I am sitting quite alone. In a place where – in the limitation of my knowledge – I’ve always been. A creeping cold infiltrates me, invading the limited space I occupy.
As far back in time as my memory can venture, I have been… Not exactly in this space, in this enclosure which I seize whenever I can, for a little solace and solitude. In this village – the place where I am expected and made to fit in, to assume a role here and a chore there, each of which serves disappointingly little purpose, apart from to overlap into the next one.
A mouse scuttles around the edge of the room, oblivious to its being, to lots of folk, most unwelcome. Not to me, really. It’s just trying to survive like everyone here, it harms no one. It knows virtually nothing outside the realms of “Get food or die!”
Scurrying from here to there, heads down, judging from the way people ignore the surrounding valley, hills and even the horizon, one would think that it was a grey slate of nothing. There is no desire to go anywhere unless it is a matter of urgency. The necessities of communal life are all that seem to matter to most folk here.
Even the kings and queens of the land, who rarely grace us with their presence, apparently take no joy, and little to no pride in, any corner of their jurisdiction.
The priorities of life here, and as far as I can see, are conflict resolution (of matters of more often than not a petty nature in my opinion), accumulation and fighting. People live, and die, for some obscure cause. While most of the goings-on around me are difficult to understand fully, now and then we will come to understand that our very survival was at stake, and that it is sometimes necessary to go on the defence.
Most of the time, I do not sense any imminent danger in the village; indeed it is a struggle to survive in any case, especially during a weak harvest or a harsh winter season or when the main providers for the village are away. It makes little sense to add to hardships in life.
Now and then, the men will return with a token of their journey. One time it was a sample of some scripture. I was told it was very valuable, and helped to create the foundation of an entire faith for a whole race of people.
Curiosity getting the better of me, I try to sneak a glimpse between the shoulders of a couple of boys leafing through it, all I can see is a little scribbling, and flashes of colour every other page. My understanding of life outside the village is little better than it was a moment before.
Before I can even contemplate the little I have seen, it is then promptly taken away, then we are all given a round scolding, then we never see it again.
Strange to behave in such a way with something which is supposed to bring good influence to all the people.
I’ve been fascinated with the notion of reading, or at least being able, for all my life. If I ever have the chance to try, I really hope that I’m quick to learn. I’ve not had many chances to learn to do things that aren’t of immediate necessity to “The Life”.
Essentially, my life seems to be one perpetual contradiction; in the words of the others living here;
“You really must grow up, take part and accept your responsibilities in life”/“You’re growing too fast, young one!/You must learn self-sufficiency in order to survive/Obey your betters and don’t question everything”.
– To prepare for some complicated and unseen future…
The young people, around my age, confuse me. Outside the hearing range of any members of authority, anyway, they all seem to know everything already, such as where everything material in the village comes from or why sheep produce wool for us expecting no apparent compensation.
But one time I asked one of them, simply as I wanted a clearer answer than one which I could formulate on my own, what lay over the horizon.
“What’s over there, just outside the borders of the village?”
“Many things that you’ve never seen, nor can even imagine. The birds ought to be telling you anyway, don’t you often engage them in conversation?” (Laughter would then ensue).
Anyone can speculate, but it is increasingly obvious that few have ever seen outside-the-village with their own eyes – or in any case, there are very few who had the chance to venture so far out there and return in a condition to tell the tale. Or even who are willing to put everything to one side for long enough to explain.
Particularly regarding those that return from battle; it has quickly become the known protocol to, simply, not ask them anything. I have rarely spoken to people for much longer than the time it takes to gather water from the burn a few moments’ walk away from the village. But people do not seem to wish to speak for long, unless it is an immediate concern regarding the village as a whole.
“Why things happen is not for us to know so you must not question”.
The desire to ignore the “unanswerable” is becoming more and more evasive, but it seems that I have to mask any attempts to seek it out anywhere.
But the curiosity which has always been burning within me constantly seeks just a little more respite, and makes ignorance seem all the more like a curse than a blessing.
