The Fables of Aesop is out now!

The Root of All Evil

Author’s forward: If you are disappointed that a post with such a title is nothing more than a short story, I do not blame you. Money is a divisive subject, but fiction is ambiguous, and what is the point of reading anything which does not warrant a strong response? And yet, the ambiguity of fiction also has curative properties that defy reason, just as a sad face is good for the heart.

On the island of Tupos there lived a wise teacher whose students always went on to live happy lives. His name was Gabriel and he was revered by everyone in the world except the people who lived on the island with him, who all thought him a tired old crank. Tupos was not small, but home to a village where more than a thousand souls lived. Most of the villagers tended sheep, made cheese, and kept to themselves. They were not openly hostile or violent towards Gabriel except on occasions when Gabriel came into the village to buy some necessity. Then the villagers would pelt him with stones and curse his mother. They had their reasons.

As a teacher, Gabriel was very particular. By the time he was fifty, he had only ever had seven students. This was because he only accepted one student at a time and each child who became his student remained under his teaching for four years. Every four years, on the first day of Spring, Gabriel chose a new student. Mothers and fathers from all over the world would journey to Tupos and present their sons and daughters to him. I should add, rather, that they brought their ten-year-old sons and daughters to Gabriel, for unless a child was exactly ten years old, that child could not become Gabriel’s student.

When the time had come for a new student to be selected, it was customary for all those wanting Gabriel’s tutelage to stand on the beach and wait for him to emerge from his little cottage nearby. He would appear mid-morning and slowly walk down the line of potential students, looking over each child like a general inspecting his troops. Mothers and fathers would stand directly behind theirs son and daughters and when Gabriel passed, it was customary for one parent to speak a single sentence in favor of their child.

While no one on Tupos could remember Gabriel choosing his first student or second, by the time he chose his third student, everyone on the island came down to see the selection ritual. They were all silent until Gabriel made his choice, then the islanders would whoop and jeer, saying, “You’ll never make a hero of this child! You’ve finally met your match, Gabriel! You stupid old man!” As I said earlier, they had their reasons.

You see, Gabriel was entirely unwilling to select a child from Tupos to be his student. He banned the people of Tupos from presenting their children at the selection ritual. The only people who presented their sons and daughters were from the mainland. They travelled great distances in the hope Gabriel would accept just one of their children. On a few occasions, the villagers had disguised themselves and their children, feigned foreign accents, and put on plastic noses so Gabriel would not recognize them, but he always saw through their subterfuges and so they pelted him later with stones or rotten fruit and said indecent things about his mother.

Gabriel had his reasons too, apparently.

There was no denying that Gabriel’s students were all rollicking success stories. One of his students married and went on to have twelve children. Another student owned a wheat farm which produced a bumper crop every year, even if there was a drought. Another student became an archbishop. Another bred a new species of lemon tree which produced fruit that remained perfectly ripe for a year after it was picked. Another wrote a famous book about ducks. Another painted an icon of the Resurrection which, when venerated, was said to miraculously cure people whose hearts did not beat properly. None of Gabriel’s students ever went on to be rich— however, many people assumed they were rich because they were so happy and their lives were so good. Honestly, people know such qualities of life are rare, and rare things are desirable, but money is desirable, too, so you can see how they would make this sort of mistake. There was a rumor that one of Gabriel’s students had invented a strange sort of clock that slowed down time. Supposedly, he sold one of these clocks to every prince in Europe and Africa, charging each of them a thousand pounds of gold. This rumor was not true, of course, but it meant that every four years, more and more parents from the mainland came to present their children to Gabriel on the beach for inspection.

Gabriel was very secretive, though. Every year, Gabriel’s pupil was only permitted to see his parents once during the mid-winter holy days. When parents asked what their sons and daughters had learned over the last year, they would reply, “Not much,” and most parents were content to leave it at that. How did Gabriel make his students so fabulously rich? It was a great mystery given they never learned anything.

