Outside the Gate
by Robert Wexelblatt

1. Dhwer

Never touch a stranger on the thigh or pass wind in a crowded elevator. Eschew pork, shellfish, alcohol, chocolate, saturated fat, refined sugar, bleached flour, etc. Refrain from French kissing in public lectures. Don’t let a stranger see the top of your wife’s head or casually insert into your conversation terms of ethnic derision. Avoid eye-contact on subways, with pit bulls, around the roulette table. On no occasion ask new acquaintances for their SAT scores, talk back to policemen, sneeze on your boss, or compliment the appearance of co-workers.

There are countless ways to distinguish one people, culture, or polity from another: flags, languages, constitutions, holy scriptures, skin color, nose shape, hair-dos. I suspect the most archaic and perennial must be a group’s thou-shalt-nots, its peculiar prohibitions. Here are the people who won’t eat tapirs or cut their hair; there are the ones who don’t touch with the right hand or wear goatskins; these folks have a horror of speaking their god’s name and never enter a doorway backwards. What is permitted is clean, light, good; the forbidden is dirty, dark, bad. Good medicine, bad medicine; white magic, black magic; kosher, not-kosher, etc. Thou-shalts are rarer than negatives; still negation isn’t always negative. I wouldn’t call the Bill of Rights a negative document and yet it’s pretty much a list of things that the government can’t do. The little guy’s rights are what are left over after all the prohibitions on the big guys are enumerated. Rights are a positive defined by a negative and every law is, you might say, an ex-right.

Sorry to begin so unappetizingly. What I want to do is tell a story, in fact a highly personal tale in telling which I will have to struggle to keep my emotions from getting the better of me. But my story is slight and even commonplace. Its context, on the other hand, is broad and exotic, or at least unfamiliar. Frankly, I’d prefer if it were the other way around. In a lot of excellent stories context is simply taken for granted, suggested by a few precise details. The story may tell us about this context; in fact, the very best stories define their contexts forever. But most of the time the context is a sort of fixed background, like the rotating landscapes cartoon characters appear to run through. In my case, what I’m calling the context could turn out to be the whole story, if I’m not careful.

Dhwer. The word goes as far back as we can. It’s one of those seminal, so-called Indo-European, Adam-and-Eve ur-words with lots of progeny spread over the planet.

Dhwer sounds like “door” and, according to the linguists, that was its original meaning—door, gate. In Sanskrit Dvaras, dviri in Old Slavic. But as dhwer worked its way west, like so many things it changed. Dhw turned into f. Thus ancient Latin fora (door), thus foranus (strange), foris (situated outside), forum and forensic—fitting as this, I suppose, is a sort of forensic tale. After the Roman forum fell dhwer became Old French forain and so we get modern English’s foreign, which originally meant something like “outside the set boundaries.” That is, what’s behind that door is verboten—not the alluring secret of Bluebeard’s castle or even the dark woods beyond Grandfather’s gate in Peter and the Wolf, but the unclean, the impure, the not-us.

Dhwer is still in use today by an ancient, small but cohesive people of whom you probably haven’t heard. They call themselves the Luchaira, a name which also derives from an archaic root meaning light, white, bright. The Luchaira consider themselves the people of light. Well, which group doesn’t, you might ask. True, but not like these folks, not with their ferocious concentration and conviction. It isn’t entirely clear to me if they really esteem themselves as the people of light, if they aspire to be or whether it is this aspiration, assiduously pursued by avoiding all that is dhwer, that makes them the people of light.

I can see how it must have begun with a few simple and practical taboos. As I understand things, civilization itself started with the restriction of impulse and desire, religion when the authority for these prohibitions was referred to divinities. It is the human story, with many variations. But the Luchaira believe quite a lot of things and one of them is that their beliefs are literally original, that theirs is the first religion to rise above mere primitive propitiation of natural forces. This is why they see the relationship between their faith and other religions not so differently from the way the linguists regard words like dhwer.

Dhwer is, at least so far as I’m concerned, the cardinal concept of the Luchaira. Dhwer is whatever is off-limits, out-of-bounds; dhwer is the not-Luchaira. The question is not simply whether I am dhwer but to what degree and how irredeemably.

