Hagakure #4

Ming Zhen Shakya
Ming Zhen Shakya

COMMENTARY ON THE HAGAKURE 

Part 4: The Twilight of the Samurai
by Ming Zhen Shakya

 

In Medieval Japan there was no Geneva Convention. No Hague Court considered war crimes. War crimes were warfare’s status quo.

Bushido, the Japanese version of the Chinese wu shi dao (way of the warrior) is entirely reasonable – particularly when it is looked at from the point of view of those who followed it – and not inspected with lenses crafted nearly a thousand years later.

Necessity created the code of the samurai. They brought to their vocation their education, courtly manners, Buddhist instruction and practice, pride in family lineage, and a thorough respect for their relatives’ vicious intrigues and perfidy.

Intermarriage constituted so much of statecraft that a family quarrel had national consequences – which only contributed to more inter-family strife. Tradition, which inculcated family loyalty, had to be neutralized – opposed by an even greater force. A warrior had to depend on his comrades in battle. He had to trust them… and not just some of the time or casually. He had to believe that his objectives were their objectives; that his loyalties were their loyalties – and the only way this could be accomplished was for all of them to pledge their respective loyalties to an independent leader. Since blood ties could only drag a warrior into compromise and betrayal, it had to be understood that a warrior could not be persuaded to spy or plot or to be intimidated in any way into betraying his fellows. All had to be loyal to the same principal and principles.

If a samurai were killed in battle, other samurai would provide for his family – and not as poor relatives, but as equal members of their households. A samurai’s biological siblings were not so reliable.

The Code, therefore, served to protect warriors from the attacks of sentiment and social ambition. When a samurai vowed, “I have no parents; I make heaven and earth my parents,” or, “I have no friends; I make my Buddha-mind my friend,” or even, “I have no enemy; I make incautiousness my enemy,” he and every other samurai who took such vows, meant it.

In terms of gaining victory, such assurances worked in tandem with anxieties about capture. Fear is always a great motivator; and history records many events that would have inspired the requisite fear. Two events during the Taira and Minamoto conflicts stand out as examples because they have so often been the themes of contemporary films:

After one battle in which the Taira prevailed, the Minamoto chieftain was condemned to death; but the Taira insisted that his own son perform the execution. The son could not behead his father; and another Minamoto samurai stepped forward, seized the sword and executed his own chief; and then he killed himself.

On another occasion, the Minamoto set fire to the palace buildings of a Taira ally. As the men, women and children tried to flee the burning buildings, they were cut down. Those who survived the flames and slaughter were cast into a well to drown or to be crushed to death by the bodies falling on top of them.

There had been at least as much warfare in Japan during the fifteenth century as there was in the rest of the civilized world. And there had been prosperity, too. Foreign trade fostered the growth of great port cities.

The Ashikaga presided over a cultural efflorescence seldom seen in world history. Trade with China, which had been discontinued because of Japanese pirates, resumed in full when the Shogun demonstrated his good faith in the mutual benefits of unimpeded foreign trade. When China captured a few Japanese pirates, the Shogun obliged by publicly boiling them alive. It had a chilling effect on Jolly Rogers everywhere.

But prosperity contained the formula for its own destruction. Families tended to have large, healthy families – with sons who inherited their father’s property. But while population increased, land did not; and Malthusian theory applied. War, pestilence, and famine kept the population in check, but usually challenged the meaning of prosperity. A new cycle had to begin.

Several factors contributed to the disintegration of prosperity. Ashikaga governmental self-absorption had fostered an independent spirit among the various daimyo; and then a new esthetic flared, inspired by nationalistic fervor. The ornate decor of Chinese origin was supplanted by the elegant simplicity of Japanese Zen esthetics. Rugs were replaced by straw mats; heavily embroidered brocades, with delicate weavings; gilded, carved, and lacquered furnishings disappeared; floral profusions became gardens that were sculpted as carefully as renaissance statuary. Everything – music, art, theater, architecture, and literature – was stripped of embellishment. The outer surfaces of style, regarded as so much tarnish, had to be polished away to reveal nothing less than core purity.

But purity did not come cheap and neither did the incessant warfare. The barons continued to fight each other as usual until the peasants were taxed into revolt. For eleven years, during the so-called Onin wars, civil order spun out of control in retrograde revolution. It was always back to the bad old days.

Buildings in Kyoto were burned to the ground; looters moved in to rob the dead of armor and weapons and to salvage what they could from ruined structures. Most of the aristocratic citizens of Kyoto – all members of the samurai class – again fled for their lives, often seeking the protection of those unsophisticated country bumpkins with whom they once would not have condescended to dine.

Like sovereign states, the fiefs each had its own laws; and none of the daimyos paid any attention to the mostly ruined capital city. There was no central government. There was not even a pretense of one. The Ashikaga Shogun, bound to Kyoto, was politically impotent. The Emperor scraped by in dignified poverty.

And then on one otherwise ordinary day in 1543, three Portuguese mariners landed on the southern island of Tanegashima. They carried firearms which they sold to the Daimyo of Tanegashima who promptly gave them to his metalworkers for them to duplicate. The Daimyo had seen a demonstration of the ease with which a musket ball could penetrate armor at a safe and considerable distance; and he did not lack foresight.

New styles of battle came quickly into vogue. Combat between horse mounted samurai now changed to infantrymen led by a few mounted officers. And then these rank and file footmen who bore shields and lances and proceeded in a Spartan kind of phalanx, were in turn replaced by musketeers.

A series of civil wars saw the rise of three extraordinary men who were superb military and political strategists and who quickly adopted the new weaponry into their arsenals. Nobunaga, Hideyoshi, and Ieyasu stepped into the limelight of Japanese history.

Nobunaga, Hideyoshi, and Ieyasu

The Japanese tell a story that illustrates the difference in the three men’s dispositions: the three of them come upon a song bird that is silent. Nobunaga says, “Bird, sing or I’ll kill you.” Hideyoshi says, “Bird, sing or I will force you to sing.” And Ieyasu says, “Bird, I will wait until you sing.” The bird watchers did not always act in accordance with their reputations.

By way of guaranteeing peaceful relations, it was customary for a young son of one great daimyo to be sent to the castle of another daimyo, there to be raised as a member of the family. As a samurai he would be taught the arts of culture and combat. Ieyasu, as the scion of the Tokugawa Clan, was such a “hostage guest” in a castle that would fall in battle to Nobunaga of the Odo Clan.

As little fish are eaten by bigger fish that are in turn eaten by bigger fish until the top of the food chain is reached, the lands of the provincial warlords were consumed until only a few big fish remained in Japan. The top daimyo lord was Nobunaga, who had immediately recognized the superiority of muskets over swords, armed his warriors, and proceeded to conquer more than half of Japan – including the lands of young Ieyasu’s host daimyo.

Ieyasu was then free to return to his own fief. During his absence, his father had died, but his father’s retainers were still loyal, waiting upon the commands of their young lord. Ieyasu did not disappoint. He intensified and broadened the scope of their training regimens to include the latest weaponry; and he secured his line: he married at fifteen and by eighteen had two children.

Nobunaga, the most powerful man in Japan, proved not to be immune to the treachery that infected the body politic. He was assassinated by one of his ambitious generals. And then his brilliant general, Hideyoshi, immediately avenged him, killing the traitorous general. Hideyoshi; a commoner who had no aristocratic prerogatives, simply assumed control of all the lands Nobunaga had unified… and all the armies, too.

Ieyasu considered challenging Hideyoshi’s supremacy but he quickly reconsidered, prudence demanding more preparation. Lacking the power to defeat the brilliant general, he instead formed an alliance with him and was rewarded with a huge domain in the distant area of Tokyo Bay. Hideyoshi ordered him to establish his seat of government in a fishing village called Edo – which is now called Tokyo. Ieyasu complied, building his headquarters in Edo and, at a later time, constructing a magnificent castle for himself – which is now Japan’s Imperial Palace. At this stage of his career, however, he was still waiting for the bird to warble.

Hideyoshi built a grand castle in Osaka near Kyoto. Believing himself to be destined for greatness, he aspired to be named Shogun by the Emperor; and to achieve this end, he lavishly entertained the Emperor and the Imperial court. His efforts were in vain. The Emperor refused to sanction the appointment of a commoner to the position of Shogun. The refusal did not sweeten the rejected leader’s disposition. His administrative style degenerated from strict to sadistic.

While Ieyasu was able to marry his granddaughter to one of the Emperor’s sons, Hideyoshi had no such privilege and further, he had no male heir. He therefore adopted a nephew whom he raised to adulthood, training him to be his successor. But then, at the age of sixty, he fathered a son. His delight with the boy exceeded all rational bounds and serves as an example of the family prejudices which the samurai code tried to obviate; for, now that Hideyoshi had a natural son, he no longer had a use for an adopted one. He therefore ordered the young man to commit suicide and, to preclude any interested party’s desire to retaliate, he executed all possible interested parties…. some thirty-five of his adopted son’s relatives.

Hideyoshi, suffering serious health problems, appointed five regents, Ieyasu among them, to look after his infant son in the event of his death. He died, in 1598, when the boy was five, but not before he exacted a solemn promise from Ieyasu to protect the boy’s life “with his own life.” Ieyasu actually considered keeping this promise…. for longer than might be expected.

When the regent most loyal to Hideyoshi died unexpectedly the following year, Ieyasu suddenly heard the bird sing and took control of Osaka Castle. Particularly since he had been forming alliances with daimyos who had been enemies of Hideyoshi, the three other regents regarded Ieyasu’s action as a provocation that had to be addressed. The country was split into two factions: those daimyos who supported Ieyasu of the Tokugawa Clan and those who supported Hideyoshi’s son whom Ieyasu had allowed to continue residing in Osaka Castle – but as a commoner.

There was a geographical and, by extension, a religious distinction to the split. The Portuguese, having sailed around Africa’s Cape of Good Hope, had entered Japanese waters from the south. Once Japan’s wealth became known to the King of Portugal, he naturally desired to annex the islands. Since the quickest way to do this was through religious conversion and trade, he dispatched merchants and Catholic missionaries whose efforts succeeded beyond all expectation. Within fifty years, the missionaries had made some 300,000 converts and the merchants had enriched the daimyos and commercial houses of Japan’s southwest islands. It was mainly those daimyos who prospered from trade with Portugal and additionally Spain – who opposed Ieyasu whose holdings were largely in northeastern areas. But it was more than financial benefit or the acquisition of new products and weaponry that induced them to support the Portuguese presence. The relentless pace of warfare that had driven Japanese politics for generations had been stalled by the unifying efforts of Christianity.

The Japanese tolerance for religious diversion had in essence destroyed the fundamental solidarity of religious fellowship. But in those fifty years of proselytizing, the Catholic missionaries generated a unity of belief that no other religion in Japan had been able to produce. “Catholic” means “universal” and even today, Catholicism is is precisely that…. catholic. Rituals and dogma are virtually identical around the globe. Especially in Japan, with the contentious array of Buddhist sects, the new liturgical conformity tended to create a peaceful cohesion among the catholic converts. The daimyo in these areas appreciated the peace and prosperity. Many of them also converted.

It followed that the daimyo in northeastern areas, who were not blessed with the international trade and the benefits of religious unity, regarded the southwestern fiefs as a clear and present danger to themselves and to Ieyasu’s intention to govern all of Japan.

The Catholics in Japan were led by a small number of Jesuit missionaries. Ieyasu, as had other leaders before him, tried to curb these priests’ increasing power, thinking that if they eliminated the missionaries they would destroy the mission; but as quickly as he had one Jesuit deported, two Franciscans would slip in with the ships that came from Spain’s Philippine colonies. He wanted the trade that came with Spain and Portugal. He did not want the interference to his rule that their new creed presented. He knew that his predecessors’ unification strategies had required the destruction of recalcitrant Buddhist groups and to that end had burned down temples and executed monks. But the Buddhists had had no commercial value! It was a vexing problem.

More was at stake than trade: it was no secret that Spain and Portugal intended religious conversion to be the overture to a military symphony. Catholicism may have been the goal of the missionaries; but their sovereigns’ goal was colonization.

Of the two powers, Spain posed the greatest threat to Japan. The missionaries were circumspect in discussing the aims of empire, but the seamen who manned the trading ships felt no such compunction. They spoke of Spain’s military might and how the few galleons that sailed into Japanese waters were insignificant compared to great gunships that patrolled the oceans.

Trusted Buddhist clerics had warned Ieyasu that there were now so many Catholic converts in Kyushu that if they ever revolted against him they could hold out long enough for Spain’s armies in Manilla to reinforce them. He already knew that the converts were spreading northward at an alarming rate.

To Ieyasu, the normal intrigues and schemes of everyday life were quite enough. He did not welcome interference and the potential subversions the Catholics presented. Before the problem grew too complicated and unmanageable, it was best to solve it. The showdown would come in a massive military confrontation at Sekigahara Castle, on the plains a hundred miles or so east of Kyoto.

Rain and adverse traveling conditions had disrupted the scheduled arrivals of many of the combatant forces, particularly those of the southwest who had longer treks over the mountainous terrain. Although outnumbered, Ieyasu’s 50,000 troops were better rested than many of the castle’s defending 80,000 troops who had endured weeks of exhausting traveling conditions.

The defenders were not of one mind. Several daimyo were unsure of their choice. Ieyasu was a charismatic leader; and they suspected that his forceful personality, clever strategizing, and aristocratic lineage represented Japan’s best hope for unification. As the battle commenced, Ieyasu’s vigorous attack dispelled any doubts that about the side they had chosen: they left defensive positions and joined his forces. Ieyasu’s victory was complete. The victorious samurai slaughtered thousands of defeated samurai and, of course, any of their relatives who had survived the initial battle. The spoils of war were divided among the victorious daimyos and preparations were made for Ieyasu to be named Shogun. Japan’s long medieval warring period had ended.

Because he had given his word to protect Hideyoshi’s son “with his own life” Ieyasu Tokugawa had left the boy in peace. But too many old Hideyoshi supporters agitated for a restoration of the boy’s rightful place, and so, after ten years of such irritation, in 1615, Ieyasu reneged on his pledge of protection and attacked Osaka Castle. He burned it down, killing all the defenders; and when Hideyoshi’s son committed seppuka, all possible future threats to Ieyasu’s shogunate were eliminated. (Only one woman was spared in the slaughter… the wife of the late lamented scion who happened to be one of Ieyasu’s granddaughters.)

The first pledge of the Code of the Samurai is “I have no parents. I make Heaven and Earth my parents.” No one should wonder why this familial detachment is given the primary position in the Code.

It is said that Ieyasu so regretted having to break his word that as penance he wrote the Buddha’s name ten thousand times.

 

Congratulations!

We all in the Zen Buddhist Order of Hsu Yun would like to congratulate Abbot Ken (Yin Ts’ao Shakya) in this very special ocassion where he married Victoria in the “Bayou State”, Louisiana, USA.

 

We would like to post a photo of the just married couple, and wish them a life full of love, joy and happiness!!!

 

Meilleurs voeux pour une merveilleuse vie de couple!

 

image3
Ken and Victoria

 

A Prescription for Murder (#3)

Ming Zhen Shakya
Ming Zhen Shakya
 To see more literature about Zen and the Art of Investigation:
http://www.zenanthonywolff.com

A Prescription for Murder

by Anthony Wolff (Ming Zhen Shakya)

To see all available chapters of “A Prescription for Murder” click here

Part 5: The Seminar

 

The Valium she had taken to get to sleep reached it’s tranquilizing limit at 4 a.m. and Karen awakened abruptly, wide-eyed and acutely conscious.  She staggered to the bathroom to throw cold water on her face and to look for an analgesic in the medicine cabinet.  She found nothing.

When she flushed the toilet, the pipes clanged and groaned, voicing a resentment about being put to work so early. Now she had disturbed the whole house.  She cursed the pipes as she crossed the east-facing room.  Her head was throbbing and she considered taking more Valium.  Instead she sat on a window seat and looked at the awesome star-filled sky, trying to concentrate on something else beside her pain as a way to alleviate it.  “No wonder, ” she whispered, “the Mayans were so fascinated with it.  It must have been their television set.  What did they call their constellations?”  She tried to trace the outlines of Draco and Orion and Cassiopeia but could find none of them. Then the sky lightened in the east, and thousand after thousand, the stars went out. Venus, she remembered having read recently in the horoscope section of the morning paper, had gone behind the sun. She could not name the other planets that held the light longer than the stars.

She wet a washcloth, wrung it out, closed the draperies to shut out the morning, and lay upon her bed, pressing the wet cloth against her forehead.  She could count on her fingers the number of times she had had a migraine headache in her life. This, she told herself, was worse than all the others combined.

The pain put her beyond thinking about motivations and results. She had been caught in someone’s trap.  There were no mistakes or coincidences.  Someone had deliberately written the prescription.  The questions now were who and why and what was going to happen to her in the future; and she had no way to answer them.

She barely heard gentle rapping on her door.  “Yes?” she called.

Marc opened the door a crack so that he could whisper, “May I come in?”

“Of course.” She sat up, lifted the mosquito netting and placed it behind her. She pushed the light button on her watch to see the time.  9 a.m. “I must have fallen back to sleep,” she said.

Marc sat beside her.  “I’ve been a bit of a shit,” he said.  “I don’t know about the prescription and at this point it’s academic.  I miss Aggie…”  He sighed deeply.  “None of us is allowed to leave, so why don’t we make a concerted effort to be pleasant.  Being convivial in Agnes’ name is something she would appreciate more than flowers or prayers.  I’ll do my best to entertain you   with my exciting tales of investing in the soybean market, or how I was thrown-out of art school, or learned to swim as a boy.  Come on downstairs later and join the rest of us for this seminar we’re committed to give… not in grief or anxiety, but just in some happy memories of a wonderful lady.”

She pretended that his words were curative. “You’re right, of course.  Here I was feeling sorry for myself while Agnes is in the morgue.  What funeral arrangements have you made?”

“I’m going to keep it very low key… for only a select group.  It would look damned suspicious to the public if I were seen mourning with a guest in my house who was suspected of giving Agnes the medicine that killed her.” He suddenly put his arm around her and pulled her shoulder to his. Softly, he whispered, “They’d suspect us of being in cahoots.”

“Yes.”  She pulled away to reach for a tissue on her night stand.  “That’s what people would think.  What did the Medical Examiner declare as the cause of death?”

“Medical Misadventure. But because a technician found evidence in her stomach contents of  more than the prescribed dose, it was not considered necessary to try to establish blame for the nature of the medication.  In short, even if you had ordered arsenic, she took more than you had ordered and contributed thereby to her own demise.”  He looked around.  “May I open the drapes?”

Karen guessed that he wanted her to see him clearly. For some reason she thought of the expression, “All cats are grey in the dark.”  This pedigree animal wanted to be admired and he needed light for that.  “Go right ahead,” she said, and waited for the light to flood the room so that she could say, “How handsome you look in those Western togs!  Blue is definitely your color.”

“Well, thank you, Doctor,” he sighed.  “The blue is only temporary.  I’ll be wearing all black tomorrow.” He returned to her bed.  His profile was silhouetted against the morning light.  He must have used a lotion of some kind, she thought.  His skin had a radiance and the morning light gave a haloed effect to the outline. A curl had come loose from the herd. It jumped like a maverick down to his eyebrow.  Using his middle and ring fingers, he corralled it back into place. “Charmides,” she said. “You look like Charmides. If your blonde hair were a little longer you could wear – what is that metal band they wear called?”

“A fila,” he answered, pleased by the reference.

Ruiz’s insistence that she maintain a humble attitude had given her an advantage.  She could stare at Marc and smile slightly without incurring a negative response. “I feel so terrible about this,” she intoned. “You didn’t say… what plans have you made for the funeral?”

“She’ll be cremated.  I’ll explain: Agnes’s father died here twenty years ago.  She came back from school in Texas to care for him. He had malaria. We were married here at that time. She got her degree and then, when the old man died, she had his remains cremated. His ashes are in Phoenix now.  So I’m going to forgo the cemetery plot business.  I have no intention of being laid to rest down here, and I’d just as soon have her with me when I return to Arizona.  But please… let’s not dwell on how or why she died.  In Mexico it is not a crime to make an honest mistake.”

Karen stifled the urge to scream again that she had made no mistake, honest or otherwise. “Who will be coming?” she said pleasantly.

“Ramona and Dan and some guests who had been invited before the incident with Agnes. I don’t know if you noticed any of those ‘Robles for Governor’ billboards, but he and his wife and a few other people will be here. Dan’s got a great deal that these folks are interested in; and in deference to him and Ramona, I’d like to act like a friendly host while they talk business.”

“All right.  I’ll bathe and dress and be down for lunch, anyway.” As soon as he left, she ducked under the mosquito netting and went back to sleep.

It was after noon when Karen went into the shower stall and let the cold water beat down on her face. She wanted to punish herself for being so stupid.

The hacienda Beagle, Karen learned, had a big screen television set that could show DVD presentations in a small auditorium setting.  At east thirty people could sit and watch a film that Compañero Investments, LLC, of Colorado offered in conjunction with the chosen topic. This particular DVD was devoted to the production of coffee in Nicaragua.

Six people, including a candidate for Governor and his wife, had been invited to watch the pitch. Karen was introduced to them.  She smiled and hoped that she’d never see any one of them again. Absenting herself from the pre-presentation chatter, she walked into the dining room and saw that the table was lavishly set for nine. The tenth, at the Mistress’s chair, was empty. A bowl of flowers was placed where her dinner service would have been.  A scratching noise and the movement of light made her look at the window.  A lizard was crawling up the screen.  Tony had followed her into the dining room.  “Miguel!” he called, “Obtener el palo!”

From the kitchen area, Miguel answered, “Sí, Don Antonio.”

“The stick?” Karen asked.

“Yes, all manner of crawly things love to get their exercise on the screens.  We have a long stick with a hook that one of the servants uses to knock them off.  Rarely do they climb up to the second floor or the attic.”

Karen glanced at the place cards.  “Ignacio Robles, the candidate, is seated to the right of Marc. Estella Robles is seated to his left.”

“Yes, Marc likes to sit amongst the powerful.  Listen! I think the old boy is making a speech.”

She turned towards the auditorium to hear Robles speak in that ‘politician’s humble-bragging’ voice, “How could I say, ‘No’?  I’m running on the People’s platform.  Mexico has suffered for too long from class distinctions.  We need to become a meritocracy. Then my future son-in-law will be a leader of men as well as a healer of men.”  The little group cheered him.

“What does he mean?”

“Miguel is supposed to marry his only daughter Constanza. Miguel is a medical student – that’s what the ‘healer’ referred to.”

Dan Duran announced the start of the presentation. Tony put his arm around her. “You ready for the big pitch?”

“I’ll sit in the back and observe the rest of you.”

An unctuous voice-over informed everyone how difficult it was to remove the shell of a coffee bean. It wasn’t like a peanut… no…  or a lima bean.  A coffee bean was encased in what in the metallic world would be the equivalent of carbon steel.  A farmer was shown emptying a bucket of red cherry like hard beans into a contraption that peeled the shell off them. The green beans were then carried along a conveyor belt while Indian women picked out those unfortunate beans that had survived the shelling process.  Sometimes these beans would be run through again; but mostly they would become beans of a lesser quality coffee since they’d be roasted with part of their shells on.

The map of Nicaragua was shown along with pictures of aging Daniel Ortega, the President for Life.  Lake Managua, which had once been considered the logical place for the transoceanic canal was shown in all its beauty.

The movie ended and Dan Duran gave his spiel.  “There had been talk of creating a new canal – one wide enough to handle oil tankers and other immense cargo ships that cannot now go through the Panama Canal.  China was interested; land prices rose.  But then the Chinese thought it seemed a whole lot cheaper to deal directly with Canada what with the Keystone Pipeline trouble.  Why risk the volcanism of the Ring of Fire?

“Suddenly land values fell. In a communist country, we can say, ‘So what?’ Well, in that ‘What’ was money, and Nicaragua needed money.  The administrators, like most of us, had expected a windfall and had spent accordingly.  And now it was time to pay the piper.  They called the best advertising agency in New York and ordered an international campaign for a new brand of Nicaraguan coffee.  Preciosa.  I cannot lie to you.  It’s the same old stuff that you saw the farmer dump into the peeling machine.  Yes, they do plan to introduce a new fertilizer developed through United Nations’ grants.  But getting a piece of Preciosa before it hits the market will make a person richer than the finest Nicaraguan coffee on the market.  And they do produce great coffee… rich in flavor, full bodied, with a scent that rivals heaven.  We don’t see it much in the states, because it’s well…  Nicaraguan!”  This last remark got a good laugh from the small audience.

As they began to talk about shares in Preciosa’s parent company, Karen studied their interactions.  Tony seemed to have changed.  He had gone from boyish sailor and pinochle player to the consummate shill. Marc, princely in his late-afternoon garb – white sharkskin trousers, navy blue double breasted jacket with polished brass buttons and a paisley cravat puffing out perfectly at the open collar of his white shirt.  He walked differently, she noticed.  She tried to identify the gait.  It wasn’t a swagger or a lope or a swish, certainly, but was rather processional. Yes, he walked as if going from point A to point B were a matter of state significance. Several times Estella Robles snapped open her fan – a dramatic gesture – and hiding behind its tasseled shield, she’d sneak a hateful look at Marc. What, Karen wondered, could that have been all about? Louisa was helping Miguel to serve.  She walked around with a tray of champagne glasses.  She, too, had a strange reaction to Marc.  She lowered her eyes when she approached him.  She approached Tony with a impish controlled grin and he would wink at her as he reached for a glass.  Louisa brought the tray back to Karen.  “Do me a favor,” Karen asked, “and tell Tony that I have a terrible headache and don’t care to have dinner tonight. I’ll go out and get some air.”  Louisa assured her that she’d convey the message, and Karen left the room.  No one noticed her departure, so interesting was the thought of becoming a coffee magnate.

The afternoon sun was setting behind the hacienda, creating a mysterious roseate Purkinje effect.  She decided to walk around the gardens, but she left the house through the foyer, took particular notice of the old lady’s portrait which, now that she got a closer look at it, was competently done.  She went down the veranda steps and then crossed the front lawn to one of the two alleyways that led to the rear.

She passed the closed garages and stopped to check the shelf on which inner tubes were stored. There were inner tubes for bicycles, for several wheel barrows, and some for the tires of farm equipment.  She sighed.  Maybe the Jeep had no other tube, after all.  She came to what looked like a big cuckoo clock mounted on a pole that she hadn’t noticed before.  It had a pitched roof and a front door instead of a numbered face.  She opened the door and found laminated sheets that detailed the layout of the gardens.  There were four sheets to a set, held together by a ring. She took one of the sets, closed the door, and, using the sheets as a guide, went through the garden.

Section One was dedicated to Plantas Tropicales Comestibles. She recognized on sight bamboo, breadfruit, coconut, sugar cane, wild figs, the tops of wild yam, taro, papaya – with its fruits hanging from the center tree trunk like so many paps or breasts – a mango tree, and manioc. She came to a pool in which wild rice and cattails grew along the banks and, in the water, lilies of various kinds.  She consulted the guide and was stunned to see Blue Egyptian lotus, the water lily “Nymphaea caerulea” that was the single most used symbol in Egyptian tomb art and was also, chemically related to Viagra. There were lotus plants that had edible roots all known in  Indian yogic lore… the padme.  But so many Egyptian Blue? Were they cultivating them, growing them for a purpose other than academic?  She knew the Egyptians ate them for their aphrodisiac qualities.  Well, this was interesting!  And then a coconut suddenly dropped from the tree and scared her.  She jumped away from the pond and got back onto the path.

