“What will you promise each other?” I was wrestling with these feelings, this question. I typed a text that I didn’t send, which read “I promise I won’t abandon you. I promise I need you.”
I was a woman standing on a sandy hill in the blazing sun. I’m looking down at the leather-strapped sandals on my brown feet. I lower my gaze further, tucking my chin towards my chest and examining my clothes. The bright cloth contrasts harshly with my dark skin. The fabric ripples in the breeze. I am wearing a white tunic with a belt and a strip of cloth hanging down the front.
I was staring at a massive pyramid about a mile off, shining brightly in the sun. I felt I had a duty to go to the pyramid, but I didn’t want to. I would have preferred to just stare at it. I noticed a ramp or stairs going up the pyramid, maybe both. I wasn’t sure if the pyramid was complete or not. Perhaps they were putting on the finishing touches. I saw people in white, dressed like I was, going up the stairs and into the pyramid. I felt like I was late, like I should get a move on, though I didn’t want to. My feet wouldn’t budge.
I was scared to go down this hill. It was steep and the sand would make it slippery. There was a river at the bottom. It was small, narrow, but rocky and fast moving. I did not want to cross it. It was the river that I was scared of. It was thin enough that it looked like it would be easy to jump over, like most people probably wouldn’t think twice about it, but I stood paralyzed. I lingered sometime before I finally managed to get over. Even after I crossed I was fixated on it. Eventually, I hurried along towards the pyramid.
As I approached, I passed through a shanty town at the base of the monument and I was filled with guilt. I felt that this diaspora of people living in hovels was somehow partly my responsibility. I felt that I should and would like to help, but I couldn’t without harming myself. It would be a sacrifice I couldn’t make. Regardless, at this point it seemed too late to really matter. I resigned myself to loathsome guilt at my complicity.
I climbed the stairs of the pyramid as my white-clad colleagues waved me to hurry. A strong wind blew and my hood rustled and whipped about my head. Someone at the top of the stairs took my hand and helped me up the last steps. I entered a chamber. It was shining red and pillared. There was an altar in the center with a body draped in white. Its feet were exposed and it wore a metal head covering that went down over its shoulders completely enclosing the face and head. This metal helmet had the shape of a bird.
There were lots of people in the room, all busily engaged, but moving with a reverent sense of purpose and ritual. One person washed the body’s feet. I went over to a cart of sorts that was full of jars and started mixing things together, powders, oils, and unctuous lotions. I either handed the mixture to someone, or I anointed the body myself; I can’t recall. Either way, I was completely absorbed in the ritual.
I felt a strong connection to the body. I wanted very much for it to come back to life. I wanted to hold its hand. I wanted to take off the mask, but I knew I could not. We were done.
The ritual concluded, but I wasn’t ready. Again I felt paralyzed, fixated. As the others left, they tried to pry me from the body, but I wouldn’t go. I couldn’t leave him. Despite the ruckus, my mind was completely silent. I heard nothing. Suddenly, everything became clear. As the others yanked and pulled at me, I abruptly let go and threw myself backwards. I tumbled down the stairs of the pyramid, preferring death to living without my love.
Instead of oblivion, my eyes blink open and I am standing in a forest of tall pines. I am looking down at my feet. I am wearing boots made of a thin leather stuffed with some sort of cloth for insulation. Nonetheless, my feet are numbed with cold.
I am hunting. I have a bow on my back which I take into my hands. It is very taut. I want to play with it. I pluck the string once and it makes a clear, resonant twang. I think that I probably shouldn’t do that if I’m going to try to hunt. I’ll scare off the animals. I feel foolish. I look up and see a beautiful buck with huge antlers. My chest fills with anxiety, and I feel as if I am being challenged. Not by the buck, whose serenity is almost infuriating in contrast to how I feel, but by the universe or myself. I hesitatingly pull out an arrow and shoot at it, but intentionally miss. It runs off into the woods. I worry about whether I should tell anyone I saw the buck. They will laugh at me again and call me lazy and a bad hunter.
