She willed herself not to tremble as she hugged herself into the tiniest of items, offering the least of herself to be wounded. And, not for the first time, she wished she could curl into such a small thing as to be lost, like one loses a penny or a key. She prayed for there to be a place below the cold hard ground into which she could crawl. An inhuman place, she knew, but peaceful and with the blissful absence of pain only the dead could know. Instead, finding no such escape, she found shelter burrowing deep inside herself. A place where it was easier not to exist altogether. If she could not disappear from the merciless world, she would make the merciless world itself disappear. And care later whether she would find her way out again. However, in that moment, the blow she had expected—for there was a rhythm to such things she understood all too well—never fell upon her.
The interim where the blow should have come terrified her. She felt herself being swallowed by its vacuum, her mind spinning to interpret it, to grasp the unknown, and what would ultimately come of it. For fury possessed its own rhythm. Fury erupted like a volcano, and slowly receded like a tide. And as the tide receded, physical violence gradually lost its appeal. It would sour and then turn verbal. This time, however, something had upset that natural order. Her intuition for such things was seldom wrong. It wasn’t that she merely hoped that the violence had come to an end, for, if anything, she dreaded the cruel viciousness of the verbal phase most of all. Verbal wounds had a way of festering long after cuts and bruise had healed. Rather, she feared the intermission meant that her mother had found a new inspiration, a path of lesser resistance for the expression of her wrath.
When, at last, she summoned the courage to venture a glance, it was through an eye that was already swelling itself shut. She held little faith in the authenticity of the blurry images it conveyed to her. Though perhaps even with a clear eye, she would not have believed such a sight. Her mother was staggering, leaning heavily onto the wash basin. As the girl watched, her mother fell onto one knee, and her weight proved too much for the rods holding the basin in place and together they collapsed onto the ground, throwing grey water onto everything. Her mother’s hand, the same hand that would have hit her, was now clutching her mother’s chest. A deathly pallor overshadowed the red of her waning rage. And still, the girl did not dare move. She could see that her mother had been crying. Tears marred the dust on her cheeks, turning to wet mud as they reached her chin. And for the first time, it occurred to her that her mother too might be wounded by the beatings. And the idea devastated her. It had never crossed her mind that the beatings she received were the sharp expressions of a pain whose blunt end mercilessly pummelled her mother’s own soul. The thought reached her in a way she had never experienced before. Her mother’s pain flooded into her and then… became hers. And it was the first thing they had ever shared.
In a place beyond the memory of a lifetime of abuse, her mother’s pain found a home in the girl, fuelled her even, and she suddenly discovered within herself the strength to move. But the thing was not so easily done. First, she opened herself to the pain in the various quadrants of her body. Then, ever so slowly, she began to uncurl. She wailed, but her courage was strong, and she did not relent. She weighed every new pain as it manifested itself, interpreting it as either lingering or sharp; and was relieved to find that most were of the former sort. However, as she shifted to rise onto her elbow, she was suddenly made excruciatingly aware of the latter pain. One of her ribs, perhaps several, had been fractured during the beating. She smiled through her tears. Smiled, because she had endured worst beatings and had come away with nothing more than bruises and headaches. Smiled, because it hurt terribly. The ribs cut her breath short. Once she had completed her assessment of the extent of the damage, she once more shut the valve, severing the link between pain and her emotions. And the smile faded.
This.., she heard her mother say, gasping for air beside her. She too was having difficulty breathing. Helpless against the surge of emotion for the pain that bound them together, the girl cautiously, foolishly edged closer to listen. Her mother would know what to do. And she would heed her mother’s instructions, walk across the entire village to the clinic if that’s what she demanded of her. All she had ever known was a yearning not to be useless in the eyes of her mother. Not to see a reflection of her mother’s loathing for her in the eyes of everyone else. But as she neared the fallen woman, through some hatred stronger than strength itself, she saw her mother’s hand reach for her. She leaned closer thinking it some act of kindness. Her mother’s hand, twisted with pain into a vicious claw, snatched her hair and jerked. The girl met the ground again, violently, and before she could ponder the event, she heard her mother’s raspy voice again.
This… is all your fault. Use… Useless girl.
And it was too. The girl knew this. For, if only she hadn’t wept at the first blow; if only she had anticipated her mother’s mood; if only she had not been happy and smiled to herself in precisely the wrong moment. If only she had been born a boy. If only she had not been born at all. If only the very first hints of her presence in her mother’s womb had not scared off her father…
And deeper still, she would have been driven by the downwards spiral of self-loathing, if her mother’s claw had not jolted her back to reality with a sharp tug of her hair. And despite the flooding pain, despite the crippling anxiety, she nonetheless glanced over.
I can still make it right, she whispered. I can still make it right. I can still make it right.
And whether in acknowledgement of the truth or the eternal lie of the girl’s statement, her mother’s grip relented. Leaving more than a few wisps of her hair in her wake, she wrestled herself onto her feet once more. There was still time to right, at the very least, this one wrong, she thought. And even as the thought dawned on her that, in this too, she would be faulted; even as her mind accurately visualised just how her mother would charm her way out of the clinic, with the smiles and kind words she reserved only for those whom were not her; even as she imagined exactly how, once back into their hut, her mother would turn once more to her and finish beating her… Even then, she decided that she had to try to save her mother.
