There once was a girl who knew too much. She went to the river, but she knew its path. She went to the garden, but she knew its growth. She went to the hills, but she knew their height.
The girl wanted to have questions again, so she packed up her bag and began to walk. She slept on the ground, but she knew its pebbles and grass. She ate fruit from the trees, but she knew its taste. And still she kept walking.
One day, she came to a small village. She knew its people, its houses, its trades, and its songs. Still, she thought she would stop here a while to rest.
It so happened that there lived in that town an old woman named Alma. When the girl approached Alma’s cottage, the old lady welcomed her inside.
“Please,” she said, “come into my home and share supper with me, for I am all alone and would enjoy the company.”
Being quite hungry, the girl agreed and entered the woman’s house.
Alma gave her warm, crusty bread and a bowl of nice, rich stew. A steaming pot of tea sat ready on the table, along with a jug of milk. The grateful girl thanked the old woman and began to eat.
Then Alma asked, “Why do you travel, dear girl? The world is a mysterious place, and you are so young.”
“I know too much,” the girl replied. “I want to have questions again, for I love to learn, so I am searching to find new things I do not know.”
“Ah,” said Alma. “That is a worthy effort indeed. How did you come to know so many things?”
The girl answered, “I asked questions. I asked until all my questions were answered.”
Alma leaned back in her chair and folded her hands across her plump waist. “Why do you need to know the answers?”
Confused, the girl paused to consider this. At last, she said, “The purpose of questions is to receive an answer. It is the natural way of things.”
The old woman chuckled and shook her head at the girl. “You may know too much, but you still have much to learn. The greatest questions are those that cannot be answered. The only thing they will teach you is to know your own heart.”
“Where can I find a question without answers?” the girl asked eagerly.
“Stay with me here for one month, and I will show you.”
The girl agreed. Soon, she was settled by the fire with tea and a book, and she and Alma were quite comfortable together.
Not many days later, Alma said to her, “Come with me to the market, for I have something to show you.”
Excited, the girl sprang up from her chair at once and donned her cloak. Alma gave her a wide basket to carry and, hooking another over her own arm, led the girl down the path to the market.
The pair moved from stall to stall, and the girl’s basket began to grow heavy under the weight of the vegetables and fruits Alma had selected. At last, when both baskets were full to the brim, Alma declared she was satisfied.
“It is time now to travel to our next destination.”
“Where are we going?” the girl asked, for she always wanted the answers to her questions.
“You will soon see,” replied the old woman. “Come along.”
The girl came along, following Alma down the path, which grew more and more scraggly and unkempt the farther they went. At long last, they came to a hovel that looked as though a strong wind could bring it down. The door stood straight, but the walls and roof listed and bowed with age, the drooping windows seeming to squint at the women as they approached.
“This is our destination,” Alma told the girl.
“Why are we here?” the girl asked at once.
“You will soon see.”
Alma approached the hovel, and with great care, knocked on the ancient wood of the door frame.
When the door opened, the girl took a step back in alarm. There stood a very old man, his body more twisted and frail than his home. The man’s hair was a scattering of yellowed white wisps that hung down limply to his collar. His eyes were far too large for his face, the corners damp and the irises dull. The skin of his face and hands was brown and leathery.
His near-toothless mouth gaped in a smile of welcome for Alma, who took his gnarled hand in hers.
“Joseph, it is so good to see you. Are you well?”
“Ah, Alma! I am as well as I need to be. Please, bring your young friend and sit with me a spell.”
The girl did not want to enter, but seeing Alma march in without hesitation, she straightened her spine and followed.
Inside was a small table with two spindly chairs on either side. Not far away was a sleeping pallet covered with tattered blankets. The crumbling fireplace sheltered some burning twigs, which must have been all the old man could manage to gather. A precarious stack of books, their spines broken, stood upon the dirt floor like a column of defeated soldiers.
Feeling quite awkward, the girl stood quietly, watching her guide speak with their host. Alma asked after his health in some detail, for it seemed they were old friends. She bade the girl rest her heavy basket on the table and take a seat and be comfortable.
The girl did as she was directed, and Alma claimed the other chair for herself. Joseph maneuvered himself to sit upon his pallet, his rheumy eyes sparkling in the scant light. While her elders talked together of the past days of their youth and laughed, the girl began to think.
