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The Hidden One by Alcina Amara

© Alcina Amara

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chap 8

We pushed our way through the crowd. In front we saw a small clearing surrounded by the villagers. In the middle of this space was a woman buried up to her shoulders, only her head was visible.

“Why is her body buried?” I asked, glancing at my friends.

“I don’t know,” Said Amara, “This is strange.”

“They’re going to throw stones at her,” said Parvaneh, “I heard about this punishment.”

“Why?” I asked.

“She must have been a whore.” Parvaneh said.

The formalities began–a ritual of sorts, with speeches coming from men. Some women in the crowd cried. We cowered together.

“Why are we supposed to see this?” Amira said, frowning.

“Obviously it’s part of the Parvez program for our training.” Parvaneh said.

A man stepped out from the crowed, a large, pointed rock in his hand.

“Is he going to kill her?” Said Samira.

“No Samira, he will tickle her,” said Parvaneh rolling her eyes, “duh,”

“They’re going to kill her in such a horrible way for being a whore?” Said Fareena.

“She must have cheated on her husband and brought shame to her stupid village."

The man strolled up to the woman, stopped a few feet from her. He paused held the rock up, touching its sharp edges with his fingers.

“I want to be sick,” Samira said. “I didn’t think I’d ever…” she trailed off, looking down at her shoes.

“Don’t look, Samira,” I said. “you shouldn’t watch this.” I sighed. “None of us should have to.”

He threw the stone at her, it made a horrible crunching sound as it connected with the side of her head, blood ran down her cheek, she did not cry out.

“I will throw up.” Behbod shuddered clamping her hand over her mouth.

Samira fainted.

The man who’d thrown the stone retreated into the crowd. Then every single person brought a rock holding them in their hand. They stared at the accused woman. In unison, the villagers started throwing the rocks. Some small, some big, some of them finding their target, others falling short.

Amira covered her eyes. “This is so evil.”

“This woman must be a local. These people must have been her friends, her neighbours, her family. Probably seen her daily, chatting or smiling as they passed each other in the street. Now are killing her.”

Terrified, I slammed my eyes shut.

I felt at peace; I breathed in the wonderful scents, taking in the beautiful views of the garden, nestled on the lush green mountain with all its stunning wild flowers. It was paradise, with peaceful chirping of birds. A squirrel ran up to me, it stood on its hind legs twitching its nose peering up at me. I gave it an acorn I found on the ground.

“Are you afraid, Roxana?” a woman said in a lovely sing-song voice.

It was Anahita. Her eyes were sparkling like a thousand emeralds, her skin glowed like pure gold. Her sun kissed blonde hair were flying from the wind.

“No, Anahita I am not scared.” The Love In Anahita’s eyes assured me I had nothing to fear.

This garden is a happy place, I can forget about my problems. “Anahita?” I asked.

“Yes, Roxana?” she replied, moving a little closer.

“Where do people go when they die?”

“Roxana, what do you think death means?” Anahita asked running her hand through my black silky hair.

“Death means end of life.

“Maybe death is the start of a new life.”

I heard another voice, one I didn’t want to hear at all, Parvez. “Open your eyes!” he shouted. “Open them right now!” He had his hands on my shoulders, shaking me.

I opened my eyes to the twisted, angry features of Parvez’s face. I didnt know what was going on; I was in a daze. “I want to go home.” I said, coughing. “I want my mummy?”

“She has regressed again.” Said Soraya.

“Roxana!” shouted Parvez. “Roxana! I command you to come back!”

“Where am I? “I said. I looked over at the clearing.

The woman was dead, the aftermath of rocks and blood on the ground made me vomit.


*

It was past midnight, we couldn't sleep. The room was thick with tension; the atmosphere was gloom. Apart from Behbod we were all in our beds.

Samira was lying on her bed, staring into space, her expression was like she wasn’t even in the same room as us.

“That poor woman… she didn’t even make a single sound throughout the stoning.” Fareena said as she sank on her bed.

“I guess she had resigned herself to her fate,” Behbod said as she paced up and down the room. “

“What a terrible fate it turned out for her.” Amira said shaking her head sideways.

“I can’t believe what we saw,” Behbod said, throwing her hands into the air “I just can’t.”

We remained silent for a long while.

Parvaneh was whirling her black hair round with her fingers, “next time they will get us to throw the stones at some other poor whore.”
“We need to do something.” I said, getting up from the bed.

