Another day spent wandering the city with the angel, another dream of the woman standing at the foot of my bed, and I awoke finally - after all these years - to understand what Joshua must have felt, at least at times, as the only one of his kind. I know he said again and again that he was the son of man, born of a woman, one of us, but it was the paternal part of his heritage that made him different. Now, since I'm fairly sure I am the only person walking the earth who was doing so two thousand years ago, I have an acute sense of what it is to be unique, to be the one and only. It's lonely. That's why Joshua went into those mountains so often, and stayed so long in the company of the creature.
Last night I dreamed that the angel was talking to someone in the room while I slept. In the dream I heard him say, "Maybe it would be best just to kill him when he finishes. Snap his neck, shove him into a storm sewer." Strange, though, there wasn't the least bit of malice in the angel's voice. On the contrary, he sounded very forlorn. That's how I know it was a dream.
I never thought I'd be happy to get back to the monastery, but after trudging through the snow for half the day, the dank stone walls and dark hallways were as welcoming as a warmly lit hearth. Half of the rice we had collected as alms was immediately boiled, then packed into bamboo cylinders about a hand wide and as long as a man's leg, then half of the root vegetables were stored away while the rest were packed into satchels along with some salt and more bamboo cylinders filled with cold tea. We had just enough time to chase the chill out of our limbs by the cook fires, then Gaspar had us take up the cylinders and the satchels and he led us out into the mountains. I had never noticed when the other monks left on the pilgrimage of secret meditation that they were carrying so much food. And with all this food, much more than we could eat in the four or five days we were gone, why had Joshua and I been training for this by fasting?
Traveling higher into the mountains was actually easier for a while, as the snow had been blown off the trail. It was when we came to the high plateaus where the yak grazed and the snow drifted that the going became difficult. We took turns at the head of the line, plowing a trail through the snow.
As we climbed, the air became so thin that even the highly conditioned monks had to stop frequently to catch their breaths. At the same time, the wind bit through our robes and leggings as if they weren't there. That there was not enough air to breathe, yet the movement of the air would chill our bones, I suppose is ironic, yet I was having a hard time appreciating it even then.
I said, "Why couldn't you just go to the rabbis and learn to be the Messiah like everyone else? Do you remember any snow in the story of Moses? No. Did the Lord appear to Moses in the form of a snow bank? I don't think so. Did Elijah ascend to heaven on a chariot of ice? Nope. Did Daniel come forth unharmed from a blizzard? No. Our people are about fire, Joshua, not ice. I don't remember any snow in all of the Torah. The Lord probably doesn't even go to places where it snows. This is a huge mistake, we never should have come, we should go home as soon as this is over, and in conclusion, I can't feel my feet." I was out of breath and wheezing.
"Daniel didn't come forth from the fire," Joshua said calmly.
"Well, who can blame him, it was probably warm in there."
"He came forth unharmed from the lion's den," said Josh.
"Here," said Gaspar, stopping any further discussion. He put down his parcels and sat down.
"Where?" I said. We were under a low overhang, out of the wind, and mostly out of the snow, but it was hardly what you could call shelter. Still, the other monks, including Joshua, shed their packs and sat, affecting the meditation posture and holding their hands in the mudra of all-giving compassion (which, strangely enough, is the same hand gesture that modern people use for "okay." Makes you think).
"We can't be here. There's no here here," I said.
"Exactly," said Gaspar. "Contemplate that."
So I sat.
Joshua and the others seemed impervious to the cold and as frost formed on my eyelashes and clothing, the light dusting of ice crystals that covered the ground and rocks around each of them began to melt, as if there was a flame burning inside of them. Whenever the wind died, I noticed steam rising off of Gaspar as his damp robe gave up its moisture to the chill air. When Joshua and I first learned to meditate, we had been taught to be hyperaware of everything around us, connected, but the state that my fellow monks were in now was one of trance, of separation, of exclusion. They had each constructed some sort of mental shelter in which they were happily sitting, while I, quite literally, was freezing to death.
