Two Zen Monks
Barry Rachin on Shakespir
Two Zen Monks
Copyright © 2015 by Barry Rachin
Shakespir Edition, License Notes
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This short story represents a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or locales is entirely coincidental.
Two Zen monks climbing a hill on their way to the monastery, notice a geisha waiting by the side of the road. A rain storm the previous night has transformed the street is a minefield of slippery mud and puddles, so that the woman is unable to reach the tea house without soiling her pretty kimono and shoes.”
“The older monk tells the geisha, “Climb on my back and I’ll carry you up the hill”. She agrees and off they go. A few hundred yards up the mountain, the older monk lets the woman down in front of the tea house. The Geisha thanks him profusely and the monks continue on to the Buddhist temple. Just before they enter the shrine, the first monk turns to his friend and says, “‘About that Geisha…”
“How is it that you are still carrying the woman,” the older monk replies, “when I left her at the tea house five minutes ago?”
An Autumn Journey
“Got a map of Maine lying about anywhere?” Sarah Portman asked. They had just returned from the market, and the older woman was shelving groceries.
“There’s a roadmap of New England in the glove compartment,” her husband, Rob, qualified. He passed a green pepper to his wife who deposited it in the vegetable bin. When no further information was forthcoming, he added, “Are we going somewhere?”
“No, not exactly.” she pulled the freezer door ajar. “Hand me the sherbet.”
Later that evening Sarah spread the tattered map on the bedroom comforter and ran an arthritic finger up the interstate in a northerly direction. A short woman with watery green eyes, Sarah’s auburn hair began sprouting silvery roots from an early age. In recent years she bought dye. The color didn’t make her look younger but rather like a woman on the front side of seventy refusing to grow old gracefully, so she stopped using color and let her reddish-brown locks bleed gray.
“What are you looking for?” Her husband pressed.
“Unity… Unity, Maine.”
Rob located the rustic hamlet on the directory nestled near the side of the page then ran his eyes up the map past Lewiston, Augusta and Waterville before veering off to the east. “Who do we know in Unity, Maine?”
“The Stevenson’s granddaughter, Bethany, is studying conservation law at the local college. She wants to be a game warden, park ranger… something of the sort. The college offers bear tagging and a bunch of organic farming programs.” Sarah pursed her lips. “A couple weeks back Bethany was eating lunch at a pizza place in the center of town and spotted Midge Parker leaving a rooming house.”
“A rooming house?” Rob shook his head in disbelief. “That doesn’t sound like Midge Parker.” He scratched a hairy earlobe pensively. “What’s it been… five, six years since she moved away?”
“More like eight.” Sarah corrected. “Thought I might drive up there,” She said vaguely.
“That’s a four hour trip. You’d need to spend the night.”
“Hadn’t thought of that.”
“Driving through Boston, you risk getting mired in rush-hour traffic,” Rob added. “The route128 loop would be preferable.” When there was no reply, he asked, “When were you planning to go?”
“Tomorrow…early.” She scanned the map uncertainly. The region seemed desolate. Huge empty tracts of virgin country pockmarked by tiny villages, each separated by forested expanses once travelers ventured off the freeway.
“Don’t like you driving that distance alone.”
“I don’t mind,” she protested.
“With the cataracts,” her husband shot back, “and night blindness you can’t see for crap once the sun goes down.”
“I’ll just be gone a day and won’t drive after dark.” After a tense pause, Sarah said, “This is something I have to do.”
Edging up behind her, Rob slipped an arm around her waist and pulled his wife close. “Of course, I could stay at the motel thumbing through musty back issues of National Geographic,” he offered with a dry inflection, “while you wander the boondocks of central Maine in search of your long lost friend.”
Sarah rested her hands on a boney wrist. “Perhaps we better start packing.”
The last time Sarah had seen Midge Parker the two women spent a summery day at Horseneck Beach on Cape Cod. On the drive south the lanky woman with the weather-beaten features cracked jokes and spoke sparingly about personal matters.
