Chapter 4; Yeshi
Charles looked past Gabriel and noticed that his studio was dark. Evening was falling, and, as if wakened from a deep sleep, both men leaned back in their chairs, blinked, and yawned.
“It appears that my tale has eaten away our daylight,” Gabriel said, chuckling.
“Yes, but we can’t stop now. Surely there’s time to tell me about Yeshi?”
“Yes, certainly, but first, we need sustenance. Shall I treat you to supper at the Bell? It’s the least I can do for so monopolizing your day.”
“Yes, that would be great,” said Charles. “But, can we pick up the tale again afterwards? Perhaps over dessert?”
The two men donned cloaks against the chill spring air, strolled to the Bell Inn, and there feasted on mini roast haggis, neeps, and tatties, followed by large plates of langoustines. Rather than stay at the Bell for dessert, they returned to Charles’ studio for cheese, fruit, and biscuits, and to sip on Amaretto di Saronno.
“Ah, what a fine way to spend an evening!” said Charles.
“I agree. And if you don’t mind, I believe I’ll have a pipe before I resume my disgracefully long-winded tale.”
“By all means!”
“There we are, then. Now, where was I?”
“You were with the girl, Amsale, and on the way to meet Yeshi.”
“Yes, yes. And I believe I mentioned that we had one additional adventure before we made it safely into Yeshi’s valley. It was a small one, but important, as you’ll see.
“We were into the mountains now, and these are desolate places. Even today, along the major roadways, it is always best to keep on one’s toes, as wild creatures ever haunt the heights. This was even more so then, as the ruggedness of the terrain kept all but the occasional hunter from residing in the craggy highlands.
“Amsale directed us forward along a perilous path that, I confess, I could hardly follow, though to her it appeared as plain as day. We had just ascended a particularly steep grade, one at which we both dismounted so as not to overly tax our camel, when I saw movement near the tops of the adjacent cliffs. Even as we halted so that I could get a better look, we heard the barking of baboons echoing from the peaks, and I could see scores of the creatures above us. Their chatter and barking increased, and we soon saw that a veritable tide of the creatures was descending upon us, with those at the front screaming and baring their enormous fangs.
“I told Amsale to stand near the camel, as I proposed to once more make use of the invisibility powder I possessed, but she smiled and shook her head. She seemed genuinely amused at my concern for our safety! But, there was no time to argue; the army of baboons was now nearly upon us. The surging mass of creatures leapt to the very brink of the rocks above the path, still screaming and barking. Then, Amsale lifted her hand and spoke a single word, softly.
“The effect was instantaneous. Within seconds, all of the baboons halted, and a silence so complete that it was palpable descended upon the pass. At the forefront of the troupe of baboons was an enormous male, whose fangs had, just moments before, been bared in preparation for a leap upon our camel’s back. This great ape now bowed before Amsale and covered his head with his forepaws. In waves, all the rest of the creatures did likewise, and I was reminded of nothing so much as an ocean of worshippers making obeisance at the appearance of some pagan goddess.
“Amsale stepped toward the great male baboon, who reached out his right hand toward her, palm upward. She stroked his palm and spoke in his ear. At that, the spell was broken. The male lifted himself from the rock, turned, and barked a command at the thousands of other baboons. Each of these, in turn, rose up and departed, leaping from rock to rock and sailing effortlessly over the fissures and crags stacked on high above us. Soon there was no sign of that great army of watchers, and all was once again silent.
“’How is it, Amsale, that these fierce creatures yield so readily to your will? Have you some special magic, that you can tame even these thousands with but a word?’ I asked her.
“’My father,’ she answered, ‘does not the child recognize the mother and do all that she would ask, with no need of spells? So do these recognize who I am and what I am, and so they do all for the sake of the one I serve.’
“Amsale would say no more, so I was forced to be content with this explanation; nor would Yeshi satisfy my curiosity on the matter when later I queried her. Rather, she simply smiled and said that Amsale had spoken, and there was an end to it.
“But, this was nearly the last of the strange events that transpired on my travels to Yeshi, and as we continued on our way, we soon cleared the pass and started down the far side of the mountain range. But, at an outcropping along the trail, Amsale suddenly halted us. Nestled into a rift in the cliff face was an oddly-shaped juniper tree that was blackened on one side; doubtless from a lightning strike from the previous stormy summer season. Behind this tree was a fissure in the rock that would just admit us, although it was a tight squeeze for the camel. Nevertheless, we led him past the tree and into the fissure, picking our way among many fallen stones.
“The path, now close and dark, wound through the living rock, and at each turn I expected to find our way barred by debris. But, the way remained open, and far above our heads, all that I could see of the sky was the thinnest strip of ultramarine. This was untouched by clouds, and was of such a hue, due to our elevation, that it struck me why this region is called the “Roof of Africa”.
“The passage continued for perhaps a mile, although it wound in such a serpentine fashion that it might well have been much more. But at length, after one last doubling back on itself, I perceived that the way forward was now, indeed, blocked, but not by debris. There stood before us a heavy pair of metal gates. They appeared to be made of solid iron, and were quite old, though I could detect no signs of rust or wear. The surface of each gate was inscribed, but in the dim light I could not decipher what was written upon them, and they stood nearly twenty feet tall. Sharpened spikes crowned them, and clearly, even with grappling hooks, it would have been quite impossible to climb over them. I examined each surface as carefully as I was able but could discover no lock or other means of opening them. I turned to ask Amsale whether she knew what was to be done, but to my dismay, she had vanished.
