I see them crowd on crowd they walk the earth
Dry, leafless trees no Autumn wind laid bare;
And in their nakedness find cause for mirth,
And all unclad would winter’s rudeness dare;
No sap doth through their clattering branches flow,
Whence springing leaves and blossoms bright appear;
Their hearts the living God have ceased to know,
Who gives the springtime to th’expectant year;
They mimic life, as if from him to steal
His glow of health to paint the livid cheek;
They borrow words for thoughts they cannot feel,
That with a seeming heart their tongue may speak;
And in their show of life more dead they live
Than those that to the earth with many tears they give.
— Jones Very, “The Dead”
Al was short of Aloysius, a name which indicated sufficiently clearly his family’s religious background, though liable to mislead as to its intensity. In fact, it was only his middle name, though that was the one had preferred since a dream of the Virgin had led to his becoming an altar boy at the church his parents attended on holy days. That enthusiasm had lasted about a year before disillusionment set in. The Priest had been unable to answer Al’s questions about the Real Presence and other theological matters to the boy’s satisfaction, and worse, had acted as though such questions hardly mattered.
It was in history class that his first non-Western religious enthusiasm began. They were discussing the background to the recent wars in the Middle East and their teacher had outlined the basic tenets of the Muslim faith. It was not the first time that Al had heard them, but on this occasion, in the context of his recent spiritual disappointment, they impressed him as profoundly satisfying in their simplicity. In the space of a few weeks he had begun secretly learning Arabic and thinking of himself as a Muslim.
His conviction grew to the point where in his mind “Al” had become the Arabic definite article, in preparation for the day when it would be sandwiched between an Islamic first name and the geographical designator “Australi.” Already he was planning, albeit vaguely, to travel to a place where his nationality would be a point of difference. But then he would remind himself at “He who has in his heart so much as a mustard seed of pride shall not enter paradise.”
Al told no one about this spiritual revolution. There was no one he was sufficiently close to except perhaps his mother, and he was biding his time with her until he should be learned enough in his new religion to convert her. With the handful of acquaintances who passed for his friends he had never shared much besides a passion for role-playing games (a passion which for him had long since found a different primary outlet), and there was a dearth of Muslims at the school he attended. Only anonymous contacts on various internet forums and comment threads were available for him to share his thoughts and questions with, and they tended to confirm and galvanize his increasingly radical understanding of Islamic doctrine.
The public declaration occurred without premeditation in the same venue where the conversion had begun. In history class one day they were discussing the recent phenomenon of large numbers of outwardly assimilated migrants going to fight to establish an Islamic state in the Middle East.
“We should just send ‘em all back and bomb the fuckin’ place. Fix ‘em for good!” exclaimed Cody Newsom, a known trouble-maker whose habit of swearing in class, his feet up on the desk top before him, was ignored by all but the most pugnacious teachers.
“Cody! Can you please not be so . . . intolerant?” Miss Cowper responded in exasperation.
But Al, blood pumping in his ears, stood up and turned to face the same boy who had once pushed his head into the narrow space between the blocks of lockers while slapping his buttocks with a ruler. “There is no God but Allah and Muhammad is his prophet!” he shouted, holding up a single index finger in a jihadist salute. Throughout the room there was a silence of incomprehension. Al continued, filled with adrenaline and the presence of Allah, “You should be beheaded for saying that!”
“What the fuck did he just say?” Cody loudly asked one of his confederates at the rear of the class. “Come on and behead me then, what are you waiting for?” He sniggered uneasily and looked away when Al would not.
The outcome of the situation for Al was an initial visit to the school principal, followed by a referral to the counselor. Perhaps he escaped physical reprisal because the issue had been too high profile for it to go unnoticed, or perhaps it was the look in his eyes.
