GROVE STORY, a story by Nandita Shenoy
You emerge, as if from hibernation, into the grove. It has been a long and dark winter – a winter like no other. You have never spent a season so quiet, so shielded, so lonely, but you know that you are only here now because of that sacrifice. You are unsure of what to expect – who you might see, what you might learn, how you might feel. But you push on because you can. You remember that your ability even to arrive at the grove in this moment is a privilege. You breathe in the air. It smells of summer and life and happiness. You remember. Was it two or three seasons ago when you walked here freely? When the village burst with innocence? You don’t remember. It doesn’t matter. You press on.
The grove has expanded since you were last here, wild and scented, unhampered by the hands of men. Or perhaps your memory is clouded. Was that tree there? Was that one so big? A single pink blossom is pressed into the earth, the only sign of an earlier blooming that happened out of sight. You wonder who will press a memory into the ground for you? But you know that no one pressed that flower into the soft earth. It was chance, perhaps helped along by a falling branch. Memories are unreliable. They make up the story of your life, and yet they twist and repeat and stretch out of focus. You want to stay present. You look around.
Others have arrived in the grove. Singles and pairs and even an odd small group. You wonder about them. Why did they come? Were they called? Did they receive the same missive as you did? Are they from the village? You are not sure. Once you knew all the faces of your neighbors, but a winter without them has dulled your recollection. Their faces are obscured, and you cannot be sure. You feel uneasy. Why did you come?
The first public gathering was not explained but simply commanded. You received your papers that morning, tucked under the door in the dead of night. You have come in trust, though trust is in short supply. You wanted to do your duty to the Queen, and you wanted to be in community with other villagers. But now that you are here, you are not sure.
CHOICE A: Fear
You have frozen for a moment. Suddenly all the events of the last year wash over you like a giant wave, crashing upon you with a force you did not know the ocean could muster. A rumbling sound fills your ears with the whoosh of a thousand mechanisms. You are frozen. You are tumbling through time. You are untethered. Your mind is rushing while your body stands perfectly still, clutching the paper you found under your door this morning.
Was it a summons or an invitation? You cannot tell. Was it from the Queen or from a minister? Does it make a difference? Yes, you tell yourself, it is important to follow the orders of the Queen. She has never led you astray. You are here by her grace. You will stay in the grove until she reveals herself or shares her will with you in some way. But the feeling of the wave and sound of the rushing does not leave you. You try to breathe deeply.
You remember a time when as a child you came to this grove with your mother and how she laughed while you ran among the trees. How she told you that she liked it here because the trees made a tunnel and how you agreed. How she told you about a time when she was a girl and came to the grove and ran into the young Queen herself when she was a mere princess enjoying an afternoon with her mother. You remember how your mother’s eyes shined while telling the story of crossing paths with a royal. She told you that story again this winter, even as she laid ill. It gave her joy in the darkness.
Where is the Queen? Her appearance would settle you, you feel sure. She never lost your faith, even in the darkness. Others whispered that she had gone too far, but you always felt that she wanted only to protect her people. You did not always see your neighbors following her edicts as you peered through the frosty windows. Even as the news trickled into the village from far away lands of other villages which lost many, many more, there were whispers around you against the Queen. How she would have been better served by a king at her side. Tucked away in your cottage, you could sense the rumblings of unease and dissatisfaction from those who could never lead as she did. You could feel the shifting as though the very ground beneath you moved. But you had always stayed loyal to the Queen. She did not need a king. If anything, it seemed that other kings needed her.
Just thinking of her fills you with pride. What if she is walking here now? Should you go to her? After such a long time away from public life, would it not do you good to see her as soon as you can?
CHOICE B: Regret
You should not have come. The others look so strange; with their faces obscured, you no longer recognize them as your fellow villagers. And if they are not your neighbors and friends, who are they? Are they those who caused the sadness in the land? Did they bring the long, cold winter, and will they destroy the coming season? Have they swept away all the pink blossoms that you remember as the first blush of spring? You think of the single pink flower smashed into the ground, perhaps by a boot. Your heart is pounding – you should go home, you should go home, you should go home. Why did you come?
