The Holly King’s Apprentice: Ain Soph

This is part two of a story that began here.

Orchid's Lantern blog C.R. Dudley author

The thoughts of sadness remained at bay for a couple of days. I did some shopping, painted some pictures, and saw my friend, Fred. I decided not to mention my strange new therapist to him, though the autumn leaf pendant he had gifted me tingled around my neck.

Then, on the third day, the freight train of shadows I’d been expecting hit me hard in the face. I became sure it didn’t matter if I was alive or dead, and since every little task suddenly required energy I no longer had, thoughts of the latter were never far from my mind.

I felt trapped by suffering because it was in everything. I longed for some peace: to be some place where my brain wasn’t revving in mud. This is temporary, I reminded myself, it’s the time of year. I did some activities that have helped in the past: I showered, took a walk, listened to some eighties synth pop. I called Fred but he didn’t answer, so I left him a silent voicemail. You can do all of these things though, and somehow every episode of depression still feels like an unprecedented depth. It becomes harder and harder to believe it will pass, despite experience being on your side.

By the time I decided it was time to see my doctor, I was convinced that my imminent death was fated. I was equally as convinced that the next world would be as painful as this, though I didn’t tell him either of those things. Neither did I tell him I really needed my antidepressants back, because I feared getting lost in the psychiatry system again. Instead, I told him I was experiencing blinding headaches and he gave me a painkiller prescription and a sick note.

***

I hardly gave the Holly King a thought throughout that week. Maybe I was worried I was more sick than I realised, and that the whole thing had been an hallucination. Nevertheless, on the seventh day, I found myself back in the park, where he was waiting with his front door ajar.

“Welcome back! I’m glad you came.” His long hair was tied back in a ponytail this time. His face was sullen, but his eyes seemed far brighter than before.

“I’ve got a little strength back,” he said, as though reading my mind. “You, on the other hand, look closer to grey… Tea?”

I nodded and sat myself down in the same spot by the fire as he prepared the kettle. He startled me with his next question.

“What do you think things are like beyond death?”

“Huh? Um, I don’t know…”

“I know you’ve been thinking about it; it shows in your skin. I can give you a demonstration, if you like?”

I eyed the great sword by the door nervously. This was like no therapy I’d ever had before. “Aren’t you supposed to help me to stop thinking about that stuff?”

“Not in the slightest. I warned you this would be a hard path; that you’d see things that were difficult to see. You can always leave whenever you want, but I hope you don’t.” He hesitated, looking into my eyes and waiting for me to confirm I wasn’t leaving.

“Alright,” I said. “It can’t make me feel much worse.”

He sat down opposite me on the deerskin rug and passed me a cup of tea. My heart warmed to smell that delicious spice again, and I brought it straight to my lips, almost scalding them in my eagerness.

He leaned forward and held the top of my head in his ice cold hands.

***

There were twinkles like stars coming in at the periphery of my vision. I tried to focus on one but it exploded into a world of colour, bathing me in reds and greens and violets. With it came a great understanding; I knew all the wisdom in the world of man and beyond. Thoughts, emotions, sights and sounds were all below me; I knew they were just one lens to look through and here I’d been given a kaleidoscope.

But then the air turned to black, and, without warming, I was weightless. I had no sense of who I was; I was inseparable from a boundless void that had opened up around me. It felt strangely comforting; like nothing mattered or ever would again. All of my thoughts were gone. I was infinite and I was nothing and I was at peace…
…until I became aware of being carried along by waves. They were not the type to drown me; they just held me, and roared into my head. I tried to move towards the sound but my efforts only made tiny ripples that prickled at my skin. My body was numb.

I didn’t panic, for all of these strange non-sensations I would stay there gladly. I felt my memories of pain would soon disperse like droplets in an ocean; as effective as homeopathy. Once I acknowledged that idea though, the roaring became threatening.

“Who dares to bring ego into my waters?” it seemed to be demanding, and doom filled my heart to the brim. A second question was then posed to me again and again and again, like identical spears breaking my skin from all angles: “Who is the sufferer, anyway?”

The question lay into me more and more heavily, until the ethereal world began to melt back into the Holly King’s snug.

***

It was a little while before I could form a coherent sentence, but the Holly King waited with patience.

“Now that is no place for you to stay; not yet,” he said. “But you can visit whenever you like. In fact, there are treasures there that will make it worth your while.”

“What was it?” I managed at last. My voice had a clarity to it; an energy I hadn’t felt in weeks.

“It is a place without a name, though for convenience we can call it Ain Soph.”

Ain Soph,” I practiced under my breath.

“Between now and our next meeting, I want you to find your way back there on your own. Don’t worry, it won’t keep you. I’ll see to that.”

“It must have been the tea!” I declared, but he shook his head with a laugh.

“You don’t need the tea. You need only to close your eyes and halt the mind-chatter – and I mean halt it dead. If the leviathan hears a single utterance it will wake from its slumber and your visit will be cut short. That is how we must go about stalking the stars.”

I had so many questions then. Why was I to stalk stars? How was this remotely linked to therapy for the depressed? And what in the name of Ain Soph was the leviathan?! But my time was up, and sticking to the schedule seemed to be of utmost importance to all mental health practitioners, the formally trained and the mythological alike. My strange friend rose to his feet and saw me to the door.

“Until next time,” he said, bowing his head. “I have faith in you.”

*****

Thank you to all the lovely people who bought my book Fragments of Perception during its first month! If you haven’t picked up your copy yet, you can find it on Amazon worldwide, Kobo, Waterstones; or you can buy a signed copy directly from  me by e-mailing orchidslantern@gmail.com.

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