One among the thousand sheep raises its head and the rest of the herd immediately follows suit. They are observing which path Elias will take. The dirt road winds down towards the pastures, but the boy decides to take the narrow one which snakes up and into the forest. The wooly animals seem happy with his choice and go back to mulling over the short tufts of emerald grass. The sound of their ringing bells carries up into the forest and for a while follows Elias until it fades to silence.
Elias takes off his shoes and continues barefoot. He feels lighter with each step, and his heels make imprints in the soft soil. The forest floor around him is carpeted with dark-green moss from which root tangles jut out. One of the biggest roots crosses the path and he is careful not to trip over it. It belongs to a mighty pine whose trunk is so high it towers over the rest of the forest. In its crown, two squirrels are jousting for an acorn, but when they see the approaching visitor they immediately freeze and focus their attention on him. Not many people take this road. The squirrels seem so curious they let the acorn slip from their little paws, and it falls through the many tiers of branches towards the ground. Turning four times around its axis, it ejects its precious seeds into the air. Almost empty, it falls into the moss just behind Elias, and bounces once. He doesn’t even notice it, steps over the wide root crossing the path and continues on his way.
The trees soon make way for low underbrush and the earthy forest smell disappears in favor of a fresh breeze. One last short ascent, and a view opens wide in front of him. Elias smiles. The look-out point above the river, the place he has been searching for.
I stop above the rocky slope and let the mind fly free. I gain speed and, like a seagull, fall from the high cliffs to just above the water. I am flying so low that I brush droplets of water from the river’s surface. I pass by the banks of exposed sand, and at the meander’s very end, just where the river cuts into the hills, I pull up sharply. I flap my wings once and surge upwards towards the blue curtain from which a thousand golden arrows stream towards me. I consider flying all the way up to the sun, but then I relax and let the current pull me back. I float high above the river which winds below the horseshoe of cliffs. The rocky look-out is nestled among droves of trees which stand tall and stretch far west. Only one pine juts out and rises above all the rest. I return my mind and let my eyes glide over the surrounding landscape. It takes just two steps to reach an old wooden bench where I sit down and let the sun’s noon rays warm my cheeks. I look into the distance through the branches of a lone birch tree which had made its home among the nearby stones. Its tiny leaves flutter in the wind like little mirrors and I look down over the glistening waters meandering towards the horizon. I close my eyes.
I fall into my inner world. The rustle of the birch leaves stays with me a while longer. Soon it too quiets, and I am overtaken by emptiness. Peace and quiet. It takes just a few breaths and the mind jumps at the opportunity and starts painting onto the canvas of my closed eyelids. Thoughts string together like beads on a rosary, one image pushing away the others, so that it too can get some attention. Most of them I’ve known for years, but they seem to be even more urgent here in such silence and solitude. Each has its own face, its unique character.
The Dreamer in me starts to tell stories about my childhood dreams and reproaches me for casting them aside. He’s right. As a child, I was convinced that one day I would search for undiscovered treasures and bring them back to the people. I wanted to be an inventor and explorer. I became a businessman rather by accident. I do it to get by. But this is not what I wanted to do as a child.
A new thought picks up on this thread – the Adult. He jumps on the scene, ready to save the situation. Convinced of his sagacity, he grabs the naive Dreamer by the shoulders and starts dancing with him. He shows his dominance by looking long and hard into his youthful eyes. The Adult proclaims the importance of my work and my irreplaceable position in my job, and points out the foolishness of holding onto childhood dreams. He scoffs at the need to explore and affirms that in staying true to my profession I am doing the right thing; the responsible thing.
He dances off stage, and the Accountant takes over – that’s another thought I know well. With a few deft strokes he draws up the graphs and tells me why I must move ahead with my work. He proposes that I devote my energy to making money. He shows the calculations, exalting the riches I will make. He promises that, apart from the material stability money provides me, I will also be able to buy all those things I desperately need. Things that will make me happy: a big house, a yacht and an impeccably sewn suit, for example.
But that doesn’t go over well with another thought – the Dilettante. He pushes the bespectacled Accountant aside and starts talking about how important it is to just have fun. Right now! He shouts that I have been working too much; more than all the others. He tells me I will always find a way to make money, but that I might lose out on meeting all those pretty young girls with moist lips and soft skin. He shows them to me, draws them up large and wild and tells me what it would be like to be close to them and to touch them. He tells me to just think of all those parties I could be having! Among them I suddenly see a girl with a single freckle on her cheek. She smiles and gives me a seductive glance. I know her. She was to be my wife. My life partner. She was the closest to my heart, but she left. She said goodbye to our shared future, ran off with a stranger, and left my heart sick with sorrow.
