by Catalina Rembuyan
To the love of my life, and of my many lives –
I write this to you, a futile exercise, perhaps – because I know that my writing to you will not make you remember. I do not think it even possible for you to comprehend the language and the medium that I am using to communicate. How does a mountain spirit understand the articulations of a human girl?
But I hope, nevertheless – I hope on the knowledge that we are all the components of Creation, and as I am one of those people who verbalize words as I write, and as they say thoughts are prayers, so then…so I suppose my act of writing is hope that these words are my prayers, that they may move and be translated into the very shape of Creation, so that you – my love, my pulse, my purpose, and now my mountain spirit – can hear me, and tell me that you will accept me, and accept what I am about to do.
You do not remember, but you and I have existed many thousand lifetimes ago, when the world was still young and had just fallen asleep.
We were the third things that our God-father and God-mother of the Dreaming had turned to for the creation of humankind. The first time, they made humans from stone, the second from wood, and the third time they humankind from us – we the small ants, we the insignificant things, we the life forms. God-father and God-mother made life out of life. We were many once, but we were hive-minded, and then when the God-father and the God-mother dreamed us into oneness we become a single body: we became one, though many, consisting of so many cells and that function independently of each other, and yet capable of recognizing the greater body it belongs to as one, single, consciousness – and we were like this, many but one, until death appeared and determined that we would end.
We did not want to die.
You do not remember, but we now in the form of two decided then to approach God-father and the God-mother, to petition them that we shall live on, life after life and dream after dream. So God-father and the God-mother conferred and they decided out of their bounty and goodness that we should indeed live beyond our brief lives. But there was a condition –
“It is not right,” said God-father, “that love should exist without freedom.”
“Without freedom,” said God-mother, “then love is like wood and stone, not life.”
And so we were granted all of time – except that you would be living in an eternal present, but I would take the place of memory and the future. We would have all of eternity and we would live, life after life, and I would remember every lifetime that we would live in, but you would remember none.
In the first lifetime we were born as children to two different families who lived in the same village. We grew up together, we lived and we loved, and when we came of age we chose each other for life. We had children of our own and we grew old together.
When the time of our lives came to an end, and when you lay in my lap breathing the last of your breath, you said that you were very happy to be with me, and that if there was a life thereafter you wanted us to be together, again. I said to you: yes, yes I promised you, yes.
But in the lifetime that followed I did not meet you. I was born a boy among a tribe distant from much of the world beyond the forest, and I lived on and on until I became an old man in that very same place. I waited and waited and waited for you. But you never emerged.
That was when I learned what God-father and God-mother meant when they said that freedom was necessary: unless I sought you, there was never any certainty that I would be with you.
In the following life I was determined to reach you. This time I was born a prince, and I thought that with such worldly powers at my beck and call I could find you and I could have you with little trouble. But no, you could not have been an easy catch, could you? You could have been a subject, a concubine, or a court maiden, but you were none of these.
You were a goddess. You were the princess-ruler of a magical kingdom in the mountains, and despite our love in the lives before when you met me you had no desire for me. But I was determined to win you in this life – but that did not happen. You would test me and test me again and again, and I passed all the tests except the last and final one. When I failed you disappeared, and I lived on to see the kingdom that I had ruled over crumble and collapse shortly after.
That I sought to murder my own flesh and blood for the love of you was no justification for the dreaming world’s laws of right and wrong. My darkness followed me into the next life, and I became a beast – a turtle that wandered in the sea and around the world, and I lived for so many years without encountering you, that I thought it would turn out to be another lifetime when I would never meet you.
But I did meet you – when you were already an old woman, broken, hurt and abandoned by the ones whom you had given so much love to but who did not deserve it. You did not recognize me but out of my love for you I lifted you upon my back and took you to your people, and then I spoke to them and defended your person and your dignity.
Perhaps they became frightened of the sight of a talking turtle, but they believed me, and from that moment onwards they swore off the consumption of turtle meat. After that, I left you to live the remaining years of your life in peace and in the company of your people, and I lived the many, many, many remaining years of my time, alone.
In another life it was I who was the goddess, and you were the hungry earth. At night I sneaked into your barren fields that were overgrown with reeds of empty husks, and I fed each of your husks with the milk of my breasts. But there was so much of you, and you were still so hungry, that my breasts began to emit blood instead. But still I would feed you and feed you until you were full.
In this life, for as long as humankind knew how to treasure you, you would always bear them food.
(They did not. They did not in many, many, many lifetimes.)
Sometimes we were born together and had no need to seek one another. Once we were born as two suns that rose over the earth and shone together. But we were too strong when we were together – the heat that we bore upon the earth was too much for many. People died. Some of them were themselves deeply loved.
One day, the remaining and living half of a pair of lovers approached us with a bow and arrow in his hands (see, we had together killed his wife with our light, and she had been pregnant with his child). He took his revenge: he shot an arrow at us, and I was struck and I fell.
