THROUGH THE NARROW PLACE
Michael Ortiz Hill
We saw the old Bedouin walk for miles across the desert before he arrived with a burlap sack of stones from the Holy Mountain. Geodes cracked open with many crystals, flat shale stained with the dust of fern. We bought more than we wanted, and then he walked away. The graciousness of this stranger, no common tongue. Face wrapped in brown cotton except his vivid eyes. Where did he come from? Not a house in sight for miles, just a few stray camels.
For a week we prayed at Sinai. Wail of the muezzin at dawn, the piety of Muslim people. This place, they say, where the Law was revealed in stone, the Eternal Mind inscribing sacred order. I am compelled by the story,but moonlight, granite, dust, stars are as much as I can take in of this endless act of ordering. My wife Deena says she came that we might receive the Law implicit in creation, and for a few days outside of time, it seemed like we did.
Returning to Cairo was to return to the full tilt of contemporary chaos. Headlines on the International Herald Tribune about riots in Jerusalem. How many shot dead at Damascus gate? I cant recall. Deena Jewish, myself of Catholic origin, we spent our last day going from mosque to mosque to pray for peace.
But it is not the cool silence of the Blue Mosque that I remember now but the terrified eyes of a little girl and how I betrayed her. It was Thursday, the Muslim Sabbath. One of the five pillars of Islam is giving alms to the poor, and so on Thursday, the street children know they will eat. We were pursued by a dozen, harried, dropping coins - too much or so it seemed. I was reeling from the days news and wanted to shut out exhaust, the desperation, the sheer unraveling hopelessness of the world.
She was probably about nine years old and followed us for blocks, crying out, and my heart shut with fury. We hid in a public building, and when we left, she was gone at last.
A few weeks later I was at work, receiving report with a few other nurses. The one patient that unnerved all of us was a thirty-two year old who had been deeply depressed. When her husband left for an errand, she put a bullet through her head. As the desperate eyes of the girl in Cairo were never far from me, I volunteered to be this woman's nurse.
Except for her mouth and nose, her face was covered in bandages and from her mouth gray bloody ooze. Hour by hour I checked the saturation of oxygen in her blood. When death would come, it would likely be from inhaling too much of her brain. Drowning.
When the heart narrows we place anothers suffering as far as possible from our own fate. I am not the hungry kid on the streets of Cairo. I will not blow my brains out. But this night I am able to apply myself to a slow dressing change, unraveling the kerlix sticky to the exit wound by the ear, cleaning with peroxide, daubing with antibiotic ointment, then rewrapping her bruised face.
This cycle seems to go on forever, forever moving from expansiveness to the petty defense of territory and back to expansiveness. And then another round. Weve all known what it is to leave the Holy Mountain to the valley of anguish and how seductive it is the sense of futility when once again one has lost the thread. But how else does the Law actually enter into the lived life if not through these cycles of compassion and failure.
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