Song of Shambhala: Chapter Five

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Art by Jiashu Xu 
Art by Jiashu Xu 

That night he climbed the rickety stairs leading to the one-room apartment above the store. His feet fell heavy on each step. Dark circles framed stormy eyes.

He entered a dim apartment that had never felt like home. The temporary roost, once intended as a stopover on the way back to his old life, had become a dusty coop even his winged fantasies could not escape.

He switched on a lamp. The light from its crooked shade ignited the golden amber of tattered wallpaper steeped in time. In an absent-minded haze he tossed his jacket onto a coat hook that hung just below a large mirror. The thick layer of dust and tarnish couldn’t hide the rage that Sheridan had visited on the mirror’s shattered surface during one of his unhinged episodes. Wiping out a coffee cup with a used paper towel, he reached for a bottle of cheap whiskey and began to pour. Tipping back the cup, he took a long slug. He could feel his breathing ease as the healing tonic took effect.

He traced the airline ticket where it read “Destination:Beijing, China” wondering: How could a place like Shambhala exist in this godforsaken world?

Beginning his preparations, he reached into the deepest recesses of his closet where his hands made contact with the familiar feel of worn leather. He grabbed hold of what he thought was the trusted satchel that had accompanied him ever since his first treasure hunt. Giving it a good tug, he yanked it loose from its mooring. Suddenly a baseball tumbled to the floor with a crack and rolled across the aged wood. Glancing at the bundle of leather in his hand, Sheridan’s face went flush when he realized he was holding a child’s baseball mitt.

He fell back against the wall. Slowly, Sheridan slid to the floor, his eyes locked on the mitt as if it were an unwelcome apparition. Fighting to hold his emotions at bay, he reached for the baseball and pressed it into the pocket of the glove. He clenched his eyes to erase the image from his mind. Then, with a reverence usually reserved for the sacred rites, he started to set them aside, when something else caught his eye.

Looking into the closet’s murky shadows, two white letters called to him like a neon sign. He leaned forward, extending his hand toward the familiar New York Yankees insignia. Then easing back against the wall, he brought the Little League baseball cap to his eyes. Swatting at his tears, he leaned back his head and surrendered to the siege of bittersweet memories.

He didn’t know how long he sat there—could have been a moment or an hour—long enough to remember the happiest and most devastating days of his life and the love that brought him both.

The ticking of the Kit-Cat Clock’s swinging tail brought him back. He was drained, too tired to cry anymore. He gathered the baseball, cap, and glove and tucked them back into the closet. Then, blindly feeling his way through the heap of discarded memories, his hand set on the leather satchel.

Retrieving it from the makeshift catacomb, relic memories of a former life were awakened as the aroma of a thousand adventures struck his nostrils. He breathed it in, hugging the satchel that had served as his traveling companion in the tomb- raiding years of his former life.

Holding it tightly in his arms, he leaned forward, burying his head in its soft folds. With sober detachment he closed his eyes and began to tick through the possible outcomes: Imprisonment in a Chinese jail; death in the bowels of Mount Kailash; public humiliation.

His eyelids swept open, the light of the lamp flickering in his eyes.

What if the baton does exist?

He shook the thought out of his head and set himself to the task at hand. Packing a few things in his satchel, his hands moved on autopilot as his mind sorted through the events of the day.

Retiring to a quilt-covered couch, he propped his feet on a steamer trunk that served as his only table. He poured another glass studying the familiar deep caramel of distilled courage. Then, bracing himself with a long drink, he leaned back into the folds of soiled fabric and worn seat cushions. With his head kicked back, his eyes traced the shapes of water stain marks on the ceiling. The figures became hazy, coming to life with images of a dying world and an unimaginable city that swirled round and round in his head until, like the pendulum in a magician’s hand, his eyes grew heavy and he rode the tempest to the ungovernable realm of a deep sleep. A loathsome dread pressed in on Sheridan as he found himself transported to the scene of a familiar dream:

In the background is spread an industrial scene in shades of gray with monolithic skyscrapers and the smoke of towering smokestacks blocking out the daylight sun. In the foreground stands a hooded figure looking out over a mindless, colorless throng. The mass of humanity walks in lockstep to the unchanging rhythm of tribal drums and the grinding crunch of a million machines. Then an ominous melody drifts in on the cloak of a dense fog as a plaintive cry is heard:

Tears of the Nations – Music Phillip White & Trammell Starks, Lyrics Phillip White

Our life with its illusion

Nothing’s as it seems

We look for satisfaction

In temporary things

A quest for that which pleases

Leads us to who knows where

We barely see each other

As into a box we stare

The dark figure turns, the solemn stare of almond-shaped eyes burn in the shadow of the hood. His words float on the mist:

The many that surround us

We don’t know their names

A stream of unknown faces

So close, so far away We do not have a country

We do not have a tribe

Just more huddled masses

Walking side by side

The specter moves closer, his face concealed in the darkness of the hood.

