From the Anthology: Stories from the Journey.
Once Upon A Time, there was a man named Fortunato who lived in Palermo, Sicily. In his earlier days he had been a very successful merchant, but when he reached his middle years life took a down turn.
First, his wife became ill and died, and he had no children or family from whom he could draw support. Then, storms and pirates ravaged his shipping and drove his business into bankruptcy. When he left his shop for the last time, he walked down the streets of Palermo a lost and lonely man.
The hills at the edge of the city had always been a source of comfort to Fortunato, so he headed toward them once again. But his despair was so deep he walked for hours mindlessly, first through the low hills near the city, and then much higher to the mountainous back bone of Sicily.
Fortunato stopped when he came to a long, narrow ridge that connected two soaring mountain peaks. He gazed off the ridge and saw that he was actually standing on the top of a high cliff. He moved closer, then stepped to the very edge.
If I take but one more step all my pain will be gone, thought Fortunato. No one will find me, or if they do they will say, “Poor Fortunato, he must have slipped while climbing.” There will be no shame.
But the realization that he was contemplating ending his life jerked him back from the cliff edge. However, once considered, suicide is easier to entertain a second time, and Fortunato stepped back to the edge. Breathing deeply, he searched for clarity and conviction. On his third breath he felt he had it, and moved his leg to take his last step. But, as he stepped he heard a bell ring, “Brriinngg”. It had a high and powerful note that echoed off the mountain slopes. He quickly stepped back from the edge.
A bell? thought Fortunato. Who is up here ringing a bell? There are no homes or churches up here. A shepherd? No, couldn’t be, there aren’t sufficient pastures up this high. Fortunato looked around but saw no one.
I can’t do this thing now, someone might see me, and Fortunato moved away from the cliff. Curiosity replaced his despair and Fortunato climbed over the rocks and ledges of the ridge. Where is that bell ringing? To his surprise he found a faint trail. Hmmm, someone does live up here. I wonder who? Fortunato followed the pathway.
The footpath wrapped around the side of the adjacent mountain. It led to an alpine meadow which smelled fresh and sweet with thick grass. Fortunato saw a walled settlement with three buildings at the far end of the glade. He walked up to the entrance and knocked on the heavy oak door.
When the door opened Fortunato was surprised to see a soldier standing in the opening.
“What do you want?” demanded the guard.
“I…heard a bell. I was wondering if it came from here.”
“You heard the bell? Wait right here,” the guard commanded, and slammed the door.
Fortunato was doubly surprised. First, the soldier was rude. Custom always demanded visitors be invited inside; but even more disturbing was the fact that the soldier looked strange. His uniform, although clean and fresh, was of an ancient style, not just old, but of a different time. But a moment later, the door opened and a monk accompanied the guard.
“Greetings,” said the monk. “I understand that you heard the bell.”
“Yes,” replied Fortunato. “I was on the ridge back there and I heard a bell ring.”
“Well then, please come in. This is a monastery and I am its Abbott.”
“Thank you. My name is Fortunato.”
“Well, tell me Fortunato, what do you know of the three great powers?” the Abbott asked.
“Great powers? I don’t know anything about any great powers?” Fortunato replied. “In fact I don’t know anything about power at all.”
“Ah, Fortunato,” said the Abbott, “what do you mean you don’t know anything about power. You heard the bell, did you not; and you are Fortunato from the city, correct? You were once a powerful merchant, and in your youth, if I am not mistaken, you were a skilled chess player.”
“Yes, I am, or was…and the chess playing… that was a long time ago when I was a younger man,” Fortunato replied.
“Not that long ago, I think,” the Abbott said. “In fact, I would like you to play a game of chess right now.”
As he finished speaking, the Abbott pointed to a table in the courtyard. At the same time, an elderly monk walked toward the table carrying a wooden box and a game board. Wordlessly, the elder monk sat down at the table and prepared the chess pieces.