“This is nothing but islamophobia!” Al complained in his first session. But Aileen was a skilled and sympathetic counselor, and an attractive young woman as well, with silky blonde locks in a tumble-down bun and kind, delicate features behind the glasses that magnified her blue eyes and, along with her smile, made her seem so approachable, so nearly attainable. Al began to look forward to their meetings and to dream of the curves of her thighs and bust that swelled against the fabric of her clothes. He had tried to explain to her the reasoning behind his conversion and to impress her (as he understood he was doing) with the admission that he had thought about “joining the mujahedin.”
“Have you talked about this with anyone else?”
“No.” He only half lied, having never got into specifics or made any undertakings.
“Not even online?”
“No, but I’ve been thinking about it–a lot,” he added lamely.
She looked at him with an expression that made him uncomfortable. She was not impressed, but worried. “You haven’t ever thought about . . . hurting yourself, or anyone else, like the boy in the news?”
It struck Al forcefully that for Aileen there was nothing heroic about the highly topical case of “Jihadi Josh”: to her he was just another maladjusted teenager whom she would have liked to have helped. He saw himself through her kind, lovely eyes, and felt shame.
Al tried to wish that Aileen were covered in a hijab and hidden safely away from his lustful gaze, but apostasy had already risen like a tide within him, and soon he was left wondering how he had been so foolish as to mistake the religion of a seventh century bandit for the truth he was seeking. For the first time Al questioned whether this Truth was even within his reach as a human being, or if it was, whether he had the constitutional ability to grasp it.
So he went back to internet and soon became interested in Far Eastern religion. It was the more esoteric and exotic forms that attracted him. Whereas Islam had seemed like an obvious, simple answer to the riddle of existence, these doctrines promised something more complex and profound. He began to search for local gurus whom he might be able to meet and receive instruction from, but found that at best he might be able to join a community, and occasionally go on meditation retreats if he saved his pocket money or got a part-time job, before one day making his way to India or somewhere like that to start his spiritual career in earnest.
He began attending a local gompa after school and taking a beginners’ vipassana course before trying out the more advanced concentration and visualization exercises, both at home and with the sangha. Before long he was feeling a limitless compassion for the entire world of sentient beings, and silencing his doubts about the mathematical likelihood of achieving liberation after a “beginningless” eternity already spent in samsara. He stopped eating meat in principle (although in accordance with Buddhist teaching, he made an exception for meals prepared for him by others, which happened to include almost every one he ate).
All the while he came and went without making much of an impression. He supposed he was part of the sangha, but in a way he felt no more connected to the strangers with whom he shared his meditation practice than to the billions of sentient beings he had vowed to save. He would imagine himself surrounded to the limitless horizon with holy bhikshus and bhikshunis, but then the conversations he had with their real-life counterparts confirmed that they were all rather self-absorbed and that their knowledge of dharma was superficial in all but a couple of cases.
Then one day he met someone who was different. He had not seen her participate in the meditation, but she was there at the dinner table afterwards. She looked only slightly older than him, which was somewhat unusual in this fairly mature milieu. It was she who spoke to him, at the communal meal after guru puja. Al was trying to concentrate of the precise sensation of the slightly stodgy rice (mustn’t discriminate!) and the rubbery tofu in his mouth, in order to experience its tathata, while at the same time generating a sense of gratitude and compassion to all the sentient beings who suffered to produce the food he was eating. But he couldn’t help glancing one too many times at the intriguing girl on the other side of the table.
She had long, straight, dark hair. She might have been Asian, Japanese perhaps, but her eyes were wide and round as any occidental’s. In fact, they were the largest and most striking eyes Al had ever seen. The girl did not exactly smile, but, against his will, held Al’s eyes for longer than he had thought it possible to look at a woman without blushing and looking away. He wondered if it was the equanimity he had attained through meditation; but if he were calm, why was his heart thrashing around in his chest like trapped animal?
“Hi,” she said, without smiling.
“Sorry,” he said, embarrassed, and the blushing came.
He apologized again, laughed uneasily and introduced himself. There was a pause in which she did not look away but continued staring disconcertingly into his eyes. “You can call me Akasha.” She spoke without a discernible accent, but very deliberately, as though attempting to conceal one.
