The life-size, sculpted Buddha I met yesterday
on the ground floor of the Art Institute
was born some nine hundred years ago in Tamil Nadu, South India,
and came to Chicago as a missionary of bliss just prior to my birth.
(I, too, was a missionary child, but my family went the other way—
from America to Tamil Nadu—and all of us have returned
to America, and two of us have returned to the earth.)
But the dark granite of the Buddha’s body was the dark granite
of the rough grindstone behind my father’s flute teacher’s house
on the southern plains near Madurai. A black water-buffalo calf
lay in the shade and rested his chin on the stone and sighed.
And the mandala etched in the Buddha’s hand was a lotus blossom
that bloomed on the lake in Kodaikanal, where we lived.
A green butterfly flew out over the water and settled on the white petals
of the lotus blossom.
And the stone flame above the Buddha’s head was the flame
on the single-burner kerosene stove in my ayah’s home near the bazaar.
She boiled water with the flame and made Darjeeling tea,
sweetening it with jaggery and handing it to me in a shining metal cup.
Other visitors to the museum wanted to see the Buddha, too,
so I moved slowly round him. On his back, an inscription in Tamil,
starting between his shoulder blades, went on to cover the stone.
I heard a docent say the inscription was no longer legible, but no,
I could read it:
Dear Little Brother . . .
Copyright © 2018 Harlan Bjornstad. Reprinted with permission of the author. This poem originally appeared in The Southern Review, Autumn 2018.