By Mehreen Ahmed
Late afternoon drizzles blighted the lights. Layered clouds, hung over in translucent folds. Dusky shadows fell upon a gully’s end. Next to this, a cinnamon farm lay stretched to the horizon. Tia Magnolia stood on this farm, under a cinnamon tree. Her red sari wavered in the moody winds. She stripped off a clump of sweet wood from the scented bark of the tree. With a secured knot, she pouched the bark inside the sari’s loose trail. It dangled, as she threw it over her shoulder. The sticks of the ancient spice were sturdy, yet delicate to crumble at the slightest twist of finger tips. She pulled a branch of the tree and reached for its leaves. She plucked a few to squash them in the middle of her palm. An aroma was released. The sweet smells of the cinnamon pervaded the air of the gully. She wondered down the bush paths.
Apart from the drizzling sounds of a southerly, there were no other sounds. Rains skewed over her as the intensity increased. She heard the lashing of winds on the lowland by the basin. Down by the basin, wisps of vapour rose. They covered the cinnamon pathways in smoky haze. She had to get away. Trespassing through the cinnamon garden, was an offence entailing harsh punishment. She had to avoid it at any cost. This belonged to a merchant who traded the spice to the West. She headed for the hills. Her plans, to ascend it on her nimble feet, toward a cottage on the peak. But the winds escalated; the roars louder. She struggled on the sharp incline. Winds kept pushing her down.
The hill was covered with feral trees and shrubbery. Rare dragon blood trees and wild cinnamon. Through it all, she tried to climb. Her sinewy arms ached from stretching for balance. Ravens and wet crows flew over her in a rush to get back to their nests. A nasty storm brewed. Tia, kept up her journey. Its end appeared a long way away. Rains dribbled down her smooth, dark face. Her clothes drenched in water, clung to her body. She stopped to take a breath and looked at the basin. She saw a silken enigma of coloured borealis envelop the hot spring. Tia’s breathing shallow and difficult, she viewed gods,’ engaged in seductive frolicking in a warm bath. Gods’ hand in all this. Indifferent to the human cause, their laughter rang in the winds, as they splashed water, and plopped playful rocks into the basin. She stood there, clearly enraged. Tired, but resilient, amongst the fallen debris of a gathering storm on her homecoming.
Close, but not close enough. She must make sure that her journey ended up in the cottage. It was the final destination. One that she must fulfil. When she came to pick the cinnamon bark, she did not think that far. That the heavy rain would make it all blurry. Now, it fell everywhere and blinded her, made this journey difficult; her way up through the deep forest.
She tumbled. She assumed she fell by the loop-root mangroves. Why? This place had always been dark. She thought, she almost saw a white unicorn on the mangroves’ edge. But no, it was just a figment of her mind. Her journey ensued. This golden cottage, mounted like a pearl of paradise. A cry pierced through the pattering rain. It was but the gusty wind, cutting past her in hasty rage. With each step forward, she went a step backward. Alas! The winds beat her to it, getting in her way. Reptiles, crawled back into their holes. Tia Magnolia kept pushing on. Wrong day perhaps to come for the cinnamon, Oh! The sweet wood! It could drive anyone crazy with its perfume. This forest, in the grips of the winds; even the soft rains wouldn’t let her pass. Too dense, she could not see far, afar. She fell on the slippery terrain. Her knees bled. The gods smiled.
Living in this forest, some days she ate, other days she ate her hunger. She was poor, but she didn’t feel poor. Not until she met her terrible fate. That the cinnamon merchant had come after her. He took her to his great mansion, and cajoled her into believing that he would take her places. The fool! The colossal fool, she was. His maddening charms, pulled her toward him like the black iron-ore, that middle-aged cinnamon merchant, of fifty years. She, a tender sprout. A romantic nomad, he told her stories. Breathtaking stories of places he had visited, which melted her heart. Wonderful tales of giant hawks, and sweeping vultures scouring the sky and the earth. He described one palace after another. Magnificent ruby summer palaces of the East, sapphire winter palaces of the West. Beautiful princesses covered in blue and red head jewellery, danced in their primrose flowing robes, when they walked up to see what he sold. The aroma of his cinnamon, floated high in the air. The infusion of cinnamon tea made way for a porous imagination. Imagination from where a pantheon of visions flowed; of scarlet battles, glittering diamonds on crowns and studded sceptres. Victors and vanquished Kings and Queens of their kingdoms.
