Part One — Birth
:: 1 :: (Tusita Heaven)
The Bodhisatta Setaketu saw that the time had now come.
After a nearly uncountable span in the Tusita Heaven awaiting his destiny, awaiting his return to the little blue planet so far below, how could he know that now was the time?
Because, far below, man had begun once again to ask meaningful questions. Because nearly incessant war and slaughter had finally begun again to subside, and the northern part of the large Indian subcontinent now lay spent but peaceful after centuries of upheaval. For how long this peace would last he could not tell, but he did see that it would last long enough for his purpose.
The barbarism that had flourished for the last many centuries had finally run out of breath or passion or both, and in the settling down he now saw a small, still lake of opportunity in that far-below spiritual darkness. And so, seeing by the light that he was, he knew that the time had come to show and share this light once more.
Although he had made a point not to share his plans, word nonetheless spread throughout the Tusita realm that Setaketu was leaving for Earth, and as he prepared to descend many a well-wisher gathered to see him off, each proffering their advice as a parting gift—some sensible, most not. It is so very easy to be wise from such a safe distance.
Embracing his friends one by one, thanking each for his or her well-meant guidance, Setaketu finally stepped back, bowed in slow and graceful namaskar to honor them all, then turned and strode toward gates that now swung open to admit soon to be Siddhattha Gotama into the cold and starry beneath and beyond.
And that is how, with a final step, he left Tusita and with it the brilliant body he had worn so long. Then, as if falling through a long and dizzying shaft, he plummeted to Earth, through seas of lightless space, through the dust of a billion, billion stars, through harder and harder gravity, through miasmal planetary grasping, and finally into startled flesh that legend holds fell out of his mother’s side feet first to then take seven steps in each of the four directions: North, South, East, West.
:: 2 :: (Pasadena)
“We’ve already decided on a name,” said Melissa as she returned from the kitchen with a fresh pot of tea.
“What did you pick?” said Becky.
“Ruth,” she said while refilling her friend’s cup.
“Yes.” She straightened and rubbed the base of her now softly swelling belly in the way of mothers-soon-to-be, contented and proud. “She will be Ruth.”
“Ruth is a fine name,” said Becky, even though she didn’t much care for it—a grumpy aunt of hers was also named Ruth, and she could not stand the woman.
“We think so,” said Melissa.
“When is she due?” said Becky.
“Late January.” Melissa poured some more tea for herself as well, then eased herself back into her chair.
Melissa was twenty-six years old and this was her first child. She and Charles had been trying for a while—long enough, in fact, for Melissa to begin to worry, at times even wondering aloud to her husband if he thought there might be something wrong, since things were not “taking” as she put it—the word her obstetrician, Dr. Ross, favored in this situation and one day had explained to Melissa in some depth.
“It’ll happen,” Charles would say. “It happens when it happens. Don’t you worry.”
“I’m not really worried,” she’d say. “Just wondering.”
“Don’t you worry,” Charles would say again, his attention already back on whatever it was that Melissa had interrupted—a football game, his breakfast read of the Los Angeles Times, outlining a brief or a response, chewing.
And Charles had indeed been right, for it had happened—and he had recently had taken to reminding her of this a little too often, she thought, that things had indeed “taken.” So there was nothing wrong with him, now, was there?
Melissa’s husband Charles likes to be called precisely that. Charles. Not Charlie, or Chuck, or Chas, or Chip. Charles. That is his name, and that’s what he wants to be called. Every time. Even by his wife.
“Can you keep a secret?” said Melissa. “Well, it’s not really a secret, but still, don’t tell anyone, not yet anyway.”
“Sure,” said Becky. Now done with her tea, and making small I’ll-soon- have-to-go movements on the sofa.
“We’re to be part of a study. Ruth and I.”
“What do you mean? What kind of a study?” said Becky, sensing, as she easily did, trouble. Becky could find shadows in the whitest snow—if not right away, then eventually: she would look and look until she did.
“About first-time mothers and their babies. A writer came by last week and asked me if I minded, and I said no, of course not.”
“Yes. Ananda Wolf was his name.”
“No, not Amanda, Ananda. With an n.”
“What kind of a study?” Becky asked again.
“It’s about how first-time mothers prepare for the baby. They want to follow the pregnancy from the fifth month or so till delivery. Preparations, worries, those kinds of things.”
“They? Where is he from? Some university?”
“He didn’t say. He looked a little like a professor, though. Actually, he looked more like a Buddhist monk with a bow tie. He was a writer, he said. Reminded me a little of professor Anderson at USC, remember him? Jeans and corduroy all the time, did he actually own any white shirts?”
Becky shook her head that she didn’t remember, or didn’t care.
“He was a very nice man,” added Melissa. “Quite the gentleman.”
“Did he say where he was from?”
“He said he was from Northern California.”
“The Bay area?”
“He didn’t say. Northern California.”
“Did you sign anything? Did he leave anything?” She looked around, as if such an agreement should lie in plain sight for her review.
No, she had not, and no, he had not. Melissa informed her friend. Then added, “He has called a few times since. We’re going to speak once a week, or so.”
“Oh, Melissa.” Becky shook her head in her what-am-I-going-to-do-with-you way. Then she straightened and adopted her things-to-do, people-to-see face.
“No, no. Becky. Really. It’s nothing fishy, I promise you.”
Becky rose. “When was he here?”
“Saturday before last.”
“Does Charles know?”
That was apparently the right answer, for Becky relaxed a little, as much as Becky would ever relax. Too concerned about everything was what Becky was.
Melissa rose too and kissed her friend on the cheek. Becky kissed her back. A quick peck before she headed out into her so-many-things-to-do, so-much-to-worry-about world.
:: 3 :: (Ancient India)
The Buddha knew that the end was near.
