It was already dark when we set off from Grange. That had been at least two hours ago. Now it was inky black, and the twisted labyrinth of the forest was lit only by the handmade fire torches carried by Maria Angelo, George Dixter and Don Pedro. Pedro the Pomeranian trotted along happily between the four of us, content to accompany me in the relative darkness of the torchless zone between George Dixter and Don Pedro, all of us following Maria Angelo at the head of the party. I had not made the mistake of asking why I could not have one. The loving dog seemed conscious of my relative darkness, and kept brushing my legs in reassurance.
The flames atop the wooden sticks crackled and hissed as the burning pitch, soaked into the dried mosses, flared and crackled at the darkness. It was an eerie sound and highlighted a very strange situation – the most intense one I had experienced since I met the members of Don Pedro’s circle. But they had invited me to be with them, and now, having agreed, I had no choice but to follow and play my part.
I was beginning to learn – though none of them had been explicit in this – that ‘my part’ was to go through an undocumented process of becoming more conscious of what they did. This method of teaching only by showing ran entirely counter to the norms of spiritual training in our modern world, where volumes of books are available to aid the intellectual side of the student in every esoteric genre. Within Don Pedro’s circle, there was constant intensity, total listening, because to miss something might take it, irretrievably, beyond the grasp . . .
In this circle gesture had replaced speech as the token of understanding. Where knowledge was the usual intermediary of the conveying of meaning, here there was such power of gesture that it was as though understanding were conveying itself . . .
As I walked though this dark land, so familiar in the daylight, I reflected on how my attitude to Don Pedro and his companions had changed, Where once I had believed myself to be inherently superior, now, I waited in humility for what would happen next – knowing they took more care with their actions than I had ever experienced before in any situation.
And so I maintained my silence, and stilled my thoughts.
I was lost – and completely dependent on my guides. The triangle of land between Grange, Cartmel and the salt marshes west of Flookborough is a largely empty place, dominated by large tracts of forest and small hills where the rocky terrain is quite inhospitable. The few country roads make it excellent cycling country, as I had found many years ago when we had criss-crossed this landscape in the height of Summer. But now, in the darkness of a cold Winter night and, undoubtedly, miles from anywhere, I had no idea where I was.
Soon, we began to climb. For perhaps half an hour, we strode, with increasingly exertion, through an upward tilted forest where there was no path – and yet Maria Angelo seemed to be able to pick out her footing so that we all trudged over ground that felt like it had been trod before. As we gained height, it was as though the forest was whispering to us – and as though the price of that communication was to travel, on foot, through the darkness.
There came a point when the very atmosphere changed – and we stopped. In the effort of the dark exertion, I had not noticed that the ground had levelled. A cold wind now blew through the blackness, as though we had reach a place that was more exposed – It felt like a forested peak.
Don Pedro rested his flaming torch against a rock while he took off his old canvas rucksack. From it he took a thick blanket, which he spread out on the ground, indicating that I should rest on it, seated cross-legged, with my hands open, palms upwards. He knelt down next to me and said, “Things built on other things. Most important find first things . . .”
George Dixter joined him and pressed a metal object into my hand, saying only, “Later . . .”
Finally, Maria Angelo came forward and dropped what felt like a coin into my other, open palm. “The only path worth having,” she said softly, with a hint of sadness. At that, Pedro came to curl around me several times before standing to one side, expectantly. He had been here before, I knew.
After that, things happened only in a remembered blur.
The three of them came to stand around me in a triangle, with their torches hissing over my head. Then they pulled the torches apart, stepping backwards until I could only sense their lights at the very edge of the clearing. And then the forest went completely black, with only the faint light of the stars and the full moon to decorate the ink wash.
I waited for something else to happen. I waited for what seemed an eternity before shifting my weight to relieve the stiffness. Despite the thick blanket, the cold of the ground was seeping into my body and I had to acknowledge that I did not know what to do . . .
Apart from the sound of the wind in the trees, there was stillness. I felt like the most alone man in the world. For a moment, anger flared in me – who the hell did they think I was to be played like this? But I knew that voice, knew its origin in the twisted fears of the early things. Faced with this knowing it subsided, to be replaced by the warm memories of the total care they had always taken of my wellbeing, and how they constantly nurtured my consciousness of what they were, what they did . . .
