‘Why is it……’ I asked the turtle. ‘….that the more I understand life and the more I write, the more I grow sad? I don’t dislike being sad but it overburdens me sometimes.’
‘Hmm!’ the turtle closed his grey clouded eyes for a moment. When he opened them again, they were as usual, shining with the golden light of ancient wisdom.
‘Understanding is a gift child. This gift comes to a few but this gift always comes with a curse. And that’s what the witch told you. That was the deal you made with her.’
‘Witch?’ I was surprised. ‘What witch and what deal?’
‘The witch whom you met when you were a little boy.’ The turtle said with a smile.
‘I don’t remember any such witch. And anyway there are no real witches and I am too old to believe in myth and magic and make deals with make-believe entities.’ I stood up suddenly. My own anger surprised me.
‘Tsk! Tsk!’ The turtle was unaffected by my reaction. He was always cool as a cucumber and his skin was as smooth as it was thick. My emotions and feelings slid over it like water slides over round smooth stones.
‘There once was a witch and you met her and she gave you a gift – the witch from Ghoragali.’
I kept quiet. Of course I remembered the witch. I thought I had forgotten her musky presence but no. She was very much an occupant of my memory palace.
It was the summer of 1986; and I was on a scouting trip to Ghoragali. I was about thirteen and the trip was not an adventure but an escape. People often believe that the life of children is easy and trouble-free. But certain childhoods are complex and come with their very own brands of trouble. To me discipline has always been synonymous with torture. The trip was therefore my way out of the dungeon of discipline.
I discovered something wonderful during that particular trip – that was my love for the nature. I understood that nature was there to listen and to talk, provided one had patience.
I looked at the grand majestic mountains surrounding the camp site. They first awed me and then talked to me as a friend; telling me stories of the days gone by and the people who lived in the caves, free of any complex desires.
I loved the graceful and slender pine trees with their needles and cones. The wind through the trees gradually became secret whispers; narrating accounts of clandestine trysts and stolen kisses; as the dry leaves fell all around the obscured lovers.
The place was full of waterfalls and fresh water springs. They all sang songs of longing and desire; their sweet melodies reaching crescendos with the wild rains.
And when I looked up and sometimes around me, I saw clouds – great silver and grey billowing giants. They bowed down to murmur in my ears, of their silent majestic journeys over the parched lands; their murmurs transforming into echoing thunder.
I cultivated a deep bond of friendship with nature that summer. This bond is still going strong and our communication is becoming more meaningful with each passing day.
To me, scouting lessons were boring – mindless hours spent in learning knots. Then there were group activities, which I hated with a vengeance. I didn’t crave anyone’s company but my own and wanted to converse with nobody but myself. I wanted to know what I thought and I wanted to know what and how I felt. That required solitude. It is when all is silent around you, that you learn to listen to your own heart and soul. The other boys bored me. I failed to understand their mindless and constant obsession with their video games and toys.
Getting rid of my age mates and missing scouting classes, became far easier once I learnt how to feign sickness. A short complaint of a stomachache and grimace were enough to convince everyone around me that a day off from the classes was the only solution. When the other boys left that was when I sat up and looked around for hours at end. In particular, I stared for long at a lonesome mountain track, disappearing among the swirling fog and tall pine trees.
I noticed the path as soon as I arrived at the camp. It looked like part of an untold fairy story – a path to the mysteries. I never saw anyone treading that path but I felt that it beckoned me in a very strange way. I was somehow drawn to it. I wanted to be the first one in my camp to explore that path and therefore discussed it with no one. Well no one but the old man.
The old man was responsible for cleaning the camp. He was as silent as an old oak tree but a subtle smile always danced on his dry lips. It was like he knew the answer to some great riddle.
On some evenings one could see him sitting up high on a ledge overlooking the camp. From the distance I could hear his rough singing and see his shaggy head moving to and fro like he was in a trance. The other boys pointed at him behind his back and made signs to show that something was seriously wrong with his head. But to me, despite his apparent craziness, he looked like someone, who knew something about the path.
