This past weekend I attended a beautiful silent retreat hosted by my friends Grant Hutchinson and Rose Riccio. During the drive there I car-pooled with a couple of lovely ladies, and Clare and I had a long conversation about career disappointments, surviving in the gig economy, and paths that have been arduous journeys to dead ends. I shared with her a fairy tale that I read a LONG time ago and have never been able to find again since, and she said, you have to write that for me. So to Clare, here is your fairytale. And to everyone else, I hope you find a kernel of hope in it, or a breadcrumb, or a cat made of jade…(and if anyone knows the name of the original tale, and where I could find it, I would love to track it down).
Once upon a time there was a young girl named Clare, who was born within the walls of an ancient and beautiful city. It lay on the shore of a turquoise sea and was surrounded by a fragrant and impenetrable jungle. Its gardens were walled with moss-covered stone and fountains plashed in ponds bordered by lotus flowers. But Clare’s parents were young and adventurous, eager to travel and see new sights. So they moved far away to the land of Pangura, to seek their fortunes and explore other civilizations.
Very quickly, misfortune befell them. The settlement they had chosen was invaded. The adults were slaughtered, and the children taken away to work as domestics and slaves. Clare, although heart-broken, was one of the lucky ones. She was sent to live with a kind, elderly woman who taught her to grow medicines, read the stars, and to navigate with a compass. After a few years her benefactor became very ill, and she worried for Clare’s survival on her own. Clare had many talents and skills, but none that would serve her well in Pangura. So late one night she summoned Clare to her bedside and said, “It is time for you to make your way back home. When I am gone there will be nothing for you here. I will give you all the money I can spare, and you must take this compass, and trust in it no matter what happens.”
It was an odd compass, marked with an “O” where the “N” should have been, but Clare received it with gratitude.
“Go now, my child, before the night watch begins, and carry me with you in your heart.”
Clare was afraid, but did as she was directed to do. Within hours of her escape from Pangura she stumbled into a crevasse and woke up in a cave, guarded by an Ogre. He said, I will shelter and protect you, but in return you must fill out these forms from dawn to dusk, and you must convince people to purchase my potions, and you must cook for me and do my laundry. Clare complied for a time, but she longed for Oceania, and she ran away so many times that the Ogre grew tired of the exercise and agreed to let her go. He was angry and disappointed that she was so ungrateful but on the day of her departure he called her aside and said, “I fear that your wrong-headedness and stupidity will get you killed, but you have served me well. I offer you this gift, it came to me from my father and it is precious to me.” And he handed her a dusty, cat-shaped figurine made of jade. She thanked him and set out on her way.
Clare wandered for days in the dense forests, checking the compass often as she scrambled through brambles. She often thought about jettisoning the jade ornament, but she struggled on, surviving on wild berries and leaves.
One day she came upon a broken man. He had fallen down at the side of the trail and was too weak to get up again. She brought him food, dressed his wounds with salves and built a shelter to keep him out of the rain and cold. Gradually he healed and she readied him for her departure. As she packed her few belongings he came to her, holding a small, weather-beaten journal. “I have nothing of value to give you,” he said, “but this book belonged to my mother and it is precious to me. Please take it with you, and remember my gratitude when you look at it.”
The words and symbols in the book were ornate and beautiful, but Clare couldn’t make head or tail of them. She accepted his gift with gratitude and tucked it into her backpack.
Many days later, having followed the compass into the midst of a desert, she stopped at an oasis that was occupied by a tribe of elephants and a handsome prince. She was immediately smitten. The prince was generous and kind, and invited her into his court. She found it a joyous place and felt very much at home there. He was betrothed to another, but they loved each other in their harmless way. She taught him what she knew of medicinal herbs and how to read the stars, and he taught her the art of stillness and listening, and shared ancient teachings from his kingdom. Before his wedding she used the last of her money to buy him and his bride a golden bowl. In return he gave her a beautiful vase, filled with salt water and sealed with a cork. He said, “This was given to me by a travelling monk from Oceania, and it is very precious to me. I trust that someday you will know what to do with it. “
Not long after the wedding, a dark lord invaded the palace and murdered the prince along with several of his courtiers. As she stood broken-hearted beside the funeral pyres, Clare resolved that she must continue on her journey.
After countless gruelling days and nights, she despaired of ever making it home and wondered if the compass was leading her astray. She was thin, malnourished, and so very tired. She feared that by the time she made it back to Oceania it might be totally changed or unwelcoming.
At long last she drew close to the walls of the city but found them impenetrable. She struggled through the thick undergrowth, scratching and scraping her thin knees and aching body. After two long days she came to a guard house but found it occupied by an angry witch who declared “No one shall pass!” Clare pleaded with her and argued with her, and tried to over-power her, but all to no avail.
Finally Clare slumped down beside the witch’s door and sobbed until she was so empty that she cared not in the least whether she lived or died. As she lay there in a reverie, remembering all that she had lost and all that she had been through, the witch cleared her throat and spoke:
“When I was a young girl, about your age, I was condemned to this outpost by an evil queen. She was as beautiful as she was wicked, and she disposed of all who opposed her. My sisters and I went to battle against her but her magic was subtle and sinister, and our own people betrayed us. I cannot let you into the city any more than I can let myself out of this prison.”
Clare sat up against the wall and rustled through the items in her backpack.
“Perhaps,” she said, “to pass the time you could read me something from this book,” and she handed her the notebook from the fallen man. “I cannot understand the language, but maybe you can.”
The witch gasped and turned the pages hungrily. “This is a grimoire, a book of spells!” She studied it carefully, and a few hours later turned to Clare and said. “Fetch me some bridle-vine, a milkweed pod, and a round stone.”
Clare stumbled off into the forest and did her bidding. It took several days to find all three items, but find them she did. The witch placed the items on a small altar, and said, “I know this feels impossible, but now I need jade and a vase full of tears.”
Clare rummaged through her pack and handed her the jade cat from the Ogre and the salt water from the Prince. The witch placed the cat on the altar and poured the salt water all around, while intoning a solemn chant from the grimoire. The ground began to tremble and stones began to tumble down all around the guard house. And in the midst of the rubble, was a tarnished brass key.
The witch had been transfigured. She still looked old, but everything about her features had softened and opened. She nodded to Clare to take the key. Clare inserted the key carefully into the gate that had appeared there, the lock clanked, and the door groaned open. Oceania lay before her, beautiful and verdant and warm, just the way she remembered it. And as she stepped anxiously through the waiting gait, Clare knew that she was home.