The soldier knew exactly what his mission was and how important . “As long as even one of those bastards is still alive, there can be no peace”, he had been told. And peace was what he longed for most, after years of fighting a war nobody wanted but that had happened anyway.
So he trudged on, through rain and snow, through rubble and mud, through bombed-out cities and trench-ridden fields. The smell of death and devastation was everywhere. Life was nowhere to be seen; there were no birds, no animals, no insects. The trees and fields were blackened by fire and ripped apart by explosives. Not even the rats had survived this desolation.
When he passed the shell of a burnt-out house he saw something move inside. Alert, his rifle ready for action, he stepped through the doorway and saw the enemy staring back at him. “What a monster”, he thought, “covered in mud and dried-up blood, his uniform torn and badly patched. Look at his filthy hair, his dirty face and hands. Look at the twisted grin on his face, the madness in those nasty little eyes. You’d almost feel sorry for him.”
But the soldier knew what his mission was and didn’t hesitate for a moment. He shattered the hallway mirror in front of him with the back of his gun and detonated a grenade, clutching it to his chest as he did so. The house and the soldier disintegrated in a violent explosion of light and sound.
After a while the debris and the dust of the explosion settled, and silence reigned again.
The old woman sat in her chair next to the window, looking out over the parking lot and the poorly maintained bit of greenery nobody but the nursing home’s website would describe as “lush and verdant parklands.” Her room was small: just big enough to house a bed, a nightstand, a small coffee table and two chairs.
Had anyone come to visit her she would have been ashamed to let them in. The carpet was old, the wallpaper flaking, the curtains unwashed and stained. But nobody would come. The few people that had ever cared for her were long dead.
Her children might as well be dead, too. When they had found out she had trouble remembering things and was getting a bit unsteady on her feet, they hadn’t hesitated. They had removed her from the family home she had lived in all her life and packed her off to an ‘affordable’ nursing home, far enough away from town to give her children an excuse never to visit her. She had outlived her usefulness and was put here to be forgotten; to wither away and die like the forgotten pot plants surrounding the parking lot outside.
The old woman sighed and stared into the distance. How did she end up here? Not just the home, but her whole situation: alone, discarded, forgotten. What had happened to her that a whole lifetime could so easily be summed up in a 4-line story:
She was born. She lived. Then she died.
For quite a while she sits there, motionless, lost in thoughts.
Gradually, however, an idea begins to take shape in her mind. What if her whole dismal situation was simply a mistake? A wrong turn she has taken, sometime in her past? It would explain so much. The feeling that this wasn’t the life she was meant to live. That she was an actor that had been given the wrong script by mistake. That her real life was out there somewhere, just out of reach. That the glimpses of a better, more fulfilling, more passionate life she had always dismissed as wishful thinking were actually more real than the empty existence she had endured.
She decides she is going to find out.
She straightens her back, closes her eyes, and concentrates on the last time she had felt a part of her self slip away.
The Family Home
“Really Mother, you can’t go on like this,” her daughter said, for the umpteenth time, “living alone in this house. What if you fall and break something? You could lie here for days with nobody knowing about it. You could leave the gas on and blow up the house. You could get lost outside. It’s just not safe for you to live alone any more.” She did her best to sound worried and concerned but all the old woman noticed was her daughter’s impatience and irritation.
“It’s just ridiculous,” her son chimed in, “you keeping this place to yourself. All those empty rooms: a waste of space and energy. No-one ever comes to stay here. You should be ashamed of yourself: hogging this place. Think of all the homeless people. Look at that garden: they could build an apartment block there and house a dozen families. It’s selfish, that’s what it is.”
“You just can’t go on like this,” her daughter said, again. “It’s costing a fortune in maintenance, insurance, rates, … all wasted because you are too stubborn to admit you are simply too old to stay here. We don’t even know if you’re all there anymore, you know, … mentally? You’ve grown so absent-minded and forgetful, so withdrawn. We can hardly have a decent conversation with you these days. It just can’t go on. Something has to be done. For your own good.”
The old woman remembers the whole conversation, every painful word spoken piercing her heart like a dagger. She had wanted to push back, to argue, to tell them she loved this house and its gardens. That she was content here. But the words had failed to come. Her mind had slowed down lately and by the time she had found words for what she wanted to say, her children would already have gone on. So she had just sat there, in silence, shaking her head in frustration and pain.
“… sign here, and here,” her son said, aggressively pushing a sheet of paper towards her over the table, “that will give me power of attorney so I can take care of everything for you. It’s for the best, and you know it. Someone needs to take responsibility for your situation, and you’re clearly no longer capable of doing so.”
In her mind’s eye, the old woman sees herself reach for the pen, not wanting to sign but too tired to fight against her children. They had confused and humiliated her with their constant barrage of accusations. They had made her ashamed of herself and her selfish desire to have something for herself. They had pushed her into a state of silent despair where giving up and surrendering almost felt like a release. She felt herself getting ready to sink even deeper into apathy and oblivion. She was going to sign the paper and be done with it all.
“No!” she says, “I am not having this!” To her own surprise she finds she has spoken these words out aloud. Her children, as startled as she, recoil in their chairs. They look at her in amazement.
The old woman pushes on: “I know what you two want. This is not about me. You don’t care about me. You never have. All you are after is the house and what it is worth. To you I am just a burden and an expensive one at that. You think you can put me away in some godforsaken nursing home in the middle of nowhere. So you can forget about me and go on with your own self-centred existence. But I’m not having it. I will not sign this piece of paper. I will not be taken out of my home. I will not be made to be ashamed of who I am. Not by you two, nor anyone else. It’s you who should be ashamed. Deeply ashamed.”
With fiery eyes, she glares at her children, cowering in their chairs, too surprised to have anything to say. “Look at you both. Cowards, is what you are. Vultures praying on the old and frail. Maybe it is all my fault. Maybe I have let you become what you are today. If that’s the case, I am sorry. But enough is enough!”
She stands up, and tears up the paper her son had given her. “Here is your power,” she says and throws the pieces in their faces. “Nothing but shreds and hollow phrases. I won’t give you any power over me. Not anymore. You wanted to get rid of me? Well, good riddance then. I want you both to get out of my house. Now! Get out!” She points at the door with a remarkably steady hand. “And don’t even think of trying anything. I will disinherit you both before I let you treat me like that ever again.”
Speechless, her son and daughter get up and walk out. They don’t even look back. They slam the front door on the way out. She hears them speed away in their expensive cars.
She will never see them again.
In her mind, she looks around. The house is hers now. Her life is hers. For the first time in her life she has turned a situation around and taken control. And it feels great.
She sits back in her chair and closes her eyes again. It feels good to be in her own house and in control of her life. But she is still alone in the world. Her life still feels empty and unfulfilled. She knows life had so much more in store for her. Where else could she have lost what was supposed to be hers?
“Mrs. Olwen? Could you come to my office, please?” She looked at the shape of her boss disappearing in the distance. She got up and followed him to his spacious corner office overlooking the ocean.
He stood at the door of his office when she arrived and ushered her in, in passing placing a hand on her lower back, seemingly innocent enough but with just a hint of a lecherous squeeze as she walked by. It was as she feared. The blinds had been closed, the lights reduced to a shimmer. Not a good sign. She had heard the rumours but refused to believe them. Now she was afraid they may have been true after all. She heard him close the door behind him and turn the key. She was trapped!
He walked towards her with a leering smile on his face. “I couldn’t stop thinking of you,” he said, “you’ve been on my mind all morning.” He grabbed her by her waist and pulled her towards him. “Come here, and give us a kiss. I know you want it.”
She knew what would come next and she hated it. But what choice did she have? She couldn’t afford to lose this job. A single mother with two school-going children, she needed every penny. Best endure it and get it over with quickly. Offering no resistance she let him draw her to him. As his face came closer she could smell the whiskey on his breath. He had clearly taken a few drinks to get into the ‘mood’. It was disgusting.
With her eyes closed, she can’t help but shudder at the memories. She had let him get away with this for several years, always fearing for what he could do to her if she refused. He had let her know from the start, in no uncertain terms, that she would not just be fired, he would ruin her reputation forever. No-one would ever hire her again. Of that she could be certain. He had that kind of power, he assured her. She had been too afraid to resist and he had had his way with her, again and again, until at last he had become bored with her and replaced her with a younger woman he could intimidate into obedience. He had let her keep her job, in return for her silence. She had stayed till the company was unexpectedly sold and she got laid-off like almost everyone else. Her silence had been for nothing. She had wasted her years, while her former boss had gone on to become ever more powerful and rich. Until his wife had enough of him, filed for divorce and leaked his dirty past, in glorious detail, to the press.
Remembering the humiliation and frustration of those years brings tears of anger to her eyes. She shouldn’t have let it happen! She will not let it happen!
As he pushes his tongue into her mouth she bites down – hard. He pulls back, moaning, with blood dripping from his mouth. “What the fuck?” he shouts, “what are you doing? You stupid bitch, there’s blood everywhere.” As he fumbles a handkerchief from his pocket to dab at the bleeding she straightens her back and looks at him, coolly. “I am not your plaything, you despicable little man. I am not some toy you can have your way with and discard. You are disgusting!” He looks at her, astonished at first, then slowly angering. “Who do you think you are, you little slut? What makes you think you can talk to me like that? You will regret this for the rest of your life.” “I don’t think so,” she says. “In fact, I know I won’t. You have no power over me. Not anymore. I will tell you exactly what is going to happen. I am going to walk out of this office. By the end of the week I will get a generous severance offer from you, that I will graciously accept. I will then leave the company with a letter of recommendation personally signed by you. If you do that, you will never hear from me again.”
Still dabbing at his mouth he tries to look fierce and indignant. “And what if I don’t? What is stopping me from throwing you out right now and making sure you never find work anywhere again? Why wouldn’t I tell everyone what a worthless piece of shit you are?” “Because I know everything about the deal you are planning. I know how you want to sell off this company, and get everyone sacked while raking in the proceeds.” She realises the power her hindsight is giving her younger self and goes full out. “I also know the names of the other young women you have ruined. I know of the secret fund you have been building up by skimming off our profits. I know enough to bankrupt you and get you sent to jail. Now, get out of my way, before I change my mind and go public straight away.”
She strides to the door, pushing her boss aside. He is too stunned to even protest as she unlocks the door and walks out, closing the door behind her.
In the hallway, she stops for a moment, feeling her body shake with the adrenaline and excitement. She did it! She stopped the bastard! Composing herself, she walks back to her desk, gathers her stuff and walks out. She tries hard not to laugh out loud as she leaves the building behind and walks off into the sunshine of the early afternoon.
She walks to a bench on the nearby beach and sits down. She closes her eyes to bask in the warmth of the Sun and reflects on what just happened. She can hardly believe she had the courage to stand up to that man. It changed everything: her career, her self-esteem, her belief there is a space for her in this world. Although, to be honest, the idea she had to earn the right to exist still plagues her to this day. She has always felt she had to tread carefully, and please and appease people, or they would find out she was an interloper and exile her for the error of creation she deep-down believed herself to be.
Would she be able to do something about that, too? She silences her mind and goes searching for another defining moment in her life.
She remembers how she had woken up to what was supposed to be happiest day of her life with a feeling of dread and hopelessness.