The old man knew I liked him and was curious about him. I knew this because his subtle smile acquired an added shade of warmth and his eyes glowed when he looked at me. Armed with the confidence of this small piece of knowledge, one day I decided to approach him; while he was busy cleaning the camp.
‘Hey!’ He did not look back and kept on sweeping the broom. So I cleared my throat and tried it again a bit loudly.
Unfortunately my attempt to be louder turned out to be a half-scream and the old man almost threw down his broom and jumped with fright. He looked back as if expecting a ghost in the otherwise silent camp. But he smiled when he saw me.
‘Hey little one!’ His voice was rough as if he rubbed his throat with sandpapers each morning.
I looked at him closely. He was dressed in an old and tattered grey long shirt, while what he wore beneath was definitely a pair of blue denim jeans in its good old days. A pair of deep grey eyes peered at me from beneath bushy eyebrows and they were as clear as icicles. He had great big silver whiskers and a long shaggy beard of the same color. The hair had turned yellow just around his mouth probably due to smoking. Around his neck, he wore a most splendid necklace of pine scones.
‘What are you doing here alone in the camp? Don’t you have classes to attend child?’ He smiled at me kindly.
‘Well yeah…….’ I scratched my head full of hair for a moment. ‘But I am sick.’
‘You don’t look sick to me at all.’ He chuckled.
‘I am not sick in the normal way. I am just sick of the other people around me.’ I don’t know what came over me and I confided in him, somehow having a belief that he would keep my secret safe.
‘Hmm!!’ He peered closely at my face and his penetrating gaze made me uncomfortable. But then he probably found what he was looking for because he suddenly looked away with a smile.
He picked up his broom and then taking its support with one hand, started searching the pockets of his woolen shirt for something with the other. My heart skipped a beat. In the stories I used to read, whenever old men searched their pockets, they always took out most marvelous gifts for their young disciples. But to my utter disappointment, what he took out, was only a misshapen and filter-less cigarette.
‘What’s your name old man?’ I asked him in order to hide my disappointment.
‘Hmm!’ he grunted gain while trying to light the cigarette with a burning match. He cupped his hands and the flame from the match and the red glow of the burning cigarette reflected in his grey eyes for a brief moment.
‘I go by many names but you can call me the Keeper.’
‘The Keeper?’ I was surprised. ‘The Keeper of what exactly?’
‘The Keeper of secrets of course – all the secrets of the world that surrounds us.’ He took a deep drag and the bitter smoke floated up and joined the clouds.
I shook my head. His answers were cryptic as if he had no consideration for my age.
‘And what about this necklace?’ I pointed at his neck. ‘Where did you get it from?’
‘This……’ he caressed the scones lovingly. ‘The Mother gave it to me.’
‘Is she alive…..your mother?’ I expected his answer to be no and was ready to come out with condolences.
‘Not my mother little one…’ he laughed. ‘The Mother!’
‘The Mother?’ I almost chewed my words.
‘Yes! the Mother. The Mother of us all; the Mother of the mountains and the Mother of the springs that sprout from beneath the rocks. The Mother of the clouds and the Mother of the trees receiving the rain.’
‘And where does she live – the Mother I mean?’ I was beginning to have serious apprehensions about the sanity of the old man.
‘There!’ the old man pointed towards the path. ‘She lives somewhere along that path.’
‘Let’s go. Let’s go meet her then.’ I tried taking a step in the direction of the path but the old man firmly grabbed my shoulder.
‘No! we don’t just go and meet her. We only go when she calls for us. And you will know if and when she calls for you. Wait for that time.’
In my opinion, the meeting with the old man was almost fruitless. He was crazy and his head was full of strange dreams. But so were me and my head. The path still beckoned me and it was my firm decision to tread that path at least once.
The opportunity came a few days later. The instructors got bored with teaching us knots and ordered an unsupervised field trip. I heard the two phrases ‘no supervision’ and ‘field trip’ and I knew my prayers had been answered.
I waited patiently while the other boys formed small groups and went in search of secret spots and snacks. Then I filled my water bottle and started walking towards the path. It was a beautiful day where the sun was playing a constant game of hide and seek with the black and silver clouds. But as soon as I started walking, the clouds thundered angrily and it started raining. God swirled His big paintbrush and the sky and the mountains merged and faded into each other.
