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Short Story: The long arm of Alexander

Imagine the rooms of an Oxford Don./Imagine a text in an ancient tongue./Imagine a jar, its seal found intact./Imagine the mound in which it is stacked./Imagine a poet, hand cramped and eyes red./Imagine his pen that writes what is said./Imagine a tale from so long ago,/And yet so much like a tale we all know.
Preamble

 

Imagine the rooms of an Oxford Don.

Imagine a text in an ancient tongue.

Imagine a jar, its seal found intact.

Imagine the mound in which it is stacked.

Imagine a poet, hand cramped and eyes red.

Imagine his pen that writes what is said.

Imagine a tale from so long ago,

And yet so much like a tale we all know.

 

Part I:

“I have seen Persepolis afire. Drunk on Darius’s own wine, I watched the feats of Cyrus go up in smoke.” Euphiletos spoke Persian to Brihadbhakti, the tongue common to them both.

“I have marched across the waterless wastes of Gedrosia, where hunger, thirst, and disease felled by the score men invincible in battle.” Euphiletos removed his crested helmet and let it fall to the ground.

“I was at Gaza, when Alexander had the city put to the sword for daring to withstand him; I saw young girls shared out among the phalanges; I saw husbands and sons slaughtered before their wives, mothers, and children. These things even I did.” Euphiletos unclasped his sword-belt and breastplate, casting them from him.

“I have bought the favors of every hetaera from Miletus to Memphis, from Memphis to Babylon, and where they didn’t ply their trade, I took what I wanted from whomever I wanted.” Euphiletos let fall his tunic then his loincloth.

“I have spent weeks at a time drunk on wine, gorged on food, and pleasured by women, boys, and girls, with little memory of it, only to wake again and again—stinking of my own soil and sick—to the terrible things I’ve seen and done.” Euphiletos removed his greaves, then his sandals, and cast them away.

“Through all of this, there was one time when my burden was lightened. When the great Alexander took our army to this land to satisfy his curiosity—to see and defeat elephant-mounted armies, to drink from snow-fed rivers flowing through sun-burnt lands, and to speak with the gymnosophists of renown—it was here, along the River Hyphasis that peace came to me.”

His mount and a baggage train of asses, drivers, and bearers behind him, Euphiletos stood naked before Brihadbhakti. His black locks, just beginning to gray, streamed oil onto his skin. Sweat and oil stung his eyes, commingling with flushing tears. Sweat and oil gleamed over knotted sinew, diverted around the scars of innumerable campaigns. He fell to his knees and raised his hands, palms together after the manner of the people of Brihadbhakti’s land, and entreated him, “Sri Bhagavan,” he called him, ‘Honored Lord’ in the sacred tongue, ”they say you can take from a man that which torments him. They say you can take from a man even the man himself. I beg you, take from me my torment. I will give you all the spoil that I have won. I will give you the fruits of my toil henceforth. I will give you my life to take from me—even at this very moment—if you can free me from my torment.”

Brihadbhakti, muddied from the work of the garden, approached Euphiletos, kneeling amid the wreck of his recent splendor. On his knees, Euphiletos’s head was at Brihadbhakti’s chest. The upper arms of the Greek were larger than Brihadbhakti’s thighs. Brihadbhakti enclosed the hard, fair hands of Euphiletos with his own slender brown fingers. He pressed Euphiletos’s palms flat, then pushed them down until they were level with his heart. He too then sunk to his knees and addressed him.

“This gesture of your hands you have reproduced as the scribe’s child makes marks in the sand. We often accompany it with the utterance ‘namaste’, which means, ‘honor to you.’ As for your spoil, we have here all that we need. Let your bearers keep it. Your mount may retire to pasture—I daresay he’s earned it. We eat no flesh, neither do we take any conveyance, for we bend no sentient creature to our will, but we’ll make good use of his droppings. As for this rumor that I can take anything from you, it’s false. Neither your life nor your torment can I take. The former is repugnant to me, the latter impossible. Here there is only giving and receiving, but if you find peace here, you may stay, and if you would receive what we have to give, Yavana, let it be yours.”

*         *         *

“Bapu, who is the stranger that has come into our midst? I have never seen his like.” Thus did Sukhadana address her father, Brihadbhakti, as she washed his feet and hands before the evening meal.

“Sukhadana, my beloved, he is but one of many like him, but yes, you have not seen his like. Although when you were just a little girl, an army of them passed this way.”

“I remember no such army.”

“That’s because I hid you from them.”

“Why Bapu? Why would you not let me see such a spectacle?”

“You do not listen carefully, my beloved. It was they whom I would not allow to see you.” He took her hands, wet from their ministrations, kissed them, then spoke again. ”Such men, dear one, they do not honor childhood, they do not honor womanhood, they do not honor any who are not fierce enough to command them to honor.”

“But surely, Bapu, this man is not such a man. Clearly he’s Kshatriya, and yet he shows me the honor that you say a warrior cannot. But neither is he like the Brahmin’s son, who believes himself born better than others. This man toils at all tasks without complaint, putting neither man nor task beneath him. He’s not like Kriyakula, a good man, who loves us all dearly, but Kriyakula concerns himself foremost with commerce. This man labors with no thought of reward. And although he toils alongside them—as do we all, in your holy precinct, Bapu—he’s not like the Shudra, who cannot look in the eye any they take to be of higher station. The eyes of this man find the eyes of any who would address him.

“He intrigues me, Bapu, not just because he’s novel, not just because he’s beautiful, but because he suffers. He suffers yet strives so admirably.”

A terrible presentiment came to Brihadbhakti. “Bapu, what is it?” asked his daughter, “Why has your face gone dark?”

*        *         *

“You’re sowing too shallow, Yavana — that is what my father calls you, isn’t it? What man doesn’t know how to sow corn?” Sukhadana snatched the seed-bag from Euphiletos. His face reddened. Turning away from him, she returned to her task. “What will happen when the magpies come? They’ll eat all the seed, and then what will we have?”

Euphiletos’s arm twitched upward. He lowered it again, as he mastered the impulse to strike any such woman as would dare to rebuke him for not performing well the chores of a common laborer. His seed-bag thus conceded, he watched Sukhadana work.

Like most residents of the precinct, she rose with the sun and followed a regime of morning exercise consisting of slow stretches in a variety of seemingly static postures, then met the days’ tasks as hour and season required. The limberness this afforded her allowed her to sow with ease from a standing position.

She bent, Euphiletos noted, not from the waist, but, keeping her back straight, from the hips. With his own back aching from his minimal exertions, he, who could wield sword and shield from dawn to dusk, admired the easy grace of her moving body. He noticed too that her sowing posture thrust her buttocks up; how with each bend her thin skirt slipped between them. He noticed her breasts fill to the top of her blouse then fall with a light bounce, as she rose to move down the row.

