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“The Jewel and the Stage” (Kindle)
When all the world is a stage, what precious things may one find upon it?
Chapter 1: The Amethyst
02 October 2155 CE (14 Kanni 1331 KE)
The audience sits in respectful silence as the sun sets over the Pacific, outside the Temple theater’s great western window.
Waves of purple bioluminescence—temporary, of course, and carefully managed by the environmental control staff—lap at the base of the window, dappling it with a subtle glow well-matched by the deep violet dusk. The subtle pulsation of light from the screens surrounding the window underscores the rhythm of the risen sea, tonight a steady fifteen seconds, dividing time into sections, guiding breath, for those in the audience practicing their pranayama.
Once, the Temple had perched upon pillars half a kilometer out to sea and a causeway connected it to the beaches. Now, great earthworks have replaced the beach with layers of cement and dirt, an adaptation to the rise in sea level. Gardens of genetically engineered flowers now cover the new land. When queried, the AI that managed the city would say that the continent had plenty of farmland and that there was nothing frivolous about flowers.
Thus, some of the audience count the seconds of their breath by the subtle, citrusy fragrance of lotus flowers held in their hands. Some, having opted to dust themselves with gold upon entering the temple, glitter softly in the purple light of the algae, the twilight, and the light of screens. Others, feeling no need to connect to symbols of distant times and places, choose to sit and await the performance.
The stage is not its usual flat, polished gleam. A deep blackness nearly swallows lights falling upon the surface; only small spots of dark violet allow the viewers to see the gentle hills and valleys of a strange alien landscape laid upon the stage. It is a diorama of an unknown world, lost in the Deep of time.
Near the center is a brilliant cluster of amethysts. The purple quartz gleams softly in the subtle light of sea and nightfall, hexagonal crystals poke at irregular angles from the faux alien ground, or so it seems from the audience’s perspective. From above, the arrangement of amethysts forms a beautiful mandala, carefully arranged in three-dimensional space into the shape of a lotus much like the structure of the Temple itself.
Behind the westernmost crystal, invisible to the audience just yet, a young woman sits in lotus, gazing at the spot in the sea where the sun had recently fallen. Her hands rest on her knees in jnana mudra, forefingers curled back within thumbs, spirit nestled within the Divine. Upon her brow, a small round gem catches the soft light, drawing one’s gaze up to her beautiful eyes from which, it seems, all the light upon the stage actually emanates.
At the scheduled time she rises, her silver sari capturing the light and dappling her body in waves of royal purple as monitors shift, turning into gentle spotlights. The audience offers brief applause; most tap their fingers gently upon their wrist phones, which recognize the salutations and flash brightly, in whatever colors or patterns their owners have previously chosen. The applause quickly fades as the woman comes from around the tall crystal, revealing herself in a haze of purple light, a dancer’s grace, and long black spider legs that dapple her body with bars of shadow.
She lifts her hands toward the sky, silhouetted against the wave-kissed twilight window. Gentle blue light cascades down the eight spider legs affixed to her waist and they dance in a slow, flowing rhythm around her. She matches the rhythm with her own arms and legs, eight flickering limbs becoming twelve, as lines of LEDs flash sapphire from the tips of her toes, up her sides, out to her fingertips.
The brightening illumination finds little purchase on the black ground. The dancer’s bare legs are covered with black dirt—or not dirt exactly, more like someone had scribbled upon her with an artist’s pencils. The alien landscape is smooth graphite, littered with ashy black stones like charcoal. No human eyes have yet seen such a world, though the space telescopes with their spectrometers have firmly established that such planets exist in more carbon-rich star systems. The dancer makes a sudden, forceful gesture toward the great window and suddenly, from the window itself, two brilliant suns return from the sea—only rather than sunset gold, they blaze dazzling blue.
The dancer’s spider legs embrace the large amethyst crystal in front of her, tracing its hexagonal lines, filling the uncut jewel with sparkles of LED blue. She smiles, her lovely face radiating such amazement and delight that much of the audience leans forward and smiles in return; even the most jaded ones cannot help but be moved by her joy. Gracefully, she dances around the crystal, caressing it with spider legs and her own hands, and moments later she spots another crystal and lovingly embraces it.
The blue suns continue to ascend until they reach the previously invisible screens upon the ceiling, then the far wall, then descend and disappear, returning the scene to night. The dancer holds out an arm and spins once around the nearest large amethyst, grabs hold of another, and encircles that one likewise. She continues the dance until she has touched all eight of the large crystals and at last comes to rest in the center, gazing out the window with her back to the audience. Though many of the watchers can’t see her because of the crystals, they can see her face in the two largest screens flanking the window. She seems pensive, almost sad, as she kneels in the center of the lotus and places her chin in her hands.
