A Time Between Times

 Stories, for me, grow out of the life that I am living. A couple of weeks ago, I met with my community of men who are all storytellers. I shared with them my process of discernment about my new relationship with Susan Scott. I talked about my feelings of love for this woman, but I questioned whether a man my age should be in love. One of the men laughed heartily as he said: “Man, stop thinkin’ and listen to your heart…you love the woman!” Afterwards, I thought about the relationship between “heart” and “mind” and how they both have an influence on our lives. This led me to begin working on the story I would like to share, “A Time Between Times”.

This story theme is not new for me. I wrote another version of the story thirty years ago. This version focuses on a single main character–Arrd, a pubescent boy–who struggles with the influence of mind and heart. Also in the story, is the idea of a “liminal state” that helps us to explore the relationship between dreams of the night and the reality of the day. This liminal state is necessary for Arrd to explore his relationship with a dragon!

My interest in the place of dragons in the human story is related to my interest in death that was explored in the last blog. As I said in that blog, the death of my wife, Nancy, led me to search for the positive that balances the negatives that come to us in life. Dragons are another subject that our western culture has tended to see in a negative light. This story is my attempt to present a different perspective–to balance the negative and positive in life. I hope you enjoy the story

                                                          A TIME BETWEEN TIMES

There once lived a boy in a time between times. His name was Arrd and his world held strong beliefs in the power of good and evil spirits, curses and cures that were common in every village. Even a lock of hair could be used to call down an evil spirit by a savvy practitioner, so people were careful not to leave one about. Likewise, a word spoken in prayer to the good spirits was believed to have power to heal the body. Yet in Arrd’s time few people still believed in the reality of dragons, as they had in the past. These compelling spirits had been reduced to imaginary characters in stories shared to frighten young children into proper behavior. The path to the Blue Mountains, where the dragons lived, was choked with the growth of new ideas. Soon this path would be lost forever.

The village called Nestore was home to Arrd. It was a gathering of earth-colored cottages huddled on the south bank of the rushing, dark water called Allegewa. This river traveled west from the Blue Mountains, past the village and on to a world unknown by the people of Nestore. Few villagers tested the strong currents. Most were happy to farm the bottom land along the river and live their lives in peace and quiet. Still, the potential to travel on the river was there. Young people walking along its banks in the evening often talked of riding the waters into a new land of adventure. Many dream-talked by the yellow light of evening, but few were willing to risk the unknown by the hard, white light of day. Life in Nestore was good; it was normal and there was no reason to take risks–indeed, this reason, was one of those new ideas choking the path into the world of dragons.

Rising up from the river bottom land there was a hill that opened the path that led to the Blue Mountains. The people of Nestore called it simply the river hill. Half way up the river hill stood a dead tree. The older children of the village liked to play a favorite game with this tree. They pretended it was a dragon that threatened the people of Nestore. Gathering near the tree with bow and a quiver of arrows, a scar on the bark of the tree became their target–the imagined heart of the dragon creature. The youth who shot the first arrow to hit the heart of the dragon was declared the winner of the game for that day. As the dragon was an imagined evil, the winner of the game was declared a brave warrior for killing the monster.

Past the dragon tree on the river hill there lived a real test of young courage. In a small clearing near the top of the hill stood an old, one-room shack; there lived a man the villagers called Noface. He was so named after a terrible accident. As a boy Noface lived in the village of Nestore. One night a fire destroyed the cottage where he lived with his family. The entire family died except for Noface who was terribly disfigured by the flames. Unkind villagers named him Noface, which forever linked the boy with his family’s tragedy. Noface, ashamed and angry, eventually withdrew from the village and chose to live in isolation on the river hill.

Older children in the village sometimes proved their bravery by climbing the river hill, past the dragon tree and to the clearing where Noface lived. One’s metal was measured by how close you dared to come to the shack where Noface lived. Most stopped at the edge of the clearing and called insults. Some hurled rocks from a distance. A few ventured too close to the shack, causing Noface to emerge and chase them from the clearing.

