In the early light, the mist begins to clear and I can make out the shapes of their conical hats. Woven baskets, already beginning to fill hang heavy on their hips as they bend and straighten, bend and straighten. Except that the older ones are no longer able to stand as tall as they once did, they, like broken reeds, have been bent too often. The clouds are still resting on the mountaintops, separating the workers from the heavens above as though Allah does not wish to see their labour.
Sometimes they talk. But mostly they work in silence. The sun rises and grows hotter. There is no more severe a master to glare down at them as they work, forcing their eyes to the ground and preventing them from sharing too many words. Instead they work because it is what they must do. They receive only a pittance, enough to prevent their children from starving completely so that they too might grow and inherit this life of heavy labour and no reward. All to the glory of a god they cannot know. They are his tools alone and it is not for them to know him, only to submit to his sovereignly fickle, yet distant, desires.
As the sun grows hotter, I can’t bear to watch any longer. My skin burns and my back aches under the weight of their dulling eyes. I am blessed with an escape that they will never have. My eyes roam instead to the faces staring from schoolroom windows, imagining the people they will never become. The dreams of doctors and lawyers, football players, mechanics and politicians are washed away by the rains, accusing them of their responsibilities and duties until even their hopes of completing high school grow dull and scuffed with their shoes until eventually they fall apart into pieces in the dust. This primitive people must learn their place in life under the watchful gaze of half trained teachers. They are allowed to long for something more and even to reach out but they are a tribal people, without the intellect and ability of the mainland and most quickly learn that they are not clever nor able enough to grasp for the life they are offered and instead return to the shadows of the forest. Those who do, in a momentary flash of excellence achieve something more, soon fall back into their own ways, realising that they will never belong amongst the privileged. They are a nobody people. Good only for labour and fighting amongst themselves.
I cast my eyes to the ground, saddened. The grass grows wild about my feet on the hilltop where I stand. It rustles a little in the breeze which winds itself round my ankles, telling me that there is more. A leaf blows on the wind and my eyes follow the dancing colours into the valley on the other side where it disappears from sight.
In another school, glassy eyes stare from the windows, like stuffed animals in a museum case, groomed and arranged for display. They stare straight through everything, blank and dull. It is difficult to tell if they are dreaming of other things but I know at least that if there is one thought occupying their uniform minds, it is that they do not want to be where they are. They may not be thinking of somewhere else they’d rather be, simply that they do not want to be here.
One day they’ll be doctors and lawyers, sportsmen, businessmen, office workers, teachers, and politicians. They will be the leaders of tomorrow. Of course they will. These are their roles by right. Most accept this without question, suspiciously pushing those who want something more to the outer edges of their acquaintance. They will kick against their upbringing eventually but they will do it together, in their own time, in the ways which their society has laid out as acceptable forms of rebellion whilst the adults around them shake their heads knowingly and make excuses for their behaviour.
Pained by this, I look further down the valley. There I see the ones who are already grown and having claimed their birthright, stare from university windows, wondering why they are putting themselves through such hardship. But years of careful schooling have told them that they are all individuals, unique and special, and they
can be whatever they want to be if they put their minds to it. Decisions are made and I watch the results, puzzling over the disappointment in their faces as they receive not the grades they wanted, but the ones that they worked for, or perhaps didn’t really work for, railing bitterly at the injustice of the world and the harshness of their teachers. Nothing seems to their satisfaction. Those who work hard are scorned and those who become something more than the rest are slandered. Each in his heart complains angrily that he has not been awarded that which he deserves simply for being the unique and able individual that he is. And those who do not fit the categories set, or even have just no desire to conform, are tucked away from sight with something akin to embarrassment. They are all individuals, but none wishes to stand out above those who surround him.
Then I notice that time has passed more swiftly than I first realised and the sun is already sinking low in the sky in front of me. I watch it sink awhile until the twilight comes, that time where light and darkness struggle in equal balance until one overcomes the other and night must fall or the day must break.
In the northern valley, lights begin to shine and I can hear music winding its way over the rooftops. It calls to the people and many answer, slipping from their houses in ones and twos and sometimes more, following the call. It comes from different places and each follows the desires of his heart or the coaxing of her friends to where they will search for something to fill the void. Some sit together in half lit rooms, searching for the bottoms of bottle after bottle until they can no longer stand nor keep their eyes open and the darkness claims them. Some meet together beneath flashing lights and slip away to darkened places with people whose names they will never remember but it doesn’t matter: they will never meet again. Some congregate with twitching fingers and flitting eyes, rolling back their sleeves and then their eyes to ease themselves into oblivion. And the night begins to creep up on them as the music plays, promising what it will never give, enticing them into darkness.
