Åsa was only six years old but very different from his age mates. He preferred his own company over that of his friends’. A conflict raged like a storm within him. Outside, he was all sunshine and flowers and butterflies; and inside, he was as dark the heavy rain clouds. Åsa was also highly intelligent but depressed. The bright flashes of intelligence lit the heavy clouds of depression at frequent intervals.
Åsa’s high intelligence led to an increased curiosity. He questioned everything and everybody and felt a unique and desperate need to understand the world surrounding him. The depression was the result of his inability to mix up and play with his age mates. The depression also came in the form of frustration when his queries weren’t answered. Though, his intelligence was welcomed by the adults around, his depression was not something they understood or accepted.
There was yet another reason behind Åsa’s dark grey depression. The one reason he had never told anybody except his parents. The first time he mentioned it to Sara, his mother, it was a Sunday night.
‘Mother do you know when Uncle Luca plays the great pipe organ, I can see the music?’
‘What nonsense Åsa? What do you mean you can see the music?’ Sara stopped brushing her hair and looked at her son in the mirror.
‘It is not nonsense. I can see really see music. The notes all become colourful and vibrating shapeless blobs and start dancing around my head.’ He tried to explain.
‘It is just your imagination Åsa.’ Sara shrugged and started brushing her hair again.
‘No. It is not my imagination. I can really see music. What does it mean?’ The little boy tried to convince his mother.
‘How do I know? Only God knows what this means Åsa!’ She patted his shoulder and went to the kitchen.
Åsa went outside looking for his father. He found Gittan in the shed, milking the cows.
‘Father I can see music.’ He hesitatingly approached Gittan.
‘Huh?’ Gittan was startled. ‘What do you mean you can see music?’
‘I mean when I hear music, on the radio or in the church, I can see it. The sounds become colourful shapes, which dance around my head.’ The boy tried to explain.
‘Music is sound my boy. You can hear the sound but cannot see it.’ Gittan chuckled. ‘I am sure someday, you are going to come up to me and tell me that you can hear sunlight.’
‘It is not funny father. I can really see music. Just tell me what it means.’ Åsa’s eyes were glistening with tears.
‘Only God knows what this means Åsa; only He knows.’ He scooped up the little boy, wiped his tears with his thumbs and sat him on his sturdy shoulders. ‘Let’s go inside. The dinner should be almost ready.’
‘Åsa is not very normal you know?’ The old doctor Gösta removed his thick glasses. He rubbed at them with a wet tissue, examined them for spots and looked up. He was a small and portly man who looked more like a friendly baker than a psychiatrist.
His sudden diagnosis made Gittan and Sara look at each other confusedly.
‘Not normal? Not normal how?’ Gittan asked the old doctor, his was the face of an over-protective father.
‘Yeah! Not normal how?’ Sara held Gittan’s hand for an added strength, her anxious brow, all pinched and creased.
Doctor Gösta pushed his chair back and got up. He walked to the open window of his small office. It was a dry winter morning and the snow-covered Alps were sparkling in full glory. ‘What a wonderful day. I should be out walking. I shouldn’t be talking about complex psychological problems to worried parents,’ he thought tiredly and then turned to face the couple:
‘Please don’t take me wrong.’ Doctor Gösta scratched his nose, searching for appropriate words: ‘Åsa is a fine boy and he is growing up fine. But there is something wrong here.’ The old doctor tapped his temple with his right index finger.
‘Something wrong with his head?’ Sara’s crystal blue pupils dilated in alarm. ‘But he is just having bad dreams. More than other children of his age, but still….it is just nightmares. Surely, that doesn’t mean he is mad?’
Gittan did not say anything. He had the patience of an old tree and he really wanted to understand what the old man was trying to say.
‘No! no! Not at all.’ Gösta smiled at Sara reassuringly: ‘Please do not think like that. Åsa is not mad for sure. He is just confused.’
Gittan and Sara kept on watching the old Doctor silently.
‘You must understand, Åsa was not having nightmares. He just told you that because you both refused to understand or listen to him.’
‘Refused to listen to what?’ Gittan looked at Sara questioningly, but she was equally confused.
‘Did he tell you, he was feeling cold inside?’ Doctor Gösta asked Sara. ‘Did he tell you, he was feeling all empty inside?’
‘Yes, but………’ Sara was still confused. ‘It is cold. Winters are here. Everybody feels cold all the time; and emptiness? …………..I fed him hot soup. He was alright.’
Gösta smiled kindly at her:
‘No! Åsa is experiencing a different kind of cold. His cold originates from his head and seeps into his heart. Summers or winters do not matter at all.’
‘Doctor Gösta please! What is really wrong with our son?’ All this talk of inner cold and emptiness was beyond Gittan’s comprehension. He was a simple dairy farmer.
‘What is really wrong with Åsa is that he is depressed,’ the old doctor sighed with exasperation.
‘Nonsense!’ Sara suddenly stood up. ‘Little boys have got no business of being depressed. Depression is for old people who have got nothing to look forward to.’ She looked fiercely at Gösta: ‘I am telling you doctor, my son is not depressed.’