“That’s an interesting name. Where does it come from?”
What did you say to that? He was immobilized, while everyone else kept on chewing and murmuring the odd dharmic pleasantry. The ambiance of the place with its low lighting and mixed aroma of kitchen smells and patchouli incense reminded Al of his crazy Aunt Rachel’s house. His senses were definitely heightened by meditation. He could see the warm, mellow light bouncing off Akasha’s unblinking eyeballs, and he could hear acutely all the dinner table noises to the extent that they suddenly irritated him.
“How long have you been coming here?” He found himself asking, as though prompted. She seemed to think this was an odd question, but answered anyway.
“I come and go. This place is alright, but I know better.”
Such a judgmental tone was unknown here, and certainly no way to speak about anything connected to dharma. No doubt the Sangha members were imperfect beings outside these walls, but there was a certain etiquette observed within them, and it involved always speaking in a low voice and always evincing the brahma-viharas to the best of one’s ability. Sometimes it annoyed Al; for example, when a visiting geshe once had said in a talk that it was pointless trying to explain the Heart Sutra to Westerners, but that even by hearing his teaching, the seeds of a higher rebirth were being planted. No one had been overtly offended by this.
“You mean, you know a better place, or you know a better . . . like, teaching?”
She answered indirectly: “I come here sometimes to meet people who are searching for the Truth.” She paused to take another mouthful, which she chewed in a way that did not disguise her displeasure. “This stuff tastes awful.” Of course she was right, but whoever had cooked the meal was probably sitting near enough to hear. Al felt very uncomfortable. Then Akasha stood up and gently shook her silken, coal-black hair, tucking a strand of it behind her ear. He noticed that she was dressed bohemian style in a black skivvy and jeans as well. She was very thin but far from unattractive. “Do you want to come with me?” she asked in a tone whose indifference was belied by her searching gaze.
Al’s heart beat with an untoward passion. Was she trying to seduce him? To pick him up? Like any other young man, especially one of his shy temperament, he had often dreamt of a girl who would walk into his life unexpectedly and offer herself to him in some overt, implausible way.
She moved slowly towards the door behind the row of diners, none of whom seemed to notice her presence, let alone her rudeness, and did not repeat her offer or seem to care if it was taken up. Anxiously, Al followed her.
“So, do you, like, go to school?” he asked as they reached the front gate, feeling that he must say something.
“It’s a house, the place we are going to,” she said, seemingly having misunderstood the question, “like this one, only older.”
That ended the conversation until a minute later they reached the end of the tree-lined street, reaching a busy main road just as a bus pulled over to the sign on the corner in front of the hotel with its flashing “pokies” sign. “This is our bus,” she said, and walked towards it with no trace of hurry. The sky was still light, but would not be so for long. It was cold and looking like rain.
They traveled via a different route than Al had ever taken before. He had no sense of direction or geography anyway; all he knew was the area in which he lived and went to school, and the bus route to the central business district, on which the gompa was located about halfway. The peculiarity of the circumstances coupled with the slight novelty of the scenery created a complex ferment inside him, the autumnal atmosphere also contributing its part. He could not stop looking at his companion, who now seemed to him the most darkly beautiful creature he had ever seen. She didn’t seem to mind being stared at, so he did to more and more boldly.
But what could they talk about? He knew little about girls and less about how to interact with them, but he knew that his job was somehow to keep talking so that Akasha would not grow bored with him. He was also, naturally, curious and a bit nervous about where, and possibly to whom, she was taking him.
“So, do you have a teacher, I mean a guru?”
“No.” She paused, then spoke again, turning to face him in a way that almost made him flinch, “There is no guru.”
