|Once the Auspicious One lived near
Savatthi, in the Jeta Grove of Anathapindika's monastery. Late one night Rohitassa of the devas
approached the Auspicious One and, in resplendent beauty, shed brilliant light over the
entire Jeta Grove. Then he saluted the Auspicious One and stood at one side. So standing
Rohitassa the deva said to the Auspicious One:
"Is it possible, lord, that by going one can know, see, or reach world's end, where there is neither birth nor decay nor death nor falling nor re-arising?"
"Friend, I declare that it is not possible that by going one can know, see, or reach world's end, where there is neither birth nor decay nor death nor falling nor re-arising."
"Wonderful, lord. It is remarkable how well it was said by the Auspicious One that it is not possible to know, see, or reach world's end by going.
"In a former life I was a hermit named Rohitassa, Bhoja's son. Endowed with psychic power I could walk in the sky. Lord, my speed was such that for instance in the time it took by one with a string bow, a skilled, experienced, and trained archer, to shoot across the shadow of a palm tree, in such a time I could make a step from the Eastern to the Western Sea. Endowed with such speed and stride a wish came to me to reach the end of the world by going. I lived for a hundred years and, save for eating and drinking, for defecating and urinating, for sleep and rest, I walked for a hundred years and without reaching the world's end I died on my way.
"Wonderful, lord. It is remarkable how well it was said by the Auspicious One that it is not possible to know, see, or reach world's end by going."
"Friend, so do I declare. But I do not say that one can make an end of suffering without having reached the end of the world. And I further proclaim, friend, that in this very fathom-long body with its perceptions and thoughts, there is the world, the arising of the world, the ceasing of the world, and the path leading to the ceasing of the world."
Anguttara IV, 45
Carika: it was like walking down a very long ambulatory. The pavement was still cool and damp, although rays from the early sun were already shining across the curls of mist that rose from the narrow blacktop. I walked through countryside, fields and forests and gentle hills with an occasional house, its front doorstep on the edge of the roadbed as if the pavement were its sustenance. The hills were unprepossessing until I'd climbed half a dozen of them.
I did most of my walking in the morning, before the asphalt became so hot it would stick to my toes and burn if I didn't step lightly. Even now the tar patches on the road were soft and slightly mushy beneath my bare feet. Morning, before the day's heat, was the time for carika, wandering, and for collecting almsfood. Afternoon was time enough for seeking suitable quarters against the night: a village vihara, a school, or (if one was near) an araņņa, a forest hermitage.
I walked slowly. Eyes downcast, I restrained as best I could the sense-faculties, finding little delight in a world wherein lurked old age, suffering, decay and death, wherein I was wearied of endless reassurances, while balancing on the brink of the chasm, that all would be well provided only that I didn't look down.
I walked slowly. Eventually I wanted to visit 'Sumana, whom I hadn't seen in a year, but not yet. For now there was no place I had to get to, so there was no point in walking faster.
Carika, it was called: wandering, and it had been praised as a suitable life for one who would give up the ways of the householder, leave the dust-trap, and take to the road. The reality of my life was more modest than the image, however: I hadn't cut myself off from the Hermitage. I'd abandoned neither kuti nor contents, but simply closed the door and walked away from them for a while. Crackers was kuti-sitting.
While walking past a farmhouse some people called out to me, in Sinhalese, "Where are you coming from?"
I pointed with my thumb over my shoulder, not ceasing to walk.
"And where are you going to?"
I pointed ahead of me, saying nothing as I walked on.
What could I say? I wasn't "going" anywhere; I was simply wandering about. I didn't bother to learn the names of villages I walked to, through, and from. But people were never satisfied with a reply of "Nowhere." They wanted positive content, something they could know and hold to: "I'm going to Dodanduwa." That they could repeat to each other with assurances that they'd learned something.
A sarong-clad youth stepped onto the road, stood directly in my path, tucked a fold of sarong between his legs -- a common gesture I took to be a show of humbleness -- and bowed his head as I approached. A crowd began to gather. My scant Sinhalese was discovered.
