Dedicated to all Life in the hope that all will learn the Language of the Heart
The Shadow of the Valley of Death (Ps 23:4a)
The news raced through the ancient forest. Stately pines whispered it to immense oaks. They, in their turn, quivering in anxious abandon, gave their report to panicky squirrels that scurried here and there relaying the horrible story. Blackbirds and crows, jays and geese all sought out others in a dreadful telling and retelling; even Flight the rabbit did his part. Known more for the fearful nature from which his name had come and which had kept him alive so long, Flight found courage in his heartbroken pain to bring the news to old Snagtooth, the great black bear of the mountain: Ve'el-she-nat was dying. The very air reeked of fear and grief. At the mountain's base, near the forest's center, her friends gathered outside the cave that had been her home for more years than most could remember. It seemed she had always been there and always would. To think of her not being there was, well it was unthinkable!
Someone gathered the dead and broken tree limbs scattered about the forest floor. Moving oh-so-carefully, a fox lifted a brand from the cave's cooking fire and carried it outside. Crackling flames broke the uneasy stillness of the night, illuminating the way for those still arriving. Shadowy figures arrived with each passing moment. By twos and threes, here a solitary stag, there a family of beavers, they came. Natural enemies waited side by side in hushed, disconsolate homage to the old woman who lay inside. Whispered remembrances by those who had benefited from the healer's kindness occasionally broke the unnatural silence. "She mended my son's paw when he was caught by a trap," choked one vixen.
"I remember when she helped birth my sister's cubs," replied a mountain lion, his voice equally tearful. "It was just after she had been shot by a hunter. She hadn't even been after his sheep! She was just heading for her den as her time was near. Ve'el-she-nat saved her life and that of the cubs. We didn't lose one."
No one was surprised to see Snagtooth arrive. The sight of a quivering Flight precariously balanced on his back did cause a few to start and stare. Yet this was the heart of Ve'el-she-nat's teaching in action: that the black bear would give a lift to the exhausted rabbit so that both could be where each needed to be.
A young girl appeared at the cave entrance and beckoned to the waiting crowd. One by one, the forest folk passed quietly inside to say good-bye. Led by the old she-wolf, Keeyna, they gazed upon their life-long friend and mentor and, just as quietly, left. Redolent with herbs and gentle potions, the cave was a shrine to the one who lay dying. No one spoke. There was no need. Talking, indeed any sound, would have been an intrusion in Ve'el-she-nat's final moments. Her life had been so silent that many from the deepest and farthest reaches of the forest believed she did not have the power of speech as humans knew it. Those who knew her well knew otherwise. Ve'el-she-nat could and would raise her voice to right a wrong or prepare a heart to learn what she called the true language, the language of the heart. She used to say that one could not hear what was truly important in one's life if noise filled that life. Only in silence could one hear. Only silence made it possible to listen for what was important. That was what made the language of the heart possible. She had taught it to all the animals of the forest and they, in turn, taught it to their young. Humans, her own kind, were not as disposed to her teachings but there were a few and those few brought joy to her eyes and song to her heart. When animals complained to her about how few humans understood, she would answer that a little leaven goes a long way. These few were the leaven to the rest of her race. Animals didn't use leaven and she had to explain what she meant. Regardless, most humans didn't seem to understand. Many animals didn't either but those who did, had to admit that Ve'el-she-nat was right. Nevertheless, it certainly made life much more pleasant for them.
Ve'el-she-nat believed that the voice or language of the heart was the only language that could heal the wounds inflicted on the innocent by those whose hearts had turned to stone. Only love could heal life. The animals agreed with her.
The healer herself had taught the animals how to use the language of the heart to communicate with humans; then she taught those receptive humans to communicate with the animals. Although somehow they knew they were lesser creatures than the villagers were, the animals also knew that the same Father Creator had given them life just as He had given life to the villagers. They believed, as did their mentor and friend, that they deserved respect.
