Story by Jack Harte


1 The Coming of Zaja
2 The Learning Quest
3 The Marriage Quest
4 A Husband for Caoimhe
5 Zaja as Ruler
6 Zaja’s Education
7 Quest
8 The Lady of the Lake
9 In Tireragh
10 The Scholar
11 The Saint and the Druid
12 The Serpent Unveiled
13 Sun and Water
14 The Hawk and the Sparrow
15 The Pictures and the Stone
16 The Oak and the Ivy
17 Disputation and Advice
18 Three Daughters
19 How Shumaka became General of the Army
20 The Invasion
21 Death and Departure
22 Second Coming


The reader who is fascinated and somewhat puzzled by the conversion of this country to Zajaism, and who might feel nothing but aversion towards the opprobrious figure in whose name atrocities were committed, is well advised to re-visit the life story of Zaja himself. 

The records are incomplete since his career straddles the period between pre-history and history; nevertheless he is mentioned occasionally in authentic early historical documents, and later his name was invoked to legitimise everything, including acts that would nowadays qualify as crimes against humanity.

So the following narrative of his life is pieced together from some genuine historical records, from the body of folklore that accumulated around him some of which is no doubt apocryphal, and from propagandist material that was added by a series of fanatical propagators starting with Shumaka.

The cult that developed around Zaja was to acquire more of the character of the first propagator, Shumaka, than of Zaja himself. For that reason the author has made the utmost endeavour to sift through all the available material and present to the contemporary reader a coherent narrative of Zaja’s life in its original simplicity. Since the life and mind of this great and influential teacher has always presented in a form of quasi-history, interlaced with legend, parable, and folktale, the author has accepted that as the most appropriate way to present his re-constructed narrative.

The pictures that Zaja is reputed to have used for divination have also fascinated scholars and devotees alike down through the centuries and could have been an early version of the Tarot, so the author has taken the Tarot for inspiration and pitched his narrative against the Major Arcana.

1 The Coming of Zaja

In the beginning was a hare who was very clever, very inquisitive, and very adventurous. Having learned all there was to learn about his own kind, he set off to explore the world. When he encountered human beings, he thought they seemed interesting and, despite all the warnings he had been given, he decided to study their ways.

One day he stumbled on a whole encampment of humans and wandered among their tents to take a closer look. However, when the humans spied him wandering about peeking into tents, they were amazed at his nonchalance. One of them grabbed him by the ears and was about to prepare him for dinner, when another said, ‘don’t kill him, he’s too nice to eat’. So they sat around debating what to do with this hare if they weren’t going to have him for dinner. One of them said, ‘let’s give him to the little Princess Caoimhe when we visit the Castle this evening. She always seems so lonely, but she is fond of animals and may like him for a pet.’ They all thought it was a wonderful idea to give the hare to the Princess, because they liked her very much and thought she would enjoy a pet hare.

The Princess was delighted by the gift they brought her, and immediately she took the hare in her arms and whispered ‘Zaja, poor Zaja’ as she stroked his furry coat. When the visitors had gone she continued stroking the hare fondly.

The hare was taken with his new situation, and looked forward every day to the time when the Princess came to take him from the cage and stroke his back, always uttering the same strange words, ‘Zaja, my Zaja’, while he nibbled at her fingers. He did not understand these words, nor the fondness with which the Princess stroked his head and back. Eventually he formed the opinion that the Princess was under some spell cast by a witch or wizard who had changed her from a hare and condemned her to live out her life as a human. He remembered a story told in the hushed gatherings of old hares, how such a spell can be lifted by a kiss. So he determined that he would kiss the Princess, turn her into a beautiful female hare, and live happily with her ever after. The very next time the Princess took him from the cage and stroked his back and bent her head close to him, he quickly reached up his snout and kissed her on the lips.

The Princess was deeply moved by the kiss. Little more than a child, she had never before experienced a sensual kiss. So she closed her eyes and kissed the hare again on the tip of his glistening snout. Again she was convulsed by the sensuality of the kiss. When she opened her eyes and looked into the wistful eyes of the hare she was disturbed deeply. Her feelings were a muddle of confusion, of guilt, and of longing.

She could not bear to look into those wistful eyes any more, those eyes that seemed burdened with the sadness of the world. So she called her maid and asked her to take the hare out and release him into the forest.

Now the maid was a practical woman of immense common sense. She knew that as soon as the hare was released into the forest he would probably become a meal for the first badger or fox that chanced upon him. She herself was partial to a stew, and so she took the hare to her own quarters and feasted that evening on her favourite dish.

That night the maid had troubled sleep. At first she blamed the large meal she had eaten, for it did not sit easily on her stomach. Towards morning she awoke in dread, for she dreamt that she was with child. It was an intuition that persisted into her waking state, despite never having experienced that condition heretofore. She was doubly in dread, for her husband had been away in the King’s service for the previous three months. She went immediately to the Princess and asked her to implore the King to recall her husband saying that she was unwell. The husband returned to find his wife recovered and he smothered her with love. Thus was the mystery of her pregnancy cloaked in plausibility.

The boy that was born to her in due course was deeply cherished by his parents. He was also a great favourite of the Princess who showered him with affection. He grew into boyhood as the gentlest of children, unaffected either by his humble parentage or by his privileged upbringing. Every day he went to play in the Princess’s quarters, and showed as much devotion to her as he did to his own mother and father.

The Princess became more and more devoted to the boy, and the hours when he was away from her were heavy and tedious, and the hours he was in her company passed as moments of delight. His eyes in particular she found bewitching, gentle and sad, full of tenderness and vulnerable love. They reminded her of the look she saw once in the eyes of a hare, and she coined her own nick-name for him – she called him Zaja. And when she ran her fingers through the child’s hair she would whisper, ‘Zaja, my Zaja’.

The boy grew in mind and limb, and became as handsome as he was gentle. The nick-name the Princess used clung to the boy, so that he was known to everyone as Zaja. One day he went to the Princess and found her with her head bent heavily on her knees. He sensed she was sad, ran to her, and threw his arms around her neck. The Princess looked up from her loneliness into the bright loving face of the boy. Impetuously she threw her arms around him and kissed him on the mouth. It was a momentary thing, but the boy’s kiss ran through her whole body in a torrent of excitement. Then, as she looked into the open loving eyes of the child, she became troubled by her own feelings. That night she spoke to her maid and suggested that it was time for her son to go on his learning quest. She said she would ensure he received an education fit for a prince. Afterwards she would also ensure that he returned to a responsible post in her father’s service.

2 The Learning Quest

Zaja was brought before the Chief Counsellor of the King to be given his learning Quest. The King had given instructions that the boy was to receive letters of introduction to the courts of the other four kingdoms of the land, so that he would receive the best training in all the arts, but he also instructed the Chief Counsellor to set him the most exacting of tasks, so that he would not return for a long time. In truth the King had observed the affection the Princess had lavished on the boy, and was concerned, because the time would come soon when she would have to choose a husband and it would be better to reserve her affection for whatever suitor caught her attention.

The Counsellor handed Zaja the letters of introduction. “In the East Kingdom you will master the art of warfare, because theirs is the greatest of military academies. In the South Kingdom you will learn arts and crafts because that is where the smiths and masons and painters excel. In the West Kingdom you will learn the art of the word, for there is where the greatest poets and storytellers are to be found. Finally you will go to the North Kingdom and learn to master ideas, for that is where you will find the cleverest of philosophers.”

The Counsellor knew Zaja from the occasional encounter at the Castle school. He wished him luck. “If you learn well, you can become a great man,” he said. “And because you are capable of greatness, the challenge assigned to you must be formidable. You must pursue wisdom, but you must not return until you have conquered the Serpent. That is the most formidable challenge assigned to anyone.”

Zaja shivered at the Quest he had been assigned. “Where will I find the Serpent?” he asked.

“Finding the Serpent is part of the challenge,” said the Counsellor. “I can give you no more advice, except to reveal your taboo to guide you, and that is to plant no acorns where you cannot tend to the oak saplings.”

3 The Marriage Quest

Princess Caoimhe had grown from a beautiful girl into a beautiful woman. Sometimes she was happy, but mostly she was sad and lonely. Of all the young men she encountered in the Castle or on her tours of the land, she was never enamoured of any of them. Eventually the King became worried. The Princess was his only child, and he now fretted about the issue of an heir. If there was no heir to the throne, then the kingdom could be torn apart by the adjoining four kingdoms, as the carcass of a lamb is savaged by hungry jackals. The kingdom could become the quarry of its voracious neighbours. And the King worried that his people would be treated badly. So he approached his daughter and explained his political concerns. Much as he loved his daughter and wished for her happiness, he was also concerned for the fate of his kingdom and of his people.

The Princess was equally concerned and agreed to marry and bring forth an heir who would secure the future of the kingdom. Her father assured her she could marry any man she wished, be he of noble or of humble birth.

And so the search for the Princess’s husband began. The young men of the army lined up in cohorts, and in cohorts they were dismissed, for the Princess did not relish the steel in their eyes. The young men of the court lined up expecting to fare better, but the Princess quickly wearied of their jaded manners. Young princes from the neighbouring kingdoms presented themselves and their credentials, but none succeeded in lighting a fire in the heart of Caoimhe. She went about the land from market-place to farm, but no-one did she encounter who interested her even slightly. Her heart was as heavy as her father’s because of her failure.

4 A Husband for Caoimhe

The day came when the maid’s son returned from his learning Quest. He walked along the highway with a lightness of foot that struck those who laid their leaden eyes on him. And when they looked on his face they saw a glow they thought had long since faded from the world. The young man was happy to be returning home from his long exile, and had heard nothing of the plight of the kingdom, nor of the search for a mate for the Princess. The people did not recognise him and assumed he was yet another suitor for the Princess’s hand, and when they examined him closely they thought that this might be the one. They followed him on the road, so that by the time he approached the Castle he had quite an entourage, and word ran before him that another suitor for the Princess had arrived.

The Castle was immediately put on alert, and the King, Queen, and Princess took up their positions in the Great Hall, more in hope than in expectation, for no suitor had presented himself in several weeks.

