The Banyan Tree And The Bathers

by R. Nemo Hill


This afternoon while driving here I spied on the horizon
a green enormous dome that rested calmly in the distance.
It crested over the landscape, like a silent fountain rising.
Serenely dominant mirage—it met with no resistance.
The afternoon was hot and still, yet by the speed of travel
a breeze was manufactured which blew through the open window
distracting hair and sleeves—it stirred all things, all things unraveled,
all things except that green mirage, so far away no wind could blow,
no breeze disturb, its ghostly calm, its constancy beyond all flow.

The driver of the car, his eyes on my eyes, spoke at last.
He told me “It’s a banyan tree”. I nodded. And he smiled.
In perfect understanding, several silent minutes passed—
our shared gaze by this solitary crown of green beguiled.
And then my eyes returned from heights to depths, from sky to earth;
and as a counterweight to what’s remote, what looms and spreads,
I saw, condensed and closer by, small figures bodied forth—
on either side of that small dusty winding road down which we sped
small naked and half-naked bathers filled the gutters at road’s edge.

They hugged the ground, they splashed about in murky muddied waters
and, as we passed, crouched modestly, concealing loins and breasts:
the whole nude family of man, poor parents, sons, and daughters—
exposed, yet sheltered still within the safety of their nest.
Averted faces, glistening limbs, all blurred as we sped past.
The trunks of roadside palms would hide them momentarily.
The youngest stood and stared, while others turned, their eyes downcast.
But all were busy blossoming within the realm that lay beneath
the canopy—the mighty and yet not Almighty banyan tree.

The bathers, they were miles away—yet that tree’s spreading branches
seemed somehow to contain them, to conjoin them each to each
as well as to itself. It put a limit to expanses
of sky too vast to comprehend, too far beyond to reach.
And rather than soar off in spirit’s burning blue and gold
and bodiless rise up beyond earth’s dust and mud and clay,
the anchored banyan rose but to the top of the bound soul—.
And to that sheltered soul, to its abysmal depths, it seemed to say:
Rest here a while, beneath my branches, rest here in my shade, and bathe—.

Thus to that bound soul banyan lent of what was infinite a single touch
and gave to what is not enough a yearning fragment of what’s far too much.


The restaurant was open to the street—its walls of thatch
and shutters of bamboo removed each morn, each night replaced.
It was, at eight a.m., the perfect place to sit and catch
that pulse of street-life windows tend to muffle or erase.
Ruled by a casual chaos almost musical in form,
a cadence crude yet intricate—controlled, and yet insane—
mechanical, yet human in the eye of its own storm,
the street here blooms and bustles with a force that cannot be contained,
a traffic of percussion, sudden harmony, and brief refrain.

Exhausted, I confess, by constant business down below,
between hot sips of coffee my eyes wandered up the sky.
They followed the slim path of one long slender bamboo pole—
possessed by the desire to ascend, to simplify.
The pole rose—graceful, quiet. My gaze lifted—freed, set loose.
When suddenly, though weightless still, my eyes began to sink—
for from the tip of that long pole, as from a hangman’s noose,
was dangling over rooftops, all alone, suspended on the brink
of emptiness, of endless space—a tiny birdcage painted pink!

A screech of brakes drew my attention back down to the street,
where, from a rusty pick-up truck I saw jump to the curb
two men, a woman, and a girl. They landed on their feet
and set to work at once, efficiently, without a word.
Huge handfuls of bright gray and purple prawns, fresh from the sea,
were scooped up by the men into a shallow dented pan.
The woman raised the pan, and bending slightly at the knees
she hoisted it up on her head—and straightening her spine, she then
reached out like one half-blind and grabbed a hold of her young daughter’s hand.

They stood there and they waited, cautiously, to cross the street,
both staring at the steady stream of traffic rushing by.
And as I sat and watched them, at the same time I could see
suspended high above them that pink birdcage in the sky.
I was too far away to hear if that caged bird was singing.
The mother and her daughter were too occupied to care—.
And yet it seemed this task, this earth, to which they both were clinging
was sheltered somehow by this silent sense of song that filled the air
with a benign indifference almost too powerful to bear.

Then all the noise and movement of the street before me seemed a sort of dance,
this melody inaudible maintaining order in this realm of chance.


These strange sensations of a shelter offered from a distance—
these strange embraces haunt me and possess me, standing guard
like solemn sentries at the very borders of existence—
set over me like midnight’s calm configured crown of stars.
Are they then only shadows, these conjunctions? Harmonies
the soul must conjure daily from dust’s decomposed detail?
Or are they patterns, simple structures, true geometries,
organic laws of balance, sentient scriptures that shall never fail
to soothe the troubled heart of any creature chasing its own tail.

A vibrant trill of birdsong? An experience of god?
This morning, just past dawn, as I flung open my porch doors,
instinctively I raised my eyes to heaven’s bright facade
to trace that song through sky and treetops to its hidden source.
I found the tiny boisterous bird, perched on a neighbor’s roof,
perched at the peak, upon a broken terra-cotta crown.
Upon this weathered ornament—it sat and sang, aloof.
And yet its song would not have haunted so, had not another sound
arisen like the steam of dew evaporating from the ground:

a gentle yet abrasive scrape on an uneven surface,
it spread in all directions far below that bird enthroned;
a song less idle, more mundane, wed firmly to its purpose—
the gardener’s broom upon the garden’s paths of smooth swept stone.
I locked my door and went, in search of breakfast, down the street.
In front of every shop and home were men and women sweeping.
All eyes were on the ground. My own were focused on my feet.
Why do men bow their heads? To count their heavy steps? To hide their weeping?
Or is it the result of some celestial secret that they’re keeping?

That secret grew material moments later when I sensed
upon the back of my bowed head a soft persistent touch—
a branch of heavy blossoms overgrowing its stone fence
dipped down as I passed by. My skin was oh so slightly brushed.
Ten minutes later, in a cool cafe, still staring down,
I stir my hot espresso—drop the spoon—and almost swoon—!
Above my head a ceiling fan whirls round without a sound
and, as the surface of the sea on calm nights will reflect the moon,
that fan’s reflected in the handle of that tiny silver spoon.

And just this touch of vertigo is thus enough to make me understand
the marriage of all heaven to all earth is no more and no less than man.

(Bali, Indonesia—1994)


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