The Stone Ticket

stoneOnce there was a king who issued a challenge to the people throughout the land. He promised to give his kingdom to the first contender who could successfully complete the test. The King’s Challenge was to cross the Desert of Sorrow and enter the garden on the other side.

The desert was suffused with a magic that would manifest obstacles specifically designed to pit each adventurer against his or her greatest fears and weaknesses. The defeated who made their way home brought with them wild stories. Some adventurers got lost in the desert and were never heard from again. Some came home after wandering the desert for years. There were even a few stories of people who had made it through the desert but had failed to enter the garden.

In a small village at the edge of the desert, a little boy grew up hearing about the King’s Challenge, and listening to the many stories of the men and women who had tried to cross the desert and failed. He heard other tales, but the King’s Challenge stories held a special place in his heart. He was curious to know more and always asked everyone he met if they had tales for him. Even if they told him a tale he had heard before, he listened with rapt attention for some slight variation or new detail that he had missed from other versions.

One morning, his mother sent him to the market to buy some herbs for her stew pot. She gave him a few crescents and told him to be careful. When the boy entered the market, he saw that there was a new vendor. It was an old man with a wispy white beard, a red turban, and kind eyes. He was selling rope baskets. The boy approached the man and greeted him. He started the conversation the way he always did.

“Do you know any tales of the King’s Challenge?”

“Better than that” replied the old man. “I know how to win it.”

The boy’s face lit up. “You do?! Well,” he pondered, “then why don’t you go on the challenge yourself?”

“When I was a young boy, I dreamed of nothing but crossing the desert and completing the King’s Challenge. But I am an old man now. The Desert of Sorrow no longer holds any enchantment over me. Would you like to know my secret?”

“Yes, oh yes!” cried the boy. “I’ve been waiting my whole life for this.”

“Well from my point of view, that is not very long at all, but I can see that for you it has been a long wait. I will share my secret with you.”

The old man reached into one of the rope baskets and drew out a small polished stone. He handed it to the boy who took it and held it up to his eyes. It was cool and smooth and the color of dark rich moss with small flecks of rusty red.

“What does the stone do?” asked the boy.

“It is a ticket that will allow you passage through the desert,” said the old man.

“How does it work?” asked the boy.

“When you cross the desert, you will be distracted by all sorts of joys and sorrows.”

“Joys?” said the boy. “It’s called the Desert of Sorrow. I’ve never heard of the joy.”

“Both joy and sorrow distract the adventurer from completing the crossing. When people turn away from the desert and return home, it is due to sorrow. When people remain in the desert, it is due to joy.

“Keep the stone in your hand at all times. When you are confronted with some terror or difficult situation, feel the rock in your hand. Keep your mind on the rock. That will ground you and you will remember your goal of completing the challenge. But don’t forget the stone when you experience joy. It is vital that in times of joy that you also feel into your hand and connect to the rock. It is all too easy to melt into the joy and forget the goal.”

“Is it possible to cross the desert without a stone ticket?” asked the boy.

“It is,” answered the man, “but it is much harder, and why make a difficult task even more difficult?”

“What else do I need to know?”

“Nothing. You have all the knowledge you need,” answered the basket seller.

“What do I bring with me?” asked the boy.

“Just the stone,” answered the old man. “Bringing anything else will weigh you down and lower your chances of success. Start in the morning when you are fresh. Tell no one that you are going or they will try to talk you out of it.”

The boy paused for a moment to reflect on the old man’s words.

“Thank you. You don’t know how much this means to me,” said the boy.

“Oh, I think I do,” said the basket maker. “Good luck. May you inherit the kingdom.”

The boy walked away from the market stall, staring at the stone in his hand. He returned home where his mother asked him, “Did you bring me my herbs, son?”

“Oh, the herbs. I’m sorry Mama. There was a new vendor in the market and he gave me….” He suddenly remembered that he shouldn’t tell too much of the story or his mother would try to talk him out of going on the challenge, so he finished, “…a new story about the king’s challenge.”

“Your head is so filled with your passion that there’s no room for anything else.” She chided him, but was not really mad. She simply sent him back to the market to buy the herbs.

When the boy returned to the market, the basket vendor was gone. There was no stall, no old man in the red turban with a wispy beard, no baskets. In the place where the stall had been, there was an old woman crouched over a dirty blanket selling rags.

“Excuse me ma’am. Where is the basket vendor who was in this spot this morning?”

“What are you talking about, boy? I’ve been here all day. Shoo! You’re scaring away all my customers.”