‘Sara please!’ Gittan got hold his wife’s wrist and pulled her down gently. ‘Let the good doctor explain what he is saying.’
‘Thank you Gittan,’ the old doctor looked at him with grateful eyes: ‘You both must understand that Åsa is a gifted child. He is highly intelligent but his intelligence supersedes his limited understanding of things. This frustrates him and the frustration manifests in headaches and depression.’
‘What should we do then?’ Gittan asked him desperately.
‘Just listen to what he says. Try to understand what he tells you; and also, try to answer his questions.’ Gösta again sat down behind his oak table:
‘It would be better if you take him to a good psychiatrist in Bern. I know one such person, an old colleague of mine and an expert at working with gifted children.’
Gittan and Sara lived in a small village in Switzerland. Gittan ran a small dairy farm. The couple had three kids, two girls and a boy and Åsa was the oldest.
They lived in a village called Brindelwald, which was located right next to a glacial gorge. It was a place straight out of fairy stories. Small cottages with coloured rooftops dotted the green slopes in summers. And in winters, a glimmering white blanket of snow covered everything. The snow cover got so deep that it became almost impossible to see the village from a distance. Only the grey-white smoke rising from the chimneys, denied its existence to the weary travellers.
Åsa had always been a sweet child, full of curiosity and wonder. Where the two girls constantly fought and badgered their parents over dolls and toys, Åsa remained quiet and did not ask for anything. He just wanted answers to his seemingly simple questions:
Why is the sky blue?
What lies beyond the mountains?
Where do the butterflies go in winter?
What is God and how big is He?
What is heaven and what is hell?
Why do little children die?
Why do people fight wars?
And the list went on and on.
Åsa asked his parents these questions, but they were unable to satisfy him. So he started visiting the small library of the village school. In the start, it was fine. There were books filled with the most wonderful pictures and words. There were stories of dragons and fairies and giants. There were stories of the old gods and their terrible might. There were stories of the new God and his everlasting light. The books fascinated him in the beginning. They enriched his imagination.
Old Lena watched Åsa with wonder, love and an ever-growing sadness. Round and stout, she was the old widow who looked after the village school. Always dressed in a light cream-coloured heavily knitted woollen shawl and a brown gnarled walking stick in hand, she looked exactly like the fairy godmother. Her silver white hair was always tied neatly in a bun and her translucent blue eyes kept on smiling behind the thick pebbled glasses.
Her husband had died a long time ago during the Great War and she had no children of her own. But instead of bitterness, her heart was filled with love and affection. She loved all her students and protected them like a mother hen. She sought happiness within their small eyes sparkling with mischief. Their tinkling laughter filled the lonely halls of her life.
Sara and Gittan left the Doctor’s office and started walking home. For some distance, neither of them spoke. Suddenly Gittan felt something and looked sideways at Sara. There were tears streaming down her cheeks.
‘Hey! What’s the matter?’ Gittan asked her concernedly.
‘He is our only son Gittan…..our only son!’ She looked at him pleadingly. ‘And he is going mad.’
‘Come on! He is not going mad. He is just too inquisitive.’ Gittan tried to brush aside her fears.
‘No! There is something seriously wrong with Åsa and I know it.’ She grasped his hand. ‘It is not only the questions and depression. Did he tell you he could see music?’
‘Yes he told me that.’ He said thoughtfully. ‘Most probably it is just his imagination.’
‘It is not his imagination Gittan. I believe he is cursed.’ Sara insisted.
‘Cursed?’ Gittan nervously laughed. ‘For God’s sake woman! He is not cursed. He just asks difficult questions and has a rich imagination.’
‘The devil puts those questions in his mouth Gittan. It is the Devil. Åsa is cursed.’ Sara started weeping uncontrollably.
Lina had a special place in heart for Åsa. She appreciated his curiosity and understood his dilemma. She knew that he suffered and suffered with him. In order to extend all possible help, she took out books for Åsa and marked the pages, where she thought he could find the answers. She told him stories. She sang him songs. Her knowledge was quite limited – only mythology and religion. But still she did her best. She tried to answer all his questions.
‘I wish my husband was alive. He knew a lot of things.’ She used to tell Åsa.
‘Did he ask a lot of questions? Just like me?’ the little boy asked with wonder.
‘Yes he did, at least when he was a child. But when he grew up, he used to provide answers to those who needed them.’ Lina smiled at some far away and long forgotten memory. ‘He used to tell your grandfather, the best way to get most of the milk was to be kind to the cows. He told the old baker the right temperature to bake the most delicious bread. He told Andre the ironsmith the right tools to mould the metal.’
‘Did he know answers to all the questions?’ Åsa asked.
‘No he certainly did not. But I guess, now he has all the answers.’ Lina smiled at Åsa and ran her arthritic fingers through his blond hair.
‘How come he has all the answers now? Isn’t he dead?’ the boy wasn’t satisfied by the old woman’s answer.
‘He has all the answers because he is with God now.’ The old woman stared at her dead husband’s smiling photograph.
