|Long ago, in a place and time forgotten by history, there were two great countries, one to the East and one to the West. The people of these countries were very different from each other; those from the East were tall and fair of skin, with light hair and brilliant blue eyes that could be as soft as a morning sky or as fierce as a hailstorm, whereas those from the West were strong and darkly tanned, with thickly muscled arms and black hair and eyes so brown they could not be seen in the darkness of night. The people of the East spoke differently than those in the West, prayed differently, followed different laws, even ate their food differently and taught their children to play different games. And because they were so different, the people of one country did not understand those of the other, and so they hated each other. And because they hated each other, there was no one who tried to understand.
It came to pass, in a time of uneasy peace (for all the peaces in those days were uneasy), that the King of the West gazed upon a map of his kingdom, and saw a small spit of land at the southernmost point of his empire. It was an unwanted tract of land, full of forests and bogs and crawling things, notable because it was the only piece of land on the border between the countries that they had not fought over. Believing himself very clever, the king spitefully thought, “I shall dispatch a single man to this place. There is nothing of worth to be gained, but if I send even a single man there I shall be able to say that I have conquered a portion of my enemies’ territory.”
And so it was that a single young soldier said goodbye to his parents, brothers, sisters, and wife with their newborn child, and set out for an insignificant piece of a much larger empire. He traveled many miles, and overcame many hardships, but finally he crested the last hill and looked down upon the land that was to be his post. Carefully following his map, he made his way through a forest to a grassy clearing wherein lay the border that divided his nation from the one in the East, but upon reaching his destination he found that another had already arrived.
Surprised, the man from the West approached the other, and as he walked his brown eyes met blue, and anger flared behind each. The two men stood for a moment, gazing at each other across the invisible but impenetrable wall that divided them, and each knew that no two things in the world could be more different. Finally the man from the East, speaking with an accent strange to Western ears, asked, “Why have you come?”
Pride swelling in his chest, the Western man responded, “I have come to guard this border against your country, as my king commanded.”
The Eastern man nodded, saying “I have come for the same purpose.”
And so it went. Every day, each man patrolled his side of the border, keeping careful watch on the other, and each night they sat apart, at separate fires, trying to stay awake longer than their enemy. On some nights, the man from the West would play music on a small instrument he had brought from home, much to the disgust of the man from the East, and on other nights the man from the East would sing, which annoyed the man from the West to no end. The songs and music of one were too different from the other, and so the hate deepened between them, and they did not understand.
One day, as they patrolled their respective borders, a messenger arrived for the Eastern man, departing immediately after delivering his letter, for no one wanted to stay on this land any longer than was necessary. The Western man watched closely as the other read his message, and was surprised to see a wide smile grow upon his enemies’ face. Neither man had dared to smile since arriving, and each had only hard, angry glares to offer the other. They had not even spoken since that first day, and so the Western man did not ask what news the letter contained and tried to put the matter from his mind. He could not, however, for the Eastern man continued to smile, all through that day and the next, and the Western man grew angrier and angrier at whatever it was that was making the other so happy. And so it was that finally, on the third day when he saw that the Eastern man still continued to smile, the Western man could stand the aggravation no more and asked, “What was in the letter you received that is making you so happy?”
The Eastern man paused for a moment, and the Western man thought that he would not answer, but then the man from the East said, “It is my wife. She has given birth to our first child.”
The Western man was stunned. He did not know what to say, so unexpected was this response. After a moment, he replied, “My wife and I also have a young child of our own.”
The Eastern man raised his eyebrows, but that was all.
For some weeks afterward, the two men continued their duties, guarding their borders dutifully against the other, though their glares were now less angry, and the music each made at night was less irritating to the other. Then a message came for the Western man, and with eager eyes he read the letter as his companion watched with interest, and upon finishing the man from the East asked, “What did your letter contain?”
Smiling, the Western man said, “Much has happened since I left. My younger brother is getting married, and my child has begun to walk.”
