14 thousand years ago, when I was 9 years old, my father sent me into the meadow to herd his meager goat flock. From the forest, where I was told never to wander, I heard a thrush song so melodious that it almost seemed like the call of an angel. At the time I did not know that songs do not descend from above, but rise up from the animal kingdom.
Allured, I abandoned my goats, who grazed contentedly on thistles and clover, and plunged into the woods where it grew thickest, greenest, and most wild.
Under a blossoming dogwood tree I met a boy my own age. His skin was blue as a rain-laden cloud in early May. His eyes were twin trillium dancing in fern shadows. Being a prince, he superciliously gave me a commandment: "Leave all your duties and make mischief with me."
"Is this permitted?" I asked.
"Yes," he said, " because the world needs mischief more than work."
"What about the rules?"
"There is only one rule. Fall in love. Then it is your duty to break every other law."
He taught me how to turn my body into a wounded flute with seven holes. He showed me how to pour tears through it. He taught me to catch peacocks by the tail and follow their outraged flight to the moon. He taught me to transcend both sleep and dreams, and to sing all night.
Then my dark blue playfellow led me to a deep pool filled by a waterfall in the forest, where the daughters of his royal cousins were bathing. We tiptoed over the moss and stole the clothes that they had scattered on the bank. Climbing up in a yew tree, we hung them from every branch, laughing and teasing the ladies below, who shrugged their shoulders and covered their buoyant breasts with crossed hands.
I accidentally dropped my wallet into the pool, a little bag filled with my most precious heirlooms. One of the girls dove for it, then came up gasping, waving the purse and shouting, "You must give us our clothes to get this back!"
I called, "There's nothing in that bag but my name, my grandfather's diamond signet ring, and the deed to my father's property. Throw it back into the water. I'd rather see your nipples!"
She did just that, causing the blue boy to laugh with delight. "Well done!" he said, clapping his hands. A very large salmon leaped out of the water with my wallet in its mouth, then swam down the stream toward the sea.
But the blue boy wanted to give the girl a little punishment for throwing my wallet away, not because she had done wrong, but just to tease her. So he blew a breath upon her that transformed her body into a mourning dove. "You may return to your human form tomorrow," he said.
Beating her wings in distress, the dove flew to a willow branch that wept over the water. All night she keened the plaintive ululation only lovers understand. At dawn her sweet mist-muted cry came from afar, over many hills.
When the sun was high and the mist had burned away, she wandered back to her friends, naked and human, her bare feet delicately pressing last night's dew from the moss. "Sorrow is lovely," she said. "Now I will never be afraid. I miss the dark."
Almost 10 thousand years later, while wandering through Manchuria, I met the Old Master of the Way, hitchhiking out of the empire. I was still a young boy. "Before you escape from civilization," I asked the old fellow, "what can you teach me?" He taught me to breathe through the soles of my feet. I still hate shoes.
I followed the caravan routes across Persia to the Roman Empire. On the way, I passed through a picturesque little kingdom called Israel, noted chiefly for die-hard zealots who kept challenging the authority of Caesar, getting themselves crucified, then coming back for more.
I befriended the son of the High Priest while I was stealing pomegranates in the crowded marketplace. He took me to his father's house and, discovering that I had met some sages in the East, the High Priest asked me if I wanted to visit the temple. Of course I did. He made me bathe several times and cover my body in a white robe, then escorted me through the court of the gentiles and into the sanctuary, where I had no right to be.
"Are you sure the temple guards won't arrest me?" I asked.
The High Priest just winked and said, "You're a traveler. Speak well of what you see here as you travel Westward."
He led me down aisle after aisle, past many tables where merchants were selling pigeons, lambs, and wine for the devout to offer in sacrifice. There were pots filled with dinarii and other trinkets of silver. In the heart of the temple, I walked up the stairs past alters of incense and sacrifice, carefully stepping over trenches in the floor that ran with the warm blood of rams and bulls. The Levitical priests seemed entranced by their work of slaughter and didn't notice me, a 12-year-old goy in their midst.
Then the old man led me to the Holy of Holies, its door barely visible in the cloud of incense that perpetually gloomed the pillars and alters. He asked me not to speak, then opened the golden door. We walked into the shrine room at the center of God's little kingdom.
Imagine my surprise. There I expected to see another alter, with a holy book lying upon it. Or perhaps the Ark of the Covenant, containing the tablets that Moses brought down from Mount Sinai. Or even the lost tablet, the one Moses broke in fury, on which a single commandment was written: "Love thyself."
