Once there was a little boy who lived in a cottage by a vast wood. His mother and father regularly warned him not to get too close to the wood, or, heaven forbid, wander into the forest, because it was a magical forest and once he entered he would get lost and never return to his family.
For years, the boy heeded his parent’s warning. He played in his own little backyard and didn’t get too close to the forest’s edge. But one day, after his thirteenth birthday, a strange light appeared in the trees. It was a bright, white light that radiated every color of the rainbow. The light seemed to move behind the trees so that the boy could not get a good look at it. What a strange light, the boy thought. He’d never seen anything like it. The light had an unmistakable pull on the boy that he could not resist. He wandered into the forest in search of the light. Funny thing was, no matter how deep into the forest the boy went, he could not seem to get closer to the light.
Finally he got tired and frustrated and decided to go home. But the forest had closed itself off behind him and the path for home was gone. The boy suddenly became terrified. He ran in all directions, but the more he ran, the more confused and lost he became. Which way was home? He couldn’t tell. Not knowing what else to do, he sat down and cried. His tears flowed in a torrent until his face was soaked.
Suddenly, a large, dark apparition appeared, a demon of some kind. “You blew it, you fool,” the demon howled. “Didn’t your parents warn you about coming into this forest? Didn’t they warn you about me! You don’t have a clue what to do now. You’re going to be lost here forever. You’ll starve and die. It serves you right! Your arrogance is about to destroy you. Wisdom is prudence – didn’t your father tell you that? You have no wisdom and no prudence and no talent for surviving in this wood. Your story is over.”
Terrified beyond belief, the boy cried even louder. Instinctively, he called out, “Help, I’m lost!” He repeated his cry again and again, until finally a woman arrived, dressed in a strange garb that reminded the boy of the toy warriors he played with at home. With her appearance, the demon disappeared.
“Who are you?” the little boy asked the warrior.
“I’m here to help you find your way, Roger,” she said.
“How do you know my name?” he asked her.
“I’ve watched you playing in that little backyard of yours for years,” she said.
He didn’t understand. “What was that demon and where did it go?” he asked.
“That was the Hungry Thief who lives in this wood. He terrifies little boys and girls who wander into the forest and tries to lead them to their doom.”
“Are you going to bring me home to my parents?” he asked.
“No, there’s no going home to your parents now,” she said.
“Than how are you going to help me?” he asked.
“I’m going to help you find what you are searching for in the forest.”
“I want to go home,” he said.
“Really?” she said. “I thought you were bored at home.”
“I was,” he admitted. “There’s nothing left to do that’s any fun anymore.”
“Right,” she said. “What about your parents? Aren’t they bored, too?”
“Yes, they’re bored and angry. But I want to be with them. I miss them.”
“Do you want to live like they do, and wind up with the same life they have?”
“No,” he said. “I guess not.”
“Entering the forest was a choice for a more rewarding life than the one you’d have in your little backyard. You sacrificed the security and boredom of your parents’ world for a chance to better understand life.”
“What rewards?” he retorted. “What could be more rewarding and meaningful than the love I have for my parents?”
“The love you have for the light you saw,” she said.
“Oh that,” he said. “You know about that?”
She didn’t’ answer. Finally, she said, “We have to go.”
“Which way?” he asked.
“Only you can decide which path to travel,” she said. “Sit here until you make your decision.” The warrior walked away and disappeared in a dense stand of trees. The boy was alone.
He started to cry again. Immediately, the demon appeared. “You don’t know the way, you fool. If you go north, you will regret it, I promise you. If you go south, you’ll meet your end. West is filled with demons and lions and bears. In the East, a great, treacherous cliff awaits. You’ll fall to your doom.”
After a long cry, the boy fell asleep and when he woke up, a path lay before him. He felt a faint pull to travel it but he didn’t trust the feeling. Suddenly, the warrior came into view. For an instant, the boy glimpsed the light from behind the warrior, but it was fleeting and then gone.
“Which way?” she said.
“I don’t know,” the little boy said.
