by Laura Lee McArdle
“For as long as space endures
And for as long as living beings remain,
Until then may I too abide
To dispel the misery of the world.”
Santideva, on the meaning of Bodhisattva, 8th Century
A Guide to the Bodhisattva Way of Life, 10:55
Master Shen shifted his weight to his right leg. Through the sole of his shoe and the worn flagstones of Three Fang Mountain’s training ground he felt himself rooted to the Earth. So rooted, he lifted his left foot, twisted at the waist, and opened his arms to form White Crane Spreads Its Wings. His movements were precise, and should have been free of tension, but his concentration faltered.
From his position on the training ground Shen could see the valley below where deadly mine-smog drifted so thick and foul as to be visible. He tried to block out the sight, empty his mind.
I will let go of all desire.
He repeated the mantra to himself as he transitioned from White Crane to Brush Knee Push and drew a deep, wheezing breath through his filtration mask. Chi flowed inward with the breath, crossed his chest meridian and circled Shen’s belly. As he exhaled chi rose up his spine like steam, lifting his inner being, but the currents were diminished, dampened by his emotional turmoil.
I will let go of all desire.
But after last night he was stirred up with guilt, and instead of meditative clarity memories flitted across his consciousness unbidden. He remembered a time when brown swaths of crop failure had not stained the terraced fields below, when the United Nations Atmospheric Blockade did not shimmer beyond the western mountains. In those days a romance would have been a blessing. In those days Yelang was a proud young nation and he had taken no vows.
How many lives, thought Shen, until I can let it all go, even the desire for justice?
In the midst of his practice Shen felt an agitated presence approach through the water-garden behind him. Her worry, desire, and confusion brushed the edges of his psyche, as well as a guilt that mirrored his own. He spoke without turning around: “Don’t be anxious Initiate. I know you would not interrupt my exercises for something unimportant.”
Gao Hlee stood at the edge of the flagstones in the same industrial-grade mask and machinist’s coveralls she had worn when she arrived at Three Fang Mountain six months ago. Today there were only a few loose threads above the pocket where the Tobracor crest had been embroidered. Instead of all her worldly possessions she held the monastery’s last working holophone. A face swam in the air above the pedestal. Shen couldn’t make out the figure, but he was glad he had not addressed Gao Hlee with familiarity.
“He says he’s the president, Master Shen.” Her Miao accent coloured the Mandarin syllables.
President of Yelang? Impossible.
Shen took the holophone from her outstretched arms. She cast her eyes downward as his body moved close to hers. Her conflicted emotions were palpable to Shen and he wished he could tell her that it was all right. He would make it right. Instead he placed the bulky phone terminal on the wall that encircled the garden.
“Thank you Initiate. I noticed a malfunctioning garden drone in the cabbage bed this morning. Please go see to it.”
Gao Hlee bowed deeply and left. Shen knew technical tasks delighted her and he hoped the work would be a welcome distraction.
He turned his attention to the holodisplay, adjusting the picture to the outdoor light. When the image became crisp his eyes widened.
“Greetings, Master Shen,” said the smooth-faced man who wore no mask. “The ascetic life has treated you well. You don’t look a day over sixty.”
He looked exactly as Shen remembered him from childhood visits, complete with the expensive western medi-suit that had been so out of place in mother’s smoky kitchen. Here he was via holo, still speaking out of the side of his mouth: insults within compliments. Independence, military coup, and civil war filled the intervening years, yet it seemed nothing had changed.
“I am uncomfortable being addressed as ‘Master’ by my elder, Uncle,” said Shen. Let’s cut through the political doublespeak. “I see by your face that your true masters are still supplying you with Juventas.”
A shadow of annoyance passed over Uncle’s face, but he mastered it quickly, returning to smooth impassivity.
“If you insist on such propriety, then you will address me as ‘Honoured President’. I did not track you down to discuss etiquette, Nephew. Your government requires your learned presence in the capitol. Consider it an honour that I have contacted you personally.”
“President?” asked Shen. “I voted for the last president more than 50 years ago. I don’t recall anyone voting for you.” And your corporate-backed militia is not a government.
“If that is your concern, then my news should please you. Last night the Minority Warlords agreed to a ceasefire. On the first of the month we meet to negotiate peace. The possibility of an election will be on the table.”
