The Sky Gem
by Sean Mulroy
Table of Contents|
parts: I, II, III, IV
II: Holy Vagabonds
The forest floor changed as night approached. The only land visible looked to be a great stride away. A natural path seemed to lie between two sloping mud hills far in the distance. The child went that way.
Lightning struck overhead, creating a distorted imprint. Scintillating light shone menacingly for only a second; it lit up and cast streaking black shadows, which created patterns against the overhanging perimeter of the trees above. The enclosed forest became illuminated with a strange luminesce for that single moment. Thunder roared.
Near those mud hills was a form moving oddly. Lochan could see it in the afterglow. The dark silhouette seemed to be a living statue, so wide were its proportions. Lumps of stone appeared to be falling from its heavy girth, like ooze from a pit, as it moved.
Lochan was sure it turned its bulbous head towards him. But then quickly, once again, everything was dark.
* * *
When Lochan had finally reached the two mud hills, drops of rain began to fall. They touched his skin lightly, arriving with long intervals between. Lochan sat down. Leaning against the muddy wall, the boy stared to the opposite side framing the path.
An ancient statue totally covered in mud was sitting calmly in immortal meditation, with features entirely blotched over beneath slumps of mud constantly falling onto it from the small hill behind. The statue was very rigid and seemed to belong to that hill somehow, as if the mud had claimed it.
While relaxing, Lochan stared at the muddy ground around his feet. Knowing he would have to move on soon into the unknown, he enjoyed this respite.
However a strange feeling was constantly felt. The ground, being steadily infiltrated by mud, looked solid and hard, yet there was an intangible force in the vicinity; somewhere, something unseen. Lochan looked towards the statue. It was still.
Dismissing the creepy feeling he stared at the ground once more, planning tonight’s journey through the dark. But again he felt a presence. Again he looked to the statue. It was still.
“Hello,” said Lochan.
The mud-covered statue said nothing, moved not at all. Lochan looked to the ground. He waited for something to happen. He knew it would. Again the presence was felt. Someone was near. He was sure of it.
When he closed his eyes, the presence grew stronger. The boy felt the statue was studying him every time he glanced away. Small indentations around the statue’s eyes, new lines in the mud, like dark shadows cast by flying seagulls onto sand, appeared to be there every time Lochan looked. Craning his neck, the boy glared at the shut eyes of the statue, feeling if anything was hidden underneath those caked layers of mud, it would only be glimpsed there.
The human and imitation sat opposite each other. Unable to fight the rain any longer, a heavy chunk of mud dislodged from the statue’s hand, displaying life-like fingers behind. Lochan instantly leapt back in horror.
Suddenly the statue moved, oddly jittered, then breathed. Two openings broke the mud, two eyes stared outwards into his own. Lochan instinctively reached for the gem as a torso, skull and body tore away from the mud wall like a mutinous part.
The statue was a man, alone and dishevelled. He facelessly stared at the boy as he spat mud out his mouth. Wiping thick grime off his extremities, he kept the boy in sight then spoke. “I know you, do I not? You — who are you — a spirit?”
“I... I seek a path that leads to the temple of the Evadas,” said the boy in fear.
“No! Don’t say that name! Don’t bring that power here!” shouted the man while covering his ears with muddy hands. Taking a deep breath, he calmed somewhat then continued. “But yes, I know the path you seek. There is but one.” The man’s countenance seemed unstable; mud still covered his demeanor. “It has not been trod in over a hundred years. Nevertheless, I know the way.”
“A stranger who has travelled widely passed through here only yesterday.”
The recluse laughed firmly. “Hah, an avatar of Bral, that, or... Am I not Amar Girisha?”
Lochan suddenly shivered, he’d realised there was something wrong with the man. “Bral?” he asked.
Amar wiped most of the sludge off his face. Unmasked, he was much younger than first supposed, maybe only ten or twelve years older than his visitor. The way he spoke and conducted himself gave Lochan an impression that the man was of a high caste, perhaps even the son of a Brahmin.
“Bral is a shape changer. He be this forest, not that. He is the forest, He isn’t. He is unattached, singular, although He is everything here.”
“Oh, yes, yes, of course. The most powerful. These fallen giants” — Amar looked to the ruins of the past — “when they lived, they worshipped him, hence ‘the Children of Bral.’ I am the last.”
Lochan was wary. “Grandmother taught that these statues were made by men. Remnants of them exist in my own lands. They all bear some resemblance.”