From them on I became the weaker light that appeared when the Earth turned to face darkness, and I would always trail after you, following your gravity and reflecting your light. And we lived this way until the world of this time ended, until all the living beings on earth, and even the earth itself, were long, so very long gone.
We were not always born as tangible things. In one lifetime I was a mousedeer and you were the other side of a river. In another life I was an old mother and you were my son’s gratitude. In one life I was two children and you were the unattainable flesh of fish. And in yet another life I was a white-backed crocodile and you were my all-consuming revenge.
We were not always in love in every lifetime. Once, we were in love, but not with each other – rather we loved the same person (who, I think retrospectively, was completely undeserving of either of us). We were two heavenly princesses in love with a heavenly prince. I wove the fabric of night and you pounded the meal of the morning. When we fought over this man whom we mutually loved, you swung at me and fractured my face, and I beat you and bashed your head in. As I lay dying I turned into a mountain range, and you turned into a cluster of scattered islands.
Sometimes, our love was as foolish as it was desperate. I was once a vampire queen; and I had invited you to live with me to indulge in a life of sensual pleasure in my abode. But then you just had to nose around my dwellings and you found jars and jars of blood that I had kept for feeding, and that frightened you and you ran away – but not before stealing an earring of mine as memento, you wicked thing. And so I turned into an insect so I could hunt you down, and I would always whine around your ears, reminding you of what you had stolen, and knowing that my bites can kill you.
How many lives have we led like this? How many lifetimes do I remember? In some lifetimes we meet and we belong together, in other lifetimes we don’t, in some lifetimes we hate each other, and in other lifetimes I search and search for you and never find you. And after thousands of these lifetimes, and so many cycles of living and longing and death, I – and only I, not you – am tired.
You will not understand – you who decide, on whim and circumstance, on the temporal interests of your sheer presentness, acting as though your one life was the only life that was true to you…you who decide based on these if you should receive or reject my affections, while I have crossed so many lives over and over again to be with you – no, you will not understand this pain at all.
It is painful! Because you do not remember any of your past lives, you are protected from all the pain. All the pains from all my memories run through me, and run over me – they latch upon me like so many hooks and strings tied taut to my being.
You cannot remember the lives we have been through and so none of the many lives that you and I have gone through matter at all to you, because you always begin your presentness – your presence – anew, but I remember every one of them. Because memory alters you, knowledge shapes you – you are shaped only by that which shapes your present, but I drag and bear with me the weight of all the lives that I have lived.
And so, after the thousandth – or was it the thousandth thousandth – life, I did what I had not thought I would ever do. I decided, alone and on my own, to approach the God-father and the God-mother again, to ask for another request: that my suffering be brought to an end.
And then the God-father and the God-mother of Dreaming conferred again; and it was decided that I would take one of two choices. In the first of these choices, I would end my suffering, but we would part. You – who were still happy living in the loops of life after life – would remain in existence. I would cease, and you would have no memory of me.
In the second option we would not be separated. We would both leave this looping existence – we would both disappear. But you would have no say in this; your choice in this would be irrelevant. My will would override yours.
“What should I choose?” I asked the God-father and the God-mother then, though this was really a question I asked for propriety, because I had already made up my mind.
“Love must permit freedom,” was the answer.
But as I have mentioned, I had already made up my mind.
And this is how I find myself here, in this moment, writing this – not to a body or an entity who can read it, but to compose these lines like a prayer in hope that they can transform into a thing of time and space – like music, light, or gravity – to become an invisible thread to bind your heart to mine. And like all prayers I end mine with desire and surrender: love me, love the choice of my will, if you will.
It is Monday morning, but Jeremy is not at work and is unable to think of it. He’d flown straight from Miri to Kota Kinabalu as soon as he could after he’d heard of the second quake. Now he sits in the room of a lodge beneath Mount Kinabalu, waiting for news.
He can’t believe that he’s here, feeling all of this, and he wonders if all of this is a bad dream. He had been in KK the first time the quake had happened – he’d seen the shock, saw the media frenzy that rose around the mountain and then fell away, but that had been different. He wasn’t engaged. He’d held his tongue when some members of the indigenous community became part of that frenzy when they demanded reparation for the mountain by means of ritual, and he maintained his silence – painfully – when the news was met with mockery by the people he had grown up with. It wasn’t as though he had believed these indigenous beliefs – he did after all get his job at the oil rig in Miri because he was a man of science and had a logical, rational mind – and he knew that quakes were caused by geography, not spirits. But there really was this mystery – even mysticism – about this mountain that Jeremy could never quite explain, even when he had first sighted it from the window of an airplane so many years ago –
He brushes the thought aside. He’s not irrational, he’s just going native, he tells himself. Been too long in Miri, been standing around in oil rigs too long; been getting bored of the ebbing of West Malaysian scientists and engineers who strolled around the town like expatriates. Been more than ten years and he knows he can’t get used to life in KL anymore, even though it was the place that he had been born. He had hated his last visit, couldn’t recognize the old places. Or he’d just been too frazzled by the events of the last few days. His sister and her weirdness, for example. And the things she left behind. Like him, he thinks, and then checks himself: no, like this letter.
