October, 2013 Archive

The Monkey’s Paw

Sunday, October 20th, 2013

Adapted from the story by W.W. Jacobs in preparation for telling around the campfire at the Cub Scout overnight on October 19-20 2013 at Camp French

This campfire reminds of my first campout with Cub Scouts across the river from where I lived in New York City 61 years ago.

It was a dark, windy night out in the woods, far away from any lights, a little before Halloween. We were sitting around the fire as we are tonight and someone said, “Does anyone know any scary stories?”  There was no answer. After a couple of minutes, one person spoke up. It was a new kid who’d just joined the Den named  Georgie Roberts.  He was quiet and pale and had dark circles under his eyes. “I can tell you a very scary story about what happened to me and my family down in the tropics.” I didn’t really want to hear it, but a most of the guys couldn’t resist and begged him to go on.

Georgie spoke in a shy voice:

“My Mom and Dad and I were living in Brazil for a year because my Dad was running a business there exporting tropical hardwood. At first, the three of us were having lots of good times, going to the carnival, exploring the old city of Manaos, taking boat rides up the Amazon River, where we’d eat lunch, see the birds and monkeys in the jungle and watch the crocodiles grabbing animals that came out of the forest to drink along the bank and pulling them into the water and mangling them.

On one of those rides we met an anthropologist/explorer from Germany named Anton who had spent a lot of time with some of the last few native tribes that still survived in the jungle and who’d participated in some of their religious rituals.  He always struck me as kind of strange, maybe because of that.

Anyway six months after we got there, my Dad’s business was not going well and we were going to have to leave Brazil. But my father had borrowed money and had a debt of $5000 he needed  to pay back on a bank loan. If he didnt, we’d lose our home in New York that we’d planned to return to.

A few days before we were supposed to leave, my parents invited Anton over for a good-bye dinner.  After we ate, we sat around the fire ring in the back yard remembering some of our trips together.  At one point Anton got up and pulled something weird and ugly-looking out of his pocket. It was a clawlike hand, with small nails, ragged fur and dried skin hanging off the end. ‘There’s something I want to share with you before you go,’ he said. ‘This is the Monky’s Paw.'”

Georgie stood up and his voice got lower and stronger.  It seemed to come from the huge figure of his flickering shadow cast by the firelight against the surrounding trees.

“Anton, said it was left to him by a friend who got it from an native medicine man who’d put a spell on it.  It had the mysterious power to grant three wishes to the family who possessed it. Anton shuddered and said his friend’s last wish was for death.  He was about to throw it into the fire, but my father grabbed his wrist and said, ‘Stop, I know this is ridiculous, but I’m in a situation where some magic wishes are all I have to save our family home.’

My Mom said,  ‘No, don’t mess with magic,’ but my Dad grabbed the paw from Anton, held it by the forearm bone, and made a wish: ‘Bring us $5000.’  The claw seemed to vibrate in his hand and glow slightly for a few seconds.  Anton cried, ‘O my Gosh,’ and ran from the backyard into the house, and we heard a slam of the front door. Nothing more happened and my Dad said, ‘He must be continuing the joke.’

Next day was Sunday and my Mom left the house to go on a last boat trip up the river with her friends. Dad and I stayed behind and packed our suitcases for the flight to New York.  When Mom didn’t return by evening we both got worried.  At 7:00 o’clock the doorbell rang and Dad answered it to find two people standing there, a policeman in uniform and a man in black derby hat.

The policeman said, ‘May we come in please.’  My Dad let them in and the policeman said, ‘There’s been a terrible accident Mr. Roberts. There was an explosion in the riverboat Mrs. Roberts was on today, and all the passengers were thrown into the water, where they were killed by crocodiles before they could be rescued.’

My Dad and I were both frozen with shock.  Before he could say anything, the man in the derby hat identified himself as representative of the company that ran the boat.  He said, ‘I’m so sorry to be bringing you this tragic news.  Even though it was not our fault, our company wants to provide you with some monetary compensation to express our regret.’ And he handed my Dad a check for $5000. Then the policeman asked my Dad if he could come with him down to the morgue to identify the remains of Mrs. Roberts—my Mom.

My Dad called next door and asked the neighbor to look after me for a little while and  left with the two men.  An hour or so later he returned looking pale and shaken, thanked the neighbor and sent her away.  To me, he said, ‘I know that this is an awful thing that happened, but at least we’ll be able to have a place to go home to.’ I wasn’t yet able to absorb what was going on, but I asked him if there was a connection between his wish with the Monkey’s paw and the accident. He replied,   ‘No way, son, that’s just a crazy coincidence.’

After we were back in our old house in New York for a few days, his business started improving.  But I began to really feel the loss of my Mom, and I got sadder and sadder.  There was only one thing I could think of doing: ask my Dad to make another wish with the Monkey’s Paw to bring her back.  But he refused, saying ‘No, that’s ridiculous, that couldn’t possibly work, and anyway, I got rid of it.’

But I didn’t believe him, and when he was at work, I searched through his stuff and found it stashed at the back of his underwear drawer.  I pulled out the yucky thing and stuck it under my pillow.  That night, as my Dad was tucking me in to sleep, I sat up and pulled it out from its hiding place and held it up.  Before he could do anything, I said, ‘Bring back my Mom!’ It vibrated a little in my hand and gave off a slight glow.  My Dad’s jaw dropped and his eyes widened.

At that moment the front door bell rang. I sprang up thrilled and yelled ‘Momma, Momma’ and ran toward the door.  My Dad called ‘No, No, No.’ I turned on the porchlight, and through the window by the door saw something unspeakably horrible.  Then with a flash, it disappeared.  I turned around and there was my Dad, holding the Monkey’s Paw, vibrating and aglow.’”

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More campout pictures

Beatnik Buddhism in Jack Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums

Monday, October 7th, 2013

A talk to the White Heron Sangha, October 6, 2013

I was introduced to the writings of Jack Kerouac by a trumpet-player friend in high school who gave me a copy of On the Road just after it came out in 1957.  But though I’d already done some hitchhiking around New England and hung out in Greenwich Village on Friday nights, I was put off by the book’s frenetic style and its praise of aimless, restless travel.  Twelve years later, in 1969, I encountered The Dharma Bums, Kerouac’s second most popular book, while selecting works to place on the syllabus of a class at Columbia University I called “Pastoral and Utopia, Visionary Conceptions of the Good Life.” This book’s triumphant celebration of free love, wilderness adventures, bohemian companionship, and Buddhist meditation made a perfect fit.  Forty four years later, while looking for a topic for a Sangha talk to follow up on the one about Thoreau’s Buddhism I offered last Spring, I picked The Dharma Bums in order to consider how my perspective on the novel and its Buddhist themes might have changed in the meantime. (more…)