2. Balandh

Is she beautiful? Are her eyes green and slightly Asiatic, her hair thick and black, her figure at once slim and rounded? Does she have a swan-like throat and shapely ankles? Is she wise? Is she a prize? Did I fall for her in all of five minutes? These are rhetorical questions.

The five minutes in question elapsed between 12:30 and 12:35 on a Tuesday last September, the sixty seconds between 12:30 to 12:31 being the most decisive. We’re in the foreground now, you understand, which in this instance is the cafeteria of University Hospital. The dining room is crammed with orderlies, visitors, doctors, nurses, but chiefly with medical students, including the first-yearlings. I was beginning my second year, hard-working, unattached, whole of heart, head crammed with the names of bones, organs, diseases, syndromes, enzymes, proteins, drugs. It was natural to feel some curiosity about the first-year students whom I considered with the sophomore’s mixture of empathy and condescension. Had I too looked so raw, so scared, so lost?

I saw her as soon as she came in to the cafeteria. From 12:30 to 12:31 I noticed, looked, stared. I lay down my fork; I forgot what it was for. Balandh did not appear either lost or raw. If anything she seemed blinkered as she marched straight to the food line without looking right or left. The cafeteria echoed with the kind of noises that tend to draw eyes, so I wondered if she could be deaf. In her hand she carried a brown paper bag; she bought a bottle of water.

Most of the newbies bunched in pairs and trios but she was unaccompanied. Her self-possession attracted me almost as much as her looks. It put me in mind of a proverb I’d always thought particularly foolish and had never used in my life: still waters run deep. Silence and depth—these seemed to fit her repose, her self-containment, her sedate, no-nonsense air. I was unaccustomed to emotional discipline in young females, but then I know hardly anything about them. My experience was restricted to my little sister and three short-term girlfriends. All of them were volatile, and all regarded me as a cold fish because I declined to join in their games of emotional tennis. During my senior year in college, it occurred to me that the last of these girlfriends needed to discuss her feelings in order to believe in them, possibly to have them. For Suzanne, words made the emotion the way clothes make the man. When I broke it off one rainy April night she cried and I felt guilty until the moment she stopped weeping and started upbraiding me. What was especially galling, she said, was all the wasted time she’d “invested” in me. That shocked me. I saw myself through her suddenly hard eyes. I’d been a prospect, a speculation, a share of equity—tall enough, presentable, headed to medical school. She didn’t want to graduate unengaged and had chosen me. I was disgusted. So I buried myself in work my first year of med school. Because of that indelible word “investment” I put aside any urge to seek out female companionship, let alone arrow-through-the-heart, elevator-dropping love.

At 12:32 Balandh stood alone with that perplexed and furrowed look people get when hunting for a place to sit. It wasn’t easy to find one. The cafeteria was mobbed; however, the seat across from me was providentially empty and at 12:33 I did something so entirely out of character that I did it holding my breath I stood up and waved to catch her eye, then pointed with an exaggerated gesture down at the vacant seat. It was like being in a silent movie, sending semaphore, like a troglodyte’s summons. I must have looked ridiculous; in fact, later on Balandh admitted that I did and that she accepted the invitation only because I looked so goofy delivering it. Waving, pointing—beseeching.

At 12:35 she sat down and, saying nothing, smiled at me. Well, that smile pretty much sealed it. Of all possible smiles—indulgent, friendly, nervous, encouraging, complacent, ironic, treacherous, smirking, joyous, congenial, knowing, companionable—this was the best conceivable, the more so because I had no idea what it signified: the Giaconda smile of a remarkably serious and decidedly comely young woman.

She took her lunch from the bag. A blood orange. Some kind of vegetable and hummus mixture wrapped in thin bread. Two square inches of what looked like honey cake. I was having a burger, fries, and a chocolate pudding.

Our first conversation was a success and set the tone for many that followed. Though my opening gambit was banal but breezy. “So,” I said, “you’re about to begin the first year. The grueling first year. How come you want to be a doctor? Philanthropy or masochism?”

At this the smile went away; she answered solemnly and at length, as if she were being interviewed. Her voice was a contralto I categorized as sweet yet profound.