Here the Dilettante gives way to another thought – The Prosecutor. She holds onto the image of the young woman I used to love and immediately starts speaking in a judgmental tone. She enumerates everything I had invested in the relationship and asks whether it has been reimbursed in full. I whisper that it hasn’t. She says it would be best to resolve that, and I nod that ‘yes,’ it would. She points to a filing cabinet full of documents and tells me that the girl with the freckle is not the only one who had wronged me or hurt me. I nod again in agreement. She picks up one file after another and reads them – Parents. Teacher. Friend. The Stranger. Brother. Boss. Each one of them did something to abuse, disenfranchise, or humiliate me. I nod again. Yes, yes! I am overtaken by anger and find myself transforming into a pitiless Judge. He sits down onto his throne and fixes up the fake white curls on his wig. He strikes the table with his fist and screams until the spittle runs down his chin. He condemns one for wronging me, another for infidelity, others still for their ingratitude. Others he accuses of somehow preventing me from becoming the man I could have been. Guilty, guilty, all of them are guilty! He condemns those I know, but also those I have yet to meet. He condemns those both living and dead. Praise him! But the relief I expected does not come. His judgement has rather left a feeling of emptiness which soon turns dark, like being closed in a tomb out in the wilderness under a setting sun.
An inconspicuous girl walks into the silence. Is this another thought? I haven’t met this one yet. She seems shy, her eyes downcast. Opening her frail lips, she speaks: “You only listen to the loudest thoughts which mentor, promise and judge. You know very well that they lead you astray. Why not rather listen to the quiet ones which have the power to lead you to places of true understanding and fulfillment? Listen to me please. You must never give up the search for your path. You can find it in…”
I want her to continue speaking but something is taking her away from me. What else does she want to say? Her words are lost, and she is suddenly as small as a button. Fear hisses at me from the darkness. “Who do you think you are, you little worm, to listen to such quiet thoughts. You know you will never amount to anything.” It circles around me, divining my future. “You’d like to search for your own path, huh? Like some old-school hero? Wake up! The little you have today is still much more than you deserve. You’re not going anywhere until I say so.”
He is pulling me down towards his realm and fills my thoughts to the brim with anguish. He and his servants start drawing a dark curtain across my mind. But suddenly a bright light falls upon its folds, and the air is cut through with a voice like the ringing of a bell: “What do you want, my boy?”
Elias opens his eyes. The words are coming from the mouth of a strange man who is sitting on the bench next to him. His large hands are folded neatly on his lap, and his face seems perfectly chiseled. He looks like a pilgrim who has strayed here from ancient times. Elias finds himself wondering whether his journey to this place took him dozens or hundreds of years, and he is suddenly gripped by the feeling that both options are possible. But however long his journey may have been, it has not robbed the man of his spark. Elias observes him with curiosity, meeting his unwavering eyes. They don’t seem to be searching for anything like those of Elias, and they never waver. They fully take in everything that happens before them, and anyway seem to give it little import, as if it wasn’t all that important. How could it be? His silver iris could spawn a new star right now, and Elias would find it completely natural. He returns from the depths of the man’s gaze and listens to him speak once more.
“I am Karlaz, a free man. I ask you again: What do you want?”
Who is it? Why is he asking me this? What kind of question is that – what do I want? What do I really want?
The torrent of thoughts starts forming into words and Elias opens up: “Just before you asked me, I had a thought. It was very different from the loudmouthed ones I know so well. She said that I must never waver from the search for my own path. She gradually faded and disappeared into the darkness. I would like to know more about this path she spoke of.”
That was indeed what he wanted most at the moment.
“You mean about the path which you have lost?”
“Wait, what do you mean ‘lost’? I don’t remember losing any path.”
“People often lose themselves and then don’t even remember when and how it happened. Born into freedom and full of energy, they go out into the world to take the very first wide street at the very first intersection they encounter and make their way towards the biggest attractions. There, they lose so much of themselves that they forget the path their soul was originally leading them towards. Old age finally robs them of the rest of their strength, and when, just before dying, they remember the direction they should have taken, they are out of time.”
Elias ruminates whether he himself is not lost in the world and is not like those people of which Karlaz speaks. He’s not like that though. He knows what he is doing; he knows where he is going. And what’s more, he’s seen enough of the world to know what’s what. No, no, how silly; he is certainly not at all lost.
Karlaz peers keenly at him and asks, “Do you doubt what I just told you, my boy?”