Sunday, January 31, 2010

The Parable of the Low Hanging Fruit (Part V)

No one at the inn stirred earlier the next morning or set out on the road more quickly than Omniscio. But it was back to the Academy, not his planned destination, that he hied. His opinion of Agrono had changed, not by virtue of anything that the cultivator had done, or any action of his observed by the great scholar, but because of what another scholar said.

Omniscio rode past the Academy straight to the orchard. And, when it first came into view, he was struck by its fullness and opulence. Everywhere he looked he beheld bough after bough bedangled with bedazzling fruit and, with a pang of remorse, remembered when he first met Agrono in the orchard of the Aquisitivos, and the dreams the two men once shared. Once again he heard beautiful music lilting through the trees and knew that it would lead him to Agrono but this time, as he came into the clearing and spotted the pensive piper, he knew that there would be no return to those shared dreams. Agrono’s expressive face was filled with resolve but tinged with sadness.

Omniscio rode closer and looked down at Agrono. He somehow knew he should alight from his high horse and meet Agrono on his own ground, but he could not bring himself to it.

“You have done wonders with the orchard,” he offered instead.

Agrono spread his arms as if bestowing a great gift. “It is yours,” he said expansively.

“It is ours, Agrono. It is what we envisioned.”

Agrono’s eyes hardened but he bowed slightly for he was ever polite and said, “I leave it to you. If you replenish the soil and tend to the trees, it will take care of you.”


Agrono nodded in courtly manner. “I leave you the orchard I promised.”

“But where will you go?” asked Omniscio accusatorially bracing himself to hear that it would be the Academy d’Empirici.

“To the portion of this orchard I have earned,” said Agrono. “It will be enough for me and my family.”

The cultivator bowed slightly again, then turned away from the great scholar toward the simple but sturdy abode he had built in the new orchard.

“But what of your children?” Omniscio asked haughtily, thinking the promise of his education might cause the cultivator to reconsider.

Then Agrono wheeled to face Omniscio with something much firmer in his mien. “I will teach my children this” he said, “that the only low-hanging fruit that they will ever find will be in the orchard of their own effort, and only after many seasons.”

“Ah, now Agrono, you must understand that –“ Omniscio began.

Agrono raised the palm of his hand as if to say, “No more,” but what stopped the scholar from speaking further was the sight of such deep sadness that had suffused the face of season cultivator.

“You have learned much,” said Agrono, “but you have nothing to teach my children.”

The scholar spurred his horse just as Agrono turned on his heel, and the two men went their separate ways never to speak again.

But life is not a story where the short-sighted suddenly experience vision-correcting epiphanies or suffer the consequences of their actions. They continue to stub their toes on the roots of their own intransigence or thwack their skulls on the limbs they have ridden under many times before. And, so Omniscio, felt no need to make any corrections in the course of his life. The orchard continued to thrive after Agrono left and Omniscio never let anyone forget that its very existence was born of his imagination and came into being through his initiative. But he did not see to it that the soil was replenished and the trees were tended to and the orchard began to decline. Yet, the pace was slow and the full effects of it were not realized until long after Omniscio was gone. As his days dwindled, Omniscio spent more and more time tending to his biography in hopes that he might dictate what others would believe of him. But the words of Agrono and the young teacher he overheard at the inn had a way of creeping back into his brain and that would send him back to his biography to argue his merits even more strenuously. He became increasingly sensitive to slights, real and perceived, and, in his last days, was forever calling some young scholar or some attendant to his side to ask, “What are they saying about me?”

Nor did the Academy d’Omniscio fall into ruin; its stature remained significant over the centuries but it was eclipsed by the Academy d’Empirici a few years after Agrono’s departure, not because there was any sort of cause and effect, or because of the plentitude of fruit but because the school founded by Heuristico and Hermeneuti placed as much value on knowledge derived from observation of nature and in experience in the field as it did on isolated study.

