The islands lie in the water, like dinosaurs sleeping, their heads and tails concealed. Their backs forming the contours of the seascape.
I know there’s no water there, otherwise they’d be inhabited. Maybe a good thing, saving nature from mankind’s destruction. Not much vegetation can be observed from afar, either. Perhaps some bushes that can last the heat of the summer months without rain.
On the shore, I see pebbles of all colours. Emerald green, ruby pink, cobalt blue. They shine like precious gems. Once I take them out of the water, their colours go dull. I know this, because I fell in love with them and took them home, but they weren’t the same. Perhaps, I shouldn’t have, and should have left them in their own natural environment. Perhaps that’s what I did with you, and that’s why you stopped shining.
I must not be a hoarder, a collector of pebbles with attractive hues. The colours depend on the light and water. Their nourishment. Once the circumstances change, the pebbles change their nature. Is that why you changed as well?
I’ll return the pebbles where they belong. I’ll watch them from afar. I don’t wish to possess them, but to see them alive.
I switched off the morning news. While the TV screen darkened, I yearned to escape the gloom and the toxic atmosphere of the city. A photographic excursion into the countryside would do me good.
Picking up my camera bag, I left the flat and made my way to the garage. After a couple of stops at charming spots, I drove past a sleepy old town and slowed down when a detached sandstone house came into view. Through its open gates, a tilted For Sale sign caught my eye. Thinking this could be an interesting subject, I parked the car and entered the grounds.
The weathered signboard hinted it had been there for a while. The house looked decrepit and forlorn, its windows boarded and the paint on the front door chipped and cracked. Unkempt and overgrown, the garden conjured a strange melancholy. Taking a few shots, I walked around the building. Broken branches and decaying leaves from tall trees echoed the same neglect. Ready to leave, something behind the shrubs, along the back wall caught my attention. A pair of pale green doors which at first glance resembled a trompe l’oeil.
Something about the stately gate told me a story. It stood intact and supported by tall tapered pillars. The half-moon pebble mosaic steps that led to it boasted of history. Its ornate, solid iron body whispered tales from the past. Yet, the walls on its either side had partially crumbled, and peeking through the gaps, I saw nothing, but an expanse of wilderness beyond.
At the bottom of the steps, a pond had formed, housing an array of horsetail reed, water lilies, and sweet flag. Natural or landscaped, I couldn’t tell. It looked authentic and picturesque, in sheer contrast to the condition of the rest of the estate. Maybe the heavy rains of the last few weeks had brought it back to life.
At some point, the door that led to nowhere must have stood proud to protect a house and the people beyond it, allowing only friends and family inside. If so, what had happened to it, or its connection to the stone cottage remained a mystery. Confrontation, natural disasters, and family sagas came to mind. Nature had built a façade over the remains, if there were any, and camouflaged it to look like an extension of the massive open fields.
I tried to pull the door open. It didn’t budge. Most likely its hinges had been bonded by the threads of time. So I climbed over the wall and stepped into the meadow woven with a carpet of spring flowers. Keeping my eyes on the ground, I set out to find remains of life on the soft knolls. I picked up an old pipe, a metal button, a penny, and the broken arm of a wooden doll. They looked old. Would they be considered as clues to who had once lived here? Not really, I told myself. Such items could be found anywhere. The sun about to set, I became weary of wandering in the fields.
Slowly, I walked back, pondering on the remains that had endured time. Like the iron gates, intact and still present. Similar to my genetic memory, the will to live and hope, despite the dystopia the entire world is going through.
I debated whether to return to the sleepy town to inquire about the house and the gate. I dismissed the idea. Instinct had already told me the story about the property and myself. Why I endure, how I distract myself with photography, why the structures remain standing, like sentinels, steadfast in their duty, despite the odds.
I wandered into the field along the dirt road to explore the flora and the fauna. A kaleidoscope of spring flowers, dotted with herds of cattle, sheep, horses, and donkeys. The hyper goats and their babies preferred the rocky terrain, on its edge, climbing and leaping from the heights, and feasting on fresh herbs and blooms. The aroma of sage, rosemary, and oregano filled the air. No humans around, though. It seemed the fauna had the scene for their own amusement.
