A short story by Ruth Scott.
Once, we stood on the brink of the abyss. It all seems so unreal to me now. Like some half-forgotten nightmare. But it did happen. I need only look at the strange plant growing on my desk to know that. For you my story may some unbelievable. I can only say that in wartime everything that does not make sense happens, even the absurd. Listen, then, to my tale, for though it be absurd it is true.
The madness began in some now-forgotten state on the other side of the world. Surrounding countries found themselves drawn reluctantly into the conflict. Major powers far removed from the situation tried to intervene. Foreign armies invaded the land they sought to rescue from oppression. Violence escalated. Somehow political and religious divisions became entangled with one another. The change was insidious. Even I, the chief peace negotiator, could not see how it happened.
One moment people were allies, the next they were enemies. Men of different faiths who had lived peaceably together for generations now took up arms against each other. Peacemakers became warmongers. Guns silenced the songs of dreamers and storytellers. The feet of children danced the dance of death before they had learnt the steps of life. Bombs obliterated the beauty of the earth. Darkness invaded the human soul.
Those of us who were not killed retreated underground. We survived as best we could on ever dwindling supplies of food and water. Across the earth incarcerated men, women and children watched and waited for the end to come. Occasionally we ventured above ground foraging for food, but for the most part we stayed entombed beneath the rocks. We lived in a twilight zone where night and day were no longer distinguishable. When the oil lamps ran out of fuel, and the last candle guttered away, we lived as the blind. Some tried to carve out a little comfort in their caves, but many sat vacantly hour upon hour, too shocked to function, withdrawing into themselves as they waited for death to come.
For our part, my partner and I tried to keep cheerful. For the sake of our children we could not give in to despair. We invented games and tried to keep active, feeling our way around the system of tunnels in complete darkness. But the hours were long, and without adequate food and water we became listless.
“When will we go home?” the children asked.
“Soon, very soon,” we said. We did not want them to know their fate. We did not want them to know that this would be their last resting place. We wanted them to die without fear in their hearts, and we prayed that we might live long enough to prevent them dying alone.
Then one day, into the desolation of that subterranean world I shared with my family, there came a strange company. Who they were, who sent them, and how they found me I do not know. Suffice to say, they wanted me to return with them to the outside world. I listened in silence to their invitation. In silence I hugged my partner and children. In silence I followed the strangers, and left behind all that I held most dear.
The journey that I embarked upon is of little consequence. It was long and I spent much of the time blindfolded. That was no hardship. I was used to the dark. I did not feel like talking and my companions spoke only in answer to my rare questions. I was left in silence to prepare for the work ahead. Firm hands moved me from helicopter to plane to truck, and finally guided my stumbling footsteps to their destination.
When the blindfold was removed the light was agonising. I felt sick with the pain of it. As my eyes adjusted I saw I was standing in a large underground bunker. I was given food, meagre in amount, but more than I had seen for some time. I was offered a little water to drink. It was dirty, and tasted of chemicals, but I drank it as if it had come from the clearest mountain stream.
In the centre of the room stood a vast round table surrounded with chairs. I sat down and waited. I felt nothing. Perhaps that was just as well: Hope terrifies the desperate, and I could not afford to be terrified.
A door opened and a line of silent men filed in to the room. Soon the seats at the table were occupied. Around me sat the leaders of the world – men of every race and religion – war-weary and wary-faced. When the last man was settled they turned expectantly to me. Thus began our final attempt to broker peace.
At first, we seemed to be making progress, but as the hours passed the atmosphere chilled and the hostility grew. Time and again we hit against immovable beliefs that could not be reconciled. Political Treaties and Holy Scriptures were waved in evidence for this or that view. I tried to keep the leaders on track, to help them notice what they were doing and where their approach might lead, but they did not listen. Once measured voices now rose in anger and condemnation. Fists banged on the table. Accusations ricocheted around the room. Chairs scraped as men rose to interrupt one another. Calls for order were ignored. Hopes for peace were dashed against the rocks of human intransigence. Images of my own family flashed across my mind. I tried to shut them out. Despair began to seep through my bones. Suddenly a scream sliced through the chaos!
