A Piece of Sky, A Grain of Rice: A Memoir in Four Meditations by alum Christine Hale (fiction, ’96) is out now from Apprentice House Press. The following is an excerpt:
The grass surrounding the retreat house stands waist-high, an entire spring’s lush growth left uncut through the thirty days of Saga Dawa, the holy month of the Buddha’s enlightenment. To kill or even to disturb the hordes of sentient beings living on and inside and beneath the tangle would be inauspicious in this season.
Five days out of the seven I stay here, alone in one of my teacher’s several properties, a derelict mom-and-pop motel in rural north-central Florida, rain falls. It arrives in slanting sheets, straight-down soakings, horizontal mizzles, and cathartic thunderstorms; a tropical depression has stalled off the coast. In the mornings thick mist makes a whiteout in the meadow behind the cinderblock strip of ten dank rooms, and the eaves overhanging the cement walkway to the one with a functioning kitchenette drip constantly, the building’s flat roof draining old rain or new. I cannot walk into the meadow grass without becoming soaked, if not snakebit, and I have no way to dry my clothes, constantly damp anyway from the humidity pouring in through louvered windows cranked wide day and night to catch a breeze, so I stay put.
I sit on my cushion in the shrine room, I lie on my sleeping bag atop a mildewed mattress to read, or I sit in the shelter of the eave above the kitchen door—a dry spot exactly as big as my chair.
From my molded-resin chair I observe hawks, jets in the stratosphere, towering thunderheads, and the stubbornly veiled sun move across the sky in their requisite arcs. I watch leaves bend beneath the weight of individual raindrops and bounce back as each drop becomes a drip. The only living beings in this wet world are jays, cardinals, sparrows, crows, and grackles; innumerable representatives of a half dozen species of spider; and a pair of half-wild black kittens (which I feed, as instructed by the usual occupant of the property, who has disappeared for reasons of his own).
I am by this time in my divorced, solitary state long-accustomed to living alone—my children are teens with lives of their own—but my complete isolation here, a woman by herself in what appears from the road to be an abandoned building, with no functioning locks and ample evidence that drifters have overnighted here in the past, this makes me jumpy. One night I panic that something large and angry is rifling the cupboards in the room where I sleep (the thumps and scratching suggest wrestling rats) but when I make myself get up and turn on the lights to investigate, fleeing cockroaches (the deep-South, four-inch, palmetto-bug kind) appear to be the culprits.
Each successive day I spend less of my rest time lying down or reading and more hours parked in the resin chair, eager for the company of the two black cats. Kittens just old enough to be independent, they are clearly feral: narrow-bodied and spider-limbed; extraordinarily long-tailed; slinky like tiny jaguars instead of sausage-shaped and plush like domestic cats. I never know their names, if they have any, so I think of them as Boy and Girl. He has a solemn, low-browed face but a goofball’s need to find fun in everything, even his slumbering companion’s utterly motionless tail. She is petite with a heart-shaped, feminine face and a persistently avid expression about everything: meals, privacy or the jay that taunts her.
My many daily repetitions of sadhana, a chanting and visualization ritual, are meant to deepen and stabilize my ability to concentrate, but when I leave the meditation cushion, my heightened ability to focus fixes on cats. The rain and wet grass keep them in sight—that single dry spot beneath the kitchen eave places their food and my chair in tight proximity—but they are too wild to be petted. Undistractedly I observe them sleep, eat, play at hunting, play with each other, and ignore me.
His hind foot plops carelessly between her eyes, and she leaves it there, nonchalant at first, then licking it with motherly vigor, then shutting her teeth around it, a predatory gleam in her eye, stopping barely short of piercing flesh, to await his reaction: a no-claws swat. Next, a fury of wrestling. Legs wrapping and flailing, torsos twisting like pinned snakes, then her head nests beneath his chin. Girl licks Boy’s chest while his tongue towels her ear. Half a moment later his fangs frame her jugular, her body slack, awaiting release. When it comes, she bounds into the grass and he gallops behind.
They incite each other. Completely enmeshed, they sustain each other.
How long can it last, such un-cat-like loving kindness, this un-human equanimity about who did what to whom and what, if anything, it all means?