THE STOCK YOUNG MAN from the north, whose German mother had given him his blond curls and his Milanese father his brown eyes, was at twenty-six the youngest professor of zoology at the University of Pisa. He was driving today to a destination none of his departmental colleagues would have been caught dead at, midweek or any other time—namely, the little pink and white stone city of Assisi, in Umbria, and the grotto in the sacred forest there where Saint Francis, lover of nature and nature’s God, had prayed with his brothers eight centuries before. The same grotto, the young man remembered, where at the end of his life the saint had died in merciful peace, untouched by the secular compromises—some would say vicissitudes—of the holiest city, Rome. The same grotto where the hands of those who’d loved the saint but never met him had laid brick and mortar to turn the cave into a monastery both for Franciscan brothers not yet born and for the endless river of visitors who would over the centuries come to wonder at the tiny grotto—which, in the words of one Umbrian poet, was “so much like a pearl made of light and shadow.”
“Family leave,” the young man, whose name was Nardi, had told his chairman. “I need to take it this week. Two days, professor.” The older man, though skeptical, couldn’t say no. The new university regulations said so. “We’ll have Ramarra cover it,” the chairman said acidly. “Or another doctoral candidate.”
“Thank you,” Nardi answered, and he meant it. He needed two days off, even if they weren’t for family reasons. He’d heard the strangest story from two students in his introductory zoology class—a story about how oddly the lizards of Assisi, of the grotto and monastery there, behaved, and how no animal behaviorist could possibly explain it. One of the boys who’d made the claim was, yes, a troublemaker in the intellectual sense—antiauthoritarian, with a “show me” attitude; but the other boy had a solid head on his shoulders, would make a good scientist one day, and was puzzled about what he’d seen the way any healthy scientific mind should be puzzled.
“You’ve seen these lizards yourself?” Nardi had asked them at lunch in the university cafeteria.
“Yes,” the rebellious one answered. “Last summer.”
“And they’re green,” the other boy added.
“You’re certain they’re not Lacerta viridis?”
“They’re too small,” the rebellious one said, contempt in his voice.
“Yes, professor,” the good student put in quickly, embarrassed by his friend. “They’re definitely Podarcis. Just greener than they usually are—right, Carlo?”
“I guess so,” his friend conceded.
“Tell me again what they did,” Nardi said. At first he’d thought they were pulling his leg, but now he wasn’t so sure. In any case he was curious. Lizards were, after all, his specialty—his life’s work, if one could be said to have a life’s work at twenty-six. And his doctoral dissertation had been on this very lizard: “A Biometric Analysis of a Piedmontese Population of Podarcis muralis.”
As a child, he had caught lizards whenever he could, and he knew well every species from Rome north. The greenest ones, big and gorgeous but not very common: Lacerta viridis. And the species that was everywhere: Podarcis muralis, the much smaller “wall lizard,” green enough when sunlight fell upon them, but actually speckled with beads of black and green. This was the brave and haughty lizard of the walls and olive groves of this country—one that would chase you if you made it mad, one that would always do its territorial push-ups on the rocks and walls to tell you who was boss. He knew—had known it as a child but learned it even better as an undergraduate and better still as a doctoral candidate—where these wall lizards tended to live and how and why they acted as they did. A part of him—the child who’d grown up with them and therefore loved them—still felt possessive of them, of course. Podarcis muralis were his lizards, weren’t they? It was a childish way to feel, he knew, but that is what happens when one’s passion for science begins in childhood, isn’t it? Why wouldn’t he be curious about the lizards of Assisi?
The two boys told him again what they had seen, what was so odd about the lizards at the grotto, and as he sat there with them at the cafeteria table all he could do was blink, feeling like a Podarcis himself. It wasn’t possible, of course, what they were claiming, and yet it didn’t sound like a lie. They were obviously feeling wonder. Perhaps it was simply a matter of perception, a kind of magical thinking, as psychologists liked to put it: Raised on Catholic saints, the boys had wanted magical things to happen in Assisi, and so they’d perceived miracles there. He had done the same when he was little, hadn’t he—finding magic where it wasn’t, where a child’s wishful thinking wished it, though an adult mind, with reason, with science as its tool, would know better?
