Somewhere in the distance, the faint tinkling of a bell…
In the serenity where he now found himself, Yamata still retained the vista of his previous life.
Sitting meditatively, he could recall every moment of that existence with uncommon clarity. However, he did not recognize from those memories the child standing before him, a girl of obvious Japanese descent, about eight years old, wearing a simple knee-length white dress that seemed remarkably clean and bright, given that her bare legs and feet were black with dirt. A rice hat made of bamboo sat confidently atop her head and hooked in the bend of an arm was an ikebana basket of similar weave. But there were no flowers.
Except for not having a mouth, she appeared normal in every other way.
But then, Yamata had to look no farther than his own desiccated body to know that, ‘here’, ‘normal’ was not to be the dominant theme. Obviously, the afterlife was amenable to showcasing his wasted form, one achieved in the previous one through self-mummification. But that such a gaunt and withered state had escorted him so authentically into the next realm was rousing some concern, as he could only slightly turn his head, and to a greater degree his right arm.
Am I to remain forever a rigid corpse? he wondered.
As it had for the better part of his life, a yellow robe draped his body, though with much less resolve given his strangled girth.
Interestingly, he was able to speak, and had done so upon his relocation; a kindly greeting to the girl. She’d responded only with an unenthusiastic wave of her hand, her brown eyes staring on, mildly curious.
Beyond the girl was a vastness that Yamata was still trying to grasp. And, like the girl, there was nothing he could recall from his previous life to make its comparison; a life spent mostly in the Tōhoku region of Japan’s Honshu Island, in search of purification. To all points on the horizon, barren furrows radiated outward from where he sat, a lotus posture that was the very hub for those tilled spokes. He was reminded of a naval flag, one belonging to a country that only had his compulsory allegiance: The land of the Rising Sun, its red ensign’s beams flaring outward in strong allegory. And similar intentions were at work here, he suspected, as neither from the east nor west did this sun rise, but instead beat down relentlessly from a perpetual noon.
Although his time here was (in the vaguest sense) relatively new, the tropes for enlightenment were ageless.
The atmosphere was leaden with quietude, as if becalmed eons ago by some great inhalation and had since petrified while waiting for the ensuing release. Once here, Yamata had intuited an acceleration of awareness. Not the passing of time (although there were sequential aspects to the construct), but rather a kind of hastened shedding; a sloughing of absolutes, and things now obsolete, receding away like dreams do upon wakening. And very much like dreams, those references slipped no further than the periphery of his erstwhile life; lingering there, close by and ready should they be called upon to offer up sobering testimonials. Witnesses to a world that was more devoted to the conservation of falsehoods than to their dismantling. That Hell was eternal was just one of those; that death was the end of learning and bettering oneself, another. No fires burned hotter than those of the physical world, the fires of greed, lust, anger, hatred, sickness… Heaven, he believed, was anywhere such conflagrations had been doused.
Not so unlike his previous journey, the one he would begin from here would be chaperoned by contemplation. He would be careful of being too prideful, and to always remember that it was never about what life had denied him, but rather what he had denied life.
Yamata considered again his permanent seat, his cadaverousness, the hushed girl, the vast field stretching in all directions…
A field unproductive yet, aside from the growing anticipation.
And that fixed ceiling of sunshine. On a profound level, Yamata accepted the unfailing brightness as obligatory to the venue, for the most crucial lessons were often the most evasive, and to achieve their understanding required keeping any and all shadows squarely underfoot.
That, or the enduring sunshine was simply here to nourish what was clearly an imminent crop of inestimable scope, and aspirations.
In what was without doubt a land of extended metaphor, he considered a myriad interpretation, from the obvious to the abstruse.
Upon those very thoughts, the little girl stepped closer and tipped her basket to allow him to see its contents. Only a few remained of what appeared to be some kind of seed. With much effort he tilted his head and, beyond her, looked again upon the rows, this time focusing on proximity rather than distance. He saw her footprints, deep and purposeful, marching along the soft trenches. Even closer, he saw the tiny indentations where her finger had pushed seeds into the soil. And he could now see that her impressions weren’t just localized but disappeared into the staggering distance; toward a horizon not teetering upon the curvature of a round world but poised securely upon the blaring infiniteness of a flat one.