Cardiologists were well aware of many plants consumed for their sexual properties.  Often they were consumed detrimentally to the heart. She checked the scientific names of some of the plants..  Chlorophytum borivilianum commonly called “safed musli”  was there.  So was Mondia whitei of the Periplocaceae family.  Maca was there as were names that were unfamiliar to her: E. longifolia Jack; Satureja khuzestanica.  She recognized the family Aralaceae, of which Panax ginseng belonged, and Pausinystalia yohimbe of the family Rubiaceae.  There were so many!  She tried to match the name with some of the unfamiliar plants, but it was beginning to get dark.  What was this garden all about?  A few common plants like banana, vanilla, and cacao and even a avocado tree were there, mostly, she thought, to provide shade for some of the plants that didn’t like direct sun.  She was startled by hearing her name called.

“Doctor Karen,” José called.  “Are you out here?  It’s time for dinner.”

“I asked Louisa to convey my apologies.  I’m not particularly hungry.  It’s that migraine I’m having.”

“She told Don Marco, but he insists that you join everyone for dinner even if you try only the desert. They’re waiting on you.”

Karen found her place at the table.  The thought that she might be poisoned entered her mind. She looked around the room.  The ugly dinner “menu” paintings were gone.  In their place were a variety of seascapes, one more weird then another.  The waves weren’t behaving as waves… or something else was wrong.  She couldn’t tell. The artist wasn’t so much inept as he was bizarre.

She nibbled at some bread and declined the appetizer and entree. Finally, as coffee was served, she excused herself and said, “I think I need some air.  We’re approaching the “media luna” that seems to be so famous south of the Rio Grande.  I’d like to see it from the beach.” Her exit was barely acknowledged.

It was dark now, but the night was clear and all the stars had returned. Someone turned on the outdoor lights that were bright for only the moment it took for hundreds of flying insects to dim them. Only the fireflies were uninterested.  She wanted to be able to think, to find some reason that might account for the events – from the invitation to the present.  Walking on the beach with the sand between her toes might help her “find out who she was” as Agnes had promised.

She walked past the cars that were parked in front  0of the house.  One SUV had a distinct logo on its door with the name, “Robles, International.” Its plates were Quintana Roo. She had seen the logo on the Robles’ billboards.   She wished that she had been more gracious especially since it wouldn’t have hurt to know someone in power socially.  After coffee they’d no doubt convene again in the drawing room for an after dinner drink.  She wondered if she should linger for a few minutes and then return.  A hundred feet ahead stood the now-closed wrought-iron gates that read the rear view of “Cabeza de Vaca.”  Before she could make a decision, the old gate keeper saw her coming and without needing to be asked had opened the gates for her.  She continued through, thanking him as she passed.

Steps led down to the beach that was alive with small scurrying crabs.  She sat on the steps and studied the meaningless traffic. She did not hear Ruiz approach.

“What?” he laughed.  “You don’t care about coffee?”

“No,” she said, moving over to let him sit down beside her. “Any news?”

“Let’s not talk shop.  People are investing in Nicaraguan coffee. The sea is calm.  A few million stars are trying to compete with your eyes. Where the hell is the moon?” He stretched his neck looking around.

“The new moon rises at dawn.  The full moon rises at sundown.  The half-moon rises at midnight. Et cetera, et cctera. When will I be free to go home?”

“I didn’t know that about the moon.  I’ll have to remember that.  It might come in useful.  As to your leaving… not yet. Just continue to be your sweet humble self.  As it stands now Marc is not pressing for any criminal charges.  If saying that you might have made an error gets you out of Mexico without the usual sturm und drang, concede the possibility.  You’ll likely have plenty of fighting to do when he brings charges of malpractice against you in Phoenix.”

“Have you heard that he intends to do that?” She did not question that Marc intended to sue, but only to learn whether Ruiz had heard anything specific about Marc’s plans.

“No. But this whole production had to have certain aims.  What they all are, I don’t know yet. Assuming the prescription was faked, the claim on your insurance policy isn’t opportunistic. It had to be premeditated. This is not a simple case. Marc Celine is a very slick guy.  He’s good looking… maybe not as handsome as I… but he does present himself well.  And yes, he’s got brains…  he might not be as bright as I, but who is?” He was seeking a response from Karen and she did not disappoint.  She reached up and tussled his hair.  He grinned.  “I’m a cop and in some places you just assaulted me.”

“Did it feel good?” she asked in a straightforward tone and he laughed.

“Touché,” he said, and continued his analysis of Marc Celine. “What he does have in abundance – that I have zero of –  are connections… powerful ones.  He gets away with things that would put the average man behind bars. A few times he was close to being charged with some serious crimes… assault, fraud, rape… and he simply wriggled out of trouble.  He is, what’s the expression, ‘as slippery as a watermelon seed.'”

“I can’t figure out the marital relationship.  I don’t think they even liked each other.  He tends to speak disparagingly of her.  She made a veiled death threat.  There’s some kind of connection between him and Clara – maybe one that involves that baby she has. And what about Estella Robles and Marc?  She would sneak looks of positive loathing at him.  To hate that much usually signifies that the opposite was once true.  Marc and Estella?  Am I wrong about this?”

“Was she carrying a big fancy fan?”

“Yes.  So? Am I wrong about Marc and Estella Robles?”

“Probably not.”

“I found so many plants that had aphrodisiac properties.  Was that one of their businesses?”

“They do have an herbal medicine business.  They raise the plants on a farm farther inland.  Import a lot too.  Mostly from Brazil. The sex stuff is probably included.”

“What does Marc intend to do with Clara now?”

“Agnes had apparently decided to donate the estate and its entire collection to the University, but such negotiations take time and on the first day of discussion, she got sick. No endowment papers were executed which means that Marc inherits her property and collects a large sum on her life insurance policy. And let’s not forget your medical malpractice insurance.”

“Do you never answer a question?”

“Only in matters of amour,” he flicked her nose with his finger.  “I’m the detective.  I ask. You answer.”

“How much will he get from Agnes’ insurance?  Surely you heard.”

“In American dollars, her policy will pay him 3 million.  That’s what I heard down at headquarters. I have no reason to doubt the sum.”  He sighed,  “You see, I can cooperate.”

“Let’s test that hypothesis. I want to go back to Paolo and Clara’s house.  Something was not right there. I still can’t figure out why Clara had to come with us when we went to the pharmacy.  She cared for Paolo. Yet she left that old woman alone there to care for the baby and the hot compresses and to give him fluids, just to come with us for no reason.”

“I don’t think you should investigate. You may learn more than you can handle.”

Karen grew angry.  “That’s nonsense.  You represent the interest of the prosecution.  I have no one.  If I had any sense I’d hire an attorney or at least a private detective.  So don’t make vague Orphic pronouncements…. oracular warnings and riddles.  I need to know what and who I’m up against.”

“I don’t want to be the one to tell you anything.  As you say, I’m working for the other side.  But I know that Clara is in town tonight, entertaining a gentleman who would like nothing better than to disrupt the seminar.  She’ll get paid to do that.  So the old woman is alone with the baby.  If you want to talk to her, now would be the time.”

“Will you take me?” Karen put her hand on his wrist.  Suddenly he put his other hand over hers and held it down.  Then he raised his hand to his lips, removed his top hand and kissed her fingers.  “What are you doing?” she quietly asked.

Chihuahua! Can’t a man kiss the hand of a pretty woman without being subjected to an interrogation?” He stood up.  “It was spontaneous.  If I had thought about it I wouldn’t have done it.  Happy?”

“I’m not angry… I was just curious.”

As they drove in Ruiz’s pickup truck, she asked, “When you said that Clara was paid to entertain a gentleman who could have disrupted the presentation tonight, did that mean that a dissatisfied customer might otherwise show up and cause a scene?”

“What do I know about financial matters?”

“You know a scam when you see one, and this coffee thing doesn’t sit right.  I just sense it.  Serving champagne to people before you ask them to buy stocks…   I remember visiting a Buddhist Temple in Taiwan and being invited along with a few colleagues to have tea with the master. They served us tea in these tiny cups.  I swear they spiked the stuff.  A few little cups and I was definitely feeling high. The master made a pitch about the temple needing money so badly for their medical outreach programs and other charitable works.  I had just started to feel generous when I got an emergency call and had to leave; but a few of my colleagues wound up giving the master a small fortune.”

“What were you doing in Taiwan?”

“Attending a conference in Kaohsiung. The emergency was a waiter who had fainted.”

They drove to Clara’s house.  “I’ll wait here for you.  Listen,” he said confidentially, “You know that Marc thinks of himself as an artist… a painter.  Ask her to tell you about the breast painting.”

“Breast painting? This is crazy,” Karen said, getting out of the pickup.

As she stood in the doorway of the little house, the woman called to her in Spanish.  “Come in.  Thank you for the food.  I know you are the one who sent it so don’t tell me Don Antonio did that all on his own.”

“You’re quite welcome.  I’m so sorry Paolo died.  It was a terrible wound.”

“Did you come here to take the baby?”

“Why… No!  I had no such intention!”

“What do you want?”

“I’m told that I’ll understand the entire situation more if I learn about a certain breast painting that Marc Celine did.  Can you help me by telling me about that painting?”

The woman snickered.  “Don Marco, the artist.”  She pointed to the hammock.  “That’s his baby, you know.  My Paolo loved Clara, but he was dirt to her.  Then when she got pregnant at the hacienda and wouldn’t agree to an abortion, Don Marco threw her out.  Paolo came and fixed this little house for her.  He put these tiles on the floor… and fixed the roof. He had the carpenter build that bed.  He bought a real mattress for it.  Just for her.  Marc had other women.  Many women.”

“Estella Robles?”

“Hah! She was the one before Clara. Clara thought she was very important because he cut off Estella for her.  I don’t know what he’s got that makes the ladies throw themselves at him. Yes, he’s handsome. But he’s just a good looking man.  No soul.  Or I should say a black soul. Anthony is no better.  He uses Louisa. Now the two girls think that since the wives are dead, they’ll be able to marry the Celine brothers.”

“Tell me about the painting.”

“Tsch!” The old woman pretended to spit on the floor. “Clara’s belly grew bigger and bigger.  Paolo couldn’t afford to put her in the hospital but she delivered the baby here with me and another woman… a midwife.  Then Paolo took the baby to the hospital to have drops put in his eyes and to have blood removed for some kind of test.”

“DNA?” Karen asked.

“Yes. DNA. When the baby was not yet a month old Don Marco and Don Antonio returned for one of those meetings they have at The Beagle.  Marc called for Clara and told her more lies and had her bring the baby to the hacienda.  He began to paint her naked.  As the hours passed her breasts grew bigger and bigger with milk.  The baby was crying.  Hungry.  He would not let her feed it.  He wanted to paint her big breasts with milk leaking out of them. The baby cried and cried until José went into Marc’s office… where he was painting… and took him to a woman who was feeding her own child and let her feed the baby.”  She yawned.  “It’s nap time.”

“Where is the painting now?” Karen asked.

“God knows. Ask Him.”

Karen returned to the car.  “Nice guy.  So Paolo got a DNA sample of the baby and no doubt also obtained one secretly from Marc so that they could prove paternity.”

“Yes.  Marc should have paid some kind of child support.”  Ruiz began to drive.

“Did he ever give her any money?”

“You are an inquisitive woman.  And the funny thing is that you ask the right questions.  Most women ask all the emotional questions. ‘Did he love her? Did she love him?'”

“That’s not an answer.”

“All right… the rumor is that Marc occasionally hired Paolo to bring ancient Mayan pottery out of the Peten.  Ten days or so ago he sent him to pick up some artifacts near the Uaxactun ruins.  It was a set up.  Paolo was supposed to be killed in Guatemala. He made it home instead.”

“Stolen antiquities?  That’s not misdemeanor stuff. What is going on with these people?”

“In these parts dealing in stolen antiquities is worse than being a serial killer.  But every time anyone’s ever started an investigation into Marc’s activities, it fades away… as Yankees say, ‘into the Mexican mist of corruption.'”

“That’s an ‘all-purpose’ excuse for the major crimes. It doesn’t answer why Clara didn’t stay to take care of Paolo.”

“I don’t know. Maybe she feared being killed.  Marc would not have let Paolo talk to anyone about his stolen antiquities’ trade.  There were probably guys watching… making sure he didn’t talk.  She might have become afraid when she supposed that they saw you and Marc. These are dangerous people.”  He stopped at an intersection and looked at her. “Karina, I’m not a fool.  Yes, I verified your professional status.  I have to do that. You’re a smart woman. You can see that this prescription scam was well thought out.  But by whom? You can’t tell friend from enemy.  Be careful.  Talk to no one.”

“What do you think is going to happen?”

“I’m going to follow through on a hunch I’ve got.  I’ll talk to you more again when I know more.  Meanwhile I want you to follow my instructions.  As soon as you receive permission to leave Mexico, go.  Go down to Belize City.  Fly home from there.  Do you understand?”

“Yes. I got that message.  I’ll remove myself from the jurisdiction as soon as possible.”

“And call me when you get home. Listen… I want you to fly out of Belize because flights are often delayed because of bad weather, and I’d just as soon have you stuck in Belize waiting…” He wrote his private phone number on the back of his card and gave it to her.  “And remember.  Normally I sleep at night.”

Karen returned to the house and quietly went upstairs.  Louisa was sitting at the vanity in her bedroom.  The girl jumped up and apologized.  “I was just fixing my make-up,” she said, hastily pushing some of Karen’s cosmetics into the drawer.

“Your eyes look red.  Have you been crying?” Karen asked.

“A little… and a little allergy, too.”

Karen went to her purse and got out a common brand of eye-drops that could be purchased anywhere.  “Let me put drops in your eyes and the red will go away and your eyes will stop itching.”  She motioned for her to sit on the edge of the bed near a lamp.  “I have to hold the dropper carefully so that it doesn’t touch the eye or an eyelash.  This keeps it sterile.”  Expertly she dropped the liquid into Louisa’s eyes.  Louisa blinked and accepted the tissue Karen handed her.

“Thank you,” she said, blotting her eyes with a tissue. “My eyes feel better already.”

“Would you be upset if I asked you a very personal question?”

“No, not at all.  I suppose you want to know about the crush I have on Tony.  He doesn’t take me seriously, I assure you.  For what I do for him, he pays me well.  I have no complaints.”

“No. It wasn’t about you.  It was about Clara and a painting that Marc did of her.”

“Marc and his ambitions to be another Renoir.  He painted most of the woman he slept with.”

“Where does he keep the paintings?”

“They’re hidden upstairs in the attic. I hope the roof hasn’t leaked any water onto them.  Some of them were in watercolor.”

“Will you take me up to show me?” Karen asked.  “I’m trying to figure out what kind of man Marc is.  I’m told the painting will help me to understand him.”

She snorted. “Humh. Talk to a priest when you want to learn about the devil!  Well…  I can’t show you anything now. I’m still on duty for the Seminar. I came up here on a bathroom break and because Marc said something that hurt my feelings.”  She stood up and curtsied to Karen. “I’m needed to prepare the guest rooms in case any of them decide to spend the night.  I doubt that they will because of Doña Agnes’ death.  But I have to stand by just in case.”

Karen decided not to inquire about Marc’s hurtful remark. “Tomorrow then?  When the house is quiet?”

“Yes.  All right.  I’ll get the keys from José and take you up… but not if Marc and Tony are home.”

Despite the coffee seminar, the house was supposed to be in mourning, yet the servants were giddy with Miguel’s news.  The kitchen staff, the gardeners, the chambermaid Louisa, and even José, the major domo, were laughing and joking about it.  Miguel Nuñez had asked Constanza Robles to marry him and she had accepted. Who would ever have supposed that the only daughter of Ignacio Robles, one of the richest men in Quintana Roo, would marry a young man – from a poor family of nine children, who was handsome and smart – of course – but clearly a member of a low economic class and had native Indian blood in him.

Miguel worked only part-time at the hacienda.  He was still a student, but one destined, according to his professors, to have a brilliant career in medicine. Robles, himself, had announced the engagement before the investment opportunity seminar began and after the presentation, he added, “In the event some people think that I am not a man of the people, this addition to my family should change their minds.”  Someone notified the newspapers and by morning the local press had followed up the announcement with photographs of the couple – in separate frames, of course.  Apparently they did not spend much time together in public.

 

Part 6: A Memorable Memorial Service.

 

A memorial service, by invitation only, was held at The Beagle on Monday evening. The same auditorium in which the seminar had been held was now put to use as a kind of chapel. Karen had spent the day in bed, trying to read. It was felt, understandably, that given the circumstances of Agnes’s death, she should privately pay her respects before the others arrived and then retreat to her bedroom or the beach.

Tony Celine came to her bedroom to escort her downstairs.  “I spent the whole damned day putting together a tribute DVD to Agnes.  Digging out old photos.  I’m no John Ford.  Promise you won’t laugh.”

“I promise.”

“I don’t know what the hell went on here or at that drug store while we were away, but I’m damned if I’m going to let you go downstairs alone.”  It was not the ringing endorsement of her innocence that she would have liked to hear, but, she reasoned, it was probably safer to have a large, important man on her arm in case one of the invitees arrived early.

The big screen endlessly repeated Tony’s DVD of Agnes’s life, verifying, unfortunately, the suspicion that she had been a skinny, homely child and teenager, as she had been a slim but somewhat awkward member of Phoenix society. Between prep school and college graduation, however, she had gained an enormous amount of weight.

Tony, as narrator, explained that Agnes had stayed home for several years to take care of her father. Ice cream and a few other sweets were the only things that the elderly man would eat and he insisted that Agnes eat them with him.  He was suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease and thought that every meal was a birthday party. “Obviously, during those years she put on quite a lot of weight. Though nearly emaciated as a prep school graduate, here she is, at graduation from the University of Texas, still heavy.”  Indeed, Karen could see her waddle across the stage to receive her diploma in a gown that was never meant to camouflage the rolls of fat that must have cascaded down her body.  There were photographs of Agnes and Marc as bride and groom: he, broomstick thin, and she, outweighing him by a few hundred pounds. It was not possible to determine where the wedding had taken place; but Karen, using a woman’s eye for such things, considered her gown to be tasteless and ill-fitting. “The seams,” she whispered to Tony, “must have been steel-reinforced.”  In the wedding portrait, Agnes’s eyes were like slits that her facial fat seemed to be enveloping.  Tony’s voice-over narration gave the wedding year as 1995.  She had become Karen’s patient in 2001.  The change in size would surprise everyone who had not known her then, or at least had not remembered her from those pre-Karen days. The second revelation was a photograph of Agnes holding her infant son. Tony’s voice dropped to a reverent whisper as he announced that the baby had died of a rare blood disease when he was only four months old; and thereafter Agnes would refer to herself as “childless.”  She had told Karen about her baby perhaps because it was impossible to conceal the differences between breasts that had once produced milk from breasts that had remained in a virginal state.

Tony asked, “Did you know that she and Marc had a son?”

“Yes… of course. I saw that the subject distressed her and did not probe for a cause of death.”

“It was leukemia,” Tony whispered.  “Damned shame. She never got pregnant again, at least as far as I know.”

Counting from the time of death, it was with astonishing quickness that the funeral service had taken place.  Agnes Celine’s ashes, apparently as soon as they cooled. were placed in the most expensive urn the Tulum Funeral Parlor sold.  It was a pale blue ceramic urn, reminiscent of Wedgewood except that the parts that would have been cream, were actual sterling silver.  Tony gestured with a sweeping bow. “My brother did well to get such an exceptional container.  To paraphrase The Bard, ‘No dress that she ever wore in life became her half as well as the urn that clothed her in death.'” He touched Karen’s elbow.  “Where would you like me to escort you… upstairs or to the beach?”

“First, upstairs so that I can change my shoes, and then the beach.”

They walked together to the beach and, as Karen sat down on the steps that led down to the sand, he said, “I hate to leave you alone like this, but I’ve got to get back and help my brother with the shindig.”

“I’ll be fine,” Karen said.  “You go on.”  As he walked away she thought that for a man who could paraphrase Shakespeare he was a tad inarticulate when he referred to the memorial service as “a shindig.”  She could not, however, escape the notion that there was more behind the reference than simply a poor choice of words.  An attitude?  She sighed.  One more thing that didn’t make sense.

She had nothing to do for the next few hours but to think and to observe.  Thinking defeated her.  She therefore observed.  All the movement was on the beach.  A few crabs ran through the foam. Bubbles burst and sank into the sand.  As the water withdrew little eddies formed around shells that had gotten stuck on the shore.  Everything was quiet except for the ships that passed. There was no wind, not even a breeze; and then the hypnotic lapping of seawater water onto the sand captured her attention and lulled her into a dream-like state.  She suddenly roused herself and checked her watch.  Two hours had passed since she sat down.  She remembered the artwork in the attic and wished that everyone would leave so that she could see it.

She looked back at The Beagle.  The gates were open but the cars were still parked in front of the house.  She could see them only by lamplight. The moon was still waiting for its celestial cue.

She thought of the old Zen story about the man who went to live in a strange country where no one spoke his language and everyone seemed reverent and happy.  He wanted desperately to know what it was that made them happy but not until he finally met a man who could speak to him in his own language did he dare to ask.  “What is it that you worship that makes you all so happy?” he asked.  And the man smiled, looked up, raised his arm and with his finger pointed to the moon.  And the curious man dropped to his knees and said, “Oh Hand with beautiful finger! Oh, gently curving nail and soft pink cuticle…”

She made herself comfortable on the steps, prepared to wait there alone for the half- moon to rise.

The cars began to drive out of the gates.  One after another, they followed each other as in funeral procession.  When the last car left, she got up, brushed the sand from her dress, and walked back to the hacienda.  As she walked through the front door, Ruiz’s pickup truck pulled into the driveway.  He beeped the horn and Karen stood in the doorway and waited for him.

Ruiz had been drinking and when he suddenly braked, the car skidded about five feet before stopping.  “Doctor Breiton,” he called, slurring his words, “you’re just the person I want to see, but don’t ask me any questions. I can’t talk about it yet.”

Tony Celine came into the foyer.  “Why don’t you show our good detective the DVD we prepared about Agnes.  Then, he can come and join us in the drawing room.  All the other guests are gone.”

Karen led Ruiz into the auditorium. Tony flicked on the DVD player and then left them alone.  Ruiz restlessly watched the images, squirming in his tipsy condition and saying nothing until the fat photographs of Agnes appeared on screen.  “Caramba!” he shouted.  “Is that Agnes?”  And he began to recite a prayer. “Dios te salve, Maria, llena eres de gracia,” and began to laugh.

When the video ended, they went into the drawing room.  “Beautiful urn,” he said to Marc.  “My compliments.” Karen rolled her eyes.  She poked him with her elbow.

“So,” Juan announced, “Karina is wearing sandals…  ‘How beautiful thy feet with shoes, O prince’s daughter.’  I’m not as drunk as I look.  I can still recite the Bible.” As he sat on the couch he steadied himself with a sweaty hand that left its imprint on the polished glass surface of the coffee table.  “What I mean is… Karen is not dressed for a funeral.  I guess they were afraid that she would drool all over Agnes Celine’s beautiful urn – having caused the ashes to be put there.”

Dan Duran stood up.  “You’ve probably already had enough to drink, but under the circumstances, I think I ought to ask if you’d like another?  So, what’ll it be?”

In Spanish, Ruiz said, “Two Dos Equis, one for the doctor and one for me.”

Dan nodded to José who went back into the kitchen.  Miguel immediately entered the drawing room carrying a tray with napkins, two bottles of beer and two tall conical beer glasses.

Ramona Duran tried to change the direction of the troublesome line of speech.  “Miquel Nuñez, here, our very own Miguel, is going to marry Constanza Robles. Think of it!”

Ruiz answered Ramona but looked directly at Miguel who was serving the beer. “Tell him that he is taking the first step in ruining his life.”

“You can tell him that, yourself,” Ramona replied, “since he’s standing right in front of you.”

“Yes,” Ruiz said, continuing to look at Miguel. “Don’t be a fool and marry into a rich girl’s family. You have much… your career, your family, your friends, and your honor and dignity.  Marry a rich girl and you will lose everything. They will take it all away from you.”

Miguel answered, offended. “What you’re saying is terrible.  Constanza is a wonderful girl. Her parents have accepted me.  Her mother says I am a perfect choice and her father even talked to my professors about me. He wanted to be sure I was right for Constanza.”

“You are a fool!” Ruiz said with disgust.  “Sit down, here… on the floor across from me… from the coffee table.”  Miguel sat down.

Karen looked worried.  Juan had had too much to drink. “You be you,” he said to Miguel, “I’ll be the rich man.  You have brains, career, friends, family. But no money.   I got all that you’ve got… the brains and the looks, but I got more… social position and I got money.  I’m important.  You’re not.  You’re nobody.”  His voice grew threatening. “But you soiled my daughter and destroyed my hope for a brilliant marriage for her.

“So this is the deal. You took my daughter, and I destroy you.  You don’t get anything else of mine and I get everything that you have.” Miguel affected an injured but tolerant look. He began to get up.  Juan held out a hand, indicating that he should sit down again.  Juan softly asked, “Do you think I want your peasant family attending my Cinco de Mayo fiesta?  Sitting down at the dinner table with my friends and relatives?  Diamonds on our fingers and dirt under your parents’ fingernails. Do you think my family and I are going to come to your house for dinner?  With the cucaraches on the floor? Think about that.

“People will think you’re rich because you married a rich girl.  Your brothers will ask you to lend them money.  But you have no money.  Your friends will ask to let them drive that Jaguar you sometimes drive.  But you don’t possess the keys to that Jaguar.”  He paused to sip beer from the tall glass.  “There’s a big football game on TV.  Are your friends allowed to come to the big hacienda and drink beer and eat tacos, watching the game?  No. There will be no room in my house for the bums you call your friends.”  He began to snicker.

Miguel said, “I’m putting up with your nonsense because you’re drunk.  Tomorrow you can apologize.”

“You like football?” Juan asked. “Who you gonna play with or go to games with?  You already alienated your family and friends.  They think you prefer your imaginary rich friends to them.  I say imaginary because you won’t have any high-bred friends.  None of them will take you to their clubs or invite you on their yachts. Soon your wife – who is probably a very nice girl but a very spoiled girl – will grow tired of you. You, your family, your race will be insulted.  You will be unable to study.  Good. Drop out.  They want you back in the barrios where you belong – not being privy to the health problems they and their friends have.”  He sipped his beer, spilling it on his shirt. “For Christmas they’ll give you a gold watch.  Show it to me before you pawn it.” Miguel said nothing but got up and began to walk to the door. Ruiz looked at Karen.  “Am I wrong?”

“Juan…   It doesn’t always have to end badly.” She looked at him. “But you’re not wrong.”