Meanwhile the young man strode confidently to the Castle, thinking the crowds had gathered to welcome him home. In the Great Hall the crowds parted to let him through. He walked dutifully up to the King and bowed. He bowed to the Queen. Then he walked over to the Princess, looked her in the eyes and smiled, then bowed to her too. The Princess was smitten to the heart by the expression in the young man’s eyes, as if they bore within them, simultaneously, all the loneliness of the world and all the joy of life. Twice before she had witnessed such depth of feeling in the eyes of another, and in her own heart. The King was staring at her, and when she met his gaze, she nodded.

‘Is this the man you wish to marry?’ he asked. ‘Yes,’ she replied simply.

There was uproar in the Great Hall. Celebration commenced immediately. The people were overwhelmed with joy, not just because the kingdom now seemed safe, but because the Princess had found a mate of her heart’s choosing and he appeared worthy of her. When a little order was restored, the King opened his arms to embrace the young man. He asked, ‘By what name are you called?’ The young man looked back in surprise at the Princess. ‘Do you not recognise me?’ he asked. ‘I am Zaja.’

5 Zaja as Ruler

When the King saw what a capable consort his daughter had married he devolved his authority to Princess Caoimhe. But she transferred her trust to Zaja who now became effective ruler of the Central Kingdom. However, the ruler would accept no title, and was known only as Zaja. Instead he ruled as a teacher, by the power of his compassion, by the clarity of his judgement, and by his incessant urging of people to achieve satisfaction in their lives.

When asked why not happiness instead of satisfaction, he laughed. ‘Happiness can be a dangerous illusion,’ Zaja said. ‘It can never be more than the transitory enjoyment of satisfaction. Satisfaction may be achieved in pain and turmoil and travail, without a moment of enjoyment, and yet be profoundly rewarding. It may be the result of a life well spent, a task accomplished, a generous deed. But the sense of such satisfaction is far deeper than the superficial giddy tingling of the senses that we associate with happiness.’

Zaja disbanded the army, saying the time might come when they might all die for their country and their principles, but the time would never come when a young man or woman would be asked to kill for their country.

He banned competition of all kinds and asked the people to erase the very word from their minds. Competition, he said, was a pernicious concept, since it divided people into false categories of ‘winners’ and ‘losers’. Winning could be the outcome of the failure of others as much as of the success of the so-called ‘winner’. Competition promoted failure far more virulently than it promoted success. It encouraged cheating and the destructive mentality. Instead of competition, Zaja installed ‘achievement’ as the golden means towards success in all things. He explained that achievement was always judged on its own merits, not on the failure of others, and so it promoted a constructive attitude to all things. Where many strove to excel in a particular field, achievement recognised the success of the one who excelled, but by comparison with the success of all the others, not in contrast to their failure.

As a judge, Zaja dispensed decisions with clarity and common sense, so that few were disaffected as a result. But occasionally, when a complicated or bitterly disputed issue was brought to him for arbitration, Zaja brought the opposing parties around a table. He then took out a set of small pictures he had, and began to lay them out in different patterns and combinations. It was said that while the litigants watched this, they saw in the pictures their own shortcomings, the weakness of their stance, the dangers to themselves of certain outcomes, and they left the table with a great inclination to settle the dispute directly with their neighbours. Such was the awe and terror evoked by the judgement of the pictures that people preferred to compromise in their disputes rather than to face such arbitration.

And when the people asked Zaja, on one of those evenings when they congregated in the city Square to discuss issues and revel in debate, how one should live, he replied smiling with his illustrious aphorism: ‘Do not do to others as you know they would do to you; break the cycle.’

6 Zaja’s Education

When Zaja was dispatched on his learning Quest, he was brought first to the South kingdom, where he was accepted with hospitality fit for a King’s son. He learned from their artists and acquired the skills of hand and eye. When the time came for him to leave it was with a heavy heart he set out for the West Kingdom.

In the West Kingdom Zaja was similarly greeted with warmth and hospitality. He learned from their poets the subtlety of words, how they are manipulated into verse and story, receptacles that could store the knowledge and wisdom of countless generations. And it was with a heavy heart that he finally bade farewell to them and turned to the North.

In the North Kingdom the whole extended family of the King took Zaja to their hearts and he felt as one of them. They had a passion for argument and the favourite entertainment at the court was disputation. Zaja learned rhetoric and logic and metaphysics from their philosophers and before he left he could hold forth with the best of them, teasing an argument out into the early hours, until the cock’s crow imposed its own logic.

By the time he reached the East Kingdom Zaja was an accomplished young man. He was greeted formally and civilly there, but he sensed immediately that the culture was different. He was assigned a place as a cadet in the military academy. But after three days listening to young men bragging of their fighting skills and the tally of their killings, Zaja knew that this place was not for him.

One youth was celebrated in particular and admired by all as the cream of the academy, destined for a glorious career as a warrior. He was a nephew of the King who himself came one day to observe the exercises of the cadet corps. Impressed by the athletic feats of his nephew, he laughed and called the captain who was training the cadets. ‘Take good care of that young man,’ he said. ‘He will make a great warrior one day. He has the soul of a dog.’ And from that day on the young man assumed the name ‘Shumaka’, their old term for a hunting hound.

Zaja was perplexed as to what he might usefully learn in this place. He refused to handle weapons and had no inclination towards athletic exercises. One day the trainer brought them around a well into which he threw an apple. ‘Now, who can retrieve the apple using only his bow and arrows?’ The cadets peered at the apple in the bottom of the well.

‘A string to the arrow?’

‘No string, just your bow and arrows.’

The cadets looked and thought and considered and were puzzled. Then Shumaka stepped forward. He glanced at the apple, took an arrow from his quiver, and shot into the well piercing the apple. Then he shot another arrow, which lodged in the shaft of the first one. With another he did the same, then again and again, until he was able to reach in and lift the line of arrows, with the apple dangling from the final one. There was spontaneous applause for his feat. The small band of his most ardent followers broke into a chant they had concocted and were wont to use at every opportunity:
‘Shumaka, Shumaka,
Fear, fear, fear.’

But Zaja raised his voice above the clamour of adulation. ‘If the task is to retrieve the apple, would not a forked stick have achieved it more easily?’

There was silence as the crowd gauged the thrust of the question and the implied insult to Shumaka’s feat.

Shumaka waxed into a warrior’s rage. He approached Zaja, sword in hand. ‘The only use I would make of a forked stick is to ram it up your arse and roast you on a spit like a suckling pig.’

‘Spoken like a true dog,’ replied Zaja.

‘A hound, a hunting hound. I would challenge you to single combat, but it would be akin to challenging an old woman. I would be the laughing stock of the land.’

‘You will be the laughing stock of the land anyway.’

‘Beware the tooth of the hound,’ replied Shumaka with ferocious menace, and he walked off, followed by his band of admirers.

Some time later Zaja was passing a group of children playing with a skipping rope and chanting their rhymes. He approached them.

‘Would you like a new skipping rhyme?’ he asked.

‘We would,’ they responded in enthusiastic unison.

‘Spin the rope so and I will give you one.’

They spun the rope, and Zaja skipped, reciting
‘Shumaka, Shumaka,
One, two, three,
Shumaka, Shumaka,
Who is he?
Shumaka, Shumaka,
Lifts his knee
Shumaka, Shumaka,
Dog wets tree.’

They burst out laughing, especially at the way he mimicked a dog raising his leg to piddle while carrying on skipping on one foot. It was clear that they knew Shumaka by reputation.

One of them said, ‘Shumaka won’t like that.’

‘Of course he will,’ said Zaja. ‘It is funny and Shumaka has a wonderful sense of humour. He will enjoy the joke.’

They started skipping again, this time to the Shumaka rhyme, competing with one another to do the funniest mimic of a dog piddling. Within days every child in the kingdom had learned the new skipping rhyme, and they chanted and hopped with mischievous glee. However, one morning a child was found hanging from a tree, a skipping rope around his neck as a hangman’s noose. That put an end to the rhyme, to the skipping, and to the joyful voices of the children playing.

At the end of the season it was time for Shumaka’s group to graduate from the Academy. Everyone waited in expectation to see what feat Shumaka would present as his graduation piece, since it was widely recognised that he was the most promising cadet that had ever passed through the Academy. Others were preparing to demonstrate their achievement in archery, in sword fighting, in hurling the spear, and were fine-tuning their performances in the days leading up to the graduation. But Shumaka disappeared for three days, and the banquet had begun when the young man entered the great hall. He had a knapsack on his back and he walked directly up to the top table, then shook out the knapsack in front of the king. Out dropped three heads.

‘Those are the heads of the three warrior sons of Conall, Lord of Annally, who has been withholding tribute due to the King. I challenged each of them in turn to single combat, and killed all three of them. Loud are the wails of the women of Annally tonight, keening the flower of their manhood.’

There was frenzied applause from the assembled guests, and Shumaka’s followers banged their feet on the ground and chanted:
‘Shumaka, Shumaka,
Fear, fear, fear.’

The Commander of the army, who was seated at the right hand of the King, declared proudly, ‘Who will deny that we have in Shumaka a hero to rival any we have ever had in the past?’

Zaja stood up. ‘I do,’ he said. A tense hush descended on the hall.

‘I want to ask Shumaka why it was necessary to kill these three young men, the sons of Conall, Lord of Annally. Will the Lord now happily pay the tribute due to the King? No? Will he already be plotting his revenge? Most definitely. So if Shumaka has not resolved the problem that existed between the King and the Lord, and indeed has aggravated it, why does he gloat over the agony of the women of Annally?’

Shumaka turned in white anger towards Zaja. ‘If it does not bring a solution, it will bring war, and the opportunity of covering ourselves in glory.’

‘Where is the glory in pointless slaughter? Where is the satisfaction in listening to the sorrowful wailing of mothers? This is not glory. This is ignominy.’

‘These are the words of a coward, and I am relieved that they are not uttered by a fellow countryman. Were you not protected by the King’s grace, I would challenge you to combat, but we will meet again, if you ever learn to string a bow or to draw a sword from a scabbard.’

‘Why bother with a sword or a bow when one can be equally effective with a skipping rope.’

Absolute silence now fell on the assembly. Everyone knew about the skipping rhyme and had no doubt as to why the child had died, but no one had ever raised the issue.

Shumaka was dumbstruck. To react would be to acknowledge involvement in the crime, so he turned away. But Zaja knew that his life was now in danger, and he left the hall. Shumaka and his band of henchmen could not leave until the feast was over, so he had a few hours to escape. And he fled.

