At the end of November, nature had finally settled into its cold season slumber. There was a chill in the air, a chill whose fingers got colder every morning, and which was embroidering lacy frost on the ground and on the windows, the icy breath of the earth made manifest.
The Twins seemed unsettled. Aifa could see them look out to the horizon, towards the sea, as if waiting for somebody, or seeing something that was revealed only to them in the frigid mist.
“What are they looking for, doyenne?” the girl whispered to her grandmother, careful not to disturb their thoughts.
“The next stage in their evolution, I think. Every year at this time the Twins reflect on the lessons they have to bring into the world the next time around,” grandmother answered.
“But they never speak,” Aifa replied, confused.
“You have put together a book just about as tall as you with the messages they gave to you alone. Think about all the other Caretakers, and the rest of the people of Cré. There is not enough room in the library to accommodate all the things they had taught us over the years.”
“Why can’t they teach everything at once, wouldn’t it be easier that way? And less confusing?”
“Think about it. When you started school, what would have been the benefit if being taught the things you learn now? They would overwhelm you, they would be impossible for you to understand, and you would be so discouraged that you would forgo learning altogether. The teachings of divinity are no different. They are not one block of stone, but a never ending series of layers, which build upon each other, until the end of time.”
“So, when does this learning end, then?” Aifa asked.
Aifa gulped hard, because the thought of school never ending was not one she enjoyed contemplating.
“Every time you achieve the required level of understanding, you are accepted to the next level, where you can learn more. Why are you upset? Would you be more comfortable thinking that the entire essence of divinity can be summed up in one teaching? Of course the revelation of the divine is endless. The divine itself is endless.”
“So, then, what are the Twins?” Aifa asked.
“They are manifestations of the divine, brought forth from its spirit to teach the lessons appropriate to the times,” grandmother explained.
“Don’t they ever contradict themselves?”
“All the time, as you have already noticed on occasion. There are two types of divine teachings. One relates to the norms of society, the rules of comport, laws, mores, everything that pertains to our daily lives. Those change constantly, as society advances, fashioned by the tastes and trends of the time. The other refers to eternal truths, which run consistently through the teachings, and will never change,” grandmother explained.
“For instance, the eternal and uncreated nature of the divine,” grandmother said.
Aifa pondered on the eternal truths for a second, and then shivered. They seemed so cold and heartless in the freezing light of the morning, not at all suitable for creatures made of flesh and blood. The still splendor of eternity turned her breath to ice.
“It’s getting really cold, isn’t it?” grandmother noticed. “Don’t let your heart be troubled, and don’t carry the burden of wisdom too abstruse for you to understand. You are only responsible to understand what you can understand right now. As I said, if the Twins want you to know something, you’ll be sure to learn it.”
She looked up at the somber sky, trying to discern the scent of snow in the air. A freezing gust of wind kissed the surface of the pond in the garden of the Hearth, and, in its passing, left a delicate tracery of ice crystals on its placid mirror.
“They are going to leave soon,” grandmother whispered, and to Aifa’s great surprise, the elder’s voice was stifled by choking back tears. She looked at her granddaughter and felt the need to explain herself. “No matter how many times this happens, I will never get used to it. It’s never easy parting with them. I still remember every pair of Twins, since the beginning of my Caretaking days, and I miss each one of them dearly. It is a cross we have to bear as Caretakers, one that comes with our calling and of which we are never relieved.”
“When do you think they are going to leave, doyenne?” Aifa asked gently.
“I don’t know, dear. If I had to guess, I would say probably tonight. The first snow is in the wind, I can feel it in my bones, it’s hovering over the sea, just past the horizon.”
“What are we going to do after they leave?” the girl was suddenly startled by the memory of the Hearth as it looked in winter – dark, gray and silent.
“Wait for them to return, of course,” grandmother smiled, then changed the subject. “So, your apprenticeship year is almost over. What do you think about your calling so far?”
Aifa looked back at the events of the past year and quite frankly, didn’t know what to make of them. She couldn’t call her life better or worse than before, but it certainly felt bigger for the sum of all of those experiences. If somebody gave her the choice to return to the way she used to be and forget all about them, she would have felt robbed of something of great value.
“That would be ‘better’, granddaughter,” grandmother laughed out loud. “It’s hard to recognize ‘better’ when you’ve never seen it before.”
The night was thickening, and heavy snow clouds obscured the stars. Most of the Caretakers had already left, so that they could get home without getting caught in a blizzard; there were only a couple of them left, folding garments and blankets and putting them away. Aifa and her grandmother were about to go back inside the Hearth, when the first snowflakes of the season fell into the almost frozen pond. When the snowflakes touched the water, the Twins dispersed into a million sparkly ice crystals, which fluttered together like a cloud of minuscule butterflies. They swirled around in the icy wind, hovering a second longer over their familiar surroundings, and then got carried out to sea and vanished from sight.