Though my clothes were soaked soon, rain did not worry me. It blanketed every sound and hid me from the world. Rain was my friend and I welcomed its arrival with open arms.
But while crossing the camp site a commotion grabbed my attention.
‘It was the dog….wasn’t it?’ I asked the turtle. ‘It was the dog who took me to the witch.’
‘I don’t think so at all.’ He shook his mottled grey head. ‘I think it was your kindness to the dog which took you to the witch. Rather I believe that the dog was your test. You passed the test with flying colours and the witch called you.’
‘Oh yes! I agree.’ I smiled and thought of the dog fondly.
Right at the fringes of the camp, there was a small group of boys from some other school. They were screaming and shouting with delight and throwing rocks at something. I approached them and the object of their delight turned out to be a poor dog. He was a great big dog – all wet, shaggy and soiled hair and bleeding from one leg. He was desperately trying to escape the boys but they were not letting him. His each try was met with a heavy rock. The poor creature was miserable and the boys were cruel beyond words. Their cruelty filled my heart with dark anger.
‘Hey!’ I shouted at them oblivious of all consequences. ‘What do you think you are doing? Leave the poor creature alone.’
‘Who do you think you are?’ The gang leader asked me placing his fists at his waist.
‘I am just someone who wants you to stop throwing rocks at the dog. He will die for God’s sake.’ I could feel tears welling up my throat.
‘And how will you stop us?’ There was a very cruel smile dancing on the large boy’s thin lips.
‘For that, he has me.’ A rough voice snarled at my rear. I looked back and there stood the Keeper holding his broom as menacingly as it was a sword. ‘Now run along or I will complain to your teachers.’
The boys took one look at the Keeper and his broom and silently withdrew from the scene. The poor dog, finally free of his tormentors, sat down and started licking his wound.
‘Come child, the poor old Shaggy needs us.’ The Keeper patted my shoulder but I stood rooted to the spot.
‘What?’ His grey eyes silently questioned me.
‘I am……..I am afraid of dogs.’ I answered sheepishly.
‘What? You are afraid of the old Shaggy?’ He laughed aloud but then saw my red face and his laughter transformed into a kind smile.
‘Let me tell you a great trick child.’ He placed his hand on my shoulder. ‘Whenever you want to help someone but are afraid of their reaction, always let kindness take over. Kindness almost always conquers fear.’
I looked up at his reassuring smile and decided to try the trick. We approached the dog, while he watched us guardedly. I hesitantly extended my hand and the dog gave it a quick lick. His bushy tale started wagging and he let me caress him. With the help of the old man and water from my bottle, I washed the wound. It wasn’t deep and the bleeding had already stopped. So I took out my handkerchief and tied it firmly over the wound.
After a while he got up and again licked my hand. Then he turned and started walking towards the path. I watched him limp away silently. Right where the path started besides a big rock, he stopped and looked back at me. He seemed to be waiting for some response at my end. I waved at him but he kept on looking back at me.
‘Go on. He wants you to follow him.’ The Keeper gave me a gentle push.
‘Follow him?’ I asked confusingly. ‘But you said I can’t go tread the path until the Mother calls me.’
‘Old Shaggy is one of the Mother’s many companions. If he wants you to follow him, it is at the Mother’s behest. Now go before the Mother changes her mind.’
Old Shaggy walked on the path and I followed him. After every few steps, he turned and looked at me as if to make sure I was following him close behind. Seeing me he wagged his tail and started walking again.
It was a strange but peaceful walk. The path was as beautiful as I had imagined it to be. It wound along seven great mountains. The locals called them the Seven Sisters. Though they looked similar, each sister had her own unique beauty. The air was filled with the smell of wet pine trees. Since then I have always associated this smell with mystery and curiosity. I believe this is how curiosity smells like – the smell of wet pine trees.
My footsteps were muffled by a thick carpet of pine needles lining the path. Due to the rain, the path was occasionally crisscrossed by tiny rivulets and streams. But the dog knew where he was going. He always chose the safest of all steps.
