The Letter
Victor Endersby

Jekkara read with a swelling joy. The great moment had come for the meeting “face to face.” He read again:

“Having served the Wisdom faithfully, according to your understanding, for seven years, the time for testing is at hand. You will present yourself at sunrise tomorrow at the Eastern gate of the Ashram. - Your Guru.”

A slight note of puzzlement crept into his mind. He sat under Suryachakra, the High Priest, every day. Why a letter? Why should not the Great One lead him into the Presence with due ceremony and observance, upon his daily reporting for duty? He traced also a slight uneasiness in the phrase “according to your understanding.” He had observed every rule, obeyed every order and least hint from those above, searching his heart according to the rules every day for any trace of reluctance or uncleanliness of mind. Why the qualifying phrase? It must then be that howsoever one tried, there were still little lapses too unapparent for the mind to catch, yet serious enough to call for correction. This, he thought, was cause for joy rather than misgiving; correction at hand of the One he was surely about to meet was of necessity more to be desired than praise from all the world beside ...

At the appointed hour and place, he saw no one looking outward from the gate. There was but the usual stringing inward of disciples to their duties. He knew not what he had anticipated - some messenger to usher him within the building to some secret place, or perhaps even the face of the Guru Himself. He grew fearful as the minutes went by, trying to represent to himself that this was the first of his tests - a little test of patience. Yet despite this thought, a nameless panic slowly crept along his nerves, until at last in fright of some awful untoward thing, he fled within and sought out the High Priest. The chela at the door graciously bowed him within as was his wont - the high one was ever gracious to even the least of aspirants. Suryachakra gazed at him with a kindly question in his eyes. This alarmed Jekkara more than ever.

“The - the letter?” He choked.

Suryachakra raised his eyebrows. “Letter?”

Jekkara extended it. Suryachakra read it with a strange expression. Had even the shadow of such a thought not been blasphemy, Jekkhara would have thought him alarmed.

Quickly composing his features, he looked up. “There is something to be seen to,” he said. “If you will forgive me...?” He swept quickly out of the room. There was a long delay while Jekkara ate another portion of his heart. At last the great one returned.

“My son,” he said, “a chela-scribe has made an error. I am very sorry, but your time is not quite yet. The letter was meant for another.”

The color of the day was leaden for Jekkara. “But ... I thought I had done well - is there not hope ...?”

“There is much hope indeed, my boy. You have done well - very well. But the Himavat was not raised within a day. There is yet somewhat to overcome. But with diligence it shall not be long - not long at all.”

Jekkara resigned himself and went away submissively, taking some comfort from the priest’s manner. Next year, perhaps; or even next month, he dared hope.

Next month and next year went by; another and another. Instead of the fulfillment he expected, it seemed to him that the goal was farther than before; for Suryachakra’s manner had changed somewhat. He was no longer so easy to see in private; his tongue grew sharp toward Jekkara in instruction to the group. Yet Jekkara could find naught in himself for cause. He began to have moods of black despair. If one could not please the High Priest, what chance of pleasing the hidden Guru - so much greater, hence more critical? At last there came a strange day when, passing on an unusual errand by a curtained doorway, he heard the voice of the High Priest speaking to one of the envied higher Chelas.

“What are we to do with that fool, Jekkara?” he said impatiently.

“At least,” said the shocked listener to himself, “I shall now discover what is amiss with me.”

“He does not seem discouraged at all?”

“Discouraged, yes. But stubborn - stupidly stubborn beyond belief. It is only a matter of time until he suspects. Meantime, the money left for his education and training by his doting parents has long been expended, and he is but a useless mouth to feed. Yet he cannot be made use of. He is too stupidly, stubbornly credulous of the impossible morals and promise of this so-called Wisdom, and would denounce us furiously should he suspect.”

“But then many have done that. Who believed them?”

“Such is the difficulty. There have been too many. The droplets of suspicion begin to wear away the stone of faith - and this headlong honest idiocy of Jekkara’s, reckoning not of his own hurts and hardships, has gone far abroad. Indeed, there are some in whose minds even I might weigh along with him in the balance.”

“Well then ...” said the chela, his voice falling to a whisper unheard, as the two departed in some other direction, leaving the shattered candidate to drag himself toward his quarters as best he might.

There may be among the hearers of this tale some who have passed such a night of red and black agony as then fell to Jekkara”s lot. None others may know the full horror thereof. Jekkara did not understand half that he had heard; what he did understand had been doubly too much. In the sodden raining morning, he rolled his slight possessions into a cloth and fled, without aim, direction, or purpose. His sole aim was to rid himself of all memory of that holy place turned evil overnight.

