How strange to find yourself in this place tonight. Round the fire, the men warm their hands and faces, pulling their coats tightly to their bodies to keep in the heat. They speak of the earth and the sky and the sheep sleeping nearby. They smell of sheep and of wandering. You are a wanderer too, a stranger in this land, searching for . . . the sound of footsteps catches your ear, and you turn your head quickly away from the fire, peering into the night. You see a robe rustling in the wind, in front of which floats a long stick, drawing the figure closer. Your eyes adjust and suddenly meet with those of an old man. He smiles and stretches out his hands to the fire. The shepherds nod in greeting; they have welcomed many weary travelers on nights such as these. You move over to let the man pass, but he settles onto the ground beside you, folding his limbs into his robe and laying the staff over his knees. He sighs and closes his eyes a moment. You steal a sideways glance at the man, not fully trusting his presence. He is bearded and wrinkled, his face showing the work and weather of many years. You wonder what brought him here, what purpose there could be for such an old man on such a cold night.
“Good evening stranger,” he replies, meeting your sheepish gaze. “What hope was mine when I saw the light on the horizon. I have been traveling many, many hours, and am not from these parts – though I have visited this countryside in years past. But that could have been another lifetime for all the changes I observe now. Are you a stranger here too then?” he asks, gesturing to your clothes and features.
“Yes,” you stammer, for you had not expected conversation tonight. You pause hesitantly, then continue, “I left my hometown some time ago. I was told I would find what I was looking for if I left. But I don’t really know where I’m going…” you trail off and let the silence finish the thought.
You are surprised to find the old man chuckling to himself. “Neither did I, neither did I,” he says with a laugh. “I know what it’s like to follow a promise, and nothing else. People think you’re crazy. You leave behind everything you know and trade it in for a sackful of faith. I bundled all my hopes up on my back and went in search of the promise – an elusive thing to track down at times.” He pauses, gripping his staff in both hands. “But I had to go. Had to.”
You nod earnestly, murmuring in agreement. As one of the shepherds adds brush to the fire, tiny sparks leap into the darkness and then disappear. “What happened to your hopes?” you ask.
“I never lost them, though bandits and kings tried to steal them. They can’t take something that isn’t meant for their country. As long as I had them, I was different from the rest of those I dwelt among. They kept me a stranger. But as long as I had them, I knew I would keep looking for the promise. I took them from tent to tent, knowing that one day I would trade them in for an inheritance.”
You ponder his words, and though you don’t know his story, something of his manner resonates within you. From somewhere in the blackness, a bird calls. Invisible, yet audible. Yes, that’s what the call was like. There is no way to prove such a thing, but it grasps your being nonetheless, echoing in every footstep, every fear. It fills you with longing even now. It awakens the hopes that ache to rise up and fly.
The old man stirs beside you, as if with the same restlessness. Again you wonder what brings him to this hillside hollow. “Will you be sojourning here long?” you ask.
Stroking his beard, the stranger lifts his eyes to the sky. “Ah, I’ve learned I’m not the one to be answering that question.”