The Lorelei Signal
The Riches of the Kingdom of Enryaku-ji
Written by Mary-Jean Harris / Artwork by Lee Ann Barlow
One of the most widely used tricks of the practical philosopher is most assuredly disguises. Not only disguises that render one unrecognizable to friends and foes, but disguises to turn a man who might be considered a mad philosopher into a gentleman with worldly Purpose. The sort of purpose people can understand—the purpose of a statesman, a merchant, or a soldier. Those sorts of purposes are tangible, unlike some cryptic purpose to understand the universe, how time flows, or what the nature of divinity is. “Practical” and “metaphysics” hardly ever enter one’s mind together, so it’s no wonder that those of us in the Order for Investigations into Curious Metaphysical Phenomena are often looked upon as suspect by otherwise quite rational people.
It was the Riches of the Kingdom of Enryaku-ji that called for our present disguises. I didn’t expect the “riches” to be gold or jewels. Enryaku-ji was a Buddhist temple in Japan, and knowing what I knew about Buddhism—which, as a British philosopher, was not extensive—I had determined these were riches of another kind. We would find no practical riches, but rather, ancient philosophical texts unknown to the modern world. To us, they would be worth far more than any material wealth.
According to a certain Professor Barry from Oxford, the riches were hidden within a golden statue of a monk. The description of the statue matched perfectly with an artefact brought back from Captain Derek Harlow’s voyage to Japan last week. The statue was currently on a forced pilgrimage to the British Museum, and, at the moment, was residing in Canterbury. Soon, it would be out of the reach of philosophers permanently, so this was my only chance to get it. In secret, of course, hence the disguises.
Louis and I had nearly arrived at the great storehouse on the Stour, Canterbury’s largest river. It was a late October evening and a hush of cool mist wafted from the waters like incense from a sea goddess’s caverns. It was late enough for the noises of the city to have fallen under that lethargy of mist, punctured only by brief, fitful awakenings: the hiss of a cat, the creak of a door, a twist of wind. Our footsteps clacked upon the cobbles, though Louis did his best to muffle his, sinking into the heels of his shoes at every step, his hand clutched to his waist where Alexander the Great’s sword was sheathed beneath his burgundy coat. The sword was our Order’s heirloom, a rusted antique with a blade as dull as a butter knife, but Louis refused to go on any mission without it.
I put my hand on his shoulder to stop him. He glanced around, began to draw the sword. “What are you thinking, Louis?” I said. “Anyone could tell you’re a vagabond from a mile away.”
“But I’m not a vagabond,” he muttered. His golden curls fell over his eyes.
“Precisely why you don’t want the world believing you to be one. Now, we’re inspectors tonight, remember that, and we have every business being here. In fact, we should be louder if we want to seem authentic.” So as we carried on, I made a point of engaging Louis in official-sounding talk, all one-way of course, until we reached the entrance of the storehouse where two men stood on guard. A cast-iron gate was set into the stonework, large enough for a carriage with cargo to pass through. The wall of the building rose for at least five stories of sheer brown stones with the only windows on the highest floor. The guards were leaning against the gates, the one on the left with his arms folded across his chest, the other flourishing his arms in wide gestures. They stood upright when they saw us.
“Good evening, gentlemen,” I said, raising a hand amiably.
“Cold as ice,” the man on the left replied, speaking forcefully so his breath was visible in a cloud as if to prove his point. He was a portly fellow with a long, drooping nose, large mouth cast in a perpetual scowl, and bristles of black-grey hair shooting out from the sides of his hat like moldy straw.
“And getting colder!” the second man replied, raising his arm dramatically as if to summon an ice storm. He was younger than his companion, and, by his accent, must have been Spanish. His hair was long and dark, his beard slightly curled, and his blue eyes had a fiery alertness. Rather than the practical woolen overcoat worn by his companion, he was attired in a red suit atop a white tunic with sleeves that flowed elegantly about his forearms. A wink of silver at his waist brought to attention his sword.
“My name is Robert Farlow, Foreign Goods Inspection Officer from London,” I said. “A certain collectible object from Japan came to this storehouse from Dover yesterday, and will continue to the British Museum on the morrow.”
