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About the Author
Matthew R. Loney is a writer whose work has appeared in a range of North American publications, including installments Three and Four of the Carter V. Cooper Short Fiction Anthology Series, the political short fiction anthology Everything Is So Political, and Writing Without Direction: 10½ Short Stories by Canadian Authors Under 30. He was short-listed for the 2013 Vanderbilt/Exile Short Fiction Competition and appeared in ELQ/Exile: The Literary Quarterly. He lives in Toronto.
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That Savage Water
By Matthew R. Loney
Exile EditionsCopyright © 2014 Matthew R. Loney,
All rights reserved.
THAT SAVAGE WATER
Out where the eastern bank of the Ganges curved into a broad, alluvial sand belt, the backs of the melon farmers arched in broken parabolas over the low-lying foliage. Silhouetted against the sky, the women's saris blew out behind them like the curtains of forgotten attic windows. Closer, tourists in wooden boats clustered off the western shore. They drifted in front of the ghats, raising a bulwark of Nikons in time to catch the bathers dip beneath the surface and then rise with vigorous two-handed scrubs of their faces. Oars cradled themselves patiently in the roughened palms of the rowers; the water lapped against their hulls, a pacifist. Dawn in Varanasi always yielded spectacular photos.
Five months ago, Sal had woken before dawn for the same reason. The air, he remembered, smelled of burning hair and open sewer just enlivened by the sun. Whole families, undressed or fully clothed, descended into the Ganges on stone stairways flanking the shoreline. Grime floated past them in gelatinous layers. Petrified in the thick water, broken garlands of marigolds rode atop submerged plastic bags; ruptured shadows of rotten fruit hovered just beneath the surface. Perched on the wooden seat, eager with his camera, Sal too had been rowed out onto the holy river to catch the sunrise cascade off the bathers' bodies. How long ago that morning seemed, his first in Varanasi.
Today, however, he'd felt confident enough to ask the boatman in broken Hindi to row past the barrier of tourist boats out to the far bank where the melon farmers were already tending to the sandy fields. The face of the rower, once measled by acne, was stretched over by a taut jaw of grey whiskers. He wobbled his head in acceptance of the price Sal offered and pushed the boat away from the ghat, leaping aboard with silent, feline agility. Perhaps it was because death was so exposed in this city – the perpetual funeral of an eternal cataclysm – that the residents appeared at peace in their daily suffering and survival. Aghori sadhus, members of the most extreme of the ascetic sects, roamed the cremation grounds and ate from bowls made of human skulls. Naked, their hair matted like a mongrel's, they wandered the ghats or sat meditating next to funeral pyres, their bodies coated white with the ashen remains. Death smelled a different colour here.
Sal watched the curls of water surge against the hull with the rhythm of the rower's pulls. Marigold petals spiraled in orange mandalas over the particled surface. He'd seen what went into the Ganges. Riding back in the dark from visiting with Vaman, the pyres had burned on the shore like beacons. Dead bodies shifted into detonations of sparks as the logs cracked and flames shot skyward into the full moon. Vaman was right. All was delusional attachment to temporary sense pleasures; sooner or later, the body would disintegrate. He knew that now. The news over the last two days had confirmed it for him.
Nearly every day Sal had crossed the Ganges to meet with Vaman. Some intangible wisdom encircled the young vairagi, and his words clung to the fractures in Sal's psyche like warm, soothing pulp.
 Once one becomes a master of self – Vaman offered Sal a tangerine – one becomes a master of life. This cage of the self is what is making our life so limited! How important to do away with all this nonsense.
Vaman's face seemed incapable of a frown. His expression was balanced in equanimity – the object of his meditations – but was not devoid of compassion. Confident, he spoke with an envious assurance that overrode any doubts Sal had about his age. A coarse beard roughened the young ascetic's chin and cheeks; his hair fell in tatted cords to his bare shoulders, and two lines of red streaked across his forehead. An ignorant question from Sal brought only a curious glint to Vaman's eyes, followed by a devastatingly practical answer.