“What is the question that Alma wants to show me here?” she wondered. Although she was anxious for the answer, she knew what the woman’s response would be.
You will soon see.
So she didn’t ask her question just yet, resolving to wait a bit longer for the answer to come on its own.
When the visit finally ended, Alma stood to say her goodbyes. After giving a quiet word of thanks to Joseph, the girl took up her basket from the table and went outside to wait for her friend to join her.
Alma emerged, but the girl noted that she was not carrying her basket.
“Oh, Alma,” she said, “you have forgotten your basket!”
Undisturbed, Alma continued to walk down the path. “I did not forget, my dear.”
“You meant to leave it?”
“But why? And who was that man?”
The old woman chuckled, then spoke. “He was the friend of my elder brother, years and years ago. When we were in school, he would tease me and pull my hair and trip my feet and steal my primer. He never had a kind word for me in all those years.”
“And yet you visit him?” the girl asked, confused.
“One day,” Alma continued without answering, “he went away to make his fortune. I was glad, for he had been a constant source of unhappiness for me. Time passed, we all grew up, married, had children, and lived our lives as people do. My youngest was grown and gone before Joseph came back.
“He had seen and done many things, some bad and some not so bad. When he had money, he’d spent it without reserve. When he had food, he ate his fill. When he did not have those things, he stole or cheated them out of someone else. After a lifetime of living without care or conscience, Joseph had nothing left. He had cheated all his friends, and now no one would help him. He had stolen from all the merchants, and now no one would trust him. So, hungry and alone, he made his way back to the village of his youth.”
“And did he apologize for how he’d treated you?”
“No, he never did,” Alma said. “He came to that hovel and hid away from the world, surviving as best he could on what the forest would provide. And since everyone here remembered his behavior in the past, no one approached him.
“But I had gone out walking one fine day, and I happened to see him. He was limping badly, trying to get back to his shelter, but it did not look as though he would be able to reach it on his own. So I went to him and took his arm, and he leaned on me until we reached his home.”
“Did he thank you?” the girl asked.
“No, he never did. I helped him inside and got him to sit on his bed. I cleaned his wound as best I could, fetched him some water, and told him to rest. Then I went home.
“That night, I thought a long time about Joseph. He needed help and had no one to give it. So the next day I went to the market and filled up a basket, and I went back and left it on his table. He grumbled at me a bit, but he let me change his bandages and put ointment on his leg to aid the healing.”
The girl considered this. “And so you keep going back to help?”
“But he was so mean to you! And he never apologized! Never thanked you!”
“No, he never did.”
“But…” The girl was more puzzled than ever. “Why would you do that?”
Alma looked at her with a knowing smile. “You do not know charity?”
“Well, yes of course I do, but… he was so awful to you!”
“Do you not know forgiveness?”
“Yes, of course,” the girl repeated. “But he did not ask for it. There are far more deserving people in need of aid. Why him, Alma?”
“My dear, when one gives a gift, whether deserved or not, it should be without condition. The receiver need not be deserving, or humble, or repentant. All that is required is that the giver wishes to do good for another.”
The two walked in silence for some time, until at last they came to Alma’s cottage and went inside.
Once they were settled by the fire with their tea, as had become their habit, the girl asked once more.
“Why help him, Alma? I understand that gifts should not come with expectation, but why in all the world choose him as the beneficiary of your kindness?”
“That, my dear, is the answer you must seek in your own heart.”
No matter how many questions the girl asked that night, Alma would say no more on the subject.
Several days passed before Alma again said, “Come with me to the market, for I have something to show you.”
Not knowing what to expect, the girl followed her to the village marketplace once more.
Alma went to the wizened old man who sold second-hand books. Not many people wished to buy such extravagances, but he greeted Alma as though she were a customer of long standing.
“My dear Alma! How are you on this fine day?”
“Quite well, Marcus. Do you have any new treasures to show me?”
The girl stood in silence, observing while Alma and Marcus pawed through his collection. Now and then, Alma would lift a book from the pile and give a delighted laugh, and Marcus would nod and smile at her choice. Each so favored book found its way into the girl’s waiting arms, until her burden became quite heavy and unwieldy. Alma paid Marcus for the books and bade him goodbye, taking half the books from the girl’s aching arms.