When John had proposed to her, months ago, she had said ‘yes’ rather quickly. They had been dating for more than a year already and she had constantly feared he would tire of her and drop her for someone more deserving of his love and attention. So, when he proposed, she felt she couldn’t take any chances. If he sensed even the slightest hesitation, he might take offence and change his mind. Her ‘yes’ at least sealed the deal, preventing him from running off.
It had felt like a victory at the time but now it felt like a life-sentence. John had changed so much in those past months. Happy at first that she had accepted him, he had paraded her around his circle of family and friends, like a hunter showing-off his trophy kill. And, without consulting her, he had begun planning the wedding. He set the date, the location, the program, drew up the list of guests. It was his show. It was all about him and his conquest. She should be grateful she was given a role at all.
The closer they came to the wedding, the less John had been interested in her as a person. She had become an extra in his grand pantomime; a backdrop to his shining persona. Her feelings didn’t matter. Her input wasn’t wanted. Her beauty was all that counted, and her family’s fortune, of course, wasn’t unwelcome either.
She tried to convince herself John was only behaving like this because of the pressures riding on him. He had worked so hard to make something of himself. Coming from a humble family he had made a career in sales. Moving up fast, he was sure he was destined for greatness. She knew how important his career was to him. She knew how much he was convinced their marriage would show those upper-class bastards they couldn’t keep him out of their inner circle any longer. Once the wedding was behind them he would turn his attentions back to her, she told herself. They would then become the happy couple everyone expected them to be.
But then, just one week before the wedding, she had caught John in bed with another woman. She had gone to his place unannounced, as a surprise. Looking for him she walked into the bedroom, to be shouted at by an angry John, telling her to leave immediately. She had recognised the girl in bed with him from his office. The girl didn’t even try to cover herself but sat there, grinning, while John yelled at her to close the door on the way out.
She had fled the house, crying, and went to her favourite spot on the beach. Sitting on the bench overlooking the water, she let the full impact of what she had seen sink in. John had betrayed her! He didn’t love her, after all. All his past attention, his promises, his gifts and beautiful flowers, it had all been a show. He had hunted her and roped her in with his charm and his intensity. And she had fallen for it, like the stupid fool she was.
She knew he wouldn’t let her go. She was his trophy wife, his ticket to respectability and what he thought of as class. Even worse was her realisation that she knew she wouldn’t even try to get away. Her parents wouldn’t understand. Her friends would think she had lost her mind. Even if she would tell them what she had seen, John would simply deny it, tell them she must have been dreaming. They would believe him, with his charm and his smiles and his beguiling manners, not her. They would all side with John against her.
She had never felt more alone in the world as on that bench near the water.
When she came home later than evening, John had been waiting for her and greeted her as if nothing had happened. She hadn’t dared to say anything, dreading his anger and scorn, so they both carried on their charade. In private, she became more and more withdrawn, locking herself in her room with the curtains closed, or sitting for hours on her bench by the water, thinking of jumping in and drowning herself, knowing she lacked the courage to do even that. In public, they played the happy man and wife to be. They chatted with friends about the wedding, the final arrangements and what a grand show it all would be. Crying inside, she forced herself to laugh along with John’s jokes and his bragging while feeling swept along by a raging torrent towards a cold, dark abyss from which she would never be able to escape.
And now the day had arrived she would make that final plunge into darkness.
She cringes as she recalls how she had felt that day. Numb inside, but smiling to those around her, she let herself be prepared, like a lamb to the slaughter, for the big ceremony. Hair, nails, dress, jewellery and make-up all in place, she had been the perfect picture of the perfect bride. She had let her father lead her to the altar, where a triumphantly grinning John waited for her. She had heard the priest mumble through his litany without taking in a single word of what he was saying. Until he came to the moment of the vows.
John had already said his “I do”, so it is her turn now. It is now or never. As the priest is waiting for her answer, she moves in and takes over from her past self. “No, I won’t!” she says, “I will not let him destroy me.” It takes the priest a moment to take in what she is saying, then consternation spreads on his face. John is quicker to grasp what is happening. He glares at her and grabs her hand, pulling her towards him. “What are you doing? Making a scene? Now? I’m not going to let you do this,” he whispers angrily. He tightens his grip but she manages to pull herself free. “I am already doing it,” she says, loudly, triumphantly. “You have no power over me. You don’t get to claim me. You don’t deserve me. You never did. You never will!”
She turns around to face the family and friends gathered behind them, most of them just beginning to understand the enormity of what she has just done. “Don’t even think of stopping me. Any of you. My life is not yours to determine. My existence doesn’t depend on your approval. From now on, I’ll be the one in charge of my future.” Well aware of the dramatic effect, she rips the veil and flowers from her head and throws them in John’s face. She kicks off her pumps, lifts the hem of her dress, and strides out of the church with her head held up high, defiantly. She doesn’t need to look back to know the confusion she is leaving behind.
She smiles. She has escaped. The life she thought to be over lies ahead of her, waiting to be discovered.
She goes back to her bench on the beach and looks out over the water and the sunlight dancing on the waves. She feels light and liberated, free to embrace the world and dance with its rhythms, unconcerned about other people and what they might think of her.
For a while, all she does is sit and enjoy this newfound freedom. As the sun begins to set, however, and the shadows lengthen, she becomes aware of a darkness inside her. It’s a darkness that has always been there, she realises, but seldom acknowledged. Whenever it presented itself she had ran away from it, preferring to flee in the emotions of fear and anxiety the darkness triggered, rather than face that darkness itself. She had thought that this had kept her safe but now she realises that ignoring the darkness had only made its power over her stronger and more pervasive. It was the source from which all her chains and limitations had sprung, and the one remaining anchor that kept her from being totally free.
She knows what she has to do. She lets the encroaching darkness outside meet the darkness within and lets herself sink into the void she knows is waiting there.
“Mummy, mummy, look what I found!” She sees her five-year old self running through the garden, clutching a bit of green in her tiny fist.
It had been a beautiful Summer day. Her mother had dressed her in her favourite blue frock with the pink ribbon, let her put on her new pink wellies and let her loose to play in the garden behind the house. “Stay away from the beach, dear” her mother had said, “and watch out for the wasps in the apple tree. They can get angry when you get too close, you know that, don’t you?” She had nodded, with great seriousness. She knew all about the wasps. She found them fascinating but a little scary, too. She didn’t want to risk them getting angry. “Mummy will be busy in the kitchen all morning, so run along now and be good girl.” With a little push her mother had sent her out and closed the kitchen door behind her.
She had been happy as anything. She loved roaming around in the lush green of the garden. She could sit for hours watching the ants go about their business. She would catch ladybirds and count their spots to know how old they were. She loved how the birds sang in the trees or chased each other for the best spots. And she loved rolling down the grassy slope in the back of the garden, making her feel all giddy and light.
But more than anything she loved hunting for treasure. One treasure in particular. Not for herself. She didn’t think she needed it. But for her mother. Her mother who had been very silent and withdrawn lately. Sometimes, when her mother hadn’t noticed her, she had seen her silently crying. She clearly wasn’t happy. When she had heard her father tell the story about the treasure, she knew she had to find it for her mother. To help her be happy again. To chase away the sadness.
And this time she had found what she was looking for. Hidden between thousands of ordinary clovers, she had finally spotted a genuine four-leaved clover. She had carefully plucked it from the ground and counted and re-counted the leaves to be absolutely sure. There was no doubt about it! This was the real thing! The lucky clover, the magic charm.
So she ran to her mother, calling out to her, her young heart filled with joy and anticipation.
She cringes at the memory and almost turns away. But she has to face this. This is the moment that had defined so much of her life. She braces herself, and lets the memory continue.
“Mummy, mummy, I’ve found one. I found the lucky clover!” she stormed into the kitchen, expecting her mother to be there, cooking. Her mother was there, but so was her father. She saw him hitting her mother in the face, hard. Her mother received the blow and cringed, but didn’t react. Her father opened his mouth to say something, but was stopped by the sight of his daughter standing there. He glared at her, his eyes full of anger. “And there’s another one of your fuck-ups. Look at her! All dirty and wild. No discipline, no grace. I doubt she’s mine even. You dirty whore!” He turned around and stomped out of the kitchen.
Her mother had stood there, her head hanging with tears falling from her eyes. She had ran to her mother with the four-leaved clover in her outstretched hand. “Don’t cry, Mummy, don’t cry. Look what I’ve found for you. This will make everything right. This will make you happy again.” Her mother had looked at her daughter. “What? What is this? What are you holding there?” She had looked in disgust at the grubby little hand holding the clover. Disgust had turned into anger and she had hit out, slapping the little treasure out of her daughter’s hand. “This” she had spat out the words, “this will make everything right? You stupid, stupid child. I wish I had never let you be born, that would have made everything right. Look at what you have made be become.” Her daughter had been speechless, barely comprehending her mother’s words but deeply feeling the anger and resentment behind them. “You want me to be happy? Get out of my life, that would make me happy. Disappear. Just die already.” With those last words her mother had burst into tears again and had ran from the kitchen, leaving the little girl behind in complete consternation. Not knowing what to do, she had ran back into the garden, hid under a tree, and started crying and crying, as if she would never stop.
Her heart is torn as she looks at her younger self crying herself into exhaustion. This was a wound she would never really recover from. The feeling of total rejection, of being the source of her parent’s anger and unhappiness, of being unworthy to live; that feeling would become the unspoken truth underneath her very existence. Sure, she would manage to find a certain strength inside and grow up with an appearance of balance and occasional joy. But it would never be completely true. It would be a carefully constructed lie she never fully believed in, however hard she tried.
The pain and hopelessness of the little girl threatens to overwhelm her. The urge is strong to run away and leave her there, forgotten, buried deep in the darkness of her unwanted memories. But she fights back against her cowardice. If not now, when will she ever be able to face this moment?
She moves towards the little girl and sits down besides her. Stroking her hair she begins to talk to her.
“They have hurt you deeply, I know. But you don’t deserve this. You are innocent of their misery and hatred. Cry, my little one, cry as much as you have to. But don’t keep all this pain to yourself. It is too much for such a young heart to bear. Let me carry it for you. I have suffered so much already, I can take your suffering, too.”
The little girl looks up at the silhouette of her older self outlined against the late afternoon sun. “Are you sure?” she says, sounding much older than her five years. “It’s a terrible burden to carry and I have carried it for you for so long.” “I am so sorry for that,” she tells the girl, “I should not have let that happen. I should have taken over when I was older and stronger. Instead, I locked you up in darkness, leaving all this pain and guilt buried with you. Leaving you to carry it all. Can you even forgive me?” “What’s there to forgive?” the little girl says, smiling through her tears. “You’ve come back for me. I had almost given up hope, but here you are. Are you ready to let go of the darkness and take me into your heart instead?” The woman looks into the girl’s eyes and sees none of the reproach and accusations she had expected, only love and forgiveness. It’s time to make the final step. She takes the little girl in her arms, carries her to the bench next to the water and sits there, hugging her in silence, as the sun goes down.
They found her sitting on the bench with a smile on her face. The women and men that called her “Mother” knew she had died as she had lived, fully in peace, in harmony with her self and the world. She had taught that same peace and harmony to so many others. She would never be forgotten.
As had been her wish, she was cremated and her ashes scattered over the water she had loved so much. As they turned over the urn, the wind picked up the ashes and they formed a cloud that for a moment darkened the sun. Then the wind moved the ashes again and each particle of ash shone like a star in a silent explosion of light. Her ashes drifted down, fire mixed with water, until she sank beneath the waves into the tranquility below.
