Sunday, June 11, 2006


We can see sunlight cresting over the Buddha's knee, rays picking their way through kitchen windows, tea on to boil, kids moving softly to the table, hair standing up in pillow-rubbed clumps.

The kids run out ahead after breakfast, tagging each other, bare feet slapping stone, voices ringing back from whitewashed walls. We hang back, our hands full with buckets and brushes and rags, taking the time to talk, squinting up at the sun, while we are still shoulder-to-shoulder within the village; once we come to the grassy edge, we'll fan out, taking up our places along the Buddha's leg.

Our village shelters under his right knee; my family, as far back as memory goes, has had charge of the Buddha's left foot, tucked lotus-wise in the crook of the knee. We are finishing the gold leaf on his big toe a little before solstice this year. A full week to rest before starting again at the heel, where the shine is already dulled, the delicate lapis scrollwork begun last year losing its crisp edges.

The sun is straight overhead when I unpack our lunch. We mimic the Buddha's posture, sitting down cross-legged to eat, looking out across the plain to see his finger coming down to meet the earth; the Buddha forever at the moment of enlightenment, hovering a second before touching earth to let creation know of his epiphany.

This is my last season here. I'm marrying age now, and have to travel to another village to find a spouse. I'll seek out the people in the left knee, or maybe the hand; the villages higher up the mountain seem to have forgotten their work. Even from here we can see patches of neglect along his shoulders, our foot far outshining his face. What little we hear from them tells of a whole different world, of people who don't even know they live on the Buddha's shoulder. They keep the gold and lapis for themselves, stealing from each other, painting their houses and clothes instead.

Nobody remembers who first built the earthworks Buddha, the center of our world. They were our ancestors, working with clay rather than paint. The villages were closer in those days, they worked together, people passing easily from village to village as among family. My own grandfather came from upcountry in better days, wrinkles deepening between his eyes when he looks up at the worn face of our Buddha.

I know he wants me to go up there, bring the old, quiet ways back to them, but I'm only one person, who would listen to me?

So was the Buddha, says my grandfather, his brows casting shadows over his eyes, You don't know what you can do until you've tried.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

The beat goes on

I see her on the bus, now and then. She's a tall teenager with flawless skin and close-cropped hair. She doesn't look unfinished like most girls her age; she's already arrived at jaw-drop Beauty, but she doesn't know it or doesn't care.

"'Scuse me. 'Scuse me." She muscles her way toward the back of the bus, where her friends sit. It's crowded, and shoulders and bags and asses block her path. "'Scuse me." Her voice notches up, booming down the aisle. "I won't say it again!"

People skitter out of her way while a woman at the front of the bus rolls her eyes heavenward and hisses between her teeth.

The girl sits like a queen among her subjects.

I find a seat of my own, closer to the front than usual. I can't see the kids, but I can hear them, a miniature universe of drama at the back of the bus. A couple of voices ride up and over everything else.

"You put your foot on my foot!"

"So what? Get over it, nigga."

"You do not have the right to put your foot on my foot."

I take out my earphones to listen, catching the eye of a woman standing in the aisle. We're both smiling, loving every word, when the woman sitting to my right bursts out:

"These kids!"

The woman to my left takes it up:

"I hate this bus!"

Woman to my right:

"They don't do anything about it! There's no security people here with them!"

Security? I look over at her. Is she serious?

Her mouth is drawn together into a sticky pink fist, her jowls quivering with indignation.

I almost reply, Jesus, they're teenagers and they're loud, get over it, but I see this woman is more than angry. She's terrified. They're young and loud and a thousand times stronger than her. They can't imagine the day they'll be as old as her.

Someday, she will slip quietly out of the world, and they will go on being loud and crude and young - she can see it all, mascara clumped on her lower lashes, hands gripping her purse, tendons pulled taut - she can see them dancing on her grave.