Over the years of anger and insults Noface’s appearance grew more hideous. His shoulders hunched over; his face became a shapeless mass of gray scar tissue with two holes for a nose and a lipless mouth through which he made a hissing voice. In the heart of what had been an innocent child there grew a will for revenge; this revenge festered like a puss–filled sore, and then grew hard, rubbery and senseless like the scars on his face. Noface bided his time; he waited for fortune to provide the means for a reckoning against the people of Nestore.

Arrd was the only villager who regularly traveled past the shack of Noface and over the top of the river hill. His reason for these daily trips had nothing to do with a wish to prove his bravery or to torment Noface. No, Arrd made his daily climb of the river hill to fetch milk from an old woman who herded milk cows. She lived on the far side of the river hill with her animals, and she paid Arrd to carry fresh milk back to the village.

One morning Arrd hurried down the narrow steps from the room he and his mother shared over the village bakery where she worked. A cuckoo bird greeted the morning from a plane tree. Resting against the tree’s trunk were the yoke and buckets Arrd used to carry the milk. The yoke was carved from oak wood to fit the contour of his shoulders. The attached iron hooks clanged against the buckets as Arrd slipped the empty load on to his shoulders and started up the cobblestone path to the river hill.  As the grade grew steep, Arrd leaned forward and his muscles flexed. Already, his body showed the developing form of young manhood, but the strength of his childlike courage and resolve was still untried. He did not know that this day the spirits of the land would begin testing the metal of his heart and mind.

The switchback path led steep up the river hill and past the dragon tree. The path leveled a bit near the shack of Noface and a small clearing appeared in the woods. Once there had been a cottage for a woodcutter and his family; now the clearing was overgrown with sumac and briars.  Only a single, old apple tree stood near the one-room shack where Noface lived.

Arrd stopped suddenly as he entered the clearing and saw Noface was outside, bent over something under the apple tree. The clanging of the empty milk buckets on their hooks alerted Noface to young boy’s presence. He whirled about and called out an angry greeting: “You boy, what are you doing here so early?”

“I’m, ah, I’m on my way to get the milk”, answered Arrd, “before the heat of the day.” Arrd’s eyes now focused on the body of an old man lying on the ground under the apple tree–his face covered with blood from a blow to the head.

Arrd looked back at Noface and saw a distorted grin and laughing eyes that sent a chill through him. “Come here boy”, hissed Noface, “I won’t hurt you.”

Arrd grabbed his yoke and buckets; and he bolted back down the river hill to Nestore. Over the clanging of his milk buckets he could hear the hissing laughter of the hermit who lived on the river hill.

Back in the village, winded and still wild-eyed, Arrd climbed the steps to the room over the bakery and found his mother eating her morning meal. “Mother, Mother, I was on my way to get the milk when….”

Arrd’s mother listened to the terrifying report of her son, and then they both ran to the village center to find an authority. One of the village elders, aware of Noface’s anger, saw a reason to confirm the boy’s story.  So Arrd, his mother and the elder climbed the river hill back to the clearing where Noface lived: but when they came to the apple tree, there was no dead body beneath it.

The elder, exhausted from the hike up the hill, looked angrily at Arrd, “Boy, I see nothing. Where’s this dead body?”

Arrd looked around the tree and then turned and pointed to the shack: “Ask Noface, he knows. He was standing over the body when I came this morning. He knows who killed the man!”

The village elder shook his head and went to the door of the shack and called loudly, “Noface come out! I know you’re in there! Come out!” No answer. The elder now climbed the steps to the door of the shack and knocked loudly on it. Finally there was a stirring inside the shack and the door slowly opened.

Noface appeared in the doorway yawning–as if just awakening from a night’s sleep–and said, “Master, what brings you to my door this early morning?”

“Noface, this boy says he saw you standing out here over a dead body this early morning!” said the elder, pointing to the apple tree.  

“Dead body”, repeated Noface as he looked to the tree. “I know nothing about a dead body.” Now he looked to Arrd, “This boy is making up a story to stir the hatred between us.”

