What the Maroon-Robed One Told Zaina

by Amechi Chukwujama

Zaina, a pretty, dimple-faced 15-year-old girl lived with her parents in the suburbs and went to a girls’ school near the river. She had this singular goal of representing her school in the female 100-meter dash in the annual all-schools’ Municipality Games.

Driven by that fire that possesses all who are dedicated to being the best they can be in whatever they are doing, she woke up as early as 4.30a.m. to a ritual (in that order) of prayer, calisthenics, jogging, and sprinting in the nearby playground. In the afternoon she used one half hour to reconstruct her thoughts, feelings, words, and expectations about herself and her performance. She spends another half hour on visualizing herself improving, getting better, and being congratulated for winning.

The neighborhood kids, who did not understand why anybody should be competing against herself in short-span, fast-paced athletic preparations, gossiped that Zaina was competing against unseen demons.

That did not bother Zaina – not that she didn’t hear the gossip. She did (they even told it in her presence), but she was so engrossed by what she had set her mind on that even an earthquake would not have stopped her. The disapproving looks of her parents meant nothing to her. And her mother’s advice that she concentrated more on her studies was not heeded.

Having taken it for granted that she would make the team, Zaina’s world imploded a day to the contest when her Athletic Instructor (A.I.) chose two other girls who used to beat her consistently (but not convincingly) to represent her school at the 100-meters’ event at the Games.

She cried, wept and begged. Still the Instructor told her that there was nothing he could do. She went to the head teacher’s office. The matronly old lady told her there was nothing she could either.

Dejected, she left school and went home. She crept into the house noiselessly so as not to alert her mother who was working in the kitchen. Like a cat she sneaked into the general store-room adjacent to the kitchen. She crawled about the darkness till she found what she was looking for, which she stuffed artfully into her undergarments.

She could still hear her mother’s singing voice from the kitchen as she stole over her room’s window through the partly open gate.

Trance-like, like a Haitian import from the dead, she walked with lightened feet to the river, passing two neighborhood kids who whispered merrily to each other that Zaina had finally gone mad. She did not meet anyone on the road to the river, but if she did, she would not have noticed for she was not aware of the present. If she were, she would have noticed the birds singing and laughing and the surprised looks on the faces of the reptiles when she chanced on them.

She would also have noticed, if she were aware, that the beaten path she walked was dotted with stones and pebbles, and defaced with potholes.

Soon she got to the river, but instead of jumping in and drowning herself (as would be expected), she walked away from it and started looking over the trees. At long last she selected an ageless apple tree that unknown to her was older than any tree in the vicinity.

Zaina pulled out an average length of rope from her undergarments, looped it, and climbed up the tree to the other end. When she finished tying the rope around a sturdy branch of the tree, she put her head through the loop and drew. She was about to release herself into the air when she heard a rustle at the upper part of the apple tree. She looked up to behold a red-tongued, swarthy serpent of cyclopean proportions in an eternal helical embrace with one arm of a splayed branch.

She shrank back, withdrawing her head from the rope and gripped the branch she was on. The serpent turned its fearful head in her direction and wagged its enormous tongue dubiously, its blackish-grayish skin shining with quartzite allurement.

She was almost numb with fear and shock. Unconsciously she shrank further back, gripping the branch even more tightly, her veins straining as if they would burst. Goose pimples sprouted and germinated all over her skin and she felt cold. Still she failed to notice that the atmosphere was much colder than it used to be at that time of the day, and that the birds have stopped their singing and laughter; the insects, reptiles, and tree-animals suddenly quiet. Even the river looked frozen, stilling its ever-forward motion to the future.

Zaina wiped her eyes with her other hand but still, when she looked again, the serpent was there. As the serpent’s neck swayed an inch closer to her, her hands slipped from the branch and she fell and hit the sandy earth. For a whole eternity, which turned out to be no more than 60 seconds, she lay there. Then she got up, surprised that her bones were not broken, and that her legs could still obey her.

Fifty or more meters away she stumbled and fell. She wanted to get up, but where was she going? Going back home wasn’t the appealing alternative. Suddenly an ethereal kind of feeling came at her in a wave, and she felt as if someone was looking at her. She turned to see a maroon-robed man, bearded, with coal-black eyes and a waking stick gazing at him. He was sitting on a stump of a felled tree ten meters away. She hadn’t seen him before. Where did he come from? He looked strange, like someone from an ancient storybook, but she felt safe for his face radiated a lot of compassion.

“My child, what are you doing here?” the stranger said.

“I… I…want to… take my life,” she heard herself murmur.

“Take your life?” asked the man incredulously. “Did you give yourself life?”

“No,” she replied.

“So why do you want to take your life?… You exist because God loves you. If God decides to withdraw His love from you right now, you will cease to exist. You probably think that by dying you escape life?”

“Yes, I believe so,” answered she.

“I have to disappoint you. You are Soul. Soul is eternal. It has no beginning and no ending. It is unquenchable and indestructible. You do not quench by committing suicide. If you translate, or die as you call it, you will meet yourself at the other side. You cannot run away from yourself. Your problem is that you are afraid of living life. Are you not afraid of living life up to a moment ago?”

“Yes. Even now,” she said a bit impatiently.

“We shall come to that. Why did you want to die?” the man said in a thinner voice, his gaze piercing.

“I…I couldn’t…I wanted to be in my school’s sprints team to the Municipality Games holding tomorrow but my Athletic Instructor refused to select me,” she stuttered.

“Is that why you wanted to die?” he inquired.

She nodded her head. “I still want to die,” Zaina burst out defiantly, her beautiful eyes blaring blocks of fire.

