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.
The village clung to the steep mountainside like a foolhardy mountaineer who suddenly realised he had climbed beyond his abilities and was now too overcome with vertigo to move either up or down. The houses were old, decayed and obviously unmaintained for many years. Smoke was rising from a few of the crumbling chimneys but most houses were just empty shells, offering shelter only to the few birds and rodents that could survive at these altitudes.
Tired from the long climb up from the valley he hoped to find shelter for the night in one of the occupied houses. Maybe there was a chance of a warm meal or a soft mattress. But just some warmth and protection against the piercing wind would be worth a lot.
Having reached the village square, he chose the very first house with smoke coming from its chimney. One could barely call it a house: it was a timber construction that leaned against the stone wall of the house behind it like an old man pausing for breath after a short walk up a steep flight of stairs. The house looked like he felt. Maybe the recognition between fellow sufferers would encourage some hospitality towards him?
He knocked on the door.
It took a while before he heard how a bolt was moved aside and someone laboriously pulled open the heavy, crooked wooden door just enough for a face to peer through. An old man looked at him curiously with eyes that were surprisingly clear and lively in that old and furrowed face.
“There you are.” the old man said, “That took you long enough.” “What do you mean?” he said, taken aback, “Were you expecting me? Or did you see me climb up from the valley?”
“No, none of that” the old man replied, “but I knew eventually someone like you would arrive and knock on my door. The very existence of this door in my house made that inevitable.” “Why?” he said, somewhat confused, “The existence of this door bears no relation to whether someone ends up knocking on it, does it? Why would this door make my knocking on it inevitable?” “Right!” the old man said happily, “Exactly! A normal door lets people enter and leave and that justifies its existence. But I have been sitting inside since this house was built up around me. I never go outside and none of the villagers would dream of coming in. And yet, here is this door. It’s obvious!” De old man made those last words sound like the triumphant conclusion of a convincingly won debate.
When he didn’t immediately reply, the old man started laughing. “Never mind, never mind. I don’t expect you to understand this straight away. After all, I have spent my whole life thinking about these things. Whereas you, if I judge you correctly, have barely begun to think.” The old man pulled the door further in now and invited him in with an exaggerated sweep of his arm. “Be welcome in my domain, long expected traveller.”
The old man’s smile was too friendly and inviting to resist. He followed the old man inside the dimly lit interior. There he saw a mattress and blanket against the stone wall and a low table with a lit candle and two tin plates on it. In a corner stood a wooden crate with a water pitcher, a couple of mugs and few chunks of bread. In a niche in the stone wall a wood fire was burning, with its smoke disappearing through a smoke hole in the roof. The rest of the room was bare and empty. A place to shelter against the winter storms. Nothing more.
The old man told him to sit by the table and offered him a piece of bread and a mug of luke-warm water. “Please enjoy.” de old man said, “My palace is your palace, my abundance is yours.” Too perplexed to respond he ate and drank what the old man had given him.
They sat in silence for a while.
Suddenly the old man got up and walked to the outside wall. That turned out to contain a small wooden panel that could be moved aside to reveal a narrow opening. It was just wide enough to reveal a bit of the street outside. “Come,” the old man said, “it is about to happen. You don’t want to miss this.” He stood up to stand next to the old man and peer through the narrow opening with him. “What’s going to happen then?” he asked, but the old man gestured for him to be silent and to keep watching.
And then it happened. Slowly a cow moved past their view. First there was the pink nose, then a large, dark eye, a nervously moving ear, a bit of a horn. Next came its back rolling past like a slow-moving wave. The display ended with the tail, with its dangling plume as a final punctuation mark disappearing from view. And then there was nothing again.
The old man looked at him triumphantly. “Now you have seen what I have been thinking about all these years. This is the mystery I was called to solve: the mystery of causality.”
Not understanding, He looked at the old man. “The mystery of what?” he asked.
“Of causality, dimwit. The beginning and ending of all things.” “But all I saw was a cow passing by.” he said “What does that have to do with causality?”
