Living on, in a new incarnation....
I leaned back in my chair, and watched the grey smoke curl into the air from the tip of Allegra's cigarette. I wasn't bored with our conversation, but I see no point in drinking if you don't spend at least some of your time enjoying drunkenness for its own sake. I like to separate myself from whatever social matrix I find myself in, and focus my attention on my own body. I enjoyed the upward spiral of grey, the slow drift and the sharp boundary dividing smoky air from clear. Absorbed in Markus' words, she brought the cigarette to her lips without looking at it or me, inhaled briefly and lowered it again. Her tongue rose slightly in her mouth to receive the filter as it entered between her lips. I allowed my fingertips to brush lightly against my own lips as I drank in the sight of her and felt that old familiar warmth pass over and through me. Oh, that mouth of hers, and oh, what a joy it is to be drunk and to watch a woman unawares.
I had come to the town to write, free of the distractions of the city. I had been there three weeks, and had actively pursued every distraction that I could find that reminded me in any way at all of the urbs, and hadn't put pen to paper in any sense at all. I won't dwell on that now, and I certainly wasn't dwelling on it then. The muse won't come unless you treat her like the bitch she is. Markus was an oyster fisherman, almost as new to town as I was. He'd been an oyster fisherman all his life so far as I could tell, at least for the past ten years or so, and he looked about my own age; he'd pulled oyster out of the Sound in some town about twenty miles to the south, and before that he'd done the same thing in Pelican Bay, about a hundred miles further down the coast. He was gradually working his way up the coast, with no particular end in mind; he just liked to see new towns. I already liked him a great deal, although I was glad he had no literary ambitions, since I suspected he would be a better writer than I was. When he talked, his speech would slip into a cadence that carried you with it wherever he wanted it to take you, like an evangelical preacher only somehow with a more literary feel. I don't where an oyster fisherman comes by such a sensibility for language. But if Markus was enigmatic to me, Allegra was that and more. I didn't have the sense that she had lived in Pariah for any longer than we had, but she wouldn't tell us why she had come or what she was doing there. Or at least, the answers to those questions never seemed to come up.
My attention was abruptly drawn back to the conversation.
"So the entire point of it is sex?" asked Allegra. Her tone of voice implied she expected to be contradicted. They had been talking about religion when he had last been listening.
"Essentially yes, though conceived of in a different way than we commonly think of it," said Markus, pleased to be denying her expectations, which seemed to have been as he had expected. "That's what's behind the symbol of the lingam, the phallic icon of Shiva found in Indian temples without number, and it's what's behind all the rituals."
Allegra leaned back in her chair, keeping her attention fixed on Markus in an assessing way. "You're actually serious, aren't you?" She paused, the hint of a smile playing around her lips. "Well, that's interesting. Tell me a little more -- or, explain it again -- I think Carl might not have been listening." She looked over at me, her smile leaping to her eyes.
"Well I don't really know much about it myself," Markus qualified. "Just something I read about a while back."
"Wait, so what were you talking about? My mind was wandering just a little," I interjected.
"Tantra, Carl, perhaps the oldest religion in India, a land of old religions. According to its views, sex is the ultimate form of activity for a man to engage in because it can actually transform the entire universe into an earlier, more unified and harmonious state."
He grinned. "How is that, you ask?"
"Well as the story goes, the universe was created in the following way. At first there was only Shiva, underlying all existence. Then he brought about a division within himself which caused him to differentiate into two beings, male and female. The female part, known as Shakti, was at first locked together with him -- remaining himself as the male part -- in ecstatic sexual union, unconscious of the division just made. Gradually the ecstasy fades and they become conscious of themselves as separate beings. They look at each other, each realizing the other's existence, and then they separate. After a time, Shakti rises and begins to perform her Dance of Illusion, complex and mesmerizing in its intricacies. As Shiva watches he becomes enthralled, and so varied and convoluted are its many components that he loses track of their connections. Still keeping his divine attention fixed on all of them, further divisions arise within him, so that he becomes not one person watching one dance, but many people watching many."
He paused to watch the effect of his words.
"And so that is the state today," he continued. "We are all parts of the mind of Shiva perceiving parts of the dance of Shakti, separated, but not really separate. By having sex, we return our focus -- the focus of the parts -- back to an earlier stage before there was division; we reverse creation. And -- this is the part that appeals to intuition more than logic -- if the parts of Shiva and Shakti do this in the right way, then so do the wholes: the universe really is uncreated and then recreated anew."
Allegra perked up with sudden inspiration. "So the rituals are to get the details right, so that the part-whole thing has more of a chance of going through!"
"Exactly," nodded Markus, beaming.
I allowed an expression of mild interest to mask my thoughts. I always experience an odd and vaguely distasteful mix of emotions whenever the subject of the Tantra is raised, this time more so than usual. Part of it is boredom, part of it bad associations, both sets of feelings arising from the same sources. My mother was Indian, from Bombay, born into a Brahmin family. When she was eighteen years old she met a forty year-old Englishman who had come to the goat-tit of Asia to suckle the sweet milk of mysticism. He was, among other things, an advanced student of the Tantiric mysteries, and I imagine that my mother learned a great deal from him. When the liaison was discovered her parents were, of course, quite scandalized, and some attempt was made to cloister her from the world, at least for a while. But my mother was a strong and resourceful woman, and she used an inheritance to get herself not only out of the house but out of the country, and even to put herself through school in the United States. I believe that she still entertained notions of returning home, tearful reunion of prodigal daughter with aged, grieving parents; when she met and fell in love with a man who was the son of a Blackamerican and the Japanese wife he acquired while stationed overseas, she knew she was an orphan forever.
But more of that later; Markus was expounding on the Tantra. The sexy cosmology makes a good story, and in particular a good story to tell to a beautiful and mysterious woman. But I am always put off by the bald attribution of beliefs or facts to any Vedic sect, as though Hinduism had just one face to show to the world. There are as many Tantra as the Tantra has practicioners, and to say, "This is why the Tantra are performed" is simply naive and presumptuous.