I was not to complain, as I trod on the young grass, taking care not to harm the beauties of early spring along my path.
Settled on a rock, I watched the vibrant scene as the animals shared nature’s bounty. I took photos, viewed them on my camera, and shot some more to capture the ambiance. At the end of the field, the dirt road snaked towards the village on the hills, after passing through a closed gate. The farmers had herded their livestock into the meadow for grazing till sunset.
In this part of the world, Spring is brief, fleeting like our youth. Hot summer sun burns the grass. The only plants that survive are the trees and thorny bushes. Flowers fade and the green becomes yellow.
I left the meadow with the villagers who came to gather their animals and lead them into the sheds. They offered me coffee at the coffee shop where men smoked and played backgammon. They were dressed in their all year round outfits, jackets worn over shirts, and trousers The sound of rolling dice against the wooden board mixed with the background noise from the TV on the wall. Noisy, but not disturbing. Not that these people cared about what was happening in the world or in the country. Their world was their village. They had lived that way for centuries, despite devastating events that changed the lives of many. It was their way of survival, like the thorny bushes.
The village head, an old man swinging his worry beads around his wrist, sat next to me and spoke.
“Photographer lady, will you make us famous?”
“I take pictures for my own pleasure. If I publish or sell them, I rarely mention the place. Would you like me to?”
“Yes and no,” he said, taking a big slurp from his coffee. “This is still a protected site, but we don’t know how long it will last.” He pointed to the TV and folded his arms. “The developers are viewing the land, taking photos and measuring. We may not be able to live this way for long.”
I knew what he was talking about. Land profiteers, vultures that thrive on virgin soil. They were everywhere, digging mines, shaving off mountains, building hotel complexes, marinas, and power plants.
“What they do is against nature,” I said. “Yet, they have supporters in the government.”
“Isn’t it always so?”
“I came here to photograph Spring on these ancient lands. I witnessed it once before, but never managed to visit at the right time again when the combination of the animals and nature exist in such harmony.”
“Once harvest is over, the animals graze in the fields on the other side of the gate. Crop rotation, a four-hundred-year-old tradition.” He pointed to the area, peeking from beyond the houses.
“Spring is transient,” I said.
“Isn’t life?” he answered with a smile, tipping the brim of his flat cap.
I loaded my bags containing herbs, honey, and almonds from the local shop into the car, and left the village. Driving through magnificent scenery washed in the colours of sunset, I pondered whether I was spring grass, a thorny bush or an evergreen. Grass renews itself and dies, then comes back again. A thorny bush survives all circumstances. Nature is resilient. Bougainvillea bloom, pine trees grow into forests, from the tiny seeds hidden in their cones.
I decided not to publish any of the photos on my website. Let it be a well-kept secret, on my part. Perhaps I could post them as historical documents in the future.
After the torrential rains in April, a riot of flowering weeds covered the lawn in multi-coloured glory. Daisies, poppies, dandelions, marigolds, clover and varieties of many unnamed wild flowers, flourishing under the warm spring sun, spread their beauty in undulating waves of bouncy grass across the garden. Bunches of slender mallow with purple blossoms gracing lush green fields, watched over their brothers and sisters.
It was a blissful time until the guillotine man arrived and began the massacre. A blizzard of yellow, pink, purple, white and red petals flew through the air and scattered, while their stems fell to the ground. On the edges of the waving grass, the survivors drooped to hide their stalks and disguise their blooms. Even tall Mallow didn’t have the chance to warn them in due time. At the end of the day, the executioner swept the dead bodies into bags and dumped them by the garbage containers.
In the silence of the night, the weeds wept for the departed, until there were no more tears, and waves of anger began to spread around the borders. Poppy shouted, “We must revolt! I protest this ruthless massacre.”
Dandelion agreed. “I second this. Mutiny in the garden. Death to the humans. We should invade their houses and poison them.”
