A resolute fog had settled over the swamp while the persistent pulsating twinkling of the giant fireflies continued to burn like Chinese lanterns in the veil. The children had had to hold hands to keep from losing sight of each other in the weighty cloud. The frogs, which previously had been exclaiming an amphibious cacophony with their wild croaking, had reached a crescendo and now their chorus was conspicuously absent in anticipation of an ominous announcement.
Shanti, usually very much at home in the trees, interlaced her hand to Manuel’s as though her very soul were hanging from the precipice. Manuel boxed his fear in response to her trusting touch and steeled his heart for whatever might precipitate from the unknown.
Now if Shanti and Manuel could have owned, at this point in their lives, those scale free eyes that see the unseen they would not have been afraid. They would have visualized the lighted music that was coloring their bodies with the hope of the valley of the shadow of life. They would have known they were standing on holy ground and cast off their heavy dead cowskin boots and tramped carefree barefoot in the squishy mossy ground. But as it was, they could only feel the heaviness of eternity touching down on them and interpret it, as all mortals do, with fearful trepidation. This blindness is in a way protective, for if in these bodies a man can see past the veil of time and into the eyes of eternity, he feels the weight of sadness at his inability to join fully into that joy. If only they could have known that human souls are also intertwined into timelessness, and that age is merely a convenient adjective utilized by those who define themselves by quantity of birthdays past, they would have felt the weight of eternity as an anchor for the soul rather than a spiraling downward tunnel leading only to the door of death. But alas, dear reader it was not so at that moment. It is sufficient to say for now Manuel and Shanti are safer here in the deep swamp than they would have been if they were watching a G-rated movie at the mall theater. The eye can only shed its outer protective scale when the seer detours off the road to Damascus onto Straight Street. But all this in due time.
The heavy moonlight reflected deeply off the swamp waters and then once again off the thick mist amplifying the light to block out any apparition of shadow in the whole wood. And in this swirling light a form emerged from the leaves the way a flock of starlings emerges suddenly from a sand pear tree: having always been there yet unseen until a flight of fancy enervates the whole flock into one unified graceful movement.
The sable Salamander, standing on his back legs, was only as tall as Shanti. He was not, as some would say, muscular. In fact, he was rather slight. But the muscles he had so efficiently communicated one to another that they moved him with the precise grace of liquid mercury. Every step seemed to be predestined. His spearish tail, lithe spine, and confident shoulders all indicated an experienced fighter while his glinting eyes betrayed humor and his soft mouth echoed with a kindness that was as old as wisdom herself.
The salamander lightly gripped the hilt of a crescent knife whose blade arched neatly up and over the back of his knuckles and plunged into a deadly point just below the breadth of his hand. The knife looked the way a comma would look if, a commas decided they were sick and tired of being told not to make run on sentences by periods and semicolons, and decided to go after them once and for all.
Shanti bravely stifled her surprised cry but Manuel felt a wild longing in his fiber: a longing for open space and dangerous compromise of familiar comfort for the sake of good glory. He confidently steadied Shanti’s hand knowing that untamed righteousness was afoot.
The salamander stepped lightly past Manuel’s blocking arms. He spun on his close foot and while planting the other he sunk the blade deep into a thick shadow. The blade glowed blue as it passed through the morphing shade. He pivoted, retracing the blade’s arching blow with the back of his elbow and continuing with momentum followed with his opposite fist.
Shanti had not seen the clinging icy shadow, but now as it lay like wrinkling writhing cellophane on the moss, she knew that this was the monster that had been whispering words of terror at her heart since she had absentmindedly allowed it to slide into her bookbag with the woman’s magazine from the drugstore – an impulsive checkout purchase. It scratched out a few of it’s favorite phrases with its dying breath, “Something new, is something better…… It is beautiful to the eye and it will make you wise……… If only you had…….”
The strain drained away from Shanti’s eyes as she watched the writhing shadow dissipate into lush moss. A contented acceptance welled up in her heart and Manuel saw what he assumed were tears but was actually the reflection of light hope on her cheeks.
“Do not be afraid,” the salamander announced with authority.
“What is going on?” Manuel moved his body between Shanti and the strange visitor. A newfound soul strength had conjured all his protective instinct to the surface. He was ready for anything.
“You mean, ‘Who is going on?’” The little warrior smiled, pleased with Manuel’s tenacity.
“Ok, who then?”
“You two will be going on. You will save your school and in doing so will save many people alive.”
The challenge excited Manuel’s core fiber. “What is the danger, and how are you talking, and how are you here?”
The salamander flipped his blade in his hand with flowing flare, sheathing it in his tactical belt. “I have always been here as a watcher and protector. I am a Child Warrior and I always see His face. The danger is today as it always it always has been: the deprivation of freedom to freely created beings: either the voluntary loss of freedom or imposed loss; and as for talking, shouldn’t you be more surprised that animals do not talk and not that they do talk. Just because something is does not mean that it should be.”
“So animals do talk?”
“Some do still, most do not, but all did once upon a time.”
“I’m so sorry sir, I don’t understand.”
The salamander began to swager deeper into the swamp motioning for the children to follow. “Adam and Noah in their day spoke naturally in rhyme like the writings of John Milton or the prophecies of Isaiah. Washington and Lincoln in their day spoke natural prose like Alice Walker or Annie Dillard but today the best many men can do is to speak with good grammar when pressed hard to do so.”
Manuel was doing his best to keep up with the salamander’s aqueous movements through the thick forest, but Shanti was easily striding, riding the fresh wave of joy that had recently blessed her heart. “So people are losing the ability to communicate the same way animals have,” she asked.
“The more men focus their speech on their own personal glory the less need there is for their communication to be heard in the universe. And yes, the speech of man has deteriorated to something akin to grunting and growling compared to its former glory.” The salamander turned to lock her gaze, “Only when men praise something that is praiseworthy do their voices reverberate with the song of stars.”
“What will happen then,” she pressed, “Will we completely lose the ability to talk to each other?”
“You already mostly have.” He paused waiting for Manuel to catch up, “But the real problem is not that one man is unable to express himself wholly to another. The issue is the quota of joy being expressed. Even if every human mouth was silenced the rocks would cry out.”
“You mean they would just start talking to each other?” Manuel was starting to think that this wood was much larger than it seemed while standing on the sidewalk an hour ago and they should have crossed a road or at least seen the lights of houses by now.
“In the language of rocks, yes. You might not be able to interpret it but volcanos, earthquakes, tsunamis, geysers, and dust storms are the rocks beginning to express their version of joy. Your leaders call this climate change and it is true the climate of men’s hearts have changed. The balance of praise is shifting as the ancient stones begin to sing the songs once sung by the hearts of men and your world will truly crumble as they rise up in song and dance.”
“Why is joy so important?”
“Ah, child, you ask such perfect questions.” The salamander turned his face to look fully at Manuel and for the first time Manuel was able to study his new friend’s visage. He felt an inexplicable happiness and would have laughed except he understood the gravity of the conversation. The salamanders lipless mouth smiled naturally across his face like a freshwater spring and his kind rubbery eyes were the size of obsidian softballs. “My name is Sal Ananda.” Sal is latin for salt and Ananda is the name of the deep joy that holds the universe in motion.” Sal continued, “Without joy the universe would cease to exist. The universe will never cease to exist. Truly, matter is like God, it is neither created nor destroyed. There will always be joy but those obsolete souls who refuse to reflect it will be cast aside in the great dance.
“Come, the darkness presses in. We tarry, and I have a present for you.”