by Justin Jude Carroll

Flint is rarer than floss. I’ve learned to live without flame but sometimes I’ll scramble to the valley floor and find a fall of light limbs. My fires are anemic and balletic, swooping in arcs toward the cave roof and nearly snuffing themselves out. When the master comes he looks down his nose at the glow until I brush dust over the coals.



Much to my surprise it was the easiest thing in the world to sell my copywriting business. A physics grad student bought it as a Plan B in case quantum number theory doesn’t pan out. So only a week after the deva came to my door I was flush with cash. I paid off my lease and bought a one-way ticket to Calcutta. After that it got harder.



My mother sends letters. Somehow they make it to the post office in Dodecabad. A caravan comes up the valley every few weeks, by which I mean a man with a donkey. He brings the post as well as dried beans, coconut oil, potatoes like thumbs. I’m grateful for the foodstuffs even as I tremble at the luxury. On his brief appearances the master refuses dehydrated apple and purses his lips as I chew.



There was no fracturing event. No one broke my heart, I wasn’t diagnosed with a repugnant disease, I didn’t recover suppressed memories of growing up in a locked closet. It was just time.



My mother’s letters express concern over my bodily condition and mental stability. They prod the edges of these topics in roundabout Boomer idiom. I do hope you’re getting enough Vitamin D. Are you allowed pants?  I can’t reply, of course, even if paper were available in Dodecabad. Jonah is nudging your sister to start fertility treatments. She’s always been pliable. I want to feel guilty. Then I remember what to do with desires.



The master didn’t meet me at the train station in the big city. He didn’t meet me at all. I happened upon him on a sheep farm. He was wearing a brown shawl and milking goats. I had been hitchhiking for twelve days since leaving the airport. I stopped to ask directions to the nearest guru, but the farm owner didn’t understand. As I left with head bowed the farmhand caught my elbow. His beard was speckled with unpasteurized flecks. “I can take you to him,” he said. At the time I didn’t know what he meant.



You get used to sleeping on rock. My neck feels looser than it did in the iPad Pro days. I don’t miss hunting for participles on a backlit screen. There are things you lose and things you miss, and they’re not always the same.



The letters come with a man who calls himself Ananta, but I think his name is Norbert. It’s stitched on his canvas shirt, in which he keeps the letters and from which he produces them damp and bent. Sometimes the envelope flap is open, and I suspect he reads the letters. “You are the only disciple I know who receives post,” he told me. I asked him if he knew many other disciples. “Only one,” he said, but the man jumped off the cliff six months before I arrived.



On cloudless nights I trace the dark spaces where peaks must be. The valley walls offer every possible polyhedral shape. With closed eyes I try to focus on the third eye but instead of a portal suffused with light I see endless zags of snow and scarp, a line graph of the rise and fall of my life.



The copywriting business was going well. I had regular clients who liked my snappy marketing-speak. My grad school applications all had been rejected that Spring but I didn’t mind. I didn’t feel much at all. The lack of worry was worrisome. I made meals, chose clothes for the day, watered the fern in an argyle pot. Days passed. Then the deva came to the door. The bell rang at precisely 12:12 p.m., just after my fried-egg lunch.



I see other things behind closed my eyes. Brochures, mostly. A frequent visitor is the orange and blue trifold I worked on for Moondog, the emotional efficiency start-up. Three vertical blocks of copy: mission, vision, testimonials. As they had no clients I invented it all. “Moondog methods help employers prune unhelpful mental states” — that was an early draft. It was refined to “Dialing in the Mind.”  It looked good on the side of a Smart Car.



I can’t smell much up here. Certainly not the distant ocean or even the stream that splits the valley. The strength of the wind shreds odors to bits. Sometimes manure on a cook fire wafts its way up and I’m so grateful. Desires are perilous, but so is the desire to be free of them. Should I tolerate the desire to smell cow crap? The mind is a hall of mirrors.



At 12:12 p.m. I laid down my napkin and opened the front door just as the last ripple of bell died away. There he stood in coveralls and a Ziggy Stardust tee. I couldn’t so much see the wings as sense them, tense against the scapulae. His eyes flared without flame, tunnels to forever.



