Three Powers

Three Powers

The village chief gives his son a jewel, a sword, and a mirror upon his death (1/2009)


Ito’s father lay dying of fever. No one in the village knew how to help, not even the village shaman.

Through four sunrises and four sunsets, Ito, just 17, sat by his father’s side while the women of the village cared for their chief. On the evening of the fifth sunset, Ito’s father whispered hoarsely to one of the women who quickly left the room and soon returned with a crimson velvet pouch.

“Ito, my son, come closer.”

Ito’s father coughed uncontrollably and spasms wracked his frail body. Ito knew his father’s last breaths were near.

“Yes, papa, I am here.”

Ito’s father nodded to the woman who had brought in the pouch. Then, to Ito, he said, “Before I die, I give you three powers.”

The woman withdrew a magnificent jewel, over an inch in diameter, from the pouch and handed it to Ito. Ito’s father said, “I give you the power of the jewel.”

The woman withdrew a fierce-looking sword from the pouch and handed it to Ito. Ito’s father said, “I give you the power of the sword.”

The woman withdrew a simple hand-held mirror and handed it to Ito. She had tears in her eyes. Ito’s father said, “And I give you the power of the mirror.”

Before Ito could say anything, his father convulsed one final time, and passed into the beyond.

Ito did not have long to mourn his father’s death, or to understand the three gifts he received that night. For two sunrises later, Hatr, the war-crazed chief from the next village arrived by horseback. A dangerous-looking man wearing silver armor was on his right, and an even more dangerous-looking man wearing a purple robe was on his left.

Word of Hatr’s arrival spread quickly and Ito walked out to meet him.

“I know of your father’s passing, Ito. He was a formidable enemy.” This was as close to praise as Hatr would ever come.

Ito said nothing to the man who had been a threat to his village for as long as Ito had memories.

Hatr continued, “There is no reason for you to be my enemy. There is no reason for the people of your village to be my enemies.”

Again Ito said nothing.

“I will give you until sunrise tomorrow. When I return, accept my rule over your village and your life will be spared, as will the lives of your people. Or resist and die.”

Hatr and his two companions turned their horses and rode off.

At sunset that night, Ito called a special meeting of his wisest advisors. Most counseled Ito to agree to Hatr’s terms. Better to be alive than worry about who was in charge, some said. Better to be alive and to plot Hatr’s overthrow, some said. Better to fight, others said.

That night, Ito dreamed of the night of his father’s passing. He saw the nursemaid remove the jewel from the pouch, and before his dream continued, shouts from the villages woke him.

Hatr rode into the village as before, with the same two men at his side. Hatr dismounted his mare and walked up to Ito, stopping just inches from Ito’s face.

“Have you made your decision?” Hatr asked with an eerie calm.

Ito opened the palm of his right hand and showed Hatr the jewel his father had given him. “Take this,” Ito said. “It is the most valuable jewel in all the land.”

Hatr laughed. “What good is this to me?”

“Sometimes it is wiser to buy than to take by force.”

Hatr glanced at his companion in the purple robe, who nodded his head ever so slowly. Hatr was silent for a long while. Finally he said, “Very well, I will go.” He mounted his mare and he and his companions rode off.

Ito’s village celebrated peace that night, and for seven sunrises and sunsets all seemed well.

On the night of the seventh sunset after Hatr’s most recent departure, Ito dreamed again of the night of his father’s passing. This time he saw the nursemaid remove the sword from the pouch, and before his dream continued, shouts from the villagers again woke him.

Hatr rode into the village as before, with the same two men at his side. Hatr once again dismounted his mare and walked up to Ito, this time stopping so close to Ito’s face that the sweat from the two men’s noses trickled off in a single stream to the ground.

Hatr saw the sword at Ito’s side and said, “You wish to fight?”

“If I must,” Ito said. “You and I will fight. If I win, you leave this village alone. Forever. If you win, the village is yours, and none of my villagers need be harmed.” Ito withdrew the sword his father gave him.

“Very well,” Hatr replied, and before he had finished speaking, he whirled around, withdrew his sword, and lunged at Ito. Ito reacted quickly and parried Hatr’s attack.

The two men attacked and counter-attacked. For a while, it looked as if Hatr would kill Ito. For a while, it looked as if Ito would kill Hatr. Then, for a long while, it looked as if the fight could drag on for days. As the sun was setting below the distant mountains, Hatr’s armored companion trumpeted, “Enough!”

Ito and Hatr stopped fighting. Exhausted, each bent over and gasped for air.

“It is dark,” Hatr’s man proclaimed. “We will break for today, and return to the fighting tomorrow. Agreed?”

Ito and Hatr lifted their heads and looked each other in the eye.

“Agreed,” both men said in unison.

Hatr stood erect and said to Ito, “Tomorrow you will die by my sword.” He walked to his horse and once again he and his companions rode off.

After Hatr and his men crested the hill and were out of sight, Ito collapsed to the ground. The women of the village—the same ones that cared for his father when he was ill—carried him to his bed.

That night, Ito dreamed again of the night of his father’s death, and of his father’s gifts. On this night, the dream played out in full, over and over.

Ito woke before sunrise the next day. He wrapped his bruised ribs and salved the cuts on his arms. Stiff and sore, he limped slowly to the temple, where he sat and meditated, thinking about his father’s three gifts and of Hatr’s imminent return.

