Monday 2 April 2012

Radiance 9 - The bounty of the age-old hills

As Asher landed on his backside for the third time in as many minutes, it occurred to him that he might be wasting his time. Sitting on a large outcropping rock at the bottom of Central Park, he rested his hands on his knees and tried to catch his breath.
    “Again,” said Virgo, spinning the Staff of Moses in her hands while her feet seemed to be everywhere at once.
    It was a beautiful Sunday, one of those days that made you glad to be living in New York City, when the sun was high and bright but not scorching. The tourists weren’t out in full force just yet but the coffee shops were already making a killing on iced coffees and frappuccinos. It would have been a good day for people watching, Asher thought to himself, rubbing his aching calves, from this vantage point, in this weather. The women were beginning to shed their spring clothes to make ready for summer and the season for sunbathing was just beginning. He could have sat on this rock, sipped at an ice-cold coca-cola and admire the view. But no, he was sweating from pores he never knew he had, aching from every muscle, trying to master the art of pole-fighting while being grilled on everything he was supposed to have learnt over the last few months. And from the look on Virgo’s face right now, it didn’t seem like he was doing well on either front - she looked ready to break her staff over his head.
    “Come on, get up, we’ve barely started,” said Virgo.
    “You’ve barely started, I’m completely finished.”
    Virgo sat down beside him. “Okay, what’s bothering you?”
    Asher stared out across the park, down towards Fifth Avenue, watching the cars dodge and weave around each other. There was something about being in the park that felt like strangely calm - like the eye of the storm of New York City, while all around you energy was bursting and gushing forth.
    “I’m not getting anywhere,” he finally said. “This doesn’t make any sense.”
    Virgo frowned, “what doesn’t?”
    “None of it. For months I’ve broken my teeth on Hebrew grammar, Bible studies, halachah, kabbalah - you tell me I have to keep kosher, keep shabbat, wear these stupid fringes…”
    “Tzitzit” said Virgo, almost automatically.
    “Mercury and Ostar try to teach me combat and I get beaten black and blue. Now you give me a staff and tell me to fight. What the hell am I doing? Do you think I’m suddenly going to become fucking Luke Skywalker?”
    “You’re not seeing the big picture” Virgo said, rising to her feet, “you’re seeing individual spots of paint and wondering why they don’t come together. Stand up and we’ll go again.”
    He didn’t move.
    Almost faster than he could see, Virgo gave him a sharp but playful tap on the head with her staff. “Come on, get up.”
    Asher groaned and rose, holding his wooden stave gingerly in rapidly blistering hands.
    “Now, try to hit me, and watch your footing this time,” Virgo said, beginning to dance backwards on the grey rock surface.
    Asher shifted the stave in his hands, feinting an attack on the left before swinging from the right. Virgo blocked it easily, with one end but didn’t counter swing. Instead she took a half-step backwards and prepared a defensive stance.
    “What is the ninth sefirah?” she demanded, as Asher swung again.
    “Yesod,” he grunted, ducking below Virgo’s return attack.
    “Good - now name three things that can represent yesod.”
    Trying to think, Asher’s attack lacked any real power. Virgo deflected it easily, and aimed a deliberately slow kick at Asher’s knee. He stepped backwards, mind still-racing.
    “Uh, Joseph, the moon and…”
    The Staff of Moses leapt towards his head. Asher ducked in time but felt that Virgo was just going easy on him.
    “…No idea.”
    Virgo scowled.
    “Conjugate the verb lamed, mem, dalet in the kal form,” she said, never letting up her constantly shifting attacks.
    Now Asher was well and truly on the defensive, barely countering each swing of Virgo’s staff.
    “Uh, uh, lomeid, lomedet, uh,” the staff grazed the back of his hand as Asher mistimed his block. “Shit, uh, lomdot, uh… lomdeinu?”
    “Come on, you’re not even trying - it’s lomeid, lomedet, lomdim, lomdot.”
    “Yeah, sure,” Asher stepped back again, wondering when he would reach the edge of the rock. He tried to parry and pivot round Virgo’s attack with a blow of his own but Virgo saw the obvious line and had already moved out of the way.
    “What is shabbat about?” said Virgo.
    “What? What kind of question is…” Asher never finished his sentence. Virgo spun around, the Staff of Moses whirling faster than thought. Asher had only begun to raise his own staff in response when he was struck on the head - he stepped back, startled, head buzzing, but his foot met only empty air. A plaintive cry escaped his lips before the world blurred around him. With a crash, the air was knocked out of his lungs and for a moment, Asher couldn’t remember where he was or what he was doing. Then he realised he was lying on his back, staring up at the azure sky.
    A soft thud beside him indicated that Virgo had jumped off the rock to join him.
    “You’re still too sloppy,” she said.
    Asher’s head was swimming too much to even focus on her, let alone answer back.
    Virgo knelt beside him and placed a warm, callused hand on his forehead. Under her breath, she began to whisper in Hebrew, words Asher recognised from his studies. “…for I am the Lord who heals you.”
    The spinning sensation vanished, replaced by a dull ache in his head and pain in every muscle of his legs and arms.
    “Can’t you do anything for the rest? I’m in pain here.”
    “Try some ibuprofen,” Virgo said. “Now get up, and we go again.”
    “No?” Virgo seemed really shocked. “What do you mean, ‘no’?”
    “I mean no, I won’t get up so you can hit me again while drilling me on all this Jew stuff I’ve been learning. No.”
    “You can’t say no, it’s just impossible. You are the…” Her sentenced trailed off.
    “The what? The unborn prince? Malchut? Well I won’t do it - at least not your way.”