The elder looked hard at Noface and then gave Arrd and his mother a look of disgust. He said nothing, but turned on his heel and headed back toward the village. Arrd and his mother followed slowly behind.  As his mother put an arm around him, Arrd looked back to the shack. Noface let out a quiet, hissing laugh as he went back inside his shack. That day there was no fresh milk in the village and no money for Arrd and his mother to buy food for the table.

Next morning, earlier than the day before, Arrd lifted his yoke and buckets to his shoulders and started up the cobblestones to the river hill. Anxious to get past the shack before Noface was up and about, Arrd moved steadily up the hill to the clearing where Noface lived. As he neared the shack he slowed and looked around. Holding the buckets so they would make no sound, he slipped past the shack. When he was safely in the woods again, Arrd increased his pace over the river hill to the open pasture beyond.

Milk cows grazed on the lush, green grasses that reached down to the barn of the old woman who cared for them. Each animal had a collar with a bell dangling from it. As the cows grazed on the grass their bells made music that filled the valley. Arrd loved the sound and he relaxed as he approached the house-barn where the old woman lived with her animals.      

Mereth was the name of the old woman who herded the cows and provided milk for Arrd to carry to the village. Though she was old–gray hair and sun-wrinkled skin–she moved without the usual signs of age.  Mereth lived alone with her animals and seldom went down to the village. She had no house, her single room was part of the barn where the cows were milked and housed through the winter months. These animals provided her with warmth in winter, income from their milk to provide the few things she needed from the village, and most important, life-sustaining companionship. Mereth believed that her cows were as intelligent as humans and kinder by far. Arrd found no disagreement with the herder’s way of life, or her notions about her cows.

With no tone of criticism, Mereth called out: “Boy, you did not come yesterday.”  She motioned for him to put his buckets down under an ash tree near the barn door. There was a water spring in the shade of the tree and a wooden bench to rest. The old woman sat down on the bench as Arrd dropped his load and dipped into the cool water.  After satisfying his thirst, Arrd shared the story of his encounter with Noface and the dead man.

When he finished, Mereth shook her head, “Old Dragon’s Breath is about his ways again. Stay clear of him. The world has created a monster in that one.”

“Why do you call him that”, asked Arrd.

The old woman laughed and said, “Have you not heard the hissing voice and smelled his evil breath? He is one who sends a chill through the heart and mind, better be safe than sorry”

After resting a short time Arrd filled the buckets with milk from the spring house. He thanked Mereth for her advice, slipped the yoke on his shoulders and started back to the village. On the way, Arrd tried to quietly pass by Noface’s old shack. He was unsuccessful.

“You boy, come here!” Hearing the hissing voice, Arrd froze in his footsteps. The door to the shack was open and Noface was standing in the open doorway.

Arrd’s first thought turned to words of caution: “Run, better to be safe than sorry”. Yet some unspoken force, some spirit of the heart–good or evil– drew him toward the shack. Under the apple tree he dropped his yoke and buckets of milk and turned to the door to the shack.

Again, Arrd’s mind told him to run, but his heart gathered courage to confront this evil nemesis. Noface withdrew into the dark shack as he called out again, “Yes, yes, come inside. I have something to show you….a treasure!”

At the door Arrd paused to allow his eyes to adjust to the darkness inside the shack. It was like hole in the ground, an animal’s burrow where no light of day can penetrate. Again, Arrd’s mind reasoned a warning: “Better safe than sorry.” Yet his heart cautiously pushed his body across the threshold and into the world of Noface.

Slowly Arrd’s eyes adjust to the darkness: he saw a hearth and fire burning on it. By the glow of the flames he could make out the shadowy figure of Noface moving toward the fireplace. From the timber mantel above the hearth, he picked up an object. It shimmered and flashed a crimson red color as it caught the light from the fire. Arrd moved toward it.

