It’s hard to get directions to a Zen temple, since everyone who knows where it is is a Zen practitioner, and therefore likely to answer your question by shouting the word “Nothing!” or, in one case, throwing you off a bridge into a river.
Fortunately Mapquest has no dogma, and I presently stood beneath the vermillion and black torii gate outside the Tōdai-ji temple, straddling the sacred and the profane as the disparate outside world gave way to Zen oneness.
The temple grew out of the city like a lotus rising out of muddy water, an effect the architect no doubt had in mind. Its roof curved and undulated like the ends of burning paper since evil spirits could only travel in straight lines, its glazed ceramic tiles shifting together in a layer of armor scales that repulsed inclement weather and hungry ghosts alike. The stylized roof was starkly offset by the columns of unadorned wood that supported it, the round pillars of naked lumber only showing character at eye level, where the tactile wanderings of idle hands had worn away its dark exterior to reveal the pale sapwood beneath.
As I walked inside the ancient wood squeaking beneath my feet seemed weirdly articulate, as if the statues of wrathful tantric deities that loomed over every corner were whispering to me through the creaks and groans of their temple.
My pathetic fallacy was broken when a cataclysmic guitar solo tore through the temple’s hall, shattering the calm and seeming to abjure the statues to step off their podiums and wreak the heavy metal mischief they symbolized while knowing full well they couldn’t, that they were as fixed in their artful wrath as an ICBM snug in its silo.
I jogged down the corridor towards the music’s source and came to a huge meditation hall.
Monks sat on staggered platforms that lined the walls, their saffron robes gathered around them, their legs gingerly crossed, their expressions of serene contemplation hibernating beneath their bald pates as they sat motionless, oblivious to the tempest of power chords swirling around them. I was shocked to see my neighbor was among them.
He looked good. The steel plate lodged above his remaining eye was less conspicuously grotesque now that his shaved head displayed it frankly. By contrast, the Scarebuddhist seemed worse for wear in a way that had nothing to do with her three missing limbs. She was as gorgeous and glamorous as ever, but seemed to have contracted a strange kind of fatigue that was impalpable, almost spiritual in character.
You wouldn’t know anything was wrong by just looking at her. She straddled the makeshift stage of the incense altar like she’d been born on it, swaggering across its sacred surface in an ultramodern Ferragamo dress that billowed suggestively around her cyborganic hips from the breeze pumped out by the Marshall stacks behind her.
Her fingers flew over the guitar frets in a savage frenzy, restrained only by the speed of sound. She leapt from genre to genre like a frog deftly navigating between lily pads, segueing from Chuck Berry to Angus Young to Jimmy Page to Thurston Moore to Doug Martsch to a windmilling Pete Townshend flourish that ended with her bashing her guitar to splinters against a huge bronze bust of Buddha.
She dismounted the stage to polite applause, but garnered no further reaction from the serene monks.
“Hey.” I said, approaching her.
“I’ve lost it! I’ve fucking lost it!” She wailed, striding across the meditation hall. “Look at these placid fuckers! My mere presence used to fill the enlightened with uncontrollable desire! Now-”
She took hold of a nearby support beam and twirled around it in a virtuoso display of pole dancing. It was a magnificent fusion of muscle and movement, a powerful yet vulnerable exhibition that pleased the senses and stirred the soul and had no impact on the monks whatsoever.
“What the hell.” She said hopelessly, hanging from the pole as if it were a mast she’d been lashed to. “There goes my career. And by proxy everything else. It’s not like I own all that shit. It’s part of the act.”
“I’m very sorry.” I said. “But right now I need to talk to you about a problem of my own.”
“Jesus, you’re the most self-obsessed person I’ve ever met.” She said enviously. “Come on, we can talk in the garden. It’s not like we’d want to BREAK ANYBODY’S CONCENTRATION!”
She stormed out. I followed her down the hall.
“What is it?”
“That was clever,” I said. “the way you said ‘then you have nothing’ since we couldn’t talk on the phone, meaning you’d be at a Zen temple. It’s great you knew I’d get that.”
“I didn’t mean that.” She said flatly. “I didn’t mean anything except what I said. I don’t want to see you anymore. I’m only here on a job, and you finding me here is just a coincidence.”
“Is that all?”
“Maybe you subconsciously wanted to see me and knew I’d take it that way.” I persisted.
“I’m afraid not. I meant exactly what I said and nothing else.”
