Long time ago, there was a vast green expanse, where atoms danced into molecules and molecules swirled into long stalks and blades of grass.
Tiny hares inhabited the primeval meadow and a tall, slender archer scoured its width and length.
The archer was a youngish creature with androgynous features. He hunted the tiny hares and cried every time he had to kill one in order to survive.
One day Hare Spirit came to him and said:
"Let us make a pact."
The archer nodded vigorously.
"Whenever you kill my children, you will bury their skins and bones and chant a song of thanks to me. You will string pebbles into an ornament to be placed on their burying mounds. You will bury their skins and bones at twilight. This way your burden will be lifted and your heart will be healed."
The faithful archer did as he was told: he buried the hare's skin and bones at twilight. Then, after roasting the hare and eating it by the fire, he went to sleep.
When he opened his eyes at dawn, the mound was scattered all around.
As the archer's face tightened into anger and dismay, a hare jumped out of the ground, then another, and another.
On and on, the hares jumped up and hopped off into the far distance.
The sun was still big on the horizon and the archer realised he had many dawns yet to see.
Once there was a cat as yellow as the sun.
Her eyes glittered and sparkled like lanterns in the night.
The priests fed her outside Bastet's temple at noon, then again at twilight, when the slanting sun rays turned the Egyptian desert into rose-coloured sugar.
At that time of the day, it was sweet to linger on the threshold of the temple, watch the desert become softer and mysterious and imagine the peasants as they stopped working along the banks of the Nile.
The Pharaoh too was far away and Nefris, the youngest postulant to train as a priest, could rest a little with the yellow cat.
She came for him. She would stop by his side, as he sat on the ground, lost in his longings.
One evening like any other, the cat meowed and scratched her back against the door of the temple.
Nefris paid attention. She jumped ahead, turning around to see if he was following her.
He stood up and strode in her direction, down the path that led outside the sacred precincts of the temple, till they came into an eery, open plain, where silence was roaring.
The cat swung to and fro gingerly, and then stopped in front of a black stone.
Nefris read aloud the geroglyphs without understanding.
"What are you trying to tell me?" -- he asked the yellow cat.
She sat on her haunches silently, as if she intended to wait.
Nefris sat down too. The moon had come out and looked like a silver disk.
Little by little, the yellow cat grew bigger and in the silvery moonlight became shapeless at first. Then it took on a human shape.
There she was: the goddess Bastet in all her majesty.
Nefris knelt down in sacred awe.
Bastet smiled her feline way and whispered in her ancient language words so sweet that Nefris was wrapped up in enchanted mystery.
The goddess' eyes sparkled like tongues of liquid fire.
That night, Nefris did not go back to the temple.
The goddess took his hand and led him far away, across the desert and beyond.
No stone temple would ever satisfy him again.
He became a hermit, out of a love so pure that his gaze burnt bright, lit by an inner fire.
He crossed the desert unscathed, heading South, where the local people welcomed him in their tents and honoured the clear-eyed wisdom he displayed when his counsel was asked for.
When the patriarch of the tribe offered him his own daughter in marriage, Nefris could not and would not betray his divine Beloved.
At dawn he left the settlement, heading East and resumed his life as a wandering hermit in honour of Bastet.
In every village, he would counsel and heal for a few bread crusts. Then he shared the little he had with the stray cats that followed him wherever he went.
He died well into his nineties, clear-eyed as ever, one cold night the wind swept the land and cleared the sky.
It is said that stray cats sat all around his body, keeping vigil till in the morning a young shepherd found him.
If you ever get lost, off the tourist tracks, in the innermost part of Egypt, you may come to the place where he died, in an open space where the wanderers still honour his spirit with offerings at the feet of his statue.
His spirit may protect you from harm, if you trust in the power of devotion and unswerving love.
As the evening grew dark, Merlin squinted to make out the strange objects on the branches. There were giant sea shells, stars and moons of various colours, pictures of ogres, goblins, gnomes, fairies… on the treetop there was a nesting stork. As Merlin observed the objects, the moon projected its silver light beam; a heart-shaped object glistened in the liquid light. Merlin held his breath. It was colder and the first snowflakes floated in the air.
