Retiree Kshitij Punit Aati closed his workstation and leaned back in his chair which bounced gently up and down over its magnetic base. He would miss that reassuring rocking he thought as he tidied his few personal possessions into his carry all. He had spent the morning finalizing the data from his latest project, his last project, he conceded, and was happy to return from his midday break and find that his hypothesis had been confirmed. It was satisfying to be right and even more so to have provided more important data to add to the Collected Knowledge on the last day of his tenure.
Kshitij became aware of soft voices behind him and turned to see his fellow Collectors standing in a curved row with warm smiles of admiration holding a banner made of large colourful leaves that had been shaped into the words “Thank You and Farewell.” Kshitij smiled and brought his hands together with a small bow of acknowledgment and appreciation. He had been truly lucky to have been placed with this group of Collectors and in impulsive appreciation he applauded them quietly.
“Now, let us celebrate!” the Lead Collector exclaimed, and they led Kshitij away from his workstation to the balcony which overlooked the vast forest that surrounded The Temple of the Collectors. Here a special feast had been prepared by his colleagues on a long table. So many delights and delicacies, made from the fruits of the forest and the grains of the fields which sustained them all.
Words were shared and stories told of Kshitij and his successes and exploits of the 27 years of his tenure. Being apprenticed as a 13-year-old, he had proved a bright and willing contributor to The Common Good, and a popular collaborator, so the stories were full of praise and even a hint of love. This was the effect he had on people and of this he was aware and grateful for his good fortune. Kshitij listened, keeping his expression one of humble and polite attention.
As was usual at a retirement celebration, the stories were sometimes drawn out a little too long, and everybody had one. Kshitij tried to concentrate on each, as was only respectful, but found his mind wandering into reverie, and then rushing forward with thoughts of the future. What an unknowable marvel the future was – in one sense a void as black as the Koranite hills that jutted out of the forest below, reflecting nothing, not even the light of Dur-sol. In another it was like the Endless Lake – reflecting the heavens above - where bright points of limitless choice shone down. Such a wonder to behold!
A sudden burst of applause brought Kshitij back into the room and he quickly joined in while searching for who had been speaking among the faces of his colleagues. He smiled and thought “Of course,” as he saw Amit Dyal bowing slightly at the waist acknowledging the response. Amit had been a great friend and collaborator over the years and his speech, which had signaled the last of the formalities, and set the group free to enjoy the table of delights and talk amongst themselves.
“How does it feel Retiree Kshitij?” asked his friend Amit, smiling as he turned to him. “To be free to join the Great Unity again.”
“I must admit” Kshitij replied, “it is daunting indeed, but I very much look forward to enjoying the rewards of service.”
“You shall be missed by all as you have seen” Amit responded, and a brief shadow of sorrow passed over his eyes but was gone in an instant. “It is truly the most difficult part of retirement for your fellow collectors, and for I, that we shall not see you again in this life.”
“Ah yes, my dear friend, I feel the absence already” said Kshitij, “but am consoled by the many memories of service and the thought that I shall be able to explore the Great Cities knowing you are here to protect and support our work.”
They both turned to look out to the vast forest and bowed their heads in reverence for all She provided. No one from The Temple of the Collectors had ever been out into the forest. Once chosen as an apprentice, citizens no longer belonged to their families but became as the old monks, a member of a sacred order bound to serve The Great Unity, to live away from the distractions of a normal life in the great cities of Kora-Ma. In fact, although he had been apprenticed at 13, Kshitij had no memory of his home in the city where he was born and for the first time, he felt a pang of loss. He had never questioned the tradition before and wondered why he did now. He was about to embark on another great journey and, as all knew, looking forward was the only way to live your life, but somewhere inside there had arisen a small kernel of doubt that nagged at his stomach.
As the sun began to fall in the sky and the shadows grew longer, the Collectors continued to celebrate growing louder and more raucous. Kshitij could only wonder what had happened as his normally subdued and cautious colleagues began to sing and dance like the dervishes of legend. Only his friend Amit remained in control of his senses, and it was his duty as the next in line for retirement, to usher Kshitij away and over to the shuttle that had landed on the far side of the balcony. Here was the moment that had taken so long to arrive, and Kshitij and Amit looked out over the Great Mother Forest as it, and the sky turned to gold in the last long rays of Dur-sol.
“Farewell my great friend, and may your journeys be many and your roads smooth as silk.” Amit recited as he held the hand of his friend for one last time.
The doors of the shuttle quietly opened, and Kshitij stepped inside and then turned to farewell his friend who had surprisingly turned away and was now joining the others in a frantic tarantella of a dance that seemed to have placed them all under a spell. As the shuttle doors closed the silence became absolute and he felt it gently lift off from the balcony and move up and away from the Great Temple towards the forest. He remained watching the Collectors dancing in a writhing mass until he could discern them from the great mass of the building no longer.
