Thanking the Galway Review for publishing this story on 6th June 2020
Barefoot in the Temple
By Pippa Slattery
Barefoot, she is careful to pick her way across the ornamental tiles, vigilant not to tread on the flowers, or the offerings of fruits, sweets and incense. A tiny bird flies in through the open doors and darts past her as she walks. She desires only the obscurity of the shadows and keeps herself small against the cool marble walls of the temple. With each step her senses are assaulted by the honeyed aromas of prasada; the consecrated sweetmeat offered and shared amongst the people after each ceremony. The waft of clarified butter and condensed milk hangs heavy on the air but combined within their sweetness she knows the surprise of almonds and cashews, pistachio, coconut and rose water will await her. Her mouth waters as she remembers the taste of it from yesterday’s puja. It was the first thing she had tasted on arriving at the ashram; the over sweet nectar proving such contrast to the bland rice and unseasoned daal of the later evening meal. Incense burning in every crevice of the walls makes her feel heady and somewhat nauseous. She lowers her eyes as a plume of the aromatic smoke swims around her. She is surprised at the calming effect it has on her, like a gentle hand stilling her nervous breath with its touch. She sees an empty area near the flower offerings and settles on a cushion away from the other visitors, away from the local people and away from the watchful gaze of the monks. Jasmine and marigolds interlock and entwine themselves around the rhododendron petals on the golden plates on the floor. Reflected hues of purples, blues, whites and yellows dance in the fragments of evening sunlight radiating from tiny cracks in the rafters high above her head. She is here seeking solitude from her hectic life. Yet she yearns for connection, for love, even for touch; a conundrum for her – a journey too complex for her to understand. Solitude and connection are not usually sought after as companions. For now, she will find some solace in the ancient wisdom of the sacred temple and pray, to whoever may be listening. She closes her eyes against the recollection of the lonely footsteps that haunt her life, while the people around her breathe in a soothing rhythm, as silently as they can.
She sits there awhile, uncomfortable on the hard, cold marble floor that she can feel even through the plump cushion. She’s never been one for sitting still and her lower back fights against sitting in any yogic position for more than a few minutes. No one else is fidgeting, no one else uneasy in the pure act of sitting. She notices that she is slightly ashamed. Again. Of her body. Why does it have to embarrass her now? Why can’t it just sit still?
She closes her eyes. She breathes in slowly through her nose, just like she’s been taught. She holds her breath for a heartbeat and then slowly exhales through her mouth. She concentrates on her breath. In and out. In and out. Her body begins to relax. Her senses heightened by the way of breathing. She hears a gentle padding of small footsteps approach. And they stop beside her. She doesn’t want any company and hopes this person walks past her. She keeps her eyes closed to avoid unnecessary communication, like she always does. Stay small, she thinks, and they won’t see me. She hears the gentle breath of someone close beside her. She feels them sit down, their warm gentle skin brushing hers, and something solid invades her being. On opening her eyes, she finds, to her amazement, a little girl, no more than three years old has come to curl up on her lap. A little Indian girl with sweet oak coloured skin and hair and eyes the colour of charcoal. Barefoot like herself, in a simple dress and with flowers in her hair. The little girl has no self-consciousness at all. She smiles up at her and suddenly, wonderfully, reaches up with her little hand and touches the older face, wiping away a tear she didn’t even know was there.
She looks around, aware of her own presence in this foreign temple and sees a group of women looking at her questioningly. They make to come and take the little girl away, signing with their looks of mortification and hand gestures, for there is no common language between them, asking if they should take the child away from her. But she smiles back at the group of women in their colourful saris and their silk and woollen shawls. She sees they have other babies and children to cope with and sees how laden they are with their gifts and offerings for the puja. She holds up her hand and smiles, surrendering to the child still smiling on her lap.
Instinctively her hand goes to the child’s head and she starts stroking the rich black hair. She begins tentatively, anxious the child might take fright and run, startled, back to the women. She really wants this little girl to stay with her. She has no idea why. But the more she strokes her hair, the more peaceful the child becomes, and she feels the little one snuggle up, drawing up her knees until she is fully lying against her breasts and her womb space. As if the space were meant for nothing less. And she holds her there. She picks up a flower that has escaped from the ceremonial gold plates and gently strokes the child’s face with it. The orange yellow of the marigold making a golden shadow pass across her skin. It tickles the child and makes her giggle quietly. She drops the flower, embarrassed that the child has made a noise in this sacred place, but the child mimes quickly that she wants more and puts her little finger to her lips, indicting she’ll stay quiet. The child leans out over her lap and picks up her own flower from the floor. And she begins to stroke the older face, in intimate parallel to what this woman is doing to her. They mirror each other in their movements, the little one, staring up trustingly, searching deeply into her eyes.
She closes her eyes, the embrace of the child held strongly in her own. She conjures the memories of embracing her own children. The three with her. The one who never took breath. And she thinks of what her mother said to her, in the time of this deep sorrow.
