The rain fell upon the village for three days. It was so much that the sky appeared as a single ash-gray thing, and the black sand on the beach would turn into a stew of rotten shellfish and salty mud. In this village a boy named Arlo lived with his mother in a square house made of yellow stone and with a straw roof; it was built into the side of a grassy hill and surrounded by dark grey, black and green flint pebbles and tufts of clumpy white chalk nodules that protruded out of the grass.
On the third night, when the rain had finally let, the stone house released a pungent smell that you or I would find revolting, but is all too normal in this village, where they boil the blue rain crabs in the same water that falls from the sky and stir it all in a pot with roe of Discus, a fish they so easily catch when the rain forces the nearby streams to overflow and the poor creatures can be found flapping on the banks, panicking as their scales dry and their gills tear open in search of water.
It was only because their house always became infested with the crabs whenever it rained that neighbors would call on Arlo’s mother to boil crabs for everyone. However, she had convinced herself that it was because she was the best cook in the village, a title that actually belonged to her cousin Wilemeta, a large ponderous woman with leathery hands and mismatched eyes, one brown like an almond and the other red like the fire beneath the boiling pot of crabs.
Just as they always did after it rained, the neighbors crowded into Arlo and his mother’s home with woven baskets that they would fill up with boiled legs and even entire crabs. On this night, an old man, a very old man, stumbled through the village and was alerted by the rancid smell that emanated from the tiny stone house. Normally, those who weren’t from the village would stay away when Arlo’s mother boiled the crabs, but this man, for a reason I don’t and will likely never know, was intrigued by the odor. He walked hunched over towards the house, dragging his terribly long arms behind him, scraping the knuckles of his hands against the soiled road, oftentimes nicking them on small stones or bits of splintered wood. When he reached the door, the man lifted his swollen hand up from the ground and pushed the reed mat door open.
The old man walked into the house and made his way to the corner of the room, pushing neighbors aside, as he watched them crowd near the kitchen yelling out for more crab legs. Nobody seemed to notice him, and this made him happy, until a few moments later a young girl saw the strange man, and with the curiosity of a child, decided to ask him his name.
“Paolo,” the man answered.
“What are you doing here,” asked the girl.
“I smelled the cooking, and I came to see what could produce such a powerful smell.”
The girl looked at Paolo with a strange eye.
“Is the cook here,” he asked.
“Yes,” answered the girl, “she’s in the kitchen next to Arlo.” She pointed towards the boy who was filling neighbors’ baskets with crabs. Paolo nodded his head and waved the girl away.
Eventually a fisherman spotted Paolo, and not recognizing him as one of the villagers, asked him what he was doing in the home. He was a fat and foolish man that always ate too much and asked too many questions -- the kind we’ve all met once or twice before.
“I’m here for the crabs, just like you, my friend,” said Paolo.
“These crabs are for the neighbors, old man,” said the fisherman with a scowl.
“I was not aware,” Paolo answered.
Then, Arlo noticed Paolo and rushed towards him, dropping a basket half-full of crabs on the ground in front of him. Droplets of water and bits of crab meat spewed everywhere as the vibrations from the impact sent them into the air.
When the boy came close, Paolo spoke.
“Hello Arlo,” he said.
“I’ve thought much about it, and I’ve come to answer your question.” The boy nodded his head and couldn’t help but let out a crooked smile, exposing a mouthful of browned teeth and gaps.
Several days before the rain started, Arlo’s mother had sent the boy to the capital to sell axes made of flint at the market. Arlo was supposed to bring back the money for his mother, but instead went to the circus where he purchased an answer for one question from the sage, Paolo.
“What is love,” Arlo had asked Paolo, but the old man stood quiet, his long arms resting on two stacks of feathered pillows beside his wood chair, and never answered. I can tell you that on that day Paolo didn’t speak because Arlo’s question truly puzzled him. He certainly knew love, he had felt it before, but he didn’t know what love was, and so bound by his pledge to never reveal a false word he chose not to speak.
