Five women are on a path, a steep and winding path that leads to the top of a fog-shrouded mountain. They have heard that, should they walk the path to the top, there they will find an end to all of their sorrows.
Each woman believes she walks this arduous path alone, for none can see any of the others. Each one started her journey at a different time and each originated her trek from a different location.
The path is steep and treacherous, rocky and rough, strewn with boulders and pocked with holes. Some holes are small and easily stepped over while others block the path and force the traveler off the path to go around it. The edges of the path are even more treacherous than the path itself: bogs, mires, sheer drop-offs into seemingly bottomless chasms are constant companions, along with a swirling, persistent fog. Along the way they each see evidence of other women who have faltered and failed to make it to the top: cast off shoes, walking sticks, backpacks, even the occasional tell-tale hump of burial dirt.
The First Woman, after much frightening and painful work, reaches the top of the mountain and, indeed, as she steps out of the fog and into the sunshine at the top of the peak, her sorrows are lightened. She has climbed the most perilous path of her life, risked both life and limb, and while she basks in her new-found sense of self and relief from her life sorrows, she sees that the fog has cleared and that she has an equally perilous path down the other side of the mountain. From her vantage point she can see women who have gone before her, some of them striding confidently into the unknown, others gingerly picking their way down the rubble fields and slippery rocks that mark this half of the journey and it occurs to her that the journey down the mountain and the integration of her new Self back into her old community might be easier if she didn’t have to do it alone.
And so she sits down to wait, her lap full of grasses and weeds and the occasional wild flower which she begins to plait.
* * *
The Second Woman climbs past the hazards and the signs of those who failed and, with her last ounce of strength, collapses on a rock just meters from the top. She grits her teeth stoically, certain she can crawl those last few meters, but her muscles refuse to obey, her eyes cannot find the handholds or the footholds she needs. Despairing, she leans against the rock and, feeling sorry for herself, dreading the climb back down and the humiliation of her defeat, she desperately cries out “Help me!” To her great surprise, one end of a rope made of weeds and grasses and the occasional wildflower drops through the fog and into her lap.
“Grab on,” calls a woman’s voice from above her. “Wrap it around your waist and I will help you up.” And she does and in a few moments she, too, is standing at the top, above the fog. After resting and some sustenance, the women compare notes and learn that they are sisters under the skin, women who, while different in outward circumstance, are very much the same inside.
“Shall we go down the mountain, now?” asks the Second Woman, eyeing the path on the other side. “I thought it would be smooth sailing from here but this path is just as bad as the path leading up.”
The First Woman nods. “The path does not get smoother,” she tells her companion, “We just get stronger and wiser and more experienced, making us more able to trod it with greater ease.” They talk a while longer, plaiting more ropes from the grasses and weeds that grow around them, and ultimately decide to go their separate ways, the Second Woman setting off down the unknown path to her destiny, carrying with her the ropes she and the First Woman had woven together.
But the First Woman sees a different destiny for herself and she starts back down the way she came, her pockets stuffed with weeds and grasses and the occasional wildflower. She scavenges the discards and backpacks she finds, collects the abandoned walking sticks and shoes, and as she makes her way down the mountain path, she plaits the grasses and weeds from her pockets into her own ropes which, as they grow in length, she carries in one of the backpacks she has found.
* * *
The Third Woman is struggling up the path. She is crippled by a huge, heavy bag that she carries across her shoulders, the burden of a lifetime that she cannot find the courage to put down: the bag is filled with her collection of a lifetime of things given to her by people she loves and she believes herself obliged to keep and carry them all. Around a bend she spies a person coming down the mountain towards her, a woman with spring in her step and a rope of grasses and weeds and pretty flowers in her hands. They approach each other and come to a halt, a deep and crumbling hole in the path separating them.
“Did you come up this path?” the Third Woman asks the first.
“I did,” she replies.
“How did you get past this hole?” the Third Woman asks.
“I leapt it.”
“But I cannot leap so far,” the Third Woman complains, shifting the burden on her shoulders.
“You can if you take that bag off your shoulder and leave it there.”