I return to my encampment. It is full of tipis on the edge of the woods. I see meats drying on lines, and furs abound. Children scamper past me as I walk between the tents. It smells of bodies, sweat, meat, and smoke interspersed with the freshness of the outdoors. I see smoke curling out from behind the fur door of a tipi. I enter and there is a woman and a child inside. I have trouble figuring out how many people are in the tipi. I think maybe the woman is pregnant. There are either two or three people there. This is my family. The woman is beautiful and kind. I’ve never felt such a wonderful feeling as I feel in this tent. I tell her about the deer. She laughs kindly. She is glad I didn’t kill it. It is not her reaction that I was worried about before. She has piercing, greyish-blue eyes with a ring of flaming gold around her irises. They are Sarah’s eyes. She is Sarah.
Everything dissolves in this feeling of security and warmth.
I skip ahead in time. Suddenly I am running through the forest, breathing hard. My chest hurts as my breath condenses in front of me in bursts. I am terrified and feel awful. Every time I blink I see a hatchet behind my eyelids. The image is transposed onto everything, like a foreboding animation. I am running for my life. I hear screams, cries, and yips. I keep running, and a sick feeling grips my stomach. I arrive at a river. It is shallow and fast flowing, rocky. Are all rivers rocky? I wonder. I pause for a second before the urgency forces me to cross. My left foot slips and I stumble falling hard onto my right knee. I scramble out of the water. As I do, I hear Sarah scream. Out of the distant cacophony, her voice pierces my awareness and my heart like a dagger. My stomach tightens more and I wretch. I’ve abandoned my family and my village. They are under attack and I’ve fled. I’ve left them to die. I am horrible.
The attacker reaches the river. I am crying and soaking wet. He laughs at me. I think he calls me a coward, though maybe that was me talking to myself. He turns and trots back towards the encampment, leaving me pathetic and broken.
I keep running, slower now and stumbling to maintain my balance. All I can think about is how horrible I am. Not only can I not protect what I love most, I can’t even try to. I can’t even die right. I am worthless. I hate the other Indians for making me feel this way, for putting me in this situation, for killing my family, for leaving me alive. I hate myself even more than that.
I collapse to the ground and lean on a tree, bawling. I see the deer again. It walks calmly past me. I feel that maybe if I follow it that it will help me. I don’t deserve to be helped. I don’t deserve anything. I am worthless. I decide that I am not going anywhere. I am going to just sit. I can’t do anything right, so I might as well just sit. I can’t die right, so why not just die sitting.
Guilt eats away at me. I wonder why it is that I am alright killing myself with guilt, but that I can’t kill a deer or a savage attacker to save or provide for my family. I feel even worse. I feel like the reason is because I am selfish. If it is to resolve my own problem, guilt, I can kill (myself), but if it’s to help someone else, even if those other people are the ones that I love most, I can’t do anything. Worthless. How could I let my baby die? My love destroys me.
I see a bright light and I float above my body. I am looking at myself by the tree. I’ve died, I guess. I am with my family now. They don’t care about what I’ve done. They are better than that. They are happy and smiling. They are just happy to be together now. They say that everything is fine. I feel worse. How could they be so good? I am so unworthy. I hate myself. I don’t deserve their love. I can’t accept it. They must not truly know me if they love me like this, they must not realize how bad I am. I’ve been fooling them, because I am selfish and low. The only way I can protect them is by denying their love, by keeping them away from me. They deserve better. I deserve nothing.
A voice asks if I can forgive myself for what has happened, and if I can forgive the other Indian who killed my family. I imagine this burden as stones that I have been carrying. My family, the other Indian, and I are sitting in a circle around a fire. The voice asks me to place my stones in the fire. They glow and lift up, floating weightless in the flames.
I see the deer and understand. I am not selfish. I am filled with love. This is why I threw myself off the ziggurat, why I could not kill the deer, and why I could not kill the attackers. I loved even them too much to take their lives. My family’s death and my own were not a result of my badness. My pain came from my lack of perspective. Loving too much wasn’t the problem, the problem was attachment and the accompanying fear of loss.
It took many deaths to realize that life went on, and much loss to find myself. It took hate to see that all is love. I needed many battles to finally learn to surrender to the burning fire of existence and to allow my burdens to melt away in forgiveness.
This is part of my throwback thursday series and originally appeared in March, 2016.