Buddha Gotama, nearing eighty now, had recently arrived with the Sangha, his order of monks, at Rajagaha, the capital of Magadha. It was as if the city itself knew, for the approaching end had gathered as dark clouds beyond the nearby mountains, slowly rising, darkening not only the sky.
As the word spread, many came to see him. Princes and kings arrived with gifts; farmers and hunters, also with gifts. Ascetics, too; they brought reverence and bowed deeply before him.
And many others came, bringing only eyes and awe.
Few brought questions this time—as was usually the purpose for visiting the Buddha. No, this time they came from near and far only to see him, to catch one last glimpse of the Enlightened One. They came to bid him farewell.
And as some left, others arrived, and the Buddha—ever patient, ever compassionate—saw them all, spoke with them all, admonished them all to follow the eightfold path, and to practice the Dhamma diligently.
Though the end was near, it had yet to arrive. Outwardly, the Buddha seemed in good health and mostly in good spirits as well.
But he worried, not about his approaching Parinibbana—his final leaving, for that was as it should be—but about his Dhamma, his teaching. He wondered whether he had, during his long ministry, truly managed to convey the truth practicably. Looking at his Sangha, and knowing that many of the monks were now arahants who had awoken and attained Nibbana, he felt sure, comforted. He had managed to plant the seed, they had sprouted and taken root, and the roots were many and surely strong enough to grow and protect the Dhamma.
But when again his thoughts turned to the world and its immeasurable number of plants and creatures and humans and beings, and again saw how they dwarfed the Sangha into a speck of hardly anything at all, then he feared that his young Dhamma trees would soon wither and be swept away before the brute force of the world.
For all around him, every day, every hour, every minute, there were so many signs of human folly proving these blundering souls near incapable of learning. And there were so many of them, so very, very many of them.
And so, as he often did these final days—as if to make doubly, trebly sure—he would call his monks together and again present them an overview of his essential teachings. And again he would ask if they had any questions, and again he would answer those few that were voiced.
On one such night at Rajagaha he rose and said, “Virtue is strength. Concentration is strength. Wisdom is strength. Concentration fortified with virtue brings even greater benefits and greater fruits.
“Wisdom fortified with concentration brings even greater benefits and greater fruits. The mind fortified with wisdom is liberated from all cankers, particularly from the canker of sensual desire, the canker of desire for becoming, and the canker of ignorance.”
The Sangha, to a man surprised that the Buddha had risen before them, listened attentively. The surrounding country was still alive with end-of-the-day chores and early evening tune-ups: birds calling one another, hundreds of frogs and thousands of crickets weaving a carpet of sound, undulating now over water and grass, surrounding the congregation of monks and their teacher.
Into this colored silence the Buddha then announced, “Tomorrow morning, I will set out on my last journey.”
As these words faded, it was as if even the crickets had heard, and the frogs, and the many birds, for the world came to a standstill, and silence filled the air. No bird called, and no wind whispered.
Tomorrow morning, echoed the surrounding world, the Buddha will set out on his last journey.
The following morning the Buddha set out for Nelanda by the Ganges River, where he rested for a few days before, with a growing number of monks, he went on to Vesali.
At Vesali—which had recently seen an epidemic—his weakening body was invaded by a lingering strain of the deadly disease, but although it gained good hold, he managed to first suppress and then dispel it by sheer power of will. The time had not yet come, he would keep Death at bay a little longer.
Ananda—his first cousin and most trusted servant—noticed his master’s struggle and worried greatly about the Buddha’s health. Also, he worried—much like the Buddha himself—that perhaps there were things still unsaid or untaught that should be said and should be taught while there still was time.
The Sangha had grown greatly over the years, and Ananda feared it might need further direction and more detailed rules from the Buddha himself in order to sustain it into the future, and he said as much to his master.
But when it came to the Sangha and its rules, the Buddha did not agree. “I have given them all the rules they need,” he said. “I have seen and mapped the path of virtue for both bhikkhu and bhikkhuni. I have offered many, perhaps too many, rules and regulations to aid their practice. I have given them The Vinaya. What more does the Sangha expect from me, Ananda?”
Then, although he did fear that perhaps the Dhamma was not yet complete, or not yet clear or accessible enough, he added (perhaps to put Ananda’s mind at ease): “I have taught Dhamma doctrine without separating the esoteric from exoteric, for there is only one Dhamma, the Dhamma. It’s all there, Ananda. It is all there, to the best of my ability. There is nothing that the Buddha holds back with the closed fist of a teacher. The Dhamma is the same whether bhikkhu, bhikkhuni, layman or laywoman.”
“You have given them all that is needed,” said Ananda. “I see that.”
The Buddha nodded, then said, “I am almost eighty years old, Ananda. I have come to the end of my life, and I can maintain this body only with difficulty, just as one maintains a dilapidated old cart. My body is at ease only when I enter and dwell in the signless deliverance of the mind. I am not long now for this world, Ananda. You must know that. And you must be prepared to ensure the preservation and the survival of the Dhamma.”
Ananda, although he had known for some time that the end was near, hearing it so unequivocally from his master still welled his eyes, though he bravely fought back the tears lest he upset Gotama Buddha.
But the Buddha noticed, and said, “Ananda, grieve not for my parting. Each of you are, and should be, an island unto yourself, dwell with yourself as a refuge and with no other as your refuge. Each of you should make the Dhamma your island. Dwell with the Dhamma as your refuge and with no other as your refuge.”
Ananda understood this and took much comfort in the Buddha’s words; although his tears had not receded far.
The Buddha remained in Vesali, and spent his last rainy season there. While there, he gave as many talks to his beloved Sangha as his strength would allow, still worrying that he had not taught all, or had not taught it well enough, or clearly enough.
