Excerpt from the unfinished novel ‘The Secret Doctrine of Clouds’, about a young Indian girl who discovered she could talk to plants.
When they arrived home, it was too early for her mother to have returned from work, so Della crouched down and found what her mother had put aside for their evening meal. As she sorted what needed doing, she remembered her plant on the sill and rushed over to see how it was growing.
To her delight its stalk had grown another three inches and now draped down over the side of the can and onto the sill. It leaned to the left side, its probing tendrils outstretched and covering her Grandmother’s hair comb. As she picked it up, she realized that some of the tendrils had wound around it. Gently releasing them, she held the comb in her hand and looked pensively at the plant. She didn’t understand why this would happen but felt an unexpected cold chill.
‘Are you trying to tell me something?’ she whispered, trying to make light of it.
Picking up a pencil from her bed, Della drew a smile with two dot eyes on the can. ‘You are a happy vine, aren’t you? Now you can show everyone how happy you are.’
With that, she poured a small cup of water into the can and placed the abalone shell comb on the right side of the sill, away from the plant. She then tried to forget about what had happened.
Sweeping the floor was never much fun, with dry red dust clouding up inside their tiny house, but the job had to be done. While she was cleaning, Della found a piece of paper that her father had dropped on the floor.
Della had never been able to go to school. She was female and the prohibitive cost had prevented any participation. But she had always been interested in learning to read, something that Rampal had insisted on and committed to teach her.
At the age of twelve she could read basic language, but had never told her parents. Her secret studies had to remain secret for now.
Holding the note, Della tried to read the writing but it was scribbled down quickly and the letter forms eluded her. Amid trying to read, she suddenly thought of her experience in the rain forest, and looked up to the vine on the windowsill.
‘Are you trying to tell me something?’ she asked, this time with more conviction. An idea suddenly struck her. If plants could somehow communicate with her, then this little vine could prove it.
Della found a piece of paper and tore two small square pieces from it. On one she wrote ‘Yes’ as neatly as she could, and on the other ‘No’. She then placed the ‘No’ piece in front of the tin can and ‘Yes’ to the right of the can, each with a small pebble to keep the paper in place.
If this were to be proven, then the little plant would have to move. She stood in front of the vine and looked squarely at it.
‘Are you trying to talk to me?’ she asked slowly, in a clear and concise voice. ‘If you are, you will have to point to the ‘Yes.’
‘Oh,’ she suddenly realized. ‘If you’re not, you still have to move to the ‘No.’ Either way, I suppose it doesn’t matter,’ she giggled.
Della was a little confused with her own plan, but for the moment that was what she was to do, and she’d just see what happened.
Not expecting anything and still with reservations about her own experience in the rainforest, she went about her work until her mother returned home. Unlike the usual bombardment of stories and experiences that Della would impart, she said little to her mother, other than she had enjoyed the trip. Mala thought it strange, but left Della alone after Vikram explained her fright in the forest.
At midday the following day it was time to meet Rampal at the temple. As always he was waiting for her in the lane. She quickly made her way inside to the private prayer room and sat down opposite him as she had always done.
Rampal studied her concerned expression and not understanding what he was in for, posed the question.
‘What’s wrong, my child? Is something worrying you?’
‘Rampal. Have you seen the lepers in the streets, the ones that have gone mad? What do you think they are thinking?’ she asked in a soft, sincere voice.
Rampal frowned, knowing that this was not really the question she wanted answered. But nonetheless, he thought about it for some time before answering.
‘I think that people can sometimes become lost. Perhaps they have exceeded their capacity to cope and choose to live in another realm, one more sympathetic to them and their frail state.’
‘But how would you know if you had become one of those poor souls?’
Rampal smiled warmly. ‘You are thinking perhaps the world has faded from you, having lost all connection with it?’ he said with humor and a touch of sarcasm.
Della blushed. ‘Rampal, I think I have heard voices where there were no voices.’
‘Della, please tell me what happened? You know you can tell me anything.’
Della looked down thoughtfully and fidgeted a little, obviously uncomfortable. ‘When I was with my father in Chandigar, we went up to the edge of the rain forest; you know how I love all the plants and trees.’
Rampal nodded, his hands resting calmly in his lap.
‘I began to hear voices, and each time that I looked around there was no-one there, no-one there at all- just me and the rain forest trees and plants.’
‘But what did these voices say?’ asked Rampal, bewildered.
‘That is the thing Rampal. Somehow I knew that whatever it was, it was talking to me. The voice said it wanted to be close to me, something like that.’
For some reason, Della felt a surge of emotion rise from within her. Unexpected tears welled in her dark eyes and then slowly edged down her cheeks.
‘I am frightened Rampal, but then I am not. I don’t know what to think or do,’ she said, leaning into Rampal’s shoulder and sobbing quietly.
‘It’s all right Della. There is nothing for you to fear, you are simply open to so many things, and at such a young age. I don’t know what else to say to you except that your life is special- I’ve known that from the beginning,’ he explained, gently running his fingers through her hair.
‘What you see, nobody sees, but that does not mean what you see is not there or wrong. Your gift is sight, a sight far beyond most people. This gift is to be understood and nurtured and used for good. You heart has always been special to me and I have enjoyed teaching you what I can. But in the end it will be you who teach me. Remember we are all teachers and pupils. The real task is to understand when and why we should be either.
Della, if nature reaches out to you for some reason, you must respond and be open to any possibility. We think that we are in control, that man is king on earth. But we know so little and we are at the mercy of life, each blessed breathe a gift in itself. Do not be afraid, Della; this is simply your path.’
Della listened to Rampal’s words of encouragement and although she did not see what he saw, she could try to stem this fear within her and try to accept, however bizarre it appeared.
‘I’m sorry Rampal, I am not much company today,’ she said with a forced grin.
Rampal kissed her gently on her forehead and she wiped the tears from her eyes. ‘Shall we then?’ he asked.
Della nodded and Rampal picked up and opened the holy text next to him, the area of today’s discussion already marked.
Della stayed for another hour and then, feeling tired, returned home to finish her daily chores. As she worked she remembered what Rampal had said and tried to temper the emotional turmoil within her. Fear, self-doubt and apprehension hovered over her like some bird of prey, ready to pounce at any moment. She felt its presence and tried to be brave, but reality, if indeed that’s what it was, would be harder to accept than her own madness, should it come to that.
After analyzing herself to the point of exhaustion, Della finally gave up.
It wasn’t until the following morning that everything became clearer. She woke from a sound sleep and all bleary-eyed looked toward her tiny vine on the windowsill. She rubbed her eyes, trying to clear her vision, trying to verify what she saw.
Not only had the vine grown over to the ‘Yes’ sign, but the tendrils had surrounded it and lifted it up, as if to say ‘Well?’
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