The Magic Mirror

 The Magic Mirror

by James L. Secor

 

I’ve come across the

magic mirror again, it’s

the same old story

you see what you want to see,

you hear what you want to hear

 

Steven was proud of himself. He had accomplished considerable, quickly passing all his tests to become the top student. It was good to be the greatest learner, the favored. So, he was not at all surprised when he was sent to undertake the comprehensive contemplative leg of his journey to knowledge and liberation. Appropriately wide-eyed and humble, Steven could not help but smile as he accepted the books and writing tablets from his master.

Yes! He thought to himself, I am on my way.

At his exultation at having reached this stage in his scholarship so soon, the climb up the mountain to retreat was not at all strenuous. He cruised along the narrow path, rushing past trees and bushes and vines with little to no hesitation. No thought was given to the skitterings of tiny animals or the twitterings of birds or the spider webs he tore through in his headlong rush to fulfillment. There would be time enough and then some to contemplate the sensual joys of the life around him when he had settled into his little hut. He had a year but assumed that it would take him less time to accomplish this task.

There is nothing to hold me back, he said to himself as he stood at the foot of the steps to his tabernacle.

The stoup was a temple-like affair snuggled up against the hillside and all but hidden by over-hanging branches from the ash and aspen and alder trees. Four tree-trunk columns marked the corners of the veranda, which ran around three sides of the hermitage. The low railing was missing a few posts yet refused to sag. To the right of the double doors stood a love-seat sized mourner’s bench worn smooth by prior sitters. There were no windows. The retreat was in shadow as the afternoon sun stood on the other side of the mountain. Steven was well-pleased, for this must be one of the grander cloister-houses that dotted the forested cordillera.

The old wooden stairs, worn from countless passing feet, creaked as Steven mounted them. The doors were, of course, not locked but they were swollen shut. He was forced to set his pack on the mourner’s bench and shoulder the warped panels open. A great musty sigh issued forth from the interior. The room was darker than he expected. It took awhile for his eyes to adjust. A table stood along the back wall, backed by a bench. At one end of the table, candles were piled. Steven set his bag on the table and lit a taper, holding it above his head to survey his new home. Along the right wall a sitting cushion lay bent and with stuffing protruding, wisps of it around the dusty floor. Next to the door, an old birch broom waited to go into service which it would need to before evening encroached much closer. Along the left wall stood the Hestia stupa, directly opposite the cushion. Its niche rose up to the ceiling, flaring out like a blossoming flower. Before it stood a large cauldron. Steven walked over to inspect it. Stones covered the bottom. Ashes covered the stones.

At the back corner was a narrow door. Beyond was a narrow room where Steven found a stone-recessed cook area, a small pot on a swing-arm suspended over it. Along a low table, various kitchen implements were neatly, if dustily arranged. In the farther corner, along the front wall, was a wooden bunk, the blankets tattered and, as would be expected, dusty. They would have to be aired out before settling down for the night.

Steven set the candle down on the low table and carried the bedding outside, shaking it out and draping it over the railing. He walked round the veranda to the right and found a small stack of wood and a small ax. Steven was astounded.

Surely, he said, they do not expect me to cut my own wood! I haven’t the slightest idea how to use a farmer’s implement.

Around to the other side were various pots and bowls and containers of one size or another. And it was then that it dawned on Steven that there was no water near-by. He would have to walk to the nearest river–and carry it back. How utterly rustic and uncivilized!

Steven sat on the mourner’s bench to mull over his present predicament. Whatever were they doing to him? Whatever did they expect of him? He as a scholar. A contemplative after liberation and supremacy. There was no reason for him to be reduced to such a state as this. Where had he gone wrong? He had done everything correctly. There was nothing for which he would be–could be so ill-used. There was not even a mirror in this place! How was he to maintain himself appropriately?

