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Adventures in Aipotu
By Sanat Mohanty
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Adventures in Aipotu: Episode 14, Part 2

It was not enough for Damini to have gotten around her fear, Damini realized. She would have to face it and overcome it. Yet she could not get herself to do that. She sat down again. This time she was drained - though a little less fearful. Looking at the dog - who represented perhaps one of her biggest fears - she realized that this is perhaps how we go through life most of the time. We do not face our problems or our fears. We do not try to understand it. We try to get around it. As a result, our fears stay - we only avoid them. Our problems are not solved - we only get around them. As a result, we do not grow from having faced a problem. And the next time the problem occurs or we face the fear, we must find another way to get around it.

Quietly, with resolve, she got up and began to walk up to the dog that was now lying down on the floor. As she approached it, the great beast stayed down, it's tongue hanging out and its tail wagging. Damini slowly inched towards the dog, mumbling sweet nothings to it as she had heard her brother do when he played with their cousin's dog. Once Damini was within reach though, the big dog suddenly got up at sprang at her. And as she fell, the big dog fell on her and began to lick her face and neck. And then he got up and ran around her, wagging his tail. Damini sighed. The big beast only wanted to play. As she got up, the dog came up and licked her again. This time, Damini petted the big bully's neck and back and then hugged him. She was now really over her fear of dogs. Truly. She spent some time playing with it. Then she slipped out the key from the neck of the dog, kissed it on its snout and then getting up she walked away. The big dog woofed in a friendly manner. Damini reached the door and inserted the key into the keyhole.

Immediately there was light and she found herself in front of the big hippo. Damini stepped back up to the hippo and kissed him. "Go away", the hippo growled. "Stop this". But Damini was truly thankful to the hippo. Not only had she gotten over her fear of dogs, she now understood how to deal with fears.

But she was not done and the frog-ram quickly reminded her:

Having hugged a gargoyle
Now you must
Hug one statue and
At least one bust.

So Damini looked around. And she saw a bust of some Roman God - reminded her of someone she had seen in God's garden. So she quickly went up to him. What awaited her now, she wondered, a little apprehensive. As soon as she hugged the bearded bust, lightning lit up the sky around her. It would be an understatement to say that it was raining. As her eyes got used to the darkness she realized that she was on the top of a bare mountaintop - in a clearing. She could see an expansive forest begin a hundred meters away as the steep slopes of the mountain fell away below her. Up above bolts of lightning tore through the darkness. And it rained. She turned around, looking to see if she could make any sense of it all. But all around there was only darkness and a foreboding forest. Weird sounds came up from the forest. The wind had now picked up and she was cold. The trees would protect her from the cold biting wind. But she was also afraid of the forest.

As she turned around, surveying the darkness, she saw a light flicker in a distance. Then she noticed a path lead from the top of the mountain into the forest in the direction of the light. With immense foreboding, she took that path. The path went down steeply along the mountain slope and Damini had to use her hands to keep her balance on the slippery path. In about a hundred meters, it entered the forest. The wind immediately dropped and an eerie quiet surrounded her. Ignoring the tension that she felt building in the air, she forced herself to walk along. She could almost hear her heart now. The path winded around some trees and eventually came into a clearing. In the clearing was a small shack surrounded by a rickety fence. Through the large window, she could see a light glow in the shack. The path led to the shack through a gate that had long ago broken down. She knocked on the door of the shack. There was a deep growl from inside. She paused for a moment and knocked again. There was another deep growl. It seemed like there was an animal inside. Immediately she turned around, frightened.

As she walked away, she was reminded of the beast in the tunnel. She had to face her fears. She had to understand her problems. The solutions lay in the problems, not away from them. She turned back again. But before she went to the door, she decided to peep in through the window. In the room, right across the window a fire burned in the fireplace. In the center was a table with a lamp on it. There stood a chair next to the table. On the table was some food and a jug, which she presumed, had water. And on the floor lay a dog. And then her heart skipped a beat. It was not any dog - it was the beast from the tunnel. She quickly went to the door and opened it. The dog looked up at her and woofed as if it had been expecting her. Then it came up to her and licked her face. It then went and lay next to the chair, looking at Damini as if to invite her to eat.

Damini went to the table and sat down. She had not realized how famished she was. She quickly gulped down a stew of vegetables that was in the bowl and drank from the jug. Her mother would not have been pleased with the way she ate - but she was really famished. Then she got on her knees and hugged the dog.

There was another flash of lightning followed by a long roll of thunder. The storm raged outside. Damini was reminded that she needed to find her way back. Outside, the forest was as foreboding as before. Sitting on the chair, she felt like a helpless little girl. Now what could she do? She began to cry. Suddenly, she felt a wet tongue on her cheek. Looking up she saw the dog with its front paws on the arms of the chair, licking her face. Quietly she hugged the dog. The presence of the big friendly animal gave her strength. Then she understood. Once you had understood a problem, faced your fear, it became a friend, it became your strength. She was now in another situation. She needed to face the situation. Sitting in the hut would do nothing. She had to go outside and face the wilderness, understand the forest, and maybe a solution would evolve. It was warm in here and cold outside. But the solution lay outside, and outside she must go.

She walked to the fireplace and stood in front of the fire war a moment or two, as if to gather her strength. Then she walked over to the dog, patted him on the head and walked out. As she crossed the broken gate, she heard some footsteps behind her. Turning around, she saw the dog. It was following her. She felt stronger now.

