Melanesians of the South Pacific islands have a legend about the time when humans were immortal. When they became old, they would shed their skins like snakes and become young again. One day, an old woman went to a river to change her skin. When she went home, her granddaughter didn't recognise her and refused to be held or consoled by the now young and beautiful woman. So the grandmother went back to the river to find her wrinkled old skin and put it back on. From then on, humans lost their immortality.
We were born immortal, able to change our old skin and start fresh whenever we want, looking at the world through the eyes of a younger version of ourselves. We give up that natural born resilience when we fear conflict, change or a loved one's anger or discomfort.
Old legends often trigger my imagination, drawing me into details that were unsaid. What if the old woman’s husband shed his skin as well, with a very different outcome? What if the legend is not only a story of rebirth but also of loss, pain, and love? What if we never lost our immortality, but simply forgot how to access it?
Like any legend, the beginning actually starts sometime earlier than what has been remembered through folklore. Let’s go back to the day the old woman's granddaughter was born.
The old man stared blankly over his field, praying to the spirits of the land, begging for his daughter’s life. He sat under a small shelter built generations ago by his ancestors. The same place that he and many before him have sat. Tears streamed down his face. His daughter had just given birth to a beautiful, healthy baby girl. But the young woman’s bleeding wouldn’t stop. The old man’s wife and the other elderly village women were all around her, trying to help. They had sent the old man out to pray.
The sky was beautiful. The light breeze created waves in the sea of green fields. A tall bamboo wind chime tapped out a single note, sounding like a lazy drummer. Memories of the man’s daughter as a small child came back, following him in the exact same fields that he was looking at. Playing, running, yanking young green shoots out of the ground. Hiding in the bushes, then laughing when the man finally found her after pretending to search everywhere. The vivid memories drew more tears.
Had he prayed wrong all these years? What had he not done right? Was it his pride and stubbornness? He had often been told that someday, something bad would come from his lack of humility. Is this why his daughter was now dying?
As he prayed, he called on the memories of his own father and grandfather. He could feel their presence sitting here as well, many years ago, as they prayed through their own pain and loss. He felt that he was part of an eternal poem, his entire life was a single, complex verse of the poem, rhyming with the countless verses that came before and the countless verses that will come after.
Now, he heard mournful cries rise from the women in his house, in the valley just below the fields. Long, sorrowful voices drifted down the valley, up the hills and across the fields, covering everything like a cold mist, sending sharp stabs of pain through his heart, unlike anything he had ever experienced.
Weeks and months went by. The old couple’s life became entirely centred on the baby girl. They took turns holding her, hardly letting her out of their arms. Daily chores became difficult with just the two of them, old as they were, and with a baby to care for. A village woman with her own baby moved in with them the first few months to nurse the little girl, then left when the girl stopped wanting to nurse. The old couple found themselves craving sleep the way young parents do, but without the stamina of youth. Their chores often went undone. Chickens would disappear. They would either wander away or get taken by a predator. Crops became ripe and could not be harvested fully.
The little girl’s giggles were like medicine, a powerful pain killer that helped the old couple slowly heal. They couldn’t be away from her for long before the numbness of loss would come back.
One day, the woman’s sister came by. She was 10 years older but looked like a young woman, having shed her skin the way people on this island had been doing since the beginning of time.
“You should get rid of your wrinkly old skins and become young and energetic again,” she said. "Old age wisdom, wrapped inside new, youthful skin, is very powerful. And very sexy! Yummy-sexy!”
She laughed with a naughty look in her eyes, causing the old man and woman to smile and blush.
“It can’t all be good,” said the old woman. “What if bad things happen?”
“You worry too much,” her sister smiled. “But that’s just you being you.”
The old woman’s husband seemed comfortable with the idea. She wondered why he wasn’t afraid of such a big change.
The woman’s sister told them how to find the magical waterfall that cleanses deeply, loosening up old skin until it falls off. Like a snake shedding its skin, they would soon be young again. She instructed them on what would happen, as well as the rituals to follow before, during and after.
“It is time now for you to grow again,” she said. “Start over fresh. Lose the old memories your skin has been carrying for so many years and which make you feel heavy and tired.”
She smiled at them, and winked.
“Do you remember when you last made love? It is time for you to bring that back into your lives now.”
On their way to the waterfall, the couple walked past a woman sitting on her porch, as they had many times before. She was wrinkled and hunched over with a bad back. They said hello. The woman said nothing. Instead, she tossed a couple small pebbles at them, which they dodged. The old woman had lost her husband years ago, and her children had all grown and moved away. She rarely said a word. When she was out of pebbles to throw at people walking by, she would slowly move her ancient body into the road to gather them up again. Villagers would often bring her food. Children would bring her small pebbles from the river.
At the waterfall, they took off their clothes and stepped into the water, laughing, kissing and splashing each other. After a while, their skin became so loose that they could feel the water between the old skin and the new, like a layer of very thin cloth covering their bodies. Soon, they could simply remove the skin, like a piece of clothing.
