The Sky Gem
by Sean Mulroy
Table of Contents|
parts: I, II, III, IV
The Twisted Tree was not really twisted. Its bow sloped, but only a little. It was in a clearing, still wet from the night before, amid tall strands of yellow grass. Containing only two branches, both fixed upright, pointing towards giant trees towering far overhead. The branches grasped around the trunk in such a way Lochan was able to imagine they were only trying to reach each other.
No leaves were on its two limbs, the branches, along with the rest of the tree, had long since died. One remarkable attribute of the Twisted Tree was its base, which was enormous. Nine, even ten people could not, holding hands, surround it. The gutted insides, dead as well, were exposed by a natural hollow of unbeautiful symmetry, which was the tree’s — besides the two branches pointing upwards — most noticeable feature.
Amar scampered to that portal. “Quickly, quickly,” he quietly sang.
Lochan noticed not far from the Twisted Tree was a collapsed dome roof on ground level. It was pathetically hidden over with dry leaves, even so, the thing felt formidable. No doubt in times past this domed slab must have shielded some underground earth tomb.
“Don’t look at that!” ordered Amar holding hands up with palms pointing outwards. For some reason, Amar was trying to pretend he couldn’t see what the boy was looking at. “That damaged tomb is not even really there.”
The boy dismissed Amar’s words and turned his attention back to the jagged portal then walked to the hole at the base of the tree. “Where is Bral?” he asked.
Amar slowly turned; his eyes were set deep, obviously offended. “Shhhh,” he sneered. He signalled downwards with his hand inside the tree; his eyes held the boy’s intently and he silently moved his mouth, spelling out words Lochan could neither hear nor understand. As Lochan made a move to peer inside the tree, he was immediately pulled back.
“What, are you crazy?!” yelled Amar as loud as he could. A flock of birds noisily dispersed from the forest roof. The mood of silence was broken. “Arrhhh! The stone! Just give me the stone!”
“Please, here, take my bread instead...”
Reluctantly Lochan held out the gem. Amar went to take it but the boy, thinking again, drew it back.
“Don’t you want to reach the mountains?” whined Amar.
“I want to keep this stone.”
“Drop it down the tree, you fool! That is how all offerings are made!”
“No, Bral can have bread as my offering.”
“Do it now!” Amar clutched Lochan’s throat and grabbed his left wrist tightly, his hands were strong. The child, frightened, threw the gem in his right hand into the dark abyss of the tree.
A smile lit Amar’s face and his grip was released. He fell down on hands and knees muttering some strange prayer. After a time he rose and turned to go. “Now to the mountains, I’ll show you out so that you may wallow with those bastards of Shiva in the bitter snow.”
Amar then stopped dead still, turned back around, sneered again at Lochan and spat onto the Twisted Tree. He then moved away from the boy without uttering a sound. He moved across the flat plain that was hidden from the sky, moved towards where there only seemed to be more uncharted forest. Lochan reluctantly followed.
* * *
“How far now?”
Amar constantly ignored the boy as they seemed to wander aimlessly. Lochan, disturbed by his guide’s random whispers, followed the reckless recluse, gaining satisfaction only if he succeeded to walk in Amar’s shadow every step of the way. When finally they broke through the condensed forest, an open paddock was there. The sky could clearly be seen.
A row of trees and a high narrow cliff was on the landscape in front; over it a mass of gigantic stone ruins lay scattered along the cliff face which put together, would once have composed an awesome form. Amar ran across the paddock and approached the cliff. Climbing a stone he reached up and pulled back long veined fern branches so they could no longer hide the view of what lay beyond.
A cosmic vista. Below was only a short barren plain, then ice-capped mountains. Kailash could well be seen. Lochan was dismayed though; the boreal wilderness he had just left was no contained world, it wasn’t even the size of the smallest grass fields on which he had been raised in Suchai.
“There, we are done.” Amar began to walk away.
“Wait. How do I get down this cliff?”
The hermit shrugged. “Climb” he muttered, and motioned to leave but then turned back, seemingly against his own will and pointed along the cliff’s face. After this gesture he walked away.