“Yes, yes, ha, ha, haaa”, hissed the voice, “come see what I have here….a treasure, yes, yes a treasure to be sure. The old thief you saw under the apple tree will have no further use for it, ha, haa, haaa!”

Arrd could now smell Noface’s foul breath. He reached out to touch the treasure.

“Careful boy, careful!” said Noface, “it is a dragonstone. Touch it and the dragon’s curse will be upon you…..Death comes to all who touch it!”

Now Noface reached out his scarred hand to touch Arrd, but the boy whirled around and ran out of the shack. At the apple tree he clumsily gathered his yoke and buckets. Spilling milk as he went, Arrd made his way down the path and away from Noface’s shack. From behind him, he could hear the hissing voice: “Cursed, I am cursed. The whole village will soon be cursed!”

                                        ……………………………………………………………………..

So Noface’s threat of a curse on the village of Nestore hung over the river hill through the seasons until the coming of a new year. In the early spring, one morning the apple tree near Noface’s shack opened its first green leaves, Noface took the dragonstone to the tree. As the rising sun cast first light over the branches, Noface circled the tree, touching its branches on each side, north, south, east and west. As he touched a green leaf with the dragonstone, he spoke these words: “May the curse of the dragon be upon the fruit of this tree and those who taste it.”

The apple tree came into blossom the next day, but the tree was not covered with the usual white blossoms tinged with pink; rather, the blossoms were red, red as the dragonstone’s color. When Noface saw them he cried out: “I am cursed, the tree is cursed and all who eat its fruit will die!”  

Soon after, Arrd came past the tree on his way to fetch the milk of Mereth’s cows. He admired the color of the blossoms and imagined how delicious the fruit would taste when it came ripe in the fall of the year. So the seasons passed and fall came to the village of Nestore.

                                       …………………………………………………………………….

It was the custom of Nestore to celebrate the Harvest Home every fall. The villagers who farmed along the Allegewa River thanked the good spirits for the bountiful harvest and shared part with their harvest with the less fortunate of the village. For Arrd, the Harvest Home was always a time of embarrassment. He and his mother had no land to farm, so they always received from others and never had fruits to share with their fellow villagers.

The morning of the Harvest Home celebration, Arrd hurried up the hill to fetch the milk for the day. His thoughts were of the festivities to come that night: music, dancing in the village center, feasting, storytelling and finally the time when thanks would be given and the bountiful harvest shared with others less fortunate. Thoughts of sharing the fruits of the harvest happened just as Arrd approached Noface’s shack and the apple tree. The tree’s limbs were now bowed by the weight of many, luscious, red apples, perfectly ripe for the picking.

Arrd stopped by the tree and dropped his milk buckets to the ground. He looked at the apples and again his thoughts turned to words as he imagined sharing this fruit at Harvest Home: “All will admire my gift. Yes, it will be stolen, but I’ll only take a few….there are so many…Noface will not miss them.”  With a quick look to the shack, Arrd ran to the tree and filled his pockets until they bulged with apples; then he gathered his buckets and hurried on his way.

Arrd thought his theft was unseen, but Noface saw all and called after him: “The stone is cursed. I am cursed. The apples are cursed and death to those who eat them!”

Crossing over the river hill and down to the barn of the cow herder, Arrd found the old woman in the barn still milking the last of her cows for the day. Mereth called a greeting, “Arrd, I see you’ve come for the milk on this special day, Happy Harvest to you.”

Arrd dropped his buckets to the ground and returned the greeting: “Happy Harvest to you, Mereth!”

The old woman looked at the young man standing before her and saw his bulging pockets full of apples. She pointed to Arrd’s pockets and said, “What have there, a gift for the Harvest Home?”

Arrd looked down to his pocket and said, “Yes”, he lied, “I have apples. I bought them in the village. Would you like one?”

Mereth stood up from the stool where she was milking one of her cows and reached out a hand. Arrd took an apple from his pocket and handed it to her. Mereth accepted the apple and held it in her hand. She could feel the energy in it. For a moment she paused, and then she went to a bench, picked up a sharp knife and cut the apple open. The meat of the apple was blood red and the juices the same. Mereth turned to Arrd and said, “This apple did not come from the village. Where did you find it?”