As they walked, the big dog by the side of a little girl, the forest grew thicker. The rain had now abated and the thick forest covered them completely - they could barely see the sky. They kept to the path. All around, Damini could hear strange sounds of the forest. She had been in a forest during the day but the forest at night was different. Initially, it was frightening but as she got used to the noises and the darkness, she began to enjoy the serenity. The night was filled with chirps and croaks. Once in a while they heard wolves. Each time, the dog looked up at Damini as if to tell her that it was with her. And once they heard a roar from far away. But Damini understood that this was part of the forest and if she was in a forest, she had to accept their presence. And in accepting them, she would know the forest better.

They must have walked for an hour when they reached the foot of the mountain. As they walked along, the path turned around a large tree. The dog left the path and went around the tree. Damini stopped, waiting for it to come back. From around the tree, the dog barked once. Damini left the path and went around. The other side of the trunk was hollowed and moss had grown into the hollow. The dog curled up in the hollow. Damini looked at the dog, and flopped down onto his warm stomach and cuddled into the furry animal. She fell asleep immediately.

They must have slept for a long time. When Damini awoke, she saw the dog looking intently at her. She rubbed her eyes, hugged the furry creature and then jumped up. The big dog immediately jumped up and ran around her playfully. They went back on the path. The forest looked less foreboding during the day. However, the tree cover was thick and there was little sunlight on the forest flow. There were large trees that shot up high into the sky. The forest path was her only marker - she was sure that if she left the path, she would be completely lost.

They passed a stream. Grassy banks with yellow and purple flowers stretched out lazily along the river. Damini stopped to wash her face. The water was cold but very refreshing. The dog jumped in and played around. It ran out of the water and jumped on to Damini knocking her over onto the grassy bank. They wrestled playfully for a short while. Then the dog got up and ran along the grassy stream. Damini followed for a short distance but then was frightened to go very far from the path. So she stopped. The dog ran for a little while but seeing that Damini was not following it turned around and barked. But Damini waved with her hands and turned back towards the path. The dog ran back to her and then ran back up the stream again. But Damini shook her head and getting on to the path called back to the dog. The dog came back to her again. And they walked along.

But something bothered her. Why did she not walk along the banks? Why did she not explore? She always liked to explore, so why did she not? Because she had to find a solution, she told herself. But how did she know that the solution was along the path? Because there was a path. Meaning, others must have used it. Hence it must lead to the solution. That's nonsense, a voice within her said. The others might have been as clueless. She was here to understand the situation she was in, explore it. And find something in the process that would get her back to Aipotu. There was no guarantee that the path would take her there. In fact, by staying on the path, she understood the forest even less. She could not see the flowers on the grassy banks. She could not see where the stream went. She could not see where the trees had their hollows. And if there was one thing she had learn from the tunnel, it was to understand the situation she was in, observe and understand the world around her. By staying on the path, she was not doing that.

Besides, what did she have to fear - the voice in her grew stronger. After all, the path was not taking her to any solution. She might as well explore freely. So she suddenly knelt down, kissed the dog on his snout and then skipped away from the path towards the left where a gentle hill sloped down. The dog gave a joyful bark, as if to say "Good, now you see what I was saying", and run after her.

The dog and the girl jumped and ran and skipped and rolled through the forest all day. At one point, the dog growled and stopped. Damini stopped as well. Up ahead was a clearing and Damini could see some water. There was a waterhole - the gathering spot for animals. A group of large deer - she could not identify their species - were at the water hole. And there were birds of all kinds. On the other side of the water hole, some buffaloes wallowed in the mud. She looked down and noticed that the dog was absolutely still. She stood quietly as well. Suddenly there was some movement in the branches up ahead and the deer looked up. Without a warning they began to run. Before Damini could realize a thing, there was a yellow streak, and the deer had run away. All except one - a small one that lay in a pool of blood with a leopard standing over it, looking for possible competition. It stood there a while and then began to tear at the flesh of the deer. In any other situation, Damini would have been grossed out. Or she would have cried in sympathy for the deer. Now she simply stood - accepting the forest. The leopard needed meat to survive. It was not being cruel. It was only taking what it needed to survive. There was no judgment. There was no pain. She understood.

Once in a while Damini would pick up some fruit from the forest floor and eat it. A couple of times the dog knocked some fruit away as if telling her not to eat it and Damini obeyed the dog's warning. The dog went off once and came back with a small dead bird that it ate, sitting next to Damini. Usually Damini would have made a fuss about such disgusting behavior. But now she understood the forest. There were various cycles and dependencies. The dog needed to eat as much as she did and it ate meat to survive.

After a little while, they came to the stream again. They played on the grassy bank and then began to walk down the stream. On one occasion, they saw some bears fishing on the other side. The dog barked at the bears as if to say hello - or so Damini thought. Suddenly, Damini noticed that the forest had begun to thin. She could look up and see the clear blue sky. The land had begun to flatten as well. Up ahead through the thinning trees, Damini could see undulating hills with grass on them. There were sheep grazing. There might even be people.

"This has been so much fun", she said aloud. "I doubt whether I could have explored the forest staying on the path. The path would have bound me. It was freedom that let me see and understand. And it was the absence of fear that set me free."

The dog turned and looked up at her. Then it said, "that was precisely why you came here Damini. And now you can leave. You have learnt that you need to explore the forest to understand it, not just walk through it. Leaving the path set you free."

With that he disappeared. As did everything else around her. And she was back in the field with the yellow top in front of her and a bust of a Roman god next to her. She knew freedom. And she had learnt how to live. But she was terribly sad.
 

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Adventures in Aipotu
By Sanat Mohanty
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