What a dragonfly was doing out here in the desert, he couldn’t say. It was a creature of water, a sluggish slime-coated nymph that had metamorphosed into an electric needle of light, designed to hover and dart over pond and ditch in order to feed on the insects that rose from the surface in soft moist clouds. But here it was, as red as blood if blood could shine like metal, hovering in front of his face as if it had come to impart some message. And what would that message be? I am the karmic representative of the insect world, here to tell you that all is well amongst us. Hooray! Jabba-jabba-jabba! For a long while, long after the creature had hurtled away in shearing splinters of radiance, he sat there, legs folded under him in the blaze of 118-degree heat, thinking alternately: This is working, and I am losing my mind.
And this was only the first day.
What he wanted, more than he wanted the air to sink into the alveoli of his lungs or the blood to rush through the chambers of his heart, was to tell his wife about it, about this miracle of the dragonfly in the desert. But of course he couldn’t, because the nature of this retreat, under the guidance of Geshe Stephen O’Dowd and Lama Katie Capolupo, was silence, silence rejuvenant, unbroken, utter. Three years, three months, and three days of it, the very term undertaken by the Dalai Lamas themselves in their quest for enlightenment. He had signed on, drawn down his bank account, paid his first wife a lump sum to cover her maintenance and child support for the twins, married the love of his soul on a sere, scorched afternoon three weeks ago, and put the finishing touches on his yurt. In the Arizona desert. Amidst cholla and saguaro and sun-blistered projections of rock so bleak they might have confounded the Buddha himself. The heat was an anvil and he was the white-hot point of steel beaten under the hammer.
Though he felt light-headed from the morning and afternoon group-meditation sessions and the trancing suck of the desert sun, he pushed himself up and tottered back to the yurt on legs that might as well have been deboned for all the stability they offered him, this perfect gift of the dragonfly inside him and no way to get it out. He found her—Karuna, his wife, the former Sally Barlow Townes of Chappaqua, New York—seated in the lotus position on the hemp mat just inside the door. She was a slim, very nearly emaciated girl of 29, with a strong sweep of jaw, a pouting smallish mouth, and a rope of braided blond hair that drew in the light and held it. Despite the heat, she was wearing her pink prayer shawl over a blue pashmina meditation skirt. Her sweat was like body paint, every square millimeter of exposed flesh shining with it.
At first she didn’t lift her eyes, so deeply immersed in the inner self she didn’t seem to be aware of him standing there before her. He felt the smallest stab of jealousy over her ability to penetrate so deeply, to go so far—and on the first day, no less—but then he dismissed it as selfish and hurtful, as bad karma, as papa. They might have been enjoined from speaking, he was thinking, but he could find ways around that. Very slowly he began to move his limbs as if he were dancing to an unheard melody, then he clicked his fingers, counting off the beat, and at last she raised her eyes.
Dinner for their first evening of the retreat, after the meager portions of rice and lentils doled out for the communal morning and afternoon meals, had been decided on in a time when they could express themselves aloud—yesterday, that is. It was to consist of tahini, lemon juice, and chickpeas blended into hummus, basmati rice, and naan bread. He was at the stove watching the chickpeas roiling in a pan of water over the gas jet, which was hooked up to the propane tank half-buried in a pit behind the yurt. The time must have been seven or so in the evening—he couldn’t be sure because Geshe Stephen had encouraged them all to remove their watches and ceremonially grind them between two stones. The heat had begun to lift and he imagined the temperature dipping into the 90s, though numbers had no value here and whether it was diabolically hot or, in winter, as he’d been forewarned, unsustainably cold, really didn’t matter. What mattered were the chickpeas, golden in the pot. What mattered was the dragonfly.