Marc abruptly stood. “I hope,” he said, “that this diatribe was not given for my benefit.  My dear wife may have had more money than I, but I was not some impoverished peasant!” Everyone looked around, stunned to think that Marc could have imagined that Juan’s little speech had anything to do with anyone except Miguel.

Ramona Duran signaled the end of the incident.  “It’s bedtime, everyone!” She turned to Marc.  “You should ask José to drive Detective Ruiz home.  A drunken cop!  What next?”

Karen stood up and held out her hand.  “Give me your car keys,” she said to Ruiz. “I’ll drive you and your truck home and José can follow in the Lincoln – if that meets with Marc’s approval.”

“Yes,” Marc snapped.  “Just get him out of here.”

As Karen adjusted the seat in Juan’s truck, she said, “You can’t possibly be as stupidly drunk as you’re acting.”

“You are innocent and I can prove it,” Juan said, trying not to slur his words.  “And for the record, I am pretty damned drunk. But I’m not ready to tell you the good news yet.”

“Try to be sober when you tell me.”

“This is an evil place,” Juan mumbled.

“I’m going to be shown Marc’s artwork, tomorrow, I hope.”

Juan suddenly sat up straight.  “Who’s showing you?”

“Louisa. There apparently are many pictures that he painted.  Every woman he slept with was immortalized in oil or watercolor.”

“As long as it is Louisa, the women will be identified.  She knows most of them. Write down their names if you can.”

Miquel had returned to the kitchen, angry and insulted.  “A cop dares to talk to me that way,” he groused.  “This is no time to start trouble, but when Constanza and I are married and the election is over, her parents will have his ass.”

The cook sympathized.  “On this night of all nights.  Señor Robles makes the announcement of your engagement to his daughter and everyone is happy; and then this drunk has to end the evening on such a note!  And so soon after Doña Agnes’s death.  Disgraceful!”

There had been little time to prepare a proper wake; and the refreshments served were the left-overs from the coffee investment seminar.  Few visitors had cared to linger over the food which was quickly discarded. While the servants tidied the kitchen, Marc and Tony went into Marc’s office, and Ramona and Dan went to bed.  After putting the DVD room in order, Louisa went upstairs.  She had turned down the beds, but since no one had stayed, she returned to the rooms to restore the bedspreads.

The chef had changed from his uniform to his civilian clothes and gave a final look to the kitchen before he left to go home. On the steps outside, he nodded to José and Karen who had just returned. Louisa was coming downstairs and Miguel, as his final chore, had taken glass cleaner and a roll of paper towels into the drawing room to clean the surfaces that had been soiled by Juan’s sweaty hands.  He had not seen Karen and José.  “Louisa!” he called.  “Did you get the key to the attic?” Karen had started up the stairs.  She stopped to listen.

José stood in the drawing room’s doorway.  He curtly asked Miguel, “Why are you interested in the attic?”

Miguel stammered in confusion.  “I was told by somebody… I don’t remember who… that there was a nice portrait of Señora Robles there.  I just wanted to see it.”

“There once was a portrait of her, but as far as you’re concerned, it was destroyed.  And when you want to see something in this house, you ask me… not Louisa.”

At midnight Miguel drove his motorcycle to the garden behind the Robles’ hacienda. He turned off the engine and walked the cycle the last fifty meters and entered the garden at the rear gate.  Constanza Robles was waiting for him.  He slid sideways through an opening in the gates and immediately Constanza was in his arms.  He carried her to several bales of hay she had placed there as a bed.  “Your father made the announcement tonight,” Miguel breathlessly said. “He says that he’s a man of the people and he opposes class distinctions.  What a guy! We are so lucky!” He paused to consider Constanza’s pregnancy.  “Did you get sick this morning?”

“Yes, it was awful for about an hour, but nobody saw me. When I felt better I started looking through a bride’s book to pick out a gown.”

“Has he called the church yet?”

“Yes.  He left a message for the Rector to call him to see what Saturdays are open in November, after the election.  A lot depends on whether he wins.  He thinks he definitely will win, but that means he’ll have endless meetings, making party-member appointments, and so on and on. Still, he promised me a Saturday morning – if possible.  He says not to tell anyone until he’s sure about the date.  Oh, and because of all the election excitement, he says we’ll have a smaller reception than we had originally wanted. He prefers that the reception be held at the hacienda for just the families, or else a bunch of drunken politicians will come and try to talk to him about getting jobs.”

Miguel did not tell her what Juan Ruiz-Montoya had said.  But there was something disturbing about the downsizing of the wedding and reception.  At the seminar, Robles spoke about the wedding, but he had smiled at Miguel the way politicians fake a smile when they look at slobbering babies. And, aside from Señora Robles’ personal request that he locate a vile portrait of her that Marc had painted because, she had said, Marc wanted to blackmail her husband for some reason, nobody in the Robles family or circle of friends had ever contacted him.  Yes, Ruiz was obnoxious.  Was he also wrong? The hazy doubts Miguel had been having gathered into a threatening suspicion.  And judging from José’s response, the portrait was still in the attic. He put aside thoughts of the portrait. Costanza was in his arms and he loved her beyond considerations of family and friends.

They made love for more than hour and would have lingered beyond that accept that a light went on in the hacienda’s second floor.  She pulled away from him. “They may be checking on me,” she said.  “I have to go!”

“Why won’t they let you spend time with me?  We’re supposed to be engaged!”

Constanza didn’t answer. She brushed the hay from her dress and began to run towards the house.

“Wait!” he called. “Give your mother a message.  That painting she was interested in was destroyed.  She’ll understand.”

Hagakure (#3)

Ming Zhen Shakya
Ming Zhen Shakya

COMMENTARY ON THE HAGAKURE 

Part 3: The Samurai and the Shogun
by Ming Zhen Shakya

 

Taira Clan Ministry (1156 – 1180)

 

Kyoto had long been the exclusive domain of the Fujiwara clan; but when the Minamoto and Taira clans turned against the Fujiwara and took Kyoto for themselves, the spoils of victory were not equally divided. The Minamoto seized the opportunity to become the pre-eminent force, taking over most of the responsibilities the Fujiwara had had for generations. The Taira, as might be expected, resented this unilateral acquisition of power and the feud between these two great houses escalated into a five year war that brought even more turmoil to the country.

The power alternated between the two in one bloody contest after another; until finally one great Taira victory inflicted particularly heavy casualties on the Minamoto who then retreated to Kamakura, near Tokyo Bay, where they recovered, waited, and prepared.

The Taira moved into Kyoto and gorged themselves on all the perquisites that the Fujiwara had enjoyed. Life was wine, poetry, fashion, romantic intrigues, favors for friends, and intermarriage with the imperial family. They not only lived the same life as the Fujiwara had lived; they made the same mistakes. Rather than quell the riots in the provinces, they ignored them, preferring to turn their attention to silks and gossip. When, by 1180, they were sufficiently “soft” the Minamoto struck.

 

The Minamoto Shogunate (1180 – 1199)

 

Victorious, the Minamoto chief, Yoritomo Minamoto, called himself Shogun (seii -taishogun – the “barbarian suppressing commander in chief”). History would consider him the first Shogun and the first real statesman of Japan. Yoritomo avoided the errors his predecessors had made: he put his administrative offices, the Bakufu, in Kamakura, far from Kyoto. The Emperor, placing his imprimatur upon the Shogun’s legitimate claim to secular power, continued to perform ceremonies and rituals in Kyoto, but Japan’s secular government, the Bakufu , firmly held the real power. Since Yoritomo preferred meritocracy to nepotism, he was able to bring efficient administration to government affairs. Cosmos replaced chaos as the norm of Japanese life.

Courts were created as were administrative departments – the most significant of which was the samurai-dokoro, the “service room” where retainers of the noblemen convened. This “service room” now functioned as a complete, multi-tasked Department of Defense.

 

The Hojo “Kamakura” Regency (1199 – 1333)

 

After Yoritomo Minamoto’s death, his sons, having proven themselves incapable of efficient statecraft, were displaced by his widow and her family, the Hojo Clan, who acted as regents and assumed control of the government. And for the next century Japan prospered. Buddhism flourished, and trade with Korea and China brought new crafts, skills, and philosophies into Japan.

And then, as the momentous thirteenth century began, the ingredients for greatness came together. The samurai “servant knight” was able to add to his fighting skills a regimen that provided for emotional control and a philosophy that gave him an understanding of the true nature of reality. Now it was not only unlimited loyalty to his daimyo and his fellow warriors – or fear of capture – that made him such an effective fighter, but he was able to acquire the spiritual means by which he could overcome even the natural fear of death. Dogen Zenji had returned from China, bringing Zen and a full range of Zen techniques for attaining egoless “detachment.”

Zen Buddhism explained the difference between the illusionary world of samsara and the real world of nirvana. But mainly, it gave a warrior a technique he could practice, one that would give him an extraordinary ability to transcend the ego entirely. Immediately, the samurai, knowing that a warrior’s greatest opponent was his own ego, seized upon these ego-eradicating techniques. The samurai went from being fearless to being indomitable.

Since a properly trained and motivated samurai would enter battle with his ego transcended, he could be killed, but he could not be defeated. He was “not there” to be defeated. And while he fought, his chances of victory were enhanced greatly; for he would be placing at the disposal of his supremely aware and capable interior Buddha Self all the skills he had acquired.

The information had not arrived a moment too soon. The Mongols were on the move.

Before the hoards of Genghis Khan slowed down and stopped, they would conquer Asia, the Middle East, and Eastern Europe. Once they had secured China and Korea, a move against Japan was inevitable.

Kubilai Khan, grandson of Genghis Khan, sent an emissary to the Hojo Bakufu to communicate a polite request that the Japanese accede to his demands… or else. The Hojo Regent preferred to test “or else” and ignored the request.

The Mongols responded by commanding Korean shipwrights to construct some 450 ships of various sizes that could carry 15,000 men, horses, and weapons of war across the Straits of Korea to Japan. The invasion would occur in November, 1274.

The samurai braced themselves. They assumed that the invasionary force would land at Kyushu, the island closest to Korea, but they did not know where specifically that landing would be. Positioning themselves in small groups at various locations on the coast, the samurai waited to be surprised. The most that any contingent could hope for was that when the attack came, fellow samurai would rush to reinforce its defensive position.

The Mongols easily took two outer islands and landed on Kyushu where they were met by the nearest group of samurai warriors.

Since the samurai had never fought against anyone but themselves, they had never encountered catapults, incendiary missiles, exploding bombs, crossbows that could send an arrow through armor, poisoned arrows, or even the kind of military strategy that the Mongols excelled in. A samurai had his sword, his armor, and his horse. Always he had gone into battle to face, at worst, another samurai who had his sword, his armor, and his horse.

Although the samurai were outnumbered and had no comparable weapons, they fought valiantly. Relying on their zen-disciplined mind and the confidence that can only be acquired in the absence of ego, they fought with a fierce determination that their enemies, many of whom were Chinese and Korean conscripts, simply lacked. When night fell, both sides, needing to eat, rest, tend their horses and their wounds, retreated – the samurai to the rear of a hill and the Mongols to their ships. The samurai waited for reinforcements. The Mongols waited for dawn.

For most of the expeditionary force, dawn would not arrive. Through the night a storm lashed the coast, and the Mongol fleet, comprised of numerous boats that were actually large, difficult to maneuver floating stables and cargo vessels, were capsized or driven onto the rocks. The battle had lasted only that one day.

Kubilai Khan learned of the catastrophe and ordered that more ships be built and an invasion force many times larger be readied for another assault on Kyushu. He sent more emissaries to the Hojo Regent demanding capitulation. The Regent obliged by beheading the ambassadors.

The Bakufu immediately prepared Kyushu’s defenses. The Regent ordered a defensive wall to be built along the area of the first invasion attempt to impede the movement of horses and carts. He did not try to duplicate any of the Mongols’ weapons. The crossbow was superior to the ordinary bow, but only to foot soldiers; and the samurai were not foot soldiers. As to catapults and trebuchets, they were cumbersome to move and there was no way of knowing precisely where the Mongols would try to establish a beachhead. A well-trained cavalry – mobile and lightning fast – was deemed the best force to oppose the invaders. He ordered the training of large numbers of troops and positioned them around the expected landing sites. He also created a fleet of small warships and, in the patriotic spirit that coursed through Japan, the country’s most expert sailors, the pirates, volunteered to assist in the anticipated naval battles.

Since other military adventures were occupying the Mongols’ attention, the Hojo Regent had ample time to prepare. The first invasion attempt had occurred in November 1274: the second came in June 1281.

Kubilai Khan sent two armadas, one from Korea and one from China, carrying at least a hundred thousand troops. He had launched the largest invasion force that history had ever recorded.

Spies reported the unprecedented numbers to the Japanese court. Truly as a supplicant, the Emperor of Japan went to Shinto’s most sacred shrine at Ise and begged for divine intercedence. He would need it.

Kubilai Khan did not concern himself about the defensive wall that stood in his former landing zone. He simply landed his forces elsewhere.

The Japanese navy, with its small highly maneuverable ships, was able to damage many of the cumbersome transports; and the great number of samurai and trained foot soldiers that massed in Kyushu advanced quickly into battle.

The Mongol strategists evidently did not expect the conflict to be a long one. They had landed their forces at the end of June well in advance of the August storm season; but Japanese resistance was such that the battle continued for the six weeks required for the Emperor’s prayers to be answered. A typhoon struck the coastal areas and destroyed the Mongol fleet. It was a divine wind (kamikaze) that saved Kyushu and terminated the Mongols’ quest for Japan. It the only defeat they had known in their Pacific to Mediterranean conquest.

After the victory, the spirit of unity that had held the Japanese together for five years vanished, and the old internecine strife returned. The high cost of the defense of Kyushu left the Kamakura Bakufu in enormous debt, and the Hojo government found its power slipping in the direction of Kyoto. A new and aggressive Emperor had come to the throne, wanting more than titular power; and many daimyos, some resenting the Bakufu’s failure to repay monies they had lent to finance the war, and others, hoping to evade paying their share of the war’s cost, pledged their loyalty to the Emperor. Having an excess of warriors, they sent him military support.

Desperate, the Hojo Regent sent an army headed by General Ashikaga against Kyoto, but as the army approached the city, the general, a noble descendant of the Minamoto Clan, announced that he had switched his loyalty to the Emperor. The Kamakura Bakufu was finished.

 

The Ashikaga “Kyoto” Shogunate (1333 – 1575)

 

General Ashikaga’s sudden change in loyalty to the Emperor did not mean that he was ceding any military authority to the throne. He had himself declared the new Shogun, ending the Emperor’s hope of becoming ruler of Japan in every sense of the word. The new bakufu was established in Kyoto.

And then for the next three hundred years the old feudal conflicts plagued the country. But so did the rise of professional, mercantile, and industrial classes; and in the midst of so much devastation and violent death, so did art and architecture. (It was during the Ashikaga shogunate that the Temple of the Golden Pavilion was built.)

A farm can support a limited number of family members, and children born in excess of that number must leave to make their living elsewhere. Fortunately, there was a market for every kind of item, from lumber to leather, from ceramics to silk. Commercial centers attracted workers and merchants and they, in turn, created the need for restaurants, inns, apothecaries, scribes, brothels, artists, physicians, entertainers, and temples. And wherever there was a town there was a dojo, a sensei, and a group of young people who wanted to learn self defense. Zen Buddhism, which was the religion of choice of the samurai elite, also became the religion of choice for those who sought the advantages of subliminal reaction’s speed. Zen monasteries instructed their monks in all forms of the martial arts.

Zen was not the only religion that provided for the transcendence of the ego: all great world religions provided for such transcendence. And it was not the only religion in which a man could be both a profoundly devout practitioner and also a fierce warrior at one and the same time. But in medieval Japan it was Zen that offered short-cuts to that desired state, and a philosophy that could support both a duty to civil authority and a duty to the Dharma.

Politically weak and unable to curtail the warfare that plagued the rest of Japan, the Ashikaga shogunate contented itself to keeping the dazzling circumstances of Kyoto well polished.

La muerte y las semillas de mostaza

20141011_185813
Yao Sheng Shakya

Queridos amigos,

Cuando alguien muere, a menudo escuchamos a algunos Budistas hablar acerca de la reencarnación y de que será del difunto en su próxima vida. El Zen tiene un punto de vista más pragmático acerca de la muerte.

En India, Buda solía viajar de ciudad en ciudad para dar sus charlas. La gente venía desde muy lejos para escucharlo. Muchas veces, le solicitaban consejo, a lo que el accedía amablemente.

Una joven madre, llamada Kisa Gotami, vivía sola en su casa mientras su marido viajaba por el país como parte de su trabajo. Ella era una chica inexperta y vivía bastante lejos de su madre como para recibir consejos cada vez que lo necesitaba (y en esa época ¡no existían los teléfonos!).

Una noche, su pequeño hijo se enfermo. A pesar de todos sus esfuerzos y buenas intenciones, el niño murió. Incapaz de aceptar la tragedia, durante días y días continuó acunando al niño, cantándole, contándole cosas… con la secreta esperanza de que respondiera.

Un vecino se apiadó de ella y le sugirió a Kisa que llevara el bebé al Buda, quien estaba predicando en un pueblo cercano. “Si alguien puede ayudarte con tu niño, es Él”, le dijo el vecino. Así que Kisa acudió al Buda, llevando el cuerpo de su hijito.

“¿Curarás a mi hijo?” le preguntó al Buda cuando lo encontró “Está en un sueño profundo y no quiere despertar”

El Buda comprendía el problema. Kisa no podía aceptar el hecho de haber perdido a su pequeño. Aún así, le dijo: “Puedo ayudarte. Debes visitar una casa y conseguir allí algunas semillas de mostaza para que haga un ungüento con ellas. Pero hay algo muy importante que debes observar: en la casa dónde obtengas esta semilla no debe haber muerto nadie, nunca”.

Así, ella fue a la primer casa y preguntó al hombre que la atendió si le daría unas semillas de mostaza. La semillas eran algo común y barato entre la gente, así que este no dudó en darle algunas. “Sólo hay una cosa además”, le dijo Kisa “nadie debe haber muerto en esta casa”.

“Oh, entonces no puedo ayudarte. Mi esposa murió en su cama aquí hace alrededor de un año”, le explicó el viudo.

Kisa fue a otra casa. Aunque el dueño estaba listo para ayudarla, tuvo que admitir que había perdido a su padre hace unos meses, con lo cual sus semillas no serían de utilidad.

Y así fue ella, casa por casa, hasta que hubo visitado cada lugar del pueblo sin que nadie pudiera ayudarla. Entonces ella volvió al Buda, y con lágrimas en los ojos, aceptó enterrar a su hijo.

A Prescription for Murder (#2)

Ming Zhen Shakya
Ming Zhen Shakya
 To see more literature about Zen and the Art of Investigation:
http://www.zenanthonywolff.com

A Prescription for Murder

by Anthony Wolff (Ming Zhen Shakya)

To see all available chapters of “A Prescription for Murder” click here

Part 3: Ambergris Caye and the Morgue

 

Everyone had already gone into town by the time Anthony Celine knocked on Karen’s bedroom door.  “I’ll be down in a minute,” she replied when he insisted that she give him an opinion about the weather.

After having only three hours of sleep, she dressed and came downstairs.  Anthony took her arm and guided her outside.  “The sun, as you can see – I’m not making this up! – is shining.  You need sun glasses.” He pulled a pair of aviator sunglasses from his pocket.  “These are a woman’s size – for when I go out in drag.  I’ll let you borrow them if you promise you won’t tell anyone where you got them.”

She laughed at him and put the glasses on.  “They fit!” she said, surprised.

“Actually I borrowed them from the chambermaid.  I wanted to get you out of the house and while I know that as a physician you’re used to unpleasant things, I thought I’d try to dangle something nice before your eyes.” He jokingly corrected himself.  “Dangle may not have been the best word.”  He pointed at a little marina half a mile down the beach.  “My brother keeps the Beaglette, a small Bermuda sloop in a slip there.  He collects barnacles for a hobby.  He doesn’t sail.  He just likes barnacles.”  He laughed and she smiled at his joke.  “Which is why,” he continued, “I got up at 6 a.m. to hire someone to get the Beaglette’s hull out of the water and do a little scraping.  She’s fit to sail across to any one of the outlying islands, most of which belong to Belize.  But if they don’t care, why should we?”

“Ah,” she demurred. “I don’t know that I’m up for sailing.”

“Sure you are.  Marc and Agnes have gone to see a lawyer today.  And so did Dan and I guess that means Ramona.  You don’t want to stay home with me after I got up so early to get that beautiful sloop ready.  The little galley is weighed down with croissants and coffee. So go get your bathing suit.”

“That’s fine for me, but I have to go into town to buy some baby formula for Clara’s little son.”

“No need for that. After I told them to clean the hull, I bought a case of baby formula and half a dozen bottles with nipples and diapers, too.  They’ve already been delivered and I refuse to do it again.  I even got some Poly-vi-sol with iron. And since the grocer said the baby was big enough to eat canned food, I got him a case… a variety of fruits and vegetables. Trust me when I tell you that sending flowers would have cost more.”

“You’re one hell of a doctor’s assistant,” Karen said. “I hope you sail as well.”

Anthony called the house and talked to José.  “Because of the death in the household, you and the staff can finish your chores and take the rest of the day off.  Just be back by six o’clock to get dinner ready. The doctor and I are going sailing,” he said, “and we don’t expect to be back before the 8 p.m. dinner.  Doña Agnes and Don Marco can fend for themselves if they return early.”

“Why is it a ‘death in the house’?” Karen asked, as they returned to get her bathing suit.

“The chambermaid Louisa is Clara’s sister.  Clara used to work at The Beagle, too.  A few years ago. Marc and Agnes treated them as family.”

“The relationships around here are rather confusing.  Tell me, are you and Marc full brothers?  He’s blonde and brown eyed and you have the more traditional Roman look… dark eyes and hair.  Nice grey at the temples. You have that distinguished Roman nose, his is shaped differently… smaller.”

“You are the first woman I’ve met who has seen Marc and hasn’t recognized bleached hair.  He gets it touched up every two weeks.  As to the Roman nose, a little rhinoplasty took care of that.

He didn’t like the Italian look.  He prefers Nordic or Hellenic or something.  I’ll give him this: he’s stayed with the same look for the last quarter century.”

She smiled. “To keep my date with the handsome Tony Celine I had my hair dyed ash blonde, a variation of my own natural color – the grey was covered, free of charge.  So I don’t know my way around hair salons.  In my line of work they take up too much time.  So, nope, I didn’t realize that his hair was bleached.”

“He spends plenty to have it look natural.  If you look closely you’ll see that it’s slightly darker at the crown… as a natural blonde’s would be. The waves and curls are real. Oh, he recites poetry in French and the ladies go nuts.”

Karen stuffed her bathing suit into a large make-up bag and finding many things to giggle about walked down the beach with Tony Celine.  “Make sure your phone and all that GPS stuff is on,” Tony advised.  “I may look like Jack Sparrow, but I’m really just a landlubber with delusions of grandeur.  Normally, I’d say, ‘Turn the damned things off. The telephone is an instrument of torture.’ But… my sailing skills being what they are…”  He helped her to board the sloop Beaglette.

Just after 1 p.m. as they reached Ambergris Caye and dropped anchor in an inlet, Karen changed into her bathing suit and Tony took several photos of her and a selfie of the two of them.  “Let’s not bother with the dinghy,” Tony said.  Karen agreed and they swam to shore.

Clouds were already forming on the eastern horizon as they walked along the beach. When it started to rain they ran to an empty shack for cover.  A minute later an English couple bolted into the shack and they all laughed and talked about the weather.  The couple had two full decks of cards with them which they sorted into a pinochle deck and, after clearing a place on the dirt floor, they played a few rollicking men-against-women pinochle games.

At 2:30 p..m., inside the shack, the couple invited them to ride down the coast with them in their cabin cruiser for some Belizean food.  They accepted the invitation, but when they stepped out onto the beach, they were startled to see how bad the weather had gotten while they were having fun playing cards. The wind had begun to blow again and the sky from horizon to horizon was like a dark grey water-filled balloon just waiting to be pierced by lightning.   The Beaglette sat nervously in a sea that was growing more turbulent.  “Jesus,” Tony said, seeing the ship so much farther from shore than they had anchored it.  “We’re not supposed to have much tidal change around the half-moon but a northerly wind must be pushing the water into the peninsula.  Maybe we ought to pass on the Belizean food.”

Everyone said goodbye and exchanged addresses and phone numbers and then Karen and Tony entered the water and began to swim to the ship.  They climbed the rope ladder and boarded the vessel, shivering with the sudden chill.  Karen checked her phone while Tony went below deck to change his clothes.  “Marc called,” she shouted.  “Agnes is sick.” By the time she listened to all of her voice-mail messages, Tony was on deck, preparing to raise the anchor.

“What’s wrong with her?” he asked.

“I’m calling Marc back now.  He left six messages.  He’s hard to understand when he gets excited.”

Marc answered. “You’ve got to come back right away.  Agnes isn’t well at all.”

“What are her symptoms?” .

“She can’t keep anything down.  She’s even thrown up the medicine.  Just plain nausea, I guess.  We’ve tried everything.  She says she’s tired and won’t get out of bed.”

“Is she feverish?”

“Not that I can tell.  She seems cool to the touch.  But what do I know?”

“I think you should take her into the hospital immediately.  Tony’s raising the sails now.  I can’t tell how long it will take us to get home from wherever it is we are on Ambergris Caye.” She called to Tony, “How long before we get home?”

“I’m no expert.  I guess a few hours. Three maybe.  But I’m no good in a storm.”

“Tony guesses three hours,” she told Marc.  “When did Agnes start to get sick?”

“She had eaten huevos rancheros for breakfast.  And some special jalapeño bread. We ate before 8 a.m. and left to keep an appointment with the lawyer.  But right away, the breakfast didn’t sit well with her.  She chewed a few antacid tablets in the car, but in the lawyer’s office she started to get some serious heartburn, so we stopped at the drugstore on the way back–-I don’t understand this!  We all ate the identical breakfast.  Nobody else got sick.”

“All right,” she said, “take her to the hospital. Take any medication you gave her with you and give the doctor as complete a history as you can. If he has questions, call me from the hospital.”

Karen changed her clothes and gave them enough time to get to the hospital before she called again.  Marc said that his wife had finally fallen asleep and he did not want to disturb her.

“You didn’t take her to the hospital?” Karen asked, alarmed.  “Take her pulse!”

“Why should I disturb her?  I’m not medically trained.”

“Any human being can take a person’s pulse. You have a watch with a second hand sweep.  Lightly touch her wrist… just above the heel of her hand and when you feel the beat start counting for fifteen seconds and then multiply that by four.  Do it and I’ll call back in five minutes.”

Five minutes later when she tried to reach him, her call went to voice mail. It was 3:45 p.m. She looked at Tony.  “This makes no sense. She was sick all morning but his first voicemail didn’t come in until 1:46.”

“He no doubt didn’t want to mess up our date.  He knew how I felt about you.”  He held the wheel with one hand and pulled Karen to him with the other.  He kissed the top of her head.  “Don’t worry.  Everything will be fine. Marc tends to be dramatic.”

