Originally published in 2008. Download the PDF version here.
THE BEGINNING OF THE END
He had been running all night to be as far away as possible from the village. His father had died, his home destroyed, his life and future were no more. Exhausted, he fell onto the cold sand. The flames were still burning in his eyes, evaporating every tear that tried to flee from his tormented being. He wanted to cry, but could only scream. Scream about everyone, to no one. Explosions and cries of terror echoed throughout his mind. He looked up and beheld the moon which had seen it all and was now cowardly hiding behind a cloud. Like a bolt of lightning that rose from within, he cursed the World Plate and the day he was born. Burying his face in the sand, he wished for death to take him. The baker, the neighbours, the girls next door, they had all been murdered. He had seen it. Finally, he burst into tears and as he cried he felt as though his body was sinking away into the sand. This would be the place of his demise.
A warm breeze breathed down his neck. Looking up, he saw that the sun had risen. He was not intent on moving and told himself he would stay until the sun had scorched him to ashes. As the temperature rose, drops of sweat gathered on his forehead until they were heavy enough to dive into the sand for refuge. His mouth was dry and begged for water, but his mind refused to listen.
Lying on his back and staring into the blue sky, he noticed three black dots circling above him. He was dizzy, his heart was pounding in his forehead, he had stopped sweating and was convinced that he could hear his skin sizzling.
Suddenly, a shadow fell over his face. He opened his eyes and beheld a giant vulture. Upon making eye contact, the vulture jumped back as if disgusted by the living. A second vulture joined and hissed loudly. They will rip me apart, he thought to himself. A third vulture joined. Their heads were moving up and down. They were agitated and unsure of their next move.
“This one is still alive,” one of the vultures said.
“He is just pretending.”
They are on to me, the boy realised.
He wanted to get up and run for his life, but his body was unwilling. He felt a sharp pain in his chest and wondered whether he had already been hit. An intensely cold wave of fear crawled from his toes and fingers into the rest of his body. Panic took a hold of him and with his last powers he went for it.
“He’s trying to escape!”
Running away, he looked back in horror. The soldiers were flapping their wings with hatred in their eyes. The bullets did not hit him.
“Hurry up, Anjing! Quickly, Kameel!”
The miserable boy turned around and saw a man with two camels approaching. He was not a soldier of Khala as could be told by the man’s attire. This man was dressed in blue, while the Khalanese only wore red. As the man stopped in front of him, he noticed how much the man resembled his own camels. He had large bushy eyebrows, his face was long and his teeth crooked. “What brings you here, brother?”
“I don’t know,” the boy answered.
The man handed him a flask, from which he hurriedly quaffed.
“Not too fast, my brother. This is not healthy.”
Cold liquid flowed into his belly. Dizzy, but relieved he sat down in the shade of the camels.
“You saved me.”
“These are dangerous lands,” the man replied. “What brings you here?”
“The Khalanese destroyed my father’s village.” His entire being cringed at the thought.
“I have heard of it. It is tragic indeed.”
“Oferi is no more,” he lamented. “It is gone. All of it.”
“Sadly, it is how things go.”
The boy hated these types of responses, as if people had no control over life whatsoever.
“Everyone is dead and for what?! A piece of land!”
“Yes,” the man replied. “But a valuable piece of land. It is fertile.”
“It was our land!”
“My brother, man has always fought wars and it will always be this way. Do you have family somewhere?” the man asked.
“Well, further ahead, there is a city called Bekim. I will take you and there you can ask for asylum.” The man ordered one of his camels to kneel. The boy mounted the camel. “You have saved me.”
The man smiled and handed the boy a loaf of white bread. The scent of the bread reminded the boy of his favourite bakery. He remembered how one morning, after a long night of twisting and turning, he asked the baker for fresh date bread. The baker had thought he was a strange boy, but his kindness was not tempered by his judgement. The boy sighed. He missed his father. However strict and unreasonable his father had been with him, he loved his father.
The man grabbed the boy’s shoulder. “You will recover. I take you to Bekim.”
Softly, the man began to sing. His song was about a lonely lover in search of his beloved. The lover was so sick with desperation that even the finest of doctors declared him incurable. One afternoon, he was being chased by soldiers who had been ordered to kill this gravely ill and possibly contagious lover. With no place to go, he climbed over a fence and fell into a garden. There, he met his beloved who stared at him with her enchanting eyes. The mere glance that she granted him was enough to heal him.
“You walk from here, my brother.”
In the distance, the boy beheld the city of Bekim. It was surrounded by a high wall.
As the man and his two camels walked off into the desert, the boy turned his gaze to the city.
In front of him stood a knight, wearing protective metal and carrying a large sword.
“You cannot walk here.”
The boy, trying to fathom what was happening, looked around him. He was surrounded by empty desert and in the distance he saw the city of Bekim.
“Where am I not allowed to walk?”
“Do not ridicule me, boy. Do not go further. You are about to cross the border into my land.”
The angry knight grabbed his sword and drew a line into the sand. “Odiar!” he yelled.
“Noble knight, I am on my way to Bekim. Would you mind if I cross your territory? I will not stay…”
“You will have to pay.”
“I have no possessions except the clothes I wear, noble knight,” the poor boy complained.
“Then you will have to walk around my land! Odiar! If you trespass, I will kill you.”
“Fine,” the boy said grumpily. “But you will have to indicate where the border is, because I don’t see it.”
The knight stuck his sword into the sand and started walking. The boy kept to the right of him, sighing and moaning at every turn.
This man is crazy, he thought. “Who are you?” the boy asked in the hope of eliciting some kindness.
“My name is Gurmand, son of Sanntach. I am the last in a long line of lords. Our house is that of Odiar.”
“I have never heard of this house,” the boy confessed.
“You are a dumb boy, did you know that?” The knight cleared his throat and spat in the boy’s direction.
After some time, the knight stopped walking. “Be careful, dumb boy, this city is cursed.” The knight turned around and walked off, mumbling some words in a language that the boy could not understand.
On his way to Bekim, the boy reflected on this strange event. What is the difference between an area surrounded by walls and one which is not?
Behind him, the boy noticed the sun was making its way down. He was about to arrive and felt anxious. He was afraid to be rejected and could not bear the thought of having to spend another night in the desert.
“Greetings, oh strange wanderer with a face that betrays a misery. By what name do you travel and what is your purpose?”
A guard, dressed in the whitest garment the boy had ever seen, stood by the gate. Only his eyes were visible and indicated his humanity.
“My name is Miralh. I am from the village of Oferi. My village has been destroyed and I seek asylum.”
“Oh strange one, who goes by the name of Miralh. Bekim is known for its hospitality. You are granted three days. If, during these days of bliss, you do not find adequate employment, you must leave. This is a binding condition. Will you abide thereby?”
“Then raise your right hand and repeat these words: I, the stranger, Miralh, oh Miralh, abide by the law of refuge, laid down by the Seven Wise Women, as it has been written in the Red Book of the Unbreakable Line.”
After carefully repeating the guard’s words, Miralh was given a stamp on his wrist which read 4481HB-0621. The large city gate was opened and Miralh entered Bekim.
THE STORM OF MERCY AND PUNISHMENT
Bekim was unlike any city Miralh had ever seen. The streets were broad and the houses larger than those in Oferi. The roads were partially paved. It was warmer than in the desert as the day was drawing to a close. Merchants were closing their shops, stray cats were fighting for leftovers and men were smoking apple tobacco in each other’s company. The scent of coffee mixed with the sweet fragrance of their hookah’s reminded Miralh of home. He was tired and sat down on the curb. A few women were collecting their laundry. He heard laughter and in the distance a crying baby. The sand felt warm. As it turned darker, he noticed there were no streetlights and with people disappearing into their homes, he felt a wave of loneliness.
For a second, Miralh felt that someone was spying on him. Across the street, behind a small window, he could swear he had seen someone. He looked up at the sky and glared at the stars. They were the same stars that he had been observing for years from the safety of his bedroom. The stars and he were the only survivors. Images of the burning village tormented his mind. He saw his father die right in front of him. Again he saw someone moving behind the window. His heart started to beat faster and he felt uncomfortable.
