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Author's note: If you think this story is a bit strange, you should have been traveling in India in the Twentieth Century. When I was in Bodhgaya, I met up with an Irish couple who invited me to come with them to the south of India to see a guy who could walk on water. Walk on water? No ... by that time I'd seen enough weird stuff, thank you very much. Parenthetically, the Irish couple were in the habit of smoking a certain amount of dope ("just for religious purposes") so I'm not sure if the India that they were seeing was quite the same as I the one I was seeing.





Too Far From Home


        He was too far from home, and the proof of it was the weird globular thing hanging on the horizon, red and swollen. Jamie Heck studied it from the window of the bus which was taking him to the city of Varanasi, the city otherwise known as Benares. The city of the dead.
        "Would you like me if I was a snake?" said Miss Lee.
        "Pardon?" said Jamie, still studying the red thing, trying to figure out what it was.
        "A snake."
        "Snake, like uh, how?" said Jamie, confused. "Some kind of ... I don't know. Gang? Someone in a Hong Kong gang?"
        "You know I'm not from Hong Kong," said Miss Lee.
        Yes, he knew, sort of, but he kept getting confused. Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan, China - Asia was all jumbled together in his head. He knew, if he sat down and thought about it, that Taipei was in Taiwan and that Miss Lee was from Taiwan, but there were moments when he had trouble remembering his own name, so he should be forgiven for sometimes forgetting the nuances of Miss Lee's biography.
        "What's that thing?" said Jamie, changing the subject, pointing out across the dusty plains of India to the huge red UFO that was hovering on the far horizon.
        "That?" said Miss Lee. "That's the sun."
        Why. So it was. The sun, defamiliarized by dust and distance and extreme fatigue. The sun, the declining sun of late afternoon, heading for sunset on the plains of India.
        "Anyway," said Miss Lee. "How would you feel if I was really a snake?"
        "I don't understand," said Jamie.
        He was still sick from a bug he'd picked up while trekking in the Himalayas in Nepal. Three days previously, when they'd first got on the bus, they'd still been in Nepal. The bus journey should have taken less than twenty-four hours, but here they were, on the third day, not quite at their destination yet, and he was feeling ... well, alienated from reality.
        "A snake," said Miss Lee. "A big one. You know. A cobra. Something like that."
        "Well, whatever," said Jamie, at a loss for words.
        Miss Lee was cute and, in Jamie's opinion, very sexy. But now and then she said some really weird things, and Jamie couldn't quite figure out why. He guess he just hadn't got to grips with her sense of humor yet.

*


        After Benares, after the burning ghats, the sacred cows, after all that and a lot more, they reached Srinagar, they met the two guys from Afghanistan and collected the heavy cannister which they were scheduled to deliver to an address in Paris some four months later, "after the principal is released from jail".
        "And now we go to Goa and kick back on the beach, right?" said Jamie.
        "No," said Miss Lee. "Now we go to Gaya. Then Bodhgaya."
        "What's special about Gaya?" said Jamie.
        "It has the highest murder rate in India," said Miss Lee.
        "Okay. And Body something?"
        "Bodhgaya. What's special about Bodhgaya is that there you will learn something about snakes."
        "No, seriously," said Jamie.
        But Miss Lee refused to get more specific.
        So they started the journey to Bodhgaya, which was a hell of a long way from Srinagar, involving, amongst other things, going all the way back to Benares, and en route the heavy cannister got stolen, and they'd been warned that they'd be killed if they lost it, and then some weird guy (a bit crazy, probably) stabbed at Jamie with a huge knife, which would have killed him except that his travel books absorbed the blow, and then -

*


        He was too far from home. As events piled up on top of each other, that was the thought which kept revolving itself in Jamie's head. But where was home? He had gotten into India on a German passport, but he wasn't really German and he couldn't even speak the language.
        The passport was legitimate, but Jamie Heck had been born in Greece, the son of a German father and a South African mother. He had grown up in a Greek village inhabited entirely by English-speaking members of the Neptunian Seclusionist Sect, all of whom believed that they were actually aliens from the planet Neptune, and he had never been to Germany in his life.
        He was adrift, then, and this either is or is not his Story, a story which has nothing to do with the cannister (already lost, just another random incident in the great flux of life) and rather more to do with traveling too far for too many days, and so threatening to breach the borders which comfort us by containing and limiting our perceptions.
        This, by the way, was not in the here of now. Rather, this was back in the Twentieth Century, back in the long ago days when the miraculous was possible, when people could see, if they chose, the shimmering realms of the Possible just a skin beneath the delusionary veil of the Obvious. In those days, the Enlightened One, as yet not conscious of his own Nature, was venturing through the world on a journey to which he attributed no conscious purpose.