You may be asking yourself why Arlo asked such a question. Well, it’s quite simple: Arlo had never felt love, and he was curious why all the women in the village always spoke of love with such tenderness and adoration. He thought the wise man would answer his question, but he left despondent and walked back to his village, as he thought of his own answer with no success. Paolo’s visit shone hope in Arlo’s mind.
“I have a friend,” said Paolo as he stood in the corner of Arlo’s home, neighbors still pushing each other towards the kitchen. “He calls himself a practical philosopher, a man who has dedicated his life to discovering the truth in the world. He is not a teacher, nor a theorist. He learns of the world on the roads, at the market and in the baths. He learns not by thinking alone, but by experiencing those around him.”
Arlo stared silently at the old man and noticed a mosquito fly by, buzzing as it swayed in and out of the old man’s pointed ears. This was the first time Arlo had taken the time to really inspect Paolo. He was a frightening old man, dressed like a vagabond, with only a few long, faded grey hairs on his bald skull, two piercing yellow eyes that lacked lashes of any sort, and a sharp half-nose that pointed upwards, tiny moist hairs poking out of his nostrils. Of course, he also had those long arms that he dragged along the ground. You can trust me when I tell you that at one point Paolo stood tall, and his arms were grand symbols of his strength, but now he was old and they made him look like an ape.
“For some time,” continued Paolo, “like you, my friend has been consumed by the idea of love. He’s gone many months asking everyone what love is and what importance does it hold in our lives.”
Arlo smiled as he thought he would finally get his answer.
“Most recognize that they don’t exactly know what love is; some say that it’s to care for a person, a wish to be together as one; others still believe that love and sex are the same thing,” said the old man.
“No matter what they answer, however,” said Paolo as he swatted at the buzzing mosquito, “they all affirm that love is the most important thing in their lives, the only thing that fills them with joy.”
Arlo looked at the old man, unsatisfied with the answer. He sighed and crossed his arms in disappointment.
The old man noticed the boy’s displeasure and began again, “Arlo, love is total commitment and surrender to another, but not a superficial surrender that is spoiled by inconsistency; it’s a pure submission by a person who not only adores another person, but adores adoring that person.”
Paolo looked at the boy, lifted a finger and began rubbing the pointed tip of his nose. Oh, and what an ugly little half-nose it was. Only one other time have I seen a nose so dreadful, but that is a story for some other night.
“Arlo, I’d like you to do something,” said the old man. “Please come outside with me.”
Arlo followed him, still upset with the answer he had been given. You see, Arlo had spent nearly two months gathering and sharpening the flint to make the thirty axes he sold at the market a few days ago for three coins each. Half the coins were used to pay for the cart ride to and from the capital, and Arlo had spent the other half at the circus. Arlo’s mother had been very upset with the boy for spending the coins, and he wanted to know that he hadn’t wasted them foolishly.
Paolo and the boy stood outside, and the large moon shone against the slick stones and chalk on the hill, so that the light reflected off their surfaces and glowed like powder as it mixed with the foggy air that blew in from the sea. Pelican chicks croaked in the distance as their mother searched the shoreline for washed-up crustaceans or hatchling turtles that were shuffling their way into the ocean.
“I want you to go to Montoya,” said Paolo. “On the shores of the island you will see a large flower, one of the largest you, I, or anyone has ever known. Pick this flower and bring it to me, so I can explain to you what love is.”
The boy, eager to discover the meaning of love, hurried to the wooden wharf that stretched out ten-dozen feet into the sea and was supported by barnacle-encrusted beams. He stepped into his uncle’s boat, a dory with a portside outrigger fastened to the main hull, which his uncle had painted a pale blue, and began to row out towards the island.
Montoya was a small rocky key only about a half-mile from the village where Arlo lived. It was lush with fruit and plentiful with fish, but the waters near were dangerous and the tides strong, so the villagers rarely ever traveled to the island. It took Arlo ten hours to make it to shore, and when he arrived he beached the boat and began looking around for the large flower Paolo had sent him to find.