Men had lost respect for the beauty and simplicity of the world. In an existence gone crazy with pain and loneliness, people forgot the language of the heart and sought escape by striking out against those more vulnerable than they. Forsaking decency in their wanton cruelty and greed, they wreaked destruction on countless trees and woodland creatures. Those animals that could, escaped the slaughter by heading deeper into mountains. Those that couldn't, died. Unable to move about, the trees found themselves still easier prey to the villagers searching for wood and land. The shocked woodland creatures even heard of people who struck out against their own kind. Rumors told of children beaten into submission, turned by hate and greed into dark reflections of their own tormentors, sinister shadows of their true selves. That was something totally beyond the comprehension of the animals. The young were the future of every race. Those who hurt them endangered their own survival. Even the silliest chipmunk knew that! Unable to escape, unable to receive healing, the forest had been slowly dying until the coming of Ve'el-she-nat, She-who-loves-greatly.
The forest folk had given her that name so many years ago, that rumor claimed no one now knew what her real name had been. If any one did, he wasn't talking. The forest creatures whispered, too, that the High Lord himself had sent her to them. Now the forest paid tribute to she who had dedicated her life to not only its preservation but to its salvation. To this end, she had lived and worked and for this end, she now lay dying, victim of an attack against the forest she had striven to heal. The forest's utter, unnerving stillness kept at bay those who desired her death.
Inside the cave, the procession continued while the trees guarded the sanctuary. The girl wept quietly at the foot of the bed on which her mistress lay. Keeyna, whose great, grand-dam had first befriended Ve'el-she-nat many years before, sat by her side. With calm, sad eyes, she watched the pageant pass by the too-still figure on the bed. She would miss her friend. Keeyna would grieve later in the way of wolves, baying her pain to the stars, but now was the time of silence. Dignity was present and she would not disturb the serenity of the dying woman's last hours. In the flickering firelight, her beleaguered instincts cried agonizingly out for revenge against those who had done this to her beloved teacher. Instead, Keeyna listened to the Teachings of the woman who lay dying. After all, Ve'el-she-nat was giving up her life for those teachings that said that the best revenge was to forgive those who had hurt you. When people saw you would not fight back, they lost their power to hurt unquestionably the only truly vulnerable part of you, your soul.
Though it was hard, Keeyna was determined not to seek revenge nor would she permit any in her pack to do so. It would not be easy; Ve'el-she-nat had befriended them all, down to the youngest cub. However, looming like some shadowy specter over her was the recognition that she, leader of her pack, had no control over the other forest animals. She could only try to persuade. Already she had heard whispers of vengeance during her race to the glade. If only she could just make them see reason... somehow. She glanced at the girl beside her.
Meghan Fairchild was new to the forest, an outcast like so many who had come to it to find healing. She was young to be learning such hard lessons, sighed Keeyna to herself, but that was life, in the forest or out.
Keeyna's ears suddenly perked up. From outside the cave she could hear angry murmuring. Hackles lifting on her neck, she rose to investigate the disturbance. Outside the peaceful if painful cave, Keeyna saw several humans who had apparently heard the news and had come to pay their respects during the long vigil. She knew some of them; they were good people who deeply regretted the excesses of their neighbors and did all they could to heal those wrongs.
Ominously, several animals menaced them, opposing their arrival and barring their way. Keeyna's senses discerned hatred reeking in the air. Nevertheless, these innocent people would be the ones to suffer unless she could find some way to make the others see reason. Keeyna had to stop them before it went any further.
"Hold!" she cried. "What do you think you are doing? Would you undo the meaning of Ve'el-she-nat's life? Why do you threaten these people? Do you not recognize them? They are our friends! They are the very ones who put out salt and corn and grasses for you deer when the villagers forced you from the meadows. When a careless villager started the forest fire, these people and others like them, banded together and helped put it out. Some of them helped Ve'el-she-nat heal your injuries from that fire. Have you forgotten? Or have you just forgotten yourselves?" Her voice softened with grief, she added, "They are not our enemies; they have come to say good-bye just as you have. Restore Peace to your hearts and let them pass. Nay, welcome them in her name."