Agrono lived out his days loving, and being loved by, his wife and sons. They made their life amid, and their living from, the orchard. Improvements in trade and technology made it possible to ship the plums of Agrono to more and more markets which only increased the demand. The profits from the increased distribution, under the loyal and capable management of Schiavo, allowed the cultivator to buy more land and slowly expand the orchard, always taking the time to produce the best fruit.

Many came to study Agrono’s ways, including scholars and cultivators, and he was always generous with his time and counsel, but whenever someone tried to heap plaudits on his wise old head, he gave a dismissive wave of his hand and insisted, “I would be nothing without the soil and the trees.”

Friday, January 29, 2010

The Parable of the Low Hanging Fruit (Part IV)

The great scholar concluded that his time would be best spent in the quest of low-hanging fruit and directed Schiavo to not only oversee the cultivator but to hold him to a precise schedule that would detail exactly how many pieces of fruit and of what size would be produced by when. But, when Agrono, heard this all he could say was, “I know the orchard will be bountiful but I cannot predict what each tree will bear.”

Omniscio found himself riding farther and farther away from the academy and coming back either empty handed or in possession of inferior fruit. In some instances his reputation was such that it did indeed lead him to sources of superior fruit but Omniscio did not understand the need for, or had little inclination to cultivate relationships with the families. If he could not get what he wanted with one request, he rode on. The more time he spent looking for low-hanging fruit, the less he took note of the growing abundance of his own orchard. Yes, the thought occurred to him that one day Agrono’s trees would be full of delectable fruit but he was certain that it would never be enough to keep him ahead of Hermeneuti and Heuristico. The fear of being eclipsed left him blind to fact that his academy often had more fruit than it could consume.

As Omniscio’s travels increased so did the expenses associated with them. If he had to spend so much in the search for low-hanging fruit, he reasoned, than Agrono should do with less. Schiavo found it wrenching to inform Agrono that his already modest budget needed to be cut here and there. “If we prune too much too soon,” the cultivator warned, “the trees will not thrive.” As the exactions continued, Agrono grew more exasperated until he cried out to Schiavo, “What does Omniscio want? What have I not done?” And Schiavo could only watch that pain in that expressive face deepen when he answered, “He wants more low-hanging fruit.”

With growing outrage, Schiavo watched the great scholar spend more and more without result while the cultivator, coping with less and less, continued to bring the best from his growing trees with every passing season. The provisioner tried many times and in many ways to tell Omniscio in the most tactful manner that it would be wise to spend less on his own pursuits and more on Agrono’s surpassing successes but the scholar was now the one who could not separate the fawn of truth from the foliage of self-deception.

But Schiavo could not help feeling ever more righteous in his indignation and so decided to cultivate an orchard of doubt with the calculated planting of single seed in particularly rich manure. The next time Irrasciblo dropped by the panty purportedly to pass the time of day but really to pilfer a piece of his favorite parmigiano, the provisioner pretended to be fretfully poring over his ledgers.

“What ails you?” asked Irrasciblo.

“I wish I could tell you but all is not well,” said Schiavo, knowing this would only whet Irrasciblo’s curiosity. “I fear for the Academy but it is not a matter I can discuss.”

“Well,” huffed the stuffy scholar, “If it involves the Academy it must involve me.”

“I know no one cares more about it or is more true to it than you,” the provisioner proffered.

“Indeed,” he harrumphed, expanding to his full girth.

“But my loyalty is to Omniscio.”

“At an academy, all must be loyal to the truth!”

And so it went, with Schiavo alternating between innuendos of wrong doing and professions of loyalty until Irrasciblo was demanding to know.

“Well, then, duty calls me to share it with you,” the provisioner finally agreed, “but only if it is kept in utmost secrecy.”

