The greatest storyteller of all, the old crab-crone, sits brown and withered on the searock, like one of the salt-streaked ferns clinging to its sides; the spray of the seafoam tosses against her hunched back and turtly neck, and streams down her shriveled breasts like silvered locks, gleaming with the wisdom of all the added years of her ancestors who dwell deep within the blue depths of the sea.
When the storyteller sitting on the searock, the old crab-crone, with silver waterlocks of wisdom and long brown fingers, bent with age, twisting, shapeshifting, starts her story, try to ignore its ten beady red eyes (they will try to catch your eye, but take care not to fall into that trap – for that is just the first one, and stories have many traps, and it would not do to fall into the wrong one). Listen to her, for, if your gaze wavers for but a moment, the story tends to slip between your fingers like silverfish and plunge into the depths of the deep blue sea, never to return.
“Before the world,” she began, “before the world was even a thought in Father’s mind, there existed a story, the primordial tale. And when the storytellers of old sat before Mother and filled her dreams with the tale, till they foamed to the brim, she was filled with desire.
“For all stories, whatever they may tell you, are sacred repositories of desire, their mouths bound up tight with a million sacred chants and tied criss-cross with a million sacred threads and left alone in a lonely place where puny humans fear to tread. But we storytellers are fearless and go everywhere, and when we find storypots we pick them up, hold them close to our ears, and rattle them cautiously. The feelers in our ears unfurl and touch them, their fine hairs standing on their ends as they hear all of what the storypot has to say. This is not easy to do, and we storytellers sometimes turn grey just training to listen; it would be more accurate to call us story-listeners, for even as we tell, we listen, like a child hearing with astonishment her own prattle for the first time.
“We carry the storypots very carefully as we travel from town to town, for we know that but a sideward glance from the right person with a sharp ear can pop the pot open. For just as the right story can rouse desire even in the Great Mother, a single glance of desire can inspire an endless, fruitless search for the right story. Every glance of desire yearns for the story that will complete it. Stories seduced by desire bloat with its weight; they fail to mellow into their destiny. But can you fault a full glance, pregnant with meaning like a raincloud, for wanting to know where it came from, and where it shall go? Is it not like an illegitimate child curious about its origins and destiny? But, ah! Who knows whose glance may fall on whom, which seed may sprout where, and who can tell why these things happen the way they do!
“The only thing we understand, for our part, is the value of a story. When the time is right, when the listener is ready, we open their mouths and let them yawl, and as the story unfurls and swings its head, the scent of desire fills the air, sweet like the flowers of tender spring.
“When such a story is told, and in a moment of understanding, you turn to glance at it with your full gaze, the desire bound up in it enters your hearts, and lays down quiet, an egg in your heart, a seed in your soul. If all this has happened to you, you wait. Then you wait some more.
“Then one day the eggs hatch into birdlings that take glorious flight, and you hear them beat against your chest, their wind in the windows of your soul. The seeds sprout trees that bears fruit as worlds, each different from and more wondrous than the last. And thus it was with the tale that my ancestor told. Mother’s eyes fluttered open, and when she looked out at Father with a sideward glance, he split his brow open to return her glance and a seed was sown in Father’s fertile, ever-awake soul. Out of that seed was born our world.
“What story did that ancient storyteller tell the Great Mother that aroused such great desire in her, you ask? What was the story that inspired that single glance from which the whole world burst forth? I am not sure whether I can say, or whether you are ready for the tale yet. Or maybe you are, for what do I know about human hearts brimming with desire? A storyteller only knows foam – foam of the ale, foam of waterspray, foam of the seafroth. My tongue runs away with itself when I speak, and it may weave that tale, warp and weft, with the one I will tell you today. If it is your destiny to meet its seed today, you will, and what a glorious occasion that will be for the universe and the Story! Bells will chime, clouds will gather, and rain will fall on your parched lands as the most perfect seed of all lands there, like a babe landing into the world from the womb.
