“Because I was a little worried. I know hair’s a big deal for women.”
“And not for men?”
“Not in the same way. We worry about losing it, but we don’t care what it looks like. We don’t even mind cutting it all off so long as we know it’ll grow back.”
“And you will not mind shaving off all of yours now?”
“No, of course not.”
“Then neither will I.” Snip! “There, Evan. I think that is as much as I can get off with the scissors.” She ran her hand through the mound of hair on the floor in front of her. “Well? You are the one who will have to look at me. How does it look?”
All she needed was a safety pin through her cheek and she could pass for a punk rock star. “It looks unfinished,” I said, “and it’ll be better when I’ve shaved it all off. But it’s not so bad.” I nodded at the mirror. “Have a look for yourself.”
“Why not? It is just hair. It is not important, it will surely grow back.” Then she fell silent as she looked in the mirror.
Then she burst into tears.
Her hair was fine and soft, and offered little resistance to the razor. When I’d finished, she looked again into the mirror, and for a long moment she was silent.
Then she said, “Do I look like a man? I don’t think so, Evan. I don’t look like a woman, but neither do I look like a man. I look like some sexless creature from another planet.”
“It just takes getting used to,” I said. I picked up the scissors, then turned to her. “I don’t know,” I said. “Maybe this is a bad idea. Suppose I just turn myself in. What can they do to me?”
“I mean, they’re not going to hang me. So they’ll slap me around a little and kick me out of the country. Hell, I’ve been thrown out of better places than this.”
“So maybe that’s what I’ll do,” I said. “How about you? You’ll be all right, won’t you?” I held up a hand. “Hey, I’m just kidding. Honest.”
“I know you are kidding,” she said. “That is why the scissors are still in your hand. Otherwise they would be in your heart.”
“Uh,” I said.
“My ears are large,” she said. “I never realized this before. I have large ears.”
“Your ears are beautiful.”
“They were better when one did not see so much of them. Suddenly I have ears like a bat. And look at the shape of my head.”
“What’s wrong with the shape of your head?”
“I don’t know. I was never so aware of it before, the shape of my head. Now I am suddenly aware of nothing else.” She patted at her skull, framing and reframing it with her hands. “It is small,” she said. “I have a small head. With big ears.”
“It just looks that way because you’re used to it with hair.”
“Of course I am. Evan, we should have made love before I did this. When I was still beautiful.”
“You’re beautiful now.”
“You don’t have to say that. I will get over this, Evan. I am in shock, that is all, but I am adjusting to it. This is just part of the process of adjustment.”
“Anyway,” she said, “we will travel light, yes? No mirrors.”
I took her place in front of the mirror, looking at my own close-cropped skull. If a barber had done this to me, I thought, I’d kill him. It would be better once I shaved it, I told myself. And then I remembered that I’d told Katya the same thing.
“No mirrors,” I said. “Count on it.”
With our hair scissored off we’d looked like victims, and a tad demented in the bargain. With our heads shaved, we just looked weird.
In our new robes, we looked like monks.
Or did we? It was hard to tell, even as it was hard to wrap oneself properly in the dark red cloth. It was probably the first thing you learned at monk school, how to wrap the set of three cloths so that they covered everything they were supposed to cover and wouldn’t fall open at an inopportune moment. They all seemed to know how to do it, even the small boys, but there had to be a trick to it, because we didn’t seem to have gotten the hang of it.
“Don’t wrap the outer robe too tight across your chest,” I advised Katya. “It makes you look, uh-”
“Like a woman,” she said, and adjusted the drape of the robe. “All my life,” she said, “I felt that my breasts were too small, and now I find out they are too large. Should I bind them, Evan?”
“It’s too late now,” I said. “They’re already grown.”
“To flatten them,” she said.
“Oh, I was thinking of Chinese women, you know, binding their feet.”
“I don’t think they do that anymore, Evan.”
“No, of course not. But should you try to flatten them? I don’t know. Let me see.”
She opened the robe.
“I just meant let me look at you in profile, Katya. I didn’t mean let me look at your breasts.”
“I’m sorry. I thought you wanted to see them.”
“Well, I suppose I did,” I said. “But that’s not what I meant. My God.”
“What is the matter?”
“You’re beautiful,” I said.
“Even with my head shaved?”
