Once in my travels, I came across a great walled city, a place of shelter and safety in an otherwise harsh desert. I entered through what I came to know as the West Gate and walked the stone-laid streets. I had spent weeks crossing the sands, surviving well enough on the supplies I carried with me, but both my horse and I welcomed the refuge.
Away from the wind and under shade from the sun, I saw the people of the city presented in all manner of appearance and speech; no one characteristic seemed to unify them. Some wore little more than their skin, while others wrapped themselves complete in cloth. Skin, hair, and eyes of every color passed as I walked. Languages, the harsh and guttural as well as the smooth and silky, touched my ears. Perhaps the only shared quality of these varied people was their deep reverence for the city’s leader. The leader and her family lived in a modest home, though none could say where, and had guided the city for centuries through generations, though none could say how. In fact, no one I encountered had ever personally met the leader or a member of the family, though most had a second- or third-hand acquaintance.
The longer I stayed, the more curious I became about this great walled city and its elusive leader. Having traveled much of the known world, I had seen all manner of chaos and violence, destitution and hopelessness, greed and gluttony, and various other maladies of society. In this place, with no visible leader, no guards or armies in sight, no unifying faith, tongue, or creed, I found the food stores well-stocked, the elderly and infirm cared for, the children loved, and the city itself clean and balanced. The mystery confounded me.
I walked the streets in search of an answer, speaking with passersby as I went. When I asked directly about this mystery that had captured my attention, the people looked at me with gentle eyes, smiled softly, and shrugged their hands outwards, as if the answer was in the sand and stone in front of my face. I spoke to all manner of people, receiving the same answer, until a young girl looked back at me curiously and observed that I sounded like an old man by the East Gate. The words settled on the sand tracing over the stone-laid street, and she smiled and shrugged her hands outwards, continuing on her way.
In my wandering about the city, I had seen the East Gate and now sought to find this old man, as we shared the same query, it seemed. As I approached the East Gate, I noticed an old man, knees curled into his chest, seated in the shadow of the wall. I walked towards him, and his eyes raised to take me in. At first, we both remained silent, observing each other.
After a minute had passed, I asked slowly, “Good day to you, sir. I have come to this city as a traveler and am struck by the harmony that seems to abound among its people and between its people and leaders. I strive to understand how it might be possible, but every time I ask a person in this city, they simply smile and shrug, as if the answer should be obvious in front of me. A young girl mentioned that you had similar questions, and I thought I should seek you out. Have you found the reason why?”
I had spoken far more than I had intended to, and now paused for fear I had caused offense. The old man had closed his eyes as I spoke, squeezing them shut as I continued. In the silence that followed, his eyes eased back open, his gaze locking on mine.
“Traveler, as you say, I have had questions, like you. Rather than tell you what I have found, allow an old man to share a story with you.”
I felt a pang of impatience but encouraged the old man to continue.
“I once was a traveler like you. I lived far from here, in a village. My parents lived in the village, as did my brothers and sisters. In time, I found a wife, and we lived in the village with our children. Our friends surrounded us, and even if we did not all get along all the time, we had a love that brought us together. We lived in peace with our neighbors in a village to our north, engaged with them in trade, and cooperated to turn away the occasional bandit.
“One night, in dreams, I experienced that which I had never before and have never since. A voice came to me and told me that I could have eternity if but I journeyed west. As the voice spoke these words, I saw a vision of this city, piles of riches, food and water aplenty. Even in my dream, I felt salivating exhilaration. We lived well enough in the village, but how to resist the promise of such riches?
“I awoke with clarity and purpose that I had never felt before. I was, at this time, a leader in my village. I called the village together and described my dream. I proposed that we travel west to seek out the splendor promised. The response at first was tepid, with enthusiasm among the more vigorous but skepticism among the elders. I summoned my most convincing rhetoric, describing freedom from the lean harvests after a drought, from the harassment of bandits, from the elements, with which we lived in such close concert at the village. My aging father asked me, at what cost would we arrive at such luxuries; I assured him, only at the cost of hard work and focused will. He shook his head.
“The next day, the village reconvened to decide on the matter. Before the discussion began, a villager announced that the people of the northern village had received the same message in dream; they, in fact, were deciding whether to go west as well. Immediately a flurry of voices broke out, clamoring for urgency, lest the northern village arrive at the promised riches ahead of our village. My aging father continued to shake his head, but with his abstention aside, the village vocally proclaimed that we would travel west to the security and prosperity promised.
“Within a day, the wagons had left the village, packed to the brim with villagers old and young and enough supplies to last weeks on the road, for none of us at that moment could fathom a journey beyond a month. We rolled away from our homes and fields, basking in the sun and gentle rains, which kept the dust settled on the roads but did not deepen to mud. Spirits remained high, and the journey west carried on amiably.
