Whenever spirit degenerates and avarice rages on earth,
I reincarnate; erupting from the unmanifest,
I come to destroy evil and to resurrect righteousness.
~ Bhagavad Gita
Prince Arjuna’s eyes flickered wildly over the ranks of the enemy as his chariot blazed across the battlefield of Kurukshetra in ancient northern India, resting on the faces of gurus, kinfolk and friends for a few crucial seconds. As the unspeakable horror that was looming struck him afresh, a tidal wave of doubt assailed the ambidextrous master archer.
Arjuna focused his gaze upon the figure steering his chariot: it was the Blue God Krishna, avatar, friend and kinsman, who had agreed to serve as his charioteer and counselor in this apocalyptic clash between the forces of good and evil. Lord Krishna was resplendent in colorful attire that flashed like lightning on a stormy night. His skin was hued the dark turquoise of a newborn cloud. Sparkling diamonds adorned his person, while a peacock feather waved gaily from his headband. “I beg your counsel, O Krishna!” the Prince cried, aware that only divine wisdom could restore order to his chaotic world. “Evil as my cousins are, I find that I cannot battle my own kin. How is it possible to kill those who once showered upon me their great love?”
But Krishna only flashed his inscrutable smile and the Prince’s head drooped towards his chest. “I am no coward, O Krishna,” Arjuna muttered in despair. “I know the Kauravas are blinded by lust and jealousy. Indeed treachery has become their second nature. Yet how can slaying them increase our happiness? Should I not offer myself to them, unarmed and unresisting?” And tormented by his moral dilemma, the hope of the Pandavas threw down his magical bow Gandiva and refused to fight; a good thing, as it turned out, for his angst moved Krishna to unravel before him celestial mysteries that swiftly dissolved his uncertainty.
Even as countless life-forms radiating streams of light separated and merged again to create the boundless being of the God of Gods, Krishna’s resonant voice cut through the din. “Your sorrow is sheer delusion, Arjuna!” thundered the Blue God. “Wise men do not grieve for the dead, or for the living. Never was there a time when I did not exist, or you, or these kings, nor will there come a time when we cease to be. These bodies come to an end, Arjuna, but that vast Self is ageless, fathomless, eternal!”
Suffused by torrents of grace, Arjuna discerned the role of the divine in human life, the impeccability of karmic law, the immortality of the soul, and the way of the noble human, especially in turbulent times. A colossal burden slid off from his mighty shoulders as Krishna’s luminous counsel penetrated his soul—that the duty of a spiritual warrior is first to determine what is right, and then to fight the encroaching darkness, regardless of how the cosmic dice may fall. And with a roar that resounded across that simmering battlefield and straight up to the heavens, the shining star of the Pandavas reached down to pick up his deadly bow.
Whoever brought me here
Will have to take me home.
Chapter 1 ~ TURTLE’S TOUGH LOVE
Pia sneaked out before the end of the Twelve-Step meeting being held in the basement of a midtown Manhattan Presbyterian Church and ran up the short flight of stone stairs that led to the world outside. Perhaps because it was Christmas Eve, and folks seemed to be extra twitchy, the meeting had only served to amplify her emotional cacophony. Now she could scarcely wait to dump her bombshell news on Turtle —that her estranged father had passed away eight thousand miles away in India, leaving her his sole heir. How was she to accurately convey to him her eerie sense that returning to the subcontinent she’d fled a dozen years ago would trigger a potentially deadly surge of karma?
Close to the subway entrance on 42nd Street she bumped into Tatiana, a six-foot ramp model with slanted eyes and a sexy drawl. Plagued by a voracious appetite for cocaine chased with straight vodka, Tatiana had been battling her addiction with the help of Alcoholics Anonymous, or AA, and Pia had come to admire the model’s grit in always returning to the rooms despite some serious slips.
Tatiana exhaled a cloud of mint-flavored smoke, ground out her cigarette beneath a pointed heel, and complained that she’d missed the meeting at The Seed because of a screw-up on the Broadway subway line. Damn, Pia thought, little point in asking this gorgeous space cadet just why the trains were messed up; now how in sweet hell was she supposed to transport herself across five avenues and down thirty-five city blocks to Washington Square Park for her meeting with Turtle?
