he wind blew into the mountain, a
nervous, restless wind with the smell of storm on its breath, and there was
change and uneasiness in the air. We found Master Kao sitting, cross-legged and
spine upright as always. There is an imperturbability to his posture that is at
odds with his small frame. The lack of tension in his body is so evident that it
takes on a presence of its own and becomes something palpable - a quality to the
air around him, a presence of calm. Torrent says he sits like a mountain.
Master Kao smiled when he saw us. Then a cloud seemed to come over his eyes and
his face set in sadness and he was silent. We waited.
"Winter, Nettle," he said, "You must always remember that a seed hidden in the
heart of an apple is an invisible orchard. Yet nothing will come of it should
that seed fall upon rock."
A flight of sparrows dropped into the dust, scrabbled for bits of food and then
flew off like a grey scarf twisting in the light. Moments later they were gone.
So was the world-sadness that had come over Master Kao. I thought, not for the
first time, that there was kinship between the masters of White Mountain and the
vast sky. They host emotions the way the sky hosts birds flying through it,
allowing them to pass through without obstruction, without grasping or aversion.
Arising and dissolving back into the skymind. The source of Flow. Of flowmancy.
"Come," he said. "I have a gift for you."
He extended his arms towards us, his hands were wrapped into fists and each hid
something in the centre. "Pick one." I laid a hand on his left fist just as
Nettle reached for the other.
I ended up with an acorn, and as far as I could tell it was not a special acorn.
I stared at it for a while, probed it with my mind, turned it over in my hand,
but could not discern anything unique to its flow pattern. Sometimes an acorn is
just an acorn. Nettle found a round river stone, its surface smoothed and
slightly polished by centuries of running water. Like most river stones, there
was a simple elegance to it, but beyond that it had no feature which stood out.
Nothing to distinguish it from any other pebble. Both pebble and acorn were
roughly the same size.
We looked at one another, then at Master Kao, and then back at our hands.
"What do you see?" asked Master Kao.
Nettle stared so hard at the river stone that, if pebbles could cry, I think it
would have. She looked at it as though by sheer force of will she meant to
extract whatever secret lay ensconced within the heart of the stone.
"An acorn and a pebble," I said. Nettle rolled her eyes. She clearly expected
something more esoteric.
"And you, Nettle?"
"Far be it for me to contradict the words and wisdom of the prodigy." The prayer
beads resurfaced. "Yes. An acorn and a pebble. That is what I see too."
"I am glad we are in agreement," Master Kao said. Aunt Winn looked like she was
about to get up, say "Well then. A lot has happened yesterday that we need to
discuss. Please excuse us," and gently but firmly escort us out. Nettle must
have sensed this too for she interjected before Aunt Winn could speak.
"Yes, but what does it mean, master?"
"Perhaps we should ask instead: What does it mean to you?" Master Kao sat and
gazed at us calmly. "Look deeply."
And so we did. Of course, it suited me to go away and contemplate. To wait. The
longer, the better. I wondered whether in the vastness of the cosmos there was a
world in which Nettle would be content to forget, to let go, or simply be
pleasant once every two hundred years. I doubted it.
But Nettle would not be thwarted. After an hour she prodded me back in. There
was a glint in her eyes and her jaw was set. I believe very strongly that she
thinks with her jaw. Once she sinks her teeth into something, she chews and
chews and chews until the matter takes a shape more satisfying to her ironclad
Master Kao took the acorn and the pebble and held them out to us.
"What do you see?" he asked again.
"Potential," said Nettle, eagerly, smugly, with the confidence of a landslide.
Her tone brooked no argument. "This acorn has a forest in its heart. In time it
may grow into a mighty oak, which will produce more acorns just like this one,
and each of those acorns may in turn grow a tree of its own. This single acorn,
small and insignificant as it may be, has the potential to cover the entire
world with a forest."
She paused to let her words sink in. I must admit she does have her moments of
brilliance. "The stone on the other hand can never grow more stones of its kind.
That is the difference between them: Potential." She took a mouthful of air, as
a man might just before he plunges into the sea, and continued triumphantly.
"For instance, Winter has the potential to practice diligently and be a good
monk. Instead, he wastes this potential by loitering around and keeping dubious
company. Like this stone, nothing will become of him. If he keeps walking the
same path. But like this acorn, he has the potential to change, to grow, to
become more than he is."
With her mouth pursed and her arms crossed, a sweet and nasty smile flickered
across her lips. When she spoke again, she spoke softly, almost whispering, and
a squint-eyed smirk seeped through.
"It was apt that he ended up with the acorn, to remind him of this." It was apt
that you ended up with the stone, I thought.
I looked at Master Kao. Our eyes met and he smiled. Goodwill and warmth radiated
from his face.
"And what do you see, Winter?"
"Perception." I spoke quietly, not as a man delivering a speech, but as one
conversing with friends, addressing not a multitude but the individuals of which
it is comprised. I spoke my mind. I spoke my truth. And I did so gently. "The
acorn is a world apart from the pebble, similar though they may look. But to
someone not aware of this difference, of potential, it is just another stone to
be flung down the mountain."