His every conversational overture was rebuffed. It was very odd: she had invited him to come with her to enjoy some kind of mystical revelation, but seemed unwilling to communicate at all. But then, that was just the sort of test one would expect from a genuine teacher, and the fact that this one looked just like a beautiful young girl might be another test. Were his feelings towards her sacrilegious? On the other hand, whilst he knew that tantra wasn’t always sexual, he also knew that it certainly could be. He wanted to let her know that he understood what she was trying to do.
Al remembered the stories of the great yogis who searched high and low for a teacher and were often rebuffed or, once taken in after days of sitting out in the cold, begging, put to work on some menial task. Al couldn’t resist showing his erudition by speaking once more into the silence, “It’s funny, I was just thinking how Milarepa had to build and demolish three towers before Marpa would show him the mahamudra.” In all honesty, he would have had to confess that “mahamudra,” like many another term in the vast Buddhist lexicon, was little more to him than an evocative arrangement of syllables — a mantra, so to speak. “But here you’ve come along — you’ve found me — and promised me enlightenment, just like that!”
“Yes, I’ll show you the truth.”
He had once again been fishing for information as to whether some third party was to be involved in whatever revelation — hopefully not involving violence or robbery, now he came to think of it — was in store for him. He pushed a little further, but found that reiterating that promise was all she was prepared to do; it was as though it were all she could say, as though she were a projection of some occult force or mind that had given her a strictly delineated role to play in whatever was to unfold. Could she be an emanation, a nirmanakaya of some dakini come to show him the path, perhaps, but not to walk it with him? But already he felt something profound happening within himself. A few months ago he had been confessing the shahada with, as he then thought, all his heart and soul; he sensed now that perhaps the next phase of his spiritual life was about to begin, and that it might present a similar discontinuity to the last.
The other passengers, of whom there had been many to start, gradually got off until there was no one but the two of them. After the bus had left the familiar high road, it had taken them through an upmarket commercial district: cafes, antique shops, dog groomers, and so on. Then they went over a bridge, and there came the ethnic neighborhood, full of restaurants and supermarkets of various nationalities, spice-and-video shops, hairdressers advertising extensions and straightening. Among these there began to appear in increasing numbers pawn and computer repair shops, among a steadily increasing proportion of shopfronts that were either definitely or probably unoccupied. These he found very affecting, with their crumpled tin facades, peeling paint and remnants of old advertising. Yes, it was necessary to escape from this world corrupted by time; and in an odd way, it seemed that this had been achieved in the almost ghostly locale through which they now traveled, as though it had transcended time by succumbing to it.
Unexpectedly, his companion spoke to him: “Do you like the view?”
“Yeah, in a way. I guess it makes me feel . . . nostalgic, if that’s the right word.”
“Then you’ll love my place.” She said this with a tone than might have been ironic, it was hard to tell.
Not for the first time, but more acutely than before Al wondered, had he been stupid coming with this stranger, believing that she might have some genuine interest in him, either as a man (was that too absurd?) or as a pilgrim? Another, lesser worry was that his ticket, which he had intended to get him home, would be expired by the time they were finished whatever it was that they were going to do.
Seeing in this a possible way to gauge or ensure his safety, he exclaimed, “Damn, I just realized I won’t be able to get home on this ticket. Guess I’ll have to follow your example next time and just, like, get on without one.” He smiled awkwardly, embarrassed that she might think he wanted to borrow money, or — what was true — that he was without independent means; but he was somewhat reassured that her face registered no change and no interest in the contents of his wallet, which he opened in conspicuous confirmation.
Then, in a way that caused him to shudder, she turned to him, having allowed seconds to elapse between his last utterance and hers, and said, “It doesn’t matter.”
The bus was now winding through residential streets. There were cars and furniture in various states of decrepitude on lawns full of weeds, and the houses themselves were in matching condition. The dusk was heading towards darkness by now. What was reassuring, though certainly odd, was the presence of so many people out on the street under the pathetically mutilated plane trees that lines the street, having been trimmed repeatedly over the years to prevent interference with the power lines above. They were just strolling or sitting around, walking dogs or sitting on fence, a diverse crowd; a pair of children holding hands and leaning in opposite directions, an old man sitting on his gate post, smoking. The murmur of conversation was comforting, though he could not make out a word of it.