Tia Magnolia listened in a trance. The more she listened, the more she became enamoured, and drawn into the spell of the sweet wood. She wanted to become a princess. She wanted to live in a mansion. She wanted it all. She wanted the impregnable walls to fall flat at her feet, to open passages strewn with silver tinsels. Time and time again, he told her these stories behind closed doors, and then left her mesmerised in a bloody contortion of heart aches. He would be gone for years after that. And his tales would arouse curiosity in her loneliness. She would feel poor for the first time. Such illusions were a reality for her. She lived in that bubble, night and day. Bubbles which could burst, and leave her exposed. But she paid no heed to those warnings.
Now this passage was hard. This rain. This soft thumping on the lush mountain, the sweet wood soaked in the sari’s pouch. The winds stood in the way. A hunger seized her. A hunger to see a blue butterfly in the first sun, and a dazzling, plumed peacock of extraordinary colours. That dream, this storm could destroy. She took the difficult route. A choice she made. She must make it to the top of the hill, no matter what stood in her way. She kept on going. She kept plodding along. The higher she went, that harder it got. She pushed herself up the slope. She slid and started anew, a yoyo of rise and fall. She felt like giving up, this arduous journey, which was what it had become. She wouldn’t come undone. Just as well, her heart a heaving heap. That mansion, and the golden cottage up the hill streamlined in her imagination. Her strength, did not dissolve like any molten lead. This was what kept her going. Life was not meant to be defeated. She was not a defeatist. This journey’s end was at the tip of the mountain. That’s where her happiness lay, her little bundle of joy. Joy that came at low tide. Tears. That was what it was, tears. In the midst of tears, came her joy, this dream brought blessings into her little golden cottage. The cinnamon merchant would never know that this worker who worked on his farm had such strong inclination to learning. His tales acted as her impetus to dream big; maybe a bit too big, to harbour within her small chest.
Steal? Yes, she stole the cinnamon bark to feed that dream. She stole to avenge the merchant for letting her dream of the impossible. In her heart, hopes fed an undiminished desire, to not to surrender, but to reach out. The top of the mountain meant end of a chase, an accomplishment of a dream. However, the more she chased it, the harder it became. It was but the golden cottage, on the mountain peak, her lost unicorn on the mangroves. The aromas of the sweet wood tangled her mind.
At midnight, in a final bid, Tia struggled to get to the top. The forest at midnight; she stopped short to inhale its smell, sat down at the foot of the wet mountain. She tried to listen to the forest, after a short interlude from the rain. Then she saw fireflies of fiery jinns, flying ubiquitous, through the summer’s night. She contemplated their ambient sound.
Before the night was over, she knew the merchant was back. He had returned yet again, from his travels at last. He brought with him yards of lazy, decadent satin; sunflower yellow, saffron, and soft baby pink; nuanced, along the deep contours of Aegean Mermaids. The merchant spoke to her. He told her softly in the ears. He showed her a path paved with great history. But there were also some untold hidden miseries which eluded her.
“The Greek Islands, this time,” he said.
“What about them?”she asked.
“Islands woven on alentejo wrinkled wine at the behest of the sea nymphs.
“Mesmerising, especially, when the turbulent waves of the emerald Aegean broke on its shores,” he answered. “I traded spice, and the incensed cinnamon to entice gods to draw them out of heavens.”
“Were they enticed?” she asked wide-eyed.
“It made them drunk, both mortals and gods alike.”
“How would you know?”
“Because on this land, mortals waged a hundred year war. A war which would not quench Paris’s thirst for the Helen of Troy. The nation’s total immersion in the young blood of men, not shaken by their cries. War thundered on the scarlet sands for ten long years. Men trampled over each other. All but to win a divine beauty, a mortal, the Helen of Troy. Gods were delirious.
“Come on, you can’t be serious,” she laughed.
“But I am.”
“I want to see. You have opened my eyes to pleasures beyond me. I want to know more,” she panted.
“Imagine, this wide, wide open sea before you. Men on papyrus war-ships, sailing towards the sunset to battle other Kings, bringing either glory or gloom. They went hand in hand. Gods watched a mortal power-play, but did nothing, nothing at all, while men suffered and died, but not relinquish power. Just like the eye on their sleek boats, they only watched. They suffered because it was in their nature to fight. Gods would not have them believe otherwise. Men waged wars on wanton chase to become tragic heroes. That was the cosmic bait gods decreed. A bait to drive men to the edge of insanity. And to end life. So life would perish, to make room for another on our limited space.