“Are folks still hanging around The Seed, Pia?” Tatiana asked in her languid way.
Assuring Tatiana the meeting was still on, Pia turned direction and took off like a rocket, grateful for her comfy suede boots—this being peak hour on the eve of a major holiday, her chances of grabbing a cab downtown were next to nil. At the corner of 34th and Sixth she spotted Gareth, a rising star in the stand-up comedy circuit she’d met at an East Village meeting, driving his scarlet Miata. Hoping for a ride, she waved frantically, but Gareth didn’t see her and zoomed off when the light turned green. So, praying for deliverance from Turtle’s wrath for being late, backpack slapping against her spine like a wild thing, she began to jog through the swelling crowds.
Funny, she thought, that just like Matt DuBois III—the corporate lawyer for whom she worked—Turtle too was a stickler for punctuality. It made sense that Matt would value his time since he charged over five hundred dollars an hour for his legal expertise, but Turtle could only blame his obsession with strict time-keeping on his U.S. Army boot-camp training. She smiled at the sharp contrast between these two men she was close to—Matt lived in Greenwich, Connecticut, drove a Lexus, and shopped at Brooks Brothers and Zegna; Turtle was a jobless Native American cripple who shared an apartment on the Lower East Side with his grouchy half-sister, and spent his days counseling any addict willing to digest his wisdom, usually for a Coke and a bag of salt-and-vinegar chips. Pia valued both men for complementary reasons—working for Matt kept her monetarily afloat in the Big Apple, while Turtle’s tough love kept her on the straight and narrow—which is why she continued to flail her way towards him, pissed that everyone but herself appeared to be enthused about the year’s biggest celebration.
Sweet God, how she wished she’d managed to dump her emotional waste on the meeting she’d just left! But The Seed had been packed with folks freaked out to varying degrees by the holidays, and she’d given up hope of getting in a word during the sharing. Instead she’d slunk to the back of the room and drowned her sorrows by drinking a mug of lukewarm coffee into which she dunked a thick slice of raisin-studded pound cake that her friend Brigitte, ex-hooker and dominatrix extraordinaire, had baked to celebrate her seventh sober anniversary.
Pia had held back from spilling the details of her most recent crisis into Brigitte’s ear simply because she felt her friend deserved a break from all disturbing news on her day of glory. After all, it wasn’t too long ago that Brigitte had staggered around with three monkeys clinging to her back—booze, heroin, and the indignity of pursuing the oldest profession in the world. Brigitte had kicked all three with the help of AA and a host of sober friends and now she managed a shelter for battered women in Harlem. Best of all, her wicked half-Irish, half-Jamaican sense of humor appeared to be resurrecting itself.
At thirty-seven, Brigitte was four years older than Pia, and apart from a genetic predilection for self-destruction, the two women had little in common. Pia traced their unlikely bond back to that distant evening when she’d slipped into The Seed and found a seat beside the vivacious ex-hooker. As the ceremony of addicts and alcoholics healing their wounded selves through the divinely inspired Twelve-Step program had unfolded, Pia had recalled her friend Angela’s prediction that she’d hit bottom on marijuana—a herb most Americans dismissed as recreational. Those words had caused her to shudder violently, whereupon Brigitte had won her over by flinging a maternal arm across her shoulder and drawing her close.
The cool crowd Pia had hung with prior to AA had oozed ‘culture’, but when it came to a hand waving for help in the turbulent ocean of life, most had displayed a Houdini-like knack for vanishing. Brigitte, however—who’d barely made it past high school, was missing part of her left ear thanks to a pimp’s skill with a razor, and believed her nephew’s artwork to be an improvement on both Dali and Picasso—was the kind of mythical comrade who’d tangle with a killer in a dark alley to help a friend.
As she raced downtown, Pia recalled the time she’d been sucking up nicotine in the backyard of The Seed when a trio of over-the-hill sober drunks who insisted that the rooms of AA be restricted solely to alcoholics had ganged up on her. How could she possibly be addicted to substances as mild as nicotine and marijuana, their leader Tommy B. had demanded of her in a quavering treble. What was she really doing in the rooms? Conspiracy theories were big with this gang of wet-brains.
