temple, touching warmly the sleepy face of the Buddha ’s statue at he head of the temple.  Often the monk longed to fall asleep likewise, and often did, maintaining his cross-legged position throughout the night.  He woke in the morning stiff and aching, for he was very old, and sometimes he regretted waking in such pain.  Yet, he rose, as always, and set about his usual day, listening to the wind ’s music and drinking his simple tea and eating his simple soup, doing his simple chores, and finding simple contentment once again in his long day of peaceful isolation.

 But the years dragged on and the monk felt the dead weight of them growing heavier, like decades of fallen leaves bundled atop his shoulders.  He did not walk so well in the morning, even after sleeping on his simple straw mat.  He had to lean on his hoe intermittently when tending to his garden.  When walking up and down the mountain he had to rest on a log, here and there, taking much more time each day to accomplish his foraging.  He began to forego such strenuous trips, venturing every other day, and only once each day rather than the many trips he once dared.

 And his mind began to fail him.  He would boil tea over his fire pit, then forget about it until the leaves had burned.  Sometimes he would pick an onion from his garden, eagerly peeling it only to find that he had once before picked an onion for soup that week.

 And then the shadows began to come to him.

 They came at sunset while the monk was beginning his prayer.  They enumerated around the room as the sun ’s rays touched the brow of the Buddha statue.  The figures crouched in the dark corners of the small temple, away from the statue.  The monk watched them sometimes as they loped about, or somersaulted, tumbling end over end in mischievous mirth.  The shadows were small at first, but lengthened as they sun waned, drawing themselves upward with the weak light of the monk ’s single candle.

 The monk was never upset or unsettled by the shadows, no matter how stranger their shapes and movements.  He observed the shadows impassively, much the same as when observing swallows darting about the cliffs of the mountain, or foxes flitting through the bushes.  He knew that his mind was a thing of the material world, and so fickle and prone to wits that would fade in time, bringing with their weakness the phantasms of an unbridled imagination.  He accepted this fate calmly, and so let the shadows do as they willed while he prayed impassively, grateful that the Buddha should allow him the wherewithal to understand the looseness of his mind and, therefore, resist its indulgent fancies as the hallucinations grew more vivid.

 But then came a nightfall when the shadows ceased their jovial prancing and devilish tumbling.  They stood around the monk, arrayed along the temple ’s old walls, flickering as the single candle flickered, and staring.

 Simply staring.

 And then they stepped forward from the shrouds of their shadows, the figures manifesting at last in corporeal form.  They were now flesh and blood —or so near as yokai might have been —and the old monk could smell them, could see them clearly, and, had he dared, could have reached out and touched them.

 Yet, the old monk was not perturbed.

 Foremost among these demonic figures was a creature very much like the monk himself.  He had a bald head, prayer beads around one wrist, an old stained robe as modest as the old monk ’s, and a wrinkled brow.  Had the monk owned a mirror to know what he, himself, looked like now, after years of isolation, he would have known that this creature was the perfect reflection of himself.  That is to say, the perfect reflection except for the third eye embedded in the creature ’s forehead.  It was a mockery of the Mind ’s Eye, its pupil slitted like a serpent ’s.

  “You poor wretch of a monk, ” the three-eyed monk said.   “For decades you have served the Buddha, and for what reward?  Aches and pains and old age. ”

 The old monk responded with a level voice.   “Humility comes by many means, ” he said, “and is its own reward. ”

 The three-eyed monk shook his head in mock-pity.   “And yet you have not achieved Satori.  So much sacrifice —decades of one ’s life in lonely wilderness —and all for the profligacies of a deaf-mute statue. ”

 Again the old monk replied with a level voice.   “Buddha speaks and hears as he ought, ” he said.   “If I utter a prayer, and it is unheard, then it is still heard by the Buddha within me. ”

 The three-eyed monk laughed, his dusty cackles echoing in the dark, candlelit silence of the temple.   “We shall see what answers you when given temptations.  Yes!  Then shall we know how true a Buddhist life you lead, for anyone may be a Buddhist monk who hasn ’t the temptations to lead him astray from the Path. ”

 The three-eyed monk clapped his hands and a figure stepped forward among the grotesque throng.  It was a voluptuous woman in a silken gown.  No, two women!  They shared the same kimono, and then, letting it slip to the floor, they revealed that they shared the same body, conjoined so that there were two heads, two arms, two legs, and three breasts between them.  They were beautiful, their womanhood glistening wantonly in the candlelight.  They beckoned to the old monk and moaned, kissing one another as they batted their long eyelashes at him, fondling their breasts and caressing their womanhood with their hands.  Their twinned voices rang out in ecstacy.  The three-eyed monk leered at them, and leered at the old monk.

  “You have been celibate your whole life, ” the three-eyed creature said.   “Be embraced by Desire itself, before it is too late and you vanish into the unfeeling shadows once and for all. ”

 The old monk trembled slightly, in desire and in repulsion at his own desire.  Yet, he remained cross-legged upon the floor.

  “No, ” he said, his voice quivering.   “The kiss of the wind on my brow is more than I ever needed. ”

 Other demons among the throng readily took hold of the voluptuously twinned wanton and drew her in amongst themselves, pleasing her and themselves as was their wont.  The three-eyed looked on a while, grinning, then gestured to another creature.

 There came flowing out from among the demons a long serpentine dragon that glittered brightly.  Its scales were of gold and jewels, and these treasures rained down upon the temple floor as the dragon streamed and bent and twisted about the temple.  Clutched in its clawed hands were large pearls wherein reflected the old monk ’s face.