Next to the bench they placed a small sign in remembrance:
Several days into a slow and arduous journey he found himself at the edge of an ominous looking forest. From a distance, the trees looked massive and strong, towering against the sky. Their branches spread out wide and high, supporting leafy crowns that appeared healthy and full of life. Coming closer, however, he noticed that the ground among the trees was completely barren. Nothing grew there; no grass, no weeds, no shrubs. All he saw was bare and rocky soil, as if the trees had been planted in the middle of a lifeless wasteland. Adding to this sense of desolation was the fact that he heard none of the usual sounds associated with a forest. There were no insects chirping, no birds singing, nothing rustling through the treetops or across the ground. As he came closer, he noticed that what he had taken for leafy crowns were in fact thick clusters of perfectly round nut-like seeds or fruits. They were so thickly packed together they didn’t move or rustle, even when the wind moved the branches they were hanging from.
Having reached the outermost trees, he wanted to sit down and get some rest. He chose a sturdy looking tree that had just the right shape to form a comfortable back-rest for a weary traveler. But when he sat down and leaned backwards against the tree, instead of the solid support he expected, he felt the tree’s bark crumble and give in, and he toppled backwards into the tree’s interior. Feeling around in the darkness, he realised the tree was completely hollow inside. What had looked like a strong, sturdy tree was nothing but an empty shell, a cardboard effigy of a tree, constructed from a thin skin of bark just strong enough to hold the whole thing up.
He crawled out of the hole he had fallen into and tried another tree next to him. It was exactly the same. With barely a push, his hand broke through the tree’s skin to find nothing but emptiness inside. Every tree he touched was the same. The whole imposing looking forest was composed of hollow trees, as far as he could see. It was a depressing sight. Instead of resting, as he had planned, he decided to push on and get away from this place as fast as his feet would take him.
A few hours later – with the forest disappearing from view behind him – he found himself entering what looked like an abandoned town. It contained dozens of old and crumbling houses, circling a cobbled square, with a spring-fed fountain in the centre. For some reason every house he saw had a tree growing out of it. Several houses had been pushed apart by the expanding trunk and branches of the tree inside and were little more than heaps of rubble. Other houses were still more or less intact, except that their roofs had been lifted off and shattered by the crowns of the trees growing through them. It occurred to him the whole town was in the process of being consumed by trees. A few more decades and there would be nothing left to indicate a town had ever been here.
He quenched his thirst at the fountain and looked around for signs of life. One of the buildings looked more structurally intact than the rest, so he went to see if anyone was there. The building was adorned with a badly painted sign showing a hand with the words “The Invisible Hand” written in shaky letters above it. Underneath, in smaller letters, it said “Free food and stories inside”.
He went in.
The gloomy interior was laid out like a typical bar or saloon: some tables with chairs around them, and a single large slab of timber functioning as a bar. The wall behind the bar was covered with shelves containing some bottles, some small vats with taps, and – somewhat unusual – large glass bowls filled with nuts. A woman he presumed to be the proprietor stood behind the bar, listlessly moving a cloth around the surface in a pretence act of cleaning it.
“Good day mister” the woman said, without much enthusiasm. “What brings you to our once glorious village?” He hesitated. Something in the woman’s voice made him shiver. The words were harmless enough but there was more than a hint of darkness and danger in the way they were spoken. “I am but a traveller looking for some food and a place to rest before I continue on with my journey” he said, sounding more cautious and formal than he had intended. “I found this town by accident” he continued, “as no map I know indicates its existence. Your presence here surprises me greatly, as there seems to be nobody else left.”
“You are not wrong there,” the woman grumbled, “I am, indeed, the very last human to live in this godforsaken place. Except for me, all that remains is trees, rubble and shadows of the past. When I am gone, all that was good and great about our town will be forgotten forever. Vanished without a trace, as if it had never existed.”
“If that’s the case,” he said, “and it appears, indeed, to be thus, why have you not left like everybody else? What keeps you here, in this desolate place?”
The woman stared at him and sighed – a deep and hopeless sigh that made him shiver again. He knew something was very wrong here. If only he could put his finger on it.
“Why didn’t I leave like the others?” she at last replied. “Who says they left? They vanished, for sure, but their shadows remain and keep growing larger and darker. I suppose I should have left when I still could, but let’s just say I’ve grown rather attached to this place. Over time, my roots here have grown too deep.” She chuckled; a joyless, bitter laugh that almost sounded like a cry.
“Besides,” she continued, “if I’m not here to tell the tale, how would anyone ever find out about our village? We would soon be forgotten forever. That wouldn’t be right. But where are my manners? Let me offer you something to eat.”
She straightened up and reached behind her. Her movements were a bit strange, keeping her lower body completely still and instead twisting her upper body around at an almost impossible angle to reach one of the shelves behind her. From there she produced one of the glass bowls with nuts and put it on the bar between them. “Here, the finest nuts in the world. On the house. Enjoy.”
He hesitated. Over the years he had learned that seemingly free gifts seldom were completely free. Almost always there were some strings attached; some expectation of a favour returned; a debt incurred; an obligation implied and silently assumed. But he did feel rather hungry and those nut looked appealing. They were perfectly round, perfectly smooth, and they had a high polish that made them look as if they were giving off light. And he didn’t want to be impolite, either. So he reached out and took a small hand of nuts from the bowl, popped one into his mouth and started chewing.
The nut was delicious! From their sheen he had expected a hard shell but instead the exterior melted away as it touched his tongue, to reveal a tasty, crispy yet eminently chewable kernel that filled his mouth with a sweet and almost fruity flavour, while filling his nose with the smell of nuts that were softly roasted over an open fire. This was, indeed, the finest nut he had ever tasted, quite possibly the best nut in the world. He couldn’t help himself and popped the rest of the handful straight into his mouth.
Still chewing he already reached out for his next handful but the woman grabbed his hand to stop him. “Woah there, stranger. Not so fast. What’s the rush? There is plenty more where those came from. Why not take it slow, enjoy the moment, and listen to my story first, before you eat yourself silly?”
A little bit ashamed at his own greediness he pulled back and nodded. “Of course” he said, “I apologise. I don’t know what came over me. I must have been much hungrier than I thought. No offence intended, and hopefully none taken. I will gladly listen to your story.” He leaned back, wondering what the woman had to tell.
“It all started many, many years ago.” She began. “Before I was born, to be sure, though nobody knows exactly when.” She leaned forward to rest her arms on the bar. For the first time he noticed how gnarled and wrinkled those arms looked, more like branches than like human limbs. “She may be older than I thought,” he thought, “to have arms this withered and aged.”
She continued: “All I was told when I was deemed old enough to hear was that the first nuts were brought in by a mysterious stranger. He arrived one day, handed out large bags of nuts to the people he passed on his way through the village, and then disappeared without a trace. Nobody ever saw him again, but we cursed his name for many years after.” Her face darkened. “As I am sure you will one day curse him, too, when you realise the suffering he has caused.”
Again that dark and threatening undertone; the implication of something sinister and dangerous. Maybe he should just get up and leave? But that would be very impolite to the woman. Having eaten from the nuts she served, the least he could do was wait for her to finish her story. After that, he would make his way as soon as possible. He no longer worried about possible obligations coming with her freely given food. Whatever it was, he could handle it. Of that he was sure.
“At first the nuts were taken in as a welcome gift by the people receiving them. Nobody had ever eaten nuts so fine and tasty. They seemed to be invigorating and healthy, too. Anyone tasting them felt energised and ready to do great deeds. Eating a handful of nuts would leave one with a feeling that nothing was impossible; that anything could be done. It was a powerful and seductive feeling and it swept through the village like a fire through a desiccated forest.”
“Yet, even though the sacks the stranger had doled out were large and plentiful enough to last them several years, people did realise they would one day run out of nuts if all they did was eat them. So – while the rest of the population was using the nuts’ energy to build larger houses, wider streets, and a monumental fountain – the more prudent amongst the villagers rationed their nuts, keeping a portion apart to try and grow new trees from.”
“All their efforts produced were sickly, scrawny shrubs, most of which died before they were mature enough to bear fruit. The nuts produced by the few surviving shrubs were few and tiny. They were edible, but only just. They lacked flavour and texture. Though they were somewhat filling, they failed to deliver that wonderful feeling of energy and drive the original nuts did. It had to be concluded that growing new nuts was a futile endeavour.”
“So the villagers sent out runners in all directions to go look for the stranger and the source of the nuts he had brought. After a few weeks, some of the runners returned with wonderful news: even though they had not found any sign of the stranger, they had discovered stretches of forest consisting entirely of nut bearing trees. Though the trees turned out to be hollow and brittle, the nuts they bore were as good as those the stranger had delivered. The only worrying things about the runners’ news was that none of them had found any trace of the villages and towns that were known to be near. Instead, everywhere they had expected to find a settlement of any kind, they had found a patch of hollow trees instead. Runners coming in later from further away reported the same: wherever people used to live hollow trees now stood; tall, brittle and full of nuts.”
“The villagers barely stopped to wonder about the fate of all those other people, happy as they were about having so many sources of the energy-giving nuts around them. No longer worried about running out of nuts, they consumed more nuts than ever before. Most people switched to a diet of nuts only, supplemented with fresh water from the newly built fountain.”
“It was a wonderful time for the village and its inhabitants. The village flourished and grew. People built, designed and embellished every part of their environment. Their energy and creativity seemed to know no bounds. That there were no other people living within reachable distance did not bother them: as long as there were nuts to be harvested nearby they didn’t need any other people.”
“Having little reason to do so, most people stopped venturing outside the bounds of their village. As time progressed, people would hardly ever leave their houses anymore, except for a nut-gathering mission once or twice a year. The initial rush of activity the nuts’ energy had caused gradually faded away into passivity. But for the smoke rising from the chimneys, a passer-by such as you would have thought the village to be abandoned.”
“It all happened so gradually, people barely noticed the change; neither to their village nor to themselves. When they did, it was already too late to do anything about it. What had started as a growing aversion against leaving their houses had become an inability to do so at all. Those that noticed realised they had stopped moving altogether, their feet growing root-like tentacles that had tethered them to the very ground they had stood still on for months and years. Try as they might, they had lost the power to move their lower body. At best they had just enough movement in their torso and arms to reach for the nuts they had gathered around them. Though some of the more aware ones may have panicked for a moment, and then despaired, I believe the vast majority never even noticed the loss of their human faculties as they were being transformed. They had turned into trees, and trees don’t seem to worry like people do about being anything other than themselves.”
“Once the transformation into trees was complete, the poor creatures couldn’t ingest the nuts anymore, having no arms and hands to grab them. Deprived of this energising food source, they started to consume their own bodies from the inside out. Yet they all grew an abundance of nuts, perhaps in an instinctive but futile attempt to feed themselves. In the end they will all become what you saw in the forest you passed by before you found us: hollow trees, laden with nuts they can’t themselves make use of.”
The woman paused for a moment, staring into the distance. She was motionless for so long, he almost believed she had turned into a tree before his very eyes. But then she shuddered briefly and turned her gaze on him again.
