Miri did not relish the thought of bedding down with a complete stranger, royalty or not. At some point, Rani brought a beautifully engraved scroll to Miri. “It is from a friend,” was all she said.
It was the Bhagavad Gita.
“Thomas!” whispered Miri as she opened the book. The writing was flawless and richly decorated. It was a treasure beyond compare. Miri unrolled the scroll and ran through it looking for a message. There was nothing. Perhaps she had missed it. She ran back slowly through the passages looking for some writing out of place, but there was nothing.
“Praise be!” a voice called from behind her. A rather sharp edged woman stood behind her. Miri had been introduced to her before, but they had not spoken since. Her name was Maitreyi. She reminded Miri very much of Sister Miriam. “I have only seen this once before!”
Maitreyi leaned over Miri and touched the scroll and ran her fingers across the words. “This,” she announced very grandly, “is one of the copies written by Vyasa himself!”
“Who is Vyasa?” asked Miri.
“The poet who composed the Gita!” cried Maitreyi, “It is of great antiquity! This book is centuries old! Though how you came to possess it is a great mystery! I have seen the raja’s library and this is not one of his!”
“Rani gave it to me,” explained Miri.
Maitreyi reached to take the scroll from Miri, but then hesitated, “I am sorry, could I...”
“Of course,” offered Miri.
Maitreyi poured avidly over the book, muttering the word, ‘beautiful” over and over again, each time with an increasing reverence.
Her finger, poised suddenly a hair’s breadth from the page.
She looked up at Miri. “I am sorry, I have been so rude. I was mistaken. Though the words are right, it is not an original copy.” she smiled sheepishly, “I should have known it could not have been an original copy. It must be the betel juice!”
She glanced down at the page her finger hung above.
“You see this passage? I believe that it must have been written for a warrior. The word, ‘kashatrya’? It is slightly different from the rest of the text, and everywhere it occurs, the word is embellished. You see that?”
Maitreyi held the page for Miri to see, and then Miri noticed that indeed, there was a slight variation in the width of the lettering and as Maitreyi held the page up, the rays of the sun were reflected from the word. By now a small group of women had gathered about Miri and Maitreyi. Some admired the workmanship of the book, and some returned to their previous activity, having no interest other than to satisfy their curiosity.
Though no area was set aside for each woman, there was an informal placement in the dressing room, in which there were many wardrobes, but not enough for each woman to have her own. There was no adequate room for the Gita, but everyone agreed with Maitreyi that such a fine book should have a place of honour, so it was placed on a table in the atrium on a glowing new gold-embroidered tablecloth beside the newly written Sattasai, a collection of erotic gathas collected by the raja recently delivered to his prasada.
That night, Miri thought about the meaning of the gift, and still held the notion that Thomas had sent it, but she began to doubt that he had, for she could not imagine how had he obtained such a very valuable book. Still, the fact that the word “kashatrya” was marked in the text gave her hope a message might be hidden in the volume itself. With such thoughts she fell asleep, and instantly found herself back in her garden. She pushed quickly through the foliage, and cold, wet dew fell and rolled across her face and hands. She came to the central pool and stepped into it, thinking that Thomas would be under the sacred tree and could explain the meaning of the gift of the Bhagavad Gita to her. She could not find him, and her search became more frantic, and the wild panic that rose within her woke her from the dream. All was quiet within the harem halls. She laid her head back upon the silken pillow, and through the carved filigree covering the window, she could see the silhouette of a huge owl resting upon a tree. It called softly and she fell back to sleep. But she had no rest for she spent the rest of the night dreaming of losing Thomas and searching in the garden to no avail, and waking whenever her loss became too much to bear.
The next morning, after the women had eaten and taken their dance lessons, Miri took the opportunity of a rest, to study her gift. She sat purposely in the sun, so she could discreetly tilt the page one way or another to see if the words would stand out from the text without attracting the curiosity of idle harem mates. She suspected that perhaps the entire episode could also possibly be a test of her loyalty to the raja, so just to be on the safe side she read the text, intent on learning enough from it to withstand an interrogation on its contents. She was thankful that she had spent time reading the text with Thomas and Devisaprad, but she did not have the patience to read it in sequential order. Reading and translating was a tedious chore.
A passage from Krishna caught her, as it seemed familiar. Slowly, she read:
“It is said the Asvattha, the eternal sacred tree, has its roots in Heaven and it’s branches spread wide below here on Earth, and from this source emerge leaves that flutter in the air. This sound is the hymns of the Vedas.
Branches spread forth, both above and below. These are the pleasures of the senses, and these entwine humanity through our selfish acts. We cannot perceive its true nature, nor will we find its beginning, end nor define the in-between. Armed with an axe of dispassion, only the wise can chop the deeply-imbedded roots of the Asvattha tree, there to build a bed of refuge from rebirth and to sit upon the eternal throne of the Primeval Spirit, from which flows the never-ending stream of our conditioned existence.
The wise, free from the pride of self and endowed with perfect perception, shall prevail over false attachment to action, whose Soul knows the Supreme Spirit, set free from the opposites, desire for pleasure and fear of pain, can reach the supreme eternal abode.”
Miri looked up for a moment. No one was watching her. Her thoughts bubbled madly through her dream, the Gita and to the tale from her childhood about Inanna and the huluppu tree and how the Bhagavad Gita description of the Asvattha tree mirrored the imagery of Dumuzi’s destruction of the huluppu tree and his creation of Inanna’s bed and her throne. Miri fondled the pendant that Padma had given her. It was strange how this land, so different from her own could remind her so much of her birth place and she suddenly realized that she was terribly homesick. And the homesickness attracted thoughts of her lost contact with Thomas. So much of her experience in this strange land pointed her attention back to Canaan. Tears began to form in her eyes.
The walls of the harem closed in on her.
“This can be a cold and dark place.”
Miri was startled. Maitreyi placed a hand upon Miri’s shoulder.
“I came here from a unhappy family,” Maitreyi, “We were poor, but as a child I did not know of any other life.” She spread her arms wide, “I had no idea that such places as this existed even though our village was not far from here. I thought it was a great honour to be called as a bride of Shiva.”
Tears welled in Miri’s eyes, and Maitreyi pulled Miri’s head into her slim shoulder, and stroked her hair. “I miss my home also,” whispered Maitreyi, “But I can never return there! You cannot imagine what a terrible price my family has paid for me to be here.”
She still stroked Miri as the contact brought her comfort as well, and Miri melted into Maitreyi’s embrace.
“I was very young,” she said sadly, “We poor village folk had no idea of what this place was. Our thoughts were guided by ancestors and gods who lived in a world very different from these modern times. We had thought that this place was still as the temple of Yellama as it had always been, where women came to learn the ways of the gods and to serve the goddess. It is true that the priestesses became possessed by Yellama and then performed the sacred sexual rites as proscribed by the gods. And it is true also that we were to consort with the raja, but back then, the raja received his commission from the goddess and he the consort to the goddess.
My father, in order that I could fulfill my destiny and dreams to serve the gods, had me learn the Vedas, and he paid an old Brahmin, wise in the wisdom of the gods but as foolish as men can be to teach me the verses.” For a moment Maitreyi paused her stroking.
“Because of that brahmin, I lost my maidenhood, and because of the honour of my father and mother, I could tell no one. I was sure that only great calamity could come of my denouncing the old Brahmin, so I held my tongue from accusation even though it was the very instrument that the Brahmin prized the most!
He told me how beautiful I was! How intelligent! How witty! Yet, in all that time he desired only that part of me which inspired the rapid rise and fall of his rooster! Even though I was young, I could easily influence him with careful withdrawal and offering of my favours. His wife knew of his peccadilloes, but she too, could see only shame and no advantage to revealing them. With this bitter unspoken secret between us and the brahmin’s obliviousness to our awareness, we became bitter enemies. Kali was a cunning old witch, but I, even at that age was a vixen to her tigress. I knew she could not denounce me without revealing her own shame and degradation, and, as the other woman, I was privy to her own sexual shortcomings, of which I hinted at whenever her great claws threatened to rip me open. Deeper than that, the housemaid told me that Kali could not bear children, which was a great shock to me for I knew they had a son who had taken to be the husband of an important woman in Myanamar.
It turns out that shortly after Kali and the brahmin determined they could not bear children, the housemaid became pregnant and announced that the master of the house was the father. Kali immediately had her banished, for her presence would reveal her own barrenness. More than that, she could not face her husband without bearing him a child. So, in the middle of the night, while her husband slept, she slipped away to the woods where the housemaid had fled and offered to take her child if it were a boy and raise him as her own. Well, the housemaid had no choice for her pregnancy would make her ineligible as a wife for some other, and she had no means of support. So they struck a deal and the housemaid stayed hidden for the length of her term, and Kali began to stuff her sari with pillows.
Luckily for the two conspirators, the baby was male, and when they left the woods, one with carried a child and the other, prospects of marriage. They say the housemaid found a husband shortly after and managed to time her wedding night with her menstrual period, and he was man enough to believe in her virginity.
Of course, I tested the waters first, and casually asked about her son, wondering if he ever thought of his mother, for he rarely sent word to her. Her eyes told me all I needed to know. Still, though I held her at bay, I would never eat of the food she had prepared for me, but using a childish prerogative, I dipped my bread into either her bowl or his, and never drank of my own cup, unless I myself had poured it.
My parents received gifts from the Brahmin and everyone except Kali and myself was happy. Despite the onerous sexual duties I performed there, I sought refuge in the brahmin’s library, for there it was quiet, and Kali was banned from entering. I was afraid she would beat me should I ever be caught alone with her. The official pretext was that he needed quiet, but that is where I, and I believe, many others serviced his sexual depravities. If I was very quiet, he actually would forget that I was there, and I quietly read books in the corner. I think he enjoyed the company, though he was not one for talking. His wife was a chatterbox, and I do not think that even when they used to make love that she stopped talking. This was a strange way for a woman with secrets to behave, but I seriously do not think she could endure the silence, and that if she ever stopped talking, others would hear her true thoughts instead and the terrible secrets of her household would be revealed.
It was only when I read on my own that I enjoyed the reading, for when he was teaching me, he would rap my knuckle with a whisk every time I made a mistake, or mis-pronounced a word. I learned also to write, but there the treatment was the same. It is a wonder that I learned anything under such mistreatment. When he tired of the lesson, I would have to service him, and I do not know which I deplored more, the slaps when I erred or the caresses when I pleased him. Once he was satiated, he wished no more of me. Sometimes, I have to admit, I pushed the sex upon him to end the raps to my knuckles, just to have the contact with him over. After he wiped himself off, he would push me away and return to his study of the Vedas, as holy as he could be, and I, I would retire to my corner in his library and hide behind an open book. But I filled my silence with the sacred books, and read and read and read, and the words transported me to worlds where the gods and goddesses produced, played upon and placated human sorrow, and justice was dispensed to all, as was the lot they had woven. Strangely, the largest book, the one behind which I felt safest was also the book that sustained me through my stay with the Brahmin. It was very old and concerned the goddess Tara, and I came to believe that the words were written so many years ago to bring me, the true Maitreyi, comfort in my strange situation.”
“It was a message to you?” asked Miri. She pulled her head up and they held hands, side by side on the divan, facing each other.
“Well,” Maitreyi began, “It was a story, and I discovered it was also a map, a guide to a world both within and without, and I traveled there so many times within my dreams and my mind that I know the place is real and that I am fated to go there!”
“Where?” asked Miri, “Where must you go?”
“Shambhala!” announced Maitreyi with a whisper, “I must return to Shambhala!”
“Is that where you family lives?”
Maitreyi shook her head. “No, it is -” She paused to search for an appropriate word. “It is a hidden valley. Within that valley is a mountain called Meru. Upon the mountain is the Tree of Enlightenment.”
“A tree?” Miri’s heart raced for this seemed the very tree of which she had dreamed since she was a small child. Could this book also be describing the same tree? Could her garden be on Maitreyi’s Mount Meru?
“The tree’s roots they say, run deep beneath the Earth and in places blessed by the Buddha, a shoot springs from one of its roots and rises from the ground, to shelter the Buddhas wherever they may decide to sleep.
“Do you know where this place is?” asked Miri.
“The book I read described it, but there are others who do not believe that Shambhala is a place of this world but of the next.”
Maitreyi winced. “Though for some it is heaven, for others it is a haven. They say that there will be a raja there, Rudra Kakrin, who will ride from Shambhala and rid the world of evil. Here, they say that he will be an incarnation of Vishnu called Kalkin. He and his warriors will fly from the sacred mountain of Meru and bring an end to this Age of Discord.”
“So a saviour will chop his way to victory on a crusade against the infidels?” asked Miri contemptuously, “How will that benefit the world? It will be replacing one evil with another!”
“No!” whispered Maitreyi fiercely, “That is only what they say! But this book, my book, is different! It is an old copy of an oral tradition that goes back to the beginning of time! I believe there is such a place! There is a Mount Meru upon which the goddess Tara sits. A mountain upon which a world tree, a tree of Life and of Great Knowledge grows! The goddess resides within the tree, and it is to that tree that we must go!”
“We?” asked Miri.
Maitreyi grasped both Miri’s arms and looked intensely into Miri’s eyes.
“I have traveled there in my dreams. Within that tree lives a great serpent. He has called me to visit him there. I have seen his image twisted into the mandala of Shambhala. My own face was drawn within it! The tree, the tree of life- the tree of Tara flowers only once every three thousand years, it is pollinated by sacred bees, and the seeds grow to fruit within another three thousand years. The fruit, peaches, ripen upon a single day, and if they are eaten on the sacred day by a person who has attained enlightenment becomes immortal and lives there in peace and harmony.”
“So it is heaven!” said Miri.
“Please, do not take this lightly! You, you are the image of the Tara that I have seen in my dreams, and I believe that you are here to guide me to Shambhala!”
“But how could I¾”
“I don’t know!” whispered Maitreyi fiercely, “but you are the One! You are the guide sent to show me the way to Shambhala!”
Miri was taken aback by Maitreyi’s revelation. But she had spent several nights now dreaming of the garden of her childhood, and somehow, she also knew that Maitreyi was the instrument to her coming to terms with her visions.
“This place of legend is far?”
“Yes!” cried Maitreyi, “It is far to the north, but I think that the story in my book must be true for there is a great legend also within the Hindu faith. They say Mount Meru stands at the central axis of the world, surrounded by 7 rings of mountains of inwardly ascending height, girded by oceans. They also say that their gods, all thirty-three, live there at the summit, ruled by Indra, the god of all gods.”
“You are not Hindu?” asked Miri.
“I am a follower of the path of the Buddha,” replied Maitreyi, “He attained perfect enlightenment and returned to teach others of the Path of Righteousness.”
“Did you know him?”