The more Irrasciblo offered his assurances that it would be so, the more certain Schiavo was that it would be common knowledge before the evening was over. With seemingly ceremonial gravity, Schiavo put the ledgers under Irrasciblo’s proud nose and pointed out how it was becoming ever more difficult to meet the Academy’s needs given Omniscio’s quest, a curiously expensive quest in contrast to Agrono’s remarkable frugality.

The provisioner fed Irrasciblo’s igniting indignation with an ever richer sauce of ruminations of ruin, culminating with the question of what might happen to the Academy should Agrono withdraw his services. Irrasciblo, now professing himself the cultivator’s greatest champion, averred that such an injustice could not be allowed to occur. When Irrasciblo finally strode from the pantry like a portly paladin, Schiavo was not certain of what he had set in motion but he knew that Omniscio would eventually bear the brunt of it.

Any academy can be described as a place “where everyone mutinies and no one deserts,” but it should be added that the insurrections of the intelligentsia are invariably indirect. The captain of an academy is rarely confronted by his querulous crew much less set adrift in an oar-less dory. He is instead subjected to widespread ridicule and derision that he will only get wind of occasionally. So it was that when Omniscio returned from his forays, he found every lively room he approached fall silent when he entered, then, in the farthermost corner, he would detect something snide being said sotto voce followed by a titter or two. As fast as he might wheel his head in one direction or the other, the source of these seeming slights seemed to have slipped from sight.

And, in those days there were even a few professors who were not above sharing with students their misgivings about their peerless leader and so Omniscio was awakened increasingly in the night by the splat of some over-ripe fruit on his chamber window followed by an adolescent guffaw or two but when he leapt to the window the culprits had vanished in the night. Then an even braver soul slipped a handbill under his study door announcing a student production of an original satire entitled, “The Quest of Cornucopio: A Fool’s Errand.” But, when he insisted this send-up be squelched, he was told that no one could be found who knew anything about where or when it might be staged.

And, alas, there were even a few students who wrote to their parents complaining that the great Omniscio was rarely seen at the Academy, much less tutoring one of his charges, and that it was bruited that he was forever in search of fruit to treat a chronic and severe case of constipation. Soon the scholar was receiving letters from powerful and prominent fathers asking him to respond rumors of frivolous expenditures, mismanagement and a failure to provide proper oversight of his own academy.

Omniscio did not understand why these things were occurring. After all, productivity had never been higher and his thesis had been proven. The more fruit he acquired, the more his academy achieved. He explained all this in carefully reasoned letters bolstered with fact after fact but none of it seemed to make any difference. Rooms still fell silent when he entered, fruit still forcefully found its way to his window and pointed letters piled up in his study. “Have I reached these heights only to be dragged down by the ignorant, by those who cannot comprehend the singular significance of what I have done and what I am trying to achieve?” wondered Omniscio from one restless night to the next. He did not realize that when one releases the gnawing thing within on another, the beast always circles back on its breeder.

Yet, as Omniscio weighed his options, he reasoned that only the performance of his academy would protect him against the most powerful critics. If productivity remained high, the means of achieving it could only be faulted so much. If it slipped, any and all of the means would be questioned and blamed. So, of all the things he might do, the most important was the acquisition of fruit. Omniscio was becoming like the wayfarer who, fearing his purse would be taken by imagined bandits, began filling his pockets with stones but, no sooner were three stones in his pocket did he imagine being attacked by four bandits and so added another, only to imagine yet another bandit who required yet another stone. By the time he reached the river, his pockets could hold no more stones and, as he began to cross, the weight of them all began to pull him under yet he could not force himself to let go of a single stone lest he meet with bandits on the other side and so lost both his purse and his life.

The great scholar was now traveling farther and farther, over many days in each direction, in search of more low-hanging fruit. Each day he found him on a different road, and each night in a different inn. He spoke to no one and dined by himself, rebuffing the efforts of fellow travelers seeking solace in the company of another. On one such occasion, he had sequestered himself in a corner of the dining room and hunched over a bowl of soup, the taste of which he never noticed and the rim of which he never looked beyond, as his spoon, like his mind, stirred vegetative bits desultorily about. He paid no attention to the two travelers, one a young teacher, the other a graying merchant, sitting between him and the crackling fire, until one, when asked whence he traveled answered “the Academy d’Empirici” – the school founded by none other than Hermeneuti and Heuristico.