“What do you mean Roxana? Do you have something in mind?” Said Parvaneh.

I walked towards the window, “yes” I looked out the window, “we need to get away.“

“What?” Said Behbod with a frown.

“We have to,” I said, shrugging, “we just have to.”

“You mean, escape?” said Amira, staring at me with her eyes wide open.

“Yes, why not…?” I replied.

“Escape… impossible.” Fareena said.

“It’s not impossible Fareena, we can escape,” I said, a boldness rising within me.

“I won’t do,” Fareena said, “we can’t…” she trailed off mid-sentence.

“What a terrible idea that is,” Parvaneh said, “there’s no plan of action, no escape route.”

“Zagros mountain isn’t too far from here, they won’t find us there,” I said.

“Zagros mountain…” Amira said; her voice high in her disbelief, “how will we survive?”

“Right, how are we going to survive? Not to mention the hazards we’ll be exposing ourselves to, wild animals and even snakes, I hate snakes,” Behbod said wringing her hands.

“Don’t worry,” I said smiling, “I know how to survive on the mountain. We’ll have plenty to eat, natural wild food grows there, including all kinds of berries and all very healthy for you too. We won’t starve.”

“What about everything else, though?” Amira said, “we can’t live on only food, there’s more.”

“There are villages on the mountain. We can reach them within a few days. Good, kind people who live in villages. They’ll give us food and shelter, Im sure of it.”


“We paid a heavy price the last we followed your rebellion,” Said Parvaneh, placing her hands on her hips.

“I still have scars on my back.” Said Fareena.

“Let’s not forget the fact that Parvez didn’t lash you about that.” Parvaneh said. “I mean, how convenient.”
Amira rolled her eyes. “Come on, Parvaneh. That’s not fair, you can’t hold that against Roxana.”

Parvaneh opened her mouth to say something, then closed it again when she realised Samira was weeping. After glancing at her, she shrugged, “Okay, makes no difference anyway, no difference at all.” She took a deep breath. “I agree we should run away.”

“You agree? But you guys know that Parvez won’t allow us to escape without a good chase right? The punishments will be worse than last time.” Fareena said.
“I hope we won’t get caught, but if you want to be free from that maniac Parvez then we need to try, it’s a risk but I’m willing to take it.” I said.

Amira took a deep breath. “Count me in.”
I nodded. “It must be tonight, tomorrow we’re going back to the mansion.

“What about you Behbod? Said Amira.

Behbod glanced at Fareena, “Are you going to to with them?”

“No, of course not, it’s not realistic.” Said Fareena.

“Im just going for the fun of it.” Said Parvaneh.

“I hate snakes and I don’t like going without food but I don’t think I want to stay behind.” Said Behbod.

“Your mad Behbod, have you forgotten about the lashing on your back when you’re caught.” Said Fareena.

“knowing Parvez he would punish all us anyway, even we stay, he will blame us of not telling him or something.” Said Behbod.

Fareena looked to the ground, “I think you have a point, I guess im in.”

“Great, we’re all in agreement.” I said.

“What about Samira?” Amira asked, her gaze flickering to the bed where Samira was still lying.

“What do you mean?” I asked, frowning.

“I just mean… what do we do with her?” Amira asked.

“We take her with us.”

“We have to take her?” Behbod asked, “even though she’s in good shape”

“Are you stupid?” asked Parvaneh, “We can’t take her. Look at her. We need to move fast and she will only slow us down.”

“But that’s not fair,” I said, “We can’t just leave her behind. Would you want us to leave you behind?”

“That’s not what we’re discussing,” Parvaneh shot back. “If you’re serious about running away, be realistic. Samira’s is in no state to be travelling to any mountains.”

“I agree with Parvaneh, she’ll slow us down and you know what will happen if Parvez gets to us” Fareena said.

“She’s right, Roxana,” Amira said. “We can’t take Samira. It can only be the five of us.”

I looked at Samira, but she either wasn’t listening or she didn’t care whether we left or not. She just looked… not all there. Haunted.

I didn’t want to leave her, but neither did I want to miss the opportunity to escape in general and find out what happened to my mother that seemed far too important right then. They were my top priorities.

“Yes, OK then,” I said eventually, pulling my gaze away from Samira on the bed. “We go tonight. Just the five of us.”

Their expressions grave, Amira, Parvaneh, Behbod and Fareena nodded in agreement.


