Lost in thoughts he had walked into a forest without noticing. When he finally looked up and around he didn’t see anything he recognised. A barely visible path wound between high trees and dense undergrowth. Patches of thick green moss under the highest trees were surrounded by stretches of high, dry grasses and strips of bare sandy ground. Even with the sun high up in the sky it was almost dark here. The heavy foliage blocked almost all the sunlight and the little light that reached the ground was washed through with a greenish, pastel-like haze.
Where was he? And how could he get out? The narrow path didn’t seem to go anywhere and he only saw forest as far as he could see in this dusky light.
Slightly worried he tried to get his bearings.
After having twice turned around 360º he thought he saw something shimmer in the distance. He looked again. Yes, it was clearly lighter there and he thought he could see the blueish glittering of water through the thick shrubs and high grasses.
The darkness of the forest was getting to him. He didn’t hesitate. He started running in the direction of the water he saw in the distance.
Because he could barely see the ground he walked on he couldn’t go very fast. He had to be careful with placing his feet: the path was full of irregularities, holes and tree roots you could easily trip on.
After running along for a while in this way, with his eyes mostly on the ground, he stopped for a moment to check his progress. It took him a moment to locate the light in the distance. To his surprise it seemed further away than before. It was still clearly visible, especially in contrast to the darkness around him. But the distance between him and the reflecting water had clearly increased. He must have veered off from the main path, into a direction away from the water instead of towards it.
He took a few deep breaths to calm himself. Panic is not going to help you, he told himself. And there’s no reason to panic. As long as you keep the water in sight it’s impossible to get lost.
Instead of running, he decided to walk while keeping his eyes fixed on the water and not on the ground. By carefully placing his feet and making sure he was standing on level ground before taking the next step he managed to slowly move forward.
After having taking a number of big strides this way he started to get the feeling that even though he was moving forward the water was receding from him. He took a few more steps and was certain now: he was again further away from the water than he had been before.
Again he walked forward. The water had by now almost disappeared from sight. Only the bright light on the horizon betrayed where the water would be. Afraid to lose sight of that light as well he started running again. Until he tripped over a tree root and fell flat on his back.
Slowly, he got back up again. He was completely surrounded by the half-darkness of the forest. There was no trace of the water or even the light on the horizon.
Panicking, he turned around and around, hoping to glimpse the light reflecting off the water somewhere.
Suddenly, out of nowhere, she stood there in front of him. A slender, stately
woman, dressed in light-green robes. She had long, black hair and dark-brown, almost black eyes. She held a staff in one hand and had her other hand raised in a ‘stop’ gesture. She had a slight smile around her lips but her voice was stern and commanding when she said: “That’s enough. Please show some dignity.”
His mouth had fallen open in amazement. He was still panting from his panic attack and he was dizzy from turning around and around. But when he heard her voice he felt himself jump to attention. Without a thought he straightened his back, closed his mouth and waited for her to speak again.
“Good. You know how to listen. Maybe you can still be saved.” There was that hint of a smile again. “But you will have to do exactly what I tell you to.” Speechless, too surprised to say anything at all, he nodded his understanding.
“Do you have any idea why you can’t reach the water?” she asked? He shook his head. She kept looking at him, apparently expecting an answer. “It seems like the water is running away from me,” he suggested, cautiously. “Every time I try to approach, the water seems to have moved further away.”
“Ah” the woman said, “you know how to observe. But your conclusion is typically male: when you encounter something you cannot explain something has to be wrong with the world. Have you considered, even for a moment, that maybe there’s something wrong with you, and not with the water?”
Bewildered, he looked at her. Something wrong with him? What did she mean? “Could the water be an optical illusion? Am I only imagining seeing water?” he proffered.
“No” she said, “that water is real. There’s nothing wrong with your eyes. But something’s wrong” – there was that smile again – “with the way you are looking at the world.”
He had no idea what she was talking about, so he kept his silence, hoping she would explain what she meant.