The old man’s grin was as wide as his face now. “All he saw was a cow passing by. A cow! That’s all. The Universe revealed itself to us, the beginning and ending of everything unfolded before our very eyes. And all he saw was a cow.” The old man looked at him as if this should have been enough of an explanation for him to show some understanding. When he didn’t respond, the old man shook his head. “Boo!” the old man shouted, so loudly he stepped back, startled, and knocked his head hard against a low hanging beam. “Boo! Boo! Boo!” The old man clearly enjoyed his reaction. When he touched his head to feel if he wasn’t bleeding the old man burst out laughing. “He had to split open his head to let in some understanding.” the old man laughed. “His eyes are closed, his ears are clogged, maybe the hole in his skull is letting in some light.”
Suddenly the old man composed himself and gestured for him to sit down. The old man joined him on the floor. “That’s enough fun for now,” the old man said, “these are serious matters. Now tell me exactly what you just saw, and I will explain it to you.”
He took some time to think. “I was watching the street. That opening in the wall is very narrow, so I couldn’t see much. Then a cow came along. Then all I could see was that bit of the street again. That’s all.”
“That’s all?” the old man shook his head in disbelief. “How easy it is for the unenlightened mind to under-appreciate the mystery of existence.” The old man paused for some time, deep in thought. Then he continued: “First there was the street. Then there was a cow. Then the street again. Great. You saw what was there. But what you didn’t see is what it’s really all about. Where did that cow come from?” The old man looked at him with a penetrating gaze. “Where has that cow gone to? What causes that cow to appear and disappear like that?”
The old man straightened his back to emphasise his words. “I have thought about this my whole life. I even had this house built around me so I could completely dedicate myself to this task without getting distracted. And finally, after endless observation and deep reflection, I can now reveal to you my answer. Because you found my door, you will be the first one to hear this from me. Listen … “ the old man paused to heighten the tension.
“… the answer to the mystery of existence is this: …” another pause “… the nose causes the tail!” Victoriously, the old man looked at him. “The nose causes the tail. That’s the secret.”
He looked at the old man with his mouth open. This couldn’t be true. This had to be a joke. He laughed nervously. “The nose causes the tail? Is that it? That’s the answer to everything? That’s what I climbed this mountain for? That’s what I bumped my head for against your stupid roof?” His laughter had turned into anger. “Old man, you’re out of your mind. ‘The nose causes the tail’ is an old koan, a Zen-buddhist riddle. It illustrates our tendency to explain things on the basis of our limited observations. When we forget that we only see a little piece of reality, we tend to over-generalise that small piece and read more into it than we should. We see the Universe in a grain of sand. We see a cow and think it explains creation. The nose doesn’t cause the tail. That’s nonsense. That nose simply comes first because a cow walks forwards not backwards. You are confusing correlation with causality, that’s all.”
He stopped to catch his breath and to see how the old man would react. Would he be upset by this little rant? Had he been too hard on the old man? The old man had apparently spent his whole life thinking about this answer. Should he have left him his dignity and simply agree with him?
He was a bit surprised to see the old man still grinning at him. “Are you done with your story?” the old man asked. “A koan, you say? A riddle about the limitations of our observations? If that is true, O wise one, explain to me this. You saw that cow pass by; first the nose, then the tail, then nothing at all. Where has that cow gone to then? Just look outside. Nothing there. Just an empty street. Can you explain that? The old man looked at him. “I don’t think so.”
“Of course I can explain that.” He said. “That cow just walked through the street on its way to a meadow somewhere outside the village. It’s probably grazing there now. Or it was on its way to a stable nearby. Simple. No mystery, no revelation, just an ordinary cow on its way from point A to point B.”
“Oh” the old man said, “simple, eh? That cow is just standing in a stable or grazing in a meadow. You are sure of that?”
The old man pulled open the door for him and said: “I never leave my house and yet have managed to unravel the mysteries of the Universe. You have been everywhere but appear to have seen nothing. Please go outside for me and see if you can find that cow. And then come back. We’ll talk further then.” The old man waited for him to step outside and then firmly shut the door behind him.
Once outside, he looked around. Where would that cow have gone to? The direction from which it had come was the same direction he had entered the village from. The cow then had passed the old man’s door into that dark, narrow alley. He took a few steps in that same direction. To his surprise he almost immediately ran into the same stone wall the old man’s house was leaning against. The alley ran straight into that wall, which also flanked both sides of the narrow street. A stone wall, without doors or windows, or any other openings of any sort. The ‘alley’ was not much more than a fairly shallow niche in a very high wall.
