A Bit Of Fiction To Brighten Your Wednesday: The Aesthete and The Ascetic

By Lexx Saint Leonard for Brain Arts Org

May 27, 2020


There was once a precocious teenage prince who strayed off of the trodden path. He chased a beautiful pheasant with his hunting hound, but to no avail. In the heat of the chase, he lost track of his surroundings and found himself completely lost. He followed his hound for a few hours, but never recovered the path. You see, it was still a very young hound who hadn’t yet grown out of his puppy fur. Underneath a towering pine tree, young Prince Simon wept. His hound looked puzzled into his eyes and licked the tears from his cheeks. Then, he stood erect and smelled the air, beckoning the young prince to follow.

After climbing through brambles and thorns Prince Simon and his pup found themselves at the gaping maw of a great cave. A thin trail of smoke smoldered from within. The hound barked into the mouth of the cave, and a young man emerged, grizzled and unkempt.

“Who are you?” The man asked in a voice unaccustomed to speech. His sunken cheeks were dirty, but his eyes were pale blue as a smoldering ember. His beard reached far below his chest, and his fingernails were black with mud and ash. He wore a simple robe with a hood and the soles of his feet were black and leathery as the soles of shoes.

“I am Prince Simon III, the prince of this kingdom, and my father owns this land!” responded the prince. He quaked in his embroidered hunting jacket. The rubies on the collar of his overcoat, on each glove, and on his belt glistened with trepidation.

“I do not serve any earthly king, but a king who sits in his throne on high. But please, let me be of some service to you. Come in.” welcomed the hermit.

"I am in perpetual contemplation. Divine light is my only sustenance."

Prince Simon entered the cave with his nervous pup. Once inside, he was surprised to learn that somebody was living there. There was no “bed” but a platform of wooden boards. There was a small fire pit and a meagre store of nuts and berries in a bucket. No blanket, no pillow, no extra amenities of any kind. This was completely foreign to the prince. The hermit gave the dog a turkey bone and he instantly relaxed. Then, he offered Prince Simon some berries and nuts. The prince was intensely curious about his lifestyle and asked him many questions. In response the hermit did not have much to say.

“I spend all day praying in hopes of gaining an empirical understanding of truth. I am in perpetual contemplation. Divine light is my only sustenance.” he explained. He showed the prince back to the castle just before dark set in, and for that the boy was grateful.

Prince Simon spent a few days reflecting on the encounter. He was fascinated by this strange man who helped him in his hour of need. He had never met someone who was unafraid of his father’s influence. This captivated his adolescent rebelliousness. What’s more, meeting someone so alien to his value system provided the young prince with a new perspective.

On the third day he ventured back deep into the woods with a squadron of courtiers and invited the hermit back to his castle on the king’s behalf. The hermit was hesitant, but the young prince didn’t take no for an answer. Together they traipsed through the dense wood back to the palace for a marvelous feast. The hermit was barefoot, dirty, and smelled very much like he had been living outside. The prince had him bathed in fine oils and given the most sensible, highest quality shoes to wear to the banquet.

"He ate like an animal, and made many social faux pas which mortified the court."

The hall was draped in the most exquisite Flemish tapestries, upon which the little fingers of the fates had woven immersive landscapes embroidered with drama from days of old. There was a gilded lily on each plate. In the center of the table there were many meats and vegetables that the hermit had never seen before. These delicacies produced smells which seduced his taste buds such that his tongue chafed at the reigns.

In the opulent hall of the king he felt completely out of place. The hermit considered himself too humble to have a name. But after some probing from the king, he introduced himself to the court as “Hilarion.” He ate like an animal, and made many social faux pas which mortified the court. But the teenage prince admired him all the more for his incongruousness.

It wasn’t until 20 minutes after dinner while they were enjoying a musical performance that Hilarion began to feel ill. His stomach doubled over in pain and he broke into a cold sweat. When he collapsed he was taken to the infirmary at once. For three days his body was a knotted ball of snakes. The king’s own apothecary was sent to him every morning to test his urine for unbalanced humors. Prince Simon sat by his bedside every day. Even after the sickness had passed, the prince insisted that he stay until he was well enough to thrive. He ended up lingering for about 3 weeks before returning to his cave. It was during that time that he learned about the royal library.

