Saturday afternoon, T. spotted Marla as she crossed the street. Who could mistake that insidious dark-rooted blond mane that cascaded down her shoulders in careless waves, the black blending into yellow, touching the tops of her powdered white shoulders. She worked for the Save the Condor people, T. had seen her speak out at hearings. Yeah, the enemy, but what the hell, why not say hello? He shadowed her among the parallel parkers, pursuing her down the sidewalk. As she flitted in and out of juniper hedges, he darted under cover of orange blooms of hibiscus. She did not look back.
Along the storefronts, T. followed her into -- oh, horrors -- the Bookshop with the Pathway to Eternity. Among the seekers of published enlightenment, she seemed a little too pale-goth for the organic crowd. Into the Oriental Animistic Section, comfortable entry was allowed only to bodhisattvas wearing outer proof of their enlightenment. Long-bearded but shaven-head ex-hippies turned universal-soul-variety mystics, with their unshaven velcro-sari-wrapped life partners, browsed volumes on demonolatry, spirit exorcism, and magical formulas -- yikes. T. wished he could wrap a sarong around his blue collared shirt to blend in. Picking up a book on shamanistic healing in Siberia, prayer murmur and hymn intonation played from the sound system; bleating horns and crashing drums surprised him. Marla and the devotees circumambulated the quiet book nooks, some murmuring the core mantra, Om Mane Padme Hum (Ah! the jewel is indeed the lotus!), as prayer wheels twirled. T. read about how to direct his qi to a good-energy channel, and the Absolute in Chinese cosmology was offered in a two-videocassette course with a money-back guarantee. The guy next to him read Lao Tse while smirking to his knowing self, trying to look disheveled as proof from his freedom of desire.
T. grabbed a Himalayan Travel Guide and regarded Marla soaring along the pathway to eternity. He had to get to the office to finish his socioeconomic impact analysis for Phase I of their development proposal to be presented to the chairman on Monday. But Marla -- should he tell her who he worked for? No.
Among Oriental spices and perfumed shelves of Balinese love charms, the people sipped tea and flipped through the pages; T. felt the aura of deep meditation, a practice that might help him forget his job at The Big Company. The bookstore directory listed gurus and soothsayers and self-help therapists who understood the secret of overcoming. The ads in the margins implied lust and anger could be subverted with but a few sessions. Was it true? Depositing a life's savings of good karma into a Transmigration Account from the National Bank of Nirvana for investment into the next incarnation might be the only way to rise above this din. The next life would be the one, oh Nirvana, oh Heaven, oh Shimilaqsha -- why worry?
T. moved closer to this death-hued environmental activist. Time for a word. Just to say hi.
She picked up a volume on the I Ching, and T. said, "Hey, could you tell me what that thing is about?"
She smiled. "The I Ching? I don't know. I think it's a book of divination. I'm trying to figure out why my life is such a mess."
"Can I read that after you?"
At that moment, some guy stepped in front of T. and said, "Hello, there, my dear."
"Hello," she said, taking a step back.
T. wanted to push him out of the way, but instead looked into a book on healing with rocks. Had to get in line for this woman.
The guy was balding, tall with sunken eyes, clothes baggy, fashioned from traditional Indonesian Ikat fabrics, complete with red and black serpents and birds, water buffaloes and woven blue-monster designs. His bored eyes seemed to sparkle. "I don't mean to bother you, but I recognize you."
"I was just reading -- you scared me."
"My apologies," the man said, smiling. "You were at the Sufi festival last weekend. They were doing the condor dance, flying, and I saw you. I must tell you, you are the most graceful being I ever have seen."
She seemed to fake a smile. "Oh, that's sweet. Thank you. Yes, I was at the Sufi festival."
How depressing to be outmaneuvered by the Sufi Festival guy. T. wanted to find out why her life was such a mess.
"The condor dance," the man breathed out, "it was riveting. When I moved my arms, I really was flying."
"It is a wonderful catharsis."
"You are in a band, aren't you?"
"My name is Phil. It is a true pleasure to make your acquaintance."
"Hello, Phil," she looked back at the I Ching, or maybe some way to escape the din of the outer world. T. looked at his watch. Time to get out of here.
"And your name is?"
She hesitated. "Marla."
"Marla," Phil repeated wistfully. "I am a member of the Semimonastic Fellowship on Al-Gazel. We have a temple up in the Canyon, and next Saturday we're having a workshop. Maybe you and your band would like to join us?"
"We don't . . . " she looked down at her book, "we don't do many gigs."
"That German, the man with the shaved head and tattoos, he plays the vina, doesn't he?"
"Why yes, Sid. He's been studying Hindu devotional music for years. He also plays the sitar, surbahar, and the tabla."
"He seemed to have a special light, a special brilliance. I am heartened to see another Westerner, like myself, display such grace, such . . . power."
"He says he used to be an ascetic in India, drifting around Goa or something, but he ended up in Dharamsala, where he became a monk for a while. He studied with the Dalai Lama himself."
"He shouldn't have come back. Now he looks like a skinhead."
"A skinhead?" She laughed. "Sid is a self-supremacist, seeking out the arcane sages of ancient Tibet. He's a genius."
"A self-supremacist?" T. interrupted, not able to suffer another word.
"That's what he calls himself."
"What is that?"
She looked at T., not recognizing him as a developer functionary, thankfully. "I don't know what that is. Sid hates just about everything here. Since he got back to the States he has sworn off peace. In this world, peace does not exist. Just like they tortured the sages of Tibet, we as a people are suffering our own state of slow decline. My band and I are sick of the destruction going on around us."
Phil stepped closer. "That is so beautiful, Marla. You know, I see you, and I feel I know you. I saw you dance like that wonderful bird, I saw you fly higher than the sky could hold. We Sufis are all united, as you know, in our immediate personal union with the soul of God. I see you and I know you understand."
"And what about you?" she asked T. "What are you doing to make the world a better place? You want to come out to our rally this weekend in the mountains? We are fighting a housing development that would devastate the last home of the California Condor."
The pathway to eternity: Marla on the sacred peak Chomo-Lungama, the mother goddess where human remains were disposed of through sky burial. Couldn't hurt to get close to the protesters. Couldn't hurt to just...know what's going on. "Do you have a number where I could reach you?"