*         *         *

It was not possible to work under the fierce gaze of the midday sun. Too hot even to eat, Euphiletos sought the shade and solitude of the quarters provided him. He entered and, before his eyes adjusted to the interior light, bumped into a low block of wood upon which a basin sat. Water splashed onto his bare feet. As its coolness attested, whoever had filled it walked all the way to the spring instead of drawing from the vessel filled weekly in the kitchen.

He removed his clothes, dipped a small clay cup into the water, and drank. He repeated this several times, letting the water cool him from within. Then he dipped a corner of his tunic into the basin and washed his face and neck. He wrung out the tunic above his head. His hair and beard, which had once been meticulously barbered and anointed, were now grown long, betraying no more his status as an officer in the world’s most lethal army, and although combed and clean, were so thick that the water barely penetrated to his scalp. He dipped the tunic and wrung it out again.

Driven upright into the clay floor, two sticks with a third bound across them made a frame. He spread his tunic upon it. He sat upon his litter, flicked away a small pebble that had fastened itself to his heel, and lay down. The closeness of the bedding soon caused him to sweat. He arose and lay down again in the middle of the room.

The tread of innumerable feet had polished the floor to a soft sheen. With his head almost touching the basin and his feet toward the doorway, he let the cool earth draw the heat from his body. He sought to quiet his mind in the way Brihadbhakti had taught him, by quieting his body first. He adjusted his position on the floor: draw the knees to the chest, then lower the legs back straight to the ground; pull the toes up, stretching through the heel, then let the feet relax; lift head and shoulders, crossing arms at the chest, then lower back down; and so on. He tried focusing his mind inward, but his senses drew it out.

A small pebble had fastened itself to his right shoulder blade. Rolling slightly to his left—suddenly there was a brilliant flash of green. He rolled back down, the pebble still stuck in his flesh, and saw again a brilliant flash as his eyes travelled back through the same arc of his roll. It was red this time, an imprecisely drawn circle of light, hovering in the middle distance, beside which the refractions of a ruby would appear dull. He rolled again through the same arc, back and forth, a systematic and minute reconnaissance—right to left, an incremental tilt of the head, then left to right, again and again—and apprehended it at last. Now captured by his gaze, he contemplated a brilliant yellow spark, vivid as the sun but existing seemingly nowhere.

What was this visitation? Were these Yakshas, spirits of the subtler realm that, Euphiletos had learned, appeared to mortals as creatures of light. Balanced mid roll, he could not help but move slightly, yet maintained enough control for the spark to remain within his view, and found out where the green and red sparks had gone. If he moved slightly to the right, the spark turned green. Continue right, and it turned blue, then violet, then it was gone. If he rolled left, it regressed to yellow and beyond to orange, then red, and was gone again. The colors of the rainbow captured in a perfect jewel.

He continued to roll back and forth in tiny controlled movements, the spark continuing to reproduce its discreet rainbow. The heat of his body no longer plagued him. The embedded pebble he no longer felt. Back and forth, back and forth he rolled. Himself now apprehended by the spark.

Small though his motions were, he had nonetheless inched closer to the block of wood and basin. As he sunk once more into the nadir of his arc, his hair softly nudged the basin. The spark shook, swelled, and disappeared, as the tension affixing a drop of water to the edge of the basin was broken. The drop fell, striking Euphiletos between the eyes.

He exhaled a short, sharp laugh. “Fool,” he said aloud, “it was only a drop of water.”

*         *         *

The library was the only building in the precinct made of fired brick. It stood on the north side of a low rise in a grove of Devadaru cedar. As the dry season wore on, Euphiletos found it to be a refuge from both the heat and the growing distraction of Sukhadana. Although he had never had opportunity to learn how to read his native Greek, under the tutelage of Avidyananda, who took to himself the office of librarian, he began to study Samskrta, the language of the ancient Srutis.

“Neti, neti,” Avidyananda mumbled to himself as he shuffled through piles of books. He picked one up, read from it, and then again, “Neti, neti,” he said, as he replaced it.

Euphiletos’s concentration on the task set him wavered with the disturbance. “What’s that you say, Bhagavan?” he asked.

“Huh, what?” he said, then laughed. “I am looking for the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, the Great Forest Teaching, within which is taught the doctrine of ‘neti, neti’, ‘not thus, not thus’. I laugh because I repeat the word ‘neti’ each time I pick-up the wrong book, but then I think, ‘What will I say when I find the right book?’” Avidyanada snorted another laugh in appreciation of his own cleverness.

“And what is this doctrine, Bhagavan?”

“It teaches what reality, which is Brahman, is not. It is neither gross nor subtle; neither born nor dying; the same in all beings but different from each; it is the seer unseen; the knower unknown, and so on. Thus we are instructed, Yavana, whenever we think we know something, to remember that if there is knowledge then there is an object that is perceived to be different from the Self, and if such differentiation remains, then the seeker remains apart from and thus not established in Brahman.

“Likewise, Yavana, your sensual experience is evidence of this separation. Is there a pain in your foot, Yavana? But your foot is an object; are you your foot? ‘Neti, neti’. Look at that beautiful girl, Yavana, how painful it is to desire her. Are you this desire? Are you this pain? ‘Neti, neti’. Ah! But she desires you as well, such joy! You make love together, such pleasure! Are you this joy? Are you this pleasure? ‘Neti, neti’.

“‘Neti, neti’, Yavana, repeat this every time you are tempted to think that you know. ‘Neti, neti’, thus is all perception revealed to be false and all knowledge to be ignorance.”

Resuming his search, Avidyananda picked up another book. “Neti, neti,” he chuckled and reached for another.

*         *         *

Nala scampered ever after Euphiletos. It was he who told his mother that he frequently saw Virendra, the Great Hero, sitting in the shade on the bank of the river. The Vipasha it was called locally. Its dimensions dwindled in the dry season but, fed from distant snowmelt, it still ran vibrant, cool, and clear. It was here that Sukhadana came upon Euphiletos. She knelt before him, affecting playfully the sympathetic expression that a mother wears when comforting a child who has suffered some minor injury.

“You’re not used to this heat,” she said, as she took a dried fig from her satchel and offered it to Euphiletos. Euphiletos’s memory was instantly alight with the sights, sounds, and—most vividly—the smells of Gedrosia.

After three months he had acquired a reasonable fluency in the local dialect. “I’ve known such heat before,” he replied, “but it’s true, this isn’t the climate of the seaside land that made me. Ionia, we call it, that for which you say Yavana.”