A soft low harmonium sings, joined by the sweet, high keening of a flute and the very slow thump of a drum, matching the rhythm of the waves sloshing purple light against the window. Softly, a beautiful female voice joins the song, nearly a whisper, lovingly chanting ancient names that few of the audience know but which still move many to tears. The sound, emitted by arrays of directional speakers, is modulated such that the differences in frequency between the listeners’ left and right ears reverberate gently within their brains, pouring gentle warm trickles of endorphins so that the rhythm of their controlled breathing and the mindfulness it inspires fills them with soft bliss.
The dancer gazes up into the cameras so that she seems to look directly into the souls of her audience, and her own face melts into the same peaceful, loving warmth many of them are now experiencing. She lifts her hand to her lips as though to blow a kiss, but then reaches higher toward the amethyst affixed to her forehead, and she taps and prods it gently as though she didn’t expect it to be there.
After a moment, her expression shifts to surprise and she pinches the center of the jewel, then pulls slowly. A skein of glittering silver thread unravels, and she winds it slowly around her finger, pulling the unbreakable cord of diamond from her head and holding about half a meter in front of her eyes, turning it over in her hands, examining it thoughtfully. Then her eyes, glittering in the purple light like they were amethysts themselves, thoughtfully examine the towers of crystal surrounding her. She smiles again and plays with the thread, twirling it in her hands, playing cat’s cradle, spinning it into a circle, holding it up to the spotlights to watch it sparkle.
After a while she arises again, holding the thread in loops around her hand and elbow. By now it is perhaps as long as she is tall, and she walks over to one amethyst and presses the end to the crystal, where it sticks. Her face alight with glee, she dances around the two nearest amethyst towers, weaving the thread back and forth between them in a radial pattern, then once she has a dozen buttresses, starts winding the cord around them in a beautiful spiral.
Behind, a strange blue moon climbs the window, and she steps back to admire how her little web frames the gleaming, cratered disk. She raises her hands prayerfully toward it and falls gracefully to her knees, helped by the spider apparatus. Then the eight legs rise along with her hands. The ceiling screens display a new image, like they are mirrors looking down, showing the limbs stretching upward, outward, matching the lotus mandala formed by the crystals.
The strange blue moon rises above the web’s frame. Tiny blue reflections upon the threads glitter like a swarm of fireflies tangled in a silver braid. The weaver raises a hand and points to the web, her forefinger dancing and her lips moving silently as she counts the specks of light—seven, eight, nine, but soon she loses count because even the reflections have reflections and it depends entirely on the sharpness of one’s eyes to decide how many stars there really are. Eventually lets her hands fall to her lap, just watching the web swaying gently in the soft breeze of the theater’s ventilation system.
Suddenly, from stage left, a shadow emerges from a doorway. The weaver’s eyes do not stray from their gaze upon the web, even when the shadow moves to the window and looked out over the sea, and throws down the black cloak that covers him. A young man, his face impassive, watches the waves for a little while, then he turns and spots the amethysts. His eyes widen in surprise and admiration as he regards the crystals, and he strokes his chin thoughtfully as his gaze sweeps over each gem, taking their measure. His walking stick has a setting at its top, but it is empty.
He walks toward the amethysts gently bound by the weaver’s web, holding his staff out in front of himself, and pauses for a moment before the silver skein. The weaver rises to her feet to greet the visitor, but her welcoming visage becomes a mask of horror as he waves his staff between the amethysts and tears apart the silken threads of her beautiful web. She claps her hands to her mouth and her spider legs wave wildly, their blue-sparking rhythm accelerating to panicked flashes, as the young man makes a disgusted face, wipes the remnants of her weaving off his staff, and casts it in a misshapen ball to the ground like so much garbage.
He steps between the amethysts, heedless of the weaver, and bumps rudely into her—knocking her to the ground. She stares up at him with betrayed eyes, but her hand brushes the sad remnant of her lovely web and she turns away from him, gathers it up gently between her fingers, and weeps. The interloper continues to disregard her and taps his staff on other amethysts, the quartz ringing hollowly.
The weaver rolls the silken threads into a tiny ball and stares at it through tear-shimmering eyes turned to cold sapphires by the flashing lights of her spider legs. She turns her gaze to the invader and her graceful eyebrows lower as she scowls. Eight powerful limbs crash down onto the carbonic surface, shattering small charcoal rocks, skittering and screeching and screaming on the slick graphite. She rises upon the spider legs, her right hand holding the ruined web ahead of her beseechingly, her left hand contracted into claws of rage.
“Speak your name, O cruel creature!” she cries out, her smooth, contralto voice not one whit less beautiful despite the rising fury within it.
In surprise, the destroyer turns around and sees her for the first time. She now towers above him and he lifts his hands to cover his face—in protection, in fear, in shame as he realizes what he has done.