Wait. Wait, the youth signaled. He spoke with one of his friends, who ran off. There was usually someone around who spoke English, a village postmaster or schoolteacher. Monks don't converse standing in the middle of the road, though, and I was conducted to the farmhouse porch and seated on a chair. Tea was prepared. Soon someone who spoke passable English was brought. Everyone stood around expectantly until I'd finished my tea; then questions were asked.
"Have you any brothers or sisters?"
"The Sangha's my family. Everyone is my brother."
"Hmm. Mother still living? Father still living?"
"In America? What do they do? How old are you? Do you have any uncles? What do they do? How do you like our country? Do you have any cousins? What do they do?"
Such was the level on which we conversed. And, hungry for human contact, I accepted such encounters or, displeased with their shallowness, declined to talk and walked on.
Once in the early afternoon I declined an invitation to take a "late lunch."
"Do the monks in Hiniduma take food after hours, then?"
"It's offered to them," was the suave reply.
Sometimes I declined offers of money and bus tickets.
"I prefer to walk, thank you."
"Sir, where are you walking to? What do you want to do there? Why don't you take the bus? It's so much easier. Don't you know it's dangerous to wander about like this? You don't know what might happen to you."
But even after I listened to such warnings I still stubbornly chose to walk when I could as easily ride, for such was the advice of the Vinaya. I recognized that nowadays the situation was different (the basic transport in the Buddha's day had been the ox-cart) and there were times when transportation had to be taken, but I felt that the principle behind the rule was sound: since monks don't engage in worldly commerce they should never have to get anywhere faster than they can walk. A carika monk should never have to get anywhere at all. If his walking was purposeful it wasn't carika, wandering.
The tumult and crowds connected with ox-carts and buses were detrimental to the cultivation of mindfulness. And if not to have greater opportunity to cultivate mindfulness, what reason was there to walk on paths other than the leaf-strewn ones of the Hermitage?
A goat grazed peacefully on outcroppings of grass beside a cutaway. Ahead of me I saw a CTB bus tearing around the blind curve created by the cutaway, horn blaring to scare off any oncoming traffic. The road was narrow and allowed no room for error. The goat looked around wild-eyed for an instant, spotted the onrushing bus, and flung itself violently against the cliffside in a desperate effort to get out of the way! The bus missed the goat by inches and, with a grinding of gears and a scream of acceleration, hurtled on towards me,
I had half an impulse to fling myself, like the goat, as far from the path of the bus as I could. But, knowing better, I quietly stepped off the road, turned my back, took a deep breath of fresh air and closed my eyes. I stood motionless while the bus roared past me swirling my robes and raising dust to mix in with the oil fumes pouring from its exhaust. Only when my lungs began to ache and the bus was a distant clatter around a bend did I again open my eyes and breathe again. The silly goat was placidly grazing the same outcroppings, having learnt nothing. The bus was out of sight. The world was peaceful again. And people wondered why I chose to walk when I could ride!
* * * * *
Being the most important tourist/pilgrimage site in Ceylon, Anuradhapura overflowed with strange people fulfilling -- or not fulfilling -- strange destinies. The most ordinary of citizens was swept along by the floodwaters of the pilgrims' ebullience. The flat plains of his daily life were inundated by a tide of piety, and in those currents he drifted, clinging as if to a raft to whatever newly-rediscovered religious certitudes would float him.
All rafts were made of wood from the specie ficus religiosa, or bo-tree, for the lost city of Anuradhapura was home to Sri Maha Bodhi, a bo-tree which, according to legend -- and perhaps legend was correct in this case -- had entered into the world as a branch of the very tree under which the Buddha had sat when he had attained nibbana, extinction. This branch, having been rooted, had been brought to Ceylon and planted here some twenty-two hundred years ago, and it was forever being proclaimed as the world's oldest historical tree.
It was certainly the world's most venerated tree, and it was to see it and bow before it that busloads of pilgrims arrived daily, mingling with carloads of tourists and foot-loads of carika monks.
The American monk who sat at the root of a tree beneath a one-clouded sky wasn't so sure of his motives. Perhaps he didn't want to allow that he had any. At least he would have been reluctant to admit that the question of motives, of past history, had any relevance to one who sought involvement solely in the here-now. His question was "What?", not "Why?".