“It’s your choice,” the man said. She looked up and regarded the rope hanging from the tree branch. She remembered the serpent, and decided against going back to the tree. Instead she ran toward the river. When she got there she stopped and sat down, and started crying. After about ten minutes, she walked back to stand in front of the man.

“Sir, please help me,” she sobbed.

“Why do you hate yourself this much?” asked the man. “Are you not aware that suicide is a cowardly act? Do you not have faith in God?”

“I don’t know. Does God have faith in me?”

“God doesn’t have faith in you: God loves you.”

“Why didn’t my A.I. select me as one of those to represent the school at the Games?”

The man sighed. “You have a lot to learn, my child. I take it that you still desire to compete at the Games?”

“Yes. But there’s no way…”

“This your Athletic Instructor, what is your attitude to him now?”

Zaina’s body stiffened instantly. Her hairs all stood erect. “I HATE HIS GUTS!” she spat out. “I detest the very sight of him.”

“Hatred, my child, is a very corrosive thing,” the man began. “Hatred begets hatred. You have to change your attitude to your Instructor before we can get anywhere.” He paused to let her feel the import of the information. She looked at the man for a while, and then looked away.

“I’ll give you an exercise to do, which consists of singing a name of God in a prayer-song,” he said. “This name of God could be Allah, Jesus, Om, or Krishna depending on your religious affiliation. The ancients like us sing the sacred name of God, HU, pronounced like the name Hugh, in a long drawn out breath. To assist you enter into the best possible state, close your eyes.” The man kept his staff on the ground. “Take six deep breaths. Do it slowly. Fill your lungs. Hold and then exhale.” He paused to let her complete the exercise.

“Think of something that makes you happy,” he continued. “Or of someone you love dearly. If any other thoughts or concerns come in flip it away. Let the love of this thing or person fill you completely.” He paused for a longer while.

“Your Athletic Instructor is not different from this fellow you love dearly,” he continued. ” See your Instructor as a very good friend of yours who desires only the best from you. Look at him as someone God has placed there to offer you some useful lessons.” He paused again.

“How are you feeling now?”

“A lot better,” she said.

“As you are doing the prayer-song, keep your mind blank. If that’s difficult for you put a picture or image of this person you love or that of your religious ideal. If you are a Christian, for example, your religious ideal will be Jesus. After the prayer keep quiet for a moment. Then imagine the Instructor as if he is here now. Visualize him. Feel his presence. Two of you and this person you love dearly are even now sitting on concrete seats in a park with beautiful flowers and trees overlooking an ocean. The wind is blowing gently, the weather relaxing and calming. A magnificent shower of pure white light with streaks of yellow is raining on all of you from the heavens.

“You are holding a rose flower in your hand. You smile and hand it to this person you love so much to hand over to your A.I. The Instructor accepts it, and smiles. Now, you all get up, the Instructor extends his hands and shakes your hands and starts walking away slowing as he steps beyond the shower of pure white light, he enters a region of golden light and then another of very deep blue. Tarry awhile and admire the radiance of the flowers and trees. Observe the sea waves beating rhythmically against the pebble-dotted shore. At this stage you can say, ‘May the blessings of God be,’ or ‘Amen,’ and open your eyes. Now begin to do your prayer-song and the exercise.”

By the time Zaina opened her eyes, she had undergone a total transformation. Now she was looking radiant and happy.

“Go back to your Athletic Instructor and talk to him again,” the man said.

Zaina looked into the eyes of the maroon-robed one for a moment. Soon, understanding came into her. And with it a feeling of confidence. She nodded her head and started walking away. After about 20 meters she turned back, waved at the man, and broke into a run.

She met the Athletic Instructor as he was about going home from school and ran to him. “A.I.!” her voice rang. ” I really want to participate in the Games. I’ll make you proud of selecting me. Please?”

The A.I. looked at her for about 30 seconds and shook his head slowly. “O.K., I’ll give you a try. I’ll field you but you mustn’t disgrace me,” he told her.

Zaina’s dimpled cheeks shone radiantly then, her face expanding into a joyous triumph. She gripped the A.I. by the hands and purred appreciatively: “Thank you so much, A.I. I will surprise you!”

Zaina ran straight to the river, panting breathlessly as she slumped on her knees before the maroon-robed man with a staff.

“Sir, thank you so much. He has selected me! Thank you for making him change his mind…”

The man looked a little bit stern just then. “Do not do that! Get up, please! I want you to get this straight: I did not make your Athletic Instructor change his mind. I was not the cause of your being chosen. You are. You, as Soul claiming your bondship of love with the Instructor and all life, are the cause of his changed attitude towards you. When you changed from hating him to loving him, his attitude toward you changed. Hatred is based on ignorance, fear and resentment. If there is anyone to give gratitude to it is Great Spirit or God. One day, you will meet someone who has despaired of life as you were today. Show that person your compassion. Go in peace, my child.”

A warm wind danced and kissed the trees, blowing Zaina’s rope off the ageless apple tree and into the river. As Zaina flew on the road from the river, she noticed the birds singing and laughing and the surprised looks on the faces of the insects, reptiles and tree-animals when she chanced on them.

Two days later the city newspaper reported in its sport section that a 15-year-old senior high-school girl, Zaina, who was included in her school’s team at the last minute won the female 100-meter dash at the Municipality Games.

I’d be happy to hear from you. Do one thing. Do it well.

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1 comment

Anonymous June 22, 2005 - 5:02 pm

I liked this. It turned out to be a bit preachy though… but I liked it.


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