  “You have been poor your whole life, ” the three-eyed monk said.   “Take of these precious treasures and buy a kingdom!  Buy two!  You would live in comfort and . ”

 The old monk could see himself in the pearl, carried around in a palanquin by strong young men through a palace hung with silk and ornate with golden statues of Bodhisattvas grinning vastly.  Young women in lovely kimonos served him fruits and played music for him as he lounged among them, reclining among pillows stuffed with peacock feathers.

 Seeing himself luxuriate brought to mind the aches in his lower back, and in his hips, and in his knees and bones all over.  He trembled to think how wonderful such comforts might have been.  But he felt shame.

  “A roof above my head to keep out the rain, and a small fire to fend off the chill…that was always wealth enough for me, unmatched by any other earthly treasures.  Wealth is the reward from the work of others, heaped unjustly upon one ’s lap.  Why would I debase others, and myself, by encumbering them with my earthly burdens.  Our chains are ours alone to bear, and easy chains of jewels and coin bind us all the more strongly. ”

 The figures among the throng laughed as they scrambled to scoop up the wealth shed by the golden dragon.  The three-eyed monk watched them with great pleasure at their haste and havoc, especially as they fought over the jewels and swore and grappled.  After a time, he clapped his hands and the yokai retreated, their arms and tentacles and appendages encoiling great wealth.  The three-eyed monk grinned, beckoning forward another among the grotesqueries gathered there.

 Coming forward with a clumsy, ponderous step was a Tanuki.  It ’s large eyes gleamed beneath its straw hat, its bulbous belly (and sack) bouncing together as it stepped forward, carrying in its hairy arms a large cauldron.  The cauldron steamed fragrantly, redolent with meats of every kind; of ox and fish and chicken, all flavored with spices from the West and the tastiest vegetables the old monk had ever seen.  Heaving the cauldron up, the Tanuki slammed it down, sloshing the delicious broth and shaking the temple to its withered timbers.

 The Buddha statue, however, remained unmoved.

  “You have abstained from flavor your whole life, ” the three-eyed monk said.   “So feast, now, and know the true bounty of the earth in all its splendor. ”

 The monk opened his mouth —but whether because of hunger or refusal, even he did not know.  His stomach gurgled at the spicy flavors that tantalized him as they breathed fulsome in the small, crowded temple.  The monk moaned silently, but did not move.  At length, he spoke, though speaking was made more difficult by the salivating of his mouth.

  “A simple soup and tea nourished my body, mind, and soul unto great satisfaction, and I neither wanted or needed more. ”

 The three-eyed monk squinted suspiciously.  Shrugging, he waved a hand at the throng gathered, and they all converged upon the cauldron, scalding themselves unmindfully as they scooped out the delicious food and gobbled it down.  Not even a droplet of broth remained after they emptied the cauldron.

  “So much you have abstained from, ” the three-eyed monk remarked.   “And yet, so much could return to you at a word. ”

 He raised his hands and clapped them yet again, the candlelight flickering as if struck by a shearing gust of wind.  When the shadows around the temple wobbled back into a steady candlelight, all which the old monk had denied himself was once again before him: the conjoined wanton and her three breasts, the golden dragon and its visions of luxury and comfort, and the Tanuki ’s cauldron, brimming with succulent meats and spices.

  “Now choose, ascetic, ” the three-eyed monk said, gesturing to the temptations arrayed around the old monk.   “Choose to indulge or abstain.  It matters not either way, for upon this final night of your life your deaf-mute god does not care.  No one cares, except yourself. ”

 The old monk looked at the splendor before him, and he looked at the indifferent, graven statue of the Buddha.  With a wheezy voice, the old monk spoke.

 What he said, only his inner Buddha heard.

      ***

 It was many years before another monk was sent to the isolated mountain temple.  When he arrived he found it deserted.  There were swallows in the rafters and the garden had overgrown with weeds.  The Buddha ’s statue sat as it had always sat, his eyes closed in sleepy detachment.  The young monk did much work that day, preparing his home, and much more work the next.  For a week he worked to make the temple habitable again.  He did not remove the swallows, but let them remain, diligently cleaning up after them when they made messes upon the temple floor.  Later, when he lit his candle one evening to finally pray as he knew he should, he saw a shadow flicker from the candle that was not his own.  Whose it was, he did not know.  When he glanced around, he saw no one.  Only he and the Buddha statue occupied the temple.

 For a time.

Yasuke

They call me Yasuke here in this foreign land of short, almond-eyed people.  Being a slave, I dare not contradict them.  By the grace of Allah, these people find some novelty in me, and so esteem me better than my Jesuit master, Alessando Valignano.  Perhaps they will buy me from the Jesuit.  I would be far from home, but I would be far from home regardless. And the mule prefers the bug bites in Spring to the bug bites in Summer.

 My new tongue has not improved much.  I doubt they would think better of me were I so fluent in their tongue; no more than the Jesuits think better of me for my mastery of their tongue.  And yet I speak with more tongues than they, and not so falteringly as others so split between tongues.  Valignano does not suspect how many tongues with which I may speak.  If he did, he might well beat me for presumed insolence.  The gnat whines at the ear of greater creatures, thinking the ear insolent in its size.  And my back stings with the bites of this Jesuit gnat.

 By the strength lent by Allah, I endure.

 Lord Nobunaga must think well of me, however, for he gifted me generously a chest of copper coins, and all for the sake of the novelty of my dark skin.  He thought it some sort of trickery at first.  He bid me doff my clothes, head to waist, and his servants scrubbed at my chest.  In vain, it was, and so Nobunaga was pleased.  The Jesuits were pleased, too, and commandeered the coins for the works of their God.  I was not sad to see the coins go.  It was a trifling amount compared to the riches of the Caliphate.  Moreover, no amount of wealth might buy me my freedom from these infidels.  But as Allah sees fit, I abide.