7 Quest

Zaja could not return home to the Central Kingdom until he had achieved wisdom and conquered the Serpent. So he set out on a trek around the land again, this time as a pilgrim, seeking out wise men, and saints, and hermits. None could advise him how to engage with the Serpent. On this topic the hermits and saints and wise men were clearly reluctant to speak.

Then he happened on an old woman who was famed as a healer, and reputed to be a seer.

Before he spoke, she was able to tell him that he was on a Quest. She declared that he still had a long way to go. She did not recoil or fall silent, like the others, when he mentioned the Serpent.

For three days and three nights he stayed at the old woman’s cottage while she garnered her herbs and fruits from the surrounding countryside. He did not press her, for he knew she was brooding on his problem.

“You must seek the Serpent in the dying sun. To find wisdom you must look in the borders, the gaps between places. So your journey is not to the west or the north but in between. The place you seek is not on land or sea or air, but in between all them. And that is where the fire of the dying sun is quenched, that is where the Serpent takes his rest.”

“Is there a name for this place?”

It is called the land of the hunter, Tireragh. You will find it if you follow the sun’s course at midsummer.

Zaja thanked her and set his course between west and north.

8 The Lady of the Lake

It is recounted that on his way northwest Zaja came to a lake in the mountains. The lake glistened and sparkled in the evening light, like a jewel set into the desolate mountainside. The solitude and the silence impressed the young man’s mind, and he decided to linger a while and take a rest from his travelling. A fisherman’s hut nearby provided shelter.

He lit a fire from the abundant peat that was lying around. As darkness began to draw in, he sat looking out over the lake, enjoying the sheer silence broken only by the occasional bleating of sheep and goats on the purple mountainside. Then he heard, or thought he heard, a different sound. It was a woman’s voice singing faintly.

He listened intently, thinking it was his imagination playing tricks. Even more puzzling, the sound appeared to be coming off the lake. No matter how intensely he peered into the dusk, he could not identify the source of the sound which grew stronger until it finally ceased. It was a haunting rhythmic song that lingered in his ear while he settled down to sleep.

He thought he was dreaming of the tune when he awoke before dawn, but quickly recognised that he was again listening to it on the wind. He ran outside and scanned the lake. He was amazed to see what he thought a vision. A girl was walking, or running, or dancing across the water of the lake and making towards a small island he had not noticed before. And she was singing. Zaja rubbed his eyes many times to make sure he was awake.

As soon as he had eaten some breakfast, Zaja climbed the nearest mountain slope so that he could survey the lake and the island. The sun was rising as he reached a height that gave him a view of the whole scene. He saw movement on the island, but it was too distant to identify if it was the girl, or if there were more people out there. Then he saw her coming to the shore and stepping out on to the water. Again he heard faintly the strains of her song, and once more she skipped across the water as if it was a sheet of solid ice.

Zaja watched her closely, and noted by reference to a large distinctive boulder where she came ashore on the far side of the lake. She disappeared from view as soon as she reached land. Zaja quickly climbed down the mountain slope and made his way around the shore of the lake to where the boulder was. He scoured the shore for a submerged causeway, but could find no trace of one. He searched the hinterland and saw that there was a mountain path descending from that place. So he decided to hide behind the boulder until the girl reappeared.

His vigil lasted all day. It was evening, and the sun was low in the sky when he heard the song. Looking up, he saw her, quite close to him, as she began to hum her song, then broke into full voice and took her first steps out on the water. It was as if the song lifted her weight over the impressionable waves, as if the joy of it transformed her to pure spirit and transported her to her island destination. She was beautiful, as if the grace of all the living were concentrated into this one being. Zaja was immediately smitten. He watched her as she skimmed across the water. And when she disappeared he was immediately dejected. He began to wonder. Was she meeting a young man on the island, and was that the joy that transported her?

When she had gone out of sight on the island, Zaja ventured from behind the boulder, and went to examine the place where the girl had commenced her journey across the water. He waded out and discovered a stepping stone, then he felt forward and discovered another, then another. But they were not in a straight line. He mounted them and went from one to another, then, following the pattern he thought was established, he put his foot forward but tumbled into the water. He tried several times, even getting a stick to aid him find the hidden steps, but he could not master the mathematics of the pattern.

The sun was high and his clothes were drying as he sat in the shelter of the boulder. He heard the girl’s song again and looked up to see her coming back across the water. This time he waited for her without hiding. She drifted across the water, weaving one way then another, as if her feet could not pierce the filament of the lake’s surface. When she stood firmly on dry ground, she looked around and saw him. She started laughing at him standing in his wet clothes.

“So you thought you would be able to cross to the island with your two left feet.”

“I am a pilgrim seeking enlightenment,” said Zaja. “My curiosity was aroused by your wonderful singing, and my awe by your crossing the lake on foot.”

“So your curiosity and your awe should be well satisfied now.”

“On the contrary, I am even more intent on crossing to the island to see what extraordinary purpose brings you there in such a spectacular fashion.”

“You will be a long time finding your way to the Island of Joy, I am afraid. I saw your inept attempt at working out the pattern of the steps.”

“Then tell me the pattern and I will go with you to share the pleasure of the island.”

“Already you fail to understand. The island is devoted to joy not to pleasure. Pleasure is the base experience of the body. An animal is capable of experiencing pleasure, and does. To raise that to joy, you must engage the soul, the spirit.”

“Then take me to your island and teach me. I will make a willing learner.”

“I cannot take you to the island. One can only cross alone.”

“Then teach me the code for the steps. I have tried to work out the pattern but without success.”

“You will be a long time applying your logic and your mathematics before you set foot in the island.”

“Then give me the key and I will cross the lake like you.”

“Key!” she exclaimed, laughing. “How you reduce and simplify everything. If you want to cross the lake you must learn to sing and to dance. That is the key.”

“Then teach me to sing and to dance.”

The girl looked at him. No doubt she considered him handsome. No doubt she was moved by his anxiety to learn. No doubt she was flattered by the earnestness with which he wanted to go with her to the island.

“I will teach you to sing and to dance, but there is only a fortnight within which I can visit the island, and already four days of that have passed. So you will have to learn fast. Each day I have to be there for the rising sun and again for the setting sun. So each morning, on my return, I will teach you. But I must warn you that it is not customary for a man to cross to the island, and it may have adverse consequences for you.”

“My mission is to seek wisdom, and so I cannot be deterred by consequences.”

“Very well,” she said.

And so Zaja’s lessons began. First dancing, until his body was moving to a rhythm then to a melody. Next singing, until his crude voice became as subtle as the dart of a trout through the brown water. Finally weaving and interweaving steps and rhythm and melody until all were the one and the one was inextricable from the all. She taught him for much of the day, and for much of the night he pummelled his legs and arms and torso until they were totally subject to the dance totally responsive to the demands of the melody.

And he began to experience the success of his achievement, to feel ethereal, so light he might be swept off by a mere breeze like thistledown, to drift hither and thither, wherever whim or spirit dictated.

He was an apt pupil and she taught him a myriad steps, and songs, so many songs, lullabies that would soothe a wolf to slumber even at the moment he was about to seize his quarry, anthems that would set the blood coursing through the veins of a dead man, laments that would make freshwater streams flow with brine, love songs that would make the austere mountain peaks ache for one another.

She danced before him, and around him, and through him, her beautiful body ever more sensuous, ever more detached, in the rhythms and caresses of the melody and the dance. He longed to hold her, but she constantly eluded any attempt to limit the soaring of her flight, of their flight. And yet he sensed that, now that the dance had begun, it would culminate in a glorious conjunction.

Finally she taught him the melody and the song and the dance that would carry him across the lake to the Island of Joy. The harvest moon was waxing. The festival of celebration started with the new moon, she explained, and continued until the harvest moon was full. She had been chosen and groomed to perform the ceremony on the island, the most important of the rituals associated with the harvest festival.

Zaja was anxious but keen. He accepted that there were dangers in this venture. But he braced himself, and when she flitted light-footed across the lake, he followed. He gave himself to the dance, did not look to the right or left, did not admire the scene or cast a glance at the graceful body of the girl. And he reached the island. When she looked around and saw him approaching her face lit up with the light of love. She took him in her arms, and held him in a sweet embrace.

But the sun was falling towards the horizon, and she had duties. She brought him to the raised centre of the island where there was a bare table of rock. On this table were three large round stones, the kind that are moulded by the sea. She turned each one of these sunwise nine times before the sun touched the land.

“Why do you turn the stones?” he asked.

“Because it is part of the harvest celebration. It is a token of esteem and gratitude to the sun that brings us life and food and light. It is a token of our respect.”

“What if you didn’t do it?”

“It wouldn’t be lucky. It might jeopardise the harvest the following year. The stones are called the Blessing Stones. But because certain evil women who have access to the island sometimes steal out during the dark nights of the new moon and turn the stones anti-sunwise to curse someone, they are also known as the Cursing Stones.”

“I think your blessing should be powerful enough to counteract the malice of a hundred such women.”

“Tomorrow morning is the last morning of the Festival. So let us stay the night here. It will be powerfully auspicious, and our mating will produce a son who will be both great and good.”

Zaja was seized by a powerful desire for the girl, but then he recalled his solemn prohibition, not to sow acorns unless he was staying to tend the sapling oaks. Only then did he realise the significance of it. It would have satisfied his body and soul to settle with the girl and rear sons who would be great and good, but he knew his destiny was elsewhere. With a heavy heart he addressed her.

“Nothing would delight me more than to mate with you, and rear a brood of sons. But I am obliged to follow my mission and to abide by my prohibition against settling anywhere until my mission is complete. So in the morning I must continue my journey. Much as I am drawn to mate with you, to live with you, to grow old with you, I am obliged not to plant acorns unless I am prepared to stay and tend the saplings.”

“Then you have misled me or I have misunderstood your desire to come to the island. And that may bring disastrous consequences, on you and me.”

“I do not wish anything untoward to happen to you. I am prepared to accept any disasters that may fall on me.”

“That cannot be unless I pronounce a curse on you. And that is something I am not inclined to do, even though you have rejected me.”

“Then pronounce the curse. I insist. And I will bear the consequences with a light heart, knowing I have not caused you harm.”