“Hey, it’s like a street party!” Al remarked.
“It’s always like this here,” Akasha replied. “This is my house,” she added a moment later as they reached the gate. It was a very large and heavily built bungalow with a rendered brick veranda shrouded in the dense, twiggy remains of some climbing plant. It was set apart from its neighbors by size and by the terracing of the front yard, the bricks of which seemed likely to topple forward. The entrance was grand, with its double arched portico. The place was clearly run-down and almost seemed to be in the process of collapsing beneath its own weight, cracks and fallen masonry visible in places.
There were traces of garden beds on the lawn leading up to the house, but these were mostly bare but for various weeds and a few half-dead geraniums. It was astonishing: the house was an identical, run-down version of the one containing the gompa. If he said nothing about it, it was because it seemed too obvious to require comment; after all, she had made the comparison already, back at the origin of their journey.
It was dark inside. Akasha picked up a kerosene lamp that was on a table in the long entry hall, lit it with a match and took him by the hand. He was relieved to find that it seemed a hand of flesh and blood, though cold from the night air. His heart beat faster and his groin responded to this initial physical attention. It was the first time a girl had ever taken him by the hand since he had been old enough for it to mean anything. Did it, in fact, mean anything? The light revealed an open door that would have led to the gompa on their right, but he saw as they passed that there was nothing inside that room but a huge hole in the floor. There were large cracks in all the walls and the floorboards creaked loudly; Al felt a sudden fear that the huge house might collapse and bury them. “Do you live here alone?” he asked, praying for an affirmative answer.
“In a way. There are others who come and go, but I’m always here. This is my place. We’ll have it to ourselves tonight, don’t worry.” She squeezed his hand.
She took him into one of the rooms off the hallway that, in the familiar twin of this house, were marked “private.” It was, as he had hoped, a bedroom. But what a comfortless one! Apart from a fireplace and mantelpiece there was nothing here but the bed itself and one of those old wooden cupboards whose doors, apparently would never stay shut, since they were swung open now to a disconcerting wingspan. The bed was metal framed and bare, as though it had been laundry day, which must also explain the empty cupboard. The night was getting cold, and he wondered if they would be lighting a fire; he could smell ashes. The floor was carpeted, and there were many burn marks on it. On the wall behind the bed someone had smeared charcoal from the fireplace into a quite perfect, fuzzy-edged oval shape about a metre high. Perhaps it was just the low lighting, but it seemed extraordinarily black in the centre.
“What are you going to show me here?” he asked in a voice he could hardly recognize as his own.
She didn’t answer but, as he almost had the right to expect by now, after setting the lamp down on the floor near the fireplace, pressed her body to his and kissed him open mouthed.
They gravitated towards the bed, her hands methodically caressing and undressing him, while he hardly knew what he did. The excitement was almost more than he could bear. She said nothing else until after the moment had come in which he was unable to believe until it had done: the moment when he was actually inside her. Yes, she was a woman of flesh and blood, alright. There was her heartbeat alongside his own.
But as soon as he experienced this certainty, it evaporated. Her heartbeat now seemed to recede far away, nor could he quite feel her as present to his touch. The idea of her as an emanation body returned as he saw his hands covering her body, touching it compulsively in an effort to summon her back, but feeling almost nothing. It was the same where their bodies were joined — even though, as he now realized, the issue of protection had never arisen.
He could see the black shape on the pale, dirty wall before him in the flickering lamplight. He was looking ahead at it when the flickering lamp dimmed and went out. The shape was now blacker than the blackness in which he floated, having all bust lost sensory connection to the world around him. Around what was now its sharp periphery glowed a faint silvery light, like external daylight around a closed door frame, but very cold it seemed, and this outline was getting stronger and larger as the shape advanced towards him–or he towards it; there was no telling.