The root of a tree had been home to many a bhikkhu in the days of the elders. But although Anuradhapura didn't lack for tree-roots it sorely lacked for monks sitting beneath them. I undertook to narrow the gap.
"What are you doing, reverend?"
Christ! Again? I opened my eyes halfway and took several deep slow breaths. This wasn't the first time meditation had been interrupted by fervent upasakas who, between murmurs of "Sadhu, sadhu," congratulated me on my desire for solitude, assuring me there wasn't enough of it going around these days.
"I say, are you there, reverend?"
I opened my eyes fully and looked up at my inquisitor. He wore trousers and a T-shirt, and pushed a bicycle.
"What can I do for you?" I wasn't sure, for his T-shirt was stenciled PLANNED PARENTHOOD.
"I want to know what you're doing, reverend. Don't you know it's raining?"
"It's only a mist. It's not coming through the foliage."
The bicycle he wheeled along was as white as his double-wedged beard. His shock of head-hair, though, was black and partly braided. His skin was baby-smooth; his eyes were afire.
"The ground is wet," he insisted.
I was indeed a bit damp where moisture had permeated the sitting-cloth. My back was stiff. This meditation was over.
"Do you object to my sitting here, then?" I adopted an attitude of meekness, prepared to leave.
"Of course not. I only asked what you were doing, but you didn't give me an answer. No matter, no matter," he insisted, waving off any possible response with his hand. "My question was merely rhetorical. I can plainly see that you're meditating. Good for you. I used to meditate myself."
"Oh?" So that was it. He wanted to talk shop.
"I'm just going along to Sri Maha Bodhi. You come too."
"I've already seen it." I didn't move.
"Today?" he insisted.
"A few days ago," I admitted. "When I first arrived."
"You should see it daily while you're here, sir. You may not get a second chance. Come along and have another look."
I could do without the rain, but it persisted and I didn't quarrel with it. I chose not to quarrel with this man either. He pushed his bicycle as I walked beside him along the bund past a small muddy tank.
"Reverend, of what faith would you be?"
"I follow the Buddha."
"Oh?" He was surprised. "Then where is your fan?"
"In this weather?"
"You see, I'm a Hindu myself. I'm not sure of Buddhist customs. But I have great respect for Lord Buddha. I believe he was a wise and holy being. So we may converse without disagreement."
"If we have anything worth saying."
"Reverend, as I wander through these ruins I'm continually impressed. At one time this was surely one of the great cities of the world. They say it rivaled Babylon. And it was founded by Hindus and made great by Buddhists."
"And discovered by the British."
"Tell me, reverend, of your thoughts when you stood on the summit of Mahintale."
The land around Anuradhapura was flat except for the hill of Mahintale where, according to legend, the conversion of King Tissa and 40,000 of his subjects was effected.
"I haven't been to Mahintale."
He was openly astonished. "Reverend, do I hear you right? You've been in Anuradhapura for, how many days? Three?"
"And you haven't yet climbed Mahintale?"
"But that's one of the great historical sites of Buddhism. Have you no interest in the glories of your own religion?"
"Not the historical kind."
"Then why have you come here?"
"From a faded curiosity." I left unsaid that I hadn't come to see Anuradhapura so much as to see others seeing it, to discover what it might be that they actually saw in it.
"If you were to climb Mahintale I'm sure you'd be inspired. Do you know there are nearly 2,000 steps carved out of solid rock, going all the way to the summit? From up there you can see the ruined fortifications of the ancient city, and the tanks, the ruined palaces and stupas. Do you really mean to say you have no interest in seeing all that?
"I feel like Dr. Johnson felt about the King's Highway when it opened. He said -- according to legend -- "that it was worth seeing, but it wasn't worth going to see."
"Samuel Johnson? The dictionary-maker? Never mind. Anyway, a monk is supposed to exercise control of the senses and not be attracted to this or repelled by that."
"But Mahintale is part of the history of that Teaching. Surely you're attracted to that story. After all, you're Buddhist. This is part of your heritage!"
"I'm more interested in my present than in my heritage."
We walked in silence for a while.