The Hearth turned dark and still, as the snow got thicker, buried under the heaviness of the cold winter night, whose silence was deafening. All the joy and happiness of the year that passed, which the boisterousness and the innocent mischievousness the Twins had brought to Cré had disappeared with them, leaving the old stone building of the Hearth, which had been the center of city life until then, somber and barren in the absence of their spirit, a soulless empty shell.
“I can’t be here, grandmother,” Aifa started crying. “I can’t bear to see it like this.”
“You can and you will! We are Caretakers, granddaughter. Every year this spear pierces our hearts. We are Caretakers, do you understand that?” grandmother said, torn between being upset at her granddaughter and trying to comfort her. “We take care of the Hearth and wait for the Twins to return. And when they leave, we do it again. This is who we are.”
Aifa looked out into the heavy snow, knowing that her childhood had been driven out to sea also. She was feeling much older, all of a sudden, and when she accidentally caught a glimpse of herself in the water pitcher, she was shocked to see the eyes of an old woman look back at her from behind her own reflection.
“I guess we’re going to have to spend the night here. It’s not worth taking a night trip in this weather, we have plenty of blankets here. Did I ever teach you how to start a fire?” grandmother said, then she took a couple of sticks from the hearth, and rubbed them together softly and they ignited, seemingly on their own.
“How did you…” Aifa asked, dumbfounded by the surprise.
“Ah, that is a lesson for next time. You didn’t think you had learned all there is to learn, did you?” She handed Aifa a fistful of dried fruit, to dine on. The light of the flickering fire cast giant shadows on the walls, an surreal spectacle, especially when accompanied by the eerie howling of the wind. “There is a reason why you had to learn to confront your darkness, granddaughter. So that you understand that those shadows on the walls are cast by you.”
“What about the blizzard, doyenne. Surely I didn’t bring the blizzard!” Aifa protested half-heartedly, munching on her dried fruit.
“No, of course not! Wisdom teaches us how to distinguish between the things we have power over and those we don’t,” grandmother smiled enigmatically. “At least for the moment.”
Cozy under her blankets, in front of the fire, Aifa had the startling realization that she was just as comfortable with the darkness, with the tenebrous depths of the Hearth, over which the wind howled menacingly and where the shadows danced like ghosts on the walls, as she was with the brightness of sunshine in spring, during those happy times when she and the Twins were running through the daffodil meadows.
“That was this year’s last lesson to you,” grandmother commented. “You don’t bend yourself around your circumstances. You lead your life, you don’t follow it. Sleep tight, granddaughter. Tomorrow we have to go out into the forest and gather evergreens for the Night of the Mothers.”
Aifa wanted to point out that it seemed a bit precarious to venture into the mountains during weather like this, but realized it would be a fool’s errand to try and talk her grandmother out of something she’d already decided. Besides, they only had a few days for the preparations, and she had a feeling that there was a lot more to that trip out to the forest than her grandmother let out.
She was almost asleep, surrendering to the exhaustion of the day, when she had this very distinct certainty that the Twins were right there, next to her. Aifa looked at her grandmother, who didn’t seem unsettled in the least.
“Doyenne,” the girl whispered. “Do you, ahhm, think that they might still be around, somehow?”
“Why, of course,” grandmother said, as if it were completely normal.
“But I thought… Don’t they leave with the first snow?”
“Yes, they do.”
“So, then, how can they be here?” Aifa got so confused by the logical contradiction that all her sleepiness dissipated.
“I told you already, we live in a world of duality, they don’t. It is as easy for them to be here and not be here simultaneously as it is for us to ponder whether to have breakfast or not. Until we make up our mind about it, both situations are equally likely to happen. In one of their aspects the Twins never leave here.”
Aifa figured she’d had all the learning she could take in one sitting about the divine nature of the Twins, and was very grateful that said divinity in its eternal wisdom had devised a system of layers for the holy revelation, so that she didn’t have to finish it all that night. She called the particular layer in which she found herself now complete and didn’t give it another thought. It was late, it was getting cold, the Twins were there anyway, or not, depending on one’s metaphysical perspective, she was only thirteen and she had never liked winter to begin with. She wished there was some milk in the pantry, but apparently, since the Twins weren’t there anymore, at least physically, the Caretakers’ comfort didn’t amount to a hill of beans, and therefore there wasn’t any left.
She churned this disappointment in her mind, all the while wondering what her grandmother would say if she could hear her, and dozed off next to the fire, lulled by the howls of the wind.
(A Year and A Day – Excerpt – November)