But then when I turned a corner, I could not see the dog anymore. He had vanished without any warning or sound.
‘It was indeed a strange day.’ I said to myself.
‘Let’s just say it was indeed a great day. Not many people have a chance to meet the mother.’ The turtle slowly walked into the warm sunlight. ‘And out of those who ever happen to meet her, not all are given the gift.’
‘Why do you think she chose to meet me?’ I sat beside the turtle and started scratching his mottled back. He loved it.
‘Well she is the Mother. Who knows how her liking and disliking work?’
‘By the way….!’ I suddenly stopped scratching him. ‘How do you know about the Witch? I don’t think I ever told you about her.’
The turtle chose to remain quiet. His eyes were closed but I could see a faint hint of smile.
‘Hey!’ I looked around and called to the dog. ‘Shaggy?’
There was only silence. I decided to wait and sat on a stone ledge. The mountain forest was gently whispering around me. The moist smell of the pines was growing stronger by the minute. Then suddenly great swirls of fog rolled down the gentle mountain slope and engulfed me. The fog was so thick I could not see the pine needles at my feet. It was like I was sitting alone in a pine forest, up above the clouds. But strangely there was no fear. There was only peace.
‘Welcome child!’ A lovely voice called and I jumped to my feet and looked back.
There she stood – the Mother. She didn’t look like any mother I had ever seen. Rather she looked like an elder sister maybe.
She was tall and young – very young and very beautiful. Her beautiful auburn hair filled head was crowned by a lovely contraption of odd twigs and wild flowers. Beneath a fair brow and two lush eyebrows, a pair of dark brown eyes were looking at with me kindness and warmth. She was wearing a forest-green woolen shirt with a long sleeved jacket of the same color; while her long skirt was brown like the soil. And yes she wore a necklace of pine scones around her lovely neck, just like the one worn by the keeper. Besides her stood Shaggy, his tail wagging happily.
‘Who are you?’ I managed to blurt out.
Hearing my question, she laughed and her laughter was as warm and kind as her eyes.
‘I am the witch of the forest
for I know all the secrets;
and how the magic works
And I am the Mother
for I made all the secrets;
and I made all the magic’
‘But witches are evil and you are anything but evil.’ I was perplexed.
‘Oh not at all child. Witches were the first true descendants of the Mother and the worshipers of nature. They were not evil. Evil resided in the hearts of men who couldn’t respect a woman’s ability to reproduce and be one with nature’. She said in a sing song voice.
‘And what is your name?’ I didn’t know at that time but I had fallen in love.
‘I carry many names;
as everyone sees me in a different light’
She raised her hands above her head and the fog seemed to shift at her command.
‘The Greeks called me Gaia;
for they saw me as the primordial life force
and the ancestral mother of all life
The Romans called me Terra;
for I sprang from the earth;
and I am a part of it
They weaved stories about me;
and they enveloped me in myth
They wrote songs about me;
and they shrouded me in magic’
‘Myth and magic and lore?’ I scratched my head. ‘But what are you truly?’
‘Ah truth! the most difficult of all controversies.’ She sighed. ‘Come walk with me.’
She held my hand in her own and started walking. She was warm – as warm as the sun which comes out after a long and freezing winter night. Her warmth ran down my hand and touched my heart. I felt there was a light glowing in my heart. And she smelt wonderful. She smelt of all the wonderful things in the world.
She smelt of a mother’s lap;
and warm milk and honey
She smelt of rain and the clouds;
and the black wet soil giving birth to life
She smelt of wild flowers;
and green grass and hay
She smelt of musk;
and the desire that springs forth
And she smelt of the burning fire;
and the glowing comfort it provides
We walked and the shifting fog made me feel as if we were floating on clouds. The rain had long stopped but the drops falling from the trees; played their own symphony of silence.
‘I was the first one on earth and I will be the last
I gave birth to everything and everything comes back to me
I am the life force and I reside in everything
I even reside in you child
I was the voice behind the Oracle at Delphi;
and I am the end of all quests;
all quests to immortality’
‘You don’t look that old.’ It was hard for me to believe that she was as ancient as she claimed.