A determined girl! Yamata stared at her again and thought she might even be unusually pretty. But the unnatural smoothness below her nose was influencing that illusion. When having first seen the mouthless girl, Yamata thought of her as stage dressing to his soliloquy, a caricature of quiet innocence. A projection, perhaps, of his immaturity in this new place. He now suspected her reason for being here was as much practical as it was chaste metaphor. She was to be, among other things, the assistant to his immobility.
A less liberated person might have called it servitude, but Yamata saw the potential for a collaboration, though he was yet unclear as to what his reciprocal role might be. And that she could read his thoughts wasn’t entirely accurate, as he believed her to be, to some degree, the very extension of them; of his mind. His duality.
Regardless, there was no question that those omitted lips accentuated expression in her eyes. She was smiling in her agrarian achievement.
He smiled back, then impulsively wondered: Does her white dress suggest virtue? Purity? Or, is it to represent the absence of beguiling color? After all, beyond the gold tint of his robe there was only a monotonous blend of bucolic hues.
Abruptly, the girl gave a sighing motion with her shoulders, slowly shook her head, then began walking a tight circle, eyes down and focused on her dirty feet.
Watching the demonstration, Yamata was str uck with the notion that she was communicating her annoyance with him.
Have I become tedious with my musings? he wondered. That it is not truth I am chasing but my own tail instead?
If she agreed with these thoughts, she gave no sign.
Finally, he said to her, “Giving into the assumption that you have no name, even if you could speak it, I shall call you Uekiya.”
Upon hearing the word, the girl looked up and nodded to the unfailing field, accepting her new title: Gardner. Then she lowered her eyes once more and resumed etching a tight circle into the loamy soil.
Again, considering the girl’s inability at speech, Yamata recalled a quote from Lao Tzu, the founder of Taoism, and wondered if she was the exemplar for such wisdom: “He who knows, does not speak. He who speaks, does not know.”
Then, to confirm that she either was or was not, in fact, substantial, Yamata reached out his workable hand for her. Stiffly, she stopped going around and round and regarded the gesture with narrow eyes, then slowly shook her head, as if to say that was not appropriate.
Why? he wondered. Am I being reminded that something’s authenticity doesn’t necessarily lie in its solidness? Or, was there still lingering within him a tactile need? One not quite disassociated yet from his former self?
Then there was sudden growth in the field. Already the girl was bent over and studying the nearest sprout, a thing that vaguely resembled an asparagus spear, no larger than his littlest finger and appearing just as corpselike. A reaffirming sign that this was going to be a harvest most different from any other.
Still bent over, hands on her knees, Uekiya turned her attention to him. Where triumph could not insinuate itself in a smile, so it sparkled doubly in her eyes.
From behind him came once again the tinkling of a bell. A declarative echo, perhaps, of his resolve to achieve Sokushinbutsu, the practice to reach ultimate austerity and enlightenment through a most ambitious art of physical punishment: self-mummification. For a Shingon Buddhist, it was an enduring commitment. For many years the devoted monk would practice nyūjō, adhering to elaborate regimes of meditations, physical activities that stripped the body of fat, and an exclusive diet of salt, pine bark, nuts, seeds, roots, and urushi tea. This tea was especially significant. It was derived from the sap of the urushi tree and highly toxic and was normally used for the lacquering of pottery. When ingested, vomiting and dehydration followed. Most importantly, it ultimately made the body too poisonous to be eaten by carrion insects and their ilk. If the body absorbed high enough levels, some believed it could even discourage like-minded bacteria.
Finally, when sensing his end drawing near, the monk would have himself locked inside a pinewood box, one barely large enough to accommodate his body, wherein a permanent lotus position was assumed. Some monks would insist on having coal, salt, or even lime heaped around them to stave off the slightest moisture.
Once confined, the practitioner’s only connection to the outside world was an air tube, and a bell – one he would dutifully ring every day to let those listening know that he was still alive. When the ringing stopped, the air tube was removed and the makeshift tomb tightly sealed.
After a customary three years had passed, the body was exhumed. Of the many who attempted to achieve such a hallowed state, only a very few triumphed. Most bodies were found to be in normal states of decay. However, those who accomplished their own mummifications were regarded as true Buddhas. Highly revered, they were placed into the temples for viewing.
