“I’m told you have come a long ways …
crossing seven mountains and seven rivers,”
said a woman who continued to braid the
hair of a girl who looked like her daughter.
“I need to ask why you bother to visit this
village so far off the main-traveled way.”
“Very well,” she said after hearing his reply.
“Come with us … there’s a small cove with
a spring halfway up the mountain. No need
to worry but try and enter into
the right frame
of mind. Along the way say the names of
the mountains and rivers that you crossed.”
Privet overgrown with greenbrier and multi-
flora rose formed dense tangles that covered
the forest floor beneath a stand of hickory and oak crisscrossed with strands of grapevine.
From the treetops on the ridge far above the
hollow a scarlet tanager sang its raspy song.
“Welcome to the realm of the
said an old man as he emerged from wood-
land shadows into the light near the spring.
The black-winged firebird and the mouse
that lives in the trees are good friends.
Few have seen him. Most have no idea
that he even exists. But no one who has
caught even a fleeting glimpse has ever
denied he’s one of the most beautiful
creatures on this earth.”
The old man paused to listen to the
tanager and then began to whistle
an almost perfect imitation that
lured the bird into full view.
“I never heard the golden mouse
sing,” he said. “He can’t be so easily
fooled as his black-winged friend.
Look up above your head for a sun-
struck patch of fur or bright eyes
watching … always watching …
from a cluster of rhododendron
leaves or a platform of twigs
fastened with strips of bark.
From those vantage points he
observes the world as it passes
by displaying its seductive
glamour for all . . .”
“Glamour?” the visitor interrupted but there
was no reply and the old man’s
as if he was talking to himself
at this opportunity to recite a favorite story:
“When startled he moves
with arboreal grace
using that long tail to maintain
balance as he
glides from vine to vine …
a circus performer
dancing on a high wire. I’ve never
seen it but
but there are those who swear
that he can fly
just like the black-winged firebird … which
is why they’re such good friends. See if
you can find him. That’s why you came.”
The visitor’s eyes moved along each branch
of each tree that rose above the thicket of
greenbrier and honeysuckle
until after a long
while he realized he was holding his breath
and exhaled. Dark eyes that seemed to be
watching turned out to be mottled patterns
of bark and lichens. There was movement
when a breeze passed through the leaves.
The insistent nasal “yank-yank-yank” calls
of a nuthatch broke his concentration.
When he turned around the old man
and the girl were gone.
The woman smiled but was silent until they
were back in the village saying goodbye:
“Ustali meant the surface of things as they
appear to be but aren’t … like the inverse
reflection of a face in a mirror. Those who
see the golden mouse can pierce the world
of glamour and pass through the illusory
surface into the terrane at the heart of
things. That’s what the old people have
always believed. If you can’t see him just
yet don’t worry. Go home and be true to the
dreams of your youth. Each day recite the
mountains and rivers of your homeland.
Come back whenever you are ready
and we’ll try again. Like everything
else it’s just a matter of time so
long as you keep trying.”