“That’s impossible. Nobody means exactly what they say.”
“I do.” She said flatly. “Rest assured that when I say ‘I don’t like being around you anymore, please go away forever.’ I mean precisely and exclusively that. Is that what you wanted to talk about?”
“No. Look. There are some things I want to—some things I have to—tell you. It’s not that I didn’t want to tell you, but circumstances, kind of, conspired… look… First I just want to say that when you came and sat on my lawn, well it was… I didn’t think…”
“Please put that anecdote out of its misery.” She groaned.
“I just wanted to thank you for being around.”
“There’s no need. Around is my default way of being.” She slid a shōji aside and we stepped onto a wooden deck that hovered a foot or so above the rock garden nestled in the temple’s courtyard.
It was here that time stopped, or, rather, expanded with the exponential swell of a mushroom cloud, growing until Then and Now occupied the same denuded space. Time was channeled in the furrows brushed in the gravel to form a network of existential irrigation around islands of rocky, monolithic Being.
Yet it was all an illusion. You see elaborate Cyrillic patterns woven in white gravel that ripples around static black boulders and your mind divides the two, but they’re not distinct. They’re the same thing, they’re both rocks. All is Rocks. And in the end there isn’t even Rocks.
“I need to tell you some things about me. I was in the war. I killed people. Many. Directly and indirectly. There was no moral basis for it at the time and there’s no point in trying to justify it in retrospect.”
“I don’t care.”
“I don’t care if you don’t care, let me talk.”
The Scarebuddhist perched on a nearby outcropping and stared at her right hand. The tablature of half a million perfect guitar solos were stored in the hard drives in her arms, a passing thought could summon White Room or Voodoo Child and set her fingers to dancing.
“My unit had earned the trust of our superiors by virtue of our many atrocities, and we were tasked with protecting a large supply of federal bank notes in transit. We were ambushed. I was the only one who survived. No one took the money, so I took it and made my way to civilian territory. There aren’t as many unattended clotheslines out there as movies about fugitives would have you believe. I resolved to get rid of my firearm, but I’d had it for so long it had become a part of me, I couldn’t stand the thought of disposing of it permanently. I took it apart and buried it in my front yard. The grass above it turned yellow, so I planted a copse of trees around it to hide it. Last night I looked inside for the first time. I have a gun tree growing in my front yard.”
She looked up from her hands, her fingers freezing in the middle of a bridge.
“It’s exactly what it sounds like. A tree whose fruit is guns. And the government wants it. They’re saying they’ll send me back to the front if I don’t give it to them. And I can’t go back.”
“A gun tree. A tree whose fruit is guns.”
“Yes. And the purpose of fruit is to spread seeds. I don’t doubt that every shell ejected from one of those guns will act as a seed. If the government gets that tree, the battlefields will blossom into orchards of firearms.”
“You’re sort of a Johnny Appleseed for the Military Industrial Complex.” She chuckled. “Sammy Homicide.”
“This isn’t a joke.”
“You should try jokes. They’re fun.”
“I’m asking for your help.”
“And I’m not giving it. Learn from my example.”
“I can’t tell if you’re imparting some kind of wisdom or just fucking with me.”
“Frustrating, isn’t it?”
“I can’t go back to war.” I said, talking to myself as much as her. “I can’t.”
“Why don’t they just take the stupid gun tree if they want it so much?”
“They fed me some bullshit about property rights, but it’s probably for liability reasons, they want me to sign something so they can blame me if a gun doesn’t work.”
The distant roar of falling shells joined us in the courtyard, reaching our ears as a slow, rhythmic pulse like the echo of crashing waves. The disturbingly familiar sound set off a Rube Goldberg device of recollection inside me, one memory triggering another and another to form an undertow that threatened to drag me back in time, back to the front, back to war.
“I used to wonder where you went when you got that look on your face.” The Scarebuddhist wrapped her arms around herself in a cold, golden embrace. “Now I don’t want to know.”
“It’s not like in comic books.”
“I know that!” She said angrily. “That’s why there are comic books. Do you think Jack Kirby made comics because he liked to think about cowering in a foxhole, getting frostbite?”
She let her arms hang limp at her sides, their dead weight pulling on her shoulders so it looked like she was being dragged downwards.
“None of this happened before I met you. No dismemberment. No unsatisfied customers. You did this somehow. I was conceited, but you made me a conceit. A goddamn metaphor. Not a person, but an instrument to teach you a lesson. Well fuck you, fuck your story, and fuck your rich fucking imagery. What gives you the right to just appropriate people and warp them into whatever role suits your demented ego?”