“Why?” she had asked her mother, over and over again. “Why?”
She has never understood why her daughter had to die. She still doesn’t understand. The life within her womb simply went quiet one day. A simple non movement that shattered her world.
With no answer to give, her mother had asked a question in return. “Why, when I plant four bulbs in the garden, do sometimes only three come up to flower?” Her mother had no more to offer her in her desperate plea to understand. But over time, the memory of her mother’s words had helped her. She remembers the snowdrops that had magically appeared under the sleeping magnolia tree, the day of her daughter’s funeral. It was late January. She returned home after placing the tiny white coffin in the grave in that cold and desolate graveyard overlooking the winter sea. Tiny white heads held on impossibly slender green stalks had pushed their way through the frozen earth while she had gone. She remembers how she had longed for the world to just stop. To stand still. To stop revolving. She could not comprehend why she was still breathing. Not until her older daughter came and stood beside her to look at the snowdrops. Her young pudgy hand pushed into hers and she looked down into the fathomless sad eyes of the one so young. She’d leaned down and picked her up and tucked her inside her coat for warmth. Both the child’s and her own. And they had watched the snowdrops together. The little white flowers dancing in the icy wind, refusing to bend or break even under the cruellest of squalls. And she knew she had to keep going. She had to keep breathing. For the magnitude of the love she had for her little girl. Held here in her arms, sheltered from the winter cold, within her arms. Her eldest child. And her love for the child blossomed stronger, even through the bitterest sorrow she had ever known.
Year on year, at the end of January, mother and daughter, then mother and children, would stand in silent wonder each time the snowdrops appeared. Always the memory of the baby that could never be, etched on their faces. Every year, when they appeared under the magnolia for the anniversary, she wondered how many bulbs had been planted to produce so many abundantly happy little flowers. Had one, or some, never flowered? How many bulbs decayed into the mulch and compost of the earth to give back nourishment, to offer life, to their family budding and flowering above? Sustaining those above them, with all they had to offer in their own waning, back to the earth, as little flower heads above endured and thrived through the inclement weather of winter days. There, in their existence, to offer the first joyfulness and cheer of Spring. The innocence of young death so exquisitely represented by the beauty of the living.
She feels it all, here in the temple. Time no longer linear. No then, no now, no coming. She feels it all happening in this moment; the distinction between past, present and future no more than an obdurately determined illusion. The birth of her children allegorically held by the child in her arms.
The explosion of joy as her first daughter was born. The absolute and unconditional love, which had been there from the realisation of the pregnancy, finding form and nature, becoming tangible as her first born was placed in her arms. The Maiden had become the Mother, in all teachings of the word.
The breaking part of her life as her second daughter arrived without breath, without life. The memory of that shatters her heart. The second expression of unconditional love. She had become the Wounded Healer but at the time had no understanding past the word wounded.
The relief, adoration, and celebration of her third daughter. The third expression of unconditional love to bless her. She barred her teeth if anyone came near them; she had become the She-Wolf; had become Kali, had become the Protectress.
Finally, the arrival of her son. She remembers the gaze they held as he entered the world. With it came the understanding, the recognition of Spirit, the recognition of Souls. An ending of desire. A beginning of completeness. The fourth and final experience of unconditional love to embody her life.
Through the birth of her children, she had evolved from Maiden to Mother, from Wounded Healer and Protectress to Crone.
She opens her eyes. The little Indian child is sleeping. Her long eyelashes soft on her cheeks, too beautiful to witness; a smile playing on her face as she dreams. Holding this child, and immersed in the memories of her own children, come the memories of her own childhood. She breathes through the memories gently today, for fear of waking the sleeping child. Some memories are happy. Some sad. Some fearful. Some shameful. Some black. Her passage through these memories in recent years had led her here to India, for answers, for healing. Maybe even for redemption; her own and others. And a softness overpowers her. A softness that is tangible; like the petals of the flower offerings, taking on a substance of their own in the subtlety of the temple prayer. A softness for herself. For her story. For the stories of all women. She sits up a little taller, no longer desiring the obscurity of the shadows. And she notices the connection she has with the child, and like the ripples of a pebble thrown, to the connection she has to the smiling women who sit nearby.
A rustling sound near a jumble of offerings causes her look up. The tiny bird is flitting from flowers to fruit and from fruit to flowers, stopping to look over to her and the child. The bird’s plumage is caught in the fragments of the evening sunlight and for a heartbeat, the colours rebound around the walls like the silent prayers of the temple. She feels the bird’s essence in her own.
We are all connected. The child, the prayer, the women, the bird and me.
As she watches the bird, a calm floods through her. She notices she is sitting quietly still and has been for a long time. Her body and herself no longer at war. The small child still sleeping. She, softly alert. And she allows the connections to permeate. The child, the prayer, the women, the bird. And she allows the connection to herself, realising there is no difference between any of them. The connection is real. It is the connection and the tangibility of love.
(c) Pippa Slattery