“But that is only if it is your destiny, and we storytellers have no truck with destiny, we shake our fists at it because it is a story even we cannot understand. The only story we can’t weave, for its loom is time itself, and when we meet time in the alley, it is our destiny to pound our heads upon it till our skulls break open and the stories pour out like blood and brainmush. So I will do my due and tell you the tale I am meant to tell you today, the tale of the blue eye, which as the purveyors of the tale know is nothing but the tale of the sacred glance itself.
“Dear listener, a single glance can set the sea on fire. So listen carefully, and take not the power of my story lightly. It takes one glance to burn you whole from within, and one glance for the seed of seeds to flutter their skin and plunge their fresh dewy shoots into your hearts.
“So, listen to my tale, composed by the storyteller of the silver way, daughter of the peacock-voiced, bearing ten red eyes on her fingers, a lute in her throat, a blade in her tongue and a breast that brims to embrace you in her story’s fold, like the purple mountains, like dunes, like waves – listen – in the three-footed peacock meter –
A long time ago in these very lands, before the time when love could be stolen, wedded or barred behind chains of custom and propriety, there lived in the brown wastelands a daughter of a chieftain, of such uncommon beauty and pride; the beacon light of their race, their last hope against the vagaries of their world. For their land was dry, hard and brown, the sky above was mercilessly white and blinded them with its light, and so it had been since their storytellers could remember.
Strange hills of rock jutted out over their land, like stone breasts run dry. The daughter had climbed up to the top of their tallest hillock, strong, brown and kind like the body of an ancient ancestor, unfurling like a stone flower in the middle of their land, and saw that there was no water as far as her eye could see, nor a patch of green. The hillock itself held neither fern or moss; save one or two trickling rivulets, the paths of the hillsprings on the lava hillock were blackened stonetracks; their gods who were housed deep in its hearts remained where they lay, unadorned, unmoving, unspeaking. No milk, no water, no moisture came from their stone gazes.
Bones and carcasses were strewn over the paths that led to the chieftain’s house and he has given up his own son to the drought. His daughter was proud and sat with her back straight, the corpse of her baby brother in her arms, unwilling to even shed her tears when every drop of water was measured out. The day they buried him, she decided that she would drive westward, ascend the hills, and beg, borrow or steal water from the clouds – or die trying.
The chieftain’s daughter had skin the colour of rainclouds at dusk, purple-black and luminously radiant. She stood erect, muscles taut, her feet turned out west, and her gaze burning through the harsh landscape like the searching light of a beacon for a glimpse of the blue hills beyond. Her race was proud of her gaze. It may seem a strange thing to be proud of, but pride always rests in what is left unseen, simply because it is too puny to enter into the ambit of one’s towering gaze. And the depth of the chieftain’s daughter’s gaze turned outward, like blazing searchlights, like two embers of forest flames, that all smallness and meanness skulked away in the light of its fire. Her gaze looked through most people as if they were not there, even her own mother couldn’t reach the height of her gaze when her hips grew wide, her shoulders grew broad and her bosom grew round. But most astonishing of all, her gaze burned right through her own reflection in the polished mirror of brass that sat in her room; it was said that even the mirror turned its gaze away when she approached it. Her astonishing comeliness of face and features, coupled with an utter disregard for her own gaze in her own mirror, made her unreal in their eyes. Only the humble and the suffering could command the grace of her gaze at their will, before them, she seemed to grow shorter in size, liquid and melodious in gaze, bending her neck and taking them on her back kindly like a mother of birds.
So when she whittled down the spine of an ancestor who had died of thirst in the drought to make herself a walking staff and announced that she would head west alone to conquer the western mountains and beg, borrow or steal rain from its clouds, no one said a single word in opposition for they knew that she was their last hope, that her straight back and searching gaze could whittle out whatever little moisture was still left behind on this earth. They bid her farewell, her feet raising a dry dust storm under the diamond white sky as she took her first step westward.