Brigitte and her boyfriend Karl had been arguing in The Seed’s straggly rose arbor. “You know nuthin’, you old farts,” Brigitte had hissed, marching forward to thrust her pretty face at the gang of three; Karl, a heavy-metal aficionado with sizeable biceps, had hovered menacingly behind her. The ancient trio looked like they’d been hit by a truck. “Now you listen to me good!” Brigitte had barked. “My cousin Tricia got so down on that hydroponic weed shit that she jumped off her roof and died, okay? You guys are dumbasses, I know, but try to grok that addiction is addiction.” She’d glared savagely at the stunned geriatrics. “Next feller who picks on Pia is gonna be singing soprano in the choir, hear?”
Stunned by Brigitte’s fierce defense, Pia held back from throwing in her own two bits—that if marijuana is used correctly, it can be good medicine. Clearly all her harassers wanted was to mourn the death of their glory days, when alcohol ruled a sinister world of gangsters and molls who hung out in shadowy bars on the mob-infested west side. As Brigitte had once explained to her, these old-timers felt so alienated in a world gone crazy with heroin, cocaine, crack, crystal meth, and DMT that they picked on any newcomer who believed a silly-making weed could equally destroy body, mind and spirit.
The prospect of life minus 24-karat comrades like Brigitte and Turtle caused the pain monster to erupt in her chest. Pia had once dealt with this razor-finned shark by smoking herself into oblivion; now, all she had to sustain herself were meetings, yoga and meditation, candle-lit baths, and books on Eastern mysticism. When she was too dispirited to follow that holy route, she dug into a triple-cheese pizza with anchovies and red peppers from Three Milano Brothers, or junk food from the Korean deli around the corner. What kept her sober was the hard truth that an active addict’s life inevitably turns into a living hell; as Einstein had so aptly put it, insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.
Another Christmas Eve and she had a severe attack of the blues. Perhaps she should head over to one of several parties igniting all over the city, from way uptown to the winding streets of the Village, not to forget the bash at her friend Becky’s loft in Tribecca? Pointless, she decided, continuing to jog, for she was in no mood for revelry tonight; instead she sent up a fervent prayer that Turtle would wait for her.
AA advised its members to stick with same-sex mentors, and yet Turtle had successfully sponsored her for the past three years. In truth, Pia thought wryly, no sane person could accuse her of lusting after a guy who’d been critically wounded during a skirmish in some forgotten jungle in Vietnam. Years ago Turtle had traveled to Manhattan from his Atakapan reservation on the fringes of Louisiana to help his widowed half-sister through a suicidal depression; fortunately for the addicts he now sponsored, he’d opted to stay on.
Turtle claimed Pia’s almond eyes and dusky skin reminded him of his daughter who had died of a drug overdose in a rundown Los Angeles motel. Her autopsy had revealed a three-month-old fetus, and Turtle still blamed himself for not believing her when she’d called him, in the middle of the night, claiming her pimp had beaten the crap out of her yet again. She’d begged him to give her a home until her baby was born, but sick and tired of being conned by his own flesh and blood, Turtle had refused. Then, a mere week later, his daughter was dead, and the poor man had no sorcery to turn back the clock.
“What to say, Pia?” he’d mumbled piteously. “I told her Hetty’s apartment wasn’t big enough for the three of us, but the truth is I didn’t believe her when she swore up and down that she wanted to get straight for the sake of the baby. I loved her mother so goddamn much, y’know, that after she left us I hated to see the kid around. So I packed her off to her mom’s family on the neighboring Rez. Later I tried to make up to her, but she was already too far gone, sellin’ her body for one more high.”
Privately Pia was relieved that the baby never emerged from that ravaged womb; those drugs mama had shot up would certainly have blown holes in her cerebellum. But when guilt slashed at Turtle like a demented pair of rusty scissors, she figured it was best to just listen to him until he could face life again; she’d come to believe it was their unabashed mutual sharing that formed the glue of their alliance.
Only when she passed the last stone building of New York University and slipped into the park did she realize she’d been weeping. Brisk winter winds whipped her cheeks, drying her tears to a dusting of salt. Then she caught sight of Turtle sitting in his wheelchair next to the green park bench that was their usual meeting spot and her spirits rose. “Sorry, Turtle,” she gasped as she reached his side, “trouble on the Broadway line. Would you believe I jogged all the way down here from The Seed?”
