Tuesdays is the day I reserve for sharing about my work, and today I’d like to share an excerpt form a work-in-progress called Handcarved Elephants.
This scene takes place in a Buddhist temple on the island of Phuket, Thailand. The scene is narrated by Colm, a man on the run from the law. He is talking to an American boy, a seventeen-year-old, who is there living as a novice monk. There is also a venerable, blind monk in the hall who is carving an elephant statue.
The venerable monk laid his carving knife aside and held up a lotus flower at eye level, gazing at it with such intensity that the connection between them seemed palpable. Both Griff and I watched, and Griff beamed.
“I thought he was blind,” I whispered.
“He is, but that doesn’t mean he can’t see.”
“How can he see with no eyes?”
“Bats fly two-hundred miles each night, zero in on tiny insects, and return to their cave, all without sight.”
“Point taken, but what’s he doing?”
“He’s delivering a silent sermon, a demonstration of the nature of the human spirit. It’s very Zen.”
“I don’t get it,” I said, my voice rising in frustration over the sound of rain pounding the roof tiles.
“Of course not. All you see is an old man staring at a flower. But flowers are more fleeting, more ethereal, more delicate than the plants out of which they emerge, and they give off fragrance, which is formless. They are a bridge between form and the formless. Seeing the true nature, or beauty, in a flower awakens the beauty that is an essential part of your own innermost being, your true nature. Simply put, he is demonstrating enlightenment.”
“Really, is that all there is to enlightenment?”
Griff stared at me for a half-minute, then shook his head. “I’m going to call you Rock.”
“Like Rock Hudson? Why?”
“Rocks are impenetrable, the densest of all forms. The good news is, even some rocks can undergo enlightenment, alter their molecular structure and change into crystals, or even diamonds.”
“You think I’m dense? No, don’t answer that. How do you know all this?”
“This place has no TV, no internet, no phone service. I read a lot, and Master Toa gives me hour-long lessons every morning and evening.”
“Well, just to show that I’m not completely stupid, let me tell you something about your name, Griff. According to Stephen Friar’s New Diction of Heraldry, a griffin’s claw was believed to have medicinal properties and one of its feathers could restore sight to the blind. So perhaps that’s how Master Tao can see. You’ve given him some of your chicken feathers.” I also knew that griffins, being a union of terrestrial beast and aerial bird, were seen in Christendom to be a symbol of Jesus, who was both human and divine, but I would keep that bit of information to myself.
“Feathers or no feathers, he doesn’t need eyes. He doesn’t need anything,” Griff said with an impish grin. “In fact, he’s the only person I’ve ever know who hasn’t tried to take something from me. He gives without expecting anything back.”
I heard love in his voice, pure and unintended, and I instantly felt my stomach turn a slow summersault. I don’t know why I didn’t see it before then, but, as if a veil had lifted, I saw Luke sitting before me with a shaved head. The similarities were uncanny, particularly those penetrating eyes that were much older than his years. I felt my own eyes tearing up, and as I reached out and took hold of his hand, I had to look away. I couldn’t let him see what was boiling in me. What caught my attention was that old fool still staring at the lotus flower as if all eternity depended on his merging with it.
“What about me,” I said in a voice much rougher than I had intended. “I haven’t ask you for anything.”
He squeezed my hand. “I’ve upset you. Rest now, I’ll come back later.” He rose from the floor, whisked away the spoon and bowl, and disappeared out a side doorway.
I sat alone, watching that old man. I felt a glimmer of understanding lurking just outside my reach, something having to do with comparing Toa’s blossom to my Luke, but I couldn’t quite grasp those fleeting images. What became clear was that Griff had reached out to me because everyone else here was so alien. He would cling to me because of our similar background, ride me like a life raft on the stormy sea. He would put himself in my hands, not realizing that I was more unstable than he, that I was the one who needed saving.