*


        Miss Lee and Jamie Heck got through Gaya without being murdered (notwithstanding the statistics, most people do) and from there they got a ride in a three-wheeled taxi down the dusty road to Bodhgaya, about which Jamie knew pretty much nothing, except that Miss Lee had told him that it had temples, though why someone should build a bunch of temples in the middle of nowhere (which was pretty much where they were) was a mystery to Jamie.
        In addition to Miss Lee and Jamie Heck, the taxi was carrying a sick goat, two cases of dynamite and a Buddhist pilgrim called Bob, who hailed from a place called Brixton (which was, apparently, a locality in London, England).
        As well as seeing the temples, they also saw the tap. It was a tap which never stopped running, since the dust of the surrounding fields had, in the locality of the tap, been turned into an impromptu swamp. Locals gathered round, filling bottles and buckets.
        "Water must be cheap," observed Jamie.
        "Oh no," said Bob, who was living in Bodhgaya, and was returning from a shopping trip to Gaya. "It's not that water's cheap. It's that there's nobody here who can fix the tap."
        Jamie tried to get a handle on this piece of information, but it seemed both concave and convex at one and the same time, impossible to merge with his existing mental geometry.
        "Say what?" he said.
        "That's how it is in Bihar," explained Bob.
        "Bihar?" said Jamie, startled.
        Bob the Buddhist confirmed that, yes, they were indeed in Bihar, one of the poorest and most dangerous states in all of India. Bodhgaya is in Bihar. And that's where they were.
        Bihar? This news came as a huge shock to Jamie Heck. Years before, he had read a series of newspaper articles detailing the way the police in Bihar tortured criminal suspects. If the newspaper could be believed, the police had jabbed bicycle spokes into the eyes of the suspects, then poured acid into the wounds thus created. At the time, Jamie had resolved never to go to Bihar, not ever, no, no way, there was not enough force on the planet to drag him there.
        But here he was. And it was all Miss Lee's fault. It was she, after all, who had persuaded him to come to India in the first place. It had sounded very romantic when they had been sitting together at the table in her uncle's restaurant back in Taipei, looking at maps, the smoke of burning incense coiling around them. Madly dangerous, of course, once you factored in Srinagar and the cannister and the meeting in Paris. However, the promised profits had seemed adequate recompense for the danger.
        But if this was really Bihar - !
        "I want to leave," announced Jamie.
        "We cannot leave," said Miss Lee. "We have important business here."
        "Business?" said Jamie, baffled. "Not, uh, the Srinagar Afghanistan thing. The, um."
        "No," said Miss Lee. "That is finished. Although I still want to go to Paris."
        "But, the, um, the cannister ...."
        "Yes," said Miss Lee. "That business is finished. But I still want to go to Paris so I can buy shoes. Many shoes. But, here, I want to eat meat."
        "Meat?" said Jamie, who had long since come to the conclusion that meat was pretty much unobtainable in India.
        "Right, meat," said Bob the Buddhist. "They have great Tibetan restaurants here."
        "Any place in particular?" said Jamie, fishing for a recommendation.
        "Oh, I don't eat in those places myself," said Bob. "I'm a vegetarian. But I've heard they're good. If you like that kind of thing."