Screams are the common currency of a world at war. At the height of battle they go unheard. Only in the lull after the storm of conflict do they return to haunt the memory of the hearer. But here, away from the dirt and the dread and the destruction, the response was an immediate shocked silence.
The source of the scream was an old woman. She was sitting at the table – a mere sparrow amongst this company of eagle-eyed men. Her huddled bony figure was all but covered in a torn black shawl. Only her walnut-wrinkled face and tiny wisps of silver hair were visible. Dark eyes twinkled out at the startled men around her. To this day I do not know how she came unnoticed to that place.
For a few moments the old woman did not move at all. Then, from under her shawl, she whipped out an object the size of a football. The men around the table stiffened in their seats. Was it a bomb? Before anyone could act, the old woman delved beneath her shawl once more. Delegates flinched as a knife flashed through the air. It plunged into the mysterious object with a soft…shloop. It was nothing more than a piece of fruit, yet it was unlike any fruit I had ever come across before. The gnarled and leathery skin was of the deepest purple that ebbed and flowed as the light caught it. Where the knife penetrated, thick clear golden juice oozed from the incision. The ancient one sliced again. A segment fell away from the fruit. To my amazement the flesh was not golden like the juice, as I had expected, but the most brilliant and translucent aquamarine. At the centre blood red seeds glistened.
To those of us who had lived for so long with the greyness of a polluted and dying earth, the colours were breath-taking. Perhaps that is why we did not protest as the woman shared the fruit among us.
I will remember the taste of that fruit for the rest of my life. It spread out from the tip of my tongue and melted through every cell in my body. At one and the same time it soothed and electrified, warmed and refreshed me. I felt utterly complete.
“What is this?” I asked.
The old woman did not reply. Instead she looked from one delegate to the next and waited. Eventually one of the leaders turned to me and spoke,
“When I was young, and the land was still good, I lived on the edge of a great prairie. It spread out before me as far as my eye could see. When the wind blew and the grass bent to its will, it was like sailing upon a never-ending ocean, and I felt wild and strong and immortal. Such feeling does this strange fruit reawaken within me. It must indeed be Prairie Fruit.”
Before I could respond a short thickset man stood up,
“I understand nothing of what you say. I come from a land of snow and ice, where bitter winds freeze the very tears in your eyes. After long days hunting we would return home to blazing fires prepared by our womenfolk. The heat slowly thawed our chilled bodies and feeling returned to numbed hands and feet. It was like being bathed in warm oil. As I bit into this fruit, I remembered that bliss, and so I know that this is Fire Fruit.”
“How can that be?” demanded a bronzed man wrapped in flowing robes, “Where I come from the sun burns down. Its fire brings death to fragile desert life. As we travelled through the heat, we longed for the shade and cool of the next oasis. To plunge our hands into the clear waters beneath the date palms was to dive into heaven. Thus I know this is an Oasis Fruit, and would that I knew from which oasis it came.”
These words brought protestations from other delegates. They, too, knew the nature of the fruit, and it was not as others had described it. It was alternately Love Fruit, Rainbow Fruit, Snow Fruit, and so on; as many names as there were people around the table. For a while it looked as though the debate was going to get out of hand once more, but then a young man stood up.
“Wait, wait,” he cried, “Has war damaged our minds so much that we can no longer think? This fruit is beyond what any of us ever imagined fruit could be like. We do not know what it is or where it comes from, so we describe it in the light of experiences and places familiar to us. Our images are inevitably limited. They mean nothing to those who have not shared our experiences, but they convey much to those who live as we do. Might it not then be possible that we are all right according to what we know, and that we are all wrong according to what we do not know?”
For the first time in that gathering there was a general murmur of agreement. I should have been glad but I was furious. It is not the task of negotiators to allow our own personal position to enter the process of negotiation, but I could contain myself no longer.
“You have all seen, touched and tasted the same fruit. Your descriptions appear contradictory. How can Fire Fruit and Ice fruit, for example, be one and the same fruit? Yet they are, and you understand and accept why this is so.”
