The Third Jewel

Chris Malcomb

I hadn’t thought about him for the entire retreat. Now his presence consumed the space around me. I set my spoon down and stared at the hands across the table. I had seen these hands a thousand times. I’d looked at the mangled nails, the briar scratches, and the broken bones healed into awkward lumps. I’d felt them caress my hair and clench my throat. I’d held them at funerals and wiped them with antiseptic ointment while they lay limp in a hospital bed.

But what did I really know about those hands? Had I actually listened to the stories of those calluses, scrapes, and scars? Did I understand the life my brother was trying to build on the coast of Maine, 3000 miles away? Did I know what he truly felt while sanding the curved surface of a wooden sloop, scraping his knuckles as he constructed a stone sculpture on the beach, or feeling the stiff canvas of a sail as he cast off from shore, alone in his boat?

The man sitting across my table—on my birthday—was not my brother.

Why wasn’t he my brother?

My sense of balance disintegrated. What was I doing here? Why had I vowed silence and seclusion on this, of all days? There were people who loved me. People who knew—who cared—that it was my birthday. But these people weren’t here. No candlelit cake or wrapped gifts were coming through the swinging kitchen door. No chorus of well-wishing was going to pierce the silence. There would be no hugs, or smiles, or precious memories created. Suddenly, any connection I felt to the people around me—to the place, to the practice—wholly disappeared. I knew nobody here. Nobody knew me. I was alone in a room full of strangers.

I put down my spoon and peered into my bowl. The dining hall was filling, the sounds of scraping spoons and clanking dishes echoed off the walls. When the first tear dropped into my oatmeal, I knew I needed to bolt. Crying was not a problem on retreat. I’d heard the sniffles and sobs of people in the hall, byproducts of the practice unearthing deep layers of pain and grief and regret and sadness.

But I didn’t want to cry in front of these people.

I wanted to cry alone.

I rose quickly and walked to the door, leaving my bowl behind. I pulled my wool hat down over my forehead and stepped outside. The sun was up. The air was warmer. Directly in front of me was a trail heading up the side of a hill. Perfect. As I started up, my lower lip began to quiver. Something was coming, something that had been building without my knowledge. Whatever it was, I wasn’t going to resist it.

Suddenly, however, my attention was drawn to a movement in the high, golden grass to my left. I stopped and squinted. Five wild turkeys were walking in a line towards the meditation hall. They were beautiful, with large, buxom bodies and a patterned array of brown, auburn, and white feathers. They strutted confidently, bobbing their heads, clucking, and pausing periodically to claw at the dirt and peck at seeds in the dried grass.

Uh oh. Now I faced a dilemma. Should I continue up the hill for a solitary emotional breakdown or follow the turkeys for…something else? They were moving quickly. I needed to decide.

Wait. What would my brother do?

I followed the turkeys, padding up the trail as the first bird leapt from the hillside onto the redwood bench encircling the meditation hall courtyard. One by one, the others followed, sauntering towards the triangular reflecting pool in the corner. As the turkeys hopped from the bench and strutted towards the water, I sat down, leaned against a concrete planting box, and waited.

They approached slowly, each one leaping up onto the black tile edge with a slight flutter of its massive wings. Once balanced, the birds dipped their heads into the water for quick drinks. By now a silent crowd had gathered by the doorways and benches flanking the reflecting pool. Despite retreat rules for eye contact, I looked directly at a young woman sitting on the bench about ten feet away. We smiled and quickly returned our glances to the pool as the birds drank, lost their balance, and submerged their entire heads in the water.

One turkey seemed stuck. He couldn’t decide if he wanted to join the others, or remain alone on the bench. He strutted back and forth uncomfortably, ruffled his feathers, and clucked nervously. Eventually, he hopped off of the bench, tentatively approached the water, and submerged his beak.

Then he jumped completely into the pool and began walking around.

The woman and I looked at each other again. We smiled.

Ten minutes passed. Everyone remained silent. Their drinking complete, the turkeys withdrew from the water to make the short flight onto the bench. The last one, however, was reluctant. While the others were now standing on the edge of the bench, waiting to jump down to the hillside, he was still in the water, still walking, still drinking. One turkey strutted back towards the straggler, shook his wings, and gobbled. The straggler sat down. The other turkey gobbled again. The straggler reluctantly hopped out of the pool and walked towards the bench. Then he stopped, turned around, and returned for another drink. The others paced back and forth, pausing periodically to peer over the edge towards the hillside. After his drink, the straggler again approached the bench, paused, and returned to the water.

This went on for five minutes, and by the time the whole group re-convened atop the bench, the others had grown impatient, punctuating their annoyance with feather-ruffling and troubled pacing. Nonetheless, they began to dismount. From my vantage point, watching each bird depart was like viewing a diver from the surface of a diving board. Although I knew there was a hillside a mere 18” under their outstretched feet, all I could see beyond the bench were blue sky and distant trees.

The first bird jumped and disappeared completely.

The others followed, and with each leap it became harder to suppress my laughter. It was funny to see them leap into nothingness. There. Poof! Gone. I averted my eyes, clenched my teeth, and even pinched my leg to avoid breaking my vow of silence. I glanced toward the woman. She was struggling just the same. Others were as well.

After four jumps it was the straggler’s turn. He paced back and forth, fluttered his wings. He clucked in a low, concerned manner. Several times he paused, peered over the edge, and retreated. We all knew—he knew—that the rest of the group was just a few feet away, scratching at the ground as they wandered down the hillside. But for the poor straggler, this open space seemed insurmountable.

I leaned forward, watching intently. The straggler continued to gobble, fret, and pace. Around me, nearly two-dozen people remained in rapt attention. What would he do? Was he ever going to jump? It was almost time for meditation. Come on, man!

As he cautiously approached the edge for the fourth time, the straggler peered over, and squatted low. At last, he was ready. But not to jump. Instead, he let out a thick white and gray stream of shit, a small waterfall that settled into a cookie-sized liquid pile directly behind his legs.

Our silence broke, profoundly. All around me, people covered their mouths and tried to swallow their laughter. Some slumped over, held their knees, and rocked back and forth. I slouched against the planter box in a state of mock surrender. Unable to refrain, I burst, exhaling deep laughter, briefly losing sense of place, time, or thought. I simply laughed, and laughed, and then…cried. Not much—just a few tears from tired eyes—but enough to acknowledge that I also knew that edge, that empty blue sky, that fear of leaping into an abyss.

The meditation bell rang.

As I rose, that last turkey finally glided over the edge, as if coaxed by the deep rhythmic tones now cascading through the air. The bench was empty. I stretched my hands skyward and caught sight of the five birds, now halfway down the hill. Four of them were bunched closely together, pecking at the ground. The fifth lagged behind, ruffling his feathers. I turned and joined the stream of people walking into the meditation hall.

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