Note: This is a little indulgence on my part as the main character for this piece – which quality I cannot vouch for – is that of my novel (one I’m shopping around to see if it might be published). This takes place after the events of said novel, but there’s no need to be familiar with the events thereof as it is rather self-contained. Enjoy… or not. 🙂
Sebastian Contreras – otherwise known as Bas to most of his friends and acquaintances – was tired of the dreadful Asian heat. His home country of Costa Rica could be very humid and warm at times but this was just ridiculous. He would always note how the Southeast Asian weather was portrayed on television and in the movies, but it failed to convey quite how oppressive it really was.
His reason for being so far away from his neck of the woods was essentially two-fold; he had to find a very rare item, a piece of Asian alternative medicine that was considered to be a myth mostly due to the means and process through which it was allegedly concocted – a mellified man –, and he had to find the location of a certain tribe of ascetics who once made Japan their home but were now in self-imposed exile, an off-shoot of the Sokushinbutsu Buddhists monks, so that he could consult with with their mummified oracles. Yes, he needed to talk to mummies.
The humor of it all, like with much of his life’s goings-on after his wife had left him and taken his daughter with her, did not escape him. His sense of humor had become a dark, viscous substance that suffused and corroded every fiber of his being. One rather had to cope in some way when one’s child has been sequestered and taken somewhere beyond one’s reach, somewhere outside of this world, and one simply didn’t have the means by which to breach that barrier and reach out to her.
It was a quarter till noon and he was in a small fishing village somewhere in Thailand, cursing the gods that reduced him to errand-boy for the many underworld movers whose strings could eventually afford him the power to find his missing child. His contact was late by about half an hour and he had the nagging suspicion that he wouldn’t make the appointment, but rather that something else was going on as well, someone trying to keep him from finding his marks on this trip.
He was sure he was being followed, somehow, though he had seen none of the usual tells that would indicate this. In the realm of the weirdness – as he had come to refer to all things odd, paranormal or otherwise outside the fringe of what humanity accepted as natural – there could be innumerable ways by which he might be tagged and shadowed without his ever being sure of it. Still, there it was, that sensation between his shoulder blades of eyes firmly planted on him.
He decided it was time to move along and find other leads before whatever may have happened to his contact happened to him as well. A few more days or even weeks of digging around Asia were better than being dead.
Wiping the profusion of sweat from his forehead, though he need not have bothered as it was quickly replaced with a new coat, he got up from the short wall where he had been sitting and took out his mobile device to hail his wheel man, Jin, a former ronin appointed to him by the man for whom he was to procure the mcguffin, the earthbound deity who went under the name of Mr. Mikoto – the Tattoo Collector – under whose employ the ex-ronin now was.
You read about these things, like Bas has, modern day samurai, anachronistic throwbacks to a time when honor carried a magnitude of weight most people in modern times cannot even fathom. Jin was one such example; a neo-samurai, if you will, previously beholden to a prominent oyabun of the Yakuza, who had found himself masterless – thus a ronin – when the oyabun had met an untimely end. Mr. Mikoto had taken a liking to eavesdropping on Jin’s activities and developed a sort of liking for him, much like a football aficionado might start following a specific team. When Jin found himself shamed and cast out like a dog, Mikoto took him in. There were far worse things than to be under the command of one of Japan’s old gods, the grandson of Amaterasu, no less.
Within thirty seconds Jin was walking up to Bas, who knew he was looking like shit under the hot sun. He quickly filled him in on his suspicions and Jin immediately began to scan the surrounding scenery. Bas’ nerves got a little on edge right there, because when someone as efficient at survival as Jin looked like he was on the brink of unleashing the death he dealt so well, you had to wonder just what it was that you might be facing.
“Twenty,” said Jin quickly. “They know we know, don’t run but don’t get in the way.”
A prouder man would have taken offense, Bas would think later of Jin’s words, but he knew his limits and, under the ungodly sweltering heat, he was about as good as an ice cream cone in a knife-fight. Piece of cake, he thought, I just have to make sure not to get in the Jap’s way.