“Why now, Uncle? Are you so sure you will win?”
“Can an old man not have a change of heart?”
Uncle’s face contorted in a caricature of hurt. Or did Juventas users have to work so hard to display their emotions? Shen wished his emotional perception could reach across the holo-link.
“A old man in possession of a heart, perhaps. But a self-styled president in the midst of a war?”
“We may have fought each other for control of the mines for a generation, but now every Warlord in Yelang has a common enemy.”
Shen’s eyes travelled to the U.N. barrier shimmering in the distance. It was not a weapon, or even a military defense. When economic sanctions proved ineffective it was erected to prevent the toxic mine-smog from drifting into Sichuan. Enemy? This was dangerous rhetoric. Shen shivered.
“Surely you do not speak of China.”
“I speak of every nation that has sought to starve and suffocate my people.” His neck veins bulged. “Do you not see their hypocrisy? First they suspend legitimate trade, and now we are sealed in a bubble. They’re smoking us out, quite literally. They natter about human rights while their own citizens inject themselves with Juventas as fast as Tobracorp can produce it.”
Shen could almost believe the tirade was sincere.
“Have you even for a second considered closing the Juventas mines?”
Uncle looked as though he was about to speak, but then pursed his lips, stone faced.
The silence lagged.
With every fibre of his being Shen wished they had given up repairing the battered holophone before Gao Hlee received this call. His own small crisis was burden enough.
“What does this all have to do with me, Uncle?” he finally asked. “If it is a scholar you require surely there are many left in the capitol. Why ‘honour’ this old monk?”
“It is a condition of the Peace Council. The Warlords will not negotiate unless an avowed bodhisattva mediates the talks.”
And you think if that bodhisattva is your nephew you will be at the advantage.
“And if I do not come?” Shen said aloud.
The corners of Uncle’s mouth turned up, the easy smile of a gambler who has fixed the odds of his bet.
“You are bodhisattva. How can you refuse?”
Ahimsa, Master Shen’s dog, trotted ahead of him on the path. Her bushy tail wagged as she investigated tree roots, bracken, clumps of mushrooms. She snuffled each new discovery through her ill-fitting filtration mask before racing back to growl at Shen, chastising him for his slow pace and lack of enthusiasm. She was clearly happy to be outside the monastery walls.
Shen wished he could share her elation, but then the dog did not understand the significance of the abandoned villages they passed. She couldn’t feel the lingering fear, pain, and hunger that echoed from the empty stilt houses perched on the mountainside. These people had left before the surrounding countries had closed their boarders to refugees. A sick sense of dread had settled in Shen’s gut since speaking to Uncle. He was determined to speak for peace at the upcoming council, but the weight of responsibility was overwhelming. If he could not master his own passions in the refuge of Three Fang Mountain Monastery could he trust himself to resist coercion at the negotiations?
Shen shook his head and regarded Ahimsa again, looking for a distraction. She behaved no differently than dogs he remembered before the air was choked with mine-smog, but he wondered how much she could smell through her mask. Perhaps on some level she remembered smell from a past life.
Who were you Ahimsa, before this life? Dutiful earthworm? Courageous sparrow? Was your birth in my woodshed a step forward or back on your path to Nirvana? An odd thought struck him. What strange coincidence it would be if the deposed president were travelling to this peace counsel with me in her canine reincarnation. He chuckled, but at the same time the ominous nature of this journey returned to the forefront of his mind.
“Oh Madam President,” lamented Shen aloud. “You negotiated peaceful secession from China only to be killed by corporate assassins. What hope is there to do right?”
Ahimsa fixed him with her golden-brown gaze, then trotted onward, tail wagging. Whatever cares she had had in her previous life, she had been spared them in this one.
How many lives until I share your freedom?
Down in the foothills the air was warmer. Shen had just stowed his outer cloak when they came across the first smog-dead. They were scattered under the boughs of an ash grove, their open eyes reflecting the thin light that filtered through the leaves above. It was an eerie tableau of village life.
