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APARAJITA SEN

SONGSOPTOK THE WRITERS BLOG | 6/15/2016 |




I had left home on an impulse yesterday. Packed a small bag, watered my plants and got into the car. I sent a message to my colleagues saying that I won’t be going to work for at least a couple of days and then put away my cell phone in the drawer. I was tempted to leave my personal cell phone behind as well, but shoved it into my bag at the last minute. I drove aimlessly the whole day, trying to get as far as I could from my life. I did not have a specific destination in mind, only that I wanted to be on the sea side. I drove westward, avoiding the busy motorways and sticking to the country roads. I did have a map and a GPS in my car, but since I didn’t have a destination, they were not very helpful. Then at one point the ocean appeared in the far horizon – I kept driving through small villages - the road got progressively narrower and darker till I arrived on in a small village – the road ended here giving way to the ocean. The word ‘Land’s End’ popped up in my mind as I stopped at the end of the road and walked to the edge of the water. The moon shadows made the ocean look mysterious and faintly threatening. The wind howled around the cliffs, torn clouds raced across the sky, the waves lashed against the jetty where I stood, spraying me with water. The lonely beam of the lighthouse swept the coast in regular arcs, revealing only silence and emptiness. I stood there for a time, enjoying the silence, the sound of the waves, the smell of the sea, my anger and fear forgotten for a time. I suddenly felt ravenous and remembered that I had eaten only a measly sandwich bought from a small village shop. It was pretty late too and I couldn’t possibly spend the night in my tiny car. I started walking back to the car, hoping that there would be a hotel or a bread & breakfast open. The tourist season would not start for at least another month, and a lot of small places on the coast shut down during this period. I could easily check on my cell phone, but just the thought of switching it on was abhorrent. I did not want to look at the cruel messages that I did not have the courage to delete before I left. I was trying to decide whether I should walk up the village road or drive when I saw a torch beam coming towards me. I felt a bit reassured – at least someone was out and about, and I should be able to get some information at least. I started walking towards the beam, hoping not to scare whoever was holding that torch. We were face to face in a couple of minutes.

The face under the hoodie looked at me calmly. Crinkly blue eyes, wisps of white hair plastered on the forehead. She lifted the torch a little higher, and I could now make out her figure and sturdy shoes. A towel peeped out of the small bag slung on her shoulders. Had she then been out for a swim in this weather? The thought flashed across my head as I greeted her.

‘Bonsoir’ said a slightly raspy voice. ‘Did you want to ask me something? I saw you walking down the path’.

‘As a matter of fact, yes. Do you live here, Madame? I have just arrived, and need to find a place to sleep. Are there any hotels here? Or guest houses that would be open at this time? I have been travelling all day, and I am very hungry too.’

‘Ah, you are one of those, I can see’ she said, as if talking to herself. She must have noticed the look on my face because she added, a trifle hastily, it seemed ‘I mean those who like travelling without planning everything well ahead.’

I smiled. ‘Oh, I am not always this badly organized. But this time, yes, I didn’t plan anything. In fact I didn’t even know where I was going. I just ended up here.’

‘Following the road that brought you here, isn’t it? Well, the hotel just up the road is open. And I am sure that you’ll get a room. We don’t have a lot of tourists right now. But you better hurry if you want a meal. Otherwise they may close down the kitchen.’

I glanced at my watch. It was only 9, but then I was not in a big buzzing city either.
‘Thank you very much’ I said ‘You are very kind. I shall go to the hotel right now.’
‘Enjoy your stay. You have chosen a good place’, she said, and walked away into the night.

***********************************************************************************

The small hotel was right on the main street, not even five minutes from the beach where I had stopped. The porch light was on when I arrived making me heave a sigh of relief. I walked through the front door to a small reception area, tastefully decorated with cool arrangements of dry flowers. The narrow wooden staircase opposite the desk gleamed in the warm overhead light. A big jar of pot-pourri placed in one corner filled the air with a delicate scent. The warm interior seemed to wrap around my now stiff body. I was about to pick up the tiny silver bell on the counter when the door marked ‘Private’ opened and a young woman walked in, a little girl hanging on to her red checked apron. Her round flushed face broke into a smile when she saw me.

‘Welcome to our village. I suppose you want a room for the night?’ she said before I could say anything. ‘Nasty wind out there, isn’t it? Have you travelled far?’

‘Yes, I need a room but above all I need some food. I hope the kitchen is not closed? I’ve been travelling all day and didn’t have much to eat.’

‘No, no, the kitchen is not closed. A couple of our guests still haven’t come in. But I’m afraid you’ll have to eat what is there. It is a bit late to start cooking again, you see. I’m sorry.’

