I turned around and walked slowly to the stables. Conqueror knew that it was time to once again leave. We just began walking down the mountain when a soldier appeared without warning and raised his crossbow. The great horse saw him before I did and began running as I swung on to Conqueror's back, but the arrow found its mark and buried itself into horse's left hindquarter.
The pain jolted Conqueror for a moment but didn't stop his full speed descent until we were well beyond the range of more arrows. Then, he abruptly slowed to a walk and began limping badly. I dismounted and inspected his left flank that was covered with blood and found the deadly arrow lodged inside the large muscle. It was buried so deeply that only a few feathers of the short shaft were visible, masking the damage that its sharp killing tip had done.
He struggled behind me, stumbling, as we continued our descent. I knew full well that if the horse collapsed, I would never be able to get him on his feet again. Painstakingly, we made our descent, staying well off the trail to keep from being discovered. Finally one evening it was too much for Conqueror, and he fell in the snow.
That night I curled next to his body trying to keep warm, just trying to make it until th enext morning. I was helpless to do anything for my friend; I had nothing with which to remove the arrow, not even a knife. And even though I could do nothing to ease his pain, I could remain by his side as long as he was alive. I remained with him throughout the the next day, an interminably long day where his only movements were occasionally raising his head to see if I was still there.
Evening again approached. I watched the sun ease down into a million golden diamonds reflecting off the hard-crusted snow, and far off in the distance, I thought that I heard a far off “tinkle. " It was faint, and I couldn't tell where it was coming from, but I was convinced that it was soldiers from the city searching for us. Conqueror's white body was almost invisible in the snow, so I hid behind him and held my breath. I didn't want to kill these soldiers.
The noise became louder, definitely coming closer, and increasingly sounding like cattle bells! Some forms appeared in the distance, cresting the hill and slowly made their way directly toward us across the snowfields, but with the setting sun at their backs I couldn't see who or what was coming. I ducked down behind Conqueror and didn't move. They were almost on top of us; so close that I could hear large animals breathing and feel their tremendous weight by the vibration of their heavy footsteps in the crusted snow. Then they stopped. . . and everything was silent for a moment. I peeked over Conqueror's shoulders and in the golden glow of the setting sun; there was the holy man of the mountain with a big grin on his face leading two of his mammoth oxen!
He wasted no time hooking a sling around Conqueror, after which his animals began dragging the injured horse toward the trail. Late that night we finally arrived at his stable and moved Conqueror into an empty stall, where the little man started a fire and began boiling some surgical tools apparently used to tend his animals in this remote outpost. While the tools were being sterilized, he poured a liquid down Conqueror's throat that soon rendered him unconscious, and then proceeded to clean and bathe the wound with another solution. Then he retrieved the instruments from the boiling water, laid them on a clean, white cloth, selected a very small, sharp knife, and began cutting the arrow out.
It took an interminably long time, and when he finally began stitching up the wound, he was shaking his head. I knew, at best, that Conqueror would never run again.
The small man carefully put everything away and then brought some food out for me before he retired to his cabin. I made myself comfortable in a corner of the stall and gazed at my horse lying so still on the straw. I so felt helpless - and my heart went out to the great horse that so loved to run, recklessly carrying me through the green fields of his youth with the wind whistling through his mane.
My mind drifted back to a John and what he said about attachments and wanting; how those two things are the roots of our discontent. This very moment, I had to admit that the feelings coming up were extremely painful, recalling the countless times this valiant horse had saved my life in combat, never once considering his own safety or comfort. How could I not feel close to such a faithful friend that some magical being apparently bestowed upon me as my protector?
