Chapter Thirty Three II
Chan is fluent in both Chinese and English.
He doesn’t talk in two languages.
Black, David and Chan show up on Christmas Eve. The boys aren’t really boys anymore; even so, Chan and David are wide eyed as Janah takes them around the condo. They hadn’t seen any home with so much space, big roomy bathrooms and what seems to them like beds that go on forever. She takes Black to the guest room, Susan had additional twin beds up from the storage area, the RSG’s use them for sleepovers. She put those in the workout room for Chan and David.
Chris has a huge layout of edamame, cheeses, nuts, fresh bread and crackers. Janah sits between David and Chan. The moms are up to speed on each, so aren’t surprised at Chan’s natural silence, or his attention focused on Janah. When Kara comes in from her studio, Chan stands and bows to her deeply, then pulls out the empty chair next to him.
Chan says quietly, “It is an honor to be once again with the mother of Master J. If I can be of any service to you, it will be my privilege.”
Kara strokes his soft cheek, “It is I who am honored to have you in my family. Janah tells me often how much you mean to her. Thank you for taking care of her when she is away from us.”
He bows again and takes his place between Kara and Janah. The family doesn’t have to think too much on what this is about. Kara is the birth mother of Janah, putting her in a unique place in Chan’s universe. Janah is his revered older sister, more, the closest thing to a real mother he’d known. That makes Kara something between an honored mother or grandmother. To Chan’s oriental mind she holds the most highly revered position in the family.
Black, “You guys must have really wanted to do the Shaolin thing. If I’d lived here, I don’t think I’d leave the house, much less to live in a small room sleeping on the floor.”
Janah, “It’s not too hard, Daphne sleeps on the floor, I sleep on Daphne.”
Black, “Must be why you’re always in a good mood.”
Susan, “Can you tell us about your studies? Nothing confidential naturally, but in general?”
Black, “I focus on gung fu, like Daphne. Work in the kitchen, Daphne taught me to cook. Janah teaches us math and science, not my strength, it’s more David’s. I like to write a bit, Daphne makes me spell and punctuate correctly. She has issues with things out of place.”
Susan, “Good daughter. So do I.”
Black, “I gathered you were the cause of her organizational skills. She demands precision. I write long hand, so she’s also forced me to write legibly. There’s something about the words coming from my pen that’s different from the word processor. Master J has made us all computer literate, although my big fingers lack her touch on the keyboards. I can’t even follow when she types. There are no clicks of individual keys, just a hum.”
Chris, “What’s your favorite thing? I mean, I suppose you shouldn’t have favorites.…”
Black, “It’s impossible not to have more of an interest in one thing than another. I see the necessity of a solid basic education, plus the temple won’t tolerate just doing martial arts. To progress, we have to show more all around development, gung fu in our education, labor, it's all gung fu. To answer your question, I do like the martial arts, particularly adding our blended practice, our taekung-jukido.”
“Master J pulled me off that extracurricular activity for the most part. She said I was overdone. Chan’s taken up the slack.”
Black, “And he’s gotten devastatingly proficient, I blame Janah for that.”
Lacy, “The last time I saw Black he was only huge, now, I don’t know what to call it, she put her hand in a fist and took Black’s, his hand over hers made her fist disappear, like her arm ended at her wrist. Lacy laughs at her disappeared hand, “My God, no wonder you don’t keyboard, it would be keyboard abuse.”
I am standing behind Black, “He’s my brother, I have a hard time saying my little brother. I decided on my beautiful brother, a Buddhist monk hunk. Master Sung says the biggest he’s ever seen. When he hugs me, I feel enveloped in strength and power, it’s a very secure feeling.”
Chris, “ So, David, what are you up to these days?”
“Master J and Disciple Sylk work with me on weapons. Master J plays a game with me for practice, patiently throwing boards and balls in the air. Disciple Sylk has taught me weapons, nunchucks, staffs, long, short and three section. She is too fast for me, which encourages me to try and keep up. Sometimes she lets me get the best of her. As far as studies go, I am interested in botany, I like the gardens, Master J is teaching me the chemistry of the soils and the chemistry of making liniments and herbal medicines. I’m learning Chinese and enjoy studying the old texts. I spend a lot of time in meditation.”
James, who to this point has been observing, “And you Chan, can you tell us your favorite part of temple life?”
Chan, “To serve Master J, honorable sir.”
There is quiet, to respect the simplicity of his statement. James looks at the boy. He reads the clear honesty of his expression, as if that purpose is the highest possible purpose in this world or any other. To Chan, it is; he couldn’t imagine any better place to be or any more noble thing to do. I pour more tea for the boys and sit between Black and Susan.
Lacy leans to Kara, “The girls have found remarkable brothers.”
James, “We’re all going to the Epstein’s tomorrow afternoon. Originally they were going to the Long Island house. Mrs. E nixed that idea, to Bernie’s relief. He would never leave Manhattan if he had had his way. She’s having a Christmas dinner extravaganza.”
“Yummy. I’m going in the morning for a couple of hours, then back here to hang out. She didn’t have the heart to hire help on Christmas Day, I don’t want her to have to pull things together on her own. I believe we’re supposed to be there at 4.”
Black, “I’ll go with you if I may, bound to be something I can do.”
Chris, “Do you need me, I’m happy to go?’
“Thanks mom, I talked to her today, the food has been delivered, she’s not cooking as such, it’s too much. It more a matter of setting up the house, then when we all arrive, warming and getting the stuff out and into dishes, table setting, you know. If we were cooking I’d beg you to go. You’ll be needed here to feed the troops.”
Kara, “I’ll help, it’ll be fun making breakfast for the guys. You and Black will find plenty at Mrs. E’s to nibble on no doubt.”