‘I am not part of the flow of time child. Instead time flows from the tips of my fingers.’ She answered obscurely.
‘Are you…….?’ I stopped and looked up at her kind face. ‘Are you God?’
‘Oh no child!’ she smiled. ‘I am but a small part of God as you are a small part of me. I am part of her system.’
‘Her?’ I was flabbergasted. ‘I thought God is a Him.’
‘Is that so?’ her eyes sparkled mockingly. ‘Anyway let’s go inside before you catch a cold.’
‘Who was she truly?’ I asked the turtle.
‘She was as she told you herself. She was and she is the Mother. And She is a part of all of us – you, me, the trees and the mountains, and even the oceans and the rivers. But don’t listen to me. I am just an old turtle’. My old friend was always ready with strange answers.
‘She was……..’ I thought of that summer afternoon far away in my past. ‘She was strange, that’s for sure. And a voice in my heart confirmed whatever she said. But was that the truth?’
‘Remember what she said?’ the turtle looked up at me and asked. ‘She said that truth is the most difficult of all controversies.’
‘Yes!’ I nodded. ‘And that was strange. Truth is not a controversy but a statement of facts.’
‘No child!’ The turtle said exasperatingly. ‘Truth is our own perspective on life. It is when we treat truth as the statement of facts, that we commit the gravest of all follies. For it makes us judge others. The only fact is that truth is never objective but only subjective.’
I looked up and there was a most marvelous and amazing wooden hut right in the middle of the pine forest. It was just like the fairy stories – small but high; a sloping roof; and grey smoke rising from a small chimney. I think if any doubts remained in my mind about her being a witch, they vanished at that moment.
We went inside and the inside was as wonderful as the outside. There was a bright fire burning under a steaming cauldron and the smell of broth made my stomach growl with hunger. She made me sit on a small wooden stool right next to the fire and then inspected Shaggy’s leg very carefully.
‘Ah!’ She exhaled a satisfied sigh. ‘You did a wonderful job child. With kindness in your heart, you are a healer. Never forget that.’
I blushed and started looking around to hide my uneasy and shy happiness at her compliment. But that compliment was magical. I believe that even if at that moment I was cruel, that compliment transformed my true nature and I became kind. Words of those, whom we love, carry a strange power of transformation.
I looked around and was fascinated.
The walls were covered with strange roots and aromatic herbs; while all around the room, there lay on small stools, all sorts of strange-looking devices and instruments. I could identify a few.
There was a silver sand-filled hourglass but the trickle of sand was stationery and frozen mid-air.
There was a golden globe with indigo oceans; slowly rotating on a small and delicate pivot.
There were gleaming sextants and a Mariner’s Compass; and there were crystals of all sizes and hues, each pulsating with hidden lights.
‘Have some!’ I looked up and there she was standing close to me, holding a bowl of steaming broth with a small wooden spoon. ‘It will warm you up.’
‘You were telling me about God being not a Him.’ I asked her amidst hungry gulps.
‘Oh yes!’ She turned her back to me and at a subtle gesture of her hand, the flames sprang up and the fire started burning more brightly.
‘Tell me child…’ She turned towards me again. ‘What does God do what others cannot?’
‘He…!’ I looked up at her and thought hard. ‘He can create life.’
‘Very good!’ She smiled. ‘And who creates life…..a man or a woman?’
‘A woman!’ I had understood her point.
‘In the beginning of time, everyone acknowledged God as a female entity – God was a Goddess. Women were not an object then. They were revered and respected as life-creating entities. The ancient women were healers as they understood nature intimately.’ She closed her eyes for a moment and grew quiet.
‘Then what happened?’ I asked impatiently. ‘What changed?’
‘Then……’ She opened her eyes and they were moist. ‘Then man looked at himself and conceived his physical superiority. He looked at his own muscles and anatomy and refused to revere and respect a physically inferior female. Patriarchy was the evil which corrupted the soul of man. He first tried to dominate her by sheer will and force. But when he failed, he looked for other ways. He devised religion and its complicated rituals and invented a cruel God, who only worked in his favor. Religion taught him to brand the healers as witches and burn them on the stake.’