"Joshua, I need a little help here," I said, but my friend didn't move a muscle. If it weren't for the steady stream of his breath I would have thought him frozen himself. I tapped him on the shoulder, but received no response whatsoever. I tried to get the attention of each of the other four monks, but they too gave no reaction to my prodding. I even pushed Gaspar hard enough to knock him over, yet he stayed in the sitting position, looking like a statue of the Buddha that had tumbled from its pedestal. Still, as I touched each of my companions I could feel the heat coming off of him. Since it was obvious that I wasn't going to learn how to reach this trance state in time to save my own life, my only alternative was to take advantage of theirs.
At first I arranged the monks in a large pile, trying to keep the elbows and knees out of the eyes and yarbles, out of respect and in the spirit of the infinitely compassionate Buddha and stuff. Although the warmth coming off them was impressive, I found that I could only keep one side of me warm at a time. Soon, by arranging my friends in a circle facing outward, and sitting in the middle, I was able to construct an envelope of comfort that kept the chill at bay. Ideally, I could have used a couple of more monks to stretch over the top of my hut to block the wind, but as the Buddha said, life is suffering and all, so I suffered. After I heated some tea on Number Seven monk's head and tucked one of the cylinders of rice under Gaspar's arm until it was warm, I was able to enjoy a pleasant repast and dropped off to sleep with a full belly.
I awoke to what sounded like the entire Roman army trying to slurp the anchovies out of the Mediterranean Sea. When I opened my eyes I saw the source of the noise and nearly tumbled over backward trying to back away. A huge, furry creature, half again as tall as any man I had ever seen was trying to slurp the tea out of one of the bamboo cylinders, but the tea had frozen to slush and the creature looked as if he might suck the top of his head in if he continued. Yes, he looked sort of like a man, except his entire body was covered with a long white fur. His eyes were as large as a cow's, with crystal blue irises and pinpoint pupils. Thick black eyelashes knitted together when he blinked. He had long black nails on his hands, which were similar to a man's except twice the size, and the only clothing he wore at all were some sort of boots that looked to be made of yak skin. The impressive array of tackle swinging between the creature's legs tipped me off to his maleness.
I looked around at the circle of monks to see if anyone had noticed that our supplies were being raided by a woolly beast, but they were all deeply entranced. The creature slurped again from the cylinder, then pounded on the side of it with his hand, as if to dislodge the contents, then looked at me as if asking for help. Whatever terror I felt melted away the second I looked into the creature's eyes. There wasn't the hint of aggression there, not a glint of violence or threat. I picked up the cylinder of tea that I had heated on Number Three's head. It sloshed in my hand, indicating that it hadn't frozen during my nap, so I held it out to the creature. He reached over Joshua's head and took the cylinder, pulled the cork from the end, and drank greedily.
I took the moment to kick my friend in the kidney. "Josh, snap out of it. You need to see this." I got no response, so I reached around and pinched my friend's nostrils shut. To master meditation the student must first master his breath. The savior made a snorting sound and came out of his trance gasping and twisting in my grip. He was facing me when I finally let go.
"What?" Josh said.
I pointed behind him and Joshua turned around to witness the full glory of the big furry white guy. "Holy moly!"
Big Furry jumped back cradling his tea like a threatened infant and made some vocalization which wasn't quite language. (But if it had been, it would probably have translated as "Holy Moly," as well.)
It was nice to see Joshua's masterful control slip to reveal a vulnerable underbelly of confusion. "What...I mean who...I mean, what is that?"
"Not a Jew," I said helpfully, pointing to about a yard of foreskin.
"Well, I can see it's not a Jew, but that doesn't narrow it down much, does it?"
Strangely, I seemed to be enjoying this much more than my two semi-terrified cohorts. "Well, do you remember when Gaspar gave us the rules of the monastery, and we wondered about the one that said we were not to kill a human or someone like a human?"
"Well, he's someone like a human, I guess."
"Okay." Joshua climbed to his feet and looked at Big Furry. Big Furry straightened up and looked at Joshua, tilting his head from side to side.
Big Furry smiled back. Black lips, really long sharp canines.