A vile mixture of blood and dirt caked her clothes and skin. The first hints of bruising coloured the thin layer of flesh over bone. She limped towards her mother’s bed and wrapped a shawl around herself. Careful, even in that moment, to choose her mother’s least favourite. Her already frail, diminutive stature, almost vanished entirely under the shawl’s embrace. Near the door, she found a broken broomstick. She flipped it so that the splintered side was up, and leaned her weight against it. The world seemed to right itself a little, and her nausea waned. With the help of her makeshift walking stick, she hobbled to the entrance. And, with one last forlorn glance at the disarray inside the hut—knowing that for this too she would be punished—she put her own future well-being aside, and stepped out of the hut, into the darkening twilight.
The first person to cross her path was a drunk. The girl and the stranger both walked with a stagger, though each in their own way. She gave ample thought to asking for help, regardless of his obvious inebriation. Even a drunk adult would know what to do better than a little girl, she reasoned, remembering having been taught this lesson many times and often at her own expense. However, she found strength in her resolve to carry out the deed herself. Only a useless girl would ask a drunk for help in matters of such urgency. So, she walked past the man who eventually swerved right off the road and into a barren field. She settled into a waddling rhythm, her pain so familiar to her now that her mind no longer bothered reminding her of it.
She made what she hoped was good progress along the road to the village. Her path crossed with another man down the road. This time the stranger barked lewd comments at her from a distance. She did not falter, did not slow, knowing that her steady pace was the only thing keeping her on her feet. When the man stepped near enough to make out his prey, he immediately shied away, making as though someone had called for him. Judging by the shame in the man’s face just before he veered off the road, she reasoned that he must have mistaken her for a hunched elder. She blessed her luck for the cover of dusk, and for the fact that elders still commanded some modicum of respect or, at the very least, pity in the village.
After these near misses, her journey went mostly undisrupted until she reached the outskirts of the village centre. There were people there whom she might have, in daylight, petitioned for help. However, she knew better, by then, than to trust human nature after dark. She told herself that if one of her eyes was not swollen shut, she might have made out the clinic in the distance. And she pushed on, much preferring the idea of delivering the message herself. This dirty mess was of her doing, and so too needed to be its remediation. She would not sully one more person with her uselessness. If she could help it.
Her body dwelt in a realm beyond pain where the barriers between consciousness and unconsciousness turned fluid, allowing free passage both ways. Stubbornly, she focused on the rhythm of her shallow breaths and pressed on. Whatever nameless kindling was still burning within her, would surely extinguish itself if she was not careful to supply it with a constant breath of air. Thus she teetered on the edge of awareness, and only by some miracle, did she suddenly recognise the streets of the clinic. Could it be, she thought. She glanced back and saw that the clinic was in fact shrinking in the distance behind her. In her daze, she had unknowingly passed right by it.
With the last dregs of her courage, she willed herself to stop. And there, like the last skip of a stone across a pond, was where she sunk into oblivion.
Awareness was too stark a term for this brief surfacing from the deathly spell that had overwhelmed her. Had she been mistaken for dead, she wondered, and swept into this sombre alley along with the dust and dead leaves of the street? A silhouetted figure stood vigil over the sole entrance to the alley.
F… father..?, she breathed, in a whisper as soundless as the whistling of a desert wind.
In that briefest of hiatus from the murky underwater of unconsciousness, the word was all her feeble soul could summon. Consciousness stole away, once more. Only this time, she drifted into a more restful, restorative sleep.
Awareness returned to her in the last fleeting shades of twilight. She watch the deepest ocean blue of the sky above turn to starlit black. There was a growing substance to her consciousness now. Her one seeing eye stirred lazily in its socket. She could not yet command the vessel that housed her awakening consciousness. There was little more than a numb ache where her body once had been. Some measure of warmth seeped into her, however. The alley, it seemed, had cradled her into its arms. She could hear its slow beating heart, feel its deep odorous breath against her cheek. She was so minute in the vastness of its embrace. And soon, it lulled her into sleep once more. And this time, sleep was feather-light, and filled with swirling dreams. Dreams that spoke to her in a low baritone.
The alcohol on the voice’s breath warned her not to drift too far. Reaching into her shallow slumber, it told her to beware. Alleys do not speak, it warned. They do not embrace. They do not have breath, nor a heartbeat.
Other words then began to gradually filter into her semi-conscious state. This time, it was the vigil who spoke into the night, rocking her back and forth. All the vile things he had ever done, spilled into the alley like an evisceration. The fumes of his drunkard’s breath dizzied her. She listened. Their eyes met in the dark. Once or twice. Though neither entirely saw beyond the projection their minds superimposed upon the other.
He spoke, and knowing that she was no longer asleep, did nothing to stop the draining of his murky conscience onto her. And she listened. Knowing better than to unsettle the rhythm of a thing set in motion. Not that anything could be said in the presence of such dark, intimate truths as the man uncovered. She was merely the instrument that shed light upon the nightmarish translucent creatures that dwelt in the light-less depths of his soul. One by one he lifted the heavy stones, like so many poorly-healed scabs, and together they glanced at the festering world beneath. It was not all, to merely shed light upon such obscure reaches of the human condition. There was much more to the process. But it was certainly a worthy start. If one reached the point of willingly bearing one’s soul, than perhaps there was enough strength there to follow through.