“They lived, some live now, I know this.” Amar flicked specks of mud onto the boy’s bread, “That in your hand: an offering to them?”
Amar immediately turned from the boy. The mud on his face, casting shadows over what could be seen of it, revealed displeasure.
“I thought you were a statue,” said Lochan, “when I first saw you here.”
“When I am with them, I am one sometimes. Not at the moment though. The hidden nuts and dark berries, the yellow bark and a raging fire to breathe them in; that is all required,” Amar jumped quickly over to Lochan’s side. “I live like the forest you see. Others have gone to Brahma, but they will achieve nothing.” He laughed cynically. “Bral’s children know secrets. And they see, they listen, they tell.”
“Can you show me this path that leads to the mountains?” pleaded the youth.
“No, I cannot. I am forbidden.”
“But you just said you know the way...”
“Bral does, though he may not make it so easy for us. Before, for that one moment, he allowed me to see that path, as clear as I see you now, I saw it. But at this moment, alas, He has taken it from me. You see, I can no more make decisions for Bral than I can for the foundations of his mountains and their valleys.”
Amar immediately covered his mouth with one hand and tried to hold in a laugh. He couldn’t. The laugh was flat and guttural and gave Lochan the impression Amar was not being genuine, that Amar actually believed he could. “You have nothing to give, but you ask of an expense, though in your unique circumstance that bread may just suffice.”
“For permission to leave,” Amar chided. “Understand: nothing comes from Bral cheaply; there is always a cost, which is never mutual.”
* * *
Amar led the boy through a world of disturbed images. Rain came down hard now as night fell fast. Reigning water started to flow into lower realms of the jungle while the two roaming figures persevered against it.
“You see, up ahead,” ordered the reckless forager as countless beads of rain struck his unfolding features; his malnourished arm and hand pointing to the distance through a maze of jetting liquid that seemed to be a form of destruction to all the malleable nature before it.
“Bral’s home, not far off.”
The land sloped up. A dilapidated ruin was not far in front, but Amar was not pointing there.
“Is this the way to the mountains?” asked the boy.
“First, pay Bral homage. Everything else is useless.”
The bread in Lochan’s wet apparel was beginning to dampen. “Where is Bral?”
Amar turned around. The rain had knocked all mud off his face with only a few trapped stragglers caught up in his thin beard. He licked raindrops off his moustache and smiled. “Not far ahead, only to the Twisted Tree. There we will pass the bread directly to him.” Amar then howled loudly and a thunderbolt struck high over the roof of the forest canopy as if in reply.
Ascending to a flatter plain, the forest and its roof felt to shift in dimension as the ground flattened but rustling branches still violently swayed in a chaotic dance with the threatening storm. A gnarled column, chiselled with faded, minimal decorations, held up a cracked, solid stone surface of what once may have been a pale color but was now covered in moss and fungi.
Amar sat under it. “This storm is jealous of our pilgrimage,” he boasted.
“It does not look to end anytime soon,” replied Lochan.
“Relentless. Once it rained for many suns and moons here, boy, for so many suns and moons, it nearly destroyed me.” Amar took a long sigh and rested his back against the antique column.
Lochan sat close to Amar, only because of necessity, in an effort to shield himself from the rain. However the boy also tried not to get too close to the dirt-ridden hermit. “How long have you been in this forest?” he asked.
“Much time... I’m not sure now. The world must be very different outside.”
“There is always fighting beyond this forest,” stated the boy somewhat proudly.
Amar looked at rain falling through leaves. “I once was travelling too, travelling always. Till I found here... Till I was drawn here and heard a voice.” He then became silent.
“From where?” asked Lochan.
“It is a voice that resides here, a voice that...”
“It told me Shiva is dead.”
The boy grappled the gem.
“What is it you have there?” inquired Amar rudely.
“Nothing, just an itch.”
Amar appeared puzzled. “It has form. You held it.” Turning his eyes up to see the shadow of the moon through trees above, he seemed to reflect deeply then, grinning, he spoke. “Is it gold?”
“What then?” Amar drew closer luridly gazing.
The boy moved back awkwardly. When Lochan reached the barrier the rain had imposed, he reluctantly withdrew the gem.
“Ah, oh, I see, yes. Yes, I see...”
“It was given to me by the stranger I told you of. I—”
“Yes, yes. Look around us, darkness has set, it is cold and we are alone. Rest against this colonnade so that you may sleep. Tomorrow we shall both see the mountains.”
Copyright © 2016 by Sean Mulroy