The winds were mostly favorable and they returned to the marina just after 6 p.m.. They tied down the ship and ran to the house. Karen, taking the stairs two at a time, rushed to Agnes’s bedroom.  The chambermaid came into the foyer and shouted as she followed Karen upstairs, “He already took her to the hospital!”  Karen, startled by the similarity that the maid’s voice had to Clara’s, looked back as she opened the door to the master bedroom, a room she had not seen before.

“Did Don Marco take her pulse?” she asked, pulling up the mosquito netting.  She examined the pillows and sheets.

“He tried but couldn’t find it, he said.  So he put her in the Lincoln and José drove them to the hospital. I didn’t notice the time.”

Tony stood at the top of the staircase.  “Come on.  I’ve got keys to Marc’s Buick.  We can go to the hospital.”

“Try to get them on the phone.  She needs a cardiologist.  She may also need atropine in case there’s nobody qualified on duty.”  She circled the bed to look at a bottle of pills that were on Agnes’s side of the bed.  It was an old prescription of Marc’s for codeine that a doctor in Phoenix had ordered.  As Karen returned it to the bedside table, the maid saw the corner of a piece of paper sticking out from under the disturbed bed cover.  She  picked it up and looked at it quizzically.  She read “Cerb-e or a,” and handed the paper to Karen.

“Do you understand the word?” Karen asked.

“No,” the maid shook her head and quickly turned away.

“We’ll figure it out later,” Karen said, stuffing the paper in her pocket as she ran after Tony who was barking orders in Spanish to someone on the phone.

At the hospital reception desk Tony asked for Agnes Celine and was directed to the morgue.  Karen gasped and slumped against Tony. “This is insane,” she said.

Tony supported her as he received directions to the morgue that was located at the rear of the hospital’s ground floor.  There was no body on the laboratory table. Marc was not there; but the medical examiner, an elderly doctor named Cardenas, was sitting at a desk filling out papers.

“We’re here about Agnes Celine. Her doctor is here.”

“I’m Señora Celine’s cardiologist.”

The doctor looked up at her and assumed a dismissive attitude. “Have you talked to the police?”

“No.”

“Then why are you here?”

“I can give you some patient history.  I have no files with me but I can easily have them faxed to you, if you require them. Señora Celine had an old history of arrhythmia… specifically, bradycardia. It was under control.”

Dr. Cardenas sneered.  “Then why would you prescribe flecainide acetate for a patient with bradycardia? And at a lethal dosage? There’s no mistake.  She had your prescription filled at a pharmacy in Chetumal this morning.”  He continued to mumble in Spanish.

Karen looked at Tony. “What is he talking about?”

“The prescription of yours that was filled at the pharmacy here.”

“What? The antibiotics for Paolo?”

“No… the one you wrote for Agnes.” Anthony Celine put his hand up, indicating that Karen should not say another word.  He then spoke almost apologetically to the Medical Examiner as Karen listened with open-mouthed incredulity. Finally he turned to Karen. “He says you prescribed a medicine for slowing the heart rate of a heart patient who has a history of bradycardia, that is to say, a dangerously slow heart rate condition.  This, in his opinion, constitutes gross negligence or some kind of ‘medical misadventure.'”

“What is he talking about?” Still confused, Karen again insisted, “I never prescribed such a drug for Agnes! I ordered antibiotics and a syringe for an injured man.”

Anthony tried to explain. “Not him... not the Indian man. He says you wrote a prescription in Phoenix which Agnes had filled here in Chetumal on her way back from the lawyer’s office this morning.  The pharmacist gave the prescription paper to the detective – the cop you met last night. Marc gave the detective the actual bottle of pills, too. She clearly took the pills.  They sent an attendant back to The Beagle to pick up the basin she vomited in.  A few of the pills evidently were still intact in the vomit.”

“This is insane!” Karen groaned.  “I haven’t written Agnes a prescription in months.”

Anthony spoke to the doctor again in Spanish.  This time, Karen tried to listen closely to what he said. She didn’t get the question but Anthony answered, “The doctor and I went sailing.”

The doctor asked at what time they had left the hacienda. Anthony looked at Karen.  “When did we leave the house this morning?”

“Around 9:30.”

Anthony repeated this in Spanish.  Then he added, “I don’t know.  That’s when I saw her. My opinion is that since she was up so late last night, she slept late and the others were all gone before she got up.  I had gone to the pharmacy early to buy some baby formula. I was there when it opened at 8 a.m. and was home before 9.”

“What did you have for breakfast?”

Typica,” Anthony said.  “Steak, eggs, salsa, tortillas, coffee.  I ate in the hacienda’s kitchen.”

While they spoke, Detective Inspector Juan Ruiz-Montoya entered the room.  The prescription bottle was inside a police-taped evidence envelope.  “We meet again,” he nodded to Karen.  “I heard the last part of your conversation.”

“Agnes never talked to me about eating chile,” Anthony said in Spanish to the doctor. “My brother said that she had spoken to Karen about eating spicy food before she came down here.  She had longed to eat huevos rancheros and some spicy entrees but she was extremely afraid of heartburn.  She told him she had consulted Karen before they left Phoenix.  That’s all I know.”

Karen understood enough Spanish to object. “She never spoke to me about food!  Not in Phoenix. Not in Mexico.  And heartburn comes from an abundance of stomach acid.  Chile would have been good for it. She never complained of heartburn.  If she had a gastric problem she’d have seen another specialist.”

The detective took Karen by the arm and led her into the hall.  He spoke softly to her. “This is what they claim: the prescription which bore your signature and was written on your prescription pad was dated on September 30th and filled this morning at 9:30 a.m. here in Chetumal.  She had eaten chile salsa for breakfast and had some stomach distress which she called heartburn.  In the morning you were asleep and she didn’t want to awaken you because you had been up so late… as I personally can attest to.  About an hour after eating she felt worse – they were in the lawyer’s office at the time – and so they stopped at the pharmacy to get your prescription filled.  Dan and Ramona Duran substantiated this.  The druggist asked them if they knew you as a physician and Marc spoke glowingly about your ability and said that you were Agnes’ physician for many years.”  He let Karen look at the prescription bottle through the clear plastic evidence bag.

“I never wrote this prescription!  It is so contra-indicated!  Never!  Never would I have written it.”

“I have to ask you not to leave town,” the detective said.  “But I’ll drive out to the hacienda this afternoon.  We can talk then.”

Near collapse, Karen whined, “What is happening?” She had during the course of her training made many mistakes… mostly omissions… that caused embarrassment for her and discomfort or inconvenience for the patient.   But nothing like this.  She had heard horror stories about Mexican corruption, the bribery that was necessary to get an American out of their legal system.  “Oh, God,” she said, “this is a nightmare.  I need to wake up.”

“We’ll talk later,” Ruiz-Montoya said, trying to calm her.  He guided her back into the laboratory.

“Where is my brother?” Tony asked him.

“He’s upstairs with the hospital administrator and then he’ll probably go to police headquarters.  If you want to be with him, don’t worry about Dr. Breiton.  I’ll see that she gets home.”

“I brought her and I can take her home.”

“I’d like to see my patient,” Karen said, taking a step toward Tony.

Ruiz shook his head. “That’s not a good idea. They won’t let you touch the body; and if Marc Celine comes in and in his grief and confusion starts to shout insults at you, you will reap no benefit. I saw her.  There’s not a mark on her… nothing to see.”

“I still want to see her.”

“Then I’ll take you back inside. After that I have a few official questions to ask. I can conduct at least part of my interview in the car, driving back to The Beagle.”  He turned to Tony. “Your chivalry aside, this is a police matter. I can interview you there or at police headquarters, whatever you wish.”

“Karen has my number. When you’re ready for me just call.” He pulled Karen to him and whispered in her ear, “Do you want me to get a lawyer for you?  I don’t like where any of this is going.”

“No, I’ll be fine, although I may change my mind about that lawyer.”

Tony tightened his grip around her waist and kissed her on the cheek.

 

Part 4:  The Interrogation

 

Agnes Celine lay on a metal slab that the attendant pulled from a refrigerated compartment. The medical examiner pulled back the sheet that covered her naked body and indicated that Karen was not to touch the body.  Traces of eye makeup that Agnes had put on in the morning were still present.

“She looks asleep,” Ruiz-Montoya said.

Karen tugged at his arm.  “There’s nothing we can do here.  I assume she’ll be given a full autopsy?”

The medical examiner said, “Ruiz, por favor.”  He detained the detective and dismissed Karen, pointing to the door and telling her to wait outside in the corridor.  Angry and uncomprehending, she left the lab, pushing the lab’s swinging doors so hard that as she walked down the hall, they continued to sweep back and forth.

Before the doors had stopped swinging, Ruiz came into the hall.  “Doctor!” he called.

Karen raised her hands and gestured wildly.  “What is going on?”

“Calm.  Stay calm.  There will not be an autopsy. After they left the lawyer’s office, Agnes got the medicine and by the time they arrived home, she had started to experience nausea as well as the heartburn that Marc had said she had earlier. They didn’t want to disturb your day out with Tony.  Agnes lay on her bed and asked the maid Louisa to bring a basin so that if she needed to vomit she wouldn’t have to get up.  The maid put the basin beside her bed on the floor and left the room.  At some later time Agnes did vomit into the basin and continued to retch.  Louisa didn’t want to remove the basin to empty and clean it for fear that while she was doing that, Agnes might throw up again.  So she just left it there.”  He shrugged and grinnned. “Technically, she had been given the day off.

“Later, as Marc began to lift Agnes to take her to the hospital, his foot pushed the basin under her bed.  The medical examiner sent an attendant to pick it up, and there were the tablets you supposedly prescribed in the vomit.  Apparently she had taken at least four tablets.  The prescription called for one tablet, twice a day.  Agnes, therefore, had a certain degree of culpability.  Anyway, the druggist identified the medication.  Marc said that her pulse had been nearly undetectable. He had to hold a mirror up to her nose to determine that she was still breathing.  That’s when he picked her up and took her to the hospital. She was moribund. They did everything they could. But the officially listed time of death was 4:32 p.m.”

“He should have acted much earlier. I told him to take her to the hospital while we were leaving Ambergris Caye. He didn’t want to disturb her because he said she was finally sleeping.  I insisted.  Marc had said that she threw up earlier, but he assumed that this was just simple nausea. When I called again my call went to voice-mail.”

“Did he ever mention the basin?”

“No.  I knew nothing about a basin until two minutes ago.”

“At this point, Marc doesn’t want an autopsy and there really is no reason to conduct one.  No one suspects foul play. Marc speaks well of the care you’ve given Agnes and you are her physician of record… the recent prescription proves that.  The stomach contents contained undigested tablets of flecainide.”

But I didn’t prescribe flecainide!”     

“Doctor, I’ve heard you deny that.  Let’s say I believe you. Do yourself a favor and don’t continue to deny it.”  He led her outside and opened the pickup-up’s door.  “Buckle up.”

He began to drive out of the hospital parking lot. “Now, I’m going to put my digital recorder on the dashboard.  When I turn it on, I’ll ask you questions and you won’t go into a rant about that prescription.  You’ll just be sad… concerned… humble. Do you understand?  I’m not going to question you about the prescription.”

 

Karen doubted that the detective’s solicitousness was intended to accrue to her benefit.  “Maybe we should wait until Tony Celine is here.”

“This is a police interview not a public relation’s social. The interview will be conducted in private.  Now do as I tell you.”

“At least I ought to have a lawyer representing me when I’m officially interviewed – in a truck or in an office.”

“I’m not asking you to trust me.  I’m telling you to trust me.  I want your statement and I want it now and in just the way I described… sad… concerned… humble.  Don’t give me a hard time.  Decisions are being made now.  Help to make them in your favor!”  He slowed the car, removed a digital recorder from his jacket pocket, turned it on and announced the name of the  deceased, the date, time, place, his name and the name of the person he was questioning.

By answering his questions without benefit of counsel Karen felt that she would one day be the old, wrinkled victim of one of those “wrong conviction” cases that were often reviewed on television shows.  Twenty years later someone would discover that she had been set up all because she was naive enough to speak to the police and simply give a truthful but easily twisted account of her part in the event being investigated.  She clamped her teeth together and glared at him, wagging her head negatively.

Ruiz-Montoya began, asking the question first in Spanish and repeating it in English.  “Your place and date of birth, Doctor.”

She refused to answer.  He pulled over onto the road’s shoulder and reached across to pinch her nose shut. “It’s all right, Doctor,” he said gently. “The microphone is very sensitive.  You can answer in your normal voice.” He released her nose.

Wide-eyed and furious, Karen tried to be sad, concerned, and humble.  “I was born in Phoenix, Arizona on October 28, 1967.”

He repeated her answer in Spanish. “I require a few more personal details. Are you married?”

“I’m a widow.  My husband was Henri Breiton.  We were married in l987.  He was, by nationality, French.  We married when I was a freshman in medical school.  We have one child, a daughter, Amalie who lives in France.  She’s married.”

“What is your relationship with Anthony Celine?”

“I have none.  He’s from Phoenix.  Years ago I met him and his late wife once at a hospital fund-raising party.  Agnes and Marc also attended, but we were not friends.”

“You didn’t get along?”

“No! I’m Agnes’ physician.  I make it a rule not to socialize with my patients.  And next you’ll ask, ‘Why then are you here?’  Anthony suggested that Agnes invite me to attend a seminar or to make an even number of men to women at the dinner table. I don’t know why. It was strictly a casual arrangement.  The seminar was about coffee. That’s all I know.”

“Would you give me your academic background, including medical school and residency and any professional organizations of which you are a member?”

Again, she answered, trying to sound rational.  He asked, “Have you ever been sued for malpractice or been subjected to censure of any kind… reprimand… fine… probationary term… in association with the exercise of your profession?”

“No! Never!” She had forgotten to be humble.

“That will all be checked.  What did you talk about the last time you spoke to Agnes?”

“We were all at dinner.  We talked about her father’s exploits, mostly.  And a dog they used to have they called ‘Culebra.’  A great dane.”  Karen suddenly remembered the note that the maid had found.  “Wait!” she said.  “Karen may have left a note.  It was under a blanket on her bed.  The maid saw it and gave it to me.”  She pulled the note from her pocket.

The detective began to curse in Spanish and shut off the recorder.  “Now we have to do this again!” he said, rewinding and erasing their brief interview.  “Why didn’t you mention this sooner? What does it say?”

“Excuse me!  I’m being charged with writing a prescription that killed a woman… a prescription that I know nothing about!  I had a few things on my mind!”  She took a deep breath and looked at the paper.  “I don’t know… Cerba or Cerbe.  Capital C, lower case e, lower case r, lower case b, and then lower case either a or e.  That’s all. The maid didn’t know what it meant.” She showed Ruiz the note. He looked at it and put it in an evidence envelope.

“Tell me more about the dog.”

“It was a dane and very friendly.  It wagged its tail so hard that it would cut its tail on the door jambs.  So every room’s doorway had these bloody stripes.  The English frown on cropping a dog’s ears and tail, but while they didn’t crop the ears, the tail had to go. So they had it surgically removed.  What?  Were you thinking of Cerberus?”

“Yes.. as a matter of fact. A three headed dog that guards the gods of the underworld.”

“That’s the sort of thing her father would have known about.  He had all these exotic plants  and native artworks.”

“Did you see any unusual oil paintings?”

“Unusual? No.  Awful, Yes. Marc said they were his.  In the dining room there were half a dozen oil paintings that illustrated the bland meals I prescribed for Agnes. Frankly, I thought he was mocking them. But maybe that’s just a coincidence.  I didn’t see anything that had to do with a three headed dog.”  She hesitated a moment.  “I don’t mean to be nosy, but how is it that you seem to be the only detective on the force.  This town must have a large police force… being a border town and all.  Your exclusive involvement in this case seems a bit strange.”

“There’s a problem. We can’t take vacations in the summer when all the tourists are here and the crime rate, and missing persons, and arguments over room rates, and stolen items, and the ‘I just got stung by a  jellyfish will I die?’ folks drive us crazy.  It’s 24/7.  But after your Labor Day, things get quiet.  The kids go back to school and we have several four day holiday weekends that the younger officers who have families take as holidays.  The old timers have to wait until we can take a week or two off.”

“Are you on duty now?”

“Oh, yes. And you’ve got a serious problem.  But let’s get back to Cerba or Cerbe..   Could it mean Cerbatana?”

“Isn’t that a blowgun? Paolo had one in his house. It was used to prop up the mosquito netting around his bed.”

“All the Indian men have them. But they never use them as props for anything.  Straightness is indispensable.  The wood is hard but often brittle.  He probably didn’t use it for shooting game. Nevertheless…”  He took out his phone. “Excuse me one moment.”   Ruiz-Montoya called the morgue. He asked the Medical Examiner to double-check Agnes’ body for any kind of puncture wound… everything from a snake bite to a poisoned dart or needle injection site.

Before they reached the hacienda, the doctor called back to say that there were absolutely no wounds on Agnes Celine’s body.  He began an anti-American diatribe. “Agnes Celine died from heart failure. She was known in the medical community here.  She always had an abnormally sluggish heart. The condition was certainly worsened by the ingestion of the flecainide tablets the American genius-doctor prescribed for her. We examined her stomach contents in the basin. There was no question about her having taken the pills.  Since there is no criminal intent but just plain American stupidity, there will be no autopsy. Señor Celine doesn’t want his wife subjected to the procedure. Incidentally, he is being very Christian, very civilized, about this mistake. He says that before his wife ever saw Dr. Breiton she had been advised by several physicians that she would not live another year without a pacemaker.  Then he took her to Dr. Breiton who managed his wife’s care so perfectly that he got fifteen more years of life and love from her.  He speaks highly of Breiton and insists this is merely an accident… negligence perhaps, but without any intent to harm, there’s no crime.”

Ruiz thanked him and disconnected the call.  “Could you hear what he said?”

“Yes, I picked up most of it.”

He looked at her.  “Do you understand what I’m trying to tell you?”

“Yes,” she sighed. “Don’t make things worse by blaming someone else for writing the prescription since that would indicate intent and therefore constitute a crime.  I get it.”

Ruiz shook his head.  “Marc the Good Christian. That’ll be the day. He’s a womanizer, a gambler, a swindler, and he’s known to use heroin.  Do you remember the story from the Bible about the rich man who wants to follow Jesus?”

“Yes.  I remember.  He’ll do anything that Jesus asks, except give his money to the poor.”

“That’s Marc. Money is the motive. This was not an accident.”

“Is this the normal police protocol used whenever a detective has a vulnerable female suspect at his mercy?  Making rash assumptions that she just might be innocent?”

“None of us is completely innocent.”  He could have said this in a playful, flirtatious way.  But he said it seriously and his tone put her on edge.  It seemed cynical, the concluding apologetic utterance of a criminal lawyer’s summation.

Karen protested. “I’m the person who’s asked when someone dies.  You’re the person who’s asked when someone’s killed. I can tell you in great detail why Agnes Celine died.  It took me years of study and practice to be able to do that.  Along with all our other assumptions, I’ll assume you know what you’re doing.  He couldn’t have done this alone. So who at the hacienda is his ally?”

Ruiz sighed as he picked up the recorder to reset it.  “Even if the prescription is deemed an act of negligence, one that is not criminal in nature, you’ll be liable for the error in civil court back in the U.S.  Torts… you know that story. They also kept her vomit. It’s frozen, but in evidence.

“At this stage of the investigation I have no suspects; and you know that I cannot discuss the case with you, so don’t ask.  Just go through the interview with me again and this time don’t sound like you’re giving a sermon!”

Before he clicked on the recorder, he said, “Don’t volunteer anything.  Just answer my questions… in a humble tone of voice.”

They were only a few miles from the hacienda when he finished the brief interview.  He shut off the recorder.  Softly, but with definite urgency, he said, “You are not to leave Quintana Roo until you receive official permission.  But when you are given permission to go, run – don’t walk – run across the border to Belize and fly home from there.  Get the hell out of Mexico.  We can continue our conversation in Phoenix.  Incidentally, my father had acid-reflux or heartburn or whatever you call it.  The local curandero told him to take cayenne peppers, put a dedada... a pinch… inside a little ball of tortilla dough… like a pill.  He took them several times a day.  I guess Marc didn’t know that. My father lived to be 84. He drowned while fishing at sea. So I get it.  Chile is alkaline.  It will neutralize acid. I want you to tell me anything else that happened that might have seemed odd to you… from the beginning.”

“Ok… The first thing was the invitation.  Tony Celine is apparently well known in Phoenix. His wife died last year – I hadn’t known that. He casually suggested that Agnes invite me.  It all seemed so pat to me.”

“Pat?”

“You know… so conveniently arranged. Everybody knows that I never see my patients socially… it’s an opportunity for mischief, if you know what I mean.  So that Agnes Celine should even invite me down here to sort of be handsome Tony’s date was odd. Why me, of all people?”

“Then at dinner there was the business about Clara having come earlier and being told that the doctor was away from the hacienda but would be returning. Clara spoke perfect English.  I could even understand her Spanish.  She clearly said, ‘now that the doctor has returned’ which can only mean that she had come looking for me or another physician earlier.  But nobody mentioned it. And Marc shut-down the topic at that point.

“Then there was Marc’s glacially slow dressing.  You could have dressed a room full of kids to go out to play in the snow before he changed from dinner clothes to his safari outfit.  Especially when he knew the woman had come earlier and that her husband was seriously injured, you’d think he’d have hurried and been down in five minutes.  It took more than half an hour.

“And another thing… there was no reason that Miguel or José couldn’t have driven the Jeep. Even I can drive a stick shift.  I offered to drive Clara myself.  But he insisted on going.”

“I’m beginning to understand why you arrived so late at the farmacia.”

“That was nothing compared to the tire.  He had a tire that had an inner tube that had evidently been punctured.  When it had gotten flat, I don’t know, but I did notice the Jeep earlier in the evening and it had no flat.  The right front tire would have been the one that I saw most clearly when I saw the Jeep.  It was not flat. But it was a British Jeep and they do things opposite…like the driver sits on the right, and the overhead lights were dimmed by flying insects… so I wasn’t absolutely sure.  I mean…. this was life and death and he’s looking for a hole in an inner tube… having Miguel fill a tub with water so that he could submerge the tube to find the leak.  There were plenty of tires and inner tubes around. Some were new inner tubes – and they couldn’t have been used for their new cars… new tires are tubeless.”

“Didn’t he have a spare?”

“That’s what I asked!  He answered that if he had had a spare he would have used it.”

“And when you got to the farmacia, how did he react?”

“He didn’t pound on the door.  He just stood there. My purpose was to wake the owner up. Thank God the owner called the police. And another thing.  Clara insisted on coming with us.  She was so anxious about her husband and yet she left the old woman alone with him to apply the hot wet compresses I had ordered to be placed on the wound.  And how come Clara lives like a native but speaks English like a lady at the Court of Saint James?”

“That old woman would have gotten help from a neighbor if she needed it. Clara and her sister Louisa – the chambermaid at the hacienda – were raised in an English lady’s house.  Chetumal is closer to English-speaking Belize than to any other Spanish city.  Cancun didn’t exist in those days. Anyway, their mother was the cook.  The English lady spoke Castilian Spanish. I used to get a kick out of speaking with someone who said ‘Thinco’ for five.  I myself was born in Madrid and came to Mexico when I was kid and had to learn to speak Spanish.”  He grinned at the little joke.  “So the two girls were educated with English text books.  The lady had two kids and the tutor she hired taught Clara and Luisa at the same time.  As teenagers, both went to work at the hacienda, at first just as chambermaids and, when needed, as tour guides for the garden.  Marc and Tony came down frequently on business… those investment opportunities… and pleasure, too, but Agnes was so rarely here that I guess the girls acquired a kind of proprietary attitude towards The Beagle.  They spoke English and would boss the other servants around.”  He looked at her slyly.  “You know how bossy English speaking females are.”

Karen relaxed enough to smile.  “Ok.  Ok. That’s enough from you.”

“The girls still lived with the English lady but when she died, I think the girls assumed they’d inherit some of her property.  Maybe she had told them they would leave them something – many landowners use the promise of some kind of inheritance to keep their servants in line.  Who knows?  When the lady’s relatives from London moved in, the girls were summarily evicted.  They continued to work at The Beagle, only now they lived there as well.  But two live-in chambermaids were one too many; and Clara was let go.  She was pregnant and finally married an indigenous… that’s a term for native Indian… ‘indito’ is the slang… fellow who was suspected of illegally dealing in antiquities.”

“Was there ever any relationship between Clara and Marc?”

“Ahhh. You get right to the point.  Well, we’re entering an area of gossip here.  There isn’t a wealthy home in the universe in which there aren’t suspected relationships between owners and servants.”

“You didn’t answer the question.”

“I’m the investigator.  I’m not supposed to answer your questions.  You’re supposed to answer mine!”

“You have just confirmed that there was a sexual relationship.”

“Marc Celine is a well-known ladies’ man. He gives the impression that he’s the owner of the place. He’s a good-looking man and women seem to want to be immortalized by him as though he were Picasso. You didn’t see any portraits?”

“In the foyer I recall seeing a portrait of a fat old woman sitting in a chair.  It wasn’t Whistler’s mother, but it wasn’t as bad as those food paintings.”

“That old woman was probably the grandmother who lived in the house around the time that Agnes and Marc married.”

“Ah, the fat one they got the Lincoln for. Marc mentioned her.  What about Anthony? Agnes told me that he was a widower. I rather liked the guy. By the way, how is it that you speak English so well?”

“Ai, yai, yai. Gringas! My father was with Spain’s foreign service.  As a kid, I went to a private school in Virginia for several years.  When he retired we settled here and became citizens. Incidentally, I’m married, but I live at a men’s club.  I’m sort of separated from my wife.”

“Any children?”

“I have four children but only the first two are mine – the two oldest ones are grown and live and work in Mexico City.”

“Is this why you’re separated?  The younger children that aren’t yours?”

“Are you planning to write my biography?  All right.  I’ll indulge you just to take a break from this messy prescription business.”  He sighed. “I knew the two youngest ones – they’ve just finished high school – weren’t mine, but her lover dumped her right after they were born and she cozied up to me again.  Then recently, he came back into her life, and I moved out. Despite this nasty history, I like women… not men. Blue is my favorite color and I’m an Aries. Mozart is my favorite composer and I’m a lousy tennis player.”

“Before you tell me whether you vote liberal or conservative, could you tell me if Tony was also involved in the… let’s say, ‘nefarious’ activities?  And is Clara’s baby a Celine?  What kind of hornet’s nest did I just fall into?” She suppressed a desire to cry. “When we get back to The Beagle, I’ll call my secretary and ask her to cancel all my appointments for the next week, although it may require much longer than that for me to get my wits back sufficiently to treat someone.”

“You’ll be fine.  You’re a woman of experience,” he grinned.  “So, near the end of the month will come your birthday.  I hope you spend it at home.  Will you please not discuss this case with anyone?  I’d like to see you turn 47. By the way, what sign is that?”

“Scorpio.”

“Ah! Alacrán!  I should have guessed it.”

