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The Other Side of Everything

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Written on June 16, 2005, and categorized as Secret and Invisible.
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Before computers, people used a variety of means to record and recall words. Trees were pulped, and the mess of wood flattened and bleached to form paper. Ink words were printed upon paper pages, pages were sewn together and bound into books. Before that, parchments from papyrus reeds, and vellum from animal skin were formed into scrolls. Before that, cuneiform letters were impressed into clay tablets, and before that, standing stones carved, and marks made on cave walls as mnemonic illustrations for the words that preceded and underpins all of this, words passed down through generations, mouth to ear to mouth, carefully remembered stories, treasured family jewels, priceless cargos of survival in our enormous, unfathomable universe.

This is a story which was told to me fifteen years ago over such a campfire as humans have enjoyed ever since fire was theirs. I was led to believe it was Celtic, and it may have been, as it had musically unusual names in it that I have failed to remember. All I know for certain is that, as day came to a close, and the fire drew us in to ourselves, we roasted tubers and roots in red and white hot embers, passed mugs of steaming tea between us, and the air was rich with woodsmoke and the drift of rare woodland herbs. It was a chilly late summer night in Somerset, towards Devon, and a clear sky let the heat of the day vanish and then lit us with starlight, while a late moon hung low on the horizon for a while before dipping into the hills and leaving us with our boots and hats and fire-shining eyes to see out the night, with just ourselves and the creature-filled copses, fields and woods for company.

In our group was a man called Gwydeon McPagan, and Gwydeon, aside from being an expert in all-weather survival skills, knowing what to eat and where to sleep, how to navigate by sun or wind or star, was a fabulous repository of stories, the old earth stories, some of which he had heard in person from old country hands in England and Wales, who had in turn heard them as children from their mothers and grandmothers and great-grandmothers, being part of the long unbroken maternal chain of oral tradition, which survived despite the awful torture and killing of more than nine million men women and children, victims of Christian repression, over many centuries.

These occasions, thirteen or so people around a night fire, far from roads let alone building, no noise except a hunting owl, and the odd animal rustle, frequently engender a depth of exchange missing in Starbucks. As the night deepened, the gentle conversation around the fire turned to the subject of our ending, and the afterlife. Faith, a pleasant, attractive, mid-teenage girl, keeping warm in a blanket wrapped around herself and her dreadlocked, baby-faced lover, asked what the Pagans really thought about reincarnation, and those of us in the know turned expectantly to Gwydeon, who was quietly busy with some logs to ensure the fire was still with us at dawn.

“Gwydeon!” we commanded in jest, “Come and tell us about reincarnation!”

His age-lined, still young face, appeared in the circle of light, panting breath visible from his exertions.

“OK, OK,” he agreed. “But can someone fill a kettle?”

Someone detached themselves from a seat, and the sound of water was heard as Gwydeon stuck two large logs across the fire. Placing the filled flat-bottomed vessel on the logs, he resumed his seat, as we looked expectantly towards him, waiting for him to begin. Lighting the end of a very small smoke, he puffed twice, leaned back, looked up, and watched the thin grey trail disappear upwards into the black. We watched and did the same. A masterful story-teller, he had our attention, and he began.

“Back in the days when fires like this would be lit not just for warmth, but for protection from wolves and bears, and perhaps evil spirits, when the whole of this land was covered in the Great Forest, around the time of the Celts, human life was considered precious, sacred, so that you should avoid always the killing of another, even in battle. If you took a man prisoner, he would become your most honoured guest until such a time as the ransom could be afforded.”

Gwydeon looked sideways at Faith who was frowning with bemused concentration.

“If he were a great warrior, a hunter, or a Prince, his ransom may take several years to raise, being of gold, of silver, of horses, of cattle, of wheat, of barley, of swords, of armour, of timber, of hide…”

We all knew Gwydeon’s lists which always had a point to them. You just had to wait. Now, he was baffling the questioner quite deliberately as a test of her determination to hear him out, and also as a tribute to her question. Also, it might be added, as an overture to the main symphony.

“… and even skilled people, entire families, might be exchanged for a noble warrior. This could take years, during which time the guest would be given a home, a wife, and he would play his part in the community; and even passing travellers, if they were strong and good, were accorded the opportunity of a night with a young woman of the tribe, for his contribution to the gene pool would be expected.”

Gwydeon looked cheekily at Faith who seemed delighted at the prospect, her boyfriend less so. Everyone laughed.

