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Yama's Visitor

 

 

Yama’s Visitor

a Novel

 

Ulf Wolf

 

Shakespir Edition

January 2017

 

 

Copyright

 

Yama’s Visitor

Copyright © 2017 by Wolfstuff

 

http://wolfstuff.com

 

 

All Rights Reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.

 

 

Shakespir License Notes

 

 

This eBook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This eBook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to Shakespir and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

 

::

Introduction

 

The Upanishads

The Upanishads are a collection of texts that contain some of the central philosophical concepts of Hinduism, some of which are shared with Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism. The Upanishads are considered by Hindus to contain utterances concerning the nature of ultimate reality (Brahman) and describing the character of and path to human salvation.

The Upanishads are commonly referred to as Vedanta, variously interpreted to mean either the “last chapters, parts of the Veda” or “the object, the highest purpose of the Veda.” The concepts of Brahman (Ultimate Reality) and Atman (Soul, Self) are central ideas in all the Upanishads, and “Know your Atman” their thematic focus.

The Upanishads are the foundation of Hindu philosophical thought and its diverse traditions. Of the Vedic corpus, they alone are widely known, and the central ideas of the Upanishads are at the spiritual core of Hindus.

More than 200 Upanishads are known, of which the first dozen or so are the oldest and most important and are referred to as the principal or main Upanishads. The mukhya Upanishads are found mostly in the concluding part of the Brahmanas and Aranyakas and were, for centuries, memorized by each generation and passed down orally. The early Upanishads all predate the Common Era, five of them in all likelihood pre-Buddhist (6th century BCE), down to the Maurya period. Of the remainder, some 95 Upanishads are part of the Muktika canon, composed from about the last centuries of 1st-millennium BCE through about 15th-century CE. New Upanishads, beyond the 108 in the Muktika canon, continued to be composed through the early modern and modern era, though often dealing with subjects which are unconnected to the Vedas.

Along with the Bhagavad Gita and the Brahmasutra, the mukhya Upanishads (known collectively as the Prasthanatrayi) provide a foundation for the several later schools of Vedanta.

With the translation of the Upanishads in the early 19th century they also started to attract attention from a western audience. Arthur Schopenhauer was deeply impressed by the Upanishads and called them “the production of the highest human wisdom.” Modern era Indologists have discussed the similarities between the fundamental concepts in the Upanishads and major western philosophers.

(Source: Wikipedia)

 

The Katha Upanishad

The Katha Upanishad is one of the mukhya (primary) Upanishads, embedded in the last short eight sections of the Kaṭha school of the Yajurveda. It is also known as Kathaka Upanishad, and is listed as number 3 in the Muktika canon of 108 Upanishads.

The Katha Upanishad consists of two chapters, each divided into three sections. The first chapter is considered to be of older origin than the second. The Upanishad is the legendary story of a little boy, Nachiketa— the son of sage Vajasravasa, who meets Yama (the Indian deity of death). Their conversation evolves to a discussion of the nature of man, knowledge, Atman (Soul, Self) and moksha (liberation).

The chronology of Katha Upanishad is unclear and contested, with Buddhism scholars stating it was likely composed after the early Buddhist texts (fifth century BCE), and Hinduism scholars stating it was likely composed before the early Buddhist texts in the first part of the 1st millennium BCE.

The Katha Upanishad is among the most well-known and widely studied.

(Source: Wikipedia)

 

Yama

Yama, also called Imra, is a god of death, the south direction and the underworld, belonging to an early stratum of Rigvedic Hindu deities. In Sanskrit, his name can be interpreted to mean “twin.” In the Zend-Avesta of Zoroastrianism, he is called “Yima.” According to the Vishnu Purana, his parents are the sun-god Surya and Sanjna, the daughter of Vishvakarman.

Yama is the brother of Sraddhadeva Manu and of his older sister Yami, which Horace Hayman Wilson indicates to mean the Yamuna. According to Harivamsa Purana her name is Daya.

In the Vedas, Yama is said to have been the first mortal who died. By virtue of precedence, he became the ruler of the departed, and is called Lord of ancestral spirits.

(Source: Wikipedia)

 

Yama’s Visitor

Naturally, the Katha Upanishad is set in ancient India. But what if it were set in today’s America? That is the premise of this novel.

The structure of the story novel follows the progression of the Katha Upanishad itself (as translated by Eknath Easwaran), beginning by quoting the first stanza of the Upanishad (italics), then proceeding to explore and interpret that quote in a current, American setting. Followed, then, by the next quote from the Upanishad and its current interpretation and dramatization—and so on, through the entire Katha Upanishad.

And this, for better or for worse, is the result.

 

::

 

Once, long ago, Vajasravasa gave away his possessions to gain religious merit.

 

Arthur Thelonious Sherry of 46 Rexford Circle, Birchdale, Maine, was doing tax battle again. That is to say, not he personally but by way of Waynemore Bland, his accountant of many years: a 43-year-old man who still lived at home with his mother, and who had lost none of his hair and made a point of wearing it long to prove it.

Arthur Sherry, who was losing his (no doubt about that) and wore it cropped to hide, or at best obscure, that fact, now sat in Bland’s deep visitor’s armchair and chewed his bottom lip, which made him look a bit like smiling, which he was not.

Not at all. Arthur was not happy. Not happy to be sitting in Bland’s office, for one. Bland should have had the foresight to arrange to come to him—even if the filing deadline was tomorrow, and Bland’s schedule was full. Instead he had gotten a lame “Sorry Art, can’t get away.”

And not at all happy that he still showed a profit. Too damn much of it. He looked across a yellow sea of lined paper at his accountant looking back at him. Way too much.

And lastly, not at all happy that he had had to bring Sebastian. So, unhappy all around, pretty much.

He stopped chewing his lip long enough to say, “So, it’s either the IRS or the charity of my choice. Is that what you’re saying, Wayne?”

“In a nutshell, yes.”

“And you didn’t see this coming?”

“I did see it coming. You saw it coming. We discussed it more than once.”

Arthur Sherry chose to ignore that.

“What is the damage, precisely?”

Bland ruffled through a sheaf of his lined yellow sheets, all covered with penciled calculations, rows and rows of them. He found what he was looking for. “Not less than half a million. Five fourteen, give or take the odd dollar.”

Arthur Sherry, on the pudgy side—liked food, hated exercise—shifted in his chair, which protested a little in return. Then he sighed, more for effect perhaps than from despair, leaned back and looked the accountant square in the face. “Half a million,” he repeated, not so much a question as an accusation. “Five hundred fourteen thousand dollars? That’s what you’re telling me?”

“Yes,” said Bland.

“Give or take the odd dollar?”

“The odd one, yes.”

“To charity?”

“Yes.”

“Or the IRS gets it?”

“Yes.”

“Well, I’ll be damned.”

“Yes.”

“The penalty of success,” he said, and shot a glance along with an unhappy smile his son’s way. “Take heed son, a valuable lesson: no success shall go unpunished.”

Sebastian looked at his father, but said nothing.

“Looks that way,” said Bland, and Sherry swung his head back in his direction.

Any recommendations?”

“Well,” said Bland. “All things considered, including the Public Relations angle, the world being what it is, I would suggest the Red Cross.”

“Or Green Peace,” said Sherry.

“Green Peace?” Bland looked slightly horrified.

“Joke, Wayne. That was a joke.”

“Ah.” Bland looked at his desk. Found a couple of pencils out of position. Moved them around to some other out of position.

“Remind me,” said Sherry. “How did we get around this problem last year?”

“We channeled the excess profits into a research trust.” Bland plucked the name from memory with ease, “The Sherry Geological Exploration Society.”

“Oh, yes. The Geological Exploration Society. The Sherry Geological Exploration Society.” He shot his son another glance, and another thin smile, inviting admiration. Hoping, at least on some level, that Sebastian was impressed. Then what the hell, he was only a kid, for crying out loud. He looked beyond Sebastian and out the window at a gray sky. Low handing clouds, would rain soon. Shifted again in his chair, could not get quite comfortable in his a little too tight suit and one size too small a shirt. The chair creaked another muffled protest.

His attention returned to the accountant. “So, let’s do the same this year.”

“Well,” Bland flipped back through his pages and pages. Then chose another pile, flipped through them. Found what he was looking for. “We’ve already done that.” And began reading from his notes, “Six hundred fifty thousand to the Sherry Geological, four hundred thousand to Inland Historical, and two hundred eighty-six thousand five hundred twelve, to be exact, to Southern Biological Survey.”

“And?”

“And we have exhausted existing tax law.”

“And we still?”

“And yes, we still.” Bland smiled, then sighed. Also for show, perhaps. “It is as you said, no success shall go unpunished.” A well-manicured accountant’s hand patted the many piles of paper on his desk. “And this proves it.” His patting disturbed one of his rogue No. 2 pencils which took to rolling then dived off the desk and onto the floor to his left. It did not make a sound as it hit the thick carpet.

Bland stopped patting and neatly bent over to pick it up. He put it back among its mates. Then ran this right hand through his long hair to coax it back into well-gelled place.

“Ah, what the hell,” said Sherry. “You’re right. Let’s go with the Red Cross. A good deed. And, as you said, PR mileage as well. And who knows,” he added, not quite as an afterthought, “if indeed there is a Heaven, it should be plenty enough to cover the admission-fee.”

He said this last in jest. Well, it was certainly meant to appear so, but his words brought a little more meaning along than he had intended. Once the words were said and on their way he realized they were in fact quite true, he meant them. And meant them not only as insurance, but as, as—he could not find, could not admit, perhaps, the feeling—as hope.

If the accountant noticed this, he did not let on. Instead he smiled at the quip. A quick polite smile while he again swept his hair back with his hand, a comforting if somewhat greasy reminder that he did not look like Sherry—wouldn’t ever, no signs of any, all still in place, none in his comb in the mornings—or he would have to wear his hair cropped as well.

Then he picked up one of his No. 2s, checked the tip for sharpness, made a note, looked up at Sherry and said, “Shall I make out a check then? To the Red Cross?”

“Yes,” said Sherry, and shifted again, getting ready to rise. “You do that.”

He heaved himself onto his feet. The chair sighed a muffled relief.

 

He had a son named Nachiketa who, though only a boy, was full of faith in the scriptures. Nachiketa thought when the offerings were made: “What merit can one obtain by giving away cows that are too old to give milk?”

 

It was not by choice that Arthur Sherry had brought his son Sebastian along to his meeting with the accountant. No, far from it. Business was business and any business was serious business, and since Sebastian was not yet old enough to partake, he would therefore, by definition, be in the way. Extraneous was as good word for it. Besides, and this did irk him, it would not even have been an issue, should not have been an issue, had Bland been able to come to his office, as he normally did. Accountants, he muttered, not quite audibly, at least those who plan their schedules properly, come to the Mountain, not the other way around.

And while we’re on the subject of accountants, why does he not just drop his other clients, can’t be that many, and move into the Sherry Building, where he belongs. Well, don’t get him started.

I cannot bring him, it’s a tax conference, surely you understand, honey, he tried. But Mrs. Sherry didn’t understand, had a tennis game, would not give it up—you know I play every Tuesday morning—and would not, absolutely not bring him to the game. Tennis was serious business and since Sebastian was too young to play, at least play well enough, and did not want to be a ball boy, and would never sit still (which was not true, he usually did) he would therefore, by definition, be in the way. Also, with Sebastian around, some important things that needed saying to one’s doubles partner and two opponents could not be said, little pitchers, long ears and all that.

And of course, on this day of all days, the maid had to be out sick. Off nursing some ailment or other, probably fictitious. And to cap it, there was the rule: Ever since the almost pool accident, Mr. and Mrs. Sherry would never, never, ever leave Sebastian home alone.

So, since he could not postpone, the filing deadline was the following day, he was—in a word—had. Cornered. Had to bring him. So he did. Had.

Sebastian, as if to prove his mother wrong, sat silently and mostly unmoving on a high, straight-backed chair against the wall. His jeansed legs and sneakered feet did not reach all the way to the floor, so instead they dangled slowly from the edge of the chair, falling asleep and tingling a little after a while. He shifted on the hard seat, tried to get comfortable. Tried again. He watched and listened, and shifted again. All this as quietly as he could.

He was not really bored, just uncomfortable. And shifted again. He watched his father make different and strange faces and talk and shift as well in Mr. Bland’s light-blue visitor’s armchair. He watched his father’s stomach strain against the tight shirt. He watched Mr. Bland fuss with his long, blond, gelled hair which really should be pulled back into some sort of tail, instead of greased like that, thought Sebastian. He watched his father chew his bottom lip, which made him look like he was smiling a sort of sad, thin smile.

And he watched his father’s thoughts.

For Sebastian had a gift. When he wanted to, and consciously decided to, Sebastian could see and hear other people’s thoughts. You would think that thoughts are invisible, but they are not. Not to the person who thinks them. Nor to the person who, like Sebastian, knows how to look and listen.

No, to those who can see and hear them, thoughts are more like three-dimensional movies that appear like landscapes around the thinker: scenes, small or not so small, with the thinker dead center like the invisible conductor of a thousand, thousand instrument orchestra—constantly changing, fading, rising, shifting, moving, telling.

Three-dimensional movies with sound and smell and feelings sprinkled in. Sometimes Sebastian saw and heard people’s thoughts better than the people who were thinking them.

At first, he didn’t think much of this, assuming, naturally, that this was normal—an everybody does. He discovered differently one day when he—and his was more like an involuntary knee-jerk answer than anything—denied having taken the last two pieces of chocolate out of the kitchen glass bowl, and his mother did not notice him lying. Instead, she simply looked at him hard, at his as-blank-and-as-innocent-as-possible face, and then smiled and said, all right then. Must have been Daddy. Or the maid.

She had not seen his thoughts, he realized.

He tried it again on another occasion, as a test this time. Twice with his father. And then once with the maid. Nope. They could not. That is when it finally came to him that he was indeed unique. Gifted. Raised. Blessed. Cursed. Aware. One or all of these things.

So, it was clear to Sebastian that although his father said it in jest, or attempted to, he did in fact think of heaven as he joked about the admission fee. And he thought of Saint Peter, old beyond age in a white tunic, standing guard at the Pearly Gates with a bearded and perpetual frown. His saintly frown, at least in his father’s thoughts, was either from mistrust—all kinds would probably try to sneak through—or perhaps from constantly scrutinizing admission tickets. Right now he was squinting and looking closely at his father’s slip of paper, upon which was clearly printed “$514,000.”

Saint Peter, who could probably do with glasses by the looks of it, held the ticket first closer then farther away from his face, then finally made out the amount, and looked impressed. Almost whistled. My, my. He looked from the ticket up at his father’s somewhat anxious face and smiled white and welcoming teeth. Waved the ticket: Not bad. Then he pressed a gilded button to his right which opened the gates of pearl to let his father enter.

His father, relieved now by the looks of it—very, actually—slid up to the gates and waited for them to open wide enough to slink through. Which he did, as soon as he could, just in case Saint Peter would have some sort of change of heart, and as soon as he was through he bolted down the golden road to yonder palace, clearly marked with a blinking neon sign the size of cloud, “Heaven.”

Then Sebastian saw what his father, still busy rushing for the safety of Hotel Heaven, did not: Saint Peter sadly shaking his head and tearing up the ticket he had taken from his father. Bits of heavenly ticket paper fluttering in the air before they simply vanished into sun dust. Then he set out for the real Pearly Gates, those that didn’t accept admission fees and printed tickets with amounts on them, but not before carefully locking the shiny fake ones behind his father’s vanishing figure.

 

To help his father understand this, Nachiketa said: “To whom will you offer me?” He asked this again and again. “To death I give you!” said his father in anger.

 

They did not speak in the elevator down from Bland’s tenth floor office. Sebastian was inspecting the ceiling mirror and wood paneling of the carpeted elevator while Arthur Sherry, blind to these surrounding details, continued to ponder five hundred fourteen thousand dollars that surely could be better spent, but then again, then again, it was a good deed, wasn’t it? A good, charitable, heaven-admissible deed, wasn’t it? He felt, tried to feel, drummed up the feeling of, piety. Strange feeling, but good in a way. Expensive though.

The elevator eased into a smooth stop and doors slid open onto the underground garage. Sherry looked through three pockets and one wallet before he found the parking ticket and offered it to the young man, boy really, who suddenly materialized nearby. The attendant, alert, took it, found the keys, found the car, backed it out, drove it up—way too fast. These monkeys should not be allowed to drive cars like his. He did not tip him, and the attendant retaliated by looking not a little snubbed, offended. Sebastian observing this, slipped him a dollar behind his father’s back. The attendant smiled very white teeth and winked at Sebastian.

 

In the car now. The rain has begun. In earnest. Arthur Sherry is weaving in and out of lanes to get past sluggards, as he calls them, shouldn’t be allowed to drive, should be kept off the road, sent back to wherever, he mutters. Sebastian doesn’t notice though, is not really bothered by the impulsive driving—as he normally would be, a little anyway—for he still ponders what he saw his father think back in Bland’s office, and what Saint Peter had thought of his father’s $514,000 bribe.

Sherry cuts across two lanes and cuts off a trucker (who blasts his fog horn as a thanks) and slides off the freeway at the familiar exit.

Sebastian looks over at his dad, it’s a concerned look. Sherry does not look back, but mutters something about truck drivers. Sebastian’s thoughts return to his father’s encounter with Saint Peter. And in the end—for he really loved his father, and in some matters, despite his age, he was the more mature of the two—he could not help but say, “I think you’d better come up with something better to sneak by Saint Peter.”

“What?” His father, intent now on making out the wet streets through the back and forth of the windshield wipers, quickly looks over at Sebastian, then back out into the rain. He grimaces and does not understand. That’s what his silence tells Sebastian, a silence that lasts for ten or so back and forths of the wipers.

“I don’t think he cared much for the $514,000 bribe,” Sebastian explains.

“Who are you talking about?”

“Saint Peter.”

“Oh, for heaven’s sake.”

“No, I don’t think he’ll let you in. You’re going to need a better sacrifice than that.”

This time his father doesn’t answer for so long that Sebastian thinks that maybe the conversation is over, when they suddenly veer right and into a largely empty parking lot. Sebastian moves his face closer to the window and peeks out and up into the rain at the large sign by the entrance. Billions served. McDonalds. Many, many cows. His dad chooses a spot, stops, pulls the emergency brake tight, with a loud, rapid series of angry clicks, looks straight ahead for a few seconds and then turns to face his son. His eyes holds something close to fear, a first cousin perhaps.

“What made you say that, Sebastian?”

“Well, it’s true, isn’t it?”

“How do you know?”

He shrugs. “I don’t know. I just do.”

“Well, it’s not, you know. True,” his father lies. “I was just kidding Waynemore. You know that, right?”

“No,” says Sebastian, “I don’t know that. You meant it, all right. And it just isn’t good enough. It’s just money. And money you would lose anyway. That is not a true sacrifice. It’s like offering cows that no longer give milk. Useless. Meaningless.”

His father falls silent, again for a long time. This time, though, he does not take his eyes off his son. “Well, what is, then? A true sacrifice.” he says in the end.

Sebastian is not sure how best to make his father see, and thinks about this for a while. Then he says, “It must be something heartfelt and meaningful.”

His father does not answer, and does not look away.

“Only by sacrificing cherished possessions can you expect merit in return.”

His farther still does not answer, but looks at his son as if seeing instead a father.

“What do you cherish?” asks Sebastian.

“I don’t know,” says Sherry, too stunned to really think.

“Do you love me?” asks Sebastian.

“Of course,” without really thinking. “Of course I do.”

“No really. Do you love me?”

“Yes, Sebastian, I love you,” he says then, thinking this time.

“Then,” he answers, “you should sacrifice me.”

“You?”

“Yes, you should sacrifice me. Offer me to Saint Peter.”

“You?”

“Yes.” And says for a third time, “You should sacrifice me.”

“As in… sacrifice, how?”

“You could burn me. Like Abraham did Isaac. Or maybe run me over with your car. Shoot me. Perhaps drown me.”

“Oh, Christ, Sebastian. You’re kidding, right?” Not so sure.

“No, I am not.”

“Then, you’re, you’re crazy. Positively.”

“No. I am not.”

“Yes, you are.”

“No, I mean it. Sacrifice me.”

“I can’t sacrifice you. You know that. I can’t kill you. That’s absurd.”

“I think you should. If you really love me. And if you really want to get past Saint Peter.”

“I do love you, I do. And I’m not going to kill anyone, least of all you.”

“I think you should, Dad.”

His father throws his hands into the shallow sky of the car and lands them on the steering wheel with a thud.

“You’re impossible.”

“If you want to get into heaven,” says Sebastian, intending to say more.

“Oh, if you’re so damn anxious to be sacrificed, Sebastian, I wish Death would come and take you,” interrupts his father, angry now. Loudly. It’s like a little explosion. His face a dark-eyed eruption of exasperation.

 

Then silence. A mist had begun to form on the inside of the windows. The wipers still did their to and fro in polite unison, and with little clicks. Sebastian said nothing, a little shocked at the sudden reaction. His father, looking straight ahead, clutching the steering wheel, sweating a little around his temples, said nothing. Echoing still. And still meaning it. The rain drumming the roof of the car surrounded everything.

 

The son thought: “I go, the first of many who will die, in the midst of many who are dying, on a mission to Yama, king of death.”

 

Since Death is indeed a good listener—with his ear to the ground of every end of every road, and since he will grant nearly any wish—if coveted deeply and addressed to Him specifically, and since his father on this rainy day had found Death’s ear square on and had loudly and deeply meant his wish, Sebastian soon found himself no longer in a car parked at the rain-glistered edge of a McDonald’s parking lot (its windshield wipers still to and froing with their soft click), but in a different place altogether:

At the head of a long line of children mostly his age, but immediately following an even longer line of cowled and weeping women, he was walking slowly, ceremonially, towards an at first distant, then gradually—step by ceremonial step—less distant, hole in the soaring mountain face ahead; heading, step by step, for a waiting, tongueless maw he knew only served to swallow. The children behind him were all dead, though not really. The women ahead of him were all dead, though not really. And ahead of them, and behind the children, the men. And behind the men, women, then children, then men, then women, then children, then too far away to determine anything but line, and line, and line to beyond the remote horizon, where it disappeared as a thin thready smudge on the desert floor or the desert sky—impossible to tell which.

Ceremonially: each slow step—for some it was more like a shuffle, feet never quite leaving dirt—was followed by an even slower stillness: a brief wait. The soft beat of a hibernating heart. Each foot then, upon landing (or arriving), grew a small cloud of red dust as sandal, boot, shoe, sole, found the ground. Sebastian looked back again over the heads of many children, relieved by those of men, then by those of women, all swaying to the song of rising, swinging, falling feet into dust: a snake, snaking its long, long way from he didn’t know how far toward the expectant mountain throat.

The dust stirred by a million feet coloring the sky red. Ahead, again, the line of cowled heads now and then sprouted arms that reached for the sandy sky, and then, vertebra by vertebra the dusty snake slithered into the mountain and down into the bowels of the Earth, if Earth this was.

So, his father had heard him, after all. Had understood. Had indeed sacrificed him. Wonder how he had done that?

When after a time—days, months, hard to say with a heart this asleep—the line, and he with it, neared the dark mountain yawn, he could make out Yama, the King of Death, tall and dark by the entrance, clipboard in one hand, pen in the other, taking his endless inventory. As each of the women ahead now reached him, He surveyed each cowled face closely, asked a question or two, listening carefully, then consulting his list, checking it twice, as if to establish naughty or nice. Asking other questions as needed, clarifying, just making sure, checking his list again, now and then making a note, very much making very sure was the feeling Sebastian got; and could well understand for Death’s determination would have consequence. Best to make very, very sure.

Of course.

But Sebastian, his father’s sacrifice to Death, had begun to feel a little uncertain: What would I matter to Death, so rich in dead, he thought. I am only one among so many, many. Perhaps, on balance, this wasn’t such a good idea. Of what possible use could I, a young boy, plucked out of a rained-on car, be to Yama? Just one among all these many to choose from. Perhaps I’m not such a good sacrifice after all, he thought.

Closer and closer. He looked around again. At the unending line behind him, at the mountain face ahead, towering now, almost leaning out over him, at Yama, tall, busy stooping, asking, checking his list, asking again, and finally, almost at the maw now and not so much dust raised by ceremonial feet to contend with, beyond Yama, far along the mountain face to the south—felt like south, anyway—Sebastian could make out another maw, another gape in the rock. A twin opening.

 

“See how it was with those who came before, how it will be with those who are living. Like corn mortals ripen and fall; like corn they come up again.”

 

Yes. Far to the south (it sure felt like south), many miles away, the mountain yawned again and Sebastian could now see, through the now dust-free dusk, how the snake, this endless string—each pearl, each vertebra a soul—returned into air, coughed up by the mountain, then threaded its way into the desert and out over the rim of a different horizon, only to return, he realized, only to return, he realized, only to return, only to return, return, return, like an immense, slowly—very slowly—spinning wheel, to the beating of a heart vaster yet.

Then he found himself at the very lips of the mountain. Yama, to his right, who stood at least seven feet tall and was really quite handsome, looked down at him. A long look. His eyes (black within black, they seemed) returned to his clipboard.

“Name?” More a wind than a voice.

“Sebastian.”

“Last name?”

“Sherry.”

“Sebastian Sherry?”

“Yes, sir.”

Yama examined his sheet, then flipped through to the next, then to the next.

“Sebastian Sherry?”

“Yes, sir.”

Yama looked up from his examination and held Sebastian’s eyes with his stillness. “What are you doing here? You’re not due yet.”

“Well, perhaps not,” answered Sebastian, and told the story about his father and the Pearly Gates.

“I see,” said Yama, appearing indeed to see. “Look,” he said, and leaned closer to Sebastian’s face, quite a stooping. Then all but whispered with a breath that Sebastian did not find at all unpleasant, “You don’t want to go down there just yet. Not your time. I tell you what: why don’t you wait in my trailer. I’ll come and see you a little later, once my shift is over.” Then He pointed with his pen to a shiny silver cigar some ways off to the right, south-westish (if south was indeed south). “Then we can talk.”

“Okay,” said Sebastian, half relieved, half mystified, and trotted off. Nobody else seem to mind. There were no yells of “Hey, what about him?” from anyone. Perhaps no one noticed.

It was quite a hike.

 

Nachiketa went to Yama’s abode, but the king of death was not there. He waited three days.

 

The trailer lay farther off by far than it had at first appeared to do. And as Sebastian slowly made his way toward it across the gravelly dusk, he realized why: it was huge. It was much larger than he had at first thought, and growing only slowly as he approached.

On his way to the trailer—there was no rush, Yama was still on the job, no signs of leaving yet—he stopped now and then to look again at the snake, the human wheel, stepping in such slow, sad unison, step, wait, step, wait, step, wait, like clockwork, tick, tock, tick, tock, like a star’s hibernating heart, di-dum… di-dum… di-dum… di-dum.

Unmistakably human, that line of heads and feet, heads and feet, heads and feet, where he had just left it, and still presumably human where the mountain heaved, far to the south. Sebastian strained to see, to ascertain, but could still only surmise.

In his mind, he could see the full wheel, the immense circle, necklace, chain that he felt sure connected all the way. But he wanted to see this with his eyes. He wanted to take it in and understand it completely. And so, he tried to rise high into the sandy and light-fading sky to view the wheel in its entirety, but try as he might, he could not, not even an inch. Too much gravity, too much mountain nearby, too many reasons why this should not be possible, and since he agreed with too many of these reasons he had to settle for the short segments he could view from where he stood, earthbound: The nearby crawling into and the distant out of, Yama’s towering mountain.

So, he set out again. The sand was part dust part tiny rocks, nothing in between (nothing like, say, the sand of a beach). Either dust or rock here—jaggedy pebbles by the millions. Very painful to walk on, without sandals, he imagined. Glad for his. They were well-made with good, thick soles.

As the silver cigar drew closer and closer.

He thought briefly of his dad, alone in the rain-imprisoned car, wondering no doubt what on earth had happened to Sebastian. But it had been his wish, albeit prompted by Sebastian, and surely, he knew that. Not panicking then, Sebastian hoped. Knowing, at least on some plane, what had happened to his son. Perhaps even a little enlightened now, realizing that you get what you wish for, especially where Death is concerned. And perhaps a little more alive with the sacrifice he had just made. This was Sebastian’s hope.

Then the silver cigar was nearly upon him and his thoughts turned to the size of this thing. Would you look at that. What, hundred and fifty, two hundred feet? Perhaps longer.

He stopped to look. Had never seen anything quite like it. Had seen trailers, of course, many of the silver cigar persuasion, but none this size. This just went on and on. Then he arrived at four high steps—no doubt made for Yama’s much-longer-than-his legs—which he negotiated with some difficulty. Scaling would be a better word than stepping.

He reached the door, handle at eye-level. He tried it. It was not locked and the door swung open, silently on noiseless hinges.

Before entering, he turned to take a last look at the wheel. Tick, tock, one by one, Yama hardly discernible in the fading light, stooping still, checking his list, Sebastian more than likely forgotten already. He turned again and negotiated the threshold.

Inside, the trailer seemed even larger. Endless. Much bigger than his house on Ewitt Lane, much bigger. The biggest ever silver cigar on wheels (did this thing actually have wheels? Sebastian had not thought of looking; thought briefly of stepping back out to check, but changed his mind). And very clean. Yes, sir. Clean and orderly. Death was meticulous or had a very good housekeeper, or both.

From within, the only thing that hinted at a trailer was that he could see the opposite side some forty feet in front of him, the width of th thing. To his left, however, down the length of the trailer, it seemed to go on forever. No end in sight, literally. More like a large, well-appointed submarine than a trailer.

He found himself in an entryway the size of a respectable room. Shoe rack to his right, two pairs of very large sandals on it. Yama’s surely. Place for coats, robes, even a shelf for, I guess, hats, thought Sebastian. Uncarpeted. Not hardwood, but a close relative. Sebastian could not make it out. Not linoleum either. Not stone. Wood of some sort, must be. He turned left and crossed the floor.

The next room, at least twice the size of the entryway: Several sofas, deep, with white, black, red, and blue pillows. A thick grayish carpet here, and as it turned out, throughout the rest of the trailer. Looked like shag initially, but the pile was finer, and a little shorter. And wonderful to walk on. He removed his shoes (and socks) and brought them back to the shoe rack, where they were dwarfed by Yama’s pairs. Walking back across the bare floor in his bare feet, the wood, yes surely wood, felt cool and almost glassy smooth to his feet. Back onto the carpet which now gave him the feeling of walking on the back of some enormous kitten. On very happy feet he strode down and into the heart of the cigar.

The next room: Obviously a library. Walls covered floor to ceiling with books of many kinds. Paperbacks, antique leather—well crafted, some, others bestseller cheap. Some original manuscripts in glass displays, he could make out one Shakespeare and three Blakes, and what looked like a small version of the Gutenberg Bible, or did it look smaller than he remembered this bible to be because everything else was larger? He wasn’t quite sure. But there was no doubt Death was well read, or at the least He was very fond of books.

Another room: This looked like a communication central with phones, screens, routers, multiplexers, dim light, no windows here.

There was a slight hum from the many fans to cool the equipment. So very many little blinking lights: a galaxy of technology.

A game room: These were serious games. Two very ornate chess sets, all set up and ready for the first move. A third, simply styled in light and dark steel. He picked up the black rook, and almost dropped it onto, into, the soft carpet. It must have weighed two, perhaps three pounds. It took his hand, which had expected something much lighter, by surprise. Could be painted gold, or platinum. Yes, most likely platinum. He returned the rook to its southwest corner.

A large snooker table. He ran his hand along the edge. No dust. Not a mote. Still, everything seemed so, so utterly undisturbed that dust should cover everything. Should, but didn’t. Someone cleaned really well, and often. A beautiful dart board. A go board, with two what looked like ebony bowls with black and white stones respectively. A set of mahjongg tiles, lined up and ready for action. He picked up one of the dust free bamboos, not ivory, heavier, more substantial. Replaced it. He could still hear the equipment humming next door in the communications room, the blinking, humming galaxy. Other than that, things were very quiet. No sounds entering from the outside.

Then a bedroom. Then another. And a reading room. Also with many books (although not as crowded with them as the library) and with a large, well-worn leather armchair beside a tall reading light.

Then an office. Telephones, another computer. Two baskets: In and Out. Paperwork. Sebastian ran his finger along the edge of the desk. Not a mote of dust here either. Especially considering the air outside, red with the fine stuff. Exceptional cleaners. And, he reflected, or, very good filters.

Then a guestroom. This was a guess. Then another.

But no kitchen. Nary a one. Sebastian was thirsty and was now looking for something to drink. Water, pop, anything. A fridge. Milk. But no. He journeyed still deeper through many more rooms, some obviously more like closets, storage rooms, even an incredibly well-equipped (no surprise there) cleaning room. But no kitchen. By the time he reached the end of the now confirmed to be kitchenless trailer his throat, who had been promised something to drink, was clamoring for liquid. But nothing to be found. Not a thing.

Sebastian made his way back through the many, many rooms. Another thing, he realized: there were no televisions (the one thing Sebastian always counts as he enters a place for the first time—he thinks of this count as the place’s “stupidity index,” the more the stupider). He finally made it all the way back to the penultimate room, the one with the sofas.

He picked one of them and sat down, sank down, to wait.

And he waited.

And waited.

And waited.

 

When Yama returned, he heard a voice say: “When a spiritual guest enters the house, like a bright flame, he must be received well, with water to wash his feet. Far from wise are those who are not hospitable to such a guest. They will lose all their hopes, the religious merit they have acquired, their sons and their cattle.”

 

Yes, Sebastian waited—shifting back and forth on the amazingly comfortable sofa—that whole evening and that whole night, and for two more days and for two more nights he waited for Death to come see him and talk with him as he had promised.

Still Yama did not come.

How long was his shift? Sebastian thought many times, and many times also thought of going back out to the wheel to remind Yama that he was still waiting for him. But then he figured that if Yama knew it wasn’t his time to die yet, then for sure he would know that he was still waiting for him in his trailer. So he stayed put, now sitting, now slouching, now reclining altogether, now sitting up again, shifting, trying the other sofa, as amazingly soft, as amazingly comfortable, then back to the original, and mostly worked at not feeling so very, very thirsty, which involved some very drawn out conversations with his throat, sprinkled with many, many promises.

He thought several times of reading, but was afraid of touching anything, especially something Yama seemed to treasure. What if he broke it, or soiled it, or something. So he shifted again, slouched again, sat upright again and for long spells literally rolled his thumbs, something he had seen people who wait do in old movies, first this way, then reverting the roll, then reverting again, but he soon realized that it’s a movie trick and does not make time rush past any faster no matter which way you roll them.

Then he fell asleep, stretched out on the sofa which embraced him like a cloud. He slept very well, didn’t dream, didn’t shift, simply slept.

The first morning thirst was joined by hunger, and together they made a real fuss, clamor, clamor. Okay, he would look again.

He got up, stretched, and explored the entire trailer, from stem to stern, again and again, opening every door, entering every room, but there was not a single kitchen in the thing. Nothing even remotely like it. Not a fridge. Not a faucet. Nothing. Well, he did find a bathroom, two, three, but they were all of the dry kind—not unlike those on airplanes—flushing with a great suction and a minimum amount of blue liquid that smelled very clean and didn’t strike him as good for his stomach, the urging of his throat notwithstanding. But no faucets. No water to wash with (or drink). Instead there was an ample supply of moist hand wipes, antiseptic, fragrant, but entirely undrinkable.

Maybe outside somewhere? he thought, but he could not remember anything other than this trailer. Nothing attached to it at all, not in front, not at the back.

Perhaps he should go and ask Yama, he thought, where’s the water, but he didn’t want to leave. Yama had asked him to wait here, so he had better. He was not a child—well he was—but he was mature as well. He could make it, not a problem. Well, not not a problem, just not an insurmountable one.

Yama was not very considerate, though, he thought. Not a very good host. By the morning of the third day Sebastian thought that perhaps Yama indeed had forgotten about him. Perhaps he’d gotten tied up with problems, checking lists, people missing, or unexpected additions. Or anything.

His throat, now parched, had begun to quiet down—from exhaustion. His stomach too was beyond growling, but had begun to ache instead. Or, he thought, could this be some kind of test? Could be. He wasn’t sure. But test or no test, whatever it was, it sure was rude.

Then, it’s now late afternoon on the third day, he heard swift feet up the steps to the door and the smooth swing of hinges as someone entered along with the sound and smell of the almost forgotten world outside.

 

Yama: O spiritual guest, I grant you three boons to atone for the three inhospitable nights you have spent in my abode. Ask for three boons, one for each night.

 

The door closed again and the silence returned. This thing sure was well insulated. He heard Yama take off his shoes or sandals, remove something, a cape perhaps, had he worn one? Sebastian didn’t remember. Then more silence as Sebastian more felt than heard Yama approach. The carpet seemed to live on sound, devouring every little scrap of it coming its way.

Suddenly, there he was: Yama, all seven or so feet of him, all arrived, and actually making the trailer rock ever so slightly. Sebastian looked up, a little alarmed but a lot relieved that he had not been completely forgotten.

“Oh, gosh, I’m really sorry. I got carried away with work, as usual. It just never ends. You just slipped my mind. So sorry.” Yama said all this in one long breath. Sebastian could tell that he had been if not running at least hurrying, though his breath was already slowing.

“I could do with more help,” Yama added after inhaling once.

Then he sat down in a deep armchair opposite Sebastian. The chair, Sebastian could have sworn, adjusted itself to Yama’s frame, embracing him, welcoming him. “How can I make this up to you?”

“Well,” said Sebastian, and doing his best not to sound impudent or anything, “some water would be really nice.”

“Oh, of course. I am so sorry. So, so sorry.” Yama pressed a smooth silver button built in to the side of the little glass and steel table to his right which rang a bell somewhere that sounded both nearby and far away. Within a minute, it could not have been more than that, a young woman—of normal size—in a white, not un-nun-like tunic, appeared with two tall, water-filled glasses on a silver tray. Dew, like perspiration, had sprung to their sides and now a drop, now a second gathered itself and set out down the cooling side to find the tray. Sebastian could smell the promise of water from where he sat, and this woke his throat up which now actually gasped, a sort of deserty last gasp—and definitely a little louder than needed, possibly to make a point. Yama took the tray from the girl, who then quickly vanished (pretty much literally), and handed Sebastian one of the glasses. The other he brought to his own mouth and emptied in three long swallows. Sebastian drank too, slowly. Could not finish. The chill went to his head and seized it like a cold steel band. He had to stop. Took a deep breath. Tried again. Downed some more. Swallow by careful swallow. Did finish. Still thirsty, said the throat. So Sebastian asked for some more. Which arrived. And was slowly finished.

And now, his stomach cooled through and through and not aching so much, he felt refreshed. Restored would be the word. He still cradled the tall glass.

Then Yama spoke again. “Sebastian. I apologize for my rude inhospitality, and I want to make it up to you. I normally don’t treat my guests like this, I assure you. There was severe flooding in Pakistan. So many children. I could not leave. I simply forgot. I hope you can forgive me.”

“Sure,” said Sebastian.

“What I will do,” said Yama, “is grant you three boons to atone for the three nights you have spent here, waiting for me. Ask me for three boons, one for each night.”

“Boons?” said Sebastian.

“Gifts, wishes. I will make them come true. I promise.”

“Three wishes,” said Sebastian. Smiled and added, “Like in the fairy tales?”

“Yes,” said Yama. “Like in the fairy tales.”

“Ah, yes,” said Sebastian and put the second glass back on its tray with a soft little tinkle. Food, said his stomach, as if it had overheard Yama’s offer. Food, you idiot, ask for food.

Well, he was very hungry, no doubt about that, but there was no way he was going to waste one of Death’s boons—as he thought of them—on something as pedestrian as food. You’ll just have to wait, he answered the now again growler. I’m sure he’ll feed us soon enough without us wasting boons. Boons. Funny word.

He looked at Yama. The first really good look (now that his throat had finally shut up and his stomach had agreed to wait a while). Although large and quite imposing, and with very dark eyes and small impatient black wings for eyebrows, he did not look at all fearful, where he sat looking back at Sebastian and waiting for him to speak. The first of his wishes. Take your time, said his waiting. I have all day.

And so said his hands which rested peacefully in his lap. And so said his long, strong fingers as they absently caressed each other. And so said his smile. A soft, knowing perhaps, smile. A patient smile.

Time passed, and quite a lot of it, while Sebastian thought. Still Yama didn’t move, or fidget, or press, or in any other way—overt or covert—tell Sebastian to get a move on. He was more just a large waiting presence, he was someone with all the time in the world, and someone quite interested in the waiting process it seemed. Not very human at all. Which, of course, he wasn’t.

Sebastian’s thoughts roamed and roamed. Seeking what to wish for. He knew that this was opportunity with a very capital O. Worth pondering.

And pondering. Now, when it came to reading, Sebastian was nothing if not precocious. That’s why, sitting in an enormous silver cigar, somewhere rocky and dusty, facing Death himself, he suddenly thought of Pierce Moffett, the only person he knew who had ever, for real, faced the same—well not really dilemma, there was nothing distasteful about these choices—the same precarious choices, then. Then Sebastian had to correct himself: for real. For real, no not for real real, but still, intellectually just as. For Pierce Moffett was both real and not to Sebastian. As real as any man, yes, but not alive as any man. Pierce Moffett was a mutual creation: John Crowley’s and his. Mr. Crowley dreamed him up first, then Sebastian dreamed him up again, based on Mr. Crowley’s dream, which he had called Aegypt. Moffett was the main character. History buff. Expert ponderer-cum-wisher.

Pierce Moffett had approached the problem of three wishes (boons—he could not get over that word) with more than just passing interest and attention. He, Moffett, claimed—were he ever to be granted three wishes by the power of a djinn, or a fairy godmother, or a ring curiously inscribed, etc.—he would not be entirely unprepared, though not entirely ready either.

Initially, of course, Moffett saw no difficulty at all: you simply used the third of your three wishes to gain three more, and so on ad infinitum, and that would be that. No problem. Endless wishing. But Moffett, same as Sebastian now, had some misgivings about that. Something too pat about that.

No, there would only be three, and there was to be no cheating the granter by extending the three to six, to nine, to twelve, to fourteen thousand, there were only to be the three. So, consider well, and wish wisely.

Moffett had considered at length, had deeply imagined, and confronted in detail, his wishes actually coming true, and had as no person, real or otherwise, that Sebastian had ever in his young life encountered, faced the possibility that they might. Had considered the merciless obligation of the granter to actually grant the precise thing wished for. So you must be careful. And Moffett had read and absorbed the lessons of many a cautionary tale where wishes, horribly misused, had turned against their wishers, where misspoken or carelessly framed wishes had tumbled the greedy, and the thoughtless, into self-made abysses. Moffett knew that wishing three times was no child’s play, as did Sebastian, his age notwithstanding.

However, Moffett was not Sebastian. His circumstances were different, were theoretical (Moffett, for crying out loud, was theoretical). Sebastian and his circumstances were not. Yama was real, and waiting—patiently.

Still, Sebastian recalled Moffett’s first two wishes. Mundane, on the surface, but well thought out. Practical. He had wished, first of all, for the lifelong and long-lived mental and physical health and safety of himself and of those whom he loved, nothing asked for in a subsequent wish to abrogate this. Simple. But prudent. It was a good choice. Perhaps.

Moffett’s second wish, as prudent, was for an income. Not a burdensomely immense one, but one sufficient. One safe from the fluctuations of economic life, requiring little or no attention on his, Moffett’s, part and not distorting his natural life and career: a winning lottery ticket along with some careful investment advice, being the general idea. Something that would leave him ethically intact. No cheating. Just making life a little more effortlessly livable. Stacking the odds in his favor, really, was what Moffett was going for. Anything else: instant success, immense riches, all these were more like selling your soul to the Devil than prudently wishing. Yes, there was a lot to learn from Moffett.

As to the third one, the odd one, the rogue one. Well, Moffett had yet to settle on it. He was still framing and parsing that one. He had dismissed ‘world peace’ and suchlike enormous altruisms as unworkable or worse. No one could be wise enough to gauge the impact of imposing such far reaching abstractions upon the world. Same for ‘end of world hunger.’ What would happen to humanity if they no longer would have to worry about food. Perhaps the very end result of that wish would be the demise of a race. Death of all. You could never really tell. Moffett was a wise man. If you will the end, he had cleverly realized, you must axiomatically also will the means. And, by the same axiom, you must will any and all side effects appertaining thereunto. Careful what you wish for, you might get it.

And that is where Sebastian had left Moffett, on his bus ride through the Faraway Hills, still considering all the angles, all the options, working out the accurate framing, the precise working, of his third, world-changing wish. He was still pondering as the landscape rumbled by. Leaving Sebastian to fend for himself.

Yama still waiting. Patiently.

Returning from Moffett, and seeing Yama again, perhaps now wondering what Sebastian was up to, Sebastian’s thoughts fell on the reason he was there: as he had left him, still sitting in a soaked car, clutching the steering wheel, perhaps making out the fast food restaurant through the click, click of the wipers, perhaps seeing nothing, perplexed perhaps, sad perhaps, still in the dark about what had happened to him, and even more so, to Sebastian: he thought of his father. For he really did love him; that is why, why he had baited him, had lured the curse out of him: love.

Worried now, really worried. What happened? Where had Sebastian gone to? What had made him vanish like that? Even though, surely, in his heart he knew—didn’t he?—that it had been his wish, his angry curse that had sent his son hurling up and out of the car to this place, as Death’s visitor. Surely, he knew. Or maybe not.

Either way, they had not parted amicably, and Sebastian wanted no rift between them. Not between father and son. Not when love was the reason. And seeing his father thus, confused, still touched by anger, though now also by fear, he strayed some ways from Moffett’s road of reasoning and decided on his first wish.

 

Nachiketa: O king of death, as the first of these boons grant that my father’s anger be appeased, so he may recognize me when I return and receive me with love.

 

Sebastian looked up at Yama. “I have decided on my first boon.”

“Good. What is it?”

He took a deep breath, and said, “I wish that my father will no longer be angry with me, and that he will understand what happened to me and that he will think well of me and be happy to see me when I return. That is my first wish.”

Yama smiled, then shifted slightly, which the armchair seemed to like: it not so much groaned as sighed. Yama nodded, and Sebastian had the feeling that he had wished just right.

 

Yama: I grant that your father, the son of Uddalaka and Aruna, will love you as in the past. When he sees you released from the jaws of death, he will sleep again with a mind at peace.

 

Yama said, “It is done. Your father understands what has happened, he still thinks well of you and he will be happy to see you when you return.” Then Yama added, with another, separate smile, “We’ll count that as one, although…”

Sebastian looked a little worried.

“Although, technically speaking, those were three different wishes.” Yama, now noticing Sebastian’s face, quickly added. “Oh, don’t look so alarmed, I’ll treat them as three sub-wishes making up one whole. Not to worry.”

 

Nachiketa: There is no fear at all in heaven; for you are not there, neither old age nor death. Passing beyond hunger and thirst and pain, all rejoice in the kingdom of heaven. You know the fire sacrifice that leads to heaven, O king of death. I have full faith in you and ask for instruction. Let this be your second boon to me.