“I want to fight. I want to be the Helen of Troy,” she whispered. “I want to be Queen. I desire everything you said to me so far. I want it all.”
“Shush, my love, shush, not so fast,” he said.“I sail again tomorrow to the far east. Toward the end of the ancient peninsula, into the kingdom of Joseon and further. Wait till my return. I bring more enchanting stories of glorious Kings, and their mighty deeds.
The Merchant left. Tia Magnolia became a restive inlander, left to wallow in her gluttony. Her sweet bark tied up in the pouch of her attire. She circled the pouch around her neck and smelled it. She looked at these invincible mountain passes beset with animals and reptiles, lions and hyenas. Trees, one taller than the other. Exotic leaves made greener by every Monsoon rain. Fallen leaves russet, and black, grew anew in fresh droplets. Her struggles made no difference to rain or to any seasonal change or disorders. If a volcanic eruption were to happen, then it happened. If lava were to overflow the ashen cities and towns, then it was unstoppable. If clouds were to float, they floated. Floods, flash floods, blotted out lives with every drop. Changes of sky’s luminous tinges from blue, violet, gold or cream occurred without a fuss. Nature would not abate an inch. Loved ones would die despite people’s grief. Dire predicaments would not alter the natural course.
She waited morosely for the merchant’s return. To hear more stories of indulgence, to seek new lands and hidden palaces thumbed under age-old shrubs; primordial trucks snaked through decrepit palace cracks on their stumps. She wanted to watch more epic dramas in cinematic expose. The rise and fall of men. What freedom actually meant?
In the heart of it, men were not free, no matter how much they fought for it. They were not. They only believed in the illusion that they were. For they were not ready to make those sacrifices just yet. Men still lusted after glory and power far too much. They loved going to war, fight battles, and win them. The desire to acquire more land and kingdoms spiralled out of control. Those big tasks and asks would lead them further and further away from the real kingdoms of freedom. They would be free, only when they allowed themselves to be free from such desires; simple, not simplistic; thereof, Tia Magnolia, steeped in the aromatic flavour of the sweet cinnamon, continued to tie herself into tighter knots. Shackled herself deeper, down the unfathomable dark dungeon of dreams where no enlightenment could enter.
No matter, she must find her way up to the golden cottage. Even if she had to claw; damage her nails; break her ankles; bruise her wrists; and skin her knees. She must never give up. Giving up, meant to surrender. Men without ambition were as good as paupers on the roads. Ambition must never be taken lightly. Where did it end and where did greed begin? Men were ultimately caught up in this paradox. This inevitable trap of bewilderment, which led to profound illusions.
Two years passed. Tia Magnolia, climbed only half way to the top. The merchant had not returned as he had promised. But he sent letters from the eastern peninsula. One letter, too many. They described the beautiful kingdom of Joseon of unimaginable wealth. Cities fortified with formidable emperors in spectacular dwellings. They traded luxurious silk, and spices down the silk road, paintings and written words on famous Goreyo paper. But these cities were also vulnerable. They fell to frequent raids from foreign invaders. Another horrible tale of tainted wars. Irrepressible suffering to boot. Those dark times relentless and ruthless, for all their professed knowledge of Confucius teachings, they were far from free. Emperors lived in a fantasy of power. Both the legitimate Kings as well as their colonisers. Because nothing lasted in the end. All those kingdoms broke equally without fail on this continuum. Only to survive in heritage paintings under lavish colours of historical grandeur.
The more she read those letters, the more convinced she became, that illusion by far, was more powerful than reality. It was this illusion in the end that men fell for. No more futile, than trying to grasp the meaning of existence. What did Tia Magnolia want? Getting to that cottage on the hill, what did it signify? She had to figure out. One way or the other, she fell for it too. Because she embraced the naked desire in her heart that she wanted to be Queen, live in those grand mansions. She completely raptured herself with the thought that prestige and accomplishments were everything. She had to be that Helen of the Trojans, regardless of the consequences of the Trojan Horse. She had to be right at the top. This enchantment was unflippable. She was steadfast. Or else all struggles came to naught. Yes, struggles to dig bigger entrapments. This pursuit of a dream was too, too strong a lure; she could not forgo. Her attachment to the golden cottage became a metaphor, to hunt for an inextricable destiny. She must follow this dream to the last. Hail or thunder, she must endure, and whatever else the future held.