Sunday, 6 April 2008

wind and snow

The wind blows through the meditation hall. Haku shivers as it sneaks through his ragged cotton robe, finding the gaps and chinks that have become exposed since he last tightened and tucked it. In the fading light the figure of the Buddha seems to growl at him, making him feel guilty about nothing in particular, and he bends back to his task of shuffling the broom quickly across the floor. The old master will be returning soon, back from his visit to the town, hopefully carrying some scraps of food to supplement the small amount of rice they have left.

There is the scent of snow in the air. Haku had never considered snow to have much of a smell before moving to this temple. The old buildings seem to catch and amplify the weather as though the rotten timbers know what is coming and reflect it inwards.

Haku sighs with the wind and opens the door, brushing the assembled pile of dust out even as a gust catches it and drives much of it back inside. His stomach grumbles. He heaves the broom onto his shoulder and pulls the door tight. He walks to the cupboard and stows it away, bowing to it with a reflex gratitude that does not disturb his poor mood. Then he picks up his cushion and moves to the side of the room. He sits cross-legged, facing away from the Buddha but aware of his presence, and mumbles a short prayer before beginning his meditation.

The darkness grows deeper and the wind picks up its rattles and punches. Haku tightens his robe in an attempt to close off access for the cold but he does not dare start a fire or light a candle until the master is back. He tries to bring his focus back to his breathing and to ignore the thoughts that bubble up in complaint.

He wakes with a start. The numbness of sitting is compounded with the cold reaching into his limbs. The room is completely black and he can see nothing. The wind has died down to be replaced with the quiet shuffle of snow. He has no idea of the time but he knows that the master should be back by now. He unfolds his legs slowly, massaging blood and warmth back into them as he does, and it is a minute or two before he feels able to stand. He moves to the door, stamping his feet against the wooden floor. Outside thick leaves of snow flutter in the strange half-light of the storm. Haku slips his shoes on and crunches his way to the master's small room. Inside it is dark but there is a delicate warmth after being outside. Shivering, Haku lights a candle and inspects the sparse room. The master is not here and his bed is undisturbed. Frowning he looks around to the desk. There is a piece of paper there, neatly tied with a length of string and with Haku's name written along its length.

Shaking with more than cold Haku places the candle carefully on the desk and picks up the scroll. He slips the string from the end and carefully unwinds the paper. In the flickering light be reads the short message.

"I am dead. The temple is now under your care."

The message is signed and stamped by the master. He must have known before he left that he would not return. Haku slumps into the downwards to the stool. He reads the message again. Tears begin to form in his eyes. The old man had been fractious but he looked after Haku after his parents had died, sparing him the draft in the frequent local wars.

Haku stands up again, quickly, and resolves to head out to find his master's body. He tucks the scroll into his shirt and quickly heads back to the meditation hall. Overhead the flutter of an owl causes snow to tumble from a branch. Haku feels a flash of nervousness but he cannot stop now. Back in the hall he ties on his hat, finds a lantern and, lighting it, hooks it onto a walking staff. Contained by a snow globe of light, chanting the sutra for the dead, he heads out along the path to the town.

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