The Coffee Makers
Peng walked along an ancient road in an ancient place, fashioned in a robe he forced himself to make. He remembers working the needle over and over, his hands shaking to thread through its eye in the dark, connecting the three large patches of material. He remembers the poor first attempts of his early stitches, subject to rules implemented before he existed. The method was built in conversations held in the wakes of ocean waves, in river beds, on high mountains along paths of epic pilgrimages, in corners of straw huts, over hand built tables, before his parents existed, a time few could trace to its origin.
He does not remember when the stitch became a pattern that his hands understood, he only knows that suddenly the act was thoughtless, and yet full of thought, methodic, delicate, strong, he was in control of the needle, and the needle he threaded through the fabric would become a house for his body to fill day by day. When the garment was complete he pulled the early stitches and applied his new techniques, cleaning the crude work of his first pass with newfound pride.
He wore his robe proudly around his body when he finished it. This garnered a lash from his parents. Afterwards he walked with his head bowed in reverence. He walked near the fountains and coy pools. He walked through temples, eventually, and quite accidentally, led himself into a monastery. He took to reading for days on end. He studied Mahāyāna. He circled the paths on maps that would have brought this school of Buddhism to China. He circled the flaming mountains, and imagined a pattern of temples along the way. He dreamt of Xuanzang meeting the venerable Silabhadraidea. He constructed a pilgrimage of his own.
Before departing his city, a decade after he first dreamt leaving it the young monk brought a clay bowl to the water of a familiar pond. As he raised the dish to his lips he saw the tiny squirming swimming thing within it. It was no fish, and couldn’t possibly be a frog. He could only hope he’d scooped up a lizard, as such a beast would make a stealth traveling companion. A lizard would surely traverse the mountain passes with little needs. A lizard could enter the holy temples undetected in the folds of a young monk’s robe.
Peng cradled the bowl in a fish net, attached the net to a stick, and rested the stick over his shoulder. Here his companion could sway as he walked with water to swim in and grow. He too would journey west. The path of the silk road would be shared. He called him Haisu, Peng held his thumb to the water’s surface, and the tadpole swam loops grazing its back against its master. On their way out of Luoyang, Peng led his free hand over small rock walls, miniature plants, and bushes. He whispered goodbye in his mind to the pond and thanked it for his city’s final gift to him.
About two kilometers out of the city’s walls a man rushed to Peng, with his foot aflame. Peng quickly removed a piece of fabric from his rucksack and smothered the flame. The robed stranger stood above the extinguished man and extended his arm. The man’s leg was badly burned. He took Peng’s hand and placed his own arm over Peng’s shoulder. With his help the two made their way on three legs to the burned man’s shack where the small fire that burned him blazed on.
With quiet purpose Peng laid the man atop his cot and extinguished the flames inside the hut. Before leaving the hut he placed Haisu on the sill of the hut to swim about his bowl in the warmth of the afternoon sun.
Peng was angry with himself. Angry at his own impatience. It perturbed him, stopping, and helping this man. He was after all, a man on mission. But who’s mission? This came from a voice deep inside Peng’s mind. It circled around his skull. He stopped in his tracks, sat on a low wall, watched a wild dog chase a bird. If you want to go faster, he thought to himself in a low, shameful tone, find a horse.
Upon his return to the hut Peng brought a variety of leaves from which he extracted liquids and proceeded to rub into the man’s burnt leg. He wrapped the leg in thin cloth from a basket in the man’s hut.
The man awoke the next morning to Peng dishing rice into a bowl, a quiet sound, the spoon churning the soft steamed rice, the soft rice hitting the porcelain bowl. The hut smelled clean of yesterday’s fire. Peng brought the rice to the man in the cot.
“I have no money to pay you,” said the man to Peng, who gently smiled back. “But I’d like you to have that there.” The man pointed to a lantern hanging by his hut’s door frame. “Let it light your journey.” Peng nodded towards the man and lifted the lantern from its hook.
Peng understood that he and Haisu’s journey was not a straight line, but a jagged path. As Peng unfolded his crude map he built a code upon which to live. If a man asked of him his help, then Peng would help.
