By Ananth Vandothra
“What are you?”, she says, her eyes twinkling with clear amusement. Her joyous demeanor is infectious but ultimately deceptive. If one pays close attention, the traces of sorrow and pity in her voice are unmistakable. She isn’t expecting an answer, but then again, why would she be?
She turns forward, pulling on her guitar strap so it nestles comfortably on her shoulder, and leads me on farther into the woods. Dawn has yet to arrive in this part of the world, tinting our path with an ominous shade of midnight blue. The air is chilly and still right up until it’s possessed by precipitous gusts of wind. Every passing pine tree and perennial shrub is indistinguishable from the last one, creating the impression of being stuck in an endless loop.
The faint silhouettes of the local fauna paint an eerie picture with branches not unlike a horde of outstretched arms attempting to claw at us. It seems that we are all but begging to find ourselves hopelessly lost in the overbearing darkness of the forest.
My anxiety swells at the thought of being blanketed in the sea of uncertainty that is the forest. The sounds of leaves rustling, twigs snapping under our feet, a squirrel scurrying up a tree, should be no cause for alarm, but when unaccompanied by clear sight, they mercilessly fill my thoughts with imagined threats. She, however, is the very picture of fortitude, unconcerned with losing our orientation and meandering in every direction.
She ducks under overhanging branches and steps over thick slow-growing roots with a practiced ease that makes me feel clumsy and needlessly skittish. She senses my trepidation and whirls around quickly, but not without grace. “Don’t be afraid of the darkness”, she coos mockingly, “there’s nothing to fear. When you’re in the dark, your eyes adjust, and you can start to see things around you. You learn to be appreciative of what little light there is. But if you’re always in the light, you take it all for granted and you can’t even see into the darkness.
What would you rather be in?” She beams like a child who has just discovered some profound truth, unabashedly proud of her rationalization. I start to protest, but she laughs. It isn’t loud and condescending, but an ethereal and indubitably sincere laugh. Her blithe and carefree attitude sets me at ease almost immediately, and I’m reminded of my trust in her to see us through anything.
“Come now”, she smiles, “I want to show you something, but you have to have a little faith. It will be worth it, I promise.” She urges me on and as simple as that, I am now a willing accomplice on our little odyssey.
We stroll at a leisurely pace, guided by the trickling of a nearby stream flowing downhill. It feels like hours have passed by and as I begin to wonder at the point of all this, her child-like enthusiasm snaps me right back out of it. Every so often she pauses to pick up pebbles and pine cones off the forest floor that she then evaluates closely with the grave determination of a jeweler estimating the value of a precious stone. Anything flawless and too smooth around the edges is tossed away, but when discovering something with a distinctive blemish or peculiar shape, her face lights up and she grins excitedly as she stashes away her new-found trinket. I ponder over the idea that I too may be another trinket that she has picked up for similar qualities.
We arrive at the foot of a steep incline. She glances back at me, making sure that I haven’t fallen behind, and slowly makes her way up the hill. I follow cautiously and by the time I’ve reached the top on all fours, she has already seated herself on the trunk of a fallen tree nearby, guitar carefully positioned on her lap. I spot the stump of a recently chopped-down tree and sit against it. We share a moment of peace and mutual contentment, as though together we have somehow synchronized on to our own separate plane of existence, untroubled by our problems in the outside world.
She closes her eyes and with neither warning nor introduction, begins her song. It is so delicate in infiltrating our silence that it’s almost unimaginable to recall a moment where there was no music. She plays with the confidence of a craftsman at the zenith of their abilities, and her skill catches me off-guard. It is beyond anything I’ve heard before. The tune is soft and upbeat, capable of piercing through the most jaded of souls. It is the sound of belonging; the feeling of truly being accepted for the person you are. She doesn’t sing because the melody speaks for itself and words would just be a repetition of what the music already expresses.
With no pause or hesitation, she transitions to an elated tune conveying the sense of accomplishment felt when achieving a personal goal. Now it is the pride in a loved one’s eyes as a hurdle is conquered. She shifts moods organically and now it is somber and morose. It is the feeling of being alone in a crowd, surrounded by friends and family. It is the feeling of being alone with your thoughts at night, folding under the weight of your own greatest critic. I feel every emotion as though they are happening at this moment. The song doesn’t feel like it has been written beforehand, but like it was found out in the world, and she acts only as its translator, for nothing this beautiful could be composed by a human-being.
I close my eyes, and like a fairy tale, I see the music take shape on the blank canvas that are the back of my eyelids. Hours or even days could have passed, but time has no meaning in the place where the music has taken us. The music comes to a jarring halt, dragging me out of my trance-like state. I hear her weep softly, and it rends my heart in two.
“I’m sorry”, she says, gazing wistfully at the ground as though the answers she searches for are etched out on the forest floor, “I wanted this to be cathartic for you.” I open my eyes reluctantly, blinking back tears.
Every fiber of my being demands that I say something; to say how her song has torn down the walls in my mind and heartened me enough to transcend beyond the mere surface of my emotions. But I do not, and the moment has passed. Her eyes are on me now and it’s abundantly clear that there is nothing to be said that isn’t already known.
The first rays of sunlight are upon us now, streaking its way through the trees above. A comfortable silence occupies the space between us and neither of us feel any particular need to disrupt it. She smiles a knowing smile, her eyes twinkling once again, and looks at me expectantly.
“Now tell me, what are you?”