The next day I was ordered to resume my gazing exercise. The others were gone, probably getting on with their initiation. I had not had time to speak to Nyangoli, either after waking up at daybreak or during the more opportune time of breakfast, but just being with him had made me feel better. My friend embodied all that I was trying to become. To be near him was to have a frame of reference for all my confused feelings, and that somehow comforted me.
As I took up my position in front of the tree, I noticed that I was not as restless as I had been the day before. I was able to get to work with a relatively quiet mind that took the task at hand seriously. Today I was more eager to explore the new avenue made available to me by this opportunity. There was, however, a greater number of curious elders watching me than the day before. Four of the five elders had gathered to see me gaze at the yila tree, as if someone had told them there was an unusual event occurring on the sidelines of the initiation ceremonies. I felt the anxiety of someone who is being monitored---stupid, as I had at school when I sinned and was asked to wear the hated goat symbol.
I had to show these old men that I could do something. I concentrated my sight on the tree. This,
I thought to myself, is a gaze that has substance and meaning---the look in my eyes embodies challenge
. I was determined to overcome the opacity of the physical by my commitment to see
. By now I had figured out that I was expected to see something other than the tree itself---something that still was the tree, but uninvented, unmediated, pure. I stared intensely. I was more confident than I had been yesterday, and my level of distraction was minimal. For the first time I had stopped asking myself questions. There was a goal to reach, and I did not want to continue lagging behind everybody else. So I attacked the tree with the drill of my sight.
The sun rose, and with it came the heat. I penetrated the depths of my body, cooking every cell along the way. As I locked on to the tree, the heat locked on to me. The contest was hard, for I did not want to waste another day fighting against the sun and other distractions. I was determined to do better this time. I began by deciding the sun did not exist. Only me and my tree existed in this whole universe. But my denial of the heat became more and more impossible to sustain as the sun got closer and closer to the zenith. To make things worse, some insect decided to bite me on my bare back. Instinctively, I reached back and hit myself very hard. I heard the elders laugh at me, exchange some words, then laugh again. Meanwhile, a large area on my back was getting swollen. I guessed that I had been stung by a bee.
Presently, the area needed to be scratched but I could not afford to do so for fear of being laughed at again. It was apparent that they were enjoying watching me wrestle with my ordeal. I decided I was not going to think about my back either. In the meantime the sweat that the heat of the sun had forced out of me was dripping slowly down my body, tickling me in sensitive areas. I thought about designing a strategy to diminish thinking about sweat running down my body, but I couldn't do it. It was beyond me. Trying to ignore the sweat only made me think about it more. It also served to irritate the part of my body that had been stung. As if envious of my wandering attention, the pain rose sharply from the area of the bite and drew my hand around to scratch it. The elders noticed this and, as before, murmured to one another. I saw them shake their heads in agreement, then look away from me.
I resolved that I would not continue to torture myself for the sake of a tree. Since I could not openly defy the elders (that would have meant the end of me), I would trick them. They expected me to see something, so I would make something up. How would they know I was lying? The understanding of traditional education I had gained from my year in the village had taught me that one was always introduced to the very thing that is part of one's own world. I had also learned that the world of the self in the universe of these elders was autonomous. Knowing meant knowing one's own world as it truly was, not as someone else told you it should be.
Wasn't this gazing assignment just one of the many contexts designed by the elders to allow each of us to come to grips with that esoteric universe of the self?
I called out to the elders and told them that I was seeing an antelope staring at me. It was gigantic and brownish, with a white line on its side and another between its eyes. I said that it was looking at me as if it intended to hunt me, and I asked them, "Can a tree become an antelope and vice versa?" While speaking, I made sure I never looked their way because I knew they would then detect that something was wrong. I wanted to convey the impression that I was fascinated with this apparition. In so doing, I hoped to increase the credibility of my invention.
Their reaction, however, was the opposite of what I had expected. Though I was not looking at them, I could sense the impact of their surprise in the air around me. They all stood up as if shocked. Then the elder who had been my supervisor the day before asked me what else the antelope was doing. I said it was sitting on its hind legs. This time they all burst out laughing and kept laughing for what seemed like a very long time.
"An antelope sitting on its hind legs?" my supervisor said in between laughs. "Keep looking."