But they were his lizards—that’s how it felt and always would—and he needed to see for himself. He needed a family leave.
There were no lizards on the wall along the path to the grotto, despite the patches of sunlight that should have brought them here. Just as the boys had said. It’s the parking lot, he told himself. The cars. The noises there. The exhaust and sounds, but mainly the ground vibrations of the nearby parking lot. That’s what was keeping the lizards away. But was it really? Fifty meters up the peopleless path, where the parking lot’s sounds were distant, on a big patch of sunlit wall that was probably as old as the Etruscans, there still weren’t any lizards sunning themselves.
As he walked on, one lizard appeared on the right-hand wall, which had more sun. That made sense. He walked ten meters, and another appeared on the left-hand wall, in sunlight under the still, lichen-encrusted oak trees. This was as it should be, too, he knew, so maybe he’d been right: They just didn’t like the parking lot.
But around the bend, when the little monastery on the hillside came in sight, there were suddenly many lizards—dozens of them, maybe a hundred in all—and this made no sense whatsoever. There wasn’t any more sunlight here on the stone. There wasn’t a source of water that he could see. There weren’t any more insects in the air or in the leaves. He checked quickly to see, and there just weren’t. Nothing had changed in the environment, but the number of lizards had shot up. As he walked on, they only increased, and when he reached the end of the path, he could only stop and stare. There before him was what he’d never in his life, in all his childhood and teenage years and adulthood studying these lizards, seen—because it wasn’t possible:
Hundreds of Podarcis were lying perfectly still, blinking in the sun, swarming, on the wall by the stone entryway to the monastery, where just inside, in the shadows, a Franciscan priest stood waiting to greet visitors, his smile like a crescent moon.
The lizards were like a blanket, a robe of green on the wall. It wasn’t possible. Unlike Jamaican anoles and Papuan Lygosomas, this species did not swarm. And why swarm here anyway? There was no more sun on these walls than farther down the pathway, and there certainly was no privacy for breeding. So why here?
He found himself thinking then, and quite irrationally, of that unscientific notion, “fields of energy”: Of the tranquility within the monastery, the quiet, the peace, and what an animal that simply wanted to eat what it ate and to live in peace might do if given the chance and the right place. The “field” of a place. The “energy field” of it.
It was insane. Using energy fields to explain things was pseudoscience, the kind of thing—like the Triangle of Bermuda, the Lost City of Atlantis and the Tibetan Australopithecus gigantus—that if you pursued it would get you fired. You were supposed to label such things “inexplicable phenomena,” leave it at that, and go home. Any herpetologist would look for a source of water or an increase in prey, check to see if the lizards were mating, try to identify any threats that might have driven them together on these walls by the monastery’s entryway, and, finding absolutely none of these factors, would go home—because professional pursuit of such phenomena was not productive.
But how could he go home? The lizards—his lizards—were here by the hundreds, quiet and peaceful, and definitely swarming.
Were the other phenomena the two boys had reported true as well? As he wondered this, he found himself pulled toward the entryway, its shadows, toward the priest whose smile seemed, quite impossibly, to glow with its own light.
The middle-aged couple from America had a new camera—a tiny little thing no bigger than a woman’s compact mirror—and were playing with it like children. The man, a tall, lanky engineer at a big aerospace firm in Houston, kept hiding it in different pockets of his pants and jacket and surprising his wife with it when she least expected it. It was a silly thing to do, but it made her laugh and wasn’t that what mattered? It was so small, the camera, that you could barely find the buttons, but there were only four you really needed, and it was a relief from the complicated Nikons he’d never been very good with and the terrible quality of disposables. He kept telling her to pose—first, in front of the dark entryway to the monastery, where the sunlight illuminated her, love of his life for thirty years, like a spotlight; then in front of the little marble birdbath in the courtyard just inside; then beside the Franciscan priest whose smile wouldn’t stop and whose English was impeccable; then on the dappled, leaf-strewn path that led from the monastery to more sacred forest on the hill; and finally (he’d need the flash here) on the steps inside the monastery that led down to the grotto, which was just a little room now, after all the centuries of bricking-and-mortaring.