Except that he begged at times, did a little poorly paid and unskilled work at others, he remembered nothing save hunger and cold and hard bedding places, scorn and sometimes kicks, during the next months. Somehow, a dulled but stubborn will to live reasserted itself, and with more vigor he sought livlihood in various ways, and tried to achieve skills. But all that he essayed, save the tasks of the lowest, encroached upon the jealously guarded rights of various castes; so that at last he resigned himself to crust won through labor rejected even by the most destitute in a destitute land.

His numbed mind recovering the faculty of motion, he began slowly to seek the causes of this thing. “Under Karma,” he thought. “But stay - what do I know this Karma, save what I have been told by Suryachakra the False, and his cohorts? False in many things, why not false in all? What now do I know in reality of the cycle of rebirth, or of the great sweeping wheelings of Time, his clearances and equalizings, such as I have been taught?”

Thus the first thrust of the reawakened mind brought the lancing pain of all-doubt, adding new darkness to a night already seeming impenetrable. For the Dugpa in a high place does a double work. Undiscovered, he subtly corrupts doctrine and practice, and leads conscience astray. Discovered, the shock of betrayal turns into a sour vomit of doubt and sneer, the undigested doctrine in the stomach of those who have followed the path of another rather than the light in their own hearts. Yet the dugpa has a problem of his own; to corrupt or make evil use of the Wisdom, he must perforce and nevertheless teach it, and so becomes for some the unwitting and unwilling channel for knowledge, however delayed and restricted. For by its unremitting pressure the Wisdom seeps slowly through all channels, foul and clean.

By slow degrees then, Jekkara learned to part what he had heard from what he knew; what he knew from Nature, from his own heart and the hearts of others; and thus to judge the truth in that which was heard, by that which was known.

Through all, the letter somehow clung to his mind. As time went on, it seemed to him less like the mistake that Suryachakra claimed it to be. The thought came to him, faintly at first, then ever more convincingly, that somewhere attached to the false Ashram had been something of reality; that there had been some one, or some few, cognizant of the deceptions and frauds, who had sent that letter, meaning to intercept him at the gate and by some stratagem take him to a secret place where the truth should be revealed and he be delivered from the wiles of scoundrels. But if so, he thought, these friends, well-meaning as they might be, had not been very powerful; they had been prevented from their plan by some accident, or perhaps some violence. Moreover, had they been of a stamp worthy of following, they would have known of his departure and made themselves known to him.. Perhaps, he thought, something had frightened them away. Nevertheless he kept the letter, well bound in a skin envelope, for no better reason than that he might some day solve the mystery within it. Slowly a new purpose began to lighten his life; the purpose of carrying to the humble people about him somewhat of the deep philosophy that he had finally sorted out of the melange of the teachings of the Ashram absorbed for so many years. After all, he reflected, it did not need a great hall, or fine raiment, for one to talk to those who might listen. But when he tried, the words came awkwardly and timidly. He realized at last that the lively flow of words, the confidence in himself and the Wisdom, that had caused hundreds to listen to his former efforts, did not in truth come from within himself, but from the praises and admiration of those about him, from the sense of security afforded by the multitudinous shoulder-touch of comrades seemingly on the same path. Alone, he was nothing. Those about him knew naught of these scholarly words or their fine and subtle meanings; nor could he put his thoughts - or any high thoughts at all - in their own speech.

Dolefully reflecting that the world as he now found it when unprotected, was a world selfish, dishonest, lustful and greedy, it came suddenly to him as a blinding light, that the armor a man must wear against all others to sustain himself in this life, could be used for something other than protection. It could be used to keep out the dark. Within himself at least lay a domain, into which - given the will - nothing of these evils need enter; and the utmost price that he might have to pay for the effort was but death; truly a thing ridiculous for any man to fear. Thenceforth, to one who snatched the half of his last crust, he gave the rest. If one despitefully turned him from the flapless door of his hut, he sat in that door through the chill of the night to ward off cold from the inmate. Indeed did he come near to death in this manner, but was no longer ignored. Some fled him as a madman, and some hastened to placate and feed him for the same reason. But here and there, some humble one, mindful of the ancient legends of the half-forgotten Wisdom, saw in him a holy man and would have followed him had he permitted. This he did not, because it seemed to him only a mockery of holy things that any should follow that which was a nothingness, given to all as a gift of no worth; and that one who did so could only come to harm and folly.

In time, from across many years and countless miles, came news of the black iniquities that were found behind the mask of the holy Ashram of his former days; its burning by the people and the stoning of its monks and priests from the town. The news hardly moved him at all. He had long known that all had been wrong there; the details mattered not; the retribution was but the sure flow of Karma, naught to be unexpected.