 

Sebastian relaxed and thanked Yama for granting his wish, his one wish.

Also, knowing his father would understand, he felt that kind of relief that makes you realize you had been more worried than you had been aware of. Sebastian was forgiven and now felt lighter of heart.

Then another aspect of Yama’s promise touched him with a small thrill: he would indeed go back, for his father, Yama had just said so, would be happy to see him when he returned. So, he would return. Another worry he had not quite acknowledged, gone.

He could picture his father embracing him and knew anew that he had wished just right. He thanked Yama again, who nodded pleasantly and waited for his second wish. Go, on, take your time. Sebastian liked this man, or whatever he truly was. Three long days of thirsty, hungry waiting notwithstanding, Yama turned out to be quite considerate, and not a little understanding.

Sebastian took his time. He looked into many corners of his mind for desires, hopes, wishes, questions, dreams, any of which Yama, all relaxed with his great peaceful hands in his lap, was prepared to fulfill or answer. Then he remembered.

“I have read,” said Sebastian, who was nothing if not precocious when it came to reading, “that there is no fear in heaven. That there is no old age, no Alzheimer’s disease, no Parkinson’s, no pain, no memory loss, no arthritis, no death even, for you are not there. I have read that heaven is free of you. I have also read that good people, by helping others and by living virtuous lives grow beyond both old age and death and come to live in heaven, happily, beyond hunger and thirst and sorrow.”

Yama listened attentively. And when Sebastian did not continue right away, he said, “This is all true.”

“What?” Sebastian busy looking for his next words, didn’t hear.

“What you say about heaven is all true.”

“Yes. Thank you.”

“Please continue.”

“I have also read,” continued Sebastian, having found them, “that those in heaven attain immortality. That they never die. And I have read that you, Yama, know the Way, that you know the path that leads there. That you know all about the sacred fire which guides and lifts us there. Explain this fire to me, please. Make me understand it. That is my second wish.”

Yama sat still for a while, looking at Sebastian first, then bowed his head, looking instead at his hands. Then he nodded several times, as much to himself as to Sebastian.

 

Yama: Yes, I do know, Nachiketa, and shall teach you the fire sacrifice that leads to heaven and sustains the world, that knowledge concealed in the heart. Now listen.

 

“Yes, Sebastian,” said Yama. “I know this fire. I know the path that leads to those infinite worlds which you call heaven, and I know that this fire is what these worlds are made from. I know this fire, and I know that this fire is not a fire. I know this fire, as shall you, as do you, when you find where in your heart you have hidden it.”

“But how shall I find it?” asked Sebastian.

“Listen,” said Yama.

 

Then the king of death taught Nachiketa how to perform the fire sacrifice, how to erect the altar for worshipping the fire from which the universe evolves. When the boy repeated his instructions, the dread king of death was well pleased.

 

The King of Death then told Sebastian how the world had begun from fire, from Brahma’s initial thought of infinite violence unfolding like a fist and erupting in universes flung apart and still fleeing each other to this day, creating space as they race into what is not yet space.

He told this tale in long and great detail.

Sebastian listened with all his heart, hunger and thirst and time forgotten. When Yama finished his tale the sky outside had darkened and a soft light now spread through the trailer from hidden sources somewhere in the ceiling. The outside wind had died down, and all was quiet except from the distant heartbeat of the great wheel.

Sebastian, however, noticed none of this for he was filled with Yama’s tale, listening to the many echoes rising in his heart from the tale’s passing, filling him, filling him, lifting him, returning him. Finally, finding his thoughts at the very doorstep of time, Sebastian asked, “What was there before then?”

Yama looked curiously at Sebastian, and did not smile. Instead he leaned back, closed his eyes and recited:

 

At first there was neither Being nor Nonbeing.

There was not air nor yet sky beyond.

What was its wrapping? Where? In whose protection?

Was water there, unfathomable and deep?

In the beginning, Love arose,

Which was the primal germ cell of the mind.

The seers, searching in their hearts with wisdom,

Discovered the connection of Being in Nonbeing.

Who really knows? Who can presume to tell it?

Whence was it born? Whence issued this creation?

Even the gods came after its emergence.

Then who can tell from what or whence it came to be?

 

The stillness that followed remained long unbroken.

“Wow,” said Sebastian finally, a little stunned by the depth of Yama’s words.

“Yes,” said Yama.

“Did you make that up? This, this…?”

“Hymn? No, no. Not me,” said Yama. “These words are the Nasadiya Sukta, which was given with the Vedas at the dawn of time, along with the world.”

Sebastian said nothing.

Yama added, “A brief owner’s manual, if you will. It is sometimes called the basis of the Upanishads.”

“Given?” said Sebastian.

“Some say by Brahma.”

Sebastian did not know what to answer. He re-listened to the words and tried, and tried again, to imagine the wrapping, what was the not air and not yet sky into which the universe exploded, but his thought would not, could not find footing. There was nothing there to think with. Nothing there to think. He shook his head.

“You doubt me?” said Yama with a smile.

Sebastian looked up, surprised at the question, then realized. “Oh, no, no. I believe you. It’s the nonbeing, the wrapping I cannot fathom.”

Yama smiled again, like a father will sometimes smile to a son. “I,” said Yama, “cannot fathom this. And I have had time to ponder.”

“But surely,” began Sebastian.

“You would think,” said Yama, “but like yours, my thoughts find no footing. They find no beginning to think from.”

“You see my thoughts?” said Sebastian, a little surprised, almost alarmed at first but then remembered who he was speaking to.

“Yes.”

“I can see people’s thoughts,” said Sebastian, a little proud.

“I know.”

“Not yours though.”

“I know.”

Sebastian fell silent, as did Yama. For a minute, perhaps two. Then Yama said, seeing Sebastian’s question form even before Sebastian himself was fully aware of it, “The secret is no secret. The fire melts the shackle.”

He said it like the opening line of another hymn, which it was.

“The secret is no secret. The fire melts the shackle,” repeated Sebastian, “I don’t understand.”

Yama did not clarify. Instead he recited the hymn from the beginning.

 

The secret is no secret

The fire melts the shackle

Form is no form

Way is no way

Whether stick or brick

Whether large or small

Is the builder’s care

No larger care cares

Form is a rail

Way is a rail

Guides for the blind

And should as shackles

Along with the senses

Along with sacrifice itself

Be sacrificed

 

Yama opened his eyes directly onto Sebastian’s who said nothing, only returned the open gaze, not quite questioning, not quite not.

“The secret is,” said Yama, “that there is no secret. Whether you build your altar from sticks or bricks, whether you build it large or small, whether you build it at all, these things matter only to you. No larger care concerns itself with any of this. Earth or wood, size, shape, construction: these are only sensory rails to guide the blind. They do not matter. And they should, along with the sacrifice, be sacrificed.”

Sebastian, correctly seeing this was his lesson, repeated it:

 

The secret is no secret

The fire melts the shackle

Form is no form

Way is no way

Whether stick or brick

Whether large or small

Is the builder’s care

No larger care cares

Form is a rail

Way is a rail

Guides for the blind

And should as shackles

Along with the senses

Along with sacrifice itself

Be sacrificed

 

Yama nodded approvingly. “Know then that your shackles and your senses are one and the same. Anything that binds you to them can, and should, be sacrificed. Food, toys, books, cars, clothes, time, money, memory, memory. Let them go.”

“Books?” Sebastian said, a little concerned, protective perhaps. Sebastian loved books, loved reading them. Had a small library in his room. Lived, in large measure, for, in, through books.

“Anything that shackles.”

“But books free.”

“Ultimately, they also shackle.”

“But why do you have to burn them?”

“Who said anything about burning?”

“That is what is normally done. That is the sacrifice.”

“Rails to guide the blind,” said Yama. “All Yajna sings is that you return energy to the wheel rather than cling to it. That you work for the well-being of the world rather than exclusively for yourself. That you forget yourself in the welfare of others.”

“And how this is done does not matter?”

“Form never matters. Never. Only the letting go matters.”

“I understand.”

“Only the helping matters.”

“I understand.”

“Yes, I see that you do.”

 

Yama: Let me give you a special boon: this sacrifice shall be called by your name, Nachiketa. Accept from me this many-hued chain too.

 

After this Yama fell silent again. Sebastian could hear a generator softly hum to life somewhere in the trailer, or below it. Of course, he thought, there must be a below. He had missed that. He had missed that. That must be where the kitchen is. Where that servant girl came from.

Then he thought: Rails to guide the blind. How very apt. It’s not the motions you go through that matter, the motions he had noticed so often, and so often seen conflict with the thoughts of their perpetrators. These were only motions. Empty motions. Rails to guide the blind.

“Yes, I see that you do,” repeated Yama, but Sebastian did not make the connection.

“See what?” he asked.

“That you see that form does not matter. That motions do not matter.”

“Yes, I see that,” said Sebastian.

“Because you do I shall give you a bonus.”

Sebastian waited, but said nothing.

“I shall name the way through the fire after you.”

“Sebastian?”

“No, by your original name. The name you wore the last time we met. You may have forgotten. It is Nachiketa.”

“Nachiketa?”

“Yes.”

The name, as he rolled it on his mind’s tongue, took the shape of a door. Nachiketa. He knew that name, and he knew who dwelled behind it. Yama was right, he had asked these questions, or questions very much like them, before. A long time ago. A long, long time ago. Maybe in this place, maybe in another place. But he had asked them of Yama, in this shape or another, this he knew. But this was all he could see.

“Also,” said Yama. “Here is your necklace.”

Seemingly out of nowhere, Yama offered Sebastian a glittering chain of many colors. Sebastian received it with both hands, looked at it for many beats of his heart, then opened the familiar clasp and refastened it behind his neck. It felt heavy and warm and welcome, as if it were breathing and pleased to be alive. Sebastian remembered the breathing, remembered Nachiketa feeling the breathing, this warmth, this breathing, this warmth…

“So,” said Yama, leaning forward with a smile, “I see that you remember.”

“Yes. Yes, I do.”

 

Yama: Those who have thrice performed this sacrifice, realized their unity with father, mother, and teacher, and discharged the three duties of studying the scriptures, ritual worship, and giving alms to those in need, rise above birth and death. Knowing the god of fire born of Brahman, they attain perfect peace. Those who carry out this triple duty conscious of its full meaning will shake off the dread noose of death and transcend sorrow to enjoy the world of heaven. Thus, I have granted you the second boon, Nachiketa, the secret of the fire that leads to heaven. It will have your name. Ask now, Nachiketa, for the third boon.

 

“Do you also remember,” said Yama, “that shape does not matter? That vessel does not matter? That these things matter only to the blind?”

“If by shape you mean body. If by vessel you mean the form we take in this life.”

“I do,” said Yama.

“Then I do,” said Sebastian, who while he spoke also fingered his necklace, feeling the warm glow with his fingers. A familiar kiss of many colors.

“Do you also remember that you must love your parents,” said Yama, “although they are not your parents?”

“Of course, I remember. And I do love my parents, I always have,” said Sebastian. “But why do you say they are not my parents?”

Yama smiled. Not patronizingly, but with a touch of surprise. “Tell me Sebastian, how can the eternal spirit be begotten? What kind of father begets spirits? No, the forms of your parents conspired to sprout the form of you, and their wish sprung in ecstasy from your father’s loins, through the well-pleased gate of your mother to gestate in her womb and to finally come forth by her toil and pain. But this was only your calling card. Not you. No. Your parents are no more your parents than you are my parent.”

As Yama spoke, the necklace grew lighter around Sebastian’s neck, as if glad to hear good tidings. Sebastian heard and understood well.

“But you must love them no less,” continued Yama. “They gave up much to afford you this housing. They protected it from the noonday heat and from the winter cold, they fed it warm milk and rice and clothed it and taught it the tongue of the village.”

“Are you talking to me or Nachiketa?” said Sebastian.

“Is there a difference?” asked Yama, again a little surprised.

Sebastian felt stupid and blushed.

“Perhaps I was talking to Nachiketa,” said Yama then. “Perhaps you were raised on formula, candy and cheeseburgers. Perhaps you should be glad to have survived this long.”

Sebastian was still blushing.

“Do you also remember that you must love your teacher?” asked Yama.

“Mrs. Holm?” said Sebastian.

“No, your spiritual teacher.”

“I don’t really have one.”

“You have your books,” said Yama. “Someone wrote them, each one of them. And if that someone had your real interest at heart, then he was your teacher. Is your teacher. But if he wrote to hear himself think, that is not your teacher, that is a searcher, at best.”

“I have many books.”

“So, you have many teachers. Or not.”

“How do I tell, for sure?”

“Whether teacher or not?”

“Yes.”

“If, when you read, you get the feeling—sometimes it is barely a whisper in your heart, sometimes it is the stronger sense of trail—that you’re onto something, then you’re in the presence of a teacher.

“If, when you read, you only get the fever of the chase, or of revenge, or of conflict alone, that is not your teacher.

“If, when you read, you find your thoughts echo and ache with longing for the worlds you remember in his world, that is your teacher. But if, as you read, you find yourself drooling, or breathing harder, that is not your teacher.”

“I have many teachers,” said Sebastian, thinking back on his library.

“I know you do.”

“Many do not.”

“I know they don’t.”

“Though many read the Bible,” said Sebastian.

Yama shook his head. “Yes, the Bible. So many writers, so many translators.”

“That’s true.”

“So many interpreters along the way. So many re-interpreters. So many searchers.”

“Not the bible then.”

 

At that, Yama crossed his legs, leaned back into his chair, closed his eyes, and told Sebastian a story.

 

“Once upon a time in and around what is now Syria and Iraq, and which used to be Mesopotamia and then later Babylonia, upon the fertile lands between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, there lived in the city of Ur a man name Terach. He was a dealer in stone idols.

“Terach was rather successful: buying replicas of the many important idols of the day at low wholesale prices from the many stone cutters up north and retailing them in the city to the many locals at good markup. So successful was Terach, that before long—for he had inherited the store property and owned it free and clear, so his overhead was low—he could afford to marry. And marry he did. Took a wife, begot a son, name him Abram.

“Abram, a broody young man for whom numbers and counting did not come easily—which although it may be an unkind thing to say, and with unkind implications, is nonetheless true—was made to help his father in the store at an early age. So many idols though, large and small, fat and thin, snake and fish, bird and fox. So much laborious keeping track of and counting. It made Abram’s head hurt. So much simpler, wouldn’t it be, if there were only one? And He would only come in one size.

“And so, Abram dreamed up the One idol, the One all-powerful idol who was powerful enough to smash all other idols to shards and dust.

“Now, Abram was nothing if not innovative, and to convince his father of the singleness of idols, one day, when Abram was left alone to mind the store, he took a hammer and smashed to pieces all idols except the One. Smashed them all, one by one into nothing but shatters, all except the largest one, an image of Baal, father of Nebo (whom he had pulverized along with the host of others). He then placed the hammer into the hand of this large, remaining stone figure.

“When his father returned, and once he had gotten over the, well, shock at the devastation that had befallen his business, he asked Abram what on earth had happened. Abram answered, ‘The idols got into a fight, and the big one smashed all the other ones.’ His father said, ‘Don’t be ridiculous. These idols have no life or power. They can’t do anything.’ Abram replied, ‘Sure they do, or did. But they were no match for Him,’ pointing at Baal. ‘Now there’s only Him, the one. Baal, the idol of idols.’

“Terach, seeing his life and profit in pieces on the floor, did not believe a word of his son’s ramble, and so, to make a long story short, threw him out, along with the one hammering image of Baal.

“Abram, who was not a very strong boy, lugged the heavy statue around for a while but soon got tired of it, and threw Baal down a small ravine where he exploded into a thousand fragments and a cloud of dust. Much better to have an idol that you don’t have to cart around, thought Abram, and headed west towards the pretty idol-less country that is now the Jordan valley.

“On the way—for the walk was long and provided ample opportunity to ponder—Abram gave much thought to what kind of idol should be the One and only, that you didn’t have to cart around, and better yet, could not make replicas of.

“On his way west he passed several mountains, and seeing them decided that his idol would be a mountain idol. Invisible and immovable, stern and single. And mighty.

“But as the journey grew longer, Abram grew weary. Long hot treks by day and shivering sleep by night sapped both his strength and courage. He also grew lonesome, and for company and comfort held conversations, brief at first, then longer and longer, with his new idol—who was all-hearing, as well as all-seeing and all-powerful, and who in the end, to encourage our young hero, made him this offer: if Abram stayed the course and made it all the way to the Sea of the West he would find there a great land, bountiful and his for the taking. He would then bless Abram and make this land Abram’s nation. This was indeed a good deal, Abram decided, and, as intended, took comfort in the offer and pressed on.

“When Abram finally arrived, all but spent, he found no great land with his name on it. Checking in with his idol he was told that, actually, what He had meant to say was that if Abram made it to the Sea of the West He would make a great nation for Abram’s descendants, so he’d better get busy making some.”

Yama looked up at Sebastian, did he follow the tale? No need to worry, Sebastian, half amused, half fascinated, was all ears.

“Okay, then,” continued Yama, “Abram, raised as a city dweller, and not really cut out for this sort of thing, nonetheless had to adopt a nomadic lifestyle, and for the next many years traveled, in not much comfort, through what is now the Middle East and Egypt, preaching the oneness of idols, picking up strays as he went along, forming himself a tribe of followers. Of course, the One and Only had by now gotten himself a name, several actually.

“First Abram thought of letting him remain Baal, which was how He had begun, after all, but soon ruled that out as too confusing for those who may have heard of Baal in his other, that is his stone capacity.

“After much searching and turning words and names this way and that for their meanings and for the shadows they cast, he settled on Hawah, which means ‘to breathe’ and which was a good name, for it could be easily understood that without Hawah there was not breath to be had or prayed for and so we die. It was a good name and was accepted by one and all, except, ultimately by Abram himself who still didn’t feel it had the right ring to it, or cast the right shadow.

“For Abram, remembering His promise, wanted Hawah to do more than breathe, he wanted him to provide. To provide, that is, Abram, well, his descendants, with a great nation, that was the deal. And in the end, he found the perfect addition, or pre-dition if you will: Yahh—which meant ‘the one true God’—then tagged on Hawah to form Yahweh, which meant, and still does, ‘the one who provides’ (a nation, we assume) or ‘the one who exists.’ Good name, thought Abram, he’d make that one stick.

“Strange thing, though, some took to calling this Mighty Mountain Idol by the strange sounding: ‘Jhvh,’ which after Abram had heard it whispered about the tents for a while finally inquired into. What is this grunt, he wanted to know, and what does it mean? It is not a grunt, he was duly informed, it was a sign of reverence. It was Yahweh’s non-name. ‘Non-name? What is a non-name?’ Abram wanted to know. It is his true name, he was told, but that wasn’t quite it, someone else interrupted. Eventually, after much discussion, Abram came to find out that Yahweh’s true name was so holy that it didn’t exist. Next door to his true name was this non-name, this impossible to say Jhvh, apparently something that He had required. He who? Yahweh, apparently. Had required, thought Abram, so He’s talking to others now too? ‘Required, why?’ he wanted to know, and was solemnly informed that His name was so holy that to have human tongue and lips say it was to defile it. ‘So, you can never say his true name, then?’ said Abram, to nothing but grave nods.

“Abram then told the now quite large gathering that He didn’t mind being called Yahweh. Had that on very good authority. More grave nods.

“Eventually the unpronounceable Jhvh expanded into the more pronounceable Jehovah, which, ironically enough, means ‘the one who brings ruin,’ but that’s another story,” said Yama.

“You’re not putting me on, are you?” asked Sebastian.

“Oh, Heaven’s no. Why would I do that?” answered Yama.

“Just checking.” Then he said. “How do you know all this?”

“I read a lot,” answered Yama.

Sebastian pictured the library and reading room farther down the trailer, with Yama in it, intent on letters.

“I know,” said Sebastian, which earned him a quick glance.

“But to go on,” said Yama. “Abram not only found Baal a new name, in the Sinai he also found him a new mountain, his very own, and with much ceremony proclaimed this mountain to be His abode. Abram was pleased. Yahweh had a home, his tribe worshipped him, and did his bidding. Although some of his followers now claimed to regularly commune with Yahweh, Abram still had the inside track, all agreed, and now outlined what prayers and sacrifices would best please Yahweh. A good time was had by all. Prosperous if still nomadic.

“But the years passed and Abram grew concerned. He still had no children, and, as a consequence, he/they still had no promised nation, children being the prerequisite. And—and believe it or not, Sebastian, it was Abram who came up with this, so it was not a cliché, not at that time, not yet: he wasn’t getting any younger.

“Abram’s beloved wife of many years, Sarai, old now too, was concerned as well, for she knew of Yahweh’s promise—Abram had brought it up often enough—and now had to face the fact that she had grown past childbearing years. That’s when she offered her maidservant, Hagar, as a wife to Abram. This was an apparently common practice in the region at the time: wife’s too old, here’s my maid. But not any maid this time: According to tradition—yes, I know it’s hearsay, but it’s an interesting twist nonetheless, and strange enough to be true—Hagar was one of Pharaoh’s daughters, given to Abram, well, given to Abram’s wife Sarai, during his travels in Egypt.

“Abram accepted, and who wouldn’t? And so, Hagar came to bear Abram a son, Ishmael, who, by the way, according to both Muslim and Jewish tradition, is the ancestor of all Arabs, keep that in mind.

“Then another strange turn: When Abram was 100 and Sarai 90, Yahweh goes out on one of his limbs and promises Abram a son by Sarai. If, said Yahweh, Abram will change his name to Abraham, which means ‘father of many,’ and if Sarai will change her name to Sarah, meaning ‘princess.’ Now, I can make sense of Abram to Abraham, that’s logical, but I don’t follow the reasoning of Sarai, which means ‘my princess’ to Sarah, meaning ‘princess.’ Perhaps this was to signify Sarah’s rise in stature to princess to more than just Abram, but that’s just my guess.

“Anyway, Sarah did in fact (or so say the old books) bear Abraham a son, and whom they named Isaac. This means ‘laughter,’ apparently to reflect Abraham’s joy at he and Sarah having a son at such an old age. And, also by the way, both Muslims and Jews acknowledge Isaac as the ancestor of all Jewish people. Which, and this is my point, if you stop to think about it, boils the Middle East conflict down to nothing but a bit if sibling rivalry.

“Yahweh, meanwhile, is growing restless. Perhaps feeling a little cramped in his one mountain. Getting demanding too. Very. One morning when Isaac was in his early teens Yahweh outdid himself by commanding Abraham to sacrifice Isaac as a burnt offering. ‘What?’ Abraham begged to differ, but Yahweh was quite firm on the issue. No promised land if no Isaac sacrifice. ‘You’re going back on our deal,’ said Abraham. ‘A deal’s a deal.’

“Yahweh said he wasn’t going back on the deal, he was only testing Abraham’s faith. How could he give a promised land to someone who didn’t believe in him? Abraham, still muttering about breaking the deal, saw the point, and collected Isaac for slaughter.

“At the last moment, when Abraham had his son good and tied up on top of a nice pile of dry sticks and wood—which, by the way he had asked Isaac to help him collect and stack together—and was actually about to torch his son, Yahweh changed his mind and said, ‘Fine, you believe. Your son can live.’

“And live he did. Abram, well, Abraham now, grew older still and then died. Setting off the following marriage dance: Isaac married Rebecca who bore him twin sons: Jacob and Esau. These two, however, did not love each other. In fact, Jacob and Esau were at war with each other even before they were born. They struggled and kicked and ripped at each other even within Rebecca’s womb.

“Once born, Esau was Isaac’s favorite, because he was a good hunter, but the more spiritually minded Jacob was Rebecca’s favorite. Esau, despite Isaac’s tutelage, wasn’t really into religion, and didn’t care much for Yahweh. In fact, one day, as a joke or as some brotherly one-upmanship, in fact sold his birthright (as the first-born, he had exited Rebecca first) of spiritual leadership to Jacob for a bowl of lentil stew. A deal which Jacob accepted, and later held Esau to.”

“With Isaac growing older and hard of seeing, Rebecca, to ensure Jacob would indeed shoulder his father’s spiritual mantel, one day tricked Isaac into giving Jacob a blessing he really meant for Esau as the first-born. Esau later found out about this and grew furious about it. Was in fact prepared to kill Jacob to gain the stolen blessing and at the same time to regain the spiritual birthright which he now regretted having sold so cheaply. A Jacob out of the way would solve both his problems.

“Jacob, however—knowing he was no match for Esau, should it come to that—prudently fled to live with his uncle, where he met Rachel, soon to become his beloved Rachel. Rachel’s family, not really on the up and up, and for strange and forever unexplained reasons of their own, got Jacob good and drunk the night before his wedding, and on the morning after tricked a still foggy Jacob into marrying Rachel’s older sister, Leah.”

“Uh, sorry,” said Sebastian.

Yama, stirred out of his vocal reverie, looked out at Sebastian, a little surprised, a little annoyed, in fact.

“What?” he said.

“Where’s Ishmael?”

“What?” said Yama again.

“What happened to Abram’s, or Abraham’s, other son, Ishmael? The ancestor of all Muslims?”

“I don’t know,” said Yama. “He’s probably off spawning the Arabs. Do you want to hear this story or not?”

“Sorry. Sure, yes. I was just wondering.”

“Ishmael is off spawning the Arab clan,” repeated Yama, as if to settle that issue once and for all.

“Got it,” said Sebastian, in the same vein.

“Shall we go on?” asked Yama.

“Please,” said Sebastian. “Sorry.”

“Okay then, Jacob finds himself married to Leah, but he still loves Rachel and he is nothing if not persistent, so he bides his time for a while, then at first opportunity elopes with Rachel, Leah in tow, by the way, and then marries Rachel as well. As well as both Rachel’s and Leah’s maidservants, Bilhah and Zilphah. Then, between these four women, Jacob gets down to business and fathers 12 sons, Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Zebulun, Issachar, Dan, Gad, Asher, Naphtali, Joseph and Benjamin.

“These are the ancestors of the tribes of Israel, and the ones for whom the tribes are named.

“Joseph’s older brothers, however, were jealous of him, because he was Jacob’s favorite, and because he had visions—which he didn’t have the sense to keep to himself, apparently—that he would one day lead them all. To rid themselves of this unacceptable eventuality, they sold Joseph into slavery and convinced their father that Joseph was dead. Eaten by lions, or something. Jacob bought that.

“Joseph eventually wound up in Egypt, where his ability to correctly interpret visions earned him a place in the Pharaoh’s court, paving the way for his family’s later settlement in Egypt when they got in trouble elsewhere.

“As centuries passed, Jacob’s descendants wound up slaves in Egypt where they suffered greatly under the hand of later Pharaohs. Enter Moses. Our little wicker basket sailor.

“Long story short, and we’re getting closer to the point I’m making here, I promise, Moses grows up, frees his people and leads them out of Egypt, parts the Red Sea and wanders into the Sinai and eventually up to the very mountain that bears the desert’s name. Yahweh’s house.

“Here Yahweh reveals himself to Moses and offers him and his people a great deal: if Moses and his people will hearken to Him and observe his Commandments, and His Commandments only, then He, Yahweh, will finally deliver on his Promised Land promise. Honestly.

“Moses—pretty much out of options by now, crowd’s getting restless, hungry, tired, not in a good mood—accepts this deal.

However, before getting on with delivery on Promised Lands, there was the one sticky matter of supremacy. ‘What do you mean?’ Moses wondered. Well, Yahweh, stuck in his mountain for years now, knowing full well that He was not the only idol around, not even the only mountain idol around, had grown a tad jealous of late. Would not brook competition. Not any longer. Period.

“Therefore, his first demand, in fact his first Commandment, was this: Going forward, He, Yahweh, would be their Lord their God, and henceforth there shalt be no other strange Idols before Him. This, Moses felt, was quite unreasonable, especially sprung on him in retrospect like this, but a deal’s a deal, there it was, carved in stone, Moses had agreed, and Moses was nothing if not a man of his word.

“So, the tribes of Israel took to war to vanquish all idols, save Him, Yahweh. And, as you know, they are still fighting.”

Sebastian nodded. Yes. They are still fighting.

“But,” continued Yama, “and this is the point of this little story—as of Moses, the Israelites began keeping very good records of their many adventures and their even more numerous mis-adventures and these records, scrolls and scrolls and scrolls of them, were then all gathered and compiled and revised and re-compiled and re-revised and then given to the Pharisees who insisted on a final say, sanction as it were, and they in turn re-compiled, re-re-revised, and re-compiled these thousands of pages of scripture into one final master piece of revisionist history: The Bible.

“In this final version of their adventures, not only did our mighty tribe of righteous warriors vanquish all other idols in the end, but before the Pharisees were done putting and re-putting and re-re-putting their final touches to it, Yahweh—the one and now only—had created not only the mountain Abraham had found to put him in, but had also created all other mountains, the seas, the heavens and the earth and everything in-between. The lot.

“Arrive: Romans. They take over. Not a pleasant bunch, especially not from the Israelites’ point of view. So, Yahweh, Jr. arrives by way of Mary the Virgin to save the day but ends up nailed to a pair of broad planks erected for the purpose. Turns out though, he’s now more liked and revered than Sr. which I’m sure Sr. is not seeing eye to eye with.

Well, be that as it may. The point is, Sebastian, the Bible is a book written and compiled and revised by humans with agendas different than that of your ultimate welfare. And when it comes to mountains and such, they all existed well before Abram arrived on the scene to choose one for Yahweh—who probably would still have been known as Baal had he not been too heavy to carry—to first inhabit and then escape from: all the way back to the beginning of time and up through and beyond a future forever.”

Yama fell silent, and Sebastian said, quoting from memory, addressing his knee more than Yama, “Thou shalt have no other gods before me. Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth: Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the LORD thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me.”

“I rest my case,” said Yama.

“What about the New Testament?” said Sebastian.

“If the soup known as the Old Testament had way too many cooks, that number still pales in comparison with how many offered their views and opinions throughout the revisions and re-revisions and translations and mis-translations and re-translations and re-re-revisions that poor book as suffered over the centuries.”

Sebastian was shaking his head. “You sure about that?”

Yama nodded. “Afraid so.”

“So, is any of it true?”

“The New Testament?”

“Yes.”

“Well, there’s probably a good chance that Jesus of Nazareth did in fact exist, but that’s not a certainty.”

“And the rest?”

“Most of it is revisionist history to serve the powers that be or lessons and events bent to the views of the various—and many, as I said—contriutors.”

Sebastian shook his head again, or had never stopped shaking it. Then asked, “What about the Koran, then?”

“There was too much cheap hashish around at the time,” said Yama. Then added, “In my opinion at least.”

“It’s got quite an audience,” said Sebastian.

“That is true,” said Yama. “A world of insecure pseudo-men that have to oppress their women to feel manly.”

“You don’t pull any punches,” said Sebastian.

“I’ve never seen the wisdom in that,” said Yama.

“Is the Koran revisionist history as well?” wondered Sebastian.

“Not so sure about that,” said Yama. “Either Muhammad was stoned enough to hear the Angel Gabriel whisper an eight-hundred-page book and countless rules into his ear, or he’s the most misunderstood man to ever live.”

“What do you mean?” said Sebastian.

“The first thing which God created was a pen, and He said to it, ‘Write.’ It said, ‘What shall I write?’ And God said, ‘Write down the quantity of every separate thing to be created.’ And it wrote all that was and all that will be to eternity.”

“What?” said Sebastian.

“That’s from the Koran,” said Yama.

“That’s beautiful,” said Sebastian. “It almost rings true.”

“I know,” said Yama. “That’s why I tend to think that Muhammad was not stoned, but rather that he is the most misunderstood man there ever was.”

“Have you met him?” asked Sebastian.

Yama didn’t answer right away. Then said, “Yes, I have. He came here in 632. He didn’t say anything, didn’t even look at me, and I cannot ask questions if they don’t look at me.” Then he added, “I felt sorry for him.”

“Was he not reborn then?”

“He still walks the earth, Libya somewhere today, but he’s convinced he’s in hell.”

“Ah,” said Sebastian, understanding.

“Cursing Abraham apparently.”

“Why?”

“Well, if it hadn’t been for Abraham, there would have been no Allah, no mountain and no Gabriel. No Muhammad, and no hell, and then he could stop blaming himself for all that he sees around him.”

“But you said he thinks he’s in hell.”

“I did. But he knows. Deep down, he knows.”

“You think so?”

“I know so.”

“So what went so wrong?”

“What do you mean?”

“What do you think went wrong with Muhammad, with the Koran?”

“With Islam?”

“Yes.”

“Well,” said Yama. “For one, there were some extraordinary Arab fighters and military leaders around at the time of Muhammad’s death and they set out to teach the rest of the world a lesson. Well, the rest of the world was not all that receptive to lessons at this time, nor were they into fighting, at least nowhere near to the degree their Arab brethren were, and this was their downfall: the Muslims had no real problem conquering, basically, the known world, from Spain to India. They really had no opposition.”

“So?”

“Well, here’s the point. The Arab’s military skills won a bunch of battles. By the time it was all said and done the revisionist historians were at it again proclaiming it was the rightness of Islam, and not military prowess, that had won every single battle, proving, proving, proving, over and over and over, that theirs was a superior religion, superior to all other religions, superior to all other people, superior. Superior because it could subdue by force. Superior, period. Which they believe to this day.

“And this,” continued Yama, “was then reinforced by the catastrophic amount of plunder that took place in the name of Allah. The conquering Arabs looted the vanquished beyond belief and amassed fortunes for themselves. Quite in violation of Muhammad’s teachings, by the way. The local administrators raped the land, again, apparently, proving their, and their religion’s, superiority.” Yama shook his head, sadly, “Destroying in the process one of the world’s greatest cultures: the Wonder that was India.”

“That’s a, that’s a crime,” said Sebastian, for lack of something better.

“It’s a joke,” said Yama. “And a sacrilege.”

Sebastian found nothing to say.

“It is the Merciful who has taught the Koran,” said Yama, “God, the compassionate, the Merciful. And if you don’t believe that, we will kill you, rape your women, and despoil your land.”

“Poor Muhammad,” said Sebastian.

“I tend to agree,” said Yama.

Another silence fell. Outside, Sebastian could hear the soft beat of the wheel, the rustle of infinite feet in unison. He heard Yama’s breathing and his own. He heard his heart which even though at rest seemed to race when compared to the pulse of the bigger heart outside. He thought some more, then he said, “How about the Upanishads?”

“Now, there’s something you can take to heart,” said Yama with a smile and a wink.

Sebastian smiled back. “I see.”

“No, seriously,” said Yama, “The Upanishads are unlike the Koran and the Bible in that you can afford to trust their writers. They did not write the Upanishads to glorify themselves or their people, nor to save their skins, or to explain away their losses or justify their plunders. They were true seekers with no stake in the Earth. They are good teachers, Sebastian. Love them.”

“I will,” said Sebastian. “I do.”

Then Yama sat up straight and looked as if he was going to ask Sebastian a question. Which he then did. “Of unity with father, mother, or teacher, which is the most important and must never suffer disruption?”

“The unity with my teacher,” said Sebastian.

“That, Nachiketa, is true,” said Yama.

And continued, “Your teacher will find the secret place in your heart and your heart will recognize him as your teacher. You must let him in, and you must let him stay to whisper your memories.”

Sebastian frowned, and Yama noticed.

“There is nothing he can teach you that you don’t already know, or at some time knew and have since chosen to forget. All that the true teacher can do, and all he does, is whisper gentle reminders.”

Sebastian worked to digest this as Yama’s cell phone sprung to life on the glass table to his right. It rattled from the motion and he reached for it before it rang again.

“Yes, Lucy.”

He listened while she explained, eyes on but not seeing the little table of glass. Sebastian heard her voice as if a fly was speaking from within Yama’s hand, buzzing and urgent.

“Is he on yesterday’s list, perhaps?” asked Yama, reasonably.

Apparently not.

“No,” he said. “Send him back.”

 

In a distant operating theater the surgeon, by hospital protocol, applied the defibrillation paddles to the chest one last time, without much hope. Without any hope, in fact; this flat line was not going to stir. But policy’s policy. “All right folks, one last time. For the book.”

The patient, a retired civil engineer with a strong but capricious heart, arched and convulsed twice before the heart, overwhelmed by help, suddenly started up again. “Look,” said one of the nurses, and pointed. “Look.” They all turned to the EKG monitor and the doctor swore a mild oath then smiled behind his mask.

The engineer recuperated fine, then went on to write a best seller called Next in Line detailing his near-death experience and telling all about standing in line about to enter the bowels of the earth, about how the devil is actually a woman named Lucy, no honestly—not a man name Lucifer, he’s a, she’s a woman—and how she lived in a huge silver trailer not too far from the entrance to hell. He did the talk show circuit for a while, but was eventually ridiculed into silence by the tabloids and had a fourth and fatal heart attack three years later. This time he was on Yama’s list.

 

Yama replaced his cell phone on the glass table. So gently that it did not make a sound. “Sorry about that,” he said.

“No, no, that’s fine. I understand,” said Sebastian.

“You must listen to his whispers,” said Yama, picking up the thread where they had left it. “You will know. You do know.”

Sebastian nodded. He understood, he thought he understood. Yes, he did.

“What other books?” asked Sebastian.

Yama looked directly at Sebastian, but didn’t answer.

“Other than, say, the Upanishads,” Sebastian added.”

“I’ve told you,” said Yama.

“You did?”

“Any book where the writer is not writing to hear himself think. Any book where the writer is true to himself and to his readers. Where he has no other motive than to tell what he honestly thinks about things that ultimately matter, and this for no other reason than sharing, than giving.

“Do not trust a man,” Yama continued, “where you suspect a hidden purpose, be it self-aggrandizement, no matter how well disguised, be it wealth, no matter how well disguised, be it justification of deeds done, no matter how well disguised. Be it anything but giving, no matter how well disguised. Giving, with no thought to reward, is the only criteria for a true book.”

“Giving,” said Sebastian, mostly to himself.

“A writer I knew wanted his stories to be necessary,” said Yama. “There is only one necessary story. One that gives, one that shares and that cares nothing beyond the sharing. There is your teacher.”

“Well,” started Sebastian, “that wouldn’t have to be a religious book then?”

“No, not at all.” Once again Yama closed his eyes and recited:

 

Trace the pages of an open book

if your heart is true

silent sentences because you look

spring to life for you

 

Frozen stillness in a northern sky

moon so full and cold

turn to speak to me as ashes cry

secrets that they hold

 

And on the canvas of eternal silence

form the colors of his heart and his soul

in the twinkle of symphonic islands

 

They are

traces of his spirit

leaves of distant grass

whispering that morning has

as yet to come to pass

 

Traces of a searcher

gleaning something old

shining in a stillness where

his silent truths are told

 

Traces of a torture

tales as fading light

fertile with his sorrow

and begotten by his plight

 

Traces of his spirit

beats of fading wings

reaching for the morning and

the promises she brings

 

Muses come to him when suns go down

inky fingers roam

furrowed brow within beleaguered frown

tracing dreams of home

 

Immortal images in truthful grace

leave his battered shell

forever stunning those he has to face

in his daytime hell

 

And on the canvas of eternal silence

form the colors of his heart and his soul

in the twinkle of symphonic islands

 

They are

traces of his spirit

shadows of his path

fighting in the lingering and

scornful aftermath

 

Traces of a painter

skillful strokes belie

pain that tore and broke him

and the love that saw him cry

 

Traces of a sailor

tracing myth and lore

sailing all the wild and holy

traces from before

 

Traces of my spirit

chords alive in flight

sound a world of wonder and

of mystical delight

 

And on the canvas of eternal silence

form the colors of my heart and soul

in the twinkle of symphonic islands

 

For quite some time neither spoke. Yama’s eyes remained closed and he sat very still. Sebastian thought, ‘And on the canvas of eternal silence.’ The canvas of eternal silence. He looked back at Yama who had opened his eyes again.

“You wrote that?” asked Sebastian.

“Yes,” he said. “A long time ago. Before all this.” He made a tired gesture with his hand intended to include the trailer, the cell phone, the entrance to hell not too far away, his current job, the lot.

Sebastian understood.

“When? I mean, when…” Sebastian started.

“When did I become Yama, or when did Yama become death? Is that your question?”

“Yes,” said Sebastian. “Something like that.”

“Remember first,” said Yama, “that Yama is not Ha-Satan, the fallen chief of the seraphim. Neither is he Lucifer, the Light Giver—they’re not the same you know, it was St. Jerome who confused them. Neither is he Af, the angel of anger and the death of mortals. Neither is he Azza, or Sariel, or Tabaet, or Asmoday, or any of the host of angels that fell for nine full days. Remember, Sebastian, this was all made up by the sons of Jacob, and by their sons.”

“I didn’t think you were.”

“I know,” said Yama. He then closed his eyes and drew a long breath, then nothing, his face a mask almost, as if suddenly left by itself while Yama, the real Yama was off searching some memory cupboards not too often visited. Then he return and his face was alive again.

“I loved writing more than anything,” he said. “To me there was no form of creation higher than this string of suggestive symbols we called words, that can build a world halfway, only to invite and allow the reader to complete the world, each reader’s a little different, his own, but still mine. Ours. That, Nachiketa, is sharing, both in the labor and the reward. I loved writing.”

“I can tell,” said Sebastian.

Yama fell silent again, as if putting back his memory of pen and paper. Then returned to his original thought. “Also, Yama is not Charon,” said Yama.

“Charon?”

“He was a ferry man who took souls across the river Styx for their appointments with Hades.”

“I’ve heard of Hades,” said Sebastian. “Read about it.”

“King of the underworld. Much like me, but not like me at all,” said Yama. “He was the son of Cronus and Rhea and the brother of Zeus and Poseidon, and got the short end of the stick after the three brothers deposed Cronus and divided the known universe between them. Of course, the known universe wasn’t very large then, but large enough. Hades got the underground, and wasn’t very happy about it. He’s pretty much been in a bad mood since, if indeed he’s still around. Are there still enough ancient Greeks around to keep him real, I wonder?”

“I don’t think so,” said Sebastian.

“Me, I’m not the king of anything,” said Yama. “I’m more like a glorified administrator. Bean counter,” he added.

Sebastian thought it best not to respond, and they both sat in silence for a while.

“Anyway,” said Yama, and Sebastian startled a little. “Teachers. Love those that love you, and love yourself the best, and know that you are indeed your own most intimate teacher. You can be taught nothing you don’t already know.”

“Is that really true?” asked Sebastian.

“Yes, Nachiketa, that is really true.”

“That flies in the teeth of humility, doesn’t it though?”

“Humility be damned,” said Yama. “Look where humility has got you.” He gestured to the window and the endless line beyond, shuffling, shuffling their feet, not talking, not praying, shuffling soles against sand in what may as well be called silence.

“But…”

“But nothing. Respect is one thing. Self-denial, which is all this damned obsequiousness adds up to in the end, is a curse. Respect and honor and admire all you want, but don’t self-efface in the process. That is as much a lie as boasting is a lie. You are what you are, and you are very, very vast. Yes,” said Yama, “yes that’s as good a word for it as any. Vast.”

Sebastian understood, but didn’t. He understood the words, but didn’t understand Yama’s sudden anger. He understood respect and honor, and admiration, too, but did not understand the danger of humility. Yama was watching him with still eyes, waiting for an answer, a confirmation.

“The Bible speaks of humility,” Sebastian said finally.

“The Vedanta does not,” answered Yama.

“The Koran speaks of humility,” Sebastian said.

“Shankara does not,” answered Yama. “There is only truth. There is only the way things are, and to grovel is to lie.”

“Oh, but isn’t there a difference between groveling and humility?”

“I fail to see it.”

Sebastian still did not understand.

“Humility is doubt, and does the sun and moon blot out,” said Yama, almost smiling, which put Sebastian at ease again.

“One of yours?” asked Sebastian.

“No, I wish. William Blake said that.”

“‘Gentle Jesus, meek and mild. Look upon a little child. Pity my simplicity, suffer me to come to thee.’ Charles Wesley said that,” said Sebastian.

“Oh, for heaven’s sake,” said Yama.

“So, in your opinion, there’s nothing to ‘the meek shall inherit the earth’ then?”

“The meek do not inherit the earth unless they are prepared to fight for their meekness,” said Yama.

“You said that, or who said that?”

“Not me. Sebastian Laski. And how about ‘The meek shall inherit the earth but not the mineral rights’?”

“I’ve heard that one. J. Paul Getty, isn’t it?”

“Right.”

“Humility is not your thing, then?” said Sebastian

“If there is one notion that has wreaked more havoc upon mankind, please let me know. How could it possibly be better to humbly perish than to fight and survive?”

Again, Yama indicated the endless line of slow shuffles beyond the trailer window.

“To thyself be true?”

“Yes,” said Yama. “Yes. That’s all I’m saying. Don’t belittle, don’t aggrandize, just be true. And the truth is, you’re, what was the word I used?”

“Vast?”

“Yes, you are vast. And that, Sebastian, as it happens is the truth. Something all these poor visitors outside still, in their humility, have yet to discover.”

Sebastian nodded, brought around by Yama’s argument and plumbing for confirmation within himself. Vast. Yes.

“Is that then the way to immortality? Listen to myself?” said Sebastian.

“As long as you realize that ritual will only find form. As long as you realize that ritual is only a physical movement with no meaning other than form. As long as you realize that ritual is unimportant to all but the blind. As long as you realize that you are in truth your own best teacher. As long as you realize that holy scriptures are books, are thoughts, are written as much by the reader as by the writer. As long as you realize that any true book can be your teacher, too. As long as you realize that when you are reading you are also listening to yourself writing what has been written, speaking to yourself what has been thought, thinking with the soul of another, yet you do the thinking.”

Yama paused to see if Sebastian followed. He did.

Yama continued. “And as long as you give freely to those in need and realize that those truly in need may not be those wanting for food or water or shelter but those lacking a way. As long as you realize that those wanting for food are needy, true—and they should be helped—but needy only in the eyes of those who, well supplied, are needier still. As long as you see that the truly needy are indeed those who, while capable of sustaining life comfortably, yet lack a way. As long as you realize that giving to them, whispering to them, helping them, should be your senior task. As long as you realize this, yes, then listening to yourself is the way to immortality.”

Yama paused again to look closely at Sebastian. Sebastian returned the gaze, attentive, knowing there was more to come. Satisfying Yama, who continued.

“And as you listen, know that by teaching others to heed their own voices, by whispering to them: listen, listen, you will one day rise above birth and death, you will attain perfect peace, for you will have followed the true fire, the one born of Brahman, you will have become its god. That is how you shake off the dread noose of death, how to fool it’s master.”

“You?” wondered Sebastian.

“Death’s master? Oh, heaven’s no,” said Yama. “As I said, I’m only the caretaker. The bookkeeper.” Then Yama added, gravely, “Do this, listen to the secret of this fire, and follow its way, and I promise that you will transcend sorrow to enjoy the world of heaven.”

Sebastian nodded.

Then asked, “What about the Pali Canon?”

“What about the Pali Canon?”

“Is it true?”

“In spirit, yes. The Buddha was a very wise man. How altered was it during its tenure in oral tradition? I don’t know. I give it a twenty percent chance of being the actual words of the Buddha. Much of the rest, though, retains the spirit of the Teacher.”

“That makes sense,” said Sebastian.

