IME IS A LONG AND TWISTING PATH. You follow the path and sometimes it seems like it is looping right back on you where you started. But it is always a new time, because you can only go forward. We meet other people on the path and for a few brief moments we share a time with them, but soon they are gone and we continue on our path through time. Always going forward.
Often, there are different time paths that we might follow, but we choose which path to take. And what happens to the other path? Does it go on, leading to other experiences and people? Perhaps that is where stories come from. When we “once upon a time” we follow a different path.
The Implausible Hat
NCE UPON A PATH OF TIME there traveled a man who would slay the dragon. He did not know for sure if he had volunteered for the task or if he had been chosen. He did not know when he would be called upon to slay the dragon. He did not even really know what a dragon was, aside from the fact that it was fierce and to be feared and it breathed fire. But he knew from his earliest memories that he was the one who would one day slay the dragon.
The man’s name was Steven George. Oh, yes. You’ve heard stories of Saint George and the Dragon. But you shouldn’t get Steven confused with the venerable saint. As far as we know, Saint George never actually met a dragon, and may not even have believed they exist. The stories of Steven George have been confused with Saint George because they share a last name and because in the old manuscripts Steven was abbreviated, Stn.
On the particular day that we pick up this story, Steven was about to set off on his journey to slay the dragon. The time had finally come. The evidence that Steven had was the fact that a sheep had been slain earlier in the week, its bloody carcass left partially charred near the river. The Village Elder said that the time had come. The dragon had attacked. We must send the dragon-slayer out to do his job.
Steven was pleased that this was the day that he was to fulfill his destiny. He had always known where the dragon lived. There was a high mountain on the other side of a wide river and Steven had often seen plumes of smoke rise from its peak. That was where the dragon must live. If Steven could just figure out how to get across the wide and treacherous river, he would be able to walk up the mountain and find the dragon. But Steven had no way across the river. So he had carefully planned his strategy. He knew that downstream ten thousand two hundred and thirty steps, another equally wide and treacherous river joined the one near his village and cut him off from progressing further in that direction. So, he planned to walk upstream until the river narrowed or became sufficiently shallow that he could wade across. Then he would come back downstream until he found the place of the dragon on the other side.
Steven was ready to shoulder his pack and step off his front step, the first step of his journey, when his lover approached him from behind.
“Steven, dear, I’ve packed you a lunch,” she said. She handed him a small parcel wrapped in oiled skin and looked at him lovingly. “So now you are off to slay the dragon. How exciting.”
Steven didn’t really know what to say, so he kissed his lover and said he expected he would be gone a few days. He already had strips of dried meat and dried fruits in his pack, but he accepted the proffered lunch, looked sadly at his lover and took step number one. Two, three, four, five, six. Steven always counted his steps. Steven felt that as long as he knew how many steps from home he was, he knew where he was. Steven counted the steps to the river, the steps to the pastures, the steps to the field. Steven had counted the steps between his home and his mother’s home. He had counted the steps around the village long-house. Steven knew how many steps it was to the confluence of the next river downstream and had walked the same number of steps upstream. Knowing the number of steps he was taking kept Steven grounded. Steven always counted his steps. Fourteen, fifteen, sixteen, seventeen.
Steven walked at the steady, measured pace of eighty steps per minute. To walk more slowly would make it appear that he was reluctant proceed on his journey or to perform his task. To walk more rapidly would make it appear that he was rushing and careless. He counted each step until he stopped before the village hunter who stood in the road blocking his path.
Steven had hunted with the hunter over the years and the hunter had taught him the arts of making arrows, setting traps, and surviving in the wilderness. Now the hunter stood before Steven and offered him his bow and quiver of arrows.
“You will need something to kill the dragon with, Steven George,” said the hunter. I want you to take my bow and arrows so that you can make our village safe from the dragon again.”
Steven accepted the bow and quiver of arrows gratefully from the hunter. He hadn’t been exactly sure how he would slay the dragon before this, but now he felt confident that he was fully equipped to slay the dragon. He proceeded further through the village where people were gathering to watch him go. As he moved forward—thirty-five, thirty-six, thirty-seven, thirty-eight—the village wise-woman stepped out to greet him.
“Steven, you will have many adventures and may face many dangers. This packet of herbs will heal any wound. Just smelling them will revive your spirits.” She lowered her voice until it was barely a whisper and Steven leaned in to hear her. “Just a pinch in your soup will make the poorest meal taste like a king’s feast,” she winked at him.
Steven gratefully accepted the packet of herbs thinking how fortunate he was to have this healing remedy in case he was injured. He walked on through the village—fifty-one, fifty-two, fifty-three, fifty-four. He came to the Shaman who stepped out to greet him.
“Steven George,” said the Shaman, “as you travel the path of time, wear this badge. It will identify you as a pilgrim in this world and give you safety and warm welcome wherever you journey.” Steven proudly accepted the jeweled pendant and placed it around his neck. He walked a little straighter through the village—sixty-nine, seventy, seventy-one. Steven was near the end of his small village when the village elder stepped out to block his path.