“Indeed, my master has placed me here to guard it,” the Spaniard affirmed.
“Your master?” Louis said.
“Of course,” I jumped in. “You’ll have to excuse Bartholomew here; he just joined me this evening.” I trusted the darkness would conceal Louis’s inevitable disdain at his new name.
The gruff Englishman was eyeing Louis with scorn, and he said, “What’s an inspector here for? Inspectors are for ports.”
I was planning to say the port inspector had unfortunately failed to examine this item, but the Spaniard would have certainly been at the port, likely with the statue at all times. So instead, I said, “There are new regulations in order. Canterbury has been under threat more than once in the past year, so we are just taking precautions.”
Neither of the guards seemed moved by the mention of a nameless threat. They kept their hands warm in their pockets, not reaching for a key to let us inside. But by their eyes, I could see I was not _dis_trusted, at least. As guards, or, as it were, sailors, they were obligated to bow to the authority of London. Yet seeing as I was in need of a bit more leverage, I reached into the pocket of my coat and produced a notebook—a Notebook, I should say, all official with the worn leather of Purpose, though in truth, it only contained some half-formed notions about immortality from my previous mission.
I flipped to a fresh page, and with my fountain pen, dictated as I wrote, “17 October, 1854, St. Peter’s warehouse in Canterbury.” At—Bartholomew? “What is the hour?”
Louis fumbled for his pocket watch and said, “Ten forty-five.”
“Yes,” I continued. “At a quarter to eleven. A brief inspection of the statue from Captain Derek Harlow’s voyage to Japan. Meeting—what are your names, gentlemen?”
The Englishman’s gaze was all burs and thorns, and the Spaniard’s was bland shock. They wouldn’t have their names in the Notebook of a Londoner—no, that wouldn’t do at all. So I gave them a way out. I tapped the end of my pen on the pages as I said, “Gentlemen, our coach leaves at dawn tomorrow, so let us proceed with our mission swiftly so we might catch a few hours of sleep.”
The guards exchanged a glance, and although the Englishman still appeared defiant, the Spaniard leapt in to say, “Yes, we’ll let you in at once! Don’t trouble yourself with our names, we are hardly important men.” He nodded to the Englishman earnestly, as if to gain confirmation of their inadequacy.
“What are you checking for?” the Englishman demanded. Despite his words, he was slightly wary, as if he were testing the limits, and wished only to let his foot step on the edge of them without falling over.
“Oh, the common procedure,” I said. “All under Bill 41 of the Shipping and Foreign Services Act.” At their blank expressions, I added, “Simply to inspect the object to ensure there are no security risks.”
The Spaniard gave a slight laugh, and the Englishman grumbled, “Very well.” He removed his hands from his pockets. In one of them was a large key that fit snugly into the lock, and after a satisfying click, the gates swung open into the maw of the unlit storehouse. Although the Spaniard began to guide us inside, I assured him that I was familiar with the building from my previous assignments in Canterbury, so he needn’t stir from his noble guard duty—it had to be noble, or else the enticement of warmer air might have proven too much to resist.
So Louis and I went inside where the Riches of the Kingdom of Enryaku-ji would soon be within our grasp.
~ * ~
When we were out of earshot of the guards, Louis elbowed me. “Bartholomew?” he said.
“Is there any name less menacing than Bartholomew?”
Louis considered the matter. “Colin.”
“Be that as it may, we’re inside now, and that’s all that matters.”
When we reached the far end of the hall and our eyes had become accustomed to the dark, I noticed a set of double doors with tarnished brass handles. I’d never been inside this establishment before, but this looked promising enough. Unsure how long the guards would wait before seeking us out, I entered the room. Louis was tight on my heels; I wasn’t sure why he was so nervous, though on many occasions, his intuitions were accurate.