Twenty rough-looking locals – or at least that’s how Bas saw them, he couldn’t really know if they were really natives – were swaggering toward them, all manner of weapons in their hands; boards, bats, machetes, it wasn’t looking like a clean fight, but then again, it wasn’t fair on all twenty of them even if they had been twice as many. You don’t get to be in a god’s employ without getting some powerful perks to get the job done.
It was over faster than Bas could properly follow, but he was sure that, somewhere in his mind, was recorded every movement Jin made to disable all the goons in the space of a few seconds. It was like a terrifying wind, unseen and inexorable, had cut them all down. In the space of three seconds – a couple of blinks of an eye – twenty toughs were nursing one part of their body or another, if they were conscious at all.
“You gotta teach me how to do that,” said Bas appreciatively. Jin chuckled a grunt and then patted him on the back to usher him in the direction of the car, a fancy looking affair you would imagine any high-class gangster would kill t drive. Mikoto had them custom-made – he held the patent and rights over them. Kusanagi’s, he’d called them. Bas wasn’t much of a driver, but he figured that if he got well in cahoots with the diminutive deity, he could score one of those.
A mellified man, that is what Bas had been tasked with acquiring, or Miren as it was known in Chinese. An elderly person – usually – from a certain region that may or may not be part of this earthly realm would volunteer to engage in a diet of nothing but honey until, the legend goes, they would exude nothing but honey for excreta. At that point, the volunteer would be submerged and encaged in a vat of honey and preserved for an undisclosed amount of time. The end result? A miracle concoction, a panacea, the cure-all, purported to heal broken limbs and otherwise incurable diseases.
Most buyers in the black markets would pay ridiculous sums for a single vial, no more than a few cc’s of the resulting corpse-honey. Actual mellified limbs would garner astounding sums – it was said that a limb, even an appendage, was enough to turn household honey into corpse-honey for a few weeks before losing its properties. Mikoto wanted the whole shebang. An entire vat-coffin of corpse-honey, stiff included. Price was no object, of course, so long as the currency held within the gold standard and no other kind was agreed to.
A new contact had been made three weeks after the incident in the little fishing village, this time they would have to go to Mongolia. Bas thought that whomever might be pulling the universal strings had to have a sense of humor – when did it seem otherwise? –, or a strange love for coincidence, as Mongolia was where the exiled sect of Sokushinbutsu were said to reside, somewhere in the Altai Mountains, with their little necropolis of oracular mummies. In fact, it would appear as though the mummy-monks themselves had the item Mikoto so desired. Ha!
Shigeki was close to the final stages of the process; he was already beginning to ingest river stones and bark. He would be as like Daijuku one day, a Buddha, soon, and ready to stand in dissicated service among the shugendō.
His body was already so dry, so devoid of moisture that he could feel the essence of enlightenment suffuse his spirit. He drank the urushi tea, fighting the nausea it always brought with it, while also dispelling fears of failure, of not being worthy of preservation.
Those who, after undergoing the ceremonial burial left only with a small hole to breathe through until their time of death – signaled when the small bell they carried into the chamber no longer rang after the chanting of the sutras –, were exhumed after years and found to have decayed were summarily exorcised for their spirit had become foul and unworthy of being a true Sokushinbutsu.
In less than a week’s time Shigeki knew he would enter the chamber. He was assured of his success in achieving the final goal by the short visions he’d begun to have in the past few weeks. Little by little he saw clearer images of a man, one who had been through much trouble with the other realms of the illusory world and would have to go through even more, who would come seeking information on how to cross over into the other planes. Shigeki saw with clarity that this man had the potential to become something quite remarkable, one who would orchestrate the pattern of life in this world, and that he had already met with one such other. If Shigeki was to fail, wherefore would he be afforded these visions?
Shigeki cleared his mind and chanted a sutra, neither enjoying nor finding discomfort in the no-mind state. He sipped more of the urushi.
The Altai Mountains in Mongolia are a breathtaking sight. Grasslands and steppes as far as the eye can see gladdened the soul and let the mind wander off into curious segues, but Bas had learned some time ago not to allow his mind to wander too far lest it refuse to later come back.
He did note the familiar sensation of ancientness, of history and secrets arcane that seemed to seep from the ground as they made their way on horseback to where the Altai range lowered gradually and eventually became the Gobi Desert, where Genghis Khan had so long ago carved an empire unlike any other before it or since.