Go to Issue #3

Hagakure (#2)

Ming Zhen Shakya
Ming Zhen Shakya

COMMENTARY ON THE HAGAKURE 

Part 2: The Roots of the Samurai
by Ming Zhen Shakya

 

Sometime during the period we call the Pax Romana, groups of asiatic horsemen, sailors, and metallurgists who, unlike their Chinese relatives, were illiterate, crossed the Korean Straits and settled in Kyushu, the southernmost of Japan’s four main islands. Their technology was superior to the indigenous people and so, as powerful invaders usually do, they dominated and they prospered. Their God of gods, Amaterasu, a sun goddess, had mated with a mortal and, in this act of combining a holy spirit with a privileged human being, created an offspring who would be the founder of a great religion. The concept is not new to us.

Eventually, a descendant of this sacred union would acquire the title of Emperor. For more than sixteen hundred years of demonstrable history, this hereditary line has remained unbroken. The present Emperor of Japan carries the genes and chromosomes of the first Emperor of Japan.

The Caesars reigned contemporaneously with earlier, now legendary Japanese emperors; but the Caesars only casually claimed the genes of divine antecedents; and far from founding a new religion, they sponsored one that was in a state of decay. The wars they fought in order to preserve their official prerogatives and divine rights only hastened their imperial demise.

The Emperor of Japan, on the other hand, was not a political leader; and, in terms of longevity, this made all the difference His person was sacred and, as such, created the Shinto religion’s spiritual bridge to heaven. He did not function as a conduit for traffic between mortals. Secular power was held by an ordinary human being, a dictatorial kind of prime minister, who had no divine claims to press. This person made the decisions that provided for the luxuries of court; attended to the common weal, and committed armies to battles; and he had the power to collect taxes to support those decisions. The divine genes descended through the imperial male line; but since primogeniture was not invoked and the exclusivity of that male line obviously had to provide for marriage to outsiders, the prime minister was able to marry his daughters into the imperial family and to choose, by assassination if need be, the particular prince who would inherit the throne. The all-mortal minister who first became pre-eminent in this role was the head of the Soga clan.

 

Soga Clan Prime Ministry (c. 400 AD – A.D. 622.)

 

As the population grew, expanding northwards into coveted lands, clans and tribes condensed into fiefs that tended to regard themselves as autonomous. Distance from the Soga’s seat of power and the absence of writing made communication difficult, and the Soga could not effectively control these provinces. The attempts they made to regulate them were regarded as interference and profoundly resented as such. Without central control and the means by which disputes could be mediated, the various chieftains settled scores in the usual manner: they went to war. A perceived insult could send an army into battle, as could a marriage jealously observed. They fought for land and power and for anything else they could think of. Wars were as dependable as tides.

The Soga chief, Iname, needed to neutralize the belligerence, but only civility could do that. Civility was found in culture – in literature, art and philosophy; and there was not enough of that to be found on his islands. Religion would have eased the problem by imposing ecclesiastical law-and-order on the belligerents; but provincial religion, far from restraining aggression, abetted it.

At court, an elite few, needing to keep records, knew how to write in chinese characters; but no one in the provinces understood the Chinese writing system, and without writing, nothing could be codified; and religion, minus any ethical conformity, became an amorphous mass of shamanistic superstitions and charred-bones’ divinations. With pitiless regularity somebody would toss a tortoise shell into a brazier, and it would crack in the direction that augured well for a declaration of war. Iname presided over chaos.

And then, in 552, the king of Korea presented a solution to the problem: The king needed some of that Japanese militarism to help defeat his enemies. As an inducement, he sent Iname a large bronze Buddha statue along with Buddhist missionaries who brought not only scriptures, but a more compelling need to learn script. The trade-off was perfect. The Soga had long admired Chinese culture and now, with the interest in writing that Buddhism had inspired, came brush and ink, literature and art and an entree into China’s cultural venue – which was especially attractive. China’s terrible Warring States’ period had been brought to a close largely by the tranquilizing effects of Buddhism, and the Soga desired a similar peace.

China was making its courtly procession towards the T’ang Golden Age; and Japan began to proceed in step behind it, copying the movements until it learned them so well it could create its own improvisations.

Buddhism had split into many different sects in its thousand year history, giving the Japanese a wide variety of forms to import. The ones they chose were rich in temple art, lesser gods, and joyful liturgies. Zen was not among the forms selected.

The Japanese also picked and chose what they wanted from Confucianism, a religion known for its ritualistic honoring of ancestral spirits and for its emphasis upon standardized qualifications for civil service – a system that had contributed much to efficient government in China. The Soga wanted to institute this bureaucratic merit system; but it was rejected, both by the various, largely illiterate warlords in the provinces and by the newly rich at court who wanted to secure positions of advantage for themselves and their relatives. But everything else about China was slavishly copied, including that ornate Chinese writing system, which, in Japan, scribed the deepest line of demarcation between the classes. Only the leisure class could afford to master Chinese; and then, only the males of the leisure class were considered eligible for instruction. Women were excluded from reading or writing literature in the only extant form.

The Japanese language was only distantly related to Chinese. And the Japanese all spoke the same language – unlike the Chinese who spoke several dozen different languages. Such phonemic indications as were included in the individual characters pertained to Chinese speech Pictographs and marks that had been assigned abstract meanings could be read by any Chinese person, providing he knew which sign conveyed which meaning – a daunting task considering the volume of characters that had to be memorized and reproduced. In China, all things considered, it was an efficient system. In Japan, it was a wretched waste of time. Japanese women, realizing that there were less than 50 syllables in their native language, invented their own streamlined writing system, a syllabary that is still used today. The time they would have spent memorizing characters, they devoted to creating great literature – books that even now are considered world classics.

The rough barons in the hinterlands quickly learned the syllabary and gained the advantages of written communication. The aristocrats sneered calling their script “women’s writing” but it was “writing” not “drawing” and it suited their needs perfectly.

And now Japanese who lived in the Soga spheres of influence bustled and primped with mainland fashion, with art, architecture, and literature, with textiles and ceramics, metallurgy, and all manner of crafts.

But while Buddhism did secure more peaceful conditions over established areas, the northward expansion of the population kept the governmental reach tantalizingly beyond its grasp. Shamanistic practices persisted; and warlords, those chieftains of distant settlements, continued to squabble and to settle their differences with swords.

When the chieftains finally did come together to agree on something, it was to join forces in order to destroy the government. And in 622, their coalition cost the House of Soga its power and the lives of most of its family members.

 

Fujiwara Clan Ministry (645 – 1156)

 

By 645, when China’s 6th Patriarch Hui Neng was a boy of seven selling firewood to support himself, the seat of government in Japan would be taken by the Fujiwara clan who would hold it for the next 500 years.

Although it had previously been the custom to move the court every time an Emperor died, the new Buddhist influence and the example of the Chinese Emperors who maintained a permanent residence in a “capital” city, inspired the Japanese to establish their first capital, Nara. Prosperous nobles flocked to Nara, becoming dandy courtiers, while pompous clerics, whose opulence befitted their exalted state, reposed in splendid temples. Living in Nara meant living lavishly in idleness – except for the energy required to maintain one’s appearance, gossip, compose a charming phrase, and participate in a ceremony of some sort or other.

But when Buddhist clerics got too numerous and too meddlesome, a new capital, sufficiently distant from Nara’s ornate temples to make travel inconvenient, was established in Kyoto. And now the aristocracy, unfettered by the only slightly more restrained Buddhist clerics, pushed the word “excess” to see how far they could extend it. For once they installed themselves in Kyoto, there was no pulling back. Fashion’s “pecuniary canons of taste” and “honorific waste” – and all the folly that attends unlimited money and insatiable vanity – proved that not only Caesars or Sun Kings knew how to live in numbing magnificence.

Etiquette and protocol, daintiness and decorum, and physical beauty of some rather extraordinary standards applied. Men and women brushed acid onto their teeth to make them black; and they painted their faces and necks white… and applied rouge liberally. Men wore lacquered black hats that were topped with a decoration that resembled a raven’s tail, and women required that their hair be full, strong, lustrous, and longer than they were tall. Coifing these pounds of hair required countless servants; and since couture also determined status, silks of astonishing color and weave were lavishly designed into fantastic costumes, sometimes worn layer upon layer, requiring cottage industries of silk worm farmers, weavers, dyers, designers and seamstresses to create, and laundresses, chambermaids and valets to maintain. The less natural and the more artificial life became, the better. Men strove to be fops, women to be mannequins.

 

Japan

 

Humanity was an inverse function of distance. In Kyoto, elegance and refinement were not only de rigueur, they were evidence of being a human being; and the farther one went from the ethereal circles of Kyoto’s paradise, the less human and more brutish were the creatures one encountered. Lower than the servants who touched their persons were the brutes who reigned as warlords in the outlying districts. The warlords did not appreciate the distinction.

In the Fujiwara court, the new elite, reveling in its fastidious sophistication, developed such a complete disdain for the lower classes that they considered it ridiculous even to attempt to educate them for positions in the bureaucracy. In their contumelious conviction, nepotism was the only possible means of selecting executives and administrators. Even more irrational than their fashion sense was their belief that brothers-in-law and bored sons could make ideal administrators. Government became cumbersome, incomprehensible, inefficient, and unjust.

It was this ingrained sense of superiority that would later become relevant in the samurai fighting style – for the samurai were drawn from these aristocratic ranks and before they would consider engaging in combat, it was necessary to determine family lineage. This was the template for honor – which was another way of saying family “face.” An opponent had to be worthy of the rules of engagement. He, too, had to value family honor above all other considerations. Those who were not related by blood – particularly the lowly agricultural workers – were obviously inferior and their lives had little meaning. Completely expendable, they were conscripted to serve as foot soldiers, regardless of the devastating consequences to their farms. Worse, they had to furnish their own weapons (which were prohibitively expensive) and they had to train themselves in combat techniques. If a man wanted to live to see another harvest, he learned “self-defense.” The noblemen sat upon their horses, arrayed wondrously in armor, and even further protected by their ancestral spirits whose names they shouted before they charged into battle. Such protective raiment was never issued to the conscript. He looked to nature and copied the strategies and tactics of birds, insects, and animals. To the unarmed man who knew no heroic lineage, stealth, speed, agility, accuracy, and constant awareness were his only protection, his limbs his only weapons. Such ordnance cost nothing but time and practice to acquire. Providing for the nobility was a bit more expensive.

Nobles and priests paid their considerable expenses from revenues raised from their farmlands – from taxes levied and collected as a portion of each farm’s produce. But though they had great respect for the finer things of life, money did not determine an individual’s significance. Lineage was the factor that enabled a man to appreciate those finer things: a fastidious daintiness, an effete charm, a languorous obsession with finesse and fashion, with poetry and perfume. Money could not purchase the innate sensitivity required to indulge in these pursuits. If money mattered, well, then those barons in the hinterlands who were very rich could not be dismissed as boors and bumpkins which they obviously were.

Being treated by the court as rude inferiors did not sit well with the barons. And so, as could be expected, while the nobles polished their calligraphy, the barons polished their armor.

In the long run, the pen would not be mightier than the sword.

In Nara’s exalted circumstance, at the summit was the Emperor, surrounded by an inner circle of royal stock; then another circle of “social acceptables” and so on down from perfection’s peak. Long before the base was reached, came the non-scalable “no-man’s-land” of aristocratic separation. At the upper reaches, however, there was intermingling of states but no confusion about status: rank was indicated by the style of the wearer’s garments – gorgeous raiment of clear distinction. Aristocratic nepotism also determined the composition of the hierarchy; and the priest class was likewise identified by garment. Each level of aristocracy had its commensurate level of ecclesiastical rank; and in these associated ranks, properly attired priests and nobles intermingled.

But some of these literate priests tended to take too seriously the scriptures they read. To the court, there was no point in favoring one religion over another: they were all inclined to inject ethics (of all things!) into social affairs. This could not be tolerated.

The Fujiwara moved the Emperor’s court to Kyoto, sufficiently distant from Nara to discourage travel. All the priests were supposed to stay behind in Nara, ensconced in their sumptuous temples. The nobles had deluded themselves into believing that Nara was an immovable object and that they were safely removed from it. They did not reckon upon the irresistibility of their own wealth. Nara clerics, like so many iron filings, turned their negative poles to the positive attractions of Kyoto’s life. They could not help themselves. (Prestigious vows of poverty do not sufficiently compensate the alluring pain of wealth.) As soon as the clerics showed up in Kyoto, zoning laws were enacted. It was prohibited by law to construct a religious building within a given radius of aristocratic residences and gathering places.

Nothing can stand for long between a priest and his flock, and before long the priests not only got close to the source of their calling, but in their common effort they became more congenial; and Buddhism, Confucianism, and Shintoism formed an elastic accommodation. The ecumenical approach had something for everyone.

While armies guarded Kyoto, nobody guarded the rest of the country. Nepotism had its inevitable result: anarchy was the law of the land. Highwaymen robbed travelers on the roads; pirates robbed them on the seas. Roving gangs of thugs invaded homesteads, helping themselves to cattle and kin. There was no governmental protection against the raping, burning, killing, and pillaging. The only hope the individual homesteader had was to pledge his allegiance and his land to the local warlord in exchange for the warlord’s protection. The warlord levied his own taxes, but the farm and the farmer, while still in the feudal system, gained a more caring owner.

Temples were invaded as frequently as homes. No building or property was safe; and since the greatest concentration of wealth was in Kyoto, the roving bands of thugs moved relentlessly closer to the prize. The Fujiwara had always seen the Emperor’s divine origins as a shield against mortal attack. For so long as the emperor’s person was sacred and it was they who guarded the emperor, there existed a pleasant symbiotic relationship . They would provide all the pomp an emperor could possibly want, and the divine aura would surround them like a shining steel net.

To support the steel barrier; the Fujiwara had forged an alliance with two powerful clans, the Minamoto and the Taira, who happily became the marines and infantry of the regime. As such they had the power to enter any of the Imperial lands and conscript the farmer and his sons. Small landholders resisted by forming unions whose boundaries expanded to meet the ever-increasing boundaries of the warlords, who then, by making them an offer they couldn’t refuse, simply absorbed them into their fiefs.

Further exacerbating the problem was the tax-exempt status conferred upon the numerous family estates. As these estates proliferated and as warlords expanded their fiefs, imperial revenue sources began to disappear. Due to civil strife in China, trade with the mainland had ceased, curtailing foreign exchange, and though the government tried hard to squeeze income from warlords and tax-exempt estates, the efforts failed. The warlords and aristocrats needed all the funds they had to finance the costs of fighting each other. The tax base had shrunk, but the government’s expenses had not. Such a situation never bodes well for governments.

And from the middle of the 900s through the entire 1100s there was nothing but war, internecine squabbling, and lawlessness outside the nervous capital.

The treasure house may have been empty; but the treasure house itself was still a prize; and the the Minamoto and Taira clans that had once protected the capital, now fought over it. The day of the House of Fujiwara was over.

Noble families rushed to the frontiers to barter with the only possessions they had: their noble lineage. It brought new blood to the bloodshed.

And so it came to pass that a brutal warlord gained a genteel “daimyo” rank and a noble scion became a servant; a “samurai” – which means “one who serves.”

The year given for the end of Japan’s Golden Age of poetry and flowers, fashion and foppery, and its entrance into the Age of the Samurai is 1156. For that was the year that the Minamoto and Taira clans confronted each other in Kyoto.

A new era had begun.

La flecha envenenada

20141011_185813
Yao Sheng Shakya

Queridos amigos,

Muchas veces se cuestiona nuestra fe en el Budismo, o en sus prácticas o incluso nuestras convicciones espirituales en general. Viene alguien que presiona por detalles, y nos confronta con otros puntos de vista religiosos o espirituales, a veces, con frases hechas de gente “con autoridad”, quién seguramente debe saber mucho más que nosotros. Lo único importante en el Zen es salvarse de una existencia dolorosa, curar nuestras heridas y sentirnos completos y felices con nuestras vidas.

Buda, cuando predicaba, ilustró este hecho con la siguiente parábola:

– Supongan que un hombre ha sido herido con una flecha embebida en veneno. Los que lo acompañaban, rápidamente llamaron a un médico para que lo atienda y se haga cargo de las curaciones. Cuando éste se aprestaba a retirar la flecha, el herido le dice: “¡Espera! Antes de que este hombre me toque quiero saber a que casta pertenece… si es un Brahman, o un Guerrero, o un Mercader, o un Trabajador. No dejaré que este hombre me toque hasta saber más de él: quienes eran sus padres, de donde proviene su familia, si es honesto, o deshonesto, a qué dedica su tiempo libre… Además habrá que ver cómo es la flecha… de que está hecha, si de pino o bambú… si fue disparada por un arco simple o compuesto, hecho con una vara de madera o con huesos de buey. Estimo que todo esto es muy importante aclararlo antes de retirar la flecha…

Y así siguió el hombre preguntándose cosas que seguramente para él eran muy importantes… hasta que el veneno hizo su efecto y murió.

Ese es el consejo de la parábola: que cuando pidamos ayuda, aceptemos lo que nos brindan desinteresadamente y sin intentar analizar cada detalle, confrontando para conocer particularidades que no tienen nada que ver con el asunto.

El Zen es el camino de la simplicidad. No necesitamos ser tratados andantes de teología para empezar una práctica de meditación de diez minutos al día. No necesitamos conocer el mecanismo neurológico exacto para mostrar una sonrisa. No necesitamos aclarar una montaña de dudas para vivir con alegría en el momento presente.

A Father’s Birth (#5)

luisluis
Master Yao Xin Shakya

A Father’s Birth

 

A series of articles on becoming a parent from a Zen’s priest memories, guts, and imagination

 

Click here to access all available issues of “A Father’s Birth”

 

Part 5: A Tiger in the Belgian Forest

 

My step-father and I raced to the Birth House and found my wife sitting calmly on the side of the bed.  At first, I didn’t know what to think.  We had been warned about Braxton Hicks contractions – those so called “false labor” uterine pains that are often taken for the beginning of true labor.  Was she so calm because the pains had stopped or weren’t really labor pains?  She smiled brightly at me, and I asked, “Is the baby on his way?”  She and the two nurses in the room said, in unison, “Yes… it has begun!”

In French we have a saying that is almost exactly like the English, “Calm before the storm.”

But everything seemed to me to be too calm. She explained, “My water broke and the contractions started about two hours ago.”

I felt a little foolish standing there so I sat in a chair beside her bed and suddenly her face contracted as if she were really concentrating as if she were trying hard to remember something.  Her eyebrows were furled and her entire face became tense.  Little beads of perspiration formed on her forehead. Then she relaxed and her face seemed radiant as she smiled at me again.  I had put a few CDs in our “birth pack” and figured that this was the time to play some music.  I put on a recording of old French folk songs and suddenly the nurses, my wife, and I were singing along with the music.  This was the last thing that I expected to happen.  “Well,” I said to myself, “this is gonna be a piece of cake.”  Why did people make such a fuss about childbirth?  This was rather enjoyable.

A sing-along!  Wasn’t that nice? The birds were singing in the ranches of the tree just outside.  The rays of the sun were coming through the window.  Every now and then the muscles in my wife’s face would grow tense, and she would squeeze my hand, but the muscles would soon relax. Yes… this was going to be easy.

By the time the CD ended,  my wife started full labor and things weren’t so easy anymore.  The sun had set and the nurses lit groups of votive candles, giving the room a reverential or maybe even a cozy atmosphere.  And now, when the pain started, I could hear her chant “Om” and nobody was happily singing old French folk songs anymore.  I began to join her in chanting Om, and doing deep breathing exercises with her between her contractions.  Inhale for four seconds, hold the breath for 16 seconds, and exhale for 8 seconds… and then start again until it was time to chant Om again.

And then, despite the fact that my wife has sung in choirs, the “Om” wasn’t singing anymore.  It was shouting. And since there was less time to do the breathing exercise and more time to shout Om, I tried to hold the singing syllable as she relaxed between contractions.   We must have sounded like a couple of wild people in an ashram.

Through the window, I watched the stars come out.  And then a feeling that is known to all Zen meditators came over me: I felt a Oneness with my wife, the nurses, and the entire room.  It was as if the room was lit by something inside me.  Her chant of Om had been reduced to a whisper and then it disappeared altogether as if it had been internalized.  At that time the feeling of Oneness also disappeared and I was just myself sitting beside her.  She was totally in herself, her own world, and her thoughts were not shared with anyone.  She had that prowling look on her face, the look that in Chinese Chan we call, “A tiger coming out of the forest.” I wondered whether all the things I had once read about Yin and Yang were actually occurring.  Had her Yang chi risen up to meet her Yin chi, merging with it, so that now she had the eyes of that bright, determined but calm, tiger? Had her Yin chi come down to her belly where it was nourishing the baby before his long trip in his quest for light and love?  As I watched her lying on her side, transfigured, she became to me a magnificent tiger that occasionally lifted its head and roared.

The roar became more coarse, a growl or grunt was added to it, and one of the nurses said to me, We’re in the last stage.  The baby will soon emerge.”

At that point I was lost.  I felt like a spectator at a play that was given in a language I didn’t understand.  I didn’t know what was going on.  There were a few more deep grunting roars and then the nurse said, “I can feel the head.”

And then, a few moments later, I could see the crown of my baby’s head for the first time.What a feeling! For some reason I felt like an archeologist who had just discovered a priceless artifact.

He came out, but face-down, and I couldn’t see his features.  Then the nurses picked him up and turned him around to show us that he was perfectly formed.  He wailed and we yelled in triumph. My wife just totally went limp and cooed the way mothers always do.

The nurses washed Eliott and tended to my wife for a few minutes.  They weighed him and filled out his birth certificate.  They wrapped our little tiger cub in a little blanket and handed him to my wife.  Her cooing exponentially increased.

A few hours later, we were all lying on the same bed.  The Birth House, unlike ordinary hospitals, allows patients to call restaurants and ask them to deliver food.  All the grandparents came into the room and we all celebrated with Pizza and Coke.  My wife was as hungry as I was relieved.  Little Eliott slept between us.  He was no longer our little “shrimp.” He was our son.

I felt as though I had conquered the world. This birth business was so easy!  What was all the fuss about?  So it took a mantra and a breathing exercise… and, Oh yes… a few French folk songs… I patted myself on the back.  Zen preparation!  Zen training!  And this was all there was to it.  My wife and I were on a bed with a sleeping baby between us. It was simplicity itself. I felt like reciting the old Dao quatrain:  “How wonderful!  How mysterious!  I chop wood.  I carry water.”

Little did I know.  Maybe the Dao monk who penned those lines meant chopping the wood of all the trees in the Ardennes.  Maybe he was thinking about carrying the water of the entire Mediterranean. It may have been wonderful and mysterious, but it would also be scary and exhausting.

I would soon learn that what I knew about babies any father on earth could safely forget and not run the risk of being uninformed. In short, I knew nothing… nada…zilch.

My first lesson would be: tiger cubs are nocturnal creatures.  My second? They have toilet habits that are totally unacceptable in an adult world! 

Fatherhood takes a man out of dreaming and, like the Buddha, causes him to awaken… frequently.

 

Calm Tiger Sitting on Stone Photo credit:  http://wonderwordz.com (Wallpapers)
Calm Tiger Sitting on Stone
Photo credit: http://wonderwordz.com

A Prescription for Murder (#1)

Ming Zhen Shakya
Ming Zhen Shakya
 To see more literature about Zen and the Art of Investigation:
http://www.zenanthonywolff.com

A Prescription for Murder

by Anthony Wolff (Ming Zhen Shakya)

To see all available chapters of “A Prescription for Murder” click here

Introduction

 

It is generally conceded that times change and with the times, rules change.  If there is truth in this, it surely confines itself to written or codified rules which are easily amended or repealed. The rules that have never been memorialized in ink persist through the ages and do not submit to alteration. Curiously, such rules generally seem to violate our personal sense of decency, and intuitively we want to disobey them for we assume ourselves to be immune to their unpleasant results.  The sad fact is that we cannot appreciate their value until we have broken them.

Nowhere, for example, is it written, and nowhere is it untrue that, “You should not lend money to a friend or relative.” And, “You should never sell your used car to a friend or relative on the installment plan.”  Only those who possess an instinct to gamble – and recklessly at that – or possibly those who are afflicted with a certain masochism that allows them to find pleasure in  dunning the deceitful or in pursuing legal means to force repayment will flout these decrees.

And so it is with the rule, “A doctor should avoid social contacts with patients.”  Persons who are perhaps too busy to make an appointment will use a social occasion to give their physician a detailed account of their urinary problems and expect to receive an accurate diagnosis over canapes.  A physician is likely to find that when greeting a patient his smile will be interpreted as having verified a prognosis of imminent death or of assured recovery.  There are other even more serious reasons for never breaking this unwritten rule, and these became clear to Dr. Karen Presley Breiton, a Phoenix, Arizona cardiologist, in the fall of 2014.

A solitary life that is also lonely is difficult to bear.  Dr. Breiton found herself burdened to the verge of breaking the rule against socializing with patients.  Doctors, she told herself, have human social needs, too.  At the age of 46 she had come to discover that the more time she dedicated to practicing her profession and participating in activities that were directly associated with it – attending the conferences, committees, and seminars – the less time she had to develop relationships through which she could vent the exhausting tensions of the day. When her late husband was home, which was not often, she irritated him with her often grizzly shoptalk.  If she spoke to her mother or her sister Grace, the conversation became a vehicle into which they could load their petty griefs and send them hurtling over the edge of some psychological cliff.  The calamity usually ended with Karen’s writing of a check. Nobody really cared to hear her opinion about a movie, a book, or a political candidate.  When she spoke to other professionals, they were too busy to exchange pleasantries.  When it came to medical talk, they had heard enough of it all day.

She worried about herself since she knew that normal gossip releases the little toxins contained in criticisms of a new hairstyle, or lover, or wayward child, and these little toxins are stored deep in the mind when they are not released; and there they may form a venomous source of neurosis or worse.

Her personality was changing.  She maintained the persona of a physician, but as a woman she was becoming decidedly odd.  She noticed how set in her ways she was, the routines she clung to – never needing an alarm clock to awaken her, never buying anything but the same half-dozen varieties of TV dinners, never dressing more fashionably than last year’s style, and always wearing her hair coiffed in a mode that went into the annals of fashion at least ten years before.  But such concerns did not solve the problem, they only contributed to its symptoms.

Middle-age, she concluded, was a complete misnomer, suggesting as it did a center point, a kind of sun around which the past and future things of life revolved. Increasingly, she found herself far from the center of anything. She was on an outside edge, like one of Notre Dame’s flying buttresses, supporting a roof which no longer sheltered her. And in this position she was vulnerable.

At noon on Wednesday, the last day of September, a patient, Agnes Celine, called Karen Breiton’s office. The doctor, being between patients, told her secretary Marge to put the call through; and Marge followed office procedure by placing the patient’s file on the doctor’s desk.

“This isn’t a professional call,” Agnes said, “it’s purely social.  I haven’t been home to Chetumal in ages, and Marc and I have some papers to sign with a lawyer down there. Marc’s brother Tony is going to be there along with another couple – so Tony suggested that we invite you to complete the sextet.”

“Me? I remember meeting Tony and his wife at some function or other a couple of years ago.  Why would he be suggesting me?”

“He remembers you, too.  Didn’t you know his wife died last year?”

“No.  I’m so out of the loop.  He was a vice president of some bank… and if I remember correctly he had his own investment company.”