For thirty days and thirty nights she journeyed westward. The moon waned and waxed full again. Everywhere people looked upon the purple-black figure with an erect spine and unwavering gaze with the dust of many lands on her feet. For a long, long time she walked on dry land, not unlike her own, and she met dry, thirsty people, not unlike her own. She told them of her mission – to beg, borrow or steal water from the clouds up the blue mountains to the west, and promised them that she would bring enough for both her people there and her people here.
As she kept walking the lands changed, and there were sometimes even patches of green – a grove of palms, a grove of coconuts, a paddy square. The people here looked more rounded and well-fed than her people back home and her people on the way, and they even offered her more water to drink in one sitting than she had seen in an entire week back in the brown, dry, dusty wastelands. She drank no more than her rationed drops, for so she had promised herself when she set out, and asked for a story instead, for, she said, that would slake a different kind of thirst.
Then they told her the story of the blue mountain, that had become a man; it had grown a green moustache now and stood up against the winds. It caught the clouds like fish and wove them into a fine headwreath of white that it wore on its crown. The arrogant blue mountains were taking away all their clouds, they said; and that was the reason for why they had none.
Upon hearing the tale, the chieftain’s daughter stood up and hit the ground hard with the tip her staff whittled down from human spine; a cloud of dust rose around her. Her eyes blazed, and she swore that the blue mountain would be tamed into giving her her rightful water. The people, now her people, clapped and cried; they called her the beacon of their race, their saviour and their hope. She bowed to their love and set her gaze westward, as if she could drill through the great mountain with the power of her gaze alone and walked resolutely to the rhythm of her staff.
And as she walked even westward, where the red sun dipped low over the lands stretching far into the horizon and Venus rose in the twilight, she saw it, the first outline of blue against the sky. Remember that she lived in the drylands, and has never seen a mountain in her life; the outline of blue rose up before her eyes, glowing unearthly, full of some strange beauty, impassive, unyielding, as if it would be satisfied by nothing but heaven itself.
Her gaze was still resolute, and now fixed on the mountaintop rather than the horizon, so she threw her shoulders back, lifted her neck and walked straighter. The moon waned again, and it was only on the day of the third waxing moon, at daybreak, that she saw the outline of blue had slowly crept nearer, and now there it was, peaks of blue and purple, undulating in the light of dawn like a wave of flowers, with a sea of forest green to ford before she would reach the pass. It was more colour than she had seen in an entire lifetime.
When the sun came up, and it was a very lazy sun, unlike the strong white brilliance of her browncountry, the green rose up and filled her eyes, a flood of fecund light. How many shades, and how many sounds! The brownlands had cicadas, and chameleons, and porcupines and snakes; but for the occasional chirp or hiss, or the swirl of dry earth in a hot wind, it was a largely silent land. This strange green land hummed and thrummed with life. She walked through the thickets, through groves of banana trees, fording small streams, planting her stick into the now damp foliage – there was water underfoot – and up the slope. The roots had twisted together to form knobbly steps; unused to the terrain, her tread stumbled, her feet curled up against the unfamiliar moistness of the roots and soil. The coarse, wide trunks of trees teemed up densely and challenged the natural majesty of her straightlined path. The mountain seemed to know her presence and seemed to have sent a small army to make it known that she was on foreign terrain. Like a swarm of renegade bees, determined to bring all the honey in the world back to the bosom of a single flower, a broad leaf unexpectedly swung through the air and drenched her face with fresh rainwater; she swung her neck angrily like a cobra and hit out against the foliage with her staff, tearing it end to end from the leafstalks, crushing it underfoot. The sharp scent of fresh green rose in the air around her, awakening the dragonflies; they brushed past her face with their delicate mirrorwings. A cluster of vines brushed against her forehead; a delicate string of parrotbeak berries broke against her neck and spilled down her shoulders; they stuck to the browned and weathered bark of her single garment as they fell, shining in the forestlight like stars on a moonless night. Streaks of sunlight filtered through the foliage and fell on the floor in soft lightspots; they lit up her frame as she unseeingly, unflinchingly, walked through, her gaze unmoved by any of the new sights the mountain slopes held for her. Birds called overhead, monkeys swung from vine to vine, green tree-snakes rose a beady eye to look at the strange intruder from beyond, smelling of earth and sun and palm-sugar and toddy.
