Since they were young, their father always set challenges before the three brothers, challenges for their minds and their bodies. Challenges that tested their hearts and their spirits. Challenges that tested their chosen discipline. The eldest, Protos, sought to master commerce. So their father, who was a wealthy merchant in the southern province, once set to Protos the task of managing some of his most demanding patrons. The youngest, Teliko, was strong, brave, fast, and agile. He sought to master all sport. So their father once set to Teliko the task of climbing the highest mountain in the province, a task that only three other people had managed since the mountain had been discovered. Mesos was the middle son and a student of history and myth. So their father once set him on a quest to find the rarest book of history that told the story of their province.
Sometimes the three sons failed at their challenges. Sometimes they succeeded. Their father always admonished them to review their words and their actions to learn why. Why did they fail? Or why did they succeed?
Their mother had passed into the realm of the afterlife only years after Teliko was born. And soon enough, it was time for their father to follow her. But before he died, he told his sons of their final challenges. He urged them to prepare, for if they succeeded, they would win their inheritance. If they did not, their inheritance would go elsewhere and they would have to fend for themselves. He told them that he had faith in their ultimate triumph either way. The one rule he made was that he forbade them from helping each other or sharing what they inherited with each other.
All three brothers succeeded in their challenges, for the last challenges seemed quite easy compared to what their father had expected of them all their lives. They sat proudly before the executor of their father’s estate and waited for the rewards they had earned.
The eldest and the youngest were not disappointed. Their father had split his wealth between them. But the middle brother…he was given one thing only. A fine leather belt affixed with an ornate buckle. The four-sided buckle was made of a silvery metal tinged with blue. A border of delicate vines encircled an intricate design within that seemed familiar.
Mesos could not help but to feel embarrassed and disappointed before his brothers. He felt pity for himself and sorrow. But as he examined the belt and the buckle, he also began to feel a bit of irritation toward his father. For he began to see in the belt not a poor bequest, but another challenge. His brothers thought so too. And despite their father’s warning, they offered to help Mesos, for they did not deem it fair of their father to set yet another challenge to one of them and not to the others.
But Mesos refused their help, not wanting to risk their inheritances. So his brothers told him to sell the belt as the buckle appeared to have some value and might earn him some small amount of coin, which he could then invest in some trade to make back the wealth that he should have already earned. Their father was gone, they said, and Mesos need not meet any more challenges.
But Mesos realized that his father may have had good reason not to bequeath any of the family wealth to him. Unlike him, his brothers both had families and were settled already. Protos and Teliko would manage their inheritances well and leave behind a worthy bequest to their own children.
Their father had never shown disfavor with Mesos for not having a family of his own. But perhaps he had deemed it necessary to goad Mesos into seeking his own fortune. He recognized the design on his belt. He had seen before at a monastery during one of his challenges. So he decided to go on a journey to find his fortune, perhaps even his destiny. And if there was a final challenge contained in the belt, then he would meet that challenge.
On his way to the monastery, Mesos came upon an unfamiliar road. He was curious. He didn’t remember that road ever being there, though he had traveled that way many times, and he wondered where the road went. It must have been well traveled, for it seemed well kept. He consulted his maps, which were not the best, and found nothing. He made a mark on his map where the unknown road diverged from the known one, and a note to explore the road should he come back that way.
At the monastery, he was welcomed and thanked by the head monk for returning the belt buckle, which his father promised them that one of his sons would deliver to them in time. Mesos was a bit flustered by their claim on what he thought was the only remembrance of his father that he would have. But he handed over the belt without hesitation, especially after the monks offered food and shelter and learning in return for his fulfilling his father’s promise. He accepted their offer and spent several years at the monastery, learning discipline and the arts of meditation and calligraphy. His brothers and their families wrote to him. And they hinted at taking care of him should he return home, but Mesos had decided that his journey must take him forward not backward.
One day he decided that he was ready to leave and strike out into the world again, though he was poorer than when he arrived. For he had surrendered what he had brought with him to the monastery. He had been watching the sparrows flitting around the trees and flying away for days. And he too felt it was time for him to leave his nest and fly out.
