Writing Resources from Fifteen Minutes of Fiction
RegretsHe was an elderly man with gray hair and heavy tangled brows above sunken eyes. He had a slightly sagging double chin beneath lips that turned up in a quiet, secretive smile. He took me by the arm and said, simply, "Come."
I didn't even know his name, but there was something so delightful about his expression, something so comforting about his touch that I could not make myself refuse his invitation. He led me forward - I know not how - past the gates of reality into the realm of dreams, and there he guided me over mountains and into valleys, between woods and plains. There we splashed through gurgling brooks that continually winked in the sunlight; there we laughed at tiny fish taunting one another in playful games of underwater hide-and-seek.
As we strolled we talked of many things. He spoke of even the mundane with magnificent eloquence that hinted at deep meaning begging to be understood. Here I found a kindred spirit; the things he said I had often thought - though I could never have put those ideas to words so freely and confidently.
At last we came to a place where the roads diverged, and no signpost in the dreamscape told us which path to take. He waited for me to choose, but I confessed my ignorance of the ways of his land, and asked him to choose for me. He smiled, again with that amused and secretive twist to his lips, and pointed to the right. "There," he said, "is the road more traveled."
Startled, I turned to look at him again, and recognition dawned. "That was you," I said in wonder.
"You took the road less traveled."
He said nothing, but waited patiently, unmoving, with twinkling amusement in his eyes.
"And it has made all the difference," I added. He nodded.
"All my life," I said, "I have lived by those words - I have taken the path less traveled."
He motioned me foward, and we made our way down that less traveled road. Mile after mile we walked, pausing as often as we desired to smell the flowers, or simply to gaze upon the mountains that splashed shades of purple across the horizon. We came eventually to another divergence, and this time my companion said nothing, no matter how I begged him to point the way. I studied the two roads, and then at last saw how the grass was more trampled in one direction. So we went the other way.
On and on we traveled, my poet friend and I, and as we traveled we came upon one fork after another. Sometimes he chose the way; more often he left the decision to me. Time seemed to have frozen in place here in this magical place of my dream; we grew neither hungry nor tired as we walked the paths before us. At last we reached a high mountain place, and the road I chose led us to the very top. There we sat side by side, me with my hands on my knees, and he beside me with his hand resting gently on mine in an expression of fatherly affection.
"Thank you," I said, as we watched the sun slowly setting behind red clouds and into purple mountains.
"For what?" he replied, wondering.
"For bringing me here. For showing me the way. For sharing this sunset with me."
"It was not just for the sunset I brought you here," he said. I heard sadness in his voice.
"Then why?" I asked.
"Look below. Look at the path we took."
I cast my gaze downward, instead of outward, and followed the trail we had walked. It was easy to see, for all the pathway where our feet had touched was lit up with a strange glow. Backward and backward my eyes followed that luminescent trail until it disappeared on the misty horizon and I could see it no more. I turned to look at my friend, wondering what he meant for me to see.
"Now look at the paths we did not take."
Again I looked downward, and backward, and saw to my dismay that there were no other roads. There was only the one we had taken. "The roads," I said, troubled and perplexed, "I cannot see the other roads. The ones we did not take."
"Yes," he agreed. "You cannot see them. Nor can I. For they no longer exist. Perhaps they never did exist."
"I don't understand," I replied, "I saw them; certainly they must have existed."
"Whatever they might have been," the poet replied, "they are no longer roads; they are only regrets."
"I don't understand," I repeated.
"Come, child. Life is too short for pretending. You understand me perfectly. How many times have you walked one road, then regretted the ones you did not take?"
Perhaps it was the wind blowing in my face, or a speck of dust in my eye, but I felt the beginning of a tear welling up. Soon it would follow a well traveled road of its own, down my cheek and off my chin. "All of my life," I said, brushing at my tears with the back of my hand.
"Would you like to see where the paths of your regrets, your untraveled roads, would have taken you?" he asked.
"Very much," I said without hesitation, "I would like that very much."
He smiled knowingly. "Ah, child," he said, "so would I. I have so often wished it. Yet it is a great and severe mercy of God that we cannot see down those paths."
"I don't understand," I said, and this time I was not pretending.
"You are a strange child," he said, "but not so different from the rest of your kind." Then after a pause he corrected himself. "Our kind. For I was no different in my life - always wishing for what I could never have." His smile was gentle and knowing, but also sad.
"If I had the power of God in my eyes, I could show you the paths you didn't take. Again and again I would show you paths that led to disease, unhappiness, despair, destruction, and even death. And you would smile to yourself, knowing that you had made a wise choice to end your travels on top of a mountain with an old man who took a less traveled road.
"But I would also have to show you what you cannot see now - that in this vast landscape there are myriads of mountains, multitudes of companions, and an infinite supply of sunsets over distant horizons. Each more beautiful, more wonderful than the last. And if I showed you all these, what would you do then?
"Would you let the vanished possibility of a different joy spoil for you this moment in time? Would you let the delight of our companionship fade into helpless longing for another? And would you let your untraveled roads rob us of this, our present joy?"
With that question he fell silent, and I found that I had no answer for him. Together we sat in quiet and comfortable contemplation, there on the mountain top. His soft and wrinkled hand still rested on my own as we enjoyed the grand vista before us. There was no past, no future, and no other mountain but our own for the space of time it took the sun to dip at last below the horizon and all the world to fall into darkness.
I awoke then in my own bed, still able to feel the rush of wind on my face, the phantom pressure of a gentle hand on mine, and the course of one great tear down the well traveled path of my cheek.
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