I felt a sharp sting as my body smashed into the water and then the muddy bottom three feet below. Struggling and sputtering, I was able to claw my way up onto the bank. In a rush of shock and adrenaline, I threw myself at the cliffside and began to climb, hand over hand, my feet scrambling for toeholds. When I slid down a few feet, it only triggered a more zealous effort, as if some reptilian part of me had taken command. Fingers bleeding, both knees skinned, my jeans and T-shirt torn and splattered with dirt, I reached the top and lay panting.
As my heartbeat began to slow, the power of complex thinking returned to me, and the brute strength that had coursed through me receded. Feeling drained, I forced myself to sit up. Only then did I realize that in my haste to climb, I’d scaled the cliff on the wrong side of the river—returning to the same place from which I’d leapt only a few minutes before.
Soon the sun would set, and I wouldn’t even be able to see the branch—or my knapsack on the other side of the gorge. I’d already given my best effort and missed. Sore, tired, and wet, I couldn’t make another attempt now. The slightest hesitation, a loose stone, a small slip, and I’d be back in the river, considerably the worse for wear. I might die if I tried again tonight. So I decided to find a place to sleep; I’d try again in the morning, when I was rested. It was going to be a long, cold night. No tarp. No food. No canteen.
Fighting off self-pity, intent on pushing through some bushes to find a small clearing I’d passed earlier, I thought I saw a dark, indistinct shape moving through the bramble. Had the fall or the river affected my vision? I took a step back, then froze as I identified the shape: a bear. The biggest, meanest-looking monster of a bear I’d ever seen. Or maybe it just looked that way because it was close enough for me to smell its breath. Standing, it towered over me and roared—a heart-stopping, blood-curdling bellow.
I turned tail and ran like a crazy man, plunging through the thicket as though it were mist. I ran at full speed and leapt into thin air, and the branch seemed to swing into my outstretched hands. My body arced forward so quickly that I almost forgot to let go of the branch. Fortunately, no one was there to grade my dismount. I landed flat on my ass, and bounced onto solid earth. My knapsack rested miraculously between my straddled legs. I didn’t see the bear when I looked back across the gorge, but that didn’t stop me from sliding onto my knees, shaking one fist, and giving a Bronx cheer before I collapsed.
As I lay there, utterly beat, a Sufi story ambled into my head: A ruler summoned a renowned sage to his court and said, “Prove to me you’re not another charlatan or I’ll have to execute you on the spot!”
Instantly the sage went into a trance. “I see, oh great king, rivers of silver and gold flowing through the heavens, on which ride dragons spitting fire. I see giant serpents, even now, crawling through the earth far below!”
The king, impressed, asked, “How is it that you can see far into the heavens and deep into the bowels of the earth?”
"Fear is all you need,” he replied.
Amen to that, I thought, shaken and stirred like a cocktail. It was all I could do to crawl forward a few feet, putting a little more distance between myself and the cliff edge, before I curled up around the knapsack, cradling it tenderly, and fell into a sleep troubled by dreams of running and pursuit.
Excerpted from The Hidden School by Dan Millman. © 2017. Used with permission.