Slowly, the door of the house opened and a small lady wearing a headscarf stood in the doorway. She approached Miralh with caution.
“You are not from here,” she whispered.
“No, I am not.”
“Come quickly, before the storm begins.”
“I will explain later. Hurry.”
Having no other sensible option, Miralh followed the lady into her house.
In the living room, there stood a small table with two chairs and on the table stood a pot with burning incense sticks. The scent reminded him of his grandfather.
“Thank you for your hospitality,” Miralh said. “Are you sure a storm is coming?”
“Every night the storm comes. We call it the Storm of Mercy and Punishment. It only exists in Bekim and does not go beyond the walls.”
This sounded strange to Miralh. “How is that possible?”
The women lit a second lamp. “Usually, I prefer sitting in the dark. But for guests such as you, I happily provide light. What is your name, son?”
“Miralh?” The woman smiled.
He peered through the window. “Why is it called the Storm of Mercy and Punishment?”
“The Seven Wise Women have termed it so. According to them, the storm is a punishment for how we have behaved in the past and it is a mercy, because it prevents us from ever behaving in such wise again.”
“How did people behave?”
“Before, the people in this city were among the most arrogant dwellers of the World Plate. We were short-sighted and our lives were governed by a corrupt love of gold. We have fought wars over it. Justice has come. Now we have nothing to be attached unto. Everything will perish, except His Countenance.”
The woman closed her eyes, listening intently. “It will not take long. You could have been killed out there. Every night, the storm destroys everything. Sometimes rooftops, sometimes entire houses. Every night, the storm reminds us of our dark past.”
“Are you afraid?”
“No. Each morning I thank God for the storm and I pray for a stronger storm, so that it may purify me and my fellow citizens.”
“Why would you pray for that?”
“The storm is a blessing. What God wills is just.”
This God that she spoke of was something unfamiliar to Miralh. His father had always told him to reject God.
“You trust this God?”
“Who are we to mistrust the All-Wise? Listen, it has begun.”
Outside, Miralh could hear the wind picking up. He stood up and looked out the window. The door began to creak. He couldn’t see much as sand was blowing violently through the streets. It was as if the storm was kicking at the door, trying to get in. Miralh tasted blood and realised he had bitten his lip. He wanted to ask the woman for how long the storm would last, but when he turned around he saw that she was immersed in prayer.
The next day, Miralh woke up at the table. From behind a curtain the lady came into the living room with a large piece of brown bread and two cups of tea.
“Mint for a fresh spirit and roses for the heart,” the lady said as she handed Miralh his tea.
“I have to find a job,” Miralh said despondently. “Otherwise, I have to leave.”
“You don’t want to stay, Miralh. This city is poor and cannot offer you anything.”
“But my village has been destroyed. I have nowhere else to go.”
“Bekim is not for you. Behind the city, to the East, there is a special oasis. Go there.”
“And then what do I do?”
“You will see. The unknown awaits you.”
Miralh envisioned a big black hole, where he would not know the way and would not know the language.
“I don’t think the law is fair. I need more time.”
“Fairness is not always convenient. Be grateful. The law protects you from becoming a beggar. The Seven Wise do not wish your humiliation. You can stay here for two more nights. Then, be on your way.”
The woman stood up. “I will go to my sister now. You go explore this city and meet people to learn from.” She handed him a small backpack. “There is a flask inside. Be home on time. I will see you later, if God wills it.”
That day Miralh wandered all throughout the city. People were kind and greeted him cordially. He wondered why they were so calm and gentle, when every night they were tormented by a storm so horrific. He thought about Oferi and realised he did not know anybody as peaceful and wise as the lady, although his grandfather had a similar quality. He had been someone who, in contrast to Miralh’s father, would never worry about the opinions of others. A quiet man, who only spoke when he was spoken to. “A wise man offers water, only to those who are thirsty,” his grandfather would say. After the death of Miralh’s mother, his grandfather had left Oferi. His father despised him and said he was too liberal. When he left the house, Miralh had asked his grandfather where he would go. In response he had picked up a handful of sand and opening his hand he answered that the wind was telling him to head for the Volcanic region in the North.
At the end of the day, when merchants were once again closing their shops, Miralh decided to return to the lady’s abode. However, he soon realised he had lost his way. In his panic he picked up his pace, entering and leaving small alleyways in search of some point of recognition. The streets were quieting down. After some time, the streets were completely empty and it had already turned dark. His fear grew and he wanted to ask for help. He felt the wind picking up and before he could even reach a door to knock on, the wind swept him off his feet. He fell on his back. He tried to stand up, but the wind was too strong. The sand scraped across his face. Miralh could not resist the power of the storm. He yelled but his voice could not escape the growling wind. As he was violently dragged down the street, his bag caught onto something. He tried to pull his bag free from whatever was holding him. Suddenly, in a final attempt to pull himself free, the ground beneath him opened. It was a hatch. The wind turned, pushed Miralh into the opening, growled a final time and sealed the entrance. Miralh tumbled down a staircase, landing with such force that he lost consciousness.
THE PEOPLE OF DUST
It was dark, eerily dark. Miralh found himself lying with his face on a cold floor. He stood up and looked around him. Further ahead, he could see a faint light. It came from behind a door. He pushed the door open and found a large spacious cave behind it. It was lit by a thousand torches. In the centre of the cave stood a gigantic statue of a spider, completely made of gold with flickering eyes that appeared to be jewels. In the walls of the cave, under the torches, Miralh could see hundreds of hallways disappearing in the darkness.
“You are from the Upper World.”
An old man, with a beard reaching to his feet, walked towards Miralh.
“Go! This place is not safe. Before you know, you cannot escape anymore and you become like us.”
Miralh did not know what to say.
“We are lost. Forever lost, I tell you.”
“Where am I,” Miralh asked bewildered by the man’s foul appearance.
“Boy, I have been defiled by the shadow. You stay here and you become scared, blind and inhuman.”
The man came closer to Miralh. His face was pale and he stank like a rotting corpse. He coughed and a long strand of saliva poured out of his mouth, only to disappear into his beard.
“You people have forgotten us. We left when the storm came and took everything with us. I am sure the storm is long gone by now, but nobody wants to return.”
“The storm is still active,” Miralh said. “That’s how I got here.”
The old man looked up at the dark sealing with desperation in his eyes. “Up there the Golden Circle lights the world. It is brighter than fire and hotter than lava. Nobody sees it. Instead we dwell in a place lit by torches and gold.”
“The Golden Circle. Do you mean the sun?”
“I have never seen it. But I know it exists, boy. It is made of real gold and it gives light.”
“You have never seen the sun? How do you know of it?”
“I do not need to see in order to believe. I feel warmth coming through the sealing. I am telling you what I know to be true.”
The old man coughed and spit on the ground.
“If you want to leave this place, why don’t you?”
“I am too old. My bones are too fragile, my body too tired and my eyes wouldn’t be able to stand the light of that beautiful sun. It is too late.”
“So you are stuck?”
“I was born here and this is where I shall die.”
Miralh wanted to comfort the old man, but was repelled by his stench.
“Everything is rotten. Further along, you will find the Great Hall, where we dig for diamonds and gold. Here it is quiet. Most people live deeper, at the back of the Hall by the River of Oil. They are digging their way deeper into the shadow,” the old man lamented.
The man walked off and beckoned Miralh to come. Miralh followed him into one of the narrow hallways. At one point, the hallways split into three smaller hallways. They took the one on the left. After descending down a slippery stairway, they entered a small cave.
“Is this your home?” Miralh asked.
The old man pointed to a large heap of moss.
“I am tired. You sleep there,” the man said. He then wrapped himself in his own beard, lay down and started snoring loudly.
Miralh lay down on the wet moss. The oil lamp was flickering dimly. He heard the rocks above him creak and he was afraid that he would have to spend the rest of his life in this miserable place.
Upon awakening the next morning, Miralh saw the old man staring at him.
“There you are! Tell me about the Golden Circle.”
“Yes. Tell me.”
Miralh did not know what to say. He never had to describe the sun to someone before. “I guess, it’s a large ball of fire and it is very hot… You cannot look at it for long, because it is too bright.”
