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Many Paths frowned. She looked down at the wrinkly old lady who had been — and still was — her mentor, her shaman, her friend. She Who Saves Many Lives was drifting off to sleep but with a smile on her face, despite the difficulties and discomfort of the Red Spider Plague. Many Paths herself smiled. Even in sleep, the old Shaman made her feel better.

She decided to let her mentor sleep. Many Paths had been about to ask for a hint about the puzzle she had just been given. Many Paths laughed to herself thinking, Just as well. Her “hints” are just as likely to lead the student astray as they are to bring sunlight to the right path. 

Many Paths left the old shaman’s cabin and walked about the Center Place of the Veritas. She greeted various members of the tribe warmly, and once she had greeted everyone in sight and reassured them that she was cured and that The Old Grandmother was resting comfortably. She had discovered that greeting everyone and having a short conversation with them allowed the maximum chance for uninterrupted thought. So, she settled herself at the porch of her own cabin. She reviewed what the old shaman had said to see if there was a clue to this seemingly impossible problem. 

“There are two locked boxes. Each contains the other’s one and only key. Yet, I am able to use the keys to open both boxes. How is that possible?”  

First of all, why had she brought this up? Was it just something that bubbled up in the overheated brain because of the fever? Perhaps. But Many Paths reckoned it more likely that She Who Saves Many Lives had intentionally chosen this puzzle because it held something useful for the problem at hand.

Well, thought Many Paths, to be more precise — not the only problem at hand — there were so many. But the one she had shared with her mentor was how to bring together all the nearby tribes and broker a peace deal amongst them. Fires. Wars. Killing Sticks. Stealing children. It was all madness. And the Z-Lotz? Bringing the Red Spiders Plague on purpose? Giving them a gift which was really meant to sicken them? How could there peace with such as that? And yet — and yet, somehow her lover Shadow Walker and one of her closest friends, Eagle Eyes had become the leaders of the Z-Lotz! If, she reminded herself, the note brought by the Eagle could be believed. 

Many Paths sighed. She wished she could talk it through with someone. Yet…she had a feeling that She Who Saved Many Lives didn’t give her the puzzle because she wanted the answer. The old shaman already knew the answer. It was specifically designed to move something within Many Paths. Many Paths laughed aloud at her own train of thought. She shook her head and muttered to herself, “Here I am. I can’t solve the puzzle she gave me so instead, I’ve given myself a still harder problem — trying to read the mind of She Who Saves Many Lives! I think if I know why she gave me the puzzle, it would help me figure out the answer. The much more sensible approach is to solve the puzzle and then it will be much easier to solve why she gave it to me.” 

Many Paths closed her eyes and put her fingers to her temple. With her eyes closed, she became much more aware of the warmth of the sun on her face. She quite consciously relaxed her muscles and slowed her breathing. 

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She thought: Inventory. What do I know? There are two boxes. There they are. Many Paths pictured two large wooden boxes side by side. They were identical. What are they made of? Are there holes? Is it still a box if there are holes? Maybe it’s still a box, but they are locked boxes. Locked boxes are not really locked boxes if their are large enough holes for me to slide my hand through and simply grab the keys. They are supposed to be locked boxes. But why are they made of pine wood? No-one said anything about pine or even wood. They could be carved out of stone, I suppose or even of ice. The boxes could melt! But she said ‘use the keys’ — well, I suppose you could take the keys and warm them in a fire and then, use that heat to melt the ice…but no, I wouldn’t yet have the keys. I could wait till they melt naturally. Then I could grab the keys, but I wouldn’t be using them to open the boxes. Is melting a box really opening it?

So, how do I know the boxes are identical? Suppose I am one of the boxes? I am in the tribe but I am also myself — my own person — even though I lead the tribe. Something is nearby. I can hear the answer rustling in the bushes but it is still too dark to see it clearly. Two boxes. Not necessarily the same. One could be the tribe. One could be me. If I had the key to the tribe … and the tribe had the key to me….they could me the key I need to open me and I could give them the key to open them.

In the mind of Many Paths, the two boxes began playing with each other. She made them mentally chase each other in circles. Then, when she grew tired of that game, she had them continue their roles to the end. One of the boxes opened its giant “mouth” — a hinged side — and “eat” the other box. 

Many Paths stopped breathing. Her eyes snapped open. “Of course!” She said aloud. Her first inclination was to run back to continue her conversation with She Who Saves Many Lives. But she shook her head. She’s likely still asleep, thought Many Paths, and besides. There’s the other half of the problem. Why did she…? Ah, of course! 