The Third Woman looks shocked, even angered, at the suggestion. “I cannot do that!” she cries indignantly. “This bag contains gifts from my loved ones. Let me show you…”
She opens the bag and drags out dented cups and chipped dishes, frayed towels and stale, half-eaten biscuits. Each item is, in its own way, tarnished or broken, flawed and without redeeming value. A small whip, with which the Third Woman almost ritually beats herself, is the last of the treasures she unearths.
The First Woman points out that these items are without value, that they are castoffs, refuse, not gifts of esteem and value. “Are your loved ones poor, then?” she asks.
“Nay,” replies the Third Woman, gesturing proudly to her hoard. “They are rich. See that cup, the one with the broken handle and dented lip? Solid silver! And that plate with the big crack glued together? That rim is real gold!”
“But they are dented and broken and cracked and damaged!” the First Woman points out. “They are not whole or even in good condition. Why do you treasure their refuse, their rubbish?”
“Because this is what they gave me,” the Third Woman cries. “This is what I have and it is surely better than nothing at all, which is what you would have of me. Well, it won’t work! I won’t let you take it all away from me! I won’t!”
And the Third Woman gathers her treasures and stuffs them back into the bag, snarling at the First Woman, “I thought you came down the mountain to help me, not to wound me. I have enough of that in my life and I don’t need it from you, too!” And she shoulders her burden and turns around and heads back down the mountain from whence she came.
* * *
The Fourth Woman is scrambling up the path in a great hurry, she is in a frightful state, looking back over her shoulder as if she is being pursued. She clambers over obstacles and leaps great holes in the path, panting for breath as she flees her terrors. She rounds a bend and bumps smack into the Third Woman, making her drop her bag. The Fourth Woman falls to her knees and clasps her hands in supplication, babbling heartfelt and panicked apologies. The Third Woman, at first indignant, takes pity on the girl and helps her up but stops her when she sees that she is headed up the mountain.
“You don’t want to do that,” she warns.
“Why not,” the Fourth Woman asks. “Is there no easing of sorrows at the top?”
“I don’t know,” answers the Third Woman. “I was not allowed to go all the way to the top. My path was blocked by a woman who would not let me pass with my bag. She said I must leave it behind and when I showed her the treasures it contained, all of the gifts from the people who love me, she disparaged them. If she is what is at the top of the mountain, if I must give up everything that is dear to me in order to have the burden of my sorrows relieved, then I will continue to bear those sorrows so that I may have the gifts. So beware, she will exact a toll from you and that toll will be what is most precious to you.”
The Fourth Woman, eyes vigilantly fixed on the path leading up to her from the base of the mountain, whispers “I cannot go back. I could not survive it.”
The Third Woman shakes her head. “This path is perilous. You may not survive it. There are many places where you can see that people gave up, threw away their treasures, sat down and just died. That could be you. At least back there,” she tilts her head towards the foot of the mountain, “you know what to expect and you can keep your treasures.” When the Fourth Woman fails to respond, she adjusts the sack across her shoulders, turns away, and resumes her lumbering descent back down the mountain, leaving the Fourth Woman sitting alone on a rock, afraid of moving either forward or back.
* * *
The Fifth Woman, eyes firmly on the path ahead of her, trudges past the Third Woman as they meet on the path, stopping only when the Third Woman detains her to tell her tale of woe and mistreatment at the hands of the First Woman. The Fifth Woman simply nods, then turns her attention back to the path and diligently hikes upwards.
She ignores the perils alongside the path, giving them cursory attention only when they become obstacles to overcome in attempting to overcome even bigger obstacles on the path. She happens upon the Fourth Woman, weeping piteously while clinging to her rock, and she stops to inquire.
“Are you injured?” she asks.
“I am not injured,” the Fourth Woman replies.
“Are you too exhausted to carry on?” The Fifth Woman asks.
“No,” says the Fourth Woman, “I am not exhausted.”
“Then why do you sit here weeping on a rock when enlightenment and the end of your sorrows is just up the path?”