“You will cause me grief without doubt, since I have given my heart to you over these past days. My heart will ache to pronounce a curse on you.”

“But you must do it. Come now, pronounce.”

The girl went to the table with the three stones and turned each one of them in turn anti-sunwise nine times.

“Now, tell me what the curse is,” said Zaja.

“You will never beget a son,” said the girl sorrowfully.

“So be it,” said Zaja. And he turned to dance back across the lake.

9 In Tireragh

Zaja followed the setting sun towards the Northwest. As a pilgrim, in search of scholarship, he was assisted wherever he went. And he got directions. People knew of Tireragh, the land of the hunter, the land between the mountains and the sea, even if they had never been there. It was a place where the pursuit of scholarship was an everyday occupation, they said, like farming, or fishing, or the harvesting of winter fuel.

He followed the directions he was given. He passed the Rock of Sacrifice and the Quaking Rock. He followed the path through the mountain valley, past the Lake of Fishes, past the Hunters’ Lodge that guarded the path. And then he was looking down over the narrow plain. Beyond the plain was the endless sea, overhead the great canopy of airy clouds. Zaja knew he had reached his destination. This was the ultimate borderland between sky, sea, and mountain, where the sun itself bathed its own burning heat.

He encountered some shepherds and made known his scholarly pursuit. They directed him towards what they called Lecan Castle, which they were able to point out in the distance, the seat of a famous dynasty of scholars.

Zaja discovered when he reached it, that it was not a fortified castle, but rather a large house surrounded by dozens of small huts. He was greeted with warm civility and when he made it known that he was a student, he was assigned comfortable accommodation in one of the huts.

The village of huts around the castle was an extraordinary place. Some of the residents were young students like himself. Others were masters of various crafts, teachers of law and history, scribes, book-binders, poets, storytellers. In between were the journeymen, there to perfect themselves in their chosen arts. Among them too lived the farmers, the bakers, the cooks, and all the array of artisans who provided the services needed to sustain the effort of the whole community.

Some students who were sent here arrived with bags of gold coins to pay for their tuition. Zaja arrived with nothing but the clothes he was wearing. So he volunteered to work with the tradesmen, with the masters, with anyone who needed assistance. And in this way he learned new skills, to complement the ones in which he was already proficient. He mastered the arts of calligraphy, and poetry, and story-telling. He learned the old languages. He learned history and the genealogies of all the old families.

Presiding over this great school was the family itself. Mac Firbis. For more than a thousand years, from father to son, they had maintained the tradition, had passed on the knowledge and, strangely, the talent from one generation to the next. Zaja was well pleased to have reached this wonderful place of learning and he resided there three years.

10 The Scholar and the Serpent

Zaja spent three years at Lecan Castle, three happy years, among the learned and the learning. Loath though he was, at the end of the third year he decided it was time to leave. He asked for an audience with Mac Firbis, the head of the family so that he could make known his intention, express his gratitude, and bid his farewell.

He was directed to the top room of the Castle, known as the Book Room. When he entered, he paused inside the door. It was his first time to see this room. Only members of the family normally worked here. There were four desks, one facing each wall, and on each desk was arrayed the accoutrements of the scribe. There were several wooden presses holding many leather-bound tomes, the finished books.

At one desk, his back to Zaja, sat Mac Firbis. He didn’t rise to acknowledge the entry of the young man. He didn’t even move.

Zaja took a few steps to the side to engage the old scholar’s attention, and, when he caught a glimpse of his face, he recognised that he was deep in thought, so deep in thought he was clearly oblivious to the arrival of the visitor. His two hands were resting palms down on the desk, between them a closed book.

Zaja took another few steps and could see that the old man’s eyes were open and focused on the closed book. The scholar slowly turned towards him, as if it required a great effort to withdraw from his meditation and engage with the young man.

“I have come to take my leave, Master.”

“So soon, young man?”

“I could happily spend my whole life here, but I have obligations. Deep down I know that my destiny is elsewhere, a destiny I cannot shun.”

“You are right to follow your deepest urges. You have been a dedicated learner. I wish you well on your journey, wherever it takes you. Are you satisfied that your time here has been well spent?”

“Yes, every hour of every day, I learned something new, acquired some new skill. Bliss was it to be among teachers who joyed in scattering the seeds of their knowledge, and to be among learners who delighted in garnering the rich harvest of thought.”

“Have you any regrets?”

“Yes, that I have to leave before I have had the opportunity of delving into the richest sources of wisdom.” The young man’s eyes brushed wistfully over the tomes that were carefully stacked around the room, over the volume that rested on the old man’s desk.

The scholar smiled. “Ah, yes, the books. But books can be misunderstood and over-valued. In your travels you must have noticed that wisdom is not the sole preserve of the literate, that the skill of reading and writing do not necessarily confer wisdom on the dullard. Yes, books are the repositories of our highest thoughts, but they are only that, vessels, and not to be confused with what they contain. I worry that if we rely more on books to hold our thoughts, we may be in danger of leaving our heads empty.”

“Strange words from someone who has spent his life compiling books. Is that why you keep them locked away?”

“Not locked away.” The old man smiled. “Just out of reach, perhaps. Whatever is in the books should be in our heads and, if it is, there should be no need to consult the books.”

“Surely if would be easier for men to consult the books than to memorise all that is in them.”

“Easier, yes, that is our worry. And if we settle for what is easier will our minds get lazier? Will we lose our ability to absorb knowledge, to retain it, to recall it? Books might be counter-productive if we rely on them too much. If we use crutches without need, we can lose the power to walk unaided. Books can animate, but they can also petrify. Say a man arrives here from a distant place and narrates a wonderful story that has passed from mouth to ear for a hundred generations. If we record it and make the record available to everyone, then the story is frozen; it ceases to change, to grow, to develop. It is no longer a living thing, filtering through the minds and imaginations of people. In a way it is now dead. We have killed it by recording it. It is like a butterfly in a collector’s case. What we do here, therefore, is record, but we keep the record out of reach, so that the story continues to pass from mouth to ear, continues to be re-created with each new telling.”

“You lessen the mystique of books, and yet when I entered I had the impression that you were bowed in worship before that book.”

The old man laughed. “I may have been lost in meditation. I may have been transported, despite all I have said, by the wonder of the written word. But worship is a silly word and a dangerous concept.”

“It is said that our ancestors worshipped the Serpent. My learning Quest obliges me to continue until I have conquered the Serpent.”

“The master that set you that quest sent you on a long journey.” The old scholar could scarcely disguise his amusement. “Are you sure he wanted you to return?”

“Why would he wish me to stay away? I assume that the difficulty of the task was measured against my ability and my need to learn, and for that I am grateful. Nevertheless I do wish to accomplish my task and return home. Can you give me any advice?”

“I would certainly advise that you do not continue looking for a serpent, or the Serpent, or you will never see your home again. You must learn to think differently, to divine the meaning behind meanings, to wring the subtlety out of words. Examine the word ‘conquer’ for example. What does it mean? What does it imply? To get rid of that which you fear? To rid yourself of the fear of it?”

“I see. If I acquire wisdom, then I can rid myself of fear.”

“You don’t need wisdom, just knowledge. You can acquire knowledge, but never wisdom. You may spy wisdom through the cracks and borders of knowledge, but try to hold it and it escapes back through those same cracks, and the cracks close.”

“But what is the Serpent? And how do I encounter it?”

The old man took down a book and opened it flat on his desk. “Look at this. What do you see?”

“A serpent coiled into a circle.”

“And what does it signify?”

“Our primitive ancestors worshipped the Serpent before they were enlightened to the awareness of a higher being.”

“That word again, worshipped. A word to strike terror into the soul of the tremulous. What if the Serpent and the higher being were one and the same?”

“It would be difficult to accept that in this age.”

“Not if you shake off the terror of the words. Not if you read the symbols. Look again at the image. What do you see?”

“I see the serpent coiled into a circle devouring his own tail.”

“And what does that represent?”

“The eternal, as does the circle.”

“You have your explanations pat. Forget your pat explanations, and look afresh. What if the serpent is not devouring itself, but emerging from his own mouth? What if he is breathing himself into existence?”

Zaja looked afresh. “Yes, I must admit the image could represent that. So he is creating himself instead of devouring himself?”

“And what if he is doing both? What if he is creating and destroying, simultaneously and eternally?”

“Now you are confusing me.”

“Confusion is not an ignoble condition. It is the first step towards understanding. Eternal creation could be problematic, don’t you think, without eternal destruction, as would destruction without a compensating creation. So what we see represented in this simple image is the great spirit of the universe forever growing, forever decaying, forever creating, forever destroying. So the Serpent is not so intimidating when you see it like that, is it? And not so far removed from any other representation of the higher being?”

“I feel close at last to the end of my Quest. How do I learn more and engage with the Serpent?”

“Knowledge conquers. It roots out the terror that has been planted in words. It puts reins on the wild horses of the imagination. It tempers the metal of the soul. But knowledge is not wisdom. Learn to discriminate. Wisdom arrives when one can live happily with the contradictions that knowledge abhors. If you truly wish to conquer terror and embrace the Serpent, you should spend time with the Saint.”

“Who is the Saint?”

“Some call him the Saint, some the Druid. He doesn’t mind. He is content to live with such contradictions. He lives among the cracks and the dividing trenches in knowledge where wisdom breaks through. From him you will certainly gain understanding of the Serpent.”

Zaja thanked the old scholar and took his final leave of the learning community around Lecan Castle. When they heard that he was on his way to find the Saint, they joked that he should go in the afternoon, because if he went in the morning he would find the Druid instead.

11 The Saint and the Druid

Zaja followed directions to the grove called the Keeve. He picked his way down a wooded slope. Flashes of silver light semaphored the course of the river beneath. The quilt of green hazels, the silence broken only by the distant lullaby of falling water, the isolation from all the settlements and villages of people, suggested that this place was special. It was not surprising therefore to hear from the people that this was a sacred grove since the beginning of time.

When he reached the river-bed he followed the course of the stream until he came to a waterfall. There, kneeling in front of the falling water, was the person he was seeking, he whom everyone referred to as the Saint. He was not the original saint, more the current holder of a title passed on from hermit to hermit who had chosen to take up residence in this sacred grove.