For the Buddha knew that once he left—no matter what Ananda and the other leaders of the Sangha did to preserve it—his teachings, the Dhamma, would soon begin to dissipate. Slowly at first, but as time grew between his living words and those reciting them, obscuring them with ever-widening elaborations, embellishments, and history, the Dhamma would diverge, first a word or two, then a phrase, into opinion and deficient understanding, to eventually even lose its true meaning. This was inevitable, nothing could withstand the onslaught of time. He knew this, and this was his greatest fear.
Late one night he told Ananda, “Before long, my Parinibbana will come to pass. In three months’ time, I will pass utterly away.”
Ananda, again holding back tears called to the surface at hearing the truth spoken so directly by his master, and with such finality, asked him—with as steady a voice as he could muster—if he could not remain. For the sake of the Dhamma, he said, for the sake of Ananda, he did not say.
“Forty-five years ago,” replied the Buddha, “I decided—and silently promised the world—not to attain to final Nibbana until the Dhamma was well established, and well taught.”
Ananda bowed his head that he understood.
“I have now accomplished that,” said the Buddha. “The Dhamma is as complete as I can make it.”
Then he said, “It may not be the perfect guide out of this maze, across this river, but it is a workable guide—remember and proclaim the Dhamma as such, Ananda. It is a workable guide. If diligently studied and applied, the Dhamma will take you across the river.”
“It could be clearer in places, it could be more succinct in others, and I worry sometimes about this, but I have reviewed, and turned it over in my mind this way and that, holding it to the light just so, and it is as I say, Ananda, it is workable. Followed, yes, it will lead you—unfailingly—across the river.”
Ananda then lost his battle with tears. When the Buddha saw this, he said, “Have I not taught from the very beginning, Ananda, that with all that is dear and beloved there must be change, separation, and severance? Have I not said that all that rises, comes into being, is conditioned, and subject to decay, must—sometimes sooner, sometimes later—cease and dissolve?”
“You have,” answered Ananda.
“Also,” said the Buddha, “The Buddha does not go back on his word, cannot go back on his word. In three months’ time I shall attain final Nibbana.”
Then he asked Ananda to assemble the Sangha that he might address them again. Ananda did so.
Once assembled, the Buddha again rose before them, and thus standing—although this was an effort for his ailing body—he exhorted them to learn and practice the Dhamma, the path to enlightenment. “This holy life must endure, it must endure long, for the welfare and happiness of many, out of compassion for the world, for the good, welfare, and happiness of devas and humans.”
Then he said, “Three months from now the Buddha’s Parinibbana will come to pass.”
Then he offered a brief poem for their contemplation:
My years are now full ripe, the life span left is short
Departing, I shall leave you, relying on myself alone.
Be earnest then, monks, mindful and pure in virtue!
With firm resolve guard your own mind.
One who in this Dhamma and Discipline
Dwells in constant heedfulness
Shall abandon the wandering on in birth
And make an end to suffering.
The normally many-tongued Sangha was all quiet that evening. Few if any words were exchanged, each monk anchored to his own vision of a world without the Buddha.
The following morning the Buddha and the Sangha left Vesali for the province of the Mallas, in the Himalayan foothills.
At the next resting place, the Buddha again assembled his monks and addressed them on the subject of his deepest concern. And again he stood up, the better to be heard:
“Please remember this: When I am gone you will meet those who purport to quote my words. What should you then do? You should commit those words to memory and then seek confirmation in the Vinaya or in the Suttas. If you cannot hear them there, you must assume that they were wrongly learned—or otherwise colored—by that person, and you should reject such words. The Dhamma must remain pure, and only as I have taught it.”
He then raised his arm and pointed, first skyward, then seemingly to each and every monk and nun present.
“Accept no teaching attributed to me that you cannot verify as existing in the Vinaya or the Suttas. I cannot tell you anything more important than this, for accepting such false teaching as my teaching will surely destroy the Dhamma.”
One night nearly three months later, the Buddha asked Ananda to follow him.
“Where to, Master?”
“There is a grove of sala-trees in Kusinara. I want to go there.”
Seeing the Buddha rising with effort—though fending off Ananda’s offered hand—Ananda knew that it was now only a matter of days, if not hours.
Once they arrived, Ananda, finding a suitable spot between two large sala trees and arranging there several thick blankets just so, made for the Buddha a couch, its head to the north. And here, as the Buddha lay down to rest, the sala trees, even though out of season, blossomed and snowed their flowers down upon him as a soft and fragrant blanket.
Ananda sat down beside him.
Now, other blossoms, from the heavenly coral tree and from the very clouds themselves, drifted down from the sky upon celestial music. The Buddha noticed, looked up and smiled. Then he looked at his friend.
“Ananda,” he said. “Is it not thus, that Gotama Buddha is venerated and honored in the highest degree by greetings and gifts?”
“Yes,” said Ananda. “That is so, and has always been so.”
To this the Buddha answered, “Still, whatever bhikkhu or bhikkhuni, layman or laywoman abides by the Dhamma, lives uprightly in the Dhamma, walks in the way of the Dhamma, he or she venerates and honors the Buddha in a higher degree still. Truly, I ask for no higher reverence than this.”
Ananda nodded that he agreed, while, again, silently engaging his fear and grief.
“Do not sorrow, Ananda,” said the Buddha, as always noticing. “Have I not told you many times that everything changes and vanishes? How could something that has come into being not be destroyed? For a long time, Ananda, you have attended on the Buddha, gladly, sensitively, sincerely, and without reserve, with deeds, speech, and thoughts of loving-kindness. You have made great merit, Ananda. Keep on striving and soon you will be free from all cankers.”
While Ananda bowed his head in acknowledgement, the Buddha went on to say, “All the Buddhas of the past had such excellent attendants, and all future Buddhas will, too.”
Shortly after this the Buddha fell asleep, while Ananda stayed awake by his side, watching the sala tree blossoms drift to earth to kiss the Blessed One.
Gotama Buddha slept a deep and peaceful sleep that night.