“Leave everything.” he said. “Your effort is needed.”



Ananta/Norbert is making no attempt to hide his reading of my letters. He hands me the latest one with a grave look. It tells me my sister is pregnant. My mother writes my sister’s age three times: Forty-one. Right now it’s triplets but they expect twins by next week. Norbert combs his hair using a pocket mirror while I read.



My master trained me in the old way: by saying and doing nothing. I sat outside next to an old barrel for three months in all manner of weather. I got fevers, shakes, foot fungus, sun poisoning. Once allowed inside I was only trusted with warming water for tea. I got a splinter from the kindling and it blew up weeping. I held it in front of him. “You’ll get better or you won’t,” he said.



He gave me no techniques. I sat in the corner and chanted om in my head. I breathed in counts of four like a physical trainer had suggested over burpees one morning. Inhale four, hold four, exhale four. Or was it five?  I started counting different amounts on different days. Today is a Seven Day, I’d think after the master swatted me with a spoon to wake me.



Norbert arrives perspiring heavily. He has no post. “I’m concerned about your sister,” he says. “Does she really want children?” His eyes are warm with compassion. “Everyone tells their story in their own words,” I say, but even I’m not convinced. He squints in confusion.



There seem to be no seasons. Snow blows in the summer and the sun blazes in the winter. It’s not supposed to make a difference. I’m to be in deep contemplation twenty hours a day. I manage about eleven of above-average contemplation. As for deep I’d say twenty minutes.



The master did share one lesson-like thing in those early months. “A great man said: There are many ways to the foot of the mountain. But only one way to the top.”



“Do you have family in Dodecabad?” I ask Norbert. He shakes his head. “Family is trouble,” he says. “Walking around with your heart tied to comets flying this way and that. You could be pulled into any old orbit.”



Every time I think about her, I think I should stop thinking. Thoughts unspool like chicken wire from a slot in my mind and slice the world into hexagonal wafers. My thoughts arrange and divide, partition and label. It’s exhausting once you notice it, all this fecund entropy. It ultimately hastens the heat death of the universe. It’s that important to arrest thinking, the master says. Everything depends on it.



But I can’t stop thinking about her in the recliner holding her belly, her legs stiff as logs. Like me she has lived her whole life electrified. Our frozen limbs and shallow breath testimony to living with well-meaning Western parents. I think to send her a mantra but again, no paper. I send it through the ether instead, hoping she’ll snatch it in the haze before sleep. I am enough as I am, it goes.



The master arrives unexpectedly. A hot wind scores the cliff face. His brows are more knitted than usual. With him are two disciples I’ve never seen. One is seven feet tall with overgrown elbows and a misshapen head. The second is a child I think is female; the matted hair makes it hard to tell. They sit just inside the cave entrance and look at me.



I have nothing to offer except my heart’s love. I try that but no expressions change. The wind roars. I feel the master’s eyes burning into me. After some time the child clears her throat. She looks up at the ceiling as if she’s about to tell a joke. “Sometimes I think about those I love,” she says.



I used to watch television. At the end of each day I’d spend hours scanning the streaming apps for something to watch. The searching became more precious than the watching. All those options yet to collapse into one destined to disappoint. Damp-eyed and limp I’d rise from the couch unimproved. “Why do you do this to yourself?” my sister would ask on the phone. “We learn to do things and then we can’t help doing them.” I said. “We get stuck.” She was quiet a moment and then said, “Like in a rut, you mean.”



“Then I notice my breathing,” the child disciple says. “While thinking of the ones I love. It becomes tight. A belt is drawn across my chest.” She picks up two stones and starts clicking them together.



In a way copywriting prepared me for the ascetic life. You return again and again to the same marketing phrases. “Next-generation technology.” “Disruptive innovation.” “Industry-beating solutions.” Solutions, always solutions. You try out novel ways of saying things but keep circling back to what works. One path to the top. Yet all the while you pine for the words you cast aside.