Maitreyi laughed, “Not in the incarnation by which he is venerated, he passed on five centuries ago, but he left his teachings for others to follow. I believe that the land of Gandhamyadana of which the teachers of Buddha speak is also Shambhala. There we have three different stories all pointing to the same place though they use different names. In Gandhamyadana, there is a lake called Avanatapta and five chains of mountains, not the seven of the Hindus, surround it yet here they say is paradise where Buddhas who have only attained enlightenment of self await the perfectly enlightened One. You see, they have achieved only a provisional nirvana and wait there for the perfectly and completely enlightened Buddha to give them the final teachings to reach Nirvana. But though they have not achieved perfect enlightenment, perfect understanding reigns there and friendly feelings abound in every living creature in this place. To ready themselves, they await at the foot of a fragrant tree, where they perform purification ceremonies according to the phases of the moon.”
“The Tree of Knowledge,” whispered Miri.
“Perhaps,” said Maitreyi, “But now I am concubine to the raja, I will never reach it!”
“I have dreamed of a tree within a garden,” whispered Miri, “Though where I am from, the tree is said to grow in the east.”
“From here it grows in the north!”
“How will you get there?” asked Miri.
Maitreyi shrugged. “I have no idea! Even if I could free myself from this slavery, I cannot return to my family! They would find only shame should I return!”
“Shame for what reason? For your molestation from an old Brahmin?”
Maitreyi shook her head. “It is deeper than that, you see. Though I could solace within the books in the library, I was restless, and Kali had a young houseboy about my age. He was a beautiful Sudra, untouchable, and I yearned to touch him. The ensuing liaison was my downfall, for Kali discovered us naked together, and though she did not scream at us, she beat the boy and then took me aside.
‘I shall not beat you, but I will inform the master of this house as to what I have seen!’
I was still sure of myself, and declared, ‘Should that happen, I shall tell the town of your inability to bear a child!’
She smiled at me and handed me a piece of paper.”
“What was on it?” asked Miri excitedly.
Maitreyi’s eyes clouded over.
“A death sentence! It was a royal invitation to report here to the harem! Kali had recommended me to Padma as a servant of Yellama! They were related by marriage through cousins. I could not believe it! I was furious! She had outflanked me! She knew my parents would not be happy about it, and I would not have the heart to tell them! I told them that I was leaving on a pilgrimage to Shambhala! Instead I am a prisoner in the raja’s harem! Now, the goddess serves the raja. If my parents knew I wore the beads of a devadasi, they would die from humiliation. I pray each day they do not discover how low I have fallen. I was to be the sacred child, the gift to the goddess. Instead, I am handmaid to a tyrant! But as bad as that is, it could have been worse!”
“Worse?” asked Miri.
“The regular devadesis, those that have no one to pay off the priests have to service the men who come to unite with the Goddess Yellama. It is not an easy job! I was threatened with it for my ¾ how did they put it? ¾ ‘uppitiness!’ I hate this place! When my great grand dams served in the temple it was for the glory of the devi Mariamma. Now it is for the perverse pleasure of men with enough money to grease the priests’ palms. I would not say these things to the others, but you are the only one I can trust for you are a foreigner and have no interest in our land.”
“But now, I am very interested in your land,” replied Miri, “I have dreamt so often of the Tree even now, and I think your tree and mine are the same. Perhaps I have come this far to reach that tree as well! If the Great Mother wills it, perhaps we shall travel together to Shambhala! She will find us a way! You can trust me with your secrets, but our sharing puts us both in jeopardy!”
“I’m sorry,” replied Maitreyi contritely. “You’re right! I should keep thoughts of escape to myself.”
“I am beginning to think that there is no raja,” said Miri to Maitreyi. “He seems to be on the verge of being yet at the last minute fails to materialize.”
Maitreyi smiled. “He is a warrior. His brothers are lesser men, I think, and need to be reminded of their duties.” She stamped her foot. “I can’t stand this waiting!”
As if in answer to her frustration, a fanfare of brass instruments rang through the hall. An immediate buzz and bustle of activity erupted within the prasada as servants and courtiers scuttled about to prepare themselves for the entrance of the raja.
“He is here!” whispered Maitreyi excitedly. “I must get ready!” She made to leave to attend to her toilet, and then turned to Miri. “You must prepare yourself as well! Anyone new attracts his attention! I myself will blend into the background, so as not to attract his eye!”
She smiled mischievously.
“I do not wish to stay up all night!”
Although the raja had arrived, and his concubines placed themselves about the harem room, he did not immediately attend his concubines. Apparently he had to receive the local dignitaries, and to bestow his judgment on a number of pressing issues upon which the local men did not have the fortitude to act. Their fear of retribution had created a gibbering inability to hold responsibility for even the most trivial of decisions, and they bowed obsequiously before their lord in order to absolve themselves of that responsibility.
This cowering display did nothing to improve the humour of the raja who had been traveling a dusty road for the better part of the day. Neither did he yearn for the exotic sanctuary of the harem room, for exactly the same reason. All this vexed him greatly. In order to deflect his aggravation, he whispered to a courtier to bring the new women of the harem into the court and to sit at his feet, that he could rest his eyes upon them while the passle of underlings paraded past him.
Both Maitreyi and Miri were among the five new members of the harem, and they padded in upon sandaled feet and curtsied before him. He indicated their positions about the dais. As Miri locked eyes with him, his interest was signaled by raised eyebrows, though his attention quickly moved to the next petitioner.
An old man, turbaned and dressed in finest indigo held out a gift to his liege. A beautiful inlaid bow and quiver, laced with gold filigree. Arrows tipped with beautiful aquamarine feathers, and the quiver adorned by a beautiful pattern of lapis lazuli insets. The man prostrated himself before the raja after laying the bow at his feet. The raja’s interest was piqued, and he consolidated his attention by motioning for Miri to bring him the bow.
As she took the bow, she noticed for the first time that the raja’s bodyguards were all women. As she scanned their ranks, she realized they were focused on the crowd, and only one glanced at her. Not at her exactly, but at the bow in her hand. Suspicion had been aroused for Miri had grasped it as an archer would grasp it, not a concubine of the court. The one whose attention she had garnered was locked upon her as a dog to a cat. The attention faded the instant Miri, head bowed, passed the bow to the raja.
He tested its strength approvingly, and granted the old man his petition without even concerning himself about its nature. Such things were to be left to his advisors. However, the particular advisor was not aware of the state of the affair and indicated as such to the monarch. The raja sighed and called for Deviprasad.
While waiting, the raja notched an arrow to the bow, and playfully passed the point of the notched arrow across the heads of his court, and a slight murmur rose as several people in doubt of the trust of the raja reacted to becoming a target. Those who flinched were noted by the eagle eyes of the raja and he resolved to interview those who seemed ill at ease privately at a later time.
When Deviprasad entered the hall, the raja passed the bow back to Miri. Miri was delighted to see her old friend, but his glance as he entered the court yard flanked by two young scribes told her she should not acknowledge him. The raja greeted Deviprasad, who bowed before the raja. They spoke rapidly and Miri did not understand all of what was said, and standing holding the bow and arrow, she was unsure of protocol and became a statue that any Greek would have recognized immediately as Diana.
The discussion between Deviprasad and the raja became more animated, and then heated. The crowd reacted with a nervous growl, and in a sudden flash of energy, one of Devi’s scribes broke into a wild howl and flung himself at the raja. Miri had no thought as to what was happening, but her body reacted instantly. Her arm pulled the arrow back, stretched the bow and released the shaft, which plunged instantly through the young assailant’s chest. In an instant, an arm wrapped about Miri’s chest and she felt a sword at her back, but a curved dagger fell from the young man’s hand and clattered upon the stone steps of the dais, and the assailant fell, clutching desperately at his fatal wound.
Even as the young man’s body hit the floor, with the exception of the warrixen who held Miri fast, the raja’s bodyguards, rushed and slew Deviprasad and the remaining scribe. Miri screamed in horror, her cries echoed by courtiers and maidens alike. Maitreyi jumped up and clutched Miri as though she were afraid for Miri’s safety. Another of the raja’s bodyguards leaped beside them, sword drawn to protect the raja’s saviour from retaliation.
The raja, within the protective circle of armed warrixen, roared in elation of his narrow escape from the hands of the assassin.
The raja’s chambers were quiet. Deviprasad was also a friend of the raja. An officer of the court had determined that Deveep was most likely involved with the young assassin and the rumour now spread that they may have been lovers. So, regardless of his involvement in the plot, he had showed abysmal judgment, and would have been slaughtered anyway. Known acquaintances of the two scribes and the royal procurer had been rounded up and awaited their fate in the outer colonnade. But at the moment the raja had no concern for them. He sat upon his divan, and stared at Miri and Maitreyi. Maitreyi had glued herself to Miri’s side since the assassination, for she felt she could not fall under suspicion if she were an associate of the raja’s saviour.
The raja smiled.
“What is your name?”
“Miriam of Koptos.”
“You are Greek?”
“I am not aware of such a place. It is a Greek city, neh?”
“You perhaps might know it as Phoenicia. A vassal state of the Roman emperor.”
“Ah, a Phoenician! Daughter of Pirates! You have saved my life, Miriam the Phoenician. I am in your debt,” The raja smiled expansively. “I shall grant you three wishes.”
“Anything?” asked Miri.
The raja smiled ironically. “Within reason.”
“I should like to be released from the harem,” said Miri.
“Ahhh! You have broken my heart!” he cried, “But you have ensured its beating, so your wish is granted!”
“And Maitreyi also,”
“Friendship! Very admirable! I shall not miss her! I have heard she has a demon within her, and resents her fortune. Very good! And the third?”
“You must spare the lives of the friends and family of Deviprasad!”
The raja frowned. “That may not be within reason.”
“Perhaps you could banish them, then?”
The raja’s frown deepened. “I will think about you plea for mercy. Your first two wishes are granted. Would you care to dine with me?”
The raja was a remarkable host. He dismissed his court and Miri and the raja dined alone. The food was delicious. And the wine was clear ruby ambrosia. Miri drank more than she should and the heat of Bacchus burned within her belly, raising the steam of passion from the fecund jungle swamp that seethed within her bowels. The fog warmed her body and clouded her brain. She moved toward him, and he rose to meet her. They embraced, a long passionate kiss. The raja was strong. And hard. He lifted Miri easily in his arms and carried her to his bed. After the hours of confinement and boredom, the lovemaking was euphoric. Their cries split the night and they rode each other until they lay spent and steaming, twisted and gleaming in the moonlight. Towards dawn, Miri fell asleep with her head upon his chest.
By the time she awoke, he was gone and handmaidens awaited her awakening. She was bathed and oiled. The handmaids slipped a beautiful gold braided, red and black sari about her, and she stood above the smoking spice pit where the cloudy fingers of charcoal and incense curled up her legs and filled her robes. Rani appeared silently at her side.
“Where is the raja?” Miri asked.
“He has left,” said Rani simply.
“This morning,” said Rani, “He has left instructions that you and Maitreyi shall be granted whatever you wish, and that we were to assist your departure.”
“What about the friends of Deviprasad?”
“It is of no concern to me. He said also that I was to give you the bow and arrow you used to save his life. He thought that you would find use for it again. Other than that, I am only to release you and Maitreyi.”
“Where is she?”
Rani grasped Miri’s arm.
“Be warned,” she whispered, “That girl has a demon within her!”
“Take me to her.”
Maitreyi was ecstatic. She had taken the raja’s word and run with it, placing demands upon the royal household and asking for supplies that would require an entire caravan of royal camels. Miri took Maitreyi aside to reign her in.
“Where are you taking all this?” She asked, passing her arms over the reams of silks and gold.
“To my parents!” said an excited Maitreyi.
“And how will they deal with such opulence? They will fall prey to every bandit between here and China!”
Maitreyi saw the truth in Miri’s words.
“You’re right! We’ll take a little to them. It won’t take much to keep them. And as for ourselves, we’ll need to travel lightly if we are to reach Shambhala!”
“Shambhala?” asked Miri. She suddenly fell silent.
“Of course!” replied Maitreyi. “Didn’t I tell you that you were to guide me to Shambhala? Do you think in my scramble for gold, silk and incense, I had forgotten our dream? Look at this!” Maitreyi produced a beautiful gilt dagger.
Before Miri could react Maitreyi grasped Miri’s necklace and pressed the blade against Miri’s neck. For a moment Miri froze in fear.
An evil smile crossed Mitreyi’s face. “Say goodbye..” she whispered and pulled hard on the knife, snapping the red and white devdasi necklace from Miri’s neck. The beaded wire dug into her flesh, but the beads scattered on the cobble stones beneath their feet “.. to the life of a slave!”
Miri rubbed her neck, and Maitreyi cut her own necklace away. “Free at last!” crowed Maitreyi. “Free at last!”
They loaded three mules with baggage, two with coins, food and barter goods for a trip to Shambhala, and the third with coins, food and silks for Maitreyi’s parents. No one from the harem was there to see them off. Nor had they expected to see them even if the women had been permitted to step outside the walls of the harem. Though some felt secure within their silken nest, others would be faced with the vision of two of their number setting out to a life of freedom, and their own bondage would be that much harder to bear.
The mules were small enough that the great gates to the prasada remained shut, and they passed through the guardhouse passageway. Miri’s heart stopped. There, in the shadows beside the outer wall was a line of shackled prisoners, and third from the end, Thomas was bound between a young teen and an old man.
“Thomas!” whispered Miri and ran to him.
He grasped her hands and his sudden movement pulled the old man and the teen toward him, as their manacles were attached by to each other by a long chain.
“Miriam!” His eyes glistened from tears; long sticky wounds showed he had been whipped terribly. The contrast between his lot and hers was intolerable, she in fine brocade and lace, bathed and perfumed, and he, dirty, tortured and dressed in rags.
“They have hurt you!” she cried.
“It is nothing! They believe we were involved in a plot with the assassin!’
“I asked that you be banished, for I feared you may have been caught in the net with Deviprasad’s relatives!”
Their conversation had aroused the attention of one of the prasada guards and he started to move towards them. Thomas dropped his hands.
“You must go!” said Thomas, “Deviprasad’s wife has given your name to the persecutors! It would be worse for you if we are seen together!”
Just as the guard came close enough to challenge them, a hooded figure stepped between the guard and Miri. The guard instantly dropped his lance defensively and the figure threw off her hood.
It was Padma.
“Enough!” she commanded, and the guard stepped a half pace back reverently, but did not put up his weapon, for having the queen mother within arm’s length of condemned prisoners was a situation he disliked intensely.
Padma turned to Miri.
“You must go now! I will petition for clemency for you friend, but you must not speak to him, for it will not bear well, should my son hear of it. A man in his position sees conspiracy where there is only coincidence. Such is the fate of the powerful!”
“Why are you here?” asked Miri.
