THE MAKING OF A PILLOW TO AWAKEN THE SENSES
During the nether hours, when respectable men were sleeping, the three-legged kitten began to mewl from inside the temple’s toolshed. A sound so faint and eerie, its keening might have been mistaken for a lingering nightmare or the wailing of a lonesome spirit. But the Reverend Father was neither asleep nor a believer in disembodied apparitions.
The tiny, maimed creature fit in his cupped palm and, after lapping up a saucer of milk, fell into a purring slumber in the hammock of the Reverend Father’s saffron robe.
Had the novice monk defied the Reverend Father’s command to care for the scrawny, wobbly animal, or was the ten-year-old boy just slow? The corrugated-iron toolshed, so cool in the evening, would roast a pullet by midday. The Reverend Father wanted to yank the boy off the sleeping mat he shared with the other five novices and reprimand him right then and there.
“Ah,” the Reverend Father said in a quiet tone to avoid disturbing the kitten, “so this is why I’ve been given the gift of sleeplessness.”
Most presumed it was impossible to vex a Buddhist monk the age and stature of Phra Racha Khana Chan Rong Somdet Thammaseri. Eighty-seven years old, the Reverend Father had accepted alms from prime ministers and the military dictators who periodically replaced them. He had been called upon to bless high-rise hotels and back-alley noodle stands. And it was the Reverend Father’s famed equanimity that led to his ouster from the Supreme Sangha Council.
No one would have blamed the Reverend Father had he chosen not to support the Council’s decision to strip the monastic robes from his longtime mentor, the Deputy of Buddhist Education. The Deputy had plucked the Reverend Father from obscurity, publicized his work with prisoners, and promoted him up through the ranks of the organizational hierarchy. All agreed, however, that the Reverend Father shouldn’t have responded the way he did to the public outrage over the Deputy of Buddhist Education’s involvement in yet another monkhood sex scandal.
Asked by a television reporter what lesson should be drawn from the revelation of an affair between a venerated monk and a go-go dancer more than sixty years his junior, the Reverend Father answered, “Daily meditation has a salubrious effect on blood circulation.”
The video clip of the remark—one the Reverend Father viewed as a mere factual observation—swept across the Internet. Commentators opined that if the Buddhist leadership demonstrated such casual disdain for the precept against sexual misconduct, surely the Order was too corrupt to police itself.
The Reverend Father lost his position as the entirely ornamental abbot of a shady royal temple in Bangkok. He was posted to a decrepit village temple in his home province and tasked with rebuilding an irrigation system and ordaining as novitiates a gaggle of AIDS orphans better suited to committing petty crime than learning dead languages.
“Why leave life seated,” he told colleagues who bemoaned his fate, “when one can still walk?” The Reverend Father hadn’t, however, intended to depart life wide awake, at least not in an entirely physiological sense.
The Reverend Father hadn’t slept for twenty-one days. And contrary to the advice of his peers, meditation was not an adequate substitute. What began as a heightened awareness of raindrops harmonizing became an inability to filter the everyday from the extraordinary. When a villager swatted a mosquito, it felt as if a piece of his skin had been nipped off. He couldn’t pass the local market for the stench of dead chickens, pigs, and fish.
His supporters referred to enlightenment, his detractors to his sins. Most suspected dementia. As for the Reverend Father, he attempted to cultivate thankfulness for the unfamiliar sensation of exasperation.
Many laypeople presume a Buddhist abbot’s life is spent primarily in contemplation. That may be true for hermits who forage for fallen fruit and meditate within the stillness of ancient ruins. It was not the case for the Reverend Father, who, in between service projects, confiscated Gameboys and lectured teenaged novices about the inappropriateness of staring at young women’s blouses.
Today’s drama was the disappearance of the three-legged kitten’s caretaker, who was absent from their barefoot walk to receive alms at dawn. At mid-morning the Reverend Father dispatched the novices to explore the riverbanks and ditches, all the while suppressing a superstitious dread that his unquiet thoughts had driven the boy away. Alone on the grounds, he ducked beneath yellow tape to explore the temple hall, which was closed for renovations.
The novices used the closed temple as a toy chest, something the Reverend Father feigned ignorance about. Comic books, board games, and Matchbox cars were tucked beneath drop cloths, hidden in scaffolding.
