The bungalow was dark. The only sound was Papi’s rasp, breath after breath. Salvatore knew his Father’s time was near, and he was gripped with fear and anger.
“Come here, Hijo.”
Salvatore neared his Father’s deathbed with dread. It was just another loss, another problem.
“Hijo, I have nothing to give you… The soldiers took my land, and killed your Mother… All I have is a promise I have kept,.. and this I give to you. It is a source of riches beyond description… Keep this promise, and you will be rewarded.”
Papi explained to Salvatore that each week he was to bring a gift to the Anciano on the neighboring mountain. It didn’t matter what, he was to bring a gift. He was not to miss a week, not one, for any excuse. Then Papi gently died, with a half smile on his face.
Salvatore was furious. If his Father had a source of riches, why didn’t he share them? Why didn’t he use them to ease their miserable lives?
During the war, Salvatore and his family had escaped and relocated to a scrap of land that he was desperately trying to cultivate. All he had was this land, a handful of sheep, and now, his Father’s promise to keep. It was just another burden.
Salvatore began his journey up the neighboring mountain begrudgingly. “Bring a gift, indeed. I have nothing but this water in my goatskin. That old man will just have to accept my nothing.”
Every step along the way, Salvatore cursed. He resented the time it took away from his land, and the effort it took to climb the hill. The whole situation was a supreme bother, and he wished he hadn’t agreed to continue this promise.
At last, he reached the place where the Anciano lived, and he threw down the goatskin in front of him. “Why don’t you get your own water? What do you ever contribute to the refugees below? Do you know how selfish you are being? Do you know how hard this is for me to do? I can’t afford the time away from my land, and my family! You‘re worthless, Old Man.”
Anciano looks deeply at Salvatore, nods, and says “yes.”
Salvatore, frustrated, spins on his heel, and heads down the hillside.
Anciano takes the water that Salvatore has just given him, and places it in a beautiful place in his meager garden. There he contemplates the purity of the water. He thinks of the clouds forming, eventually dropping their moisture. He sees lakes and rivers filling up with life-giving water, supplying villages and villagers everywhere. He considers the goat, eating the grass also fed by the water, and about the sacrifice of the goat’s life to make the very bag the water was carried in. He thinks of the skill it took the craftsman to make the goatskin bag water tight, so no precious drop of water was lost.
All of this he thought about with respect, and his heart filled with gratitude.
Meanwhile Salvatore continues down the hill glad that he got the promise out of the way for this week. He felt lighter for having told the old man what he thought of his laziness and selfishness. Somehow, the exercise of going up and down the hill and the sunshine on his back felt good too.
The Day of Promise arrives the next week before Salvatore realizes it. Aggravated, he grabs some corn from a pile in the corner, just to have something to bring. “What a bother,” he thinks as he labors up the hill.
When he meets the lean old man, Salvatore once again offhandedly dumps the corn in front of him. “My wife is sick. I should be there taking care of her. Since she is ill, I have to do twice the load. You are so selfish and worthless. You do nothing to contribute to us. Here’s your food.”
Again, the old man looks meaningfully into Salvatore’s eyes, nods, and says “Yes.”
Salvatore, puzzled and annoyed, turns and heads down the hill.
Anciano places the corn on his small table and begins to think how the corn was made. Again, the rain, the seeds that some man collected and planted when the time was right. The soil which gave of its nutrients. He thought of the time and patience it took for the corn to grow; days of sunshine and nights of moonlight. He remembered the man who labored to pick the corn, put it into a sack, and carried it up the hill for him to eat. His heart swelled with gratitude, and he blessed the corn.
Meanwhile, Salvadore, on his way down the hill, feels lighter for having dropped off his sack of corn, and unburdening himself of the troubles he carried in his heart of his wife’s illness. The exercise he was getting filled his lungs with fresh air. His heart beat strongly. The sun warmed his back and gave his cheeks color.
Week after week, Salvatore keeps his promise to his Father, and week after week, he thinks he will get some riches from the old man. “Maybe I need to give him a better present,” he thinks. “Then he will see that I am worthy of his riches.”
Salvatore decides to give the Anciano a woolen blanket. It’s an expensive gift, and labor intensive.
Arriving at the top of the hill, he gives the blanket to the old man. Anciano looks at Salvatore, smiles a small smile, and says “Yes.”
“What’s the matter with you, Old Man? Nothing impresses you! This is the best I have to offer, and you take it like it is of no importance! I hate this promise. You are nothing but a weight to me.” Salvatore returns down the hill.
Anciano places the blanket on the mat where he sleeps and considers how the blanket is made. The soil, moisture and sunshine that fed the grass that fed the sheep that grew the wool. The man who sheared the sheep, and the woman who took the wool and processed it into yarn and wove the blanket. Countless hours went into the making of this woolen blanket, and Anciano’s heart filled to bursting.
What a gift!
Salvatore, against his better judgment begins to realize that he enjoys dumping the mental and emotional burdens he carries onto the old man. He feels lighter inside; energized by the exercise, the release of his anger, and the weights of his heart. He begins to notice the flowers along side the hill, and the colors of the rocks that line his path. He wonders why he has never seen them before.
