Contemporary Fiction

This story contains themes or mentions of physical violence, gore, or abuse.

“What do you think, monks? Which is greater, the blood you have shed from having your heads cut off while transmigrating & wandering this long, long time, or the water in the four great oceans?” - Timsa Sutta

A gong rang. Bodies slid against saffron fabric as the monks lining the perimeter of the meditation room began to rise. They straightened cushions and folded blankets before turning to face the center of the room with squared shoulders. Yeshua was seated at the end of the row in the furthest corner from the door. He inhaled, taking in earthy notes of patchouli from a freshly lit stick of incense. He exhaled, his shoulders pulling against his spine which was erect upon his cushion, but unsteady, like a submerged pillar upon a shifting sand bed. Yeshua’s knees ached in their lotus position so he rocked left, then right, preparing them to uncross and bear his weight. 

He stood and turned, the last one in the meditation room to do so. Silence settled for a beat before the gong rang again, and the instant the bamboo mallet rebounded from the bronze bowl the room swelled with a chorused chant: “Sentient beings are numberless, I vow to free them…” At the center of the room the master stood in quiet repose with closed eyes, like a large, branching oak which had long ago dropped its leaves and no longer swayed in the wind. Once the chanting finished, palms pressed together. Heads bowed. The master exited the room and walked toward the courtyard to give a talk. Yeshua turned and exited in unison with his fellow monks. 

Outside, night draped like a satin curtain over muted pink and white cherry blossom trees. The courtyard pathway was pillowed at the edges with soft grass, and lined with evenly spaced torches which illuminated the monks’ faces as they sauntered toward the lawn in neat rows. They halted, facing an aged wooden deck where a large statue of the Buddha was adorned with burning incense and colorful garlands. The master sat upon the deck, his back facing the monks, and prostrated before the Buddha. The monks prostrated in turn. Maintaining his silence, the master sat upright. Cicadas buzzed. Cherry blossoms powdered the monks as incense smoke wafted away and up into the night.

"In the Timsa Sutta, the Buddha speaks to a group of monks, enlightening them through knowledge of the nature of suffering," the master began.

Yeshua tried to listen the same way he tried to meditate. Anchored, immediate, rapt. Though as he listened to his master expound, Yeshua became frustrated. He already knew the nature of suffering. Suffering was a muscle clenched in his back after hours of interminable sitting. Suffering was showering every morning in frigid water, mopping an outhouse that smelled of shit and piss, then chewing rice and vegetables like rubber and swallowing them like rocks each afternoon. Suffering was struggling to recognize the man with buzzed hair and shaved eyebrows staring up at him from a bucket of dirty mop water. It was the slack-jawed dullness in his mother’s eyes when she passed in her hospital bed; his father, shrinking as he gripped his yamaka with a quivering look that said not you too when Yeshua left to join the monastery. 

“Suffering is with us, always,” the master rang out. 

His talk ended shortly afterward. Yeshua and the monks chanted once more, prostrated, stood, and shuffled back to their huts to sleep. Laid flat upon his cot, peering through gaps in the thatched roof of his own hut, Yeshua stared at the stars. They always disappeared when looked at directly, only revealing themselves to a slanted gaze. That, too, was suffering. He closed his eyes, patchouli still clogging his nostrils, cicadas rattling between his ears. Yeshua thought of incense smoke as he lifted, drifted, pressed through the gaps, floating along with the cool breeze.

A hawk cried. Yeshua inhaled and exhaled, his chest heaving in the stench of fresh feces. His eyes darted left, then right, then left again, and in the distance across an open meadow he eyed a glade of tall grass. Overshadowed by broad oaks, serrated blades of grass leaned together at its entrance like a guarded arch. His wet nose quivered and twitched, his whiskers shifted like clockwork, and his hind legs kicked out as he scurried across the sun-drenched meadow toward the protective glade. His hairless tail slithered behind him, hidden by the bits of grass and dust kicked up in his wake. He could measure his distance in skittering heartbeats — one, three, five, ten — he’d reach it at fifteen! 

At fourteen, a shadow that didn’t belong to the oaks crushed into Yeshua like a javelin. Talons pierced his side so that blood trickled down his furred belly and beaded off the sharp tip of his tail as he was lifted up, up, toward a sky perforated by the beating of great brown-feathered wings. He squealed until he could no longer breathe. The glade shrunk beneath him, enclosed by a dark ring which pressed further and further in until it was only a single speck of light. Yeshua’s eyes closed, but the light remained. He tumbled toward it, and it grew broader and rounder and began to shimmer until it was so bright he thought his eyes were burning away.

