It was a beautiful spring morning. Birds were chirping, children were chasing each other around gleefully, men and women of the village were wandering the streets singing while they went to work, the sun was bleeding in through the window bathing Dak in warmth, and life was good. Except that Dak wasn’t happy. In fact, life was miserable for Dak. Everyone around him wore the same stupid, broad smile and told him that one day he too could be happy, but nobody offered anything to soothe his wounds now.
“I don’t want to be happy someday,” Dak exclaimed. “I want to be happy today.”
“Sorry, son,” they said. “One day you will travel up one of the mountain peaks to see one of the great Teachers, and he will tell you what he told me, and my father before me. You will see. You will be happy.” They usually said it bending the knees a bit and rising up again abruptly while making a swooping motion with a hand, signifying the climb to the top.
But this wasn’t good enough for Dak. Everyone said the same thing: that the Teacher atop one of the peaks would show him how to be happy. He knew he would get to go, if he wished, on his fifteenth birthday. That was actually only in a few days. But he had been feeling this way for months now. Why couldn’t any of the people who loved him so much give him even a small token of consolation while he waited? What would be so bad about sharing their wisdom and helping him, even a little bit, now?
Nobody had good answers for him. In fact, it made Dak uneasy the way people got so uncomfortable when he posed those questions. Their smile would fade. Their eyes would shift. Beads of sweat would appear on their foreheads. They tried to change the subject. They fidgeted. And eventually they would jerk as though snapping back awake after a brief nap, put their broad smile back on their face, and repeat what they had already told him: “The Teacher will reveal all to you once you are of age.” Then they would pat him on the head, or on his back, or anywhere else they could think of that would remind him that he was just a child, and they would leave him.
Finally, the day before his journey into the mountains he resigned himself to accept that his fate would be the same as everyone else’s—that he would learn the key to happiness from one of the great Teachers atop one of the mountain peaks. It was a tradition that went back several long generations in his village. The story claimed that nearly a hundred years ago there were two brothers: Rhoj and Tahl. One day they set out from their home far away to discover the secrets of life. They journeyed for many years together, traveling throughout all the land. They spend time in every city and every village, learning all they could from man. Then they devoted themselves to the earth, living with the animals and the water and the dirt, in order to uncover the secrets of nature. Then, after another several years of silent meditation they were able to piece it all together. Their vast wisdom granted them greater health and a longer life. It was said that, now nearly two hundred years old, they only appeared to be in their mid-thirties. However, with that great wisdom they realized that they had a treasure that evil men would commit atrocities to obtain. In order to protect their wisdom they found two mountains separated from the rest and parted ways. One would live atop each of the two peaks, awaiting the arrival of any seeker of truth in order to enlighten and guide him.
Dak’s village was nestled at the base of the two mountains, just to the south. The two peaks were named after the Teachers, Rhoj and Tahl. Rhoj was the westerly peak, and Tahl was just a short distance to the east. A single road led north out of the village and split near the base. At first people would simply trek up to one of the two peaks whenever they learned of the Teachers there, but over time the village that sprang up at the base of the mountains developed its own rituals and rules concerning visiting the Teachers. One of the mountain paths was said to be more treacherous, and over the years several men failed to return from their journey to see the teacher there. Traditionally this was said to be the path to Rhoj. He was the elder of the two brothers, and according to the legend his wisdom was easier to understand as he was better at explaining things. Though more people tried to reach him, his path was ultimately more dangerous and thus less traveled. Tahl, therefore, was more popular for a time, with many hundreds of people successfully completing the journey and growing wiser and happier as a result.
Dak knew all of this, for it was taught in history class in school. But nobody would talk about which of the two brothers they had gone to see. The rumor at school was that fewer people were willing to look lazy or weak, so they took the tougher road to see Rhoj. One thing was certainly undeniable to Dak: people would often come from afar just to see what was known as the happiest village in all the land. While nobody in town would share their secrets of happiness, the village people stood as a testament that there truly was some secret to happiness, and it could be obtained atop one of the two peaks to the north of their village.