But instead I saw another door wide open, actually more like the black throat of a cave. The High Priest beckoned me with a sweeping gesture, and I walked through. Before my eyes grew accustomed to the dark, I seemed to be spinning through a vacuum, tumbled by waves of pure possibility, like a wildly unbalanced quadratic equation searching desperately for Zero, buffeted and baffled by expanding and contracting bubbles of space-time. I was lost in the swirling maelstrom of infinitesimal worlds smaller than Planck's Constant.
Suddenly I touched solid ground and could see again. I had passed through some mysterious portal into an ancient forest. Thick with cedar, hemlock, ferns and trillium, green shadows echoed with the sound of birds, shrieks of monkeys and other hominids, only the eyes of whom were visible, glinting from the dark. Reptiles with human faces twined around every tree trunk, smiling like flowers, singing so softly that their descant was an all-pervading whisper, mighty in its quietude.
Looking at the High Priest, I yearned for an explanation yet was unable to speak. In a very deliberate and barely audible voice, he said, "No temple can ever contain Adonai, the Lord of Creatures, whose true name is unknown. For God is wilderness, and order is chaos. In the presence of her mystery, all words perish, all thoughts fall silent. A holy scripture is holy only when it conjures images of the ancient forest. To find enlightened, you must be feral again."
So I walked deeper into the green shadows, and swooned... Then I found myself sitting in the market place, eating that pomegranate among the merchants' booths. Where was the High Priest and his son? Had it merely been a reverie? Were the seeds of the pomegranate fermented?
Not many centuries later, I was strolling through a village near the source of the Ganges, and who do you think I encountered? Bodhidharma, the 6th Patriarch, on his way to the North. He invited me to go with him but I answered, "I'm too young. Besides, I've already been there."
That night we lay under the stars. Bodhidharma gave me a pearl and said, "Rest this between your eyebrows." So I did. "Now look into the stars." Then I saw my seven grandmothers riding galactic bicycles, pregnant with light years, bearing the galaxies from virgin silence.
On my way home, I wandered through Macedonia. One night I left the path to sleep in a forest cave. About midnight I was wakened by a goat-footed singer with a three-stringed lyre, who was climbing through the cave on his way back from the Underworld, where he had been dallying with his lover. He gave me a drink from his wine skin and played the richest harmonies, the most haunting melodies, on just those three strings, for the complexity of the universe is only the music of the Trinity, Three in Zero. I began to weep with incomprehensible waves of grief. The singer said, "You must make a lyre of body, breath, and mind if you want to turn your tears to laughter."
I am not sure if this was a dream, but he touched his lyre to my lips and the strings melted like maple sugar candy, dripping down through the hollows of my rib cage, each drop echoing in the cavern of my belly. The goat-man said, "Loop these strings through your nostrils and stretch one to your heart, one to your navel, and one to the tip of your spine." I did as instructed. "Now breathe," he commanded.
As I inhaled, each neuron tingled with a love song. As I exhaled, strange rhyming couplets spilled from my lips in words of evaporated crystal. Even today I breathe these bejeweled sounds. This is how I remain just twelve years old, though I have outlived the world's most ancient volcanoes.
About 2000 years later, I met Jesus. He was an honored guest in the house of my master Levi, where I was a servant boy. Reclining on his elbow by the low table, as was the custom at Hellenistic feasts, Jesus said, "Come here, boy. What are you serving?"
"Olives, sir." I offered him my plate of succulent brown ones.
"Not sweet enough for me," Jesus said. "Do you have any grapes?"
The whole room grew quiet. My master Levi and all the men reclining at the feast wanted to see what I would do, for it was a great sin to insult a guest, and I was a slave boy. "No grapes, sir," said I, "Only olives; but my master's olives are more luscious than any fruit."
At that, both host and guests sighed with relief, resuming their debate on the philosophy of love. Jesus reached his fingers into my dish of olives, drawing out a dripping fistful. Holding his hand over my head, he crushed the olives in his palm and drizzled their juice over my hair. It spilled down my forehead into my eyes and over my lips. Jesus said, "Boy, I anoint you with oil. You are the Christ, just as I Am. Together, we will become pure breath, and enter the bodies of saints and fools."
Deeply disturbed, my master Levi cried, "Why do you anoint this servant boy as if he were a prophet? He belongs to me!"