They felt the breeze and the cool water on their fresh skin. A sweetness similar to jumping into a fresh water lake after spending a day in the salty sea. Waves of shivers would start in their groins, bubble up through the belly and then appear as tingles going up the spine before shooting up and culminating in a burst of tingling at the top of their heads, causing them to shake with pleasure.
They held their old skins gently in their hands, and began saying a prayer of gratitude.
“Thank you for protecting me. Thank you for allowing me to feel the sun, the wind, the rain, and the caress of loved ones. Thank you for hugging me with love and care, every day, every night, for so many years.”
Then they gently let the old skins float away. The woman’s skin got caught on a branch further down the river, while the man’s gently drifted into the distance.
They played in the water, caressing each other’s fresh new skin, hugging, kissing, and making love like teenagers discovering their sensual bodies for the first time. The man had forgotten how amazingly beautiful his wife was. The curves of her breasts, her back, her hips and legs. And the beautiful hairline that drew him to her neck and ears, exciting him, re-igniting his fire.
Waves of energy kept creeping up their spines and bursting at the crowns of their heads, the intensity diminishing a little with each wave.
They laughed all the way home, dodging the pebbles tossed at them when they were near their place, and taking a moment to gather up the pebbles in the road for the old woman.
When they got home, the woman stopped at the garden to pick some berries to have with dinner. She wondered how her life might change. Her sister and others had lost some of their friends, when they became young again. She worried that might happen to her as well.
The man entered the house and saw his baby granddaughter. He smiled and greeted her as always. She looked puzzled, until she recognised his laughing eyes. He kneeled to her level, laughing. She held his face in her hands, and stroked the smooth skin. He kissed her and held her in his lap.
When the woman stepped into the house with the berries, the little girl was first curious to see who this beautiful lady was. When the woman spoke, the little girl’s eyes opened wide. Why was the familiar sound of her grandmother’s voice coming from the mouth of this strange woman? She buried her head in the man's chest, hiding, crying. The woman knelt down and tried to touch the little girl’s head to soothe her, only causing the girl to scream louder.
The woman stepped back, letting her husband comfort the girl. She went into the bedroom, closed the door, and sat on her bed. The emptiness that she felt after losing her daughter came back in full strength, as if it had happened just yesterday. Loss. Guilt. Worthlessness. All of these feelings had subsided when she had committed herself to caring for her granddaughter, a purpose she had thrown herself into fully. And now, suddenly, it felt like her purpose had been ripped from her, again, and all those feelings had flared back up, like an ember that was sleeping, waiting to blaze at any moment. What will happen if her granddaughter cannot accept her being young again? She couldn’t bear to even consider this.
The next morning, the woman went back to the river to look for her old skin. She soon found it, caught on a stick at the edge of the river. She gently pulled it off of the stick, avoiding tearing it. She put her old skin back on and returned to the house.
The little girl was happy to have her grandmother back.
I mentioned earlier how ancient legends always come to us incomplete. The actual stories behind them start a little earlier than what has been remembered, and they end a little later. This legend is no different.
The old woman stayed home even more now than before, while her husband did most of the chores in the fields and at the market. He began playing drums again, in the evening after the crickets came out. Something he loved doing as a young man. Soon he was playing with friends at a gathering place down the road. The old woman could hear the music and laughter in the distance, when she sat outside the house.
Once, she overheard him speaking with her sister, when she was inside and they were in the garden.
“It’s so beautiful to be a beginner again,” he said, after trying a new rhythm on his drum. “I feel so alive! I can feel so much energy inside me. And I can feel and smell and hear and taste so much more!”
“That’s exactly what I felt,” the woman’s sister said.
They both laughed.
The old woman felt that nobody understood her anymore, or even heard what she was saying.
As for the old man, now young again, creativity, enthusiasm and optimism seemed to flow in abundance. The newness of everything fired his creative juices and he found himself approaching life with a sense of wonder and awe. He was hanging out with younger people, and old people who had already shed their skins, and he was doing things that the old woman couldn’t possibly keep up with, like strenuous walks to the sacred mountains.
One evening, as he was playing his drum, the old woman came out and stood in front of him. His eyes were closed as he beat the drum. When he opened his eyes and saw her, he suddenly stopped.
“Will you come to bed soon?” she asked.
He stood up to comfort her.
They went to bed and he soon fell asleep. Even as she felt him close to her, breathing right next to her, she still felt that he was in another world. How much longer before he meets a younger, more beautiful woman? How could she convince him to stay?
After that evening, he put away the drum. But he couldn’t stay away from it for long. Soon he was back with friends down the road, playing over there, while she stayed home and held the little girl.
One morning, the old woman packed her fishing net into a wicker basket, attached it to her back, and took her granddaughter with her to the river. To keep the little girl busy while she fished, the old woman showed her how to find pretty, colourful river stones.
She attached one side of the net to the base of a tree and began wading through the water to string the net across the river. The other side seemed further away than it used to be, and the water stronger and deeper. When she was in the middle of the river, the water was up to her chest. She was suddenly afraid that she might not make it across. Her frail body felt like a dry old stick that could snap at any moment with the force of the water. She looked back towards the shore and saw that she had drifted downstream a bit. Her granddaughter was still playing with the stones. She turned towards the other shore and pushed herself to go on. When she made it to the other side, she pulled the net tight and attached it to a tree.
