The persistent sound of an ancient gong, relentlessly magnifying the rhythmic hand movements of a frowning monk clad in a saffron robe, shattered the crystal silence of the early morning, forced its way into the individual cells where the sleepers rested on the floor, and abruptly dispelled the feeble vestiges or their last fleeting dreams.
Suddenly alarmed or silently enraged, the more recalcitrant ones kicked furiously, turned on their sides and uselessly covered their heads with their tattered blankets, as if protecting themselves from an evil spell cast on the temple.
Moments later the hollow sound of approaching steps filled the corridor, then stopped in front of the first cell. As quick and abrupt as a barrage of gunfire, came a loud knocking.
The same sullen monk, after sounding the gong, made the early rounds to ensure all the disciples were up and out of their cubicles. Those still found in the prone position were unceremoniously administered a swift and painful kick in the rear.
Still yawning and stretching, they reluctantly emerged from their austere enclosures. In single file, they walked silently behind the caustic monk. As the group stepped into the courtyard, the first rays of the raising sun were simultaneously reflected, magnified and dispersed by the gold charm hanging from the leader’s left earlobe.
It was a miniature replica of the temple.
With their open hands, some of the disciples uselessly shielded their eyes from the light.
They stood motionless, forming a circle around a pool in the center of the courtyard. Years earlier, by cleverly diverting the cold water that descended unbridled from the Sierras, the founders of the temple had created the reservoir that was now used for their daily ablutions.
Clapping his hands twice, the severe monk gave the acknowledged signal that set the ritual in motion every morning.
The young disciples shed their garments in unison. For an instant, as they awaited the next command, their naked bodies in the early sunlight seemed bathed in clear honey. Some, unsuccessfully attempting to retain control, tried not to shiver in the cool breeze. Again, the clapping of hands.
Propelled by the cracking sound, they cast themselves into the cold water, soaked their shaven heads and splashed around in order to stimulate their cardiac rate.
As they bobbed water, their breathing became noisy and agitated.
After an indeterminate amount of time, again the slapping sound of the hands ended the morning ritual. They emerged from the pool‑‑their skin bluish and abundantly covered with goose bumps‑‑and quickly disappeared through the corridor that led back to their cells.
No words had been spoken.
Before long, the same penetrating sound of the gong, no less urgent than the first time, summoned them once again.
A long, solemn line of disciples, now fully awake, emerged from their individual cubicles, their hands neatly
clasped in front of their bodies. They wore immaculate white robes complemented by equally white sashes.
Everyone was barefooted.
Under an elaborate canopy, crowned by a pennant bearing the cryptic symbols of the order, they sat down next to the prayer wheels. Before long, the conjugated sound of voices intoning the ancient chants filled the courtyard.
It was a special day at the temple.
That very morning, during a simple, yet solemn ceremony accompanying the morning meal, one of the disciples would be chosen for the rite of ascension, when he would be initiated into the innermost secrets that had been passed down for countless generations.
Absolute silence, except for those words voiced during prayer, was prescribed by the strict precepts of the order. At mid morning, when some of the disciples felt they were about to faint from lack of nourishment, the sound of the gong filled the temple again.
Abruptly, the prayer wheels stopped turning; the monotonous chanting ceased.
On wooden trays decorated with mother of pearl inlays
‑‑yet another irrefutable indication of the significance of that day‑‑the food arrived. Despite their hunger, the disciples did not eat, but sat, cross legged, on the braided mats. All phases of the ceremony obeyed the ancient rituals.
Bowing slightly to the disciples, the same monk who had earlier awakened them with the powerful gong gave the appropriate signal to begin.
Avid hands anxiously held the porcelain cups filled with aromatic, steaming tea; lips and tongues clandestinely exulted at the first suggestions of warmth in that cold morning. The faces of the disciples, as the meal progressed, regained their youthful color; sunken eyes once again became alive, absorbing everything that was taking place.
Silently, they smiled.
In the center of the room, carefully arranged on one of the braided mats, several embroidered cushions awaited the arrival of the highest‑ranking priest in the sect. His name was Mea-Dhor.
Because of his wisdom, he was revered by all. The previous year, for reasons unknown, he had been absent from the temple.
Among the disciples, after hours and in clandestine whispers, it was rumored that he had gone on a quest to find The One‑‑just as had been recorded for centuries in the sacred texts‑‑who would eventually succeed him and assume the leadership of the temple after his departure from the earthly plane.
The other monks neither affirmed nor denied these conjectures of the young disciples, but simply went about their daily business with the unshaken certainty that the
order of the universe rested, indeed, on a most solid
At noon, the gong sounded again. The lingering
resonance was followed by those of countless minute bells affixed to a leather strop shaken vigorously.
At once, all the disciples stood up and bowed their heads.
The sound of the leather strop became more pronounced, the shaking of the bells more brisk.
Followed by a muscular young man, a monk of
indeterminate age, clad in a saffron robe tied with a golden sash entered the chamber. His presence exuded a quiet, ancient energy that immediately transfixed the members of the order.
Obeying an ancient ritual, both to acknowledge and honor his presence, hundreds of votive candles were lit simultaneously. The trembling flames, encased in their crimson receptacles cast odd shadows and patches of light on the solemn faces of the disciples, transforming them into somber, almost sinister masks. Their eyes, due to the play of light and shadow, gave the impression of being deeply recessed in their sockets.
The sound of the minute bells stopped; at once a sonic vacuum filled the chamber.
Mea-Dhor, after bowing slightly, sat down on the cushions. Everyone present followed suit.
To his right sat a young man.
A feeble monk, ostensibly much older than the rest,
appeared silently, holding a lacquered box in one hand and a clay bowl in the other. He placed both items on the
With slow, parsimonious movements Mea-Dhor opened the ornate box and retrieved a small leather pouch. Shaking it slightly, he poured its contents‑‑a cinnabar powder‑‑into the clay bowl, which he held with both hands and stirred with a circular motion. Its elaborate surface showed a bas‑relief depiction of the temple.
He stood up.
Dipping the fingers of his right hand into the liquid, and with a relentless snapping motion of his fingers, he delivered the droplets, sprinkling the heads and faces of the young men at his feet. As they hit their target, the red marks gave the impression of a sudden and most contagious case of smallpox.
The rhythmic snapping of the fingers was discreetly
underscored by the sound of the bells.
They had entered the purification stage of the ceremony of ascension. Holding their candles at arm’s length, the disciples formed a circle of light around the high priest and the silent young man.
As Mea-Dhor was about to conclude the first phase of the ceremony, a deep, subdued rumble‑‑like a runaway train‑‑unexpectedly filled the chamber.
The floor shook violently.
Furniture, candle holders, the occupants themselves instantly became mere toys under the force of the earthquake. White doves flew out of their bamboo cages.
A section of the central beam, snapped like a twig by the force of the shifting tectonic plates, seemed to search the same space currently occupied by Mea-Dhor’s head.
The clay bowl, in turn, violently ejected from his hands by the impact, made a futile attempt to reach the
crumbling ceiling, described an improbable parabola in mid
air that culminated‑‑shattering instantly‑‑on the young
initiate’s recently shaven skull.
The roof gave way.
Hours later, when the rescue workers finally arrived at the ruins of the temple, they found Mea-Dhor buried in the rubble.
The crew leader‑‑a cynical, middle‑aged man with an ample history of alcohol abuse‑‑after years of exposure to natural disasters, like the one caused by this earthquake, did not lose his composure.
“His was truly,” he commented to the others while lighting a cigarette and pointing to the inert body, “a shaky departure.”