This was something she knew, and knew well. Young as she was, and useless, her mother had moulded her into an adept recipient for the spillings of a wounded soul. Only, where before she had listened to the varying rhythms of violence, now she listened to those of confession. It was not so different, she discovered after some time, and so she listened. It was, in the end, all she could offer the man who had saved her, and stood vigil over her for two nights and a day now.
It was no special gift, to simply listen. It was merely that her own weakness, her obvious vulnerability, seemed to lend her the power to undermine people’s defences. More often than not, the ability had proven to be more of a curse than a gift. But here, it had its use, and for this she was grateful.
She had neither strength, nor destination. And shame at her inevitable, inescapable uselessness, still weighed so heavily on her, that even healthy of body, she was not convinced she would be able to move. Instead, she brushed the man’s hair with her fingers, and listened, and wondered if her father would have hair like this. Would smell like this. Would have a deep comforting voice like this. The man’s words flowed still but, suddenly, she no longer grasped their meaning. Through this stranger, her father was talking to her.
This was perhaps not everything she had always yearned for, but, she nonetheless allowed the moment to mould itself into the shape of one of the many hollows of her heart. And tonight, she chose that hollow to be a bedtime story. One her father would have read to her. She allowed the moment to fill the hollow left behind by a lifetime of falling asleep to the sound of her mother weeping. She was certain her father would have done these things. Would have done them naturally, even.Would have wanted to. If he would have only met her. If her arrival in her mother’s belly had not frightened him so, that he had left and never returned. She wanted to show her father that there was nothing to be afraid of.
It’s just me, she thought. I’m just a little girl. Father, I’m not scary at all. See?
And so, aloud, she told the vigil what she would have told her father. Not to be afraid. Not to leave. That it would be alright. And that he was forgiven. For everything.
When she awakened next, the man was no longer there. In his stead, she found a small offering of food wrapped in a banana leaf on the ground at her feet. She unwrapped the bundle and ate in silence. It had been so long since last she had eaten, that a few mouthful sufficed. She squinted at the harsh daylight leaking into the alley, and tried to muster the energy to move on. It was not until nightfall, however, for how heavy her guilt, for how burdensome her shame, that she succeeded in rising to her bare feet.
She would make things right. There was still time. She would go to the clinic right away and see that someone be sent to the hut, to make sure her mother was alright. Her mother would smile, then. To the village doctor. To anyone who came to inquire. She would tell them how she was fine. Just fine. That she had slept it off. Her mother was just tired. That’s all. Life was unkind to mothers. Her mother was just missing something she could not name.
Just like me, thought the girl.
When she reached the end of the alley, however, she walked off in the opposite direction from the clinic. She could not explain it. It was as though the meagre energy she possessed could only be applied in one direction. And that direction was away. Away from her mother. Away from the hut. Away from the clinic. Away from the village. Away.
Her pilgrimage began that night. And every step she took in the direction where her heart lead, made her stronger.
After two days and three nights on the road, she reached the outskirts of another village. The man’s offering of food, however generous, had not lasted the breadth of the journey. And now, despite having recovered from most of her wounds, she found herself once more in a weakened state, half-starved and weathered by the unrelenting road. Hunger had a way of exacerbating every pain in her body. When she walked, however, a blissful blanket of numbness would settle over her. And so, she rarely stopped.
The sight of a village rustled some dormant emotion within her. The promise it bore made her limbs weak. When she came to a halt somewhere near the deserted centre of town, such a sea of pain swelled within her that she could do little more than watch as it swept her away.
Coming to, she felt confused and disoriented. Her stirring was greeted with a menacing growl. The sound made her lay very still. She could see two dogs tentatively sniffing her feet, but the growl had come from behind her.
Shoo, said a man, who rushed over to the girl’s side. She heard the growling dog whimper, as the man’s foot met its ribs. She too winced. Her own fractured ribs had yet to heal, and she felt the dogs pain as her own.
Here, the man said, returning to her side. Its not much, but its more than what I had.
She tried to hold back a whimper as she sat up, and failed. The man had spoken true, there was little sprawled before her that even ants would deem worthy of a meal. A few scattered grains of rice and one or two lentils. Scattered the way a child would, to make the plate look more empty than it was. That being said, her stomach had become such a pitiful thing that she knew it would most likely prove more than she could eat. A growl, this time from her own belly, served as a grateful acknowledgement of the offering. Despite her best efforts to stretch the meal out—if only to show the man that it was worthy—it was over before long. And what a relief it was to eat. If it weren’t for the man, she surely would have disappeared for how frail and weak she had become. The thought hit her sideways. Had she not so recently wished, in a desperate bid for survival, for nothing more than to disappear? And here she was, suddenly fighting against disappearance, in order to survive.
She glanced around. The man must have brought her to this corner of the square, for she did not remember having made it so far. They were settled inside an old dilapidated gazebo. And, as with much that was meant for communal use, it soon was re-appropriated to house the homeless. She rose to her feet and walked over to the man who sat on the steps, whittling a piece of wood. He started when she sat next to him, then went back to his whittling. They sat there basking in each other’s silence. And before she could think of how to repay him, the man spilled over the side like a tipping bucket. There was a rhythm there, with which she was growing familiar. The rhythm concealed such a need, that the girl could do little more than make herself into the most apt vessel to receive it. She leaned against his ribs, showing here and there through the holes in his shirt. And, through the man’s hollow chest, she gleaned a different nature to the words. It sounded like an underwater volcano, gushing steadily its warmth into the cold evernight of the deep ocean.