Lochan watched until he disappeared behind long branches and was out of sight. Looking along the high slope of the cliff to where Amar had pointed, it could well be seen if he walked along its edge in that direction he would eventually reach a bay more accessible for descent.
Shuffling along the descending slope, Lochan thought of the sky gem, the one treasure he had owned, and felt its loss. That weight, so heavy, quickly gestated, shedding light on a understood yet incomprehensible language. Against everything he had been taught, the boy from Suchai entertained thoughts not at all necessary for the pilgrimage to Kailash. He felt angry at Amar and terrible within himself and tried in vain not to give in to the feeling.
But not long after, for some foolish reason or another, he was again in the forest and, for the first time since the journey began, his back was towards the mountains.
* * *
Back through paths he could remember, the general direction anyway, Lochan ran. Soon he was in the Twisted Tree’s familiar area. Then he found the tree itself. The Twisted Tree was silent, yet from the collapsed dome roof nearby a twisted fire-glow could be made out.
From the destroyed earth-tomb, he could smell smoke, hear faint sounds and then laughter, unmistakably Amar’s. The broken roof, made from that stone of the ancient carvers, had strands of supporting columns half-fallen over. Behind these, down into the cavern, Lochan descended.
All over the walls of the underground room random graffiti and images, drawn mainly with charcoal and mud, stained it excessively. The boy could see a passage, dug through the earth, to the Twisted Tree on the far wall but he could not see the gem.
By that dim wall, right at the corner of it, was Bral. Amar was on his knees in front of Bral paying homage. It struck Lochan as strange that Amar had pushed his straight black hair back over one of his ears, as he had never noticed the samana wear his hair in this custom before. Then he saw the gem. The gem was stuck tight into the kneeling hermit’s ear.
Amar jumped up quickly from his crouching position and screamed and yelled savagely at the face of Bral.
This got Lochan’s attention and made him take a closer look at the dug tunnel that led to the tree. Under that hole in the wall, ingeniously placed, was a sort of garden with a face. Rich soil had just been archaically thrown on the stone slabs but, out of it, grew strange and exotic flowers.
In the center was a tree. The tree was quite small, just a little bigger than Lochan. It had been cultivated in such a way that just scarcely it appeared to own a moveable form. The leaves were all pruned, and its branches, their largeness unbalancing the trunk, all painted a dusty white, spread out high so as to seem like thorny horns. Bral’s face was stuck onto these branches, not firmly either.
The skull hanging on the branches owned two huge horns natural unto itself. Most of its teeth were missing, the ones remaining though, all fang shaped, conveyed great malice. The beast it once was must have been great. Amar had added to the appearance of his god. The entire skull, teeth and all, were dyed a diluted red.
This subterranean temple, housing a devised god, was not a safe place. Amar acted erratically too. Clapping his hands upon walls, trying to keep some unheard rhythm only he knew of. Lochan crept even further into shadows.
Again Amar pressed his face close to Bral’s and screamed conjecture at him. He then turned away, only to turn back again and repeat the action.
The little fire the tomb bore was near the tree also. While poking his fingers into lucid flames, Amar was eerily serious. He tore the skull from its branches. Opening Bral’s mouth, he placed the jaws over his head, they easily fit. Then, mimicking some attacked forest animal fighting for its life, he got down on all fours and crawled along the stone expanse in a bizarre physical display.
Lochan made a move along the column. A loose stone was misplaced and fell. The village boy’s heart fell too. Amar turned and stood up. Lochan could not see the fanatic with his god-skull on, turning, rising slowly, concentrating on that pillar; but in his mind the image was clear.
“Who’s there?” came the inevitable response. The forest-man wearing his god-skull touched the pillar, tracing it with his hand as he turned to look. “You! You dare to enter and behold such sacredness as this!”
Amar’s trembling fingers were an inch away from Lochan’s mouth. The boy was scared. He decided to take the first option that entered his mind. Sinew and blood sprayed, a misguided forefinger one second before became locked amid Lochan’s teeth the next, then disconnected.
