Survival is an instinct common to larvae, worms, cockroaches, the beasts of the field, the birds of the air and most of all man. In fact, humans value our survival so dearly we're willing to obliterate every creature around us, including other humans, just to satisfy our primitive genetic template.

Perhaps there is a chemical common to all organisms that is the essence of the survival instinct. I'd be first in line if you could bottle this elixir, because I swear to God I'd lost the instinct for survival. I had survived my encounter with Sapphire only because an apparition named Ell had appeared, otherwise I believe I would have given up.

There was a communal eating room at the Mahdi's retreat. It made quite a sight, with laughing children, burqha shrouded nuns, bald shaved Sufi monks and numerous adults of various breeds and nationalities mixing at the dinner table.

"How does Ahmadi provide so much food?" I inquired, looking at tables stocked with vegetarian plenty.

"We all help," Laura responded naively, perhaps believing all this was the result of a few people working in the small organic gardens we'd seen on our way in. There were forty-five people at this feast, a well fed boisterous crowd for an ascetic retreat.

Mae Lin, an old and shriveled oriental woman lead Sapphire in to dinner after we'd started and it was as if everyone made an attempt not to notice Sapphire for my benefit. Sapphire was given a seat at a second table away from me and though I could see she was talking herself, she didn't look so crazed as perhaps drugged to me.

"You see," Laura commented as she dished me up a helping of rice pilaf that would gag a cow. "Sapphire's not going to be hurting anyone! We all take care of her and watch over her."

"Sometimes psychotropic drugs can cause the psychotic symptoms Sapphire exhibits," I mused, still watching Sapphire eat her supper. "Are you sure it was the trauma of the killings that pushed her over the edge? You sure she isn't high on Afghan poppy?"

You are always so cynical," Laura protested. "You're implying Sapphire is a raving lunatic and drug addict when the truth is she was traumatized by the death of the monks!" Fortunately, Crystal, the little seven year old girl who'd met us earlier in the day, came over to where we were sitting and interrupted what was sure to become a boiling argument.

"He's a nice man," she said to Laura, pointing to me as though she were evaluating me for a job position. "Is he going to stay?" she asked timidly, her bright eyes giving her away as one of Ahmadi's beautiful spawn.

"I don't know," Laura replied with a smile. "I think that's up to him," and she looked at me as if it was a question that was on her mind too.

Living with Laura was certainly on my mind - living, breathing, osmotically absorbing her essence. But my idea of living was not to spend my time growing organic beans and asking myself whether a dog has Buddha nature, or whatever it is the Sufis contemplate. There did seem to be a sense of peace here, but I was a confirmed anarchist and I'd always found organization and order to be suffocating. Of course, that's something you keep to yourself in a multicultural universe.

"Crystal is a special friend of mine," Laura smiled brightly giving the girl a hug. "Perhaps Steven will watch you and the other children this evening when you give your exhibition. Why don't you get ready now, Crystal, and we'll be in later to watch."

Crystal left with some of the other children, laughing and chattering as they exited the dining room.

"What's that all about?" I asked.

"They're going to put on a martial arts demonstration for you," Laura replied. "They're quite talented, you know."

"As talented as Sapphire?" I asked. "I've had some experience first hand with her abilities."

"Actually, Sapphire was the best! The Mahdi was very proud of her until she began having her mental problems. She was, after all, his firstborn daughter."

That struck me like a rock between the eyes, though why it should have done so is beyond me. All the young people here seemed to be the offspring of Mahdi Ahmadi, and Sapphire was only twenty four. That would have put Ahmadi himself in his late forties, just about right from what I'd seen of him.

"No wonder he's so protective of her," I remarked. "She's daddy's little girl, complete with claws and fangs."

"Actually, they haven't gotten along well together for a long time," Laura admitted. "That's how she ended up running around the streets in San Francisco."

"But what about her mother?" I probed. "Didn't she want to keep Sapphire straight and narrow?"

