Patrick Ward words, code, and music

The Buddha of Stilton Falls

On a small, wooden bench, atop a mountain peak overlooking the town of Stilton Falls, sits a golden buddha. Below him stand tall evergreens, golden aspens, and a quaint, silvery lake surrounded by a lush green valley. He is 14 feet tall, made of limestone, and covered in metallic gold paint that flakes on his fingers, toes, and shoulders. His nose has worn down some over the years, but the rest of his features are still in tact. He has a young facade, with a gentle smile and a divine composure; he sits simply, his hands resting gently on his massive legs.

To many in the town, he is as timeless as the hills themselves. In fact, all but one in that tiny burgh at the top of a mountain range have no idea where he came from. As far as the town elders know, he has always been there: facing the eastern lake, eyes partially closed, serenely contemplating the mystery of the surrounding mountains.

The town is the Buddha’s caretaker. Now and then, someone will repair the bench: a plank will be replaced, or the wrought iron frame will be painted black again, but always with the greatest care not to disturb the sleeping buddha. It is rare that they maintain the Buddha himself, but on occasion they will reverently attend to the erosion of his extremities and touch up the gold around his fingertips.

Recently, the buddha has become a popular tourist attraction in the town. Some want a picture on his lap while they blow him a kiss. Others, just sit next to him and smile, their arms reaching around his massive torso. The curious try to see what it is he’s viewing across the lake. The more adventurous make lewd gestures towards him, trying to get a rise out of their friends. All the while, the buddha just sits there, with a benevolent grin and a tranquil gaze across the lake.

The mystery of the Buddha and where he came from has become a town legend. Particularly, because in this Christian town on the edge of an inland sea, no one can remember ever meeting a buddhist to begin with. There are no monasteries anywhere near the town, and even if there were, they probably wouldn’t settle in the backwater town of Stilton Falls. This is a fishing village after all, primarily known for it’s seasonal fish camps and the Annual Stilton Falls Trout Run. Yet, despite, their lack of buddhist representation, the townspeople take great pride in their buddha. They care for him as if he were a symbol of their own prosperity and good fortune over the years.

So, it was of immense concern, on a particularly chilly March morning several years ago, the start of the Annual Stilton Falls Trout Run to be precise, that the great Golden Buddha disappeared.

It was Tommy Childers who first noticed he was missing. Tommy was a wiry kid of about seventeen, with a bright red mop of hair and a rebellious smirk frozen across his lips. On that fateful day, he had on a wrinkled black t-shirt and jeans as he stood outside of Wilson’s Bait and Cafe. Holding a steaming cup of coffee, he looked out towards the Buddha’s hill as he did every morning. Yet, as the sun began to rise above the cliffs, just as he expected to see a glint sunshine off the head of our restful buddha, he was startled to see an empty bench.

He nearly dropped his styrofoam cup as he exclaimed, “Hey! Where’s the buddha?”

“Tommy, he’s right there where he’s always been,” said George Wilson.

George was straightening little buddha statuettes behind the counter. He was quite fond of the little golden buddhas he had for sale. They didn’t sell very well, but George kept them on for those few that wanted a piece of Stilton history. Some were sitting contemplatively, some were smiling while holding strings of trophy trout, and some were standing with their arms held above their head holding placards that read “Stilton Falls Trout Run” in large blocky leters. He arranged them assiduously, each facing outward in perfect alignment, grouped by type. Above the statuettes he had hung a sign that read “Welcome to the Stilton Falls Annual Trout Run” in large red letters with a small subtitle below: “Home of the Golden Buddha”.

He was a large man, with a protruding belly, a shock of gray hair for a goatee and a clean shave on the top of his head. His white apron was as crisp and clean as a hospital bed.

“No, George, I’m telling you, he’s gone! He’s plum disappeared!”

“Tommy. Enough,” George said barely looking up from the counter. “See? He’s right there on the bench.”