“To thank you!” said Padma, “I have only one son, and he has not yet sired a grandchild. Thanks to you, my daughter, he lives that he may grant me my heart’s desire! Though the gods care little of it, it is not natural for a parent to watch her child perish!”
Padma lifted a garland of flowers from her own neck and placed it about Miri’s. The old woman stood on tiptoes and kissed Miri’s cheek. My house is your house, and my door is always open.” She placed a ring in Miri’s hand.
“This ring is my seal and is honoured in many places. Use it well and use it wisely.”
The old woman flipped her hood back over her head and motioned to two guards. They stood to attention beside her. “This is Abhay and Akshay, my personal bodyguard. They will escort you through the city!”
Padma slipped back into the shadows.
“Let’s go!” growled Abhay, evidently not happy about his reassignment.
Miri glanced over at Thomas. He smiled and, though obviously in great pain, gallantly blew her a kiss.
She could not move.
Maitreyi tugged at Miri’s sleeve.
“Come on!” she whispered fiercely.
Miri allowed herself to be dragged away, and once outside, the hot sun and the mad frenzy of the busy street animated her. She took the lead donkey by the halter, and the two women squeezed out into the crowd. Miri was thankful for Abhay and Akshay’s escort, for though the donkeys bore the royal harness, she could see more than one street urchin and pickpocket eying the bundles on the donkeys’ backs, and their faltering as they became aware of the bodyguards. The crowd thinned as they approached the Eastern Gate, and after handing their authorization papers signed by the raja to the sentries, who placed their mark upon it and returned it to Miri, Miri and Maitreyi passed out into the world.
There were more vendors along the way, for many travelers were camped outside the city walls. A great bustling bazaar under tent and awning thrived, and the natives engaged in intense commerce of all kinds. A hand tugged at Miriam’s sleeve, and she screamed in surprise as she looked down.
A small monkey perched on a young boy’s shoulder held the edge of her sari. Both had beautiful dark eyes.
“You will need a guide mem-Sahib,” he said cheerily, as he walked alongside them. “I will work for two rupees a day and ensure that you fine ladies are not bothered by others along the way!”
“Go away!” hissed Maitreyi.
“But dear lady,” replied the boy, “You know as well as I that two women will not get far without being accosted by all sorts of riff-raff. Hanuman and myself will set ourselves at your service. I shall pose as your brother and vouchsafe that you are to be married to a distant cousin in wherever it is you are going.”
“What about your family?” asked Miri.
The boy cast his eyes down. “Alas! My father and mother were taken by sickness, and I am an only child! I have nothing to keep me here!”
“We do not have need of your help,” said Maitreyi, “We have a letter of safe passage from the raja!”
The boy’s eyes gleamed. “A letter from the raja! Most impressive!”
“Begone!” said Maitreyi.
“Where are you going?” asked the urchin.
“Dakshapur!” replied Maitreyi irritably.
“I myself am from there!” replied the boy, “I shall walk with you!”
“As you wish!” said Maitreyi, “But we do not require your service!”
The boy smiled broadly, and touched his fingertips to his forehead in mock salutation and fell into place behind the last mule.
Miri and her companions navigated through the jumble of cattle, camels and carts converging on the Eastern Gate. Slowly the jungle swallowed the open sky and soon they were traveling through a winding green tunnel. About them, the forest echoed with the calls of birds and monkeys. Bright butterflies flitted in and out of the straight and narrow shafts of sunlight that pierced the green canopy above their heads.
Hanuman, the boy’s monkey, became agitated as civilization receded, and the calls of his wild cousins seemed to upset him. He leaped from the boy’s shoulder and scuttled under the bundle wrapping on the last donkey. From under the cover, he chattered nervously.
“What is that little thief up to?” asked Maitreyi, “I am watching you, boy!”
“My name is Krishna, if you please, fine lady.”
“How did an imp like you attain such a grand name?” demanded Maitreyi.
“My parents, may Brahma take them, had great hopes for me,” replied Krishna.
“You are not getting paid!” Maitreyi said to him.
“Just the pleasure of your company more than compensates the effort it requires to keep up with you, great lady.”
“Ha!” exclaimed Maitreyi, “Butter would not melt in your mouth!” retorted Maitreyi.
“Of course, I would not allow it to do so without your leave!”
“I cannot save the family!” whispered Padma, “But I do not think you are involved in the plot against my son. I will allow you to escape! I know that you were a special friend to Miri the Phoenician!” Her gnarled fingers deftly unlocked the shackles about his feet. She wrapped a large cloak about him. Step out into the street and someone will take you to a Greek ship in the harbour. It sails within the hour!”
“But I have promised her I would not leave without her-”
“I will send word to Miriam,” whispered Padma, “You must go!”
She pushed Thomas toward the street, and in his weakened state he could not prevent it. Strong arms whisked him away from the prasada gates and he was gone.
“Guards!” called Padma, “A man has escaped!”
Guards hurried to her alarm. “He went that way, I think!” she pointed to the south, not toward the harbour where a ship awaited Thomas.
They fell to silence and walked for quite some time. The sun began its descent toward the western horizon.
“It gets dark quickly in the jungle,” announced Maitreyi, “There is a wayside inn ahead, but we will not reach it until after dark. I think it best we stop and eat, then continue until we reach the inn.”
They stopped in a small glade, through which a small stream meandered. A group of travellers was already camped beside the jungle path. An elephant was chained to a tree at the edge of the clearing and several small children were foraging for the animal and feeding it foliage from the edge of the forest. They tended to become distracted by bright flowers and green frogs, and when they failed to produce the food at an adequate frequency, the elephant reached up to the tree to which it was tethered, and pulled huge leaves from the tree above her head. Three women tended a large cauldron boiling over a fire pit. The last rays of the setting sun struck them through a gap in the forest and enveloped them in a gold and orange halo. Within a large tent set before the fire, two men, one old and one in his prime years, were arguing. So as not to become a part of the conflict, the women kept themselves silent and to the task of cooking, all their communication done through sign language.
Maitreyi and Miri glanced at each other unsure of whether to approach the camp while tempers flared there. Krishna stepped forward, and held his hand for their attention and silence.
“Leave this to me!” he whispered, and before either could react, he skipped, with Hanuman clinging to his shoulder, toward the encampment. The children feeding the elephant noticed him first and called out an alarm, bringing the attention of the women and the two men to Krishna and his companions. The elder man remained within the tent, and the other stepped quickly from under the canopy, his narrowed eyes assessing the boy, then flashing to Miri and Maitreyi et the edge of the path.
Neither Maitreyi nor Miri could here the man’s challenge or Krishna’s reply, but they did here the man’s laugh. Slowly, they stepped forward straining to hear the conversation between Krishna and the man, as did the three women tending the cooking pot.
Krishna turned to Miri and Maitreyi.
“Ah, my most beloved mother and sister!” he stretched his arms in welcome, “I have explained to Kamsakara that we are on a pilgrimage to Sonepur on the north bank of the Ganges by Pataliputra. He is most pleased for he had planned to travel that far to sell his elephant. He has fallen upon bad times since acquiring her and has heard he will receive a good price for Maya.”
“Maya?” asked Maitreyi.
“The elephant.” replied Krishna.
There was a hesitancy that caught Maitreyi’s attention. “What is it?”
“I, uh, told him we could save him a trip and would buy the elephant from him.”
“What?” Maitreyi was incredulous.
Krishna took her elbow and pulled her to one side. “I have negotiated a fair price and that elephant will return a greater price once we arrive at the market.”
“Who said we were going to Sonepur?”
“Look at the elephant’s belly!” whispered Krishna, “She is pregnant! By the time we reach Sonepur, we will have two elephants to sell! He is not a mahout. He cannot tell!”
“How much?” hissed Maitreyi.
“Two hundred gold pieces!” said Krishna.
“Two hundred? Are you insane?”
“And the donkey.”
Maitreyi hardened. “We do not have two hundred gold pieces!”
Krishna produced a gold coin between his fingers. “Then to who does this belong?” he asked.
“Why you- ” Maitreyi snatched the coin from Krishna. “One hundred gold coins! And not a rupee more! We cannot spare the donkey!”
“We will have an elephant,” countered Krishna.
Maitreyi straightened up and approached Kamsakara. “My brother is young,” she said sweetly, “We can spare only one hundred gold coins, and the donkeys are a gift to my aging parents. He did not know.”
“Alas,” replied Kamsakara, “Without my elephant, I can carry very little. Even for one hundred and fifty gold coins, I would require two donkeys at least.”
“You have a howdah for the elephant?” asked Maitreyi.
“The very finest saddle and pack you can find in all of India,” replied Kamsakara.
“Two donkeys and one hundred and twenty coins!”
“Done!” Kamsakara clapped his hands happily, “You have saved my family and I an arduous trip! You must eat with us!”
Krishna, Maitreyi and Miri stood before Maya the elephant. None had a clue how to load a howdah onto her back.
They had awoken in the morning to find Kamsakara and his family already departed. They had taken all three donkeys as well as three bolts of fine silk. Maitreyi had used the coin boxes as pillows, for she did not have the most trusting of souls, and Miri began to wonder how a woman of her material proclivities could ever reach Shambhala, for she had come to realize that the texts had mentioned more than once that spiritual enlightenment was one of the prerequisites to entering Shambhala.
So there she stood before the elephant, her hands on her hips, not knowing what to do.
At that moment, they heard the thundering of hooves, and a detachment of mounted soldiers galloped into the clearing, and within seconds the three travelers, Hanuman and the elephant were surrounded.
“Miriam the Phoenician?” demanded the captain.
“Yes?” Miri stepped forward to face the lancers.
“We have received word that you have aided and abetted one Thomas the Mason in his escape from execution!”
“He has escaped?” she asked breathlessly.
The soldiers exchanged glances.
“And who is this?” asked the captain, pointing his lance toward Krishna.
“Krishna, my Lord,” replied Krishna meekly,
This produced a howl of laughter from the cavalrymen.
“I have passage from the raja,” said Miri as she fished in her bag for her letter of conduct.
“We are aware of that, Miriam the Phoenician.” The captain dismounted and strode toward her and examined the document. He rolled it back up, his eyes scanning the glade. He motioned to his men on the left and the right and they searched the bush for signs of exit. One shouted.
“There were others here?” asked the captain.
“Yes, a family of tinsmiths. We spent the night together. We traded our mules for this elephant.”
The captain smiled. “These tinsmiths got the better of the bargain. Do you know anything about elephants?”
Miri shook her head.
The captain laughed. “You are in luck! My uncle was a great mahout! Let’s see what we can do with her!” He strode up to Maya and greeted her in Hindi. She shook her great head and sniffed at him. He patted her trunk and moved in toward her. He took his riding crop and tapped her gently on the shins and she sat down.
“How long since the tinsmiths left?” he asked, as he walked around Maya, inspecting her with a critical eye.
“I don’t know,” replied Miri, “They were gone when we awoke.”
“She is pregnant,” he commented, seeming to ignore her answer, “You have taken on quite the white elephant!”
“Well, we shall be able to sell two elephants instead of one!” replied Maitreyi.
The captain laughed. “Two are not worth as much as one, I’m afraid! Once she drops her calf, neither will work for some time, and the young one will not be ready for ten years! An elephant calf eats more than three donkeys and cannot work until it reaches ten years old.”
Maitreyi glared at Krishna who shrugged helplessly.
“Can you tell us how to load this elephant then?” asked Miri.
The captain nodded thoughtfully. “You must first get a stick. This is used to tell this old girl when to do and when not to do.”
The soldiers gallantly helped Maitreyi and Miri load the elephant and the captain taught Krishna how to command the elephant and how to goad her with a stick.
“A woman cannot ever be a mahout,” he told Maitreyi when she asked to try to command Maya. “You and you sister can ride upon the howdah, but you must allow Krishna to be the sole guide to the elephant. A bond must be struck one on one. If an elephant is taught to respond to the command of many, she will soon listen only to herself, and no longer be of use to anyone. You will then have to set her free in the forest, for she will no longer be able to tolerate the world of men! Your investment of three donkeys will bring no return.”
The captain set an escort to the women and the elephant, not out of gallantry, but to ensure that they had not indeed been party to the escape of the prisoner Thomas, and he and the rest of the company set out to track the family of Kamsakara.
“He owes me three bolts of cloth!” Maitreyi shouted to the captain after she and Miri had settled amongst the baggage piled in the howdah on Maya’s back. “And a donkey!” The great elephant rumbled beneath them and ambled forward, prodded by Krishna. Miri gripped the ropes near her tightly, afraid she might fall from the swaying mass beneath her.
The captain tipped his helmet to the Maitreyi.
“If some one offers you half a donkey for that elephant, take it!” he shouted back.
She scowled and Miri laughed.
“It’s not funny!” grumbled Maitreyi, which only amused Miri more.
The mounted escort stayed with them for a full day, and by that time, the travelers were not far from the village of Dakshapur, Maitreyi’s home. She had planned on sending Miri into the village to seek out her parents and give them gifts, but the news of the elephant with the cavalry escort had already reached the village, and the elders, convinced their fair community had been blessed by a royal visit, had urged the entire population to come out to welcome the visitors.
So, they entered Dakshapur amidst great excitement and celebration and a feast was already being prepared before the news spread that the visitors were Maitreyi and her friend, a Greek queen. The fantasy of the Greek queen had become necessary in order to justify the feast and to ensure that no one think the elders had gone to such lengths for a Mlecca of uncertain origin.
To add to the excitement, their arrival coincided with that of a traveling magic show replete with magicians and musicians. The two entourages converged at the great sacred tree in the village square, and after their daughter had presented them with their gifts, the old couple paid enough that the traveling entertainers agreed to a performance without passing the bowl for payment. A great fire was lit and food appeared from every household.
Miri and Maitreyi were seated as guests of honour, above the old Brahmin and his wife. Maitreyi felt as great a meaty satisfaction as Kali’s simmering resentment gave the old woman a bone upon which to gnaw. But all this was nothing once the feast and the entertainment started. Local musicians joined in the music of the troubadors, and hashish carried the festivities to great heights. All was well in Dakshapur.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” announced the magician, “I am about to perform for you one of the most amazing sights you have ever seen!”
The crowd applauded loudly.
“I, Amar the Amazing, will perform…” he paused for effect, “…The Indian Rope Trick!”
The crowd murmured. The magician held up a great coil of rope.
“This rope,” he displayed it to all, “This rope will be called to the heavens by the gods! Once called to heaven, I will select a volunteer to test the rope! Who would like to volunteer?”
At this point, a boy, part of the traveling show, pushed through the crowd to play his volunteer role, but a voice shouted before his.
“I will!” cried Krishna, and he leaped from the crowd into the open circle around the magician.
“Well, I-” the magician faltered only for a moment, then smiled and stretched his hand out to Krishna, “We have a volunteer!”