The following day, the day of his Death, the Buddha gave some final instructions to the gathered monks. “Do not think, bhikkhu, that after I am gone you no longer have a teacher, for the Dhamma and Vinaya will be your teachers.”
Then the Buddha said nothing for many hours while the monks waited in silence.
Toward evening the Buddha arose once more. He looked at Ananda and smiled, then at the gathering of silent monks. Then he said:
“Now, monks, I declare this to you: It is the nature of all conditioned things to vanish. Do your utmost. Meditate diligently and do your utmost to reach your goal.”
And those were the last words Gotama Buddha spoke.
At that, the Buddha laid back down, closed his eyes and entered through the four Jhanas into the formless spheres of meditative absorption, until he attained the stage of cessation of perception and feeling.
Then he entered these nine stages of concentration in reverse order, back to the first Jhana.
Again he rose through the four Jhanas, and during his absorption in the fourth Jhana he passed away.
The sala-tree grove glimmered below. Gotama Buddha took one last look at Ananda, mute with grief now that he knew his master had left, and told him in a small breeze of love that he would soon follow, that Ananda himself would reach Nibbana soon, and shortly thereafter his own Parinibbana.
Ananda nodded that he had heard and that he had understood.
Soon the sala-tree grove was nothing but a bright speck upon the Earth below, and then the Earth turned blue and white with ocean and cloud and soon it, too, was gone in the starry dust of galaxies.
The gates to the Tusita heaven swung open, and Gotama Buddha entered once more.
This should have been a time of rest for the Gotama Buddha. It should have been many a Tusita day of well-deserved contemplation of a job well done. But he could not rest, for in his heart he still feared that the Dhamma was not secure, that he had not taught it well enough, that he had not sufficiently clarified it. He feared that the Dhamma was not well enough understood, not even by his closest friends, and that it would not withstand the ravages of time.
He well knew the frailties and follies of men. He well knew the compulsive importance they attached to the self. He knew how they valued—and sometimes even preferred—opinion above truth, guessing above looking. He knew that such men—and they were in the vast majority—would shape the Dhamma to fit their own notions of what it should be rather than seeing what it was. These men would adopt opinions—their own and others’—rather than seeing for themselves. That was the biggest threat to the Dhamma.
Thus he worried, and could not cease to worry.
And so it was not long before the Gotama Buddha again left for the Earth—for he simply had to see for himself how the Dhamma had fared in the troubled world below since his death as the Buddha.
This time the Gotama Buddha took birth as an Italian: Giordano Bruno.
:: 4 :: (Renaissance Rome)
He had trouble breathing.
The year was 1600, the month was February, and its third Sunday had barely risen.
The procession making its way from his Nona Tower prison to the Campo dei Fiori was headed by the pike men guard followed by an enthusiastic trumpeter shooting fanfares into the air to let everyone know that Bruno, the heretic, was approaching.
And after the trumpeter came he, secured to a donkey.
He hugged the animal’s neck with difficulty, for his arms were too short for the robust neck. He was, however, not in danger of falling off, for his helpful jailors had ensured his embrace of the animal’s neck by wet leather straps linking his hands, straps now drying and tightening, shortening, and sending streams of pain his way. Not that he really cared, for these pains were as if nothing—barely whispers of those to come.
Flames and death were only half a procession away.
His feet, too, were tied by drying straps under the beast’s belly, sending sister streams of pain up his legs and sides for him to savor.
And he had trouble breathing, for his nose was clogging with mucus and terror and the wooden block they had forced into his mouth made passage of air all but impossible.
He could not cough.
Nor could he talk.
Nor could he scream.
Each clip and each clop of donkey hooves brought him closer to death, and for a while he listened to them as if they were part of some natural clock counting down the seconds. Clip. Clop. Clip. Clop. Then he twisted his head a little to his left to see what could be seen.
What he saw was that even at this hour—the sun was not yet risen—the route was lined with the curious, the awe-struck, the grinning-in-relief that this was not they tied to this donkey, heading for death.
He was naked under the large canvas they had dressed him in, a sack painted with devils and flames of hell—his eventual destination a foregone conclusion.
And beside him, easily keeping pace with the slowly clop-clopping donkey clock, walked the mercy men, members of the Confraternity of San Giovanni Decollato—Saint John the Beheaded—whose task it was to stage a last ditch effort to save his soul from eternal damnation by shoving crosses under his nose and urging, begging, imploring him to repent. This was a ridiculous exercise of futility, of course, since even had he wanted to—which he did not—he couldn’t speak, could hardly move, could not even meaningfully nod his head; it was too tightly forced against the pungent hide of the ass who seemed to resent being pressed into this revolting duty—it was Sunday after all, and his rightful place this day of rest was in the fields, or in the stables, helping himself to a day-long lazy meal of grass or hay.
And here they came again, these idiots and their crosses, dancing the dance macabre to impress the abbots and priests who had gathered, too, to make sure that Filippo Giordano Bruno, also called the Nolan, did indeed suffer the ultimate indignity this morning for trying to make a fool of the Mother Church.
He knows that all will be ready for him at the Campo. The brushwood and pine logs will be piled around the stake in a gruesome welcome, soaked with fetid oils the better to burn. On arrival they will cut him free of this animal and then, unceremoniously, as if he were some thick-skinned fruit, peel him naked of this sack for all to see before they strap him to the stake and set fire to the wood, but not before making sure the wooden wedge remained secure in his mouth: for screaming is not allowed.
:: 5 :: (Renaissance Rome)
It is said that a man can review his entire life between the moment he leaps—or is thrown—off the cliff and the moment he lands, heaping into life-departed flesh and broken bones on the ravine floor. Bruno had heard it said more than once, but he had never stopped to consider whether it might be true or false.