“And why do you travel?” asked the merchant.

“In pursuit of knowledge,” explained the young teacher.

“Knowledge of what?”

“Fruit,” said the young teacher.

Omniscio was now one large ear.

“But you come from the Orchard of the Middle Land,” observed the merchant. What more do you need?”

“The very abundance of a thing lessons the curiosity of why it is so,” the the teacher instructed, “We have an abundance of fruit but it would be most unwise to assume what always has been will always be.”

“Yes, yes,” thought Omniscio.

And the teacher’s words also made great sense to the merchant who had learned that everything was subject to change – the sources of goods, the markets in which they could be sold and the customers who would buy them – and that one must always watching for where change might lead. He nodded appreciatively but asked, “Yet, what is it that can’t be studied there?” he asked.

“Because we have so much, we ask only when the fruit will be in season. Those who have less ask how to best prune the tree so that it might yield more. Those who have even less, ask how to feed the soil so that it might bear a more fruitful tree. I seek fundamental knowledge, to learn from those who have learned from the soil up.”

“Excellent,” thought Omniscio. “Very fine reasoning.”

Again, this too made great sense to the merchant who had learned that one must have deep knowledge of the sources of the goods that one trades in. “So where do you find such knowledge?”

Just as the young scholar spoke there was a clank of tankards at another table followed by a boisterous laugh causing Omniscio to miss what was said.

The young teacher continued to speak most admiringly of someone but every time the name was mentioned, the fire would go pop-a-crackle, or a stool leg would screech on the stone floor, or a song would break out at the other end of the room, causing the great scholar to miss what he strained so mightily to hear and to know. And yet, he could not scream “silence” or do anything to let himself be known. He must know who this person was but it could not be known at the Academy d’Empirici that Omniscio had learned from them!

And so Omniscio strained and jockeyed and sidled this way and that, trying to discover the identify of this great scholar the young teacher was seeking when he heard the merchant ask,

“And if this man has not written his knowledge down, how have you come to know of it?”

“Because knowledge is so evident in what he has produced. The plums of Agrono speak volumes.”

“And where do you hope to find him?”

“The Academy d’Omniscio,” smiled the young teacher. “Only two days hence.”

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The Parable of the Low Hanging Fruit (Part III)

Omniscio approached Agrono with a respect he afforded few, being quite careful not to play his hand too early or too overtly. He employed the scholar’s gifts of patient, deliberate questioning, asking at first broad, then increasingly precise questions about Agrono’s life and craft. Agrono, too, knew he was in the presence of exceptional intelligence and was complimented by the fact that such a man would come such a distance and show such interest in him. He invited the scholar to share his family’s food and shelter, and Omnicio readily and gratefully accepted for he knew that he was too far from the Academy to return before the next morning. Though Omnicio was an orphan who had not known what it was to be amid the bosom of a loving family, he could see that Agrono was a fortunate man, possessed as he was of a lively and loving wife and two hale, eager-minded boys. He was pleased and surprised by the generosity of the care and comfort he was afforded by cultivator and his family. And when the family grew tired, Agrono invited Omnicio to stroll with him through the orchard and the two were soon in deep conversation.

Omniscio learned that the orchard did not belong to Agrono but to the powerful Aquisitivo family. For his services, Agrono had been given use of the orchard house and allowed to keep or sell one-fifteenth of the yield. Omniscio teased out these details as skillfully as Agrono coaxed the lush notes from his pipe or the luscious fruit from his trees. And, at some point, Omnicio came to realize that there was an opportunity before him far grander than he had initially imagined. The scholar’s epiphany was stunning in its simplicity and significance. He did not need to convince Agrono to sell his fruit to, but to grow his fruit for, the academy.