And so it was that Dak eventually, the day before his fifteenth birthday, convinced himself that he was looking forward to making the journey. He began to prepare himself. He had heard that it was useful to bring a sizable sum of cash on the journey, just in case (one of only a few tips previous visitors to the Teachers would give), so he gathered together his life’s savings and put it in his traveling sack. It wasn’t enough to make him rich, but it was a sum that even an adult would covet. He had worked hard for many years to earn that money. He was originally saving it to build a fantastically lavish hut of his own design, but now it seemed better suited to making this journey. What good would a fancy home be to him if he was miserable? He also packed a simple tent and dry food enough for a week, since some people were gone about five days. Having heard rumors of the dangers of the road, he also packed a knife his father had given him and his fire-making tools. The night before he stood looking over the supplies he had prepared, checking and double checking that everything was ready. While most people made the trip in groups for safety’s sake, he didn’t want to cheapen the experience. He would leave at the break of dawn, before most of the others who were planning on going would even begin to stir. He wanted to arrive first and have his time all alone with the great Teacher. He would see Rhoj. He was not afraid of a difficult path, and he wanted the clearest teachings he could get. Plus, in his heart he knew that the harder he worked for it, the more it would mean to him.
Water! He realized he nearly forgot to bring a water bladder. He ran and grabbed two and placed them by his pack, hoping he’d remember to fill them at the stream that he knew crossed both paths to the peaks. Satisfied that everything was in order, he allowed himself to retire to his bed, but he knew sleep would not come easily. He was finally allowing himself to feel some excitement. Would this be it? Would he really learn the key to happiness and never have to worry about feeling unhappy ever again? Finally, only a few hours before the sun would crest again, he drifted off to sleep.
Sure enough, he was out of bed, pack slung over his shoulder, exploding out the door of his family’s hut just as the first rays of the morning began to crawl across the sky. He ran noisily down the central road through town that led north, straight toward the pass between the mountain peaks. But unlike most road that headed toward a perfectly good pass, this road did not pass through. This road forked before sending one path straight up the mountain on the left, and another path up the mountain on the right. Dak had never been this far north on the path. It was generally considered improper for children to stray too close to the mountains, so out of respect he had never really left the northern gate of the village. So, it came as something of a surprise to Dak that there was a booth at the fork in the road where an elderly but tall and slender man sat on a stool waiting for him.
“Good morning,” he called out as Dak approached, now at a brisk walk.
A little confused, Dak replied to be polite. “Good morning.”
“Dak? Is that you?” It was odd to hear the man say his name, for he was sure they had never met in his life. Seeing Dak’s confusion, the man went on. “I know your father well. I saw him come this way some twenty years ago, making the journey that you are making now. I still seem him from time to time in the village, though I don’t believe we’ve been formally introduced.”
“No, I don’t believe we have.” Dak wondered why the man was here. Why would there need to be a booth here? “And what do you do here, may I ask?”
“I act as a guide for the young people who plan on making the trek to see one of the great Teachers. I can answer questions you may have, help alleviate any concerns, and even help you decide which peak will be the best choice for you personally. Not everyone gets the same benefit from one Teacher as they may from another.”
Dak considered this for a moment. “And which peak do you feel that I should take?” Dak asked tentatively.
“Well, what wisdom is it that you seek?”
“I wish to know the secrets of life and happiness.”
“Ah, a noble quest. And do you wish to have a clear and certain explanation, or would you prefer a more challenging answer that may take years to understand?”
Dak considered the question carefully this time. He knew that there was some value in lessons that are not fully understood at once, and he did not wish to seem impatient. “I am not concerned with how quickly I understand the lesson so much as I wish to have the deepest and greatest wisdom shared with me.”
The old man smiled knowingly. “Dak, you are deviously thirsty for wisdom, just like your father was. Do you believe that your father saw the Teacher that was best for him?”
“I do not know,” Dak said. “I have never been able to get him to talk much about it.”
“Sure, he may not talk about it, but what do you think? Does he seem happy and wise enough?”
After pondering his father’s happiness a brief moment, Dak said, “I am not my father. He does seem happy, but everyone in town seems happy. I am not sure how many people I know that are truly happy, besides the children.”
“Ah, a very insightful answer. Final question, Dak. Which peak do you think will benefit you the most?”