They cackled and gleefully patted one another on the back. When they finally calmed down, one of them said, "What did I tell you? This boy is fighting against himself. I can't believe it. This falsehood is not his own invention. He would never have thought of this kind of thing himself. The white men have initiated him into acting this way. He has lived around them too long, and now he has become a liar too. If his Vuur
were not stained with white, he would know that this life has no room for lies."
I felt as if I had been stabbed. I was ashamed of myself, so much so that I felt the urge to bury myself, right on the spot, to escape the presence of the elders. How did they know that I had lied? How could I win their trust, now that I had so stupidly lost it? All I could do was to pretend I did not hear them. After they had their fill of laughter, they ignored me. Tears insidiously crawled out of my eyes and ran down my face, mixed with sweat.
I was crying because of my sense of failure. What was wrong with me that I could not do what I was being asked to? Sitting in front of this tree and failing at my first initiation task made my being different from everyone else even more painful and intolerable. For here I was---being laughed at! Here I was---caught in a lie. My feelings were a mixture of everything: aloneness, broken pride, anger, alienation, ostracism, segregation.
Through my tears, I managed to continue keeping an eye on the tree. Then I suddenly began speaking to it, as if I had finally discovered that it had a life of its own. I told it all about my discontent and my sadness and how I felt that it had abandoned me to the shame of lying and of being laughed at. I complained that my failure must have its roots in the fact that the spirit of my grandfather had defaulted from his duties toward me a long time ago. He had brought me here to be humiliated and thrown away like trash. I addressed Grandfather, accusing him of standing between me and this tree and delaying my traditional education. I told him I did not deserve this and begged him to take me away if he could not allow me to have a normal education like everybody else in the camp.
I then spoke to the tree again, not angrily, but respectfully. I told her that, after all, it was not her fault that I could not see, but mine. I simply lacked the ability. What I really needed to do was to come to terms with my own emptiness and lack of sight, because I knew she would always be there when I needed to use her to take a close look at my own shortcomings and inadequacies.
My words were sincere: I felt them while I said them. My pain had receded somewhat, and I found I could now focus better on the tree. It was around mid afternoon, but I was not really interested in the time. I had something more important to deal with, for suddenly there was a flash in my spirit like mild lightning, and a cool breeze ran down my spine and into the ground where I had been sitting for the past one and a half days. My entire body felt cool. The sun, the forest, and the elders and I understood that I was in another reality, witnessing a miracle. All the trees around my yila were glowing like fires or breathing lights. I felt weightless, as if I were at the center of a universe where everything was looking at me as if I were naked, weak, and innocent. For a moment I experienced a deep fear that I imagined was similar to what one feels when one is told that death is inevitably on its way. Indeed, I thought I was dead. I thought that something must have happened while I was trying to reconcile myself to the shame of being caught in a lie.
To substantiate my impression, I thought about the hardships of the day---the baking heat of the sun and my sweat falling into my eyes and burning them like pepper. I had lost all sense of chronology. I told myself that this is what the world looked like when one had first expired. I felt as if I were being quite reasonable. I could still think and respond to sensations around me, but I was no longer experiencing the biting heat of the sun or my restless mind trying to keep busy or ignoring my assignment. Where I was now was just plain real.
When I looked once more at the yila, I became aware that it was not a tree at all. How had I ever seen it as such? I do not know how this transformation occurred. Things were not happening logically, but as if this were a dream. Out of nowhere, in the place where the tree had stood, appeared a tall woman dressed in black from head to foot. She resembled a nun, although her outfit did not seem religious. Her tunic was silky and black as the night. She wore a veil over her face, but I could tell that behind this veil was an extremely beautiful and powerful entity. I could sense the intensity emanating from her, and that intensity exercised an irresistible magnetic pull. To give in to that pull was like drinking water after a day of wandering in the desert.
My body felt like it was floating, as if I were a small child being lulled by a nurturing presence that was trying to calm me by singing soothing lullabies and rocking me rhythmically. I felt as if I were floating weightless in a small body of water. My eyes locked on to the lady in the veil, and the feeling of being drawn toward her increased. For a moment I was overcome with shyness, uneasiness, and a feeling of inappropriateness, and I had to lower my eyes. When I looked again, she had lifted her veil revealing an unearthly face. She was green, light green. Even her eyes were green, though very small and luminescent. She was smiling and her teeth were the color of violet and had light emanating from them. The greenness in her had nothing to do with the color of her skin. She was green from the inside out, as if her body were filled with green fluid. I do not know how I knew this but this green was the expression of immeasurable love.
