The Hero's Tale
Donald P. Goodman III
O sing in me, St. John, and make my voice to sing the truth of that good man who struggl'd hard and long in seeking for the East, in searching for the king who is the center and the base of every song that's worth the singing; sing, St. Francis of the Sales, whose pen has written so much gold upon the page, and help me sing a worthy song that justly hails that foolish man whose journey turn'd him to a sage. So help me build a monument in words to sing this song of songs, by which a man can burst his cage, and guide my song about this mighty, marv'lous thing, and help myself and all my hearers take to wing.
So barefoot, dressed in tatter'd rags of green he stood before his journey started on midwinter's day, beyond half-starv'd, at edge of that vast, endless wood which stretches ever westward, offering a way for him to flee the rising sun, pursue the dark which that vast forest hides with many broad, smooth roads; the way to east, the way our hero sought to hark, much stronger wills and hearts and minds than his corrodes. But though he's tir'd and weary, still he firmly means to take the harder, better road, e'er fear erodes all his resolve to seek the sunny, wholesome scenes which lie far to the east, on hope of which he leans.
So toward the rising sun our hero set his face, his long and ard'ous journey still before his feet, his wounded, bloody feet ill-suited for the race, his soul ill-suited for whatever threats he'd meet; his friends behind him, heading back into the west and calling out to him to follow, by his name; "Why take a rough and rocky road? This one is best! Why not come westward with us, back the way you came?" And he was sorely tempted, for his road was hard; he'd not begun; his friends had won fortune and fame; his green clothes were in tatters, his bare feet were scarr'd; why should he not turn back, before he'd gone a yard?
But then he set his jaw, his first step forward took and started down the steep and winding path he chose; although near dead from effort, and with fear he shook, he put one foot before the other, didn't close his heart to what slight courage still was in his breast, though sweat was soaking his red hair as on he went; the path gave him no stopping point, no place to rest; what could be worth such sorrows in the orient? The wind was cold, his soul was sad, his feet were raw; he sorrow'd, thinking that perhaps the woods were best; his path split into four as he thought to withdraw; then he look'd up, and drew his breath at what he saw.
He saw there such a lady as he'd never seen at that fork in his road, where one path split to four; dress'd all in perfect white, immaculately clean, array'd in wealthy splendor, but still clearly poor; her brown-skinn'd face beneath a mantle, color'd red as burning fire, hot as the sun, a brilliant flame which will not harm one hair upon her lovely head, though it will ever keep on burning, just the same; around her waist a cincture green, and tied across; her smile a calming grace, deserving greatest fame; a loveliness like Luna; he could plainly gloss: a brilliant, joyful beauty fill'd with baleful loss!
"My son," she said to him, when once he'd stopp'd his way and gaz'd upon her face, like harvest's moon alight; her voice rang out like music which a mother'd play to sooth her fussy child to sleep some stormy night. "My mother!" cried he, falling to his worn-out knees (for such she was, he knew; and she had called him son!) "Please guide me, Lady; hearken to my desp'rate pleas! The way's too hard; I fear I'm lost; what can be done?" "My son," she said again, and gave him such a smile as warm'd his aching, freezing bones like rays of sun; "My son, you've suffer'd much, and come now many a mile; but yet I fear you still must wander for a while."
"You've brav'd the first and hardest of the many snares which draw so many men into the dark'ning west; you didn't take the easy way, with easy fares, and easy, light, and weak'ning paths away from rest. But just as many of my children suffer'd much e'en after they'd been treading on the proper way, so it shall fall to all my children to do such; for greater pearls, a greater price a man must pay. Each one of these four roads, my son, you'll have to take, though each will lead you back to where you stand today. Stay vigilant! Control yourself! And stay awake! Your future, your well-being, and your life's at stake!"
"Along these roads you'll many barriers soon meet, some which along these steep and winding roads do lie; but you will find the hardest challenges to beat are those which in your breast infect and stultify, which your mind darken, rob you of your wholesome will, and make you stop your way, or take some other track. But know, through every hardship, it is worthy still, and know that I and all my children have your back. So journey first upon this northernmost of ways, and shy not from your troubles, ever make attack! Proceed, though difficulty cost you all your days! Your flesh will die, but virtue once won ne'er decays!"