“You’re not the only victim here. Everybody is a character is someone else’s story.”
“That doesn’t make it all right”
A seagull swooped into the garden, establishing a perch on one of the large black rocks planted in the gravel. It proceeded to take a terse, businesslike shit, expelling a substance like melted vanilla ice cream to seep down the rock’s black surface. I silently named it Pollock.
“What do you think I can do for you and your weird tree?” The Scarebuddhist asked.
“I don’t know. With your power and connections and money-”
“I don’t have any of those things. I’m a mascot for materialism.” She extended her last original appendage, her perfect flesh and blood leg. “You think anyone who wears shoes this uncomfortable has real power?”
“I have money. We could run away together.”
“ ‘Run away together?’ What are you, fifteen?”
“This from the woman who fights crime on her spare time.”
“I’m sorry, Sam. Really I am. Settle down and the world settles down with you. Flee, and you flee alone. Even counting all the lies, you’re the nicest guy I’ve ever dated, and I mean that in the most un-backhanded way possible. But you’re just no fucking good for me. Being around you is carving me up like the goddamn giving tree.”
“But giving was the tree’s raison d’être.” I said feebly. “Without giving it would’ve just been another talking tree.”
“Analogies are supposed to make a single, distinct point, Sam, not stand up to scrutiny.”
I almost said that the unexamined analogy was not worth making, but stopped myself. It was over. There was no point in struggling to revive it.
The Scarebuddhist looked up at me and, seeming to sense that I’d accepted my dumping, smiled weakly.
“Not everything has to be Romeo & Juliet. Some relationships just peter out. I could give you a conciliatory handjob, if you’d like.” She flexed her cybernetic fingers demonstratively. “Immigrant Song usually suffices, though I can use Stairway to Heaven if you’re feeling forbearing.”
“The arms stay attached to you throughout the process, right?”
“They can if you want.”
“I think I’ll pass, thanks.”
The Scarebuddhist looked at the Rolex watch face embedded in her wrist. I withdrew my realtor’s pen from my pocket. I clicked it twice. The Scarebuddhist flinched, but didn’t look up. The needle hovered forbiddingly in air that hummed with the menace of distant bombardment. A drop of glassy liquid quivered on its tip, imprisoning a speck of light.
I threw it like a javelin, missing Pollock the seagull completely. The pen clattered across the brushed gravel, interrupting the pattern. I hopped into the garden, crunched across the gravel and retrieved it, finally shooing Pollack away in the process.
“What’s that?” The Scarebuddhist asked.
“Some spy gadget a government crony wanted me to kill you with.” I clicked it once, making the needle disappear.
“I don’t know. Petty jealousy is the only reason I can think of. But I don’t think the person who gave me this has the authority to authorize wetwork.”
“Killing you would’ve supposedly gotten me out of giving them the gun tree or getting sent back to the front.”
“Why didn’t you?”
“Do I have to say it?” I asked.
She closed her eyes and shook her head, a move I couldn’t place. Catherine Deneuve? Setsuko Hara? Barbara Stanwyck?
I returned the pen to my pocket and heaved myself back onto the platform.
“I guess this place truly has Zen now.” She said, gesturing at the disruption my foray into the garden had wrought. “So what’ll you do now?”
“From now on I don’t think it’ll be about what I do so much as mitigating what’s done to me.”
Something was wrong. The sound of artillery had gotten closer without getting louder. Also its tenor had changed.
“What…” I belatedly realized that what habit and memory had interpreted as the falling of distant shells was in fact nothing of the sort. “That’s not artillery.” I said. “That’s… drums?”
The Scarebuddhist got up.
“Why do you think I was trying to scare the monks away? We shouldn’t stick around. Here.” She scooped me up in her metal arms and hopped into the garden. She crouched down, shifting her weight to her artificial leg. “Hang on.” I did as she said, entwining my arms around her slim torso.
She leapt, burying me in an avalanche of G forces and leaving my stomach behind as she soared upward, casting off gravity like last week’s fashion. We rocketed over the wall and, with an artful twirl, the Scarebuddhist landed beyond the temple’s perimeter.
“You can let go now.” With a concerted effort, I managed to unlock my arms. She gingerly deposited me on the ground.
