Mimi & the Fire-Breathing Dragon: Chapter 1 – The Old Woman and the Cave

This story is for Fatima.mimi-by-the-tree

“Mimi!” A shrill voice interrupted Mimi’s reverie.

She groaned, but didn’t move. She knew she was in trouble, again. Rather than return with the water she had fetched from the stream, as her aunt had ordered her to do, Mimi retreated to her favorite spot under a beautiful banyan tree and spent a good part of the afternoon staring at the great mountain, called Dragon. So deep in thought, she didn’t notice the tiny tree frog gazing up at her face, wondering about her secrets.

“Mimi!” her aunt screeched again. Reluctantly Mimi stirred and got to her feet. The little frog hopped back out a short distance.

Whenever she could steal away from chores and the watchful eyes of her aunt and cousins, Mimi sought solace in the view of the mountain. For some reason, she was drawn to it. The villagers said there were a handful of people who knew what lived at the top, but those people would never speak of it. Sometimes, a person  climbed the mountain and didn’t come back. The worst is when they did come back, but weren’t really alive. They crawled or dragged themselves into the village, moaning, their skin rotting, their hair falling out. In the best cases, they died shortly after arriving. It was enough to keep most people off the mountain.

The sun dipped well past its zenith, and Mimi had been carrying buckets of water to and from the stream since before dawn so her cousins could take baths. She was tired, and she missed her family. Their ship had wrecked on a voyage to the City a few years ago, and Mimi lived with her mother’s sister and family ever since. Her aunt took every opportunities hurl abuse at her, but even worse than her aunt were her cousins. Three girls, and they all hated her. They hated her for her soft form, where they were all bones, and they hated her for her jet black hair, deep green eyes and honey-colored skin. They had their own beauty, but they just hated that she had any at all. For some reason, it was very important to them that she was inferior to them in every way.

“MIMI!” Her aunt screamed.

With a groan, she stood up, stretching her stiff aching muscles, and heaved the pole with the buckets of water on each end over her shoulders.

As she trudged back to her aunt’s modest home at the edge of the forest, anger began to simmer in Mimi’s heart. It always started this way. She thought about the abuse her aunt had given her over the years. Even though they were related by blood, her aunt never treated Mimi as anything more than the lowest servant, ordering her to sleep in the drafty barn with the animals and forcing her to do the most difficult and menial tasks from before the sun rose until after it set. Soon, Mimi knew, the anger would become a raging fire within her she couldn’t control, and it would overtake her. She said things she could never take back. She destroyed things she could never repair, and sometimes, sometimes things around her would burst into flames. Her aunt hated her for it. And the truth was, Mimi didn’t blame her.

She reached the edge of the forest and saw her aunt’s tall, slender form rigid with anger.

“Mimi!” she yelled as soon as Mimi came within eyeshot. “Where have you been all afternoon? I sent you to the stream hours ago!”

Mimi didn’t reply. It wasn’t even true. It hadn’t been hours; it had probably been an hour. Although, admittedly, most of that had been spent sitting on the mound. Ok, maybe two hours, but definitely not more than that. Her aunt always exaggerated and used it as an excuse to punish Mimi. Anger at the unfairness of it all boiled in her belly. It burned her throat. Soon, she would lose control over it, and when it erupted, something nearby would be destroyed in inexplicable flames. She fought with all her might to keep it down, but it was no use.

Mimi let the buckets fall to the ground heavily, the water all but spilling out. She glared at her aunt. No one noticed the little tree frog as he stopped beside her and began climbing up the seam of her billowy purple pant leg.

“What’s wrong with you, you little wretch!” her aunt continued her screaming. A couple of her cousins came out to watch, but they remained silent, except for sadistic snickers. They loved to watch. “I give you a home, food, and care, and this is how you repay me?”

Be careful, a soft voice whispered in her right ear. Mimi looked to see who it was, but saw no one.

The anger grew and grew, and she began to feel the sparks shooting from her fingertips. Her breath grew hot. If she opened her mouth, she knew the fire within her might leap out, scorching everything in its path.