“Is it truly that bright?” The man seemed to be in awe.
“Yes, but you can look at the moon, if you want.”
“Yes, it is like a gigantic Silver Circle.”
“Tell me about this Silver Circle!”
“Well, it is a mysterious ball that circles above the centre of the World Plate. It shines a faint light, when the sun sleeps.”
“Who is he?!” Another man interrupted the conversation. He was much younger than the old man, but just like the old man, he seemed to be only partially alive.
“This is Miralh,” the old man answered. “I told you, the Circle is real. Miralh has seen it!”
“Don’t speak about the Circle to me, father. I do not want to hear it.”
The man came closer to Miralh. “So, you are from the Upper World?”
“Yes, sir, I came here by accident. I was…”
“Don’t lie to me, you disgusting little worm. You are here for our gold!”
“Skarabo!” shouted his father. “This is my guest. He is not like you! Corrupt and ill-minded!”
“Do not listen to him, worm, he is a crazy fool who believes in some Golden Circle. Look…” he opened his hand and showed Miralh a piece of gold. This is the real sun and the only sun. It is mine.”
“But sir, the sun is much larger and…”
“Do not speak, you foul insect. I am telling you: gold comes from the earth, not from the Upper World. Oil comes from the earth, not from your poor world. Light comes from fire, and fire comes from down here. Treasures come from down here. I come from this world. Guest, or no guest, you leave tonight!”
Angrily the man left the cave.
“You have to leave tonight, Miralh. My son is ruthless and will feed you to the creatures that feast on death. I am forever thankful that you have confirmed my faith, but you must leave.”
“What would you have said if I told you the sun does not exist?” Miralh asked, intrigued by this man’s conviction.
“I would not have believed you. Everywhere there are blind people, also in the Upper World.”
Miralh walked up the stairs, feeling anxious. His palms were sweaty. Above him he heard the storm roaring. He knew that during the day it would be impossible to open the hatch, as it would be buried under the sand. He hoped the storm would be merciful and spare his life. Gathering all his strength and against his instincts that told him not to do it, he pushed the hatch open. The sound of the wind was deafening. Forcefully he was pulled out through the hatch and swept across the street. He tried to hold on to something to stop himself from moving. Suddenly, he was pushed up against a wall. Next to him, roof tiles and other pieces of rubble smashed into bits. With his last powers, he climbed up a pipe to the top of the wall. A final gush of wind pushed him over the edge of the wall onto the sand a few meters below. The lady had told the truth. The Storm of Mercy and Punishment did not reach beyond the wall. It was quiet.
THE SILENT OASIS
The next morning Miralh woke up from the sun which had dug its nails deep into his skin. His throat was dry and his eyes irritated from the sand. Further ahead, he saw the oasis of which the lady had spoken. As he walked towards the oasis that held the promise of water, a soft breeze caressed his face. Across the water, in the shade of a palm tree, he saw a man. The man was wearing a dark green turban. He smiled at Miralh and nodded his head. It was like the man had been expecting him there. Miralh filled his hands with water and brought his tongue back to life. Looking down at the water, he was astonished by the water’s clarity. Looking up, Miralh noticed that the man was still smiling. The man’s beard and wrinkles decorated his face.
As Miralh approached the mysterious man, it felt like walking into a bubble of peace. The man’s eyes twinkled. He knew a secret, the knowledge of which had erased all fear from his being.
“Excuse me, do you live here?” Miralh asked the man.
“Welcome, son. No, I do not live here. Or do I? Where does the sun live?”
Miralh was confused by his response. “The sun?”
“It is always here, yet its home is not on earth.”
“I guess,” Miralh answered.
“You are a strange boy. What is your name?”
The man chuckled. “Whoever gave you that name knew the true nature of our being.”
Suddenly, the man stood up and ran off.
He ran off towards the city, touched the wall and sprinted back to where Miralh stood. Laughing loudly, the man sat back down. He was gasping for air.
“Why? Why did you do that?”
The man filled a bowl with water and drank from it. “I wanted to drink, but I was not thirsty. Now I am,” he answered.
The man looked deep into Miralh’s eyes, as if aware of his sorrow. “This oasis is very special, Miralh.” He pointed to a place behind the trees in the distance.
Miralh could see how the oasis was connected to a river that ran deep into the desert.
“Where is all that water coming from?” Miralh asked.
“Where is it going, is the question to ask. This oasis is that river’s mother.”
Miralh was surprised, because the oasis itself was relatively small.
“This river is deeper than your mind can imagine,” the man continued. “Entire oceans are born from this oasis.”
“Impossible,” Miralh answered with obvious disbelief.
The man remained silent.
“Go and find a nice rock,” he told Miralh.
Curious as to the reason, Miralh set out to look for a nice rock. After a while, instead of a rock, he found a shell.
“Is this acceptable?”
The man took the shell from Miralh and together they walked to the edge of the oasis. He threw the shell into the water. Miralh followed the shell with his eyes and saw it sink deeper and deeper, until it disappeared into the darkness below. Then, the man opened his hand.
“How? How is that possible” Miralh was astonished to find the man holding the exact same shell in his hand.
“How did you do that?”
“It does not matter, Miralh. The shell is back and oceans have originated from this oasis.”
Unable to respond in any meaningful manner, Miralh asked the man’s name.
“My name is Mani. It means moon.”
“So, where are you headed to Miralh?”
“I am not going anywhere. I am running away.”
“What are you running from?”
“War,” Miralh sighed, “hatred and death.”
“Then you are headed in the right direction. If you are running from war, hatred and death, then you are heading towards peace, love and life. You are on your way to God.”
“God…” Miralh was not too interested.
“Yes, His names are numerous and His powers infinite.”
“I don’t believe in God.”
“What do you not believe in?” Mani asked Miralh.
“I don’t believe in some old wise man on a cloud, who randomly decides what happens on the World Plate.”
Mani laughed. “You have convinced me. I am also a disbeliever.”
Miralh was intrigued by Mani’s response. “What do you think God is then?”
“Does a stone understand a plant?”
“Does a plant understand an animal?”
“Of course not…”
“Does an animal understand a human being?”
“Maybe? What would he understand?” Mani asked.
“Well, a camel can be trained to understand a man’s commands…”
“Yes, but does he understand a man’s compassion, his thoughts and creative powers?”
“No. Of course not.”
“What can I say about God then? I do not know what God is. He is unknowable and beyond my comprehension.”
Mani bent over and filled his hand with sand. Upon throwing the sand in the air, a strong breeze carried the sand further, scattering it around.
“The universe is like a painting. God is the Painter. I do not know what God is, but by examining his painting I can get an idea of how He is.”
“What do you see in this painting then?”
“Who do you see, Miralh?”
Miralh looked around him. “I see sand, water and trees.”
“Marvellous!” Mani handed Miralh the bowl with water. “Take a sip. Describe it.”
“I guess the water is very pure.”
“Look at the desert, how would you describe it?”
“It is large…”
“Look at the tree, how does it differ from the sand?”
“It is alive,” Miralh answered, wondering where Mani was going with this.
“Amazing!” Mani shouted. “This painting expresses purity, greatness and life! That tells us something about the Painter!”
“My father always told me to stay away from everything unscientific.”
“Miralh, scientists devote their lives to the analysis of God’s painting. Every day they are discovering just how brilliant this painting is.”
“Are you going somewhere in particular, Mani?”
“I am on my way to the beginning that knows no end.” Mani laughed out loud.
“Ignore my answers, Miralh. I like you. Tomorrow you will find me a rowboat and we will follow the river. Are you happy?”
Miralh, feeling he had made an interesting friend, nodded his head.
“I would like to come with you.”
THE RIVER OF LIGHT
“It is about time!” Mani yelled as Miralh was waking up. “Don’t worry, I already found a boat. You can imagine how confused the guards were when they saw me carrying a boat into the desert!” Mani laughed loudly.
He pushed the boat into the water. “Many people are not even aware of this oasis. Most citizens of Bekim never leave the city.”
Mani jumped into the air, cross his legs and landed perfectly in the boat.
