Authors: Christopher Moore
Tags: #Fiction / General
We sat on the beach, letting the sun dry our skin as we picked pitch out of our chest hairs.
“You know, Josh,” I said, as I fought a particularly stubborn gob of tar that had stuck in my armpit, “when you were leading those kids out of the temple square, and they were so little and weak, but none of them seemed afraid…well, it was sort of heartwarming.”
“Yep, I love all the little children of the world, you know?” “Really?”
He nodded. “Green and yellow, black and white.”
“Good to know—Wait, green?”
“No, not green. I was just fuckin’ with you.”
Tamil, as it turned out, was not a small town in southern India, but the whole southern peninsula, an area about five times the size of Israel, so looking for Melchior was akin to walking into Jerusalem on any given day and saying, “Hey, I’m looking for a Jewish guy, anyone seen him?” What we had going for us was that we knew Melchior’s occupation, he was an ascetic holy man who lived a nearly solitary life somewhere along the coast and that he, like his brother Gaspar, had been the son of a prince. We found hundreds of different holy men, or yogis, most of them living in complete austerity in the forest or in caves, and usually they had twisted their bodies into some impossible posture. The first of these I saw was a yogi who lived in a lean-to on the side of a hill overlooking a small fishing village. He had his feet tucked behind his shoulders and his head seemed to be coming from the wrong end of his torso.
“Josh, look! That guy is trying to lick his own balls! Just like Bartholomew, the village idiot. These are my people, Josh. These are my people. I have found home.”
Well, I hadn’t really found home. The guy was just performing some sort of spiritual discipline (that’s what “yoga” means in Sanskrit: discipline) and he wouldn’t teach me because my intentions weren’t pure or some claptrap. And he wasn’t Melchior. It took six months and the last of our money and we both saw our twenty-fifth birthdays before we found Melchior reclining in a shallow stone nook in a cliff over the ocean. Seagulls were nesting at his feet.
He was a hairier version of his brother, which is to say he was
slight, about sixty years old, and he wore a caste mark on his forehead. His hair and beard were long and white, shot with only a few stripes of black, and he had intense dark eyes that seemed to show no white at all. He wore only a loincloth and he was as thin as any of the Untouchables we had met in Kalighat.
Joshua and I clung to the side of the cliff while the guru untied from the human knot he’d gotten himself into. It was a slow process and we pretended to look at the seagulls and enjoy the view so as not to embarrass the holy man by seeming impatient. When he finally achieved a posture that did not appear as if it had been caused by being run over by an ox cart, Joshua said, “We’ve come from Israel. We were six years with your brother Gaspar in the monastery. I am—”
“I know who you are,” said Melchior. His voice was melodic, and every sentence he spoke seemed as if he were beginning to recite a poem. “I recognize you from when I first saw you in Bethlehem.”
“A man’s self does not change, only his body. I see you grew out of the swaddling clothes.”
“Yes, some time ago.”
“Not sleeping in that manger anymore?”
“Some days I could go for a nice manger, some straw, maybe a blanket. Not that I need any of those luxuries, nor does anyone who is on the spiritual path, but still.”
“I’ve come to learn from you,” Joshua said. “I am to be a bodhisattva to my people and I’m not sure how to go about it.”
“He’s the Messiah,” I said helpfully. “You know,
Messiah. You know,
Son of God
Son of God
,” Joshua said.
“Yeah,” I said.
“Yeah,” said Joshua.
“So what do you have for us?” I asked.
“And who are you?”
“Biff,” I said.
“My friend,” said Josh.
“Yeah, his friend,” said I.
“And what do you seek?”
“Actually, I’d like to not have to hang on to this cliff a lot longer, my fingers are going numb.”
“Yeah,” said Josh.
“Yeah,” said I.
“Find yourself a couple of nooks on the cliff. There are several empty. Yogis Ramata and Mahara recently moved on to their next rebirth.”
“If you know where we can find some food we would be grateful,” Joshua said. “It’s been a long time since we’ve eaten. And we have no money.”
“Time then for your first lesson, young Messiah. I am hungry as well. Bring me a grain of rice.”
Joshua and I climbed across the cliff until we found two nooks, tiny caves really, that were close to each other and not so far above the beach that falling out would kill us. Each of our nooks had been gouged out of the solid rock and was just wide enough to lie down in, tall enough to sit up in, and deep enough to keep the rain off if it was falling straight down. Once we were settled, I dug through my satchel until I found three old grains of rice that had worked their way into a seam. I put them in my bowl, then carried the bowl in my teeth as I made my way back to Melchior’s nook.