Sickened and heartbroken, I turn again to the south where the night draws in also, hoping to see something different, willing there to be something more, a ray of hope in the twilight, shining and bringing comfort but I see the same story played out in both valleys. Yet in the southern valley, there is another kind of music, faint at first but growing stronger. It is a plaintive cry, drawn out and almost wailing in its haunting beauty. The ears of the faithful prick at its summons and they leave the comfort of their homes, passing by their brothers who lie dying by the roadside as they hurry to bow before their idols. All of their lives they have slaved to please a god who cares nothing for them, and they will continue to do so in the vain hope that one day he might decide that they have done enough to be spared his anger.
As the night draws tighter over us, I squat down, watching first one valley and then the other. To the south, faces flicker through the candlelight, awaiting another day the same as the one before, and to the north, they dance and drink long into the night, trying to tell themselves that they are happy, trying their hardest to drown out the deafening silence of their own loneliness.
I watch for many days, day after day, and I begin to see many similarities between the two places and many differences. In the one, they hold tightly to sleeping infants though they know they will not live as in the other they discard the lives of the unborn as though they were a broken toy. Adults, like children, run through lamp lit parks shooting at one another with plastic pistols, coloured lights flashing and robotic voices congratulating their aim as just over the hill, nine year olds sling guns over their shoulders, hatred burning in their eyes and the blood of their kin on their hands. In one world, young men and women work for a pittance to support their dying
parents as their counterparts waste away the opportunities they can only now dream of, playing computer games and living the life. And in neither world does anyone seem to care. It is just the way it is.
But as the nights go by, I begin to notice lights in the darkness. They are not big, but they cannot conceal their brightness. Sometimes they are brighter and on some days, the darkness seems to be close to overcoming them but not one of them ever goes out though they may flicker. Though sometimes nights will go by and their number will remain constant, now and then new lights appear and add to the number. I watch carefully and begin to see that the lights are held in the hands of certain people. These ones go to the others, and most of the time the people in darkness turn away from the light but now and then one will come forward and no matter how many times the people give their light away, they always have the same amount as before.
Upon understanding this, the days grow brighter. The pain in my heart continues to deepen and I can still see the world the way I first saw it but opening my eyes, I can see other things too. The beauty of a work worn face in the gentle light of late afternoon, the brightness of the leaves as they begin to fall at the turn of the season. The beauty of mountains covered in bracken. The way the mist settles in the hollows between the trees. A flower pushing its way through the cracks in the pavement. Two children chasing tyres through the dust. A clumsy dog trying to walk on an icy pond. The smell of new rain on hot earth. A sunset reflected on the waves. Dappled sunlight reflecting through the water. The first cries of a child. The wisdom of age. The brightness of the stars.
And night draws in again. I look down at my own hands, clasped tightly. Then hesitantly I open them a little. Then a little more. Then a little more until they are cupped in front of me.
In my hands lies something brighter than gold and more precious than anything I have seen in the valleys. The pain in my heart is more keen than ever as I look at the gift that has been put in my hands. The more I study it, the more precious it seems and the more I want these people to have it for themselves. I want to share it. I must share it. My heart is cut deeply. I look between the valleys, first one and then the other, back and forth.
I am connected to them both. People call me from one, they hold the light in one hand and beckon me with the other, claiming ties of birth and blood. From the other, I hear my name too. Some who call hold the light in their hands but they hold it gingerly, unsure what to do with it, unsure how to handle it or what exactly it means and how to use it. They are imploring me to help them. But not only them. Faces hidden in shadow are watching me. They do not understand but they are waiting there. They do not know that the light exists but they feel that there must be something more than the darkness. Their eyes are fading as they silently beg for someone or something to set them free. But these people cannot claim the ties of blood, they have only their need to commend them.
I stand, torn between the two worlds. I know that I cannot stay on that hilltop forever. I cannot keep this light for myself. Yet both call to me and I can see their tears. Their pain tugs at my clothes, urging me to come to them. My heart twists within me. Such is the pain I feel for these people that it is beyond tears. I cannot cry for the souls who will die. But neither can I wait any longer, knowing that every moment, thousands more may perish that could have lived.
I look again at the light in my hands. There is a word written upon it. Truth. I remember something that I once heard; you shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free. In the northern valley they call to me. The workers there are few and those
who do not yet have the light are hard of heart. And in the south they call to me. Their people are bound tightly and need the light but those who have it do not yet understand it.
In that moment, the pain in my heart is so keen that I fall to my knees, unable to stand. I raise my eyes to the sky, looking to the heavens for guidance. I am lost. I no longer know what to do. But the night is dark and overcast. And there are no stars to help me find my way.
And in the valley to my left, the lights begin to flicker and begin to fade for there is no one to help kindle them.