Her husband had passed away of a heart condition six months earlier. Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease – that was the technical term. For reimbursement purposes, every disease required a diagnostic code. The code for the heart ailment was J449. From the outset Midge noticed the innocuous code on all medical bills. A half year later when her husband of forty-five years experienced a fatal coronary embolism, COPD had set her retirement finances back to the tune of eighty-five thousand dollars and thirteen cents.
So what happened to their neatly ordered universe? As Midge explained with a sardonic smile, life had a nasty habit of intruding at the least opportune moments and mucking things up. Out of a sense of decorum she substituted an ‘m’ for the ubiquitous ‘f’.
As they approached the ocean, a hint of salt flavored a humid breeze. The suburban landscape had been replaced by an endless expanse of scruffy pines and slender birch trees. “How’s your daughter?” Sarah asked.
“Last April Elsa reconciled with her estranged husband,” Midge replied, “but that doesn’t appear to be going particularly well.” “When their marriage fell to pieces, she borrowed a considerable amount of money,” Midge confided with a papery thin smile, “and now that they’re back together, she wants more.”
Strangely there was nothing judgmental in her assessment of Elsa’s romantic tribulations. Sarah remembered the daughter as a ‘difficult’ child through her formative years. Now, as Midge described her, Elsa had evolved into a dysfunctional, ne’er-do-well, train wreck of a middle-aged woman.
“I don’t particularly like my daughter, “Midge blurted in an offhand manner.
“You love her, though,” Sarah qualified.
“I tolerate her… it’s the best I can manage.”
Sarah stared at her friend uncomprehendingly. The observation seemed crass and mean-spirited. “That’s awful!”
“I’m just being honest.”
Later that night over a cup of chai sweetened with buckwheat honey, Sarah tried to imagine how she might feel if she had given birth to a conniving, utterly thankless daughter like Elsa, and the disdain mysteriously evaporated.
“Moby Dick… did you ever read the book?” Midge asked. They were sprawled on beach chairs on the wet sand twenty feet from the incoming tide. A toddler a few feet away in the foamy surf was draping seaweed necklaces around her plump shoulders, while an indulgent mother looked on.
Sarah shook her head sharply. A junior in high school, she just barely read up to the scene in the opening chapter, where the narrator meets the harpooner, Queequeg, at the sailors’ inn. From that point on she relied heavily on the CliffsNotes study guides.
“There’s this scene,” Midge continued, “toward the end of the novel, where Melville describes the sperm whale’s sexual habits in graphic detail.” The older women watched as a lanky adolescent, skinny arms splayed out in front of his lithe torso, body surfed into shore then ran back out to catch another wave. The infant with the seaweed necklace draped a band of vegetation on her head – slimy, moss-colored dreadlocks.
“The younger whales are quite randy… horny bastards,” Midge picked up the thread of her conversation. “They swim about with a harem of cows, impregnating each female as she reaches fertility. Fidelity doesn’t factor into the equation.”
Sarah, who clearly relished the topic of over-sexed, misogynous whales, grinned wickedly. “Just like us humans.”
Shortly after Sarah and Rob moved into the neighborhood, they were invited to block parties through the late summer. The festivities began innocently enough, but by the end of the night intoxicated husbands were tossing neighbors’ wives into the swimming pool. All harmless fun – a healthy expression of free-thinking libertarianism – until rumors of infidelity sprouted like late summer weeds and the ‘For Sale’ signs appeared.
Sarah and Rob only attended a handful of the raunchy parties before drifting away. That sort of lewdness didn’t play well into middle age, especially when the shenanigans got totally out of hand, turned mean-spirited and crass.
“What were we originally talking about?” Midge, who had momentarily lost her train of thought, dug her toes in the briny sand.
“Moby Dick whoring his way across the seven seas.”
“Yes, well at some point in middle age the white whale reconsiders his debauched ways, abandons the harem and wanders off alone. From this point until death he leads a hermetic existence.” Midge wagged her head emphatically. “No more female hanky-panky, no nothing.”
She settled back in her chair, surveying the cloudless expanse of cerulean sky. In the distance, a cargo ship was chugging out to sea. Arm in arm, a teenage couple strolled past in the bubbly surf. The dark-haired girl wore a French-cut bikini, the bottom portion little more than a thong that left little to the imagination. “I’m selling the house,” Midge announced.