The boy looked around, but there were no buyers anywhere near her dusty pile of rags. He wandered towards the herb seller in a daze. Had the old man been a dream? He reached into his pocket and found the stone ticket. He relaxed with relief. It was still there. He resolved to leave the next morning with nothing but the rock in his hand.

desert

 

The next morning before the sun had risen, the boy awoke and lay still in his bed with the stone held tightly in his hand. He enjoyed the feeling of being in his soft, warm, comfortable bed and wondered how long it would be before he felt such comfort again.

 He rose when the sun crossed the horizon, ate a light breakfast, and slipped out of the house before anyone else was up.

The boy stood at the edge of the Desert of Sorrow. His bare feet nestled in the dewy grass that bordered the desert. A step away, the pale dry sand spread out for eternity before him. He took a breath, put all his attention on the stone, and stepped into the desert.

He walked all morning and afternoon. He never looked back. The old basket maker hadn’t told him not to, but it seemed as if looking back could cause him to lose courage. He walked into the early evening. It was strange that he had had very few thoughts the whole time. He had not been thirsty or hungry either. Now that the sun threatened to set, he was assaulted with thoughts. What would he do for supper? Where would he get water to drink? Where should he sleep? Why didn’t he bring anything with him except the stone ticket?

The stone, he thought. Concentrate on the stone. And his thoughts died down as he rubbed the cool smooth stone between his fingers.

Just as the sun touched the horizon, he saw a small group of trees in the distance. It did not take him long to reach the grove. The boy pushed past thick ferns to get to the center of the trees. There was a cool trickling spring bubbling up into a clear pool. Berries and fruits grew thick on the surrounding shrubs. He bent down and drank from the spring; so cool and refreshing! While walking, he didn’t remember being thirsty, but now he was parched. He ate some of the fruits and although he had not been hungry all day, he now felt ravenous. After his meal and drink, he found a tree to lie down under and was about to fall asleep for the night when he heard a voice.

“Beautiful place, this. No?”

“Who’s there?” said the boy.

“My name is not important. I, like you, am an adventurer that took up the King’s Challenge.”

“How long have you been trying to cross the desert?”

“I stopped trying to cross years ago.”

“You’ve been here for years?” cried the boy incredulously.

“Why didn’t you finish the crossing?”

“I walked through the desert for days. I found nothing but sand until I came upon this oasis. I ate, drank, and slept for a few days to regain my strength, then headed out to complete my task. I wandered for days without a sign of anything, then curiously found myself back here. I made many journeys away from here only to somehow circle back to this very location every time.

“After a while, I resigned myself to this fate and decided to live out my life here alone in this oasis. But now you are here and I won’t have to be alone! My prayers have been answered.”

“You prayed for company? Why not pray for a way out?”

The boy felt a surge of panic in his heart. Without waiting for the man to answer, he said, “I must go,” and ran out of the oasis as fast as he could. He reached into his pocket to feel the stone. That was a close one, he thought. I’d better keep walking through the night. The more distance I put between me and the oasis, the better. When he worried that he would have the same fate as the man at the oasis, he concentrated on the stone and gave it a good rubbing. His mind relaxed and he felt centered.

The boy walked through the night. The sun rose directly in front of him and he followed it all morning.

 

cottage

The temperature got hotter and hotter as the day progressed. Waves of heat radiated off the sand. The boy’s vision got blurry. His mind got blurry. Strange thoughts and ideas slithered through his mind like snakes in a basket. He gripped the stone tightly, but his head was still swimming. The strange thoughts kept coming.

“I’ve got to get out of this heat,” he thought.

As soon as he thought this, a cottage appeared before him. Without hesitating, he relaxed his grip on the stone, withdrew his hand from his pocket, and opened the door to the cottage.

The room inside was cool and dark; a welcomed relief from the blinding white light and searing heat of the desert. On the right side of the room was a table with a banquet set for a king, but what drew the boy’s eye was a bed in the far corner. It was heaped with pillows and fluffy comforters. He remembered his last morning at home; how he had lain in his comfortable safe bed, perhaps for the last time. He longed for that feeling.

He thought of the stone in his pocket, but turned away from the thought and crawled into the bed. He fell asleep almost immediately; so safe and soft and dark and comfortable.

He sank down into the relaxing luxurious feeling, until the dreams came. They were the same as the strange thoughts he had before finding the cottage; all mixed up and twisted.