*

We sneaked out of the hotel, the night sky was full of stars around a bright round moon. We walked fast with our eyes darting back and forth, on the narrow path that lead out of the village, trying to be as quiet as we could.
Behbod stepped on a broken tree branch, its cracking sound made us jump.
“What was that?” Amira said.

“It’s just a stupid branch, we need to be more careful, if we want our so-called escape plan to work.” Said Parvaneh.
Once out of the village we run out onto the open farmland.

When we got closer to the mountains, we slowed down a little, trying to catch our breath.

I glanced at the majestic mountains, semi-visible in the full light of the moon. They were beautiful and imposing.

Exhausted we reached a place with natural fresh water running over the rocks.

Breathing in the fresh mountain air, my eyes welled with tears, an overwhelmed I fell to my knees, kissing the earth. “Life begins now,” I said.

“At least we won’t of thirst,” Parvaneh said. “not today anyway.”

Amira sighed, “that’s something,” she said and leaned down to scoop water from the rocks.

“Good idea,” said Parvaneh, kneeling down next to Amira and scooping up some water for herself.

I did the same, the water felt tasty and refreshing. all five of us falling into silence as we enjoyed the cool, clear water. After all the physical exertion, the cold liquid felt like bliss.

“It’s so nice, isn’t it?” Amira asked.

“Nothing’s better than water.” Fareena said between mouthfuls of gulping water.

Behbod wiped her hands on her skirt, “We should get some rest. We must have walked for hours.”

“I think we must go further before daylight breaks out. Said Parvaneh.

“We should still get some rest before we collapse, remember that we haven’t had a meal since the morning before yesterday.” Said Behbod.

“We should save our strength, don’t worry, we’re far away from the previous village,” I said.

“That’s true!” Behbod jumped up.

I stood up and looked around. Even in the dark I could see something moving, I squinted my eyes. “Donkeys.” I raised my arm, pointing at them. “Its donkeys.”

Thanks to the full moon overhead, the donkeys were just about visible.

“That must mean we’re near a village.” Parvaneh said.

“Should we go there?” Said Amira. “It doesn’t look far.”

“And you think that’s a good idea?” Fareena said.

“I think we should go, they might have some food they can share with us. Said Parvaneh.

“Let’s wait until the morning. We should camp until daybreak, get some rest.” Said Behbod.

“I agree. Going in daylight would be much better,” I said, clapping my hands together. “Let’s make a fire, we need to keep ourselves warm, the mountain air can be frosty.”

Fareena glanced around her. “Are there any wild dangerous animals that we should know about?”

“That’s my greatest fear, I hope there are no snakes either” Behbod said.

“Quit whining and let her speak” Parvaneh said, “I guess Roxana knows these mountains better than any of us.”

I frowned. “To be honest, I don’t know, but we should make a fire to keep them away and to keep warm.”

“That’s true, I heard fire keeps away mountain lions and jackals but we should be very watchful, anything can happen.” Fareena said.

We displaced to gather wood, and after coming back together we pilled it all up in the middle of rocks we found, I rubbed two stones together to get a spark going.

I worked I remembered the time I sat with my mother, teaching me how to make a fire. I didn’t realise how useful this skill would be.

After a lot of effort a spark caught, I blew on it, creating a dancing flame that was small but big enough to do the job, I placed the flame over the pile of wood, then stood back as it caught.

“Good work.” Amira said.

“Well done,” said Fareena as she sat next to the fire, holding her hands out towards the flames.

“Its so warm, I thought I would freeze over, how would I have looked?” Said Behbod.

Horrible” Fareena laughed, we all joined her.

I smiled, proud of doing something productive.

We removed our hijabs, enjoying the feel of the cold evening breeze on our hair as we huddled around the fire.

I lifted my head up to the sky. “Look at the stars and the moon! They’re all so bright.” I smiled. “Isn’t it beautiful?”

They all looked up, nodding in agreement.

“It’s stunning,” said Amira.

“When I was little my granddad used to tell me a story about the moon, he said: the moon was a king in the sky that was being worshipped by all the stars who were his subjects, looking at it I guess he could have been right” Behbod said.

“The moon radiates more light than all the other stars, he must be a king,” Amira said.
I sighed not out of sadness but one of hope, and for the moment, contentment.” It’s so nice to be free,” I said.

“That’s true,” said Amira, “I just hope we stay free.”

“I forgot what freedom is, having a life of my own.” Behbod said.