“I’ve always wanted it. It was hard to convince my family so I have to prove myself to them, not just myself, prove I was right to plead, to insist.” Her face had the concentration of a six-year-old’s searching for Waldo. “I want to do research, especially in microbiology, genetic therapies. I like the idea of curing people, though I don’t think that makes me a philanthropist.”

I scrutinized her. Up close she struck me as a kind of hybrid, a native species crossed with an exotic one, or vice versa. I was, as it turned out, no so far off.

Humor is a famous defense but it can also be a recourse for the aggressive. I decided to tell her a funny story.

“This man comes down with a terrible cold. He’s miserable. He goes to his PCP and demands to be cured. The old doctor tells him to go home and take a hot bath, then to open the bathroom window and stand in front of it stark naked for at least half an hour. ‘But it’s February,’ the man objects, ‘I’ll catch pneumonia!’ ‘Right,’ says the doctor. ‘That we can cure.’”

She seemed to like this old joke. It was the first of many I deployed.

Winning Balandh was all pleasure and, in one sense, not difficult. From the first she responded to my clumsy adoration with amusement; with the air of someone who’s done little of it, she said she liked that I made her laugh. Now, if you’re in love with as serious a person as Balandh it’s not altogether gratifying to be complimented on comedic grounds. It can sound like relegation, an acceptance of companionship but a dismissal of one’s candidacy for anything deeper, like being told you look good in your clothes when you’d rather be admired for looking fine without them. However, I was flying by the seat of my pants and instinct told me Balandh could use to be brought out of herself a little, needed loosening up, that laughing would be a tonic for this perceptive, earnest, sheltered, precious person. Her seriousness was so much to the fore I reckoned it would be prudent to conceal my own.

We came across each other at unexpected moments. The first time is the one I recall most often; this was maybe three days after that initial lunch. I was late, rushing up a stairway and, as I turned on the second-floor landing, there she was going up the flight above me, rising and in profile She wore a lab coat over a dress with green and white stripes. She ascended, a perfect hybrid flower, emblem not only of where I situated her but of aspiration in general. On high. Excelsior.

When we happened on each other it was always with open pleasure on my side and something positive but less demonstrative on hers. I worried about what restrained her—caution, modesty, suspicion, indifference?

Lunch together became almost a regular thing and one day, in a blaze of prose, I asked her out.

“What I have in mind is a completely formal, utterly conventional date. We both dress up like adults, go to an expensive restaurant where I’ve previously made a reservation in the name of, say, Samuel Taylor Coleridge; we chat over wholesome and interestingly prepared food, then a movie—no! a film, something grim and uncommercial from an unhappy country, with subtitles—the film, of course, not the country. Then, on the way back to your place, we stop for coffee or ice cream or even something stronger. We sit in a booth and pick apart the bleak film, emphasizing its virtues because, after all, it’s a serious film and not just a frivolous movie and we are superior people who can appreciate the absence of car chases and product placements. After that I walk you home and, as we get close to your door, we worry about to kiss or not to kiss. We could always flip a coin. We could even do it now—I mean flip the coin, not kiss, of course.”

By the end of this stumble-bum proposition Balandh was positively giggling.

“By the way, what is that stuff you’re eating?” I asked. “Not that there aren’t sound dietary and hygienic reasons for bringing your own food, but why don’t you ever eat the junk they sell here?”

That was the question that first cracked open the door of dhwer and swung back the gate on the Luchaira.

“The food here is mostly forbidden,” she said quietly. “You know, like not kosher or halal. We call it dhwer.”

“Dhwer? Odd word. Who are we?”

She looked down and explained. “I’m Luchaira.”

“And I thought you were Balandh, A-student Balandh, Balandh the proto-microbiologist.”

“My religion,” she said simply. “You’ve never heard of it, have you?”

“Okay. You can pick the restaurant,” I joked lamely, unwilling to turn serious.

The temperature had taken a dive. No giggling now.

But we did go out. There was no discussion of the boring and pretentious film. Instead I began my instruction in the rudiments of Luchaira.