Arrd was silent for a moment and then said, “I’m sorry Mereth, the apple came from Noface’s tree! I didn’t think when I picked it……he has the dragonstone.”

“All of the apples have the power of the dragonstone”, said Mereth with authority, “anyone who tastes one will die…we must return the stone to the dragon….that is the only way to negate the power of the curse on this apple and all the apples from the tree.”

Arrd looked fearful as he responded to Mereth, “Noface will never give up the stone. He would sooner die than give up its power to seek revenge against the people of Nestore for the wrongs they have done against him.”

The old woman nodded her head in agreement, “And he has reason for revenge–two wrongs do not make a right. But I can neutralize the power of the lethal dragonstone with a bit of my own magic. A dried birth sac of my animals will protect us from the curse. Come, we will act before the coming of Harvest Home.” So that day Arrd and the old woman with a birth sac hurried back over the river hill to the shack of Noface, the hermit. They had one purpose–take the dragonstone from Noface and return it to the dragon.

The sun was high in the afternoon sky as the two souls, young and old together, approached the clearing where Noface lived. Before the door they both stopped and Mereth called out: “Noface, are you in there?” No answer. Again she called out: “Noface, come out and bring the dragonstone with you!” No answer.

Mereth stepped forward toward the door, but Arrd touched her arm and said, “I started this adventure and I will see it to the end.” He motioned for the old woman to give him the dry birth sac to carry the dragonstone. Without hesitation Arrd stepped up to the door of the shack and opened it.

That day the sun was shining as it was just past midday, but when Arrd opened the door , he found the inside of the shack to be as dark as night. Pausing, he let his eyes adjust to the darkness. Again, it was like a hole in the ground, an animal’s burrow where no light of day can penetrate. And again, Arrd’s mind reasoned caution “better safe than sorry”, but his heart boldly pushed his mind and body across the threshold and into the world of Noface.

The flickering light of a single candle on the mantel over the fireplace was the only light in the shack.  As Arrd’s eyes adjusted to the darkness, he saw Noface sitting on a chair facing the cold fireplace.

“Noface, are you sleeping”, called Arrd.

No answer.

Arrd stepped around the slumped figure on the chair and looked directly into the eyes of the old hermit. What he saw was the blank stare of a dead man and in his hands was the dragonstone. Arrd felt the energy of the stone, but he did not touch it. Instead he first admired it: the shape was like that of a teardrop, the surface smooth and the color a rich, dark red. Again he felt the urge to hold it, but Arrd did not touch it.  Instead he reached into his pocket and took out the dried birth sac given to him by the old woman. Carefully he slipped the sac around the stone, secured it with a binding and carried the precious and powerful omen of the dragon’s world out of the shack.

Mereth saw the sac and knew what it held. She said nothing of Noface and his destiny; instead she turned and pointed to the path that led from the clearing and back to the pasture where she cared for her animals. Silently, they walked with Arrd carrying the wrapped dragonstone in his hands.

It was evening and the sun was setting when Arrd and Mereth came to the barn. While she tended the animals, Arrd sat down with the wrapped dragonstone on the bench near the spring.  His thoughts were of the stone and its power to bring death into the world of humans–already two had died–and he feared for his own life if he tried to return the stone to the dragon.

In his mind Arrd heard the words of caution: “Better safe than sorry.” He recognized the reality of the dragon and its power to bring death to those who touched the stone or ate the apples from the tree. At the same time, Arrd’s heart urged him to explore a new reality–an unspoken thought between thoughts – a thought that the dragon might bring good into his life and the lives of all who lived in the village of Nestore. This balanced Arrd’s mind and heart. Mereth understood these unexpressed thoughts and she was prepared to support Arrd’s destiny.