These are the tears of the nations

The common sorrow we share

The great regret of our progress

The blessed burden we bear

With the “” growing fainter, the dark images begin to melt away and the ageless sage steps toward Sheridan. He reaches for Sheridan’s face, urgently imploring him: “A sacred gift has been lost. You must find this gift and share it with the world.”

“What gift?” Sheridan asks, when like a blanket of cotton batting, the mist envelops the mystic and he is gone.

Sheridan awoke in a cold sweat, the melody of his dream still echoing in his mind. He tried to get his bearings, to separate dream from reality. But he felt himself unable to fully awaken—as if trapped between the two in a sort of netherworld that was neither here nor there. Seeing the cup on the old trunk, he reached for it and found it empty.

A sudden chill washed over him like waves crashing over the bow of a lone fishing boat on the cold expanse of the North Atlantic. He ran his hands through his hair, wondering if he had lost his grip or if his senses were betraying him.

He stood to his feet, his mind racing, his eyes desperately looking for an anchor of certainty. His gaze was drawn to where a streetlamp shone through the twisted blinds. The narrow beam fell across a photo of himself as a young boy. Quickly crossing the room, Sheridan picked up the photograph. There, set in a wooden frame of distressed black and gray, a cheerful moment from one childhood summer was captured in an image: with deep blue eyes and long curly hair, Sheridan stood with a dark- skinned Indian boy, their arms draped over each other’s shoulders. The playful grins on the boys’ sun-bathed faces bore witness to the innocence of their youth.

Art by Michael Vincent Manalo
Art by Michael Vincent Manalo

Revisiting the memories of their childhood friendship, Sheridan felt his racing mind relent. A hint of a smile crept into the corners of his eyes. He recalled the two posing as rock stars in a group they called “Standing 2gether,” named after their favorite song, “Stand by Me.” Sheridan was the lead singer and Lil’ John, naturally, was the drummer. They were normal twelve-year-old boys, more intrigued with the forbidden than the parent-approved, but one of their little adventures in particular came to mind that night.

It was summer vacation and Sheridan and his family were staying at the Clark family cabin nestled in the forest at the foot of . It hadn’t taken long before he had made fast friends with a local Indian boy named Lil’ John. The relationship made his mother uneasy. She felt a good Catholic boy like Sheridan should spend his summer days with other, more civilized, Catholic children. With a wink to Sheridan, his grandmother had intervened.

“Seems to me Sheridan is a missionary to the young native boy. It’s an simple act of Catholic charity.” she reasoned aloud, putting her daughter’s concerns to rest for the time being.

Sheridan and Lil’ John had told their parents they were staying at each others’ houses, one of those little white lies a child tells because they know their parents would never approve. It’s not like they were out smoking or drinking, they reasoned, not this time anyway. This time Lil’ John wanted to see the secret ceremony his tribe was holding that night deep in the forest. Sheridan, on the other hand, just liked the idea of sneaking through the woods to spy on Indians.

So at dusk they slipped away from their homes and trekked through the woods until they came upon a section of old-growth forest where the tall pines formed a massive canopy of green. Small animal skin tents and shade lodges made of brush and tree limbs were scattered around the perimeter of the outdoor sanctuary. In the middle of the sacred settlement sat a large lodge with smoke rising from its roof and flickers of firelight peeking through the cracks and crevices of its mud walls. The boys’ anticipation mounted when they heard the sound of old men chanting and the steady beat of the rasp and drum emanating from the Ute Indians’ old Sundance Lodge.

Stealing through the sacred settlement to an isolated corner of the lodge, the two young adventurers reveled in their own cunning display of prowess. There, where the mud mortar had given way to the steady assault of the elements, they found a gap in the wall. The two boys imagined the opening to be an ancient doorway revealing a secret ceremony that had endured for generations. Huddled together and pressing close to the ground, they gazed through the hole; their eyes wide open with curiosity.