“You crazy little witch!” Her aunt’s tirade continued as the fire grew even more uncontrollably within her. “You’re insane! You deserve to be locked up! One of these days I’m going to bring the sheriff here to look at what you’ve done to our home. We’ll never have to see your mean little face again!”

That was it. Mimi couldn’t control the fire any longer. It exploded from her in a scream of rage, and it flew in sparks from her fingertips. All she could see was the fire. Everywhere, nothing but fire.

Run, beloved! Run back to the banyan tree. Leave the buckets. Leave this place forever! The little voice in her ear became more insistent. It was the only thing she could perceive besides the fire around her.

She turned around and ran, looking back once to see what had happened. Small fires smoldered where she had stood. Her aunt’s apron danced with flames, as she tried frantically to untie it. Mimi saw her aunt throw the apron on the ground before Mimi turned around and kept running, not looking back again. The little tree frog clung with all his might to the collar of her shirt. If a frog could smile, he would be smiling.

Mimi arrived at the mound under the tall tree at the edge of the meadow and threw herself down on it, sobbing hysterically. This always happened. After the fire receded, the water came, and just as the fire always almost burned her alive, she almost drowned in the waves that crashed over her. She sobbed for what seemed like forever, until, through the tears and fear and sorrow, she heard that small voice again, very close to her ear. It sang softly in a language she didn’t know, but it was a song of hope and sunrise.

Look, beloved. Look up, the little voice said.

Mimi looked up. A little tree frog sat right in front of her face, staring at her.

“Was that you that I heard?” she asked him.

The tree frog trilled. Yes, that was me. I’ve been watching you all season. Do you know what’s inside you?

Mimi shook her head. “I get angry, and things catch on fire. Then, I get sad, and all I want is to die.” Tears began welling up again. She swallowed them forcefully.

You can feel what you feel, beloved, the tree frog said gently, in his little lilting voice. Feeling is healing. You can’t know your own truth if you don’t know what you feel and why.

Mimi sat silently. After a moment, she replied, “But it’s too much. I can’t control it. It’s either going to hurt me or hurt someone else, and then I start drowning in it.”

That’s your power, but you’ll understand that soon enough. Look, he said, and he turned to look at something. She followed his gaze and a small path through the woods lit up where she had never seen a path before. Follow that path until you reach the foot of the Mountain  called Dragon where you’ll find an old woman living in a cave by a waterfall. Ask her if you may drink from her pool.

Mimi said good bye to the tree frog and began walking down the path. As she walked, the forest began to grow cool as the light faded. It was later in the day than she’d realized, and she had no food, no blankets, no way to light a fire.

I hope I reach the old woman soon, she thought. I hope she will help me.

Mimi began to fear what the dark night would bring. What if there are wolves out here? Would she survive the cold of the night without shelter? She began shivering, more in fear of what might come than from the cold in the air of the forest as she followed the path.

Chip-chip, chippity-chippity chip! A brown bird sang in the branches above her. It’ll be ok! It’ll be ok! Trust the path! the bird seemed to say. Mimi looked up in shock at the cheerful bird in the branch above her. Was the bird speaking to her? How? She didn’t understand what was happening. First the frog and now the bird. Maybe she was going insane! This is impossible.

Then she remembered reading a passage in the Book of Light, which tells the story of a people who had learned the language of the birds, but Mimi couldn’t remember anything at all about it other than that.

She looked up again at the bird. It winked at her, chirped one more time, and flew away.

With renewed strength and hope, Mimi continued walking on the path toward the old woman by the waterfall. She walked a little faster, not knowing how far away the woman lived, hoping she reached her before the sun set.

mimi-in-the-forestThe forest grew gray, and the shadows deepened. The sounds changed as some of the creatures of the forest settled into their homes for sleep and others began waking up to begin their prowl. Just as the shadows began to completely engulf the forest, Mimi saw a light in the distance, and she could hear the muffled song of the waterfall echoing through the trees.

