When I first saw the monk, he was standing under a magnolia tree backlit by the fierce sun. A young man, wearing one of those swashbuckler shirts advertised in magazines, apparently thought he was meditating and wanted to join.
The squawks redirected my gaze: the parrot was green with a red face and sat on higher branches. The young man flew up the steps of the hotel to get some bread, leaving me with the saffron-robed monk. I didn’t want to bother the monk, didn’t know what to say.
The monk had short hair, like on a shoe brush, and wore sandals: an ancient man. His skin was dark, his head round, and his actions seemed spare. He had a smooth youthful face. I thought he’d just finished lecturing and when he was in the café heard the parrot. The young man returned with two rolls topped with seeds, soft rolls just out of the oven, cracking steam.
The monk tapped his own arm, coaxing the bird down a level. The young man held bread in the air, statue-like, until his arm got tired. He lofted half and it amazingly landed on a branch. He smiled, lost his smile. The parrot gripped the bread with one claw and munched away, a few flakes drifting onto the monk’s head.
The magnolia had a tree of life aura with its respondent fleshy blossoms and yoga-stretched limbs, its zebra-like bark. The sun lacquered the leaves.
“I give up. Anyway, I have to go. I’m a lifeguard here.”
“An important job.”
A guy in a golf cart whizzed and waved. Two women from the café sauntered over to explain that he was beautiful, but impossible to bring down. “Where does he belong?” I asked.
“Don’t know,” the one with reddish hair shrugged her shoulders.
“He only has eyes for Monk Arun,” the other laughed. She wore black Chaplin-like clothes that gave her dimensions she didn’t really have, and red nails. They all headed back, leaving me alone with the monk and parrot.
“He’s afraid of being caged,” the monk said, smiling; “Buddhists uncage the mind.”
I nodded, “He has a dose of freedom; he’s very smart, too. So, my name is Jason.”
“Arun,” he said; “Maybe he was something else before he was a bird.”
“You mean like a king or librarian?”
“Maybe the one who caged birds.”
“The winters are brutal here. Even car batteries freeze.”
Over the next few days, during the activities set up for guests, I wondered about the monk and the bird. At one point, I looked at a globe in the hotel’s sitting room, imagining the monk opening the cage in some distant land. I’ve read that the Catskills are nearly as rich and diverse as a rain forest.
Arun taught meditation and something more. One day I saw him walking slowly with others on the back lawn near the lake, which had fat carp mingling at the surface. He mentioned stillness and breathing.
I had planned to stay at the hotel for one week, a time for unraveling the sack of city life, to find that green color hiding within. I’d become used to lines, noise, the machine takeover. I planned to do nothing that required a schedule. I even spoke for an hour with a retired ballet dancer. Mornings, I got up fresh and looked out the window at the sparkling meadow sweeping toward the mountain. I heard roosters, smelled the cows and horses and I’d sit for hours, watching the fleecy clouds roll into a solid form and fly away like magic carpets.
One time, Arun passed me on the porch but turned to say, “Did you know the universe is expanding?” He walked away. I wanted to tell him I knew but needed to know where it’s going and if we’re going with it. I wanted to ask what’s not impermanent and if compassion is the answer to all questions.
The same day, the owner of the hotel, a matriarch with a face of statue-like firmness, in a black dress with a flower design, a cane dug in at her side, sat on the porch. She waved at the family coming up the sidewalk as they moved suitcases, tennis racquets and evening wear from their Volvo, “Hello there back. I’m Mrs. Evelyn gold. You’re a guest?”
“Yes, for the week.”
“I moved here decades ago, never left.”
“I see why,” I replied.
“This will become part of your seasonal plans. But make your reservations earlier,” she replied. “You were lucky. A doctor and his wife had to cancel. He had to deliver a baby.”
“Good timing. I just met the monk, too. Do you know where he’s from?”
She put her hand over her mouth for a few seconds. She stuck her cane into the doorbell and pretended to hold her breath. The oak tree cast shadows on the porch. Minutes later, a guy about my age emerged from the back door, “Stevie, tell Jason here. Tell him about your acquaintance.”
“I have a few,” he replied. “You mean the monk from Asia?”
“No, the mad monk, Rasputin,” she shook her head. “Yes, yes.”
He looked grim; he seemed to look at her but really looked away, though absorbed by her tone. He was tall with long black hair in a ponytail, though balding in front, bearded, wearing a jade necklace and thick gold-rimmed glasses, as she did. His arms were crossed in a disturbed rumination. There was a secret about to escape, something volcanic.
“Perhaps the bird’s from one of the houses nearby,” he said.
“They follow other birds like we follow roads.”
“I think so,” Steve said. “Arun’s a great teacher. I was watching him by the lake.”
“Tell him; tell him, Stevie,” said Mrs. Gold. “And tell him about the movie.”
“Grammar, please. It’s old news,” Steve said. “So, grandma and I wanted someone spiritual here. We thought guests would like meditation and yoga, and we also offer vegetarian along with kosher meals. A friend told me about Arun. Please don’t repeat this.”