She looked back across the river for her granddaughter, but couldn’t see her. She went to the edge of the water, straining her eyes to see. The little girl was wandering downstream, along the river, and was already pretty far. The old woman called for her but the little girl didn’t hear. The woman rushed along her side of the river, calling, trying to catch the little girl’s attention, warning her not to wander off. The little girl was faster than her, and the river was getting louder in this area. The woman refused to take her eyes off the little girl, for fear of losing her.
The girl saw a pretty stone at the water’s edge, where the bank dropped off quickly. The old woman’s heart sunk.
“Don’t go too close!”
The girl slipped and fell into the water. The old woman knew she didn’t have the strength to jump in the river and save her. The water was moving too quickly. The little girl was already starting to be pulled towards the center of the river.
Quickly, the old woman took off her skin and set it aside. With her new, youthful vigour, she jumped into the stream and began letting the river take her towards the little girl. She struggled against the rocks, swimming in the deeper places, and slowly made her way to the girl.
By the time she got to her the little girl’s head was bobbing in and out of the water. She was coughing and sputtering. The woman pulled the girl out and held her close, making sure she was OK. The girl held the woman tightly, now shivering.
The little girl continued holding her grandmother tightly as they went back to the house. She didn’t seem to notice that the woman had shed her skin.
When the man saw his wife, young and beautiful, standing straight and proud, carrying the little girl, he dropped what he was doing and ran to them. The little girl was still shivering. He took her into his arms. His wife looked serene, in charge. Her smile told him not to worry.
“I need to go back and finish what I started,” she said to him.
The woman went back to the river, where she had tied the net. She waded across without effort. She walked down the river looking for her old skin. It was where she had left it. She picked it up with respect and gratitude and waded to the middle of the river.
Standing in the water, upright and strong, she held the skin to her chest, with her eyes closed. Then she spoke to the skin.
"Thank you for continuing to care for me when I didn't have courage. Thank you for being patient with me. Thank you for making me feel safe and comfortable for a little while longer, until I was ready to change.”
Then she looked up into the sky.
“And one more thing,” she said. “Thank you, my beautiful daughter, wherever you are. Thank you for giving me a granddaughter to love and care for. May you be happy and peaceful where you are. You live in my heart, always."
She held the skin firmly against her chest, silently, with her eyes closed. Then she reached out and gently let the skin flow away. She watched it disappear into the distance.
She gathered up the net, and the fish that had gotten entangled, put them all in her basket, and went back home.
That night, she dreamt of a cloud on the horizon that looked like a massive, beautiful tree, connecting heaven and earth. She sensed that the cloud’s roots went deep into the earth. A merging of earth and sky. A woman in the distance was facing the cloud tree. She was drawn to the woman, whose silhouette against the cloud tree looked somewhat familiar, even though she could only see her back. When she was near the woman she reached out to touch her. The woman turned around. It was her daughter, smiling beautifully, her face peaceful, radiant, filled with love. Both women opened their arms to embrace one another. When the old woman's face approached her daughter's for a kiss, she suddenly saw that her daughter was now her. She woke up as a tear began to roll down her cheek.
The sound of drums and singing came from down the road. The woman knew that her husband was already there with his friends. She took the little girl’s hand and began walking toward the music.
When she got there she saw her husband and the others in a circle, a couple drums and other instruments were playing while some of the younger women danced in the middle. Her sister was among them.
The woman squeezed herself into an opening in the circle and sat with the others. People watched her and glanced at her husband at the same time, while he was playing. She became drawn into the beat and started clapping along with the others.
The woman stood up and entered the circle. She began dancing. Slow and carefully at first, as if her body needed to feel the rhythm again. Then faster. Her hips shaking like they did when she was young and courting. The music picked up a notch, faster drumming, louder. She stamped her feet, spun around in circles, with power and elegance at the same time. Then the laughter came. First the woman, then others around the circle.
The man laughed and cried as he watched his wife.
Someone started singing a song that the group loved to sing together.
Mama in my heart
I love you
Papa in my heart
I love you
Sister in my heart
I love you
Daughter in my heart
I love you
River in my heart
I love you
Earth Mama in my heart
I love you
The woman and her sister were now dancing together in the circle, the center of attention of the entire group. They sang and danced, touching foreheads whenever the refrain for sisters was sung.
The man and the woman walked back home, arm in arm, smiling. The man carried their sleeping granddaughter in his arms. They said hello as they walked past the old woman on her porch, with her pebbles.
Moments later, the woman stopped and turned around.
“I’ll be home later,” she said to her husband.
He looked concerned.
“It’s OK,” she smiled. “I’ll be back soon.”
She went and sat next to the old woman on the porch. She talked to her about old times. Old pains. Old losses. And about the joyful resilience of being alive. She became animated as she described how energised she felt, how she was full of life and love and desire. The wrinkled old woman giggled at the woman’s suggestion that she too could be young again and enjoy the caress of a lover once more.
(This story is an excerpt from a book I'm working on, titled "Resilience - Learning To Thrive In An Age Of Uncertainty".)