“As you’ve heard, I had already been in far worse straits, and it occurred to me for an instant that perhaps Amsale also had a way of tricking my eyes. But, I could think of no reason why she would wish to deceive me. So, I hobbled the camel at the gate and partially retraced our steps, trying to recollect when I’d last been certain that Amsale had been with us. I had led us through the rift, but I believed she had been with us through most of the journey.
“Nevertheless, I could find no trace of her, nor any alternate passage that I might have missed. So, I started back toward the gate to ponder what was to be done. As I did so, I heard a distant sound of voices echoing through the fissure. The sound was confused, and this was doubtless heightened by the rock passage itself, which stretched and distorted every sound made within it. I had noticed this when first we entered, as the echoes of our footsteps often continued eerily whenever we paused.
“But now I heard the voices of men, and the tramp of many feet, and I suddenly feared that we had been followed into the rift. By whom, I did not know, but my heart told me that I should flee.
I ran back to the massive iron gates, and just as I arrived there, a crack of light appeared in them. They began slowly to swing outward, away from me, and the brilliant light beyond them was so blinding that I could not see clearly for some time. But I turned away from the light and untied the camel, noting that the sounds from the rift behind me were now growing much louder.
“Turning back toward the light, I saw a figure in silhouette beckoning me forward. I led the camel through the gates, still blinking, and turned around once we were past them. Beside the gates I saw what appeared to be a woman swathed in white robes and a veil. She stepped before the iron doors and raised her hands to each side. Then, she slowly brought her palms together. As she did so, the massive barriers swung slowly and silently upon their hinges, finally clanging into place as they touched. No man could have moved those massive doors, as they were easily half a foot thick and must have weighed many tons.
“The woman turned to me, and I could see, despite her veil, that she was not Amsale, for she stood much taller. Regal, she appeared, but she did not speak. She bowed to me, and then swept past the camel, beckoning us to follow. As we did so, I heard, from behind us, the sound of many men. Their voices came angrily from the gap above the barrier, and soon I heard a pounding on the iron doors. But I had no fear that the gates would yield. Even explosives, it seemed to me, would be insufficient to dislodge them; and to use explosives would have meant certain death for those in the rift, as the sheer rock walls above them would almost certainly have collapsed, burying alive all that stood near the gates.
“But I quickly found that my attention was diverted, for now I saw stretched before us a beautiful green valley, with lush stands of trees, and dotted with flowers and gardens. At the center of this idyll stood a cluster of small round buildings, arranged like one of the native kraals found in southern Africa and enclosing a croft; but these structures were built of hewn stone, and their fashioning reminded me not so much of southern Africa as of Egypt. The largest of them had a parapet along the top, and its roof was flat, with unimpeded views of the heavens. I later learned that this was where Yeshi came to gaze at the stars.
“We proceeded to this kraal, and I loosed the camel inside the croft. Hay was already piled next to one of the outbuildings, and this, added to the lush grass and water from a nearby spring gave the camel all it could wish for.
“I followed our guide into the largest of the round structures. Within, the woman motioned me to a chair near one wall and disappeared behind a curtained doorway. I glanced at the interior of this space and was immediately struck by the number and quality of the icons with which it was adorned. These were brilliantly coloured, and coupled with the light that entered through high windows, they gave the space a most holy and solemn air. My immediate sense was that I had stepped into a chapel rather than a dwelling place. And, as I came to learn, I was not wrong in thinking this.
“After a few minutes, the curtain once again lifted, and a tall woman entered. Like Amsale, she was somewhat light skinned, after the manner of Ethiopians. But, she was tall, and far older than the young girl with whom I had travelled, with deepset eyes that were difficult to read.
“’I am Yeshi,’ the woman said. ‘I bid you welcome, Brother. Amsale did well to find you and hasten you here in time.’”
“I stood and bowed. ‘Long have I sought you, Sister, and I am happy now to have finally found you. But, I fear yet for Amsale; she guided me until just before the iron gates were opened, but I know not what became of her, and I fear, for her sake, those that followed us through the mountain rift.’”
“’There is no need for concern. Amsale is safe. She comes not into Mekdes, and would not, even bidden.’”
“’So, is Mekdes the name of this valley?’”
“’It is. You tread upon sacred ground, Gabriel; this is where I live and study. Mekdes is my mother and my father: my sanctuary, my library, my desert hermitage. It is everything to me, saving only God Himself.’”
“’And, do you abide here alone, Sister?’”
“’Yes. You are the first in many decades to enter through the great gates, and you shall be the last; that is, until you return, decades hence, when all comes to pass that I shall show you.’”
“’How can you know when I will return?’”
“’The prophesies shall have been fulfilled; then you will come, with one other, and he shall tarry here as I have tarried, though not alone. And after him others will also come seeking refuge. For the day is approaching when those who would flee from evil will seek asylum in secluded places; and as I have said, this is sacred ground.’”
“But will you welcome all of these into Mekdes?’”
“’You do not understand, Gabriel. When that time comes, you shall find me here no more. You shall be the one who must welcome them.’”
“’But, Sister, where will you have gone that I must do this thing?’”
“’I? I shall be with my Father. Understand, Gabriel, that when next you return here, I shall be dead.’”