The Alchemist Part-2

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.

*

At the highest point in Tarifa there is an old fort, built by the Moors. From atop its walls, one can catch a glimpse of Africa. Melchizedek, the king of Salem, sat on the wall of the fort that afternoon, and felt the levanter blowing in his face. The sheep fidgeted nearby, uneasy with their new owner and

excited by so much change. All they wanted was food and water.

Melchizedek watched a small ship that was plowing its way out of the port. He would never again see the boy, just as he had never seen Abraham again after having charged him his one-tenth fee. That was his work.

The gods should not have desires, because they don’t have destinies. But the king of Salem hoped desperately that the boy would be successful.

It’s too bad that he’s quickly going to forget my name, he thought. I should have repeated it for him. Then when he spoke about me he would say that I am Melchizedek, the king of Salem.

He looked to the skies, feeling a bit abashed, and said, “I know it’s the vanity of vanities, as you said, my Lord. But an old king sometimes has to take some pride in himself.”

*

How strange Africa is, thought the boy.

He was sitting in a bar very much like the other bars he had seen along the narrow streets of Tangier. Some men were smoking from a gigantic pipe that they passed from one to the other. In just a few hours he had seen men walking hand in hand, women with their faces covered, and priests that climbed to the tops of towers and chanted–as everyone about him went to their knees and placed their foreheads on the ground.

“A practice of infidels,” he said to himself. As a child in church, he had always looked at the image of Saint Santiago Matamoros on his white horse, his sword unsheathed, and figures such as these kneeling at his feet. The boy felt ill and terribly alone. The infidels had an evil look about them. Besides this, in the rush of his travels he had forgotten a detail, just one detail, which could keep him from his treasure for a long time: only Arabic was spoken in this country.

The owner of the bar approached him, and the boy pointed to a drink that had been served at the next table. It turned out to be a bitter tea. The boy preferred wine.

But he didn’t need to worry about that right now. What he had to be concerned about was his treasure, and how he was going to go about getting it. The sale of his sheep had left him with enough money in his pouch, and the boy knew that in money there was magic; whoever has money is never really alone. Before long, maybe in just a few days, he would be at the Pyramids. An old man, with a breastplate of gold, wouldn’t have lied just to acquire six sheep.

The old man had spoken about signs and omens, and, as the boy was crossing the strait, he had thought about omens. Yes, the old man had known what he was talking about: during the time the boy had spent in the fields of Andalusia, he had become used to learning which path he should take by observing the ground and the sky. He had discovered that the presence of a certain bird meant that a snake was nearby, and that a certain shrub was a sign that there was water in the area. The sheep had taught him that.

If God leads the sheep so well, he will also lead a man, he thought, and that made him feel better. The tea seemed less bitter.

“Who are you?” he heard a voice ask him in Spanish.

The boy was relieved. He was thinking about omens, and someone had appeared.

“How come you speak Spanish?” he asked. The new arrival was a young man in Western dress, but the color

of his skin suggested he was from this city. He was about the same age and height as the boy.

“Almost everyone here speaks Spanish. We’re only two hours from Spain.”

“Sit down, and let me treat you to something,” said the boy. “And ask for a glass of wine for me. I hate this tea.”

“There is no wine in this country,” the young man said. “The religion here forbids it.”

The boy told him then that he needed to get to the Pyramids. He almost began to tell about his treasure, but decided not to do so. If he did, it was possible that the Arab would want a part of it as payment for taking him there. He remembered what the old man had said about offering something you didn’t even have yet.

“I’d like you to take me there if you can. I can pay you to serve as my guide.”

“Do you have any idea how to get there?” the newcomer asked. The boy noticed that the owner of the bar stood nearby, listening attentively to their conversation. He felt uneasy at the man’s presence. But he had found a guide, and didn’t want to miss out on an opportunity.

“You have to cross the entire Sahara desert,” said the young man. “And to do that, you need money. I need to know whether you have enough.”

The boy thought it a strange question. But he trusted in the old man, who had said that, when you really want something, the universe always conspires in your favor.

