Rat on a Mountain

So I’m living in a Buddhist monastery on a mountaintop in Woodstock, NY. It’s fitting. The Chinese zodiac describes me as a rat on a mountain — a creature removed from its natural environment. Which maybe explains why I never felt I belonged anywhere I was.

Perhaps the same could be said of others here. Our red-robed teachers are Tibetan, the gentle staff mostly middle-class whites. Decades ago, Jan* left his native Netherlands, to worship in an Asian language on this American highland. Lucy, blonde, mops floors. Tom, the tattooed cook, prepares the pilgrims’ meals. Today he told me how he and a few friends, all stoned, once left Boston at midnight and drove four hours just to eat cheese steaks in Manhattan.

I was born in Chicago, but when anyone asks where I’m from, I say New York City. I’m settling in.

A gong calls us to chant in the shrine room every evening at seven. I went my first night here. Sitting cross-legged on the floor, upon a stiff pillow, I caught the melodies easily, but tripped on the foreign syllables. It will take practice.

It’s a monastery, so I guess I’m stating the obvious when I say it’s peaceful here. On a mountaintop, though, everyone complains of the cold. Both the chill and others’ tales of bears and rattlesnakes have conspired to keep me from walking down the mountain road into Woodstock proper. But I’m not lacking excitement.

Take today, for instance. At lunch yesterday, Tom told me about the nearby meditation pond. I decided to see it. So this afternoon, dressed in four layers, I wandered down our high, quiet road until I found the narrow wooden sign marked “DHARMA PATH.” l noted a way cleared through the forest. Stepping over a thin rope that serves as a gate, my feet followed the dirt lane, which was hung on either side with prayer flags curtaining the path in multicolors. Because of the chill, I refused the invitations of benches built from carefully laid slate, and instead kept walking until I came to a clearing.

The land was slightly wild. I stepped past heads of purple clover hidden under long grass and tall weeds with yellow flowers. Above us stretched white-skinned birch trees furred with pale green moss, their glossy leaves turning. Large black dragonflies clicked by like tiny helicopters, and in the distance a low cloud crouched upon a neighboring mountain. Between the foot of that mountain and the clearing where I stood, I saw the pond cupped in the hollow hand of the slight valley. I approached, and noticed the world reflected on its clear surface. Just underneath, side by side, swam two large goldfish, a pair of orange flashes.

I tried to enjoy in innocence the beauty of this scene. But it was too late, because days ago the memories started. After he died he came to me to confess, like a good Catholic. And now I can’t forget how she and I shared him for a summer, and then those two tried to kill me.

As if a light switch’s been flipped, I’m flooded in remembrance. A summer spent in a mountain valley. Like me, he had a wiry frame. It hung over me, filament-thin. And around him the air somehow took on a weird glow, a rainbow overlay; I was enchanted. But what lay within him was dark. So was the bedroom where he had me exactly as he wanted. In exchange I took his heart.

It made her livid. And for some reason he’d always do anything she asked. I dimly remember the ritual. My mind recalls the curse, formed by her words, that dripped down on me as if filtered through her bitter heart. In horror I hold this picture of betrayal: those two lording over my prone body on her altar — black widow and black magician, standing side by side to call down my early death — alchemists who’d forgotten the Golden Rule.

So there followed a near-decade of disaster: a second Bush era, bombs droning dully overseas. On TV I watched them fall. I died each time. I left home again and again. New York. Portland. Los Angeles. Each radiant city a separate hell — nine years, nine circles, neverending. Struck down day after day, I rose more tired each time friends exhumed me.

Until finally I’ve climbed to the top of this mountain, and am looking down now at the vista below. And I’ve outlived him. But she’s still here. And as memory flares like lightning into forgotten corners of my mind, I’m struck dumb staring at this wicked mirror:

I spy her, skulking beneath an image carefully constructed from a multitude of skins like scalps amassed in a gruesome necklace — like the string of unwitting victims of her secret crimes! I see her once more, eyes veiled in guilt, Salome’s jealous sister, a murderer of mates and rivals.

Now he’s gone and there’s no one between me and my sister serpent, for I’ve swallowed the ends of the earth. Being black, I absorb all. From dust to dust, to me, he returned. So also shall she when, burnt out and sour, she submits to the weight of the bones she wears daily, a penitent sitting in the tired cells of her body and awaiting release from her lunatic funhouse.

In years past, I’d have had her killed instantly. But it’s a new era. I’ve learned from her error, so these days I pray for the well-being of all. And I still believe in democracy, albeit one ruled by a hierarchy of the wise. So I’ve brought an audience up here with me where, in clear air, we can decide the next step together. I’m heartened by your counsel.

You all still dare to hope, and seem to agree I should take another lover, a more apt mirror. And, as it happens, the Sun is rising like a fair-haired hero. He and the mountain have mated, a sodomist anomaly! An infernal sunrise in the death of summer!

To me it’s no surprise. Years ago, in a dream, he fell onto me like the sun spills upon sea at morning. Slow as if hung over, he rose, sleepy-eyed. Then, seeking his own image, he stumbled at last to a looking glass in the cup of a mountain clearing! And here he is, at last, once more. My love, please come see me again and again. I no longer fear infinity. * All names have been changed.


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