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Keeper of the Rainbows
Once upon a time there was an old man who lived down by the river. He spent his days sitting under the bridge, looking out at the water rushing by.
The river ran along the border of a village. All the people in the village were scared of the man; the parents forbade their children to go near him and no one would ever talk to him. People who passed over the bridge would do so quickly because they thought that if they loitered on the bridge, the man would try to harm them.
The man did not speak to anyone. He did not leave the bridge. He took raw oysters from the river and fish swimming downstream as food. He ate everything and left only the bones, which lay scattered around the river bank where he made his home.
The man spent his days with a piece of birch bark that came from the trees common to the area. He would peel back the bark slowly, until it was all gone and lay in shreds around him. The man lived a life completely isolated from society, covered in dirt, bones and the remnants of his obsession.
A travelling salesman came to the town near the bridge. He spent his days moving from village to village with his enormous carpet bag. His carpet bag resembled Mary Poppins’; it was large, and, when he pulled things out of it, one at a time, seemed like it would extend on forever.
Many of the things the salesman peddled came from tribal villages nearby. He would befriend the elders of the village and persuade them to give him their best crafts.
The salesman entered the village, and went to his host’s home. He would always befriend someone in the village to stay with during the time when he went about, selling his wares. He made it a point when he was in each village to meet everyone, get to know the flavor of the village, and sell all of the things he brought with him when he came.
The salesman quietly left his host’s home to sell his wares. He had a procedure when he went to each village. He would start in the middle of the village, where the people were the most welcoming and friendly, and slowly work his way out. He would do this to get a slow taste of the village. He needed to gain notoriety and popularity in the town before he tried to win over the more standoffish people living on the outskirts.
The salesman knocked on the door of the house in the middle of town. A little girl ran to the door. She was dressed in a long, white dress. It was dirty, and she kept tripping over it. She held a spoon in one hand. The little girl smiled up at the salesman and invited him into their home. She led him into a room where a little boy was sitting on the rug in front of the fire. He was playing with blocks and the flames from the fire danced in his eyes. Their mother sat in a chair off towards the side. She was fixing a hole in a sock.
The salesman could tell that the mother used to be very beautiful. Now, she looked sad and world-worn. Her wrinkles were deep, and creased with worry. Her hair was still dark, but had noticeable strands of grey running through it into her bun. She ran her hands through her hair slowly as she looked up at the salesman.
“May I help you?” she asked him. The salesman nodded.
“My name is Giuseppe,” he said. “I am a travelling salesman. Do you mind if I show you my wares?” She quietly nodded, without looking up from her sock. He starts pulling out all of the beautiful things he brought from the tribal villages. He removes this beautiful vase. It is stained green and looks like the ebb and flow of the sea. He reaches his hand back into the carpet bag, but the woman stops him. She has a panicked look on her face.
“You need to leave,” she says, getting up quickly and pushing the salesman out the door. “I’m sorry, I can’t do this right now.”
The salesman was not discouraged. He simply took his carpet bag back to his host’s house, and went back to his room. He took all of the objects out of his bag, polished them until they looked like new, put them back into the carpet bag, set the carpet bag by the door, and went to sleep. He concluded that he would win the woman over. He would visit every other person in the village first, learn the way of the people and allow his reputation to spread. At the end of his trip, he would return to her house in the middle of town, show her his wares, and the leave the village.
The salesman began to work his way to the outskirts of the village. He talked to women, befriended children, fed his food scraps to dogs. He slowly replaced the objects in his carpet bag, trading the tribal objects he brought with the objects that the people in the village gave him: embroidered shirts from the mothers, cast iron door knockers from the blacksmiths, and doll figurines from the children. Every night, he would return to the house, take all of the objects out of his bag, polish them until they looked like new, put them back into the carpet bag, set the carpet bag by the door, and go to sleep.
Finally, after being there for several weeks, the salesman had gone to every house in the village. He went to his host.
“I have been to every house in the village,” he said. “I have befriended wives, blacksmiths, and children. And yet, I feel like I am missing an essential part of what makes this village unique. Can you think of anyone I could have missed?”
The host peered up at the salesman.
“Giuseppe,” he said. “I know who you have missed. But you should not speak to him. People forbid their children to go near him. They say he is dangerous.”
But Giuseppe was no stranger to dangerous situations. He had been held for ransom by people in villages before, threatened until he was forced to give up some of his most precious wares. He was not afraid of anything.