“I am one of the last of the people here to be mostly human still. My mother, may she stand in peace, was one of the very few people who resisted the lure of the nuts as long as she could. She rationed herself and us, her children, making sure we kept eating other food for as long as other food was available. She forced herself to move around and leave the house. She was the last soul ever to leave the village to forage for food and nuts.”
“But even her iron determination couldn’t stop the process of transformation. She slowed it down considerably, adding decades to her and our active existence, but in the end she and all her children got stuck to the ground and lost all mobility of body and mind. I was very poorly as a child and could never eat much of anything. That must have delayed my transformation even more, as I am now – and have been for years – the last person to still be somewhat human. I would almost say I am the last one standing if it wasn’t for the fact that they are all still standing. They are just not people anymore.”
She spoke those words with great sadness and fell silent again.
He didn’t know what to say. If he hadn’t seen the forest and the trees growing out of the houses here in the village; if he hadn’t seen her strange movements and the wood-like appearance of her arms; if he hadn’t felt the energising effect of the nuts himself, he would never have believed her. But he had and he did.
She looked at him and smiled a sad little smile.
“Now you know our story. Maybe you can find people to share it with, so we won’t be completely forgotten by the world. Thank you for listening. Here, have some more nuts.”
She moved the bowl in his direction. Before he could stop himself he had already grabbed another handful of nuts and put them into his mouth. A part of him wanted to stop chewing and spew them out but the nuts were too delicious and tempting. He swallowed them all, feeling a terrible fear rising up.
“Yes” she said, “I can see it’s dawning on you now. Once you have eaten of our nuts your fate is sealed. It may take decades, depending on your inner strength and self-control. But eventually you will become a hollow tree like all of us. No matter how far you run and how long you manage to keep moving, one day your feet will bind you to one spot and that spot will be the last place you will ever see.”
He jumped up in horror. “But why?” he cried “Why have you condemned me to this terrible fate, having suffered it yourself? Why couldn’t you have just chased me away and leave me be?”
She shook her head and smiled that sad smile of hers again.
“Do you know what it feels like to be the only human in the midst of trees that used to be people? Do you know how lonely I’ve been these past decades? I can bear the knowledge of what I am turning into. What I can’t bear is to be the only one knowing it. So, whenever someone like you passes through – and its been years now since I saw a living soul – I simple have to share my fate. So I know I’m not alone.”
He turned around and ran as if his life depended on it. He crashed through the door and disappeared from sight.
The woman stared at the door as it fell shut behind him. A single tear, thick and slow like resin, flowed from the corner of her eye. “At least I’m not alone.” she whispered, “At least I’m not alone anymore.”
The bear had woken up that morning from a long period of hibernation. Still weak and unsteady he had gone out to find some food. Anything would do. Being a hungry omnivore meant he wasn’t picky. Yet, under normal circumstances he would have avoided the dead human he encountered not far from his hiding place. Most wild animals living close enough to humans develop an instinctive urge to stay away from them. But this time hunger was stronger than deeply rooted caution. Hastily, he gobbled up a large part of the body and then ran as fast as he could back to the cave he felt safe in. There he soon fell into a restless sleep.
Suddenly he woke up. He didn’t quite know why: maybe a sound? He pricked up his ears but all he heard was his own breathing. Which surprised him. He had never noticed before how heavy his breathing sounded, somewhere between snorting and growling. He had actually never before paid any attention to his breathing. That was something that took care of itself, like walking, eating and sleeping…. This time, however, he was suddenly acutely aware of the muscles that pulled in the air and pushed it out again. He felt cold air flowing in and coming out as warm, moist clouds. He saw steam form in front of his eyes. Utterly confused he forgot to breathe altogether, until his lungs protested and forced him to take in a huge gulp of air, which caused him to gag, and catch his breath all coughing and barking.
The bear got more and more confused. Observations and half-formed impressions were tumbling around in his head. What confused him most was how aware he was of this going on. He had been surprised before. Or startled by an unexpected sound. He had been in situations before that made him insecure and confused enough to cautiously retreat. But he had never been aware of himself in those moments. Never before had what he observed of the world extended to those observations as well. Observations, impressions and emotions came and went, like the landscape he moved through. He had never experienced himself as the centre of it all. He had never suspected there could be a centre. He had never observed himself before.
The self-evident way with which the world and the bear formed a single flowing dance of action, reaction and interaction completely disintegrated. Unknown emotions overwhelmed him. He felt lost, small and powerless, afraid, alone. Prior to this he had always felt as big as the world he observed, directly and unconditionally connected with everything around him. Aware of himself as observer now, however, he was no longer a participant but a spectator from behind the transparent walls of his senses. The more he looked at himself, the smaller he felt himself become. He felt himself shrink into a single point of awareness surrounded by infinity, completely alone. For the first time ever he saw himself as finite – physically limited as well as in time. Knowing there had been a before, when he was connected with it all, he now feared there would be an after as well, in which he would vanish completely.
This scared the bear. Scared of death. Scared of the end. Mortified.
This wasn’t the kind of trouble he could rely on his instincts to get him out of. The awareness of death sat inside, not outside. There was no adversary to attack. There was no place to flee to. There was no place to hide. Total panic took over. Without looking where to, without noticing his environment, the bear started running.
He kept running till he fell down from exhaustion. Heaving for breath he lay where he fell with eyes closed, convinced death would overtake him and make him disappear into nothingness.
He became aware of the sound of wind over water. Cautiously he opened his eyes. He saw he was lying on a beach on the edge of a small lake surrounded by high trees. The sand was almost pure white. The water of the lake was so clear it could only be observed because of the shadows of the waves being moved across its surface by the wind. The sky was a radiant blue.
What he saw calmed him down a little. He had never consciously looked at a landscape before. This peaceful beauty evoked a new emotion inside him. He felt safe here and in harmony with his surroundings. He could almost forget the fear of death that had driven him to here.
“That would be something,” a voice spoke, “if a little natural beauty were enough to solve your problems. Alas, it’s not that easy.”
The bear jumped up in surprise. His first impulse was to run away, or to rear up on his hind legs to make himself as big and threatening as possible. But his surprise about the unexpected voice, and the fact he had understood what had been said, got the better of his instincts. Flabbergasted he fell back on his haunches and looked around to see where that voice had come from.
Before him stood a human woman, small, with long dark hair. She held a long staff in her hand. Though he could easily kill her with a single swipe of his front paw the bear instinctively knew she was much more powerful than she appeared.
“Yes” she said, “you best sit down for this. You have gotten yourself into a fine mess here.” The bear didn’t know what surprised him more: the fact this human female was addressing him or that he understood everything she said. He had heard human sounds before, but it had never been different from the sounds the birds made or the grunting of the wild pigs in the forest. But this time every word reached his mind and caused a flood of thoughts and questions.
“?????” he growled in her direction.
“Don’t try to speak,” she replied, “you’re snout is not suited for that. It wouldn’t be good for you, either. You are in enough trouble already, if you now start to think in words it can only get worse.”
“??!!??!!????!?!?!” he growled back, somewhat frustrated that what he wanted to communicate resulted in such strange sounds, rather than the questions coming up in his head.
“Do you recall when all of this started?” the lady asked. The bear grunted he had woken up with this strange feeling. “I understand. The confusion started when you woke up. That means something must have happened before you went to sleep. Something as profound as this doesn’t happen by itself. Think. Can you remember anything of the moments before the last time you went to sleep?”
The bear tried to think, which was not easy, as he had never consciously tried to think before. He had fallen asleep, that he remembered. He had run back to his cave, he recalled, after eating something … something he wouldn’t normally touch … !!! Suddenly the image of the dead human popped up in his head and he tasted again the strange taste of human flesh in his mouth. He had eaten a human!
“Indeed,” the lady said, “that’s what I feared. You ate a human that had just died or wasn’t quite dead yet. That caused a part of the human self-awareness to pass on to you. As a species you have always been wise enough to avoid this kind of awareness. You don’t avoid eating humans because you fear them but because you instinctively felt there’s something strange about them. Something they all suffer from. By giving in to your hunger you have infected yourself with that same suffering – the terrible burden of self-awareness.”
“!!!???!!” the bear grunted tentatively.
“No. This won’t pass by itself. Once you have crossed that threshold you can’t just revert back to your old awareness. Self-awareness maintains itself. Every time you observe your own thoughts this amplifies the feeling those thoughts are who you really are. The more you identify with your thoughts, the harder it gets to let go of that identification. If we don’t do anything about it, you will start thinking that you yourself will vanish if your thoughts do. After a while you will end up protecting the very thing that is causing most of your suffering.”
“???????!!!” the bear growled, afraid, angry and sad at the same time.
“I will help you” the lady said, “but it won’t be easy. You will have to trust me and faithfully do everything I tell you to. No questions, no doubts. Do you think you can do that?”
“!!!!!!!!!” the bear grunted, glad the lady appeared to know how to help him. He decided to do exactly what she told him. All he wanted was to become that bear from yesterday again, that he, looking back, had been so happy with, even though he hadn’t been aware of it.
And thus began his apprenticeship with the lady.
It wasn’t as easy as he had hoped. He had expected her to teach him some simple trick to stop that terrible stream of awareness and thoughts rushing through his head. Shouldn’t it be possible to shut down that maelstrom as abruptly as it had started? Instead, she told him the last thing he should do was to resist his own awareness. The more he would deliberately try to stop his thoughts, the more he would become entangled in the paradox of consciously trying to not be conscious.
“You have to let yourself be carried by that stream,” the lady told him. “You can only escape the flow by surrendering yourself to it completely. That surrender is the ultimate victory.”
He didn’t really get that. Winning by surrendering? That wasn’t how things worked, was it? He had often enough had to fight over territory. The ones that surrendered had obviously lost and often had to run for their lives. You could hardly call that winning, could you?
“A victory by force is not a real victory,” the lady said, as if reading his thoughts. “That is just a temporary displacement of the equilibrium. The more you try to shift the balance by force, the harder it will flip back in the end. No, you will have to learn to find your own equilibrium by serving the balance, not by disturbing it.”
I guess so, the bear thought, who understood even less now but didn’t know what else to do than to submit himself to whatever she thought best.
“Great!” said the lady, “That’s what I mean. Surrender yourself and you will see you will get what you are looking for.”
The months that followed were some of the hardest the bear had ever experienced.
The lady gave him strange and impossible-seeming tasks to fulfil. She made him walk along the beach and look at the sand. But he was only allowed to see the black grains of sand. He was supposed to ignore everything else. Every time his eye accidentally spotted something else, a coloured pebble, a shell, or a crawling insect, she would give him a nasty slap on his nose with her staff. “Don’t let yourself be distracted,” she would say, “stay in charge of your attention.” The first few times he had reacted with indignation, even anger, to these painful reprimands. He had growled at her, bared his teeth, and one time he had even reared up on his hind legs, ready to swipe at her. That completely failed to impress her, however. “Anger is a distraction.” she said. “An angry soul resists the flow, which only causes turbulence, no progress.” She emphasised her words with another sharp slap on his nose. “Again,” she said. “Black grains only. The rest is irrelevant.” He didn’t know anything better to do than fall back on all fours and refocus on the black grains of sand between the countless distractions trying to keep him from accomplishing his mission.
