Chapter 4 – The Hermit

When Amsiggel got up next morning, he found that the Woodcutter had lit a fire and was heating up water for mint tea. “We’d like to repay you in some way for your kindness to us,” Amsiggel said to him. “I don’t need anything,” replied the Woodcutter, “but take these things with you so you can provide for yourselves along the way.” And he gave him a shoulder bag containing nails for mending shoes, and some small pieces of leather and a needle with various threads. When they had drunk their tea he gave them what remained of the bread and saw them safely on their way.

They kept going until eventually they came upon a ruined house with a man sitting in the doorway. He was dressed in rags. They greeted him politely but he made no reply, just sitting there with his head down. “Please Sir,” said Amsiggel, “where does this track go to?” The Hermit stared at them, lost in thought. Eventually he spoke. “It goes up and it goes down,” he said. “It rises and it falls.” “I think, Sir, that you live beside this track,” said Amsiggel, “so don’t you know where it leads to?” The Hermit said nothing for some moments, then announced, “Nobody knows where it goes to!” Amsiggel was very surprised and asked, “Doesn’t it come to an end somewhere?” The Hermit looked down, absorbed in his meditation. “Well, what can I say?” he replied eventually. “No-one has ever come to here from the end of the track. It probably has no end.” “Well, the sky has no end,” replied Amsiggel, “but the birds fly here and there and get where they want to go. If we follow this track, even if we never get to the end of it, surely at least we’ll get somewhere!”

The Hermit stood up. He seized Amsiggel by the hand saying, “That’s quite right! I can see you are a person of intelligence and discernment. Listen, my boy, and I’ll tell you something. On the apricot tree five hundred leaves go to making one apricot. On the pomegranate tree a thousand leaves go to making one pomegranate. If you want to talk sense you should think a hundred times and observe a hundred times before you open your mouth.” At this, Amsiggel was even more surprised. The Hermit continued, “Let me ask you now: Why has God made us with two eyes and only one mouth? Why has he given us two ears and only one tongue?” “Perhaps,” suggested Amsiggel, “it’s because he wants us to look and listen more than we speak.” The Hermit nodded, “And why has he fixed it so we can close our mouth but cannot close our ears?” “I suppose it’s so we’ll keep quiet and listen,” said Amsiggel. “But why has God made a little channel round the top of our ear?” asked the Hermit. “That I can’t answer,” admitted Amsiggel, “Perhaps you know why!” At this, the Hermit said, “Whenever you hear something you don’t like, you can direct it along the channel for the wind to whisk away before it gets into your head. Weigh up all you hear, my boy, and see whether or not it’s true and makes sense. Remember, the empty walnuts are the ones that speak!” (i.e. They echo when tapped because the kernel has shrivelled up.)

At this Amsiggel went quiet, not daring to say a thing. The Hermit too said nothing. At last Amsiggel spoke up, “We met a Woodcutter,” he said, “who showed us how beautiful and good the world is – birds and flowers and insects all created with great wisdom and scientific knowledge. He told us there’s someone who made all these things. For my part, I think that the beauty of this world lies in its colours. If it were just black and white, we wouldn’t know what real beauty was. But there’s one thing I don’t understand. What are these colours and where do they come from? The snow is white with cold, but an egg turns white with heat. How can cold and heat agree to make whiteness?” The Hermit replied, “The sun turns red in the cool of the evening but iron turns red in the heat of the fire. How can coolness and heat agree to make redness? I don’t know how, my boy!” he admitted. Amsiggel sighed. “There are many things in this world that we don’t know and don’t understand,” he said.

“The road goes up and it goes down,” replied the Hermit, “but we’ll never get to the end of it! Here we are sitting at the roadside: we look and we listen, but we don’t really know it – neither as it is nor as it will be. The Woodcutter showed you how good and beautiful the world is, but I’ll show you something else, because something has happened to it to spoil its beauty and goodness. To me the world looks just like this ruined house.”

“Tell me what you mean, Sir,” said Amsiggel. “Well, if you look carefully,” the Hermit replied, “you’ll see that nothing is ugly or bad in itself. Everything starts out well and gets spoiled by something else. You can go into an orchard of almond trees and marvel at how lovely the blossom is, but then you see the mildew on the growing fruit and it spoils all the beauty. You drink water from the river and it’s sweet and cool, but you find it contains bugs which will make anyone who drinks it ill. You go into a house and find that a lovely strong baby boy has just been born there, but he grows up deaf and dumb. See how a farmer sows barley and the shoots spring up, but as soon as the ears begin to fill they go rotten. And see how a man will love his bride and spend all he has to marry her, but something comes between them and he sends her away. Although a house may be built on a good foundation, its walls and roof, in the course of time, are bound to fall. All of creation shows how God made everything perfect and beautiful, but something has come between the creation and its beauty – something has spoiled all that exists.”

“But what was it that got in and spoiled everything?” demanded Amsiggel. “Oh, the world is full of butterflies and cats!” replied the Hermit. “Is it really butterflies and cats that have spoiled the world?” said Amsiggel. “Not really,” he replied, “but people are like butterflies and cats. The butterfly beats her wings and flutters this way and that. The wind carries her here and there, as she looks for the one flower that is prettier than all others. That’s what people are like. They don’t know where to find what they want. The cat too, he chases his tail round and round in the hope of catching it, but he can never get hold of it. That’s what people do – they’re just chasing their shadow. They dash around until they’re exhausted but still don’t get what they want. If the cat finally succeeds in getting a grip on its tail, what does it do then? After a couple of quick chews it lets go, then stands up and walks away. It’s lost all interest in its tail. People don’t know what they want, and if they do happen to get what they’re after, they decide they don’t like it. Totally confused! Don’t know where to find what they want, nor how to enjoy what they get! Something has come between man and his own common sense – and it’s ruined him!”

“Do you know,” asked Amsiggel, “what it is that’s come between man and his common sense?” The Hermit replied, “Perhaps whatever it was that happened to the world also happened to man, so he’s no longer what he was when God created him. We can see the world is full of diseases and disasters and evil of all sorts. It looks like something happened to this world – as though a terrible blight has descended upon it – because all that lives in this world gets sick and dies. Oh if only we had health and comfort! Yet with each passing year, health weakens and comfort flees! That’s life – because man is sick and he’s living in a sick world.”

Amsiggel and Tazzwit set out once more along the track. The Hermit wished them a good journey. “If you find someone,” he said, “who knows what’s happened to the world, and what’s spoiled it, and how we can get free from this terrible blight that’s fallen upon it all, come back and tell me!”