Sarah felt her brain lurch in freefall. “You’re downsizing?”
“Not exactly. I’m selling and moving away.”
“What about a one-bedroom condo or flat in a senior complex?”
“That’s just more of the same old same old, the status quo.” When there was no reply, Midge added, “Since my husband’s medical bills, the finances don’t add up. I have a few modest investments, but car repairs and real estate taxes are eating me up alive. I can’t make ends meet.”
“This isn’t some spur of the moment decision,” Midge insisted. “I’m not some addled-brained, disaffected hippy from the 60’s.”
Sarah felt uncomfortable the way the conversation ricocheted from one fractured thought to the next, a stream of consciousness with no logical destination. Along with the raucous gulls an array of smallish seabirds, mostly plovers and dark-headed terns patrolled the shoreline searching for scraps of discarded food. Brushing a dusting of powdery sand off her thigh, Midge gestured in the direction of the toddler with the seaweed headpiece. The child was babbling in a singsong monotone, an obscure incantation of total bliss. “We’ve slogged through the better part of a lifetime… finished with raising children and finding our way in the world. Why can’t we be that happy?”
“I hope that’s a rhetorical question.” Sarah was still trying to digest the recent news about her friend’s impending departure.
“No, seriously.” Midge leaned closer, patting her forcefully on the wrist. “I can remember in middle school racing about town on a three-speed bike that my father picked up at the thrift store. No matter that it was secondhand and showed more rust than chrome on the handlebars.”
“The neighborhood kids fastened a baseball card to the front wheel fork with a clothespin to make that crazy, flapping sound.” Midge continued. “It reminded me of a blown muffler. We sometimes used a small balloon, but they would wear out after a while. The baseball cards weren’t nearly as loud but more dependable.” Midge fell silent for a moment savoring the poignant memory. “I rode that ugly bike to the ends of the earth and then went home, ate supper and fell off in a drugged sleep. It was total joy.”
“And what’s your point?” She recalled moments of childish rapture back to her own youth. Fishing trips with an older brother. She did little or no fishing but simply lay in the grass along the river bank watching the dragonflies and butterflies – mostly monarchs and darkly beautiful, blue swallowtails drawing sustenance from the wildflowers.
“Perhaps,” nudging Sarah out of her dust-covered, nostalgic reverie, Midge spoke with a more strident sense of urgency, “like the white whale, we need to shake things up.”
Around three they packed the car and headed home. “There’s a clam shack just up the road a piece if you’re hungry,” Midge noted. They were only a short distance from the beach headed back in the direction of Fall River.
“Yes, that would be nice.”
At the diner a clot of beachgoers snaked in a ragged line placing orders at the window of a small structure sided with weathered cedar shingles. Sarah bought a hot dog and French fries. She assumed that the hot dog would be grilled but the soggy meat was boiled and tasteless. Midge ordered a cup of white chowder and clam cakes. “Want one?” She pushed a fried clam cake the size of a golf ball across the tray, an edible peace offering.
“Thanks.” Sarah nibbled at the morsel. They ate in silence.
Midge wandered off in search of a bathroom. Ten minutes later when she didn’t return, Sarah located her friend in a clearing at the rear of the clam shack. “What a delight!” Midge gestured with a broad flourish at an expanse of goldenrod in late summer bloom. The field stretched the length of a football field, the mustard colored blossoms covered with thousands of honeybees. A lesser number of bumblebees were interspersed among their smaller cronies.
“Last opportunity for the girls to gorge themselves before the fall dearth,” Midge said, indicating the agile honeybees darting from blossom to blossom. By comparison the stodgy bumblebees seemed to be flying in slow motion.
“Why do you call them girls?”
“Only females collect pollen and forage for nectar.”
“And the males?”
“The drones only exist for one purpose to impregnate a new queen if the old one dies or becomes infertile.”
Sarah surveyed the field, where bees flitted from plant to plant, spawning an audible, throbbing hum. “And where did you learn all this?”
