A friend Jason, who runs the Howlarium, asks interesting questions and curates responses from writers out on the net.
This month’s question is:
“The Tibetans don’t encourage meditating right away, actually. They insist that you know something. They say Listen, if you go meditate right away as an ignorant person, you will deepen your ignorance […] a kind of quietism that a lot of […] people get into where—they find the world jangly and bothersome, and then they withdraw into a place where they don’t have to think about it. It’s like a wonderful kind of Prozac. […] there’s no compassion in it. It’s a kind of narcissistic thing, actually. Great danger in meditation. […]
“Your writing is a kind of meditation.” –Dr. Robert Thurman, first American ordained a Tibetan Buddhist monk
In the West, meditation tends to be thought of as an act of personal wellness, and some of us might view writing the same way.
Q: If you meditate and/or write (either one) to keep yourself well and sane, how can compassion for someone else play a role in that? Does it need to?
If so, how? If not, why not?”
These stories are part of my answer.
Petrov walked into the room and looked around. Well set out if unpretentious. A close inspection showed the beginning of wear on the upholstery. Old photos of peasants in the fields or uninspired watercolours hung on the walls . The fragrance of baking in another part of the house made him hope his host would see fit to offer something to eat.
The thought of his host made him shiver. The man was a hero of the war. Of several wars if the truth were to be told. Yet he lived alone on this estate far from the city. The mother country had come through some hard times, but now as things began to turn around, they could use someone of Dimishky’s stature to show the Revolution moved forward under the new generation of leaders.
It was a great privilege for Petrov to be here, even if his mission was to beg for the old man to come to Moscow to allow his name to be used in the service of the Soviet.
Petrov examined for perhaps the third time the photos of the peasants. The old men and women posed stiffly and stared at the camera with a fatalism belying the idea they formed the foundation of the revolution. How could such a lethargic people have risen to overthrow the Imperialist regime?
The door behind him creaked, and Petrov turned slowly and nodded politely at the old man. One didn’t get as far as he had in the service of the Soviet without learning to school oneself.
The old man led in an equally old woman who carried a tray with the hoped for baking as well as an rough tea service. She placed the tray on the table and left.
“Please sit,” Dimishkysaid, “I regret keeping you waiting, but I had some business to complete.”
What urgent business urgent could he find here? It didn’t matter. Petrov sat at the table and waited for Dimishky to join him.
“I suppose you are here to impress on me the need the Soviet has for my face and my name.” Dimishky poured tea into Petrov’s chipped cup.
The astringent odour made Petrov almost wrinkle his nose. He didn’t usually add anything to his tea, but he sweetened this brew and added cream too. He tried to ignore the sneer on the older man’s face. Still, the old man pushed a plate of biscuits over and he helped himself. It melted in his mouth; as sweet as the tea was bitter.
“I’ve no interest in shoring up the political regime,” Dimishky said, “I am content here.” He waved his hand out the window. For all the hand was thin and spotted, Petrov suspected strength still lurked in it.
“The government has need of you.”
“You mean they need of a face and a name.” The old man drank his tea straight. Petrov shuddered. “They wish to hold up a monster from the past and suggest there is still some truth in their threats.”
“They are not to be trifled with,” Petrov said, “The secret police…”
“Oddly, for the secret police to be effective, everyone must know they exist.” Dimishky stood and put his cup down. “Come with me. We will walk. If you still wish me to come to Moscow after, I will give you my word I will go with you. Perhaps it is time.”
They walked out of the house. Though Dimishky hadn’t said anything , the old woman waited with a coat and hat for the old man. She gave Petrov a look of equal part pity and disdain.
Petrov hadn’t dressed for the weather, but he was used to the cold. They walked out of yard and down the road toward the village.
“The people who live here are the same kind people as the ones in those photos you admired so.” Dimishky’s rasp startled Petrov.
“You mean their descendants?”
“There are no descendants from those in the photographs.”