* * *

After several months of study and contemplation–and considerable loss of weight–Steven was sitting one day in rapt concentration of the Hestia stupa when he was interrupted by the chaotic chirping of a little bird. It flew into his refuge and perched precariously in the beams. And it would not remain quiet. An occasional tweet or cheep might not have been so ill-suited to the environment but this little creature lay about with ailing squeals spaced between thin, whistling pipings. Steven was necessarily quite annoyed at this. He had been progressing nicely when this cacophonous renting of the air disturbed him. He harrumphed and coughed and spluttered to himself, totally unable to reassert his previous contemplation. This fine feathered friend had no right to interrupt the exercises of so dedicated a man.

As this thought crossed his perturbed mind, Steven turned his scowl upward and, at the very moment, the bird dropped dead at his feet.

Steven was amazed. He sat bolt upright. This was a test! A sign along the road, for there were no such things as coincidences. Synchronicities, yes. Entanglements, yes. But unattended, disconnected coincidences? No. He had learned early on that there was a plan, an order to everything. Pre-destination was predestined only to be altered by free will, the next step, and the appropriate interpretation of events. This ability was, of course, part of his search for liberation and knowledge. This glance of power was telling him something. He would have to think on it–but not too long, else he’d lose the influx of energy.

Steven looked from the dead bird to the beam. From the beam to the dead bird at his feet. From the dead bird to the Hestia stupa, from whence his eyes rose to the top of the niche and, as it blossomed, the light blossomed in his soul. Astonishment and the greatest pleasure flooded over him. His little bothy became haunted with a suffused light as it dawned on him that he had to power to kill by some force or other within him. He had touched the core of life and death. It seemed to him that his body and mind, in a great unified field, exploded, flooding his little chancery with pointillist lights, each gleaming brighter than the sun, each assuaging his past privations.

I must indeed be great! bleated from his parched throat.

He rose, still embossed with his discovery of power and glory, and walked down the mountain and into the nearest town. It was time for another test.

The first house he came to was a rather elegant abode with colonnades and fluted roofing surrounded by colorful gardens. This would suit his purposes just fine, for the inhabitants must be of the upper class and unused to people of his ilk coming to their door, dirty and unkempt, with scraggly hair and beard. In truth, he did not know how he looked, so long had he been without a mirror to gaze into. But he had no comb nor had he fashioned one from wood or horn or bone, as many before him had done. He assumed, rightly, that he was a sight to behold, though he did believe that his new-found insight had somehow realigned the natural mountain ascetic appearance he had gained, a manifestation he had too often seen from those returning from their comprehensives, some broken, some not. The broken ones were pitiful to behold. Aside from their slovenly appearance, they were slobbering and crying in their desperate failure. Steven, of course, would surpass them when his time came.

He banged on the door. When it was opened, he spoke aloud for the first time in months. And, as with months of alcohol use, months of silence encrusted his larynx and his vociferation was strained and coarsened.

“Bring me some food. I am a liberated comprehensive contemplative.” He paused to catch his breath. Coughed. Continued, “Merit shall be yours for feeding freely those on this path to enlightenment.”

The woman regarded the beggar before her for a moment, not at all disturbed by his presence. She licked her lips.

“As soon as I can, reverend sage,” she said and shut the door in his face.

Yes! His plan was set in motion. Reward would be his, for her refusal would arouse his scowling approbation and all would be right with the world.

Steven waited a long time. And, of course, he became more and more agitated. Finally, as his impatience was about to overtake him, she returned with a small bowl of stew. Despite his mouth’s salivation, Steven was nonplussed.

“Consider yourself lucky that I do not direct upon you the withering gaze of a liberated sage. Ill-fortune can come through disobedience to our elect wishes.”

“Ill-fortune can come indeed, unless you are able to resist it through some experience that has come upon you.”

“How dare you answer me in such manner!” Steven spluttered. “What do you mean?”

“I am not a bird in a forest clearing.”

Steven was taken aback. He scowled hard at the woman, a common unenlightened person. He recoiled, for she continued to stand there looking down on him.

“My wrath is not harming you. . .”

“Nor does the wrath of my children harm me and they are wont to disobey at every turning. It is the way of things.”

“But,” gagged Steven, “I have done everything. I have obeyed my teacher. I attended all his lectures and did all the right exercises. My inner life was constantly expanded and I was chosen for comprehensive contemplation. I have studied and focused my energies and inner eye and touched great powers. . .” he trailed off in disbelief.