The temple was surrounded by a ring of Viking marauders that, a matter of days ago, had been my neighbors. There was Glen Whitman, chairman of the block committee on acceptable Christmas decorations, covered in furs and swinging a battle axe as big as a stop sign. There was Marlene Issacs, baker of lemon squares and cinnamon crumble for the PTA bake sale, a steel helmet clamped over her blonde locks and a bastard sword clasped in her dainty white hands. There was Dave Issacs, Scoutmaster of Troop 502 and chairman on the board of trustees for the local community college, naked except for a navel length beard and a serrated knife in each hand, howling berserker rage at the temple, demanding blood in an ancient Norse tongue whose words fell like corpses being heaped in a pile.
What I’d taken for the rumble of distant artillery was in fact the beating of drums, war drums pounded with a resolute fervor that proclaimed blood to be the right of the masses, violence their inheritance, oblivion their legacy.
“Is this my fault?” I asked.
“Not really.” the Scarebuddhist said. “It was Grassman. He became spiritually integrated with your lawn, part of the warp and woof of your neighborhood’s metaphysical fabric. His torture and demise have warped nature, leading to the clusterfuck that stands before you.”
The monks came out to face the invading horde with three section staffs, chain whips, and spears. They waited patiently behind the torii, seemingly unfazed by the barbarians at their gate.
“You were trying to get them to leave.” I said. “To evacuate them.”
“Of course. Did you think I was just bothering them out of some puerile need for cheap thrills?”
“Kind of, yeah.”
“There’s no point in flattering me, Sam. The handjob ship has sailed. Besides, I’m going to be out of a job soon, and I’ll have to give these things back. What was it like when you had to give up being a soldier?”
“The hardest part is the initial severing, cutting yourself off. After that, it’s only terrible.”
“Did you hate the enemy?”
“No, it was just a job.”
“Did you like killing people?”
“No, but it was insanely easy.” The two armies clashed. The long, slow descent of human mortality steepened, became a cliff they marched off like lemmings.
“Goodbye.” The Scarebuddhist shook my hand and rode her Bugatti Veyron off into the sunset.
My unit went into the bombed out remains of a city. They’d used thermite and white phosphorous, there was nothing left save concrete and ash.
It looked how I felt.
I broke from my squad to take a piss. I pissed on a pile of ash, washing away enough to reveal the inverted black grin of a skull. I pissed in the eye sockets and the nasal cavity, trying to see if I could fill up the brain case and make it overflow.
At some point I realized the skull was still attached to a neck, which was still attached to a spine, which was still attached to a pelvis, which housed the carbonized remains of an infant, half in, half out.
I was already down on my knees before the idea had fully formed in my mind, dry heaving into the ash as I pissed on my fatigues. She’d burned alive giving birth.
I didn’t move for a long time, not until I heard gunfire. I peered around the corner and saw my unit being slaughtered.
They caught one, a man I knew, a friend. They castrated him and made him eat it.
They beat the dead bodies. They dragged them through the street and hung them up and doused them in gasoline and set them on fire and beat them some more and left them to hang, breaking off pieces to take as souvenirs, to sell.
“This neighborhood has changed.” I say to no one in particular.
Not the neighborhood itself. The houses, streets, sidewalks, and signs all still occupy their appointed places, but the people have changed, and they’ve dragged the world with them.
The sky I walk home under isn’t the same sky that presided over me signing my lease. The grill Mr. Gregory used to cook bratwurst on isn’t the same grill he now tortures heretics with. The slingshot the Bryson kid had tormented squirrels with isn’t the same one that he now uses to slay the Philistine champion Goliath of Gath. And my home isn’t the same home that quartered a hundred troops.
They’re gone. All of them. My front door hangs open like a mouth agape, leading to a dark and silent interior.
Somehow, I know they’ve taken the foosball table.
I approach my holy copse. Yggdrasil, Sephirot, Bodhi, and The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil jitter in the gloaming, seeming to dance around the Gun Tree like heathens around a bonfire.
There’s no great revelation that spurs me forward. No outlook shifting epiphany allows me to step beyond the jabbering branches, no profound reconciliation with the past that makes it possible for me to face my nemesis head on.
I’m just ready this time. The wave has stuck me twice before, and twice before its driven me under. I know what to expect now, can shift so I move with it, am briefly tossed by it, and by the time its passed I’m ready for the next one.
