"Is it a problem?" Her seasonal park assistant, Darren, sat up straight in his saddle. He stopped petting his horse's flank and lifted the reins.
"Maybe." The trail was wide enough for both mounts side by side but Isabella's mare insisted on leading, which is why she'd chosen it. She wanted to be out front even if she had to turn to her right to talk.
Darren's assignment, unlike hers, was temporary. Isabella had picked him out of the volunteer pool because she'd met him in her yoga class. He was a known quantity, a gray-haired older fellow who kept physically fit without being fanatical. He didn't carry extra weight. He knew how to use the only tools that were important on this trip, a pry bar, shovel, hammer, and saw. Although he'd never ridden a horse, he was delighted to try and he proved to be a natural. Better, he showed affection for his animal. He had so much going for him that she felt reluctant to push him to hurry.
"The two of us are supposed to perform four miles of repair per day," she said.
Darren's smile faded. His posture changed. Perhaps unconsciously, he let his gelding know that he wanted to speed up. That made Isabella's mare whinny and match pace to stay ahead.
"That seems like a lot for only two workers," he said after a while. "We're hauling timber. There are more footbridges ahead."
"The schedule is ambitious."
"Did your bosses make it? Is this their way of giving you crap about your leg?" Perhaps it was his age but Darren wasn't squeamish about Isabella's artificial foot. He didn't seem to care about it one way or another so he didn't avoid the topic. That made her uncomfortable but in a way she guessed was healthy. She had lost the limb while in the army. The government had paid for her artificial foot and it was the best.
"The schedule was my choice. And my bosses are literally not allowed to make my an issue about my leg."
"They follow the rules? Good."
"They gave me funny looks when I handed them my trail maintenance plans. I let them shuffle around and clear their throats for half a minute before I told them I was going to take my horses."
His laugh cut across the hard dirt. It echoed, for a second, from hill to hill. They'd left the trees behind them. Ahead of them rose only scrub grass and rocks.
"Anyway, that's why I've got an eye on the time."
His lips twitched with a gentle smile. He spent a moment lost in thought. Whereas Isabella had worn her regulation green park ranger uniform, Darren had dressed sensibly for the heat. He had a light, blue shirt, khaki pants, a spoonbill cap, and sensible shoes rather than heavy boots.
"In yoga class," he observed, "you were the one who insisted that time doesn't exist."
Isabella sighed and nodded.
"I meant that in a Buddhist way," she told him. "The idea that time doesn't exist is good."
"I'm acquainted with it. The past is a construct in the mind. The future is, too. Those parts make sense. From the viewpoint of our immediate situation, both are imaginary."
"Not just past and future but time itself is an illusion."
"Isn't it important to be able to dismiss that illusion?"
Isabella pulled back on the reins. Her horse drew to a halt. In a second, she grabbed a wax paper wrap from her saddlebag and dismounted.
Inside the wax paper were samples of living horsemint. Despite the name, they were simple, purple flowers that had grown wild on the mountain before wildfires had swept through. Part of her job was to repopulate the mountain with native species. Another team had planted saplings. She'd gotten flowers assigned to her and she was good at it. She pulled out her hand spade from her belt as she stepped to the spot she wanted. It took her no more than 20 seconds to kneel, plant the horsemint, and splash the ground with a half cup of water.
"Done," she said. She slipped the shovel into her belt. A second later, she hopped her left foot into a stirrup, swung her right leg over the back on the horse, and settled into the saddle. She hooked her artificial foot into the other stirrup. With effort, she returned her mind to their conversation. "As far as dismissing the illusion of time, I think that's where the modern teaching goes slightly wrong. Traditional Buddhism has units of time like the ksana. The old masters knew time was a mental construct, yes, but it was more, too."
"Isn't the ksana a subjective measure?"
"Ninety ksanas is how long a reflective moment of thought is supposed to take. Based on that, a ksana is about a seventy-fifth of a second. It does seem like a subjective estimate. But the point is that the ancient Buddhists understood the need to take measurements of time. They wanted to do good works in the world. Managing time is part of that."
"Yeah, anyone wanting to do work has to deal with it."
"That's because time isn't insubstantial in the usual sense of an illusion. It's a mental construct, yes, but pointing that out is like pointing out that a lemon is yellow. That's true but it's not an end to the description."
"A lemon is more than yellow. It's sour."
"It's lots of things. It has many aspects. So does time. Time can be a construct of the mind and it can have other attributes like duration or relativity. That seems to be a hard concept for people to grasp, even people who I would otherwise regard as clear thinkers."
They rode another eighth of a mile. Darren tipped the bill of his cap down to keep his face shaded. Isabella saw a flat shelf of dirt next to the trail and decided it would be her next stop. She halted the horses, swung down from her saddle, and planted more flowers.
When she remounted, she found that Darren had walked his gelding close to the mare. He'd untied her wide-brim ranger hat from her saddlebag. He offered it to her. With a nod, she accepted. It was sensible now that the midday heat had begun. As soon as she put on the hat, her face felt cooler.
"Is time an illusion, actually?" Darren asked. "Is it right to say that?"
"Yes." She had no doubts. "It's created by our minds. We need to be skeptical of it. People have the misconception that life is a path like you'd make as you tramp through a field. You can see what you've left behind you, a lot of flattened grasses or maybe you picked some flowers or planted something along the way."
"That sounds natural. Isn't that the way of things?"
"Yes, it's natural." She left it at that.
They rode a bit farther. In a few minutes, they came within line of sight of the next footbridge. It had been partly burned by the wildfire. Repairing it would take hours.
Isabella sighed and decided on another stopping point before they reached the repair job. She slipped off of her mare and planted another set of flowers.
"I think Dogen said that existence is time," Darren mentioned. As he waited for her to adjust her hat, he put his hands on the pommel of his saddle. "And that the annihilation of time would be the annihilation of everything."
"Fair enough." She didn't actually expect Darren to resist the seduction of over-simplification. Everyone fell for that, including her. Maybe it wasn't an important point to understand anyway.
"But that's still incomplete," he said. "I like your explanation better. Time is an illusion but it's more. It's not limited to a single idea. It can be illusion and existence. We have to hold multiple concepts in our minds to begin to understand."
"And to let them go." She couldn't help smiling.
Isabella stood. She looked to her assistant but he had turned his head. So she followed Darren's gaze back down the trail they'd climbed. They saw the trees below, the close end of the bridge they'd repaired, the burned stumps, the rocks, a curve in the trail, and the grasses springing back to life after the fire. Alongside the trail, winding to the north, she noticed the dark patches of watered soil. In them stood purple flowers. They dotted the landscape with bits of color and they rose, closer and closer, right up to the ones by her feet, to mark their progress.