Turtle glowered up at her for a tense moment before grunting his forgiveness. Dropping a kiss on his cold cheek, Pia parked herself down on the bench beside his wheelchair, thinking it a minor miracle that, despite the stream of yuppies, office-workers, pushers, pimps, sex-workers of all varieties, mimes and musicians who frequented this park, this particular bench was always free for them.
“Rough week, eh?” Turtle asked, his narrowed eyes gleaming. “Goddamn holidays never fail to bring out the worst in us, eh?” By ‘us’ Pia knew he meant the Twelve-Step lot, and he was right—year-end holidays were especially brutal for recovering addicts and alcoholics who’d lost intimate relationships and dreaded the void that opened up during days of family celebration. Many revisited old methods of coping and some never made it back. So yes, apart from Brigitte’s exultant share, the meeting she’d just left had been nothing but a bitch session with a few scraps of gratitude thrown in.
Suddenly reluctant to spill her big news, Pia told Turtle about the wild-eyed woman sporting an old-fashioned Afro who’d rushed in half-way through the meeting. “My sister OD’d up in Harlem!” the woman had shrieked. “She’s in the uptown morgue! Someone please give me money to get her buried?”
Jesus, who’d hung out with fishermen, money-lenders, lepers and a lovely courtesan, would have approved of Max, a stockbroker with short cropped white hair, who’d handed the woman a hundred dollar bill. Unwritten AA law forbade begging at a meeting, but what did Christmas mean if folks who’d been through hell and back could not be extra generous? Others handed her smaller bills, and Pia too had passed a dollar along, watching as the Afro head had bent down to count the spoils. Then the woman had jumped up and raced out of The Seed, a triumphant smirk on her face; a deep voice had intoned ‘there but for the grace of God go I’ and nervous titters rippled across the dimly lit basement.
Turtle looked morose but refrained from making his usual acerbic comment about active addicts being their own worst enemy. “Where were you last afternoon, Pia?” he demanded. “You didn’t answer the goddamn phone.”
“With Sherry Hall in Admin,” Pia said. “Sherry sounded so grim I thought I was in for it.”
“In for what?” Turtle shot her a puzzled look. “Didn’t you say that Matt guy digs your work?”
“Nothing to do with my work,” Pia said shortly. “I figured I was going to get hell for blowing up at Leo Watts—that’s the senior litigation partner who’s been bullying our new temp, fresh from Bolivia.”
Turtle grinned, baring wolf-like yellow teeth. “You got a nerve complainin’ about my temper, honey. What did the feller do to piss you off so bad this time, hey?”
“Grabbed a heavy law book and swore he’d bash her head in with it if she didn’t get some friggin’ agreement ready in time for his conference call.” She sighed. “He continues to pull shit like this, but no one but me dares stand up to him since he happens to own a nice chunk of the firm.”
Turtle’s mottled hand reached out to pat hers. He knew the real reason Pia loathed Watts was that, a couple of months ago, the senior partner had abused his secretary for the last time—sixty-two year old Athena Hall, connoisseur of literary fiction and a wide range of classical music, had suffered a fatal heart attack at her desk after a tantrum Watts had unleashed upon her for some bungled travel arrangements. Since Pia’s own cubicle was located behind the ‘bull pen’ where Athena used to work, she had caught the look of fastidious disgust on Watt’s face at the sight of her friend’s shapeless body sprawled lifeless at his feet. Ever since, she had done her damnedest to give him hell.
Turtle looked at her inquiringly—he was used to her daydreaming, his eyes said eloquently, but tonight was Christmas Eve. “So! Did you get in trouble or not?”
“Not,” Pia said, just as two rail thin teens with identical spiked hair sauntered up to the spurting fountain a few feet away from them and plunged into animated discourse. “Watts must have thought better about reporting me.” She took a deep breath. “Ready for my big news, Turtle?”
Turtle nodded gravely, his grip on her hand tightening instinctively.
“A lawyer based in Bangalore has managed to track me down,” she announced. “Fellow must be as sharp as a knife since I left over a decade ago and with another last name. Sent a letter directly to the firm, which Sherry thought she should personally hand to me.”
“Bangalore, eh?” Turtle said. “That where you was born, right, sweetie?”
