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Chapter Twenty- Seven
"Where am I?" Wake yelled as he jolted to his feet.
Upon waking up, he cracked open his eyelids to alien surroundings. Where there had once been ocean and forest there were only stone walls. He had been lying on a soft bed instead of the root-filled ground he remembered. Instead of ashy, grey remnants of a bonfire, there was a fragile vase of colorful flowers he didn't recognize. Strangest of all, directly across from him, a bald man in orange robes sat cross-legged on a straw mat while calmly sipping tea.
"Ah," sighed the man, "it is nice to see you well-rested. You were asleep for quite some time."
"Who are you?" demanded Wake. "Where are Hunter and Grace? What is going on?"
The man in orange robes ignored Wake's outburst, and instead, delicately poured a second cup of tea along with his own.
"Here," he said as he offered the cup to Wake, "have some calming jasmine tea. The herbs and minerals are very good for your - "
"I don't need any calming tea!" Wake seethed, his voice laden with anger and confusion. "I want to know what you've done with my friends, I want to know where I am, and I want you to explain all of this to me right now."
"Your friends are fine," the man in orange robes brushed aside Wake's conniption. "In fact, the young lady is currently taking a stroll on the temple grounds. She had been making sure you were okay ever since you arrived last night. I saw how tired she was, and I offered to relieve her for a while. I am sure the osprey-dove is flying around somewhere, such a lively one he is."
All of this information passed through Wake's mind like sand through a sieve.
"Wait, you said I arrived last night. Where exactly am I?"
The man in orange robes finished his tea and placed the cup on a small table.
"Why, this is the Eastern Temple, of course."
Everything began to make sense to Wake. The mountains, the wind, the forest, all of the sights and sounds collided perfectly together to form the visions of the stories he used to read. He had imagined the Eastern Temple countless times while lying awake in the back of the boat as it rocked back-and-forth during the night. He didn't really know what it would be like when he arrived. Part of him never believed he'd arrive at all. When the man in the orange robes spoke the words, he could scarcely believe them to be true.
The autumn light filtering through the stone window, the curvature of the room, and the softness of the invisible wind: he regarded all of these things as figments of a half-remembered dream. The only thing that grounded him back to reality was the eternally calm man in orange robes who moved to stand up. Wake watched, frozen and puzzled, as the man unwound from his cross-legged position and approached him with unexpected grace.
"I am Monk Sidd," said the man with a slight nod of his head.
Wake acknowledged the man, but at the same time, he couldn't keep his eyes from inching their way towards the open window. Outside, the midday sun shone brightly in the clear, blue sky. For miles and miles, rusty forest stretched to the horizon where the skyline meets the world. The spires of other towers of the Eastern Temple stood in silent solitude. The monk's voice, once again, caused Wake to resurface to the present.
"It may be hard for you to believe all that has happened," said Monk Sidd in between natural laughter. "I assume your new surroundings must overwhelming and difficult to take in, but I urge you that I, and the rest of my people, are here to help and serve you as our honored guest."
Wake ran a hand through his thick, dark hair that had grown long. For a moment, he closed his eyes. In the quiet of his mind, he regained his usual focus. His emotions balanced. He accepted this new knowledge with an open heart and an open mind. In that brief instant, he adapted to the overwhelming change he had been presented with. When he reopened his eyes, he viewed his surroundings with striking precision. No longer was he shocked or confused, but levelheaded, intuitive, and calculating as usual.
For the first time, he spoke calmly.
"Monk Sidd, it is an honor to meet you," he said while nodding the crown of his head in return. "I'm sorry for my behavior just now. Like you said, I was a bit shocked and confused, but I think I understand now."
"Grace, Hunter, and I traveled across the ocean for many weeks in search of the Eastern Mountains. I thought there might be people here, but I was never completely sure. You have no idea how glad I am to see you."
"As I am glad to see you as well," replied the monk with a mysterious look in his eye.
For a moment, he examined Wake with a look that was neither passive nor piercing. He looked through Wake with a perception both clear and nonjudgmental. As quickly as he looked at Wake, he looked towards the open doorway.
"Outside of this room to the end of the hallway, there is a place where you may bathe and clean yourself," he said as he directed with his hands.