He folds and unfolds the paper in his hands, written on childish, girlish stationery – pink-colored clouds bordered its sides, broken only by pastel-colored images of kites on loose strings. He lets his eyes run over the words. The handwriting is unmistakably hers, but the content reads like madness, making no sense at all – except, he thinks, it is not that unusual…
Even when he was young, his family members had made offhand comments about his sister being born an old soul. Of course it was all said in jest, to describe – or to explain – her slightly unusual way of taking things in, a way that was slower and gentler, and how her eyes looked more pained than any child of her age should have…
How she used to live her life as though it were all theatre; how mannered her approach was to the childish attire of dress and dolls, as though her heart were not in it, and she knew it was only to be borne for a very, very short time…
He stops himself. You’re just muddled and tired from trying to seek conclusions and rational explanations in the absence of answers. You haven’t had much sleep since you heard of the earthquake on the mountain and since you heard your sister had gone there and you are messed up, just messed up. You’re holding on to this bizarre piece of writing that she may or may not have written –
Then the thought slips into his mind: a memory of something he had read a long time ago – “Missing is Not Dead.”
That is why there is so much pain when someone is missing, because one is deprived of certainty to enable the mind to progress through the stages of grief and to cope; because one longs for and yet fears the finality of absolute answers. And then it comes over him and envelops his thoughts, like a mantra chanted with greater intensity – “Missing is Not Dead.”
There is still hope that she may be found. The rescuers have not found a body, have they? They found other hikers, all of them alive and well (Kinabalu is the safest mountain in this region to climb, he knows this) though some of them had been a little roughed up, and he’d already heard from those who descended the mountain that they had seen her, well and alive – “Have you seen my sister? A teenage girl, came here to hike the mountain after sitting for SPM? Looks like this and this?” – “Yes, yes, we have, she climbed up the mountain alone…”
If they have not found a body then he would pray to the powers that be (rationalist that he was) to move the heavens and earth for her to be found well and alive. But one by one people descended the mountain, and the rescuers had found everybody else except for his sister, and there is no body found –
It is as though she had just disappeared, with not a single earthly trace, as though the very mists of Kinabalu had taken her…
And then there is this thing that she had written, found at the room of her last lodgings – what to make of it? He knows it sounds so much like – like a love letter and a suicide note – and he knows that if it is one or either he must turn it in to the police…though whatever for, he thinks, she just went to the mountain, not to the edge of the world, and even if he would hand it in to the police this piece of her would not be treasured by them, it would just remain in storage, unexplored and uninvestigated, like a fossilized and forgotten memory…
So you are an old soul, he finds himself thinking – in anger – so what becomes of all those brief lives you encountered in your many lives? Your life touched theirs and their lives had brushed against yours too – didn’t they? Didn’t they love you? Didn’t you love them?
He closes his eyes, tired from lack of sleep, and he rubs them. Then he folds the letter in his hands and places it in his pocket. The loss is making him irrational. He would keep waiting. No one has come up to him to say that his sister is gone. He would keep waiting. He does not know when he would stop.
He also does not know it yet, but in the many years to come – when he would no longer be in Kota Kinabalu but in the many cities of the world; in Kuala Lumpur perhaps, looking at the city lights from his apartment – he would, on rare occasions, see his sister in his dreams.
In these dreams he would see his sister in an airplane heading to Kota Kinabalu and he would see his sister look out of the window to gaze at the mountain – and its majesty – and he would know, somehow, that she had known what, or who, was going to be at the mountain and that she had known the mountain for a very long time…
In some of these dreams they would end with him looking straight at his sister, staring at her face-to-face, while standing upon a stony surface of a mountain that must be Kinabalu, but unlike any appearance of Kinabalu that he had ever known – and yet also the Kinabalu he had always known, the mountain of the world’s end and the mountain that he had seen when he saw it for the first time, through the window of an airplane – and he would stare at his sister, who was no longer his sister but another being who had lived through thousands of worlds, thousands of placed, thousands of dreams, an old soul.
And this old soul would gaze back at him with gentleness, her expression placid with nothing but a slight smile revealing the deep joy that she must be feeling, and the wind would blow around them and would lift her hair and the mist around her would swirl about her around and around until they swallowed her, and she would be gone.
And he does not know it yet, but in the many, many years to come he would wake up from these dreams feeling no sense of peace or closure, only wretchedness, because he would be full of the longing to hold on to her presence and to have her back.