I hesitated, struggling to find the right words. My heart thumped in my chest and my breath came in short gasps. I felt an almost physical pain.
“For the same reasons will you not also have many different pictures and names for the source of all being, meaning and purpose, which is far less tangible. You do not even understand each other, so how can you claim to understand that which is immeasurably more than any one person can comprehend? How many more people must die from the diseases of arrogance, blind ignorance and egotistical power?”
When I finished speaking there was, for a moment, complete silence in the room. I slumped back in my chair, embarrassed by my outburst. I looked across at the old woman and I saw her eyes fill with tears. Slowly they spilled down her cheeks and splashed upon the table. I have heard it said that when someone cries in ancient myths and fairy-tales, it is a moment of cleansing. I know that to be true now. From the depths of the ancient one came a sound like I have never heard before. It was as if the very earth itself was crying out its agony. Perhaps it was. The frail body was wracked by uncontrollable anguish that filled the room and shook the walls. The roof above us split asunder with a deafening crack. How it was that no one was hurt, I do not know. Indeed it was not until afterwards that I realised what had happened, so transfixed was I by the old woman’s sobs. Somehow her anguish penetrated to the very core of my being. Every carefully constructed emotional defence crumbled in the face of her tears. I found myself crying like a baby, crying like I had not cried since I was a child – great uninhibited wails that turned me inside out.
Had I been in a state to notice, I would have seen this same effect in each of the men around the table, and in those hidden in the shadows. The woman wailed on and we wailed on, and the sound of weeping spread. It seeped through the space where the roof had been. It was carried on the turbulent air currents of war, and rippled through the rocks as if through water. It echoed around the Earth. The people in hiding wept their way out of the tunnels and bomb shelters that enclosed them. Tombs became wombs forcing out life into the world. The tears of the living fell upon the parched earth, and the tears became streams. The streams became rivers and the rivers became seas. The heat trapped by the polluted atmosphere evaporated some of the water, which formed into cloud and was blown across the arid mountains before falling as rain. Where the rain fell tiny seeds, long buried in the dead earth, germinated and put forth new shoots.
I do not know for how long we cried. Caught up in the eternity of the present moment, time lost all meaning. It was not until I came to myself that I realised what had happened. With the startled amazement of a child emerging from a violent tantrum I looked around in disbelief. Suddenly I was outside the madness that had seemed so rational and so right. So it was with the men around me.
Of the old woman there was no sign. For a moment I wondered if I had dreamt her existence. Perhaps she had been nothing more than a delusion erupting from the mind of desperate people trying to escape the futility of their last few hours of life. But this could not be so, for there, on the table, a handful of blood red seeds lay scattered in a pool of perfumed juice, glistening gold in the light of a new dawn.
© Ruth Scott 2018. Copyright is with the author, please do not reproduce without permission.
Ruth Scott is a facilitator, trainer and mediator. She was among the first women ordained as priests in the Church of England in 1994. She has subsequently become a member of the Quakers. For the last 20 years she has worked primarily in the field of conflict transformation.
For many years she worked in interfaith dialogue with Muslim and Jewish colleagues here and abroad, most particularly as a committee member of the Interfaith Foundation. She runs a workshop, Women Together, Standing Tall, for survivors of sexual violence, which she led first in the Democratic Republic of the Congo for women raped as a weapon of war. She returns regularly to Egypt to run the workshop for women who have experienced FGM and sexual abuse. Most recently she has facilitated training for Iraqi civil and religious leaders working to address religious intolerance and hatred in Iraq. She was on the Design and Facilitator Teams commissioned by the House of Bishops to run the series of Shared Conversations across the Church of England around issues of human sexuality, and continues to work as a mediator and facilitator in Church conflicts.
She was a BBC Radio 2 ‘Pause for Thought’ presenter for 18 years, and broadcasts regularly with Chris Evans and Clare Balding. She runs retreats, and lectures and leads workshops here and abroad on leadership, trauma and working constructively with conflict. Her fourth book, The Power of Imperfection, came out in 2014.