Dormant images from the recesses ﬂashed through my mind, then faded into the subconscious. Strangely enough, they all related to children. Not men, not women, just children.
Was it because they represented the future? Our hope for a better tomorrow?
Caught in the crossﬁre, that shrieking, terriﬁed, Arab boy — cowering behind the crouched back of his distraught father.
That vulture persisting patiently near the starving African child in the arid ﬁeld.
The body of a drowned infant refugee washed ashore on the European beach.
School children studying intently in their classroom when the gunmen burst in.
Why did they not stop the shooting at the sight of the barely adolescent child?
Could not someone have shooed away that scavenging bird?
What compelled the parents of the child to take to the sea in an inﬂatable boat?
How could anyone assault the children’s school? A school??
Someone, somewhere, was perpetrating it all. Ruthlessly war-gaming in the world that had become a war zone. This had turned into a harsh world. Humanity had lost its way.
Unable, impotent, to change anything, I stopped reading the newspapers, shunned the news channels, and then the city life itself. I left for the mountains, away from the society that I could no longer associate with.
It had been a harder climb than I ﬁrst thought.
The path had turned into a goat trail somewhere in the middle of the hike, but despite the aching legs, my yearning to see the view from the top was overwhelming. My well-stocked backpack seemed to gain weight as I climbed higher.
Science should seriously rethink the law of gravity; the load weighs heavier as you go higher.
Finally, I got to the ridge that I had glimpsed from below and, yes, the view was magniﬁcent.
The silent forests, the motionless sky, and the misty clouds lazily ﬂoating below my vintage point. I dropped the backpack on the ground, took a deep breath, and marveled at the serenity of the place where time simply stood still.
Somewhere in my lifetime, I had gained the understanding that a receptive heart precedes the cognizant mind. My best moments of appreciation were by absorbing nature, and not simply by seeing it.
I closed my eyes, spread-out my arms like an eagle, and entered the surreal world of perceptibility where one begins to fathom the unheard, observe the unseen.
I heard him before he came into the view, scaling down another path around ﬁfty yards away. He must have stepped on some loose stones, as this is the sound I heard.
‘Careful..!’ I called out.
He looked at me and smiled, ‘Getting down is always more tricky.’
‘But the climb was worth the effort for me, the view is astounding.’ The ease in his tone encouraged me to go beyond the ﬁrst cautionary comment.
‘It’s even better from my side of the mountain.’ He replied, and starting walking towards me.
‘Yeah? What’s the difference?’ I laughed out.
‘Wow, you actually live here?’ I reached out to shake his hand.
‘Well, sort of... when I realized I had turned into a humanoid instead of being a human, I turned to this place.’
‘Same here.’ I commented.
‘I know.’ He replied quietly.
It was a usual log cabin that merged well within the environment.
The craftsmanship was crude but then this is how most of these structures were built. The man might have sought sanctuary up in the mountains but his needs for rudimentary comfort were apparent in subtle ways. I noticed the crevices that were plugged by pressing-in pieces of paper and torn fabrics, to keep the chilling air out. I also saw some canned food on a makeshift shelf. Neatly piled on the side were empty cans and disposable containers.
‘Did he expect the garbage collectors? I mused.
His coffee tasted bitter and grainy, but the aroma was delicious.
‘Where do you get your provisions from?’ I asked.
‘Downtown, I go there every once in a while to stock-up, and visit my family.’
‘Your family?’ Somehow I thought he shouldn’t be having one. After all, wasn’t he living out here in the wilderness?
‘Yes, my wife works there and our kids go to school.’
Wife! Kids!! I could hear my mind squawk in disbelief.
‘Then why are you up here?’ I managed to ask.
‘For wanderers like you,’ he looked softly into my eyes.
I stayed ﬁve days and four nights with him.
On the ﬁrst day, we spent most of the time at the ridge, in the tranquil softness of the view. I explained about my tormenting visions and how I left everything to ﬂee from it all.
He listened intently, knowingly. Once in a while, he’d share his complimenting thoughts and acknowledging experiences. Mild interjections like, ‘yeah, I know what you mean.’
I admired his acceptance of whatever I said. No questions, no doubts, on the content or context of my words.
This was the day of my catharsis.
On the second day, he talked about his own life. Where he grew up, how he met his wife, what he did for a living before coming up here, and about his kids.
His wife ran a grocery store and his three children ranged between ﬁfteen and three years. He seemed genuinely fond of the family and I wondered how he stayed away from them. Unlike me, coming here was an inner-call for him. That’s what he said.
He had met an older man near the ridge and spent a night only. A couple of weeks later, he came back with a larger backpack and stayed, his predecessor no longer needed.
