“Take it,” the young man insisted as he thrust the scroll toward me. “It is the story of how the world began.”
Not without reluctance did I accept what was being offered. “How did you come to know this story?”
A zealous seeker after truth, the young man had asked the prophet to tell him of the beginning of all things. I see the future, the prophet had told him, but not the past. The young man asked the scribe. You may read what has been written, the scribe said as he gestured toward the pyramids of scrolls that covered the tables, but there is none who knows. The young man asked the priest, who warned him sternly of the evils that had befallen others who had asked this question. But the question had already taken possession of the young man’s soul.
He undertook a rigorous asceticism, eating nothing but the buds of a certain shrub that grew uncertainly near the mouths of the caves, training himself in the disciplines of silence, offering neither encouragement nor resistance to the question that grew and grew until at last it had absorbed him inside itself. Having studied the signs in the sky he knew with precision the day his enlightenment would arrive. No one saw him leave the village. Three days later the weaver would find him lying by the well. It was two days before he recovered his senses, six before he could speak. On the fourteenth day he asked that a quill and scroll be brought him.
Lightly did I hold the scroll before me. “It is the one,” the young man affirmed, and without another word he walked up the lane toward the mountains.
Many years later and half a world away I met another man. With downcast eyes he muttered something in an accent I had heard only once before in all my wanderings. He had to repeat himself twice before I could understand him: “This is the story of the how the world began.”
He too had begun his quest by asking others; he too found no satisfaction. Instead of seeking mystical enlightenment, the man undertook years of exploration into the nature of things. He collected rocks and sand, leaves and fruits, skins and eggs. He studied the movement of the streams and the clouds and the stars. He counted things, carefully listing his tallies in many volumes. The merest glance at his collections left no doubt that his travels had taken him where even I had never been. Though he had written extensively, he had shown his writings to no one. Now, in this one thin scroll, he presented to me the essence of his accumulated understanding.
* * * *
The old man tapped his pipe on the heel of his boot, dislodging a plug of half-burned leaves that flared like a shooting star as he kicked them vaguely toward the fireplace. “The third reasoned her way to the beginning of the world. The fourth asked the wisest among his people what they believed; the fifth asked the most simple. The sixth was a teller of tales who, having perfected her craft, turned her hand and her imagination toward the beginning of all beginnings.” Reaching beneath the table the old man pulled forth his rucksack, scarred like its bearer by the years and the miles but still serviceable. He swept his arm across the table, the sodden crumbs barely reaching the littered floor before the dogs could snap them up. One by one the old man extracted six scrolls from the heavy sack and placed them side by side on the tabletop. Though yellowed and creased, the scrolls seemed intact. It was evident to those seated nearest the fire that the seal on each scroll remained unbroken. “The seventh,” he said firmly but without elaboration as again he reached into the rucksack, “is my own.”
“You mean to say…” exclaimed the Trappist. The old man shrugged.
“Why haven’t you?” demanded the Antipodean.
“Not curious,” the Westerner speculated.
“Incurably. Insatiably.” But now it was the others who spoke and not the old man. “Which should we read first?” “Which is most likely true?” Only the dogs paid heed to the two burly scullions who bore the steaming cauldron in from the kitchen, so distracted were the theologians by the seven scrolls…
(What should happen next, do you think?)