“Please, Fortunato, take a seat,” the Abbott instructed, motioning toward the chair opposite the elderly monk.
Fortunato sat down and the two players commenced their game. Fortunato’s old skills came back, but the monk was an experienced player also. After the opening moves, there were few exchanges of pieces, and the game turned defensive and sluggish.
“Stop this game,” shouted the Abbott, “it is moving too slowly! Guard, come here. Stand next to these players and cut off the loser’s head. That should put a little more excitement into this game.”
The guard took a long curved sword out of its scabbard and stood at the ready beside to the players.
Fortunato was astonished. Who are these people? What kind of monk would kill someone over a chess game? They must be mad. Maybe this is an insane asylum!
So, to avoid an unpleasant fate at the hands of these strange monks Fortunato increased his focus on the game. He unleashed an ingenious and aggressive attack on the board. Within six moves he had a commanding position and could smell checkmate. With victory in sight however, he realized his win would mean the death of the older monk.
Why should I let that happened? Just a few minutes ago I was ready to jump off a cliff and end my own life. Why should I let an innocent man die just because I can beat him at this game? So, Fortunato resolved to lose the game, but in a veiled manner so as to not attract attention from the crazy monks. He slowly conceded position and pieces, and soon the inevitable happened; Fortunato was placed in checkmate.
“You win, my friend,” Fortunato said with a smile to the elderly monk. The guard stepped to Fortunato’s side and raised his sword. Fortunato leaned back in his chair and tilted his head to the sky, offering his neck to the blade. The guard grunted and took a mighty swing. Just as the sword was about to slice Fortunato’s neck, the Abbott lunged and knocked the soldier off his feet. The blade dug deeply into the ground next to Fortunato’s chair instead, and the soldier sprawled across the table, pushing everyone to the ground.
“Ha, ha, ha,” chuckled the Abbott, applauding as he pulled the old monk upright. “I thought you said you didn’t know anything about the three great powers, Fortunato. But, ahh, you have demonstrated them here, admirably.”
“What do you mean,” Fortunato asked, blinking his eyes and retaking his seat. “What three great powers? How have I demonstrated any powers? I just lost the game.”
“Yes, Fortunato, but in doing so, you have demonstrated the three great powers magnificently.” The monk dusted off his hands and looked kindly at Fortunato.
“When I stopped the game and announced that the loser would forfeit his life, you found the first great power, concentration. That gained you a commanding position in the game.
“Then, when you realized victory was within your grasp, but that your opponent would lose his life, you reversed the game exquisitely and demonstrated the second great power, compassion.
“Finally, once you lost, you demonstrated the third great power, fearlessness, by tilting your head back to receive the sword. Fortunato, you have demonstrated the three great powers superbly. Well done, Fortunato, well done.”
Then, the Abbott began chanting, “Concentration.”
Brriinngg, rang the bell in concert with the Abbott’s chanting.
“Compassion.” the Abbott continued.
“Fearlessness,” the Abbott chanted again.
It sounds so sweet, thought Fortunato.
“Concentration,…Compassion,….Fearlessness.” Over and over the Abbott chanted, the bell peeling after each word. Fortunato closed his eyes and his mind drifted away. After many cycles of chanting, all became silent.
Fortunato blinked his eyes open. Looking around, he saw that he was no longer in the courtyard of the monastery but was standing at the cliff edge. He looked down at the abyss and smiled; then, he stepped back and turned away. With a heart filled with a quiet joy he headed down the mountain and returned to Palermo.
Need I tell you that he was a wiser and happier man?
Author’s note: I first heard this tale in Jonesborough,Tennessee from a wonderful storyteller named Robert Johnson, who in turn, said he heard it from a monk in a Buddhist monastery in San Diego. But it wasn’t until I heard Fran White tell it repeatedly in Olympia, Washington that I saw its full beauty. Thanks to all. – BAS.
© 2011 The Mountain News – WA
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