“I remember always feeling so free growing up on the mountain. Exploring the forests and all the surrounding nature, I was just so… happy.” I frowned. “If I’d known how my life would turn out, I’d have appreciated it much, much more.”

Amira shifted her position on the ground. “How life would ‘turn out,” she said. “Don’t say that, I mean, it hasn’t… turned out… yet, has it? We’re all young, with our whole lives ahead of us. This may be just be a phase, a small glitch before we get onto the next part of our lives, which might be amazing.”

I smiled, “you’re right,” I said, “It might be amazing.”

We peered up at the stunning night sky and descended into silence

9

Every step we took was one more step away from Parvez, one more step away from our old lives at the mansion. It may have been a walk into an unknown future, but surely that future–whatever it was–had to be better than our past?

We reached to the outskirts of the village which looked deserted at this early hour. We kept walking until we came across a small shop. Parvaneh peered in through the window. “There’s an old man on his own, we should go in.”

Behbod stayed outside, the rest of us made our way into the store.

Goods were piled on haphazard-looking shelves that seemed to be on the brink of collapse.

“Where did you four come from at this early hour?” Said the shopkeeper from behind a tiny makeshift counter in the corner.

“We’re environmental students,” said Amira.”

“We’re on an excursion to study the lifestyles of mountain villages.” Parvaneh said.

“You are, huh?” the man said, scanning us over. “Where are your staying?”

“Oh… our… were” I drawled, to give my mind a little time to process an answer, “were staying at the other village.”

Yes, the village before this one, we decided to explore your village.” Smiled Amira. “So, here we are!”

“Yes, here we are. We want to buy some stuff.” Said Parvaneh, looking at the goods.

I winced; I wasn’t sure he would buy our flimsy story. What if he realised we were lying? Would he raise the alarm? I felt very faint.

An awkward silence descended the shop as we waited for him to speak.

“So they choose pretty young woman to study the environment these days, is it?” He said.

Fareena glanced at the rest of us and laughed, “I guess they do, don’t ask me why.”

“I take it you’re from one of the big cities. Tehran, maybe?”

“Erm yes, that’s right” said Parvaneh, “Tehran.”

“Well, coming to the mountain to breathe in a bit of fresh air isn’t such a bad idea” He looked back at us. “Get what you want.”

We exchanged glances then made our way around the shop, picking up things. I took a loaf bread and cheeses, Amira took packets of biscuits, Fareena some oranges, Parvaneh picked up some metal cups.

After we got everything we could, we nodded to each other. I grabbed a jar of olives from the shelf looked at the shop keeper, he was looking elsewhere so I dropped it. Shards of glass and olives flew across the floor.

“Oh, im so sorry,” I said, “don’t worry, I have the money to pay for it.”

The shopkeeper jumped up and stared at the mess. “What’s the matter with have you got butter finger?”

“I guess I do. I’ll clean it all up, though,” I said, glancing down at the broken bits of glass mixed with olives.

“You will clean up every last bit of it,” He glared at me, “Just wait here while I get the broom and mop.”

“Yes,” I said, lowering my head as if embarrassed, “Ill wait right here.”

Shaking his head and muttering under his breath, he walked through a door in the room’s corner.

“Run!” I said.


We ran out of the store without looking back, taking all the food we picked up with us and careful we wouldn’t drop any.

We ran out of the village, chuckling as we headed towards the forest. After a time we stopped to catch our breath, still giggling, and full of adrenaline.

“We are robbers now.” I said.

“No,” said Parvaneh, her smile dropping from her face, “we are survivors.”

After resting we moved on, climbing higher and higher into the mountain until darkness once again settled over the forest.

*
After a poor night’s rest (worrying Parvez and about the shopkeeper tracking us down), we awoke to another bright blue sky. We forced our-selves to get up and had breakfast of bread and cheese then continued our journey. It was hard, with all the rough terrain, hiking inward and upwards, deep into the heart of the mountain to any secrets it may be hiding.
We soldiered on through bushes, trees and rocks, headed higher and higher to places almost untouched by humans. lizards seemed to rule the land here. We could hear other forms of wildlife rustling in the bushes. The higher we went the more peace I felt.
Surprised with our survival skills we thanked Mother Nature for providing us with things to eat. We continued climbing stopping every so often to rest and to pick more edible food.
The sky became dark, so we stopped to camp, something we were becoming used to. We gathered the wood, got the fire going and, sat down warming our hands, eating handfuls of seeds.