“Days had passed, and the ground began to rise and fall, foothills of mountains that appeared in clear skies. The wagons climb steepening roads flecked with ice. The elderly and infirm raised the question of how long the journey yet required, shivering the deepening cold. I stated that the city was surely just beyond the mountains and urged that the elderly and infirm muster what strength they had to persevere through the pass. My aging father suggested that we make camp and build fires to help the people regain their strength. I had grown impatient with his reticence since the village and advised that if he was welcome to stay, make camp, and build a fire, but that with the northern village also on the move, we needed to press on to reach the city.
“My father looked at me with disappointment and stepped down from the wagons, joined by the elderly and infirm from the village. As our wagons carried on through the pass to the west, I saw the glow of flame spark up and fade through the falling snow.
“Days had passed, and we pushed through the mountain pass to descend into a broad, green forest. Our village had left its elderly and infirm behind in the snowy foothills of the mountains, but most of the village carried on through the pass. Entering the forest, however, we soon heard the growls of fearsome predators, eyes aglow in the bushes. We pressed onward, but without the elderly and infirm, the children had little guidance and began to disappear one by one. My wife, and the other villagers, pushed me to slow our pace so that the children might stay more closely protected. I had grown frustrated with their compassion and reminded them that the northern village was pressing onward, even as we kept our pace. On a journey such as this, children were a liability, an additional mouth to feed with no contribution, and we could replace those we lost when we reached the city. Our village’s children and a few of their parents perished through the forest, but the strongest of our village arrived at the forest’s edge.
“Days had passed, and we stood at the forest’s edge to face the desert sands that span the horizon. I felt a surge of relief and joy, as the vision from my dreams had appeared a sandswept city of the desert, so I assured the village that we must be close. We pressed into the desert with renewed vigor. The days became weeks, and our supplies began to dwindle. We drove to the west, rationing food and water. Our horses began to stumble, as did the weaker of the remaining villagers. So close to the promised city, I told myself and those left that we must press on. We pushed forward, and those who had failed to ration their food and water began to fall. I had grown resentful of the less disciplined and spurned their requests for my supplies, which I had tightly rationed and still had in sufficient amounts. But my friends, my family, and even my wife fell in the sands, and I carried on.
“The day after my wife fell, I saw the walls of the city on the far horizon. I had little more than a satchel of food and a skin of water when I reached the gate. I knocked on the gate and felt it slowly swing open beneath my hand. I had reached the city in the west. I had achieved eternal life, riches aplenty, and all the food and water I could hope for. Tears fell from my eyes, stepping within the walls of the city.
“As soon as I felt a desire, I found its answer, presented before me. When I yearned for food, I turned a corner to find a feast. When. I felt a twinge of thirst, the skin at my side suddenly filled. When I hungered for gold and silver, my pockets weighed heavy with clinking coins. The novelty of these newfound riches surged an unbelievable rush, and I rejoiced in my achievement.
“As I celebrated success, I looked around me to raise a glass or break bread with those dear to me. My aging father, my beloved wife and children, my fellow villagers, what I wouldn’t give for them to share in this glory with me? I returned to the gate by which I had entered the city and sought travelers entering and exiting the gate. Those entering I asked if they had encountered those from my village, which they had not. Those exiting I asked if I could provide them with coin and supplies to find those from my village lost along the journey, which they could not.
“Days had passed, and I waited by the gate seeking travelers that might offer hope or that might even be one from my village, enduring the journey alone. As days became weeks, and weeks became months, I waited by the gate.
“Years had passed when the northern village arrived to the gate, the village leader standing with a gentle smile at the head of the group. I clutched at the hem of her robe to ask how they had made the journey, and if they had seen any from my village. She spoke to me.
“‘You and I had the same dream years ago and have taken different paths. We decided as a village to make the journey and kept the spirit of the village within us. When we crossed the snowy mountains, we set up camp and built fires to shelter the elderly and infirm; the thaw from the fires allowed us greater foraging and water to replenish our supplies. When we passed through the forest, we protected the young and the weak, even those we moved more slowly to ensure safety; the slower pace allowed our weak to strengthen and our infirm to heal. When we traversed the desert, we ensured that all had what they needed to survive the lean journey; the sparse supplies revealed how far we could stretch limited offerings amongst our group. When one of our number fell to old age, illness, or injury, we stopped to mourn together. When one of our number birthed a child, we stopped to celebrate together. And now, we have arrived together.’
“I sputtered, dumbstruck, ‘But weren’t you concerned that we in the south would arrive first? That your journey would be in vain?’
“She replied, ‘Surely a city with such riches as you and I have envisioned would have enough for both of our peoples?’ With that, she paused. ‘Where are your people?’
“I stared out of the gate into the desert behind her. She saw and understood: I had gained everything and lost everything.
“She invited me to join her and the northern villagers in their celebration at the end of their long journey, but I refrained; I had to keep the watch.
“And so it is you find me here, by the gate, blessed with the curse of eternity. Are you by chance traveling east?”
As his story became this question, loss and hope filled his worn eyes. I saw then that he was not, in fact, an old man, but rather a man of middle age, burdened and broken. I answered that I had not yet decided how to continue my journey. He spared a wistful glance down the stone-laid street before returning his gaze through the East Gate to the desert sands.