Jin was quiet and impassive as always, unassuming was his demeanor to anyone who was not familiar with his trade. How he managed to remain thus while riding a horse, Bas would never understand. He himself hated riding horses; he had only done so a handful of times and always felt like the horses liked having him atop as much as he enjoyed the alien feeling he always experienced.
The Sokushinbutsu sect he sought was rumored to be somewhere near the steppes, right on the fringe that lay between the Altai and the Gobi. Their current guide rode a few feet ahead on his own horse. Bas had managed to buy his expertise with a few odd trinkets and gold – yes, he carried gold, you had to when going into nomad country – and, through makeshift English, he had claimed to know the monks well as his tribe had common dealings with them on their route as they traveled the Altai region.
Bas found the weather, cold and bitter, to be quite agreeable. Must be those old Norse genes somewhere in his blood coming to the surface, basking in their freedom to run his life according to his newfound talents. He had only recently come to understand that he was an Ulfethnar, which stood for Wolf-brother in the old Norse tongue. Not quite a werewolf like some people he knew, but very much a mangy mongrel sort of a guy, he thought. The bottom line was, he was still getting the hang of his newly discovered attributes. Maybe one day he would be able to be as effective in difficult situations as freakin’ Jin.
They finally began to descend through the rocky steppes with the sun nearly melted into the West, the bright glowing ember of the twilit sky to their left. They came upon a series of caves carved out of the side of the sloping rock, seemingly hewn out of the ground by nature’s inclemencies, where their guide signaled them to halt.
They dismounted and followed two steps behind the guide into the largest of the cave mouths and were met by the echoing sound of deep chanting voices. Bas recognized some of the Japanese but most of it seemed to be too archaic for him to make out more than a word or two every few lines. Deeper into the cave they were greeted by a thin Japanese man wearing woolen un-dyed garments that looked like they would itch so bad Bas would likely tear his skin off if he’d had to wear such a robe. He expected to find the monks bald but instead the thin man had a gnarled mat of dreadlocks shaded in grey from rock dust and likely decades of being unacquainted with personal hygiene.
The monk said something in a dialect Bas assumed to be Mongolian, from what little he’d heard in the few minutes they had been in the nomad camp negotiating with their guide. The thin monk looked first at Jin and then at Bas, at whom he smiled as if recognizing him, and waved with his hands for them to follow him deeper into the cave.
A few meters further in, a set of three human-carved rock chambers were placed in the middle of a larger, natural chamber opening. The chanting came from all three of the small chambers, which housed a monk each undergoing the final stage of the process of becoming a true Sokushinbutsu. Each one of them had a bell that they would ring after finishing each sutra, each bell rang a different note. A change in the harmony would indicate the death of one of the monks. None would be removed for years, but as each one died the chamber would be filled with sand from the Gobi and sealed completely, after which they would be reopened and assessment of their Sokushinbutsu-hood would ensue. It was said that if the corpse was not perfectly preserved the monk’s spirit would be trapped and become hateful, therefore an exorcism would be administered. Bas knew enough of the universe and the weirdness to understand that angry spirits were no laughing matter. He passed by the chambers with genuine awe and reverence as they were led into what he assumed was the innermost chamber, where the Buddha mummies were housed.
The necropolis was enormous, the entirety of the natural structure was lined with row upon row of mummified bodies, propped like statues parallel facing the middle of the chamber as soldiers would, their dry-eyed stares meeting one another. Large as a football field, he surmised that at least a couple of centuries-worth of monks was accounted for therein.
Jin and his guide remained behind as he was led to one of the more recent mummies almost at the end of the procession, as they were arranged from oldest at the chamber’s awning to newest deep into the cave. Bas wondered what would happen when they ran out of room as would inevitably happen; new inductees into the order came periodically from Japan and, at times, other places where some schmuck or another would get it into their head that they were a reincarnation of some monk and self-mummification was the final step to take in their journey through the material illusion of this world.
His mummy was just as moldy as any of the others, looking neither fresher nor dryer, having no indication of how old it really was. Just as he was about to ask the thin monk about the mellified man –he couldn’t forget about his other reason for being there – a voice came from the mummy before him.