    Pressing his staff to the ground, Asher struggled to his feet. “I think we’re doing this all wrong - my brain doesn’t work this way. Remember Grand Central? You have your gifts, your powers that work for you, but they don’t work for me. I think I need to do things my way.”
    “Like what?” Virgo asked, sounding deeply sceptical.
    “I’m not sure yet.” He stood still for a moment, thinking back to the many lessons he had had over the last few months, to the moments he had really felt something. It seemed that of all his teachers, it was Mercury that seemed to understand him the best, though her mannerisms could be somewhat cold. The grace of the sword, swiftly cutting and dividing, each step an entire dance unto itself, each separated breath like a pounding rhythm. What was it she had said to him? Find the edges.
    Asher paused. He knew that he had just understood something that his mind hadn’t caught up with yet. A pattern was resonating deep within. He breathed in, paused, and exhaled slowly, before climbing back on top of the rock.
    Virgo watched him, with a mix of scepticism and curiosity, before following him up. If it helped Asher get where he needed to be, then any experiment was certainly worth trying. She readied the staff for another bout, spinning it from her right to her left hand and back, waiting to see whether anything was about to change.
    Asher breathed deeply again, feeling his lungs expand, becoming conscious of the air entering his body, the light playing on his skin. If he thought hard about it, each ridge and whorl in the wooden staff he held could be distinguished, every bird call, every sound from every human being going about their business. He thought of each sound as a note, each touch a rhythm, with the ensemble forming an orchestra in his mind - and Asher was to play lead. He readied the staff and gestured to Virgo that he was ready.
    She stepped forward and probed his defences, a few test thrusts to see if he was sharp. With his heightened awareness, it was easy to parry the blows - the air gave away their movements long before the staff was anywhere near him.
    “Good,” Virgo said, “now we can continue - what is shabbat about?”
    A beat appeared in Asher’s mind, a pulse to words he barely knew but had read now countless times. It was a psalm for shabbat, he knew, though most of the words had slipped his mind. But as he shifted his grip to go on the offensive, the first line began to sound in Asher’s mind - it is good to give thanks to God, and to sing to Your name, the Most High.
    Even after these last few months of intense study and prayer, Asher didn’t really know what ‘God’ meant - it was simply too big, too vast a concept. No one seemed to be talking about the same thing. But Asher understood what it meant to give thanks, and so he opened his heart to the pulse of the universe and poured forth his gratitude in song.
    “Thank you, for every beat of heart and breath,” he began, weaving around Virgo’s swing and manoeuvring around the rock. “For every bone, and nail, and hair; for the life that’s lived before death; for sun, and shade, and air.”
    Virgo seemed to be stepping up her blows, speeding up her reactions, pushing his skills to the limit. He could begin to sense the vibrations in the wood she held, the flexing of the muscles in her hand as Virgo began to swing.
    “For my friends and my family that led me here; for desire, joy and laughter; for choice and thoughts, for hope and fear; and the love that comes endlessly after.”
    Now Asher pressed the attack, leaping over a swing to his legs and simultaneously spinning his staff towards Virgo’s head. She swerved at the last moment - the wood whistled, striking her golden robes.
    Asher laughed with glee - each instant seemed to stand alone and separate, as if he could see the infinite moments comprising every movement, every second. He could see it, prepare for it, control it. He parried Virgo’s next moves easily, swatting away the staff as easily as one might shoo away a fly. Dancing, singing, the breeze playing in his hair, sun on his face, whirling and spinning in infinite moments forever…
    A crack on the back of his head sent him sprawling once more, falling heavily on his knee.
    “Good,” said Virgo, “you’re beginning to tap into your potential as Malchut, the power of separation and division - though I think your answer was a little, shall we say, unorthodox.
    “How did you…? How did you beat me? I could feel every move you made before you even made it - how did I not see that one coming?”
    Virgo smiled. “You aren’t the only one with powers, Asher, and I’ve been walking this world for quite some time now.”
    She began to offer him her hand but seemed to think better of it, and sat down beside him on the rock face, lowering the Staff of Moses.
    “How do you feel?”
    “I won’t lie,” he said, “I don’t think I’ll be able to walk for days - but I feel kind of good, you know - alive.”
    “I am pleased to hear it, perhaps soon you will be ready for more weighty studies.”
    Asher groaned before he realised Virgo was joking. They shared a light laugh in the June sunshine.
    Then something caught Asher’s eye, some kind of distortion to the west.
    “What is it, Asher? What do you see?”
    “I’m not sure - can’t you see it? Some kind of shadow.”
    “I see nothing - describe it.”
    “Uh - like thin smoke through some kind of heat haze. I think I saw it emerge from that guy’s mouth and float down 59th street. It’s shifting fast, darting around just in front of the buildings.”
    “A dybbuk,” hissed Virgo, “come Asher, it seems that your lesson is not yet over.”

1 comment:

  1. “Try some ibuprofen,” Great line!

    'Even after these last few months of intense study and prayer, Asher didn’t really know what ‘God’ meant - it was simply too big, too vast a concept. No one seemed to be talking about the same thing. But Asher understood what it meant to give thanks,' A great description of what I might call the "Shut up and pray" attitude to Judaism (as opposed to Feynman's "Shut up and calculate" attitude to Quantum Mechanics).

    I would like to see more hints of Asher perceiving everything as music earlier on in the rewrite, and particular in this chapter. It feels too Hollywood for him to suddenly have this revelation and become a master!