"Oh, her mother went back to Jamaica long ago. She had philosophical difference with The Mahdi. The only thing Sapphire keeps from her mother is her accent."

As if he'd sensed that we were talking about him, the Mahdi came over to our table and helped himself to the banquet.

"So, how do you like my family, Dr. Heller," he asked as if to probe me.

"They are beautiful," I responded, not sure how to discuss such an extended polygamous enclave even in sexually liberated California. "Of course I'm curious to know how you have been so lucky?"

"Yes, they do not appreciate what I've been through," he sighed as fathers do. "My father was mullah Ghullam Rasoul, a former Guantanamo Bay detainee. He was captured in Afghanistan on November 28, 2001, and was imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay from 2002 to 2007. He was transferred to a prison in Afghanistan in December 2007 after a review board determined deemed him to be no longer a threat. He claimed during his review board, "I want to go back home and join my family and work in my land and help my family." He escaped the Afghan prison in 2014, but it was very hard on our family, what the Americans did to him."

"But that's old history," I conjectured. "Isn't it?" I could sense that it wasn't.

"I was a young boy when the Taliban took back Kabul," Ahmadi continued. "And my father, Ghullam, was appointed acting defense minister. A future American president eventually apologized for the evil they had done in Afghanistan and to my father. In fact, the reparations America paid the Taliban eventually paid for my PhD. But yes, some bitterness lingers.

"Your father must be very proud of what you have accomplished," I noted.

"My father kept his compliments for Allah, he was a diligent toiler for the Taliban, a pious man, very religious. Because of the Crusader's War, and the illegal embargoes, father could not cover our family expenses, so he moved us to Hong Kong, through connections he made at the Chinese airbase at Bagram. Thus, I had to start working in a shop- that made certain parts for cooling systems of buildings, while our family suffered."

"A rough life," I mused as Ahmadi's background began to clear. "Did your family flee because of the Crusader's War and Israel's bombing campaign to destroy Iran's nuclear capabilities?"

Ahmadi glared with some deeply burning coals, but it was only a flash.

"After Iran was devastated by the great Zionist Crusader's War they installed the grandson of Reza Pahlavi as monarch of Iran. Pahlavi was supposed to destroy their nuclear abilities and make Iran a slave of western civilization, forfeiting their birthright of oil and blood. Many schemes were implemented to make Iran another market for decadent western goods, without allowing us any progress in the scientific fields. It was difficult to avoid . . . a certain animosity," Ahmadi hessitated.

"But somehow you prospered?" I pressed.

"There are two paths to overcome an invader, one of war, another of enlightenment," the Mahdi explained. "I chose the path of peace. China helped us reject the Zionism which tried to make our noble and tenacious people weak and economically dependant, Islamic culture would not allow the infestation of foreign ideas to survive. Some villagers were deceived by the dazzling look and misleading features of the Americans, the new Shah Pahlavi became unbearable for the masses until we could not tolerate him any more. Since we knew if they killed Pahlavi-or his followers- the bloody uprising could not be controlled, we needed to take a path of peace. When Imam Qayyum Zakiri was released from prison, I will never forget his strong faith in Almighty God in his orations. He invited the people to pure Islam, to monotheism - Unity and Oneness of God. He eliminated injustice, oppression, and sedition in the world. We sent the Americans and Jews home in the name of peace for all."

"Would you have killed an American yourself?" I asked once again.

"I believe in peace," The Mahdi reiterated, again avoiding the subject. "Come! Come! Enough of this history, this water is long under the bridge and in the ocean! It's time to watch the children," and Ahmadi began orchestrating the adults as we finished our meal, acting the part of pater familias.

We all began to file out, the children had long since left, all except Sapphire. I delayed my departure, though Laura tried to push me along.

"Hello," I spoke gently to Sapphire, who was still trying valiantly to push some peas onto a knife. "My name is Steve."

"I know who you are," she replied gruffly. "I know who you are!" and then she returned to pushing peas around her plate as if I didn't exist.