“I had initially thought to visit Tahl to the east. His easier path appealed to me. But as I have grown I have learned that the things that I value most I have had to work the hardest for. I decided recently that I would see Rhoj to the west.”
“That is a wise decision,” the man said. “I agree that you should go see Rhoj to the west,” he gestured to his right at the rocky path. Dak glanced once more off to his own right. The path there looked well-worn. It had a deeply grooved path where many people had trod. Green grass grew long and tall at the edges of the dirt road. It looked easy and comfortable. Dak knew it would be a mistake to take the easy way.
“Thank you,” Dak said, as he took his first steps off to his left.
“A quick word of caution,” the man said. “Just last week I sent off a group of sixteen and got only ten back. The going is rough, the trail is full of danger, and you will be tempted to turn back. You must not give up. Rhoj has much wisdom to impart, and if you can convince yourself to take another step, to make it just a little further until you find yourself at the summit, I can promise you that it will be worth it.” He gave a warm smile.
Dak nodded in thanks and continued toward Rhoj Peak. The large, rough rocks beneath his feet made the going instantly frustrating. For every three steps he took he felt as though he had only taken a single step. Soon a thick growth of thorny bushes closed in on the path he was taking, if you could call it a path. The road shifted steeply up toward the mountain and he soon found himself panting, wondering where the steam was so he could fill his water bladders.
After a half hour of climbing the path leveled off and he saw the stream ahead. He jogged a bit, eager to get some water. He could hear the rushing of the water flowing down from the mountain as he approached. I knew it could be difficult and dangerous to cross a rushing mountain river, and as he neared he began to worry that his journey could come to an abrupt end if he were careless in the crossing.
His heart took courage, however, when he got closer and could see a little ways up the river that there was a bridge and some other structure attached to it. Perhaps it was some kind of home where someone had settled and built a bridge to help those who would take the more challenging path. Surely this was a kindhearted soul who derived happiness from helping those who needed a little assistance.
He reached the river and filled his water bladders with what appeared to be the clearest and purest water he had ever seen. He took a long swig from the first bladder before filling the second. It was cold and tasted like clear, sweet crystals. He took a few more drinks before filling the bladders all the way and slinging them over his shoulder. After catching his breath he turned to his right toward the bridge. He also looked down river a ways to see if there was another safe place to cross. It was just too wide and the water was moving too quickly. He got to his feet and started making his way up river.
About ten minutes later he arrived at the bridge and found that the structure attached to it was a toll booth. His heart sank a little. Perhaps it was still out of the goodness of the builder’s heart. Inside sat a plump and very grumpy-looking woman, and Dak’s heart sank again. When she saw him she grunted a little and held out one hand while pointing to the price hanging on the wall behind her with the other.
“What?” Dak exclaimed. “That’s outrageous!”
She sighed and rolled her eyes. “Do you see another way to cross, kid? You can pay the toll and use the bridge, or you can cross on your own at your own risk.” She was still rolling her eyes as she leaned on the counter in front of her and leaned hear head on her hand.
It was expensive, but compared to the sum he had with him it really wasn’t all that much. It was too early in the trek to risk his life to cross a river. He decided he would pay. He rummaged through his pack and pulled out some money. When he reached in the pack the woman sat up and strained her neck to try to get a peek at how much he had inside. When he eyed her disapprovingly she glanced at him and slumped back down into her stool, holding her hand out to accept the payment.
“Wise choice, kid,” she grunted again as she motioned for him to pass through onto the bridge.
He glared at her as he passed. “You’re an extortionist. You’re taking advantage of people.” He kept walking.
She stood up abruptly and something banged against her counter as the stool fell over. “You wanna swim across, kid?”
He ignored her and hurried his pace a little. Soon he was on the other side and he tried to calm himself down. He knew there were people like that in the world, but he rarely interacted with them. He was used to the people in his village who were always so happy and helpful. Sure, people had bad days. Sometimes someone would let something a little rude slip, but for the most part people in the village were respectful and kind. Or were they? It did seem to Dak that some of the people were less genuine than others. Almost as if being so happy were some kind of great burden that had been demanded of them.