One man sat cross legged on the forest floor, his hands tilted toward his mouth as though sipping tea. A farmer bent at the waist with his hands to the earth. A grandmotherly woman clutched a wooden ladle in one hand and a mobile phone in the other. They could have been perfectly conceived statuary, but the lifelike blush of their cheeks belied that. What grotesque irony, thought Shen, that the off-gasses of the fountain of youth kill with such with perfect preservation.
According to local custom the dead were normally housed in wooden caskets and carried high into the mountains for burial, but victims of accidents were cremated. After the first string of accidents at the Juventas mines sent a wave of concentrated smog across the countryside everything changed; the survivors couldn’t bear to burn the bodies of loved ones who did not turn pale and cold in death. When Shen found Jia something in him broke. He sang her favourite lullabies and tried to spoon fish broth through her stiffened lips until his relatives enlisted the monks to drag him away from her bedside. In the end the people had carried the smog-dead into the mountains, but left the bodies to rest under the trees, coffinless.
Shen never found out where Jia had been taken.
Now he surveyed the death grove. It was an old one and the clothing had begun to rot and fall off many of the dead, but he didn’t recognise any of their faces. One young mother with a infant at her breast sat completely exposed, frozen with her eyes cast down toward her child. A tangle of white flowers bloomed in her matted hair. Shen draped his outer cloak around her narrow frame before continuing down the path.
In the valley the shale path they had been following ended and they continued down a derelict freeway. The road had once been a paved multi-lane corridor, a ribbon of modernity through the impoverished countryside. Now grasses and shrubs grew thick in the gaps of the heaved and washed out asphalt. A wide yellow river snaked beside the roadway, doubtless unchanged by the decades.
By late afternoon the pale green of rice paddies and brilliant yellow of rapeseed blossoms were visible as splashes of colour across the valley floor. The towns were still peopled this far East. It wasn’t just the cultivated fields that told Shen; he could feel the cloud of their emotions, intense and intertwined—communities surviving by sheer force of will.
Shen would have liked to continue toward a settlement, especially since the drop in air pressure told him it would rain before nightfall, but Uncle’s directions were explicit. He was to leave the freeway at the county line, cross the river at a footbridge and wait beside the monorail track on the other side. At dawn a monorail carriage under “presidential” control would arrive to take him the rest of the way to the capitol. He climbed over the concrete median. Ahimsa leapt over with ease.
The foot bridge was not what Shen had expected. It was a wooden bridge set on massive stone pillars, crowned with layered tile roofs that curved up gracefully at the corners. Judging from the many signs in European languages it had been a tourist attraction in the days before the smog-death. Shen had never seen one before, but as soon as he glimpsed the roof line through the trees he knew it was a wind-rain bridge, the architectural legacy of the Dong minority.
Shen didn’t remember much from the blurred months that followed Jia’s death. The survivors in his village had eventually scattered, each carrying their own burden of loss. No relative or friend could afford to take care of a near-catatonic man dying of grief. In the end it was only the monks who remained to do the job of family. One monk in particular, an ethnic Dong who had embraced Buddhism, was infinitely patient as he walked the healing road with Shen, eventually becoming his mentor. As I should have been to Gao Hlee . . . but I was not far enough along the Eightfold Path. Her loss was so much like mine.
Shen pushed the thought away. The wind-rain bridge would make an ideal shelter from the brewing storm. He unslung his pack in one of the bridge’s many kiosks, laid his bedroll on its wooden bench and pulled out a small package of vegetables and bean curd to prepare for dinner. Ahimsa gave the area a thorough sniff and continued over the bridge to explore the far bank. Even her light footfalls echoed under the ancient roof beams.
The footfalls ceased. There was a rustle and then Ahimsa’s yelp of surprise and pain. Shen’s head snapped up.
Ahimsa thrashed at the far end of the bridge. A tiny child clung to the dog’s back, one scrawny arm gripped its neck, the other bashed a rock against its skull.
With a fluid motion, Shen’s hands rose to his heart and circled outward tracing an arc through the air. Iridescent chi surged from his palms and the child was left dangling above the ground while Ahimsa trotted swiftly to his side, injuries healed.
The outpouring of vital energy dropped Shen to his knees. He regained his feet with difficulty and staggered to where the child struggled, suspended in the air.
“If I place you on the ground will you promise not to run until we have spoken?”
The child nodded and he placed the tiny figure down gently, noticing the prominence of delicate ribs beneath his fingers.