For their tremendous spirit and devotion, admiration was still paid those who failed in their endeavors. But for Yamata especially, that was modest esteem – and certainly not the sort he ever hoped to gain through compromise.
Uekiya had dropped her basket and, arms dangling at her sides, was now staring intently at something behind him. And by the tilt of her gaze that something was alleging to be looming from a great height. Her awe was absolute. Had she the proper hinges, Yamata thought, she would have been left slack-jawed. He then became both exhilarated and frightened. What could exist among these rural and most modest trappings to provoke such veneration? If he were prone to such expectations, he might have believed she was beholding a god.
That she was witnessing a massive thunderhead instead was the likelier explanation. After all, from a parched point of view, threatening rain clouds could easily provoke the same respect as any passing deity.
Moisture. Yes, it would be the remaining ingredient needed to placate the construct’s agricultural objective. Being unable to turn his head fully to either side, Yamata’s visual range was limited, thus leaving the matter most tantalizing. Yet another clue that the lessons here would not be easily learned.
After what may have been a mere moment or the passing of centuries, the girl reached down and retrieved her basket, her wonderment either spent or the spectacle had finally retreated.
Another burst of growth in the rows, now appearing as a more recognizable plant. Although still spindly and emaciated, the stalks were more pronounced and now home to little brown offshoots that were unmistakably leaves, semi-translucent in their infancy. A quality that he found to be strangely reminiscent, but of what he couldn’t yet say.
Whatever relevance this germination had to the setting remained unclear. Yamata continued to employ his wisdom, always mindful that this was by its very nature a land of illusion.
Yamata again reached out for the girl, his compulsion growing fierce. This time, Uekiya wheeled and violently slapped his hand away, nearly breaking off the first two fingers. With utter disbelief, Yamata stared at those digits, both dangling now on withered tendons and pointing obliquely, if not forebodingly, to the ground.
The pain was sudden and intense – and disconcerting. He had not anticipated there to be such measurable discomfort beyond physical life. But he did not react instinctively and withdraw his arm. Instead, he left it out there for her to see. A testament to her brashness, to her insolence.
With something akin to compassion, Uekiya’s eyes softened. Then she made her way to the closest plant and began plucking its leaves, placing each one carefully into her basket. As Yamata watched, his curiosity grew into trepidation as he realized that those lucent leaves were the same color and texture as his dried, wrinkled skin. After having gathered only a few, Uekiya stepped up to his extended arm and began carefully applying the leaves to his broken fingers, bringing them back together at their fractures then wrapping and gently rubbing the new tissue into place, manipulating and messaging it until it was indistinguishable from his own layering. When she was through, she turned his hand this way and that, regarding her accomplishments with satisfaction.
Yamata flexed his fingers and found them restored to their original, albeit intransigent, state. But any appreciation of Uekiya’s handiwork was quickly dissolving, melting into an anxiety unlike any he had ever known, confirming that the most profound realizations were often the most unsettling.
Within the rows there was yet again another acceleration of growth, this time even more telling as a small whitish bulb had become evident at the top of every stalk, each of those now taller by another eight inches, and with heartier girth.
Are they the rudiments of a flower? Yamata wondered of the spheres. A fruit? Or are they the beginnings of something I dare not try to imagine?
His determined outlook, he realized, was growing dim. A dread had begun building in the thick atmosphere, but there was no beating heart to accompany it to crescendo. Just his quivering essence.
And still the plants grew, now four feet high, their bulbs even whiter and plumper, where within those a restlessness festered. As he stared, they disconcertedly reminded him of caterpillar nests, the larvae inside those silk pouches squirming to break free.
Yamata turned his eyes to Uekiya, as if her own might provide answer, or at least a concerned recognition to his plight.
He balled his right hand as best he could, and vehemently condemned her speechlessness. “Are you to remain forever silent, or must I say just the right thing, ask just the right question to elicit a response?” But her attention had once again been drawn to something behind him. Something gargantuan, was still his impression.
It was then when Yamata noticed that something had gone missing from the construct. He searched his restricted view; frantically so. It was vitally important to remember, he was sure. Everything presented here had dire meaning and was only expected to change or disappear altogether once its purpose had been understood. Or so he expected.
