This is the finale, chapter 21 of 21. If you haven’t read the earlier chapters, please read them first. You can find them here: The Willow, a serialized novel.
“Wait,” said Elizabeth. “We’ll walk right behind you.”
Sarah stood perfectly still, with her right arm stretched out in front of her. They were all looking at the space where her right hand should be. Sarah didn’t want to move, lest she somehow lose the opening in the atmosphere that they had finally found.
Elizabeth positioned Brett directly behind Sarah. “Put you hands on her hips,” Elizabeth said as she took Brett’s hands with her own and placed them on Sarah’s sides. “Now we’ll walk in each others footsteps, okay?”
Before they could answer, they heard a gunshot ring out. They could hear Willow’s scream echoing in their heads.
“Did they shoot Willow?” Brett asked. They were all desperate to find out what was going on, and they were each entertaining different visions in their imaginations.
“I don’t think so,” said Elizabeth.
“Why not?” asked Sarah.
“Because her scream sounded like one of or horror, not physical pain.” Elizabeth couldn’t believe that she was racing towards the madness instead of running from it, but these new friends had become her new reality; more real than anything she’d experienced since Marcus’ death.
“We need to get over there,” said Brett.
“Okay,” said Sarah as she began walking forward. Elizabeth watched as first Sarah disappeared, and then Brett was gone. Finally they were suddenly all together again, in a clearing.
“Where are we?” asked Sarah.
“Where’s the cabin?” asked Brett.
They stood still, just looking around, until at last, they heard Daisy’s voice ahead.
“You’re a bad bad man!” she was yelling. “A bad bad man.”
Brett immediately started running towards the sound of his sister, and the others followed desperately behind.
Martha scooped Daisy up in her arms, crying, “Baby, baby, baby, keep quite. Just keep quiet now.”
“What? Are you afraid of your own father?” asked Travis.
“Just keep quiet baby,” Martha kept whispering into Daisy’s ear. “Just keep quiet.”
Sam and James looked at each other. They knew that the only possible way to save Willow now, was to sacrifice themselves. If they all rushed as a group, Russell and Travis would not be able to kill them all, before Russell and Travis themselves were tackled. As if reading each other’s minds, Sam said, “we would be the first to die, and I’m not sure that the rest of our group could wrestle the guns from them.”
“Why would you have to be in the front,” asked Nicholas. “I could go first.”
Staring at each other, they realized they were reading each others minds and that they wouldn’t need to talk out loud at all, except that they didn’t know how to use the power that they suddenly realized they possessed.
The three guys looked at Martha as they heard her think that Russell might not be on Travis’ side now that Gabriel was gone. The four of them and Daisy, together in the same thought, now all looked at Russell and could see him struggling with the situation he found himself in.
“If we all rush Travis,” Daisy whispered, “Russell would shoot him before he shoots us. Russell is not with Travis.”
The trance of their minds all working as one was broken by the shrill screams of a little girl.
Elizabeth, Sarah and Brett made their way towards the voices. They could see their friends whispering now. There were two men with guns standing on the porch. One of the men, had his two arms raised and his guns pointed out towards the group. His face looked fully crazed. He seemed to be enjoying whatever was going on.
As they scanned the situation, Sarah’s eyes saw two bodies lying on the ground. She recognized Beth, and tears began to roll down her face. Her eyes were blurry and it took her a moment to recognize the second body. Finally his face came into focus. It was her father.
“Noooooo!” Sarah yelled as she ran out of the forest and towards her father. Elizabeth and Brett ran after her as if they could still drag her back to cover.
“No, father, no!” Sarah fell onto Dave, smothering her head into his chest. “No, no, no, no, no.”
Elizabeth and Brett were trying to comfort Sarah when they were startled by the laughter of the mad man on the porch.
“Brett! Come here,” said Martha.
Brett, seeing his mother and sister, ran to them and wrapped his small arms around them. “I couldn’t let Daisy fight alone,” he said. “I couldn’t let her fight alone. She’s my sister! We came to help.” Martha couldn’t help but get emotional, seeing the love flowing out of her son.
Elizabeth saw Martha and the group. Then she saw Beth lying on the ground and began to cry. How can she be dead? Elizabeth thought. How can she be the first one dead out of all of us? She’s supposed to hold us together.
Hearing the laugh again, Elizabeth turned her head towards the porch. She saw Travis cackling like a lunatic. She could tell that the man next to him was staring at her, but it took Elizabeth a moment to take her eyes off of Travis. Changing her focus a little to the left, she saw her father standing with guns in his hands.
Elizabeth’s mouth dropped open. What in the hell? she thought. What in the hell are you doing with a gun?
Travis went on laughing, growing more and more overjoyed by the second. Russell seemed to want to crawl into himself.
Elizabeth was filling with anger as she advanced, slowly, step by step as if in a trance, towards her father, ready to beat him into oblivion.
This is our chance, James thought to the group.
As soon as Elizabeth reaches the steps, thought Sam, Travis will be distracted and we can all rush him.
