August 21, 2007


At the Thursday night farmer's market, among the sellers of produce, crafts, and artwork, there was a vendor who remained, for the most part, hidden. Her table was small and in the shadows, and she didn't call out to passers-by, enticing them to make a purchase, like the other vendors did. She just stood there, quietly, with her long silver hair, smiling slightly as she watched the people on the street with her eyes that had seen many years.

On her table were some brown wooden boxes. The boxes were open on top, but from the middle of the street, I couldn't see what was in them. Whatever it was, I thought to myself, it couldn't be all that great. No one crowded around her table like they did at all the other booths.

One night, though, curiosity got the better of me. I walked over to her table, looked into the boxes ... and was surprised to find that they were empty. I looked up at the old woman. "What are you selling?" I asked.

She didn't answer me right away. "Good evening," she said, smiling. Her voice was friendly and gentle, but strong. "I'm selling words. I've got them all arranged by type: the nouns are on your left, the verbs are there, the adjectives here, adverbs, exclamations, interjections... oh, and this small box here holds the prepositions and conjunctions!"

I looked down at the empty boxes. I looked at her to see if this was a joke, but her eyes told me that it was not.

I hesitated, then said, "Um, the boxes are empty."

"What?" She looked confused.

I tried again: "There's nothing there." The confusion on her face shifted to bewilderment; or was that pity I saw? She did not speak, so I said one more time: "I don't see anything in the boxes."

"Oh, my dear boy," she said at last. "Of course you don't. Words aren't things you can see. Words are things you feel."

"But you can't sell words," I protested.

"Why not?"

"Because... because... because words don't have any value."

Suddenly, her face was filled with sadness. "Oh, I'm sorry to hear you say that," she said. "It is true that for most people today, words have little or no value. But it wasn't always so. In the old days, people valued words dearly...."

"But words aren't real," I interrupted.

"Listen to me," she said in a slightly reprimanding voice. "Words are real. They do have value. And they can be very powerful. Everything you see came into existence by a word. The Creator spoke, and the world was created. The Creator said, "Let there be light"-- just spoke the words -- and there was light. Everything was created this way. Even today, words have strong creative power. Why, I can create a new mood in you with just one simple word, Danny."

"Hey," I said. "How do you know my name?"

"What does it matter? It's just a word ... right?"

I stood there in silence, thinking about what she had said. When I didn't say anything, the old woman spoke again. "You know, few people ever stop by my table, and the few who do never stay as long as you have. I can tell you're thinking about the things I've told you, though you're still not sure what to make of them.... Maybe this will help."

She pulled out from under the table two large wooden boxes. Unlike the other boxes, they both had lids which were securely locked. They were well-built boxes, strong and sturdy, but they were also very different. One was beautifully polished, golden in color, and was decorated with colorful illustrations and decorations. The other box was ugly. It had no decorations. It was chipped and dirty, and appeared to have been blackened by fire.

The old woman looked at me intently and whispered, "In these boxes are the most powerful words in the world."

"What are they?" I asked.

"These are blessings ... and curses."

The look in her eyes was so intense, I couldn't help but laugh. I didn't mean to be rude, but at the same time, I couldn't believe that this woman was for real.

She continued looking at me, and said, in her quiet voice, "Perhaps you would like to try one one, see how it fits?" Without waiting for me to answer, she took a key and inserted it into the old beat up box. Slowly, she turned the key.

Instantly, her face changed. The beauty that was there was replaced by ugliness, anger, and what appeared to be hatred.

"You!" she said in a voice that was shockingly loud and harsh. "You are a small, weak person! Worthless! Immature! Stupid! I hate you!"

I could not believe how she was yelling at me. As far as I could tell, I had done nothing to provoke her. I felt my own animosity and anger arising within me, and was about to yell something back at this woman, something even worse than what she had said to me, when she quickly turned the key in the box, relocking it. The anger and hatred in her eyes vanished, and was replaced with sadness. Suddenly, she was crying.

"I'm so sorry," she sobbed.

"I ... I don't get it," I said, trying to calm down. "What just happened?"

"Well," she said, wiping her tears, "one can't use words like these without being affected by them. I may have directed them at you -- and I'm sure you felt them -- but did you notice how I myself was changed by them?"

"Oh," I said. "I see." The truth was, I did see. I saw how quickly a few spoken words had changed me, made me tense and angry, and left her crying. I had no idea....

"Listen," she said. "Listen to the people in the street. Listen to the words they use so carelessly...."

I did listen, and even though I'd heard it all before, it was as if I was hearing these words for the first time:

"I told you we should have come earlier! Now look how crowded
it is! Why do I ever listen to you!"

"You bought nectarines? You're so stupid! I told you to get
peaches! Can't you do anything right?"

"I can't believe what Gertrude told me that Eloise told her about Mr.
Pinstripe. Have you heard this terrible gossip? Well, let
me tell you...."

"This is awful!" I said. "It's as if each person had their own ugly wooden box, and they forgot to close and lock it. Don't they realize what they're doing to each other? To themselves?"

The old woman turned, silently, to the box with the colorful decorations. "Perhaps you'd like to try on some of these..."

She grabbed a key, inserted it, and slowly began to turn it. Her face brightened, and before she even spoke, I felt my own spirits lifting.

"I'm so glad you stopped by my booth," she said. "I've really enjoyed talking with you. You have brought a lot of cheer into an old woman's heart. Thank you. Bless you. And may the rest of your day be filled with peace and happiness."

"Wow," I said. "Wow! I can't believe that words -- just words -- can make me feel so good. I just can't believe it!"

"Can't you?" she said. "If words created the universe, is it so surprising that they can affect your mood, your feelings?"

"Oh, this is wonderful," I said. "Yes, I would love to buy some of the words from that box. In fact, I don't think I can live without them. Please, how much are they? What do they cost?"

"My dear," she said. "You don't need to buy these words."

"Oh, but you're wrong," I said. "I do!"

"No," she said, smiling. "You don't, because you already have them, in a beautiful box of your own. All you need is someone who can help you find the right key."

"Oh, thank you so much!" I said. "You're wonderful! I wish there were more people like you, full of wisdom and kindness.... All I need to do now is find the key...."

She smiled once more and said, "I think you already have."

1 comment:

Brian said...

What an amazing story, so well-told. It reads like the kind of sermons I like to hear because they don't sound like a sermon. Thanks for sharing.