On Monday mornings, I send out a story via email: ultra-brief tales of 1,000 words or more, usually in genres including horror, science fiction, and the supernatural. Those stories collectively are called Once Upon A Time. I’ve also published several ebooks and compendium volumes of those stories so far.
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What You Seek
Nilesh had been travelling for almost two months.
Mostly going on foot, though in some places he was able to hitch a ride for a short part of his journey. He had gone with cattle-herders and river fishermen, the devout and the enterprising, and he had been glad of the company in each case. For most of the time, though, he was alone.
It was the height of summer when he had left his home, bidding a fond farewell to his tearful wife and his young daughter, promising to return as soon as he could. He had taken a flower from the garden and pressed it flat between the pages of his pocketbook, tucking it into the breast pocket of his well-worn shirt. His wife was a good woman, and an even better wife, and so she had urged him on his way and told him to take the time that he needed. Her own mother and father lived only a few minutes’ walk away, and she would manage very well. Nilesh had felt reassured and grateful, and he had hardened his heart in order to finally turn away from their embrace and begin his journey.
It was a pilgrimage, really. He sought that thing which all men sought: wisdom. But his ultimate goal wasn’t wealth, or power, or any of the other things that lesser people thought went hand-in-hand with satisfaction and peace of mind. Nilesh’s goal was a loftier thing, perhaps even less attainable, but essential nonetheless. He sought to be happy.
He was not a happy man by nature, but nor was he angry, or hateful. He just had a stillness inside of him, which he often contemplated, and he had learned early in his life that it served as a barrier between him and any feelings of fulfilment and joy. He did experience those emotions, of course, but they were elusive, and whenever he managed to grasp them for a moment, they would soon drain away like sand between his fingers. He had gradually come to the conclusion that this was simply the way he was, and that he could expect no better, but his wife and his daughter had taught him — the woman by her words, and the child by her example — that he should expect better of himself.
And so it was that when another summer came, and he found himself looking at the glorious setting sun late in the evening but feeling no joy from it, his wife took his arm and said that perhaps it was time for Nilesh to seek out whatever it was that he was missing. He had demurred at first, but her words had gnawed at him, and only a few days later he had come around to the idea. Less than a further week passed before he set out.
There had always been tales of a wise man who lived in the distant mountains, across rivers and plains and forests, and even beyond the boundaries of neighbouring nations. Nilesh didn’t mind the distance, or the hardship of travel; in his mind he had already endured decades of life without something that others seemed to find so readily. A season of travel would be a very small price to pay if he could heal whatever wound had been visited upon him by heaven.
The weather turned colder at times, and on one day in particular it had even seemed as if winter might have lost track of time and come far too soon, but then the temperature rose again and Nilesh was able to make better progress once more, no longer fearing that he might be trapped out in the open without shelter when night came, and risk freezing to death.
He ate whenever he could eat, sometimes relying on the kindness of strangers and sometimes on the bountiful world itself, and while he very much missed his wife’s cooking and her embrace, he always had enough strength to continue on. From time to time he would ask for directions or even rumours of his destination, and at last there dawned a day when he saw the jagged mountains rising up beyond a green valley. Nilesh quickened his step, and he attained the foothills in a matter of a further handful of days.
There was a small settlement there, and he stopped to rest. There were monks, of course, as there always were, and they seemed to already see something in him which told them what he sought. They didn’t speak, for their order had forsworn words, but one of them pointed to a path that wound gently upwards, and Nilesh began his ascent as soon as the sun rose the next morning.
There was snow visible on the peaks above, but the monks had given him warmer clothes, and so he wasn’t afraid. The going was sometimes invigorating, and sometimes arduous, but he didn’t falter. It took more than three days to make his ascent, and when he bedded down he was amazed by the voice of the wind so high above the ground, listening to it for at least an hour before sleep took him.
On the morning of the fourth day he set out early again, and when the sun was at its highest point in the sky he at last came upon a structure. It was of wood and thatch, but secure and solid, and there was smoke coming from the chimney. Nilesh knocked on the narrow doors, but there was no reply, and seeing little alternative he proceeded inside without an invitation. He loosened his clothing in the sudden heat, and peered into the gloom. And there he was.
The wise man looked old, and yet young. The oldness was in his body and the youth was in his eyes, and when he saw Nilesh he gestured towards a low seat in front of his own. Nilesh approached slowly, hands clasped together, sweat still on his brow from the climb. He sat down, and the wise man looked at him expectantly, but there was also something else in his bright eyes; perhaps a note of amusement.
“Oh wise one, how can I find happiness?” Nilesh asked, and the wise man nodded as if the question was not so much of a question as the performance of a ritual. The wise man reached out and placed a bony fingertip against Nilesh’s chest.
Nilesh frowned. He had heard from many people that happiness came from within, but the idea was of no use to him. His problem was that he did not have happiness inside of him. That was the cause of his journey in the first place.
He was about to speak again, trying to rephrase his question without seeming impolite, but then the wise man withdrew his finger and then reached through the open folds of Nilesh’s outer garments and into his shirt pocket. He took out Nilesh’s pocketbook, opened it to the proper page, and revealed the pressed flower.
“What you seek lies here,” he said.
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