The Englishman was sitting on a bench
The Englishman was sitting on a bench in a structure that smelled of animals, sweat, and dust; it was part warehouse, part corral. I never thought I’d end up in a place like this, he thought, as he leafed through the pages of a chemical journal. Ten years at the university, and here I am in a corral.
But he had to move on. He believed in omens. All his life and all his studies were aimed at finding the one true language of the universe. First he had studied Esperanto, then the world’s religions, and now it was alchemy. He knew how to speak Esperanto, he understood all the major religions well, but he wasn’t yet an alchemist. He had unraveled the truths behind important questions, but his studies had taken him to a point beyond which he could not seem to go. He had tried in vain to establish a relationship with an alchemist. But the alchemists were strange people, who thought only about themselves, and almost always refused to help him. Who knows, maybe they had failed to discover the secret of the Master Work—the Philosopher’s Stone—and for this reason kept their knowledge to themselves.
He had already spent much of the fortune left to him by his father, fruitlessly seeking the Philosopher’s Stone. He had spent enormous amounts of time at the great libraries of the world, and had purchased all the rarest and most important volumes on alchemy. In one he had read that, many years ago, a famous Arabian alchemist had visited Europe. It was said that he was more than two hundred years old, and that he had discovered the Philosopher’s Stone and the Elixir of Life. The Englishman had been profoundly impressed by the story. But he would never have thought it more than just a myth, had not a friend of his—returning from an archaeological expedition in the desert—told him about an Arab that was possessed of exceptional powers.
“He lives at the Al-Fayoum oasis,” his friend had said. “And people say that he is two hundred years old, and is able to transform any metal into gold.”
The Englishman could not contain his excitement. He canceled all his commitments and pulled together the most important of his books, and now here he was, sitting inside a dusty, smelly warehouse. Outside, a huge caravan was being prepared for a crossing of the Sahara, and was scheduled to pass through Al-Fayoum.
I’m going to find that damned alchemist, the Englishman thought. And the odor of the animals became a bit more tolerable.
A young Arab, also loaded down with baggage, entered, and greeted the Englishman.
“Where are you bound?” asked the young Arab.
“I’m going into the desert,” the man answered, turning back to his reading. He didn’t want any conversation at this point. What he needed to do was review all he had learned over the years, because the alchemist would certainly put him to the test.
The young Arab took out a book and began to read. The book was written in Spanish. That’s good, thought the Englishman. He spoke Spanish better than Arabic, and, if this boy was going to Al-Fayoum, there would be someone to talk to when there were no other important things to do.
* * *
“That’s strange,” said the boy, as he tried once again to read the burial scene that began the book. “I’ve been trying for two years to read this book, and I never get past these first few pages.” Even without a king to provide an interruption, he was unable to concentrate.
He still had some doubts about the decision he had made. But he was able to understand one thing: making a decision was only the beginning of things. When someone makes a decision, he is really diving into a strong current that will carry him to places he had never dreamed of when he first made the decision.
When I decided to seek out my treasure, I never imagined that I’d wind up working in a crystal shop, he thought. And joining this caravan may have been my decision, but where it goes is going to be a mystery to me.
Nearby was the Englishman, reading a book. He seemed unfriendly, and had looked irritated when the boy had entered. They might even have become friends, but the Englishman closed off the conversation.
The boy closed his book. He felt that he didn’t want to do anything that might make him look like the Englishman. He took Urim and Thummim from his pocket, and began playing with them.
The stranger shouted, “Urim and Thummim!”
In a flash the boy put them back in his pocket.
“They’re not for sale,” he said.
“They’re not worth much,” the Englishman answered. “They’re only made of rock crystal, and there are millions of rock crystals in the earth. But those who know about such things would know that those are Urim and Thummim. I didn’t know that they had them in this part of the world.”
“They were given to me as a present by a king,” the boy said.
The stranger didn’t answer; instead, he put his hand in his pocket, and took out two stones that were the same as the boy’s.
“Did you say a king?” he asked.
“I guess you don’t believe that a king would talk to someone like me, a shepherd,” he said, wanting to end the conversation.
“Not at all. It was shepherds who were the first to recognize a king that the rest of the world refused to acknowledge. So, it’s not surprising that kings would talk to shepherds.”
And he went on, fearing that the boy wouldn’t understand what he was talking about, “It’s in the Bible. The same book that taught me about Urim and Thummim. These stones were the only form of divination permitted by God. The priests carried them in a golden breastplate.”
The boy was suddenly happy to be there at the warehouse.
“Maybe this is an omen,” said the Englishman, half aloud.
“Who told you about omens?” The boy’s interest was increasing by the moment.
“Everything in life is an omen,” said the Englishman, now closing the journal he was reading. “There is a universal language, understood by everybody, but already forgotten. I am in search of that universal language, among other things. That’s why I’m here. I have to find a man who knows that universal language. An alchemist.”
The conversation was interrupted by the warehouse boss.
“You’re in luck, you two,” the fat Arab said. “There’s a caravan leaving today for Al-Fayoum.”
“But I’m going to Egypt,” the boy said.
“Al-Fayoum is in Egypt,” said the Arab. “What kind of Arab are you?”
“That’s a good luck omen,” the Englishman said, after the fat Arab had gone out. “If I could, I’d write a huge encyclopedia just about the words luck and coincidence. It’s with those words that the universal language is written.”
He told the boy it was no coincidence that he had met him with Urim and Thummim in his hand. And he asked the boy if he, too, were in search of the alchemist.
“I’m looking for a treasure,” said the boy, and he immediately regretted having said it. But the Englishman appeared not to attach any importance to it.
“In a way, so am I,” he said.
“I don’t even know what alchemy is,” the boy was saying, when the warehouse boss called to them to come outside.