“I’ll make us some tea.” Amira said, she filled the pot with water and placed it over the fire to a boil, adding in some herbs. Once it boiled, she shared the hot liquid between us, filling the metal cups we stole from the shop right up to the brim. For a few minutes we sat in silence, enjoying our hot drink. It was comforting, God knew we needed all the comfort we could get.

“What’s the matter, Parvaneh?” I asked, “you’re very quiet today. You seem sad?”

Parvaneh stared into the distance for a few seconds taking a deep breath, inhaling the fresh air. “I… I never told you about my family,” she didn’t sound at all herself.

I leaned in closer, eager to listen to what she had to say.

“I guess I was ashamed,” Parvaneh said, her gaze flickering to the others before looking away. “All of you lost your parents, death took them from you, and I know that must be hard, but…” She trailed off, sniffing. I placed my hand on her shoulder. “mine were not. My parents are alive. They just didn’t want me. They gave me to Parvez… they’re drug addicts.” She shrugged.

“I envy all of you, because even though your parents are gone, at least when they were alive they loved you and wanted to be there for you. They died loving you…” She shrugged again. “mine do not love me. They never did. The only thing they love are their drugs.” She burst into tears. I moved closer to her, cradling my arm on her shoulder.

I felt ashamed for secretly judging her as being heartless and cold, but now I understood why she acted the way she did.

“I’m sure they loved you,” I told her, “in a way your parents died, just like ours.” I glanced at Amira who nodded back in encouragement. “Our parents died physically, yours died mentally, on the inside–the drugs killed them. It’s not their fault, they didn’t do it because they don’t love you… they just lost their way. They got lost to the drugs. They died too.”

Amira moved over to Parvaneh, and together all five of us leaned on each other, hugging in front of the warmth of the fire.

The night drew nearer, we could hear a group of birds singing filling the night with their sonorous sounds which the night breeze carried.

Behbod tried to imitate the birds, this was full of a humour that we all burst into a fit of laughter.

Life had never felt sweeter for us as that night together.


12

High up, the view was magnificent. The world seemed small but vast. The air was cool and fresh. We had been walking for a good couple of hours when we came across it. A dome about 20 feet tall and 40 feet wide, in the centre was a big opening that looked like a gaping mouth. That was the entrance.
“What is it?” said Amira, peering up at the structure.

“I think it’s a mosque.” Fareena said.

“No,” said Parvaneh, shaking her head, “that’s an ancient Zoroastrian temple.”

“look at that, it’s built from thousands of tiny stones.” I said.

An old man limped out of the entrance, he bowed, his white robe fell down to his knees “welcome to this humble corner of the earth.”

We emulated him in return.

Amira stepped forward. “What is this place?”

“This is the end and beginning.” He said.

“Who are you?” Behbod raised her eyebrows, “are a sorcerer?”

“He’s a Zoroastrian priest.” Said Parvaneh.

“Who I am is not important,” he said stroking his white beard, his gaze wandered over each of us resting his eyes back on Parvaneh. “Who are you?”

“Parvaneh.”

He shook his head, that’s a name. “It does not say who you are.”

“Im a human being, a woman to be exact.”

“You are telling what category your species and gender came under… who are you?”

“Sir, please excuse me.” I said, “I don’t understand what you’re asking?” I studied his face—every line and wrinkle. “Are you some kind of mystic or a philosopher?”

The old man smiled, “I am nothing.”

I laughed. “How can you be nothing? You’re here talking to us.”

The man gestured at the structure behind him, “come inside.”

I started to follow him, he halted by the entrance, almost forcing me to walk into him, “leave yourself and follow me.”

I frowned; “How can we follow you if we leave ourselves behind?”

“Come alone, without the world.”

“Without the world. What does that mean?”

“The world, your thoughts,” the man said, “suspend them, come empty.”

I glanced back at my friends. “Why are you all standing back, let’s go inside?”

“You’re crazy? he will kill us then chop us to pieces.” Said Behbod.

“Don’t be so melodramatic,” giggled Fareena, “but I don’t think it’s a good idea to go inside.”

“You look like you can do with a refreshing tea.” The man said.

“Come on, lets go in.” I said.

Behbod laughed, “He wants to poison us.” She said.

“Please yourself.” The old man said, limping back inside.

Parvaneh pushed in front of me, “He is one we are five.”

