Thursday, December 02, 2004

The Allegrezza Ficcione, Part 26

A few hours later Ibrohim lead them into a small arroyo over which the trees grew, hiding it from above. A kilometre further on the dry stream bed ended under a large overhang of rock. At the back of it, invisible until one was almost upon it, was a cave mouth.

They dismounted. One of the riflemen got grass out of a saddle bag to feed the horses with, the other poured water into a depression for them to drink from. The horses seemed disinclined to wander.

Ibrohim took a haversack out of his saddlebag, slung it over his shoulder. He waited for Tamur – slow because of age - & Umberto – slow because of saddlesoreness – to dismount, & then the three of them set off into the cave, Ibrohim turning on a large flashlight as they entered.

The cave sloped downwards through the sandstone. They walked for perhaps five hundred metres & then the cave branched off in two right angles. Ibrohim shone the flashlight down one. It ended in an open area the size of a small room. There were faded murals on the walls. The other way seemed exactly the same, without the murals, but that was the way they went. When the reached the open area Ibrohim turned hard left & Allegrezza discovered that there was an opening in the wall.

"I do not know how the cave was made" said Tamur from behind him. "Part of it seems natural, part carved out of the stone. Possibly at some point there might have been an entrance through which rainwater ran & gradually eroded a channel away. Perhaps earthquakes. This area is known for them. Or it may have been this way ever since it was thrust up from the sea. & there are rivers that run far below."

The cave was wide enough for them all to walk side by side, though they walked in single file, & high enough for them to have no need of bending. It was long. Allegrezza held his watch in the flashlight beam & saw that almost three hours had passed since they entered it.

Then the slight slope stopped & the cave flattened out. There were a lot of small rooms, cells, off both sides, & Ibrohim paused to light them up. Small Buddhas sat in alcoves surrounded by decorative panels as colourful as carpets. Some were carved out of the wall, some carved from pieces of stone. "This was a place of pilgrimage, of hermitage" said Ibrohim. "It still is a place of spirituality, of great beauty. Buddhism is not the path I follow, but I try & come here at least once a year, to spend some days by myself, to look inside myself. I do not regard these as idols, not matter what the Koran says. They are not things of worship but articles of a faith I respect."

"You asked, Umberto, why I kept things hidden" said Tamur. "If this place was known about then within a few years there would be nothing left. The Buddhas would be taken away, the murals chipped off the walls. It's a market I know about, Umberto. A shark market. Perhaps I am like them, keeping things hidden away where only I & a select few can appreciate them, but I preserve these things in the hope that some day someone may come along who doesn't covet them." He looked around him. "I do not come here often enough."

They continued on. There were two large halls on their left – "A dining room I think" said Ibrohim as they passed the first, "& this, because of the large Buddha in the corner, was probably a meditation hall." - & then the walls of the cave ended.

Ibrohim turned off his flashlight. "Wait here a moment." He turned on a smaller torch. Allegrezza could see a number of wooden barrels in its limited light but beyond that was darkness. He watched as Ibrohim reached down & picked up a bound bundle of sticks from the floor in front of the barrels, lifted the lid of one of the barrels & dipped the bundle in. Then he took a cigarette lighter from his pocket & lit the sticks. Oily smoke came off.

The small torch was turned off. Ibrohim walked some distance away from the barrels & then bent down & placed the burning bundle into a hole in the ground. "Behold" he said.

Moments later a flame appeared about five metres off to Ibrohim's right & a bit lower down & began running across the wall opposite where they stood in the beginnings of a downwards & continuous spiral. Allegrezza watched its progress, a ziggurat of flame. He could make out the silhouette of a railing against it & walked over to it.

The area was like a large well, two hundred metres across. As the flame moved steadily downwards, passing at first ten metres beneath him & then ten metres below that a few seconds later, the well began to be illuminated. Allegrezza peered over the side. There seemed to be a massive shape in the centre. The flame reached lower. Forty metres, sixty metres.

Slowly the giant head of a sleeping Buddha could be made out, then the body, then the feet. If the well was two hundred metres wide, then the figure was nearly one hundred & fifty metres long. The flames went lower, reached a point close to the head, then stopped. The head, resting on a stone pillow, was twenty metres high, the toes ten.

"The reclining Buddha of Bamiyan" said Tamur. "It exists, not as long as described by Hiuen-Tsiang, nor in the place he said it was, but it truly exists.

