Methven - Day Thirteen - Part Six
"Hey, dog, y'gonna sleep th' whole mornin' away?"
It took me a second to get my bearings. It had been such a nice dream..Alison was just about to..
My groping hand found the other side of the rumpled bed empty. Apparently Itakami had, indeed, waked up early..and whatever she'd had for breakfast, it wasn't me.
"Wh..what time is it?"
That meant there'd be no time for a trip to the Pools of Pleasure today--at least, not if I wanted to visit Mahatna before the start of the daily weapons training session Læ had mandated we attend. Since Mahatna had insisted we fast before tasting the Elixir of Awakening, I'd be skipping breakfast, as well.
I rolled over and sat up, bunching the bedclothes around my waist to cover my nudity.
"Give me two minutes to whiz and splash some water on my face, okay?"
He grinned and skinned back his sleeve to reveal a bare wrist.
"I'll be timin' ya, doggie."
. . .
Mahatna was seated in the same position on the same animal skin he'd been sitting on when we'd last seen him. For all I could tell, he hadn't moved an inch since then.
He put his hands together in that upside-down steeple gesture I'd become so familiar with from watching Mantami and inclined his head in the barest hint of a bow.
"Good hunting, Mr. Drew. Good hunting, Mr. Pith."
"Good hunting, Mr. Mahatna," we chorused in reply.
"This day is a beautiful one, is it not?"
"Look! You can see the Gatestones!"
He pointed down the valley to the phallic totems that guarded the entrance to the Clanhome. At this distance, they were barely discernable.
I had to look twice at his cataract-filmed eyes to remind myself that Mahatna was as blind as Stevie Wonder. Without that physical evidence, there was nothing to indicate his disability. Not only had he correctly identified us as we approached his door, but he was right about the clarity of the air. Unlike yesterday, when it was slightly overcast, today was cloudless and--aside from a slight haze over the Clanhome's foundry--the atmosphere was as tranparent as a telephone solicitor's pitch.
"'Scuse me, Mr. Mahatna, but--meanin' no offense--how d'y'know that?"
Mahatna smiled a Cheshire smile.
He grasped the sturdy staff that rested on the pile of fire wood beside him and used it to support himself as he climbed to his feet in a single, lithe motion that belied his advanced age. He turned to enter his hut, beckoning us to follow him.
"Please enter my home and be welcome."
Once inside, he told us to seat ourselves at the plain table that occupied most of the floor space in his home. He went to the hearth at the rear of the shack, returning with two undecorated cups that had been hanging on hooks beside the fire.
Recalling the tongue lashing he gave me yesterday, when I'd innocently tried to help him serve us, I let him set the cups in front of us without offering my assistance. Mahatna then took the dipper off its nail by the door, filled it with liquid from the water barrel beside the door and shuffled over to where Pith sat.
The dipper's bell was full to the brim, but Mahatna didn't spill so much as a single drop between the barrel and Pith's cup. He poured an inch of water into the cup and started to turn back toward the water barrel. His milky, blind eyes narrowed, then he turned back to face Pith and stared directly at my friend.
"Yesterday, your cup was almost empty."
He reached out and poured more water into Pith's cup, filling it to within a half-inch of the rim.
"Today, it is almost full."
Mahatna returned to the water barrel. He filled the dipper and brought it, nearly--but not quite--overflowing, back to the table. Once again, he made the trip without spilling a drop.
Without comment, he poured my cup so full that the liquid bulged up above the rim, almost--but not quite--overflowing on to the table.
I thought back to what Mahatna said yesterday, when he really had filled my cup to overflowing. I got the feeling I was missing an important lesson, somehow, but I couldn't quite grasp exactly what I was supposed to be learning.
"Mr. Mahatna, I know you are trying to teach me a lesson, but I do not understand it."
I bit back a smart-assed rejoinder. Humility isn't my strong suit, but I knew I had to keep my tone level, polite and respectful, if I was going to get anywhere with Mahatna. Even so, it wasn't easy. Sarcasm is more my forte.
"Would you please explain it to me?"
He shook his head.
"What you will not see, I cannot show you."
He turned away, ignoring my grinding teeth, and hung the dipper on its nail. Then, still ignoring me, he hobbled over to stand by Pith, the butt of his staff clunking softly against the dirt floor.
"What is real, Mr. Pith?"
Pith turned in his seat, frowning.
"Hard question t'answer."
Mahatna rapped him in the head with his staff. There wasn't a lot of force behind the blow, but I knew from experience that it had to smart.
"What is the matter, Mr. Pith?"
Pith eyed him, warily, rubbing the side of his head.
"Uh..reality jus' said 'Hi!', I guess."
Mahatna favored him with a merry grin. His seamed, ancient face wreathed itself in deep-etched laugh lines.
"What is real, Mr. Pith?"
The hand Pith was using to sooth his injured temple went up in a defensive gesture.
"A smack upside th' head, f'r one thing."
Mahatna nodded, his eyes twinkling.
"And what else is real?"
Pith let his warding hand stay between his head and Mahatna's staff.
"Well..stuff y'can touch, I guess."