“Right, the south Indian city that’s been hitting the hi-tech news. Dad’s dead, Turtle,” she blurted, baffled that her father’s passing had not shaken her more than it had: Was this because he’d always been extra tough on her? “There are decisions to be made regarding his estate,” she went on, trying to rein in her turbulent mind. “My Aunt Diana’s passed on and her son Steve has moved to Germany, he says, so if I don’t go back pretty soon, these assets will revert to the government.”
Turtle’s jaw worked as if he was chewing on buffalo hide. “Shouldn’t let no damned government grab your property,” he stated emphatically. “All they gonna do is buy more guns and nuke bombs and whatnot. So what you gonna do, huh?” he asked, scratching the stubble on his stubborn chin.
Fear grabbed her in its icy arms. “Don’t you dare bully me into going back!” she exploded, startling the young punk watching them from the opposite bench. “You know damn well it would kill me to leave Manhattan!”
“Kill you, my ass,” Turtle retorted with his usual polish. “Why you goin’ to AA and yoga classes for, twisting your body into all those pretzel shapes if you’re still too scared to face real life, eh? You got some solid sobriety under your belt, and guts and smarts and integrity many would die for. Goddammit, Pia,” he thundered, maneuvering his wheelchair so he was looking directly into her eyes. “You’ve come a long way from that sniveling brat I saw hiding at the back of The Seed!”
“I’ve figured a way out,” Pia said. “Andy Levine at Kroner & Beck deals with several Bangalore-based companies. Bet he could talk to this lawyer on my behalf. A General Power of Attorney might enable him to send my inheritance to Manhattan—there are always loopholes, I belong to a devious race.”
“Sometimes, girl,” Turtle declared, “you just too smart for your own good. Sure you can stand on your head and scream at the moon but this ain’t about some fuckin’ inheritance, eh? This is a challenge sent to you by your Higher Power!” His grip on her hand tightened into a vice. “Look,” he said in a gravelly voice, “hide dust under the rug and you gonna be sick right in the center of your soul.” Turtle tended to mix metaphors, but his meaning was clear. “Now you listen to me good,” he ordered, left hand shooting up in the air like Joe Cocker in full throttle. “Only two ways to react to fear—either you can ‘Fuck Everything and Run’, or you can ‘Face Everything and Recover’.”
Pia disliked Turtle’s liberal use of Twelve-Step acronyms and clichés—‘Fake It Till You Make It,’ ‘First Things First,’ ‘Let Go and Let God,’ ‘False Evidence Appearing Real’ (acronym for FEAR), et cetera. Now she held back from telling him about the ghastly sensation that had come over her as she’d read that blasted letter—as if Yama, Lord of Death, was breathing fumes of ruin down her neck! If Turtle believed she was heading into danger, it would most definitely color his advice to her.
“Know what I thought when you didn’t pick up the phone?” he rumbled on. “That you’d run back to that ex of yours, or picked up some bud in Central Park.” He shook his head mournfully. “Don’t know which is worse, Pia, two-legged love or drugs and booze.” His bushy eyebrows came together to form a thick black line. “Folks like us go berserk around the holidays. Cut loose from some jerk with great difficulty, then go runnin’ back when the going gets tough, too scared to be alone. When we gonna learn that no human can give us unconditional love? All we’re capable of on this planet is a fickle, selfish, trivial sort of thing.” He looked up at the sprinkling of stars, as if communing directly with higher consciousness. “Now tell me what you gonna do, Pia. As your sponsor, I got a right to know.”
Like her deceased Uncle Hari, Turtle too believed that the highest goal of human life was to evolve into a spiritual warrior. If he did not respect what this meant, Turtle had once reminded her, he’d have killed himself after the war, when he’d lost both his legs and his sexual ability. The strange saga he’d related to her at the start of their relationship flashed through her mind: Turtle had returned home a broken man and had sunk into the abyss of alcoholism and heroin addiction. Then his shaman father had dreamed his son was in trouble and sent a tribe member in a beat-up pickup truck to spirit Turtle out of his vet group house and back to the Rez. The entire tribe had rejoiced—the prodigal son had returned, never mind his wretched state. His mother had fed him strong medicine to soothe his withdrawal even as the Council of Elders discussed his case late into the night.
