The Gift from the Goddess
by Matias Travieso-Diaz
Born in Cuba, Matias Travieso-Diaz migrated to the United States as a young man to escape political persecution. He became an engineer and lawyer and practiced for nearly fifty years. After retirement, he took up creative writing. About ninety of his short stories have been published or accepted for publication in anthologies and paying magazines, blogs, audio books and podcasts. Some of his unpublished works have also received “honorable mentions” from several paying publications. A first collection of his stories, “The Satchel and Other Terrors” has recently been released and is available on Amazon and other book outlets.
Mote TTTV stories by Matias Travieso-Diaz: https://talltaletv.com/tag/matias-travieso-diaz/
Each person’s life is like a mandala – a vast, limitless circle.
All genies are extraordinary, but the one I encountered during my trip to Lachung not long ago was particularly unusual, compared to the ways those beings are often described.
I am a well-known travel photographer. If you read the National Geographic or Smithsonian magazines, you may run into one of my photographic essays covering an exotic destination. It was the search for such a story that drove me to Lachung, the most remote village in India, near the border with Tibet. I went to Lachung to cover the famous Chaar mask dance to be conducted during the Tibetan New Year at the local Buddhist temple.
I got to the Lachung Gompa (as the monastery is called) a cold afternoon in mid-February. The monastery was unremarkable: a small, two-story building sporting metal dragon sculptures outside an upstairs porch, from which one could get nice views of a nearby river and the entire Lachung Valley. I snapped a few pictures and made ready for the dance to take place that evening.
As I walked around the back of the building, my eyes were drawn to a dirt path that wound its way up a mountain a few feet away from the monastery. When I asked one of the monks where the path led, he diffidently replied:
“There used to be another monastery near the top of that mountain. It was destroyed in an earthquake centuries ago. Only a few ruins remain of the place, and nobody goes there because the souls of the monks who perished in the disaster are said to haunt it.”
“I would like to look at the ruins and maybe snap a picture or two. Is it far?”
“An hour or so of brisk walking, but you must be careful. The trail is steep and uneven and there may be wild animals, and possibly poisonous snakes, along the way.”
“Don’t worry. I always carry a gun with me and will bring my walking stick. My only concern is that the climb may be a challenge for my old knees.”
It took me almost two hours of painful trudging to get to the rock ledge in which the ruins of the ancient temple lay. Much of the original structure had disappeared, victim to the ravages of time; all that remained, for the most part obscured by centuries of overgrowth, were piles of broken and decaying timbers. Disappointed, I was making ready to undertake the challenging walk down to Lachung when I noticed that portions of what once had been a building wall were still standing, though covered with vines. A dark foreboding seemed to radiate from the isolated structure; it both repelled and drew me in. After a moment, I came closer and, as I did, heard a low hum coming out of the wall.
As I approached further, I realized that the sound was emanating from the back of the structure. It took considerable effort to skirt the debris and vegetation that covered the ground, but I was finally in front of the source of the noise: a large rectangular bronze box, attached to the wall with pegs of the same material. The box surfaces were covered with a green patina and exhibited numerous decay spots, but were largely intact. From within the box came an ululation, a lament that spoke of great distress.
There could be nothing alive inside that box, I told myself. However, the mysterious sound piqued my curiosity. I drew out my Swiss Army knife and, selecting a sharp blade, began scraping at the surface of the box in search of a hidden opening. I found nothing of the sort, but in pressing against the enclosure I activated a catch inside it, causing the right side of the box to shift outwards a couple of inches. That was enough for me to grab the bottom edge of what was obviously a door and force it wide open.
The back of the box was lined with a coarse material resembling jute. Embedded in the lining was a mandala, a large circular weaving whose edges touched the four corners of the box. The weaving was made of the same material as the lining, but was dyed white and contained a labyrinthic array of crushed black stones. The rim of the mandala was filled with odd symbols made of the same black stones. At the center of the mandala sat a dull red gem the size of a goose egg.
The noise I was hearing was coming from that egg. I reached for it but, before I could make contact, a shock coursed through my body, and a thought – like an unarticulated voice – rang in my mind: “Do not touch me, mortal, or you shall perish!”