“You know her, there’ll be food and food, then food.”
Black, “Happy I signed up for this duty.”
“Speaking of which, I need to get things in the oven.”
Chris helps in the kitchen, the family moves to the other side of the room and finds spots on sofas and chairs, James flips on the stereo for background noise, a jazz station playing fusion. Janah sits on the floor so her boys can surround her, Black on the couch next to Susan. Kara in a chair just behind Janah.
Black asks James about his work. James explains current psychiatric treatment in a clinical way. How patients are treated, with what drugs and why. Black wonders about success rates, percentages of treated and untreated people, what might be done differently, better. All in all a very astute series of questions that give him an good overview of the situation without pointing any fingers at who could do what better, or why this or that group was at fault. James is impressed that so young a man gathered the information he did with no blame gaming. Black had been taught by Janah and the Shaolin to seek information, not critique the helpers or the helped. James doubted most so called educated adults could view something so dispassionately. His view of the Shaolin, already favorable, gets even more so. Someone has taught these young people to think, not judge, opinionate or pontificate. Perhaps the Shaolin should teach psychiatric residents.
He also observes Janah’s interaction with the two boys. She takes regular opportunities to reach for one or the other, give them a gentle stroke on the cheek, pat the arm, let them know she is attending to them, that they are important to her. David asks a few questions along with Black, the other one, Chan, says nothing. He listens intently, James can see him clearly paying attention, in between glances over to Janah. At first he thought it was teen age love; as he watches the boy, it isn’t that. He loves her all right, not in some bitten by the love bug way, he is observing Janah and everything around her. It hits James where he has seen that look before. It’s exactly how I look when we’re in public, watching Janah, more watching the vicinity around Janah, is anything suspicious? James wonders why, Chan is almost never with her in any remotely dangerous situation, always inside the monastery, now in her own home. He reflects a bit. The boy observed Daphne. He is practicing for a future time, when he would be called on to look out for Janah out in the world. He is doing what a Shaolin does, preparing, practicing, staying tuned for when it counts.
Chapter Thirty Four II
Black and I have coffee with Susan early, start a fire in the fireplace, then hit the subway to the Epsteins. Chan is up as well, sitting on a bench by the window looking out onto Perry St. When Janah joins them, he pulls her chair out and begins to make her tea. Susan leaves to get ready, the house will begin stirring soon, for now Janah and Chan are alone.
Janah, “Make a big pot, your brothers will want some, when it’s ready we can sit in front of the fire.”
A few minutes later, they are cross legged on the floor sipping tea, enjoying the early quiet together.
Chan, “All the mothers are beautiful. They are content with each other, and Miss Lacy, she is a part of them.”
“Lacy is part of our family. We call them K-mom for Kara, C-mom for Chris and Susan is called Sis, because she and Daphne look more like sisters than mother and daughter. Daphne and I think of each of them as our moms, it doesn’t matter that C-mom isn’t a birth mother in the least. She is our mother, the strong center of the family.”
Chan, “Miss Lacy, she is your very good friend.”
Janah, “Very perceptive, Lacy and I have been friends since before I knew Daphne, a year or two earlier. When our families came together, I was already friends with Lacy, then our moms became friends with her as well. She paints, like K-mom. Sis and C-mom hit it off with Lacy and they have become, well, very close. It’s good for everyone, with Daphne and I gone so much, they’ve all formed a life around the others.”
Chan is silent for a while, then, “There is caring in this house, it fills every corner. Your family is open, comfortable with each other, there is no competition for anything, no trace of tension or animosity.”
“Not from the moment we came together, only support, they don’t need anything from one another, everything is already given.”
“One day you will leave the temple, Disciple Sylk cannot be contained there forever.”
“No, we have things to do in the outside world. There will be challenges, some ugliness, it will be nothing like the peace of the temple.”
“I will train, learn, you will call for me when there is difficulty. I will come, there will be no more difficulty.”
Janah taps in to me, I am arranging the kitchen and dining room at Mrs. Epstein’s, absorbed in making everything Daphne acceptable, which means perfect. Mrs. Epstein, Dr. E and Black are around the kitchen table having breakfast. I made oatmeal, eggs and half a loaf of wheat toast. I stop by the table to eat a piece of toast and oatmeal, he’s on his third bowl, hard to tell, Mrs. E keeps filling it along with another scoop of eggs. Black thinks it would be rude to argue. After the mental update, Janah returns to the moment, Chan is studying her, she smiles at him.
Chris comes into the kitchen, peers over the couch and watches Janah and the boy motionless on the floor. She gets a cup of coffee and Janah turns to acknowledge her.
Chan stands and bows to Chris, “Good morning honorable mother of Disciple Sylk and Master J.”
Chris, “Good morning, Chan. I don’t mean to interrupt, please, make yourself at home.”
Chan looks at Janah, she said, “Sit here with me, C-mom will join us before breakfast.”
Chris sits in the big leather chair and enjoys the fire with them. Janah slips back against the couch and pulls Chan to her, puts her arms around him as he leans back against her chest.
Janah, “Better than a blanket, he’s gotten so big, a couple of years ago, I used to be able to wrap him up, not anymore.”
David appears, bows to Chris and Janah.
Janah, “There is tea on the stove, please help yourself and join us here.”
David, “May I refill your cups?”
Janah, “Yes, thank you.”
David refills, then a cup for himself, he folds cross legged next to Janah, “You both slept well?’
David, “Very well. The beds are wonderful, I suppose they’d notice if I slipped a mattress back into the temple. Chan slept on the floor anyway.”
Janah, “It doesn’t surprise me. You at least used a pillow?”