To his surprise, the head monk returned to him his father’s belt with the ornate buckle. Mesos assumed the belt belonged to the monastery, but the monk merely said that they had made what use of it they could and that it belonged with Mesos if he was to leave the monastery.
So Mesos set out into the world again and sure enough, he had to tighten his belt as he sustained himself earning meager wages at odd jobs. He did not seek riches and comfort. He was far from such dreams. He sought only a fair share of sustenance and a shelter hardy enough to keep him warm and dry when the world was cold and wet, or cool and shaded when the world was hot and bright. He had to change his fortunes quickly lest he starve.
Sitting under the stars beside a fire one night, he studied the buckle and saw a strange thing. The design seemed the same and yet now it reminded him not of the monastery, but of an inn. His father often sent him and his brothers on errands in the midst of challenges. Mesos had been on a few errands that brought him to a town on the border of the southern forest. In that town was the largest most extravagant inn he had ever seen and the sign had a design entwined in it, much like the design in his buckle.
This inn had been far too rich for Mesos even when he had the advantage of his father’s wealth. He had only passed by the place but had stayed elsewhere. He headed to the town, bearing only his old maps, a walking stick, a bit of bread and dried meat, and of course, his belt. Once again, he came upon a split in a familiar road. A split that he swore was not there when last he traveled that road. A split that his maps again did not reveal. Once again, he marked his map and made a note to revisit the road. And he decided that if and when he came upon some coin, he would buy himself some better maps.
He continued on to the town with the inn, called the Fairweather. Mesos could believe that the weather would always be fair in such a place. For this time, he went inside the common room and saw with his own eyes. He knew it would not be long before the innkeeper discovered that he had no coin for a drink, much less a meal or a room. And then he would be asked to leave, or made to. It was the time between lunch and supper, yet the common room stirred. Merchants, stable hands, nobles, shop-keepers, holy men and women, all sat at separate tables or benches. The merchants shared drink and laughter. The holy men and women nodded to those who passed by and were bowed to in return. Nobles bent toward each other in seemingly polite conversation, until they too burst into laughter. There was a minstrel plucking a mandolin. Charming young men and women were serving food and drinks. Some strong and sober fellows stood by the door, ready to roust any who dared to disturb the good cheer.
Mesos had an idea about adding to the entertainment and perhaps earning himself something in return. He asked and received the innkeeper’s permission to try it in exchange for a meal and a bed in the hay above the stables for the night. The innkeeper didn’t seem to believe that Mesos had skill in lettering, for Mesos looked like any common mendicant. But he was given parchment and ink and quill and he drew the characters of a lady’s name and gave the charm to the one who was courting her. He painted the song that the minstrel was singing and gave it to a blacksmith who could not read the words, but thanked Mesos deeply. For the blacksmith was traveling, but the song was his little daughter’s favorite and he sang her to sleep with it each night when he was home.
Soon, a young merchant waved him over and Mesos answered the summons. The merchant, whose name was Atrapos, asked him why he was giving away his skill when he could earn his bread and butter from it. They fell into an easy conversation, Mesos being grateful to have a seat for the first time that day. As they spoke, the merchant hinted that he discerned wealth in Mesos’s past. He hinted that he could help Mesos regain that wealth. And as he plied himself with more mead and wine, he cast away his hinting and spoke his words plainly. He needed someone with skill in drafting official documents for his trade. And he also needed someone who was a hardy traveler and would not be easily waylaid when sent on errands. His other messengers wore fine clothes and spoke in a fine manner and carried themselves as if they were privileged, for they were indeed. They were in his employ and while he was strict, he was also generous. Mesos listened politely. And he watched curiously, for the young merchant somewhat reminded him of himself when he was still sheltered by his father’s wealth. They spoke for hours and the merchant ordered dinner for both of them. A grateful Mesos helped the man up to his rooms at evening’s end, hoping he would not be forgotten in the sober light of morning. Over a humble meal of stew, Mesos learned from the barkeep and a few of the serving folk that the merchant Atrapos was indeed what he said he was, a wealthy merchant, a strict but generous employer.
The merchant did not forget Mesos. He gave Mesos an errand and some coin with which to complete the errand, a simple task of delivering a package to someone in town. While the merchant consumed a breakfast of tonics to cure the aftereffects of his overindulgence the night before, Mesos accepted and completed the task. With the coin he earned, he did indeed buy better maps, transferring over his marks for the roads he had not taken.