When a mountain stream flows out of a spring beside the road, and a thirsty
traveller comes along and drinks deeply, the traveller is welcome. But the
mountain stream is not waiting with the intention of refreshing thirsty
travellers; it is just bubbling forth, and the travellers are always welcome to
help themselves. So in exactly that sense I offered my ideas.
Nettle chides me for being selfish because I do not make it my life's purpose to
help others, as she has made hers. She thinks I am a bad monk because I do not
dedicate every waking moment, every breath, every thought, to alleviating the
suffering of others, to the practice of compassion, and the pursuit of peace.
But where there is effort, there is no flow. All force is tension against the
stream. And a person who seeks peace is obviously in turmoil.
I give of myself freely, but, I must own the truth, not with the purpose of
giving. I give like the cup that runneth over. I suspect in Nettle's mind good
deeds require acting out of a sense of duty. If you happen to do something good
simply because you enjoy doing it, to her, I suspect, it does not count as
virtue. How much the worse if you do good because you have nothing better to do
and nowhere else to be!
"Masters, there is a matter you must hear of," said Nettle. The prayer beads
slithered through her fingers as she spoke. "It concerns Winter."
"Allow me," said Master Seastone. "I think I remember. Let us see: Winter is not
a good leader; he has not imposed his authority on the children. He cannot
control the children. He is more like a big brother whom the children obey
half-grudgingly and half-jokingly, and only because they know that ultimately he
is backed by the authority of the monastery. He is much too focused on himself.
He is much too focused on the children's troubles, rather than on the teaching
job at hand. He gets drawn into arguments that have no place in the practice.
Therefore the practice lacks the focus that it is designed to teach." He paused
and scratched his head rather dramatically and said, "Aunt Winn, have I left
anything out?" A mischievous smile played across his mouth.
Aunt Winn raised her eyes from her knitting and looked at him over her
spectacles and shook her head, more I suppose at Master Seastone's antics than
in answer to his query. Ah, how could one not love Master Seastone?
"My memory is not what it used to be, but what do the dwarves say, with
repetition comes perfection," he continued. "All in all, I think I did rather
well." He nodded to himself. "Right, then. Thank you, Nettle, for sharing your
concerns. Winter, consider yourself properly chastised," and as an
after-thought, "Three hundred Salutations before dinner to appease all the gods,
moral spirits and patrons of industry you have offended."
"That is..." Nettle said. The prayer beads hissed, slowed and came to a halt.
She fingered the beads now as a cat plays with a ball of string, now rubbing a
bead between thumb and forefinger, now pulling at the string, now passing the
rosary from one hand to the other. "Not at all why I came."
"You are losing the Gift."
I found an accusatory forefinger lodged nailsbreath away from my brows.
The one thing I do like about Nettle is that you always know where you
stand with her. She has the directness of a heart-attack.
"Do not be ridiculous," I said. "It's something you are born with. You
can't lose it any more than you can lose your self."
"Odd you should say that." A feral smile prowled on her face, ready to
I think I was trying to persuade myself by repetition, for I ignored and
talked over her, "It's part of you. It's who you are, Nettle. That can't
be taken from you."
From the terrace I could see the monastery below, rippling down the
mountain in terraces and orchards and training grounds and herb gardens.
Half a world away Grass wandered about, looking in unlikely places for his
shoes, and at last found them where he had left them under the bed. I
smelled the afternoon wind rattling our prayer beads, carrying the souls
of grass and roots and damp earth.
"That can't be taken from you," I whispered, staring at the horizon. The
raging sea looked strangely calm from this height, undulating creases on a
bed of silver. Perspective brings order, I suppose.
"Because I always wondered who Winter would be without the Gift."
It seemed to me then that a silence lay on the hills. No animal moved
about, neither grass-eater nor predator, and the air was so still that I
could hear the breath pulsing against my throat as lips parted and muscled
moved and words were formed:
"Our gifts define us, make us who we are," I said.
"Indeed, would there even be a Winter?" Her voice came swollen, as if from
a great distance away, carried underwater by the vibrations of water on
water, on the backs of fish and seaweed, from the other side of the water,
beyond the barrier, another world.
"You must let me go," I said to no one in particular. "There is no place
for me here."
I felt trapped. On one side was the truth of Nettle's words, the loss of
my world, a truth I was loathe to admit, but could not deny, for I could
read it in the compassion in Master Kao's eyes the way you can see a man
standing behind you, reflected in someone else's irises. On the other lay
the weight of my choices. Last year, I had decided: I would leave the
monastery after taking the Vows. I would head to Nybelmarasa, the last
place on the Disk where the magic of the Ancient Krean still lives. And
there I would learn the arcane arts of the Krean.
Now all who chose to stay were already Attuned, three to a teacher. None
of the masters could take on another student. I was a sailor lost at sea.
Stranded by my own choice. Not waving but drowning.
Only death awaited me on the Mountain. I knew then with the certainty of
migrating storks that if I stayed I would die the slow death of
resentment, a fading away, the fading of dreams to disappointment. In
Nybelmarasa was life, a vitality, a life force, a quickening - a purpose
I heard the clatter of prayer beads changing hands, from right to left,
and beginning their revolution anew. Nettle turned her face from Master
Kao to me and her feral smile broke through again. Finally she had gotten
what she wanted. After seventeen years, Winter was leaving White Mountain.