The room we entered was a great hall five stories high. It was the size of a warehouse for ships; a full-sized frigate could have fit inside. Not that a frigate could have sailed up the Stour, but it was a grand room nonetheless. And hollow: I had the feeling of stillness when I entered, as if, in an expanse so large, the wind ought to be stirring, not sitting like dead air beneath the ribs of a skeleton. There were various goods inside, everything from wardrobes to woven baskets, crates, and some thick ropes, one of which had the appearance of a coiled python. I didn’t notice a particular order to the motley collection of objects; it looked like nothing short of a mess.
High above were long windows through which starlight gave a touch of light to the upper walls, frost upon the stones. Despite how faint it was, it brought to my eyes a glint of gold among the shadows of objects. It was the statue, sitting upon a crate up ahead. The Riches of the Kingdom of Enryaku-ji.
It was much smaller than I’d expected, spanning at most two feet high. I was surprised, but also relieved, that it was left out of its crate. Louis and I approached it, and I felt as though we should have been bowing in homage, not searching for philosophy texts within it. But I was a philosopher, so I quickly abandoned that notion and proceeded to examine the statue. It was a robed monk, sitting cross-legged as if meditating. The metal was a dull gold, painted with now-faded colours to accent its features. It was the size of a small human, its head was bare and smooth, and its hands were held in its lap. Its eyes were creased in the corners as if in amusement, its small mouth curved in a slight smile. It was such a calm expression that even Louis seemed less tense, and came right up to it as if to see what the monk was so content about.
I cleared my throat. “There’s probably a latch somewhere. You know, a compartment to hide the papers.”
“Right.” Louis didn’t appear to want to touch the statue, sitting so peacefully in a shroud of starlight.
This, I knew, would get us nowhere. “You’re not going to be able to see it. You have to…well…” I put a finger to the monk’s ear and pushed. Nothing happened. I was not wholly unfamiliar with these ingenious mechanisms from the East—at least, I’d read about them—so I figured we only had to find to right spot to press to reveal a hidden compartment.
So press we did. It would have appeared absurd to anyone who stepped inside the room: two philosophers poking a statue in the dark, trying to twist parts of it, all very carefully, as if it would bite them. I got Louis to tilt it up so I could examine the bottom, but as far as I could tell, it was one continuous, hollow piece of metal.
After a fair amount of time wasted, Louis said, “Maybe this isn’t it.”
“You think there’s another statue?” I replied while bent over, poking the end of my pen into the statue’s nose.
Louis shrugged and wandered further into the store room.
I straightened and looked at the statue critically. This wasn’t supposed to have been a difficult mission. Indeed, after convincing the guards to let us in, it had promised to be the simplest yet. I began to wonder if the text upon which I had planned our mission had been inaccurate. After all, there might be another statue that contained the Riches of the Kingdom of Enryaku-ji, and just because Professor Barry’s documents had precisely matched up with this statue didn’t mean—
A finger tapped my forearm hastily. I turned to see Louis, his face pale as the starlight. “Edwin,” he breathed.
“What is it?”
“Shh,” he said, looking up to the windows anxiously.
“I beg your—”
“Shh! I heard something.”
I glanced about the room. Although I didn’t hear anything, the deadness to the air seemed duplicitous. It was _too_ quiet.
Louis slowly backed away from the statue, and I found myself following him, my footsteps light. We stopped at the edge of the room and waited. For what? I wish I’d known, but whatever it was, it was eating away at our precious time.
“There’s probably nothing here,” I said.
Louis just shook his head.
“Well, we’re not getting anywhere just standing here, are we?”
“Come, we’ll check the statue one last time and then leave.”
Thus settled in my resolve, I made a fine attempt at fooling even myself with my disguise of official Confidence. Yet before I reached the statue, I heard a stifled gasp behind me that cut through the dead air like a knife. Moreover, there was a knife.
A small, darkly-clad figure had secured Louis around the chest with one arm, and with the other, held a thick dagger to his throat. Although the figure was slight and no taller than Louis himself, he possessed a strength and agility that more than made up for it. I couldn’t see the attacker’s face, concealed as it was behind a black cloth cowl that covered his head and formed a mask over his face. His entire outfit was of the same dark wispy cloth, from his socked feet in black sandals and loose-fitted trousers to his tunic crisscrossed with two tight sashes that presumably held weapons.
