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They say you remember your first kill, that you cannot forget the sight of your own face reflected in the eyes of your prey.
2019 is the year in which our beloved writing contest, Muse of the Month gets bigger and better (find out how here) and also takes the cue from the words of women who inspire with their poetry. The writing cue for February 2019 is from the poetry of Mary Oliver, passed away on 17th January 2019, aged 83. This is a tribute to her, and her memorable words, taken from her poem, The Summer Day.
“Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?”
The fourth winner of our February 2019 Muse of the Month contest is Ruchi Rajan.
‘Tis said that you see a white light when you die. I cannot say if that is true. I lie dying now, and all I can see is a haze of scarlet. Or perhaps it is too soon to tell. Perhaps I am meant to suffer more. My tormentors would seem to agree. Their hands do not tire, their clubs do not pause. My bones are dust, and my flesh is one with my blood. It cannot be long now, I think, but I know it will be. After all, He is not yet here.
My thoughts turn inward, seeking to escape the pain. But what solace can a damned soul offer? I gaze upon my life, and I draw back in horror. I try to climb upwards, but the web of memories is upon me. My thoughts are lost within my darkness.
There is no escape from myself.
This is my tale. Of the Monk who sold his soul….
I am Aṅgulimāl, the collector of fingers. I am the child-killer and the widow-maker. I have killed thousands and taken trophies from still-warm corpses. There has been none as vile as me ever before, no demon or man.
But I was not born in darkness. Aye, there was light in my life once. Ahimsak was my name, born in a noble home in the kingdom of Kosala. But the Gods had damned me, and the soothsayer foretold my dark fate. I would grow up to be a killer without remorse, a demon in the garb of man.
But the king was kind, and could not bring himself to murder a new-born, even if it meant challenging the threads of fate. He had faith in the values of my parents. And so, my father raised me in wisdom, and my mother in love. Neither faltered in their part. And when the time came, I found tutelage under the foremost seer of the time, within the venerable walls of Takshashila. What better fate could any have asked for?
I embraced learning with all my soul, determined to meet the trust of my guru. For a time, it seemed as if I had succeeded. But fate had other plans, for she had not taken too kindly to be challenged thus.
The Guru’s wife was a mother to me, a friend in a distant land. But her affection for me did not sit well with my teacher. I recall his fury even now, a voice of thunder that drowned all else. His voice shook, his entire body trembled, as he accused me of blasphemy. He was convinced that I had sullied his wife.
I begged for his understanding, willing to pay whatever price it took to win back his trust. And at that moment, the threads of my false destiny were cut.
“Bring me a thousand fingers,” he screamed, “or do not come back at all.”
Those words were worse than a curse. A curse would have damned only me. But his words would damn the world!
My thoughts race quickly now, as if they sense the end is near. Or perhaps it just that they cannot face the depravity of what followed next. They say you remember your first kill, that you cannot forget the sight of your own face reflected in the eyes of your prey.
Perhaps I am unlike any killer in the past, for such a memory eludes me. I cannot recall their faces, the first or the last. I do not even know how many I hacked to death. Far too many…
I only knew of my promise to my Guru. I would bring him those fingers at any cost. Neither cries, nor wails nor pleas of mercy could give me pause. I surrounded myself with death, my ears deaf to their sounds, and my eyes blind to their death throes.
The ravenous beasts of the wild fought for their right of flesh, and I could not permit them to take my bounty. And for that I would need to keep the severed fingers on my person. I fashioned a garland of those dead fingers, keeping the dead forever close to me.
But the dead flesh would rot and fall off. And I would need to kill again…and again. It did not matter anymore. The dead did not matter. After all, I was one of them.
My evil could not go unpunished. At least that is what they hoped. They sent soldiers after me. But to what avail? They came in waves, but the forests of my realm had scant patience with armies. The wild divided their numbers, forcing them into solitary groups. The rest was…predestined. The king had sent soldiers. But all I saw were the fingers…
By now, my infamy had grown into a legend of terror, one that the rulers of the land could scarce afford. The army would be sent, to uproot the forest if necessary, but to end my life at any cost!
But they would be thwarted once more. This time, by a mother’s love!
No mother could bear to bear witness to her child’s death, even if that child be the Devil Himself. She had decided to save her son, and the king’s armies meant nothing to her. An old woman she was, but she reached my vile realm before the vengeful soldiers. Such was the faith of her love…
‘Twas a shame that I was not worthy of that faith. What use had I of love, when I had no soul left in me? I gazed upon the woman that had birthed me, and all I did was raise my scythe. Aye, there were fingers to salvage, were they not? It wasn’t that I did not recognise her. I simply did not care. And I prepared for the unspeakable sin.