He dreamed his mother sent him to the market for herbs, and he met the rope basket vendor, but it wasn’t the same old man. This one seemed malevolent. This time, when the old man reached into the basket, he pulled out a scorpion instead of the stone ticket. The boy jumped back from fear and revulsion, and the vendor laughed cruelly at him. He ran away into the market which turned into a jungle where an enormous tiger was hunting him. The tiger didn’t just want him for food, but hated him; was stalking him and would never stop because he hated the boy so completely.

The boy ran for days, avoiding the tiger. He hid in trees, caves, under bushes, always in terror. The tiger always found him and the boy always escaped through some stroke of luck.

One day, he came across a deep pit in a small clearing. He looked down. It seemed black and bottomless. He heard the tiger’s low angry growl in the bushes nearby. He couldn’t take it any more. This was his chance to escape. He jumped. He fell and fell. As he was thinking of all the horrible things that would happen to him when or if he landed, the dream changed again and he found himself running along the beach.

Something was strange.

He bent his head down to see his feet. Hooves! He was a horse running full gallop along a beautiful sandy beach. He couldn’t remember the past dreams, but still felt a sense of relief from the terror. Then he looked behind him. A fire-breathing dragon screeched overhead. It would incinerate him if he didn’t keep running.

horse

He had a passing thought of the stone ticket, but realized that since he was a horse, he no longer had pockets to hold the stone. The stone was lost to him.

Everything flooded back to him as he ran. He remembered the King’s Challenge and the oasis and the cottage and felt shame at his forgetfulness. The dragon was now breathing fire down his neck. He was exhausted. He couldn’t go on. The dragon was going to get him.

He glanced over to the crashing waves on his left. A voice whispered in his head, “Fire hates water!” He dove into the waves and awoke abruptly in the cottage bed. 

He instinctively reached for his pocket. The stone was still there. He held it. He felt a warm glow in his heart for the stone, a deep appreciation and gratefulness. The stone was more than a ticket. It was a friend that would lead him out of the desert.

The boy looked around the cottage and got his bearings. He arose from the bed, crossed the room and seated himself at the table. He took his time and enjoyed all of the wonderful dishes in front of him. He reviewed his journey so far and thought about why he had gotten lost. The answer was simple. He had forgotten the stone, and in so doing, forgotten the King’s Challenge. He had not followed the old basket maker’s simple instructions.

The boy put the stone back into his pocket and walked out of the cottage. He heard the click of the latch as he closed the door and turned to look, but the cottage had vanished.

“I will stay with the stone. I will not get distracted anymore. I am through with the desert.”

 

fortress

He walked for days, always heading east. He saw nothing. Not a rock or plant or other living thing. He walked for months, never stopping to rest or sleep. He felt stronger and more at peace with each passing day. He never lost sight of the King’s Challenge or the stone, but he was also not in a hurry to accomplish it anymore. He knew he would find a way out of the desert when it was time. He need only walk the journey and keep hold of the stone ticket.

Then one day he found himself at the entrance of a fortress. It was a large stone structure of a very deep dark grey. The boy was confused at first. It had been so long since he had seen anything but sand, had thought of anything but the stone, that it took a little time for him to understand what he had found. He thought about just walking around it and continuing on his journey, but his intuition said not to avoid this challenge.

Maybe he needed to face this third challenge and this time not lose sight of his goal. So he knocked loudly on the door and waited for an answer. No answer came. He knocked again. From deep within the walls, he heard the sound of metal on stone getting louder and louder until it stopped on the other side of the door.

The door slowly creaked open. It was the blackest of black inside. The boy could see nothing of the one who had opened the door.

“Enter,” came a voice from inside.

The boy entered the darkness. He could tell by the echo from his footsteps that he was in a very large space. He called to the one who had opened the door.

“Who is there?”

But there was no reply. The door slammed behind him.

“Who is there?” The boy called again, this time with more panic in his voice.

“Welcome to the Fortress, my lord. I am your humble servant, Umbra.”

“You are mistaken. I am not your lord.”

“Oh no, my lord. You are my lord. My lord is a tall man with dark hair, tan skin, and piercing eyes.”

“Then that proves it. I can’t be your lord. I am a boy,” said the boy.

Umbra lit a match and held it up between them. The boy looked into his eyes. They seemed familiar, but he could not remember where he had seen them before.

Umbra lit a candle and said, “Come this way, my lord. I have something to show you.”

They crossed a vast entrance hall to a table with an ornately carved mirror hanging on the wall above it.

“Look into the mirror, my lord,” said Umbra.

The boy looked into the mirror and could not believe what he saw. A tall, lean man with dark hair, tanned skin, and piercing eyes returned his gaze.