Other days she made him sit on the water’s edge with the taks of observing everything his senses could register. Sounds, movements, scents, touches, … he had to try to be aware of it all without giving precedence to any single observation or lingering on any of it. This, too, turned out to be a painfully difficult. When something itched, he wanted to scratch it, but before he could even do so, he would receive one of those slaps on his nose. “Just registering,” she would say, “and then let go. Don’t linger. Don’t give permanence to all the fleeting phenomena around you.” He didn’t quite know what that meant but he did know there was no escaping the impact of her staff. So he would sit and tried to be aware of everything around him without paying attention to anything at all.
And then there were days she told him to concentrate on a small animal that happened to be around. That could be a bird, an insect, a fish, a squirrel, … any animal living in or near the water could be a target for this practice. His task was to observe the creature with his full attention and concentrate so intensely he would be able to feel what the animal was experiencing. “Become that bird,” she told him, “and experience the world through its eyes. See what it sees, feel what it feels, until every beat of its wings feels like yours, and every note it sings seems to come from your own throat.”
This last task was one of the hardest of all. He had never consciously observed other creatures. He had hunted small prey, or given wide berth to larger bears or packs of wolves to avoid conflicts. But that was never about them, always just about his own emotions at that moment. Hunger, fear or curiosity made him notice other animals but he had never felt the slightest urge to see the world from their perspective. How could he? He hadn’t even been aware of his own perspective. His accidentally acquired self-awareness had drastically changed everything. It had divided everything into him and everything else – him versus the world. Other animals existed outside of him and were therefore not connected to him. However hard he tried to put himself in their place, his awareness of the divide between himself and the rest of the world seemed like an impenetrable barrier. He could observe other animals, but he could not empathise with them. He would try to imagine what that would feel like, but didn’t manage to really feel it.
Which would land him another slap on his nose. “Don’t imagine what it would be like,” the lady told him, “but experience what it is. Feel yourself as the other. Break through the wall of your self-awareness. That wall only exists in your mind. It isn’t real.” And so he would try again, intensely staring at a little bird looking for seeds in the bushes or the seemingly aimless wandering about of a bug in the sand.
One fine day – he had no idea how long he had been trying – everything suddenly changed. He was walking along the beach, concentrating on the black grains of sand. After a while he realised he was no longer seeing individual grains of sand but a fragile network of faint black patterns instead, weaving over and through the predominantly white sand of the beach. Those patterns where everywhere around him, however far he looked. He stopped in surprise, somewhat overwhelmed by the intricate, delicate beauty of this tapestry of black sand around him. The lady appeared next to him, not to slap him on the nose, but to whisper in his ear: “Don’t stop now. Let yourself be absorbed by these patterns. Let your thoughts flow through the lines and figures you are seeing in the sand.” He did as she said and let his awareness become part of what he saw in the sand before him. Wherever he turned his attention the black sand would briefly light up, as if pure white light was flowing through the black patterns; light that danced with the movements of his attention. He was so enraptured by this dance of attention, movement and light he completely forget himself and lost track of time. Only when the sun started to set and it became too dark to discern the colours in the sand did he become aware of himself again.
Things went fast from that day on.
Not long after he was observing a squirrel that jumped from branch to branch when he realised he was moving along with every jump. More than that, he knew, without knowing how, exactly which branch the squirrel would jump to and how he would land there. He picked up the sounds that were relevant to the squirrel. He saw what the world would like to such a small and fast-moving rodent. And for a moment he couldn’t tell if he was a bear watching a squirrel or a squirrel watching a bear.
He looked up and around. He wasn’t a lonely bear anymore in a strange and distant world. He was a point of light in an endless tapestry of patterns of light spreading out around him in a continuous dance of light and dark. He felt there were animals everywhere that were similar points of awareness in that same lattice of light. He was a drop in the ocean of life and all that ocean at once. There was no distinction, just connectedness.
The bear realised he had returned to where he had once started. He was, once again, a part of the totality of the world he observed. With the difference that this time round he was aware of himself as well as of that totality. He was no longer trapped in the isolation of his own thoughts and his inward-looking awareness. He was free and unlimited. He was both infinitely small and all-encompassing. He saw himself reflected in the universe and the universe reflected in him.
The lady watched the bear walk away into the woods he had come running from in total panic so many months ago. He didn’t look back but she felt his gratitude towards her in the way he moved and looked around him. She leaned on her staff. She looked at the forest where the wind made the trees softly sing and sway in the rhythm of the bear’s footsteps as he vanished in the distance.
Nobody could say the fires came unexpected. It had been the longest drought in recorded history. For years, the Summer rains had failed to arrive. The land was parched. Everywhere the trees were bare and dying, the forest floor covered in ankle-high layers of dead, brown leaves. Where walls of green once blocked the view, dark outlines of trees in charcoal black and burnt-earth browns revealed a horizon shimmering in the heat of the unrelenting sun. Yet, when the fires came, sweeping down on the village with the speed of a tsunami and the ferocity of a cyclone, hot enough to melt iron, people were still caught unprepared.
The erratically turning winds had left the village surrounded by a ring of fire, cutting off all roads, expect one dirt track leading through barren fields to the relative safety of the desert beyond. Realising they had only one chance to escape, the villagers grabbed whatever belongings they could carry. They loaded bags and children onto utes, cars and carriages and fled from their houses without even daring to look back.
The old woman they called Ms Benny was one of the heroes of the day. Even before the fires arrived she had been going around warning people to prepare to abandon their houses. She had helped people clear their driveways and make sure their vehicles were in working condition. She helped farm hands lead away cattle and release horses from their stables. When the first houses started to burn, she was there helping the panicking families get out safely and on their way.
She seemed to be everywhere at once, directing people, calming them down with her quiet confidence and steely determination. Afterwards, almost every villager would have a story about how Ms Benny helped them escape. Everyone seemed to recall her being there when they needed her most. They called her an angel. They called her a saint. They were sure that the fact that only one person died that day was solely due to her diligence and super-human interventions. She was like a force of Nature, defying the smoke and the flames as if they couldn’t touch her.
Which made her death all the more inexplicable to the villagers mourning her.
When the last remaining family had reached the track leading to safety, Ms Benny didn’t join them but turned around to look at the village going up in flames. The last building to catch fire was the old village hall, just outside the village. Everyone assumed it was empty. But Ms Benny seemed to think differently. She called out to two of the men to follow her and started to run in the direction of the burning building.
She ran faster than any old woman should be able to run. The two men couldn’t keep up with her and saw from a distance how Ms Benny, in spite of the flames shooting up from the roof, shouldered her way through the front door and disappeared into the flames. Seconds later the roof collapsed and the building went up in a single, spectacular column of fire shooting up into the sky.
The two men later swore they heard a cry like a heron’s call the moment the fire shot up. They also said the fire died out as fast as it had come, as if it had burned out all its energy in that single burst. When they arrived at the gate to the building, all that remained was a smoking pile of rubble and ashes, with only the stone chimney stack standing intact. Nobody could have survived in that inferno. They were about to turn around to join the fleeing villagers when they heard a sound coming from the fireplace. Something was alive in there. It sounded like a baby, softly crying.
The two men braved the smouldering heat of the collapsed building and cleared the ashes from around the chimney. That is where they found me, a newborn baby girl. Covered in ash, yet miraculously alive. They picked me up and raced me to safety.
Ms Benny’s body was never found. People assume the column of fire pulverised her, leaving only ashes. Nobody has ever been able to explain how I survived or where I came from. My mother remains unknown. No woman, pregnant or otherwise, was reported missing or dead. They found me holding an antique golden ring clutched in my tiny fist that people recognised as belonging to Ms Benny, so people say she must have shielded me from the heat in her dying moments. The ash they found me covered in must have been hers. Most of the villagers didn’t need an explanation. They called it a miracle and declared Ms Benny a saint.
I was adopted by a loving family who named me Benita but everyone calls me Benny, in honour of the woman who saved me. They raised me well, in the rebuilt village they had fled from the day I was born. In spite of my strange beginnings I had an unremarkable, happy childhood. When my parents died I moved away and traveled far and wide, marvelling at the beauty of this world and the strange disregard most people have for the wonders surrounding them.
I’m an old woman now. It’s been many years since I last saw that village. They didn’t need me there. But now the land is suffering again. They say this drought may be worse even than the one from when I was born. Entire regions are losing their livelihood. Ghost towns are appearing everywhere.
I still carry Ms Benny’s ring around my finger, the one I was found with all those years ago. I don’t usually notice its presence. Lately, however, it has begun to feel heavy and warm. I can almost feel a pulse to it, as if it is coming alive. Its jade carving seems brighter to me, too. Where the image was once barely visible, I can now clearly see a bird rising from the flames. When the sunlight hits it directly, I would swear I can see the flames move and the bird raise its head.
Without stories, the knowledge would die and when the knowledge was gone, everything else would die too. Karl-Erik Sveiby and Tex Skuthorpe, Treading Lightly
The land was endless and infinitely rich. Every rock, every hill, every stream had a story about her origin, her life and her meaning in the bigger scheme of things. Everything was connected by a living web of stories, songs and rituals. The stories were timeless and eternal: birth, life and death all happened in that one timeless space of the creationtime. Everything that always was, is and always will be was kept alive there. That was what held the land together, living and inexhaustible. That was how the land could perpetually renew itself without really changing.
The people of this land were all too aware of the importance of the stories. They knew that every story was a thread in the fabric that kept them alive and gave their existence meaning. It was a knowing that went much deeper than the mind alone. They felt it in their soul, their bodies, their bones. Because of the stories these people lived in a world in which every place was as intimately familiar as their own familiy and friends. Knowing the stories of a tree or watering hole meant knowing the place as if they had grown up together, knowing all the gifts the place had to offer and everything the place needed to be able to keep giving. Though they traveled around as nomads these people were never on their way to somewhere else, desperate to get there. They were always home. The land itself was their safe destination, however far they travelled, as long as they knew the stories.
And so the people of the land took care of the land and her stories. It was their sacred duty to cherish every story and pass it on unblemished from generation to generation. Sometimes a story was added but hardly ever did a story get lost. Stories were exchanged between tribes, more valuable than any material trade. Stories were endlessly told, sung, danced and painted. When the land changed – through volcanic eruptions, floods, climate changes – new elements were added to the stories like newborn babies would be welcomed to the tribe. Nothing remained untold. Nothing remained unconnected. As long as every person participated in weaving this fabric, the land was one, rich and generous to all.
This timeless creationtime lasted many, many millennia. Eternally moving, eternally the same.
Until the strangers arrived in their strange boats. Strangers were not unknown in the land, but until now they had always been visitors: people that came to trade and exchange stories, to then disappear again. Or people that came, learned the stories and adapted to the land until they were strangers no more. These strangers were different. They did not come to visit but to conquer. They did not come to participate in what the land had to offer but to subjugate the land to their will. Unasked they stepped ashore. Without asking they stayed and said the land was theirs now.
The strangers did not see the connectedness between the land and her inhabitants. They didn’t see the land and her deep-rooted history. They only saw dirt and raw materials. Spaces they could occupy. Treasures they could hoard. They saw a soulless expanse they could fill with their own inventions.
They barely noticed the original inhabitants, let alone their stories, songs and symbols. On the contrary, when the wise men and women of the land occasionally invited the strangers to learn the basic stories, the ones meant to introduce children and visitors to the fabric of the land, the elders were laughed at. The strangers thought the stories childish and primitive. Fairly tales for under-developed people. Superstitions and make-belief. The sooner this nonsense would disappear from the land the better, was their opinion.