"Sorry," said Wake. "I know I smell terrible."
With a comical grin, Monk Sidd continued, "By the looks of it, you have not bathed properly in quite some time. Clean body is just as vital as clean thought. Once you have cleansed both body and mind, feel free to return to this room. Then, we will eat and converse."
Wake passed by the odd monk in orange robes. Even as Wake exited the room, Monk Sidd smiled strangely as if he knew some kind of secret.
Once Wake was out of the monk's earshot, he let out a sigh.
"Okay, that was really weird," he muttered to himself.
Warm water soaked through his wild, black hair, and droplets slid like tears over his bare skin. The cracks and canyons of his broken skin absorbed the moisture gleefully. The last time he had taken a hot bath was over a month ago, maybe longer. Outside the Old Man's hut, he had boiled seawater in a tin bucket, waited for it to cool a bit, and then drenched himself.
That bath had lasted for the entirety of one second. The water had soaked him from head-to-toe, formed a pool of mud on the ground, and left him cold and dripping wet in the open air. Here, in the safety of the Eastern Temple, Wake marveled at how the water ceaselessly spouted from hundreds of tiny holes drilled into the stone. Not only that, but the water was invigorating, hot, and it tasted sweet, not salty. Only days ago, he had sat crunched into a ball in the back of the boat on the verge of death from dehydration. Now, he felt more alive and refreshed than ever.
He opened his mouth wide and let the drops pelt the back of his throat. He drank until he was no longer thirsty. After growing tired of standing, he slid to a seat and leaned against the slippery stone wall. Water continued to shower from above, and as it contacted the stone tiles, it misted up into hot steam. Wake could barely see through the thick fog, but he didn't care. He could physically feel the warmth opening his pores and the subsequent alleviation of sweat, dirt, and stress that had been trapped for so long.
For a long time, he sat alone under the pouring water. The pattering of the drops against the stone created an everlasting rain that drowned out all other noises and numbed his mind. He breathed in the steam. Once inside him, the hot air soothed his inner spirit.
He closed his eyes and enjoyed the unfamiliar feeling of being at peace.
He was alive.
Hunter and Grace were safe.
They made it.
Now he understood why Monk Sidd wore an orange robe: it was ridiculously comfortable.
He found a neatly folded orange robe waiting outside the shower room. Without a second thought, he ditched his old, faded pants and, after a solid twenty minutes of experimenting, figured out how to put on the robe. It was his first time wearing silk.
When he returned to his room, Monk Sidd was there, sitting across from a low table decorated with all kinds of fruits and vegetables, most of which Wake had never seen before. Upon seeing this, his stomach immediately grumbled, churned, and twisted into a sailor's knot. He had been deprived from eating a proper meal for weeks, and he couldn't even remember the last time he had a meal consisting of something other than fish.
"Please," said Sidd, "join me for a meal and conversation."
Without hesitation, Wake took his seat across from his host. He surveyed the elaborate selection of food that lay before him. His eyes flashed greedily as he moved to snatch the most mouth-watering thing he could find.
The monk's hand lashed out in a blink-of-an-eye and grabbed Wake's wrist before he could lay a finger on the food. Wake looked up in utter shock. The monk glared directly at him, his hand still squeezing Wake's wrist.
"First, we pray," said the monk seriously. "Second, we eat."
Wake recoiled back into his seat. An air of silence passed between them. Then, in an unwavering voice, Monk Sidd began his prayer:
"This food is the gift of the whole universe. Each morsel is a sacrifice of life. May I be worthy to receive it."
"May the energy in this food give me the strength to transform my unwholesome qualities into wholesome ones."
"I am grateful for this food. May I realize the path of awakening for the sake of all beings."
After finishing his prayer, Sidd closed his eyes for a brief moment as to ponder each and every word and its meaning. He opened his eyes and smiled.
"Now you may eat."
Once again, Wake spared no time. He filled his plate with as much food as he could. Red berries, pink berries, some kind of vegetable that looked like a green egg, rice, fruit with woody skin and soft, tender flesh underneath: all of it went on his plate. Each food was a new discovery. All kinds of tastes filled his mouth. Fruits ranged from sweet to sour to tart to mildly spicy. Some vegetables were leafy, others turgid.