He took the fig she offered. Her hand lingered empty for a moment then arced upward and touched his brow, sweeping away the beads of sweat before they could drop into his already smarting eyes. “What then is the name your mother gave you?” she asked.

“Euphiletos,” he said.

Sukhadana attempted to reproduce it then laughed. “What a horrible language! How could anyone possibly say that! Until I can find you a better name, Yavana you will have to remain.” She regarded him, smiling, but soon, feeling his discomfort, “I’ll be but a moment,” she said.

She rose from her knees and set off toward the river. She descended the bank of rock-hard clay and aggregate boulders to the gravel of the margin, then entered the water.

She waded in up to her knees. She washed her face and arms. Gathering her soaked skirt into a ball at about mid-thigh, she climbed back out of the river. She walked purposefully toward Euphiletos, still seated, swallowing the last morsel of fig. She stopped inches from him and raised the wet knot of fabric, wringing it out on top of his head. She let it unravel then dabbed Euphiletos’s brow and face. Supporting herself with a hand on his shoulder, she leaned in to bathe the back of his neck.

The cool relief of her devotion was overwhelmed by the passion that her nearness ignited. His being was saturated with the smell of her: lotus, bread, and earth. He slid his hands under her skirt, took hold of her bottom, and drew her in. She took two handfuls of his hair and pulled. He pressed the bony ridge of his nose into her, inhaling deeply. He tilted his head up and back and tasted her.

She let go his hair, dropped onto his lap, and wrapped her legs around him. She felt herself yielding to his constrained hardness. They kissed, their tongues like mating serpents. She tasted herself in his mouth. She lay back, eyes bright. He pulled himself forward, drew aside his loincloth, and entered her.

At first the familiar callisthenic and associated pleasure occupied completely Euphiletos’s attention but, without the obliviating effects of wine or poppy, old impressions soon asserted themselves: the tear-streaked cheeks and swollen lip of Ariadne beneath him, savaged yet again by a drunken Euphiletos; a certain clear-eyed and freckle-faced girl left terrified and bleeding in an alley in Aradus; the greasy belly of the Ionian Satrap, as he made his habitual use of the thirteen year-old Euphiletos and his mother in turn.

His passion ebbed and failed. He cast a short pleading look at Sukhadana then turned his face from her.

“This is not why I’m here.” He rasped. “I must form no attachments.” He stood up, rearranged his clothing, and withdrew.

*         *         *

“Nala, my beautiful boy, you’ve been such a help to your mother today. Look how neatly you’ve arranged your litter! And your face and hands are so clean!” said Sukhadana, as she straightened his bedding and wiped the dirt from the tip of Nala’s nose. “What reward would you have, my sweetness?”

“Honey cakes, Mama! Honey cakes! Honey cakes!”

“You may have a honey cake. But I had something special in mind. How would you like to deliver something for me?”

Nala deflated. “Mama, that’s just another chore.”

“Ah, too bad,” Sukhadana sighed, “then I shall have to find another to deliver this letter to—what is it you call him—Virendra?”

“Mama, mama, mama! I’ll take it! I’ll take the letter! Please let me take Virendra the letter. Please mama, please!”

*         *         *

The sound of light footfalls parallel to the path he trod caused Euphiletos to pause. He heard two or three more steps then they too stopped. “A clumsy stalker,” he thought. He resumed walking. Even as he assured himself that such vigilance was not necessary in this place, he nonetheless could not help but obey an old soldier’s habits of self-preservation. The stalker too resumed. With the river on his left, the thick understory to the right of the path offered excellent cover to whom- or whatever followed.

A large oak was just up ahead, also to the right, between the tracks of predator and prey. Euphiletos ducked in behind it and waited. The familiar patterning of battle remade him. His right hand moved to where it expected to find the pommel of his sword. Failing that, both hands hardened to fists. His ears pricked up and his eyes opened wide to an expanding periphery. With tightened muscle and stilled breath, the transformation set him, as a viper, ready to strike.

Again, just a few more steps then silence. Euphiletos waited. The steps resumed and in no time the stalker came round the oak. Euphiletos grabbed him.

“What’s this! Does a little weasel hunt me?” he growled, from out of a constricted throat. Then he recognized Nala, hanging terror-struck, his shoulders pinioned by the Great Hero.

Euphiletos’s breath returned, but labored. A light ringing rose and fell in his ears. Lowering him back to the path but still gripping him, he required several more breaths before he was able to address again his captive.

“You’re Sukhadana’s boy, aren’t you? You ought not to pad after grown men from the shadows. It could be dangerous, boy, and moreover, it’s unseemly. Run along now.” Nala stood mute. “Run along or speak, boy, but don’t block my path.”

Euphiletos regarded him with eyebrows raised. The boy stood frozen, awed into silence. Finally, in a trembling hand, Nala held out a folded leaf of paper. Examining it for an external mark, Euphiletos was just about to ask what it was, when Nala turned and bolted. He unfolded the paper and read:

Sukanta,

I fear that my attentions have disturbed your peace. I have learned from Avidyananda that you have undertaken the study of the Srutis. (It was he who told me the meaning of your name. I trust you recognize its translation into Samskrta. Had I known that your mother had given you such a sweet name, I would not have jested so. I pray that you were ‘Well-loved.’)

I now understand that you have come to us with a purpose in mind. It is my hope that I might aid and not hinder this purpose. To that end, I extend to you my friendship and affections for you to partake in whatever measure you would.

Sukhadana

*         *         *

Unless her motherly obligations kept her, Sukhadana sought Euphiletos at the end of each day, prevailing upon him as often as not to spend such nights with her. He submitted to her caresses: a thousand kisses atop his head, about his neck and face; for hours she stroked his hair, his shoulders and arms, his chest and belly. He allowed her to take him in her hand or mouth but not bring him to consummation. He neither refused her attentions nor reciprocated except to thank her. Within this cycle of arousal and denial, neither slept but fitfully—the one yearning for her beloved, the other desperate for direction.

Sukhadana was at last asleep. This night found them in Euphiletos’s quarters, occupying together the narrow space of his litter. He lay on his back, she on her left side, her head and right arm on his chest, her body tucked into the crook of his right arm.

“My arm is numb,” he thought. The weight of her had cut off the circulation. He considered shifting but didn’t think he could do so without waking her, at which point her attentions were likely to resume. He lay there, his consciousness absorbed in the discomfort, and then,

“Am I my arm? Am I this numbness?” he thought.

“Neti, neti.” At the height of the dry season, even the nights were close. Although unclad and uncovered, draped in Sukhadana, such closeness was nearly unbearable.

“Sukhadana’s closeness over-warms my body,” he thought, but then, “Am I my body? Am I this over-warmth?

“Neti, neti.” Nonetheless, the proximity of so well turned out a woman, likewise unclad, put him in an excruciating state of arousal.

