He watched her light a candle through the stained-glass window. He didn't come to the church often, for religious people often did not make good marks, despite the teachings of their savior. However, she brought him back time and time again. He wondered what she prayed for, and dreaded ever finding out. His largest fear was meeting this girl, this vision, and learning that she could never live up to his idea of her. He exhaled as he stepped back from the glass, watching his breath swirl up into the cold night air.
A callused and dirty hand clapped him on the shoulder, taking him out of his thoughts. "I like your dreams, poet. You have good taste." The man's breath smelled of decay, but the warmth of it was gentle. "Were I the sort to dream, I would fill my head with such visions."
The poet turned and looked at his friend, whose bedraggled appearance reflected his own. "What do you know of dreams, traveler?"
"I know better than to chase them." The traveler shook his head and "You can't lose what you don't have."
The poet grew quiet, like a schoolboy confronting a teacher. "And what do you know of loss?"
The grin faded and the traveler became somber. "I am a scholar of loss. As are you. As are we all."
A brief silence passed between them, the kind of silence that only the truth can instill. The traveler took the poet under his arm and ushered him away from the church. "Come, dreams don't fill your stomach. There's work to be done."
"What about her?" The poet motioned discreetly towards a student briskly walking towards the business administration building.
"No!" The traveler shouted at the top of his lungs, causing those around him to give him a wide berth. He grinned at their anxiety. "She's an aspiring business woman. She's strong, independent, and believes everyone else should be as well. She would dismiss us out of hand." He waited patiently, scanning the crowd before pointing at a couple walking hand in hand. "There."
"You think?" Asked the poet, skeptically.
"Undoubtedly." The traveler briefly grinned his splotchy grin before turning his face serious. Deep breaths rattled in and out of his aged lungs as he calmed himself, the poet briefly wondering if such acts hurt his companion. The traveler's face grew sad and sadder still, tears appearing in his eyes as he brought himself to the level of despair the poet only saw him in while working. He approached the couple, posture slumped and crying piteously. "Please," He begged. "I'm so hungry, so hungry. Please…"
The man exchanged a hesitant look with his date before reaching into his pocket and giving a five dollar bill to the traveler, who thanked them with an excessive amount of humility. They moved on, leaving him prostrated in their wake. After, they rounded a corner; the traveler got up and returned to the poet. He was grinning, though his beard was still wet with tears. "It's odd," He removed an impressive wad of singles from his coat and held one up next to the recently acquired fiver. "These are all but identical, yet one is worth five times as much." He added both bills to the wad and slipped the whole thing back into the jacket.
The poet studied him closely. "How do you summon your tears?"
The traveler leaned in with a gleam in his eye. "Always with the inquisition." He leaned back and barked out a short burst of laughter. "Very well, what I do is this. I imagine the moon shining on a dark sea." He shook his head with the thought. "It's as if shining scales are moving and colliding. Such terrible beauty could move even you to tears, young poet."
"Doubtful." The poet shook his own head, mirroring the traveler's movements. "Tears indicate the dreamer's dream has either come or gone, but my own remains just out of reach."
"Oh ho?" The traveler smiled slyly. "But a dream never attained is gone, gone, gone."
Furrowing his brow, the poet spoke in consternation, "But I thought it was better not to search for fear of losing."
"Not fear, young one. Knowledge." The traveler pulled a quarter from one of his many pockets and danced it across his fingers. "This coin is dear to me. I sought it out and earned it. It is mine." He flipped it casually towards a sewer grate, but as it sailed through the air a slight change came over him and he snatched it before it was beyond reach. He paused to look at the poet before pocketing the coin. "I will lose it one day," His voice was quiet. "And when I do, it will be gone forever. Anything we have we will lose. That is fact. However…" He pulled the coin from his pocket and studied it a long time before looking into the poet's face. "To never have something is to have lost it already."
"I thought you can't lose something you don't have." The poet's voice was in no way mocking, but quiet in recognition of the traveler's anxiety.
The traveler let out a rueful smile. "Yes, well…" He paused, flipped the coin into his pocket, and smiled broadly at the poet. "Come." He turned without any further explanation and walked away, the poet following in his wake.
It was on the street between the college and the train station that the pair came across the fool. His appearance mirrored their own, but his stench was noticeably greater. He approached them with tears in his eyes, hands outstretched, practically groveling at their feet. "Please…" He sobbed. "I'm so hungry. I just want to buy food. Please…"
The poet and the traveler exchanged a look before the traveler spoke. "Up, fool. Can't you recognize us as your own?"
The fool peered at them a long time before giving an odorous grin of recognition, straightening, and cleaning his face. "Kinsmen!" He exclaimed, pulling a flask from his layers and undoing the stopper. "I've toasted less worthy meetings." Still grinning, he tipped the contents of the flask down his throat.