Zaja paused to observe him. Beneath the waterfall was a pool, dark and deep, into which the falling water poured, the keeve that had given its name to the whole grove. The Saint was kneeling with outstretched hands as if the water were pouring into his lap instead of into this keeve that was etched from the solid rock. Zaja was reluctant to intrude on his meditation. Eventually the old man lowered his hands into the pool, scooped up water and bathed his face. He rose stiffly to his feet and began looking about him as if he had just wakened from sleep. His eyes fell on Zaja standing in the stream.

“Whom do you seek?” he asked.

“You,” replied the young man.

“Then what do you seek?”


The Saint laughed. He laughed until the buds on the hazel trees were dancing in merriment.

“I can give you some food, a bed for the night if you need it. But wisdom you must find for yourself.”

“I have travelled far. I have learned much. And I may not return home until I have conquered the Serpent. I think you may be able to help me on my journey.”

“The journey to wisdom is circular, it usually leads back to where one started from. And that begs the question whether the journey was necessary.”

“I am obliged by my Quest to seek wisdom. And I am obliged not to return home until I have conquered the Serpent, whatever that means.”

“My, my, they did send you on a long trip. Very well, you are welcome to the Keeve. Now we will eat. Wisdom tastes better with some bread, and a little salt.” And the Saint led the way, chuckling to himself.

They came to a cabin made of oak logs with a roof that was amply and freshly thatched with reeds. Inside Zaja observed that it was well provided with frugal comfort. The Saint gestured him to sit in to the table while he rummaged in a bin and produced enough food for both of them.

“You are wondering to yourself, ‘he does not sow, neither does he reap, so whence comes his food and his necessities for living’, are you not?”

“The thought had crossed my mind.”

“This grove belongs to the people and not to me. My presence here gives them some assurance, that is all. They come here at certain times to celebrate, to express their sense of wonder at the unknown. And I am no more than the caretaker of the grove, for which service they provide me with the necessities for survival.”

“It is meet that they support a holy man.”

“It is meet that they support me also, because otherwise we would have no meat.” And he laughed heartily at his own joke.”

“They say you are a druid in the morning and a saint by the afternoon. What do they mean?”

“Why did you not question those who made the statement? If you do not understand a statement, challenge the speaker. That is how to acquire precise knowledge, and if you can’t acquire precise knowledge, how do you expect to achieve wisdom?”

“I did challenge the speakers.”

“And what did they say?”

“They said that you go blind every morning worshipping the rising sun. But that your sight is restored during the day when you bathe your eyes in the blessed keeve.”

“As always, their observation is accurate, and, as always, their understanding is limited.”

“I wish to stay with you until I have gained insight. I feel that here at last I can complete my Quest.”

“You may stay as long as you wish, and I will give you what guidance I can. But wisdom cannot be passed on. It cannot be parcelled and communicated like information or knowledge. You acquire it from reflection on knowledge, from reflection on experience, from reflection on life. But understand that you will not leave here with your head full of wisdom.”

“Mac Firbis said that wisdom can be glimpsed only through the cracks in knowledge.”

“That is well put. Through the wounds in experience also. And another thing, a quest is a quest. By definition it is never over. Reflect on that.” And the Saint laughed merrily as he began to clear a cell for his visitor.”

12 The Serpent Unveiled

“People are terrified by what they know, people are terrified by what they don’t know,” explained the Saint. “The solution might seem to be to expunge fear from people’s minds. But fear is what protects them from danger. It ensures they avoid hazards. It makes them take care of their young. It gets them out of bed in the morning to provide food against the privation of winter.”

“If people understand the Serpent,” explained the Saint, “it becomes as docile as a lap dog or a pussycat. But then they would invent some other cause for terror. Gods and devils are all invented out of need. Therefore killing gods and vanquishing devils are futile exercises. Better to leave people with the gods and devils they are comfortable with. Better to teach them how to accept their terror as natural and how to live with it.”

“The quest for wisdom is a quest without end,” explained the Saint to his attentive and devoted student, Zaja. “Whoever set you the task was either very wise or very foolish. He either didn’t want you to return or wanted you to return a gifted man. Whichever it was doesn’t matter. The reality is that you alone can decide when you have achieved wisdom, and therefore you alone can decide when you are ready to return.”

“Wisdom comes like an occasional but often unexpected glance of sunlight through a cloudy sky,” explained the Saint. “Of course you will miss it if you have not been looking at the clouds. Think of the clouds as the entire artifice of knowledge, and then realise it is a great veil concealing the truth. The truth is hidden behind it, pure, unchanging, inviolable. And if we are vigilant and dedicated watchers of the sky, we are blessed with an occasional glance through the clouds, and that is as much as we are capable of receiving, limited beings that we are.”

“This is the origin of the Serpent,” said the Saint, taking up a stick and drawing a straight line in the mud. Over this he drew a series of semi-circles, one inside the other and diminishing in size. “If you observe the course of the sun, rising on the horizon, traversing the sky, and setting on the horizon, from mid-summer to mid-winter, it looks like this. Each day it rises a little lower and sets a little lower.” And he ran his stick over the diminishing semi-circles. “Now, if we draw the imagined course of the sun through the night from sunset to sunrise, it would look like this.” And he drew another series of semi-circles under the horizon line, each one running continuously into the one above it.

“Now what do you see?”

“A spiral,” answered Zaja.

“Yes, and a motif that has been carved on ritual stones for thousands of years. Now, if you were looking at this image long enough, what might you associate it with?”

“A coiled serpent.”

“And that is how the spiral and the Serpent and the sun merged into a single symbol to satisfy the imagination of our ancestors. The Sun is the fiery Serpent, or Dragon, coiling around the earth now bestowing heat and life, now consuming life with equal appetite. And tell me if this is not as sophisticated a way of visualising the great creative and destructive soul of the universe as projecting a great daddy in the sky, or a bunch of warring gods.”

“In the morning you greet the rising sun?”

“I do, but not in cringing worship, as some would have it. Rather to express my wonder at the astonishing beauty of this world we find ourselves in.”

“May I join you in the morning?”

“You may. But there is a station to be completed before the sun rises, so you will have an early start and a severe preparation.”

13 Sun and Water

Long before dawn, when there was just enough light to show the path through the trees, the Saint led the way. They were fasting, bare-footed, and bare-legged. On top of the mound, which was a gigantic heap of stones, they got down on their knees. Moving on their knees, they circled the mound three times, then digressed down the stony path to the river. Along the river-bed they made their way, slowly shuffling forward over the jagged rock. When they reached the bottom of a path on the other bank they ascended and followed it along a cliff face, then down again to the river-bed.

Before they began the ascent to their starting point, the Saint picked up a stone from the river-bed and beckoned Zaja to do likewise. When they reached the mound again the Saint cast his stone on the heap and Zaja followed suit. They were getting to their feet just as strong light started breaking on the horizon.

The Saint stood on top of the mound of stones and faced the rising sun with his two arms outstretched in the form of a cross. Zaja stood a little way off, watching the Saint as much as the sunrise.

The Saint stood staring at the sun until it cleared the horizon. Then he lowered his arms. It was clear to Zaja that he was dazzled if not blinded by the exercise.

“Can there be a greater manifestation of the spirit of love in the universe than the daily rising of the sun, bringing us light and heat, bestowing graciously the gift of life?”

Zaja did not answer, for he was deeply moved by the beauty of the moment. The hardship of the station he had followed had sharpened his senses. The pain from the cuts and bruises on this legs elevated into an intense awareness of every green leaf in the grove as well as of the sea in the distance and the sky overhead, of the birds stirring in the trees to welcome the day, of the animals rising from their sleep to prowl for food. He did not speak, for he was overwhelmed by this intense awareness of the livingness of everything.

The Saint fumbled past Zaja and down the path to the river. It was clear that he could not see but was able to pick his way through familiarity with the grove. Zaja followed him. When he reached the river-bed he followed the flow upstream until he was standing under the waterfall where Zaja had first seen him. He knelt at the keeve and dipped his hand into the water scooping it up to bathe his eyes.

“The other great miracle of our earth,” he said, “is water. Think of how water is constantly flowing, finding its way to the sea, there to be raised again as vapour and breathed back across the land, to nourish everything that grows. Don’t tell me I am worshipping water when I kneel here in awe of this phenomenon. If there is a spirit of the universe, then it is manifested here too.”

“The argument is that all these things behave according to the laws of a Creator.”

“Water obeys no laws. If it did, then ice would not float. The river would freeze in the winter from the bottom up and kill the fish and every other thing that lives beneath its surface.”

The Saint’s vision was restored, and he looked about him, looked at Zaja who was standing still, as if in a trance. “Come on,” he said. “We have paid our respects. Now let us go and have breakfast.”

14 The Hawk and the Sparrow

It is said that one day while Zaja was residing with the Saint, a frightened sparrow flew into the grove and sheltered in his arms. The young man was startled from his meditation of the falling water. He stroked down the ruffled feathers of the deeply agitated bird and asked what was the cause of his terror.

The sparrow replied that he was fleeing from the hawk that was hovering overhead intent on killing him. Zaja looked up and saw the hawk, his talons extended, waiting to pounce. He spread his arms to shield the bird.

“Do not be afraid,” he said, “for I will protect you even with my life.”

When the hawk saw and heard what was happening he flew down and lit on a branch in front of the young man.

“This is not fair,” he complained. “That sparrow is my food for today. If I do not eat I cannot keep up my strength to stay alive, to procreate, to feed my young. You have no right to interfere with the course of nature. If that bird were about to feed on a worm would you take pity on the worm also and prevent the sparrow from eating?”

“I can appreciate your need,” replied Zaja, “but does pity for your prey not enter your mind?”

“How can I allow pity for my prey to enter my mind, when I have to kill? Do you want me to stop killing and to lie down and die?”

“I will give you corn to eat, as much golden corn as you want, only spare the life of this sparrow,” replied Zaja.

“And is there not life in each grain of corn too? Anyway I cannot eat corn, anymore than you can sustain yourself on grass. I can eat only meat.”

Zaja was baffled. He was moved by the argument of the hawk and was indeed sympathetic towards him.

“I do not have an answer to your dilemma,” he said. “But I have vowed to protect this sparrow, with my life if necessary. So if you need meat to survive, please take my flesh instead.”