The path led her to a small clearing where, just as the little tree frog told her would be, a waterfall crashed into a pool near a cave. Someone clearly occupied the cave. Mimi could just barely see a small garden surrounded by a wicker fence, and animal hides stretched over wooden racks dried nearby. There was more, but it was hard to make out in the dim light of the small fire she had followed to find this place. 

Despite the signs of life all around, Mimi saw no one. Being a little cold now, and shivering from the damp chill in the air, rather than from her fear, Mimi approached the fire and sat down in front of it, hoping the old woman would appear.

After awhile, when the old woman still had not emerged from the surrounding darkness, Mimi thought she would just lay down a for a moment by the fire until the old woman returned. Putting in another log, which had been chopped and piled nearby to feed the fire, Mimi laid down in the fire’s warm glow.

For the first time, she thought about what had happened, and what she’d done. Tears rolled down her face, stuffing up her nose and making her skin itchy. She hated crying. She wished she would never have to cry again.

“Be careful what you wish for, beloved,” a warm voice cracked in the darkness, and an old woman hobbled up to the fire. Mimi knew this was the woman she had come here to find.

The old woman tossed a basket of freshly wildcrafted herbs, roots, and mushrooms on the ground near Mimi.

“There you go, my dear,” the old woman continued. “This is your medicine. I spent the day gathering it in the woods. I’m sorry I’m late. There was one herb that I had to take my old bones a bit of a way up the mountain and wait for the bear that tends it to give me permission to take it. You might meet him, actually.”

The old woman pulled out a pot and made her way over to the pool to fill it up with water. She returned with the full pot and placed it directly on the still-glowing coals. She sat down next to Mimi as Mimi sat up from her repose by the fire.

“Take a look in the basket. Do you recognize any of what’s in there?” the old woman asked.

Mimi peaked in, tipping the homemade but beautifully woven basked of cattail rushes toward her. The bright, airy fragrances of some pungent herbs mixed with the earthy and serious sincerity of the mushrooms and roots. A hint of spicy twang from some unknown herbs mingle with the more homely smells of the basket. It smelled of heaven and earth and adventure at once.

“I smell mint and lavender,” Mimi replied. “But I don’t know the rest. Nobody ever taught me much herb craft.” Mimi looked shyly up at the old woman from under the heavy blue scarf wrapped around her head and shoulders.

“You must remember all the creatures of this world and seek to know them whenever you’re given the opportunity,” the old woman said, as she threw bunches of herbs and roots into the pot and began to stir them. “They are all inside you. Everything is one.”

Mimi remained silent. She wasn’t sure what that meant or how to respond.

“Sleep now, beloved,” the old woman murmured gently. “The medicine will be ready in the morning, and I will prepare you for your journey.”

Mimi slept.

mimi-by-the-fire

*****

She awoke in the morning slightly damp and stiff, and a heaviness weighed on her heart. She rose from her place on the ground she hadn’t left since she sat by the lonely fire the night before. She found the old woman already up and busy, tending to some sheep and chickens Mimi hadn’t noticed last night. The fire glowed and the black pot of herbs, roots, and mushrooms sighed and simmered in contentment.

The weight of her journey was just beginning to truly dawn on Mimi. With all the emotions of yesterday washed away by the night, the view of her future loomed.

“Good morning, beloved,” the old woman said, glowing with her own light. Mimi hadn’t noticed it the night before, but today it was unmistakeable. This woman glowed.

Mimi accepted the cup of steaming broth-tea, blowing on the hot liquid before bringing it to her lips. It smelled of earth and healing, but it tasted like the compost pile. Her lips puckered with the bitterness, but she kept drinking until she emptied the cup.

“Grandmother, I’ve been sent here to ask you a favor,” Mimi said, after gathering her courage. She looked up at the old woman, afraid of what she might see. Rejection? Scorn? Anger? Those are all things she could have expected from her aunt if she had dared ask for anything.

But the old woman’s face lit with a gentle smile.

“I know,” she replied. “You aren’t the first dragon-child to come to my humble cave.”

“Dragon-child?” Mimi asked, confused.

