by Diana Pollin
“Brother Xavier is dying! Come quickly, Brother Stephan. He is white, ashen white. No eyes but milky crystals.” The Brothers withdraw on tiptoe.
“Last rites, anyone?” the joker quips.
“You should be ashamed of yourself, Brother Robert! It’s serious, you know!”
“I say once a pagan, forever a pagan. All that civilising and it all boils down to nothing and after all WE have done for him!”
“Must send him on his way as a Christian or else the scandal, if it leaks out to the village people, will be horrific. Can’t really put a knife to his throat. Time is running out. Try, try, try your best to persuade him, Brother Stephan. He asked you to stay alone with him until the end. God knows why.”
Hush. The silence of the deathbed room roars over us, saps the blood from my cheek, coils like a worm beneath my eyes, plumps up ears for any noise, even the twittering of a thrush. Night coming. Night here. Brother Xavier scratching his chest as on a hot summer day. Won’t remove the night shirt. What can an emaciated monk’s chest hold of such importance? Brother Xavier. Dark face against white pillow. Motions me over.
“No, Brother Stephan, not to the writing table. You are no schoolboy taking dictation. Just listen. Perhaps understand.
“In the shadow of the mountain Sri Pade. In Ceylan. I am a Singhalese, the son of a spice merchant. Hindu splendour. Marriage at fifteen. Monkeys decked in trinkets and garlanded elephants. Happiness with sons playing at fountains with waters rearing up like cobras. Wife sitting on a green lawn. The tingling sweet odour of jasmine at the decline of day.
“The son of the spice merchant looks beyond the Naga-shaped garden wall. Fierce demons to smite. Dreams of horny-skinned many-headed rakshasas. Rakshasas grinning evil grins. I climb the wall of the garden to see the river. The river wending must be one of the arms of a rakshasa. Or an asura. Where does it lead? Not to the mountain. Not to the holy man of the pricking worms. The Rakta Pade.
“The Rakta Pade with crystal white eyes. The Rakta Pade, leader of the clan. A holy man. Suckles leeches at his breast. Bloated little worms become big worms and drain holy man of blood. Needle teeth pricking. Needling teeth pumping. Needle teeth giving back. Needle teeth put poison slime into holy man’s veins. Holy man has powers, no passions. Holy man needs pricking pumping needle worms. Holy man lives forever.
“A big order of spice coming in from the capital. The merchant trusts his son to leave the garden where the Naga-shaped wall runs counter to the river. First time with the British Sahibs. Promises wife and mother he will not drink. The transaction goes well.
“The son of the spice merchant returns with coffers full of gold, silver, spices and crystals of salt. The son of the spice merchant will take the train in Colombo back to Sri Pade, and a servant is to meet him with a carriage. Dressed like a young Englishman. Elegant in spats and a bowler hat. Not elegant enough, not Englishman enough for first-class carriage. Must travel third class.
“A Sahib priest sees the son of the spice merchant and knows what he is feeling. The Sahib priest ashamed of his countrymen, the drunken British soldiers who ride first class. The friendly Sahib priest breaks ranks and joins the son of the spice merchant in third class.
“The Sahib priest knows of the Rakta Pade. The one who has no blood, the one who is forever wise and good. The one who lives forever. Interesting, says the Sahib priest. Interesting. Indeed. Blood the Sahib priest says cleanses the world. Sin is among us. Sin will be throttled like an asura by the Son of God. No rakhasas, no asuras. Heaven is not here on earth. But it was once. And it could be again.
“Not the Heaven of my father’s perfumed garden. Not the Heaven of my sons’ bubbly laughter when a bouncing ball escapes their fingers. Not the Heaven of my wife’s smile as she serves an almond cake. That is not Heaven says the Sahib priest even as the son of the merchant dreams of his father’s perfumed garden, his sons’ squealing laughter and his wife’s smile. Heaven only in the Blood of the Lamb who will save... The sacrifice of man, the sacrifice of the Son, the sacrifice of the Son of Man. Here take this Sahib Bible. The Truth within. The train stops. The son of the spice merchant alights.
“The spice merchant laughs at the spats and the bowler hat the kid has brought back from Colombo. You won’t need them here. You won’t need the Sahib Bible here. The Bible of the Truth Within, a Sahib book. All due respect, not ours.