“Yes, that’s Tony.  And he’s still handsome… and he’s got all his hair and no belly.  Life can be so pleasant down there this time of year.  The summer tourists have just left so the beaches are empty and you don’t have to wait to be seated at a restaurant.  Chetumal is just a stone’s throw north of Belize and of course there’s marvelous barrier-reef scuba diving if you’re into that sort of thing.  Other than that we have a sailboat… a 32 foot sloop. You’ll have a great time. Please say you’ll join us.”

A social invitation from a patient.  The words of regretful refusal came automatically. “Ah… I don’t think I can. But thanks for thinking of me.”

“You’re not getting off that easy.  Listen… my home down there is famous.  I’m serious. We have a huge exotic garden, a fabulous collection of plants started by my great-grandfather. The old ‘manse’  is a big old house named The Beagle after Darwin’s ship.  You can’t say, ‘No.’  Every human being has to hear the natives call The Beagle, the Bayahglay at least once before he or she dies.  Your time is up.”

“It sounds exciting.  But I’m stuck here with my cats.”

“You can board the cats.  It’ll be wonderful.  Columbus Day is October 12th, a Monday.  We’ll leave here early in the morning, Friday the 9th, and be back Monday evening. You can’t say no. It’s a national holiday.  The beach is beautiful.  You’ll love it.  The house has twelve bedrooms.  You’ll have your own room and bath.”

“I admit that it sounds heavenly.  But I simply can’t…”

“Karen,” Agnes began, assuming the attitude of a mother who is manipulating a child by saying, ‘Well, have it your way…  but then you’ll never see the surprise I have in my hand for you,’ said, “Ok, then… I’ll  go ahead and call the next candidate on my list.  Some other time, perhaps.”  She paused as if she were ending a eulogy. “It was good talking to you.  I’ll see you in a few months for my annual.”

Karen winced.  “I didn’t know Tony Celine’s wife had died.  I’m so out of touch.  How can you be sure we’ll get the same airline reservations?”  Getting away from home with the handsome Anthony Celine? She’d be a fool to pass that up.  Actually, just getting away from home was incentive enough to accept.

“My cousin is a travel agent.  We have the tickets blocked-in.  Business class.  So you needn’t worry about travel expenses.”

“Are you sure he specifically wanted me to come along?” “Good grief! You cannot be so insecure.  Maybe you’re becoming bored with yourself.  The cure, then, is to become a devil-may-care beachcomber. Tony likes to search the sands for oddities. So will you. I guarantee that you will find a new you when you’ve got sand between your toes.”

“What is the weather like in October down there?”

“Iffy.  You need long sleeves.  I cannot lie about mosquitos. And shoes fit for mud… several pairs.  Although… the weather may be absolutely beautiful or it may rain continuously.  That’s the ‘iffy’ part.  Besides, you’ll love being around Tony.  He’s quiet, well-read, loves music, can dance…. What else can you possibly want?”

“Perhaps he’s still in mourning.”

“He remembers her fondly, but he’s not sad.”

Karen broke precedent and agreed to go.  She got the dates and told Marge to clear her appointments – from the 9th through the 13th of October. Then she opened the file to refresh her memory on the patient’s background.

Agnes Rodriguez Celine of Chetumal, Quintana Roo, was a U.S. resident but a citizen of Mexico, who became Karen’s patient in 2001.  Karen had treated her for arrhythmia, specifically bradycardia. Other doctors had recommended a pacemaker, but she adamantly refused the procedure.  She had been grossly overweight and the doctors had apparently thought that without the pacemaker she could die at any time.  She changed doctors.

Karen put her on a special diet and a yoga program and made her come into the office twice a week so that she could closely monitor her progress.  She lost 150 pounds and, particularly because she was young and her skin had not lost its elasticity, returned to what she had been in the years before she attended college and got married: a tall apparently healthy 130 pound woman.  Karen now saw her only twice a year for checkups, but she still considered her an active patient – one with a heart problem that required attention.

“What do I have to lose?” she asked her secretary.  “I could use a change of scenery. It’s a lot of flying for a long weekend, but nuts… I deserve a break. I think I’ll also get rid of this grey hair and get it done ash blonde.  Yes.” She called the stylist that women in Tony Celine’s circle used.

Then she went shopping for clothes.

 

Part 1. The Invitation and Arrival at The Beagle

 

Tony Celine picked Karen up at dawn and they chatted pleasantly as they drove to the airport in Phoenix to meet Agnes and Marc. They changed planes in Mexico City and, joined by Ramona and Dan Duran, a perky couple who appeared to be in their thirties, flew to Chetumal on the Caribbean coast. It was an altogether enjoyable trip.

José, The Beagle’s butler and chauffeur, his present occupation designated by an obsolete Mexican Army officer’s visor cap, picked them up at the airport in a Lincoln sedan. Since Agnes sat on Marc’s lap and Ramona sat on Dan’s, Karen could hardly refuse to sit on Tony’s lap; and the arrangement, though being awkward, made quick friends of everyone as they merrily proceeded to The Beagle.  José called ahead, and the estate gates were open when they drove through them at 9:30 p.m. Friday evening.

Dinner, prepared in accordance with Agnes’s diet, awaited them.  They had gone quickly to their rooms and then were seated in the dining room. Karen saw that all the amateurish oil paintings that were hung on the walls depicted menus that she had ordered for Agnes.  Meatless meals, featuring tofu, oatmeal, steamed vegetables, and the dinner they were now having: fish broiled in olive oil and onions, steamed vegetables, corn tortillas, non-fat yogurt seasoned with vanilla and raisins, and red grapes. For a moment, she felt as though her regimen was being mocked.  “Who’s the artist?” she asked, trying to sound as though she admired the work.

“Guilty,” Marc replied.  “I’m the resident artiste.” He gestured in a deliberately effeminate way that showed off his perfect profile and created a sharp incongruity between his blonde curls and delicate features and the rugged western clothing he wore.  He had traveled in boots, Levis, leather jacket, and a Stetson hat.

The meal was considered a late supper.  After a cup of strong coffee, Marc took everyone on a tour of the exotic garden.  “Agnes’s great-grandfather was a professional explorer,” he explained as he clicked on paneled switches of overhead lamps.  “He really was.  He collected plants, seeds, and shrubs from every part of the world…. from Borneo to Botswana, from Mumbai to Manchuria. He started taking snapshots with an old Kodak Brownie and quickly moved up to a hand-cranked moving picture camera and began a stock-footage film business, and then his son and grandson – Agnes’s father – joined him. By then they were using digital cameras. Between the three of them they photographed every little-known civilization on the planet, recording all the cultural oddities.  They also made money writing articles and consulting on Hollywood films.  But their main interest was medicinal plants.  Even though none of them had academic credentials, many universities would ask for their opinions.  The climate here is perfect and Mexico did not have the ecological laws in place that we have today.   I think they’ve got a dozen different kinds of marijuana, in case you’re interested.”

Agnes added, “There’s a whole section on hallucinogens and poisonous plants.  It’s quite amazing.  Students come down from Vera Cruz, Mexico City, from all over…  just to see the plants in the flesh, so to speak.”

Karen saw a large flower garden with familiar poppy plants.  “How many species of poppy did they bring back?”

“Oddly enough, this variety’s the only one that’s used for making opiates,” Marc said.  “This is “Papaver somniferum which yields the narcotic latex.  They use the bulbs and the stalks although its seeds can send you into dreamland, too.  These came from Thailand.  There are other poppies, but they’ve been bred for floral beauty.”

The entire estate, house and botanical garden, was surrounded by a high wall.  Red and apricot colored bougainvillea draped elegantly over the wall’s top and hid the iron spikes that protruded from the coping.  The estate’s overall layout had followed the old Spanish style.  From the road, which was lined with late-blooming Flamboyant trees, there was nothing but wall to see until the wrought-iron entrance gates came into view.  These gates opened into a courtyard around which the house was built.  A fountain, once used by the inhabitants of all the rooms, now supplied water to the tangled plants that surrounded it and then flowed into an underground culvert that emptied into the street’s gutter. The house, though large, was a “no-nonsense” style brick and had all the architectural flourish of a warehouse.  It was the gate that evidenced the family’s claim to aristocratic heritage. Gilded vines and flowers decorated its iron bars and when the two sides of the gate were closed, the inscription at their top came together to form a name.  As they walked down an alleyway from the garden to the front courtyard, Karen tried to read the name at the top of the gates, but seeing it from the back, the name was indecipherable.  “What does it say?”

“‘Cabeza de Vaca,’ which is an old and honored Spanish name,” Marc said.  “Agnes says hat it comes from one of her ancestresses… who showed the King of Spain a way to get across a high mountain pass and enabled him to win an important victory over the Muslims.  The pass was marked with the head of a cow and so the king said that her family should forever use that quaint appellation.  She has another name, her maiden name:  Rodríguez.”

“Ah,” Karen sighed as she now was able to read the name that topped the gate.   “Like the bullfighter Manolete. And what, as long as I’m showing my ignorance, were those gorgeous red flowering trees that lined the street?”

“They’ve got dozens of names.  We call them Flamboyant trees or Poinciana.  In Belize they’re called “Marriage trees.”

“How so?”

“They begin with these lovely flowers and then the seed pods come… enormous wooden pods that can hit your head like a rolling pin if you’re unlucky enough to be standing underneath one when it falls.”  And then he added, as if repeating a private joke, “And it’s always the husband who gets reality’s blunt force trauma.”

Agnes looked sideways at him and responded. “But Marc so rarely walks anywhere that he doesn’t have to worry about that particular death trap.” Her mouth contorted into an ugly smirk.

“There are others.”  She walked on and smiled. “As you can see by the buttresses every ten feet or so, the wall is unusually high… eight feet. My grandfather had tons of bricks imported from Jamaica.  There’s no red clay around here.  Everything is that ugly grey. The Crystal Palace had once been all the rage.  He admired it and would have loved to construct a glass house – but trying to enclose any collection in glass was out of the question… hurricanes batter the coast with depressing regularity.  He wanted to prevent cross pollination and, foolish as it seems, keeping the wall high couldn’t stop the wind, but it did create a barrier for pollen carried by animals. It also prevented people from wandering in.”

Marc added, “The original house was rather ramshackle and it seemed peculiar to have a tacky house surrounded by such a sturdy wall, so he rebuilt it later to accommodate such modern conveniences as plumbing, electricity, and the automobile. Although God knows, there weren’t many cars around in those days.”

They crossed in front of the house and returned to the garden through the alleyway on the opposite side.  A long rectangular section was devoted to housing machinery. “The garage,” Marc said, “as you can see, is wood. I bet you want to know what kind of cars are in there.  An old Bugatti?  No.  Nothing so rare.  Just my new Buick and the twenty year old Lincoln that brought us home from the airport.  It dates from when Agnes’ grandmother lived here. She weighed a ton,” he scoffed in an unpleasant way, “a ton more than Agnes in those days. It was either a Lincoln or a John Deere.  We chose the Lincoln. It does come in handy when we have heavy guests.”  Beyond the enclosed garages was a covered area which sheltered a Jeep and various implements: post hole diggers, roto-tillers and other machinery that Karen could not identify.

It began to rain, suddenly and hard. While the others returned to the drawing room for a nightcap, Marc stayed to shut down the lighting.  Wet, he quickly changed his clothes and joined them; and then, as the mantlepiece clock chimed eleven, someone pounded on the front door.

José, now bareheaded and wearing the white jacket of a butler, began a heated conversation with a woman who was begging for a physician’s help. Even accounting for dialectical differences and the distance that obliterated many words, Karen was able to understand her problem and assumed that she would be immediately summoned.  Instead, Marc went into the foyer and told the woman to take her husband into Chetumal.  He spoke Spanish. “We can’t help you here.  Take him to the hospital.”  But the woman persisted, and, calling Marc, “Don Marco,” begged him and José to remember that there was no bus or ambulance that would come. Her husband’s leg had gotten worse since she first asked to see the physician.  Marc repeated that he was sorry but there was no one there who could help her.

Certain phrases are commonly understood in the Arizona medical community even by people who can’t speak Spanish fluently.  Karen distinctly heard the woman say, “El doctor ya se fue y mi esposo está aún peor.” The woman’s voice grew more desperate.  “Como le dije antes, él se cortó con un machete. Su pierna está infectada. Ya no es capaz de caminar.”  She complained about the rain and mud and Marc replied that she had had plenty of time to take him to the hospital before it rained.  He summarily dismissed her and directed José to open the front door, but she continued to beg.  Karen left the drawing room and was disturbed to see the woman, who was much younger than she had expected, kneeling at Marc’s feet in the foyer, begging him to let her see the doctor.

“Necesitas ayuda?” Karen asked.

“Oh, Doctor!” the woman said, putting the accent on the first syllable, “doc,” instead of the second syllable as it was normally pronounced in Spanish. In perfect English with a tony accent, she repeated that while he was “in the bush” her husband had been cut by a machete, and it had taken him nearly five days to get home and in that time his wound had gotten infected.  He was in great pain and could not walk.

Marc grew agitated. “Look,” he said, “the man needs to be taken to the hospital – which is where he should have gone immediately.”

Karen looked at Marc and then José.  “It sounds serious.  Do you have any antibiotics in the house?”

“No. We don’t run a drug store here.” Marc did not attempt to soften his response.  Instead, he grew angrier. “There’s always something with these people! It’s after eleven o’clock.  They wait all day hoping that things will improve and when they don’t, and it’s their sleep that’s being disturbed, they send for a doctor.”

The woman continued to beg. “Please, Don Marco!”

Karen drew Marc aside.  “Marc,” she whispered plaintively, “I’m the one who took the Hippocratic Oath.  I can drive a Jeep. Just let me take a minute to change my clothes and, if you’ll be kind enough to have the Jeep brought around, I’ll go with her and even take her and her husband into the City hospital.  We needn’t disturb you, Agnes, or the other guests. She can’t hear what I’m saying, so I’m not putting you on the spot.  If you say no, then it’s no.”

“You’ve pretty much made that impossible,” Marc said. “She’s not a fool.  She knows what you’re asking me.” He spoke without any note of rancor in his voice. He turned to the woman and explained that he and the doctor would take her home in the Jeep and see what could be done to help.

The woman thanked Karen for her help.  “You are so kind,” she added.

As Karen went upstairs to change her clothes, she looked at a portrait that she had only glanced at before.  An enormous old woman, almost a caricature of a fat dowager, sat posed in an elaborate gilded chair wearing a kind of Winston Churchill expression of determined force.  Marc went directly out to the garage.

The Jeep was filthy with old caked mud that had become slimy in the wind-blown rain. Disgustedly, he returned to the house. “Miguel!” he shouted for the houseboy. He turned to Karen to explain, “I’m wearing a white dinner jacket, so I’m not in a position even to get into the driver’s seat and bring it around front much less change the flat tire it’s got.”  He turned to his other guests and snapped, “Excuse me, everyone.  It seems I have to play highway repairman.  With a little luck I’ll find some overalls!” He went upstairs, meeting Karen on the stairway as she came down suitably dressed for rain and mud.

José went into the dining room and spoke privately to Agnes.  “Yes,” she responded, “get the staff to make up a basket of our dinner leftovers… plus a few rashers of bacon and a tin of biscuits.  She probably hasn’t eaten all day.”

Karen and the woman whose name, she learned, was Clara, went into the garage and saw the Jeep with its right front tire flat.  This was the side of the Jeep she had seen when she looked at it earlier. The tire had not been flat then.  But she thought that between the overhead lights that were dimmed by so many swarming insects and the driver’s side being on the right side in the British style, she might have been mistaken.  Miguel came to the garage and with a brush began to remove the mud that caked the wheel hub. He began to look for a jack.  He moved quickly but could not find the jack.  She looked at her watch. It was 11:40.  Apprehensively, she looked at the house.  “What’s taking him so long?” she asked, expecting no answer from Clara who was pacing back and forth, anxiously biting her knuckles.

Miguel finally found the jack and raised the front of the chassis.  Now he began to look for a lug wrench.  At midnight, Marc appeared, dressed for a safari.  Incredibly, he wore a perfectly cocked Australian “slouch” hat; and while he looked as handsome as a catalog model, the idea that he would take the time to defer to his sartorial standards while a man lay in agony waiting for him, was breathtaking in its narcissism.  A kitchen maid, carrying a food basket, followed him into the garage.

Marc located the lug wrench and directed Miguel to loosen the wheel nuts which seemed to have been welded in place. He struggled until, at 12:30, the wheel was off and Miguel could begin the seemingly complicated task of pulling the inner tube from the tire away from the tire and rim.  “There’s a hole in the tube,” Marc said, matter-of-factly.  “I have to find it.”

“Have you no spare tire?” Karen asked.

“If I had one, don’t you think I would have used it?” he retorted.  Using a hand pump, Miguel filled the tube with air and tried to feel leaking air; but he could detect no tell-tale puff.  “Well,” Marc said, irritated, “we’ll need to fill a tub with water.”  Clara and Karen looked at each other, not knowing what to say to hurry the repair along.  As the tub slowly filled, Clara continued to pace back and forth, gnawing her fist in despair.

By 1:30 a.m. the patched inner tube was inserted into the old fashioned tire and rim.  Then, with a hand pump, Miguel began to inflate the tube.  It was nearly 2 o’clock when Marc announced that they were ready to go.

The rain was torrential.

Part 2: A Detective Responds

 

The Beagle was situated near a busy waterway, the delta of the Honda River and the seaport of Chetumal.  A hundred years before, except for scattered Indian villages the area was virtually uninhabited; but now many commercial vessels bound for Belize’s burgeoning markets clogged the seafront and waterways.  Frequent and fierce hurricanes had driven the Indian communities inland, and though the hacienda’s solid brick walls and secured slate roof could withstand even the worst storms, at night, in every season, the sounds of fog horns, ship’s bells, and grunting engines invaded the screened windows.

Especially in the rear of the house, the side that adjoined the huge garden, the noise at night was  unbearable.  The inland safety of the Indian villages left a ten-mile wide swath of jungle which remained the habitat of howler monkeys and other nocturnal creatures that saw the eight-foot high wall as a simple challenge rather than an obstacle.  Often troops of spider monkeys would come over the wall to eat the fruits of the various trees or just to amuse themselves in the forbidden Eden.  No one had ever seen a large cat in the garden but so loud were the snarls, growls, and roars of what must have been jaguar and puma, or even smaller margay that no one doubted their nearness.

The Jeep proceeded slowly on the jungle trail, stopping often to let a boa constrictor or caiman move out of its way.  “Smaller animals run from an oncoming car,” Marc explained, “but the reptiles and amphibians are too damned stupid to get out of the way.  You can’t just nudge them. I’ve known caiman to bite through a tire and contrary to many people’s opinions, constrictors have teeth; and to have one of them whip its head around is not a pleasant proposition. So we beep the horn or rev the engine and wait.”

Clara and her husband Paolo lived in the village of Xecalitza that was separated from Chetumal by one of the Honda’s tributaries. Their house was an Indian-style one-room house that departed from tradition by having a ceramic tile floor except that in the room’s center there was a circular dirt fire pit that had been edged with chunks of limestone and various clay and metal cooking implements.  It had a thick conical thatched roof that amazingly kept the water from dripping down into the room, although when they entered and turned up the oil lamp, Karen saw a rat run along one the ceiling beams.

The sick man lay on a bed at the side of the room.  Mosquito netting surrounded the area of his bed but did nothing to dispel the stench of his pus-filled wound.  Karen lifted the netting and observed the flesh, discolored even in the lamplight. The cut was just above the knee, on the outer side of his leg. The entire area around the cut was swollen, leaving a gaping wound. There were other bruises and injuries she could not examine under such conditions.  She felt his pulse and was disturbed to find that it was extremely weak and also that he was completely unresponsive to her presence. Instinctively she lay the back of her fingers against his cheek.  “He’s burning up,” she said, lapsing into laymen’s terms.

Inadvertently, while lifting the net, she disturbed one of the props that prevented the net from drooping onto the bed.  It was a strange long pole and as she repositioned it, she saw that it was a  blow gun.   Marc saw her looking at it and said, “They use a blowgun to kill monkeys, sloths, and birds and an occasional snake. It’s their major source of protein.”

“This man must be taken to a hospital immediately,” Karen announced.

“Then this Jeep,” Marc said in a childish imitation, pointing at the Jeep that was half sheltered by the overhanging porch roof, “must either fly or swim to do so.  And since it cannot do either, it cannot cross the overflowing river that lies between this house and the outskirts of Chetumal.”

“There is a farmacia this side of the river,” Clara said.  “The curandero sent us to get medicine for Paolo there, but it didn’t help.”

“What medicine?” Karen asked.

Clara went to a table and brought two bottles of pills.  “These,” she said, handing them to Karen. “He also gave us penicillin pills, but Paolo threw them up.  He was so nauseous.”

Karen could not read the first label. “What is this stuff?” she asked.

Marc looked at the bottles and read, “It’s some kind of colon cleanse.  The other is quinine sulfate.”

From a dark corner of the room, an elderly woman who was rocking a baby suddenly called out, “Tiene paludismo.”

Karen looked at the labels incredulously. “Malaria?  Was he having an attack?”

The woman answered, “No. No tuvo un ataque.”

Karen stood in the center of the room. “Look!” she said aloud.  “He needs antibiotics and he needs hot wet compresses applied continuously.” She turned to Marc.  “Tell them how to use towels to apply hot wet compresses, one after the other.  It will draw out the pus and give him some relief. He needs to be awakened and given fluids.”

Marc Celine gave the instructions in Spanish. “What now?” he asked Karen.

“Let’s get to that pharmacy.” She turned to Marc who was still looking at the sick man. “Marc!” she called, “if we can’t get him to the hospital then we have to give him shots of tetracycline or penicillin… the best antibiotics the pharmacist has.  Meanwhile, tell them to get started with the hot-water compresses and the fluids.”  She lowered her voice.  “I’m in no position to debride the wound… but if we can keep him alive until the river lowers, they can do that at the hospital.”

Surprisingly, Clara insisted on accompanying them to the pharmacy. There was a large locked box that took up the width of the Jeep behind the two front seats, and it was necessary for Clara to sit against the tailgate. When Karen asked if she wouldn’t feel more useful helping her mother to change the compresses and keep the water at the right hot temperature, Clara merely shook her head.  “She’s not my mother,” she said. To Karen, the correction as well as the refusal were just two more instances of an implausible if not bizarre event.  “How did your husband get injured?” she asked.

“He was hunting javelina and came upon some tomb robbers.  They try to kill any person who discovers them for fear that he will go back and tell the authorities.  So they attacked Paolo.  He was lucky to get away with only a cut to his leg.  But it made walking back so difficult.  He didn’t get home for nearly five days.  The wound was already badly infected.”

Under his breath, Marc leaned towards Karen and said, “Believe that and I’ve got a bridge to sell you in Tampico.”

“Why didn’t he go directly to the hospital?” Karen asked.

Marc whispered with childish agitation. “Because the story is more than likely that he was the one doing the tomb robbing and if the police sent men to investigate, they’d probably encounter a few archeologists who would relate how they had to fight off a grave robber.”

“Oh,” Karen said, tending to believe his version.

Clara decided to answer.  “Because our house was directly on his route.  The hospital is several kilometers away.”

Marc, Karen could tell by the tone of his voice, did not like to be contradicted.  “I’m having second thoughts about making this futile trip,” he said, continuing in his bratty voice. “The drug store closes at 10 p.m. The canvas roof on this contraption is worthless.  I’m soaked.”

The drug store was, as expected, closed.  Karen pounded on the door, hoping that someone lived inside.  The owner was, in fact, in residence.  He yelled to them that if they did not leave immediately he would call the police.  Marc turned to her and asked, “Are you happy now?”    Karen continued to bang on the door and the owner called the police.

Fifteen minutes later, an irritated plainclothes officer drove up in a large-wheeled pickup truck.  He rolled down the window, greeted Marc and Clara, and asked what the problem was.  Marc explained that the woman with them was an American doctor who needed a certain kind of medicine. The shop owner opened the front door and began to shake his fist at Karen as he shouted insults. Marc ignored him and made the introductions: “Karen this is Inspector Detective Juan Ruiz-Montoya.  Juan, Dr. Karen Breiton of Phoenix, Arizona.”

The detective looked at his watch.  In Spanish, he asked Marc why “La Belle Karen” couldn’t wait a few more hours and come when the place was open.  “Se had cerrado desde diez! Se abrirá a las ocho en punto.”

“You look like an educated man,” Karen said in an unfriendly tone.  “Can you speak English?”

“Yes,” he countered.  “Can you tell time?”

“Don’t be a smart-ass,” she said. “This woman’s husband has a critically infected leg…. a machete cut.  He should be taken to a hospital but I understand the river is at flood stage. He’s close to death.  They have a baby.  I need antibiotics and I need them immediately.  A syringe and needle, too.”

The detective got out of the pickup and talked to the pharmacist.  He lamented the great nuisance gringas invariably were and that it would probably be easier on everyone if the owner got the medicine she wanted.  It was then discovered that no one except the detective had any money.  Ruiz-Montoya took out his wallet and turned to Karen, “Doctor, you are in my debt.”

“I won’t forget it.”  She noticed that he was tall and rather handsome.

He caught her looking at him and asked, “Is something wrong?”

“No.  I was just thinking that you like a younger version of the Dos Equis man.”

“In fact, he is my son.  He married a gringa.”

As she climbed into the Jeep with the medicine, he shouted, “Doctor Karen, if I’m ever up your way and it’s the middle of the night and I need a doctor,  I know you won’t mind if I call you.”

“That depends on what is wrong with you,” she said, grinning.

He was still laughing as Marc started the Jeep and pulled away.

They arrived at Clara’s house at 3:30 a.m.  Paolo had died at 3.  Karen noticed that the baby was in some kind of hammock and that the old woman was crying as she prepared a bottle of milk for him.  Wet towels, obviously used as compresses, hung on a line to dry.  “Tell her I’ll be back tomorrow with some baby formula,” she said, turning away because she feared that she might start to cry, too.  She went outside and sat in the Jeep.

Marc came out of the house and got into the driver’s seat.  “Damned shame,” he said, starting the engine.

At the hacienda, Karen stripped off her muddy clothes and took a tranquilizer. She was exhausted but she was also angry.  Marc, she thought, didn’t have to be so negative and so bloody slow.

The suspicion strengthened until she promised herself that in the morning she would look in the garage. She had seen a stack of old tires… old cleated mud tires, and boxes that contained new inner tubes.  She’d find out if one of them fit the Jeep.  “Nobody can be so negative unless they’ve got an agenda,” she whispered to herself.  “And what the hell did Clara mean when she said that the doctor had returned?”  Clearly, Clara had been there earlier and at least Marc knew of it.  “Why had he said nothing?” she asked herself.

She lay awake for more than an hour, agitated by the inexplicable events and the noise of the passing ships until fatigue finally overtook calamity and she fell into a fitful sleep.

 

Karen’s life, until that night, had seemed untroubled, but in fact was not a happy life. The domestic relationships to which she had once been bound had vanished leaving her to drag their useless chains with her wherever she went. No one, she had learned, is ever free from the people, places, and things to which a strong attachment had once existed.