The traveler nodded. "I suspect that you toast the rising of each sun and each breath you take."
"Well, it's good to be alive." The fool raised his flask and drank.
"You call that life..." The traveler muttered under his breath.
"How do you make the tears come?" The poet ignored the traveler's grumblings.
The fool turned his attention to the poet, seeing him for the first time. "An excellent question!" He exclaimed, toasted the air, and drank. "My tears are thanking my good fortune!"
"Fortune?" The poet's voice was quietly inquisitive. "What fortunes have you?"
A scoff came from the direction of the traveler, but if the fool heard it, he ignored it. "I live as a king, lounging comfortably off my people's tithes. Every night my cup overflows, and drowns me in the glory of my existence." At this, the fool started into a violent fit of coughing, raising his hand to his mouth. After the coughs subsided, he reached into his mouth and nonchalantly plucked out a rotted tooth. He held it up for the others to see. "A jewel!" He grinned through missing teeth and took another swig.
"In that case," The poet gave a deep bow, ignoring the traveler's look. "May we take our leave, my liege?"
The fool's smile broadened. "You may, vassals. Leave me to my joy."
The two companions continued down the street. "Why do you humor him?" The traveler asked, clearly annoyed.
"He is a fool." The poet responded calmly. "Humor is all he has.
The traveler led the poet through the near empty hallways of the train station. Fluorescent lights reflected off polished floors, giving the place the illusion of cleanliness. The poet ran his fingers carefully along the wall as they walked through the place, feeling the texture of it.
"Here." The traveler pointed to a set of lockers and ushered the poet towards them, stopping in front of locker 1281. "This is my Arc of the Covenant." He began rifling through his pockets, presumably searching for the key.
The poet watched him pull strings, superballs, and other random assorted knick-knacks out from his pockets. "And what covenant have you made?"
The traveler pulled a toad from his breast pocket and eyed it carefully. "There's life in here…" He wondered to himself, ignoring the poet's question. Bending down, he placed the toad on the highly polished floor and turned his attention back to his pockets. After a couple minutes more of searching he let out an "Aha!" and produced a small metal key with an orange plastic base. "Search, and you will find." He inserted the key into the locker and twisted. The door opened, revealing the contents of the locker within.
Clean, ironed clothes were hanging from hooks. Shampoo, conditioner, and a whole host of cleansing products lined the top shelf; including toothbrush, toothpaste, nail clippers, comb, razor, etc… The poet looked inside. "What am I to think?" He asked.
The traveler grinned. "This is why you're a poet and not a sage. You can't recognize wisdom so easily." He gestured to the contents of the locker. "These are keys to a normal life."
A frown crossed the poet's face. "I don't understand."
"Life is appearances." The traveler scooped the toad back into his hand. "This is a toad. It looks like a toad, acts like a toad, and is therefore a toad." He handed the toad to the poet, who took it hesitantly. "We are destitute. We look it, smell it, and act it. Unlike the poor creature in your hand, however, we can change if we choose to." Reaching into the locker, the traveler plucked out a bar of soap and held it in front of the poet. "All that is needed is the will. Shower, shave, rinse, and be clever. Obtain a job, work without the tears. You said yourself that tears are not for you. Rise up, shed your title, and forget the meaning of the word loss."
"If all were so easy, none would suffer in the world." The poet protested.
"Aye, so it seems" The traveler agreed. "But things are only as easy as we allow them to be. People are unaware of their own strength."
The poet simply stared at the open locker, as if for the first time seeing a foreign world. The traveler studied his face before shaking his own. He tossed the soap back into the locker and slammed it shut, depositing the key back into one of his many pockets.
"Forget it. You are a caged bird without the sense to fly out the open door."
"It isn't ignorance that stays my hand." The poet rebutted, and his voice seemed less timid. He held up the toad. "Why are we any better then this toad? Why should we be allowed to change? Why would I want to shed a title I've earned? Why would I want to forget loss, only to learn it again in the future? 'Anything we have we will lose. That is fact.'" The poet put his spare hand to his forehead in frustration. "Your words collide and crash against each other, violently struggling for supremacy. You tell me not to chase my dreams for knowledge of loss, and then tell me that they're lost already. Now this? What am I to believe, traveler?"
The traveler appraised the poet for a long time before answering. "Your beliefs are none of my concern. I'm not a mentor, nor a teacher, nor a shaman. I am a traveler. I tell the truth as I see it, as it occurs to me. You are a poet, and so it is your nature to question, but know that the only answers you'll get from me come from the way I see the world. You ask for wisdom, but all I have to give is knowledge. If you are not satisfied, then seek someone with wisdom."
