There were three of us that day on the Pilgrim’s Path; Massey, myself, and a temple monk. We had come down out of the mountains to the road about noon, finding that we had it to ourselves for that stretch. Aside, that is, from a few older children out with flocks of sheep or goats and a farmer going the other way leading a oxcart full of dung. (I suppose he was keeping to the letter of the law about the Pilgrim’s Path, since he wasn’t riding in the cart.)
I had been feeling more depressed than ever the previous few days. At first going on the Junrei Path with Massey had seemed like the best of a terrible great number of bad options. And maybe a bit romantic to boot. But what romance there was had worn off and too much time thinking about why I was there (because I could not drink away the thoughts) had led me down a long spiral of self loathing.
That’s when I said something about my life not being worth a handful of the contents of the farmer’s cart. I suppose I was just thinking aloud. It certainly wasn’t said in response to anything from Massey or the temple monk, because we all had been mostly silent, other than the occasional “Watch out for this bit,” or “What kind of bird is that?” while we were still descending from the hills.
But when I said it Massey stopped in his tracks and rounded on me, as angry as I ever saw him.
“You think your life isn’t worth a handful of shit? Then what is mine worth? Or the farmer? Or his ox? Can you put a value on them? On any life?”
I was taken aback by this outburst, but I could also feel the old quick anger rising in me. “I don’t know how to measure the value of a man. Or of a woman. The ox, at least, can be sold.”
Massey remained indignant. “And, if a man or a woman could be sold, would that establish their worth? It is said people were kept as property in the previous world. If you were listed on a bill of sale from that time, would it read ‘one handful of shit?’ Or is there another way to gauge your worth?”
“I don’t know. I don’t even care.” The anger swelled until I could feel myself about to bust from it. For weeks I had tramped along, eating little but beans and rice, and generally keeping to myself. I had hid this part of myself away. Trapped it in the cellar of my mind. But now it was breaking the locks and shattering the door and slavering to be loose. “Fuck it. And fuck you. I don’t want to hear another word of your crap wisdom.”
The temple monk gasped, clearly outraged. She stepped forward to deliver a blast right back at me, which was perhaps what the angry part of myself wanted right then. A good shouting match. A chance to vent it all right there and then. If she had been a man I could have even taken a swing and turned it into a brawl.
But Massey suddenly swung his staff in front of her, somehow managing it so that when she stopped in surprise the end of it was directly in front of her mouth – though it never touched her. He shook his head meaningfully and she stepped back again.
“Ah. My ‘crap wisdom.’ I guess you can set a value to that, eh? Or at least the coinage by which it can be purchased. Is it perhaps equal to your own life? Or is it maybe worth as much as the whole cartload?” He looked at me quizzically, as if genuinely interested in my estimate of its value.
I don’t know why, but those words were exactly the right ones at that moment. The anger evaporated and I was suddenly laughing so hard it hurt; tears rolling down my face.
“Ha, ha. Yes. Worth at least . . . ha, ha, ha . . . at least two of me. Not much more though.”
Massey was laughing as well. The temple monk just looked discomfited. Like she was suddenly wondering if we were safe companions to be alone on the road with.
We resumed walking. After a few steps (and a few more outbursts of laughter) Massey said thoughtfully, “In truth, I think you may be on to something. Perhaps all things of value should be totted up by their worth in fertilizer. A good dinner worth two of the next day’s output. A house purchased for six tons, with another ton, two buckets, and a cup for the taxman.”
“Half a cup for a loaf of bread! Shopping would be a messy business. Going out drinking could require a hand cart.”
“At least you would bring a way for your companions to haul you home afterwards!”
“Ah, yes. The smell. You wouldn’t want the banks in the center of town, would you? Some might count that alone an improvement.”
“Anyone owing them would think so. On the other hand, if you didn’t borrow too much you could keep ahead of the interest by just eating regularly.”
The temple monk suddenly broke in on our banter, speaking bitterly, “No doubt the banks would still find a way to bang you up and encumber everything you own. Whether the money is counted in gold, aluminum, Purser’s warrants, or excrement; in the end it is all just a way to keep the poor down and the rich up. No different than those ancient slavers, except the banks are not required to feed those they own.”
Now it was my turn to feel uncomfortable. I had heard such mutinous speech before, of course, but I didn’t expect it from a temple monk.
Massey sighed, all humor fled. “And now we are back to discussing the real value of a life. Let me say this to both of you: all life has value incalculable. A rich wastrel is worth no more, and no less, than a hard working poor washerwoman. A thief and murderer no less than an honest man. In the end we all belong to the Mother and the Mother has determined it is worth being everything She is merely to keep us alive inside her. Speak no more and think on that while we walk.”
I did as he asked, trudging along and looking up at the sky and the pillar of the sun visible to the south past some clouds. Looking down at the cobblestones and the fields. All the time thinking ‘Yes. This is all the Mother. We are as much a part of Her as the microbes in our guts are a part of us. Except, unlike my feelings for my microbial fauna, the Mother loves us.’
Perhaps it was because I was afraid of seeming shallow and childish in front of the temple monk that I kept silent about this insight. In any case I kept it to myself until just now, as I tell you. And I tell you that nothing I have learned since has served to disprove it.
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