Zaja stripped off his coat and exposed his chest and arms to the hawk.

“As you will,” said the hawk. “It is my need that I must serve.” And he flew on to the shoulder of the young man and began to tear the soft flesh from his breast.

He would have continued to eat the flesh of the young man from his bones and had determined to tear out his heart and carry it off to feed his young. Indeed Zaja would have permitted him to do that without flinching. But the Saint, who was watching from a distance, intervened.

“Brother hawk, forbear,” said the Saint. “Forbear. Your proper prey is not this young man, and you should respect the pity he has shown for the defenceless sparrow. Indeed you are driven by your needs, and you have a responsibility to fend for yourself and for your young. But to kill this young man would leave the world impoverished to a degree that your survival would never compensate for.”

“Oh, yes,” said the hawk, “the old story. Human life is sacred; the life of the bird or the animal is dispensable.”

“Not true,” said the hermit. “All life is sacred. And all beings have to forage blindly for survival. But the action of this young man transcends the imperatives of the natural world. As you say, it is an act against nature, unreasonable, illogical, and yet it is an act of the highest order because it is inspired by love. The love of the quarry for the hunter doesn’t make sense, yet what could be more difficult or more noble? That is why you should respect his action. You yourself should not be impervious to higher feelings. Nevertheless, I can see that you have a deal, and you may claim your entitlement.”

The hawk looked at the young man, his eyes closed, his countenance fixed in an expression of endurance, blood running down his chest and on to the feathers of the bird he was still cradling in his arms. And the hawk felt pity, and he felt ashamed. He rose on heavy wings and flew out of the grove. The Saint took the sparrow from Zaja and released it to fly into the trees. But, although his fear was gone, he would not leave the grove. The Saint brought Zaja to the pool under the waterfall and told him to bathe his wounds. As soon as he did so, his wounds were healed.

15 The Pictures and the Stone

Every evening after supper the Saint lit the torch in the cabin and took out a set of small pictures he had. These he placed face downwards on the table, shuffled them around, fixed them in an overall shape or pattern, then turned them face upwards. For a long time every evening he stared at this display of pictures in deep meditation.

“What do you see in the pictures?” Zaja asked.

“Nothing and everything”

“You spend too much time looking at them to see nothing.” Zaja laughed.

“That does not mean I see everything. They help me to think, to concentrate deeply.”

“There is a rumour among the people that you can read the future in the pictures.”

“Rumours come cheap. It is the people who create the future.”

“How do the pictures help you to think?”

“There is an element of truth in what the people say. Of course no one can foretell the future in the sense of predicting what events will happen. But within the present lie the seeds of the future. The potential for every outcome is there. Recognising that potential in the present is possible. Whether that potential is realised or not depends on circumstances. Identifying the seed does not guarantee the full blown rose.”

“Can you identify the potential in my future?”

“I do not advise such prognostication. It is dangerous. When someone makes such a request, he is generally hoping for a good forecast. But luck or chance cannot be anticipated, by definition. Success is achieved by endeavour and by creative use of opportunities. I don’t need to look in the pictures to tell someone that.”

“I have always had a sense of destiny,” said Zaja, “as if I have some role to play, as if there is a pre-ordained purpose to my life which I must not shirk. Whether I am destined for happiness or tragedy I do not know, but that is not important. What is important is that I am faithful to my mission in life. Perhaps you can help me to clarify what my mission is.”

The Saint considered that for a while, then spread out the pictures, shuffled them, and arranged them in the shape of a cross before he turned them over.

“Why cross-shaped?” asked Zaja.

“The cross and the circle are one. The most potent of all forms, since it represents the cycle of the sun, the cycle of water, the cycle of the seasons, the cycle of life itself.”

Zaja did not interrupt him again while he meditated on the pictures. Eventually the Saint spoke.

“You have learned much. Enough to consider your learning Quest complete. Your mission in life is to teach. Of that you have a sense, and it needs little clarification from me. There are two enormous possibilities in your life; one is for enormous happiness, the other for enormous suffering. But they are not alternatives. The one implies the other. The suffering is so great because it is a trial of all you hold dear and all you have taught.”

“Thank you. It strengthens me to know that my mission is to teach.”

“Teaching is one matter. Being tested to the extreme on your commitment to what you have taught, that is another matter. And I emphasise that if you follow your destiny you will be tried to the extreme.”

“Do you think I can endure that test?”

“Now you are asking me to forecast outcomes, and that I cannot do.”

“Can you assist me to prepare for the test?”

“You can make yourself invincible against suffering, but you cannot lessen or evade the suffering by a single iota. Being invincible, you will suffer all the more.”

“I am not afraid of suffering. I am afraid of not being equal to the test of my sincerity.”

“Very well,” said the Saint. “We will create a receptacle into which you can infuse your soul in the moment of tribulation. When we do the station in the morning you must choose carefully a stone from the river-bed that especially attracts you. Carry that stone with you until the day you leave, and then place it on top of the mound. Remember that stone every day of your life, so that it is part of you. When the day of trial comes you can concentrate deeply and pour your soul into that stone where no one can afflict it.”

The next morning when they kneed their way along the river-bed Zaja found a white stone rounded as if by long buffeting in the sea. He selected it and carried it with him for the rest of his stay in the Keeve.

The saint also allowed him to make copies of the pictures and taught him how to meditate on them, focusing now on an individual image, now on a combination of images, allowing the symbols to draw his mind on to deeper levels of awareness, to layers of meaning that lay behind the surface values presented to the mind by the senses. And he finally began to see that a greater truth was to be glimpsed through the cracks in knowledge.

He was finally ready to return home, and he took his leave of the Saint. As the sun rose, Zaja stood with the white stone in his hand. He placed it solemnly on the mound giving thanks for the gift of light and heat, giving thanks for the great serpent of life curling around the earth like the caring arms of a mother wrapped around her child.

As he embraced Zaja, the Saint said: “If you have to infuse your soul into that stone, your soul can never rest until you return the stone to the river-bed. And only you can do that. So we may meet again.”

16 The Oak and the Ivy

The story is told that when Zaja set out on his journey home to the Central Kingdom it was Samhain. The old year had petered to a close and the new year had risen with the first sun of November, a suitable time to start a journey, but not from a consideration of weather.

When he came to the great Easkey River, it was in flood and the ford was impassable. He sat on a rock to watch the spate of water and to ponder what he would do. He could wait until the flood subsided, but that might be weeks or months. He could trace the river back to its source in the mountains and cross there, but that too would take time.

The ford was set in a wooded valley. Zaja got up and walked along the bank of the river, admiring the landscape, and filling his pockets with succulent hazel nuts. He halted when he heard a groan from an oak tree whose skeletal arms protruded from an abundant growth of ivy.

“Why do you groan, brother oak?”

“Is it not obvious?” replied the oak. “I am being choked to death by this ivy. Can you not see that?”

When Zaja looked around, he saw that all the great oak trees in the valley were covered in ivy.

The oak tree continued: “This is no longer an oak wood but an ivy wood, and what a pathetic sight it is. When this little creeper arrived in the wood we laughed and laughed at a plant that had not the backbone to raise itself even an inch off the ground unaided. And the ivy said, ‘laugh all you like, but we will take over this forest, we will turn it into a forest of ivy, and the ivy will reign as king of the forest.’ We laughed some more. But we stopped laughing when we felt its tentacles running up our barks, sucking the life out of us, smothering our access to the light.”

The ivy then addressed Zaja. “Pass no heed of this old rambling fool. He cannot see that his day is gone, his race is run. We rule the forest now. Everywhere you look you see the ivy supreme, triumphant, not these primeval hulks of oak, or beech, or chestnut. No, the humble ivy is king.”

“My race is run, that is true,” replied the oak. “There is not a drop of sap in me to sprout a single leaf. I will make a pact with you, young man. I saw you coming to the ford and balking. You want to cross the river. I will help you. If you clear the ivy from my brother oaks and sister beeches, I will lean with the next wind and fall across the river to bridge it for you.”

“That is a deal I am happy to accept,” replied Zaja, and he began to strip the ivy from the trunk of the nearest oak.

“But this is not fair,” cried the ivy. “It is our nature to climb, to reach for the sun in whatever way we can.”

“Since you destroy what you climb on, it is necessary to keep you in check, to keep you in your place, where you belong – on the ground.” And Zaja stripped the protesting ivy from the trunk of every tree. He gathered it into a great mound for burning.

The old oak, true to its word, swayed with the next strong wind, and landed square across the river.

It is said that Zaja never forgot this encounter, and when he became ruler, he looked closely at every man to determine whether he had the mettle of the oak or of the ivy. And he admonished the people to be vigilant and to discriminate between them.

17 Disputation and Advice

Zaja encouraged the people of the kingdom to meet in their town squares every evening when their work was done. It was good for them, he said, to talk, to dispute, to plan, to cooperate and collaborate, so that life would be better for all.

He encouraged the poets and storytellers to avail of this opportunity to present their work and entertain an audience. He even encouraged the smiths and the sculptors, the illustrators and calligraphers to bring samples of their work into the Square so that people would be aware of their efforts and their achievement.

The Square in front of the Castle saw the most popular and populous of all the gatherings. Every evening Zaja moved among them, listening to a story here, criticising a poem there, engaging in many disputations especially the ones that featured the young men and young women, because they were the most passionate about their ideas.

One evening a large gathering of such young men and women were discussing Zaja’s disbanding of the army. Although they all agreed that it was wrong to kill, some argued that killing in self-defence or in defence of one’s country was permissible. As soon as Zaja joined the circle, they turned to him for his verdict.

‘Do not do to others as you know they would do to you.’ Zaja repeated his familiar admonishment. ‘Act, do not react. Let everything you do manifest what you value. If you react, you are accepting the rules from your adversary, behaving according to his principles not according to your own.’

Another time they were questioning Zaja about his travels.

‘You travelled the great world in search of wisdom, Zaja. You immersed yourself in the cultures of the East and the West, of the North and the South. Which do you regard as the greatest civilisation? Which one should we seek to emulate?’

‘The cultures of the East and the West, of the North and the South, are all different. But cultures have nothing to do with civilisation. Learn to distinguish. Civilisation is judged on how the least of society is treated in everyday life, culture on the achievement of artists, poets, and scholars. And there is no priority; the separate demands of both culture and civilisation are absolute.”

