a short story by Jerry Zinn
Light poured in, the misting stream of an impossibly high waterfall from the mail slot window above. As it flowed, it caught the dust suspended in the air, moving about with no clear direction, resulting in solid beams, which stroked the floor. Other than the fine particles the shrine was resting, no sounds, not a whisper from the foreboding gilded statute seated at the front, clothed in thick garments of embroidered blue and umber silk, its irises burning of the pure turquoise watering far off Caribbean islands. On the plaster walls innumerable figures, painted vividly generations before by the practiced hands, held their poses. Some bore expressions of power, some of horror, of astonishment, of fear, of love, and of peaceful meditation.
Around edges where walls turned to the vaulted ceiling of rough-hewn logs was hung a parade of tapestries adorned with the likenesses of supervising lamas of Laboche’s past. Their procession outlined the long history of the monastery, and if an eye followed the circumference of the room, the timeline provided the illusion the place had existed forever, no first lama, no last. Two large drums of green sheepskin, thinned in the centers from ceremonial pounding, stood guarding the heavy entrance doors. The wooden floor, its rolling topography smooth and blurrily reflective like brackish ponds, was lined with rows of short platforms. Atop sat humble red cushions prepared to receive the weight of the monks’ devotions.
The room gave off the impression it was a great host who spent the night tidying and was now ready to welcome its guests. A weak smell of previously burned incense lingered like a dried bouquet of spices, hitching onto the laden air and dissipating accordingly. Smoke no longer drifted from the golden bowl beneath the statute, the sticks had turned to a black ash that even a gentle breeze might stir like a dance in a macabre snow globe. The only perfections in the room of worship were its imperfections, the twisting supports with their jagged angles dovetailed with complementary pieces to create a strength that defied the tenants of architecture. All elements fit together, melting away the divides.
Through the sliver of a space between the carved, black doors, crept in the crackling buzz of the horn signaling the day had officially begun in the citadel. Warblings grew from a trickling grumble to a full-bodied roar as young Mazu warmed up his lungs with the instrument. Mazu’s call rose with the sun as it climbed confidently over the sails of snow-capped mountain-peak hulls. High in the clouds, Laboche was isolated from the nearest hamlet by more than 100 kilometers. At its inception, if in fact it had not grown with the mountains in a natural process, the place was chosen for its strategic perch, where the likelihood of disturbance was found to be immeasurably low.
With much softer creaks than its size might suggest Mazu pulled the door open by the hefty brass handle, having been touched so many times it felt like a dolphins slippery skin. In so doing, the sun flooded the room and the myriad sacred figurines along with the silvery thread of tapestries sparkled metallically. The gradually waking space had suddenly been shot with the life of its own spirit.
Even at his meager height, Mazu had to hunch over to avoid knocking his shaved head against the unforgiving doorframes. It was a lesson learned the hard way, as most had been in the earliest days of a life lived in solemn dedication. Mazu placed his hands together and bowed in reverence as he stepped onto the cold floor with thick-callused feet. Like a mouse sensing he was being watched, he slowly and methodically made his way to the back corner of the room by walking along the wall lined with rolled up carpets, their white fringe frayed but tucked neatly beneath the cloth logs they resembled.
From the ground he picked up the hand broom: thirty or so thin, rigid, moderately pliable sticks tied together by a coiled rope resembling the falling tail of a racehorse. Bending at the waist, Mazu began the daily task of dusting the prayer space. Using short strokes, taking conscientious care to ensure all refuse was accounted for, Mazu made his way in a weaving pattern past the wall-hangings and down the rows of seats.
Little had accumulated, moved into a small hump by the door, as daily care prohibited it. The dirt that did not make it into the pile was donated to the air around him, further matter in which the rays could disperse. After sweeping out the remaining crooks, Mazu let out a sigh that revealed his loneliness. Once a lively place of eighty or so monks, moving from one place to the next in maroon robes like rolling cranberries, Laboche’s last remaining resident was Mazu. One by one the monks fell ill before their spirits left them. It had been a few months since Zhang died, the last person to whom Mazu spoke. It seemed ironic that the monastery’s youngest and oldest monks were the only to survive the incomprehensible plight. Mazu too wished he could disappear, and while he often thought of venturing out of Laboche, his strict loyalty and adherence to tradition kept him wedded to his location.
He went about the rest of the day as he always did. He prayed when it was the prescribed hour, cooked his meals when he was supposed to, tended the small farm, and spent time copying from the ancient scrolls housed in the library. He could join only himself in prayer, dine with the table for company, harvest the vegetables for his own stores, and present the new scrolls for only his eyes to appreciate. As the days went by Mazu allowed himself to reflect more and more on his life. He wondered what the world was like outside of Laboche. He had only vague memories of his brief time before, or were they dreams? Mazu was no longer able to differentiate. All he knew how to do was carry on his responsibilities.
It was clear to him that he was alone in his tasks, and it seemed a wasted hope to think he would ever come across another person again. But deep inside there was a part of him that still clung close, as a mother and newborn child, to the possibility that one day he would again meet someone. After all, it would have been too much for Mazu to bear if he knew the truth: that he was not only the last monk of Laboche, he was the last human on Earth.