“Eat the stew, young nigh-saint, and return to your teacher. Leave the bowl on the stoop.”

The woman handed him the stew and shut the door.

So disconsolate and appalled was he that Steven did not bother to eat the stew. Nor did me leave the bowl on the step but immediately made his way back to his master’s anchorage. But Steven was not allowed to enter its precincts. His master took the bowl of stew and sent Steven away.

“Go to the capital city and find the scavenger Inkblot. You are only fit to study with him.”

What could Steven do? He had such reverence of his teacher that he could only do as he was bid, repugnant as it might seem. There must be meaning in this or it would not be happening.

So, off he went to find Inkblot.

He was not difficult to find. He was, however, difficult to approach. Inkblot stood, on the day Steven found him, at the foot of a mountain of garbage. He stank. He was covered with filthy rags, his skin darkened from sun and blackened by lack of soap and water. He sniveled and wiped it away with the back of his hand, wiping this on his rot-encrusted clothing. Steven recoiled, as if hit by a donkey’s kick.

Inkblot spit.

“What’s it to ya, Steven? Ya don’t look much better yourself.”

“I do not smell,” Steven squeaked.

“Nor do I. I been around myself so long, if you get my meaning.”

“I’m afraid I don’t–”

“What bird’re ya gonna kill today, Steven? Who’s gonna read your thoughts, Steven? When’re ya gonna get some other revolting duty, Steven?”

“How can you know this? You are just a scavenger!”

“I only look like a scavenger because that is the work that I do. It is inappropriate of me to wear a top hat and tails. Though I’d like to, it is true. I have felt such cloth and it is anodyne to the skin. But I’ve my duty to perform. I can’t be bothered with looking like something I’m not. No. I must concentrate on my duty. As you must yours. You are now the servant of the people and they will not show their thanks in any way, shape or form, for they do not like to think about their waste. If ya get my meaning.”

“I am not sure I can. . .do this. . .”

“Aye, I know. Make of it what you will.”

“I’m a scholar. A sage. A released contemplative!”

“So you say. I don’t see no one here telling you so, do you?”

“Who would want to be here?”

“Right you are, Steven old boy. Right you are.”

“I am not meant for this.”

“And why not?”

“I’m meant for something better.”

“And what is so bad about wiping the ass of mankind? You gotta wipe the ass of a babe to keep it from smelling so’s it can get on its business of growing up, don’t ya? It’s the duty of a good parent, Steven.” Inkblot pointed off to his left. “There’s a little kiack over there that’s yours. We go out scavenging tomorrow.”

“I’m not sure. . .”

“People know me for what I do, not what I pretend to be. The only mirror I got is that of a dutiful man.”

“But I don’t want to be a scavenger! I want to be a sage.”

“Scavenger. Sage. What’s the difference? Both require knowledge and you don’t get none of that unless you do your job. Learn your duty, boy.”

“I don’t want to be a scavenger!”

“You ain’t got no choice, boy! Besides,” Inkblot continued in a more calm voice, “what is it you think scholars and sages and whatnot do but scavenge through mankind’s outpourings?” He wiped his nose, sniffed. “Go on over to your cuddy and rest. I’ll see what I can get ya to eat.”

“I feel a little nauseous. . .”

“Get over it. You got a duty to do.”

“I might destroy my reputation.”

“What reputation have you got to lose?”

“I shall never rise above this, I fear.”

“Yeast makes the bread rise. That’s its job. You can’t talk bread into rising.”

“What are you talking about?”

Inkblot squatted on his haunches, ran his hand through his hair, scratched his head. He did not look up as he spoke.

“There was a man once who knew something. Granted, it was nothing new. But he knew it. Many people did not appreciate what he knew, only seeing the not-newness of it all. They could hear the words but they could not understand the language. But, never mind. There were always a few who heard.

