The Temple of the Morning Brass Gong had sent out word of several vacant beds in its cluster of little abbeys. A popular rumor was that there had been an unsatisfactory incident involving paper, the result of which was that a number of monks had been “sacked.” The term was not slang: at the temple, actual sacks were used. Once bound in burlap the unfortunates were sent rolling like logs down the mountainside, where the lucky ones would smash into pine trees with great force. The unlucky ones would miss the pines and sail straight over the edge of the cliff beyond.
(This was by no means the worst fate that a monk might face. Initiates were generally more worried about being “fired,” a ritual involving saltpeter, sulphur, charcoal, and a large cannon. More painful still was the cost-cutting measure known as “downsizing,” whereby monks were made to fit into smaller cots via the removal of several inches of unnecessary height, proceeding either from the toes upward or (in the case of management) from the neck downward. And no one who worked in the kitchens wished to contemplate the five-day process involved in getting “canned.”)
– –  –
News of the vacancies reached a novice named Aaradhya. Her home was in a hot country very far from the temple, a place of balding hills beaten into submission by a relentless sun. Dust was ever in the air. It coated skin and teeth and circuit-board alike. Unlike her family Aaradhya had grown less used to it with each passing day, and after twenty years of breathing it she had had quite enough.
The temple’s website decreed that interviews were indeed being held, but it provided neither contact information nor a form for expressing interest. Curiously, even the location of the temple was undisclosed.
Aaradhya pored over each page and eventually found a telephone number rendered in white on a white background. But the voice who answered said that she’d merely reached the hermitage that hosted the temple’s public site.
“I would be most grateful if you would tell me the number of the temple itself,” said Aaradhya, dipping her brush in a pot of black ink. She stirred it to mix down the thin film of grit.
“Four, oh three,” replied the hermit. Aaradhya copied the digits and waited for the hermit to continue, but the other end of the line was silent.
“And may the rest of the number be told?” asked Aaradhya.
“Four oh three,” replied the hermit. Again there was a long pause, and again the quantity of digits was still insufficient. Aaradhya laid down her brush, tapping her index finger on the table in contemplation.
“Fetch me an emerald the size of a plover’s egg,” she commanded.
“Four oh four,” replied the hermit, and Aaradhya smiled with satisfaction, for she knew she had divined his algorithm.
“Surely you are no rootless hermit but a brother of the Spider Clan,” she said, “for you answer according to their legendary custom. Is there a means by which the temple may be contacted by this humble petitioner?”
“Two hundred times must I answer yes.”
“And may your esteemed person impart that means?”
“Two hundred and four times must I answer no.”
“Brother hermit, you are indeed a master of webs, for I am most thoroughly caught in one. Can you not offer this poor novice so much as a redirect?”
“Three hundred and one times would I send you back to where you came from; yet assuredly this is where you should wish to be,” said the hermit. There was a short beep, then a perfect electronic silence.
Aaradhya put down her phone. The page with the hermitage’s number still glowed on her screen. It said little of importance, or perhaps so it seemed; for it was written entirely in enthusiastic hyperbole laced with polysyllabic buzzwords—a dialect unique to the thrice-despised Clan of the Lubricious Serpent. Aaradhya attempted to decipher some useful meaning from the passages until her eyes went dry and her head pounded. Eventually she sat back in defeat, contemplating her next move. The page’s tranquil background image depicted the temple grounds on a misty morning: rising fog faded elegantly into the white content area. The sun was pale and cool.
Indeed, she thought: if this is where I should wish to be, then this is where I must be. For it is as my old C master taught me: the char pointer may be set to null, but the char array never so. Telepresence is at best a fragile proxy for presence.
Thus did Aaradhya bid her family goodbye, sling her bowl on her back and her jug around her shoulder, and set out for the distant province where the temple was rumored to lie.
(Yes, yes, you're very clever. But obviously I'm not giving you my phone number here.)
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