Once there was a place where harmony reigned and everyone lived in peace. The hares were at peace with the hounds, the bears with the salmon, the egrets with the fish and so on. No one was hungry because there was no need to eat. No one fought because there was room for all to live comfortably. No one ruled because rules were unnecessary. All lived a peaceful existence without the need to know if what they felt was happiness or not.
A day came when the egret called Amshumala was preening herself by the edge of the pond at dawn. Carefully she fluffed and picked among her feathers, making sure that each was clean and perfectly placed. She checked her own reflection from time to time. “Oh,” she would say. “Oh, that one looks a bit unruly.” Or she would sing,“This one gleams so prettily in the early light.” So she thought to pass the morning, as she did each morning, until the flocks would gather in the afternoon to admire each others’ beauty. So she thought this day would pass until the twilight hours sent their signal of time to sleep.
On this day, however, Amshumala happened to look to the East as the sun began to rise above the horizon. She sighed with approval as the sky took on the expected hues of pink and blue. Suddenly she spied something quite unexpected – a bit of orange far off in the distance, a bit of orange surrounding an unfamiliar structure. Not the sun. Something illuminated and defined by the growing light of the sun. “It was not there before,” she thought. “It is new.” Then felt her words become inadequate to describe it further. There had never before been anything new.
The bit of orange stayed. Day after day it could be seen there. On the first day, the others remarked upon its presence. On the second, they came to accept it as something that simply was – no longer new. Only Amshumala continued to wonder and ponder over what it was and what it meant. “I must know,” she finally said, settling the matter in her own mind. “I must.” So came another day when Amshumala decided it was time to go. Early that morning, as the sky became pink and blue and the bit of orange began to glow, she took wing. She headed East.
Dana woke from the dream with reluctance. As she slowly opened her eyes to take in the soft light that slipped through the slats of the window blind, she imagined she could still hear her mother’s voice coming from someplace far away. “How strange,” she thought. “I have not dreamed of you in a long time. And to have such a dream. I remember the story and yet I don’t. You did tell me many stories as a child but this one I cannot quite recall. How does it end? Now I’ll be wondering about it all day.”
She sat up, swung her feet over the edge of the bed, feeling around the floor with her toes for the worn comfort of her slippers. Walking the very short distance from her bedroom to the tiny kitchen, she decided to simply have a piece of toast for breakfast. There was a time when she approached each meal with interest, planning what and how to prepare her food – a time when she found excitement in the act of cooking. When had that feeling disappeared? When was the last time she felt that way? She thought about it briefly, idly, and realized it didn’t matter. What mattered was this nagging, unsettled feeling that had been with her since waking.
Today was Tuesday. Tuesdays she had a standing date to meet her sister for lunch. The place varied from week to week. Today they were meeting at Vincenzo’s, one of the many Italian places in town. Good food but boasting an overwrought Italian theme that made her, inexplicably, want to cry. Maybe it was simply a self-pitying kind of sadness brought on by the knowledge that she would never find herself riding a gondola in Venice. Who knew? When she and Liz were guided to a table for two, she took the seat facing away from a large mural of gondolas and cheerful gondoliers. The dream had left her emotions stirred up quite enough for one day.
“Liz,” she asked as they waited for their entrees. “Do you remember those stories our mother used to tell us? The ones like fairy tales?”
“Vaguely.” Liz broke off a piece of bread and began to dip it in some seasoned olive oil that was puddled in a small plate. “Why?”
“Well, I had this dream last night where mother was reading one of those stories to me. One about an egret known as Amshumala. I woke up before she got to the end and I can’t for the life of me think of how it ended. It’s driving me batty. Do you remember that one?”
“Nope. Sorry. Stop thinking about it. It will either come back to you at some point or you’ll completely forget it again. Either way, it was just a dream.”
Liz grinned and began to recount all the gossip from her latest bridge club meeting, her beautifully highlighted hair swinging back and forth like punctuation. Dana had never understood how a small group of aging men and women could find so much to whisper about. Though honestly the scoop was not so much salacious as mundane: whose lawn was looking unkempt, who had been censured by the homeowner’s association for piloting a golf cart while tipsy, whose dog was allowed to yap in the night, who forgot to zip his fly before exiting the men’s room in the recreation center. Still Dana nodded her head, interjecting sounds of interest whenever Liz paused expectantly. She loved her sister and looked forward to their luncheons despite the predictability. Or maybe it was the predictability she enjoyed.