Waves crashed as Yeshua burst through the surface of the ocean. For a moment, he was as weightless in the air as he was beneath the sea. Above him, clouds trailed across the sky like fresh burn marks on skin, bright white and grey-centered. Below him chopped a pool of blue and gold and white seawater, briny foam cast over it like a net. He inhaled, filling his empty lungs with gallons of air before slapping back down, water spraying around him in a white cleft and tinkling across the waves. Yeshua bore on, light fading away, cold and pressure gripping him like a claw in utter darkness. A familiar fear began to surface — though what of, he couldn’t quite remember. He swam faster. Before long, Yeshua spotted a thin, colorful line gleaming in the deep. His massive tail swung once, propelling him closer to the line. It widened into a ribbon, then an elongated tapestry of mingled violet and auburn. Flippers raised as he held his tail down, careening in a semicircle until he rested, completely still, in the fluid fabric flowing through the ocean depths. Inside it, he heard his pod speaking; dolphins playing; schools of fish thrumming through it all like a shiny needle. His maw vibrated as he sang, weaving translucent green strands of his own into the tapestry. His heart beat steadily. He floated there, basking in the ocean’s symphony. After some time, red lines began inking their way down through the tapestry, dyeing over the violet, auburn, and green. Calls of distress, calls of horror! 

Yeshua rolled onto his belly and cleaved through it all like a shear, following the red threads upward until he was near the surface. It was all red, cloudy and thick. Yeshua tasted copper in the brine. His family’s bodies rolled listlessly in the bloody haze. Small black darts pierced the ocean surface with bubbles trailing behind them. Some found their marks and blotted more red against the blue. Yeshua traced their arc, shooting up toward a dark wedge pressing down on the sea like a boot. He exploded above it; small men and smaller boys hurled their spears out of his shadow, toward the sky; then, cracks and cries rang out from the whaler, which groaned as it slunk into itself like a footless boot. Beneath it, Yeshua mourned. He mourned his slaughtered family; he mourned the slaughtered sailors; he mourned it all. The whites of sailors’ eyes stared down at him, wide with death and awe as he sank, slanted, into the crimson dark. 


All was dark and silent. Something thumped, and each time it did Yeshua was surrounded by a crimson liquid. It nourished him, as it always had. He could live forever in the warmth of that liquid. But, warbled noise began to scatter around him like flakes in a shaken snowglobe, covering over the thumping. He rotated in suspension, then stopped. Over his head, the globe cracked and widened. All the bits of warbled noise congealed, becoming cries of pain and joy that stabbed at his ears as he crowned. The air was wet and cold against his slick head. Blinding light flooded over his neck, then his shoulders. He curled his toes as he was lifted across sheets stained with blood and tears and feces. Shears snipped, something fell away from him, leaving him marooned, terrified, and confused. He couldn’t breathe, couldn’t scream. Everything was trapped within him, and there it would remain, boiling forever. 

Then, Yeshua was laid gently in the cradle of a bosom. He inhaled for the first time, then exhaled a high-pitched cry, boiling over everything including the arms which caressed him. Above him, a woman cried too. Her tears cooled his scalp as he calmed, nestling closer into her chest. He turned his head toward the steady and familiar thumping that he’d always known. It was his only salve against the searing, sterile place he had been thrust into.

“It’s a girl.” 

That throbbing rhythm shuddered and quickened. Yeshua gripped tighter to a crinkled blue hospital gown hoping to never, ever lose that rhythm. He cried at the thought, yet as he slipped into exhausted darkness he discovered another rhythm — fluttering, delicate, resounding throughout his tiny chest. Yeshua faded away, away between the beats. 

Yeshua’s eyes glided open. He was blanketed by thin shafts of golden light. Through the gapped thatching of his hut he could hear the whistle of a breeze, the chirping of jays. A gong sounded, signaling the start of morning chores. He swung his legs over the edge of the cot, pressing grainy sand and tiny bits of rock into the gaps between his toes. For some reason he couldn’t place, he was crying. He heard rustling in the corner of his hut, and looked to see a mouse scurrying outside through a small hole. Yeshua chuckled through his tears at the frantic nature of the mouse; it reminded him of himself. He dried his tears, donned his saffron robe and calmly stepped outside. Elongated, puffy clouds lumbered across the sky. He hummed, weightless as he walked toward the outhouse. Wind waved through the cherry blossom trees, and Yeshua thought, as he always did when he saw those trees, about his mom. She was gone. He plucked one of the many blossoms scattering through the air and clutched it to his forehead. His father was alone. His mother was gone, and his father was alone. He let the blossom go, and the master’s commentary on the Timsa Sutta from last night resurfaced in his thoughts.

“Suffering is with us, always.” Yeshua inhaled next to the outhouse, the air ripe with dew and shit and pollen. “Yet it is through suffering that we live our lives,” the master had continued. Yeshua exhaled, and gripped the smooth handle of a mop. “To want life, we must accept suffering. Amidst the rains of suffering, life blooms.” Yeshua soaked the mop, finally recognizing himself in the rippling water, and set to work one last time. 

June 25, 2022 01:30

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