“There are books in our library that have gone untouched for hundreds of years. Nobody here can even read Greek!” explained the prince.

This was the thought that haunted the hermit’s imagination. In the night, he could not meditate with the moon because the letters were swimming behind his eyes. In the day, when he wanted to praise the sun, he thought only of those lonely books.

"Where the prince was pugnacious, the hermit issued caution. Where the prince was hesitant, the hermit coaxed him into progress."

“A book is meant to be read!” he thought with indignation. He no longer thought only of god’s divine light. When he realized he could not be sustained by self-reflection alone he put on the shoes that were given to him and made his way back to the castle.

Meanwhile Prince Simon was thinking, “How could I tempt him back without using the full force of the kingdom? Do I merely want to keep him as a pet, or do I want a genuine friend? What is the friendship of a prince except the promise of wealth and power? And what is wealth and power to a hermit?!” but the prince forgot about the draw of knowledge. He did not realize that letters written in a foreign tongue had enthralled Hilarion.

The face of the man that left that cave would never be seen again because when Hilarion installed himself into the palace’s garden cottage he became a new person. He spent many moons reading, and many sunrises contemplating what he had read. His response to the court was to hold his tongue. He avoided dialogue with all except one, the prince. Their personalities perfectly complemented each other. Where the prince was pugnacious, the hermit issued caution. Where the prince was hesitant, the hermit coaxed him into progress. He taught him to read Latin first by reading the inscriptions on the tapestries in the great hall, and glimpses of Greek philosophy from his studies. This began to spark a deep thirst for knowledge in the prince.

The hermit had his work cut out for him. Upon inventory of the library he learned that there was a book written in a rare tongue that he had never seen before. Now Hilarion had transcended his thirst for knowledge, and reached a level of flow. It was at this time that he learned that his destiny was to translate the text. This would be a pursuit that hounded him for the rest of his days. It turned his chestnut hair to silver and charcoal as the prince matured into a man. Prince Simon benefited greatly from his course of study with this learned man, and began to advocate for the benefit of the people to his father.

Hilarion sat in the garden under a great blossoming almond tree musing on the manuscript. He had learned so much from his exploits translating Greek to Latin, and was obsessed again with this cryptic book full of pictures of plants and maps of the stars. The sweet smell of the almond blossoms made his mind drift to the lingering memories of pleasures from his past. Just then, the prince approached for his lesson.

As the prince became a king, he still looked to his friend and teacher for wisdom. He continued to study, and could now read and write in Greek. As a king, Simon ruled with a righteous hand. He was beloved by his subjects for sponsoring public arts and social programs. He spent much of his time pardoning prisoners and giving alms to widows. The kingdom flourished in the hands of this learned king.

All the while, the hermit in the garden became more dignified in his position. He made great progress in his translations and began to feel like he was cracking the code. Once he cracked it, however, a great irony befell him. He went blind, and his eyes became white as two full moons. It was then that King Simon, now with his own rogue streaks of silver hair, began to spend much more time reading to the old wizened Hilarion and neglecting his imperial duties. He became the only other hand in the kingdom which was equipped to decipher the letters of that mysterious manuscript.

When Hilarion died in his old age, King Simon could no longer perform any of his royal responsibilities. It was then that he stopped holding court entirely, and spent all of his waking hours in the library with the text. He realized that it was his responsibility to finish his teacher’s work. Each of his advisers pleaded with him to come back from his studies and play his role as king.

“This kingdom is an earthly kingdom, but in translating this text I glorify a greater lord than I! You see, it is more important to humanity to have this text translated than to let the knowledge die with me.” His old eyes shone with reckless abandon. He said, “Give the kingdom’s treasures to the people, and make diplomats of all the peasant folk in the guest bedrooms of the palace.”

He was taken with a need to fulfill his destiny. He locked himself away in the hermit’s garden cottage. When the villagers came with hate in their eyes to assassinate him, he fled to the cave where this story began, bringing only the manuscript.

The night was illuminated with the ripe full moon of spring. His eyes beheld the letters of the book from the mouth of the cave of his fondest memory. He wept as he saw and finally understood.

Images and story by Lexx Saint Leonard.

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