the stone marker

There is a valley in a far land, and in this valley there is a road. This road is scarcely a road, but only a path through the bramble made flat and clear by the passing of many feet. This road which is scarcely a road comes to a place at the bottom of the valley, before a tall stone, and there the road becomes two roads; one turning left, and the other turning right. One road is safe; the other twists and turns and wanders and leads only to quagmire and quicksand and rock fall and a hundred other dangers of travel. There is no marker at the fork and no sign; there is only the stone.

But, it is said that, should you ever come to the fork in the road which is scarcely a road at the bottom of a far valley and stand before the stone, you need only pour a little water upon it, and the course of the water will lead you to the safe path.

Once the stone was not a stone, but a young man, who lived a life of privilege in a village in the mountains. He was the son of the most prominent and wealthy man in that village, and whatever he wanted, he could have. He took his share and more of the wine, the women, and whatever else took his fancy. The other young men of the village burned even more with jealousy that he seemed to take little pleasure in these indulgences. He was as quick to grasp as he was to cast away, as if every flower wilted as soon as it was picked.

As much as the village was unfortunate in this young man, they were blessed in a young woman. She was everything the young man was not; poor, humble, and joyous. She gave freely even when she was not asked, and expected nothing in return. So, the whole village could not fail to fall into anxiety when her heart at last set itself upon something it desired (as one can expect hearts to do). What else could she be so unlucky as to desire, but the love of the very young man who was her exact opposite?

For a year and a day, the young woman followed the young man everywhere he went. She waited on him as a servant would wait on their king; there was nothing she would not do for him. Of course, the young man, who had such wealth as to be able to hold everything cheaply, thought nothing of her attentions. In spite of this, after a year and a day, she still followed his footsteps as though she were his shadow, never asking for a thing. On this day, as the young man was walking through the town, the sudden flight of a bird startled him and he stopped in his tracks, dazzled by the sun in his eyes when he had looked up at it. The young woman could not catch her steps in time and fell against his back.

When the young man turned to admonish the person who had so rudely stumbled into him, it slowly dawned upon him that this woman had been following him like his shadow for a year and a day, waiting on him as a servant upon their king. Since he could imagine no action taken that did not come from one's selfish desire, he asked her outright what she wanted from him.

None of the villagers around could hear what it was the girl asked of him, but in reply he laughed a laugh so mirthless and cold as none of them would wish to hear again. Then he turned and walked away, and never gave her another glance.

It seemed that whatever he had said had turned her heart to ashes, for she shut herself away in her room and would speak to no one. Soon after, she vanished into the night and was not heard from again. The villagers could only presume that she had thrown herself from some high place in the mountains. Such is the cruel humor of fate, said the villagers, that she should find her first want to be the one thing she could not have; the heart of a young man who had none.

Another year and a day passed, and the young man had not thought of the young woman in all that time. On that day, he could think of nothing but the stranger from a far land he had heard was taking lodging in the village inn. The young man knew that all good and new things come from far lands, so he immediately went to the inn and demanded that the stranger be presented to him, so that he should be the first to partake of whatever foreign foods, tales, and ideas the man might have.

No one was in the habit of denying the young man anything; so he took a long lunch which became tea and then became dinner and then evening drinks with the stranger. The stranger did indeed have a number of foreign wares and stories about him, and gave them freely to the young man. Once he had them, though, the young man thought they ceased to be so foreign and no longer interested him. Finally he became weary of the stranger and stood to take his leave, without much gratitude for the long audience. Wait! said the stranger, there is one more story you simply must hear, for it is the strangest and most foreign thing I possess; and you will never find its like if you traveled the whole world for a thousand years and a day. Intrigued, the young man sat back down.

Let me tell you, said the stranger, of a valley in a far land. In that valley, there is a road; scarcely a road, but merely a path. In the middle of the valley, the road takes a fork. If you go one way, you will find only miserable, lonesome death; but if you go the other, you will find a treasure. A treasure which is unrivaled by any other, the greatest treasure in the world, a treasure which would sate even the greediest man should he live an eternity!

The young man thought on this; briefly, as he did not think on anything more than that. He told the stranger that this was, indeed, something he had never heard the like of before. However, he thought that it was truly a useless thing to have heard it; what did it matter if in some foreign valley there was a fork in a road that would lead to the greatest treasure in the world, if he did not know where?

Ah, said the stranger; it matters because I know where the valley is, and I know which fork leads to lonely death and which to great treasure; and that is something that no one else knows.

Being himself, the young man could not bear the thought of any one having something which he did not also have; so though he did not believe that such a treasure existed, he hated the stranger for his secret. Immediately he demanded the stranger tell him where the valley was and which path he must take to reach the treasure. The stranger refused; he was a poor man, so it was a hard thing to come by to have something which no one else in the world had, even if it was such a useless thing as knowledge. The young man offered him anything, everything, whatever it would take; all his gold, all his riches, everything he had would be the stranger's if only he could have the secret of the far valley.

The stranger thought it odd that the young man could want something so badly without even knowing what it was. It does not matter what it is, said the young man, only that no one else will have it; I will have your secret, and I will have the treasure! That is the only thing of importance.

So, the stranger agreed. He gave the young man precise directions to the valley; but gave only one condition, that they would travel there together and only then would he divulge which path was the one which lead to the greatest treasure in the world.

The stranger and the young man traveled for a year and a day, through countries the young man had never heard of, through distant and wondrous places; but for the first time in his life he paid them no mind and would not be tempted by any sort of distraction or frivolity. One thought burned in his mind - the valley and its mysterious treasure.

Finally they reached the far valley, and came down out of the mountains along the road that was scarcely a road until they came to a place where there was a fork and no sign to mark the way. The young man felt his heart flutter in his chest like he had never felt before, and he could barely contain himself for excitement. He grabbed the stranger by his shoulders and told him, now our deal is concluded, now you must tell me your secret at last and you may still have whatever of my riches you wish, for my only desire is this treasure which is the greatest in the world; the treasure which no one else but me will possess.

Yes, said the stranger; I shall tell you. I shall tell you that one stormy night I found a young woman half dead upon this very road, this road which is scarcely a path. Though I tried to save her life, she was wracked with fever and resisted my attempts to help. At last I saw there was nothing I could do, so I asked her if there was anything at all she might want. She told me no, there is nothing that I want; for the one thing I have ever wanted, I cannot have; for me there is only death now.

The young man told the stranger that that was the most foolish thing he had ever heard; what could one want that they could never have?

Ah, said the stranger, I thought the same. So I asked her, what is it that you wanted? I wanted for the man I loved to be happy, she said.

All at once the world came rushing in on the young man, and he remembered a girl who had once bumped into him on the streets of his village and asked him for the strangest thing when he had demanded to know what she wanted.

And so, said the stranger, I have brought you here, to this valley where the road forks, where that young woman laid down and died. I have brought you here so you will know what it is to desire something that you cannot have. If you offered me a thousand kingdoms, there is no path in this world which can lead you to the thing you desire, to the only treasure worth having.

The young man fell to his knees at the crossroads, and, for the first time in his life, cried tears that came from true loss. For the first time he realized why he had had everything and nothing he wanted all at once; why he was forever consumed in searching without finding. The greatest treasure in this world is one which cannot be taken by any means, cannot be possessed; it can only be given, and is even then only borrowed.

There is a valley in a far land; and in this valley is a road which is scarcely a road, which leads to a fork marked only by a tall stone, a stone which was once a man who knelt at the crossroads until time passed him by and only a rock remained. One path leads to loneliness and death; and the other to the greatest treasure in the world. Spare a little water, and the course of the stone's tears will show the way to the right path.

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