Fiction: In the Mango Grove
By Raiff Taranday
For just a moment she had forgotten her name and in doing so remembered who she truly was. But it was a moment and, as it passed, she came back to find herself kneeling in the mud regarding her own reflection in the water. In it she saw the imperfections which recalled her burdens and desires, her sins and her karma: her name. She was Amrapali, the mango girl, and this small lagoon and the grove around it belonged to her—gifts from the Vaishali Republic’s nobility to their favored courtesan. Though a part of her wished to hold onto the nameless moment, it was the same part which longed to keep the children she bore and so she ignored it with practiced ease.
She stood and turned away from the shore. Today, more than any other day, Amrapali had no time for the comfort of things that were not actual things, for today there was a guest in her grove. He was a man different from other men, and all was not well. He had once been called Siddhartha Gautama, the prince of the Shakya clan, but that had been many years ago and he had since come to a different name. Amrapali did not know why he had chosen her, only that he had and all was not well. For the Lord Buddha was old and sick. The Lord Buddha was dying beneath the branches of a mango tree.
Amrapali hurried up the hill that divided the lagoon from the rest of the grove. Two days had passed since the order had come to her. The Lord Buddha was a councilor and friend to the Vaishali nobility and so was entitled to certain favors when his wanderings brought him to the Republic. He had used Amrapali’s grove once before, to deliver a sermon, the content of which she had not cared to understand. Something about escaping the obligations of death and rebirth, about ending Karma, about ending desire. Amrapali, who knew of obligations and desire, had found herself thinking that how easy it must be for this man, born a prince, to talk of freedom from suffering. He had not spoken to her then, not directly, except to thank her for the mangos that he and his followers had eaten.
It had been barely a year ago and now the Lord Buddha had asked the nobility for the grove again, this time for a different use. He had wanted Amrapali and no other to stay by him until he was past the need for care of any kind. She received the order with a slow nod and had been waiting at the grove’s border that morning when the Lord Buddha arrived. He looked old and small, his wizened skin barely containing his bones. He was practically carried by the troop of monks that accompanied him. On all ten of their faces Amrapali saw the same sadness and resentment—expressions she understood. For, though they were his followers and had walked with him this far, he would not allow them to accompany him even a step further. He had chosen in their place not only a woman but this royal whore who was more beautiful than any of their mothers. And had they not done everything he had ever asked of them, given their lives to him, pledged themselves to the truth he spoke; had they not earned the right to watch him die? Amrapali could only agree, but she had her orders and so she took the frail old man’s arm and led him into the grove. The monks would make camp where their master left them and wait for hours or days, until she returned to tell them that they could take the body.
The Lord Buddha had chosen one of the mango trees, not the thickest or tallest but one which happened to be among Amrapali’s favorites, and settled down against it. Do not worry, he had said to her, I do not expect that this will take very long at all. Then he had gone to sleep. For a time, she had just watched him, not knowing what else she could do. Her orders had been very specific and demanded she stay by him. She thought of the hatred of those monks—they love you so much, she had whispered to the sleeping old man, they love you so much that they can only hate me—but just beneath their baleful gazes was the same old desire Amrapali had seen in so many men since she was nine years old: fat merchants with thick, greedy fingers; the pubescent sons of the nobility, who spent their seed in quick jerking spasms; even the most stoic warrior-prince. She saw it, the same pathetic demand she had seen half-hidden behind bearded faces, smiles meant to remind her of her father, every touch and every gift and every poem composed in her honor. She had seen it behind their hate and knew that it only made them hate her more. Why? she had wanted to scream at the sleeping old man whose coming, it was said, had changed everything. Why me? But, despite her fine silks and finer education, she had the same agency as a slave. She had her orders. Instead of screaming she forced her face through the thin grass, into the dirt, and wept. Some time, feeling emptied, she made her way to the lagoon.
