Well, I will not bore you with the unimportant details of my day-to-day survival in the desert. I will, however, say this: the longer I traveled, the more I realized my utter dependence on the Benevolent Wanderer--or Shiloh, if I am to believe that was indeed him. He had provided light and nourishment; and more than that, he had taught me that giving is receiving, that to truly find joy and companionship in the harshest of circumstances is to give freely of oneself and think not of the consequences. What I learned out in the waste was more than any elder could teach me or what a lifetime of study could possibly afford. Truly he taught me that greater love no man has than he who gives all he has for another, even to the point of giving his own life.
...Perhaps you feel I am getting ahead of myself. Let me relate one final tale from my wandering in the desert.
Long after the experiences of home had become personal legend and the nights of the sandstorm and the jackals had become hazily distant memories, I saw, far in the distance, the glimmering outline of what appeared to be a city! I stopped dead in my tracks. Had I come to the end of my journey? Was I within a day's travel of that blessed abode? I checked and rechecked the details outlined in my now-tattered and falling-apart records of the ancients. By all accounts, the sheen of the pearly alabaster walls and domes of gold that adorned the buildings, the sudden reappearance of the rivers and sparse greenery that had been absent for so long--as far as I could tell it all added up to one thing: my journey was nearing its end! I fell down on my knees and prayed to God, "Is this all real? Am I hallucinating? or have I finally wandered far enough from my home to that sacred and safe haven--the Land of Promise? Please, Father--give me strength to at least make it that far!" Deep within my heart, I felt a surge of joy; it was as if time stood still, or as if all the cares of the world were lifted off my shoulders. I knew it was the place of my desiring. I just knew it.
I gathered my belongings, and, almost automatically, started into a quick jog, my eyes unblinkingly fixed on the dazzlingly white and beautiful city that lay beyond me. My mind was aflutter with thoughts of what was in store for me there--peace, rest from my cares, a fountain of pure and clean water (a bath!), the fruit of the tree, that beautiful pearl of great price--Oh, it was almost more than I could stand! How I longed to be there! Yes! Yes! It was coming ever nearer!
As my mind continued to focus on the blessings surely awaiting me just inside those pearly gates, my euphoria was shattered by a faint whizzzz punctuated by an excruciating pain in my leg. I was knocked off my feet, falling face-first into the sand, totally bewildered and unable to comprehend fully what was happening. I clutched my leg, crying out in pain--I looked through watery eyes and discovered a black arrow protruding from my right calf. I began to hyperventilate--I could not pull the barb out. I looked at the staunch, seemingly disaffected city that was no longer drawing nearer; indeed, the distance seemed to expand endlessly in front of me. I cried. I heard laughing. My heart sunk as I looked around and saw several dark figures wearing rough leather garb forming a circle around me--bandits.
"Well, well, Ghito," said one in a growling, hateful voice. "Looks like you're not such a bad shot after all! And he's got water and bread! You can put two notches on your bow for this one!" They all chuckled menacingly.
"You're too kind, Baaltir. Hopefully he's got some gold on him too! Check his robes." They kicked me in the side, making me roll on my back. A rough hand tore my cloak and head cover from me, and lifted me up by my hair. "Bah! He doesn't look twenty-five years old! how did he make it out this far? Perhaps his mommy isn't far off either! Guess she never told him to stay away from the lands of the Brotherhood! Heh heh, well, let's teach him a little lesson, shall we, boys?"
They fell upon me with vicious brutality. Many of them wore metal spikes on their fists--their fierce blows bruised and broke my ribs and nose. I tried to get away or defend myself; my leg was useless and they had kicked my knife away, stepping on my outstretched, reaching hand, crushing it past use as well. My body screamed in pain--there was no respite. Just as I was giving up, slipping into a state of numbness and oblivion, as if a signal had been given, the pummeling ceased. The bandit named Ghito crouched near my broken and bloodied side. He sneered in my face and said, "Well boys, he's nice and tenderized now. What do you say we set him up as an example? Let people know what really happens when you trespass the land of the Brotherhood?" A roar of approval went up from the body of bandits.