The flaming mountains were a few months walk. It took Peng and Haisu two years to reach them. The sand announced itself like a fiery ocean. The mountains were as they had been profesized to him, alive against the bright blue sky. He would think they were confronting the air had they not brought such balance to the landscape.
Though many stops were made along the way Peng had recently grown shy in his glances, keeping his head bowed low as they walked. Haisu had grown out of his bowl and was now riding cradled within the folds of Peng’s robe. The more his companion grew the more unlizardly he became. In the folds of his neck grew a mane of hair, and his face was that not of a lizard but of animal origin. Peng took to thinking of Haisu as a serpent lion as if this was commonly known. He believed him to have special powers though nothing in Haisu’s behavior had affirmed this feeling.
Late one night while in the mountains long cast shadows moved against the large curved red rocks. The cackle of laughter echoed across the cavernous pass. Haisu fled his rock, escaping to the folds against Peng’s chest where his heartbeat would soothe him. The laughter grew closer and the shadows crisped into familiar shapes: human bodies dragging carts and carrying flags were approaching. This cannot be an army, Peng thought to himself, for this group is far too small to be an army.
The troupe approached, and Peng had his answer: a traveling theatre. They wore bright crimson cloaks and held wild blue and green flags. A portly man wore an ancient set of armor, his moustache pointed far beyond the curves of his round cheeks. They had wind chimes tethered to their carts, and rice steaming from a heavy clay pot held between a boy and an old man. They had rouged cheeks and carried jugs of wine in their hands.
“What is this?” shouted the knight as they approached the quiet man huddled against the rocks behind his modest fire.
“A fellow traveller!” shouted a man that most resembled a serpent himself, with a slither in his speech like his tongue might slip all the way out of his mouth.
“My good man, here” said the big man, presenting a jug of wine to Peng. Peng did his best to protest this offer, thanking them with his hands, patting the air and smiling.
“Ah, a quiet man,” said the portly knight. “A man of god. Dear sir, don’t you know that wine is of the earth, that it is meant to be slurped up over great conversation. Just then Haisu repositioned himself against Peng’s chest and the big man jumped back. “What do you stow there, sir?”
Again, Peng patted the air and smiled, though this time his nervousness could not be abated. The large man drew closer to this foreigner, stuck out his walking stick and lowered the fold of Peng’s robe. Haisu, startled at being awakened, jumped to attention and scurried up the knight’s stick. And here a marvelous thing happened, the serpent lion opened its mouth and let out a large and dangerous flame. The portly man dropped his stick and fell back.
“We mean no trouble,” said the knight, dragging himself away from the fire by his elbows. “We’ll be on our way.” Quickly the troupe bustled away from the robed man and his lizard.
From this point forward Peng traveled with Haisu proudly atop his shoulders from place to place, the monk and his serpent lion became an attraction all their own. Children would approach gravely and then beg to pet the beast’s scales again. Peng would bend his knee for them to graze Haisu’s scales. Haisu would let out a small vibration of a pur that would raise the hairs on their little arms.
It was a nearly twenty year journey to reach Yemen. The same piece of wood from which he once hung Haisu’s bowl became a walking stick for Peng, who then, only near fifty years old had developed a slight hunch in his stance from years walking with his companion around his neck. Of course over time the serpent lion grew too large for Peng to carry at all. A decade into his journey the beast was nearly as large as Peng himself from head to tail. Haisu walked alongside his companion happily, like a dog would its master.
When they arrived at the monasteries, thousands of kilometers and decades of travel between them, the holy men were aghast that Peng would dare attempt entry with such a beast. They laughed him off the long steps, shooed him and his companion away.
Peng made camp there, on the steps of the monastery. For seven nights he fasted while waiting for them to open their doors to him, to open their arms. He’d traveled too far to give up. On the eighth day he awoke to found they had been moved. How they’d moved Haisu he could not understand. But, these were holy men and he knew to ask the question was to question their very ability.
Peng was humiliated. This ridiculous journey. All this time, following a western star, to meet a holy man, to understand some greater meaning. He expected to find open arms awaiting him and his extraordinary pet to stay within the walls of the monastery. Left on yet another street, after hundreds of streets, for a night after thousands of nights to make shelter, Peng promptly exchanged the city for a return to the mountains.