On occasion, the only way I can escape from the drudging expectations of the authorities is to make a practical excuse to venture into the ferny hills and its intermittent peaks and dips en route to the eventual reward of my favourite oak tree.
I nestle in a soft spot in the grass and use what I imagine to be a temporary cease in time to close my eyes and imagine what I cannot live.
I imagine a vast stretch of water – much bigger than the burn with which I’ve become so familiar every day – like the barrel which holds the main supply for the village but simply… more. Further than I can see.
I imagine light, and a shadow in the middle of my vision. I see what I can hear already; birds migrating towards the Place, to rest and recuperate from their journey. Not having to ask anything.
The realisation dawns on me that – if nothing else – this moment, this space – however remote and temporary, is mine. But not for very long – I am currently being called upon, herded back into the enclosure for some other chore.
In my vision, I would be content to live and to die here, if I weren’t sure that I ought to push on. In rare moments of silence, that is in itself can be a journey. Each turn of the wind, flickering light, scent of green life guide me as I tread the uncharted path I embark upon on some unknown day.
“Are you sure you’re all there?”
The tall young woman with matted long hair, is peering over at me this morning over a bunch of large twigs she had lately gathered for the coming bonfire.
“YesImfine”, I had long ago learned to answer by rote. The truth is, even if I tried to describe what was going on inside my head, few people would understand or care.
“Away with the fairies, as usual, I’m sure!” Cian, a local young man who only makes a fleeting appearance here and there, puts into the exchange.
Caution, dearie – no fortune comes from dreaming!” adds a passing elder figure – man or woman I cannot say – whose new-born baby I’d had a glimpse of the other day, who had an unusual mark on her face and – I’d heard also – as a result would have a hard time being married off in the future. It is said, every so often, mischievous creatures come out of holes in the ground and from behind rocks and from other places we are never meant to go, to play tricks on the very young.
Apparently when I was a baby, I came extremely close to meeting a similar fate, but these stories have only made me more aware, in my bed at night-time, of the tiny noises and scratching and whispering of the wind and rain I can’t help noticing just outside, as if they were plotting their next trick at their leisure…
I have only ever been on the outskirts of the woods, not being allowed to go much further than a few trees in, where the low murmur of chatter and the wisps of peat smoke from the village could still be heard and seen. But at this edge of the woods accessible to me, I can already spot the odd sign of what might lie further in – the fern which resembled what I had thought to look a bit like a seahorse, and the birds’ unique language, sharing secrets which no human may ever learn.
In my mind’s eye, whatever lies in their direction is becoming ever more compelling. I try to decipher what the migratory flock above might be saying:
Run, swim, fly, come
In any way you may
To your true home
Before it will come too late
Things are on the change, in any case. Nothing remains the same here, no matter how much or little resistance. Invaders have crashed into neighbouring villages, stealing and attacking – I’ve heard awful things about them – but so far my village has been lucky. I imagine it is only a matter of time before they invade our village too.
The ultimate life of peace, I often think, is in a monastery. I learned the term from Cian, and all I could gather from his speaking of it is that it is a place where one is simply allowed to think, and feel, and allow whatever may happen, happen.
If things weren’t the way they are, I think I would be suited to a life of this nature. If I weren’t distracted so easily by all the many other things that are happening.
Run before the capture.
I have overheard in snatches of conversation of a man who left this country for another one, a boat ride away, who spread word of a saviour – a hero – and settled on an island on which many are said to have flocked to learn from this man.
In yet another snatch of absence, which I steal between the duties I’ve been given, I simply wander, without agenda, without direction, into the path of a dead tree, in the pose of one living. I circle the tree, my hand tracing the trunk as I go, knowing it will never stir in the process of growing again. When I tire, I allow my gaze to fall to the base, where I intend to settle for a while, when from there, a gleam of light shines in my eye. Without thinking, I grope in the area to retrieve the source. It appears to be a sort of talisman, with a piece of precious material being responsible for the shine which has drawn my eye.
