Not Drowning, But Flying

Hidden deep within the jungle, far removed from the outside world, there lay a village.  On the night of the Festival of Colours, the villagers would paint their bodies in all the raiments of the Earth and Sky and dance long into the night. They continued in this way until the Outsiders came. They were men in white cloth, who led cattle and cut down the trees so their animals might graze. Then there came hunters, who carried rifles and stalked wildlife for their flesh and hides.

A boy called Bharu lived in the village. His mother had come from the Outside and even though she had taught him their language, she had given up that world to join the village. However these Outsiders did not change, they offered the villagers weapons and medicines, but the boy was afraid. When his father called the villagers together, he told them they must accept these Outsiders and the gifts they brought. Bharu wept, for if his people joined the Outsiders, they would be themselves no more.

He ran to the village temple, a building of carved stone, overgrown with forest. He stood at the altar in its centre and prayed to his mother’s spirit. No answer came but he knew she would guide him, for like the temple in which he stood, his mother had become part of the jungle. She would lead him to someone who would make the Outsiders see that they must do the same. From the altar he took the earrings his mother had once worn, golden beads that caught the light on their facets like an array of stars. He also took the lantern which had guided her through the jungle, a frame of black metal and glass walls which carried in its belly a miniature sun.

With his treasures held close, he began his journey. Bharu travelled many days and many nights, far beyond the edge of the jungle, where the trees ceased to grow and lush green turned to barren red. He crossed a rocky desert with sun-baked hills rising under a pale sky.

Each night he saw his mother’s face, she stared at him through golden grasses, beads wrapped around her slender neck, and the faceted earrings dangling either side of her jaw and bronze-dusted cheekbones. He called out to her, but before she could answer, the shadowy figure of a woman overtook her, spreading darkness as if it were cloth and smothering all colour till there was only grey left. He ran from the dark spirit, but was then faced with a girl. She stared at him through black water and though she struggled, couldn’t reach the surface. When he awoke, he gasped for air, as if he too were drowning. Only his lantern staved off the darkness until the return of the sun.

When Bharu reached the city he was surrounded by concrete monoliths that formed a forest of steel and stone. He looked down at himself, dressed in jungle garb he had long since outgrown. He scavenged new clothes, dark jeans and boots and a sweater that would protect him from the cold that hadn’t existed in the jungle. But as he put down his lantern to change, a young thief stole it. Bharu lost the thief and stopped where concrete gave way to trees. He reached a park and was once more standing amongst foliage. A brilliant flash of red caught his eye and he found an abandoned phone booth. Sunlight filtered down through the leaves and vibrant green caressed crimson. Its shape reminded him of his lantern and the trees pushing in reminded him of the temple back home. He stepped into the booth kicking crunching glass aside. Sitting down, he pulled out the earrings. Bharu closed his eyes and tried to picture the temple and the forest, but though he heard the sway of trees and the call of birds, he saw only the drowning girl, and behind her, the dark spirit.

He opened his eyes to find night time. He stood and noticed through the gaps in the trees that a swath of golden stars glided above him. Bharu ran through the park until he reached a clearing. He saw now that they were not stars which danced above him, but lanterns. Golden jewels filled the sky and he looked on in awe. He had lost his guiding lantern, so his mother had sent a thousand more. Placing his hand over his pocket where the earrings lay, he smiled his thanks.

The lanterns began to drift and he followed them to a building. Slipping inside, Bharu walked down a golden corridor, its walls adorned with paintings of ancient figures, playing music or offering gifts. Their colours washed over him, drawing him in so that at first he did not see the girl who stood there. Her gasp of surprise drew his attention and he turned to look upon her. Her skin was pale and creamy and her eyes were dark, like her hair which hung in silken curtains either side of her face.

“Who are you?” Bharu asked.

“Ora,” she said, smoothing the front of her yellow dress. “I work here at the museum.”

“What’s a museum?”

She waved at the painted wall. “It’s a place to preserve and remember other cultures.”

Bharu looked at the paintings again. The people in them weren’t so unlike the villagers in his home. Ora protected them.

“Why are you here?” she asked, tilting her head.

“I’m Bharu,” he said, “the lanterns led me here, to you. I’ve travelled very far to find you.” He held the earrings out to her. “These were my mother’s, but they are yours now.”

Ora took the golden bead earrings, then sat down on the floor, legs crossed, waiting for him to do the same.

“Tell me your story, Bharu.”

Bharu told her everything, of his home in the jungle, of the farmers who wanted the land and the hunters who wanted the animals. He told her how his father had embraced the Outsiders, letting them learn from the villagers how to navigate the jungle and taking knowledge from them in return. Ora listened, eyes wide. She asked about his home and told him of her own life in the city and emersion in the cultures that were its foundation. He explained how he feared his people would lose themselves, and so left to find someone who would save them.

“Will you help?” he asked. “Will you come back with me?”

Ora stared at him. “No.”

Bharu recoiled. “But why? Your job is to preserve cultures, why won’t you help mine?”

Ora handed back the earrings. “I preserve memories,” she said. “It is important to remember the past, but we cannot become stuck in it, or we will never grow.”

“No,” his hand tightened around the earrings. “We must hold onto who we are, or the world will swallow us up and we’ll drown.” He got to his feet. “If you will not help me, I’ll find someone who can.”

Ora stood also. “Will you meet me somewhere, Bharu? There’s something I’d like to show you, but if you still want to leave I won’t stop you.” After a moment Bharu nodded. Ora smiled. “At dawn then, on the hill at the north end of town.”

Later, as he slept, he saw the dark spirit again, but as she approached, light fell across her and he saw that her skin was painted in all the colours of the Earth and Sky. Golden clouds swirled around her, butterflies flew off her skin and from the flowers in her hair. She was light. She was colour. She was life.

When Bharu reached the hilltop the sun had painted the horizon yellow and dusted the land in gold. He saw Ora, standing amongst flowers and tall grass, with the sunrise behind her. She smiled at him, a butterfly hung on a chain around her neck.

“Look,” she said, and turned her gaze out over the landscape. Bharu did too and saw below him the city blending with farmland and forest. Birds flew over the buildings and people moved among the trees.

“Sometimes,” Ora said, “the world changes without telling us, but if we learn to change with it, we’ll find things we never knew existed.” She touched her pendant. “When we leave our shells, we learn to fly.”

“What if we lose ourselves?” Bhrau said, looking at the earrings in his palm.

Ora placed her hand over his. “There will always be things that tie us to our pasts, but the greatest of those things are the ones that also guide us towards our futures.”

Bharu looked down at their joined hands. He knew his home had changed, but then, so had he.

That night when he dreamed of the drowning girl, he was not afraid. As he watched, she stopped struggling against the current and transformed into a goldfish, swimming away. The water grew brighter until it was a cloud of butterflies, spiralling up into a golden sun.

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