But as the donkey grudgingly clip-clopped between the ever-thickening files of anticipating—if not salivating—celebrants, his life came rushing back and it simply made the time to be re-lived, in scope if not in detail.
When the Pope’s tribunal finally, and officially, pronounced its sentence—the dark and pendulous thing which had hung over him as an all but certainty for over seven jailed years—he nonetheless almost fainted, his knees almost buckled, his heart almost stopped. Almost, but not quite. Not the Nolan. He refused to give them the satisfaction. Instead, he had found the will and the resources to stiffen, to gather voice, and to hurl it at the arrogant asses that had the audacity to judge him—fools to a man, slaves to the dogmatically triumphant beast of ignorance and blind doctrine they all served.
Hurling it thus, with severity, loudly, clearly, “You, I can see, pronounce sentence against me with a fear greater than that with which I receive it.”
And he was pleased that even with death now a certainty, his voice had held firm, without even a trace of quiver.
It had fallen upon Flaminio Adriano, the Notary of the Inquisition, to do the final honors: the putting into words what long since had already been decided by the Pope, and so by the tribunal as well; and it was not without relish that the absurdly self-important little man almost sang in high-pitched Latin from the document he held high before him for all to see:
Having invoked the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, and of his most Glorious Mother Mary ever Virgin, in the cause of the aforesaid causes brought before this Holy Office between, on the one hand, the Procurator Fiscal of the said Holy Office, and on the other hand, yourself, the aforesaid Giordano Bruno, the accused, examined, brought to trial and found guilty, impenitent, obstinate and pertinacious; in this, our sentence, determined by the counsel and opinion of our advisers, the Reverend Fathers, Masters in Sacred Theology and Doctors in both laws, we hereby, in these documents, publish, announce, pronounce, sentence, and declare you, Brother Giordano Bruno, to be an impenitent heretic, and therefore to have incurred all the ecclesiastical censures and pains of the Holy Canon, the laws and constitutions, both general and particular, imposed on such confessed impenitent, pertinacious and obstinate heretics, wherefore as such we verbally degrade you and declare that you must be degraded.
And we hereby ordain and command that you shall be actually degraded from all your ecclesiastical orders, both major and minor, in which you have been ordained, according to the Sacred Canon Law; and that you must be driven forth, and we do drive you forth from our ecclesiastical forum and from our Holy and Immaculate Church of whose mercy you have become unworthy.
And we ordain and command that you must be delivered to the Secular Court, that you may be punished with the punishment deserved, though we earnestly pray that it will mitigate the rigor of the laws concerning the pains of your person, that you may not be in danger of death, or of mutilation of your members.
Cursed with nearly perfect memory, he could hear sentence drone on while little echoes confirmed and confirmed it from among the walls and windows as the little man continued his pompous singsong, to in the end even officially wash the hands of the Holy and Immaculate Church of the fate that was to befall him; “though we earnestly pray…” what gibberish. What play-acting and pretense, since they all knew that once he was handed over to the Secular Court, the Holy Standing Order was but one: to enforce as strictly as possible “the rigor of the laws concerning the pains of your person,” and the lay court would certainly ensure that he was put in danger of death, if not, in this particular instance, of mutilation of his members.
And so, in vivid memory—as it continued to make its own time atop the donkey, the little man droned on, now taking aim at all his writings:
Furthermore, we condemn, we reprobate and we prohibit all your aforesaid and your other books and writings as heretical and erroneous, containing many heresies and errors. We ordain that all of them which have come, or may in future come, into the hands of the Holy Office shall be publicly destroyed and burned upon the Square of Saint Peter, before the steps, and they shall be placed on the Index of Forbidden Books.
And as we have commanded, so shall it be done.
And thus we say, pronounce, sentence, declare, degrade, command, and ordain, we chase forth and deliver, and we pray in this, and in every other better method and form, that we reasonably can and should.
Thus pronounce we, the Cardinal General Inquisitors, whose names subscribe this document.
And then there was silence.
Down to the last scurrying echo, echo, gone. Silence.
The little man done braying, and now sitting down, Bruno took solace and strength from his anger, from his detestation of farce, and that kept him erect and standing, that let him find his voice, and his words, and quiver-free retort.
But within: the final traces of hope took dark wing, for now only the Pope could halt the rush of this deathly river, and Bruno knew that Pope Clement VIII would do nothing to slow, much less halt, the onrush of his death, that the Pope had in fact made it abundantly clear that he wanted Bruno erased, not only from the annals and memories of the Holy Church, but from the Earth. Bruno was to die, he, the Pope, willed it so.
And so he recalled—cursed memory atop the donkey—the prediction he had made in his own De Monade so many years prior:
I fought a lot; I thought I could win, but fate and nature repressed my study and my efforts. But it is already something to be on the battlefield because to win depends very much on fortune. But I did as much as I could and I do not think anyone of the future generation will deny it. I was not afraid of death, I never gave in to anyone, I chose courageous death instead of a coward’s life.
I chose courageous death instead of a coward’s life. This was not exactly true, but a fine sentiment nonetheless, and an even finer prediction— uncanny, in fact.
For he had in fact recanted and repented and apologized and retracted as much as his conscience allowed, and he would most likely have—though now somewhat relieved that this was never actually put, or would never be put to that test—he would most likely have retracted everything, would it have made a difference. But he had seen, known in his battered heart, that no matter what he said, no matter what he did, no matter what books or comments or view he recanted he would burn, so why give these asses the satisfaction. That was the truth of the matter. He saw that, acknowledged that, knowing self-deception to be man’s deepest vice.
Truthfully, courageous death was not his choice. Here, strapped to the donkey, he’d rather live, anything to live, anything to continue as the Nolan, in whatever shape or circumstance. Death was not a pleasant prospect, and he could not accept it peacefully.
And here they came again with their crosses and sanctimonious faces pleading again and again—what hypocrites—that he would recant and so avoid the eternal flames of hell. Ah, if he could only spit.