At dawn the next morning, Turtle was given an herbal cocktail. Six men carried him down a winding trail to the banks of the Mississippi, the Council following in silent procession. Turtle was lowered into an inlet of water, legless body and all. He’d clung to a rock, his eyes begging for mercy. Then his father gravely informed Turtle of the elders’ decision—either he could die in this sacred creek, or he could invite his spirit back, by choosing to forgive.
Turtle had clung to that mossy rock with rising terror before the potion kicked in. His mind had grown magically clear as a parade of villains passed before his mind’s eye. There was the ‘buddy’ who’d tricked him into taking his place on that fateful mission; laughing Vietnamese guards who’d pushed bamboo slivers up his nails, cutting his skin open to pour sugar on his flesh so jungle ants could feast; other captors who’d shoved maggoty rat meat into his mouth and left him to lie in his dysenteric shit; the American doctor who’d later allowed gangrene to set into his legs.
Amazed, Turtle had found he could forgive everyone but the Atakapan sweetheart who’d borne him a daughter, then split with another man. Both of them had died soon afterwards in a car accident. Her honey-sweet face had formed before his eyes. “Turtle my love,” she’d whispered. “He swore he’d kill both you and the baby if I didn’t go with him. But it was you I loved.” And Turtle had realized that only the truth could emerge in so sacred a space; it was the peace suffusing his face that informed the elders that his clearing work was done.
“Time for you to make that big leap forward, Pia,” Turtle growled, breaking into her thoughts. “You just gotta go back and face the music, or you’ll always regret being a wuss.”
Hey! Pia wanted to shout. I’d prefer drowning in a sacred creek watched by a bunch of half-naked hunks to going back to face my demons! Instead she said, “I called the lawyer last night, Turtle. He’s a pro, crisp, clear, every fact on the tips of his fingers. He says Dad’s left me a nice amount in stocks and shares and that our house should fetch quite a bit—Bangalore’s gone into hyper-inflation.”
“Then why you care about your job, sweetie?” Turtle demanded. “Helping fat cat lawyers sell airplanes to third-world countries ain’t no fit job for a woman as creative as you. And who’s gonna stop you from coming back and getting a job that suits you better, hey? All you gotta do is stay sober and keep the faith.” He took her cold hands and massaged her swollen fingers—she had the beginnings of carpal tunnel syndrome and sometimes the pain got so bad she could not lift her wrists without yelping.
“I’m scared, Turtle, really scared,” she whispered, clutching at his hand.
“What’s really going on inside of you, Pia?” Turtle demanded. “Come on, girl, spit it all out.”
“Boils down to an awful confusion,” she confessed. “Too many invisible strings attached to that money, too many ghosts and demons to confront. You know why I left India, Turtle, things were rapidly going downhill and I grabbed at my big chance to split. Not that it’s been easy here.” Her mind skittered ahead, searching for new arguments to convince them both that she was right not to go. “Besides, Sherry says a position is opening up in the firm that’s tailor-made for me—international liaison between Manhattan H.Q. and our European branches. I’d have to deal with a bunch of multinational lawyers, not a piece of cake, I know, some of those guys have unbelievable egos…” Her voice petered down to a halt.
“I said get it all out,” Turtle urged, his face hard as granite in the deepening twilight.
“HR is willing to give me the job, Turtle,” she said. “At close to double my current salary. Besides I’m more or less happy here,” she whispered tearfully. “I could probably streak down Fifth Ave at peak hour and get away with it. When you’ve grown up being told how to think, who to talk to, what to wear, and who to marry…hey, let me tell you, life in the Big Apple can feel like heaven.”
A weirdo sporting spiked hair and silver rings all over his pimply face stared at her from the opposite bench. He was smoking a crumpled roll-up that smelled like good bud. If Turtle wasn’t around, Pia realized with a frisson of shock, she’d have thrown her five years of sobriety down the drain and begged the jerk for a hit. Turtle let go of her hands, soothed by his gentle ministrations. “Show me one human who says she ain’t scared when the shit hits the fan, Pia, and I’ll show you a liar,” he said. “Now what’s that Indian mumbo-jumbo story you told me about? The one about your God Krishna?”
