The Last Word

On a certain island, there lived a Master. He was well known; many sailed far to study with him.

Some asked, “Master, can you teach me the arts of the map, and the helm?” And he replied, “No, for I am a master only of men, and not of machines.”

Some asked, “Master, can you teach me the way of sword, or of the empty hand?” And he replied, “No, for I am a master only of words, and not of weapons.”

Still others asked, “Master, can you teach us the truths of the soul and the sky?” And he replied, “No, for I am a master only of earthly things, and not Eternity.”

* * *

A certain student, wise in the ways of masters, came to seek him.

For three days, she was patient. She watched the Master speak, and learned where he liked to walk, and what he did. And all that time, she spoke not, but thought deeply.

On the evening of the third day, the Master spied her watching him. “What would you ask of me? I am not a lighthouse, to be observed from afar.”

The student bowed her head. “I am sorry if I offended you, Master. I wished only to know: what is it you teach?”

“A wise question.” The Master smiled. “For now, I teach nothing, as I have no students. But the thing I have mastered is called the Last Word.”

The student spoke with less respect.
“Master, I fear I have sought you out to no purpose.
I do not wish to dedicate my life to mastery of petty arguments.”

“A wise choice. But the Last Word is more than that. Once it is spoken, no word or deed can reply. It ends arguments, yes — but also loves, plans — hopes — even lives.”

“Then the art of the Last Word is indeed powerful. Forgive my presumption, Master, but your appearance does not suggest such power. Could you not show me some token of your skill?”

“Now that is a foolish question! No power should be used without cause, and none here have given me cause to use mine. I could speak the Last Word to a stone, but stones do not have ears.”

The student knelt. “Then demonstrate it upon me. I must be willing to face what I seek to wield.”

“Indeed? That, too, may be foolish. Being Last, the Last Word is not easily undone. Would you not study with me for a short time first?”

“No. I must see to be convinced.”

“Very well. I shall tell you the Last Word.”

The Master knelt down, bringing his face level with the student’s. Even so, she had to strain to hear:

“You were right to question me. I am indeed no Master, but a fraud. The beauty of the Last Word is its mystery — many come to study it, and end their studies without realising they have learned nothing. Alas, you are wiser than I, and see me as I truly am.”

The student sprang to her feet, and was gone.

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