“Even if you wore a Richard Nixon Halloween mask,” I said. “Your breasts are-”
“No,” I said. “Just right.” I took a deep breath. “You’d better close the robe. Now let’s see how it looks.”
“And how does it look, Evan?”
“It looks fine to me,” I said. “But to tell you the truth, I liked it better open.”
I looked hopelessly white.
Part of that, I knew, was attitudinal, and would change of its own accord. An actor’s face changes slightly when he gets into character, and the same thing happens when a traveler in another country speaks and thinks in another language. Speak French, or even speak English with a strong French accent, and one begins to shrug in a characteristic French fashion, and in a short time one’s features take on a Gallic cast.
But that wouldn’t help me from a distance, and my freshly shaven head would be a positive beacon of whiteness. I said as much to Katya and she produced an answer, working on my head with cosmetics. Her supply was limited, as was my patience for this sort of thing, but I have to say it made a difference. I still looked white enough to join a neo-Nazi group – and God knows I had the right hairdo for it – but at least I didn’t gleam.
“Besides,” she said, “there are white monks.”
“Sure,” I said. “Franciscans, Carthusians, Dominicans, Benedictines-”
“White Buddhist monks.”
“In Burma,” she said. “I have seen them. They come here to study Theravada Buddhism. That is the same branch as in Sri Lanka.”
“And in Thailand,” I said. “And Laos and Cambodia.”
“They come to live in one of the meditation centers. I have seen them on the street in the morning, Evan, dressed in robes like ours and carrying their begging bowls.”
“Maybe they’re just hippies,” I said, “looking for a free meal.”
“They are monks.”
“I’m sure you’re right,” I said. “It’s just that I haven’t seen any.”
“Well, there are so many monks.”
“Every Buddhist is expected to pass some time as a monk. For a week or two as a young boy-”
“Shit,” I said, remembering the kid with the bird.
“I beg your pardon?”
“The boys serve for a week or two,” she said. “They are novices. There is a word for it.”
“Samanera,” I said.
“You know all this?”
“Ku Min gave me a crash course,” I said, “along with the robes and begging bowls. He’s a Buddhist, and he was a samanera and also a pyongyi. That’s when you’re a grown man and you spend three months at a monastery as a fully ordained monk. Not everybody stays the whole three months, some figure three days is enough, but Ku Min went the distance. He thought of spending the rest of his life there.”
“But instead he became a money changer.”
“And threw himself out of the temple,” I said. “But he’s still a good Buddhist. I think it bothered him a little, the idea that I’d be pretending to be a monk. Sacrilege and all that. But he gave me a quick course in the religion so that I’d know what kind of behavior will be expected of me.”
“You’d better tell me, too.”
“Monks have to live by ten precepts,” I remembered. “There are the five rules that all Buddhists are expected to follow – no killing, no stealing, no unchastity, no lying, and no intoxicating substances.”
“The last three, Vanya, may be a problem.”
“I’ve broken two of them already today,” I said, “and I stole some guy’s shoes. I’m chaste, though, and I haven’t killed anybody lately. Anyway, those are the standard ones. There are five more for monks.”
“What else can’t we do?”
“No eating after noon,” I said. “No listening to music or dancing.”
“What if there is music playing? How do you keep from hearing it?”
“I guess you just think of something else. Just so you don’t break into a fast fox trot.” I scratched my head. “There’s three more. No wearing jewelry or perfume. No sleeping on high beds. And no accepting money for personal use.”
“We cannot eat after noon?”
“Not when people are watching.”
“And I cannot wear my ring, but I already thought of that. A ruby ring would look out of place on the hand of a monk.”
“Oh, I don’t know. The color’s a good match for the robe.”
“No high beds. To remain humble, I suppose. The difficult one will be not to eat after noon.”
“All it means,” I said, “is we have to avoid being seen eating after noon. Look, the monks probably rise and shine around two in the morning and go to sleep by sunset, so abstaining from meals after noon probably isn’t that much of a stretch for them. We’ll manage to stow some food and eat it when nobody’s looking. Remember, most of the time we’ll be walking along the road, with nobody anywhere near us. We can eat all we want then. Hell, we can even talk.”
“Can’t we talk the rest of the time?”
“I don’t think it would be a good idea. We’d call attention to ourselves by speaking in Russian or English. And your voice is a little higher than the average monk’s.”
“Of course. If they hear me-”