Chan nods a yes.
Janah, “Well, you’re you. I’m glad you made a concession to the pillow, the floor’s wood in there, you put your blanket on it?”
Chan, “The mat.”
Janah, “Thank goodness, I’d forgotten, the padded mat is in there, for when they practice Hapkido, smart boy.”
Chris, “He prefers the floor?”
David, “Chan doesn’t like to let himself get soft. As Master J says, it’s Chan. I don’t mind getting soft at all, particularly a soft mattress.”
Chris, “I’m with you David. I admire Chan’s discipline. I also must get in the kitchen and feed us.”
Kara rounds the corner, “I see I’m right on time.”
Chan and David stand, bow, “Good morning honorable mother of Master J and Disciple Sylk.”
Kara, “How lovely, good morning to you Chan and you David, and a happy Christmas to you both.”
Kara and Chris make breakfast, eggs, grits, biscuits, fresh fruit and yogurt. They call everyone in, James shows up from his office, Susan and Lacy from the bedroom. Chan and David greet everyone, pull out chairs for the women and James before sitting themselves.
Susan, “I hope Black is getting something to eat. Chris, this is fantastic, thank you, Kara.”
Kara, “Joint project, Chris grits, me eggs, I’m almost getting that Daphne fluffy touch.”
Lacy, “I think you’ve got it down perfectly, these are just creamy delicious.”
Kara, “She told me to add whipping cream, slow cook, stir frequently, turn off the heat while they’re still soggy. Eggs continue to cook in their own heat, they get overdone easily.”
Lacy, “Well she’s right, it’s all wonderful.”
Susan, “So, did they eat at the Epsteins?’
Janah, “She may have to wheel Black home, three bowls of oatmeal last count, eggs and she made half a loaf of wheat toast. Of course, the Epsteins ate too. She said Mrs. E kept filling Black’s bowl before he finished, knowing he couldn’t leave food to waste.”
Chris, “How did Mrs. E know that?”
David laughs quietly.
David, “Disciple Daphne uses same trick at temple for Disciple Black, so he can get lots of food for his big size. She must have told your Mrs. Epstein.”
Chris, “Shaolin very devious.”
David is laughing, hand over his mouth, “Fifteen hundred years of placating angry emperors, warlord armies, communists. Devious is why we are here at all.”
The family stops cold at the simple realization of David’s cogency, then breaks out in laughter at their lack of understanding.
James, “It should have been completely obvious, we have so much blindness in the west. The girls have tried for years to point out our illusions, we’ve gotten better at catching on. We still lapse into our biases, I presume it’s more comfortable there.”
Susan, “I sort of get where you’re headed, but not quite.”
James, “Janah, perhaps you will explain.”
Janah, “Buddhism and Shaolin are, in western eyes, a kind of religion. In the west, it’s common to say religion and spirituality in the same breath. Shaolin is not religion, neither was Buddhism in its infancy, although they use the terms priest, monastery, temple. Some Buddhists have corrupted Buddha into a god, not the Shaolin. Unlike Christianity, Judaism, or Islam, nothing in the Buddhist teachings depends on faith, just the opposite. They don’t believe anything unless it comes with evidence, tangible explainable evidence. That doesn’t mean they don’t think if it isn’t proved, it isn’t real. That would be limitation. They teach don’t know mind. Find out.”
Lacy, “But we were laughing at ourselves for being confused about David’s explanation of deviousness.”
Janah, “Exactly.” She stops to let the family think it all over. It is quiet for a time.
Susan, “Okay, let me start slowly, and walk myself through it. Deviousness, in the case of the Shaolin, meant survival. Staying alive in the face of attacks, jealousies, competitive pressures from all sides. In the west, we think of deviousness as lying, a spinoff of our religious heritage, our cultural conditioning. You don’t mean devious as in lying, you mean in a chameleon like way, of confusing the enemy or distracting them, until you can escape, with as little harm as possible to everyone on both sides.”
Janah and the boys applaud Susan’s understanding, Chan says, “Honorable sister of Disciple Sylk is very wise.”
Janah, “It is so, precious one.”
Chris, “So there’s a philosophical difference, kind of a large one, between the eastern and western religions?”
Janah, “Yes, even the term religion has a different meaning, in the sense of a God who intervenes in life. To oversimplify, eastern philosophies, or religions, approach life with doubt, western religions with certainty.”
James thinks how he will enjoy relating this moment to Dr. Epstein. It doesn’t appear to be philosophically deep, but two adolescents, former street kids, had subtly educated the so called sophisticated psychiatrist about some wide open holes in western thought; devious can be kindness disguised, gung fu trained them to appear to be one thing and also another, there and not there. In life itself, invisible vibrating strings of energy turn into matter, chemicals turn into thoughts we call consciousness. Stop here, he decides, it’s Christmas. He and Dr. Epstein would wonder later about just who were the kids and who were the adults, and what other mental mysteries are not mysterious at all to the monks. He sees his daughter smiling at him, that she knows exactly what he is thinking.
An hour later, Black and I return, “I hope you guys are going there hungry, Mrs. E has pulled out all the stops, Master J will be in heaven.”
Susan, “We’ll have Christmas snacks instead of lunch, Chris and Kara pulled out all the other stops for breakfast, can I get you guys anything?”
He groans, “Daphne’s teasing me, I got an endless bowl of oatmeal, eggs, fruit and wheat toast. Daphne did all the work, I sat and politely didn’t refuse any food while Dr. Epstein asked me about training. Mrs. E and Daphne discussed arrangements when she wasn’t refilling my bowl. It was great.”
Susan, “Daphne, you ate?’
“Yep. Toast, oatmeal.”