“Agrono,” the scholar said, “We have much in common. You cultivate trees and I cultivate young minds. We both seek to bring out the best in what nature gives us.”

“Indeed,” say Agrono, pleased with the aptness of the analogy.

“It seems, then, we should work toward the same ends.”

“How so?”

“I have the need for fruit to feed my charges and you have the ability to grow it. I have land but no orchard. You have an orchard but no land.”

Agrono’s face suddenly took on a glow that was greater than the bright-lit moon.

“Are … are you … saying .. that .. you will –“

“Yes, I will give you land if you will give me an orchard. I will give you not only one-tenth of the crops but one-tenth of the land that will be set aside for the orchard. You will cultivate the rest for the academy.”

“Further,” said Omniscio after a moment, now feeling magnanimous in the face of the greatness that he knew would soon redound to him and his academy, “I will educate your children when they come of age.”

Happier souls in any one place on any one evening would have been impossible to find, and the glorious possibilities that had opened before them caused both to dream all night but not sleep. Each man began the next day convinced that they were forever changed and that they were on the threshold of all that life could offer.

Though the Aquisitivo family was stunned by Agrono’s request to leave, they concluded that their compliance might predispose Omniscio to enroll their obtuse offspring in his great academy. And so it was that Agrono left not only with their good graces but, in thanks for his many years of loyal service, the cuttings of their most fruitful trees.

Days and months of bliss followed as the two watched their dreams take ever more certain shape. The land for the orchard was demarked, cleared and tilled. Agrono laid out the design using stakes and strings to create a perfect symmetry. Then the cuttings were placed carefully in the soil and tended with great care. With the benefit of propitious weather, the plantings grew until Omniscio from his study atop the tower could see a great orchard in miniature, and, with little imagination, how wondrous it would be someday.

But, when winter set in, Omniscio once again grew distracted, this time by the news that fewer students were seeking enrollment than in the previous year. The great scholar was determined to know why. Several possibilities emerged: there had been a great sickness in the land to the north, a flood had diminished the harvest in the south, several expensive expeditions had been lost at sea, and there was a war in the west. And, yet, while all of these may have taken away the sons of some families or left others unable to afford the cost, Omniscio was not satisfied with these reasons. Was not reputation of his academy such that it could not draw from a larger realm even as parts were beset with difficulties? Then the scholar heard reports of other academies springing up, many hoping to imitate his success. Of particular concern was the establishment of a new school by two very credible scholars, Heuristico and Hermeneuti, which was only six days journey hence, four by land and two by sea.

Truth be told, that which drives one to become a great scholar is not the mere pursuit of truth. It is as likely to be fueled by the repellent of fear as it is the propellant of curiosity, one part running toward something noble and one part running from something base. So it was that even the singular scholar found himself filled with foreboding at the thought of being eclipsed. He knew that Heuristico and Hemeneuti were not of his caliber, but what if they if they had something that he did not, some natural advantage that would allow them to make more of their modest abilities? He read all he could about the province in which their new school was situated, and asked all those who passed through his school what they knew of it. To his horror, he learned that the new academy was situated in a region considered ideal for the cultivation of fruit trees. Indeed, it had been dubbed by sailors and merchants “the Orchard of the Middle Land.”

Omniscio wondered, “Could it be that they located their school there for precisely that reason? Have they stumbled on what took me months to discover? Is it possible that theirs will become the more prized and prominent academy not by dint of their scholarship but simply because they are awash in fruit? And if they were only six days away, how long before the powerful families, the promising students and the accomplished scholars would choose them over me?”

It was in this inflamed and unscholarly mind that Omniscio spent the winter and, at the first sign of spring, called Agrono to his study in the tower. Agrono, a great observer, noticed immediately that the man in front of him bore little resemblance to the one who had been so solicitous in the orchard of the Aquisitivos.