‘Hmm!’ I was too young to understand how patriarchy worked.
‘You said you are the life force and you reside in every living thing?’
‘No. I reside in everything – living or non-living as you see things. But everything is alive. The mountains and the rivers and the trees and the stones. Everything sees and everything feels. But only those who truly understand life and nature, are able to feel that.’ She said while placing her warm hand on my shoulder.
‘And how do you understand and feel all these things?’ I asked inhaling the musky fragrance emanating from her persona.
‘Kindness is the key to the door to understanding.’ She bent her head and peered deep into my eyes. ‘Kindness make you sensitive and kindness makes you feel.’
‘I want to understand and I want to be kind.’ I whispered as my throat was getting dry on her nearness.
‘So be it.’ She whispered and bent her head as if she wanted to kiss my forehead but then stopped.
‘I can give you the gift of kindness but remember child, this gift comes with a dark curse.’
‘Curse?’ I was curious but for that one kiss of hers, I was ready to accept a host of all the curses in the world.
‘Yes! a curse.’ She smiled sadly and her dark brown eyes suddenly filled up with tears.
‘Sadness is the darkest of all curses and it always comes along with kindness and understanding. So think very carefully before you accept this gift of mine.’
‘I am ready to accept your gift and the curse that comes along with it.’ I desperately tried to wet my dry throat and looked back in her moist eyes.
‘So be it.’ She whispered again and two tears slid along her cheeks and fell onto my lips.
She removed her own necklace of pine scones and put it around my neck. She kissed my eyes one by one and peered into them again. I saw a strange light burning in the depth of her eyes. I looked closely and the light was alive with images. I tried to focus and found myself becoming a part of those strange images.
I saw myself running after butterflies and I saw those butterflies embracing the rose thorns, their delicate hearts pierced and purple blood flowing out and staining the rose petals.
I saw myself standing on top of a hillock, while death and chaos reigned all around me. Armed men were fighting each other in the name of land and religion. Gradually their victorious cries changed into cries of pain and misery and their blood stained the soil.
And I saw myself loving with innocence and purity, my eyes alight with feelings. But then I saw my innocence being conquered by desire and I saw myself losing the ability to love purely.
I saw all and I wept hard, tears streaming down my cheeks.
I wept until darkness took me over and I was lost into nothingness.
When I opened my eyes, I saw faces of all my friends peering down at me. I looked around. I was back at the camp and lying on my own bed.
‘What happened?’ I tried to sit up.
‘Don’t get up.’ A friend of mine said in a kind voice. ‘You are running a high fever.’
‘But how did I reach back? How am I here?’
‘The old cleaner found you lying unconscious in the forest. He brought you here.’
‘Oh!’ I couldn’t speak anymore. Fever made my whole body ache.
‘What is this around your neck?’ My friend asked.
I opened my eyes and saw that he was fiddling with a necklace of pine scones around my neck.
‘This…..’ My eyes filled with tears at the memory of the Mother. ‘This is a gift.’
‘Maybe it was all a dream and my feverish imagination.’ I said to no one in particular and the turtle chuckled with amusement.
‘Yes maybe the necklace was put around your neck by the Keeper. Maybe he wanted to gift it to you.’ He was scuttling back into the shade.
‘No.’ I thought hard. ‘I saw the Keeper again the day we were leaving the camp. He was wearing his own.’
‘Maybe he made another. Eh?’ The turtle was still smiling.
‘Maybe!’ I nodded and stood up to leave.
‘So what is the truth?’ He looked up at me. ‘Did you or did you not meet the Mother?’
‘The fact is that I did not. And the truth is that I did.’
We stared into each other’s eyes for a second or two and then we both laughed.
So my friends, what is the truth? Did I or did I not meet the Witch of Ghoragali? That is not for you to decide or judge. For that is my truth and mine alone. But you are welcome to go to Ghoragali and try your luck. Maybe you are fortunate enough to meet Her. But if you do and by any chance She offers you a gift, think very hard before accepting it because dark curses are hard to carry.