The years passed like days. Little happened to excite village life, although the fishermen had mysteriously grown rich, as had the ferrymen who transported the people of Tupos back and forth from the mainland. Who can say why such things happens? Lady Fortune keeps spinning her wheel. The king looks back to see who has stepped on his heel and it is nothing more than a pauper.

On Gabriel’s eighty-fifth birthday, he admitted to himself that he was very old, very feeble, and that he could no longer carry the boiling stew pot from the stove to the table in the evening for supper. Neither could he ask his little student to do so. What was more, Gabriel’s arms lacked the strength to slice bread or mop the floor. He had always asked his student to help with these chores, but he felt ashamed to simply tell his student to work while he sat idly by. Up until this point in his life, he and his student had always labored side-by-side.

“All flesh is grass,” Gabriel told himself, and so he told Hypatia he was going to walk into the village. “No,” said Hypatia, for that was the name of his student at the time, “You cannot, Papa. The villagers will throw stones at you and break your heart. Please, let me do whatever errand you have in mind.” Gabriel sighed and said, “I wish I could, but I must do this errand myself. You must trust me,” and Hypatia did trust him, but she was still sad she could not help.

Gabriel walked into the village. People pelted him with stones and said obscene things about his mother, as was usual. “Yes, yes, I know,” said Gabriel annoyedly, holding his hands over his face so the stones did not damage his eyes. “What do you want?” said the people. “I need to hire someone to come help me at my cottage,” he said.

When they heard this, the villagers stopped pelting Gabriel with stones for they knew he was a generous man and that he would pay handsomely anyone who came to work for him. They also knew that Gabriel had some hidden storehouse of money, but they knew neither how he acquired his money nor where he kept it hidden. The man who worked for him might be able to solve both these mysteries.

When the villagers heard Gabriel needed to hire a man they immediately volunteered, but Gabriel declined them all. In truth, they knew he would do this. They knew who Gabriel wanted.

“I want Jason, the miller’s son,” said Gabriel.

Jason was the miller’s fourth son, which meant his father had no need of him around the house. He was tall, broad shouldered, but had once badly lost a fistfight while defending his mother’s honor to the villagers, who had said vile things about her. Well, Jason was remembered for this, but he hadn’t done too many other things which were worthy of respect. “Everyone thinks too highly of Jason,” said everyone.

Gabriel offered Jason three gold coins every Sunday to labor in his cottage. Such wages were so high, Jason could not tell a soul how much he was being paid or someone would kill Gabriel and take his money.

However, after two months of sweeping and boiling and carrying the stew pot, Jason had not succeeded in figuring out where Gabriel kept his money. “Perhaps,” he thought, “the money is stored in a magic place that cannot be found by Christian means,” for everyone had seen Gabriel cross himself and pray, but no one on Tupos believed he loved God. If he loved God, would he not at least consider taking on a villager’s son to be his student?

Gabriel was not happy to have a villager in his cottage every day. He had to remind himself many times that Jason had never personally wronged him, though Gabriel also knew that Jason would not remain at his cottage for long. It would all be over soon.

As the first day of Spring drew near, Hypatia’s four years with Gabriel had nearly come to an end. She was sad, for she had learned much from Gabriel, but she had also learned what many people thought of Gabriel and she knew little of it was true. Hypatia could not now recall what her mother had said on her behalf four years ago when she was selected, but she preferred to not remember. Her father owned a bank, her mother owned an ethically-sourced online clothing store, but Hypatia wanted to be a farmer’s wife. “Everyone thinks you can make people rich,” she said, “Why do you not tell people the truth?” But Gabriel said, “I have made the people of Tupos rich, but not in ways they understand.” Little did they know but Jason was eavesdropping on their conversation from the next room and when he heard Gabriel claim to have made the people of Tupos rich, he was outraged and fled from the cottage.