He’d done his best to communicate the experience to Karuna, falling back on his admittedly rusty skills at charades. He led her to the entrance of the yurt and pointed to the place where he’d been sitting in the poor stippled shade of a palo verde tree and then used the distance between his forefinger and thumb to give her an idea of the creature and its relative size, jerking that space back and forth vigorously to replicate its movements and finally flinging his hand out to demonstrate the path it had taken. She’d gazed at him blankly. Three syllables, he indicated digitally, making his face go fierce for the representation of dragon—he breathed fire, or tried to—and then softening it for the notion of fly, and he’d been helped here by the appearance, against the front window, of an actual fly, a fat bluebottle that had no doubt sprung from the desiccating carcass of some fallen toad or lizard. She’d blinked rapidly. She’d smiled. And, as far as he could see, didn’t have the faintest idea of what he was attempting to convey, though she was trying her hardest to focus on the bliss in his face.
But now she was bending to the oven, where the flattened balls of dough were taking on the appearance of bread, her meditation skirt hitched up in back so that he was able to admire the shape of her ankles, a shape as miraculous as that of the dragonfly—or no, a thousand times more so. Because her ankles rose gracefully to her calves and her calves to her thighs and from there … he caught himself. This was not right-mindfulness, and he had to suppress it. There would be no touching, no kissing, no sex during the length of the retreat. And that length of time looped out suddenly before him like a rope descending into an infinite well: three years, three months, three days. Or no: two. One down, or nearly down. A quick calculation: 1,189 to go.
He reached for the handle of the pot and had actually taken hold of it, so entranced was he by the poured gold of the chickpeas, before he understood that the handle was hot. But not simply hot: superheated, all but molten. He managed to drop the pot back on the burner without upsetting it, the harsh clatter of metal on metal startling his wife, who shot him a glance out of enlarging eyes, and though he wanted to cry out, to curse and shout and dance through his pain, he just bit his finger at the knuckle and let the tears roll down both flanges of his nose.
The first night came in a blizzard of stars. The temperature dropped till it was almost bearable, not that it mattered, and he stared hard at the concentric rings of the yurt’s conical ceiling till they began to blur. Was he bored? No, not at all. He didn’t need the noise of the world, the cell phones and TVs and laptops and all the rest, transient things, distractions, things of the flesh—he needed inner focus, serenity, the Bodhisattva path. And he was on it, his two feet planted firmly, as he dropped his eyes to study the movements of Karuna while she prepared for bed. She was grace incarnate, swimming out of her clothes as if emerging from a cool, clean mountain stream, naked before him as she bent for the stiff cotton nightshirt that lay folded beneath her pillow on the raised wooden pallet beside his own. He studied the flex of her buttocks, the cleft there, the way her breasts swung free as she dipped to the bed, and it was so right, so pure and wholly beautiful that he felt like singing—or chanting. Chanting in his own head, Om mani padme hum.
And then suddenly she was recoiling from the bed as if it had burst into flame, pinning the nightshirt to her chest and—it was her turn now—jamming a fist into her mouth to keep from screaming. He jumped to his feet and saw the tarantula then, a miracle of creation as stunning in its effect as the dragonfly, if more expected, because this was its environment, its home in the world of appearances. Big as a spread hand, it paused a moment on the pillow, as if to revel in its glory, and then, on the unhurried extension of its legs that were like walking fingers, it slowly ascended the adobe wall. Karuna turned to him, her eyes fractured with fear. She mouthed, Kill it, and he had to admire her in her extremity, because there was no speech, not even the faintest aspiration, just the drawn-back lips and the grimace of the unvoiced verb.
He shook his head no. She knew as well as he that all creatures were sacred and that the very worst papa attached to taking a life.
She flew to the drain board where the washed and dried pot lay overturned, snatched it up and shoved it in his hand, making motions to indicate that he should capture the thing and take it out into the night. Far out. Over the next ridge, if possible.
And so he lifted the pot to the wall, but the tarantula, with its multiple eyes and the heat of its being, anticipated him, shooting down the adobe surface as if on a hurricane wind to disappear, finally, into the mysterious dark space beneath his wife’s bed.
In the morning, at an hour he supposed might be something like three-thirty or four o’clock, the first meditation session of the day began. Not that he’d slept much in any case, Karuna insisting, through gestures and the overtly physical act of pinching his upper arm between two fingers as fiercely tuned as any tarantula’s pedipalps, on switching beds, at least for the night. He didn’t mind. He welcomed all creatures, though lying there in the dark and listening to the rise and fall of his bride’s soft rasping snores, he couldn’t help wondering just what exactly the tarantula’s message had been. (I am the karmic representative of the arachnid world, here to tell you that all is well amongst us, which is why I’ve come to bite your wife. Hooray! Jabba-jabba-jabba!)