His words rang in the silence that followed them. "I'm sorry." The poet mumbled, all timidness and humility returned to his voice. "I didn't mean to frustrate or offend."
The traveler waved a hand dismissively. "Save your apologies for a day when you'll need them. You are young and wish to fill the void of your ignorance to matters both wise and knowing." He grinned, and with it seemed to put all to right. "Come. The hour is late, and we must find lodging for the night." With surprising gentleness, he plucked the toad from the poet's hand and set him on the ground. The traveler straightened, winked at the poet, and walked towards the exit, allowing his companion to trail after him.
The next morning, the traveler was gone. They had found a bridge near the train station to use as shelter for the night, and when the poet awoke he found the traveler's spot cold. A note rested on the concrete where he had slept, and the poet picked it up to read.
Dear friend, I have moved on. Do not think that my departure was due to our brief altercation last night and do not blame yourself unduly for it. The simple truth is, I am a traveler, and the anxiety that itches the feet of all travelers can only be quelled with movement. There's nothing to be done about it.
Concerning my covenant (no, I hadn't forgotten), it is one I made with myself. It is also one that I have broken time and time again. Often I have resolved to give up my life of travel, shed my title, and live the blissful life of acceptance and mediocrity. The first time I resolved this is when I first began filling the arc with its treasures. However, every time I return to it, I find that I cannot give up this life. Perhaps I am no better nor worse than the toad, as you said. However, if you check the folds of your clothing, you may find that I have broken my covenant for what I hope to be the last time, and have given the opportunity for you to break it for me.
The poet stopped reading here and reached into his coat pocket. His fingers fumbled around plastic and metal briefly before pulling out the key to the locker. He looked at it a long time before continuing the letter.
Life is loss, it is true. Life is also risk and choice. We choose to risk, and often the result of that choice is loss. Bear in mind though that loss is only measured by how much we do not gain. I did say that everything we gain we lose, and that remains true; however, some things are worth gaining if only for the having. Although we may lose these things, the time we spent with them make them worth the having. And so I advise this: Chase your dream. It is better to have found and lost than simply lost, for we are better for the finding.
You were right to treat the fool with humor. In matters of kindness and wisdom, you are my superior, and it is important that you know that. You may be a poet now, but one day you may become a sage, or even a hero or a king (a real one). Only your choices will tell.
Speaking of, you have a choice before you now. Continue down your path of loss, live without tears, and watch your dream through stained-glass windows; or, open the arc, embrace your dream, and rejoin the world. As I said, the choice is yours, but remember this. A choice is not a path that splits in the woods, but the direction you pick in an empty desert. You are a poet, so the imagery should suit you well.
Well, time for this weary traveler to rest his hand and stretch his feet. Should we meet again, I'll either treat you to some knowledge or grovel at your feet. Until then.
P.S. I seem to have misplaced my coin. If you should find it, I'd appreciate its return. Thank you.
The poet expected there to be tears, hoped for them in fact. However, they did not come. The traveler had gone, as travelers do, and there was work to be done, choices to be made. He re-read the paper for guidance before chiding himself. There was no one to give him the answers he sought, save himself. He thought of a desert, the infinite amount of directions before him, and smiled. His course was set.
She sat in the church, calmed by the silent atmosphere. Moving as fluidly as smoke, she lit one of the candles and knelt in prayer. Time passed before she finally rose and moved towards the rear of the church. She paused just before the exit, quizzically examining the ground. A small toad sat on the threshold, and she scooped it up. "Hello, little one." She whispered. "If I kiss you, will you turn into a prince?" She smiled at the fancy, but did not kiss it. Instead she walked it outside and set it down out of the way of pedestrians. The creature would live another day as a toad.
"Excuse me," A voice sounded behind her and she turned. She did not recognize the man she saw, but guessed correctly from his clothing and appearance that he was destitute. She waited patiently.
"I am a poet." The man continued. "I am also hungry for both food and companionship. If you should wish it, I could clean myself to make my presence less offensive, however I am just as willing to accept rejection. I am a stranger to you, and you've every reason to fear me. If you do not wish my company, and I could hardly blame you, then all I ask is for some spare change to feed myself. Please, I'm so hungry."
She noted his dry face as she appraised him, although she couldn't say exactly why. After a thorough examination, she dug into her purse and pulled out a coin that she flipped to him.
The poet regarded this coin with such intensity that all else seemed to fade away, and it took him a long time to realize that she was still standing in front of him, hand outstretched. "Come," She smiled. "The way is long, and you'll need change for the bus."
He stared at her in utter disbelief before taking her hand, wincing at how clean and soft it was compared to his own. She turned and led him to the bus stop as he followed behind, the tears silently running down his face.