On the next day everyone who had the courage to go on a long journey assembled. More than two hundred families came to the appointed place. Only a few remained at home to look after the old homesite.
It was indeed sad to look at this mass of miserable people whom bitter misfortune had forced to forsake the land in which they were born and in which lay the graves of their ancestors. Their faces were haggard, worn-out and sunburned. The suffering of many long laborious years showed its effect on them and conveyed a picture of misery and bitter despair. But in this very instant there was seen the first glimmer of hope – mixed with homesickness to be sure. A tear flowed down the wrinkled face of many an old man who sighed desperately and shook his head with an air of evil foreboding. He would rather remain for some time so that he too could die among these rocks instead of looking for a better homeland. Many of women lamented loudly and bade farewell to their dead loved ones whose graves they were leaving.
The men were trying to put up a brave front and were shouting, – Well, do you want to keep on starving in this damned land and living in these shacks? – Actually they would have liked the best of all to take the whole cursed region with them with them if it had been possible.
There was the usual noise and shouting as in every mass of people. Both men and women were restless. The children were shrieking in cradles on their mothers’ backs. Even the livestock were a bit uneasy. There were not too many cattle, a calf here and there and then a lean, shaggy hack with a large head and fat legs on which they were loading old rugs, bags and even two sacks over the pack saddle, so that the poor animal swayed under the weight. Yet it managed to stay up and neigh from time to time. Others were loading donkeys; the children were pulling at dogs on leashes. Talking, shouting, cursing, wailing, crying, barking, neighing – all abounded. Even a jackass brayed a few times. But the leader did not utter a word, as if the whole affair were none of his business. A real wise man!
He just sat pensively and silently, with his head down. Now and then he spat; that was all. But on account of his strange behavior, his popularity grew so much that all would have gone through fire and water, as they say, for him. The following conversations could be heard:
– We should be happy to have found such a man. Had we gone ahead without him, God forbid! We would have perished. He has real intelligence, I tell you! He’s silent. He hasn’t sait a word yet! – said one while looking at the leader with respect and pride.
– What should he say? Whoever talks a lot doesn’t think very much. A smart man, that’s for sure! He only ponders and says nothing, – added another, and he too looked at the leader with awe.
– It’s not easy to lead so many people! He has to collect his thoughts because he’s got a big job on his hands, – said the first again.
The time came to get started. They waited awhile, however, to see if anyone else would change his mind and come with them, but since no one came, they could not linger any longer.
– Shouldn’t we get going? – they asked the leader.
He got up without saying a word.
The most courageous men immediately grouped around him to be at hand in case of danger or an emergency.
The leader, frowning, his head down, took a few steps, swinging his cane in front of himself in a dignified fashion. The gathering moved along behind him and shouted several times, “Long live our leader!” He took a few more steps and bumped into the fence in front of the village hall. There, naturally, he stopped; so the group stopped too. The leader then stepped back a bit and rapped his cane on the fence several times.
– What do you want us to do? – they asked.
He said nothing.
– What should we do? Tear the fence down! That’s what we’re to do! Don’t you see that he’s shown us with his cane what to do? – shouted those who stood around the leader.
– There is the gate! There is the gate! – screamed the children and pointed at the gate which stood opposite them.
– Hush, quiet, children!
– God help us, what’s going on? – a few women crossed themselves.
– Not a word! He knows what to do. Tear the fence down!
In an instant the fence was down as if it had never been there.
They went past the fence.
Scarcely had they gone a hundred steps when the leader ran into a large thorn bush and stopped. With great difficulty he managed to pull himself out and then began tapping his cane in all directions. No one budged.
– And what’s the matter now? – shouted those in the rear.
– Cut the thorn bush down! – cried the ones standing around the leader.
– There’s the road, behing the thorn bushes! There it is! – screamed the children and even many people in the back.
– There’s the road! There’s the road! – jeered those around the leader, mimicking angrily. – And how can we blind men know where he’s leading us? Everyone can’t give orders. The leader knows the best and most direct route. Cut down the thorn bush!
They plunged in to clear the way.
– Ouch, – cried someone who was stuck in the hand by a thorn and someone else whose face was struck by a blackberry branch.
– Brothers, you can’t have something for nothing. You have to strain yourselves a bit to succeed, – answered the bravest in the group.
They broke through the bush after much effort and moved forward.
After wandering along a little further, they came upon a buch of logs. These, too, were thrown to the side. Then they continued.