“I did not ask for a bowl,” said Melchior. Joshua had already skirted the cliff and was sitting next to the yogi with his feet dangling over the edge. There was a seagull in his lap.
“Presentation is half the meal,” I said, quoting something Joy had once said.
Melchior sniffed at the rice grains, then picked one up and held it between his bony fingertips.
“Yes, it is.”
“We can’t eat it raw.”
“Well, I would have served it up steaming with a grain of salt and a molecule of green onion if I’d known you wanted it that way.” (Yeah, we had molecules in those days. Back off.)
“Very well, this will have to do.” The holy man held the bowl with the
rice grains in his lap, then closed his eyes. His breathing began to slow, and after a moment he appeared not to be breathing at all.
Josh and I waited. And looked at each other. And Melchior didn’t move. His skeletal chest did not rise with breath. I was hungry and tired, but I waited. And the holy man didn’t move for almost an hour. Considering the recent nook vacancies on the cliff face, I was a little concerned that Melchior might have succumbed to some virulent yogi-killing epidemic.
“He dead?” I asked.
“No, he’s my teacher, a holy man. I’m not poking him.”
Joshua couldn’t resist the irony, he poked him. Instantly the yogi opened his eyes, pointed out to sea and screamed, “Look, a seagull!”
We looked. When we looked back the yogi was holding a full bowl of rice. “Here, go cook this.”
So began Joshua’s training to find what Melchior called the Divine Spark. The holy man was stern with me, but his patience with Joshua was infinite, and it was soon evident that by trying to be part of Joshua’s training I was actually holding him back. So on our third morning living in the cliff, I took a long satisfying whiz over the side (and is there anything so satisfying as whizzing from a high place?) then climbed to the beach and headed into the nearest town to look for a job. Even if Melchior could make a meal out of three grains of rice, I’d scraped all the stray grains out of both my and Joshua’s satchels. The yogi might be able to teach a guy to twist up and lick his own balls, but I couldn’t see that there was much nourishment in it.
The name of the town was Nicobar, and it was about twice the size of Sepphoris in my homeland, perhaps twenty thousand people, most of whom seemed to make their living from the sea, either as fishermen, traders, or shipbuilders. After inquiring at only a few places, I realized that for once it wasn’t my lack of skills that were keeping me from making a living, it was the caste system. It extended far deeper into the society than Rumi had told me. Subcastes of the larger four dictated that if you were born a stonecutter, your sons would be stonecutters, and their sons after them, and you were bound by your birth to never do any other job,
regardless of how good or bad you were at it. If you were born a mourner, or a magician, you would die a mourner or a magician, and the only way you’d get out of death or magic was to die and be reincarnated as something else. The one skill that didn’t seem to require belonging to a caste was village idiot, but the Hindus seemed to thrust the more eccentric holy men into this role, so I found no openings there. I did have my bowl, and my experience at collecting alms for the monastery, so I tried my hand at begging, but every time I would get a good corner staked out, along would hop some one-legged blind guy to steal my action. By the late afternoon I had one tiny copper coin and the steward of the beggars guild had come along to warn me that if he caught me begging in Nicobar again, he’d see that I was admitted to the guild by the immediate removal of my arms and legs.
I bought a handful of rice at the market and was skulking out of town, my bowl before me and my head down, like a good monk, when I saw before me a most delicate set of toes, painted vermilion and followed by a dainty foot, an elegant ankle ajangle with copper bangles, an inviting calf decorated with hennaed designs as intricate as lace, and from there a bright skirt led me up the seam to a bejeweled navel, full breasts haltered in yellow silk, lips like plums, a nose as long and straight as a Roman statue’s, and wide brown eyes, shaded in blue and lined to make them look the size of a tiger’s. They drank me in.
“You’re a stranger,” she said. One long finger on my chest stopped me on the spot. I tried to hide my rice bowl in my shirt, and in a fabulous display of sleight of hand, ended up spilling the grains down my front.
“I’m from Galilee. In Israel.”
“Never heard of it. Is it far?” She reached into my shirt and began to pick out the rice grains that had caught against my sash, running her fingernail along my stomach muscles and dropping the grains, one by one, into my bowl.