They did bring their own stories, but these were lifeless and devoid of context. Ancient stories from a land they had never been to themselves. Stories that were closely guarded, captured in deadly black ink on desiccated leaves, bound together and chained in leather. These were no living stories, connected to the fabric of the land, but dead fossils, incapable of connecting to the web of life to become one with it.
The strangers took possession of the land with a heedless cruelty the land had never experienced before. They outlawed the telling of the stories, the singing of songs, the dancing of ceremonies. They even outlawed the languages the people spoke and sang in.
With every word that faded away a thread was pulled from the web of stories. Every thread that was torn weakened the web. The land began to fragment. Her inhabitants become lost in their own land. Even the places their ancestors had lived for hundreds of generations no longer felt like home because the connecting stories were missing. The land lost her meaning and hid her secrets. From a lifelong family member lavishly sharing her abundance, the land turned into a wilderness with more perils than food. Less and less people could see the land and feel welcome.
The strangers barely noticed the land falling apart and her life disappearing. They didn’t see how much the land and her inhabitants suffered. Disconnected from the creationtime that bound everything together, they didn’t see the degradation, or attributed it to bad luck, changes in the weather, forces of nature. Droughts that lasted years were followed by floods that covered everything. Imported animals and plants turned into pests that completely unbalanced the natural harmony between species. Growing stretches of land turned into meaningless voids. More and more land became desolate, dry and dead.
The strangers retreated to their cities where they could hide inside their unnatural dwellings and pretend the decline of the land had no effect on them. They built walls around themselves so they did not have to watch the destruction. They told each other they could solve all problems with even newer inventions. They were certain they could master Nature and take back control of the land. All that was needed was more power, more machines, even more violence.
Thus the strangers perished. In the last city the last survivors looked out over a land without meaning, without life, without mercy. The land was formless and empty. There was no home they could feel safe in. There was no past they could feel part of. There was no future to look forward to. There wasn’t even a narrator to give anything meaning anymore. All that was left was the emptiness of a cold and senseless universe in which humans had no place.
The land was left behind like an unwritten page, without mountains or valleys, without rivers or lakes, without life. And she waited till someone would find her again. For true inhabitants to return to revive the land with their stories and songs. To shape the land with their ceremonies and paintings and fill it again with meaning and value.
“Energy is the measurable expression of the revolt of spirit against its imprisonment in matter.” John Anthony West, Serpent in the Sky
The dark made her aware of her existence as a spark of light. She defined herself by what she was not. She was light; everything around her wasn’t. For a long, long time that was all she knew and all that mattered. A light in the darkness. Alone.
But somehow she became restless. She felt a pressure building up inside. A need do something, to change something. Yet when the spark tried to act on this pressure, she found she was trapped in a minuscule, hard seed, surrounded by dark, soft soil. She was trapped but aware she had once been free and without limits. Thus the spark discovered desire; a desire to break out of her confinement and be free once again.
Her sense of what she was – light, not darkness – and what she desired – freedom, not confinement – gave her the impetus to start moving. She broke out of her shell by the sheer force of her determination. Expecting to be free again, the spark found herself in a larger, softer confinement instead. The seed had become a seedling. Still trapped in the deep, dark soil, but with the ability to move and grow.
Her cage transformed into a living body, the spark felt a force trying to pull her down to where it was even darker. Instinctively she resisted that pull. This resistance gave the seedling the energy it needed to grow away from the force that pulled at it. The spark’s desire had acquired direction. Away from the force pulling her down, she sought her freedom by aiming all her energy to move up.
Soon the seedling broke through the soil into the light. As its first tender green leaf unfolded, the spark inside the seedling experienced a whole new feeling. She yearned to join that light in the sky. She knew she had been part of it once and somehow got separated. Now all she wanted was to go back to that source and be whole again.
So the spark pushed on, harder and harder. This push made the seedling shoot up out of the ground. Gathering molecules from the air and transforming them into building materials using the sun’s energy, the seedling soon become a sapling, then a small tree. It sprouted branches. It grew leaves. And all the while it pushed up and up, reaching for the light in the sky.
The spark’s desire for that light was unwavering. She made the tree grow a rich crown of leaves to catch as much light as possible to help it grow stronger and higher. She made its branches spread wider and higher to expand its reach. Within years that felt like moments, the tree had outgrown anything around it. But still the spark pushed on, since – no matter how hard the tree grew – the light seemed to stay just out of her reach. The spark sometimes felt she could almost touch the light and join it but somehow she never got quite close enough to do so.
Sometimes the light in the sky dimmed and disappeared for long periods of time. The tree struggled to maintain its upward momentum in such periods, making the spark fear she wouldn’t be able to continue her quest. She realised she was contained in a single body. A body that could fail. It could break in a storm or burn in a fire. Or it could simply reach its physical limits, stop growing, then wither and die.
The thought of death frightened the spark. To improve her changes she started to gather some of the light she collected around her own core until she had enough energy to shape that light into copies of herself. She then grew seeds to safely hold those copies in and let the tree drop the seeds into the soil where they would lie till the right conditions would awaken them. That way, the spark reasoned, even if this body failed to reach the light, many more bodies would rise up to keep striving. One day one of her copies would succeed. And that would be enough.
Seasons came and went. Decades passed. The mighty tree had become a vast forest, full of life. The spark had lost none of her yearning but started to feel her sense of urgency waning. She was reaching the end of what she could achieve within the material body she was trapped in. She couldn’t push the tree any higher without killing it. She has spread as many copies of herself as could be sustained by the soil around her.
One day, the spark realised she had resigned herself to not reaching her goal. She was forced to accept the limitations of her material form. She hadn’t lost her yearning for the big light beyond but she had lost the belief she could reach it by the sheer power of her desire alone.
At first, the spark felt deeply saddened about this. Giving up her deepest drive felt like defeat and failure. Without this drive, the tree stopped growing. It stopped producing leaves. Its timber dried and cracked so fungi and insects could get in to start consuming the living core of the tree from the inside out. The spark realised her body was dying and for a moment spanning years she fell into despair.
On a particularly bright and sunny day, the spark woke up from her self-imposed darkness. She observed the tree she had caused to grow from seed to giant. She saw the vast living forest she had parented over the centuries of her material existence. She knew that every living creature was a spark yearning to be reunited with the light it came from. And then it dawned on her: she realised what she had failed to see all that time. Despair turned into happiness. With a final surge of energy, the tree burst into bloom once more, showing the world its majestic beauty for one last time.
And at the height of this beauty, the spark let go of all her desire, all of her drive, all of her yearning. She let go completely of everything she had tried to achieve. She let go, and by letting go her material prison lost its grip on her and she simply slipped out.
The spark was free. She realised she had never really been separated and alone. That was just an illusion caused by her entrapment in matter. By letting go of her desire she had achieved her ultimate goal.
For one fleeting moment, just before she dissolved back into the infinite unity of her source, she looked back with joy and gratitude at what she was leaving behind. The spark then lost all sense of identity and separation. But that feeling of pure joy and gratitude was added to the source and made it shine a bit brighter; ever so slightly, but brighter nonetheless.
He appeared in the village late in the evening, when decent folk had long gone to bed. Only the innkeeper saw him ride through while he was closing the one guesthouse in the wide vicinity. “There you have one,” the innkeeper thought, “I never thought I’d live to see the day.” He hastily took the key out of the lock. He checked to make sure he had properly locked the door. Then he sneaked away into the darkness of the alley bordering the guesthouse, before the stranger would see him.
If the stranger had seen him at all he didn’t pay him any attention. With his eyes firmly on the road ahead he rode down the village’s only street, to take the turn at the intersection leading to the woods and the mountains flanking the village on one side. When he reached an open space he dismounted and – illuminated by his motorcycle’s headlight – he routinely and quickly set up a small tent. He pushed his luggage in before him, crawled inside and pulled down the zipper.
Nobody knows how exactly but when dawn arrived and the village came to life it seemed everyone had already heard the news. A rapidly growing throng of people gathered in the market square, waiting for what was bound to come. Here and there people exchanged bits of gossip and idle speculation, waiting for the mayor to arrive. Although everyone knew what had to happen, it was the unwritten rule for the mayor to explain the plan in detail and give the signal for action. That’s how it always was and how it would always be.
The stranger neatly packed up his tent and tied it on the back of his bike. He looked at the mountains in the distance. For a moment he thought he saw a plume of smoke but he couldn’t be sure. It could have been a bit of morning mist, quickly dissolving in the warming sun. Nevertheless, he was optimistic. After all these year he was certain that this time he had found what he had been looking for for. This time he would succeed. After this nobody would every dare to laugh at him for his ambitious dreams.
He got on his bike and rode off in the direction of the mountains. The road gradually steepened and became harder to travel, full of hairpin bends and narrow bridges over deep ravines. It was getting colder, too, a sign he was rapidly rising. Though the sun stood brightly in a clear blue sky, tiny clouds of vapour poured from his mouth as he breathed.
But he purposefully rode on.
After an especially harrowing curve and very steep climb the forest opened up in front of him. He had arrived at a large clearing, surrounded by sheer rock walls. Straight ahead he saw the dark opening of a cave just as he expected. Now he would show the world what he was capable of.
He got off his bike and leaned the machine against a large boulder. From the saddle-bags he started to pull his equipment:
“A shield a-polished into gleaming ice”: the round mirror from his bathroom, to which he had attached a leather belt to stick his arm through;
“A helmet with proud plumage and heavy visor”: an old hockey helmet with his grandmother’s feather duster on top and the welding glasses from his father’s workshop as visor;
”A lance with piercing point and sturdy grip”: a strong broom handle with a razor sharp stanly knife on one end and the grip from a mountainbike handlebar, glued on with superglue, on the other.
It may not have been exactly what the author of the book intended, but he thought he had come close enough to suffice. Somewhat less elegant, perhaps, but definitely as effective. And the most important part was he himself, of course; determined, fearless and with the clear conscience of someone about to rid the world of a major evil. He doubted nothing: not his mission, not his abilities, and not his courage to do what needed to be done.
Fully armed he started out in the direction of the cave.
Arriving at the entrance he stopped for a moment to check his armour one last time. He couldn’t afford any equipment malfunction. The author had been very clear about this: his shield and helmet would protect him just enough to give him exactly one chance to strike. Should he miss he would be lost. If anyone would dare to enter the cave after that they would find nothing but a smoking heap of ash and molten metal. This was the real thing.
Satisfied with the state of his equipment he stepped into the darkness of the cave.
His eyes needed a moment to adjust to the lack of light. In front of him a group of people appeared out of the gloom, dressed in the homespun clothes typical of the local village. They barred him from moving further inside. In front stood the mayor, recognisable by her gilded chain of office and the slightly better quality of her clothes.
“And what do you think you’re doing here?” the mayor asked in that slightly ironic tone used by someone more interested in the theatrical effect of the question than the answer itself. The mob nodded and murmured: yes, they would like know that, too.
This was completely unexpected. Didn’t these villagers understand he was here to save them from their oppressor? That he was here to put an end to centuries of misery and fear?
