EVENTS AT A CROSSING
Now I have heard that many of the roads we have here today, in the East where the land is hilly and cut with streams wherever one turns, were originally deer trails, adopted by settlers and gradually enlarged as the forms of transportation evolved. This makes a romantic tale which might seem to justify in some eyes the slow encrustation of our planet in concrete and asphalt. We just improved on what the deer began, one might argue. However, the fact is that our network of roads is the fabric of man’s (and woman’s) desire for mobility, freedom, and dining out. The deer trails surely served the deer to connect areas of interest to them, whether it were a tasty pasture, a cool stream, or a secluded dell to nap in. When Native Americans arrived on the scene, their trails indubitably connected their own areas of interest, often opposed to the interests of the deer, who probably shifted their trails away from human fires, smells and weapons. Then the settlers came with their new concerns and changed the map again, and again, and again, as technology progressed and civilization burgeoned.
The only valid argument for the deer-as-pioneers theory might be the constraints placed on ground traffic by the topography, the shape of the hills and the location of streams, as barriers to movement. It could be said that anyone (or anything) moving on the face of the Earth, animal or man or machine, attempting to get from A to B, would have to make similar detours for certain natural features like rivers, swamps, precipices, mountains, etc. (There is one interesting deviation from this pattern, which was proposed in the book “The Giver” but hopefully is not on anyone’s drawing boards, involving huge bulldozers capable of leveling the face of the planet). Anyhow, there is strength in the argument for topographically-motivated intrinsic and natural routes of travel. We have a road in this county which is sarcastically named Mountain Road, whose sole claim to alpine qualities consists of a few low hills, but which avoids all stream crossings, because it runs parallel to the streams, along a rise of land only perceptible to a surveyor.
As you flash across a modern bridge over some river or stream, in your 300 HP Dream-mobile, consider that below flows a natural phenomena which once presented real problems to humans, before concrete came along. Of course railroads exploited the stream valleys as a passage through the hills, which a train cannot climb. This is fine if one wishes to travel parallel to the stream, but if one needs to go perpendicular, such as to visit in-laws or get to a certain town, the difficulty arises. One needs cross. Logs were used, but wood had the disadvantage of rotting and/or floating away. Covered bridges were fancy logs with waterproofing added. On really large rivers which needed to be crossed by a lot of people, often some enterprising soul would set up a ferry boat enterprise, charging a fee. Some of these ferries utilized a clever design whereby the boat was attached to a cable spanning the river, and obtained effortless sideways movement by tilting the craft at the correct angle to the current. On less traveled routes, one might have to simply wade across, or ride through the water if lucky, at a ford, a wide shallow spot in the stream without mud on the bottom. Fords would often become impassable at certain seasons or after a rain. Another interesting literary reference here is the true story “Into the Wild” where a young man is trapped, to his detriment, by the vagaries of fording a river.
Actually it is interesting to consider the extent to which water crossing finds a place in world literature, which clearly shows how deeply this event has rooted itself in the collective unconsciousness. One could begin with Jesus of Nazareth, whose approach had to be the last word in sophistication- he just walked across on top. Moses, using a more brute force approach, “parted the seas” so everybody could walk across on the bottom, regardless of spiritual achievement. In Orson Scott Card’s series on Alvin Maker, a man so stalwart that he routinely hikes about with a solid gold plow in his backpack, still Alvin is oddly challenged by crossing water (as are witches, in other tales). Frodo and friends found a lot of adventure at river crossings. One could go on and on- just add your favorite here. Anyway, to get to our story, which has a more prosaic setting, sometimes in real life flat stones were placed across friendly spots in the rivers, to help pedestrians. The story herein occurs at one such stone crossing, at a time in history when just getting over a river could involve danger and therefore, drama. And then, suppose one was handicapped in addition?
The crossing in our story was over a river, where it flowed over a widened section of small rounded stones just before it was rudely constrained by a shoulder of rock, in return for which the water showed its teeth, and with a gliding hiss which became a roar, hurled itself into battle, as if to push the rocks back, a foray which, having been carried on for millennia, was having some success for the forces of water, for the rocks were round and battered. But up stream, just above this turmoil, was only a wide, peaceful sparkling, maybe a foot or two deep. Even this would be an obstacle to most people, and so strong hands had set a course of large, flat stones across the waters here, possible to step across on, but spaced enough to let the water pass, for if the stones had touched, water would have flowed over their top, or carried them away in a flood. The purpose of this considerable labor was to connect a rough dirt road descending one side of the stream valley, with its other half ascending again up the far bank and proceeding to a city close by, the capital of the realm.
