By Jonathon Sullivan
Yang-Jin, Abbot of the O-Yama temple, was sitting on a tatami mat with his abacus and his brush, balancing the karma of a thousand worlds against a thousand others, when the sky split wide with thunder to reveal the fearsome countenance of Doki-no-Butsu, the Angriest Buddha, slayer of demons.
Yang-Jin's brush faltered, smearing from one column to the next on the ledger before him. A rogue comet inexplicably twisted in its courses to eradicate the biosphere of a promising young world in an elliptical galaxy in Sagittarius.
Doki-no-Butsu descended from the heavens, swathed in fire and lightning, three faces like a trio of purple thunderheads, and Yang-Jin didn't know what was more upsetting---the appearance of the Ultimate's angriest avatar, or the error in his ledger.
As was his practice, Yang-Jin had been working with the shoji open so that he could look out over the temple's gardens, watching with envy as his sister Onna-Yin pruned the trees and raked the fine white sand. Today, two of the Boddhisattvas worked under Onna-Yin's supervision, moving massive stones to the reflecting pool. As Doki crashed into the temple courtyard like a cyclone, the Bodhisattvas set down their burdens and prostrated themselves, their limbs of bluing copper splayed over the ground, their faces buried in the dirt.
Doki's bare feet set down in the courtyard like steaming meteorites. Time-gravity waves spread out from each mighty footstep, compressing nebulae, altering the destiny of entire galaxies. Yang-Jin averted his eyes, watching his ledger become an irretrievable mess. It would take eons to pay for Doki's visit. And he'd have to transfer funds from the temple's public relations account to the operating budget...
Doki-no-Butsu, as befitting his office, wore a monk's robe over half-armour, and a kabuto helmet of wrought plutonium decorated with the poison-tipped horns of a Yaksha demon. He carried a long, razor-sharp katana in one of his many right hands, the steel pulsing with blue flame. An immortal lotus blossomed in one of his left palms. Beneath the brim of the helmet, his six eyes glowered, bloodshot and eternally angry.
He turned that monstrous gaze on Yang-Jin's sister. Onna-Yin bowed briefly at the arrival of the Wrathful Budhha, and then she returned to the task at hand: trimming the roots of an ancient bonsai.
Yang-Jin gestured wildly, trying to get his sister's attention, but Onna-Yin, as always, was absorbed in her work, sizing the rootball to the pot.
"ONNA-YIN!" Doki's voice triggered the ignition of protostars and the coalescence of supermassive black holes. The flaming sword rose over Doki's head, and Yang-Jin shuddered with horror.
Onna-Yin didn't look up. "Just one moment, Wrathful Lord," she said, bowing her head slightly as she kept working. "Once the tree is unpotted, the work must be finished quickly, or the roots will be damaged and the tree will die." Deftly, she trimmed the last of the rootlets and set the bonsai back in its pot.
Yang-Jin stared. Doki froze, flaming sword held high. Lightning cracked around him, like a swarm of crazed fireflies.
Onna-Yin set the tree, filled the pot with sphagnum and sand, applied a little water from her can, and placed her work in a new spot, beside the reflecting pool, between a standing stone and a moss-covered lantern.
Yang-Jin's heart fluttered.
Onna-Yin's placement was perfect.
A sentient crystal living on small planet in the
Andromeda cluster formulated a Grand Unified Field theory, and three
intergalactic civilizations attained
Onna-Yin turned from her setting, faced Doki, smoothed her robe of indigo blue, and prostrated herself beside the two Bodhisattvas.
Doki stood frozen. His burning sword still hovered, but his countenance had softened with wonder, transfixed by Onna-Yin's setting. Slowly, the sword came down, then slid into a scabbard of leather and gold at his hip. A smile broke over Doki's face, an expression that would have reduced any temporal being to a mist of elementary particles.