The crowd broke into applause.
“And what is your name?”
The crowd laughed.
“Krishna, of course!” marvelled the magician, “Who else could help me to send the magic rope into heaven! Will you blow on the tasseled end of the magic rope, Krishna?”
He held the rope to Krishna’s face. Krishna took a deep breath and blew on the rope with all his might.
“Now I will perform the sacred rites taught to me by my father, and he by his father, and so down from the very beginning of time, when this rope was made by the gods!”
The magician waved his hand over the end of the rope and began chanting an ancient tongue that held the crowd enthralled. With one hand he held the rope and with the other he pulled it up through the other hand, and as he passed the rope upwards, it slowly pushed straight up into the heavens. The crowd murmured and gasped as the rope stretched higher and higher. The end disappeared into the branches of the sacred peepal tree in the center of the village square, and still the magician pushed the rope higher. Soon he had but an arm’s length of rope remaining, and slowly, he lowered this last section of rope to the ground. The rope stretched straight into the night sky with only a small loop touching the ground. The magician paced about the rope, raising his arms to the heavens, Slowly the rope rose of its own accord and hung in the air as if hanging from the sky itself.
“The end of that rope,” cried the magician, “is now at the foot of heaven!”
Murmurs flowed through the crowd as everyone speculated on how the trick was done.
“And my friend Krishna will now climb that rope and ascend to heaven itself!”
The crowd rumbled, then applauded.
Krishna hesitated for a moment then spit into his hands and grasped the rope. The magician cupped his hands to give Krishna a leg up.
“Can you climb?” asked the magician in a whisper as he lifted Krishna up.
“Like a monkey!”
At that moment, Hanuman scampered through the crowd and leaped onto Krishna’s shoulder, and before the magician could react, Hanuman on board, Krishna swung himself up and shinnied straight up the rope and disappeared with Hanuman into the branches of the sacred tree.
There was silence. A brief wind blew the branches and the great tree shimmered in the firelight. A cry of amazement rose from the crowd and the magician addressed the crowd.
The rope suddenly lost its tension and fell in a coiled heap on the ground. Cries of protests and protection poured from the crowd. The magician held his arms out for silence, and then tapped the pile of rope with his great wand. Where the rope was once coiled, a pair of huge King cobras rose, hooded and faced the crowd. A wave of fear swept through the villagers, and the magician allowed them a few heartbeats with their fear, and then threw a huge bolt of silk cloth over the giant snakes. When he reached down, retrieved the cloth and folded it, the cobras had vanished.
The crowd aahed.
“Now, I shall call on the gods to return Krishna to us!”
He shook out his shoulders and arms and wailed in the same ancient language. He lifted his great magic wand and waved it wildly about, causing members of his audience to scramble away as he danced across the courtyard like a demented dust devil. Like a man possessed, he thrashed about the sacred tree with the wand. The crowd was disturbed, but before they could become indignant over the indignity done to the sacred tree, body parts began to rain down from the flailing branches.
Women screamed and children cried out. Men growled. The grisly spectacle of Krishna’s dismembered body parts lying in the dust appalled one and all. Suddenly Hanuman dropped from the tree and landed amongst his young master’s remains, screaming his little head off. The magician darted about, gathering the arms, legs and other body parts, dodging the very annoyed Hanuman, who pulled anrily at the magician’s clothing, and plopped the parts one by one into a very large blue ceramic jar.
“It’s a trick!” whispered Maitreyi to Miri, who was aghast at the sight of bits of Krishna being stuffed into the jar. The magician seemed to be relishing the consternation of the crowd, and made a great show of cramming the cut-up corpse into the container.
The last of Krishna had been stuffed into the jar. The magician capped the jar with a large lid, and then facing the crowd, smiled broadly, and tapped the lid three times with his wand, and then lifted the lid from the jar.
Up popped Krishna, whole and beaming. Hanuman ran joyfully to his reincarnated master, leaped to his shoulder, and wrapped his furry little arms tightly about the boy’s neck.
The crowd applauded ecstatically, and cheered wildly. The musicians immediately struck up a great raga and clattering copper coins landed at the magician’s feet. Krishna climbed out of the jar, still beaming.
Miri ran over to him and gave him a great hug.
“Great Mother, I thought you were dead!”
Maitreyi joined them for she had experienced a moment of doubt herself.
“Where were you?” she asked irritably.
Krishna smiled even more broadly.
“Heaven!” he said simply and with great contentment, “I was in Heaven!”
The next day it was apparent that Kali’s resentment at being upstaged by her old rival would soon poison the town, so Miri and Maitreyi made plans to leave as soon as possible. Krishna was a major celebrity in town, and people who wished to touch the boy who had died and gone to heaven, surrounded him. Every child in the village clamoured for a ride on Maya. Miri soon realized that having and elephant would be a great asset, for the villagers brought Maya balls of rice, sweets and other sacerdotal offerings. Krishna had changed, she noticed. He had an inner peace she had not seen in him before, and he bore all the attention with a sweetness that a day earlier would have seemed far beyond his years. Maya too, had changed and genuinely seemed to love Krishna, her trunk caressed him at every opportunity and she tenderly touched his head with her trunk and occasionally blow into his hair, which made him laugh, and she seemed to revel in his happiness.
Miri busied herself preparing to leave. The warriors that had accompanied them to Maitreyi’s village joined her. They took turns watering their horses at the village well, and shared the shelter of the huge tree in the center of the village square. While the preparations were still in full swing, the captain arrived with the balance of the troupe that had left to follow the tinsmiths. They brought with them a donkey and three bolts of silk cloth. They were greeted by cries of welcome from their compatriots, and the entire town took on the atmosphere of a carnival.
Maitreyi took control of donkey and led it, laden with the bolts of cloth to her parent’s house, She remained there for some time, bidding them farewell and giving them cautionary advice on how to dispense their new found wealth. A young girl appeared at Miri’s side and stood patiently near her. There was something in her manner that made Miri stop her preparations and stare back at her.
“Sud-dhodana and Maya-devi, the parents of Maitreyi wish to speak with you.”
“Where are they?”
“I will take you to them,” replied the girl.
Amar the Amazing had already packed his small cart with his magical props and he and the small apprentice Krishna had upstaged stopped to speak with Krishna.
“You served well,” Amar said to Krishna, “Never has that illusion worked so well!”
“Illusion?” Krishna asked, “You thought that was an illusion?”
Doubt crossed Amar’s face. “I perform it every night,” he said indignantly.
“I know,” said Krishna quietly, “But I do not!” He turned to go about preparing to leave, but Amar touched his shoulder lightly.
“I must give you something,” he said, “I do not have much. Please wait!” He reached into his cart and unclasped a large wooden box on his cart. He lifted a beautiful blue turban. And an imitation silver and ruby clasp with a white horsehair fan.
“I would be honoured if you would wear this! It was my father’s!”
Krishna quickly unwrapped his own tattered white turban and presented it to Amar. “Amar, you have honoured me, and I will return my own turban to you.”
Amar took the ragged cloth with tears in his eyes. “It is a great honour, my lord,” he replied, “I shall treasure it forever!”
The young apprentice looked quizzically from Krishna to Amar. He was not used to his master displaying such reverence, especially to someone so obviously lacking in caste and cash. “Climb on the cart!” commanded Amar to his apprentice, “Today I shall carry you!”
Not used to such expansiveness in Amar the Amazing, he hesitated. Laughing, Amar lifted him into the cart. Amar the Amazing blew a kiss to Krishna and hoisted the cart and trundled from the village. The apprentice, still dumbfounded by his master’s conversion, sat in the back of the cart staring after the shrinking figure of Krishna wrapping the beautiful blue silk turban about his head. It seemed as though the world suddenly changed, and the apprentice now seemed to feel the change was emanating from the chest that held Krishna’s turban. Curious, he opened the lid. He gasped. Within was the blue turban, with a real ruby and silver clasp, and there was no sign of the tattered white rags Amar had placed there.
“You see this tree?” asked Maya-devi, “In India, every village has a small temple dedicated to various local avatars of the goddess Mari or Mariamma who is worshipped as goddess of fertility and dispeller of epidemics.”
“We wanted to bring you here,” explained Sud-dhohana, “for Maitreyi says your real name is Mariamma. We would like you to bless this tree.”
“At one time, my grandmother was a great woman in this village,” said Sud-dhohana, “but she married a man from a lower caste. A Dalit. She and our grandfather fled her village and came here, where her aunt lived in this house. Our great aunt had no living children and she passed her household on to my grandmother.”
“Taxes have reduced our station,” said Maya-devi, “more than caste ever could.”
“We think Maya-devi has left our tree. We have set out offerings, but she doesn’t accept them. You were a priestess in your country, Maitreyi says. Can you cleanse our tree?”
Miri looked from May-devi to Sud-dhohana. She had no idea how to purify a tree, but she realized she would have to do something.
“You have incense?” she asked.
Sud-dhohana nodded and Maya-devi disappeared into the house.
“Tell me about your tree,” said Miri. The courtyard was dark, eerie and totally dominated by the tree. It’s massive trunk and tendrils wound everywhere and had begun to encroach even into their house. It had completely dominated their holding.
Sud-dhohana smiled. “Before, the tree graced us with shade from the sun and shelter from the barkha rains, and birds nested in her arms, but now, she feeds on our misfortune. We are afraid of her. We have given her everything we can spare, but still she is not satisfied.”
“We all worship the Goddess Mari, but she has an evil as well as a benevolent side. She can give or withhold her protection. But this one, this one seems to have become possessed by¾”
He stared at the evil tree.
“Can’t you chop it down?” asked Miri.
“It is sacred!” whispered Sud-dhohana in horror.
“It cannot be killed,” said Maya-devi as she entered the courtyard. It grows from its roots, from its branches, and from fallen shoots. It grows both upwards as well as top to bottom. The branches themselves become roots, so even if the original tree decays and perishes, its branches underneath are young and continue to enclose the parent. The Peepal tree lives forever!”
Miri approached the tree and extended her hand through the runners and tendrils to touch the bole of the tree. “Light the incense!” she commanded the husband and wife.
There was a soul within the tree, but she sensed its malevolent intent. It wanted revenge. She did not understand why. She pushed into the thicket of the tree and squeezed deeper into its heart. The further in she moved, the more she sensed the soul within it. She closed her eyes and touched the original trunk. It was massive. She squeezed into a tight space and her skin scraped against the bark.
And came face to face with a mummified face. The tree had grown around it and now only the face and an arm protruded through the wood.
She caught her breath. She could not move easily within the cramped space, but she wriggled frantically out of the jumble of tree boles. She backed into Sud-dhohana and Maya-devi.
“What is it?” they asked in union.
“There is someone in there!” said Miri breathlessly.
“Who?” asked Maya-devi.
“Oh my goodness!”
At that moment Maitreyi came into the house, returning from a visit to Kali. She read the looks on everyone’s face.
“Now what?” she asked.
Sud-dhohana wanted to go to the tribal elders and ask their opinion on the corpse in their tree, but Maitreyi was adamantly opposed. The poor parents bowed to their daughter’s will, but they were definitely not happy with her solution.
Maitreyi disappeared into the house and came back wielding a great axe.
“We will chop it out!” she said fiercely and attacked the tree with a possessed fury. Wood splintered beneath her blows as armies collapsed beneath the blows of Kali herself. Still, though, she didn’t stop chopping, she ran out of energy before she reached the imbedded corpse, and her blows lost their force. Miri took over, and between the two of them, they chopped a hallway through the tree’s branches as far as the corpse. Maitreyi chopped at the wood overgrowing the body, but her parents stopped her for respect of the dead.
So the four of them picked at the wood, splitting it with knives and their bare hands. The right hand of the corpse fell from the tree’s embrace and Maya-devi grasped it immediately.
“Oh no! This is terrible! Look!” she held the clawed hand up to show the others the hand. The ring on the corpse’s wedding finger matched the one that covered her own.
“It is my great grandmother!”
“Are you sure?” asked Maitreyi.
“My mother gave me this ring! She said it had belonged to her mother’s auntie who had one made for each of them! She said they were identical! I am sure of it!”
“What is she doing in the tree?” screamed Maitreyi.
Maya-devi had become hysterical and Sud-dhohana trembled as he held her tight.
Miri stepped forward. “This is your grandmother’s aunt?”
Maya-devi nodded. “She has the same ring!”
“But why was she not cremated?” demanded Maitreyi.
While the family debated the end of their ancestor, Miri continued to release the corpse from the tree. Bits of the mummified flesh stuck under her fingernails and she was nauseated by the sensation but kept removing bits of wood. Finally the tree released its grip and Miri lowered the body to the ground.
It was apparent the throat had been cut.
She looked up at Maitreyi.
“We must burn the body!”
“No!” cried Maya-devi.
“We cannot take it out to the river!” said Maya-devi, “People will wonder where it came from. This is such bad karma!”
“But it is not ours!” cried Sud-dhohana, “We have done nothing wrong!”
“Yet, this woman, this aunt, has been murdered, and our ancestors may have killed her! We have enough wood! We must burn her! Here! Right now!”
Miri sighed. “This is not good!”
Maitreyi began picking up bits of the tree. “Give me a hand!” she shouted.
Reluctantly, Miri began picking up bits of wood to place on the funeral bier. Quickly, they assembled the little remaining firewood, and threw the remains of the dead woman on the pyre. Maitreyi set fire to the wood with a burning oil lamp then emptied the oil onto the body and the fire blazed quickly.
“This is so wrong!” screamed Maitreyi’s mother, “we should talk to the brahmin!”
“No!” said Maitreyi firmly, “Do you want to lose your house?”
“I don’t care!” cried her mother, “I care about my soul!”
While they were arguing the flames spread to the tree, and it flared up and great tongues of flame crackled all around them.
“We must get out!” cried Miri.
Maitreyi and Miri helped Maya-devi and Sud-dhohana through the house and within no time at all the house blazed out of control and all of their possessions went with it. Villagers gathered, but the well was far away and the house too far gone for anyone to be able to stop the fire. Men and women from the fields around the village came running, but there was nothing to do but watch.
By afternoon the house had been reduced to ruins.
“I am so sorry for your loss,” said Miri to Maya-devi, but Maya-devi smiled at her. “Thank you. Without you, we could never have removed the curse from that house!” She stood up and announced to the entire village all that had transpired, leaving out the fact that Maitreyi had set the fire, and apologized for her grandmother’s sins. Everyone in the village agreed that things are as they should be, and that it would not have been right for their family to remain in the house under the circumstances that had come to light and that the best thing that could have happened was to have the site consecrated and purified by fire. The gods, everyone agreed, worked in wondrous ways.