“I have many names, O fearsome one,” he breathes, in a deep baritone quavering slightly as his eyes widen in the sight of her fury, her glory, her beauty. He presses his palms together and bows deeply in reverence to her visage, and speaks. “I have been called Dundubhisvara, and Durvasa, and Dan, and many other names which I have forgotten, O glorious one.” Nervous twitches make him thump his walking stick upon the graphite surface, blackening it.
“Cease your drumming and your voice,” she says coldly, and the spider legs swiftly flex and allow her to leap to the top of the tallest amethyst, where she glares down upon him wrathfully. “You are difficult to share a world with, and I judge you a heartless creature, O wicked one.”
He bows his head and tears spring to his eyes. He lets the empty staff clatter to the ground and mumbles to the ground in shame. “O beautiful one, I apologize. Had I known it was your weaving, and important to you, I would not have destroyed it.”
This is not a suitable answer. She screams with rage and leaps upon him, knocking him to the ground. The spider legs suspend her body horizontally over his, her face so close to his he can feel the heat of her breath upon him. “How dare you dishonor my poor web’s beauty so, by claiming her value was only that she was mine? Did you not see how she captured the light of the moon and turned it into sapphire dreams?” Her voice breaks and her words are interspersed with sobs. “Did you not see how she captured every beam of these lights, every flash of a wrist phone, every wave of gleaming life, and caught it gently, reflected it back, a gift to your eyes?”
She pushes her hand into his forehead, mushing the ball of destroyed web into his brow, a sad gray reflection of the amethyst bindi on her own head from which it had sprung. It sticks there, mocking him. “Are your other eyes so blind?” she whispers sadly, and buries her face into his shoulder.
“Perhaps they have been,” he says. “Thank you for opening my eyes. What may I call you, O beloved one, whose true name is indescribable in its beauty and majesty, even if I could praise it every moment from now to eternity?”
The spider legs carefully spin her body around until her feet again come to rest upon the black ground. She looks down at him prone upon the ground, gazing up at her, seemingly no longer concerned she could tear off his limbs and throw them out into the crowd. “You may call me Jnanachandra, or Kandali, or Aranti, or Lalita. It matters not, because our true names exceed all possible expression from our tiny voices.”
“I offer myself,” he says. “If it is the recompense you require, O Lalita.”
She stares at him for a long moment and says, “I have already knocked you down, so I have avenged that indignity.” A deep disgust marks her lovely face. “But how dare you reject her beauty, her gifts? She must have loved you greatly, to offer such treasures to an ungrateful soul.” Her expression softens, if only a little. “But I see you have learned from your transgression, so I will demand only a small restitution.”
“What is that, O Aranti?” The spider smiles, for that is her name in this life. The audience, almost completely silent until now, taps a quick applause out in honor of young Aranti Shivakami of Vaikom and the actress, the weaver, the dancer, smiles out of character and bows. Her lovely eyes sparkle, true tears come in which are reflected the audience’s adoration and her profound love and gratitude.
“O Dan,” she says, and the young actor rises to his feet and bows toward the audience. Born of verdant Éire, Dan Wolfe’s travels had taken him to the National School of Drama in New Delhi, where Aranti had briefly met him during her own in-person classes. Their brief correspondence had led to him joining the Temple Artists Guild soon after she’d moved to the Americas. Though she had been unnerved by his enthusiasm to follow in her footsteps, he had never given her the slightest trouble.
As her companion takes his bow, Aranti smiles, closes her eyes, and lets herself become a beautiful spider again. It takes the rest of Dan’s applause to remember the spider is supposed to be angry, not warmly delighted as she now is. She fixes her face into a mask of righteous wrath and glares at him as he returns to his own character.
“O Dan, the pleasure of a game of dice will mollify me, if you dare accept my challenge.”
“O Kandali, I accept your challenge, for I am among the greatest players of games of chance, and shall surely spank your noob ass.” Soft laughter ripples from the audience to hear these young actors speaking the slang of the elderly.
“O Duvasa, arrogant one. Let me offer you this handicap: that you may roll three times to my one and take of all three the result most dear to you.”
The man leaps to his feet, quaking with anger. “O Jnanachandra, tiny spider that would fit nicely under my heel. How dare you mock me so?”
“I’d like to see you try, O silly Dundubhisvara! Take your three dice and throw.”
The man glowers fiercely and takes three small sapphire dice from his pocket and tosses them on a smooth spot polished into the graphite ground. They turn the sparkles of light around them into clinks and clatters and slowly came to rest, each die touching the others.
“I see nine, twelve, and fifty-four. What number will you choose?”