The bank was already beginning to fill with families who came to the far side of the Ganges to picnic and escape the pestilent crush of the city. Doubling itself in its reflection, a white pony stood in the shallows and nosed down to its ripples to drink. Boys kicked up glittering fans of spray as they sprinted into the river and then dove beneath the surface – the offspring of the melon farmers who seemed so at home on this temporary embankment. When the monsoons arrived, the water would submerge the shore and they would exodus into the city to set up equally temporary shacks in abandoned alleyways. Having nothing meant freedom, Sal thought. It meant liberation.
 You don't want this? – the guesthouse owner asked when Sal offered him his backpack – What's the problem, man? Where you going to put your clothings anyway?
 Won't need any clothes. Just one pair, what I'm wearing.
 No clothings, sure, sure – the man unzipped the bag and peered inside – No shoes too?
 Don't need those either.
 What you going to do anyway, huh, no-shoes?
The blades of the ceiling fan cut across the TV screen in the upper corner of the room. An Indian newscaster was reporting from the southeastern coast. In continual playback from shaky cameras, an enormous wave rushed into shore flooding the streets, cracking buildings, sweeping vehicles away. Upside-down fishing boats pursued men clinging to palm trunks. Intercut with women wailing in Tamil, the survivors picked through the rubble searching for remnants of their children. Indonesia had been hit the hardest. South Thailand and Sri Lanka were destroyed. Burma was a black, suspicious silence. The rocketing death toll convinced Sal even more.
 You may not even have the opportunity to enjoy what you are working so hard for – Vaman had said – Everyday people's efforts are to acquire things that will most certainly vanish. What devastation! What devastation for the soul.
 I keep the bag for when you come back – the owner's eyes were fixed.
 I won't come back – Sal said.
 Sure sure, no-shoes-man. Think you are the first white guy to come to India and meet a guru? I'm Dalit but I'm Dravidian also. That means I'm no dummy! I keep the bag for when you come back.
 Thailand got hit too? – in the cool of a corner chair, an Australian backpacker slumped slack-jawed at the screen – Jesus, imagine that. All those tourist resorts on Phuket. Wham! A ton of dead foreigners on vacation.
Sal turned to leave – They all ran down to the beach to watch the wave.
He felt a tug tighten against him like an undertow. The ceiling fan sliced across the news anchor's face. It too would disintegrate.
To the left of the melon fields on a curve in the embankment where the Ganges turtles laid their eggs, Vaman's hut was a driftwood construction of scraps of tattered fabric. Perfect in its poverty, the sadhu's surroundings had intrigued Sal on his first trip to the far banks: a few oranges nested in a frayed basket, stacks of cow manure for a simple fire, a shrine to Rama, the Lord of self-control. Across the river, Varanasi swarmed while Vaman sat cross-legged, his eyes closed, chanting bhajans – a tranquil oasis opposite a flurry of death.
The desolation of the sandbank reminded Sal of an island tearing free of the mainland, a giant beach-raft of contented castaways riding farther from the chaotic shore. He felt nervous, as though if he lingered too long the city would disappear and he'd be caught adrift. Sal studied Vaman for some time before the sadhu finally broke from his meditation to stoke the fire.
 I was just curious – Sal raised his hand at the sadhu who spotted him – I'm sorry.
 You are on Krishna's land, not mine – Vaman replied – You need not make apology for that.
For a moment, Sal thought the man was a Westerner. He'd seen them in Delhi and Rishikesh, dread-locked foreigners in loincloths with begging bowls, pale-skinned disciples who'd grown tired of office politics, mortgages and dress socks, choosing instead to live in caves smoking hashish, owning nothing. How must it feel to leave everything behind? To pick up and walk away and start again?
 Nature is the best teacher for us humans – the sadhu broke a disc of manure and dropped the halves on the fire – So easily it can show you the state of your spirit, yes? Come and look here. Look here at this fire.