“My cock is hard for her,” he thought. “Am I my cock? Am I this lust?

“Neti, neti,” he mouthed inaudibly. The vision of Sukhadana, her exquisitely drawn brows, her fine nose, the turn of her soft lips that paid him such tender homage in word and caress, her tawny limbs, her apple bosom—but more than all this—her undemanding love that persisted, seemingly, without requite and yet gave her joy, that accepted, seemingly, without reproach, the full, murderous depravity of his life hitherto, caused his belly to warm with a surging affection.

“My stomach warms with my growing affection for her,” he thought. “Am I my stomach? Am I this warmth?

“Neti, neti,” he whispered softly. And yet, his heart leapt in his chest as he realized that he could love Sukhadana; that he could love her in a way that he never thought himself capable, not as something to possess, not as something from which to exact pleasure only to discard.

“My heart opens so that I may love her,” he thought. “I wish for her only joy. I want to see her face never absent a smile,” but then, “Am I my heart? Am I these wishes? Am I this love?” He spoke aloud.

Roused by the low rumble of her beloved’s voice, Sukhadana stirred. She cooed softly, kissed Euphiletos’s chest, and rolled over to present him her back. His eyes traced her lightly muscled shoulders, down her side to the turn of her waist, and up along the sinuous return to her hips. Naked and vulnerable, her body begged the embrace of the man she loved.

“She’s not for you,” he thought, “Neti, neti,” and he turned away to lay contemplating the flood tide of blood returning to his arm.

*         *         *

“I notice you see much of the Yavana these days, my beloved.” Brihadbhakti handed Sukhadana the mortar in which he had just ground the spices for the midday meal.

“Yes, Bapu.” Sukhadana took the mortar and emptied its contents into the soup simmering under the awning on the outdoor hearth. She replaced the cover. She avoided his gaze for a moment, then looked up at him. “We are not lovers, Bapu, although I would that we were. He’s so earnest and respectful, and so appreciative of my affections. Yet caution rules him. He’s not at all what you think he is.”

Brihadbhakti held his daughter’s gaze, considering. At last he spoke. “I know you, my joy, you give yourself all at once, without reserve, whether to a task, a scholarly interest, or a man; you would give yourself to this man, but I entreat you, do not.”

“Why, Bapu, you have never forbidden me love before, even when it has hurt me. Why this man? Why now, when I’m a grown woman, when I know the ways of men?”

“And I will not forbid you now. If sensual pleasure and the companionship of a man is what you seek, he’s as good as any, perhaps even better than most, but I entreat you again, my beloved, do not give yourself to him. You would be pouring your love into a hole, whence it would be irretrievable.”

“And is not a well a hole? And can we not draw from it once it’s full? And have you, yourself, not told me that loving does not diminish us; that the more we love, the more love there is? I both love and admire him, Bapu. Why wouldn’t I give myself to him?”

“If all you would do is love him, then do. I love him too. If all you would do is admire him, then do. I admire him too. But pray do not give yourself to him. If he is a well, then the lining is breached. You would pour your love in without filling him. Your love will become lost. I know you, my own and only beloved child. Your greatest joy is to love, but you have suffered greatly, because you seek in others what you fail to find in yourself.”

“Bapu, I have loved those who have not loved me. I have been loved by those whom I have not loved. Why should I not give myself to one who so needs to be loved? How could I suffer more than I have already? How could I suffer more than he does now?”

“But you have never suffered to give yourself to someone who will then ask you, ‘Why do you not love me more?’ Do you understand me, my daughter? This man may take your love, if he thinks it will fill him—just as you say—but he’s too greatly damaged. Your love will disappear, and because he is empty, he has nothing of his own to give.”

“How can love disappear, Bapu! You yourself have told me that all love subsists in the Great Love that is Brahman.”

“Of course that’s true, Sukhadana, my beloved, I misspoke. Your love will not disappear, but where it goes ‘Sukhadana’ may not follow. It will never be accessible to him and with your love spent, it is you who will become lost.”

The lid started rattling as the soup boiled over. Sukhadana cursed sharply under her breath and removed the pot from the fire to let it cool before serving. With an effort, she regained her composure and spoke again.

“I see him, Bapu. I see what he is deep inside. I know he’s done terrible things. I don’t care. Inside he’s beautiful and radiant, and I think he sees me too.”

“All this is undoubtedly true, but he’s afraid.”

“Afraid of what, Bapu? Afraid of love?”

“Afraid of losing himself, even as he professes that that is what he wishes. My child, that you see what is within him, of that I’m certain. So deeply do you see, it’s beyond even his own knowledge of himself. You see the reservoir from which he draws the strength to greet each day, but you fail to notice the shell around him. It’s hard and brittle and he protects it as if it were himself, not knowing the reservoir that lies closer to the truth of his being.”

Once more they were silent. They continued to prepare the meal, Sukhadana avoiding her father’s gaze. At last, with everything done and the first of the residents heard coming from their various tasks, she looked to her father, resolved to hear his final words on the matter.

Brihadbhakti smiled. He took her hands in his, kissed them, and spoke. “When I was a boy—like most boys—I was fascinated by armies, weapons, and war—yes, my joy, even I. Long hours I spent play-soldiering. As you know, I lived in the city of Sakala, which had a garrison. I lingered by the camp, watching and then pestering the soldiers, the armorers, the stable hands, even the cooks.

“Before too long, an old veteran befriended me. One day he asked if I would like to accompany him to the foundry and watch as they recast a cache of old bronze blades that had long ago been replaced by iron. I watched the foundrymen put the blades into the crucible. I watched them stoke the fire. I saw the keen shapes deform then dissipate. Still they stoked the fire until the very stone of the crucible began to glow. I could see the metal through the stone, waiting to become something new, but as yet only just itself. I might never have ceased to look at it, but it shone so brightly that I had to turn away.

“There’s a terrible beauty in human suffering. It lays waste to our external selves, burning away the outer illusion of self-possession, allowing to be seen something from deep within. It’s this that you detect in the Yavana, the beauty of the crucible, which takes something solid and whole and makes it molten, causing the vessel itself to become translucent—thus revealing its contents—and incandescent—thus drawing our gaze even as its brightness is painful to look upon. But if we can’t even look upon it, my precious child, how much less are we able to hold it in our arms?”

*         *         *

Battle_of_Issus
Part II

“That path, Yavana, is for those who no longer wish to pursue pleasure, not for those of us who, as yet encumbered by attachments, no longer wish to suffer.“ Brihadbhakti spoke to Euphiletos under the long shadows of early evening cast through the limbs of an ancient Bodhi tree. “Yes, Yavana, I am so encumbered, by my love for Sukhadana and Nala foremost, by my obligations to this community, by the pleasures and pains brought me by my senses. I am defined by these attachments. They trace the outline of me, thus limiting me, thus binding me. They preclude this release that you seek.”