"Big teeth," I said. "Very big teeth."
Joshua held his hand out to the creature. The creature reached out to Joshua and ever so gently took the Messiah's smaller hand in his great paw...and wrenched Joshua off his feet, catching him in a hug and squeezing him so hard that his beatific eyes started to bug out.
"Help," squeaked Joshua.
The creature licked the top of Joshua's head with a long blue tongue.
"He likes you," I said.
"He's tasting me," Joshua said.
I thought of how my friend had fearlessly yanked the tail of the demon Catch, of how he had faced so many dangers with total calm. I thought of the times he had saved me, both from outside dangers and from myself, and I thought of the kindness in his eyes that ran deeper than sea, and I said:
"Naw, he likes you." I thought I'd try another language to see if the creature might better comprehend my meaning: "You like Joshua, don't you? Yes you do. Yes you do. He wuvs his widdle Joshua. Yes he does." Baby talk is the universal language. The words are different, but the meaning and sound is the same.
The creature nuzzled Joshua up under its chin, then licked his head again, this time leaving a steaming trail of green-tea-stained saliva behind on my friend's scalp. "Yuck," said Joshua. "What is this thing?"
"It's a yeti," said Gaspar from behind me, obviously having been roused from his trance. "An abominable snowman."
"This is what happens when you fuck a sheep!?" I exclaimed.
"Not an abomination," Josh said, "abominable." The yeti licked him on the cheek. Joshua tried to push away. To Gaspar he said, "Am I in danger?"
Gaspar shrugged. "Does a dog have a Buddha nature?"
"Please, Gaspar," Joshua said. "This is a question of practical application, not spiritual growth." The yeti sighed and licked Josh's cheek again. I guessed that the creature must have a tongue as rough as a cat's, as Joshua's cheek was going pink with abrasion.
"Turn the other cheek, Josh," I said. "Let him wear the other one out."
"I'm going to remember this," Joshua said. "Gaspar, will he harm me?"
"I don't know. No one has ever gotten that close to him before. Usually he comes while we are in trance and disappears with the food. We are lucky to even get a glimpse of him."
"Put me down, please," said Josh to the creature. "Please put me down."
The yeti set Joshua back on his feet on the ground. By this time the other monks were coming out of their trances. Number Seventeen squealed like a frying squirrel when he saw the yeti so close. The yeti crouched and bared his teeth.
"Stop that!" barked Joshua to Seventeen. "You're scaring him."
"Give him some rice," said Gaspar.
I took the cylinder I had warmed and handed it to the yeti. He popped off the top and began scooping out rice with a long finger, licking the grains off his fingers like they were termites about to make their escape. Meanwhile Joshua backed away from the yeti so that he stood beside Gaspar.
"This is why you come here? Why after alms you carry so much food up the mountain?"
Gaspar nodded. "He's the last of his kind. He has no one to help him gather food. No one to talk to."
"But what is he? What is a yeti?"
"We like to think of him as a gift. He is a vision of one of the many lives a man might live before he reaches nirvana. We believe he is as close to a perfect being as can be achieved on this plane of existence."
"How do you know he is the only one?"
"He told me."
"No, he sings. Wait."
As we watched the yeti eat, each of the monks came forward and put his cylinders of food and tea in front of the creature. The yeti looked up from his eating only occasionally, as if his whole universe resided in that bamboo pipe full of rice, yet I could tell that behind those ice-blue eyes the creature was counting, figuring, rationing the supplies we had brought.
"Where does he live?" I asked Gaspar.
"We don't know. A cave somewhere, I suppose. He has never taken us there, and we don't look for it."
Once all the food was put before the yeti, Gaspar signaled to the other monks and they started backing out from under the overhang into the snow, bowing to the yeti as they went. "It is time for us to go," Gaspar said. "He doesn't want our company."