But once again, I was saved.
He came…the man that was God…The Buddha!
His form was glorious, as if the sun itself had taken human form. His simple garbs seemed to dwarf the lustre of a million jewels. He seemed weak of body, and yet invincible at the same time. He was beyond description.
But was he beyond bleeding?
I was unprepared for this sudden manifestation. But my instincts could not be subdued by acts of Godliness. I swung my scythe at him, only to miss completely. He smiled, and turned away, walking into the forest. I leaped after him, a bloodcurdling cry escaping my lips. It was all in vain. The more I ran, the farther away he seemed, always walking slowly, but forever a step ahead of me.
Until I collapsed on the earth, my foul heart beating hard. What, I thought, what was happening?
I felt his hand on my shoulders, and I looked up to see the sun smile down at me. He spoke then, and his voice was like a thousand prayer bells clanging in perfect symphony.
And then he said the one word that would change everything.
No…this was all wrong!
The bodies…the faces I couldn’t have been bothered to remember…they came back…all of them. Like a tidal wave of bloody nightmares, the faces screamed at my soul, drowning everything else. My soul, the one thing I thought I did not have…now it was drenched in their pain, their agony, their terror. And that was when I saw Aṅgulimāl for what he was. And I saw him as they did!
“N..No,” I wept, kneeling in the ground in front of him, “No…take it away…”
But He just smiled and spoke again.
“Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?”
Precious? My life? What did I plan? Was it still up to me? Could it?
“Of course, it is your choice. Who else can make it?”
“I…,” I stammered, struggling to answer the question that had stirred up so much inside me, “I want it…to end.”
“Then make is so.”
I felt His hands on me, as I wept, “Save me, o Lord.”
And then I opened my eyes, only to see my mother cradling my head in her arms, her tears mingling with mine.
“Mother?” I asked, “What…where…”.Where was He? Was it all…was it all in my head?
She smiled through her tears, as only a mother can, “Hush my son,” she said, “I heard it all. Come, we have a long journey in front of us.”
My mother took me to His Sangha,where He smiled at me, just as he had done the last time.
“I see you have made a choice.”
His voice was filled with hope, but there was also a sadness within it. It was as if the choice I had made was not the right one. But even as those thoughts filled my head, he looked at me again, and spoke.
“That remains to be seen.”
I worked as hard as I could in the Sangha. The monks were kind to me, as if my past did not exist for them. Even the king had issued a pardon, so great was his faith in my lord. Every day, I strove to absorb the thoughts of The Buddha, and every day it revealed something new to me. I saw what acts of good could accomplish, and what happiness mere deeds could bring. I saw just how joyous life could be.
Could have been…but not for me.
Each day revealed more to me about my soul, and I saw it dark and withering. The more I discovered myself, the more deafening the screams of the dead grew. The Buddha could save my spirit, but it was I that had damned my soul.
I recalled his question to me, “Tell me what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
I recall also the sadness in his voice when I made my choice. No, it wasn’t wrong, just…incomplete.
The village of the dead, they called themselves. All here had lost loved ones to senseless death, and could not carry on with their grief. Here they dwelled together, hoping to salve each other’s wounds, hoping that tomorrow would make them forget. There was one other commonality. Almost all of them had had their lives ruined by Aṅgulimāl. Just as I could not get the dead out of my soul, neither could they. In the most warped manner imaginable, they were my brethren. And they would have to save me.
The first stone hit me but mere moments after I had stepped foot inside the village. The garbs of a monk meant nothing to them. To them, it was the Devil that had come to their doorstep. The Devil that slain their wives, husbands, parents and children. There would be no escape this day.
And now, the memories have had their full, and the pain returns with a vengeance. Their fury is undiminished, for righteous vengeance is theirs. I cannot say the pain is a blessing, for I pray for every moment to be by last. But I do not ask for mercy, even once. For with every bone that breaks, the torment of my soul lessens. The voices of the dead begin to fade, through the screams of the living.
Suddenly, there is no sound. And I know he is there. The beatings stop, and even the murmurs fade away. I open my eyes, but can see nothing but red. Perhaps I am blind, it is hard to tell through the pain. But I feel him cradling my head in his lap. And I can sense the sad smile on his face.
“Redeem it,” I answer.
The Red vanishes, to be replaced by a glorious white.
Ruchi Rajan wins a Rs 500 Amazon voucher from Women’s Web. Congratulations!
Image source: Unsplash
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Ruchi Verma Rajan is a woman on a mission of self-discovery.
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