There were gold coins recovered from the burnt ruins, but no one wanted them for fear the curse would remain upon them. They dug a hole and buried them, leaving no marker. A new site was chosen beneath a different tree, and Maya-devi and Sud-dohana erected a tent given to them by neighbours there. Every man, woman and child stopped by and gave them a household article with which to rebuild their lives. A pot, a pan, a new broom, garlands of flowers, whatever they thought would brighten Sud-dhohana and Maya-devi’s lives.
As they sat about the camp fire in Maitreyi’s parents’ new space. Sud-dhohana began to speak.
“Once upon a time there was a an old farmer, who had a weak, ailing horse for ploughing his field.
‘Such bad luck to have such a horse!’ they said.
‘Good luck? Bad luck? Who really knows?’ replied the farmer.
One day, the sickly horse ran away to the hills.
Again, the farmer's neighbors offered their sympathy to him: ‘Such bad luck you have!’ they exclaimed.
‘Bad luck? Good luck? Who really knows?’ replied the farmer.
The very next day, the old horse returned, bringing with it a herd of wild horses from the hills. Now, his neighbors all rushed to the farmer’s place for he had closed them all inside his gate. This time, they congratulated the farmer.
‘Such good luck!’ they said.
To their surprise they heard the same reply.
‘Good luck? Bad luck? Who really knows?’
The next day, the farmer's only son tried to tame one of the new horses and fell off its back and broke his leg.
Everyone agreed that this was bad luck indeed, and many of them said so.
But still the farmer answered, ‘Bad luck? Good luck? Who really knows?’
The very next day, the raja's army marched into the village and conscripted every able-bodied young man in the village. The farmer' s son, laid up with a broken leg, was let off, for they could see he would be of no use to them.
His neighbour, grief stuck at having his own son removed from his farm complained of his bad luck. The old farmer thought for a moment and replied, ‘Good luck? Bad luck? Who can tell?’”
Everyone clapped at his story though many had heard it before told different ways. Sud-dhohana raised his cup to Miri.
“For you, and for Maitreyi, I wish nothing but good luck, for you have turned our misfortune to opportunity. I hope that the gods see to return the favour you have granted me a thousand fold.” At that, the musicians gathered about and, fortified by great clouds of hashish, everyone danced the rest of the night away.
The next morning, one by one, the soldiers stopped by to say their goodbyes to Maitreyi and Miri. One of the soldiers slipped his hand into his tunic as he approached Miri leading his horse, and then looked about. Seeing no one else watching, and the bulk of the horse blocking he and Miri from his companions, he produced a metal tube, capped at both ends with brass.
“From Padma,” he whispered. “Your friend is safe!”
Her hands shaking she ripped the cap from one end of the tube. Inside was a parchment.
“Thank you!” she whispered to the cavalryman, who bowed and mounted his horse. The cavalry headed back the way they had come, and a gaggle of laughing children and dogs followed the soldiers to the edge of the forest where they lost their group bonding and melted back into the village.
Alone, Miri opened the letter. She laughed out loud, for it was written in Hebrew, and tears welled in her eyes.
“Dearest Miriam,” she read, “Never have I met a woman such as you, and you will always, always be the first in my heart. I am sorry that I was not able to wait for you. I am headed for the port of Luce Come on a Nabatean trader. I shall be recovered from my wounds by then, God willing, and from there I shall travel by camel train to Petra and there to Yerushalayem. From there to Bethlehem by Nazareth by foot. Peace be unto you. I shall think of you often. Thomas.”
Her heart ached for Thomas. Her heart ached for Yerushalayem.
Hanuman interrupted her heartache. He touched her on her shoulder, and she looked down. The monkey held out a ripe mango. She took it from him and he climbed into her lap. She bit into the mango and the juice ran down her neck. Hanuman stood up and licked it from her throat and chin. His little tongue tickled and she laughed. After she had eaten, she gave the seed and core to Hanuman and he licked and chewed the last of the mango pulp from the seed. He suddenly screeched and stared as Maitreyi approached. It was obvious that the little monkey did not like her at all.
Maitreyi led the donkey with her.
“I told my parents they could have the donkey, but they refused the gift. I told them I had an elephant now and for some reason they found it so amusing that they could not contain their laughter.”
Miri smiled. “Well, we could perhaps use it for barter at some time. Krishna might find it a compatible mount.
As it turned out, Krishna had no desire to ride the donkey. He had found his place at Maya’s shoulder. So they tethered him to Maya’s harness, with a long coconut rope. Though he balked at first, Maya’s ambivalence to his presence and her great unyielding strength soon caused him to submit to her will. He was not happy at being the subservient to Maya, but he soon learned to walk quietly behind the great elephant.
They christened him Kubera.
In time, he learned he could walk on her shady side and so avoid the angry glare of Surya, as the sun god raced his chariot across the clear blue sky.
Maitreyi however, became extremely vexed. Though they had left her village, their passage was slow and ponderous. In three days they had made little progress. It was, indirectly, the fault of Maya the elephant. Though she walked at the same pace as would a donkey, at every turn they were swarmed by villagers, farmers, mothers, children and other wayfarers. Everyone they met brought offerings of rice and sweets to feed Maya and bring good fortune upon themselves by touching her. Maya, ever the lady, eating for two, accepted the proferrings of rice and sweets and fruits with gratitude and grace. Krishna accepted the delays with delight, and Hanuman scurried about demanding a share of the food from the worshippers who approached the great elephant. The fact that together, all people saw was an avatar of Ganesha, accompanied by the god Hanuman being led along the road by Krishna, resplendent in his blue turban and silver and ruby turban clasp. Their group now included two beautiful white cows and a calf that had decided to follow Krishna. To make things worse, the countryside now was open field, and they were no longer hidden by the greenery of the jungle that had previously crowded the road. Passersby had already begun to decorate the elephant and cows with flowers; a young woman had brought a beautiful shirt for Krishna to match his turban, and he looked now very regal. The more people gave to them, the more others wanted to improve their own karma. Soon, they were all very grand. Maitreyi donned a beautiful red sari to surpass Krishna’s newfound opulence, and even Miri eventually changed. She donned a fine gold trimmed forest green sari. Such was their spectacle, they positively gleamed in the sun and they could be seen from a great distance. In all, their caravan had become a traveling circus.
Though her companions found the situation quite entertaining, Maitreyi found that the festive atmosphere frustrated her progress toward Shambhala. To compound her irritation, as the day progressed, the sun climbed high into the sky and beat down upon them unmercifully. As the sun grew hotter, less people came out to see them for everyone who could, found a cooler shady place to rest and stayed there. Hanuman discovered a place to hang in the howdah harness below Maya’s belly out of the sun. Tired and dusty, the procession seemed to run almost entirely out of energy.
Then, suddenly, Maya lifted her trunk and rumbled. Krishna glanced up at her and within his heart knew that his charge had gone into labour. Miri had also sensed the change within the great beast below her. She slipped quickly from the elephant’s back and landed heavily beside Krishna.
“We must find shade and a place to remove the howdah!” she said to Krishna. He pointed to a grove of trees in the distance.
“What is it?” called Maitreyi from Maya’s back.
“Maya is about to be a mother!” called Krishna.
“I don’t believe it!” Her head peered down at them, “Get me down from here!” she commanded.
“Jump!” cried Krishna.
“We’ll catch you!” shouted Miri.
Maitreyi descended upon them in a shrieking cloud of flowing silk. Within a few moments, they reached the grove of palms. In the shade, they removed all the baggage from the howdah, as they had decided it would not be good to have Maya kneel to remove the howdah; it would apply too much pressure on her distended belly. The two cows and the calf cropped the grass below the palms and eventually lay down contentedly. After they had removed their belongings, they released the cinches on the howdah harness and Maya let out a very loud sigh.
Miri and Maitreyi stood on one side of Maya and held her harness tight as Krishna pulled the harness on the other side of the elephant. This way, they lowered the howdah slowly to the ground. They attached Kubera to the harness and skidded the howdah to one side. Krishna patted Maya and whispered words of comfort to her.
Miri talked Maitreyi into setting camp.
“How long does an elephant in labour need to drop a calf?” she asked.
“I have no idea,” replied Miri, “but I have a feeling it’s longer than it takes to brew a pot of tea.” Immersed in preparing camp and starting a fire, Miri had not noticed that three more cows, who all seemed drawn to Krishna, had joined them and it gave her pause. A tinkling of bells caught her attention and as she looked up, a flock of goats tended by a young girl and her younger brother wandered into their camp.
“My name is Radha and this is my brother Asita,” announced the young girl.
“I am Miriam,” replied Miri, “This is Maitreyi and the boy over there is Krishna.” When Radha’s eyes were directed at Krishna, she paused for an intense moment and Miri sensed a great attraction pulling the girl’s attention toward the young elephant boy.
Miri smiled. “Is this your family’s grove?” she asked, “We had no one to give permission, and Maya, our elephant needs to rest.”
“She is in labour,” announced Radha. She glanced at her brother.
Asita nodded in agreement. “The baby is strong,” he said simply.
Miri had no reason to doubt the youngster’s solemn pronouncement for she too had felt the determination of the young male within Maya’s womb.
“We come here, but the grove belongs to the gods and the spirits who live within the trees,” said Radha. Asita nodded. “We will stay with you,” Radha added, “We know the names of the spirits that live here, and they will heed you if you speak to them by name.”
Miri extended her hand to the young shepherdess. When Radha extended her hand in acceptance, the glint of gold caught Miri’s eye.
On the girls fingers were the most ornate and beautiful gold, ruby and emerald rings. The stones were set as red flowers in a corolla of green leaves. They were so rich that Miri had to ask about them.
“They have always been on my hand,” replied Radha, “We believe the gods had placed them there before my parents found me.”
“They found you?” asked Miri in surprise.
“They found me in a basket on the river, caught in the branches of a fallen kadamba tree.”
“Oh my goodness!” cried Miri.
“Sometimes baby girls, if they are first born are cast out,” said Radha sadly, “Or perhaps my real parents were so poor they could not afford me.”
Miri hugged Radha. “I am sure they hoped the best for you!”
“I have new parents,” said Radha flatly. “Nanda and Yasoda.” She smiled at their names. “They love me very much, and they have six other children! I help when I can, but they did not need to keep me!”
“You are lucky to have found them!” said Miri.
“Seven times lucky!” said Radha, “That is what my parents say! She admired her pretty rings. They cannot come off!”
“They were on your hand as a child?” asked Miri.
Radha nodded. “We have never been able to remove them. And it seems they have grown with my fingers. That is why we think they were given by the gods. I have some cheese. Would you like some?”
The two goatherds had actually brought a considerable amount of cheese and ghee considering they were only out for a day and Maitreyi commented upon that as they offered the cheese and fermented milk.
Radha shrugged, “Sometimes Krishna does not provide for our needs, so we carry more than is necessary for a normal day.”
It was not long before they all sat down to a feast of rice, cheese, raisins and nuts in a delicious curried sauce. Krishna provided a small pot of delicious mango chutney from a compartment in the howdah, and they set out ghee with an added pot of local beer that had been offered to Maya and intercepted by Krishna earlier in the day.
They laid a great feast laid out on a cloth on the ground, but before they could sit down, Asita called out and pointed to three men passing by in single file. The last in line, a young man about twenty years old held his right hand upon the shoulder of a middle-aged man whose right hand rested on the shoulder of the first, an old man well into his sixties. At the head of the line, the old man tested the ground with a stick as they slowly shuffled along the road. It was obvious they were blind. Though they traveled the same path, they seemed to be involved in a heated discussion. Krishna called out to them and they abruptly stopped walking and talking in unison and stood unmoving on the road.
“Where are you going?” he asked as he approached them.
“Sir, we have embarked on a pilgrimage to gain our sight,” answered the first man, “My name is Malkyar, the man behind me is Gaspar¾”
“Balthasar,” interrupted the second man, “I am Balthasar. The lad behind me is Gaspar.”
“I am Krishna.”
This announcement created a stir between the three men and they all began to talk at once until the old man shushed them.
“You are Krishna?” asked the old man in wonderment.
“I am Radha,” announced the young goatherd as she joined the group.
This again sent the three blind men into a torrent of excited whispers that also ended in the old man shushing the group.
“Would you care to join us? We are about to eat,” asked Krishna.
All three erupted into a torrent of gratitude.
“Take my arm,” said Radha as she guided the old man’s bony gnarled fingers in hers and placed them on her smooth unblemished forearm. The men stumbled, but could not hide their effusive enthusiasm at being asked to dine with Krishna. That their hostess was Radha. They obviously believed that they were in the presence of the gods, and that their lives were blessed.
Maya sounded a greeting and all three men clutched at each other in fear.
“What was that?” screeched Malkyar.
“An elephant,” replied Asita, who had now joined them.
“What manner of demon is that?” gasped Gaspar.
“She is no demon,” replied Radha, “She is an animal. Like a cow.”
“I have heard cows,” replied Balthasar, “and I have heard the growl of the tiger, but never have I heard such a thing, what is it like?”
“Come, I will show you,” said Krishna. Radha, Krishna and Asita each respectively and respectfully took Malkyar, Balthasar and Gaspar by the arm and led them to the swaying Maya. She rocked gently back and forth, swinging her trunk to an unheard rhythm all her own.
She reached out to Krishna and he passed her trunk to Malkyar.
“An elephant is much like a wrinkled snake,” said Malkyar.
“More as a tree, I think,” replied Balthasar who had reached out and wrapped his arms about her leg.
“Impossible!” cried Gaspar, whose hand had reached up to grasp Maya’s ear. “It is like a sheet of leather.”
“My goodness!” declared Malkyar who had now discovered Maya’s tail, “An elephant is also like a rope!”
Asita laughed for he could see the whole elephant and he knew that it was all and none of these things and more than the sum of the parts that the blind men could grasp. Radha shushed him, and Krishna guided the men one by one about Maya so that they would better understand the elephant.
Buzzing with their newfound knowledge, the three men allowed themselves to be guided to the cloth on the ground, and seated as guests at the feast cloth. Maitreyi sat between Gaspar and Malkyar and Miri between Malkyar and Balthasar.
Hanuman was on his good behaviour and was fascinated by Radha and Asita. He sat down between the brother and sister and kept touching his hand to their skin and smelling his knuckles. His eyes constantly moved from one to the other as they spoke.
Radha had purposefully placed herself as close to Krishna as she possibly could, and he by no means retreated from her presence, but seemed in fate to reciprocate her ardour, though neither displayed their passion openly. The others could not help but notice, and Miri sensed that if she and Maitreyi took it into their heads to pull them apart, no matter how far they were separated, they would snap back together in an instant.
The sun set gracefully, turning gold then ruby red, filling the sky with a marvelous blood red haze that muted to royal purple and faded finally to velveteen black. The stars twinkled above the canopy of the trees. The first star to appear was Venus in the western horizon and a full moon arose in the eastern sky. Miri lay on her back and gazed up at the brilliant starlit night through the leaves of the trees and was content. A slow creaking, at first almost imperceptible, caught her attention. Though she did not notice the sound at the exact moment it began, it became loud enough she sat up. She and the others looked about for the source of the creaking.