Dak looked up and saw that it wasn’t quite noon, but he had skipped breakfast and was getting hungry. He decided to stop for lunch. Looking around him he saw realized it had been mostly quiet. He hadn’t heard too many birds or heard the rustlings of many other animals in the brush. He had seen the occasional bird or squirrel, but none of the dangerous beasts his classmates had talked about when they told each other horror stories about how horrible the journey was supposed to be.
He was disappointed to see that he had spent a little longer eating lunch than he should have. It was well past noon when he finally packed up and set out on his way again. As he walked along he tried to keep himself as close to the apparent path as possible. It wasn’t always clearly marked though, and sometimes he worried he had lost it altogether. He could tell the intended path wound in a spiral up the mountain though. The mountain always rose to his right and to his left he was looking down the slope at the tops of trees. By the time the sun was beginning to set he could look down the slope and see the toll bridge from the late morning. It seemed so far away, but his ears burned when he remembered his encounter there. Surely that woman had never ascended the mountain to speak with the Teacher.
As the sky grew darker, but while it was still a light purple, he saw lights flickering through the thick trees and brush growth in the distance. He had been on the lookout for a good place to set down camp for the night, but for the last hour he had been unable to find even a small clearing for his tiny tent. He hoped the lights belonged to another camp that would offer him some space, or if they had found a clearing perhaps he could too.
Eventually Dak reached the source of the lights, and could hardly believe his eyes. It appeared to be a small inn, or at least that’s what the sign above the door indicated. He knocked on the door and a young woman answered. In the entry way he could see a sign with the price for a night. Again, he was appalled, but he was tired and unable to find a place to set up his tent. At this point he was convinced that he’d be unable to set up camp or a tent or even eat anything he was so exhausted from climbing the mountain.
Reluctantly, he paid the price for the room. His family had stayed at an inn once several years ago when they went to a nearby town for business. For the price he paid for this one night on the mountain he knew he could get two weeks at the other inn. The price did include a meal though.
The young woman showed him to his room. He couldn’t tell if it was because he was so exhausted or if it was his teenage hormones, but he thought she was quite beautiful. He dropped his pack on the floor by the bed and watched as the girl left. Five minutes later she came back with a bowl of soup and some bread. For what he paid he thought a much larger meal would be in order, but he was too tired to protest. Plus, she had smiled at him when she gave him the food, so he didn’t dare argue. The room was small, with barely room for a bed and a small table. He set the empty bowl on the table and settled in bed. He fell asleep quickly and dreamt of the girl.
He awoke to find that the sun had risen at least a couple hours ago. His heart jumped and he raced out the door with his pack in tow, hardly thinking to look for the girl again. He crashed through the brush, letting the thorns snag and tug at him. Branches smacked him in the face as he pressed forward running to try to gain back some of the lost time. After about a minute he asked himself what the rush was. Did he think the Teacher wouldn’t be there when he arrived? That would be silly. He slowed his pace and worked on catching his breath. An hour later he saw a clearing with a small house and an odd cart out front. Next to the house there were some stables where it looked like someone was keeping mountain goats. A man brushing one of the goats waved to him and Dak waved back without stopping his forward march.
Ten minutes later he understood what the man was keeping goats for. The path led right to a cliff face where it looked like you’d need a mountain goat to scale. An odd setup of ropes and pulleys was arranged in such a way as to lift the cart. Dak turned around and walked back to talk to the man with the cart and goats.
“G’ morning,” the man called out when he saw Dak again.
“I suppose,” said Dak. “Say, is there another path ahead that I can’t see?”
“Not that I’m aware of,” said the man. “Though don’t worry, it’s not the end of the trail.”
“I guess you can take me further,” said Dak.
“You’d be correct.”
“And I suppose your services are available for a price?”
“My goats and I do have to eat,” the man said cordially. At least he was nicer than the woman at the toll booth, Dak decided.
The man pointed to a sign hanging in the stalls. Dak had to lean to the side to see the sign on the other side of the man. His eyes got wide. “That’s robbery!” he cried out. “You wouldn’t be able to charge that much if there were another path I could take.” He scowled.
“You’re right about the second part, but it’s not robbery. It’s just business. Trust me, if I could take you for free I would. But this is how I make my living. Surely you can understand.”
