Aifa, her grandmother and the rest of the Caretakers had been working hard all morning, braiding bunches of colorful ribbons into rainbows. The entire Grand Hall of the Hearth was filled with ribbons, whose silky threads seemed to be animated by their own inner spirit and slithered into crevices and recesses, never to be found again.
In the middle of the room, the Twins were getting ready for the ceremony, learning how to properly carry their ceremonial staffs.
“Are those snakes?” Aifa whispered, daunted, as she looked at the elaborate decorations on the staffs, which seemed to depict two snakes swirling around each other, in opposite directions.
“Of course. You don’t remember the story of this holiday?” grandmother asked, surprised.
“I don’t think I ever knew it,” Aifa admitted, somewhat embarrassed.
“Do you at least know what we are celebrating today?” grandmother asked.
“Yes, of course. The bonds of love and devotion between brothers and sisters,” Aifa replied.
“It is a little more than that. We honor and celebrate the love that binds us to our siblings, and also to those we hold as dear as siblings in our hearts. It is a very old story about Ama and Jal, so old even the keepers of the archives can’t remember the exact year when it happened.”
“Does it explain the ribbons? I never understood the ribbons,” Aifa blurted.
“Patience, granddaughter. I will clarify in a moment. It seems that that year, Ama became unwell. Nobody knew what was wrong with her, she had lost all her joy, she didn’t even want to eat anymore. She started to diminish, and people could see her get frailer from one day to the next, and as she weakened the fruit of the fields had started growing meager as well. Jal could see his sister’s sorrow and was greatly saddened by it too. Pretty soon the people of Cré realized that if nothing was done, Ama was going to diminish to nothing. Jal kept vigil, night after night, asking for the divine to give him an answer, so that he could understand her affliction and learn how to fix it. One evening, as he was scanning the horizon for a sign, a large raven appeared and perched on his shoulder. The raven told him that Ama’s soul had ran away in her sleep, and got lost into the worlds beyond the real. He told Jal that if he didn’t go find it and guide it back home, it would not be able to do it on its own. Jal asked the raven where he should go, in search for Ama’s wandering soul, and the raven answered: “Go ask the snake spirit. The snake is the wisest animal, if anybody knows, it will.”
So Jal went out into the fields, and valleys, looking for the snake spirit, but there were so many snakes, he didn’t know which one to ask. He grabbed as many as he could, in bunches, and they were all squirming, which made them quite difficult to carry, so he braided them, like we do with the ribbons, so that of all the snakes he found, he made only one.”
“So that’s why we’re braiding the ribbons!” Aifa exclaimed.
“Yep. Anyway, Jal returned to the Hearth with the bundle of snakes, unraveled them and placed them in the sunken beds at the center of the hall, so they wouldn’t run away, and then picked them up one by one, held them close and whispered the same question in their ear: where was Ama’s soul?
Some of the snakes didn’t know, some of them didn’t care, but many wanted to help. They took Jal’s message and scattered it into the four winds, to bring his quest as far and wide as they could reach.
A day or so after the last snake left, the people of Cré awoke to a great rumble: the snakes had found the pieces of Ama’s soul and they were biding them to return, to bring back her joy of life and the abundance of the fields. The little pieces listened and came down from the sky in a million drops of rain, which gathered in the dried up beds of the rivers and came down from the mountain, restoring everything to life and abundance.
When Ama’s soul was returned to her, she was beside herself with joy, and couldn’t believe that her brother had gone to all that trouble to bring her spirit home. She wanted to give him a gift, but she didn’t know what that would be. In their ascetic life, neither of them had a need for possessions.
All around her lay long strands of tree bark that had been carried inside the Hearth by the winds and the rain, so she took them and twisted them into twine, blessed them and filled them with all her love and gratitude, and all her wishes for his well-being, and tied them around his wrist, starting the ritual that today we call the bond of protection. This affirmation of the bond between sister and brother has been carried through the centuries, and we still celebrate it every year, in August, to honor our family ties.”
“What about the snakes, doyenne? What happened to the snakes?” Aifa asked.
“In appreciation of their quest, which restored to Ama the wholeness of her soul, they became the symbols of all the things that make people well. Their images are always engraved on treatises of medicine, on chemists’ formulas, but most of all, on the crests of those of us whose destiny is to become healers.”
Aifa looked, out of the corner of her eye, and saw that Ama and Jal’s sunken beds were filled with snakes. Some of them were poisonous, but this little detail didn’t seem to bother the two, who were picking them up, whispering something to them, and then handed them over to the Caretakers, with instructions of where they were to be released.
“That one is a rattlesnake,” Aifa pointed out to her grandmother, who didn’t seem concerned.
“You are only afraid of them because you don’t understand their language and they don’t understand yours. For those who have awakened to wisdom, no creature is dangerous, and certainly none of them is evil. The snakes understand the Twins. All creatures understand the Twins.”