Then Akasha spoke from somewhere in the darkness. “Open the door. Go through. The truth is on the other side.”
It was almost upon him, the light from behind the oval dawning fiercely, the cold bringing him somewhat back to himself. Now he crossed over its threshold (the blackness appeared so dense it was hard to believe that it would absorb and not repel him), and after a moment of the most suffocatingly luxuriant darkness and vacancy, as of an ocean of velvet night, he was again outside the house, in the street he recognized from what could only have been minutes before, though it felt far longer.
The sky seemed to agree. It was bright yet overcast, a chilly autumn morning. Al remembered something his friend Evan, who claimed to have had sex, had told him: “Your first time, it’s so different from what you imagined, believe me.”
And the people were still there. If anything there were more of them, though this time they were not moving, or sitting down at leisure, but standing, facing him with an intense interest he could feel even before his eyes had adjusted to the light sufficiently to meet theirs. In fact, it seemed that if something unseen were not holding them back, preventing them from moving their feet in any direction, they would run at him with God knew what objective. He was afraid.
That fear worsened as he blinked at the silver sun that was fiercely struggling through a thick blanket of white clouds. Their eyes were lidless, with an expression of something that might have been panic or avidity, or a combination of both. It was not possible to read their expression in any other way, since the flesh of their faces and bodies was shrivelled like the flesh of ancient mummies, lipless and noseless. They stood leaning forward, and as it seemed, straining upward, their wasted limbs jerking and twitching like the branches of trees in the wind, though the actual trees around them didn’t move at all.
Al screamed and spun around 360 degrees. In his ears, which were starting to feel the biting cold, his voice sounded like someone else’s, far away. In a panic, he looked for Akasha, who was nowhere to be seen. He wanted to go home! He started running, keeping as wide a berth around the creatures as he possibly could, there being so many of them. They were like the skin rocking horse his mother had sentimentally had refurbished, and that he could remember appearing to rock by itself, terrifying him as a child. They had hair and clothes like normal, living people, but their mad eyes were glossy as marbles, big as Akasha’s had been. They might have been botched taxidermy mounts but for those horrible, hesitating signs of life. This one might have been an old woman to start with; the one beside her — no, to judge from her clothes and hair it must be — have been — her granddaughter! And there was the most terrifying dog he had ever seen . . . !
Thank God, they could only shake their contorted limbs at him, though their bulging eyes did follow his movements as far as they could. He stopped looking anywhere else but in front of him. There was the intersection where the bus had stopped. Could it be that on the other side of the blasted, overgrown-looking hedge, he might find the road that led back to his familiar life?
No, there were only more of the horrid mannequins.
He kept running from them, almost colliding with one as he swerved to avoid the arm of another. He felt it was extremely important not to touch them. He heard his heart beating as he ran. At least he was back in his own body, a smell of burning and of earth in his nostrils. That was something. And behind his heart there was another beating, a heavier, slower bass drum that was not inside his body, he knew, or his mind only, but outside it. It was the heartbeat of this world, Akasha’s world, into which he had fallen.
Al kept running until it seemed as though a wind was blowing against him where none had been before. It made running easier, almost lifting up his feet from the ground in a way that reminded him of those dreams he had always had in which he found himself able to glide like a leaf on the breeze; those dreams were always set in gloomy, autumnal landscapes like this one. But this wind was not there to serve him; it became unpredictable and multiplied from every direction so that soon he was caught between powerful winds blowing from every direction, lashing him so that he began to stagger, doing his best to recoil before contact with any of the figures, one of whom, he was sure, managed briefly to grab the fabric of his jumper before he was blown in the opposite direction. He felt and heard himself crying out — then drying out. He could not have stood up by himself under such buffeting, but now that an equilibrium had been reached, he stood in one place, unable to progress. Al felt his skin stretching tight against his skull, as with difficulty he fought to raise a hand to his face, and felt its papery surface, lips and eyelids receding as his nose began to crumple in on itself.