It came from Maya. She had been leaning against a Plaksha fig tree, and now she had ceased using it as a prop and the pressure of her great massive body had uprooted it. Another tree beside it had prevented its falling, but now that Maya had moved, it slowly bent toward the elephant. Krishna leaped up, for he feared for her safety, but the tree merely bent over the Maya in much the same way a servant would lower a parasol over a monarch. It formed a bower above Maya as she snorted loudly and rumbled a purr that sounded like a giant contented cat.
A splash of water sounded from by her, and everyone knew her young son had decided to enter the world. They all stood up, but Krishna motioned them to stay, and he approached Maya. He rubbed behind her ears and she rumbled at him. He slid his hand along her flank and walked towards her rear. The dripping of amniotic fluid caught his ear, and then suddenly, a large form dropped from her to the grassy glade. He heard a squealing noise and Maya swung about with such speed, he was bowled over.
Miri and Radha ran to his aid, but he was unhurt. Asita and Maitreyi tiptoed closer and watched as Maya greeted her shiny new son in a shaft of silver moonlight.
“We will call him Siddhartha!” whispered Krishna.
That night, Miri dreamed of the garden and she could clearly see the gardener. He was not the same soul manifested as she had always dreamt. The garden though, this time was most assuredly in Shambhala. She knew that the soul wanted to speak to her urgently, but she also knew the soul would not remain long. She awoke with a greater urgency to leave, and found, not surprisingly, that urgency was matched by Maitreyi.
However, neither had a chance to speak of it immediately. They had guests. The three blind men had overnight become extremely interested in the welfare of Maya the elephant, and had arisen early and retrieved leaves and vegetation to feed the elephant and scratched themselves extensively as they did so. They had made such noise thrashing about in the forest that they had awoken every one. As the women prepared breakfast, Asita took it upon himself to guide the blind men in their foraging for the elephant and her new son, who now had found his legs.
“This will slow us down considerably,” Maitreyi said as she stirred the rice in the pot, pointing with her wooden spoon to Siddhartha wobbling within the forest of his mother’s legs.
“We will have to wait,” said Krishna, “Siddhartha will not be able to travel far for a few days.”
“Baby elephants are quite strong,” piped in Radha, “I am sure with enough milk from his mother, he will be able to travel within a week. In the wild they travel from their first day.” She snapped her mouth shut and eyed Krishna, for she realized she wanted to delay and keep him with her for as long as she could. She glanced over at Miri and Maitreyi to see if they had caught her thoughts. Miri had, but Maitreyi was so focused on leaving she noticed nothing.
“We have far to go and it would be a great burden on the young one.”
“We have to go!” declared Maitreyi vehemently. Her outburst silenced everyone for a moment.
“Perhaps we could travel ahead,” said Miri, “Krishna, you could follow as far as Sonepur on Mother Ganges. You should be able to catch up to us by then, but in any case, we will leave word for you there.”
Maitreyi snorted, “Hah! We should leave our possessions with this imp? We will have nothing by the time we reach Sonepur!”
“Maitreyi, I cannot lie. It is true that I was born to my mother in prison, and never knew my father,” replied Krishna. “I was raised by honest folk, hardworking and faithful to the scriptures at every turn. It is also true I am the most capricious of beings, but I pledge my soul that I will not betray your trust!”
“He will do as you ask!” piped in Radha suddenly. She suddenly realized she had perhaps overstepped several boundaries for she had not known these folk for more than a day, but such was her love for Krishna, she was convinced of his fidelity. He smiled gratefully at her to ease her discomfort.
“We will take the gold!” said Maitreyi. “Kubera will carry the chest for us!”
“He cannot carry it all and our supplies!” said Miri sharply. “We must leave some with Krishna!”
“But it is our gold!” said Maitreyi.
“Bury it!” Said Krishna. “Not all of it. You could bury it in a secret location and then return for it on your way back.”
“You will dig it up!” said Maitreyi.
“Not if I don’t know where it is!” replied Krishna.
“We will leave the coins with you,” said Miri.
“Not my coins!” said Maitreyi.
Miri sighed. “Alright, we can divide the gold into six lots. You and I will take two with us and you can bury two lots, and I will leave two with Krishna.”
“Two?” asked Maitreyi. “Two?”
“There are six lots. You and I have equal share in the gold. We will take one lot each for our trip; you can bury your remaining two wherever you wish, and I will entrust my two to Krishna. That way he will have no need to search for your gold, and will also have some to draw upon until her reaches Sonepur. From there, we can make new plans.”
Maitreyi was grudgingly silent, but her mind was working on the solution. Her heart did not want to give up any of the gold, but she knew if she was to reach Shambhala she would have to agree to release some of the gold. They had only one donkey.
The thought of abandoning her gold in the forest was almost more than she could bear. After dividing the gold, it was apparent she would not be able to carry the gold into the jungle on her own, in which case, Miri would have to help, for if Krishna gave her a hand, she might as well leave her money with him.
Which is what she did. It was the Path of Least Resistance.
Travelling without Krishna was more hazardous than they had thought. He had been right about them needing a male escort, for at every town and hamlet, they were besieged with eager men who seeing a woman alone, took it upon themselves to remedy the situation. Some were charming. Others were not, but all in all, the constant assault upon their sexual privacy drained both Miri and Maitreyi very quickly. They took to travelling at night and camping in the forest to avoid confrontations with men convinced of their own attractiveness to the opposite sex. Many women were just as unpleasant and openly hostile to the travellers. It seems they felt the two unattached women were a threat to guaranteeing their husband’s faithfulness. No longer surrounded by lush tropical vegetation they now passed through a dusty plain where patches of trees indicated the presence of water. Maitreyi’s humour darkened, and they were now forced to stop wherever they could to barter for food and especially water. The local people, dark-skinned Dravidians were more hospitable to the women, but the prices for water were astronomical, and they were pressured often to exchange sex for water.
They debated hiring someone to travel with them, but unfortunately they met no one in whom they both could lay their trust.
“I would pay that scamp double his rate if he were with us now!” complained Maitreyi as they led Kubera across the sandy dried riverbed of the Narmada River just below Jabalpur toward the small rivulet that still flowed through the dry basin. Dotted throughout the riverbed were small shacks and lean-tos where the locals had dug wells. The water was cleaner from the well, but neither Miri nor Maitreyi had the spirit to barter with another man over the price of water for Kubera. As they approached the trickle of water, two young children made a beeline for the travellers.
“Rani! Rani!” They called as they approached, “You want water? You want water?” Breathlessly two little girls swarmed Miri and Maitreyi, “We have clean water! Cheap!”
Miri and Maitreyi exchanged glances. “We will water Kubera by the river,” said Miri.
“He will get sick if he drinks that water! We have a well! Fresh water!”
The eldest tugged at Miri’s hand. “Water is cheap at our well! Our grandmother is there! She will tell you!”
“Take us there!” said Miri.
A small wooden shanty covered by cotton sheets covered the well dug in the sandy bed. The air beneath the cloth canopy was cool and smelled of water. Sitting within a jumble of terra cotta pots from cup size to jars that would hold a man, sat an old woman. She opened her hands to the newcomers.
“Ah, my little fisherfolk have brought me two very large fish!”
“They need water!” declared the eldest girl, “They have a donkey! Called Kubera!”
The younger girl nodded her head vigorously in agreement.
“Then we shall give them some!” declared the old woman.
“They have money to pay!” blurted out the elder.
“They are guests!” said the older woman firmly. “We shall give them water! Have I not taught you any manners, Lakshmi?” she turned to Miri and Maitreyi and smiled. She had few teeth left in her head, but her smile was warm and genuine and not at all unbecoming. “Please, I am Mari¾”
“Miri was delighted. “My name also is Mari! Though in my own tongue, I am called Miri, it is the same!” She recovered from her delighted outburst to formally introduce Maitreyi.
“Please, be seated, my daughters” replied the old woman, “Lakshmi, you and Avara fetch some water for our guests’ animals and I will attend to the women.”
Lakshmi protested, but her grandmother silenced her with an authoritative wave of her hand and the two girls left the shelter to attend to Kubera. “And make some tea for our guests!”
“So, tell me our purpose,” she said sweetly to her new guests, and poured water from a terra cotta jug into two blue ceramic cups.
“We are traveling to Shambhala,” announced Maitreyi.
The old woman smiled, “As we all are.”
“No, the real Shambhala!” replied Maitreyi with a trace of annoyance at Mari’s philosophical comment. “There is a place called Shambhala, and we intend to find it!”
“You shall,” replied Mari, “I am sure you shall!”
Miri could sense that Miatreyi was starting to boil at the old woman’s double meanings, for many believed that the only path to Shambhala would be through the Gates of Death, and Maitreyi would not allow that thought to enter her world. She was determined to reach Shambhala. And return intact.
“You have two fine grand-daughters,” said Miri.
Mari smiled. “Yes, they are my rod and my staff. My eyes and ears.” Sadness filled her eyes. “My little flowers! I hope that I may remain here long enough to see that they thrive and blossom!”
“May your wish be granted!” said Miri.
“They have only you?” asked Maiteryi.
The old woman’s smile filled with irony, than faded. “I had seven sons. Two died at birth. Two from sickness barely more than three years old. Another died when he and his father were crushed by a tree they were felling.”
“And the other two?” asked Maitreyi.
“Ah, the eldest of the two, Kumar, never married. The second, Pali, married well, and his wife, Parvati, bore a son, a fine young boy. He was my pride and joy! Then his mother bore the two you see now.” The old woman sipped some water. “They have always been strong willed and I fear they may never marry!” Though here meaning was admonitory, there was a trace of pride as she spoke of her granddaughters.
“Together, my boys built a fine house, and we all lived well, until one day Pali returned from the forest to find Pali and Parvati entwined in lovemaking. In a jealous rage, he killed them both with his great double-headed axe. His son rushed in to stop him, but such was his fathers rage, he chopped off the young boy’s head as well.”
Mair had related the tale as though she were reading a passage from a scroll. It was not emotionless, but her words had an emptiness that coloured her voice, as though she were speaking from the grave.
“That is when I returned from the well with water,” The old woman’s eyes seemed to have melted and had no form. “He looked at me for a single moment and said ‘Get out!’ so quietly, only my soul could hear him. Such was the power of his words, I backed out of the house without moving. He set fire to the house and the last I saw of him he was standing in the middle of our burning house, arms outstretched!”
Lakshmi and Avara stood frozen in the doorway, teapot in hand.
“I am Death!” whispered the old woman.
“She really doesn’t mean it,” explained Lakshmi. A warm fire was glowing, and the old woman slept beside it on a mat. The night wrapped about them like a warm blanket. Avara slept peacefully, her head in Lakshmi’s lap. “Everyone about her has died except us, and she sometimes feels very sad.”
“What about you?” asked Maitreyi.
Lakshmi shrugged. “Grandma told me a story at my parent’s funeral. She said that the Buddha was approached by a woman carrying a dead child in her arms. She knew that he was capable of great miracles, and begged him to return her child to her. The Buddha knew he could not change that which already was, but he said to her. “I will help you, but first you must bring me a mustard seed from a family that has never been visited by Death. The woman was overjoyed and searched through her entire village seeking the family that had never been visited by Death. She asked everyone she knew, but all had an aunt, an uncle, mother, son or daughter who had died. Overwhelmed and with tears of desperation, she thought to return to the Buddha and tell him she could find no one whom Death had not visited, and she then realized the lesson he had given her.”
Lakshmi poked at the fire with a stick to allow air under the burning wood.
“Death comes to us all,” said Lakshmi, “Though we may not welcome her, she bears us no ill will. To see my parents die and attend their funeral is far better for me than for my parents to attend mine.”
Maitreyi’s eyes had filled with tears, though they were not enough to mar her cheeks. “You are very wise,” she said softly to Lakshmi.
Lakshmi shrugged, “I am what I am.”
The next morning, Miri and Maitreyi loaded their baggage upon Kubera, and Maitreyi added two large water skins on his back.
“That is a lot of weight for our little friend,” said Miri.
Maitreyi finished tying the skins to Kubera. “I lightened his load,” she said lightly. Miri frowned for she was afraid a heavy load could injure Kubera, but Maitreyi lifted a large bag of belongings onto her head.
“My new hat,” said Maitreyi with a smile.
Miri laughed. Mari, Lakshmi and Avara came out to wish them farewell. It seemed to Miri that their effusiveness and great hugs for her, but especially Maitreyi, were out of place, and as they made their way from the river bed and back onto the road she mulled over their strange behaviour.
Finally she could contain herself no longer.
“Why were they so happy at our farewell?” she asked Maitreyi.
Without looking at Miri, Maitreyi answered. “I paid them the weight of the waterskins in gold,” said Maitreyi.
Miri was flabberghasted, “You gave them your gold?” she asked incredulously.
“I do not wish to discuss it!” said Maitreyi sternly. “Besides, the way will be dry from now on and we cannot drink our gold!”
“I am speechless!” exclaimed Miri.
“Good!” replied Maitreyi, “I hope you stay that way!”
Maitreyi’s sudden outburst of generosity carried her amiably for two days, after which she began to settle back into her old habits of thought. They again began to be accosted by men for sexual favours, and in the intense, dry heat, day by day, their energies were drained and their spirits ground down.
Maitreyi complained incessantly about their plight, but every time Miri reminded her the alternative was to wait and travel at a much slower pace with Krishna and the elephant, she would break into tears. Sleeping during the day was draining for the days were terribly hot and there had been no rain for days. Kubera grew more and more cantankerous as the journey wore on. His behaviour grew from being annoying to exasperating and he and Maitreyi grew to become bitter adversaries. The two of them engaged in such intense battles of will that their contests would draw a crowd of bystanders whose attempts of offering advice were greeted by open hostility from both Kubera and Maintreyi alike. Eventually, Miri had to bar Maitreyi from leading Kubera. The days turned to weeks, and on a hot and dusty afternoon, they finally trudged into Varanasi on the Ganges River dragging the reluctant Kubera behind them. As they entered the town, they stopped as a funeral procession passed by them.
They followed behind the procession toward the Ganges and the wailing of grieving women assaulted their ears and the fallout from ash and sackcloth filled their nostrils, and their hearts cracked. Wherever they looked, it seemed that funeral pyres were blazing. Baskets full of flowers for offerings and cartfuls of funereal wood were being offered for sale. Both rich and poor alike were brought to the river’s edge. It seemed to Miri as though a plague had swept the city and the dead were being brought to the river to be consumed by the fire of Agni and the mouth of Mother Ganges. The desolation of human life suddenly seemed too much to bear and tears welled in the eyes of both women. They stood transfixed as the procession before them stopped at a funeral pyre in a pit beside the river not far from where they stood.