"Well, there's a happy camper," I muttered just above my breath and Laura whisked me away to watch the children's demonstration before I could incite a riot.

We entered the meditation hall, but it was anything but meditation going on there then. It was a large octangular room with waxed oak floors and surrounded by bright stained glass patterned windows, a great distraction to anyone who might care to meditate there. Mahdi Ahmadi sat on a chair on the small stage at one side which normally served as the speakers platform. This evening, it served as the review platform for an exhibition of martial arts.

"I feel like I'm watching a replay of the King and I," I wisecracked. "Except Mahdi Ahmad plays Yule Brenner and you play the English governess." I winked at Laura.

Laura ignored my comments and dragged me over to sit by Ahmadi the mighty.

"Watch," he beamed his comments at me. "My children are quite good at marshal arts, you know."

It was indeed quite an exhibition they put on. I'd trained in Kenpo karate, getting a black belt for what it was worth, but I'd have been hardpressed to have kept up with these children. Two of Ahmadi's teenage sons went at it full contact and I saw their mother get up and leave in horror after one caught a moon kick in the back of the head and was knocked out cold.

"He will be all right, he is young and will recover fast," Ahmadi coolly apologized for the inconvenience.

"The boy might be seriously hurt," I protested. "A heel to the head can traumatize the brain. They don't have to hurt themselves for my entertainment!"

It's not like I hadn't been cold cocked a few times myself in training over the years. Still, I worried when adults push children beyond common sense in contact sports.

"If I had followed such advice when I was growing up, I would now be dead," Ahmadi smiled at me cynically, and I felt the blood drain out of me. The way he said it was so cruel and compassionless I understood without doubt he had killed to survive in the past.

"Some role model," I thought to myself, but I had the foresight not to say anything out loud.

"Isn't that Crystal?" I asked incredulously a half hour later after witnessing various children pound the living bejeebers out of each other.

"Shhh!" Laura admonished. "It isn't polite to show favoritism among the children."

Crystal was facing another girl twice her height and twice her age, though also incredibly young. They faced off barefisted, without pads.

"You people must be crazy," I protested.

"Please, Dr. Heller, you don't understand our ways." Ahmadi put a hand on my shoulder and though I could scarce feel it, it had the effect of forcing me to remain seated.

The fighting started, and I don't think I've ever seen anything so brutal as what happened in just a short minute and a half of vicious kicks. The two young ladies went at each other like wildcats, the younger Crystal at first taking a succession of kicks to the face that left her bleeding around the mouth.

Surprisingly, though, the young girl began to fight back and although much shorter and not as heavy as her opponent, was able to plant a kick in her adversaries solar plexus than bent the older girl in pain. But the fight wasn't over yet and Crystal was forced to take a couple of good shots before she made a vicious move I've only seen in Thai kickboxing tournaments. Making a spinning move, she struck the larger girl with the back of her elbow. If Crystal's opponent hadn't partially blocked the concussion with a hand thrown up in defense, it was the type of move that could have been a coup de grace if it had struck the other child's temple.

"Enough!" I was surprised to hear both Ahmadi and myself say in unison.

"You have both shown yourselves to be courageous warriors," Ahmadi spoke in a commanding tone to his young wards. "You have defended your honor. But now you must remember you are blood of one blood and the bonds that hold you together are so strong that no matter what happens, each of you is responsible for the other."

"I thought this bloodbath would never end," I told Laura under my breath and Ahmadi acted as if he'd heard, eyeing me.

"My children, your demonstrations have been a delight to our guest, Dr. Heller, but now you must prepare for another day. Goodnight."

The entire crowd took this as a command to leave and both the children and adults left us, trudging off to dormitories upstairs in a tramping march that seemed almost robotic. Laura and I were left standing there in the middle of the meditation floor with The Mahdi.

"I'm sure this demonstration has confused you," Ahmadi made the understatement of the year. "I am first and foremost a teacher. Perhaps I can explain my methods a little more clearly," and he strode over to a wall where there was a brace of Samurai swords.