"And what you hear?"
"Depends. I got what y'call 'tinnitus'--sometimes m'ears ring, 'r I hear whistlin' sounds. Loud ones, too. Started in 'Nam. B'tween th' mortars, th' choppers, an' th' claymore th't got me home--m'ears been rode hard an' put away wet. So, no, not everthin' y'hear's real. Least, not everthin' I hear."
Mahatna looked troubled.
"I am sorry for your injury, Mr. Pith. We do not have such problems here."
Mahatna used his staff for support as he dropped to his knees, then sat back on his heels. He carefully leaned the staff against the table and brought his fingertips together in the upside-down steeple I'd seen Mantami form so many times over the past few weeks.
Unlike Mantami, Mahatna didn't close his eyes while he was doing his statue imitation. In the several minutes that passed while the old guy did whatever it was he was doing, neither Pith nor I stirred from our chairs. Mostly, we just watched Mahatna, with occasional glances at each other.
It was dim in Mahatna's cabin, since the only light came from what sunlight spilled through the open door. It might have been the power of suggestion at work, triggered, perhaps, by Mahatna's questioning of Pith, but, in the stillness as we waited, I began noticing all the small sounds around me. I could hear the occasional distant croak of the quasi-reptilian bird things circling in the updraft from the Pools of Pleasure. I heard the faint, adenoidal whistle of Mahatna's deep, regular breathing and the rustle and creak of Pith's and my occasional shifting on our wooden chairs--even the almost-imperceptible click of my eyelids meeting every time I blinked.
I noticed other things, too: the itchiness of a day's growth of stubble on my cheeks, the grain of the wooden tabletop beneath my hand, the sparkle of dust motes in the shaft of sunlight pouring through the doorway and the muted, aromatic remnant of whatever spicy dish Mahatna had cooked for dinner last night. And--for a moment just before Mahatna used his staff to rise to his feet in an effortless, athletic motion that belied his advanced years--I felt a ghostly tickle deep inside my head, as if phantom fingers were riffling through the pages of my memory.
The Scout master laid a comforting hand on Pith's shoulder.
"I am sorry, Mr. Pith. I cannot heal your ears."
"S'okay, Mr. Mahatna. All part a' th' dance."
"I cannot offer healing, but I can offer hospitality. Drink, both of you!"
I guess my attention was elsewhere. I was thinking about that prickling sensation inside my skull, instead of concentrating on being careful about lifting my over-full cup. Its contents began spilling over the second I touched it.
Whack! Mahatna's staff thumped me above the ear. I promptly sloshed most of the remaining liquid over my wrist as I reacted to being belted in the head.
"You pay no more attention than an infant, Mr. Drew!"
He turned away in dismissal.
"Oh yeah? Well, if you'd stop rummaging around in my brain, maybe I wouldn't be so distracted! Ever think about that, Mr. Mahatna?"
Mahatna's hoary head swiveled to face me, like some bird of prey tracking a target. His clouded eyes bored into mine with such level, unblinking directness that I literally shrank back from his scrutiny. A dozen heartbeats went by before he turned his blind, penetrating gaze toward Pith.
"Yup. Me, too."
"You are not Vomisa."
He turned back to me. This time his head moved without that eerie, frictionless quality and his expression was now benign. His tone was absent, as if he were speaking to himself.
"Neither of you are Vomisa. I must not forget that."
He pointed to the doorway.
"Come," he said.
. . .
Mahatna led us along a narrow path that wound up the steep mountain side behind his home. We climbed for 20 minutes or so before we reached a grassy shelf about the size of a tract home's living room.
Mahatna pointed with his staff to a flat, mossy boulder about two feet high that lay half-buried in the ground.
"Sit there, Mr. Drew."
He motioned to where the path continued up the slope.
"Follow me, Mr. Pith."
"Now wait a second, Mr. Mahatna--why do I have to stay here?"
Mahatna turned to me. After a moment, he pointed his staff toward a scattering of rubble a few feet from where I sat.
"Those stones are wrong."
He shook his head.
"That is what you must discover. Put them right. Then come to me and I will give you the Elixir."
He turned away.
"Come, Mr. Pith."
. . .
At least two hours went by before Mahatna returned.
He was alone.
"Mr. Pith is learning to See."
Mahatna shook his head.
"That does not concern you, Mr. Drew."
"I'm sorry, Mr. Mahatna, but it does concern me, very much. We're supposed to be at weapons practice in.."
Shielding my eyes, I glanced up at the sun. It was high overhead.
"..in just a short while."
"Mr. Pith will be late."
I stood up.
"Then I'm going to go get him."
Mahatna didn't move a muscle. He appeared totally relaxed and he spoke without rancor.
"Will you fight with me, Mr. Drew?"
I shook my head. He had a staff and had established very clearly that he knew how to use it. I was unarmed. Besides, there was no way I was going to employ violence against an old guy like Mahatna--especially when I still wanted desperately to convince him to give me the Elixir.
"No, Mr. Mahatna. I won't fight you."
"Then stay and study the stones--or go and come another day. But do not disturb Mr. Pith."