Janah, “When is Sonia coming?”
Chris, “Around two-ish, we’ll go to the Epstein’s at four, we can give Sonia her present here. I made Mrs. E promise not to do gifts, she does things for us all year long. I think your dad got Dr. Epstein cigars and a high end bottle of wine for her.”
“I asked her to let me make dessert, which I need to get moving on by the way.”
Black, “What can I do?”
“Sit with me in the kitchen and look gorgeous. I’m making a dark chocolate layer cake, with marshmallow crème piled on top and covered with a hard shell chocolate. It’s a very delicate operation, the marshmallow has to be very cold or it squishes too much when I put the chocolate all over it, get it in the refrigerator like instantly before the whole pile collapses. If it works, it’s delightful. The first few times I tried, the shell cracked a lot, the chocolate melted the marshmallow and got all mushy. We ate it anyway, it just wasn’t guest pretty.”
Black, “So, if it doesn’t turn out?”
“It has to turn out, think of it as testing to be a priest. You walk the gauntlet, pick up the urn, get branded. Failure is not an option.”
Black gets a stool and does his part, I lay out each ingredient as it would be used, each bowl and pan, in a perfect assembly line.
Cake in the oven, the group decides on Scrabble, David and Chan, Lacy and Susan, Chris and Kara, James and Black, Janah keeps score, parked between her boys. I make a giant pot of green tea and more coffee. Janah announces that any holiday word gets a triple word score, she is arbiter of any questionable holiday words. For instance, ‘gift’ is, ‘bag’ isn’t.
Right off the bat Susan comes up with ‘decider,’ which Janah says is in the Scrabble dictionary, just like Bush used it, one who decides. Also explains it would qualify anyway under the truthiness rule. The boys spell priest, which Janah nixes as a holiday word, then James picks up some quick points for adding ‘e-s-s.’ Kara uses an ‘s’ from that word to spell Santa, then Lacy gets a round of applause for sticking ‘anti’ on top of it, which also falls under the truthiness rule and makes David laugh. Janah awards Lacy and Susan holiday word extra points.
Chris, “Antisanta and triple points?”
Janah, “I’m feeling generous.”
James gets ‘devious’ using another ‘s’ already on the board, causing Chan to whisper to Janah, “Honorable father becoming good Shaolin.”
Chris spells ‘décor’ which James is able to expand into ‘decorate,’ garnering he and Black extra holiday word points. James spells zygote, then Chan comes up with zygotene and a big round of applause from everyone. It’s a word for a stage of meiosis. The tiles run out, James and Black edge out Chris and Kara. My cake is cooling, it’ll be at least an hour before I can take it further.
Everyone gathers in the living area, Kara puts “It’s a Wonderful Life” in the DVD player. The fire is going and I have eggnog and cookies in arm’s length. Black and the boys hadn’t had the luxury of a traditional Christmas. Even if some of it is almost a cliché, it isn’t to them, it is all unimaginably splendid. The boys are fascinated with the movie, the ancient cars, haircuts, furnishings, not a cell phone or a computer anywhere makes it seem like reverse science fiction. Their eyes never leave the screen, well, except when Janah hands them another cookie.
Sonia and her dad are at the door. A flurry of kisses hugs and introductions, Sonia’s eyes widen when she’s introduced to Black. He bows to her then shakes her dad’s hand, then Sonia’s, which sort of disappears into Black’s.
Sonia, “My god, look at this hand, Daphne, this is a large man. You said he was pretty big, what would you mean by really big?”
She leans over to me, “Can you sneak me into the temple?”
I grin, “He’ll be around, where we are there’s not much competition, think of him as in storage.”
Sonia has developed in the last couple of years. Big eyes had melted lots of hearts, and there are gentle curves where they’re supposed to be, Sonia is more Janah’s height, slim but not a stick, just enough freckles across her nose to be impossibly cute. Black is busy talking to her dad. He knows the story and is smart enough know her father is close to and protective of his daughter. I told Black I wasn’t in the set-up business, that was up to he and Sonia. I did warn him she is totally irresistible.
In the kitchen, I’m finishing off the cake, Black whispers in my ear, “Gonna take all my Shaolin powers, girl.”
I smile, “Pulls you in with those big brown eyes doesn’t she?”
Black, “Girl got everything, right where it belongs. Make meditation more interesting, tell you that.”
“Be good to her and dad, then let me introduce her to your poetry. You’ll have her right where she wants you.”
Black, “Got me there now.”
“Well get over there and be charming. I’m finished, the cake can sit in the refrigerator until we leave. With a little luck it won’t crack in the transport. I’m giving it to the boys to deal with, good steady hands.”
The moms give Sonia her present, a platinum Baume and Mercier watch, which elicits the requisite tears and long hugs. Sonia gives the moms a picture she’s gotten framed of herself, Janah and me in Washington Square Park, she has an identical one in her room at home. It is particularly well done because it is the three walking together talking, not a shot mugging for the camera, taken in the fall, lots of color, we are smiling and animated. She gives Janah and I silk screened slinky sleep-shirts, one that said De Seelk, and the other Master J. We gave her a waist length deliciously soft leather jacket that my meticulous eye told me would fit perfectly, it does.
It’s the boys' turn, each gets jeans and pullovers, two sets each, plus socks, belts and Vans sneakers. Susan guessed sizes, David’s shirts are a little big but he is also only fifteen, so he wants to keep them, Janah and I have sports watches for them. Even monks need to know the time.
