Since this whole journey began with a story, I thought it’d be fitting to end with one. I thought up this fable on the road and wrote it the afternoon I got back. Thanks to everyone for your kindness, generosity, and wisdom. I never felt alone out there.
Handful of Rock, Handful of Sea
By Matthew Ross Smith
There once was a boy who lived by the sea. He was a happy boy—and why wouldn’t he be? He had nothing to do but play and explore. When he was hungry he ate the coconuts in the trees; when he was thirsty he drank the rain; when he was restless he walked up the shore, turning over shells that were ancient and colorful and so big he could nap inside them. He had everything he could ever want.
Or so he thought.
One day he got talking with a seagull. “Tell me something wise,” the seagull said.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean: tell me something you know. I don’t like to talk to stupid people. I just want to make sure you’re not stupid before I keep talking to you.”
That’s fair, the boy thought. He remembered something his teacher had taught him.
“If you walk up the beach at just the right angle…just inside the water line…the weight of your foot presses the moisture from the sand… and it seems as if the earth is lighting up beneath your feet!”
“That’s not wise,” said the seagull.
“Why would I walk when I could just fly?”
The boy spent the rest of the day searching for wisdom. He searched between the waves, and in the sky. He searched in the trees, and behind the dunes. He searched the spaces between his fingers and his toes. He dug in the sand, thinking someone might’ve buried it, but found nothing there but more sand.
“Where can I find wisdom?” he asked his teacher.
“What would you do with it, anyway?”
The boy had never thought about what he would do with wisdom; he just knew he wanted it.
The teacher was very old—some guessed a thousand years. But the boy knew he was older than that. “If you really want wisdom, I can tell you exactly where to find it. But it’ll cost you.”
The boy lowered his head. He didn’t have any money.
The teacher groaned. “My back is killing me. I’ve been walking for years. Bring me something nice to lean against, and that will be your payment.”
The boy rushed back to his house. He brought him a pillow.
He brought him a chair.
He brought him a wall, but his mother came and took it back, she was so fond of her walls, and the boy had nothing left to give.
“You know what I could use?” the teacher said. “A mountain. There’s nothing like setting your back against a mountain. There’s one just down the end of this road, I think—or was it that road? Anyway, you can’t miss it. Bring me a mountain. When you get home, I’ll tell you where the wisdom is hidden.”
The boy was confused as he set off down the road. He’d never been away from the sea, and besides, how would he carry a mountain? His hope was that, like all wise people, when his teacher said one thing he really meant another.
“You look upset,” said a second boy.
“You would be too. This mountain is a thousand feet high, and I’m supposed to carry it home.”
“Where are you from?”
“By the sea.”
“Is it as beautiful as they say?”
“It’s not as beautiful as it is here.”
The first boy kicked the mountain. It cut his foot, but a large chunk broke loose. He tried to carry it, but he only got a few steps before he had to stop and rest his arms. “What’s so funny?” he said.
“Watching you carry it like that!”
The second boy lifted the large rock over his head and broke it in two. “Your legs are stronger than your arms. You have to make two trips. Carry it in one hand, like this, and when that arm gets tired, carry it with the other.”
“How’d you know that?”
The mountain boy shrugged. To him, it just seemed obvious.
When the boy smelled the rotting crabs, he knew he was nearly home. He set the first rock atop a dune and was about to turn back when he heard a familiar voice cursing.
“What’s wrong?” he asked.
“It’s this ocean,” said his friend. “It’s a thousand miles deep. Every time I cup it in my hands it slips through my fingers.”
I don’t see why he’d want to move the ocean, the boy thought. But he remembered his friend’s kindness, and was eager to repay it.
“Carry it like this, so when it drips through one hand, you can catch it with the other. I’m tired, so I’m going to rest the night, but I’m headed back your direction, so I’ll carry a handful as well.”
Back and forth the two boys went, carrying handfuls of rock and handfuls of sea. There was always a day between them, but that was okay. It gave them something to look forward to while they were traveling.
One day, many years later, the first boy looked down and realized that there was only one piece of the mountain left. It was so small he could no longer break it. A gust of wind blew it from his palm, and he fell to his knees, searching.
“Can you tell me the way back to the sea?” he asked a little boy.
“What’re you blind?”
The boy looked up.
And he saw.