 Presently, we ride to Kyoto on a long road.  Valignano is a fool, as are his followers, but they have about them an escort of samurai.  This is a pretty land, as unique of feature as its people, and I admire its beauty.  The plum trees are especially pretty.  Yet, I feel misplaced among this infidel splendor.  Though much honored, I am still a foreigner among these small people.  More so than even the Jesuits, despite their idiotic faux pas and petty squabbles of conversion.

 Even among the Jesuits I am an outsider.

 We camp for the night beneath a copse of maples, around a fire.  I sleep apart from my Jesuit travelers.  We have been warned of bandits, and so I keep my hand ready upon the sword which Lord Nobunaga gifted me.  I sleep lightly, dappled by the pale light of the moon as it peers between the branches like the face of a houri.  My Jesuit brothers sleep well, for I hear them snoring.  The samurai, too, sleep well.  I cannot sleep.  This land entices me to prayer, for Allah made this land too, though I know not why its people are infidels.  The wellspring from which they sprang conceals its truths with its lovely mists, or perhaps their land reveals other truths of Allah which are not known to us in Istanbul.

 I pray in the direction of Mecca.  I hope Allah does not begrudge me the late hour.  I can never pray when Valignano is awake, for he admonishes me severely for the practice.  He berates the people here, too, and despises their religion of the Buddha.  Why Nobunaga has offered him samurai for protection, I know not.  Perhaps he wishes to protect me.  But I need no earthly protection, for I have Allah.  And Allah restrains my hands from choking the life from Valignano.

 Prayer often offers me comfort, and reawakens my faith, instilling strength for my daily suffering.  It is the light guiding me through this unending darkness.  The shadows fly at the words exulting Allah.

 Yet, when I rise again I realize that the moon no longer shines on my face.  Rather, a giant shadow looms over me, the moon at its back.

 “Hello, brother,” a voice growls.  It is like the bones of a thousand sinful men grinding beneath the millstone.  “Why do you share fire with these tasty creatures?   Let us make a feast of them beneath the moon.”

 The crackling of the campfire flares at the suggestion, and I see a three-eyed man with dark black skin and horns such as a bull on his broad head. He is taller than even I and reminds of a demon or djinn.  I believe such a creature is called an “oni” in this land.

 “Speak, little brother,” he growls.  “Or do you claim them all for yourself?”

 His breath stinks of rotten meat, and his voice is edged like a scimitar with challenge.

 “I am not of your kin,” I confess, still clutching the sword at my side and ready to draw it against this infernal creature.  I stand up, slowly, and find that I am two heads shorter than the oni.  “I am a man.  But I will fight like a demon if you attempt to harm me.”

 The oni squinted his three eyes, the third eye in the center of his forehead.  “Yes,” he says.  “I see my mistake now.  Far too small to be my kin.  And already cooked, by the look of your flesh.”

 “I am a Moor,” I say.  “From faraway.”

 “A rare meat, then,” the oni says.  “I shall savor you.”

 He reaches for me with clawed fingers.  I unsheathe my sword, clumsily.  I have not had the practice of its uses yet, though I The oni pauses, and withdraws his hand.  But not because of my blade.  He sniffs and frowns.

 “You have the stink of a foreign god about you,” he says.

 “Allah—may he ever have mercy—claims my soul,” I say, or as well as I might in the foreign tongue.  “If I die here, or anywhere else, it is by his will.”

 The oni grimaced, his large white fangs grinding within his mouth.

 “A foul stench,” he says.  “I do not care for it.  It fouls your soul, little black man.  A foreign god in my lands, and a foreign god in your heart.”

 I nearly struck out at him for the blasphemy.  “Allah is no foreigner in any land or heart,” I say.  “For he made all, including you, demon.”

 The oni laughs, insolently scratching his loins beneath a skirt of flayed skin.

 “But he smells of other winds and other waters.  I do not like his smell.  It is arid.  Stagnant.  It reeks of death, but not such as there is pleasure in it.  Only a wild, exultant zealotry which I care not for.”  He pointed to the Jesuits.  “No different, I suppose, than the smell of the god on those hairy little men.”  He sniffed some more, leaning closer to me, his foul breath enveloping me.  “But there is a more interesting scent beyond the gods that claim the lot of you.  A smell of many other gods.  Faint, but spicy, and not so lost as you would wish them to be.  Gods grown in more interesting lands.  Lands more honest to their gods than whatever place you now call home.  Better gods.  Truer gods.  Gods displaced by this foul being that claims you like a spider a butterfly.”

 “You speak blasphemies!” I say, readying my blade.

 The oni turns away, indifferently.  He chuckles, lumbering toward the edge of the copse.

 “I will not partake of this feast,” he says.  “There is already a feast taking place: a feast of fools, and your soul is being shared among them.  What will be left of you when they have finished gnawing your soul with their many petty little mouths?”

 Laughing, the oni fades into the gathering mist, vanishing like a shadow beneath the awakening day.  His voice growls faintly one last time.

 “All that will be left will be your dark black skin, and by this will you be known.  By nothing else…”

 I stand in the ensuing silence, shaken.  After a long moment, I sheathe my sword—fumbling a little, and, so, loudly.  The sibilance wakes Alessando Valignano.

 “Yasufe?” he says, scowling at me.  “Make no more noise, for the sake of God!  Or I will thrash you for your stupidity.”

 “My apologies,” I say, bowing my head.

 Valignano grumbles, then adjusts his robe and turns over, sleeping on his side.  “Dim-witted animal…” he mutters.

 My rage finds me but a moment, as a djinn unleashed from a bottle, and I wish to draw my sword again and drink blood as any demon would.  But I let the spark extinguish.  Left alone once again to the silence of the forest, I think about gods and demons, of man and meaning, of tongues and truths.