She kept saying, “Stop it, Jim—just stop it.” She didn’t want pictures of just her. She wanted pictures of the two of them, and there never seemed to be anyone around to ask—except the poor priest, whom they’d already asked twice and couldn’t really ask again. If she couldn’t, in her bright summer hat and matching yellow dress, have photographs of the two of them together—it was their anniversary, after all—then he should be taking pictures of this place, this incredibly peaceful place, and not just her. But he kept clicking away, checking the pictures he’d taken on the tiny screen, erasing some with a laugh, keeping others, and in any case taking more of just her. He couldn’t help himself.
On the staircase that led to the roof of the monastery and a view of the Assisi valley, they saw a lone white wild pigeon—a pigeon, not a dove; it was too big to be a dove—land on an eave below them, and of course he snapped pictures of it too. “This is too much,” he remarked. “Did they bring it from somewhere else—a pigeon-actor—Italy must have them, Catherine—pay it pigeon-wages to live here? After all, Saint Francis’s grotto, this little monastery, needs a white bird.”
“Maybe it just knows. It knows it’s supposed to be here,” she answered. He couldn’t tell if she was serious or not, but he was thinking the same thing, though not about the bird, about the lizards instead, the ones he’d first seen on the wall near the entrance to the monastery and now noticed everywhere, the splashes of chartreuse they made on every sunny surface. They too looked trained, as if someone, a Hollywood animal handler, had coached them into posing, into scampering at the right moment to make visitors happy. It wasn’t natural for so many to be here, was it? In places they were so thick they looked like moss. Even there, under the eave where the white pigeon lived, they made the wall sparkle green. He’d never seen anything like it.
His wife didn’t like reptiles, snakes especially, but even lizards and turtles. It wasn’t that she had a phobia about them; they just didn’t speak to her in any way—“spirit to spirit,” as she put it. They didn’t speak to him either really, not spirit to spirit, but like many boys he’d had king snakes and gopher snakes as a kid, and how could you not notice the lizards here?
What caught his attention now, though, was how peaceful his wife looked sitting on the staircase’s low wall (which, oddly enough, had no lizards on it), where he’d posed her, telling her to tip her head back just a little so that the camera could see her face. It was a face he knew well, and yet the peace of this place made its delicate lines disappear into softness, changing it.
“You sure look peaceful,” he said.
“I am,” she said.
“What I mean is—” He stopped, not wanting to ruin it, talk it to death, which was so easy to do in Houston. All he needed to do was take another picture of her, since that would make it real and impossible to lose. He would have it forever, and he’d pull it out when he wanted to, months from now, years, to remind himself of what they both could be when they had a chance—and the right place.
“I know, I know,” he said. “I’m taking too many pictures of you. But this is a great shot, Catherine. Let me take a couple more.”
Her face remained peaceful. The peace was not just the place, he saw, but something that had always been inside her. It cannot be lost, he found himself thinking, for what we are—“a light in the shadows”—can never be lost, though we think it can and so become afraid it will be….
Where had that come from?
As he took the last picture of his wife seated on that wall, her wonderful hat tipped up just right, her dress with its corn-colored flowers shining like little suns, the white pigeon flew up suddenly from below, from its eave in the courtyard, and, yes, he caught it, too.
As she stood up slowly, straightening her dress, he heard the voices of the priest and someone else, a man trying to speak Italian and doing it badly, in the courtyard below.
At that very moment a lizard scampered from a crevice in the wall and took his wife’s place in the sun.
