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Start of the Journey

Last Updated: 05/29/2013 4:19 pm

Upon a pinched and forgotten stretch of land along a low, monotonous plain lived an ordinary man. He lived by himself, sweated for himself and, day by day, ate the dry bread which was the reward of his solitary labors. He plowed and sowed and harvested as his forefathers had before him. He knew little else. Neighbors lived on every side of his farm but he had little to do with them. Conversation between him and them had shriveled like a forgotten sunflower to a bare glance-in-passing. Sometimes the people who lived nearby held gatherings of one sort or another - marriages, baptisms, funerals - but the man never went, though he often listened for strains of melody upon the wind. He neither helped nor was helped. Other people might as well have been inhabitants of a distant planet, a faraway star or perhaps a dream, for all they meant to him.

His land, hard-worked to a slack brown dust, yielded its meager crop reluctantly. The sun and its turning seasons came and went, keeping a piteous aloofness, while the wind, the ever-present wind, used the man and his huddle of gray shacks as a pennywhistle.

The days held no surprises for the man. He handled the same pails and the same fence gates for years on end. He moved, head bent, from chore to chore, like the scrawny cattle he herded. He wore his ruts deep.

Sometimes a fresh event cut across his path - the tracks of a cat, a thunderhead - and when one did, he would gape at it and ponder it and turn the event over in his mind till he wore its fresh-cut edges to the comforting and familiar roundness of a stone in a stream.

He trudged doggedly through his days, seemingly oblivious to the possibility that existence - his existence - might have some purpose. Yet within him, vaguely felt, a long and distant hunger roiled.

It had increased with the years; he sensed that. But whence its origin, or by what means it could be satisfied, were questions without answers. When the hunger asserted itself he fought it down and threw his energies into something else, distracting himself for as long as he could. Thus he went on. Thus he survived.

Still, the relentless struggle wore him down utterly, as utterly as the wind had scoured the land. His was a grinding, joyless wrestling with time. His bones creaked even as he sat. He had aged. He cursed life. The gray, half-light characteristic of the hour before the dawn was emblematic of his existence. He slipped from one gray state to another, unwittingly. When the sun lifted its face he knew it was time to open his lids; when the stars unraveled and swung across the blackened sky, he knew the time had come to close them. Sleep brought no rest and waking no zest.

Then one day came a horseman.

The man surprised himself by asking the stranger to eat with him. He offered him a bed to sleep on and hay for his mount. The stranger, spent from a long journey, gladly accepted the man's offer of hospitality.

Over empty supper plates the man found himself telling the stranger the story of his life. The stranger listened deeply and, moved by compassion for what he had heard, told his host of another place, a far-off place where life, he averred, had another quality.

In that land, people worked, just as the man did, but life there was rich and abundant and joyful. The land and the faces of its people glowed with peace and contentment.

Long after the traveler's hoof beats had been swallowed by the silence, the picture the stranger had painted of that fertile and abundant place haunted the man. And as his days droned on under the pitiless sky and the appalling monotony of the land, that picture became the focus of the man's soul. The improbability of its existence flung him into doubt; the possibility of it drove him into hope.

He longed to journey there, but the thought of his farm and his future weighed like a boulder on his shoulders. So he went on as before, dully, but dreaming.

As the season bent down to harvest time, a longing for the stranger's land stirred once more within the man's heart, and before the wheat was harvested, that desire came to its fullness. It pounded in his chest. It thrashed within him like a bird, caught inside a house, throwing itself against the window panes.

The man's new and wild desire warred feverishly against the ruts of inertia and the habits of a lifetime. He stared for hours out the grimy window of his weather-battered house. He saw animals, grown bold by the lack of activity on the land, roaming over his fields - groundhogs, skunks, muskrats. He watched them. One day, as a family of deer bounded gracefully through his stubbled fields, his heart lifted and tears filled his eyes.

At sunset, after he finished his final chore, he threw his body down on the thin dust of the barnyard. He wept and laughed himself to sleep and when he awoke the stars were slipping over the horizon.

He opened the doors of the barn and of all the stalls within. He threw open the gates of the fences outside. As the animals drifted outside their enclosures, he walked to his house, threw open the door and, taking nothing for his journey save a new hat he had purchased years before but had never worn, he turned his back on all that had been and took to the road.

Each pulse beat of his heart renewed his vow, each step confirmed it. Yes, the birds sang, there is such a land as the stranger described, and it is your rightful place. His decision was made. And he was on the path to that fabled country from which the horseman had come.

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