What about Russell? thought Martha.
If Russell is not on our side this isn’t going to work anyways, thought James.
Russell is on our side, thought Daisy.
Travis was full of joy seeing all of the desperation around him. Now seeing Elizabeth furious with her father, Travis felt that he was finally vindicated. Russell was going to be seen as the traitor that he’d been all along, having never given one hundred percent to the cause.
As Travis watched Elizabeth making her way towards her father, he noticed Brett’s little head moving back and forth. What is he doing? Travis thought. As he continued laughing, it dawned on Travis that Brett seemed to be following a conversation, though no one was speaking. All of a sudden Travis understood what was happening. The group was communicating with each other and Brett was somehow trapped in their net of thoughts, not understanding what was going on. Brett could hear their voices in his head. They’re planning something! Travis thought.
As Elizabeth reached the middle step he saw the group break out into a furious run towards him.
As the group ran forward, Sam raced in front of them all, determined to be the one to take the first bullet. Pulling ahead, he saw, as if in slow motion, Travis raise his guns towards them. Sam spread his arms out to both sides trying to take up as much space as possible.
A single gunshot echoed throughout the forest. For a moment, it seemed like time itself had stopped moving. Everyone had heard the shot and were stuck in one second of time, waiting to see which body was going to be the first to fall.
As he watched his daughter walk towards him, disgust in her eyes, Russell felt the guilt of his life wash over him. There was no way for him to explain his life’s actions to his girl. She would always be horrified with him. Russell was ready to just give up. He couldn’t live this life anymore.
Russell’s hands became numb. His guns felt like fire, the embodiment of the guilt he was holding on to. As he opened his hands to drop his guns to the floor, he saw Travis raising his own guns towards the group. Without thinking, Russell turned the Glock in his right hand towards Travis and shot him in the chest.
Russell could hear his little girl, now a grown woman, screaming as she fell on the steps in disbelief. He watched as Travis’ body hit the cabin porch and began to shake. Russell stared at Travis until his body stopped moving, and then he put his own guns on the floor.
Elizabeth heard the shot and saw Travis fall in front of her. She fell backwards, hitting the stairs and stumbling down to the dirt below. Her world had suddenly fallen apart. Although Beth told her that her father worked for the Guardians, she hadn’t fully conceptualized what that meant. Now seeing him taking the life of another human being, Elizabeth was left with nothing to hold on to.
All Elizabeth could do was scream. Her voice was the only power that she seemed to have left in her possession and she let it roar out of her. Russell ran to her and put his arms around her and Elizabeth flailed her limbs like a child. But Russell wouldn’t release her. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” he said, over and over again. “I’m sorry Elizabeth, I never wanted you to be a part of this.”
The group gathered around Russell and Elizabeth. Finally Sam asked, “Is Willow inside?” Hearing the name Willow brought a sudden comfort to Elizabeth. She needed to see this woman. She needed to see the person that so many lives were sacrificed for.
Russell got up and silently walked over to Gabriel’s body. He pulled a key from Gabriel’s pant’s pocket and handed it to Sam. The group all looked at each other and the bodies strewn on the ground.
“Her first taste of freedom will be this battlefield,” said James.
“We were all ready to die for her,” said Nicholas. “I am still ready.”
“She doesn’t want our death’s,” said Elizabeth. “She wants us to live. To Truly live. That’s what Beth said.”
Sam turned towards the door and inserted the key.
Willow stood up. She could feel the death surrounding her, and she could see the souls moving on to start again. For Willow, death was like doors opening. Life and death were all a part of a journey towards greater understanding and eventual identification with our true selves, the cosmic source.
But Willow knew that the others couldn’t see the journey. They needed to feel their grief and they needed her to be a part of that grieving process.
Sam opened the cabin door. He saw Willow standing before him, and silent tears ran down his face. Although fifty years had separated them from the last time they were together, they recognized each other. They recognized each other on a level of understanding that they were always meant to be a part of the same path. They had always been struggling together to walk in the light. Sam put out his right hand and Willow grabbed on to it. Sam escorted Willow out of the cabin and down the stairs.
Willow walked over to Beth’s body lying on the ground and knelt by it. A tear fell from Willows eye and landed onto Beth’s face. Willow smudged the tear with her fingers, cleaning the side of Beth’s face with it.
“Bury the Christians,” said Willow, “as that is their way. But let us build a funeral pyre for Beth, as that is our own tradition.”
The group began moving in silence. There would be time for a joyous reunion later. The present was for attending to the dead. Russell showed the group where all of the tools were and together they dug graves for Gabriel, Travis and Dave. They buried them and prayed over their graves that they might find peace.
They then built a funeral pyre for Beth, and Willow chanted a prayer from her previous birth. As she did, she remembered the many times that Beth had prayed over Willow’s own body, in different manifestations over the course of lifetimes together:
“Om Lord, protect us as one, nourish us Lord, as one. Let us flourish in Thy strength as one. Let our knowledge, Oh Lord, be changed to Light and change our hate to love.”