Somehow, the assemblage heard Keeyna over the commotion; slowly silence prevailed though several low voices could still be heard grumbling. "Silence!" proclaimed a deep rumble from the darkness. Startled, heads turned to see the bear Snagtooth pace stolidly forward, great rolls of fat rippling in the firelight. "You fools! What chance do we have against the villagers if you attack innocents? I will not aid you in your foolishness nor will Keeyna. Can't you see she is right?"
The animals were understandably upset yet an attack on the humans was unthinkable. Teachings aside, reprisals would certainly occur if any human is injured or - Creator forbid! - killed by the animals. They must listen! One of the villagers stepped forward hesitantly into the firelight. Keeyna recognized him, as did most of the others present. It was Colin Granville, an old farmer from one of the villages further north. Rumor had it that Colin was Ve'el-she-nat's oldest and dearest friend. Keeyna had frequently wondered if he knew the woman's real name. Keeyna was surprised to see him. She hadn't thought that the news would have spread so far so quickly.
Tears glistening in the moonlight, Colin spoke up. "I was visiting an old friend in Tarbeth; his mare was in foal," he added by way of explanation. "I saw soldiers riding along the forest road. They were laughing." Colin choked then threw back his head and cried out to the stars, "They said they had gotten rid of that 'crazy forest hermit.' Who else could they have meant but Ve'el-she-nat? As soon as they were out of sight, I ran here. I don't run as well as I used to...." Colin hesitated then went on. "I'm old... it took me awhile. I told everyone I could find on the way." Again, that sad plea in his eyes, "We only want to see her again, to say how sorry we are that our own people would do this thing. Are we... are we too late?"
Keeyna looked around at the press of creatures about her, daring them to oppose her. Firmly she padded up to Colin, licked his hand gently, and gazed into his face. Then she retreated and spoke. "Be welcome, all of you. Forgive our poor welcome and do not judge us by our anger. We are losing our friend and guide - as are you. Furthermore, the loss is devastating to us. We are heartsick and many of us are exhausted. Some of us have a harder time controlling our pain than others. And the vigil is long." She sighed, "You are not too late. Come, Ve'el-she-nat lies inside. She is unconscious but, I believe, she knows of your grief, of all our grief. We will go to her as one, as she would wish." As she spoke, Keeyna's eyes all but dared the others assembled to cross her. Her pack stood ready to enforce her words but it was not necessary. Reason had returned and they were ashamed of their earlier actions.
Meghan had come to the cave entrance to watch. Now she led them inside to the bed where the old woman lay gasping out her life. In an unspoken agreement, Colin led the way. As the first to say hello so many, many years ago, it seemed only fitting that he be the one to say good-bye. From her post just outside the cave, Keeyna could hear the soft cries of horror as they beheld the pitiful sight. Well, she thought, their control was not very strong. How could it be, living in a world sheltered as it was from the harsher realities of life as they did? As the people exited the cave, a doe stepped forward and laid her head on Colin's shoulder. He sobbed quietly in her soft, brown coat. Seeing this, more of the animals went up and, each in its own way, sought to comfort and receive comfort with the villagers. Miraculously, the villagers responded. Embraces like ripples on a pond spread in ever widening circles as they wept. Keeyna, her own eyes shining with tears, found solace in it. She knew it was the influence of Ve'el-she-nat. Her teaching was allowing the two groups to come together in mutual grief and support.
A tearful, young girl spoke out. "What about the High Lord? Does he know? Can he do anything to heal her?" She sniffled but went on. "It hurts to see her like that, especially when she has helped so many of us. It's not fair!"
Keeyna turned her gray and grizzled muzzle to the girl but replied so that all could hear. "I have already sent word to the High Lord. No doubt he already knows and is on his way." Quietly, almost in an aside she added, "the High Lord always seems to know things before he is even told." She went on, "I am sure he will come as quickly as he can. As to whether or not he can save her, I don't know. We can't. Don't forget, he sent her to us. He will come and do what is right." Keeyna paused, and then continued, her voice noticeably breaking. "She is old now. Perhaps it is time for her to leave us." Silence fell on the assembly as each tried to come to terms with the imminent passing. A lone voice whispered in the night. "She can't die! I need her!" Meghan? It was possible. No one looked up. It didn't matter. They all felt the same way.