On such a night too a conscientious young man drew Zaja aside and asked him: ‘how can I lead a worthy life?’

And Zaja said: ‘Think of life as a lake, a reservoir from which humanity draws sustenance. Contribute to it what you can, take from it what you need. And if you contribute less than you can, or take from it more than you need, then you have not used your time and talent worthily.’

18 Three Daughters

Zaja and his wife, Princess Caoimhe, had three daughters. They grew up to be beautiful young women, and when the time came for them to marry, there were suitors in abundance for their hands. Even though they married with their hearts, it so happened that one chose a prince of the South Kingdom, one a prince of the West Kingdom, and one a prince of the North Kingdom.

But Zaja had no son.

When the people in the city Square lamented the departure of the three daughters to the other three kingdoms, they questioned Zaja: ‘we hope you and Princess Caoimhe will be with us for many years to come, Zaja, but who will we turn to when you have both gone? Who will succeed you in this kingdom?’

And Zaja said, ‘You will.’

‘What do you mean?’ they asked, for they assumed he was joking.

‘Haven’t I taught you everything you need to know? Why should you need anyone dictating what you do, when you know perfectly well yourselves how to manage your lives, the lives of your families, and the affairs of the kingdom?’

The people went away puzzled, for they still did not know if this was one of Zaja’s jokes.

19 How Shumaka became Commander of the Army

Of all the suitors for her hand that Princess Caoimhe declined, the most bitterly disappointed was Shumaka. As nephew of a king, as a warrior of growing reputation, he regarded his credentials irresistible.

He simmered in indignation waiting for an opportunity to satisfy his enormous ambition. But his uncle, the King, was reluctant to entrust any major responsibility to him within the East Kingdom, realising how boundless was his ambition, how ruthless his nature. In truth the King feared his own nephew. After the reference to the child and the skipping rope at the graduation service, he had made enquiries and was convinced that Shumaka was responsible for the child’s death.

When he learned that Princess Caoimhe’s choice for husband and ruler was none other than Zaja, Shumaka’s indignation turned to venom. He smouldered in frustration, as his uncle the King showed no inclination towards war despite the military superiority of the East Kingdom. In the counsel chamber he raised slights and oversights by the other kingdoms as requiring a military response, but he was waved aside as if he were no more than a truculent adolescent.

But when the news reached Shumaka that the three daughters of Zaja and Caoimhe had been married off to the sons of the three neighbouring kings, his anger burst like an uncontainable dam. He went to his uncle and demanded to be made Commander of the Army, claiming it was now clear that the other four kingdoms were united against them. He raged that their own army had been allowed to grow fat and lethargic as a result of the long peace, that it would be in no condition to protect their country should the other kingdoms move against them.

The King was not convinced that there was a threat from the other kingdoms, but when he witnessed the warrior’s rage that had seized Shumaka, he feared for his own safety and for the safety of his sons who were heirs to his kingdom.

He agreed to make Shumaka Commander of the Army with permission to put it on a war footing. He reasoned that if Shumaka were to invade the Central Kingdom there would be little resistance and few casualties. And if his troublesome nephew were busying himself conquering a country for himself he would be less of a threat at home.

So Shumaka formally took command of the army. He appointed his personal followers to key positions and began to drill the soldiers in preparation for war.

20 Invasion

With fiery speeches and dreadful warnings of a conspiracy by the other four kingdoms to attack and subjugate them, Shumaka incited the people of the East Kingdom to a frenzy of anxiety and aggression. All the young men had been conscripted into the army and drilled for war.

Rumour of an intended attack reached the Central Kingdom and people gathered in the Square demanding guidance from Zaja. They were muttering about the foolishness of disbanding the army and of destroying their weapons.

Zaja addressed the hushed mass of people. “I want you to listen carefully and to do exactly as I say. There will be an invasion, yes. And we will not fight. We will not kill for our country. I want you all to go home and to go about your normal business, working in your fields and workshops, cooking your meals and looking after your children. When the soldiers come, pretend you do not see them. Do not speak to them, do not feed them, do not cooperate with them in any way. It is against the soldiers’ code to kill an unarmed adversary. Shumaka may have trained some more dogs to ignore the code, but the majority of the soldiers are people like you and me, and they know what is right and wrong. If they see nobility and behave ignobly themselves, they will be ashamed, and they will become demoralised.”

And so when Shumaka’s army invaded the Central Kingdom, there was no resistance. People continued working in the fields as if it was an army of ghosts that was passing. In the streets of the town, life went on as normal, as if it was routine to have squadrons of soldiers marching around, setting up checkpoints, and fortifying the public buildings.

When they arrived at the Castle, the gates and the doors were open, as if some welcome guests were expected. As soon as his soldiers had taken control of the building, Shumaka entered, and went directly to the State Room. There he sat on the throne that had not been used since the old King died. He summoned Zaja and Princess Caoimhe to sign a declaration of surrender, ceding power over the country to him.

But the officer who summoned Zaja and Caoimhe was ignored, as if he were addressing the furniture. He reported the outcome of his effort to Shumaka, who flew into a rage. He ordered the officer to take a detachment of soldiers and to bring the pair before him by force.

Zaja and Caoimhe were apprehended and jostled into the State Room. They allowed themselves to be pushed forward until they were standing in front of Shumaka, but they refused to look at him or to answer his questions. They looked at one another with loving glances, as if they were two coy young people about to court one another.

Shumaka was furious. But he did not know what to do. They offered no resistance, so it would be ignominious to kill them. He had control of the country, but he wanted to become ruler and had expected that Zaja and Caoimhe would concede power to him and therefore legitimise his rule.

But he was mistaken, and he was confused.

21 Trial and Death

For many months Shumaka’s army continued to occupy the Central Kingdom, and Shumaka issued orders and demands and edicts from the State Room in the Castle. But the people continued steadfastly to ignore them. They did not talk to the soldiers nor obey them, as if there were two parallel lives occurring in the one place, but on different planes, that of the military and that of the people.

Eventually the soldiers began to unsettle. They were trained to fight and kill, but this was a warfare for which they were not prepared. They got restless. Even the occasional atrocity, like a rape or a murder, clearly the action of some unhinged soldier, was ignored by the people. There was no reaction whatsoever.

Shumaka was growing more and more frustrated. He had achieved his life-long ambition of conquering and ruling a country. And yet all he still commanded was the army. He could not command a single citizen to tie his own shoelaces.

When the soldiers began to show signs of total disaffection, Shumaka became anxious. They wanted to go home, they said. They could see no point in this continued occupation. The people showed neither fear nor respect, but went about their business as if the soldiers did not exist.

Shumaka decided on a desperate measure. He ordered his trusted aides to seize Princess Caoimhe and imprison her in a room of the tower. He then issued a declaration that he would take her out on the battlement in three days, strip her and copulate with her, thus claiming the land according to an ancient ritual.

His aides sniggered. The ancient ritual was not much of a claim, but they thought Shumaka clever in another way. It would leave Zaja with a choice. He could challenge Shumaka to combat to protect his wife’s honour, a fight that was bound to end in Shumaka killing him. On the other hand he could adhere to his principles and refuse to fight, in which case he would be permitting Shumaka to enjoy his wife and would have to divorce her. Either way, Shumaka stood to gain the kingdom.

When the people of the Central Kingdom heard the declaration, they converged on the Castle and would have stormed it with bare hands to rescue their beloved Princess. But Zaja took up a position in the Square before the Castle and admonished them not to raise a finger. Although it was against their instincts, they deferred to Zaja.

When the news of what had transpired reached the South Kingdom, and the North Kingdom, and the West Kingdom, they quickly mobilised, and three powerful armies converged on the Castle to rescue Caoimhe, the mother of their own princesses.

Zaja knew that the time of his trial had now come. He sat among his people in the Square, closed his eyes, and went into deep meditation for three hours. As the Saint had advised him, he willed the better part of his soul into the stone that was sitting on top of a mound in a grove far off in the Northwest. And when he opened his eyes from his meditation he knew that even the ultimate pain would not cause him to buckle.

Then Zaja began to sing. He let the love he bore for Caoimhe pour out of him in a torrent of song. All the love songs he had learned from the poets of the West Kingdom poured forth. The songs and melody that had once lightened him to skip across a lake echoed across the silent square. The people and soldiers listened to him in a trance. They all had love in their lives and they recognised the intensity and the sincerity of Zaja’s. The soldiers shuffled uneasily, aware that they were tarnished by association with Shumaka’s ugly manoeuvring.

When the three armies, led by his three sons-in-law, surrounded the Castle, Zaja called on them to withdraw.

They had come to rescue the beloved mother of their wives, they said. They could not understand how Zaja could order everyone to stand and watch while his wife was about to be raped in public by a dog of a war monger.

Zaja said, “my beloved Caoimhe chose not to be married to a butcher when she declined Shumaka’s marriage suit. Would you now have her married to a butcher in Zaja? I have told you always to act, not to react. Do not let your enemies force you to do what is wrong, do not let them bring you down to their level of barbarism.”

The three princes were perplexed, for they knew that Zaja was acting in accordance with the advice he had always given to people for better living, and he was now facing the trial of his conviction.

Zaja knew too that this was the trial foreseen long before by the Saint. It had been inevitable, and yet Zaja had devised no tactic for avoidance or equivocation. He could only face it. The pain and the anxiety would have been too much to bear had Zaja not infused his soul into the stone in a faraway country where no one could reach it, no matter how much torture he was subjected to. But in black moments he wished that he could renege on the responsibility to manifest the truth of what he had taught.

Shumaka’s army was holding the Castle, and rows of his armed soldiers kept the unarmed populace at bay in the surrounding area. On the outskirts of the capital were the three armies waiting for the order to advance and slaughter Shumaka and his army. Still Zaja sat among his people singing love songs.

When Shumaka appeared on the battlement he bellowed that Zaja had a last chance to abdicate before he carried out his threat. Zaja ignored him and continued singing. Shumaka beckoned to his minions to bring forth Caoimhe. When she appeared, a hush fell on the whole city. And Zaja’s love song rose over the mass to reach the ears of Caoimhe. She looked down, saw him, and smiled.