3. Gemeinschaft Luchaira

Shortly after Balandh’s parents’ wedding celebration two-thirds of their village was wiped out by an earthquake. Once the dead had been dug out and properly re-buried, the survivors took a decision to leave en-masse. It was a time of persecution but then, as Balandh explained to me, her people have been almost continually subject to persecution in spite of the fact that their persecutors’ own faiths all derive from Luchaira. While the desire for religious freedom was certainly a motive in choosing their new home, the primary object was economic opportunity. The Luchaira do not despise prosperity, only the obsession with money and the sterile wish to accumulate too much of it. One of their teachings is that the destitute and the rich are alike in that neither can rid themselves of thoughts of money. These people who had lost everything picked up and moved to the other side of the world, took a long stride into a vast unknown. What made it bearable was that the surviving villagers would all undertake the relocation together.

Luchaira is not an individual faith, not vertical; it’s horizontal and communal. Social ties are essential to its practice and rituals. To be Luchaira is not simply to accept certain doctrines, customs, and rules but to be one of the people of light. The theory is that this light might easily be extinguished if it had to depend on mere individuals and the dispersion of Luchaira would be a colossal catastrophe because, according to their doctrine, the life of the world—that is to say, its goodness—rests on the Luchaira. This may be less arrogant than it sounds, if, as Balandh says, to be Luchaira is really to strive to be Luchaira. Goodness for them, as for the Stoics and Kant, lies in trying to be good. In a sense, they also anticipated Augustine’s idea that the destruction of the good which makes any being exist means the destruction of the being itself. According to the Luchaira this is true not only of paramecia, goats, and insurance salesmen, but of the entire biosphere. So, for a Luchaira even to think of separating from her community is big-time dhwer.

Though the Luchaira had occupied more or less the same territory from their earliest history, somewhere in the Caucasus, they felt no unbreakable tie to the land, only to their community. Nevertheless, they had not spread over the earth; there had been no Luchairan Diaspora. This was apparently due to the imperative to preserve the cohesion of the community and also because prior émigrés had been killed, converted, or withered away in despair and solitude. This is why what gave Balandh’s parents and the other survivors the courage to move was that they could do it all together, in a sense preserving the village. They were a critical mass. Being destitute, they hadn’t anything to lose and there would be the prospect of attracting later emigrants should they flourish in their new land.

I thought it a familiar enough story, not unlike Fiddler on the Roof: the first generation huddles together, the second studies like mad and Americanizes, the third either makes a hobby of rediscovering its roots or forgets about them entirely. Balandh had been raised in a ghetto, Luchairatown. Hers was the generation that is torn, knowing the traditions and the outlandish language, still owing Old-World deference to their under-informed elders, but also English-speaking, ambition-forming, culture-assimilating, profession-pursuing and, occasionally, perhaps inevitably, wanting to marry outside the group. As I say, I thought it an old American story and one in which I figured I knew my role.

Balandh understood all this too, I mean the American social history. What surprised me was that she assured me her parents did as well. They were not the alternately cringing and aggressive immigrants with unintelligible accents who could be proud of their children for reciting Whitman and programming VCRs one minute and furious at their American clothes, music, friends, and irreverence the next. They too knew the saga of the three generations. They even knew the proverb, corrected as to gender: what the daughter wishes to forget the granddaughter wants to remember.

“But,” Balandh said as we walked hand-in-hand through the arboretum one Sunday afternoon, “we’re Luchaira. I am. It’s more complicated.”

“I can’t see why,” I said. “It sounds perfectly familiar to me. When I was an undergraduate one of my professors told us the story of a Korean-American student he’d had.

She often came to discuss her life with him, particularly her conflicts with her parents. She was from a Korean neighborhood in L.A., second-generation, like you. She was dating this Italian-American kid from New Jersey. The professor was stunned by something she said.”

“What was that?”

“Well, her usual theme in their conversations was whining about her parents’ strictness. The professor, who was Jewish and third-generation, said it was like listening to one of his aunts.”

“What was the thing she said, about the Italian boyfriend?”

“She’d explained that her parents had raised her to marry within the group—not just another Korean, mind you, but one raised within a half-mile radius of their home. The professor asked how she felt about this, in view of the Italian boyfriend. He expected to hear the usual resentment but to his astonishment she said she agreed with her parents. ‘And what about the boyfriend?’ asked the prof. She just shrugged and said, ‘Oh, I’d never let myself fall in love with a non-Korean.’ Can you imagine?”