Midge reached out with a poised index finger and stroked the backside of a diminutive insect. The bee hardly paid the woman the slightest interest as it continued gathering food. “My grandfather was a beekeeper. He kept thirty Langstroth hives. I tagged along when he inspected the frames.” “It will be slim pickings once this goldenrod dries up.” The honeybee Midge had been fondling flitted off further into the sea of gold. “Pepper bush and linden blossoms seldom make it much past late August and all that’s left is sedum, late summer asters, mums and maybe a few woodbine.”
Midge took one last, wistful glance at the goldenrod. “My grandfather claimed honeybees were divine messengers… empirical proof for the existence of God.”
The remark caught Sarah off guard, less so because of the peculiar choice of language than the fact that her friend always boasted of being an unapologetic atheist. Overhead a hawk was circling the bay riding an updraft of ocean breezes.
Honeybees were divine messengers… empirical proof for the existence of God. Was Midge Parker talking inscrutable code? Deciphering her intent was like trying to read the soggy tea leafs at the bottom of a fortune teller’s cracked cup.
Later that night Sarah showered and packed her overnight bag. Downstairs she found her husband sitting at the kitchen table. Two rectangular stones and a large kitchen knife were laid out on the table along with a small can of machine oil. “Are you packed?” she asked.
“Threw some stuff together while you were bathing.” Reaching for the can, he ran a bead of transparent oil across the surface of an orangey stone then positioned the blade over the gritty surface. “I checked directions on the map.”
“There’s GPS on my cell phone.”
He lowered the blade until it was almost flat to the stone and pushed the metal through the slippery slush. “We could lose internet service up in the hill country of central Maine and then what?”
Sarah blinked and felt the breath catch in her throat. “Hadn’t thought of that.”
Rob eased the blade across the stone a half dozen times before flipping the knife and working the opposite side. Testing the edge gingerly with a thumb, he reached for the second stone, which was grayish white and considerably smoother. He snaked a bead of oil over the new stone and repeated the process, lowering the angle several degrees. “About what you might find in Unity… keep an open mind.”
“What do you mean?”
“Lars Nilsson,” Rob deflected the conversation elsewhere, “was my high school valedictorian… straight-A student and president of the honor society. A blonde-haired brainiac, Lars won a full academic scholarship to Brandeis…was voted most-likely-to-succeed.”
“Over the years I heard rumors that he’d gotten weird… dropped out of college in the second semester of his junior year… was arrested for barbiturates.” “Yesterday coming home from work, I caught sight of a fair-skinned guy with thinning blonde hair careening toward me near that gothic church in Copley Square. He was babbling to himself… some unintelligible drivel.”
“The whiz kid class valedictorian?”
Rob nodded. “Somewhere between Brandeis and Copley Square, Lars Nilsson sailed a tad too far from shore and fell off the edge of the known world.”
“And you’re telling me this now because…”
“Maybe you should brace yourself in advance of what awaits in Unity.”
“You think my friend’s gone bonkers?”
“Not necessarily,” Rob backed away from the damning prospect. “Perhaps a bit eccentric.” “Regardless,” he cautioned, “you best keep an open mind. The Midge Parker hunkered down in the backwoods of Maine may not even remotely resemble the urbane creature from your college days.”
Finished with the sharpening, Rob began stropping the edge by pulling the blade backwards. Every so many pulls, he reversed direction honing the opposite surface. Satisfied with the look of things, he held a strip of paper between a thumb and index finger and lowered the knife until it made contact with the sheet. The blade glided through the paper effortlessly. “It’s just a weird scenario… the way Midge chucked all her worldly attachments and is travelling incognito… flying under the radar.”
“You think I haven’t considered that?” When reminiscing about her friend, the image of Lao Tzu, the Chinese philosopher, floated across Sarah’s mind. In later years the author of the Tao had vanished, gone off in seclusion to seek nirvana, contemplate his navel and pursue whatever it was that blissed-out otherworldly types did in their twilight years. But Midge Parker was an inveterate, suburban housefrau, a woman who shopped the local mall and visited the hair salon at least once a month. And then, there was that unsettling remark about Moby Dick, when they were sprawled in the surf at Horseneck beach. Was it an ominous metaphor, a subtle hint of impending psychic upheaval?