Many Paths saw that the second puzzle — why she had been given this puzzle when she had been telling She Who Saves Many Lives how much she wanted to bring peace to the tribes but she couldn’t even control Trunk of Tree — that wasn’t a puzzle at all. It was obvious. If she wanted to change the external world to be more peaceful, she herself would have to be changed — perhaps more peaceful — perhaps not. The puzzle didn’t specify exactly what about herself she would have to change. A puzzle merely illustrates a principle. It never dictates real world action. All the Veritas were taught this early, including Many Paths. 

Her intuition led her to believe the two “keys” were different in her dilemma just as they had been in the puzzle. But —she also believed that they would be closely related. Many Paths wanted to the tribes to be more peaceful, more truthful, kinder, more cooperative. She sighed and issued a short laugh.

Many Paths said to herself, I want all the tribes to be more like the Veritas. I want them all to be Veritas. But — I can’t bring six tribes together and explain that they should all be just like me … or even more like me. 

Again, Many Paths had a sudden impulse to run back to She Who Saves Many Lives to share her new insight. And, once again, she immediately suppressed that sudden urge. Instead, she sighed. She did wish that she could discuss this with one of her friends. It was clear that she needed to make a change, but it also seemed obvious to her that it was just the sort of change that friends could help with. 

She thought, My friends will see in the moment that I am assuming everyone wants to be a Veritas and point it out. Eventually, the new way will permeate my thinking. But which friends? My most trusted friends were all unavailable at the moment. I’m not ready to allow the spread of rumors about a meeting with all the tribes. It can’t be just anyone. Could I talk about it with Trunk of Tree?

Many Paths took a deep breath. She reckoned she could talk about it with Trunk of Tree, but first, she needed to really see and understand his point of view. 

She thought, Prior to seeing him, I need to make a guess at his perspective and then I need to check it out with him. I can’t just assume it’s right, but I might make a start. He’s always thought he should be the leader because he’s the strongest. In his mind being strongest is the most important thing. I need to make him see that we all do think it’s important. We value his strength and all wish we had more of your strength. We also believe that other things are also important. And, it may be the case, that in some instances, being the strongest is the very most important thing for a leader to have. And, it may be the case, that in some other instances, being able to see the best, or hear the best, or speak the most convincingly, or think the most creatively. Who knows? We have a way to choose a leader. And in that way, I was chosen. It doesn’t mean that you are not the strongest. It does not mean that we care nothing about you or your strength. It just means that for now, the shaman judges that the seven rings of empathy were the best trials. Of course, the people are the final judge and if everyone wants to change the way we choose leaders, so be it. Perhaps everyone will decide a wrestling match should determine the leader — or, as with the Z-Lotz and Cupiditas,  — a fight to the death. If the people decide that, then so be it, and I will support you. And so will Shadow Walker and Eagle Eyes and Tu-Swift. But as it is, I am the chosen leader. That doesn’t make me your ruler. I come to you as a friend and I need your advice precisely because you and I don’t always see eye to eye. Here’s what I’m thinking….

Her thoughts continued: Of course, I must be open to many paths of conversation. Perhaps I should suggest that I speak uninterrupted for a time. Trunk of Tree could be a good confidant if he will hear me out first. It requires so much work though to work with him. Of course, the same can be said of getting the six tribes together. It’s like trying to weave…yes…it is like weaving! The tribes can all be different. We can do things differently. But the question is, what do we want to work on together. And let us move in different directions and make the whole basket stronger. 

Many Paths felt relieved somehow and looked forward to having an honest conversation with Trunk of Tree. She circled through the village looking for him but he was nowhere to be found. She wondered if he had gotten so made that he had injured himself or even left the tribe. She shook her head. She was having a bad day of fishing or hunting. She chuckled to herself and thought: I was actually looking forward to talking with Trunk of Tree and he’s not here. Oh, I miss Shadow Walker! 

Just then, the attention of Many Paths turned to the air. She heard a distinct drumbeat pattern that someone safe was approaching. She thought: It looks as though I will have my conversation with Trunk of Tree after all. 


The Myths of the Veritas: The First Ring of Empathy

The Myths of the Veritas: The Forgotten Field

The Myths of the Veritas: The Orange Man

The Myths of the Veritas: The Wobbly Man

Essays on America: The Isle of Right

The whole is greater than the sum of the parts