’tis by the heaving of the Chest

’tis by the heaving of the Chest”, goes the old rhyme, but it’s none that simple. In any case: the Chest is the last sign. If you wait for the Chest, well, you may as well wait for the next breath.

No, we watch at the Lip. The Windmills are the first, if you know how to read them right. We pour over their dithered printouts every night. There, a pattern? A reliable trend? A bird’s wing can pollute the reading. Read the Village instead: one by one, we succumb to belief. Fewer of us young ones at the table each time, until only the nodding old men are bending over the parchments. We no longer need convincing: we build our machines.

By the time the creaking Tower squatting on the Sternum admits the ground is moving, we are ready. Mothers cry, but we can’t wait.

“’tis by the heaving of the Chest
that the beginning can be guessed”

No more guesswork. A flock of white wings, sons and daughters barely of age, await the breath.

“Fly away on Giant’s breath
Find life and love and a true quest”

It begins with the distant whine of the Windmills, fully awakened now. Multitudes of birds erupt from their trees in shock, having forgotten how it goes. The village explodes then: shutters clatter, roof tiles fly. All that is not tied down is now up.

Then it comes: the great Wind, the Giant’s Breath, grips and carries our fine wings. We fly, the sea beneath us, free as the wind.

And beneath us, for the first time, we see the sleeping Giant we used to call home.

Counting Breaths

Eight hundred million breaths is a lifetime.

The first, I imagine, was unwilling. Drawn from me on a mid-winter’s night by the practical violence of a doctor’s slap.  A wet uncertain gurgle bubbled forth as pink lungs first tasted the world’s air. Then the clawing animal vitality, the desire for life, surged forth in a harrowing scream that pierced the still Highveld night. When that long cry sputtered and faded, it was for lack of breath not lack of passion.

Eight hundred million breaths is a lifetime.

The last, I hope, will be willing. Embraced by me on a cool summer’s evening as I would an old friend. A smooth, deep inhalation and I will taste, one last time, the world’s sweet air.  Then a soft lingering sigh and the last life within me will join those soft summer breezes. The urge to life, its passions fulfilled and vitality expended, will stop all breath.

Eight hundred million breaths is a lifetime.

The next, I know, is my choice. With twelve thousand I could read a good book and only a million are needed to write one. Instead I use twelve hundred to write this; two thousand to polish it; and just twenty to post it. You used thirty-eight to read it.

The Gloom of Righteousness – Rewrite

The pain was gone at last. The rest is easy, just head into the light and ignore the distractions of the world. Silently the man congratulated himself on preparing so well. Slowly, savouring the moment, he opened his eyes.

The light, the glowing doorway to eternity, was before him. Deep within he felt the warm satisfaction of being right. Jackson might have got that corner office, the girl and the BMW but one day he would be standing here and know the wisdom of investing in the spiritual.   As his eyes adjusted he saw the Master sitting at his feet on the dirty maroon floor.

Dressed, as always, in simple black cotton he looked, as always, utterly serene.

“You taught me all about the light and a place of eternal gloom but you never mentioned a maroon carpet. So you don’t know everything after all.”

The master looked up at him with a sad smile and said, “Moron.”

“I studied at your feet for seven years; paid good money to learn to die – but now I see any idiot can walk into the light.”

“You’re an idiot. What are you waiting for?”

In life, the Master had never spoken to him with such disrespect.

“Did you ever teach me anything useful?”

“Did I ever teach you anything?”

“Well I might have missed some lessons but I read the book and it didn’t mention any smoky, red office cubicles. I took all that stuff really seriously.”

The man considered all he had sacrificed: the steak he resisted; the hours of Zazen; endless fees and hours of effort.

The Master rose smoothly, walked away into the doorway of light. He closed the door behind him.

Light

There’s no light. I can’t see them, but I can hear them. I need to leave.

It was going to be another late night at the office, but the members of the Board, for once, simply agreed with each other. So I went home early thinking I would surprise Alice. Not with flowers, or chocolates. I would say, “Let’s go to dinner.” And she: “Oh god, we haven’t gone out in ages.” She would smile. I would smile.

But the house lights were all off — she wasn’t home. Alice couldn’t have been expecting me, so it was fair enough. My plans changed: I would cook dinner for her. Only the fridge had nothing but milk and mouldy cheese, the cupboards nothing but a box of oats. But then I was the only one of us who enjoyed cooking, and you can’t cook when you’re always working late.

I left for the shops.

The house lights were still off when I returned. I had enough groceries with me for a week of cooking now that my late nights were over. And Alice would be home soon, I was sure. I chopped and oiled the vegetables, turned the oven to 180°. My office clothes were uncomfortable for cooking in, but with the oven heating I had time to change.

My hand stopped on the our bedroom’s light switch. I could hear them. They were soft, so whisper soft, but I could hear. The lights were off. I left without turning them on.

Light

The house is dark and silent when you’re the only one in it. Your feet move slowly, leaden; the world has a weight it didn’t have before, it presses in on you. You go through the motions of eating, but food sits in your stomach like stones. You can’t sleep with the space in the bed next to you, and the dark lies on your eyelids. In the world outside you stand shadowed and cumbersome while the chatter of others lifts and darts, like fireflies. You were warned about grief, but you didn’t expect this – this dense, tangible creature with the heavy feet.

Every morning you stand on the balcony in the cold twilight of dawn, and watch for the sun to rise. But it never does.

One day it will. You will be surprised to hear the ponderous tread ring lighter through the house. The dark, alone at night, will gradually cease to press, and will embrace you softly as it used to.  You will move out of the shadows and your words will tentatively gleam and whirl.

One day you will stand on the balcony in the cold twilight of dawn, and the sun will flood the sky with light. Your heels will lift from the stone, and you will spread your arms and rise, like the bubble of the sun, into the golden air. You are as light as nothing: you ride on the wind that blows through you. You may never stop going up.

The Gloom of Righteousness

The pain was gone at last. The rest was is easy, just head into the light and ignore the distractions of the world. Silently John congratulated himself on preparing so well. Slowly, savouring the moment, he opened his eyes.

“After all”, he thought, “you only get to die once.”

The light, the glowing doorway to eternity, was before him. John felt the warm satisfaction of being right. Jackson might have got that corner office, the girl and the BMW but one day he’ll be sitting here and know John was wise to invest in the spiritual.

As his eyes adjusted he saw Master Sighn sitting on the dirty maroon floor. Dressed, as always, in simple black cotton he looked, as always, utterly serene.

John looked up sharply and spoke, “You taught me all about the light and a place of eternal gloom but you never mentioned a maroon carpet. So you don’t know everything after all.”

“Moron,” Master Sighn uttered impassively.

“I studied at your feet for seven years; paid good money to learn to die – and you ripped me off – any idiot can walk into the light.”

“You’re an idiot,” replied Sighn, “what are you waiting for?”

This reply, delivered with such disinterest, irritated John.

“Did you ever teach me anything useful?”

“It seems I never taught you anything.”

This time Sighn’s gentle tone really upset John who snapped, “Well I might have missed some lessons but I read the book and it didn’t mention any smoky, red office cubicles.”

John sat snarling and considered all he had sacrificed: the steak he resisted; the hours of Zazen practice, endless fees and classes and the hours of practising detachment. He always hated that stuff with a passion.

Master Singh sighed quietly. He stood slowly. He walked away into the light – closing the door behind him.