Now she returned to find the Lord Buddha still slumped against the base of the tree. I wonder if he is already dead, Amrapali thought with some small relief. She knelt next to him and leaned close, listening for breath, when she felt his hand on her cheek. For a moment, she recognized a familiar insistence and hunger in the touch. Amrapali wondered if this was why he had asked for her. It was the most obvious answer. One last honied taste of young flesh for the old man? But then, though his touch lingered, the subterranean lust in it faded.
Oh, Amrapali, it’s you, he said. I am sorry. For a moment, I thought that you might have been Yasodhara. she who was once my wife. She has been on my mind much recently. I wronged her. I did. But it was for the world, to free us all. I tell myself that, yet I conjured her here in your place. As I die and my body finds so many interesting new ways to betray me, I occasionally find myself… pleasantly confused.
It is only me, my lord, she said. She had forgotten that he had once been married, before he forsook the comfort of his title and palace. Together they conceived a son, one born the very day the Lord Budha had abandoned his family, yet that same child had grown to become one of his father’s chief disciples. Amrapali wondered if he was one of the ten who sat camped outside her grove, one of the ten who hated her. His hatred was a special one, she expected, alloyed with a unique blend of love and resentment.
She was very beautiful, said the Lord Buddha, as are you. He regarded her through eyes that, though clouded and half-closed, seemed to see her better than any had before. It was a technique honed by the finest holy men and charlatans, to make another feel as if you see them completely. You have the same lovely complexion. I was not fair to her, just as I have not been fair to you.
His thumb traced one of the tear-streaks which, in her haste, she had neglected to wash away. She felt the breath catch in her throat.
I am sorry, both to her and you, but I do not regret. It is an important difference, I think.
Do not concern yourself, Lord, she said quickly. She told him that she had been following the orders of the nobility since her twelfth year, and attending to him was the highest honor they had yet given her. This was the kind of flattery she had been trained to deploy, the kind she usually had no trouble rolling off her tongue, though now it seemed transparently false and inadequate. Eager to speak of something else, she asked if he was comfortable.
Yes, this is a very good tree.
She said she was sorry it was not a Bodhi tree, like the one he was said to have sat beneath when he awoke to the great wisdom. He laughed at this, a sound like a lyre chord plucked by a child’s hand: high, innocent, breaking.
All trees are Bodhi trees, he said by way of explanation. The important thing is to sit beneath them, as we are doing now.
So the mind can ascend along the branches? she asked. Amrapali was no stranger to conversations like this one. Many of the noblemen she entertained fancied themselves scholars and expected her mind as well as her body to be their plaything. They were surprised and occasionally amused to find her considerably more than an idiot.
To be among the roots, long before the branches create the illusion that there is any division in the tree. He paused, lifting his head effortfully. Shall we share a mango as we talk?
Amrapali pulled a suitable mango from the tree, drew the dagger which wore concealed inside the folds of her sari, and sliced the fruit in two. After a brief moment of consideration, she divided the Lord Buddha’s half into many still smaller pieces.
The roots? she said as she held a piece to his mouth as she would a child. She asked if it was because they were at the base of things, because the tree would not exist without them?
That is an important part of it, yes, he said. His mouth accepted the tiny piece of mango. He chewed and swallowed it before continuing. The roots, they remind me where and when true awakening happens, and what it is I am actually awakening to: a place before words, before branches. They do this mostly by always jabbing me in the thighs and ass.
Amrapali laughed, then felt her smile deepen because she understood. She gave him two more small cuts of mango, after which he could manage no more. She ate her half and what was left of his. She was wiping the juice from her lips when he spoke again,
It must seem as if I have made a terrible imposition on you.
You are hardly the first man to do so, she said without thought. When she realized the words she had spoken, she nearly clapped a hand over her mouth. This old man had some secret magic to make her forget her training, to make her speak so brazenly about her place in the order of things. He smiled his small smile. You look as if you are still hungry. I will not be offended if you have another mango.