*


        Persuaded by the promise of meat, Jamie allowed Miss Lee to check them into a hotel. There was no running water, but the door was good and solid, easy to bolt and padlock. Having installed themselves, they went to pay their respects to the Tibetans. From what he'd heard from Miss Lee and from Bob the Buddhist, Jamie was expecting to find any number of Tibetan restaurants, a great gathering of carnivorous eateries. But, instead, they succeeded in finding just one single Tibetan restaurant, which was in a tent on the northern side of Sri Lanka's temple.
        Jamie had no idea why the nation state of Sri Lanka should have a temple here in Bihar state, but it did. To the north of that temple, a slope of dusty grassland, much-suffering in the sun, dropped away to a poverty-stricken patch of authentic Indian village. On that grassland stood the Tibetan restaurant. And, additionally, there was a tented cinema set up to show video movies, and there were a number of cubic structures of gray clay.
        Jamie presumed that the gray clay cubes were mass graves, perhaps holding the bodies of tourists whose gastrointestinal tracts had not been equal to the rigors of travel in India. He estimated that each of the cubes might reasonably hold upwards of fifty bodies.
        Miss Lee posed for a photograph by one of the gray cubes. She looked extremely polished. Her glossy brown shoes, lacquered with sunlight, gleamed spotlessly. Her long black hair glistened. Her bright red fingernails shone. She was woman, a woman, and - uneasily, Jamie became aware that she was also something more than a woman.
        Around Miss Lee, the world shimmered. It grew broader. It became both cooler and hotter at one and the same time. The lotus was flowering. Milk pumped from the woman's hands. The bird fell from the sky. What does it matter who fired the arrow? The fact is that the wound has been inflicted.
        "We had a rooster," said Jamie, loudly.
        A rooster. A rooster called Michelangelo. We had a rooster, and the rooster had a fight. That's what's real.
        "Jamie?" said Miss Lee.
        Same old everyday India, same old dusty quotidian reality. Miss Lee was at the entrance to the Tibetan restaurant tent, poised to enter.
        "Yeah," said Jamie, shaking off the vision which had been inflicted upon him, "yeah, I'm coming."
        As he came closer, Miss Lee looked at him, oddly.
        "You saw something," she said.
        "Yeah," said Jamie. "You. This place. This door. Hey, let's go in."

*


        Inside the Tibetan restaurant, music was playing, a bootleg cassette of a Jamaican reggae singer, the late Bob Marley. But the Tibetan woman who stepped forward to meet them denied restaurant.
        "We're closed," she said.
        "When do you open again?" said Jamie.
        "In six months," she said.
        A joke - right? Jamie presumed so, though, to tell the truth, he found Tibetan humor pretty inscrutable.
        "Okay," he said to Miss Lee. "Let's come back tomorrow."

*


        There was something happening here, here in this little town of Bodhgaya, this nowhere place in the middle of Bihar. Jamie was aware of this. He knew he was on the edge of something. But what? He couldn't tell. It was the weirdest feeling, knowing his life was in the process of launching itself into that coupling of the compelling and the contingent which we know as story, yet not knowing what story he was part of, not yet knowing where the arc of the action was taking him.
        Then, in the evening, he found out.
        "I will make tea," said Miss Lee, after they had gained the shelter of their room.
        Then she set about boiling water with their immersion heater. This handy gadget was a heating coil like that found in an electric kettle, and was designed for travelers to use in hotels. Put the coil into a pot of water, plug it into a wall socket, and, hey presto! - you can boil water.
        In lieu of a pot or a metal cup, Miss Lee used her small vacuum flask. The immersion heater, which was compatible with Indian wall sockets as she had bought it in Nepal, just fitted through the neck of the flask. They had used it successfully many times.
        Unfortunately the immersion heater had by now come to the end of its natural life, and had decided that the time had come to give up the ghost and pass from this sphere of earthly existence. It had scarcely heated up when it went bang. Miss Lee unplugged the device, pulled the immersion heater from the vacuum flask, and found there was a crack in the coil.
        "It's broken," said Jamie. "We'll have to throw it away."
        "No, no," said Miss Lee. "he will make it work."
        She did, too. She plugged the thing back into the wall socket. And it did work. It got hot. Very hot. Then it went bang once again.
        "It's dangerous," said Jamie, more forcefully.
        He was seriously worried by now. At the age of five, he had once stuck his fingers into the empty socket of a reading light, and had been thrown across the room for his troubles. Ever since then, electricity had enjoyed his greatest respect. But Miss Lee was, apparently, immune to fear.
        Bang! The immersion heater exploded again. A small plume of smoke ascended from the suffering wall socket. Miss Lee endeavored to remedy the problem by the simple expedient of unplugging it and then -
        "No!" said Jamie.
        Now he understood the nature of the story which had taken possession of his life. It was his destiny to be arrested in Bihar for murder. It was his destiny to be found by the cops in a hotel room with a dead Taiwanese woman and three kilos of weapon-grade uranium in a lead-lined stainless steel flask. It was his destiny to have his eyes poked out by bicycle spokes, to have acid poured into his screaming flesh.
        "No?" said Miss Lee.
        She smiled at him, mockingly. Then plunged home the prongs of the immersion heater. Jamie found himself unable to breathe. His chest was one tight band of red-hot tension. Then the wall socket blew itself apart in an explosion so forceful it ejected the wreckage of the immersion heater's plug, throwing it to the floor.
        "The water," said Miss Lee, calmly, "is boiled."
        Not that story, then. Acid and bicycle spokes were not to be his destiny. But Jamie was still aware that he was riding an uncontrollable arc of destiny, an arc that was taking him -
        Where?