Upon her return home, Dana stood for a moment in the middle of her living room. The entire apartment was only 500 square feet – with a kitchen area, bedroom and bathroom in addition to the general living space. She had downsized here six months ago, choosing this particular apartment not only for its size but also because it was in a building with a diverse population. There were very young and very old people here. There were people of different ethnicity and religious belief, too. It was an urban neighborhood. She had so wanted to avoid the type of suburban retirement community that seemed to suit her sister. Until today, she had been content.
Now as she looked around the apartment, she felt something missing though she couldn’t say exactly what. She had been ruthless about shedding her possessions when she moved – old high school yearbooks, college pictures, artwork from a brief painting and drawing phase in her forties. All either sold in a garage sale or sent off to Goodwill. The books, too. After decades of collecting, she had let them all go. Oh, she kept a few but most she gave away. No more shelves to organize and dust. No longer did she need to feel the weight of them or endure the sight of their raucous spines taunting her with years of content that had become like litter. Literary detritus she had called them. But now she felt uncertain. Can one render a life lifeless by shedding too much of its debris? She wondered.
On the first day of her journey, Amshumala flew through a vast swamp where ancient Cypress reigned. She did not at first know that they were Cypress having never seen such trees before but she marveled at their stature, embraced their beauty. It was there also that she first apprehended the dangerous aspects of her quest, gasping as she observed a crocodile take another bird as prey. When she tired, she took refuge high up in the canopy of one of the Cypress.
“May I rest here for the night?” She inquired politely. “And may I ask where food might be found as I believe I am feeling hunger after such a long flight.”
“You may certainly rest here if you wish,” replied the old one. “As for anything else, your nature must answer for you. You are a fisher, are you not? Then fish you must.”
“A fisher? I never thought of it before but now that you say it, I believe you are correct. I will try.” Down she flew to the water’s edge where she learned to stand still as a stone while using her sharp sight to locate small fish beneath the surface. At first, many fish got away. Her timing soon improved, however, and she was able to eat her fill, instinctively swallowing the fish head first so the scales stayed smooth and flat. And she managed to avoid the crocodile, too.
“Thank you, old one,” she said upon returning to the tree. “I have learned much today.” And so she went to sleep, curling her neck and tucking her head deep under one wing.
On the second day of her journey, Amshumala left the swamp behind and entered a place where forest stretched as far as she could see. These were no longer the Cypress of the swamp but stands of old Oak, Maple and Hickory. She had not known such names before but curiosity caused her to stop now and then to inquire about the details of their lives. She was still intent on reaching her objective, to find that bit of orange and discover what it was. Yet she found herself enthralled by all she had not imagined before. So, too, her journey proceeded more slowly than she had imagined it would.
So passed the third, fourth and fifth days. And so many days more that counting lost its meaning. She found rivers and streams for fishing, places where the overhanging branches seemed to embrace their own reflections. There were huge lakes, surfaces shimmering in the sunlight. The Oak, Hickory and Maple at times gave way to Pine, Hemlock and Ash. And when she traveled up, over the mountaintop, she found only sparse, scrubby growth at the peak. She was relieved, indeed comforted, to see forest once again as she journeyed down the far side.
One day she flew over an immense fire, one that left charred stumps, ash and blackness in its wake. The smoke, lifted by the currents, irritated her eyes and made it hard to breathe. She flew higher and faster, determined to pass by such sad destruction, determined to escape such emptiness. When at last she came to rest in an ancient Oak, she gave voice to her thoughts.
“Old one, a fire rages not far from here. I, with my wings, can flee and so evade its heat. But you, all the trees around you, it seems that you must await your fate. Yet you are calm. Do you not feel despair?”
“Ah, young egret, you do not see with the fullness of sight,” the old one replied. “My memory stretches back through many years. I was not always as you see now nor were those that surround me. There was a time when I was but a seed awoken in the fierceness of fire. I pushed and struggled up through earth and ash to find a friend in the sun. So I grew, grew in synchronicity with others who had been awakened by the blaze. So we became as we are this day. No, I do not feel despair. I feel what you might call hope.”
This time Dana woke with a start and not a little annoyance. It was just like her mother to dangle hope as if it were some coveted prize. What did that even mean? She sighed, rolled out of bed and prepared to begin her day. “Perhaps tea this morning,” she mused as she entered the kitchen. “When was the last time I had morning tea?”
She attempted to put the dream aside, lock it away, throw it into some mental cauldron of forgetfulness. Yet it kept popping up throughout the morning, stalking her through her chores like an unwelcome acquaintance.
She muttered as she vacuumed. “Renewal is a pipe dream. Silly to think otherwise.”
She complained while making the bed. “And fishing? I hate fishing. Why tell me about fishing?”