Geshe Stephen, who’d awakened them both with a knuckle-rap at the door that exploded through the yurt like a shotgun blast, was long-nosed and tall, with a slight stoop, watery blue eyes, and two permanent spots of moisture housed in his outsized nostrils. He was 62 years old and had ascended to the rank of Geshe—the rough equivalent of a doctor of divinity—through a lifetime of study and an unwavering devotion to the Noble Eightfold Path of the Gautama Buddha. He had twice before sought enlightenment in a regimen of silence, and he was as serene and untouched by worldly worry as a breeze stirring the very highest leaves of the tallest tree on the tallest mountain. Before the retreat began, when the 13 aspirants were building their domiciles and words were their currency, he’d delivered up any number of parables, the most telling of which—at least for this particular aspirant—was the story of the hermit and the monk.
They were gathered in the adobe temple, seated on the floor in a precise circle. Their robes lay about them like ripples on water. Sunlight graced the circular walls. “There was once a monk in the time of the Buddha who devoted his life to meditation on a single mantra,” the Geshe intoned, his wonderfully long and mobile upper lip rising and falling, his voice so inwardly directed it was like a sigh. “In his travels, he heard of an ancient holy man, a hermit, living on an island in a vast lake. He asked a boatman to row him out to the island so that he could commune with the hermit, though he felt in his heart that he had reached a level at which no one could instruct him further, so deeply was he immersed in his mantra and its million-million iterations. On meeting the hermit, he was astonished to find that this man too had devoted himself to the very same mantra and for a number of years equal to his own, and yet when the hermit chanted it aloud the monk immediately saw that the hermit was deluded and that all his devotion had been in vain—he was mispronouncing the vowels. As a gesture of compassion, of karuna”—and here the Geshe paused to look round the circle, settling on Karuna with her shining braid and her beautiful bare feet—“he gently corrected the hermit’s pronunciation. After which they chanted together for some time before the monk took his leave. He was halfway across the lake when the oarsman dropped both oars and stared wildly behind him, for there was the hermit, saying, ‘I beg your pardon, but would you be so kind as to repeat the mantra once more for me so that I can be sure I have it right?’ How had the hermit got there? He had walked. On the water.” Again the pause, again the Geshe’s eyes roaming round the circle to settle not on Karuna, but on him. “I ask you, Ashoka: What is the sound of truth?”
His name, his former name, the name on his birth certificate and his New York state driver’s license, was Jeremy Clutter. He was 43 years old, with a B.A. in fine arts (he’d been a potter) and an M.A. in Far Eastern studies; a house in Yorktown that now belonged to his first wife, Margery; and a middle-aged paunch, of which he was—or had been—self-conscious. He’d met Sally at a week-long Buddhist seminar in Stone Mountain, Georgia, and she’d pointed out to him that the Buddha himself had sported a paunch, at the same time touching him intimately there. In his former life he’d made a decent income from a dot-com start-up, thepotterswheel.com, that not only survived the ’01 crash but had become robust in its wake. Money built his yurt. Money paid off Margery. Money embellished the Geshe’s grace. And the Geshe gave him his true name, Ashoka, which, when translated from the Sanskrit, meant “Without Sadness.”
The second morning’s meditation session, like all the ensuing ones, was held out-of-doors, on a slightly pitched knob of blasted dirt surrounded by cactus and scrub. There was a chill to the air that belied the season, but to an aspirant, they ignored it. He chanted his mantra inside his head till it rang like a bell, and he resolved to bring a jacket with him tomorrow. Geshe Stephen kept them there till the sun came hurtling over the mountains like a spear of fire, and then he rose and dismissed them. Bowing in his holy, long-nosed way, the Geshe took Ashoka gently by the arm and held him there until the others had left. With a steady finger, the finger of conviction, the Geshe pointed to a dun heap of dirt and rock in the intermediate distance and then pantomimed the act of bending to the ground and gathering something to him. Ashoka didn’t have a clue as to what the man was trying to impart. Geshe Stephen repeated the performance, putting a little more grit and a little less holiness into it. Still, he didn’t understand. Did he want him, as an exercise, a lesson, to measure the mountain between the space of his two arms extended so as to reduce it to its essence? To dirt, that is?