Roberto and his best friend, Matteo, had driven up from Rome in Roberto’s father’s car, an old Fiat Topolino, one of the three or four kinds of cars you could drive in Rome without losing your mind. The boy and his friend had heard there wasn’t a single graffito in Assisi. It didn’t seem possible, but that’s what they’d heard from two guests at his aunt’s pensione in Roma Nord, and what better adventure for the summer than being the first to tag a famous town? Would they go to hell? Of course not. God had forgiven a lot worse. His cousin Paolo had mugged an old man at the Termini, and Father Lucerto had forgiven him. His uncle Marco had gotten a bad sex disease from a prostitute and wasn’t going to hell for it either. Matteo had killed a cat once, when he was little, with a BB gun, and had confessed it finally, and been forgiven by Father Lucerto too.
If he, Roberto, was going to hell, it would be for the ten Euros he’d stolen from his father’s wallet last month, bragged about to Matteo, and spent on condoms he would never use. All he had to do was confess it, but he couldn’t. Father Lucerto and his father were friends. They’d even been in a gang together—fratelli di sangue—when they were in school. They had the same tattoo, a little hawk with a snake. He just couldn’t. It was too embarrassing.
It wasn’t God they were worried about anyway; it was the police—if Assisi had any. Their aunt’s guest had said, “It’s such a tranquil, peaceful little city, you don’t really need police. Did we even see any police, Alain? No? I didn’t think so.”
To be the first—in a town of so many tourists. He and Matteo would be famous.
They parked down the hill—parking was expensive in Assisi and you couldn’t park inside the little town itself—and walked up the main road. They saw one carabiniere, and he was killing time, talking to a paisano, some olive farmer from the hills.
His aunt’s guests had been right. Though the boys walked from Porta San Pietro north to the Basilica of San Francesco, then west to Piazza Matteoti, then south to Piazza Santa Chiara, then north to the Rocca, there wasn’t a single tag.
But it wasn’t because of police.
There weren’t any police.
“We’re idiots,” Matteo was saying beside him. He was skinny and nervous, and wanted to captain a cruise ship when he was grown, not work in the Fiat factory the way their fathers did.
“I know,” Roberto answered with a sigh.
“There are too many tourists—everywhere.”
“Do you want to stay until night?”
“No, my father will kill me if we’re not back by nightfall.”
“So what do we do?”
They had their two cans of spray-paint—black and red because they’d show up nicely on the marble of the town—hidden in a backpack so they’d look like students. Maybe they were down from Florence or Perugia. College students. That’s what they’d tell anyone who asked.
They tried the southern edge of the town, and then the northern. There were still too many tourists. You couldn’t get away from them. The problem with tourists was that they were interested in everything—even little alleys that went nowhere, even construction sites where no one was working. And they were probably wandering around all night, too, with the city’s lights showing off the buildings. No wonder there were no graffiti.
In the northwest corner of city, near Piazza Matteoti, there were fewer tourists, yes, but still too many. There was also a sign to something called eremo delle carceri—l kilometro, and they stopped. A retreat? What kind of retreat? They found a shopkeeper, one who sold cold cuts and souvenirs and had a stuffed wild pig in her window and asked her.
The woman looked at them suspiciously. Maybe they did not look like college students, after all.
“It’s the grotto,” she said.
“Yes?” Robert said.
“The grotto of Saint Francis, and his monastery, and his sacred forest. You do not want to go there.”
She was right. Why should he want to go there, where God might take more notice of a boy who had not confessed?
But Matteo was laughing at the woman, saying, “Maybe we do,” grabbing him by the arm, and pulling him up the road to the eremo.
Roberto looked back once to see the woman staring at them even more suspiciously, and tried to pull free of Matteo’s hand.
“Maybe not the grotto, Matteo.”
“Don’t be an idiot. It’s just a bunch of rock. And a monastery? Who’s going to stop us?”
Roberto stopped struggling. Matteo was right. They couldn’t go home without doing something, even if it made him a little nervous to do it.
It was a long walk, that one kilometer, because it was uphill. Matteo, who hated exercise of any kind because (he said) it made his ears hot, was complaining after only a few minutes. Roberto called him “Stronza!” and that shut him up.
