In an ancient age of the earth, the veil between life and afterlife was not so mysterious. There was no doubt that death was but a doorway leading to another realm where souls continued a journey that they began in the realm called life.
In an ancient age of the earth, the veil between life and afterlife grew from beneath the soil, and up and up, above the height of all creatures who walked the earth, spreading its wide and luminous leaves as if to embrace the sun and the sky.
It was a palm that grew in all climes and by the hand of all gardeners.
This palm no longer abides on the earth. Nowhere does it grow. Nor does its seed lie dormant in ice or under earth and stone.
It is named for the darkness into which it was lost. Caligo.
Some say its loss was the doing of one, who doomed all the rest. For such a great loss, what comfort can there be in blame? And yet, the story has been found, and so it must be told. To serve as warning. That all who rise must fall.
That wonders can too easily be twisted into horrors.
While the loss of the palm was blamed on one, the discovery of its wonders belonged to many.
When people observed that the fronds were strong and pliant, soft and clean, they wrapped their dead in the fronds to honor them, and left them lying at the base of the tree. Before the next dawn, the body would vanish, leaving an imprint on the palm, which kin would then keep in an altar. The imprint was sometimes a face, sometimes the whole form of the person. Most times the imprint revealed bright wide eyes above a joyous smile. But at rare times, the aspect was one of horror. And so it was that the living knew what path in the afterlife the deceased had faced at the moment of death.
The path leading to wonder. Or the path leading to horror.
But the powers of the palm went beyond a remembrance of those who had crossed the threshold of death into the afterlife world.
Those who lay to rest beneath the tree would fall into a stupor for many hours. When they emerged from this stupor, they would be mystified, and they would speak of having visions of a world beyond the one in which all lived. Visions of the afterlife world. In these visions all were reunited, the living with the dead, those who were lost with those who sought to find them.
People soon discovered that the powers of the palm went beyond even visions of the afterlife.
Some who slept beneath the palm, as if guided by enchantment, could rise from sleep and follow the roots of the palm, silken twining roots that became paths leading into and out of the afterlife world.
Many who were living sought to visit the afterworld, to sneak about and search for those whom they loved and bring them back to life. This was no great crime. But most were thwarted. For there were few paths leading into the afterlife, but many winding and twisting and treacherous paths leading out. The glowing green light of the palm’s fronds would guide the living out. But the dead could no longer see the light and would fall away from the path, no matter how quickly and closely they followed.
But there were those rare ones who were clever and lucky, and found a way to draw the dead back into life. For better or for worse. None tried the deed but once. Until one day, there came one who sought to make a perpetual path between life and afterlife.
This one was not compelled by compassion or mercy for those who had died too soon. His name in the language of the time meant “reed.” And like a reed, he was hollow. And he desired to fill that hollowness with knowledge. Not just the knowledge of the living, but knowledge that had been lost to the afterlife. This was no great crime. But most who sought wisdom from ancestral spirits, sought it by lying under the palm to meet those spirits in visions.
This man was one who followed the roots and visited the afterlife world. He did so more than once. Finding it more and more difficult to return each time, he sought to bring back souls to teach him their lost knowledge, and their lost magic.
He found a way to bend the will of a single palm, so that it would lead both him and the dead who followed him back into life. The deed was arduous for him. And it was arduous for the souls, most of whom he had tricked onto the path. But it was most punishing upon the palm. Its bark turned pale, sickly gray, and ashen. It began to shrink and bow as if from the strain of great effort. Its fronds folded inward, as if in shame. Soon those fronds began to wither as soul after soul after soul passed through the palm’s rigid roots, backwards through the doorway of death.
This man had a brother, a brother whose name in the language of the time meant “root.” A brother who knew of the man’s wicked nature, and yet who cared for him and sought to thwart him by entreating him, appealing to his compassion, or at least to his mercy.
But the one whose name meant “reed” was not moved, nor was he satisfied. The hollow within him was filled with immense knowledge and great powers. But still he was not sated.
It was known that there once abided on the earth a primeval people, who had long passed on into realms beyond life and afterlife.
Some were giants. Some were as small as babes. Some were fierce and brutal. Some gentle. And they ruled the earth. This first of all peoples, wise and long-lived, possessed powers undreamed of.
The man whose name meant “reed” bent all his powers and all his will toward seeking and bringing back into life one of these primeval spirits. For even the humblest of them could teach him at least one power that no living being on the earth possessed, the power to cross death’s doorway without the aid of a palm, without the strain upon mind and muscle, without the need for spell or tool.
Again, the man’s brother intervened.
“They have earned their rest,” the brother said. “Leave them be. Leave them all be.”
But the one whose name meant “reed” was not moved.
