Shike – Day 257 of 306

With a twinge of fear Moko remembered Jebu’s first plaintive words, which only he had heard, on waking up at the Black Bear Temple. Now he understood the test the Zinja had imposed on Jebu. They were offering what he had wished for. Peace. All he had to do was give an answer that would cause the spear to fall. Moko prayed that Shiké Jebu would want to live.

Moko went back into the temple and took his place among the seated monks. In spite of his anxiety, the chanting and the incense and the booming of the hollow log lulled him, and he allowed himself to drift into sleep. There was nothing he could do for Shiké Jebu except be here. Now he was on a ship, racing over bright blue ocean waves, leaving the Sunrise Land far behind. He was being carried to the sea coast of Persia. His ship plunged like a wild horse, without sail or oar to propel it. The bow smashed upon great, green, transparent rocks like giant emeralds. The Persians were naked women, and they lived in circular towers of polished white stone without doors and rode about on the backs of giant birds. Brandishing sabres, long legs flashing in the sunlight, they came running down to the shore. They surrounded him and raised their swords. They were going to cut him to pieces and feed him to their great birds. He screamed in terror, “Help! Help!”

A comforting hand shook his shoulder gently. The echo of his screams still reverberated in the incense-heavy air of the temple. Monks were staring at him. His face burnt with shame and he bowed his head to hide his embarrassment. They honoured me by inviting me to their ceremony, and I fell asleep and disturbed it, he thought. I have disgraced Shiké Jebu. If I were of noble blood I would commit seppuku, but I am not even worthy to do that.

Taitaro’s thin voice cut into his agony. “The time has come for you to speak, Monk Jebu.”

There was a long silence. With a chill Moko thought, he’s not going to answer. That would be the shiké’s way. He would not wish to answer the question incorrectly. He would rather let his silence announce that he had chosen death. Moko stared down at Jebu’s naked form stretched out on the altar stone, silently imploring the shiké to speak. Beyond the altar, seen through the open end of the temple, the sky was growing light. The skeleton of the great torii and the cone of Fuji were black silhouettes against an indigo sky.

“Just now I heard a cry for help.” Jebu’s voice was loud enough to hear but easy, casual, as if he were conversing with a few friends. “Earlier today I heard another cry for help. I refused it. The Order taught me when I was a child never to expect anything but pain in life. I am now almost fifty years old. I have loved, and love has brought me torment and loss. I have seen the woman I loved married to my enemy. I have had to kill the man I loved with my own hands. Death brought him peace. I held out my arms and fell into the embrace of death, and I awoke later and found that even death had abandoned me.

“I am not obliged to fight any more, but the woman who leads this country, the woman I formerly loved, has sent for me. This is the life-problem you question me about, Father. I know there is no correct solution. If I die on this altar, it is correct. If I remain in this temple and refuse to leave, it is correct. If I go to Kamakura to help the lady who sent for me, it is also correct. I have made my decision. It is the right choice for me because I have made it.” He paused a moment. “I will be a teacher, but not in a Zinja monastery. I will go to Kamakura.”

A blinding glow appeared beyond Jebu, above the tip of Mount Fuji, almost as if the volcano were exploding. It was the edge of the rising sun. Moko held his breath as Taitaro strode forward, sword upraised. He wanted to scream, but his throat was constricted by terror. Taitaro’s sword flashed down, cutting the ropes that held Jebu to the stone table. Moko’s scream came out as a sigh of relief. The old abbot backed away from Jebu, sheathing his sword, and knelt.

“In this decision, the Self is manifested,” he said in a barely audible voice. Slowly he bent forward until his forehead was pressed to the floor. Row by row the other monks did the same. Moko bowed too, rejoicing, realizing that not only was Master Jebu’s life saved, but he was going to return with him to Kamakura to help Lady Taniko fight the invaders. For a long time Moko kept his head down, while his heart danced with joy. He heard movement around him and looked up at last. The sun had risen fully and looked like a red disk balanced on the black point of Fuji-san. The torii framed sun and mountain perfectly. The man who had lain bound on the altar all night was now standing, his arms outstretched in a kind of benediction. Moko realized that the temple and the torii had been placed to provide, at the dawn of the longest day of the year, this view of the sun centred over Fuji, and that it was no accident that this ceremony had been held on this particular night.

Taitaro helped Jebu don a long grey robe. “The robe of a teacher is the grey of emptiness,” he said.

“At the heart of knowledge is the Void,” the monks chorused.

Taitoro placed a white rope tied in a complex knot around Jebu’s neck and said, “The universe is bound by one cord tied with one knot.”

“The cord is the Self, and it binds the Self,” the monks chanted.

Now another monk stepped forward and handed Jebu a thick book bound between wooden covers. “Take The Zinja Manual,” said Taitaro. “It holds that part of our wisdom that can be written down. Read it daily and impart its treasures to those who are worthy.”

The monks chanted, “Insight is a flame that turns written words to ashes.”

“Let us welcome our new teacher into the Order,” said Taitaro, and to Moko’s amazement the monks threw away all decorum as they scrambled to their feet, laughing and shouting, hurrying forward to crowd around Jebu, to cheer and embrace him. Moko had never seen behaviour like this among monks. But the exhilaration of the moment swept him along, and in a moment he, too, was in the clamouring circle around Jebu.

When Jebu saw him, he reached out with a smile and took Moko by the shoulder. “Here is the one who brought my life-problem to me.”

Moko ducked his head, embarrassed. “Please, shiké, I don’t want to be stared at.”

Taitaro said, “Those made use of by great destiny are often humble people.”

Moko turned to Taitaro. “Did destiny have a hand in this, holiness? Or might things have gone otherwise?” He wanted to believe that the shiké had never been in real danger, but he also wanted to believe there was a good reason for his fear.

“Tonight’s test might well have had a different outcome,” Taitaro said. “I could not have predicted how Jebu would choose. But I see a great pattern in these events, a pattern of destiny, if you will. I will tell you about it as we travel to Kamakura.”

“Then you’re coming with us, holiness? How marvellous!”

“I will go some of the way with you,” said Taitaro with a smile. Jebu turned and stared intently at the old abbot.

“Shiké,” Moko said, “are you not glad now that you made this decision?”

Jebu kept his eyes on Taitaro. “I do not expect to be glad about it, Moko. No matter what path we choose, it leads in the end to sorrow. And on this road, sorrow may come out to meet us.”

It suddenly occurred to Moko to wonder whether the shiké had ever known a moment of unalloyed joy. Moko found himself aware of an emotion that made him acutely uncomfortable. It was disgraceful for one so humble to feel pity for one so exalted.

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