Joshua and I followed our fellow monks back into the snow, following a path they were blazing back the way we had come. The yeti watched us leave, and every time I looked back he was still watching, until we were far enough away that he became little more than an outline against the white of the mountain. When at last we climbed out of the valley, and even the great sheltering overhang was out of sight, we heard the yeti's song. Nothing, not even the blowing of the ram's horn back home, not the war cries of bandits, not the singing of mourners, nothing I had ever heard had reached inside of me the way the yeti's song did. It was a high wailing, but with stops and pulses like the muted sound of a heart beating, and it carried all through the valley. The yeti held his keening notes far longer than any human breath could sustain. The effect was as if someone was emptying a huge cask of sadness down my throat until I thought I'd collapse or explode with the grief. It was the sound of a thousand hungry children crying, ten thousand widows tearing their hair over their husbands' graves, a chorus of angels singing the last dirge on the day of God's death. I covered my ears and fell to my knees in the snow. I looked at Joshua and tears were streaming down his cheeks. The other monks were hunched over as if shielding themselves from a hailstorm. Gaspar cringed as he looked at us, and I could see then that he was, indeed, a very old man. Not as old as Balthasar, perhaps, but the face of suffering was upon him.
"So you see," the abbot said, "he is the only one of his kind. Alone."
You didn't have to understand the yeti's language, if he had one, to know that Gaspar was right.
"No he's not," said Joshua. "I'm going to him."
Gaspar took Joshua's arm to stop him. "Everything is as it should be."
"No," said Joshua. "It is not."
Gaspar pulled his hand back as if he had plunged it into a flame - a strange reaction, as I had actually seen the monk put his hand in flame with less reaction as part of the kung fu regimen.
"Let him be," I said to Gaspar, not sure at the time why I was doing it.
Joshua headed back into the valley by himself, having not said another word to us.
"He'll be back when it's time," I said.
"What do you know?" snapped Gaspar in a distinctly unenlightened way. "You'll be working off your karma for a thousand years as a dung beetle just to evolve to the point of being dense."
I didn't say anything. I simply bowed, then turned and followed my brother monks back to the monastery.
It was a week before Joshua returned to us, and it was another day before he and I actually had time to speak. We were in the dining hall, and Joshua had eaten his own rice as well as mine. In the meantime, I had applied a lot of thought to the plight of the abominable snowman and, more important, to his origins.
"Do you think there were a lot of them, Josh?"
"Yes. Never as many as there are men, but there were many more."
"What happened to them?"
"I'm not sure. When the yeti sings I see pictures in my head. I saw that men came to these mountains and killed the yeti. They had no instinct to fight. Most just stood in place and watched as they were slaughtered. Perplexed by man's evil. Others ran higher and higher into the mountains. I think that this one had a mate and a family. They starved or died of some slow sickness. I can't tell."
"Is he a man?"
"I don't think he is a man," said Joshua.
"Is he an animal?"
"No, I don't think he's an animal either. He knows who he is. He knows he is the only one."
"I think I know what he is."
Joshua regarded me over the rim of his bowl. "Well?"
"Well, do you remember the monkey feet Balthasar bought from the old woman in Antioch, how they looked like little human feet?"
"And you have to admit that the yeti looks very much like a man. More like a man than he does any other creature, right? Well, what if he is a creature who is becoming a man? What if he isn't really the last of his kind, but the first of ours? What made me think of it was how Gaspar talks about how we work off our karma in different incarnations, as different creatures. As we learn more in each lifetime we may become a higher creature as we go. Well, maybe creatures do that too. Maybe as the yeti needs to live where it is warmer he loses his fur. Or as the monkeys need to, I don't know, run cattle and sheep, they become bigger. Not all at once, but through many incarnations. Maybe creatures evolve the way Gaspar believes the soul evolves. What do you think?"
Joshua stroked his chin for a moment and stared at me as if he was deep in thought, while at the same time I thought he might burst out laughing any second. I'd spent a whole week thinking about this. This theory had vexed me through all of my training, all of my meditations since we'd made the pilgrimage to the yeti's valley. I wanted some sort of acknowledgment from Joshua for my effort, if nothing else.
"Biff," he said, "that may be the dumbest idea you've ever had
"So you don't think it's possible?"