There they are. Ripe rifles bend bend the tree’s boughs, ready to drop to the earth at any moment. My old M1 repeated a hundred times; the one part of me I couldn’t obliterate reproduced ad nauseum.
I take the pen out of my pocket. I depress the plunger twice, producing the needle.
I approach the tree. I raise the pen. I plunge the pen into the Gun Tree’s trunk.
I depress the plunger twice, injecting the artificially engineered poison C16.
The tree emits a very human shudder. The guns blacken and wither. The branches bend and snap. The tree itself sways drunkenly, producing a rumbling, crackling rip as its roots lurch free of the soil. It keels over, spraying black dirt into the twilit sky, and lands on my lawn with the meek, subdued thunk of something that hasn’t been alive for a very, very long time. As I turn around and walk out, it already looks petrified.
“You shouldn’t have done that.”
I recognize this. Pain. Someone lit a firecracker in my skull. I look up and see my realtor through a haze of pulsing black stars, along with several awkward looking men holding guns. The one that cold cocked me is still holding the butt of his pistol above my head, ready for a repeat performance if my disposition proves to be anything but accommodating.
I try to convey my acquiescence.
“Again.” And damned if he doesn’t comply.
Pain eclipses the world, making it sputter and flicker like God’s projector is seconds away from incinerating the film. A voice reaches down into the well I’m at the bottom of, resounding off the walls so the words overlap.
“I am so fucking sick of this. I can’t deal with you people anymore. I can’t!” I reach up to touch the warm epicenter of agony atop my skull.
The pain is so vast, so encompassing. It feels like its origin should be more distant, should require a pilgrimage on the level of following the Ganges to the Himalayas. My fingers probe a tender, meaty fissure couched in a thicket of sticky hair. I might ponder the Freudian implications if I wasn’t going to die in a minute.
“Where is this humanism, this profound moral foundation, in any other part of your life?!” My realtor’s voice quivers with rage. I’ve really hurt her. “You let us do whatever we want, all of which we do for you, but the moment we ask you to make a single, meager contribution to your own system you grow this huge, throbbing backbone. Suddenly you’re outraged! Suddenly this isn’t what you signed up for! I wish someone would’ve told me, before I signed up, that this nation is full of… full of…”
“Feckless, callow pissants?” I suggest.
“Precisely.” She spat. God, this pain. I keep expecting it to plateau, to reach some kind of limit, but there’s just more and more and more, its generosity is horrifying.
“I don’t remember you complaining about indifference when it let you do whatever you pleased. Lie back, you said. We’re in control, you said. Only now that the shit’s hit the fan are we a democracy again—by the people, for the people. Success has 100 parents, but failure is collectivized, it belongs to everybody, and ergo nobody. You scattered blame so finely it’s in the water and the air and the food so when it finally reaches the saturation point, when it finally becomes toxic, it poisons everything.”
“Would you listen to this twit?” She implores her awkward looking men holding guns. “He lives in a place filled with rich, evocative literary character, but it’s not enough. He has to cram it full of the most resonant symbols in history, avatars of meaning so entwined with the human experience he can’t begin to comprehend their profound significance, and IT STILL DOESN’T MEAN ENOUGH. He has to speak in endless analogies. And why is this? Why does he feel obliged to drape everything in a thousand layers of contradictory symbolism?” I was curious myself. “Because, deep down, he knows he has nothing to say.”
That hurts. Not as much as being pistol-whipped.
“And what’s your revelatory message?” I counter. “’Killing people is okay sometimes?’ Real original.”
“Don’t worry. You won’t have to suffer the uninspired discourse of this vulgar world any longer.” The awkward looking men holding guns haul me up and tie me to The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. “We’ll kill you like the soldier you pretended not to be.” A line of riflemen march around the corner and take up firing squad positions in the street. “We won’t riddle you with arrows, though I know you’d savor the imagery – frankly, you don’t have the abs to be Saint Sebastian.”
“Why the hell did you do this?” I cried. “Why did you sell me a house? Why didn’t you just turn me in?”
“You won’t care in a minute. READY!”
“You owe me an explanation!”
“I owe you precisely jack shit. AIM!”
I recognize men in the firing squad. They slept on my couch and played floor hockey in my driveway.
“THE FUCK YOU DON’T!” I rage. “Do you have any idea what I did for you people?! The payment I exacted from the enemy? The indescribable goddamn things I let you make me do? Aren’t you always saying you can never repay? Never has so much been owed by so many to so few? Well I’m calling in the debt! This is the fucking balloon payment, and it’s an explanation, from you, to me!”