Arlo walked up the beach towards a series of stepped rock formations and a leafy bush line dotted with immense pink and purple flowers. When he was close enough to see their extravagance, the boy stared in awe at the enormous ball-shaped flowers. These flowers are truly the largest I have ever seen, so believe me when I tell you that each one was larger than the boy’s face.
When he finally selected one to bring back to Paolo, Arlo had to wrap both his hands around the flower to pick it. He carefully brought the purple flower back to the boat and rowed to the village, eager to understand how this giant flower was the meaning of love.
“Wonderful, Arlo,” said Paolo as the boy carried the flower to him. “But, I need you to bring me another flower as well.”
“Yes, I will bring you another flower,” answered the boy with eagerness.
“Go to the forest and bring me a rose.”
So, the boy quickly ran past his house, up the chalk-littered hill and into the dense forest outside the village. In this forest roses do not grow, they grew much further north, close to the capital. But, Paolo wouldn’t have sent Arlo there if there were no rose to be found, so, with patience, the boy looked for the delicate flower.
Arlo followed the trickling sound of a blackwater creek, knowing that near water he was more likely to find a rosebush. The small creek was under a nearly total canopy shading, and fallen tree branches and leaves floated in the current, which looked more like black coffee than water. A hairy sloth with massive sharp claws hung from the branches as it looked down at the searching boy.
Arlo spent ten days searching for the rose but found nothing. He drank no water, and didn’t eat any of the fruit that hung from the trees; the boy was determined to find the rose, and nothing else mattered. When his throat cried for water and his stomach could no longer take the aches, he decided he was going to return to the village and tell Paolo there were no roses in this forest -- I’m sure you can understand why he grew disenchanted with his search. But, as he walked back, Arlo found, growing in front of him, out of the ground, a small thorny red rose. At once Arlo’s mind jumped with excitement. He carefully picked the flower out of the ground and continued towards the village.
“Excellent, Arlo,” said Paolo as the boy handed him the rose. “But, I have one more flower I need you to find.” He took the rose and placed it down on the grass beside the large flower from Montoya.
Exhausted, the boy looked at the old man and said, “Yes. I will find you one last flower, but if I don’t find the meaning of love after I bring you this flower, then I will stop wondering. Nothing in this world,” he continued, “is worth the trouble I’ve gone to to know the answer to my silly question.”
Paolo smiled at the boy, leaned in and said, “Go to the mountains. Climb the highest peak you find and search the most inhospitable place you come across, where it looks as if nothing could ever grow out of the ground. There you will find a small white flower with star-shaped petals made of cotton and four yellow flower heads. Bring me this flower, and I will tell you the meaning of love.” The old man took his sun-spotted hand and placed it on the boy’s head, giving it a few taps, then sending Arlo on his way.
For ten years Arlo walked to the summit of the tallest mountain he knew. It’s a mountain taller than I’ve ever climbed, and taller than any you’ve ever seen. So tall, in fact, that some say when the angels give birth they use the snow from its peak to nourish the newborn cherubs.
As he searched the peak for the white flower, a vicious wind ran down Arlo’s neck and into his lungs. He squeezed his fist and squinted his eyes, then tucked his chin into his chest and covered his face with a black alpaca hood his mother had given him before he left. He bit his tongue and began to bleed from his mouth; red droplets dotted the icy mountainside. Arlo dug his hand into the snow and wildly shuffled around for the flower. Powder puffed into the chilly air, but he found nothing. Arlo became upset.
He wondered why he had wasted so much time searching for love, when he felt a snowflake touch his hand and fall to the frozen ground. Arlo stared at the flake on the ground as it melted away, when suddenly a flower began to sprout from the tiny puddle that had formed, a white flower with star-shaped petals made of cotton. Arlo let out an overjoyed yell, picked the ugly little flower and ran the entire way back to his village, never once stopping.
When he arrived, he found Paolo standing in the same spot he left him and handed the third flower to him and asked, “What is the meaning of love?”
I’m not sure what Paolo had done to entertain himself this while, but he was a sage, so I’m certain it was a wiser act than any of us can think of.
