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Late nineteenth century, Tasmania-Three rapid rifle shots cracked the calm of the mountainside, and a gathering of yellow-eyed currawong birds flew into the nearest gum tree, their black wings shining in the spring mist. They were escape artists, thought Philo Hoffman, like all the native fauna since the British conquerors had invaded Tasmania. He pushed back his visored safari helmet and peered through his binoculars at the trail below. Probably a hunter, he shrugged, then let his binoculars fall on their strap while he recorded the number of currawongs in the gum tree. He preferred to call it a moonah tree, liking the flavor of the native name.
Considered a moonstruck dreamer by his proper Boston family, Philo had been tracing the path of primitive man throughout Asia for the past twenty years. He was looking for the key to human origins, what made man human, what could be called his soul. Here in Tasmania, soul was in short supply. It was a cruel country, Philo said to himself, as a cold gust of damp wind chilled the sweat on his neck. All mountains, impassable rapids, and fierce storms, not to speak of the convicts and ex-convicts that littered Hobart, the shabby little capital. Philo's fine dark brows came together as he heard another shot. A solitary man, he had hoped to find ultimate solitude in these mountains at the tip of southern Tasmania. Now he could see first one hunter, then two others running along the path fifty feet below the ridge on which he stood. Yapping dogs, mangy as their masters, ran ahead, their noses near the ground.
No doubt chasing a lenah, a bush kangaroo. The Brits were always chasing some animal, either to catch or to kill. They couldn't leave the landscape alone but were always worrying at it, building roads, monuments and their infernal prisons. At the hellhole he had visited in Hobart yesterday, any prisoner who complained was forced to wear a leather snout strapped to his head. Poor devils. Almost as bad off as the handful of natives still hiding in the hills.
Philo was about to turn the page of his notebook when he heard a long, haunting cry that dropped off suddenly, as if the one who uttered it had suddenly fallen from a cliff. Adjusting his binoculars, he saw the thin, naked body of a native, a Parlevar, as they called themselves, bent over and stumbling as he struggled up the side of the mountain, trying to elude the hunters. The man's skin was black, with a faint violet sheen, except near the left shoulder, where it was bright red with blood."Damn," Philo muttered under his breath, pulling out his pistol. "They're tracking him like a dingo." He fired into the air and called to the hunters when they looked up, "Let the poor fellow go, mates. He's done you no harm." "Bug off, Yank!" one of the hunters shouted, "or we'll send you to Tassie hell along with him." They fired again, this time in Philo's direction, and a handful of fractured sandstone fell from the rocks overhead. Out of sight from below, he pressed his back against the cliff, deciding it was useless to argue about civilized rules with men who had none. With luck, though, he might save the wounded Parlevar.
Philo ducked around a rock and began climbing down the steep side of the cliff, trying to find the native. If the Parlevar had the strength, he would surely avoid the trail and go for the heights, scaling the cliff as Philo had seen natives do before. Suddenly the rocks gave way under Philo's boots, and he slid twenty feet down, scraping his cheek and palms as he flailed, groping for a handhold in the rough brush. He landed on a wide ledge, shadowed by an outcropping of rock and a moonah tree that had almost lost its moorings, roots straining to keep it from falling into the valley below. After brushing against his high, tanned cheekbone, Philo's hand came away bloody. His long, craggy face had so many scars that one more would not matter.
Philo heard a low moan from just below the ridge and saw a black hand groping for a hold. Then the other hand appeared. A low muttering in Parlevar followed, then a despairing cry as the hands began to slip. Bracing himself against a rock, Philo grabbed the aboriginal's hand and dragged him onto the ledge. The black man rolled over and stared up at the sun, his eyes glazed and unblinking.
"Lumeah," he whispered. "I rest here."
"You'd best have some of this," Philo said in the native dialect as he pulled out his brandy flask. "Looks like you've lost a lot of blood." He checked the man's wound and shook his head. The bullet was not in the shoulder, as he had thought from a distance, but nearer the heart. How this man had climbed a hundred feet straight up with such a wound, Philo could not guess.
The yapping of the dogs following the trail of blood told him the hunters were close. Philo leaned over, his head shadowing the Parlevar's face. "We've got to move on," he said. "Where? You know these hills."
"Turn, turn," the black man whispered. "Behind the vines, a cave. I must end there."
Brushing aside the growth of trumpet vines, heavy with their red and yellow cone-shaped flowers, Philo saw a dark, irregular hole in the rock. Bent almost double, he pulled the aboriginal inside, then went out again, opening his flask. The dogs were not far away; he could hear them growling and sniffing as they worked. Philo poured brandy over the blood that had spread under the Parlevar's body, then lit it with a match.
Just as the first dog's head appeared above the narrow ledge, the fire roared up, consuming the blood and leaving no human scent. The dog yipped and backed off. Philo could hear it racing down the hillside, taking the other dogs along. Wrenching off a dried branch that hung from the moonah tree, he stuck one end into the fire, then took the torch into the cave, letting the thick vine curtain fall behind him.