Never before had I felt so much love. I felt as if I had missed her all my life and was grateful to heaven for having finally released her back to me. We knew each other, but at the time I could not tell why, when, or how. I also could not tell the nature of our love. It was not romantic or filial; it was a love that surpassed any known classifications. Like two loved ones who had been apart for an unduly long period of time, we dashed toward each other and flung ourselves into each other's arms.
The sensation of embracing her body blew my body into countless pieces, which became millions of conscious cells, all longing to reunite with the whole that was her. If they could not unite with her, it felt as if they could not live. Each one was adrift and in need of her to anchor itself back in place. There are no words to paint what it felt like to be in the hands of the green lady in the black veil. We exploded into each other in a cosmic contract that sent us floating adrift in the ether in countless intertwined forms. In the course of this baffling experience, I felt as if I were moving backward in time and forward in space.
While she held me in her embrace, the green lady spoke to me for a long time in the softest voice that ever was. She was so much taller than I was that I felt like a small boy in her powerful arms. She placed her lips close to my left ear and she spoke so softly and tenderly to me that nothing escaped my attention. I cried abundantly the whole time, not because what she told me was sad, but because every word produced an indescribable sensation of nostalgia and longing in me.
Human beings are often unable to receive because we do not know what to ask for. We are sometimes unable to get what we need because we do not know what we want. If this was happiness that I felt, then no human could sustain this amount of well-being for even a day. You would have to be dead or changed into a something capable of handling these unearthly feelings in order to live with them. The part in us that yearns for these kinds of feelings and experiences is not human. It does not know that it lives in a body that can withstand only a certain amount of this kind of experience at a time. If humans were to feel this way all the time, they would probably not be able to do anything other than shed tears of happiness for the rest of their lives---which, in that case, would be very short.
Human beings never feel that they have enough of anything. Ofttimes what we say we want is real in words only. If we ever understood the genuine desires of our hearts at any given moment, we might reconsider the things we waste our energy pining for. If we could always get what we thought we wanted, we would quickly exhaust our weak arsenal of petty desires and discover with shame that all along we had been cheating ourselves.
Love consumes its object voraciously. Consequently, we can only experience its shadow. Happiness does not last forever because we do not have the power to contain it. It has the appetite of a ferocious carnivore that has been starved for a long time---this is how much love and bliss and happiness there is in nature, in the place that was there before we existed in it.
I cannot repeat the speech of the green lady. It lives in me because it enjoys the privilege of secrecy. For me to disclose it would be to dishonor and diminish it. The power of nature exists in its silence. Human words cannot encode meaning because human language has access only to the shadow of meaning. The speech of the green lady was intended to stay alive in silence, so let it be.
I loosened my grip, lifted my wet face up to hers, and read departure in her eyes. I did not know where she was returning to, but wherever it was I did not want her to go without me. My feelings for her were so strong I felt that I would be able to brave anything to stay with her, nor did I think there was any reason we should part after having been separated for so long. Her face, however, said I could not go where she was going and that this was one of these imperatives that one had to respond to without negotiation. Things had to stay as they were. In despair I clung harder to her soft body, unable to do anything else. My eyes closed as my grip tightened, and the soft body under my hands became rough.
When I opened my eyes, I realized I was desperately hugging the yila tree. It was the same as it had been before. Meanwhile, the elders had moved closer to me, obviously watching everything I had been doing. I heard one of them say, "They are always like this. First they resist and play dumb when there are a lot of things waiting to be done, and then when it happens, they won't let go either. Children are so full of contradictions. The very experience you rejected before with lies, you are now accepting without apology."
This seemed to have been directed at me. I looked up at the elder who spoke. He met my eyes, and I felt no further need to be holding on to the tree.
"Go find something to eat, and make your bed for the night" he said gently.
It was then I noticed that the sun had set. My experience had lasted several hours, but the time had felt so short!Of Water and the Spirit