The Buddha’s Face
The Buddha is balding. Most consider his hair loss irrelevant, because his hair is not important, because they are more concerned with enlightenment than his appearance. Most have yet to notice it thinning to begin with. I always loved, though, when his hair was longer and more lustrous, when it coiled around his crown, resembling a sleeping serpent.
Sometimes I suspect he’s losing his hair on purpose, weening me from dependence on sensory experience. His hair has stopped growing regardless, making his face of less interest, his face I have never seen because he never turns and shows it, because he realizes how susceptible I am to attachment.
Some nights, I convince myself he was disfigured in a car accident. Others, I’m certain this is only a horse’s mane I’m looking at with a horse face in front of it. What I see of his back and buttocks looks human. Still between his legs a horse’s phallus may hang off him.
Yet the Buddha never meant for me to love him, never meant for me to mistake his two eyes meeting mine for wholeness—two eyes I only ever imagine—because even in the gaze of man awakened there lurks division. Even in the face of the Buddha there is the skin between the eyebrows known as the glabella. A small space of separation.
All I know of him for certain is he hasn’t had a haircut for as long as I’ve sat silently behind him. For years, he let me daydream about winding his hair around my neck. But he has since decided I’d best commune directly with life’s divine substratum, the closest thing to God you have in Buddhism.
Only instead of meeting God when I close my eyes for meditation, I follow a dark comet that quivers through my cornea, quivering because it’s on the brink of either orgasm or nervous exhaustion. It’s only a floater, only debris dissolving into blindness, yet has become a quiet companion. It shuttles through what seems the expanses of an outer galaxy but is only the inside of my body. Still I let it buzz and fret and worry when it senses another floater might come crashing. I let it quicken its breathing while the Buddha’s hair keeps thinning.
None of the statues of the Buddha tell you this is happening. Some show his hair with kinks in it while in others the curls have slackened. For me, though, his hair’s appeal was less its curl and more its hidden mass, because he never did unwind it. Still you sensed that if you ever slept beside him once he let it fall to his coccyx, you could lose yourself inside its onyx tresses. You could die atop his head of sweet suffocation.
The Preacher’s Daughter
Last night, I took a taxi home after having dinner with friends. My driver asked me whether I wanted to hear a song on one of several timeless topics. Instead of love, loss, or drunkenness, I chose sex, hoping for better lyrics. Then as he drove me from one side of Chicago to its opposite, he sang about a preacher’s daughter who slept with men she found attractive, something I’m still unsure whether the Buddha is or isn’t.
The song’s refrain emphasized how naughty she’d been. To me, she sounded only like someone pursuing something the Buddha has persuaded me I’m better disregarding. Reliance for pleasure on the senses, he’s said over and over again to the wall in front of me, produces only misery. I’m miserable anyway, I’ve nearly responded, knowing he would only tell me to continue meditating, something made more difficult by the dark comet, whose pulsing distracts me.
For years, I thought seeing the Buddha’s face would make me feel the same as the preacher’s daughter being ravished, that would he only look at me I’d attain nirvana and stop reincarnating. Seeing his hair still growing thick as a boa constrictor bloated with another animal’s body alone now would be an ecstasy. For years, that kept me as close as I’ve come to happy.
The only thing the preacher’s daughter did about which I thought worth singing was speak in tongues while climaxing. And although linguists agree glossolalia is only the façade of a language, I believed the cab driver when he said she spoke God’s language when she came, when she howled more likely. Because when you throb with desire for another body, your mouth fills with tongues of flames. Your one tongue multiplies into hundreds of others. They heat then pullulate then fan each other’s fire.
Flaming tongues hovered over the heads of Jesus’ disciples before they spoke in other languages to preach the Gospel. Yet like many who keep mostly quiet, the preacher’s daughter knew more than her father preaching from his pulpit. She knew that tongues of fire don’t descend exclusively from the heavens. They can also fly from out your mouth once you open it to swallow another person.
Two Plastic Ponies
Earlier this morning, an elderly man tapped a bell on his bicycle as he wheeled past me down an alley. A small cyst stood left of his bald head’s center and looked like the translucent horn of a satyr. I watched it grow smaller as he wheeled toward a line of dumpsters when a delivery driver honked and reached out his arm to smack my bottom. Tucking my scarf deeper inside my collar, I walked on to the corner grocery, outside which two plastic ponies stood stationary on a small carousel while an invisible organist played.