But something else on the talisman has held my attention captive. An inscription:
Something tells me it would make life far more simple to leave the thing alone; avert my gaze. I have never been expected to seek, but to simply be where I am meant to be, doing what I am meant to be doing.
But before I can restrain the impulse, this thing in my possession has instantly become an indispensable treasure to me. I have to hide it from the mundane dangers within my very life. Loss, theft, degradation.
I could yet still leave it in the tree. But it would continue to plague me.
Who left it there? For – it looks like – anyone?
A rustle in the shrubbery makes me look up immediately, or so it seemed, but I don’t think I’m being quick enough off the mark. I never seem to move with quite enough haste in this life.
I see nothing but the bushes and grass, some knocking back and forth, mostly deceptively still. Movement is a luxury until the wind necessitates it by force.
The whistling of the breeze is tantalisingly like a voice. I strain and listen. In vain. All it seems to be telling me is that the storm clouds are gathering.
The end of day is creeping through the sky; rather than casting shadows that can immediately be seen, it is an insidious creature, slowly suffocating the light which no-one notices until all above is the colour of slate and stone.
I try to keep a low profile as I slink silently back into the village and set about trying to look busy with the most obvious looking chore.
I catch a glimpse of Cian over the top of the house across the way, and I could swear he gave me a knowing look, as if somehow he knew what I have been doing with my time away. After all, it is from him that I sense the most interest in things outside the immediate collective concern of the village.
More of him appears from behind the house, along with a friend, each holding a kid goat, and Cian manages to give the goat something tasty to nibble on along their brief journey back to their pen.
I am rarely trusted with more than the most mundane and simple duties; scrubbing, hanging to dry, gathering twigs and leaves, generally keeping out of the way…
That is why I have an increasing desire to meet, or simply see this saviour – hero.
Perhaps a recommendation of an alternative life option will be made to a humble thing like me.
The harvest will be any day now; it is an event which remains quite hazy in my memory, despite it being an annual occurrence.
Stones are laid in piles, hay gathered and matted down, leaves and petals are scattered around the main arena – the centre – of the village, and a distinctive smell begins to permeate the place – one which brings to mind nothing else but this single occasion.
During times, of which there are increasingly many, when threat can be felt palpably to the Life, these ceremonies help kindle the smallest spark of optimism, of hope – as it grows upon the fire and then disperses into the sky above – that we stand a fighting chance of living to see the next one.
If the superstitious mumbling is anything to go by around here, one might think that creatures are constantly whispering helpful advice into the receptive ear of almost anyone who cares to listen, and who happens to be wandering in the right place.
Actually, I frequently wonder if the mouse I spoke of earlier on – which now and again makes an appearance in my “space” – is trying to tell me something.
At the same time, any “idle” talk on the subject or anything like it results in a harsh scolding and a warning to make a swift return to real life.
The only communication with the mouse I have dared to attempt until now has been in the form of leaving a few crumbs – mostly blown onto my clothing from passing the local food storage place – by the hole which I’ve spotted it scurrying into when I’ve been too hasty in coming in, and which I’m guessing is the entrance to its home.
The crumbs are always gone before much time has gone by, so I can only hope that it is managing to eke out a happy, if humble, living.
Sam-hain – the beginning of the winter season – is coming, and the nights are slowly but surely drawing in, one at a time, to reflect the season. The fires in the village begin to burn with a quiet urgency, as if to persuade people to draw towards it and form a mutually beneficial force.
This evening, as the people of the village gather round to socialise, to commune, the fire is almost hypnotising me, but I have been warned before that it is dangerous to gaze at it for too long.
I can just about see why; it almost looks like it might be dancing, as it tries to entice everything around it by singing whatever lies near it, producing nose-tickling smoke.