*


        Evening. They smoked. The smoke coiled around them. The shimmering music spoke to them, the sitar music of India, one of the greatest achievements of human civilization. Jamie was already getting lost in the impossible complexities of the music. Lost. Drifting. Remote from his moorings.
        "Lie down," said Miss Lee.
        He obeyed.
        She worked on him. The music worked. The smoke worked, drawing itself deep into his lungs.
        "You saw something today," she said.
        "Saw ....?"
        "At the restaurant."
        "I saw ...."
        He was on the point of confessing. So easy to confess. He saw the visionary unfolding of the Possible, of the cosmos beyond that narrow threshold we call the world.
        But.
        That's not what I choose.
        "I saw my rooster," said Jamie, stubbornly.
        "Your rooster?" said Miss Lee, amused.
        "Michelangelo was our rooster," said Jamie. "He was a great guy, Michelangelo. He became real famous in our village, you know."
        "Your village?" said Miss Lee, as if the very notion of a village was the funniest thing she had ever heard of in her life.
        "Yes," said Jamie, a little angry now, though the effects of the smoke were making it impossible to be really angry. "He became real famous. There was this raccoon, you see. Raccoons - you know what a raccoon is?"
        "Like a cat and a squirrel," said Miss Lee.
        "Sort of," said Jamie, even though, to tell the truth, he was not entirely convinced that she had any clear image of what a raccoon really was. "Anyway, they can get really mean. They'll fight cats, you know. Raccoons, I mean. And dogs. They can kill dogs, sometimes."
        "Sometimes," murmered Miss Lee, her smile soothing its way into his shoulder blades, unknotting the muscle there.
        "And this raccoon," continued Jamie, persisting with his story even though he was getting the impression that Miss Lee did not really want to hear it, "this raccoon - "
        "They don't have raccoons in Greece," said Miss Lee.
        "We had all kinds of things," said Jamie. "The community, I mean. Some had been liberated, some escaped. We had raccoons, wallabies, electric eels, all kinds of things."
        "I think you are a fabulist," said Miss Lee.
        "You think I'm fabulous?" said Jamie.
        "Go on with your story," said Miss Lee. "Please."
        "Well," said Jamie, "the raccoon - I remember it as a raccoon - it got into the hen house. And there was this fight. Next morning, Michelangelo was dead. He died fighting the raccoon. But - guess what?"
        "The penguins are still swimming," said Miss Lee, obscurely. "Did you have penguins in Greece?"
        "Penguins, yeah," said Jamie.
        A bell rang, somewhere. Very clear. Zen clarity. The penguins are swimming. There was a world of revelation in the phrase. But Jamie still fought stubbornly to find his footing. And won. Centered himself in Michelangelo.
        "Next morning," said Jamie, "we found the raccoon, dead, twenty feet from the hen house. Michelangelo fought him to the death, you see?"
        He felt it very important to explain that last bit. Otherwise Miss Lee might not get the point of the story.
        "You are like Igor," said Miss Lee, caressing his neck.
        "Igor?" said Jamie.
        "He was an expert on Iberian choreography and tantric practices," said Miss Lee. "But his dream was a dacha. Mushrooms and potatoes. Breaking the ice in the winter. Mosquitoes in the summer heat."
        She was shorthanding something, and there was a gentle, amused scorn in her hinting conversation. Jamie could not place the key word, "dacha", but did not like to say so. Maybe it was a Taiwanese word for something obscurely obscene.
        "Let us talk about Wittgenstein," said Miss Lee, changing the subject.
        "Who?" said Jamie, the syllable blurred by the smoke, by the subversions of the music.
        "He was a German," said Miss Lee. "He was a machine gunner in one of your wars."
        "Not my wars," protested Jamie. "I'm an internationalist, us internationalists don't have wars."
        "Don't disown your own culture," said Miss Lee firmly. "No, don't get up. Lie there, just as you are, and let me instruct you."
        So she talked, and a lot of what she said made no sense at all, though Jamie did understand that Wittgenstein was important, the barrel of his machinegun hot, smoking.
        "But what has this got to do with me?" said Jamie.
        "What has India got to do with you?" said Miss Lee. "It's you who has to take the first step. Otherwise there's no way that we're going to be able to do this."
        "Do what?"
        "Hush," said Miss Lee. "Hush, and listen."