The Tantrism to whose study I ended up dedicating some very formative years was very different from that in the stories I grew up hearing. Some of my disquiet came from the sense I had that Markus' own experience, despite the classical provenance of the tale he was telling, was not dissimilar to my own. When West meets East and adopts the Tantra, there is only ever one reason for it: power.
I had good reasons to suspect that Markus was doing more than filling time with a provocative tale. He was, at the very least, too clever a conversationalist to think that Allegra would be seduced by a shocking juxtaposition of eroticism and religion, as though she were a schoolgirl of fourteen. Indeed, it was clear that Allegra was more interested in using Markus' words as a means of gauging, from my reaction to them, the level of my interest in her, than she was in increasing her knowledge of comparative religion. Also, Markus was just a shade too alert, as though his story were not intended for its apparent audience -- perhaps as though he too were interested in reading the subtleties of my reactions, if, unlike Allegra, discreetly. But most of all there was what he left unsaid. It was impossible that he should be so well-educated in the mythology and remain wholly ignorant of the practice. If his motive were to show off his knowledge, or to titillate his audience, or any of the other above-board drives shared by story-tellers, then he would not hold back the choicest sweetmeats in the basket. But hold them back he did, and they were conspicuous by their absence. This was a strong if ambiguous signal. That he had marked me, and not I him, implied that he played deeper games than I, which is not a fact I frequently am faced with. I drifted along with the conversation for a quarter hour more, mumbled excuses, and called it an evening. One thing I knew for certain: the next day would be a full one.
* * * * *
It was none too easy to convince Markus that I really was refusing his offer to walk me home, but no matter what the hour the streets of Pariah are safe, and I wanted the luxury of uninterrupted musing while I moved through the gorgeous summer night. Carl was a funny one, with his habit of staring into his beer -- or ale, as he insists on calling it -- and of looking his most distracted when I could tell he was paying the closest attention; boys will be boys, I suppose, and boys do tend to take themselves far more seriously than they ought.
Markus was a deep one, too, but I could already tell that my attraction to him would be much easier to resist than my attraction to Carl, which had a strong feeling of inevitability about it. I had no plans to try to escape what I knew was coming -- but I wasn't going to do anything to hurry it along, either. Much more fun to watch him making up his mind about it, struggling through great internal conflicts of absolutely no relevance to what was going to happen. Or maybe he wouldn't be like that, but still, always better to take it slow.
I was very glad to have met the both of them; my great fear had been that Pariah would be deadly dull. No worries on that score, now; I was beginning even to see that it almost made sense for me to come here.
I hadn't walked for more than three minutes when I heard rapidly approaching footsteps and sensed a presence coming up behind me. No, it couldn't be a mugging, not in this one-boat port -- could it? I whirled, the muscles in my arms instinctively tightening as I brought my clenched fists to waist level and turned three quarters with right knee bent to face the newcomer.
"Ahoy, quo vadis? That is you, isn't it, Allegra?" The voice was Markus'. His features slowly emerged from the darkness as he came nearer to where I stood by one of Pariah's few streetlamps.
"Markus? Good Lord. I assure you, I can get home by myself, really."
"I believe you, dear lady. It's just that Carl left, and I knew this would be a perfect time to show you one of my prized possessions -- if I could catch up with you. You're a fast walker," he added, and in fact he was breathing a little heavily.
"Couldn't it wait til morning? I've got a--"
"This will only take a moment." Just barely touching my elbow with his left hand, he almost imperceptibly yet somehow with great urgency led me closer to the light of the lamp-post. His face now flickered eerily, half-lit with his concavitites and protruberances casting wild shadows across it. Of course, my own face was experiencing a similar effect, and there was nothing mysterious or eerie about it. I realized I was projecting my puzzlement at Markus' odd behavior and creating evil images where there were none. Probably.
"I think that, out of everything in my rather extensive collection, this little item is the most beguiling, the most powerful symbol." He reached into his dark blue windbreaker and pulled out what appeared to be a piece of string. I peered closer, conscious at the same time that I was directing my concentration exactly where he wanted it, and knowing that I probably shouldn't be led into distractions so easily. At least not in that context.
It was a long strand of yellow fabric. I reached out and felt it gently between thumb and forefinger. It was pure silk. About two feet long or so. At one end there was a loop, and in this loop was fastened a battered and rusty old coin. "Okay, Markus, I give. What is it?"
He grinned broadly, more than eager to fill me in. "It's called a rumal. It's the weapon of practitioners of that Indian religious sect known as Thugee. Are you at all familiar with the Thugs?"
I tried not to look at Markus as if I were revising my opinion of his mental health, but it wasn't easy. "I... I think so. They were stranglers, right? They killed and robbed travellers throughout India until they were stopped in the nineteenth century." I took a generous step back, as if to examine the rumal in its entirety.
"That's right!" He gave again one of those compelling and disarming beaming smiles that I had seen so many of -- too few of -- all evening. "They worshipped Kali. Kali, the black goddess, the dark Mother, the devourer with the terrible visage. She bids her followers to kill for her sake, that she may eat their victims' flesh. She is unmerciful, even to her most ardent followers. Certainly a far worse specter of evil than the Christian Satan, she takes an active role in propagating violence and destruction."
"I... see. Markus, why are you telling me this now?"
He seemed genuinely surprised, as if that had been a strange question. "Why, I didn't want you to get the wrong idea about what we were talking about! You see, Kali, though she is terrible and a force of destruction, is really just an aspect of Shakti! She is, indeed, a necessary aspect. She is also known as Durga, and she came about in order to save the gods themselves from destruction by demons. They're all aspects of the same female power -- Shakti, Uma, Parvati, Durga, Kali -- and all important ones, all real and demonstrative of the female's energy."
"That's very interesting."
"The rituals in the practice of Thugee are as important, if not more so, than the rituals of Tantric arts. If a Thug ignores an omen, he will be utterly lost. If he fails to propitiate his goddess in the correct manner, he will surely die. Just as one example among many..." He lifted the silken strand, the rumal, and pulled it taut between his two hands. "The rumal must be yellow or white," he whispered, his eyes blazing with some inner fire. He seemed to be looking past me, or through me. "No other color is acceptable. The auspicious moments must propel us to action. We cannot ignore what is decreed."
