Akumu and the Star Hawk
A young monk’s simple question leads to the discovery of his destiny
When he was a boy not yet initiated into the White Lotus School of Monks, Akumu liked to watch his father, a Master of the West Wind, shoot mijat bugs out of the air with his bow.
His father practiced this archery ritual nightly, stopping only after he had felled thirty mijats; no more, no less. His accuracy was legendary in the kingdom of Deg-Hyn, especially given the fact that this was done with only the light the Tarach moon provided or, on moonless nights, that of a single lantern.
On these nights, Akumu would stand out in the field beyond the monastery and hold up a long staff lantern, its glow attracting the large carnivorous, winged insects. Standing utterly still, a sort of meditation in its own right, he recited long passages from the ancient oral teachings known collectively as The Way of White Lotus, while his father’s arrows flew around him and mijats plopped heavily to the dewy grass, sometimes slapping his shaven head in the midst of their fall.
“Matter is not separate from void, void is not separate from matter,” he intoned loudly, words that did more towards confusing the young boy than educating him in what all monks deemed a soul-penetrating truth.
Akumu believed that when he was older and successfully initiated into the school these truths would reveal themselves to him fully, each sutra breaking free from the boundaries of his intellect as it wove itself into the very fabric of his being. In the meantime, he recited the words with a confidence that he hoped would one day soon be genuine.
“Matter itself is void; void itself, matter. Sensations, perceptions, formations, and thoughts are also like this. With nothing to attain, a White Lotus Monk relies on the teachings, and thus the mind is without hindrance. Without hindrance, there is no fear.”
Akumu wanted nothing more than to be like his father, a Master, a warrior, a leader of men. He felt trapped by his young age yet feared that he would never grow to be such a man, that he was not in fact worthy of this aspiration. That this was as far as he would ever come, the lantern-holder for his father.
One New Moon in Autumn, as his father was fastening the lantern to the staff, Akumu was overcome by his conflicting thoughts and dared to voice his deepest desire in the form of a question posed to the man who, in his son’s mind, epitomized all Akumu hoped to be.
“When shall I be able to use the bow to kill mijats?”
Akumu was surprised by the slight grin on the face of the master monk who, his students claimed, must lack the muscles necessary to smile.
“Are you proposing that I hold the lamp tonight while you loose the arrows?”
Akumu blushed. “No, I didn’t mean — ”
“I think that to be a most excellent proposition.”
“But father — ” began Akumu, horrified by the question that could only be seen as impertinence yet beginning to feel excitement swell within him.
“No, you are right my Little Star Hawk. I have been neglecting you, taking you for granted. This whole time you have been practicing with the bow while I have failed to realize how you have become its master. I should have seen this, but I have been blind.”
Akumu’s budding excitement turned to mortification at his father’s words, but before he could protest further the master monk had walked with the lit lantern out into the field and, turning, held the staff aloft. He gazed intently toward his son and began to recite a sutra.
Shame swelled in Akumu’s heart as he watched his father, so graceful, so elegant in his silk robe, carry out a task meant for an untrained novice, yet showing no sign that this task was beneath him.
“No matter how numerous the sentient beings, I vow to protect them all. No matter how numerous the troubles, I vow to defeat them all. No matter how numerous the teachings, I vow to acquire them all. No matter the perfection which is The Way of White Lotus, I vow to realize it.”
As if summoned by the words, the mijats were beginning to cloud around the monk and it would be only moments before the flesh-eaters attempted to satisfy their hunger. It would require only one mijat to attempt a taste to cause the others to swarm.
Akumu had been amongst monks long enough to know that all of this, the juxtaposition of novice and master, the particular sutra his father had chosen to recite, all of it was meant to impart a lesson, but he could not begin to unravel what it might be. And based on prior teachings resulting from his numerous and varied missteps, Akumu knew that there was no Back: no taking back his question; no giving back the bow to his father; no backing out.
As with most White Lotus lessons, action was required, and quickly, else his father would soon be eaten alive. But he also knew that he had not the skill required to shoot so many mijats as would be necessary. He was more apt to hit his father, bringing shame on them both. He would likely be forced to leave the monastery and wander the strange and dangerous world all alone.
Suddenly a surge of hate toward his father flowed through him, and even before his guilt could take its place, Akumu raised the bow, notched a bamboo arrow, and aimed it at his father’s still form. The cloud of mijats had become a storm, orbiting the glow of the lantern but thus far ignoring the man who stood beneath it.
Despite participating nightly in their demise, Akumu had given little thought to the mijats and their behavior as they flew about him while he recited mantras and sutras and felt the wind from his father’s arrows. For as close as the insects might get, Akumu had always felt protected and secure in the belief that his father would not, indeed seemingly could not, miss his targets. In fact, as long as his father was near, he knew without thinking that he was safe. The master monk’s words came back to him.
I have been neglecting you, taking you for granted.
The hate in Akumu’s mind transformed into a ball of clear light. “You’re not taking me for granted,” he realized. “I’m taking you for granted.”