I jumped back a couple of feet, my body suddenly covered in cold sweat. I was seized by panic and started to run away when the same voice spoke in my mind again: “I am trapped in this maze by a bhikkhu’s enchantment. He and the others of his accursed kind died or ran away when the earth moved and everything but my prison collapsed. I now command you to set me free!”
I felt a strong compulsion to obey, but fear of whatever was trapped in that circle stopped me. “Why should I free you?” I responded aloud. “The monks that built this monastery were holy men. You must be evil for them to have imprisoned you in this mandala.”
The voice in my head became angry. “Why do you mortals always speak of good and evil? All beings must do what their nature calls them to do. The only evil occurs when you act contrary to your true self!”
“Perhaps” I replied, “but how do I know you won’t harm me if I let you out?”
“I promise I will not harm you if you release me” countered the voice.
“Well, that promise is a start” I replied, playing for time as I considered the possibilities of escape. “But, again, why should I take chances freeing you? What is in it for me?”
I felt the genie’s anger in my head. “You do not trust me. Well, then, if you release me, I promise I will not harm you and I will grant you a wish.”
“Well, any wish within the bounds of my powers. I am not allowed to create or end life. Nor can I bend another’s will to give effect to yours.”
I thought of all the fables I had heard as a child and all the books and movies that mentioned bargains with genies, and weighed them against my current needs. I was in my late sixties, unattached, reasonably famous, and enjoying a good income. I was, however, already suffering the pains and indignities of old age, though I knew of no illnesses that were bound to bring about my immediate demise. “Can you make me young again?” I asked.
“That pushes against the limits of my powers but is not entirely prohibited” answered the genie’s voice doubtfully. “I cannot do what you request myself, but would be able to take you to someone who might grant your wish.”
“Who is that?”
“Lakshmi, the Hindu goddess of power and beauty. I serve her.”
“Where do we find your mistress?”
“Lakshmi can be found everywhere, but her presence is most strongly felt in the temples dedicated to her, like the one in Kolhapur, south and west of here.”
“And you would take me to her temple?”
“I would, and would bring you back here at the end of your appearance before her.”
“And she would be able to restore my youth?”
“She could, but whether she would be willing to do so is up to her.”
“Speak the truth, genie! What risks are there for me if I set you free and you take me before Lakshmi?”
“Your only risk is that the goddess may deny your request.”
“That is a risk that I am willing to assume. We have a bargain. How do I go about setting you free?”
“My imprisonment is ordained in the words of a mantra inscribed on the rim of the mandala. Just remove one of the symbols in the mantra and the spell will be broken and I will be free again!”
I approached the mandala and broke off with my knife the stones that composed one of the symbols on its rim. As the black pebbles tumbled to the ground, the entire box started to shake and the red gem disengaged itself from the mandala and flew up into the sky, where it grew and changed shape until it became a transparent column of smoke and fire, towering above me and the monastery ruins. The column had at its top a terrifying simulacrum of a human face, with grotesquely elongated features, a hole where a nose should have been, fiery eyes and a wide, scowling mouth.
I threw myself to the ground, instinctively looking for shelter. In my head, the genie mocked my reaction: “I have given my word not to harm you, so I cannot hurt you. But, blowing in the wind, I can fly us to Lakshmi’s temple. Are you ready to go?”
“Yes” I gulped, and was lifted off the ground by an invisible force.
I have no recollection of whether I flew for minutes or hours, and only became conscious when my feet touched the ground in an esplanade facing a sprawling temple fronted by a hall with a conical spire. It was near sunset but the entrance to the temple was teeming with worshippers waiting for the opportunity of having a darshan, a visitation with the image of the goddess. Again, the genie whisked me inside the temple and through various rooms until I was standing before a bejeweled three-foot image of the goddess. Her black face was adorned with pearls and seemed to be gazing intently at the setting sun through an opening on the west wall.
I must have been invisible to the crowd that gathered around the statue but not to the goddess, whose exchange with the genie I could hear clearly. “Why are you here, my son, and who is this mortal that accompanies you?”