"Why would the Lord create a creature only to have it die out? Why would the Lord allow that?" Joshua said.
"What about the flood? All but Noah and his family were killed."
"But that was because people had become wicked. The yeti isn't wicked. If anything, his kind have died out because they have no capacity for wickedness."
"So, you're the Son of God, you explain it to me."
"It is God's will," said Joshua, "that the yeti disappear."
"Because they had no trace of wickedness?" I said sarcastically. "If the yeti isn't a man, then he's not a sinner either. He's innocent."
Joshua nodded, staring into his now-empty bowl. "Yes. He's innocent." He stood and bowed to me, which was something he almost never did unless we were training. "I'm tired now, Biff. I have to sleep and pray."
"Sorry, Josh, I didn't mean to make you sad. I thought it was an interesting theory."
He smiled weakly at me, then bowed his head and shuffled off to his cell.
Over the next few years Joshua spent at least a week out of every month in the mountains with the yeti, going up not only with every group after alms, but often going up into the mountains by himself for days or, in the summer, weeks at a time. He never talked about what he did while in the mountains, except, he told me, that the yeti had taken him to the cave where he lived and had shown him the bones of his people. My friend had found something with the yeti, and although I didn't have the courage to ask him, I suspect the bond he shared with the snowman was the knowledge that they were both unique creatures, nothing like either of them walked the face of the earth, and regardless of the connection each might feel with God and the universe, at that time, in that place, but for each other, they were utterly alone.
Gaspar didn't forbid Joshua's pilgrimages, and indeed, he went out of his way to act as if he didn't notice when Twenty-Two Monk was gone, yet I could tell there was some unease in the abbot whenever Joshua was away.
We both continued to drill on the posts, and after two years of leaping and balancing, dancing and the use of weapons were added to our routine. Joshua refused to take up any of the weapons; in fact, he refused to practice any art that would bring harm to another being. He wouldn't even mimic the action of fighting with swords and spears with a bamboo substitute. At first Gaspar bristled at Joshua's refusal, and threatened to banish him from the monastery, but when I took the abbot aside and told him the story of the archer Joshua had blinded on the way to Balthasar's fortress, the abbot relented. He and two of the older monks who had been soldiers devised for Joshua a regimen of weaponless fighting that involved no offense or striking at all, but instead channeled the energy of an attacker away from oneself. Since the new art was practiced only by Joshua (and sometimes myself), the monks called it Jew-d&ocirc;, meaning the way of the Jew.
In addition to learning kung fu and Jew-d&ocirc;, Gaspar set us to learning to speak and write Sanskrit. Most of the holy books of Buddhism had been written in that language and had yet to be translated into Chinese, which Joshua and I had become fluent in.
"This is the language of my boyhood," Gaspar said before beginning our lessons. "You need to know this to learn the words of Gautama Buddha, but you will also need this language when you follow your dharma to your next destination."
Joshua and I looked at each other. It had been a long time since we had talked about leaving the monastery and the mention of it put us on edge. Routine feeds the illusion of safety, and if nothing else, there was routine at the monastery.
"When will we leave, master?" I asked.
"When it is time," said Gaspar.
"And how will we know it is time to leave?"
"When the time for staying has come to an end."
"And we will know this because you will finally give us a straight and concrete answer to a question instead of being obtuse and spooky?" I asked.
"Does the unhatched tadpole know the universe of the full-grown frog?"
"Evidently not," Joshua said.
"Correct," said the master. "Meditate upon it."
As Joshua and I entered the temple to begin our meditation I said, "When the time comes, and we know that the time has come for us to leave, I am going to lump up his shiny little head with a fighting staff."
"Meditate upon it," said Josh.
"I mean it. He's going to be sorry he taught me how to fight," I said.
"I'm sure of it. I'm sorry already."
"You know, he doesn't have to be the only one bopped in the noggin when noggin-boppin' time rolls around," I said.
Joshua looked at me as if I'd just awakened him from a nap. "All the time we spend meditating, what are you really doing, Biff?"
