“Father, have you heard the rumors?” Anuj said as they shared breakfast in their small earthen house on the edge of the main city. “The Ajivikas and some other ascetics are telling everyone that Sundari, a female wandering ascetic, has disappeared.”
“A wandering ascetic has disappeared,” Brahmar replied, spooning rice from his bowl. “What a surprise. She’s probably in the Andhavana forest with the other ascetics, naked or dressed in deer-skins, swatting flies attracted to their stink.”
“That’s not all of it, Father,” Anuj said, his eyes wide, leaning forward over the table where they sat on the dirt floor. “They say she was last seen late at night, three days ago, near the Jetavana monastery.” Anuj paused for effect. Brhamar merely grunted. “The ascetics have gone to King Pasenadi saying they believe she was raped and killed by the bhikkhus, even suggesting Gotama the Buddha himself was part of the crime.”
“Gautama the Buddha. You mean that Shakyan Kshatriya, that backwoods prince claiming to be fully awakened?” Of course Brhamar Nagayach, former deputy chief of the Royal Guard, had heard the rumors. He still had several loyal informants, both within the palace and in the streets of Sravasti. But he enjoyed leading his son along, still hoping to teach him something of how to reason truth from the fantasies people tell each other and call life.
“He is a very holy man, father. In his presence, one feels such peace, and all the attempts to discredit him have been revealed as baseless. And his bhikkhus are—”
“His bhikkhus are a bunch of aristocrats playing at being holy men, until they want wives and their luxuries back, or they’re Shudras too lazy to find work, living off begging from others.”
Anuj sighed. His father always turned their conversations into criticisms of someone or something, but his words had grown more bitter since leaving the Guard. “What do you think King Pasenadi will do? Will he send the Royal Guard to investigate?”
“King Pasenadi and Siddhartha Gautama are friends,” Brahmar said. “He won’t send the Royal Guard after a fellow Kshatriya aristocrat based on the word of a bunch of ascetics.” But he will have to do something, Brahmar thought, something less public. Maybe the secret police. Brahmar leaned back, pulling his shoulders down to try to ease the tension in his neck and upper back. Should he tell his son what he already knows?
“Those ascetics are going to ask to hunt the monastery themselves,” Brahmar said, smiling to see his son stop scooping his rice and stare at him open-mouthed.
“How do you know that?” Anuj asked.
Brahmar poured himself some more chai and took a sip. “One of my little lizards on the wall.”
Anuj shook his head, partly tired of the old joke of his father’s, partly amazed at what his father knew, could still find out, about the intrigues in Sravasti, the vast capital of Kosala.
“They’ll have a good time prancing about, looking superior, forcing the bhikkhus to let them snoop around their dwelling and halls. Then that will be the end of it, then their Sundari will reappear with twigs and all manner of insects in her matted hair.”
“She is beautiful,” Anuj said, half to himself.
“What?” Brhamar stopped eating and frowned at his son.
“Sundari. I saw her once at a dharma talk in Jetavana. Rajeev pointed her out to me. She doesn’t have matted hair. She lets it flow long, beautiful shining black hair. Her dark eyes glow and her lips are so full.”
Brahmar sighed, then chuckled. “My son, lusting for a wandering bhikkhuni. At this rate, I’ll never have grandchildren. What were you mother say, rest her soul?”
Anuj blushed and focused on eating.
“I wish these ascetics could all at least agree on what to look like,” Brahmar said. “Naked!—No, deer skins!—No, robes!—No, rags!” He shook his head and wagged his finger in one direction, then the other, in mock argument. “Matted hair!—No, shaven!—No, let it grow long!” He raised both arms to the low mud roof, as if imploring the gods above. “How can they know the truth of reality when they don’t even make up their minds on how to dress?” Brahmar let his arms drop to the table.
Brahmar stood up. “Enough gossip about useless monks. We need to open the shop, see if we can earn a bit so we can—
“’Buy oil to burn and rice to eat, since my paltry pension barely feeds the rats,’” Anuj dared to say, finishing the familiar mantra of his father’s.
Brahmar stopped and glared at his son, who looked down, his face growing pale. Then Brahmar laughed loudly and tousled his son’s hair. “Have I become that predictable in my old age? Very well, the sooner you need to learn the trade, then, before I’m sitting around and babbling.”