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By the River Piedra I Sat Down and Wept: A Novel of Forgiveness, Page 2

Paulo Coelho

  "While men were going off to hunt, we remained in the caves, in the womb of the Mother, caring for our children. And it was there that the Great Mother taught us everything.

  "Men lived through movement, while we remained close to the womb of the Mother. This allowed us to see that seeds are turned into plants, and we told this to the men. We made the first bread, and we fed our people. We shaped the first cup so that we could drink. And we came to understand the cycle of creation, because our bodies repeat the rhythm of the moon."

  She stopped suddenly. "There She is!"

  I looked. There in the middle of the plaza, surrounded on all sides by traffic, was a fountain portraying a woman in a carriage drawn by lions.

  "This is the Plaza Cybele," I said, trying to show off my knowledge of Madrid. I had seen this fountain on dozens of postcards.

  But the young woman wasn't listening. She was already in the middle of the street, trying to make her way through the traffic. "Come on! Let's go over there!" she shouted, waving to me from the midst of the cars.

  I decided to try to follow her, if only to get the name of a hotel. Her craziness was wearing me out; I needed to get some sleep.

  We made it to the fountain at almost the same time; my heart was pounding, but she had a smile on her lips. "Water!" she exclaimed. "Water is Her manifestation."

  "Please, I need the name of an inexpensive hotel."

  She plunged her hands into the water. "You should do this, too," she said to me. "Feel the water."

  "No! But I don't want to spoil your experience. I'm going to look for a hotel."

  "Just a minute."

  Brida took a small flute from her bag and began to play. To my surprise, the music had a hypnotic effect; the sounds of the traffic receded, and my racing heart began to slow down. I sat on the edge of the fountain, listening to the noise of the water and the sound of the flute, my eyes on the full moon gleaming above us. Somehow I was sensing--although I couldn't quite understand it--that the moon was a reflection of my womanhood.

  I don't know how long she continued to play. When she stopped, she turned to the fountain. "Cybele, manifestation of the Great Mother, who governs the harvests, sustains the cities, and returns to woman her role as priestess..."

  "Who are you?" I asked. "Why did you ask me to come with you?"

  She turned to me. "I am what you see me to be. I am a part of the religion of the earth."

  "What do you want from me?"

  "I can read your eyes. I can read your heart. You are going to fall in love. And suffer."

  "I am?"

  "You know what I'm talking about. I saw how he was looking at you. He loves you."

  This woman was really nuts!

  "That's why I asked you to come with me--because he is important. Even though he says some silly things, at least he recognizes the Great Mother. Don't let him lose his way. Help him."

  "You don't know what you're talking about. You're dreaming!" And I turned and rushed back into the traffic, swearing I'd forget everything she had said.

  Sunday, December 5, 1993

  WE STOPPED for a cup of coffee.

  "Yes, life teaches us many things," I said, trying to continue the conversation.

  "It taught me that we can learn, and it taught me that we can change," he replied, "even when it seems impossible."

  Clearly he wanted to drop the subject. We had hardly spoken during the two-hour drive that had brought us to this roadside cafe.

  In the beginning, I had tried to reminisce about our childhood adventures, but he'd shown only a polite interest. In fact, he hadn't even really been listening to me; he kept asking me questions about things I had already told him.

  Something was wrong. Had time and distance taken him away from my world forever? After all, he talks about "magic moments," I reasoned. Why would he care about an old friend's career? He lives in a different universe, where Soria is only a remote memory--a town frozen in time, his childhood friends still young boys and girls, the old folks still alive and doing the same things they'd been doing for so many years.

  I was beginning to regret my decision to come with him. So when he changed the subject again, I resolved not to insist any further.

  The last two hours of the drive to Bilbao were torture. He was watching the road, I was looking out the window, and neither of us could hide the bad feelings that had arisen between us. The rental car didn't have a radio, so all we could do was endure the silence.

  "Let's ask where the bus station is," I suggested as soon as we left the highway. "The buses leave from here regularly for Zaragoza."

  It was the hour of siesta, and there were few people in the streets. We passed one gentleman and then a couple of teenagers, but he didn't stop to ask them. "Do you know where it is?" I spoke up, after some time had passed.

  "Where what is?"

  He still wasn't paying attention to what I said.

  And then suddenly I understood what the silence was about. What did he have in common with a woman who had never ventured out into the world? How could he possibly be interested in spending time with someone who feared the unknown, who preferred a secure job and a conventional marriage to the life he led? Poor me, chattering away about friends from childhood and dusty memories of an insignificant village--those were the only things I could discuss.

  When we seemed to have reached the center of town, I said, "You can let me off here." I was trying to sound casual, but I felt stupid, childish, and irritated.

  He didn't stop the car.

  "I have to catch the bus back to Zaragoza," I insisted.

  "I've never been here before," he answered. "I have no idea where my hotel is, I don't know where the conference is being held, and I don't know where the bus station is."

  "Don't worry, I'll be all right."

  He slowed down but kept on driving.