“There was also a man who believed he was a scholar and academician. He had a title and some position. He criticized this other man no end. In fact, he ran this other man out of town, you might say. The scholar and academician could say those things he said just as well. And he was proud of himself, this scholar and academician. He was real interested in himself, y’see. People like this cannot see the Day of Calamity. Indeed, they cannot even see opportunity when it comes knocking on their door with a calling card on a silver platter that says, ‘Opportunity Knocking.’ So he did not know the difference between knowledge and a polished mirror. Like a giraffe, he took the glitzy thing. You could say he ate the tray and let the calling card fall to the ground. Calling cards are, after all, nothing new. Just pieces of paper, eh?

“This other man, the man who knew something that was not new, he became a beggar, a junk dealer, a scavenger. No one pays him any mind. But if he does not do his work, everyone knows it.”

The scavenger looked up at the nigh-saint.

“And the scholar?”

“You see? You hear the words but know not the language.” The scavenger stood up. “The scholar is sitting in his chair contemplating his navel and wondering again and again how clean he has made it. Now, go on over to your hovel and I’ll bring you what I got so you don’t starve to death.”

 

for Si Tang, Jan 2010

(c) James L. Secor, 2010

 

Advertisements

The Old Witch

 The Old Witch

by James L. Secor

The old witch lived in the inn at the edge of town. It was an old inn, run-down and nobody stopped there any more. She was an old lady, bent and crabbed with arthritis. There was a woman who went once or twice a day with food but she left it on the veranda. She would not venture inside. She had, one day, when curiosity got the better of her, looked in at one of the open windows. Most of the windows were shuttered. She saw, in the place of honor, a little bell with an oblong mirror behind it along with the little pine branches on either side. The name of the little tablet she could not read. Anshin she thought it said, “easy,” “relief,” “safe.” Or maybe it was anji, something suggestive. She saw the old woman sitting before the relics, the bell and mirror and pine branches. But she could not see the reflection in the mirror. The glass was too small and cloudy and, of course, too far away. She saw the old witch rise, so she ran down the path as fast as she could, only pausing to look back at the gate to be sure she was not pursued. But she talked a good story when she got back to town. It was a small town so word got around. In one form or another.

It was rumored it was best to be far away from this old witch. This old woman. It was rumored there was something disrespectful about her past and that is why she lived alone with no friends and no visitors.

No travellers bothered with her hostel, it was so unkempt. Indeed, the front gate looked to be falling down at any moment. The weeds in the garden had choked out the flowers and any trees that had grown there had been shorn of their leaves by the strangling vines that hung limply from the bare branches. It was indeed a desolate inn. Only the path remained clear and passable. No one thought this was strange but perhaps they should have.

The cracked and grained wood had lost its vitality and was pitted, water-rotted, almost black. The shutters, pulled all around but for the one window, were warped and falling in on themselves. But it was at the front doorstep that the food was left, a great slab of stone worn down from the feet of long ago travellers.

The tatami mat flooring showed weeds poking through in places. It was worn colorless where the old witch sat. A path led from the entranceway to the sitting place and from thence into the dark depths. The old witch dragged her heels when she walked.

One day, after years and years of silence and teasing stone-throwing by the neighborhood boys and girls, a traveler stopped at her inn. No one saw him go in but the next morning when the woman brought the old witch a morning meal, there was a memento attached to the falling down gatepost. It was red but had no temple’s name written on it. It was blank but for a little dragon crawling beneath a bell.

From that day forth, the old witch never touched her food and so people assumed she died. Because after awhile, the lady who brought the food stopped bringing it. If the old hag wasn’t going to eat it, it was a waste. There were others who could use it. No one visited her decrepit old abode to find out if there was a body there or not. No one was that crazy or brave. They just let the house rot and fall in on itself and the weeds grow over it.

Oddly enough, out of the mess beautiful flowers grew and, some years later, it became fashionable for lovers to traverse the path and pick a flower for their loved one. Never more than one flower was picked. The lovers always had happy fulfilling lives, so a truth was established.

One day, a traveler came to my house and though he could not pay for his keep, he said he had a story to tell. A strange story of love and deception. It was, indeed, worth his night’s stay. I thanked him and pondered on the tale afterwards.  . .