“What about the path in front of you?” she asked.
“I’m afraid. What would you do?”
“I’m only interested in the truth and the truth is this: There’s only one path. Are you ready to go?”
“I guess, but I’m sure it’s the wrong way,” he wined.
“It’s the only way,” she told him.
Filled with doubt, he set off on the path, the warrior at his side. As long as he concentrated on the warrior, he felt calm and courageous. He could feel her strength and intense sense of purpose, which seemed to rub off on him.
From time to time, the warrior disappeared and the Hungry Thief arrived and terrorized the boy. “You’re going the wrong way, you fool,” the Thief told him. “There’s nothing up ahead for you – no answers, no rest, nothing but failure. Remember that time when you got lost going to school? You wet your pants, you were so scared. That was nothing in comparison to the trouble you’re in now. This time, you’ll be consumed by lions, twisted up by disease, or thrown over the edge of the precipice. You better stop and choose another way. If you try hard enough, you might find your way out of this forest and back to your parents. Search for that path. If you stay on this one, you’re finished.”
After listening to attacks like this, the boy fell to the ground and cried. He would then engage in long bouts of self-recrimination and self-loathing until, eventually, he called out for help. Again and again, help arrived, though not in definitive ways. Once, when he couldn’t see the path, another little boy named Sammy appeared. Sammy was headed in another direction, but knew the path that Roger was on and showed him where he could find it again. Before saying goodbye, Sammy gave Roger some fruit to eat. Another time, after he cut his leg on some bushes, an old lady appeared. She cleaned and dressed his wound, gave him a loaf of bread, and sent him on his way. Meanwhile, the warrior kept turning up, encouraging him to keep going.
“This is the path you chose,” she told him. “Walk it with dignity.”
He mumbled, “If I get killed, what good is dignity?”
“What if you live, but have no dignity and no courage?” she asked him.
”Who will you be?”
Roger thought for a long moment and then became deeply sad. “My father,” he said.
“That’s why you left,” said the warrior.
Eventually, they reached a high, terrifying cliff where an enormous waterfall poured down on a river, three hundred feet below. It was the very cliff that the Hungry Thief had warned the boy about.
“We went East!” the boy cried out in horror. “Oh my God, I made a terrible mistake. The Thief warned me about this. I’ll go over the edge for sure and die on those rocks below. I want my Mommy! I want my Daddy. Somebody help me!”
With that, the boy sat down and cried his eyes out. The warrior was gone.
The boy lambasted the light. “Oh, what a terrible day it was when I saw that light and got sucked into this forest,” he said. “I hate that light. It tricked me and then brought me to a dead end.”
He thought about going back. Maybe the Thief was right – maybe I could find a path back to my parents’ house. But when he looked back, the forest was dark and foreboding. There was no going back. He cried some more and complained bitterly and cursed the light. Eventually, his tears gave way to exhaustion. He sat in silence and picked at the grass. He grabbed a stick and made little roads in the soil.
After brooding for awhile, he looked up and realized how beautiful the world was. The sun shone brilliantly in the water that cascaded over the falls. Beyond the falls was a breathtaking vista of sky and forest that extended to the horizon. Far below the place where he sat was a great gorge and a winding river. Life was so big, he realized. An infinite journey lay ahead of him.
That is, if he survived the journey down from where he sat and somehow crossed the great river below. And what then? More forest, more danger? He was tired and there were only a few more hours of daylight left. Loneliness fell on him like a heavy blanket. He thought about his mother and what she might be doing at that hour. He swallowed hard and felt a stab in his heart. Darkness came. He didn’t think he could make it through the night without collapsing under the weight of his homesickness. Eventually he fell asleep, but he dreamed of home and was tormented all night in his soul.
In the morning, he woke to blinding sunlight. When his eyes adjusted, he saw a path that led down from the precipice. It was steep and scary and he couldn’t see where it might lead. Why didn’t I see that last night? he asked himself.