“Well,” said Yama, and paused. “There you have it, then.” He straightened up, as if getting ready to leave. “That takes care of your second wish. And as I promised, the secret of the fire that leads to heaven shall be known, from now on, as Nachiketa. Your name.”

“Thank you, Yama. I think I understand,” said Sebastian truthfully.

“Oh, I see that you do,” said Yama. “Okay, that’s two down. One to go. What is your last wish, Sebastian?”

 

Nachiketa: When a person dies, there arises this doubt: “He still exists,” say some; “he does not,” say others. I want you to teach me the truth. That is my third boon.

 

Sebastian sat still for a long time. He was not casting about for what to ask—for the last boon had been with him for a little time now, ever since Yama recited the words of the Nasadiya Sukta which seemed to have planted the seed—but for the way best to ask it. In the silence, he could hear his stomach murmur something about food, but he stilled it by an impatient thought: not now.

Then he looked up at Yama, who no longer seemed about to go anywhere, and then—word by word—carefully framed his wish, his question: “When we die, when I die, when any person dies, do we stay ourselves? Do we still exist as persons, as entities, as our own selves? Some say we do, others say that we don’t. Some say we vanish in the all-lifeness of all life, some say we retain both personality and memory while we move from life through death to life again. Some say we extinguish for good. Do you know, Yama? If you do, I would like you to tell me. That’s my last wish.”

 

Yama: This doubt haunted even the gods of old; for the secret of death is hard to know. Nachiketa, ask for some other boon and release me from my promise.

 

“Do we remain alive, after death, as ourselves? Is that your question?”

“Yes,” said Sebastian.

“Do we retain memory as ourselves? Is that your question?”

“Yes.”

“Are you sure that’s what you want to know, Sebastian? The question may be unanswerable. I may not know the answer. Perhaps you should ask for something you know can be answered.”

“You don’t know the answer?”

“I did not say that,” said Yama.

“Then that is my question,” said Sebastian.

“Remember, Sebastian, I am not a god,” said Yama. “I am death. Or death’s bookkeeper. I’m not saying I don’t know, but I’m not saying I know either. Even were I a god I may not know. Know that even the old gods were haunted by this question, and sought the answer. You may have asked the one question impossible to answer, Nachiketa. Do you want to waste your third boon on that?”

“Do you or do you not know the answer?” said Sebastian.

“I may know the answer,” said Yama.

“Then that is my question.”

Yama looked uncomfortable. But not from ignorance, thought Sebastian. From having promised too much, perhaps.

Which bore out, precisely, when Yama spoke. “Perhaps I have promised you more than I can keep. Please reconsider. Think of another boon. Perhaps another wish, Sebastian?”

 

Nachiketa: This doubt haunted even the gods of old; for it is hard to know, O Death, as you say. I can have no greater teacher than you, and there is no boon equal to this.

 

Sebastian had been sitting a long time and his legs were starting to fall asleep on him. In an effort to revive at least one of them he folded one foot under the thigh of the other leg and shifted for comfort. Then took Yama in again, grown taller, darker, it seemed, waiting for Sebastian’s answer.

“I know what you say, Yama,” he said. “I know that this is not an easy question to answer. Perhaps it is the hardest of all questions. But although you call yourself a simple caretaker, and a bookkeeper, I cannot think of anyone better suited to answer it than you. You were the first to die, Yama, were you not? And if you, as the King of Death, as the presider over death and all who die, do not know, then who does?” Sebastian looked Yama in the eyes and did not blink or shy away when Yama looked back at him with the same intensity, though several shades darker. Though he said nothing.

“Are you telling me, truly,” asked Sebastian. “Are you in effect saying that you do not know the answer?”

“I am not saying that I do not know the answer,” said Yama.

“Then tell me, truly, do you know the answer?”

“I do not deny it,” said Yama.

“Do you know the answer?” insisted Sebastian.

“I know an answer,” said Yama.

“Does it answer my question?”

“It does.”

“Then, Yama, I am sorry, but I am going to hold you to your promise. This is what I want to know.” He held up his hand as if ready to count off constituent parts on his fingers, then thought better of it. “What happens to all those slowly shuffling souls outside after they enter your mountain and before they emerge again in different bodies and as new persons? Where is the original person? Dead? Obliterated? Intact? Reshaped? Forgotten? As this happens to every living being I cannot think of a more important question, and I can think of no one better than you to answer it. Yes, Yama, hate me if you will, but I’m sorry. I hold you to your promise.”

 

Yama: Ask for sons and grandsons who will live a hundred years.

 

Yama smiled then, more to himself perhaps than for Sebastian, but he made no effort to hide his smile, and Sebastian felt the warm tint of pride spreading on his cheeks. Yama leaned towards Sebastian.

“Would you not rather have sons and grandsons who will live for a hundred years?”

“No,” said Sebastian.

 

Yama: Ask for herds of cattle, elephants and horses, gold and vast land, and ask to live as long as you desire.

 

“Would you not rather have a mansion on ten acres in a gated community in the city of your choice, with a tennis court and cars in a four car garage, all free and clear, built to last? And would you not rather have unlimited financial resources to do whatever you may want, travel wherever you may want, see whatever you may want? And would you not rather live happily and healthily for as long as you like?”

“No,” said Sebastian.

 

Yama: Or, if you can think of anything more desirable, ask for that, with wealth and long life as well.

 

“Think again, Sebastian. Is there anything else you would rather have? Books, beautifully bound in a great library? All music in the world ever recorded, yours to enjoy at the press of a button? An endless supply of sweet opium to help you dream? Whatever you desire, Nachiketa, that and a rich long life as well. Would you not rather have that?”

“No,” said Sebastian.

 

Yama: Nachiketa, be the ruler of a great kingdom, and I will give you the utmost capacity to enjoy the pleasures of life.

 

“What about a country, what about a Presidency? You can be the President of the United States, or of any country you choose. The King of England or of Thailand. The Emperor of Japan. Whichever country you choose. You can be that and I will throw in a long lasting capacity to enjoy all the pleasures you can think of. Would you not rather have that?”

“No,” said Sebastian.

 

Yama: Ask for beautiful women of loveliness rarely seen on earth, riding in chariots, skilled in music, to attend you. But Nachiketa, don’t ask me for the secret of death.

 

“You can have any woman you want. Any women you want. As beautiful as any ever seen on Earth. Models, movie stars, singers, actors, beauty queens, young maidens fragrant with innocence and grace, living only to attend to you, to give you pleasure, any pleasure you can think of. Nothing will be too perverse or too unspeakable; they will perform. You can let yourself fall back and submerge into sex and experience the soft release of seed over and over and over again for a long and satisfying life. You can have an orgasm every minute, lasting a minute each, for the rest of your life. You can experience pleasure beyond any pleasure experienced on earth. You can know the core of what rushes out through sexual release. You can know the blood that rushes through sexual veins. I will let you reach that core and savor that blood and stay there for the rest of your life. Would you not rather have that?”

“Heavens, no,” said Sebastian.

“Nachiketa,” said Yama and reached over and took Sebastian’s hand. “Nachiketa, listen. You can have everything I have told you. I have the power to give it. You can live for the span of many lives, you can know pleasure and happiness beyond what any song or poem ever conceived. But please, please do not ask me about the secret of death.”

 

Nachiketa: These pleasures last but until tomorrow, and they wear out the vital powers of life. How fleeting is all life on Earth! Therefore keep your horses and chariots, dancing and music for yourself. Never can mortals be made happy by wealth. How can we be desirous of wealth when we see your face and know we cannot live while you are here? This is the boon I choose and ask you for.

 

“Yama,” said Sebastian. “I do not doubt you. I believe that you can do what you say you can do, that you can give me all the things you mentioned. But let me ask you a question: For how long do these pleasures you speak of last? Forever?”

“A long time.”

“Forever?”

“No,” said Yama. “Not forever.”

“Half of forever, then?”

“Half of forever cannot help but be forever also,” said Yama. “These pleasures cannot last half of forever.”

“Perhaps one millionth of forever. Can these pleasures you offer me, these women and cars, and sexual gratification, and wealth, can they last a millionth of forever?”

“A millionth of forever cannot help but be forever also,” said Yama. “These pleasures cannot last a millionth of forever.”

“Perhaps, then, the tiniest shard of a millionth of a millionth of forever. Surely they would last the tiniest, tiniest shard of a millionth of a millionth of forever?” said Sebastian.

“No,” said Yama. “You well know by now that the tiniest, most microscopic shard of the smallest drop of a one millionth of one millionth of forever cannot help but also last forever since there is no end to forever, and therefore, these pleasures I offer you cannot last that long.”

“But the soul, the true person is forever, is he not?”

“Yes, Nachiketa, the true person is forever.”

“Then,” said Sebastian. “These pleasures, these riches that you paint and offer me, will last only until tomorrow, perhaps not even until then. They will tie me up and drain me and focus my energy and will to live in odd directions and then cease within a beat or two of my heart leaving me drained and confused. What you propose is not a good bargain, Yama.”

Yama said nothing, and no longer smiled. He looked at Sebastian with steady, dark eyes which did not blink.

Sebastian said, “Life on Earth is not the span of even the smallest fraction of a shard of forever. It is as fleeting as the rushing water of a stream, now here, now gone. There is nothing here that I want. You can keep your mansions and your cars and your women and your sex. You can keep your dancing, and your opium, and your music for yourself. None of these things will ever make us mortals happy.”

“How can you say that?” asked Yama. “Don’t you see? Don’t you remember? This is what all mortals strive for. Riches. Health. Long life. Children. Better interest rates. A paid down mortgage. A healthy 401K. An RV owned free and clear. A few acres in Montana. This is happiness, Nachiketa, can you deny that?”

“How can anyone be truly happy when he has seen your face? When he knows that he must leave all he has accumulated and return to this shuffling line, again, again, again heading into the mountain and the blackness within to a new life without.”

“What about sex?” asked Yama. “Do you not strive for coupling and release with every breath you breathe?”

“Most do,” conceded Sebastian. “Yes, most do. As you say, with every breath they breathe. But sex simply gilds the cage. Simply confuses the search. I would forgo sex a million, million times before I forgo my third wish. Which, by the way,” he added, “still stands.”

Yama did not answer.

 

Nachiketa: Having approached an immortal like you, how can I, subject to old age and death, ever try to rejoice in a long life for the sake of the senses’ fleeting pleasures? Dispel this doubt of mine, O King of death: does a person live after death or does he not? Nachiketa asks for no other boon than the secret of this great mystery.

 

“You are immortal, Yama. You know the lie of time, and you live beyond it. I, on the other hand, am still part of that stream, which no matter how long still, unlike forever, has a beginning and has an end. And as you well know, the span of anything which is born and which dies, no matter how long, is still shorter than the smallest fraction of the smallest fraction of the smallest shard of forever. I am born. I will grow old. My health will, no matter how well I eat and how much I exercise, deteriorate. Then I will die.”

Still Yama said nothing.

“In order to chase life’s fleeting pleasures, in order to seek happiness in mansions and boats, I must forget that life ends tomorrow. And, Yama, having seen you, how can I forget.”

Still Yama said nothing.

“Please, just answer the question. Does a person live after death or does he not? As himself? Although it is the greatest of mysteries, the question itself is simple enough.”

 

Having tested young Nachiketa and found him fit to receive spiritual instruction, Yama, king of death, said:

 

Yama: The joy of Atman ever abides, but not what seems pleasant to the senses. Both these, differing in their purpose, prompt man to action. All is well for those who choose the joy of Atman, but they miss the goal of life who prefer the pleasant. Perennial joy or passing pleasure? This is the choice one is to make always. The wise recognize these two, but not the ignorant. The first welcome what leads to abiding joy, though painful at the time. The latter run, goaded by their senses, after what seems immediate pleasure.

 

“Yes,” said Yama. “I agree. The question itself is simple enough.”

Then he rose slowly, and stretched. “Do you want something to eat?” he asked.

“No, I’m fine,” said Sebastian although his stomach, brought around by Yama’s mention of food, disagreed loudly.

“You sure?”

“Yes, I’m fine.”

“Mind if I do?”

Oh, oh, said Sebastian’s stomach. “You eat?” said Sebastian.

“As long as you see me, I do.”

“I thought…” began Sebastian.

“I’m alive,” said Yama. “I may be Death, but I’m not dead. One has to eat, Sebastian.”

“I thought you were immortal,” said Sebastian.

“I am. Of course I am,” said Yama. “But what shape ever is?”

Sebastian nodded, even blushed a little. “Point well taken,” said Sebastian. Then his stomach finally made itself heard all the way into words, “In that case, I’ll have a sandwich or something, and some tea if you have it.”

“Glad to see you’ve come to your senses,” said Yama. “No pun intended,” he added. “I’ll just call the kitchen.”

Yama picked up his cell phone and hit a speed-dial button.

“By the way,” said Sebastian. “Where is the kitchen? I couldn’t find it to save my life while I was waiting for you.”

“Ah, yes. Sorry about that. “It’s below us. Elevator is behind the hallway mirror.”

“Oh, I see,” said Sebastian. “Wish I’d known.”

“Wouldn’t have done you much good,” said Yama. “Only the staff have access.”

“Like the water girl?”

“Like the water girl.”

At which point, very much on cue, she returned, this time with a tray of sandwiches, two salads, tea and some sparkling water.

“Thanks,” said Yama to the girl.

“Thanks a million,” said Sebastian (and his stomach) to the girl, who then promptly vanished again.

“Help yourself,” said Yama. “You get to pick.”

Sebastian looked over the tray. One sandwich looked like ham and cheese. The other looked like turkey. The salads were sprinkled with mozzarella.

“I’m a vegan,” said Sebastian. “These all have, uh, meat or dairy.”

“Vegan?” said Yama. “You should have spoken up.”

“Sorry.”

Yama reached for the cell phone again and again punched the kitchen. A minute later the girl returned with an avocado and sprouts sandwich and a green salad without cheese.

“Really,” said Sebastian. “Thanks a lot. Really.”

The girl bowed, but didn’t answer. Then disappeared.

“How does she do that?” said Sebastian.

“Lots of training,” said Yama. “Better?” Nodding in the direction of Sebastian’s sandwich.

“Much,” said Sebastian.

They both ate in silence, until the food was gone.

“Better?” asked Yama again.

“Much,” said Sebastian, and brought the tea cup to his lips again.

“Where were we?” said Yama.

“I believe you were about to answer my third question,” said Sebastian.

“Yes,” said Yama, as if he had forgotten. “That’s right. So listen.”

Sebastian replaced his cup on the tray. Then sat back, and listened.

Yama said: “There is one joy, and only one joy, one happiness, that lives eternal. That is the joy of the Atman. Then there is a joy, a happiness, that is not eternal. That is the joy which stems from and appeals to the senses. Do you know the distinction?”

“Of course.”

“No, Sebastian, don’t be glib. This is important.”

“I know the distinction,” said Sebastian. “At least I think I do.”

“Okay. Keep it in mind. Man is motivated by both of these two joys,” Yama continued. “Man, even the poorest of the poor in line out there, or the richest of the rich. Even the most ignorant of the ignorant in line out there, in his heart, deep in his heart, were he to listen closely, knows these two joys for what they are: as two different paths to follow.

“Yes, in a way they are both desires: Sreya, which is the quiet light, leads to sri, which is serenity and is everlasting. Preya, the shouting light—the flame—leads to priyah, which is intense but fleeting. Do you understand?”

“Yes,” said Sebastian, and nodded. “I understand.”

Yama scrutinized Sebastian’s face for a long moment, and seemed satisfied. “Those who chose the quiet light, which is the joy of the Atman, have nothing to fear. Those who prefer the shouting light—the flame of the senses—are blinded by it and miss the point.”

Yama paused.

“So it boils down to perennial joy or passing pleasure,” summarized Sebastian. “I knew that.”

“Again, Sebastian, don’t be glib. There’s ‘know’ and there is ‘K-N-O-W,’ know.”

“Sorry.”

“No, don’t be.” Yama, took another sip of his tea. Then said, “And, yes of course, Sebastian, you are right. That would be the long and the short of it. You choose one or the other, always. Sometimes many times a day until the choice stays chosen.”

“What of those who do not chose but simply live?”

“They have already chosen Preya,” answered Yama.

“Always?”

“They have always chosen Preya,” answered Yama.

“Wouldn’t there…? begun Sebastian.

“Always,” said Yama. Firmly.

Sebastian fell quiet, pondering Yama’s words, then asked, “How do you choose so that your choice stays chosen?”

“Your choice stays chosen when you choose with your whole being,” answered Yama. “When a choice is made outside the scope of change, in the quiet light of you. With the quiet light that you are. Short of that, the choice may last, a short time, a long time perhaps, but not for always, it will eventually wear thin with time and be forgotten, and out-chosen by later choices. To make the choice stay chosen it must transcend time, and must be made by your whole being, in the quiet light. With the quiet light that transcends time.”

“I see,” said Sebastian. And he did see.

“The wise,” said Yama. “He who knows how to listen, is well aware of the two paths, these two choices. The deaf, the ignorant is not. The wise aspire to the true joy of the Atman while the ignorant, pulled like a bull by the ring in his nose, is pulled by his senses and goaded to chase those immediate pleasures hailed by the shouting light.”

“The flame,” said Sebastian.

“Yes.”

“That’s the fate of the better part of humanity,” said Sebastian.

“Sadly, yes,” said Yama. “Yes. And it is a choice.”

“I know,” said Sebastian.

 

Yama: Well have you renounced these passing pleasures so dear to the senses, Nachiketa, and turned your back on the way of the world which makes mankind forget the goal of life?

 

Yama stood up again, all seven or so feet of him, and against the soft overhead lights he looked to Sebastian more like a weather system than a host. “And you, Sebastian, have you chosen?”

Sebastian—not aware until this moment that Yama meant for him to choose, here and now—had not. “Sreya or Preya?” he heard himself say. A meaningless confirmation, he thought, but he felt he should say something.

“Yes, Sebastian, Sreya or Preya,” said Yama, without offense.

“Really chosen, so it stays chosen? That is what you ask?”

“Yes.”

“I have not yet,” Sebastian owned up.

“Then, this is the moment. You must choose.”

Sebastian thought of his father then, and of his mother, and what they each had told him, cast in different words, but still the same message: “This will all be yours one day.” And he remembered feeling richer for the promise, for knowing that one day Bland, Inc., same as his grandfather had bequeathed it to his father, would one day fall to him. Property, corporations, mining rights, planes, cars, the lot.

He looked at his hands, he looked at the now nearly empty cup of tea, too cold now to taste good, and he looked back up at Yama the storm, hovering. He looked out the window at the big wheel, at the mountain yawning, at Lucy with her clipboard far away standing in for Yama for as long as needed (he sent her a thought of thanks, and—not particularly to his surprise—she responded with a you’re welcome). Then he looked back at Yama, even larger now, it seemed, darker, more imposing, almost leaning into, over, through, Sebastian, waiting for an answer, in truth.

And Sebastian, in that moment, let everything fall: dreams, goals, plans, hopes. He shed himself of everything, everything that was not him, everything but the deciding, and then he decided.

“Yes,” he said, “with as much of me as I can gather, I have chosen Sreya. I have chosen the path of the quiet light.”

“Have you renounced the fleeting pleasures, so dear to the senses, and so urged by your tongue, your belly, your loins?”

“I have let them fall,” said Sebastian.

“Have you turned your back on the world that chases riches and immediate gratification?”

“I have let the world fall,” said Sebastian.

“Can you see the goal of life?”

“There is but one goal for me,” said Sebastian. “To reach and be the quiet light.”

“Well put,” said Yama, and, gathering himself back to size, sat down again.

 

Yama: Far apart are wisdom and ignorance. The first leads one to Self-realization; the second makes one more and more estranged from his Self. I regard you, Nachiketa, worthy of instruction, for passing pleasures tempt you not at all.

 

But not for long. He finished his tea in silence, while Sebastian did the same. It didn’t taste so bad after all. Not bitter, like he had expected. Then Yama rose again and walked over to the window and looked out at the line of silent shuffle. That audible silence of time passing. Sebastian looked too. Again at Lucy with her clipboard, asking, checking, asking, checking. She had not called Yama since that once, things must all be in order. Yama remained by the window, and without turning around asked:

“How many television sets do you count in here, Sebastian?”

“None,” he said.

“Better make sure,” said Yama. “Check everywhere.”

“Actually, I have already.”

“Check again. Everywhere.”

Sebastian did. He walked the entire length of the trailer, looking to his left and right and behind doors and in cupboards and under tables, making sure as he went. There were none.

When he returned he found Yama still standing by the window. Still considering the big wheel.

“I don’t see any,” he said.

“That’s right,” said Yama, finally turning to face Sebastian. “Not a one. Why do you think that is?”

“It has to do with ignorance, doesn’t it?” said Sebastian.

At this, Yama laughed outright. A delighted outburst. “You’re really something,” he said. “And you’re absolutely right. There’s wisdom and there’s ignorance. Wisdom is a lot quieter than television. When they invented the moving pictures, I knew we were in for trouble, lots of it. And when they invented sound to go along with it, and launched the talkies, things were getting worse. But when they invented television I knew things were heading straight for disaster.”

“Is it really that bad?”

“Not in and of itself, no. It can be a good and fascinating thing. But as with anything, it depends on what you do with it once you have it. A news report, unbiased and objective, can be useful. It may help you in some way. The roads north of town are impassable due to the rain. Good piece of information. You avoid the roads, you get where you’re going. That serves a good purpose. But then, to remain on the air, and to pay its way, the news program has to sell advertising, and there goes the entire game. For now it is no longer enough for the news to be factual and helpful. This strikes far too many viewers as boring.

No, now the news must be sensational or appealing or captivating or heartbreaking in order to attract a larger viewing audience than some other news broadcast, which in turn will command higher advertising rates. So, now, in order to beat the competition, we have to tailor the news to our demographically defined audience, and there goes objectivity and truth. For now we are dealing with deception. Perhaps just a little, perhaps a lot, but once you’re lying you’re lying, it’s only a matter of degree.”

Sebastian was taking this in and nodding as he listened. These thoughts were not new to him; their clarity, however, was, and he sighed.

“I see you agree,” said Yama.

“I’ve seen it,” said Sebastian.

“The same is of course true with all programming, whether entertainment, talk shows, infomercials, or sports. They all share the One Aim: sell.”

“Sell,” repeated Sebastian.

“And before long, a steady diet of this will give you a slanted picture of the world. You will form and see and know a different world, a false world. One of too much violence, and of too much happiness. One of too much style and artificial beauty. One of too much success, and of too many corpses. And one of too little, if any, truth.”

“I know,” said Sebastian.

“The real world is hard enough to grasp. It’s just about impossible enough to disentangle and shed. Substituting the real world with this false one, this painted one, this constant commercial, makes escape a pretty much guaranteed impossibility.”

“And that is ignorance,” said Sebastian, thinking aloud.

“Precisely,” said Yama. “And never before has ignorance strayed so far from wisdom. Never before have they been so far apart. The wise man is laughed at in this new world of cell phones and iPads and instant internet stock quotes. If the trick of the perfect prison is to keep you from looking for a door, for a key, to keep you from realizing that you are in fact in prison, well then the world is now succeeding beyond belief. There has never been a silence like this before.” Yama again indicated the endless line outside. “Never before has there been so few of you Nachiketa. So few Sebastians.”

“Why is that, do you think?”

“I think ignorance breeds ignorance. Almost exponentially. And television does a better job than just about anything I have ever seen.”

“What happened to the wise?”

“Most, like Buddha, like Jesus of Nazareth, have left.”

“Where? Heaven?”

“Not really.”

“Where then?”

“Elsewhere.”

Yama seemed reluctant to elaborate and Sebastian didn’t want to press. “Ah,” said Sebastian. “But we are all wise,” he added. More as a question.

“We are all wise,” confirmed Yama. “In the stillness of our hearts we are all wise. But that wisdom is the quiet light, drowned and drowned again a thousand times over by the shouting lights surrounding. This new world is built on shouting lights.”

“I still hear the quiet light,” said Sebastian, more to himself.

“But you are Nachiketa,” said Yama. “You hear because you listen. And I think you know that this wisdom is what leads to the full realization of Self. And I think you know that ignorance makes strangers of the person and the Self. You are wise, Sebastian.”

“I am not wise,” said Sebastian. “I don’t know what happens at death. That would be wisdom.”

“Sebastian,” said Yama. “You are wise, trust me. You don’t care for the shouting lights. You are worthy of instruction.”

“Are only the wise worthy of instruction?”

“Only the wise would understand instruction.”

“But worthy?”

“In their quiet hearts, each and every person is worthy of instruction, but it would be words and deeds wasted on the ignorant for they quench the very light they are and refuse to listen to wisdom.”

“Still worthy, though?”

“Well, basically, yes.”

 

Yama: Ignorant of their ignorance, yet wise in their own esteem, these deluded men proud of their vain learning go round and round like the blind led by the blind.

 

“But don’t forget,” said Yama, “that the ignorant man does not recognize his own ignorance. Don’t forget that he cannot face or confess it, but rather claims, and often loudly, his brilliance. There is no teaching such a man for there is nothing, of this he is convinced, that he does not already know.”

Sebastian looked back at his father and his father’s friends, and he found that what Yama said was true. Sebastian nodded.

“They will flatter each other to blindness,” said Yama.

“I have seen that,” said Sebastian.

“They will, blinded, lead each other around and around but never out, applauding and cheering all the way.”

“I have seen that,” said Sebastian.

“Then you know that this is so.”

“I know that this is so.”

 

Yama: Far beyond their eyes, hypnotized by the world of sense, opens the way to immortality. ‘I am my body; when my body dies, I die.’ Living in this superstition they fall life after life under my sway.

 

“Know also that the ignorant man is taught—by ignorant parents, by ignorant friends, by ignorant books and ignorant magazines, by ignorant television and ignorant radio, by ignorant internet ads and voices, by ignorant billboards and banners, by leaflets and bulk mail, by phone campaigns and door-to-door salesmen—is taught at every turn that there is nothing more to life than what he can see, touch, hear, smell, or taste. Nothing beyond what he can eat and caress. Nothing. Absolutely nothing. This is the great lesson of the world.”

Yama left the window and walked back to his chair. He sat down and leaned back with a small grimace, as if it had pained him to say what he just said, or to say what he was about to say.

“The world is a runaway train without an engineer, set on its little illusions: wealth, fame, medicine, psychology, psychiatry, food, drink, drugs, the body, the body, the body. Convinced beyond reflection that when the body dies, the person dies, is no more. From dust to dust. From ashes to ashes. Nothing. A very grim certainty fueled by ignorance. There is not much hope now. And so they return to me, time and again, and again, and again.”

“But what about the religions?” asked Sebastian. “They teach life after death.”

“What religions?” Yama stiffened in what to Sebastian seemed like anger. “I die and my soul goes to heaven? That religion? Could there be a more devious lie? As if the soul were an appendix different from the person. As if the person were the brain, as if he were the meat and the bones and the tendons that hold his body together, as if he were his teeth, as if he were his nose and every cell that dies every second and were every cell that is born every second. As if this were the person who, by the way, has this thing, this excrescence, called a soul that is quite different from him, and which, if the body—the person—has been good, will then shake itself loose from the thing that is the person, when the person dies, and take off for heaven, and which if the body has been bad will head for hell. That religion? Is that the religion you’re talking about?”

“Well, yes.”

“My dear Sebastian. Unfortunately, that religion, too, is just so much fuel for the runaway train. The rails are nothing but superstition and all the passengers are blind; are not aware that the train is out of control, or even that it is a train. It is not a good situation today, over on Earth.”

Over on Earth?” said Sebastian. “Over. That’s a funny preposition. You mean down on Earth?”

“No, I mean over on Earth.”

“So where are we?”

“Not on Earth.”

“I figured that. But where exactly?”

Yama suddenly looked like someone who did not speak the local language; curious about what might have been said, but unable to answer since he did not understand the question.

“You are being vague for a reason,” said Sebastian.

“Yes.”

Sebastian said nothing, waiting for more. Obviously waiting for more. Yama did not rise to the bait.

“You cannot tell me where we are, is that it?” asked Sebastian.

“It doesn’t matter where we are.”

“I didn’t really think about it until you said over, over on Earth,” said Sebastian.

“My mistake,” said Yama.

“Yes, but it’s made, and it’s made me want to know.”

“You’ve seen the entrance,” said Yama—not quite changing the subject—indicating the gaping mountain outside with a glance towards the window.

“Yes,” said Sebastian.

“You’ve seen the exit farther down.”

“Yes,” said Sebastian.

“There is another exit. A third mouth.” As if that explained everything. For Yama did not continue.

Which it didn’t, “And?”

“And, the exit you’ve seen is for those who return to Earth. You cannot see the second exit from here, but it’s for those who don’t. For those who have awoken. It is rarely used.”

“That other exit, that third mouth, not much used. It leads to immortality?” asked Sebastian.

“All gates are temporal, symbols really.”

Sebastian waited for more, but this time Yama did not elaborate.

“That still doesn’t answer my question.”

“Which question?”

“Where are we?”

“It does not matter where we are. It’s just a place. Somewhere, like all places.”

Again Sebastian waited for more, watching Yama not elaborate.

“What about music?” said Sebastian after a while, breaking the silence, which had stretched, heading back to the subject of not much hope.

“Music,” said Yama, and making the connection, “is the language of the gods.”

“Nicely put,” said Sebastian.

“And very true,” said Yama with a smile.

Sebastian suddenly startled from some internal stirring, a wind almost, that rushed up at him. “It is a real language, isn’t it?”

“As real as anything.”

“No, I mean real, like talking. Communicating real.”

“Music has always communicated.”

“You know what I mean,” said Sebastian.

“Yes,” said Yama. “I know what you mean. And yes, music is a language. A real one. As a matter of fact, it is much more real than this, the words we now use.”

Sebastian would not distrust his internal winds again. “Do we know this? I mean, does anyone know this?”

“You all know within the quiet light.”

“You know what I mean,” said Sebastian again. Not really annoyed, but a couple of doors up from it.

“Yes, some know,” answered Yama. “Or knew. Bach knew, Handel knew, Beethoven knew, Keith Jarrett knows, so does Ravi Shankar, as did his pupil George Harrison. Mozart couldn’t quite put his finger on it, but he had excellent memory to make up for it.”

“Any others?”

“Yes. But only a few.”

“Bach. Jarrett. They speak, then?”

“They speak. Each fugue is a story. Each of Jarrett’s solo recitals is a rich telling of another Earth.”

“Another Earth?”

“The second exit,” said Yama.

“The one rarely used,” said Sebastian.

“The one rarely used,” confirmed Yama.

Sebastian thought for a while, “What about other music? I mean by those who don’t know, who don’t know it is a language. They still make music.”

“Of sorts,” answered Yama. “And of course, memory still casts a shadow, even within those who don’t know. There is still the taste of a better place within each heart; whether drowned by the shouting light or not, the taste is still there and the wish to talk is still there, but as with most everything else these days, it has been perverted and debased and turned into a tool of wealth, fame, and a slave to the senses.”

Sebastian thought of Country Music and nodded to himself. He thought of Rock and Roll and nodded to himself. He thought of elevator music and nodded to himself. He thought of Hip Hop and nodded to himself. The perversion, the destruction of a language. A real language, muted and twisted to serve the senses. He thought of “sex, drugs, and rock and roll,” the almost anthem to excess. The once language. The still language. The exit rarely used.

 

Yama: It is but few who hear about the Self. Fewer still dedicate their lives to its Realization. Wonderful is the one who speaks about the Self; rare are they who make it the supreme goal of their lives.

 

“There are many false prophets,” said Yama. “And many of them are musicians, though they don’t realize that they are prophets, or that they are false.”

“How can you call them prophets, then?”

“Because they are inspired, and they have followers. Take any popular musician today. He is convinced of his inspiration—and sure enough, he is inspired; is convinced of the right to preach, although they have nothing, absolutely nothing to say; except perhaps for ‘love thy neighbor’ and by love they actually mean fuck.”

Sebastian startled at the use of the word, and looked up. Incongruous with Yama. But Yama didn’t seem to notice, he had said what he meant, and Sebastian realized the truth of it.

“They sense and realize their power over thousands, sometimes millions of followers they call fans. It is a private religion of sorts, but again, it’s a debased and perverted one. But not knowing, they have nothing to tell. And by not telling, they abuse the language. For that they will return to shuffle their feet through red dust again and again and again.”

“Is there no way to tell them?”

“Why don’t you give it a try when you return, Sebastian?”

“I will,” said Sebastian.

“Good luck,” said Yama.

The cell phone on the table sprung to life again and Sebastian froze with the surprise of it. Yama picked it up. “Yes, Lucy.”

“You sure?” he said.

Apparently.

“Farther back, perhaps?”

Apparently not. “Okay, must have missed him. What’s his name?”

“Brandon Gotleib, San Diego,” repeated Yama and did not write it down.

“Okay,” he said, “I will see to it,” and replaced the phone.

“Just a sec,” he said to Sebastian, and closed his eyes.

Again, Yama seemed to leave his shell right there in the trailer while he took off for places elsewhere.

 

The papers made quite a deal out of the unusual death of Brandon Gotleib, formerly of San Diego, California, who managed to asphyxiate himself by choking on his toothbrush. Slipping on a slippery molar, while rush-brushing—slowly, methodically does it, a few papers pointed out, helpfully—as late for an appointment, it was theorized. He was even nominated for a Darwin Award.

 

“Sorry ‘bout that,” said Yama when he returned.

“Where’d you go?” asked Sebastian.

“To help Mr. Gotleib along,” said Yama.

Sebastian knew better than to ask for details. Instead he said, “Why would it be impossible to enlighten a famous musician? That’s what you’re saying, isn’t it?”

“Because,” said Yama, “as the head of his private religion he will be snared by his fame, choked by his wealth, and bludgeoned by his power. He will never listen to the Self, were he ever to sense it, for he sees it as a threat to all that he owns and all that he controls. His Earth is the only Earth, and his only wish is for it to last forever, much as he wishes his drug highs or booze buzzes to last forever.”

“Which, in a manner of speaking, they may,” added Yama after three heartbeats of silence.

“What do you mean?”

“They will recur and recur forever, unless.”

“Unless?”

“Unless they wake up to the truth about that dull circle.”

“Who are the true musicians?” asked Sebastian. “Down on, well over on Earth?”

“They are only a handful,” said Yama. “And I’ve already mentioned some of them. Keith Jarrett. Ravi Shankar and George Harrison, before they left. Joni Mitchell.”

“Bob Dylan?” asked Sebastian, calling up the beginning of an internal list of sorts. Of candidates. Of private question marks.

“Nah,” said Yama. “Pretty words, and lots of them—quite a magician really, but no light, no quiet light there.”

“Donovan?”

“Almost.”

“What do you mean, almost?”

“He started out sincerely, looking. Even through the drugs he played around with he was looking. He went to India to learn more, but in the end settled for the narrower love of his wife—which, by the way, is an amazing story in and of itself. But no true light, I’m afraid.”

“You cannot love a woman?”

“Not exclusively, not as the be all and end all of all love, of existence.”

“That’s what he did?”

“In effect, yes.”

“Shame.”

“Yes.”

“Was Jerry Garcia?”

“Are you kidding? Robert Hunter, perhaps, but not quite.”

“Tori Amos?”

“No.”

“Jon Astley?”

“Now, there’s an interesting one. Worth hearing again.”

“Does he talk?”

“Not really, but he does play.”

“Brian Wilson?”

“No.”

“John Lennon?”

“Absolutely not.”

“Why absolutely?”

“He had such opportunity, such a wonderful opportunity. He heard about the Self, he even stopped to listen for a second or two, he even heard the quiet light whisper one night, but he turned away and called it all rubbish.”

“Sad,” said Sebastian.

“Very,” said Yama.

“Jonatha Brooke?”

“Where are you getting all these names?” said Yama.

“I’m going through my CD collection.”

“You’ve got a splendid memory.”

“Not really.”

“Oh, don’t be bashful, Sebastian. Does not become you.”

“No, I mean, not really. I’m simply looking at a picture of my CD spreadsheet. I take good pictures, I’d agree with that.”

“You’re making fine distinctions.”

“Perhaps. What about Jonatha?”

“Very promising.”

“How?”

“She has heard about the Self and is looking for the quiet light. Looking.”

Sebastian made a mental note of listening to her again when he got back.

“Jackson Browne?”

“No.”

“Neil Young?”

“Ah, yes, actually. In a slow, mystical sort of way. He is speaking the language, but with a very northern dialect.”

“How can you have dialects in music?”

“Symphonies. Song-Poems. Jazz. Ragas. Dialects.”

“I see.”

Sebastian glanced back at his mental image of the spreadsheet. “Kate Bush?”

“Ah, yes. There’s one as well.”

“She knows.”

“Yes.”

Sebastian made another mental note.

“John Cale?”

“Ah, yes.”

“He knows?”

“No.”

“Why ‘yes’ then?”

“He’s a great musician.”

“But doesn’t speak the language?”

“He does occasionally, but doesn’t know it.”

“Does that count?”

“No. He has no idea what he’s saying when he’s saying.”

“But worth listening to?”

“Oh, absolutely.”

Yama was smiling at Sebastian’s confusion. “Good musician,” he said again.

“Kate Campbell?”

“Wonderful.”

“She knows?”

“Not really.”

“Why wonderful, then?”

“She’s making Country Music real Music, as opposed to the other ninety-nine percent of that persuasion.”

“Ah,” said Sebastian. “Eva Dahlgren?”

“Yes.”

“She knows?”

“She hears, yes.”

“Stina Nordenstam?”

“What’s with the Swedes?”

“I like them.”

“Nordenstam is a curious one. Very gifted. But talking? No.”

“Deuter?”

“He knows. Yes. I forgot to mention him. He does know.”

Sebastian noted this as well.

“Just curious,” said Yama. “How did you find Deuter?”

“Not sure, I just did.”

“Well,” said Yama. “Not surprising. You know, of course, and should know who knows.”

“Should, perhaps. But I’m not so sure.”

“You have many more on your list there?”

“A few.”

“All right, go ahead. Deuter is a good one though. He’s sat where you’re sitting now, asking similar questions. Very perceptive. Excellent musician, too.”

“Jim Morrison?”

“No.”

“Don Henley?”

“No.”

“Elton John?”

“No.”

“Brian Eno?”

“Interesting.”

“But no?”

“Yes, no.”

“Marianne Faithfull?”

“A survivor, if ever I saw one.”

“But no?”

“Not quite.”

“Faure?”

“Best requiem on record.”

“Knows, knew?”

“No.”

“The Flaming Lips?”

“Wayne Coyne and company?”

“Precisely.”

“Great band.”

“They know?”

“No. But one day they may hear. And when then do…”

“They’ll know?”

“Perhaps. Did you ever hear Zaireeka?”

“Is that a band?”

“No, it’s a 4 CD project by The Flaming Lips.”

“I missed that. Sounds like a long project.”

“No, all 4 CDs have the same tracks on them, you play each at the same time on different players.”

“Quadraphonic?”

“Octophonic. Each CD is in stereo.”

“Wow.”

“And not only that. Since you’ll never be able to start each CD player exactly on cue, since they will never be exactly synchronized or synchronized exactly the same way any two times, the tracks will sound slightly different each time you hear them. Part of the plan, they say.”

“How do you keep up-to-date on current music?”

“How do I keep track of every death?”

“So you are a god?”

“No, just well organized.”

“Yes, but how do you…?” Sebastian looked out at the line of feet shuffling.

“Well, maybe I have an unusually good attention span.”

“To the point where you know every death?”

“Yes.”

“Then you are a god.”

“If that’s what you want to call it.”

“How about King Crimson?”

“Robert Fripp?”

“Yes.”

“I like them.”

“Does he know that music is a language? Do they know the language?”

“No.”

“Wilco?”

“Tweedy?”

“Yes.”

“No.”

“Katell Keineg?”

“Probably will one day. She is true to her music, and that is the first, and most important, step to knowing the language.”

“Mike Heron?”

“Used to.”

“Used to?”

“Yes, he knew the quiet light, but preferred to smother it.”

“Oh, no.”

“Oh, yes.”

“Jimi Hendrix?”

“No.”

“Lili Haydn?”

“One day.”

“Roy Harper?”

“No.”

“Astrid Williamson?”

“Close.” Yama held up a hand to stop the next name. “You have many more?”

“A few.”

“You have selected well, Sebastian. It seems you have found every open voice alive. You recognize the awake, because you are awake.”

Sebastian didn’t answer. Not sure whether this was a compliment or a sign to wrap things up. Taking it as a compliment, he plowed on.

“Lowell George?”

“Could have known, should have known.”

“Frank Zappa?”

“No.”

“Peter Gabriel.”

“Oh, yes.”

“Yes?”

“Yes, Mr. Gabriel knows.”

“Robin Williamson?”

“The other half of The Incredible String Band?”

“Yes.”

“He knows, almost.”

“Jan Johansson?”

“The Swedish piano player?”

“Yes.”

“Oh, yes, he too.”

“Really?”

“Yes. And I’m amazed you found him.”

“Well, he is pretty amazing.”

“Verily.”

“Kirsty McColl?”

“Sad accident. She was nearing.”

“I would have thought …”

“Not quite.”

“John McLaughlin?”

“Almost.”

“Aimee Mann?”

“Now there’s an interesting name. Give her another year, then perhaps. She listens with eyes open.”

“How about the other Beatles, Ringo, Paul?”

“No.”

“Ralph McTell?”

“Close.”

“Jon Anderson?”

“Of Yes?”

“Yes.”

“No.”

“Pete Townshend?”

“At times, but not stably. Look, we’ve got to get back to the subject. I’ll give you five more.”

“All right. Vivaldi?”

“No.”

“Talk Talk?”

“Mark Hollis?”

“Yes.”

“Yes, he does know. Laughing Stock was a master piece, by the way.”

“I know. Matthew Sweet?”

“Someday, perhaps.”

“Andy Summers?”

“Ex-Police?”

“Yes.”

“Wonderful musician. But, no, not yet.”

“Sting, then?”

“No.”

“And that’s it, no more?”

“That was five?”

“Yes. As you know.”

“Yes, as I know. And yes, that’s it. For now you know yourself. You can tell.”

Sebastian reviewed the list and Yama’s answers and knew that yes, by his own hearing and by Yama’s replies, he would know who knew the language and who did not.

“That’s more than just a handful,” said Sebastian. “More than I had expected, anyway.”

“Perhaps,” said Yama. “But as a percentage, those who know the true language of music are vanishingly few.”

Sebastian nodded. Agreed.

Then Yama said, “There are but few who ever hear about the quiet light. And fewer still are those who hear the light itself. And fewer still are those who dedicate their lives to voicing and realizing it.”

“Is music a way, then?”

“It can be. But mostly music serves as a reminder. Many who speak the language do not know what they say, still they know they walk on holy ground. The quiet light remembers.”

“Yes,” said Sebastian. “I see that.”

“Not many see the quiet light, and only a few of those who sense it dare to speak of it. Of the rest, some keep their peace for fear of being thought crazy—and for good reason. Some for fear of being wrong.”

“Yes, there are places over on Earth where they will lock you up if you talk like we do, about the quiet light,” said Sebastian

“I know,” said Yama. “I know how bad it is.”

“Or if you’re certain that you’ve lived before.”

“I know,” said Yama. “I do know how bad it is.”

They both fell silent for a spell. Sebastian with his thoughts of Earth. Yama with his thought of the long line outside, how was Lucy coping.

Yama returned first, “And a very, very few make the quiet light of the true Self the supreme goal of their lives; make finding the Self the one overriding concern with their every breath. Of course, there is no other concern. Not really, but that’s the anatomy of the prison: If you don’t it’s a prison you won’t worry about a way out.”

“I have realized that since we’ve been talking,” said Sebastian. Then he remembered a line of Ralph McTell’s, it simply walked up and sang itself: “I know there are a few who can say it for the many, and maybe one or two who can say it for the few, and one of them was you.”

“Sylvia,” said Yama, and smiled. “McTell’s tribute to Sylvia Plath.”

Perhaps Sebastian should have known by now, but he was, again, genuinely taken aback at the scope of Yama’s knowledge.

“Yes,” said Sebastian. “That’s right. Yes. How do you know?”

“I listen to a lot of music,” Yama replied.

“You must,” said Sebastian. Then another question occurred to him: “But it can serve as a path, then? Music.”

“It can.”

“But it’s not the main path, is it?”

“No.”

“Is religion?”

“Is literature, or poetry?” said Yama.

“Yes, is literature, or poetry, or painting. Or science?”

“There is no main path, as you say,” said Yama. “There is the quiet light, it simply is and where the quiet light seeps through, there you have a path.”

“It seems to me it seeps through more often in music than anywhere else.”

“That is not really true, you know.”

“It isn’t?”

“No. It seeps through as much in novels and poetry, maybe even more. Take Wallace Stevens for one. He talks of little else.”

And Yama, as Sebastian had noticed him do before a longer telling, closed his eyes and said:

 

The one moonlight, in the simple-colored night,

Like a plain poet revolving in his mind

The sameness of his various universe,

Shines on the mere objectiveness of things.

 

It is as if being was to be observed,

As if, among the possible purposes

Of what one sees, the purpose that comes first,

The surface, is the purpose to be seen,

 

The property of the moon, what it evokes.

It is to disclose the essential presence, say,

Of a mountain, expanded and elevated almost

Into a sense, an object the less; or else

 

To disclose in the figure waiting on the road

An object the more, an undetermined form

Between the slouchings of a gunman and a lover

A gesture in the dark, a fear one feels

 

In the great vistas of night air, that takes this form,

In the arbors that are as if of Saturn-star.

So, then, this warm, wide, weatherless quietude

Is active with a power, an inherent life,

 

In spite of the mere objectiveness of things,

Like a cloud-cap in the corner of a looking glass,

A change in color in the plain poet’s mind,

Night and silence disturbed by an interior sound,

 

The one moonlight, the various universe, intended

So much just to be seen—a purpose, empty

Perhaps, absurd purpose, but at least a purpose,

Certain and ever more fresh. Ah! Certain, for sure…

 

Yama fell silent, and Sebastian was unsure whether this was the end. When Yama neither spoke again, nor opened his eyes, Sebastian said. “I recognize that. Wallace Stevens?”

“Yes,” said Yama. “Yes, indeed.” And opened his eyes again. “Note on Moonlight.”

“I see,” said Sebastian. “There is the quiet light in that poem.”

“Yes,” said Yama.

“Though not as clear, not as, as untainted, as music,” suggested Sebastian.

“Words do that,” said Yama. “But don’t forget, many more speak this language, the one of words, than the other language, the one of notes. More people are touched by this word language of the poets. That is important.”

“I see that.”

“And I believe Stevens spent his life speaking of little else.”

“Other than the quiet light?”

“Other than the quiet light.”

“And maybe one or two who can say it for the few,” said Sebastian.

“And one of them was him,” said Yama with a wistful smile.

 

Yama: Blessed are they who, through an illumined teacher, attain to Self-realization. The truth of the Self cannot come through one who has not realized that he is the Self.

 

“I will say this, though, for music,” said Yama. “When you listen to Bach, for example, you are in the presence of someone who has realized that he is the Self, that he is the Quiet Light, and that this light is not different from him. This knowing emanates and shines with every note, with every scale and counterpoint, there in plain view for all to see, and it is easier to know in the presence of his knowing. He is light to your eye, wind for your wing.”