As she walked in the foliage thinned, the light grew stronger, and a strange roar could be overheard from afar, like the sound of wardrums announcing the arrival of a merciless enemy king. The forest cleared into a sphere of green light and the thunderous roar came into sight, a magnificent waterfall inescapably tumbling over to fill wide green pool, reflecting spray and sunlight, a marvelous dance of diamonds. And above the waterfall, towering over her head, rose the first of the blue mountains, with its raiment of royal purple, sceptre of green and crown of misty cloud.
For the first time, her gaze lifted up in wonder to take in the mountain, the whole mountain, its skyclad, cloudbearing majesty. It seemed to gaze down upon her, the steady blue gaze of a curious child. “Mountain, I come for your water”, she whispered, before she regained her sense of self again. She was not used to lifting her gaze for any reason, so she simply turned again to her path, looked ahead and walked forward, around the falls, up the hill. The relentless mist from the fall soaked her, but her tongue remained untouched, her lips stayed closed like a lotus bud in a fragrant pool.
Flowers and bees and wide-leafed trees; shrill insects and luminiscent birds; strange snakes in the undergrowth that slithered cool over her foot but had no bite in their fangs. She climbed higher and higher, and the countryside around her fanned outward like a sheet of glass, green and filled with light. She slept on convenient rocks, and woke up in a flare of green, speckled with dew and covered with yellow blossoms, bees hovering round her, a lizard curled up at her heels. She dusted them off her frame impatiently and implored the mountain each morning, “Mountain, my people are thirsty, I come for your water.”
For another full mooncycle more so she climbed, taking no more food nor drink than the lowest of her people in the brown droughtland, but the cloud-shrouded of the mountain stretched farther and farther into the sky. As she climbed higher, the land she had covered and left behind stretched out in front of her eyes, a vast vista, a green wall near the bottom of the mountain slowly turning to parched brown, stretching out as far as she could see, with not a cloud above it or a glassy patch of water to grace the land. The music of waterfalls could still be heard on every bend of the mountain, clouds sometimes floated low below her feet, bees swarmed around her eyes and hair, the call of elephants could be heard from afar, and her body and feet were constantly cool from the dew and spray. It was nauseatingly green. But she kept walking up the hill, drinking but a drop a day, throat parched, tongue parched, lips parched, soul parched. Then one day, for the first time, she broke. She raised a tired, confused eye up at the mountain; its cloud-tipped heights seemed so far away.
In a moment of anger, she shook her staff up at the mountain. “Mountain!” she thundered in her voice from brownlands, its hard consonants momentarily silencing the shrill, coy calls of the birds and insects, the gentle coo of the forest around her. “Mountain! Release your clouds or I will fight you for it!” she said, and she meant it. Her voice echoed over the hills and came back to her, a thousand shattered fragments.
As if in response, the skies turned black. Angry clouds gathered together and flashed fiercely. A clap of thunder; a raincloud seemed to burst open overhead. Like a single touch of blue pigment in a bucketful of water, a single large raindrop landed flower-like on her forehead, the caress of a dragonfly’s mirrorwing. It slipped down her face like a fingertip, a brushstroke. It curved past her frond-like lashes, slipped down the valley of her nose; it rose and it fell, with the tremble in her cheek. It landed on her lips, and stood there, for but an instant: poised, hesitant, quivering.
That drop of rain passed her lips, it touched her tongue. It tasted blue. Her eyes flew open, and for the first time, her eyes darted from side to side, trembling like a peacock. How many eyes had opened up in her, the chieftain’s daughter from the drylands, whose race was proud of her single-minded, undivided gaze? Dear listener, that was when she saw him. A great cloud of black with lightning tusks emerged from the wilderness, and he was riding the raincloud, bamboo staff in hand, strong of frame and long of limb, his gaze fixed upon her, out of eyes blue and glassy like a wildcat’s. He stared intently, as if transfixed, all on her and on nothing but her.