When they reached the end of the road, they found a little parking lot—one that charged money, too. The dirt path from the parking lot to the monastery was lit here and there by the sun, but the forest didn’t look any holier than the parks in Rome. They reached the monastery quickly. Somewhere inside it was a grotto, they knew, but that didn’t matter. They wanted a good clean wall and no one watching them—not some grotto.
At the end of the path, at the entrance to the monastery, a priest stepped from the shadows, startling them, but let them through without a fuss, even with a blessing. “Laudato” and “mi signore” and something else that made no sense.
Matteo, his big ears like handles, was grinning. The place was practically empty. An old married couple—English or American—were taking pictures in the courtyard. A younger man, a northerner, was alone and staring at the walls, at the lizards that covered it, as if he were stoned. Some old Chinese or Japanese guy in a robe had appeared, too, and was talking now to the priest, who’d left the entrance and was standing near a little chapel. These were the only people, and they were minding their own business, not at all interested in two boys.
They’d find a wall easily and tag it before anyone caught them, and then they’d be gone. If they were caught by a priest and a cry went up (were Franciscan priests allowed to shout?—he didn’t know), he and Matteo would simply run down the hill through the forest and get to the main road and the car that way. Easy.
The wall they chose was a good one—no vines, no lizards, and no one in sight. It was under an eave where a white pigeon had just returned to its nest and was now looking down at them, head cocked.
But when Roberto pulled out the can of black and aimed it, there were suddenly lizards on the wall, exactly where he was aiming.
“Idiota!” Matteo teased him. “We’re not here to spray lizards.”
There were at least twenty of them. Where they’d come from, he had no idea. The lizards were there and in the way, and if he went ahead and sprayed, his tag—his own name, roberto m, with what was called a Sicilian flourish—would be ruined.
He moved his arm and aimed the can again, but the lizards moved, too. Again they were where he was aiming. How was this possible? Lizards ran away from your hand, not toward it.
Matteo was stifling a laugh. He was enjoying this too much. It didn’t even strike him as strange, the way these lizards were acting.
Roberto moved his arm a third time and watched the lizards move with it. There were even more of them now. They had come down from the eaves, moving like tiny pieces of his aunt’s embroidered cloth—the one she’d been sewing on when they left—green and black and sparkling, down from the eaves but also down from the stairs that led up to the top of the monastery. There were so many now that wherever he moved his arm there’d still be lizards under it.
“Funcu!” he whispered.
“Spray the little fuckers!” Matteo said too loudly, but he was right. The only thing that would make the lizards run away now was paint in their eyes and mouths. He got ready to spray them—
And the first lizard jumped on his face.
It didn’t just jump and hang there; it scampered all over his face. It made quick circles, as if doing a little dance, and he jumped back, dropping the can, which hit the pavement with a bang.
“Merda!” Roberto said. “Merda! Merda! Merda!”
Matteo couldn’t hold it in any longer. He laughed out loud.
“Zito!” Roberto whispered. He was slapping at his own face, but the lizard was gone. He picked up the can, and now there were even more of them—like a big green blanket on the wall. It wasn’t possible. How could Matteo not think it strange?
“Let’s find another wall,” Matteo was saying, barely able to stop laughing.
“No fucking way, minchione!”
He started to press the nozzle on the can—
And the wall seemed to jump at him. A dozen lizards had landed on his face, clinging to him, tickling him, blinding him with their bodies and tails, and then a dozen were on his neck and arms, running as quickly as they could toward his hand and the can.
Matteo’s laugher had stopped suddenly, and Roberto turned to see lizards crawling on his friend’s face, too, and Matteo shouting, “Mary, Mother of God!” Now it wasn’t so funny.
But it was when the lizards began to move across the wall—not to jump on him or Matteo, but to make a shape, ever so slowly, on the wall—a letter, the beginning of a word, that Roberto stepped back in horror, turned, dropped the can, and began to run, Matteo’s footsteps loud behind him. I know, I know!—I should have confessed it, he found himself thinking as he struggled for breath. I will confess it to Father Lucerto this very night if you will let us go, oh Lord—if you will let us go home.