“Steven George,” said the Elder. “You will journey a long road and will become weary. As the burden of this great task that you have upon you becomes great, take this, my staff to lean on. You are not only our dragon-slayer, but our emissary to the world. Wield this staff with authority.”
Steven accepted the staff from the village elder with awe. It made a pleasant thump as Steven stepped out with it and for a moment he was uncertain if the proper protocol would be to count the thump of the staff as one of his steps, but he abandoned that thought rapidly and continued counting only his footsteps—ninety-one, ninety-two, ninety-three, ninety-four. He was near the last step of the village when his mother stepped into his path to embrace him.
“Steven,” she sobbed. “I’ve given you everything I can—my love, my faith, my hope. But honestly, you can’t go off to who knows where without a hat. You’ll catch your death of cold.”
With that, Steven’s mother presented him with a conical hat made of sheepskin, complete with flaps over his ears. It was late summer and Steven was instantly hot, and embarrassed.
“Mother,” he moaned. But she beamed at him in pride, so Steven held his tongue and wore his mother’s gift as he stepped boldly out of the village—one-hundred-three, one-hundred-four, one-hundred-five. Steven did not look back. He set his face toward the river and proceeded to walk upstream until the village was out of sight behind him (at exactly six hundred thirty-seven steps) and then he lengthened his stride to a far more comfortable hiking speed of one hundred steps per minute.
The ground seemed to fly beneath him as he went with a light heart up the stream.
Going did not continue to be easy, however. After ten thousand steps, the well-worn paths near the village faded to lesser used trails to known places near the village. These faded to hunter’s paths which in turn faded to game tracks. Steven was forced away from the river by swampy ground, then by a forested ridge. He continued to push back against the land that seemed set against his plan to follow the river. His progress slowed and the ground no longer seemed to fly. His pace fell from one hundred steps per minute to eighty, to sixty, finally forcing him to slow to less than forty steps per minute in order to get through the brush.
It was approaching evening when Steven broke through the underbrush to see the river gleaming in the late afternoon sun. Just as he came from under the shelter of the trees, a flock of ducks noisily rose from the banks of the river, startling him. Lagging behind them, Steven watched as a writhing circle with wings on one side rose laboriously to follow the flock.
Steven was elated at his luck. Surely this must be the dragon, come to feed on the flocks by the river. He strung his bow and nocked an arrow, but before he could draw the bow the shape plunged out of the sky and fell to earth. Steven ran toward the site as fast as he could through tall sandgrass, not letting go of the bow and arrow. Suddenly the ground fell out from under him and he plunged down a steep dune, tumbling head over heels out of control. He landed hard on a soft object that made a muffled quack when he hit and then was very still.
Steven scrambled to his feet, raced to grab his bow and arrow that had flown from his hands in the fall and turn to face the monster. It lay still on the sand with the imprint of Steven’s buttocks pressed into the sand next to it. Steven approached cautiously. He reached out with the bow and nudged the beast, but it lay still.
He nudged the beast again and walked carefully around it.
Steven realized this was not the dragon.
A duck, apparently snacking with its companions in the shallows or on the shore happened upon a snake. The duck saw only the tip of the snake’s tail and thought it looked like a tasty morsel. When roused abruptly from its snakely pastimes, the snake turned on the duck, unhinged its jaw and clamped down on the duck’s tail. Thus joined mouth to tail and tail to mouth, the duck attempted flight with its fellows, but was unable to stay airborne with snake in its mouth and attached to its tail. Steven had seen it plummet back to earth.
We will never know if snake or duck would have emerged victorious in this little battle. When Steven fell down the embankment he landed on the stunned pair and finished their struggle with the impact. Both duck and snake were dead.
To Steven, what had appeared to be the dragon, now looked like dinner. He built a fire, plucked and gutted the duck, skinned the snake and set both to roast with a pinch of the wisewoman’s herbs for good measure. It was his first night out and Steven was nineteen thousand two hundred fifty-four steps from home. He feasted on roast duck and dried and packed the snake in the oilskin packet that had formerly held the lunch packed by his lover.
Steven tidied up his campsite, intending to get a good night’s sleep before he continued on his journey in the morning. Now that he had rested, he realized his feet hurt. He prepared to burn the duck feathers and guts when he caught sight of his hat lying a few feet away. The hat had fallen off in his tumble down the slope and been ignored until just this moment when, with a hand full of feathers, he spotted it again.
He looked at the hat. He looked at the feathers. He nodded his head as a new creation suddenly took shape in his mind. Steven sat and intently began jabbing the feathers into the fur of the sheepskin hat. When the hat was fully covered with feathers, he wrapped the snakeskin twice around the headband. Holding it in one hand, he removed the pendant emblem the shaman had given him and fastened the ends of the snakeskin together with it.
When he was finished, Steven’s hat looked nothing at all like the hat his dear mother had given him. In fact, the feathered headdress surpassed description. Steven placed it upon his head, picked up the staff of the Village Elder and vocalizing a low chant began to dance around the fire. He had not slain the dragon this day, but this day he had made a fine new hat.
In spite of his aching feet, Steven had had a grand day and slept a peaceful sleep for the rest of the night.