The intensity of it becomes too much before long, and I slip back as far as I can, choosing to watch the evening ritual, looking barely available should I need to be, as I keep my eyes and ears open for sudden movement behind and around me, just outside my scope of vision.
I turn the talisman in my hands gently, cautiously, from side to side, and try to detect the slightest “sense” from it which could be out of the ordinary.
“Be careful with that thing!”
Cian’s distinctive voice descends upon me like an incantation, except perhaps with slightly less grace, and almost echoes like a thought of my own, before I realise it is coming from just behind me. Put of the corner of my eye, a shadow is quickly followed by the hem of a tunic, and a foot, firm and steady, sure of its place. Clearly used to travelling further than most folk in the village.
“I’m up here…”
But I hardly need to look up as he perches himself down on a rock-table, looking not at me but the talisman I am holding, now a little more tightly than before.
“You clearly want to learn – but take care what you learn. There are some things that I wish I could unlearn, and I curse my curiosity”… he is speaking with the wistful regret of someone far older, and in a far weaker position, than he.
Still only slightly older than me, Cian has gained the respect of many in the village, including the elders, who filled him in on their adventures, actively encouraging him to join in and share his pluck and good fortune.
This is the only time I have ever heard him – in the time in which I’ve been aware of his presence – say anything “to the contrary” of what everyone seems to expect him to say; the first time I can remember him speaking to me when not merely in passing.
And I take this as a sign to which it would be wise to pay attention.
Sometimes I don’t know what to make of what I end up hearing, when I lie in my temporary bedding (for in recent times, virtually everything is temporary, fleeting.)
Or if it simply shouldn’t concern me. But it does all the same, and it can play upon my mind throughout the night and into the morning.
The sound of the water lapping outside is quite hypnotic, after a while of semi-active listening. The wildlife is either very considerate of human inhabitation or very reclusive, because it seems that even they are reluctant to disturb the lap-lap-lapping.
If it were not for this “eavesdropping”, using a twig to trace a circle would most likely be my most interesting activity undertaken today. So goes everything.
Today it is crisp, clear and dusky. The life in the area is still thriving, but quite obviously turning into “survival mode”. It still feels like something is “happening”. Stories heavy on tradition are bounced around keenly around this time, and which mysteriously cause the people living today to imitate the days of yore, when “tradition” was simply a given.
It is quite remarkable actually; just when it seems as if it is a season of dying, the odd spark can remind me that it is simply one phase of the never-ending “cycle”…
Recently not much has been happening around here. Either that or I’ve simply lost my will, or resolve, to keep apace of the smaller things going on…
But something compels me to venture outside the village – when I finally get a chance – as there is a barely perceptive buzz of murmuring which, collectively, indicates that something will be taking place. Of some interest, perchance, to anyone with any sense of curiosity.
“The Isle” (a new word to me)-“Tonight at the close of day”-“Don’t tell anyone who is not going”-
Quite the contrary to the normal “feeling” of the season – that everything is dying, or going into hibernation – this whispering hints at the promise of something truly coming to life this evening. What it is, exactly, I can’t possibly yet say. But something tells me that this will probably be my last proper chance to find out, so I’d better take advantage.
It is surprisingly easy to sneak out of the village, but then I’ve not given anyone much reason to suspect that I’m about to do something somewhat out of the ordinary communal routine. I’ve done everything that is essential for me to do today, so by rights, the rest of the day, and the night, should be mine. In any case, I sense that it would be better to err on the side of discretion.
Without too much thinking, I crawl and shuffle and scramble my way past the farthest edge of the wood I’ve ever ventured in, not allowing myself to hesitate, until I reach a spot in the clearing through which I can safely observe my “journey” so far; that I can no longer see the village, I find both unnerving and encouraging. No-one is within sight, so it is safe enough to assume that no-one is coming after me. Before long, the wooded area naturally tapers away, becoming ever more sparse until the few which remain begin to slope gradually up a hill, over which I cannot see but begin to ascend until I know what is on the other side.