The Eastern man raised his eyebrows again, and the Western man suddenly recognized the expression as one of surprise, much like his own upon hearing the Eastern man’s news.
“Ah,” said the man from the East. “That is good.”
“Yes,” agreed the Westerner.
And so it was that the two men began speaking. Their accents, though different, proved to be a small boundary. They talked little at first, but then more and more. They stopped trying to outlast each other in the night and simply went to sleep. They spent less time guarding each other on the border during the day, and were able to spend more time clearing the surrounding forest to build small huts for themselves. They each began to listen to the music the other made during the night, and did not interrupt.
Then one day, as the sun was setting, the Western man found himself standing alone at his post alongside the borderline drawn on his map. And as the last rays of sunlight filtered into the clearing, he looked down, at the invisible line drawn through this piece of unwanted land, and he saw grass. The same grass that grew by his small hut, and the same grass growing over by his companions’. He went to bed that night, but slept little, and only fitfully, as people do when they begin to understand.
The next day, the Western man rose early and took up his post alongside the border. The Eastern man did the same some time later, and there was a moment of silence as the sun rose. Then the Western man spoke, saying “We are very different, you and I. Would you agree?”
The Eastern man nodded, turning to face his companion.
The Western man nodded as well, then continued, “But though we are different, you should know that I am not difficult to understand. There are only two things you must know about me, and then you will understand me completely.”
He paused for a moment, and his companion waited patiently.
“First, I love my family. Because this is first, it is also greatest. Would you agree?”
“Just so,” the Eastern man said with another nod.
“Second, I love my country. That is why I am here, and why I will not leave.”
“Just so,” the other said again.
The man from the West fell silent, and the man from the East appeared to consider this a moment, then said, “If this is the case, then I think we understand each other very well.”
“Just so,” said the one from the West.
More time passed, and now the two men talked freely with one another. They spoke of their childhoods, of past friends, of their parents and brothers and sisters. The man from the West told what he could remember of his small child, and the man from the East spoke about his hopes for his own child whom he had not yet met. They both spoke about their wives, but only briefly, for some things lie too close to the heart to properly be given voice. At night, when the man from the West played on his instrument, the man from the East sang along. When a string broke, the Eastern man gave a new string to replace it, and when the Eastern man’s throat became sore from sickness, the Western man supplied medicine to ease the swelling.
Then a day came when each man received a letter ordering them to return home, for war had broken out between the two countries again and every soldier was needed for the fight. They looked across at each other from either side of the boundary, realizing that men they did not know had made them enemies once again. They packed what little belongings they had and prepared to depart, but before doing so they met one more time at the invisible boundary they had guarded for so long.
The Eastern man looked around for a moment, then said, “This is good land. I was told that it would be a swamp, full of all sorts of foul creatures, but it is not. A man could build a good home for his family here.”
The Western man also looked at the now-familiar surroundings, and agreed. There were areas of fertile ground and open fields for planting, and with work the land could surely be made to flourish. The two men spoke briefly, and then before departing, the man from the West extended his hand across the barrier between them, and the man from the East took it. Both men made the journey home, and both fought bravely defending their countries, for doing so was their second great love. Finally, after much blood had been shed and many lives lost, the war ended (as wars are wont to do), and each country claimed victory for itself, hailing its own successes while ignoring its defeats and the lessons they held.
After many months, each man returned home, and each saw the family they had left behind. They stayed there, with their wives and children, until the agreed upon time came, and then each once again made the journey back to the unwanted land in the south. Upon meeting, they embraced, and told each other of all the things they had seen and done since they had last been together. They spoke of the friends they’d lost in battle, of the health of their parents, of the new children that had been born. They talked about how brave and strong they hoped their sons would be, and of how kind and beautiful they wanted their daughters to become. But of their wives they said little, because they understood each other, and so they understood that some things lie too close to the heart.
And while they talked they worked. They chopped down trees and cleared areas of forest, cut grass to expand and expose rich fields, and worked on a road leading into their territory from both east and west. They repaired the small huts they had once lived in, and laid the foundations for new homes and barns. After a month of arduous labor, they still had not made much progress, and it was time to return home to their families. Still, they were young and strong and pleased with the start, and so they agreed to return again the next year to continue their work.