"It has been too long since I visited your gardens, Onna-Yin." Doki's voice resonated in harmonics that extended from the microwave to the hard gamma. He sat on the ground, crossing his massive legs. He let go of the lotus in his left hand, and it hovered in midair, opening and closing, opening and closing. He took off his helmet of plutonium and toxic keratin and set it beside him. Doki's hair was an unruly mass of hissing snakes, wrapped about the thighbone of Siddhartha to form a squirming topnot. Doki-no-Butsu cast his sixfold gaze about the gardens of O-Yama, nodding with approval at the sublime asymmetries, the profoundly humble plantings, the perfect imperfections.
"Too long indeed," he said.
Yang-Jin simmered with fresh jealousy. It wasn't
fair. His ledgers were accurate and complete, down to the last quantum
fluctuation. But moss-covered stones, rich biospheres and artfully twisted
trees would always draw more praise and admiration than Yang-Jin's perfectly
balanced columns of numbers. The pilgrims who survived their ascent of the
Nobody ever asked to see Yang-Jin's ledgers. Except for the geeks.
"You are too gracious, Lord," Onna-Yin said.
"Isn't it the truth." Doki scratched his feet. "Yang-Jin! Get out here!"
Yang-Jin's heart skipped and his scrotum retracted, but he hiked up the hem of his saffron-yellow robe and scampered out into the garden, to prostrate himself before fearsome Doki.
"My Lord, this is truly a pleasant surprise, and a great--"
"You're such a suck-up, Yang-Jin. Be quiet, please."
"My Lord." Yang-Jin gritted his teeth, his face in the dirt.
Doki reached beneath the armored plates of his do and produced a scroll wrapped with a silk cord, bearing the Seal of the Ultimate.
"Change in personnel," he said. "Yang-Jin, you're fired."
Yang-Jin's heart went into asystole for 6.7 seconds, and he was far from relieved when it started again.
"You too, Onna-Yin. You've been relieved of your duties."
Onna-Yin said nothing. Lying beside the two prone Bodhisattvas, she might have been asleep.
Doki flopped the scroll into the dirt. "From now on, Onna-Yin, you are the abbot. You'll be responsible for accounts, operations, repairs, prayer arbitration---all the stuff your brother used to do. Yang-Jin, you will take over the gardens."
Yang-Jin dared to lift his face out of the dirt. Terror and exhiliration swirled within him. Was it a dream? A wonderful, terrible dream?
Onna-Yin, too, had come up to her knees. "Mighty Doki," she said. "This is not wise."
One of Doki's massive right hands went to the katana at his hip. "I beg your pardon?"
"I am not qualified to administer the
Yang-Jin snorted. "I agree with the first judgement," he said. "But you can add, can't you? You'll get the hang of it, in a century or two, and I'll be there to keep you out of trouble. And unlike you, I've been observing all these eons. I can handle the garden. It'll be a nice change of pace."
"This is not wise," Onna-Yin said again, bowing her head to Doki.
Yang-Jin felt his face redden. "You insipid little twit! You just don't want the headaches! It's not only wise, it's fair, and long overdue. It's high time you had to pull your weight around here, dear sister. I can finally relax and putz around the garden, soak up a little sun and fresh air. You can worry about keeping things working smoothly for a change."
"You don't know what you're talking about," Onna-yin said.
"I'm about a picosecond away from obliterating both of you." Doki's katana was half out of its scabbard.
Brother and sister buried their faces in the dirt.
"It's done," Doki said, taking up his helmet and rising to his feet. "One more thing: there'll be no kibitzing. You're not to ‘help' or interfere with one another. Onna-Yin is the abbot. Yang-Jin is the gardener. Any cheating, and I will become very angry."
He put on his helmet and paused. "As if that would be anything new!"
Doki-no-Butsu burst into laughter, causing a dangerous spike in the local radiation denstity. Then he ascended to Heaven, lotus, sword and all.
# # #
Yang-Jin stared at the branch for a long time, shears held tightly in one trembling hand.
To cut or not to cut...
He tried to picture the stunted black pine without the branch. It wasn't at all like balancing a ledger or repairing a screen. He frowned. This was a different sort of calculation. But in his mind's eye, he was certain the image carried a sweet balance. Two branches up there, two branches down here. It just made sense. And wasn't this the time of year when Onna-Yin trimmed the evergreens?
...that is the question.