"Reverend, when I was younger I used to meditate. I used to live in the jungle. I fed on roots and leaves and berries. I wished nothing other than to attain the divine vision. But when the chance arose to pay homage to the teaching I follow, which means my whole life, I took it!"
"Why didn't you keep on meditating?"
"I'm telling you, because of this opportunity. Now I follow the path of faith and service, and I recommend them. Meditation was too dry for my taste."
"Then it should be perfect for this sort of weather." And when he didn't respond I added, "With faith, service, and storm-clouds I'd worry about a flood, myself."
We came to the modern town, a collection of weathered and cheerless buildings set beside muddy streets, grassless.
"Reverend, see this town. Then see the ancient city." He pointed to the earth mounds and the tumbled stones. "When the bo-tree was young the city thrived. Now it's come to ruins."
"Impermanence is the nature of all things."
"But does that take away from what was? In my days, sir, I've been a planter, a teacher, a businessman. Now I'm retired and I'm devoting myself to bicycling through Ceylon to spread the message of population control. That's my present contribution to society. But when I think of when I used to meditate in the jungle I don't think any the less of it because it's past. That doesn't detract from it; that makes it complete."
"I don't want to detract from your memories. But I don't want to add to them, either." I remembered my own search for Golden Times. "I just want to recognize them for what they are, memories and nothing more. To glorify a memory is only to glorify yourself."
"Exactly, reverend. I'm glad you understand me."
We walked past a building that had a line painted high on one of its walls, and a message marking it as the high-water point of the flood of a few years past.
"For that end, one can glorify anything. Even a flood."
"I see we can't agree on anything, reverend."
Sri Maha Bodhi was on the other side of town. In spite of the drizzle there were quite a few pilgrims performing various offices of worship, as well as several tourists taking photos.
We parked the bike beside one of the carved guardstones warding the stone stairs. I noticed the risers were also ornately carved. In the shrine room multitudes of oil lamps burned. We walked through crowds of pilgrims and clouds of incense. Bright lights shone on statuary and murals.
The murals portrayed scenes from the Buddha's life when, not yet enlightened, he had been known as Gotama. One mural showed a collage of scenes from the court life of the young prince: his triumph in an archery contest, his learned studies with his tutors, his palaces staffed by female musicians, his marriage to a beautiful princess. Another mural showed the prince slipping from the palace beneath a full moon. In her chambers his princess slept beside their new-born son. The prince had named him Rahula (Bondage), and had resolved to break from the bonds of wife, family, and kingdom. He'd never forgotten those times when, as a youth, he'd ventured outside the palace and encountered an old man, a sick man, a dead man, and, finally, a recluse. Now he resolved that he too would renounce the world and seek an escape from decay, disease, and death before he became ensnared in those bonds as well.
Cutting off his hair and donning the ragrobes of the recluse he spent the next seven years seeking the way to the ceasing of suffering. He studied under the greatest masters of his day. He mastered all they had to teach and was invited by each to share in leading the company: the highest honor a teacher can bestow upon a disciple. But each time he pronounced himself a seeker, declined the honor, and continued his search. He followed various ascetic disciplines of physical deprivation and fasting. Finally he concluded that self-torment wasn't the way to awareness and resolved to try yet another approach: meditation. So he sat down beneath a bo-tree beside a river and there, during the night, he came to understand what he had not understood before.
In the courtyard we could glimpse the tree. It was secured from encroachment by a picket fence of gold. The fence was secured by walls. The thin branches of the tree were supported by iron posts. Its sparse foliage had a distinctly reddish sheen, unlike the natural and more luxuriant green of other bo-trees. It was dying of old age.
Around us people venerated the tree with mumbles of words, with incense, flowers, trays of offerings, little brass bowls of food, and with money slipped into conspicuously-placed collection boxes. (NO COINS, the sign over the boxes said: they had the best concession in the country at this vihara, and the monks weren't going to bother with small change.) Nobody, as far as I could see, offered any fertilizer.
For a while the two of us gazed at the tree. My companion's lips moved, perhaps in prayer. It was impossible to get close enough to the tree for a good look, let alone to sit down under it (which, of course, was the only reasonable thing to do with it). Like the Dhamma, it was enshrouded by tradition, and I suggested to my guide that I was prepared to take my leave of both him and the tree.