“Come on! Jump in!”
Miralh had to take a big leap to get into the boat.
“How did you sleep, Miralh?”
“Not so well. Our conversation got me thinking.”
“So, you are a thinker. What did you think about?”
“I thought about an old man that I met in a cave. He had never been outside and he had never seen the sun. But he was convinced that the sun existed. All he had felt was some warmth coming through the walls of the cave and this was enough for him to know.”
“Knowledge is a light shed into the heart. Sometimes, not much is needed.” Mani answered.
“What makes you so sure about this God?”
Mani’s piercing eyes seemed to penetrate Miralh’s soul as if to find the right type of language to answer his question.
“How can you know water exists, when you find yourself in a dry desert?”
“I don’t know…”
“Thirst!” Thirst proves the existence of water.” Mani’s eyes lit up. “And fire! For everything there is an opposite, so fire tells us of the existence of water! The shadow tells us of light and weakness is a witness to God’s power!”
“But if God exists, then why are there wars, Mani?”
“Life is a school! God provides us with knowledge, but just like a teacher he would never intervene during an exam! We are here to learn and prove ourselves, Miralh.”
“What is there to learn?”
“We must learn to take responsibility and use our free will with wisdom.”
“But even those who believe in God fight one another…” Miralh objected.
“All religions are the same religion, but the laws and images change. Again, just like in school. We are given different teachers who explain things in a different way and as we get older the rules that guide our conduct change in accordance with our needs and capacities. To hold on stubbornly to old traditions, this is what creates division.”
Miralh was reminded of his childhood. “My father was like this. He was against change. I never want to be like him.”
“Do not blame your father. Behold the World Plate with your own eyes and hear its melodies with your own ears. Forget what you have learnt. Create space within yourself.”
“By being quiet,” Mani answered.
“And then we’ll talk.”
THE SONG OF SORROWFUL DESIRE
After many hours of rowing, towards the end of the day, they stopped the boat at a large flat rock.
“Tonight, we stay at this rock. Here the night comes fast. We are in a special area.”
“What makes it special?”
“This is the place, locally known as the Mooncircle. This is the only place on the entire World Plate where the Moonbirds dwell. As soon as the night comes and the moon appears, they will sing their songs.”
“What are Moonbirds,” Miralh asked curiously.
“They are birds. Many centuries ago they inhabited the moon, but since they came to this world, they have been unable to return. Every night they sing their songs of sorrowful desire. They are homesick.”
“Don’t pity them. They are strong creatures.”
Miralh had lived in Oferi all his life. He never knew the World Plate was such a fascinating place.
“We must sit a little further from the river, Miralh. Now, close your eyes.”
Miralh closed his eyes. Suddenly, after a few minutes, everything turned dark. The wind stopped blowing. Even the river seemed to stop flowing. Then, the songs began. Miralh heard beautiful melodies coming from all around him. Although each song followed a different melody, the birds sang in perfect harmony.
“Now, open your eyes.”
Upon opening his eyes, Miralh’s heart skipped a beat. The river was bright blue, with a silvery sparkle. Miralh did not understand.
“How is this happening?”
“It’s the moonlight being reflected by the millions of jewels scattered over the riverbed.”
“Are there really jewels in this river?” Miralh’s eyes lit up.
“Yes. Human beings are just like this river. But in order for us to bring out the jewels that lie hidden within our being, we must cleanse ourselves. The more purified we become, the brighter we will shine as we reflect the light of God.”
Miralh stood up and walked to the edge of the water.
“Be careful, Miralh. At night this water is dangerous.”
Miralh felt he could burst into tears. The water was crystal clear as if it was still daylight in its depths. On the riverbed, he could clearly discern red, green, purple, yellow and white jewels. He felt overcome with love. He looked up at the bright moon, so close to the earth. The song of the Moonbirds grew increasingly intense.
Then a deep voice joined their song. Mani had walked off, a little deeper into the desert. Miralh saw him raise his arms to the sky. He sang a beautiful melody, a song of sorrowful desire. Miralh thought about the old man in the cave and he felt blind.
THE JEWELS WITHIN MAN
“The river has changed its course,” Mani said the next morning.
Again Miralh awoke in a state of confusion.
“We have to carry the boat back to the river.”
Miralh looked around him. All he saw was sand. “Do you know where it has gone?”
“Part of it never leaves the Mooncircle, but the Mooncircle is large.”
“So what do we do?” Miralh started panicking.
Mani handed him a banana. “Walk.”
The banana was completely black. Although hungry, Miralh hesitated to eat it. He was in a bad mood. With Mani at the front, and Miralh at the rear, they stumbled through the desert carrying the heavy boat.
“Where did all the jewels go?”
“They follow the river.”
“But maybe a few have been left. Maybe we should look for them, don’t you think?”
“They are unimportant, Miralh.”
“But yesterday you said they were important and that we have to cleanse ourselves.”
“Talents and virtues, Miralh. Not stones.”
Miralh felt intensely agitated. He was tired, hungry and cursed the fact that he had to carry a boat in the desert. “This is so silly!” he yelled.
“The desert does not hear your complaints, Miralh.”
“But you do! You don’t even know where we are going. What is the point of this?”
Mani stopped walking and let go of the boat.
“What are you doing?”
“I am building a sand castle.”
Mani did not answer and started digging into the sand. He was intensely focussed and was sweating profusely. Miralh did not know how to respond and stood there in silence. After some time, Mani stood back up. It was not a castle. Instead he had simply created three piles of sand.
“Are you finished?” Miralh asked.
Miralh knew that he had been complaining too much and that it was not appropriate. “I am just not happy with how things are going today.”
“Miralh, my castle is ugly, bananas turn black, the desert is hot, the boat is heavy, the River of Light is magical and complaints are useless.”
Mani picked the boat back up and together they proceeded to look for the river.
The heat was devastating. Drops of sweat crawled down Miralh’s face. He still felt the urge to complain, but his dry tongue refused to move.
“There!” Mani pointed to the river. With intense joy they picked up their pace. Suddenly the boat was not so heavy anymore. Upon arriving and fully clothed, Mani jumped into the river.
“Join me! The water is marvellous.”
Miralh jumped in and drank from the river as he swam to the centre. He remembered the jewels lying on the riverbed and dove down. He was amazed, everywhere he looked he saw jewels of every colour imaginable. He picked up as many as he could. He filled his pockets and used his shirt to keep them together. However, when he ran out of breath and he wanted to swim back up, he noticed that he was not able to.
He panicked, looked around him to check whether his clothes got stuck to something. This was not the case. His lungs started to hurt. Letting go of the diamonds did not seem to help. Miralh still felt his pockets weighing down and in a hurry he emptied them too.
It was only when he dropped the last diamond that he felt a release. He rushed to the surface and took a deep breath.
Mani had already left the water and was drying on the sand.
“Greed is like quicksand and causes man to sink in the shadow. Do not tell me, Miralh.”
“But it was strange. I couldn’t even lift a single stone!”
Mani kept silent. He was clearly disappointed.
Abruptly, Mani jumped to his feet and dove into the river. After a little while he came back up and climbed out of the water with his shirt full of jewels.
“How?” Miralh asked to his astonishment. “What power do you possess that I do not?”
“The power to let go at any moment.” Mani turned around and threw all the stones back in the river. He then turned to Miralh. “It is not that we are not allowed to have possessions. We can enrich ourselves as much as we want. The only condition is that our possessions do not possess us.”
He pushed the boat back into the water. “Let’s go. It’s time.”
Miralh felt a great sadness had overcome his soul. He wondered what he had been doing all his life and why. It was difficult for him to deal with the fact that he did not know where they were heading. He grew up thinking he would have to take over his father’s bookstore, but now there was no future ahead of him.
“I feel life is empty,” Miralh sighed.
Mani kept rowing.
“Maybe there is no point. No plan.”
Mani still did not respond.
“Is there more, Mani?”
“Look around you!”
Despondently, Miralh looked around him and saw the vast desert, the sky above it and the sun looming over it. He shook his head. “No, there is nothing.”
“Exactly, there is nothing.”
