Illustration: Ansellia Kulikku. Source: Livre de Pourtraiture by Jehan Cousin the Younger.

Daniel walked along the bay, slipping on pillows of seaweed. It was his twelfth birthday. The water looked dented in places around rocks, and out in the middle it was as hard as pottery. A mile up there was a turnout above a cove where worldly neighbors parked to watch the sunset. Old lilacs ringed it. When he got there, he made himself climb the punky cliff to the overlook. His sweater snapped a branch of lilac. His heart laddered up, but there were no worldly cars parked or idling.

Worldly neighbors hated starving Buddhists. Shy-of-life Buddhists. In the bay air it wouldn’t even take a season for rust to edge the new crater of the mailbox after worldly neighbors smashed it. Still, Children’s Practice was overcoming fear, Daniel’s fear of worldly neighbors. He wanted his birthday to mean something. There was a weak place inside him like another belly.

It had been formalized that to counteract fear he should begin chanting.

 

I was a hidden treasure

(I was a hidden treasure)

I loved to be known, so

(I loved to be known, so)

I created the world

(I created the world)

 

When he closed his eyes, he could see devotees in a ring, faces boneless with happiness, lips like fat gills all opening and closing together. Genitals on the gravely sand. Suddenly the lotus was sickening.

A truck scooped into the gravel behind him. The radio trailed the engine. The truck doors clapped shut—when the Beautiful Wives clapped, their elbows made devotional curves like jug handles. He understood that his fear had materialized worldly neighbors. That fear was perverse did not surprise him. Fear is the excessive reality of worldly life, said the Guru. Fear is the false hope of death, people!

He quit chanting. That fear was worse when you succumbed to it did not surprise him.

He watched worldly neighbors stroll to the edge of the turnout. A few rocks were nudged loose, and they took lumps of sea cliff with them. He held his breath and made his squint a skipping stone across the surface of the water.

Children were charged with overcoming fear, children were told this constantly. As if fear were the definition of childhood.

He felt his fear could walk on water. It could turn one thing into another. It started at the base of his spine and it gripped the back of his neck and shoulders, spasming like kundalini. He closed his eyes and tried to imagine himself lighter and lighter, lighter than fear itself, which could walk on water.

Still, his stomach felt translucent, as if he could see the blurry bags and tubes, and his palms smelled sour. They had been with the Guru for almost a year now. His mother would soon be enlightened. Enlightenment was the superb state of nothing, said the Guru. No junk of emotion, no attachment. No mother.

He was afraid of enlightenment in the same way he was afraid of death.

Why was he afraid of death?

That was from a Children’s Talk on cassette tape.

Maybe he wasn’t. Maybe, like the Guru said, fear was all gas and ghost.

But if you were so light, fearless, invisible, how would the Guru know you?

*

Dovorh, Fifth Beautiful Wife of the Guru, ushered him hastily toward the farmhouse. Sita, the Second, waited on the doorstep, the diaphanous screened porch behind her. They had already started arranging flowers. He followed the wives inside and then ducked back out and hid his shoes behind a bush. They were five times their normal weight, sneaker sponges. The stench of the bay was in his hair too, and in his snaggy sweater. It did not surprise him that fear had a smell. His heart was in his temples. His socks stunk so he balled them damp in his waistband.

The Sanctuary held an account with the wholesale florist; it was important to have a lot of beauty around the Guru. Rich food and flowers led to ego-tripping, but He simply wasn’t a renunciate in this incarnation. Weekly a devotee filled the Sanctuary station wagon with flowers. Like a hearse. The Guru really hooted at that one. His favorite flower was calla lily:

 

the crimson rod

still fleeced with pollen.

*

Sita glanced down at Daniel’s bare feet but said nothing. There was a pyre of week-old flowers. It was really joyful Service. The petals should be separated from the stalks; later Sita would burn them to make an ash so fine it felt like silk between your fingers. The Guru would press His Own finger the size of a small penis into the coffer of ash to smudge the site where a third eye might open in the middle of a devotee’s forehead.

Daniel would not mention his birthday. Being born was an act of narcissism, said the Guru, and people laughed, but it seemed serious to Daniel. In its very structure the universe is narcissistic, said Ray, his dad, wonderingly, in the words of the Guru. I’m going to have to meditate on that, said Ray, shaking his head. After a lot of unsatisfactory sitting Daniel could finally follow his breath, but he’d had little success cracking koans.

Sita reached over and plucked a dried leaf out of his pile. Dovorh dropped the shears by accident at her station and Sita cringed. Sita was such a hardline. The Guru had said it. Her bones were eardrums. She never looked at anyone but Him if she could help it.

Daniel had overheard Ray speculate on which wife the Guru favored. The Third, Zoya, was doing the yogurt. It was incubated on rough shelves against the south windows. Zoya’s girls, China and Meenakshi, ran in and out; Meenakshi was trying to keep a cat in her arms. The cat yowled and Sita cried, Zoya! You are so unconscious of your unexamined instincts, your whole strenuous motherly!