Very little ground was covered on the first day because they had to overcome several, similar obstacles. And all this on little food because some had brought only dried bread and a little cheese while others had only some bread to satisfy their hunger. Some had nothing at all. Fortunately it was summertime so that they found a fruit tree here and there.
Thus, although on the first day only a small stretch lay behind them, they felt very tired. No great dangers turned up and there were no accidents either. Naturally in such a large undertaking the following events must be considered trifles: a thorn stuck one woman’s left eye, which she covered with a damp cloth; one child bawled and limped into a log; an old man tripped over a blackberry bush and sprained his ankle; after ground onion was put on it, the man bravely endured the pain and, leaning on his cane, limped forward valiantly behind the leader. (To be sure, several said that the old man was lying about the ankle, that he was only pretending because he was eager to go back.) Soon, there were only a few who did not have a thorn in their arm or a scratched face. The men endured it all heroically while the women cursed the very hour they departed and the children cried, naturally, because they did not understand all this toil and pain would be richly rewarded.
Much to everyone’s happiness and joy, nothing at all happened to the leader. Frankly, if we are to tell the truth, he was very much protected, but still, the man was simply lucky. At the first night’s campsite everyone prayed and thanked God that the day’s journey was successful and that nothing, not even the slightest misfortune, had befallen the leader. Then one of the bravest men began to speak. His face had been scratched by a blackberry bush, but he simply paid no attention to it.
– Brothers, – he began. – One day’s journey lies successfully behind us, thank God. The road is not easy, but we’ve got to stick it out because we all know that this difficult road will lead us to happiness. May almighty God protect our leader from any harm so that he may continue to lead us successfully.
– Tomorrow I’ll lose my other eye if things go like today! – one of the women uttered angrily.
– Ouch, my leg! – the old man cried, encouraged by the woman’s remark.
The children kept on whining and crying, and the mothers had a hard time silencing them so that the spokesman could be heard.
– Yes, you’ll lose your other eye, – he burst out in anger, – and may you lose both! It’s no big misfortune for one woman to lose her eyes for such a great cause. For shame! Don’t you ever think about the well-being of your children? Let’s half of us perish in this endeavor! What difference does it make? What’s one eye? Of what use are your eyes when there’s someone who’s looking for us and leading us to happiness? Should we abandon our undertaking merely on account of your eye and the old man’s leg?
– He’s lying! The old man’s lying! He’s only pretending so he can go back, – resounded voices from all sides.
– Brothers, whoever doesn’t want to go any farther, – said the spokesman again, – let him go back instead of complaining and stirring up the rest of us. As far as I’m concerned, I am going to follow this wise leader as long as there’s anything left in me!
– We’ll all follow! We’ll all follow him as long as we live!
The leader was silent.
Everyone began looking at him and whispering:
– He’s absorbed in his thoughts!
– A wise man!
– Look at his forehead!
– And always frowning!
– He’s brave! That’s seen in everything about him.
– You can say that again! Fence, logs, briars – he plows through it all. He somberly taps his cane, saying nothing, and you must guess what he has in mind.
– Brothers and friends, I have listened to all your speeches, so I ask you now to listen to me. All our deliberations and conversations aren’t worth anything as long as we remain in this barren region. In this sandy soil and on these rocks nothing has been able to grow, even when there were rainy years, let alone in this drought the likes of which none of us has never seen before.
How long will we get together like this and talk in vain? The cattle are dying without food, and pretty soon we and our children will starve too. We must find another solution that’s better and more sensible. I think it would be best to leave this arid land and set out into the world to find better and more fertile soil because we simply can’t live like this any longer.
Thus an inhabitant of some infertile province spoke once in a tired voice at some meeting. Where and when that was does not concern you or me, I think. It is important to believe me that it happened somewhere in some land long ago, and that is enough. To be honest, at one time I thought I had somehow invented this whole story, but little by little I freed myself from this nasty delusion. Now I firmly believe that I am going to relate what really happened and must have happened somewhere and sometime and that I could never by any means have made it up.
The listeners, with pale, haggard faces and blank, gloomy, almost uncomprehending gazes, with their hands under their belts, seemed to come alive at these wise words. Each was already imagining that he was in some kind of magic, paradisaical land where the reward of backbreaking work would be a rich harvest.
– He’s right! He’s right! – whispered the exhausted voices on all sides.
– Is this place nea…r…by? – a drawn-out murmur was heard from a corner.