Peng spent days in the mountains, picking, as he’d grown accustom, crude shrubs and berries. It was here that he fell ill from the fruit of a poisonous plant. And it was here, at the mouth of a cave that he met another exiled man, a man who patted his chest with the tips of his fingers and whispered, “Omar.”
Omar bowed to Haisu before tending to Peng, whom he lifted and carried inside the cave. The smell was like nothing Peng had ever encountered, wafting into his nostrils, a mixture of burnt cocoa, cardamom, and cinnamon. In a thin porcelain pan Omar shuffled green beans that when roasted turned dark and produced the smell that filled the cave.
After the green beans were roasted brown Omar took a rounded stick and slowly crushed them within another porcelain dish into powder. Omar brought water to a boil over an open flame, poured it over the dark powder, and made black liquid. He brought a cup to Peng’s lips and had him slowly drink this strange tea.
Peng was quickly himself again, and anxious to thank his host. Looking around his surroundings Peng saw that the cave was as modest a place as Peng himself would have sprung up for an evening’s camp. He would find a way to show his gratitude.
“I was a healer” Omar told him in a language he could not understand. Realizing all would be lost in translation Omar again brought his hands to his chest, repeating his name, then placed his fingers against Peng’s stomach and stirred them in a circle against it. He then took both hands and placed them over one another and quickly spread them away from the stranger’s stomach. Peng understood this sign for vanishing, or clearing, smoke as an indication of Omar’s powers.
Peng spent several days in the cave with this other kind of holy man, watching him bring in bowls of the mysterious green beans. He watched him make fire after fire, sometimes twisting a twig into some brush until his hands shook, then he roasted the beans in his small pan, made another cup of the liquid, passed it towards him.
On the fifth day Omar awoke to an empty cave. His visitor and his strange beast were nowhere to be seen. He tended to the cave, gathered his pans and bowls to bring to the river. Huddled by the riverbed he saw a twinkle in the water, was shocked at a creature advancing in his direction. The serpent lion darted from the water towards the unexpected host and licked the man’s face with his sandpaper dry tongue. Across the river sat Peng smiling as he watched his companion embrace another.
The group made their way up to the cave together that evening stopping along the way to pick the green beans from their beautiful plants. The way Omar caressed each leaf showed a reverence to the wildlife. He picked the beans gently, and Peng assisted him.
In the morning all of the beans were black, as if one hundred small bowls were filled and held over Omar’s tiny fire.
“How did you do this?” he asked his silent guest. Peng let the slightest smirk creep across his face before motioning to Haisu. As if on cue the creature belched a flame that made the owner of the cave laugh out loud. “Incredible.” The creature then stuck its snout into a pile of the roasted beans and began chewing.
“No!” shouted Omar waving his hands at the serpent lion. Peng raised his palm up to his host, and as he had done to a hundred other men along his journey, he brought the hand down slowly, patting the air, asking for a moment of calm. The two men watched the creature chew and chew the beans in its closed mouth.
Peng stood, arranged his robe, walked to Haisu, and placed his cupped hands under his mouth. Out poured perfectly ground beans. Omar’s eyes welled up at the site of it, these two mysterious travelers, where did they come from?
Yemen bustled. Men with carts, men with chickens, men in the makeshift marketplaces selling fruit. And that inescapable smell wafting in and out of the streets coming from the two robed men with their wooden cart and strange lizard. The dark liquid was said to heal. The word spread and they were welcomed everywhere with their beast in tow.
One day, after many months trading the dark liquid outside the monastery, Omar, the coffee maker, looked over at Peng, traced the outline of the man up and down and said with words that were now familiar to his companion, “They wouldn’t let you in, and they wouldn’t let me in, and still you don’t speak. Wouldn’t it be wonderful for us to know,” and here he admiringly looked at the serpent lion at their feet, “what to call our companion.”
Much to Peng’s surprise he opened his mouth. For the first time in thirty years a word escaped his lips. He whispered, “Haisu.” The serpent lion looked up at his master, Peng laid a hand through his mane. The beast coiled his tail around Peng’s leg and fell into a deep sleep, bathed in the light of a particularly golden sun, breathing in the familiar scent of the beans he crushed in his mouth daily, his body warming his master’s feet.