The child looks at me. “So in my mind, I erase them. The ones I love.”



Meditation is like copywriting, but the opposite. There are a million ways to lose yourself in memory or fantasy. Only a few ways to slip into bliss. These ways are repeatable; they work. I’ve only succeeded at them a few times. When I do vistas open. Doorway after doorway of stained-glass light. Singing without sound. But the next day the million ways of thinking snap back and you’re hopeless on a hot-water sea. You long to be in a house again. To happen upon someone brewing coffee in the kitchen.



After another hour the group stands up. The master leaves first, saying nothing. The big one turns. “Midwest, right?” His voice is a cigar ground in an ashtray. “St. Louis,” I say. “Cincinnati burbs,” he says. I nod, trying not to stare. “Elephantiasis,” he says without emotion. “I’ll live to about thirty, thirty-two. It got me parts in movies. I was a bouncer in this one with the guy from Monk. Good money. Girls.” I ask him what he’s doing here. He eyes me like I’m crazy. “If you don’t know,” he says.  Then he vanishes from view, slowly like comedians who go down invisible elevators.



I sit up all night not-thinking. It’s like slowly freezing to death in a blue and orange blizzard.



In the morning Norbert is back. There is frost on his mustache. “What if she has babies she doesn’t want?” he says. “I was the twelfth and my mother was overburdened. The monastery took me at age five.” “What happened?” I ask. “I was impliable,” he says.



Just before dawn on night two of not-thinking I feel a breeze blow through my consciousness. Am I enough as I am? She sent it back revised.



Norbert brings two letters this time. The first says that my sister has hit some emotional potholes. Your father found her near the culvert in her nightgown. She had twisted the hem into a knot. I don’t want you to worry.  I look up and Norbert won’t meet my eyes. The second letter was dated three days later.



I set it aside.



I go to the back of the cave and from behind a rock I pull a tin pot. I pour in water and place it over the fire. The flame nearly goes out in a big gust. Norbert produces a Ziploc bag of coffee grounds and a tiny vial of cream. I wonder if he’s carried these items each time he’s visited. When the coffee is ready we take turns sipping from the pot. Then I read the second letter.



When I’m done Norbert’s face inquires of me.



I walk to the lip of the cave. The light is held in the fists of clouds. The valley is grey. The longing I’d held down begins to stir. “What did it say?” Norbert asks.



“Feel free to stay awhile,” I say and step down from the cave.



The descent takes most of the day. As the scree gives way to trees I pause. South to Dodecabad, north to the master’s hut. The wind blows from the north and I smell wood smoke. I place my hand on a trunk. The smell, the feel.



In the cave unbeknownst to me Norbert takes out the pocket mirror. He lays it against the wall where it will catch the afternoon sun.



The hut emerges like the face of a calf from its mother’s body. I stop a ways off. The barrel sits in a brown puddle beside the door, a white jug on top. In the high grass the child disciple stands with two barrel hoops. She seems to be trying to pass one through the other.



The first one, a boy, lived twelve minutes.



Then I am at the child’s shoulder. The face comes around without fear. The metal hoops drop. The skin is so soft, so puncturable. Birds slip from tree to tree.



Then the next one came, a girl. It lived just as long.



“How old were you,” I ask, “When they came for you?”



The door of the hut opens. The master comes out. He wears a wool vest over his robe against the cold.



They had one minute alive side by side.



“I’m happy here,” the child says.



“Yes but,” I say.



A long, long moment stretches and stretches and then snaps. The sun shoots up over a cloud and the foothills glow like coals.  I see the master through a long hall of chapel windows. He stands at the end, lonely-looking.



Your effort is needed.



The child squeezes my hand once, lets go.



“One way to the top,” I say. I turn away and head south.

Justin Jude Carroll is a multidisciplinary artist working in fiction, poetry, visual art and songwriting. His poetry has appeared in Halogen and Doggerel. As a singer-songwriter he was named Oregon’s Best Singer-Songwriter 2007. He lives in Portland, OR with his family. Find him at www.justinjudecarroll.com.