The creek was running nearby, with its untainted water flowing over rocks and twigs, smoothing the surfaces over which it passed. Although hidden by the tall and dense pine trees, the echo from the water’s flow could be heard by the two men camping under the silver moonlight. The smell of burning wood from a small, red fire mixed with the sweetness of pine needles, formed an intoxicating air that only virgin wilderness, untouched by the metal and concrete of man’s progress, could offer.
Joachim, standing on his side, prepared to roll up a cigarette. First, he took out the smooth, dry tobacco from his leather pouch. He then sprinkled the dark brown threads on a thin, white rolling paper. Through a gentle play with his fingers, Joachim made a cylinder filled with tobacco which he brought close to his lips and, in one quick but skilful move, like a samurai moving his sword, Joachim sealed the cigarette with a light trace of saliva. No filter was needed, or desired – this headrush was a gift for his companion, Emil.
Emil, at the age of twenty-five years, was younger than Joachim with six months. He had blonde hair and deep, blue eyes, possessing a thin but athletic body. Emil took the cigarette while looking in Joachim’s dark, chocolaty irises and placed it gently between his crimson lips. Joachim lighted his companion’s cigarette using an old gas lighter. He then rolled up one for him, filterless as well.
They smoked together, listening to the fire crackling in the silence of a velvet night and the river serenading through the trees nearby. Above, a stary sky – icy, dark, punctuated by millions of burning white dots – covered the two men.
‘I am sorry about your loss,’ Joachim said after a few more minutes of meditative silence.
‘Thank you. But it is quite alright. Death is natural.’
‘Still, it must be strange to say goodbye for the last time. We are of flesh and blood, as much as we like to pretend otherwise.’
Emil exhaled a long drag – a long and grey splash of smoke fading into the dark blue of the night. ‘Up there, everything is one. Down here, we feel separated. If we abandoned this rational perspective for just a moment and allow the sky to guide us – even if that guidance leads us nowhere or to our own peril – we wouldn’t feel so strange about death. A last goodbye to us, but the journey doesn’t end here.’ Emil looked up at the pulsating dots. The absence of city light allowed for the majesty of the celestial vault to display itself in totality.
Joachim laid besides Emil and they both stared at the sky in silence. A chilly gust blew some of the burning sparkles of the reddish fire into the air, turning the sparks bright orange, like a shamanic dance of attrition. The flames however were strong and as soon as the breeze withered, they crackled the dry pine logs with more heat, breaking into the bark, burning to the heart of the wood.
‘Tomorrow, I will burry her. The ashes are in that turquoise urn you saw. I also brought with me a few lavender ears to lay on the grave. She wanted to be buried under the naked sky – not in a cemetery. My grandma used to say: “what an abomination to pay for your place of eternal rest; another mark of evil on this beautiful planet”. The tax imposed by the council was not much, but nevertheless, symbolically it was too much. I agreed with her, even if at first I thought that her words were just the usual utterances of an old person that grew bitter with time…I was wrong: there was wisdom in her bitterness, if there was any indignation at all. Perhaps a little, but not much. She loved people, even when she disliked them.’
Observing how the dark green, almost black, branches moved slowly as gentle night winds continued to echo through the woods around them, Joachim replied:
‘Chesterton, the English thinker, had a phrase I believe that went along the lines of “if something was offensive to your grandmother but it is not to you, it may be the case that she was a living creature while you are a paralytic” – the same applies here, don’t you think?’
‘Yes. Yes, I do.’
They finished their cigarettes and threw them in the fire. Then, standing up, the two men stretched their arms, inhaled through their nostrils the sweetly scented forest air and headed towards their tend.
Morning came with an icy chill which woke Emil up. Even if it was late August, the weather appeared to be colder than expected. Joachim was still sleeping. It was almost six o’clock and the grey sky was painted across with dashes of pink and golden ivory, beaming with the first light-blue rays of sunrise. Nothing was more beautiful than God’s creation, Emil thought as he contemplated in awe the stunning beauty of nature. He then went back inside the tent and, seeing Joachim sleeping with a relaxed expression on his face, Emil smiled as lovers do when they gaze upon their significant other as they dream peacefully.
