The girl went from city to city and from country to country, and looked for people whose arts and crafts, trades and languages she could learn. Whenever she met the merchants in the marketplace, she sat beside them and listened to them talking, shouting, and laughing. She asked if she could work for them for nothing more than food and shelter, and for being near them so that she could learn their trade and listen to their languages until she could understand and speak them.
At the beginning, she was given the hardest and dirtiest tasks, until the merchants noticed that she did not mind the hardship of her work, as long as she could learn from them. She carried sacks and pushed carts with goods for sale, until her shoulders and her hands bled, and the merchants had to put ointments on her wounds and wrap them in bandages so that she could keep working. As her skin hardened, her understanding of their customs and languages increased, and she was given the tasks of directing the sales and of negotiating with the city administrators on the merchants’ behalf.
Whenever she saw musicians on the streets, she asked whether they would teach her to play their instruments in their spare time. She did so until she could play together with them. When she reached the point where she was treated as an equal by the merchants and musicians and taken for one of them by the inhabitants of the places she came to, the merchants and the musicians told her that they had taught her all they knew. She did the same with passing doctors, scholars, builders, gypsies, and all those who were willing to share the secret of their arts and crafts, their trades and their wisdom with her.
When she had learned all she could from her teachers, they told her that she could learn nothing more from them. She thanked them for what they had taught her, promising to come back the day that she could teach something new to them. She always left a city when she found no more work or teachers, and she left a country when she found no more cities in which to look for them.
Sometimes a long time passed between one country and the next. As she wandered, her skin froze in the snow of the mountains and burned under the sun of the plains, and she wept lonely tears under overhanging rocks and trees while the rain hammered onto the ground around her. She endured this time by thinking about the things she had seen, and by trying to imagine how the things before her would be.
She forgot her pain when she entered a new country or a new city and heard sounds she had never heard before, and saw, touched, and smelt things she had never seen before. She felt that time stood still when she ate those foods the merchants had taught her to find, to name and to prepare, and when she was allowed to wear dresses the night before they were to be sold to princesses and queens.
As time passed, she found fewer merchants, artists, scholars or other people she could learn from within the cities, and she needed to stay for shorter periods of time. She also found that her welcome by the people she met lasted less time than before. Her own knowledge had become richer and clearer, and she used common words to describe uncommon things and thoughts. Others found more and more truth and wisdom in what she said, but had to think about it longer. And the longer they thought, the less they came back to talk to her. She brought all kinds of foreign habits and tongues to the places she came to; she committed herself to the most arduous tasks anyone could choose but with enthusiasm, and she still kept asking for more.
Even so, when night came, she was the most passionate dancer around the campfires, to the stirring music and rhythms of the gypsies. Men and women came to resent her, although for different reasons. The men desired her because she was different from all the other women, but then felt rejected by her because she was not more interested in the man than in the work he did and the art he mastered, and every man suffered when he could no longer teach her anything. The women felt rejected by the men who desired her instead, and even more so if the men had felt rejected by her. So she went further to foreign cities and countries, to find the only thing she had always looked for, the sharing of love.
And she was sad and desperate, because she did not know whether it was her fault that she found less company the more places she had seen and people she had met, or whether it was the fault of the others, or both, or nobody’s fault at all. She still felt that what she was doing and what she wanted was right for her, but she was not sure anymore whether she was going away from, or towards the love she was looking for. She felt that she could not answer this question, even with all the wisdom she had acquired.
This sadness and desperation were a pain different from the one she had felt all her life, and which she had got used to. She could not find comfort in the places she had already been to or the people she went back to, because the places and the people had not changed, but she had. The further she went, the less she knew what her dream of finding love would be like if she ever found it. But she kept on walking.
The young woman had wandered for a long time, until one day at sunset she came through a valley between hills where four men and one woman were sitting around a fire. She asked if she could join them, and they offered her food and drink, which she gladly accepted. When she had finished her meal, one of the men spoke to her: “All of us have heard of you, because in many cities people talk about you. In fact, we have waited for you here. Each of us has something to offer to you. I am a rich man, and if you stay with me, I can save you all the troubles and efforts in your pursuits. You can keep doing what you have always done, but will never again have to work hard, or be afraid of not finding food, shelter, and protection. What do you say?”
She thought about this for a moment, and then answered: “Your offer is generous, and I thank you. But please tell me, how can I keep doing what I have always done if you protect me against the things that are part of the path that I have followed?” The rich man looked over the boxes of precious gifts he had brought with him, and then at her simple clothes and the sack beside her that contained all her possessions, and sat in silence.
The man beside him, young and beautiful, began to speak. “I have come to woo you. I believe you deserve to be treated with passion and tenderness, and even if I see you now for the first time, what I have heard about you, and what I see before me, convinces me that you too would make me happy. Will you take me?”
She looked at the young man and thought for some time. Then she answered: “Your offer is tempting, and I thank you. If you can keep up with me in what I am doing, and can be at my side for some time, I will gladly keep up with you in what you are doing, and be at your side forever.” The beautiful young man looked at his fine hands, and at her strong hands, and sat in silence.
Then the third man, who looked wise and thoughtful, began to speak. “I know about your quest for wisdom. Many deem me to be a wise man, and I am willing to share my knowledge with you. Will you take me as your teacher?” She smiled calmly, looked at the man, and then thought about his words for a long moment.
Finally, she answered: “Your offer honors me. I have studied the customs and languages of people, and this knowledge always had a price. But my independence was never part of that price. Would you be willing to let me go if you could no longer teach me anything, and to see me again only the day that I could teach something new to you?” The wise man looked at his books and papers beside him, and then into her eyes that were used to searching the horizon, and sat in silence.
The fourth man, dark and sinister, began to speak. “I have neither wealth, nor beauty, nor wisdom. I have other means to get what I want. At the other side of this hill, my army of men follows my orders, and no man dares to withstand us. I want you as my mistress and the queen of my people, and I do not care whether you like it or not. So I do not ask you. I just tell you.” She looked into the sinister man’s eyes, and they both looked at each other for a long time.
The sun had sunk behind the horizon, and a red afterglow was sending its last light over the desert. After an even longer time, she finally answered: “You are an honest man, and I thank you for that. I have wandered freezing mountains and burning wastes, I have let my body bleed at my own hands, and I have died more times than I have lived. So please tell me, if I could only gain by being your mistress, what would you gain?” The sinister man looked at his sword, and at the bandages that covered her shoulders and hands, and sat in silence.
The woman, the last member of the group, was old and tired. For a long time, she said nothing, and dusk fell while she looked at the young woman. Finally, she spoke: “One day, you will be old and tired, as I am now.”
The young woman thought about this throughout the rest of the night, while they all sat and watched her. The fire, which had been burning brightly when she had arrived, burnt down during the night, and was extinguished completely when the first light of the new day began to shine beyond the hills.
The young woman slowly stood up, stretched her stiff legs, and said: “One day, I shall be old and tired, as you are now.”
She thanked them all for their hospitality, and said that she would be glad to see them again someday. She stood up, took her belongings, smiled at the old woman, and went on her way.
Dr. Konrad Gunesch is Associate Professor of International Education and Linguistics at the American University in the Emirates in Dubai. His main research areas, across more than ninety journal, book and chapter publications, are steeped in a transdisciplinary outlook and rooted in international education, cultural identity, language learning, comparative literature, media and film studies, gender studies, environmental economics, and sustainable tourism. He has given over seventy official and invited international keynote presentations at the universities of Harvard, MIT, Oxford, Cambridge, London, Lisbon, Istanbul and Washington in Rome among others, and over a hundred and eighty conference presentations in sixteen languages.