He was beginning to unnerve me in earnest. "Markus!" I spoke sharply, and his eyes snapped back into focus. "Thank you for showing me your prized possession. But. I. Am. Going. To bed. Now."
He stuffed the rumal back into his jacket's inner pocket and gave a sort of half-smirk, his gaze taking me in bit by bit, zipping around me like a swarm of bugs, trying to detect some sign of reaction. I don't know what he was looking for. "I'll see you tomorrow, Allegra," he said genially. "I guess the point is that -- remember early on this evening, when I told you it was all about sex?" I nodded, and he shook his head. "I think I was just trying to gauge what you thought by letting your own interpretations guide your speech. That isn't really what I was talking about. Carl knew that. He knew what I meant, too, even though he didn't say anything."
He turned around and walked a few steps away. I just stood there under the light. I knew Markus couldn't walk away from a speech without giving his conclusions. He'd turn around and add one more perfectly crafted, cryptic statement about the "point of it all." I waited. But he didn't say anything, and he kept walking til he was out of hearing. I went home.
* * * * *
Both of them were confused, both of them on the alert -- Allegra rather more than Carl, but that wouldn't be true for very long. Carl, I knew, would require a subtler approach than Allegra, but that was simply because he was even more dangerous than she was.
When I arrived home, I took a moment to sit and then removed all of my clothes before going into my bedroom. It was there that I strapped the stones to my arms, put on my hat, and took up my horsehead staff. Some powdered amaranta on the censer, and I lay myself down to rest.
I lay asleep and waiting for more than a few hours. Carl, it seemed, was late to his slumbers this evening. At last, of course, he slept. And subsequently, he dreamed.
And when he dreamed, I, of course, was there. I felt his presence and insinuated myself into his vicinity, waiting for what might seem an opportune moment to make a real connection. No such moment came; his functions were all regular and calm, if active. I eased myself in slowly.
He was in a room, hardwood floors, exposed beams, wooden walls, dark. One wall was all windows, and the glass of the windows were etched in an odd way, or perhaps they had more panes than they should. He was moving from the window to the desk, perhaps to open it. And he sensed me immediately, as sourly I had thought he might. He looked at me with mild interest. I concentrated. he was seeing me as... a woman. I hadn't suspected it, but I should have. He thought of me as feline.
I spoke first, in an effort to keep him from becoming too lucid too quickly. I also hoped to change my appearance somewhat, to be at least a bit more authoritarian. Older, hopefully. "You called me so long ago. And for so long you have ignored my coming. But I think now you will hear me."
For a split instant after I said it, I felt an agenbite of fear that I had pushed him too far, but as nearly always, the fear was unnecessary. He went along with it, as dreamers always do. "I'll hear you now," he said vaguely, the room losing almost all presence, but some sort of aesthetically related basement oozed easily in to replace it. And indeed, I was older, and somewhat more fully clad, thankfully.
"Quickly now, for I cannot remain here long. A month, no drink. Frenzied fucking or none. A candle lit at night. And think on fire, brenna, logi." Always keep them puzzled. "Think on fire, as you enter sleep."
He bent over a book, he was sitting on a stool. He read it furiously, deeply involved in a search through verse. "Carl. When as you dream you can carry a torch of your own making in your right hand, you will be able to make the journey. One month, think on fire, fuck like a rabbit or be a monkey."
"Helen." He shook his head. "You're my guide." He was waking up. Or, at least, he was leaving REM sleep. Too bad, I had wanted to build him into a full-blown nightmare before I left him this night. I flicked him into a nasty falling scenario to speed him to wakefulness -- not entirely for spite. If he woke now he would remember better.
* * * * *
Slowly, telltales of the morning crept into my awareness: bright sunlight through the window angling onto the far wall, the renewed whizzing of cars, chirping birds, and every now and then the horn of a boat off in the distance. But these remained dim and unobtrusive as I lay musing, lost in memories of times long past. Such a strange gift is given to man, that such strong emotions thought to be long dead and even their memories faded and worn could be called so suddenly to light, to throb with vibrancy as if untouched by all the years between! And by so little! A few words, perhaps, a look in the eyes, a touch -- ah, so much is carried by the touch. That engagement of the last and most intimate sense binds all the others together. But for such a brief moment!
But was it brief? It must have been hours ago that I dreamt of her, but the impression was still so tangible that I might have been with her just seconds before. That is something particular about dreams, that one instant can become magnified within the mind's eye until one is writing pages and pages about it in one's journal, until it expands to fill the thoughts of an entire day. Indeed, perhaps one doesn't dream anything at all, only builds memories on the emotions that were all that was really experienced.
But it doesn't matter. Helen was real. I lay back, musing for the ten thousandth time over our relationship, that amazing connection we had had, our ability to step outside whatever realities we found ourselves in and be with each other in a new one.
What was that she had said? It was the dream, I had said it in a way of course, but I knew her so well, and my subconscious knew her even better.
"Friends, we drink full and tersely. Candles, fire, lightning, we touch -- out of habit -- why?"
What did it mean? It sounded like poetry; I remembered thinking that and searching inanely through a book of verse to find the words she had said, as if the book somehow contained her speech and finding those sentences there would render them clear to me. Then I fancied I had found something, but that it actually wasn't her words but some that she should know about.
"Helen! Herein I find --", I began in a style worthy of the momentousness of what I'd found, but then suddenly I was falling, falling, and then awake.
I groped for and then alloowed myself to sink into the moment before I went to my book -- just before the bliss had begun to fade. Why had I turned away from her when I wanted to understand something she said? But that was how it always was in the end...somehow I had felt like I needed to get perspective, that we had drawn too close to each other to really see each other clearly. Was it true? Who knows. And pompously returning with my "discovery"...well that was the way it was too. Sometimes dreams force us to admit more than we want to to ourselves...
I made a conscious effort at sweeping away the cobwebs and got up out of bed. I had an interesting day ahead, and experience had taught me just how long -- and how useless -- such retrospecting, self-questioning sessions could become.
