The Bag Without any Bottom 2/3
One late summer evening, when the air was heavy and perfumed with jasmine, he went for a walk in his master’s garden. Unnoticed, he came upon Fatyma, now a young woman of shy but glowing loveliness. She was sitting on a stone bench beneath a hanging of wisteria, singing to herself,
“My love, I know
that I am young,
but mine is not
a childish heart.
Your wisdom to
Ket’her gazed at Fatyma, radiant beneath the wisteria, and saw her for the first time as a grown woman. He took a step, his foot touched a dry twig and snapped it . . .
In a panic, Fatyma parted the wisteria vines and saw Ket’her standing there. Her heart raced with embarrassment and love, and she lowered her gaze to the ground, crying. Ket’her rushed forward when he saw her tears; tenderly he took the young girl in his arms, then lowered his lips to hers . . .
Never before had Ket’her been in love. Everything else, every joy, every trial he had ever experienced seemed nothing compared to this. He and Fatyma spent every spare moment together, and learned from each other the art and passion of love.
“Surely I have found it now,” Ket’her sighed to himself. “Love! Love is the only true bag without a bottom. No matter how deeply I delve into my love for Fatyma, how often I think of her, or how closely I hold her, I never reach the end of this feeling. Truly love is all.”
One evening, lying secretly in each other’s arms, Ket’her and Fatima vowed to marry as soon as possible. “Tomorrow I will approach your father,” Ket’her said. “He thinks of me as a son. Surely he will welcome our news.”
But that morning, Ket’her’s request was anything but welcomed.
“What? You dog of the streets?!” cried Zod. “You betrayer of trust, perverter of children! Do you think my beautiful daughter is for the likes of you? No, already I have arranged a marriage for her with old Mikla, the vintner. That’s an alliance worthy of this house. When he goes to Paradise, his vineyards and wine presses will come to our family, and I will not only sell the wine, but own its production as well. My daughter will be the wealthiest woman in the City, not the wife of some wandering storyteller from nowhere!” And immediately Zod had Ket’her expelled from his home, and sent his daughter away on a ship, its destination known only to him, where she should stay until her wedding with old Mikla, the City dweller.
Zod’s men hurried Ket’her out of the City, with only a few possessions in a rucksack, and none of his gold. Zod then used his influence with the Lord of the City, who proclaimed Ket’her banished upon pain of death for the crime of seduction of the young.
Ket’her’s heart was a stone in his chest; his spirits were broken. He had lost his love, his countryman, and his fortune all in one day. Aimlessly he wandered from the City into a deep forest that bordered it to the east.
Many days and nights Ket’her roamed the forest, not knowing or caring where he was. He lapped water from the streams like an animal, and ate berries and pig nuts. His clothes hung more and more loosely about him, which thankfully made them easier to wrap around him each night, as he slept in the open air. After a time, Ket’her looked more like a madman escaped from an asylum then a young merchant, teacher, and teller of tales.
The day came when Ket’her could go on no longer; he resolved to lie down in the spot where he was and die. Bitterly he reached down into his bag; all that was left there was the icon of the Virgin that his mother had tended so lovingly. Placing his soul in her hands, Ket’her hugged the icon to his chest, lay down among the pine needles and waited for death.
That was how an old monk, Theophilus the Infirmarian, found him, as he was out gathering medicinal herbs by moonlight. He hurried back to his abbey and called to his brother monks. Soon Ket’her was lying in a bed of clean straw in the abbey infirmary, the kind brother feeding him a little broth with a spoon.
Under the tender care of the monks of the Abbey of the Deep Woods, Ket’her slowly regained his strength. Brother Theophilus asked him no questions, nor did any other brother, although they often stopped to look in on him.
One morning, after lauds had been sung, the Abbot of the monastery came to visit Ket’her. “Brother,” he said, “we know nothing at all about you and need to know nothing. Clearly you are a man of sorrows, but each man here has his own story, which is the past. Here, in the Abbey, we recognize the vanity of worldly things. Each of us has begun life anew within these walls, a life dedicated to simple brotherhood and prayer to our patroness, Our Lady of the Deep Woods.”
At this the Abbot pulled from his great sleeve the icon that Ket’her knew so well.
“This was found with you in the forest; your arms were wrapped so tightly around it that we could hardly relax them. It would seem that you, too, love the Virgin as we do. What say you, brother? Will you turn away from the world that has treated you so harshly, and join us here in our peaceful forest, under the protection of the Virgin?”
