“Wake up, granddaughter,” Aifa’s grandmother shook her gently, so she wouldn’t be startled out of her deep sleep. “We need to go to the Hearth soon, we don’t want to keep people waiting.”
Aifa got up quickly, washed her face and hands and put on the clothes that she’d been setting aside the day before, hand made and never worn before, like tradition required. She knew they weren’t going to leave immediately, one had to sit and think, and write down what one perceived to be one’s shortcomings from the previous year, to be relinquished to the sacred fire.
It was forbidden for any one else to read what those shortcomings might be, and the fact that she was allowed to choose her sins for herself, if one could conceive of such thing, made Aifa feel light and free. She wasn’t perfect, she knew that, and she could think of many things she would have liked to change, but for some reason only her rebellious little mind understood, she refused to write them down. She spent some thoughtful time in silence, with her family, thinking of all that had been and all that she wished would be, and scribbled down on her little piece of paper, carefully folded in four, a large amount of words, to be entrusted to the flames.
What words those were, that was to remain a secret between her and the holy flames, a secret which belonged to her alone and whose cumulative layers had built up to a small treasure of insight over the years, one that she guarded jealously inside her mind.
“You shouldn’t be so hard on yourself, granddaughter,” her grandfather commented on occasion, “there can’t be that many things to write down.”
Aifa smiled and said nothing, but continued to scribble her thoughts until it was almost time to leave.
The house was filled with candles, to bring light from the darkness, and with the tempting aroma of the decadent sweets the entire family had spent a whole day baking and decorating.
“Why do we write down our shortcomings, doyenne?” Aifa asked, feeling a little guilty about her private gesture of assertion.
“We write down the things that trouble our souls, so that their burden no longer weighs down our spirit, so that we can walk into the new year renewed and purified,” grandmother explained patiently again, as she had done so many times before.
“What kind of things?” Aifa continued her probing, not realizing that the question sounded very odd, considering that she had spent over an hour writing down hers.
“Well,” grandmother paused for a few moments, “if it’s something that you did and that burdens your soul, then it belongs on the list.”
“What if it burdens my soul but it’s not of my doing?” Aifa asked innocently.
“If it is in your life, granddaughter, it is of your doing,” grandmother replied gently.
“Even the rain on my birthday?” Aifa grabbed onto the example from that very year, when what was supposed to be a sunny family picnic packed with simply revolting amounts of sweets, had to be moved indoors when a summer downpour started suddenly. Strangely enough, the thought of the rainy birthday didn’t make her sad at all, it was a beautiful memory. For a few moments her mind wandered back to the warmth and excess of summer.
“Even the rain on your birthday,” grandmother agreed.
“But the rain didn’t make me sad. I liked the rain,” Aifa continued her musings.
“Then you don’t have to write it down,” grandmother said.
“I always like the rain,” Aifa remembered enthusiastically.
“Everything is good in the right measure. Even happiness loses its luster if carried to excess. If you don’t believe me, wait until the Twins arrive.”
“Are they happy?”
“With a level of enthusiasm that risks overflowing.”
“But why would that be wrong, doyenne?” Aifa asked, surprised.
“In itself it’s not wrong at all. All of us aspire to be happy, first and foremost, but if you get swept up in the flow of your own emotions, whether they be good or bad, you lose sight of the true nature of being.”
“What is that?”
“That things, nature, events, are not there to make you happy or sad, they just are. Haven’t you noticed how everything in nature is always in motion? Everything is forever, and yet nothing endures.”
“Like the Twins?”
“Like the Twins.”
Aifa stayed quiet for a moment, to ponder on the implications.
“But the mountains are not in motion,” she finally found the counterexample, eager to find that one point of reference, that immovable center around which she could orient her existence.
“Sure they are. They just move so slowly our lives are not long enough to observe it. Not everything there is moves to the same clock. Speaking of which, if we don’t go right now, we’re going to be late.”
It wasn’t easy for Aifa to make the transition from these existential conversations she had with her grandmother to the solid and straight forward level of the here and now, where being late for the Spirit of Awakening was considered unacceptable. The discussion still nagged at her on the way to the Hearth.
They took off their shoes in the antechamber, as it was the custom, and went into the large stone hall barefoot, wincing a little while trying to adjust to the coldness of the floor. The space was already full when they arrived, and they had to search to find a spot large enough to accommodate the entire family. They laid down their white silk mats and sat close to each other, waiting for the ceremony to begin. There was so much light from the candles, and the murmur of the crowd blended with the monotonous preparatory chants and the weird hum of the bells, into an ethereal vibration of excited matter. After a while, Aifa lost track of space and time, in this strange disoriented state filled with lights, scents and sounds, and being there, having been there before, felt almost like a dream.