"What was written in that first introduction to The Journey To The West is basically correct. There was a man, called Qashqari, though whether that was his real name or whether he was called that because he came from the Qashqar province is unknown, who did journey to India to bring the sutras back to China. He obtained copies of the texts, but on his return journey he was injured in a rock slide here, so badly his legs were crushed & he could go no further, so he stayed here & taught. The two standing Buddhas were built to honour Buddha & to bring pilgrims, but the secret of this place was known to some, the rock that rose from the centre of it, so they carved this statue in honour of their own special teacher. He died before they finished it, & is entombed here, in that niche just to the right of the statue's head. If you allow for his mummified state & the smoke stains, it is true there is some resemblance between his features & the face of the statue."

"How do you know so much about him, about this place, when the rest of the world knows only rumours?" asked Allegrezza.

"All things, all people, eventually came to Hassan-i-Sabah. He had a follower whose family came from this place & who knew the secret of it. Hassan sent some of his men out to find it, which they did, but the people who had originally lived around the feet of the standing Buddhas had disappeared, wiped out by pestilence & invaders, & none of the current inhabitants knew what lay inside the cliffs. Hassan ordered that it remain secret but that the knowledge be passed down through the custodians of the Library. Most of us have visited here. I believe that there are still some others who know of this place. Ibrohim & I have both seen traces of visitors, visible only to one who knows the place well, but our paths have never crossed, & they appear to guard its secret as jealously as we do. Nothing has been taken from it. You will be the fourth person we have brought to share its glory. Giovanni was the first. That is his skeleton down there, just beneath where the flame ends. There is a leather-bound journal beside him, kept shut so the ink will not fade, that I am sure will be of intense interest to you."

Ibrohim, meanwhile, had been busying himself pulling a large bundle out from behind the barrels. It was a rope ladder, with metal loops at the top which he fixed onto two small metal bars that had been set a metre back from the well's edge. He then pushed the ladder out & over the edge. The wooden rungs of the ladder could be heard bumping against the wall as it unrolled.

When the silence came back again Ibrohim turned to Allegrezza & gave him the haversack he had taken from the saddlebag. "There is food & water in here for ten days. There is a battery-operated lamp that should also last that length of time if you do not use it constantly. The oil will burn for about seven days. There are small ventilation shafts that draw the smoke down into a river cavern far below so you will not suffocate. There is a hole to use as a latrine that discharges to the same place so you will not need to live amongst your waste. No-one will disturb you." He embraced Allegrezza then turned away.

Tamur took a small bottle from out of his pocket & handed it to Allegrezza. "There are pills inside. Opium, refined, pure & very strong. One will make you dream, ten will kill you. Use them wisely." He put his arms around Allegrezza & then kissed him on both cheeks. "I will never forget our time together." Then he, too, turned away.

Allegrezza started climbing down the ladder. It was quite steady considering its construction & length. As he descended he noticed that it had been built so that those portions that came close to the fire channel were reinforced in some way & though warm did not smoulder.

He looked up & could see the faces of the two men peering over the railing. When next he looked they were only blurs. He reached the bottom & stepped out onto the floor of the well. The ladder was pulled back up. He heard Tamur call out. "Go with joy, Umberto."

He walked across to the skeleton he had been told was his ancestor. The clothing had decayed & there were only remnants of leathery flesh on the bones. But around the waist was a belt, now greatly over-sized, & it had as a buckle a metal letter A, lengthwise in an oblong border. Involuntarily he made the sign of the cross over the remains, something he had not done since his early childhood. "Continue to rest in peace, Giovanni. I will be joining you soon."

Then he set out to explore the area. There were four mummies in alcoves, that of Qashqari obvious from the shattered leg bones. The walls were plain, perhaps pink, though that may have been the reflection of the flames. There were three skeletons on the floor, the other two on each side of the sleeping Buddha. It was impossible to tell who they had been. Both had obviously been here for a long time, but apart from the bones & the scraps of flesh that clung to them the only item still remaining was a curved dagger in a sheath that had fallen through the rib cage of one of them. He decided that he would take up a position at the Buddha's feet when he felt his time had come.

He tried to climb up onto the Buddha, but found it difficult. Eventually he managed to get up at the ankles. He took his shoes off to make purchase easier & carefully worked his way up towards the face. There was a definite smile of enlightenment. He hoped that he would appear the same to any later visitor.

He thought about sliding down to the ground from where he was, but decided it was risky & that he had no wish to spend his last few days suffering the pain of a broken leg. He turned around & made his way back to the ankles & climbed down from there. Then he walked once more to where his ancestor lay.

There was an ink bottle with its contents dried & turned to dust. A stopper & a quill pen lay on the gound beside it. Between the bones & the statue was a large leather book, closed with a clasp. He opened it up & began to read the journal of Giovanni Allegrezza, faded, but still legible.
"That there be someone who, at a later date, will read this journal I have no doubt. & let me say to them that what I am about to set down, no matter what they may think, is, although fantastical, a veracious account of my travellings. This is not a ficcione."
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