When he lowered his eyes, Merlin was startled by the shadowy outline of somebody squatting at the feet of that strange tree.
“Hail, Merlin. I have been waiting for you.”
“Who is it? How do you know my name?”
A little man in green attire and a green pointed hat stood up, holding out his sinewy hands. Merlin took them. They were warm and gentle. They sat on a golden carpet in front of each other. The man said:
“I am the Keeper of Dreams. I am the one who sends dreams to humans, when they are asleep and when they dream wide awake.”
“And why have you been waiting for me? I hardly know what I have been dreaming of,” said Merlin.
The man nodded. Then, he said:
“There are different kinds of dreams. There are well-known dreams and dreams of the heart. Often the heart knows what you have forgotten and its dreams move mysteriously in your hushed souls. Humans have a peculiar way of forgetting what really matters.”
He smiled with irony. “Your brain, Merlin, needs some rest. You have been trying to remember so hard. Yet, in the silences of your heart lies the answer you seek. Your heart is faithful and won’t fail you.”
“What are the strange objects hanging from this peculiar tree?”
“The tree is different for everyone; yet, it is the tree of destiny, where those who have courage can see the possibilities open to them. This is your tree, Merlin, and you are here to choose.”
Merlin shivered. “How can I choose, if I don’t know what I am choosing?”
The man smiled again. “Your heart knows. Your soul remembers. Observe the fruits of the tree and choose carefully, for you are picking your destiny.”
As he uttered the last word, the man grew smaller, and his shape changed, till a stone lay where he had been sitting.
Merlin rose to his feet, uncertain and baffled. He stared at the stone for some time. Then, he walked around the tree. The full moon shone brighter now. He reviewed the unique fruits of the tree. Again, a beam of light built a bridge from the moon to the amber stone at the centre of the heart-shaped talisman, hanging from the third to last branch.
Merlin climbed the trunk and the branches, till he could stretch his arm and pick the talisman.
The wind was howling now. The leaves sounded like angry cobras.
Merlin saw that the talisman was intricately wrought with foliage and abstract patterns. The round amber stone at its centre was as polished as a mirror. Merlin saw his face in it: he was much older and had a long white beard. He sat next to a great king.
He held the talisman in his left hand and climbed down.
On and on, he went. Till he approached the opening. One last stride and he was out into a vast landscape, where a blue river flowed calmly across a green expanse.
Far away in the distance, he could see the violet mountains with glaciers glistening in the sun light. And the water in the river sparkled with light too. On the banks of the river, poplars and alder trees formed small enclaves, like friends gathering in circles.
One or two grey houses dotted the landscape at mid-bank, while a heron moved slowly on the left bank, as if it were an old thinking man. High above, a bald eagle circled in the sky, as if delivering a hidden message.
Merlin was delighted. He chose to walk on the left bank. As he walked, he lost track of time, since the day was clear and the sun was steady in the sky. Yet, it was pleasant and cool. Merlin walked and walked, taking in the warmth and the gentle sun rays on his skin.
After passing the last house, he headed towards a conspicuous group of trees. He had always felt peace and emotion among trees. It looked like a grove.
He slowed down and went inside the sacred circle of trees with reverence. There was a large flat stone on two dolmens. It looked like an altar. Just next to it, there was a most peculiar tree: in the middle of that luscious greenery, it was barren and naked. Only a few, small leaves hung there.
Merlin marvelled at that sight. Then, he closed his eyes and prayed that he might understand.
Gradually, the sky was covered with clouds and the grove grew dim and shadowy. Merlin kept his eyes closed for an indefinite time, although he could sense the light passing away.
When he came back from that suspended state, it was twilight. The air was filled with a violet afterglow.
He looked at the barren tree and saw its small leaves grow in size on the branches. Buds grew and opened. They bloomed.
Merlin expected to see fruits any time now, but soon odd and different objects hung from the branches, instead of apples or pears. Merlin closed his eyes again. Then he re-opened them. The strange objects were still hanging there.
TO BE CONTINUED…