It was to this crossing that an old man came slowly hobbling one fine morning, when the mist and dew still gave that magical sheen to all of the forest wilds about, so there was a bejeweled web of beauty linking the steaming current, the damp rocks, the dripping greenwoods, and the ferns and moss beside the road, all gently illuminated by bars of morning sun. The old man sat down on a stump with a satisfied sigh, and decided to take a break here from his travels, and do his morning meditation. He took a drink from a flask, and propped his crutch against a tree, for he could not see or walk well and needed its aid on occasion to find his way. Straightening his back, taking a few deep breaths, he became as calm as if he had always been part of the woods, so that soon a chipmunk which had dashed off with a chirp, came out to continue foraging. All was silent except for the sound of the river and the dripping leaves, and the scratching of the chipmunk, or an occasional bird song.
Some few minutes had passed when there was the sound of a horse in full gallop, and a rider came down into the valley. The person was cloaked and hooded, and glanced often behind, as if pursued. Such was his haste that he failed to see the old man, but spurred his horse right into the river, and with a wild spray and clatter, passed over, up the far bank, and pounded off into the distance.
The old man followed this precipitous passage with interest, then resumed his contemplation of the woodlands.
After another while, there was the sound of other travelers, quite different. With slow and tortuous tread, two gentlemen and a lady, all older and rather poor, came into view. Each carried a cane, with which they felt their way, for they were blind. They held to each other’s hands, and murmured together
“Careful now, careful!.. here’s a bit of rough… Oh, something brushed my left cheek, we better go a bit right…Hear that water, there is a river ahead, I knew it, when we came downhill so long…Careful now, careful!”
From within the clarity of his contemplation, the old man stared at them and his heart was touched. He felt their every stumble in his own ankles. He himself had some difficulty seeing the way, but nothing like this. How could they possibly get on? How had they gotten this far? And the way they helped each other! If one tripped, the hands of the other two were there in an instant. What if they were to get off the road? They might starve, wandering lost in the woods. And now, what about the crossing? He should warn them, so he hailed them.
“Hello!” he said. “Do not be alarmed. I mean you no harm. I am a traveler myself, pausing here for a rest. My name is Thaddeus. Do you know there is a river crossing on stepping stones, just a short distance ahead?”.
The three blind people stopped in some consternation. Then the shorter man, who seemed to be their spokesman, said “Hello, fellow traveler. My name is Alphonse. Thank you for your warning. To be honest I have heard the sweet sound of the water for quite a while, although we had hoped for a bridge of some sort. We are blind, but our other senses have been honed by necessity, and we can tell much. I myself am a musician, and my hearing is keen. For instance, I hear a small creature close by, burrowing and foraging. And I hear that although your voice is calm and serene, your feet are unsteady on the ground, and you are tapping with a cane of some sort, I believe, so I suspect that you also may have some difficulty with this crossing you describe. And also, I could swear that I hear children laughing and singing, is that possible? Is there a school nearby? But enough of praising my own abilities, we are faced with a problem here, so we must consider how to cross this river. Can you give any suggestion?”
“I can tell you what I see, which is not a lot because my eyes are getting old also. The river is wide, but not too wide, swift but not too swift, deep but not too deep. There are stones set across it to make a path, but not too smooth, for there is a gap between each stone. The gap is large, but not too large, at least for an able-bodied person”.
The three blind persons hearing his description gave all of them a laugh, and leaned on their canes.
“I am Beatrice”, said the lady. “Your description is frightening, but not too frightening. How can one be frightened in such a lovely spot.” She took a deep breath. “To me the smells of the earth are like voices speaking. I can almost see the foliage, the wet mosses, the damp earth. There is food here too, for those with the nose to find it. A patch of cat-tail grows here- they are very useful, you know. Back in my kitchen, I was quite able to make a tasty dish from cat-tail. You see, I knew where everything was in my lovely kitchen, and no-one else was allowed in.” She sniffed again. “there are berries too, I think, but farther.” She turned toward the old man. “I am inclined to trust you, Thaddeus, for I can usually smell the nature of men’s hearts, and I can smell evil, and when I am lucky enough to encounter it, I can smell good, and you may be surprised to know that I like your smell, dear sir.”