I wallowed in my grief for a while and then unexpectedly was able to look at it from a more detached perspective. It was as if the inner work had given my mind some breathing space around sorrow so that I could investigate deeper. Despite the many moments of happiness Conqueror had given me, he was now causing me worry and pain. I recalled Ariya's words, " Be careful what you love, it could kill you, " but was this fretting and ache in my heart caused by the horse, or was it caused by myself? Why couldn't I accept this present moment where I was just sitting here with my horse, and where everything else was. . . as it is? Why must I bog myself down into a past and future that wasn't real, that was just something in my mind projecting a dismal future for my friend? Perhaps Conqueror never would run again, but that was something yet to happen. Plenty of time for that later.
What I really wanted was the horse to be complete again. That was the problem - I wanted. Everything revolved around me, and what I wanted. I could not accept the fact that things were different now and not beckoning to my desires. Is this not always the problem when we lose control of something; we simply want it to be otherwise? If this is true, then the solution to our grief must be in somehow accepting the present. What can we really do about the past?
This one moment in time could be so special, sitting quietly with my friend. Why couldn't I simply be here without being enslaved by my mind and its constant demands? Perhaps an all acceptance’ of everything every moment, just being, was a clue to finding the key - just being a mere witness to everything that “is. " I had to be patient and trust that someday I would meet a master who would explain all of this in a much clearer way.
Conqueror slowly healed with the loving care of the small man who cared for him with as much concern as if he were treating his own son. This hermit had qualities that I had only the privilege of seeing once before in a man; a simplicity and directness in everything that he did and a total unconcern for his own welfare, only recognizing the needs of others.
There was a certain mystique about key keepers. It was unmistakable but difficult to explain. They were hardly noticed, so unassuming and quiet; almost childlike in their ways but when they were gone, only then was their impact felt. I gave my heart to this leathery, compassionate man just as I gave it to a funny little robed man many years ago whom I was now convinced was a key keeper as well.
The night before we left, I was sitting by the fire with the holy man as he quietly sketched a small being with dark, piercing eyes and small delicate hands and feet. Now I understood what led him to us on the mountain. He then drew a picture of Conqueror with the arrow in his leg and put the picture side by side with the sketch of Ariya, shaking his head back and forth. At first, the connection wasn't clear, and then I understood; Ariya had no power to prevent the arrow from finding its mark. This was the result of kamma; my past actions beginning when I threw the blacksmith into prison causing his premature death, which forced his son to venture out on his own without guidance. Then when the blacksmith's son was killed, I left the community, perhaps a few minutes sooner than I would have, and ran into the soldier with the crossbow. I could clearly see that life and its entanglements are extremely complicated, with every action and its results having long reaching, ripple effects. I promised myself that I would scrutinize my every action from this day forward and try to never begin a sequence of events that would negatively affect anyone.
I also began to appreciate how the solitary life of this holy man, a hermit living alone, would leave few footprints on this earth, and making little kamma through his selfless actions and peaceful existence. Perhaps the quality that rang so true with these key keepers and masters was simply - nobody home. No “self" inside, with only pure awareness directed toward others, and seeing themselves not separate from whatever arose in their consciousness.
I noticed something else, too. I noticed that these key keepers and masters never actively recruited followers. They seemed to know that when the searcher's kamma was ripe, and not before, the searcher mystically would find them. They were true symbols of radiance shining amongst the dimness of our confusion, unfailingly remaining steadfast in their precious moment with no agenda or ambition.
The small man was now drawing another map for me. It led from the mountain to a far away village in a distant country. The village he depicted was at the base of a towering mountain, so high that its snow-capped peaks pierced the clouds. And a short distance from the village, he drew a cave.
The next morning I said goodbye again to my mountain friend and led my badly limping horse slowly down the trail. I would never ride Conqueror again.
E. Raymond Rock of Fort Myers, Florida is cofounder and principal teacher at the Southwest Florida Insight Center, http://www.SouthwestFloridaInsightCenter.com His twenty-eight years of meditation experience has taken him across four continents, including two stopovers in Thailand where he practiced in the remote northeast forests as an ordained Theravada Buddhist monk. His book, A Year to Enlightenment (Career Press/New Page Books) is now available at major bookstores and online retailers. Visit http://www.AYearToEnlightenment.com