Jason ran as fast as he could to the village, then stood in the middle of the market where ladies bought fabric spun from gold and men perused antique bottles of wine imported from France. “I have just come from Gabriel’s house,” he called out. Everyone stopped their haggling to look at him. They began preparing their most vile insults for his mother. “And I have heard him boast that he made us all rich!” When the villagers heard this, they were outraged and began to hurl their most vile insults at Gabriel’s mother, though she had been dead for quite some time. It was not until Jason saw the hatred in their eyes that he wondered if they would kill Gabriel. If they kill Gabriel, thought Jason, his very good pay would die, too. So Jason raised his hands to speak and the people quieted down again.

“What I meant to say,” said Jason, “is that Gabriel claimed he would make us all rich!” At this, the people happily regarded one another, for they knew Gabriel could make them rich if he wanted to and that he was a man of his word. After a moment, they resumed haggling with the travelling merchants over the price of gold fabric and exotic wines.

As was customary, Hypatia departed from Tupos the day before Spring. As she and Gabriel stood at the harbor, many ferries were arriving from the mainland. Exotic passengers disembarked and looked around in wonder, as all tourists do. The foreigners would stand before Gabriel on the beach the following morning, though none knew what he looked like, so they now walked past him indifferently on the harbor. However, the villagers greeted Gabriel kindly, for they knew that tomorrow he would select a son of Tupos to be his student for the first time. This child would learn the arts of astrology, metallurgy, alchemy. This child would learn to spin straw into gold for them. Hypatia looked forlorn. A porter moved a small trunk of her things onto the boat which would take her home. “It’s all about to come to an end,” she said, though Gabriel knew she was not speaking of her time on Tupos.

The village was more than two miles from Gabriel’s cottage, and yet, he lay awake in his bed that night and heard the echoes of music, clinking glasses, champagne corks, and dice. Every four years, the festivities were louder than before and carried on far later into the night.

When he slept, Gabriel dreamed that he was sitting at the head of a long table. All of his students sat around the table, or so he thought, for the end of the table was cloaked in darkness. As they ate, a gentle light shed on the dark end of the table. The faces at the far end were not familiar, but not unfamiliar either. Then the light spread further and showed the table was impossibly long. Hundreds, then thousands of people appeared around it. Gabriel knew the table was so long, in fact, it went back in time. Those at the end of the table were not just thousands of miles away, but thousands of years away, as well.

In the morning, he dressed and walked to the beach, where thousands of people appeared again. A long line of boys and girls had formed and behind each child stood a mother or a father. All the children were dressed in shabby, ill-fitting clothes. Their parents smelled of bergamot and sandalwood but were similarly dressed in tatters. At this moment, Jason appeared on the beach, as well, albeit a little out of breath. He took his place beside Gabriel as the old teacher began inspecting his would-be pupils.

“My son is very special,” said the first father, his hand perched on his son’s shoulder.

Gabriel bowed his head slightly to the special boy.

“My daughter is very smart,” said a mother.

Gabriel continued down the line, looking deeply into the eyes of each child, then into the eyes of the mother or father. The expression he wore was not curious, not skeptical, not kind, not cruel, not intrigued, and not bored.

“My daughter wants to change the world,” said a little girl’s father.

“My son has a very strong walk with the Lord,” said another mother.

Each child, each mother, and each father was given the same treatment. A moment of consideration, a genteel bow. Gabriel began to notice children from the village were lined up, as well, and so were their parents. They were not dressed in disguises but looked just like they did when they pelted him with stones and profaned the dignity of his mother. On this morning, they were contrite. Their deferential smiles and salutory nods rewound the tapes of history and erased all the evil they had ever done or planned against Gabriel or anyone else in the world. Sometimes a simple gesture is enough, they thought, for Gabriel looked the villagers over just as he did the foreigners.

When Gabriel came to the end of the line of children, he stood before a boy who was not dressed like the others. This boy was dressed in a fine coat, elegant trousers, and blood red scarf. His hair was neatly brushed and oiled. The boy was the spitting image of his father, who was dressed in the same fine coat, the same elegant trousers, and the same blood red scarf. His hair was brushed and oiled in exactly the same way. They even had the same proud look in their eyes, the same high forehead, the same insultingly small little mouths. Gabriel had never seen them before.