In time, he found a spell that would serve to trap a primeval spirit. But the spell required a sacrifice of blood and spirit from the one who cast it. After many days and nights, many weeks and months of seeking some way, some trick to cast the spell without sacrificing himself, the most wicked of his many wicked thoughts crossed the mind of the man whose name meant “reed.”
He summoned his brother to sit with him under the sickly palm. His brother came, bearing a hope that was just as pale and thin as the palm. But a hope that still held a steady grip upon life, as did the palm.
Alas, the one whose named meant “root” was to lose that hope in the moment before his brother struck him with spell and with sword.
For blood and spirit were common among kin. The blood of the one whose name meant “root” would seep into the palm’s roots. The spirit of the one whose name meant “root” would rise into the palm’s fronds. Together they would form a lure and a snare to draw back into the realm of life one who had traveled far, far beyond.
When the palm’s rigid roots loosened and flowed like ropes of silk, and when its withering fronds bloomed with green life, and when its bowed trunk shed its ashen bark and straightened to face the sky once more, the one whose name meant “reed” laughed aloud. For he knew he had succeeded.
But what he knew was not what the palm knew.
Before his very eyes, the palm’s fronds began to grow, longer and wider, until they were vast enough to fold around the entire palm. This they did, folding and embracing the palm’s trunk, even wrapping around the body of the poor man who lay before it. The palm grew thin, like a towel being rung out. Thinner and thinner, until it vanished altogether.
The palm was gone. The one whose name meant “root” was gone.
Many had known of the vile and reckless deeds of the man whose name meant “reed.” But they feared him and the vast powers that he amassed and hoarded. But after learning of what he had done to his brother, after reading ill omens in the vanishing of the palm, their fury overcame their fear.
Many wanted to kill him, to repay one wicked deed with another. But it was the slain man’s kin who halted them.
“If any have the right to this man’s life, it is we,” they said. “For we are the kin of both the slain and the kin of the one who slayed him. We will let him die when he is meant to die, not when we mean him to die. And when he does, we will wrap his remains in the soft embrace of the palm. We will leave him to lie at the feet of the tree. And in the morning, when his body has been transported to the afterworld, we will look upon the palm, and we will see there his face as it faced the path into the afterworld. And we will see there, we are certain, a face struck with terror and despair.”
But it was not to be.
As if this one deed had poisoned all the palms, they all began to vanish as that first one had. Some people tried to save them, taking saplings and fleeing, believing there was a plague upon the palms. Some fell to their knees before the palms that remained, begging them to forgive, to not punish all for the crimes of one.
But dawn after dawn, the people would wake to find bare patches of dirt where once there stood a towering palm.
Without the palms, no longer were there paths that joined life with afterlife. No longer could sleeping spirits enter the afterlife world at will. No longer could sleepers direct their journeys. No longer could they be sure they understood the shifting and perplexing language of their ephemeral dreams.
And now, when people died, their bodies would rot. For no longer could those bodies be wrapped in the soft embrace of a palm frond, thereafter to be gently carried into the afterlife world. Fearing that the souls were not reaching the afterlife, people studied and took each other’s counsel, and found other ways to honor the dead and ensure that their souls crossed through the doorway of death.
Though cut off from the afterlife world, the man whose name meant “reed” still possessed enough power to conquer and to seek among the living to fill him with their knowledge and powers. But the hollow within him was so vast, it could not be filled.
It only seemed to grow.
In time, rumors spread that there was one place where the great palms still grew. One land they had not yet forsaken.
It was an isle, a resplendent isle in the midst of a tumultuous sea.
Some tried to bring a seed or sapling from the isle to other lands. But the palms would no longer grow in other lands.
So it came to be that the peoples of other lands sent their noblest and their brightest to the isle, for through the palms, the isle maintained their bond to the afterlife, and therefore to the wisdom of ancestral spirits. There they gathered, out of the hope of preserving the palms and out of the need to somehow quell the man whose name meant “reed.”
The isle became a haven and a wonder. Both magnificent and mighty. Yet despite this, they feared invasion by the man. And they were right to.
He came by sea in ships laden with his forces, people and creatures whose minds and bodies he enslaved, and those whose minds and bodies he corrupted and turned monstrous with the knowledge and powers he had hoarded.
He came wielding those powers himself, the power of drawing down lightning from clear skies, the power of calming the churning seas that served as natural protection to the isle.
By day he attacked, and by night he attacked.
Into the skies he sent forth flying worms whose pulsing segments dripped with acid. Into the waters he sent forth armored frogs with the sharp beaks and the searching eyes of raptors. And once he breached the land, he would send forth his hordes. People whose clawed hands gripped with bone-crushing force. People whose fang-filled jaws ripped without remorse. People whose skin was hard as frozen stone, and whose hearts were as cold.