“Unless I’m crazy George, I can’t see him no more, “ said Tommy as he took a sip of coffee.

George stepped from behind the counter, grimacing at Tommy’s antics, frustrated that he’s got to set this kid straight again.

“Tommy. Look, he’s right there on the be…” George stood still for a minute, trying to process the impossible. Where he thought he saw the buddha a minute ago, was now empty space surrounding a lonely bench on the top of a hill.

“Well, that’s just can’t be,” cried George, “I mean he’s always been there. Who’s going to take a half ton statue of a golden buddha?”

“Should I call the Sheriff, George?”

“Yes, call the Sheriff. I’m going out there,” he exclaimed, and began to walk across the field towards the buddha’s hill.

When George reached the top of the knoll, he was astounded to find that nothing looked out of the ordinary, except for the absence of the Golden Buddha of course. There were no foot prints, no drag marks, not even a truck tire could be found near the Buddha’s bench. In fact, the bench itself looked perfectly normal, as if there had never been a buddha sitting on it for eternity.

A few minutes later, Sheriff Will Patterson drove up in a black 1956 Ford F-100 pickup. The truck shined like it just came off the showroom floor, with chrome that glinted in the sun and tires that looked like pools of black oil suspended in midair. It was in mint condition, and in the right circles worth a fortune. As he stepped out on to the road leading up to the Buddha’s hill, he cocked his cowboy hat up on his head, hiked his belt up over his belly, and kicked the heels of his boots against the dry dust of the roadbed, sending little clouds of grayish-tan powder adrift in the slow breeze.

“George! George!” he yelled with a raspy voice, looking up towards the top of the hill, “What’s this crap Tommy’s telling me about the Buddha being gone?”

“Come up and see for yourself!” cried George, “Darned if I can figure it out!”

When he got to the top of the hill, Patterson was nearly as dumbfounded as George. His mouth was wide open, but he had nothing to say. The two men just looked at each other for a few minutes, as if the other had some kind of explanation for what it was they were seeing, or not seeing.

“Sheriff. We’ve got to do something about this. I mean the Trout Run is today, for God’s sake!”

“George, just calm down, now. There has to be an explanation for this. I mean, I could swear I saw it when I drove by this morning.”

“That means it had to have happened within the last couple of hours. But, I can’t figure out how anyone can get a statue that size off of this hill without anybody noticing, or for that matter, leaving any kind of sign they were here! Look around you Will, do you see anything?”

The two of them began to search the top of the hill, furiously looking at every path, every shrub, and every blade of grass that surrounded the Buddha’s bench. As they searched, Patterson noticed Tommy’s slender figure leisurely walking up the hill’s path, his coffee still in hand. Behind him, other figures began to appear, like shadows out of the darkness; signs that the rest of the town had caught wind of the disappearance. By the time the two men had finished their frantic hunt, a crowd of townspeople had gathered around them, staring with mouths agape at the obvious void on the bench. They all stood there on the top of the hill, as if a pagan ceremony were about to begin, waiting to hear some kind of explanation for the inconceivable.

“Tommy,” said the Sheriff, “when did you first notice the Buddha was gone?”

“Oh, I don’t know, maybe about 20-30 minutes ago. I mean was I standing there talking to George looking out this way like I always do, when I noticed it wasn’t up here on the hill.”

“Was it there when you got in this morning?” a man asked from the crowd.

“Yeah. Yeah, I think it was. I think I would have noticed if it hadn’t been, wouldn’t I?”

“George, how about you?” asked the Sheriff.

George took a minute, as if in deep thought, before saying, “You know I, I don’t know. I can’t remember if it was there when I came in or not. It was there yesterday!”