Dak wondered how much the extortionists on the other mountain were charging as he reluctantly pushed the cash into the man’s hands.
Once the man had two of the goats hitched to the wagon they both climbed on board. At the very least Dak was grateful to be able to toss his heavy pack into the back of the wagon for a while. Plus, the price he paid would get him a ride to within an hour of the top of the peak, according to the driver. He sat back and tried to enjoy the ride, without thinking too much about how it had taken him three months to earn the money that paid for this luxury.
When they reached the cliff his goats immediately took to the wall, sticking there like some kind of wall-hanging. The driver got down and tied the elaborate rope system to various points on the cart. Then he got inside, grabbed a rope that was hanging overhead and began to pull. The goats climbed the face of the cliff along with the cart and within a few minutes they reached the top. The pulleys dragged the cart up onto the next segment of road. The driver untied the ropes from the cart and the goats began trotting along once more.
Dak watched back as the road fed out from beneath them into the distance. He could see that the wheels of the cart rode in deep ruts. The road seemed pretty well traveled to Dak. He wondered what the path to the top of the other mountain looked like. If this one was so well worn, the other must be even more worn. He turned around and sat back in the bench with his hands behind his head. The cool breeze tousled his hair a bit, but he found it to be a pleasant sensation. Up until now he had been stressed about this trek. At every step of the way he had felt a great burden of some kind. He was on his own. He felt as though nothing would be provided for him. He’d have to fend for his own meals, his own bed, his own travel. And yet here he was, nearly dozing off with a cool, gentle breeze and he suddenly felt as if he were some kind of royalty with servants and not a worry in the world.
He felt clever, like he had somehow cheated without getting caught. This was supposed to be a treacherous journey, and it would have been. That river might have drowned him or carried off his supplies on the first day had he not wisely decided to pay the toll. Had he been more stubborn about finding a camp site he might have found himself tumbling down the side of the mountain, taking a bad step in the dark. Or perhaps a night predator might have killed him. Instead he had taken the opportunity to stay at an inn that he was lucky enough to find. It was in such a thick growth of trees and bushes that he might have walked right past it in the day time. Finally, he could have attempted to scale that cliff alone. He did have rope in his pack. But at what cost? One slip and he could plummet to his death. He was right to turn back for help. Had he not come prepared? He had money. He had food. He had water. Surely those who didn’t make it home from this trek were less clever and less prepared than he was.
The sun was low in the west when they reach the point where he would dismount. He thanked the driver, mostly because he was not as rude as the woman at the toll bridge, and the cart disappeared around the bend into the twilight. He turned to face the road ahead, and saw that there were several clearings around that were marked for campsites. Perfect. He went to one and began setting up camp. Just as he was spreading his tent out someone behind him cleared his throat.
“Excuse me, what are you doing?” Dak turned and found himself face to face with a very short, stocky man with a large beard.
“Well,” Dak began, “I’m set…”
The man, who looked like a dwarf, cut him off. “Yes, yes. I’m sorry. I do know what you’re doing, I don’t know why you didn’t read the sign.” He pointed at the sign labeling the campsite.
That’s when Dak first noticed, not at all to his surprise, that there were prices attached. One price for the use of the site, another price for renting a tent. At least he had brought the tent. The tent rental cost five times as much as leasing the space for it. And even that was about three week’s wages. “Ridiculous,” Dak muttered to himself as he counted out the money.
The dwarf man waddle away happily counting his earnings and Dak continued setting up his camp. He got a small fire going, trying to avoid calling the attention of the man in case there was a charge for lighting a fire. He warmed his meal over the fire and let the embers burn down as he fell asleep.
This time he didn’t miss the break of dawn. Dak packed up his tent and cleaned up the campsite quickly and set out on his way. Just as the driver had promised, within an hour of setting out he saw the mountain peak level out. Ahead, near the edge of the opposite side of the summit, he saw a lavish hut with a beautifully crafted door and white smoke bellowing out of a fine stone chimney.
