Tales of the Ancient Turtle: The Three White Chrysanthemums
‘Tell me my dear…….!’ The old Doctor peered closely at me from behind his thick pebbled glasses. His kind face looked like a map of some rugged terrain, filled with twisting and turning contours.
‘Tell me what do the voices tell you to do?’
We both were sitting side by side on a concrete bench. From under the shade of a banyan tree, we looked at a beautiful world, painted with liquid gold by the March sun. It was a small and private mental health facility being run by the good old Doctor; and I was one of its few selected residents.
I looked up at the Doctor, surprised.
‘The voices do not tell me to do anything. They just want me to listen.’
‘Listen…..?’ He scratched his bald head. ‘Listen to what exactly?’
‘Listen to everything – the trees, the mountains, the rivers and the streams.’ I tried to name all my friends.
‘I see!’ the good Doctor removed his glasses and started polishing the lens with an abnormal vigor.
‘And do you listen to all these things?’ He looked at me when the ritual was complete. ‘The trees, mountains, rivers and……….’
‘…and the streams’ I completed his sentence.
‘Yes! Yes! …..the streams.’ He nodded his head.
‘Oh yes I do!’ I eagerly told him.
‘I listen to them all;
and I listen to them call
They talk to me about life and God,
of His grand system and scheme;
while I stand humbled and awed
They tell me stories of the days gone by
and stories of times yet to come;
over the brown earth, under the blue sky
They tell me of what was and what will be,
and what never was and what may never be;
so that I may understand when and what I see
They tell me that happiness is
but a momentary lapse of reason;
that’s the only wisdom there is
They herald sadness as the eternal reality;
one that makes all humans, humans;
to open all locks, it is the only key.’
‘And when did this all start? This listening to……umm! well….the things?’ The Doctor got up from the bench and started examining a dried up chrysanthemum bush very closely.
‘It all started with the turtle – the ancient turtle living in our backyard.’ I smiled at the warm memory of my long lost friend.
‘The turtle is actually right,’ spoke the old Banyan tree in his deep throaty voice.
He stood in the exact center of the courtyard and looked all wise and elderly.
‘Everything is alive, my little friend! Everything carries wisdom within and everything speaks. You just have to learn to listen.’
‘What do you mean? How can everything be alive?’ I was not at all shocked to hear him speak. After I made friends with the turtle, nothing remained unexpected.
‘I am alive; ain’t I?’ The banyan tree chuckled softly. ‘I eat minerals from the soil and sip water through my roots. And we all can speak.’ He spread his rustling branches around.
‘We all can speak – the trees and the flowers; the mountains and the springs; the sky and the moon; and even the stones and the soil.’
‘But why have I never heard them speak?’ I protested.
‘You are hearing me speak.’ The tree smiled kindly. ‘You talk to the old turtle all the time.’
‘Yes but………..!’ I couldn’t find words to express myself.
‘Everything speaks my friend, but everyone can’t hear them. There are only a very few who care to make an effort. But anybody who makes an effort can hear the whispers of the universal conscience.’
‘What is that…..the universal conscience?’ The words were too big for my limited understanding.
‘Be silent you pompous ass! Don’t confuse the little one.’ A familiar voice grunted from behind me.
I looked back and there stood my old friend – the ancient turtle. Half-hidden in the overgrown moist green grass, he was peering at me and smiling his kind and affectionate smile.
‘Hey!’ I greeted him excitedly. ‘You are back.’
‘It certainly looks like it; and you look perfectly fine.’ He sounded a bit tired. ‘Anyway let us stop stating the obvious. What’s going on here?’
‘I was just telling our little friend that everything is alive and everything speaks.’ The Banyan tree offered politely.
‘Yeah! Yeah!’ The turtle silenced him with a wave of its arm. ‘I wasn’t here and you thought you could go on and confuse my young friend in my absence.’
‘Oh please Mr. Turtle! Please don’t say anything to the Banyan tree.’ I ran and hugged the tree’s trunk. ‘He is my friend and he didn’t mean any harm.’