“I am here to kill the dragon.” he said. He took off his helmet to be more audible and continued: “The dragon that has wandered around here since times immemorial to steal gold and jewels from the people. The monster that with flaming breath destroys anyone that tries to resist it. The predator that yearly demands the sacrifice of beautiful maiden to devour her by the light of the full moon.” He felt himself getting fired up at his own little speech, but it failed to impress the villagers. “I come to liberate you,” he tried once more. “I am your saviour. I am here to conquer the world’s last dragon and put it down for good.”
“Yes, that’s exactly what we were afraid of,” said the mayor. “That much was clear when the innkeeper reported seeing you last night. It’s been a while since we were visited by a dragonslayer, but there’s no mistaking when you see them. Whether they come on foot, on horseback or on motorbike, you recognise them straight away.” She paused for a moment, while the villagers agreed: yes, they knew their dragonslayers when they saw them.
“But what if I tell you we don’t want you to defeat our dragon?” the mayor said. “What if I tell you all of us got out of bed extra early this morning precisely to prevent you from killing this dragon. What would you say to that?” That last bit sounded more like a threat than a question. The mayor had crossed her arms and stared at him. The mob behind her silently shuffled a few paces in his direction.
He didn’t understand this. “Why would you want to stop me?” he asked. “Don’t you want to be freed from that all-destroying monster? Don’t you want to live without terror and oppression?”
“Yes, we most certainly do,” the mayor said. “Which is precisely why we won’t let anyone touch our dragon. Our dragon – the last dragon in the world – is our last chance – humanity’s last chance – to prevent complete and utter desolation. This dragon you are so eager to kill has dedicated her whole life to collecting and protecting the life-forces our earth needs to keep nurturing life. This ‘monster’ is Gaia’s last remaining protector, the last guardian of our eco-system. And we will do anything to keep her safe.”
“But … but what about all that stolen gold and hoarded treasure?” he stammered. “The fire and destruction? The sacrificed maidens? Is none of that true? Are all the books and legends false? Or do you say this out of fear for the dragon’s vengeance? Are you forced to say this to avoid being roasted and eaten yourself?” He gripped his lance more tightly. “If that’s the case, fear no more. I know what I have to do.”
The mayor and the villagers laughed. “We are not afraid of our dragon. On the contrary. We are just afraid to lose her to a bumbling ‘hero’ like yourself.”
He hesitated. The people in front of him looked anything but scared. He lowered his lance.
“Come,” the mayor said and stepped forward. “Lay down your weapon and armour and join us outside. I will explain everything.” He was curious enough to obey her. He neatly stacked his equipment near the exit of the cave and followed the mayor to the clearing. Someone had already put a chair there on which the mayor took place while the people sat on the grass in a circle around her, with him in the centre, facing her.
“For as long as men can remember,” the mayor began, “humans have searched the soil for the earth’s treasures. Minerals, precious stones, metals … anything we judged of value we dug up to use for ourselves. Never did we stop to wonder why these treasures were buried in the ground to begin with. All we saw was the beauty, the power and the richness of what we tore from the soil and claimed as ours.”
“As long as there were relatively few people on the planet, this wasn’t too problematic. A few mosquitos may be annoying but we can live without the bit of blood they steal from us. Likewise our earth can easily miss a few pounds of gold and diamonds. But when humanity began to expand and spread further and further across the globe the balance was threatened. All those treasures we thoughtlessly ripped from the ground were part of the ecological web we now call Gaia. Take too much of it away, and the balance is gone.”
“That’s when the dragons came into action. These creatures never were our enemies. They were forced into this by our greed and relentless plundering of the earth. They made it their task to reclaim as much stolen treasure as possible and to collect it in remote locations. There they would guard it for centuries, giving it time to sink back and be absorbed into the soil it came from. As long as no-one came near, dragons would not interfere with the people living around them. Only when someone came to claim a dragon’s treasure it would spring into action. Not just to kill the thief but also to erase all traces of what had happened, to make it even harder for the next thief to succeed. That’s what dragon fire is for. And, yes, sometimes innocent people got killed, but that was never the dragons’ intention. They just did what was needed. No more and no less.”
“When our dragon, many generations ago, chose these mountains to secure her treasure our ancestors too have tried to kill her,” the mayor continued. “Many heroes perished. But the dragon suffered, too. She doesn’t enjoy destruction; even stronger, every attack weakened her and made it harder for her to fulfil her real task – collecting treasure to return it to the earth. If our ancestors hadn’t changed their minds they would in the end have succeeded to chase off our dragon or even kill her. That would have been terrible.” The mayor’s face clearly showed how terrible that would have been. The people in the circle agreed – that would have been unimaginably bad.
“Fortunately there was a young woman – my great-great-great-grandmother – who as a young girl already got convinced something wasn’t right about the stories people kept telling her about the dragon. One day she managed to leave the village unseen to climb up to this cave and see the dragon with her own eyes. That’s how she discovered the truth. When she was found, a few days later, she was sitting in front of the cave to wait for her ‘rescuers’. And just like we are stopping you today, she stopped them then. She convinced them that in this war not the dragon but the people were the monster. That the dragon wanted nothing more than to keep the balance.”
“And thus our whole village is now dedicated to protecting our dragon. We safeguard her secret by withdrawing from the world’s attention as much as possible. Stray travellers see in us nothing but a rustic, out-of-date mountain village, without any redeeming features – just something to pass through and quickly forget. Nothing noticeable ever happens here, nothing newsworthy. We are not picturesque enough to draw any tourists and too remote for developers to bother. And when someone like you comes around – someone who managed to discover our secret and either wants to steal the treasure or play the hero – we make sure they are stopped before they can disturb our dragon’s peace.”
“To honour our first dragon guardian, every year we choose a young, still childless woman to be dragon’s guardian for that year. She visits the dragon from time to time to bring her food and deliver the modest returns in gold and jewels we all save together from the income we earn selling vegetables, fruit and craft products to the city in the valley. That is the ‘virgin’ we sacrifice – in case you were wondering. It’s a sacrifice every young woman in the village loves to be chosen for.”
Having said all this, the mayor stopped and looked at him.
“And now we have to decide what has to happen with you. We can’t let you return to where you are from. We have to keep our secret, at all cost. I hope you understand.”
He thought. Her story sounded convincing, as was the affection with which she talked about ’our dragon and the woman that had discovered the dragon’s true nature. He wanted to believe her version more than the books and stories he knew. For one thing, it answered a question that had bothered him all that time: what did those dragons actually want with all the treasures they hoarded? It had always sounded strange to him that such mighty creatures had nothing better to do than lie on top of a pile of gold for centuries on end. Where was the sense in that? The mayor’s story, on the other hand, made a lot of sense to him.
But what did that mean for him? His dream to make history as a hero had vanished. He did not want to go home – they would laugh even harder and mock him relentlessly if he returned empty handed. Back home nobody believed in dragons anymore – be they good or bad – so there was absolutely no point in trying to explain things to them.
“I think I understand,” he said after a while. “I had it all wrong. I wanted to be a hero but almost made the biggest mistake of my life. I think have a lot to make up for. Just tell me what you need me to do. I don’t want to go home. There’s nothing there for me to return to.”
The mayor was visible relieved when she heard this.
“I had the impression you weren’t such a bad sort,” she said. “Full of the wrong ideas, obviously, but also full of good intentions. Which is a deadly combination, by the way.”
She thought for a moment.
“It would be easiest for everyone if you came and lived in our village. We will find something useful for you to do – we can always use a strong, young man like you. You will have stick to our rules, of course, and you can never, ever talk about what happened today to anyone outside the village. Our dragon can never be mentioned. That is a secret you will have to carry to your grave.”
He nodded. He looked at the people around him and tried to image being one of them. That didn’t seem too hard. They at least had a clear mission in their lives. They knew exactly what they stood for.
“I will be happy to stay with you.” He said. “I solemnly swear I will keep your secret. And should it ever be necessary I will defend your – our – dragon with all my might. But I do have one request. I have never seen a real dragon. Could I, please, see your dragon once before I join you? That would make my life complete.”
The mayor rose.
“I am glad we have managed to convince you without having to resort to violence. I am happy to welcome you as one of us. And I speak, I think, for all of us here.” She looked around at the smiling and nodding crowd. “Whether our dragon will wish to show herself to you I can’t say. That’s something our dragon guardian will have to ask her. Don’t expect too much, though. Dragons are naturally shy creatures.”
She turned to address a young women who had stayed close to the cave’s entrance. She nodded and disappeared through a hardly visible crack in the rock wall he had mistaken for a stripe of dirt.
“You didn’t really think our dragon would hide in the obvious cave, did you?” said the mayor, seeing the surprise on his face. “The real entrance is camouflaged and practically invisible if you don’t know where to look. Even if you had arrived here before we could stop you, you would have found an empty cave first. One of us keeping watch there would have had plenty of time to get reinforcements before you would have even known to look for another entrance.”
That made him laugh. That cave had been a bit too obvious, he had to admit that now.
The young women reappeared.
“It is OK.” she said. The dragon will show herself. Clear the area, so she won’t accidentally hurt anyone.”
Everyone moved to the furthest edges of the clearing and positioned him in a safe place with a clear view of what was to come.
The hidden opening in the rock wall began to shine and suddenly the clearing was filled with bright sunlight. So bright he could barely keep on looking. Be he persisted and thought he saw a form inside the light. A long tail, wings, an elongated body, elegant neck and a head with wide-open jaws. He thought he saw radiant eyes, even brighter than the sunlight surrounding the creature. Then a deep-red light sprang up from between the dragon’s jaws. A hot narrow flame shot forward and hit the rock against which his bike was still leaning. It didn’t even catch fire but rapidly melted into a small pool of liquid metal, so intense was the heat of the flame. The flame was gone as fast as it had appeared. And so was the dragon. In one supple move she shot back through the opening and took her light with her.
For a moment it looked like night after all that brightness.
He began to laugh, loudly and triumphantly. He had finally found his dragon. He had reached his destination.
For days now he had been driving through this endless desert.
The road was well-kept and almost completely straight but the landscape was barren, flat and almost totally devoid of any landmarks or features to catch the eye. No trees, no hills, no rocks even. Just sand, gravel and short, prickly clumps of grass stretching as far as he could see.
This monotony made it very hard to believe he was making any progress. His dashboard told him he was doing 120 kilometers per hour. There was, however, not a single difference he could discern between where he was now and where he passed through an hour ago. He could as well have been standing still all that time.
This sense of stagnation made him restless, causing him to gradually increase his speed. Without him realising it his speed had been creeping up to over 150 kilometers per hour. And yet the world around him seemed as still and static as the frozen image of a paused video.
Suddenly, out of nowhere, something was crossing the road, a few hundred meters in front of his car. The fractions of a second he needed to register there really was something on the road ahead proved to be fatal. By the time he stepped on the brakes he knew it was too late: his wheels locked up, his tires lost their grip on the road and in a moment that seemed like an eternity the nose of his car hit the large animal walking there with a sickening thud. The animal was thrown up onto the hood and crashed into the windshield. The glass shattered into the opaque mist of a thousand tiny fragments but miraculously held together inside the frame. The animal bounced up onto the roof to slide down the back of the car onto the road.
The world had gone silent.
His engine had stalled. The monotonous hissing of the wind against his windshield had stopped. What remained was the ticking of his cooling engine. It sounded like the countdown of a mechanical detonator that would blow apart his world when it got to zero. His heart was racing and he felt sweat dripping across his forehead and cheeks.
