Once, in a time and place far removed from whichever time and place in which you currently reside, there was a young princess. This young princess was special. Now, to be fair, all princesses are special, especially when you compare them to the moppets of the peasant class, but this particular princess was special even by princess standards. For, this young princess (who we shall call Eliza because I am overusing the word ‘princess’) was, by all accounts, an undeniable genius.
This was undoubtedly a surprise to the various folk of the kingdom who made royal-watching a significant part of their daily business. For Eliza’s father, King Rolf, was known throughout the continent to be a short-sighted fool. As for her mother, Queen Isadore, well, she was as average in intelligence as a royal could be. And let us not even get started on the academic merits of her older brother Marcus. Even the fawning royal historians of the period couldn’t come up with anything nice to say about his brain.
But back to Eliza. You see, this young princess had a real knack for comprehending the truths of the world. By the age of five, she had mastered five languages, and was fluent in three others. By the age of nine, she had read all of the leather-bound books that had been otherwise gathering dust in her father’s royal library. And by the age of fifteen, she was so knowledgeable in the arts and sciences that no tutor or professor could teach her more.
Now, there comes a time in all princesses’ lives when they must settle down and marry the strapping young lad from some other kingdom that their parents have chosen for political or economic reasons. Wise readers, you of course know that this is the only reason for princesses in the first place! Many princesses take this new, un-sought-for position in life with a certain zeal, because really, what else can they do? Fight the patriarchy? Why, that’s hard as hell today! Can you imagine the opposition in the distant past, when the world was flat and the sun was led across the sky in a golden chariot? Who would be foolish enough to risk her life to maintain some form of independence?
Well, Eliza was. Shortly after her sixteenth birthday, her father announced her impending marriage to the middle-aged Prince Antony of ______. This was a real shock to the young princess. She was aware of Prince Antony – who didn’t know of the Hero of Randall’s Bridge? She was also aware of just what her virginity was worth (an alliance and two provinces on the coast). Worst of all, she was aware of what Prince Antony expected in his wife – total obedience to his princely whims, whims which included a complete halt in academic pursuits. All of this added together to form a storm of frustration and anger that could only lead to one possible outcome. A week before she was to be married, Eliza ran away.
Taking with her nothing but a few days’ food, a heavy woolen cloak and a notebook containing her most prized facts and figures, Eliza fled into the most remote frontiers of the kingdom, the Red Mountains. Ancient pillars of granite pierced the sky as she roamed higher and higher. Having spent her life confined to the marble palaces and chilly castles of her kingdom, these silent sentinels from Earth’s past filled her with a most profound awe. Oftentimes, she would stop to break by some little stream, or atop some ragged outcrop, and gaze lovingly at the landscape around her. Her eyes, well-trained by thousands of texts and years of people-watching, took in every edge and every shade. Alone and in wonder with the world, Eliza found herself happy.
Unfortunately, happiness does not fill your stomach. By this time, Eliza (unused to rationing and the depredations of hunger) had already ate through her supplies. To make matters worse, the land was not proving as fruitful as she had read it to be. After three days of nothing but apples and spring water, Eliza considered returning to the comforts and privileges of home.
It was at this moment of wavering resolve that Eliza came across a small cottage built carelessly alongside the shore of a rambling river. Freshly caught fish lay drying in the afternoon sun while a fire crackled lazily in a pit nearby. Lying in the shade of a drooping willow tree was an old man. He appeared to be sleeping.
Eliza approached quietly, uncertain whether she should wake the old man and beg for a fish, or just steal one and run. One method hurt her pride, the other her carefully constructed moral image of herself. Both were disagreeable, but her stomach demanded a sacrifice.
Luckily for her, she had to choose neither. As she approached, the old man awoke and noticing where she was heading, smiled. “Hello. Would you like a fish then?”
Eliza froze, her face reddening from embarrassment. “Uh, yes, if it would not be too big of a problem for you.”
“Of course not.” The old man rose and taking two of the drying fish, carefully placed them on large sticks. With a great deal of finesse, he perfectly positioned them over the fire. He motioned Eliza to take a seat nearby and threw some more wood on the fire. In a few minutes, the fire was awake from its lazy slumber and the two sat listening to the crackle of wood and fish meat.
“It’s rare for me to have company up here,” said the old man, glancing at the princess through his shaggy eyebrows. “I apologize for not having anything besides fish and water to offer you.”
Eliza quickly waved away the sentiment. She was still a bit embarrassed. “Oh no, really, this is very kind of you as it is.” She shifted in her seat, trying to think of what to say next. “If I may be so forward to ask, why are living here so deep in the mountains?”
“Oh, I like the solitude. Where I used to live, there was always something going on. Places to go, people to see. It was quite tiring. Here, there is quiet. Time moves at a different speed.” He chuckled. “But these are pleasures for old men. What about yourself? You do not strike me as a local.”