He had tried to buy Hatr off with the jewel and it seemed to have worked. But Hatr went back against his word and returned. He had tried to fight Hatr with the sword, but after hours of fighting, he was bruised, full of nicks and cuts, and utterly exhausted. What good is a mirror against Hatr, when a jewel worth unimaginable riches and a sword sharp and true were not enough?

No answers came to Ito. Fear began to wrap its cold fingers around his heart. He feared for his life, but also for the well-being of his villagers. If Hatr was willing to go back against his word after agreeing to accept the jewel, what chance was there that he would keep his word and allow the villagers to live peacefully if he killed Ito? None, Ito realized.

Shame began to envelop Ito. His father had successfully kept Hatr and other would-be attackers away, and kept his people safe, healthy, and prosperous. Not a dozen sunsets later, all of this would be lost because I could not defeat Hatr, Ito thought.

Ito fought back against these emotions and stood. It was time to face Hatr one last time. He pulled the bandage across his chest tight and walked to exit the temple and to his fate.

Before he got to the door, the elderly woman who had handed him his father’s gifts appeared in the doorway. She bowed deeply, and Ito bowed in return.

“Master Ito,” she said, “Of the three powers your father bestowed upon you the night of his passing, do you know which was the one he most valued?”

Neither the jewel nor the sword had helped Ito protect his people, and he could not think of any use for the mirror against Hatr. He had no answer.

The woman was wise and sensed Ito’s thoughts. “The jewel may be used to achieve riches beyond one’s wildest imagination. And the sword may be used to fight against one’s enemies. But the mirror is the most treasured power of the three.”

Ito was shocked. The woman’s words made no sense to him.

“The mirror is not of use to acquire worldly possessions, like the jewel. It is not of use as a weapon against enemies, like the sword. It is more powerful, by far.”

“I do not understand,” Ito said. Tears were flowing down his cheeks. His father would be ashamed of his ignorance.

“It is all right,” the woman said soothingly. “There was much your father did not get to teach you before he fell ill and passed.”

“How do you know what my father wanted to teach me? Forgive me for being so direct, but you are just a nursemaid.”

“True. I am just a nursemaid. But I am also someone in whom your father confided. He had his counselors, as you do, but he also received my counsel, in private, as well.”

Ito wanted to ask about this woman, his father, and their relationship, but he asked something else instead. “And what would your counsel to me be, now?”

“Ito, the mirror your father gave to you symbolizes the power of self-knowledge. As I have said, it is the most treasured of the three powers your father gave to you before his passing. Only when we look into the mirror do we find truth.”

Before Ito could respond, the woman bowed once again, turned and left. Ito followed her out of the temple, and walked to the entrance to the village, where Hatr would soon arrive, where he would soon fight, probably to his death.

But as he walked through the crowd of villagers, all of whom stood in silent respect, Ito began to understand the wisdom of the old woman’s words, and of his father’s gifts. He would not distract Hatr with riches or defeat him with might, not when fear and shame pulsed through his mind and filled his heart. He would only defeat Hatr when he confronted his emotions, when he quieted his feelings of fear and shame.

Ito walked silently to where Hatr stood waiting for him.

To Ito’s amazement, Hatr looked younger and stronger than he did the day before. If he was hurt or tired from their earlier battle, Hatr showed no signs. Hatr was also wearing his companion’s thick suit of silver armor; Ito noticed the other man was wearing plain clothes on this day.

“Are you ready to die?” Hatr asked, more as a statement than a question.

“If the gods desire it,” Ito replied. He took a deep breath and then did something that sent gasps through the crowd: He slowly lifted his sword out of its sheath and handed it to Hatr. “I do not need this,” he said, looking straight into Hatr’s eyes.

“I will not spare your life simply because you made this foolish gesture,” Hatr said. He unsheathed his own sword and added, “In fact, I did not agree to put down my weapon.” Then, without hesitating, he swung his blade directly ant Ito’s head.

Ito dodged Hatr’s attack and stumbled backward. Hatr attacked again, bringing his sword down with both hands. Ito rolled away and scampered to his feet. Hatr came at him again, swinging wildly. Again Ito evaded Hatr’s deadly blade.

The fight was over less than ten minutes later. Hatr’s attacks became less frequent and held less power. His wild attack and the thick suit of armor sapped his energy. After a while, he could barely stand, only limply swinging his sword. Meanwhile, Ito grew strength from within, knowing that he had confronted his fears and quieted his worries about any disappointment his father might have felt. His confidence grew with every passing second, and once Hatr began to wilt, Ito easily disarmed him.

When Hatr’s companions rode off that night, with Hatr in tow, they went carrying Ito’s offer to their village: select a new, peaceful leader and the people of our two villages can live together in harmony.

That night, around the great fire in the center of the village, Ito found the old woman whose advice had been so valuable. He kissed her on the forehead and bowed deeply to her. If anyone saw the village chief indicating such respect to the woman, no one would ever say. And as he went to sleep that night, Ito promised himself that he would share the most treasured power of all—the power of self-knowledge—with the people of his village. And that night he dreamed of his father again, only this time it was he—Ito—who gave a gift to his father.

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