She shrugs her eight spider limbs, pulls a tiny octahedral amethyst from her hair, and lets it fall from softly releasing fingertips, like a lover feeling that last slow, silken touch of skin retreating from skin as they release each other’s hands before a trip in two different directions. She smiles that lover’s smile of knowing that the trip is to be quite short and the next time their hands touch, they will be joining, enfolding, reuniting under adoring eyes. This die’s sound is not a harsh clatter but rather a sweet silvern ringing, a tender chime, a deep and resonating copper gong. It skitters for a moment and comes to rest.
“One hundred and eight,” he grumbles. “Point for you, O spider. I shall cast again.” He throws the three dice again.
“Twelve, twenty-seven, fifty-four. What number will you choose?”
He makes an exasperated sound and waves his staff in the air as though testing for more webs to destroy. “Fifty-four.”
She rolls again, and the music settles into a gentle tinkling of bells and silence. Again, one hundred and eight comes up on top. “I win again!”
Glaring, he casts again. “Twelve, nine, twenty-seven.”
“I choose twenty-seven,” he snaps before she can ask. “Roll please, O advancer.”
Her die comes up fifty-four. “I win again!” she says in the gleeful voice of a little girl about to burst into a laughter that will never fade.
“Yes, yes!” The man scowls ferociously, but his eyes meet hers and he is lost in their beauty, his prideful anger vanishing in a breath and replaced by the all-consuming desire to never let that smile fade from her lips, her eyes, not even for a moment. “I… surrender to you, O beautiful lady of games. Thank you for this gift, though you won. The smile that our game brought to your face is a priceless jewel and I am forever in your debt.”
“There is no debt, O beloved one. In fact, I ask that you take your leave of me for a day so that I can craft for you a proper gift.”
“I am honored beyond words, O beloved one. I will go, and will return to your blessed sight tomorrow.” He exits stage right.
The spider goes to the edge of the stage, where a small pile of amethysts lies broken off one of the main crystal towers. She grabs a convenient nearby basket and shovels handfuls of gems into it. Then she returns to the center of the lotus and bends her head to her work. The audience sees her hands on the screens above, graceful fingers swiftly sorting beads by quality, selecting the finest and arranging them in concentric circles, each with a dozen beads.
When all one hundred and eight are chosen, she pours them into an apparatus with small rails that channel the beads into a line. Then she takes it to the other side of the stage and places the apparatus into a socket in the wall. There is a sharp hiss and a flash of light as an industrial laser drills the beads, pulsing with a specific frequency to disrupt the formation of spall. She removed the device and pours the beads back into the basket. Then she pulls at the amethyst on her head, drawing out a long, nearly unbreakable cord, and threads the beads one by one, tying knots in between each. The weaving accelerates on the screen, 1X, 3X, 5X. Swiftly she is done. She ties one last knot and holds the glimmering amethyst mala to the light of the blue moon.
Dan returns from stage right. “I have come as promised, O beloved one.”
She presents the mala to him, lets it fall from softly releasing fingertips, like a lover feeling that last slow, silken touch of skin retreating from skin as they release each other’s hands before a trip in two different directions. He catches it and ties it in loops around his wrist. Their hands touch. They are joining, enfolding, reuniting under adoring eyes. The sound of the mala’s beads striking each other was not a harsh clatter but a sweet silvern ringing, a tender chime, a deep and resonating copper gong.
They embrace. His arms are lost in the black enfolding of her eight spider limbs. She lifts her real arms and takes his chin in both her hands. Then she kisses him as they had during rehearsal. Perhaps now, though, it is something about the warm embrace of a funny spider costume, glittering with streams of dizzying, dazzling blue, something about her space-black eyes catching the Stars of Dream within them, or his melted-chocolate eyes filling with shining tears as he looked upon her. Their eyes close and timeless bliss pours from lip to lip, from fingertip to jaw.
“Take this then, and go, O beloved,” she says, her lovely eyes again brimming with tears—though she smiles. “For your place is there, in a new world, and mine is here in this blessed place, lost in the Deep of time.”
“I do not want to be apart from you.”
“You never shall be,” she whispers, holding him tightly as she weaves their souls together gently, fireflies tangled in a silver braid. Threads drift down over their shoulders, their hair, glinting in the blue light of the moon, shining now from the opposite wall as it descends in the company of another small satellite. It is also blue, and flashes in the sunlight as it tumbles erratically end over end.
She lowers herself into lotus and spreads her eight spider limbs outward, joining with the lines of the mandala. She closes her eyes in bliss and he turns and exits stage right, tracing around the beads of the mala with thankful fingers.
The moons set and there are a few moments of darkness. Then the blue suns rise over the Pacific, blazing like arc welders, scorching the graphite and coal into warm gray highlights and deep black shadows. The large amethyst crystals, seemingly on their own, topple at random speeds. When the screens come back on, the fallen jewels in their new configurations still trace the lines of the lotus in the mandala.
But Aranti was gone, and no one in the audience saw where she was going.