“But surely, Sri Bhagavan, you must see that I have no such attachments,” said Euphiletos.

Brihadbhakti suppressed a smile. “Yavana,” he said, “you are bound hand and foot, doubled over with a gag in your mouth, and a blindfold over your eyes. Devote yourself to another and these bindings will be loosed. Feel what it is like to love someone else, then see if you would still tread this path.”

“The last time I devoted myself to another, he bade me murder innocents.”

“Submission is not devotion, Yavana. The one is mindless, the other mindful. Had you truly been devoted to your general, you would have sought to dissuade him from carnage. This is why we must never submit to another man’s will. Submission is to the divine only, and even then, do so with care, for there is divine mischief as well as manifestations claiming divinity—as men often will—that are not divine. Submit yourself to some notion of the divine, as you will, but still I counsel: the path of the Brahmacharin is not for you. You are as yet too tightly bound to make the Great Vow; devote yourself to another and see what comes.”

Euphiletos replied in slow measure. “Sri Bhagavan, you know that I am available to all yet give myself to no one; that I toil without regard for the fruit of my labor; that I sleep when I become sleepy, eat only when hungry; that I have foresworn possession—all this in accord with the teaching of the Srutis. What is there that could possibly bind me?” And then, emboldened by the heady elixir of his recent study and suspicious of Brihadbhakti’s motive, he ventured, “How then can you counsel against my making the Great Vow, unless it is to bind me to Sukhadana for her sake, if not yours?”

Brihadbhakti suppressed his smile no longer, using it instead to mask the irritation that Euphiletos’s insolence aroused. Deciding not to inform him that, for Sukhadana’s sake, he would banish him from the precinct, he told him instead, “You are bound by your suffering, Yavana. It is this that defines you. It is your suffering that traces the outline of you. You give yourself to no one, not because you would have no attachment, but because you are unable to lift your arms to present the gift, so tightly are you bound. Your wounds are numerous and deep, and they have caused you to withdraw into a shell—just as a tortoise under threat—and as master of that small, dark space, you have sought to make yourself invulnerable, but you know, as well as I, that at any minute you can be flipped on your back.

“You would make the Great Vow because you think it will allow you to withdraw further—and you will get far, Yavana; you possess great discipline of mind and body—but you will end up on your back and in more desperate peril than you have ever known. Many lives will it take to recover from so great a reversal.

“I counsel you again: devotion is the path for you. Recall the peace that you felt here all those years ago, the peace that caused you to seek us again. Devote yourself to another. It need not be Sukhadana, but know this: The love of Sukhadana is a great thing, and she loves you as she has never loved before. If you would, then give yourself to her. Let her joy be yours and see your suffering diminish. Let her joy be yours and you will move beyond the self-absorption that results from suffering. Let her joy be yours and you will know happiness, and your happiness will be the source of others’ happiness. Ours will be a more joyous world.”

*         *         *

It was Euphiletos’s turn to clear up after the evening meal. Sukhadana offered to help. Alone together at last, she put her arms around his waist with her forehead resting on the nape of his neck. She kissed him lightly between the shoulder blades as her hands explored first his chest and then travelled down his belly, then down further still, at which point Euphiletos took hold of her wrists. He let out one short breath.

“What is it Sukanta? Such tension in that breath. I’m sure you told me that Mayahara set you breathing exercises,” she teased. “It seems you haven’t been practicing.”

Euphiletos let go her wrists. She did not replace her hands and retreated a step. He turned around to face her but did not look at her.

“Come with me, Sukanta,” she said, before he could speak. “Nala spends the night with his grandfather. Leave this mess for the morning. Come back to my bed.” She stepped forward and embraced him again.

“Make love to me. Give yourself to me. We don’t sleep because our nights are spent with one another but not in the manner that a man and woman ought. It’s been some time since I’ve been with anyone. I’ve wanted that there should be someone but until you, there was no one that I wanted. Give yourself to me and I will give myself to you, and we’ll sleep like stones, and you’ll wake to clarity. I promise it will be so.”

She let go her embrace, took him by the hand, and tugged him toward the door.

He relented.

*         *         *

            Once in her quarters, Sukhadana bade Euphiletos recline upon her litter. As she undressed for him — something that, with every other lover, she had always done so playfully — there rose within her a fear, a shame even. Nonetheless she continued, reasoning that this moment, so long coming, had overwhelmed her. Straddling him, she drew his head between her breasts. He fondled and kissed them, sucking the nipples in turn as he squeezed, but his touch caused her to tense. She felt his arousal pushing up between her legs but felt no arousal herself. She kissed him, open-mouthed, but it was mere exercise. She thrust her hips vigorously against him. He growled his pleasure, but she felt only numb.

Taking hold of a great rope of her hair, firmly but gently Euphiletos tugged, guiding her down beside him. His hands roamed over her body as his mouth devoured it. He put a hand between her legs and stroked the soft-petaled flesh. She was dry. “Does he notice? What’s wrong with me?” thought Sukhadana, her anxiety growing with every moment.

He kissed his way down her belly to the inside of first the left—a kiss—then the right inner thigh—a bite. Then he drove his face deeply into her. Sukhadana felt nothing. He rose up, tore off his tunic and loincloth, and made to enter her but could not. She winced with pain as he tried again, but she was dry. He pushed harder when,

“Stop! Please,” she cried. “My love, stop.” Euphiletos lifted himself off of her.

“What is it?” he panted, “Have I hurt you?” With knitted brows, he searched the extent of her body for evidence of some injury.

“No, it’s not that. I don’t know why, but my body is not willing.” The two lay side-by-side panting.

“Did I—”

“No.” Sukhadana interrupted.” It was nothing you did, my love. I don’t know why. I just…” She curled away, hiding her face in her hands.

“Something has upset you. Tell me. Was I too—”

“No. This is what I want,” she said through her hands. “You are whom I want. This is where I want to be, nowhere else and with nobody else, and yet… I can’t see past the fear that you are not satisfied with me; that mine is the body of a woman past her time, a woman who has born a child; that this is not where you want to be and that I’m not whom you want; that I cajoled you here, and that…” Euphiletos took both her wrists in one hand and tried to force her hands away from her face, but she held tight.

With eyes shut and face covered by her hands and hair, the thought occurred to her, “It’s not his exploration of my body that has me ill at ease. It’s the dread that I will see dissatisfaction in his face; that he will not be able to conceal his disappointment the first time he sees some flaw. I wish I could lie here, blindfolded and open to him, while he explores my body. I wish I knew how to ask it of him.”