Rob ran the water in the sink, rinsed the stones clean and patted them dry with a paper towel. “Let’s get some rest. We got a long trip in the morning.”
Traffic north was minimal. Forty-five minutes into the trip north, they spotted a Paneras and pulled off the highway. Approaching the entrance to the restaurant, Rob lagged far behind. Sarah noticed that her husband of forty years walked considerably slower these days. Where only a few years earlier the man was still quite limber, now he dawdled along with a shuffling, herky-jerky gait.
Ordering a spinach soufflé, Sarah glanced about the restaurant. Those diners who weren’t preoccupied with their breakfast were fiddling with cell phones, laptops or IPods. Everyone seemed caught up in their insular universe. “Are you familiar with the parable of the two monks?” In recent months Sarah had developed a fondness for tidbits of Eastern thought – Zen koans, Sufi sayings, haiku, and Persian aphorisms.
Her husband’s features dissolved in a closed-lipped smile. “Never heard of it.”
She recounted the story, sipped at her tepid coffee then added. “There’s a hidden message, but I’ll be damned if I can wrapped my brain around it.”
“We all carry a ton of excess baggage,” Rob ventured. “Trick is figuring what to do with it.”
“Yes, that sounds about right.” Eating in silence, they were back on the road in twenty minutes.
As they sped north the landscape altered, maples and oaks replaced by hawthorne, elm, and occasional bitternut willow. A mile outside of Augusta they pulled into a rest area. Sarah noted that the trash barrels were covered with heavy steel lids; a notice tacked to a pine tree warned visitors against leaving food unattended. There was no mention of bears, but the underlying message was unmistakable. The country had grown desolate. A solitary farm gave way to five miles of empty space, a scraggily, rock-strewn riverbed and forested ravines. Every so often a ‘Moose Crossing’ highway sign appeared. They sped past a dozen or more signs but never a solitary moose.
Leaving the interstate, they cruised east on a narrow road. The traffic petered away to nothing. The road zigzagged in a roundabout manner so that they had no idea what direction they were actually heading. Thirty minutes later a small sign on a faded, wooden placard plaintively announced ‘Unity five miles’.
“The rooming house where Midge lives is just up the street.” Sarah was pulling on her walking shoes. They had checked into the bed and breakfast and hauled their luggage into the room. “I thought I might pay her a brief visit before we settle in for the night.”
Her husband was staring out the window at a main street no more than three blocks long before fading off into wooded fields. “I’ll be here when you get back.”
After the tedious, drawn-out journey Sarah felt bad leaving, but the trip was neither a vacation nor personal lark. Without further discussion she left the room, cracked the front door and stepped out into the sultry autumn afternoon.
Sarah crossed the street, turned to the left and struck out down the pebbly sidewalk. A group of young girls dressed in cotton skirts that stretched far down to their ankles and sleeves that buttoned at the wrist passed on the far side of the street. Sarah had heard about Amish farms and settlements in the region. She slowed in front of a dilapidated, three-story wooden structure. The slate blue paint was peeling profusely. Checking the tenant directory, Midge Parker’s name was prominently displayed three rows down. A wave of weariness bordering on panic took the legs out from under her. Sarah blew out her cheeks sharply and sat down on the topmost step.
What if, what if, what if…
What if Midge Parker had experienced some belated midlife crisis and morphed into Lars Nilsson, a drooling, glassy-eyed android who barely recognized her former friend? Sarah waited a few moments until her breathing became steadier, rose and climbed the rickety stairs to the third floor.
“Can I help you?” A massive black woman with a silver ring embedded in her left nostril was staring back at Sarah.
It took her a moment to collect her scattered wits. “I’m looking for Midge Parker.”
“She ain’t lived here for six months.” The woman replied tersely and made a motion to shut the door.
“But her name’s on the directory downstairs.”
“Landlord never bothered to remove it,” the black woman explained. “He don’t do much of anything around here.”
“She’s an old friend and I travelled quite a distance to find her.”
“Well, you’re out of luck, cause she’s gone.”
Her weary brain in freefall, Sarah felt the blood throbbing in her ears. “Gone where?”