At the entryway to the monastery the priest stepped aside quickly to let them pass with a smile and even another blessing, and the forest was a dappled blur as they ran, as Roberto stumbled, fell, got up, and ran on toward the little car that would, if he was lucky—if God’s lizards weren’t waiting for him there, too—take him back to Rome without breaking down.
Joten Roshi, former abbot of the Zen abbey of Sun on Stone in the Japanese Alps, in Nagano Province, was visiting the world’s thirty-three most sacred places in the six months doctors in Tokyo had given him. Why his body should want to grow such a thing inside it was a mystery, but like all matters of the body, it meant nothing. It was time to leave that body, of course, and he wanted to find, by traveling one last time, what he had of course found before in his travels, and valued so profoundly. After all, his order did not espouse an intellectual or pious approach to spiritual matters, but instead “direct experience”—“epiphany as dharma,” as a favorite student of his had remarked years ago.
The Taj Majal, Jerusalem’s West Wall, the Alhambra, Angkor Watt, the Ganges River, the Vatican, Stonehenge, Westminster Abbey, Machu Pichu, Chartres, and of course the Great Buddha of Kyoto—not to mention relics of the Buddha and Saint Peter and countless temples, churches, mosques and shrines—these he already knew from the other travels of his life. But there had been twenty-six important others—a list prepared for him long ago by the fourteenth Dalai Lama of Tibet, with whom he had corresponded for years—and it had taken him four months of ships, planes, trains, buses, and automobiles to see them. He had wished to see the Great Buddha of Afghanistan, but fanatics had destroyed it with bombs before he could. Twenty-five was good enough. He was tired. He could feel the greed of the thing inside him. It was hungry, so it was indeed time. And any one of the twenty-five—even this one, the smallest and quietest of them all—could give him what he needed now, in whatever form it chose to give it.
As he walked up the path from the parking lot to the monastery—where the saint had prayed in his little grotto, in a room carved by time and water from ancient stone, and in the end had left his body there—Joten saw the lizards. Who wouldn’t? Lively and cheerful, sunning themselves on walls, scampering about in the sunlight as if the world were theirs, they were everywhere. A stocky young man had stopped on the path and was staring at them, while a middle-aged couple—Americans or Canadians perhaps—walked by holding hands and laughing, the man playing with a tiny camera that obviously brought him joy. In the distance, back at the parking lot where he had left his rental car with a kind attendant, someone was revving an engine. A young person, no doubt. No one older would need such sound. He had needed sound, too, when he was young. After all, it is rare for youth to hear enough inside itself to be happy, or to find silence better than noise.
The stocky young man was so mesmerized by the lizards that he didn’t turn when Joten stepped past him into the monastery’s entryway. There, in the shadows, a Franciscan padre was waiting to greet everyone who came. Joten stopped in the shadows with him, marveled at how the man’s smile caught the light from outside, and bowed.
“Buon giorno, gentil signore,” the priest said with a nod, and a familiar understanding passed between them.
“Laudato sie, mi signore,” Joten answered, doing his best to remember the words, “cum tucte le tue creature….”
The priest’s smile grew, and he laughed—not at Joten’s terrible pronunciation, but in happy surprise. It was medieval Umbrian Joten had attempted to speak—the Canticle of the Creatures of Saint Francis, of course. The priest had surely not heard it quoted by many tourists, though shouldn’t it be quoted here, of all places?
“Spetialmente messer lo frate sole, loquale iorni et allumini noi per lui,” the priest answered, finishing the stanza for him.
“Grazie, padre,” Joten said, knowing the man would forgive him for his terrible r’s. He had mastered many languages in his life, but all eastern ones. His English was terrible and his Romance languages just as terrible, though many times—because laughter is a good way to turn fear into trust—that very terribleness had turned strangers into friends, and quite quickly.