Balandh stopped, dropped my hand, looked me in the eye. In her forthright way she asked me if I had thought of marrying her.

As it happened, I was prepared for this. “Yep,” I said.

“How am I supposed to know? You never said.”

This was true. “I just thought—”

I felt a moment of dread but then, with a radiant smile, she recaptured my hand.

“Some proposal.”

I stammered joyously.

“That Korean girl—what did the professor say about her?”

“He said she was setting herself up for tragedy.”

“Did he now?”

“You can’t dictate to your feelings,” I said sententiously.

“Why not? We do it all the time. It seems to me the question is whether our relation to our community should govern our personal decisions or vice versa.”

“Love versus duty? That’s rather old-fashioned, isn’t it, that sort of tragedy?”

“You mean that here in America tragedy’s been abolished by raising the pursuit of happiness to a duty that supersedes ever other one? You mean that what individuals want should always come before what the group demands of them?”

“Well, not always, of course. There’s the law, there’s military service, there’s the duty not to let your pursuit of happiness destroy the happiness of others. Of course you have to honor your father and mother but—”

Balandh slowed down. “But not obey them, you mean? Not in personal matters—?”

“In personal matters it’s up to the individual, yes. That’s freedom. That’s what I believe.”

“You mean the inside should overrule the outside?”

“What?”

“For example, the Korean girl’s relation to her parents and her group should come second to her infatuation with the Italian boy.”

“Infatuation?”

“Why not? Consider the divorce rate in countries without arranged marriages.”

“A strange argument from a woman,” I said stoutly, “especially from one who’s just been proposed to. Clumsily, I admit, but all the same.”

Balandh answered this with revealing vehemence. “Why? You don’t think that girl’s parents wanted her to be happy? Don’t you suppose they considered the higher probability of her being happy in a marriage based on common interests, a common background?”

I stopped. We were next to my favorite copper beech, its low smooth branches an invitation to shed adulthood and climb.

“Is this your polite way of saying no?”

She squeezed my hand. “All I’m saying is . . . we’ll see.”

“We’ll see? When my mother said that it always meant no.”

“I’m not your mother.”

“Or Korean,” I said with forced light-heartedness.

“No. Much, much worse.”

4. Meghta

“Yes, centuries of persecution, millennia of it. And why? You might consider it a most complicated question. As a medical student, a man of science, you know that causes can be reckonable but also obscure; that causes can be efficient, proximate, final, glaring or occult. But the hatred directed at us is owing to only two causes: our stubborn unwillingness to give up our faith and a misunderstanding of what that faith is. The misunderstanding takes, as often happens, the form of a crude simplification. The vulgar error is that the Luchaira believe evil to be just as powerful as good, that the dark has no less strength than the light, just as the night is as long as the day. It is possible that this view is correct but at the same time untrue. It is, though, widely believed, even, I’m afraid to say, among some of us.

“This conception of our faith has offended those whose own beliefs derive from ours, those who insist on only one God but insist He is absolutely good; likewise those who permit themselves two deities but of unequal power; and, of course, people who contend that there is no personal god at all, only nature and its laws which may or may not have been set in motion by some remote, disinterested and irrelevant deity, laws that appear good or bad only through the self-interested eyes of human beings. The monotheists have been our most ruthless persecutors because they are the most deeply convinced of their own virtue. They call us devil-worshipping blasphemers. It never occurs to them that their singular God is simply a version of our own primordial god of light, and it enrages them to have it pointed out. Though our faith preceded theirs and explains the world far better, they rejoice in calling us heretics and love to define themselves over against us.”

He paused, sipped some water. I folded my arms.

“My son is fond of comic books. You used to read them too? Yes? Well, to those who believe in the inferior power of evil, the dark is like Batman—crafty, secretive, but capable of only a sort of prosthetic power—while the true god, the god of light, is like Superman. You see? No contest.