"I'm meditating - sometimes - listening to the sound of the universe and stuff."
"But mostly you're just sitting there."
"I've learned to sleep with my eyes open."
"That won't help your enlightenment."
"Look, when I get to nirvana I want to be well rested."
"Don't spend a lot of time worrying about it."
"Hey, I have discipline. Through practice I've learned to cause spontaneous nocturnal emissions."
"That's an accomplishment," the Messiah said sarcastically.
"Okay, you can be snotty if you want to, but when we get back to Galilee, you walk around trying to sell your 'love your neighbor because he is you' claptrap, and I'll offer the 'wet dreams at will' program and we'll see who gets more followers."
Joshua grinned: "I think we'll both do better than my cousin John and his 'hold them underwater until they agree with you' sermon."
"I haven't thought about him in years. Do you think he's still doing that?"
Just then, Number Two Monk, looking very stern and unenlightened, stood and started across the temple toward us, his bamboo rod in hand.
"Sorry, Josh, I'm going no-mind." I dropped to the lotus position, formed the mudra of the compassionate Buddha with my fingers, and lickity-split was on the sitting-still road to oneness with allthatness.
Despite Gaspar's veiled warning about our moving on, we again settled into a routine, this one including learning to read and write the sutras in Sanskrit, but also Joshua's time with the yeti. I had gotten so proficient in the martial arts that I could break a flagstone as thick as my hand with my head, and I could sneak up on even the most wary of the other monks, flick him on the ear, and be back in lotus position before he could spin to snatch the still-beating heart from my chest. (Actually, no one was really sure if anyone could do that. Every day Number Three Monk would declare it time for the "snatching the still-beating heart from the chest" drill, and every day he would ask for volunteers. After a brief wait, when no one volunteered, we'd move onto the next drill, usually the "maiming a guy with a fan" drill. Everyone wondered if Number Three could really do it, but no one wanted to ask. We knew how Buddhist monks liked to teach. One minute you're curious, the next a bald guy is holding a bloody piece of pulsating meat in your face and you're wondering why the sudden draft in the thorax area of your robe. No thanks, we didn't need to know that badly.)
Meanwhile, Joshua became so adept at avoiding blows that it was as if he'd become invisible again. Even the best fighting monks, of whom I was not one, had trouble laying a hand on my friend, and often they ended up flat on their backs on the flagstones for their trouble. Joshua seemed his happiest during these exercises, often laughing out loud as he narrowly dodged the thrust of a sword that would have taken his eye. Sometimes he would take the spear away from Number Three, only to bow and present it to him with a grin, as if the grizzled old soldier had dropped it instead of having it finessed from his grip. When Gaspar witnessed these displays he would leave the courtyard shaking his head and mumbling something about ego, leaving the rest of us to collapse into paroxysms of laughter at the abbot's expense. Even Numbers Two and Three, who were normally the strict disciplinarians, managed to mine a few smiles from their ever-so furrowed brows. It was a good time for Joshua. Meditation, prayer, exercise, and time with the yeti seemed to have helped him to let go of the colossal burden he'd been given to carry. For the first time he seemed truly happy, so I was stunned the day my friend entered the courtyard with tears streaming down his cheeks. I dropped the spear I was drilling with and ran to him.
"He's dead," Joshua said.
I embraced him and he collapsed into my arms sobbing. He was wearing wool leggings and boots, so I knew immediately that he'd just returned from one of his visits into the mountains.
"A piece of ice fell from over his cave. I found him under it. Crushed. He was frozen solid."
"So you couldn't..."
Joshua pushed me back and held me by the shoulders. "That's just it. I wasn't there in time. I not only couldn't save him, I wasn't even there to comfort him."
"Yes you were," I said.
Joshua dug his fingers into my shoulders and shook me as if I was hysterical and he was trying to get my attention, then suddenly he let go of me and shrugged. "I'm going to the temple to pray."
"I'll join you soon. Fifteen and I have three more movements to practice." My sparring partner waited patiently at the edge of the courtyard, spear in hand, watching.