Lo Fi Firefly

Soft tread, soft glow, she’s a firefly

in a black hoodie, black mood, she’s walking by

on a country road, with snug bug headphones

pumping lo fi beats, piano tones.

School blazer, senpai-hazer, plaid skirt,

breezy frills, black stockings, mid-thigh flirt,

luminescent crescent lunar-lobed ear

sprouting diamond petals, her black bangs sheer;

ambling, rambling, moontime walk,

hill humps, roadside bumps, cricket talk,

stars distant, obi-bright, pebble speckled,

blue nebula banners helter-skelter freckled,

full moon brimming, limning, dreaming radiance,

the moonbow spectrum and its gleaming gradients.

The tanuki strolls up along beside her,

a raccoon bear without a care, as tall, but wider,

straw hat, sleepy gaze, whistling his song,

swaying arms, masked face, bobbing along,

no words, no eye contact, just some space

in warm Summer air, and the slight trace

of matcha tea, of forest freshness, quite mellow,

now street signs glowing here and there, bright yellow,

two figures part at the coming parkway yield

and he lays down in a nice rice paddy field.

Shoegaze drone now, briny oceanic breeze,

kiss of soft-flung surf, the low-key ease

of tides glaze-lazing to a lounge rhythm,

the tip-toeing piano cadence within them,

lulling stroll, gloss-stare, the forgetful sands,

sonorous seaside cliffs, echo-waves, drowsy lands,

a mountain sloping to a nonchalant crest,

encoiled in a centipede of silent forest,

eyes aglow in the syncopating serpent depths,

old monk mantra along tottering treble clefs,

shuffling silent sneakers seeking inland,

a pink valentine card held in hand,

the fireflies blinking with a mild, beguiled beat,

the pitter-patter of phantasmal feet,

pale-faced spirits hopping in the high tree tops,

beyond the Shinto shrine sheltered in the copse,

jittery, chittering childlike babble,

a somnolent little branch-borne rabble

and concordance with the green leaf rustle

in the torpid winds, quiet hustle-and-bustle,

never hurrying, yet coming, by and by, along

as she follows her innocent inner song.

Power lines, now, streetlights, lamp posts,

electric hum, neon lights, jaywalking ghosts,

small town midnight-twilight, insomniac windows,

no headlights, no bed-frights, the wind blows

unheard, unseen, her black hair still,

unmoved, slight frown, turning of her heel

down a sidestreet, panes dim, white wall alley

as percussion beats palpitate, then rally.

Long walk without talk, she reads the address,

still bobbing to mellow music, a raven tress

gone astray, the headphones looser now,

but not off, firefly glow waning on her brow.

A crow crosses the moon, wings like eyelashes

as the moon’s eye blinks, and the car crashes

in flashback, (crash-smack), soft as a dying mist

in dim memory, and now this long-sought tryst.

A waking dream, long-sought scheme, a lost lullaby

as the lo fi beats fade, fade, fade, the heartbeats die.

Looking up at his window, she sees, she knows

the music stopped hours ago, and now the wind blows

but is unfelt, unknown, a thing now apart

like the valentine card, and his beating heart.

Setting the card down, she turns away,

fading out with the music, and the coming day.

Still Life

Still Life

 

I first met Antonio Petras when I was twenty-eight years old.  I had been one among the premier sculptors in Rome for four years prior, yet had not to produce a work of skill sufficient to elicit appreciation from his discerning tastes.  One does not know the name Antonio Petras unless he wants one to know it.  Moreover, he was known on a first name basis only with Cardinals and Mafia dons, and no one— including his own mother, may she rest in peace—called him Tony.

Instead, everyone called him Padre, for he was the Father of the Mediterranean.

I still remember vividly our first meeting.  I had been informed that my sculpture, “Ganymede Spirited Away” had been purchased for a lordly sum, and that the buyer expected to meet me.  I informed his agent that, for the lordly sum rendered, I would bear such an honor with delight.

“Yes,” he said solemnly.  “You should be honored.”

Yet, I did not meet my mysterious patron until two weeks later.  I was taken— by private boat— to a privately owned island in the Mediterranean.  Padre’s primary residence, as I came to know it, was a palace of marble columns and mosaic tiles.  It was all white and cerulean, like the Mediterranean itself, lounging lazily beyond the verandah.  To complete this anachronistic Romance, all servants who personally obliged Antonio Petras customarily wore himations and robes.  The overall effect was that the palace existed in a bubble apart from Time.  Nor were there any electronics or modern light fixtures throughout the palace.  All was illuminated by the Mediterranean sun or by brazier; nought else.  And the silence of that place!  The tides swept about and hushed the beach, breathing salty through the open-columned passages of the palace.  It was as if the palace resounded with the lullaby of the sea.  Wherever one walked, the sights and the sounds of the womb of Hellenic Greece were ubiquitous.

Of course, as breathtaking as the natural seascape was, nothing compared to the collection to which my work had been added.  My work— though the best I had ever produced as yet—was humbled among that collection.  Indeed, I do not doubt that Padre was putting me in my place by having my work positioned in the back area of his massive gallery, whereas the best sculptures I had ever seen were positioned to the fore.  It was not a matter of cruelty, either, this humbling arrangement, but rather Padre’s strict observance of rank and privilege, which I no doubt know was intended to inspire competition for the talents involved, and thus betterment of the exclusive gallery as a whole.

But what of the man?  Well, people called the Pope “Padre”, but they only called Padre “God”.  Upon initial glance, however, he reminded me of Urban II: a weary old man in his chair, his wispy white beard straggling from his withered face.  Due to his rheumatism he shook, always, and otherwise moved slowly.  But his thoughts were swift; swifter than Zeus absconding with Ganymede.  I still do not know where his vast wealth originated, but I know he was well-read on a surprising number of topics.  Science, Music, Literature, Religion.  He was a Renaissance Man.  But his one single most powerful passion was Art, and of the Arts he— like Michelangelo—prized sculpture above all other mediums.