He took his money from his pouch and showed it to the young man. The owner of the bar came over and looked, as well. The two men exchanged

some words in Arabic, and the bar owner seemed irritated.

“Let’s get out of here” said the new arrival. “He wants us to leave.”

The boy was relieved. He got up to pay the bill, but the owner grabbed him and began to speak to him in an angry stream of words. The boy was strong, and wanted to retaliate, but he was in a foreign country. His new friend pushed the owner aside, and pulled the boy outside with him. “He wanted your money,” he said. “Tangier is not like the rest of Africa. This is a port, and every port has its thieves.”

The boy trusted his new friend. He had helped him out in a dangerous situation. He took out his money and counted it.

“We could get to the Pyramids by tomorrow,” said the other, taking the money. “But I have to buy two camels.”

They walked together through the narrow streets of Tangier. Everywhere there were stalls with items for sale. They reached the center of a large plaza where the market was held. There were thousands of people there, arguing, selling, and buying; vegetables for sale amongst daggers, and carpets displayed alongside tobacco. But the boy never took his eye off his new friend. After all, he had all his money. He thought about asking him to give it back, but decided that would be unfriendly. He knew nothing about the customs of the strange land he was in.

“I’ll just watch him,” he said to himself. He knew he was stronger than his friend.

Suddenly, there in the midst of all that confusion, he saw the most beautiful sword he had ever seen. The scabbard was embossed in silver, and the handle was black and encrusted with precious stones. The boy promised himself that, when he returned from Egypt, he would buy that sword.

“Ask the owner of that stall how much the sword costs,” he said to his friend. Then he realized that he had been distracted for a few moments, looking at the sword. His heart squeezed, as if his chest had suddenly compressed it. He was afraid to look around, because he knew what he would find. He continued to look at the beautiful sword for a bit longer, until he summoned the courage to turn around. All around him was the market, with people coming and going, shouting and buying, and the aroma of strange foods… but nowhere could he find his new companion.

The boy wanted to believe that his friend had simply become separated from him by accident. He decided to stay right there and await his return. As he waited, a priest climbed to the top of a nearby tower and began his chant; everyone in the market fell to their knees, touched their foreheads to the ground, and took up the chant. Then, like a colony of worker ants, they dismantled their stalls and left.

The sun began its departure, as well. The boy watched it through its trajectory for some time, until it was hidden behind the white houses surrounding the plaza. He recalled that when the sun had risen that morning, he was on another continent, still a shepherd with sixty sheep, and looking forward to meeting with a girl. That morning he had known everything that was going to happen to him as he walked through the familiar fields. But now, as the sun began to set, he was in a different country, a stranger in a strange land, where he couldn’t even speak the language. He was no longer a shepherd, and he had nothing, not even the money to return and start everything over.

All this happened between sunrise and sunset, the boy thought. He was feeling sorry for himself, and lamenting the fact that his life could have changed so suddenly and so drastically.

He was so ashamed that he wanted to cry. He had never even wept in front of his own sheep. But the marketplace was empty, and he was far from home, so he wept. He wept because God was unfair, and because this was the way God repaid those who believed in their dreams.

When I had my sheep, I was happy, and I made those around me happy. People saw me coming and welcomed me, he thought. But now I’m sad and alone. I’m going to become bitter and distrustful of people because one person betrayed me. I’m going to hate those who have found their treasure because I never found mine. And I’m going to hold on to what little I have, because I’m too insignificant to conquer the world.

He opened his pouch to see what was left of his possessions; maybe there was a bit left of the sandwich he had eaten on the ship. But all he found was the heavy book, his jacket, and the two

stones the old man had given him.

As he looked at the stones, he felt relieved for some reason. He had exchanged six sheep for two precious stones that had been taken from a gold breastplate. He could sell the stones and buy a return ticket. But this time I’ll be smarter, the boy thought, removing them from the pouch so he could put them in his pocket. This was a port town, and the only truthful thing his friend had told him was that port towns are full of thieves.