He breathed in as he drew back on the bowstring and adjusted his aim. He could hear his father calmly reciting the next sutra as if there were no mijats and no inexperienced boy pointing a notched arrow at him.
“All the evil actions ever created by me since beginningless time on account of my endless greed, hate and ignorance and born of my conduct, speech and thought; I now confess openly and completely.”
Akumu closed his eyes and focused on the afterglow of the lantern light stamped upon the inside of his forehead. He exhaled.
He let the arrow fly.
They drank their tea together in silence, the broken lantern between them. Akumu wanted his father to speak, to let him know if he had done the right thing. Did the monk consider the dishonor of these current circumstances too great to let pass by? Had Akumu in fact made it all the more disdainful by failing to hit even one mijat? (Though he could not deny the relief he felt over the fact that his arrow had pierced the lantern rather than his father.)
He fought the urge to apologize for his wrongful words, to assuage the guilt that lingered from the momentary hatred he’d felt for the man who previously had been the object only of Akumu’s love and devotion.
He wanted to bow before this man, swear to him that he would never again ask to use the bow; that he would never again ask for anything. But he knew that an outpouring of emotional fervor would be frowned upon if not outright ignored. He must only speak when prompted. He must wait for his father to speak, even if his father chose never to utter a single word to him ever again. And then,
“Do you know why I call you my Little Star Hawk?” his father asked, cupping his hands around his tea bowl, his head cocked slightly to the side.
Akumu’s relief that his father had broken the silence was such that he was unable to prevent the start of a grin. He did his best to rein it in before it could reach its zenith. To his surprise, he noted the twinkle in the master monk’s eyes.
“No,” he answered, realizing that he had never given a thought to the origin of his nickname. For as far back as he could remember, his father had called him Little Star Hawk; reserving the use of his birth name only when they were in public.
“Before you were born, our allies of night, the star hawks, were plentiful in the kingdom of Deg-Hyn. The star hawk is the emblem, the symbol of my order.”
This last Akumu knew for he had seen it all of his life, the noble bird emblazoned on the brightly colored flags that graced the monastery’s courtyard.
“Do you know what the star hawk eats?”
“You almost struck one this evening.”
Akumu felt his face flush and he lowered his eyes.
“Do not be ashamed, Akumu. You did right. It is I who acted brazenly tonight.”
Akumu looked up at his father, bemusement in his expression. The monk took a sip of tea and held the bowl under his nose for several seconds, his eyelids relaxing as steam caressed his nostrils. Akumu did not know what to make of his father’s words. An admission of wrong action from an elder monk to a disciple was generally unheard of and though Akumu’s bond of blood transcended the average master-student relationship, it was rare that he be treated differently than any other student.
Similarly, praise was as rare as the star hawk for which he was named and so Akumu let himself enjoy the sensation of pride that swelled from those precious words of approval: You did right. Shooting the lantern had been the right thing to do, after all, Akumu decided with a grateful sigh.
His father put the tea bowl down on the table, joined his hands together, his right balled in a gentle fist, his left wrapped around the right and holding it against the center of his chest.
“The natural state of the universe is balance,” he said. “You can see the evidence everywhere around you, from the cycles of the seasons to the laws of our people. The animals know balance also. The mijats, you see, were never so large a problem as they have become in recent years.”
“Because of the star hawks,” Akumu said, without intending to.
“Yes, because the start hawks would eat them. Not all of them, but just enough. They could always be a nuisance in early Spring but never a threat like they are today. And never all year round.”
The monk’s countenance shifted slightly before his eyes sought Akumu’s, looking directly into his son’s eyes, and Akumu did something he had never done before: he looked right back. He held his father’s gaze and told himself he would not be the one to first look away.
Maybe it was his father’s compliment and admission of wrong action, or maybe it was Akumu’s correct choice to shoot the lantern that gave the boy a boost of confidence that evening. Whatever the reason, for the first time since he took the first step in becoming a monk, Akumu could see that this future was much closer than he had previously estimated.
His father smiled but it seemed to Akumu to be a sad smile. The scar on the monk’s left cheek, normally a long thin line that began at the lower jaw and stopped just beneath his eye, was squeezed by his smile into something Akumu suddenly found unsightly. In its natural state, the scar gave his father an ethos of honor and pride. The smile, however, turned the scar into what it had been all along: the blemish and stain of mortality.
Akumu looked away, the familiar flush of shame coloring his cheeks. In a move meant to mitigate his disappointment in himself, Akumu reached for the tray with the tea and empty bowls, intending to clear the table, but his father’s hand stopped him.
“Let me see your palm,” the monk said.
Akumu relaxed his hand and his father took it in both his own. The voice of his father took on the dulcet quality of one directing a meditation circle.
“Close your eyes as I trace the lines of your palms with my thumbs and tell you about your star hawk destiny.”
Akumu complied, feeling a tingling sensation vibrate up and down the back of his neck. He heard the deep inhale of his father, then the slow exhale.