Finally, exasperated, the Geshe pulled a notepad and pencil from his pocket and scrawled his redemptive message: Go up to the mountain and gather ironwood for the winter fires in the temple. Then report—“report,” that was the word he used—to the temple kitchen to peel potato and daikon for the communal stew.
The days stuck to him like flypaper. The moment was all there was. He went inward. Still, very gradually, the days became unglued, loosening and flapping in the wind that swept the desert in a turmoil of cast-off spines and seed pods. Nights came earlier, mornings later. One morning, after group meditation, the Geshe pressed a note into his hand. The note asked—or no, instructed—him to meet the water truck that came bimonthly from the nearest town, Indio Muerto, which lay some 35 miles across the motionless plain.
The truck, painted an illusory forest green, appeared as a moving speck in the distance, working haltingly over the ruts and craters of what was once and occasionally a dirt road. He sat cross-legged in the infertile soil and watched it coming for what might have been hours or even days, all sense of time and the transient rush of things foreign to him now. A moment would come when the truck would be there before him, he knew that, and so he spun a prayer wheel and chanted inwardly until it was in fact there, planted before him and obscuring the horizon as if it had sprung up out of the ground.
He saw that a new driver had replaced the expressionless old man who’d come in the past, a lean monkey-faced boy of 19 or 20 with tattooed arms and a cap reversed on his head, and that the kid had brought his similarly tattooed-and-capped squeeze along for the desolate ride across the waste. No problem there. Ashoka didn’t begrudge him. In fact, as he watched them climb down from the cab of the truck he couldn’t help remembering a time when he and Margery had driven across the country together in a car that had no radio and how Margery had said afterward that he’d never shut up for one instant the whole way, singing and laughing and spinning out one story after another, because for him, at least in those days, conversation wasn’t about truth or even communication—it was there for its entertainment value, pure and simple.
“So, uh,” the kid began, startling him out of his reverie—or no, shocking him with the impact of those two syllables spoken aloud and reverberating like thunderclaps—“where you want me to pump it?”
He pressed his hands to his ears. His face reddened. In that moment, rising, he caught a glimpse of himself in the big blazing slab of the truck’s side-view mirror and it was as if he’d been punched in the chest. What he saw reflected there was the exact likeness of one of the pretas, the restive spirits doomed to parch and starve because of their attachments to past lives, his hair white as death and flung out to every point of the compass, his limbs like sticks, his face seared like a hot dog left too long on the grill.
“Whoa,” the kid said, even as the girl, her features drawn up in a knot of fear and disgust, moved into the protection of his arm, “you all right there?”
What could he say? How could he begin to explain?
He produced a gesture to wave him off. Another for reassurance. And then, turning so gradually he could have been a tree growing toward the light, he lifted a hand and pointed, shakily, to the water tank, where it floated on wooden struts behind the two whitewashed yurts that housed Geshe and Lama respectively and rose like twin ice-cream cones from the dead blasted earth.
Everyone in the community, all 13 of them plus Geshe Stephen and Lama Katie and including their nearest neighbors, the former Forest and Fawn Greenstreet (now Dairo and Bodhi respectively), had an air horn. For emergencies. In the event of an accident, an illness, a fire, the air horns were to be used to summon help. He spent a long while each day in contemplation of the one he and Karuna had been given, for what reason he couldn’t say. Perhaps because it represented a link to the renounced world, a way out. Or because it had a pleasing shape. Or because it was the only object of color, real color, in the yurt.