His stomach fluttered as he climbed the three or so steps to the door and knocked. A moment passed. When he felt he had given enough time for someone to answer, he knocked again. The hut wasn’t large, surely it was a single room inside. He had always heard that wise men lived in simple, single-room dwellings. He was a bit surprised to see the ornate carvings and gold inlays that adorned the hut, but its size was still within his expectation for a man of immense wisdom. Convinced that it wouldn’t be rude to knock again, with sufficient time having passed, he knocked again. Looking around, he wondered if the Teacher had gone out early to meditate. He couldn’t see anyone around.
Dak jumped as the door opened abruptly. The inside of the hut was dark, and the man who opened the door was rubbing his eyes. He was dressed in a white, smooth silk robe with fine gold and silver embroidery. He was balding, but not yet bald. His face was shrouded in a mess of beard and moustache that was nearly white with grey hairs. He wore nothing on his clean feet, but just inside the door Dak could see sandals off to the side. The man moaned and yawned. His hands went into the air to stretch, and Dak could finally see the man’s face. There were numerous groves and ridges in his brow. His ears and nose were large, as though they had swollen with the years. He was not fat, but not as skinny as Dak had imagined him either. The man grabbed the door frame to steady himself. “Good morning,” he started. “And you are?”
“Dak,” he said. “Are you Rhoj?” He was excited. His heart was pounding in anticipation. His eyes were full of hope and desire.
The old man must have seen the look in his eyes. He looked him over, from head to toe and back again. After a brief but mildly concerning hesitation, he replied, “Yes, yes I am.”
Dak hardly noticed the delay. Nearly giddy with impatience and excitement, he blurted out, “I’ve come one this long and terrible journey to the peak of the mountain to seek wisdom from you, oh great Teacher Rhoj.”
Rhoj regarded Dak with another quick glance up and down. “Of course,” he said. “One moment while I prepare.” He disappeared into the darkness a moment. Dak heard rustling, bumping, and a couple of cracks from inside. Eventually Rhoj emerged, now draped in a deep orange robe with a golden sash and carrying a paper and pen. He slipped his feet into the sandals and stepped out into the sun, squinting his eyes. Dak couldn’t be sure how old he was, but he didn’t appear to be in his thirties as the rumors suggested. Of course, he also didn’t seem over two hundred years old, as the legends stated. Rhoj let out a long and heavy sigh as he began to make his way over to a small patch of grass a short distance from his home. “Times have changed,” he began. “At one time this was a lot simpler. People traveled from afar to seek wisdom, I imparted what I could, and they left happy. There were no issues, no problems, and everything just worked. There were more plants and animals up here, believe it or not, and I was able to eat. Eventually the local food ran thin and my visitors provided me with a meal or two here and there. Now, though, I don’t get enough visitors throughout the year.” He sat in the grass and crossed his legs. He motioned for Dak to sit with him. “What was your name? Dak, right?” Dak nodded. “Right. So, Dak, I’m sure you understand that I have to eat. That’s why I was forced to turn this into a business of sorts. Considering the value of my wisdom, I only charge a negligible and extremely reasonable fee that everyone pays happily. I wish I didn’t have to charge, but as I said: times have changed. In addition, I can’t have people going around giving away for free what I have worked so hard to gain. So there is a contract. I don’t like it. I wish things weren’t so, Dak. I really do. But I’m sure you understand.” He smiled sheepishly and extended the paper for Dak to look over.
Dak was in a bit of shock. He had learned to expect the extortion along the road, but this was a completely surprise. He did understand, of course. But how could it be? Did the Teacher on the other mountain have to charge as well? Or perhaps he had more frequent visitors bringing him food. And if his wisdom really was harder to understand he probably wouldn’t have to worry so much about people sharing it. No, Rhoj wouldn’t charge if he didn’t have to. He was wise. Dak was sure this was necessary. He read over the contract. It said just what Rhoj had said about not talking about the experience, but when Dak read the “nominal fee” portion he found that his mouth was agape. It would cost nearly all of his remaining savings. He looked up at the Teacher in disbelief.
“I see you’ve read the price. Let me ask you this: How long would that money last you in your village? A year? Two years? Maybe a little more. But now consider this: How long will the wisdom to be happy last you? Therein, Dak, lies the value.”