“Om Peace Peace Peace.”
As she chanted, memories flooded Nicholas’ own mind and he joined in with the prayers:
“May perfection prevail on all; may peace prevail on all; may contentment prevail on all; may auspiciousness prevail on all.”
“Om Peace Peace Peace.”
Eventually the whole group found the prayers on their tongues and loudly chanted:
“That is the whole, this is the whole; from the whole, the whole becomes manifest; taking away the whole from the whole, the whole remains.”
“Om Peace Peace Peace” (from Isavasya Upanishad)
After Beth’s pyre had burned to the ground, they collected the ashes in a container from the cabin and gave it to Willow.
“We will take her to the sea,” said Willow, “and set her free. Beth has only ever lived a life of sacrifice. Over and over again she sacrifices herself. That is all she knows how to do.”
The sun was starting its descent and no one was sure what to do next. They didn’t want to rush Willow and decided that they would just wait and see what she did. They were all free to start over again, as none would be able to return to their old lives. There was no where for any of them to rush off to.
Willow took a seat on the ground, enjoying the feel of the grass beneath her and watched the fading rays of sunshine change colors as they filtered through the trees. One by one everyone came and sat down around her. Willow could see that they wanted answers, but the truth was that even she couldn’t give a reason for why things unfolded the way that they did. All she could do was explain the history that had led up to this moment.
“Let me tell you,” started Willow, “the story of the box.” James and Sam looked at each other, suddenly remembering their old story times when they had first been together at the daycare.
“Tell us,” said Nicholas.
“Breathtakingly beautiful,” continued Willow, “yet somehow supremely out of focus was the box that men and women were ready to sharpen their knives for, ready to even throw down their lives for.” Willow spoke in a singsong manner that put them all into a meditative state.
“All who gazed upon it were dazed and confused,” Willow looked at all of them smiling though they themselves were dazed and confused, “as the parameters of the box fit into no worldly pocket. It was like a locket without a key, a supreme mystery, yet everyone had a theory.”
Willow’s voice became more dramatic as she continued. “And as they gazed, they were filled with an undeniable rapture, a disaster for those whose imagination it would capture without any real understanding. Yet, still demanding they were, that they had all the answers – always dreaming, they couldn’t even remember themselves in their thirst for both wisdom and power, the storehouse of all worldly ambitions, but the box was not of this world and its existence not tied to these celebrant’s missions.”
Martha leaned over to Sam and asked, “Is she talking about the Guardians?”
“No,” said Sam, “I think that she’s talking about all of us. About humankind throughout history.”
Willow smiled and nodded towards Sam, as if to confirm his analysis. “The box,” she continued, “had many keepers who guarded it, each claiming it as their own. While blown was their senses to conceptualize its meaning, countless were those to expound on its greatness though the truth of its magnificence remained under wraps.
“Until one day, one of the admirers, who had felt for years as if his soul was on fire, who had forgotten anything else in this world existed, suddenly realized that the box, though closed, could be opened. Stunned as to why he hadn’t realized it earlier, he easily lifted the top, and rocked was his world, as his once clear vision, simply began to self-destruct. What he saw inside brought tears to his eyes, as the hows and the whys all faded, the truth of the world unraveled as if from a dream that he had awakened. And it would seem that the world was not ready to understand, for although the knowledge he tried to convey, his words were forsaken and slandered by the brothers and sisters whose reality he betrayed.
“Out of the millions who gazed upon the box, finally came another who figured it out. Similarly was she misunderstood, viewed as crazy in the eyes of the world, as her words were not imaginable to a people walled in by their senses.
“Curled into the years to come are the histories of many who would open the box and though what they saw was the same, they used many different words to describe it. These seers had a bond amongst each other, but their followers were individually dedicated. And the leaders who never thought to open the box had their own followers equally infatuated.
“Eventually would come the day when the followers of the box and the followers of its contents were not even aware of their common origin. Followers of the contents wanted to see its luster without going through the motion of opening the box, while followers of the box didn’t even realize that there was a magnificence waiting for them within it.
“And so remains the box to this day, the true wealth within tucked safely away. Forgot and well hidden the key to true wisdom that traditions are not empty, and spirituality not aloof of a path, they are intertwined and both necessary, both part of the same truth. Though wisdom is old, ignorance runs deep, and when we go on talking without ever taking the time to look within, this is what we are left with – traditions understood by no one, leaving a destination without a path, just a shiny box we’d die for, before ever considering living to open it up.”
When Willow stopped talking, everyone sat silent, trying to absorb the knowledge that she had shared with them. Everyone had an idea of what she meant, but they wanted further details. No one, however, wanted to destroy the peace of the moment that they were wrapped up in.
Eventually, James asked, “What now, then?”
“Now we live,” said Willow. “And to those seekers of truth that we find along the way, we will tell our story, and pray that they are able to understand it.”
Featured image via Karuna Poole