Although this was perhaps the worst thing that could have happened to us—only short of the assailant killing us outright—I couldn’t help but feel some measure of admiration for the shadow-like svelteness of Louis’s captor. But there was no time for such thoughts: some Japanese assassin, I assumed, had come for the statue, and Louis’s life was on the line.
I took a few steps away from the statue. “You’re here for the statue,” I said, as calmly as I could. I couldn’t see the assassin’s eyes, but I looked where they would be, not at the polished blade pressed up to Louis’s neck, creasing his skin.
“I’m sure we can come to an agreement,” I continued when the assassin didn’t respond. Yet I realized that perhaps he didn’t speak English. If that were the case, then I’d lost the one weapon I could wield in the face of any adversary: words. Words! How impotent words were without the structure of society that created them, without others who knew their significance! But I had to try anyway.
“We don’t actually want the statue,” I said. “There are just some purely philosophical documents—”
There was a blur of movement; against all odds, Louis had struggled free, and was whipping Alexander’s sword madly before the assassin.
“To the door, Louis! To the door!” I cried, and at the same time, began to heed my own advice.
Yet Louis had only caught the assassin off-guard for a moment: the svelte blade met Louis’s rusty one, knocked it out of his hand with apparent ease, and slashed the sleeve of his coat. Louis didn’t cry out, but lunged forward and grasped the assassin’s mask. The assassin grabbed Louis again and secured him tight, swinging himself around to Louis’s back. But Louis hadn’t let go of the assassin’s mask. The mask slipped off his—or rather, her—face, and a ponytail of long dark hair swished behind her. She was surprisingly young, not much older than Louis at eighteen.
I had stopped my flight to retrieve Louis’s fallen sword, which, miraculously, had remained in one piece. I caught a streak of panic on the assassin’s face. It was only there for a moment, as if a ghost had crossed her face before resolute confidence had time to take its place.
“I knew it,” Louis breathed before the sword pressed to his throat again. He tried to steady his breathing, for with the knife right next to his skin, even the smallest movement could prove fatal. A bead of sweat dripped onto the blade, winked in the starlight.
“How?” the girl demanded, speaking English but with a Japanese accent. Her voice was cold, but also curious. Curiosity, I thought, killed the cat, and I had to use it to my advantage.
“It’s hard to talk with that…knife,” Louis managed to mutter between breaths.
I, however, was simply relieved she could speak English, so much so I left Alexander’s sword on the ground and approached them, saying, “You’re here for the statue—what is your name?”
“Kasumi,” she said simply.
I wasn’t sure whether I should be content she revealed her name, proving she wasn’t as menacing as she’d first appeared, or deeply troubled due to the fact if she was planning to kill us, then it didn’t matter what we knew about her. Still, I continued. “So Kasumi, you’re here for the statue, but we humble philosophers only wish to obtain the little papers within it.”
Kasumi frowned. “Little papers?”
“They’re the Riches of the Kingdom of Enryaku-ji.”
“Those aren’t ‘little papers.’ They are what you said. Riches. And I care not for the statue. I’m here for the riches.” She paused, considering something, then said, “I need them for my people, the Sōhei warriors of Mount Hiei. The Sōhei went into hiding after they were officially destroyed by Oda Nobunaga long ago, and only the Buddha’s treasures can help us rise again.”
“You’re warriors…not monks then? Then what do you care for Buddhist riches? I daresay you won’t find gold and jewels inside.”
“We are monks. And the riches have the blessing of the Buddha.”
“I see.” So it wasn’t coin they wanted; some supernatural element of the riches was the draw. I wondered what their plans were, what drove this sect of Buddhist warriors to continue fighting.
“You can have it,” Louis muttered. “But if you let us look at it first, we’ll help you escape.”
Oh really? I thought, but before I could make my disdain known, I caught myself. Louis’s offer was reasonable, considering he was the one with the dagger to his throat. But it was no longer pressed against his skin. It had become a relaxed warning, not an immediate threat. Louis regarded Kasumi out of the corner of his eye, studying her.
