The brothers crossed – one in the heavy, sturdy garb of a farmer, the other in rags of a previous decade’s fashion.
The farmer was leaving temple. The vagabond was approaching with two hares in one hand, a scroll in the other.
“This is your sacrifice?” the older brother asked.
“Yes. And a fistful of grain and a pear in my pockets. And yours?”
“Two lambs from my field and a fistful of coins, left just now at the alter.”
“Very good,” the ragged brother said.
“You’ll never do well with sacrifices like that. And don’t tell me of your poems, which I presume you have there,” the farmer said.
The poet and vagabond was ashamed of his poems. He was ashamed of saying his poems were more like prayers to no particular god or gods, but to whatever bounty of wisdom they may possess. He prayed to whatever ethereal, universal order or wisdom that existed beyond his comprehension. It was foolhardy, the poet understood – trading poems instead of coins for the favors of gods. But, as his brother had chastised, such is the romantic and reckless nature of poets.
“Yes. My poems,” the poor brother said. “They are all I have, so they mean very much.”
“They mean very much to you, but not the gods,” the farmer said. “I suppose you know of Narcissus?”
“Yes,” the poet said. “I know his story well. It keeps me awake as I presume floods, droughts and wolves keep you awake too.”
The farmer insisted, “Words are nothing, Dear Brother. Meat and fruit and coins are. Hard labor is.”
“There’s labor in these words,” the poet said, shaking his scroll. “Lots of labor and a lot of faith, which makes them meaningful. And for a sacrifice to be worthwhile, it must have meaning and value to the one sacrificing.”
Sweating in his heavy cloth, the farmer swiped his brow.
“How is your work and family?” the poet brother asked.
“Both constantly growing. As it should be,” the farmer said.
“Good. I am genuinely happy for you.”
“And you? Are you any closer to the wisdom of the gods with your poetry?”
“I don’t know,” the poet said. “And this is the paradox. It’s a matter of faith, I suppose, knowing which to give greater attention to – the gods or the land. That’s why I pray. That’s why I write – in hope that they’ll give me better understanding.”
“These poems of yours – you write to the gods? And the gods alone?”
“Yes,” the poet said. “And myself. Each one I see as a problem of arithmetic working toward the solution of some greater problem.”
“And what is the problem?”
“My lack of wisdom in the ways of the world. But my faith says, through the gods, I may receive better wisdom of them and from them – if only I can help solve the problem of us and them. That would be deliverance.”
“That’s a lofty goal,” the farmer scoffed. “Remember Icarus. And Narcissus.”
The poet often thought of Icarus too. He fretted about his own madness and vanity and the sorrow – as a pitiful poet and man – in the difficulty of ever knowing them.
“My tender-hearted brother, the answers are all around you and so plain to see. Yes, wisdom is in the ways of the world. In the ways of the land, not the skies. Work the land as it was meant to be worked, for crops and herds. Then sacrifice your bounty for what the gods will return.”
“You ask only material favors from the gods?” the poet asked. “Not wisdom or salvation?”
“Of course,” his brother said. “Of course, those things too.”
His brother could tell the poet was profoundly disappointed.
“These poems you write for the gods. You do not understand the hubris in this? Why not, at least, write your poems for men. Write what men want, and they will reward you. And, in turn, you can sacrifice more to the gods as men offer you coins for your words. I will admit, Brother, you have a way with words. You are no fool. I believe this could be done. Your signature and blessings on signed scrolls, you could make a tidy sum.”
“Perhaps,” the poet said.
The farmer thought.
“But be careful. Do not overstep your bounds. The temple has an interest in selling their words too.”
“I have no faith that the gods wish for poems for men,” the poet protested.
“Faith is for fools,” his brother said.
“But you have faith,” the poet said.
“Yes, but the right kind.”
“My faith says the gods do not even wish for poems for themselves. They do not wish to be glorified. They wish for poems of truth about them and what they’ve created. And they especially do not wish for poems glorifying man’s world, which is so distant from them.”
The farmer felt shame for his vainglorious brother.
The poet asked, “You do not feel they want their truths spoken of honestly?”
“And you are the one?”