Then the second man spoke, and he was large as a bear, and his voice was deep and strong, but slow and gentle. “My name is Gameon. It is as Alphonse and Beatrice have said, although we cannot see, we sense the world in different ways, some perhaps that would be surprising to you. I can feel the pressures and vibrations of the earth and sky, through my bones. For example, my joints are aching right now, which tells me that rain is on its way, by tomorrow, and I deduce that the river may be higher after the rain then it is today. Also, your description of the river did not include a rapids or waterfall a short distance downstream, which is causing a great disturbance in the earth, such that I doubt that any of us who is swept therein would escape alive. And finally, a horseman approaches, walking, from the direction we came. I am also skilled with animals, if I may be so bold to say so. They like my touch. I was employed as a groom, and sometimes helped the old cow doctor in town.”
And Thaddeus replied, “Remarkable it is, that the three of you combined, are aware of more than I who can see! The world is broad and strange, indeed my friends, and there are many threads that tie us to it and weave our patterns. Some threads are there to be seen, others can only be felt. Some come by day, others as if in a dream. Some are carried by men, others by the animals or the wind. No one can fathom the marvel of the whole of creation! And one of the greatest marvels is this , that people such as we, can meet on a road in the strangest of circumstance, and it is as if they were part of the same family. For I know nothing of you or your history or your fate, but I feel that our roads have crossed now in more ways than one, and that we shall journey together for a spell, or perhaps for longer.”
And Alphonse said. “Well spoken indeed, and who can tell what shall come of this meeting. I also feel that I can trust you, from the sound of your voice, for I have learned to tell when a man speaks with deceit. But another thing I have learned, never be in a hurry! So let us pause a while, and consider, and perhaps come up with some answers to this problem”.
So they stood for a bit in silence, when the sound of another rider was heard coming down into the valley. Unlike the first, this horseman was progressing slowly, although the horse seemed unhappy with this pace and was skittery and nervous. “A soldier”, muttered Thaddeus to the others. As the man approached, he studied the ground intently. He pulled up before the four and saluted them without a word.
“Good day, Lieutenant”, said Thaddeus. “How do you do?”
“Not as well as I might” said the soldier morosely. “I have been given the task of tracking down a fugitive, because of my exceptional eyesight. He escaped on horseback from the garrison at daybreak. I picked up his trail easily and have been following it for hours. Look!” He pointed to the ground. The three blind people nudged each other, but Thaddeus peered closely where the soldier indicated. “Do you see that hoof print? Here the right foreleg touched, then here, the right hind leg, do you see, and now note the shape of the print, see how the shoe of the right hind leg is broken off on one side?” He straightened up and stared across the river. “To me, with my eyes, it is as if the trail was painted on the ground. I shall have him by nightfall, and claim the bounty!” His horse stamped and snorted impatiently, bobbing its head until the soldier pulled sharply on the reins. “Whoa, dammitall! That is, if this fool horse does not ruin every trace to be seen!”
“Hold, hold now” said Gameon. “My good man, your horse is an excellent animal, well suited to your own high station. However, such a fine beast requires some subtlety. I am a professional groom, and with all due respect, may I offer some advice? You are used to conquest and victory, I am sure, but such tactics will not fare well with this animal. The bit enrages him, just as obligation irritates you. What is needed is to use your hands, like so..” and he found the animal’s neck and gently stroked, working toward the head and ears, “and just whisper some kind words in his ear, like so…” which he did, and lo , soon the horse relaxed the angry bent of its neck, and turned to stare at Gameon, then gave him some nudges in the shoulder, with a low whicker.
“Yes, I see, thank you my good man, I can tell you have some gift. I will try these tricks” said the soldier, and gave his horse a tentative pat.
“If I may be so bold, perhaps we may trade favor for favor, Lieutenant”, said Gameon. “Three of us are blind and the fourth does not see too well. Could we impose on your good will for a ride across the river?”
“Blind!” the soldier started and only then noticed the blank stares, the canes. He gaped. “Hum, hum. Let me think. Perhaps I could take one of you, but it will risk my horse just to cross once. I am not a ferry boat. There it is. I will take one only, and no more. Decide quickly, for my trail grows cold!”
Alphonse shook his head “No thank you, we have come this far together and together we will remain. Good luck to you, sir, and farewell!”
With that, the soldier saluted again and then clattered across the river and away.
