The holy man, chapter 1
I don’t know where I come from, who I am, or my name. I don’t suppose it matters, nobody ever asks. Wherever I go I seem to draw out the gawping flocks. I don’t know how they find me, I suppose that the crows and vultures do the spotting, and then some others like the parrots and miner birds call the rest. Some just seem to turn up, like the pigeons and sparrows, as though they are worried that they are missing out on something good. They just chatter and shriek or worse yet watch in some sinister silence. I hear that in a faraway land savages invented something called a guillotine, a heavy blade that they decapitate people with; I have also been told that this is a type of entertainment, of justice, as though a person without a head can repent. In that silence, I see the birds waiting for the blade to fall, for some horror to entertain them. Who knows what makes me such a spectacle. No one ever recognises me in the crowds, why should my desolation be a draw?
Still they come, they watch and gawp and beg, entreating favours from a creature with nothing. They ask me things, they ask me to tell them secrets about themselves and give them advice about their lives. They ask me about other worlds, they ask me about gods and about death, as though anything living can answer. They ask me about their families and relationships and beg help and advice. I do this, I tell them, I help them. I know how good a life can be and how every moment can be a joy, but how do I know? All I know about myself is that I hate the birds and I hate the forest.
I think I am also looking for something, why else would I keep moving around? I am unable to stay still. I think if I ignored this feeling then my feet would move on their own, dragging me to who knows where.
Sometimes I try and remember, my birthplace, my mother, my name. Mostly I try and remember what it is I am looking for, or perhaps what I am running from. Not to know is torture but the result is always the same, my mind goes in circles. My thoughts repeat, reverberate and echo in my head until they sound like a thousand chattering and shrieking birds. The din gets so loud that I fall to the ground, clutching my head and covering my ears. When I wake up I am in that same position, every single time. I have to know. I feel that to find whatever it is I seek is the only way I can become human, a man, a creature with memories, a home and a centre. I must have been one once; I remember nothing to suggest an alternative scenario. At least that is a reason to hope. I am not an animal; I am too human shaped for that. I am no god and I don’t believe I am a bird in disguise. I seem to recall that birds can fly. My own bare feet never leave the ground.
I look at my own body; my beard is closest, its thick wiry hairs are a faded grey, coated in dust and a bit of dry mud. A handful of little sparrows dyed it for me a few villages back, so the last four inches are henna red. The rest of my body is thin and wasted but faint echoes of muscle pull the skin taught. I am dressed only in my habitual loin cloth; my skin has been darkened by the sun over many years because of it. My back and arms would be darker still, if I was not covered all over with the same pale dust as my beard. I imagine my face is dusty too, it would be strange if It was not, as I am in a desert full of fine pale sand.
The type of desert with rocks and small spiky shrubs sparsely littered with hardy trees and small huts. The huts probably belong to the brick makers of the area, whose kilns and stacks of merchandise can be seen periodically along the roads.I came here from a holy desert city built around a deep blue lake, one of many that a god made from a flower. I was glad to leave that place with its hundreds of holy men, searching only for their next donation. I walked so fast and so far without water that, as soon as I made it to the outskirts of a farming area, I nearly drowned myself in a camel trough in an attempt to drink. After that I crawled under the nearest tree to the sound of women’s laughter and fell asleep.
In my dream a soft little lamb with golden eyes nuzzled and licked my skin. Wherever it touched me my darkened, dusty skin fell away and a strong body, made of solid gold was revealed. When I woke up I felt so lonely and desolate that I started to weep softly. After a few moments, I forgot why I was crying. What had I felt that a few seconds before had been so all encompassing?
In my half dreaming state I take in my new setting for the first time. It is evening and the sun’s light is a soft glow. I lie on the dry dirt, the gods walk by my head. They are enjoying the farmland that is their chosen playground for now. One of them calls out to his friend and they survey their kingdom together. Beautiful girls garbed in gleaming robes wait on them. Neither gods nor girls look at me, why should they? I am below them; my suffering exists only to highlight their contented splendour. My hollow stomach growls with the first pangs of hunger but I know, if I seek to fill it, the birds will find me and my solitude will be lost.
I sigh and pull myself up into a sitting position, closer to the trunk of the banyan tree I have been resting under. It is cool here under its dark green leaves and there is a well nearby, at intervals the girls are using it, but they are very still. One of them, the furthest from me begins to sing with a sweet voice and occasionally another will join in as they work. They sing a folk song, one I think that I have heard before, sung by another. The tranquillity of the scene is beginning to calm me and I decide to centre myself in mediation for a few minutes. I will gather my strength here before facing the nearby town.
I slip into a world of golden light; I see a strong and contented man in a garden before me, he is tall and broad chested, his face is smiling and not yet lined with age, his clothes have been carefully maintained but traces of wear can be seen if you look closely. With him is a beautiful woman, young, with long black hair that falls freely to her hips, she has on a new yellow cotton sari and no jewellery or adornment except that which denotes her status as a married woman. The man and woman are playing a made-up ball game with their child, their first and only; a smiling boy with curious golden eyes.
In this strange golden world the boy’s eyes sparkle as though they were made of a substance more precious than anything that could be found on earth, and indeed they are. All the joy of the parents exists in those eyes and is reflected back at them in their sparkling light. I feel their joy and pride keenly. When they were married the couple had hoped for a large family but they do not bemoan the gods for granting them only one. Instead they are grateful that they have been sent a child with such a joyful nature, whose intelligence kindness and even appearance is a blessing to them. They will never have any more children, but along with their love for each other their family is complete.
My eye drifts to the face of the mother; she is perhaps nineteen though the boy is four. Her face, with its large light brown eyes, is fair and joyful and her smile is contagious. Her husband sneaks glances at her face, his devotion apparent, he is perhaps ten years older than she is and though their marriage was arranged, for them it was love at first sight. My eyes gaze longingly at her own; I begin to take in her eyebrows, her nose and her mouth. Suddenly the scene turns to blackness. I hear a scream, my own. My chest feels like it is ripped open and my body is numb with shock. I am confronted now by her face, I see her same shapely mouth, but her lips are blue. Her purple tongue protrudes between them. Her eyes bulge out of their sockets, dead to the world, around her neck a noose. She is hanging from the high bedposts, her hands fixed in death at her throat. Red fingernail marks run down her neck, she had been clawing at the noose.
I wake with a start. I am still sitting under the tree. There are hundreds of birds perched around me. They stare in silence; the intensity of all those eyes upon me is chilling. Upon seeing my eyes open they begin to chatter and shriek. The noise is unbearable. I look at myself; my skin has turned to leather and clings to my bones. My beard is perhaps an inch longer. ‘You have been meditating here for two weeks’ says a parakeet at my feet, ‘you are like the Buddha’. My horror is subsiding, replaced by anger. Bread and milk is placed at in front of me. There are marigolds and small pink roses on the bread. It is an offering. I am starved and angry. I gulp down the milk and shove the bread into my mouth, flowers and all. I stand and try to walk away, taking care to tread on as many of the birds as I can. Immediately I wish I hadn’t as my stomach constricts and I double up in pain. I start to fall but someone takes my arm and supports me. I look up and see the large black eyes of an owl, ‘come with me.’ he instructs.