Karuna was at the cutting board, dicing cucumbers. She’d lost weight. But she was firm and lean and beautiful, not that it mattered, and he was enjoying the sight of her there, her elbows flashing beneath her robes that pulled back to reveal the pink thermal long johns beneath. Outside it was dark. There was a fire in the woodstove. Karuna’s elbows flashed. Earlier, she’d been trying to tell him something of her day, of what she’d experienced on her walk out into the desert, but he couldn’t really catch much of it, despite the fact that she was leagues ahead of him when it came to charades. Something about a hillside and a moment and something she’d seen there, tracks, he thought, and a discarded water bottle. He’d smiled and nodded, feigning comprehension, because he liked the way her eyes flared and jumped and sank back again, liked the purse of her mouth and the ghost of her breasts bound up and held tight in the thermal weave that fit her like a new skin.
These thoughts were unhealthy, he knew that. And as he watched her now, he couldn’t help feeling even more unhealthy—aroused, even—and so he shifted his gaze to the air horn, where it stood on an adobe shelf like a work of art. And it was a work of art. The milk-white canister topped with a red rooster’s comb of plastic that was to be depressed in an emergency, the matching red lettering (Sports/Marine, and below it, BIG HORN), and the way the sound waves were depicted there as a flaring triangle of hard red slashes.
Big horn, he said to himself. Sports/Marine. Big horn. Sports/Marine. And for that moment, for that night, it became his mantra.
That was a problem, a growing problem, as the days wore on. The mantra, that is, because as the Buddha taught, life means suffering, and the origin of suffering is attachment, and the cessation of suffering is only attainable by taking the Bodhisattva path, and yet his mantra became mangled in its eternal repetition until other mantras, meaningless phrases and snatches of tunes, blotted it out altogether. Big horn lasted a week or more. And then one chill afternoon, sitting buttock to buttock with Fawn Greenstreet—Bodhi—on one side of him and Karuna on the other, staring through the long-nosed ascetic face of Geshe Stephen and digging inward, shovelful by shovelful, bup-bup-bah came to him. It was a musical phrase, from a tune of the great and towering giant of inwardness, John Coltrane, a tune called “Bakai.” The horns chanted it rhythmically, bup-bup-bah, bup-bup-bah, with a rising inflection on the first bah and a descending on the second. He tried to fight it off with Om mani padme hum, tried with all his concentration and practice, but it wouldn’t budge. It was there, bup-bup-bah, bup-bup-bah, like a record stuck in the groove, repeating over and over, repeating endlessly. And worse: his proximity to Bodhi on one side and his own wife on the other, given the day and the cold of the ground and the warm inviting odor arising from them both—bup-bup-bah—was giving him an erection.
Another note, this one handed to him by Lama Katie after the morning cleanup in the temple and the incantatory scraping of the baked-on oatmeal from the depths of the communal cook pot. Lama Katie, squat, big-breasted, her hair the color of midnight in a coal mine and her eyes even darker, gave him a smile of encouragement that radiated down the two deeply etched lines defining her chin and into the billowing plumpness beneath. She knew the contents of the note: she’d written it herself. According to the date marked on the calendar secreted in a chest in the back corner of her yurt, the twins—his twins, Kyle and Kaden—were due to appear this evening for the first of their twice-yearly visits. He should wait for them half a mile out, Lama Katie suggested, so that the noise and presence of the rental vehicle their mother was driving wouldn’t impede his fellow aspirants on their journey down the Bodhisattva path.
It was mid-afternoon, the winter sun bleached white and hanging motionless overhead, when he turned away from Karuna, who was shucking a bushel of corn delivered to them on muleback by one of the Geshe’s more worldly followers, plucked up a prayer wheel, and went on down the dirt track to wait for them. The desert ran before him. Birds visited. Lizards. He sat on a rock and stared off in the distance, chanting beneath his breath, his mantra beating as steadily in the confines of his skull as the heart beating in his chest, the Coltrane riff retired to another life in another universe and the Buddha, the very Buddha, speaking through him.