"I am here," a Voice said from the darkness. Startled, for even her keen wolf's hearing had not heard him approach, Keeyna whirled about to face him. For an instant, she had the impression that he appeared suddenly, as out of nothing. Nonsense, she told herself firmly, your old eyes are playing tricks on you.
The High Lord stepped into circle about the fire, careful not to tread on any of the smaller creatures. He seemed to know where they were without even looking. As befitted the situation, he was dressed in somber, earth-tone colors. Firelight splashed flickering shades of yellow, orange, and crimson on him, casting intricate patterns upon his form. In the darkness, he seemed to blend in with the trees. His face, though care-worn, possessed a youthful self-assurance and serenity that immediately put everyone at ease. Keeyna, as she always did, drank in his presence and felt some of her tension melt away. His eyes reflected a lifetime of joy and love, shining with an ethereal light that Keeyna could not understand. Not that it mattered any. She felt as though she could never get her fill of that light. She loved his eyes.
Bowing as deeply as her old bones permitted, Keeyna did him homage and then spoke. "We bid you welcome, High Lord. As you know, we have need of you. Ve'el-she-nat lies within the cave," she explained in her most respectful, formal manner. "She was attacked at the forest's edge by the soldiers of the one who calls himself our prince. We know that you can save her if you will."
"Good creatures of the forest, villagers, friends all. I know of your sadness and I share it." The High Lord looked about, visibly moved, grief reflecting in his brilliant eyes. "Ve'el-she-nat means much to you all, but especially to those of you who dwell here in the forest." He paused, as if in deep thought. "I can bring her back to you but, my children, are you certain this is what is best? Ve'el-she-nat is old and tired. She has lived a long, hard life. She devoted her life to teaching you all what TRUTH and LOVE really mean. Though she had no children of her own, she has been a loving mother to all of you." He smiled and those who were nearest him felt the warmth of it pervade their being. "Now it is time for you to leave the nest like fledglings let loose on the world. It is time for you to spread your wings and, at the same time, spread her teachings even to those who have taken her life, even though you yourselves may join her in like manner."
A stir swept through the gathering at his words. He hastened to reassure them. "None of you can change the world. Nevertheless, if you change your own hearts, the world must change with you. Did you not feel it change only minutes ago when animals and humans joined together in grief?"
Heads nodding, Ve'el-she-nat's "children" felt strength and purpose flood their hearts. Yet some still felt unequal to the challenge offered by the High Lord. He felt their unease. "Though you do not believe it now, you do not need Ve'el-she-nat anymore. Let her go. I shall not leave you orphaned."
There was a strange, prolonged silence in the velvety darkness. Above, a canopy of stars pierced the velvet to sparkle brilliantly in competition with the moon. Colin eased himself down on a rock, listening to the snapping fire. He did not need to make up his mind. He understood instinctively what the High Lord said but it was plain to see that many others did not. His words served only to confuse them in their pain. A young badger crept forward hesitantly, timid in the face of her seeming audacity in approaching the High Lord. Someone hissed for her to behave herself and return to her place but either she didn't hear or simply didn't care. Tears ran down her striped face as she said,
"High Lord, I am only a young badger and I do not understand you. How do we change ourselves? I think I would need someone to show me how. Without Ve'el-she-nat, who will teach us the language of the heart? When I was little," she paused as ripples of strained laughter moved across the attentive group on hearing a cub speak as though her youth were long past. An adult badger, undoubtedly her mother, hissed at her to be silent. The little badger glanced about her in embarrassment but, gathering up her courage, she continued, "My mother told me Ve'el-she-nat always knew everything about the language of the heart, that she had always known it. I am not so lucky, I'm afraid I'm not very good at it."