Long ago Pia had recounted to Turtle her favorite Indian myth—the encounter between the great God Krishna, worshipped as an incarnation of the Divine by millions, and Prince Arjuna of the Pandavas, on the ancient northern battlefield of the Kurukshetra. Turtle had gotten mighty excited at the point at which Krishna advises Arjuna on how a noble human being should act under pressure. “Krishna’s teaching your Prince how to be a spiritual warrior!” he’d cried. “Each of us gotta do what we gotta do, Pia, like it or not.”
That’s when her mental fog cleared. “All right,” she said hoarsely. “I’ll hand in my resignation on Monday. I’m getting the strong feeling I should quit my job. I love Matt, but working in that high-stress environment is ruining my nerves.” Her thoughts whirled like dervishes. “Besides, what if I inherit a bundle? I might not ever have to work again, especially if I decide to stay on in India. I promised Uncle Hari that someday I’d get serious about my inner work, and perhaps it’s time to keep my word. It’s tough to shoot for enlightenment when you’re struggling to keep body and soul together.”
A flash of sadness crossed Turtle’s face. He nodded, tugging at his silver ear hoop. “No point twiddlin’ your thumbs then, darlin’, just go. And be grateful for your dad’s friggin’ money—the guy’s dead and money’s just gas for life.” She saw the glint of tears in his eyes. “Know what, honey?” he muttered, dabbing at his eyes with the sleeve of his jacket. “I’m gonna miss you something terrible.”
Night descended rapidly and Washington Square Park took on a surreal look as beings emerged in ghostly streams to mill about their space. The gravity of her news had probably caused Turtle to extend his evening with her; after all, this could be the last time they got to chew the spiritual fat in this mysterious park. Turtle stared up at the stars, resignation reflected on the planes of his craggy face, but Pia’s gaze was drawn down to earth as her thoughts winged backwards to the south Indian city she’d fled way back in 1986. She focused on Anokhi, a childhood friend she’d truly loved.
The thought of seeing Anokhi after all these years should have thrilled her, but instead dread fell over her like a shroud. Could this disquiet stem from the warning delivered to her by the renunciate that Anokhi and she had encountered one hot summer afternoon an eon ago? What had the fierce old man said? That Pia would be forced to come to Anokhi’s aid in the future and should therefore make herself strong. But protect Anokhi from what, Pia wondered again? If there was one woman almost too richly favored by both genetics and circumstance, it was Anokhi.
Out of the blue, Pia recalled Anokhi’s mother grumbling that her daughter’s loveliness was bound to draw to her both angels and demons; Madira had bemoaned the fact that Anokhi’s rare beauty had not been accompanied by the wisdom required to deal with the evil in the world. Pia’s tears splashed freely on to the cold earth; damn it all, she’d thought she’d be escaping her demons when she’d fled India, but the tricky critters had jumped into her baggage and flown across the ocean with her.
Turtle reached for her hand and held it tight. “It’s okay to cry, sweet thing,” he said gruffly. “Keep doing the right thing and soon you’ll be looking back at this time from a fabulous place.”
Pia wiped her eyes and blew her nose with the tissue he handed her. “Spiritual Warrior, c’est moi,” she announced with a tremulous smile. Opposite them, the man stubbed out his joint and winked at her. “How about some hot chocolate at that Greek deli on Broadway and sixth?” she asked, suddenly anxious to get away. “They’ve got Christmas pies too, the old-fashioned kind, and fresh baklava.”
“Your treat, rich lady,” Turtle said gruffly, giving the stoned kid a dirty look before taking off like a chair bound missile, flashing lights and all. They moved onto the twilit pavement, Turtle’s shoulder length hair bobbing up and down as he wove through passersby in the wheelchair the Veterans’ Medical Services had custom designed for him, his atrophied half legs dangling, his weathered face glowering as he navigated the busy streets, with Pia practically running to stay in his wake.
Much later, back in the funky apartment she was about to abandon for god knows what, Pia snuggled beneath her comforter craving sleep. But her mind was as restless as a screaming desert wind; opening the jeweled flagon of time, it allowed the genie who presided over past records to slip out and embrace her in his giant arms—so that, while the city whooped and hollered in celebration of another Christmas Eve, she was sent back in time to trace the stream of events that had driven her to flee India for the matchless lunacy of Manhattan.
But those who, mistrustful, half-learned,
Fail to practice my teaching,
Wander in the darkness, lost,
Stupefied by darkness.
~ Bhagavad Gita