The sun continued to rise above the horizon as the population of Stilton Falls stood in a circle at the top of the hill, trying to determine when exactly the Buddha went missing. Each of them took turns describing the last time they saw their golden mascot, and whether or not they could be sure of it. One man said he swore he saw it the night before on his way home from the fish camp. A young mother said she thought it was there when she picked up bread at Wilson’s around six or seven. But, much to Sheriff Patterson’s frustration, no one could definitively tell when they’d last seen the Buddha.

“Ok folks,” said the Sheriff, “This is now an official crime scene. I’m going to have to ask all of you to please vacate the area so we can begin our investigation. I’ll be in touch with each of you shortly.”

About this time, a stream of cars began to file into the parking spaces next to Wilson’s cafe. There were pickups and station wagons full of fishing gear, with poles sticking out the tail ends like feathery tails, and sedans with gear stuffed on top like a caravan of Bedouin nomads. It was the first wave of fishermen arriving for the annual trout season kick-off. Most of them came from the surrounding areas, as reverent of the Buddha as the townspeople themselves. Some, though, could not understand the Buddha or it’s quirky supporters. But, they all agreed that Stilton Falls had the best trout fishing at the start of the season. As they came rolling in, a trail of dust could be seen a mile behind them, like a sooty dragon invading the town.

As they began to file out of their vehicles, most simply gathered their gear and began to walk up towards the fish camp. However, it was apparent that some had started to celebrate perhaps a little too early. One of those revelers was Digby Wilks, a laid off ranch hand, who looked like he’d started his celebration the day before. As he got out of the passenger side of the beat up truck he came in, he hit his head on the top of the door, skewing his soiled baseball cap to the side. Stumbling a bit, he looked up to see the town of Stilton Falls assembled on the top of the hill. With a gleam in his eyes, Digby raised his Coors high and proclaimed, “Long live zaBuddha! Hell Yeah! Ha!” before losing his balance and crashing to the ground with all of the surprising grace that an inebriated man can muster. As he staggered back onto his feet, his buddies helped him up, balancing him enough so he could stand on his own.

“Come on Digby,” said a man with a read bandana tied loosely around his head, “Let’s just get some bait and head out.”

Despite his obvious disability, though, Digby was determined to see the Buddha that morning. He shot out of his friends grasp and headed up the hill with surprising dexterity for a man with no sense of equilibrium. Upon reaching the top of the hill, Digby began to shove the townspeople aside, heading straight for the bench.

“Woohoo!” he shouted, “I love zaBuddha people!”

Sheriff Patterson walked towards Digby, his official scowl in full force, and said, “Son. I’m going to have to ask you to clear the area. Please head on back down the hill now.”

“Ferrwhat? You gotta crimezeen here’or what?”

“Yes sir, as you can see the Buddha is missing and we are about to launch our investigation.”

“Whatar you talkin bout man? Iz right there!”

“Son, if you don’t head back to your vehicle this minute, I’m going to arrest you for public intoxication and disturbing the peace,” said the Sheriff with a hint of frustration in his voice.

“Awright, awright. Don taze me man! Ha! Ha!” Digby said, and then took a sip of his beer. “But man, iz right there!” he added, pointing in the direction of the bench.

“One more word out of you, young man, and I’m taking you in. Got it? Now leave the area!”

By this time, Digby’s friends had caught up to him, and began to pull him back down the hill. They apologized for their friend as they left the townspeople standing in disbelief at the spectacle they’d just witnessed. As he stumbled down the hill, though, Digby could still be heard exclaiming, “It’s right there, man!”.

Breaking the silence, Tommy asked, “What did he mean by it’s right there?”

“Tommy, he’s obviously high on something besides beer,” said George, “I hardly think he’s a credible witness.” Which got quite a laugh out of the rest of the town as they too began to descend the hill, speaking in hushed tones about the impossible disappearance of their beloved buddha.

Soon, only the Sheriff and George Wilson were left standing atop the hill. They didn’t say much, just scratched their heads, each trying to come up with a reasonable plan of action. “George,” said the Sheriff after a while, “I may have to call in some help on this one. We’re not equipped to deal with this kind of mystery.”