"But don't you want to worship, reverend?"
"You don't want to show respect for the great event that happened under the Bo-tree of which this is a branch? I'm but a Hindu, myself, yet I honor that event, the Enlightenment. You, you're Buddhist. A converted Buddhist. How is it that you don't do so?"
"The Buddha has said that a disciple shows him the most honor by practicing his Teaching."
"Ah, that is very wise. Very wise."
Emboldened by that I enquired of him, "What was it you were doing just before? It looked as if you were praying."
"Yes, reverend. That's just what I was doing. I was praying. Why? Don't you?"
"No, I never pray."
"Really? I always pray."
"Oh? Who do you pray to?"
"Why, to myself, of course," he replied with surprise, and I took my leave of him.
In Calcutta I'd given money and possessions to drowning beggars. Here, however, the pious were drowning in a sea of tradition. I had no ontological life raft to offer, so I went back to the hard wet ground beneath an unvenerated unprotected tree where, alone and undisturbed, I pondered the choices I was making.
* * * * *
This wasn't the first araņņa I'd stayed at on this carika and I realized by now that the Island Hermitage provided a unique service. It was the only place I'd found where I was left alone.
This place, for instance: in the middle of a hilly forest vastly more spacious than the Hermitage care had been taken so that all kutis were within both sight and sound of their neighbors. These monks believed in sharing their solitude. Care was taken so that all monks at all times had a perfectly definite task to do, preferably together.
Now, venerable, it's time for gilampasa," said the monk sent to fetch me off to afternoon tea, which included a piece of munchy brown palm sugar. By calling tea time "gilampasa" (Pali for "medicine") they transformed it from a snack to a therapy, allowable at any hour, and we all trooped to the danasala each afternoon to take the cure.
Gilampasa was furnished by the dayakas. Each afternoon a new group arrived, an extended family of a dozen or more. They replaced the last group and were responsible in their turn for one set in an endless series of gilampasa-breakfast-danas. So we gathered in the danasala, where we sat through yet another in an endless series of paņca silas and sermons (mercifully brief this time) and then, these dayakas having been welcomed, we each took our medicine and felt all better.
"Now, venerable, it's time to bathe." And we gathered at the well.
"Now, venerable, it's time to gather flowers for worship." And with little baskets we visited each flowering plant and harvested what we could as offerings for the Buddharupa.
"Now, venerable, it's time for the worship." And we all trooped to the shrine room where, with flowers, incense, statuary, bowing, and chanting, we honored the Buddharupa.
"Now, venerable, it's time for bowing down." And we all bowed to the senior monks and recited our lines asking for forgiveness.
"Now, venerable, it's time for evening gilampasa." And we each consumed another cup of tea, another piece of sugar.
"Now, venerable, it's time to take rest." And I was escorted to the kuti they provided for me where they left me alone at last with my thoughts.
"Now, venerable, it's time for breakfast. And I was summoned to another day's activities. Another walk to the danasala single file, silently. Another paņca sila. Another sermon. Another meal.
For the dayakas it was an annual outing, a time for sermons and tradition, for remembering departed ancestors, a holiday with trimmings of piety. It was the Sinhalese version of the family reunion. I could hear them late into the night, singing songs as they prepared the next day's food for the monks. For us, though, it was a daily event, part of the routine. After breakfast we swept up the sandy areas surrounding the kutis.
They were well-behaved, these araņņa monks, Unlike many of the yellow-robed village monks I'd met, they were strictly traditional and traditionally strict. They had no luxurious sofas to lounge on while chewing pan or smoking beedies, listening to the radio, laughing over some bits of choice village gossip, indulging in pleasures of the senses while spurning those that came from solitude, lacking in self-control.
They showed me how they did things. Every phase of daily life was assumed to be more than I could manage without their help. My ignorance of the world was a foregone conclusion. I played along with this attitude and showed concern to do things properly, i.e. their way rather than mine. But sometimes I failed to understand them, or the necessity of their way wasn't as obvious to me as to them, or their way grated on my own sense of propriety, and then I would have to make an extra effort to be accommodating, eager to show my eagerness.