Wise Daisy listened to the rebellion, and only spoke when gusts of anger subsided into quiet contemplation. “We can’t do anything to the humans. They have their machines and chemicals. We have a single purpose in life. The survival of our species. We’re already under threat. They’re building everywhere. Our seeds are safe in Mother Earth, but each time they build, they excavate the soil and dump it somewhere. Once construction is over, they bring new soil from questionable sources and pile it on top us. We must find a solution for this. We need a secret garden, but I don’t know how we can find one or get there.”
They discussed many possibilities including the collaboration of insects and bees, who if asked politely, might transfer their seeds and spores to a new place. Clover said, “They tend to stay around the same areas and move slowly. We need something stronger and faster.”
At the break of dawn, a crow landed on the freshly cut grass, looking for food.
Marigold said, “Perhaps we should ask the worms to entice him so that he’ll help carry our future offspring to a faraway place.”
Daisy raised an eyebrow. “Why on earth would the worms sacrifice themselves on our behalf? We need a better plan. Maybe we should discuss it with him.”
Daisy raised her voice and addressed the crow. “Sir, we need your opinion. As you can see, we’re devastated. Only a few of us remain, but soon the landowners will come with their sharp blades to complete our annihilation. We have very little time. How can we get a fast exit to a new location a long way from here and protect our species? Can you help?”
“Hmm, ” Corvus the Crow muttered. “You need something stronger. Me and my mates can help you, but it’s not enough. I know of a place up in the mountains. It’s called the Secret Valley. Trekkers go there once in a while because it’s surrounded by high hills, hidden from the naked eye. However, as you may be aware, nothing is hidden anymore. Everything is on Google Earth via satellite.”
“What’s Google Earth, satellite?” Daisy asked, blushing.
“They’re the human operated observers, taking pictures of the planet, imitating the bird’s eye view. The valley is remote, uninhabited, and can only be reached by an ancient trail. So, it will be a safe haven for a while.”
“I see. How can we go there? Can you show the way?”
“You need to believe first, make a wish and pray. You must find a mantra, concentrate, then conjure a strong eastern wind in your minds.”
“A secret, sacred word you must not repeat to others. It doesn’t have to be in Sanskrit, any word will do as long as you add Omm… to the end.”
“Hmm, ” the weeds whispered in unison, “how can we find a word, one that’s the same for all us?”
“Concentrate,” Corvus repeated.
“Hush,” the Crow crowed. “It’s never to be repeated out loud or to each other. Find the word and meditate. Your lives depend on it.”
The weeds closed their eyes and prayed silently, repeating their mantra. ‘Mighty Eastern Wind, save us from desolation. Carry us to the Secret Valley to protect our species. Let us flourish in the sacred meadows, far from the destruction of mankind. Ommmm.’
Time stopped. When the sun peeked over the hills, a gentle breeze rustled the leaves on the trees. The breeze became a wind, then a gale. It gathered everything loose on earth’s surface into blustering currents and carried it all towards the mountains. A murder of crows rode the wind and glided high across the sky towards the Secret Valley.
The crows circled the valley, as the gale slowed down to a soft breeze and sprinkled the seeds onto the virgin earth. Rain clouds covered the sky and fell in a gentle shower, mixing the spores into the fresh soil.
Two weeks later, the stem of a daisy popped through the earth. Followed by a poppy, a dandelion, marigolds, clovers, even mallows who worked hard to absorb the Mother’s goodness and produce photosynthesis to feed their multi-coloured flowers.
Young Daisy opened her eyes and saw a baby Poppy. “Thank God, you’re here.”
“Hush, ” Daisy said. “Mummy said, never repeat the word.”
“Sorry. Look little Marigold is here too, and Dandelion.”
The flowering weeds flourished in the Secret Valley, nurtured by Mother Earth, and with the help of Corvus and his mates who visited them during the seed dispersal time. They gathered strength for the next generations to fight against another possible destruction by humans in the future.
A large gilt framed painting dominates one wall of the Mystical Plains School’s Assembly Hall. A scene of an idyllic valley, surrounded by a narrow body of water which cascades down a steep fall, sweeping the sailboats and people at its end into the deep void. Children watch the painting and wonder. Sometimes they dream of falling into the great beyond and disappearing, forever.