The car was unremarkable, but strange for all that, its steel shell, the glint of the sun on its windshield, the twin plumes of dust trailing away behind it till it was there and motionless and he could see his ex-wife’s face, a shadow clenched in distaste, as the two boys, 9 years old now—or were they 10?—spun out of the doors in a flurry of leaping limbs. He caught them in his arms and rocked them round him in a mad whirl, their voices like the cries of birds descending to a feast. He showed them the prayer wheel, let them spin it. Sat with them and listened to their 10,000 questions (When was he coming back? Where was Karuna? Could they see his yurt? Did he have a pet lizard? Could they have a pet lizard?). He found that his mimetic skills had blossomed and he answered them with his hands, his eyes, the cast of his mouth, and the movement of his shoulders. Finally, when the novelty had begun to wear off and they started to look round them for a means of escape—he could only imagine what their mother must have been telling them about their father’s mental state on the long flight and longer drive out here—he produced a pad and pencil and wrote them a note.
What he was doing, he reiterated, was seeking the truth, prajna, wisdom. Liberation from the cycle of rebirth in which all beings are trapped. If one soul achieves liberation, that soul can guide others toward achieving it too. They crouched beside him, staring at the pad in his lap, their faces numb, eyes fixed on the words as if the words had no meaning. I’m doing it for you, he wrote, underlining fiercely, for you, for both of you.
“Mom, too?” Kaden asked.
They gave each other a look, smiles flowering, and in the next instant they sprang up in a sudden delirium of joy and ran to her where she sat in the car, carrying the note like a gift of infinite worth, the paper fluttering in the breeze their moving limbs stirred in the air. She took it, her face a simulacrum of itself behind the reflective windshield, then ordered them into the car. There was the abrupt thunderclap of the engine turning over, the screech of the front end as the car wheeled round, pale miniature hands fluttering their goodbyes out the open window, and then, finally, silence.
The rattlesnake was itself a shadow, pooled there on the trodden dirt floor of the yurt as if shadows ruled and light was abject. He didn’t see it until it was too late. Karuna, her hair released from the tight braid and exerting a life and movement of its own, was washing her face over a pan of water he’d heated for her on the wood stove, and he’d been watching her idly, remembering their first night together after they’d realized to their delight—karma, it was karma—that they lived no more than half an hour’s drive from one another through the dense hilly woodlands of Westchester County. They were in Georgia then, the last night of the conference, and they’d lingered over beers, exchanging information, and she was so stunned by the coincidence that she’d slid away from the table in a slow sinuous dance, then taken him by the hand and led him back to her room.
When the snake bit her just above the ankle, where the swell of her calf rose from the grip of the heavy white sweatsock she wore as protection against the evening chill, it was just doing what it was designed to do. There was warmth in the yurt. It had come to the warmth. And she, inadvertently, had stepped on it. She didn’t cry out, not even then, not even when the snake snapped back into the shadows as if it were attached to a spring, but just looked down in bewilderment at her bare calf and the two neat spots of blood that had appeared there in commemoration of the puncture wounds. He didn’t think of what the snake’s message had been, not yet, not before Karuna stretched herself out on the bed and he twisted the tourniquet round her calf and her eyes fluttered and the fire hissed in the stove and the leg began to swell and darken and he took the air horn to the door of the yurt and annihilated the silence in a single screaming stroke.
The snake’s message—and he knew it even as Dairo and Bodhi flew up out of the darkness with faces like white darting bats, Geshe Stephen and the others not far behind—was this: I am the karmic representative of the reptile world and all is not well amongst us. There is nothing inside and no cessation of pain. Hooray! Jabba-jabba-jabba!
A tangle of hands moved like thought, juggling mute phrases and tracing the edges of panic. Everyone was gesturing at once, the yurt shrunk round them, the snake vanished, the fire dying in the stove. Karuna’s eyes had stopped blinking. She seemed to be in a deep trance, gone as deep as any soul can go, focused on the rising swirls of the ceiling and the circular hole that gave onto the night and the stars and the dead black face of the universe above.
His hands trembled as he gripped the pencil and scribbled a note for Geshe Stephen, who was standing stooped over the bed, looking lost. We need to get the doctor.
The Geshe shrugged. There was no doctor. There was no telephone. The nearest town was Indio Muerto. They all knew that—they’d all signed on with that knowledge, and its implications implanted like splinters in their brains.
What about the car?