‘Of course I’ll eat whatever you can serve. I quite understand. It is late, I know. If you’ll give me the key to my room, I’ll just freshen up a bit and come down for dinner. Where is the dining room?’

‘I can bring the food up if you’re too tired to come down. Here is the key. Your room is on the second floor and has a nice view. I hope you’ll like it. There is a lift at the back. I’ll show you. The dining room is right next to the lift.’

She accompanied me to the rickety old lift. ‘I’ll come down for dinner’ I said. ‘Do you have a lot of people staying in the hotel?’

‘Oh no,’ she said – ‘just four rooms tonight, including yours. Not many people come here at this time of the year. The season starts during the Easter holidays, and summer is horrendous. Good for business though’ she beamed. ‘I’ll see you in the dining room.’

The dining room was empty when I came down. The little wooden tables were set with brightly colored dishes and cutlery, each table a different color. My hostess had chosen grass green for me. A little perfumed candle burnt in a perfectly round bowl. She brought me a delicious fish soup with homemade croutons that I wolfed down in minutes. The rich stew served with freshly made bread and golden butter went down quickly too. She asked me whether I wanted cheese or the apple pie. By this time I was replete, in a warm haze of well-being that I had not felt for a very long time. I settled for cheese and almost staggered back to my room, with no other thought in my head but that of the big bed and the heaps of pillows waiting to welcome my tired body.

*************************************************************************************

The mist lifts slowly from the ocean as I sit on the tiny balcony with a big mug of steaming black coffee. I had slept like a log last night, the sound of the sea a soothing lullaby. Although the wind kept keening outside like a banshee, it did not make me nervous. The little hotel seemed to provide all the security that I had lacked for years. The morning light woke me up – I had not bothered to draw the curtains last night. It is not that early in the morning, but the small village has not woken up yet. The pretty tables on the terrace below shine with dew. It is low tide – the waves lap gently against the shore, a low murmur that somehow adds to the morning calm. I can see a small boat bobbing on the horizon. So at least someone was up and already out there. I idly wonder what the boat is doing there, so far out. The early morning sun glints off some metallic object on board, flashing off and on as the boat turns gently in the wind. The granite cliffs dotting the coast look almost friendly now – not like the prehistoric monsters of yesterday evening. The sky and the ocean were a clear bright blue today, the sun golden. I pull the cardigan tighter around me – it is rather chilly on the balcony right now. ‘Maybe it will warm up later once the sun gets here’ I think, and that immediately triggers off frenzied thoughts. The day stretches out before me like a blank page. I don’t have the slightest idea of what I want to do. Go out, certainly, but where? Today I was not in a mood to set off without a destination. ‘There must be loads of things to do here,’ I tell myself. ‘I’m sure that the hotel has all the information I may need. I’ll get them when I go down for breakfast.’ My eyes stray to the horizon, and I see the boat again. Swinging gently in the wind, still no sign of the sailor. The empty shore, drenched in the early morning light is pristine. And suddenly my mind is made up. I hastily pull on some clothes, lace up my walking boots and is out of the door in a flash, the coffee mug forgotten on the little table on the balcony.

The ocean smells like it always does – fresh, invigorating, tangy, bringing in a rush of memories and pictures in my brain and a smile on my face. By now the sun has climbed a bit higher in the sky. A lanky teenager with sleepy eyes and tousled hair is wiping the tables of the café in a desultory manner. I can see a jogger in the far distance, easy strides making regular tracks on the still wet sand. I think about exploring some of the cliffs just off the beach. But the water still flows in eddies around their rocky bases and I don’t fancy getting by boots wet. I shall do them on the way back, I decide, walking on. The gulls are out for breakfast, swooping and diving into the water, the air reverberates with their shrill cries. I walk on the soft wet sand, avoiding the slippery algae that the tide left behind, and feeling like the queen of a beautiful planet. I walk on some more, and then I see the boat that I had seen before from the hotel balcony. Still bobbing gently in the lapping waves. But now I see other things as well. A sand colored beach bag and a towel lying next to it. Curious, I walk towards it gingerly, avoiding the pools of water. It is moored to a small post next to a cliff, a simple stake driven into the sand. The anchor does not look too solid, but then, it is low tide, I think. The owner of the boat definitely knows the tides well. But then, where is he or she? I peer into the shallow water, expecting to find a keen swimmer. I shade my eyes and look further into the sea. Nothing other than the blue expanse stretching into the far horizon.