When the flow of words receded, the man succumbed to the release, and fell into a sleep of such unfathomable depths, as he probably had not known since childhood. If such a time as childhood was ever granted him. Such perversions of the soul as had weighed on the man’s conscience, were of the worst kind, for they stemmed from a time before consciousness. People said that, from the moment a soul is born, it absorbs. Even before birth it absorbs. It absorbs more than its fill. Indiscriminately. It absorbs beyond what is given, to what is. It absorbs beyond what is said, to what is meant. The soul absorbs, and that which is absorbed, becomes the material around which it moulds itself. And if what there is, is the filth of this world, than that filth becomes the material with which the soul is built. No sooner could the man, who now slept peacefully by her side, have rid himself of his bones, or his skin. A soul is a vulnerable thing, so open, so vulnerable, so easily corrupted. And not for the first time, it occurred to her to ponder the origin of such an obvious flaw.
After a while, she mustered the strength to rise and, careful not to wake the man, she set out to find the dog. She did not need to venture very far into the night. She found the dog asleep in a shallow den at the foot of a gnarled tree. Even as she approached, she could not be sure of the nature of the impulse she pursued. She spoke softly, reassuringly, to it, and discovered that the dog was indeed a young mother. Its teats, though long sucked dry, still hung low on its belly, and some were chapped from where they dragged on the ground. However foolish it may sound, a part of her wanted to communicate their shared pain. To make that connection between them. She wanted to apologise and explain that it was her weakness that had led to its pain. Slowly, she approached, ignoring the growling, and reached a hand palm down as a peace offering. The dog instantly lashed out and bit her arm. Despite the pain, the girl did not scream as the dog’s canines broke her skin. Nor did she even start. She had expected such a lashing out from a wounded creature. Understood the ritual perhaps better than anyone. And she accepted the pain as her due. No one should be made to suffer on account of her uselessness. When the dog understood the nature of the offering, the venom left its eyes. Its jaws slowly parted and it licked at the wound, repentant. The girl gave it the banana leaf where some crumbs still remained of her meal, and as the dog licked, she patted it twice and left.
She found the man again, who had not stirred in his peaceful repose. She settled close to his head. The smell of his breath, of liquor and pipe smoke, overpowering as it was, comforted her. She slid the back of her hand on the rough stubble of his sallow cheek.
Goodnight, father, she whispered.
When she awoke the next morning, the man was gone. The wound on her arm had been bandaged with a rag, probably torn from the man’s own shirt.
That afternoon, the dog followed her to the outskirts of town. There, it hesitated.
If your heart doesn’t guide you this way, don’t follow, she said, wisely. The dog looked back lazily at the village. And when the girl turned to leave, it ran to catch up to her. She had made a friend.
The road was not kind to the girl. Hardships joined forces in cowardly ways against the worthy pilgrim, leaving her more than once on the brink of journey’s end. Thus, she came to understand that her pilgrimage too was a worthy one. For no honourable path would leave its pilgrim untested. Nor would an honourable path test its pilgrim beyond its capacity to learn from the duress. She thought of a time before she had found her own path. A time when she had walked in her mother’s shadow. That path had not been kind to her; had forcefully tried to rid itself of her, in fact.
If it had not exactly been in her capacity to acknowledge it then, she was certainly grateful now, to have been granted such a strong impetus for her to find her own way. A pilgrim could ask for little more than to walk his or her own path. And so, she forgave any means by which she had been set upon it. The girl knew her path to be just. Harsh, but just. So, she leaned into it. Trusted its teachings. The fate she had left behind was no negligible one, and she found solace in the memory. It made her take heart. Empowered her to overcome her present hardships. Of course, it still hurt at times to dwell on the past. But the endless hours on the road, were nothing if not introspective. She would make her peace, with time. And that would be her true journey’s end. And she would know it instantly for what it was.
Late one afternoon, as the rays of the sun pressed themselves sideways into the world, she ambled into the outskirts of a town. She had always found that there was something purifying about this time of day. As though the golden afternoon light plunged deep into the human soul and expelled the full length of the shadow we all harbour within. With its last rays, the sun revealed the self-same darkness that crept into humankind at night, corrupting their nature and intentions.
The girl could make out a commotion ahead on the road. A flock of kids circled there, casting their shadows upon their prey. There was too little left in the girl for her to shout a warning. And so she approached patiently, neither hastening, nor slowing her steady pilgrim’s pace. As she was but a few paces away, one of the kids noticed her, and soon a hush fell upon the group. Each in turn studied the curious shawled figure making its limping way unmistakeably towards them. Unsure what to make of her, she was allowed to approach unscathed. There was a mystery to her that the boys could not internalise. Perhaps it was the fact that she was no older than them. Perhaps it was that her vulnerability was so openly displayed, so visible. They were kids too after all, and none, as was right, could fully grasp the path that lead to such a sickly and injured child as they beheld. Theirs were inner weaknesses, and although they too could, at times, become visible from the outside, or wielded even; when all was said and done, they looked like normal kids.
