Read The Alchemist Online

Authors: Paulo Coelho

The Alchemist (4 page)

Meanwhile, the old man persisted in his attempt to strike up a conversation. He said that he was tired and thirsty, and asked if he might have a sip of the boy's
wine. The boy offered his bottle, hoping that the old man would leave him alone.

But the old man wanted to talk, and he asked the boy what book he was reading. The boy was tempted to be rude, and move to another bench, but his father had taught him to be respectful of the elderly. So he held out the book to the man—for two reasons: first, that he, himself, wasn't sure how to pronounce the title; and second, that if the old man didn't know how to read, he would probably feel ashamed and decide of his own accord to change benches.

“Hmm . . .” said the old man, looking at all sides of the book, as if it were some strange object. “This is an important book, but it's really irritating.”

The boy was shocked. The old man knew how to read, and had already read the book. And if the book was irritating, as the old man had said, the boy still had time to change it for another.

“It's a book that says the same thing almost all the other books in the world say,” continued the old man. “It describes people's inability to choose their own Personal Legends. And it ends up saying that everyone believes the world's greatest lie.”

“What's the world's greatest lie?” the boy asked, completely surprised.

“It's this: that at a certain point in our lives, we lose control of what's happening to us, and our lives become controlled by fate. That's the world's greatest lie.”

“That's never happened to me,” the boy said. “They wanted me to be a priest, but I decided to become a shepherd.”

“Much better,” said the old man. “Because you really like to travel.”

“He knew what I was thinking,” the boy said to himself. The old man, meanwhile, was leafing through the book, without seeming to want to return it at all. The boy noticed that the man's clothing was strange. He looked like an Arab, which was not unusual in those parts. Africa was only a few hours from Tarifa; one had only to cross the narrow straits by boat. Arabs often appeared in the city, shopping and chanting their strange prayers several times a day.

“Where are you from?” the boy asked.

“From many places.”

“No one can be from many places,” the boy said. “I'm a shepherd, and I have been to many places, but I come from only one place—from a city near an ancient castle. That's where I was born.”

“Well then, we could say that I was born in Salem.”

The boy didn't know where Salem was, but he didn't want to ask, fearing that he would appear ignorant. He looked at the people in the plaza for a while; they were coming and going, and all of them seemed to be very busy.

“So, what is Salem like?” he asked, trying to get some sort of clue.

“It's like it always has been.”

No clue yet. But he knew that Salem wasn't in Andalusia. If it were, he would already have heard of it.

“And what do you do in Salem?” he insisted.

“What do I do in Salem?” The old man laughed. “Well, I'm the king of Salem!”

People say strange things, the boy thought. Sometimes it's better to be with the sheep, who don't say anything. And better still to be alone with one's books. They tell their incredible stories at the time when you want to hear them. But when you're talking to people, they say some things that are so strange that you don't know how to continue the conversation.

“My name is Melchizedek,” said the old man. “How many sheep do you have?”

“Enough,” said the boy. He could see that the old man wanted to know more about his life.

“Well, then, we've got a problem. I can't help you if you feel you've got enough sheep.”

The boy was getting irritated. He wasn't asking for help. It was the old man who had asked for a drink of his wine, and had started the conversation.

“Give me my book,” the boy said. “I have to go and gather my sheep and get going.”

“Give me one-tenth of your sheep,” said the old man, “and I'll tell you how to find the hidden treasure.”

The boy remembered his dream, and suddenly everything was clear to him. The old woman hadn't charged him anything, but the old man—maybe he was her
husband—was going to find a way to get much more money in exchange for information about something that didn't even exist. The old man was probably a Gypsy, too.

But before the boy could say anything, the old man leaned over, picked up a stick, and began to write in the sand of the plaza. Something bright reflected from his chest with such intensity that the boy was momentarily blinded. With a movement that was too quick for someone his age, the man covered whatever it was with his cape. When his vision returned to normal, the boy was able to read what the old man had written in the sand.

There, in the sand of the plaza of that small city, the boy read the names of his father and his mother and the name of the seminary he had attended. He read the name of the merchant's daughter, which he hadn't even known, and he read things he had never told anyone.

“I'm the king of Salem,” the old man had said.

“Why would a king be talking with a shepherd?” the boy asked, awed and embarrassed.

“For several reasons. But let's say that the most important is that you have succeeded in discovering your Personal Legend.”

The boy didn't know what a person's “Personal Legend” was.

“It's what you have always wanted to accomplish. Everyone, when they are young, knows what their Personal Legend is.