“Perhaps I should explain our journey,” said Alphonse when the soldier was gone. “We three have been friends for many years, and helped each other deal with this tribulation. However, every year we are older, and it gets harder to survive. And this year, a politician put a notice on the poor hut in the town where we used to live, saying that he was running for office on a promise to widen the road, and that our hut was in the way, and would have to come down! Then we heard of a community that has been established in the city for persons like ourselves, blind, or with other handicaps. There are caretakers who help those in need. Money is earned for the needs of the community by several simple industries which even handicapped persons are able to perform, such as candle making, simple food preparation, and other things. We wrote to them and they have asked us to join. If we can make it to there we will have honest work, friends, a roof over our heads and a good meal each day. This is the reason for our voyage to the city.”
“A worthy quest is yours indeed,” said Thaddeus. “So now…but what on earth is that racket? It sounds like a swarm of birds is descending upon us.”
“Or of angels” murmured Beatrice. And indeed she was closer to the mark, for down the road came a laughing, chattering bunch of children. All carried pails. They skipped, danced, and sang as they came, so that the woods came alive. The chipmunk peered in astonishment, then dashed out to sit on a stone, hoping for a handout. Trailing behind the children and trying hard to keep up came a disheveled young man, obviously their chaperone.
“Hello, good day to you all”, said Thaddeus with a laugh. “Where are you bound, and what is your game? Certainly you have chosen a fine day for a romp in the woods. But shouldn’t you all be in school?”
The children answered in bits and pieces, each scrap from a different laughing face. “Yes, pretty day… Our teacher is getting M.A.R.R.I.E.D (huge giggles) .. we got the day off…we are going a-berrying… ho ho…look up the hill! Can you see the berries, up near the lip of the valley, across the river? Our eyes are soo sharp, we can see the ripe berries even from here… berry pies… muffins…yum yum”
By this time the young man had caught up, clearly welcoming the halt. Mutual Good Days were exchanged. “Whew, what a handful” he said when he could catch his breath. “The usual teacher took off to get married, and I am just a substitute. Since I did not know their lessons, I foolishly let them talk me into this adventure. Little did I know, there is a world of difference between children sitting sedately in a classroom, and a bunch of screaming savages out in the woods!” This got a laugh from the men, but not from Beatrice. She groped for the young man’s arm and clutched it tight.
“You do not know me,” she said urgently, “but I pray you to hearken to my words and avert a possible calamity. It is plain that care of children is not your usual calling, or else you would be ahead, not behind. Listen carefully, I beg. The children are searching for berries, and there are nice ones to be found. There are also poisonous ones. I distinctly smell the yew. Its berries are small, smooth and round, red they say, luscious in appearance and deadly poisonous. A few can fell a cow. You must protect the children! There are other red berries, good to eat, the strawberry, wine berry, and wild raspberry, but they are all rough and pitted, whereas the yew is smooth. If a child even so much as touches one, you must wash their hands. Show them, teach them, and check their pails!”
The young man was clearly taken aback. “Yes yes. It never occurred to me… thank you so much! I will caution them and also check as you say. Thank you again”
The children had actually been following this exchange, as is often their way when adults imagine they are talking in private. Now they spoke up, like birds chirping “I knew that!.. My cousin ate some once and he burst open…Rough not smooth, rough not smooth…Lets pick some and give them to ol’ lady Jones’ nasty dog…ha ha..oh, my stomach, poor poor dog..ha ha …we can see the difference, rough not smooth, our eyes are soooo SHARP!’
“If your eyes are so sharp, perhaps you can see a way to help us get across. We are blind and need help”, said Beatrice.
“Oh yes, you can get across as easy as pie! Just come with us, come with us, come on, come on, come ON!’’ The children yelled and danced in glee and skipped and flitted across the stepping stones without even seeming to touch them at all, wafted up the far bank, and were gone like butterflies, like dandelion seeds in a breeze.
“I have to go, I must catch up! Thank you. Good luck and good bye!” Said the young man and clambered after them.
There was a disappointed silence in their wake. “Their voices were so pretty” said Beatrice in a longing voice. Everyone nodded but no-one else spoke for a while. Even the chipmunk was discouraged and went down his hole.
But then a more cheerful note sounded, first as just a whisper, then as a bird song, then there was clearly heard the notes of music being played, singing. The music grew, and into sight came a bridal party, down into the valley. In front came girls carrying flowers, then the two lovers, arms entwined, and behind them a merry band of relatives, musicians, and bums. Bottles were being passed and many were staggering already, but all were enjoying themselves. The betrothed had eyes only for each other. When they came up to the river, spirits were dampened a bit, but someone, probably the brides father, began busily organizing everyone to help the weaker members get across.
