Apr/May 2019  •   Fiction

The Distant One

by Frederick Highland

Excerpted imagery from photography by Kris Saknussemm

Excerpted imagery from photography by Kris Saknussemm

No one knows who brought word of Ch'an to Macao, but the monastery was there before the Portuguese arrived in the 16th century. The monks who study there, most of Chinese ancestry, speak of the Thirty Three masters in reverential tones. In an unbroken line, from the school's founding to the present, the teachings of Bodhidharma have been passed from Master to Master. Some monks, who have taken on the rigors of Ch'an discipline as their life's work, live and die within the confines of the monastery, rarely venturing into the turmoil of the city. Others come to taste of the ancient learning or seek temporary refuge. They stay awhile and move on. The monk who could not resist women was of the former group, outwardly correct but living, in fact, two lives. His story is recounted whenever the current Master seeks an illustration of the ambiguities of desire. Though this young monk's name has been pointedly forgotten, let us call him Han.

The monk Han had, for several months, a mistress whom he kept in a small flat near the Portage District. Though he had sworn a vow of poverty when he entered the monastery, he had not completely divested himself of a sizable inheritance. With these funds, he kept his infatuation in fine clothes and with two servants to attend to her needs. It soon became clear to the mistress, however, that all this attention was not for her sake but rather to soften her heart for another suit. It seems Han had become obsessed with a friend of the mistress, a woman as remote as she was beautiful, and Han wished the mistress to act as intermediary to plead his suit. Naturally, the mistress at first resisted Han's pleas. After he simultaneously offered her a large fee and threatened to toss her out into the street unless she did his bidding, she agreed to arrange a meeting.

Once she received the fee, the mistress sent a note with a servant as to the place of meeting. She had chosen the perfect place for a brief afternoon tryst, a place so situated that because of its very bustle, it practically guaranteed one could go about one's business unnoticed. Known locally as the Four Gates, it was a large square packed with gaily-decorated merchant stalls and enclosed by the facades of four ancient temples. Hundreds of people gathered there, even during the siesta, for there was always an air of excitement about the place. It was the perfect spot for a celebration. Strolling players, acrobats, and fire-eaters called out to the milling crowd.

The friend of Han's mistress had agreed on one condition: that Han not hesitate once he entered the square and go directly to the meeting place. Otherwise, his hesitation would be interpreted as a sign of insincerity. If he hesitated, the beautiful object of his desire would leave and never agree to meet him again.

Note in hand, Han left the monastery by way of the refectory during one of the hours of meditation when the monks were supposed to confine themselves to their cells. Han could scarcely contain his excitement, even as he ruefully reflected that by living this double life he was bringing shame on the name of the monastery, his fellow students, and the Master, most of all. Only one thing mattered. The woman he had come to call the Distant One, the woman he so desired, would soon be his. He lived for these moments of assignation; they were his satori, his moments of most intense being. No matter if the thrill soon withered away. All illumination was brief.

He plunged down the back lanes, taking a circuitous route to the Four Gates, not only so he could lessen the risk of being seen, but so he could lengthen, by some moments, the delirious pounding of his heart. It was with annoyance he discovered, after covering some distance, that he was being followed by the messenger who had brought him the note, the servant of his mistress.

"Why are you following me?" he asked, turning in his tracks and staring down the servant.

"Please forgive me," cried the young woman with tears in her eyes. "But I could think of nothing else to do but follow you and gather the courage to warn you."

"Warn me?"

"My mistress plans to have you murdered, at the very gate where you are supposed to meet her friend. She fears you will spurn her. I have taken the liberty of having arranged for the lady in question to meet you at the North Gate in the Square. The conditions of meeting are the same."

"Why should I believe you?" he asked, looking at her evenly. "Perhaps this is your deception." The wide, moony eyes of the pretty servant persuaded Han she was speaking the truth. He recalled he had shown her some little attentions from time to time. It was obvious she had become infatuated and only wished to please him. "I shall remember your kindness," he said to her. Brushing her cheek with his fingers, he continued his way. Yet he was anxious. His mistress might well wish his death; he had often endured her jealous rages. He considered turning back.

"Then again, why would she ruin her comfortable accommodation?" he asked himself. "Have I not given her every assurance she will be well cared for, regardless of my affair with the Distant One? She has already great proof of my generosity." Then he reflected that the moony eyes of the servant girl might well mask her own jealousy. She had her own motive for seeing his meeting with the Distant One didn't take place. Perhaps the assassin, if there was one, waited for him at the North Gate!

With these contrary thoughts tearing at him, Han arrived at the great square. He mingled uneasily with the mobs of vendors and shoppers. In the very center of the square, surrounded by the four temples known as the Four Gates, a religious festival was in full explosion, with the clashing of cymbals, the banging of drums, the rattling of firecrackers, and a great 50-man dragon weaving in and out among the celebrants.

Directly before him was the North Gate where the servant girl said he would find the Distant One. To his left was the West Gate where his mistress said his long-sought prize would conceal herself. Where to go? As if in answer, he felt a tug at his sleeve and turned to find yet another surprise: the second servant of his mistress, the older one called Su Li, gasping for breath. Hurriedly, she explained she had come to warn him. His mistress had learned of a plot by her younger servant. Crazed with jealously, the young woman had hired an assassin to wait for him at the temple known as the North Gate. Since their original plan was exposed, she had told her friend to meet Han in the East Gate Temple instead of the West. With a trembling finger, she pointed to the darkened portal across the square to his left.

Han questioned Su Li as he had the younger woman. "Go, you must go now," she implored and quickly vanished in the crowd. He plunged forward through the press to the entrance of the temple known as the East Gate, reflecting that this servant's word was of greatest repute, that she was completely devoted to her mistress. A more loyal retainer could not be found. Surely, she would not mislead him.

As he neared the steps of the East Gate, he slowed his place. If Su Li was so loyal, and his mistress did intend to murder him, then he was heading straight into a trap. Han looked frantically around. West, North, before him to the East, and swinging his head around to the South, the direction from which he had come, Han saw, with astonishment, the Master of the monastery running up to him, waving his walking stick.

"Han, Han!" cried the master over the din of the revelers. "You are heading straight into disaster, no matter where you go. Retrace your steps and enter the South Gate temple. Our Founder, the First Master, found refuge there when he first came to this island. Go there now." Without losing a step, knowing if he stopped for even a moment, he would lose the object of his desire, he turned to face the South Gate. As he watched the Master disappear into the crowd, he thought he saw the old man, fleetingly, touch the shoulder of a woman in a veil. The woman was the same shape and height of his mistress, or so it seemed.

Suddenly he was swept up in the frenzy of the celebration as the great 50-man dragon caught him in its coils, turning him now West, now North, now East, now South. Han turned and turned. If he did not break free, he would lose forever the one he had so long desired or, for this very desire, lose his life.