You gaze up at the trees. Looking at the leaves above, lush and green, you remember how much you love this grove. You remember a time when as a child you came to this grove with your mother and how she laughed while you ran among the trees. How she told you that she liked it here because the trees made a tunnel and how you agreed. How she recounted a time when she was a girl and came to the grove and ran into the young Queen herself when she was a mere princess enjoying an afternoon with her mother. You remember how your mother’s eyes shined while telling the story of crossing paths with a royal. She told it again even this winter, a memory of light during the darkness.
The Queen may come today. You have her paper in your hand. If you return without seeing her, perhaps you will miss your chance to cross paths with a royal. You will miss your turn to tell the story, the one you loved so when your mother told it. After a year of missed chances, are you really willing to miss this one? This grove is not so big that she could be kept far from her subjects. You are here now, and even among these strangers, you feel that you are in a place that is familiar to you, that is of you. You have every right to be here. And you may even see the Queen. For that alone, it would be worth leaving your cottage. She may be coming now, along the road in a majestic procession. Or perhaps she is here already. The Queen has been known to dress as a commoner so that she can observe her subjects. You look around and observe the women near you. Is it her?
CHOICE C: Curiosity
You look at the paper in your hands and wonder about its provenance. Who slipped it under your door? Who else received these commands to arrive in the grove at this time? Why? As you look at the others around you, you wonder if they know why they were called. They must also love the Queen, even if they are not from the village. And it is a beautiful afternoon. Who would say no to a chance to spend the day in the grove with the Queen?
Even though you feel the unease of one who has not been amongst people in a very long time, you are happy to be here in the grove, under the canopy of branches which has continued to grow and spread even while the village languished with pestilence. You remember a time when as a child you came to this grove with your mother and how she laughed while you ran among the trees. How she told you that she liked it here because the trees made a tunnel and how you agreed. How she recounted a time when she was a girl and came to the grove and ran into the young Queen herself when she was a mere princess enjoying an afternoon with her mother. You remember how your mother’s eyes shined while telling the story of crossing paths with a royal. She told it again even this winter, a memory of light during her illness. You reflect on your mother’s respect for the Queen. After this winter, her respect has become yours.
You look around again, wondering if and when the Queen might come. That was what was implied in the paper, a visitation with the Queen. Wasn’t it? The others are looking at their papers. They murmur to each other, those in pairs and groups. The single ones stay silent, lost in the wonder of the summons in their hands. You feel fortunate for the first time in a long time. After a quiet year and an almost silent winter, you have forgotten what it means to gather, to convene, to visit. But today is the day to remember the old ways and try again. Perhaps these ways can be better, more joyful. They are more precious. You can see that for all the others – villagers or no, you are all the lucky ones invited today to bask in the glory of the Queen whose compassion brought you here. She must be on her way, if she is not already here.
CHOICE 1: Belief
(The Thorny Tree)
Years ago, there were whispers that the Queen was curious about how her subjects lived and dressed herself in simple garments to walk among them unnoticed. Some whispered that she fell in love with a commoner. Some whispered that she tried to run away. Others whispered that she was repulsed by what she saw. You never knew what to make of those whispers. She had always appeared so majestic to you, so regal and upright. It seemed impossible to believe that she could move among the public unnoticed. Could she truly transform herself into a commoner? Has she now?
You look around. Here by the thorny tree, there are a few others, all revisiting their papers. They could not be the Queen. They look too intrigued. Or could the Queen be a great actress as well? You cast aside the thought, a bit of silliness brought to you by the sun that you have not seen in many months. You look further at others milling about by the wall. No, none of them look like her. But what does she look like? Would you recognize her without her crown? She is tall. Yes, you look for a tall woman. But then you are not sure. You always see her in a carriage or on a throne, sitting above you. You have never seen how tall she is standing on the same ground as you. What if she has disguised herself like a man? When the travelling players used to stop in town, they performed many plays where women dressed like men in order to be free. Could she have tried this disguise? And yet you feel sure you would know her if she did. You would know the Queen anywhere. And you do not see her.