“I agree,” I said. “Otherwise, if you don’t let us at least look at the papers—or whatever is inside—we’ll have to report you.” It wasn’t as though I was really in a position to make conditions, but I had to keep up that confidence. That disguise. To act as though she didn’t have the power to murder us on the spot. And for whatever reason, it worked. Perhaps because the deaths of two Englishmen would have hardly gone unnoticed, or perhaps she wasn’t prepared to murder unless it was unavoidable. She did, after all, claim to be a monk.
“Do you know how to open it?” I asked.
She regarded me as if I were an imbecile. During my various missions, I’ve certainly received a great many disdainful looks, but rarely one like that. Despite this, I admired her cheek.
“The lotus hiketsu,” she said. “At Shōkū’s neck.”
“Shōkū?” I was familiar with that name, but couldn’t remember where I’d heard it.
“The monk.” Kasumi shifted an eyebrow toward the statue. “That was his statue.”
“Shōkū,” I repeated. I looked to Louis, but he only shrugged. I knew Shōkū—or rather, I knew of him, for I obviously didn’t _know_ a centuries-old monk. I grinned at the thought of it. This little statue shouldn’t have affected me so strangely, but even now, as I looked at it, I thought, Shōkū, of course!
At my silence, Kasumi tentatively released Louis, and, not taking her eyes off us, walked backward to the statue. Louis came to stand by my side, regarding his sword on the floor, but not picking it up. When Kasumi reached the statue and had skirted around to the back, she looked like a shadow, the great shadow of Shōkū risen from its confines, taking on a life while the monk rested in his grave. But no, he rested not in a grave; he was far too important for that…but why did I think that? Where were these thoughts coming from?
I shook my head and watched Kasumi trace some fancy pattern along the back of the statue’s neck, something Louis and I would have never thought of doing. She flinched, and as if Louis were tied to her at the other end of a string, he did too.
A moment later, there was a resounding click, not from the statue, but from behind me. The doors. I nudged Louis, and he ran to them and yanked at the handles. They were locked.
“Nice try, inspectors,” the rough voice of the English guard spoke from behind the doors.
“Sir, what is the meaning of this? We are inspectors,” I said, rushing to the doors and restraining Louis from throwing himself against them.
“Baa! Inspectors in cohorts with Japanese spies!”
“We are in no cohorts—”
“You’ll be taken away in the morning.” The guard’s heavy footsteps marked his departure, pounding and confident.
I shook my head. I should have kept Louis on guard at the door; it was careless.
“No,” Kasumi muttered.
“Yes, actually,” I said, coming up next to her. “We’re trapped here, and unless you can pull a fine stunt to get to the windows, you are too.”
“No,” she repeated, though it wasn’t in response to me. She was running her hand along the statue’s head, and her eyebrows were crossed, dismayed, and at the same time, desperate, as if she had failed at something so great she might kill herself at any instant.
“You can’t open it,” Louis said, coming around to her other side.
“It is kagirinai,” she said simply. She spoke as if it were some terrible fate everyone in the world surely knew about, and thus, had no need of an explanation.
None of us spoke for quite some time, the three of us with bowed heads as we regarded the statue. Louis’s curiosity, however, eventually got the better of him, and he whispered, “What’s kagirinai?”
Kasumi curved her fingers around the hilt of her dagger, which she had returned to a sheath at her waist. “Only one person can open this. Only the touch of Shōkū’s spirit, in his body or his incarnation’s body, can open the lotus hiketsu. And he wouldn’t have reincarnated, for he was a Great One.”
I wondered if her dagger could pry it open, but perhaps that would render the riches impotent. “Why would Shōkū have done this?” When Kasumi didn’t respond, I added, “Did he want to hide it from people? Perhaps these were not riches meant for mankind.”
“Maybe he thought he would reincarnate, so he could open it,” Louis suggested.
Kasumi seemed to be considering our speculations, and my confidence in living to see the morning—if only to be taken away by the guards—was growing.
“How do you know where the monk’s soul went after he died?” Louis asked.