Each time something new snapped and exploded in flavor, his tongue remembered more and more what it felt like to taste. For so long, he had been forced to eat whatever fish was dumb enough to fall victim to Hunter or his fishing spear. Most of his catches had been small, spiny, and mostly bone. The fruits and vegetables washed away the taste of steely blood that lingered in the back of his throat.
All the while, Monk Sidd watched the strange traveler with keen perception. When Wake could finally eat no more, he pushed his plate away from him and sighed in contentment. The entire time, Monk Sidd had not touched a single morsel of food.
The monk stood up, took a deep breath, and calmly made his way to the shelves on the other side of the room. There, he gathered a few candles and some type of stick that Wake didn't recognize. When he returned, he placed the candles in an arc between Wake and himself. He crushed the small, thin stick between his fingers and let the fine powder fall to the base of each candlewick.
The waning rays of sun glowed deep red and orange as they faded into the night. They reminded Wake of the last breaths of the bonfire from the night before. He knew the moon would soon rise and darkness would fall. Still, nothing could deter him from watching Monk Sidd.
The monk took a different type of stick between his index finger and thumb. This stick was also thin, but on one end it was wrapped with a dark material. In a single, blinding motion, the monk swept the stick along the stone floor, and the tip ignited into a brightly burning flame. The fire danced in Wake's eyes as the monk lit each candle one-by-one. As the smoke wafted into the crisp, autumn air, Wake could smell a sweet, earthy aroma.
"The smell is incense made from the bark of the agar tree," explained Sidd, reading Wake's mind.
As Wake breathed the incense, his nerves calmed, and at the same time, he achieved a sharp level of focus. He could feel the night awakening all around him. Just like during the previous night, he could hear the slightest disturbances, minute noises.
"The incense purifies the unclean air around us," said Sidd. "When the air is clear and uncontaminated, we are able to think freely without obstacles."
He gestured to the candles. "The flames represent the balance of mind and body in tune with the spirit of all things."
The room darkened invisibly as the sun set beneath the miles and miles of forest. Shadows flickered against the curved stone walls of the circular room. Strangely, everything centered on the tiny lights resting between the monk and the traveler. Wake could feel the noises and movements around him quelling along with the darkness as the atmosphere zoned in on him. He fell into the flames and the melting wax; he could not peel his eyes from them. Monk Sidd's voice caressed his ears like a gentle breeze, rising and falling with the currents. Even so, Wake heard every single word perfectly and clearly. It was as if he could perceive everything and nothing at the same time, all at once.
"Do you know why you are here?" asked Sidd.
Wake's eyes reflected the intensity of the brightly burning flames. His expression remained stoic and unchanged.
"I'm here because I chose to sail East in search of a place to stay. I heard legends of people living in the clouds, and it was the only thing I had to go by. You see, I -"
"No," the monk interjected. "Do you know why you are here?"
Wake glanced away from the candles.
"I don't know," he stammered. "I don't know what you mean."
"Destiny," said the monk. "Destiny brought you to this place. Destiny brought me to face you from the other side of these candles. Destiny causes the leaves to change as the air takes on the first breaths of frost."
Across the dim light of the candles, Wake sat quietly. He didn't know how to respond.
"You are here because it is your destiny to be here."
The monk closed his eyes and breathed in the incense. In the obscure darkness, he seemed both old and young at the same time. Wake barely noticed his orange robes or the lack of hair on his head. His mind did not register the way the monk sat cross-legged or how his hands folded neatly between his legs. Instead, all Wake could see was the monk's voice. He spoke with a combination of calm, intensity, and purpose that was overwhelming yet passive.
"Earlier, you asked me who I am, and I told you my name," said the monk. "Does this name 'Sidd' really illustrate my identity to you? Because you learned this name I told you, do you now understand all that I have been in the past, all that I currently am, and all unknown things that I will be?"
Wake grinned in the darkness. In that one question, he now perceived the man in orange robes in a completely different way.
"I know nothing about you," said Wake. "All I know is your orange robes and your bald head. Maybe you made that delicious food yourself, maybe you didn't. I don't even know if what I think I know about you is the truth or not."
The monk's eyes twinkled from across the silent space.
