‘My Lord!’ he said, ‘Do not leave me solitary in this strange place. Comfort my people, and relieve them. Give us perseverance and strong resolve, and preserve our young ones in faith.’
But the scene outside would not imitate his mood. Feather-soft clouds and sunlight dazzled his eyes like gold and silver lace-work, urging him to an altogether different mood, as if to draw him to somewhere full of lively hope. The barred window of his prison allowed him only a narrow prospect. He scanned through the bars, this way and that, all that he could see. Beyond blocks of houses and shops, a school wall cast a broad shadow across the school yard, leaving only a corner in the light. He watched that bright corner and saw the shadows of little children traversing it, in and out of the light, as if they were playing in a ring, skipping and dancing. Yet, however he tried, he could not see the children themselves. He imagined he heard their voices, the sound of their feet. The words of childhood jingles rushed into his head. How many times children played such games as these, how often chanted the same words, over and over! Rehearsing. But for what celebration were these children practising so diligently? What great festival were they preparing?
Again the mood of the prison came over him. His mind’s eye pictured the children he imagined in the yard. And he watched them age before him, as though on a film screen, frame by frame, through adolescence and youth, through maturity and old age. Some disappeared from the frame before they attained old age. But the greater number remained. He scrutinized the wrinkled faces, the darkened eyes, exhausted flesh sagging upon weak bones, bodies buckled and bent. Here were, how many disappointed hopes? And dreams not realized? How few are capable of the trial of their old age! Some were sunk in pitiful nostalgia, some wretched with remorse for what they had done or not done. Some still trying, in vain, not to know the truth about themselves.
Their death brought to life, in the bitter torments of the grave, memories of the sins and errors they might have avoided in their younger days. Their corpses became skeletons, frame by frame, and their skeletons little heaps of grey dust amid which they lay, helpless, desolated, ashamed.
The old man’s heart brimmed over with the sorrow and suffering his mind pictured to him. Tears flowed as if from fountain deep within him, inwards to his heart, and out through his eyes and down his cheeks. He wept for the anguish of his people, for the wretchedness that they had stored up for themselves.
‘We must of necessity become old. Snow will-.fall on drip heads. Wrinkles will be stamped on our faces and dark rings etched under our eyes. This is so, so that we may recognize that we are old. So that we may be impressed, as our bodies are impressed, with the understanding that our time is limited. Our coming to the grave is a certainty.
Again, the old man looked out of his cell window. His thoughts turned again to ‘his homeland far away, to his people and, most tenderly of all, to the young. (‘O Lord, let their belief be preserved!’ Still the spring-green poplar leaves applauded the bright day and the birds sang and rejoiced. The clouds, likewise, moved briskly on with the winds, unresisting, graceful, content. He thought:
‘Man too is a traveller. His journey’s end is not the grave, but through resurrection, an eternal life. How unresistingly, how lightly the clouds travel, how sweetly the leaves and birds move through their allotted days! Man, only man, carries the burden of his freedom and so may be caught en route, unprepared, malcontent, fretful, offering vain excuses for his delays and deviations.’
He looked out to the school yard. He stood on tiptoe, but as before he could not quite catch sight of the children, only of their shadows playing. Still playing. Still preparing for some great celebration ahead. ‘Rehearse well, little ones! May He who created you, keep you upon His path. May you grow to a youth that is cheerful but never undisciplined. May you mature with a taste for virtue and for the service of others. Thereby you will be prepared for standing the journey you can by no means avoid. You will then travel the roads ahead of you - as, in the old days of the silk trade, the caravans used to go, if wisely stocked with goods acceptable at their journey’s end at a graceful pace and in modest hope of profitable trade..
And when he had prayed this prayer, the old man’s heart was lightened, and he could look out at the spring light on the other side of his window, without fear of ambush by homesickness or by a desire to complain of his imprisonment.