I started to follow her, “Right.” I said.

Amira pulled me by the shoulder, “What if he calls the police.”

“You don’t really think he has a phone?” I said.

“I suppose not.” She said.

We followed him through a narrow corridor in semi-darkness and through an archway into a room. One by one we entered. It was just big enough to fit us in. There was a fire roaring in one corner and a large flat stone placed against one wall.

“Rest,” he said, pointing at the stone.

We sat huddled together on a cold, hard stone.

He poured some tea and brought it over to the stone. “Drink,” he said.

The tea was delicious—some strange exotic blend.

He sat down, closed his eyes and remained silent.

We all glanced at each other.

“What are you all running from?” He asked.

“Why did you ask that?” I said.

“Who are you running away from?”

Behbod leaned forward pointing at him. “I told you he is a sorcerer.”

“No, he ain’t, he doesn’t have any powers,” Said Fareena.

“How can he know that?”

“Parvez told him, he was here asking about us,” Parvaneh said, "maybe his still here hiding somewhere.”

Amira stoop up, “let’s get out, fast.”

“No, wait, we need to make sure,” I said, “tell us what you know about us.”

The old man raised his hands, “there’s no Parvez to my knowledge.”

“This is freaking me out,” Said Fareena.

“I have no special powers, apart from observation, nobody told me you are on the run, your own faces say it,” he said.

We looked at each other.

“I guess so,” I said smiling, “we need to relax guys.”

“You’re running from yourself,” he said, “Parvez is an embodiment of your fears,” face it, conquer it and the man Parvez will be no more.”

I squinted my eyes, “we are running away from Parvez, from his institution, were not much more than slaves, we want to be free, is that so bad?”

“You desire freedom, what is freedom? Is freedom, to do what you want? I understand your wanting to escape a man who controls you, nothing wrong with that but a question remains, what is freedom?”

He sat down, closed his eyes and remained silent for a minute. “What are you all running from?”

We all glanced at each other.

“Why did you ask that?” I said.

“Who are you running away from?”

Behbod leaned forward pointing at him. “I told you he is a sorcerer.”

“No, he ain’t, he doesn’t have any powers,” Said Fareena.

“How can he know that?”

“Parvez told him, he was here asking about us,” Parvaneh said, "maybe his still here hiding somewhere.”

Amira stoop up, “let’s get out, fast.”

“No, wait, we need to make sure,” I said, “tell us what you know about us.”

The old man raised his hands, “there’s no Parvez to my knowledge.”

“This is freaking me out,” Said Fareena.

“I have no special powers, apart from observation, nobody told me you are on the run, your own faces say it,” he said.

We looked at each other.

“I guess so,” I said smiling, “we need to relax guys.”

“You’re running from yourself,” he said, “Parvez is an embodiment of your fears,” face it, conquer it and the man Parvez will be no more.”

I squinted my eyes, “we are running away from Parvez, from his institution, were not much more than slaves, we want to be free, is that so bad?”

“You desire freedom, what is freedom? Is freedom, to do what you want? I understand your wanting to escape a man who controls you, nothing wrong with that but a question remains, what is freedom?”

“You speak strange in riddles, you ask weird questions,” Said Fareena.

The old man laughed.

“Why are you laughing?” Said Amira.

“Tells us about death, what happens after death? I asked.

“The mind fears death,” he said staring at me. “So it created the idea that it has a soul inside the physical body, and at death it flies off somewhere, continuing as this… ‘Presence’.”

He shook his head,” it’s nothing more than a fanciful idea—something the imagination has put together to gratify its desire for continuity.” He shrugged. “Greed, the want for more.”

I stared at him, in silence.

Amira shifted on the stone, “All religions teach that—that a soul survives death.”

“The mind created all religions.” He said.

I shook my head. “Tell me the truth—as you see it. What happens to you after you die?”

“I can point you toward clues, but if you don’t discover it for yourself, you will make them into ideas and believe them or reject them. You don’t need more ideas to your brain, you need less, for less is more.”

“So when we die… there is nothing? Is that what you’re telling me? That my mother is just… dust?”

“Nothing ever gets lost,” he said, leaning forward a little. “All things exist within the universe and nothing can ever leave the universe—dead or alive, it is still within the universe. You ask if your mother is just dust but tell me...was she ever not dust?”

I frowned, “Yes. She was a human being, she had a human body.”