Last of all the band arrived, actually just a few minstrels doing some standard folk melodies without much inspiration. Alphonse dug into his pockets and whipped out a little flute. Putting it to his lips, he chimed in with the rather wooden song they were playing for a few bars, and then, like a bird on the wing, he took flight, or rather, his music did, for it seemed a creature in its own right, composed solely of sound and magic, soaring, whirling, darting and swooping. The crowd was transfixed, frozen in wonder. The musicians stood with their mouths hanging, until Alphonse, freeing one arm and waving them encouragement, got them started again, now with real energy. But their music at its best was like the grasses in a meadow, flat and uniform, through which the dragonfly of Alphonse’s flute played, like the sun, the rain, the yearning of a young maiden, dreams.
They landed. After a moment, the crowd went a bit nuts. Some one was crying. Some began to dance, some to sing, and many to pass the bottle. “Oh..” said the bride. “Oh, so that is what music is supposed to sound like! Oh sir, come with us, do come with us!”
“Actually, its odd you should say that, because I was just about to suggest the same thing”, said Alphonse, without missing a beat. “You see (turning now to the bridegroom) we are blind, and we really can’t fathom how to get over this crossing, and it is rather important that we do so. Do you think you could help us?”
The bridegroom answered him without looking, he could not seem to tear his eyes away from his sweetheart. “We have to get to the city… to the church there…oh why can’t your father get on with it! We have to hurry you see, she only has today off from her school, and my boss gave me just one day off, he is rich as butter but cheap as dirt, he is going into town himself for some big sale. Joe! Andy! Give these folks a hand!”
Suddenly someone shoved a bottle into his hand. He took a long swig. “WHOOOEEEE!” He grabbed his girl and swung her around. Everyone began to cheer and clap. “Over the river, over the river!” Someone shouted, and the crowd took it up “O-VER! O-VER! O-VER!” The bridegroom swept his bride up in his arms. She gave an appropriate squeal. He stepped out onto the stones. Halfway across he pretended to loose his balance. She squealed for real. The crowd loved it. They all waltzed across. One fellow even fell in but was dragged out before he was swept away. Then they were gone. A few flowers lay on the ground, and Alphonse, Beatrice, Gameon and Thaddeus were left once again standing silently.
“I am noticing a certain pattern here”, said Gameon.
“How perceptive” said Alphonse, a bit tartly.
“Now boys,” said Beatrice. “Let us be patient Where there is a will, there is a way.” But she did not sound confident, and her face was turned toward Thaddeus, but he had nothing to say.
“Here comes another one” mused Gameon. “Horse, or something heavy.”
“So how do you do that?” asked Thaddeus.
“Took me quite a while to get the hang of it. Old woman up in the hills helped me, showed me some tricks.” said Gameon. “The earth is really like jelly, you know. Best way to listen to it is to find a rock half sunk in the earth but not sitting on other rocks because they are too strong to vibrate. The size is important. The size of the rock has to match what you want to hear. If it’s a big slow happening like an earthquake, you need a big slow rock, the size of a wagon or cow, but even I am too small to hear these things. If its quick small sounds you want to hear, like horse hooves, you need a small quick rock, about the size of a dog or cat. Then you put your skull against the rock. Take off the hat, push you]r hair aside, get it bone to stone. Not ear to the ground, whoever said that didn’t know beans about listening to the earth. Bone to stone. Another way, what I am doing now, not as good, is to take off your shoes, or something close to that, and wiggle your feet down into the dirt, then stand up straight, lock your knees and press down into it, if you know what I mean. Fill up your lungs and then tighten up your whole body tense like a drumhead. This makes the vibrations resonate inside somewhere, and you can feel it all over- but none of it works unless your mind is still, of course, did I say that? Got to be silence inside or you will never hear what is outside. And relax.”
“Of course” said Thaddeus. “Thank you. Very interesting”.
Just then a fat merchant on a mule appeared coming down into the valley. He was dressed fine, with fancy trappings, and his saddlebags hung heavy. As he drew near, there was a clinking sound that surrounded him like perfume- it was the sound of the gold in his saddlebags, restlessly rolling about. He looked ahead and level, so he seemed to see things that were above most people’s heads.
“Hello, stranger”, said the indomitable Alphonse, “Good day to you, and a prosperous one I hope!”
Alphonse had hit on the magic words. Slowly the gaze of the merchant swung about and aimed itself his way, but real perception did not seem to be occurring. “Good day also to you”, the merchant said, but made no move to halt the progress of his beast, which continued methodically on toward the crossing.
