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The sensei is in.
"You've traveled a long way."
His rusty voice shocks me out of my thoughts, and I glance over. His white hair, now long and twinged with silver, blows lightly in the breeze as his steely blue eyes stare me down. There was a time when I once took comfort in his gaze, but that was a long time ago.
He resumes staring at the line where the sky meets the mountains, silence spreading its blanket over us once again. I wish he'd ask more, actually use his goddamn words like I want him to, but I learned a long time ago not to push him. The master will do what he will or won't do. One must simply wait, and allow him to decide.
Even if it takes two thousand miles of flying, two car rides, six days of walking, and four hours of silence. You cannot simply shove him into action.
You cannot merely push whatever you want to move.
I take the opportunity to study him. The years have not been cruel to him, as they were to me. He still sits the same way, his legs tucked under him, so tightly that I wonder if he'll be able to get up again. His hands form the perfect om-shaped, middle-finger-to-thumb gesture that only repetition brings. His brow is unlined, though I remember it crinkling when he scowls. I expect I'll see it again before too long.
He makes no move to speak again, and I withhold a sigh as I stare out at the horizon. My mind wanders to my own appearance, and I criticize myself. Age would have given me a few grey hairs, too, if I didn't dye them first. A few nonsensical tattoos from my younger years - a traditional sparrow and anchor on my arm, a weirdly new-school triangle design hidden on my hip - don't bring me the joy they used to. Now they feel like someone else's memories, like a little girl wearing mommy's clothes.
I used to think I'd be grown-up, one day. Have stories to tell, just like everyone else. Instead I wandered around the world and still couldn't manage to find myself.
His voice slices through my thoughts like a sword. I blink, trying to remember what he was asking. Was this a test, just to see how I'd respond? Was he asking about the state of the world, the reason birds fly, or the temperamental affairs of the heart? Or was it something far simpler, like, why am I here?
I took too long to answer, and the invisible lines on his face turned into a scowl. Ah, there it is. The inevitable disappointment of the master. It only took four hours and thirty-three minutes.
"Why are you here?" he repeats. His eyebrows draw over his eyes, making him seem aloof and more annoyed than anything else.
I fumble over my words for a moment before answering. I always do. Try to come up with something magical, something deep and profound, that I might impress him or make him think I was paying attention more than I was.
His frown deepens, and I give up. "I wanted to find you."
"I taught you already," he harrumphs and turns back to the skyline. "Did you not learn?"
I wince. I did, but I want him to teach me again. Tell me the stories, teach me the silence. Train my unwilling heart to be at peace. Maybe I'll pick up something this time that I missed out on before.
As if he can hear my thoughts, he continues. "There is no sense in doing twice what has already been done once."
My heart sinks. This is his decision. After two thousands miles, two car rides, six days, four hours and thirty-six minutes of silence, I have been found wanting. He rejected my request - which I didn't even voice aloud - and made his answer known. I will find nothing more here.
I stand to my feet and dust my hands off before bowing to him, my hands folded in front of me the way he taught me to do. Just before I turn, I see his eyebrows go up. "You are leaving?"
I don't bother with attempted eloquence this time. "The master has given his answer, and I honor it. Thank you for your time."
I bow again before retracing my footsteps towards the dusty mountain trail. It will take a long time to get home, and the thought already exhausts me. I'll have to charter a plane for the last part, take a taxi to the airport. Six days of hiking lay before me, and my feet ache already with the memory of barely starting.
"If you will leave," his voice calls over my shoulder, "Take some wisdom with you."
I pause. He's never offered me something to take, not even a drop of water for the journey. Not that I ever bothered asking. I know better than that.
I glance back at him. He's standing on his feet, dusting his hands the same way I did. When he approaches me, his eyes glint. "You seek something that you did not find elsewhere. And you believe my knowledge can give it to you."
I nod again, my heart beginning to soar. Maybe, just maybe, he'll reconsider. Maybe he'll take me on. I've never known him to recant a decision, but maybe, just maybe-
He tilts his head one way, then the other. It is an old motion, like the om-fingers. Worn, like how I feel. "Maybe yes, maybe no. Did you pause to think that you alone hold the answer to that which you seek?"
I shake my head. "I tried that. I've looked inside myself many times. The answer isn't there."
"Isn't there? Or don't see it?"
Again, I am silenced by his simplicity. I want to fight him, shake his shoulders, complain that I did do the work and nothing came of it. But he's right, and no matter how much I hate it, it won't change.
He hears my silence with a smile. "Perhaps you would do well to think of what you are seeking. Maybe that will help you find it."
I shake my head again. "I tried. It's not there."
"Hmm." He sinks into a thoughtful glance, taps his lips with a single finger. "I taught you once. And you learned your lessons well. Better than most of my other students, in fact."
My mouth drops open at his praise, but he cuts me off before I can say a word.
"When you finished studying, you went in search of someone. You believed you were missing a piece of yourself, is that correct?"
"I see." He steeples his fingers and stares through me. "Sometimes it is easier not to think of ourselves as missing. We are not puzzles to be completed. We are humans, with all of the flaws and beauty that contains. Yes, during our lives, we grow. We seem to become other people, although in reality we are all the same. Like looking at a diamond through different facets. It seems to have different colors, but remains the same gem. You present yourself anew every day, but you are still the same person you always were, only with a new face."
Not a puzzle. That made sense to me. It triggered a sense of relief that flooded my whole body, and I felt myself relax for the first time in a long time.
"You are a complete work, one whole person. Though you will mold and change and grow, and it seems you will take on different forms, you are still one person. That is all you'll ever be, for better or worse."
He places a hand on my shoulder, and I realize that I'm smiling as I nodded back to him. He holds up a warning finger.
"This is my wisdom to you today. Take care of the human that you are. Mind how you grow, and only unfurl your leaves towards the sunlight. Do not poison that which you are, because that is all you can ever hope to be."
His hand drops off my shoulder as he bows to me. Then he turns, walks back to his place at the edge of the mountain, and sits down, resuming his meditative pose.
"Thank you." My words hang in the air long after I've spoken them. He never turns around to acknowledge them, but I know he heard. I bow towards his back, folding my hands just so, inclining my head as he'd taught me. "Peace be with you."
"And also with you."
The peace that flooded my heart keeps its hold as I step back onto the dusty mountain pass. It will take six days to get back to civilization, but somehow, it doesn't bother me as much as it did before. I was not missing anything, not even a memory or moment of life, when I came here. I was one person, and I still am. I will be when I get home, too.
No matter how long it takes.
(Photo by Till Daling, Pexels)