* * * * *
6 a.m. A little earlier than usual, but not as early as some days. For a brief instant, I thought about remaining in bed -- the warmth was almost primitive in its allure, and I felt as though I could remain there forever, a fetus refusing to be born. But, the other urge was equally strong, and I stretched and freed myself. I flipped off the alarm that I always set "just in case" and mused that for all I knew it might no longer actually work. It was strange; I had never been an early riser, but at some point the early morning meditation had become compelling enough and more relaxing than the sleep I wasn't getting...
As I began my series of asana's, I thought about my encounter with Markus. A little over the edge -- that was my assessment. A little too much of one thing, and certainly not enough of the other. He lacked balance in a way that was at one turn alluring and at the other dreadfully boring and a bit distasteful. He had an agenda, that much was certain. But I wasn't sure that he even realized what it was. He seemed like one who had heard and read and dabbled a lot, but had never really practiced. Never gone all the way. I smiled to myself, realizing that he likely thought he had gone further than anyone else. But confidence was the hallmark of immaturity; I knew that first hand.
I relaxed into corpse pose and found my thoughts drawn again to Carl. Last night I had felt something, that was true. Felt that something about "us" was inevitable. But in this sunlight, my breathing deep, body relaxed, I found myself wavering. If anything, I had to admit that I was more attracted, sexually, to Markus. His lack of balance no doubt arose in large part from the overabundance of passion I sensed in him. I never have been able to resist passion -- my worst weakness when it comes to men. No, my attraction to Carl was more . . . more what? It was as if, somehow, I knew that I was going to spend a good deal of time with him, know him -- his mind at least -- intimately. As if he needed me, somehow. (Another weakness, of course, my susceptibility to that male need). I certainly sensed his attraction to me -- sensed as well that he believed me attracted to him. But was I? Am I?
I found it uncommonly difficult to settle my mind. Last night, I had felt like a different person. The smell of smoke, the taste of booze, and the attention of two men -- I had enjoyed playing my part, and the tinge of the part had remained on me in the afterglow of the evening as well. Allegra, the seductress. Allegra, with no deeper thoughts than having a good time, drinking a bit, wondering which one of them to fuck first. Feeling enigmatic. And now . . . and now feeling a bit nauseated by the whole thing. No audience, now. Just myself and my body, which feels so light and fragile when I meditate that it is impossible to imagine it sexually. And my mind, which won't be quiet. Which thinks of men to avoid thinking about more pressing concerns. Or to avoid the trance, which might reveal more than I want to know?
At last I sensed a point of light and focused and felt the quiet begin to wash over me.
* * * * *
Hmmm... there had been a "Room For Rent" sign there yesterday. It was such a pleasant place -- of course it would have to be gone now.
I had been walking by here yesterday afternoon and come upon the sign, in front of one of the few old Spanish buildings scattered about in this, the older section of town. Smoothly plastered stone walls surrounded a sandy courtyard with a few plants; here and there I could make out the traces of red bricks buried beneath its surface. The walls were thick, as I saw by the deeply inset windows, and their color was a flat sea green; whether the paint had faded or had always been that pale I could not tell -- but it looked nice against the light colored sand, contrasting with it but not jarring you away from it, merging into the surroundings without a break.
Some wind chimes swayed and jingled above a collection of wicker chairs and potted shrubs on the front porch -- an attempted show of colonial elegance, but the cracking railing had seen better days. The overall appearance fell in that region somewhere this side of ramshackle that some call "quaint" but I prefer to leave unlabeled because no one word can be rich enough to convey that impression. Two camellia trees grew up in front of the building, and for a while I just stood and listened to the wind rustling gently through them.
I had not been considering the idea of moving but, seeing how much more comfortable this place looked than where I was, the idea sprang at once into me, and without stopping to consider things any further I'd gone up and knocked at the door. After a long while and several knocks without even so much as a dog barking, a dirty-faced Mexican boy, perhaps 10 or so, had appeared out of the archway leading to the courtyard. "The room? Sorry senor, my mother not here right now. You come back tomorrow?"
Now I was back and the sign was gone, but I figured I might as well at least inquire what the situation was. A long silence greeted my first knock, and memories of yesterday brought disappointment surging up quickly. But then just as I started rapping for a second time the door opened and an old woman stood in its place. I briefly fancied that she had been standing there the whole time -- even yesterday -- for I had not heard or seen the slightest sign of movement in the house. "The room? Oh I'm afraid we've rented it." Unexpectedly, she had an English accent. Her appearance showed not the slightest sign of Mexican -- or even Spanish -- blood. I tried not to look crestfallen and was about to irritably ask how much my despicable enemy had actually beaten me by when I noticed she was studying my face. "We do have another one, though. Usually no one is interested in it for longer term, but you look like you might be the sort who would be. What's your name?"
"Carl," I told her.
"Carl! That's a nice name." She led me around through the arch into the courtyard and into the back corner. Her veined hand poked an old-fashioned key into a rough-hewn door that didn't entirely seal its entrance and dragged it open. The room inside was quite spare -- but also clean. A full size mattress sat on a homemade wooden frame, a walnut writing table pressed up against another wall -- and a straight-backed chair pressed against it; a low chest of drawers completed the furnishings. The floor was smooth concrete, painted a maroonish red, and a row of green and white patterned tiles went around the base of the walls and up to the high ceiling in the corners and beneath the windows. The small bathroom was similarly unadorned, but it did have the advantage of having a bathtub, in fact a large one of the old style standing up on curving feet.
"It's a little barer than most people like. Our other rooms were all redone back in the 20's, but my mother couldn't talk the occupant of this one into living somewhere else for a while. Then when he finally left many years later we thought we might as well keep it the way it was... it's kind of nice in its own sort of way." She looked at me expectantly, waiting to hear what my reaction was. This is perfect, I thought... just the kind of simplicity I needed. I would definitely be able to write here.
"Yeah, it is pretty nice," I said.
"You know if you open this window you can hear the sea." I looked out onto a collection of a few stone benches surrounded by more camellias growing in the sand. On the far side the sand rose up; I supposed on the other side of that lay the beach. "Yes, I think I would be interested, actually," I told her.