"Very good, Wake. You have accepted the reality that you know nothing about me. Ever since we first met at the moment you awakened, you have been filling the blank slate that is 'Monk Sidd' with your own perception and experiences. In doing this, knowingly or unknowingly, you have mastered the first lesson of identity. By thinking one knows another person before one truly knows them, one taints the reality of whom the person actually is; only by admitting that one knows nothing can one truly understand the intricacies of another."
The monk looked directly at Wake.
"It is so easy to get caught in the current of life. We meet people, let others go, and try our best to find our own paths. It is so easy to get lost in the process of looking forward that we forget to look back, glance around, and examine exactly who we are in the present."
"Wake, if I may ask you this question," said the monk.
"Who do you think you are?"
Silenced passed over the room. In the shadows, Wake sat still like stone. When he finally spoke, his voice came out hollow.
"I could tell you I'm an orphan. I could tell you I've spent my entire life growing up on an island. I could tell you about every single time I lay awake through the night, only to watch as the sun rose over the flat ocean. I could tell you I have visions and dreams that I can't explain." The monk listened intently without breaking concentration. He absorbed each and every word from across the candlelight.
"I could tell you I hear things that nobody else does, from the subtle chirping of crickets to the waking of wolfbats deep beneath the ground. I could tell you I can speak with the voices of all people. I could tell you I can pull rain from a cloudless sky."
"I could tell you I know who I am, but that would be a lie."
Wake looked sullen in the shadows. He hated admitting it, but it was true: he was completely and utterly lost. He refrained from making eye contact with the man sitting across from him. Instead, he shifted his attention from the candles to the incense to the corner of the low table. He felt exposed, naked, and embarrassed to have admitted his failure in knowing himself.
"Ah, to be young again," said the monk. "Nobody of your sparse years knows who they are. When I was your age, I certainly had no idea what I wanted to do with my life."
Inside, the monk's words alleviated Wake's humiliation, but the young man was still confused.
"Wait," said Wake. "I understand that being young and lost is something that people go through normally, but didn't you just hear what I said? I'm not exactly 'Mr. Normal' your next-door neighbor. I hear voices in my head when nobody is around. I have visions of people I've never met or seen before."
The monk was not at all surprised.
"You have a gift, Wake," he said with a smile. "You have these abilities because you were put on this earth for a specific purpose. You just need to find that purpose."
"You hear them, too, don't you?" asked Wake decisively. "That's why you aren't surprised. You're like me. I can tell."
For a brief moment, Wake's assertion caused a ripple of unbalance in the monk's expression. For the first time, the man in orange robes showed signs of restlessness. This time, Wake was the one doing the examining. He watched the monk with great detail. In the darkness, Sidd's eyes grew distant like fading stars in the light of morning.
"They are not just voices, Wake. They are not just visions. They are very real, but not in the strictest sense." Monk Sidd returned to his levelheaded demeanor. "This gift you have, it is something that all people possess."
"You have a natural ability to commune with the spirits."
"The spirits?" asked Wake, raising his eyebrow. "You mean to say that I can talk to spirits?"
He laughed. "I've never even seen a spirit, much less talked to one."
"Never seen a spirit?" the monk asked incredulously. "Why, you are a spirit."
He pointed a slender index finger to the center of Wake's chest.
"You have a spirit dwelling within your own body at this very moment. I, too, have a spirit dwelling within my body. All people have spirits, are spirits."
"Everything around you, everything from the sky to the trees to the flickering candles, our entire world is constructed from both physical and spiritual elements."
"Your spirit has been trapped for so long, Wake. It yearns to be free," said the monk. "Once you learn to let your mind and spirit be free, then you will be able to master your abilities."
"And how does one accomplish this?" asked the young man with black hair.
"You must learn to see the world in both its separateness and its unity. You must learn to see yourself and other people from different angles, both spiritual and physical. Above all, you must learn to detach yourself from preconceived notions of who you are and who you are not. You must wash away these illusions that have clouded your vision and muffled your hearing so you may perceive the world in all its clarity, the way in which your spirit so desperately wishes to perceive it."
In one motion, the monk rose from his cross-legged lotus position. The candles danced softly in the wind emanating from his orange robes.
