The boy began again to read his book
The boy began again to read his book, but he was no longer able to concentrate. He was tense and upset, because he knew that the old man was right. He went over to the bakery and bought a loaf of bread, thinking about whether or not he should tell the baker what the old man had said about him. Sometimes it’s better to leave things as they are, he thought to himself, and decided to say nothing. If he were to say anything, the baker would spend three days thinking about giving it all up, even though he had gotten used to the way things were. The boy could certainly resist causing that kind of anxiety for the baker. So he began to wander through the city, and found himself at the gates. There was a small building there, with a window at which people bought tickets to Africa. And he knew that Egypt was in Africa.
“Can I help you?” asked the man behind the window.
“Maybe tomorrow,” said the boy, moving away. If he sold just one of his sheep, he’d have enough to get to the other shore of the strait. The idea frightened him.
“Another dreamer,” said the ticket seller to his assistant, watching the boy walk away. “He doesn’t have enough money to travel.”
While standing at the ticket window, the boy had remembered his flock, and decided he should go back to being a shepherd. In two years he had learned everything about shepherding: he knew how to shear sheep, how to care for pregnant ewes, and how to protect the sheep from wolves. He knew all the fields and pastures of Andalusia. And he knew what was the fair price for every one of his animals.
He decided to return to his friend’s stable by the longest route possible. As he walked past the city’s castle, he interrupted his return, and climbed the stone ramp that led to the top of the wall. From there, he could see Africa in the distance. Someone had once told him that it was from there that the Moors had come, to occupy all of Spain.
He could see almost the entire city from where he sat, including the plaza where he had talked with the old man. Curse the moment I met that old man, he thought. He had come to the town only to find a woman who could interpret his dream. Neither the woman nor the old man were at all impressed by the fact that he was a shepherd. They were solitary individuals who no longer believed in things, and didn’t understand that shepherds become attached to their sheep. He knew everything about each member of his flock: he knew which ones were lame, which one was to give birth two months from now, and which were the laziest. He knew how to shear them, and how to slaughter them. If he ever decided to leave them, they would suffer.
The wind began to pick up. He knew that wind: people called it the levanter, because on it the Moors had come from the Levant at the eastern end of the Mediterranean.
The levanter increased in intensity. Here I am, between my flock and my treasure, the boy thought. He had to choose between something he had become accustomed to and something he wanted to have. There was also the merchant’s daughter, but she wasn’t as important as his flock, because she didn’t depend on him. Maybe she didn’t even remember him. He was sure that it made no difference to her on which day he appeared: for her, every day was the same, and when each day is the same as the next, it’s because people fail to recognize the good things that happen in their lives every day that the sun rises.
I left my father, my mother, and the town castle behind. They have gotten used to my being away, and so have I. The sheep will get used to my not being there, too, the boy thought.
From where he sat, he could observe the plaza. People continued to come and go from the baker’s shop. A young couple sat on the bench where he had talked with the old man, and they kissed.
“That baker . . .” he said to himself, without completing the thought. The levanter was still getting stronger, and he felt its force on his face. That wind had brought the Moors, yes, but it had also brought the smell of the desert and of veiled women. It had brought with it the sweat and the dreams of men who had once left to search for the unknown, and for gold and adventure—and for the Pyramids. The boy felt jealous of the freedom of the wind, and saw that he could have the same freedom. There was nothing to hold him back except himself. The sheep, the merchant’s daughter, and the fields of Andalusia were only steps along the way to his destiny.
The next day, the boy met the old man at noon. He brought six sheep with him.
“I’m surprised,” the boy said. “My friend bought all the other sheep immediately. He said that he had always dreamed of being a shepherd, and that it was a good omen.”
“That’s the way it always is,” said the old man. “It’s called the principle of favorability. When you play cards the first time, you are almost sure to win. Beginner’s luck.”
“Why is that?”
“Because there is a force that wants you to realize your destiny; it whets your appetite with a taste of success.”