After what must have been an hour, and now shivering with the cold, I realised that I was alone. They had insisted that I leave my mobile phone behind before setting off, so there was no technology to help me. I shuffled to a kneeling position and used my fingers to examine the objects that still rested in my hands, though they were now curled against the Winter cold. The one that had felt like a thick coin had two different faces. One felt like glass, or plastic; the other was metallic. It had a protrusion at one end of the curved surface that formed its narrow, circular edge. In the darkness I could do nothing else with it.
I turned my attention to the other. It was an oblong of metal. I detected a familiar smell as my fingers played with it. With a smile, I realised what it was. My fingers flew over its surfaces, eager to grasp at the familiar, and I found the hidden join with my nail, flipping open the cover of the Zippo petrol lighter. I found the primitive striking wheel and a single spark flared in the clearing. I did it again and the wick caught the spark and produced sustained light in the darkness. I stared at the flame, delighting in it and the smell of the petrol fumes, as though greeting a long, lost brother. But, with a perverse twist that is so typical of the human psyche, the light also brought me a sense of panic – the fuel in this type of lighter might not last long, and it was my only ammunition against the darkness. I considered that sentiment – ‘ammunition’, my mind had said, mechanically, as though this had become a war. There, before me, were all the foundations of my ego’s life. I willed myself beyond them and looked at the sheer beauty of the flame, burning steadily before me, changing the darkness in an action that was eternal, that could never be reversed.
Reason returned in good time, displacing the oneness with the flame. It had a job to do, too. My survival was also key to the exercise. It was little use been somewhat enlightened and dead – not when there was Work to do in the world . . .
I had to make good use of this gift, if I were not to die of exposure up here. I knew there was no chance of finding my way back alone and in the darkness. I had to use my wits and these gifts to survive.
I held up the lighter flame and the clearing came, faintly, into view, and with it, off to my right, the image of a modern mountain tent, framed in its bright orange fabric. I gathered my meagre possessions, rolled them into the blanket and walked over to it, closing the lighter’s lid and relying on my memory of where the tent lay. With care I crossed the distance, finding the outline of the tent with my fingers. It had a zip flap and soon, I was entering it, gratefully.
Once inside, I risked using the Zippo again. The interior came into focus. There was a sleeping bag, which, in concert with the blanket, would provide all I needed. I could sleep in my clothes for warmth, tucked, safely, in its folds. The tent would insulate against the wind. There was a large rucksack in the far corner of the interior. I pulled it into the lighted zone and unfastened it. Inside were a bag of dry kindling and the tartan flask. I chuckled, knowing that the latter would contain hot coffee. They were so precise! One side pocket of the backpack contained a bottle of water, the other contained a small axe.
I poured myself a grateful cup of the hot coffee with one hand, then closed the lighter and took stock of my situation. I had no food, but a short fast would do me no harm. I had liquids and warmth. With surprise I realised I was still afraid? Of what, I wondered? In the darkness the answer came with the question: this was a new world – their ‘gesture’ of bringing me up here, face to face with the core elements of my life, had tipped me into a new world – their world. Even as I considered the thought, I realised that the objects of safety – the water, rucksack and even the tent, itself, were taking me away from that world, just as I had entered it . . . they would have known this, I mused, letting my hands rove over the contents of the bag. There must be something else I could do?
The Wolf with the fire was alone on the hilltop. He added log after log to stoke it, enjoying the primeval feel of self-made heat on skin. The world would always be at his back in the darkness, but he had the power of turning; and in that power all could be brought before him. Sipping the last of the coffee, he smiled at their wisdom – and their uncompromising intent. As he retired to the warmth of the orange shelter, he noticed that the mysterious circular object, given by Maria Angeles, had fallen from the blanket on his entry. He picked it up and held it in the flickering light of the fire.
It was a compass. The dawn would see a Wolf with a way home, although the hilltop would forever be home, too. The Wolf would carry a large rucksack, within which would be every trace of his visit, packed away. A few carefully scattered ashes would be the only visible signs of his presence.
The forest, honoured and acknowledged in this way, would smile at his departure, wishing him a speedy return . . .
Coffee with Don Pedro is normally published on Thursdays. The previous episodes, some of which are labelled ‘The Beast in the Cafe’ are in the blogs. You can follow the enigmatic trail by clicking on this link.
Contact details and an outline description are on the other pages of this blog and via the website below.