  "I'd really like to...," he began. He tried again but still couldn't finish his thought.

  I could imagine what he would like to do: thank me for the company, send greetings to his old friends--maybe that would break the tension.

  "I would really like it if you went with me to the conference tonight," he finally said.

  I was shocked. Was he stalling for time so that he could make up for the awkward silence of our trip?

  "I'd really like you to go with me," he repeated.

  Now, maybe I'm a girl from the farm with no great stories to tell. Maybe I lack the sophistication of women from the big city. Life in the country may not make a woman elegant or worldly, but it still teaches her how to listen to her heart and to trust her instincts.

  To my surprise, my instincts told me that he meant what he said.

  I sighed with relief. Of course I wasn't going to stay for any conference, but at least my friend seemed to be back. He was even inviting me along on his adventures, wanting to share his fears and triumphs with me.

  "Thanks for the invitation," I said, "but I don't have enough money for a hotel, and I do need to get back to my studies."

  "I have some money. You can stay in my room. We'll ask for two beds."

  I noticed that he was beginning to perspire, despite the chill in the air. My heart sounded an alarm, and all the joy of the moment before turned into confusion.

  Suddenly he stopped the car and looked directly into my eyes.

  No one can lie, no one can hide anything, when he looks directly into someone's eyes. And any woman with the least bit of sensitivity can read the eyes of a man in love.

  I thought immediately of what that weird young woman at the fountain had said. It wasn't possible--but it seemed to be true.

  I had never dreamed that after all these years he would still remember. When we were children, we had walked through the world hand in hand. I had loved him--if a child can know what love means. But that was so many years ago--it was another life, a life whose innocence had opened my heart to all that was good.

  And now we were responsible adults. We had put away child
ish things.

  I looked into his eyes. I didn't want to--or wasn't able to--believe what I saw there.

  "I just have this last conference, and then the holidays of the Immaculate Conception begin. I have to go up into the mountains; I want to show you something."

  This brilliant man who was able to speak of magic moments was now here with me, acting as awkward as could be. He was moving too fast, he was unsure of himself; the things he was proposing were confused. It was painful for me to see him this way.

  I opened the door and got out, then leaned against the fender, looking at the nearly deserted street. I lit a cigarette. I could try to hide my thoughts, pretend that I didn't understand what he was saying; I could try to convince myself that this was just a suggestion made by one childhood friend to another. Maybe he'd been on the road too long and was beginning to get confused.

  Maybe I was exaggerating.

  He jumped out of the car and came to my side.

  "I'd really like you to stay for the conference tonight," he said again. "But if you can't, I'll understand."

  There! The world made a complete turn and returned to where it belonged. It wasn't what I had been thinking; he was no longer insisting, he was ready to let me leave--a man in love doesn't act that way.

  I felt both stupid and relieved. Yes, I could stay for at least one more day. We could have dinner together and get a little drunk--something we'd never done when we were younger. This would give me a chance to forget the stupid ideas I'd just had, and it would be a good opportunity to break the ice that had frozen us ever since we left Madrid.

  One day wouldn't make any difference. And then at least I'd have a story to tell my friends.

  "Separate beds," I said, joking. "And you pay for dinner, because I'm still a student. I'm broke."

  We put our bags in the hotel room and came down to see where the conference was to be held. Since we were so early, we sat down in a cafe to wait.

  "I want to give you something," he said, handing me a small red pouch.

  I opened it and found inside an old rusty medal, with Our Lady of Grace on one side and the Sacred Heart of Jesus on the other.

  "That was yours," he said, noticing my surprise. My heart began to sound the alarm again. "One day--it was autumn, just like it is now, and we must have been ten--I was sitting with you in the plaza where the great oak stood.

  "I was going to tell you something, something I had rehearsed for weeks. But as soon as I began, you told me that you had lost your medal at the hermitage of San Saturio, and you asked me to see if I could find it there."

  I remembered. Oh, God, I remembered!

  "I did find it. But when I returned to the plaza, I no longer had the courage to say what I had rehearsed. So I promised myself that I would return the medal to you only when I was able to complete the sentence that I'd begun that day almost twenty years ago. For a long time, I've tried to forget it, but it's always there. I can't live with it any longer."

  He put down his coffee, lit a cigarette, and looked at the ceiling for a long time. Then he turned to me. "It's a very simple sentence," he said. "I love you."

  SOMETIMES AN UNCONTROLLABLE feeling of sadness grips us, he said. We recognize that the magic moment of the day has passed and that we've done nothing about it. Life begins to conceal its magic and its art.

  We have to listen to the child we once were, the child who still exists inside us. That child understands magic moments. We can stifle its cries, but we cannot silence its voice.

  The child we once were is still there. Blessed are the children, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

  If we are not reborn--if we cannot learn to look at life with the innocence and the enthusiasm of childhood--it makes no sense to go on living.

  There are many ways to commit suicide. Those who try to kill the body violate God's law. Those who try to kill the soul also violate God's law, even though their crime is less visible to others.