“The actual doctrine of the Luchaira is that the forces of light and dark, though equal, are scarcely ever in balance—just as it is rare, in the course of the year, that day and night are of exactly equal length. At any given time one will prevail and exercise supremacy. Good times and bad times, as we say. But this is true not only on a planetary scale but also in intimate matters—the preparation of food, the washing of bodies, investments, harvests, and, of course, marriages. But even what I am saying now is a terrible simplification for which I apologize. Better to put it this way, in view of your case: for the Luchaira, the wish to marry outside the community is presumed to be a temptation of the evil one, of the dark—but not always. After all, if we could be entirely certain about these forces and their intentions they would not be gods at all. Therefore, the Luchaira are humble which is one of the reasons we have never had any priests. We know that what appears evil may be good; that is, that good can disguise itself as evil, that what may actually be evil can nonetheless work good despite itself.

“I’ll give you a famous example. The salvation of our people was once owing to a marriage universally condemned. Our land was conquered and occupied. The king was cruel and oppressive. Riding through one of our villages he saw and fell in love with a maiden. He returned that night, intending to steal her away under cover of darkness, but after talking with her he repented. Unexpectedly, however, she fell in love with him and, though her parents tore their hair and cursed her, she married him, became queen, one among a thousand wives, but always the most favored. It was she who freed our prisoners, saved the condemned, and eventually turned the king from persecuting to honoring the Luchaira. Their marriage was a long and happy one, happy for us all, a marriage that took place in the light, not a rape in the dark. There are also stories on the other side of the ledger, of course. For instance, one of our meghta was seduced by a dhwer, fell into corruption, and ended by selling all the children of his village into slavery.”

I couldn’t bear how he loved his voice. “What’s the point of these fairy tales?” I asked.

“To some all faith is superstition, I know. Perhaps this is your opinion; I won’t ask. We live in a secular age, a secular country—and yet even here people go to churches in great numbers because the hunger for belief is finally stronger than the urge to mock it. Even the lack of belief, that darkness, can work for good. For instance, it is easy to dismiss curable ills as the work of evil forces rather than our own laziness and neglect. Much of the good done in the world is performed by unbelievers who believe everything depends on them. Light comes not only from light but also from darkness.”

This only exasperated me further and I interrupted again. “Balandh’s future is in your hands. How can you presume to know that future?”

“Know the future? In our language the words for future and unknown are the same. I can only try to make out the future in the present.”

Of Balandh’s parents I have little to say. When I was invited to dinner they struck me as hospitable and polite but not happy. Her father, a short, portly man with a bald head and watery, intelligent eyes, greeted me by name, as though we had met before. His wife was gracious too, asking again and again about my comfort and appetite. This hospitality must have cost them real effort. I had never felt quite so much a guest. The dinner invitation I understood as a recognition of their daughter’s feelings and their respect for them, neither more nor less. I suppose their courtesy to me was genuine enough but it would be stretching a point to call it heart-felt. They behaved with dignity and restraint and showed themselves to be sophisticated people. Their home in the heart of what I now knew to be a transplanted village was well furnished and decorated with artifacts I took to be central Asian.

Balandh had prepared me carefully for this ordeal. I must bear in mind that I was provisionally dhwer. I should not be over-friendly but was to brush chips off my shoulder. I would be closely observed, even judged; however, I was not to regard the dinner as an interrogation, much less a trial. I should be aware that Luchaira is patriarchal and so I could expect her father to be the more reserved in his comportment; her mother was potentially more sympathetic, though I should by no means play up to her. I would do well to keep my joking to the absolute minimum, Balandh teased, wagging a finger playfully in my face. Finally, she reminded me that she loved her parents and, in the end, would never go against them. Also, she would do nothing to violate her religion. She was intent on leaving no ambiguity about just where I came in line.

The least stiff moment of that formal evening came when Balandh’s father took a phone call, she went to the bathroom, and I found myself alone with the mother. She is a good-looking woman in her late forties, petite; her still-black hair was done up in some fancy sort of French curl. I took hope from this coiffure because it suggested that at least one of Balandh’s parents was concerned with the impression she might make on me. I insisted on helping to clear the table. She asked me about medical school; I answered vaguely, and she began to tell me about the battle over her daughter’s wish to become a doctor. Among the Luchaira, she said, healers had almost always been men. “This,” she said, stuffing a lot of acreage into the pronoun, “is the application all over again, only far more so, of course.”