You notice movement. The others who are not the Queen begin to stir. Where are they going? Did they receive more explicit instructions? Should you follow? You were always a curious one, your mother was fond of saying. It is Spring, and you are in the grove, and others have joined you. Join them!
CHOICE 2: Anticipation
How is it that there was a note just for you tucked into the wall? The Queen is good. You have known that in your heart since you were a child when your mother told you about running wild in the tunnel of trees with the young princess. She loved the Queen, your mother did. Her voice had a different tone when she spoke of her, hushed, reverent, and yet familiar. You glance back at the trees and wonder about the spot where your mother encountered the Queen. Was it in the Tunnel of Trees? Was it near the river? Or was it here, by the wall?
Your heart is lighter now. She will come. You listen for sounds of the procession. After a year of darkness, it only makes sense that the Queen would make a grand entrance. She will ride in an ornate carriage with six horses, all decorated with garlands of flowers to symbolize the spring which she so loves. Her entrance will be marked by jesters and jugglers and acrobats because she knows that her subjects will need joy after such a long and dark winter. There will be music. She will not process with soldiers because the people are tired of war and punishment. She is a good Queen. She knows how you have suffered as she has suffered too. And she will do what she must to lift your spirits. You cannot wait!
You listen for her, for the clip clop of hooves or the flourish of a trumpet. But you hear nothing. Not nothing - the muffled chatter of the others, that persistent whooshing you noticed when you entered the grove, birdsong, animals. But not the sounds that you so dearly hope for. What to do?
You notice movement. The others begin to stir. Where are they going? Did they receive more explicit instructions? Should you follow? You were always a curious one, your mother was fond of saying. It is Spring, and you are in the grove, and others have joined you. Join them!
FINALE: Eternal Return
How strange now to be with others! You stand in the sunlight and feel its warmth healing you. You have been inside for so long. You have not stood with others in your home or outside it for what feels like an eternity. You suddenly don’t care who these fellow bystanders are; they are your comrades on this new adventure. You smile though you know they cannot see it. You hope that the creases in the corners of your eyes will relay to them that you are not afraid. You may not know these particular villagers or foreigners but you believe that all who have come to the grove come with hope in their hearts. All have been called by the Queen who has only love in her heart. Like her, you come with love too.
But where is she? Could she have planned another entrance? By the river? You had so hoped to see her. You are holding her papers in your hands. They made you feel special, like a chosen one. For a moment a golden bubble rested upon you. And now has the bubble popped? Was it all a game to Her Majesty?
You have seen a few entertainers along the way in the grove, and now it dawns upon you that they were sent by the Queen. They are here to guide you. Perhaps she knew her own entrance would be too much for people so recently accustomed to solitude and darkness. That grandness is not called for in the springtime as her subjects emerge from the darkness of pestilence. She understands that you are in transition. You are like bears emerging from your caves of deep slumber. You must move slowly to regain your footing. The Queen’s helpers are here to ease your way.
They are working together now, three of them, bringing forth a phoenix whose very appearance makes your heart sing. The Queen will not come, but she has sent a sign to you and to all the people that she brought here today. A sign that with the Spring, you will regain what you have lost in a new form, that rebirth and transformation is upon you.
And you are here in a place that you love with open spaces next to tree tunnels and people from everywhere here to rejoice that the darkness just might be over. You are cautious and tentative, yes, but being here is also bold. You are saying that you are ready. You have heard the call. You will commune and gather once again. These others have joined you. You are all wiser than when the pestilence began. And you will be ready for the Queen whatever day that she decides to join you. You have made it this far. You think about your mother, and her love for you which was every bit as joyful as her love for the Queen, and you rejoice. Rebirth is upon you all.