Joshua got almost to the doors before he turned. "Do you know the difference between praying and meditating, Biff?"
I shook my head.
"Praying is talking to God. Meditating is listening. I've spent most of these last six years listening. Do you know what I've heard?"
Again I said nothing.
"Not a single thing, Biff. Now I have some things I want to say."
"I'm sorry about your friend," I said.
"I know." He turned and started inside.
"Josh," I called. He paused and looked over his shoulder at me.
"I won't let that happen to you, you know that, right?"
"I know," he said, then he went inside to give his father a divine ass-chewing.
The next morning Gaspar summoned us to the tea room. The abbot looked as if he had not slept in days and whatever his age, he was carrying a century of misery in his eyes.
"Sit," he said, and we did. "The old man of the mountain is dead."
"That's what I called the yeti, the old man of the mountain. He has passed on to his next life and it is time for you to go."
Joshua said nothing, but sat with his hands folded in his lap, staring at the table.
"What does one have to do with the other?" I asked. "Why should we leave because the yeti has died? We didn't know he even existed until we had been here for two years."
"But I did," said Gaspar.
I felt a heat rising in my face - I'm sure that my scalp and ears must have flushed, because Gaspar scoffed at me. "There is nothing else here for you. There was nothing here for you from the beginning. I would not have allowed you to stay if you weren't Joshua's friend." It was the first time he'd used either of our names since we'd arrived at the monastery. "Number Four will meet you at the gate. He has the possessions you arrived with, as well as some food for your journey."
"We can't go home," Joshua said at last. "I don't know enough yet."
"No," said Gaspar, "I suspect that you don't. But you know all that you will learn here. If you come to a river and find a boat at the edge, you will use that boat to cross and it will serve you well, but once across the river, do you put the boat on your shoulders and carry it with you on the rest of your journey?"
"How big is the boat?" I asked.
"What color is the boat?" asked Joshua.
"How far is the rest of the journey?" I queried.
"Is Biff there to carry the oars, or do I have to carry everything?" asked Josh.
"No!" screamed Gaspar. "No, you don't take the boat along on the journey. It has been useful but now it's simply a burden. It's a parable, you cretins!"
Joshua and I bowed our heads under Gaspar's anger. As the abbot railed, Joshua smiled at me and winked. When I saw the smile I knew that he'd be okay.
Gaspar finished his tirade, then caught his breath and resumed in the tone of the tolerant monk that we were used to. "As I was saying, there is no more for you to learn. Joshua, go be a bodhisattva for your people, and Biff, try not to kill anyone with what we have taught you here."
"So do we get our boat now?" Joshua asked.
Gaspar looked as if he were about to explode, then Joshua held his hand up and the old man remained silent.
"We are grateful for our time here, Gaspar. These monks are noble and honorable men, and we have learned much from them. But you, honorable abbot, are a pretender. You have mastered a few tricks of the body, and you can reach a trance state, but you are not an enlightened being, though I think you have glimpsed enlightenment. You look everywhere for answers but where they lie. Nevertheless, your deception hasn't stopped you from teaching us. We thank you, Gaspar. Hypocrite. Wise man. Bodhisattva."
Gaspar sat staring at Joshua, who had spoken as if he were talking to a child. The old man went about fixing the tea, more feebly now, I thought, but maybe that was my imagination.
"And you knew this?" Gaspar asked me.
I shrugged. "What enlightened being travels halfway around the world following a star on the rumor that a Messiah has been born?"
"He means across the world," said Josh.
"I mean around the world." I elbowed Joshua in the ribs because it was easier than explaining my theory of universal stickiness to Gaspar. The old guy was having a rough day as it was.
Gaspar poured tea for all of us, then sat down with a sigh. "You were not a disappointment, Joshua. The three of us knew as soon as we saw you that you were a being unlike any other. Brahman born to flesh, my brother said."
"What gave it away," I said, "the angels on the roof of the stable?"