“Do you know what they are saying to the snakes?” Aifa asked.
“Not exactly, but they are first thanking them for their kindness, and then asking them that when they go back into their world, where they are sure to meet the spirits of our ancestors, they should ask for plentiful rain. Listen!” grandmother said, very softly. “Can you hear the thunder tumbling down the mountain? It seems that most of the snakes have already delivered their message.”
“So, did Jal ever figure out which one of the many serpents was the snake spirit?” Aifa wanted to know. She had a passion for detail and logical flow that both endeared her to and irritated her grandmother at times.
“Neither, dear. The snake spirit is not any one snake, just like female is not any one female, or fire is not any one fire. It is the symbol, the spiritual embodiment of the snake. In the spiritual realm, a symbol is all encompassing. The snake spirit lives within anything that represents its essence, from the living creature that just slithered past your feet to the most abstract representation of a snake; it even lives in the word ‘snake’ itself. As far as the spirit is concerned, all of the above are equal.”
“How do you learn to speak with other creatures, doyenne?”
“I don’t know that it is something you can learn. For people who are born with the gift, their heart tells them how to do it. The refinement of understanding takes long practice, and some aspects indeed benefit from the teachings of an experienced master, but no one can train a gift that isn’t already there.”
“Do you think I could have this gift?” Aifa’s eyes gleamed with anticipation.
“I would be very surprised if you did. Very few people in this world are born to fulfill the destiny of a soul traveler; if yours was that destiny, you wouldn’t need to ask me. You would know it already, just like you know you are alive.”
All the snakes had been given their messages and sent on their way, in the slow beat of the drums, which seemed to soothe them. They slithered for a while, advancing with large undulating moves along the dirt path outside the city, and then sought refuge from the heat under the thick leaves of the native plants that grew wild in the fields, and disappeared from view, pleased to finally regain their freedom.
Aifa watched them go, with a mixture of awe and apprehension, and in the end, when all of them had returned to wherever it was that they had been taken from, she had to admit that she felt relief.
“Still not warming up to all earth’s creatures, granddaughter?” grandmother teased her, and she didn’t know how to respond. “That’s alright. It takes time to understand them. They are very useful creatures, you know? Every creature has its place in the world, otherwise it wouldn’t be here. Have you ever considered that they might not find us particularly attractive either?”
Aifa tried with all her might to see herself from the view point of a slithering reptile, but for the life of her, she wasn’t able to. Grandmother couldn’t stop laughing.
“Enough of this,” she was finally able to say. “Let the snakes deliver their message and let us go back home and prepare for the rain.”
“Do you think it’s going to rain, doyenne?”
“It always rains on this day.”
They arrived at home with little time to spare, and they were still closing shutters when the strong rain started falling on the roof with great noise.
“See?” grandmother pointed out. “I told you. The snakes always keep their promise.”
Aifa lit a candle and sat by the window, to watch the rain. She got lost, after a while, in the world of symbols and concepts, in the realm of snake, and raven, and rain. The light outside dimmed, smothered by the thick cloud cover, even if it was the middle of the day. The air smelled of wet foliage and old stone, if one could conceive of such a thing, and its cool breeze made Aifa shiver. There was nothing else in the world right now, other than that which appealed to the senses, and it felt good to let her spirit rest for a while, in this place of sights and sounds and scents, with no thoughts trying to assert their urgency and no worries trying to steal her peace. The rain continued through the rest of the afternoon, lulling her to sleep, but she tried to avoid its grasp, not wanting to miss her strange experience. Sleep won in the end, and when Aifa’s mother entered her room late in the afternoon, she found her daughter curled up in her seat by the window, unconsciously trying to keep warm by making herself as small and compact as possible. Aifa’s mother didn’t know whether to bring a warm blanket to cover her daughter, or wake her up, since it was time for dinner. The candle had burned out, and the room was starting to turn dark.
“Let her rest, daughter,” Aifa’s grandmother whispered. “It was a long day, she must be exhausted.”
Mother caressed Aifa’s forehead, then wrapped her warm shawl around her shoulders and left, unable to suppress a shiver. The ghosts of the rain were trying to find their way inside her spirit, poking at it with wet fingers. Only her plants were happy, as they always were when it rained. Even from the dry enclosure of the sun room, they could still sense the abundance of water outside, and their demeanor changed to welcome it.
“I’ll put a kettle on, this rain is getting me straight through to the bones,” Aifa’s grandmother mumbled, walking into the sun room, where the sound of the water pouring from the sky on top of the roof was even louder. “Great for the crops, though! And just at the right time, too. The fields were parched.” She veered into a lot of detailed questions about that year’s production of vegetables and grains, all issues that her plant loving daughter was delighted to discuss, and their conversation went on, more and more animated, until the last drop of herbal tea in the kettle was consumed.
(A Year and A Day – Excerpt – August)