‘So how does it work out here? I mean how does one get to stay?’ I had asked.
‘The one who is ready replaces the one taking the shift.’ He didn’t elaborate any further.
This was the day of my orientation.
Later at night, he mentioned the next day would be that of initiation. He cautioned it might be a little more strenuous.
‘Why should initiation be more strenuous?’ I asked.
‘You would need to dive below the surface. We all have those bitter experiences that are buried deep inside, and these dormant beasts sometimes try to scare you away.’
I slept wondering what to expect.
We didn’t go out on the third day. The cabin was all he needed for this journey.
‘The human mind has been given something which is quite unique. It is beyond information, beyond knowledge itself,’ he casually mentioned as he went about brewing that bitter, grainy coffee. I had developed a liking for the bitterness, but not the grainy after-taste.
‘Yeah? What is it?’ I asked.
‘Imagination.’ He handed me a mug. ‘And before we take the next journey, I would like you to avail yourself of this amazing gift.’
Two days earlier, I would have asked questions, sought clariﬁcations. Today I knew what he meant.
‘I want to take you to the city today. Back to humanity.’ He said it so nonchalantly.
I cringed at the thought.
Oblivious to my reaction, he continued with his monologue, ‘We’ll leave the composure of the mountains and observe the chaos of trafﬁc. We’ll witness the urgency of driving and the impatience of the drivers. And then I’d like you to recognize that in the midst of this commotion, there is a singular sanity that prevails; their direction is right.
‘I’d like us to follow an irate driver into a mall and see him sitting relaxed with his friends in a café. And while we are at the mall, I know you will appreciate that many of the visitors are simply window shoppers, at ease with themselves. No urgency, no agitation, just spending time with friends and family.
‘Then I’ll accompany you to the parks and the playgrounds to watch the parents playing with their children, and then we will run with the joggers, eat buttered corn from that solitary vendor, and marvel at the glowing faces of the lovers huddling together.
‘Then we’ll go to the schools and see the classrooms where the students still sit intently; buoyant, full of vigor. Noisy but not agitated, with no traces of pain, anguish, or harm.’
‘And when you begin to comprehend it all, I’ll take you to the ghettos and witness the crimes. I’ll take you to the lonely hooker, and walk alongside the juvenile criminal, ruthless in his manner, yet naive to the core.
‘We’ll see the screaming couple, tearing at each other with their harsh words, and then we’ll lie down beside the vagrant on the sidewalk, just to see how it felt.
‘We’ll get to know those orphan children scavenging for food, and then visit those elderly people who were once young and full of life, now simply waiting to die. We’ll continue to visit those torments until you again begin to wonder where our humanity had gone.’ He finally paused.
But why revisit the pains?’ I asked.
‘Because that is part of life too, and unless we feel the impairment, we can’t repair the damage.’
It all seemed to make better sense now. I grew more conﬁdent about our visit to the city.
‘So when do we take this trip?’ I asked.
‘We just did. Some experiences are best when imagined.’
The fourth day was my day of appreciation. He told me I was ready for it now.
He inspired me to hear the whistle within the wind, he had me marvel at the beauty of the rocks.
He made me sigh at the glimpse of the dew, he ﬂew me across the sky and the clouds.
He showed me how the bees took the nectar, he had me witness the birth of a plant.
He walked me around the petals and the twigs and led me to bathe in the springs and waterfall.
I visited with him the deer and the doe, he ushered me up to where the eagle soared high.
He explained how history is a benevolent teacher, but humanity remained a rebellious student; never learning from the knowledge of the tutor.
As I absorbed each of these spectacles, he taught me how time was irrelevant, and why the moment is all that I have really got.
The ﬁfth day was my day of acceptance. Somehow, I also knew I had to part ways with him this day.
His supplies had dwindled, and the pile of empty cans and containers had grown in size. This meant he would have to take the trip downtown and I saw him begin to put the garbage into his backpack.
So that’s how the trash is gotten rid of, I thought.
Last night I had noticed a couple of ﬁssures in the wall from where the wind wheezed-in, and took a piece of paper to plug those cracks. He watched me with an amused look as I used a thin, ﬂat piece of wood to press the paper into those crevices.
‘You are a storyteller. Maybe you are now ready to go back to humanity and narrate some of your tales.’ He offered.
‘I think they can wait.’ I replied, ‘they probably need the maturity time.’ I pulled out my backpack and started to put the food items on the shelf.
‘You don’t need to do that,’ he commented, ‘I have to visit downtown myself. In fact, we could go down together…’ His words lingered in that quiet cabin.
We both knew the statement was a polite formality, we tacitly understood that I was ready now. ‘
‘You go ahead. Back to your family, back to humanity,’ I told him, ‘it’s my shift now.’