At the first morning light the old woman said simply, “Follow the sun to the dragon’s lair.” So Arrd set his path to the west, to the Blue Mountains and the home of the mythical creature. For a day he followed upstream a branch of the Allegewa River. The way was easy, but by afternoon he saw the stream was turning north and away from the direction of the setting sun. To the west, Arrd saw the rising mountains, but no path to show the way to them. Without hesitation he turned from the well-worn path along the stream and set his purpose to reach the mountains by the next day.

That night Arrd found a place to rest on the brow of a hill that looked out to a high mountain in the distance. He built a fire to warm him and from his pack he took the bread, fruit and spring water that Mereth had prepared for him. When his hunger was satisfied, Arrd wrapped himself in a blanket and lay down to sleep.

Deep in the night, as Arrd lay sleeping, there came a shadow that blocked out the moonlight. Down from the mountains it came, hovering over the boy. In his sleep, Arrd sensed the dragon’s presences and drew the birth sac that held the dragonstone close to his body. The dragon paused overhead for a moment like a messenger who leaves a missive at the door and disappears into the night without a greeting. In his dream consciousness, Arrd recognized and understood the message.

Awakening, Arrd was greeted by the first light of a new day. He had one clear thought in mind–there was a field of yellow flowers on a mountainside and this was the place of the dragon’s lair. Once more, Arrd’s heart ignored reason:  “Better safe than sorry” and he pursued instead, his unconscious thought that came to him in the night. Without taking time to eat or drink, Arrd set out for the mountain with the coveted package in his hand.

Stories of the dragon’s lair are filled with chilling descriptions of dark caves, monstrous creatures and threats of death. They speak of fear, not the joy and the promise of new life that Arrd felt in his heart as he climbed the mountain. The sun was bright and the sky clear. After an hour of arduous climbing, Arrd stopped to seek further assurance that he was doing the right thing. He lifted the dragonstone high into the air and he felt an even stronger energy. This sensation was followed by the thought of the yellow flowers that had come to him as he’d greeted the morning light. For the first time in his life, Arrd felt good about this dragon that he was hoping to confront.

After hiking for still another hour, he came to a cave on the mountainside. At the entrance there was a patch of yellow flowers as he had imagined; from the cave, he saw a glow of light that harmonized with the color of the flowers.  Arrd called out: “Most Honored One, I come bearing not a gift, but that which was stolen from you by one of the humans from my world. Please forgive our mortal understanding of good and evil and accept us despite our shortcomings.”

There was no sound and no response to his greeting. Arrd stood for a time before the cave. His mind said, “Do you really believe that this creature exists? And, if it does, should you not fear it? Better safe than sorry, turn and run!”  A moment later he heard another voice speaking words of encouragement: “Patience and strength. Have faith that your dragon exists and will come forth to speak with you.” Standing uncertain before the cave entrance, Arrd listened to both voices and did not run away. ….and time passed until in a time between times came to be for Arrd. Then it was that the great dragon emerged from the cave and towered over Arrd. Its body was the color of well-aged copper. Slowly the dragon’s mouth opened and Arrd saw its great red tongue moving about. Arrd feared a rain of fire might fall upon him, but instead he saw that the dragon’s eyes shone with a look of human understanding; and the dragon’s tongue formed words that Arrd could understand, “You have brought the stone.”

Arrd was astonished to hear the dragon speak. For a moment he was tongue-tied, but then he found the words to respond: “I….I have and I ask that you release the curse of death on my village.”

“It is done”, said the dragon, “and for your courage and love for all, I give you the gift of common understanding.” Bowing low before the dragon, Arrd laid the stone on the ground before the cave entrance and turned from the lair.

 As Arrd descended the path from the mountain, he felt a sense of wholeness, a feeling of oneness with the earth and all creatures that call it home. He sensed that his mind and heart were now one….a new balance that bore its first fruits as Arrd passed a plane tree. Sitting on a branch of the tree were two, shiny black crows. One crow looked at the boy and said, “There goes the one who understands all on earth and heaven above.” And the milk boy from Nestore wondered at the meaning of these words for the life that lay before him.

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