The Lady then went up into the distant sky and disappear'd beyond a snow-white, silv'ry cloud; our hero, now invigorated, hale and spry, though tir'd and hungry still, was with new strengh endow'd. So forth he went down that most northern of the four down which the Lady had directed him to go; but as he headed east, he heard an angry roar, which stirr'd within his soul an impulse base and low. Around the nearest bend, he saw two raging men, each circling the other, facing down the foe; they loudly traded insults, curs'd time and again, and hated in a way that only man can ken.
The two drew swords; e'er long the two would battle start; their hateful rage blaz'd out like fire from wrathful eyes; and as he watched, our hero took the stronger's part, and felt that rage, enjoy'd the wrath that in him lies. He saw the stronger, madder man would win the fight, and shar'd the all-devouring rage that he'd just found; he thirsted for the other's blood, relish'd the sight when one man spill'd the other's guts upon the ground. The victor curs'd his fallen foe; our hero cheer'd, his mindless anger loosing him from every bound; but then the victor look'd up, at our hero leer'd; and then six others like him at his back appear'd.
"Go west," the victor said; "Go west, and turn back now; your rage would guide your hand and make your blood to boil. Go west; to hold your wrath inside, you know not how; for in your breast, your rage will like a serpent coil, and any time will hated foe or dear friend bite with or without your wish, and it will fill your soul; go west, for in the east they hate this kind of fight; embrace your anger; only then can you be whole!" And then the victor and the others headed past, back westward, opposite our hero's noble goal; our hero turn'd back east, and there appear'd amass'd a multitude of figures, heading west, and vast.
A man who carried with him massive bags of food and stuff'd his face unceasing, though he hunger'd not; a woman, scarcely clad, and with a man so lewd he grabb'd and grop'd at her, and her he often got; a man who carried in his arm a jug of wine and pour'd it down his throat e'en as he stagger'd west; another preen'd himself in clothes exceeding fine; but one of this great multitude led all the rest. A man astride a steed sat tall with head held high, with outward glory, armor, sword, and horsehair crest; time and again it threw him; but with heavy sigh, he mounted it again, could never peaceful lie.
Our hero work'd east through the crowd, and wonder'd what all this could mean, what challenge waited for him there; but past the multitude of passion, drink, and smut, he found there ladies, peaceful, and exceeding fair. A woman young upon a unicorn astride, her hair demurely veil'd, a shield with maiden's face; another woman held a dove; and by her side, a camel knelt to take its burden and the trace; another, fair and peaceful, wore upon her head a crown of olive branches, resting in its place upon a brow serene, from which all conflict's shed; but still another stood there, and the others led.
The other ladies were quite lovely, but this last combined their features into one, put all to shame; and as he watch'd, they all upon her honor cast, but she appear'd to have no worry for the same. She bore two mighty jugs, one water and one wine, and pour'd them out together in a crystal glass; she held the cup out to him; it did not seem fine as that the drunkard he had seen had gulp'd en masse. "Please, drink," the lady said; "I know your thirst is great, and others offer wine of a quite different class; but theirs will lead you westward, will not make you wait, while mine starts bitter, but grows sweet, and will you sate."
After a time, he took the lady's proffer'd gift, and found indeed that it was bitter in his throat; it did not satisfy, did not his spirits lift, as drunkard's wine to drunkard's bliss could make him float. But as he drank it down, it did indeed grow sweet, and soon he felt he had the power for the fight. The lady smil'd at him; "I'm glad that we could meet, and put your thirst for other drinks to proper flight. This glass has given strength; you now may pass to east; though still your journey's scarce begun, it's started right. Though you may feel you've not progressed beyond the least, in truth, by drinking this, you've vanquished quite a beast,
a beast which could, quite easily, hang on your back and drag you to the west, with or without your will; but this, my drink, accustoms you to want and lack, and satisfies without the need for drunkard's swill. Remember me! I will be with you on your way as long as you remember to imbibe my drink! Now go; proceed, while still you have the light of day! Go forth; proceed; your time is shorter than you think!" He bow'd and thank'd the lady, then to east he went, to where he knew the fork to four his road would link; the Lady wearing white our hero this way sent, and he would take that path, however curv'd and bent.
Our hero headed east; but soon himself he found back where the road did fork, from one to four did split; and though he sought her, looking there and all around, the Lady wearing white did not appear; but writ upon a sign, he found what he was seeking there, a message telling him which path he ought to take; "My son, the next road south is your path now; and bear your burdens knowing I am working for your sake." So down the next road south he eagerly did hie; now east along a different road his way did make; ere long, as on the prior road, he soon did spy a sight confusing to him and his weary eye.