*


        She was rubbing his back with the oils. Was massaging his spine. Was smoke. Is smoke. Was a strength which exceeded that of her female generation, exceeded that of the merely human. Was strength. Is strength. Is talking to him through the smoke.
        He is breathing.
        He is breathing in the fumes of visionary ascension. He is changing. He is conscious of the woman as a nexus of genetic aromas, a mystery of recombinant possibilities. At one and the same time, he is aware that mystery is a self-chosen delusion - that mystery is merely a disinclination to know.
        For the moment, he is disinclined. Relaxed. Lulled by the coils of mosquito music which have lifted him out of his skin. He is made of smoke. The woman's voice inhabits him. Somewhere, distantly, his gastrointestinal tract is complaining, registering a protest which has something to do with cholera-tainted water and hot green peppers, but he chooses, for the moment, to ignore it.
        "He is important," says Miss Lee, "because he is the apotheosis of Western civilization. This Wittgenstein in his trench, killing other Westerners with his machinegun. Your Michelangelo, your rooster, killing his raccoon. You have to understand what you are and where you come from before you can change."
        "Change?" says Jamie.
        He becomes aware that he is lying on the bed and that Miss Lee has changed, and is swaying above him, coil upon coil of glistening lacquer, glossy scales brown and black interwoven with spiraling patterns of deepest red, her complexities shimmering in the dim, smoky light as she sways above him, a cobra-dragon, inhuman, inimical, immensely intelligent, taunting, tempting, at once a challenge and a threat.
        "You are," says Miss Lee, "what you are and what you can be."
        And Jamie Heck sees that this is true, or could be. He is one, now, with a visionary landscape in which a man who is sitting under a tree smiles as his Circle of Being opens out into the world of Higher Expanded Consciousness. Jamie (who, at one at the same time, is both himself and the man who is meditating beneath the tree) becomes aware of the benevolent peace of the flowering lotus.
        And, at the same time, he sees the contrasting temptations of a glittering evil, of a cascading self-destructiveness which could sweep his own identity to a joyful ruin, greasing his progress with the screaming agony of the accidental victims of his passage.
        He is intrigued and shocked at one and the same time, is poised on the cusp of shock, is about the make the choice of choices and to involve himself in his Destiny.
        Then he remembers.
        "I'm a Greek," says Jamie firmly. "Greeks don't do that kind of thing."
        Greeks, in Jamie's world-view, are a sane and rational people. For years, Jamie has wished he could be Greek. He certainly doesn't feel German, and he has no wish whatsoever to be (or to become) Neptunian.
        "You are not a Greek," said a voice from somewhere east of sanity. "You are Egyptian. Don't you remember?"
        Jamie tries, but the effort of recollection blows a fuse in his brain, and the world pops into blankness and is gone.