“Is that the only way to know?” asked Sebastian.

“What do you mean?”

“You said it is easier to know in the presence of his knowing. Must you be in the presence of knowing to find out for yourself, to find your own quiet light? To find that it is you?”

“No, not really. Must is a strong word. Perhaps the wrong one. Many, well, it’s all relative, perhaps there are only a few, but many nonetheless have found the Quiet Light simply by listening. As did Buddha, for example. No, you do not have to be in the presence of the knowing to know, but it certainly makes it easier.”

“Light to your eyes, wind for your wing,” said Sebastian.

“Yes,” agreed Yama. “And if you are looking for teachers, you should only look for teachers who themselves can hear the Quiet Light. Those who do not can only repeat words shone by others, cannot themselves emanate the light.”

“Bach is a teacher?”

“Indeed. Bach is a teacher. But remember, Sebastian, music as light and wind comes with this warning label: with Bach, the music, and all of its reminders, may distract from finally letting go since you may not want to relinquish its beauty. And you must let go, in the end you must let go, even of heavenly music to reach the Quiet Light. Therefore, it is sometimes better to be in the quiet presence of knowing, in the presence of a teacher who knows and who knows how to whisper.”

“Like books, stories?”

“Yes, that is what I had in mind.”

“They don’t hold the same danger?”

“Their beauty is not quite as startling, and is easier to assimilate, to make your own. To make you. And so you can let it go, for now you have become it.”

“And the books written by Bach?”

“Music as language?”

“Yes.”

“If you hear Bach as language, not as music, or even light and wind, you will have no problem assimilating and letting go,” said Yama.

“Or someone like you?”

Yama didn’t understand.

“A teacher who knows how to whisper.”

Yama nodded. “Or someone like me.”

And again, silence fell for a short spell.

Then Yama said, “Of course, you are always in the presence of knowing.”

Now it was Sebastian’s turn to not quite understand.

“How can you ever leave yourself?” Asked Yama with a smile.

 

Yama: The intellect cannot reveal the Self, beyond its duality of subject and object. They who see themselves in all and all in them help others through spiritual osmosis to realize the Self themselves.

 

“How about the philosophers?” asked Sebastian. “Aristotle, Plato, Descartes, Spinoza, Spenser, Durant?”

“It is not easy,” said Yama, after pondering the question for a while. “Perhaps it is even impossible to think your way home, for while you think your way toward an answer, the Self is thinking and not being, and being the answer is the only answer.”

Sebastian waited for Yama to continue, which he did.

“It’s only when you are, when you see without reflecting on what you see but simply know what you see, when you observe without judgment but simply observe, when you perceive without and within as within and without. It is only when you become the looking and what the looking sees that you can be. And then, by enfolding others in your being, and by guiding them with questions, you can help them find and be the Quiet Light as well.”

“And the philosophers?”

“The philosophers erect ladders of thought to climb.”

“For themselves?”

“For themselves and for others, to many if not most of them it amounts to the same purpose.”

“I tried to read Spinoza’s Ethics.”

“You did not succeed?”

“No,” said Sebastian. “I did not.”

“It is a long, laborious—though I must say very detailed and a nearly perfect—ladder. But ladder still. And almost impossible to let go of, especially when you’re standing on it.”

Sebastian pictured himself after a thousand rungs at the top of the long, detailed ladder of Spinoza’s, almost at the edge of Truth. And he saw the wisdom of Yama’s words, letting go of the ladder at that point would precipitate a very long fall, and few would dare. But if letting go was the answer, then the answer must be ladderless.

“Yes,” said Yama.

The cell phone sprung to life again. And as before punctured the silence with its little insistence. Yama picked it up before it had a chance to repeat. Listened. Asked Sebastian, “Would you like some more tea? Kitchen,” he added. “Tea time.”

“Yes, sure. Please.”

“Please,” said Yama into the little instrument. “For both of us.”

“How about Durant?” wondered Sebastian. “I have read some of him, and he does not strike me as a ladder.”

Sebastian saw Yama swing into his quoting mode again, leaning back, eyes closed:

 

I know how weak words are in the face of guns and blood; how irrelevant mere truth and decency appear before the might of empires and gold. But if even one Hindu, fighting for freedom far off there on the other side of the globe, shall hear this call of mine and be a trifle comforted, then these months of work on this little book will seem sweet to me. For I know of nothing in the world that I would rather do today than to be of help to India.

 

“Durant?”

“He wrote a little book, a pamphlet really, albeit a long one, in the 1930s called The Case for India. That’s from his Note to the Reader.”

“Not very laddery.”

“Not at all. You are right. Durant, of all the philosophers, although I think of him as a philosophizing historian rather than a philosopher, he’s one who is not trying to erect a system of thought, a ladder. He sees what he sees and tells it with integrity. Of those you mentioned, he’s the most honest. Or perhaps the bravest. He went where his honesty and his curiosity took him, and he reported what he saw. Giving you a firm foundation upon which to place and grown your own ladder.”

“Easier to let go of, huh?”

“Your own ladder?”

“Yes.”

“Yes,” Yama agreed, “easier to let go of.”

“A teacher?”

“Durant?”

“Yes.”

“An observer, more than a teacher. But what an observer.”

“Worth reading?”

“Time well spent.”

 

Yama: This awakening you have known comes not through logic and scholarship, but from close association with a realized teacher. Wise are you, Nachiketa, because you seek the Self eternal. May we have more seekers like you.

 

Tea arrived. The girl seemed to have the knack of materializing, complete with silver tray and tea, and to, as soon as she had delivered her cargo, dematerialize again, as soundlessly and as conspicuously, or inconspicuously—depending on view—as she had arrived. Sebastian startled twice.

“How does she do that?” he wondered, a little unsettled.

“You know,” said Yama. “I have not asked. And I decided quite a while back that I would simply leave it at that.”

“You’re not curious?”

“Not really.”

They drank their tea in silence. A sweet, green blend that knew how to fill you all the way to your fingertips.

“Great tea,” said Sebastian.

Yama nodded, but did not answer.

Instead, he said, “You, Nachiketa, Sebastian, are waking up. You are stirring. You have been stirring since long before you came here. Perhaps from the music in your life, perhaps with the help of someone you know who knows, perhaps you have had many other teachers before me, surely you must have, for I can see wisdom stirring, Nachiketa, the Quiet Light flickering. You are indeed a true seeker, and I wish there were many more like you, and…” he turned again towards the window, “and many less like them.”

“I remember,” said Sebastian, who suddenly felt quite old, “a teacher who knew. Or who I think knew. Erik was his name. He never said he was a teacher or that he knew, but he carried the Quiet Light like an inner stillness which always reflected on his surface. It danced in his eyes. A still dance. He was never perturbed. He always thought well before he spoke. He never rushed to anger but calmly offered his view. He may have been my first teacher.”

“Yes,” said Yama, seeing and understanding, “he was your first teacher.”

“I remember another teacher, her name was Lisa. Perhaps she was a teacher, perhaps she was not, but she taught me by listening. She taught me by hearing what I thought even before the thought reached my tongue—much like you do. She taught me by giving herself to me as my echo. She taught me by showing that thoughts can travel, can cross distance, can be seen by others. She taught me the value of silence. The air for those wings.”

“Yes,” said Yama, “she was your second teacher.”

“I had a teacher, I think he was a teacher, named Brian. He taught me a wonderful lesson when not punishing me when he could have, when he should have. He taught me by instead finding me, the Quiet Light, with his light and simply telling me, light to light, to be more careful.”

“Yes,” said Yama, “he was your third teacher.”

“I had a teacher, I think he was a teacher, named Ron. He taught me by affirming for me by his heart-felt certainty that there is a way out.”

“Yes,” said Yama, nodding slowly, “he was your fourth teacher.”

Then Sebastian remembered. Perhaps not so much remembered as returned: Shakyamuni. “I had a teacher, I know he was a teacher. They called him Tathagata, the Awakened One. He taught me never to take anybody’s word for truth. He taught me by urging that I always find out and see for myself. He taught me that insight comes from understood experience. I have been walking his path ever since.”

“Yes,” said Yama. “He was a true teacher.”

“And perhaps,” said Sebastian, speaking as the thought occurred to him, “he is you.”

“Perhaps, Nachiketa,” said Yama. “Perhaps sometimes that is my name.”

 

Nachiketa: I know that earthly treasures are transient, and never can I reach the eternal through them. Hence I have renounced all my desires for earthly treasures to win the eternal through your instruction.

 

Sebastian searched Yama’s face for traces of the Gautama he had known, for that kind and eternal glint in his eye, and for a moment he was sure he found it, but the next he was as sure he had not. Yama regarded him, kindly and interested.

Sebastian said, “I have known for many lives that what I see here is fleeting. Carved in ice on a hot day: shaped for a brief moment only in my hand, then softening, slipping, melting, dripping, away. Leaking. Like a drug in short supply, always finite, you can always see the end. Always know there will be time without.”

“Many ignore that knowledge,” said Yama into the momentary stillness.

“Perhaps,” said Sebastian, “but not I. I always know, I always see the end.”

“You are rare.”

“Still,” said Sebastian, “that is the Earth and the life we live on it. And I know, always—the certainty like a shadow, inseparable—that no matter how much wealth I accumulate, no matter how many music recordings I own, no matter how vast and well-appointed my library, no matter how large my mansion, my gardens, my holdings, I will never reach the eternal through them.”

“No,” said Yama, “never.”

“No matter how well-exercised and healthy my body, I will never reach the eternal through it.”

“No,” said Yama, “never.”

“No matter how well-behaved and successful my person, my children, my wife, my club, my race, my species, no matter how numerous and vigorous all things living, and no matter how plentiful and shiny all things not, I will never reach the eternal through them.”

“No,” said Yama, “never.”

“No matter how uplifting my music, my poetry, my paintings, no matter how benevolent my gods, I will never reach the eternal through them.”

“No,” said Yama, “never. Not without letting go.”

“I know these things. And I have known these things. With my intellect I have known these things for many lives. Still, it is only now that this knowledge has finally reached my heart. For now I know to renounce my desire to survive as these Earthly, and sometimes not so Earthly things. And now I finally dare sacrifice myself and all these goals to meet you for my final instruction.”

“Perhaps,” said Yama with a smile, “you’re the one who should instruct me?”

“You are the older soul,” said Sebastian. “You know the traps, the dead-end paths and enclosed valleys. You have traveled farther and suffered more. You are the one to instruct me, Yama. I am sure.”

“How can something timeless be older?” said Yama.

“You know what I mean.”

“Yes, I’m sorry. I do know what you mean.” Yama smiled again and added, “So be it.”

 

Yama: I spread before your eyes, Nachiketa, the fulfillment of all worldly desires: power to dominate the earth, delights celestial gained through religious rites, miraculous powers beyond time and space.

 

The trailer shuddered slightly as if responding to a distant quake. Nothing really shifted inside, nothing moved, it was just the shudder. A ripple.

 

Sebastian looked out the window at the McDonald’s sign and god knows how many million burgers served now. Billions, it said. That was a ‘B’ he made out in front of the ‘illions.’ Billions. He wondered—more like a distant stray thought—how many cows that translated into.

It was raining still. In fact, the rain was coming down harder now. The wipers could barely keep up with the flood, fighting, click, click, click, to keep the water off the windscreen.

His father sat silently, clutching the wheel still, staring ahead, also out at the soaked and shiny parking lot, at the nearly empty now restaurant, the last few people done with their lunches and rushing for their cars, some, curled under newspapers or umbrellas, waiting by the door for the rain to ease, others, talking about the weather, surely, nodding at each other, agreeing, hoping the shower would end soon, move on, bother somewhere else. But what can you do.

Not seeing any of it, not really, just staring. Still in the grip of the not so distant echo. Still sweating a little. His grip felt moist. He wondered what had made him erupt like that. Explode. Echo. “I am sorry,” he said at length—apologizing never came easily for him—turning to his son. Smiling tentatively, embarrassed. “I am sorry, Sebastian. I didn’t really mean that.”

Sebastian turned and looked up at him, and returned the uncomfortable smile. “I’m sorry too,” he said. “I should not have asked you to sacrifice me.”

His father’s smile turned more comfortable. Peace restored. The smile crept into his eyes as well. “Wanna celebrate with a Big Mac?”

“Dad, I don’t eat meat,” said Sebastian. “You know that.”

“Fries, then?”

“Sure,” said Sebastian, not really caring for fries either, but seeing his father’s delight at the prospect, did not have the heart to say no.

“Wanna dash for it?” asked his dad.

“Sure,” said Sebastian, not really caring for downpours either, but his dad had already opened his door and was preparing for a quick exit. Sebastian followed suit. Of course, they both got soaked, father and son soaked. They laughed a little at each other, then ordered. There was no line, and the service was instant.

They ate in silence. The rain was finally letting up, and even the newspaper and umbrella-less patrons ventured out to their cars. Some other cars pulled in, vans, hungry kids unbuckling, mothers keeping promises, the order of things gradually restoring. The sun even made a stab at it, albeit brief, which lit up the dark glass building half a mile to the south and made Sebastian think of a toothpaste commercial. Then the cloud cover found and plugged the leak and the sun was once again locked out.

Sebastian returned to picking at his fries, finishing only half of them.

“You gonna eat those,” said his father, who loved fries and burgers and pizzas and just about everything else that came with the American way in general, pointing with the handle of his plastic fork at Sebastian’s uneaten half.

“No,” said Sebastian, “you can have them.”

“Don’t mind if I do.” His father quickly reached for the leftovers, lest Sebastian have a change of heart, and began to gulp them down. Sebastian was not surprised to see his father’s thoughts as just so many mouths gulping down just so many burgers as if mirrors everywhere were reflecting some fantastic eating. His father was a fantastic eating. He loved food, lived for food, worked for food, and had already had two bypass operations to facilitate continued eating. Just so many tongues licking just so many lips as his father finished the last of Sebastian’s fries before returning to his own, safely his. Sebastian was not going to ask for those, he knew that.

Sebastian did worry about him. He could not go on like this, stuffing himself with junk just for the pleasure of chewing and swallowing. As if indigestion was his yearning and another heart attack an ultimate achievement, to be worked steadfastly toward, through mountains of fries.

“Dad,” he said, not for the first time. “Perhaps you should try dieting again.”

Perhaps being the operative word,” he replied, licking his lips, and so many echoing lips being licked all surrounding.

“I’m just worried, dad, just a little,” said Sebastian.

“I’m fine,” said his dad, and patted his heart with a confidence he actually possessed. “Don’t worry. I’m fine.”

 

And he stayed fine for many years, did Sebastian’s dad. Through two more bypasses—count them: four now—stayed fine. Through two additional and uncomfortable operations—not that any operation could be termed “comfortable,” but these were especially bruising and both required weeks of bed-bound, on your stomach, butt in the air recuperating, living on liquid mainly, not his first choice of sustenance—to repair and eventually replace his disintegrating colon, stayed fine.

Through many attempted, some more bravely than others, but ultimately failed diets, stayed fine. Through a fling or two with pneumonia, even, stayed fine. Through one last, the fifth, bypass operation, stayed sort of fine, for a while. But then: that was it for his heart. It gave notice: it could not, would not, take it anymore. And so it came down to an attempted heart transplant, and that was the end of the road. His body rejected the new heart and in the absence of other donors, they were going the artificial route. The operation was a success—by this definition: the patient was alive at the end of it and all the pieces were in place. But the patient was not doing well, and did not cooperate gladly with all the pieces in place. And it was now turning obvious to even the most optimistic surgeon that Sebastian’s dad was not all that long for this world.

Sebastian was twenty-three by then, and recently graduated from Stanford with a business major. Cum laude. He had planned to do some economic post graduate research, perhaps at Harvard, perhaps at Stanford, he was evaluating the different programs, but those plans were pushed aside now, as he found himself returned home instead to watch his father die.

Smaller now, shed of so many layers of happy eating, his dad struck him as a large and wrinkly CPU hooked up to endless feeds and circuits, lying as he did, thin—almost wasted now—on white sheets with all the pieces of the recently installed Jarvik-9 artificial heart amidst endless monitors, IV feeds, respirator valves, EKG sensors, and several he had no idea what they were calleds, all taking part in this massive scientific invasion to maintain life. Just.

His father was sleeping now, but even through the gentle though convincing haze of morphine, still dreamed of eating. Sebastian watched, sadly, though with a trace of fascination, these many mouths gulping down so much ice cream, so many fries, so much Coca-Cola, so many tongues licking so many lips with satisfaction, and damn it if his father wasn’t smiling in the middle of all these pictures swirling around him, consuming, and then, in the middle of this avalanche of consumption, it was as if someone simply shut off the projector: while his smile remained, everything else around him turned still. No more mouths, no more lips, no more fries. No more pictures, period. Just the still nothing. Just the peace.

But not for long.

“Hey,” yelled a male nurse from behind a glass wall, eyes on his monitors. “Hey,” Sebastian could hear him clear through the thick glass, “We’re losing him.”

Instant mayhem. Two nurses came running, soles squeaking on the polished linoleum. A third one appeared and rushed over to check the respirator, the others were checking all the connections, to the EKG and the what-have-yous. “Call the doctor,” yelled one of them. “Now.”

Another sprang to the wall-phone by the door, and dialed a three-digit code. Another talked into a two-way radio, of the kind allowed in hospitals, “We’re losing four-eighteen,” he said, almost shouted. “Yes, yes, we’ve checked.” Then, “Okay.”

“He’ll be right down,” he said then to no one in particular.

The cavalry arrives in the form of one, two, no, three doctors and Sebastian was gently but quite firmly ushered out of his father’s now crowded room and made to take a seat on a mustard yellow and uncomfortable, plastic-seated chair in the hallway. Not a place for laymen now, his father’s battlefield. Ten minutes passed. Twelve. One of the doctors came. Still flushed from first the running and then the excitement. Really sorry, but his father’s body was rejecting the Jarvik, simply refused to cooperate, would not work with it.

Sebastian nodded, understood. Smiled the expected concern, and felt it too. His father’s housing had finally had its fill of burgers and fries, could not stomach another one. Not a one.

Not that they had given up yet, mind you. Still they tried. Oh, they tried. For another ten minutes, they tried, refused to give up. Then the same doctor came back out, still flushed, perhaps even a little shaken, though not surprised: They had lost him, he said. They had tried everything. Nothing they could do would keep him alive. So very, very sorry. Sebastian could come in now, have a look if he wanted.

He was still smiling, still—it seemed, among the tubes and pipes and wires and cables—still thinking about hamburgers and fries, pizza and ice cream. Or still was. Sebastian followed this notion and looked up to make out, faintly, in the corner of the room, just below the white ceiling, a faint cloud of pictures flickering, all of them eating. Fainter, then fainter still, then gone.

 

Waynemore Bland did his best to explain to Sebastian how rich he was. “There is of course your mom’s estate, which is all in a trust, payable to you on your twenty-fifth birthday.”

“Yes, I knew about that.”

“I believe you’re getting a monthly draw.”

“Four thousand.”

“Yes,” said Bland. “College expenses and such.” Then Bland took a long look at Sebastian. “Do you know the value of the principal?”

“Roughly. Two million, and change?”

“Three point two.”

“Ah.”

“But that’s really not much compared to what your father, and…” the still long-haired accountant hesitated just a bit, “…and I have accumulated.”

“How much would that be,” asked Sebastian.

“Well,” Bland consulted his seemingly always present yellow pad—actually, there was no seemingly about it, it was always present, and, as usual filled with numbers, neatly stacked in rows and columns. “The corporations alone, which are privately held as you know, are worth anywhere from two point four to two point six billion dollars.”

“Billion?”

“With a ‘B’, yes.”

He had had no idea.

“Then we have a few offshore accounts,” still looking at his pad. “Three hundred eighty-four million, five hundred fourteen thousand, eight hundred twelve dollars and sixteen cents.”

“Approximately?” said Sebastian, attempting a joke just to keep his bearings.

“No, precisely,” said Bland who either did not get it, or played the joke straight through. Sebastian glanced at him quickly, at the amused face, and decided Bland had a better sense of humor than he had credited him with.

“That’s it?”

He didn’t mean to sound disappointed, for he certainly was not, but it must have come across that way for Bland lost his smile and responded quickly. To reassure.

“Oh, no. Not at all. Far from it.”

Sebastian got the list. Properties. Stocks. Bonds. Partnerships. Seems his father had been Waynemore Bland’s only customer for the last few years. And he had done very well. Very, very well.

“Bottom line:” said Bland. “You are an extremely wealthy man.”

“And he left me everything?”

“Yes, everything.”

Bland then cleared his throat, none to subtly. “And, uh, I hope you will retain my services, Sebastian.”

Of course, Bland would wonder, he thought, it was up to him now. “Oh, sure. Yes. No, you’ve done great. Jesus. Wouldn’t change a thing. And I know Dad trusted you. Implicitly.”

Bland looked relieved, and was not ashamed to show it. “Thank you, Sebastian. Thanks. I appreciate that. The vote of confidence.” Then added one more, just to be sure, “Thanks a bunch.”

“No,” said Sebastian. “Thank you. You’ve done, well, fantastically. I had no idea. I knew we weren’t hurting, but Dad never told me.”

“I know.” Waynemore Bland had found his smile again, and it lit his whole face. Very pleased. Then it faded a little as he added, “He didn’t want you to know, until, until you know, you were ready. Through school, he said. It was going to be a surprise.”

“It is a surprise.”

“I know, but this is not how he planned it.”

Sebastian peeked at the accountant’s thoughts, and saw that he truly missed his father. He was touched.

“Again,” said Sebastian and rose, “thank you very much. You’ve done amazingly well. And yes, I would be very pleased if you would stay on as my personal accountant going forward.”

“I will be very happy to, Sebastian.” Waynemore Bland looked a fine blend of sincerity, relief, and sadness. And that is how it should be, thought Sebastian, and left.

Fairly calm and collected waiting for the elevator. Made the trip all the way down in one composed piece. Even made it across the parking lot tarmac with a semblance of composure. Found his car, opened the door. Sat down.

And there the magnitude of the brief conference struck. Words sometimes come with a delayed fuse, and these did. Especially the not-so-fine distinction between the ‘M’ in million and ‘B’ in billion. He had actually never thought of money in terms of billions before. To his mind, money was best counted the way the San of the Kalahari counted things: one, two, many. Perhaps, to be honest, he had conceived of millions with an ‘M’ on occasion, his mother’s trust, for one, had climbed into the ‘Ms,’ but billions? With a ‘B?’ Never. That’s a thousand ‘Ms.’

The full force of this meaning found places in him to disturb, and he began to tremble. He swore at the stupid reaction and told himself to get with it. Started the engine. Shifted out of neutral, forgot the hand brake and the car objected forcefully when he tried to back out of the spot. Still trembling, found the brake, released it.

Slowly does it, he thought to himself. Or is it “Easy does it?” He squeezed the steering wheel with clammy hands and squeezed until the trembling left him. Then he made it out of the parking lot.

Calmer, but still shaken, he drove very carefully. Coming to very complete stops at stop signs. Stopping at yellows. Speed limit exactly, or less than. Signaling every turn well in advance. Driving very thoroughly. Holding the wheel tightly, feeling the texture, rolling down the window, feeling the air, coolish in the fall afternoon, wettish almost, but not raining. No, definitely not raining. Looking left, looking right, and left again at every crossing. Not a very safe driver, right now, he thought.

Unreal. That’s the word. The World, all of it, a bit unreal just now. Reconnect, another good word. Something he must do, and the sooner the better. The conference returned, word by word, blow by blow realism. And not. It could as easily take on the guise of anecdote, some story Bland had just told him about someone or other, someone not him. Or it could have been a news item on the radio, concerning just about anyone but him. He tried very hard to reconnect to a world where Sebastian was rich—that was reality now, and he did a poor job of it. Driving very carefully instead.

Anyone but him.

He signaled left well in advance and, looking all kinds of ways, turned into his driveway and stopped the car, thoroughly. He turned the engine off, pulled the hand break and just sat, glad he had made it without mishap. Billions. Billions? How can so much money feel so insubstantial? Unreal? He looked up at the sky. Perhaps it was going to rain after all. At the house. Brown and a little lonely. He had known no other home. Billions.

The will had been short and in his father’s hand: “It’s all yours, Sebastian, go see Waynemore for the details. He’ll tell you all about it.” Signed Arthur Thelonious Sherry. Okay, Dad, so he has told me all about it, now what do I do? With it all? What on earth do I do? He noticed with fleeting satisfaction that at least he had stopped shaking.

He may have sat there for an hour, then again, it may only have been a few minutes, time was another rather unreal thing. He stirred, collected what parts of him he could find, got out of the car and let himself in. The phone rang to life three steps into the darkish hallway.

“Sebastian speaking.”

“Sebastian, this is Anthony Moss,” said a somewhat familiar voice. One that should have rung bells, but didn’t. “From Moss and Sterling,” it added when Sebastian did not reply. “We talked at the funeral.”

Ah: his father’s attorney. Both in business as well as personal matters.

“Mr. Moss,” he said after a while. “Yes.”

“Sebastian,” said Moss. “I’ve been trying to reach you all morning. Where have you been? It’s important that we meet.”

“Why?”

“Why?” Moss sounded a little incredulous. “Let me tell you why. Your father may have been rather low-key about it, but he ran quite an operation. And now, with his passing—may he rest in peace—for better or for worse, you are now it. You are now the chairman of several boards, Sebastian. You head up quite a corporate structure. Indeed. And your signature, if not your decisions, is needed on almost a daily, sometimes hourly, basis.”

Sebastian didn’t answer. Too much, too fast.

Moss added, “Welcome to the real world.” He didn’t add “son,” but sounded as if he had.

To be honest, he didn’t much care for Anthony Moss. Never had. He’d watched his thoughts more than once, and his pictures were mainly of money, and yes, of women, he’d undress anything walking by in skirts. Anything even vaguely of the female persuasion. The man was a constant mental copulator, at least on some level. How he also managed to function as a legal corporate advisor was beyond him, but he was good at it. Ruthlessly good. His father and Moss had been close friends, especially after his mother’s passing four years before. His father, inconsolable at first, had turned to Moss for support and they had grown close, then closer still. In some ways, Sebastian thought, at Sebastian’s expense. But then again, he had been away at college mostly.

“I’ve just come back from Waynemore Bland’s office.”

“Yes, I know. He called. And now, you know.”

“Now I know,” repeated Sebastian.

“Fine. Can you be here in an hour?”

“Sure.” It beats grappling with the unreal—which was threatening a strong comeback. “Give me the address.”

Moss did.

Sebastian replaced the handset and sat down on the living room sofa. He closed his eyes and rubbed his forehead. None of it actual. No, not really. And yet. He opened his eyes again and looked around him, at the darkly paneled room, the large fireplace, the Andy Warhol prints, so out of place in this room, but his father’s favorites. Even his mother had not had the heart to refuse them. And in the corner, always polished to a shine, dad’s pride, the antique Serenader, the beautiful old radio gramophone. It weighed a ton and was the size of a small cupboard. But it worked, and this, Sebastian, is what we listened to when we were your age.

The house was still. Filled with the particular quiet that lacked the sound of someone. He could hear a car pass by outside, slowly, due to the speed bumps. Gearing down, braking, gearing up, gearing down, braking. Yes, he reflected, Moss was right, his father had been very low-key about it all, about the wealth he controlled, about the many corporations. Had never looked the part. Still, till the end, would rather have a burger at McDonald’s than a filet mignon at one of the French eateries downtown. Good American beef, he’d say, excellent potatoes, good value for hard-earned money. That, of course—and they had had a friendly argument or two or many about that—was complete bunk. McDonald’s a rip-off, Dad, he’d answer. And you know it. It is a grease-dripping, over-salted, arteries-clogging, heart-stopping rip-off. But a delicious one, he’d answer with a grin, and often as not, “Are you going to finish those fries?” Not the corporate type. Not in the least.

 

Anthony Moss was almost completely bald, except for a tonsured shadow which he kept extremely closely cropped, as if to say: I’m bald on purpose, meant to do it. Bald and proud of it, got a problem with that? He was in his early fifties and was working out at least an hour a day. A fine specimen. Effectively dressed. All the part.

He stood up as Sebastian was ushered in by a leggy secretary that smiled a lot harder at Sebastian than anybody, to Sebastian’s recollection, had ever smiled at him before. News travels.

“Sebastian,” he came around his desk and held out his hand. Sebastian took it. Firm, dry. In control. “It is good to see you again.”

“Thanks,” said Sebastian. “Good to see you, too.”

“Sit, please.” Moss indicated a blood-red leather visitor’s chair. One of a pair.

“What I said at the funeral is true, Sebastian. I wish we could have met under nicer circumstances. I really am really sorry about your dad.” And he meant that. Actually, yes, Sebastian looked and saw.

“Thanks,” said Sebastian again. “I appreciate that.”

“Anything to drink?” said Moss. All host.

“Orange Juice, if you have it.”

Sebastian had expected Moss to summon the leggy secretary, but instead he pushed a button on his oak paneled wall to smoothly slide a screen to the left revealing a mid-sized refrigerator. “Orange juice, freshly squeezed this morning,” said Moss, and poured, then brought him a glass. Sebastian noticed the coasters on the teak table by his side, and also noticed Moss’s expectation that he use them. So he did. Drank first, god he was thirsty and god this was good. Then he carefully placed the cold glass, sweating now from the chilled juice inside, on the coaster, leather with an Amstel Beer motif. Expensive. Classy.

Moss returned to behind his desk, a beautiful antique, almost rococo, plain with carved legs. No drawers. An inkwell with a matching quill. Very nice. Tasteful. A brown leather folder, many sheets inside, peeking out past the top edge. Moss placed a hairless hand on it. Patted it.

“There are three contracts here, ready for your signature. Two sets of board minutes, a deposition. Also for your signature,” said Moss.

Sebastian held out his hand and expected Moss to hand him the folder.

Moss, however, did not remove his hand from it. “We can do this the not-so-easy way, or the easy way,” he said.

When Sebastian said nothing in return, he continued, “I can put you in the picture as well as I can and you can read these through and sign or not sign as you see fit, or amend or not as you decide.”

“Or?”

“Or, you can take my advice and just sign.”

“I didn’t major in business to be a rubber stamp,” said Sebastian, who had just began warming to the man, but now remembered why he didn’t like him.

Moss did not much care for that answer. But smiled anyway, “No, no. Of course not. It’s up to you, Sebastian. You’re the boss.”

“I’d like to know what I’m signing.”

A flicker of a shadow briefly darkened Moss’s features, so fleetingly that it almost never happened, but a shadow nonetheless. Sebastian took a look at the attorney’s thoughts, and they confirmed the shadow: Moss did not want Sebastian involved. Though not from an ulterior motive, or from unsavory intentions, Sebastian had to give him that. Moss, simply, had relished the notion of being in charge going forward. He would do a good job, and he would do his dad proud, that was not the issue. The issue was that Moss had hoped to be, had in fact already begun to live as, the one doing it.

It took Moss a definite effort to hand Sebastian the folder.

“The contracts have to be signed today,” Moss explained. “We’re taking advantage of some options which must be exercised today. By end of business,” he added.

“Which is when, exactly?” asked Sebastian.

“Five o’clock,” said Moss. “Pacific Standard.”

Sebastian glanced at the documents and saw that he was right.

“Fine,” said Sebastian. “I’ll sign them.”

“The board minutes are pure administrivia. Read them if you want. Don’t have to be signed today. As far as the deposition, well, if you want the details…”

“I do,” said Sebastian, and Moss stood up and walked over to a teak filing cabinet by the end of his bookshelves. He pulled open the second drawer from the top and extracted a large, brown, thick envelope which he handed to Sebastian.

“Omniplex vs. Sherry, Inc.,” said Moss, all business now, not even resentful. Sebastian marveled at the man. Professional if anything. “We brought them in as partners to build a sixteen-theater cinema complex on a choice piece of property we own just outside Austin, Texas. They ran into some labor issues, then had some supplier problems to boot, and then, when things began to look unmanageable, decided that the property was in fact contaminated and not fit for public construction.”

“Is it?” asked Sebastian.

“Contaminated?”

“Yes.”

“No.”

“So, what’s the problem?”

“Their soil experts beg to differ.”

“Well, is it?”

“Contaminated?” said Moss again.

“Yes.”

“Not according to our soil experts.”

“Well,” said Sebastian again, “is it contaminated, or not?”

“No.”

“So, that should be provable then.”

Should be is a brace of slippery words,” said Moss.

“Brace?” thought Sebastian. Then he remembered. Nice touch. But what he asked was, “What do you mean by ‘slippery?’”

“What I mean is that their soil experts have in fact deposed that the soil on the property, at about fifteen feet, contains unacceptable levels of lead, of all things.”

“Does it?”

“Our soil experts have testified to the contrary.”

“There is either lead in the soil or there is no lead in the soil,” said Sebastian.

“No, no,” said Moss, shaking his head. “Well, yes and no. But that is not the real issue. The crucial distinction is this: either our report is believable or their report is believable.”

“If both engineers took accurate soil samples, and each have been analyzed competently, then one of the reports is false,” said Sebastian.

“That,” said Moss, “would be an accurate statement.”

“Do you know which one is?”

“False?”

“Yes.”

“Yes. Their report is false.”

“But we cannot prove that?”

“Apparently not short of finding a judge who personally can take and analyze soil samples. You need a doctorate in geology just to read the damn things.”

“I see,” said Sebastian.

He opened the leather folder again and scanned the three contracts. Signed them. Then signed the two sets of board minutes. Chairman, that did have a ring to it. Then he read over the deposition which outlined what he, Sebastian Sherry, as Chairman of Sherry, Inc., knew of this matter, which in the end added up to sheer ignorance according to the terse narrative of the legal document. Moss remained standing.

“This makes me look a bit short of intelligent,” said Sebastian, looking up from the document.

“It’s for your protection.”

“Actually, more like the south end of a north bound horse,” said Sebastian, using one of his father’s favorite euphemisms, that simply trotted up and presented itself.

Moss laughed at that. A quick, unexpected delight. “You know, I haven’t heard that in a while,” he said. “Your dad use to…”

“Yes,” said Sebastian. “I know. And also, well, it happens to be true. I know nothing about this.”

Moss, smiling still, didn’t answer.

Sebastian signed the deposition, then said, “I’d like to know more about this.”

Moss offered to have his Austin affiliate fly out and fill Sebastian in on the details, but Sebastian wanted to go there himself.

“This is fine, Sebastian. Good thing to take a look. Though you can’t make a habit of it, you know.”

“Of what?”

“Seeing everything for yourself. We simply have too much going. There are not enough hours in the day.”

“I realize that,” said Sebastian. “But this one I’d like to see for myself. Call it training,” he added.

“As you wish,” said Moss. “Want me to arrange your flights?”

“No, don’t worry. I’ll ask EA to.”

Moss suddenly looked uncomfortable. “She retired,” he said.

“No,” said Sebastian. It was almost a shout. “I didn’t know that.”

“Well, neither did I. Until yesterday morning, that is.”

Elizabeth Anderson had been his father’s personal assistant for as long as Sebastian could remember. EA. That’s what he called her. EA stands for Executive Assistant is what he used to say, at least in her presence. She would smile and call him daft. EA stands for nothing that convoluted, they’re just my initials, just my initials. Your father is kissing up, is all.

“I’ll have to get her back,” said Sebastian.

“We’ve tried. But from what I was told, she’s set on remaining retired. She only wanted to work for your father, that’s what she said.”

“Mr. Moss,” said Sebastian after a few moments thought. “Seeing as that’s the case, if you don’t mind, I’ll take you up on your offer to arrange the trip. There tomorrow morning, back Wednesday. One day should be sufficient, right?”

Moss nodded. “I’ll have my secretary take care of it. We’ll have the tickets delivered to your house.”

“Okay. I’ll have to get her back though. Dad could not live without EA, not from what I saw.”

“She was pretty efficient, all right,” agreed Moss.

“I will call her.”

“By the way,” said Moss as the thought occurred to him. “Do you have a cell phone? In case I need to reach you,” he added.

“No.”

“Get one. From now on you’ll need to be available pretty much around the clock. Comes with the territory.”

Sebastian made a mental note of it.

 

Elizabeth Anderson had cried openly at the funeral. She had really liked his dad, that he knew. Seeing her stricken face, Sebastian realized that it had been more than that. She had in fact probably loved him.

She told him over the phone that she would be more than happy to see him. But, she warned him, she had decided to retire, nothing he could say or do would sway her. We’ll see about that, he said, and he could picture her almost smiling, something he had seen her do often.

He rang the doorbell and somewhere deep inside the house what sounded like church bells went off. She opened the door almost instantly, as if she had stood nearby, waiting for him. Without makeup, she looked a lot older, Sebastian reflected. Still pretty though, or beautiful would be the better word. Early sixties would be his guess. Trim, clear-eyed. One of those rare people with perfect eyesight into old age. Sharp as a tack, his dad used to say. As a tack.

“Sebastian,” she said and held out her arms inviting his hug.

“EA,” he said. “Are you all right?”

“Fine, I’m fine,” she said. “I’ll finally be able to take care of my garden properly,” she made a gesture with her arm, indicating the surrounding greenery. “Perhaps even finish reading my James collection.”

“I have it on good authority that that is an impossible task,” said Sebastian. “No one has ever finished Henry James.”

She looked closely at Sebastian, a little guardedly almost, as if trying to establish friend of foe, or to clarify his intentions. Then she smiled.

“Well, then I’ll be the first,” she said. “Here, let me take your coat. Tea?”

“Please.”

They sat down by her kitchen table. She was serving Earl Grey tea with trimmed cucumber sandwiches, which already lay prepared under clear plastic wrapping to keep them fresh. She remembered what he liked.

“Why are you so set on throwing me to the wolves?” he asked after two of her sandwiches and one refill of the strong tea.

“Oh, I don’t know about that,” said EA. “It’s not a matter of abandoning you or anything. The time has come for me to hang up my gloves. Simple as that. You know, I’ve been with your father for many years.” Then she hesitated, “Had been. Many more than I’d care to count.”

“As long as I can remember,” said Sebastian.

“I remember you being born,” said EA, looking up.

“That answers the ‘not less than’ question,” said Sebastian.

“What do you mean?”

“You’ve worked for dad for at least this long,” he said and pointed to himself.

“Ah, yes,” she said. “That’s true.” And almost smiled. “But, honestly, I’ve had enough, Sebastian. It was getting more and more hectic toward the end, everything at the last minute, everything an emergency. Boston tomorrow by noon, never mind that there’s not a flight available until Thursday. It used to be fun. Manageable.”

“Dad thought you managed just fine.”

“Oh, I managed. But did I enjoy? That’s the question.”

“Well, if you didn’t enjoy it, why did you stay?”

She didn’t answer, and didn’t almost smile.

“You loved him, didn’t you?” said Sebastian, watching her groping for words.

She didn’t answer, differently.

“I thought so,” said Sebastian.

“Was it that obvious?” she said.

“No, EA, it was not obvious. That’s why I asked.”

“We never, actually never…”

“I know.”

Her eyes filled with moisture. “It was like a stupid crush,” she said. “Like a stupid high school crush. That just never ended.”

Then some thought alarmed her.

“Your mother didn’t know, did she? Do you think she could tell?”

“I don’t know,” said Sebastian truthfully.

“Oh, I hope not,” said EA.

Then they both fell quiet. EA stirred her tea, then added a lump of sugar. Sebastian took a sip of the by-now lukewarm Earl Grey. It took an effort not to grimace. He followed her suit and added a lump as well. Then, another.

“Did dad know?” asked Sebastian.

“I think so.”

“You are an amazing woman,” said Sebastian. “Who is deliberately throwing me to the wolves,” he added, and tried to sound mock accusing, with a sprinkle of the actual.

She looked up. “You’ll manage.”

“Well, that’s just it, EA. I don’t think I will.”

She looked at him, waiting for more.

“I have a few options. None of them very pleasant. I can go back to grad school and run it all by proxy. I can stay here and have Moss and Bland take care of things, do what they tell me. In either case, be my guest: go ahead and enjoy your retirement, EA, for I won’t be needing you. But, what if I decided to take on the challenge right now? Take over? What if I did what I think dad intended? I can tell you, EA, I could not do that without you.”

“What about your college degree?” She was curious. “Surely…?”

“I am honest when I say this, EA. What I know about running a business and what you know about running a business do not even belong in the same ballpark. School’s mostly all theory. And not just, you know, theory, but someone’s theory, which may, and mostly does, differ in another school, in another class even. It’s not a science, EA, at least not in school. It’s lots of numbers, pet principles, statistical trends which can serve to prove just about anything. Unless you already know enough about business going in to sort through the stuff, you’ll come out confused rather than capable.”

“That’s quite an indictment,” said EA. “What did you get out of it, then? Confusion?”

“I think I’m one of the lucky few, and mostly thanks to Dad. One of my professors had promised him, apparently, to take me under his wing. And he did. Kept me off the rocks. Told me what to ignore, what didn’t apply in the real world.”

“Mr. Flint?” she asked, and Sebastian made the connection. Of course, EA would have been in on that.

“Yes. Mr. Flint.”

“He did well by you?”

“Yes, EA. He was a great help. He knew the priorities.”

“He built his own business from scratch, you know,” said EA. “A self-made man, just like your dad.”

“Yes, I knew that.”

“What your dad called a doer.”

“Yes, he was. And that’s just the thing, EA, so many of the professors are not doers, not at all. Theorists, speculators, not doers. Not like you and Dad.”

“Your dad never even finished High School,” said EA, off on a little side road to the discussion.

“I knew that,” said Sebastian.

EA returned to the main road: “I’m glad it worked out with Mr. Flint. So, perhaps the wolves won’t eat you then, after all?”

Au contraire,” said Sebastian. “He taught me enough to know for sure that I need your help.” Then added after a brief moment, “If I decide to grab the reins.”

EA said nothing. Simply held Sebastian with her clear eyes.

“EA,” he said into them, “unless you want me to hand father’s reins over to Moss and Bland, please come back.”

She looked down at her cup, took a sip of her tea and suddenly stood up. Reached for his cup and took them both over to the sink where she poured out the cold tea. “And you’ve been drinking this?” she said to him over her shoulder.

She brewed a new pot and served.

After a long silence that threatened to turn awkward she said, “Can I let you know tomorrow?”

“Of course.”

She then told him about her plans for her garden, but almost as if they were already in the past. As if she had made up her mind to help him, after all.

He returned the favor by telling her about his last year in school, boring really. Not quite a waste of time, but a first cousin. Had it not been for Flint. He finished her sandwiches and thanked her for them.

As he stood up to leave he remembered, and said, “Oh, by the way, where’s the best place to get hold of a cell phone. I hate the damn things, but Moss says I need one.”

“Don’t push your luck,” she said. “Call tomorrow, I’ll let you know what I’ve decided.”

The cell phone can wait until then, he thought.

 

It was dark by the time he returned to the house. His house now. Brown and huge and several sizes too large for him. The rain had returned, but only as drizzle.

He stepped into the dark and Dad-less hallway. Stood for a moment facing the smells of the empty house, almost bracing himself. How could it be that even the walls exhaled his father? He breathed deeply of his laughter, his aftershave, cologne—same brand, don’t want to dilute the effect was the rationale—his, well, smell. It was a definite mixture that added up to his father, and the walls knew all about it, he was still part of their makeup.

Through the still, internal twilight he made out the rugs, the stairs, no more to be walked on by him. As if they knew. As they had known about his mother before him. She was not coming back. They knew. Not a sadness, precisely. But a certainty no less. Not really missing his dad’s tiny feet—he wore a size seven, and always referred to his feet as petit, petit feet, and laughed—or his mom’s larger ones, not a sadness, a knowledge: neither would return. A certainty. But you can step on us, Sebastian. You’re here, and we’re yours now. Yours to step on. Go ahead. We won’t mind. He shook his head as if to clear it, and turned on the light.

A blue envelope on the hallway floor contained the tickets to Austin and back. Courtesy of the HereToThere messenger service, judging by the logo on the envelope.

He showered, and went to bed early. The flight departure time was 8:10 a.m., he would have to be up before daybreak to make it.

 

He was met at Mueller Airport by a kid. Well, compared to Moss and Bland and EA anyway. By someone just about his own age, or even a little older, in other words. Either way: same generation. He was Sebastian’s height, just about six feet, and dressed in a charcoal gray and finely striped three-piece suit that looked well-tailored. And he was holding up a large white sign (that seemed a bit incongruous, to be honest) with black, very clear, lettering that said: “Sebastian Sherry.”

Sebastian made his way for him, and to his surprise saw that the “kid” recognized him. Still, “I’m Sebastian Sherry,” he said, and held out his hand.

The “kid” fumbled with the sign a bit, but finally got it to stay put under his left arm and handed Sebastian his right hand. “Nice to meet you, Mr. Sherry. I’m Aaren Tatham, your formally appointed local guide in the Omniplex matter.”

“Tattom?”

“No. Tatham, T-A-T-H-A-M. Always end up spelling it.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be. I’m used to it.”

“Call me Sebastian,” said Sebastian.

“Nice to meet you, Sebastian.”

Tatham was strong and of the “firm handshakes inspire confidence” school and near enough injured Sebastian before letting go of his hand.

“Nice to meet you too,” Sebastian managed without a trace of sarcasm.

“Luggage?”

“No, just the carry on.”

“Here, let me take it.”

“No, it’s all right. You have the sign to contend with.”

As if to overcome that objection effectively, Tatham ripped the sign into many small pieces and brought them over to a large garbage can by one of the concession stands. Then returned, “Here, let me take that.”

Sebastian had to smile at the smooth antics, and handed him the overnight bag with a thanks, then followed Tatham for the exit.

Stepping out of the terminal was like stepping into an oven. The air actually had resistance and pushed back at him. Tatham, however, didn’t seem to notice. He pointed to a white limousine half a block down and made for it. Sebastian followed.

It was cool inside. Too cool. He had budded a sweat reaching it and now, inside, it felt like ice was forming along his back. Would take some getting used to, this. Which Tatham already had, by the looks of it.

Sebastian sat down in the lush back seat and Tatham in the foldout opposite him.

“We’ll go to the office first, where we can cover the file in as much detail as you’d like. Then we’ll visit the site. Fine with you?”

“Yes, sure.”

The driver pulled away from the curb and accelerated into traffic so firmly that Tatham had to hold on with both hands not to slip off his chair.

“Wow,” said Sebastian.

“He does it on purpose,” said Tatham.

“You sure?”

“Yes,” and smiled.

 

Tatham’s firm, Willbank, Strupp and Overton, occupied the top floor of a fairly new six-story building which gave the outward appearance of being made entirely of glass. And marble, once inside. Beautiful office. The elevator opened up onto a tastefully appointed reception area. Oak paneling, original art, hardwood floors, leather sofas and a collection of magazines to rival any dentist’s office or hair salon. That and a respectable collection of the Guns and Ammo variety.

They were greeted by Stephen Willbank, Jr., a lanky man in his early sixties who looked more like a tailor’s nightmare than a lawyer. Whoever dressed him was an expert, however.

“Welcome to Austin, Mr. Sherry,” he said and held out his hand. “Been here before?”

Remembering the airport incident, Sebastian was leery of giving up his right hand again, but protocol pressed and as it happened, Willbank was a gentler shake.

