The Prince and the Priest

Copyright: Marco Attard

Copyright: Marco Attard

 

The Prince and the Priest

 

by Bettina Borg Cardona

 

He had travelled far, across endless oceans and arctic wastes, to the Shining City that stood like a vision in a dream, against a dark sea. Weary-limbed traveler, he was glad to disembark at last from the rocking timbers that had carried him thus far, and wend his way through gold-cobbled streets to the ivory palace that stood stark and glittering, atop that most sacred of hills.  It was here that the Huna sat in council, a holy palace of peace, in which everything, from the gently twisting columns to the fountains of pungent perfume, was designed to induce contemplation. Indeed, many a wise word had been spoken here, by the trickling streams that splayed out at meticulous angles across the courtyard; many a wise man had journeyed from afar to admire this palace, and its mysteries unravel.

 

And here the young Prince had sought his much-deserved respite, if only for a short while. His destiny as wanderer had been prophesied at birth, as the youngest of seven sons. True to his lineage -a descendant of the heroes of old – he had not wandered the earth without exploit. Lauded across the land for his bravery, he had sealed in a glacier the beast of the caverns of Roon; befriended the dreaded mountain folk of Tumara; and slain the great mother crocodile of the river Helm that nightly writhed her way to the nearby villages, snatching the infants from their cradles. Yet wander as he might, through ancient forests and fecund valleys, the Prince was ever restless; for it was the terrains of his heart that had remained barren- a burning, arid landscape that could not be traversed.

 

His journey to the Shining City had therefore not been without intent. Many a time had he heard it said- in whispers of hope and yearning- that in this place, the pure of heart would find what they had sought. For at the very centre of the labyrinthine paths of the palace stood the city’s most treasured possession, a gift that could not be found, but to which one must be summoned, through the obscure symbolism of dreams: the sacred tree of the Huna.

 

Each night, falling into a tunnel of sleep to the sound of the palace’s babbling streams, the Prince’s dreams grew stranger. Dark voices, as if from the depths of the earth, whispered through cracked mud terrifying truths; figures swathed in dark cloth sang mournful songs as they beat their breast and swooned. And each night there appeared the tree, always at the horizons of his awareness.

 

Finally, after the third night, he awoke to find himself bathed in early morning light in a silent garden, cheek pressed against the pulsating ground. The roots of the fabled tree were inches below, giving off barely perceptible vibrations, like the quiet breathing of a sleeping animal. As he rose, he saw that the trunk seemed made of brass, its surface smooth and reflective; and a whirring emanated from within, perhaps like a motor. Through some incredible alchemical transformation, the tree produced leaves of purest gold, a miraculous unfurling that occurred only twice a year, after which they fell to the ground and crumbled into a fine golden dust.

 

As the Prince was lost in the contemplation of this wonder, the tree, acknowledging his presence, shimmered its golden foliage and leaned in his direction, until a single leaf floated gently to the ground where he lay. Understanding, he solemnly folded it, and closing his eyes, placed it on his tongue.

 

Gradually, through a subtle transformation of light and shade, he felt the changes come upon him. It was as if the walls were slowly – reverentially – dropping away. He found himself clinging on to colours and sounds which kaleidoscopically transformed as he had almost grasped them, eliding his grip. His body he felt was being left behind, so that a strange kind of comfort spread over him. It was as if he were floating in a bath in which the water were neither too hot, nor too cold; a bath that was simultaneously himself, and the grass upon which he had been sitting, and the tree which had only moments ago stood in front of him, caught in a single serene stream. Suddenly, he was traversing expansive terrains, as if caught on the cusp of a wave. He saw far ahead the wide open sky, across which the clouds whipped and brewed. The centuries passed in a second, although nothing really changed; trees transformed into shrubs and bushes, and he felt himself moving along the hot winds of the desert, out further into an empty terrain. A moment of panic at the great desolation he perceived gave way to terror; he felt as if his body were filling up with sand, filling ever higher until it might stop up his throat and blind his eyes. Momentarily, he glimpsed a sad and lonely tower, but the visions began to recede back to a tiny point, and he found himself lying once more on the warm, green grass.

 

His body felt strangely quiet as he lay staring at the clouds above him. Returning to the palace courtyard, he sat with one of the Huna by the fountain that carved a great arc of water into the sky, recounting all that he had seen. They sat in silence for a long time, until the Hunum bowed his head, and in tones that conjured images of a phoenix in flight, explained that the Prince’s journey was far from over, pointing him to the road down the hill that lead far away, out of the city and into the wilderness beyond.

 

It was thus that the Prince found himself in the desert at the gates of the Shining City, with only his visions as guides. For many a day and night, he stumbled through the red sands; over shifting dunes and flat plains, until his body ached and his throat burned like a furnace, collapsing under the stars to a sleep that was restless and fitful, and waking to another tortuous day ahead, with only the hope in his heart to spur him on.