“I wish I knew. And that is what torments me the most. Not knowing.”
He farmer wanted to call him a fool, but the poet was too tender for that. Too tender and, though silly, kind-hearted.
“You will never understand life,” the farmer said. “So be happy with understanding the land.”
“I will never understand life fully. That much I know and sadly accept. But that I may understand life better tomorrow than today is what keeps me going, even when clothed in rags and merely sacrificing words and grain.”
“We have centuries of prophets and holy men and all their wisdom to do what you’re attempting. Leave them at their task,” the farmer advised.
“What they tell us of the gods has run down the centuries of men and institutions. It cannot be pure. Even you now that,” the poet said.
“And you are the one to purity it?”
“As a whole, no. But to purify one verse may be enough to have made life worth living.”
“I love you, My Brother. But sadly, you are wasting your life. There is family and the land, in addition to the gods.”
“Perhaps the gods come before family and land. And perhaps what the gods desire is more than mere sacrifice of things. Perhaps they wish for an honest quest for understanding that means more to them than coins or game.”
“Perhaps,” the farmer said. “But did you not hear me say, ‘I love you’? Do you know that we love you, regardless of your choices?”
“Yes, my apologies,” the poet sad. “I heard. And I love you for loving me.”
“That is all? You love us for loving you? What of the rest. We are far more than just our love of you.”
The poet took a deep breath.
“To the rest I must be indifferent.”
The farmer dug at the dirt with his boot.
“Indifferent? How can you be indifferent to those who love you? And those you profess to love?”
“What I love of the gods is their wisdom. I have faith in truth. But no faith the gods are anything but indifferent to us. And, if they are indifferent to us, how are we be more than indifferent to them? Their wisdom, no. But them, yes…indifferent. And if I am indifferent to the gods themselves, how can I be more than that to any man?”
“Heaven help you,” his brother said. “You have no heart.”
“I have a heart. A heart that gives me love for you. But I have a mind that tells me I must be indifferent as well. The gods endow us with both. Would you have me deny either?”
“I don’t know what to say,” the farmer said. “In truth, I am hurt.”
“I’m sorry,” the poet said. “You will not believe, but what the gods have done to us pains me too.”
“You believe it’s the gods and not you?”
“I imagine both,” the poet said.
They stood in silence until the farmer said, “I suppose I must be off. But still, come visit us sometime.”
“Or come visit me,” the poet said. “The roads to our homes travel both ways.”
“Always the poet,” his brother said.
The brothers parted, the older back to farm that needed tending, while his sibling walked toward the temple.
A few steps away, the elder turned and called out, “You should have been a scholar. Or joined the clergy, Little Brother. It’s never too late.”
On hearing this, the poet dropped his hares and scroll to scamper off to the woods where he could hide his tears.
In the shadows of the forest, he knelt at the foot of a giant oak. “If only I knew. Poems or game and coins? Poems or the academy or the monastery?”
But he had faith the gods would give him no easy answers. So he quit his weeping to return to his hovel to write another poem about his torment and terror at not knowing enough about himself or his gods. He wrote a poem about his love for a dog once – a simple poem about a dog that quietly contained all his terrors of himself and the gods. He wrote the poem meant for himself and the gods, not other men.
In his flight, the poet had dropped his offerings. He dropped the hares and the scroll, which were left in the street. A housewife found the scroll, opened it and read. It seemed to be the babbling of a lunatic or drunkard. She took it home to her husband. He read it.
“Seems like the scrawling of a child,” he said. “Terrible. Just terrible. Is this poetry? It seems as if the author has never been to school.”
But it spoke of the gods and of wisdom, so this husband took it to the The Man of Gods, draped in a glamorous, crimson robe of smelling of juniper.
He read it and laughed.
“Thank our gods for you and your eloquence,” the husband said. “Where would we be if left with nothing but this indulgent nonsense?”
“Indeed,” the idol said. “Obviously, the author is not a true follower of our gods. That is why his words and soul are so tormented.”
“Thank you,” the husband said. “That is what I imagined, but needed to hear it from you.”
“And so, you have heard,” the holy man spoke. “And now you may leave in peace.”