This story by JD Edwin is a runner-up in the 2016 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the Winter Writing Contest stories here.
The tattoo on his left arm reads, in glaring large letters, RACIST AND PROUD.
The henna on his right is a lotus. It will not stay forever, though today that does not matter. He has had it renewed countless times in the past decade. The delicate design serves as a reminder of the lessons he has learned.
“Inner peace is not everlasting,” says his mentor. “Nor is it to be taken for granted. Many strive to achieve it, but so few hold on to it when they do. It’s easy to let chaos invade you, steer you off your path, drive you away from the door to heaven.”
He nods. These are all words he hears daily, but he savors them nonetheless. The stone floor is cold beneath their thin cushions, made colder by the drafts of wind singing through the canyons just outside the temple. He is bare from the waist up but despite the frost forming over the drops of morning dew, he does not feel the chill. This, too, is the result of found peace.
He looks up at his mentor. “Yes.”
“When you are ready, please tell your story.”
He stands and turns. His fellow disciples, all ninety-odd of them, sit before him. He takes a moment to look over their faces. Some are older, like him, bare-chested and calm in the cold. Some are younger, still green and fresh, pretending they are not disguising their shivers with tightly crossed arms. He knows how they feel, still holding onto foolish pride despite their own limitations. He was once one of them.
“It has been thirteen years, brothers,” he says. The winds sing as if accompanying him. “I walked through the gates of this temple thirteen years ago. I brought with me nothing but the clothes on my back and the sins of my past.” He raises his left arm, displaying the angry words marring his skin for his brothers to see. A few flinch at the sight of them.
“This is what I once believed,” he continues. The words seem surreal coming out of this mouth. “I carried with me so much anger and misconception. I believed that because bad things happened to me, they should happen to other people. People who didn’t deserve it. People who were good, and kind. People whose only fault was to have had the misfortune of wandering into my path. I believed it so much that I put these words on my body, so I could show the universe that wronged me my hate, my darkness.”
“But I was wrong. The world didn’t wrong me.” He slowly lowers his left arm and lifts his right. The fading henna almost feels warm, a spot of healing heat against his skin. He looks down at it. It blurs behind his tears. “I wronged me. The universe didn’t make my daddy beat me. That’s on him. The universe didn’t put that gun in my hand and make me rob that mom-n-pop shop. That’s on me. The universe didn’t make me cut my woman when she slept around on me. I didn’t have to do that. I didn’t walk away and that’s on me, too. It didn’t put that bottle in my hand, or put me behind that wheel. It didn’t make me run into that kid on the motorcycle either.”
He looks up. His brothers look back. He’d once sat among them, heard other stories similar to his own. He sees in their eyes what he had felt many times before—sympathy, understanding, and hope.
“Few years ago I wanted to get this thing removed,” he says, looking down at his left arm again. “Wanted to start fresh, but our master told me I must keep it. I didn’t get it then, but I get it now. We cannot escape ourselves, all the selves we were in the past. No matter where we go, no matter what plane, we take it with us. The universe gives us circumstances, but we make the choices. Sometimes we may not understand the circumstances, sometimes we make foolish choices, but we must have faith that the circumstances given to us have meaning, that it is our job to make the best of it. The universe has no accidents.”
He gazes out into the canyons. “This place has proven it for me. The gateway to heaven is no accident. I believed in the universe once and it led me here. I once thought this was magic, or illusion, but I know now, after seeing so many of our brothers ascend, that it is real. The universe may lead us places we can’t explain, but that is only proof that our faith must be stronger.”
His master rises. His brothers, too.
“Today is your day.” The master announces in a booming voice that resonates deep inside his chest. “Today is the day you have earned your place among your brothers in heaven. Let its light guide you, my child.”
He bows. “Thank you, master.”
The sun washes over him as the doors to the courtyard opens. Two of the younger disciples approach. In their arms they carry a large bundle, the robes he had seen many times before. He spreads his arms and they slip it over him. It is heavy with gold, silver, and purpose, a deep rich red adorned with jewels that will light his way to the next life. He pulls it closely around him. His master’s proud gaze follows him as he steps past him. He is not to look back now. There are no more words once he wears the robe. The heavens are calling. He walks, the jewels of his robe jingle softly.
He steps to the edge of the canyon. The locals called it the Singing Canyon, for the sound of the wind that whistles through it day and night. The master, as well as his brothers, have a different name for it—The Doorway to Heaven.
Their quiet steps approach behind him. Out of the corner of his eyes he sees them, peeking with anxious curiosity, knowing it will one day be them. He has done this many times as well. The leap into heaven is a sight to behold. They will watch his ascension, and honor the path he takes.
He spreads his arms. The wind sings. His brothers fall to their knees and begin to sing, too. A quiet hymn to accompany him on his journey.
The wind carries him. Down, down. The sound of singing grows dim. The fall, though only a second, seems to last forever. Then there it is. The blue light. The beautiful guiding light that led his brothers to heaven now comes for him. He closes his eyes and allows peace to overcome him.
“I believe,” he whispers, and the light takes him.
Deep in the silent space, the merchant ship is nearing its destination, heavy with cargo. Another successful trade run.
Aboard the third deck, just outside the mess hall, Glorf is just about to pack up his bucket and mop when the ducts above him made an all-too-familiar blip. He rolls four of his six eyes as a shape, about the length of two of his tail joints, falls with a wet, messy “smack!” onto the spot he had just spent an hour polishing into a perfect shine. He leans over it. It’s another one of those things with a weird red-and-gold shell. It twitches and he quickly puts it out of its misery by stomping on it with his thickest, flattest appendage.
“Glorf tells them, ‘fix the spacial integrator’, but does anyone listen to Glorf?” he mutters as he slowly dredges his mop. “Noooo, no one listens to Glorf. Let the weird bugs fall down, let Glorf clean up the mess . . .”