“My son is obedient,” said the father and his accent betrayed him as a foreigner.

“This,” cried Gabriel, placing his hand on the boy’s head, “shall be my student.”

The crowd was silent, for they all knew Gabriel had not chosen a son of Tupos. Even the people on the far end of the line, who could not possibly make out the rich young man’s face, knew he was a foreigner because no great shout of acclamation had arisen from those nearest the boy. Instead, no one made a sound, no one accept Jason, that is, who gasped and said confusedly, “Master, this boy is not from Tupos,” for he had come to believe his own lie.

Gabriel put his arm around the rich young man’s shoulders and began walking with him back to the cottage. All the foreigners who had journeyed to Tupos were disappointed, but not angry, for they knew how small their chances of winning the lottery were. But the people of Tupos were so furious, they could not speak, and slowly filed off the beach like spurned young lovers who begin plotting revenge before they even understand the nature of the offense.

When they had returned to the cottage, Jason at last found words for his confusion.

“Master, why did you not choose the child who was special?”

Gabriel said, “If a child is special, why does he need a teacher? Special people have their own arrangements with God and never tire of reminding others of it.”

“Master, why did you not choose the child who was smart?”

Gabriel said, “My enemies are smart.”

“Then, Master, why did you not choose the child who wanted to change the world?”

Gabriel said, “What profit is there if a man gain the whole world but lose his soul?”

“Well, Master, why did you not choose the child who had a strong walk with the Lord?”

Gabriel said, “I don’t even know what that means.”

“But, Master—”

Gabriel said, “It must be some fashionable virtue. Fashionable virtues come and go and waste everyone’s time and money. Worse still, they train men to neglect ancient virtues.”

At this, Jason stood suddenly, anxiously, and cried, “But, Master, against the numberless poor assembled on the beach, you chose this rich young man!”

Gabriel waived his hand dismissively and said, “Of all those present today, not a single one was poor.”

Jason exclaimed angrily, “But the poor sons of Tupos stood on the beach.”

“There are no poor sons of Tupos,” sneered Gabriel, “It is a fact well-established in these days that Tupos has become the wealthiest nation in all the world.”

Jason said, “If everyone on the beach this morning was rich, then why not choose a rich son of Tupos?”

Gabriel said, “If I ever chose a son of Tupos, Tupos would not be rich anymore.”

Jason knew that everything Gabriel said was true simply because he had said it, but he did not understand why it was true or how it had come to be true.

Sadly, Jason said, “You have never chosen a son of Tupos to be your student. Your own people have always been cut off from your wisdom, including myself. I am an idiot, but you are to blame. Had you shared your wisdom with just one son of Tupos, that son might have taught others, then we all might be wise like you.”

Gabriel shook his head, sat down uneasily, and sighed, “That is not true, Jason. That is not true. Many years ago, I taught the sons of Tupos. My first student was from the village, as was my second. No one remembers this. My first student is Jesse the Recluse, the tree-house hermit who lives on the other side of Tupos. You may have heard of him. He never goes to the village. I have visited him once a year for the last fifty years. My second student was Medea, who lived a very happy, but very short life after she departed the cottage. She died just eight hours after her studies ended, though she spent those eight hours surrounded by birds, teaching them to sing a new song to the Lord.

Because neither of my first two students went on to fame and fortune, the people of Tupos believed I held a grudge against them, so they quit trying to enroll their children as my students. This would have been the end of my life as a teacher, however, the birds of Tupos flew to the mainland and whispered that a reliable teacher lived on Tupos. Of course, almost no one listens to the birds anymore, and of those who do listen to the birds, fewer still believe them, so only a handful of people from the mainland came to present their children the following Spring. From that day, I have never taken a villager’s child as my student.