A man dress'd as a soldier flung aside his sword, and fleeing headling westward, scream'd aloud in dread, abandoning his oath to captain, friend, and lord; in terror of whate'er pursu'd him, on he fled. Our hero wonder'd what could so scare such a man, and so look'd eastward; there he saw the soldier's fear: a rabbit, brown and soft, was grazing; yet he ran as if a regiment of foes was drawing near. And on he fled; our hero look'd back down the way back eastward and there saw the soldier's braver peer; this second soldier sought to earn a soldier's pay, but still knew not in what a soldier's virtue lay.
DIsplaying all th' accoutrements of lack of fear, this other soldier bore a shield with lemming's form, his helm extravagantly plum'd, eyes wild and clear, he stood before a cliff-face, ready to perform. With neither grace nor measure, he attack'd the stone, his sword bending and breaking, and soon, too, his bones; ere long, bloody and broken, he fell still and prone; yet not his injury, but he his loss bemoans. This warrior would fight a herd of elephants, a pride of lions, or an army, all alone; without regard to victory or settlements, all life for him is but a set of tournaments.
Proceeding past, our hero came around a curve and stopp'd; for there he saw a figure passing fair; a woman warrior, possess'd of iron nerve, prepar'd for, but not seeking, battle anywhere. Her robe, as red as blood, hung to her boots, with lace; her torso cover'd with a breastplate, dark and black; her shield was decorated with a lion's face; her head was guarded by a helm; her plume hung back and mix'd its red with hair of brown, in braid, and long; her mighty sword in hand, she weapon did not lack; and when she spoke, her voice rang like a martial song, and near behind her there appear'd a mighty throng.
"Brave hero," she did say, "I bring you no good news, if what you seek is comfort, warmth, and peaceful ease; I promise you but hardship, and the chance to lose; discomfort, war, and pain, and stronger enemies. The horde you see behind me are the men who fail'd, the men who did surrender when the fight grew hard, or who did rush headlong, before they're helm'd and mail'd; but even they who pass'd, pass'd through it bruis'd and scarr'd. The path beyond this point is long, and hard, and steep, and will take all your strength, each foot and every yard. I swear to you, no matter what, that you can keep your way through all these trials, thus your reward to reap.
"But know, as well, that you will often wish to stop, for you will suffer much on this way, ere the end. But know that you can fight the urge to turn or drop, and I, from start to finish, help to you will send." Our hero thank'd the lady warrior, and went, pushing his way through those who'd not the end attain'd; and he then wonder'd: all these others effort spent; what different end could he expect once he was drain'd? But she had told him that he could still persevere, so on he went, and quickly, ere his strength had wan'd; but soon he met what made that horde aside to veer, what broke so many wills, which had been so sincere.
The road was nearly vertical, the air was cold; the frost bit through his tatter'd clothes and froze his feet; the wind blew strong and hard; its whistle seem'd to scold his weakness; hail upon his weary skin did beat. The blowing snow and ice sought but to push him o'er, while only weary muscles serv'd to pull him high; he climb'd for what seem'd like eternity and more; his limbs did scream in agony; he wish'd to die if only he could end the horrifying pain and thaw his frozen toes and fingers; Lady, why? Why must he so endure? could she not simply deign to bring him comfort, which her other sons did gain?
Indeed, he many times decided he should quit before he once again his weary limbs did move, rememb'ring that the warrior had promis'd it: that he could persevere, he could his mettle prove. She had not promis'd ease; indeed, she'd promis'd pain; and how she had deliver'd! but he still did rise; did he not seek the Lady? how could he complain? What hardship could he not endure for such a prize? And so, after so long, the warr'or woman rose again before his path, a smile behind her eyes. "Brave hero!" she did say, "you've suffer'd many woes; but you've endur'd and conquer'd countless awful foes!
"You have stay'd true and persever'd; please, take this gift, these boots to help protect your weary, injur'd feet; and know, whene'er you wear them, I your spirits lift, and help you when my other sisters you will meet. You now have strength to bear you up along your way; so please, continue eastward, till the fork you see; and as you journey, meet your sorrows day by day, and when the way grows harder, please remember me." Again he thank'd the lady, donn'd her gift, and east he went, his strength assist'd, nearly happily; he had travers'd now two of those four paths, at least; he now was that much closer to the Lady's feast.