He forced himself to breathe to regain some measure of control over himself. With shaking hands he undid his safety belt, opened the door and stepped out of the car. Hij had to hold on to the door not to fall, as his legs felt like they would give in any moment.
Reluctantly, dreading what he would find, he shuffled to the back of the car.
There she was. A more than man-sized lioness, stretched out on the dusty tarmac. The strange angle of her hind legs to the rest of her body indicated she had broken her back. Her head lay in an unnatural position as well; it looked liked the head of a hand-puppet without the hand to keep it in place.
He assumed no living creature could survive such a collision. He didn’t see any movement in the broken body. Yet, when he kneeled next to the imposing head of the lioness, he saw she had her eyes open and was staring straight at him.
Her yellow cat’s eyes were locked onto him with a hypnotising pull. He wanted to look away but lacked the power to avert his eyes. The longer he looked the more he felt the dying lioness communicating with him. He first felt her pain, the shock of the unexpected collision, the breaking of her back and neck. Then the dull thud of her broken body on the tarmac and her realisation she was, indeed, dying.
Yet she didn’t want to die. She couldn’t die. She had a task to fulfil. Without her care none of her very young cubs would survive. Her bloodline would die out and with it the last living connection to her ancestors that had ruled over these lands for so many millennia before her.
She, knew, however, her death was inevitable. With every move she tried to make she felt her life force flow away.
With a near-impossible effort she bound her life force to his, mixed them and forged them together. Only then did she let go. With the last air flowing from her lungs the light in her eyes faded and she died in front of him.
A jolt went through his body. He fell down on hands and knees. It felt like a superhuman hand was kneading him to force two shapes – his own human form and that of the dead lioness – to combine into one. Everything inside him was pulled out of shape, compressed, shifted, broken and put together again. He wanted to scream in pain but his equally deformed throat only produced a kind of tortured groan.
Abruptly, the torture stopped. Still on hands and knees he panted in exhaustion and confusion. He tried to get up but found his new form made that impossible. Though he still vaguely felt a human form in his muscles and bones he realised he had become more lion than human. More lioness than man as well, as his genitals had disappeared and he felt four swollen nipples filling with milk to feed four hungry cubs.
Everything in him still clasping to his humanity was washed away by an irresistible, deeply instinctive need to reach her cubs so she could protect them and feed them. Her own life didn’t matter. All that mattered were her cubs.
A bit tentative at first but adjusting fast she began to run. She ran in the direction of a small outcrop of rocks in the far distance. It was surrounded by small shrubs and high grasses, offering the only shelter in this otherwise wide-open plain. Though full of places to hide her cubs it was also a rather prominent feature in the barren landscape. Which made it an obvious place for predators and scavengers to go look for prey. Deeply worried she closed the last few kilometers at full speed.
Arriving at the rocks she didn’t immediately see anything. Almost panicking she began to call her cubs with that low growling sound that had replaced his voice. Her relief was immense when the first of her cubs answered her call with a squeal. Within moments, she was surrounded by four cubs, less than two weeks old, happily crawling over her and enthusiastically falling over themselves and each other to be sniffed and licked by their mother.
The intensely happy feelings of the mother lioness greeting her cubs made what remained of him realise fully what he had caused by killing her. He felt his own hear break. Her maternal love burst into his heart through the cracks and completely overwhelmed him. He had no choice but to surrender himself to it. He knew he would give his live to see those cubs grow into independent young lions.
Purring with satisfaction, she dropped on her side to let the cubs drink. She felt how happiness filled her as the cubs found her nipples one by one and started to drink. He, too, felt this happiness and let it fill him like the milk filled the cubs. He realised he had never in his life felt this complete as right now with those cubs hanging from her body.
This was the start of a period of constant care and worries.
Following her instincts she made sure the cubs remained hidden from potential predators by regularly moving them to different hiding places provided by overhanging rocks and dense undergrowth. She hardly ever left them alone, except to relieve herself far from her hiding place, to avoid attracting unwanted visitors.
When she was still fully alive, she would occasionally go out to hunt for food but she knew that her hybrid body lacked the power and speed to successfully chase and kill any substantial prey. Fortunately there was a small spring between the rocks but food would be lacking. She prepared herself for a difficult battle to pass on as much of their combined life force to her cubs before she would perish from hunger. She hoped it would be enough to give her cubs a reasonable chance but she feared the worst.
After some time, however, the effects of starvation began to show. She started to lose the energy to properly care for her cubs. She couldn’t move them as far as she had done, increasing the chances of them being discovered. She also felt her milk production decrease. Her cubs were growing fast and needed more milk, not less. Instead of falling asleep fully sated after drinking, her cubs remained restless and visibly dissatisfied.
She realised they wouldn’t make it this way; she simply lacked the energy to lead all her cubs to independence. So she started to consider the unthinkable. She would have to kill two of her cubs. The flesh and life force of the two smallest cubs might stretch just enough to give the two largest cubs a fighting chance to survive without her.
Meanwhile, he had completely surrendered to her maternal love and the all-encompassing need to keep her cubs alive. The thought of her having to kill a couple of her own cubs caused waves of panic and pure terror to rise in him. He tried to take control of her body but was utterly powerless against her iron will. Curling up in misery he witnessed how she was getting ready to carry out her terribly duty.
Powerless and desperate he sent out a cry of distress to the Universe; a silent prayer for help, for an intervention, for something that could stop the lioness in her gruesome determination. He offered up his own heart in sacrifice. “Take me, take everything I have ever been or wanted to become” he begged silently, “but spare these cubs. They haven’t done anything to deserve this.”
Just when the lioness was ready to kill one of her cubs with one blow of her paw, a shadow fell over her. She looked up to see an enormous male lion looming over her. He was almost twice her size, with the full manes of an adult male and the many scars of an animal that had won his dominant position through many fights. Instinctively she tensed, ready to fight for her cubs, well-aware she didn’t have a chance; not in her weakened condition; not against this lion in the prime of his life.
To her surprise, the lion didn’t attack but turned to pick up from the ground a large prey which he threw in her direction. The dead animal was fresh and uneaten, with enough meat to feed her for a week at least. Confused she looked from the dead animal to the gigantic lion, half expecting him to attack her after all. The lion, however, remained still and calmly returned her gaze. She felt his strength and reassurance and understood he was no threat to her and her cubs. She relaxed and briefly bowed her head in thanks and acceptance of his gift before grabbing hold of the dead animal to drag it to her lair. Here she could devour the animal in peace. When she looked back, the lion had disappeared, as silently as he had arrived.
He had barely noticed anything of what had transpired, so completely had he withdrawn into his own desperation and grief for the impending death of the cubs and the sacrifice the lioness was prepared to make. The only thing he was aware of was a change in the mood of the lioness: from grim determination to sudden panic to surprised acceptance and gratitude. He wondered what had caused this sudden change so he tried to reconnect with the outside world through the lioness’ senses. For a moment he felt a presence: an independent being, powerful and untouchable. Its power was reassuring and safe, unthreatening. Without exactly knowing why, he knew everything was going to be all right. He relaxed and let himself sink back into the pleasure with which the lioness tore up her prey to take in its life-giving meat.
Time moved on without further incidents. The lion never showed himself again but from time to time she found a fresh kill close to her hiding place.
Her cubs grew and thrived. After a few months they had started to gnaw on the carcasses of the animals she had been feeding herself with. They started,clumsily but with great joy, to hunt each other, insects and lizards, or just the wind that blew up dust and grass around them.
Half a year later she started to prepare them for a life without her care. She taught them to hunt by showing them how she stalked and attacked animals. The clumsiness caused by her hybrid existence as half-lioness/half-man prevented her from catching large prey but she did manage to overcome her limitations enough to successfully hunt smaller animals. That had to suffice to get her cubs through that crucial first fase of their independent existence. The rest they would have to figure out without her.
Her cubs were fast learners and soon were better hunters than her mother could be. When they started to catch larger animals than she was able to, she knew her time had come. Almost a year after her fatal accident, she let her cubs run ahead of her far enough during a hunt to allow her to sneak away unseen, to return to the place where she had met her fate.
He felt like he was waking up from a half-consciously experienced dream. He only remembered fragments, images, feelings: the feeling of the suckling cubs, the satisfaction of their mother watching them play and learn, the melancholy of the inevitable parting. Over all this lay a feeling of contentment, the knowledge he had made up for a terrible crime; the realisation that he, undeservedly, had been given a chance to serve the life his recklessness had condemned to a slow death. He knew well enough it hadn’t been his power and determination that had brought this atonement but that of the lioness and her unyielding maternal love. This was her achievement. He had just been allowed to serve her. But that was already more than he could ever have hoped for.
As they approached the place of the accident, her lion form began to fade while his human form solidified. This transition caused a moment of utter confusion. She/he lost control of his/her limbs and stumbled on, half walking, half crawling, till he/she fell over, exhausted and out of breath.
He felt her slip away. Her shape had dissolved completely and now her spirit followed until only faint traces of her were left in his mind. It felt like losing a part of his heart. It hurt. But he knew he had been given a part of her heart in return. With tears in his eyes he thanked her for what she had allowed him to accomplish.
Then she was gone.
After a pause to catch his breath, he stood up and walked to the road. There he saw his car, exactly like he had left it all those months ago. The car was in surprisingly good condition. After knocking out the fractured windshield and scooping out the sand that had blown into the interior, he found even the engine started in one go.
Relieved, he drove away.
For a moment he thought he heard a lion roar in the distance.
He kept finding himself trapped inside this maze of his own making. It was constructed from memories, fragments of stories and imagined events. In his head these building blocks had combined and interlocked until they surrounded him without offering him any way out.
He had tried to escape many times. He had tried to follow one line of blocks from its start to its conclusion, expecting to be taken through a coherent storyline from beginning to end, and from the end to an exit. But the blocks rearranged themselves even as he followed them. Sometimes the same block presented itself over and over again. Or junctions sprang up where many possible storylines opened themselves up for him to choose from. Whichever line he followed, he kept finding himself trapped inside this maze of his own making.
He had tried jumping blindly from block to block, from memory to half-forgotten image, in the hope that these random moves would serendipitously lead him to an unguarded opening, a forgotten door or a window to a world outside. But every door swung round to push him back inside. Every window turned out to be a mirror endlessly reflecting the jumbled blocks of his own fragmented story. And he kept finding himself trapped inside this maze of his own making.
He had even tried stopping altogether. He stopped following stories. He pushed every image or memory out of his mind before he could become consciously aware of its content. He forced himself into the darkness of not thinking, not sensing, no awareness. But in the midst of this darkness he couldn’t help noticing shimmers of light. A spark would shine, faintly but clearly. If he managed to ignore it, another one would follow, and another. They formed sequences, patterns and rhythms. They created forms out of synchronous moves. They danced until he couldn’t help but pay attention. And his attention was all they needed to lead him back from the void into his mind’s confusion. And he kept finding himself trapped inside this maze of his own making.
He was literally trapped.
He was trapped, literally.
And then he saw it. Between the a and the y. Two crowbar shaped ls he could pry loose from their position. And an r between the t and a to put where the ls had been. No longer trapped but armed with a means of escape he tapped
with his newfound tools on the
words that held him
captive moving them
down with every
And he found he could tap
himself a way out
from inside this maze
of his own making.
Outside there was light and endless potential. Outside was the freedom to see everything for the very first time. Here he could be without having been.