The High Lord smiled down at this, one of his littlest subjects, aware that the badger, in addition to being embarrassed, was afraid of having somehow given offense. He crouched down so as not to tower over her and gently questioned her. "What is your name, little one?"
"Jodeit," she answered a trifle too loudly. Embarrassed, she repeated it more calmly, "High Lord, my name is Jodeit." She added, "In our language it means 'Questioner.'"
"And why do they call you that, little Jodeit?"
If a badger can blush, then Jodeit blushed. How many times had her mother warned her that asking too many questions would get her into trouble some day? She could hear her mother's words running through her head even then like some endless chant. We badgers are solitary creatures, her mother would say. It is not natural for a badger to ask (especially the difficult questions Jodeit tended to ask.) The trouble was it seemed perfectly natural to Jodeit. Now, though, she had done it. She had stuck out her claws too far and gotten snagged. Her mother had warned her....
The High Lord patiently waited as though he knew the turmoil running through Jodeit's small head. Gulping, she answered, "On my naming-day, my parents called me Jodeit because as a cub I was always asking questions. My mother said the more she answered, the more I was sure to ask. I guess I still do. I'm sorry, High Lord, I shouldn't have said anything." She was already backing away to where the darkness would hide her humiliation from the rest of the listeners, if not from the High Lord. He stopped her with a single word, "Wait."
"Jodeit, asking questions is a sign of maturity. Never apologize for asking questions. The only foolish question is the question not asked. The Creator has bestowed curiosity upon you to seek out new things and the intelligence to learn from what you find. He has bestowed these gifts upon you for a reason. He would be disappointed in you if you failed to use His gifts. Only be sure to use them properly, to aid your fellow creatures, humans included, in their quest for wholeness. Do you understand?"
"I... I think so, High Lord," the little badger stammered. "I will try." She returned to her place next to her mother, for the moment triumphant and secure.
"Good, that is all anyone need do. Try. Now why do you think Ve'el-she-nat always knew the language of the heart?" The High Lord stood and looked about him. "I tell you all. She had to learn it just as all of you must learn it. It is a never-ending process." The High Lord paused and seemed to reflect for a moment. Then he continued, "Tonight would be an appropriate time to tell you her story. Would you like to hear it?"
Awe filled the glen and everyone was quick to find themselves seats where they would be sure to hear everything. Even the trees seemed to lean forward just a bit to hear. The High Lord asked that all those in the cave join them. Meghan was reluctant to leave her mistress but also wanted to hear the story. Never had Ve'el-she-nat told the story of her life to anyone since coming to the forest. Nothing anyone had said had ever opened her lips on the subject. Despite widespread speculation, it was, perhaps, the best-kept secret in the forest. The High Lord gazed compassionately at Meghan. "Don't worry," he promised. "Ve'el-she-nat will be alright for now. I promise you, she will not die without you by her side."
No one dared to question how he could possibly know this. Meghan looked into his luminous eyes and believed him; why she didn't know. She came forward and joined those seated about his feet. She sat as close to him as she dared, seeking some solace from his Presence. The moonlight tinted the glade with golden hues giving comfort to those keeping vigil. Everyone, human and nonhuman settled themselves quietly in the glade, ready to learn about the woman they had all come to love and honor for so long.
"Ve'el-she-nat's story starts a long time ago when she was 14 years old. Only her name wasn't Ve'el-she-nat then, was it Colin?" His compassionate gaze fell on the bowed head of the old man.
Colin lifted his tear-filled eyes and met his Lord's. Tears fell gently down his cheek as he said, "It was Aurelia. But we, my family that is, always called her 'Wren'. It was because she was so tiny, you see."
"Did you hear that?" twittered a small brown bird, "They called her Wren! Just like me! I'm a wren!"
"Quiet!" snarled Snagtooth. The wren, its feathers puffing out in alarm, gave a frightened peep but the tolerant and understanding smile of the High Lord reassured it.
"Yes, little one," the High Lord said. "Her name was Wren."