The convent walls were radiating cold even as they kept worse cold out. Barren and white-washed, they reminded us of the scrubbed-off purity our minds were supposed to hold after enough training. I knew there was still plenty to scrub off for me.
Master Jaophi was resting his head on his leonine paws, watching over our meditation through slit pupils. We did not question his appearance. He held deeper mysteries in these paws, behind these eyes, mysteries that transcended what we could grasp at our current pitiful stage.
Or so I told myself. Often.
To no avail. My glance flickered over his strange form even as I tried to tear it loose and back onto the walls. Scrub it off. Scrub off the questions, the defiance, kill those thoughts before curiosity kills the cat. The cat. You get it? Like the paws.
With a rumble, Master Jaophi cleared his throat. I flushed and stared harder at the walls. White. There was a growl, and I looked over. A might paw beckoned me over. I swallowed and unfolded myself to get up.
“Later,” Master Jaophi’s scratchy voice said. “See me after the meditation.”
I nodded and folded myself back up. Then I continued to contemplate the walls for another eternity while trying to scrub off the anxiety, but my nerves were only raw and frayed from the exercise.
When the time came at last, I approached Master Jaophi, who looked down at me with those wise cat-like eyes.
“You are curious,” he said.
While I was still wondering what the less wrong answer was, he continued.
“I have a task for you. We shall see if you can temper your spirit. This could be your chance of gaining further insight, but for that you will have to forsake that which you will naturally want.”
I did not sigh. Ever since my parents had given me to this convent as a youth, that had described my entire education. I did not sigh. I nodded.
“Good,” said the raspy voice. “Go to the basement and find a wooden box in the wine shelf. Its contents are as forbidden as the wine. It is a constant reminder of temptation and that which we give up voluntarily for a higher goal.”
Wondering what the purpose of this exercise was, I nodded slowly. “Shall I bring it to you?”
“No.” There was an odd smile on our master’s face. “There’s no need. Just take it, and hold it in your hands. Set it down on the shrine at the other side of the room.” His smile widened, and these feline eyes flickered. “Then leave it alone and go to bed.”
I decided I could do that. I had resisted many things for the sake of this so-called enlightenment. I could place a box from one surface to another.
“You think that is easy.” Master Jaophi’s voice startled me. “Wine does not tempt you. You are too far evolved for that. What this box holds is the secret to my form. Even I must not look at it.” He smiled that smile again. “Do you still think you can do this for me?”
Shivering, surely from the late winter cold, I nodded.
Soon after, I was down in the convent’s basement looking around in the candle light. Indeed, there was the wine shelf. And indeed, there was a wooden box in it amidst the bottles. A box even Master Jaophi was forbidden access to. This was what he did. He resisted. He forsook that which he must surely want, for the sake of higher enlightenment. Perhaps if I grew in awareness as him, I would gain such wisdom, such discipline, such slit pupils, and such paws. Or perhaps he was only able to be this way because of that form. Perhaps he was none of us. Never had been. I looked around me and closed the door to the staircase. It was cool down here. A draught would not be good.
I approached the shelf. I turned around. There, on the other end of the room, was indeed a small shrine with a large empty space in the middle that could hold the box.
I arrived at the shelf and picked up the wooden box. It was rough beneath my fingers. I hoped I would not get a splinter from it. A splinter when really one wanted insight. But I really wanted a different kind of insight, and for that I would forsake that which I wanted at this moment.
I carried the quite heavy box over to the shrine and put it down.
That which I wanted. The insight. The insight that had been forced upon me since before I could decide on these things. That would have my mind scrubbed clean and raw and frayed as a price.
I was all alone in this room. Nobody would ever know.
Or perhaps he would know. This was an exercise of will, of restraint, of discipline. Perhaps there was a hair tying the lid to the box, perhaps there would be something splattering the contents and creating a mess, perhaps something mystical that would make a hideous noise or alert Master Jaophi telepathically – who even knew what he was capable of, what he was?
And if I failed? What would happen, would I be expelled? Surely a tragedy. It would only be the first choice I made in my life.
I opened the lid.
Nothing snapped, nothing broke, and nothing spilled or made noises. What had been the purpose then?
I placed the lid on the side and peered inside.
Dust and bones. I could not make out what they were of. I shivered. This time it was definitely not from the cold. What was going on here?
While I was at it, there was no reason for restraint now, was there? My fingertips brushed the dust. It was dust. Underwhelming. And yet… There was a suspicious set of little thin bones… human finger bones? I laid my hand against it. As if in gentle contemplation. As I was taught. It was quite different from a paw, wasn’t it? I slowly pried at the bones, then I dug deeper.
My hand reached something larger, even, curved at the top. It was a skull, wasn’t it? The box lit up in an eerie red light, smoke formed, and the dust came splashing out at me before I could react.
I was stunned. Belatedly, I pulled back my hand and wiped the dust off my face. And stared at the spectacle that laid itself out before me.
The smoke and dust rose up until a tall human form covered by a hooded robe looked down on me from atop the shrine, lit in red from below.
I took several steps backwards but still faced the creature. Looking back, I don’t know why I didn’t run. Perhaps it was the peculiar way we react to shock. Or perhaps my mind had been scrubbed too clean to muster fright now.
The figure laughed. So it could produce sounds. So now the box made noises. And there was quite a mess here, too, now. All that dust. I broke into laughter along with the creature that had risen from the bones.
“Good,” the creature said at last. “Good, mortal. At last I find one.” His voice resembled Master Jaophi’s without the rasp in it. “You freed me of your own accord. At last one of you sheep finds me and digs up my bones of his own free will. I thought it would never happen.”
I contained my laughter at last, with some effort. Nothing is as funny as that which is inopportune at a time of shock. I swallowed. “Master Jaophi, I suppose?”
“Good. You still know whom you serve. Are you pleased with your insight? Although I suppose you won’t want what follows.”
Now the panic struck me, but of course it was too late. As my heart clenched and my breath became forced, the Master Jaophi from the dust looked around. Then he peered at me. He probably peered into my eyes, but all I saw was darkness and swirling dust under that hood.
“I will be generous once, my student. Run for a day and a night. For you have helped me. Then I will commence my work here. You shall be spared, and you shall remember me.”
I could have done many heroic things. Some suicidal things. Honourable things to contain this thing that I had freed, to try to avert the destruction I had brought upon my temple and my world. But I didn’t. I listened, and paid my respect, and ran for a day and a night.
In the white-washed wasteland that we live in, resources are scarce, but a modest living is possible. We are those who remember, and who carry on the word so that the chain of remembrance will not be broken. Belatedly, the terrors have set in and haunt my nights, and I wish I could scrub my mind clean like raw white temple walls, but it stays alive and filled in brilliant red and swirling dust, solid and noisy like bones rattling between my fingertips. When I look into the mirror, haunted eyes look back at me. Sometimes I think my pupils are growing narrower. But my sight only improves.