Wednesday, April 25, 2007

on the foothills.

Many years ago, when I was but young, and a shepherd-boy on the hills above the Merna coast, I had a strange encounter.
I must say first I was a fatherless child. My father having drowned in an accident when I was but some months old. So from a young age I took many different sorts of work. My mother struggled to maintain us. That is my two sisters and my brother. Being the oldest responsibility feel often on my shoulders.
It was late in winter, the eleventh month, the month we call the Gathering Month.
Then winter is past its strength. Yet spring has not come. The land is still bare and so the woodcutters gather the branches that lie in the forests, on the hills, in the valleys. The branches torn loose by winter's storms.
Snow can still fall, driving down from the high Joran. On the lower ground the rivers are thawing.
This winter I was but sixteen or seventeen years. The shepherd I worked for was an old man. He paid me in wool and sheepskin. He was not ungenerous. Yet he was often sharp and impatient. Berating me if I wandered too far from familiar pastures. He would call and whistle if I brought the sheep too near a riverbank. If I drove the sheep too hard up a mountain pass. Yet in his correction was also wisdom. For I was young and impetuous and easily distracted from my work.
Yet it was in this manner the strange meeting occurred.
That day the sky was overcast. The clouds were grey and a bitter wind blew all morning. About midday the cover broke and stretches of blue appeared. Banks of cloud drifted westward. Moving across the Joran and out over the sea. The breaks were gold edged and where the sun fell it turned the grass of the hillside a vivid green, the branches of the bare trees, dark.
I wandered, taking the sheep with me. For the old shepherd remained in the lower valley, saying my young body was better suited to the cold air of the high ground.
I came to a small brook. It trickled from a rocky outcrop. The ice in its centre was broken. Above the outcrop was a thick wood. A wood of bare poplars and green cypress.
Leaving the sheep grazing, thinking the old man was far below and the brook not deep, I wandered some way into the wood. Then I stopped. For I saw a figure move. He was not dressed as one of the coast. Not one of the wood gatherers seen often at that time of year in the foothills. He had a strange appearance.
He was wrapped about in a long woollen coat through which were woven strands of blue and gold. On his head he wore a round flat hat. His face was fine and framed in silver hair. He had a long flowing beard.
I stopped and watched him. He bent and picked the twigs, the branches, from the ground. Never had I seen such a figure. He was at once strange and familiar. As though I had dreamed of him and thought to see him and yet never dreamed of him. For even when I asked those of the village who had travelled in the wide world to tell me of the people of the eastern countries, of Maris-ma, of Coricia, of the coastal lands of the Ireb, I had heard nothing that suggested this appearance.
He worked steadily. Picking from the ground. I saw he separated the branches. Discarding those of the poplar and putting those of the cypress into a pack he had strapped across his back.
I concealed myself behind a tree. But I could not remain silent. It came upon me to speak. I stepped into the open.
"What is it you do there," I called out.
The man turned. He looked at me. A calm look. As though reading in me the words of a book.
"I collect the branch of the cypress," he replied, smiling.
I did not respond. He continued his work until it appeared his pack was nearly full. He straightened and came to me.
"You are no doubt one of the shepherd boys of the region," he said.
"I am," I answered.
"You are not of this land," I ventured.
"No," he replied. "I am from a country to the north and east of here. I am a wise-man of that people."
I thought about this and said.
"What is it that brings you to this land?"
"On the coast of the Merna the cypress is said to grow richer and stronger than in any land. It is the cypress of the Mernan lands I seek. What lies where the Merna ends none know. Here the cypress is rich with the salt of the air and of sun rising."
He took his pack from his shoulder and placed it on the ground. Now that he stood upright I saw he was taller than I had first thought. His eyes were bright. As though wise and ancient and full of light.
"What is it in the cypress you seek," I asked.
He brought his hands before him in a gesture of reverence. He lifted his head so the falling sun caught his gaze.
"You have seen me work. If I am to tell of the significance of the cypress then a road will have appeared before you. A road other than the one you now walk."
Still I wished to know.
"If I hear of this road what is there to do," I enquired.
"Knowing there is a road to walk can you not follow it," he answered. "Choices are everywhere. Yet there is only the one to make. The choice that flows with your inner desire."
"What is the significance of the work you do," I persisted.
"The gathering of the braches of the cypress is of great importance," he said.
"Why should that be?"
"For the cypress is one of the great trees of paradise," he stated.
"Paradise," I whispered.
"The longevity of the cypress reminds us of that which continues. The cypress stands central in the garden of paradise.
As he spoke I heard the sheep bleat from below me. A wind whispered through the trees of the wood. The sun flashed from the breaking clouds. I felt the words rise in my heart as the wind rose over the hills about me.
"The garden of paradise, what is its nature?" I asked.
"Its shape is as of a sun with many rays," this strange man said. Or it is a star with many points."
"In it," he continued, "there are trees of every description. Ancient and young and wondrous to see. In their branches are birds of magnificent colour. They sing sweetly and lightly. They swoop by the banks of clear streams. In the garden of paradise every day is as a summer day. Every day is filled with light and warmth. Morning softens into afternoon and then evening. An evening that is as a wreathing of sapphire and indigo and star-full. Dawn is the remembered melody of your deepest song. The new sun a flourishing of amber fire.
"In the garden of paradise time has no meaning. There is time and there is no time.
"In the garden of paradise each soul exists simply to be that which it has chosen to be. Its work is to tend to the garden itself in some manner. The garden is that which gives expression to all souls and the soul is itself the garden."
He stopped.
"I have spoken already much. I must return to my task. You should tend your sheep."
"But one from afar," I objected, not wishing to relinquish this strange conversation. Wishing to hear more of this wondrous garden.
"Where is this garden to be found? How do I come to it? Can a mere dweller of the coastal lands, a simple boy as me gain its entry?"
He looked long at me, his manner serious. He stood over me and his face grew grave.
"This you wish to know," he said. "To know such a thing is a responsibility."
"This I wish to know," I answered.
He breathed deep and spoke.
"All may seek it. Some may find it soon. Others will find it later.
"To come to it one must be naked in the eyes of the world.
"It is said its gateway is on the edge of the western seas. In the aura of the setting sun. Or in the mysterious lands of the east. Where there are great plains of swaying grass shadowed by snow-covered mountains. Again perhaps it is the desolate and ice strewn north. Maybe it lies in the ever shifting deserts of the south.
"What is certain is if you wish to find this garden, you must tread a road that is demanding and hidden. You must leave behind you the familiarity of all you have known. Your loved ones even.
"You must make the spirit of truth your master. Understanding that everything you once thought of as the limits of your knowledge may not be so."
With that he turned and went.

I returned to my sheep. They bleated and stood by the trickling brook. It ran sharply and fell. To the west the cloud had cleared. I saw down to the coast of the Merna. The sea wild in winter fire.

It was then I first thought to become one who travels.

Copyright (c) Peter Millington 2005