When he received the flower, the old man was content with Arlo and responded, “These three flowers you brought me: the large purple one is an hydrangea, the second a rose, and this final flower an edelweiss.”
Paolo took the three flowers with his left hand and rested them side-by-side along his long forearm, as he showed them to Arlo.
“It occurs to me, Arlo,” said the old man, “that love is very much like these three flowers you have brought me.”
“How is love like these flowers,” questioned the boy.
“Love is like the hydrangea. It is such a large flower, isn’t it Arlo,” asked Paolo.
“Yes,” he answered, “it’s the largest I’ve ever seen.”
“But look closely Arlo, and you will see that this large flower is actually made up of hundreds of tiny flowers that are packed so closely together they appear as one. The hydrangea is large because of the union of countless little flowers that on their own are insignificant. Great love is the same; it is made up of many immeasurable little acts that appear unimportant when viewed alone, but taken together stand as symbols of devoted submission to another.”
“And the rose,” asked Arlo. “How is love like the rose?”
“The rose unites the beauty of the flower with the strength of the stem. The harsh stem aids the rose to survive the thunderous rainfalls and pounding winds, and its thorns protect it from those who wish to destroy it. It is the thorny stem that allows the rose to grow higher than the other flowers in the bush and prevents insects from eating away at its delicate petals. Love is like the rose, because it combines beauty and strength, tenderness and pain. A love without sacrifice never grows strong; it drowns in the earliest rainfall, withers away with the lightest breeze and becomes victim to the apetite of even the smallest of bugs. Only through altruism can the beauty and strength of love survive. Without sacrifice, love lacks the capacity to endure.”
Arlo looked at the old man as Paolo handed him the purple hydrangea, the rose and the edelweiss. I’m sure you can imagine the last flower was terribly ugly beside the grandeur of the other two flowers -- symbols of love.
“How can this cotton flower be love,” asked Arlo as he stared into Paolo’s yellow eyes, searching for a completed answer.
“As you discovered, the edelweiss grows where nothing else can. It is not like the daisy, which blankets the valleys with millions of indistinguishable flowers and can always be found in those places where it is so very easy to pick,” said Paolo.
“No, the edelweiss is singular and great. It is always far from the reach of casual searchers, and there are no two edelweiss that are the same; each one is unique, irreplaceable and unrepeatable. Like the edelweiss, love is rare and inimitable. It cannot be reached by everyone. Those who want love must climb the highest mountain to find it, leave behind many things, and push themselves to reach the most inaccessible summit together. Love cannot be found along the village roads or in the shallow valleys. And love cannot be repeated in the same manner many times. Love is not a daisy, it is the edelweiss: unique and real.”
“Do you now know what love is,” asked Paolo as he looked at the young boy with the three flowers in his arms.
“I do see what love is now,” he answered. “You have answered my question,” said the boy as he gave the old man a kiss, turned and ran towards the stone home where his mother was waiting for him.
“Mother, shall I tell you what love is,” Arlo asked. Without waiting for her response he continued, “Love is like these three flowers, the hydrangea, the rose and the edelweiss.”
She smiled and took the flowers from the boy, then placed them in a stone bowl, which she filled with water and sprinkled specks of herbs into. She placed the bowl on a Kapok branch shelf in the kitchen. The boy and his mother then opened their reed mat door and stared as Paolo dragged his knuckles behind him and walked out of the village towards the north.
“Love is about relinquishing many reassurances,” spoke Arlo. “It is about forgetting what is easy and relinquishing oneself to an uncomfortable but wonderful adventure in total devotion.” His mother, as all of our mothers did when we were young, grabbed his hand and kissed him on the forehead.
The two walked back into their home and his mother began preparing a vegetable stew. Arlo took a broom made of mule hair and began sweeping the ground, pushing the dust and dirt underneath the front door. A neighbor passed by as Arlo swept the dust out into the road and began to cough. The boy paused for a second, then continued to sweep as the passerby kept on walking past the stone house to wherever he was going.