“Agrono, are you sure our orchard has made sufficient progress?” he asked.

“Oh yes,” said Agrono. “The soil is rich and the weather has given us what we needed when we needed it.”

“Yes, yes, yes,” he interjected. “I know all that. That’s what nature does … but what can you do to help it along?”

“I can listen. I can watch. I can touch and smell the soil and sense what it needs. I can prune certain limbs so the entire tree will grow stronger. I can be on guard for frost.”

“Of course, of course, but what of science?”

“What I have just described to you is science. I have observed and experimented over many years. I have learned from the land.”

“But the yield, the yield, how do we increase the yield?”

“The yield of what? More fruit or better fruit? We must respect the time it takes to produce the best fruit.”

“Well, why not make the orchard larger?”

“The more trees I have, the less attention I can give to each.”

“Then I might have to hire other cultivators,” the scholar said because he had not heard what he wanted.

Agrono shrugged. “The best of them are long in the making and hard to find, like the best of scholars. More is not better.”

Omniscio, seeing he was getting nowhere with this rustic, bade him good fortune for the coming season but, as soon as Agrono left, he muttered, “How dare he compare his work to mine. I am a great scholar and he a mere cultivator.” But Omniscio had forgotten that he had been the first to draw the comparison and failed to see that it was, if anything, more apt than before.

But because the crushing weight of false hopes are never shouldered by their creators, they are not readily withdrawn or reconsidered even when the most capable and conscientious carriers falter. And so it was with Omniscio. Not hearing what he hoped from Agrono, he sought out others who would tell him his hopes were not false but pinned on the wrong person. But when the wisest were reluctant to draw that conclusion, he descended to those within the Academy given to baser instincts. And, yes, unfortunately, there were some who thought Agrono had achieved too much prominence in the Academy; after all he was not a scholar. And, some, simply assuming they knew more on any and every subject than Agrono, scoffed “Well, the cultivation of trees isn’t exactly astronomy, is it?” Still others speculated that Agrono had outlived his reputation or grown complacent. But, the best captured the great scholar’s attention was Irrasciblo, who said knowingly, “Omniscio, there is no end of low hanging fruit out there in the orchards of the wealthy. You don’t have to have Schiavo buy more nor wait Agrono’s slow-growing trees. You need only ask.”

And, while Omniscio had been dismissive of Irrasciblo’s observations up to that point, he now thought, “I’ve got to give it to the old fellow. He’s dead on the mark. Here I have gone from relying on one provisioner who meanders from market to market to one cultivator who trundles from tree to tree, but I have never thought of going right to the most bountiful sources and asking! And surely they will be honored to give a bit of their surplus to a great academy.” And all he could see in his mind’s eye was orchard after orchard festooned with fat fruit that would fall to the ground and rot if it were not soon picked and presented to him.

The great scholar then turned his mind to where such orchards might be, especially those that could be reached in the shortest time, and immediately thought of the orchard of the Aquisitivo’s. There they were, almost in his own backyard, and they could not have been more pleasant the last time he visited.

As Omniscio approached the orchards of the great family, his hopes soared at the sight of so many boughs drooping with such pendulous fruit. He was well-received at the manor until he asked the great lord and lady to share a portion of their apparent abundance. After a long frosty silence, they explained, through taut lips and downcast eyes, how with all trouble in the land and the resulting fall in prices they would be hard pressed just to get by if they could not squeeze every bit of profit out of every piece of fruit. And, as they offered this grudging explanation, they thought to themselves, “Who does this egghead think he is? First he takes our cultivator and the cuttings from our best trees, then comes begging for our fruit. And if we give him any now, what will there be to hold over his head when we want our obtuse offspring to be admitted to his school?”