“At that point in their lives, everything is clear and everything is possible. They are not afraid to dream, and to yearn for everything they would like to see happen to them in their lives. But, as time passes, a mysterious force begins to convince them that it will be impossible for them to realize their Personal Legend.”

None of what the old man was saying made much sense to the boy. But he wanted to know what the “mysterious force” was; the merchant's daughter would be impressed when he told her about that!

“It's a force that appears to be negative, but actually shows you how to realize your Personal Legend. It prepares your spirit and your will, because there is one great truth on this planet: whoever you are, or whatever it is that you do, when you really want something, it's because that desire originated in the soul of the universe. It's your mission on earth.”

“Even when all you want to do is travel? Or marry the daughter of a textile merchant?”

“Yes, or even search for treasure. The Soul of the World is nourished by people's happiness. And also by unhappiness, envy, and jealousy. To realize one's Personal Legend is a person's only real obligation. All things are one.

“And, when you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.”

They were both silent for a time, observing the plaza and the townspeople. It was the old man who spoke first.

“Why do you tend a flock of sheep?”

“Because I like to travel.”

The old man pointed to a baker standing in his shop window at one corner of the plaza. “When he was a child, that man wanted to travel, too. But he decided first to buy his bakery and put some money aside. When he's an old man, he's going to spend a month in Africa. He never realized that people are capable, at any time in their lives, of doing what they dream of.”

“He should have decided to become a shepherd,” the boy said.

“Well, he thought about that,” the old man said. “But bakers are more important people than shepherds. Bakers have homes, while shepherds sleep out in the open. Parents would rather see their children marry bakers than shepherds.”

The boy felt a pang in his heart, thinking about the merchant's daughter. There was surely a baker in her town.

The old man continued, “In the long run, what people think about shepherds and bakers becomes more important for them than their own Personal Legends.”

The old man leafed through the book, and fell to reading a page he came to. The boy waited, and then interrupted the old man just as he himself had been interrupted. “Why are you telling me all this?”

“Because you are trying to realize your Personal Legend. And you are at the point where you're about to give it all up.”

“And that's when you always appear on the scene?”

“Not always in this way, but I always appear in one form or another. Sometimes I appear in the form of a solution, or a good idea. At other times, at a crucial moment, I make it easier for things to happen. There are other things I do, too, but most of the time people don't realize I've done them.”

The old man related that, the week before, he had been forced to appear before a miner, and had taken the form of a stone. The miner had abandoned everything to go mining for emeralds. For five years he had been working a certain river, and had examined hundreds of thousands of stones looking for an emerald. The miner was about to give it all up, right at the point when, if he were to examine just one more stone—just
one more
—he would find his emerald. Since the miner had sacrificed everything to his Personal Legend, the old man decided to become involved. He transformed himself into a stone that rolled up to the miner's foot. The miner, with all the anger and frustration of his five fruitless years, picked up the stone and threw it aside. But he had thrown it with such force that it broke the stone it fell upon, and there, embedded in the broken stone, was the most beautiful emerald in the world.

“People learn, early in their lives, what is their reason for being,” said the old man, with a certain bitterness. “Maybe that's why they give up on it so early, too. But that's the way it is.”

The boy reminded the old man that he had said something about hidden treasure.

“Treasure is uncovered by the force of flowing water, and it is buried by the same currents,” said the old man. “If you want to learn about your own treasure, you will have to give me one-tenth of your flock.”

“What about one-tenth of my treasure?”

The old man looked disappointed. “If you start out by promising what you don't even have yet, you'll lose your desire to work toward getting it.”

The boy told him that he had already promised to give one-tenth of his treasure to the Gypsy.

“Gypsies are experts at getting people to do that,” sighed the old man. “In any case, it's good that you've learned that everything in life has its price. This is what the Warriors of the Light try to teach.”

The old man returned the book to the boy.

“Tomorrow, at this same time, bring me a tenth of your flock. And I will tell you how to find the hidden treasure. Good afternoon.”

And he vanished around the corner of the plaza.

The boy began again to read his book, but he was no longer able to concentrate. He was tense and upset, because he knew that the old man was right. He went over to the bakery and bought a loaf of bread, thinking about whether or not he should tell the baker what the old
man had said about him. Sometimes it's better to leave things as they are, he thought to himself, and decided to say nothing. If he were to say anything, the baker would spend three days thinking about giving it all up, even though he had gotten used to the way things were. The boy could certainly resist causing that kind of anxiety for the baker. So he began to wander through the city, and found himself at the gates. There was a small building there, with a window at which people bought tickets to Africa. And he knew that Egypt was in Africa.

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