Seasons pass, and weekly Salvatore brings his gifts to Anciano. Sometimes it is fruit, or vegetables, firewood, seeds or nuts. Each time he places the gift in front of the old man and tells him what a problem it is to bring them to him. He tells him of the sacrifices he makes to keep this promise.
Soon, he also begins to tell the old man of his worries for his family. He speaks of his son who is just becoming a man, and how he fears for him. Will he be able to make his way in the world? Will he have to join the army and fight at the border of the neighboring country?
There are fears he has for his wife; how hard she works, and he wonders if she will be able to keep up this pace. He shares his concerns over his daughter. Will she find a good husband? And what about his crops? Will there be enough rain? Too much?
No matter what Salvatore says, or what mood he is in, Anciano listens intently, nods thoughtfully, and says “Yes.”
Salvatore begins to realize that he has never known anyone like this before in his life. The old man accepts him on good days and bad, and with large gifts and small ones too. Soon, Salvatore becomes aware that he is feeling much freer inside himself. His weekly visits climbing up and down the hill and unburdening himself to this old man has made him lean and strong. Clear headed. There is a deep change inside and he’s not sure why or how it happened.
He begins to look forward to his visits with Anciano. Instead of his fears and angers and resentments, soon, Salvatore finds that he speaks to the old man of his hopes and dreams for his son, his daughter. He excitedly tells of how he wants to expand his land and his home. Hiring men to help him with his increased crop yield.
Anciano listens to it all. He smiles, nods and accepts everything Salvatore gives him.
One day Salvatore arrives at Anciano’s hut and sees him on his sleeping mat on the floor. Anciano is laboring with his breath. Salvatore becomes alarmed at the prospect that the old man might die.
“Are you dying?! What will I do without you? What will become of me? I need you, Old Man,” he says.
“Yes,” Anciano replies.
They sit together for another hour as the old man passes from this world to the next.
Salvatore places his head on the old man’s chest and weeps for his loss. An emotional storm rises and falls inside of him. When calm returns, in his mind he hears the old man’s “Yes.”
He looks around and finds a peaceful place in the back of Anciano’s hut where he digs a hole. Lovingly he places the old man in the earth and covers him with dirt. He looks around and doesn’t know what to do. In his mind, he hears the old man’s voice, saying “Yes.
He cleans up the hut, waters a few plants, and returns down the hill.“My life has changed,” he says to himself.
“Yes,” he hears the old man say back to him.
Salvatore returns week after week to tidy up the hut, tend the few plants, clear the gravesite of weeds. He continues to talk to the old man at his gravesite, telling him of his hopes, dreams, and fears.
Then one day, Salvatore knows that this ritual is no longer necessary. He has been speaking to the old man on the other side now for a long time. He knows the old man hears him whether he is at his hut or if he is out in the fields.
He decides not to return to the hut, for it is no longer necessary. He carries the old man inside of him now, wherever he goes.
“Yes,” he hears the old man say.
Salvatore returns to his family a profoundly changed man.
Seasons pass. Salvatore feels tired after working a full day with his sheep and mending a fence, and he says “Yes.” Days come and go, weeks and months pass by; horrendous winters, splendid springs, and to everything he says “Yes.”
Salvatore’s inclination to argue has all but ceased. He says “thank you” these days, and notices how his wife smiles more, his daughter is happy, and his son strong. His fear, and all the closing it brings, all the walls it builds, has fallen away. He observes this of himself, and he says “Yes.”
He notices that his son looks up to him now, and seeks him out for advice. His daughter blooms in the safety that he provides for her, and she enjoys his company.
More seasons pass and his son grows strong, marries a girl and gets a farm of his own. His daughter is sought after by a young man from a neighboring village, gets married and has a child. His wife ages, the blush of youth vanishes, and is replaced by gentleness, loyalty and the depth of understanding. His crops and number of animals rose and fell and rose again. Some friendships have drifted away, and some have returned. To all of this, Salvatore says an internal “Yes.”
When he feels pain, he sits with it. When he feels happy, he sits with that too. And his heart fills with gratitude at the mystery and fullness of Life.
Neighbors and countrymen alike begin to notice his strength, his wisdom, steadfastness, and calm courage. They seek him out for his counsel. He listens intently to all that they present to him. He gives guidance and insight. Some accept what he has to say and others do not. To each, in his heart, he says “Yes.”
Life continues in this way, until Salvatore finds himself in his bed having difficulty breathing, and he knows that his time for leaving the world is near. As he no longer fears Life, he no longer fears Death either, and has leaned to say yes to both. Waxing and waning, closeness and distance, hellos and goodbyes, praise and blame. He sits with all of these changes and feels satisfied.
Gratitude fills his heart as he realizes the old man is in front of him.
“Is it time to go now?”
“Yes,” Anciano says, and touches his hand.
Salvatore exhales his last breath and whispers “Yes.” A half smile remains on his face. His wife touches his hand as she sees him pass from this world to the next. Maria, observing Salvatore all these years, has learned to say yes to Life and to Death as well. Though weeping for her loss, she smiles through her tears and gathers her family close.
“Where did Grandfather go? I’m afraid, Abuela. Will we be ok?”
“Yes,” she says gently as she kisses her grandchild’s sweet hair.