All who lived on the isle became its defenders. They fought with arms and they fought with spells. They tried to heal the twisted creatures who fell upon them. A few they did. But most they could not.
By day they defended, and by night they defended.
All creatures who fell and died upon the isle, they wrapped in the fronds of the palm, hoping that those who retained some spark of grace might be turned to the path of wonder in the afterlife.
When the leaders of the isle saw for themselves how powerful the man whose name meant “reed” had become, they knew they could not contain him or his powers. They knew that they must destroy him.
And they knew that they could not destroy him, for he was now too powerful.
They sent up a flag of truce and sent an envoy to the shores to speak with him.
The man whose name meant “reed” agreed, for though he was powerful, he was not tireless. And thus invited to come closer, he meant to strike when his trusting enemy met him at their shores. As the churning seas calmed, his ship approached the verdant coast of the magnificent isle.
But when the envoy came forth, the man felt a fleeting moment of fear.
A great black cobra met him at the shores. But it was not the cobra who troubled the man. It was the one who stood beside her.
The one whose face and form the man had last seen lying beneath a palm.
The one whose name, in the language of the time, meant “root.”
The envoy raised his hand to halt the invading ships from coming closer.
“You have seen that the palms will vanish,” the envoy said. “They will forsake us if we misuse them.”
The envoy conveyed the message of the isle’s leaders. They understood that there would be no end to the battle they fought. And while it was fought, people and creatures on both sides would perish. They offered a truce, and an invitation for the man whose named meant “reed” to come ashore and meet with them, if he agreed not to use his powers. They offered their trust, and asked that he offer his as well.
Thus it was, driven by a hollow greed and by proud disdain that the man walked into the trap that was laid for him by the very spirits whose wisdom and power he had sought.
A primeval spirit had indeed been drawn to the palm by the blood and spirit of the man who lay dying within its roots. That primeval spirit saved the man and the palm, carrying both off to the isle. That primeval spirit had summoned more of their kind to come to the aid of those who lived on the earth, as the primeval people once lived on the earth.
They gathered on the isle, with the palms, the black cobras, the blue wolves, the flaming scorpions, the scholars from the north, the artisans from the west, the philosophers from the south, and the dreamers from the east. The noblest and the brightest and the rarest of peoples and creatures.
Even together, they could not destroy the man whose name meant “reed.” And they could not contain him with their strength.
But they could contain him with their deaths.
With their blood and their spirits.
All their spirits.
They brought him to the center of the isle, where he prepared to strike.
And they struck first.
A great storm gathered over the island. The seas began to churn, tides pounding the shores, sweeping past the coasts, pouring inward. A ruthless wind whirled across the isle, tearing towns apart, toppling towers. The palms bent and bobbed, but did not break.
The man whose name meant “reed” understood he had been betrayed, even as he had planned to betray. He summoned his powers to calm the skies and the seas.
But this time he could not. For the peoples and the creatures of the isle no longer meant to carry on the skirmish until they prevailed. They poured their united might into the storm.
The sea surged over the land.
The isle began to shatter and the isle began to sink.
The man whose name meant “reed” tried to flee. But he was held in place by the greatest powers that abided on the earth.
The storm raged by day. And the storm raged by night.
By morning, the isle, and all who were upon it, had sunk into the sea and drowned.
Great legacies of knowledge and enlightenment were lost. A multitude of spirits were lost. They would not continue their journeys into the afterlife, for they would stay, churning the seas for eternity, trapping the man whose powers grew too gargantuan and too terribly twisted to be undone.
Still the seas churn, as a multitude of spirits circle a single spirit.
There are those who fear that the spirit of the man whose name meant “reed” in the language of an ancient time would one day find a way out of that trap.
That day has not yet come.
But what one hand destroyed, many hands have rebuilt and many minds have rediscovered. Guided sometimes by the inspiration of ancestral spirits. Guided sometimes by their own genius. But guided always, it is hoped, by that one quality not possessed by the hollow-hearted, compassion.
Alas, compassion is no match for might. But perhaps it can be. Perhaps someday it will be.
But that day has not yet come.
And perhaps someday a hand will dip into deep waters and come upon a seed long lost to the world, the seed of a tree that grows in all climes and by the hands of all gardeners. A tree whose roots are paths that lead to many realms beyond the realm now known to all living creatures. A tree whose leaves and fronds greet the living and embrace the dead. And contain the legacy of all who have ever lived upon the earth, proving that nothing that is precious is lost forever.
But that day has yet to come.
Copyright © 2021 Nila L. Patel