“What trick is this Umbra.” But as he said this, he noticed that his voice was deep and rich. He thought back and recalled that it had been that way since he had first shouted, “Who is there?” His voice had sounded odd to him, but he figured it was the strange echo or because he hadn’t spoken for so long.

“You,” stated Umbra in a very self-satisfied voice, “are my lord.”

“What has happened to me?” replied the man.

“You have wandered the desert for many years and have grown into a man,” said Umbra. “I have been waiting for you all this time. I have prepared this fortress, and now you have come.”

“No!” said the man. “This is not the end of my journey.” He reached his hand into his pocket and touched the stone.

“The stone will not help you now. Your journey is at an end. You will stay here in the darkness and be king of this fortress. That is the prize for the winner of the King’s Challenge.”

Umbra spoke nonsense, thought the man, and what he said was not very convincing. The King’s Challenge was meant to end in a garden, not a fortress.

“You are wrong. It was to end in a guard’s den, not a garden” said Umbra. “The King’s Challenge has been around so long and retold by so many people that it got mixed up.”

That doesn’t make sense, thought the man. He clutched the stone in his pocket. The man hadn’t noticed that Umbra had responded to a question that was only spoken inside his head.

Umbra continued, 

“The stone won’t help you now. Your journey is complete. Why don’t you give me the stone. I will keep it safe for you.”

No! thought the man. I will keep my stone ticket. The journey is not yet over.

The man took a seat on the floor in the middle of the dark empty room and closed his eyes. He concentrated on the stone.

Umbra’s voice echoed around the room taunting him.

“You were a little, unimportant boy living in a poor village at the edge of the desert. You dreamed of having wealth, power, importance; all the things you didn’t have, all the things you weren’t. You thought if you could win the challenge, you could become all those things you wished you were!”

“That’s not true! I was poor and I was small, but that’s not what drew me to the stories. I did want to be bigger, but not the way you say it.”

“You think yourself a hero! You are no hero. You don’t have what it takes. You don’t deserve the kingdom.”

“How can I know if I do not try? And if I succeed, I will know the kingdom is rightfully mine.”

Umbra’s voice became louder and more erratic every time he spoke. They bantered for hours. At some point, the man realized it was useless to fight with Umbra. He was losing energy, and he needed all his energy to concentrate on the stone. He stopped responding to Umbra, so Umbra started talking to himself.

“I worked so hard to create this fortress, and for what? He doesn’t even appreciate it. He grows old sitting there. His beard grows long and white. His back stoops. What a waste! Why won’t he let me serve him.”

The man, now old and bent, became quite still. His mind was clear and utterly quiet. Umbra’s voice faded. The old man forgot the dark walls of the fortress. He saw the stone in his mind. He watched it. His heart opened to it. The stone moved, ever so slightly. It began to crack open. Roots shot out of the bottom, and a stem and leaves shot forth from the top. A bud formed and bloomed. The flower turned into a sun that lit up the room and dispelled the darkness.

sun

The old man arose and stood face to face with Umbra. Now he remembered where he had seen him before. Umbra had been in his nightmares at the cottage; he had been the twisted version of the rope seller. Umbra looked into the old man’s eyes with shock, and disappeared.

The walls of the fortress disintegrated, leaving the old man standing alone in the bright sun of the desert. He stood in silence as understanding soaked into his being. The old man took the stone out of his pocket, examined it, smiled, put it back in his pocket, and walked on towards the east with the setting sun to his back. At dawn, he arrived at the garden wall.

 

garden

At dawn, he arrived at the garden wall.

There were men and women squatting and sitting on the ground in front of the garden gate. They held all manner of precious stones in their hands and were gazing at them with wonder. The old man looked at his stone and realized that they all cradled stone tickets in their hand.

“These are the people who made it thru the desert but didn’t enter the garden,” he thought.

He stepped up to the gate. A sign said “Enter with nothing or not at all.”

He looked at his stone again.

He approached a man in white garments staring at a large pearl in his outstretched hands.

“Sir, why do you not leave the pearl and enter the garden?”

“My pearl? My precious pearl? How could I leave what has become such an integral part of me? How am I to return to my home across the desert without it? It is a puzzle. I shall figure out how to let it go and save it for the return journey. I am sure this is the last part of the challenge.”

He asked a young woman who stood near the gate.

“Why have you not entered the garden?”

“I am not sure why I can’t get in. I left my stone by an altar in the garden wall. I tried many times to enter the gate but when I step a few feet in, some invisible force throws me out.”

A thin young man sat leaning against the garden wall, rocking back and forth, moaning.