Whatever it was that forestalled their viciousness, the girl was granted a slim margin for action, and she seized it. Walking up to the likely instigator in the group, she swept wide with her weathered half-broomstick and struck him in the shins. The rattle of bones against wood more than overshadowed the actual pain she caused. But the effect was none the lesser. The boy bent low with the pain, and she pinched his ear between her calloused fingers. The circle widened and light was allowed to fall onto the child on the ground. Instantly, the other boys scattered.
Something about twisting an ear, the girl thought, not unlike grabbing a puppy by the scruff of the neck, rendered kids harmless. Disarmed them. She pulled him close and whispered a few words of wisdom into his ear. And when, at last, she released him, it was as though from a coiled spring and the kid scrambled away. When the soft pitter patter of his retreat faded into the distance, she sighed and stepped over to the child, still whimpering in the dust of the road. Her instincts came up short them, and she knew not how to handle the child other than to kick him softly.
Up, she said, in a frail voice. Up now. Its over. They’ve beaten you enough. No need to beat yourself up about it too. When she saw that her words weren’t hitting home, she kicked him once more in the soft of his back. Bruises and cuts are honourable. Self-pity… is not.
Something in her words struck a chord inside the boy and soon an eye opened to consider her. Than, with as much pride as he could salvage, he rose to his feet, squinting about himself, as though he had arisen from such a dark place that he was surprised to find that it was still light out. The boy sniffed and squinted at her.
Go home, she said, simply.
The boy lifted his head high, though not a few tears still glistened on his mud-caked cheeks, and walked off.
Oddly, as she watched the boy leave, her instincts returned to her. She was surprised to sense that her responsibilities towards the boy were not wholly at an end. She could not in good conscience let the child go without ascertaining the validity of the path she had now set him upon. So, she followed suit. The boy stopped once or twice to watch the mysterious shawled figure and her lame dog pursuing him, but did not hasten his step as a consequence. On the contrary, more than once she found him waiting around a corner, indulging her slow pace, and making sure that she would not lose her way. As they reached the boy’s home—a shed in the back of a more prominent house—the boy was there to help the weary pilgrim up the steps that led into the yard.
Steam was rushing out of the metal bars that served for windows. The boy kindly held the curtain back and the girl stepped in first. There, despite the ache in her stomach at the starchy smell of boiling rice, despite the singeing pain in the sole of her feet, she stood studying the man she understood to be the boy’s father. And for a moment, she blocked the door, not allowing the boy to step inside. The man’s surprise waned gradually, and when she observed that which replaced it, she at last limped to the corner of the narrow room and took a seat. Empathy alone, however, would not be the whole measure of a soul. Her mother might have offered as much to a stranger. But, it certainly would be a start. She rested her head against the gritty wall, and closed her eyes a moment. Here and there whispers came to her through her daze and when she fully awoke once more, quite some time had passed.
The boy was sitting at the table, writing notes and solving simple equations in a thin yellowed notebook. Her eyes darted drowsily, back and forth between the man and the little boy. As though some immaterial tether, some invisible substance, would reveal itself between the two. Even after she was certain that both knew her to be awake, she carried on her prying. What would satisfy her intuition?, she wondered. What could she find that would liberate her from this boy? She wasn’t quite certain, but she would wait it out, exorcise it with patience.
She hummed to herself, long unaccustomed to the habits of a house, and both father and son took in their mysterious guest with the odd glance her way. She nodded to herself now and then, as though weighing matters of great import. Most of all, she watched the father. She even once reached over with her half broomstick and swiped the boy’s homework clean off the table. Squinting shrewdly, she analysed every last flinch of the father’s expression. She almost leapt out off her chair in surprise when the two merely exchanged a puzzled look and burst out laughing. She marvelled at the scene. Felt ashamed even.
The father’s inner-child had shone through then, and nearly blinded the girl with its candour. She could not understand how it could be. Although surely calloused, exhausted; the man’s inner-child was not however… wounded. Certainly not to the extent of the men whom she had visited, like so many desecrated altars, during her pilgrimage. Life was cruel to fathers, she knew. But her doubts as to the nature of the relationship between this father and his son, were banished now. Parsing through the words the father addressed to his son and corroborating them with the boys expression, she saw there the path to a good heart. She understood then, why she had needed to follow the boy here. And now she could rest assured that however arduous his path, the boy would not succumb to it.
What would she have done if it weren’t the case?, she wondered. Would she have invited the boy to join in her pilgrimage? Suddenly, she felt disoriented, sickened even. She was the corruption here. It was she who was the poison. How she had strayed, she thought. There were no traces of her father here.
Her numb feet made for unsteady footing, but with the support of her broken broomstick, she limped back out into the night. She found her faithful dog companion curled into a bundle by the gate, and together they set off to find the path anew.
Not a street corner had passed underfoot, however, when she heard a soft pitter patter of feet running after her. She thought of the troublesome kid whose ear she had twisted. Somehow, in her twisted soul, she feared the father and son, for what they represented, more than the retribution of this bully. His ways were familiar to her. Retribution was what she knew. Retribution was merely her due. She did not ease her pace as the footsteps neared, and was surprised to hear that the cowardly boy had come alone. But then again, there wasn’t much about her that anyone would consider a threat. She hunched slightly anticipating the blow, but found that none came. Instead, it was the boy whom she had rescued, that was panting beside her now. The one she had followed home.