Mesos traveled with the merchant to the next town and for part of the journey, the merchant left his carriage and walked alongside Mesos. Walking was one habit Mesos had picked up at the monastery that he enjoyed so much that he could forgo the comforts of a carriage or the speed of a horse. Such modes of travel served as awkward reminders of his youth when Mesos abided in comfort, longing for some worthy journey on which he would earn his keep, but never knowing where that journey lay.
Having forgotten the joys of a good walk, Atrapos was so delighted that he wanted to give Mesos more coin. But Mesos refused to take coin for anything other than honest work, so the merchant tried another gift, his mother’s recipe for a most delicious meat stew. It was a gift that was worth more than coin, he claimed. This gift Mesos laughingly and humbly accepted.
Mesos stopped when he saw a break in the road. He had never visited the town they were traveling to and was unfamiliar with the paths. He asked the merchant which way they should go. But Atrapos looked at him puzzled and told him that he had stopped in the middle of the only road around for leagues. Mesos pointed to the other road he saw, but the merchant claimed not to see it. Mesos closed his eyes and opened them and there the road still was. It was rockier than the road on which they traveled. There were some thorny plants bordering the road and it curved away, almost back the way they came, but Mesos could not see where the road ultimately led.
Atrapos frowned in confusion and doubt and urged him to move along. Mesos marked the road on his map. And they continued on.
“Ever since I started this journey,” Mesos said, “I have seen roads that weren’t there before. New roads I had never noticed or seen, that appear on no map.”
“Have you ever traveled down one of those roads?” the merchant asked.
Mesos shook his head.
“What is different about this journey?”
Mesos thought a moment and when he realized the answer to the question that he should have asked himself far earlier, he slapped a hand to his forehead. They were not far from where the road had split, so he asked to turn around, just for a short while. And Atrapos, being a patient and sporting fellow, agreed.
The belt is what’s different, Mesos thought as they walked back, leaving the carriage and driver stopped by the side of the road.
He and Atrapos reached the point where the road diverged onto the rockier path. Still, Atrapos could not see it. Mesos took off the belt and looked. The rocky path vanished. Then he offered the belt to Atrapos, who donned it and still saw nothing. He returned the belt and as soon as Mesos wrapped it around his waist, the rocky road returned.
The merchant was fascinated, but he wanted to move on and asked Mesos if he would stay on his road or go off on the rocky path. One way was certain success, if not prosperity than at least comfort, as the merchant’s friend. The other way lay the unknown. They were not far from the where Atrapos lived. The merchant suggested that Mesos return in a few days once he has completed his work. Work that at last made use of his learning. Work that required skill in calligraphy and even some knowledge of history.
Mesos returned in only three days, already wearing slightly finer clothes and newly shod shoes. Wearing the belt, he found the place he had marked on his map and he turned and turned. But he didn’t see the rocky path anymore. He checked the map. He was certain he was standing where he stood before only days ago. But the road was nowhere to be seen. He took off the belt, wondering if by some random chance, the road would appear then. But he saw nothing.
He resolved that the next time he was headed somewhere and an unfamiliar road popped up, he would go down that road. Not too far perhaps, just far enough to quench his curiosity about the roads and the belt. He was certain now more than ever that the belt was his father’s last challenge for him. His father was always giving him speeches about the different paths in life and the roads that one could take. He gave Mesos such speeches long after he had stopped giving them to Protos and Teliko.
Mesos understood why. He must have seemed aimless to his father, and perhaps insincere in taking responsibility because he had chosen not to take the same path in his life that his brothers had taken. Mesos could do many things well, but there was nothing he could do better than anyone else. Mesos was well-liked and loved, but he had few if any friends and had never dreamed of settling down and starting a family. He liked journeys all right, but he loved to stay in one place and be at peace there, as he was in the monastery. So perhaps his father had been right. Perhaps Mesos could not chose his path on his own. Perhaps his father had given him the belt so it could help him choose. He remembered something his father told him on occasion.
There are other roads than the ones before you, if you have the eyes to see.
