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.
“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