Believe It or Not

I don’t know why I bother to reveal these secrets to you. You won’t have earned them until you discover them for yourself, nor will you actually understand them. Maybe having read the words will give you a little extra foundation for understanding my own point of view, which you will no doubt merely see as some kind of delusion at worst or psychotic irrelevance at best. But if curiosity pulls you at least this far, you may as well have it.

The world around you is filled with light. Even when your eyes are closed, even when the sun is down, you see reddish light filtered through the blood-filled tissues of your own eyelids. Hell, even when you lose consciousness due to exhaustion at the end of the day you dream of light, of substance, of objects. This is true even if you were born blind, though then the light is sourceless, simulated by touch and sound and the feel of how the air moves. This light is an echo of how the seeming enormity of the world fills your brain.

The secret begins to seep in when you look up at night and see the distant stars. Each tiny pinprick is a star, a giver of light like the sun, who is a middle-aged member of that host and a junior example — a middle-management clerk among celebrities and statesmen and giants. And just as there are billions of people more important that that clerk in the world, there are hundreds of billions of those tiny, yet more prominent, pinpricks in our own massive galaxy of stars. But ours is not the only galaxy there is.

The Milky Way has several smaller companions, but hurtling toward us is a monster of a galaxy, much larger than our own, dragging along its entire entourage, due to arrive in less than half the lifespan left of our own meager sun. Our local group of galaxies numbers at least 50. But groups of galaxies also travel in clusters. And clusters form superclusters. And so on. Call it something on the order of a hundred billion galaxies, and, as good a guess as any, a septillion brilliant stars.

The skies should be filled with blinding light day and night, edge to edge, if light is what the world we know is made of. The beginning of wisdom is to see the inescapable reality that this is not the case. The world that glows is not even one part in twenty of the world that exists. And the truth of that is revealed in that when we look at the sky at night, what we mostly see is blackness.

The whole of creation is more than 95 parts in 100 darkness — measured by mass even, not volume — and the darkness is growing. The brightest of us, so to speak, squeeze our eyes shut when the light of this knowledge starts to dawn and begins to make us feel tiny and ephemeral and insubstantial, and believe we have found wisdom. But true wisdom does not come until we accept that the overwhelming and ever-increasing blackness between the stars, inside the stars, even, squeezing them and pushing them away from one another at an ever-increasing rate, is the ultimate reality. That blackness has form, and beauty, and substance. That blackness has intelligence. That hateful sun-eating blackness is the destiny of all that lives and all that glows.

There is a further secret behind that, however, intangible until you push past your soul-crushing despair. And it is terrifying. The ultimate secret is this: The unimaginably massive universe-eating blackness has tendrils inside you and knows everything about you and loves you with the entirety of its incalculable being and wants to be your friend. But you are no good to it until you are dead dead dead.

* * * * *

What I love about California is that when you walk around a small coastal town upholstered in tattooed skin of brown leather — shock of white hair smushed under a backward baseball cap, eyelids and lips sewn shut, torso wrapped in a bright aloha shirt, sculpted ass companionably wrapped in khaki cargo shorts, feet stuffed into paper-thin yellow foam flip-flops — no one bats an eye when you buy a latte and take a seat by the big picture window at the front of the shop. Especially when you hold the door for the guy coming in the shop behind you, affably find your wad of cash in the third pocket you investigate, and stuff a five-dollar bill into the Lucite tip-box. My puppet does all of these things, even to the point of making faces at the Labrador puppy leashed to the bicycle rack panting through the window trying to make out the shadow of his mistress inside.

I make a mental note to try this horror of a dumbshow in some backwater Mississippi town someday when I have less business on my mind and am more in the mood to kick over anthills. I will try to work it into my timeweb at a later point, where the echoes would not surge out to muddy the causality of the current puddle I am splashing in. I am here to recruit a Buddhist. A true believer and adherent — someone who actually understands what he believes, not someone who merely adopts the philosophical clothing in the typical fashion of one who becomes disillusioned of the trappings of Western dogma and doesn’t wish to walk around religiously naked after those are discarded. It would be more effort than I would like, to have to teach a purer dharma to an incautious choice pre-mortem and next to impossible post-mortem.

I expand my awareness, retreating analogically to a higher vantage point above the local timeweb to scout for my target. This beach-facing village has maybe three candidates, but the outflowing ripples are definitely the most favorable for the one who will be approaching in five minutes with respect to the bobbing marker of my puppet — the brightly-colored float for my fishing line, to stretch the analogy to the breaking point. I have no idea why, in terms of causal logic, this choice is better than others. But it will reach the coffee shop soon.

I retreat puppetwards and devise the machinery of the interactions that should pull him/her/it into my wake. A him, I determine as he enters. Short dark hair and dressed in unassuming jeans and t-shirt combination, with dirty white canvas loafers and no socks. I have my puppet watch, in terms of body language, as he places his order and waits for it to be constructed. He swings a messenger bag around to his back when he takes his cup, and when he looks up to see which tables are clear, I have my puppet wave at him. He looks confused, but he comes to my puppet’s table at the window, slowing dramatically as he takes in the appearance of my puppet. He is invited to sit with a gesture.

For this meeting I will speak by vibrating the air around my puppet’s face and chest, like when I placed the order for my puppet’s latte. I choose a quiet voice, much like the one I used pre-mortem. Cheerful, unthreatening.

“I know you don’t know me. I’m Jim.” My puppet’s stitched-together lips broaden slightly. It gestures again to the chair opposite. My guest hangs his bag on the chair’s wooden back and sits.

“I’m Tom,” he replies, setting his cup down carefully. I read the full name off the surface of his boiling mind: Tomoyoshi Suzuki. He speaks slowly, weighing curiosity against animal fear. “Is there something I can do for you, Jim?”