Dak looked back down at the contract. He was suddenly unsure. He doubted all of it. He hadn’t wanted to turn back at the river crossing. He hadn’t wanted to turn back at the prospect of not finding a place to sleep. Even the dangerous cliff face couldn’t make him turn back. The irritating campsite experience had, by that point, been barely an inconvenience. But now, sitting across from the great Teacher himself, Dak was tempted to turn back and give up.
“Dak, my son, it is not worldly wealth that brings happiness. There will always be more money, but you only have one life in which to be happy. Do not place the value of money above your own happiness.” If the man was a fraud, he was a darned good one. Rhoj extended the pen and Dak took it. He hesitated again, glancing up at the Teacher before signing and handing it all back. “You have chosen wisely,” he said, tucking the papers into his robe.
Rhoj took a deep breath. It was a slow and steady breath. It was a wise breath. He sucked in until he was twice the man he had been, then he held it. His eyes closed. He seemed to be entering a state of meditation. Finally he exhaled. It was slow and controlled. It went out through his nostrils carrying away any doubt, any ignorance, and any foolishness that may have been inside. “Dak.” He said it as though it were wise to say. Dak heard his name and knew that everything would change soon. “The secret to happiness,” he began, and Dak perked up. He would take every word in. He would never forget the lesson. “The secret to happiness,” he repeated, “is already inside you.”
Silence. Dak could feel tears welling up inside of him. Tears of joy, perhaps, because he was about to learn the greatest secret he would ever learn in his entire life. Or maybe they weren’t tears of joy. He waited. And waited. “Yes?” he questioned. “And what is that secret?”
“That is the secret, Dak. People do not realize that the secret to happiness is already inside of them. If they work at it and act happy they will eventually be happy. That is it.”
The tears began flooding his vision. “No,” he whispered. “That can’t be it.”
“That’s it, my son.”
He fought the urge to get angry. “Then why am I so unhappy, great Teacher?”
“It takes time and hard work, Dak. Only you can uncover the secret.”
Dak stood up quickly. The tears were flowing now, and he was beginning to cry, but he didn’t want to cry. “I worked hard, Teacher. I spent time, Teacher.” He wiped at his eyes, but it was futile. “I spent my life savings for you to tell me the answer to a question, but you have only given me another question.”
“No, Dak. I have given you the answer.”
“That’s an answer any old man can give. That doesn’t help me now. That won’t ever help me.” His anger was building. “You’re a fraud. Give me my money back.”
The old man was shaking his head and he pulled the contract out. “I’m sorry, Dak. You signed the contract. Inside it says…”
“You’re a fraud! Give me my money back!” He was screaming now.
The Teacher stood. He raised his voice to be stern, but he was clearly not as angry as Dak. “Dak, I may be a fraud, but every word I told you about happiness is true and you know it. Sure, it’s not the quick and easy answer, and it’s not the great secret you were looking for, but it’s all anyone can ever give you.” He turned to leave.
“Give me my money back, liar!” Dak yelled.
The Teacher whirled around. “You want to talk about lies? Yes. I lied to you. I’m not really Rhoj. He may have never even existed. He’s a legend. Who knows. And nobody’s been to the other peak in over a hundred years. We’re running a business here. And you signed a contract that says you can’t tell anything I tell you to anyone else ever, as long as you live. You know all those stories about people who come to see me but never make it back alive? Most of them had issues with the contract. So if you value your life you’ll be reasonable and think this through. Those people in the village lie every day. They lie about being happy. But you know what? Some of them actually achieve happiness. I don’t know how they do it, nobody does. Heck, even they don’t know how they do it. But we all know that nobody else does it for them. The fact that you had to spend all that money and trek all the way up here for me to tell you that isn’t my problem. If you’re smart you’ll slap that same, fake smile on your face and go down to the base of the mountain and pretend that I gave you the secret to happiness that you came up here for. In a few years or a few decades perhaps you’ll start to believe it yourself. Until then you’ll be living the same lie as everyone else around you.” With that, the old man waltzed into his hut and slammed the door behind him.
Dak ran over and started pounding on the door, tears streaming down his face. He shouted, he cursed, he kicked. Noon came and went and still he protested loudly. By nightfall he had lost most of his strength and was left leaning against the door crying softly to himself and angrily muttering his disapproval.