They reached the village and the people looked up at them, then let their eyes slide past as if Dimishky and Petrov were only visible for the slightest second.
“You see,” Dimishky said, “they are cattle. They know what I am and what I do. They could come to my house and kill me in my sleep. Yet they send their own to cook for me and serve my needs.” He spat on the road. Without breaking step the old man opened a gate and led Petrov to a small house. The yard was sprinkled with with colour, rocks had been painted bright colours and placed in the grey dirt. They walked in through the front door without knocking.
The smell of baking was here too. A young man sat with an older woman, probably his mother. He looked up and seemed to be about to speak, but the woman put her hand on his. She got up and looked at Dimishky with the same eyes as the people in the photographs. Dimishky turned and walked away, the woman following him. The young man’s hands shook, and to Petrov’s horror, tears streaked his face. Petrov left him and hurried after Dimishky.
He stayed back until they came to a black building on the edge of the village. The old woman followed Dimishky inside. Petrov hurried to catch up. The inside of the building was no warmer than the weather outside, yet Dimishky carefully took off his coat and shirt and placed them in a wardrobe. He took out a long black coat, stiff with dirt. The woman simply stood and looked at Petrov with fatalistic eyes.
Dimishky, once satisfied with his coat, pulled wire out of the coat’s pocket and tied it around the woman’s wrists. He looped it over a hook attached to a chain.
“Over there,” Dimishky said, “Ratchet the chain up tighter.” Petrov hesitated. “You can tell your superiors how you failed your assignment, if you wish.” Petrov turned the handle until the old woman’s arms stretched over her head. The woman never looked at him.
“Tell the important visitor what is going to happen.” Dimishky said to the woman.
“You are going to kill me, like you killed the others.”
“Why don’t you stop me?”
“You have guns. You could kill all of us. Maybe you will leave someday.”
“This man thinks I should go to Moscow and be an important person in their government.”
“Then people will die in Moscow like they die here.”
“You see,” Dimishky said, “Cattle. No imagination, no spark.” He pulled a knife from a hook on the wall. “You are fortunate that this important man from Moscow is in a hurry.” He casually reached out and cut the woman’s throat.
The rich smell of blood wasn’t something he hadn’t encountered before. People died. In his work, rather a lot of them died. Few died to as little purpose as this peasant woman. He bit down on any comment he might have made.
“Many people have died in our history,” Dimishky said, “and there is always a need for those who are willing to kill.” He wiped the knife on the coat and hung it back on its hook. “I confess I used to get more pleasure from it, but I am old and cannot work like I used to.” He went to a corner and broke the ice on a bucket of water to wash his hands.
“Will your superiors will appreciate my work?”
“I don’t think they care,” Petrov said.
Petrov looked at the corpse hanging from the ceiling and shrugged.
“If you don’t hurry, we will be late for the train.”
“The people here will bless you for taking me away.”
“And others will curse me for bringing you to them,” Petrov shrugged again. “Some kill, some die, it is of no matter.”
They walked out of the building and left the door swinging in the cold wind.
My children ran wild with anticipation. There were hordes of them. I stopped trying to count them. The desire to go on this outing would be enough to get even the most obstreperous on the bus. Whoever said children were angels hadn’t met my brood.
The last layer of necessities laid in my case and I closed it up. I didn’t need the bag, other than to set me apart from the others. I climbed the steps of the yellow bus and sat behind the driver. He sweated in the heat, or perhaps from nerves. He rolled his eyes like a steer being lead to slaughter. Whichever, he honked the horn quick enough when I tapped his shoulder.
The children screamed with excitement and ran toward the bus. They pushed and fought to get on, then continued their battle for the best seats. A grossly fat boy deliberately sat on a waif thin girl. His smug grin turned to a pained grimace, then panic. I allowed myself a smile. She must have found a tender part. The boy lumbered away. She sat up and wiped her mouth, then gave me a cheeky grin. Clever girl; I’d need to watch her.