Unlike my first two pupils, my later students did not become ascetics and mystics, but lived healthy, profitable, peaceful, happy lives— as all sane men wish to live, but few men have the courage to do. As I have explained before, such contentment is rare, but wealth is also rare, and so the strange story began to circulate that all my former students went on to become rich. This story began on the mainland, but the people of Tupos are so beholden to the fashions of the mainland, they believed it was true simply because they were embarrassed to say otherwise. If the villagers told the mainlanders that Gabriel’s first students were ascetics and mystics, the mainlanders would scorn them as unfashionable and tiresome old fools.

The fact that none of my students has gone on to be wealthy has not stopped rumors to the contrary. In fact, the number of mainlanders who come to Tupos every four years has steadily increased for many decades now. For this reason, in the several days before I select a new student, the ferries which run from Tupos to the mainland and back again charge more than a year’s wages for a single passage. That is how I knew everyone on the beach this morning was rich. They dress in tatters to disguise this truth, but I can still smell their expensive perfumes. The people of Tupos have grown wealthy ferrying the rich to and from the island. Besides this, the people of Tupos charge the foreigners exorbitant prices for food and wine and even more outrageous prices for clandestine advice on what to tell me when they present their children.

People from the mainland have seen Tupos become wealthy and they assume I have done it, which is both true and false at the same time. If I have made Tupos wealthy, can I not obviously make their own children wealthy, as well?

And yet, if I ever took a son of Tupos to be my student, the mainlanders would claim I played favorites, they would cease to come, then the villagers would kill me for bringing poverty on them. I have given the people of Tupos everything they want, they simply do not want good things.”

Upon hearing this, Jason said, “Then why did you choose this arrogant little boy to be your student?”

Jason gestured at the rich young boy, who was standing in the same room. The boy did not make an offended sound, for he knew he was arrogant and little.

“Because this boy does what he is told. He listens to his father and does whatever his father does. Now I will be the boy’s father and I will teach him how to do what is most important.”

“And what,” asked Jason sadly, “is most important?”

“Dying,” said Gabriel.

Upon hearing this, Jason ran from the cottage in fear. Gabriel sat down with the arrogant little boy and began telling him about the purging fire of God’s love, and through many infallible proofs, he showed the boy that the soul was real, invisible, and immortal.

When Jason arrived in the village, everyone stood in the market. They held pitchforks, firebrands, and scythes. Jason said, “Gabriel is going to murder the little boy he accepted as his student this morning!” Many others testified of their mistreatment at Gabriel’s hands, and when the sun had set, they marched to the sea. However, Gabriel and the rich young man stood at the threshold of his cottage, waiting for the villagers to arrive. The villagers surrounded the cottage and they drove Gabriel and his student away, down to the sand, down to the water. The surf lapped at Gabriel’s ankles, his pupil stood beside him, and then the villagers drove them further and further back into the sea until the sea swallowed up Gabriel, his pupil, and some of the villagers, as well. Then the villagers standing on the beach cried for those in the sea to come back, but the waves were stirred up all the more. No one ever saw Gabriel or the rich young man ever again. When they searched his home, they found just two gold coins under his mattress. He could not have afforded to pay Jason for another week.

In the months following Gabriel’s disappearance, the rich young boy’s father sued the island of Tupos. The lawsuit was very complicated and involved many strange and special technicalities. The villagers hired lawyers who annexed the entire island as payment. Soon, they were all poor once again. Every soul on Tupos was indicted on charges of fraud, deception, extortion, libel, lust, envy, greed, stupidity, and shallow-mindedness, all of which are serious crimes with profound penalties. Sorting out the evidence has taken more than a hundred years already and may take another hundred years. The rich young boy’s father died some time ago. Every son of Tupos is now born with a terrible charge against him and spends his whole life awaiting the final judgment of the case. To this day, there is only one man alive who knew Gabriel: Jesse the Recluse, the first student. The villagers stand below his tree-house hermitage every morning and he teaches them how to be quiet.

All the people of Tupos know that Jesse the Recluse does not die. They know that when the courts decide on the guilt of Tupos, the old hermit may be the only son of Tupos left alive. And though they are all dead, Jesse the Recluse will decide whether to pay their debt or not. He will pay it.

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