“In sculpture even the infirm may appear powerful,” he told me.  “Made of marble, Man may withstand the tides of Time.”

This was his introductory greeting as he walked stiffly to meet me in his gallery.

“Even the statue of a withered old man like myself might stand forever, untouched by God’s forgetfulness.”

He abided no servants while he spoke to his artists.  We were alone in his gallery.  All I could hear was his dry voice, and the pendulous rush-and-retreat of the sea.  We sipped wine— rare vintage, naturally—and he escorted me through his collection, praising some, faulting others, but discrediting none more than my own.

“You must improve much before you gain my true respect,” he told me.  “Make living flesh from stone.  Only the artist that can transcribe every imperfection perfectly may be esteemed in my judgement.”

We arrived, by now, at my statue.  It was the largest I had ever sculpted, and it towered above us.

“Your feathers are wanting,” he said, referencing the eagle clutching at Ganymede’s hips.  “You must make them light and airy.  They must appear as if they can flap and lift with the wind, rising in defiance of their heavy stone.  Do not meant lift and rise despite their clay mold?  So must you transpose your art that it may endeavor Sublimity in its realizations.”

I took no offense.  How could I?  He had paid me handsomely. Moreover, he belittled works that were, to my eyes, superior in every way to my own.

I surveyed all of his sculptures as we walked and talked and sipped wine.  He did not discriminate of size or subject, just the skill of rendition.  There were nudes, of course—men and women of splendid proportions realized by a meticulous craft, their bodies such as would tempt the Olympians down from their mountain in amorous haste—and there were robed figures, their stone cloth rendered so smoothly that the eye should have doubted the hand’s report.  There were animals, too, from powerful tigers to delicately limbed birds, flamingoes and herons and a spoonbill preening itself.  There were busts of famous people, and of nameless models.  These, too, ranged wildly in every respect except the skill required to render them.  Witnessing so many talents, my pride crumbled even as my Ganymede soared in immodest grandeur.

I noticed, though, that Padre possessed no old works from masters past.  This, he confided to me, was quite a matter of intention rather than means.

“The old masters were too polluted by Greek ideals,” he said.  “Donatello and Michelangelo.  I would not offer a soured wine for either of their ‘masterpieces’.  Realism is what matters.  Capturing life, exactly, is what matters to me.”

There were sculptures certainly never to be confused with Greek ideals.  A fat whore was rendered in all her ugly minutiae, her pock-marked face seemingly ready to offer herself for a pocketful of Euros.  Other models were less than ideal, also, yet more esteemed within his collection, dominating the fore of his gallery by that sighing sea.

And then we came to a sculpture which no human hand or eye or discipline could produce.  This, I swear without caveat.  It was beautiful, odd, and terrifying.  Seeing the look on my face, Padre leered.

“Exquisite, isn’t he?  Unequaled, too, I promise you.  And the cost?  A human soul could fetch as much.”

It was a man staring in perplexity, bordering on horror.  He was nude, but his body was neither idealized or abstracted.  It was wholly realistic.  Too realistic.  More than any of the rest, this sculpture of a pudgy middle-aged man made me feel keenly the crudity in my own abilities.

“Who made this?” was all I could mutter.

“A woman I found in Crete,” he said, slightly amused.  “She has a gift…or a curse…depending on how you look at such things.”

“It must have taken years for her just to refine the skin,” I said, passing my eye over every smooth surface and creased wrinkle.  “The veins are extraordinary.  Please tell me how long this took.”

“She accomplished this in….what is the American saying? ‘In a flash’?  Yes.  That is how long it took.”

I did not understand his sense of humor, but he seemed amused by some private joke.

“Enough, my son,” he said.  “Now we will discuss your next work you will do for me.”

“You will be my patron?” I said, delighted— and overwhelmed—by the prospect.

“If you prove yourself more capable than your previous effort.”

Again, I took no umbrage in his condescension.  Rather, I took his money and promised to deliver something as profoundly realistic as anything in his gallery.  Anything in his gallery, excepting the nude man that this mysterious woman made “in a flash”.  Even as elated and inspired as I was, I entertained no delusions of surpassing such a piece, nor ever truly equaling it.

 

***

 

Fourteen frenzied months later I sent photographs to Padre’s agent.  He rejected my work outright.  I was upset.  I was at a loss.  After all, the piece was superior to my Ganymede piece.  The only word I received in answer was “Artificial”.  I had labored upon it with my daemon undiverted.  How could it not belong among his gallery?  I spent four more months refining it, smoothing the skin and softening the flesh of Icarus until he might well have melted alongside his wings.  Again I sent photos from my studio.  This time I received a longer letter— one sentence—and a single photo.

“Improving,” the letter read, “but nowhere near as good as this.”

The photo enclosed in the envelope was not, as is often said, “worth a thousand words”.  It was ineffable.  The subject matter was unremarkable—a nude woman, again with the same quizzical fear upon her face—but the execution!  I despaired that I should ever approach such mastery.

Still, I was yet determined to prove my own meager powers, if only above all others except this mystery mistress of chisel and hammer.

 

***

 

When next I heard word from Padre, he informed me— in his antiquated longhand—that he wished for my presence on his island.  This was an abrupt honor, and I wondered if he desired my statue.  He did not, for the same letter informed me that he would only command an afternoon of my presence, after which I would be returned to the mainland and expected to resume my work.  Frustrated, but also curious, I met one of his servants at a port, just before sunrise, and was taken to his island forthwith.