I should have just walked on. But then, I have this wild imagination, you see. Soon my brain was buzzing with different possibilities, all of them ranging from bizarre to macabre. Who had left the beach bag and towel on the sand? Why? It can’t be a suicide – no one decides to walk into the depths of the ocean with a beach bag slung on the shoulder. Was there some foul play, then? Scenes from different crime and mystery novels, my staple diet these days, flash through my head. How can I, as a responsible citizen, walk away from a potential scene of foul play? I purse my lips and decide to move closer to the boat. It’s only when I start high stepping the increasingly bigger pools of water that I realize that I don’t have my cell phone with me. In fact, I have nothing on me, having dropped my room key in the box on the reception desk on my way out. The serene surroundings calm me down. Nothing awful can happen in such a beautiful place, on such a splendid morning. Maybe it is just someone trying to get a bit of a tan ahead of time, sprawled on the beach out of the prying eyes of chance walkers…

The boat is tied right next to a cliff that resembles those strange statues on Easter Island. Huge granite structures, scarred and shaped by centuries of waves and winds that make this coast so magical and mysterious. There was an opening into this cliff resembling a gaping mouth. As I walk towards it, I see footprints in the wet sand, lots of them, actually, leading towards the opening. Several people had walked into that cave, which was certain, because there were no tracks going back towards the beach. I spot a brightly colored friendship bracelet as I walk up to the mouth of the cave. I was strangely excited and not afraid any more. I could tackle people who wore friendship bracelets – no threat there.

The entrance of the cave is dark. I smell seaweeds and something else – like incense or a flowery perfume. A sharp shadow separates the cavern from the bright morning outside. Like a threshold. I pause, looking back at the sun drenched beach. Each fiber in my body wants to go inside, while my brain resists. Why go into the dark when the light shines outside, the wind whispers and the gulls celebrate the bright morning? I should turn back now and head for the breakfast room in the hotel. Except that I feel that I am rooted to the spot, standing just on the edge of that diagonal dark shadow that stretches from the mouth of the cave, pointing a sharp finger at the sun. No sound came from inside the. I look around – there is no entrance other than the one I am standing in front of. In fact the cliff stands right at the edge of the shore – I can’t see anything else beyond, unless there are others submerged in the depths of the ocean. The shadow has now moved forward a bit. I am no longer in the sun, no longer on the threshold – I am inside. At least that is what it seems to me at that moment. I take a step forward, and walk through the opening.

The inside of the cave was not really dark – a kind of soft green shadow fills the interior. Small pools of aquamarine water dots the rocky floor, lit here and there by stray fingers of sunshine. A wonderful earthy scent fills the interior – water, algae and something else I can’t identify. As I walk forward slowly, I hear a gentle hum that gradually becomes more distinct. Voices either singing or chanting something - human voices. Now I start feeling a bit guilty – whatever these people were doing in there was their private affair. I was actually about to intrude on something. I stop, thinking of turning back, and strangely reluctant to do so. As I stand there hesitating, I realize that the singing had stopped and footsteps were coming in my direction. I figure comes out of the dusky interior. I see a figure framed in an opening, a silhoutte backlit by the sunlight. I hand beckons me inside. I walk forward, as if in a trance, all trepidation and hesitation forgotten. I come face to face with a woman – the one who had directed me to the hotel last night. I smile in recognition, and she does the same. We shake hands silently.

‘I am sorry for intruding,’ I say. ‘But I saw this boat, you see, and then this cave. And I just wandered in. I didn’t realize that there was some sort of a gathering here. I heard the singing and couldn’t turn around and go. I will leave right now if I am disturbing you.’

The extraordinary blue eyes I had noticed the night before look into my dark ones for one long moment. I now see the rest of her face which was partially covered by a hood yesterday. Curly white hair tumbled upon her shoulders. She wore a loose robe, a silver pendant on her throat and a pair of silver earrings dangling from her ears. Hers was a gentle kindly face, with fine laughter lines around her eyes and her generous mouth. I stand there like a schoolgirl awaiting punishment while she regards me calmly.

‘I knew we would meet soon when I met you on the beach yesterday, child’ she said quietly. Child???? Before I could reply she continued ‘Please come inside and join my friends. Nothing in this world, and especially chance meetings, ever happen without a cause. Maybe we need you as much as you need us.’ I follow her while trying to digest what she said, hoping that I had not walked into some weird group that spends time inside a dark cave while the sun shines outside. She leads me into a circular area. Here the floor is dry and sandy, open to the sky. Sunlight illuminates the floors and the walls, filling the place with pretty dappled shadows. A group of men and women were sitting in a circle on the floor. They all stand up when we enter and turn towards us, looking enquiringly at my companion.