The Parlevar had crawled deeper into the cave, around a corner and into a large cavern. Lifting the torch, Philo could see red and black wall paintings, in which humans and animals were intertwined.
"Put your torch on the place of fire," the Parlevar whispered, pointing at a circle of stones with blackened wood inside. "It will burn a long time after I am gone."
The black man's face was full, like his lips, and his nose was broad, with a curve at the top. As he lay on the bare rock, the flickering light cast shadows under his eyes, highlighting his deep wrinkles. Philo rested his hand on the dying man's head, trying to soothe his pain. The thick, black hair was coarse to the touch and prickled against his palm like live wires.
"How are you called?" the man asked, his eyes opening suddenly, their brown depths lit by the torch. "Of what family and race are you? What is your Dreaming?",/P>
"My dreaming?" Philo was unsure how to answer.
"Your God, as you call it." The Parlevar groaned and rolled over on his side. "The spirit of those who came before." He waved his hand vaguely.
"I'll start with my name, Philo Hoffman." He felt as if he had never said his name before and heard it roll off his tongue slowly, like a mantra. It was strange to be asked about his family, for Philo had always identified himself by his professorship at Harvard. Few people had ever asked about his race or his God. "I am as much Jewish as anything," he said, feeling ashamed that he knew so little of his ancestral faith beyond his bar mitzvah training. "I do not know God, but imagine God as better than I am. Different from what I am. And you, my friend, what is your name? Who is your God?" The Parlevar's breath was becoming erratic and shallow, and Philo feared he would soon die. Knowing this man's God suddenly seemed very important.
"White men call me Jocko, because none can pronounce my name. I will tell my real name to you." He mumbled a many-syllabled name that flowed incomprehensibly past Philo's ears. "And my God, as you call the Dreaming, is that One who gave birth to all. The Old Woman."
Jocko sighed and held up his hand, watching his fingers turn transparent in the firelight. "Philo Hoffman, I am last of my people, last to carry the old secrets. May I give you my story? Yes?"
Philo felt his heart beat out of phase, as if it might stop. Like the dying man, he gasped for air, and wondered if he, too, would die in this cave where the walls crawled with life. He knew of the goddess Jocko called "the Old Woman." She was called Great Mother by the people of Old Europe, six thousand years ago. Jocko called her old because his people thought old meant full of power. "Yes," Philo whispered. "Tell."
"Long ago, when the continents were one, my people lived here on this spot. We were the earliest race of men, and it was to us the Old Woman came each night, like a mother singing her children to sleep. Her name was Pra, and it was she who gave birth to the world."
"Is Pra the word for love in the ancient language?" Philo took a notebook from his pocket and began to write.
The black man nodded and went on. "Mother Pra is the one we see when eyes are open and when eyes are closed. She takes care of us even to this day. She came in flesh long ago, half a world away from here. As a man with the heart of a woman."
"You mean Jesus, the Jew of Nazareth?" Philo's pen stopped, poised above the notebook.
"Yes." The Parlevar tried to nod, but his head fell to the side. He coughed, and blood ran from the corner of his mouth. "But that Incarnation was not the first. From the spirit world her divine children come when needed to save earth from destruction. She is already here on earth, but in a hidden place. Later Pra will come again as a small, black man with great powers. After that she will return in such a form that we will not know if she is man or woman, so motherly will be her heart."
The black man's breath rasped in his throat, and his eyes closed. His knees curled to his chest as he rolled onto his side.
"Jocko, tell me," Philo said, forgetting to keep his voice down. "Where is the place? Where has the avatar come back to earth?" Echoing against the painted walls, his voice sounded deep and far away.
The old shaman opened his eyes and held Philo's. "Go to a land where old laws are kept, where men give their lives to sacred oneness of mind and body, where women are still incarnations of the Old Woman. Look for a tall man, with a white beard and ash on his forehead. I see him behind my closed eyes, wearing a white robe, in a small village by the sea, surrounded by many people, his spiritual children. He is called Baba-Father. His names are on my ring. Go to Baba. He will tell you what to do." The shaman's voice trailed off like a child's drifting into sleep, and he was gone.
Philo touched Jocko's eyes in a ritual gesture, but they were already closed. On the black man's finger was a gold ring, with an inscription inside that he could barely make out: Shirdi-Sathya-Prema. The last two he recognized as the Sanskrit words for Truth and Love. The first was a village near Bombay. If the winds were fair, he could sail there in a week. Philo put the ring in his pocket, sprinkled the old man's face with dust as a burial gesture, and said the words of the ring for a blessing, if such a man as this required a blessing for his passage.
(c)1998. All rights reserved. Reprinted from The Sai Prophecy by Barbara Gardner, Ph.D. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means, without the written permission of the publisher. Publisher: Health Communications
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