Ket’her was moved to tears, both at his own sorrows and the Abbot’s embrace. Readily he said yes, and that very day donned the chestnut-brown habit of a novice, under the name “Brother Found.” As was the custom, he was given a mentor from among the older monks, from whom he would learn the monastic life. Ket’her was very glad when the Abbot himself took him as his pupil and servant.
Another year passed. Ket’her easily joined the life of the monastery, praying at intervals during the day, chopping wood in the forest to sell to the villagers nearby, keeping times of quiet reflection, and serving his master, the Abbot Dominus.
The Abbey of Our Lady of the Deep Woods stood within the far end of the forest; people would venture in to buy wood from the monks (their wood was rumored to burn sweetly, with a slight scent of incense.) Often they would seek advice and solace from the holy brothers. Ket’her’s master, Abbot Dominus, was especially known as a confessor and advisor. When a troubled man would come to the Abbot’s cell, Ket’her would admit him, then scurry away, leaving confessor and penitent their privacy.
Still, Ket’her could not help but hear some of what was said in the adjoining cell; he especially heard his master’s booming voice as he exhorted his listener with great eloquence, sound advice, and quotations from learned books. The penitent always seemed to depart edified.
In the evenings, after Vespers, Abbot Dominus would sit and instruct his novice. Many and deep were the mysteries of this faith, its philosophers, saints and doctrines. Dominus was a dramatic teacher, and the young Brother Found was enthralled.
“This at last is the life I have been seeking,” Ket’her would think to himself as he slipped off to sleep on his cot. “Never have I heard such wisdom and holiness; its depths are fathomless. Religion is the one, true bag without any bottom. If I live a thousand years, I shall never exhaust all the facets of faith . . .”
One day, Abbot Dominus entered into a period of retreat for forty days and nights, as was the custom of abbots in his order. He entered a hermitage on the far side of the monastery grounds and saw no one for all that time. Ket’her was left on his own.
It was only the second day of the Abbot’s retreat when a knock came on the door of his cell, which Ket’her was cleaning. He opened the door and saw a man in a turban much like those he himself had worn in his own home, although the star dangling from his neck marked him as a member of a minority people. He greeted the man in his own language, and the visitor, who had seemed very downcast, immediately looked up, expectantly.
The stranger asked for the Abbot Dominus, but Ket’her told him of his forty-day retreat. The man looked grief-stricken. “I have traveled from our homeland, a great journey as you know, over mountains, through the Great City, across this forest, to seek out the advice of this holy man. I do not even know what faith he professes, only that everywhere men speak of his sage counsel. And now you tell me that he is inaccessible?”
The man sat on the rude bench in the abbot’s cell and put his face in his hands. In a moment, however, he looked up again.
“You,” he said to Ket’her, “you are his assistant, and you are one of my own countrymen. Could you not hear my story and help me, brother?”
Ket’her was shamefaced at the very idea of replacing his master, even for a moment. With stuttering words he explained that he would like to help, but that what the stranger asked was out of the question. Still, the penitent persisted, begging and pleading with the young novice to hear his confession. Finally he said, “If you will not do this for me, do it for your own mother. I know well the cabin in which you once dwelt. If you will help me, I swear by my life that no sabbath will pass without flowers being placed on your mother’s grave. This I will do for the rest of my days, if you will only hear my story, brother.”
This was too much for the young novice to resist. But how was he to hear the man’s confession? He knew nothing of being a confessor, the manner, the prayers . . . ?
“Wait here for a moment,” Ket’her said to his countryman. Quickly he went to his room and returned with his mother’s icon.
“Do you know who this is?” Ket’her asked.
“I do not know for certain,” answered the penitent, “but she is very beautiful. Perhaps she is the Shekinah, the spirit of God who has joined her people in exile in this world. We also call her the Sabbath Queen, the Lady of Peace.”
“Make your confession to her,” whispered Ket’her.
The man began to speak, looking deeply into the eyes of the Virgin. He spoke of his life, his triumphs and tragedies, of a son with whom he had been harsh, and who had run away, never to be found . . . Bitterly, the man wept.
When he had finished, Ket’her knew that he had no words of wisdom to impart to him. Who, after all, was Ket’her to do so? Instead he said to the man, “What is the holiest prayer in your faith?”
“The sacred ‘Shema,’ answered the penitent, “‘Hear, oh Israel, hear! The Lord your God, the Lord is One.’”
“Let us pray it slowly together,” said Ket’her. And they did so.