*


        When Jamie Heck was resurrected from nullity, he found himself lying on a gray sheet in a hotel room somewhere in India. There was nobody else in the room. The door stood open, and sunlight spilt inwards through the door.
        Jamie's passport was on the floor, lying open. His travelers checks, likewise, were scattered across the floor. As was his money. Thai baht, Nepalese rupees, American dollars, Indian bills and some bits of badly rubbed aluminum which also served as currency in the immediate locality.
        His brain was not working properly. It felt as if it was full of rat droppings. No sign of any Chinese woman. No sign of any woman ever having been in that particular room. A ruptured immersion heater lay on the floor by the charred wreckage of a wall socket, from which a couple of bare wires poked forth.
        Jamie checked his backpack. His stainless steel flask was still inside. He picked it up. It felt as heavy as ever. Nothing missing, then. Nothing wrong. Unless you counted the problem with his right hand. It was stiff and sore, and there was a livid red mark right across the palm. A burn. As if he had electrocuted himself or something.
        He needed something to drink. Badly. He tried the faucet - he was so desperate he was reckless enough to chance Indian faucet water. But there was still no running water in his hotel room.
        "Well, uh," mumbled Jamie, "I guess I'll go get a drink. Yeah, and some meat. Hamburger - eh?"
        So he gathered up his stuff then headed out for the Tibetan restaurant, thinking that it must surely be open by now. Only it wasn't. Instead, the Tibetans were in the process of dismantling their restaurant. The bamboo poles, the canvas, the bricks of the oven, the bricks of the floor, the benches, the tables - the whole lot was torn down then piled into one big stack then covered over with clay.
        The great gray cubes, the mass graves in the shadow of the Sri Lankan temple, were not graves at all. They were restaurants. And, having reduced their own restaurant to a big gray brick, the last Tibetans of Bodhgaya departed, hastening themselves and their Bob Marley tapes to the hill country town of Dharmsala, where there would still be business to be done throughout the hot season.
        Jamie himself would have followed the Tibetans up to the cool hills of Dharmsala except that, by then, he was far too sick to go anywhere.

*


        That, as I have said, was many years ago, back in the Twentieth Century. What happened after that?
        Well, Jamie Heck traveled on to New York, where he lived illegally for six years until he got permanent residence during one of America's periodic immigrant amnesties. The incidental profits of his travels through India helped pay for further adventures in the realms of higher education, and, having completed an advanced degree in musicology, he now works in a harmonica factory. His job is to test each harmonica to make sure it works correctly. It's done hygienically, not with the lips but with a puff of compressed air. He spends his evening doing macrame and studying irregular French verbs.
        Jamie's gastrointestinal tract no longer remembers India, and the only sign that he ever went there is that he is missing some hair. After Jamie got really, really sick, a bunch of his hair fell out, and some of it thereafter failed to grow back. These days, he never thinks of Miss Lee - long ago, he succeeded in convincing himself that she was one big extended hallucination.
        Miss Lee, however, is very much alive. After leaving India, she went to Singapore and became a currency trader. And, in the fullness of time, she engineered the downfall of the Euro, destroying the promise of the new currency for her own profit and glory. Now she lives in retirement in Geneva, where she collects shoes and practices the arcane art of Bhutanese curry massage.
        She has no memory of ever having met anyone called Jamie Heck. And she certainly does not remember a rooster called Michelangelo, however famous that rooster may once have been in his home village, the sole outpost maintained by the planet Neptune on the continent of Europe.
        Bob the Buddhist spent seven years in Bodhgaya, meditating earnestly and eating vegetables, then went home to Brixton and became a policeman. He continues, to this day, to uphold the finest traditions of the British bobby, and is his mother's pride and joy. He is not a living Buddha, but, then, despite all those vegetables, he never really tried to be.
        The Buddha is incarnated and reincarnated daily, but seldom realizes his Buddha nature on account of the sheer mundane noise of day-to-day living.

The End

This story, "Too Far From Home" was first posted on the internet by Hugh Cook on 2003 June 22. Copyright © 2003 Hugh Cook. All rights reserved. TOO FAR FROM HOME - travel story India story Bodhgaya story.



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