Jesus simply gazed into my eyes and commanded, "Speak, boy!"
My mouth made sounds, but were they words? Was this a language anyone could understand? I had no idea what I was saying, but I knew exactly what I meant:
"You have wandered too long in blazing desert sun. Come to my oasis of figs, pomegranates, cocoa and apple boughs. Rest in my green shadows."When your eyes take root in my fecund darkness, you will see gemstones lying among the lilies: rocks of amethyst and jagged topaz, blackest onyx, sapphires gleaming with their own inward light."Turn them over one by one and behold, a gushing spring under each stone. And see, dwelling in those gurgling fountains of night are all the serpents that were ever banned by priests of religion from every nation on earth. Now they dwell here, in my oasis, beyond good and evil. Press your face into my streams and drink of these serpent waters!"That was a very sweet night.
Several centuries later, I wandered through the ancestral hills of Eire, searching for elves and leprechauns, having read in a wicked book that Ireland was the last place on earth where the little people could still be found - at least out here on the world's surface. I climbed over a mysterious mound covered with clover and eglantine. Ancestral commotions rumbled from under the ground. In the thicket, a five-point stag was waiting for me. He whispered, "Follow quickly, we are hunted."
Hearing the huntsman's horn, the buck and I ran into the white fog, then emerged in a cedar forest, walking along a deep crevasse in the broken earth. I heard no horn of huntsman now, but elfin music rising from that cleft in the earth. "Fairies?" I asked the deer. But the stag had dissolved into mist.
As I was very tired, and it was evening, I lay down among morning glory vines whose blossoms were folded up. A sweet breath of warmth pervaded that cluster of green. Falling into deep sleep, I dreamed that tiny dancers entered and left my body, carrying excavated treasures which they loaded into carts carved from bone, pulled by winged dolphins who flew up into the night. They exported my whole body, atom by atom, into the stars. And I was made of stars.
Awoken by sunbeams, I was refreshed but hopelessly entangled in morning glories. The blossoms opened wide and gaped with foolish grins, yet the songs they sang were just tremors of silence in the breeze. I had the peculiar sense that this breeze and its silent songs were emerging from my own bone marrow.
Then I noticed a little man sitting beside me on the ground, his endless wheaten beard spiraling around him. Those vacant limpid eyes were like pools of cream, and somehow I knew that he was blind. But he gazed upon me with second sight, holding a ruddy glistening fish in his arms, as one might hold a fat furry cat. It was the salmon who had stolen my wallet in a previous age. This fish had no trouble breathing the sunny air.
"Who are you, sir?" I asked the small wheat-bearded man.
"My name is Turlogh," he said, "Turlogh, the Blind Harper."
"Have you come to teach me to harp, or to see?"
"Ah," he said, "You are so clever! Have not the little people been teaching you my songs all night?"
At that, I remembered the music in my marrow, and watched my breath sink into my heart, where a flame burst out, undulating in the emerald form of a lady with a serpent's tail, on which she could tiptoe and spin, spreading enormous rainbow wings. Her eyes were filled with tears, her lips with a succulent smile. Yes, a harp sang inside me. And deep underground, a chorus answered the song of my body, echoing from the crevasse. I understood that the elves, who lived down in the heart-wound of the earth, had been teaching me their songs throughout the ageless hours of darkness.
"Now you comprehend your name!" Turlough said. The truth was, I had always hated my name, "Alfred." But I never knew what it meant until now. "It is Anglo-Saxon," the little man added. "Elf-Read, which means, Taught-by-Elves."
That is when I awoke a second time, and Turlogh was gone. Or was it the third time I awoke? I am losing count. My life has been a never-ending rosary of awakenings. There in the grass beside me was a rabbit, a squirrel, and a fat raven. They plucked, pulled, and untangled the morning glory vines from my body.
The raven said, "None of the beings you have encountered until now were real. Not one. But we are real. We are animals. We come to you in dreams, disguised as other sorts of people whom you respect more. But you have been learning from us the whole time."
The rabbit and the squirrel stared at me with great kindness, then hopped off into the forest. The fat raven beat his wings and rose into the air, making a croak that seemed like the gong of an enormous star-encompassing bell. At that, I seemed to awaken yet again.
"Wait!" I shouted, "Was it all a dream within a dream?"
The raven called, "Yes!"
I shouted back, "Not so, because ravens can't talk!"
And the raven, now very high above, disappeared into the morning sunshine, singing, "This too!"