He repeats my name at the end of his sentence to fix it in his head while staring at my puppet’s unforgettable face. A reflex. He has worked in sales, or, more likely, possibly he is a teacher, and uses the trick to learn the names of students.

He looks at my puppet’s latte. His face is carefully neutral. “Do you need scissors? Or a straw?”

Tom earns a genuine laugh, which I localize quietly as a chuckle into the air between himself and my puppet. “Oh, thank you, Tom, but no. This puppet is dead. This coffee, like the puppet, is for show. I bought it as table rent.” The puppet leans back a little in the chair and stretches out a leg. “People need the puppet to talk to, when I talk, to avoid the unfortunate misunderstandings that come up when a voice is sourceless or comes from something nonhuman. People freak out or think they’ve gone crazy. The puppet also provides an additional element of language I find useful. See? I’m saying to the rest of this shop, while I talk to you, that this walking horror is not a threat to anyone.”

Tom frowns appreciatively and nods. “Should I ask whose body it was before it became … your puppet? Or is it artificial? Some kind of Hollywood special-effects replica…” he trails off.

“Relax, Tom. This is my own corpus. I drove it from the inside for thirty-some-odd years, pre-mortem. I just failed to relinquish possession when I died. Can I use the word ‘possession’ there?” I pause for a moment to make the puppet pretend a sip of coffee. “It’d be accurate to say that I died in the process of preserving this corpse for future use. Or, in at least one important interpretation, spectacularly failed to die. The jury of opinion isn’t unanimous.”

Tom nods again. “Sokushinbutsu.”

If that is a name for what I am, it is a new one to me. The subtleties of his tone are of mixed horror and reverence rather than the purer notes of distaste for terms like zombie, mummy, revenant, or any of the other hosts of undead from the anthropologies I had studied or more recent popular media and culture. I am not used to being confused or surprised. And I like it. This is possibly part of what I am seeking.

“I’m unfamiliar with the term,” I say. “Japanese, right? … Tomoyoshi?”

Tom doesn’t react when I use the longer version of his name, but makes a wry face with respect to the topic at hand. ” ‘Believe it or not, some saints don’t rot. Their bodies don’t decay…,’ ” he sings. If my puppet’s jaw could hang open, I would have required it to happen. Tom continues. “An old Dead Milkmen song. My mother was Catholic, and much more fervent about it in the years before she died. They believe the power of God is demonstrated by the fact that some of the bodies of old saints are preserved against decay after death. The Buddhists have something similar, after a fashion, but it’s more deliberate. A shortcut to buddhahood. The ones who attempted it took a special diet for a thousand days, coincidentally one that poisoned their flesh against microbes and worms and such, then climbed into a stone box to die. Or to finish dying. Then a thousand days later the box was opened, if it had been successful, and a mummified enlightened one was removed and installed in a shrine to receive intercessory prayers.”

I make my puppet nod, elbows on the table, attentive.

“Folklore takes it a step further, saying not all of the sokushinbutsu attempts were successful. Most did achieve sainthood. But some went mad, stranding their minds beyond mortal comprehension. And some, who had the drive to achieve the transition to immortality but not the purity of heart, became tremendously powerful monsters, creating misery to achieve their own selfish ends. They required — or require, since there may be one or two left — exceptional effort from the devoted to contain or destroy.”

That is something to think about. I say, “What do you think?”

Tom takes a moment to consider, remembering he has coffee that he brought to the table and taking a sip. “As a Buddhist, I am a student. I’m no priest. Until today, I thought of it in terms of a parable, a story of how the highest intentions can be poisoned by the taint of an unacknowledged desire for personal glorification, and on a different level a literal example of the extremes to which the sacrifice of self can take somebody. It’s self-torture and suicide. As such, it removes a pair of hands that could be used to alleviate the suffering of others here feeding hungry people or taking care of the sick. Maybe the sect that created such processes thought there was a shortage of saints to assist Buddha in receiving and processing prayers, or that examples needed to be set from time to time to show people the range of things that could be done in the name of self-sacrifice. If my opinion on the subject is worth anything, I tend to think there are probably enough gods and saints to pray to without adding any more.”

I want to step outside of time to process this, but that would upset the flow of events. I will have to wing it. “Until today?” I ask.

By way of answer Tom cocks an eyebrow and makes a small gesture toward my puppet.

“My process was violent,” I admit. “I prepared myself with drugs and stimulants and anesthetics. I eviscerated myself with surgical tools and clamps to slow the bleeding and stripped off my skin — with preparatory cuts and hooks and ropes and falling weights — before I finished dying. It was much faster, the work of a single evening, and uninformed by any desire other than selfish ends. I wanted power and I got it.”

Tom is frozen in his chair. I take a break for my puppet to pretend another sip of latte. “I was naive and stupid, but very, very lucky. There are many things about the afterlife that it’s impossible to know without stripping off the flesh and jumping in with both feet, as it were. It’s quite an education.” I admit more than I had intended, but Tomoyoshi seems to deserve it. He is tense and flushed, but my confession includes humility uncharacteristic of the sort of monster he fears.

Even so, it is clear that Tom is terrified. His voice is calm and even, however. He is a trooper. “It sounds like quite a feat. Congratulations.” There is no hint of contempt or sarcasm or judgment. “My ambitions are …” he trails off again. “I’m content to bother myself with worldly things while I’m still alive. I’ll worry about what comes after I die when I get there.”

My puppet sets down its cup but continues to hold the handle. I stretch the stitched-together lips of my puppet into a broad smile and gesture toward him impertinently with my puppet’s spare hand. “About that.” I reply.


February 24, 2013 · by xalieri · Posted in fiction  


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