"We don't expect much for this room, lacking amenities as it does," she assured me. "It's $40 a week." She paused. "How long were you planning on staying?"
"Oh, I'm not entirely sure. A few months, at least." Thoughtfully, I maneuvered a tile that had come loose at the base of the wall with my foot. "Would you take $30?" I asked.
She looked at me and smiled. "Mmmmm, this place will grow on you more than you think. How about $35?"
"Done," I said.
* * * * *
When I realized that more than two hours had passed since I began my yoga, I returned abruptly to the present. That had been happening from time to time of late. I would lose track of time, find myself in a position with no idea how I had gotten there. The books all said it happened that way, and my yoga master had enigmatically mentioned to me that I had "the flush" (at the time, it had crossed my mind briefly to wonder if he weren't coming on to me somehow). But it was as unsettling as it was exciting. I knew that I had lingering doubts in the back of my mind about experimenting with altered mental states -- that I secretly worried about going in and never coming out. Those doubts would have to be dealt with if I was ever to go more than part way along the road, however...
I grabbed the clothes I had flung over the chair and then realized that they were saturated with the smell of smoke. Ben wouldn't like that much, I mused. Grabbing other clothes from the pile still waiting to be folded, I wrapped a scarf around my hair, and raced to the car. Halfway there, I hesistated -- then raced back for my cigarettes, kicking myself for being so attached.
I breathlessly let myself into the back room of the library. I really needn't have worried. Ben looked as though he had been there for weeks, and he certainly had no idea what time it was or that I was an hour late.
"Allegra!" His eyes lifted from his book and filled with light as I greeted him. I had never met anyone with such a genuine, beautiful smile, nor with such luminous, dark eyes. He gently patted the empty stool next to him.
"Anything good?" I queried. At that, his eyes darkened briefly and he returned to studying the page. I, in turn, studied him for a moment as I sat down next to him. I realized that I had never thought about Ben as a person, flesh and blood. And, indeed, he seemed a bit fragile -- thin, his skin seemingly untouched by sun, his hands slender as a girl's. I looked down to see what he was reading -- it was in Latin.
"Its a translation from Egyptian" he murmured, as if he had been reading my thoughts precisely. "About dreams."
"Ah. Dreams." I glanced over him again. "Ben . . . are you . . .?"
He sighed and closed the book suddenly. His smile this time was tight. "Yes." He looked at me knowingly. "I try not to be, but . . . I am." Absentmindedly, he picked up a strand of my hair that had slipped out of the scarf and began twirling it through his fingers. I felt a sudden wave of peace, despite the tension in his voice.
"I'm worried," he went on, "but I can't explain why." He looked suddenly dejected, embarrassed. "I just have a bad feeling and . . . I need to read." He assessed my reaction to his words and then returned to his book.
A lump was forming in my throat and my chest seemed to tighten. I suddenly felt the need to change the subject. "I met an interesting character last night -- a couple of them, actually," I reported with forced joviality.
"Oh?" He didn't look up. I relayed the conversations of the evening, including my odd encounter with Markus on the way home. Every once in a while, Ben would become attentive, but never for long. When I finished, there was a long pause. "I don't know why I told you all that . . ." I apologized, a bit peeved at his unwillingness to even play at social graces.
"No, I'm sorry." He gave me a genuine smile and then looked off into the distance. "It IS an interesting coincidence, isn't it?" He fixed on me fiercely for a moment. "You're very sensitive to them, aren't you?" His voice faded and he became distant again. "But I really don't think its India. It has to be Egypt."
And, for a brief moment, I felt that I understood him; it had to be Egpyt.
I jumped with a start when, at 5 pm on the dot, I looked up to see Ben watching me. I had slipped into my work with an easy rhythm -- the smell and feel of the manuscripts was as familiar and comfortable as my own skin. Ben always seemed surprised when I would announce the arrival of the end of the day; today, however, he seemed anxious to leave.
"Closing time?" I asked.
He hesitated for a moment. Then, "Allegra, would you walk me home?" It came across as the purest of requests -- neither needy nor suggestive. I nodded dumbly.
"Take a look at this engraving!" I passed a well-preserved antique to him as I gathered my things. Other than a curiosity about the reasons for his request, my main concern was the fact that I hadn't had a cigarette all day. And now I couldn't smoke my usual couple outside the building. Ben poured over the diagram with his usual enthusiasm, pointing out small details he thought I might have missed. I was glad that, for the moment, he seemed to have returned to a more normal level of spirit.
"Okay, I think I'm ready." We left the shadowy dimness of the room for the bright daylight of a late summer afternoon. I found that my main reaction to the light was a renewed nagging need for a smoke. Oh, what the hell, I thought. I pulled out the pack -- "Mind?" He did, but he shook his head.
"Yoga and cigarettes...?" I felt momentarily pissed off at that, but realized it reflected my own dislike of my addiction.
"I'm trying to quit -- sort of."
"Your needs can be used against you," he said unexpectedly. It was something that would have seemed more natural coming from Markus.
We walked toward the sea, where beach combers still lingered to soak up the day's final rays. Ben realized that I was leaving my car behind and began to suggest that I forget the walk and turn back. But it was a pleasure to stroll with him. When I told him so, he took my arm with an easy gesture. He seemed to have had little experience with women, but that, combined with his disembodied nature, made him uninhibited with physical affection.
I had been to his apartment on a few occasions before, but he led me a different way this time, through the older section of town. The buildings were, I suppose, what some might consider charming, and the atmosphere seemed relaxed. Beneath the surface, however, I felt that a certain -- tiredness -- lingered in the air. Ben too, seemed tired, and he said little. I wondered again why I had been asked to accompany him. A cat darted out from under a car. A child came out of his house, slamming the screen door behind him. He sucked on a finger and eyed us passively. Down the street, a man was barbecuing. I seemed to take everything in; being with Ben let me relax into the present. He, on the other hand, seemed lost in thought. He absently waved my smoke away.
"Get a good night's sleep tonight, huh?" I nagged. He didn't react. "Ben?" At that, he nodded unconvincingly.
