I had heard the story once or twice before. I believe the first time was on a park bench beside the Red Robin Diner in Johnson City, New York.
The second time surprised me because of my location. I was sitting next to an elderly gentleman on a Greyhound bus ride between Malone and Binghamton; both in New York.
It was surely a tale to be heard and then dismissed.
But now I am now compelled to tell you this story because of something that I recently read in an old yellowing newspaper. To be exact it wasn’t called a newspaper when it was printed; sometime around 1865. It was called a periodical; you know, one of those monthly ink menstruations. To my best recollection it was the Atlantic Monthly – – – but please don’t hold me to that.
I cannot vouch for the veracity of the story. As I have stated, I had heard it twice before and read it once in print. As that old politician Ben Franklin once said; “Believe nothing of what you hear, and only half of what you see.” So with good prudence I allow you to make your own judgment regarding what you are about to read.
It supposedly took place on Ragged Lake in the Adirondack Mountains of New York.
Now what I have written here is not exactly what was written in print, or heard on a bench at the corner of a small decrepit village, or while sitting in an interminable bus ride. The bus trip took me from the northernmost corner of New York State to the far south where New York shares a border with Pennsylvania. As I have stated, the story may not be exact; rather, it is the story that my mind has combined of all three experiences.
Let’s forget about the park bench, the bus ride and the Atlantic monthly so that we may get on with the story.
It seems as though a British soldier who deserted during the War of 1812 (The Battle of Chateaugay to be exact) found himself wandering through those North Woods. He had been able to exchange his uniform with that of a dead US Volunteer; a buckskin clad woodsman.
The Brit was able to survive due to the accuracy of the Pennsylvania Long Rifle that he had also removed from the dead body. However, that did not last longer than a month or two.
Now here is where the three sources differed. One told me that the Brit lost the flint on the rifle. Another stated that he ran out of ammunition or powder. The printed version said that he encountered a group of Indians who absconded with the rifle.
With his rifle gone, the only means for obtaining sustenance was an occasional apple from an abandoned farm or a purloined chicken now and then. The chicken brings into question the assumption of the lost flint. Otherwise, how would the Brit be able to start a fire to roast the chicken?
But, once again, I wander.
The Brit, due to hunger and exhaustion, eventually wasted away into a mere shadow of his former self. One stormy day he took refuge in a small cave. It was hardly more than a cleft in the face of a precipice. Tired, weary and out of strength, he slept there for a day or so.
Upon awakening he lay there pondering his fate. He noticed that at the back of the cave, or niche, the stones appeared to be unnatural. Upon inspection he found that they had been laid up by human hands. His curiosity won out over his hunger. He dismantled the stone wall and found that the cave continued far into the mountain.
The floor of the cave was smooth, apparently worn so by an underground river over the eons of time. The Brit had to crawl on his hands and knees for a short period. Then to his surprise the natural tunnel opened up into a dimly lit cavern. He was able to stand up.
His eyes had become accustomed to the dim light. He cautiously walked forward about fifty paces. There, on a rectangular rock, lay a handful of black walnuts. He picked them up and sniffed at them in order to determine if they were fresh. He finally determined how old they were, not by smell but by seeing that the outside husk had shrunk from age. The Brit took a sharp rock and scraped away the husk of the nicest looking nut. The nut looked fine so he cracked it open. It smelled fresh so he picked at it and found it to be delicious.
The Brit promptly finished off all the black walnuts. He saw no other food in his vicinity and wondered if a squirrel or other small animal had deposited them for later. The Brit sat there contemplating his next move.
“Maybe there are more nuts to be found deeper in the cave.”
He proceeded on until he saw another large flat rock. This one had dried fruits laying on it. The Brit became suspicious and halted his progress immediately. He stood there frozen, almost afraid to look around for fear of what (or who) he might find. Like a timid deer in the forest he stood still for an interminably long time. Finally he roused enough courage to walk over to where the fruit lay and cautiously took a bite from one piece.
It was delicious. He finished off all the dried fruits.
Pondering his condition, his flight from the armies of the United States and the British Empire, his hunger, his lack of weapons, and his unholy predicament; he decided to go deeper into the cave.
Up ahead he could see something on the wall. It appeared to be carved into the stone; words or symbols of some sort. He soon came close enough to make out the characters. They were unreadable to him, unfamiliar symbols. He stood there studying this collection of nonsensical scratching.
A thought appeared in his mind; a thought that seemed to reflect the meaning of the symbols.
“But how could this be? I do not understand the characters but I understand the meaning!”
Convinced that he was hallucinating, he sat down for a minute to rest. Finally he had enough sense to look at his hands. “YES, there is the yellow stain from the black walnut husks” he thought to himself. “And I can still taste the flavor of the dried fruits. I am not hallucinating.”
Finally he raised enough courage to look up at the wall of undiscernible symbols. There it was; one language on the wall and the meaning of that language within his own mind.
“You must be ready to burn yourself in your own flame;
how could you rise anew if you have not first become ashes?”
