08 September 2005

The Gatekeeper

Once long ago, two young travelers met at a crossroads. They had each come from opposite directions but discovered that they were both intent on heading south towards bigger towns that would have better opportunities for young men like them.

The young man who came from the west lamented the poor state of his home village. He said the people there were all stingy and mean. He said they were loose in their morals and that too often they gave into the sensual pleasures of eating, drinking, dancing, and carousing all together.

The young man who had come from the east sympathized with his new companion and lamented that while his town didn't seem to be as bad as that the truth was that there just weren't enough honest girls his age, jobs that suited him, nor the means to find his good fortune in life.

By and by they came over a hill and saw before them down in the valley a town. It was a town bigger than either of their villages had been and had a nice wall around it, meaning that it had to be more prosperous than their undefended villages. Seeing this good sign they quickened their pace a little. As they approached they both looked carefully for signs that would tell them what kind of townsfolk lived there. The young man of the west pointed out everything he saw to his more reserved companion. He noticed some garbage and litter and thought that might mean they were untidy. He saw some people begging and thought they might not care to take care of the poor people, he saw a rowdy looking bunch of teenage boys and thought the town's parents might be too indulgent with their children.

The young man of the east just nodded to acknowledge the comments and kept his observations to himself. As the main gate into the town came before them in the distance the fellow from the west concluded his monologue by saying, "I'm not sure about this town, it has a nice wall but, really, it might not be any better than at home. My dear departed grandmother used to talk about when she was young and traveled about with her father who was the cloth merchant. She said that if you ever have any doubt about a town like this the thing to do is ask the gatekeeper. Gatekeepers know almost everyone in a town and the old ones have been around long enough to spot folks that belong in a place even before they know it themselves."

At last they reached the gate and there sitting next to the gate on a worn old wooden bench was an old old man with a grey beard who looked like he was a tree that had rooted in the rocks of a mountaintop and been weathered by a thousand years of rough and stormy winters. As he snoozed in the warm sun of that calm spring day he was grey, roughly wrinkled and bent over but eternally peaceful in his respite.

The young man of the west cleared his throat loudly and said, "Excuse me old man, but are you the gatekeeper?" Just when the youth had excused himself the gnarled old figure had snapped his eyes open, squinted up a little as he gave his grizzled head a quick shake, then he stood up confidently and with a grace that is normally only expected of much younger men.

The old man stood still and silent for long moment giving the two travelers an appraising look up and down before he replied, at last, "Yes, I am the gatekeeper. What is your business?"

The young man of the west took in a deep breath and then launched into an extended explanation of how he had left behind his poor depraved village in search of the town that would make him happy and contented all the rest of his days. He topped it all off by saying, "So you see old gatekeeper I am on a quest to be a good citizen but I require a town in which I can be in the company of other good citizens. I ask you, who are wise in these matters, is this the town for me?"

The old man let his gaze linger on the young man of the west for a long moment then he suddenly turned to the young man of the east and asked "What is your business?"

Before answering he glanced at his companion to see an expression of surprise and no small amount of annoyance, but seeing that his compatriot was not going to speak the words of discomfiture that played silently over his uncomprehending lips, he said very simply, "I have also left my home village to seek a place of opportunities, to meet honest people and find my good fortune."

The old man nodded silently and sat back down on his bench. He turned to the young man of the west and said, "I think, young sir, that you will find in this town too much of what you left behind. Alas, we in this town are frail and flawed human beings with not enough goodness."

To which the young man of the west immediately replied to his companion, "Ahhh, didn't I tell you as we approached that this town might not be any better than at home! Now you have heard it from the wisdom of the ages and there can be no doubt. Come along my new found friend, I have heard that the next town is twice as wealthy as this with an even greater wall to protect it. Surely the people there must be truly good to be so blessed!"

However, the young man of the east was not ready move on so he thanked the other young man for his company and wished him well in his travels. Anxious to be on his way to find the town of good citizens that would make him happy and content the rest of his days he left with a bemused look and a shake of his head at the foolishness of anyone staying in a town known to be as depraved as this one.

The young man who had come from the east then turned again to face the old man sitting on the bench beside the gate that led into town and asked, "Pray tell me, wise old gatekeeper, is this town right for me?"

The old man invited the weary young traveler to sit beside him on the well worn bench. After they had settled into comfortable positions looking back up the valley watching the other young man disappear as he turned onto the road leading south, the old man said slowly, "I think, young sir, that you will find in this town too much of what you left behind. Alas, we in this town are frail and flawed human beings with not enough goodness." He paused and looked over at the young man, who just waited patiently for the old man to continue. "Young man, if you choose to live in this town you will indeed find what your heart truly seeks, even amongst us frail and flawed human beings with not enough goodness. If you are willing to work you will find opportunities. If you are honest and true you will find honest people. If you take advantage of the opportunities and treasure the honest people you find, then surely your good fortune is to be discovered here."

The two men sat together for a long time and talked about many things before the young man left the old man to enter the town and begin his new life in search of his good fortune. He returned often to visit with the old man. It turns out the old man had inherited the post from his father, but had never married and his last apprentice had gone south in search of a more prestigious gate to keep. One day the young man became an apprentice to the old gatekeeper and soon after took the job when the old man finally died.

In the end he found that the old man was right, he found exactly what his heart was truly looking for even in the midst of a town full of frail and flawed human beings with not enough goodness.

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