They talked on for hours. He spoke softly and with strange words, which made it both difficult and satisfying to understand him. Yet, it was mostly she who spoke and he who listened, and while that seemed an odd thing for a famous preacher of the Dharma to do, Amrapali hardly noticed. At first, reaching for a way to pass the time, she told him stories, the spinning of which she had perfected in her years of service to men’s pleasure. Some were tales of the hero Rama. It was strange, relating the legends of the man who had risked everything to regain his wife, to a man who had abandoned his own, yet still believe the two had much in common.
Eventually, Amrapali stopped telling stories and started sharing the small things that only she knew, things that she would normally have been too embarrassed to express: which birdsongs she preferred the most, the strange scent of the perfumes which had recently come into fashion, the mysterious nature of alley cats, the color of the mango’s skin when it is best for eating. He would nod at each trifle as if to give it all the world’s consideration and this made her laugh—not the practiced, girlish titter she used with the nobility when they thought they were being funny, but the deep, full-throated bray which was Amrapali’s true laugh. He seemed to take a deep pleasure from the sound of it.
When it came time to sleep, she lay upon the grass a respectful distance from him and found that she could not quiet her mind. What if she awoke to find that he had died in the night? It was a thought that troubled her and stole her sleep. It surprised her all the more when she heard him speak.
Yes, my lord.
I am afraid.
I am here. I am with you.
I am very afraid.
What is wrong? What frightens you so?
My oldest enemy. Mara’s gentle whisper in my ear. He knows I am weak. I hear his laughter. I see him at the edges of the grove’s shade. I do not want him to take me.
Are you not the Lord Buddha? I thought that one such as you… that being awakened meant no longer being afraid.
No, that is what it means to be a god, and I am no god. I cannot be above the way things are, only a part of them. Fear is a part of dying. I know this, in my mind, but still I cannot stop myself from shaking. I know that it will pass, as all things must and do, but I must meet the fear when it comes to me. I must greet Mara as my friend, even as his gaze pierces me to the bone.
She asked if it helped, to meet the fear as it came.
A little, yes.
Well, my lord, I am here. I will be here whenever you need me.
Thank you, Amrapali.
It was then she found herself able to sleep.
The next day she played her flute for him. He enjoyed it and spoke of how he had loved to dance, when his legs were stronger and his followers fewer. She offered to show him a dance of her own, then realized that all the dances she knew well were designed to heat the blood of the men who watched them, and she did not desire to make him desire. In the deep parts of her memory she found a proper dance, one which she had half-forgotten but used to love more than any other. It was a tinker shuffle she had learned as a child, when she and her sisters had danced it for coins on the crowded streets of Vaishali. There, death had been their everyday companion and they had twirled and giggled beneath its indifferent gaze. Now, Amrapali danced the small dance of innocence and need, and the Lord Buddha was delighted.
Night fell again and he had more trouble speaking. The rise and fall of his chest shuddered with effort. She tried to get him to eat another mango, but no matter how small she sliced the pieces, he would not accept them. She placed the fruit between her own teeth, mashed it to a paste, and pressed her mouth against his. He accepted her alms. Amrapali did what she could.
Later, in the moonlight, she watched his face as he slept. His head was shaven, to symbolize his rebirth. His face had many wrinkles, but she could see the great beauty he was said to have once possessed. Beneath the lines of age, there was a youth which even death’s fast approach could not erase. For a moment, she had felt the urge to touch him, to take him, to engulf him beneath the silk hem of her skirts. His body was weak, his mind fading, but he was still a man, one who had had wives and concubines in his youth, and Amrapali knew even corpses sometimes retained the memory of their manhood for hours after the rest of them had died. He would not resist the final comfort she alone could give him. She would rock the last life out of him and into herself; perhaps even bear a son just as perfectly awakened as his father, the only son which would not be taken from her. But no. It was enough to think of it and not to act, to enjoy the sweetness of the longing without the bitterness of its satisfaction. She rolled over and slept, leaving him untouched.
She woke in the early morning to the buzz of flies. They were mostly on his face and hands. She screamed for them to leave him alone, went to slap them away, but a great roar stayed her fury.
It was the Lord Buddha. He was still alive. There was no softness and no difficulty in understanding him now. His voice made of her an attentive statue.