“Pray, good sir, a moment of your time in a good cause”, said Alphonse. “I discern that you are a man of means and ability, which leads me to think that you may have the capabilities to solve a problem which faces us. Can you see any way to help us? Although we cannot pay, you would earn our everlasting gratitude, which may come to benefit you some day, in some unexpected way. ”.
“Or not, as the case may be”, muttered Beatrice under her breath, and was elbowed gently by Gameon into silence.
The merchant’s pride was aroused. He halted the mule, and ponderously considered.
“I will give you the benefit of my experience, without remuneration. Your every move should be part of a larger plan. As a great statesman once remarked, all you have to fear, is fear itself. Buy when others are selling, and sell when others are buying. Don’t trust anyone who has not proven to be trustworthy, and get it in writing besides. And above all, understand the compounding of interest”. He closed his mouth with a self-satisfied snap. “And here is what I see today, although I should not reveal this to you. In the city where I am bound, an election will be held next week which will change the course of this country. I am privy to plans that will shape the future, the details of which naturally I cannot reveal to you. But some properties which are now available for a song, will become quite valuable in the near future. I intend to buy those properties today, and sell them in a month for five times my purchase price. And that, you see, is the mark of genius, of success.” Suddenly a spasm of anxiety crossed the merchant’s face. “I have talked too much, too much!” he muttered, and turned away, goading his mule on.
“Wait- “Alphonse was about to go on, but Gameon laid a hand on his arm. “Do not humble yourself more for our sake, my dear friend” he said. “Let him go. Besides, a much larger party will be here soon.”
“But you know, that was a very interesting encounter just now,” said Thaddeus. “I must confess that as I get older, I have no strength any more to make any demands on events, so I am content just to watch things happen, as if it was a festival every day and I was in the stands watching the Games. Anyhow, what was I saying,..oh yes, a very interesting encounter. Now that man actually said some things which were rather intelligent, and perhaps even useful to us. Such as, the only thing to fear, is fear itself. Now that’s good, I like that. But that is not the interesting part- which is, to wit, how come such a dolt could spout wisdom? How could a man of such denseness, dispense a ray of light?”
The four stood considering these words for a bit. Then Gameon said, “He does not see what is in front of his own nose.” And Beatrice said, “He has no heart, only a purse”. And Alphonse said, “Yes, both correct, as usual.”
But further conjecture on the personality of the Merchant was interrupted by the advent of another band of travelers, as Gameon had foretold. This band was more sedate, almost professional in appearance. Most were mounted on some type of steed, including the leader who was dressed in business attire. They approached calmly but with a purposeful air. Once again the hopeful Alphonse hailed them loudly, “Good day, ladies and sirs. A fine day for an outing, is it not?”
At this greeting the leader reined in and surveyed the four travelers. After a moment’s consideration, he gestured to an aide behind, who dismounted, rooted in a saddlebag, produced a handful of proclamations, and approaching the four, began to distribute them about. Meanwhile the leader spoke, “Allow me to introduce myself. I am a candidate for the illustrious post of Governor, in the elections to be held next week. You will find my proposals for the future of this fair country outlined in the proclamations my aide is now providing. I have a long and respectable history of service to the people of this realm. My ideas are the most enlightened to be found on the political scene today. With your support, I will bring prosperity and pride once more to our region. I earnestly hope that you will make me your next governor”.
Alphonse replied, with some astonishment, “Why, thank you for your interest in us, however the fact is that we are three of us blind and one unable to see well, so if will be difficult to peruse your literature.”
The leader turned to his aide. “Did you hear that? We have never considered that some of my constituents might be blind. I must address this deficiency. Take a note to have Braille editions of all my speeches and proclamations printed at once and included in our supplies from now on.”
Alphonse again replied, “Once more I must thank you for your concern for our welfare. However, the fact is that our needs are rather more urgent. We need to cross the river and get to the town, before nightfall if possible because rain is expected. Can you see any way to assist us?”
The leader rose in his saddle. “Do I see any way to assist, you ask?” He seemed to inflate with an inner energy. “Let me tell you…No, wait..” His energy was such that he could not remain seated on the horse, but suddenly jumped down. At this, several of his aides seemed to protest, one pulling out a watch and glancing at it obtrusively, another saying, “Sir, we must not be late..” But the politician ignored them. He ascended a low bank of dirt by the way, and it was as if he were transported to a stage there in the wood. He paced for a moment in thought, then raised his head, made a fine gesture, smiled, and lit into a veritable speech.