– Brothers! – another began with a somewhat stronger voice. – We must follow this advice immediately because we can’t go like this any longer. We have toiled and strained ourselves, but all has been in vain. We have sown seed that could have been used for food, but the floods came and washed the seed and soil away from the slopes so that only bare rock was left. Should we stay here forever and labor from morning to night only to remain hungry and thirsty, naked and barefooted? We’ve got to set out and look for better and more fertile soil where hard work will yield plentiful crops.
– Let’s go! Let’s go immediately because this place is not fit to be lived in anymore!
Whispering arose, and each began walking away, not thinking where he was going.
– Wait, brothers! Where are you going? – the first speaker started again. – Sure we must go, but not like this. We’ve got to know where we are going. Otherwise we might end up in a worse situation instead of saving ourselves. I suggest that we choose a leader whom we’ll all have to obey and who’ll show us the best and most direct way.
– Let’s choose! Let’s choose somebody right away, – was heard all around.
Only now did the arguing arise, a real chaos. Everybody was talking and no one was either listening or able to hear. They began splitting up in groups, each person mumbling to himself, and then even the groups broke up. In twos, they began talking each other by the arm, talking, trying to prove something, pulling each other by the sleeve, and motioning silence by their hands. Then they all assembled again, still talking.
– Brothers! – suddenly resounded a stronger voice which drowned out all the other hoarse, dull voinces. – We can’t reach any kind of agreement like this. Everybody is talking and nobody is listening. Let’s pick a leader! Whom among us can we choose? Who among us has traveled enough to know the roads? We all know each other well, and yet I for one wouldn’t put myself and my children under the leadership of a single person here. Rather, tell me who knows that traveler over there who’s been sitting in the shade on the edge of the road since this morning?
Silence fell. All turned toward the stranger and sized him up from head to toe.
The traveler, middle-aged, with a somber face which was scarcely visible on account of his beard and long hair, sat and remained silent as before, absorbed in thought, and tapped his big cane on the ground from time to time.
– Yesterday I saw that same man with a young boy. They were holding each other by the hand and going down the street. And last night the boy left the village but the stranger stayed here.
– Brothers, let’s forget these silly trifles so we won’t lose any time. Whoever he is, he’s come from far away since none of us knows him and he most certainly knows the shortest and best way to lead us. It’s my judgment he’s a very wise man because he’s sitting there silently and thinking. Anyone else would have already pried into our affairs ten times or more by now or would have begun a conversation with one of us, but he’s been sitting there the whole time quite alone and saying nothing.
– Of course, the man’s sitting quietly because he’s thinking about something. It can’t be otherwise except that he’s very smart, – concurred the others and began to examine the stranger again. Each had discovered a brilliant trait in him, a proof of his extraordinary intelligence.
Not much more time was spent talking, so finally all agreed that it would be best to ask this traveler – whom, it seemed to them, God had sent to lead them out into the world to look for a better territory and more fertile soil. He should be their leader, and they would listen to him and obey him without question.
They chose ten men from among themselves who were to go to the stranger to explain their decision to him. This delegation was to show him the miserable state of affairs and ask him to be their leader.
So the ten went over and bowed humbly. One of them began talking about the unproductive soil of the area, about the dry years and the misery in which they all found themselves. He finished in the following manner:
– These conditions force us to leave our homes and our land and to move out into the world to find a better homeland. Just at this moment when we finally reached agreement, it appears that God has shown mercy on us, that he sent you to us – you, a wise and worthy stranger – and that you’ll lead us and free us from our misery. In the name of all the inhabitants here, we ask you to be our leader. Whereveryou might go, we’ll follow. You know the roads and you were certainly born in a happier and better homeland. We’ll listen to you and obey each of your commands. Will you, wise stranger, agree to save so many souls from ruin? Will you be our leader?
All during this imploring speech, the wise stranger never lifted his head. The whole time he remained in the same position in which they had found him. His head was lowered, he was frowning, and he said nothing. He only tapped his cane on the ground from time to time and – thought. When the speech was over, he muttered curtly and slowly without changing his position:
– I will!
– Can we go with you then and look for a better place?
– You can! – he continued without lifting his head.
Enthusiasm and expressions of appreciation arose now, but the stranger did not say a word to any of it.
The ten informed the gathering of their success, adding that only now did they see what great wisdom this man possessed.
– He didn’t even move from the spot or lift his head at least to see who was talking to him. He only sat quietly and meditated. To all our talk and appreciation he uttered only four words.
– A real sage! Rare intelligence! – they happily shouted from all sides claiming that God himself had sent him as an angel from heaven to save them. All were firmly convinced of success under such a leader whom nothing in the world could disconcert. And so it was decided to set out the next day at daybreak.