Zoya drained back.

Sita: That kind of love is all polarities. Fluctuation and disappointment.

Dovorh bowed over the irises she was trimming. Sita clapped her hands and they straightened their stations.

*

Daniel fell in close as they processed across the farmyard to the Concert Barn, its back to Kishkindha Forest.

There were so many pairs of shoes in the entry that the smell of dirt and skin was stronger than incense. There were sweaters slung on hooks—when Daniel brushed them, the release of garlic and Nag Champa.

His mother did not acknowledge him as she passed; the Guru had said there was formality and musculature missing in all parent-child. Although some of the wives helped younger children through the clogged entry. Daniel dwindled into a corner.

He found his place on the men’s side and the Guru’s lieutenant sat down beside him. The courier stood watch against the wall, fastidious and freckled.

Sita stood before them, her hands centered like a child in a nightgown holding a candle. When you are available to the Guru, His work can begin! He longs to reveal the consecrated pairing of Confidante and child but you are all so unavailable!

She looked around. She was there to explain it. The Confidante should attend the bodily pleasure of the child in much the same way as a traditional Jesus godparent—swimming, eating, yoga—and to spiritual games, like the fear contest, and overall mentorship. A spiritual alloy of confession will undermine the worldly and atavistic tendencies of parent-child.

Daniel had constricted. He tried to find happiness again without solving the problem of his need for his parents.

Sita called out, You’re all so bound up in expectations, yeah people? Her black hair looked like it had been burned black, coal and glossy. Out of the crowd of disciples Dovorh, the Fifth, her balletic aspect, her guileless composure hiding an uncomposed heart, floated forward.

Sita called, The Fifth Beautiful Wife and Daniel!

Dovorh turned to find him with an oval of a smile.

It is the holy hour of chat! cried Sita. It is what He has called it!

The hour of love talk, ghostly Confidantes shifting under white burka hoods and long white tunics.

Daniel watched helplessly as people parted for the Fifth Beautiful. His mother said Dovorh was extraordinarily beautiful, but the Guru had said that worldly life was compensating for imperfections. Just having a self was bragging.

Now Dovorh laid her hand on his arm to steer him. The Guru had licked His finger before He touched the whispery body of ashes, smudged her forehead. Dovorh’s hand on his arm, emotional contagion. All new phrases were vetted. The Fifth touched her own ash bindi in order to print Daniel’s third eye and he could smell her hand beneath the ash and oil. Communion hour in the Concert Barn, ruddy light through the stained windows.

The Fifth Beautiful stood facing him like a bride, and it was his birthday.

*

Sita paused for breath. There was the bell.

He is coming now, she said. Please people.

He had perfected the act of appearing before them, He was allperfected, He Himself had said it.

He opened His eyes and all eyes were on Him.

He opened His mouth and all mouths were on Him.

He put His hands together. Devotees did.

He was incarnated to shine for them, how could they ever forget it? He laughed His wonderful, wonderful laugh for them. He was always making fun of them. Daniel’s ear was the loudspeaker, sparking with sound, resonating with the million particles of His love-laughter.

Then suddenly the lieutenant was leaning in from behind him and whispering like static. Daniel was so surprised he couldn’t make out any meaning.

Why are you always talking about Me behind My back, Lieutenant? called the Guru.

Daniel froze, but the lieutenant bowed his head and smiled. It was ritualized. There is nothing else to talk about, Master.

Now the Guru gazed unyieldingly, allknowingly, effortlessly encompassing the particle of a particle that was Daniel. The Guru made him smaller and smaller. All the fluids of his body and spirit channels, he felt all separate desire becoming one desire to be one with the Guru.

Daniel! He cried. Tell Me how My students came to love Me so desperately!

Once more He burst into laughter.

It was true, accounts came back from devotees who had been to town with Him, devotees who had seen with their own eyes how worldly people coming into accidental contact with Him found their hearts spilled out through their bowels. His force was such that worldly folks who didn’t believe in Him puddled at His feet in the shampoo aisle.

Listen, Daniel!

Everyone is inside you!

You have to stop resisting one another!

You are all God!

You are all Me!

Do you see Me resisting Myself? Wonderfully He kept laughing, feeling up His bare stomach, one hand noodling down His drawstring.

They were all connected. They were all made of the same plastic. Same petroleum karma.

You are not with Me to learn happiness, but to forget unhappiness ever existed! You are not with Me to learn fearlessness, but to forget that fear ever existed! You are not with Me to forget, there is nothing to get, I speak a spiritual language!

I’m here to monkey with your fear! He cried, pointing straight at Daniel.

*

Outside, the sky was swirled with sunset. Red clouds curdled and then fell apart in darkness.