“And so, the Celts were far more civilised in many ways than anyone who has come to these islands since then. Life was a rarity, death was ever present, and although they had medicines from plants which we have lost, a simple cut could fester, turn gangrenous, and kill, a simple cold could become pneumonia, and simply being born was a dangerous thing.

“There was once a great Celtic Prince, a young man, proud, noble and strong. He was gifted in the hunt, victorious in battle, and fortunate in love, for he indeed found his true love, and for him she was the soulmate which most of us only dream of finding. In her eyes he saw the truth, in her beating heart, his future, and in her arms, he became fully a man. The Prince and his lover were bonded, and the tribe did well, and all people respected and loved them. She became pregnant, and grew heavy with child. She looked all the more beautiful, blessed by nature.

But nine months on, the birth was not easy; it was long and painful and bloody, and her cries of pain shattered the peaceful settlement. After two days, in the moment of delivery, she died.”

Gwydeon paused to let the moment sink in, and to acknowledge her passing, and the three thousand years since seemed empty.

“The Prince could not bring himself to even look upon the child that had taken the life of the woman he loved. He wept and cursed, as he could not know why she had been taken. He decided to find the Gods and demand from them an answer to the question that burned in his heart: Why, when we have love and joy and wonder and beauty in this life, why must we suffer and die?

‘I shall go on a quest to the mountains in the West, where the Gods live, and I shall demand an answer, and I shall only return when I have the answer!’ he bitterly declared. He made provision for his child. He appointed the greatest warrior in the tribe in his place to lead and protect in his absence, and taking his sword and shield, mounted his horse, instructed his servants not to follow him, and set off.”

Tea was being passed around in steaming mugs, and Gwydeon took his and sipped it. The mood was strangely quiet, as we waited for the story to continue, the warmth from the tea revitalising our slightly chilly fingers, glasses steaming up on several faces around the fire.

“The Prince travelled for many years, suffered many dangers, false hopes, imprisonment, and tragedies, but he never gave up his quest for knowledge,” said Gwydeon, sipping his tea.

“His task was great, and over the months and years that followed, he passed through great physical, moral and spiritual hardship. All the while his loss bore heavily upon him, stronger than any adversary, more heavy than any branch or rock or snowfall; and while his quest took him to many places of which his tribe knew nothing, his focus never diminished, and he continued, fueled by the pain he felt, his determination never leaving him.

“Eventually the Prince found himself in high desolate mountains, according to warlocks and witches and shamans, the home of the Gods. He stood at dusk before a great cave, high up above the snowline, but there was nobody there, nothing, just bare rock and ice. ‘Hello?’ he cried in his hoarse, travel-weary voice, but there was no reply, just the keening of the wind. ‘I have come to ask you a question!’ A single pebble clattered down the steep slope. No reply.

Then all at once, his heart was filled with grief, as new as the moment his soulmate had left him. In dread despair, recalling his wife, their once beautiful home, his kith and kin, now so far away, and missed so deeply, he shouted his question at the rocks:

‘WHY? Why must we suffer and die?’

– and as the wind stole his voice from him, he fell to his knees, completely exhausted.”

Gwydeon let his careful, quiet voice ring out to make the Prince’s cry, and a bird startled in the wood. He looked up at us and smiled sadly. We knew he had lost his own wife, and this fact made the moment all the more sharply felt. Several eyes brimmed with tears, young and old alike.

“Then, in a moment, the Gods appeared, and spoke directly to him. He was rooted to the spot in astonishment. ‘You are asking the question that all mortals must ask, and because of this, we have a gift for you,’ they said, and they gave him a bead necklace. ‘Each bead is a single lifetime. Because you have asked this question, because you have suffered and not given up on your quest, our gift to you is the gift of return, so that you may come back, and find, and be with your loved ones again.’

“And though many years had passed, many thousands of miles, the very next moment saw him back in the place he had left, the home he had not seen for so many long years, albeit wounded and weary and in pain, still mourning and his heart aching, but holding a bead necklace, the gift that the Gods gave to humanity, the gift of our return.”

The fire was just embers now, the night as dark as ever it would be. His face in the warm red glow was somehow more alive with the evidence of his story, the poignant memory of his own bereavement, the profound indication of our fate. Gwydeon looked up and his eyes met everyone’s, one by one, acknowledging each of us, and we waited for his ending.

He picked up his tea and lifted it.

“Lovely to see you all again!” he chimed happily, and we laughed long, and gently slapped him on the back, and hugged him, and all of us each other.

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