"Please spare some food for the child," Atami begged.
"For a crossbreed? Never!" She slammed her door.
"What is a crossbreed?" Luka asked.
"A peach growing on a pear tree," the monk replied. They walked on.
On the road, they saw dead people everywhere lying with dead animals. Thieves robbed thieves. Beggars killed beggars. The living robbed the dying and wild animals chewed upon the dead. A severe famine was eating people young and old, for the ignorant Mogo rulers had ordered them to give up planting rice and grow barley and wheat instead. The seedlings had withered hopelessly and rotted in the muddy fields on the plains, where wet rains came with howling typhoons and misty seasons lasted forever. Some villagers were rumored to have eaten their own children, others their dogs. Atami could only pray, look to the sky, and go on with the life he was destined to live, no matter how hard it was. He had to live so that Luka could live. They climbed mountains and waded through valleys, hand in hand, day and night, till they reached the outskirts of Peking, where the promise of food and survival beckoned.
There Atami taught Luka the ancient Chinese scripts and had him memorize all the verses when he was four. Every day at sunrise out on the edge of Peking, Luka sat inside a little tent Atami had patched together to shield out the wind and the sun. With his legs crossed at a short table, he nibbled away at the insect-like writings. Luka found those ancient words fascinating. They recorded the creation of the world. First there was the void of nothingness. All silent. Then came the torrential rains that filled up the ocean. When the rain stopped, land was formed. But his favorite was the hand-drawn paintings of eight auspicious Buddhist symbols: the parasol, the banner, the conch shell, the golden treasure vase, the knots of eternity, the golden wheel, and the lotus flower. He often wondered what it would be like to perform the traditional dance of Yian Ge in bare feet and sleeves rolled up for the celebration of autumn harvest or if he would ever be allowed to do so as a Chosen One. When the daily monotonous chanting of the ancient scripts bored him, he would let his mind slip away to the adventures of playing a long trumpet, loud cymbals, and noisy drums--all of which existed only in his imagination.
Atami got up even earlier. He was the sun before the sun and the moon after the moon. He fussed around their little tent, noisily making black tea and, on good days, some wawatos. He chanted his long prayers while fetching water from the sunken well in the backyard overgrown with weeds, then off he went to beg for food. As light cast its last rays, he would enter the tent on his quick feet, his back hunched, clutching his precious bundle to his chest. Even as his eyes shifted fearfully to see if anyone had followed him, he hummed a happy tune for the bounty of the day.
"Come eat, Your Holiness," he would say, opening up the bundle. Usually it would be wawato crumbs, some sour rice, or half-eaten fruits.
Looking up from his books one day, Luka announced, "Your Holiness is not eating today."
"Your Holiness should go out and get food himself now because he is a big boy of ten years."
"But you need to do your studies, Your Holiness. You are already behind what would have been expected of you."
"Forget the studies. From today on I am going out to beg."
"But this is work. Holy work. Sacred work. The best work you could ever do for yourself, the people, and me. I am begging you." Atami was on his knees.
"Don't worry, I will learn at double the speed. That way I can spare some time to help you."
"But the sanctity of your spiritual studies cannot be hastened. One word at a time. Every phrase has meaning and significance. Only through quiet, undisturbed meditation can you achieve that enlightenment we all aspire to."
Excerpted from Wandering Warrior by Da Chen Copyright© 2003 by Da Chen. Excerpted by permission of Delacorte Books for Young Readers, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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