The boys surprise us big time. David has meticulously wrapped a set of nunchucks in leather for me and Chan carved our profiles on an eight inch round of walnut, Janah on one side, me on the other. Both projects must have taken hours, we are dumbstruck, a misty eyed hug for the boys, which starts the moms, Sonia and Lacy. Even the dads get sentimental. Black doesn’t help any, he gives us a bound volume of his poetry with a soft leather binding, the title Two As One embossed into the leather; we tear-up again. The gifts are loving, intensely personal, so clearly from the heart.
Kara gives James a studio photograph of Janah, me and the moms, Janah and I in robes. She has another for Dr. and Mrs. Epstein. James gift to Kara is simple, elegant emerald pendant that hangs from a slim platinum necklace, and diamond tennis bracelets for Sis, Chris and Lacy, each with a different single precious stone to offset the diamonds and differentiate the bracelets.
Lacy’s gives everyone first edition books of their favorite authors, natural idea for a headmistress, and very warmly welcomed. The moms gift to Lacy is a black onyx choker with a single diamond in the center, Susan has a goofy smile on her face thinking about Lacy in the choker and nothing else.
At the same moment Lacy leans over to her and whispers, “I know just what not to wear with it,” which sends them into muffled giggles and strange looks from the family.
Time to head to the Epsteins, a four cab event. Chan has the cake, I figure the most stoic person I know is a natural for delicate cake duty. I tell him if the thing cracked, it is not going to be his fault, I’m bringing extra chocolate and can easily do patchwork at Mrs. Epstein’s.
Chan blinks at me, “No cracks.”
At the Epstein’s, after a major flurry of hugs, kisses and holiday greetings, I go to put the cake in the refrigerator, peek into the box, no cracks. I wink at Chan, who does what Chan does, nothing. I stroke his bare head and kiss his cheek with no comment.
Black hovers over Sonia, the two talk quietly, with a fair amount of smiles and laughs. I decide things are going even better than I’d guessed. Sonia’s dad talks with them. If he has any concerns about his daughter and a black man, it doesn’t register.
“Sonia’s dad seems fine with Black.”
“There’s no prejudice, his interest and body language is relaxed and natural. They may or may not work as time goes by. If it doesn’t, it won’t be because of him.”
That’s one small question out of the way. I knew Janah had watched, she saw nothing, so nothing exists. Sonia is reading Black’s poetry, we’d brought the gifts the boys had given us, Dr. Epstein is examining the disk Chan carved, complimenting him on his extraordinary touch and the likenesses, there is no question who is engraved on the disk. The feel of leather on the nunchucks makes the weapon a work of art. But not just to hang and admire. David would want them to be used, to see the leather worn and darkened would mean he’d succeeded. Janah decided the disk would hang from the ceiling over our mats.
Besides fun, gifts and a splendid buffet dinner, Black and Sonia plant the seeds of a potentially longer relationship. They are 17, there’s time. Black is neither focused on the past or future, from his point of view, there is no waiting, Sonia will be there as long as she is and no longer. From Sonia’s perspective, Black has the obligations of his chosen path for an undetermined number of years, she has to finish at Chapmans and move on, probably to college, she is thinking social work. In a way, they’re perfect for each other, a full time relationship is great, but it can also be a distraction.
After breakfast, the boys gather up their things and make their way back to the monastery. We’re spending a few more days at home. Janah visited Lacy for yoga sessions the next three days while I practice in the gym downstairs. I smile to myself as I feel Janah and Lacy taking light make out breaks between poses. Janah is quite worked up when we get home, I get the pleasure of working her down.
“I wonder what Lacy does when you leave. You have me to take it out on, but Lacy…”
Janah, “She says she’s wearing out her toys. She’s letting Sis and Chris settle in to the whole thing, one of them calls her everyday and they have phone sex light, some verbal teasing. Lacy is patient, and solitude after a day with hundred students and teachers is welcome. She doesn’t hang on to the moms, the fun is partially the anticipation, and everyone has jobs, things to do. Mostly they have lunch or shop and everyone goes home, it isn’t a perpetual sexathon.”
“Unlike you and I?”
“That’s your fault, you’re too exquisite. You told me not to restrain myself, so I don’t.”
“You don’t hear me complaining, being your sex toy is the best job on the planet.”
“It’s our last couple of nights in a comfortable bed for a while, perhaps you’d like me to wind you up right now?”
“Later, lay back and get comfortable, I have a plan.”
Janah wonders how it is possible to feel so sublimely orgasmic for so long.
Chapter Thirty Five II
Lucky is only a frame of reference,
yesterday you were better off than you were today,
but it took today for you to realize it.
The Rabbi, from the film Lucky # Slevin
Friday afternoon. We’d been on an important errand from the temple to the Metropolitan and are walking through Central Park to return. The Met is on the 5th Avenue side, Columbus circle on the West side, it’s a leisurely walk down 5th Avenue across the park on Terrace Dr. then down West Dr. to Columbus Circle. We wear robes, which simplified the dealings with the museum, no mystery where we’re from. It was fun as well, lots of the museum staff gathered to get a glimpse of two female monks. They got the additional kicker of the monks being two girls from Manhattan. My natural curiosity occasioned a spontaneous staff meeting to discuss my questions which lasted for an hour after the delivery. The temple is loaning a very old piece of statuary to the museum for an oriental exhibition. The piece isn’t large, Janah carried it bubble wrapped in a satchel. It is, however, irreplaceable. Master Sung wanted to be sure it found its way to the right hands.
The museum asks to include a picture of the two unusual monks presenting the exhibit. We reluctantly agree and several photos are taken of us turning over the artifact. I ask them not to put any names with the pictures to simply refer to us as what we were, monks from the Shaolin Temple. That settled, we make our way across the park to the subway.
