(April 15, 419 B.C.) Monks refrain from looking at their reflection in water and mirrors, but Sati has seen his. He is looking at it now.
As a young teen, when he leaned over the side of the fishing skiff to haul in a catch, his image danced before him on the water. It was just a face, nothing much to think about, until a fishergirl told him he was handsome. Then, a stirring changed him forever.
Orphaned at sixteen, he joined the Buddha’s monastic order in Kosambi and dedicated himself to the bhramacaryia, the chaste and holy life. He reaffirmed that commitment when, as a new monk, he renounced his attraction to the beautiful servant on Commerce Street, but his resolve didn’t hold. Three years later, far to the east, in another part of the Ganges plain where he was traveling, as was customary among the Buddha’s monks, enthrallment with another beautiful woman overpowered him. He left monastic life, married her and became a farmer. Daily he filled wooden buckets with water from the Sona River and carried them to the rice fields. Sometimes, before hoisting the pole to his shoulders, he paused to peer into the buckets. Was his face as beautiful to his wife as hers to him? In time, however, he realized that, though beautiful and lusty, Siha was a stranger to the spiritual longings that moved him deeply. Envisioning a life of endless bucket-carrying, he left her and the village where he had never been welcomed and took monastic robes again.
Now, twenty-three years later, Sati is still a Buddhist monk, and, until this moment, he hasn’t looked on his face since he re-ordained. Standing in front of him is a woman whom a fellow monk has escorted to his hut. It is afternoon, a time when merciless heat hammers all into inertia. Leaves languish, flowers droop, birds perch. Yet, here in Ghosita’s Park, there is drama.
Relaxing on the portico of his small hut where he had hoped to catch an errant breeze, Sati saw the monk and woman making their way down the dusty path. She walked with the upright grace of one accustomed to balancing a water jar.
A peasant, he thought. She’s alone. Extraordinary—no male companion. As they neared, he stood and descended the single step to greet them.
The monk, who was sweating profusely and wished only to be back in his hut napping, dropped his gaze and joined palms at his forehead in the gesture of respect known as anjali. “This woman is here to see you, Venerable,” he said, with a nod in her direction.
Both observed her as she likewise joined palms and lowered her gaze. Then she looked up and stared boldly into Sati’s face.
The traveler in the ox-cart! No dirt. She’s washed and changed clothes.
The monk turns away, relieved to let the venerable deal with this staring peasant who is so deplorably lacking in womanly deportment. He throws a disapproving glance over his shoulder as he departs.
Who is she? Sati wonders, unwilling to admit that he knows.
“I’m Kasi,” she said in a voice low-pitched for a woman. Her accent is rural and familiar. The same broad face, the regular features but with a feminine cast. A fair complexion and a cowlick at the top of her forehead, where, if his own head weren’t shaven, a cowlick would also swirl.
The walls of the moment shatter and fly off in a million pieces. For an instant he is paralyzed. Then, without thought, he leans forward and opens his arms to pull her close. She starts to respond, but before she can move, monastic restraint, the inner inviolable command, reasserts itself. His arms lower, and he straightens. Tears pool in his eyes, though he is barely aware of them.
Kasi recoils. Rejected! She has been rejected again. She knows monastic rules forbid physical contact and sees his tears, but the sudden shift unleashes a fury that has boiled for a lifetime. There’s no modesty now, no downcast eyes. Her eyes bore into his and she hisses, “Why? Why did you leave?”
Her rage is directed as much toward herself as at him. Such a stupid weakling! she berates herself. I almost did it. I almost let him hug me. She has betrayed her resolve to never again to respond to a man, not even her father. Especially not her father. But, oh, how she longs to cry on his chest and be welcomed home!
What can I say? he thinks. That I didn’t know Siha was pregnant? That marriage wasn’t enough? I couldn’t bear to live without finding answers and I’m not to blame—seekers all over the Middle Land are doing it, renouncing home life and going forth in search of meaning?