Her life passed before her eyes, the joys, the sorrows, the celebrations, the triumphs, the setbacks, the love, the loss. She just watched them pass by, like a wide eyed art lover admires paintings in a museum, paintings they’ve seen a thousand times before, noticing little details that escaped her on previous trips, wondering about meanings she didn’t grasp at the time, but which seemed so obvious to her now. She remembered her recent trip to the seashore as if she were there right then, still fascinated by the unearthly colors nature had displayed around her, feeling the smell of the salty air fill her lungs, the wind in her face, the sparkle of the frozen sand. She realized suddenly that she didn’t remember any of the pain, not the pins and needles in her frozen feet, not the pangs of hunger that had accompanied her on the way up the cliff, or the heavy yoke of tiredness that pressed her down like a ton of lead.
“How privileged are we to be able to travel to our past and our future,” one of the members of the High Council recited the beginning verses of the ceremony, “and how burdened with the curse of never being able to escape them.”
“He’s right,” Aifa thought, because in that moment she wasn’t really there, she was on the beach, with the seagulls, watching the painted skies and pouring her water back into the ocean. “Maybe the twins were there too, just like I am there right now, during those moments when I thought I heard them,” she thought. Their very life essence was contained in the memory of their first arrival, which was now forever bouncing echoes off the side of the rocky cliff.
An eerie thought dawned on her, too scary to ponder. What if this being there now, as real as it felt, was also a memory? What if it wasn’t even her memory, but if not hers, then whose? Maybe they all relived the memories of the Twins’ eternal lives, made unrecognizable by the passing of generations. What if she wasn’t here at all?
“Don’t slouch, daughter, it will ruin your posture,” her mother admonished softly, bringing her back from her reverie.
The hums of the bells continued through the night, and so did the recitation of the verses, and nobody in the large hall seemed to really be there anymore, they had all departed for the landscapes of their memories, where they kept their own lives from unraveling in the continuous, ever changing stream of reality. It was a repository, the mind, of all the things one valued about one’s life. Aifa finally understood the necessity of burning the feelings that weighed down her spirit. There was just so much space to be filled, and she wanted to reserve it all for things of value.
“Acquiring wisdom, granddaughter?” her grandmother smiled, and then went back to her contemplation of the year to come, to bless it, ahead of time, with beauty, happiness, harmony and peace.
Aifa tried to find evidence, as strange as that sounded, of her being there or dreaming about being there, but how does one find that evidence, and how could she understand it if she did? If all one had ever experienced was being asleep, how could one even understand the concept of being awake? Her sleep would be their reality, just like the tree dimensions of being are all she could ever perceive. And if she was dreaming, and all the other people were also dreaming, were they all dreaming together or each lost in their own world? And if by some weird turn of events, one of them happened to wake up, would the world disappear, like the dream world dissipated into nothing upon awaking? She decided to ask her grandmother these questions on the way back home, in the hope that maybe the latter could shed some wisdom on the subject. Grandmother was the wisest person Aifa knew.
“Maybe you wouldn’t care about it anymore,” grandmother postulated, not very sure herself. “You don’t really care about the sadness of a dream when you wake up in the morning, do you? Most of the time you won’t even remember it.”
“But I do remember my dreams,” Aifa said. “I wouldn’t want to forget them, some of them were so beautiful I would like to go back inside them again. And even the sadness lingers through the entire day after a nightmare. And some of the dreams, good or bad, return to visit for days or weeks. What if I do remember everything, but it’s no longer there? How would I be without it?”
“You are asking things of me that I have no way of knowing, dear child. How could I? I am no wiser than you, I have just seen a lot more of life. We all come here to learn, there is no limit to the learning, it is without end. What I can say is that you will find some answers eventually. A lot more of them if you unburden your mind of that list in your hand.”
As they walked in the slow file, to cast their folded pieces of paper into the holy fire, Aifa felt the cold stone floor under her bare feet, hard and solid like she thought reality was. Her soul wavered between the real and not real, torn between the cold hard floor and the painted skies on the beach, so deep in this struggle of the spirit that she didn’t feel the floor anymore, just kept advancing on top of it, relieved to release her worries and her troubles to the fire, to be stripped of their emotional baggage, to have them transformed into pure energy and set free.
Her turn came. She placed the folded piece of paper into the fire and waited a few moments to watch it burn whole, then turned to rejoin the file and make room for the next person in the line.
Aifa spent her whole trip back rehashing the battle between ‘it is a dream’ and ‘it is not a dream’, because she didn’t want her grandmother, and grandfather, and mother, and father, and siblings, and beloved pets, and enviable fate bestowed upon her, that of being Caretaker of the Twins, or even the Twins themselves, to be all part of a dream that she wove in her head, which would melt down to nothing at the first ray of dawn, but as she walked home at midnight, with the hard snow squeaking under the soles of her shoes, there was nothing but the night surrounding her, and the rhythm of the breath that the cold turned to mist the moment it left her lungs. She couldn’t even see her grandmother, that’s how dark it was, nothing but the night and the sound of the hard snow crushed under foot.
“Doyenne?” she started to panic.
“I am right here, child,” grandmother reassured her. “Aifa?”
(A Year and A Day – Excerpt – January)