Watching the waves part from the boat put me in a mind of Ancient Greece: of Homer and Aeschylus and Sophocles and the beautiful Siren call of Greek tragedy.  Could I ever aspire to render from marble the white froth that turned over and collapsed in upon itself?  Could I ever capture the liquidity of life, of flowing forms, in the defiant marble that stubbornly stood in its myriad forms amongst perpetuity?  How might I capture the sands of the beach in unyielding stone?  How might I dare to capture Cronos himself in static manifestations?  Meditations in marble were things of sweat and tears and curses and sighs.  The marble sculpted the sculptor as much as the sculptor revealed the figure within the marble.

A wise artist never endeavors to understand the business of his patrons, particularly those like Antonio Petras.  That said, I had my suspicions.  Banking.  Drugs.  Human trafficking.  Religion, which concerned all the previous and more, no doubt.  To see his island palace was to see but a fraction of his wealth and power.  It was to see a favored nook in the large expanse of affluence and influence that he wielded around the world.

And yet, in the end, such things amounted to nothing.

Arriving upon the island, I was taken again to Padre’s gallery whereupon I was given wine and instructed to wait at the leisure of my patron.  He arrived shortly after, walking more slowly than before, his body betraying the enfeebling effects of age even while bronzed by the Mediterranean sun and lifestyle.

“I do not know if I should appreciate your obedience,” he said, wryly.  “Had you been more preoccupied with refining your statue you might have disregarded the summons and remained behind to concentrate on excelling among my gallery here.”

I disregarded the insult, knowing that men of his position and power could afford to insult the gods themselves.  For all his power, however, there was no concealing the infirmity of his body, nor the anguished grimace upon his withered face.

He suddenly called out to a servant.  “Bring me the mirror!”

Motioning me to follow him, we left his columned art gallery and came to the verandah that faced the sea.  The mosaic tiles glittered in the sun.  He went to a bench shaded beneath a rotunda of columns with a dome.  Astride the dome lounged a mermaid of some kind, but Padre suffered her to lounge there headless.  It seemed a strange choice for a man with so much wealth.  He could have easily procured something less damaged for his fine palace.

Sitting down, Padre gestured that I join him.  I did so.  It was an idyllic vista, the expanse of shore and sea spreading out beyond the shade of the dome like the cradle of the gods.

“Such a pity, the Pieta,” he said absently.  “The proportions are cartoonish.  Mary is a Philistine giant, whereas her son is but a doll crumpled in her colossal lap.”

I deferred to his opinion, naturally.

“Yet, the Pieta will last and last,” he said.  “Such are the injustices of this world.  Unfair and innumerable.”

Again, I deferred to his opinion.  Suddenly, a great paroxysm betook him to sit up straight, as if struck with lightning, or, as it were, some zealous monomania.

“Cronos is the most high God,” Padre said.  “And I intend to defy him.  I intend that you defy him.  Defy him and all of the gods.  I had chosen you because you are yet young, and ripening with potential.  But I am overripe, and running out of time.  Cronos seeks to detain me, and unmake me, before I may exact my defiance.  Even now his pendulous scythe seeks me, slicing away at my bones and my nerves and my mind.  I hear it, like the ticking of the clock, or the ebb and flow of the sea.  He devours all his children, you know?  Whether god or human, he devours us all.  And you must keep his gluttonous mouth from me.  As a stone I shall defy him, as did Zeus his father.”

“I am honored, Padre,” I said.

He dismissed such obsequiousness with an impatient wave of his hand.

“I have sufficient capital for as many such sculptures, and sculptors, as I desire,” he said.  “All have attempted my dream.  All have failed.  Save for her, of course.  She works expediently.  She works…unnaturally.”

He spoke as if he had said a joke, smiling through his pain.  What the joke was, I did not understand.

“Then why hire any other artist?” I said, feeling irritated.  “Why not let this…this…Protean woman people your gallery with all the statues that you desire?”

He smiled mirthlessly; that wry smile that seemed embittered despite all outward appearance of joy.  Like a colorful fruit with an alluring rind, sour to its pulpy core.

“Because I push human limitations,” he said.  “Why shouldn’t we equal the powers of the gods?  I want another artist to succeed as she has done.  Not with so much ease, naturally, but with perseverance and discipline, as is the needful habit of Man.  Then I should hire such a man, or woman, to sculpt my own likeness.  And to them I would give all my riches, just for such a grand satisfaction.”

“All of your riches?” I said, disbelieving him.

“This island,” he said, “is but a small corner of my empire.  And you should have it all, should you accomplish such a feat.  Pygmalion may have done such a thing once, though that conniving goddess interfered from pure vanity to stamp her own miracles upon his work.  I should like my present flesh rendered steadfast in ageless stone.”  He coughed into a trembling, mottled fist.  He smiled sardonically through the pain.  “Frailties and all.”

Presently a servant girl in a himation arrived, her black hair curling like an Ionic capital.  One breast was bare.  She handed a small, circular shield to Padre.  It was rimmed with copper and in its center was a mirror.  Its glass was as immaculate and clear as air itself.

“This is my aegis,” Padre said.  “Though it has not always belonged to me.”  He held it up, with some effort, and looked into it, grimly.  A moment later, he handed it to me.  “Look into the glass and tell me what you see.”

I took the mirrored shield in both hands and gazed into its looking-glass.  What I saw was a truer reflection of myself than any other mirror had hitherto given.  It revealed as much as reflected, its soul-gazing glass more genuine than what eyes might see unaided.  The mirror was scrutiny itself; it concentrated the essence of the gazer and revealed what they dare not seek to know of themselves.

Trembling, I almost dropped the aegis.  So unsettled was I that I did not notice the dry, dusty chuckling of the old man beside me until he took the mirror from me.

“The aegis has that effect on men,” he said, “and women, too.”

“I thought…I thought it was supposed to have a gorgon’s head in the center,” I said after collecting myself.