“And what are bodies? Are they not comprised of trillions of dust—or what scientists call ‘atoms’?” You may call them the stardust for that is what they are,” he flickers his fingers as if crumbling a cookie,” little pieces of stardust.” He shakes his head, and stardust never cease to exist, they are eternal.” He brings his hands together and locks them together, “they gather and merge in unison forming elements and other forms of matter for a time, he spreads his hands away from each other, “and they separate again that is what we have defined as death but after a while they reform into different groups and making other shapes, other things. This is their nature, forever locked in the great eternal cosmic dance.”

“None of what you’re saying makes much sense.” Fareena said, it’s mumbo jumbo.”

“That’s a wonderful idea I love it, locked in the great cosmic dance, how cute,” Fareena said.

“Trust you, everything is a dance to you.” laughed Behbod.

“If we are just dust floating around in the universe then life has no value, does it? We are nothing. All of us… nothing at all.” I said.

Amira moved closer to me on the rough stone seat.

The old man nodded his head, “dust is matter, and energy—energy—is consciousness. Everything is consciousness.” He pointed at me. “The universe is consciousness.” He spread his hands out gesturing at everything around him.

“So… we are consciousness?” Amira asked, shaking her head. “Does that mean we don’t die?”

“The body like all matter recycles within the universe. However your beliefs, your fears, your desires, your self-identification, your history, your ego, another words all the elements that makes your personality ends at death, nothing of yourself will remain, but immortality.”

“He’s talking about reincarnation, I read about it some time back but I can’t remember.” Behbod said.

“Don’t be stupid, he just said nothing of yourself remains so what is left to get reincarnated?” Parvaneh said rolling her eyes.

“I don’t understand, If nothing of myself remains, then how can I be immortal?”

“You do not understand because the mind resists, it does want to hear that the ego has no reality outside its subjected, limited parameters,” he said.

“What? … It resists what?”

“To surrender… to the obvious truth, It does not wants to understand, it cannot understand that which is beyond itself. Instead thought wants to capture it within its field as knowledge, data. It wants to translate and interpret it to its own narrow mislead self-interest.”

I closed my eyes as I tried to get my head around his last sentence. “OK,” I said, opening my eyes, “What can understand it?”

“The eternal—that which has no name, no identity, no history, it has no birth and no death.”

“Consciousness?” I asked.

“Nothingness.”

Nothingness. I said.

“Yes,” he said, nodding, “take an onion and peel off layers of skin one by one to find its inner core, if you remove one layer of skin you will find another, you remove that, there’s another. You keep on removing until… well, what remains?” He stared at her.
I shrugged. “Nothing remains?”

He nods, “if you uncover the layers of your false temporal identity’s one by one, your name, age, gender, education, talent, remove everything, you will come to your essential self, nothingness. From every-thing to no-thing.

“What’ is the nothingness?” I asked, frowning.

He took a deep, slow breath. “It is no-thing, it has no practical value, no form, no boundaries, no limitations, no beginning and no end, that is the absolute, the immeasurable, the immortal, the supreme, beyond life and death. The nothing is the source of everything.”

“I think I understand what you mean,” I said.

The man shook his head. “You cannot think understanding; you must understand thinking.”

I sat forward. “Can I ask you a question?”

He nodded.

“If things go wrong from the beginning, well nothing can ever change, can it?”

The man just carried on staring.

I took a deep breath, “Look,” shifting my position on the stone, “I lost my mother when I was twelve, she was young, in her early 30, and then my grandmother looked after me for a while until she got shot and died.” I shrugged, “destiny exists, doesn’t it?” I asked. “It’s just… I guess I’m scared. Whenever things seem to go well, I get scared. I think it must be a dream and that when I wake up, I will bring doom and destruction to all around me. I’m marked—that’s it.” I laughed. “That must be it. I mean, whatever I love… just… dies.” I took a deep breath. “Can this ever change? Will this ever stop? Will this curse ever leave me?” All of my deepest fears just rushed out of me.

“I will take it from you,” he said leaning forward he opened my hand exposing my palm, he appeared to remove something invisible from the surface of my skin.

My breath caught in my throat and I dared not utter a word.

“Gone,” he said, looking deep into my eyes, “I took it.”

I stared back at him.

“I have waited for this moment,” he said, smiling.

“Wait, what do you mean?” Amira asked.