Euphiletos lay troubled beside her. “She is so lovely,” he thought, “how can she not know that? How can I put her at ease?” Then it came to him, a drunken game he used to play with Ariadne.

He raised himself on one elbow, “Let’s play a game,” he began, “I shall blindfold you and then explore every inch of your body. Just lay back and know that I’ll be enjoying myself.”

*         *         *

            All night they made love, timidly at first, but with growing ardor. Through hours of rapture they explored every sight, smell, taste, and sensation of one another’s bodies, blissfully, tenderly. Hers was a tenderness he had never known from the rutting of his previous experience, and it brought from him a tenderness that he never knew he possessed, but that she had always expected to find. It was not until first birdsong that he was inside her. His passion aflame, her love all-consuming, she but a moment before, he with her initial spasm, they came together, then collapsed in a knot of limbs, lips, and hair.

Sukhadana’s joy was unbounded. A new star had ignited within her stomach, warming every inch of her. “I will love this man forever,” she thought. “I will give him everything. I can tell him anything. This is the one for whom I have waited all my life. This is the last man I shall ever love.” Sleep was just beginning to wash over her when Euphiletos spoke.

“So just how long has it been since you last were with a man?” He said, with playful pride.

“Ooh, such a question Sukanta.” She rolled into him and kissed his chest. “Let’s sleep, my love. This is no time for talk.”

“No, tell me. You’ve said that Kriyakula was your last. How long ago?”

“As I’ve told you, it’s been years since Kriyakula and I lived together as husband and wife. There was one not long after that, but, yes, Kriyakula was the last, the season just before you came to us. I do love him, but it wasn’t really love-making.” She was about to kiss him again but he had moved away. She reached for him but he pushed her arm away. She rubbed her eyes and looked at him. He was sitting upright on the edge of her litter, wearing a look of incredulity and disdain.

“Kriyakula? The father of your child?” he said. “Kriyakula, whom you embrace so warmly whenever he visits. Just months before me, you were with Kriyakula? You told me it had been years.” Shocked into wakefulness and bewildered by Euphiletos’s anger she struggled to explain.

“Sukanta —” she began.

“I’m not your Sukanta.”

“Yufilatah —”

He sneered at her attempt to pronounce his name.

She looked away but soldiered on. “This was before I knew such a one as you even existed. How could it matter?”

“You made love to him and you love him still. You’ve just told me so.”

“You’re wrong Suk —, you’re wrong.” Her eyes began to tear. “He’s a good man. He gave me Nala. So yes, I will always love him. Just as I will always love Nala, and my Bapu. Just as I love my mother, gone all these years, and Avidyananda, and —“

“And whom among them did you bed?” This struck her like a hammer blow. She recoiled from it visibly. Up now and gathering his clothes, Euphiletos regretted his last comment but held his ground. “You admit to having loved him, you admit to taking him to your bed, and you admit to loving him still. How was this not an act of love between two lovers?”

“Inasmuch as an act of compassion is an act of love, then yes, you are right. It was an act of love, but not between two lovers. He was lonely and hurting and—“

“And if he should appear this afternoon, ‘lonely and hurting,’ would you again be roused to such compassion?”

No longer able to bear the onslaught, Sukhadana wept.

Euphiletos had finished dressing. Turning his back to her, “I left a mess in the kitchen,” he said and left.

*         *         *

            Although she knew his routine as though it were her own — indeed, had made it her own — Sukhadana did not seek out Euphiletos. Still, such being the confines of their community, less than a fortnight passed before their paths crossed. She was about to head for the kitchen. As she stepped out her door, she saw Euphiletos emerge from a storehouse opposite her quarters.

The fig harvest was nearly over and the fruit, along with the grains, legumes, and such vegetables as were suited to preservation, all had to be secured indoors, high and dry, before the rains. Euphiletos had just finished spreading the contents of a large sack of figs onto the drying racks within the storehouse.

“Yavana!” she shouted.

Euphiletos turned toward her. The sun was in his eyes. He shaded them with his hand. Crossing the courtyard, Sukhadana saw an almost theatrical pantomime of recognition, irritation, and resolve play across his face. “He knows my routine as well,” she thought, “ Did he really not know that I would be here, or is he just pretending?”

Burying the pain of this thought, “Namaste,” she said, as she finished her traverse.

“Namaste.” He raised his arms but winced with pain as he tried to press his palms together.

“I heard about your arm. They tell me you fell off a roof!” With great effort she addressed him cheerfully, hoping to betray nothing of the grief that had struck her down, made it difficult to rise in the morning, made eating a chore, made her snap at Nala’s every boyish act. Without thinking she took his arm, examining it for sign of injury. At the sight of the green and yellow bruising, maternal instinct and compassion for her beloved nearly swept away the restraint she was trying so desperately to exercise. Her touch brought color to his cheeks. She let go his arm. “I see that it still pains you. Does it heal well?” she asked.

“Yes, it heals well, Avidyananda saw to that.”

“How did it happen?”

“With the rains approaching, we’ve been repairing all the thatch. I was on the roof of the kitchen and stepped between the rafters. My foot went through. I followed soon after. I caught myself before I hit the floor, but in the act I injured my arm. I assure you, the damage done me was less than that done the roof, and even that took only a few hours to repair.” Each was smiling. Their eyes met for a moment then each looked away.

“I’m relieved it wasn’t serious. I trust you are otherwise well?” she asked.

He nodded.

“That pleases me. I’m sure you have much to do. I won’t keep you.” She placed her palms together. “Nama—“

“You’re not keeping me. My work is done for the day. Won’t you stay a moment more?”

“A moment more?” She laughed. “I would stand on this spot until the end of my days. Yes, I’ll give you a moment more.”

Without acknowledging her admission, he asked after Nala and Brihadbhakti. When not preparing for the rains, he had been keeping the company of Avidyanada and Mayahara, the latter having come on an extended visit to make use of Avidyananda’s knowledge and collection of books. Consequently he saw little of anyone else.

The discussion of trivialities was soon exhausted and the conversation faltered. Sukhadana reached for him again, this time taking both hands in her own. She weighed the mass of his muscled forearms. His left arm bore calluses on the inside, just below the elbow, and across the palm of his hand where the straps of his shield abraded; his right hand was hardened across fingers and palm from the grip of spear and sword. She wondered how many men he had struck down.

“The rains come soon, as you know,” she said. “They bring great relief to this land, but not just to our crops. There is a tension that builds as the drought endures—you know this, I think. Come to me with the rains.” And then she ventured, “Come to me with the rains, Sukanta. I shall prepare you a meal. We shall talk. Let the rains wash away your unease. I have missed you.” Still holding his hands, she stood on tiptoe and kissed his cheek.