There finally came a time in the monsoon, when Jekkara found himself set upon a heart-breaking and muscle-breaking task amid a strange crew. It was a rich village that lay on the plain some miles from a gorge in the vast mountains, where ran a path followed by wandering men from many lands. The river was in gigantic flood that threatened to top the dike in whose bend lay the village, and the lowest spot of this dike was manned by a long line of men enticed by the floodmaster from among hungry stragglers along the path.

The flood rose inch by inch; the mud heaped upon the dike clung to the wooden shovels so that a man wearily carried back the two-thirds of all that he lifted; they slipped and stumbled and fell in the mire, and upon each foot rode immovable a ball of mud the size of a turban. Yet the ever-rising water urged on to back-breaking effort without rest; for these homeless men, looking upon the peaceful village below, remembered that helpless women and children lay within these houses. Most of them had memories of their own that now brought out the long-buried sense of duty, and strength for effort. Yet they cursed bitterly at the oblivious tradesmen of the town. Just before Jekkara joined them, the floodmaster had been threatened with their shovels into going into the village and demanding that every man and every strong man-child not sick, join them upon that dike, lest all shovels be dropped. This fellow now rejoined them with a bitter face.

“What said they?” cried the crowd.

“They said that they had the utmost confidence in my ability to do what is necessary with what is at hand; that I have never failed them yet, and they did not believe that I should now.”

A groaning curse arose; several threw down their shovels and departed - but shortly slackened their pace and returned shamefacedly.

“I, for one,” said a voice, “do not propose to lose what I have left of manhood merely because those fat paunches are not men - even in behalf of their women and children.” The rest looked at him for a moment. Men with many strange faces, among who were two yellow ones with slant eyes from distant Cathay; and a huge man such as none there had ever seen or could place; a man with red hair and beard and skin lighter than the rest, with a roaring voice and overbearing manner. Some kind of freak or monstrous birth, yet handy in that place, for whatever weight of mud any man there shifted, this one shifted the double. This monster stood erect and nodded, making loud and uncouth noises that seemed to signify approval.

The speaker was one they called the Joker; a small and wizened man with a wry face and a laugh for every pain. Only he was a second to the red-beard in prowess with the mud-balled shovel, and the crew had been held together as much from fear of his biting scorn as by anything they knew. They turned to again with renewed life. But the stoutest will must yield at last. The flood rose ever faster, within inches of topping. Some looked at the black cloud-swathed bulk of the merciless mountains, sending down the rolling, ever-rising waters; saw that once the dike of soft mud were breached, every man would be sucked under with it; threw away their shovels, and fled. The desertions became a stampede. At last there were left alone on the dike, Jekkara, the Joker, and the red monster. The Joker’s shovel came to rest at last. He leaned on it and silently watched. The giant followed suit. Jekkara realized, without emotion other than a great relief that the ending of sorrow was at hand, that only minutes were left to look upon the things of this world. He had followed a false path; he had failed as a chela, had failed as a teacher. At the end, he had not failed as a man, though that end be in swirling muddy waters. The red man stood, his roaring muted, seemingly lost in silent thought, perhaps of the same kind, for all Jekkara could know. Strangely, the Joker still seemed as a living man. Though quiet, his eyes remained bright, alert, watchful. Deeply interested as he looked upon the waters, but unconcerned, like one who awaited the climax of a play in the market-place.

A thin lip of water, edged with brown foam, ventured halfway across the dike. Another, thicker, followed it; a few drops trickled down on the village side. The third began a thin muddy stream that ate into the soft dike like a saw into wood. Then no more. The Joker stooped and set a twig into the water’s edge on the dike. Long minutes passed; at last visible space showed between the water and a thin line of foam on the stick that marked the highest level. The air glowed. The Joker silently pointed to the sky, where a brilliant blue patch showed over the mountains. The others heaved great signs.

The Joker’s gaze remained fixed quizzically on Jekkara’s face.

“Does that letter still puzzle you?” he asked.

Jekkara jerked violently with astonishment.

“It is a wise man,” continued the Joker, “who can discern the beginning of a testing; wiser still, who can understand the manner of it; and wisest of all, who can tell when it has come to an end.”

At that moment, the villagers, aroused simultaneously to their dreadful peril and the ending of it, came swarming on the dike with praises, and some even extended a few copper coins of appreciation. Dully, lost in a mental spin, Jekkara heard arrangements being made for a feast of thanksgiving, to which all who had worked on the dike were bidden, regardless of caste and race - though under separate sheds of course.

The Joker spoke to Jekkara: “There is better work to do elsewhere.”

He thrust his shovel into the mud and directed soggy footsteps towards the mountains, not looking back. Jekkara followed. The redbeard glanced after them, then toward the crowd bound for the feast; glanced again, then followed after Jekkara.

Last Update : January 2009
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