This story continues in a series of stories following Mikayla’s spiritual path. You can read her previous stories here:
Mikayla stood before Arch Penitent Okoye in the yellow sash ceremony. Normally, this sash–one of five levels of sashes–was awarded after 2 to 3 years of preparation and study, not 3 months. But Mikayla had thrown herself into the work so deeply that the other Penitents couldn’t help but notice.
She didn’t just become proficient in the rocking climbing routes; she mastered them. She could climb all of them in multiple ways, and some she no longer used a rope. She did them wearing heavy packs, in the rain, in the cold, in the middle of the night, and other scenarios. She learned how to secure ropes in multiple ways, and she knew when not to climb because conditions were too poor. She’d even come to the point where she was tutoring other white sash Neophytes.
Which was one of the turning points for Penitent Abuela. As a green sash wearer–the highest of those in the order as none held the black sash at this House–her word carried significant weight. So much so that the leader of the House–Arch Penitent Okoye–reluctantly agreed to award Mikayla this next level.
“It’s absurd to make her wear white when she’s now teaching the whole lot of them,” Abuela said in a circle of the ten elder Penitents along with Arch Penitent Okoye.
“We’ve not had someone like this in a decade,” Penitent Mu’tay agreed.
“You are right, as usual, Abuela,” Okoye agreed. “Let’s hope it doesn’t go to her head.”
Mikayla handed her neatly folded white sash to the Arch Penitent. She bowed as she did so. Okoye took the sash in two hands and handed it to one of the yellow sash Neophytes standing in attendance at the alter. Okoye picked up a yellow sash from the other attending Neophyte and wrapped it around Mikayla gently but firmly.
“Be humble, Sincérité. This is not something to be taken lightly.”
“Yes, Arch Penitent Okoye. I won’t take it lightly.”
Mikayla turned to face the gathering. She beamed as the Arch Penitent announced her as a yellow sash. She was now one step closer to being a red sash and becoming a full member–a Penitent–in their order.
As the gathering concluded after awarding sashes to other members, Mikayla got to walk out with the other yellow sashes following the white sashes and being followed by the reds and greens. She headed towards mid-afternoon supper when Penitent Briar caught up with her.
“A moment of your time, Sincérité.”
Briar led her to the courtyard. Another deluge of autumn color blanketed the ground. She loved the colors, but she wondered if she was about to be tasked with raking them all.
“I know you realize that we don’t normally award sashes so quickly.”
“Yes. I understand.”
“But we also can’t ignore your level of…understanding.” Briar adjusted his red sash.
“Abuela is one of the green sashes, but she or one of the others isn’t Arch Penitent. Arch Penitent Okoye is a red sash. Why isn’t Abuela or another green the Arch Penitent?” Mikayla wondered.
“It doesn’t work that way. Penitent Abuela is one of the most intelligent, experienced, and knowledgeable rescuers we have.” Briar smiled warmly, white teeth bright in contrast to his dark skin. “But it doesn’t mean she wants to lead. Arch Penitent Okoye, however, is a natural leader. That’s why she is our Arch Penitent.”
Briar looked at Mikayla. “And you are a natural….”
“Teacher?” Mikayla offered hopefully.
“Perhaps.” He looked off at the distant mountains. A storm had come. When it had finished, several squads of Penitents would perform their duties to see if anyone had gotten into trouble. “The yellow sash gives you the privilege of being an observer on one of our search teams. Tomorrow I will put you with Chen’s team. Watch closely.”
Mikayla’s heart leaped. “Oh my goodness! Yes! Thank you!”
“But watch only,” Briar said sternly.”
Mikayla contained her excitement. “Yes, Penitent Briar. I will.”
“You still have much to learn.”
After supper, Mikayla hurried to her room with a list of things to prepare. In her excitement, she tripped and fell. Startled, she looked back to see that she had not tripped but been tripped by Neophyte Kadedus.