Sal came to the flames, a few bright sticks ignited against the dawn.
The sadhu spoke – If I am in sorrow, I will see that this fire contains sorrow, no? Or this river. To those who are not wanting to clean their hearts, it seems a filthy river. Yet to those who come seeking purification, it instantly becomes the Holy Ganges. Everything, you see, depends upon the vantage you are looking. But this takes time to understand. Much time! There are no shortcuts for this thinking – As though he expected a response, he lifted his bony face to look at Sal.
He could think of none except – Right. No shortcuts.
Vaman continued – Many people are now coming to India to learn meditation, to learn yoga. First, they lose themselves at the beach parties and then find themselves at yoga. In such an order it always happens. After, they go home to their countries and they want to make a school, to ask for money from students. Such a brilliant experience they had in India, they will tell you, so sure of enlightenment. After only these few lessons, maybe fifteen days or one month, they feel they can become a teacher!
The sadhu laughed. It reverberated like the wisest laugh Sal had ever heard, a lustrous, intelligent ripple that shocked the guru's eyes into brilliant sparks.
Sal went to the train station that night and cancelled his ticket to Agra.
One extra week in Varanasi became four; one month stretched into five. He'd boated across the river nearly every day, bringing Vaman small bags of cooked rice and fruit, sticks of juniper incense for his shrine. Under the shade of an orange remnant of fabric, he and Vaman would talk on the sand for hours and then meditate until dusk.
Trepidatious at first, Sal began to join him for his morning baths in the river. Vaman taught him how to recite the holy mantras while submerging: Asato ma sad gamaya. Lead me from ignorance to truth. As the intensity of his fears and desires subsided, vibrations of bliss, deep and profound, began to form like ripples on the inner corridors of his being. The water became an icy, primordial cocoon that caressed every surface of his body. Low, tremoring, the sensations grew and then began to move him into waves of tears. All his silly aversions and unskillful words replayed so fiercely in his mind and then vanished for good. Lead me from ignorance to truth.
One afternoon, the turtle eggs began to hatch. Out on the promontory, dark circles emerged from the sand like oil slowly bubbling to the surface. With clumsy flippers the hatchlings struggled towards the river. Vaman pointed Sal's attention to the sky: A gyre of vultures spiraled lower. As others landed, the largest buzzard hopped to the nest with its collared neck and crooked wings at full extension. It stabbed its beak into the sand with a few swift pecks.
 The turtles eat the bodies – Vaman said.
 Of course – he squinted across the Ganges at the columns of smoke lofting from the pyres – After the dead are in the water, very soon, very soon they are gone. Some humans eat turtles, yes, but then some turtles eat humans, so I must ask myself every day, what will eat me? What can possibly do it! Brahma created the world and Shiva will destroy it. We must treasure these many aspects of God.
Sal left the guesthouse with the TV behind him still broadcasting the disaster. He felt such unspeakable hatred at that wall of water, at its thunderous approach as it sped towards beaches spotted with curious families who had run out to the tide pools to gather shellfish. He wondered what it had all looked like from their perspective: Had they treasured God then? Had they praised their divine Creator as it roared at them with its velocity of barbarous indifference, a curled fist of ocean stretched so high it shadowed the sun? And for those who hadn't drowned, for those who'd clung to palm trees or held their breath, however they'd managed, everything had been lost or destroyed. Sometimes it was worse to survive a disaster. To survive meant you had to do something about it, to process the residue, to reconstruct a new philosophy from the rubble so as not to obliterate yourself in anger and hate.
Darkness in India no longer scared him. From the Rana ghat Sal walked along the labyrinth of steps and platforms until the Manikarnika ghat where cremations took place throughout the night. Still feared as cannibals, the Aghori sadhus sat by their fires in meditation. Sal carried nothing worth stealing, and the tsunami had confirmed to him that his life was as death-prone as anyone's. Once a protective shell, without his backpack he felt free and less vulnerable. Vaman had revealed to him his belongings had only been hindrances, a delusory coat of armour defending him against an already perfect reality he insisted on shying away from.