Then there was movement. Of the nearest plant, its bulb had begun weeping milky rivulets; viscous streams trailing down the stalk with the ambition of warmed honey. Then Yamata realized that the discharge was not comprised of any liquid but was made up of hundreds of pale white worms. And maggots. Upon reaching the ground, the creatures struggled in the loose soil, their frantic undulations less confident but still maintaining a fixed progression toward his still and sitting form.
Bent over once again, hands on knees, Uekiya was watching the bugs’ advancement with rapt wonderment.
The first worms to reach Yamata reared up and attached themselves to the lowest parts of his feet, then began burrowing through the brown, shriveled skin. Sparkles of intense pain began dancing behind his eyes, and a shrill, strident noise stung his ears; the pinched squeal, he quickly realized, of his own dry voice.
The pain of them entering his body was memorable, but the kind they ignited once inside was astonishingly bright and bellicose. A feast not had on mere shriveled bone and muscle, he feared, but upon a profound and everlasting food source: his soul. And it too screamed. Sounds not birthed from a decrepit throat but instead the collected resonances of isolation and grim oblivions, now to be intoned upon an unending existence.
The internal writhing of the worms was equally insufferable, and he cried out for a boyhood god; one he had no occasion to revisit, until now.
Finally, mercifully, the pain slowly receded after the remaining worms had inserted themselves. It was a momentous reprieve. But another look at the burgeoning rows beyond confirmed that such amnesties would be fleeting.
Leisurely filling her basket, Uekiya had set about plucking leaves from the offending plant. Yamata stared out across his field, one that was now growing a perpetual supply of sutures; grafts to outwardly mend the external damage caused by an equally eternal progression of the most vile and ravenous creatures.
But what about the internal damage? he desperately wondered. How will she mend that?
Uekiya was now kneeling before him, messaging the leaves onto the chewed holes in his feet, restoring the dead tissue.
When finished, she went back to staring at the anomaly behind him.
Yamata prayed that the girl was, in fact, witnessing a storm. Prayed for a deluge to drown the crawling masses. For lightning to scorch them thoroughly, then let typhoon winds scatter their seared remains across the farthest reaches of this perpetuity.
Prayed for any blight that would dissuade his punishment.
Once, his great profundity did not abide the generic concepts of an eternal and torturous perdition. Now, he was being forced to reconsider. Ironically, what remained intact of his fracturing philosophy was the reverberation of his most insightful expression; that it wasn’t about what life had denied him, but what he had denied life.
And life, it was being made very clear, was not going to be denied him.
Despite his most sincere, consecrated motivations, he had accelerated his own death and thereby corrupted those intentions. To tear away the shiny tinsel of devotion revealed the harsher truth of a prideful suicide. But his biggest sin of all was saturating his body with urushi tea. Having done so, he had denied the carrion eaters their due; had disallowed the natural progression of things and had done so vainly and with utter disregard for consequence.
The bulb of the second closest plant had opened, releasing its own white undulant stream. Yamata looked beyond the advancing worms and out upon the incalculable vastness, and within that silent horror was revealed the thing that had gone missing. The bell. It was no longer being rung. And on some instinctual level, that awakened in him a fear more primal than the worms themselves.
Uekiya’s growing devotion to the unseen behind him was inviting its own species of fear. Her wide brown eyes had assumed a tragically revering expression, and Yamata was now on the brink of admitting that no less than a god could warrant such reverence.
But what sort of god captivates a child while hiding behind an atrocity of infinite proportions?
Yamata one last time contemplated Uekiya’s absent mouth, and out of all the convoluted, Byzantine reasons he could think of for it not being there, he finally decided on a most austere one. Once in hell, there is simply nothing left to say.
This story previously appeared in Chiral Mad 2.
Edited by Marie Ginga
Jon Micheal Kelley's credits include stories in the multiple award-winning anthology Qualia Nous by Written Backwards Press, Firbolg Publishing's ambitious literary series Enter at Your Own Risk: Dark Muses, Spoken Silences, Sensorama by Eibonvale Press, and Triangulation: Lost Voices by Parsec Ink.