“Come along, my dear,” the old woman said, so the girl came along.
This time, they took a neat, orderly path that led to a neat, orderly house in the glen. The house was well-kept, with brisk white paint and merry red trim. A profusion of flowers danced along its border, and a sturdy wooden fence ringed the property.
“This is our destination,” Alma told the girl.
“Why are we here?” the girl asked.
“You will soon see.”
They entered at the gate and over the pebbled walk until they reached the door. Alma gave three brisk knocks.
The door soon opened, and there stood a woman not much older than the girl. Her hair was wrapped in a bright orange scarf, and her skin was as dark as night. The woman beamed when she saw them, the whiteness of her teeth bright against her complexion.
“Alma! What a delight! I did not know you were to come today!”
Alma moved forward and hugged the dark woman. “I love to surprise you, Ashai. My young friend and I have brought some marvelous books to share with you!”
Ashai opened the door wide and said, “Please, come in! Let me see what treasures you’ve discovered this time!”
The parlor of her home was clean and crisp, the fabrics bright and welcoming, the wooden furniture gleaming and warm. The girl found it comfortable and was quite glad to visit with this woman in such a room, now that her initial surprise at her skin had passed. It was clear that Alma saw nothing objectionable about Ashai, and the girl trusted her friend’s judgment.
Soon, the trio were seated comfortably, looking through the selection of books Alma had bought. The girl discovered that Ashai was wonderful company, intelligent and kind. She was sorry when it came time for them to leave, but she was not surprised that most of the books they’d carried remained behind when they went.
“You left those books for her,” the girl observed.
“Why did you do that?”
Alma looked at her with an appraising eye. “Did you not like Ashai?”
“I liked her very much,” the girl answered. “I just do not understand why you brought her books.”
“Ashai is a very smart person. She loves to read and discuss what she has learned.”
“But she cannot buy her own books?” the girl guessed.
“She could afford them,” Alma said, “but it is difficult for her to go into the village.”
The girl was confused once more. “Why? It is not a long walk, and she appeared to be in good health.”
Her friend explained. “Ashai came here several years ago. She had inherited a modest fortune, enough for her to buy a house and live at leisure. However, when she arrived, not all of the village welcomed her.”
“Because she is so dark?” the girl guessed.
“Yes. One day, some men who felt this way threatened her and told her not to return to the village or she would be beaten.”
The girl shuddered and wrapped her arms around herself. “What a horrible thing for them to do! She cannot help the color of her skin, and she is such a good person. They were wrong to act that way.”
“Yes, they were,” Alma agreed. “Ashai did not wish to leave her new home, but she recognized the danger these men posed. So with the help of those who had welcomed her, she arranged to stay on. Everything she might need at the market is brought to her by a neighbor of mine, and he only takes the money needed for her supplies. He is a very kind young man.”
The girl nodded and then stayed silent the rest of the way back to the cottage.
That evening, when they were settled at the fire, she asked again.
“But why do those people hate Ashai? It does not make any sense.”
Alma looked up from her knitting. “Many people hate for reasons such as theirs. A person’s color or poverty or religion determines how some folks treat others.”
“But…” The girl was more puzzled than ever. “Why would they do that?”
Alma smiled, although there was sorrow in her eyes. “You do not know hatred?”
“Well, yes of course I do, but… Ashai does not deserve it!”
“Do you not know anger?”
“Yes, of course,” the girl repeated. “But she did nothing to deserve it. What those men did was far worse. Why her, Alma?”
“My dear, when one is prejudiced against another, whether deserved or not, it is without logic. The object of scorn need not be deserving, or malicious, or evil. All that is required is that the hater wishes to do harm to another because that person is different in some way.”
“Why hurt her, Alma? I understand that some people harbor hatred for others, but why in all the world choose her as the target of their violence?”
“That, my dear, is the answer you must seek in your own heart.”
The girl asked many more questions that night, but Alma would say no more on the subject.
When the girl had been with Alma for nearly a month, the old woman said to her, “Come with me to the market, for I have something to show you.”