He came to an old inn one night. It was a new moon. The place looked very tumble-down but he nevertheless took himself to the font door. He opened the door with some difficulty–it stuck in its trough. He entered and shut it behind him. In the musky blackness he shouted out for the master. “Hello? Is anybody here?” There was no answer, so he moved further into the large room, stopping at the first set of sliding doors. “Hello? I’ve come for a room.” Pause. “It’s a desolate night.” No answer. Just as he turned to leave, he heard the shuffle of steps somewhere in the darkness beyond the doors. He spoke again, “I’ve come for a place to stay the night. Can you put me up?” A pale lamp and a face floated up before him. The shuffling stopped. The silence carried on. She stepped aside and let him enter. She moved ahead of him, then raised a hand to have him wait. She shuffled out of the room and returned with a second small lamp. She indicated that he should follow her. He did. Keeping close so as not to become separated and lost in the blackness. The rooms smelled unkempt, dirty. The meager light showed up walls wrinkled and wasted like old men. Perhaps they would fall in on him as they groaned into the night.

The old woman led him to a small room to one side of the house and indicated he should sit. The tatami felt damp. The table was dusty. She did not bother to clean it off. He looked up. She had disappeared. Outside the tiny circle of his little lamp reigned darkness and the sounds of the house trying to maintain itself. He took out a cloth and dusted the table. She appeared out of nowhere with food and set it down on the table. With a swift, jerked movement, she bid him eat. She stood to one side, holding her lamp, waiting for him to finish. When he finished, she took the tray away. He was finishing his tea when she returned and spread out his bedding. Then she left him to himself.

Not once did she speak. His lamp went out and he was lost in the oppressive darkness and creakiness. Dank and musty smelling and a little cold, he shivered and climbed into the bedding. Cold and dampish. Soon, though, it warmed and he fell asleep. He dreamed. . .

“Strange dream. Strange. . .even now as I’m telling you I’m not sure whether it happened or truly was a dream. It seemed that she came into the room about midnight and sat down at the head of my bed. She had her little lamp with her and was haloed at the edge of its yellow waxy glow. The apparition spoke: ‘I have a story to tell you.’ I looked up at her and suddenly the air about her began to glow and shine. An ellipse of brightness that cast no aura. She was a mess. Her clothes rotting from her frame, her hair falling about her shoulders like a ghost’s, her hands hoary with arthritis as they lay silent and polite in her thin lap. There was not much life left in her. The light seemed to pass through her making her appear diaphanous. ‘It’s late and I’m tired,’ I said. ‘Yes. It is late. Too late for me. I must tell you my story. You must hear me out.’ I nodded. She smiled a toothless smile without mirth or sadness, just an open widening of the thin lips. She licked her lips.

“‘This was also not a time when the clergy were as attentive to their vows as they are now. One day, one of them stopped by on his travels. I could hear his voice from within. I stopped my sewing and went to have a peek at who could have such an enchanting, warm voice. Rich and mellow and coming out of the depths of a body like a spring from the mountains. He was beautiful. If a man may be beautiful. A marvelously handsome man. I wanted him right away. I had never had a man before but I knew what the feelings that rose up in me were. I felt all wet and warm and perhaps a little dizzy and a pressure grew in me that fairly choked me. I went back to my sewing but was not at all concentrating on it–I stuck myself several times with the needle. Little pinpoints of blood stood out on my fingers. So I put my sewing down and went again to look at the lay monk. He was gone. I had expected him to stay the night. Most did. I was taken by some kind of hysteria. I immediately left the house and ran after him. My parents called after me but I did not answer. I could not answer. I felt my heart, my soul was leaving me behind and I had to catch up to it before I died. I ran and I ran but did not find him. I asked some travellers along the road. They said, yes, they had seen such a man, a monk, and that he had gone down the leftward road. I ran on. It is not easy running in long skirts. I felt they were breaking my legs. They were getting caught up and I could not abide them. I tried pulling them up and running but that was no good. They tripped me from behind. My clothing became quite dishabille and began to fall away as I gained speed. This urgency overrode my senses. My hairpins fell out, leaving a trail behind me. My hair flew about my face and stood out behind me in a wildly undulating wake. I ran into other travellers. They laughed at my appearance. Others pulled away, shocked and frightened–I must have looked a sight! Women simply did not run about as I was doing, hair falling all about their shoulders, clothing in disarray, where it still clung to my body. They, too, told me the monk had passed along this way. He had gone to the river. I grunted and flew on. And my legs began to feel very heavy. Great massive tree trunks. I was panting and my face was stretched taut with my straining. There! I could see him at the ferry. I called to him: Wait! I yelled: You cannot leave me! He looked up. He looked at me as if I were a demon. Fear contorted his face. Quick, he shouted to the ferryman, get me across the river before that demon catches me. For, you see, I had turned into a great dragon. My hair tangled in a mass round my head. My face pinched and pointed with bulging fiery eyes. There were nubs, like little horns, growing out of my head. Out of my mouth grew fangs and I lathered, my tongue snaking out over my lips. But I only learned of this later, on my return journey, when people told me of the vicious beast they’d seen pursuing a hapless young monk. At the time, I could not understand why he would look at me with such loathing, run from a woman as beautiful as I was–and I was beautiful. I was held to be the most beautiful for several counties. And he was running from that exquisite beauty! Why? I knew monks were not chaste. It was a well-known fact. They often strayed. Stray with me! I want some of your holiness! Some of his holy love. It had to be holy coming from a man so beautiful himself.’

