I can hear her feet as she runs. She must be the fittest nun in the world. She’s far down and sprinting to gain speed for the first steep bit. Then the path follows a gentle crack in the cliff for a while before turning sharp into the zig-zags of the tortuous vertical stretches. She’ll run all of it except where the path collapsed and nuns and monks hammered in a safety chain. The chain rattles sometimes and adds to the moaning of wind through crags. It also announces the arrival and safe departure of those holy people who bring me water, food and firewood every day.
That’s the chain rattling now. She’s so fast! She’ll be carrying a heavy pack too. In a moment the ledge to the left of my cave will be visible to her, then the entrance.
I put fresh pine chunks on the fire. She’ll like the smell and it’s not good for her to cool down too quickly after all that exercise.
I adore her, of course, and she comes when she doesn’t need to, just to see me. If only the young knew the joy they bring with them.
It is dark and the feeble light of my fire illuminates flurrying snow outside. I see a puff of exhaled vapour as she stops and pulls her rucksack off.
Wiry arm muscles straining with the weight of the rucksack, she steps into view, smiling but interrogating with her eyes, checking me, checking to see if I’ve eaten, dressed properly, kept the fire big enough. Her T-shirt is stained with a triangle of sweat tapering from the neck. There are two more stains, one on each shoulder where the pack’s straps held her. A rubber band secures her hair in a bobbing ponytail. Pulling a hooded woollen top on, she kneels by the flames and loads more lumps of wood onto the others. Mouth shaped into a tiny O, she blows the embers and sends whirls of white ash and blinding sparks flying. A waft of heat strokes my skin, her breath made into a warm caress. She straightens up, blinking smoke from her eyes.
I first met her when she came out of nowhere, up a path only a handful of people know about. She pitched her tent on the ledge outside and went to sleep. Coming in the following morning she gave me food and a sweet drink. She didn’t talk; we had nothing to say to each other but she smiled, very carefully at first but with growing confidence. She was searching for someone to smile at … safely.
I came to live all the way up here to think and reflect in solitude … so I thought. Now I wonder if I came here so I could be found by her.
After the day passed one of the nuns arrived as usual and they left together after a busy rustle of packing, filling a rucksack and tightening straps.
Over the last four years she has spoken sometimes during her visits so I’ve learned little bits about her. She was a science student but gave it up after her mother died. She travelled. Never having know her father, she had nothing to keep her anywhere. She came from the other side of the world to see where her mother grew up, but that village is ruined, abandoned: war.
Then she heard about the monastery. That was it. She’d stumbled on what she wanted. She settled in so fast and loves the way it works, storing grain in high cold caverns for the villages far below, teaching children, helping the sick, the elderly, those in childbirth – even giving spiritual guidance to pilgrims. Of course she can give it – she knows the truth. She was also one of those heroic nuns and monks who helped in the great fire, saving crops, saving people in the valley. Sometimes when she comes to my cave she weeps with the joy a single day has brought her.
She’s always calm and doesn’t fuss like some of the holy ones while they sweep ash and restock my supplies. Emptying her sack she sets up a little camping stove, water, a packet of noodles, two bowls. She lifts my fur cloak and wraps me tight. I can’t take care of myself as I used to and don’t bother hiding my weakness and pain as I move. I hide nothing from her. When someone knows the truth that’s all they want; hiding things is a waste.
The stove hisses and splutters. She’s looking at me and doing the smile. Even though she knows she’s totally safe it still flickers through tight-lipped, tentative, bold, apologetic, warm, humorous – as always; that’s the reaction to what happens in her eyes. Those eyes so unguarded, so penetrating, so yearning. As happy as a person can be, she still carries the aching void that comes with being alive. It’s lovely that she chooses to share the pain and loneliness of it with me – the biggest compliment.
Her eyes glitter in the firelight. They’re a bit damp.
Now I think I know why she’s come today. She’s brought a huge request.
I creak myself into a more comfortable position, my shaking fingers struggling to pull the cloak tight. She reaches out and touches my face and hand, even checks my pulse. Yes I’m cold. I’m not nearly as tough as I was when winter approached last year … and I wasn’t too strong then.
We eat noodles. I can feel the warmth going into my stomach. She wipes sauce from my beard.
Sniggering she says, “You should have heard everyone today. A whole bunch of people came for spiritual guidance. One of the monks and a nun nearly made me laugh out loud; they resorted to poetry. I really must try it.”
I watch the snow for a while. She’s going to tell me things and I’m enjoying the wait, enjoying the silence, enjoying her being here. “What did you say to them?”
She shrugs. “Just the usual, that the truth is incommunicable through words – except to those who know it already so there’s no point in talking about it to those who know or to those who don’t, that it’s so simple as to be constantly overlooked, that so many people know it, that not knowing it is equally as important as knowing it and both are the same.” She pauses, tapping chopsticks on her bowl. “It’s so hard. They think I’m talking in riddles. Today Brother Dawa told people to search for the truth but never find it because you only end up where you started. Sister Annette just shrugged and said, ‘Why bother looking for the truth when you’re being it?’ Nothing we say satisfies the pilgrims really. I wish I could convince them that none of it matters.”
That was what she wanted to tell me but only to break the ice. She’s still preoccupied and a little tense. The real message comes next or soon. My cloak falls away as I reach out and take her hand … her so-warm hand! “Tell me. I can hear people talking and laughing far below. What is happening?”
She does that smile and floods me with her heart. Leaning forward she pulls my cloak back into place. “Two monks … we will take turns to carry you. I will call them if you say I can.” She stifles a small sob. “Please say I can.” She pauses, looking through the cave’s entrance while stroking my hand. “It’s a lovely cell. It was mine. I’ve moved into the next one – it has tricky uneven stairs. We’ll share a balcony. No one else goes into that tower but you can always call people if you need them.” She sighs, studying my reaction – and relaxes, her tension drifting away with the smoke.
“There’s a fireplace and a real bed. It’s a warm cell. It has a toilet, well, a hole. You won’t have to hang over the ledge any more. From our balcony you’ll be able to see streaks of dawn through the trees and mist. In the evening the cliffs light up red sometimes.” Looking away, she starts to say something but has to catch her words twice, her throat jerking. Taking a deep breath she turns and kneels right in front of me, gently holding my bony fingers. “Winter is coming and you are so thin and frail now. I know it’s selfish but I can’t face you dying yet.”
©Gary Bonn, 2017