The girl rose up from her chair at once, curious to see what new conundrum Alma would show her. Her friend gave her a bright ribbon for her hair, for the day was windy, and she led the girl down the path to the market.
At the butcher’s shop, they met a boy who was wrapping cuts of meat in tidy parcels with paper. He smiled when he recognized Alma.
“What can I get for you today, ma’am?” he asked.
Alma gave the boy a wide smile. “Have you taken Ashai’s order out to her yet?”
He nodded. “Went this morning before it got busy. If I’d waited, all the best cuts would have been gone.”
The girl realized that this was the boy who brought Ashai the supplies she could not get for herself in safety. She inspected him with an attentive eye. He was tall, she thought, with dancing bright eyes and ruddy cheeks. His arms and shoulders were strong from years of honest work, and his open expression warmed her. So involved was she in her observation that she started when Alma turned to introduce her.
“This is my young friend who has been visiting with me these last weeks,” Alma said.
The butcher’s boy turned shy, but managed to stutter a few words of welcome. The girl thanked him, and then they stood for some time, blushing at each other in awkward silence.
Alma broke the moment with a chuckle. “If I’m not interrupting, I’d like to get something to cook for our dinner.”
“Of course,” the boy replied, blushing even redder than before.
With many more shy glances at the girl, he managed at last to attend to Alma. The transaction complete, the girl answered his breathless farewell with embarrassed pleasure. Her friend said nothing, and they returned home.
The boy began to call at the cottage every day with one excuse or other, and the girl found herself looking forward to his visits. As the time for her departure drew near, she told him that she would miss him when she left.
“Then don’t go,” he said, taking her hand in his.
Her heart jumped a little at the contact, but she said, “I must move on. Alma has been more than kind, but I do not want to outstay my welcome.”
“You would always be welcome in your own home.”
“Well, yes. But I have no home here.”
“You could have,” the boy said, “if you married me.”
Air left the girl’s lungs in a rush. “You wish to marry me?” she asked.
“Yes, I do. Very much.”
He smiled, his expression quiet and confident. “Because I love you, dear girl.”
The girl asked for time to consider his proposal, and the boy agreed. She returned to the cottage in some agitation, and at once petitioned Alma for advice.
“He says he loves me. Why should he love me? I have no special beauty or wit or talent. I am just an ordinary girl.”
“None of that matters, if he loves you.”
“But he is so good! And he never asks for thanks! He’s never anything but kind!”
“No, he never is.”
“But…” The girl was more puzzled than ever. “Why would he love me?”
Alma looked at her with a knowing smile. “You do not know admiration?”
“Well, yes of course I do, but… how can I know I’ll make him happy?”
“Do you not know hope?”
“Yes, of course,” the girl repeated. “But he did not ask someone better. There are far more deserving women in need of love. Why me, Alma?”
“My dear, when one gives love, whether deserved or not, it should be welcomed. The recipient need not be deserving, or beautiful, or wise. All that is required is that the lover wishes to spend their lives together.”
“Why choose me, Alma? I understand that some people fall in love, but why in all the world choose me as the object of his affection?”
“That, my dear, is the answer you must seek in your own heart.”
“You always say that,” the girl complained. “How can I find answers inside my heart? What am I supposed to find there that I cannot learn another way?”
Alma shook her head at the girl in obvious exasperation. “Why do people forgive? Why do people have faith? Why do they hate? Why do they love? These are the questions that have no answer, my dear. Embrace the mystery. Have faith. Choose to love, even if there is no reason. Let the answer be you love because you feel it, and he loves because he feels it. There is no better answer than that.”
The girl lay in her bed that night and considered Alma’s words. The old woman had found forgiveness and charity inside herself, and she had refused to share the hatred others held. And she was right. There was still no good explanation for why some love and some hate, or why some believe and some doubt. Alma’s choices showed her heart to the world, and that was where her reasons could be found. She forgave and loved and trusted because that was who she was.
And the girl looked into her own heart and found love for the boy, even though she could not explain why she felt that way. The next day, she went to him and said, “I have considered, and I have found that I do love you. I also believe that you love me, even though I do not understand why I would be your choice. So I am choosing to be with you, as well.”
So the two were married, even though they weren’t sure why, and the girl discovered that some questions need no answer.