The lieutenant must not have been far behind them. He came straight into their kitchen without knocking. Daniel watched him slip out of his zoris as if he were Kyoto-trained, and the Guru had said that these were the days of sockfeet as soft as dogs’ testicles.

Bow to the lieutenant. They had been bowing anyway over fruitfuls of dinner.

Gratitude for this visit, said Daniel’s mother.

The teachings were the Teachings of no convention, no curtsy or handshake, but Daniel wondered if the opposite of a convention was also a convention. If you weren’t supposed to knock, wasn’t that the same as supposed to?

Ray sniffed. You’re an old rule-mule, Daniel.

I’d like to sit with Daniel, said the lieutenant. News for Daniel.

Extraordinary gratitude, said his mother.

In the meditation room heavy drapes tamped down not only light but all the senses. The tar-colored floor took footprints. The altar was laid with censors, salt, oil, dates, an Indian brass bell, and the murti.

Some people said that meditation was a dark cocoon inside of which you were pelvic floor and sits bones and knee knuckles. Some people got worked up about it. Some had problems with twitchy legs, others made lists of chores. Others experienced emotions rising like therapy. Still others went to sleep: once when a lady hit the deck Daniel saw the jikki jitsu, meditation leader, bundle her out of the zendo.

When Daniel sat now he imagined his head as big as a hot air balloon. His little body was the dangling basket. The walls of the world were cloth and orange light shone through them.

But it was difficult to relax with the lieutenant. Daniel tried holding his breath for as long as he could—then breathing seemed miraculous. He attempted to move his littlest toe independent of the others. The littlest toe was not independent. The littlest toe had nothing and everything to do with enlightenment.

Finally, he felt the lieutenant’s hand on his shoulder and his eyes popped open in votive darkness. The lieutenant leaned forward and dipped a finger in the blue bowl of water at the altar. Daniel closed his eyes to receive anointment.

Then the lieutenant rang the brass bell and, in that moment, Daniel knew without a doubt that he had been chosen. That he was known, now, finally, and that he was as guilty of self as anyone.

Praise, said the lieutenant. Daniel felt the lieutenant’s other hand on his low back, pushing firmly. Head to heartwood. A full prostration.

When he came back up the lieutenant had drawn one knee up to his chest in the favorite asana of the Guru. The lieutenant had big showy eyes that glistened with devotion. Now Daniel saw them as moons during an eclipse, shadowed by the earth’s bulk, eternally confused by the earth’s oceans.

It has come through me that He has changed your name, said the lieutenant. You know He does this from time to time with great insight.

The oceans tumbled.

Where you were Daniel before you will now be known as Jubal.

The lieutenant reached across and touched his shoulder again, smiling. He does this with much love, Jubal.

He does this knowing you may ask yourself, Who is Jubal? It’s a funny question.

They sat in silence.

Who are you?

The lieutenant laughed freely as he rose and guided Jubal back to the kitchen.

*

What does Jubal mean? said his mother. She came into focus. She couldn’t help but smile. Ray lifted up a horn and saluted the lieutenant. His mother’s smile was as long as a river. She joined with the sea. She pulled them under.

What does Jubal mean, repeated the lieutenant drily.

Ray stood with his trumpet in the air, ridiculous, waiting. Jubilation?

The lieutenant coughed. Ray lowered the imaginary instrument. The lieutenant said, How can we know the meaning of anyone? More love for your son, Ray. Less psycho-social bondage.

Ray bowed an apology.

Your son is in the midst of a birthday. You should know that.

Daniel’s heart swelled. A double birthday?

The Guru talked about witnessing His Own birth—He had. He had seen His mother’s terrible face and the false God of the doctor. He had laughed at His own red body. He had laughed at the beginning of the end. Now Daniel opened his throat to laughter. He stretched his top bones away from his bottom.

Daniel was the name his parents gave him when he was almost nothing more than a raisin, soaked in blood, when he was a star dented with ribs and kneecaps, serene and cold and unyielding to the breast, (and so he was bottle-fed), when he was completely innocent of all belief, an alien. Here was a Being (for He was only incidentally “Guru”) who could wring out the old names and hear the ring of the new. Here was a Being who could take you back to the moment of your birth; and take you.

Daniel. Died at the whim of the Guru and reborn: Jubal.

Kirstin Allio

Kirstin Allio is the author of a short story collection, Clothed, Female Figure (Dzanc), and a novel, Garner (Coffee House), a finalist for the LA Times Book Prize for First Fiction. Her new novel, Buddhism for Western Children, is coming out from University of Iowa Press in fall 2018. Honors include the National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35 Award, a PEN/O. Henry Prize, and fellowships from Brown University’s Howard Foundation and the MacDowell Colony. Her fiction, essays, and poems appear most recently in AGNI, The Common, Prairie Schooner, Seneca Review, The Southern Review, Tin House Online, and WebConjunctions. She lives in Providence, RI.

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