“The wife slips her silent way into the room. She bears aromatic oils and wants to massage his back. The whisper of the fountain in the garden. The jasmine a little fetid from the heat but still sweet. The coming night. The windows are open. Fear not the cobras. What more can you need, Sahib son? Give honour to the Rakta Pade the spice merchant says. The next day he will ascend the mountain with an offering for the sage who wants nothing.
“The Rakta Pade is asleep on his back. The cave is lit by an eternal flame that wards off spirits. But not enough. The Rakta Pade needs no guards. He is trusting of all men’s needs for him. But the Rakta Pade must sleep as the worms replete their blood, and sleep is merciful.
“The son of the merchant does not want to waken the Rakta Pade. But he is impatient. There is so much world to see and the Blood of the Lamb has made it safer with no asuras to combat. The world is like his father’s garden but a little more interesting, a little less fearful. He paces up and down waiting for the sage to open his white crystal eyes and bless him. But the sage is asleep.
“The son of the merchant wonders if he is not dead. He steals silently over to him and looks down at the rug where the sage is laid out. He is breathing slightly and smiling as if the son of the merchant was going to tickle him.
“The son of the merchant is amused by this irreverence that he does not push out of his mind. Why not? His odd notion becomes more than a passing roguish thought. The son of the merchant lifts up his shirt and recoils in horror. The two flat spatula worms are making forward and backward movements together. Copulating. They are truly hideous. But fascinating.
“Now, a humorous demon takes hold of the son of the merchant’s spirit. Suppose he tried to remove these horrors. What would happen? He sees this is impossible. No leech can be removed by the setting on of human hands. Dangerous. Leeches will suck him dry in minutes No business of yours his good demon says, cover the holy man’s chest. The playful demon says, no. Maybe it’s the blood of the Lamb coursing in the vile thick worm bodies. There is only one way to find out.
“Something convinces the son of the merchant to open the small coffer where his father has placed the expressions of gratitude. The son of the merchant turns the small key and beholds salt crystals. Small spires of the whitest crystal. Now, the son of the merchant knows that herdsmen apply salt when misfortune leads their cattle into leech-infested ponds.
“The son of the merchant takes a handful of crystals. They’re the size of knucklestones and they are fun to throw around. Up in the air then back down. Catch them all. Try a more perilous movement. Up in the air from a cupped hand. Turn it over and they land on the back of the hand. Up in the air. Catch in the cupped palm. The son of the merchant has a precise hand. It twists and turns like a string puppet. Once. Twice. More excitement when done over the worms. What if the blood of the sage dissolves the milk-white salt crystals? What if...?
“Knucklestones on the worms. They cease their copulating. They writhe. Amusing. Fascinating. They froth over the prong of their loose Y shapes. The top of the prongs bursts, exuding an odour of jasmine, fetid jasmine, jasmine mixed with the slime of their poisons that have not yet entered the sage. They squirm. Death by bursting. Death by frothing. Shrivel in a pool of the Blood of the Lamb.
“The sage opens his milk crystal eyes. No sound from his lips despite pain that must be inhuman. He smiles at the son of the merchant. He knows this is a boyhood prank for which the son of the spice merchant will pay dearly. When the Rakta Pade smiles, a trickle of red and yellow blood-slime from his mouth runs down over his heart where the leeches once pressed heavily against his hollow chest. The son of the merchant runs from the cave.
“Where to now? The prank is over, not his boyhood. Who will take him in? He steals back to his father’s house and luckily his father is away. His wife in the garden rushes up to him. He runs from her smiling beauty and her dish of almond cakes. He looks at his sons playing ball. He will not see them anymore. He discards his Singhalese attire and dons his spats and bowler hat. He calls the family coachman and orders him to drive to the railway station. He buys a third-class ticket for Colombo. He is afraid.
“He finds the Sahib priest. He says he has seen the Blood of the Lamb. The Sahib priest believes him. The Sahib priest sends him to England for instruction and now he is here. He has spent his life away from his father’s garden. And now he is going home. The son of the spice merchant needs no last rites. Last rites going on under his night shirt. Last rites... look! Two needle-pricking worms about the heart. Brother Stephan! Do not touch them or I will take you with me! My eyes blur a milk-crystal white. Like the sage of the mountain. The mountain Sri Pade.”
Copyright © 2009 by Diana Pollin