Another shrug. The community’s only automobile was a boxy white Prius belonging to Geshe Stephen, which was housed beneath a formfitting cloth out back of his yurt where its shape wouldn’t tempt anyone from the path or interfere with the business at hand. Its wheels were up on blocks, and the Geshe, in a first-day ceremony, had drained the fuel tank and removed the distributor cap as a symbolic gesture while the gathered aspirants looked rapturously on.
We need to get her to the hospital! he screamed across the page in angry block letters.
The Geshe nodded. He was in agreement. He dipped his shoulders, produced a tight grin that tapered to a grimace at both corners of his mouth. His expression said: But how?
Into that silence that was fraught with the shuffling of feet, bare and slippered both, the faint hiss of the stove and the sub-aural racket of neurons firing in brains that were no longer in touch with souls, no longer calm and meditative, neurons nudged from the path and straining to find their way back, there came a deep harsh ratcheting cry from the figure on the bed, from Karuna. They turned to her as one. Her face was twisted. Her leg was swollen to twice its size. The skin was black around the wound. They all looked shocked, Bodhi especially, shocked and offended, wondering why she hadn’t stifled that human noise with a fist, with a knuckle stuffed between her teeth. The silence had been broken, and Karuna had broken it, consciously or not.
What he wanted to say—to roar so that they could have heard him all the way to Indio Muerto and back—was, “Christ, what is wrong with you people? Can’t you see she’s dying?” But he didn’t. Habit, conditioning, the reflex of the inner path, kept him silent, though he was writhing inside. This was attachment, and that sigh was the sound of truth.
Later, after they’d all filed uselessly out, he built up the fire and sat beside her while her breathing slowed and accelerated and finally caught in her throat for the last time. This might have taken an hour or mere minutes, he couldn’t say. Into his head had come a new mantra, a jingle from a commercial on TV when he was growing up, a child of baseball fields and macadam basketball courts with their bent and rusted hoops and the intense otherworldly green of a New York summer, a green so multivalent and assertive it was like a promise of life to come. The jingle was for a toothpaste and it made its own promises, and yes, you did wonder where the yellow went when you brushed your teeth with Pepsodent. The new mantra sang in his head and danced a tarantella, double-speed, triple, and then it became a dirge. Just before dawn he found himself running back even farther, reaching down to take hold of the earliest mantra he could recall as it marched implacably across the field of his consciousness, beating out its own tempo with two pounding knees on the underside of a metal desk in the back corner of a just-arisen classroom, Row, row, row your—Om mani padme hum—Gently down the stream. Row, row, row—Om.
At dawn he got up from the bed and without looking behind him pushed open the door and walked out into the desert.
In the desert, he walked without purpose or destination. He walked past the hill where his wife had found the discarded water bottle, past the place where the green truck had appeared on the horizon, beyond the mountain where he’d gathered ironwood, and down into the hot bleached plain it gave onto. He needed a mantra, but he had none. Into his head it came, the mantra the Geshe had given him, but he couldn’t sustain it, his mind swept clear of everything now. The sun was the eye of God, awake and staring. After a while his feet seemed to desert him and he sat heavily in the lee of a jagged boulder.
What he awakened to were voices, human voices, speaking aloud. He blinked open his eyes and looked up into three terrified faces, man, woman, and child, their wide straw hats framing their skulls like halos. They were speaking to him in a language he didn’t understand. They said, “¿Necesita usted socorro?” They said, “¿Tiene agua?” And then one of them, the woman, went down on her knees and held a plastic jug of water to his lips and he drank, but sparingly, and only because he knew they wouldn’t go away, wouldn’t stop talking, unless he did. He didn’t need water. He was beyond water, on a whole different path altogether. He reassured them with gestures, thanked them, blessed them, and then they were gone.
The sun moved till the projection of rock gave up its shade. His eyes closed but the lids burned till he opened them again, and when he opened them the dragonfly was there. He studied it for a long while, the delicate interplay of its wings, the thin twisting calligraphy of its legs and the perfect jointed tube of its thorax. And what was its message? It had no message, he saw that now. It was merely a splinter of light, hovering for just a moment—just this moment—over the desert floor.
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