Eliza told the old man of her impending marriage and her fear that such a marriage would hurt her ability to pursue knowledge, being careful to not mention her position as princess of the realm. She finished her story as the old man silently lifted the fish out of the fire and placed them on two old wooden plates. He passed one to her and began eating. Eliza waited for a minute and then said, in barely a whisper:
“I don’t know if I did the right thing.”
The old man considered this as he chewed. “Well, that’s the thing, isn’t it? How are we supposed to know?”
“Do you think I did the right thing?”
The old man waved away the question. Such difficult questions always made him uncomfortable. “I cannot answer that for you.”
Eliza said nothing but stared vacantly at the fire.
The old man panicked slightly. “I am just an old man living in these mountains. I certainly do not have the knowledge or authority to answer such a profound question. But I know someone who may be able to help. We shall go see her tomorrow if that is what you wish.”
Eliza nodded and remembering that she was really quite hungry, started to devour the fish. That night she slept by the fire with the spare bedding the old man was kind enough to lend her. Before fading into sleep, she counted the embers that floated from the blaze and disappeared into the sea of stars above. After forty she lost count and the next thing she knew, it was morning.
After a breakfast of nuts and berries, the two mountain folk, one old and one young, set off across the mountainside and into the forest, away from the river with its warbling and meaty fish. After an hour or so marching they reached a little glade where a log cabin sat as if were but a part of nature itself. The old man gave a call and from the cabin emerged an old woman. She was darker than the old man, and not nearly so wrinkly. A feeling of serenity seemed (to young Eliza) to radiate off of her.
She welcomed them to her home and presented them with some tea she had just finished making. They graciously accepted and took their seats, Eliza on a wizened chair and the old man on a rug nearby.
Eliza took a quick glance around the old woman’s cabin. It was a single large room, with a bed in one corner and a pantry in another. One wall was completely covered in bookshelves, filled to the brim with dusty volumes of various sizes and many different languages. Eliza could scarcely imagine the effort it must have taken to bring all of those books so far out into the middle of nowhere.
“It has been a while, old man,” she said, taking a seat on a well-made wooden couch. A little orange cat appeared seemingly out of nowhere and curled into a ball on her lap. “And you have brought a stranger along with you. Two wonders in the same day.”
Eliza leaned forward anxiously. “It is a pleasure to meet you, madame. Thank you for this tea. You really didn’t have to.”
The old woman laughed. “Oh, no worries at all. I am alone so often here. It is always a joy when company rears its head.”
The old man adjusted himself into a cross-legged position and sipped the hot tea. “Eliza here comes with a question which you perhaps may answer. You are the only wise one I know around here, so I thought a visit may do her good.”
The wise old woman raised an eyebrow. “Is that so? Well, it’s nice to be needed.”
Eliza looked at the old man, who merely motioned her to go on. As she did the night before, Eliza spoke her story, making sure to leave out the royal bits. At the end of the summation, she asked the question which had so recently pierced her heart.
The wise old woman sat quietly for a few minutes considering. “Did you do the right thing? Well that, as a question, is unanswerable. It’s too vague. Too imprecise. And as we all know, you cannot answer a question unless that question has an answer. Perhaps then, it would be better if we phrased it differently, into some way where an answer is possible.”
She paused for a moment, pursing her lips and furrowing her brow. “Ah, how about this. ‘In the pursuit of knowledge, is one willing to sacrifice all their connections, with their people and with their home?’ Yes, that will do.”
Eliza sat silently and considered this. She considered it as the wise old woman and the genial old man chatted about their mountain gossip. She considered it as she said goodbye to the wise old woman and her cabin, and as she followed the old man back to the river. She considered it that night as she lay watching the embers float into the heavens.
And how, you may ask, did she answer that question? I don’t know exactly. She never directly said it out loud. (Unfortunately, I am not omnipotent.) But perhaps we can infer from her actions.
Eliza stayed in the mountains and never left, building her own home in between the cottage of the old man and the cabin of the wise old woman. In time, she grew old. From the outside world, her old world, she heard only bits and pieces. News rarely goes far in the Red Mountains. In time, she learned of her father’s death and her brother’s rule. She heard of wars and famines and peace and grand harvests. In time also, her old neighbors perished and she came to know new ones.
Perhaps, at this point, I should propose my own theory as to the question asked and the life answered. Perhaps the wise old woman (as all wise old men and women sometimes are) was incorrect. Perhaps the question itself was incorrect. For it seems to me that in her pursuit of knowledge, Eliza never really sacrificed her people nor her home. I would go so far as to argue that in entertaining her curiosity, and defending her choice, Eliza the genius found her people and her home. The old man and wise old women, the various mountain folk who passed irregularly through her life: all of these brought meaning to her self and to her quest.
I choose to leave the story here with a final image, one that reflects my own little theory: that of a wise old Eliza answering a knock on her door, and finding on her doorstep a young ragged child seeking knowledge of the world.