My realtor holds a hand up to the firing squad.
“Let it never be said our nation reneges on a debt. To white people.” She assumes a dry, official aspect. “One day, it happened that the Prime Commander heard that every extreme contains the seed of its opposite. If this was true, then the implications for the war were tremendous. It had to be tested. We took a soldier and exposed him to the greatest extremes of fighting to see if it would make him a pacifist. We took a woman and exposed her to the greatest extremes of decadence to see if it would make her an ascetic. As the experiment progressed we didn’t like the results, so we tried to disrupt the process. First by adding soldiers. Then by just trying to kill you two, though we only managed to take limbs off the girl.”
“You engineered it all?!”
“Contrived, isn’t it? FIRE!” The guns fire.
I’m still alive.
A pile of deformed lead smokes within the grasp of a glittering gold fist.
A wolfish grin forms beneath a mask and twists around a single, snarled word.
“Kill he-” Before my realtor can finish her command she’s flying across my lawn, propelled by a blow to the sternum that drives her right into the firing line, scattering the soldiers.
“I think I get it now.” The Scarebuddhist says as she picks up awkward looking man with gun number one and hurls him into awkward looking man with gun number two. “It’s not about bondage…”
A few soldiers manage to rouse themselves and fire from prone positions. My windows are shattered and my siding is perforated as the Scarebuddhist’s arms twirl through the air, emitting showers of sparks as they interrupt the bullets’ deadly trajectory.
She kicks the ground, eliciting a plume of dirt and grass that obscures the soldiers line of fire and settles moments later to reveal empty space.
The muzzles of their rifles cut through the thin suburban haze in search of a target. Failing to find the Scarebuddhist, several settle on me. She plunges off her perch on Yggdrasil and crashes into the soldiers’ midst.
They all take aim at the enemy. One fires. Her arm moves faster than thought. The burst is deflected into another soldier. Another fires. The process repeats itself.
A soldier raises the butt of his gun and charges at her. She bats him into the air. He bounces off the Michelson’s roof and lands in their prize azaleas. The soldiers look at one another. One runs away. Then they all run away. Her cape billows suggestively.
“Isn’t this always the way.” My realtor pushes herself up amid the shattered gravel. “You work twice as hard for half as much, and what do you get? Beaten down by some cunt in a getup that wouldn’t pass for swimwear.”
“Excuse me for enjoying myself.” the Scarebuddhist walks over and snaps the ropes binding me to The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.
“Yes.” My realtor says. “Enjoy yourself. You’re very fond of enjoying yourself. Heaven forbid anyone or anything stop you from enjoying yourself.”
“Thanks for the rescue.” I say. “But I thought we were through.”
“We are. Doesn’t mean I won’t help.” I tell the Scarebuddhist what my realtor had told me, that we were pawns in an experiment. She listens quietly, her reaction hidden behind her mask. When I finish she approaches my realtor.
“What’s so horrible about every extreme implying its opposite?”
“Are you kidding?” She sneers. “If it’s true, if we really become more like the enemy the more we fight the enemy, then all of this” She gestured at the fire on the horizon, at the ruins of my neighborhood. “is meaningless! Just a play, moving the same heap of formless matter from one completely arbitrary point to another! Is that the world you want?! A world where nothing is wholly itself!? Where everything is something else!?”
She stands up and brushes gravel off her irreparably soiled skirt.
“I’ve spent my whole life endeavoring to become an insider. Do you know what ‘endeavor’ means? “ ‘To make it one’s duty.’ It’s an oath of fealty you dedicate every atom of your being to. But then people like you come along and say ‘there’s no real difference between insiders and outsiders. The more you’re inside one thing, the more you’re outside something else.’ You know who says shit like that?”
She stamps her foot, staggers, regains her balance.
“OUTSIDERS! Failures! Feeble, conniving, sour grapes socialist outsiders who wouldn’t know hard work if it—PAY ATTENTION YOU FAGGOTS!”
I follow the Scarebuddhist inside my house. “See if you can tell which movie this is from.” I shut the door.
“Didn’t you used to have…” the Scarebuddhist gestures at my living room. “Stuff?”
The soldiers have taken everything. They’ve appropriated my couch. Annexed my dinette set. Requisitioned my television. Commandeered my copper pipes. Liberated several load bearing joists and beams.