“But that’s not what you believe, right?”
“Miralh, I am on my way to the ocean. I have no home. I plan to lie on the beach, surrender myself to the waves and let them take me to the bottom. Do you know what I will find there?”
“No, what will you find there?” Miralh asked with a feeling of hope.
“Why are you saying this?” Miralh said, raising his voice. “Why don’t you tell me there is more than just the sky, the sand and the sun and that there is a purpose?”
“Very well,” Mani replied. “There is more Miralh and there is a purpose.”
“Look at the water. What do you see?”
“Nothing,” Miralh answered. “Myself.”
“Look deeper. What is behind this reflection of yourself?”
Miralh tried to think of a smart way to answer, but nothing came to mind.
“Everything in the universe is part of the painting and tells us about the Painter,” Mani said. “Anywhere you look, you will see a sign.”
“What type of sign?”
“Well, look at this beautiful palm tree. Where is it going?”
“It’s not going anywhere.”
“Yes, you are right to claim that the tree is digging its roots deep into the ground so that it can benefit from the world below. However, it is also growing. Where is it growing towards?”
“Now that is a sign. It is a sign of love and adoration. The tree desires to be near to its beloved, the sun. And what does the sun do?”
“Yes, it provides the world with warmth and light. This is a sign of love too. And when two drops of water meet and merge into one, this is a sign of love. Just like when a mother camel nurtures her young, it tells us about love.”
“So then what is in me?”
“Now you are asking the right question! In you lies everything! Love, compassion, joy, knowledge and so many more signs of the divine. These are the jewels that lie hidden within your innermost and it is your purpose to bring them to the surface!”
Mani stopped rowing. “We will head into those mountains. Behind them lies a valley where a dear friend of mine lives. We will meet him.”
WHISPERS FROM THE SHADOW
Mani pushed the boat into the river to be taken away by the stream.
“We will not return.”
Looking up the steep mountain, Mani grabbed Miralh’s shoulder. “We have to be quick. At night, we don’t stand a chance against the Whisperers.”
Miralh had never heard of these Whisperers and didn’t venture to ask. He trusted Mani as was excited to climb the mountain. When he was young, from the terrace of his home, he used to gaze at the volcanoes in the distance. Although he had wanted to go there, his father would not allow it.
The mountain was treacherous and the loose sand made it hard to climb. After a while, coming from a dead tree, Miralh heard a bird singing a beautifully enchanting melody.
“Do not be tempted by the song, Miralh. There are no birds here.”
“Who is singing then?”
“That is the sound of a Whisperer. Their only purpose is to lure you into the shadow. Be careful.”
Mani handed Miralh a sweater from his bag. “Take this. The higher we go, the colder it gets.” He proceeded to walk as Miralh struggled to put on the sweater. By accident, his head got stuck in the sleeve and it took him some time before he got it right. By now, Mani had walked quite a distance. Just as Miralh was about to haste towards him, from behind a rock a little boy appeared.
The boy had a desperate look in his eyes. It seemed as though he was in serious trouble.
“What’s wrong?” Miralh asked. “Where are your parents?”
The boy reached out and opened his hand. He was holding a small sparkly object. It looked like a coin or amulet of some sort.
“What is that?” Miralh asked.
The boy did not answer and came a little closer. Miralh’s stomach became very heavy and he felt a wave of unease and eeriness come over him. Miralh knew something was wrong, but he couldn’t bring himself to move. He felt cold and the back of his head began to tingle. He tried to turn away, but then the boy began to cry. He had lost his gold piece and seemed very upset. Feeling pity for the boy, Miralh felt impelled to help him and started looking for it. Between two small rocks he saw something glistening. He pushed the rocks aside and picked up the gold piece. As he turned to the boy, three other small boys had joined the scene. They looked at him with the eyes of death. He wanted to get up and run away, but everything around him started to fade. He felt his body weaken, time seemed to stand still and he didn’t know whether he was standing on the ground or floating through space. The boys started to scream at a deafening pitch. Suddenly, Miralh felt a hand grab his arm which pulled him up. He turned around and looked straight into Mani’s eyes.
“What do they want,” Miralh asked after what seemed at least an hour of silence.
“They are creatures of the dark side. They come in many forms and are everywhere, but here there is an abundance of them. They are allies of your lower self, Miralh.”
“I couldn’t do anything,” Miralh sighed. “I could not defend myself at all.”
“As long as we are attached to things worldly, we remain unhappy and vulnerable. Let’s be quick. Once we reach the other side, we will be safe.”
“Mani, if this universe is like a reflection of God, His painting, then how can we understand hatred and evil?”
“Hear no evil and see no evil, because there is none.”
“Of course there is! What about war?”
“War is a sign of evil. But evil is simply the lack of the good, just like black is the absence of colour and ignorance the absence of knowledge. It is this contrast that teaches us about reality. Without the night, we may not learn about the day.”
“So God is never evil or hateful?”
Mani laughed. “God is complete.”
THE FLIGHT OF THE PROUD RAINDROP
Miralh had never gazed upon the World Plate from so high. The desert seemed to be endless. He saw the river runs its course and in the distance the city of Bekim. A fresh breeze ran through his hair, flowed into his lungs and his body felt alive. On the other side of the mountain, there was a valley with a beautiful tapestry of white houses. The scent of lavender and rosemary bushes filled the air.
After collecting some twigs and leaves, Miralh and Mani entered a small cave where they would stay for the night.
“The valley where will go tomorrow is called Ridvan, but it is generally known as the Valley of the Friends.”
When the sky had turned dark, Mani stood up. “You stay and enjoy the view for a while.”
He walked off and a little further ahead he knelt down. He raised his hands and started chanting a prayer. Miralh wondered what he was praying about.
That night, Miralh could not sleep. He was not tired and stared at the starry sky. He thought about how small he was in this immense universe. He felt that it was special to be alive. The sky was so clear and reminded him of the River of Light. The stars, he thought, were like the jewels in the river. Without them, space was nothing but blackness without a purpose. He understood that everything tells a story, every stroke tells us something about the painter. He wondered about the idea of infinity and how everything came into being. From his father, Miralh had learned a lot about the physical laws governing nature. Did all these laws suddenly just come into being? The laws of music, those of gravity, chemistry. And now, after thousands of years, we still don’t know how these laws operate. These laws have always existed, even before the universe came to be, but they simply hadn’t been expressed yet.
“Ah, now the whole World Plate is awake!”
Mani handed Miralh a cup of water.
“Have you been awake for long?” Miralh asked.
“I get up with the sun. I want to pray at first sight of light.”
“What’s it like to pray?”
“It’s like conversing with a loved one.”
“But why do you pray?”
“For the same reason you have to eat. You pray to grow. It is food for the soul.”
“Is it necessary to sing?”
“I sing because I enjoy it. But in reality it is the heart that prays. So even silence will do.”
“What do you pray for?”
“Prayer is like entering a meeting place in a higher world. You can ask for healing or peace, but mostly it is to say praise and remind yourself of your purpose in this world.”
As they walked down the mountain, Mani stopped at a big flat rock where he told Miralh to sit down.
“Sit down and close your eyes. Become conscious of yourself.”
Miralh felt uneasy but was interested to try.
“But what am I supposed to do?”
“Don’t ask questions, Miralh. You need to be quiet and focus on your breathing.”
After some silence, Miralh felt a warm sensation throughout his entire body. His breathing was calm and steady. Sometimes a thought would enter his mind, but for some reason he felt he was able to maintain focus. He realised that he was alone in the universe and yet safe under the wings of a higher presence. He felt he was connected to something deeper, a holiness that existed everywhere.
“I feel strange,” he whispered.
“What do you feel?”
“There is more. I only felt it for a moment, but I know there is more.”
“I just don’t know what to do with it.”
“It is a great realisation, Miralh. It means that you are ready to be a discoverer, to explore and find out what lies beyond the things we know. It is a blessing! The larger the world becomes, the smaller we can be!”
“Smaller? I thought the whole idea was to grow?”
Mani picked at his beard. “Why are you afraid?”
“I don’t know. I don’t want to be insignificant.”
Mani chuckled. “Do you know the story of the proud raindrop?”