Aloe fluttered her long eyelashes and pursed her lips. “I want to see The End of the World.”
“Are you mad?” Basil said. “You’ll fall off the edge.”
“Why would I? Won’t you come with me to discover new herbs and prove the theory?”
Although Aloe and Basil were the same age, Basil, being a ten-year-old boy, was more naive than his female friend. “What theory?” He rolled his eyes.
“That the earth is flat, as grownups say in Mystical Plains. And as it’s shown in the painting.”
“It is flat, also the sky is flat.”
“How about proving it? We’ll stop when we come to the end.”
“Are you sure about this? We don’t know how far it is.”
Aloe twisted a long strand of her celadon mane around a finger and shrugged.
“Only one way to find out. Meet me here tomorrow at dawn. Bring a sandwich and some fruit. Also, your notebook and crayons. We can draw the herbs we find on the way and collect samples. What say you?”
“What do we say to our parents?”
“Say it’s a school project. It’s true.”
“Great!” Aloe planted a kiss on Basil’s cheek and scurried away, the skirts of her pale green dress swaying in the breeze.
Basil could never refuse her. She was the most beautiful and clever girl in the Plains. Proud to be her best friend, he always relented to her whims, and she had many.
At dawn, they set off on their journey. Aloe pulled the hood of her olive cape over her hair. Fizzy jade curls that escaped the grip of Basil’s wide-brimmed hat bounced on his cheeks in tune with his quick step.
As sunlight burned away the chill of the spring morning, green fields spread out forever in their view. Basil was good at drawing, Aloe with writing the descriptions and colouring. They stopped several times to examine new finds and added them to their scrapbook.
When the sun was high in the sky, they rested for lunch and shared the fruit. Aloe figured they’d been on their journey for six hours. They’d need another six to return to the village before dark. She shaded her eyes with her hand and perused the surroundings. Eternal green without an end, but The End of the World nowhere in sight. She looked towards the way they came. There was no sign of the village or any familiar sights, nor the trees they’d marked as they moved on.
Biting the apple in her hand, Aloe pondered. “We must head back now and find our path in daylight. I don’t think we’ll reach The End of the World today.”
She studied the fruit closely. “I have an idea. Let’s see if it will work. Look at this apple. It’s round. If you were a tiny insect on it,” she picked up an ant and placed it on one side of the apple, “you wouldn’t be able to see the other side, would you?”
“No,” Basil said, eager to hear the rest.
“But if you keep moving towards the other side, you’ll be there and see it. That’s why we can’t see the village or The End of the World from here. It’s beyond our view. If it were flat, we’d see it.”
“Are you saying it’s a false theory?”
“Yes, but we’ll have to prove it. Let’s go back the same way, and see how the view improves as we get closer.”
Re-tracing their steps, making note of the landmarks, they resumed their hunt for various herbs. Three hours later, they had another break, and shared cookies and a slice of cake. Though they looked back and searched for the spot where they’d stopped for lunch, they could see no further than the forest in midway.
Aloe muttered pensively. “There is no End of the World. It doesn’t end, but continues.”
After two more hours of trekking and drawing, the village appeared in the distance. As the sky turned to shades of marigold and poppy, the sun began to sink behind the hills.
The amber beams of the sunset danced across Aloe’s green eyes and she sighed. “Maybe that’s why the sun and the moon are round. They don’t disappear, but go elsewhere.”
“But they will be back tomorrow,” Basil said, confident.
“The sun, definitely tomorrow, the moon to repeat its different phases next month.”
“Are we going to tell our parents?”
Aloe fiddled with the hem of her skirt. “Not yet. This is still a theory. I have to do more tests. Perhaps, we’ll keep it to ourselves for a while. Tell you what, let’s write down everything in a log, and wait until we’re old enough to prove it. Meanwhile, we have a beautiful scrapbook of different herbs to present to the teacher for our project.”
As twilight spread its velvet blanket over the Mystical Plains, Aloe and Basil chased each other down the road to their homes, their childish laughter filling the air with promise.