“You don’t know,” Kasumi said, glancing at Louis. She was nearly the same height as he was, so could look at him at eye level. “Everyone but Great Masters are reborn, again and again until they learn what they need to.”
“I didn’t think Buddhists believed in souls.”
“It’s not really a soul. There is no soul—that’s what they believe.”
“But you don’t.”
“I am one of them.” An awkward pause. “Anyway, what continues between lives is not a soul, but a web of consciousness. Of memories, sensations, one spilling into the next, all connected in a chain through time, through different bodies. We are empty. These are only fleeting ideas. Only Masters who rise above can escape them.”
“The world is an illusion,” Louis muttered.
Though Louis, I thought, was thinking of this in an idealist sense: that the soul was the only thing that _did_ exist, and that everything else was merely ideas within the soul.
“Then how could the reincarnation of the monk open the statue if there’s no soul that continues?” Louis asked.
As they continued speaking, my thoughts drifted elsewhere. I looked at the statue again, studying the neck. There was a little engraving of a lotus flower at the top of the monk’s spine. I had seen it earlier on, but having pressed it to no avail, had disregarded it. I bent over and looked at it up close. A seal for the ages, that’s what this was. My beautiful flower. I touched it again, but this time, I didn’t poke and prod. I ran my pinky finger in a spiral around it, once, twice, drew my pointer finger down over it, then softly blew on the flower. I couldn’t have said what I was doing; it just came to me.
The lines of the engraving started to glow golden, brighter than the gold of the statue. The flower sank into the surrounding metal, and the statue’s back became outlined by a rectangle. I put my finger into the indent where the lotus had been, and hooking it on the inside of the statue, carefully pulled outward to remove the rectangular piece. I placed it on the crate beside the statue.
Louis and Kasumi, having been distracted by their conversation, only now realized what was happening, and stopped speaking abruptly.
“How did you do that?” Kasumi demanded. She swept next to me and leaned in close to the statue.
“I just tried something new,” I said. Though in truth, I had somehow known what to do; it wasn’t just an experiment.
“What’s in it?” Louis said, ducking in close to Kasumi.
The glowing light had subsided, so I couldn’t see inside. Kasumi, however, regarded it with a tight jaw. She had little skill in masking her feelings, though perhaps she didn’t need to most of the time, if she wore a mask.
“It is…” she began, then shook her head. “He has ascended.” She searched in a hidden pocket at her side and produced a match, struck it on the crate, and held it toward the opening.
I squinted to make out the shadows cast behind the gold-orange glow of the flame. It was something large and leathery, and took up most of the space inside the statue. There were regularly spaced protuberances that ran along the inside of the material, almost like…ribs. They _were_ ribs. This was a human, or rather, had been a human, but was now a mummy, trapped within this golden confine, eternally meditating, eternally grinning to the world on the outside, while on the inside, there was no more than a husk of life. There was no soul, just a hollow body. That serene curve of the statue’s lips seemed to be in irony—the world was impermanent, wrought with suffering, and was, in essence, one long boat ride to Death.
Louis, of course, was horrified, but he didn’t do something characteristically rash, what with the girl being so stoic about it, I presumed. Yet I didn’t feel any horror, or even disappointment at finding a dead body rather than philosophical texts. No, I had the strange sensation of hovering on the brink of a revelation, so close, closer…
I touched the back of the mummified monk, and at once, it came to me. I was no longer myself: I was Shōkū, long ago. The sole comforts in my last days were the great expanse of mountains that cascaded down from my retreat and the river’s sapphire tongue curving through the land. I was dying, having been starving for years as my body lost its fat and water, until my skin hung loose over creaking bones, my feet bruised from the slightest exertion, and my head was light as if it were a hollow for air. Yet I had chosen this. I, the enlightened Master, was drawing myself away from the flesh. I was becoming one with the Great Spirit, I was living the Way. And soon, soon…
There was pain; my arm had broken, and my body could no longer heal itself. My disciple was concerned, and he helped me to my bed as if I would fall apart before the time was right. But he had no need. Life was pain, I had accepted that, and I no longer felt it. For if you cease to consider yourself a body, the pain becomes distant. It’s an event that passes by, and you, that hollow chasm through which it passes, are untouched. I no longer felt the winces of hunger and thirst, that empty feeling of the body’s perpetual needs. When I did drink, it was urushi tea, its toxic vapour wafting up into my nose as I drank, spilling into my lungs, constricting them.