Miralh shook his head.
“One day, high in the sky, a raindrop cut himself loose from a cloud. Filled with pride he headed for the World Plate. He knew that he was the most valuable element in the universe, because he was aware that water enabled life. He felt special. All of a sudden, to his great shock, he beheld a huge ocean. He cried and realised that he was small and nothing compared to that great ocean. When the ocean heard the humble cries of the raindrop, he invited the raindrop to join its greatness and made him the eternal companion of the pearl.”
Miralh thought about the story. He knew that he was like the raindrop, but wondered how his becoming smaller was connected to growth.
“We grow,” Mani said, as if he could read Miralh’s thoughts, “from pride to humility, arrogance to modesty. Not the other way around. Are you hungry?”
Miralh felt his stomach ache from hunger. “Yes, actually.”
“Then eat this.” Mani handed Miralh a tiny raisin.
“If you don’t want it, you can give it back.”
Miralh quickly put it in his mouth. “No, I’ll eat it.”
The raisin was hard and sour. “Why do you always give me such strange food? First, that rotten banana and now this dry raisin.”
Mani got up on his feet. “Maybe I should go back to the desert and build one of my beautiful castles.”
“No, please. The raisin is great!”
“Well, you may dislike the raisin. But it has taught you a lesson.”
Miralh smiled. He was reminded of the lady in Bekim, who was content with whatever came on her path.
THE VALLEY OF THE FRIENDS
“The kingdom of Malitoa is not large and does not have a large population,” Mani said, “but its inhabitants can count themselves lucky.”
They had barely entered the city, but they were cordially greeted. Two chubby men and a woman approached them.
“Welcome, wayfarers!” one of the men said. “What brings you to the valley?”
“We are here to visit a friend,” Mani answered.
“Amazing! This valley is full of friends!”
Miralh was intrigued by the expression on these people’s faces. Their eyes were kind and full of love.
“Peace be upon you! My name is Jamura,” the lady spoke. “May I invite you to join me for a cup of lavender tea?”
All the houses were bright white and the streets were sandy. The woman lived right at the edge of the city. Her home was remarkably clean. Dark red tiles contrasted beautifully with the white walls and there was a constant freshening breeze blowing through the living room.
“Please be seated, my daughter will come to greet you,” she said as she disappeared into the kitchen.
After a while, the lady returned with her daughter and some tea. Her daughter was the most exquisite and refined girl Miralh had ever laid eyes on. Ink black hair ran down her back. She wore a simple white dress, with a rope tied around her waist. He skin was light brown and her face beamed with light. However, her enchanting eyes were her most extraordinary feature. Her glance spoke only of love and affection, as if she had never seen anything evil in her life. They were dark brown and the quick glance that she granted Miralh, at once, catapulted him into a pit of desire and madness. The girl approached Mani and shook his hand.
“Peace be upon you,” she said with a delicate voice. “My name is Maya.”
Her voice betrayed her sincerity, youth and clarity of mind. Miralh had never dared to dream that such a voice could be expressed on this wretched World Plate. He knew that he would never forget the sound she had produced in that brief moment. This one simple sentence, which she had spoken, would forever echo in his mind. He would cherish every syllable she had uttered there and then for the rest of his life. Her name would forever ring in his ears, making all other names obsolete.
“Peace be upon you as well,” she said as she extended her hand to Miralh.
Bolts of fear tormented his body. He wondered what this girl’s touch would do to him, when a mere glance had already destroyed him.
“What is your name?” she asked.
He could not remember his own name.
“His name is Miralh. The boy’s name is Miralh,” said Mani.
Maya laughed. “You can let me go now, if you can.”
Miralh did not know how to let go, but he knew he had to. As he considered the best way to face the solitude of freeing her from his grip, she pulled back with some force.
“Nice to meet you,” she said.
Miralh could still feel the warmth of her hand in his. He decided then and there that he would never wash his hand again and that for the rest of his life he would offer other people only his left hand, as his right hand was eternally wedded to the memory of hers. He wanted to wrap his hand in silk and secure it for eternity in a secret safe.
The girl left the room, leaving him with a terrifying feeling of emptiness and despair. He missed her, even though he didn’t know her.
“Your daughter,” he said to the mother.
The lady looked at him and smiled.
He wanted to say that her daughter was the most beautiful being on the entire World Plate and that there was no one to be found that would match her likeness to an angel. He wanted to say that he wanted to be with this girl for the rest of his life, even if he had to serve her as a downtrodden slave.
“She is sweet, isn’t she?”
“Yes,” Miralh answered. “She is alright.”
His mind had sunk into quietude. All he could think about was Maya.
After finishing their tea, Mani and Miralh set out into the city. Miralh was only able to recover once they had found a place to sit and relax. He knew that he would never meet a girl like her again and was determined to meet her later.
“Miralh,” said Mani as he tapped him on his shoulder. “Let us go and find my friend.”
The streets of the Valley were calm and a beautiful red light filled the air.
Soon they found themselves in front of a large white gate with golden ornaments. Two guards stood in front of the gate. They greeted Mani and opened the gate. The garden was full of red flowers. The front door of the house opened and out came an old man holding a cane.
“Peace be upon you!” he sang with an energy not befitting his age. “Peace in the Valley!”
The happy old man almost jumped down the stairs and hugged Mani. It was clear that they had been friends for a long time.
“This is Miralh,” Mani told the old man. “He is in search of peace, love and life.”
“He will find it for sure!” the old man replied approvingly. “I am the Malitoa. I welcome you.”
Miralh’s eyes opened wide. “You are a king?”
“Yes. I rule this Valley.”
Miralh did not know how to act and wanted to bow.
“Boy,” the king quickly spoke, “do not attach to the idea of my kingship. We are all noble creatures of the divine. But in reality I am just an old sock, waiting for mother to take me inside and put me back into the drawer!” The king laughed loudly at his own expression. Mani joined him.
“You remain ever young, Malitoa!” said Mani.
“Yes, and you remain ever old!” the king replied.
Miralh took notice of the fact that the king was not dressed very kingly. He wore a simple, dark red robe, and wore no crown nor any jewellery.
“Please feel at home. I will join you later for supper as we discuss the adventure that is life. Now, I must attend to other business. As you know, I am after all a full-time employee of the Valley.”
As he walked off, whistling a familiar melody, Mani and Miralh found a bench to sit on in the garden.
Miralh loved this Valley. He felt he had found his home. Maya could be his wife, he figured. Of course, she would say yes, he thought to himself. He was certain that she must have felt the same. They would buy a house in the city and Mani would live next to them. Although, he thought, he wouldn’t want her to get too close to Mani. No, perhaps it would be better for them isolate themselves completely and live somewhere high up on the mountain. Maybe there would have to be guard dogs, protecting them from those that would want to harm them. She would work in the garden and he would work in the city.
“Mani, do you feel at home here too?”
“My home is everywhere and nowhere, Miralh.”
“Yes, a home has nothing to do with a place. It is a condition of the heart. Let’s go inside.”
THE KING’S ABODE
“I have walked upon this World Plate for over a century,” the king spoke, “and still I feel I have not had enough time.”
The king sat down at the table, followed by two servants carrying large plates of food.
“Your Majesty,” one of the servants said. “Today, we offer you grilled chicken with almonds, raisins and apples from Albir. In addition, we have prepared sweet potatoes covered with saffron and a delicate rice, complimented with an aubergine sauce.”
“Amazing!” the king replied. “Outstanding work!”
He looked at Miralh as he held a shiny spoon in front of him. “Miralh, right?”
“Yes, your Majesty. My grandfather gave me that name.”
“Your grandfather was a wise man. Are you aware of the meaning?”
Miralh did not know.
“It is a word, from an ancient language, and it means mirror! And that is exactly what our reality is. We are mirrors!”
Miralh had never thought about the meaning of his name. He was reminded of the River of Light and how Mani had told him that we must purify ourselves to bring out the jewels within us and reflect the light of divinity. Just like a mirror, the light may not be within us or come from us, but if we are pure enough we can reflect it.
“Are you really over a hundred years old?”