New York is pretty blasé about things, still, two young women in robes attract a fair amount of casual attention. We are caught up in the beauty of the park and mentaling each other, the attention mostly escapes Janah. My side of our mind, auto-tuned to everything, ignores it. There is no undue interest in Janah from anyone that makes my antennae quiver. We stop at a vendor on the edge of the park, just across from where the steps descended to the subway, and buy tea. We mental in Chinese when we talk at all, mostly we absorb the color of the trees, the busy intersection, horns, sirens, all the rich cacophony that is Manhattan. This is our home, the city does not overwhelm us.
We dispose of our cups and head to the Columbus Circle subway entrance, down the steps into the tunnels. We catch the downtown number 1 train headed to Washington Square Park and the condo, step into a car two thirds full, sit together on an otherwise empty bench. At the 8th Street stop, a couple of boys get on, they look nineteen or twenty, one tall and muscular, the other shorter, stocky and thick. They spot us, elbow each other with knowing looks and a nod. Testosterone begins to further submerge their already suffocating mental capacity.
Tall, “What we got here? You girls going to a party or something? You all dressed up in robes and shit.”
Chunk, “Maybe they be doin’ a model thing, you know like a magazine, you be doin’ a model thing?” he stares at Janah.
Janah shakes her head no.
Tall, “What’s the deal ladies, can’t talk? Thass ok, we don’t need no conversation. What you got in the bag little girl? Maybe you got somethin’ for Kendall.”
He reaches down, Janah lets him snatch the bag. It’s empty, no point in arguing over a nylon satchel.
Tall, “Ain’t got shit in here.” He swings down on the seat next to Janah. “What else you got for Kendall baby. Muss be my lucky damn day. You a fine thing. Pretty face, blue eyes, you like big men?”
Janah looks directly in his eyes. Kendall is disconcerted, not sure why she is neither coy nor intimidated. He’s used to girls with snappy replies or flirtatious smiles.
In the meantime Chunk, the stocky one, decides to take a shot, “Damn girl, you tall. Bet you got some long legs under there. He puts his foot under the robe and begins to raise it.
“You don’t want to do that.”
My dark eyed stare intimidates him, Chunk feels challenged, “Sho’ I do baby, I’m gonna see if them legs go all the way up. Just relax and let’s enjoy the show.”
He raises his foot a little higher. Chunk’s bulb isn’t just dim, it’s burned out. His life replete with bad ideas, this one ranks up there with his worst. It’s one of those specially stupid, particularly costly, notions. The ones we get when we’re feeling all cool and confident. One hand on the metal pole riders use for support, his substantial body weight is on the other leg.
When I snap kick his shin, even from my seated position, it hurts, there’s no give in the leg. I could have broken his ankle or his knee. I just want them to move on and leave well enough alone, the next stop is Canal, we’re getting off.
“Damn bitch,” he hollers, hopping back grabbing his painful ankle, “bitch kicked me.”
Chunk hops forward. He can’t get his foggy mind around the idea that maybe hopping off is the smartest thing he could do. He reaches for me. Instead of cringing, as he expects, I’m suddenly right in front of him. His groin explodes. While he tries to find his balls, a second explosion, his lip splits, nose crushed and bloody. Chunk is on the floor trying to decide what needs the most attention, nuts or nose. The groin wins, his hands clutch between his legs, he lays moaning on the floor, rocking back and forth from both the pain and the jerky sway of the subway.
Kendall connects with the fact that his friend has lost control. He tries to jump up and reach for me. It’s like one of those dreams we have, he wants to move, his body refuses to respond. He has the sensation of swimming in tar, Janah’s hand on his neck. His mind goes black and he slides to the floor next to Chunk.
The other passengers start to register what’s happened. Applause breaks out on the train, followed by calls of ‘You GO girl,’ and ‘Damn, you see that? She kicked that fool’s fat ass.”
The doors open and the passengers spill out, not wanting to get involved in any transit authority interviews. They scurry off the train, some nodding, some grinning at us. People on the platform start to get on, then stop at the sight of two guys on the floor of the car, one with a face full of blood. Janah and I exit and stand on the platform. A transit cop runs up, sees the two on the floor and calls to stop the train until things get sorted out. He turns to the two young women in monk’s robes standing quietly. The platform is filling with new passengers. A couple of people walk into the car from the second door, see the bodies on the floor and back out. A second transit cop barricades it, there is an announcement about a delay.
Cop One asks me, “Know anything about this?”
“They thought they going to have some fun and found out otherwise. Victims of the illusion of duality.”
He scans our robes, “I work the Chinatown trains, you’re Shaolin.”
Cop, “Have a nice day, sisters.”
We head up the stairs as two more transit cops come on the scene.
Cop Two asks One, “What’s up with the guys on the floor?”
Cop One, “They got caught in the illusion of duality.”
Cop Three, “Looks like it beat the crap out of ‘em.”
We emerge onto the street, “Too bad some people can’t just leave well enough alone.”
“He’ll recover, you tried to tell him. Damage was limited to the necessary. If I hadn’t gotten a grip on the tall one, you would have had to deal with him too, so you had to make sure the other one was finished.”
“Perhaps they will be more thoughtful in the future.”
Chapter Thirty Six II
Daphne is wide open and sneaky
A sizzling hot paradox
Holidays over, immersed in temple life, it is flipping cold in Manhattan. The city usually doesn’t get a lot of snow, it’s snowing now, and had for the last three days. Students are busy clearing pathways, they built a snow Buddha one crisp afternoon. Practice is held as if it’s a balmy spring day. It’s gung fu, not golf.
Janah is busy, busy with Master Hue, keeping the plants warm, covered where necessary, smudge pots burning throughout the night. She’s happy I’m no longer a student, having to get up in the middle of the freezing night to check the pots, and replace candles. Our rooms, the rest of the buildings, are heated. That early in the morning though, it seems to never really warm up.
