Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Old Friends Long Forgot

I was very greatly surprised to meet those two on the road: a man and a woman, seemingly young, with one's hair colored azure and the other's violet. Their reputation was known to me, as notorious malcontents and villains; seeing them in the flesh, still seemingly as young as in their photographs from years ago, I deduced (in a flash of intuition) them to be oni, evil spirits, and leapt back in alarm.

 "Stand back!" I cried. "My guardians wait ready at my side. I come prepared for trouble - "

 But they only laughed, much to my mortification, and walked forward. "There's a good coffee place nearby," the man said. "Let's talk there," the woman suggested.

 The coffee was quite strong; I took mine dark. "What do you want with me?" I asked them. (The man was stirring in cube after cube of sugar into his coffee; the woman seemed content to nurse a glass of ice water.) "If you're trying to get me involved in one of your schemes - " I touched my hand to my belt.

 But again the woman laughed, a deep, full-throated chortle. "If only, if only!" she said. "We haven't had a good scheme in years. If you know anyone - but no. That's too much to ask, on first acquaintance. I won't repeat the question."

 I felt increasingly out-of-place; but I hadn't finished my coffee, and I had the distinct impression that they were paying. "I'm not complaining," I said perhaps somewhat untruthfully, "but I seem to have missed the question entirely. And I'm more than a little confused. You say you haven't been plotting anything for years - but why? I'd heard you were opposed, rivaled - did they defeat you? - "

 "Entirely the opposite," the man said, his voice distracted. His coffee was, I supposed, more sugar than water at this point. "They left."

 "They... left?" I parroted, bewildered.

 "They travelled to the Golden Lands of the West, which we know not," the woman explained. "And so we had no reason left to scheme."

 Feeling a headache growing, I motioned the waitress over with a hand, drained the remainder of my cup with one long swallow, and ordered another. I looked up.

 "Why don't you start from the beginning?" I suggested.

 "In the beginning, there was nothing," the man intoned solemnly. "Then the Svayambhu entered into being, and caused there to be a seed - "

 "Not that beginning," the woman chided gently, reaching out to give him a gentle slap on the arm. Sugar cubes spilled onto the table. "Our beginning."

 The man seemed confused. "Conception?" he asked. "The womb? The second would be pretty boring, I think, and the first is probably a poor story to tell in a public space - "

 "No, fool!" the woman said. "The beginning of the team!"

 "Oh," the man said. "Isn't that the same as the first story? But I suppose if you only want me to focus on immediate causes, I can skip ahead a little:

 "Once, many years ago, there was a great disturbance in the world. The trees thrashed to and fro as though caught in a great wind; the dwellings of men trembled, as they so often do. Even the tall mountains in which the sages make their homes shook with the magnitude of the event; and so one of them, who had committed himself less firmly to the severing of all ties between spirit and flesh, rose and looked down upon the land.

 "'What is this thing?' he asked. 'What sources this great trembling, that reaches even to the root of the world?'

 "'A Wheel-Turning King has arisen!' the land told him, crying out in joyous ecstasy. 'A Wheel-Turning Dharma-Defying King, to make an end to this cycle of the world! Rejoice, rejoice!

 "But this sage was skeptical. Turning to a swallow resting on a nearby branch, he told it, 'Go forth, and summon your friends to do likewise. Find this 'Wheel-Turning King', and make evaluation of his character. Then return to me.'

 "And it was so; in one day's time, the swallows returned, and swirled around the sage in great numbers. They cried out, 'This boy is no Wheel-Turning King! He is feckle-careless-naive-ignorant-careless-immature - ' these words and a hundred others piling together as the swallows complained. And the sage listened to all of this, and considered.

 "'He is certainly a Wheel-Turning King,' the sage concluded, 'but at present, not a very good one. I will train him.' So the sage descended from the mountain, and the power of this choice brought forth two spirits from the earth, to help him. The sage named the first spirit James, and the second Jessie - "

 "That's us, if you'd lost track," the woman said.

 (And as well that she did - I had lost track, by this time.)

 "Together we found him, this young 'Wheel-Turning King'," the blue-haired man - James - continued. "And together, by our sage-master's will, we conspired to torment him."

 "Hold on just one second," I said, frowning. My cup was empty again. I ordered another. "So your sage finds about some guy, this messianic figure, whatever. And you torture him? What the hell?"

 "Torture is too strong a word," James demurred. He took a sip of his coffee, frowned, stuck out his tongue in a moe of disgust. Jessie took over the explanation.

 "Strength is a product of adversity," she explained. "You gain physical strength by contending with physical opposition - struggling with weights to lift them into the air, struggling with pedals to push a bike up a hill. As with the body, so with the soul: we served as the weights upon the boy's soul."

 "And you complain about my phrasing?" James asked.

 This accounting of events was very different from those I had heard. "But weren't you - y'know, a bit evil?" I asked. "Lying, stealing, blowing things up..."

 "Our evil was a cartoon evil," Jesse said. "Fake. No-one ever really suffered any harm from our actions; we did what we did only to challenge the boy and his friends - to force them to change, to adapt. In the end, our greatest hope was that they would grow beyond our plots, and see us for what we really were."

 I rubbed my forehead. "Here, I'll sum it up for you," James volunteered kindly. "In the end, all of our plots and schemes and subtle machinations were intended towards one purpose. To push young Ash, the Wheel-Turning King, to do one thing:


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