“Please,” the salesman said. “Tell me where to find him.” The host sighed. He quietly gave the salesman directions and then went back to his work. The salesman went back to his room. He took all of the objects out of his bag, polished them until they looked like new, put the bag into the carpet bag, set the carpet bag by the door, and went to sleep.
The next day, the salesman woke up. His bag was heavy now, with most of the original objects that he had brought with him to the village replaced. He took the bag and walked down the streets of the village that had become his home. He waved to the wives and the blacksmiths, played and danced with the children, and fed the stray dogs. He slowly worked his way towards the edge of the village, where a river ran right along the border of the neighboring town. He walked onto the bridge. He saw no man anywhere. He looked all around, and the area was completely empty. Suddenly, he heard a sound. It sounded like a constant whisper. It would come and go, like the ebb and flow of the ocean. He looked down and saw a foot sticking out from under the bridge. The travelling salesman came down from the bridge and went underneath. The man was sitting there, peeling the birch bark until it whispered, covered in dirt and surrounded by fish bones. The salesman looked at him.
“Hello, sir,” he said. “I am Giuseppe, the travelling salesman. May I please show you my wares?” The salesman nodded slightly, without looking up from his birch bark. The salesman slowly took out all the objects he had accumulated: the shirts, the cast iron door knockers, and the doll figurines. The man under the bridge looked up. He reached out, and selected a knife made of bone, one of the last things that the salesman had brought from the tribal villages.
“That is very valuable,” the travelling salesman said. “I will need you to give me something of equal value to make it worth my while.” The man slowly reached into the bundle next to him and extracted a leather pouch. He placed it in the hand of the salesman. The salesman opened the pouch and his eyes widened. He quickly tucked it away into his bag, walked away without saying a word, and returned to his host’s home. He went to his room without speaking to his host. He took all of the objects out of his bag, polished them until they looked like new. But he never took out the leather pouch. He left it in the bag, returned all the objects to the bag, set the carpet bag by the door, and went to sleep.
The next day was the salesman’s last day in the village. As he had decided, he took his bag, left his host house, and returned to the center of the village. He knocked on the same door that he had knocked on all those weeks ago. The little girl came to open the door. She was dressed in the same long dress, and she tripped over it as she invited him inside. She took him into the room by the fire, where the woman sat, hemming a pair of pants. She looked up.
“Have you returned to show me the wares?” she asked. He nodded, and began removing the objects from his carpet bag. He became so immersed in his wares that he did not notice that the little girl had gone into the bag and taken out the leather pouch. She opened it up and removed a glass orb. It was a prism made of so many sides that it looked like a perfect sphere, and when the light shone through it, it would cast rainbows out of every angle. The salesman was shocked.
“I am sorry,” he said. “It is very valuable, one of a kind.” The woman had a look of intense worry on her face.
“Where did you find that?” she asked. The salesman shook his head.
“I cannot reveal my sources,” he said. Tears began rolling down the woman’s face.
“You do not understand,” she said. “Several years ago, my brother left on an expedition. He wrote me letters from all around the world. He was staying in a small village, and befriended the village elder there. They called him the Keeper of the Rainbows. People would seek advice from him, and when he died, my brother took his place as the Keeper of the Rainbows. The elder got his name because of the prism he had that cast rainbows out of every angle. My brother wrote to me about it, and it was the last letter I ever received from him. He disappeared afterwards and I have not heard from him since. We were so close. We would spend our childhood drawing pictures on pieces of birch bark we found in the forest. Our mother would hang them up all over our home.” She looked up at the salesman with tears in her eyes.
“Please, Giuseppe, tell me where you found this.” The travelling salesman slowly got up, took his carpet bag, and walked out of the house. The woman followed, hurriedly leaving her children at the neighbor’s house with no explanation. They walked through the village, past waving wives and blacksmiths, dancing children, and stray dogs. The walked until they reached the bridge. The salesman led her underneath to the man who was living there. The woman gasped and ran to the man. She wrapped his arms around him as tears rolled down her cheeks.
“What happened to you?” she asked. “Why did you disappear?” The man under the bridge finally looked up from his birch bark.
“It was too much responsibility, too much sadness,” he said. “I could not stand it anymore, so I left. I could not bear to disappoint my village, so I went into hiding.” The woman took his hand, picked up his bundle, and brought him back to her home. She sat him down by the fire and slowly picked the bones out of his hair. The salesman watched from the corner, holding his carpet bag in one hand, watching the orb cast rainbows all over the room. And then he left their home. He left the village. He knew he had done what he had come there to do. This was because he had not only befriended the community and learned the culture of the community, he had also done his small part to bring the community back together.