“What is troubling you?” said the old man.

The young man looked up at him with the saddest of expression.

“I have thrown my stone into the desert so that I would not be tempted to get it again. Now my heart is broken and I can think of nothing but my loss. I would give anything to get my precious stone back.”

The old man sat down to think. How would he return home if he didn’t have the stone? In the desert, when he felt that he was on the right track, he hadn’t worried about the future. Maybe thinking about the return trip was a trick of the mind. No, he did not need to keep the stone for the return.

Why couldn’t the girl get in? Perhaps it was because she hadn’t really given up her stone. Putting it down is not the same as letting it go.

The young man had tried to get rid of his stone, but did so in an unwise manner. He had gotten rid of the physical stone but not the stone in his mind.

What should he do with his stone?

“Stone you have been my friend and guide through this whole challenge. Please grant me this one last bit of help. How do I let go of you in a wise fashion?”

He held the stone in his hand and shut his eyes. He felt a rush of wind swirl around him. He was transported to the marketplace in his old village. A stall appeared before him. Rope baskets assembled in neat stacks around him, and a red turban wrapped itself around his head. As he settled into his surroundings, he saw a little boy turn the corner and head his way with a big smile on his face. The boy greeted him and asked him if he knew any good stories of the King’s Challenge.

“Better than that” replied the old man. “I know how to win it.”

The boy’s face lit up. “You do?! Well,” he pondered, “then why don’t you go on the challenge yourself?”

“When I was a young boy, I dreamed of nothing but crossing the desert and completing the King’s Challenge. But I am an old man now. The Desert of Sorrow no longer holds any enchantment over me. Would you like to know my secret?”

“Yes, oh yes!” cried the boy. “I’ve been waiting my whole life for this.”

“Well from my point of view, that is not very long at all, but I can see that for you it has been a long wait. I will share my secret with you.”

The old man reached into one of the rope baskets and drew out a small polished stone. He handed it to the boy who took it and held it up to his eyes. It was cool and smooth and the color of dark rich moss with small flecks of rusty red.

“What does the stone do?” asked the boy.

“It is a ticket that will allow you passage through the desert,” said the old man.

“How does it work?” asked the boy.

“When you cross the desert, you will be distracted by all sorts of joys and sorrows.”

“Joys?” said the boy. “It’s called the Desert of Sorrow. I’ve never heard of the joy.”

“Both joy and sorrow distract the adventurer from completing the crossing. When people turn away from the desert and return home, it is often due to sorrow. When people remain in the desert, it is often due to joy.

“Keep the stone in your hand at all times. When you are confronted with some terror or difficult situation, feel the rock in your hand. Keep your mind on the rock. That will ground you and you will remember your goal of completing the challenge. But don’t forget the stone when you experience joy. It is vital that in times of joy that you also feel into your hand and connect to the rock. It is all too easy to melt into the joy and forget the goal.”

“Is it possible to cross the desert without a stone ticket?” asked the boy.

“It is,” answered the man, “but it is much harder, and why make a difficult task even more difficult?”

“What else do I need to know?”

“Nothing. You have all the knowledge you need,” answered the old man.

“What do I bring with me?” asked the boy.

“Just the stone,” answered the old man. “Bringing anything else will weigh you down and lower your chances of success. Start in the morning when you are fresh. Tell no one that you are going or they will try to talk you out of it.”

The boy paused for a moment to reflect on the old man’s words.

“Thank you. You don’t know how much this means to me,” said the boy.

“Oh, I think I do,” said the basket maker. “Good luck. May you inherit the kingdom.”

When the boy left with the stone, a rush of wind whisked the old man back to the garden. He felt young and light and so happy. Life was fresh again and filled with richness and mystery. He passed by the others who were still staring at their precious stone tickets. He went to the entrance of the garden, swung the gate open, and walked right in.

The first thing he noticed was a clear pool in front of him. He took off his dusty desert clothes and bathed in the refreshing waters. He stepped out of the pool and was greeted by a royal figure who glanced down at him kindly.

“I have been waiting a long time for you, boy,” said the king.

“Boy? But sire, I am an old man; older than you.”

“Look at your reflection in the pool, son.”

The old man bent over the edge of the pool. The face that looked back at him was a boy’s face.

“I am the same as when I started!” cried the boy.

“Hardly!” laughed the king. “You have completed the challenge so you shall live with me in the palace and I will teach you how to rule the kingdom with wisdom and kindness.”

The boy took the king’s hand and they walked through the beautiful gardens and into the palace.

The End

 

To Table of Contents