Still, rather than relief, she felt that same wary anticipation she had felt in that interim, the one when the rhythm of her mother’s beating had suddenly stopped. She feared that something worse still, was brewing, than retribution.
The boy, without a word, handed her a neatly wrapped bundle. He volunteered a smile and there was so much goodness there, and it was so freely given, that something shrivelled and squirmed within her. Before she could control herself, she was dragging the boy into the ditch by the road, and once there, she tried desperately to soil him, to smother every escape of vulnerability with mud and filth, not to hurt, never to hurt, but to conceal it from the hungry cruel world she knew was forever watching.
The boy’s face painted a different truth, however, full of hurt and confusion. And yet, through it all, the boy still had the presence of mind, the kindness of heart, to be delicate with her frail bones, to be patient with her torture of him. Once she understood this, she was beaten. She fell backwards onto the slope of the ditch and the boy, at last, seized his chance and ran back home.
She lay there panting for a long time. Her eyes searching the darkness, as though reading there some ancient verse, some condemnation. She recognised now the intuition, the impulse, that had led her to follow the child home. And it was not at all as she had foreseen. Rather than to rescue the boy from an abusive home, she had been irresistibly drawn by the apparent lack of the instincts that an abusive home instilled. Like a magpie, she had merely been drawn by a shiny object which she could not name. By something so foreign that she could not internalise it. It was as though something clicked into place inside her then. Like some ancient mechanism, or a cycle sealing itself. And now that the dirty deed was done, now that the shiny object had been made dull; she was free to move on. The dog came to sit by her side. And she said onto it:
Mother, it’s a cruel world for little boys.
Later, cradled into a recess between houses, she opened the bundle the child had given her. She pinched a few grains of saffron rice and placed them into her mouth and cried. It was a measure of her starvation that she even swallowed. The rest of the meal, the rest of the undeserved offering, she handed to the dog.
Time wore on. It was not clear to her exactly how much time, only that one day followed the next and the next… For, what are milestones when the path has no destination? What are days when the end might come today or sixty years hence? She walked. Ate when it was duly offered and deserved. Slept when she could not go on. And around every bend found her father again. And she would listen and she would forgive. And she would fix him when she could. She would relieve him of his burden and hoist it proudly upon her own shoulder. She would listened, and in the morning find herself free, her path stretching out before her, and she would walk until she found him again somewhere down the path.
On one such night, as her father slept, she whispered into his sleeping ear her nightly psalm.
Bless you who are useless just like me. Mother always said that my worst traits were inheritances from you. And that is why I am here to say, I forgive you.
And perhaps it was irony that her mother’s words had empowered her to know her worth in this world. Or perhaps it was fate. But she was her father’s daughter and only as such could she forgive. Every night. Only as such could she have survived as a pilgrim on the road. And the silent forgiveness she reserved for her father, the noble way with which she set aside her own suffering to tend to his twisted souls; was a redemption beyond anything her father could have ever thought himself worthy of. And like Saint Christopher himself, her father met her at every point of collapse, every time her path wore her through. And he offered her alms. And he offered her shelter. And together their respective uselessness annulled itself until their next encounter.
By a particularly obscure night, of neither moon nor stars, her path brought her into the care of an ancient man. As was the way, she sat through his considerable stubbornness, his resistance, his fear. More than once, she wondered whether there was perhaps not a father, in there, for her to lure. But the night was young still, and she would not be caught surrendering the attempt. At last, after a great deal of the night had passed in silence, the man spoke. The layered mortar surrounding his shame, his sin and failures, had inevitably yielded to her silent siege. He spoke at length and without pause. And when the corruption had, finally, bled itself from him, he did something the girl had not expected. The man transformed his alleviation into action rather than slumber. The string of his confession had unwound at such speed that he was cast forth like a spinning top into the early hours before light. Cast on a pilgrimage of his own.
Sleepily, she followed. For days, perhaps weeks, for time flowed strangely in the ancient man’s wake; she followed, without so much as a word spoken between them. It was only when they had reached the fields on the outskirts of a village, that she had awoken to their destination. They had somehow circled back to the girl’s native village. And, she realised, the mysterious man had led her to no other than the very hut where she had once, long ago, forsaken her mother to die. Reluctantly, she followed him to the entrance of the hut, but no further. Her eyes adjusted to the gloom within, and she saw a woman inside. Healthy. Alive. The woman was her mother.
Upon seeing her mother again, the dream dissipated.
She awoke gradually from the curious dream, a little lost. For a moment, she thought that her mother may still be near, but there was only the dog. She crawled out of the humid culvert, where she had found shelter for the night. The skies above were cryptic. Great formations of cumulonimbus drifted far above, like refugees carrying their burden to another, more worthy land. She bathed the back of her neck, her face, her hands in a trickling stream. Last, she eased her calloused feet into the cool water, watching as the current swept the red earth away.
There had been a child there too. In the dream. But, the child had not been her. Just as the old man had not been her father. For there was not a world where her father had stayed.
A better world, she thought. Even if she was not the child. Even if that meant that she did not exist. She had been of the only use she could be in this world. And it was a better world for it. She had released the man of his burden, so that he may return in time to be a father. She had made her mother smile. She had made it so that the child-that-wasn’t-her, may be worthy of love.