He scratched at his belly through the thick yellow fabric of his work-robe, looking in the direction of the office. Onna-Yin sat on the tatami with the shoji open, at the low pine table that had once been his, dressed in a dark blue kimono, painstakingly brushing numbers into a ledger. She wasn't watching Yang-Jin, and even if she were she wouldn't be any help. Doki's commands had left little room for creative interpretation.
Yang-Jin looked over at the Bodhisattvas, a dozen of the Buddha's spiritual warriors arrayed in a neat row, sitting in lotus at the eastern gate, looking out on the garden with beatific expressions that never changed. No help there.
Yang-Jin took a deep breath. Timidity won't get you anywhere.
He reached up with the shears, and cut the branch away.
His stomach churned with a vague nausea. A shadow fell across the world, as if a dragon had swallowed the sun. On a nearby gas giant, a promising new species of intelligent methane eaters succumbed to a virulent and inexplicable plague.
Yang-Jin stared at his handiwork with horror. He looked over at the Bodhisattvas, who still sat with their ancient limbs of wrought copper folded in tireless repose.
But now they were frowning.
His first day in the garden was, so far, a bust. After his morning meditation, he'd taken his breakfast and some tea with Onna-Yin, the silence between them even more sullen than usual. Then he'd come out to the garden to look around. He'd leaned against one of the massive standing stones that the boddhisatvas had moved yesterday, not yet set and buried, and it had toppled into the reflecting pool, raining killer asteroids on several promising civilizations.
He'd decided to start small, with the sand garden, but he couldn't get the nice smooth lines that suggested water. By the time he was done it had looked like...raked sand.
Yang-Jin turned away from the mutilated pine to watch his sister tear a page from the ledger and crumple it up.
The universal constant of gravitation fluctuated by 3 parts per trillion, and a tiny but very real change took place deep within the transcendental value of pi.
"Hey!" Yang-Jin cried. "Stop!"
Onna-Yin looked up, squinted at Yang-Jin and his mutilated black pine, and blanched.
"Those ledger pages are numbered and cross-indexed, you idiot!" Yang-Jin hollered. "Do you know what you just did?"
Onna-Yin looked down at the ledger, then back at Yang-Jin.
"It sounds like I just committed the bookkeeping equivalent of disfiguring a perfectly good tree," she said.
"You have to replace that page! Cut a sheet to size and sew it into the binding. That ledger has to be reconciled with the prayer scrolls!"
Onna-Yin nodded, frowning. "Ah."
The sky began to darken.
Yang-Jin held up the branch in his hand. "What do I do about this?"
Onna-Yin shook her head. "Weep."
Yang-Jin sputtered. "Hey! I helped you!"
Onna-Yin nodded and pointed at the sky. "Yes, and I think you'd better stop. Doki is waking up."
Yang-Jin looked up at the gathering thundercloud, dark and ominous, with a curious resemblence to three conjoined heads. He threw the branch away with disgust, and set about finding something else to do.
Fertilizer. That was it. He'd put down some fertilizer. Hard to screw that up.
# # #
By late autumn, he could tell the temple accounts were in a shambles. One week they would be out of rice, and the week after there would be a year's worth, with no room in the pantry. The temple roof needed new tiles, but Onna-Yin didn't know how to put through a purchase order. And Yang-Jin had noted at least six supernovae in the local group since August, leading him to suspect that his sister had transposed a digit somewhere in the strong force.
But Yang-Jin had to admit the garden was no better. His enthusiastic fertilization regimen had so far killed two fine old maples and a yew. And the runoff had caused algae overgrowth in the pool, resulting in a slimy green film that choked the koi. A star cluster in Scorpius had been completely overrun by a renegade industrial nanospore, a lifeless monoculture until the end of time.
Winter was a disaster. Onna-Yin didn't order heating oil on time, and two pilgrims froze to death before she finally got the furnace going. The incident got Yang-Jin thinking about the little bonsai, sitting out in the snow. With their clipped roots in their tiny pots, they too would freeze to death. So he put them in a warm alcove behind the great hall, where Onna-Yin found them a week later, wilted and dying.
The number of pilgrims trekking up the
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