I had been mummifying myself over these past three years, and I had succeeded. That body died to the song of a warbler and the scent of plum blossoms on a spring morning. Then I was returning: I was a sokushinbutsu on Earth, and a Buddha in essence. The world was far behind me.
In this state of eternity, the illusion of the world swept away as once beautiful towers of clouds disperse in the radiance of the sun. I was in that place where no senses, no time, no suffering could touch me. It wasn’t ‘me’, for I was simply part of the Buddha. Yet although the world was an illusion, an eternal breath coursed behind it. The hollowness I had felt was replaced by a vitality on a deeper level, sparking me to a joyous knowing, a sense of completion. I saw my time on Earth clearly. That thread of consciousness that had been my own had existed in all times, yet it only surfaced in certain bodies, taking on the lives of sentient beings. There was a connection between them, a continuing purpose hovering at the edge of consciousness. It was a gust of wind that blew through a body and animated it, then passed onto the next, a new life, a new disguise beneath which the force called ‘myself’ subsisted.
And I, Edwin the philosopher, was the last. After dwelling above for many ages—though there is no time there, so it was meaningless to say how long—I had been summoned to return by Maitreya, a bodhisattva, one of the great followers of the Buddha. Humanity needed me again, and a sense of life returned to me in my eagerness to comply. My transformation would one day shepherd others along the same path I had tread.
So I returned, and here I was, ignorant of the truth until this moment. I could sense that succession of lives from which I had come, most vaguely, though Shōkū’s was clear to me. And not only was I the present incarnation, but this was to be my last return to Earth. It was as if all these lives had each borne me a few steps up a great mountain, and now, I stood at the summit overlooking a great expanse. I had nowhere to climb. Would I fall, or would I fly elsewhere? I had no idea. But I did know the mountain climb was over, and something was beyond it. Something that both terrified and elated me.
Still lost in my vision, I sensed a deeper connection, not just between those lives, but between everything. Yet I could only catch glimpses of it, like stars that only became visible in the breaks between thick swathes of clouds. There were surely great constellations beyond, but I could only see a star or two at most. I looked down to the statue of Shōkū, that little grin of his. He had known. He had seen more stars than I could imagine.
When I became more cognizant of the net of illusions forming the world around me, I realized Kasumi was kneeling on the ground, her head bowed before me. She must have sensed something of my vision, and believed me to be a great bodhisattva. I suppose I was, or at least, had been, but I was slowly descending back to the world, one which was becoming less illusory by the minute, one in which I didn’t feel quite as enlightened as Shōkū might have.
Kasumi then spoke in what must have been Japanese, but when I didn’t reply, she said, undiminished in her eagerness, “Great bodhisattva, it is you, I had been foolish not to see it.”
“Well.” I cleared my throat. I felt as though I ought to say something grand, but was at a loss for words. Louis regarded me as if I had been given a great crown that was too heavy for my head. Little did he know this was exactly how I felt.
“Rise, warrior Kasumi,” I said. I didn’t try to feign a grand tone, but I spoke solemnly.
She stood, a glittering fervor in her eyes. Louis’s mouth was open, but I was glad he didn’t say anything.
“This must have been why I was sent here,” Kasumi said. “To find you. I will take you back to Japan, where you will meet the monks of Enryaku-ji who wait in hiding.”
“No!” I couldn’t help but exclaim. What an embarrassment for a British philosopher—I knew only the rudiments of Buddhism, and could have easily forgotten some of the practices in the Eightfold Path if pressed. But then I was more careful, seeing determination mixed with Kasumi’s reverence, as if she would swoop me off to Japan whether I liked it or not.
“I am afraid that isn’t possible,” I spoke. “Perhaps one day I shall come, but now, my task has assigned me to the West, to help enlightened these people. None must know of this. No others must come to find me. When the time is right, I will make myself known.”