She powered on the TV intending to watch The View or whatever mindless talk show she could find. But even with the volume turned way up, the incessant chatter was not enough to drown the dream for long. She threw the remote across the room, reveling in that childish bit of behavior, clapping her hands as it bounced off the wall and hit the floor with a distinct thud. A small memory came back to her then, the memory of a time in high school when she had been required to read The Scarlet Letter. Oh, how she had loathed that book. And in just such a moment of frustration, she had hurled the book across the reading room of the school’s library, sending it careening into a section of American history and causing several more volumes to cascade to the floor. Very satisfying that had been, certainly worth enduring a week of detention and the subsequent bewilderment of her parents.
It occurred to Dana that she could not remember the last time she had visited the library in town. She had a card but rarely used it. That’s what she would do today. Visit the library. Walk to the library. She changed into a nicer shirt, touched up her make-up, decided her well used jeans and tennis shoes were fine. No need to get too prissy for a library jaunt. She grabbed her purse, phone and keys. “Good to get out,” she thought gaily. “Good not to feel so old.”
The main entrance of the library was in the original brick building from the early 20th century. It had a lovely sweep of wide stone steps leading up to the door. Even though a large modern addition had been erected in the rear, the library felt like a library should. They still maintained the card catalogs and it was to these that Dana headed. She spent an enjoyable hour, rooting around in her memory and pulling out the little drawers to see if the titles she remembered were in the stacks. Her breathing slowed with her pace as she wandered up and down the aisles to locate the volumes on her list. The books smelled both old and new, complex, tantalizing.
In the end, she walked out with an armful of childhood favorites: Paul Gallico’s The Man Who Was Magic, Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles, Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and Daphne DuMaurier’s Rebecca. She stopped at her favorite pizza place and ordered a large pie to be delivered after she walked back to the apartment – the specialty with four cheeses, onions and shiitake mushrooms. There was a time when she had decided that pizza was unhealthy and so stopped eating it. Too bad. She wanted beer, too. She picked up some lovely dark ale along the way, a new brand she had not tried before.
Later, pizza and ale within reach on the coffee table, she stretched out on the sofa and began to read. She read with the wondering eye of her younger self. She read with the perspective of her older self wrapped around her like a favorite blanket. The phone went unanswered, playing its merry little ringtone from time to time. The dinging alerts from her tablet were ignored. At some point she traded beer for freshly brewed coffee. She read deep into the night, immersed in the stories of her life, unconcerned with when or if sleep would come.
Amshumala continued on, each day leaving the fire further behind. There came a day when forest gave way to prairie. The tall grasses were supple, even a slight wind causing them to ripple like water. Bison herds made a home there, flanked by small white egrets about half her size. These cousins were kind, showing her how to forage for the insects that flew or hopped about as the Bison stirred the prairie’s grass, offering her places to roost for the night. After some time, she came to differentiate the many plants in this land: Bluestem and Indian Grass; Sunflower, Coneflower, Goldenrod and Coreopsis. Short-lived yet burgeoning. A magical place indeed.
She took to the air each morning, making sure her destination, that beckoning bit of orange, was still visible in the vast space ahead. “It seems this adventure may lead me to the very edge of the world,” she said to herself as she watched another sunrise one morning. “Strange to think that I have no way of knowing what else may happen along the way. Knowledge is not the immutable thing I believed it to be. It changes as do the days that cycle by, as does the earth beneath me. There is still so much to learn.” With that, Amshumala lifted her wings. She headed East.
On this morning, Dana was eager to be up and out the door. She hurried through her shower, dressed in her most comfortably familiar clothes. She placed some books and water bottles in a backpack along with her wallet. Her camera case hung from one shoulder. After all, she had no set plans and no idea how long she might be gone. Be prepared. That sounded good but the scouts didn’t teach you how impossible it was to anticipate the unknown. She could only guess what might be wanted down the road.
“And you’re coming with me.” She spoke softly, addressing something in the air. “It’s your journey, too.”
She soon found herself standing on the sidewalk outside her apartment building. She looked down the block to where the brightening sky gave notice of the sunrise. Buildings surrounded her – some tall and slender, some short and stout, some contemporary and sleek, some aging with character. Most of the buildings displayed signs, combining to create a vibrant garden of signage that stretched as far as she could see: Gallery, Vintage, Boutique and Cafe; Taqueria, Co-op, Pawnshop; Henry’s Drugstore, Helen’s Dayspa and Doggie Playcare. And so much more to be revealed along the way.
If memory served her well, there was a Cuban breakfast place a few blocks ahead. Eggs and Cuban coffee sounded good. If memory served her badly, she would find another place with something else to sample. Dana put her sunglasses on, using her fingers to brush the hair away from her face as a cool breeze nudged her from behind. She headed East.
© Karen Kleis – All Rights Reserved
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