Balandh had instructed me precisely how long I should stay. I took my leave before nine, uncertain how the evening had gone, anxious to hear from her, tired from the strain, wanting some alcohol, and feeling every inch both provisional and dhwer.

She phoned just after eleven. There had, naturally, been a discussion after I departed. Her parents were not displeased with me personally, she reported. This was a relief but then it had never been the chief stumbling-block. She described her father as “distressed.” He didn’t like that she was in medical school and still less that she was seeing me. He had barely reconciled himself to the first and had foreseen the second would be its consequence. The idea of his daughter, his only child, marrying outside the community was almost too much for him. Her mother had said little, though she contrived to mention several suitable Luchaira boys who had a long-standing interest in Balandh. I gathered that my girl stood her ground and spoke firmly, though without making any irrevocable declarations. As it was Friday, she would not be going back to her apartment near the university but would stay with her parents for the weekend. “We were all yawning,” she said. “It was actually rather funny.” They would talk more in the morning, her father had declared.

I was awakened by a call at eight-thirty. Either Balandh was too agitated to explain what had been decided or I was too groggy to take it in; however, I did grasp that our “case”—as I now had to think of it—was to be turned over to somebody called Meghta.

Not Meghta, as it turned out, but a meghta, from the old root for “great” or “big.” The Luchaira have neither priest nor pope, no imams or rabbis, but there are among them individuals accorded special status, respected for wisdom, virtue, wealth or, in this instance, all three. No one expects a meghta to be infallible; however, problems within the community are often placed in his hands—for something between compulsory arbitration and a court verdict. The meghta who, it was agreed, would take charge of our fate was one of the original immigrants, now the owner of two car dealerships. He had been the son of the old village’s meghta, a scholar and religious authority. “Rich for the new world, learned for the old, and philanthropic in both,” was how Balandh praised him. “He’s an old family friend. I’ve always called him Uncle Arunh.”

“And do you love your Uncle Arunh?”

“Oh yes, and I respect him too. Absolutely.”

I sighed in my helplessness. “Fine. So, what’s next?”

“My parents meet with him and then, I guess, you do.”

“Not you?”

“I’ve talked to him already.”

“When?”

“Half an hour ago.”

“What did you say?”

“You can’t guess?”

“Well, then, what did he say?”

“Nothing. He gave me a hug and a nice kiss on the forehead.”

Uncle Arunh, the meghta, resumed the lecture he seemed determined to give me. “Our dietary laws are complex and demanding but Luchaira is not a religion of diet, not what one apostate waggishly dismissed as pesto-and-pantheism. The point of these laws is to make of the kitchen a place of worship, to sanctify the fullness of life by introducing self-discipline into its enjoyment. Dhwer is fundamentally a moral concept and, by proscribing certain foods and prescribing the preparation of others, we are constantly reminded that we are not greedy animals, grabbing with both hands at everything we desire, that one can take into oneself either the dark or the light. What some might call the banal activities of life are in this way raised to acts of prayer and self-perfection. We are forbidden to nourish ourselves on what is dark and dirty, which reflects the core of our duty, the seed’s struggle through the dirt and towards the light. We eat light, so to say, and by it sustain not only ourselves but the world.”

Like a forest, I thought. By now I was fed up with Uncle Arundh’s pedantry and my impatience was exacerbated by his unsettling resemblance to the actor Sidney Greenstreet. His SUV-sized paunch prevented him from putting his elbows on his desk. He had obviously eaten a whole lot of light. We sat in his office, as though negotiating a deal on one of the Mercedes gleaming on the showroom floor outside. I could see he ran a tight ship, mechanics in crisp blue overalls, female staff neat as pins. To me, faith is never far from doubt. It rankled that he would presume that the world depended on his diet. On top of this, he had yet to ask me anything.

“What if I converted?” I asked abruptly.

The meghta pushed himself back on his rolling chair as if I had suggested a ludicrous price for a sedan. He shook his head sadly.

“Not possible, I’m afraid. Luchaira do not proselytize. We are a closed community. True, we have very rarely accepted converts but never those who wish to marry one of us. This is because the motive is bound to be tainted, as I think you’ll admit. Faith is pure light. Love too is light, but it is not pure. Sex is dark and this darkness is inextricable from human love, even the most sublime. A convert must be pure in heart.”

