The Warrior tried slowing his breath until it matched the rhythm of the swaying leaves of the Great Tree. It was difficult, but he soon found the familiar inner calm that his Master had taught him to seek.
A strong wind rose from the west, agitating the uncountable thousands of leaves above the Warrior. His spirit rose. He opened his eyes and looked at the slain cat on the forest floor. Its neck cocked unnaturally, its eyes blank and unfocused. The Warrior felt both shame and pride. He knelt. The creature seemed so small now, pet-like. Peaceful.
He replayed the fight in his mind. How long had it lasted? He knew the Passage would involve combat, the Master had warned him, but he had no idea it would be deadly. His finger touched the gash on his arm and he felt a shot of pain. With his own blood he marked a red “x” on the forehead of his slain adversary.
“Be at peace,” he whispered. The wind died down and the Great Tree fell quiet. Now what?
“Now you must climb,” said a deep, soft voice. The Warrior jumped to his feet at the sound.
“Who said that?” he cried out. There was no answer. He turned his eyes upward, towards the Great Tree. The last glimmer of the day’s sun was crawling through the enormous canopy. He knew what he had to do.
He sheathed his knife and began to climb. He felt miniscule hugging the trunk, like a small lizard must feel on a normal tree. His hands and feet easily found gashes and grooves in the bark. As he climbed, though, the surface of the tree became smoother and smoother. Soon there were no more footholds. The ascent would need to continue through branches.
With a yell he leapt from the trunk and and caught the nearest branch, hoisting himself up. He grabbed another branch, and another, finding this sort of climbing easier. The higher he went, the more energized he became. The air became warmer and the light brighter; his heart pumped faster at the thought of being the youngest Warrior to finish the Passage in a thousand years. His family and his Master would be proud. People would know his name for years after his death.
A loud crack snapped him out of his day dreaming, and only after his body was in free fall did he realize the branch holding him had snapped. His limbs flailed blindly, hoping to grab anything to slow his fall. Thick branches that had held his full weight minutes ago now fell away from the tree at the lightest touch, like petals from a delicate flower. In seconds he descended what had taken nearly an hour to climb and he soon crashed hard into a large, dense shrub.
He tried to catch his breath but the impact had cleared his lungs of all air. Enveloped deep in the thick bush, he had the sensation that he was drowning in a dark green pool.
I should be dead, he thought to himself.
But he wasn’t. He wondered if his landing in the shrub had been by luck or by design. Was someone helping him? Cuts and scrapes covered his bloodied body and his shirt clung to his chest in tatters. He touched his hand to his left rib and was answered with shooting pain. He looked up at the massive trunk of the Great Tree and he saw the path of his fall – a long straight line of stripped branches now exposed the ancient bark.
“Again,” said the same deep, soft voice.
The Warrior felt embarrassed, which soon turned to anger. He was angry at himself. Of course the Passage would be difficult. Why had he imagined he would complete it without a single setback? He had been too confident, too sure that he was nearly done with his journey, and nearly died because of it. As the self-hatred and shame rose inside him, he remembered his Master’s words: “If your enemy is within, forgive him.” And so the Warrior forgive himself.
With renewed energy he began to climb again. This time he tested each branch before swinging his full weight on it. He was feeling comfortable with the slower pace, his breathing steady and controlled. Half an hour passed and he was feeling better than he had all day, until he realized the sky was not becoming any lighter as it had on his last attempt.
Could it be nighttime already?
He had lost track of time. He climbed higher, branch to branch, yet the sky only became darker and darker. Soon he was barely able to see branches mere feet in front of his eyes. While pausing to catch his breath, he felt a rumble— a long, slow boom flooded the air around him, the unmistakable sound of thunder. The air cooled twenty degrees in ten seconds, and the wind began to whip around him.
He began to panic. He couldn’t see how far he had left to climb. Paralyzing fear gripped him, but his training kicked in and he remembered the Master’s teaching. “Use your fear.”
The Warrior chose fight over flight, and focused his adrenaline into climbing. Faster and faster. Maybe he could climb above the storm, or maybe he was nearly to the top.
It was a fool’s thought. Rain began to whip his eyes and he nearly missed a branch with his blurred vision. The wind continued to howl and leaves blew off the tree like dandelion petals. Small twigs swirled in the air, and soon he was unable to see any branches above him in any direction. He thought about climbing back the way had come, but could see that the branches below him were already cracking and ripping from the tree. He decided that his current branch was the thickest one in sight, and wondered how long it would hold him.
Thinking quickly, he unfastened his cloak. He tied one end around his waist, and the other around the base of his branch. He used his teeth to pull the knot tight and prayed that the cloak would hold his weight.