In a corner, next to where Emil’s head was during the night, a small turquoise urn was planted firmly into the soil, close to where the stove supposed to be if it was autumn or winter. He took the urn outside and then went back to get out of a green satchel a handful of lavender ears. The purple flowers were still fresh enough to emanate that seductive scent of elegance and simplicity that the fields of Assisi from where the lavender was cut emitted for miles on end.
Hearing the commotion that Emil made as he prepared the ritual of burying his dead grandmother’s ashes, Joachim woke up. As he peered through the tent, the refreshing mountain air touched his face and pressed on his lungs, calling him back to life.
‘Morning,’ said Emil turning his head. He was happy to see Joachim but, despite the brave and philosophical words he said last night, under the powerful display of the eternal sky, smoking that delicious tobacco, a deep sadness sunk inside his chest. It was heavy and mute, like a creature in pain that could not speak of its suffering and thus stood there, aching in silence.
Joachim sensed Emil’s grief at once. There is a certain aura around a man in pain – the air is still, time dilutes, and the earth appears even more crushed by the force of gravity. He put his hand on Emil’s shoulder and looked into his green eyes. Carefully, he caressed his check, feeling the unshaved skin.
‘At noon. We will burry hear at noon. Up there.’ Emil pointed towards a hill that was maybe twenty or thirty minutes away. ‘There is a big, old tree there. I saw it on our way here.’
Until the time was right, as dictated by the position of the sun in the sky – its beams needed to turn a pale orange for the burial to begin – the two men prepared as they knew best. Prayers were first said, from an old Catholic prayer book that belonged to Emil’s grandmother. She saved the little black book from a fire that the authorities started back when faith and God were banned to the gutters. Those were the golden days of the communist paradise, an experiment that fed on human souls.
After a few pages which spoke of immortality and pain, for the former could not be reached without penetrating into the depths of the latter, Joachim rolled up two cigarettes and handed one of them to Emil. They sat down on two boulders and looked at the small, clean waterway flowing downstream. As they smoked in silence, Joachim asked if he could play the guitar and Emil approved with a nod.
‘The sound of the water goes very well with this song.’ Joachim played Society by Jerry Hannah. The first few strings rang annoyingly into the wilderness. But then, after a few hums, the energy of the song matched the calm of the woods, and the men sung together. A fresh smell of mud in the late summer air surrounded them.
As the song finished, they waited for a while as if the eulogy to the natural world around them needed some time to be absorbed by the trees, the air, the sun and the earth. When one makes an offering that is sincere, in the aftermath of that process, a subtle but joyful melancholy embraces that person: they know that what they did was right, even if there is no logical way to justify that feeling.
After mid-day, Emil and Joachim began preparing for the trip towards the tree. They packed the urn, a small red shovel, two bottles of fresh water from the creek, the small prayer book and the leather pouch with tobacco and rolling paper.
The weather was brilliant: not a single cloud on the deep blue sky. An eagle plunged into the forest in the distance like a black arrow heading straight down.
They both looked in the direction of the old tree which couldn’t be seen from the thick wood that covered the way to the hill. But they knew it was there, awaiting them like a sanctuary. And so, Emil and Joachim set off.
A few minutes on the trail, as the sun penetrated the sweetly scented pine trees, Emil mumbled: ‘On her death bed, with just a few days to live, she whispered to us, her family, in that small room of hers: “Don’t be afraid. Death is just another path we all must take. After we cross the line, the grey, gloomy line, then we see it – Paradise, that which is whole with everything. Beyond death, we are no longer alone. But to get there, we must face many defeats in life, so we can win through death.” I think I understood what my grandmother wanted to say, but now I realise that I did not. I always believed that life is about progress, to conquer and develop, to become better…’
‘Perhaps,’ Joachim began almost as if he was waiting for this opportunity, ‘the meaning of life is not to be found on this path of becoming. The notion of progress and those surrounding it, like development, betterment and so on, are ephemeral: life on the other hand is eternal. Maybe it is to this aspect that your grandmother referred?’
After a brief pause during which Emil stopped and had a bit of cold water, he replied with less interest than before: ‘Potentially. I wouldn’t know now.’ His tone was abrupt, almost as if he wanted to get over with the burial. Joachim looked at him from a higher point on the trail.