“I have missed you too,” he said.

She did not betray the joy those words gave her, how the faltering star within her flared back and warmed her to the tips of her fingers and toes, repeating only, “Come to me with the rains. I’ll send for you.”

Nodding his assent, “All right, we’ll talk,” he said.

Sukhadana smiled and set off for the kitchen.

*        *         *

            “You contradict yourself, Yavana,” said Mayahara.

“I don’t understand. How is this a contradiction, Bhagavan?”

“Because it is not possible in one breath to deny the existence of the Self in deep sleep and then declare in the next—as proof of this—‘because I was conscious of nothing’.”

Euphiletos sat uncomprehending, a question forming on his lips. “But—“       Mayahara raised a hand, silencing him. “Don’t you see? The ‘I’ is still there. The knowledge is ‘of nothing’. You will find no greater proof of the eternal and immutable existence of the Self than this awareness which you yourself have just professed.”

“But—“

Mayahara silenced him again. “Something does indeed cease to exist in deep sleep, namely, all objects: your quarters, your litter, and so on, but no less does Euphiletos, the Yavana, cease to exist, his body, its pains and pleasures, his mind and its intellect. And yet they all return with the dawn, for they all subsist in Brahman, the only true, indivisible, and unqualifiable Self. When objects subside, it is into Brahman, and when they recur, it is from Brahman. Brahman still remains but the experience of manifest objects distracts from the experience of the unmanifest in which they subsist. It is the very definition of an object. It would not occur to you to say, ‘I was conscious of nothing,’ were it not so.” He kept Euphiletos silent a moment longer, then nodded his assent to be questioned.

“But how, then, may I access this in states other than deep sleep, Bhagavan? For each time I sit in contemplation, peace approaches only to flee just as I reach for it. I cannot see the way forward, Bhagavan. Pray enlighten me that I may achieve the release I seek.”

“Once again, Yavana, among your own words lies the answer to your question.”

Euphiletos scoured the words he had just spoken, to no avail. “Bhagavan,” he said, “forgive me. I don’t see it.”

“’Euphiletos’ doesn’t see it, you mean.”

Euphiletos pondered again, then lowered his head in shame. “Forgive me, Bhagavan,” he entreated once more.

The two men sat in the shade of the cedars outside the library. Euphiletos looked out toward a bend in the Vipasha. The prolonged drought had slowed it to little more than a trickle. He surveyed the precinct. Smoke was rising from the fires for the midday meal. He turned away, lowering his head once more.

Mayahara spoke. “Your error, Yavana, is that you imagine this ‘approaching peace’ to be a boon bestowed upon ‘Euphiletos’, but you have it reversed. ‘Peace’ is not the object. ‘Euphiletos’ is the object. ‘Peace’ is the reality. ‘Peace’ is what persists while ‘Euphiletos’ sleeps. ‘Peace’ was there before ‘Euphiletos’ was born. ‘Peace’ shall remain when ‘Euphiletos’ dies. It isn’t ‘peace’ that flees when ‘Euphiletos’ attempts to grasp it. ‘Peace’ is ever still. ‘Euphiletos’ flees. ‘Euphiletos’ fears his demise. Thus, he doesn’t reach for ‘peace’; he pushes it away.

“‘Peace’ is Brahman. ‘Release’ is Brahman. It’s always there. It’s not to be accessed by the objects arising from it. It’s not a boon bestowed upon those who imagine it as a reward for their effort. Therefore, all that is necessary to be established within it is to get out of the way.”

“But how does one do this?”

“By realizing that one does not do it. By realizing that one is not ‘The One’ and that there is no doing.”

“Bhagavan, I don’t understand.” Euphiletos lowered his gaze in dejection.

Both men sat quietly for a time, the small sounds around them—the rustlings of animals, birdsong, wood-chopping in the distance, the light tinkle of children’s laughter—all a testament to Euphiletos’s confounded silence.

At last Mayahara drew in a long breath. As he exhaled, his sternness departed. He placed a hand on the other man’s shoulder. Drawing Euphiletos’s downcast eyes back up to meet his own softened gaze, Mayahara spoke. “Be of good cheer. You are welcome here. You are loved here. Why not stay and enjoy the beauty of this place and the simple pleasures of work, prayer, and human companionship? You’ve suffered enough. Don’t append your own regime of punishment to that which you have only just survived. It’s just more vanity.

“I’ll take you in, if you’re determined to make the Great Vow, but you must know, it makes no difference what path you take. The end is the same end. Illusions are manifest, but the truth is always the same and it’s always there.

“What’s your hurry, Yavana, when all of eternity is your inheritance?”

*         *         *

            The signs were unmistakable: a lift in the air, a buoyancy, the smell of salt carried on the wind, then finally a darkening sky gathered at the southern horizon. Late but nigh at last, the rains would be with them by evening.

Almost three weeks had passed since Sukhadana had spoken to Euphiletos outside the storehouse. She had scrupulously avoided crossing his path, but stationed herself often at its periphery, in order that she might catch a glimpse of him from afar. He was usually alone but sometimes in conversation with either Mayahara or Avidyananda. In the last week she had not been able to find him but neither asked after him nor sought him more directly out of deference for his solitude.

For days she had been preparing her quarters, the meal, herself. Bartering some of the jewelry left her by her mother—jewelry that neither ever wore, not since the establishment of their community—she procured from a peddler such as she thought would please Euphiletos, delicacies to be offered on the plate and scent to be offered on her skin. Nala she had packed off to the quarters of her aunt Sumati.

Midday found her in the kitchen fulfilling the last obligation she needed to perform that day. Her cousin, Gopala, was working beside her. As they finished cleaning up, she pressed a letter into his hand. “Gopala,“ she said, “will you take this to the Yavana for me? You know who that is, right?”

Gopala squealed with her touch then kissed her sloppily and tried to hug her.

She pushed him off. “No! Gopala,” she scolded, “you hug too hard. But if you bring this to the Yavana I will give you a honey cake.”

Gopala started to cry. “No know where is Wabama, no know where, no know where…” his agitation grew with each repetition.

“Gopala!” she shook then steadied him. “Gopala, go to Avidyananda. He’ll know where to find the Yavana. And here, you may have your honey cake right now.” Sukhadana mussed his hair, her fingers running across the dent in his head from the injury that had made him an imbecile. She smiled as Gopala stuffed the cake into his toothless mouth. “Go now,” she told him. “Find Avidyananda and he’ll tell you where you may find the Yavana. Quickly now, run along.”