Mesos told Atrapos his plan and the merchant thought it a good idea, so long as Mesos didn’t try any tricks while on duty. So Mesos spent his days working with his new friend and employer, drafting documents in different styles of lettering, performing research in the town’s library, and running the occasional errand. He began to earn enough coin to buy more than just bread and butter.
And on his leisure days, he would travel down the roads around the town. But he never saw any new unmapped roads when he was just walking about for his own pleasure, purposely searching. One day, Atrapos asked Mesos to deliver a package to a patron two towns and dozens of leagues away. Out of necessity, Mesos went by horseback. Each time he saw a split in the road, he checked his maps, and each time, the roads were on the map. Finally, he came upon another split in the road. He saw by his map which road led to the town. And he saw by his map which road should not be at all. And this time, despite his errand, despite the admonition of his boss and benefactor, he went down the unmapped road.
He came upon a strange cottage with a slovenly look to it. The misshapen roof was all dented and the walls were pocked. But there was a most delicious aroma coming from the window. And before he could decide whether he wanted to approach and knock or keep going, Mesos was summoned by a screeching voice.
“Don’t linger there. Come in!”
A diminutive old woman emerged from the cottage with a lazy gray cat wrapped around her shoulders. She had apple-green hair tied in a long braid and she wore faded lavender skirts. She invited Mesos in as if he were an unexpected guest that she was put out by, but could not refuse. She would not let him politely decline.
The inside of her house was a surprise. Her kitchen was cozy and bright and painted a warm yellow-orange. Inside, her home was clean and comfortable. Mesos wondered if the outside was so uninviting because it was meant to fend off any who might bother the poor old woman if they thought they could find hospitality or valuables in her home.
She never asked his name and never gave him hers, but somehow Mesos ended up helping her with the dinner that he hadn’t asked to be invited to. He improved her stew using the recipe that Atrapos gave him. And the old woman was so impressed that she gave him a basket full of mushrooms as a parting gift. She began explaining how she was an expert in their cultivation. Then she spotted the package he had and became giddy thinking he had brought her a present.
Mesos began to panic. He tried to explain about his errand. She listened patiently and then asked him if she could open the gift. Mesos looked into her large lilac eyes and relented. He was thinking of what explanation he could give to Atrapos as the old woman opened the package. The package had been heavy. So Mesos was surprised by what lay within in. It was a pair of gardening gloves, very fine gloves, but only gloves. Mesos frowned because the weight of the package made him think he might have been carrying bars of precious metal. He thought his friend had entrusted him with a treasure and wrapped it in a humble package to trick any thieves.
The old woman was so delighted by the gloves that she took away the basket of mushrooms she had already given Mesos and brought him a different basket of mushrooms, claiming they were of better quality.
Mesos returned home defeated and he explained to Atrapos what happened and how he would make up for the profit of the delivery through his wages. And the merchant, though angry, told Mesos that it would take many weeks for him to make up for not delivering those gloves to the proper customer and they would find another way to recover the loss. He was happy to hear that Mesos had made his mother’s meat stew recipe. Mesos was curious about the weight of the box, but he did not want to risk further taxing his friend’s good will.
He offered a mushroom as an offhand gesture. Atrapos nearly leapt from his seat and asked where Mesos had found the mushroom. He examined it carefully and confirmed that it was a rare delicacy known only to nobles and royals. Atrapos knew of that variety only because he was a merchant, though he had never found and sold one. Only a few such mushrooms were found every year after painstaking searches. It was his mother’s dream that she should taste one. Mesos produced the whole basket. Atrapos, wide-eyed and grinning, proclaimed that the debt for the gloves was more than paid. And that Mesos would share in the profit from the sale of the mushrooms.
Mesos was glad to have enough coin for a comfortable bed, walking boots to replace his humble shoes, and suits and cloaks that came close to being as fine as the ones he wore in his youth. But he had not yet solved any mysteries or fulfilled any challenges. The belt had shown him a path that he would not have seen without it. The path had led him to good fortune. But would that always be so?
There was one place he knew he could go to find the answers he sought.
Mesos returned to the monastery, the first stop he had made in his present journey. He was greeted warmly and the head monk admired his attire and congratulated him on finding success in such a short time. The year had not yet turned since Mesos had left the monastery.