Black, “Man I got to get down with that qi body temperature thing. I got the mindset for it when it’s gung fu, I freeze in that meditation hall. I’d say it was a black thing, except the boys tell me they’re iced up too. I can’t just blame it on my plantation heritage.”
“Spent a lot of time picking cotton in Brooklyn?”
Black, “Want to hear a work song?”
Black, “I’ll have to look something up on the internet. Us nee-grows across the bridge didn’t sing much, except for the rap or church crowd. I wasn’t into either one.”
“You got a rap type name, I can see you on stage now, leather vest, six tons of bling, maybe one of those leather hats, skip the band aid, your face is too pretty for that. By the way, I know it’s a personal decision and all, but why do black guys get tattoos?”
Black laughs, “Don’t have a clue. Already got the best color.”
“Exactly, those lovely shades, Creole to African, I think it’s beautiful, so does Sonia you charming devil. What do I know? They do it because they want to. I thought about a tattoo. Janah quietly suggested I think it over for 50 or 60 years.”
Black, “I can’t see her going for that. I think she likes the environment unspoiled when it comes to Disciple Sylk. Was she really quiet about it, or you being protective of her reputation?”
“Janah’s always soft spoken. That’s how it works, the lower the volume the more serious she is. I’m in real trouble when she doesn’t say anything.”
Janah is smiling up at me, walking between her and Black, one arm entwined in mine the other in Black’s. The boys are in front of us. We’re strolling around the monastery, just walking and enjoying each other.
Janah, “Let’s take the boys inside for a while, it’s cold, perhaps Daphne will make tea.”
In the dining hall, a fair number of monks are already gathered. Work continues in the weather, it is also a time for more reflection and discussion. It isn’t unusual to find small groups of monks talking, much like students at any university.
I bring cups and a pot of hot black tea, Janah surrounded by David and Chan, Black at the end, me on the other side. Master Sung sits next to me, I pour him a cup. I don’t ask, it’s cold, everyone welcomes something warm.
Master Sung, “Disciple Sylk has read my mind, it’s good to have freshly made tea on such a day.”
“I added some of Master Hue’s sage, I hope you’ll enjoy it.”
Master Sung, “Delicious, a touch of your cane sugar too, I think.”
I smile, “A small treat for a crisp day.”
Janah, “Have you been to Master Tan’s today?”
Master Sung, “No, I’m thinking I should go up shortly.”
Janah, “If I may, I’d like to go with you, bring hot tea as well. I need to hear him fuss at me for disturbing his meditation.”
Sung, “His way of expressing his joy at seeing his student.”
Janah, “He’s probably sitting in his lair warm as toast. I would like to have tea with him anyway.”
“I’ll make a pot for you to bring, do you want one of the students to bring it up to you?”
David, “May we bring it please? We’ll sit outside and wait until you have talked with old Tan.”
Janah, “When Daphne has it prepared, bring it just past the bamboo, I’ll be watching for you.”
Janah and Sung leave and head to the back of the monastery, stop along the way to greet Master Hue. He asks if Janah might stop on her return. He’s bringing in plants and stacking pots, has a fire going and is boiling something as well.
Janah, “The boys will be coming though shortly. I’ll send them back to you to do this work. They can take care of these plants, clean and put away the pots, they will be happy to be asked.”
Master Hue, “I am most appreciative.”
Janah and Sung continue on to the thick bamboo and slide sideways through the small opening to Tan’s tiny courtyard and hut.
Tan, “Come in heavy footed old man. You brought Master J, you have some sense left anyway. I suppose you want to sit and annoy me with fool questions. I’m still here, not frozen, I have no tea prepared.”
Janah, “Some fresh tea from Disciple Sylk will be here shortly, old one. Then we can warm our bones and enjoy your most pleasant disposition.”
Sung is laughing, Janah and Tan have become close, Tan delighted to find a student who can absorb his instruction. He’d told Sung many times he might die with no one to teach. He would never wallow in regret, and he is surely not sentimental. He is Shaolin, and treasures all knowledge. It isn’t for his gratification that he wanted to share his skill. It’s for the generations to come that one day might use it for the good it could do. Janah’s banter is a sign that the study is going well, that Tan has been gifted with the perfect candidate to master his skills, perhaps even take them to some as yet unknown level.
Chan and David appear, Janah leaves the hut and takes the pot of tea and cups, she tells the boys to wait.
Inside she pours tea for the three of them then tells David, “Take the remainder to Master Hue and tell him Disciple Sylk has made this refreshment for him on this magnificent day. Then finish taking the plants inside and clean the empty pots, make sure all the snow is cleared from the paths in the garden. When you have finished, see Disciple Sylk and she will have something to warm you up.”
David, “Will we see you again today, Master J?”
Janah, “Everyone will be at evening meditation. Afterwards, if you are not too tired, perhaps we can talk.”
Janah returns to the hut, mentaling me to make sure the boys have something warm in their bellies before evening meditation. I know what to do, I will have a bowl of mysteriously thick steamy ‘tea’ for them.
The three masters are quiet, not planning a conversation or thinking mystical Shaolin thoughts, they are simply there, right there, there is no elsewhere. Despite the lack of artificial heat, the open door and the freezing temperature, it is warm in the hut, like the door has some sort of invisible seal. Janah smiles, the level of Master Tan’s qi fascinates her. She is accomplished, feels like a complete novice compared to him.
Tan reads her thought, “You too will warm the entire hut one day. If you aren’t too lazy, the entire meditation hall. Of course, tended to every moment by your other and those little brothers of yours, you could sleep all day instead.”