Shumaka beckoned to his officers and they stripped the princess of her clothes. Then Shumaka shed his own clothes and stood before the eyes of friend and foe, his body powerful with the muscles and sinews of a great warrior. And he appeared to the people as a great stallion, his member erect and eager for copulation.

The Princess stood motionless, her delicate beauty radiant, a total contrast to the animal aura of Shumaka’s body. There was absolute silence. Even Zaja could not release the song from his breast. Caoimhe ignored Shumaka and continued gazing on Zaja, a sad smile on her face.

The silence was broken by Shumaka’s band of henchmen who started chanting lewdly their own anthem:
Shumaka, Shumaka
Fear, fear, fear.

Then a soldier from Shumaka’s army stood up and began chanting a counter rhyme:
Shumaka, Shumaka
One two three
And slowly many of the soldiers joined in:
Shumaka, Shumaka
Who is he
It is said that the soldier who started the counter chant had been a playmate of the boy who was hanged with a skipping rope. And more soldiers remembered how their childhood play had been halted by terror, and they joined in:
Shumaka, Shumaka
Lifts his knee
Shumaka, Shumaka
Dog wets tree.

And as Shumaka looked down, he found his army laughing at him. He was taken aback. His manhood wilted.

In this moment of confusion and hesitation, Princess Caoimhe slipped from her captors and jumped from the battlement. There was a gasp of horror as she fell to her death. There was a wail from Zaja as he ran to cradle his wife’s body.

And as Zaja wailed over the dead body of Princess Caoimhe, the soldiers of the East Kingdom looked at one another in shame. Then one of them got up, threw his weapons on the ground, and began to walk away, then another, and another, until most of the army had thrown their weapons in a pile and started walking home.

Only Shumaka, his bodyguards, and his staunch supporters were left. The people stormed the Castle and apprehended them. They brought them before Zaja and asked what he wanted to do with them. But he gestured that they were to release them. So great was his grief that he could not even utter the words.

Great was the lamentation in the Central Kingdom at the death of Caoimhe. And the lamentation in the South Kingdom, in the West Kingdom, in the North Kingdom carried the cry from ocean to ocean.

There were two fires the night of Caoimhe’s funeral, her pyre and an enormous bonfire of the weapons that had been left behind by the deserting soldiers. And the flames of that bonfire were so high they lit the skies all the way to the East kingdom to light the way for the demoralised soldiers. When their King heard of the debacle, he stripped Shumaka of his command, of his status as a warrior, and he banished him from the court.

When Zaja gathered the ashes of Princess Caoimhe, he called the people into the Square.

“The time has come for me to leave,” he told them. “I have prepared you for this moment. You know how to live, how to organise your own affairs, how to take responsibility for the affairs of state. I must now leave and take my wife’s ashes to a place far away from here.”

Much were the regrets and the entreaties, but Zaja assembled his travelling pack and left the Central Kingdom.

22 Second Coming

Zaja was bathing his eyes in the keeve, the sacred pool beneath the waterfall. Slowly the stinging eased and the veil of light began to darken and fragment. Again he scooped a handful of water and bowed his face into it. The physical world of rock and green trees and cloudy sky was retuning to his perception. When he turned around he saw a young man standing silently in the river-bed. He paused to focus his eyes and be sure they were functioning again. They were.

“What can I do for you?” he asked.

“I am seeking the one they call the Saint.”

“You are lucky to have found him. Had you come any earlier, you would have found the one they call the Druid instead.” He laughed at the old joke.

“I know that.”

“Good, you have done your homework. So come and join me for breakfast.”

They went to the oak cabin and Zaja put a meal on the table. “Now, young man,” he said, “tell me why you have come.”

“I come from the Central Kingdom and I am pursuing my Quest.”

“So, what is your challenge?”

“It is the same as for all young men who wish to perfect themselves: to find and kill anyone who claims to be Zaja.”

“And who set you this task?”

“He who commands the bridge to the one true Zaja, the holy Shumaka.”

“Shumaka? Holy?”

“Yes, the holy Shumaka, through whom the one true Zaja is revealed.”

“I have not been to the Central Kingdom for a long long time. Shumaka was then the Commander of the Army of the East Kingdom.”

“That is certainly a long time ago. Shumaka was indeed the Commander of the Army and the arch-enemy of Zaja. He invaded the Central Kingdom with the intention of annexing it. But he did not appreciate the power of Zajaism. Zajaism had taken hold in people’s hearts and minds, and that made them invincible against the military might of Shumaka and the forces of the East. They had no weapons and they left the gates and the doors of their towns and cities open as if they were welcoming the invaders. Yet without weapons or fortifications, with nothing but the power of Zajaism, they defeated Shumaka’s army and sent them home a demoralised rabble.”

The young man paused to eat something and to study the silent Zaja. Then he continued.

“That was when the holy Shumaka saw the error of his ways. He repented, and cast aside his former life. He donned the attire of a beggar and embarked on his legendary pilgrimage that lasted three years. He made his way back to the Central Kingdom, begging forgiveness for his role in the death of their beloved Princess Caoimhe. Such was the power of Zajaism that instead of striking him dead on the spot, the people did forgive him and left him to pursue his pilgrimage of redemption.”

Speechless, Zaja listened, and the young man took up his account once more.

“Shumaka was so moved by this power of Zajaism that he spoke about it to everyone he encountered. And people were happy to listen. They were lonely after the departure into exile of the great Zaja, who had guided them for thirty years, and loved to talk about him and relate their own experiences of him. The people gathered in clusters around Shumaka as he extolled the virtues of Zaja and the power of Zajaism. The clusters became crowds and eventually the beggar pilgrim Shumaka was addressing the packed Square outside the Castle, the very scene of his own ignominious deed which he repented with salt tears.”

Salt tears. Zaja was restraining himself from laughing. This young man was scarcely born when these events took place, so where did he get his salt tears? It was obviously a narrative he had learned by rote. He let him continue.

“And since Zaja left the rule of the country to the people, Shumaka proposed that they build such rule around Zajaism. The people greeted this proposal with enthusiasm, and asked Shumaka to be the interpreter of Zajaism. The holy Shumaka was humbled by this invitation, but accepted the responsibility, and was declared Builder of the Great Bridge to Zaja.”

“So Shumaka now interprets the thought of Zaja for the people?”

“Yes, that is why he is called the Bridge Builder.”

“And what does he say of his former occupation. What is his ruling on war or killing?”

“He says that the great Zaja outlawed killing, disbanded the army, and abhorred war. However, in Zaja’s time violent actions were always motivated by an unworthy purpose. Whereas now a worthy purpose can validate war. And the only worthy purpose is the defence or propagation of Zajaism, which can transform an inherently unworthy act into a noble one.”

“So Shumaka has gone back to war-mongering. Has he gone back to making war?”

“One does not speak disparagingly of the holy Shumaka. Even though he governs Zajaism from the former King’s castle, he is still the humble pilgrim. He frequently reminds the people that the builder and keeper of the Great Bridge is also the most abject offender against Zajaism because of his former actions. However he is compensating for his early misdeeds by spreading the word of Zaja to all corners of the world. Where this propagation is resisted by the old kings, rulers, and commanders, all of whom were anathema to the great Zaja, then it is legitimate to remove them, and by force if necessary as a last resort.”

“And is he succeeding with this propagation of the word of Zaja?”

“Shumaka’s new Army of Enlightenment inspired by the power of Zajaism has been irresistible. The kingdoms of the North and the South, of the East and the West, have all fallen in battle after bloody battle. The unenlightened are being wiped from the face of the earth, and the name of Zaja has been inscribed in glory across the face of the heavens.”

“You are one of the enlightened ones?”

“Yes, such is the grace of Zaja that all who have been born into his community are installed, by birth, among the enlightened and will cross the Great Bridge that Shumaka commands, provided they remain faithful to the cause.”

“This Great Bridge. Where does it lead?”

“It leads to the right hand of Zaja. Anyone who dies faithful to Zajaism will rise again in spirit and he will be welcomed across the Bridge by the holy Shumaka. And anyone who dies a martyr in the holy wars will be guaranteed a special place by Shumaka along with all his family.”

“And what if Zaja is still alive in some remote corner?”

“The unenlightened say that Zaja is alive and that when he hears what has been done in his name he will come back to condemn all that the holy Shumaka is doing. But the people listen to Shumaka who says that Zaja is dead, and that he will indeed come again, but this time in vengeance to lead the forces of Zajaism to greater glory, to weed out and punish the unfaithful and the neighsayers, and to crush the unenlightened as if they were no more than slugs beneath his feet.”

“And your Quest?”

“My Quest, and that of all the young men coming of age is to locate and eradicate blasphemers against the name of Zaja. Shumaka says there are such blasphemers in the wilderness, and they are an insult to the enlightened who dedicate their lives to the one true Zaja as revealed by the holy Shumaka.”

“I see. And if I were to claim to be Zaja?”

“It would be a blasphemy crying to heaven to be punished.”

“But Zaja was a teacher, nothing more nothing less.”

“It is blasphemous to suggest such a limited estimate of Zaja. The holy Shumaka has revealed that Zaja was so much more than a teacher, that he was in fact of divine origin, which explains why he was invincible in the face of the great army of the East. But Zajaism has now penetrated every corner, and there is no place to hide for the unenlightened and the blasphemers. The young men of Zajaism are combing the wilderness, and anyone offending against the name of Zaja will be regarded as a malign figure and will be eliminated on the spot.”

“In the name of the holy Shumaka.”

“No, in the name of the most glorious Zaja, as revealed by the holy Shumaka.”

Zaja felt weary after this discussion, more weary than he had ever felt before. He gave the young man food for the day and a bed for the night.

At first light Zaja rose as usual. He took the urn containing the ashes of his beloved Caoimhe with him and placed it on the ledge beside the waterfall. He then proceeded to do his station. On top of the mound he picked out his special stone and held it as his outstretched arms greeted the rising sun. And he held the stone to his bosom as he made his way to the sacred pool. When his sight was restored he surveyed the river-bed, picked a spot in mid-stream, and placed his stone there. He then took up the urn and poured the ashes into the stream so that they trailed over the stone on their way to the sea.

When he had accomplished all that, Zaja knelt down in the river-bed and waited. He had seen such an end foreshadowed in his readings of the pictures.