“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.