Halfway, I try to check my position once more. Still no-one seems to notice my absence, at least from what I can tell from here. It is as safe as it will ever be to carry on.
Before anything else, I smell the activity before I can see it; there is obviously a fair bit of activity involving burning of torches – or effigies even? – which has long since preceded me, but which has lingered in the air just long enough to guide my way. Eventually, I reach the top and allow my gaze to fall down – and away into the distance.
The Isle – the place I have seen in many a vision before I knew the name – is finally before me, and a flickering of light from there is all I need to inform me that something important is happening on the place which I had almost begun to think was there simply to tease my overactive imagination. I was onto something all along, apparently…
A longing, a need, a yearning to be there brings into my mind the refrain:
Run, swim, fly, come
In any way you may
To your true home
Before it will come too late
Approaching the shore, the brush of the ocean over my hands, which I crouch down to touch for the first time, is so icy that I would not be able to survive using my body as the sole means of reaching the place.
Improvising, I look around and find an object, just large enough to hold me, and a stick with which to help propel me to my destination. While normally I might hesitate, I have already come so far – gone so far from home – which I cannot stop for mere uncertainty. I will be as resourceful as I can, and put the tools at hand to the best possible use.
I am moving, slowly but surely, towards The Isle, which is moving ever closer to me – even when every other instance when I try to gauge how far I’ve come, it seems to be moving further away.
I arrive, in exhaustion, at the close of day, as the sun casts its dying force across the sky. Leaving me to my fate.
Another nation, it may as well be, only a stone’s throw – that of a particularly strong person – away from the village. I hesitate, but not for too long.
I hear stirring, but in my preoccupation in being in the place I have to be, I take no notice. Before I am taken, the last thing I see is the flicker of a subtle fire at the peak of the isle. A dwelling.
“Who intrudes here?!?”
The darkness lifts suddenly before my eyes, almost blinding me, but not before I catch several bemused and irate faces out the edge of my vision. It is the look of the robed figure – one of sure authority, in any case – of which I was the most keenly aware.
It’s an expression I cannot really decipher, one I’ve never seen before. But it’s one which I wouldn’t really mind never seeing again. I’ve no idea whether to meet the gaze, or cast down my own. It is more or less a reflexive action for me to start stumbling over my words to excuse my presence… I barely muster anything of coherence. before being forced back into silence with an interruption:
“What is the extent of your knowledge of what we have come for here?”
“The…?” – I would expect the question to surprise me, but it doesn’t really – which surprises me; in fact I feel like I know instinctively what is going on. It is simply the bizarre circumstances in which I have ended up here, which temporarily delay my thinking.
It is during this time that my brain registers the candles, the books, the scrolls, the solemn looks of reverence upon the face of every figure there.
He seems far less surprised to see me here as I am to see him here. In fact, is that an expression of… shame… that I can see upon his face? Shame of me…?
“I know nothing of a – the – mission”, I say to the robed figure, to everyone, quite honestly. I know something, even if I don’t yet know exactly what, deep down.
For the first time in my whole life, I curse my desire for knowledge which hardly ever does any good for me.
“You are in the presence of those who wish to draw closer to, and to embody in every way possible, the One – to atone for their lifetime sins, and to seek knowledge of this life, and any life to come.
“To learn, what they can. For redemption. For those who choose a life of following.”
“Do you realise what you have done. Do you mean to distract the chosen ones here with your foolish gaucherie?”
Silence from me, from everyone else here. But for some reason, I don’t feel so much shame as rising indignation; that I am about to be banished, cast aside, simply because I was unaware – largely kept that way – of anything of this nature going on. I gather a little more courage before I say anything. Something to which I think they would be most responsive:
“I mean no harm, I mean to take nothing away. I seek only… knowledge”…
Respite from endless curiosity.
Suddenly – and quite to my gratitude – Cian stepped forward, raising his hand, to say:
“That is true. I know she belongs here. Like us, she is seeking…”
… then stepped back into place just as suddenly, with what hope is telling me to be a smile. It is only at this moment that I actually believe my own testimony. That I might just have a place here, however small it may be.