After that, the hill was closed to the public. No one was allowed to the top for fear it might disturb clues they hadn’t found yet. The Sheriff called the state police for assistance, hoping they’d be able to send someone to help, but they replied they wouldn’t be able to spare an investigator for at least a month. So, he started to wonder: Why would anyone would want to steal the Buddha in the first place? I mean, who wants a nearly century old buddha from a little old Podunk mountain town?

So, he called the only academic expert he knew: Mary Parker, Ph.D. Maybe, he thought, she’d be able to tell him some more about the Buddha himself.

Mary Parker had visited the town several times over the last few years. She was a social psychologist from the local university, writing a book on the Buddha of Stilton Falls. Her doctoral dissertation had been on the 1953 “Miracle” in Puerto Rico, in which an estimated 150,000 people converged on a well at Rincorn, to await the appearance of the Virgin Mary as predicted by seven school children. She was fascinated by the collective delusions of secluded communities and how they banded together to defend their beliefs against unsympathetic outsiders. The town of Stilton showed up on her radar a few years ago, and she became enamored by their obvious reverence for the Golden Buddha. The townspeople were also fond of Mary, as she was ever so kind to them, always eager to hear the personal stories and accounts of the Buddha from each of them, no matter who they were.

When Sheriff Patterson called her on the phone, she was in a meeting with several other department heads in the university. So, a message was relayed, that simply said: “Please call Sheriff Patterson of Stilton regarding a missing buddha.”

Mary looked at the note with disbelief. “Oh dear,” she whispered, ”Oh dear, this is not good. Those poor people.”

She picked up the phone and rang Sheriff Patterson’s office.

“Sheriff Will Patterson, speaking.”

“Hi Will. This is Mary Parker.”

“Oh, hi Mary! I’m glad you called. The darnedest thing happened up here the other day. You know that buddha we’ve got sitting up there on the hill? Well, it’s up and disappeared!”

“That’s what I hear, Will.”

“Funny thing is,” said the Sheriff, “There aren’t any clues to indicate what, if anything, happened to it! I called the state investigative unit for assistance, but they can’t spare anybody right now. So, I thought, well, Mary’s been up here studying the Buddha and our little town, maybe she’s got some insight into why somebody would want to steal it. You have any idea why somebody’d want to steal it doc?”

Mary could hear the concern in his voice. It pierced her heart as if someone had taken a metal stake and driven it through with malice. She knew this wasn’t going to be easy, but she had no choice. And, if anyone in the town of Stilton Falls was going to be able to understand it, it would be Sheriff Will Patterson. Besides, it was better to hear it from her than from some outsider they didn’t trust.

“Will, do you remember when you first became aware of the Buddha?”

“Well, I knew of it when I was a kid. I mean, my parents always talked about it, even before I got to actually see it.”

“Yes, that’s what I mean. Everyone in the town of Stilton Falls grew up with the Buddha and it’s history, right? The Buddha, in some ways, was a myth in your young minds before you actually got to see him, right?”

“I suppose, sure. I mean it’s a part of the town’s identity. What are you getting at Mary?”

“Just bare with me Will. Now, had there ever been someone in the town, or even a tourist from outside, that claimed they couldn’t see the Buddha?”

“You know that Mary. We’ve always had some crackpots come and go, but they just didn’t fit in with the town. And we’ve always had a tourist or two that would claim some cockamamy story about the Buddha not really being there, but we always figured they were either drunk, or high, or on some kind of psychedelic mushroom dust. Some folk, we figure, just couldn’t handle the thin air up here on the high pass and would start to hallucinate. Most of those folk were run out of town pretty quick though.”

“Mary,” added the Sheriff, “I don’t need a review of our town’s history. What I need is to find out more about the origins of this buddha, uh, so that I can figure out why somebody would want to take it in the first place.”