"I will teach to you this detachment. I will teach you to let go so that you may understand your Self."
"So, uh, why don't you tell me a bit about yourself?" Sikhi asked sheepishly.
Night had fallen. A nearly full moon cast light down upon the tops of the trees, painting the forest a soothing shade of icy blue. Wind chimes jingled softly in the slight breeze. The girl with white hair and the boy with orange robes sat on the ledge of the temple balcony, overlooking the garden of statues that stood resolutely in the silence.
"There's not really much to tell," she said. "I lived my entire life on a single Island. Not exactly a cultural hub."
"You know, I've always wanted to go to an island," Sikhi replied. "I hear they're great for vacations."
"I wouldn't say my home was a great place to 'vacation,' but growing up was relaxing. I was free to go wherever I wanted and do whatever I wanted to do. I guess I never appreciated it enough until now."
Sikhi shifted in his seat.
"My growing up was filled with studying and practicing meditation. I read all of the ancient scripts, all of the philosophical theories. I always had elders watching over me to make sure I stayed on task."
"You remind me of Nini," said Grace with a distant look in her eye. "She was my best friend, and she tried to grow up too fast."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"It means you should savor every moment you have growing up because there will come a time when you look back and remember how good it was. But by then, you will have realized that you can't go back; you can never go back."
"I suppose," said Sikhi. "But, growing up doesn't mean you have to look back with regret. Of course there will be things you wish you could have done over. There will be times you wish you could have experienced again."
The young boy spoke with unparalleled wisdom that rendered Grace speechless.
"The monks taught me that while it is important to revere the past, it is most important to look toward to the future and live in the present. Make new experiences every day. Continue on your path and keep moving forward, glancing back every so often to see how far you've come, how much you've changed."
Grace stared up at the night sky.
She said nothing.
She remembered the pond with swaying cattails and lush, green ferns deep within the forest. She remembered climbing trees to get a better look at the sky as the setting sun streaked it red. She remembered the way thousands of grains carried with the wind over the fields. More than anything else, she remembered Ren and Fay.
She missed them. She always had, and she always would. In the starry sky, she envisioned the way her mother moved effortlessly as she demonstrated the Way of the Sword. She envisioned her father sitting cross-legged on the moss, waiting with a pulsating heart for the moment when she, his daughter, would enter the world.
For the first time however, in these visions she began to see remnants of something else, something new. She saw Hunter soaring in the sky like the grains carried by wind. She saw Wake sitting lotus-style like Ren on the surface of the ocean. She saw him moving effortlessly like Fay as he danced in rhythm with the thousands of water drops rising into the sky.
The boy in orange robes was shocked when Grace wrapped him in an embrace. She still didn't say anything, but he could feel her eyes shutting tightly.
"Okay, now you're just making it hard for me to breathe," said Sikhi jokingly after a while.
Grace grinned in the darkness.
"Sorry about crushing you," she said. "It's just that what you said, it means a lot to me. It helped me more than you know."
The two sat on the balcony, saying things from time to time, but mostly listening and watching the night. Grace felt a great deal of respect and admiration for the boy. He was unlike anyone she had ever met before. He was so unaffected by what went on in the world around him. Just as he sat with his legs dangling off the stone balcony, he seemed to watch life quietly from the outside. She saw in him the same inward and outward contentment as the people painted on the mosaic.
The moon had risen high into the sky by the time she wordlessly got up from her seat and bid farewell. The girl with white hair and the boy with orange robes went their separate ways, walking silently over the stone tiles bathed in icy light.
Grace climbed the spiral set of stairs, walked through the hallway, and arrived back at the room with curved stone walls. At the far end of the room, Wake gazed out of the window with his back to her. The only source of light filtered in through the window and cast Wake's shadow on the center of the floor.
"Good to see you finally decided to wake up," Grace said with a grin. "Too bad it's the middle of the night."
Upon hearing her voice, Wake turned to face her. His expression immediately sent chills through her body. Even in the darkness, she could see the intensity that emanated from his eyes.
A smooth breeze displaced wisps of the girl's long, white hair. The moonlight bathed her slender features like porcelain.
"I know how to control my power," said Wake.
"I must learn to let go."
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