  We have to pay attention to what the child in our heart tells us. We should not be embarrassed by this child. We must not allow this child to be scared because the child is alone and is almost never heard.

  We must allow the child to take the reins of our lives. The child knows that each day is different from every other day.

  We have to allow it to feel loved again. We must please this child--even if this means that we act in ways we are not used to, in ways that may seem foolish to others.

  Remember that human wisdom is madness in the eyes of God. But if we listen to the child who lives in our soul, our eyes will grow bright. If we do not lose contact with that child, we will not lose contact with life.

  THE COLORS AROUND ME were growing vivid; I felt that I was speaking with more intensity and that my glass made a louder sound when I put it down on the table.

  A group of about ten of us were having dinner together after the conference. Everyone was speaking at the same time, and I was smiling, for this night was special; it was the first night in many years that I had not planned.

  What a joy!

  When I'd decided to go to Madrid, I had been in control of my actions and my feelings. Now, suddenly, all that had changed. Here I was in a city where I'd never set foot before, even though it was only three hours from the place where I'd been born. I was sitting at a table where I knew only one person, and everyone was speaking to me as if they'd known me for years. I was amazed that I could enter into the conversation, that I could drink and enjoy myself with them.

  I was there because suddenly life had presented me with Life. I felt no guilt, no fear, no embarrassment. As I listened to what he was saying--and felt myself growing closer to him--I was more and more convinced that he was right: there are moments when you have to take a risk, to do crazy things.

  I spend day after day with my texts and notebooks, making this superhuman effort just to purchase my own servitude, I thought. Why do I want that job? What does it offer me as a human being, as a woman?

  Nothing! I wasn't born to spend my life behind a desk, helping judges dispose of their cases.

  No, I can't think that way about my life. I'm going to have to return to it this week. It must be the wine. After all, when all is said and done, if you don't work, you don't eat. This is all a dream. It's going to end.

  But how long can I make the dream go on?

  For the first time I considered going to the mountains with him for the next few days. After all, a week of holidays was about to begin.

  "Who are you?" a woman at our table asked me.

  "A childhood friend," I answered.

  "Was he doing these things when he was a child, too?"

  "What things?"

  The conversation at the table seemed to fade and then die out.

  "You know: the miracles."

  "He could always speak well." I didn't understand what she meant.

  Everyone laughed, including him. I had no idea what was going on. But--maybe because of the wine--I felt relaxed, and for once I didn't feel like I had to be in control.

  I looked around and then said something that I forgot the next moment. I was thinking about the upcoming holiday.

  It was good to be here, meeting new people, talking about serious things but always with a touch of humor. I felt like I was really participating in the world. For at least this one night, I was no longer just seeing the real world through television or the newspapers. When I returned to Zaragoza, I'd have stories to tell. If I accepted his invitation for the holidays, I'd have whole years of memories to live on.

  He was so right not to pay any attention to my remarks about Soria, I thought. And I began to feel sorry for myself; for so many years, my drawer full of memories had held the same old stories.

  "Have some more wine," a white-haired man said, filling my glass.

  I drank it down. I kept thinking about how few things I would have had to tell my children and grandchildren if I hadn't come with him.

  "I'm counting on our trip to France," he said t
o me so that only I could hear.

  The wine had freed my tongue. "But only if you understand one thing."

  "What's that?"

  "It's about what you said before the conference. At the cafe."

  "The medal?"

  "No," I said, looking into his eyes and doing everything I could to appear sober. "What you said."

  "We'll talk about it later," he said, quickly trying to change the subject.

  He had said that he loved me. We hadn't had time to talk about it, but I knew I could convince him that it wasn't true.

  "If you want me to take the trip with you, you have to listen to me," I said.

  "I don't want to talk about it here. We're having a good time."

  "You left Soria when you were very young," I went on. "I'm only a link to your past. I've reminded you of your roots, and that's what makes you think as you do. But that's all it is. There can't be any love involved."

  He listened but didn't answer. Someone asked him his opinion about something, and our conversation was interrupted.

  At least I've explained how I feel, I thought. The love he was talking about only exists in fairy tales.

  In real life, love has to be possible. Even if it is not returned right away, love can only survive when the hope exists that you will be able to win over the person you desire.

  Anything else is fantasy.

  From the other side of the table, as if he had guessed what I was thinking, he raised his glass in a toast. "To love," he said.

  I could tell that he, too, was a little drunk. So I decided to take advantage of the opening: "To those wise enough to understand that sometimes love is nothing more than the foolishness of childhood," I said.

  "The wise are wise only because they love. And the foolish are foolish only because they think they can understand love," he answered.

  The others at the table heard him, and in a moment an animated discussion about love was in full swing. Everyone had a strong opinion and was defending their position tooth and nail; it took more wine to calm things down. Finally someone said it was getting late and that the owner of the restaurant wanted to close.

  "We have five days of vacation," someone shouted from another table. "If the owner wants to close, it's just because you were getting too serious."

  Everyone laughed--except me.

  "Then where can we talk about serious things?" someone asked the drunk at the other table.