‘She found us, friends, so I brought her in. Does anyone object?’ she said.

They all shake their heads. A man approaches me and extends his hand. ‘We bid you welcome, stranger, because I see that you are a stranger here. Don’t be afraid, because I feel you are afraid. Open your mind, because I sense it is closed. Forget your hurt and anger, because I feel them too.’

I look at him in amazement. ‘Let us all sit down’ says the first woman. ‘Then we can get acquainted. My name is Gwen. I live in this village.’

They all say their names. All of them lived in the village or nearby. I tell them my name, where I come from, what I do – in fact I end up telling them an awful lot of things that come gushing and rushing out. I had read somewhere that it is far easier to open up to strangers than those you know closely, because in all likelihood you’d never meet them again. I have already had this experience on long train journeys or flights, and so it was a sort of repeat performance. I tell them that I had left on an impulse, wanting to get away from my life. Told them about a cheating partner and an unfaithful friend, about treacherous colleagues who stop at nothing; about my self-disgust, my disillusionment with everything. Prodded by gentle questions from different people in the group, I painted a vivid picture of my recent poisonous existence. I stopped when I could go no further, my voice dry, my emotions totally spent. Gwen gets up and brings me a small stone pitcher.

‘Have a drink, and then we shall talk.’ She said. I eagerly drink the cold clear water from the pitcher and then splash some of it on my face. I feel curiously lightheaded and slightly confused. The sunlight and the shadows shift constantly inside the cave, now illuminating a face, now putting one in the shadow. Six pairs of attentive eyes are on my face. They sit very still, while I fidget on the sandy floor, trying to find a comfortable position. As I look at them, I suddenly realize that all the women were wearing ample robes, and all of them, men and women, had a silver pendant round their necks. Tales of druids, healers and soothsayers flash through my mind – all the tales and legends of Brittany interweaved with magic both white and black.

‘You have shared your life with us, at least part of it’ says the man called Erwan. ‘We shall share our stories with you too. That is fair, but that is not the main reason. Bridges can be built only when both sides of the river are known. It is impossible otherwise, isn’t it?’ I nod, slightly bemused. ‘You are a bit confused, aren’t you? But this is our custom.’

I sit there and listen to them – lives sketched out in a few minutes. The ordinary and not so ordinary lives interwoven with triumphs, defeats, successes, failures, joys, sorrows, trusts, betrayals, faiths, doubts. They tell their stories simply and almost dispassionately, with no apparent signs of victory or defeat, though each one of them had travelled the long road of life, not always strewn with flowers and often rocky and turbulent. When the last person finished telling her story there is total silence in the small cave. I hear the wind outside, the sound of waves, the shrill cry of the gulls. I don’t know what I am supposed to do now. Thank them politely and walk out? Embrace each one of them and thank them for their confidence? Tell them that their stories had made me realize how petty my own problems were? That they have given me the courage to walk back into my life and face the petty and the ugly, and not run away from them? Let them know that they have restored my faith that there is indeed justice and goodness and kindness out there and that we can find them if only with walk ahead with an open mind? That there is some power out there that ensures that our lives are ultimately harmonious with our inner selves and our environment? That their collective presence has acted like a healing balm on my bruised soul? As this last thought surfaces in my conscious, I understand where I was.

‘You are healers, aren’t you? Like the ancient druids?’ I blurt out.

‘I knew you’ll understand’ said Gwen. ‘Some people do, instinctively. I somehow felt it when I met you on the wind whipped beach last night. I knew you’ll find me, though I didn’t know that you’d actually walk into this cave and find all of us.’

‘So you are druids? Real ones? Actually belonging to the Order? Does it still exist? Is it like a secret society? Is that why you meet inside a cave and not outside? Is it illegal?’

Gwen cuts me short though I still have a spate of questions buzzing around in my head. I can’t believe that I have stumbled upon a group of druids. Of course I am fascinated by druids, as I am by Rosicrucians or Free Masons or other esoteric groups. Or by those real or mythical secret societies that have their own rules, rites and doctrines. But I never imagined that I shall actually meet any of them, and least of all practicing druids!

‘We have let you into our circle, child, and so you shall know. We are healers and seers – the Ovates – who belonged to the Order of Druids in ancient times. Each one of us here has a special gift for healing either the mind or the body. We heal by touch or by other methods, more subtle and difficult to explain. We found each other because we have this gift to see as well. Brittany is an ancient land: the cliffs and the ocean and the forests here have currents and forces that can’t always be explained totally by science. Call it magic if you like or give it some other name – it does not matter. And it is true that some people here are born with special powers that they can’t totally hide. That is how we find each other. We study the ancient books, we collect folklore, we try and increase our powers through certain prayers and rituals, and we use our gifts to heal people. And yes, we do belong to the Druid Order. There is nothing secret about it, though it is true that we normally don’t go around publicizing ourselves either.’