So Omniscio left empty-handed and returned to the academy even more frustrated with Agrono. He called the cultivator to his study again and put even more pointed questions to him but Agrono seemed to blunt each and everyone causing Omniscio to wonder if this seemingly simple soul was better at cultivating clever answers than cultivating productive fruitful trees.

(Part IV will be published on Friday, January 29; Part V on Sunday, January 31)

Saturday, January 23, 2010

The Parable of the Low Hanging Fruit (Part II)

Schiavo clomped off in his donkey cart early the next day, riding from town to town and wandering from market to market without pinpointing the piazza where he had purchased the prodigious plums. It was in a distraught state that he reached Forfuna as the setting sun turned the surrounding trees into long finger shadows over the still bustling market. He scanned the stalls packed closely in the square until his eye landed on a figure that he knew instantly was the monger he had been seeking. When he rode a bit closer, the fruit monger looked up and acknowledged him with a knowing smile, so knowing the provisioner found it presumptuous. Yet, as he drew closer, the fruit monger continued to look his way from time to time and greet him with the most knowing of smiles.

“How dare you look at me as if you knew I would be ever-so-delighted to see you,” groused Schiavo after alighting from the cart and jostling his way through the throng to the monger’s stall.

“Are you not?” chuckled the monger.

“Well, perhaps,” posited the provisioner, “but shouldn’t it be up to me to reveal my own delight first?”

“I’m sorry,” said the continuously chuckling monger, “but I knew you would come and that you would be wearing that face that could be seen from so far off.”

“Well did you now?” challenged Schiavo. “You knew I would come all this way.”

“I did.”

“And you know why?”

“I do.”

“Well, why don’t you just tell me,” mocked Schiavo.

“For the plums.”

“That’s it!” exclaimed Schiavo, surprising even himself with how quickly he dropped all pretense. “But how?”

“Because anyone who buys the plums of Agrono once comes back with the very same look. Everyone.”

“Aaaah,” now chuckled Schiavo, “so it wasn’t just me.”

“No, no, no,” said the monger. “I am possessed of no special knowledge. I just know what the plums of Agrono do to all those who eat them.”

“So where is this Agrono,” Schiavo solicited.

“Who, not where. Agrono is a person, a cultivator of fruit trees but some say he is a magician.

“He can be a sorcerer for all I care,” opined the provisioner, “as long as I can buy more of his fruit.”

“He will come to the market in the morrow,” offered the monger. “But be here, just by that ancient tree, when day breaks. His fruit will sell quickly.”

“Then I shall be first,” said Schiavo. “I will go now and spend the night in my cart.”

As Schiavo lay in his cart and looked up at the stars, he wondered why other carts had not piled single-file behind him and hoped he had not been duped by the drupe-seller. But when the cocks bugled in the dewy dawn, carts began arriving from all directions and as they did, pointed themselves not at the ancient tree but at an unassuming lane that dissolved in the distance near the top of a gentle slope. The carts assembled themselves with military precision, then all fell quiet as if everyone was straining their ears for a signal sound. Then he heard it, the creak and rattle of a cart in the distance and people began to say, “It’s him. It’s him.” And when the vaguest of forms emerged on the hazily lit horizon, the crowd gave the shape a name. “Agrono,” they shouted in delight and anticipation. “Agrono!”

Schiavo strained his eyes to make out the nearing figure and noticed that the cart driver was waving his hand dismissively, as if to suggest what he was hearing was wrong or inappropriate. The provisioner turned to the driver of the cart closest to his and said, “I don’t think that is Agrono. He seems to be telling us that we’re mistaken.”

“And that’s how we know it most certainly is Agrono,” said the other driver. “He doesn’t like the fuss we make. He says we should be grateful for the soil and the trees, that he could not do what he does without them.”

As Agrono approached, Schiavo could see that he was man beyond his middle years but not yet old. His limbs were strong, his eyes alert, and his face full of expressive lines. Schiavo knew that this was man who had lived a life full of both struggle and joy.