“Cross my heart, Steve. Repeat what?” Steve crossed his arms and scratched the bald top of his head. Galaxies were churning in outer space, and the seconds around us expanded.
“Here goes, so my friend told me that he drenched himself with gasoline during the war and lit himself on fire.”
I felt myself go bug-eyed, almost tripped; “What? Why?”
“The war, man; it was the war. He was against it. I don’t know. Long ago. Arun was against his government or ours. Both, man. That was a terrible thing, Vietnam.”
“Now everyone’s all friendly again.” I shook my head. “So, it was too far away and it wasn’t our business, and it was a civil war. Arun survived the gasoline?”
“Well, he’s still breathing. Someone drenched him with water after a few seconds, or he fell over, the fire went out — don’t know. I didn’t ask and you shouldn’t either.”
She tapped her cane on the ground. “It’s like that stupid program where everyone’s walking around eating each other, The Walking Dead.”
“Grammar please,” Steve said, his voice deepening on the way to embarrassment. “I don’t get her sometimes. But when I do, it’s even worse.”
“Arun has a DVD in his room,” she said, “he likes watching kung fu movies, movies with action and lots of kissing in silk clothes.”
“No, no, no, really Grammar. They’re movies about families. Dramas with a Confucian mentality,” Steve replied. “It improves his English. Okay, thanks, this was fun.”
The grandson shook my hand and fixed his smock with the hammer sticking out. He went inside and the banging resumed.
“Mrs. Gold, it was nice that we met, thanks for your advice too,” I said.
“That’s why I’m here – keeps me kicking. Can you bring flowers back from your walk?”
“If you’re going to San Francisco,” I said, repeating the song, “Put some flowers in your hair.”
“And get some marijuana and smoke your brains out,” she said. I agreed then headed away. I walked miles and miles around the glassy lake. There were canoes darting and lolling about. I walked up a steep hill. A young couple had a picnic on moss-covered ground. The gorgeous greens and lake and birdsong did not erase my curiosity and agitation. In the evening, in my room with the Thomas Cole & Frederick Church prints, I slept uneasily. I tossed around with my limbs at my side and saw images crash through my mind. I didn’t know if the image of the monk came from Bergman’s Persona, or if Mrs. Gold helped conjure him: a monk cross-legged, with heroism and repose, upright, fiery, with the endless falling over on the street. He will always keep falling. There is action in the distance, magnetized people, traffic puzzled together, police racing around and mindless sirens. It was a colorless dream, but the fire was crisp and ate the monk’s flesh.
I awoke into another dream, once a movie, seeing a woman silent to the world for all its death-horrors and her beautiful nurse, noisy to the world for all its sugared romanticism and opportunity. I awakened world-weary from the inability to save anything from destruction. I thought that we might all burn for only a fragment of what goes on in the world.
I didn’t want to see the monk again, for sometimes I saw him burning. The whole thing even gained comedy, as I imagined smoke coming from his ears. I understood his courage but was confused that someone could withstand such pain. He’d had thousands of hours to know what I could never grasp. Here was one of the mysteries of life. I heard a story about him that made me laugh. He had gone with a few staff members to a film and asked more than once about the expressions. “What does it mean to bone someone?” he asked.
His lack of Western knowledge, his imperfection, was perfect. I was intent on seeing him before leaving and looked on the blackboard for his name and class time. Finally, I turned to Mrs. Gold, who was sitting on the porch as usual, this time reading the paper. “I spoke to my grandson again,” she said, resting her elbow on the antique porch swing with initials cut in. “Our friend’s from a monastery in California or Colorado, the Thousand Something; oh, don’t ask me.”
“He gets around.”
But then the cab arrived with a cigar-chomping local wearing a racetrack hat. When I was young, I enjoyed the races with my dad. I thought of that and other things from the lost world of youth – as time raced away and returned. I was anxious to return home; I had a lifelong companion, something I imagined Arun didn’t need or care about. Who knows? Life is always changing.
A pizza box on the front seat teased my stomach. I looked at Mrs. Gold and the hotel’s ornaments, huge lawn and the purple gladiolas lining the walkway. But I imagined the monk’s face and that damn fire.
“I need to say goodbye to someone. Can you wait ten minutes? I’ll pay you for that.”
“No rush, no need.” I thanked him and went down the hill. Hurrying across the thick lawn, I passed the labyrinth, lake and sweat lodge. Arun.
“People tell me the bird won’t come down,” I said to the monk.
“The bird tells me he will. Once he grabbed an almond from my hand and trotted back up the tree.”
“An almond,” I said, nodding. “I made a call. They said to throw a towel on him, grab him.”
“He won’t like that.”
“He’s too smart.”
“That’s the problem of life,” he said. “Yet, I’ve imagined him in a room with large plants.”
“I wish I could stay. But he’s afraid of everyone but you.”
Arun looked down, “It’s good you travel light.”