 

Then, one morning, he awoke to a sound ethereal and unearthly. Searching the horizon, there appeared a brightly coloured caterpillar, etching its way across his line of sight, and disappearing again into the distance. With a sudden renewed strength, the Prince felt an insatiable curiosity to know what that strange creature was, and gathering his belongings, set off towards the horizon, over which it had dissolved.

 

Bedouin women, as ancient as the desert itself, wrapped from head to toe in colours brighter than he had ever imagined, bore silver platters and golden jugs that rested on their crowns, their arms overflowing with an abundance of sweet meats and fruit, leaving splashes of wine in their wake like drops of blood in the sand. From them issued that incredible sound, like the wind rushing through the desert on a harrowing night, which had sent shivers like knives across his suffering frame. Evidently, this was not a journey they were happy to make, and it was only as he caught up with them that he discerned their destination: a clock tower that stood desolate in the miles of empty desert, a cruel joke, so intensely lonely against the ravages of an eternal landscape.

 

The Prince saw immediately that this was where his road must end, the tower in which the princess sat and wept, waiting for her sweet prince to arrive. Bowing majestically to the Bedouins who had gathered round curiously, offering up to him their plates and platters upon seeing his disheveled state, he ascended the steep staircase that spiraled towards his long-awaited destiny, hardly pausing for breath or slowing in his ardent anticipation.

 

The tiny hexagonal room at the top was darkened, and smelt so terribly of human feces that instinctively the Prince reached for the window, wrenching it open to send a beam of dazzling light shooting across the length of the room. His eyes growing accustomed to the changing light, he made out a pitiful shape in the darkest corner of the hexagon, hunched beneath the huge grinding mechanism of the clock that whirred and gnashed its cogs at the intruder. The Prince stepped closer towards the figure, and saw that it was a girl, naked and filthy, her terrified eyes looking up at him through hair that stuck about her face like straw. The Prince’s heart sank at this terrible sight, and for the first time he felt a great pity descend upon his soul. Reaching out to her, she suddenly rose and clung to the spokes of the great machine, turning away from him to whisper and caress the gleaming metal- as if to soothe it- pressing her trembling lips against the cold steel. There seemed to be little beyond the animal behind her eyes; she did not react to his words, or to his coaxes respond. Disheartened, he realized that she was lost to the world of men, the only love she would ever know was that of a grimly moaning machine. He stood for a while, until turning sadly, he made his way slowly back down to the bottom of the tower.

 

Bewildered, the Prince staggered in a trance-like state through the desert again, knowing not now which compass to follow. The princely palace of his home with its ample beds and willing servants seemed only too far from this expansive nothingness that went on forever, yet he was consumed by the void that seemed to be filling up every part of his soul, and could not turn back. It was only now that his dreams began again, extending into visions that would stay with him throughout the day; a torrent of images and symbols, the meaning of which he could not even dimly comprehend. Whether he was hallucinating from lack of nourishment, or it was the emptiness of the desert that was driving him mad he could not tell; but slowly this inward downpour became as real as the burning sand beneath his feet, or the glowing moon at night; he lived in them as much as he did these objects of his outer world, and it was like a slow death of everything he had been before.

 

On the fourteenth day, he came at last to the rocky periphery of the desert, where the parched earth gave way to low shrubs and bushes, and eventually taller trees. Discovering a cave, he was at last able to take shelter from the ravages of the desert wind, and to eat of the cactus plants that grew in patches along the sand. His strength returning, he discovered a new rhythm to his days that previously he had thought to be a kind of monotony, driving him relentlessly on to ever new and varied experiences. But here, he felt himself lost to the flows of the shifting sands and the waxing and waning moon, with which the inner stream of his own newfound world converged, so that a new kind of existence emerged that seemed the only way he had ever lived.

 

And there he remained, at the desert’s edge, a lone figure sitting for hours atop a red dune as the daylight changed, barely moving a muscle or even seeming to breathe. And it was thus that the Huna found him, making their way in a solemn procession of flowing white robes across the sands. There they carried him in their gentle arms to a hidden oasis considered sacred by many, where he was immersed for a full day and night in its shallow pool, as they conducted their mystical rites and whispered to him the secrets of their ways. Then they dressed him in the robes of the Huna, for now he was truly one of them: a holy man whose eyes looked to a different realm from that of mortals, and whose brown weather-beaten face shone with a light like the stars, and led him, singing their echoing songs, back to the city, where with them he could now sit by the gentle palace streams in quiet contemplation, or speak for many hours of the mysteries of beyond.

 

Thus was initiated the greatest of the Huna, whom it was said lived for one hundred and fifty years in the sacred palace of that miraculous city. His powers of foresight had been previously only the stuff of Hunaic legend, and many a king was known to have knelt at his feet and begged his help. Likewise, throngs of the faithful gathered at the palace gates, having heard of his powers of healing, not one of whom was ever turned away. Yet there were times when there was nowhere in the palace that he could be found, and it was then that it was said he was wandering into the desert, communing with the moon and the stars and sitting alone atop a shifting sand dune for countless days upon end.

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