They taught me how to draw water from the well, how to pour water from a basin, how to bathe myself, how to clean my teeth (they were opposed to tooth paste, using only willow sticks, which have an astringent taste), how to wash robes, how to dry both robes and bowl, how to wear the robes (though I thought that by now I had that, at least, figured out), how to turn the flame higher and lower on the lamp, how to fasten the window latch against brigands, how to light my way, when walking at night, by carrying a lamp, how to meditate (they said I wasn't breathing properly: if I hadn't figured out makeshift methods I might have suffocated long ago), how to wear sandals (as protection against snakes, they cautioned me), how to gather flowers for worship, and how to sweep the leaves.
Leaves were to be swept with the broom held right hand over left. They'd corrected me on that matter the first time I'd picked up the broom, and I reluctantly acquiesced. And they'd demonstrated, too, how, when done their way, the broom strokes formed a regular zig-zag design in the sand. Imperfections in my raking technique were pointed out to me with a maddeningly friendly attitude that contained no trace of the saving grace of condescension.
"Now, venerable, it's time for sweeping." And after sweeping around the kuti I swept leaves from the cankamana, which here was an unroofed length of sandy ground whose borders were lined with whitewashed rocks. At either end of the ambulatory were enormous and coldly comfortless cement meditation seats.
As I finished sweeping the length of it some monkeys in a tree overhead had a quarrel and both I and the just-swept ground were showered with large quantities of leaves, twigs, and monkey curses. By now I was tired of the zig-zag pattern I'd learned, so when I reswept the cankamana I tried some variations. I was getting into some slightly inventive wavy lines when, with a smile expressing infinite patience at my lack of understanding, a bhikkhu again demonstrated, in minute detail, how the sand was to be raked. There was only one proper pattern for sand to be raked in. All other designs were heretical. They would have no false patterns in their sandboxes, and I decided to leave.
* * * * *
The mapila hung from the third pillar. It had broad alternating bands of yellow and brown. I saw it as soon as I stepped onto the cankamana, to pace the roofed sandpath that served as walkway here.
We already knew each other, sort of, although our acquaintanceship was still short of the nodding stage. The snake had lived here longer than I, though, and I wasn't about to intrude into its space. I hoped the feeling was mutual. Once I'd gone as close to it as I dared, yet it still gave not the slightest recognition of my presence. Perhaps we hadn't been properly introduced.
When I'd tried some yoga on the cankamana, though, I'd found that it kept a careful eye on me. I was doing standing asanas; it was doing nothing. When I finished them I put my head on the ground, kicked gently with my feet, and stood on my head. I heard a plop behind me and managed to look around. The mapila was on the sandy ground. Whether it had jumped or fallen I didn't know. It reared up full, as high as it could (it was maybe a two-footer), its head towards me. Although I've been told that snakes have no eyelids I could have sworn it blinked several times, hard, in astonishment. My headstand was evidently the damndest thing it had ever seen in its entire life. And then, perhaps afraid that my actions were aggressive, it turned tail (what creature can better turn tail than a snake?) and slithered away as fast as it could. I didn't see it again that day.
It often disappeared for days at a time, though, only to reappear again, as it had now. It hung its head and about eight or ten inches more of itself over the edge of the roof-pillar, putting our eyeballs on about the same level. It waited, motionless.
It waited for a meal, if it could manage it, of a gecko, a small tan knob-toed lizard. Geckos lived as easily upside-down on the underside of the roof as on the walls and ground. I stood at one end of the cankamana debating whether to walk here or to seek a snake-free area when I saw that there were in fact two geckos on the sloping underside of the corrugated asbestos roof. Neither were yet near the mapila, but as I stood and watched a little drama unfolded.
One of the geckos began clucking softly in what seemed a throatier and more dulcet tone than the normal shrill clacking, whereupon the second gecko -- whom I took to be the male -- took heed, looked about, and located the first. He was in the neighborhood of the second pair of pillars; she, the fourth. Hanging from the leftward of the third pair of pillars was the mapila.