And so it went. The years passed, and for one month each year the two men would meet in that discarded spit of land and continue working on the homes they had set out to build for their families. Each year, repairs had to be made for the damage that had accrued over the previous months, but they were young and strong and did not mind. They spoke often about their families; about their parents who had died or were dying, about their children who were growing up, about how their boys were becoming strong men and how their daughters were flowering into beautiful women. And slowly the homes and fences and barns rose into the air.
Soon, however (for these things always happen too quickly in the minds of those involved), they were no longer young men, but getting on in age. Still they met, at the appointed time, one coming from the East, the other from the West, and still they continued their work. The homes were almost finished now, and they were beautiful buildings, just the sort they had always promised their wives they would one day live in. The fences were nearly complete, the roads clearly marked and stable. But they were getting older now. They moved slower, and repairing the previous year’s damage took more time. They got less done in a month than they had previously, but at the close they always remained in high spirits; the end was in sight.
And so the years passed and they continued meeting, though the journey was more difficult now, and while they worked they talked. They talked about friends and parents who were long gone, about how strong and brave their sons were and how beautiful their daughters had become. They spoke of how proud they were of their children, of how bravely they had defended their nation in the last war, of how they were starting families of their own. A day came when they began to speak about their grandchildren, and how strong and beautiful they would surely one day be.
One year, as their month together came to a close (they had lost count by this time of how many years it had been since they first began), the two men looked at each other, one from the East and one from the West, and they saw that they were old men now. The man from the East was no longer tall and proud, but bent and stooped, with white hair replacing the brilliant gold. The man from the West was bald and wrinkly, with only the barest trace of his former strength. They stood for a moment, as the sun set, thinking about the past and all that had gone before. Then one of them spoke:
“You know that I have had two great loves all my life.”
The other nodded in agreement and waited, patiently.
“I now have a third.” The two men faced each other, and one placed a hand on the shoulder of the other.
“First, I love my family. Because this is first, it is greatest.”
“Second, I love my country. That is why I fought so hard to defend it, all those years ago.”
“And third is this friendship. I value your friendship more than any other gift this world has given me. In all my years, I have never met anyone else like you. For even though we are different, we understand each other. And that is rare. That is truly rare.
“And because this is third, it is purest. For we cannot choose the families we are born into, nor can we choose the countries we call our homeland. And though the love I hold for my family and my country runs deep, in both cases it is also expected and unconditional, which makes each of them special in its own way. But my love for you is unexpected and freely given, and that I will always treasure.”
Silence fell over the two men, and the following morning they spoke briefly before each set out to go his own way, one East and the other West. For a few years more, they continued to make the journey, spending one month in each others’ company, putting the finishing touches on the grand houses, barns, and stables they had built for their families. Then there came a year when only one man came. For two days, he waited for his companion, patiently watching the sun move across the sky, unimpeded by trees that had been cut down to provide wood for the structures now dotting the landscape. On the third day, he set to work alone, performing the tasks he and his companion had once done together. But he was old now, very old, and without the other there was twice as much to do. He still spoke aloud, however, addressing his companion as if he were still there, and talked about all their usual subjects: his children, now getting older themselves; his grandchildren, rapidly entering into their own adulthood.
He spoke of his wife, who had died earlier that year, peaceful and happy, surrounded by the family they had shared. His first love, and because she was the first, the greatest. But not much about that, for anyone who understood him knew this lay far, far too close to his heart.
And so it was that for a few years, only the one man returned to this land in the south, to finish the work he and another had started long ago, as young men. Until one year, no one came at all to the houses on that southern spit of land divided between two great empires. The grasses grew tall and weeds laid claim to the clean fields. Rains washed over the carefully tilled soil, and wild animals began to infiltrate the fences.