Placing my food inside a cupboard an hour later, I could still hear the carousel’s music. I could still hear the same melody but could not see if the plastic ponies were dancing. I could not see the old man’s horn still catching the light, the veins’ sapphire filigree. Looking around my apartment, I was briefly blinded.
A few months before this, I sat in Bryant Park watching another carousel rotate on its axis. La Vie En Rose sounded from its speakers as I walked toward a sign to read that “carousel” derives from “carosellos,” or “little wars,” dating from 12th-century Arabian games, when the cavalry tossed each other perfumed balls of clay while riding to test their agility. Yet in time, the warriors abandoned their little wars for those looming larger. At length, the play horses were impaled with brass and kept from carnage. Craftsmen festooned them with saddles hewn from the same block of wood as kept their hooves uncloven. Sinews once tensile with speed had slowed to something looking frozen.
Inside every carousel I have ever seen clouds are also spinning. Someone has painted them only a few feet above the horses in case the sky is barren. Yet clouds have always begged for me the question of who keeps them from collapsing to the ground in a foggy heap. As many people as there are clouds, I once decided, people too tall and thin to perceive, each with two arms to a cloud apiece. In this way, I became accustomed to loving people I could not see. Otherwise, the Buddha’s hair loss would hardly matter to me.
Petting stones is common where I come from originally. While horses run wild trampling vegetation, stones rise from blue earth like small, round mountains. They’re not much company. Still I used to stoop and pet them all the same, perhaps because where I come from live no other human beings.
In time, though, I grew lonely. I paddled away in a coracle—in basket of a boat, in half a walnut hull cracked open, people said when they saw me approaching—when they sighed and added, “Here’s another refugee.” I took no stones with me on my journey. I have nothing, in other words, of home now with me. The stones here, I’ve confessed to strangers when I’ve gotten drunken, look the same as those I once considered friends. And they may be no different. I could pet them if I wanted yet have resisted the temptation.
I’ve approached dogs walking past me on occasion. Too often, their tongues lick my legs wet to dripping, whereas stones don’t slobber. Stones too retain warmth from the sun through the evening. They soothe without jumping. None here, though, know me, so I keep my hands inside my pockets. I walk to buy more groceries, wondering if they were really stones I pet from the beginning, if they were not stone lilies. Perhaps they were all once living, their arms outstretched the same as mine toward something they have no way of grasping.
Defined by a prior incarnation, stone lilies are former crinoids, a class of echinoderms still extant. Fossilized sea lilies, they are the remnants of a subaquatic species with a digestive system so rudimentary their mouth opens beside their anus. Their arms, like those of sea anemones, appear to wave to a passing octopus while really they are hungry. They extend cilia cloaked in mucus to absorb freely floating algae, because as hunters they are lazy. Their mouths have no lips, while those of the Buddha, I still imagine, are luscious. Their caramel waves crest with saliva like spume from the ocean.
Stone lilies hardly resemble the flowers, though, for which they’re named. The stones themselves are delicate, more so than the marine animals of which these are only brittle remains. And living sea lilies are common in aquariums, though I prefer them dead and buried. I prefer lilies of stone to crinoids still breathing, those always excreting so near their mouth openings. Were I able to give him anything, this would be all I’d have to offer the Buddha to disguise his hair’s thinning. A stone lily to distract him from what is missing.
A crinoid undergoing the process of fossilization—a stone flower in the making—too is much the same as a woman dressing for no one too carefully. Both are becoming delicate to the point of easily breaking while trying to be happy.
A Woman Dressing
I have spent too many mornings looking at strange men while walking. Yes, I am married, but this little room where my husband and I sit watching TV is not enough for me, is hardly much company. I buy too many clothes too to fit my body too closely. I substitute new dresses for fresh hands to grope me. I shop online late in the evening when I should spend my time awakening like the Buddha from this long dream I am having.
I have dressed more nicely than necessary for someone who never turns to see me. Half horse as he may or may not be, I’ve still suspected the Buddha of shape shifting, of leaving someone else to meditate inside his body while he assumes another one and goes out for coffee. I’ve suspected it only because I’ve tried to desire it into being as a dark comet flickers past.
Time and again, I’ve attempted to encounter the Buddha casually while wearing my best sweater, boots, and jeans. Only because he never turns to face me, I prefer to imagine this is another woman wasting her time dressing for no one who takes notice. It is someone else looking exactly like me who seeks the attention of a man, a near divinity. I am only watching.