Then the old man began to inspect the sheep, and he saw that one was lame. The boy explained that it wasn’t important, since that sheep was the most intelligent of the flock, and produced the most wool.
“Where is the treasure?” he asked.
“It’s in Egypt, near the Pyramids.”
The boy was startled. The old woman had said the same thing. But she hadn’t charged him anything.
“In order to find the treasure, you will have to follow the omens. God has prepared a path for everyone to follow. You just have to read the omens that he left for you.”
Before the boy could reply, a butterfly appeared and fluttered between him and the old man. He remembered something his grandfather had once told him: that butterflies were a good omen. Like crickets, and like expectations; like lizards and four-leaf clovers.
“That’s right,” said the old man, able to read the boy’s thoughts. “Just as your grandfather taught you. These are good omens.”
The old man opened his cape, and the boy was struck by what he saw. The old man wore a breastplate of heavy gold, covered with precious stones. The boy recalled the brilliance he had noticed on the previous day.
He really was a king! He must be disguised to avoid encounters with thieves.
“Take these,” said the old man, holding out a white stone and a black stone that had been embedded at the center of the breastplate. “They are called Urim and Thummim. The black signifies ‘yes,’ and the white ‘no.’ When you are unable to read the omens, they will help you to do so. Always ask an objective question.
“But, if you can, try to make your own decisions. The treasure is at the Pyramids; that you already knew. But I had to insist on the payment of six sheep because I helped you to make your decision.”
The boy put the stones in his pouch. From then on, he would make his own decisions.
“Don’t forget that everything you deal with is only one thing and nothing else. And don’t forget the language of omens. And, above all, don’t forget to follow your destiny through to its conclusion.
“But before I go, I want to tell you a little story.
“A certain shopkeeper sent his son to learn about the secret of happiness from the wisest man in the world. The lad wandered through the desert for forty days, and finally came upon a beautiful castle, high atop a mountain. It was there that the wise man lived.
“Rather than finding a saintly man, though, our hero, on entering the main room of the castle, saw a hive of activity: tradesmen came and went, people were conversing in the corners, a small orchestra was playing soft music, and there was a table covered with platters of the most delicious food in that part of the world. The wise man conversed with everyone, and the boy had to wait for two hours before it was his turn to be given the man’s attention.
“The wise man listened attentively to the boy’s explanation of why he had come, but told him that he didn’t have time just then to explain the secret of happiness. He suggested that the boy look around the palace and return in two hours.
“Meanwhile, I want to ask you to do something,” said the wise man, handing the boy a teaspoon that held two drops of oil. “As you wander around, carry this spoon with you without allowing the oil to spill.”
“The boy began climbing and descending the many stairways of the palace, keeping his eyes fixed on the spoon. After two hours, he returned to the room where the wise man was.
“Well,” asked the wise man, “did you see the Persian tapestries that are hanging in my dining hall? Did you see the garden that it took the master gardener ten years to create? Did you notice the beautiful parchments in my library?”
“The boy was embarrassed, and confessed that he had observed nothing. His only concern had been not to spill the oil that the wise man had entrusted to him.
“Then go back and observe the marvels of my world,” said the wise man. “You cannot trust a man if you don’t know his house.”
“Relieved, the boy picked up the spoon and returned to his exploration of the palace, this time observing all of the works of art on the ceilings and the walls. He saw the gardens, the mountains all around him, the beauty of the flowers, and the taste with which everything had been selected. Upon returning to the wise man, he related in detail everything he had seen.
“But where are the drops of oil I entrusted to you?” asked the wise man.
“Looking down at the spoon he held, the boy saw that the oil was gone.
“Well, there is only one piece of advice I can give you,” said the wisest of wise men. “The secret of happiness is to see all the marvels of the world, and never to forget the drops of oil on the spoon.”
The shepherd said nothing. He had understood the story the old king had told him. A shepherd may like to travel, but he should never forget about his sheep.
The old man looked at the boy and, with his hands held together, made several strange gestures over the boy’s head. Then, taking his sheep, he walked away.