[The Island of the Centipede – Chapter Three]
The ship is made of wood and stone.
Its name, blazed on the side, is Honest with Myself. Its prow is a granite Buddha. His posture offers compassion and benevolence to every living thing. The ship’s flag is the Jolly Roger. Its skull and crossbones promise death and mayhem. One could argue, though not every pirate would do so, that its presence dilutes the Buddha’s message.
Perhaps, a previous victim had thought, such dilution is a hazard of honesty.
Then the cannon of the ship had torn her from material existence and blasted her straight into Nirvana.
Around the ship, some years after that incident, fog billows. The fog is white and energetic. It’s curling in on itself like an orgy of snakes and dragons.
The dread pirate Tara stands on the deck. Sid stands beside her. All around them gaps in the fog arise, contort, and disappear.
In one such gap Sid sees himself.
He is, he thinks, reflected on the fog.
He’s standing there, a drawn-looking man with a bit of a slacker’s slouch, in a nice kind of suit. He’s got his hands in his pockets and there’s a wheel of knives at his side. A feather hangs limply from his hair.
He’s still bleeding. He reminds himself that he’ll have to deal with that.
His reflection sticks out his tongue at him.
“Don’t make trouble,” he says.
Tara shoots him a sharp pirate’s glance, full of mirth and dark knowledge and a willingness to assault random strangers at sea.
Sid’s reflection shoots him with an arrow.
“Gluh!” says Sid. He falls backwards.
“Anatman, dukkha,” chant the monks.
“Are you okay?”
Tara is there in front of his face. She’s leaning over him. She’s remarkably concerned given that she intends to kill him anyway.
“Hey. You. Guy.”
She doesn’t actually know Sid’s name.
“You okay? You’ve got an arrow in your head.”
“It’s okay,” Sid says.
“Luckily I was carrying a skull.”
“How ironic!” Tara says, because normally a skull is a symbol of death, yet in this case it has blocked much of the force and length of the arrow and helped protect Sid’s brain.
Sid takes a moment to remember how to make the dizziness go away.
Then he says, “It was my reflection.”
“No,” Tara says.
“No?” Sid asks.
And Tara stands up. She shouts, “Hard to port! And put on speed!”
As the monks begin the work of moving the great Buddha-prowed ship, she asides to Sid, “Reflections don’t shoot people. People do.”
Crack the earth.
Stir the sea.
From the west there comes an outpouring of good to make all things right.
Max sets out in his coracle to bring this virtue to an end.
He’s owned his crime but he can’t make it right.
His crime is a poison.
It is the Latter Days of the Law.
The Buddha’s answer is fading.
It cannot stop the suffering of the world.
The Island of the Centipede
“Anicca, dukkha,” chant the monks. “Anicca, dukkha.”
The chant has changed to incorporate a reference to the transience of all things, presumably because ships sail faster when reminded of transience.
Three acolytes with shaven heads and pirate eyepatches climb out onto the Buddha statue.
They manipulate a series of cunning levers and catches.
The Buddha’s stone arm swings.
Where the stone Buddha had been in the hand-extended mudra that offered compassion and benevolence to all living things, now it swings its arm left in the mudra that opens the minds of all sentient beings to new awarenesses. Such blessings! Surely it has become an iconic granite representation of your becoming more aware and opening your mind to the beauty and reality of the universe.
The balance changes.
Looking perfectly impassive, like a tipped yet meditative cow or Buddha, the statue falls over leftwards. Some might imagine a transient moment of panic in its eyes, a moment of reflection wherein the statue asks itself:
Do I stop meditating or do I stop my fall?
This represents a subtle error in the sculptor’s design.
Then the hand comes down to brace against the sea. It does not break the surface tension of the ocean. Creaking and leaning, the ship turns to port.
It rights itself.
There is noise. Tara is asking Sid about the arrow.
“Should I pull it out or are you too attached to it?”
Sid shakes his head in irritation, causing a wave of dizziness, and then he isolates the injured section of him and makes it no longer important to his functions. With a growl he pulls out the arrow and throws it to the deck.
“Why did it look like me?”
“They’re skandhas,” Tara says.
She gets to her feet. She stares out at the fog.
“One of them hung back to try to delay us.”
There is something hanging in the air in front of her. It does not move but because the ship is sailing swiftly it seems to loom upon her. It is a net, hung still and steady between four tufts of fog. It catches her, clotheslining her entire body and dragging her back along the deck.
“Anicca!” shout the monks, whirling their prayer beads. “Anicca, Tara! Anicca, Tara!”
All things are transient. One moment a person is caught in a net. Another they are on the deck. Who can say what causes one condition to arise or another to fall? In this case it is a young midshipmonk diving forward to chop open the fog and unravel the net. Tara lands with the lotus of her hand touching the deck and the net blows away from her and dissipates into its component strands.
Sid looks at her.
“Skandhas?” he asks.
Tara stares at him.
Then she blinks and shakes her head. “Sorry! Terminology!”
She’s blushing brightly.
“I forget that not everyone’s a bodhisattva yet. Skandhas are . . .”
She spreads her hands, looking for the right word. At that moment the lotus in her palm points directly at Shirley Havanaugh, a CPA in Detroit, who recognizes suddenly that many of her problems are self-inflicted and experiences a bubbling transcendent and transformative joy.
“Heaps,” Tara says. “Piles of stuff. Like bodies, which people often think are the same as themselves but are actually just stuff stuck together out of mud and feathers or whatever. Or perceptions. Thoughts. Sensations. Bandits. Mirrors. Certain flavors of M&Ms. Skandhas. Things that can look like yourself, to you, but aren’t.”
“Ah,” Sid says.
“That was one of their nets,” Tara says.
And suddenly the fog is clear enough that they may see the great island where the bandits dwell and whence they make their raids, and the great peak that hangs over it all and the shriveled head that hangs from that peak, ludicrously clear despite the distance and the scale, every crease in its leathery flesh visible from afar though the mountain is just a blur. And in that moment, from behind and around the ship there rises the great iron net that guards the harbor and from a blocky stone fortification on the beach there fires a great black ship-destroying spear. Suddenly Sid has a moment of clarity.
“I’ve been fighting so hard not to be honest with myself,” he says.
The spear crashes into the wooden deck.
“And now I’m bombarding that honesty with giant spears!”
“Actually,” Tara says, contemplative and uncertain, “I think that’s the skandhas.”
In the name of the infinite blessings that we all deserve, and in profound thanks that one particular head is still attached and one particular skull did a perfect job of protecting its brain, and in dedication to the wish that nothing in this world shall ever diminish or constrain the brightness or the beauty of those you or I or anyone know and love, but only make them grow.