“No. But glad to be here.”

“Good to have you. We’ve got everything set up in the Gray Room,” said Willbank, as much to Tatham as to Sebastian.

“Sure,” said Tatham.

They left the hardwood of the reception and entered the lush carpeting of a wide hallway. The Gray Room turned out to be a sizeable conference room halfway down the hallway to the left. On a twenty-or-so-foot teak table was a small mountain of paper, actually a small range. Two, what turned out to be paralegals, were still arranging the piles. Wonder how much they’re billing us for this, thought Sebastian.

“Tatham has the lead on this,” said Willbank. “I’m sure he’ll be able to fill you in to your satisfaction.”

Sebastian looked at the paper piles, the paralegals, and at Tatham. “I’m sure he will,” he said.

Willbank looked at his watch, had to get back to whatever he had interrupted to greet him, said the gesture, left with a nearly imperceptible bow in Sebastian’s direction, and a completely bowless glance in Tatham’s, handing the watch over to him.

Tatham took charge.

“Contracts, Soil Reports, Expert Testimony Depositions, Building Plans, Their Soil Reports, Their Export Testimony,” said Tatham as he walked down the length of the table and pointed to the piles in turn.

“What’s at the heart of the matter?” said Sebastian, remembering Flint’s advice: you can spend minutes, hours, years, dancing around the actual issue, and many prefer it that way. But if you want things done, get to the point, the core, the true matter at hand as soon as you can without being unnecessarily rude. Good advice.

Tatham stopped pointing at piles and turned around. “Twenty-two million dollars,” he said. “That’s the heart of the matter. We, Sherry, Inc., that is, have paid Omniplex a twenty-two million installment to draw up plans and begin construction. They now claim, one,” he held up his left thumb, “that they cannot proceed due to lead contamination, two,” his left index finger followed suit, “that they have spent twenty-two million dollars’ worth of time and effort already, and three,” finally joined by the left middle finger, “that we knowingly misled them about the suitability of the site for construction and should pay additional compensatory damages, apart from any punitive damages the judge may see fit to impose, of course.”

“Naturally.”

“We now suspect that Omniplex is in financial straits and are trying to abscond with our money to stay afloat.”

“Who recommended Omniplex in the first place? Did we check their current financials?”

Tatham did not answer that question, not at first, and not without discomfort when he did. “Well,” he began, “We normally do, and there’s never been a problem in the past.”

“And?”

“And, we already had the prior year’s financials in the office.”

“And?”

“And, the bottom line: To save some time and money we did not request current financials.”

Sebastian shook his head. “Not the smartest move.”

“We have an excellent relationship with Omniplex, always have had,” said Tatham. “There’s never been a problem in the past.”

“Be that as it may,” said Sebastian. “But isn’t it part of Sherry contract language that current financials must show strong enough numbers to guarantee that the contracting party can fulfil its obligations?” (Quietly thanking Mr. Flint for that important piece of intelligence.)

“It is.”

“So why not this time?”

Tatham hesitated, again seemingly deliberating whether to come clean. Then said, “Overton vouched for their financial strength.”

“Franklin Overton?” said Sebastian. “As in Willbank, Strupp and Overton.”

“The same.”

“How could he do this, without current numbers? How could he know?”

“He is very close to the Omniplex CEO.”

“How close?”

Tatham fell silent again, more deliberation. He then ushered the two paralegals out of the room and closed the door behind them. He turned to Sebastian.

“Stu Overton,” he said, “the owner of Omniplex, is Franklin Overton’s brother.”

Sebastian looked around him for a chair. There were plenty to choose from, all gray. He pulled one out from under the table and sat down. “Moss know about this?”

“I don’t know.”

“The conflict of interest is pretty blatant, wouldn’t you say?”

Tatham didn’t answer right away, but instead found himself a matching chair.

“Wouldn’t you say?” repeated Sebastian.

“On the face of it, yes.”

Sebastian waited for more.

“Sherry, Inc. has used Omniplex on three other occasions. Financials great. No problems. Everybody happy. With a track record like that, I guess it was decided…”

“It was decided?” said Sebastian. “Who decided?”

“Franklin Overton. Apparently. At least from what I can make out. I mean, he was the one who vouched for Omniplex, and asked us to skip the current financials.”

“Ah. So, Overton decided that current financial disclosures—a long standing Sherry, Inc. requirement—were not really needed.”

“Yes.”

“Possibly because he knew about Omniplex’s problems, if they, as we assume, exist.”

“Possibly,” agreed Tatham.

“I’d better call Moss,” said Sebastian.

“I’d better call Overton,” said Tatham.

But neither moved, and neither called anyone. “What do you suggest?” said Sebastian into the prolonged silence.

Tatham looked up from his own reverie. “What do you want to achieve?”

Sebastian had already decided. “I’d like out of the deal and our money back as quickly and as painlessly as possible.”

Tatham seemed to return to his reverie.

“Without needlessly creating enemies,” added Sebastian.

“Ah,” said Tatham. “That changes the angle, doesn’t it.”

“Yes.”

“So, you don’t necessarily want to exploit the conflict of interest angle?”

“Not if I don’t have to.”

“Then we must invalidate their soil reports. Beyond any sort of doubt, not only reasonable.”

“Can we?”

“They look genuine, but they must be fakes since neither of our tests showed contamination.”

“And, perhaps this is a stupid question, but can we trust our own soil experts? Anybody’s brothers?”

“Yes, we can trust them, and no, nobody’s brothers.” Tatham smiled.

“Then do what you have to do to disprove their claims.”

“By any means?”

“By any means legal, yes.”

“I will get right on it.” Tatham rose, then stopped at the door, “Do you want to see the site?”

“Not really. Not unless I have to.”

“No, you don’t have to.”

 

Sebastian called EA from his hotel room. There was no answer. He showered and changed into jeans and a tee shirt from his overnight bag. Ordered a salad from room service which was not all that bad. Then tried EA again. This time she answered.

“What’s the verdict?” asked Sebastian.

“I will not do it,” she said.

Sebastian suddenly realized how much he had counted on her coming back. How he had in fact already assumed that she would. “Why not?” he asked after what must have been twenty seconds.

“For all the reasons I told you yesterday, Sebastian. I have another life I’d like to live, one that I’ve neglected for too long.”

“EA, I’m getting a taste for this. I think I can do it.”

“Do what?”

“Take over where Dad left off. Run Sherry, Inc..”

“Of course you can.”

“No, EA, there’s no ‘of course’ about that. I wasn’t even sure I wanted to get involved, you know, really involved. Make it my life.”

“You want to make Sherry, Inc. your life?”

“Yes, EA. I think so. I think so.”

“Are you sure about that?”

“Well, not sure sure, not yet, but I think so.”

Sure sure. It was one of his father’s favorite phrases. Yes, but are you sure sure. That’s the question. Not just sure. Sure sure. He had not meant to bring his father into this conversation, and he hoped that EA had not taken it that way. He thought she hadn’t. Then he grew less and less certain of that as she didn’t answer for so long that Sebastian in the end wondered if the connection was still good.

“EA?”

“I’m still here,” she said. Then, “Sebastian, when you’re sure. Sure sure that this is the life you want, call me and let me know. Until then, I have some more gardening supplies to get.” And hung up.

Well, that was the question, wasn’t it? Did he really want to make this, he looked around his hotel room, very bad paintings on the walls, nice bed though, cable TV, huge bathroom, outrageously priced bar in that little fridge that took a key you mustn’t lose or you pay ten bucks; did he really want to make this his life? His everything going forward.

He would have to give that serious thought. To be sure sure.

He called Tatham midafternoon for an update. “Still looking for the holes in their soil reports,” Tatham said. “They have to be there.”

Sebastian agreed. Then returned to making up his mind. A thing he worked on for the rest of the day and well into the evening. He fell asleep, task unaccomplished.

 

The following morning Tatham’s white limo pulled up right on time and came to a neat stop precisely outside the hotel entrance. Tatham stepped out, again dressed to kill even though the temperature must already have been in the nineties. This would be a scorcher.

“Straight to the airport?” asked Tatham.

“Sure,” said Sebastian.

Same refrigeration inside. He didn’t enter it sweating though, wasn’t so bad.

“We’ve engaged an excellent investigator to run down the background on their soil expert,” said Tatham. “In my experience, people who lie have something to hide. And once we find what that is, we can probably get a revised analysis out of the man.”

Sebastian had to smile, though not outwardly. In my experience? How much experience could Tatham have? He must be fresher out of school than he was, almost anyway. So, he kept a straight, if amused, face when he asked, “And assuming we do, find it, whatever he’s hiding, how do we proceed?”

“As I said, we’ll have him correct his soil analysis and with that in hand we’ll offer Omniplex a gracious way out. Return our money, deal’s over.”

“Or?”

“Or we sue them for attempted fraud. It could be a PR nightmare for them, something they could not survive. They’d settle before it comes to that.”

“You know, Tatham, I think you’re right.”

“I think so too.”

The driver accelerated into the morning traffic at the same ferocious pace he had deployed the day before, and Tatham held on for dear life with the same practiced grip. “On purpose, right? To see if he can drop you to the floor?” said Sebastian.

“Absolutely,” said Tatham with a smile, if a little strained from the effort to hang on.

Despite the Houston rush-hour traffic, Sebastian made his return flight with mountains of time to spare.

 

Tatham was proven right on the money. According to bank records, obtained by Tatham’s investigator, the Omniplex soil expert showed an unexplained deposit of ten thousand dollars only a few days prior to finishing his analysis. He may or may not have been a competent soil expert, but when it came to covering his tracks, he was purely amateur. Which also held true in the nerve department. When showed a copy of his bank statement and when the “coincidence” of dates was pointed out to him, he completely lost his, and—as they say—sang. To avoid prosecution for bribery and fraud, he proceeded to “discover” a serious mishap at the lab: apparently two soil samples had gotten switched and he, as it turned out, had been analyzing the wrong sample all along. When he finally got to analyze the “right” sample, voila, no lead. Fine stuff. Not a problem. Go ahead and build all you want.

Moss, a very pleased man, also showed Sebastian the Omniplex transfer, the whole twenty-two million, along with the notarized acknowledgement of cessation of their business relationship with Sherry, Inc.. All very proper, very clean.

Sebastian looked up from reading. “I want Tatham to handle all of our Austin business from now on,” he said.

“He’s barely out of law school,” protested Moss, albeit weakly.

“He knows that he’s doing.”

“Well, you two did seem to get along.”

“He’s honest, Tony, and a good lawyer. And he got us out of the deal without burning our bridges with Willbank, Strupp and Overton, especially with Franklin Overton.”

“I know.”

“But we’ll have to keep an eye on Overton.”

“Agreed.”

“So, from now on, we request Tatham, specifically. And give him some sort of bonus, you know what I mean.” He rose and handed the report back to Moss.

Anthony Moss took the file, nodded, and smiled.

And that was the moment Sebastian knew he was sure. Sure sure. Sure enough to tell EA: He would stay on and make Sherry, Inc. his life. He saluted Tony Moss with a brief movement of his right hand to almost touch his right eyebrow, something he had seen his dad and Tony do on occasion. Moss recognized the gesture, and still smiling, saluted back. It was a welcome of sorts. Sebastian left and called EA from the courtesy phone by the elevators.

“I’m sure,” he said. “And I’m coming over.”

“Now?”

“I’m on my way.”

Perhaps there was a hesitation, he couldn’t quite tell, “Oh, sure, fine. I’ll see you soon then.”

 

It was not EA who opened the door. “She’s in the shower, but she’ll down soon,” said a woman in her late twenties, perhaps early thirties, who looked familiar.

“I’m Janet,” she said and offered him her hand. Dry and fine as he took it. Long fingers, manicured, he noticed. “Her niece,” she added and cast a glance up toward the second-floor landing and EA’s bedroom.

“Janet?” said Sebastian.

“Yes, and you’re Sebastian, I know.”

Familiar. Strangely so. For what she brought to mind was an old photograph, taken before this woman was born, or when she was a child. It showed his dad, his mom, and EA, indispensable even then, in New York, on the Staten Island ferry, the lady with the torch in the background. Dad was giving Mom a happy hug, EA stood a little to the side, not quite uncomfortable, but beautiful, with her blond hair wisped around by the Atlantic swirls, one hand trying to keep her hair out of her eyes, while at the same time shielding them from the sun.

“I know,” said Janet, who correctly interpreted the silent examination of her face, “they all say I look just like her.”

Sebastian nodded as the pieces fell into place. “Yes,” he said. “That’s what I just realized: EA, your age. You could have been twins. I’ve seen photographs,” he added by way of explanation.

Janet Rust smiled right out of that photograph and Sebastian for some crazy reason felt tears make their way for his eyes. Perhaps it was his father, happy and evidently his own man now, business going well, lovely wife, sun shining; or his mother, happy and, yes, pregnant with him by this time; or EA, beautifully unhappy by his side. Perhaps it was this story of three people that nearly brought tears to his eyes. But he managed to check them, and instead said, “Mind if I come in?”

Janet laughed, “Oh, I’m sorry.” She took a closer look at his face, “You got something in your eye?”

“No,” he said, “I’m fine. The wind I guess.”

She didn’t answer but let her gaze linger another moment, then turned and led the way into the house, her blond hair wisped slightly by her movement through air, and trailing a fragrance Sebastian couldn’t quite identify, but enjoyed.

Janet turned and drew breath to say something as EA appeared at the top of the stairs, fresh out of the shower. Hair still wet, skin still glowing from the hot water. “Ah, that’s better,” she said, descending. “As you can see, I’m babysitting.” Then as she made it all the way down and reached them, “Janet Rust, my niece.”

Sebastian wondered what it was Janet had intended to say.

Instead he said, “Yes, EA, she told me.”

“Tea?” wondered EA.

 

Over tea, Sebastian told them the story of Omniplex and Tatham, something EA, despite herself, listened to with interest. She nodded at Sebastian’s decision to make Tatham their Houston point man.

“How’s Moss taking the news?” she wanted to know.

“What do you mean?”

“I’m sure he’s not entirely happy that you’ve decided to pick up your father’s mantle.”

“No, he isn’t,” said Sebastian. “Or wasn’t. Not at first, you’re right. But I think he’s come to terms with it.” Then he told her about the salute.

She nodded again. “I have to admit I’m surprised, but it sounds like you’ve won the man over. He’s a good lawyer, if a little lascivious at times,” she added.

Her pointed observation rocked Sebastian a little. It confirmed his own of many years, seeing Moss thinking in terms of legs and breasts. Man, she would have to agree to come back, he thought. He needed her keen eyes and clear judgment. Her knowing from many years of experience who was who, what was what. Please, please, please.

“Yes,” he said. “I think he is a good lawyer. Must be, or Dad would not have trusted him.”

Again EA nodded in agreement.

“And that was when I knew,” said Sebastian. “That this is what Dad had wanted me to do. And I’m sure now, this is what I want to do with my life. Pick up where he left off.”

EA said nothing.

Sure sure,” he said.

“And what about my garden?” she asked.

Sebastian’s turn to say nothing.

“Sherry, Inc. will provide a gardener,” said EA.

“How many do you want?” asked Sebastian.

“One would suffice. But make it a damn good one,” said EA.

Sebastian rose and hugged her. “Oh, stop fussing,” she said through her muffled smile.

Janet Rust, watching most of this exchange from over the rim of her teacup, smiled too.

 

If she resented turning her garden project over to “my loveable Mexican,” which is what she would call Raphael even to his face, she didn’t show it. There were times, however, when Sebastian would notice a shadow move across her face, if ever so briefly, and would peek at her thoughts (always with a touch of guilt, but—he told himself—he did it out of concern for her): and always found some gardening tool or other hanging about. Or an old book, half read. James presumably. But she never said a word about it. She was back to her old, amazingly efficient self. Executive Assistant. EA. Very much a part of his new life.

 

Janet Rust, on the other hand, by design or by accident, Sebastian could not tell, seemed to keep out of sight, even while in town. “Man trouble,” explained EA.

“She looks so much like you at her age,” said Sebastian.

“How would you know?”

“Photographs.”

“Of course,” she realized.

“She seems a very nice person,” said Sebastian. “For one, she’s not chasing me.”

“She is an amazing woman,” said EA, and left it at that.

 

Sebastian was being chased. Over the next three years, he made the cover of People magazine twice as the country’s “Most Eligible Bachelor.” Initially EA found all this attention manageable, but eventually she had to hire an additional secretary just to handle the increasing flood of proposals, some decent and many not so, that arrived daily. Sebastian was adamant about declining each one in writing, with a personal letter, but did in the end agree, after some warm-to-fairly-hot discussions with EA, that form letters would have to do. “We’re not running a bloody dating service here, this is a bloody business.” EA in full swing, and in that mood she usually had her way.

He grew to like Tony Moss and Waynemore Bland. They were decent people and fair. His father had chosen well.

He grew to like his staff, his many General Managers, Partners, Affiliates, what have you, who in turn showed him the respect and admiration they knew he deserved. With, as Sebastian often thought to himself, EA’s help, he was having the time of his life running Sherry, Inc. smoothly, and very profitably.

 

So smoothly, and so profitably, in fact, that three years, almost to the day, after his father’s death, Phillip Morris tendered an Eight Billion dollar offer for Sherry, Inc., still a privately held corporation. This led to the first truly heated disagreement between Sebastian and Tony Moss. The attorney wanted to sell. Sebastian did not.

“That’s more than tripling our assets in three years. Sebastian, for Christ’s sake. A three-fold gain. Three hundred percent.” Tony Moss was pacing Sebastian’s office. Bookshelf to desk to whiteboard to bookshelf to desk to whiteboard, round and round.

“I know.”

“You’d be an idiot not to sell.”

“I know.”

That earned a quick glance from Moss, and a temporary pause.

“Why in Heaven’s name not then?”

“Sit down, would you, please?”

“No, thanks.”

“Because we can do better.”

“Better than three hundred percent?”

“Yes.”

“If your father…”

“Were here, yes, he would agree with me.”

“I doubt that.”

“I know he would.”

 

A year later, Sherry, Inc. was sold for Sixteen Billion dollars and a few Millions change. EA insisted on cooking the celebration dinner herself. Janet Rust, not invisible at the moment, was there to help.

Moss and Bland were in her sitting room, sipping champagne and savoring an excellent caviar on small round crackers. Sebastian was in the kitchen with EA and Janet, offering to help.

“No, you go sit down,” said EA. “It’s your day.”

“It’s ours,” said Sebastian. “Yours more than mine, if truth be told.”

EA didn’t answer.

“Dad would have been so proud,” said Sebastian, and immediately regretted having brought his father up.

A shadow settled softly on EA’s face, and struggled to leave.

“I know,” she said. “This would have been his crowning moment.”

Janet Rust looked up from slicing the salad tomatoes, caught by the sudden mood in her aunt’s voice, and looked over at her. Her eyes met Sebastian’s and silently asked him what was going on. Sebastian shook his head slowly, conveying: not now.

Janet nodded that she understood, and Sebastian, surprised, noticed that she did understand.

“I’m sorry,” said Sebastian.

“Oh, no, don’t be,” said EA. “No, don’t.”

But EA didn’t quite cheer up all night. Not even two days later when Sebastian led a small fleet of gardening supply trucks into her driveway.

“Where do you want it?” he asked.

“What on earth is it?” said EA.

“A new gardening shed,” he said. “Complete with every imaginable implement.”

Janet Rust came out behind her to watch the spectacle. It was the circus arriving, almost.

“But, Raphael,” she started.

“Oh, he can help,” he said.

“And what’s that,” said Janet, pointing to the last van, from Beckendale’s Antiques.

“Oh, yes,” said Sebastian. “That. That’s a complete set of first edition James.”

“Oh, Lord,” said EA, and went back inside. Janet hurried after.

Sebastian found her by the kitchen table, in tears.

“I’m sorry,” said Sebastian. “What’s wrong?” But he knew, as he saw her thoughts: his father’s smiles and laughter almost filling the large kitchen.

Again his eyes met Janet’s, and this time it was she who shook her head gently, saying: not now. Then she hugged her aunt and said nothing.

 

To Sebastian’s surprise—and delight—Janet didn’t disappear this time.

He asked her to join him for lunch the next day, that is, if she had no other plans and didn’t mind, and she had no other plans and she didn’t mind.

Sebastian knew of a small, unpretentious restaurant up the coast a bit, he said, and she agreed, that would be nice. The drive was pleasant, traffic not too bad, air clean and clear, sun on the water, a long slow swell (which aggravated the surfers no end), pelicans skating around looking for fish. Altogether a beautiful day.

Over salad she said, “She told me about it after you left last night. She really loved your dad.”

“Yes,” he said. “She did.”

“Can you imagine, a whole life, loving someone you can never have?”

Sebastian looked at her, and then, without really deciding or thinking about it, looked for her thoughts, and was surprised to find that he could not see them.

“No,” said Sebastian. “I can’t imagine.” Again he tried to see her thoughts and saw nothing. Thinking perhaps he had lost the knack, he took a quick peek over at the waiter busy in his white apron and washed out jeans, clearing a nearby table, but no, his thoughts were clearly visible: a small sailboat, rough winds, dark waves, as if he was rounding the Horn. All plainly visible to him, so he still had the knack. He looked back at Janet again, searched, nothing. He didn’t get it. She watched him watching her, wondering.

“It must have been a very lonely life,” said Janet after the brief silence.

“Don’t you think,” he started.

“That she had lovers?”

“Well, yes.”

“She did not. She told me.”

The thought chilled him. But he believed it. That made sense. That was EA, all purpose, all absolutely straight.

“Like a nun, almost,” he said.

“Yeah, like a nun,” she said, and took another bite of her salad.

Again, Sebastian—who could not believe his lack of vision where she was concerned—again looked for Janet’s thoughts, and again, he saw none.

“What are you looking for?” she said.

“You,” he heard himself saying.

“Well, I’m here,” she said.

And that’s when Sebastian knew he loved her.

 

She flew back to Florida the following morning. Sebastian took her to the airport, and on his return to the city asked EA some pretty obvious questions about her.

“Sebastian,” she said after answering the first few of them, and interrupting him, “she’s not for you.”

“Oh, for heaven’s sake, no,” he said, “that’s not…” but EA held up her hand.

“Trust me, Sebastian. It would be better if you two did not get romantically involved. For both of you. It’s for the better.”

“Why?”

Then, as if EA knew that Sebastian could see her thoughts if he wished to, and that now he really did, she stood up and left. Sebastian found himself stranded, confused and not a little hollow, at the kitchen table.

 

“No,” she said from Florida, “I don’t think that would be a good idea.”

Sebastian shifted the receiver from his left ear to his right.

“Why not?”

“It would not be a good idea,” she repeated.

“Why? Tell me why,” he said. “You’re not married, are you? EA won’t tell me.”

“No,” she said. “No, that’s not it.”

“So, what is it, then?” he asked.

“Please, Sebastian, I like you a lot. You’re a great guy, really. I really think so. But it would not work.”

“You’re seeing someone.”

“No.”

“Then, for the love of Christ, why not?”

“It’s for the better,” she said. Which were EA’s words, exactly.

When he pressed for an answer, she hung up. And did not answer when he called back.

When he pressed EA for an answer, she suddenly turned stranger on him. She would not see him, would not talk to him. Avoided him. Sebastian did not, could not understand.

Then he did something he had done only once before in his life, and that was as a child. He drove over to EA’s house, parked the car and made sure it was locked. He walked onto her porch and sat down with his back against the front door, determined to sit there until EA would speak to him again. Until she would answer his questions.

 

Twenty odd years earlier he had outlasted his mother—who would not, no, not under any circumstances, Sebastian, as much as talk about him getting go-cart lessons, at least not for another two years—in pretty much the same fashion. Then he had planted himself outside her bedroom door and had sat there for seventy-four hours and sixteen minutes, refusing food and water. He got his go-cart lessons.

Raphael saw him first and waved and smiled and wondered what on earth he was doing. He didn’t answer, just waved back. Raphael obviously told EA, who from that point on used the kitchen entrance to come and go.

This time it took eighty-three hours and forty-seven minutes. When she finally relented, she approached him from the side of the house and walked up onto the porch. He felt very faint from the lack of food and water, and from lack of sleep—what little he had managed had been sporadic and uncomfortable—and she shimmered a little as she came closer, looking to him a little like an angel in jeans and plaid shirt, one gloved hand still holding the shears fresh from rosebush trimming, the other swiping back some stray hairs.

“I heard all about your go-cart stint,” she said. “You almost broke your neck.”

Sebastian didn’t answer. Partly because he was too weak to think of anything to say, partly because he felt too weak to talk, period.

“Your mother was right, you know,” she added.

“You’re not my mother,” he managed finally.

“Heaven knows I’m not,” she said and looked upward. Then asked, “Why won’t you listen to me, Sebastian?”

That was not the question Sebastian heard, however. He heard the question: “What do you want, Sebastian?”

“I want Janet,” he said. “You must make her see me.”

EA’s clear eyes rested on him for some time while she made up her mind. Then she came to a decision.

 

Janet met him at the airport, dressed in blue.

“EA made a reservation for you at the Renaissance,” she said from behind the wheel once they were on their way. “Better check in so you don’t lose it. It’s a busy season.”

“Oh, she did, did she?” said Sebastian

“Ever efficient,” she said with a smile he had seen over and over during his recent vigil.

“Ever efficient,” he said and looked away and out at the lush vegetation. It was like driving through someone’s garden. The moist warm air filled the car through the open windows. He could hear the cries of seagulls and the hum of the wheels.

Although he had slept for nearly twenty-four hours once EA gave in to his demands, he was still a little tired. And a little light-headed. Though whether that was from his ordeal or from seeing Janet again, he wasn’t sure.

“She said you went on a hunger strike,” she said, looking over at him with eyes both amused and curious.

“More like a sit-in,” he said.

“Did you chain yourself to her front door?”

“No. Just sat there.”

“For three days?”

“Three and a half.”

“Three and a half days?”

“Yes.”

He expected her to ask for an explanation, but she didn’t. Instead she turned left into the Renaissance parking lot, found a parking spot near the entrance and turned off the engine. “I’ll wait here,” she said, leaning back into her seat and closing her eyes, as if a little lightheaded herself.

“I won’t be a minute,” he said.

He checked in and brought his overnight bag up to his room. He then splashed some cold water in his face and thought briefly about adding some lotion. Then decided that would be far too crude, too obviously the wooer.

Instead he made sure he had the card key to the room, and went back down to Janet’s waiting car.

 

She lived on the second floor of a sprawling condominium complex. Sebastian had tried, but could not make out the number of buildings, hidden as they were among lots of large and very green plants and trees he could not name.

Now he moved slowly from one print to the next on her sitting room wall while she fixed tea in her kitchen. These were not originals, but very high quality prints, and photographs, all tastefully framed.

Several Mary Cassats. The Boating Party, with the shadow falling just right on that pudgy baby face, the mother afraid of the water but not very, and keeping that fear mostly to herself.

The sketch for In the Omnibus. Again a pudgy baby in a mother’s lap. Next to it the color print of what the sketch matured into. All browns and whites.

Janet had been married, he knew that. He also knew that she had no children. Now he knew that she yearned for one of her own.

The Banjo Lesson in perfect browns and grays.

A beautiful print of Vermeer’s Woman Holding a Balance. Sebastian could not believe the integrity of it. From where he stood it looked original.

Several Degas. The Dance Lesson, Before the Ballet, Ballet Rehearsal, beautifully arranged in a soft descent to let the theme give itself up to gravity.

“I used to take lessons,” she said from behind. He could hear a spoon move on the tray in her hands, but did not turn around to face her.

“These are beautiful,” he said.

She didn’t answer, but as he turned he saw that she was surveying the wall with him. Pleased that he liked them.

“I don’t see any originals,” he said. Only an observation, not a criticism, and he was glad it came out that way.

“No,” she said. “I like being consistent.”

He saw the point and nodded. He would have done the same. She bent down and placed the tray on the glass top table.

She straightened again, with a barely perceptible sign of effort, then stood in part shadow and part light and struck Sebastian as the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. Thinner, perhaps, then he remembered her from only days ago, but luminous. Her aunt’s blond hair—from the photographs. Especially the smile into the sun with Lady Liberty as background. Clear eyes on his.

“Why have you come?” she said.

Well that was the question, wasn’t it?

Then every trace of coherency took sudden and unauthorized leave and there was nothing he could think of to say. Much less verbalize.

She observed him suffer his little agony. “It’s like that, is it?” she said finally.

Still, he could not answer.

She sat down on the sofa and poured him tea, then offered him a biscuit which he declined with a raised hand. He remained standing.

“I,” he managed finally.

She looked up at him and waited. Unsmiling and attentive. When nothing followed, she stood up again and brought his cup to him. He took it.

“You,” he said then.

She stood back but said nothing. Her eyes still on his.

“I’m.”

Then she smiled so warmly that he knew she understood.

Encouraged, he then managed several words in a row, “This probably appears like an obvious contradiction,” he paused for breath, “but I’m just so, so damn comfortable around you.”

She said nothing.

“Did you know that EA had to hire a secretary just to handle all the silly marriage proposals?” he asked.

“God, yes,” she answered. Then she added, “Have they stopped?”

“No,” he said. “Mary Ann is still gainfully employed.”

“I thought as much.”

“How old are you?” he asked.

Her eyes widened a little. Then she decided that perhaps that was a business of his. “Thirty-five,” she answered. “And you?” she added.

“Twenty-Nine.”

The cat then seemed to have wrestled back control of his tongue, and after a not quite awkward silence he turned around, cup still in hand, and walked back over toward the Vermeer. His shoes made soft sounds on the parquet floor and he noticed his own heart beating. And he could still hear the cries of seagulls.

Then he regained his tongue and turned to her. “I’ve been thinking about you a lot, Janet.”

She shook her head slowly, but said, “I’m flattered.”

“That’s it?”

“No,” she said. “I am also moved.”

“Moved,” he repeated. Strange word. Not quite sure what she meant by it.

Again, against his resolve not to, he tried to view her thoughts, but again saw nothing.

“Yes,” she said. “Quite moved.”

He still did not know what she meant, and her face gave away little. All it held was a tinge of sadness.

“Did you know,” he said after a short while, “that I can see people’s thoughts?”

“No.” It was a statement and a question both. And a laughter.

“I’m serious,” he said, and much to her credit, she saw that he was.

“It’s like an intricate 3D movie,” he said. “Pictures. Worlds.”

“Where?” she said. “How do you see them? In the air?”

“Yes, in the air, all around them. The person’s like the projector, in all directions.”

“How long…” she started.

“Ever since I can remember.”

“And, how… I mean,” she was looking for words.

“I just have to decide to see them, and I do.”

Then it seemed she touched something cold, or was touched by it. As if she recoiled. “So, you can see my thoughts?” she said.

“Well, that’s the thing,” he said. “I can’t.”

She thought for a moment, “You’ve tried.”

“Yes.” And added, “I’m sorry.”

“There must be a God then,” she said.

“Why do you say that?”

“Maybe it is because you love me.”

And that—it arrived as an epiphany—is exactly what Sebastian had thought, which must have been plain to Janet by his expression. But instead he said, “Who said I loved you?”

“EA.”

Ah, EA. Yes.

“Ah, EA. Yes. Well.”

“Is it true, Sebastian?”

He chose to misunderstand. “That I can see people’s thoughts?”

“No. I believe you when you say you can. Is it true that you love me?”

“Yes. Yes, I think so. Yes.”

She stepped up to him. Nearly his height in low-heeled shoes. She took his hand and draped his arm around her while she leaned her head on his shoulder. She did not cry, but Sebastian could tell that she wanted to.

“Sebastian,” she said from against his shoulder. “I like you a lot. You’re a fine person. You’re bright, you’re handsome, considerate. You’re all that, Sebastian. But it wouldn’t work.”

“Don’t say anything,” he asked her. “Please.” He just wanted to feel the weight of her head against him, the warmth of her arms around him. Just that. No words. Just what he had dreamed of for eighty-three some hours recently.

They stood for perhaps a minute, then she pulled back and he let her go.

“I want to show you something,” she said. When he didn’t answer or move, she added, “Let’s go.”

“Oh, outside?”

“Yes, way outside.”

 

On the drive down to the keys they exchanged lives.

She told him how there were times when she was a girl, no older than twelve, that she knew, felt with her whole being, what it was to love. No particular one, but she could conjure the feeling, could lie in bed with her eyes closed and just hum with love. It was nothing sexual, rather the ache of knowing someone so well you would like to melt into him.

Sebastian didn’t answer at first, too stunned. He focused on the road, the Route 1 sign just whispering by outside his open window. Then tears sprung into his eyes and he closed them partly from embarrassment, partly from joy.

“You alright?” she asked and cast a quick look to her right. “Oh, Sebastian, you’re… are you?”

He still didn’t answer, couldn’t.

“I’m sorry,” she said.

Still looking ahead, blinking the moisture out of his eyes, he held out his hand for her to take, and her right hand let go of the wheel and did.

“I’ve known too,” he said. “I could too. Love. Fourteen, I think. Aching so hard for someone that I could not sleep, didn’t want to sleep. The ache was too beautiful.”

She squeezed his hand firmly before returning it to the wheel.

Just past Islamorada she pulled over and parked the car. They both stepped out, the Gulf of Mexico on their right, the Atlantic Ocean on their left.

“This is what I wanted to show you,” she said. “The land that separates two oceans.”

Sebastian didn’t quite get it at first.

“Just the road and some sand. There’s the Atlantic,” she pointed. “There’s the Gulf. My dad used to say you could piss from one ocean to the other if you had to go badly enough.”

Sebastian got the picture, clearly, and burst out laughing.

“It’s the only place in the world where two oceans are kept apart by two thin beaches and some blacktop,” she said.

Sebastian looked from one to the other. They sure looked the same, and of course they were flowing into each other under every bridge they had crossed, and would become one and the same water beyond Key West.

She took his hand and led him down to the edge of the Atlantic where she sat down. He sat down beside her.

“We’re two oceans, Sebastian,” she said.

She was very still. Stiller than just not moving. Sebastian felt her chill again, like a very distant scream, and suddenly he was afraid of what was to come next. But he had to know.

“And the land we’re sitting on? Separating us.”

She squeezed her eyes tight, then opened them again and looked straight up into the darkening sky. A planet or two had sprung to light, and a few stars. She leaned back on her arms, her hands buried in the sand behind her. At that moment she looked to Sebastian like a young girl on her first date by the beach.

“My illness,” she said. Then after a long silence, “I am dying, Sebastian.”

 

He was inconsolable at her funeral. EA stood by him through the ceremony and held his arm firmly. As they lowered her casket into its black rectangle, he wished that somehow he could follow, could exchange everything he had, his many billions and holdings and his properties and his fame, for the simple permission to leave. But his body held him tighter by far then EA held his arm.

He wished then for nothing but peace. He wished he could rescind the world and everything it held, including love, including even his love for Janet. He wished he could let go of everything, that he could be whole again, not rent like this, half of him still being lowered into the earth.

He wished it so hard, so hard. He wished it so hard that his eyes opened.

 

Yama studied him intently. Sebastian looked back at him, then looked left, into the depth of the silver trailer. He met Yama’s gaze again, and gradually, as if surfacing slowly from a great aquatic depth, understanding, like the air, drew near.

Then he knew.

“Maya,” said Yama.

“Yes,” realized Sebastian. “Maya.”

Sebastian still felt the pressure of Janet’s head on his shoulder and marveled at Yama’s powers.

 

Yama: These with will and wisdom have you renounced.

 

Then Yama spoke again, “You are a very wise boy, Nachiketa. You have the strength of Krishna. To become yourself, to collect all of your fragments, you have renounced the world. For peace, for integrity you have renounced all your possessions. For truth, you have renounced love for womankind, you have renounced that sweetest of loves for the greater love.”

“Yes,” said Sebastian, and nodded slowly. “But it was hard. So very, very hard.”

“I know,” said Yama.

Neither said anything for some time.

Then Sebastian looked up at Yama and asked, “How did you do that?”

Yama did not answer.

 

Yama: The wise, realizing through meditation the timeless Self, beyond all perception, hidden in the cave of the heart, leave pain and pleasure far behind. Those who know they are neither body nor mind but the immemorial Self, the divine principle of existence, find the source of all joy and live in joy abiding. You, Nachiketa, I consider an open dwelling.

 

As Sebastian was waiting for Yama to answer, so Yama was waiting for Sebastian to speak, but looking into the silence Sebastian forgot his question and instead saw Janet’s face, smelt her hair, and lingered within her presence. He again saw the gravesite, saw Janet’s body, less than eighty pounds at the end, descending for its final resting place. Then he finally spoke again, perhaps to himself, “It was as if I were entangled. I tried to think: ‘out’, but the body squeezed me even harder and said: ‘in’.”

“In this life,” said Yama, as if answering a question, “in this lifetime, as Sebastian, have you meditated?”

“No,” said Sebastian. “You forget, I’m really only a kid.”

“Yes, that’s true.”

“Besides, Dad and Mom are Christians.”

“That is true, too,” Yama conceded. “Although,” he continued, “there are many ways to meditate. Some meditate through music, some through books. Some by crossing water in small sailboats, some by hiking, climbing mountains, some by fly-fishing.”

“Samuel Johnson would approve,” murmured Sebastian.

Yama, not sure exactly what he had heard Sebastian say, “What do you mean?”

“And I quote: ‘Fly fishing may be a very pleasant amusement; but angling or float fishing I can only compare to a stick and a string, with a worm at one end and a fool at the other.’”

Yama burst out in a great belly laugh and Sebastian felt strangely proud of himself.

“I had not heard that one,” said Yama. “I like that.”

“Well, there’s a first time for everything, even for Death, huh?”

“Seems so.”

Yama reached over to the glass table to his left and pulled a Kleenex out of a red and purple box. He wiped a tear away from under his left eye. “I like that,” he said again.

“You were saying, though,” said Sebastian.

“Yes, meditation. It does not have a prescribed form; its true existence is purpose. Of course, it is mostly what you see in India or in Zen Temples around the world, but it can take many other shapes as well. It is whatever you do to reach the cave of your heart, where you, the real and timeless Self resides. It is the path to that inner dwelling.”

“Like fly-fishing?”

“Yes,” said Yama. “Fly-fishers are some of the most serene people on earth.”

Sebastian nodded that he understood, or agreed. “Reminds me of Socrates,” he said then.

“What does?”

“The cave of your heart. Are we not fettered in its depth, watching the shadows cast on its innermost wall by the fire hiding its mouth, and are we not mistaking their shadowy dance for life?”

“I see,” said Yama. “Yes, that too is a cave. But not the cave of the heart. The cave of the heart would be the stillness you enter once you best Socrates’ fire and exit his cave.

“I wish someone would keep the metaphors consistent.”

Yama smiled. “Well, so do I,” he said. “The point, though, is that whether they hike or fly-fish, or listen to music, or read a good story, they forget their earthly selves and become more of their true selves—which is capable of assuming any being, even that of a story. And so they leave pain and pleasure behind and become the hiking or fly-fishing or the music or the tale they live. And if they really become what they do, they cease being all other things.”

“Even shopping?” said Sebastian and regretted the words the moment they were out in the open.

“What?”

“It was a joke,” said Sebastian.

“Well, what was the joke?” Yama wanted to know.

“Shopping? It seems to be the new American way of mass meditation, by your definition. Shoppers becoming what they do, ceasing to be all other things.”

“That,” said Yama, frowning, and not pleasantly, “is not funny.”

“I know,” said Sebastian. “I’m sorry.”

Yama’s frown took a pleasanter turn. “But, I guess there’s a joke in there somewhere.”

Sebastian felt like an idiot.

“Truth be told,” said Yama. “The American obsession with shopping is one of the saddest things I have observed, ever. And my ever is a very long time,” he added.

“I know,” said Sebastian. “I feel like an idiot.”

“Well, you should,” said Yama.

“Well, I do,” said Sebastian.

“Any place where you buy simply for the sake of buying, not for the sake of acquiring for use, to meet some actual need—like all those self-help books, not to mention cookbooks, which nine times out of ten are not bought to be read, only to be bought—as if the act of buying solves the problem—is a place where reason does not even dare to tread.”

“I know,” said Sebastian. “You don’t have to rub it in.”

If Yama heard, he gave no indication. “Any place where possessing is so revered and giving so despised, is a place so steeped in matter the spirit can no longer breathe.”

“I know,” said Sebastian.

“Any place where you have to advertise food to get rid of it, is a place where greed has killed compassion.”

“I know,” said Sebastian. “I know.”

Yama, apparently concluding that sufficient punishment had been inflicted, fell silent.

Sebastian held his tongue for a while, then reminded Yama, “You were saying, when they leave pain or pleasure behind and become the hiking or fly-fishing or music or tale, they really become what they do. They cease being all other things.”

“Yes,” said Yama. “That’s what I said.”

“And that is where the cave of the heart is?”

“Yes,” said Yama. Sebastian apparently forgiven now, for Yama looked at him less sternly. “That is where the self is neither body nor mind, only music, only tale. The trick is to remain there once the music stops or the fly-fishing is over. Or after you have closed the book and returned it to its shelf. The trick, the goal even, is to remain there when the world comes rushing back, crowding itself into your heart, yelling for attention and demanding your presence.”

“I think of Dad and his hamburgers,” said Sebastian.

“Oh, yes. A very effective music killer, McDonalds.”

“But it is so hard to not perceive the onrushing world.”

“I never said it was easy,” answered Yama. “But once you learn that skill, once you are that skill, you will leave both pain and pleasure far behind. In that skill lies all joy and all life. And I think, Nachiketa, that you have just learned that skill.”

Sebastian shook his head. “I am not so sure, Yama. I can still smell her hair.”

“Yes, but you smell it from that place. I consider you an open dwelling.”

 

Nachiketa: Teach me of That you see as beyond right and wrong, cause and effect, past and future.

 

“Even so,” said Sebastian. “I have much to learn, and you are my teacher. So please tell me: How, once the music stops, once the story ends, do you stay free of the world? How do you remain unsullied? How do you remain nothing but being? How do you keep the world from rushing in and smothering you?”

 

Yama: I will give you the Word all the scriptures glorify, all spiritual disciplines express, to attain which aspirants lead a life of sense-restraint and self-naughting. It is OM. This symbol of the Godhead is the highest. Realizing it one finds complete fulfillment of all one’s longings. It is of the greatest support to all seekers. Those in whose hearts OM reverberates unceasingly are indeed blessed and deeply loved as one who is the Self.

 

“To prevent the world from rising again and with its tentacles reaching you and seizing you, to prevent the flood of the senses from smothering you and again reducing you to nothing but a thirst for sensation, to remain yourself in the face of the onslaught seeking the tiniest crack through which to flood you, you must make your own music,” said Yama.

Sebastian didn’t answer, but listened intently.

“You must create your own music to replace the one that ceased, to replace the quiet stream and the leaping trout, to replace the beauty of mountains scaled and forests crossed. To replace the beating heart of the story. To replace the river of song in your heart.”

“How?” asked Sebastian.

“The old gods pondered this for many seasons. Then they forged a ring of sound to hold this music, and handed it down to man as a gift. That ring was OM.”

“OM? The mantra?”

“Yes.”

“Sure they didn’t mean HOME?”

Yama cast Sebastian a quick, surprised look. “The thought has occurred to me, more than once, since,” he said. “But no, it was not HOME, I should know, I was there.”

“It sure sounds like HOME, which would make sense, no?”

“Not in Sanskrit, and it’s not really pronounced like ‘home,’ more like ‘aum.’”

“Aum?”

“Yes.”

“Aum,” said Sebastian again, tasting the word.

“OM is the bow, the self is the arrow, and Brahma is the target,” said Yama.

“OM,” said Sebastian.

“It is the inaudible sound to hold all sounds. At least,” said Yama, “that was the theory.”

“Does it work?” said Sebastian. “I mean, can it hold the music to replace the music of the music ended. That didn’t make much sense,” he added.

“Can it hold the music to fill the void left by the parted music?”

“Yes,” said Sebastian. “That’s what I mean.”

Yama seemed to suddenly grow weary at the question. “I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t really know. A lot of the poor sods out there,” he cast a sad glance at the line of a million slowly shuffling feet approaching Lucy, faithfully at it, clipboard in hand, “have OM’ed for many lives now, and still they come around, and around.”

“But you said you have to make your own music. To fill the void.”

“Yes, I said that, and that is true,” answered Yama. “And we thought that OM might help. A ring of sound to generate that music. But when we saw them bicker about pronunciation, about breathing, about length, about volume, about aloud or silent, we realized that we might as well have handed down a word like quarter horse.”

“That would be harder to hum,” said Sebastian

“Maybe as well,” said Yama.

“No, no,” said Sebastian, with a sudden urge to comfort, “OM was a great idea. It’s a great word. Soft. Doesn’t really start or end, you know.”

“We called it the ‘unstruck sound.’ The sound that never starts, that always is.”

“That’s beautiful.”

“And beautifully misunderstood,” said Yama. “OM is not supposed to be the sound. It is supposed to hold the soundless sound that is the innermost music.”

Sebastian understood.

“I see you understand,” said Yama.

“Yes.”

“Make you own music, Nachiketa. That’s how you stay free of the world, as you put it.”

 

Yama: The all-knowing Self was never born, nor will it die. Beyond cause and effect, this Self is eternal and immutable. When the body dies, the Self does not die. If the slayer believes that he can slay or the slain believes that he can be slain, neither knows the truth. The eternal Self slays not, nor is ever slain.

 

“Let’s go for a walk,” said Yama.

He stood up and stretched, and to Sebastian Yama seemed to have grown even taller, his head now almost touching the trailer’s silvery ceiling. He made a large, sad figure, a little distant of a sudden, looking back out at Lucy and the line. A little weary. When Sebastian didn’t answer, Yama turned to him and said, “Okay?”

“Yeah, sure,” said Sebastian.

The trailer had a back door, near the far end. Yama led the way down the length of the silver cigar, then held the door open for Sebastian to exit. As he stepped out and down the large steps, off in the distance Sebastian could see the second mouth, recycling humanity at the same clip as its sister consumed them: an endless stream of shuffling feet, the continuation of the large wheel.

The ground was as Sebastian remembered it from approaching the trailer: flat and strewn with shards and coarse sand, ochre and sometimes red. It reminded Sebastian a bit of pictures he had seen of Mars. And suddenly ‘over on Earth’ made perfect sense.

“This wouldn’t be Mars, would it?” he asked.

Yama, already a few feet ahead of him in three long strides, did not hear.

“This wouldn’t be Mars, would it?” he asked again. Louder this time. Loud enough for Yama to hear.

Yama stopped and turned around. Towered over Sebastian. “You know?” Surprised.

“No,” said Sebastian. “I didn’t, don’t. It’s just that I’ve seen pictures. Of Mars. The ground on Mars looks just like this.”

“For a very good reason,” said Yama.

“Ah,” said Sebastian, sure now.

Yama turned again and moved on. Sebastian had to run to keep up, which was not easy as the ground was hard to negotiate. Yama seemed oblivious to him, striding—slowly for an eight-foot giant, probably—ahead of him at speed.

“Hey,” said Sebastian. “Wait up.”

Yama seemed out of earshot again.

“WAIT UP,” said Sebastian. A plea now.