Where then had that cow gone to? There were not exits here. The niche itself was barely deep enough to contain the whole beast and yet he had seen with his own eyes how the animal had walked past and disappeared from sight. To be certain, he felt along all sides of the niche. Nothing. Heavy stones, impossible to move. No hidden trapdoors either. Now he really was confused. He turned around and knocked on the old man’s door.
The old man opened the door straight away, still with that grin on his wrinkled face. “Did you find the cow?” he asked, mockingly. “Was she grazing in that imaginary meadow of yours? Or resting in the stable of your fabricated reality? I hope you learn something from this, with your koans and buddhist riddles. The world reveals itself to those who can see it for what it is and can interpret what they see. That cow is both the mystery and the answer to everything. I will repeat this one more time, before sending you on your way: the nose causes the tail! And that’s all there is to say.”
The old man started to close the door and muttered “confusing correlation with causality, my nose!” And as his face disappeared behind the door as it slammed shut, the old man, too, vanished forever.
The road had long ago ceased to be a road. The higher he came in this mountain landscape, the less the road had been maintained. Tarmac had given way to cobblestones. In the end, all that remained of a reasonably level path with an occasional pothole filled with pieces of brick and gravel was a barely walkable gravel track. And now, several hours after he passed through an abandoned village, only vague traces of that track were visible beneath the grass and weeds growing everywhere.
And yet he walked on, convinced the path he was following would eventually lead him to his destination; wherever that might be.
After a last steep ascend he found himself in front of an old stone bridge across a narrow but deep canyon. Clearly no traffic had crossed this bridge for quite some time. The bridge was as overgrown as the path, as if the foliage spanned the gap on its own strength and was the only thing keeping the bridge from collapsing.
Hesitantly, he walked to the edge of the bridge. Looking down hundreds of meters below he saw a fast-flowing river forcing itself between massive boulders. The roaring of the water was faint but persistent. It sounded threatening, almost angry, as if the spirit of the river was annoyed at the rocks obstructing her progress.
Through the silvery haze rising from the chasm he could just make out the other side of the bridge. The path appeared to broaden there. The landscape looked more accessible, too; the cliffs less steep and the hillside green and undulating.
It was perfectly clear to him his destination lay on the other side of that bridge. There he would find the reward for his long and arduous climb of the past few days. All he had to do was cross that bridge. De rest would be easy. Filled with new hope and energy he stepped onto the bridge without further thought.
After a few paces the bridge started noticeably resonating with his footsteps. Every step he took worsened the vibrations until he felt the bridge shake with the rhythm of his walking. Worried, he began to increase his pace, which only made the shaking worse. The whole bridge was swaying now. Almost halfway, he started running. For one brief moment he thought he would make it but then the road rose up like a wave in front of him before disintegrating completely underneath his feet.
He fell. He had just enough time to think he should have been more careful. Then he hit the rocks. His lifeless body was dragged away by the river without leaving a trace.
After a last steep ascend he found himself in front of an old stone bridge across a narrow but deep canyon. Clearly no traffic had crossed this bridge for quite some time. The bridge was as overgrown as the path, as if the foliage spanned the gap on its own strength and was the only thing keeping the bridge from collapsing.
Hesitantly, he walked to the edge of the bridge. He had the strange feeling he had seen this before. He seemed to recognise the landscape on the other side. He felt there was something he should remember but couldn’t quite get clear.
He took a few more steps until he saw the decaying remains of what looked like a signpost or warning sign on the side of the road. He dragged it onto the road to get a better look. Nothing. If anything had been written on it, time and weather had completely erased any trace. He dropped the sign back on the road.
It was perfectly clear to him his destination lay on the other side of that bridge. There he would find the reward for his long and arduous climb of the past few days. But that bridge didn’t look very sturdy. And the weathered sign had spooked him. But he decided to push on. The other side was calling him. He stepped over the sign onto the bridge.