And all of this in perhaps ten or twenty donkey clip-clops toward the still distant square.
The animal rocks a little one way, and then the other, as it lifts and then brings down yet another hoof, clip, and then another, clop, and now Mademoiselle Francoise Solanges appears for him: the only woman he truly loved.
And the one woman he never took to bed.
“I want your instructions to set them dreaming,” she had told him when they first met. She was referring to the girl students in her charge, which he had agreed to tutor. But Bruno, blinded and deafened by her beauty, had not registered those words and still did not hear, though she was still talking: “I want you to open a garden in which they can walk for the rest of their lives.”
Finally, he found the thread of her request, and then his voice, “And what makes you think I can do that, Mademoiselle?”
“Monsieur Gorbin calls you a cloud walker,” she said. “And I would like you to take my girls on a walk among them, and then through the blue beyond, and then to the stars even father beyond.”
“Why?” he heard himself ask.
“They need a future of hope.”
When he looked perplexed, she laughed, and her laughter sounded to him like silver bells that rang as with understanding of what he had to give. And then he, too, understood what he was to give.
And so he gave, as often as he could, her charges all the wonder, all the knowledge, and all the fascination he possessed; and she, often as not, would sit in a corner, listening in, smiling to him, smiling to herself. By all accounts happy with his gifts.
In the end, when he could no longer contain his love for her—for it threatened to rupture him would it not reach air; when he could no longer suppress his honest passion for this woman, he declared it, to another of her beautiful smiles and slow movement back and forth of her head. “My dearest friend,” she said, taking his warm, moist hand in her two fine and cool ones, “there is no place in my life for a man. My needs, and gifts, are different.”
“I don’t understand.”
Then, after a moment’s hesitation, she unclasped a silver chain from around her neck, and, after another brief hesitation, unfolded her hand to show him the chain and its famous medallion, marking her as, yes, he knew all about the medallion and what it meant: a Cathar.
He nodded—or, rather, felt himself nod. He did not want to understand, but he did.
Beside him, still holding his hand in hers, sat one of the few to survive the intense massacres launched by Pope Innocent III, and the subsequent and thorough extermination efforts by the Inquisition; though not thorough enough, never thorough enough. Pockets had survived. Always do.
She was one of the survivors.
“Now I have entrusted you with my life,” she said. “For truly, I do love you.”
At that he had cried, for the first time and last time as a grown man, cried like a child cries when overcome with incomprehensible loss, for he realized that he would never possess this woman, and in that moment, counter to every one of his physical fibers, he no longer wanted to possess her, for he, in turn, loved her too much.
He had laid his head in her lap then—child in mother’s, the only thing he could do to ease the pain—and she had cradled it with her hands, and perhaps she had even hummed some comforting melody or incantation, for he felt surrounded by more than tender fingers and warm cloth.
Here comes more wood shoved in his face, stirring him back to the present. “Please, please, I beg of you,” shouts the monk holding the cross, no more than a boy, “repent. Save your soul.”
Oh, how he wishes he could spit in the ugly youth’s face.
The boy—as if startled by his thought—withdraws the crude symbol and leaves him to his reverie.
Leaves him to return to Nola, his childhood town, which comes rushing back, pushing aside crosses and throngs and jeers and trumpet blasts up ahead, while the square draws nearer with each clip, with each clop.
Nola, by the foot of his beloved mountain—Mount Cicala they called it; Nola, the little town gifting him its name: for he was to be known as “The Nolan.” The little town where life was lived before trouble grew too dense and clawy to be survived.
He could smell, taste even—despite wooden splinters piercing lips and cheeks and tongue—olives, chestnuts, poplars, rosemary, vines, elms, myrtle, even the earth itself out of which Cicala sprung like a vast but guarding spirit. He was running across fields with his friends, fresh wind in his face, re-living the exploits of his soldier father (always away, it seemed). And here, in this land of memory, the sun always stood high in the sky, sweeping away any cloud before it. There was no shadow upon those days. No shadow.
He had been a brilliant student—at least in his own estimation, though none disagreed with that assessment. But his family was poor, and there was no question of higher schooling for the bright boy. A soldier’s pay did not go far; the funds were not there.
Were he to study further—something he deemed his God-given right—he had only one option: The Church, which, in his opinion, was the far lesser of the two relevant evils.
The other, far greater evil, was to forfeit his education and settle for a menial life. This was out of the question.
Thus, just turned seventeen, he also turned monk.
If only he had learned to hold his tongue well enough to actually hold it.
He was not pious, nor did he claim to be. Not even to appease his teachers, most of whom saw and accepted him for what he was: a young man ambitious for learning, for that was all it took—in their estimation and experience—to fashion, in the end, an obedient monk, true to dogma and the Holy Church: a useful instrument.
He would, however, soon topple their complacent views for they had misjudged his desire for learning, which was by no means limited to orthodox teachings, but was a deep and irrepressible desire to know the truth; and truth, he was soon to realize, was not constrained by the codex of canon law and the constitutions of his order.
Seeing this, he deeply and honestly rebelled against the diktat that he adopt and exclusively subscribe not only to the Gospel truths—as found in the Good Book itself—but to every and minute interpretation of those truths by Roman Authority, boringly and at length spelled out in crabbed Latin by long dead theological scholars. This is the truth, decreed his order, and there is no other, down to the very last holy inflection, comma and period.
Without variation, world without end, amen.
Not to his taste.
Oh, if only he had learned to hold his tongue.
And to tolerate stupidity.
And to hide things better.
The drop to finally overflow this rebellious cup of dissent was his illegal acquisition of Erasmus of Rotterdam’s commentaries on the works of Saint John Chrysostom and Saint Jerome. Erasmus, as he well knew, was on the Index of forbidden books, but a brother from Venice had whispered his name, had told him of truths told by Erasmus but denied by the Church, had offered to smuggle him a copy of his book and Bruno had agreed, of course, his thirst would have it no other way.