“My friends, you ask if I can see a way to assist you. You ask if I have a vision. And I say to you, I do. Yes, I do. My friends, let me share with you what I see within me. Do you see this poor, muddy road on which we stand, sunken in mire? I tell you that I see a new road, a broad road, firm and smooth. And friends, I see traffic on that road. I see people traveling to and fro, I see goods flowing from country to city and back, I see commerce from all over the world, coming to our doors when we open up to the future, to the promise of prosperity. And this prosperity means a better life for you, for me, for our children and their children, and where does it start my friends? It begins with better roads. Jobs created in building those roads will help every family in the realm. And that is just a beginning. I see a future unimaginable, beyond our dreams. Oh yes, and by the way, do you see that ridiculous line of stones down there, which currently passes for a crossing? No more my friends. No more will the noble citizens of any race creed or religion, risk their lives just to enjoy their God-given right to the freedom to cross any obstacle they like, whether they are healthy or handicapped…” (Here he became confused, for a second only, by a surfeit of idealistic concepts in a single sentence, but he quickly regrouped.) “I see a bridge here, a wondrous structure, not of wood to rot away but of this new-fangled material which becomes stone when water is added, with railings, and… and even a rest area beside the road, with public latrines, and a place to walk the dog….” He gasped to a stop, his chest heaving, wiping his face with a handkerchief while he stared in abstraction at the river, and lo, Thaddeus staring also at the river seemed to see a misty outline of a marvelous bridge hovering there, with happy people strolling easily across it, and in the distance, down a fair turnpike, a gleaming white city with tall spires and pennants flying…
“Sir! Sir! We will miss the deadline to register in the election!” came suddenly from those of the politician’s aides who had not been hypnotized by his words. The man turned with a start, awakened from his dream. He leaped to his horse. He turned for a final summation. “So, my good friends, I say to you, if you wish to cross the river of fate which we all must cross, VOTE FOR ME!” And with that, he whirled the horse about and charged across the river and into history, followed rapidly by a parade of aides and hangers-on, and vanished out of sight.
“Now I have been considering”, said Beatrice abruptly, before the dust had even settled. “I believe we should do three things. First, we should stop hoping that someone is going to come along and help us- other than Thaddeus, of course.” She touched his arm. “ I guess I included you as us. Anyhow, the next thing we should do is have some lunch. Often a grievous problem on an empty stomach almost solves itself when considered over a hunk of good bread, some cheese, and especially this” she had taken off her pack and was rummaging in it, to produce a flask and three small cups. “My berry wine, put up three years back. I couldn’t bear to leave it behind. And the third thing is, that we decide right now that by the time lunch is over, we will have a plan to get us across. Do you have a cup? (to Thaddeus)”
“Excellent idea” said Alphonse, “except lets go lightly on the berry wine, just enough to loosen our worries perhaps. I have a feeling that we may need our wits, and our balance, about us”.
So they ate. And while they ate, Thaddeus strolled down and sat on the stump where he was meditating earlier. Once again he sat up straight, and took some deep breaths to relax his mind and body. Then he calmly considered the crossing. He thought about his new friends, and their situation and need. He felt responsibility for them. After all, he was the only one who could see their dilemma. The wine really was delicious. He thought also of the incongruent words of the Merchant- all we have to fear, is fear itself. Gradually, a plan revealed itself to him, as if it had been there waiting all along for him to find. He rose and walked back, and realized they were waiting for him to speak.
“Here is what we do. I will go first, then Beatrice, then Alphonse, last Gameon because he is strongest. We hold hands, right hand to the one ahead. I step onto the first stone. You must see in your mind the position and size of the stones. There is not room for two of us on any of them. And the space between is not large, you can do it in one comfortable step. But for you three, it will be a step out into a void. Each of you will have to trust the one if front explicitly, because if you are hesitant in stepping out, your step will fall short of the next stone, and you will be lost, and probably take the others also. Each must step in the direction of the person ahead, judging by the direction of their arms. And we must step in exact harmony, do you understand? All of us must step forward one step at exactly the same moment, so that the stone we are stepping onto, has just become vacant, by virtue of the person ahead having left that stone. We all step with the same foot forward, the left one every time, then bring up the right one. We will be like a 8-legged bug, do you understand? Gameon will call the steps in his strong voice. He will say, One, Two, STEP! Then we all step, then we all pause, he will take a nice slow breath, then repeat until we reach the other shore. There is nothing to be gained by haste. And we will hold hands not hand to hand, but hands to wrists like acrobats- it is much stronger- just in case…”
And so they did. At first everyone was very tense, but it took the first four steps before they were all onto the stones, so there was some practice time. Had they been able to see it, their progress really did look odd, like a huge centipede inching along. And it took such concentration. All around was the unseen gurgle and splash of a thousand little waves, and Beatrice found herself slipping into a rather pleasant trance, what with the mental strain, the simplicity of what had to be done. Step, pause, step, pause, orchestrated by Gameon’s deep calm voice. So calm was she that the accident came on her like lightening. Alphonse behind her stepped onto a slick spot, his foot went, and he was gone like that into the water, held only by their arms. The jerk on her arm all but threw her also, but years of sightless balance came to her aid and she fell to her knees, only jerking slightly on Thaddeus ahead who was in mid-step. The cavalcade teetered, almost was lost, stabilized, with Beatrice on her knees, Alphonse in the current and restrained only by their arms from oblivion. They all began to shout at once. Gameon began to lift Alphonse by brute force, but this unbalanced his weight and began to drag Beatrice off her stone. She screamed for him to stop. For a second they all froze.