The Brit shook from fear as he understood the words. Falling down in deep despair he sobbed like he had never sobbed before. He asked himself ; “What does it mean?”
After some time he was able to control his fear. He decided to determine what he was being told. You must be ready to burn yourself in your own flame. “How or why would I do that?” he asked himself. “No, wait, there is more” How could you ‘rise anew if you have not first become ashes?’
“What does it mean? What does it mean?”
Finally – – – it came to him. “I must repent, but for what? I have done nothing wrong.”
He had not viewed his desertion from the army or stealing from a dead man as anything wrong. But now, with this thought on the wall, he clearly saw his own misgivings.
“I know I should repent, but how, there is no one or nothing to repent to.”
He thought about the phrase “You must be ready to burn yourself in your own flame.”
“What exactly does that mean? Do I kill myself? Do I flog myself? What does it mean?”
Finally he saw a meaning that made sense to him. He must admit his wrongdoing to himself. But he had already done that and it seemed not to renew him. There must be something deeper that he should find. It was not the act of desertion, nor the act of stealing a dead man’s cloths and weapon.
“What must I do to turn myself to ashes?”
He sat there pondering the question. Then the hunger overtook the question and he continued moving forward through the cave.
The Brit found more nuts and dried fruit to eat. Yet he had found no sign of squirrels, bears or any other sign of life. Soon he found another set of strange symbols on the wall.
Still unable to read the symbols he stared at them and they became clear.
“Silence is worse; all truths that are kept silent become poisonous.”
“That’s it!” the Brit shouted to no one. His voice echoed off the walls of the cave.
“That’s it!” “That’s it!” “That’s it!” “That’s it!” “ it!” “it!” “it!” “it!” “it!”
My mind has been silent. I have not admitted my error. I have kept a truth from being accepted by myself. He shouted once again to no one; “I AM A COWARD!”
“I AM A COWARD!” “I AM A COWARD!” “A COWARD!” “coward!” “coward!”
He felt much better about himself now that he was no longer silent to himself. Yet he did not feel that he had risen from the ashes.
The Brit’s trek through the cave continued on for several days. Each day he found sustenance and could not determine its source.
And several times each day he found more of life’s secrets symbolized on the walls of the cavern.
“What is great in man is that he is a bridge and not a goal.”
“I love him who reserves no share of spirit for himself, but wants to be wholly the spirit of his virtue: thus walks he as spirit over the bridge.”
“He who climbs upon the highest mountains laughs at all tragedies, real or imaginary.”
“I have learned to walk: since then I have run. I have learned to fly: since then I do not have to be pushed in order to move.”
“Now I am nimble, now I fly, now I see myself under myself, now a god dances within me.”
With each day’s passing the Brit felt more alive, more attune with himself.
Although he did not realize it the next symbol on the wall was the last.
“The lonely one offers his hand too quickly to whomever he encounters.”
“What does that mean. Am I ‘The lonely one?’ Surely I am in this cavern by myself.”
“And why wouldn’t I offer my hand quickly to whomever I encountered? Wouldn’t anyone do so?”
Not realizing that he was coming to the end of his journey the Brit continued walking, looking for food, searching for more symbolic logic.
Then, he saw what appeared to be daylight. Surely it was far off, but it was daylight. He quickened his pace. Upon reaching the end of the cavern he stopped to let his eyes adjust to the sunlight that he had not seen for weeks.
There was nothing of note to be seen; a few rocks, a several small trees, a far-off stream, low hills and no sign of life. Surely this was not the Adirondack Mountains.
He caught a motion.
“What was that?”
“Are my eyes playing tricks on me?”
The Brit stood there motionless so as not to give away his position to whomever or whatever may be watching him.
“There it is again!”
He had detected motion. An eye peered around a tree. Then another from behind a large rock. Then another, and another and another.
Eventually he could determine that these were the eyes, head, hair and noses of humans. He felt great relief. Eventually more and more humans peered out from behind various hides. None of them moved forward. They and he watched each other cautiously. Neither dared make a move.
Finally the Brit took one step forward.
The humans came out from their hiding places but did not advance.
He raised both hands in the air to show that he carried no weapons.
The humans cheered and jumped for joy. More humans appeared. One had a beautiful Arabian horse on a rope. They slowly advanced toward him.
The Brit smiled broadly and took a few more steps out of the cave.
The throngs of humans held out their arms toward him. The man with the horse walked briskly, but not menacingly, towards the Brit.
They were all dressed in very coarse woven cloth. Some had their heads decoratively wrapped in linen. Most clothes were light brown but a few were dyed scarlet.
One person took off his red cloak and covered the horse’s back with it.
The throngs of people cheered as the Brit was lifted up by four strong men. They proudly carried him on their shoulders and placed him on the horse’s back.
The people crowded around him and several touched him with great deference. Others desired to touch the hand of those who had touched the Brit.
There was much joy and happiness in the crowd.
As the horse was led forward the Brit could see carpenters working up on a small hill.
As he drew closer it became obvious that they were constructing a crucifix; just for Him.
Quotes on the cave wall were from the personal collection of Zarathustra; F. W. N.