Journeys

The winters in Central Asia are piercing and bleak, while the sweating, foetid summers bring cholera, dysentery and mosquitoes, but, in April, the air caresses softly and the scent of all the flowering trees douses this city’s throat-catching whiff of cesspits.

The Kiss, by Angela Carter

It is a ghost city. For all the colourful life seemingly teeming within, there remains no heart. A dull pallor washes the urgent faces of the crowds, torn hems soil the bright garments of the market sellers. Many are leaving. A worn trail of dust and broken possessions leads away into the foothills to the east; to the south can be heard donkeys braying protest at the crooked wagon-carts they pull. Beneath the cloying scent of flowers, stagnation is burying the city.

Further east, the mountains of Nepal and then western China, begin to take shape. Here the regions are afflicted less by poverty, more by spring diseases. In a monastery a hundred miles North by East of the suffering city a wise Buddhist master has just taken his last breath. His simple garments and appearance reveal nothing of the knowledge he once held, gathered from the straits of Asia throughout a lifetime. Knowledge now stored in parchment words, leaving his spirit to depart peacefully, satisfied.

His small apprentice, Yun Tang, has been kneeling the Death Watch, showing his respect for the old man’s spirit. Now he rises and, bowing slowly, retreats to the exit. Others will see his departure and thus know they may remove the empty body to be buried quietly on the hillside. Meanwhile, Yun Tang walks swiftly to the silent pool in the monasterial gardens, calm beneath the blossom trees.

He is young, and he would have been called handsome if he had ever met such women as would notice. But he was raised in the monastery, and did not care for these things. Yun Tang sits cross-legged beside the pool, seeks to clear his mind. Eyes closed, he can still see the clear blue sky dotted with wispy clouds, hear the steady hum of insects, the splash of a fish in the pool. He lets these things go, concentrates on an image of Buddha.

When he is quite certain, he opens his eyes and asks his question. “Where are the crossroads of my life?”

The hovering spirit in the guise of a Buddha answers him quietly in the voice of the afternoon:

“Why do you look? The journey is straight.”

Without turning, the boy nods. He knows the direction of his path. He rises silently, bows once to the watching air, and leaves.

He will take the road of his former master, following the contours of the land. Perhaps he will come one day to the lowland city in April, tasting the air as he went. Maybe by then only ghosts would remain. Perchance he might find a form of wisdom.

And maybe he too will die someday in a monastery in the hills, surrounded by blossom trees, with an apprentice by his side.

Nature mountain landscape
Image by pcsfish from Pixabay

About:

This short piece was prompted by the first paragraph in Angela Carter’s story, The Kiss. It was an exercise from my creative writing teacher, in high school, over thirteen years ago. The request was to write a 500-word story based on the first sentence of another author’s work. I have no idea about cultural correctness – it was intended as fiction. The story was unearthed recently from some very old files and I present it here, with only the tenses changed to make it readable (they were all over the place, eighteen-year-old-me! Tsk, tsk). Anyway, I’m kind of fond of it. It reminds me of my formative years reading Terry Pratchett and dreaming of faraway places.

Oh wait, I still do that.


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