“Oh yes,” she replied, mischievous delight danced in her eyes. “The dragon-children come to me to help them climb the mountain so they can meet the dragon. They don’t all know that’s why they’ve come, though.”

“Dragon? Aren’t dragons dangerous?”

“Oh my, little one, dragons can destroy the world. They can be very dangerous. They need to learn to master their power, so that it doesn’t overpower them and burn them up.”

“Is that where I’m going? Why do I have to go there?” Mimi replied.

“Because the dragon has what you’re seeking.” The old woman smiled at Mimi.

“What am I seeking?”

“Freedom.”

Mimi sat quietly, and the old woman refilled Mimi’s mug with the large wooden ladle. She drank the bitter brew, feeling revived.

“Do you remember what you came here to ask me?” the old woman asked as Mimi handed her the mug with thanks.

“Yes, the frog told me to ask you for a drink from your pool,” Mimi replied. “Grandmother, may I take a drink of water from your pool.”

“Of course, child,” the old woman said. She disappeared into her cave for a moment, coming back out with a skin flask on a rope and handed it to Mimi. “Take this, and fill it up with water from the pool. Drink from it until your thirst is satisfied, then fill it up again, and take the flask with you up the mountain.”

Mimi did as she was told. The water chilled her throat, but it felt like life. Once she began drinking, she wanted to never stop, but after she emptied about half of the skin, her thirst was quenched. She refilled it and returned to her place by the glowing, stone-rimmed fire. Jays mimicked eagles in the distance and a couple of crows traded banter in the trees nearby.

“Thank you, Grandmother,” Mimi said, with reverence. Tears began welling up in her eyes. She tried to swallow them, but the dam burst, and they poured down her hot cheeks as flushed with embarrassment.

“Oh my, beloved,” the old woman clucked in concern and came over to Mimi to wrap her in the warmest hug Mimi could remember. “Don’t fight your tears. Don’t fight what you feel. That’s you, living. When you push it down, down, down, you die. Your fire goes out. You must always tend your fire. And you must always honor the messages the fire gives you to tell you what is true. Feeling is healing,” the old woman said, echoing the tree frog.

Mimi burst into heart-wrenching sobs and returned the old woman’s hug, losing herself completely in it.

When she finally relaxed her arms around the old woman’s slender but strong frame, she had no idea how much time had passed. It was still morning. The sun hadn’t reached its zenith above the canopy of the trees, but it was getting high, and it was time for her to go. She wished she could stay here forever and be the old woman’s servant, tending her sheep and digging for roots for her in the forest, but Mimi knew she must leave. She had to meet the dragon at the top of the mountain.

The old woman disappeared once again into her cave, reappearing shortly with a leather belt and a shoulder sack stuffed with what Mimi imagined were provisions for her journey.

“It’s time,” the old woman said, as she handed Mimi the belt and stuffed leather sack. “You’re ready, and this should help you. Take a look inside.”

“Oh, Grandmother! Thank you so much,” Mimi said. Tears threatened to overflow again, but this time Mimi let them flow freely. Mimi lifted the flap on the soft-brown leather satchel and peered inside. A blanket roll nestled inside beside some food wrapped in. A flint and steel strike base, for making fire. A tin cup. A pot and a spoon. A very nice knife with a hilt carved to resemble a dragon’s head. Some squares of white cloth and some cordage. And another small bag that Mimi opened and found various vials of oil and sachets of dried herbs. She looked up at the old women inquiringly.

“Ah yes, the medicines,” the old woman said. “You may need these at some point, and in any case, you should know what they are and do. Any number of things can happen to you on your journey. Some of them are for your physical health and some of them are for the health of your heart. This oil right here, this is myrrh,” she said, lifting a small, blue glass bottle with a cork stopper. “If you get cut, wash it right away with clean water, rub some myrrh on—here, smell it. That’s what myrrh smells like.”

Mimi smelled it; it was strong, but beautiful. She smiled, and the old woman to continued.