“Before we surrendered our sovereignty to the Chermak and their king whose name I will never say aloud in this home, the star hawks could be found over every parcel of land in Deg-Hyn. They protected our livestock from the blight of the mijats and we, in turn, gave offerings and prayers to the hawks, who, it was told by legend, came from another world in answer to an ancient prayer our ancestors had sent up centuries before.
“The star hawks came during a time of great imbalance and soon their presence, or so it is told, brought the restoration of balance. A new order was established and each kingdom took its turn at the helm, in line with the rulership of the four moons.
“When the Tarach moon reigned for a hundred years, so too did the Deg-Hyn. With the Saethos moon, so ruled the Sev. The Myrinae moon, the Karmir. Then, finally, we had the Drohksmere moon.”
“The Chermak,” Akumu interrupted.
He felt his father pause ever so briefly in his massage of Akumu’s hand then continued both touch and words.
“Yes, the Chermak. But when the Tarach moon phased into position twenty-five years ago, the Chermak king refused to step aside. Instead, he made war. One by one the kingdoms fell or surrendered their sovereignty.
“The Chermak king came to Deg-Hyn personally to negotiate the peace. On his way, he spotted a beautiful male star hawk perched on the gloved hand of a young White Lotus monk. He stopped the procession and demanded the hawk be brought to him for appraisal.
“The monk hesitated but did as he was told. He brought the star hawk, whose name you would recognize, by the way, to the Chermak King who, it was said, had a foul, jagged-toothed grimace upon his bloated face.”
Akumu shivered at the description of the Chermak king. Even though he had been told many times of the Chermak invasion and occupation, a subtle sensation of dread seemed to accompany any mention of the king himself. But it wasn’t dread alone that simmered inside Akumu.
If he were completely honest with himself, the primary motivating force behind all of his negative feelings about the Cherak king was the desire for vengeance. And of all the negative emotions a White Lotus monk lives to conquer, desire for vengeance is the most dangerous and so Akumu had told no one, not even his father. He wasn’t prepared to conquer an emotion he intuitively believed might come in useful someday.
Akumu’s father must have sensed his son’s conflicting feelings for he changed his method of massage, concentrating pressure momentarily on the center of Akumu’s hand.
“The star hawk is an intelligent bird but, even so, it doesn’t take much intelligence to tell the sort of monster that sat before it in the chariot throne. He could tell a mijat when he saw one.
“As soon as the king reached out his fat hand to touch him, the star hawk struck with his sharp beak, severing the king’s index finger and swallowing it whole. The king screamed and the hawk flew away, taking the king’s finger with him.”
“Wow,” was all Akumu could think to say. He almost added I like this hawk, but he feared it would be inappropriate given what he guessed was likely the tragic consequence of the star hawk’s action.
“Yes. Wow, indeed. Imagine how the hawk’s gloved companion must have responded. Or the king.”
Akumu became immediately saddened. “He killed all of the star hawks?”
“Most of them. He ordered his men to find the star hawk that took his finger. Until they found that one hawk, they were ordered to hunt down all of them. And while they were unsuccessful at finding the culprit, or the finger, they were quite adept at annihilating the overall population. With the death of their primary predator, the mijats increased in number and the people suffered. That is why every evening I do my part with my bow and arrows. Just like all the people of our land.”
Akumu wondered why he had never been told this story before and why he was being told of it now, on this particular evening. As his father had conveyed to his students, every story is a teaching. What was Akumu expected to learn from this one?
He asked, “What happened to the monk with the gloved hand?”
“He was allowed to live,” his father replied, releasing Akumu’s hand. Akumu opened his eyes, suddenly aware that he had been keeping them closed this entire time.
“But not without consequence.”
Akumu watched as his father traced his finger down the length of his scar.
“I knew it was you,” Akumu exclaimed with pride. Pride in his father and in himself for paying such close attention to the story that he had uncovered the teaching within.
“Yes you did,” his father said. “Can you guess the name I had given the star hawk?”
“Oh,” Akumu said, deflated. He must have missed that part because he didn’t remember his father saying anything that would lead him to guess the name of the hawk.
“That’s all right,” his father said with a sigh. He stood up, turned, and walked from the room. Akumu sat still, going over the story in his mind and blushing at the part that had triggered his thoughts of vengeance.
Emotions keep us from seeing what is right in front of us his father had taught.
Before Akumu could think any further on it, his father reemerged holding an ornate bamboo box. He walked to the tea table and placed the box in front of his son.
“One day soon it will come to you, the way shooting the lantern came to you, from the depths of no-mind,” he said, nodding in reply to Akumu’s questioning gaze.
Akumu lifted the brass latch from the lid. He opened the box and gasped at what he saw resting on a blanket of feathers that Akumu guessed must have belonged to a star hawk, possibly even the star hawk. Inside a glass cylinder filled with what could only be a liquid preservative, resided a long, ashen gray finger neatly severed just above the base knuckle. The pale fingernail curved like a talon.
“The king’s finger,” Akumu whispered in awe.
In a flash of awareness as bright as the full Tarach moon on a cloudless night, Akumu saw his destiny.