After a few paces the bridge started noticeably resonating with his footsteps. Worried, he began to increase his pace. The whole bridge was swaying now. Almost halfway, he started running. For one brief moment he thought he would make it but then the road rose up like a wave in front of him and fell apart underneath his feet.
He fell. He had just enough time to think he should have listened to his premonitions. Then he hit the rocks. His lifeless body was dragged away by the river without leaving a trace.
After a last steep ascend he found himself in front of an old stone bridge across a narrow but deep canyon. The bridge was as overgrown as the path, as if the foliage was the only thing that kept the bridge from collapsing.
Hesitantly, he walked to the edge of the bridge. Though he had never been in these mountains in his life, he was almost certain he had seen this place before. The landscape across the bridge looked very familiar as well. It made him feel restless and agitated, as if there was something he should be able to remember but couldn’t quite put his finger on.
He walked forward until he saw an old sign lying in te middle of the road. He wondered how who put it there and why. Unfortunately, the sign was devoid of any legible text. Without really knowing why, he picked up a piece of limestone from the ground and chalked a few words on the badly weathered wood. He read back what he had written and chuckled. He shouldn’t get carried away like that, he thought. Surely it wouldn’t be as bad as that? He carefully leaned the sign upright against a large boulder at the entrance to the bridge and looked across again.
It was perfectly clear to him his destination lay on the other side of that bridge. But the sign had rattled his confidence for a moment. Yet he decided to push on. He had come too far to turn back, so close to his destination.
After a few paces the bridge started noticeably resonating with his footsteps. Worried, he began to increase his pace until he was running at full speed by the time he was halfway across. For a moment he thought he would make it but then the road rose up like a wave in front of him and completely disappeared beneath his feet.
He fell. He had just enough time to reproach himself for not turning around after seeing the sign. He should have trusted his intuition. Then he hit the rocks. His lifeless body was dragged away by the river without leaving a trace.
After a last steep ascend he found himself in front of an old stone bridge across a narrow but deep canyon. He was almost certain he had seen this bridge before. The landscape on the other side of the canyon also looked very familiar. He felt nervous and scared. There was something urgent and important he felt he should remember but it refused to come into focus.
He took a few more steps and saw and old, weathered sign leaning against a boulder near the entrance of the bridge. It was clearly put there to be noticed. He wiped away the dust and dirt from the timber and saw that someone had chalked a few words there. With some difficulty he read: “Look out! Unstable bridge. Collapse imminent!” He wondered who had put the sign there and why. He looked across to the other side.
It was perfectly clear to him his destination lay on the other side of that bridge. But that bridge didn’t look very sturdy. And the words on the sign sounded ominous.
Hesitantly, he walked to the edge of the bridge. Looking down hundreds of meters below he saw a fast-flowing river forcing itself between massive boulders. The roaring of the water was faint but persistent. It sounded threatening, almost angry, as if the spirit of the river was annoyed at the rocks obstructing her progress. He could well imagine what it would be like to plunge down there and smash against those rocks. The water would drag away his lifeless body without leaving a trace.
He looked once more at the luring landscape on the other side of the bridge.
He then turned around and with a feeling of relief mixed with disappointment he started the long descend back into the valley, where he would search for another way to cross that river.
Lost in thoughts he had walked into a forest without noticing. When he finally looked up and around he didn’t see anything he recognised. A barely visible path wound between high trees and dense undergrowth. Patches of thick green moss under the highest trees were surrounded by stretches of high, dry grasses and strips of bare sandy ground. Even with the sun high up in the sky it was almost dark here. The heavy foliage blocked almost all the sunlight and the little light that reached the ground was washed through with a greenish, pastel-like haze.
Where was he? And how could he get out? The narrow path didn’t seem to go anywhere and he only saw forest as far as he could see in this dusky light.
Slightly worried he tried to get his bearings.
After having twice turned around 360º he thought he saw something shimmer in the distance. He looked again. Yes, it was clearly lighter there and he thought he could see the blueish glittering of water through the thick shrubs and high grasses.
The darkness of the forest was getting to him. He didn’t hesitate. He started running in the direction of the water he saw in the distance.
Because he could barely see the ground he walked on he couldn’t go very fast. He had to be careful with placing his feet: the path was full of irregularities, holes and tree roots you could easily trip on.