 I am trying to serve Krishna with a pure heart – Vaman admitted – I am travelling for many many years, just observing, just looking, trying to understand. I leave everything, my home, my family, only to understand nature. Every way the human is searching. Everywhere, people are searching many things, but it is not so easy for us to find truth. You are living in five-stars, in air-conditioned rooms where everything is easy and perfect, and in this life we say we are searching for truth? What a funny world, Sal. A very funny world ... Vaman's fingers toyed with the string of beads he used to count his bhajans. He stood and looked at Sal without speaking, then squatted in the shallows of the river, splashing water over his arms. Farther down the bank, two boys kicked water at the pony; it backed away with small shifts of its hooves.
 What should I do? – Sal stepped into the water beside him.
 That answer always depends on what you want to find.
 You'll live on this sandbank forever? When the monsoon comes?
 In the monsoon I will find new places to meditate. I no longer maintain illusions of permanence, Sal. I am not even convinced of being a sadhu forever. You see, I will die one day and so I will no longer be a sadhu. Only my skinny corpse will be a sadhu then!
A charred leg shifted in the fire, paused, and then dropped out of the coals completely. Gripping it with tongs, an attendant placed it back on the pyre. Sal could see the skeletal mouth and gaping rows of teeth, the rib cage bowed like the curve of a hull. Its family stood throwing handfuls of marigolds onto the bed of embers. Here, the river was thick and sooty, and the water lapped up onto a small beach where the ashes and remnants were raked through and left for the waves. Sal pictured a phalanx of turtles drifting offshore just under the surface, their prehistoric eyes peering through waxy membranes for undevoured pieces. Everything seemed so potently clear when he observed the water closely.
Like Vaman said, death has been our destination from the beginning. It made sense when he'd heard it, but he'd never taken time to dwell on it. Standing here on the ghats as the sparks flew up towards the moon, he felt a peace settle into him. It would come. One day, maybe even tomorrow, his own extinguishment was sure to come. He'd given his backpack and shoes to the guesthouse owner. All that remained in his pockets were a few rupee notes and his ragged passport. They too were temporary, transient, uncertain. There was nothing in the world one could count on for stability. The disaster had proven that. Nature hadn't discriminated between good and evil, between tourists or locals. Death wouldn't either.
Instantly igniting, his passport flared into enlightened orange flames that cooled into ash. The fire attendant raked them against the shore where they hissed on the sand. Tonight Sal would sleep tucked into the stoop of some temple doorway, his body receiving with equanimity whatever sensations came and went. In the morning, he would boat across the Ganges to study alongside Vaman for good.
The sky had brightened to an early blue by the time the bow slid onto the sandbank. The melon farmers trimmed the vines with curved machetes, throwing the foliage into woven baskets strapped to their backs. A final spark of conviction shot through Sal. He was excited to tell Vaman what he'd done, the path he'd chosen. He wanted to see the young guru's eyes light up, to watch that grin crack beneath his beard. Life was uncertainty and Vaman had taught him to embrace its fluctuations without ever trying to manipulate them.
Excerpted from That Savage Water by Matthew R. Loney. Copyright © 2014 Matthew R. Loney,. Excerpted by permission of Exile Editions.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
ContentsTHAT SAVAGE WATER,
THE PIGEONS OF PESHAWAR,
LES 3 CHEVALIERS,
A SEVERED ARM,
CRAWLING WITH THIEVES,
A FEAST OF BEAR,
THE VAGRANT BORDERS OF KASHMIR,
FROM THE LOOKOUT THERE ARE TREES,
A FIRE IN THE CLEARING,
SOFT CORAL, SINKING PEARL,
JESUS VERY THIN AND HUNGRY,
THE ROAD TO JERUSALEM GOES THROUGH KARBALA,