Janah, “There is so much to practice, so much to learn. I am humbled by the prospect, grateful for the opportunity.”
Tan, “And I have another marvelous opportunity for you. Tonight, return here. You may sit outside until the morning and keep the chill from my door. Perhaps the ground will thaw if you sit long enough.”
Janah, “Master Tan is most considerate.”
Tan, “You may bring the other with you, two qi students will help me avoid drafts.”
Janah, “And most understanding.”
Tan, “She would only be here anyway, she sits with you now, even while she prepares tea for the boys who serve you. Fortunately Master Sung is not full of himself, or he would resent you taking over his students.”
Janah laughs, “Sneaky old man, you go out and talk to Master Hue’s plants, they tell you their secrets in the night.”
Tan, “Don’t be foolish, young master. I have no time to gossip with Hue’s plants. Half the time they believe the lies the insects tell them. The bees are the worst, notorious gossips. Like old women around a well in the village. Today of course the old women gossip on their cell phones and the internet, the method changes, the foolishness is the same.”
Janah giggles, “If I told the students you even knew about the internet they wouldn’t believe me, much less a cell phone.”
Master Tan pulls a cell phone out of his sleeve, “How do you think Sung knows when to come up here? Not everyone can talk to their friends mentally.”
Janah is hysterical, “Now I’m going to have trouble keeping a straight face when the monks pester me about the hermit monk. Fortunately, it will never occur to them to ask about cell phones, so I won’t have to think of a non answer.”
Sung, “Secrets of the Shaolin not so mysterious.”
Janah’s grin sparkles, “And I was wondering if you two had a stash of carrier pigeons to send messages to each other. I don’t know if I should give myself points for thinking of that, or to deduct points for not thinking of the phones. You have me totally off guard. So, you must swap phones once in a while, so they can be charged.”
Master Sung pulls his out of his robe, “Good organization requires efficient communication, does it not?”
Janah, “Do the qi masters know this?”
Sung, “Who do you think gave me the idea?”
Janah’s laughing, she wipes tears from her eyes, “Disciple Sylk is trying to keep a straight face while cleaning the kitchen. She finally had to make an excuse to go to the ladies room. She says to tell you she is honored to be invited to freeze outside tonight if it will keep Master Tan’s phone warm and cozy.”
The two men break out in uninhibited laughter. Janah realizes she is, in a gentle way, being included in a sort of inner circle. Another in a series of initiations Master Sung is administering. He trusts her, and he trusts her other, though we are still young. He is considering our role many years from now, not just the physical and mental things we can accomplish today. Master J has taken on her early responsibilities flawlessly and, if she continues to do so, there would be increasingly greater burdens put on her. This seemingly light, even silly, exchange is something she might easily lapse into telling stories about. For one being considered for significant future responsibility to gossip about temple business, even apparently harmless stories about cell phones, would not be acceptable. If Master Sung heard about cell phones and Tan, he would be careful about what he told Master J in a more serious vein.
He has no cause for concern, Janah is crystal clear on the privilege she is being accorded, and, by definition, I am equally clear. Despite all the cheerful banter and real affection between her and the masters, Janah is sensitive to the current that runs through the order. There are things monks are either not prepared to receive, or would be distractions from their training. Janah and I are being prepared the Shaolin way, given tastes and openings; if we catch the scent, we pass through. If not, then from the Shaolin point of view it is simply not time.
Half an hour later, Janah and Sung leave. Janah visits Hue while Master Sung continues to his office.
Hue, “Thank you for sending the students, they are most diligent.”
Janah looks around, the garden paths are spotless, the ground damp. No accumulated snow, plants that required extra protection are covered carefully, the used pots clean and stacked neatly to the side, ready for Hue to plant cuttings or seeds. They step into the room where Hue’s pots boil, the floor is swept the table tops and counters spotless. Janah notes the diligence of her students.
Hue, “Disciple Sylk has prepared something warm for them I’m sure, they deserve a hot bowl of her thick tea.”
Janah shrugs her head angled, “Does nothing escape you?”
Hue, “We can’t know what we don’t know, no shame in that. The boy, David, told the silent one that Master J said they should go see Disciple Sylk when they were done, she would have something for them to warm up. So, this time, nothing mysterious. Disciple Sylk would not give two frozen boys some thin tea for all their labors. She is most expert at adding nutrients and calories to her drinks, even though we have no evening meal. Disciple Black and the silent one are not growing so big on two small Shaolin meals a day.”
Janah, “Many of your herbs and roots find their way into her teas. She has a master’s help in her efforts to provide proper nutrition.”
Hue, “We serve one another.”
Janah leaves and makes her way to the kitchen, the boys are just finishing.
I'd served the tea in what looks suspiciously like bowls for soup, insisting they are merely larger tea cups, “Look, they have no spoons, they drink it from the cup, it must be tea.”
Janah peers into David’s bowl, “Lots of dregs in the tea today.” The dregs look coincidentally like bits of tofu and mashed rice.
“Yeah, I noticed. Next time I’ll have to filter it better. I guess I was in a hurry or something.”
Janah sits between the boys, “Master Hue was most appreciative of your hard work. His garden and workroom look beautiful. Now go clean up, meditation is in thirty minutes, I don’t want two stinky boys next to me for an hour.”
They hop up, thank me and bow to Janah before heading to their room.
Janah remains seated as I put a bowl of the special tea in front of her, “Long night coming.”
We leave together for meditation, which seems over before we know it. Afterwards we visit with Black and the boys for a short time, they head off to warmth and bed, unaware that Janah and I will be meditating in the freezing night outside Tan’s door.