‘Does God have answers to all the questions?’ Åsa asked excitedly.
‘Yes, I guess He does.’ Lina looked up at the blue sky and Åsa’s eyes followed her gaze.
‘Where does He live?’ He asked the old woman.
‘The God you mean?’ She looked at him and when he eagerly nodded, said:
‘He lives up in the sky boy. Where else?’
The next Sunday afternoon, Åsa packed some sandwiches and climbed the Faulhorn, the high mountain peak near his village. He climbed for hours and ultimately reached a large platform near the top. He looked down and saw his village, looking tiny and far off. He ate his sandwiches, drank a little cider and tried to identify his home and that of Lina’s. He looked around. The blue sky and the billowing white clouds seemed so near. Suddenly he laughed. He laughed because he could taste the blue sky and the white clouds. Both tasted like spun sugar candy. Yes, he could taste colours – yet another one of his odd traits, he hadn’t told anyone about.
He got up and climbed some more. The sweat running along his back and the soreness in his limbs told him it was enough. He looked up and screamed at the top of his voice:
‘God!……Goooooooooooooood!!!!!’ But nobody answered.
‘Maybe God is asleep.’ Åsa thought.
‘God! Are you there God?’ Still no godly voice boomed from behind the clouds in reply.
After many more fruitless tries, Åsa got tired and went back home. He repeated his visits to the top of Faulhorn a few more times, but God never answered.
When Åsa failed to talk to God on top of the Faulhorn, he went back to Lina. She was dusting the old books lining the shelves in the school library.
‘I think you are mistaken.’ He confidently informed the old woman.
‘Oh? Mistaken about what child?’ She looked down at the little boy’s sweet face.
‘God doesn’t live in the heavens. I climbed up the Faulhorn. I called Him but He wasn’t there.’ Åsa sounded heartbroken.
‘We cannot talk to God that way.’ Lina said with a chuckle. ‘It is only when we die that we meet Him and His son. Only then we can talk to Him all we want, certainly not before that.’
‘But I want to talk to Him now. I want to ask Him many things.’ He insisted.
‘I know that. But death is the barrier that separates Him from us.’ Lina understood his anguish.
‘There must be some other way. I really really need to meet Him.’ Åsa was adamant.
‘I am sorry Åsa. There is no way. God doesn’t speak to little boys or even old women for that matter.’ She ruffled his hair lovingly. ‘But you may go down to the Church and ask Father Matteo. He is a man of God. If there is a way, I am sure he knows it.’
So Åsa ran down to the Church.
Old Father Matteo was tending to the roses in the church-yard.
‘Good morning Father Matteo.’ Åsa greeted him breathlessly.
‘Good morning Åsa.’ The priest shaded his eyes from the bright sun and peered at him. ‘I do hope everything is well with Gittan and Sara?’
‘Oh yes father, they are perfectly fine. I just came to ask you something.’ The boy asked him shyly.
‘Yes please, what is it?’ Father Matteo smiled at him kindly.
‘How can you talk to God?’ Åsa chose his words carefully. After all he was talking to a representative of God. ‘I mean, I need to ask God some important things. How do I talk to Him?’
‘It is actually very easy. You just need to pray.’ The priest wiped his sweaty forehead. ‘But what do you want to ask Him?’
‘Many things. Like for example, why does He allow people to kill each other? Why does He make some people very poor and the others very rich? Where do we come from when we are born? Where do we go to when we die? What is heaven like?’ The little boy started counting his questions on his fingers.
‘Hmmm! Very difficult questions.’ Father Matteo scratched his head. ‘Why don’t you read the Bible? It is through His book that he talks to us. Read His book and maybe you will find answers to your questions.’
‘But I want to talk to Him directly. His son talked to Him. Why can’t I?’ Åsa shifted on his feet impatiently.
‘I don’t know Åsa. I only know that we cannot talk to Him directly and ask Him things. If we could, it would have made life a lot easier.’ Matteo said sadly.
‘Will I be able to talk to Him once I die?’ Åsa asked him thoughtfully.
‘Oh yes! You will be able to ask Him. But you are young my boy. You have a long life ahead of you. Don’t talk about dying. Dying is for old men like me.’ Father Matteo patted his shoulder and sent him on his way.
‘I must talk to Gittan and Sara about Åsa.’ The Priest thought as he saw Åsa vanishing in the distance.
It was a week later when Lina went visiting the Gittan family after the school hours.
‘Where is Åsa today? Is he sick?’ She asked Sara after exchanging pleasantries.
‘What do you mean Lina? He was fine when I sent him to school this morning. A little bit quieter than usual but very much fine.’ Sara asked her alarmingly.
‘He didn’t come to school.’ Lina was alarmed too.
The two women stood looking at each other for some time and then Sara ran to the shed shouting her husband’s name.
Åsa stood at the edge of the gorge. He peered into its white fathomless depths. He knew only death awaited him at the bottom. But he was also convinced that with death would come all the answers. He looked at the vast blue sky and the white billowing clouds for the very last time and then jumped.
All questions fell silent. Åsa was no more. The curse had lifted.