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It was unseasonably warm for April, and papery leaves skittered and circled inside the farmyard. My sister looked strange walking alone, as if the whole rest of the world were sleeping. But the sun shone brightly, even brighter on the Sanctuary, and my sister felt its warmth in her core instead of outside her. In a Children’s Talk on cassette tape we had listened to in Halifax, the Guru had already predicted and described this sensation. Happiness Spreading, as far as the inner eye could see, leveling like water. When she closed her eyes my sister saw light—black light, holographic schisms, Ray called them. Surrender to your cones and rods, laughed Ray. He had painstakingly explained optics.
My sister heard the screech from the wood shop, and something brushed her body like a walking bush. She opened her eyes. A peacock.
“It has its third eye on its tail,” remarked the Roshi’s daughter. My sister started. How long had Una been there? As if to mock the bird, she was fanning herself with a spray of peacock feathers.
They kicked off their shoes in the farmhouse entry. The half-mortal had just a regular voice, a little bit slangy.
My sister paired her shoes neatly and inconspicuously beside Una’s: zoris, even though they looked like drugstore flip-flops. It was dark in the entry and it smelled meaty like feet. My sister thought she heard something cooing in a corner.
Una pointed a broom at a lumpy gray bird that might have been laying. The bird was not intimidated. It blinked repetitively, and, it seemed to my sister, without feeling.
“That’s a lyrebird,” Una said when she’d pried it out of its corner. “He hatched it.”
Incense hung as heavy as pollen. My sister dropped to her knees, then her belly, at the Guru’s altar. She let her forehead rest on the dull pine floorboards for three full breath cycles.
When she rose her blood felt solid, her eyes were starbursts, and when she could see again, she had a headache. “Don’t stay down so long,” Una chided.
As she backed away from the throne, my sister saw Una take a small cellophane package.
Outside, Una stopped beneath a tall, sparse pine tree, more like a flagpole than an evergreen. It had bare spikes for branches, a crest of dark green at the very top like one of the top hat roosters that jerked chestily about the farmyard. “Here’s where His parrot Gautama proved it had nine lives,” said Una. “Even though it’s only cats that are supposed to. Have you ever seen parrots climb? They use their teeth.” Una bared hers to show my sister. “Nine times.” She reached her arms out. “His wings didn’t open.” Her eyes were on my sister.
Una uncrinkled the package. Four bulby chocolates. She placed three of the candies in the veiny roots at the base of the pine tree. She gave the fourth one to my sister.
“There’s a chance I’m a Lama,” she said. “Reincarnated.”
My sister nodded.
“Lamas have to die, too,” said Una.
In Tibet or Mongolia. In Colorado or California. There was a saint (Ray and Cleary said sri, which sounded less Western) who wandered around India pulling candy from the atmosphere. Ray had been to Goa, tasted the candy, but that didn’t make him a Roshi. In India, candy was called milk sweets.
Kai walked like a skeleton, her hips and knees wobbling in their ball-and-sockets. Her small head in its crocheted skullcap looked like a beanbag. Una and Kai shared a bedroom along a pitching upstairs hallway in the farmhouse. Outside their bedroom door sat Monju Bosatu, guardian of wisdom. There was another gargoyle like that at the zendo’s entrance. The little bedroom had low, slanted ceilings, and the dormer window faced the curve in the road, where cars were forced to slow whether or not they were curious about Buddhists.
There was a cardboard box under a heat lamp in the corner. Una led my sister over and pointed: a guinea chick, a rare duckling, a crane with purplish eyelids, fragile as a bubble of blood.
“Don’t breathe on them,” said Una.
Una leaned over the squiggly babies in their sweet-smelling wood shavings. “He cuts their wings with fingernail scissors.” She reached into the box and put the pad of her longest finger on each bird’s head and in turn each baby bird squeezed down like a little sponge cake and then rose back up again.
Now my sister could smell something fatty, like French fries, beneath the smell of wood shavings. She took a few steps backward. Outside the glowing circle of the heat lamp, the bedroom was freezing. Una pinched the tiny crane out of the box and palmed it underneath the heat lamp. Her breathing was loud and rapid.
Almost immediately there was another smell, faint at first, like burning hair, only my sister knew it was bird skin as delicate as the flying dust on a butterfly. Una swooped the bird around and around the bedroom. It looked as small and pink as a worm in her hand. Finally she landed it on the bed, suddenly less an unmade futon than a stormy Arctic.
The sun was a spike through the dormer window. The crane vibrated with a force that could not possibly have come from its own scrap of a body. Una stood back and pointed triumphantly. “That’s the Life Force.”
My sister ran down the back stairs, past the farmhouse kitchen, past the screened porch which faced the road and where sanghists were gathered in heavy sweaters and blankets, discussing a parable or a precept, hands wrapping stoneware. Already my sister knew it was forbidden to discuss koans.
What was in her pocket? She remembered the chocolate stolen from the Guru’s altar. It was fudgy now, and it would make a brown stain as if she’d had an accident. She ran through the Sanctuary, jumping scabs of ice, slicks of bird poop. Despite the warmth there was still snow on the ground like pumice stone, gray and porous. If she looked up she would get tinsel in her eyes. She started down one of the paths that wound inland from the Concert Barn into the hemlock forest. The Teachings said the whole world was a tapestry woven in thread that could fit through the eye of an atom. And just now, the Guru must have been coming from the zendo, because He was standing directly in her path, the Living God, the Live Wire, the Lamb, the Lion, tearing the lively meat, full of the knowledge of human suffering.
Even His shock of hoary hair was enlightened. His nose was the same purple as the crane’s eyelids. His eyes were gray and light shone through them when He locked your gaze—drew your stuff to the surface, as Ray described it.
She managed to bow before she crumpled. Her knees were wet, and the earth smelled tonic, like sap, and water. She could feel Him watching her. Her back was getting warmer and warmer as if under a heat lamp. She had the sense she would cave inside, dissolve into His presence.