The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Monday, April 26, 2010

The Man Who Left Chelm

Honestly, some times I wonder why I do this. Why express myself in these ways, every morning? Then today over at the 101 board, someone spoke of "reverse engineering" the Soulmate process--rather than describing the desired mate, describe the current partner in terms OF the "Soulmate"--as if the person you are with already is that person. I don't know what will come of that exercise, but it sounds superb, and can't wait to see. That student also left us a parable I found extraordinary. And here it is for you.


The Man Who Left Chelm.

You may have heard of Chelm-- that little corner of the old country where the Angel of Fools tripped and spilled the souls he was supposed to spread evenly through time and space. In Chelm, they hung the poor-box from the synagogue ceiling so the thiefs couldn't steal from it, and then built a staircase up to it so people could still donate. A scholar from Chelm who finds a hayfork in the road is likely to conclude it's a giant's menorah. If you ever see a group of people calmly taking shelter under a thin tree in the pouring rain, they're from Chelm. They figure when their tree soaks through they'll just run for the next tree. It's that kind of place.

There was one young man in Chelm who could not bear the shame of living in the famous town of fools. It ate at him. "He'll settle down when he takes a wife," the gossips clucked, and they married him off, and it did no good. "He'll settle down when the children come," the family said, but even when the little ones learned to pull themselves up by his trouser legs he did not look at them but stared at the wall.

Why should he be trapped in so meaningless an existence? How could he stay trapped living out his life in a town of fools, a place fit only for ridicule? One day he reached the breaking point. "I cannot live like this another day," he cried, and seized his coat and headed for the door. "What are you doing?" asked his wife, and he could not answer, could not begin to put into words the years of frustration and helplessness. He left without a word.

He pointed himself in the direction of the sun. He walked with great, ground-eating strides, and every step he took past the boundaries of Chelm, it felt like his chest was expanding, every breath greater than the last. Dusk grew deep, and while there was still a little light he stepped off the road to sleep with a rock under his head like the Patriarch Jacob on the first night of his great destiny. He had never felt so free.

In the morning, the light of false dawn woke him, and he opened his eyes and turned his face to the light in time to see the rising of the sun on freshmade world. He watched as the sunbeams gilded every blade of grass and turned the trees to treasures. He whispered the blessing of awakening, and for the first time he tasted the words, "I give thanks before Your Face, Living and Eternal King, for You have restored my soul to me in compassion; great is Your faithfulness," and he knew he has never truly meant them before.

Then he stood, and set out again-- in the direction of the sun.

Every step seemed to bring to light a new miracle. Soon he came to the fields on the edge of a town, and his heart soared to see the workers heading out in the early morning, how they called to one another and laughed, how they sang in the rhythm of their movements. Yes, he thought, yes, this was what it was all about, this was the kind of life the sage spoke of, every human blessed and beautiful, the greatest of wisdom possible in the plainest simplicity.

He came to the town itself and continued to marvel: what stories could be read in the care with which these buildings were built, the gentle bustle of the start of the day. A group of little children ran out of nowhere to surround him, and he had to laugh out loud at the magnificence of their open, eager faces, the preciousness of their fragile, flushed beauty. They took hold of him and pulled him along to a house. He looked in the window, and there he saw... the saddest woman in the world.

He saw her with the same eyes that had watched the new sun come up, the same openess that had filled him deeper step by step into this new wonderful world, and he felt as if he could not breathe. How alone, how hopeless, how utterly forsaken she was, her eyes wild and staring at the wall. It came to him suddenly that if he could only make that woman smile, his whole life would have been worth living. He leapt from the window to the door and threw it open, strode into the room and tasted his words again as he said, "You are not alone. You need not ever be alone again. I will be here for you and with you, and it will not matter what anyone else thinks or says about what goes on in this house. Only say that you will have me."

Slowly, stiffly, the woman turned as if stunned, and when she saw him, her expresssion was like the sun coming up all over again.

He took the time to see her comforted and the children gathered in and fed, then went out to find work. A simple, hard job came first, and because he did it without complaining and he did it the best he could, more work came. His evenings were spent at the fire with the children climbing over him, in the mornings he woke alone to count his blessings, beginning with the face of the good woman beside him smiling in her sleep, and he never, ever went back to that horrible town of fools where once he'd lived.


BC Monkey said...

So let me get this straight- the guy sits there as a passive object- except when he's marrying his wife and fathering these kids. He doesn't do anything at all to try to change things in the villiage- doesn't say anything, doesn't argue, doesn't lead, doesn't do a dammed thing with himself- and then one day he gets up and leaves. He leaves his wife and kids behind- alone and without support- so he can take a flyer on something better being out there- because he cannot stand the shame of living in the village of fools.

Sorry, I can't say this is inspirational at all. It's the story of a coward running away from his problems and responsibilities. The parable treats his as a passive object without any will of his own until he gets up and goes.

Frankly, he's the biggest fool of them all and it's a shame in the story that his family are the ones that suffer for his foolishness, both before and after he leaves. (Never mind that if he were not a fool, he'd have the possibility of being the equivalent of the one-eyed man in the land of the blind.)

In the end, he goes and assumes the exact same responsibilities that he fled from- the only difference being the way he thinks about them.

Anonymous said...

"...So let me get this straight- the guy sits there as a passive object- except when he's marrying his wife and fathering these kids..."

The story says "...'He'll settle down when he takes a wife,' the gossips clucked, and they married him off, and it did no good..." Getting married off to someone can be a lot more passive than marrying someone. I could even imagine passive ways to father a child (like getting raped while asleep and having a wet dream?).

Scott said...

Fools outwitted by the sun are more common than I would have thought.

He walked away, then he walked back to the same town, same wife; different eyes.

Reluctant Lawyer said...

Scott -

I couldn't have put it any better.

Mike Ralls said...

I prefer the incredibly cuss-word filled version of the story, with stick figure accompaniments found here;


Crudity aside, there is a lot of truth in those two comics.

BC Monkey said...

Aaaahh. I had missed the trick with the sun. Apologies!

Kristin said...

Love that story! All of us have been fools searching for the perfect something to make us complete. All of us have been fools thinking happiness is somewhere other than inside of us. God is everywhere.

When we open our hearts and are kind like that - we realize god. And we are filled with joy being one of the many beautiful fools in our place in the world.

Anonymous said...



Well, hell, Steve, if you thought reading it was something, you should hear me tell it!

First time I've checked in since Monday-- coping with health problems and studying for the GRE. Thank you for the affirmation.

keith said...

He finally did something on his own initiative.

This is the essence of the character's dillema -- never to have acted in such a way.

The setting -- the city of fools -- distracts from this; keeps it less in focus than it might have been.

A city of the wise could be just as maddening, if everything , every action, was arranged just so--precluding free will and human freedom.

There is something to the story, spmething important enough that it is worth reworking.