“Don’t hardly know. You’re the second person come looking for Ms. Parker.” The black woman, whose stony expression never wavered, slipped out into the dimly lit hallway. “About a year ago Midge’s daughter come for a visit, but that was a bust.”
“Seems like the daughter was experiencing major cash flow problems.” The woman sniggered wickedly. “What a mooch!”
“The daughter started a ruckus… using foul language and threatening the mother, but Midge held her ground and after a while the bitchy daughter went off in a snit.” The black woman seemed to derive great pleasure recounting the story. “The daughter… she never come back.”
“You don’t know where Midge moved?”
“Cleared her stuff out over a snowy weekend in late February and I ain’t seen her since.” The black woman rubbed her fleshy nose with a taut index finger causing the silver hoop to bob up and down. “Felt sorry for your friend… a rickety old lady living alone with hardly no friends and an ungrateful, loud-mouth daughter who come around only looking for a free meal.”
“Midge wasn’t that old.”
“She’s only in her early seventies.”
The black woman scrunched her face as though enjoying a private joke. “My grandmother just turned sixty-two so your buddy ain’t no spring chicken.” She stared at her pudgy fingers. “Last winter before I moved here I was living down the hallway and took sick with the flu. Couldn’t attend any of my classes over at the college. Midge Parker brought me soup and sandwiches every day until I was well enough to fend for myself.”
“What were you studying?”
“Conservation Law. Be getting my degree in June.”
“Well that’s nice!” Sarah tried to imagine the burly black woman with the slangy speech gussied up in a park ranger’s uniform, a broad-brimmed hat tilted at a jaunty angle over the squat nose. Would they allow her the luxury of the nose ring or would the exotic jewelry be deemed politically incorrect?
“Midge come by every day around noon,” The black woman continued, “with the food. Wouldn’t take a freakin’ cent for the groceries. Sometimes that old woman talked in circles… all manner of silly-ass gobbledygook that didn’t hardly make no sense. But then… I dunno.
“What did you talk about, when she came to visit?”
“Nothin’ special. Mostly she talked books.”
“Moby Dick… she liked that one the best.”
“So she told you about the whale.”
“No, she hardly never mentioned the whale but once or twice. She told me how Queequeg took sick after going down in the hold to find the oil leak. The harpooner feared dying at sea so he had the ship’s carpenter build a coffin, but then the fever broke and he got well. When the whale smashed the boat all to pieces, Ishmael climbed into the coffin and floated away to safety.”
The black woman smiled and nodded a nappy head peppered with cornrow braids emphatically. “Midge Parker sure was nice,” she reminisced.
Midge Parker was a benevolent if somewhat cryptic creature, and when Sarah’s odyssey was over, she would have travelled eight hundred desultory miles round trip to learn that unremarkable truth. She made a motion to turn away, but the black woman suddenly grabbed her wrist with both hands. Her fleshy lips screwed up in an attitude of intense deliberation. “Just remembered somethin’.”
“So, tell me,” Rob insisted, “how you finally hunted Midge Parker down?” They were travelling south on the Route 95 interstate just north of the New Hampshire state line.
“As I was leaving, the black woman remembered that Midge volunteered at the Unity Public Library. The reference librarian had taken her mother in to live with them when the older woman took sick with a stroke.” Up ahead a bridge spanning the Piscataqua River connecting Portsmouth with Kittery came into view. “The librarian’s mother hung on a couple of years in failing health. After the funeral the family was looking to rent out the in-law apartment. Because Midge seemed such a dependable sort, they offered it to her.”
“It’s just a single room with bathroom and shower, but Midge has kitchen privileges so she can cook and store food.” “Not,” Sarah added as a giddy afterthought, “that she would ever take advantage. The woman always ate like a bird.”
Rob shook his head and smiled wistfully. “If the black girl hadn’t remembered that Midge volunteered at the library, the trip would have been for not.” “She still drive that Volvo?”
Sarah shook her head. “Sold it and bought a three-speed bike with a straw basket strapped to the handlebars.” They passed a meadow overgrown with white trillium. “She had a falling out with her daughter. Elsa wanted a cash advance on her inheritance, but Midge told her to wait until her name appeared in the obituaries.”