After running along for a while in this way, with his eyes mostly on the ground, he stopped for a moment to check his progress. It took him a moment to locate the light in the distance. To his surprise it seemed further away than before. It was still clearly visible, especially in contrast to the darkness around him. But the distance between him and the reflecting water had clearly increased. He must have veered off from the main path, into a direction away from the water instead of towards it.
He took a few deep breaths to calm himself. Panic is not going to help you, he told himself. And there’s no reason to panic. As long as you keep the water in sight it’s impossible to get lost.
Instead of running, he decided to walk while keeping his eyes fixed on the water and not on the ground. By carefully placing his feet and making sure he was standing on level ground before taking the next step he managed to slowly move forward.
After having taking a number of big strides this way he started to get the feeling that even though he was moving forward the water was receding from him. He took a few more steps and was certain now: he was again further away from the water than he had been before.
Again he walked forward. The water had by now almost disappeared from sight. Only the bright light on the horizon betrayed where the water would be. Afraid to lose sight of that light as well he started running again. Until he tripped over a tree root and fell flat on his back.
Slowly, he got back up again. He was completely surrounded by the half-darkness of the forest. There was no trace of the water or even the light on the horizon.
Panicking, he turned around and around, hoping to glimpse the light reflecting off the water somewhere.
Suddenly, out of nowhere, she stood there in front of him. A slender, stately
woman, dressed in light-green robes. She had long, black hair and dark-brown, almost black eyes. She held a staff in one hand and had her other hand raised in a ‘stop’ gesture. She had a slight smile around her lips but her voice was stern and commanding when she said: “That’s enough. Please show some dignity.”
His mouth had fallen open in amazement. He was still panting from his panic attack and he was dizzy from turning around and around. But when he heard her voice he felt himself jump to attention. Without a thought he straightened his back, closed his mouth and waited for her to speak again.
“Good. You know how to listen. Maybe you can still be saved.” There was that hint of a smile again. “But you will have to do exactly what I tell you to.” Speechless, too surprised to say anything at all, he nodded his understanding.
“Do you have any idea why you can’t reach the water?” she asked? He shook his head. She kept looking at him, apparently expecting an answer. “It seems like the water is running away from me,” he suggested, cautiously. “Every time I try to approach, the water seems to have moved further away.”
“Ah” the woman said, “you know how to observe. But your conclusion is typically male: when you encounter something you cannot explain something has to be wrong with the world. Have you considered, even for a moment, that maybe there’s something wrong with you, and not with the water?”
Bewildered, he looked at her. Something wrong with him? What did she mean? “Could the water be an optical illusion? Am I only imagining seeing water?” he proffered.
“No” she said, “that water is real. There’s nothing wrong with your eyes. But something’s wrong” – there was that smile again – “with the way you are looking at the world.”
He had no idea what she was talking about, so he kept his silence, hoping she would explain what she meant.
“Try to walk towards me. Maybe that will help you understand.” Hesitantly, he took a few steps forward. To his amazement the woman was further away from him than when he started walking. Yet she hadn’t moved at all. She held the same position in what seemed to be the exact same spot, yet the distance between them had visibly grown. What was going on?
“You still don’t understand, do you?” the woman said. “I thought you were smarter than that. Let’s try again. Walk away from me now, without turning around. Keep looking at me and take a few steps away from me.” He did as she said and saw how she appeared to come closer with every step backwards he took. He stopped when he was almost touching her and stared at her in confusion.
“Do you understand now?”
When he failed to answer she took half a step backwards and struck his head off his shoulders with her staff in one fluid motion. He felt his head tumble through the air to land on the soft mossy ground, while his body flopped helplessly forward. His body ended on hands and knees as his head rolled to a stop against a tree stump.
He had the eerie feeling he was in two places at once. He clearly felt the moss under his hands and the ground under his knees and feet. But he also felt the rough surface of the tree stump against his face and saw grass sway in front of his eyes. A tiny ant climbed up on one of the stalks, stopped at eye height and ran down again. He was too surprised to panic and too shocked to say anything.