“That path leads to your doom,” the Hungry Thief told him. “ It runs to a narrow cliff, where even mountain goats cannot hold their footing. You stupid fool. You’ll be looking down a sheer rock face, with nowhere to go and nothing to do but pee in your pants and wait for a stiff wind to sweep you into the gorge.”
He hesitated. What would the warrior do? he asked himself. She’d go, he answered. So he went.
The path was narrow and he had to be careful. In places the earth and rock gave way, but he held on to some roots that hung like ropes from the earthen wall and managed to make progress. He reached a small outcropping and the path ended.
He looked around frantically and saw his only answer. About fifteen feet below, a small outcropping, perhaps five feet wide, emerged from the rock face. It was covered in green plants and dark earth. From that tiny outcropping ran another narrow path that turned a corner. He couldn’t see where it led, but it seemed like the only viable choice.
Beyond the tiny ledge, the drop was perhaps a hundred feet, maybe more. Far below, the tops of tall trees stood like sentinels, well below the outcropping.
Inside his head, a voice spoke to him. “You’ll have to jump,” the voice told him. He looked down at the ledge again and saw that the plants and soil might provide a soft landing. But if he jumped too far out and missed the tiny cliff, he would go over the edge.
“I’ve never made a jump like that in my life,” he said to no one in particular. “What if I miss it and fall? I could get killed?”
Suddenly, the Hungry Thief was in his ear. “The fall will kill you,” the Thief said. “I told you about this place before you took up this path. Welcome to the bitter end, you fool.”
“You can make it,” a voice from deep inside told him.
“I’ve never made such a jump,” he said again.
He closed his eyes and said a silent prayer to Whomever might be out there in the ether. Then he looked down and jumped.
He was suddenly aware that he was falling much faster than he had anticipated. He hit the outcropping, bounced, and lost control of his body. In an instant, he saw himself go over the edge and fall into the abyss. He went into shock.
In the netherworld in which he fell, strange events occurred. He felt hands and arms reaching out from the blurry boundaries of his awareness. The hands and arms caught him and let him go and then caught him again. He fell, was caught, fell again, and was caught, and then fell some more. Strange voices could he heard; soft incantations were being recited. He could hear low voices singing in the background as he passed through what seemed like a long, dark dream.
The next thing he knew, he was waking up on the rocky ground near a river. He got to his feet and realized that he was whole. Not only had he survived the fall, but he was very much intact. He dusted himself off. He looked up at the rock face and tried to see the outcropping from which he had jumped. No such cliff could be seen, nor could he see the smaller precipice from which he had fallen. Perhaps it was hidden by the tall trees that stood between him and the rock-faced cliff.
Right before him, the river raged. White water and dark waves raced relentlessly with a powerful force. “I won’t be able to wade across,” he told himself. “There must be another way.”
He sat down on the small white rocks of the river bank and rested. “Which way should I go, left or right?” he asked himself. In the silence, he listened to the river and felt its power. Birds sang. Animals rustled in the leaves and pine needles nearby. The sun was warm and the river bank dry. But soon he was focused entirely on the peace of his inner world. A few moments later, he felt a warm glow in his heart and his entire body knew which way to walk – to the right and upstream, he told himself.
Along the way, he saw a patch of blueberry bushes waving in the breeze. He ate to his heart’s content and resumed his walk. He went on for a couple of miles, it seemed. Every so often, the Hungry Thief made the journey with him. “What are you looking for, you fool? There’s nothing up here. You should have gone the other way.”
Just when he began to doubt that he had made the right choice, he saw a bridge. In the middle of the bridge, an old man stood and waved to him.
“Yes, yes, yes,” the old man was saying. “Come on, come on.”
Roger arrived at the foot of the bridge and looked closely at the man. But for the absence of waders, he was dressed like an old fly fisherman.
“That was quite a fall you took, young man,” he said to Roger. “But I see you’re fine. So come on, we’ve been waiting for you.”
When Roger got halfway across the bridge, the old man shook his hand and smiled at him with a love that warmed Roger’s heart. “Congratulations,” the old man said. “You found the way.”