A body was laid upon the wood stacked in the funeral pit. Further back in the procession an old woman sat sadly upon a white horse. She was richly attired with more jewels than seemed practical. A young man passed a torch along the unlit pyre and the wood burst quickly into flame. With a great cry, the crows pushed a wooden scaffold with four or five steps to the edge of the fire. The woman dismounted the white horse, which was taken from her by a groom. There, she turned herself round three times, praying towards the direction of sunrise, and, this done, she called her kindred and friends, and to each she removed a jewel, of which she had many with her, and piece by piece she removed her clothing and gave it to until she stood naked save a small piece of cloth which covered her from the waist down. This ritual, she performed with such a cheerful countenance, that she seemed as though she were at a wedding not a funeral. Miri was drawn toward the burning fire, but Maitreyi restrained her.
The woman motioned to the men with her on the scaffold and spoke to each of them in turn. Maitreyi bit her lip. A drop of blood appeared on her lower lip.
Then the woman ceased speaking, and one of the men poured a pitcher of oil onto her hands. She then took the pitcher full of oil, and she poured it on her head, and still clutching the pitcher, she again turned round three times on the scaffold and again prayed to towards the setting sun. Then she cast the pitcher of oil into the fire.
Suddenly, and to Miri’s horror, the old woman threw herself after it with as much goodwill as if she were throwing herself on her bed. From where she stood, Miri could see the woman thrashing about within the flames. Immediately her kinsfolk rushed forward and each cast a pitcher of oil or butter onto the woman, which they had apparently held throughout the funeral for this purpose. Others quickly threw more wood on the pyre, and within a few heavy heartbeats, such flames flashed upward that the old woman could no longer be seen within them. Maitreyi folded into Miri’s arms burst into tears.
Miri pulled her close, and let her cry until she could cry no more.
Discouraged, they found a small caravanseri on the outskirts of Varanasi overlooking the Ganges. Though they were in a larger city, their presence still created curiosity in the neighbourhood. Still unnerved by their witnessing the immolation of the widow, they wished only to retire and sleep. Kubera was had to be segregated in his own stall as he took exception to the presence of another male in the caravan already installed in the courtyard stable. Miri and Maitryi felt the same and though there was some pressure for them to share accommodations with the women who traveled with the traders, they insisted and paid a premium for their own apartment.
It was not as clean as they would like, and they both wished they had left the town and camped on their own, the plastered walls gave them a sense of home and security they had not felt for some time. A pleasant, plump and chatty middle aged woman was assigned to their rooms as chambermaid.
She opened up the rattan screen facing the Ganges and dropped the mosquito netting down with a pull on a string.
“Mother Ganges!” announced the chambermaid. “Daughter of the Himalayas and Mother of India!” She turned to fluffing out their mattress and pillows. “Every morning I dip in her waters to receive her blessings! You should dip yourselves!”
The woman sensed some reticence on her guests’ part. “Oh, I know what you are thinking! So many bodies placed in the water! But you must be baptizing yourself in the waters of the Ganges, blessings or no blessings! It is many blessings! You can wash away your sins! Ten sins for every dip! Very good for your soul!”
Her patter went on incessantly, and even if Miri and Maitreyi stepped outside, the chambermaid would follow them to sing the praises of bathing in the Great Ganges and to complain about her neighbours, who apparently were the least devout Hindus in all India. Eventually, much to their relief, she left.
“I’ll bet she never stops talking!” whispered Maitreyi, “She probably talks that way while her husband pops her the jiggy-jiggy!”
Their sleep was not as restful as they had hoped. A small group of men sat smoking hashish in the courtyard, and their voices and laughter echoed loudly through the inn. To make matters worse Kubera and his rival in the caravan decided to stage a braying contest. Well before dawn arose in the East.
Miri closed her eyes but could not really sleep. She opened her eyes and saw the flicker of the oil lamp on the wall, and turned to see what Mitreyi was doing. Maitreyi covered the scroll in her lap.
“What are you reading?” asked Miri.
“My guide book to Shambhala,” she said quickly.
“Your¾ Where did you get it?”
“From the brahmin!” said Maitreyi.
“He sold it to you?”
“In a way, yes!” said Maitreyi.
Miri sat upright. “You stole it!” she said flatly.
“No, not really.”
“What do you mean, not really? Either you did or you didn’t.”
“Didn’t!” declared Maitreyi.
“Does he know you have it?” asked Miri.
Maitreyi didn’t answer at first, then replied slowly.
“If he has gone to look for it, then he might know it is not where he left it.”
“You old witch,” said Miri and sidled over to Maitreyi, “Let’s see it!”
Maitreyi held it to her breast for a moment then showed it to Miri.
“It is a series of riddles. I think!”
“See here, it says, ‘Once you see the Mother Goddess of the Universe, do not approach her, but keep her at your right hand.’”
“What does that mean?” asked Miri.
“I have no idea!” said Maitreyi.
They shared a breakfast of lentils, sultanas, dates and rice with the traders. They seemed to be bright and in good spirits despite the late night hashish consumption and the early donkey alarm. They spoke a language unknown to either Miri or Maitreyi, and they spoke Hindi with such a thick accent, they seemed to be more understandable when they slipped into their mother tongue.
Through the course of their breakfast, the men and women of the caravan invited Miri and Maitreyi to travel with them as far as Gaya. Miri amd Maitreyi, hesitated but the thought that they might receive less attention from local brummels, they agreed.
Kubera, however, had his own ideas about traveling with the caravan. He harboured an extreme dislike to the alpha male in the donkey train, and the four-legged leader of the train did not want to relinquish his leadership to Kubera.
The muleteers suggested they allow Kubera and the other male fight it out, but neither Miri nor Maitreyi wanted to take the chance on their companion, as cantankerous as he was, being injured, and so decided to travel on alone. They allowed the traders to go ahead of them and waited long enough for the smell of the donkey train to wane before setting out. Unfortunately, every spot on the road where the male donkey ahead had urinated or defecated, sent Kubera into a convulsion of braying that kept him standing over the spot where the other donkey had left his excrement.
“You stupid donkey!” screamed Maitreyi at Kubera, “One more outburst and I’ll kill you!”
Kubera stared at Maitreyi for an uncomprehending moment and brayed even louder. Maitreyi screamed and attacked the donkey with her fists. This had no effect on Kubera’s humour and he turned to bite Maitreyi. She wrapped her arms about his neck, and successfully began to twist the donkey to the ground.
“Maitreyi!” shouted Miri, but the spectacle of Maitreyi pulling the poor donkey to the ground made her laugh uncontrollably. With a scream of rage, Maitreyi pinned Kubera to the ground, and Miri recovered her composure long enough to peel Maitreyi from the donkey. Unfortunately, due to the baggage on his back, Kubera was unable to regain his feet and in his vain struggle to do so, he knocked both women off their feet. They collapsed with a surprised squeal in a laughing unhurt heap.
Kubera’s flaying legs made untying him a dangerous task. They had to dart in and out to peck at the knots bit by bit and unpacking and untying him took quite a long time.
They left word, a shawl of Miri’s and a gold coin with a merchant at a roadside vegetable stand who claimed he sold his wares every day of the year including high holy days. The low road had been deceiving, for they soon found themselves suddenly surrounded by a mass of pilgrims traveling to the town of Gaya. Miri was reminded of the Passover in Yerushalayem and was fascinated by the mendicants, flagellants, ash covered ascetics that traveled alongside them. Many had adopted strange modes of travel. They passed more than one man proceeding by taking a single step, lying down, standing and then repeating the process, all the while mumbling his prayers. Maitreyi, as usual, just found these people irritants and obstacles to her goal.
That night, they camped in a glade not far from the road amongst a motley mob of wailing banshees. There were moans of ecstasy and cries of pain as people around them found different ways of assailing their flesh as to improve their spirit. Maitreyi was disgusted.
“We’re surrounded by idiots!” she whispered savagely. “Can you believe people would do such harm to themselves? Some enlightenment!”
“It does seem a little overly zealous,” replied Miri sleepily.
“They’re possessed!” complained Maitreyi. “They are possessed by demons!”
Miri had reduced her reaction to a murmur of assent.
“You’re all insane!” Maitreyi shouted at the forms in the darkness, “You will never attain enlightenment!”
The woods fell silent.
Contented, Maitreyi wrapped her heavy robe about her and set her head down on the money chest and fell into a deep peaceful sleep. The next day, the strange crowd seemed less so, and they managed to engage some of their fellow travellers in conversation.
“Where are you going?” a woman flailing herself with a horsehair fly whisk.
“Sonepur,” replied Miri.
“Sonepur?” asked the woman, “You are headed down the wrong road. You came from Varanasi?
“What do you mean the wrong road?” asked Maitreyi incredulously.
“You should have followed the river. You are walking further away from Sonepur. You should have taken the main road to Pataliputra. Sonepur is across the river from there!”
Maitreyi stopped walking. “The wrong way?”
Miri wrapped her arm about Maitreyi to stem the rising hysteria. “It’s alright,” she whispered. “We will find the right way!”
And they did. The road to Gaya Bodhi turned to the north and they were told that it continued past Gaya to Bihar and rejoined the road to Pataliputra if they doubled back. Unfortunately, just as they discovered the road ahead would rejoin the road to Pataliputra. Kubera decided to stop walking. Nothing they could do could make him move, so they gave up and decided to camp in a small gully under a beautiful pipal tree.
They gathered some branches and started a small camp fire and toasted flatbread over the flames. They cooked some rice in a pot, and were chattering happily to each other as the tea boiled, when Maitreyi uttered a brief shriek. Miri started and turned to look in the direction Maitreyi was pointing. Behind them, leaning upright against the papal tree was an emaciated corpse.
“Oh, Great Mother!” declared Miri.
“Is he dead?” asked Maitreyi.
They both stood up slowly and approached the eerie figure leaning against the tree. Maitreyi stayed a step behinf Miri and used her as a shield. Miri reached out to touch the corpse’s face, and the eyes opened. Both women screamed.
A gnarled hand reached up to touch Miri and whispered. His breath was foul.
“What did he say” whispered Maitreyi.
“Water,” said Miri, “I think he asked for water.”
“What about tea?”
“Maybe with honey,” said Miri quietly.
Miatreyi slipped away to retrieve a cup of tea for the emaciated figure. He appeared as a skeleton with wrinkled folds of skin hanging from his frame.
“Is he a man?” asked Maitreyi breathlessly as she returned with a hot cup of tea. “Or a woman?”
“A man, I think,” said Miri as she placed the flat of her palm against his forehead. “He is very cold.” He quivered beneath her touch.
“Sujata,” he whispered.
“Sujata?” asked Miri.
“It means ‘high born’,” whispered Maitreyi, “Like a princess.”
Miri removed her shawl and wrapped it about the man, and Maitreyi handed her the tea. Miri blew on the cup and tested the temperature by taking a sip. “It is too hot for him.” She said, “Fetch a little rice.”
They sat until the tea had cooled and Miri lifted the cup to his lips. The tea dribbled down his chin.
“He can’t swallow” she said. Without hesitating she sucked in a mouthful of tea and placed her lips against his and forced the tea into his mouth and down his throat. She repeated her motion seven times, and finally the man responded and began to move. Maitreyi mixed the rice with some ghee and spooned some to his lips. He managed to take the food from her, and chewed painfully the few grains of rice Maitreyi had given him.
The two women tended the man without speaking, working together to wash him from head to toe and swathing him in clean cotton. They both fell asleep beside the man they were nursing. When they awoke and the man was gone.
A solid shaft of sunlight slanted through the leaves of the pipal tree onto the the ground between them at the foot of the tree. The only trace of the strange apparition of the night before was a single footprint in the soft soil between them.
“Where is he?” asked Maitreyi. Both women scanned the glade for a sign of the man, but he was gone. Maitreyi was convinced he was a tree spirit, so before they packed their belongings on Kubera, she insisted upon leaving an offering of rice and tea for the tree. So, they lit a small fire and cooked breakfast and shared their meal with the tree under which they had slept. They lit some incense and stuck the joss sticks into the soil marked by the footprint. Maitreyi even buried a single gold coin among the roots of the tree; then tied a small ribbon to a lower branch.
Miri was impressed with the serenity that Maitreyi acquired from the offering, but refrained from commenting on her companion’s demeanour in fear of bringing the old Maitreyi back to the surface. Her care was for nothing, because Kubera managed to put Maitreyi into an evil frame of mind within moments of their coming together.
He actually kicked off the harness to which they attached the bundles before Maitreyi could cinch it tight. She growled at Kubera and bit his ear. He then bucked in a great circle about the clearing with Maitreyi dragging on the rope tied to his harness screaming invectives at him which were so terrible the words would seem to condemn both of them to eternal damnation. Miri joined in the fray and after some argument between the three of them, she convinced Maitreyi to let go of the rope and step back from the action. Eventually, Kubera slowed down and became relatively docile under Miri’s hand, though it was apparent that his evil nature was still simmering just below the surface. He allowed Miri to load the baggage, all the time eying Maitreyi with open hostility as she simmered some several paces away.
Once Kubera was cinched up, they poured the remaining tea over the camp fire embers and smashed the earthenware pot against a rock, they set out for Bihar. They walked in silence for quite some time through a pleasant forest. The trees afforded them some shade from the sun, and they drank in the sun dappled air. Birds sang from the forest and crows cawed to each other. The raucous cry of a peacock called from somewhere in the greenery and faintly in the distance was the soft “kilyu, kilyu” of a cuckoo.
“That is a very strange bird,” commented Maitreyi. “It lays its eggs in a crow’s nest and the crow hatches it and feeds the baby. No mean feat, for on the whole, crows are very smart birds.”
At that moment Kubera stopped suddenly and pulled Miri from her feet. She fell backwards and landed hard on her tailbone, and she before she could cry out Maitreyi wrapped her hand over Miri’s mouth. The jungle was strangely silent.
A huge tiger nonchalantly stepped out of the forest to cross the road. Kubera, Miri and Maitreyi stood as still as stones. Their smell reached the tiger and he stopped for a moment. Panting, he stared at them. Miri felt his golden eyes lock on hers, but he showed an emotionless curiosity. He tired of the exchange, licked his whiskers, and continued his walk, disappearing silently into the forest on the opposite side of the road.
Miri’s heart pounded heavily in her heart and she felt she could hear Maitreyi’s heart pounding. Even Kubera’s breathing had stopped. They stayed as statues for an eternity. They all knew instinctively that movement might attract the tiger’s attention, and none trusted that the tiger had not circled back and was lying in ambush within the undergrowth.
“What shall we do?” asked Miri.
“Try getting up,” whispered Maitreyi. “Slowly!” She offered her hand and help Miri to her feet. “He will not attack as long as he thinks we are looking at him.” She said.