After that, Ket’her bent forward, gave the man the kiss of peace on his forehead, and bid him goodbye. The man kissed the icon and went on his way.
Two days later, another knock came to the door of the abbot’s cell. Here was another man, clearly a foreigner with cocoa-colored skin and large brown eyes.
“I am sorry, brother,” said Ket’her, but Abbot Dominus is on retreat for thirty-six more days.”
“It is not the Abbot that I seek, honored sir,” answered the man. “I have heard tell as I journeyed through the forest of a young monk who lifted the cares of the troubled without words, but with a beautiful picture and a kiss of peace. Are you that monk?”
Ket’her explained that he was only a novice who had once sought to help a countryman – one time and one time only.
But the new penitent persisted. “Kind sir, I know little of your god or his ways. I have traveled from the other side of the earth, wandering heartbroken and aimless. I was engaged to a beautiful girl, the queen of my heart. But her father broke off our betrothal, to marry her to an old and wealthy man . . .”
Ket’her was beaten. He bid the man be seated, as he sought out his mother’s icon.
“Do you know who this is?” Ket’her asked the stranger.
“I do not know for certain, but she seems to me to be Rega, consort of Lord Krishna, she who brings joy into the hearts of lovers.”
“Tell your cares to her,” whispered the novice.
The young man poured out his heart, weeping all the while. Ket’her said nothing, only held the icon of the Virgin before the penitent’s eyes.
When the young man had finished, Ket’her asked him, “What is the holiest prayer in your tradition?”
“The sacred word ‘Om,’ replied the penitent. “It means ‘The Blessed Oneness of All Things.’ We repeat it, in and out, with our breathing.”
“Let us do so together,” said Ket’her.
And the two breathed deeply the mystic Om before the icon of the Virgin. Then Ket’her kissed the young man on the forehead; he in turn kissed the image before him, and left in peace.
After that, hardly a day passed that someone did not knock on the door. Some saw in the icon the Virgin Mother, others Maya Devi, the mother of the Buddha, others still Fatima of long ago, the best-loved wife of the Prophet (at this, Ket’her’s heart winced a little). Each penitent went away relieved of his burden.
Finally the day came on which the Abbot was to return from his retreat. He entered his cell and warmly greeted his student.
“So, my Brother Found,” he said, “has anything of interest happened in my absence?”
Ket’her was about to lay the entire matter at the feet of his master, when a quiet knock sounded at the door. Motioning with a smile for Ket’her to stay where he was, the Abbot opened the door. He was not surprised to see a penitent standing there, but was taken aback when he asked for Ket’her rather than himself. Puzzled, he silently pointed to his novice, and left the room.
Ket’her was chagrined, but the penitent would speak to no one but him. The little ritual commenced; the man was quite old and belonged to those people of the forest who clung still to the old gods. To him, the icon represented the Earth Mother from whom all life sprang.
After the old man had left, the Abbot, who had waited outside the door, quickly re-entered his cell. In a rush, Ket’her explained what had happened in his absence. The Abbot nodded grimly, but said nothing, except, “Return to your regular duties now, brother.”
Ket’her tried to obey his master, going back to gathering wood and reading books on the monastic life. But whenever he returned from the forest or the Abbey library, there would be one, two, sometimes an entire line of people standing at the Abbot’s door, none of whom wished to see the Abbot. For his part, Dominus neither forbade nor encouraged his student’s actions, but looked sternly at the entire scene on his way out of the door.
About ten days had passed this way. That morning, the Abbot was in another part of the Abbey, and Ket’her was cleaning the cell, when a knock came at the door. Sighing to himself, Ket’her opened it, and saw to his astonishment a woman standing alone there.
“How did you come here?” he asked, looking up and down the corridor fearfully, for women were strictly forbidden from the monastery.
“I followed a narrow path leading from a well in the forest to a small door in the Abbey wall. I entered it and saw no one — the monks are out gathering wood, I think. I wandered these halls until I found the cell with an abbot’s cross on the door. Forgive me, brother, but my needs are great. Are you the one they call Found?”
“You cannot stay here!” the flustered Ket’her pleaded. “It is forbidden!”
“Do not women also have burdens, young brother? Do we not also need to find peace?” And she turned her eyes upward toward him.
She seemed neither old nor young; her eyes were deep and luminous. There was something of his mother in her, and of Fatyma . . . A moment before, he was about to slam the door, but now her eyes had won him over. He stepped aside and she entered.
to be continued