The wind was shrieking now, rain swirling from all directions in the darkness. The thunder rattled his body while lightning flashed the nightmare around him. He held onto his cloak with his tightest of fists and in his despair an odd thought crossed his mind – his mother had made him this cloak the day before he left to begin his training. That was ten years ago.
His suddenly missed his mother with every fiber of his being and bellowed for her. His cries soon turned to sobs until he was struck by a branch. His grip was knocked loose – had he not been tied down he would have fallen. The cloak held.
Lightning flashed again and he could see for a brief second that it was now hailing. The bark thumped with ricocheting ice and his back, covered in the tatters of his shirt, stung deeply with each impact.
He held tightly to the cloak and yelled at the storm as if his voice could shield him from it. The pain of the pelting stones of ice on his already torn skin felt very much like fire. He roared louder, the desperate, terrified roar of an animal who sees death’s approach.
Holding onto the tree was becoming unbearable and soon he had only one thought: I have failed.
His arms, now cramped from holding so tightly, began to slip.
I have failed.
The storm showed no signs of slowing. He could not defeat it. It was time, he decided, to let go.
I have failed.
“Goodbye,” he whispered to nobody and he let go of his mother’s cloak. The peace of a quick death would soon welcome him. But something curious was happening- he wasn’t falling. He was moving upwards. He was still surrounded by darkness but the sounds of the storm died away as he rose. A small light in the sky began to brighten, and he could now see that a massive white bird was carrying him by his belt. Its wings spread as wide as four men, methodically and powerfully lifting them along the trunk of the Great Tree. The Warrior squinted as the sun broke through the clouds hundreds of feet above him.
They landed abruptly in a nest larger than most bedrooms. The great creature gently released the Warrior and backed to the other side of the nest, bowing its head. The Warrior could see his savior more clearly now – it was an eagle. Its feathers were as white as snow, making it seem out of place among the green foliage of the Great Tree. It had a gray beak, which alone was the length of the Warrior’s arm, and eyes bluer than anything the Warrior had even seen.
“Am I dead?” asked the Warrior. The eagle did not move. “Who are you?” he asked. The bird did not answer. Slowly he got to his feet and walked towards the noble looking creature, trying not to provoke it with sudden movements. He stopped in his tracks after a few steps – the bird had turned completely to stone.
The Warrior sat down and began to wonder if he might have lost his mind. Or too much blood. But he eventually reasoned that he wasn’t dead because his body was still in such terrible pain. He collapsed as soon as he stood up and lay for a small while staring up at the canopy of the Great Tree. It seemed no closer that it had at the forest floor, and he began to cry. He hated himself for crying and cried some more until he fell asleep. He woke up shivering a short time later – where previously there had been sunshine there now rested a thick fog. He could see nothing above or below him and lay shaking from the cold. Soon the shaking stopped and he began to feel a quiet peace creep over him. He only wanted to sleep.
“I can’t do this anymore. If anyone is there, please help me,” the Warrior whispered and shut his eyes. “Please…”
Days passed. The Warrior woke up in a bed and every inch of his body ached. He rubbed his eyes and recognized the wooden beams on the ceiling.
He was home!
“There’s my boy!” cheered the Master, who was sitting across from him. He put down his book and hurried to the Warrior’s side, taking his hand. “Welcome home, we are so proud of you.” The Master’s eyes shone with a joy that the Warrior had never seen before.
The Warrior was confused. “What do you mean? I have failed, Master. The Passage. I failed it.”
“No, my son. You failed nothing.”
“But I did not complete the Passage! I never made it to the top of the Great Tree.”
“Who told you that was the goal of the Passage?”
The Warrior couldn’t tell if the Master, who was wearing a huge smile, was playing at a joke. “I heard a voice that told me to climb.” And he explained earnestly what he could remember of his trial. “The last thing I remember was falling asleep,” the Warrior said as he hung his head in shame.
The Master smiled at his pupil for a long smile before he said, “You forgot to mention that you asked for help, and help you received.” The Warrior looked up from the ground. “My son, the sole lesson of the Passage is that it cannot be completed alone. Many before you, myself included, thought otherwise. This very nearly happened to you, but you were wise to ask for help in that dark moment. I’m not sure why it took you so long, though!” The Master smiled and patted the confused Warrior gently on his head. “Now, rest. I’ll make some soup for you. You must be hungry. And I know there’s someone who will be very happy that you’re awake.” He left the room, leaving the door ajar.
The Warrior squinted into the morning sun and saw a woman across the hall, sewing. A joy filled his soul when he recognized her. “Mother!” he called. She turned to him with a smile and he could see that she was mending his cloak.