“Here, she, the old lady glowing at my bedside, sighed. The sound was the exhaling of steam.

“‘I continued on. There was nothing for me to do but go on. Nothing to my existence but having this man. I accosted another ferryman but he ran away and jumped into his own boat screaming obscenities at me. Did he think I would eat him when I was hungry for another? He rowed like mad out into the middle of the river. I was left standing on the bank ranting and raging after my love. He was my love, you know. I had to have him. My love. My soul. My body cried out for him. My heart was no longer mine. Who was I? I was enflamed. I jumped into the river and swam. But my body weighed me down. I felt long and old and worn out. I looked back and saw my dragon tail, my dragon scales. And my tail seemed to grow as I swam. Only, I wasn’t swimming. I was undulating through the water. When I reached the other side, I ran on along the road. An unbearable chore. I grew slower and slower, heavier and heavier. I could hear him screaming ahead of me. Then I could see him screaming at a robed man, screaming and pointing down the road at me. I heard, later, that I was a great cloud of dust and fire that bellowed along. Everyone took flight, not even closing the gates to the temple compound. I plunged through the gateway into the barren courtyard. No one. There! On the bell tower! The bell was off its perch. It sat on the wooden flooring. They thought they were so clever–hiding him under a great bronze bell. This temple, Dojo, was known for its bell. It rang out over the hills when it was struck. But now it was impotent. I wound myself around the bell, squeezing tightly. I squeezed until I fused my body with the bronze behemoth. My energy turned me red and I heated up. Smoke rose round me. Heavy waves rose from my body. It was all I could do to hold him tight. Hold him to me. So I passed the night wound round the bell, holding his love. Keeping the silence. Just at sunrise I left and returned here. I have been here ever since.’ She licked her lips, relishing the memory maybe? ‘When the monks saw that the mighty dragon had gone, they tried to move the bell but it was too hot. Still glowing. They burned themselves for their humanitarian efforts. They threw water on it and waited until late in the afternoon. Then, as dusk began to descend, they raised the bell and. . . the monk had been fried. He was a pile of ashes. I had burned him up with my passion.’

“Her eyes looked down at me. They penetrated right into my body.

“‘You looked so like him. . .so I told you. I could not help myself. I had to say this. I am not a bad woman.’

“She got up and walked out of the room, leaving me in hazy, grey blackness. I’m not sure if I slept the rest of the night. When I rose the next morning, she was nowhere around. The sunlight somehow penetrated the dreary insides of the inn and there, to one side in the main room, I saw the little bell and mirror and the pine branches. I stopped. Took a deep breath. What was it had happened that night?”

It has been years now since the man told me this story.

I had once picked a flower in that old, overgrown garden but my love had not been so obsessive, so possessive, so overwhelmingly consuming. We had a good life, not the disaster that befell such an extreme woman.

(c) 2014, James L. Secor