“Never has so much been owed by so many to so few.” I repeat.
“I’m sorry.” the Scarebuddhist says, placing a cool mechanical hand on my shoulder.
“It’s never as bad as you think it’s going to be, is it?”
“Yes.” I say. “Often it’s worse.”
It seemed that was one lame joke too many. A deep, crackling groan explodes from every direction. The ceiling sags. The floor heaves. She picks me up, but it’s too late. With a final explosive crash, my house falls down around us.
It was a beautiful day with the sky broadcasting on all channels and only a few wan fingers of smoke creeping up to molest the horizon.
Today was a transition point, a day that embodied the brief moment of weightlessness that came at the zenith of every leap, where time and motion conspired to ever so briefly make you weightless. Today both armies paused their warfare to account for the losses of the past and gird themselves for the losses of the future. Everywhere it seemed stock was being taken, routines were being broken; accounts were being taken of the slain in the vain hope that the slain would account for us.
I was in the city. I was standing in the ruins of the once and future Zen temple. All around me dazed monks carefully sorted through the remains of their sanctuary, occasionally calling out when they uncovered a fallen comrade.
Next to me, a young woman with no arms or legs sat in a wheelchair. Her head was shaved, but that did little to diminish the uncanny beauty of her diminished form.
“It’s a legitimate question. Everything that once made the temple is still here. Has it ceased to be a sacred space because its shape has changed? What about when it was still a forest? Is a seed any less sacred? Is sunlight? Is dirt? Perhaps it’s the effort we put into something that makes it sacred. Meaning can only come from within.” I shuffled my feet, shifting a heap of formless matter from one arbitrary point to another.
I thought about vanity. I thought about lust. I thought about the unspoken covenant of beauty. I thought about anything except where and what I was.
“I keep thinking back to the day we met. If I just hadn’t asked you out, you’d still be whole.” The Buddhist laughed.
“You haven’t heard a thing I’ve said!”
“I just wish I could’ve done something.”
“You did. Something is what you do. It’s what you are.”
“Don’t you miss your arms and legs?”
“With no arms there’s nothing to grasp for. With no legs there’s nothing to run from.”
“It can’t be that simple.”
“Only because you insist on complicating it.”
I winced, gritting my teeth. Every memory from the war was a nail in my flesh. Every thought tapped them in deeper, drove them closer to something vital. Yet part of me relished the pain, longed to be interred in its cold, iron embrace.
“That’s just wrong. Some things are irreducible, ineluctable.” I gestured at where her arms and legs weren’t. “No belief system, no ideology can change that. The fact of flesh severed from flesh.”
“No ideology can take it away either.”
“I don’t know. I don’t get it.”
“You don’t have to get it.” She said. “But you can be happy that I got it.”
“But you’re entirely dependent on others.”
“It is only by learning to depend on myself that I become capable of depending on others.”
“I just wish…” I looked at the monks.
I watched as they lined up the dead bodies of their friends and fellow holy men on the ground. I watched as they erected a pyre made from the shattered remnants of their temple. I watched as one after another they heaped their dead upon it, including the old soldier who had been my neighbor. I watched as the parts the war hadn’t destroyed were burned away.
“I just wish that you loved me.”
The smoke swirled up into the blue.
The Buddhist leaned over and gently rubbed her bare head against my forearm.
“Sam, ‘Nirvana’ means, literally, ‘to blow out’ or ‘to extinguish.’ Our self is a flame. We feed it with what we take in from the external world, but we cannot starve the fire. We must take active measures to blow it out. It goes something like this.”
“And ‘Samsara’ means literally ‘to wander.’”
“Please stop telling me what things mean. Knowing that one thing means something means knowing the infinity of things it doesn’t mean. Nothing can ever mean enough.”
The Buddhist looked at me sadly.
“There’s nothing wrong with suffering, Sam. But don’t use it to insulate yourself from existence.”
I considered telling her my name wasn’t Sam. I spent too much time considering. The next thing I knew a monk had taken hold of her wheelchair and was rolling her away.
I raised my hand, reaching out, grasping like the monkey I was.
“I never got your name!” She shifted in her chair to give me her attention one last time.
She turned around.
I lowered my hand.
I chop down the Yggdrasil ash. I chop down the Bodhi fig. I chop down the Sephirot. I chop down The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.
I shape the wood.
I nail it together.
I build a raft.
I sail away, U-Boats nipping at my heels.