Not all precepts are created equal, he told himself. How could he teach non-attachment to children who had never had something or someone to attach to in the first place? But if the boy had fallen off a ladder and snapped his neck, it would be because the Reverend Father deprecated rules that encouraged embracing reality and rejecting fantasy.
The Reverend Father cradled the kitten to his chest, stroking its fur like a talisman, and called out for the boy. There was no reply.
Distracted, relieved, he left the cool darkness of the temple for the sunlight outside and nearly ran headlong into an elderly woman who was climbing the steps. Her slender arms hugged a puffy, quilted pillow. The near transgression of skin-to-skin contact startled them both.
It had been years since the Reverend Father had been this close to a woman. He could smell coconut oil in her hair—an old-woman smell. Anyone under fifty used store-bought shampoo and conditioner.
The matron recovered her composure first. “I’m looking for Phra Racha Khana Chan Rong … Chan Rong Som … Chan Maha …” she said. “May I call you Reverend Father?”
“You may call me Shorty,” he said. “If you permit me to call you Lulu.”
Her face creased in a smile. “You never told me why your nickname was ‘Shorty.’ You’ve never been short.”
“But you are a Lulu,” he said. “Truly a Lulu.”
Middle-class men are no longer called into the monkhood for more than a ceremonial week or two. They prefer to text each other on smartphones about how materialism is rotting our collective soul. The monkhood is now a refuge for those, like the novitiate monks under the Reverend Father’s instruction, who have no better alternatives. Their parents are dead or drug addicts, their sisters sit behind retail counters or never return from the city. Most novitiates leave before full ordination to catch up on the gaming and whoring they missed in their youth.
In his twenties, the Reverend Father was driven to renounce pleasures of the flesh neither by spirituality nor by necessity. He had—rashly, naively, futilely—given up his worldly possessions to spite a young woman nicknamed Lulu.
The august Reverend Father was once an awkward college student on scholarship who hadn’t the life experience to recognize that a young woman as vivacious and popular as Lulu was using him primarily as a means of boosting her grades. He never fit in with her arty, privileged friends who muttered profanities and denounced the king while receiving money from home. He was just thankful to be the one to walk her back to the women’s dormitory at night, the two of them arguing about rural land reform or her questionable taste in popular music.
Shorty hadn’t meant to “catch” Lulu doing anything wrong. He hadn’t the right; they weren’t dating. But he had been given a pair of movie tickets and wanted her to join him. Lulu was supposed to be studying off-campus with four or five classmates at Primi’s rented house.
It was a hot day and Primi, shirtless, tried on some pretext to stop him from passing through the front door. Just then, Lulu exited the bedroom, freshly showered and wrapped in a sarong.
Lulu tried to act as if nothing had happened, but Shorty couldn’t bear to chitchat with the two of them, wondering if their naked limbs had been entangled on the very cushions he sat upon. When Primi left to use the restroom, Shorty wanted to blurt out that he could offer more than slow smothering on a futon. He would hand her his life.
In silence, they leaned into one another, close enough to feel each other exhale. They blinked. He left without offering to walk Lulu back to campus.
That night he took a bus into the heart of the city and drank a bottle of whisky alone at a sidewalk restaurant. Drunk, red-faced, and nauseous he walked into a neighboring brothel and pointed to a weary young woman whose dark skin was powdered into a white mask. She splayed herself naked on a cot. Through the thin walls, he heard grunts and creaking springs.
“Are you going to do it?” she said after a few moments.
He shook his head.
“You’re still going to pay,” she said.
The next morning, Lulu didn’t drop by on the way to the library. That afternoon, he had his head shaven and entered the monastery. He’d meant to remain in the Order only until his mind stopped racing. He still hadn’t left after sixty-five years. And this was the first time he’d seen Lulu since.
He sat on a dais and she sat on the ground, legs tucked primly beneath her. They began with stories about old classmates, most of whom were dead, and time folded back onto itself.
The Reverend Father and this dowager, Shorty and Lulu, they both had lived lives of service in their own ways.
He had been the foster father to countless abandoned boys who, regardless of the callousness they’d experienced as babes, wound up doing more good than harm.