“Try to walk towards me. Maybe that will help you understand.” Hesitantly, he took a few steps forward. To his amazement the woman was further away from him than when he started walking. Yet she hadn’t moved at all. She held the same position in what seemed to be the exact same spot, yet the distance between them had visibly grown. What was going on?
“You still don’t understand, do you?” the woman said. “I thought you were smarter than that. Let’s try again. Walk away from me now, without turning around. Keep looking at me and take a few steps away from me.” He did as she said and saw how she appeared to come closer with every step backwards he took. He stopped when he was almost touching her and stared at her in confusion.
“Do you understand now?”
When he failed to answer she took half a step backwards and struck his head off his shoulders with her staff in one fluid motion. He felt his head tumble through the air to land on the soft mossy ground, while his body flopped helplessly forward. His body ended on hands and knees as his head rolled to a stop against a tree stump.
He had the eerie feeling he was in two places at once. He clearly felt the moss under his hands and the ground under his knees and feet. But he also felt the rough surface of the tree stump against his face and saw grass sway in front of his eyes. A tiny ant climbed up on one of the stalks, stopped at eye height and ran down again. He was too surprised to panic and too shocked to say anything.
“I’m sorry,” the woman said, “but sometimes a direct approach works best after all.” He couldn’t see her but heard her kneel down next to his head. “Now you need to keep your head together. Try to crawl slowly in the direction of my voice.”
Her voice was calm and reassuring and he felt his panic subside. He did as she told him and made a few tentative crawling motions. He felt his body move forward but his eyes didn’t register any motion. That was confusing enough to cause a wave of nausea to wash through him and almost make him fall over.
“Pretty hard to do, eh? When your body and your head are not working together? Try again, but this time keep your eyes closed. Looking is not going to help, feeling is. Concentrate on my voice and the feeling in your body. It may help to imagine you are in the dark, crawling towards me.”
He closed his eyes and did exactly as she told him. Now that his eyes and his body were no longer contradicting each other things were indeed a lot easier to manage. Without too much trouble he crawled in the direction of her voice. He felt his hands bump into his head and instinctively picked up his head and pushed it firmly back onto his neck. He felt his head and body fuse.
Cautiously he let go of his head. It remained firmly perched on his neck, as if it had never been disconnected. He slowly turned his head from side to side. That, too, worked fine. He sat himself firmly on the ground before opening his eyes. Everything looked normal. The forest, the sky, the trees, … and a few paces away the mysterious woman with her staff in hand.
“Well done.” she said, clearly happy with his performance. “Most men lose their head completely when this happens and get hopelessly lost. I have seen plenty of them disappear into the woods in total panic. Never to return. But I am glad you managed to pull yourself together. I think you have potential.” In his mind he saw hordes of headless men crawling through the forest until they died of exhaustion. That could have happened to him. He breathed a sigh of relief.
“Come” the woman said and held out her free hand, “get up and walk with me. I will take you to the water.” She helped hem to his feet and together they walked into the forest. After a few turns of the path he could see the light again and the reflections of the water. He half expected the water to disappear from sight again, so he was glad to see the water’s edge quickly approaching. After a short walk he stood next to the woman on a sandy beach bordering a small lake in the middle of the forest.
“Welcome to my lake”, the woman said. “From here you will be able to continue your journey. But before I let you go, have you understood what was going on?” She looked at him, her dark eyes firmly fixed on his.
He thought. Her question sounded like a test and he suspected she wouldn’t take kindly to him giving the wrong answer. He had no idea what she would do but he had witnessed what she was capable of with her staff. Better think this through, therefore. What had just happened? Suddenly it came to him. “I had my head put on the wrong way round.” He looked at her. “I was looking forwards but walking backwards.”
She smiled at him. “Exactly. Or you were walking forwards but looking backwards. I hope you will never forget this: if you cling to where you came from you will never get where you want to go to. Keep your eyes aligned to the direction you want to travel in. The road will then reveal itself.”
That sounded rather obvious. He nodded he had understood her; cautiously, of course, his head had just been on the ground next to his body so he didn’t want to take any unnecessary risks.
With the woman he turned again to face the lake and admired the view of the rippling water and the sunlight playing with the small, wind-driven waves.