The male gecko, as if stalking prey, began moving towards the clucking female. The female stayed where she was. The mapila stirred ever so slightly, then froze, waiting. The he-gecko, with frequent scuttles and cautious pauses, moved on an erratic course. His eyes looked glazed. The female continued her siren-song. The mapila's skin quivered slightly in anticipation as the gecko neared.
That part of my sympathies directed towards the geckos urged him to the right side of the ambulatory. It was obvious not only that he didn't yet see the mapila but also that only interference would deter him from his objective, the she-gecko. I sat down against one of the end pillars so as not to interfere. I couldn't help but be involved, but I wasn't about to choose sides. I didn't even want to be on my own side, whatever that was.
That part of my sympathies that was directed towards the mapila cautioned it to silent patience: already it had made several moves that would likely have betrayed its position to eyes less filled with lust and more with caution than those of the he-gecko.
The male passed the third set of pillars on the right side and the mapila had, clearly, no chance. The gecko was a good three feet away and, moreover, somewhat higher along the sloping ceiling than the snake on its pillar. He was past his unnoticed danger, and all would have been well for the geckos had not the female, now that the male was in close pursuit, decided to play coy. Just as the male approached her she waggled her tail, made an altogether new sound which immediately reminded me of the screech of a cat, and scuttled away, directly towards the snake. The male followed, right behind.
The mapila, in suddenly renewed anticipation, lifted his head a good inch off the pillar wall, then froze, poised. The she-gecko led the male on a zig-zag stop-and-go path, closer and closer to the mapila. I watched, fascinated. At the last moment, just as the snake tensed and hunched its head, ready to strike, the female stopped dead. She veered and ran at an angle that took her away from the snake, though still on the left side of the ceiling. The male followed. The snake, seeing its hopes fade, flattened its head against the pillar again.
The male gecko puffed out its neck and waddled towards the female in what I took to be a courtship ritual. She flicked her tail sensuously, like a cat, and edged away from him, clucking softly. Her sham evasiveness slowed down into a dance, sort of a four-step, and the male touched her, nose to nose. I was curious to see them mate. How did lizards get off?
He moved around to her tail, but she skittered off again and the chase was resumed. Was she being a tease? Had he been boorishly callous of her needs? Or was this just the way such business was conducted among geckos?
Their path took them now on another zig-zag course more or less towards the mapila. Clearly they hadn't seen it even though it had been, I felt, excessively rash. Now it boldly lifted its head and was clearly intent upon striking at the first reasonable chance.
Perhaps it knew more than I about courtship rituals of geckos for I, had I been able to do so, would have advised it to wait: the geckos' last pause left them still nearly two feet from the snake's pillar, and at a difficult angle in the corrugation. Their next scuttle seemed likely (but not certain) to put them lower down on the underside of the sloping roof, closer to the edge, and perhaps at a more feasible angle as well. But the mapila, its hunger clearly greater than its patience, swung itself outwards. It leaped upwards just as the male gecko ran his body halfway up the tail of the female.
With a shriek the female tried to scurry off, but her tail was pinned by the male who, although he saw -- at last! -- the approaching danger, was unable to extricate himself from his awkward perch until it was too late. For an instant I thrilled at the danger the geckos were in, then realized that the snake had aimed poorly. Its path carried it a good three inches to one side of the lizards and also -- it hadn't heeded my advice, had it? -- its jaws missed the level of the geckos by perhaps two inches. Its head flicked upwards vainly, jaws gaping.
Only after their danger was past did the geckos manage to extricate themselves from each other and scurry off in opposite directions. The mapila landed on the ground with a plop, recovered itself, and looked towards me. For sympathy? For encouragement or advice? Perhaps to see if it could find cause to blame me for its failure? Or just to make sure I was offering it no threat? Then it crawled off in the most dejected manner a snake is capable of, and disappeared into the jungle. Its every movement seemed to radiate anger, hunger, and thorough disgruntlement.
The geckos took separate shelter, badly scared, their amorous activities clearly at an end for now. I wondered if they would ever meet again, and if so whether they would remember the perils that awaited the incautious. Their dalliance in forgetfulness had nearly cost them one of their lives. Would they learn anything from the experience? Would the mapila? Would I?
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