Yama stopped and looked around. “Sorry,” he said. Then set out again, slower still. He looked back to see how Sebastian was faring.

“Thanks,” said Sebastian.

They walked in silence for perhaps ten minutes, Sebastian more like scurrying, Yama more like gliding, making their way toward the line of shuffling feet exiting the mountain; but as Yama was veering to the right, they approached the line at a forty-five-degree angle and to Sebastian they appeared to not have come much closer, even at Yama’s pace.

Then Sebastian, even while still at a trot to keep up, took another look at the line and realized two things: The first was that the line was in fact getting closer, for he noticed the details had grown clearer; the second thing was that those in the line were no longer the old men and women that had exited, but were now first middle-aged men and women, then in their prime, then adolescents, then youths, growing shorter and shorter, younger and younger as the line extended to his right.

“Yama,” said Sebastian, meaning to point this out.

Yama, in stride, didn’t hear or give any sign that he had.

Sebastian realizing that Yama already knew this, of course, fell silent again and focused on keeping up.

As they approached the far end of the line Sebastian saw the teenagers had become children, still growing younger and smaller, some now not more than toddlers, naked, and freshly able to walk. Then Sebastian saw the very end of the line.

Yama held up. “The edge,” he said, as if that explained everything.

Sebastian stopped too. Stunned.

“The edge,” said Sebastian.

“Watch,” said Yama.

They had reached an incredible drop. It consisted of two, perhaps three miles of sheer rock face, straight down, down, down. Yama put his hand on Sebastian’s shoulder, a precaution. Not too close. Don’t want to trip here.

Sebastian looked to the line again, only a few feet to his left now, of toddlers still, of lemmings now stepping for the edge and each, one by one, with one last, tentative step, over it and into the strange Mars air beyond.

“Watch,” said Yama again.

And Sebastian watched, fascinated, as each with one last forward totter tumbled into space, into slow and diminishing somersaults, tumbled from toddler, to baby, to fetus, to nothing more than a suggestion of a life, to not really nothing, but its next of kin, and before they could reach the ground, miles below, the line had become wind, rising into the dark Mars sky, a light wisp on its way back to Earth.

“Wow,” said Sebastian, and made to get closer to the edge, but Yama’s hand held him.

“Be careful,” said Yama. “That’s one edge you don’t want to stumble over.”

Sebastian stepped back. “Thanks.” Then looked back at the mountain, at the line carving its way out of the gaping and—again the picture of lemmings came unbidden to him—stringing itself all the way to here, and out into air, into space, back to Earth.

“This wind does reach Earth, right?” said Sebastian.

Yama nodded. A silent confirmation.

“And,” said Sebastian, after a while as the thought occurred to him, “how do the dead return?”

“A different way,” said Yama, and did not elaborate.

“But it is the same person returning?”

“It is.”

“Will never die?”

“Was never born.”

“Why… how did they, we, get mixed up in all this, then?”

Yama didn’t answer at first. Then said only, “For lack of something better to do.”

 

Sebastian watched the silent heartbeat of Earth departure for some time. Did they notice him? he wondered, or were they blind to all but the returning. He thought of asking Yama, but knew that Yama for the moment was not in an answering mood, towering to his right, silently waiting for Sebastian to have his fill of the wheel. After many more steps into air Sebastian turned away to indicate that he had seen enough.

 

They walked back toward the trailer in silence.

 

“Yes,” confirmed Yama again approaching the long, silvery loaf, sparkling with the last glimmer of the sun. “They are the same person. The very self that will never die, nor was ever born. Only the shell is grown and then diminished.”

“And on Earth,” began Sebastian, seeing his breath now in the cold Mars air.

“Each finds a host mother, be it human or otherwise.” Yama’s words floated on their own cloud of breath.

“A new life,” said Sebastian.

The last of the sun dipped below the far horizon and the trailer turned from silver to gray.

“A new life,” confirmed Yama, looking, like Sebastian, in the direction of the vanished sun. Then back to Sebastian. “But remember: the self never dies. Never. If a killer thinks that he can kill, or if a victim thinks that he can be killed, then neither knows the truth. The eternal self kills not, nor is it ever killed.”

“Only recycled,” said Sebastian, and kicked himself again.

“As good a word as any,” said Yama and climbed the stairs to the back door.

 

Yama: Hidden in the heart of every creature exists the Self, subtler than the subtlest, greater than the greatest. They go beyond sorrow who extinguish their self-will and behold the glory of the Self by the stilling of the senses.

 

The lights were already on inside, and someone, presumably someone from down in the kitchen below, had turned on a heater, for while the night air had not struck Sebastian as particularly chilly—visible breath notwithstanding—the inside of the trailer met him as pleasantly warm.

Yama closed the door behind them and then spoke into the air with an order for dinner—remembering vegan fare for Sebastian—certain he would be heard.

By the time Yama and Sebastian had made their way back up the length of the trailer and were seated again, it arrived. How on earth do they do that?, he wondered.

Both were hungry, and they ate in silence. Once the silent girl had removed the remnants of the meal and served tea, Yama picked up his thread without preamble.

“Every creature has a true self. Or better yet, is a true self,” he said. “And that is who he is. But this is the conundrum: While the true self—what he really is—is the strongest of elements, some even say the only element, indeed the strongest thing there is—for how much stronger than immortal can you get?—it is also the first thing, seemingly frail and delicate, to succumb to grossness, to violence, to pain, in apparent defeat, an apparent victim, unless found and truly recognized for what it is.”

Yama collected more thought, then continued.

“It is that vapor-delicate feeling of fair play in the storm of greedy injustice and the ‘quick buck.’

“It is the delicate tear for Beethoven’s deafness in the storm of coarse laughter at the lewd joke.

“It is the hope, the glimmer, that true love does exist in the face of mountains of cynicism.

“It is the poem in a sea of pornography.

“It is the desire to really understand, buried under the avalanche of sensational news, mouthed by self-important talking heads, barely smart enough to read the copy, plenty stupid enough to think it matters.

“It is the exquisite thrill of harmony in Webern’s ‘Slow Movement’ buried under 130 dB of Megadeath.

“It is the promise kept, despite every reason on earth to break it.

“It is the calmness of knowing that you are indestructible.

“It is the compassion offered only by the truly strong in the midst of vicious killings by the hands of weaklings who profess that they have only your best interests at heart.

“It is the inextinguishable light that nonetheless at times burns so faintly that darkness calls it next of kin.

“It is the light you see in your dreams.

“It is what looks at your mind’s pictures.

“It is what hides in the heart of every creature, subtler than the subtlest, yet greater than the greatest.”

“Atman,” said Sebastian.

“Yes,” said Yama. “That is Atman.”

“What it wills,” said Yama, “becomes.”

“That is the self-will?” asked Sebastian

“No, the self-will spoken of by the Upanishads, the one you should extinguish, is the greed of senses. It is the urge to go on as identity, the urge to survive as something, when in truth you are nothing, at least in Earthly terms. When you no longer yearn, you have already taken several steps toward the true self.”

“Is the love for my father a yearning then,” asked Sebastian.

“Yes, Nachiketa, that is a yearning.”

“And the love for Janet Rust.”

“Yes, Nachiketa, that is a yearning.”

“And the wish, hidden in my heart like a blossom, that all who dwell on Earth be found and resurrected, is that a yearning?”

“No, Nachiketa, that is a truth.”

 

Yama: Though one sits in meditation in a Particular place, the Self within can exercise his influence far away. Though still, he moves everything everywhere.

 

“You say he is hidden in the heart, that he lives in the cave of the heart. Surely he does not need a heart to live?” asked Sebastian.

Yama looked hard at Sebastian, eyebrows lowered into a frown. “He needs no thing to live, Nachiketa, for he is life that makes all things.”

“Nor is he fettered then, the true self, Atman, within his heart?” asked Sebastian.

“Once you are your true self, once you know who you are, and what you are, nothing can fetter you, to anything. It is your wish for a heart as your abode that fetters you. You then will the heart and then will the fetters, then will the fettering. Short of that nothing can bind you.”

“Yet so many,” began Sebastian.

“Know not what they have willed,” said Yama.

Sebastian understood, and nodded slowly. “He is then, free to come and go as he wishes?”

“What he wills,” said Yama, “becomes.”

“And he can will himself free of his heart?”

“He can will himself free of his heart, of the Earth, of the Sun, and of the Stars.”

“He can will himself wholly free?”

“For Atman, willing himself free and freeing himself are one and the same thing.”

Again, Sebastian savored Yama’s words with the fingers of his heart, and found them fair. He tasted the freedom of completely letting go with his tongue and felt the cool kiss of tranquility on his lips.

He closed his eyes and willed himself away and for a moment, just for one step of shuffling feet, he was elsewhere, then returned as suddenly.

“Letting go,” said Yama, “means letting go of everything.”

When Sebastian, a little stunned by his sudden journey out and back in, didn’t answer, Yama added, “Forever.”

“Of everything?”

“Of everything.”

“Then I am not sure I am ready to,” said Sebastian.

“Few are,” answered Yama.

 

Yama: When the wise realize the Self, formless in the middle of forms, changeless in the midst of change, omnipresent and supreme, they go beyond sorrow.

 

“When the wise realize the Self, formless in the middle of forms, changeless in the midst of change, omnipresent and supreme, they go beyond sorrow,” said Yama.

“It is the ultimate stillness,” said Sebastian.

“Nachiketa,” said Yama. “You understand.”

“Yes,” said Sebastian, “I think I understand.”

Yama took a last, long swallow of his tea and said, “I once had a son.”

Sebastian, also in the midst of finishing his tea, looked up at the sudden announcement and returned the glass to its table.

“I once had a son,” said Yama again. “I was the sky and the Earth was his mother.”

Sebastian saw Yama lean back and close his eyes, story time.

“I had loved her for many, many turns before he sprung, fully formed, from the heart of her forest, part angel, part tree.”

Then Yama fell silent. For so long he must have lost his way among memory thought Sebastian. When he did not continue, Sebastian finally asked, “What was his name?”

Yama slowly returned, and opened his eyes. Took one long look at Sebastian and again closed his eyes. “Part angel, part tree,” he said, and fell silent again. This time Sebastian did not prompt.

“His were the lakes and the plains. His were the mountains and the streams. He was part wind and part sea, part longing and part contentment.

“Being sky I could always find him, for he breathed me in with every breath, and exhaled me soon again.

“Being Earth his mother knew his every step, two sure feet, born to roam, touching her always, one after the other.

“With every breath, I kissed his blood, and with every step she caressed his feet. A son, part distance, part presence, always among us, the Earth and the sky.

“No father has loved a son more. No mother has loved a son more.”

Then Yama stopped talking again. Sebastian waited, watching Yama’s still body breathe. Watching his long, deep inhaling lift his chest to make way for the air, then his long, still exhaling that gently brought it back to ground. Only a pair or two every minute. So slow that Sebastian formed the image of hibernating bear, hidden behind, within, the frame of Yama.

Who suddenly said, startling Sebastian, “One day.”

Sebastian looked for the words to follow.

“One day,” said Yama again, “neither Earth nor sky could find him.”

Yama took another deep breath, as if to restore himself. “Nowhere could the Earth feel his feet, and nowhere could the air find his blood. It was as if he had simply ceased to be.”

Yama opened his eyes, and for a moment seemed surprised that he had company. Then he smiled at Sebastian, who smiled back.

“The sky, which as you know reaches all the way down to the ground and fills every nook and cranny of the Earth, could not taste his blood. The Earth, which as you know touches the sky with every minute part of her surface, sensed nowhere the weight of his feet. Our son had simply ceased to be.

“I asked the many birds that winged my air if they had seen him, and each, more willing than the other to help, pointed yes, yes, yes, that way, but each pointed his own way and all ways are the same as no way and I was none the wiser.

“She asked the many creatures that roamed her fields and forests if they had seen him, and each, more willing than the other to help, pointed yes, yes, yes, that way, but each pointed his own way and all ways are the same as no way and she was none the wiser.

“I asked the many clouds that sailed my body, and asked if they had rained on him, and they—clouds being clouds—said perhaps we have, perhaps we have not.

“She asked the water that filled each furrow to a stream if they had known his feet, and it—water being water—said perhaps I have, perhaps I have not.

“But water, whether rain or sea or stream, is jealous of the air, wishing in its heart that it could fly, just like air, and leave the confines of the Earth below, and in its heart the Earth sensed a secret.

“And this had happened. Our son, part dream, part adventure, had roamed the land so far that all he saw was water. Spread before him was the largest plain he had ever seen, rocking slowly with the swells of distant storms, spreading its silvery sheet all the way to the horizon where the sun would later set, much to his amazement.

“He stepped gingerly onto the glass floor of the sea, but he was too heavy and the sea took his foot and held it with salty fingers. He tried his other foot, but the sea took it too, and held it with salty fingers.

“Our son then grew fearful, and asked for his feet back, but the sea is water, and the water is jealous of the air, and would not return his feet to him.

“‘Come,’ said the sea. ‘There is much land to roam beyond the horizon, and I can take you there.’

“‘How?’ asked my son. ‘How can you take me there when your surface swallows my tread and refuses to give my foot back?’

“‘Do you feel the surface of the Earth, your mother, that lies beneath the water?’ asked the Sea.

“‘Yes,’ said my son, for he did. He could feel the slippery pebbles, smoothed by the Sea, underneath his feet.

“‘It will carry you across to the lands beyond, you have but to walk it.’

“‘But how am I to breathe?’ asked my son. ‘My father is the air and the sky and fills my lungs each breath and kisses my blood. I see no sky beneath your silvery surface,’ he said.

“At this the Sea humph’ed and said, ‘It is not only the air who kisses blood. I kiss the blood of many creatures, day and night.’

“‘You do?’ said my son.

“And to prove this, the Sea had a huge school of mackerel leap out of the ocean and into the air like a cloud of silver feathers, catching my son by surprise and filling him with wonder. ‘See,’ said the Sea.

“‘They can breathe beneath your surface?’ said my son.

“‘Many creatures do,’ answered the Sea.

“And so, the Sea, who is jealous of the air and wanted to kiss the blood of my son, tricked him into taking one step, then another, along the slippery pebble bottom, until the water reached his neck, and then his mouth, and then his nose and his eyes, and then there was only a swirl on the surface to show where he had been.

“‘I cannot breathe,’ said my son, but in saying drew a deep breath of salty Sea which rushed into his lungs and kissed his blood with its cold lips and sank my son to its cold bottom.

“He struggled for a while, to reach the surface again and replace water with air, but the Sea would not let him leave, and instead clung to his feet and legs and arms and chest until the chest no longer moved and every nook and cranny was filled with water. ‘Perhaps you should have been a fish,’ said the Sea.

“The Earth was distraught at losing her son and rent and shifted and cut deep gorges through the mountains to show her grief.

“I wanted nothing but revenge.

“But the Sea is a large and slippery one and does not much care what you say or do, it swallows all with the same indifference.

“So I asked the Sun to come and for a day and a day she licked the surface of the oceans with her fiery tongue and soon the Sea began to boil and then rose into the air as clouds and clouds of steam, into my strong and vengeful arms.

“Soon there was nothing but scorched Earth in a globe of cooling mist, and I was avenged.

“That,” said Yama, “is how I got my name.”

“What happened to the Earth, and all the forests and creatures?”

“Death, and only death,” said Yama.

“All for a son?”

“My son was part wind, part tree, part light, part song. He was the most beautiful man to have ever walked the Earth.”

“But you killed everything, to get even?”

“I did not mean to. I only meant to punish the Sea.”

“Still.”

“Yes, still. And so, I got my name.”

“But the Earth survived?”

“After many, many days, when the Sea knew my vengeance through and through, I opened my arms and rained upon the Earth for many, many moons. But the Earth was charred and grieving still and would not let the Sea return. No sooner did a drop touch her brow before it exploded into mist and rose again.”

“So what happened to the ocean?”

“For all my pleading with her, she would not have him back, and in the end I had to let him rise once more, up and into icy space.”

“So what happened to the Earth?”

“Life never returned.”

“You killed a planet?”

Yama did not look happy about it.

“And your son?”

“Yes, my son.”

“What happened to him?”

“He is still the most beautiful man to have ever walked the Earth.”

“He survived? You found him?”

“I ask you, Nachiketa. Who can die?”

Sebastian said nothing.

“Though,” said Yama. “I died that day.”

“And so got your name.”

“And so got my name. Fooled by sorrow I lost myself. Formed by the Sea I took form. Torn and stung by his cruelty I changed, and changed again, until wrought by vengeance I, in turn, turned cruel and blind and terrible, and so I earned my name.”

“This was?”

“Oh, countless moons ago. Perhaps,” Yama added, “this was Earth then,” indicating the surroundings with his arms.

“Mars?”

“Just a name,” said Yama.

“And you’ve been here ever since?”

“Poetic justice.”

“I’d say.”

“Had I remained my true Self. Had I remained formless in the middle of so much form. Had I remained changeless in the midst of so much change. I would then have stayed omnipresent and supreme. I would not have known sorrow.”

“But you did none of these things?”

“None of these things. And that’s my lesson. Forms can perish, do not confuse yourself with form, lest you too think you can perish. Change will call and call and call for your agreement, but there is no such thing as change. Not for the true Self. But he is often the first thing forgotten, and the last thing remembered. That is my lesson. Do not let this happen to you, my son.”

 

Yama: The Self cannot be known through study of the scriptures, nor through the intellect, nor through hearing learned discourses. By the act of choosing the Self does one win the Self. Verily unto to them does the Self reveal himself.

 

“And the sad thing is,” said Yama, “that no matter how hard it works at it, and no matter how long it tries, what we now call the Sciences will never find the Self. No one but the Self can know the Self and only by so choosing.

“Mathematics will never deduce him.

“Chemistry will never test tube him.

“Biology will never structure him.

“Physics will never weigh him.

“Psychology will never isolate him.

“Psychiatry will never see him.

“Medicine will never cure him.

“Religion will never abscond with him.

“Philosophy will never think him.

“And believe me Nachiketa, so many philosophers have tried. Both in the West and in the East. The truth is that you cannot think your way to him for it is the Self who does the thinking, and when thinking, he then becomes the thought, and not the Self. Only by being the Self will you find the Self.”

“Many still try,” said Sebastian.

“I know. Books and books and books are still being thought out and written, all in the chase of the elusive Self.”

“But you know how hard it can be to stop thinking,” said Sebastian.

“Oh, I know. I know,” said Yama.

Sebastian pondered for a while.

“Yet you, Yama,” he said then, when the thought struck him, “are teaching me now. With words, and with thoughts.”

“Neither my words nor my thoughts will ever tell the truth. Only the echo of their path may stir the Self in a heart.”

“But I understand you, your words, and what you tell me makes sense,” said Sebastian.

“I know, Nachiketa, but it is not the word that you understand. Rather, it is the vacuum it leaves behind as it fades which you then fill with your own knowing. Like an afterglow.”

“Yes,” said Sebastian upon reflection. “Yes, that is true.”

“I could never teach you anything you did not already know,” said Yama.

“Reminded by echoes,” muttered Sebastian to himself.

“What?” said Yama.

“Reminded by echoes,” Sebastian repeated.

“That’s what I thought you said,” said Yama. “And that is very beautifully put. And true.”

“And to find the Self,” continued Yama, “you must choose to be the Self. You must choose to be, before you can experience the true Self.”

“I think I have so chosen,” said Nachiketa.

“I think so, too.” said Yama.

 

Yama: The Self cannot be known by anyone who desists not from unrighteous ways, controls not his senses, stills not his mind, and practices not meditation.

 

“The problem is,” said Yama, “that the World, the Universe, is ever present, and was made to constantly assault the Self, like the Sea once assaulted my son.

“For every molecule conspires, every atom, every quark, every proton, neutron, electron, every wink, kiss, heartbeat, every rush conspires, every mist, explosion, willow, fish, taxi, every shop, every smile, every smell, every flower, every street, grain of sand, drop of water, tasty sandwich, succulent fruit and beautiful forest all constantly conspire to fill the Self and so extinguish him. Constantly. There is no rest. In this strange and beautiful Universe, you may know yourself completely in one enlightened breath and find yourself a stranger the next. That is the nature of our prison.”

“I have experienced that,” said Sebastian.

“As have I,” said Yama. “Know, though, that they will never, never succeed. Nothing, nothing, nothing will ever extinguish the true Self. The World will not forever bury Atman under its mountain of sensation. It cannot forever fetter him to the senses. Nothing will forever blind the Self to his own being. For a life perhaps. For a thousand lives perhaps. For a thousand thousand lives perhaps. But not forever. Nothing ever will. But the shadow self—the whisper of the self that is not quite the Self, but only a reflection of the Self, without a light of its own—not knowing this, despairs.”

“I have experienced that,” said Nachiketa.

“And so despairs, and so seizes the senses, as a lame man his crutches, and drinks the Universe with an unquenchable thirst and smothers deeper and deeper the true Self within the deepest chamber of his heart.”

“I have experienced that,” said Sebastian.

“And so, he falls upon unrighteous ways, a slave to his senses, and finds the storms of his mind fascinating and stills them not, but feeds them and desires them.”

“I have experienced that,” said Sebastian.

“And so, the shadow self rises and claims that he is all there is, and that he is mortal and when dies the flesh so does he, and so in a shadow heart he despairs.”

“I have experienced that,” said Sebastian.

“And so, he busies himself with the millions of tasks of living and perceiving and wallows in the noise of it all and finds not a still moment in which to meditate for a while upon what is actually taking place, much like the Sky in his thirst for vengeance against the Sea.”

“I have experienced that,” said Sebastian.

“So have we all,” said Yama.

 

Yama: None else can know the omnipresent Self, whose glory sweeps away the rituals of the priest and the prowess of the warrior and puts death itself to death.

 

“And the choice,” continued Yama, “cannot be intellectual. Nor can it be visceral. This is the one choice that must be made by the whole being. By the Self itself. Some say from the feet up, but that is not right, for the body is not involved.

“This is the choice that must be made from pure love. It is the choice the she wolf makes when she offers her life to protect her cubs, fighting her attackers to the death. It is the choice the poet makes for the good of the world.

“It is the choice that conquers the word, and makes unnecessary all ritual. It is the choice that holds a mirror to the face of the charlatan priest and banishes him forever to myth and fable. It is the choice that ends all wars, putting at last the final warrior to rest.

“It is the choice made by being; it is the choice the wind makes when it changes direction—the choice is the act. It is the choice rain makes in falling—the choice is the act. It is the choice the sun makes in rising—the choice is the act. It is wordless and pictureless and is more a change of being than a choice. It is the Atman wishing. What he wills, becomes. And in willing he becomes. The choice is the Act.”

Sebastian felt transported by Yama’s words. Filling their vacuum with a band of certainties, easing, he felt, closer and closer to his own core, his own Self, and beginning, almost beginning to know the fullness of what could make such a choice.

“You must abandon thought,” he said.

“Yes,” said Yama.

“You must abandon hope,” he said.

“Yes,” said Yama.

“You must abandon dreams,” he said.

“Yes,” said Yama.

“You must abandon your wings to the air.”

“Yes,” said Yama.

“You must abandon the air itself.”

“Yes,” said Yama.

“And your songs and poems.”

“Yes,” said Yama.

But in that moment Sebastian loved his father and Janet alike and knew that he could not let go, not completely.

“I don’t have the strength,” said Nachiketa.

“You do,” said Yama. “if and when you choose to.”

“But to choose is to end all life.”

“No, Nachiketa, to choose is to end all death.”

 

Yama: In the secret cave of the heart, two are seated by life’s fountain. The separate ego drinks of the sweet and bitter stuff, liking the sweet, disliking the bitter, while the supreme Self drinks sweet and bitter neither liking this nor disliking that. The ego gropes in darkness, while the Self lives in light. So declare the illumined sages and the householders who worship the sacred fire in the name of the Lord.

 

Yama spoke again, “In the secret cave of the heart, two are seated by life’s fountain. The separate ego, the shadow self, drinks of the sweet and bitter stuff, liking the sweet, disliking the bitter, while the supreme Self, that self that is you, Nachiketa, drinks sweet and bitter neither liking this nor disliking that.”

“Does he, the supreme Self, the real me, drink at all?” asked Sebastian.

Yama smiled, and with more than just his face. “You make a fine point, and it is the point the sages wish the hearer to make. You see well, for truth is the light by which you see. The ego gropes in darkness, while the Self lives in light,” he added.

“But light,” said Sebastian, “is energy, is universe, is perception, is sensations, is the senses. Surely it works in the reverse.”

“You mean that the ego gropes in light, while the Self lives in darkness?”

“Yes,” said Sebastian.

“That,” said Yama, “would be truer still, if by darkness you mean that Self that is that Nothing, that Emptiness, that can both create and perceive.”

“That is the darkness I mean, for surely there is no light there. Nor is there anything to cast light upon.”

Yama took a long, deep look at Sebastian. “You should be teaching me, Sebastian,” he said.

Sebastian did not answer. Instead he thought again of Janet. “How did you do that?”

“Janet?”

“Yes.”

“I did nothing. You did the living.”

“But I never left.”

“That’s debatable.”

“Does she exist?”

“Oh yes.”

“What is Maya, then?”

“Maya is the garden where spirits play,” said Yama.

 

Yama: May we light the fire of Nachiketa that burns out the ego and enables us to pass from fearful fragmentation to fearless fullness in the changeless whole.

 

“And in that garden some will light the fire of Nachiketa to burn, to sacrifice their shackles, to set the Self free, to eradicate the shadow self by the glaring light of truth.”

“How?” asked Sebastian.

“You tell me,” said Yama. “It is now named for you.”

“By letting go,” said Sebastian.

“By offering their shackles to the fire of truth, yes.”

“By the light of truth they will see the nature of their shackles,” said Sebastian.

“And by seeing their purpose and their effect they will understand Maya,” said Yama.

“And will let it go,” said Sebastian.

“And so they can let it all go,” confirmed Yama.

 

Yama: Know the Self as the lord of the chariot, the body as the chariot itself, the discriminating intellect as the charioteer, and the mind as reins.

 

“Know the Self as the lord of the chariot, the body as the chariot itself, the discriminating intellect as the charioteer, and the mind as reins,” said Yama.

“You are the car’s owner, much as Lord Krishna owned and directed his chariot,” said Sebastian.

“Yes,” said Yama.

“The car itself, is your body,” said Sebastian.

“Yes,” said Yama.

“The driver is your intellect.”

“Yes.”

“And the steering wheel is your mind.”

“Good metaphor,” said Yama.

“Something my world should be able to relate to,” said Sebastian.

“I hope so,” said Yama.

“But why do you need a car, at all?” asked Sebastian.

“Why indeed?” asked Yama

“I asked first,” said Sebastian.

“Probably,” said Yama, “for lack of something better to do.”

Sebastian looked closely at Yama, for he tossed off his reply without much thought or consideration, as just so many words to fill a silence. But, thought Sebastian, Yama may have just uttered the truest of all truths. The deceptively simple answer to the biggest question: Why?

Yama noticed Sebastian’s scrutiny. “What?” he wondered.

“You are saying, then, that Atman was bored?”

“What?” repeated Yama, but with surprise this time.

“The Atman needs something to do,” said Sebastian.

“Did I say that?”

“No, but you implied it.”

“I did?”

“Yes.”

Yama’s dark eyes did not leave Sebastian’s blue ones. “As I said,” said Yama, “Perhaps you should be teaching me.”

 

Yama: The senses, say the wise, are the horses; selfish desires are the roads they travel. When the Self is confused with the body, mind, and senses, they point out, he seems to enjoy pleasure and suffer sorrow.

 

“No,” said Sebastian. “You are the teacher. You are the holder of answers. I am the one learning, the holder of questions.”

“If so, you are a quick study, indeed.”

“You are a good teacher.”

“That may be, but remember, Nachiketa, I can teach you nothing you do not already know.”

“I remember.”

“Yes,” said Yama, altering the meaning a little, “You do.”

Then added, “The senses, say the wise, are the horses. Selfish desires are the roads they travel. When the Self is confused with the body, mind, and senses, they point out, he seems to enjoy pleasure and suffer sorrow.”

“The senses, then, are the car’s engine,” said Sebastian.

“Yes.”

“Or perhaps, better yet, the fuel,” said Sebastian.

“Better yet.”

“Selfish desire,” said Sebastian, then voiced his interjecting thought: “How can desire be anything but selfish?”

“There’s the desire to help others?” suggested Yama.

“Good point,” said Sebastian. “But perhaps desire is the wrong word then, wouldn’t that be more like a wish? Desire, to me, means what rules you, not what you rule.”

“A fine point,” said Yama, “but I agree.”

“Selfish desire would be the roads you drive, the roads that lead you, the channels you follow, have to follow. Have no choice but to follow. The road you feel compelled to take. Ruts.”

“Yes,” said Yama.

“And when you, the owner of the car and its traveler, confuse yourself with the car, the wheel, the engine or the fuel, you will enjoy pleasure and suffer sorrow.

“That is so,” said Yama.

“How come we confuse so easily?” asked Sebastian.

“Perhaps we want to?” suggested Yama.

“For lack of something better to do?”

“I didn’t say that.”

“No, but there has to be a strong underlying reason why we so willingly blind ourselves to the obvious.”

“Why we believe ourselves to be the car we own?”

“Why we would so easily think ourselves the body, the mind, the intellect we own, yes,” confirmed Sebastian.

“It is a fact,” said Yama, a little evasively.

“I know it is a fact,” said Sebastian.

“That is good,” said Yama.

 

Yama: When one lacks discrimination and his mind is undisciplined, the senses run hither and thither like wild horses. But they obey the rein like trained horses when one has discrimination and has made the mind one-pointed.

 

Sebastian waited for Yama to elaborate, but he would not. Instead Yama said, “I want to stretch my legs again, what about you?”

“Sure.”

“Better find you something warm to wear, it’s going to be freezing out now.”

With that Yama whispered something into the air and a servant girl appeared almost instantly with two thick, hooded down jackets, one for Sebastian, normal size, and one which struck Sebastian more like a stuffed tent, and which the girl had problems managing, for Yama.

They stepped out the front door this time. Down the tall steps, and onto the rocky ground. The night air struck Sebastian’s face like a million tiny icicles. He donned the hood and pulled it tight. Yama did the same.

Sebastian looked at the wheel in the near distance, Lucy still in place, faithful and uncomplaining, clipboard in hand, checking, looking, checking, looking. He looked at the slow shuffling of a million feet, and heard again the sound that by now had worn away into silence to his ears. But looking, again he heard, and seeing, he wondered, “Surely they freeze?”

“Yes,” said Yama, “they suffer.”

“But,” said Sebastian, “don’t you think that,” but didn’t finish his thought.

“They are already dead,” said Yama.

Sebastian nodded, of course.

Yama turned to his left and strode away from the trailer, away into clear, cloudless Mars night. Sebastian followed. After perhaps ten minutes of slow, silent strides, Yama stopped and looked up into the universal night sky.

“Did you ever stop to wonder at the size of this thing?” said Yama, his breath like a cloud.

“Sure,” said Sebastian.

“No, don’t be glib,” said Yama under another cloud. “I mean, really wonder.”

“Well we know it’s big. Very.”

“See that,” said Yama and pointed to a bright star nearly straight above them.”

Sebastian bent his head back and followed Yama’s arm and finger to the bright blue white light of Rigel.

“That’s Rigel,” said Yama. “It’s about 35 times the size of the sun.”

Sebastian nodded. He knew that.

“Get a good fix on Rigel,” said Yama. “Now look to the right, about an inch or so to the right, can you make out little specks of light?”

“Which ones?” asked Sebastian. “There are quite a few.”

“Actually,” said Yama, every word a new cloud, “it doesn’t really matter which speck you choose.”

“In that case, yes,” said Sebastian. “I see the specks.”

“What do you think they are?”

“Distant stars?” said Sebastian.

“Are they smaller stars that are closer, or larger stars that are farther away than Rigel?” asked Yama.

Sebastian looked hard, felt the distance. “Definitely farther away.”

“Larger than or same size as Rigel?” asked Yama.

Sebastian could not tell, and said so.

“Those specks,” said Yama. “Are not stars.”

“What are they then?”

“Each one, and there are about twelve of them, is a galaxy. Each galaxy containing at least as many stars as our own Milky Way.”

Sebastian stared, confounded by the implication. “How do you know?”

“I have a very good telescope.”

“I believe you,” said Sebastian after some more gazing.

“And,” said Yama, “were you to travel to any one of those galaxies, and were you to look at some distant speck within its night sky, away in this same direction, you would no doubt discover that that speck you see in turn is a distant galaxy, or ten, which in turn has specks, which in turn are galaxies, which in turn have specks.”

“World without end, amen?” suggested Sebastian.

“That’s one way of putting it,” said Yama. “But it’s also a way of ignoring it.”

“What do you mean?”

“The physical universe is so unfathomably large that we cannot hold its size with our minds and still function. We have to ignore it in order to live.”

“Much like we must ignore half of Africa starving to death if we are to enjoy our food?” proposed Sebastian.

“Something like that,” said Yama. “And the farther we look, the larger it gets.”

“Perhaps,” said Sebastian, more to himself, “it is our looking that enlarges it?”

To which a stunned Yama, hearing it well, said nothing.

“There’s a lot here to let go of,” said Sebastian after a long silence.

“A lot,” said Yama. “A lot.” Then he turned toward the trailer again, a faint shard of silver in the distance. “Let’s go back. I’ve had my fill of night air.”

“Sure,” said Sebastian, still looking up at Orion.

 

Back inside again, Yama called for hot tea, and they were both sipping, warming, when Yama said, “When one lacks discrimination and his mind is undisciplined, the senses run hither and thither like wild horses. But they obey the rein like trained horses when one has discrimination and has made the mind one-pointed.”

Sebastian didn’t answer, but waited for more.

Yama obliged, “Sometimes the problem is not so much ignoring what ultimately exists as it is a lack of focus on what is more immediately at hand. If sight were to run rampant, and constantly dwell on the size of the night sky, you would drown in distance and multitude. If hearing were to hear and register every sound, you would never rise above the din. If you had the nose of a dog and constantly marveled at the sea of smells from miles around, you would cease all else, for the wonder would overwhelm you. Were you to let your senses free to roam the universe at will, you would be the unwilling victim of a runaway train. You must focus.”

“I understand,” said Sebastian.

“So you must discriminate to live. You must focus to function, at all.”

“Regardless of how many starve to death in Africa,” said Sebastian, and immediately regretted his quip.

Yama, however, did not take offense, but said, “There is so much wrong with the world that if you fixated on wrongness alone you would die stupid, unhappy and desperate.”

“Sorry,” said Sebastian.

“No, don’t be. You made a good point.”

“I did?”

“Yes. And there are many who do die stupid, unhappy and desperate.”

Sebastian saw the wisdom of that. “So, you’re saying…” he said.

“I’m saying that you must rein in your senses as you would rein in wild horses. You must discriminate, discern, focus.”

“I think we do, sort of automatically, don’t we?”

“We ignore automatically,” conceded Yama.

“But?”

“But mostly men do not so much focus the senses—which is an act of will—as succumb to specific ones, with specific scopes, which is not an act of will.”

“A question of cause or effect,” said Sebastian.

“Yes indeed,” said Yama. “A question of cause or effect.”

 

Yama: Those who lack discrimination, with little control over their thoughts and far from pure reach not the pure state of immortality but wander from death to death.

 

“And if you lack discrimination,” Yama continued, “if you cannot control your thoughts, if you are a slave to your senses, you will ever stay enslaved, impure, and confused.”

Sebastian was shaking his head slowly at some thought of his own.

“The lot of man,” said Sebastian. “What you describe is what is now. Over on Earth. Everywhere. It is every restaurant you visit, it is every supermarket you see, it is every television program you watch. It is every bus stop you wait at. It is every newspaper you open. It is every billboard you drive by. It is every site on the internet. Could there actually be hope? Any at all?”

“Yes,” said Yama. “There is more hope than you think, for the answer is simple.”

“It is?”

“You said it yourself, it is a question of cause or effect.”

“Yes?”

“No matter how buried, no matter how far from the surface lies the true Self, it is cause and it can cause. And the more it causes the more it can cause.”

“I don’t follow.”

“Just one decision, one single decision, if carried out, will turn the tide.”

Sebastian still didn’t quite follow, and it showed on his face, for Yama continued.

“The hopeless slave, driven by status, mortgage, job, wife, children, thirst, hunger, pleasure, pain, only have to make one silent decision and carry it out. Not a forced-upon-him decision, mind you, like going to work, or mowing the lawn, or buying something he thinks he needs, but a personal decision, honestly wanted by the true Self.”

Sebastian finally saw, “Like the decision to read a book, for the sake of wanting to read it, and then actually reading it.”

“If by wanting to read it you mean not wanting to impress others by having read it, but by actually wanting to see what the writer had to say.”

“Yes, that is what I mean.”

“Then, yes, that would be the subtle turning of effect to cause that could save the entire world.”

“That could save the entire world?” Yama’s words took Sebastian by surprise.

“Yes, Nachiketa,” confirmed Yama. “That could save the entire world. For as that cause grows, and finds purpose and goal, it will no longer swerve and falter through life, but will follow a course, and in the end it will no longer wander from death to death.”

“The cause is the Self?”

“The cause is the Self.” said Yama.

“And the disciplined, his cause alive, will conquer death,” suggested Sebastian.

“Yes, that is so,” said Yama.

“And the undisciplined, ruled by effect, will wander from death to death?”

“That is so,” said Yama.

“That could save the entire world,” said Sebastian again, more to himself this time, as if tasting the words.

Yama smiled.

 

Yama: But those who have discrimination, with a still mind and a pure heart, reach journey’s end, never again to fall into the jaws of death. With a discriminating intellect as charioteer and trained mind as reins, they attain the supreme goal of life to be united with the Lord of Love.

 

“The whole point,” said Yama, “is to fool death. Well, fool may be the wrong word, transcend sounds better, doesn’t it? More dignified at least.”

“And more official,” agreed Sebastian. “Perhaps truer, too.”

“Yes,” said Yama. “So the whole point is to transcend death.”

“The whole point to life?” asked Sebastian.

“Yes,” said Yama. “But this wheel,” and again he cast a glance toward the window to indicate the slowly, step by step, revolving line of coming and going surrounding them, “will turn and turn and each of these poor lambs will be its very turning unless they see it for what it is and check out.”

“But these people…” begun Sebastian.

“Yes, they are—I believe the word nowadays is—clueless,” said Yama.

“Yes,” said Sebastian and nodded sadly. “So how on earth are we going to wake them up? Show them what is going on. Is it in fact possible?”

“Some have even asked, ‘Is it desirable?’,” said Yama.

“Oh, Christ,” said Sebastian, shuddering, “of course it is. They suffer. Lord, how they suffer.”

“That was Maitreya’s conclusion, as well.”

“Who asked whether it is desirable?”

“Many a wicked angel,” said Yama mysteriously, and would not elaborate.

Sebastian waited for more, but soon saw that Yama had closed that particular chapter.

“So, how then?” he said instead. “How do we show them? Is there a mirror big enough to let them see for themselves that it is all a big wheel?”

“A mirror that size can easily be made,” answered Yama. “Well, let me amplify that: It is a lot easier to make a mirror that size than it is to make an unwilling observer observe.”

“The ‘you can lead a horse to water, but can’t make him drink’ thing,” said Sebastian.

“Precisely. We could show the wheel. We fashion a mirror the size of sky and mount it above the world so that each and every living soul can see how over and over again he travels the wheel through death to rebirth to death to rebirth. But if he does not himself wish to raise his eyes and see, if he does not wish to understand what he sees, there is nothing, really nothing to be done.”

“Perhaps the Upanishads, the Veda?” said Sebastian.

“No,” said Yama. “Don’t you see? The Upanishads, and the Veda, are the mirror. The Buddha is the mirror. It has already been built. Larger than any sky, clearer than the finest looking glass. It is there for all to see. But no one wants to, dares to, can be bothered to. That is what makes you unique, Nachiketa: you want to see, you want to know.”

“But then we must make them want to see.”

“I believe that is your purpose,” said Yama.

“Yes it is,” said Sebastian. “That is my purpose.”

“It is up to you then to find that hidden fire, to then stir it, wake it, make it wish to see again.”

“How, do you think?” asked Sebastian after a short silence.

“One by one,” said Yama.

Sebastian fell silent again. Then, “But, there are so many.”

“I know,” said Yama. “They are almost uncountable. But remember, Nachiketa, each and every one is locked inside his own private prison. Each soul is unique. Each heart needs—in truth yearns for—a different key, its own key. That is your task, Nachiketa.”

“To fashion uncountable keys?” He could not keep the resignation from his face.

“No one but the heart’s owner knows how to fashion the key,” answered Yama.

“Then, how?”

“By inviting that creation,” answered Yama.

“How?” said Sebastian.

“You will know how. You have always known how.”

Sebastian shook his head slowly. “Sometimes I wish I knew myself as well as you seem to me.”

“Oh, but you do.”

“One by one,” said Sebastian again. “That can never be done in one lifetime.”

“Of course not. And so you are Sebastian now, back for a refresher.”

“Ah,” said Nachiketa, remembering, remembering.

Yama saw and said nothing as Nachiketa rose within the young boy sitting opposite him in his trailer. But smiled.

Then Yama said, “Remember too, that most will have a long, long way to travel, for only those who gain discrimination, who gain the sight to tell right from wrong, color from color, action from action, thought from thought, only those who gain a still mind and a pure heart will reach journey’s end, never again to fall into the jaws of death.

“Only those with a clear and discriminating intellect as charioteer and trained mind as reins, can attain the supreme goal of life and so be united again with the serenity which lies beyond all roads and all travel.”

“I know the path is very long,” said Nachiketa.

“Still, only as long as you make it,” said Yama.

“How is that?” said Nachiketa, “Remind me.”

“There is only one letting go,” said Yama. “There are many, many steps towards full realization, but the letting go is singular and all-embracing and can be reached in an instant.”

“Any instant?”

“From the first step, to the last.”

“At the initial awakening?”

“Yes.”

“Or after many lifetimes of struggle?”

“Or after a thousand, thousand lifetimes, yes.”

“The path as long as you make it,” said Nachiketa.

“Yes,” said Yama.

“And what is the path they must travel?” wondered Nachiketa. “How shall I describe it to those who want to know?”

 

Yama: The senses derive from objects of sense-perception, sense objects from mind, mind from intellect, and intellect from ego; ego from undifferentiated consciousness, and consciousness from Brahman.

 

“This is the path,” said Yama. “When you open your eyes you will find objects to perceive. They are all around you. Room. Light. Food. Water. Trees. Wind. Sun. Grass. Rivers. Mountains.”

“Yes,” said Nachiketa.

“If these many things were not, senses would not exist. There would be no need for them. But they are with us, they exist these many things, the stars, the trees, the oceans, the deserts, the countless toys at Christmas, the many buildings man builds, the machines he makes and the works of art he fashions, desks, chairs, carpets, fingernails and these unnecessarily long lines at the checkout counters, they exist, as objects and all around us, and so…”

“But they are Maya, surely,” interrupted Nachiketa.

“Yes,” said Yama, “we can call them that.”

“So do we really have them, objects?”

“By we, do you mean we: you or me. Or do you mean we: the wheel?”

Nachiketa fell silent and pondered Yama’s question, which soon grew to another of Yama’s reminders. “I see your point. Sorry.”

Yama picked up where he was interrupted, “This then is the path: Surrounding objects breed the senses. The senses take in the objects, one by one, and store them in the mind as pictured objects. It is the object’s reflection, a sense object made by the mind’s universe into a living world, that only the fire can see.”

“But I,” said Nachiketa suddenly.

“Yes,” said Yama. “Some can see others’ minds. You call it their thoughts, and yes, they are their thoughts. Built each from the sense objects of the mind.”

“They move like a movie,” said Nachiketa.

“They move or lie still at the unknowing will of the creator.”

“Which is the individual mind?”

“No, which is the individual Self, although the Self is not yet aware that he is the creator.”

Nachiketa nodded that he understood.

“This then is the path,” said Yama again. “Surrounding objects breed the senses. The mind sees and copies and stores those objects sensed as sense objects. The mind in turn is maneuvered by the intellect, the manipulator, the charioteer. The intellect is in turn gendered by the shadow self who prides himself on its intricacy and beauty. The shadow self is in turn gendered by the real Self. And Brahman genders all.”

“This path leads back to where nothing ever started,” said Nachiketa.

“That’s one way of putting it,” said Yama.

“And the objects, who created them?” wondered Nachiketa.

“And the objects, who created them?” repeated Yama for Nachiketa to answer.

“The Self,” said Nachiketa after a moment of silence.

“Unborn, undead.”

“Always?”

“Immortal,” said Yama.

“God then?”

“Of course. As close to him as you’ll get. But remember, He was invented by Abram.”

“Yes, I remember.”

“I see that you do,” said Yama.

“And the Self, who created the Self?”

“And the Self,” said Yama. “Who created the Self?”

“I am asking you,” said Nachiketa. “Was he ever created? Was there ever a beginning?”

“Listen, then,” said Yama.

 

Yama: Brahman is the first cause and last refuge. Brahman, the hidden Self in everyone, does not shine forth.

“Let us assume the aboriginal spirit, and let us call him God.”

Nachiketa looked at Yama and listened with his entire being.

“Or, better yet,” said Yama, “let us not confuse him with Abram’s creation, let us instead call him by his real name, or as real a name as we can find or say. Let us call him ‘Brahman.’ He who grows, he who expands.”

“Like the universe?”

“Well, no, it’s more the other way around. The universe is Brahman’s wish, not the Brahman itself. Although, the universe, mirroring Brahman’s name, expands, too.”

“So Brahman created the universe?”

“Not so fast, Nachiketa.” Yama smiled. “It could be said that Brahman created the universe. It could also be said that the universe is a cooperative effort.”

“Among whom?”

“Well, that’s the sticking point. And it has been debated endlessly, and I mean endlessly, among many a wise man and wicked angel. For my money, however, there are as many gods in this universe as there are beings. And each god a Brahman.”

“But there is only one Brahman.”

“Yes, I know, and many Atmans, yes. Many a real Self. But is there a difference between them. Truly?”

“Are you asking me?”

“Yes, Nachiketa, I am asking you. You are as qualified as anyone to answer.”

“Why?”

“Because you are Atman, and you are Brahman. Are you a difference?”

 

And so Nachiketa, invited by Yama, the King of Death to see the difference for himself, left in search of it. At the time he was not certain that leaving was involved, he thought of it more as a dream; but it was no dream, he did indeed leave, a leaving with a bit of a problem, for he kept forgetting to breathe, and every so often his lungs would yell at him across distance and then he would work them for a little again. Then he forgot altogether, or didn’t hear them, or both.

This is what happened:

Sebastian—for it was indeed Sebastian, the arms and legs and eyes and ears of Arthur Thelonious Sherry’s son, who sat there in the silver trailer not many feet from Yama, the King of Death—felt more like Nachiketa than he had in a long, long time. He also felt like many other shadow selves, trailing him like long silvery hair, strands miles long vanishing into space behind him like a whispering river.

He left Mars with the wish to be, with the wish to see, with the wish to find out, and now he was traveling, no, that is not the word, carving is probably more accurate, carving his way through layers and layers.