She crawled back into the dampness of the culvert. The dog stirred as she regained her place at its side. It pressed itself deeper into the crook of her frail body. There was a new, nascent heat there, in the girl’s belly, that was not born of the exchange of heat between them. She placed her hand there but was not long in wondering before she fell back into a shallow, dreamless sleep.
In the days to come, the girl found no peace in the steady rhythms of her pilgrimage. Her heart was beating in her belly, throbbing, and it ached without end. And as the day wore on—not one step of which had gone uncounted, unfelt—that ache turned into a hunger such as she had never known. It seeped all the warmth from her. All the strength from her legs. She trudged on regardless, ignoring the invisible current that seemed to want to guide her life in another direction. There was a message hidden there, amongst the maddening concert of signs and sensations, which she was reluctant to interpret. It hinted at a pilgrimage coming to an end. And she denied it as much as she dared. And greeted the suffering willingly.
She found herself ascending a hillock, one day. The path wound its way up and around and soon released her onto a thin mountainside trail. Despite the sharp incline and the thinning of the air, her step had regained a measure of spring, of vigour. And the thrumming burden in her belly, which had not eased in the days since that mysterious dream, felt now almost wholly alleviated. Perhaps she was succumbing to pilgrim’s delirium, but it was almost as though her navel was tethered by a thread which was softly guiding her, easing her burden as she climb up the mountain side.
So, the old pilgrim finds her path anew, she thought. And she rejoiced at the thought. Perhaps her pilgrimage was not at an end after all.
She rested towards midday in the shade of an aged tree. The last of its kind this near to the alpine. Onto the tree was nailed a sign overgrown with vines. Brushing the foliage aside with her cane, she uncovered the faded promise of a temple at the crest of the mountain. A hermitage, no doubt, for how remote, for how withdrawn. When she resumed her ascent, it was with a renewed sense of equanimity. And although her path grew more arduous with every ten-step, the calling of the temple was the stronger, and she made good progress.
The arid alpine landscape reminded her of the barren fields of home. Where the thin crop persisted despite the meagre offerings of the earth. Where the sun pursued its designs for world desertification. Where the rain seldom came but to flood and steal even more of the earth away. Here in the alpine, the wizened flora carved its existence through stone and some fickle whim of an eccentric creator. She felt an affinity towards the twisted tortured trees. There was a rhythm to they perseverance with which she shared a warm sense of kinship. It was the way of the drop carving pools into stone. The way of the wind eroding cliffs into spires. The way of the glacier furrowing entire valleys. It was the way of the pilgrim. Were one of these ancient trees to walk with her, she imagined that they would share much the same shuffling gait. They would be of a mind on the passing of the hours into days. Of a heart on the toil and virtues of such a path.
Twice more she rested in the shade, and it was only by night that the temple at last came into view. She collapsed onto its front step and lay there breathing. And for a while, breathing was all there was. That, and the myriad stars sprawled above. Perhaps she would seek counsel at the temple come morning. But the thought was short lived. What on earth would she ever seek counsel for?, she wondered. Things had never felt clearer to her than in these last moments before sleep drew itself like a blanket over her.
In the early morning, she awoke on the same temple step and discovered that it was abandoned. The pain in her belly was strong, that morning. As though all the pain that had been alleviated along the way up the mountain, had suddenly come rushing back all at once. That day, she lay on the temple floor, unable to move. A storm that had been brewing for some time, broke violently on the second day. And by the third, the pain in her belly had lessened a little and she was finally allowed some sleep. The skies were still troubled but at peace. By then, however, the girl could no longer deny the origin of the pain. And, as soon as she made her peace with the fact, she knew total equanimity. She was with child.
Although she could not tally her age, she knew for certain that she was not yet of the age to conceive. The thought terrified her. She could not understand how she had come to be set on this path. But there was no denying the lump taking shape at the centre of her being. However much she prayed and cried, the course could not be altered, the path forward would not change. This was but one more trial. One more test of her faith.
The temple was perched just above the clouds, and when the pilgrim came into view on the winding path, she was graced with the first rays of light to touch the land. The girl observed the pilgrim approach through a rift in the temple door. The visitor was a woman perhaps twice the girl’s age. The girl studied the pilgrim as she knelt by the temple step. She watched as the pilgrim unfastened the shawl that hung sideways across her chest, and rested it gently onto the topmost temple step. The shawl contained the tiniest of parcel. An offering perhaps. But no, it could not be an offering, for the parcel soon revealed itself to be a child. There was an exchange of silence as the proposal settled upon all three bodies present. Or could it?
Quietly, the door slid aside and the girl knelt before the offered child. A breeze swept the covered portal where the tentative ritual was struggling to take shape. Gracefully, with almost a mother’s instinct, the girl reached over and lifted the child into her arms. How weightless life, she thought. How hard given, how easily taken. And for a moment, in the warmth of their embrace, the child was her own.
The moment came to pass and the girl returned the child. The pilgrim accepted the child and was made a mother anew. An invisible deal had been made, a negotiation for a new, more noble beginning. The child was reborn now, only this time, out of charity. Gone were the sins of its conception. Gone was the stain of a lust wrongly consumed. Gone was the painful truth which would be repressed, and spill its slow venom in the shadow of shame.