As Karen Presley she had married Henri Breiton, a pre-med classmate who had emigrated from France. He failed to pass the MCAT (a medical college admission’s test) and could not get into medical school, a failure which did allow him to discover the inferiorities of the American medical establishment and the detailed inadequacies of those who had a talent for mediocrity. He obtained his bachelor of science degree, and seemed never to be able to find a job that did not require him to bemean his dignity by filling out an application form, a sacrifice of honor to which he would not consent. As with Aesop’s Fox and Sour Grapes, it became increasingly difficult to conceal from his wife how she and her medical studies oppressed him.   He found it repugnant even to dine with someone who had touched a corpse that day, and then had touched one recently, and then had ever so much as been curious about a cadaver.  Only the refined taste of creme patissiere stuffed into the eclairs produced daily by a specialty bakery that was located half a block from their apartment could divert his palate’s attention sufficiently to allow a discussion of food.

Karen occasionally suspected that it was a compensating sense of the macabre that made him amorous; but she was too taxed with histology and biochemistry to give the suspicion any serious thought.  Pregnant, unexpectedly, she delivered her daughter Amalie late in August and was able to return for her second year of medical school without missing a lecture. Both parents had gained fifty pounds by this time.  She lost her excess weight within a few months.  He stayed home to watch television and to care for their daughter to whom he spoke nothing but French.  A chance viewing of Clouzot’s film, Diabolique, inspired in him an interest in film.  Photography, not being the exercise in frontal still-life he had supposed it to be, introduced the concept of angled viewpoints.  He ended his embryonic career in cinematography when he fell fifteen feet from an oak tree as he tried to climb high enough to capture the overhead view of squirrels in conflict during the autumnal dwindling of edible acorns.

Henri became their daughter Amalie’s wheelchair nanny, one who taught her an aristocratic level of Parisian French and the dogma and tenets of Auguste Escoffier’s gastric religion, the god of which could be worshipped properly only in the Hotel Ritz.  His parents, who now resided in suburban Paris, regularly sent VHS tapes of French Films and French cartoons and children’s shows.  Karen would return home exhausted after twenty-four hour shifts of “ward” duty and try to speak to her daughter in ways that suggested the scenes between Katherine of Valois and Alice in Shakespeare’s Henry V. “La main, de hand; les doigts, de fangres.”  Even Henri’s hand-picked cleaning lady who twice a week brought order to their wardrobes and dwelling, was from the Louisiana Bayou and spoke a Cajun French that Amalie quickly learned to understand.

It was an old story. He took their daughter to his father’s funeral – a service which Karen could not attend due to a series of conferences she was committed to attending – and then he launched a series of excuses to delay returning home.  His mother absolutely required his and Amalie’s comforting presence. It naturally followed that Amalie was enrolled in a conservative private school that regarded English, especially the American variant, as vulgar in its entirety as any four letter word scrawled on a graffiti covered wall.  Henri’s mother continued to pay the bills as Karen finished her residency in cardiology in Arizona, where the prevailing second language was Spanish – not French.

It often comes as a surprise to learn that accommodations we have made, sanguine in the assumption that we were acting to the benefit of all, were, in actuality, choices that constituted permanent concessions made against our own interests.  Henri did not want a divorce and apparently found the ambiance of Paris, which Karen found somewhat tinged with urine, sufficiently pleasant to overwhelm the coarser considerations of her profession.   She received cards, gifts, and flowers on Mother’s Day, Valentine’s Day, and her October birthday.  She spent agonizing Christmas holidays with her family in France, but always returned to her private practice in Arizona. Despite trying to learn French from books and cassette lessons, she could never follow a conversation in real life.  In normal speech, the words were spoken so rapidly that she felt as though she were grasping at smoke.

Most of all, she dreaded stilted conversations with her own daughter to whom she could not speak a coherent sentence in French and whose English was unintelligible.  She begged Henri to insist to Amalie’s teachers that she be given better instruction in English.  And while he always agreed that he would do this, Amalie instead mastered Italian and German.

Originally, it had been Madame Breiton’s intention to move to Phoenix so that she and her husband could oversee the care of her son and supervise the raising of her only grandchild. (It was essential that baby Amalie become a proper upper-class young French gentlewoman.)  She secretly contacted a real estate agency to locate a large house in the affluent Scottsdale community, just east of Phoenix.  The agency found the perfect home which she purchased, deeding it to Henri and Karen as Joint Tenants.  She wisely understood that if she put the house in her name alone, her “guests” could move out at will.  By putting her house in their names, they could neither leave their own home nor, in considerations of gratitude, ask her to leave.  In such a way, she would receive the attentions of an important guest while retaining the host’s control.  Had she anticipated the ease with which she was able to entice Henri and Amalie to remain with her in Paris, she would certainly not have bothered.  She instructed the real estate agency to represent her interests and manage the property. It was quickly and quietly leased to a group of old ladies.

Nature has a way of evening scores.  The Arizona climate, which Henri had often decried, had a salubrity that France could not replicate.  After one particularly damp Parisian winter, Henri, a heavy smoker, caught a cold which became pneumonia, and despite the valiant attempts of his physicians, he died.  He was buried in France.  Karen attended the funeral.  Her sixteen-year-old daughter wept and dressed like the widow.  Some people actually thought she was.  Karen stood on the sideline in a black suit and had the distinct impression that some of the mourners regarded her as a member of the mortuary’s staff.   Amalie, sixteen and stubborn, refused to return to the U.S.  Karen consulted the family attorney who advised her that any legal attempt she made to force her daughter’s return would drag on until the girl attained majority.  “Why,” he asked, “would you make an enemy of her?  Though geographically distant, she is still your daughter. She is also an American citizen.  Do you want her to change her nationality?  She can always come and live with you. You own a large home in Phoenix – exclusively, now that Henri is dead.”

This was news to Karen. “Can you give me more details about this house?” she asked.  It was then that she learned its address in Scottsdale and the name of the agency that managed it.  The news of this possession confounded her.  “Why had no one told me of its existence?” she asked.  The attorney clarified the issue.  “It was Madame’s intention to help you care for Henri there in Phoenix. She preferred to think of herself as a guest in your house than have you consider yourselves a guest in hers.  But then…Henri came to Paris. So she let the agent rent it.   Things happen, No?”

No, Karen thought.  Things like this just didn’t happen. But she smiled and nodded.  “Yes, I guess they do.”

“At any rate, it is yours now… not by bequest or any other instrument. You and Henri owned it as Joint Tenants which gives you the right of survivorship.  Somewhere along the way you must have signed a paper that seemed inconsequential to you. Well, since the agency corresponded faithfully with Madame and the taxes were paid and the rents collected, that’s where everything stood.  I’m afraid the house is now your concern.  You can deal with the agency or handle matters yourself.”

When she returned to Phoenix, she drove immediately to the house and found it not only a beautiful house but one which was much closer to her office and the hospital to which she admitted her patients.  It was currently being advertised for rent.  She contacted the agency and ended the contractual relationship.  She notified the owners of her apartment of her intention to vacate and moved into her own home.  Yet, in her new home she felt as she had always felt… the occupant of a house that was haunted, not by ghosts that targeted her for their mischief, but a host of indifferent ghosts that she could neither vivify nor expel.

From the funeral service on, the perfunctory communications from her daughter plunged from monthly videocalls to greeting cards with an occasional photo to prove growth – should anyone express an interest.  Amalie married.  Karen attended the ceremony and reception.  The hugs and kisses were genuine and the happy photographs did not deceive.  But the communications dwindled after Amalie had two boys, and one day it occurred to Karen that she couldn’t pick her grandsons out of a lineup – if they were ever put in one.   She consulted a psychologist.

“My cat Milvis and I are ‘home-front exiles,'” she said. “And he only stays with me because I feed him. We have a contractual relationship.”

“Don’t sell animals too short,” the doctor advised.  “I’ve known pets who stay with their owners and starve with them or drown with them.  Human relationships are often based upon this kind of contract.  The lover gives tangible goods and services and expects the beloved to give intangible companionship and love in return.  I need not tell you that this attempt to cross-breed sacrifice with love produces only mule or capon relationships.”  She sniffed.  “Any expectations we have prove to be sterile. But your problem seems to have more to do with having zero contracts.  Are you uncomfortable around people?”

“People, no.  I get along well with people.  I just can’t find… well… it sounds so stupid, but I just can’t find anybody to love.”  She said it.  There.  That was the problem. “And,” she added, “I’m not in a position to gab with girlfriends at a Tupperware party or a coffee klatch. I don’t know any women with whom I can gab.”

“Divorcees,” the psychologist sympathized, “have it so much easier.  They have a ready-made list of relatives to gripe and gossip about.  But a widow, I fear, is doomed.  In conversational gamesmanship, a suit of interfering in-laws is always trump.”

“But that assumes one has a circle of friends with whom to gossip.”

“Yes, it does. Doesn’t it?  I suggest that you find something you like to do or always wished you knew more about… raising miniature roses or African violets… or orchids.  Take up photography… or ceramics – there is such a thrill about having one’s fingers in clay – or one of those weaving machines.  I have a friend who has one.  She’s Navajo and though she weaves on a mechanical loom instead of one of those back strap Indian contraptions, she still can produce exquisite and authentic Navajo rugs and blankets.  It all depends on the quality of the wool you use. There are so many grades.”

“Yes, many… qualities.”

She paid the psychologist’s consultation fee, finding yet another reason for being friendless.

She brooded even more about being alone.  She tried the suggested nostrums: she tried to get interested in African violets. They were not good companions.  Ceramics left her hands and cuticles so dry and brittle that a dermatologist at the hospital prescribed hand lotion and told her to wear no-thrill gloves when working with clay.

She strolled through museums and found the pictures pretty – for the most part.  She went to  church functions and chautaugua type university lectures.  She’d enter alone, praying that she’d leave, chatting happily with an eligible bachelor.  What she found were hard-up men seeking to prey on any one of dozens of women like her: single and financially successful – hosts for the parasitic.

In the Spring of 2014 everything changed. Her mother and mother-in-law – who had formed a strange but close friendship – decided to visit Karen “for a few weeks or so,” a visit Karen at first welcomed.

Without telling Karen, her mother had taken a Berlitz course in French and then had studied the language in a “continuing education” class given at a community college. She also managed to squander her savings going to visit Madame Breiton and Amalie in Paris. Adele Breiton welcomed the visits since she, being somewhat bereft of Euros, found the injection of dollars helpful.  Adele learned conversational English and the two women more or less conversed in both languages.

What was more amazing to Karen was that two disparate and disagreeable women got along well and joined a bridge club, went to the movies once a week, dabbled in costume design, and tried to raise six different bonsai trees. Her mother asked if she could borrow Karen’s charge account for a trip that she and Adele planned to make to New York to attend a fashion show.  Karen said, “Of course,” and provided the necessary plastic.  Both women bought expensive clothes on Karen’s charge account and went to expensive hotels while they attended horse races at Belmont Park.  When they returned, Karen found herself thousands of dollars in debt. As peope who are in debt to someone are inclined to do, they became irascible and treated Karen contumeliously. Not a day passed but they had stern advice about how she should improve her life, environment, personal appearance, and rid herself of the inclination to spend money on unnecessary things.  She resisted and they, like some law of momentum in physics, met her resistance, and with equal force transmitted it back to her.

The absence of friends – male or female – created a vacuum which seemed to suck-in all her rational thoughts.  Initially she responded to their cold stares and complaints by escaping to her bedroom in which she had installed a small refrigerator and microwave.  When she began talking aloud to herself in the mirror about getting her own place, she knew she had crossed into a forbidden zone.  She went downstairs and announced, “I need time to be alone, so I’m afraid the two of you will have to visit someone else.  And soon.  I think you should start packing now.  The subject is not up for negotiation.”  She would later be told that it is not always so easy to get rid of unwanted house guests.  But this time, the simple instruction to vacate the premises worked.

A starving kitten came into her back yard; and Adele tried to chase it away.  Karen ran after it and brought it into the house and began to feed it.

“Zat is an alley chat,” said Adele disdainfully, “un orphelin.”

“I love orphelins,” Karen replied.  “Do you require help in packing?”

Go to Issue #2

Hagakure (#1)

Ming Zhen Shakya
Ming Zhen Shakya

COMMENTARY ON THE HAGAKURE 

Part 1: The Extraordinary Yukio Mishima
by Ming Zhen Shakya

 

“Today I am not going to see skeletons beneath flesh. They are only a concept. I will see and remember things as they are. It will be my last pleasure, my last effort. My last good look. I must look. I must take in everything with an unoccupied heart.”
Honda’s unrealized promise to himself – from the final section of The Decay of the Angel, completed hours before the author’s death.

 

Late in November of 1970, Japan announced that Yukio Mishima, one of its finest authors, had committed suicide at a military base. Why he did this was a mystery. How he did this was shocking. The entire incident, somehow, someway, had something to do with theHagakure and The Way of the Samurai and, of course, Hara Kiri, the method he used to kill himself.

Since there were eye-witnesses to the event, we do know what he at least thought he was doing: he wrote a speech, stating his purpose. He had scripted a tragic drama, a theatrical experience that he intended would move a nation with its pathos. But despite the event’s meticulous planning, what he produced was a dark, surreal Three Stooges’ comedy.

Immediately, literary detectives began to rummage through Mishima’s life, looking for a clue, a dot they could connect to another dot, a discernible trail that led from cause to effect. Some thought they found the cause in his childhood The usual suspects were rounded up: a cold and disagreeable father, a domineering, smothering grandmother, et al. Some hazarded a guess that the cause might be depression induced by his having failed to win the Nobel Prize in literature – which he surely deserved. Some focused on homosexuality. All the investigations came to nothing. To this day nobody knows why he did what he did. And nobody bothered to do an autopsy – as if a man’s suicide is sufficient to understand the cause of his death.

We did learn that Yukio Mishima, the pen name of Kimitake Hiraoka,(1926 – 1970), had had a troublesome childhood, but so had 99.9% of the people on the planet.

Childhood is troublesome not because adults make it so, but because, for the child, himself, the period is a long confusing struggle to make order out of chaos, using a brain that is not fully formed and is therefore incapable of doing the job well.

His physical condition, however, could reasonably be described as “fragile.” He suffered from a condition known in those days as “autointoxication,” a nebulous malady which arose from the quack notion that the contents of the large bowel were toxic and therefore dangerous to human health. Both prophylactically and as treatment for this condition, “colonic cleansings,” i.e., enemas, were prescribed. Whether his fragility was caused by symptoms that suggested autointoxication or was merely the effect of its debilitating treatment, we do not know. It is safe to guess that if, in fact, he was subjected to frequent enemas – the universally accepted nostrum for this curious diagnosis, his doting grandmother administered or supervised them. Nobody, in those days, escaped this “all-purpose home remedy” which lingers, even now, in many alternative-medicine regimens.

However good or bad his childhood was, he emerged from it as an articulate, educated, well-mannered, presentable, self-disciplined, and talented young man. He began to write, and because he wrote well, he got noticed.

His literary output was prodigious. Right up to the last day of his 45 years on earth he produced 40 novels, a few of which were turned into successful films, numerous plays, short stories, and essays. In accordance with the “new literary freedom” of the time, he was properly scandalous in his subject matter: homosexuality, obsession; sadism…. themes popular throughout the world in post-war years.

At twenty-six, using money he had earned from his published works, mainly from his sensational Confessions Of A Mask , he traveled to Brazil, the U.S., Greece. He so admired Greek sculpture’s celebration of the human form that he resolved to develop his own frail body. He returned to Japan and learned how to swim. After this, he took lessons in boxing, a sport which he abandoned, and weight lifting, to which he was devoted for the rest of his life.

It is in 1955, when he was twenty-nine, that the distress that would pursue him to his early death makes its unambiguous appearance. In John Nathan’s uncompromising biography, we learn that Mishima is becoming seriously worried about his own mental health, that as he reads a text on schizophrenia he recognizes his own symptoms of a “stiff as leather” psychological encapsulation, a numbness to the external world’s stimuli.

Also, in that same year, of perhaps even greater significance, Nathan quotes a friend who had stayed in a hotel room that adjoined Mishima’s. During the night, awakened by loud groans coming from the adjoining room, he went in and found his friend writhing on the floor. “Mishima pointed to a hypodermic needle on the table and when Mayuzumi [the friend] handed it to him, he gave himself an injection. The pain quickly subsided.” Mishima then explained that these “cramps” had plagued him all his life and, holding his friend to secrecy, promised that he would cure the problem on his own – by which it was assumed he meant by the physical training of weight-lifting. He also confessed that the pains had been getting worse and, since they were now occurring at night, had begun to interfere with his nocturnal writing routine.

The pains, whatever their origin, must have been both recurrent and severe for him to travel about with his own syringe and a ready supply of what was undoubtedly an opiate. We can only wonder that if the pains continued to worsen and if, as is likely, he had been unable to cure the problem with weight lifting, drug use of some kind may have contributed to his worsening grasp of reality.

In 1955, despite the sober post-war reassessment of the Hagakure that led the Japanese to regard the book with disgust, Mishima writes an article about it; and, in glowing terms, lauds it as a “book of peerless morality.” It is apparent that although he senses that the book contains eternal truths, his spiritual lexicon does not yet contain the necessary words for him to comprehend those truths. He repeats the line that had become an anathema to his countrymen following the Kamikaze desperation of the War’s end, “A samurai must take great pride in his military valor; he must have the supreme resolution to die a fanatic’s death.” And he comments, “There is no such thing as correctness or propriety in fanaticism.” Thousands of young men, spouting such “Holy War” bravado, had seduced themselves into believing that a man was heroic when he boasted, “I am unafraid of death,” and then proved his ego’s strength by throwing his life away.

Mishima applies mundane definitions even to the term “death” When the Zen monk Jocho, the Hagakure’s author, says, “I found that the Way of the Samurai is death,” Mishima comments, “…he is expressing his Utopianism, his principles of freedom and happiness. That is why we are able to read Hagakure today as the tale of an ideal country… But what actually existed is merely Jocho’s dream.”

He continues to write successful plays and novels, to develop his upper body strength, and to travel, his literary successes having gained him an international following.

By the tine he reaches thirty-two, his masterpiece, The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, appears, guaranteeing his place in world literature. The book is based upon the true story of a young Buddhist monk who deliberately burned down an ancient temple of unrivaled beauty, Kyoto’s Golden Temple. The story’s Zen background requires Mishima to examine in greater detail aspects of Buddhist theology which previously he had not understood.

Yet, by this same year, 1958, no one can doubt that despite his continuing ability to write with a clear, insightful vision, he was regressing into a murky childhood world of comic book superheroes. Perhaps, as a kid, like most Japanese kids, he had fantasized about becoming a chivalrous samurai warrior, the unattached Ronin, the hero of countless action movies made in Japan throughout the 1930s and 40s, the counterparts of U.S. cowboy westerns.

Most kids outgrow childhood fantasies. Mishima never did. His actions leave little doubt that as a samurai warrior he would preserve and defend the one great love of his life: Japan – and, of course, the Emperor – which to him were one in the same thing. But he would not be an itinerant Ronin. His daimyo lord would be none other than the Emperor Hirohito.

A samurai had a “house” – a family and a home-base. He builds himself a house and negotiates for a wife. He has two children and is a good, attentive husband and father.

A samurai could also handle a sword; and his weight-lifting regimen, assimilated to this purpose, gives him the necessary upper body strength to wield the weapon. He begins rigorously to train in Kendo, the samurai art of the sword, practiced as a dramatically costumed, medieval form of fencing with staves.

By the time he turns forty, in 1965, he is, in his mind, a samurai warrior. It is in these last five years of his life that his mind oscillates between cogency and irrationality. Professionally, he writes with penetrating realism. Privately, he is living out a fantasy. He begins his master work, a tetralogy he calls The Sea of Fertility.

We don’t know why Mishima chose to use as his title the name of an arid and lifeless expanse of the moon ironically called The Sea of Fertility. It lies adjacent to what is to an American, at least, the more appropriately named Sea of Tranquility. Given his love for Japan, it is reasonable to suspect that he felt enormous regret that there would be no Japanese footprints in mankind’s “giant leap” onto the lunar surface. Japan had been excluded from the greatest adventure of the age.

The central character of The Sea of Fertility is Honda, a man who squanders his intelligence on absurd superstition and erroneous hunches. Although he enjoys the social status that attends both his accumulation of wealth and his respected position as a judge, he is an impotent voyeur, a gullible fool who is obsessed with his own “discovery of a proof of reincarnation.” He has recognized three moles located in the armpit of four successive characters born throughout his long lifetime. These characters determine his pointless destiny as he struggles, staking reputation and fortune, to fulfill the terms of his ludicrous “proof.”

When in 1967 Mishima writes again about the Hagakure in his book, The Way Of The Samurai , he shows that his spiritual vocabulary has increased but is still inadequate to explain important Zen concepts, particularly the differences between the death of the ego in the material world of illusion and the death of the body in the same world. (By the last day of his life, he will have grasped what had so long eluded him.)

He is openly determined to serve Japan with the same valor and integrity any other samurai would show his daimyo . There were samurai nobles on his grandmother’s side of the family so the claim to such lineage, while tenuous, did have a basis in fact.

But now that he has become the Emperor’s retainer, he needs an army to lead and a war to fight. He decides that he’ll lead a crusade to restore Japan’s rightful heritage, the samurai tradition. The spirit of the samurai haunts him. It begs to be allowed to inhabit the flesh and bones of the near moribund Japanese military; and it promises that this revival will inspire the entire nation to greatness. The plans are all laid out in the Hagakure – a book that teaches the philosophy of all forms of conduct: love, ethics; action – even the honor in death.

According to his understanding of the book, his course is clear: if he fails in his mission, he will commit seppuka. His messianic fervor was not so outrageous then as it seems now; for this was the age of religious and political cults, an age in which charismatic individuals (of which he was surely one) could initiate a movement that would influence events. We have, as examples, The John Birch Society; Reverend Moon’s Unification Church; Hari Krishna; SDS (Students for a Democratic Society); Jim Jones’ People’s Temple; among many others.

He grows more reckless, posing for photographs – bizarre shots of him, naked with roses, in an album entitled, Torture by Roses. He also poses as the arrow-pierced martyr Saint Sebastian, who happened also to be an erotic interest of the narrator of Mishima’s Confessions Of A Mask. (We do not know if the saint’s life held any interest for him beyond his initial inspection of Guido Reni’s fortuitously sensual depiction.)

Personally paying for all of its expenses, Mishima creates a new military unit, The Shield Society, even engaging one of Charles deGaulle’s tailors to design its uniform. He lectures at universities to recruit members, enlisting as many as a hundred young men who possess the requisite samurai “purity of character” – though infighting and boredom quickly thin the Society’s ranks. He obtains permission from the Japanese Self-Defense Force authorities to participate in basic training programs, to bivouac with “other” soldiers and experience the hardships and routines of boot camp, and to use certain facilities to drill the Shield Society warriors who would become his army of morally unimpeachable retainers. The authorities accommodate him, expecting that they can exploit his literary abilities for favorable public relations’ articles. He has training sessions on his beloved Mount Fuji and administers blood oaths, vowing to die for the man-god who sits on the Chrysanthemum Throne.

As October 1969 approaches, he agitates against the ratification of Japan’s “no-military” treaty with the U.S., joining his voice with the increasingly violent Left who also do not want the treaty ratified. Renewable every ten years, the treaty requires that the Japanese not create any military units beyond those needed for self-defense. The Leftist opposition comes from wanting Japan to join Asia’s immense communist block. Mishima’s opposition comes from his belief that the treaty already has converted samurai warriors into meter maids.

The Left is not so interested in creating a new Japanese military as it is in getting rid of an old American one. But the prosperous Right that holds elective power has no intention of surrendering its burgeoning industry to communist control, or of invoking Bushido or the Samurai ethic or in listening to anything the Hagakure has to say.

To the U.S., the protests are irrelevant. The Allies are not going to tolerate even the thought of another Rape of Nanking, Death March of Bataan, horrendous medical experimentation of Unit 731, or any of the atrocities committed in the cause of Japan’s bellicose ambitions; and many of the men who orchestrated those atrocities are still alive and influential. Mishima cannot understand this. Neither can he see that his countrymen are thriving in 1969’s peace and do not want to go back to 1944… or 1544. He has no constituency. Yet, though the treaty is extended, he remains obsessed with repudiating it.

The Hagakure requires a samurai to be a man of action. But how could he act? If the Shield Society were ever to develop into a samurai elite, into men who could guide the ordinary soldier, he would need the army’s moral support. The very soldiers that he considers inert would have to explode with enough force to produce Constitutional change.

While he ponders this problem, he begins a close and possibly homosexual relationship with a young, unsophisticated member of his Shield Society, a recruit named Morita. He takes pains to teach Morita western table manners as he grooms him for an honorable life as a samurai “man of action.” Within the Shield Society’s four dozen members, Morita and three others become his inner circle.

But when the Shield Society fails to attain the critical mass required to provoke the reaction he seeks and becomes, instead, a “toy soldiers” laughingstock, he despairingly forms a death pact with Morita. They would show the world true Japanese courage and honor. There was glory in failure, too. With cameras flashing, Mishima would commit hara kiri, Morita would decapitate him in a coup de grace, then Morita would commit hara kiri, and one of the other three would administer the coup to Morita.

So that was the plan. Mishima, Morita, and the three others would meet early. They’d first be formally photographed and then they’d proceed to the post where they would “visit” the commanding general, take him hostage, and demand that he summon the garrison to stand at the base of the balcony outside his second storey office. From the balcony Mishima would rally the garrison with a passionate speech. He’d plead with the men to mutiny… or to overthrow an elected government… or to follow him down the path of Death before Dishonor. All of the remaining Shield Society members, in their spiffy uniforms, would also be in attendance. (It is unclear whether he expected his junior samurai to participate in the event or merely to observe it.) Then, at the climax of this orgy of service to his Imperial Majesty, he’d commit hara kiri and be beheaded by Morita who would commit hara kiri, and be himself beheaded. Fin.

On the morning of November 25th, having already alerted the press to attend the finale at the army base, Mishima completes The Decay of the Angel, the final book of his Sea of Fertility tetralogy. The last section is one of the most astonishing pieces of literature ever to have issued from his prolific pen. Whereas the other three books give garbled versions of Buddhist theology – seen mostly through the befuddled eyes of his central character, Honda, the fourth book, written in the extremity of Mishima’s scheduled suicide, closes with the elegant simplicity of Zen Truth. Honda, in his eighties, desiccated and spent by his own waste, trudges up a hill to a Buddhist monastery to keep an audience with an old friend who is now the abbess. He climbs with difficulty, bearing burdens of illness and ignorance. There, surrounded by the landscape’s beauty, he must often stop to rest. Mishima has always been eloquent in his descriptions of Japan’s natural beauty; but in these final poignant passages, the love he feels for Japan is painful to read.

We watch Honda climb, not knowing whether his steps are a “Stations of the Cross” journey to redemption or whether they are a “Dead man walking” stumbling trip to meaningless extinction.

When Honda at last sits with the Abbess, he is given one more opportunity to dispel samsara’s phantom images. Zen’s Inner Truth is revealed, but it is an epiphany that Honda is too blind to see. The Abbess, enlightened in her Real world, ends the interview, letting Honda remain in what she calls “that other world,” the ego’s world of illusion from which he will never escape.