Agrono drew his cart close to the ancient tree, then stepped out and approached it like a pilgrim nearing a long-sought shrine. He did not need to kneel for no gesture could have expressed more reverence than the look on his face. Schiavo was not a sentimental man but he could not help but be moved by such an eloquent tribute and thought how different this man must be from the great scholar. One seemed so grateful for something so simple, the other so unhappy despite having been given so much.

Agrono then turned back to his cart and opened the back gate more fully revealing the oddest assortment of baskets, a motley of color, size and shape.

“I am prepared to buy all you have,” proclaimed the provisioner.

“But I am prepared to sell you only these,” said Agrono, unloading four large baskets of plump purple plums.

“But …why?” sputtered Schiavo.

“Because this is only your second purchase.”

“How do you know that?”

“Because I have not seen you before and you are now the first in line which means you must have learned where I would be from the fruit monger before the sun set. And the reason you went to the monger was to learn the origin of the fruit you purchased unknowingly the first time.”

Schiavo found himself pondering if this seemingly simple soul at the base of the great tree was in some odd way even smarter than Omniscio but no sooner did the great scholar come to mind than paroxysms of dread rattled him out of the reflection.

“But I was first in line,” he protested.

“A line of your forming only,” said Agrono gently.

“Then why did I stay all night in the cart.”

“I would not have asked it of you.”

“And yet I did. I made the greatest sacrifice.”

“And what of those who have sacrificed even more? Those who have bought from me the longest? Those who have helped me out in difficulty? What kind of man would I be if I sold all to one I have never seen before and forsook all who I have known for so long?

“A man of business,” hissed the provisioner. “I am offering to buy all you have at top price.”

“Would a man of business be wise to cater to one who offers to buy once at the cost of many who have bought often?”

“I buy for the Academy d’Omniscio. There will always be many there.”

Agrono shrugged. “And yet there are many here who I have known and loved, and who have loved me, for so long.”

And so it was in a huff that Schiavo left and in a deep state of misery that he made his way back to the academy, deeper still as he climbed the stairs and knocked on the door of Omnicio’s study. He reported procuring four large baskets of the fruit, attempting to tell the story in such a way that it might be seen as a coup but the great scholar would have none of it and called Shiavo an “ass”, then began embellishing on that name with adjectives and adverbs of ascending alphabetical order, thus:

“You ass.”

“You braying ass.”

“You clodish braying ass.”

“You dolt of a clodish braying ass.”

“You exasperating dolt of a clodish braying ass.”

At about the letter “j,” the provisioner ceased to feel maligned, having developed a morbid curiosity about whether Omniscio might run the whole alphabet, even the odd letters like Q, U, V, X and Z, which, as it so happened, the great scholar was able to do:

Q = quaggy-minded

U = ulcerogenic

V = vile

X = xanthistic

Z = zysum-sotted

Yet, the more he thought about it, Schiavo reasoned that few people, if any, had been so eruditely excoriated and concluded there was real distinction in it.

Omniscio, meanwhile, resolved to take such a weighty matter into his own hands and to find the fruit-grower on his own. So it was that he traveled to Forfuna and, by various means, mostly brow-beating, ascertained the general location of the abode of Agrono. When he came to a large, bountiful orchard, he knew he was closing in on his man but wondered why one with so much would go to the trouble of selling his own fruit. He wandered into the orchard and began to follow the ruts of cart wheels until he was struck by beautiful music that seemed by some Aeolian magic to be coming from the trees themselves. But, slowly, he realized the music had a single source and followed his way to it. He came upon a clearing that held a simple but sturdy abode and on old stump sat a pensive man coaxing the most beautifully complex notes out of the most rudimentary of pipes. As he drew nearer, Omniscio knew the pipe-player must be Agrono for there was something of obvious and unusual substance to him, a man who would be immediately identified as a master even if his trade were unknown. In the home, Omniscio could see figures moving about and assumed they were readying their last meal of the day.