It was true. The Banyan tree was one of my many friends. Most of my summer afternoons were spent playing under its cool shade and digging for earthworms. I hugged the old gnarled tree trunk closely and could almost feel a warm and affectionate throbbing, deep under the rough bark.
‘Little one!’ the turtle admonished me. ‘If you play with the giants, you got to learn their secret little jokes too.’
He sounded pretty serious but I could see that he was trying his best not to laugh.
‘So everything speaks?’ I asked the turtle.
It was the very next afternoon and I was too curious about what the tree had told me. Besides everyone else was busy taking a siesta; while I was free to roam the wilderness of the backyard.
‘Oh yes! Certainly everything speaks.’ The ancient turtle nodded his head. I could see he very much wanted to rest in the shade of the rose bushes; but he loved me more than his rest.
‘And what does everything speak of?’ I tickled his old wrinkled head – a naughty but affectionate gesture.
‘Everything says with one voice what the universal conscience wants it to say – of wisdom and future….’ The turtle said while turning his neck and looking at me with his soft grey eyes:
‘Of wisdom and future and of what the universal conscience has in store for you
Of your life and the life of all others; and also of the flow of the river of time
Of what lays ahead, your life is a rose and optimism, a few drops of dew’
‘Hmm!’ I was a bit confused. ‘What does the universal conscience say about me?’
‘What would you like her to say about you little one?’ He asked with a twinkle in his eyes.
‘Hmm!’ I looked at myself and thought for a while. ‘What will I become? What will become of me?’
‘Ahah!’ He breathed a sigh of understanding.
‘She says that you will grow and your heart will grow even more;
and you will be wise and generous and much kind to all for sure
She says that you will learn and evolve, with a light in your core;
you will walk the path and the others’ pains, you will certainly cure
She says you will love and understand all, if only you find the door;
the door which opens with patience; and then closes down no more
And she says, this will all happen if you learn not to judge and ignore;
what the others say and what the others do; the pious and the whore’
‘But I don’t understand this all!’ I said while getting up all confused and flustered.
‘Yes you do not understand yet.’ The turtle nodded his head wisely. ‘But you will one day. Till the day of understanding dawns upon you, just be patient and wait for the universal conscience to work its eternal magic.’
‘But what if I fail to walk the path and what if I get lost?’ Suddenly fear of some strange happening in the future, gripped my heart with its cold fingers.
‘It doesn’t matter little one…!’ The turtle closed his eyes drowsily. ‘It doesn’t matter what path we walk or whether we get lost. The only thing that matters is what we see, what we observe and what we learn, while we are walking.’
‘Do you remember why you were brought here?’ The Doctor finally stopped examining the bush, turned back and asked me.
‘Oh yes I do!’ I thought with bitterness about that cruel summer morning.
I was on a trip to the North and I saw hundreds of trees being cut down. They were all crying with pain while the electric saws cut them in to pieces. Their blood was flowing down the mountain slope but no one but me could see it.
I bent down and touched the warm blood with my fingers. I listened to the weeping trees and felt their pain rushing through each nerve and fiber of my own body. I was standing there helpless when the trees recognized me and started shouting my name, asking me for help.
‘You can’t do it.’ I approached the foreman of the woodcutters.
‘I can’t do what?’ he looked at me, surprised at the welled up tears in my eyes.
‘You can’t cut the trees. It’s murder.’ I tried to muster up a stronger voice.
‘Trees? Murder?’ He stood there for a moment, confused by what I was saying. But then he suddenly jerked his neck and looked sternly at me. ‘I carry a permit. I can do whatever I want.’
‘But they are screaming with pain and the blood is everywhere.’ I begged him.
‘Who is screaming and what blood?’ he was flabbergasted. ‘Are you mad?’
‘Go away son!’ The old mountain whispered. ‘They can’t see what you see and they can’t hear what you hear. You cannot stop them.’
‘I will stop them!’ I said determinedly and then tried to snatch away the electric saw from the foreman’s hands.