They are the same as I am, the same as you are. We are no greater than the flies that devour our corpses. We are all so small and so necessary. We share the emptiness, the impermanence. To see that is the beginning of compassion. It is to wake and know that all the harm you would do is harm done to yourself. And I will not see you harmed.
Amrapali nodded and sat back. The force of his command had frightened most of the flies away, but some remained to continue their putrid work, laying their eggs in the Lord Buddha’s flesh. Past willing them away, she did not try to stop them.
Eventually, he regained enough of his strength to sit up against the tree, though he could not do much else. When he had to pass water, Amrapali helped him to stand over a small clay jar (for she had been commanded to preserve all his leavings) and steadied his penis until he was finished. Mostly, she just watched him, losing count of how many times she fell into fits of uncontrollable weeping. The shadows in the grove grew longer. The Lord Buddha began to cough and shake as if the winds of a monsoon were trapped inside him and she thought to herself that this was it, this was the end. But he contained the maelstrom, pushing it deep into the core of himself, and he straightened.
I… am alright. It is not yet time for you to be concerned.
Still, Amrapali knew then that she had just this one chance to ask the question that had burnt in her since the day the Lord Buddha had come to her grove. If she let this opportunity pass, then it would never come again.
My lord, she said, why? Why me? You could have died in the company of kings or great sages or the followers who love you, so why me?
It seemed as if you could use the company.
She asked him for a real answer, one that was not meant to make her laugh.
There is great meaning in laughter. The only thing more important is the silence that follows it.
I do not understand. Please, say it plain.
I am thirsty, Amrapali. Bring me some water from the lagoon. Then I will give you an answer not meant to make you laugh.
She told him to wait, that she would come back soon. He seemed pleased.
Even though she hurried over the hill and back again, by the time she returned to him, the Lord Buddha was already dead. She knew it right away. She drank the cup which she had filled for him, then let it fall from her hand.
She wanted to curl her arms around his body, to press herself against the figure that had once been him and cry into the hollow of its chest, to cling to it until the last warmth had bled away, until the maggots hatched, until the flesh rotted and peeled from the bone. But then she saw the phantom of the smile which must have been on his face at the last. Like all of the Lord Buddha’s smiles, it had been a small one, meant to appreciate a small thing. It was all she needed.
There was much to be done. She would have to go to those ten monks outside her grove and tell them that it was time to take the body, to mourn over it in whatever way was their way, to spin the necessary fictions about where the Lord Buddha had been when he died, about what he had said and who he had been with.
But first, it was time to bathe. She kissed her friend’s shaven pate, said the words that were hers alone, and turned away.
Amrapali the mango girl stands upon the shore. Her silk dress falls away from her shoulders and, naked at last, she moves into the water. Paddling to where it is deepest, she dives, feeling everything in the dark beneath, kicking downward, touching the mud and tangled weeds at the bottom. Her fingers find the rotting remains of mangos which have fallen into the lagoon, and she touches those in turn. Hungry for breath, she rises to break the surface, to thrill in the daylight and the chill air. This is enough.
Raiff Taranday was born and raised in the Boston area. He has spent most of his adult life as an elementary school teacher, first in Massachusetts, then in locations as diverse as Kyiv, Ukraine, and Shenzhen, China. He was teaching fifth graders in China in 2020 and went on vacation to Hanoi for Lunar New Year right before the initial outbreak of COVID-19. He was subsequently swept up in a wave of global catastrophe that scattered him across various Southeast Asian countries before eventually being deposited back home in the United States. During quarantine, he used writing as an outlet to stay (mostly) sane. He currently resides in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts with several imaginary pets and a girlfriend who is usually pretty nice to him.
this is such a beautiful story. the characters are rich and it pulls on many of my emotions. i walk away feeling more at peace. thank youReplyDelete
don't usually like stories about religion/religious figures but this one was very well written and the ending made me feel really peacefulReplyDelete
I got here by clicking a link on the author's linkedin page of all things, got pulled in by the first paragraph. beautiful story!ReplyDelete