Kasumi looked like she wanted to object, but only licked her lips and said, “Of course. I will leave then.”
“And the riches?”
“They’re found. That is all we need.” She looked to Louis, and their eyes lingered upon each other silently.
“Umm…” Louis eventually muttered. “How do we get out?”
Kasumi looked at me as if I could do it, as if I had gained great powers in the last ten minutes and could whisk us all away. In some sense, she wanted this to be true, but I could tell she had doubts. She was not entirely swept away by me, which I was thankful for.
Seeing my hesitation, she said, “I came here from above.” She glanced to the high windows. “But you two had better leave by the door.”
“Which is unfortunately locked,” I added.
She smiled and darted to the door, a shadow in the dark. On the way, she picked up her cowl and quickly secured it in position to hide her face and hair.
Louis and I followed, and Louis retrieved Alexander’s sword. When we reached the door, it was already unlocked, and Kasumi glanced out before pushing it open all the way. I didn’t bother asking how she had done it, but I did notice her tucking a thin piece of metal into one of her secret pockets.
“That was clever,” I said. “But I’m afraid we’ll need more than that to get past the guards.”
“That’s part of the plan.”
“She’s going to distract them,” Louis said, as if it were obvious.
“But suppose only one of them leaves.”
“I’ll make both of them come after me,” she said.
I nodded. I had no doubt she could arrange that.
As she was making to leave at once, as if another moment’s delay would jeopardize her mission, Louis was possessed by a sudden urgency. He stumbled to the door before her. I noticed he hadn’t sheathed Alexander’s sword, and had apparently forgotten the presence of its naked blade. But Kasumi didn’t seem to perceive it as a threat.
“Wait,” he said. “How will we…um…know if you get away?” His amber eyes were wide, his lips parted.
Kasumi lifted her hand to her face and touched her fingers to where her lips were behind her mask. She then brought them to Louis’s lips, let them linger for a moment. I had a sudden fear this would jeopardize our escape. But I needn’t have worried, for the next moment, she said, “You’ll know,” and once again, she became that shadow warrior melting into the night.
Louis was about to follow her, but I quickly reminded him this was her plan, so he held back.
As we waited for signs of a commotion with the guards, I considered what I had seen, what I had remembered. Although I hadn’t found the philosophical texts, I had certainly found a curious metaphysical phenomenon, something that would change me forever. How had I come to know this though? It had been a sudden revelation, unprecedented by rational inquiry. What would the Order make of it? Perhaps very little, for it was something you had to experience yourself, and in that, I could only guide them to the path. As for myself, I had a purpose being here, and I had to fully discover what that was. To say I felt daunted was an understatement, but I was also vigorously determined. For me, in this life, this was only the beginning.
“Edwin,” Louis was saying. “I heard the gates open.”
I glanced to Louis. He was trying to be brave, stoic, but his eyes failed him miserably.
“Right,” I said.
As we headed down the hall, walking at a brisk pace, Louis said, “You shouldn’t have tricked her like that.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“It was clever, but…did you really have to pretend to be some reincarnated monk?”
I didn’t have anything to say to that. By this time, we reached the gates, which were closed but unlocked. The guards were nowhere in sight, so we hastened out. The touch of the wind from the Stour gave an illusion of life to the world, and the stars gave it a fleeting light.
When we were halfway down the pier, I had more or less sorted out my thoughts about Louis’s comment. I smiled and said, “You know, Louis, there are many disguises, and the world itself is a disguise for something greater behind it. While we’re here, we just have to fall into the best disguise.” And the best disguise, I thought, is the truth. But I kept this to myself.
Mary-Jean Harris writes historical and other-world fantasy stories. She is the owner of Fairytale Princess Parties in Ottawa, Ontario and has a Masters degree in theoretical physics. Mary-Jean has published various short stories in anthologies and online such as the Tesseracts anthologies, Polar Expressions, SciPhi Journal, and Allegory Ezine.
Mary-Jean is also the author of the series The Soul Wanderers; to learn more, visit http://www.thesoulwanderers.blogspot.ca/.