The woman left late that evening, sure that the darkness of night would oppose no challenge to the light that now shone upon her child. The girl awoke a short time after, and in her absence found an offering of food upon the temple step. And it was only as she ate, that she discovered the absence of the dog. Their paths had forked somewhere before her ascension. So enthralled had she been in finding a renewed sense of rightness, of flow, in her path, that the separation had come to pass without her noticing. She ate well on the pilgrim’s offering, though much was no longer hers to absorb. She was eating for two now, and her child’s hunger was not as easily sated as her own. A broken thatch in the roof allowed her a glimpse at the stars and soon she slipped into a silky spell of slumber.
Word travelled fast and wide through the neighbouring villages. The pilgrim had walked through the night, and upon her arrival in the village, many villagers had gathered to welcome the weary pilgrim, and hear of her journey. The child passed from embrace to embrace, as she spoke, as all contemplated the miracle of re-birth. No longer would the child be shunned as one born of sin. And the promise filled many mother’s dreams that first night after the pilgrim’s return. And for many nights to follow.
As a result, more and more pilgrims, mothers all, came to make their offering over the coming days and weeks. For some, the ritual of absolution took longer than others. For some, the corrupt wound of sin had all but healed over. And so entangled was their soul that the scar tissue needed to be scoured into a wound anew, before the sin could be absolved. The cleansing came at the price of much pain, and the girl felt their pain as her own and suffered alongside them. But neither could such a gift be so freely granted. Many came who discovered themselves unable to suffer the loss of a child. They would cling to their child as to their sin and would be days in letting go. But, the girl showed patience and with time guided these souls into the understanding that releasing their burden did not mean to minimize it, did not dishonour the courage with which they had shouldered it all these years. In time, every worthy absolution came to be performed. That is not to say that all pilgrims were successful in their endeavours. More than once, in fact, the girl had chased a pilgrim off who had sought absolution for a child born without sin. Such pilgrims came for their own vanity, jealous as they were of the miracle of re-birth. She was not unkind to such mothers, for she knew that no path was without its trials. But she nonetheless sent them on their way.
On most nights, the girl would cry silently under the weight of the world. What creator indeed would allow such a gift as life, to lay so easily within reach of such a base, overpowering, temptation as lust? What design would allow such an effortless violation of this most sacred rite? In this, the path seemed to surpass the capacity of all but the most worthy of pilgrims. So few, in fact, proved worthy of such a trial, that with every pilgrim, her empathy and forgiveness could not but grow. For she too was such a child. And only as such could she absolve. And onto the pilgrim mothers she said the words of forgiveness she fostered within herself, but had never spoken for her own mother.
Time passed and the children graced by the miracle of re-birth became known amongst the villagers, as the virgin’s children. And the girl often wondered whether they thought her increasingly soiled by the process. Where indeed did they think the sin went when she absolved a child? Even as she performed it, the girl doubted the true nature of the miracle. Was there truly a change other than that of perception?
However, whether holy or otherwise, she never doubted that the children she absolved would benefit in this life. And on most nights this was enough to ease her doubts. To bring her solace even.
Little by little the daily absolutions aged the girl. Or perhaps it was merely an effect of being with child. Or perhaps her years as a pilgrim were finally catching up. Or perhaps it was indeed the weight of the world which she was increasingly made to carry. Who could tell for certain? She bore her aching life nobly. Life had never been otherwise, and so she never thought to complain.
As the time of her own labour neared, the pilgrimage of mothers seemed to ebb. Perhaps, again, she was inclined to perceive concordance where there might only be happenstance. The thought of the child, for soon it would no longer be merely a lump in her belly, filled her every waking moment. Would the child bear as she the burden of the world? Had she sullied her own child with the sins she had absolved? And if so, would she be able to find love for it? And would the child forgive her? She wondered whether these same intuitions were what kept the pilgrims away as her moment grew near. And if so, could she find it in her to forgive them? Would the child?
The first contraction came as she was gathering a few dried limbs for a fire. Her water had broken not an hour before, and she had rushed to ready her supplies for the coming birth. She was mere paces from the temple’s step when she was laid low by the pain. And although she had known pain in her short trying life, and had overcome it every time; this time it was inconceivable. As though some extraneous will refused to let her give birth in the temple. And the only thing her struggles yielded was more suffering. When she began giving birth, she did so under the open sky, alone.
Whatever arises from noble suffering, she thought, fighting a rush of self-pity, is inherently good. And she prayed for it to be so. As all mothers do, she prayed that she may have suffered enough for her child to be spared.
The child’s first cries came with the last glow of twilight. She reached down to gather it in the soft fabric of her mother’s least favourite shawl, and lay onto her back, the effort having beaten every last wisp of life out of her. The cold compacted earth beneath her, felt exactly like the cold compacted earth of her mother’s hut. And the silence that settled about her, seemed exactly that of the odd interim that had settled between her mother’s blows. An entire life could be lived in that interim, she thought. An entire life could be lost.
She raised the child before her eyes. In her last moment, she was graced with the clarity of mind to recognise the soul, there, watching over her. In the ultimate act of forgiveness, she had birthed him, at last. In the ultimate martyrdom and sacrifice, she had offered him the life she herself was soon to renounce. So that he may watch over her, one last night. The child was her father. And she said onto him:
Father, it’s a cruel world for little girls.
Then, she slept and never awoke again.
© 2021 Etienne Robert. All rights reserved.