*         *         *

            About a centerpiece of lotus and hyacinth, Sukhadana had arranged several small plates: sweet and savory condiments of mustard seed, cumin, and mint; flatbreads still warm from the stone, folded into flower-shaped cups; fresh fig; curries of lentil and rice from the south. From the peddler she had procured a handful of small black stone fruits, “ripened on the shore of a great inland sea, far to the west” he told her. They were wrinkled and oily with a bitter taste Sukhadana could not abide, but she had once heard Euphiletos describe such fruits longingly and the sea by which they grew. On a plate beside the flat stone above the charcoal brazier that she had smuggled from the kitchen lay gutted a single, silvery Mahasher fish, such as plied the Vipasha. She would not cook it until the rain began so that it might drown the sound and smell from the fire.

From among her mother’s jewelry she had saved the dearest pieces and adorned herself with a ring on each hand, bangles for her wrists and ankles, and a pair of diminutive, gold-petaled, lotus-shaped earrings. She wore the skirt that her mother had worn the day she married Brihadbhakti and a blouse with a swooping neckline that left her waist bare. A ruby—her mother’s most precious adornment—shone in her navel. Her eyes she lined with kohl, her lips she painted with a dye extracted from pomegranate.

She was combing out her black hair before her reflection in a mirror of polished bronze, when she heard footsteps outside her door. She knelt down and stowed quickly in a small chest on the floor the mirror and comb. She heard breathing outside and wondered, “What’s his delay?” She stood up and nearly fell back, light-headed. She realized that she’d eaten nothing all day. With her heart pounding in her throat she forced out the words, “Who’s there? Is that you, Sukanta?” There was no answer. Composing herself as she walked toward the door, again she spoke. “Yavana?”

“No know where Wabama. No know where.” She opened the door to Gopala extending his arm with a letter clasped in his hand. He didn’t look at her but repeated, “No know where Wabama. Weejanama says ‘all right, all right’.” He shook the hand with the letter. It wasn’t the one she had sent with him. “All right, all right,” he said again and pushed the letter into her hand.

“Yes, all right, Gopala,” she said. “You did well.” Her voice came dry. She cleared her throat. “You did well.”

“Shookadama,“ he said and reached for her. The sky flashed bright, followed seconds later by a low rumble. She held him at bay.

“Go now, Gopala. The rains are here. You don’t want to get caught in it. Run home to your mother quickly. Nala’s there.” Gopala screeched and ran off.

She stood a moment in the doorway watching the leaves turn over in the first cooling updraft, then closed the door and walked trembling toward the brazier. Outside the first heavy drops began to fall: one, then four, then twenty, a flash of lightening and an instant later, thunder, and the rain fell in a drumming hiss. She drew a short, tight breath and opened the letter:

 

Sukhadana,

A little more than a week ago, Euphiletos left with Mayahara to stay at his hermitage, permanently. He has taken the Great Vow. I am sorry if this pains you. I thought you knew.

Be Well,

Avidyananda.

Despite her proximity to the brazier, Sukhadana felt chill. She felt the warmth withdraw from her fingers and toes. The tip of her nose chilled and tingled. Her lips tingled as feeling left them. The hissing of the storm was supplanted by a ringing in her ears. All the warmth of her body and with it, all sensibility, left her, falling into the howling vortex that had opened up in the place where her love once shone. She swooned and knew no more.

*         *         *

            The first rain of the season invariably fell in a torrent. Because of this, the fire did not spread, but the prolonged drought had left everything tinder-dry, so that the interior of Sukhadana’s quarters, which had not yet absorbed the vapor of the storm, flashed instantly. As soon as Gopala left him, Avidyananda sought Brihadbhakti, but by the time the two of them reached Sukhadana’s quarters, the rain, which was pouring in through holes burnt in the thatch, had already quenched the fire. Only the top of the door still burned.

The disposition of her body told the story. She lay half on her litter, the overturned brazier next to her head. Having struck it somehow, she must have been unconscious before the coals spilled across the bedding and into her hair. The walls were black. The thatch overhead — through which sooty water now streamed — was black. A small, carbonized feast, meticulously set out among carbonized flowers, attested to the reason for the presence of the brazier in her room.

A week would pass before the rain let up enough for them to build a fire sufficient to consume her body. They packed the remains in cedar shavings and sawdust to ward off the flies and burrowing insects. Still, on the day of the funeral, the rain fell such that it was necessary to erect an awning over the bier until the fire was hot enough. This done, they committed her ashes to the Vipasha.

Nala had remained with Sumati. That evening, Brihadbhakti went to his sister’s quarters to be with her and his grandson. He entered and embraced Sumati without speaking. She sought consoling words, but she was able to do no more than choke on her tears. They held one another tightly until Brihadbhakti patted her back and broke the embrace.

“How is Gopala?” he asked.

“The harm he did himself was not as great as it looked. Once we cleaned the blood and dirt from his forehead, we found only a few cuts, none of which required stitches. Avidyananda has always been able to calm him, although he did have to give him a sleeping draught. He’s with him still. He was so upset. He—“ grief gripped her throat once again. Brihadbhakti took her hands in his own, kissed them and then her forehead. One wrenching sob escaped her. She tried to compose herself again when suddenly her face darkened. “That man!” she said.

Brihadbhakti stopped her. He gripped his sister’s shoulders, squeezing them together, and looked directly into her eyes. “That man was not responsible for my daughter’s feelings toward him, and her death… just a foolish accident. She should never have had that brazier indoors. Just a few hours earlier and she might’ve burned the whole place down.” Anguish distorted his features. Mastering himself once more, he let go of Sumati. “My grandson, how is he?”

“He’s cried himself dry. I put him to bed just before you got here, but I don’t know if he’s asleep. He’s in Gopala’s room.”

Nala’s breathing was soft and regular, a warm counterpoint floating above the impersonal hiss of the renewed storm outside. Brihadbhakti pulled the covers up over his grandson’s shoulders then bent down and kissed him softly on the cheek. He tasted salt. “Sleep well, little one,” he said.

He returned to the room where he’d left his sister to find that she had served food. “Eat, brother,” she said, “you need it.” He resisted only a moment. Signing his gratitude, Brihadbhakti took the first bread he had eaten all day. They ate silently. At last Sumati spoke.

“She was the light of this place, you know. We gathered around you, dear brother, to be sure, your knowledge and strength, your kindness and understanding, but her love was the sun that shown upon us all, ever since she was a little girl.” She wiped from her face, clumsily, almost childishly, the tears and snot that fouled her complexion. “What will become of us?” Looking at her brother, again she asked, “What will become of us?” and at last she broke down, weeping without restraint.

Brihadbhakti remained silent until his sister’s paroxysm abated, then answered, “Bliss, dear sister, it awaits us all. What will become of us? The answer is bliss.” Such was the faith he had professed many times before, but never with so little conviction.

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