We neared the condo and apartment hell that marked our nearness to his home.
"By the way -- thanks for coming."
I wasn't sure I understood. "Anytime. I like to walk."
"Not here -- I mean, thanks for that too, but . . . . Thanks for coming HERE." He had never mentioned it before.
"Ben, I always..."
We came to his building -- an ugly brown brick rectangle set in the company of other old brown brick buildings. The grass desperately needed resodding. He extracted his arm and unlocked his door. I ground my cigarette out on his railing. His apartment had the ugliest yellow-brown carpet I had ever seen. It was a maze of bookshelves, crammed with everything except books; he kept those in neatly labelled boxes to avoid getting them dusty. Today, however, I saw several lying open on the table and in stacks on the floor. He didn't ask me in.
"Ben!" I forgot his mood for a moment and my voice was less than gentle. "You REALLY should think about --"
"I'm one step ahead of you." He grinned at that, and, forgetting to say goodbye, closed the door behind him.
* * * * *
"So what did you do today, Allegra?" I asked.
"What can I get you guys?" the waitress drawled out, having appeared out of nowehere, adding her smile about halfway through and managing to sound like we were nearly best friends already, and we would be her refuge throughout the evening from trials and tribulations with the marks at the other tables. Every profession is an art.
"Ho there! Two ales, if you please, and a glass of white wine for the lady?", Carl said jauntily, turning his gaze towards Allegra at the last. A grin played around the corners of his mouth.. He seemed in higher spirits than usual.
Allegra nodded, her head bobbing up and down sharply, carelessly. She had such a childlike look about her sometimes, with her delicate elfin features and long, straight black hair -- but especially those pretty dark eyes of hers, the pupils almost lost in blackness. They always looked so open, and when she looked at you it would always be just for a moment before flitting away to something else. But it was long enough that you knew she saw you, and that made it an indescribably intense sensation -- verily, during those brief moments the door to eternity itself stood ajar, pulling you towards it, towards it... I can never look for long into someone's eyes -- so soon I feel myself drawn into the other person, feeling their feelings instead of my own; I lose all track of what we were talking about, even which of us I am. I've never known if other people have an experience like this, but I could tell Allegra did.
"So tell us about this band, Markus!" Allegra asked excitedly. The waitress had gone.
"Yeah, you sure seemed pretty high on them last night," Carl put in. He chuckled. "So high that we never did find out exactly what kind of music they play!" Allegra's eyes flashed over to Carl. She giggled.
I leaned back in my chair, enjoying the moment. "Ah, well!" I began. "Thank you. That was mighty quick!" The waitress had slid a pint onto the table right in front of me.
"Enjoy th'm well laddies," she perked in a beautiful Yorkshire brogue, dropping the other beer on the wooden table and setting the glass with an arc and a flourish by Allegra's right hand. "Would yuh be wantin' somethin' to eat, then?" Her blue eyes flashed mirth beneath sloppy blond curls.
"We might if ya brought us a menu then, wouldn't we?" exclaimed Carl in almost the same accent. The combination of his mock indignation and the flawless accent had Allegra almost on the floor, and I was laughing pretty hard myself.
"Where yuh from, laddie, and what kind of manners duh they teach ya there?!" chastised the waitress, her face showing even greater indignation than Carl's -- but she couldn't help laughing by the end of it, and then even Carl broke down.
"Ah, it's been a while since I've heard the voice of a jordie," Carl said. "Where're you from?"
"Middlesbrough originally," the waitress said, returning to a normal voice, though not so drawn out and stereotypically intoned as before. There was more life, more truth, in her face now. "But we came to the States when I was just a little girl. What about you?"
Carl, the dear old boy, had forgotten all about us. "Oh, I'm from Bombay, I suppose, actually. But I lived for a while in Newcastle once, a long time ago. I liked the countryside around there, and the people."
"Yes, that's what my mother always says." She almost sighed. Then a yell came from the direction of the bar, and she glanced back. "Well, have to go," she said, more to Carl than any of us. "I'll bring a menu!" she called out, dashing away.
I sipped my beer, formulating some question to ask Carl about his past. But I soon noticed they were both looking at me. "Ah yes, the band," I said. Allegra smiled, her eyes briefly touching mine. Her cigarettes sat on the table next to the wine, both untouched as of yet. "Well, there's not so much point in describing them since you're about to see them, now is there? They're sort of like a combination of Yes and Jimi Hendrix, I think. Of course, others have said Pink Floyd and Phish, or Santana without the Spanish. I'm sure you'll come to your own conclusions. But they are definitely amazing. No doubt about that."
"Yes, well, coming from you, that tells us exactly nothing. When John Q. Eejit tells me that a band is amazing, I know he means amazing relative to the John Q. Eejit things he knows and loves. But you! The class of things you find amazing includes, according to my most recent count, the Tantra, white onions, crude bathroom graffiti, and Jackie Chan movies. And you don't give a shit about, of, what was it you said you didn't see the point of? -- Escher drawings. Which everyone thinks are amazing. So you'll have to try a little harder, please."
"Oh, come on Carl -- can't you see that he wants for us not to know anything about them before we hear for ourselves?"
"Well, of course I can see that. But, as always, I feel myself duty-bound to thwart the conversational intentions of those around me." Grinning, and without moving his body an inch, he leaned in closer to our beautiful companion. An answering merriment gleamed readily out of those dark, dark eyes.
"Ah yes, always the anarcho-discursivist."
"Well, now, I prefer to think of myself as a Robin Hood sort of a figure -- no wait, better still, as a trickster in the Coyote vein..."
I was glad to let them prattle on for a while -- the better to read them for cues. Carl was unexpectedly cheerful, even confident... controlling people through their dreams is more art than science, and more in fact more like casino-style gambling than like art. Still, when you keep playing the odds, you are bound to come up winning in the end. A little more success in Allegra's case; although her attraction to Carl was clear, so was her lack of desire to entangle herself with him overmuch, at least for the moment -- so her evident relief at being able to concentrate fully on him and away from me meant I had unnerved her somewhat.
When she heard the lyrics tonight she wouldn't know what had hit her.