Now he understood why the owner of the bar had been so upset: he was trying to tell him not to trust that man. “I’m like everyone else–I see the world in terms of what I would like to see happen, not what actually does.” He ran his fingers slowly over the stones, sensing their temperature and feeling their surfaces. They were his treasure. Just

handling them made him feel better. They reminded him of the old man.

“When you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it,” he had said.

The boy was trying to understand the truth of what the old man had said. There he was in the empty marketplace, without a cent to his name, and with not a sheep to guard through the night. But the stones were proof that he had met with a king–a king who knew of the boy’s past.

“They’re called Urim and Thummim, and they can help you to read the omens.” The boy put the stones back in the pouch and decided to do an experiment. The old man had said to ask very clear questions, and to do that, the boy had to know what he wanted. So, he asked if the old man’s blessing was still with him.

He took out one of the stones. It was “yes.”

“Am I going to find my treasure?” he asked.

He stuck his hand into the pouch, and felt around for one of the stones. As he did so, both of them pushed through a hole in the pouch and fell to the ground. The boy had never even noticed that there was a hole in his pouch. He knelt down to find Urim and Thummim and put them back in the pouch. But as he saw them lying there on the ground, another phrase came to his mind.

“Learn to recognize omens, and follow them,” the old king had said.

An omen. The boy smiled to himself. He picked up the two stones and put them back in his pouch. He didn’t consider mending the hole–the stones could fall through any time they wanted. He had learned that there were certain things one shouldn’t ask about, so as not to flee from one’s own destiny. “I promised that I would make my own decisions,” he said to himself.

But the stones had told him that the old man was still with him, and that made him feel more confident. He looked around at the empty plaza again, feeling less desperate than before. This wasn’t a strange place; it was a new one.

After all, what he had always wanted was just that: to know new places. Even if he never got to the Pyramids,

he had already traveled farther than any shepherd he knew. Oh, if they only knew how different things are just two hours by ship from where they are, he thought. Although his

new world at the moment was just an empty marketplace, he had already seen it when it was teeming with life, and he would never forget it. He remembered the sword. It hurt him a bit to think about it, but he had never seen one like it before. As he mused about these things, he realized that he had to choose between thinking of himself as the poor victim of a thief and as an adventurer in quest of his treasure.

“I’m an adventurer, looking for treasure,” he said to himself. *

He was shaken into wakefulness by someone. He had fallen asleep in the middle of the marketplace, and life in the plaza was about to resume.

Looking around, he sought his sheep, and then realized that he was in a new world. But instead of being saddened, he was happy. He no longer had to seek out food and water for the sheep; he could go in search of his treasure, instead. He had not a cent in his pocket, but he had faith. He had decided, the night before, that he would be as

much an adventurer as the ones he had admired in books.

He walked slowly through the market. The merchants were assembling their stalls, and the boy helped a candy seller to do his. The candy seller had a smile on his face: he was happy, aware of what his life was about, and ready to begin a day’s work. His smile reminded the boy of the old man–the mysterious old king he had met. “This candy merchant isn’t making candy so that later he can travel or marry a shopkeeper’s daughter. He’s doing it because it’s what he wants to do,” thought the boy. He realized that he could do the same thing the old man had done–sense whether a person was near to or far from his destiny. Just by looking at them. It’s easy, and yet I’ve never done it before, he thought.

When the stall was assembled, the candy seller offered the boy the first sweet he had made for the day. The boy thanked him, ate it, and went on his way. When he had gone only a short distance, he realized that, while they were erecting the stall, one of them had spoken Arabic and the other Spanish.

And they had understood each other perfectly well.

There must be a language that doesn’t depend on words, the boy thought. I’ve already had that experience with my sheep, and now it’s happening with people.

He was learning a lot of new things. Some of them were things that he had already experienced, and weren’t really new, but that he had never perceived before. And he hadn’t perceived them because he had become accustomed to them. He realized: If I can learn to understand this language without words, I can learn to understand the world.

