The little boy lived in the high mountains. An undulating green pasture served as the ledge on which the little hamlet nestled. Precipitous trails from the village arrowed down to the valleys below. Behind the pasture rose tier upon tier of snow mountains. The lower ranges were dressed in grey and black granite, the summits of the peaks were cloaked in pristine snow. At dawn and twilight, the mountains glowed in myriad hues of red, carmine and gold. During the day, they were dazzling white, almost impossible to behold. At night, they stood luminescent by moonlight and starlight.
The ground on which the hamlet stood was carpeted with gorse. In summer, it was green – the green of young leaves. After the rains, the shades of green grew darker. Wildflowers of every conceivable colour nestled in this preternatural green, as if some careless hand had strewn this green carpet with gems. With the arrival of autumn, the gorse slowly changed to shades of ochre and sienna and finally faded to white with the coming of the snows.
Within these changing colours, juniper bushes, dwarf rhododendron and stunted deodar clung on with quiet desperation to the windblown slopes. The rarefied air had ensured the pasture remained above the treeline.
High in the infinite blue, riding the thermals emanating from the valleys wheeled the griffon and the lammergeier. On the ground, the marmots gambolled near their holes, the wolves skulked amongst the rocks and silver streams and the elusive snow leopard yawned at the dark mouth of his cave.
The little boy sat at the foot of the elder, his questioning gaze fixed with rapt attention on the serene countenance poised above.
The shaman seemed oblivious to the boy’s attention. His gnarled fingers carefully separating the sheaf of mushrooms from the black earth which clung to them.
The boy, however, was not intimidated by the monumental calm. “The village people say you are a great healer,” he interjected. “Is it true you can cure them of these dreadful maladies, which often beset them, with your magic potions?
“Will you tell me your secret for I want to be like you?”
The gentlest of smiles lit up the elder’s face. “You want to know the answer to all of this,” he said, his arms sweeping over the dark gorges below, “in one afternoon?”
Indulgent amusement lurked in the dark recesses of his eyes.
“If I did tell you all, would you understand?” The boy nodded his head in the affirmative with a strange vehemence. “You know I will understand which is why you are talking to me. Otherwise you would be talking to the condors, the mountains and the wind as I have often seen you do.”
The old man slowly rose to his feet. “Come my little faun,” he said putting out his hand to the child. “In one summer afternoon, I will reveal to you the Great Mystery. Keep it close to your heart, and let it remain your most cherished secret.” He stood with the neophyte at his feet, a tall dark figure silhouetted against the blazing snow mountains.
Finally, he spoke. “In winter, the snow comes and covers the grass, the vines, the flowers and the seeds, the juniper and the rhododendrons in its white embrace. Then comes spring and the great snowmelt. Silver brooks gurgle again in what had been the realms of ice and snow. The green grass appears bringing in its wake flowers of a thousand hues. Black earth lives again. The streams run down the mountainside, their waters carrying the elixir of the herbs, the herbs which had patiently waited dormant in the snow. The water carries the essence of the Sacred in its body to the valleys and forests below.
“After spring and summer pass, the rains arrive. Black clouds unleash their downpour on the mountains. Water from the skies makes the wildflowers bloom. The essence of these flowers – the essence of black Mother Earth – is carried down by the waterfalls and the cascades to the forests below. The muted thunder of the approaching water fills the valleys.
“Then the rains cease and the land waits in hushed silence for the arrival of the mist, and soon it is there carrying all that is ethereal in the mountain air in its feathery embrace.
“The rivers and brooks, the cascades and waterfalls, the mist and fog, all carry this sacred ambrosia to the forests waiting below.
“This is the time I choose to enter the realms of the forest.”
The boy sprang to his feet and grabbed the old man by the wrist. “Show me where the sacred forest is for I want to come with you.”
The old man looked down on the expectant face. Pointing a lean finger towards the dark perimeter of the treeline visible through the afternoon rainbows, he said, “there, there lies the Sacred Forest. That is where it is waiting for you.”
“Do you know them well, all the folks who live there?” asked the boy.
“They will not reveal themselves to you unless you are prepared and to be prepared, you need to be still, and when you are still, they will come to you. But they will come to you only in your dreams. So pay attention for it is only in the kingdom of dreams that the secrets are revealed.”
“Did you become a healer because the forest came to you?” the boy asked. The old man nodded. “Yes, the forest came to me. I lived in it for many years. I lived with the trees, the brooks and waterfalls, the flowers and fruits and the mushrooms in their grottoes. I watched them silently through spring and summer, autumn and winter. I talked to the invisible children of the forest for days and months and failed to hear them answer. But I failed because I did not listen to my dreams. Then one day, the blue flower of the Forest Deity came to me in a dream and spoke. ‘If you want to see us, look inside yourself where the sacred forest blooms.
‘Look inside where the thousand petalled lotus unfolds.’
“That night they came to me, the waterfall and the brook, the fruit and the flower, the trees and the shrubs and each introduced itself to me. I am the bark for fevers and pestilence. Use me like this to cure this disease. I am the flesh of the divine. Imbibe me to see Her face. Do not give me to one who is unprepared for it will only show him terrors beyond his imagination. Give me only to the chosen few. I am the brook which contains the sea of tranquility. Drink of me for eternal peace and so the teachings went on from the children of the forest.” The boy listened in rapture.
“I want to go with you to the sacred forest.” He was unrelenting.
But the old man shook his head and there was a finality in the gesture. “That path is for you to tread alone. No one can walk with you there. No one can hold your hand. If you fall, you will fall alone. But you must keep on walking, walking through sun and cloud, through snow and rain, through blazing heat and frigid cold. You will see trees of all shapes and forms, animals you have never seen before, fruits and flowers which exude the strangest of perfumes and colours on the water which you can never imagine.
“Then one day, you will walk through the forest and reach the sea. There you will know your quest is over.
“You have never seen the sea, it is open and empty, shapeless and formless and it takes on the colour of the sky. As you stand by the sea, you will know that your journey through the Sacred Forest is complete.”
The next morning broke with an outcry in the village – a little boy had disappeared.
The old Shaman was silent.