“STOP!” bellowed Thaddeus. “Now (trying to be calm) listen to me. First,
Can you stand up, Beatrice?’ She nodded and struggled to her feet. “Now, Beatrice and Gameon, lift in unison so Beatrice is not pulled over. Get him high enough so he can get a leg onto Beatrice’s stone.” And slowly, they did this “I’m getting too tired!” said Beatrice. One of Alphonse’s legs was under her feet. “Alright now, help him up. Alphonse, you cant stand wholly on either rock, so put one foot on each!” Alphonse nodded dumbly, and then he was up, straddling the gap. “ Now we all need to face toward the front, and on Gameon’s call, we will make a modified step. Gameon will stay where he is, Alphonse will move to Beatrice’s stone, she to mine, and I will move ahead. Ready, call it, Gameon” And so he did, and they were back in formation, Alphonse wet and shivering with cold and exhaustion. “Now, begin with regular steps, Gameon” And so they did. Step, pause. Step. Pause. And finally, there were no more stones to cross, and the blessed dirt was under their feet. The fell in a heap and lay panting in silence, on the far bank.
After a bit they sat up. Thaddeus began putting together a fire to dry out Alphonse, who was struggling out of his wet things into dry clothes. Soon the fire was hot, and the peace of fatigue came down on them all. Beatrice rummaged about and brought out the berry wine. “This time we finish it” she said, and no-one disagreed. They filled their cups. Beatrice gave a bit of a giggle.
“You have probably heard a joke which makes fun of the blind leading the blind”, she said. “But I just had a funny thought. It seems like only the half-blind (meaning you, dear friend Thaddeus) can really lead the blind (meaning the three of us, of course).”
“I would like to propose a drink” said Alphonse. “To my friends, who this day have saved me from drowning. If we none of us ever meet again, still let us never forget this day’s adventures, and how we crossed the river, all for one, and one for all. And thank you”. They drank, and then they hugged, and then they put on their packs and continued down the road, towards the city. “Incidentally, where are you going?” asked Beatrice, putting her arm through that of Thaddeus.
“You see, I have no family. I was the parson at a church in a distant town until it became time to retire. They would have given me a pension, but all my life I dreamed of living like The Wise One, who dwelt in the forest, you know. And so that is what I do now.”
“And is that where you picked up the habit of meditation?” asked Gameon.
“It seems a good practice to know. You asked me how I listen to the Earth, so now I get to ask you how you meditate.”
“Well, let me see. It’s not an easy subject to discuss, you know. Even to myself. And I seem to keep changing my approach…I guess it’s a work in progress. But here’s where my practice is right now. Certain times and places seem to set the mood just right, like that spot back there, with the morning freshness. First one straightens up and breathes calmly with the whole body, like a cat stretching. If I am feeling energetic and rested, this awakens a pleasant sensation, which seems to be boundless. Without this, the process would not be much fun. Then if one is relaxed, breathing occasionally becomes imperceptible, or perhaps it halts for just a moment, and then I encourage myself to hold perfectly still, not even to move the eyes or think, and a wonderful stillness happens for a short time, and the world… um…puts itself together…or something…”
“So you just hike about?” asked Beatrice.
“Yes, I am headed south in a general way right now, because it will be winter soon”
“If you become too old to wander, and need a home, come look us up”.
“Why wait that long? How about next spring, when I come this way again?” said Thaddeus.
So it was agreed, and they went on to the city, and by and by, some very good stories were told, but that is another tale.