“Come along,” the ogress said, and started up the path. I followed, trying to keep up while she climbed the steep bank.
I was tired and hungry. It was dark. My knee hurt. She was going too fast.
I slipped and fell, landing with my foot twisted round.
There was a snap and horrendous pain.
The ogress reappeared immediately. I was sitting on my butt and holding my leg, howling.
“Does this hurt?” she said, poking my ankle.
“Yes!” I screamed. What did she expect?
“How about this?”
That hurt even worse. I tried to kick her away with the other leg; she batted it aside without looking.
“Broken,” she said. “It’ll be as big as your head tomorrow. And it’ll be a month before you can walk properly. You’ll have to stay with me.”
She got me back to the cave, and then fetched the corpse she had fished out of the river.
The delay in my Quest was a setback, especially since I had seemed so close. Worse, though, was being stuck in a cave with a monster for a month.
I couldn’t believe how ugly she was. Every time I looked away, I forgot; and then when I turned back to look at her, I would be amazed again. I would wind up staring at her, trying to figure out how she could be so repellent. When she caught me looking, she would grin like I was the funniest thing.
I tried to teach her some of the basics of Buddhism. Everyone knows that is a meritorious act: giving the gift of Dharma to unbelievers. And, as I explained, perhaps even a monster could hope for a better rebirth if she practiced Buddhism virtuously.
It wasn’t much use. No matter what I said to her, she would reply with questions that made no sense. She seemed to be incapable of understanding the simplest things.
I was lying on the bed one evening when I saw an orange centipede, longer than my hand, crawling across the cave floor. I grabbed my shoe. It’s safest to kill them with a long stick, but there wasn’t one.
The ogress caught my arm.
“Are you crazy?” I asked. “That’s the poisonous kind!”
“Leave it be,” she said. “It has its life, you have yours.”
“Those things can kill you with one bite!”
“So put it outside.”
I had tried to teach her the Buddhist Precepts two nights before. Those are the absolute basics of virtuous action. You can’t avoid constantly creating bad karma if you don’t know the Precepts. My explanation had gotten hopelessly bogged down by her confusion. I realized now that some little bit must have penetrated, but she had a childish misunderstanding.
“Are you worried about the Precept against killing? Because centipedes don’t count. Everyone knows that. Even monks kill them. They’re evil; it’s better for them to be dead.”
She laughed. “I don’t care in the least about your Precepts. I like centipedes. Here,” she said, and put her hand on the floor just in front of the thing’s path. I watched in horror as it stopped and reared up, wiggling its antennae, smelling her flesh. Then it scuttled onto her palm. She rose carefully as it snaked up her arm, and carried it out of the cave.
I continued to demand that she tell me where the vetali was. My suspicion grew that she had killed the vetali, or captured her and was keeping her prisoner somewhere. Quite likely the vetali needed rescuing. Once my ankle recovered, I could kill the ogress, save the vetali, and then she would marry me.
The ogress brushed off my demands with excuses, and countered with questions about my Quest. I didn’t consider that any of a monster’s business; but I was stuck in her cave for a month, and there was nothing to do except talk to her. I told her about the death of my father, and my mother, and Sukhi, and how I had resolved to find The Answer to Life and Death, for the benefit of all sentient beings.
“And what would you do with that answer?” she asked.
This was, I realized, a weak point in my plan. I had no clear picture beyond finding it. The Answer was bound to be valuable, though, and I imagined everyone acclaiming me a hero. Also… sorcerers can bring people back from death.
“Your lover? You would raise her as a vetali? That is a terrible thing…”
“No! You don’t understand. I am looking for the vetali, to get the Answer! Then maybe I can bring Sukhi back.”
“Do you know what a vetali is?” she asked.
“She’s like a princess,” I said.
“A vetali is a corpse, reanimated by a demon.”
“These dakinis… they are friendly, reliable, down-to-earth sort of people?”
It had actually not occurred to me that the dakinis might have deceived me. But: “I had a vision!”
“Get those often, do you?”
“No! Never! I mean, except this time. The dakinis gave me a magic essence, and then—”
“What did they say about the Essence?” she asked.
I said nothing.
“ ‘It shows things that were, and things that are, things that yet may be,’ ” she suggested. “That is the usual formula, I believe?”
The word may had been lost on me before.
“There are demons,” she said, “that have no corporeal form. They flock around graveyards, hoping for a body that has not been sealed with the proper funeral rituals. When they find one, they enter it, and the corpse walks. That is a vetala—or a vetali, if it is female.
“At first the demon’s hunger for life knows no bounds. If you raise your lover as a vetali, she will turn on you, and rip you apart in her thirst for blood. If your sorcery is powerful enough, you might keep her in check. You could use her body, perhaps. But, although the vetali may keep some of her memories, it will not truly be her, but a demon. If you feed her on the life of others, in time the hunger will wane, somewhat. Over a few hundred years. The really old vetalas can seem quite civilized. It is a mask, though. That hunger never completely leaves.”
I refused to hear any more like that. I turned away, determined to sulk for a few days.
Worst was the corpse. She gave me a choice: to eat it, or to starve.
I tried arguing, and pleading, and yelling at her, insisting that she go to the village, a day away, to get me real food; none of which got me anywhere.
She did let me cook it, in pieces. She didn’t eat any herself. She would tap an artery for blood, instead. She drank it out of a bowl made of the top half of a skull.
“It’s the way I maintain my girlish figure,” she said.
I shook my head in disgust. Her body was bloated and horrible; her mind wicked and deranged.
The cadaver did not rot. Instead, as I ate my way up from the feet, day by day, what was left got younger. She had pulled the waterlogged carcass of a gray old man from the stream. After a couple weeks, his face was ruddy and unlined, his hair glossy black.
“He was a great guru, you know,” she said.
“What? How do you know?” The dead man had been naked. Maybe she thought she saw some sign of holiness in his body?
“He lived here for three years.” (She had known him?)
“When you were here?”
I did not understand. “He was your guru?”
“He was an idiot—like you. When he came here. Later he wrote famous books and sat on a high throne.”
She stroked his cheek. “Perhaps you will return to me this way someday also,” she said.
I was still trying to make sense of the corpse being someone holy, whom she had known; so I didn’t take that in.
I had an awful thought, instead. “Do I have to eat the brains?”
“Yes,” she said. “Raw. They will be good for you.” She burst out laughing.
“Is that supposed make me smart, or something?” There was no way I was going to eat raw brains.
“In your case? Not much chance of that.”
I would have hit her if I could have stood up. I ranted and railed at her. I called her a monster.
“You are trying to think of a way to kill me,” she said. “And you call yourself a Buddhist? Or are you a monster?”
“Monsters don’t count!” I wanted to shout. But that made me stop for an instant.
Lord Yama punishes anger by sending you to the Hot Hells. That is why I had sworn I would never be angry again.
Do monsters count? My foster-mother said there are no exceptions to the First Precept.
I’d heard others disagree. But no one had actually said there’s an exception for monsters.
On the other hand, heroes always kill monsters. It’s what they do, because monsters are evil. Heroes are the good guys; they can’t go to hell for that.
“You are a cannibal,” the ogress said, looking smug. “Some would call that monstrous.”
“I am only eating it because you are forcing me to!” I yelled.
“You should be grateful,” she said. “Hardly anyone gets to eat an entire epistemologist.”