The god-skull fell to the hard floor, splitting one horn. A terrible scream of disbelief bemoaned from the sky gem’s usurper.
“No, no don’t go!” Amar wailed to his blood as he suckled what remained of his ravaged finger in a vain attempt to stem the flow.
The boy spat the finger from his mouth. Amar, grunting, on his knees, bleeding, embracing his hand, stood up. Lochan kicked dust in Amar’s direction, picked up the awkward skull by its broken horn and ran up the brooding column into sunshine.
Burdened by his hostage, he hid behind a swaying grove, just in time, too.
The patriarch emerged from his ossuary dramatically; hunching over holding his wounded hand as if it were a heavy weight pulling him down. The gem still gleamed in his left ear and, upon his right, having pulled long dark hair behind that ear as well, was his lost finger, tucked behind the lobe of the ear, its first knuckle bent so as to cling to its host.
Somehow Amar knew where Lochan was, he didn’t even glance anywhere else. The boy bolted with the skull under his arms through fertile groves and over reckless nettles lying in waste.
Once again approaching the cliff to the barren plains, Lochan quickly scuttled over to its edge, fell to his knees and swung Bral over so the skull dangled there.
“Swap! Give me the gem for Bral!” demanded Lochan.
Amar stood back, he knew the skull was heavy. “No! I can’t!”
“The head will fall! It is slipping!” coerced Lochan, sounding tough even though he was terribly afraid.
“No! Wait please!”
“Just give me back my stone!”
Amar remained still and silent, unsure of what to say or do. Then his face turned angry.
He went for the boy, diving onto him, grabbing Lochan’s throat with his hand and, with the other unwholesome one, desperately grasped for Bral. But before Bral could be reached, Lochan let go of him and tried to collect all that sudden power into his free arm. For a split second fist met face and Amar, only stunned, fell back. In the background the sound of the falling idol striking the cliff as it rolled down briefly stung both Indians’ ears more than their wounds.
“Bral!” screamed Amar.
Seeing the gem in his adversary’s left ear and a pallid detached finger in the right, the boy made a move for the gem. Amar leapt at him, Lochan dodged and stole the dead finger, throwing it beyond high fern branches back into the deep of the forest.
Disbelieving, Amar watched it slowly go. Turning his bruised face from the forest, his eyes caught sight of Bral’s crushed carcass dismantled below. As the priest stared at his shattered idol, eyes so sunk in its meaning they shut out all else, Lochan saw his chance for escape.
But then the sun shone bright. The great red thing in the evening sky had passed by a leaden cloud, hitting the half-hidden gem in Amar’s ear making it sparkle. It blinked at him fast.
As the sun hit the gem, it seemed to ignite it, finally showing the real magic inside, the magic Lochan always knew had been there. Light danced on the surface of the gem, it had a voice. A very low voice, a whisper of a voice that said, I will bless you, I am yours, take me.
Lochan retreated from it, running along the cliff face to that bay of access to the barren plains, never looking back. Amar breaking out of his spell must have felt something too. He went to chase the youth but then changed his mind, going no further than where Lochan had let go of Bral.
“Come back! You bastard! Coward! You will not escape me! I’ll find you boy, I’ll hunt you down!” yelled Amar at the top of his voice while throwing stones at the running child. “Hear me! Evada! Sudra! I know you! I know where you’ll be!” He stopped briefly to catch his breath and chuckle. “I’ll come for you! Believe me, low-caste! Forever till we meet, I promise you shall never leave this forest! Hear my curse, boy! Hear it! The curse of Bral!”
As Lochan ran down the slope, the sound, the cadence of Amar’s voice echoed and remained in his ears as he plummeted further and further down until it seemed like his pursuer’s voice were many voices all coming at him, shaped as perfectly formed sound-spears being thrown above his head, assassins in quest of him.
When he reached the rim of the dry plains, no longer could he hear or see Amar, but feel a shadowy presence he could.
Copyright © 2016 by Sean Mulroy