There are many galaxies, some larger than Sebastian, some smaller, none older. Some rushing at him only to open at his approach to let him through, some seemingly less social or more timid and melting away under his glance.

He lost his silvery hair among the many layers, and with it the notion of Sebastian, and the notion of Nachiketa, and the notion of shadow selves too numerous to count, and now he has no name, he is only a seeing.

Carving, perhaps, or falling, perhaps, his way through layers and layers, each layer melting with his melting.

And here there are other seeings, other carvers or fallers or melters. At first he is not aware of them but then, like waves cast by a speeding hull, their presences wash upon and over him and he melts through those as well, wondering where it is they may have met before.

Galaxies are fewer and even they melt and then there are only scattered stars. Some very bright but not in his path, and he opens yet another layer with his seeing and falls—though it feels like rising—into nothing. No stars here, no light. Just him, a sightless seeing, then deeper or higher still, farther yet, into only a seer’s potential.

Others have fallen with him and there is a mixture, no not a mixture, a co-being of nothings, of potentials. And nothing from nothing is Nothing. And nothing to nothing is Nothing. But this Nothing, this Emptiness perceives, and perceives throughout itself the presence of Ability, of Potential, and that is all. There is nothing else to perceive.

And of course there is no time here. Neither is there any here here, and Sebastian forgets to work his lungs so many layers of universe away in a silvery cigar on the red planet, but now he hears them again as they complain and he remembers and fills them yet again, but then, rising through a final layer into serene knowing that says only: I Can, he no longer hears their plea for a repeat performance, and leaves them to their own devices, clamoring for life. Yama, however—their struggle is pretty obvious—does notice and touches them with thought, to do his breathing for him, and decides to give him hell when he returns.

But the potential called Sebastian or Nachiketa or so many countless other shadow selves has no thoughts of returning. For he has no thoughts. And this state remains: for a heartbeat, or for a trillion, trillion years, who’s to say? It is lightless, hereless, thereless, emptiness, nothing. And that is all that is. And it is absolutely wonderful.

A single point.

It shines. They all, he all, sees it. Did he make this? No. He never intended it. It simply appeared. Someone else then. Some other potential within this hereless nothing there’d a something. Then it’s gone, a firefly launched and extinguished with its single breath.

Another point.

A different hue this one, red. Then gone, too. Did he make that? No. Then a third, and a fourth, and a fifth, this looks like fun, and now he makes one too. His is blue. And once made it is gone and then there is only the hereless nothing.

More points now as the game spreads: a shower of glitter, a rain of points. He adds to the sheen his own, then loses track of them. Were they blue? These ones perhaps? Or those? Maybe, but he is not sure, and with the uncertainty he discovers: they do not vanish. Those blue spots, not quite his blue, but blue enough, live on; as do many other shining points, particles of light and of not light. He makes yet others, forgets which and makes others still and again chooses to forget which ones. All survive.

Many become thousands, and some of those form distant corners to stake out the dimensions of sky, and now there is space. And still they survive, and now there is time.

The co-being is no more, for there is distance between him, between them, all still intending then mis-owning (for they have certainly discovered that this works to keep what they intend from vanishing) points, particles, things.

Thousands become millions become trillions become impossible to count become inconceivably many.

Perhaps a breath or a trillion, trillion years pass while Nachiketa roams the ever-changing spaces he first becomes, then only sees. All the while Yama keeps his body alive by working its lungs, for Sebastian has plain forgotten.

Some of the countless particles congregate because Nachiketa or someone else wishes them to, and now there are stars. Some of these stars flock because Nachiketa or someone else wishes them to, and now there are galaxies. Some of these galaxies flock because Nachiketa or someone else wishes them to, and now there are universes. And now Nachiketa, much like a bodysurfer, rides the wave of new universes sprung to life by wishes too many to count and then he recognizes Mars and the silvery cigar and he remembers to breathe.

 

“About time,” said Yama.

“Maya runs so much deeper, so very much deeper.” said Nachiketa, quite astonished.

“There is Brahman and there is Maya. Can there be anything else?”

“No,” said Nachiketa.

“So, are you a difference?” Yama wanted to know.

Nachiketa pondered, tasted his recent travel, knew, “I never lost my sense of me, except, perhaps, for a short spell when there was nothing.”

“When you were Brahman,” said Yama.

“Yes, when I was Brahman, but still,” he added, “not even then. I was still me.”

Yama said nothing.

“There were others,” said Nachiketa.

“Atman?” asked Yama.

“Atman, Brahman, I couldn’t tell.”

“All one?”

“No. Not all one. Co-existing, yes. Co-being. One, no.”

Again, Yama did not answer.

“Then we expanded,” said Nachiketa.

“Apart. With distance. Into many,” said Yama.

“Trillions.”

“All from the same nothing.”

“Yes.”

“All one?” asked Yama again.

“No. Not all one. Co-existing,” answered Nachiketa again.

“So,” said Yama, “Are you Brahman?”

“Yes I am.”

“Is the wheel?”

“The wheel is too.”

“Do they know?”

“No, Yama, they are children.”

“Each Brahman?”

“Each Atman.”

“Are they a difference?”

“That is for each to discover,” said Nachiketa.

Yama smiled. Forgoing his decision to give him hell.

 

Yama: He is revealed only to those who keep their mind one-pointed on the Lord of Love and thus develop a superconscious manner of knowing. Meditation enables them to go deeper and deeper into consciousness, from the world of words to the world of thoughts, then beyond thoughts to wisdom in the Self.

 

“This then is your task,” said Yama. “You must awaken the child. You must stir the inner fire that, awake, the child may become a curious upward glance. That is your task to accomplish, Nachiketa. That is your mission.”

“And that of each child,” said Nachiketa.

“It is true that once the glance reaches upwards, once the curiosity is stirred, it is all up to the child. But it is your task to stir him. It is your task to stir the sleeper.”

Nachiketa nodded his acceptance.

“Once stirred, once awake, each child must then focus his glance toward truth, toward knowing, seeing, learning. Must grow singular in his effort to uncover and must always remain curious.”

“He must always look,” said Nachiketa.

“He must always ask and must always look,” said Yama. “Each child must behold in stillness and must hold each question in fine focus until it dissolves into answer.”

“To reveal the next question,” said Nachiketa, who understood well.

“To move deeper and deeper from question to question. To move from the world of words to the world of thoughts that lie beneath and above.”

“And by seeing he will know?”

“By seeing, the questions will dissolve into answers to reveal the next question. And so the path leads through the world of words, and through the world of thoughts, to beyond thoughts to true wisdom.”

“To where the final question dissolves to reveal no further questions.”

“That, Nachiketa, is the path you must place him on. You must steer him. Stirred, the sleeper becomes a seeker, and so you steer him.”

“Stir the sleeper, steer the seeker,” said Nachiketa.

“Yes, that is your task.”

Nachiketa sat silent for very long, pondering Yama’s words, and then his own, which were: “The question then, is how to stir the child awake?”

 

Yama: Get up! Wake up! Seek the guidance of an illumined teacher and realize the Self. Sharp like a razor’s edge, the sages say, is the path, difficult to traverse.

 

Yama rose again, stretched and looked out at the early Mars dawn which had quietly grown from gray to brown to red upon the trailer windows. Despite the trailer’s heating system, now running at maximum capacity (silently, efficiently), it was still rather cold inside. Nachiketa didn’t exactly see his own breath, but let’s say that he would not have been surprised to.

Nachiketa rose too, to stretch and to work some of the stiffness out of his limbs.

“You want something hot to drink?” wondered Yama.

Nachiketa shook his head. He was not that cold. “No.”

The first rays of the sun struck the window like golden spears, and the window exploded with lighted frost. Yama watched the silent spectacle for several moments, then turned.

“Well, Nachiketa. That is indeed the question, isn’t it? How do you stir the child awake? Our sleeping child. Our sleeping children. Who not only sleeps, and who not only loves his sleep. But who does not know that he is sleeping or that he loves his sleeping.”

“Yes,” Nachiketa agreed. “How do I reach this child? How do I touch him so deeply that I touch, and stir, the fire?”

“This is why you are here,” said Yama.

“Yes,” said Nachiketa. “That I know.”

“To guide and illuminate.”

“Yes,” said Nachiketa. “That I know.”

“You live to find in the heart of each child its fire and then to stir it. You live to excite in the child’s heart the wonderings that raise questions and raise eyes upward.”

“Yes,” said Nachiketa. “I know. We have established that. But how? That is my question.”

But Yama would not relent. He would answer this at his own pace, by his own path.

“That is your purpose, Nachiketa. Why we now have named the fire sacrifice for you. It is your task to wake them up.”

“Yes,” said Nachiketa. “I know that. But how?”

“Each heart is a riddle. Each heart is a dormant fire keeper. And in each heart a sleeper. It is for you to wake him up.”

“I know,” said Nachiketa. “But how?”

“One by one,” said Yama, as if his answer was truly a revelation.

“You have already told me that.”

“One by one,” repeated Yama.

“But there are trillions, a trillion, trillion, trillion. Each Atman, each Brahman, each asleep. How am I to touch so many? Stir so many sleepers.”

“You must learn,” said Yama, almost casually, finally getting to Nachiketa’s question, “to write very well.”

That’s the way?” asked Nachiketa, a little incredulous.

“There is no other.”

“What would I write?”

But Yama did not answer that question. Instead he said, “Remember that each heart has its own key.”

“Yes.”

“Remember that each key is unique.”

“Yes.”

“Remember that the only one who can fashion this key is the prisoner himself.”

“I remember.”

“The key is called curiosity, and it can only be fashioned by the heart’s owner.”

Nachiketa said nothing.

“You cannot supply curiosity, nor is it easily faked.”

“Impossible to fake, I’d say,” murmured Nachiketa.

“Indeed,” said Yama. “It must be roused. Forged in the heart’s fire.”

“Which I must stir alive.”

“Which you will touch and fan by your story.”

“Writing,” said Nachiketa, as if trying on a garment for size.

“That is the path,” said Yama. “For reading is now, in this new world, what meditation was for the ancient. Reading is meditation in the new world. The one you live in as Sebastian. It is in the stillness of the page that the heart may be opened and the fire found and stirred.”

Nachiketa nodded. It did make sense, he had to admit. “But I don’t know how, Yama.”

“So you must learn. That is your path.”

Nachiketa shook his head. “But I am still just a child. How can I do this?”

“Good thing too, that you’re just a child. Plenty of time to learn then. And learn you must. You must learn to tell the story so well, so true that the reader cannot help but feel the wind and smell the air. That he cannot help but begin, if ever so faintly, to create the wind himself, to create the smell of the air himself, to truly smell it.

“The story (much like the universe) is a cooperative venture, Nachiketa. You supply the essence and sufficient detail so that the reader, your partner, can take it from there and bring the story alive in his own universe. And it is there, with the story alive and breathing before his own eye, outside his very cave, that the fire will stir, and the key of curiosity will forge. That is your path, Nachiketa.”

Nachiketa said nothing, but he saw the wisdom in Yama’s words. Understood his own path.

“This you must learn,” said Yama. “And when your words have stirred the fire and helped the sleeper forge the key, steer him, guide him to unlock the gate and step through into the world of spirit. Into the true world, the real sunlight.”

“No small feat,” said Nachiketa. Which Yama chose to ignore.

“And here, in the light of the spiritual sun, you must tell one final thing. You must show him the path to travel, his own, which, the sage’s say, is for each a razor’s edge, difficult to traverse.”

“I must write,” said Nachiketa, not unconcerned, “to find an ear, to reach a heart, to stir a fire to forge a key, to let the door swing open and onto his very path. For a thousand, thousand, thousand souls. You are not asking much.”

Yama did not answer.

“How can I possibly do this?”

“You just answered your own question: First you find an ear.”

“And if I do, when I do, what do I tell it? Assuming I learn the magic of story. Assuming I reach the children’s hearts and stir their fires into hearing. Assuming they forge the key of curiosity and let themselves out. Assuming they step out into the real world, and I can see that a good story, told well, actually may accomplish this. But then, once out, once curiosity has brought them out of their musty caves, what do I tell them?”

“Once they have raised their eyes upward, looking?”

“Yes.”

 

Yama: The supreme Self is beyond name and form, beyond the senses, inexhaustible, without beginning, without end, beyond time, space, and causality, eternal, immutable. Those who realize the Self are forever free from the jaws of death.

 

“Tell them that the supreme Self is beyond name and form, beyond the senses, inexhaustible, without beginning, without end, beyond time, space, and causality, eternal, immutable. Tell them that those who realize the Self are forever free from the jaws of death.”

“But those are just words. That will not show them their path.”

“No, Nachiketa, those are not words, those are meanings. It is up to you to find the right words.”

Nachiketa did not answer. He was wondering what sort of words would hold, could possibly hold, this meaning so strongly that anyone who absorbed them would indeed find his own path, not wider than a razor’s edge.

 

Yama: The wise, who gain experiential knowledge of this timeless tale of Nachiketa, narrated by Death, attain the glory of living in spiritual awareness. Those who, full of devotion, recite this supreme mystery at a spiritual gathering, are fit for eternal life. They are indeed fit for eternal life.

 

Then Nachiketa asked, “Am I the only one? Are you sending me back as some sort of Messiah?”

“No, Nachiketa, you are not alone. Of course not. There are many who have wondered, stumbled perhaps upon some strange corner of space and remembered.”

“Where can I find them?”

“I don’t know.”

“Excuse me, but I find that hard to believe.”

“Alright, let me rephrase that. I know where they are, but you will have to find them and they will have to find you. There is no force-finding here.”

“Force-finding?”

“Well, you can’t place two human beings side by side and command: ‘Know Each Other.’ Doesn’t work.”

“How many are there?”

“Many,” said Yama equivocally.

“How many,” repeated Sebastian. “Thousand? Millions?”

“Not millions,” said Yama.

“I was afraid of that.”

“Sorry, Nachiketa. You’ll be busy.”

“But it’s impossible.”

“Yes, of course it is.”

Nachiketa misheard at first. Then didn’t. “Then, how…?” he began.

“It is as impossible as all of this.” Again Yama swept across the trailer, the wheel, the surface of the planet with his hand. “It is all Maya, Nachiketa. We are all dreaming this. But a trillion, trillion, trillion souls know not that they are asleep and dreaming. It is impossible, yes, but so is this.”

Yama sat down again. Sat still for several breaths, then suddenly brought the palm of his hand down so hard against the shiny table surface that it made a small explosion. Nachiketa startled.

“Did you hear that?” said Yama.

“Yes, of course.”

“No, you didn’t,” said Yama.

“Because it’s impossible?”

“Because it’s impossible,” confirmed Yama. “But the fact still remains, we have managed to build this, and we have managed to snare ourselves but thoroughly within, and we have managed—and don’t ask me how, for this is impossible—we have managed to forget all about first that we did it, and then how we did it. Still, all you have to do is to remind them.”

“Like you reminded me?”

“That was a little drastic. Besides, you were ready for it.”

“How then?”

“As I said, you must learn how to write well. Only the well-written story, living, speaking in silence to the soul behind those reading eyes, can stir deep enough memories to awaken.”

“But most of the world does not read anymore. Now it’s all television and movies and radio and, well, the world is drowning in advertisement, propaganda, and bad news.”

“Then you must teach the world how to read again.”

“The book is the only way?”

“Yes,” confirmed Yama. “The book is the only way. The silent word is the only messenger that leaves behind it the vacuum the soul may fill with memory. Television, moving pictures, radio, they all scream, there is no time for a vacuum, no invitation to contribute.”

Nachiketa nodded that he understood.

“So, learn how to write well, and teach the world how to read. Then make it read your story.”

“Is that all?”

Again, the irony was not lost on Yama. But again, he chose to ignore it.

“That is all.”

“That will take me many lives.”

“So be it.”

“What if I fail?”

“So be it.”

“You say I may fail?”

“No, Nachiketa, that is not what I am saying. That is what you are saying.”

“Then I will not fail,” said Nachiketa.

“Let me quote a good friend of mine,” said Yama. “All you have to do is ‘to find an ear, to reach a heart, to stir a fire to forge a key, to let the door swing open and onto his very path.’ Simple as that.”

Then Nachiketa saw, in the light of his own words, that he would not fail.

Yama continued, “Any ear you find will read your tale, and as understanding dawns, you reach his heart. Then, as memory gains him experiential knowledge of your timeless tail, his fire will stir, and soon, if your aim is true and your tail captivating, he will forge the key of curiosity and will rise with spiritual awareness to let himself out. And perhaps, once out, each child will in turn grow to tell the story that finds an ear and reaches a heart, and so, each, will attain to your beauty, Nachiketa. Each will attain to eternal life.”

“I will not fail,” said Nachiketa.

 

Yama: The self-existent Lord pierced the senses to turn outward. Thus we look to the world outside and see not the Self within us. A sage withdrew his senses from the world of change and, seeking immortality, looked within and beheld the deathless Self.

 

“Assuming I can learn the way of letters, and assuming I can find an ear. What should my story tell? What will awaken all these children?”

“Tell them to stop taking their senses for granted. Tell them to stop worshipping what they see and hear and touch and feel and taste. Ask them instead who it is that provides the light in dreams.”

“Cat Stevens asked that once,” remembered Nachiketa.

“I know. It is a very good question.”

 

Yama: The immature run after sense pleasures and fall into the widespread net of death. But the wise, knowing the Self as deathless, seek not the changeless in the world of change.

 

“And you should tell them that the child, the immature, runs blindly, driven, after pleasure and gratification of the senses as if tasting them were the only purpose in life. Tell them that the immature wakes each morning with no other thought than the heat of the sun on its cheek. That the immature takes his breakfast each morning with no other thought than the taste on its tongue. That the immature steps into each new day with no other thought than the spectacle of objects before its eyes. That the immature runs through the forest with no other thought than the chirping of birds and the rustle of winds. That the immature returns to his mother’s kitchen with no other thought than the smell of boiling rice and frying bread. Tell them that this immature child is led through life by the senses like the bull by its nose ring. And tell them that this anxious quest for more and more and more will only lead to further need for gratification, until, in the end, insatiable, they will kill themselves with ecstasy. And so, tell them not to seek the eternal within the temporal.”

“But they are children, Yama. Will they understand?”

“You are a child, Nachiketa. You understand.”

“I am not all children.”

“You are not?”

“No. I am me. I am of the same essence, of Brahman, but I am Atman, awake. They are shadow Atman, asleep.”

“That was well said,” admitted Yama.

“So how can I use your words and only hope they will understand?”

“Oh, did I say you were to use my words?”

“No, but…”

“As I have said, I am only giving meanings, Nachiketa, not words. The words, the story, must be all yours.”

“I see.”

“And in your words, tell them that the wise, knowing that the true Self is deathless, will not seek the changeless in a sea of constant change.”

“But these children don’t seek the changeless, they seek the changing.”

“As I said, I tell you only meaning, you must find the words. You know them, you know these children. You see them day to day. You must find the story that will find an ear, reach a heart, stir a fire to forge a key, and let the door swing open and onto the reader’s very path. Write that story. Find an ear.”

Nachiketa did not answer. He was looking for words.

 

Yama: That through which one enjoys form, taste, smell, sound, touch, and sexual union is the Self. Can there be anything not known to That who is the One in all? Know One, know all.

 

“Now, tell me, Nachiketa. Could you perceive anything without the Self?”

“It is the senses that perceive, is it not?”

When Yama did not answer, Nachiketa thought for a while.

Then added, “And the mind that forms the sense object. And the intellect that directs the mind. And the shadow self that directs the intellect.”

“But who perceives.”

“The Self.”

“Is there any other self?”

“There is the shadow self.”

“Created by whom?”

“The Self.”

“So is there any other self?”

“No, Yama, there is only the Self. All else is Maya.”

“Who sees the light in dreams?”

“The Self.”

“Who shines the light in dreams?”

“The Self.”

“Is there anything but the Self?”

“Not really, no.”

“So, tell your children, Nachiketa, that the real Self, is the one who perceives and enjoys form, taste, smell, sound, touch, and sexual union. Tell them that the Self does know all. Ask them if anything can be not known to That who is the One in all. Tell them that to know themselves is to know all. Tell them that all answers, along with all riddles that spawned them, exist within the Self. That in truth, nothing exists but the Self.”

“And the words I use?”

“Are for you to find, Nachiketa, yes.”

 

Yama: That through which one enjoys the waking and sleeping states is the Self. To know That as consciousness is to go beyond sorrow.

 

“Then tell them that it is only through the real Self, their true selves, that they can know the difference between awake and asleep, that they can know the two states, and no other way than through the Self. Tell them that once they truly understand this, nothing can hurt them.”

A thought struck Nachiketa, “Tell me, Yama, does the Self ever sleep?”

“Tell me, Nachiketa, does the Self ever sleep?”

Nachiketa fell silent and remembered his other visits to Yama. There had been no silver trailer then, only tents. Scant protection against the long, cold nights. Nonetheless, he and Yama had sat all night, in front of a small fire in the center of the tent, and for most questions that Nachiketa had asked, Yama had the same answer: the question itself. Still, by every time he asked a new question he had forgotten this, so when the question came back as answer, each time he was equally surprised.

Yama had looked younger then, but it was the same Yama. Of this he was certain, especially now that Yama had taken to handing him back his questions again.

And then, as he had at his previous visits, he found the answer to his own question within.

“There can be no sleep, since there is no awake.”

“To sleep there must be something to sleep. To be awake there must be something awake. And in truth, Nachiketa, there is neither sleep nor awake.”

“Only Maya,” said Nachiketa.

“Only Maya.”

“And beyond, or above, or within Maya, there is the Self, whether knowingly or unknowingly, in a field of play.

To this Yama only nodded and smiled.

 

Yama: Those who know the Self as enjoyer of the honey from the flowers of the senses, ever present within, ruler of time, go beyond fear. This very Self is indeed That which you are seeking.

 

“This story,” said Nachiketa, “my story, to be real and alive, must find these children where they live. That is my problem.”

“I know,” said Yama.

“They have stopped wondering. As Atman, they are permanently asleep.”

“Sadly true,” said Yama.

“How do I find a story that in turn will find them?”

“You must see and know what is real to them, and you must paint in those colors.”

“What are those colors?”

“That you must see and know.”

“But you see them every day. You do know them,” said Nachiketa. “Better than I do. Don’t you?”

When Yama didn’t answer, Nachiketa continued, “They see nothing beyond video games, the internet, carbonated drinks, and food. They see nothing beyond good grades, demanding parents, the next exam, and acceptance. They see nothing beyond making out, a good college, postgraduate studies, and a well-paid job. They see nothing beyond marriage, children, college funds, retirement funds, golf courses and bypass surgery. They see nothing beyond amphetamines and diet pills, pot and heroin, every speck of which drives the shadow world harder and harder in on the dying shadow self. And there seems only to be the shadow self, and it is indeed dying. As for the real Self, I doubt there is any real Self left awake. At least,” said Nachiketa shaking his head, “that is how it seems.”

“I know,” said Yama. “But, Nachiketa, how can the real Self die?”

“It cannot,” said Nachiketa.

“So it is still alive, even in these sleepers.”

“Yes, I know.”

“Admittedly, not easy to reach.”

“Or awaken.”

“Yes, Nachiketa, you have quite a task on your hands.”

Then Nachiketa fell silent for so long that Yama began to wonder if he had left again. No, Nachiketa was breathing well, slowly, deeply, in thought.

The sun moved several inches across the wall before Nachiketa spoke.

“Why me?” he asked.

“Because, Nachiketa, you know your Self as the enjoyer of the honey from the flower of the senses. You know your Self as ever present within, as the ruler of time. And you, Nachiketa, can travel beyond fear. You can see, if you look, with clarity what ails your children. You are awake. You have found what you seek: your true Self. You are one of the few, and it is incumbent upon the very few to rescue the rest.”

“Why?” asked Nachiketa.

“Would you rather have them suffer eternally, slowly spinning this monstrous wheel forever.”

“No,” said Nachiketa, a little embarrassed.

“So,” said Yama. “That is why you.”

“I see.”

“And you must tell them what you have found. That those who, like you, realize that it is the real Self who perceives, that smells the flower, that tastes the honey, that hears the symphony of the senses, that it is those who, like you, know who does the seeing, the hearing, and the smelling, that will, like you, transcend fear. For this very Self is indeed the truth they are seeking.”

“But first I must make them seek.”

“First you must stir them awake and make them seek.”

“Curiosity,” said Nachiketa.

“The key.”

 

Yama: The god of creation, Brahma, born of the Godhead through meditation before the waters of life were created, who stands in the heart of every creature, is the Self indeed. This very Self is indeed That which you are seeking.

 

“Then, when your story has stirred the fire and forged the key, tell them that Brahma, born of the always soul who existed before the waters of life were created, stands in the heart of every creature. Tell them that Brahma, the Emptiness which is not Nothing and which is everything, dwells in the secret chamber of each heart, that Brahma is indeed the real Self. For this very Self is indeed the truth they are seeking.”

“How can I tell them what I barely understand myself?”

“In the telling you will understand.”

“How can you be so certain?”

“Because in the telling you, I understand.”

 

Yama: The goddess of energy, Aditi, born of the Godhead through vitality, mother of all the cosmic forces who stands in the heart of every creature, is the Self indeed. This very Self is indeed That which you are seeking.

 

“Then, when your story has opened the gate to his heart, and the child has cast his eyes upward and is eager to learn, tell him that the goddess of energy, Aditi, born of the always soul through vitality, and who is the mother of all the cosmic forces, who is energy and light and heat and motion and who stands in the heart of every creature, is the real Self indeed. Tell them that all energy is created by the Self, is not separate from the Self, and, in the end, will fall by the sword of the Self. For this is the very Self they are seeking. This is the truth they yearn for.”

Nachiketa shook his head again. “How will I touch them? How shall I approach them? They are such children. These questions are far beyond their asking.”

“Be not so very sure about that,” said Yama, and he was no longer smiling. “Judge them not.”

“But I’ve seen,” began Nachiketa.

“Yes,” said Yama. “I know what you have seen. I know how they behave, and how they dance at the end of senses’ tethers. But there is a time between awake and asleep when each child at least once asks the question. And in that moment he really wants to, needs to know. This is the moment you must visit. It is from this chamber that you must speak, Nachiketa.”

“I see,” he answered. And he did.

 

Yama: The god of fire, Agni, hidden between two firesticks like a child well protected in the mother’s womb, whom we adore every day in meditation, is the Self indeed. This very Self is indeed That which you are seeking.

 

“Then, when your story has found its voice, tell them that Agni, the god of fire, hidden in every matchbox in the world like a child well-protected in a mother’s womb, is the real Self indeed. For this very Self is indeed the truth they are seeking.”

“Where I come from, they don’t know Agni, the god of fire,” said Nachiketa. “Nor do they know Aditi, the goddess of energy. How are they to understand?”

“I only give you meaning, Nachiketa. You must choose the words.”

“Yes, you mentioned that,” said Nachiketa. Then echoed, “My own words.”

 

Yama: That which is the source of the sun and of every power in the cosmos, beyond which there is neither going nor coming, is the Self indeed. This very Self is indeed That which you are seeking.

 

“Which power does not arise from the Self?” asked Yama.

“I am the listener, you are the teller,” said Nachiketa.

“Now I am the asker,” said Yama.

“And I am the thinker,” said Nachiketa and again fell silent. He thought of the water rushing down a river on its way to the sea. He thought of its wellsprings high in the mountains, how it gathered these waters it and set out, gathering brooks and streams on the way and growing. Finding new, larger tributaries, and growing. Wrestling control from another river meeting it on the high plains, and growing. Then suddenly stopped by a massive wall of wet concrete with built-in turbines. Here it had to rest impatiently until little ant men opened the sluice gate to again let it on its way, diving and driving as it crowded itself through the water intakes and across the many blades of the spinning turbines before it reached the tailraces and again found freedom into the lower, now mighty, spread of water which was the still-growing river. But who had created the mountain down which it hurled itself, who had created the water to form it? The Self.

Nachiketa thought of the warmth of the sun, how every second in the fields is a constant shower of heat-giving light, each moment of which left the sun just minutes ago. The sun reaching out with light fingers and touching his cheek. But who had created the sun, and who had created the space through which it traveled to reach him. The Self.

Nachiketa thought of the violent burst of melted Earth through the nostrils of volcanoes. The power that rises when the agitated core finds momentary escape only to scorch and level anything in its path. But who created the core of the Earth, and who provided the nostril? The Self.

Then he more said than asked, “Can there be any power, any energy in the cosmos, which does not stem from the Self?”

“When your story has found its rhythm and speaks well in their hearts, tell them that the very thing which is the source of the sun and of every power in the cosmos, and beyond which there is neither going nor coming, is the real Self. For this very Self is indeed the truth they are seeking.”

“I see,” said Nachiketa.

 

Yama: What is here is also there; what is there, also here. Who sees multiplicity but not the one indivisible Self must wander on and on from death to death.

 

“And when your story flowers in their hearts, tell them that all that is here is also there, that all that is there is also here. Tell them that those who see many when there is only the one indivisible Self must wander on and on from death to death.”

“One Light,” said Nachiketa. “The light that is one though the lamps be many.”

“Ah, precisely,” said Yama. “Did you just think of that?”

“No,” said Nachiketa, “I just remembered that.”

“It sounds very familiar. Where is it from. It is not the Veda, I know the Veda verbatim. Who said it?”

“Mike Heron.”

“Ah. The Incredible String Band.”

“That’s right.”

“One Light. The light that is one though the lamps be many,” said Yama.

Nachiketa answered:

“You never enjoy the world aright

“‘til the sea itself floweth

“in your veins and you are clothed

“with the heavens and crowned with the stars.”

“Ah,” said Yama. “That is beautiful. Heron too?”

“Yes, and no. It’s from the same song,” said Nachiketa. “It’s Heron quoting Thomas Traherne.”

“He knows,” said Yama.

“He knew,” said Nachiketa. “I fear he may have forgotten.”

“Oh, that’s a pity.”

“I know.”

 

Yama: Only the one-pointed mind attains this state of unity. There is no one but the Self. Who sees multiplicity but not the one indivisible Self must wander on and on from death to death.

 

“And when your story leads them through the open gate, when your story spans their newfound sky, then tell them that only with purpose and focus can they attain a true state of unity. Tell them that nothing exists but the real Self. Tell them that there is nothing and no one but the real Self. He who sees anything but the real Self, and believes those things to exist in truth, must wander on and on from death to death until the scales shall fall from his eyes.”

“I still worry about words,” said Nachiketa. “I understand what you say, but as I said, these are not the concerns that occupy the minds of these children. I don’t see how my story will span a sky in a heart so filled with consumables, advertisements, subterfuges and artificial needs. How can the whisper of sentence compete with the detonation of greed? How can this whisper compete with the thousand rushing pulses of the erotic, of their constant craving for sexual release? How can this whisper compete with the hunger for recognition, adoration, and appreciation which fill their days? How can this whisper make itself heard in the storm of sensation that whips these sails into headlong flight for imagined tomorrows? What words will possibly reach them?”

“You must learn how, Nachiketa. You are the writer. I am the teller.”

Nachiketa shook his head slowly, seeing an insurmountable wall of ignorance rise between him and his task.

“It is not insurmountable,” said Yama.

“It appears to be,” said Nachiketa.

“It, too, is Maya,” said Yama.

Then Nachiketa laughed.

“And remember,” said Yama. “Don’t judge these children. There are times when they do ask, even now. When they worry about what is real and what is not. About what is important and what is not, truly. When they gain perspective and see how their days string a useless span of shallow greed behind them, and when they wish they knew of something better, something more meaningful.”

“When not quite awake and not quite asleep,” said Nachiketa.

“On the doorstep of dream, that is where you will find them.”

“Writing?”

“Reading is kin to dreaming, Nachiketa. Reading is a dream, dreamed the other side of that doorstep, with the writer. That is where you will find them.”

Nachiketa, despite realizing the immensity of his mission, could not help but smile: there was a way. He would talk to them in their dream.

 

Yama: That thumb-sized being enshrined in the heart, ruler of time, past and future, to see whom is to go beyond all fear, is the Self indeed. This very Self is indeed That which you are seeking.

 

“Then have your story show them that the smallest being, he who has made their hearts his home, he who takes up no space, yet fills the universe, tell them that this little self, whether the size of a thumb or the size of a mountain, he who whether they know it or not is always enshrined in every heart, is indeed the ruler of all time, past and future, though he lives in the now, and can never live elsewhere for now is all there is. And tell them that he is indeed the real Self, and that to see this is to rise above fear. For this very Self is indeed the truth they are seeking.”

“Perhaps you should do the reciting,” said Nachiketa. “Perhaps you should tell them.”

“No,” said Yama.

“Perhaps you should return in my place and do the telling. I will cover for you, you can show me how.”

“No,” said Yama.

“But you do know the words, all of them. You make all sense.”

“To you, perhaps.”

“To me, for sure.”

“Don’t think the thought has not crossed my mind, well, not trading places with your specifically, but to do the telling. But I know they would not understand me. They would not even listen.”

“Surely, they would. You are Yama, king of Death.”

“Well, that’s just it. I am Yama, the king of Death, and I have a strange effect upon children—present company excepted, naturally.”

“Naturally.”

“When they see me, when they recognize me, their hearts fill with dread, not with listening.”

Nachiketa nodded.

“And a heart so filled with dread so only thinks of living that Maya’s fist then seizes and squeezes the heart so tightly that no other thought can breathe than how to evade the pain. For Yama is the whip Maya wields to control his many slaves.”

“I can see that,” said Nachiketa. Then, looking at Yama from a newfound thought, “You know Maya?”

“We all do.”

“Yes, that’s true.”

“But you, Nachiketa, living now as Sebastian, you inspire no dread in their hearts. You can slip in unnoticed and start your telling in that chamber that lies between awake and asleep, on the threshold of dream. There they will listen. And you must find the words. You will find the words, that is your task.”

“I see,” said Nachiketa.

 

Yama: That thumb-sized being, a flame without smoke, ruler of time, past and future, the same on this day as on tomorrow, is the Self indeed. This very Self is indeed That which you are seeking.

 

“And when their ears have attuned to your voice, when you stand invited in the dream of their heart, then tell them that this, the smallest of beings, he who has made their hearts his home, he who takes up no space, yet fills the universe, tell them that this little self, whether the size of a thumb or the size of a mountain, he who whether they know it or not is always enshrined in every heart, tell them that this smokeless flame, ruler of time, past and future, the same today as tomorrow, is the real Self indeed. For this very Self is indeed the truth they are seeking.”

“I shall do my best,” said Nachiketa.

 

Yama: As the rain on a mountain peak runs off the slopes on all sides, so those who see only the seeming multiplicity of life run after things on every side.

 

“And when your story has them in its spell, when you dream together so well that they feel the winds on their cheeks, can hear the birds chirp in the trees, and can taste the waters in the brooks, then tell them that as the rain on a mountain peak runs off the slopes on all sides, so do those who see the many where there is only the one, run off in all directions chasing life.”

“I have to give this much thought,” said Nachiketa.

“Give it some thought, but don’t follow the examples of too many sages.”

“What do you mean?”

“Many an old wise man, and many a young Nachiketa, have brought these thoughts up into the mountains and there pondered for the rest of their days on how best to phrase them. And one day the wind was done cleaning their bones, and yet no word had ever come from them.”

“But if the words are not right, are they then better not spoken?”

“What heart will silence stir?”

“None.”

“What heart will the perhaps not perfect words stir?”

“Perhaps some.”

“I rest my case,” said Yama.

“I see,” said Nachiketa.

 

Yama: As pure water poured into pure water becomes the very same, so does the Self of the illumined man or woman, Nachiketa, verily become one with the Godhead.

 

“And when they glide through dream on the wings of your story, Nachiketa, then tell them that as pure water poured into pure water becomes the very same pure water, so does the real Self of the illuminated man or woman verily become one with the Brahman.”

“Are we then to vanish?” said Nachiketa suddenly, the thought striking him afresh.

“Will you, as Atman, vanish as you become one with Brahman? Is that your question?”

“Yes.”

“Well, will you?”

“Oh, please. The answer to this question is not the question itself, Yama.”

“It isn’t?” He sounded genuinely surprised.

“No,” said Nachiketa. “This question has an answer, and I would like you to answer it.”

“As if I could. As if anyone but you could.”

Nachiketa did not answer, could not answer.

“A wise man,” said Yama, “once said that Brahman, life, when it falls away from pure coexistence, creates identity by interposing distance and energy.”

“Interposing distance and energy between what, between whom?”

“Between life.”

“Between life?”

“Atman in complete affinity with all Atman,” said Yama.

Is Brahman,” said Nachiketa.

Yama smiled.

Again Nachiketa fell silent, picturing this scenario. “So,” he said then, wanting to hear it said as much as saying it, “within Brahman, not as Brahman, we are as Atman, indeed, individuals, coexisting as one, but we have the ability to interpose distance and energy between us and so move away, separate, Atman.”

“Perhaps,” said Yama.

“No,” said Nachiketa. “Not perhaps.”

“What then?”

“Surely,” he answered. “Surely.”

“If you say so.” Yama smiled.

“Yes, Nachiketa says so.”

“Then it must be true,” said Yama, still smiling.

“And we do not vanish.”

“No, we never vanish.”

 

Yama: There is a city with eleven gates of which the ruler is the unborn Self, whose light forever shines. They go beyond sorrow who govern the Self and are freed from the cycle of birth and death. This very Self is indeed That which you are seeking.

 

“And when they dance in the dream of your story, smelling its forests and warming under its suns, then show them that there is a city of eleven gates which is ruled by the unborn Self, and whose light forever shines. Tell them that those who govern the real Self by once again recognizing themselves as that light, are freed from the cycle of birth and death. For this very Self is indeed the truth they are seeking.”

“I remember hearing of the eleven gates,” said Nachiketa. “Cities in stories, many childhoods ago. Spoken but never explained. What are they?”

“The city of eleven gates is the body, and it has nine openings through which energy and matter enter and exit. There is also the navel, once the only opening, now sealed, and the sagittal seam on the top of each head, also once open, once a small sea between the parietal continents of your cranium, now sealed. Eleven gates.”

“The city ruled by the Self,” said Nachiketa, more to himself.

“And in this city lives the shadow self, and he thinks that no wonder in the world can match the majesty of his personal castle.”

“But to him all gates are sealed, he cannot exit,” said Nachiketa, still thinking aloud.

“To the shadow self all gates are sealed, and he cannot exit,” confirmed Yama.

“Welded shut.”

“One way of putting it.”

“But the true Self,” said Nachiketa, “is free to come and go as he pleases.”

“Once freed from the bonds of shadow self and sensation.”

“That is indeed the Self we are all seeking,” said Nachiketa.

 

Yama: The Self is the sun shining in the sky, the wind blowing in space; he is the fire at the altar and in the home the guest; he dwells in human beings, in gods, in truth, and in the vast firmament; he is the fish born in water, the plant growing in the earth, the river flowing down from the mountain. This very Self is indeed That which you are seeking.

 

“And when your story fills their dreaming heart, when their blood kisses every cell with your whisper, then show them that the real Self is the sun shining in the sky, is the wind blowing in space, is the fire at the altar, and is the guest at his home. Tell them that the real Self dwells in human beings, in gods, in truth, and in the vast sky. Tell them that the real Self is the fish born in water, is the plant growing in the earth, is the river flowing down from the mountain. For this very Self is indeed the truth they are seeking.”

“Is there any place on Earth where the real Self is not?” asked Nachiketa.

“There is no place on Earth where the real Self is not.”

“Is there any place in the skies where the real Self is not?”

“There is no place in the skies where the real Self is not.”

“Is there any part of the upper heavens where the real Self is not?”

“There is no part of the upper heavens where the real Self is not.”

“Is there any place among the galaxies and stars where the real Self is not?”

“There is no place among the galaxies and stars where the real Self is not.”

“Is there any heart in this world, or any other world, that does not house the real Self?”

“There is no heart in this world, or any other world, that does not house the real Self.”

“The real Self is everywhere and everything.”

“This very Self is indeed that which you are seeking,” said Yama

 

Yama: The adorable one who is seated in the heart rules the breath of life. Unto him all the senses pay their homage. When the dweller in the body breaks out in freedom from the bonds of flesh, what remains? This very Self is indeed That which you are seeking.

 

“And then when they dance to the rhythm of your dreaming heart, show them that the Emptiness who can perceive and who can wish, and whose wishes then become in the instant of their wishing, tell them that this Nothing who dwells in the hearts of all rules the breath of life. Tell them too that senses all bow to him. And then ask them: When this dweller breaks out in freedom from the bonds of flesh, what remains? This very Self is indeed the truth they are seeking.”

“Of Nothing remains Nothing,” said Nachiketa.

“Yes, but that is not for you to answer. It is for them to see.”

“But the Self,” said Nachiketa, choosing to ignore Yama for the moment, “confusing itself with the shadow self, believes itself to be Something.”

“Believes himself, indeed,” smiled Yama at his young pupil, “to be perishable. Believes he will rot away with the flesh the maggots feast on. Believes he will scatter on the winds his ashes travel. Believes himself to be part of what the real Self sees for what it is.”

“Maya,” said Nachiketa.

“Believes himself to be of the earth, of the flesh.”

“Believes indeed what the Good Book says, from dust to dust.”

“Yes,” said Yama. “And nothing could be farther from the truth.”

 

Yama: We live not by the breath that flows in and flows out, but by him that causes the breath to flow in and flow out.

 

“And when they soar with the dream bird of your story, show them that they live not by the breath that flows in and flows out, but by him that causes the breath to flow in and flow out.”

“By the Self that instructs the breathing.”

“By the Self that oversees the breathing.”

“By the Self that wished for lungs.”

“By the laughter beyond the stars.”

“By the laughter beyond the stars,” repeated Nachiketa. “The inaudible laughter.”

 

Yama: Now, O Nachiketa, I will tell you of this unseen, eternal Brahman, and what befalls the Self after death.

 

The Martian day had arrived and filled the trailer with sunlight. The inside lights had dimmed accordingly. Also, the chill was gone.

“Hungry?” asked Yama.

“Oh, yes,” said Nachiketa, relaying the grumbling from below. “Starving.”

This time Yama picked up his cell phone from the glass table and ordered breakfast, or lunch, it didn’t matter which.

It soon arrived with the same efficiency as the previous meals. Nachiketa tried to hold back, but still he more devoured than ate the fruits and breads that the silent servant put before him.

“Heard of chewing?” said Yama.

“Sorry,” mumbled Nachiketa between bites. “I really was starving.”

“Really?” Yama took it slower, relishing the fresh oranges and bananas. Used, unlike Nachiketa it seemed, to long stints of starving while talking.

The tea was warm and refreshing. The fruit filled him with a happy energy. Nachiketa could not remember when food had tasted this good. He helped himself to one more orange, and finished the chapatti-like bread which was not chapatti, but the thing chapattis became when they went to Heaven.

Yama, done now, waited for Nachiketa to finish.

Then said, “And now, Nachiketa, I will tell you what you asked me. I will give you your third boon.”

“What happens when we die?”

“Yes, I will tell you about the unseen, eternal Brahman, and what befalls the real Self after death.”

Nachiketa swallowed, smiled, and said nothing.

 

Yama: Of those unaware of the Self, some are born as embodied creatures while other remain in a lower stage of evolution, according to what they have done and learned.

 

Yama picket up his tea glass and turned to hold it against the window’s light, viewing the sky through it. Looking for what? wondered Nachiketa, but Yama gave no indication other than beholding the glass for quite a little while before he put it back.

“Amoebas are very small,” he said.

“Yes,” said Nachiketa tentatively, wondering whether there was a connection with the glass, and the small measure of remaining tea.

“Still,” Yama said, “there is no denying that they are alive.”

“No,” said Nachiketa. “No one can deny that.”

“Who is to say which is the more alive: the elephant or the amoeba?”

“They are both alive,” said Nachiketa. “None is less alive than the other.”

“Are you sure about that?”

“Yes, they are both alive, they are both living as life.”

“The elephant is not more alive than the amoeba?”

“There is more physical life, energy and such, a lot more, to the elephant. But as to alive, as phenomenon, no, they are equally alive.”

“And you are sure about this?” Yama wanted to know, almost mockingly.

“Well, yes. Yes, I’m sure.”

“You are right, Nachiketa. In both of them lives the unmeasurable phenomenon that manifests as life. The Nothing that wishes and perceives. The Emptiness that cannot be quantified.”

“Equally the dwellings of the unmeasurable phenomenon of life,” said Nachiketa.

“One is a creature, one is in a lower stage of evolution, according to what they have done and learned.”

“Surely then, the elephant is the wiser of the two.”

“And you, Nachiketa, are wiser still.”

“What’s to say,” said Nachiketa as another thought arrived, “that the real Self does not dwell in a colony of amoebae rather than in just one single one?”

“What’s to say,” answered Yama, “that the real Self does not dwell in a herd of elephants rather than in just a single one?”

“Good point,” conceded Nachiketa. Then, “But could you not view the elephant as just one enormous colony of amoebae?”

“Why not,” said Yama. Not a question. “Is the single ant Atman or is the ant-heap Atman?”

“I don’t know,” said Nachiketa.

“One day you will,” said Yama.

“Do you?”

“Know?”

“Yes.”

“Yes,” he answered but would not say more.

 

Yama: That which is awake even in our sleep, giving form in dreams to the objects of sense craving, that indeed is pure light, Brahman the immortal, who contains all the cosmos, and beyond whom none can go. This very Self is indeed That which you are seeking.

 

“Does the amoeba sleep, do you think?” asked Yama.

“Is it not always asleep?”

“Good answer.”

“Or always awake.”

“Or always awake.”

“When the creature sleeps, what is still awake?” asked Yama.

“The real Self,” said Nachiketa. “Atman is always awake, in the amoeba, in the elephant, in me, in you.”

“Does an amoeba dream, do you think?” asked Yama.

“I think if it does, it would dream very boring dreams,” answered Nachiketa.

“Seriously,” said Yama.

“Yes,” said Nachiketa, choosing to misconstrue. “Seriously boring. And yes, to answer your question, I think an amoeba can dream. Where there is life there can be dream.”

“What would it dream of, do you think?” said Yama, as if just now struck by the possibility.

“It dreams of warmer waters, more fertile earth, more hospitable suns.”

Yama looked at Nachiketa with a trace of awe, nodded. “Perhaps,” he said. “you are right.”

Then, “Does an amoeba feel hunger, do you think?”

“It must,” said Nachiketa, “for it hunts, and devours.”

“Hunts what, devours what?”

“Just like the paramecia hunts for and devours bacteria, the amoeba hunts for and devours paramecia.”

“Nachiketa,” said Yama. “Honestly, I didn’t know that. How did you know?”

“Recent school assignment,” said Nachiketa with the recent memory of Sebastian.

“Fascinating. Is there more?”

“A bacterium,” said Nachiketa, “not much larger than one thousandth of a millimeter—it would take hundreds of thousands of them to fill the area of a single period at the end of a sentence—dreams of food,” said Nachiketa. “Dreams of fallen trees to decompose, of dying plants, and stomach linings, sunlight, and carbon dioxide.”

Yama said nothing, but watched Nachiketa intently.

“The paramecium, a giant by comparison, about a quarter of a millimeter—that would be two hundred fifty times the size of bacteria—dreams of nice, juicy bacteria, and consumes them with relish. From the eye of the bacterium, the paramecium is as huge and dangerous as a malevolently carnivorous mother ship cruising for food.”