The king chuckled. “Well, my body may be old, but my spirit is as young as a newly born camel! The spirit is never affected by time, however sickly or old the body may be.”
“What do you mean by spirit, your Majesty,” Miralh asked.
“Ah, a thinker. Mani was just like you when he was still young. To question is to live!”
The king quickly grabbed his cane and poked Mani in a teasing manner.
“This is not so easy,” he continued. He took a sip of water, picked at his eyebrow, scratched his chin, blinked his eyes three times and stuck out his tongue. Again, he laughed loudly.
“If the horse is the body, then the body is the horse rider. When the horse dies, the rider lives on…. No, a better one, if this life is an ocean, then our body is a ship. When we reach the coast, the end of our life, we must walk on by foot. We are always on our way, for eternity!”
Eternity sounded pleasing to Miralh. Death had always scared him. He was afraid to be annihilated and disappear into a never ending sleep from which he could not wake up.
“Man is an everlasting being, who lives in the eternal,” Mani added.
The king started laughing. “Do not mind him, Miralh. You may think Mani is wise, cryptic, mystical or poetic, but mostly he is just strange.” Again he reached for his cane, but Mani quickly moved away, out of the king’s reach.
“Believe it or not,” the king said, “but I look forward to my dying day. Now, our spirit must live with the limitations of our body, but come death it will be unrestrained as the wind.” He raised his fist. “I can rush into space, free of hunger, thirst, exhaustion, time and space!”
“No time and space?” Miralh asked.
“Of course not! These are all physical limitations.” The king stood up. “Unfortunately, I am still trapped in this prison of flesh. I must sleep, but I suggest you two young cats visit the Friendly Square. You will find your heart’s desire.”
“Mani, are you afraid of death?”
“That’s like asking a bird if she is afraid to fly.”
“So, what do you think we will find after death?”
“That’s like asking a baby what lies beyond his mother’s womb. If we knew, then the test of life would be too easy! But just like in the womb, we are preparing for the world that comes next.”
“What about heaven and hell?”
“Well, if we do not prepare and do not develop our spirit and bring to light those jewels hidden within our being, the next life will be as hell. Regret would devour us. We would be as a child born into this world with no arms, legs, eyes and ears.”
“How do we prepare for the next world?”
“That’s like asking a mountaineer how he prepares for a hike. You train and you train and you make you sure you pack everything you need! You take it one step at a time and every step is another choice to be made which influences how the hike will go.”
Mani took a sip of tea and sighed.
“We are on a road and death simply means the road takes on a different form. Perhaps here, we find ourselves on a sandy road, but after the bridge of death, the road may grassy, with colourful flowers on each side. Who is to say?”
Again Miralh was overtaken by a warm sensation, making his whole body tingle. He thought about Maya and walking down this road in her company.
Mani chuckled. “Let’s go to where you really want to be, shall we?”
“Where is that?”
“Under the starry sky, my friend, where the painting is most interesting to you.”
Approaching the square, Miralh was delighted to see people dancing. The scent of apple tobacco filled the air and there was laughter. Above the square, dimly lit lanterns illuminated the scene. Miralh only hoped to behold his beloved Maya once again. Mani walked off to join a group of elderly friends playing a complicated game of cards.
As Miralh looked with interest at the violin player, his eyes fell upon a beautiful girl. It was Maya. His eyes widened and his heart started pounding in his throat. She was like a leaf, being moved by a gentle summer breeze. Suddenly, their eyes met, she smiled and walked up to him.
“Peace be upon you. I am glad you came.”
“Yes, I didn’t want to come, but Mani dragged me along anyway.”
The music stopped. “And now, dear friends,” the violin player announced, “the Sonnet of the Stars.”
“Would you like to dance with me,” Maya asked.
She came closer and put her arms around him. Her skin, touching his neck, felt softer than silk. Carefully, he too locked her in his embrace. Her perfume seemed to carry hints of pepper and jasmine, but Miralh was not quite sure. He wished for this moment never to come to an end. He was ecstatic and wondered if she felt the same.
“Isn’t this nice?” he asked her.
“Yes, every nineteen days we have a feast such as this one.”
“But, I mean, don’t you think that…”
“What do you mean, Miralh?”
Miralh held his tongue.
“Is Mani your father,” she asked him.
“No, we simply travel together.”
She waved at Mani who upon seeing her approached them.
“Peace be upon you,” she said. “And may you be ever graceful,” he replied.
While they exchanged pleasantries and engaged in a simple conversation, Miralh felt awfully jealous wondering why Mani had come to disturb their moment. He wondered if Maya, instead of being interested in him, was really after Mani.
“Thank you for this dance,” she whispered.
“But it’s not finished!”
At that moment, the violinist stopped playing and started a new song.
“Now it is,” she jokingly responded.
“It’s time to go home,” Mani interrupted. He was aware that Miralh’s mood had gone sour.
“I will go home too.” Maya walked off and again Miralh felt as if his body was devoid of life.
THE ROOTS OF HATRED
The next morning, Miralh woke up to the sound of trumpets. He looked through the window and saw the two guards open the gate for a dark figure riding a camel. The man, who was clearly someone important, was dressed in a black robe. He had a long grey beard and wore a black turban with silver elements. After dismounting his camel he greeted the king.
“What do you see?” asked Mani.
“There is a visitor for the king.”
Mani peered through the window. “That is Shah Dubhar the Eleventh. He is ruthless and feared by many.”
“Why is he here?”
“I don’t know. Perhaps to make peace, perhaps to declare war.”
After breakfast, Miralh strolled into the garden where he saw the king sitting on a bench. He looked very sad.
“These are dark times, Miralh.”
“What happened?” Miralh asked.
“The situation in the Land of Dubhar is not looking good.”
Miralh had never heard of this land. “What’s wrong?”
“The people of Dubhar face oppression and inequality. They are not allowed to think for themselves.”
“The Shah rules his land under the guidance of a spiritual leader named Falsk. This cruel man is attached to his position and anybody who challenges his authority is persecuted. I had invited the Shah to come up with a solution, but he too only believes in violence. He supports Falsk, even though his people suffer.”
“Why? Why is there so much violence and war?”
“It is the consequence of setting the accumulation of wealth and power as our goal in life. With such a corrupt goal we are bound to sink into the soil of greed, the source of hatred.”
“But you are a king. Don’t you ever fight wars?”
“My only war is the war I fight against myself.”
“But what about if people come to steal your land?”
“My land? Land belongs to nobody. No matter how important you are, in the end, your body will be buried in a tiny patch of land in which it eventually disappears.”
“But what if people attack the people that you are responsible for?”
“Then I will defend them. I am a king. But there are many kings and shah’s and together we have the responsibility to protect all people from harm, not just our own.”
The king closed his eyes. “I pray that this knowledge soon infiltrates the minds of the ignorant.”
He stood up and walked off. Miralh wanted to do something, but he didn’t know what he could do. He knew the king was right. When we only strive for wealth and power, we allow jealousy and greed to enter our hearts. This is what happened in Oferi and the soldiers of Khala, who hated the Oferians so much. In all fairness, Miralh knew that even his father harboured hatred in his heart. But now, Miralh had seen that this is not necessary. He thought about the woman in Bekim, Mani and the king. What has liberated them? The woman was poor and each night she is haunted by a storm. Yet, she is calm and grateful. Mani has no home. He simply wanders the World Plate. However, he is so certain and aware of his purpose. And the king, who rules over an entire valley and is clearly rich, what keeps him from being arrogant and proud?
“Mani, what do you and the king have in common, that I clearly don’t have?” Miralh asked Mani after he had joined him on the bench.
“We have nothing.”
“Alright, so what do you not have, that I do have?”
“We don’t have the illusion that we have something.”
Miralh remained quiet.
“How is it an illusion? I can agree that we may not truly possess land, power or wealth, but what about our bodies? I surely have my body.”
Mani stood up and stretched his arms. “A body? What is a body but a collection of elements? Before you know it, you perish and your body disintegrates completely.”
“I don’t know.”
“Everything in the universe is always moving. Things are either growing or falling apart. Every composition is bound to decompose.”