“What Honda had missed,” Mishima had written, “had been the dark, narrow path through the flesh to holiness. To travel it was of course the privilege of few.”

He puts his manuscript into an envelope, dispatches it to his publisher, and prepares his costume for the final scene of his life. Under his Shield Society uniform he is naked except for a samurai loincloth. He carries an antique samurai sword of exceptional quality. The tragi-comedy begins.

With Morita hiding a dagger under his jacket and Mishima boldly carrying the sword, the five men enter the General’s office, so congenially that a major thinks it is appropriate to serve them tea. The general comments on the sword and Mishima unsheathes if for him to inspect. On cue, one of the young men walks behind the general’s chair in order to gag him with a long thin towel. But the general suddenly stands up to get a better look at the sword, and the young man, not knowing what to do, hands the towel to Mishima, who uses it to polish the blade.

The young man, without a gag to use, again goes behind the now seated general and wraps his fingers around the startled officer’s neck, while another Shield member binds the general’s arms and legs to his chair. Morita, whose job it is to wrap wire around the door knob of each of the room’s two doors to prevent them from being opened, discovers that there is nothing to use to anchor the wire. He resorts to pushing the general’s desk against one door and some chairs against the other door. The major looks through an interoffice peephole and sees the young man standing behind the general – and for a moment thinks that he’s giving him a shoulder massage. When he realizes that the general is being attacked, he summons an assortment of officers; and they decide to storm the office.

The officers push back the flimsy barricades, enter the room, and engage the five invaders. Mishima knows how to use his sword and quickly wounds several of the officers. He demands that they follow his orders, swearing that if they don’t, he’ll kill the General. He wants to make a speech to the assembled garrison; and if they arrange this, there will be no further injury to any of them. They agree. He is slightly behind schedule and lunch time is approaching.

The loudspeakers summon the soldiers, and Mishima nervously waits for his audience to arrive. He does not realize that the officers have called the police who have sent cars and three helicopters to the scene.

All five Shield Society invaders put on headbands that pledge undying loyalty to the Emperor. The garrison assembles, and Mishima goes onto the balcony, leaps up onto a platform, and begins his impassioned call to arms or… something. Nobody is sure. The soldiers have seen their wounded officers being carried out, but they have no idea what is going on. The helicopters and the police car sirens have drowned out Mishima’s voice.

The few dozen Shield Society members who came to the parade grounds are told by an army officer that Mishima wants them to join the men’s ranks; but discretion being the better part of valor, they insist that without specific orders from him, they will not join the assembly. They stay in the background, unable to give him any support.

On the balcony, the Shield members unfurl “purpose” banners that are supposed to hang down for the garrison to read; but the helicopters churn the air and the banners wave unintelligibly. Pamphlets are released, but these too swirl about, and those that are caught and read, clarify nothing.

Mishima continues his inaudible harangue.

It is now past noon and the crowd is confused about everything except missing lunch. Angry, they shout obscenities at him. Mishima, seeing the uselessness of continuing, salutes the Emperor three times and returns to the general’s office.

Inside, he strips off his uniform, kneels, and with Morita standing over him ready to administer the coup de grace, plunges the dagger into his abdomen and draws it sideways. Morita raises the sword and with a mighty blow brings it down intending to behead his friend. But Morita is short and the blade is long and the point hits the rug on the other side of the figure bent in agony on the floor. The blade does manage to slice Mishima’s shoulder, increasing his agony. Morita’s comrades shout at him to strike again, and again with a mighty blow he strikes the carpet and cuts the writhing man’s body. The third time he tries to behead his friend he succeeds only in slashing his neck. Now one of the Shield members, who knows how to wield a blade, takes the sword and with one stroke beheads Mishima. As the men kneel in prayer, the dagger is taken from Mishima’s hand and given to Morita who kneels but can do no more than scribe a superficial line across his abdomen. He looks up helplessly at the man with the sword. Then he bends his head forward in the beheading position, and the sword finishes the job. The head rolls across the floor. The stench of Mishima’s of intestines fills the room. Blood is everywhere. The general is demanding that he be untied before the indignity of his capture can be seen by any other subordinates. And the remaining three members of the Shield Society sob like babies amidst the pandemonium. Life does not necessarily imitate art.

In Confessions of a Mask, the narrator recalls emerging from an air raid shelter one night during the war: “The winter of 1945 had been a persistent one. Although spring had already arrived, coming with the stealthy footsteps of a leopard, winter still stood like a cage about it, blocking its way with gray stubbornness. Ice still glittered under the starlight.”

For the world that had so long admired a man who could write like this, 1970’s winter would be another persistent one.

The Party

Yin Cai Shakya
Yin Ts’ao Shakya

If you like “The Party”, check for more stories in AlphabetGumbo.com

 

 Part 1

“I REALLY CAN’T THANK YOU ENOUGH for agreeing to this,” Ginny said as she took Jonathan’s hand and led him down the flagstone walkway which traversed the soon-to-be wedded Travis and Gretchen’s well-manicured front lawn. “I know these get-togethers aren’t your cup of tea. Thank you for taking one for the team tonight, Teddy Bear. I promise I’ll make it up to you later on.”

Jonathan, clearing his throat and detecting a hint that sex could be in his immediate future – not the kind of sex he and Ginny had before they moved-in together, of course, but SEX none the less – nodded and replied, “It’s no problem, Gin. It’s fine. I just, you know, it’s nothing personal against your friends. They’re great and all… I just, you know, feel like I need a few Jell-O shots and a Xanax just to be around them sometimes.”

(That wasn’t actually true. It waspersonal, and it had everything to do with the fact that to Jonathan, none of Ginny’s friends were “great” at all. And that went double for Gretchen and her fiancé, Mr. What’s-His-Name. And he needed a whole lot more chemical assistance than a few Jell-O shots and a Xanax to handle being around them without wanting to blow out the pilot light, turn up the gas, and put his head in the oven.)

“I know, Teddy Bear,” Ginny replied, giving Jonathan her cute pouty face. To her Jonathan looked like a teddy bear. Well, a skinny, well-worn teddy bear.

“Especially Gretchen, fuck…” (Gretchen taught Second grade elementary school and tended to speak to everyone in that same slow, condescending, “talking down” manner that she used when she spoke to her students. She also listened to National Public Radio.)

“I know, Jonny. She can be a little uptight, a little condescending, but I’ve known her since Junior High and…”

“I know Gin, and I said it’s okay. Just, you know, point me toward the alcohol as soon as we’re through the front door and I’ll be fine.”

“Uh, there’s no drinking tonight, Jon. Travis, remember…”

(Jonathan did not, in point of fact, remember Travis, or What Travis Had Done, beyond a vague concept of “some guy who’s, uh, engaged to Gretchen, I think,” which he’d picked up from half-listening to Ginny when she spoke, ad-nauseum, about her friends while he smoked pot and playedDiablo III on the computer.)

“Uh, Travis?”

“Gretchen’s fiancee, Jon! For Christ’s sake get it together! Fuck!”

“What’s wrong with…. uh, Travis?”

“Gretchen made him quit drinking… REEEMEMBER!? He was drunk at the recital and felt-up the mother of one of her students. She smacked Jonathan on his forehead, Ring a bell!?

(That was actually the edited-for-content version of the story that Gretchen told her friends and family. It garnered her the sympathy she wanted from the unfortunate people who had to listen, and spared her the embarrassment of telling them the Gospel Truth, which was that Travis had taken the afternoon off work, had gotten obliterated at the bar before meeting Gretchen at the recital, and upon being introduced to the leggy blonde-with-the-Yoga-ass mother of one of Gretchen’s students after the show, he didn’t just “feel her up.” No, he had boomed, “Pleased to meet you, baby!” at her as he reached for her, grabbed her ass, kissed her, and while grinning wildly, rubbed his crotch up and down against her hip with the smirk of a randy schnauzer humping a pillow into a pile of tattered cloth and feathers.)

“Oh, yeah. Yeah! Travis…” Jonathan cleared his throat, “He’s uh, yeah, he’s in that Twelve Step Thing now, what was it?”

“A.A.”

“Uh…?”

Alcoholics Anonymous! Jesus Jonathan!”

“Yeah…”

(Ginny was losing her patience. She hated it when Jonathan wasn’t as present as she wished, and knew that he could be, if he wanted. But in her heart, she understood.)

It occurred to Jonathan that saying as little as possible from that point on was the best course of action to take considering the circumstances and what was at stake for later on, so he apologized and kissed Ginny on the cheek. Ginny smiled and thanked him once again, for coming along.

 

Part 2

The house that Gretchen and Travis had mortgaged themselves out the ass for three months ago was sterile on the inside. To guests it looked as if happy, well-adjusted people lived there, at least at first glance. But upon closer inspection, Jonathan’s subconscious would discover evidence that the whole thing was painstakingly manufactured, down to the most minute detail.  Feelings of extreme uneasiness would manifest themselves along with vague, but insistent inclinations that something just wasn’t right, here.”

Jonathan picked up on it almost immediately. He wasn’t attending a bad party with a rabble of people he’d rather not talk to anymore, oh no. It was so much bigger than that, now. It was as if he was a contestant in some kind of fucked-up television game show. “Gretchen smiles exactly the same way in every single picture I see her in,” he said. Indeed, in all fifteen of them on the mantle alone, Gretchen’s expression was identical – a big, toothy, brilliant-white smile like a shark who’d been seeing a Hollywood Dentist, the kind of Hollywood Dentist who only works on A-List celebrities. She was wearing different clothes in each photo, and she was surrounded by different scenery, but her face, and that smile, were identical in each one. “And ‘Mr. What’s-His-Fuck The Pervert Alcoholic’ looks terrified in every one of the photos he’s in. What the fuck is that about?”

Ding-ding-diiiing! Jonathan has just won round two, Ladies and Gentlemen, with another correct observation! Yes, Travis did look terrified. He was smiling in all the pictures, too, and that’s what made it so unseemly. Unlike Gretchen’s smile, which was a pantomime that had been expertly rehearsed over the years to express jubilation under even the most dire of circumstances, Travis’ smile came-off as forced and gave the impression that it was masking sheer terror. It was the way you smile in the pictures they take of you at the amusement park when you’re riding the roller coasters and you’re terrified of them. That’s how Travis looked in the engagement photos, all elegantly framed and prominently displayed on the credenza.

Time for round three! Will our contestant notice it? Is he gonna pick up on it, folks?

Jonathan meandered into the kitchen. “Christ, you could perform brain surgery in here,” he thought to himself.

A few of the guests had congregated by a large punch bowl on the center island. They took notice of him and acknowledged him with half-smiles. He returned the smiles in equally half-assed measure.

He stared at that kitchen for a long time.  Then it came to him. “Nobody fucking cooks in here!” he blurted out, surprising the punch bowl crowd.

“This kitchen hasn’t been cooked in since it was fucking remodeled! I can still smell the paint!”

DING DING DIIIIING! We have a winner, Ladies and Gentlemen! Tell him what he’s won, Jimmy!

“Ladies and Gentlemen, Jonathan Weissman has just won a bowling ball made of depleted uranium! And he’ll be carrying that big fucker around with him in his stomach for the duration of the evening, feeling nauseated and uncomfortable! HA-HA! Back to you, Craig!”

That’s fantastic!

It was then that Jonathan realized he was badly in need of a drink. Probably even many drinks. This wasn’t something that could be resolved by walking back out to the car, getting inside, smoking a joint and listening to Portishead on the stereo. Not by a longshot.

 

Part 3

Jonathan peeked around the corner, into the Game Room. Ginny was standing by the big-ass TV, belting-out Livin’ On A Prayer into a plastic microphone, as the lyrics whizzed by on the screen, over an undulating tie-dyed background. She was accompanied by the always polo-shirted-and-khaki’d Sylvester, a guy Jonathan recalled meeting at a barbecue several months ago. Or was it the outing at Kennywood?
Jonathan was terrible at remembering exactly where and when he met uninteresting people. Jonathan sucked at all things having to do with uninteresting people.

He was keen, however, at determining whether or not Ginny was having a pleasant enough time at a social function to miss him if he vanished for a half an hour or so. And Ginny seemed to be having a blast at the karaoke jam which, Jonathan assumed, would only allow songs from a pre-approved and agonized-over playlist, decided-upon ahead of time by – you guessed it – Gretchen, herself.

Jonathan shuddered. He always hated Bon Jovi.  He made his exit.

Though he hardly ever came to this neighborhood, he navigated the twists and turns and alleyways on the drive to the liquor store as if he knew the way by heart. Jonathan, who over-thought everything,paused to consider the idea that perhaps he knew, on some subconscious level, that he would be attending a dry party all along and with the
use of his most basic, primal mental faculties, was on the lookout for nearby liquor stores the entire way there that night; and he’d been mapping-out points of stealthy egress, and plotting the quickest routes, from the moment he and Ginny arrived. All without being cognizant of it until the moment he stood at the cashier’s station, paying for the two bottles of Bacardi 151 he’d selected.

“Jesus. Had I planned this all along?” he thought to himself.  He dismissed the thought with a simple “Fuck it.” He paid, and left.

Jonathan didn’t approve of drinking and driving. At least, not most of the time. But it wasn’t difficult for him to rationalize breaking the seal on one of his bottles of high-octane rum, and gulping down three or four jiggers before buckling his seatbelt.

He grimaced and coughed hard after the mouthfuls of jet fuel hit his throat and then went tear-assing their way down his esophagus toward his stomach where they crashed, and subsequently exploded, into a fireball he could physically feel, way down there inside of him near his intestines.

He dismissed his reservations forthwith. “I don’t have too far to go, and I was sober when I got in the car. Fuck it.”

He swilled down two more mouthfuls.

Cough.

Fireball.

His testicles clenched up a little bit.

Burp!

“Whoo-wee! Fuck.”

Whistle.

Jonathan turned the key and his VW’s motor whirred to life. He paused again, considering, “Man, this must be what it’s like for alcoholics every single day, when they have to go to work, or funerals, or church picnics…”

It had never gotten downright unmanageable for Jonathan, not enough for him to consider asking himself The Tough Questions, at least not yet. That time was still ahead of him. But he had to chuckle to himself at the irony of his thought, as he shifted into reverse, looked over his shoulder, and backed out of the parking space. And with a flick of the shifter and a brief squeal of the tires, he was on his way back toward the party, one sheet to the wind, the other two on their way up the mast.

Part 4

Jonathan arrived safely back at Gretchen and Travis’s McMansion, but to his chagrin, the empty space he’d left by the curb in front of the house not more than twenty minutes earlier, was taken.

Humming along to Modest Mouse, he drove a little farther down the block, looking for a suitable place to park.

And it should be noted here that Jonathan had consumed two-thirds of his first bottle of Bacardi 151 on the drive back which, interestingly enough, allowed him to broaden his mind quite a lot when considering just what constituted a “suitable parking space.”

He brought his VW, affectionately nicknamed “Dubbs” by Ginny, to rest by a tall oak tree which resided on the front lawn of a house down the street – the middle of the front lawn. Jonathan thought nothing of it at all; the house remained dark. The homeowners either didn’t care or hadn’t heard all the noise. And he’d ceased thinking about it in the time it took to unbuckle the seatbelt, open the door, and step out onto the grass.

With his bottles of 151 in the pockets of his overcoat, he made his way back toward the party, whistling to himself as he walked.

Part 5

After arriving, via slipping-in through the side-door that lead first into the mud room, which was spotless, and from there into the kitchen which was – you guessed it – still sterile and smelling of new paint, he made his way past a new group of punch bowl revelers, carefully and cautiously, so as not to appear drunk, and headed for the Game Room, to determine whether or not Ginny had noticed he’d been missing.

She had not.

He stepped in, and leaned against the wall (his legs had started feeling like spaghetti) and observed Ginny, sitting on the large couch next to Gretchen. She smiled at Jonathan and waved her hand a little at him.

He smiled back, shifted his weight away from the wall, pointed at her, grinned, and blew her a kiss.

Ginny peered back at him, quizzically, but before the physical symptoms of Jonathan’s intoxication could register, somebody handed Gretchen the microphone, and she stood up and interrupted the exchange saying, “Everybody, gather around! Travis and I are going to sing a duet. MMMHM, this is our favorite song, and ooh! OOOH! Somebody make a video of this so we can post it on our Facebook page!!”

The booze had somehow extinguished the little warning light in Jonathan’s head that would glow bright red any time he was about to say something stupid, so without thinking he blurted out, “You made your fiancé make a lame joint-Facebook page with you!” while pointing at Gretchen and laughing.

“OH Ha, Ha, Jonathan! All couples do that! Don’t they, TRAVIS?” Gretchen responded.

And she continued, “This is mine and Travis’s song, and we’re going to dance to it at our wedding, aren’t we, TRAVIS?”

Travis just stood there, by the TV, looking both embarrassed and defeated. Gretchen joined him, and he smiled that same, terror-masking smile, and put his arm around her.

The duet began. It was Truly, Madly, Deeply, by Savage Garden.

Jonathan winced, then laughed, and then laughed even harder, so hard he felt tears in his eyes, and in the thick of the laughter blurted out “OHHHH, MAAAAN! That song fucking SUCKS!”

Sylvester laughed. A few others chuckled, and Ginny leaped up from the couch and rushed at Jonathan like an defensive lineman and, catching him completely off guard, she maneuvered him into the kitchen while Gretchen, with her bone white shark smile, continued singing, never missing a beat.

Part 6

“WHAT THE FUCK, JONATHAN! WHAT… THE… FUCK?”

“Uh… Heh…”  Cough. “Whatthefuck?”  Ginny wanted to know what the fuck was. “What the fuck what, baby?” Jonathan said, grinning and steadying himself on the center island.

“You just haaad to get drunk! Didn’t you? And how did you get drunk, Jonathan? You were sober when we got here and there’s no booze in this fucking one-point-five million dollar retarded house so what the fuck, Jonathan! How’d you get drunk?”

Jonathan pulled the almost empty bottle of 151 from his pocket, held it up, and said “Liquor store…”

Ginny snatched it from his hand, opened it, whacked-down the dregs, wiped her arm across her mouth, and said “You are soooo not getting laid tonight for this, Jonathan!”

Jonathan snickered, and then quietly moaned to himself, “Noooo…”

“Gretchen will never forgive me for this!” Ginny said, and then punched Jonathan in the arm. “You’re such an asshole sometimes!” And with that she stormed out of the kitchen.

Jonathan looked in no direction in particular and asked aloud, “I’M an asshole?”

Nobody answered. And moments later he was outside on the back deck, smoking a cigarette and replaying the events that had occurred moments earlier, trying to determine the precise moment in time at which he became “Such An Asshole.”

“Yeah, I probably am an asshole,” he muttered. “That was kind of a dick thing to say…”

“Yeah, man. That was a total dick thing to say,” a voice responded from out of  nowhere. Somebody Jonathan barely recognized through the drunken haze had come out, just as he was talking to himself. The voice surprised him.

“Yeah, I guess it was…” Cough. “An I feel reeeal bad about it, man,” Jonathan said as he reached into his coat pocket for the other bottle of 151.

He opened it, took a gulp, and said “I, uh, I apologize you had to see me acting like an asshole, man. Here, lemme buy you a drink.” And he handed the bottle over to his new friend.

Without thinking the man took the bottle from Jonathan’s hand, and then paused, staring at it. He licked his lips and then winced- “Oh, shit! I, I really can’t, man, I have a sponsor.”

“AWWW SHIT MAN, sure you can! We’re all adults here.  Drink up, Buddy. C’mon!”

“I need to call my sponsor right now!”

Hearing this, Jonathan began mincing around on the deck, flailing his arms, and mimicked him with a little girl’s voice, saying- “Waaaah! I neeeeed to caaaaall mah sponsooor, I neeeeed to caaaaall mah sponsoooooooor waaaaah!”

“Aww, Fuck it,” the man said and took two huge swigs. “Thanks, man. I fucking needed that.”

“No problem, chief,” Jonathan said and then staggered, asking, “What’d you say your name was, again?”

“Uh, it’s me, asshole, Travis. You know, the guy with the joint-Facebook page with his fiancée…”

Jonathan stood there, head cocked to one side, looking bewildered as Travis walked past him carrying his 151.

Jonathan really ought to get better about remembering who all the uninteresting people are, specifically, shouldn’t he?

“Oops…” Was the first thing Jonathan said. The second thing he said as the adrenaline hit him and immediately began to cause the rum fog to lift, was, “OHSHITFUCK!”

He stumbled toward the patio door, intent on finding Ginny and escaping with her before the shitshow (the one that he would no-doubt be held responsible for) began.

Part 7

Once inside, Jonathan searched for Ginny frantically. She wasn’t in the Game Room, where Penny and Howie Marsh were warbling Friends In Low Places together. And she wasn’t among the partygoers in the kitchen, either. Travis, on the other hand, was in the kitchen, chatting-up Sylvester’s girlfriend Kaye, and she did not appear to be
amused. He had the bottle in his hand and half of it’s contents were already gone. Travis’s face was bright read, and his smile didn’t look forced at all. It looked maniacal, honest, and heavily shored-up by alcohol.

Jonathan tilted his head, watched, and gave the image time enough to let the gravitas of it sink in. “God, he looks really happy,” he thought as he watched Travis, his face
split in half by a the kind of grin you normally only see on Jack-O-Lanters, reach to Kaye and grab her breast through her shirt. Kaye gasped but Travis didn’t balk.

Jonathan’s mouth gaped. “Oh my God, oh my fucking GOD!” he thought as Kaye threw her drink at Travis and gave his face a slap that was hard enough to replace his grin with a look of astonished bewilderment at what he could have possibly done wrong.

“What’s the matter Kaye? You’ve got some great after-market tits!” Travis shouted after her as she fled the kitchen. “They’re great, aren’t they?” he asked to the guests hovering around the center island. They hadn’t seen what happened. Not many people paid much
attention to Travis, some because they had trained themselves not to.

Jonathan tried the living room next, but Ginny wasn’t in there, either.

He headed upstairs, damn-near toppling two female guests who were on their way up to use the bathroom (the downstairs bathroom was occupied). He reached the landing and heard Ginny laughing. She was in the master bedroom with what sounded like Gretchen and two others, admiring the new bedroom furniture that Gretchen’s father had recently given to them. Jonathan burst into the bedroom and Ginny regarded him with surprise.  He was pale and sweating.  He didn’t look drunk anymore at all. He looked like he’d just seen his dog get hit by a car. He grabbed Ginny by the arm and pulled her out of the master bedroom.  In tow, she protested, “But Teddy Bear!”

“Gin there’s no time to explain right now we just have to getthefuckout! We have to leave right now!”

They were half-way down the stairs, and Ginny was still pleading “But Jonathan, Gretchen was going to show us the walk-in closet!”

“We gotta go right now Ginny, shit is totally FUCKED!”

“WHAT’S FUCKED, JONATHAN? WHAT’RE YOU JABBERING ABOUT?”

“Travis is getting hammered, and he just grabbed that chick who Brown Khakis is fucking’s tits, and it’s my fucking fault and we have to go RIGHT NOW!”

“GOD DAMN IT JONATHAN. YOU REALLY ARE AN IDIOT! YOU KNOW THAT?”

“I know I know I’m SORRY Ginny. C’mon!”

Part 8

 

Gretchen and her two friends had followed Jonathan and Ginny after their abrupt exit. Gretchen was frantic on the inside but she did not betray her cool, almost stoic exterior, even as the series of horrible things that could be occurring downstairs looped through her mind like a Domestic Disaster Highlight Reel From Hell. Had someone spilled punch on her new carpet?

Had the downstairs bathroom flooded?

Did she remember to close her internet browser on the computer downstairs and clear the history, and if not, were ten or elven of her closest friends having a laugh at the lesbian fem-dom bondage porn she had been looking at?

Did Snickers, their labradoodle, piss all over the couch?

Was Travis behaving inappropriately toward some of the party guests?

“Whatever was going on, Jonathan had to be responsible for it,” Gretchen decided during the five seconds it took her to descend the stairs after them.

Her two bewildered friends followed her because it was 9:45 on a Saturday night and they were still sober.

Once downstairs, Gretchen observed an angered Ginny telling Jonathan that he was an idiot while he appeared to be rifling through the coat closet. She moved in their direction in long, deliberate strides, smiling only enough to make her words slow and marginalizing. “Jonathan, I want you to tell me what’s going on, right now, please.”
Only that’s not really what she was saying at all. Oh sure, that’s what the words sounded like when Jonathan heard them, but he knew that what Gretchen was reallysaying probably sounded a lot more like – “Jonathan you drunk little fuck-weasel, I know you’ve donesomething and I’m going to cut off your balls and stuff them up your ass for it! Now tell me what you did, you little shit!”

Jonathan, now pouring sweat, was in the middle of stammering “I, I, I’m so sorry, Gretchen, I fucked up!” when a crescendo of groans and mortified EWWW’s emerged from the kitchen and stopped Gretchen in her tracks.

The groans and grasps were followed by “Oh God! Travis, for heaven’s sake!” And then, “Travis what the hell are you doing! Are youdrunk?”

That was enough to turn Gretchen’s attention and anger away from Jonathan and direct them toward the kitchen. And in those same long, deliberate strides, she hurried there, determined to get to the bottom of just what, exactly, had happened, and whether or not Jonathan the Drunk-Little-Fuck-Weasel was responsible.

And what greeted Gretchen, when she arrived in the kitchen, was a scene almost impossible to relate second-hand in stories told around office water-coolers or in coffee shops among friends, and do it any justice. There, before her, was Travis, standing proudly on top of the center island, his pants and his boxers bunched around his ankles,
gulping down rum straight out of the bottle while pissing merrily into the punch bowl, as their friends gawked at him the way people normally gawk at a train wreck or a collision on the highway.

Gretchen folded her arms, regarded Travis with a curt “MmHM,” and then said, in her elementary school voice,”Travis, the punch bowl is notfor peeing in. Now pull up your pants, put you winkie away, and follow me into the den, please.”

The word “winkie” in reference to a grown man’s flaccid member made Sylvester snicker, though he tried his hardest to muffle it.

Jonathan, who along with Ginny had made his way to the kitchen in time to view the damage he’d caused, once again heard what Gretchen was really saying, “Travis, you piece of shit! Get your ass into the den rightfuckingnow. I am going to fucking KILL YOU.”

He braced himself against the wall with his hand and laughed.

Ginny took him by the arm and pulled him back, in the direction of the front door. She forced an awkward smile and quipped, “We’ve had a great evening, but we have to get going,” and then she dashed with Jonathan out of Gretchen and Travis’s McMansion, acknowledging to herself that her idiot domestic partner may have just ended any shot
she ever had about having a normal social life with her friends and colleagues. “You are such an asshole, Jonathan,” she growled at him as they dashed across the front yard. “and where’s the fucking car?”

Jonathan stopped short, waved an out-stretched hand in the general direction of where he’d left Dubbs. Then he doubled-over and threw up on Gretchen and Travis’s front lawn.
“Hey Gin, at least I didn’t throw up on their new carpet…”

Ginny shook her head and gave a small but none-the-less audible giggle.

 

If you like “The Party”, check for more stories in AlphabetGumbo.com