Kshitij was surprised at the ending to his farewell. Of course, he had attended many over the years, but he had no memory of dancing and singing, and nothing had ever been discussed about such a dramatic change in demeanor of the Collectors en masse. “Ah well,” he questioned aloud “maybe this is for the Retiree to witness and recall? Perhaps to prepare me for strange sights I may witness in the great cities, and leave me with happy memories of my colleague’s joy?” It was reassuring in a way that as he had parted from his friends they continued to celebrate and be happy.
As the shuttle progressed across the landscape Kshitij became slowly aware of his surroundings. As Dur-sol began to truly set he was surprised to see groups of lights at regular intervals all around him on the horizon with tracts of darkness in between. By the shape of the lights, he could see that they all defined the shape of a Great Temple just like the one he had only just left. As his eyes accustomed themselves to the dim light, he saw that from those temples other lights travelled towards an unknown destination. The longer he looked he deduced that the destination was somewhere up ahead of his shuttle. The longer he thought about it he realised that these lights were shuttles just like his and they were all heading for roughly the same place, somewhere in the centre of the Great Mother Forest. Surely there were not that many retirees due to head out into the Great Cities at the same time? He looked behind him and could still discern his home on a great ridge but now he could see the full extent of the Temple and the fact that there were balconies he had not noticed before and from those balconies other shuttles had launched and were moving all around him. There must be thousands of these small shuttles in the darkness over the forest now and as he took in the enormity of it all that small kernel of unease in his stomach began to swell and grow as it seemed there were many things he did not know.
Kshitij turned his attention to the forest below and was surprised to see that deep below the canopy ran veins of phosphorescent light. As he looked closer, he could see that they were roots, thick like tree trunks and others fine like the veins he could sometimes see beneath the skin of his own hand. All the veins, or roots, ran in the same general direction towards what must be the centre of the forest. The phosphorescent light pulsed like a heartbeat in the same direction and when he looked up again, he could see that before him a wondrous green glow was rising from an open space in the canopy ahead. As all the shuttles drew nearer like fireflies in the dark, the light pulsated with more urgency and the tops of the trees swayed in a breezeless night.
“Oh, Great Mother Forest” said Kshitij under his breath, feeling the awe and terror of this primal ritual. “What a privilege to witness this in my lifetime!” he thought. “Is this the Great Mother Forest’s way of thanking us for our endeavours in her name?” His mind raced as he absorbed the vision before him. “Are these just the beginning of the wonders I will see when I join the Great Unity in the Home of the Retirees? Truly, I am blessed by the Great Mother Forest, for she sustains me as I have sustained her”
And Kshitij dropped to his knees and cried from joy, secure in the knowledge that his works had not been in vain.
The shuttle slowed, imperceptibly to a halt and hovered with the thousands of others over the giant structure at the heart of the forest. Kshitij could see now that the structure was not made by man, but truly a creation of the forest and the Great Mother. Like a giant phosphorescent dome, the structure was divided multiple times like a round cake cut into portions. All the veins that weaved their way through the forest culminated in this bulging structure and as they pulsed and glowed Kshitij could see that the dome was slowly expanding upwards, The portions bulged outwards as the ethereal green light flashed up through each one to the topmost point where it emanated in tiny flashing lights which floated away like fluttering insects into the sky.
All at once the flashing light ceased and the last tiny lights disappeared into the darkness. Each of the shuttles still hovered over the dome. Kshitij rose from his knees and stood in the centre of the shuttle waiting for it to move on to the next stop on his wondrous journey, but none of the shuttles moved and it felt that this was a pause created for the Retirees to wonder a little longer.
A great sound began to vibrate the air and Kshitij thought of the great horns of the temple announcing the opening of the annual Thanksgiving Ceremony, filling the hall with a visceral vibration that made the attendees fall to their knees. But this sound came from the dome below and as he watched he saw it slowly opening revealing a red interior that glistened in the light of the stars above. Each portion slowly folded outwards and the white dome transformed into a many pointed red starlike flower whose tendrils swayed and waved to the sound on the air. “A truly wondrous sight!” Kshitij exclaimed “A miracle of the Great Mother Forest! May she always surround and enfold us!” And as if to grant his wish the floor of Kshitij’s shuttle, and all the shuttles that gathered in that Holy place, opened in unison, and expelled their occupants into the void.
As Kshitij fell, he tumbled, first face down to see the glistening wonder (or was it a terror) below him and then face up to gaze at the millions of stars that had promised him so many new adventures in his dreams of retirement in the Great Cities but it seemed he was to join The Great Unity in a way that was different from his dreaming – a way that had been chosen for him by the Great Mother Forest - and he was thankful until the end.