The grotto itself, Joten discovered, was simply a fracture in the marble of the hill, and could be reached only by the narrowing stairs of stone that turned and turned again. It had been walled in over time with brick and mortar so that there was only one room and an altar in it. It felt like a tomb, as perhaps it should, but he wished he could have seen more clearly than feeble imagination allowed what the grotto had been like in the beginning, when the saint had first discovered it and used it privately, before the centuries of building had begun. Human beings built in order to worship, of course, and here they had built to their hearts’ content. The man who had first come here centuries ago, and his humble brothers, had done so for the simplicity of the rock, the darkness, a candle, silence, a prayer, that they might devote themselves to light and love. Others had followed them, and out of love, too, but also out of a longing and an illusion of lost innocence, and they had built this place to celebrate the saint, to bring him closer to their hearts, that they themselves might feel worthy of love. Which of course they already were, though like all human beings they insisted on doubting it.
But who was he to preach the faith of others? How silly. If he knew their faith at all, it was by knowing his own and through the truths he had discovered in his life by listening to the silence beyond the sound.
When he had toured the handful of rooms of the silent monastery and had peeked over a gate into the little chapel where the priests of this place met in prayer, he returned to the entryway. The Franciscan was gone now, though Joten thought he could hear him speaking to the middle-aged couple in the courtyard.
When he stepped through the shadows of the entryway and into the sun, the lizards were still there on the wall, just as he’d known they’d be. The sun was fading a little, but was still bright enough to keep them. They looked like big-headed children in green tights, happy as children are when they are happy.
One of the lizards scampered toward him, stopping close enough that he could reach out and touch it, and stared at him, as if inviting him to step even closer. It was not a lizardly thing to do, but he was not surprised.
He had known there would be a special one, and this lizard was obviously it.
“Thank you,” Joten said in his own language. “Thank you for coming.”
He sat down on the wall by the creature, which didn’t move, and waited, watching the eke, the little lizard. The thing looked back at him, its skin like the tiniest black and green fish eggs, or more accurately, like the exquisite, colorful sand paper made by Tasaki, master paper-maker of Kyoto.
“Now?” the lizard asked suddenly, its voice scratchy, like a hinge needing oil, its jaw moving oddly so that it might make the words—the actual sounds of the words.
Joten laughed so hard he could not answer. The lizard’s eyes were like teardrops, he saw, but tears without sadness. What would they have to be sad about in a place like this—number twenty-six on the Dalai Lama’s list?
“Nothing at all,” the lizard answered, hearing Joten’s question because in the oneness of things all questions, like their answers, could be heard. “Nothing at all,” the lizard repeated. “But is there reason for sadness anywhere?”
“Of course not,” Joten answered, aware that he was grinning like a fool.
The lizard asked it again: “Now?”
Joten laughed quietly this time, as a deep peace settled into him.
“Yes,” he answered. And then, because separateness is but an illusion, too, Joten’s body shivered once, brightened for a moment, and then disappeared completely. There on the wall, in his place, was a second lizard, its body still for a moment as it woke and blinked and moved in that jittery way all lizards move because something might, at any moment, grab them, and then where would they be?
As the sunset and darkness began to fill the world, the lizards on the walls on either side of the monastery’s entryway began to move. They did not enter the cracks and holes in the walls or find rotten pieces of oak wood on the forest floor to hide under for the night. Instead, they gathered in twos and threes, then by the dozens, then the hundreds, and made their way toward a hole in the eastern wall, a hole no bigger than a man’s hand, but one that wound down through the ancient stone upon which the monastery had been built and from which nature had long ago made the grotto itself, and toward a light that burned in the earth, in a cave no human had ever set foot in. The cave was oddly shaped, horizontal, no longer than a man and no wider, and there was no way that all of the lizards could fit into it even if they’d wanted to. Instead, they nestled against each other in the little tunnel and felt warm in the light of the sun that wasn’t a sun, in the light that burned forever.
The new lizard, though it had trailed behind the others at first, getting used to its legs, making sure they worked properly, had no trouble following. It knew where the others were going. It knew that light. But who didn’t?
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.