He had hidden the book in one of the monastery privies, well concealed, he thought. But before too long it was found, and eventually traced to him, led there by his own stupidity: Too anxious to prevail in debates, and too eager to display his brilliance, he had taken to quote from this forbidden book—not by name, obviously, but most certainly verbatim (his excellent memory, already in evidence, had seen to that). And most certainly to the recognition of those elders who did not look upon him too kindly, for they, too, had read Erasmus, the better to expose the errors of the heretic’s views. And so, hearing young Bruno expound upon something or other with the help of Erasmus, it was clear to them who had hidden the book in the privy.
And after this it was not long before the Prior asked to see him, again, and this time told him that the Neapolitan Inquisition had now initiated judicial process against him. He was charged with insubordination to the monastic authorities, and with heresy. He was urged to reflect long and hard upon his misdeeds.
The impatient young man reflected only briefly.
Then he fled.
Into years of exile.
Ever searching, ever seeing, ever finding, ever writing, ever fleeing, ever moving on when the Church hounds picked up his scent and alerted their masters to his whereabouts.
Against the ceaseless clip-clops below, the many cities parade before him, each at first a welcome, each in the end an unwelcome: Rome, Genoa, Turin, Savona, Noli, Venice, Milan, Chambery, Lyons, Geneva, Toulouse, Paris, London, Oxford, Marburg, Wittenberg, Prague, Frankfurt, where his traitor-to-be, Giovanni Mocenigo, finally reached him with an invitation to return to Venice, offering him both work and protection, which Bruno—homesick by now, and weary of constant flight—could not resist.
A few months later, Mocenigo—thirty silver pieces richer—handed him over to the Inquisition as a heretic.
Seven underfed and miserable years later. Many, many visits to the rack later. Many failed attempts to make him recant later. All these now see him tied to the back of a donkey choking on wood, and now nearing the Campo dei Fiori.
He caught the drifting song of oil drenched kindling mixed with the thirst for blood of the growing throng, of end approaching.
And still they shoved the cross in his face. Pleading, as if they had the faintest clue about what they were asking.
:: 6 :: (Renaissance Rome)
Donkey hoofs no longer clip-clop. They have come to rest.
He can hear, and feel—in his arms, in his chest—the slow breath of the animal. He can hear the soft swish of tail, as it chases some early-riser flies away. He listens to this for several heartbeats, and for a time—although he cannot bend his head to see—all that takes place in the here and now is the graceful flicking of the mule’s tail.
He tries to hold on to this moment (and so many other moments like it that now comes rushing to the rescue), tries to make it last and last and take the place of all other moments. Then comes another cross near his face and another eager-to-please monkish face, and here comes the rising susurrus of the anticipating crowd. The square then. They have arrived.
The animal chooses this moment to bray. Loudly to those nearby, louder still to Bruno, ear pressed against the braying neck, issuing the grating howls first as rumbling earth within the thick, redolent hide—he is still in two minds about whether the strong scent is comforting or disgusting—then as hissing forth through windpipe and maw, then out into air as scream.
And again, and again, as if a trumpet now, heralding arrival.
Then the animal has had its say; it is still now. Waiting, it knows not for what, but waiting. Waiting, like Bruno.
A new eternity.
Or a small bouquet of heartbeats.
Hands now, a forest of fingers trying to untie the not yet wholly dried leather thongs, trying and trying but failing to. Now a discussion, much of which eludes Bruno, but it must have to do with finding something to cut the thongs with. A knife, a sword, anything sharp enough. Suggestions are offered, attempts are made, the words “not sharp enough” are repeated by someone to his right—he can sense a priestly figure, pointing, piping (voice like an old organ) “not sharp enough” and much casting about for another implement.
More commotion, further attempts, and finally: someone brought something “sharp enough” and his compulsory grip on the donkey’s neck slips to his left as he falls to his right and someone catches him, then drops him as the same “sharp enough” severs the thong for his feet and he tumbles to the ground.
More hands and fingers among other crosses. He is heaved to his feet.
The leather thongs are still welded to his wrists and ankles and he realizes he can feel neither hands nor feet, what blood normally comes and goes there has lost access. Still, with the help of many hands, he stands on feet that, for all their numb silence, still seem to serve.
How long, he thinks, how long, precisely, am I for this world? Drink, he tells himself, drink what there is to drink, even if this wine be foul and painful, it is wine nonetheless and is better than no wine at all, for now he is suddenly very afraid to die, and would recant anything, everything; would assume all the sins of the world, and trade them for eternity in hell, if only he could live one more day. One more day.
The animal brays again, but this time nowhere near as loudly. Almost kindly. This time it brays for him, he thinks, a goodbye, and he looks over at the animal, but it is being led away now, all he sees is the rump and the swish of tail. Still, the bray was meant for him, this he suddenly knows and he is flooded with remorse for not loving this animal until now.
He tries again, but still cannot feel his hands. Nor his feet. Looking down he sees they are blue with trapped blood, spindly and blue and not such good instruments for standing, and so he buckles again, but this time he is caught before finding ground. Pulled up, supported now from all sides.
Other hands—many pairs, and with what eagerness—now begin pulling at his sack, his only clothing, and with many words exchanged between pullers and supporters the garment finally rises—catching first on the wooden block in his mouth, then scraping his nose and forehead—and frees itself of its charge. Tossed then—he cannot see in which direction—it leaves him naked. His only clothing now the constricting leather thongs on wrists and ankles.
And here the voice again, the “not sharp enough” voice. It makes a reference to the thongs, and an attempt is made to remove these little too-tight nooses, but after a while the voice loses patience and changes its mind and instead orders the many hands to lead him forward, toward.