I watch as she applies needlessly bright lipstick, as she blots it by kissing a piece of toilet paper she has folded. I watch as she squeezes herself inside a cotton dress the dryer has shrunken. She walks down the stairs in her apartment building as another man opens the door to his unit, as looks up at her and says, “sweet Jesus.”
She is not attracted to him. Yet for this unholy exclamation she feels herself open, above her knees and below her abdomen. She feels herself part and moisten, though while she’s home she locks the door to her apartment. Still she knows this is what she wanted if she’s honest. For someone she doesn’t know to harden while she softened.
Those few species of crinoids that have survived at the bottom of the ocean are finless. They go sailing without direction. They are not attached to any sunken rocks or ships like ancestors since succumbed to extinction. Modern crinoids are evidence that aimlessness is a goal of evolution, while stone lilies are the fossils of those no longer in existence, those that once had something to anchor them.
And place a stone lily just above the ear of the Buddha, maybe while he’s sleeping, and you can more easily forget that he’s balding. You see only the fossilized sea flowers no one bothered to pluck but died subaqueously.
The Buddha’s Offspring
A new art installation has placed hundreds of Buddha heads around the city. A circle of them has appeared in a nearby stretch of parkland. The plaster casts have all been cut off at their noses, allowing them to rest without tipping on their chins, allowing the Buddha to better smell the grass where his half head sits. He has no lips or tongue to taste any dandelions with, an absence that makes his waving hair even more apparent.
Buddhist monks and nuns shave their heads to enter the order and begin pursuing transcendence, though there are different ways of going about it. Ascetics in India tear out their hair with their fingers, while others grow it in a tangled clump then cut it with scissors. Most simply apply a razor to keep themselves from looking like newborn babies with longer legs than needed.
A married woman, however, cannot easily shave her hair she used to wear long and flowing. Otherwise, her husband either looks for other women or accuses her of suicidal tendencies. She can be only a woman occasionally desired and desiring whose hair begins thinning, who spends a great deal of her spare time in meditation. I’ll become an ascetic soon enough, I tell myself, once I’ve lost everything.
Getting rid of all the clothes inside my closet too is not a problem, if only because I’m having no offspring, because I don’t plan on leaving this world anything, this world I’ve only paddled to in a coracle to begin with. Yet the Buddha’s genes may still be in circulation. No one knows whether his one son had any children, whether he married or opted for freedom like a sea lily shedding its stalk and evolving. Still there remains the possibility that someone living has his same features, looking more like a horse than ordinary.
The Scent of Battle
Battle brings no end to any conflict. Its exertions only prolong it, intoxicating those embattled with its fragrance. Yet this world allows for only so much wreckage. In time, all war horses turn to plastic. Still stand too far from any carousel to hear its music and again war beckons.
Watching the Kentucky Derby at a party where I knew only a few friends and was without my husband, a man offered me a slice of cake then a second. He asked my name and said he noticed I wasn’t wearing a floral print like every other woman in attendance. Instead, my dress blazed with red lightning bolts he grazed in passing. Sipping my mint julep, I sat placid as a duck overlooking Lake Michigan while looking up at the TV. Left to themselves, I told him once he sat beside me, the horses might run at the same speed, though never in an ellipse wound so tightly.
He told me he was playing Jason in a new production of Medea and I should come and see it. Only before Medea killed her children by way of punishing Jason for his marriage to another woman, she helped him find the Golden Fleece, I remembered but didn’t mention. When he sowed a field with dragon’s teeth, Medea warned him the teeth would become men raising arms against him. She said he would have to toss a large stone among them to make them slay each other. Only she, even here, was longing to go to battle, she the real warrior.
So I told him that, although Medea was horrid, I never liked Jason either. A better man would have planted the dragon’s teeth without consulting an enchantress too susceptible herself to enchantment. I stood to leave the moment the race ended.
He hugged me while my lightning bolts folded into tongues of flames, both of us knowing this was our first and last meeting. Because his hair was thick and wavy yet his lips thin. Because I am done with trying to be happy as the Buddha has taught me, he who sits so still I wonder if he is fossilizing into something that breaks all too easily.
Melissa Wiley is the author of "Antlers in Space and Other Common Phenomena," an essay collection forthcoming from Split Lip Press. Her creative nonfiction has appeared in places like DIAGRAM, Drunken Boat,Superstition Review, and PANK. She lives in Chicago and serves as assistant editor of Sundog Lit.