“Well,” I said in as reasonable a tone as I could manage, “how about a pure-hearted convert who later wants to marry?”

Again the big head shook. “That too is dhwer. Converts must undertake to remain celibate first because the suspicion of their true motive in converting would always arise and second as proof of their sincerity. No rotten apples in the barrel, as people say here. In any event, in your situation conversion is completely out of the question.”

I had a sudden idea. “Was it you who gave permission for Balandh to go to medical school?”

“I was asked for my opinion,” he said defensively. Then, after a pause, he added, “I’m paying half her tuition, but you’re not to tell her.”

This impressed but also perplexed me. It enhanced his authority but showed that he trusted me to keep a secret—and from Balandh. Why?

“And did you foresee . . . this?”

“As I told you, I can’t see into the future.”

“So you said. But, if I may go on asking questions—?”

He nodded.

“If light can be dark and dark light, if even what is dhwer can be turned to the good, if the future is not an open book, if your regulations are sometimes arbitrary, and if you’re so concerned for the welfare of the whole earth—which includes me incidentally—then why should my marrying Balandh be ruled out?” Rather angrily but as if it hardly mattered, I added, “We do love each other, you know.”

“Young man, I don’t doubt you’re intentions are good. But this is a difficult matter, more complex than you know. The Luchaira are not unified, but made up of several tribes, or sects, and all hold different views concerning marriage. To each, marriage is a metaphor as well as a sacred contract. For example, the Gordahim see it as a necessary compromise of light with dark, the Steorra as an attempt to redeem the dark within us, the Farashi as capitulation to the dark—Farashi weddings are gloomier than their funerals. The Nekwathi believe salvation can be attained only through strict adherence to the laws while the Eadh believe the need for laws, including those respecting marriage, are themselves a compromise with the dark, revealing doubt about the inner light. Some tribes honor celibacy, the killing off of the instincts, while others revile celibacy and regard sex as a gift from the light, its beckoning, even the surest road toward it. I could go on.”

I waved this offer away. “Look, I’m evidently on trial here; and you, it seems, are my judge. What do you want from me? How do I put my case?”

“There is no trial,” he said sternly, all his fat-man’s joviality gone. “And I am not your judge. There is no case for you to put. In the end, it rests, not with me, whatever I say, but with Balandh. Like you, she is a scientist. I know. However, you ought to be careful not to overestimate what that means.”

I understood. He was needlessly, cruelly, confirming what I already knew and feared.

5. Latched

Uncle Arundh, the meghta, dealer in luxury motor cars, intimate and benefactor of Balandh’s family, religious expert, elucidator of Luchairan sectarianism, heavyweight authority on lightness—Uncle Arundh has power. He has the power to advise Balandh’s parents what should or shouldn’t happen; her parents have the power to inform Balandh what they will or won’t permit, and Balandh has the power to decide. I myself am powerless, dhwer, pacing back and forth before a latched door, a suppliant who can be kept waiting indefinitely outside the gate.

Balandh has been patient with me; that is, she makes allowances for my impatience. She often speaks of the Korean girl and her Italian boyfriend. She tells me she understands the tragic possibilities of our situation and, somehow, finds she finds this consoling. She has no more idea than I do when the verdict will be handed down, whether we shall be found guilty or innocent, guilty despite our innocence, or whether her innocence is to be insulated from my guilt. She is not hopeful. “You know, if the tragedy comes,” she said to me gravely, “then it will look inevitable. Tragedies always do, afterwards.”

Balandh is Luchaira. I’ve never dared to ask her to defend it. Does she put her microbiology in one bag, her faith in another? It would be a comfort to believe that because then I might hope to persuade her to toss away one of the bags. But, as the meghta warned, I should not deceive myself. Balandh is all of a piece and, without this integrity, I might not love her, or at least not so much. Balandh is light and I was drawn to her because she is light and only when I saw her did I know that I was in the dark. So, who can say? Perhaps the Luchaira really do uphold a world ignorant of what sustains and vindicates it, a fallen world.