A roaring fire lit the middle of the lodge. Around the fire young men abandoned themselves to the spirit of the dance while the elders, seated around the perimeter, shook their hands and bobbed their heads with the rhythm of the drums. Singers and drummers, positioned at each end of the lodge, seemed lost in a trance as they played the sacred music of the Ute Indian ritual.

Young Sheridan marveled in the moment. Many a night he had laid in his bed peering into a cloudless sky wondering: If God is bigger than the sky how could he hear my quiet prayer?

Yet that night, under the same fathomless sky, where the wind pulled at the branches of the mighty trees and the earth felt cool against his bare feet, Sheridan felt connected to it all. He could feel the breeze rising in his breath, the movement of the universe dancing in his mind and the pure water of the forest stream carrying life through his veins. He could hear nature and the sacred ceremony join together in single symphony: the screech of the owl and the chants of the elders in perfect counterpoint, the croaks of a hundred frogs playing percussion to the enduring pulse of tribal drums.

“What are they doing Lil’ John?” Sheridan asked in a hoarse whisper.  

“The Sundance.”

“Why?”

“It’s what we believe . . . every man has to go on a to find his medicine power.” Sheridan remembered immediately becoming intrigued. Looking back at that moment, he and wondered if it may might have become the seed of curiosity that grew into his vocation, driving him around the world in search of the lost sacred music of the ancients.

“Medicine power, is that like magic power?”

“Yeah, kinda.”

“Do you believe . . .?”

Suddenly a hand appeared out of nowhere, latching onto Sheridan’s shoulder, and lifting him into the air. Struggling against the invisible force, Sheridan found himself being pulled into the moonlight, where he discovered he was being held aloft by the strong arm of an angry Ute warrior.

They had been caught!

At that unsavory moment the exciting childhood adventure they had imagined took an unscripted plot twist. Amidst the indignant muttering of the Ute elders the young adventurers were whisked away from the sacred ceremony to face the harsh punishment of their angry parents.

“What were you thinking young man?” Mrs. Clark asked sternly, her boney fingers digging into his shoulders. Mr. Clark watched from the comfort of his chair, occasionally glancing over the edge of his newspaper to nod in agreement.

She waxed on about the dangers of savages and their misguided beliefs, the authority of the holy church and the perilous path to eternal life: “You could put your mortal soul in danger . . . lose the covering of the church . . . be eternally damned!”

Mrs. Clark shook him again. “Are you listening to me?”

Peeking over the newspaper to give a quick supportive nod, Mr. Clark became mesmerized to find the verbal onslaught had failed to incite Sheridan to tears. Craning his head to take a better look, he watched with disbelief as Sheridan stood calmly, his face bathed in blissful peace. The expression of serenity enraged his mother, provoking her to forbid Sheridan from any more exposure to Lil’ John’s corruptive influence for the rest of the summer.

He will remember.

In a rare moment of unchecked impulsiveness, Sheridan decided to call information to see if his childhood friend was listed.

How many John Eaglefeathers could there be?

Without hesitation, the operator responded with a phone number. Sheridan resolved to call him before he lost his nerve.

The phone had only rung a few times when a young voice answered. It sounded just like Lil’ John back when they were kids.

“Is this Lil’ John?”

“Yes, who is this?” answered the confident young voice.

“It’s Sheridan,” he answered, before remembering his childhood nickname. “I mean Danny, my name is Danny.”

“Danny?”

In the background, someone else was talking to the young man.

“Tell him I’m the lead singer of Standing 2gether.”

“He says he’s the lead singer of Standing Together.”

Sheridan heard the rustle of the phone changing hands. Suddenly a much older voice came on the phone.

“Danny?”

After all those years the voice was still familiar.

“Lil’ John?”

“My God, no one’s called me that for years.”

“Of course. Then that must have been . . .”

“My son, Lil’ John. He’s about the same age we were . . .”

“You remember?”

“Of course.”

“Do you remember what I asked you our last night together, just before we got caught?” “Yeah,”

The phone was silent for a moment.

“Actually I do remember. You asked me if I believed.”

“Do you?” Sheridan asked sheepishly. “What’s happened? We haven’t spoken since we were kids and now, all of a sudden . . .”

Sheridan paused for a moment, considering what he could say without sounding like a lunatic. But for some unexplainable reason, be it a resurgence of youthful innocence or the sound of Lil’ John’s voice, Sheridan’s insecurities seemed put at ease by the unspoken covenant of childhood friendship.

“There’s a dream I keep having . . .”                

Art by Jiashu Xu
Art by Jiashu Xu
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