“What does that even mean? What do we do with that?”
“It means that, at most, we can borrow things.”
“But if that is the case, then how can our spirit be immortal?”
“The spirit is not composed. It is not material, but spiritual.”
Miralh understood. The spirit, just like one’s thoughts, is not held together by elements.
“But then, perhaps we can have a spirit,” Miralh said, feeling he had made a valid point.
“If you want to think this way, then you think this way.”
Miralh sighed. “It seems I can never win any argument with you.”
“I don’t agree,” Mani replied, grinning mischievously.
“This evening we leave again.”
Miralh was horrified at the thought of leaving. “No, we cannot leave.”
Mani, looking at Miralh, as if reading his inner reasons, patted him on the back.
“This is your choice. Thank you for your company.”
He stood up and walked back into the house.
Miralh felt sad, confused and uncertain at once. He didn’t know if he could even have a future with Maya. He needed some time by himself and asked the guard to open the gate for him.
THE FINAL STEPS
As could be expected, his walk eventually led him to Maya’s home. For what seemed like an hour, he stood motionless in front of her door. When the door was abruptly opened he almost fell over. He didn’t know if it was too late to pretend he had just arrived or perhaps whether he could act as if he didn’t know her.
“Are you exploring the city, Mirat?”
“Yes, just exploring.”
“Do you want to join me for a walk?” she said as she closed the door behind her and wrapped a bright blue scarf around her neck.
Miralh didn’t answer, but joined her nonetheless.
“For how long will you stay?”
Sadness entered Miralh’s heart. “My friend is leaving, but I want to stay.”
He followed her up the mountain to a large rock. The view was magnificent. Beyond the city, between two other mountains, Miralh could see the desert stretch into the distance.
“Sometimes I sit here,” Maya said, “and I fantasise about what it’s like at the edge of the World Plate.”
“But, you don’t want to leave, right?”
“Maybe I do.”
“But there is no place like the Valley, Maya. Believe me.”
She smiled. “You’re a sweet man, Mirat.”
“Actually, my name is Miralh.”
“That’s even better! You’re named after the famous camel washer.”
“Someone became famous because of how he washed camels?”
She laughed out loud. “You’re so funny.”
Miralh’s heart was burning. He felt that even if all the water on the entire World Plate were to be poured onto his heart, this fire that he felt would not be quenched.
“Why are you not joining your friend?”
Miralh could no longer lie. “I want to stay with you.”
He was surprised by his own response and when he saw that she only smiled, without any sign of real joy or mutual desire, he felt the urge to stand up and jump of the mountain.
“No, Miralh. You are travelling and your journey is not over. You should continue until you have found what you are looking for.”
“But I found you.”
She shook her head.
“You don’t want me to stay?” Miralh felt angry.
“I don’t want you to give up, especially not for a simple girl like me.”
“I think you just don’t like me!” Miralh yelled, perhaps louder than intended.
“I do. But it is not right to discontinue your journey halfway.”
“But you are my destination! I have arrived.”
“If that is the truth, then at the end of your travels, when you have all your answers, you will be led back to me. Have your questions been answered yet?”
Peace, love and life, he thought to himself. He had found love. He was starting to understand life, but he had not found peace.
“No,” he sighed. “But if I go, will I see you again?”
“You will know at the end of your journey.”
Miralh felt a surge of energy. “Wait for me Maya! I must find Mani!” He kissed her shoulder and ran down the mountain as fast as he could.
When he arrived at the king’s house, he saw Malitoa sitting on a bench.
“Your Majesty, where can I find Mani?”
“He has left, Miralh.”
“What!” Miralh’s heart sank. “Where did he go? I must find him. He was right!”
“East, Miralh.” The king pointed to a steep mountain.
“I can still catch up with him!”
He turned around and started running for the mountains. He felt abandoned. It was crucial, perhaps of life importance to catch up with Mani, so he could finish his journey and find his answers. When he reached the mountain, he was already out of breath, but there was no time to waste. As a savage he rushed up the mountain, jumping from rock to rock and pulling himself up by grabbing onto prickly bushes. When he reached a high point, from where he could cross to the other side of the mountain, he yelled with anger. He scanned the desert and saw no sign of Mani.
Possessed by a combination of fear and rage, he proceeded to run down. The sun was already descending and coloured the sky red. Without Mani, he felt, he was doomed to fail. Why would Mani do this to me, he thought. He wondered why God was not helping him and whether he had been too naïve believing that there was a purpose laid out for him. Reaching the foot of the mountain, he wanted to run further, but his lungs hurt and his gums were burning. Then, further ahead, he saw footsteps tracing around the corner.
“Mani!” he yelled.
Following Mani’s footsteps, he asked himself whether life itself was more than a shallow puddle of water that was bound to evaporate, even before he could quench his thirst. Tears flowed down his cheeks. The trail did not seem to end. He felt as if he was chasing the horizon. No, even worse, he felt as if he was trying to stop the sun from shining by spitting at it.
When he had almost given up, he saw something. He picked up his pace. Perhaps Mani was wounded. Then, he stopped. He dropped to his knees and could not believe what he saw. The trail stopped and all he could see were three piles of sand. Mani had left him a sand castle. Perhaps it meant that Miralh had to be content with whatever life put in front of him. Perhaps it meant that God’s painting wasn’t finished. Whatever it meant, Miralh knew he was on his own.
THE END OF THE BEGINNING
Miralh, the boy who had lost everything, had been rescued by a man who looked like a camel. He had argued with a knight, who drew borders in the sand. A lady of a most tender nature had taught him about detachment. An old man, who had never seen the sun, had shown him true conviction. Miralh had drunk from an oasis from which oceans are born and met a homeless sage who gave him direction. He had seen the River of Light, which was filled with jewels and changed its course each night. Birds had filled his heart with a melody of longing. He had likewise heard the whispers of evil coming from the shadows and had felt the power of prayer. A girl, the like of which was nowhere to be found, had stared into his eyes, touched his hand and danced with him. And he had dined with a king, who taught him about the life of the spirit. At last he was left with three piles of sand, which looked nothing like a sand castle.
Following his awakening, he had walked among elephants, seen a man walk on fire and he had been forced to sleep among snakes. Along the way, he found many sand castles, or at least, piles of sand, and he had often wondered whether they were merely piles of sand, or Mani’s hidden guidance. In the end, perhaps preceded by no one before, he found himself standing at the edge of the World Plate, from where he saw other worlds. Worlds that were similar but different to his own. This is where he chose to build his own castle.
He took a deep breath and as he did, the wind picked up. He witnessed how the wind carried the loose grains of sand and danced with them. If they were not detached from one another, he thought, they would not be able to dance. I must be detached and let myself be carried away by life.
He picked up a single grain of sand and looked closely at it. Within, I should be able to find all the secrets, he realised. This one grain of sand tells the story of the desert, the World Plate and the entire universe. He became aware of infinity and realised that the infinitely small is equal in size to the infinitely large. The beginning is the end, the first is the last. I existed when I was not alive and I live forever after.
He sighed and followed the thought of his sigh into the open sky. To be free is to hold on, but to be willing to let go at any time. I do not possess, I exist.
He looked at his castle. This is where my own trail ends. This is from where I take my true steps on the road of life. He thought about Maya. If he would ever see her again and she would ask him where to go from there, he would answer that they were on the way to a place, deep within, at the end of the universe, where there is light upon light upon light. He closed his eyes.
Sand is sand and water is water. They are part of the earth. Likewise, my body is made of sand and water. It comes from the earth and returns unto it. But I am not sand and I am not water. I am light and I belong the sky. He opened his eyes and it was dark. His sight, however, was clearer than ever. I am a mirror, just as the moon is a mirror. The light is in me, but it comes from the sun and the sun is my soul. Life, in a similar manner, is in me, but it comes from an external Source. The spirit is God’s breath, blown into my being.
At that moment, an intense heat set his heart aflame, as if a volcano had come to erupt in his inner reality. In a flash, a devastating feeling captivated his soul. It was more than love, peace and life combined. There is no way to explain how it happened, but it was at that very second that the brush of the Painter touched him and fused his being with the whole.