“I am afraid,” the Fourth Woman weeps. “There is a woman ahead who will make me give up my treasures before I can go on to the top,” she cries.
“What treasures are those?” the Fifth Woman asks, looking about. “I see no treasures here and I have no treasures to lose, only the reminders of the bondage of my heart and my soul, the privation, the crumbs from the banquet table. What are these treasures you so fearfully cling onto, that hold you back, that have you sitting her on this hard, cold rock, paralyzed with fear of both going up the mountain and going back down?”
The Fourth Woman continues to weep, unable to answer, because the Fifth Woman’s words have revealed to her that she, too, has no treasures, only the same legacy of pain and privation as the Fifth Woman. And yet she remains afraid to move.
“Nobody is coming to rescue you,” the Fifth Woman tells her. “You must rescue yourself. Now you can come with me,” she holds her hand out, “or you can stay here until you become a part of this rock, but I am moving on.”
Timidly the Fourth Woman takes the proffered hand and rises from the rock and they begin the rest of the ascent together.
And something miraculous happened. When the Fourth Woman’s feet began to bleed from her barefoot flight, they rounded a bend in the path and there, on a log beside the path, was a pair of shoes. When the path became steep, a pair of staffs were found leaning against a tree just ahead. When they came to the chasm where the Third Woman had balked, they found coils of rope, rope made of grasses and weeds, interspersed with the occasional flower.
Beyond the chasm they found a raging wildfire blocking the path and on the dirt in front of them lay a backpack. Inside was only a note which, because the Fifth Woman was mesmerized with fright by the fire, the Fourth Woman extracted and read. She then returned the note to the backpack and put it pack back down on the path for the next person to find. She turned to the Fifth Woman, who was now wide-eyed and trembling with fear at the wall of fire burning brightly before them. The Fourth Woman held out her hand and recited the note: “The only way past it is to go through it.” The Fifth Woman looked longingly back down the path and then with trepidation toward the wall of fire—then she took the Fourth Woman’s hand and stepped into the flames.
It was like stepping through a threshold. Immediately upon taking that step through the curtain of fire, they found themselves on the steepest ascent on the path but unlike the path on the other side of the wall of fire, their needs were increasingly catered for. The fog was now cool and refreshing rather than oppressive. When they were tired, a place to rest appeared, when they were thirsty, a skin of water lay near the edge of the road, and when they reached that last out cropping and collapsed exhaustedly just a few meters below the peak, a friendly face and a daisy-sprigged rope popped over the ledge above them and in short order they, too, stood on the pinnacle and felt their burdens lighten as they left the fog behind.
And so the First Woman and the Fourth Woman and the Fifth Woman sat together at the top of the mountain, enjoying their feeling of freedom. The Fourth Woman and Fifth Woman looked down the path to freedom that they still had to tread, wondering about the perils they might encounter while the First Woman sat plaiting rope and gazing down the path they had just come up. The First Woman stood to make her way back down the path, to return the shoes and the staffs to their original places, to refill the water skin, to work on the rope bridge over the chasm that was currently served only by ropes. As she took her first step, however, the Second Woman arrived at the pinnacle, back from the path she has taken down the mountain after being relieved of her sorrows.
“Those who wish to continue down the path will find it no less treacherous than the path you came up,” she said. “It will be full of obstacles and you will find new sorrows and be pelted with stones of derision and shot full of arrows of discontent and disapproval. You will journey through pockets of fog, some of them dense. But you will know that each trial you face, each curtain of fire you walk through, each bag of tarnished and tainted gifts that are thrust upon you and you refuse to accept, simply makes you stronger.”
The Fourth Woman turned to the First and said “I am very good at plaiting grasses and flowers, I shall go with you and help you guide people up the mountain.”
And the Fifth Woman turned the Second and said “I am strong and determined, I will stay with you and help people navigate the perils below.”
And the Third Woman stood in the foggy shadows at the base of the mountain, at the place where the many paths converged on the upward path, and cursed the First Woman and the mountain and the path and the fog. She spread out her hoard of treasures and told her tale of woe to all who would listen and never took another step to help herself. Or anyone else, for that matter.