“I’m sorry,” the woman said, “but sometimes a direct approach works best after all.” He couldn’t see her but heard her kneel down next to his head. “Now you need to keep your head together. Try to crawl slowly in the direction of my voice.”
Her voice was calm and reassuring and he felt his panic subside. He did as she told him and made a few tentative crawling motions. He felt his body move forward but his eyes didn’t register any motion. That was confusing enough to cause a wave of nausea to wash through him and almost make him fall over.
“Pretty hard to do, eh? When your body and your head are not working together? Try again, but this time keep your eyes closed. Looking is not going to help, feeling is. Concentrate on my voice and the feeling in your body. It may help to imagine you are in the dark, crawling towards me.”
He closed his eyes and did exactly as she told him. Now that his eyes and his body were no longer contradicting each other things were indeed a lot easier to manage. Without too much trouble he crawled in the direction of her voice. He felt his hands bump into his head and instinctively picked up his head and pushed it firmly back onto his neck. He felt his head and body fuse.
Cautiously he let go of his head. It remained firmly perched on his neck, as if it had never been disconnected. He slowly turned his head from side to side. That, too, worked fine. He sat himself firmly on the ground before opening his eyes. Everything looked normal. The forest, the sky, the trees, … and a few paces away the mysterious woman with her staff in hand.
“Well done.” she said, clearly happy with his performance. “Most men lose their head completely when this happens and get hopelessly lost. I have seen plenty of them disappear into the woods in total panic. Never to return. But I am glad you managed to pull yourself together. I think you have potential.” In his mind he saw hordes of headless men crawling through the forest until they died of exhaustion. That could have happened to him. He breathed a sigh of relief.
“Come” the woman said and held out her free hand, “get up and walk with me. I will take you to the water.” She helped hem to his feet and together they walked into the forest. After a few turns of the path he could see the light again and the reflections of the water. He half expected the water to disappear from sight again, so he was glad to see the water’s edge quickly approaching. After a short walk he stood next to the woman on a sandy beach bordering a small lake in the middle of the forest.
“Welcome to my lake”, the woman said. “From here you will be able to continue your journey. But before I let you go, have you understood what was going on?” She looked at him, her dark eyes firmly fixed on his.
He thought. Her question sounded like a test and he suspected she wouldn’t take kindly to him giving the wrong answer. He had no idea what she would do but he had witnessed what she was capable of with her staff. Better think this through, therefore. What had just happened? Suddenly it came to him. “I had my head put on the wrong way round.” He looked at her. “I was looking forwards but walking backwards.”
She smiled at him. “Exactly. Or you were walking forwards but looking backwards. I hope you will never forget this: if you cling to where you came from you will never get where you want to go to. Keep your eyes aligned to the direction you want to travel in. The road will then reveal itself.”
That sounded rather obvious. He nodded he had understood her; cautiously, of course, his head had just been on the ground next to his body so he didn’t want to take any unnecessary risks.
With the woman he turned again to face the lake and admired the view of the rippling water and the sunlight playing with the small, wind-driven waves.
One fine day he decided he had had enough. For almost 40 years he had tried to live the way others expected him to. But however hard he tried to adjust, he never quite succeeded. It all remained a play. A play so well rehearsed he could almost at times forget he was just playing a role. But then something would happen, a meeting, a comment, a passage in a book or an unexpected vista during a walk or drive; there would always be something that brought him back to the sense of the unreality of who he was trying to be.
And now it had to end. He couldn’t find the power in himself to put the mask back on, re-find his place in the script and dutifully perform the next act of the play, as his part demanded. He had lost his will to pretend.
He didn’t even take the trouble of packing or taking anything with him. Exactly the way he had dressed that morning, in his t-shirt and jeans, he walked out of his house, knowing he would never return there.
He walked up to the end of the street. On the corner he turned and saw his house standing on the horizon like a miniature. Which gave him an idea: with one eye closed he stretched out his hand in the direction of the house. Very carefully he pinched the tiny building between finger and thumb and started to pull. With some wriggling and gentle tugging, like a dentists pulling a recalcitrant tooth, he managed to detach the house from its foundations. He shook off some dirt and sand and put the little gem in his pocket.
Happy and content he walked away. Now he would never be homeless – wherever he went.