The chieftain’s daughter trembled from head to foot like a peacock that had just discovered its thousand eyes, and then, as if she had suddenly made up her mind, lifted her head to meet the full gaze of the blue-eyed mountain man with all of her newly awakened eyes. Their eyes met, for but a second, like the height of an eclipse, when the gentle moon comes face to face with the full fury of the sun. She blinked, as if she had finally understood something. Then, as if sweeping her fanned feathers back into a train, she turned around and walked back into the forest, through the thicket, down the mountain. And the blue gaze followed her.
A trickle of blue flowed underfoot as she made her way through the foliage, down the hill again. Little rivulets of blue sprung out of the soil like side glances on her way to join the main stream. When she reached the bottom of the blue mountain the stream had swelled to the size of a small rainfed river. She did not turn around to look up at the mountain with its cloud-crowned peak, but she could feel its mute gaze on the back of her neck. Her eyes were set forward, her gaze was unflinching, and she trudged back, through the foliage and forest, back to the edge of the brown lands. As she walked, she saw that the new river had made its bed and flowed ahead of her, announcing her arrival as it carried in its wake mountain flowers and fragrances. It flowed underground and overground as it pleased, it erupted into lakes and ponds where it wished. The people streamed out in joy to welcome their saviour, but hesitated when they saw her eyes – for her eyes were fixed as if in a trance or a dream, her eyes did not see them. Those who dared to look into her eyes saw that they carried in them brilliant bits of blue, and it was then that they realized that the woman in front of them had carried water from the mountains back to them in her eyes.
As for the chieftain’s daughter, she saw nothing but the gaze of the blue eye. For its presence stayed by her side like a giant, silent lake, blue and agonizingly deep. She walked with her spine erect, neck straight and eyes fixed on the horizon past the brown, for she knew that one gaze of hers, filled with longing and desperation, would betray her to the blue. Yet she saw, as her people saw the sun, as mountain people see the rain, as sea people see the salt of the sea’s wind, everywhere and nowhere, the agonizing call of its blue depth. For it stayed by her side, silent and deep, one big blue eye that was always fixed on her.
The river she carried back in her eye flowed underground for the longest time till she reached her own people. When she took her last step, and finally hit the ground with her staff to announce the completion of her journey, the river blossomed forth from that final step of hers into a wide-armed blue lake. Her people were overjoyed, and there was no more thirst in the land. It never ran dry after that, for, they said, it was fed by an underground spring, whose depths nobody could gauge, and who has any business gauging the sources of water springs anyway. But the storytellers of old, our teachers and ancestors attest, that once a year, early in June, unfailingly a single black cloud swayed in from the west, with the slow, majestic gait of an elephant; its lightning would flash blue before it rained copiously over their lands.
The chieftain’s daughter never brought a single drop of the lake water to her lips all her life. When she returned from her journey to the blue mountains to the west, teeming with life and green, she threw her staff to the ground, and with deliberate steps, ascended the brown hillock that stood in the middle of their land, and took shelter in its deep, womb-like caves. She was never seen in the plain again. For unlike the mountains of the west, these barren hillocks the drylands are not obscenely green; they are lava flame petals cooled into rock-flowers, kind and merciful; they have their own springs; and when a woman looks into her mirror and finds out her eyes have turned blue, and when her own mirror laughs at her in jest and ridicule, it is such a spring that she turns to. The chieftain’s daughter lived in the caves up the hillock and ruled her people from there. But from where she sat, she could see the lake every day, the lake that fixed its agonizing, piercing, unflinching blue gaze upon her, the gaze that followed her like the light of the sun, that enveloped her like the coolness of the night.
And that is the story of the glance, the gaze, the blue eye, the story of desire, although, like all tales about glances, I cannot tell you what story can fulfill the longing of gravity that a single such glance is pregnant with, for such knowledge, as my teachers with storypots held to their ears used to say, exceeds even the most glorious storyteller of all.