"I wish you would explain things, because right now I am not impressed," I spoke up boldly.

"I am a product of a time and place so different from your culture I think it difficult for you to comprehend how brutal the world can be." Ahmadi replied, taking up one of the swords and measuring its sharpness with his thumb.

"Some Americans are soft," I replied. "But we adapt quickly. Our grandfathers and grandmothers were all immigrants here, they were all survivors and their blood runs thick in us."

"Perhaps," Ahmad smiled crookedly and then took another sword from the rack, bent down and slid it my direction on the floor.

"What is this for?" I asked.

"Pick it up," he replied. "A Sufi scholar once said: 'There are three ways of knowing a thing. Take for instance a flame. One can be told of the flame, one can see the flame with his own eyes, and finally one can reach out and be burned by it. In this way, we Sufis seek to be burned by God. '"

"Do you mind interpreting that for the village idiot," I interjected.

"I must see for myself if you are a good enough man for Laura." Ahmadi interpreted for me. "In a direct way."

"Laura and I are just friends," I argued unconvincingly. "I'm a cripple who isn't going to impress anyone with my fencing ability," I protested again. But I reached down slowly and lifted the presented sword from the floor almost unconsciously, though stiffly. The software protested this added unbalance to my system, I teetered, but adjusted.

"I think you underestimate your desires and abilities," Ahmadi replied, grinning from ear to ear. "A bird told me that you are not even a human being, you are a weapon of war as sharp as this sword!" He tried a couple strokes with his blade, using a technique reminiscent of Toshiro Mifune in the movie The Seven Samurai.

"This is so childish," I protested. "Are you trying to prove some obscure Zen konan right now? What is the sound of one sword swinging? - My head rolling on the floor?"

I laughed weakly at my own joke, I'd again purposely confused Sufism with the Zen babble of a thousand grainy Samurai movies. But Ahmadi didn't laugh and began to circle cat-like while Laura moved away, hardly acting as my protector now. I tried to keep up, but I'm afraid my operating software was still pretty crude and I stumbled a few times. This had ceased being a fun game.

"Of course, perhaps you are not the man Laura has told me about," Ahmadi suggested and made a leisurely swing of the sword that I barely avoided walking into. The whistle of the blade through the air rang in my ears like a windchime.

"Come now, you can defend yourself better than that," Ahmadi taunted. "Certainly you have more of the fighter in you than this," and he made a sudden thrust that nicked my ear, drawing a small trickle of blood I could feel dripping down my collar. I may have been paralyzed through the rest of my body, but I could feel the sting of that little cut and my blood pressure began to rise.

"And I imagine you like to torture butterflies," I suggested, something I hoped a Sufi master of the Religion of Peace would take as a deep insult.

Mahdi Ahmad spoke slowly to me now, lowering his sword and guard. "I saw things in the killing fields of Peshawar that would make the torture of a butterfly seem civilized. In order for the butterfly to take wing and show the world how beautiful it is, the larvae must first survive the winter. I learned to survive times that would make your skin crawl. Only time and Allah will tell whether I am a butterfly or a wasp."

Ahmadi began to turn as if to put up the sword and make peace with me, but his motion turned into a centripetal spin that carried the curved blade he held in an expanding and accelerating arc. The force of that accelerated razor blade was targeted to cleave me in two in a macabre blood sport. It was reminiscent of the Japanese during the rape of Shanghai who competed trying to sever the heads and limbs of living victims. Laura screamed involuntarily.

I'm not sure what happened then, it was a blur of reaction that I wasn't prepared for. I raised my own sword in defense and in a clash of sparks stopped Ahmadi's deadly blade in mid space.

In two quick parries, more agile than could be imagined of a simple human being, I sliced a button from Ahmad's shirt an inch below his neck and then countered a move of his to bring us face to face with a crash of crossed swords and me panting like a bull.

"Just as I thought," Ahmad smiled at me. "Just as I thought." And he backed away.

Suddenly, I regained my senses, or perhaps lost them, and I stumbled backwards and fell to the floor.