“Will, that’s what I’m trying to explain to you. You’re aware of the kind of work I do, correct?”

“As far as I know you’re some kind of social psych doctor. I figured you were just interested in small town communities as an academic exercise.”

“Well, that’s part of it, but my main interest is in the study of collective delusions. I study the improbable belief systems within enclosed populations, the kind of beliefs that outsiders to those communities cannot see or understand.”

“What,” said the Sheriff, “You mean like those nut cases over in Nigeria a few years back? That went around telling people their penis’s had disappeared?”

“Yes, that’s one example. I didn’t study that particular case, but it is an example of mass delusion.”

“Mary, I’m not really sure what it is you’re trying to tell me. I’m just a simple Sheriff in a backwater mountain town. You’re going to have to spell this out in terms I can understand.”

“Ok Will. You’re going to have to open your mind a little. You see, the Stilton Falls Buddha is an illusion. It only exists in the minds of the people of Stilton Falls and the surrounding area.”

The Sheriff laughed. “Mary, that’s the most absurd thing I’ve heard all week! What kind of weed are you smoking up there? Come on now, I’m serious. If you can’t help me, I’m just going to have to find someone who can.”

“Listen to me very carefully, Will. Think about the Buddha, about the town, about the people that say they never saw the Buddha. Are you sure that it was all real? That the Buddha ever existed?”

The Sheriff was silent. He began to run through the scenes in his head, of those people that he had run out of town for causing a disturbance about the Buddha, all those people claiming the town was crazy, that the people of Stilton Falls were delusional. He searched the scenes in his life around the Buddha, for a time when he was certain that the Buddha was physical, for something to prove her assumptions wrong. Yet, the more he thought, the less confident he became. He began to realize that no one inside the town of Stilton had ever taken a picture of themselves with the Buddha. There wasn’t a need to, they all lived there. Come to think of it, he couldn’t recall if he ever saw anyone taking a picture on that hill at all. The events in his mind began to meld together into a miasma of confusion and frustration. His mind felt like a black hole, sucking everything he’d ever believed in down an impartial funnel of darkness only to fade away like clouds after a thunderstorm. He began to wonder what was real and what was illusion. He felt caught in a vortex between reality and fantasy, unsure of his own existence. Did he even know who he was? Or, who this thing looking out from behind his eyes was? After awhile, he began to clutch his stomach, fighting a wave of nausea that overcame him like a tsunami.

Mary whispered into the phone: “I know this is a lot to take in. I wish I could be there for you, honey. But, you have to be strong. You have to know that the town is counting on you…Will? Will, are you okay? Are you still there?”

There was silence, but she could hear the asymmetrical pattern of someone breathing erratically on the other end.

“I’m still here,” he whispered, “But, I just don’t understand. How can an entire town be hoodwinked for decades at a time? It’s just not possible! This is crazy!”

“I’m sorry Will. I wish I could make this easier for you, but the truth is, the town of Stilton Falls has been suffering from collective delusions for over a century. Ever since your founder, Alexander Stilton, set the first tent stakes in your valley, the Buddha’s legend has been pervasive. No one knows why he planted that deceitful idea to begin with, but over time it stuck. You’re an isolated community, Sheriff, visited once a year for a festival that occurs outside the town limits. Most people outside Stilton Falls just see you as a quaint little mountain town with a quirky belief in an invisible buddha. The rest of the year no one goes up there, which made it easier for this delusion to stay anchored.”

“But, Digby Wilks from nearby Burrwater said he could see it this morning! I mean he was drunk as a skunk when he said it, but he swore it was right there in front of our eyes!”

“He was probably so inebriated that he wasn’t affected by the collective realization of the community itself, Will.”

“I can’t, I mean I don’t…”, croaked the Sheriff.

“It’s okay Will. I understand this is a lot to take in, but you’re strong. The strongest one in that town, as far as I know, which is why I’m entrusting you with this realization. You have a responsibility to that town now, Sheriff. The burden of the truth now rests with you.”