She had been the mother to five children, had lost her two-year old daughter to a fever, and had discovered only at her husband’s cremation that he had another wife and children. Setting aside her humiliation, Lulu realized that she’d long ago fallen out of love with her husband, so she welcomed into the family these interlopers who loved him still. When Lulu’s son and his wife moved to Saudi Arabia for work, Lulu raised their two children. When her granddaughter became a single mother and moved to a factory dormitory in Bangkok, Lulu reared her great grandson as well.
“If given a choice,” she said, “of whether to be reborn or not, I would choose not. Life is too hard.”
Lulu’s long tresses, white with only hints of black, were swept into a practical bun. Yet the strands retained a glossy sheen, a luminescence. As they stared at one another, the Reverend Father was vexed by longing, years after he’d presumed his physical desires had been extinguished.
Lulu crawled forward and extended the pillow up to him. It would have been more proper for him to use a receiving cloth to guard against inadvertent contact. To his great disappointment, their fingertips did not brush.
The Reverend Father held the kitten in one hand and turned the pillow over in his other. The cushion had been quilted from countless scraps of material. Flowers here and there, as well as stripes and butterflies and dinosaurs and polka dots in red and orange and purple.
“When I read of your predicament,” she said, “I began to stitch this. Over the years, I’ve sewn many quilts—swaddling for infants, engagement gifts, blankets for sick friends. In this pillow, I quilted together the scraps of my life. An unimportant one, to be sure, but mine nonetheless.”
The Reverend Father ran his fingers across the patchwork quilt, tracing the coarse and the smooth, noting the blues faded into white set next to burnt crimson. A sourness trickled into his throat. None of the fabrics represented their time together. She was gifting to him leftovers in lieu of a life.
“A pillow fit for a king,” he said, “should not be possessed by a pauper.”
The Reverend Father put the pillow down. He pulled the three-legged kitten back before it could clamber onto the cushion. It clung to his wrist as he gestured with his hands.
“A monk’s pillow may be no larger than yay-long and yay-thick. The infirm are permitted cotton batting, but I prefer straw. A layperson’s pillow comforts the body. A monk’s pillow must awaken the senses.”
“Surely one’s senses cannot be awakened unless the spirit is refreshed,” she said.
The Reverend Father shook his head. “A man cannot awaken to the world without experiencing its suffering.”
Lulu studied his face. They had returned to that stifling afternoon sixty-five years earlier. They blinked. As time passes, not only our cartilage ossifies.
“I apologize for having troubled you, Reverend Father,” she said. “Perhaps it will fetch a good price at the market. Please sell it and donate the proceeds to the temple’s education fund.”
The Reverend Father watched the taxi carrying Lulu cross the bridge over the river. Shortly after, at midday, a village elder brought the ten-year old novice back to the temple grounds. The boy’s robes were soiled, but his face was freshly washed. His countenance was downcast until he noticed the Reverend Father holding the three-legged kitten in his hands.
When the boy had awoken that morning, he’d worked himself into a frenzy over having lost the kitten. He’d gone to the riverbank and spied something floating in the water. He’d waded in waist deep before getting caught by the current and recalling that he couldn’t swim.
The Reverend Father sat beside the novice on the temple steps. They watched the kitten leap after a cricket, fall down, scrabble up on its three legs, then try again. The novice nodded obediently during the Reverend Father’s lecture about the harm that would have befallen the kitten had it remained in the toolshed.
At last the boy exclaimed, “But you said, ‘No animals in the sleeping quarters.’ She never would have survived the stray dogs who root through the trash at night.”
“Listen to me closely,” the Reverend Father said. “If you are presented with a choice between preserving a flea and obeying my rules, choose the flea.”
“Yes, Reverend Father,” said the boy.
The Reverend Father had intended to give the pillow to a needy family. But nearly every family in the village qualified as needy, and he didn’t relish being accused of favoritism. The plump pillow preened upon a shelf above his spare robes and towel.
When the Reverend Father laid his head down on Lulu’s quilted cushion, every stitch and seam pressed into his cheek. Outside his window insects droned in a bush he’d meant to remove then left in place because its dark, verdant growth was the domicile of so many invisible creatures. In the distance, two dogs fought or mated, he wasn’t sure which. When the Reverend Father inhaled he discerned the faint aroma of coconut oil and perspiration. The pillow had not only been quilted, it had been used. He burrowed his nose into the downy warmth, wanting to suffocate in that earthy, intimate mélange, the delicate oblivion of her hair wrapped around his face.