The robed figure, after a moment of hesitation, nodded, saying:
“Young one – we are all looking for a way. But if you remain here, and keep silence, we will go as One”
Motioning to the altar-like table before him – which strangely enough I’ve only just noticed now – which looks like it is made of limestone, I see something on top of it which looks somewhat familiar, before it clicks what I am seeing.
MY – talisman.
One word, the one on the talisman, tumbles out of me – followed by a silence which makes me wish I could swallow the word back inside me.
However to my surprise, the robed figure grins slightly – a startling image: “Thank you for offering to begin the Contemplation on this eve, Young One Without A Name.”
Then, before anything can begin, a creature – a mouse – runs between my feet, pausing in the middle of the floor space between the shadowy people and me. Cian takes it upon himself to initiate action, gently scooping the mouse up off the sacred place, giving me a barely perceptible wink, and retreat back to his place.
Everything I can see and hear – and smell even – in that insular and intimate space, doesn’t make any logical sense to me, and fails to light up any sense of reason.
But what it lacks in obvious reason, it more than makes up for in rhyme; my “nominee” seems to have started a full and deep immersion into collective prayer – chanting although to which deity I cannot even be sure. Soon this lulls into a gentle murmuring, thick with the indecipherable mystery of what they might be saying.
As I kneel upon the stone, gazing upon the lowered altar with the talisman upon it, the notion occurs to me that even had I been invited to participate, I wouldn’t have a clue where to begin. But the very fact that I was allowed to utter the sacred “word of blessing” – without being banished never to return – gives me enough resolve to adhere closely to this mysterious group of people, and until further notice, to simply let the experience wash over me. I can do nothing else.
Eventually, the prayer/learning evening comes to a natural conclusion. A few words of parting are spoken, and then everyone begins to disperse; slowly, as many are clearly still in the throes of a meditative state.
Once I spot him, I instinctively follow Cian, and my mouse, as the curtain is pulled back to reveal the tentative first rays of the new dawn.
“You should give this little creature a name.” (As usual, always one step ahead of me) “After all, it does follow you around everywhere!”
How can he possibly know – have the mouse and he been sharing some form of their own communication…?
And why is my brain not instantly rejecting all this, the idea of communicating with a mouse – as total nonsense…?
“I really should, shouldn’t I?” I concede, all the while allowing my eyes to adjust to the never-before-seen landscape of “The Isle”, from within the place, at first dawn… “But how could you possibly-“
“You’re meant to be here. I don’t know for what purpose but… you are.
Welcome to the Isle, Eirin. And to wherever else this path we’re on will end up leading…”
Cian has never called me by my name before. I would have forgotten it too, given a little more time.
I see objects, similar to what I used to come here, lining the shore – which some of the robed people are climbing into, preparing to leave – and scraps of makeshift bedding and campfires further in. Then I look further out to the mainland, the “country”, a tiny tuft of smoke can be seen rising from just above the rising hill, coming from the village which I remind myself is home. In all but true feeling anyway.
“What happens now?” I ask, not really expecting the answer to be simple. “Do we stay here or return home?”
Cian sits down on a grassy patch, with gorse growing – apparently strewn – here and there, which I recognise from the area which I’ve known as being home, where he was standing, holding the mouse safely hidden within a longer fold of his robe.
“That is up to you, I cannot possibly tell you either way. But my only advice is to choose carefully, for not a day goes by now that I don’t praise my own decision. However difficult it has on occasion come to be…”
Realising that I will probably not be able to obtain any more guidance, I wander slightly further down the slope, trying to cast my memory back to the past evening.
How it came to be that the thing I have known for such a long time, has finally come to know and acknowledge me.
But am I welcome? Is this my choice deep down? Should this even be my choice to make?
Searching my memory, I close in upon one utterance which – if anything – can personally symbolise some new beginning –