Gaspar ignored me. "But you were still an infant, and whatever it was that we were looking for, you were not it - not yet, anyway. We could have stayed, I suppose, and helped to raise you, protect you, but we were all dense. Balthasar wanted to find the key to immortality, and there was no way that you could give him that, and my brother and I wanted the keys to the universe, and those were not to be found in Bethlehem either. So we warned your father of Herod's intent to have you killed, we gave him gold to get you out of the country, and we returned to the East."
"Melchior is your brother?"
Gaspar nodded. "We were princes of Tamil. Melchior is the oldest, so he would have inherited our lands, but I would have received a small fiefdom as well. Like Siddhartha, we eschewed worldly pleasures to pursue enlightenment."
"How did you end up here, in these mountains?" I asked.
"Chasing Buddhas." Gaspar smiled. "I had heard that there lived a sage in these mountains. The locals called him the old man of the mountain. I came looking for the sage, and what I found was the yeti. Who knows how old he really was, or how long he'd been here? What I did know was that he was the last of his kind and that he would die before long without help. I stayed here and I built this monastery. Along with the monks who came here to study, I have been taking care of the yeti since you two were just infants. Now he is gone. I have no purpose, and I have learned nothing. Whatever there was to know here died under that lump of ice."
Joshua reached across the table and took the old man's hand. "You drill us every day in the same movements, we practice the same brush strokes over and over, we chant the same mantras, why? So that these actions will become natural, spontaneous, without being diluted by thought, right?"
"Yes," said Gaspar.
"Compassion is the same way," said Joshua. "That's what the yeti knew. He loved constantly, instantly, spontaneously, without thought or words. That's what he taught me. Love is not something you think about, it is a state in which you dwell. That was his gift."
"Wow," I said.
"I came here to learn that," said Josh. "You taught it to me as much as the yeti."
"Me?" Gaspar had been pouring the tea as Joshua spoke and now he noticed that he'd overfilled his cup and the tea was running all over the table.
"Who took care of him? Fed him? Looked after him? Did you have to think about that before you did it?"
"No," said Gaspar.
Joshua stood. "Thanks for the boat."
Gaspar didn't accompany us to the front gate. As he promised, Number Four was waiting for us with our clothes and the money we had when we arrived six years before. I picked up the ying-yang vial of poison that Joy had given me and slipped the lanyard over my head, then I pushed the sheathed black glass dagger into the belt of my robe and tucked my clothes under my arm.
"You will go to find Gaspar's brother?" Number Four asked. Number Four was one of the older monks, one of the ones who had served the emperor as a soldier, and a long white scar marked his head from the middle of his shaved scalp to his right ear, which had healed to a forked shape.
"Tamil, right?" Joshua said.
"Go south. It is very far. There are many dangers along the way. Remember your training."
"Good." Number Four turned on his heel and walked into the monastery, then shut the heavy wooden gate.
"No, no, Four, don't embarrass yourself with a sappy good-bye," I said to the gate. "No, really, please, no scenes."
Joshua was counting our money out of a small leather purse. "It's just what we left with them."
"No, that's not good. We've been here six years, Biff. This money should have doubled or tripled during that time."
"What, by magic?"
"No, they should have invested it." He turned and looked back at the gate. "You dumb bastards, maybe you should spend a little less time studying how to beat each other up and a little more time on managing your money."
"Spontaneous love?" I said.
"Yeah, Gaspar'll never get that one either. That's why they killed the yeti, you know that, don't you?"
"The mountain people. They killed the yeti because they couldn't understand a creature who wasn't as evil as they were."
"The mountain people were evil?"
"All men are evil, that's what I was talking to my father about."
"What did he say?"
"At least he answered you."
"I got the feeling that he thinks it's my problem now."
"Makes you wonder why he didn't burn that on one of the tablets. 'HERE, MOSES, HERE'S THE TEN COMMANDMENTS, AND HERE'S AN EXTRA ONE THAT SAYS FUCK 'EM.'"
"He doesn't sound like that."
"FOR EMERGENCIES," I continued in my perfect impression-of-God voice.
"I hope it's warm in India," Joshua said.
And so, at the age of twenty-four, Joshua of Nazareth did go down into India.