Such was the case for some years, until one day, many, many years after the man from the West first ascended that final hill and glimpsed a forest below, another came over that same ridge, having made the arduous journey from her own home far to the West. She too looked down from that hill, but rather than a dense forest, she saw a small cluster of houses next to several larger, strong-looking structures, about where a clearing had once been in a forest long ago. The remnants of the forest remained, but were held back by a line of sturdy wooden fences that looked to be in some disrepair, but still serviceable. There were fields to the south, where the land was more open. Overgrown, yes, but fertile by the looks of the stream that had been dammed and diverted through their midst. And as she made her way down the hill, she saw a young man about her own age standing in the center of the ring of buildings, watching her.
The man was tall and handsome, with fair skin and blue eyes, and held himself with the bearing of a soldier. And as he watched the woman descend the slope in front of him, he felt a stirring near his heart, indescribable except to those that have received such a grace. This, he knew, was entirely appropriate, for as he gazed at the approaching black-haired, brown-eyed woman, he realized that even if someone were to ask him, were to press him to describe this moment, he would not have been able to do so, not with such rough tools as words. He would have refused. For this, this was much too close to his own heart.
The woman reached him and stood several feet apart, as though some hidden boundary had blocked her progress. Each was silent for a moment, and then she said:
“My grandfather told me of this place.”
“Mine as well,” came the response.
“He said that he met someone here, long ago. Someone very close to him.”
“Mine said the same. Before he died, he asked that I come here precisely on this day.”
“As did mine.”
There was a pause, and the man shuffled his feet while the woman squeezed her hands, uncertain. Then,
“My family has always taught me to love two things in life,” the woman from the West began.
The man from the East looked up, and blue eyes met brown, and there was no anger, nor hatred, nor evil of any kind behind either.
“My family taught me something similar,” said the man.
“And what did they teach you?” the woman asked, her voice trembling slightly.
The man swallowed, despite the dryness of his mouth, and said: “First, love your family. Because this is first, this is also greatest.”
“Second, love you country. Fight for her, for any who defend your family should be loved in equal measure,” said the woman.
The man nodded, a smile now creasing his lips. “But there is a third,” he said.
“Yes,” the woman whispered. “But only my grandfather said he knew of it, and he did not tell me.”
“Neither did mine. But he said I might find it here,” the man from the East said, fighting to keep his voice from cracking.
“Just so,” said the woman from the West, her own voice little more than a murmur.
And so they worked. They cleared the weeds, repaired the fences, patched the roofs, and did all that needed to be done to restore the buildings and fields to working order. It went quickly, for they were young and strong and most of the hard work was already done anyway; it was a simple matter of cleaning up. At night, the man from the East would play a small instrument his grandfather had given him, and the woman from the West would sing songs she had learned as a child from her own grandfather. When the end of the month came, they had finished; the houses were ready to be lived in, the barns to be stocked with grain and livestock, the fields ripe for planting.
But most importantly, by the month’s end each had discovered the third thing their grandfathers had spoken about. And it was with great joy that each realized that this third thing, the purest of the three, their friendship, was the cornerstone of the first, which also made it the greatest.
Thus, they decided to stay in the home their grandfathers had made for them, and sent letters back to their families, asking them to come south, provided they were willing to see past the differences that are manifest on a person’s surface to the true core that lies beneath. And when they came, they brought others as well, friends who had grown sick and tired of all the wars and endless bickering between East and West, and the community grew. Years passed, and generations came and went, and word spread of a place to the south where people could live in peace, no matter the color of their hair or skin or manner of speaking or praying. The small village grew and grew until it was a town, then a small city, and then a large city. The Kings of the East and West plotted and schemed, but could see no means of attacking, for why would they destroy a city built on their own territory, inhabited by their own people? And soon enough those kings and leaders died and were replaced by new kings and leaders, ones who allowed themselves to see past what was different to what was beneath. So it was that true lasting peace (for the peace in those days was always true) finally came to both the East and West.
And in some far-off space, high above the sky and clouds and heavens (or wherever these places are wont to be), two friends smiled.