The genie’s “voice” had a touch of unctuousness as it addressed the spirit within the icon: “Beloved mother, I was held captive in a mandala by meddlesome Buddhists until this man freed me. I promised that I would bring him to seek a boon from you.”
“What does he want? Money or power?”
“No, beloved Mother. This man is approaching the end of his time and wants to regain the freshness of youth and, if possible, extend his term in this sphere.” The expansive wording of my request came as a surprise to me, and was perhaps a way for the genie to signify gratitude to me for his deliverance.
“I will not lengthen his life, for he has done nothing to warrant remaining among the living beyond his allotted time. I can, however, restore beauty to his countenance and impart new vigor to his body, but does he really want that this be done?”
For the first time, I dared to address the goddess. Lowering my head, I answered: “Reverend Mother, I do. I wish to gain renewed energy to better meet the demands of my work and my daily life.”
I detected a small frown in the dark features of the icon. “You speak of the demands of your work. Do you realize that if I restore your body to that of a youth, your skills and experiences will also be reset to those of an immature, inexperienced young man?”
There was an awkward pause, while I digested the implications of Lakshmi’s words. If I accepted her gift, I would lose all the life lessons I had acquired over so many years and become as ignorant and naïve as young people tend to be. Was I prepared to make such a trade?
I weighed my choices. The freshness and vitality of youth were alluring, particularly in my current physical condition. Yet, I had lived long, loved and suffered much, and learned a great deal. Was I willing to give all that up in exchange for increased wellbeing? After thinking about it for a while, I concluded that the answer was no.
I turned angrily towards the genie. “You didn’t tell me the price I would have to pay to have my wish fulfilled!”
The mouth in the genie’s inhuman face opened in a disingenuous, mocking smile. “You never asked!”
The icon was quick to reproach her minion. “We are pure beings and it is our duty to treat the lower forms of existence with honesty and respect. Otherwise, we are no better than the demons that pay homage to Shiva.” Again turning to me, Lakshmi asked: “Mortal, do you still wish to receive my gift?”
“No, Reverend Mother. I have been enlightened by your counsel and must regretfully decline it.”
The icon regarded me with something akin to pity. “You have been misled and must be disappointed. I will grant you a token in place of the boon that you will not receive.” The icon seized the lotus flower it held in one of its four hands, plucked a petal, and dropped it in my direction. As I bent to retrieve it, she added: “Keep this petal and ask for its guidance whenever you must make a difficult decision. It is true that wisdom comes with age and you have put your wisdom to good use today. The petal will not make you stronger, as you wished, but will render you even wiser.”
“Now, both of you, must depart in peace.”
The moment the icon issued its dismissal the genie and I found ourselves in the square outside the temple.
“The Goddess granted you a boon. I will give you another, to make up for the disappointment I caused.”
“What is your boon?” I asked, no longer trusting the deceitful creature.
“Since you are old and feeble, I will spare you the trip down the mountain. Close your eyes and think of the dwelling where you are staying.”
I did as he ordered and immediately fell asleep.
Much later, I woke up in bed in a Lachung guest house. Had it all been a dream? Not likely, for I noticed that my right hand was clutching a crushed flower petal. Also, my knees and back hurt, as if I had recently engaged in strenuous activities.
And I remembered how, whether in a dream or in reality, I had been forced to take stock of my life and had decided that it had been fruitful and well worth the pains that old age was bringing. Rather than lamenting my departed youth, I would welcome the opportunity to live longer and become wiser, perhaps aided by the parting gift from a goddess.
Mid-morning light streamed through the window slats. Sadly, I had missed last night’s Chaar mask dance event; I would have to try again next year, here or elsewhere.
Yet, I knew what my next travel chronicle must be: a yatra, a pilgrimage, to Lakshmi’s temple in Kolhapur. I would join the Hindu faithful in paying homage to the deity and, in my case, give profound thanks.
Alas, during my flight to Mumbai, I suffered a major heart attack, from which I may not recover. As I lie in bed with death standing nearby, I can only wonder whether acceptance of the gift from the goddess would have been efficacious (despite her refusal to extend my lifespan) in prolonging my life and whether what I would have lost in experience and wisdom could have ever been recovered. However, only the gods know what lies in one’s karma, and my questions must remain unanswered.