The Sky Gem
by Sean Mulroy
Table of Contents|
parts: I, II, III, IV
I: The End Country
Having rested under a bo-tree the great traveller rose suddenly and pointed to a spot just off the beaten path. “There,” he said.
Walking over to a small patch of waylaid pebbles and sprouting weeds, he stooped down and picked up a stone which had drifted apart from others closer to the track. The yellowish rock, unnoticeable amongst spindly grass, stood out in the traveller’s dark hand. With slow, mindful movements and a friendly smile, the tall man carefully opened the threadbare pouch he carried and dropped the stone within.
“It will remind me of this place and my wanderings here in the flatlands that come before the mountains.” The traveller brushed muck from his matted beard and hid the threadbare pouch, its contents and maligned tapestry amid his morose-colored garments.
Gazing in the direction he had been heading, the traveller smiled and once again trod along the bony path. “No more stories,” he said. “You have heard enough and, besides, the sun will not wait for me.”
“You’ve been to Qin?” questioned the boy Lochan, who had been following the stranger along the open grassland track, struggling now to keep up with the man’s hurried pace.
“The kingdom of Chu?”
“The kingdom of Wei?”
“No, not that far,” the traveller appeared weary. “Return to your village. I’m sure you have chores to do.”
The boy looked back along the dirt trail that eventually led to his village, Suchai. Unfortunately, this passing wanderer was too out of the ordinary to dismiss so easily. Continuing to follow the tall traveller, albeit secretly, the boy soon came to the end of the track. He could see the Stone Demon which overlooked the prohibited forest, where beyond, stood the mighty Himalayas.
Ancient, moss-eaten, dunked in ivy, almost forgotten by villagers, the statue’s features were prominent, the eyes still held and, at any rate, Lochan knew that looking at the stone sentinel meant he was truly at the end of his country’s domain.
The traveller neared the Stone Demon but, instead of entering dank wilderness behind it, he stopped. Looking dismayed, he turned around and glared directly to where Lochan was hiding. From amid his long garments he took forth the tattered pouch again and, with delicate fingers, opened it. The boy emerged from behind a tussled bush and moved towards the stranger.
The gaunt man pulled out a small blue gem about the size of his thumb, so pale and clear it appeared to be a part of the sky piercing through his hand. “Here, take it.”
Lochan threw out his hand and took the gem.
“Now, back to your home.” The traveller turned and entered the forbidden forest.
Lochan knelt down and inspected the gem closely. “It is mine,” he said.
* * *
On flat grass savannahs spotted with mounds and rocks, before the steep inclines of the mountains’ rocky ways, was Suchai, Lochan’s home.
Fewer than sixty inhabitants still resided in the community. Tribal warring, land disputes and, finally, invading foreigners who now dominated the region, had all brought with them great change.
Dusk hung over the refuse of hovels skirting along the brink of the grass plains perimeter, where villagers would traditionally build their homes. Busy movements of worried townsfolk, which would never cease until streets were deserted, carried on in their repetitive rhythm, which many young would now fall asleep to at night.
On account of these problems, the boy’s family, most gone, were deciding on their final direction. As for Lochan, his was already known. The Evadas of Shiva who lived in the midst of the Himalayas along the belt of Mount Kailash, Shiva’s ancestral abode, was to be his destination and destiny.
Outside the family’s makeshift home, the old pony that Lochan’s grandmother had once owned was braying. No doubt being packed with goods for his youngest sister’s departure with the foreign merchant from Eckol. Silently a cloud poked in front of the reclining sun. Lochan lay down and wondered if it would pass by before the sun set.
Eventually that fluffy cloud did allow the sun one last view of the earth before darkness swallowed it, but the boy never knew.
* * *
Minutes before the sun rose, the boy had been aroused by his mother and aunt. His sister had gone; it was obvious from his mother’s face. Aunt Chandi handed him a wrapped lump of flatbread and, by his feet, lay a single dhoti freshly pressed. Through a break in the wall, where he had watched the sun the night before, he saw only greyish mist rising from cold damp fields and unknown earth. Waking up a little bit more and looking closer, the image of the sky became clearer, and it could well be seen the sun was not far away.
Lochan’s aunt cupped her hand over his chin and turned the small drowsy head towards her. “You know where the temple is?” she asked.
The boy shook his head.
Aunt Chandi groaned. “Go through the forest towards the mountains then find the largest one,” she let go of his chin. “Pray to Shiva for guidance. He will help you. The Evadas will keep you safe.” She glanced through the hole in the wall with a worried look.
There would be no time for coveted embraces this morning, as a local farmer had just rode through town viciously warning of a band of many men, dark riders all on horseback, each carrying fire and heading fast in their town’s direction.
* * *
Lochan approached the end of the track and stood before the Stone Demon. No longer could he hear or see any of his fellow townspeople. He was alone. To look back over the vale, the furthest quadrant of his homeland where he had dared to go through childhood, was too much to ask; so he did not.
The forest ahead had no tracks that wound within. Fearing local legends, none now braved to journey through it.
The thick growth of petalled wilderness that weaved behind and up along the Stone Demon to its neck, appeared to Lochan as good a starting point as any. Walking to the same spot where only yesterday the strange traveller had entered the forest, here, he, too, decided to begin his adventure.
Immersing himself in tangles of jungle creepers and thickets, at first not daring to open eyes for fear that the ravenous environment would somehow claw at them; he entered the spurned forest, afraid, giving in to all the unseen elements. He did this, bravely, but only to feel stems and bristles easily give way.
Opening nervous eyes he could see the innards of the forest. Before him, tall, ancient oaks filled a glade reaching up to higher than could be seen. The roof of the forest was all-encompassing, made up of petulant vines, the oaks leafage and a multitude of forest debris.
Staring at Lochan directly in front, having fallen on its side, part of one eye sinking in a cross-work of leaves and vines was the toppled head of an enormous deity. The sunken eye of the elephantine statue beheld Lochan. Forest leaves, which semi-covered it, acted as its lid, and it seemed to be only half aware. The crumbled iris of its pupil was twice the boy’s size. How or by whom the head had been formed was unknown. Yet Lochan noticed it was carved from the same mossy stone his country’s marker was made from.
While unwrapping his cold lump of flatbread, the young adventurer walked around the giant head and casually nibbled bits off the bread as he cautiously strolled through this manifesting world.
An ear, a shoulder and an arm with a pointed finger capping it off protruded from the forest far away. Again the same stone, the same craftsmanship, the same impact.
Pavilions, sinking promenades grounded deep in the earth, buried gods and warlords all alike eerily passed him on this solitary path. So soon it was midday; sooner again, it was late evening. The path he had taken, when he looked back, was unrecognisable. It had become mixed in with time and everything else to form one connected single image of which he was now a part.
Copyright © 2016 by Sean Mulroy