“This oil, this is if you get a headache. It’s peppermint. Comfrey salve for a broken bone. You can use a stick with those white cloths to bind it. Usnea, also called “witches’ beard”, that’s for an infection in your lungs. Goldenseal, for stomach infection, and this one is black walnut, in case you catch a case of gut worms.” Mimi grimaced at the thought of getting worms. The old woman went on to explain how to identify each of the herbs and roots in the wild, in case Mimi needed more, and also how to use each herb.

“Now, here are some oils for your heart’s health,” the old woman continued. “Flowers are a gift to us from The One who is reflected in all things. Flowers are your companion on the heart journey of life. Here is a blend of flower oils if you feel fear.” She unstoppered a small brown bottle and held it up to Mimi’s nose. “Do you smell that?”

Mimi nodded. The oil smelled like heaven.

“It’s chamomile, frankincense, and sandalwood,” the old woman continued. “They are precious, so take good care of this bottle. When you feel fear, put a dab on your pulse points.” The old woman put a couple drops on her fingertips and dabbed the fragrant oil on Mimi’s wrists, temples, under her ears and under her nose.

Mimi inhaled deeply and a deep sense of grounding and peace pervaded her. “I love this,” she said. “Thank you so much.”

The old woman chuckled. “It’s nice to be introduced to a new friend, isn’t it?”

Mimi smiled and nodded in agreement.

“One more,” the old woman said. She unstoppered another small brown bottle, this one slightly larger than the last. “This is a blend of lavender, orange blossom, and clary sage. When you feel sad or lonely or anxious, dab it on your pulse points and under your nose. You should be able to push through the feelings. You can’t avoid them, and you should never avoid your feelings, but like a friend to lean on when you’re weak or tired, the essences of these flowers will help you.”

The old woman put everything back in the satchel, closed it, and handed it to Mimi. She accepted it with thanks, swinging it over her shoulder. The old woman also gave her a heavy woolen cloak, wrapping it around Mimi’s shoulders.

“And the last thing, Mimi,” the old woman continued. “And this is very important, always ask The One who is reflected in all things for help, because without the will of The Oneness, nothing can help you. And if it is the will of The One who is reflected in all things that you be helped, nothing can harm you. So when you need help, look deep into your heart, and ask The One who is reflected in all things to give you what you need and guide you where you need to go. After you ask for help, don’t deny the help that comes to you, no matter what form it takes. Don’t be afraid, and don’t think yourself too good for it.”

“Why?” Mimi asked, looking at the old woman without comprehension. Most of what the old woman said flew right over her head, but Mimi tried to catch what she could.

“Those who turn away the help offered to them from The One who is reflected in all things are unable to complete the journey. Those who are afraid to accept the help give up, and they die on the mountainside. Those who turn away from the help that’s offered, believing themselves in no need of what the one who offers has to offer, these are the ones who return to their villages as the living dead. They rot on the inside and are turned inside out, so all can see the truth of what they are. Their very breath reeks of death.”

Mimi’s eyes widened in horror. She couldn’t imagine dying on the mountainside or become the living dead. She’d heard about both, but now, to be faced with the possibility of either end, a coldness ran down her spine.

“You’ll be fine, beloved,” the old woman said, placing a warm, reassuring hand on Mimi’s cheek. “Just remember what I told you, and never forget to rely on The One who is reflected in all things and to accept the gifts offered to you, no matter what form they take.”

“Thank you, Grandmother,” Mimi said, overcoming her fear and giving the old woman a final, strong hug. “I would be lost without you.”

The old woman returned Mimi’s hug.

“Can I ask you one more thing?” Mimi asked, drawing away as she began to prepare to depart.

“Of course, my child.”

“What is your name?”

“I have been known by many names, beloved, but most know me as Lady Ama.”

“You’re a Lady?” Mimi asked, confused. She didn’t think ladies lived in caves.

“I am,” Lady Ama replied with a smile and winked at her. “And it is now time for your journey to begin!”

“Thank you, Lady Ama,” Mimi said, a tear slipping once again down her cheek. She wondered if, now that the tears had begun, they would ever stop. But she didn’t care. “Thank you.”

With that, Mimi turned toward the path that would lead to the top of the mountain, and she began walking.

mimi-with-fire

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