“Very far. I’ve come here with my friend to obtain sacred and ancient knowledge, that kind of thing.”
“What is your name?”
“Biff—or Levi who is called Biff. We do that ‘who is called’ thing a lot in Israel.”
“Follow me, Biff, I’ll show you some ancient and sacred knowledge.”
She hooked her finger into my sash and walked into a nearby doorway, for some reason completely confident that I would follow.
Inside, amid piles of colorful pillows strewn about the floors and deep carpets the likes of which I hadn’t seen since Balthasar’s fortress, stood a carved camphorwood stand on which a large codex lay open. The book was bound in brass filigreed with copper and silver, and the pages were made of a parchment finer than I had ever seen.
The woman pushed me toward the book and left her hand on my back as I looked at the open page. The handwritten script was gilded and so ornate that I could barely make out the words, which didn’t matter anyway, because it was the illustration that caught my eye. A man and a woman, nude, each perfect. The man had the woman facedown on a rug, her feet hooked over his shoulders, her arms held behind her as he entered her. I tried to call on my Buddhist training and discipline to keep from embarrassing myself in front of the strange woman.
“Ancient sacred wisdom,” she said. “The book was a gift from a patron. The Kama Sutra, it’s called. Thread of Desire.”
“The Buddha said that desire is the source of all suffering,” I said, feeling like the kung fu master that I knew I was.
“Do they look like they are suffering?”
“No.” I began to tremble. I had been too long out of the company of women. Far too long.
“Would you like to try that? That suffering. With me?”
“Yes,” I said. All the training, all the discipline, all the control, gone in a word.
“Do you have twenty rupees?”
“Then suffer,” she said, and she stepped away.
“See, I told you.”
Then she walked away, trailing the scent of sandalwood and roses behind her as she went to the door, her hips waving good-bye to me all the way across the room, the bangles on her arms and ankles ringing like tiny temple bells calling me to worship at her secret grotto. At the door she crooked a finger for me to follow her out, and I did.
“My name is Kashmir,” she said. “Come back. I’ll teach you ancient and sacred knowledge. One page at time. Twenty rupees each.”
I took my stupid, pathetic, useless grains of rice and went back to my holy, stupid, useless, stupid male friends at the cliff.
“I brought some rice,” I said to Joshua when I had climbed to my nook in the cliff. “Melchior can do his rice thing and we’ll have enough for supper.”
Josh was sitting on the shelf of his nook, his legs folded into the lotus position, hands in the mudra of the compassionate Buddha. “Melchior is teaching the path to the Divine Spark,” Joshua said. “First you have to quiet the mind. That’s why there’s so much physical discipline, attention to breath, you have to be so completely in control that you can see past the illusion of your body.”
“And how is that different from what we did in the monastery?”
“It’s subtle, but it’s different. There the mind would ride the wave of action, you could meditate while on the exercise posts, shooting arrows, fighting. There was no goal because there was no place to be but in the moment. Here, the goal is to see beyond the moment, to the soul. I think I’m getting a glimpse. I’m learning the postures. Melchior says that an accomplished yogi can pass his entire body through a hoop the size of his head.”
“That’s great, Josh. Useful. Now let me tell you about this woman I met.” So I jumped over to Josh’s ledge and began to tell him about my day, the woman, the Kama Sutra, and my opinion that this just might be the sort of ancient spiritual information a young Messiah might need.
“Her name is Kashmir, which means soft and expensive.”
“But she’s a prostitute, Biff.”
“Prostitutes didn’t bother you when you were making me help you learn about sex.”
“They still don’t bother me, it’s just that you don’t have any money.”
“I got the feeling she likes me. I think maybe she’ll do me pro bono, if you know what I mean?” I elbowed him in the ribs and winked.
for the public good
. You forget your Latin? ‘Pro bono’ means ‘for the public good.’”
“Oh. I thought it meant something else. She’s not going to do me for that.”
“No, probably not,” said Josh.
So the next day, first thing, I made may way back to Nicobar, determined
to find a job, but by noon I found myself sitting on the street next to one of the blind, no-legged beggar kids. The street was packed with traders, haggling, making deals, exchanging cash for goods and services, and the kid was making a killing on the spare change. I was astounded at the amount in the kid’s bowl; there must have been enough for three Kama Sutra pages right there. Not that I would steal from a blind kid.