“I’ll get another mat. We’ll sit. ” Extending his arm, he invites her onto the portico, then steps into the sweltering hut, which monastic rules forbid her from entering: A bhikkhu mustn’t be alone in a room with a woman. Strictly, he shouldn’t even be sitting alone with her on the portico, but he needs to stretch that rule. He’ll confess the offense later.
They sit opposite each other—he, cross-legged; she, with legs tucked to the side. He starts neutrally. “How did you know I was here?”
“A bhikkhu passed through Nabina a couple of years ago. He told us. We checked with others along the way. They say you’re abbot.”
We? The man with her in the cart. Her husband. A deep breath. “How’s your mother?” he asks. He dreads the answer.
“Dead. She died last year.”
“Tell me,” his husky voice, barely a whisper.
“The sickness. You didn’t hear?”
Of course. Monks traveling from Magadha told stories of pestilence. Entire villages were ravaged. Vomiting and diarrhea. People died by the scores, their skins bluish. Speculation abounded: The source was evil spirits or bad drinking water or pig meat that had spoiled or a neighbor’s curse. Village shamans were busy, but no one really knew.
“Mama’s life was hard,” she volunteers. “When I was little, we lived at home.”
Sati pictures the simple wattle-and-daub bungalow that for a few years had been his home as well.
“She wanted to stay there. It was all we had. She worked hard. In the fields, taking care of me, winding hemp, helping other women when she could. We all helped each other. We managed.” Then she adds maliciously, “Godha came around a lot in those years.”
Godha. Siha’s former suitor, a tall, kind young man. Sati winces and is appalled at his reaction. Still jealous. After all these years and I’m still jealous!
Kasi catches the movement and smiles wryly. “I liked him. Very much. Godha was a good man.”
On the long journey to this monastery, she carefully rehearsed the hurtful things she would say to her father. She wants him to suffer. She wants to drag his oh-so-pure monkly mind down into the dirt. His dirt. He let it happen. Whatever he suffers now won’t be a hair’s breadth of her and her mother’s pain.
“He came in evenings after work. Sometimes, before it got dark, we sat under the chapaka tree. The one next to the house.”
Sati almost smells the fragrance of the large white blossoms.
“And he told stories. Funny stories—about monkeys and other animals. Mama and I laughed a lot. Then, they went inside.” Again, the right side of her mouth curls in a smirk.
“And you? What did you do?” he asks, not wanting to think about what happened when they went inside.
“Oh, I stayed with the family next door. Remember? Sujata was a few years older than me. We was friends. I stayed all night. He was gone when I came back in the morning. Except once.” She adds a well-rehearsed fiction. She knows just where to strike. “Once, I went home early, and he was still there. They was together on the mat. The one in the corner.” She watches and sees she has hit her mark. “Oh yes, they was together…” She pauses as if remembering. Give him time.
“After a while,” she continues, “they saw me and laughed. Mama was so happy those mornings. She put buttermilk into the breakfast congee.”
“But Godha was married,” she sighs. “By the time I was six or seven, we didn’t see him much.” A pause, and her tone hardens. “Then there was Usabha. You remember him.”
He does. Older, short with stoutness running to flab, he was headman and the richest man in the village. Always arguing and ordering people around.
“He visited. He made Mama—he made all of us—move to his house. Bastard! He was married, of course. His wife, she was a mean bitch!” Ducking her head, she anjalis as if in apology for her crude language, but she is waiting. Go ahead, she thinks, go ahead, say something!
When she continues, bitterness, not apology, edges her words. She shakes her head from side to side and raises her shoulders, palms up. “What choice was there? We went.”
He asks quietly, “You have brothers and sisters?”
He’s not interested in my brothers and sisters. He wants to know who Mama slept with. She nods and smirks again.
He is irritated. He doesn’t like the route his thoughts are taking and, even less, the fact that she’s obviously following it. As if I’d spoken out loud, he thinks.