Yama remained silent.

“The amoeba, sometimes the size of the paramecium, sometimes up to ten times its size, dreams of nice, juicy paramecia and consumes them with relish.”

“It is eat or be eaten all the way down,” said Yama reflectively.

“My thought exactly,” said Nachiketa. “And, of course, the cycle is symmetrically completed when bacteria consumes the component substances of the dead creature.”

“And the bacterium dreams, you think?”

“If the amoeba does, why not the bacterium? Perhaps it dreams of carbon dioxide, like the autotrophs who obtain their carbon from it, perhaps it dreams of sunlight, like the cyanobacteria, who convert sunlight to glucose through photosynthesis. What do I know? But if I can dream of what I crave, and—I take it Yama dreams—you can dream of what you crave, why not the bacterium, the paramecium, the amoeba?”

“Yes,” said Yama. “Why not?”

“It’s amazing how small they are,” said Nachiketa after a moment’s thought. “You don’t think of it often.”

“No, you don’t.”

“There is a seeming infinity of smallness within, and a seeming infinity of largeness without,” said Nachiketa.

“And do stars dream?” said Yama.

“Why not?” said Nachiketa.

“Stars are the most graceful of beings,” said Yama. “Devouring nothing, but giving of themselves endlessly to light the lives of others.”

“They are beings, do you think?”

Yama didn’t answer. Instead, he said, “That which is awake even in our sleep, giving form in dreams to the objects of sense craving, that indeed is pure light. That is the giver of light in our dreams and the giver of the light of stars. That is Brahman the immortal, who contains all the cosmos, and beyond whom none can go, for there is no there to go beyond into, there is nothing beyond the Emptiness that wishes and perceives. This is the true and real Self and is indeed the truth you seek.”

“Amoeba to elephant. Bacterium to star,” said Nachiketa.

“Always,” said Yama.

 

Yama: As the same fire assumes different shapes when it consumes objects differing in shape, so does the one Self take the shape of every creature in whom he is present. As the same air assumes different shapes when it enters objects differing in shape, so does the one Self take the shape of every creature in whom he is present.

 

“How is it then,” said Yama, “that the Self can fit in the smallest of cells, yet can fill the whole of a star?”

“How is it then,” answered Nachiketa, “that the Self can fit in the smallest of cells, yet can fill the whole of a star?” Quite pleased with himself.

That earned him a quick glance, a brief frown, then a smile. “Payback time, is it?”

Nachiketa shrugged.

“Well, then,” said Yama, “I will answer. As the same fire assumes different shapes when it consumes objects of different shape, so does the real Self take the shape of every creature in whom he is present. As the same air assumes different shapes when it enters objects of different shape, so does the real Self take the shape of every creature in whom he is present.”

“Assuming, of course, that he has shape at all. That he is size.”

“Yes, assuming.”

“But in truth, a Nothing can have no shape,” suggested Nachiketa.

“Of course not.”

“No boundaries, no limits.”

“None.”

“Inward or outward.”

“None.”

“Yet the Atman fills the creature in whom he is present.”

“Perhaps it would be more correct to say that the creature attempts to fill him,” said Yama.

Nachiketa nodded. “I can see that.”

 

Yama: As the sun, who is the eye of the world, cannot be tainted by the defects in our eyes or by the objects it looks on, so the one Self, dwelling in all, cannot be tainted by the evils of the world. For this Self transcends all!

 

“And speaking of stars,” said Yama. “Can the sun be tainted by a defect in your eye.” Then he rushed to add, “And I want you to answer this time.”

“Of course not.”

“Can the sun be tainted by the objects it looks on?”

“Of course not.”

“Can the real Self, dwelling in all, be tainted by the evils of the world?”

“Only if he wishes himself tainted.”

“But is he tainted?”

“How can an Emptiness be tainted?”

“Indeed.”

“Yet,” said Nachiketa. “I have often felt myself stained by unkind deeds, given or received.”

“You, or a shadow self?” asked Yama.

“Me,” said Nachiketa. “From what I could tell.”

“You,” said Yama. “Cannot be stained or tainted, for as you said, how can an Emptiness be stained?”

“Then the shadow self, whom I confused with me.”

“Yes, that could be.”

“But I,” said Nachiketa to himself, “cannot be tainted by the evils of the world.”

Yama heard, and added, “For you transcend all.”

 

Yama: The ruler supreme, inner Self of all, multiplies his oneness into many. Eternal joy is theirs who see the Self in their own hearts. To none else does it come!

 

“But is there,” asked Yama, “a difference between you and me?”

“I sit here, and I look out through my eyes at you, who sit there and look out through your eyes at me,” answered Nachiketa.

“Yet Brahman is one and is all.”

“Braham is the coexistence of the Atman.”

“And by interposing distance and energy,” began Yama.

“We create identity,” said Nachiketa.

“Different points of view.”

“Yes.”

“You,” said Yama, and not for the first time, “should be teaching me.”

“No,” said Nachiketa, “I am still learning.”

“As am I.”

They both fell silent for a spell. For the first time in a long while Nachiketa again heard the slow shuffle of many feet outside. He turned and looked out the window towards the mouth in the mountain, Lucy, clipboard in hand, still looking up, looking down, looking up, looking down, checking, checking, checking.

“Only those who see this, only those who know the real Self in their own hearts, “said Yama, “will know eternal joy. To no one else does it come.”

“And it is our job to awaken them.”

“Yours, Nachiketa,” reminded Yama.

 

Yama: Changeless amidst the things that pass away, pure consciousness in all who are conscious, the One answers the prayers of many. Eternal peace is theirs who see the Self in their own hearts. To none else does it come!

 

“Unmoving, changeless, conscious,” said Yama.

“The true Self.”

“Pure consciousness in all who are conscious.”

“The stillness in our hearts.”

“Eternal peace is theirs who see this,” said Yama.

“That is what I wish for,” said Nachiketa.

“As do I,” said Yama.

 

Nachiketa: How can I know that blissful Self, supreme, inexpressible, realized by the wise? Is he the light, or does he reflect light?

 

Nachiketa fell silent again, watching Yama watching him, not really seeing Yama, though. Uncertainties, many and various, sprouted in the fertile dark of memory, each clawing, gently some, with asperity others, at his effort to see.

“Tell me,” said Nachiketa at length. “How can I be certain? How can I know the one Self that is pure consciousness, that is me, the true, inexpressible me. The Nothing that is Nothing, the Emptiness that is Emptiness but who wishes and perceives. How can I be certain I have found the blissful Self realized by the wise of old?”

Nachiketa fell silent for another moment, before he added, “Tell me, is he the light, or does he reflect light? Am I source or mirror?”

 

Yama: There shines not the sun, neither moon nor star, nor flash of lightning, nor fire lit on earth. The Self is the light reflected by all. He shining, everything shines after him.

 

“The sun would not shine, could not shine, neither moon nor star, were it not for you,” said Yama.

And continued. “The flash of lightning would not be, were it not for you.

“No fire ever lit on earth would shine with warm light, were it not for you.

“All cities of the world would remain forever dark, were it not for you.

“You are the light, Nachiketa, reflected by all.”

“I am the source, and the world is my mirror?” asked Nachiketa.

“You shine,” said Yama, “and all else reflects.”

“And you?” asked Nachiketa.

“The same is true of me, yes.”

“And these children?” Again Nachiketa looked vaguely in the direction of the window to indicate the many pairs of feet that still, heartbeat by heartbeat, offered themselves to the mountain.

“Have forgotten,” said Yama. “They search for the source of light in every nook and cranny. They buy strong flashlights and expensive detectors and they pry and prod and turn the earth this way and that looking for this source.”

“How to remind them?” Almost just a thought.

“They scour the heavens and listen to the breathing of stars through their giant telescopes looking for this source.”

“How to remind them?” said Nachiketa again, a little louder to make sure Yama would hear.

“They split the atom and search among the quarks for this source.”

“So how do I remind them?”

“And yet they never look in their hearts.”

“How can I remind them?”

“Little by little,” said Yama, finally answering Nachiketa’s question.

“Little by little?”

“One by one. One by one.”

“By dream?”

“Have them find the tiniest spark of this light. A faint glimmer, perhaps, but in their hearts.”

“Such as what?”

“Such as the fleeting pleasure of a kind deed. It might have been nothing more than the kiss of the wind at the time, but it will still shine with its own light. And it will still live in his heart.”

“The glimmer of kindness.”

“Perhaps the ephemeral joy of a short poem written, before crumpled into a small embarrassed ball and tossed away.”

“The flicker of a poem.”

“Perhaps the silent happiness of giving with no thought of receiving.”

“The spark of giving.”

“Perhaps the passing bliss of a summer’s morning when the sun stole into your heart and filled it with love for the birds you saw in the sky, for the rabbit you saw slipping away through the brush, for the dew that glistened on the grass.”

“The flicker of love,” said Nachiketa.

“Yes, little by little,” said Yama. “And one by one. Find in each child that one thing, no matter how small, that they know is a light of their own making. Soon enough they will get the hang of it.”

“Get the hang of it?”

“Well, remember, if that sounds better. Once they find themselves to be the source, if only of the smallest glimmer, they will still know the feeling of source, and now it’s only a matter of degree. The hardest memory to stir is the first, the original certainty, or the last certainty, so deftly buried now.”

“That then is my task,” said Nachiketa.

“Yes, that is your task.”

 

Yama: The Tree of eternity has its roots above and its branches on earth below. Its pure root is Brahman the immortal from whom all the worlds draw their life, and whom none can transcend. This very Self is indeed That which you are seeking.

 

“There is a tree,” said Yama. “It is invisible, of course—rooted in the stars and blossoming as the Earth. Its roots are the very light you are and its offspring is life as we know and see it.”

“Does it have other blossoms?”

“It has many branches.”

When Nachiketa said nothing, Yama explained:

“For each star you can see, there are a trillion stars that you don’t see. For each star, seen or unseen, there are many Earths, each one alive with blossom, alive with life. Alive with fish in the waters and birds in the skies. Alive with insects and animals, reptiles and men.”

“Each populated?” Nachiketa wanted confirmation.

Yama looked gravely at Nachiketa, as if seeing him for the first time, or as if rediscovering him.

“Although Earth is not the oldest of homes,” he answered, “it surely has the worst of memories, and to go along with this an arrogance unmatched.”

He had Nachiketa’s ear.

“Do you know,” Yama asked. “Do you realize that most ‘intelligent’ men, in the face of devastatingly overwhelming odds against it, maintain, believe, proclaim that not only is Earth the only place in the entire Universe with intelligent life, but it is the only place in the entire Universe with a trace of life, period. Do you realize what the odds are against there being no other life in the Universe?”

“Well, from the size of it, I can imagine.”

“Let’s put it this way,” said Yama, set on explaining. “Please follow me closely on this. The Milky Way, our local galaxy, of which Sol, or the Sun, is one of several hundred billion stars, is but one of about 125 billion galaxies, each with billions of stars. The visible universe, at last estimate—and don’t ask me how man estimates this—is approximately 12 billion light-years across.”

Yama looked at Nachiketa closely to make sure he was following. He was.

“Now,” said Yama, “and I know we touched on this, with better telescopes, the Hubble for one, man is beginning to discover that some of the most distant stars he’s been gazing at through weaker telescopes are in fact not stars at all, but other galaxies, each a hundred billion stars strong, and,” Yama held out his hand in asking for an answer,” what’s to say that the furthest star in the farthest galaxy will not turn out to in fact be a new galaxy, even farther away?”

When Nachiketa did not answer, Yama went on. “Now, with better vision—better telescopes still—man has also discovered that those areas of the sky he thought were empty are in fact seething with stars and galaxies, and what’s to say,” said Yama.

“That those farthest stars are not galaxies with farthest away stars that are in themselves galaxies,” said Nachiketa.

“Precisely,” said Yama.

“So, how big, how many?” asked Nachiketa.

“Let me venture a guess,” said Yama. “That when you get to the edge of the Universe, you’ll be able to see as far beyond as you’ve already traveled.”

“How? How is that possible?”

“Who do you think creates the space for the universe to occupy?”

“The seer?”

Yama nodded. “No matter how far you see, if you wish, you can always see as far again.”

“So there is no end?”

“Not as long as the seer pushes the end out as far again.”

“And how many?”

“At a certain point numbers lose their meaning,” said Yama. “The numbers of stars in the Universe has reached that point, but let’s do the math. We can safely multiply the number of known—and I use that word loosely—galaxies, which is 125 billion, with the average number of stars per galaxy, say 100 billion, that would give you 12,500 billion stars, or 12 trillion 500 billion. You see what I mean, they’re just words after a while, sounds that have lost their meaning.”

Nachiketa nodded slowly, grappling with multitude.

Then let’s assume, conservatively, that ten percent of those stars turn out to actually be galaxies, each with 100 billion stars, well that’s 1 trillion 250 billion times 100 billion more, and then let’s assume, conservatively, that ten percent of these new stars are in fact galaxies. You see what I mean?”

Again, Nachiketa simply nodded.

“And, now for the fun part.”

“Planets?” said Nachiketa.

“Precisely. They are common. Sol has, what, nine?”

“Yes.”

“Well, that’s about average, I’d say.”

“Nine planets to a star?”

“Yes.”

“How do you know?”

“I’m Death, I get around,” said Yama, mock sternly.

“But not all of the Sun’s planets can support life.”

“Correction,” said Yama. “Not all of Sol’s planets can support carbon based life forms.”

Nachiketa saw the light. “There are other life forms.”

“Naturally. The carbon based stuff we see on Earth is not only not the only form of life around, it’s one of the less workable, less efficient. Cumbersome, fragile, you name it.”

“So, you’re saying,” began Nachiketa.

“I’m saying, that for man to be so unbelievably arrogant as to proclaim that not only is he the only intelligent life form in the Universe, but also that Earth is the only place where life exists, is, is… well I just can’t find a word.”

“Dumb?”

“As good as any.”

“Ill informed?”

“Oblivious.”

“Inane?”

“Insane, perhaps. Deluded. He thinks this in the face of completely inconceivable odds against it. I mean, to say that out of a trillion, trillion planets—that would be a 1 followed by what, 24 zeros, something like that—only one planet,” Yama held up his left index finger, “only one planet, Earth, developed life? If that is not arrogance sailed all the way into utter deluded ignorance, I don’t know what is. It is a matter of refusing to look. Afraid to look. Petrified.”

“Maybe they must ignore in order to live?”

“What?”

“You said it yourself before, that the physical Universe is so unfathomably large, you said, that we cannot hold its size with our minds and still function. We have to ignore to live.”

“Some memory you have there,” said Yama.

“Well, it is very true, it stuck.”

“And right you are. Man cannot only not fathom the size of the universe, but even if he could, could not hold the concept in place and still function. He must ignore, pretend. Make believe there is nothing more, no other life, nothing quite as majestic as man.”

“And he does a good job of it,” said Nachiketa.

“And of the same magnitude,” said Yama after a moment’s reflection. “Out of the same stellar stupidity sprung this one: that life spontaneously rose from a sea of ammonia, just, you know, by chance. Similar odds against that.”

A thought struck Nachiketa. “Maybe the two impossibilities cancel each other? Makes one possibility?”

Yama looked at him closely. “What do you mean?”

“Maybe the logic is that ‘life sprung from a sea of ammonia’ is so unlikely, that for it to have happened twice would be impossible. No matter what the size of the Universe. Ergo: Life can only have happened once. On Earth.”

“Cute,” said Yama.

“But insane?”

“Quite.”

“How do I make them see this?”

“Tell them,” said Yama, “but don’t overwhelm them—and that is easily done, they all prefer not to remember—that hovering above, present beyond even such a vast multitude as this universe, no matter how many trillion trillions stars, there is the sizeless Self, the very life that created, and still creates, all of this. Without which there would not even be a universe.”

“How?” wondered Nachiketa again.

“As I said, one by one, little by little,” answered Yama.

 

Yama: The cosmos comes forth from Brahman and moves in him. With his powers it reverberates, like thunder crashing in the sky. Those who realize him pass beyond the sway of death.

 

“The Self breathes and the Universe comes forth,” said Yama. “He wills it to be, then wills to see it. Without the Brahman, the true Self, there would be nothing. Nothing to perceive. And no perceiving to perceive it.”

Nachiketa suddenly wished he had something to take notes with, but instead concentrated on listening and understanding. And on remembering.

“Just remember,” said Yama, as if reading his thoughts—which he very will might have doe—then continued. “Tell them that the Self that they are can be the size of a galaxy, can be the size of a trillion galaxies. The entire Universe can be comfortably fit in his hand. Yet this very Self can be so small that each atom seems a sleeping sun, and each electron a dancing planet. For, of course, the sizeless can assume any size.”

Nachiketa battled a little with the concept. “What’s to say,” he began, then stopped to rephrase. “There seems an uncanny resemblance.”

Yama looked and listened. “Yes?”

“Between the sun and its planets and the atom and its electrons.”

“A matter of scale,” said Yama.

Nachiketa did not understand, and Yama saw.

“Humans stand at the pivot between the hugeness of the Universe and the smallness of the Atoms. We look up and out and we see incredibly vast, we look in and down and we see incredibly miniscule. But remember, this is all in relation to our own size. The Self is sizeless, able to assume any size, vast or minute.”

“The Atom?” said Nachiketa, “could then be a planet, full of seas and forests and fish and birds and animals?”

“Sure,” said Yama. “You know, nobody has ever seen an atom. It is only a deduced thing. Reasoned into being. Mathematized into being. Assumed into being.”

“Much like everything else,” Nachiketa pointed out.

“Of course,” agreed Yama. “So there is nothing to say that the atom, each atom in the Universe is not teeming with life, and things, each thing of course made from even smaller atoms, each of which is a planet.”

“And,” said Nachiketa, “what’s to say that the Universe is not part of a silver letter opener on some giant being’s cluttered desk?”

“Nothing’s to say that it isn’t,” said Yama. “And nothing’s to say that this letter opener and this desk and that world is not part of a universe which in turn is part of some even larger giant butterfly’s left wing pigment.”

“How far?” said Nachiketa after a moment of grappling.

“How far is true in either direction?”

“How vast can it get? Yes. And how small can it get? Is there a way to know?” said Nachiketa.

“Size is determined only by that Self which is no part of any thing, but who creates every thing. Is determined by the size of the thing created in relation to his own assumed size. That is all.”

“Is there then no true outside?”

“Sure.”

“Where?”

“The Self is the true outside,” said Yama with a smile. “And those who can see that are certainly well beyond my reach. They will never die.”

 

Yama: In fear of him fire burns; in fear of him the sun shines, the clouds rain, and the winds blow. In fear of him death stalks about to kill.

 

“Tell them that without the Self—the sizeless Self that can assume any size—the fire would not burn for there would be no wood nor fire. Without the Self, the sun would not shine for there would be no sun nor light. Without the Self, the clouds would not gather and rain for there would be neither cloud nor moisture nor Earth to rain upon. Without the Self, the winds would not gather and race across the plains for there would be no air, nor winds, nor plains to race across.”

Nachiketa again wished for pen and paper, while Yama continued.

“Tell them that compared to the Self even Death is like nothing, and that even He bows in fear and respect before him, for without the true Self there would be no apparent life and no apparent death and your brother Yama would be without a job.”

“How?” said Nachiketa once again.

“Little by little,” said Yama. “And one by one.”

 

Yama: If one fails to realize Brahman in this life before the physical sheath is shed, he must again put on a body in the world of embodied creatures.

 

“Now, here’s the rub,” said Yama. “By the rules they are given one short life in which to see. If they don’t, they come back here to me, only to return again, reborn, to give it another shot.”

“They have mostly quit trying,” said Nachiketa more to the air than to Yama.

“All the more difficult, then,” said Yama.

“I would say Impossible,” said Nachiketa.

“No. Not impossible. It is never impossible. Very hard, yes, but impossible, no. Never that.”

“As good as,” said Nachiketa.

“No,” said Yama. “Not even as good as. Some do see. Some wake up.”

“The other exit?” said Nachiketa, suddenly remembering.

“Yes.”

“What happens to them in the mountain?” Nachiketa wanted to know.

“To those who see? Nothing. They pass through and out into the outside. Or perhaps up into using the silver letter opener on the cluttered desk.”

“No, to those who don’t see.”

“Ah, that’s a different story,” said Yama.

“Tell me,” said Nachiketa. “Please.”

“Simply put,” said Yama. “We assess, assign, and reset.”

When Nachiketa said nothing, he continued.

“Karma is not, as many have misinterpreted it, the result of good deeds versus bad deeds. It is not a matter of behavior. It is a matter of progress.”

“Towards?”

“Towards realizing the true Self.”

“How do you determine that?” asked Nachiketa.

Yama ignored the question and continued his own line of thought. “Good and bad deeds are only good and bad as they relate to progress. Bad will cloud you, and so you see less, and so you progress less. Good will enlighten you, and so you see better, and so you can make progress. If you are intent on progress. Good for the sake of good, however you might define it, is not necessarily progress. Many do good to be admired. That is not progress. Many do good to feel good. That is not progress. Even the most pious, dripping with goodness, can be utterly stalled and may in fact regress.”

“I don’t see,” began Nachiketa.

Again, Yama ignored him, intent on completing his train of thought.

“A wicked man, honestly wondering about his wickedness, can make more progress than the most pious, that never for a moment questions his piety. A prostitute may make more progress than a priest. A thief more progress than the banker.”

“Normally also a thief,” said Nachiketa. Again ignored.

“The nun less progress than the honest reprobate—one who reflects. Nuns, and monks, especially Christians, rarely reflect, they only move through preset motions, hoping so many predetermined steps will lead to salvation.”

“Salvation,” said Nachiketa, as if not understanding the word.

“There is no such thing,” said Yama. “There is no such thing as salvation. As if truth is a thing bestowed. As if truth is a rescuer here to bail you out. As if truth is different from the Self. As if anyone but the Self can rescue. Never. There is no salvation. There is only progress, or lack thereof.”

“How do you determine that?” asked Nachiketa again. This time he was heard.

“If there is distance between Atman and Brahman, then there is progress still to be made. The larger the distance, the farther to go. The lesser the distance, the closer to truth.”

“You can see the distance? Measure it?”

“Yes,” said Yama.

“How?” said Nachiketa.

“Trade secret,” said Yama.

“No, seriously.”

“Seriously.”

“You’re not going to tell me?”

“No.”

“But you do measure?”

“Yes, that’s the assess.”

“Assess,” repeated Nachiketa.

“Assess and compare.”

“Assess and compare? Compare to what?”

“To the last distance.”

“You mean, when they last were here?”

“Precisely.”

“Progress,” said Nachiketa.

“Or regress,” said Yama.

“And,” said Nachiketa, looking for the word. “Assign?”

“Assign,” confirmed Yama. “Based on progress, we assign.”

“Assign what?”

“Life form.”

Nachiketa was about to ask a clarifying question, but Yama beat him to it. “Perhaps Life Span would be a better word. Sentient life span. The shorter the distance between Atman and Brahman, the longer the life span assigned.”

“Humans?”

“Yes, at this level, in this system, they are the final gate.”

“And if one of them,” Nachiketa looked back over his shoulder at the endless line outside, “has regressed?”

“He is then assigned a lesser life form, a lesser life span.”

“But doesn’t that make it harder?”

“No one said getting out was easy.”

“Well, it would seem almost impossible.”

“No, it is not. Do you remember the last time you were in an animal body?”

“No.”

“No matter. Truth is, it is not all that hard to narrow the Atman Brahman gap for an animal. They can still feel compassion, to an extent. There is an animal ethic. They can still wonder, to an extent. There is loyalty, to pack, cubs, hive, what have you. Usually, at the end of their life, long or short, the gap has narrowed.”

“And?”

“And a few lifetimes of that, and—voilà!—back to human form.”

“I don’t see any animals,” said Nachiketa, suddenly looking back out over his shoulder.

“Mercury,” said Yama.

“What?”

“I only handle humans. Animals are handled on Mercury.”

“Ah.”

“Insects on Jupiter.”

“Insects? How on earth can you track them? There are trillions and trillions and trillions of them.”

“Well, we touched on this too. And this is your answer: there is not one spirit per insect, more like a million insects to a spirit, each like a cell to a human. There is after all a finite number of spirits on Earth.”

“I see.”

“One ant-hill, for example, is literally the body of one spirit, of but one soul.”

“I see.”

“One beehive may be one or two souls.”

“I see,” said Nachiketa again.

“Still, Jupiter is a madhouse.”

“I can imagine.”

“I doubt it.”

“No, I can.” And he could. Yama took a look at his thoughts and saw.

“Yes,” he said, satisfied. “You can.”

“How about trees?” said Nachiketa. “When you first said life span, what first sprung to my mind was trees.”

“When the distance is short, so short that another life may close the gap altogether, the dead is given a choice. Human or tree.”

“Many have chosen tree,” said Nachiketa.

“Many have and many do,” said Yama. “For trees live long, sentient, and very contemplative lives. Much conducive to closing the gap altogether.”

“And trees, how do you assess them? Or where?”

“Trees are given to the sun.”

“You have an operation like this on the sun?” asked Nachiketa, a little incredulous.

“It is an operation, but it is nothing like this,” answered Yama, and although he could see that Nachiketa was waiting for him to say more, he didn’t.

Instead, he said, “Tell them that once Atman and Brahman occupy the same space, once no distance intervenes, they have reached the true Self and are beyond my reach. Tell them also that until then, they are bound to return, time and again, to a physical sheath, until they do.”

“How,” asked Nachiketa, again.

“Little by little,” answered Yama, again. “One by one.”

But there was one word that Yama had spoken which would not fit right, would not file under those understood, and Nachiketa was roaming around for it. Then found it: “Rules?” he said. “What rules?”

“What?”

“You said, that by the rules they are given one short life in which to see, and that if they do not see, then they have to come back here to see you, only to return again to give it another shot. Something like that.”

“I did.”

“What rules? Who set them?”

“You did. We did.”

“I don’t remember.”

“Oh, yes you do.”

And Nachiketa, if only for a glimpse, saw everything, atom and star, pain and death and failure and happiness and reaching goals and birth and rebirth and universes and their multitude of stars and planets and lives, as simply a game. A game with rules. Decided, then agreed upon. Product of Atman, Brahman, the Self that perceives and wishes.

“Why?” he asked.

“Perhaps for lack of something better to do,” said Yama.

“And reset? You said, assess, assign, and then reset.”

“Ah, yes. Memory treatment.”

“What do you mean?”

“Can you imagine a dog remembering that he was a cab driver last lifetime?”

“Yes, I can.”

“Okay, let me rephrase that. Would you like to be born a dog that remembers that he was a taxi driver in his prior life?”

Nachiketa gave that some thought. Then, “I see what you mean.”

“We reset memory. We don’t erase it, mind you. It is still there, every second of all prior existences, but now covered by a veil very hard to pierce.”

“The Buddha did.”

“Yes, Gotama did.”

“Others, too.”

“Many others, yes.”

“But certainly not the man in the street,” said Nachiketa. “Or dog in the street.”

“And that’s the whole point, said Yama. Clean slate. No prior lives as far as easily accessible memory is concerned.”

Nachiketa nodded. “I can see the need for that.”

“Glad we agree,” said Yama.

 

Yama: Brahman can be seen, as in a mirror, in a pure heart; in the world of the ancestors as in a dream; in the gandharva world as the reflections in trembling waters; and clear as light in the realm of Brahma.

 

“A game,” said Nachiketa again. “That is all it is, isn’t it?”

“Bottom line, yes.”

“And the rules? How firm are they? Can we change them?”

“Oh, firm enough. And no, we cannot change them until the game is all played out. That is one agreement we cannot go back on. They will last as long as the game lasts.”

“And,” said Nachiketa.

“And how long is that?” said Yama.

“Yes.”

“Until finished.”

“Finished?”

“When everyone is out, has reached that outside that is the real Self. When there is no longer a distance between Atman and Brahman. Anywhere. Then we’re done. Then we can play something else.”

Nachiketa laughed at the thought. “You’re already looking at the next game?”

“Well,” said Yama. “Let’s first make sure that there will be a next game.”

“Yes,” said Nachiketa.

Then Yama said, “You must tell them that the light that is Brahman can be seen in a pure heart, as in a mirror. But the essence of life, the phenomenon of life that is Brahman lies motionless in every heart, and can easily be hidden, submerged. It is only when the heart shines that you approach the real Self.”

Nachiketa nodded that he understood.

“The light that is Brahman can be seen in the history of all life, from the tiniest amoeba to the largest elephant, as one long necklace of life. For those pure of heart, this necklace will shine.”

Nachiketa again nodded that he understood. Then said, “And this necklace, is it past to present, or present only?”

“And this necklace,” said Yama, “is it past to present, or present only?”

“Present only?” said Nachiketa.

“Verily,” said Yama, then continued.

“The light that is Brahman can be seen in the spirit world of gandharva like ripples on trembling waters, glittering like little stars.”

Nachiketa understood.

“Tell them that in the hands of the Creator, Brahman shines with a clear light.”

“If he shines at all,” suggested Nachiketa.

Yama nodded, with a smile. “You indeed understand.”

 

Yama: Knowing the senses to be separate from the Self, and the sense experience to be fleeting, the wise grieve no more.

 

“And you must tell them that the hardest thing to let go, is all that you sense. For in truth you own what you see and that is yours which you can touch, taste, hear, and smell. He is a rich man who realizes that all the world, all the worlds, and all the stars, all the galaxies, and all possible universes, everything that he can sense, all belong to him. What he can perceive is, in truth, his.”

“But that is not the way to immortality,” said Nachiketa.

“No, you are right. Although the Universe is nearly infinitely old, it does have a beginning, and it will have an end. The beginning is very, very long ago, and the end is very, very far in the future. But it will end, and it will cease to be perceivable. It is, in a word, fleeting.”

“They say time itself is a lie,” suggested Nachiketa.

“Time itself is the biggest lie,” said Yama, “for in truth it only pretends to be. It is not a thing, it is only the byproduct of things.”

“So, how, then, can you speak of long ago, and far in the future?”

“Well asked,” said Yama, smiling again. “For the truly wise, there is no beginning, nor is there an end, nor is there a Universe to perceive. The truly wise sees through the thin veil of Maya, stitched together as it is with the false thread of time, and held up for the blind to see and wonder at.”

“So there is only now,” said Nachiketa.

“There is not even that,” said Yama. “At least not as it relates to past and future. There only is. That is all.”

“And what is?” said Nachiketa.

“And what is?” said Yama.

“Brahman,” said Nachiketa, “and it’s undistanceable offspring, Atman.”

“Undistanceable?”

“Inseparable, then,” said Nachiketa.

“No, I like undistanceable, as long as you know what you mean.”

“Unable to insert distance between, how’s that?”

Yama nodded his approval. “That’s a good definition.”

“There only is,” said Nachiketa. “Not even a now.”

“At the beginning of the game was the decision and the decision, for all Atmans, was—and still is—is to be,” said Yama.

“There is no real now, no real here?” asked Nachiketa.

“Not as it relates to past and future, or as it relates to there,” said Yama. “There only is. To qualify it, is to add to it, is to corrupt it, is to hide it. In truth, there only is. The wise realize this and gladly let all else go.”

“Back into the Nothing it truly is,” said Nachiketa. “The Emptiness that wishes and perceives.”

“Back into the Nothing it is,” confirmed Yama.

 

Yama: Above senses is the mind, above the mind is the intellect, above that is the ego, and above the ego is the unmanifested Cause. And beyond is Brahman, omnipresent, attributeless. Realizing him one is released from the cycle of birth and death.

 

“If they truly want release from the cycle of birth and death, tell them this,” said Yama, and drew breath.

Nachiketa, however, struck by another thought at Yama’s words, said before he could continue, “But they don’t seem to want release.”

“What?”

“I have lived many lives,” said Nachiketa. “And being here with you, in this silver trailer of yours,” he gestured with his hand to include all of Yama’s dwelling, “has polished my memory.”

“And?”

“And, I look back at those I have known and seen over many lives and two things become clear: Either they don’t know that they are in a cycle of births and deaths, or, if they do—and most don’t, of that I am convinced—they do not truly want release from it.”

“How sure are you of this?” asked Yama. Not sternly, but almost.

Nachiketa reflected. Cast his mind back onto many lives. Onto walking down the streets of windowless houses in Mohenjo Daro, seeing his fellow men pursue life with a greed and a thirst that can only come from never wanting to let go. Holding their amulets of Kulli, Zhob, Harappa, and Kausambi to their hearts, not for release but for comfort, for adornment, for owning, for never wanting to let go.

Fighting alongside Mahapadma Nanda, subduing most of the Deccan in only a few years. Nachiketa the General and Mahapadma Nanda the King resting by the sacrificial fire, Nachiketa watching, sadly, how the men reveled in loot and conquest, how his King reveled even more, though quietly, in owning. Wherever he looked, he saw no desire on that field of letting go.

The walls of Constantinople. Raised to protect, to never let go of the beautiful city within.

The walls of Christianity. Raised to protect, to never let go of the beautiful Kingdom within.

The walls of Commerce. Raised to protect, to never let go of the beautiful profit within.

The walls of the Senses. Raised to enrich, adorn, delight, and to never let go of the experience within. The thirst for sensation.

“Yes,” said Nachiketa. “Yes, I am sure of this.”

“The question was: How sure are you of this?” Still sternish.

“I am very sure of this,” said Nachiketa, returning Yama’s glance with still, open eyes.

“You are indeed the right one for the task. You see what is there.”

“Yes, I do.”

Yama nodded sadly then, “I am very sure of it too,” he said. “Man has ceased to want a higher truth, no longer yearns for a lasting freedom.”

“It’s as if anything that might end the game is a threat,” said Nachiketa.

“You are indeed the right one for the task,” said Yama again. “But it does not mean that in their heart of hearts there still does not breathe the yearning to break the bonds.”

“Only, the heart of heart is so submerged. So, well, lost.”

“Still,” said Yama, “You have to find it, awaken it, and point it toward truth.”

“It is not a small order,” said Nachiketa.

“No one said it was,” answered Yama. Then, “Once they stir, and even vaguely yearn to break the spell of birth and death, tell them this.” And drew breath.

This time Nachiketa listened.

“Tell them that above the senses, above the knowing by touching, knowing by seeing, knowing by hearing, knowing by smelling, knowing by tasting, above knowing by perception, lies the mind, the monitor and coordinator of all these little knowings.

“Tell them it is easy to lose oneself in this myriad faceted collection of sense images. Tell them it can be an amusing place to dwell, but that spending too much time there is not conducive to freedom.

“Tell them that above the mind, like a seer and evaluator and concluder lies the intellect. Tell them that the intellect can be an amusing place to dwell, with its many channels of logic and its many loops and brackets and greater thans and lesser thans and answers answers answers breeding questions questions questions all a great game of intrigue to hold one’s attention for many, many lives if you are not careful. Tell them that spending too much time there is not conducive to freedom.

“Tell them that above the box of tricks called the intellect hovers the shadow self that some call the ego, the person as a whole, as a shadow cast by the senses, the mind, and the intellect. Tell them to be ware that he is only a shadow, lit from above by the real Self, reflecting many, many lives. Tell them that spending too much time there is not conducive to freedom.

“Tell them that above, below, within, without, and surrounding the shadow self breathes the breathless and unmanifested cause that is the true Self. The Atman that strives to lessen the distance to all life. Tell them that you can never spend too much time there.

“Tell them that above, below, within, without, surrounding the Atman lies the Brahman, attributeless and nowhere, notime.

“And tell them that lessening this last distance, the width between Atman and Brahman which never was a width, and never will be, will release them from the cycle of birth and death.”

 

Yama: He is formless, and can never be seen with these two eyes. But he reveals himself in the heart made pure through meditation and sense-restraint. Realizing him one is released from the cycle of birth and death.

 

“Tell me,” said Yama. “Have you ever seen the Brahman?”

“In every flower, in every drop of rain, in every named and unnamed life that lives,” said Nachiketa.

“Yet, those are not Brahman, only shadows cast by his presence.”

“Yes,” said Nachiketa, “that is true.”

“He is formless,” said Yama, “and can never be seen with these two eyes. Nor can he be seen by the eyes of the spirit, for there is truly nothing there to be seen. There are only shadows cast by his breathing.”

“Yet, I am him?” said Nachiketa.

“Yet, you are him,” said Yama, “for your heart is pure, and you have let go of what the senses have to offer. You have swept your heart clean of desire and of the million trillion motes of tinkles, meals, kisses, losses, births and deaths you have gathered. You have invited him in and he has revealed himself as you.”

“For he never left,” said Nachiketa.

“For you never left,” said Yama.

Nachiketa felt the still sense of nothing moving as he expanded to fill the entire trailer, Yama included.

“And there is only is,” said Nachiketa. “That is all you have to know.”

Nachiketa’s calm spread through Yama as well, who said, “You are released from birth and death.”

“Little by little,” said Nachiketa.

“Yes,” said Yama, “that is how you tell them. One by one.”

 

Yama: When the five senses are stilled, when the mind is stilled, when the intellect is stilled, that is called the highest state by the wise. They say yoga is the complete stillness in which one enters the unitive state, never to become separate again. If one is not established in this state, the sense of unity will come and go.

 

Neither Yama nor Nachiketa said anything for quite some time. The sun crossed the sky, for the third or fourth or fifth time—Nachiketa could not tell with any degree of certainty. He thought briefly that it was strange that he felt neither hunger nor thirst. He felt neither heat nor cold. In one sense, he didn’t feel at all, in another sense, he felt everything, hovering like a universe of blue butterflies throughout.

Yama, much to his credit, neither looked at his watch, nor did he glance out the window to see how Lucy was doing.

Lucy, much to her credit, although there were a few discrepancies to check on, did not disturb Yama, sensing perhaps what was happening in the silver trailer.

The wheel spun slowly, slow foot by shuffling slow foot through the mouth of the mountain. Was it a day or two or three. No one could tell and no one took notice.

When the time was right, Yama finally spoke, “The problem, of course, is that it is not enough to simply tell them: ‘Know,’ or ‘Be.’ Although that, when all is said and done, is all there is to it. But that truth is far, far too simple for the complications the unswept heart finds itself in.”

“Little by little,” said Nachiketa.

“Indeed,” said Yama. “Thread by thread. Thought by thought. Lead them upward, one by one, into the quiet light.”

“I know,” said Nachiketa.

“And tell them that not until the five senses have stopped their shouting, not until the mind has stopped its shouting, not until the intellect, too, has stopped its shouting, not until then can they reach what the wise have called the highest state. From where you are now looking at me, Nachiketa.”

Who didn’t answer, only looked.

“Tell them that the wise say that is how your reach the stillness so complete that you become one with the Brahman, never to become separate again. Short of this, unity will come and go.”

“I know,” said Nachiketa.

 

Yama: The unitive state cannot be attained through words or thoughts or through the eye. How can it be attained except through one who says ‘it is’?

 

“And now you know too, I see—but you have to share this knowledge—that the final unison must be made in stillness, in wordless quietude. Words may lead someone on the way, but they are only to put his feet on the path, and help him start walking. Soon enough words will fall by the side and the walking will be done by wordless purpose.

“Yes,” said Nachiketa, “I know that too.”

“Neither can you see your way there, at least not through human eyes. You have to know your way there.”

“I know that too.”

“And, so, tell them, wordlessly knowing, that the final unison, the removal of that final distance separating Atman and Brahman can only be attained by those who with their whole being say: it is.”

“Little by little?”

“One by one.”

 

Yama: There are two selves, the separate ego and the indivisible Atman. When one rises above I and me and mine, the Atman is revealed as one’s real Self.

 

“Point out to them, lead them to the view and leave them to contemplate it on their own, that there are the two selves: the shadow self that some call the ego and who usually wears a body and a name; that drives a car around and sometimes identifies with the car, and who is sometimes married and believes himself to be a husband, and who is sometimes married and believes herself to be a wife; the shadow self that some call ego and who often thirsts for recognition and believes himself to be what others think of him. That on the one hand you have this shadow self, and on the other you have the indivisible Atman.”

“So few realize this duality,” said Nachiketa.

“Yes, you have your work cut out for you,” said Yama.

Nachiketa nodded again.

“And, so, tell them that only when one rises above I and me and mine, is the Atman revealed as one’s real Self.”

“Little by little.”

“One by one.”

 

Yama: When all desires that surge in the heart are renounced, the mortal becomes immortal. When all the knots that strangle the heart are loosened, the mortal becomes immortal. This sums up the teaching of the scriptures.

 

“Know, Nachiketa, that there are a million desires surging through the heart, a million knots strangling it. This is the life of the mortal.”

“I remember this well.”

“From the first waking moment, to the last, he is led by the need to complete himself, to acquire, to add to, to build, and to incorporate. He believes this is the meaning of life.”

“I remember this well.”

“He is led by the thirsting heart like a bull calf by its nose ring. He will go where the heart tells him to. She will do what the heart demands. Believing, as mortal, that only by acquisition, that only by ingestion can fulfillment be gained. How astray they are led.”

“I remember this well.”

“So, tell them that only by renouncing all desires, that only by loosening the heart’s knots and letting the cord unwind and dissipate, that only by letting go of all such callings will the mortal become immortal.”

“I will.”

“And that, Nachiketa, as they say, is that. I have told you all I know.”

“I will do my best to tell them.”

“Little by little.”

“One by one.”

 

Yama: From the heart there radiate a hundred and one vital tracks. One of them rises to the crown of the head. This way leads to immortality, the others to death.

 

“Tell them that there is only one desire. That in truth, there is only one desire. It is the desire of the prisoner, which is always to be free. It is the desire of the blind, which is always to see. It is the desire of the ignorant, which is always to know, but unfortunately, the ignorant is ignorant of this one desire and so follows whatever urge he understands.”

“I have seen that, over and over,” said Nachiketa.

“You have to make even the ignorant know of his one desire.”

“I know. Little by little.”

“Tell them that the heart radiates a thousand desires, leading every which way, but only one leads up and out. Only one searches for the way back, back to a past that never was, only one desire is spoken in the stillness of true wonder. That desire leads to the real Self, all others lead to death.”

“One by one.”

 

Yama: The Lord of Love, not larger than the thumb, is ever enshrined in the hearts of all. Draw him clear out of the physical sheath, as one draws the stalk from the munja grass. Know thyself to be pure and immortal! Know thyself to be pure and immortal!

 

Had another day come and gone? Nachiketa was not sure. But it was dark outside again. He heard the shuffle, shuffle of the wheel again and wondered how Lucy was holding up. He looked at Yama looking at him.

“Now I know,” he said.

“Better, I think, than I do,” said Yama.

“It will be so hard,” said Nachiketa. “What words do I use?”

“I don’t know,” said Yama. “You’re the writer. I’m only an old gatekeeper.”

“I wish I had taken notes,” said Nachiketa.

“You will remember.”

“Yes. Yes, I believe I will.”

“Perhaps it is enough to tell them this: The real Self, the Emptiness that wishes and perceives, is enshrined in the hearts of all. Draw him clear out of the physical sheath, as one draws the stalk from the munja grass. Step out of the car. Let go. Know yourself to be pure and immortal. Know yourself to be pure and immortal.”

 

Nachiketa learned from the king of death the whole discipline of meditation. Freeing himself from all separateness, he won immortality in Brahman. So blessed is everyone who knows the Self.

 

Nachiketa knew the stillness that wishes and perceives and thanked Yama with all his heart. Then headed Earthward for a McDonald’s parking lot. Work cut out for him.

 

::

About the Author

 

 

Raised in Northern Sweden (apparently by trolls), Ulf Wolf now makes California’s Pacific North his home.

 

To date he has written six novels, five novellas, as well as a host of stories, poems, and songs. More is always underway.

 

For more about this particular wolf, please visit http://ulfwolf.com.

 

Also, you can contact him at [email protected].

 

Other stories by Ulf Wolf (also available on Shakespir):

 

Harriet and I — a novel

Miss Buddha — a novel

Mating Season — a novel

Perilous Memories — a novel

A Larry Comes — a novella

Lander — a novella

To Catch a Man Child — a novella

Two Paths — a novella

Ursa Lupus — a novella

Written on Oak — a novella

 

Many of his short stories are also available on Shakespir

 

 


Yama's Visitor

Arthur Thelonious Sherry of 46 Rexford Circle, Birchdale, Maine, was doing tax battle again. That is to say, not he personally but by way of Waynemore Bland, his accountant of many years: a 43-year-old man who still lived at home with his mother, and who had lost none of his hair and made a point of wearing it long to prove it. Arthur Sherry, who was losing his (no doubt about that) and wore it cropped to hide, or at best obscure, that fact, now sat in Bland’s deep visitor’s armchair and chewed his bottom lip, which made him look a bit like smiling, which he was not. Not at all. Arthur was not happy. Not happy to be sitting in Bland’s office, for one. Bland should have had the foresight to arrange to come to him—even if the filing deadline was tomorrow, and Bland’s schedule was full. Instead he had gotten a lame “Sorry Art, can’t get away.” And not at all happy that he still showed a profit. Too damn much of it. He looked across a yellow sea of lined paper at his accountant looking back at him. Way too much. And lastly, not at all happy that he had had to bring Sebastian. So, unhappy all around, pretty much. He stopped chewing his lip long enough to say, “So, it’s either the IRS or the charity of my choice. Is that what you’re saying, Wayne?” “In a nutshell, yes.” “And you didn’t see this coming?” “I did see it coming. You saw it coming. We discussed it more than once.” Arthur Sherry chose to ignore that. “What is the damage, precisely?” Bland ruffled through a sheaf of his lined yellow sheets, all covered with penciled calculations, rows and rows of them. He found what he was looking for. “Not less than half a million. Five fourteen, give or take the odd dollar.” Arthur Sherry, on the pudgy side—liked food, hated exercise—shifted in his chair, which protested a little in return. Then he sighed, more for effect perhaps than from despair, leaned back and looked the accountant square in the face. “Half a million,” he repeated, not so much a question as an accusation. “Five hundred fourteen thousand dollars? That’s what you’re telling me?” “Yes,” said Bland. “Give or take the odd dollar?” “The odd one, yes.” “To charity?” “Yes.” “Or the IRS gets it?” “Yes.” “Well, I’ll be damned.” “Yes.” “The penalty of success,” he said, and shot a glance along with an unhappy smile his son’s way. “Take heed son, a valuable lesson: no success shall go unpunished.” Sebastian looked at his father, but said nothing. “Looks that way,” said Bland, and Sherry swung his head back in his direction. Any recommendations?” “Well,” said Bland. “All things considered, including the Public Relations angle, the world being what it is, I would suggest the Red Cross.” “Or Green Peace,” said Sherry. “Green Peace?” Bland looked slightly horrified. “Joke, Wayne. That was a joke.” “Ah.” Bland looked at his desk. Found a couple of pencils out of position. Moved them around to some other out of position. “Remind me,” said Sherry. “How did we get around this problem last year?” “We channeled the excess profits into a research trust.” Bland plucked the name from memory with ease, “The Sherry Geological Exploration Society.”

  • ISBN: 9781370184958
  • Author: Ulf Wolf
  • Published: 2017-01-17 21:05:24
  • Words: 76558
Yama's Visitor Yama's Visitor