“But, why now? Why does the town not see the buddha after all these years?”

“Who was the first one to not see the buddha?”

“I guess that would be Tommy Childers,” said the Sheriff, “He’s kind of a knuckle head kid, though, kind of rebellious in a way.”

“I can only surmise that Tommy Childers was able to see through the delusion somehow, perhaps his own adolescent recalcitrance led him to the truth in some way. The point is, though, once a trusted member of the town began to see the truth, it wasn’t long before the rest would question their own eyes as well. I’m afraid you’re going to have to tell them the truth.”

“Doc, that would destroy this town. Our whole identity is based on that damn buddha! Do you know what kind of psycho crap’s going to happen if I do that?”

“I realize that. I’ll certainly come up with a team and help you, but I won’t be able to get there until next week. Can you wait for me?”

The Sheriff looked out his window: at Wilson’s Bait and Cafe with it’s little golden statuettes; at the filling station with the banner that said “Buddha Glasses with Every Fill Up!”; at the people walking by his office window, whispering to each other and pointing back up to an empty hilltop. He looked at his 1956 truck parked outside the office, with it’s little golden buddha hood ornament staring back at him through the window.

“Mary, thank you for speaking with me. I’m not really sure what to make of all this, but I think I know what I have to do.”

And with that, Sheriff Will Patterson hung up the phone. Click.

Mary looked at the phone, buzzing with an incessant dial tone, her eyes wide in surprise. She put the handset down and immediately packed her briefcase.

“Mark,” she called to her assistant just outside the door, “Cancel all of my classes and appointments for next week. I’ll be in Stilton Falls for an indefinite time.”

By the time Mary Parker arrived in town, the Sheriff had already set his plan in motion. It had been 3 days since they’d spoken and no one in the town seemed to have any clue that the Buddha was an illusion. As she walked up to the Sheriff’s office door, she was greeted by Sheriff Patterson himself.

“Mary, I know what you’re thinking,” said the Sheriff, “but just hear me out. I’ve got a plan to make this all work out just fine.”

As the weeks rolled by, Mary began to interview the locals regarding the Buddha’s disappearance, never giving up her knowledge of its illusionary nature. She waited patiently, trusting in the Sheriff, who disappeared himself shortly after Mary’s arrival.

Yet, just as Mary had started to give up hope, she saw the most startling site she’d ever encountered. Coming around the mountain pass, on that same dusty trail the annual fishermen arrive on, she could swear she saw a glint of sunlight reflecting off a large gold object. As it moved closer, she began to question her own sanity. For, moving down that dusty road, followed by a large crane, was a great golden buddha, about 14 feet tall, sitting on the back of a flatbed truck. As it moved closer to her, a throng of locals began to gather at the town’s center, cheering on the arrival of, what they most assuredly assumed was, their long lost buddha.

Leading this majestic caravan was a small Ford Ranger pickup, beige with orange stripes on it’s side; the fluorescent lettering of a used car lot still painted on it’s windshield. As the procession drew nearer, she noticed the Sheriff sat in the driver’s seat of the tiny truck, his arm hanging out the window motioning the flatbed truck to follow him. They turned into the parking lot next to Wilson’s, and the crowd began to chant and cheer, as if welcoming a knight errant upon his return.

The Sheriff stepped out and looked over at Mary, a big grin on his face.

As the townspeople gathered around him, he began to think about the events of the last few weeks and how much he loved this little town of his. He began to think about the resiliency of the people; about how they believed in something that the rest of the world could not see; about how proud of them he was, proud of their collective delusion, proud that he could give back to them that which had never existed.

From that day forward, no one has ever questioned the existence of the Stilton Falls Buddha. For, he now sits quietly atop a mountain range, patiently waiting for anyone to sit with him and contemplate the mystery of reality itself.