An especially brave imp chose to claim the seat beside me. There was one on every trip who foolishly thought to claim a part of my space. The others watched to see what I’d do, so I smiled and patted him on the head. He made the mistake of looking at me. They all do. His grin faded, then the rest of him until I sat alone again.
The level of chaos on the bus dropped far enough, I tapped the driver on the shoulder again. He closed the door and shifted the bus into gear. The wailing of those left behind came faintly through the glass.
The children always wanted to know how far, though they never dared ask. The truth? I couldn’t answer. Far didn’t have any meaning here, neither did long. The ride felt like an eternity because crossed a piece of eternity.
Yet not quite eternal. I felt the sudden heady pull of time. We’d arrived. The driver lasted long enough to put the bus into park before entropy took over and he fell to pieces. The children poured off the bus into the light of the created world. Some of them couldn’t hold themselves together in the time stream and vanished. Most managed to adapt and spread out into the world to explore and play.
The mortals surrounding us were unaware of our arrival. A couple of the more sensitive wrinkled their nose at what might have been a smell of death. Even if they could see us, they wouldn’t believe. We’ve been relegated to the status of fairy tales and a certain class of fiction. Fights broke out between mortal children who’d been playing peacefully. My children were quick learners.
I looked around the park and spotted the person I wanted. They were always there; torturing themselves with their temptations. His desire oozed from his pores. I sat beside him and soaked it all in. The furtive looks, the aborted searches on the web, the fear someone like him might find his own children, the envy of the ones who dared to act on their desires. I left him staring avidly at a little blond child who played in the sand while two bigger children threw sand and punches at each other.
While the man clenched and unclenched his fists fighting his desire and fear, I sauntered over to a woman eating an ice cream as she watched the children play. I stood beside her and watched too. My children had thinned out. Causing strife was easy, but once done, it was done. No real sustenance to it. A punch, a few tears and it faded away. The ones who didn’t learn quickly faded away and discovered the trip back much shorter than the journey here.
The real food lay in the struggle to choose between desire and restraint. The woman beside me frowned as one child, larger than the others, struggled to keep up. I glimpsed her view of herself in the mirror. She buried deep her loathing for all her perceived imperfections; a wrinkle here, a bulge there. Even the ice cream she ate tasted of both guilt and vanilla. The woman wanted to throw the cone away, but feared wasting food more than eating. The turmoil was delicious.
A disturbance on the other side of the playground caught my attention. A tall thin woman berated the man who’d been watching the little girl. Waves of self-righteousness washed over me from where I stood. The ice cream woman gathered her children and took them away. Her internal struggle over the sweet forgotten in fear for her children.
The waif from the bus stood to the side of the arguing pair. She saw me watching and shrugged, then went back to her feast. More subtle than the others, but still with a lot to learn. The shouting match drew in others and sound of sirens approached. There’d be plenty of drama, but it would vanish as quickly as it built.
I walked away from the park. The tiny blond girl followed me.
“Why do you do it?”
“You know why,” I wanted to be anywhere but here, talking about this. She was new, probably on her first trip.
“I know what they tell us.”
“It sustains us,” I said.
“You don’t need it,” she said, “The light would sustain you.”
“The light!” I choked on the word. For a moment I felt the cloying light which permeated everything, the pull to let it in, and the fear of what it would reveal.
She shook her head sadly.
“It would set you free,” she said. She reached out a hand as if she were going to actually touch me, but stopped. The last thing I saw were the tears running down her face.
The familiar darkness and fire surrounded me. Others surrounded me sensing weakness. I growled and disemboweled one while I tore out the throat of another. The rest backed away, this time.
The girl was right, the light would set me free, after opening all the shadowed depths of my being and cleansing it of the envy and pride. The mortals think hell is fire and brimstone, but is is worse.
Hell is knowing what I could be, and what I have chosen to become.