‘And this cave? I read somewhere that caves play an important part for the druids. Is it true?’

‘This cave has some special features. The opening faces north east, like the Heel Stone in Stonehenge. As you can see, it is lit by the sun in the early morning. We believe that the stone cliffs on this shore have healing powers, and it is good for healers to be near such things – trees, stones, fountains, streams – we often go walking in the forests in Brittany to collect ancient herbs with healing powers. But yes, to answer your question – caves were important for druids. We draw our powers from Mother Earth, from the magma that lies under the earth’s surface, the different elements in the earth’s crust. Ancient druids believed that they were reborn after sojourning in dark caves. We don’t come here for rebirth though; this is simply the place we have chosen to meet.’

‘Why did you think that I’ll find you, Gwen? You know, I don’t actually believe in all this, though I do enjoy the stories and the folklore surrounding these so called secret orders where members have special powers.’

‘I can’t really explain why – maybe there is nothing to explain. Whether you believe or not is not really the point. And what is belief, in any case? Do you know? I just knew that you were not well when I met you last night.’

‘Well, belief is,’ I start, and then give up. Suddenly there seem to be no real point in pursuing the topic. Instead I give voice to the question that must have been lurking in my subconscious for a very long time. ‘Do you think I need healing, Gwen? You said I was not well. I know I am not.’

‘It is not what I think that matters. We help only when people ask us to. And for that they have to tell us clearly where and how they are hurt. That is always the first step. Do you know what you’re suffering from?’

‘Mostly anger, I think, and maybe injustice as well. It is kind of poisoning me. I lay awake at night from frustration and self-pity. I plan revenge; I wish people ill and curse them. I hate myself for that. I just harm myself, actually. I haven’t managed to harm anyone else, though I would like to.’

‘Annabelle is the perfect person for you then. Yes, she can indeed help you, but the rest will depend on you. She will give you the strength to purge your negative feelings, but you have to work on yourself regularly. Would you like her to try?’

Annabelle, a plump red haired woman with sea green eyes and a round freckled face detached herself from the group and came to stand in front of me. ‘What will you do, Annabelle? Will you hypnotize me or something like that? I don’t mind as long as I know in advance.’

‘I am going to open a corridor, between you and the person who is at the origin of the chain of events that has brought you here. I don’t need to know who it is because the corridor will find its own destination. And no, I don’t have to hypnotize you. But I need you to trust me completely.’

I look at her; I look at the kind faces that surround me. I feel the collective goodwill in that room like something tangible.
‘I trust you. Tell me what I need to do.’

She leads me to the center of the circle. She stands in front of me, her face illuminated by the sun coming in through the opening in the roof. The others form a circle around us, holding hands, totally silent. Annabelle asks me to stand straight and to relax. She clasps my two hands in hers - dry warm hands that completely envelop my clammy ones. We stand face to face for a few moments, and then she asks me to close my eyes. I obey, and feel a finger brush across my forehead, light as feather, warm as a ray of sun. I feel her gently pushing me backwards and then pulling me back forward again. She touches my shoulders with both hands, and then my neck. She holds my hands again for a few beats and asks me to open my eyes.

‘I have done what I could’ she said. ‘Hope it helps you.’

*************************************************************************************

I am still in touch with Gwen. I call her often, whenever I am feeling a bit depressed or anxious, and the soft sweet voice at the other end always manages to calm me down. I visit her and her group of healers at least once a year, often in spring and sometimes in summer. I am learning a lot from all of them, not magic, but simple acts of kindness, gentleness and courtesy. I am learning to be less egocentric, more tuned to the needs of others. I am learning not to be afraid of showing my scars and my wounds, not only to my healer friends but also to those close to me. They sometimes take me for long walks on the beach and I discover hidden treasures – a submerged stone streaked with all the colors of the rainbow; a small clear stream where you can see the perfectly rounded shiny pebbles on the river bed; dark primitive forests where mistletoe entwines a silver oak; small prairies hidden in the folds of stark cliffs where special herbs grow. They expect nothing from me but give me a lot, with open arms and open hearts, sharing their knowledge, their goodness, and their love.

And in their altruistic presence I have found my faith. I have taken the first step. I don’t know yet where the stairs shall lead me to.


[APARAJITA SEN]

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