It was a girl, perhaps six years old, but rendered in miniature from constant malnutrition. Her face was dirty and tear-streaked, but her eyes were defiant. They shone with the wild intensity of one who stares at death, but will not accept it. All she wore over her mouth and nose was a thin paper dust mask.
“What has happened to you small one?” Surely even a child so young could not survive half a day without a real filtration mask.
She looked at the ground, silent, but then seemed to decide she had nothing to lose.
“Dog . . . wears . . . mask. I . . . wait . . . ,” she pointed toward the rafters, “to . . . take . . . any . . . mask.”
Such desperate determination. She could barely gasp out words. How she had managed to drag herself into the rafters of the bridge Shen could only imagine.
“But what has happened to you?” Shen tried again. “Where is your mask child?”
Tears did escape her eyes then.
“Mother . . . had . . . baby. Last . . . night. Boy.”
She did not try to explain further. Shen felt the shame and pain radiate from her with every rattling exhalation.
In the aftermath of Uncle’s coup and all the decades of civil war that followed the worst of the old ways had resurfaced: men became muscle and women became wombs. This girl’s mask must have been taken for the new baby, for the boy who would take care of his parents in their old age — if they lived that long.
And now she was gasping in front of him, facing him with a terrible choice. He thought of Jia’s still lips that he had had no power to quicken, but also of the politics that had caused that disaster. This girl’s lips and cheeks were flushed poison-pink, a mockery of a healthy glow. Her small hands twitched. If Shen didn’t intervene she was not long for this world. One meager life. Despite Uncle could I save more if I continue to the capitol? He had been tempted to break his vows over desires less noble. His flowering relationship with Gao Hlee was proof of that.
Shen reached behind his ear and undid the clasps that pressed against the skin of his bald head. It felt terrifyingly right; he was no longer fighting. You were right Uncle, though I doubted it myself. I am bodhisattva. His thoughts crystallized into a knife-edged clarity that he had not reached in the deepest of meditations. His heart, which had been weighed down with compassion and conflict, was now light, emptied of all but purpose. He placed his mask on the girl’s face and adjusted the straps to fit.
“This dog is named Ahimsa,” he said. His unencumbered voice was strange to his ears. “Do you know what that means?”
The girl shook her head. Her tears pooled along the mask’s rubber seal and ran down the sides of her face, but her eyes were shining, hopeful.
“It means ‘do no harm’,” said Shen. “Ahimsa knows the way to the monastery where I reside. It will be a long journey to reach it, but follow her there and you will find shelter. Learn to do no harm and you will always be welcomed.”
She threw herself forward and hugged his knees.
“Thank you,” she said pulling away just as quickly. “But can’t you show me the way?”
What could he say? In a way these words would be his only explanation to the brothers and sisters on Three Fang Mountain, to Gao Hlee.
“Ahimsa will take you to safety most quickly. I have my own journey to complete. I must travel a different path.” The Eightfold Path. The monks would understand. He prayed Gao Hlee would.
“Home Ahimsa!” Shen commanded, though the atmosphere was beginning to tear painfully through his chest.
The girl gave him another tearful hug and then scampered after the dog, over the bridge and out of sight through the trees.
Shen turned his gaze upward. Dark clouds were forming, but Shen was no longer concerned with shelter. Without bothering to gather his pack or bedroll he set out for the monorail track. He was old and weakened; there was no time to spare.
Beside the track Shen collected stones. He moved slowly, labouring for breath. With every gasp the mine-smog invaded his circulation and his body stiffened, but even this he could now accept.
As the sun dipped below the mountains Shen finished and crawled away from the tracks. He settled his back against the rough bark of a beech tree and surveyed his handiwork, an epitaph spelled out on the embankment.
The stone characters cast long shadows in the twilight: “How Many Lives?”
He imagined the rain soaked granite would gleam in the dawn-light when the President’s monorail arrived in the morning.
When the first raindrops hit Shen’s face he did not move to wipe them away.
Laura Lee McArdle lives in Winnipeg, Manitoba where she produces large babies and small stories. Her fiction has appeared in AE-The Canadian Science Fiction Review, and Daily Science Fiction, and is forthcoming on Escape Pod.