He asked about the belt buckle. The monk told him that the buckle was a mystery. It had been passed on to Mesos’s father, who had never used it. And it was given to him by his mother, Mesos’s grandmother, who also had not used it. She had been given the belt buckle by her uncle. And so on, until the buckle left the family and its origin could not be traced much further. About how the buckle worked, the monk told him only this.
“It will show you where you can go, not where you must go. The choice is yours. And it only shows the road, not the destination.”
The monk told Mesos that the other members of his family had not used the buckle, because they had not needed it. All are uncertain about their paths in life. But some find their paths after much wandering. Others decide upon a path that is well-tread. Still others decide to make their own roads. Such folk are able to see their paths.
But then there are those who may know where they want to go but just cannot see the path to get there. And there are those who just want to travel down roads that others have never traveled, for curiosity, for courage, for wonder. His father believed that Mesos might be like one of those, someone who needed help seeing all his paths, or someone who just needed new paths to explore. And Mesos for the first time since he received the buckle felt a surge of admiration and gratitude for his father. He was afraid his father had deemed him a failure, but it was not so. His father was still trying to teach him and to help him.
Mesos told the monk about the road that had been there and then had vanished only days later, not to be seen, even with the help of the buckle. The monk chuckled. He suggested that the road may have vanished because it was no longer available to Mesos, or perhaps it was a road that Mesos would no longer be interested in following. The road was a choice that Mesos did not make. And so, over time, that choice vanished.
Mesos thanked the monk and left. He thought upon their conversation. He had his maps with him and he went to the marks he had made of the roads he had seen on his way to other places. They were gone now.
He began to understand his journey. And he began to learn about the buckle. He worked for Atrapos, as a respectable scribe, earning a respectable wage. He practiced his meditation to focus his mind and see the buckle, the shape of the design, and to see the strange roads. And on his way to other destinations, he found those roads, and sometimes chose to go down them.
Mesos had many more adventures going down the strange roads and unmapped paths on which he chose to travel. Atrapos took to calling him the “rambling wayfarer.” Mesos walked for most of the journeys. He usually learned or acquired something of value or at least had an enjoyable time. But he didn’t always return with riches and rewards. Sometimes he returned with wounds and scars. In time, he learned to judge if a certain road would lead to danger or misfortune and he would continue on his way. But sometimes he could discern no ill or good, and he would go down the road with caution and find out. He suffered a few injuries to his body, and no few injuries to his mind and heart. For one road led to a wicked magician. And another led to false love.
Atrapos, faithful friend that he was, understood that Mesos would not be the most reliable of couriers, and that not all of his ventures would come to triumph. In time, he became curious enough to walk with his friend, alongside him, as he had done on their way to his town when first they met. They had many an adventure together. On one of them, they barely escaped having their flesh melted to the bone by a giant acid-spitting lizard. On another, they saw the most beautiful sight that Mesos had ever seen, a great bird whose feathers burned with the colors of the rainbow. And on another, Atrapos saw the most beautiful sight he had ever seen, the woman who would become his wife. And she too joined their adventures until she became quite heavy with child, and Atrapos and Mesos begged her to relent and rest at home for the child’s sake.
Mesos watched for an heir among his nieces and nephews, for he had no children of his own. And one day, with his brother’s permission, he took one of his nieces with him on a road he deemed safe. And they came upon nothing spectacular, only some glow-birds, but his niece marveled. She had never seen such creatures before. She humbly thanked him, and though he suspected that she wanted to go on more travels, she held her tongue. So he invited her again, only on the safe roads. She was much like Mesos and much unlike him as well. For she did not learn history and calligraphy and meditation. Rather, she relished the study of the natural world and of medicine, and she preferred to draw pictures not letters. But she too was unsure of her path.
One day, after many adventures with the girl who had grown into a fierce and quirky young woman, Mesos gave his niece the belt to wear and he gave her an errand to complete. He went with her and when she stopped in the middle of the road, he knew that she must have seen another path, a path that he could not see. And so she did. He went with her down that path, but he knew that there would be many a strange road she would travel alone.
For she was now the heir to the buckle. She was now the wayfarer.
Copyright © 2015 by Nila L. Patel