It was almost noon and the sunrays began to have that rusty glow that light possess in the advent of night. The two men were now high enough that the echo from the creek was no longer perceived. The pine trees around them moved slowly in a chilly breeze. It was the perfect weather to stay and reminisce with a good friend about the innocent past. But that day was earmarked for something more important, although related to recalling the past: it was dedicated to remembering the unbreakable bond that people create during their lifetimes.
‘You know,’ began Joachim all of a sudden. ‘I have been thinking about something. I would like your thoughts on it, if you want to hear it?’
Emil nodded as they continue to climb, almost reaching the top of the hill.
‘Murder is really a sin but not because someone is killed. The depravation of life is not as important as the fact that when someone takes someone else’s life with or without their permission, what that action really does is to interfere with God’s plan. It breaks some sort of divine bond between the Creator and the person. Therefore, the sin is not the killing as much as the meddling with God’s will.’
‘So, what you are saying is that the nature of the murderer’s actual sin is rooted in divine law or order rather than based on some legislation that the government has given?’
‘Yes. That’s indeed what I am saying. Divine order, or law, as you referred to it, as the source of morality. A source with which we interact through our actions. After all, we are the gates for good or evil…’ Joachim couldn’t finish his thought as the old tree appeared before them in the distance. Over the hill, on a small green pasture, almost in the middle of it, a thick pine tree stood tall and strong.
The men approached it slowly, almost as if they were careful not to make a sudden move. They feared that the tree might react in some way that could ruin the burial. Of course, the ancient plant did no such thing: it stood there patiently waiting for Emil and Joachim to get closer as they inspected its branches and bark with curious gazes full of awe.
It was a vigorous specimen, despite its advanced age that probably spanned a few centuries. The tree was not that much toller than the others, but it had an aura around it: its needles were of a darker green and the sweetness of the scent was more intense. Above it, the sky seemed of a bright turquoise, even if everywhere else the celestial landscape turned a dim blue that blended with the grey tones of the afternoon.
Emil kneeled on the dry soil, took out the small red shovel and began to dig a hole. Joachim looked at him, then at the tree and then back at Emil. How did he know that was the right spot, Joachim thought but didn’t want to disturb the man who appeared so focused.
‘Do you need help?’
Emil shook his head. ‘Should be fine. The hole doesn’t need to be too dip. Just enough to pour the ashes.’ He dug out the rest of the dirt in silence. Then, gently, Emil placed the urn next to the freshly dug fist-sized pit from which an earthly scent of wet mud was emanating and took its ceramic top off. Inside, no more than two or three handfuls of dark grey powder – the great reminder of our hidden but true nature: dust from dust.
Carefully, Emil inclined the turquoise urn and poured the dark ashes into the earth. A sizzling sound, as if the burnt remains dissolved into the earth – nature calling home one more fortunate person who finally died – echoed as the dust settled in the pit which Emil covered in just a few moves. Then, he slowly placed the lavender ears on top of the small mound.
Joachim handed to Emil the small prayer book. With Emil still on his knees, they recited a few verses from a psalm that his grandmother used to say after her husband died in World War II after fighting and killing other men who left behind their wives and children to do the same.
Emil then stood up and Joachim hugged him. It was a long hug that brought closer two beating hearts: one inundated with sorrow that part of its world was gone and the other inundated with sorrow that the heart it loved was in pain.
A deep milky mist began to form. It rose from the forest around, although there was no humidity – it hadn’t rain in a few days and the temperature was also not high enough for evaporation to occur. The men looked at the fog forming as they remained close to each other. In a few moments, everything was surrounded by a thick wall of ivory vapour. It was colder than before and extremely silent: not a single branch, not a bird or a bug zooming around. Nothing moved as if nothing lived.
But in that cold and wet silence, in that unusual calm, surrounded by stillness, Emil understood what the words of the greatest philosophers and of the holiest monks could not explain: that the bond between him and his grandmother was unbreakable and eternal; that the bond existed before he was born and shall exist well after he too shall pass away; that nothing ever lasted in the world of flesh but nothing was ever lost in the world of the soul.
Realising these truths, Emil grinned shily, as if he wanted to confirm to the mist itself that he understood and accepted the Truth. Joachim noticed this and, more importantly, felt the pain drifting away from Emil’s chest. And he smiled too.