“Look. The perfect Sincérité does make mistakes.” She laughed harshly to three other white sash Neophytes.
“Why can’t you be happy for me?” Mikayla asked, standing up.
Kadedus stepped closer and jabbed a finger at her. “Because you’ve had everything go your way. All your life, you’ve gotten what you want.”
“You don’t know anything about me.”
“Yes, I do. It’s all over you. Great parents. Great friends. Lots of food. Lots of…love.” Kadedus’s voice quavered. “And now this.” Kadedus tugged at Mikayla’s sash.
“Yeah,” Neophyte Littleton agreed. “No one hurting you all the time.”
Mikayla saw the pain in the woman’s eyes. “I’m sorry you were hurt, Littleton.” She reached out to the other Neophyte, but Littleton pulled back.
“Hey! I’m talking here!” Kadedus interjected, poking Mikayla hard.
Mikayla caught the finger and twisted Kadedus’s hand and body to the ground. It was something she’d learned in the basic self-defense classes they taught in this order.
“Stop being mean, and I’ll let you go.”
The other Neophyte grumbled that she’d stop, and then she and the other Neophytes walked away.
Mikayla felt huge. She was already one of the tallest women in the order, taller than many men. But a sense of power had enveloped her. She didn’t know what it meant.
Gradually it wore off, and she prepared for the coming excursion.
In her excitement, she barely slept and dawn couldn’t arrive soon enough. But it did, and soon she was riding in a wagon on Chen’s team along with two other squads of Penitents and Neophytes. The three squads would cover different commonly traversed regions over the next two weeks. Chen warned everyone about the dangers of avalanche and mudslides in different regions of the mountains as well as the monotony of high snow in the upper elevations. Mikayla and three other yellow sashes sat in the back of the wagon silently watching and listening to the brief comments by the reds and two greens who had come out. They hoped to hear some critical piece of information that they would certainly be tested on later.
After day three, the squads split off to their assigned areas. One squad headed to check the main trail ahead for blockages–downed trees, boulders, avalanches, and so forth. Another squad fanned out along areas where people often got lost on the west side of the trail. Chen’s team swept east to inspect areas particularly prone to avalanches.
Then things got even quieter.
Then they hit the snow.
Everyone in Chen’s squad was now on foot as the wagon had gone with the team on the main road, not that it would have done them much good in the snow. Penitent Chen made a point of discussing things about the trail, snowpack, and other elements of the terrain and weather. But mostly, there was silence as they hiked along a trail buried under three feet of snow that Chen knew by heart after years of hiking the area.
More days melted by.
One night while lying in a snow cave, they heard the crashing sounds of an avalanche in the distance.
“Hope no one was out there,” Penitent Chen commented.
“Should we go and see?” Mikayla asked.
“Not at night in these conditions,” Chen replied.
The next day, they found the avalanche area. Chen and some of the other Penitents explained how to search the area safely. By mid-day, someone found an overturned sled and food scattered about.
Chen looked at Penitent Wu–the most knowledgeable Penitent in emergency medicine. Wu asked Neophyte Dutiful to prepare her emergency supplies. Chen coordinated the Neophytes and Penitents into a grid, but it was one of the dogs that caught a scent.
The Penitents started digging and found a man in a bearskin coat, barely alive.
Penitent Wu took over directing people while attending to the semi-comatose man. They did everything to warm him and resuscitate him. The day was fading. Nothing worked. He was slipping away.
Wu stopped. She folded her hands over her heart and began to pray–an afterlife prayer.
“Isn’t there anything more you can do?” Mikayla asked Wu.
Wu’s deep brown eyes looked with sadness at her as she shook her head.
Mikayla saw her chance. She knew what to do. She got up before Wu or Chen could. She lifted the huge man and brought his head to her chest. In her embrace, she began to hum–a long sound, a deep sound. A sound that permeated her body, the man’s body, and the other Penitents and Neophytes. The hum morphed into a guttural wordless song and gradually lifted up to higher octaves, seemingly trying to bring the man back from the depths of death.