“And so it does,” he said.  “Every gorgon is revealed when someone peers into its glass.  It was made by the gods, you know.  Athena herself, supposedly.  That is why it does not age.  That is why it is untarnished after so many millennia.”

He motioned for a servant, and the dark-haired woman returned, taking away the aegis.  Padre regarded me with one of his knowing looks of wry amusement.

“Which would you prefer, a painting of yourself or a photograph?”

“A painting,” I said, “if the painter be worthy of the oils used.”

“And why is that?  Is it because of the labor rendered to us by another human being?  Is it the skill?  The interpretive talent?  Or is it the sacrifice of the venture?  Is it the Time involved in capturing your likeness and bringing it to life on lifeless canvas?”

“All of those reasons,” I said.  “A deft hand and a deft eye are invaluable.  Why not indulge one’s vanity”

“And yet you cannot, as they say, ‘take it with you’ when you die.  So who is the painting really for?”

“For my posthumous pride,” I said.  “For the ages.”

“Perhaps,” he said.  “Vanity, in its ultimate form, is the desire to live forever, isn’t it?  Or at least to be remembered forever.  But that is not the reason I seek a worthy visionary to reproduce me in stone.  No, it is war.  It is revenge.  Revenge against Cronos and his insatiable appetite.  I entertain no delusions as to live forever.  I am not yet senile enough in my old age to believe fallacious half-hopes.  I only want to avenge myself.  And, by extension, humanity.  That is my intention.  That is the raison d’être.”

He became silent.  Pensive.  Gloomy.  Like a storm distant at sea, he brooded, not yet breaking toward the mainland.

“Painting was changed by the advent of photography,” he said quietly.  “Only a meager handful may paint so realistically that their brush strokes are indistinguishable from a photograph, and even that is discernible at nearer distances.  Conversely, anyone with hands may take a photograph.  Therein between lays a vast gap of deficiency.”

“It is good that I am a sculptor, then,” I said, lightly.

Upon his weathered, withered face was a galvanized intensity that struck dead like a thunderbolt all the flippancy I formerly felt.

“Unless there was a thing to take photos in 3-dimensional space.  Yes?  Unless there could be rendered, in a moment— as if an insight drawn out directly from the sculptor’s mind—the very idea that had been buried in thought as thick as granite rock.”

I frowned.  I knew of computer programs with which Hollywood men might take photographs and feed them into a computer, the computer thereafter fabricating a 3D model with algorithms and such technobabble to generate a digital model from the various photos.  They could even— from what my limited knowledge provided on the subject—use large machines to “print out” 3D sculptures of the model recorded in vertices and polygons and the like.  But that was not the same as carving out of marble a sculpture.  Perhaps they might someday undertake to use a computer to render from marble a sculpture such as Michelangelo could praise, but it would not be the same as a sculpture born with careful hands and keen eyes and the labors of a soul possessed.

Then again, was that not the very same argument made on behalf of painters in the past when confronted with the fiend of photography?

Padre suddenly raised his hand above his head, snapping his fingers aloft.  A servant came hurrying over, nearly tripping over his white robe.  With outstretched arms he held in his hands a leather satchel which, by his manner and his fearful expression, might well have contained explosives ready to detonate at any moment.  He very gently handed this satchel to Padre, then hurried away.

Padre cradled the satchel in his arms, letting it rest on his lap.  The satchel moved as it lay there, a sibilance sounding suggestively from within.  It was as if angry coils slithered about, tangled inchoately in an inextricable knot.

“You hear them?” he asked.  “In the beginning, before Cronos and his ilk, there was merely Ophion and the dancing maiden on the primordial waters.  Time did not exist. Neither life nor death existed.  Only a moment existed, eternally. A moment existed, and that was all, and that moment was Maiden and Ophion copulating upon the waters of Chaos.  What is Chaos but timelessness?  It is the calming of the waters.  The ceasing of the waves.  Lest we forget, when Cronos was castrated by his own scythe his genitals fell among the waters, causing waves to crash against the sands of Time.”

 

As I left that day, I glanced back again at the great palace beckoning to me; taunting me with its grandeur.  Seeing again the domed rotunda of columns, I scrutinized the headless mermaid upon the dome.  In the bright Mediterranean sun I saw that it was no fishtail with which she luxuriated, nor was the repose with which she reclined one of ease. Her tail spiraled in serpentine coils.  Her posture was of defeat and death.

 

***

 

I had not heard from Padre or his servants in some time.  Months passed.  I feared he might have lost patience with me, or worse, confidence, and so presumed to send a letter.  I was informed, at the passage of a fortnight, that Padre had suffered a fall and was now confined to a wheelchair, recuperating however he could.  The letter did not indulge much else for elaboration.  All that was said was that I would be contacted when Padre was ready to receive my new work.  Furthermore, I was informed to improve upon it in the meantime.  This I did resentfully, for I thought it already the most eminent of my works.  Simultaneously, I also acknowledged that while it very well would have been gladly displayed in the Louvre, it was yet worthy of a place amongst the forefront statues of Padre’s exclusive gallery.

And so, unsure whether my patron would live to see what I had achieved for him, I threw myself into meticulous refinement of my Icarus piece.  Begrudgingly, I had to admit that I had, in time, vastly improved the feathers and the overall realism of the work.  To make stone so airy and soft was my obsession for a time and I do not believe I oversell myself by stating that aspiration was equally met by talent.