Toward the stake driven into ground for the purpose of purifying souls and now surrounded by kindling and much wood. The reek of oil rises anew as if to signal to him its willingness to burn. Toward this stake, and he cannot feel his feet touching ground. Perhaps he is lifted rather than walking, and then there is no more toward left.
Hands now press his back against the rough wood and twist his arms back for new thongs. He can feel, in the same manner you hear underwater, rope secure his hands and arms the far side of the bole, and someone else is making sure that his feet—which he still cannot feel, and which still, as he glances down, are blue—will not stray. So much binding for such a small man. That is his precise thought, and if the wooden block did not fill his mouth into forced rictus he would have smiled at that. Smiled, that he could still think lucid, even amusing—if not very helpful—thoughts.
They place a metal ring—fastened by a chain somewhere above him—around his neck, and—his faculties ever alert—he works out why: to keep him erect once the rope that ties him to the pole has charred and crumbled.
The ring is tight; it is more like a metal noose than a necklace. He swallows. Can. Barely. Swallows again, or tries to. His throat is too dry for a second swallow.
And so they are done. Many fingers, and parent hands and arms, retreat. He is safely secured.
Many hands now push wood and the kindling up against him, closing the path that gained him access to this, his final spot on Earth.
A tall monk in white robes raises a Bible for him to see. Bruno looks away. The monk speaks. Bruno does not listen. The monk moves himself and the Bible into Bruno’s line of vision. Bruno looks away again, averting the detestable thing that has brought this about—though, of course, he knows the book is not to blame, but the surrounding imbeciles who—slaves to the word—know no better.
The tall monk moves again and speaks again, and again Bruno refuses to listen—turning nearly shouted words into unintelligible sounds—and refuses to look. Instead, he closes his eyes, firmly, deciding never to open them again.
A short-lived decision, for the sudden crackle of flame swings them open, morbidly curious. Smoke rises, acrid, black, oil-fed. Straight up into still morning air, and Bruno follows its rise against pale sky where curious stars still shine, wondering what on Earth?
Talking among themselves, speculating, glittering, distantly.
Curious little things they are—or not so little, he reminds himself. Only distant. Distantly curious greeting the ever-thickening smoke as it rises and rises and now begins to obscure the throng the far side of it.
Bruno looks around, a little stunned. So many. From what he can see the square is full, and none of them well-wishers. Another Bible is calling for attention, or is it the same one? He cannot tell for the ever-thickening smoke. He shuts it out and listens instead to the greedy flames, innocent in their collaboration. They know not what they are doing, though the asses in long white frocks sprouting Bibles know perfectly well. They are protecting territory, securing coffers, removing competition, is precisely what they are doing, and what they will never forgive him for pointing out.
And now he registers heat. Something—he muses, and again he wishes he could smile at his sardonic path of thought—he will soon come to know quite intimately.
Someone he had not seen or sensed approach strikes his left ankle from behind sending a sharp pain up through his calf and sings of more to come. He looks down, his neck straining against the iron noose who wants to keep his feet a secret. He does manage to look down, the iron noose cutting and most likely drawing blood (he reflects), but has trouble seeing, then sees. Then sees no hand, no stick, no weapon, but flames. Making their way from behind they are the first to reach him, and now they lick his calves again, and then his legs, and then the chorus of pain rises into the screaming of more and more and more until he is surprised he is still alive, and still feeling, still capable of having ever more pain poured into him.
And now they rise, like and army of small yellow and red bears on their hind legs to take larger and large bites of the kindling and of the wood, and now those a-front draw near as well, as do those from the sides and now, now he can feel his hands—have the thongs burned free?
What an odd thought, and one immediately replaced by a fresh rising of searing flesh now, cornered and screaming in protest at all avenues of escape aflame.
He feels himself crumble into this searing ocean of fire, feels his knees either buckle or disintegrate, but the ring, that metal ring still intact, holds him—he was right—chokes him, though not lethally.
Perhaps it is a fact that when the roar of pain reaches a certain volume and pitch, it cannot be increased. Perhaps a body’s capacity to register can be out-pained. Once there is only pain, once every nerve screams in unison, once all there is is this roar, this pain, perhaps it reaches a point where there can be nothing more of it.
Bruno reaches this point.
It is now a pain edged by darkness, or should have been, would have been for any normal mortal, but Bruno is no mortal, and still he can think and still he thinks: screaming, on the one hand, through every cell in his body; amazed, on the other, that he still can, and still does, think.
Amazed, yes, and off now a little to the left of the pyre—the little body turning black and still trashing around like a reeking medallion at the end of the chain—Bruno watches and then—and this is a conscious thought, a knowing decision: enough. Enough. He recognizes and severs the channel of perception and no longer feels the anguish of what manner of life still fights on within the charcoaled puppet by the stake. That charcoaled, suffocating thing is not him, or his, never was. He knows with every thrash that it is no more but an unfortunate congregation of expiring cells, once his home, now but one last communal suffering.
A breeze of compassion rises then fades into yellow and red of still greedy flames as he takes his leave.
While the remains of what had once been Giordano Bruno, the Nolan, smoldered and thrashed, his hovering essence remained for some moments. Curious. Studying the greedy fascination of the many faces, each drinking in death with every beat of what seemed to be a collective heart. Drinking in the agony of the dying as if being in death’s presence bestowed life, bolstered their living.
He should have felt disgust, fury even, but he felt only sadness. True compassion now for the so terribly misguided need of these poor people.
For a while longer he remained, high above the square, until the remnants of his charred abode finally came to rest: still now in a sea of fire. Soon he could hear, as the word spread, the rising cheer: the evil is dead, the world once again made safe for us by the Holy Church. And so they began to dissipate, these poor people, ignorant beyond ignorance.
Again, he should have felt disgust, irritation, hatred even, but all the true Bruno could feel was compassion.
Then he sighed and ascended.