I traced the track down which he'd come to where it disappeared behind an outcrop a couple of hundred feet up the slope. Then I looked at Mahatna standing there before me--small and stooped, his fur patchy and ragged with age, but confident and relaxed.
"All right, Mr. Mahatna. I'll come back tomorrow."
"Good hunting, Mr. Drew."
. . .
All the way down the trail that led to the Clanhome's threshold I had the unshakable feeling that I'd made a terrible mistake--that I should have done something other than what I'd done--or not done. I wasn't sure which and I wasn't sure why. I just knew that what had happened back there with Mahatna felt wrong in some fundamental but elusive way.
By the time I reached the broad lawn where Læ and the others were already engaged in fencing drills, I was ready to bite somebody.
"You are late, Mr. Wilde."
"Where is Mr. Pith?"
"Why don't you ask your pal Mahatna?"
Læ peered keenly at me, her oddly-tilted green eyes nearly level with mine.
"Is something wrong, Mr. Wilde?"
"What do you mean?"
"It is clear from your tone of voice that something has disturbed you. Do I take it that you had some kind of misunderstanding with Mr. Mahatna?"
"You could say that."
I described our morning with the Scout master.
"And which is it that distresses you most, Mr. Wilde--Mr. Mahatna's evident favoritism toward your friend, Mr. Pith, or your inability to discern the solution to the puzzle with which he presented you?"
I felt my shoulders sag. She'd nailed me fair and square.
"Truthfully? They both piss me off in about the same amount. And I actually am a little worried about Pith."
She shook her head.
"I think you have little to fear on that score. I am quite confident Mr. Mahatna will neither harm Mr. Pith nor allow him to come to harm. He is, as you may have gathered, extremely experienced in these matters."
"Yeah, but 'we are not Vomisa', remember? I mean, what if Pith has..I dunno..some kind of reaction to the Elixir?"
"Come now, Mr. Wilde--you must direct your energies toward more productive concerns."
"Like Mahatna's stupid rocks?"
"Perhaps later. For now, let us turn our attention toward the nuances of broken time, shall we? En garde!"
. . .
Archery practice--something else I'm not very good at--succeeded fencing drills and that was followed by an hour or so of hand-to-hand combat exercises. We worked a good five hours or more and Pith never showed up.
By dinner time, I was tired and nearly starving, since I'd neatly managed to miss both breakfast and lunch. I ripped through our evening meal like the Tasmanian Devil through a Looney Tunes landscape. At Læ's insistence, the whole crew--minus Pith- -attended the evenings' assizes, but, unlike last night, the proceedings were conducted entirely in Vomisa. Naturally, they were completely wasted on me.
So, since I had nothing better to do, I spent the time thinking about Mahatna's stupid rocks.
I could picture them perfectly. What the hell, I'd spent two hours or so in the hot sun with nothing to do but stare at them and wonder what was supposed to be "wrong" with them.
There were eight of the damned things. The biggest one reminded me of a cubist sculpture of a dinosaur egg, with gray and brown diagonal bands of color running clear through it and sparkles of something like mica on the flatter side. The second-largest stone had to have been some kind of petrified wood--a tapered cylindrical shape with a bark-like surface and reddish veins of color running down its full length. There were three flat, gray ones that looked exactly like weathered flagstones--the kind that the yuppies in Lafayette build their patios with. One of the remaining rocks was grayish-black, round and smooth, about the size of a soccer ball and another was dirty white, round and pitted, like a limestone softball. The last one was a jagged chunk of bright green, glassy stuff with hard, crystalline edges.
They'd been scattered across a patch of ground the size of a pup tent in no order I could discern. I was pretty sure that Mahatna wanted me to figure out how they "ought" to fit together--but I was damned if I could perceive any clue as to what, if anything, that pattern should be.
I worried at the problem while the assizes droned on, paying little attention to the events unfolding in front of me. I expected that, once the serious stuff was taken care of, we'd participate in singing stories again and I was kind of looking forward to that.
It didn't happen that way. The second the Mothers stood up to end the Judgements, Læ rose to her feet.
There was no mistaking the tone of command in her voice. Head held high, she led us out of the gathering hall, pursued by whispers from the crowd. We dutifully followed her.
"What was that about?"
"They were insulting us, kiddo."
"It's rude to exclude guests. The Mothers were trying to send her a message."
"You got me. But I'm sure she knows.."
. . .
I didn't bother to question Læ about her reasons for storming out on the gathering and she didn't volunteer any information on the subject.
"Good night, gentlemen. I will see you on the practice field at noon."
And that was that.
Bruno offered to host a card game, but I passed. Pasteboards have never interested me--probably because I'm not very good at them. Pith claims I have no "card sense"--whatever that is.
Instead, I headed back to my room to work on bringing this journal up to date. That took a couple of hours.
Since then, I've been thinking about those silly rocks again. I've been turning their shapes over and over in my mind for the best part of an hour now and I think I'm starting to see how they might fit togeth..
Oh, hell. Someone's knocking on the door.
I'll be right back..
(Copyright© 1997, 1998 by Thom Stark--all rights reserved)