‘Hey!’ The foreman was startled. ‘What the fuck you are doing?’
But it was too late. Before he could move, I had already smashed the saw on a stone boulder.
‘Yes I remember!’ I said while tears misted up my eyes. ‘I remember all. I remember the trees crying with anguish and pain; I remember the smell of their warm flowing blood; and their cries and the smell of their blood still haunts me.’
‘Have you considered the possibility that the trees were not crying; that there was no blood; and the mountain was silent as he was supposed to be?’ The Doctor had his back to me again and was examining the dried up chrysanthemum bush with a renewed interest.
‘Have you considered the possibility that the trees were really crying; their blood was staining the slopes; and that the mountain did try to deter me?’ I asked him with a sad smile.
‘It was all in your head son!’ The Doctor said without turning back. ‘It was all your imagination. Only we us humans talk. No one else does.’
‘Imagination?’ I chuckled. ‘Why is that so bad? Aren’t we all a product of God’s imagination? Can’t you see that in that context, all imagination is reality?’
‘Hmm!’ The Doctor did not reply and continued with his scrutiny of the almost dead plant.
‘No, it was not my imagination. I really heard them cry and speak. As I told you earlier, everything speaks – the trees, the mountains, the rivers and the streams. But not everyone can hear them.’
‘Hmm!’ The Doctor turned towards me with a tired smile. ‘This chrysanthemum plant was planted by my late wife. In her life, the plant gave us such beautiful white chrysanthemums – three flowers every morning and each one a perfection in purity, beauty and delicacy.’
‘What happened to it then?’ I looked at the almost dead plant. ‘What went wrong?’
‘I do not know what went wrong. What I only know is that the day my wife died, the white chrysanthemums stopped blooming.’ He said while looking sadly at the plant. But since you claim you can talk to everything, dead or alive; I want you to ask this plant what went wrong.’
‘Hmm!’ I smiled at the Doctor and then looked at the chrysanthemum plant.
I asked her what went wrong and she whispered back the truth to me. And the truth made me sad.
‘She says….!’ I wiped my tears. ‘She says, your wife loved her and cared for her every day; and her love and care manifested in terms of the beauty of the white chrysanthemums. She says she is not being loved anymore. Instead only your bitter tears of loss and anger water her roots and that bitterness can never produce anything as beautiful as the white flowers.’
‘I think it is time for you to go back to your room.’ The doctor looked at the setting sun and beckoned to the two white clad male nurses. ‘It is getting late. We will talk some other time.’
‘Think about it Doctor.’ I smiled at him. ‘Please think about what I have told you.’
After the nurses took away the patient, the Doctor really did think about what the patient had told him. He stood looking the plant for a while and then smiled and started walking away. But after walking only a few steps, he suddenly turned back. He went near the plant and then sat down cross-legged on the grass.
He thought of his departed wife and he thought of all the love that she had given him. He also thought of his anger on believing that by dying, she had unjustly betrayed him of her presence. He smiled fondly at her happy memories, let regret and anger flow out of his heart forever and then he started whispering to the plant:
‘I know you miss her because I miss her too. She was all love for everyone – not only for me or you but for everyone and everything. I miss her with longing in my tired bones and I miss her for her sweet companionship. I haven’t cared for you not because I do not want to; but because I do not know how to care for you or love you. But I do love you because she loved you. And I loved the white chrysanthemums and miss them a lot.’
The good Doctor sat there for long and his tears of love slipped down his deeply lined cheeks and fell onto the dried up plant. Gradually his tears dried up but he did not get up. There was a strange solace in the company of the dead plant. He could almost smell the sweet fragrance of his wife and he didn’t want to lose that.
The next morning, the nursing staff and gardeners found the Doctor, all curled up besides the chrysanthemum plant. At first they thought he was just asleep but when they tried to wake him up, he didn’t respond. He had already left. But the plant was very much alive once again; and there were three white chrysanthemums, smiling and gently swaying with the morning breeze.