I wished I would have gone unconscious, but I didn't--they tied my broken wrists and ankles together so I couldn't move while two of them rode off on their black horses. A short while later they reappeared with two long, wooden beams tied to the back of the saddle, the saddlebags filled with clanking metal. I had no idea what was happening, but I was certain I was about to die. I looked hurtfully and furiously at the city--so much for a "land of promise"! The only promise was certain death. What an imbecile I was to have believed such foolish and outlandish tales of glory and splendor. I could have had a nice, peaceful life of tending cattle back in the village; but now, I was doomed to die at the hands of these barbarous brigands of the desert, a broken, defeated wretch.
Ghito strode over, kicking sand into my wounded face, and crouched near me. I looked at him with utter contempt but said nothing. "Listen up, desert whelp--these are our lands. They belong to the Brotherhood and anyone foolish enough to cross them without our permission...well, let's just say it won't be pretty for you. You are going to do us the honor of being our human signpost--everyone will see you tacked up on the beams over there and know that they should just turn back. So, on behalf of all of the Brotherhood--thank you!" He spit in my face and laughed as he hoisted me up by my tied wrists, dragging me over to where they had fastened the boards together in a cross. Panic swept over me as the reality of my impending doom settled in on my battered mind. I tried to struggle, but the pain of my broken bones was too much. I was too weary--there was nothing left I could do. I had come so far, and still it was not enough.
They severed the ropes that bound me and lay me on the splintery beams. One of the burlier bandits held me in place as Baaltir produced a hammer and nails from the saddlebag. I cried out, but was silenced by a blow to the face. Baaltir brought the nail to the palm of my hand, and, drawing up the hammer, snarled, "Don't worry kid--this will hurt!" He began to swing down. I winced violently and shut my eyes.
I wrenched around, the bandits all stunned, looking toward the source of this most timely aid. Tears filled my eyes--he had not left me alone! It was HIM! My one and only friend! Yes, truly it was Shiloh, my Friend and my Savior! Like a ray of light, his face shone through the unfriendly ones, refilling my heart with that peace and that comfort that I had known before. He looked at the bandits gravely and said, "You will not hurt him. He is my friend, and you will not do him harm."
"And who do you think you are?" spat Baaltir.
"I am a friend to all who wander these wastes. I will not allow you to harm him. If someone must die, let it be me."
"NO!" I choked. "Shiloh, you mustn't! Let me die. I am of less worth than you!"
"Greater love hath no man than this," he replied warmly, "than a man lay down his life for his friends. No man taketh it from me, but I lay it down of myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again. Fear not. I will be the payment. Your journey's end is not on a wooden cross. I will pay the price for you." Then he turned to the bandits and said, "He cannot make it to the city--you have seen to that. I will carry him there on my shoulders and then return, and you shall have your victim. You have my word."
They looked at each other, stunned. His words pierced us all to the core--I began to weep, and some of the bandits began to tremble. Surprisingly, Ghito responded, "Very well. You will go and when you come back, we will have our payment." And with that, they shoved me off the wooden beams at his feet.
With all the tender care of a parent, Shiloh, the Benevolent Wanderer, shouldered me and walked the blazing desert sands toward the city. I cried into his shoulder and begged him not to do this for me; he only smiled and continued on. Presently. we came to the bright gates of the city of Promise. He laid me down next to the entrance. He embraced me and said simply, "Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid." He moved back and looked me in the eyes. I wept again and kissed his hands. He arose, smiled again, and then walked the lonesome walk back to what he surely knew was unbearable pain and suffering. I watched him go, with tears streaming down my cheeks, until he vanished in the haze.
Surely he had borne my griefs and carried me in my sorrow. He was bruised for my stupidity, and with his pain I was healed. As I sat back against the wall, I looked at my arms and legs and body--I was whole! He had made me whole again.
To be Concluded...
The Three Hermits – Leo Tolstoy (1886)
2 weeks ago