We sat and talked as the evening went on around and through us. Waitresses bustled around bouncily; a great many customers came, a few here and there went. At one point the door burst open nearly off its hinges and a tall, wild-looking man strode in and yelled all the way across the room to his compatriots at a table by the stage. He wore an old t-shirt and jeans with holes and patches, and sure seemed mighty glad to be here. Another round of drinks was ordered. Allegra's cigarette pack stood half opened, half empty; some places would change the ash tray at your table hardly after there was one cigarette in it -- but that was not so here. A silly habit, anyway.
At one point, I made some comment on musical traditions in India, and Carl said, "But you know, no one knows more about music than the Arabs."
"The Arabs?" Allegra asked.
"Yeah, they -", Carl began but then cut himself short. He paused briefly before starting again. There was no telling whether he had been about to say something he didn't want to or he'd simply realized he'd needed to gather his thoughts a little more than he had.
"Well, for one thing, music is incorporated very deeply into their religious practices," he said, "Much more deeply than in the West. The sufis have spiritual `concerts' -- musicians play and sing music that is at once hypnotic and spiritually focusing, and the adepts listen, slowly being drawn into a trance of union with God. And this union is considered of a higher form than that achievable by pure meditation -- as of the Indian sort, of which they have traditions as well."
"Well, OK, maybe that's a little more than the Sunday services with their choirs and their church organs in the West," said Allegra, "But many African tribes also have practices like you describe." Her voice had a challenging sound to it, though it was difficult to tell whether it came from the tone of her voice or the way she phrased her sentences. In any event, she seemed suddenly more argumentative, assertive, than I thought of her. There was a hardness, or solidity, somewhere beneath that yielding, feminine exterior that didn't always show itself to light. I might have to adjust my approach with her a little bit.
"No, no, no," Carl objected, "It's not the same at all."
Allegra laughed good-naturedly. Now the softness again, as if the sharper edge had never been there at all.
"You're talking about the possession cults. There is something of the same sort there, that can't be denied, but the focus is so different, the quality of the experience infinitely more sublime." His words and sentences came out quickly, almost on top of one another, giving him the air of defensiveness though he was probably just excited. "This isn't some python fetish we're talking about, but the Islamic religion! Have you ever read the poetry of the Sufis?" He put his hands on the table as if finished, but then almost immediately went on. "The Arabs do actually have something like that too -- the dhikr trance. That's the `whirling dervishes', for example. But it's considered second rate to the sama, similar to the pure meditation."
"But anyway," he went on, again quickly, as if he felt his audience's interest waning -- though it wasn't. "The coolest part, I think, is their idea of `tarab'. Tarab can come to anyone, at any time, when they are listening to music." Now he slowed down, adding gravity to his words. "It is a sudden strong experience of synergy between the music and your own emotions, so that you are caught up completely, yet left precisely where you are, only rooted more deeply. It's like when you're dancing and your every movement is a part of the music, there is no boundary between you and it -- except that in this case you aren't doing anything special... your reality itself and that of the music have become one."
"Hmmm, I think I see what you mean," Allegra said. She pursed her lips. "That is cool. I mean, we all experience that sometimes, but it's interesting to single it out as something worthy of attention, to give it a name, to try to understand its meaning."
* * * * *
At last Markus's band made their way onto the stage. They weren't what I had been expecting, look-wise. The guy who seemed to be the lead was heavily made-up and was wearing a tee-shirt with the word "SUCKER" printed across the back. The other three, however, looked more serious. An extremely tall black guy in dress pants was arranging a cornet, a trombone, and a series of flute-like objects on a table. Another guy wandered in with an acoustic guitar and sat down at a keyboard. Then the drummer walked in -- and was she gorgeous! Lithe, tan -- and obviously well-aware of her affect on men!
"She's going to DRUM?" I muttered to Markus. Allegra rolled her eyes at me.
"Hell yeah. And how! She'll probably start on the small ones -- snares, bongos -- but eventually they'll roll out the timpani and..." He stopped suddenly and looked at Allegra. Glancing over myself, I was surprised to see that she actually looked a bit upset.
"She's a great MUSICIAN." Markus said and then leaned toward Allegra. "But as for her looks, well . . ." He stared at her intensely. She rolled her eyes again, but she seemed a bit flushed. I found myself growing somewhat pissed off; Markus could be so heavy-handed.
But then the music started, and all was forgotten. It was so smooth and full. Instruments came and went, weaving their tapestry of textures, but one hardly noticed the transition. The audience seemed spell-bound -- it was as if no one breathed during the first piece. I'm pretty sure I didn't. I glanced over at the others -- Allegra seemed to be enjoying it immensely. Markus looked pleased, but not, I guessed, because of the music.
The first piece had been instrumental. This time, the SUCKER guy approached the mike. A jaunty, flutey piece began and he started to sing. "What a gorgeous voice!" Allegra whispered to no one in particular. The lyrics were a bit uninspiring -- guy takes journey, tests himself, etc. Then the music shifted -- minor keys, soft but driving drumming. The dummer was intensely bent over her work, sweating. I found myself gaping and had to look away.
Somehow, lost in the drummer, I must have missed a lyrical transition because when I returned to the music, the guy was singing chant-like in something that, for my money, in no way resembled English. But it sounded pretty nice.
The piece seemed to go on forever. Several minutes into the chanting, I was astonished to feel Allegra grab my hand. Not sure that she wanted Markus to notice, I resisted the temptation to look over at her. But her grip was odd -- way too strong. At one point, her nails seemed to be digging into my hands.
When I did look over, she was pale and looked -- furious almost. Markus gave me a conspiratorial smile which seemed inappropriate. The moment the music ended, she pulled away. She seemed suddenly composed and I wondered if I had misread her earlier.
"Interesting." She said, a bit dryly.
Markus smiled. "You don't speak Greek . . . do you?"
"Nope, not a word. Is that what the language was?"
He paused, as if she had thrown him. "Yes. The lyrics are a bit . . . provocative."
"Really? You'll have to translate for us some time." Suddenly she turned to me. "I apologize, Carl. I saw someone in the audience. I just wanted him to think... I'm sorry..."