It was the following year that I received a letter from Padre’s servants.  They had arranged that my work would be shipped to the island within a month’s time.  This was highly unexpected and so I prepared for the date in a nervous hustle.  When the time came, I went with the servants, escorting my piece from studio to port to island.  I was given a room in the palace while the piece was moved into the gallery.  Padre did not present himself and I suspected that he may not have been on the island.  This suspicion was fed by a week of isolation on the island.  Meals were made for me, and I was given clothes— white robes like the rest of the island’s inhabitants—and I lived in a paradisaical state of luxury.  I enjoyed long walks on the beach, swimming in the sea, and the satisfaction of two years’ work.  I shunned the gallery for fear of growing doubts in my mind.   Already they gnawed at me and the need to know Padre’s opinion on my magnum opus grew in my mind like restless insects.

Then one day, while out on a walk, I was summoned to the gallery.  While I waited I stared out through the colonnade, toward the sea, ignoring the other statues in the gallery.  I did not even wish to look at my own work.

A servant wheeled Padre beside me as we traversed his gallery.  He did not say anything. He only pointed toward my statue, and so we went.  We came to my magnum opus and he sent the servant away.  He stared at the piece, and I stared at him.  He was frailer now, shrunken in upon himself.  Were it not for the wheelchair holding him, I would have thought he would crumble to dust at that very moment.  His scraggly white beard had thinned.  His sallow cheeks sagged.  However, the same fiery light of intelligence blazed within the shadowy sockets.

At first Padre seemed pleased— eager, even, to devour with his eyes the work I had accomplished.  But the longer he surveyed the wings the more quickly did the luster of his hopeful gaze fade into jaded dimness.  The more he scrutinized the smooth flesh, the less pleased he was with the want of wrinkles.

“It is a fair piece,” he said flatly.  “But it yet aspires beyond its reach.”

“I am sorry,” I said, too much in shock to mutter anything else.

He shook his head.  “No, it is I who am sorry.  Had I another ten years you might achieve the skill I require.  There is so much potential in you, and that was why I chose you.  So young and so much potential.  But not enough time.  He taunts me even now, you see?  Cronos will have the last laugh after all.”

“But what of your woman?” I said, trying not to sound bitter.  “What of her superior skills?  Why even bother with me if you have someone at your disposal who could achieve more and with lesser effort?”

“She…she is a last recourse,” Padre said.  “Her talent is too…dreadful to surrender to as of now.  Even in my crippled condition I am not so desperate for such an…irreversible option.”

He groaned and struck his fists against the wheelchair.  It was the most explicit expression of frustration, or any emotion, I had seen him allow himself.

“I am but crumbling clay when I should be timeless marble!  Had I only more time!”

The intense light in his eyes suddenly extinguished, like blown-out candles in the dark wells of his sockets, and his face grew lax as melted wax.  I feared he was having a stroke and made ready to fetch for his servants.  But it was a momentary disintegration and he soon gathered up himself into a grim sneer, the baleful light returning to his eyes.

“What now, little one?” he mumbled.  “Aspire still?  What hope have you?  You, who are as a maggot gnawing at the heel of the gods as they press you down into the filth of your birthplace?”

I did not know if such scorn was for me, or if it was rather for himself.  He said no more, except to summon his servants to have me boated off his island.

 

***

 

I did not hear word from Padre or his servants again.  I should have let such matters go, knowing I had failed to achieve what he had desired I achieve, but my pride ached.  And it was an angry ache; an ache of frustration and rage, of disappointment and resentment and action.  I restrained myself for a time, but the ache grew too severe, resounding awfully, and so spurred me to at last dare Padre’s wrath.

I rented a boat and sailed on my own to Padre’s island.  It was an insolent, presumptuous impulse, and I should have paid for it with my life.  Yet I did not.  Coming to the island, I found it abandoned.  There were no servants.  No signs of life.  No one lived there or stirred within that paradise.  It was as the tomb of a Minoan king, silenced with forgetful dust.

I did not inspect Padre’s gallery until after I had checked the various rooms and quarters for guests and servants.  Perhaps I felt that entering the gallery unaccompanied, and uninvited, was too intrusive.  Perhaps it was a creeping feeling of surreal fear that restrained me from entering it.  Whatever the reason, I soon found I had nowhere else to investigate.  So I entered that columned forum while the waves of the Mediterranean crashed amongst the silence.

No life stirred there.  The many statues remained inert, no matter how lifelike their visages and their manner of bearing.  My Icarus fell for eternity near the middle of the expansive forum, and while this was a more enviable position than my Ganymede, I yet felt bitterness at its middling placement.

I saw a leather satchel upon the tiled floor.  Recalling it from a previous visit, I wondered at its careless disposal.  Nearing it, I found it open and empty.  A brief thought of Pandora’s opened box— or amphora— flitted through my mind, though I knew such a fancy ridiculously born of my fear.

I heard rustling amongst the farthest shadows, near the back of the gallery.

“Padre?” I said.

Padre was pale, his countenance one of fearful confusion.  I asked him what was the matter.  He did not answer and I feared he had finally suffered a stroke in his old age.  As I approached him I realized my error.

It was not Padre, but a statue such as I could never have hoped to equal.  He stood half in shadows, looking into the deeper shadows of the corner of his gallery, where the sun did but faintly touch with its light.  Nothing sounded within that tomblike silence of his gallery except the waves throwing themselves to and fro.  And something else.  A sibilant sound emerged, nearer to me than the waves.  The hissing of many tongues, and the groaning of a woman.

The sun was setting and the gallery darkened.  I had an uncanny feeling that eyes were watching me. Pleading eyes frozen forever in place.  As I turned to leave I heard a muffled moan.  I hesitated only a moment, then fled from that place, running blindly through the gallery.  By the time the tides splashed my feet I was bruised and bloodied from my blind flight.  I went to my boat and left as quickly as I could.  I never returned to that island.

 

He still remains there, a part of his gallery.  Protected from Cronos, and entrapped by Cronos.  Forever, gazing among the waves breaking leisurely against the sands of Time.