The old man’s gaze flickered to Amira. “Good child, the moment is you. You are the moment. The love is yours, take it, share it. Do not fear death, do not fear love. Live it, be it.”

Amira sat back a little on the stone.

“They told me my mother died in a car crush. Her body was never found. “ My eyes welled. "I want to find out if my mother is dead or alive.”

“It is your destiny to search for your mother, it will not be easy, there will many resistances and obstacles, many challenges and setbacks but you will go on searching. You may discover she has returned to the cosmic dance or she may still exist in the human form, perhaps you may never find out, this are the only possible outcomes. But on your journey, you may discover The Mother, the goddess within and only then you will know freedom.”

***

“That was a little… strange,” said Fareena as we walked. “Did you understand any part of what he was talking about?” She was looking sideways at me.

I shrugged. “Some of it. Most of it… I don’t know. Maybe, maybe not. I’m glad we met him.”

Amira laughed. “Whoever he was.”

I smiled. “Yes, whoever he was.”

“It all sounded hogwash, Parvaneh said.

“It was not hogwash, there was meaning in what he said, I gained one or two things.” I said.

“Yeah I suppose you did, like you’re going to discover you’re a goddess.” Parvaneh said rolling her eyes.

“It was funny that we even met someone like that in that kind of place.”

“I guess this journey will be filled with so many adventures and surprises.” Said Amira.

We moved down a stony path which led away from the temple, careful not to rush. Ahead was a precipice.

“I see a large pit, but I think we can cross it,” Said Behbod.

“Yeah, I think it was opened up by some kind of erosion, we must be careful,” Parvaneh said examining the precipice which led to a less stony part of the mountain.

“We’ll jump one after the other to avoid congestion and accidents.” Amira said.

Parvaneh went first, followed by Fareena, Amira and Behbod then me.

“I think there used to be a small bridge here,” I said, “I wonder how it disappeared”.

“Remember I said this could’ve been caused by an erosion, there’s nothing stopping it from casting off the bridge like a piece of wood” Parvaneh said.

“Thinking about falling off this mountain is kind of scary, so can we just move ahead?” Fareena said.

Dusk was drawing closer as we moved ahead through the mountain but the words of the strange old mystic lingered on.



***

We carried on walking, under the hot sun, not talking much trying to conserve our energy; we focused on putting one foot in front of the other.

“I’m thirsty,” Amira said, “let me drink some water.”

“I thought I was the only one having that little predicament,” Fareena said.

Parvaneh shook her head. “Not yet, we have little left, we need to make it last until we come across some other source of running water.”

Amira groaned. “I am desperate for a drink, even if it was just a tiny little dribble.”

“Look, up there!” Screeched Behbod pointing higher up the mountain.
“A tiger?” Said Fareena gesturing at a huge white and ginger cat with black spots.

It was watching us menacingly, looking proud and alert.

“That’s a leopard.” Said Parvaneh, craning her neck to look at it. “I didn’t know they were around here.”

Fareena cringed back and held on to Behbod staring at the large cat as it crouched down looking at us.

“I remember my grandma telling me about them,” I said.

“And you didn’t think to tell us?” Parvaneh asked, her eyes wide in surprise.“

“It would have been nice to know those things could be out here, prowling around, while we walked… while we slept.” Said Parvana.
Fareena nodded. “Why didn’t you say anything, Baran?”

I shrugged. “I’m sorry, I thought they were extinct. I didn’t think they still existed, if I did I would have told you… of course I would have told you.”

“Never mind that now,” Amira said as she peered up at the leopard, “what do we do if it runs at us? It’s watching us.”

“That’s true. Leopards can be very ferocious and deadly if they notice any form of fear from their prey” Parvaneh said with a shaky voice.

“That’s why we have to stay calm.” I said.

“just no one panic, OK? We need to walk backwards, away from it, real slow don’t make any sudden movements.” Said Amira.


With walked backwards along the path we just come down.

“That’s it,” said Parvana, “just keep going slowly.

The leopard was watching us with its black beady eyes. The large animal stood up on its four legs, stretching its head forward, aiming it towards us.

It’s moving.” Cried Fareena, “What do we do?”

“Oh, why did we leave the old monastery?” Behbod gripped Fareena’s hand tight.

“It’s getting ready to come for us.” Said Amira. “Should we run?”

“No,” I shouted, “Whatever you do, don’t run. If we run, we’ve had it, these animals are fast, it’ll catch up to us in mere seconds.”


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