Relaxed and unhurried, he resolved that he would walk through the narrow streets of Tangier. Only in that way would he be able to read the omens. He knew it would require a lot of patience, but shepherds know all about patience. Once again he saw that, in that strange land, he was applying the same lessons he had learned with his sheep.

“All things are one,” the old man had said.

*

The crystal merchant awoke with the day, and felt the same anxiety that he felt every morning. He had been in

the same place for thirty years: a shop at the top of a hilly street where few customers passed. Now it was too late to change anything–the only thing he had ever learned to do was to buy and sell crystal glassware. There had been a time when many people knew of his shop: Arab merchants, French and English geologists, German soldiers who were always well-heeled. In those days it had been wonderful to be selling crystal, and he had thought how he would become rich, and have beautiful women at his

side as he grew older.

But, as time passed, Tangier had changed. The nearby city of Ceuta had grown faster than Tangier, and business had fallen off. Neighbors moved away, and there remained only a few small shops on the hill. And no one was going to climb the hill just to browse through a few small shops.

But the crystal merchant had no choice. He had lived thirty years of his life buying and selling crystal pieces, and now it was too late to do anything else.

He spent the entire morning observing the infrequent comings and goings in the street. He had done this for

years, and knew the schedule of everyone who passed. But, just before lunchtime, a boy stopped in front of the shop. He was dressed normally, but the practiced eyes of the crystal merchant could see that the boy had no money to spend. Nevertheless, the merchant decided to delay his lunch for a few minutes until the boy moved on.

*

A card hanging in the doorway announced that several languages were spoken in the shop. The boy saw a man appear behind the counter.

“I can clean up those glasses in the window, if you want,” said the boy. “The way they look now, nobody is going to want to buy them.”

The man looked at him without responding.

“In exchange, you could give me something to eat.”

The man still said nothing, and the boy sensed that he was going to have to make a decision. In his pouch, he had his jacket–he certainly wasn’t going to need it in the desert. Taking the jacket out, he began to clean the glasses. In half an hour, he had cleaned all the glasses in the window, and, as he was doing so, two customers had entered the shop and bought some crystal.

When he had completed the cleaning, he asked the man for something to eat. “Let’s go and have some lunch,” said the crystal merchant.

He put a sign on the door, and they went to a small caf nearby. As they sat down at the only table in the place, the crystal merchant laughed.

“You didn’t have to do any cleaning,” he said. “The Koran requires me to feed a hungry person.”

“Well then, why did you let me do it?” the boy asked. “Because the crystal was dirty. And both you and I needed to cleanse our minds of negative thoughts.”

When they had eaten, the merchant turned to the boy and said, “I’d like you to work in my shop. Two customers came in today while you were working, and that’s a good omen.”

People talk a lot about omens, thought the shepherd. But they really don’t know what they’re saying. Just as I hadn’t realized that for so many years I had been speaking a language without words to my sheep.

“Do you want to go to work for me?” the merchant asked.

“I can work for the rest of today,” the boy answered. “I’ll work all night, until dawn, and I’ll clean every piece of crystal in your shop. In return, I need money to get to Egypt tomorrow.”

The merchant laughed. “Even if you cleaned my crystal for an entire year… even if you earned a good commission selling every piece, you would still have to borrow money to get to Egypt. There are thousands of kilometers of desert between here and there.”

There was a moment of silence so profound that it seemed the city was asleep. No sound from the bazaars, no arguments among the merchants, no men climbing to the towers to chant. No hope, no adventure, no old kings or destinies, no treasure, and no Pyramids. It was as if the world had fallen silent because the boy’s soul had. He sat there, staring blankly through the door of the caf , wishing that he had died, and that everything would end forever at that moment.

The merchant looked anxiously at the boy. All the joy he had seen that morning had suddenly disappeared.

“I can give you the money you need to get back to your country, my son,” said the crystal merchant.

The boy said nothing. He got up, adjusted his clothing, and picked up his pouch.

“I’ll work for you,” he said.

And after another long silence, he added, “I need money to buy some sheep.”