At first nothing happened, but then his eyelashes fluttered. His cheeks flushed.
Neophyte Dutiful gasped. “His eyes are open.”
Then the man sighed and went limp. The heat went away. The eyelids closed. The weak heart beat stopped.
“What?” Mikayla said alarmed. She moved her hands around him. Moved his body again. Hummed more, but nothing happened. “What happened?”
“He died,” Wu replied.
“No, no, no. This was supposed to work. Why did this happen?”
“Death happens, Sincérité,” Chen said.
“But I’ve done this before. Why didn’t it work?”
Mikayla felt distraught.
“It’s time to let him go,” Wu said, gently touching Mikayla’s arm.
Mikayla began to cry. “I don’t understand.”
Two of the yellow sashes had to pry the body away from Mikayla, as the others went about preparations for laying the man to rest.
Mikayla stared blankly into the distance.
“Death happens,” Chen repeated.
“I don’t understand what I did wrong. This worked before.”
Chen didn’t say anything, and Mikayla fell silent for the rest of the journey and the return trip.
After a day of being back and debriefing from all the squads as well as discussions about what was learned, Mikayla heard plenty of practical things. But she got no answers that helped her. No one could explain how something she’d done several times before to help heal someone now did not work. She wondered about the order and about becoming a full member. They all seemed…limited.
Mikayla was sweeping the floor in the dining hall when Penitent Briar found her. “Would you like to take a walk with me?”
Briar led her down a corridor where they had amazing views of the now snowy Erleuchtenden Mountains.
“It’s a hard world.”
Mikayla didn’t say anything.
“People die no matter what we do to help.”
“I’ve saved people before,” Mikayla replied.
“Your will is not the only one involved.”
Silence pressed in on them.
“I encourage you to learn everything you can from Chen and Wu.”
Mikayla looked up into Briar’s eyes. Her blue eyes burned fiercely. “There’s more that is possible.”
“Maybe so. But we can only teach what we know.” Briar left her to her thoughts.
That night, Mikayla resolved to learn everything she could, but doubts about The Penitents lingered. She sat cross-legged on her bed and pondered her situation. She contemplated the rigid disciplines and the beliefs. Everything felt so constrained.
As everyone went to sleep that night, Mikayla stayed awake.
Interpretation of A Lost Soul
Catching up with Mikayla in this story, we see her easily moving through life. She’s winning awards and social prestige and being given new opportunities.
Some people’s lives are like that. Things just keep going their way.
But then she hits something she can’t succeed at. Unable to save the man in the snow, Mikayla is confronted with a problem. It’s a serious crisis for her. As usual, instead of looking to reality–that you can’t save everyone–she turns her blame towards the spiritual order she is a part of.
She is correct in understanding that the spiritual group she is part of IS limited.
Most spiritual paths and religions are exceptionally limited–they live by their rules or at least proclaim to. The path to realizing spiritual freedom is a release from false limitations that also paradoxically makes certain types of rules make sense.
Like the rule to not kill people.
Killing people causes suffering. Not only is someone dead, but all those connected to the person react to the loss. So most major religions create rules that say, “don’t kill people.” While a spiritually free person is unlimited from the illusion of the rule, we follow it because of the practical reality of the suffering caused by killing and that there is so extremely rarely a need to ever kill another human being save in some form of self-defense or the defense of an innocent.
But Mikayla isn’t to that level of understanding yet. She is just starting to understand herself and the rules all around her.
This sense of failure and constraint leads to a bigger shift. Mikayla decides to stay awake.
As anyone who has read this blog for awhile knows, the reference to “being awake” is barely a metaphor at all. She’s not about to become an insomniac–I’m referencing the internal decision to want to know what is real. Being awake is opposite to sleeping, which is being lost in one’s illusions.
So while Mikayla has finally found something that she could not do, a bigger doorway appears to be opening for her.
We’ll see what future stories hold for her.