"No problem; I understand." I couldn't decide if I hated her or wanted her more for that.
The band seemed to be at a small intermission. Without warning, Allegra stood up. "Markus, I really appreciate your getting the tickets for us. I'm just a little tired and -- well, the environment isn't the most conducive to good music under the circumstances. I think I should just head home. Here, let me give you some money for the drinks..."
"Forget it." She had obviously ruined his party for him.
"Okay -- I'll pick it up next time." She smiled at me. "And I'll see YOU tomorrow then, right?"
I had NO clue what she was talking about. For a moment my head seemed full of ale. But a part of me screamed through the fog...PLAY ALONG. "Yep."
"I should give you my new number." I muttered. "I'm moving -- I'll be back and forth probably all day." I wrote my old number, the only one I had, on a sheet from the small notepad I always carry with me. "In case plans change..."
"Thanks!" She seemed cheerful and her eyes were grateful. Markus remained staring into his drink.
"Enjoy the rest!" In a whiff of perfume, she turned and was gone.
Markus didn't make any move or otherwise indicate a desire to leave, and I was kind of enjoying the evening, so I was in no hurry. I wondered if Markus would ask me anything about Allegra, but he didn't, much to my relief. After a while the band started up a new set, and, out on the dance floor, a group of kids started twirling their heads and snaking their bodies to the music. Each one was mainly doing his or her own thing (people who danced to this sort of music usually did), but still some degree of coordination could be seen across the whole group, especially when compared with the random bobbings of heads and waving of arms over at one set of tables where people were conversing more than listening to the music. I thought of Markus's description of the dance of Shakti, of which everything in the world was a part. Maybe it all did fit together in some unknowable way. Then I myself was a figment within the mind of Shiva, needing only to forge a unified vision out of the almost-chaos to realize my true nature as God.
He turned his head back towards me, away from the band. "Yeah?"
"Do you really believe in that Shiva-Shakti story -- the one you said was at the heart of the tantra?"
"Of course I do. It's true! One world, one life, man. That's all there is." He smiled and picked up his beer mug for a swig, then turned back to the band.
I couldn't for the life of me tell whether he was serious or not.
Some time later, Sarah, the Yorkshirian waitress from earlier flounced up to the table. "Eh, laddie, you want to dance?" She winked. "I'm off shift now, you know."
All my enthusiasm for engagement before seemed to have evaporated now. She had seemed the essence of fresh, innocent purity -- an unabashed spirit with neither the need for approval nor the inclination to seek it. Who had she reminded me of? It must have been somebody. After a certain age you never really met anyone you hadn't met before; someone was always like this person here, like that person there -- though never as much. Even Markus, and even Allegra, I had to admit, were in their own ways only flacid revampings of characters in my past.
I could not remember what ghost had haunted the face of the woman standing before me at this moment, but she was absent now, and I saw only glassy eyes, thin lips around a dull mouth, and an artless slouch.
"I'm too tired," I said, knowing how plaintive it sounded and not caring at all. "Maybe Markus has some energy."
To my surprise, Markus turned around and looked at Sarah -- or looked at how she looked at him -- and said, "Yes he does. Would you care for a dance, m'lady?"
She didn't answer, but went around to his side of the table and extended her arm, and off they went. I looked at Markus's half full beer mug on the table. I wondered what had gotten into him -- he hadn't had any interest in her before, and he hadn't had that much to drink, either. Out on the dance floor, they both looked like they were really getting into it. All of a sudden the pace of the music slowed, then almost stopped. The dancers slowed as well, then some who were pairs split apart and wandered back to tables even as others locked together. The singer had laid down his mike, leaving the black guy on kind of oboe-ish sounding flute and the synth keyboardist to carry on. The drummer wasn't even on stage. Now the music took on an indescribably sweet character, the liltings of the oboe/flute sliding in front of and behind the chord rhythms fingered on the synth. I felt the whispered intimations of Saturday afternoon, heard falling golden sunflakes mingled with the secret thoughts of morning -- in a time earlier and closer to paradise.
Markus and Sarah were one of the pairs who had clasped in embrace, and I watched them now, rocking gently together up by the stage. It could have been me up there, I thought. But pangs of jealousy failed to surface, and I saw the bar as through a soft mist, and everybody's motions were in tune and in time with one another's. I had no regrets.
After an eternity, the song came to an end. Markus came back to the table, sans waitress, and looked into my eyes.
"How're you doing?" He seemed relaxed.
"Not bad, though a little tired," I said. I noticed the band was packing up. "Well, I guess I'll be heading home. Lots of stuff to do tomorrow..."
"Yeah, no problem. I think I'll stick around a little more myself, but you don't need to wait up." He winked.
"Thanks for the tip on the band -- it was an enjoyable night." I meant it. The door was before me, then I stepped out into the night.
I lit a cigarrette. It was one of those balmy nights where the city air mingles with the cigarrette smoke giving the night a racid flavor. X=0,Y=50 and I am here, I thought to myself...
Coffee! That's what I want! A nice hot cup of coffee to go with the last few puffs of this fine cigarette. Sure, I always get sick and vomit when I drink coffee, but sometimes you have to give in to your cravings in spite of yourself. I remember a time when I was but a wee lad puffing on cigarettes and drinking coffee, and my friends would all tell me (for their's was the voice of experience) "Son, pull up tour trousers, and switch to Vodka before you lose your soul." How I wish I'd listened to them, before the decay had set in. Realizing I had smoked my very last cigarette, I decided to give Markus a call...
"Hello. Is Markus there?" A strange voice replied, "No, Markus does not live here anymore. I think you should have another cup of coffee, before you lose your head, you foolish thing." <click> Although I was a bit shaken by this odd discourse, and somewhat concerned about Markus' whereabouts, I had to admit to myself that I certainly could use another cup of coffee, and so I walked downtown to where they keep the oversized emergency coffee troughs. Ah, how warm the steam rising from the toughs felt against my naked chest as I strolled towards the central vat. I had become nearly ecstatic at the very thought of the endless supply of pure caffeinated pleasure. Damn Markus and his soggy biscuits!
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