Raspy and deep as if emerging from an unfathomable abyss, it said in perfect English, “It is good to see you, wolf-cub. I have waited for you and am glad at your arrival.”
Bas only hesitated a moment, he was surprised but he was used to the preternatural.
“The Miren is here,” the mummy went on. “You will be allowed to take it after we have finished.”
“Thank you,” said a composed Bas. The strangeness of the situation did not escape him, no matter how familiar he was with the weird.
“I arranged for it to be brought here as was seen long before, shown to me in my visions before I became as like the Buddha. The spirit of the man that sacrificed himself for this wonder has found its way to the source, finally.”
Not being sure about what to respond to that, Bas simply said, “I… that’s good, I think.”
“Quite,” the mummy said. “I hope this information as well as the item itself serves as suitable consolation for my not being able to provide the answers you believe you seek. Though this realization will inevitably be bitter, I hope the knowledge will increasingly dulcify your life in time”
“I don’t think I follow,” Bas was taken off balance by the mummy-monk’s reply and waited for it to clarify.
“You seek to cross over, to move through the different veils of the illusion of this world, but you cannot do so yet and will not learn how to do so from anything currently available in this world, this dimension. But do not despair, I have seen that it will come to you of its own volition, it will seek you out soon enough. Your child is well and does retain the bond to you despite the intractable distance, though she may not remember, she may not know. Her soul does, however.
Bas fought tears back, feeling a knot build in his throat while a dark hand of despair clenched at his chest, a fist of bleakness. He listened, still, trying to find meaning and solace in the mummy-monk’s words.
“Let the tears flow. You have not done so enough as of late. The sorrow builds and breaks down your light, and it is a disservice to the worlds and your future that you allow it to be so,” said the mummy-monk.
Pushing through tight airways, Bas’ voice piped high and weak, “How am I supposed to do anything if I can’t find a way to my daughter? How can I be anything but what I am now?”
“Child, you hold the knowledge already, the words given to you by the shining immortal,” deep compassion and understanding flowed through the mummy’s voice. “You must find peace in the knowledge that what you need will come to you from your past and across the veil, to seek you out. You must help but be wise and discern where your help is needed and where you must withhold it. Then and only then will you be given the means to move across the waters. It is not truly waiting without action, but acting in potentiality under the knowledge that it will come to pass.”
Bas closed his eyes and tears rolled down his face, no longer held back as he was overcome with sharp sadness and, somehow, a strange warmth as he listened to the mummified monk’s words. It was like an embrace was afforded to him by something incorporeal that reached into his core and, in the midst of the turmoil in his soul, found the means by which to grant him a glimmer of hope. It reminded him of being held by his mother as a child.
“You will go now and remember my words. You will learn the love of the Buddha, the peace of the Buddha may then come to you as well. You who deal with the gods and the horrors of the illusory world, you must be strong because you are frail, you must be steadfast because you can easily be moved. You will see far into the mechanism behind the illusory world and not be overwhelmed by what you are shown. Wolf-cub, you will be given all you need in due time.”
After a few minutes of silence where no more words emerged from the mummy, Bas walked sullenly back to the chamber’s awning. Jin searched his face and gave a small sign that he noticed Bas’ state of mind. So the man was able to express some emotion after all, he thought to himself. Perhaps Jin had developed some form of bond having spent so many weeks with him and was taken slightly aback by the pained expression of defeat on his face.
They retrieved the Miren, the mellified man, and were given a beast of burden as a gift to carry the large, clay jar that housed the honeyed mummy for Mr. Mikoto. On the journey back to the outpost where they would use a radio to call a helicopter that would then take them to a clandestine airport, Bas could not beat the demons in his head nor change his mood to one of optimist despite the monk’s message.
They would manage to deliver the Miren without trouble, surprisingly, as whomever or whatever had tried to occlude their progress in acquiring the odd item apparently relented or simply watched. Bas suspected they would hear or know from it soon enough.
Dark days had seen him since he had lost his child to his former wife and, it would seem, the light would not yet be shining upon him. One more mile, he said to himself, one more mile.