“You stand the other side of Kubera and look to the rear. Keep your back against Kubera and keep your eyes peeled.” Miri removed her bow and strung it. Removed an arrow and notched it
Maitreyi took a step forward, but Kubera would not budge. His nostrils flared as his head filled with the scent of the tiger. Maitreyi gripped the harness where the rope was attached to it and pulled Kubera’s face to hers.
“Move!” she whispered fiercely. She pulled on his harness, but Kubera was petrified, and his instincts told him to remain as still as possible. He snorted in protest at her and in the process sprayed mucous in her face. “You are such a dumb donkey!” Maitreyi’s anger was boiling to the surface and her voice grew louder. “Move your dumb ass!” she shouted.
He brayed back at her, and she yanked hard on his rope. Miri, bow drawn, stepped toward the spot where she had seen the tiger disappear. Suddenly, braying loudly, Kubera took to his heels. Enraged Maitreyi screamed and ran down the road after him. Not wanting to face the tiger alone, Miri backed away from the spot keeping her arrow notched and pointed toward the tiger’s exit point, and retreated as well.
Maitreyi stepped on Kubera’s rope to stop him, but her first to attempts failed, and she finally dove onto the ground to grasp the trailing rope with her hands. Kubera dragged her a considerable distance before he tired of hauling her through the dust.
Still looking backwards for signs of the tiger, Miri tripped over the prone Maitreyi and almost fell on top of her. The arrow slipped from her grasp and shot upwards a short distance, then turned and dropped quickly towards them. Miri quickly rolled Maitreyi over a heartbeat before the arrow dug into the ground where Maitreyi’s stomach had been.
They both looked at each other and laughed.
They passed through Bihar without incident and reached the Ganges by the late afternoon. The next morning they turned to the west along the river for Pataliputra. The day was extremely hot, and as the sun rose highest in the sky, they took Kubera out to the river’s edge to drink. The mud flats stretched out to the river, but the Ganges was still very wide. As they approached the water, Kubera sank in the sticky mud so they returned to the river bank away from the river to unload his pack and make him lighter so he would not sink so deep. They left their belongings in a heap under a beautiful banyan tree and led Kubera onto the mud flats to the edge of the river once more. They led him into the water and, calmed by the cool waters, Miri and Maitreyi used the opportunity to wash themselves.
Unfortunately, they became so immersed in the joy of bathing, they failed to keep an eye on Kubera. His braying awoke them to the relaization he had become mired in the muddy river bottom and was struggling to free himself from the grip of the sticky river mud. He thrashed about noisily, and Miriam, in the corner of her eye caught a movement she knew only too well further down the bank.
“Crocodiles!” she screamed. Several reptiles on both sides of the river slid into the water and disappeared beneath the surface, but it was obvious from their movement they were headed toward the struggling donkey.
They both splashed toward Kubera. Maitreyi grabbed his rope and swam toward a sandy rise on the mud flats.. Miri placed herself at his rump and tried to lift his hind quarters, but her feet too sank in the gumbo. She glanced quickly behind her. Though she could no longer see the crocodiles, she knew they were on their way. She also knew that splashing and shouting attracted them, but she had no choice. Kubera did not respond to refined coaxing. Thankfully, his legs came loose and he hopped but became mired again.
“Hurry up!” shouted Maitreyi, for she could now see the approaching crocodiles and there were more than three. “Miri get out of the water! To hell with the donkey!”
Miri turned and screamed. The huge crocodile was close enough she could see the pupils in his eyes. She bounded past Kubera and onto the mud flats.
The donkey sensed his impending doom and panicked. His struggles foamed the water, and just as a gigantic crocodile leaped from the water to grasp his head, Kubera stumbled and went under the water. The crocodile landed heavily on top of him, but the huge jaws closed shut with a leathery wet hollow snap. Kubera kicked at his foe and caught the crocodile in his side which seemed to knock the wind from the reptile. The crocodile retreated and Kubera staggered onto the sand bank and galloped across the mudflats past Miri and Maitreyi. Luckily his rope became entangled in some bushes, otherwise he might have continued galloping until he reached the sea. Miri caught up with him and secured him to the banyan tree.
They were exhausted by their efforts, and before they loaded the baggage, they decided to take a rest. They moved their baggage across the road to an open glade well beyond the river bank. Behind a low wall of stones where they felt safe from the crocodiles in the river, on a sun dappled knoll, they tied Kubera up with a rope long enough to allow him to graze. Using their belongings under the banyan tree as pillows, they ate a small snack of flatbread and cheese. Lulled by the singing of cuckoos and the hot, still morning, they fell asleep.
When they awoke, Kubera had gone.
Maitreyi growled in anger. “That damned donkey! That damned donkey!” She repeated the curse until she was hoarse.
Miri sat dejectedly on the ground. “Oh Great Mother, I hope he wasn’t eaten by the crocodile!” she said when Maitreyi finally gave up cursing and sat down beside her.
“If he was, I’ll kill him!” raved Maitreyi. “I risked my life for that stupid animal!” As the words left her lips, the wind picked up. It was not the dry, dusty wind they were used to but smelled of water. Maitreyi stood up and looked to the south. “Oh my! Varuna!” declared Maitreyi as she pointed at the dark clouds on the horizon, “I should have known!”
“What is it?” asked Miri.
“Monsoon!” whispered Maitreyi, “It is early this year!”
“Monsoon?” Miri asked, and as if in answer, thunder rolled in the distance.
“We must make a shelter!” declared Maitreyi, “We must find a place where we can stay dry!” She looked about and spied a small wooden shrine further along the road. “There!” she cried, “Carry as much as you can!”
With that she took up part of their bundle and ran for the shrine. The clouds along the horizon were quickly growing larger and Miri took on Maitreyi’s urgency and gathered as much of their belongings as she could, and ran for the small wooden structure. They dashed back and forth and the wind picked up, tugging at their saris. The last piece, their cash box, they lifted together. As they hoisted it up the first few heavy drops of rain fell upon them.
“Hurry!” cried Maitreyi, and they quickened their pace. In an instant, the heavens opened and a torrent of rain pressed down on them like an iron fist. They were both drenched instantly, and the ground at their feet changed within seconds from a dry dust to mud pocked by huge drops that thundered down upon them. Lightning flashed and thunder such as Miri had never heard crashed around them. Lightning struck the tree that they had rested on earlier and sizzled in the downpour. It was already far too wet to burn.
Breathless, and completely soaked, they carried their gold into the shrine only to discover miniature waterfalls pouring down the walls and leaking from the roof. They unwrapped a sheet of cloth that they used to cover their baggage and Maitreyi climbed on the shrine roof and wrapped the cloth over the roof to cover the holes that leaked into the shrine. The rain was so heavy, that it had stripped her clothes to her waist by the time she climbed down and re-entered the shrine.
“How long will this last?” Miri shouted over the roar of the rain on the roof.
Maitreyi, looked up from rewrapping her sari about her. “Long enough to carry a child to term,” she said dejectedly.
And the rain did not let up. The two women huddled together for warmth, but all their belongings were soaked. They had some oil in a jar, but they had no dry tinder with which to start it burning. They shivered uncontrollably in the dark, for the afternoon sun had fled from the huge unrelenting clouds. It rained through the night. Miri slept fitfully, and awoke with the dawn, but the rain had not stopped. It seemed to have lessened, but it was possible she was just getting used to the terrible downpour. Her clothes were still soaked and had not dried.
“We must make a fire!” shouted Maitreyi, “We must go out and find wood to burn and bring it back to burn!”
Her proposal made no sense for Miri could not see how in such conditions they could start a fire, but she decided foraging might at least warm her up a little. She returned with an armload of branches, but she shivered uncontrollably. She could not immediately recall when she had felt so miserable, but as she dropped the sodden wood on the floor of the shrine, she remembered her time lost in the sands of Egypt. From there to here was as different as possible: from absolute searing heat and merciless sun to a suffocating wetness that reached to her very bones. The thought of the desert seemed to dispel the worst effects of the monsoon rains, and she held the thought of the eye of Rei within her heart. Maitreyi piled the wood on the floor away from the drips from the ceiling.
“It will take a day at least to dry,” she announced.
At that moment, the rain stopped, and the air was filled with the sound of dripping water. Insects began to buzz, and in the distance the kehoe cuckoo called out.
“It’s over?” asked Miri.
Maitreyi shook her head. “A respite,” she said mournfully. “We shall have to seek better shelter soon.”
The next day remained overcast. Though in the late morning, the clouds cleared for a few precious moments, by the afternoon, lightning and the faint rolling distant thunder loomed again on the horizon. The storm borne by the relentless monsoon wind descended upon them with the fury of an eagle and the torrential downpour began again. Strangely, though the water seemed intolerable, Maitreyi did not seem put out by the pervasive dampness and unavoidable soaking, but elated.
“Why are you smiling?” asked Miri, “It seems¾” She tried to think of a word that would not appear insulting, but could not find one.
Maitreyi’s smile broadened. “The summer rain brings life,” cried Maitreyi over the din of the rain drumming on the shrine roof. “We¾” she stopped for a moment and shading her eyes from the rain, stared out through the wooden columns of the shrine. “We had better move!” she declared quickly, “I think our shelter is about to be reclaimed!” She pointed out into the rain.
Barely visible through the downpour, a procession moved toward them. Maitreyi grabbed an armload of their soggy belongings. “Help me!” she said. Recognizing the religious nature of their shelter, Miri moved quickly to help Maitreyi move their belongings from the shrine and under a nearby tree. They laid a bed of branches on the ground to keep their baggage off the ground, but the rain poured through the branches and there was no way to protect their goods from being drenched.
The faint sound of singing reached their ears.
“The celebration of Teej has begun,” explained Maitreyi to Miri. “They will come to the tree and the shrine to give offerings to Parvati. This shrine is to her. I do not think they will take kindly to our living inside her shrine!”
As it turned out Maitreyi was completely wrong. They could not remove their belongings from the shrine before the procession arrived and the villagers were overjoyed to find the two women in the shrine, especially since Miri was dressed in green, as were most of the women in the procession. Musicians started up a raga and song burst forth from the small crowd. They threw two coconut ropes over a large limb of the tree overhanging the shrine and added a wooden seat to create a swing. One by one the women took turns swinging on it. A second swing was added and someone lit a fire on a special hearth to help dry out the interior of the shrine. Food appeared and the celebreation of Teej was in full swing.
In the midst of the melee, a new sound overwhelmed the music, song and laughter. Miri recognized it immediately.
“Maya!” she cried and whirled about. Sure enough, Maya, her trunk curled in greeting was approaching, Siddhartha in tow.
The crowd was filled with glee, for the appearance of an elephant at the very onset of the monsoon on top of the two women in green appearing in the shrine to Parvati bad well for the crops and the coming year. Everyone began jumping in glee. The recognition of Hanuman on the little white elephant sent most of the group into paroxysms of ecstasy.
“Krishna!” cried Maitreyi happily, as he slid from his perch at Maya’s neck. She used her trunk to support him as he descended.
Radha’s face appeared from under the parasol over the howdah. Krishna’s herd of cattle now numbered almost a dozen. Miri hugged him.
“I appear to be a very rich man!” declared Krishna, “You have brought me great luck!” His arm stretched out over the cattle and goats. “I am glad that I have found you!”
Maitreyi ran up to hug him. “You are a sight for sore eyes!” she cried out, and swept him completely off his feet. She twirled him about, then her eyes narrowed and she dropped Krishna suddenly to the ground.
There unsuccessfully hiding from her disgusted glare amongst the cattle was Kuber. Rage filled her throat. “I’ll kill you!” she screamed at the donkey, but Miri, anticipating her charge at the miscreant beast, caught her in mid-stride.
“It’s not worth it!” laughed Miri.
“He’s possessed by a demon!” shouted Maitreyi, “I’m gonna cook him and eat him!” she yelled.
Krishna was taken aback by her outburst but was distracted by Radha.
“I’m coming down!” called Radha from the howdah, and Krishna ran to help her to the ground.
At that moment, to avoid the crowd of children that had surrounded Siddhartha, Hanuman leapt on to Miri’s shoulder. She scratched his ear and he chirped happily at her.
“No absolutely not” shouted Maitreyi, “I am not traveling another step with that demon!” She pointed at Kubera.
“But Maya cannot travel any further North. It is so cold in the mountains that water turns hard!” declared Krishna. “I will buy her from you.”
“With what?” asked Maitreyi.
“Maya is a good worker. Very strong!” replied Krishna “and all the villagers we meet give money to Siddhartha for good karma.” Krishna reached into a leather satchel and produced a handful of coins. “See? I will give you this money as a down payment.”
“What about the rest?” Maitreyi asked.
“I will deliver the rest of the price to your parents when I return to the south.”
Maitreyi thought for a moment, “Two donkeys as a down payment, not including this one!” Maitreyi pointed at Kubera. “Two donkeys! Nice ones!”
“Can donkeys travel in the mountains?” asked Radha. Her question was met by silence. No one seemed to know.
“Why not?” asked Maitreyi finally, “They travel everywhere, don’t they?”
“Everywhere I’ve been,” commented Miri.
“And she’s Greek!” said Maitreyi.
“Phoenician,” corrected Miri.
“You’re a pirate?” asked an awestruck Asita.
“She’s not a pirate!” said Krishna, “ I will find two donkeys for you.”
It took two days to find suitable animals. An old widow offered to sell them a water buffalo, but there was a general consensus that water buffaloes definitely were not mountain animals. Finally a farmer with three reasonable donkeys agreed to trade his donkeys for a water buffalo, so after some wrangling, they traded the water buffalo for Kubera and three goats donated by Radha, and swapped the buffalo for the farmer’s donkeys. Maitreyi inspected the three pack animals. She stood beside one, then the other, and the next, and she maliciously twisted each one by the ear. None of them reacted to her malicious tweaking and she smiled at Krishna. “They’ll do!” she said happily.
“They are called Beena, Bala and Biha!” said Krishna.
Krishna accompanied Miri and Maitreyi, and Beena, Bala and Biha to Pataliputra and crossed by ferry to Sonepur. They stayed in Sonepur for another three days, but the Ganges was swelling and she ran her muddy fingers through the trees in the green forest at her edges.
The time had come for them to part ways. Krishna had found work for Maya in Pataliputra, so he wanted to return to the south side of the river where Radha, Asita and Siddhartha’s disciples were tending their animals. They hugged and Krishna stepped on the ferry. As it slipped from the northern ghat, Krishna promised to leave word of his whereabouts at the temple of Shiva in Pataliputra.
Miri and Maitreyi, now equipped for a mountain journey and the two mules, Beena, Bala and Biha decided to take a less traveled road as far as Katmandu, and from there hire a guide to travel on to the Himalayas.