The children gathered around the storyteller around the park bench - a kind-hearted man amongst a crowd of impressionable minds. The murmers and chatters of friends showing each other new toys their parents got for them, bugs they caught, flowers they picked, or the like. Some looked at the storyteller, his eyes following the words he wrote into a small pocket book. Some wondered what those words contained. His next story? The message to life? A great treasure beyond the horizon?
The light slap of pages closing upon each other, and the crowd instinctively turns to the leader, putting the pocket-book back where it belongs and ready to speak to the children.
"What story are you going to tell us today, Mr. Storyteller?" and the storyteller smiled to the children, who in turn smiled back to him.
"Today's a special day, kids. I'm going to tell more than just a story. Today's going to be... a riddle." a few kids looked around, confused, asking their friends what a 'riddle' was. Some stared blankly at the storyteller. But for the most of it, a general air of excitement lay in the air. Everyone wanted to hear a bit more about this 'riddle' of his.
And the storyteller began.
"There was once an old man who had close to everything. Everything he wanted, he had." The children gasped.
"Did he have a big house?" "Did he have lots of money?" "Did he have a huge swimming pool?" "Did he have his own pirate ship?" "Did he have a space station?" "Does he own the Empire State Building?"
"Well, maybe not the Empire State Building, but he still had close to everything, kids. Money, health, status, lots of cool stuff, you name it, he'll have most of it." the storyteller waited for the awe to die down a little before he continued.
"The maids always found him to be a cheerful man, smiling each and every day, and the gardeners always talked about how the flowers in his garden bloomed more beautifully than anywhere else, as if his happiness had spread over to them. His children, of course, were glad for their father - grandfather for some, of course - who wouldn't, if their father or grandfather were such a happy person?" the children seemed happy too, as if the old man's happiness had spread from the storyteller onto them as well.
"The old man's friends always came over and had a cup of tea every once in a while. They would talk for hours over various things, but the conversations would always end with the old man's hearty laughter and the same reply: Come again sometime soon, won't ya, old pal? And every now and then they would come over for a good chat or two." the kids listened in silence, half unable to comprehend what it would be like and half thinking to themselves how nice it was.
One of the children on the right raised his hands. "Mr. Storyteller!"
The storyteller looked at him and smiled. "Yes?"
"Do his friends smile a lot too?"
"Of course! You would smile too if you had such a wonderful friend at such an age, my boy." and the storyteller continued his story.
"But one day, the gardeners noticed that on the old man's morning walks throughout the garden he was no longer as lively as he usually was. The maids realized that the old man no longer had the radiant smile he used to bear had disappeared. And his friends felt that the old man no longer had his hearty laughter when talking to them, and his usual ending statement was longer as energetic as usual."
Another child, feeling concerned for the old man, raised up his hand. "What happened, Mr. Storyteller?" the kids looked up at the storyteller with expectant eyes, as if he were about to enlighten them immediately.
"Who knows? But the old man's grandchildren were worried for him. So one of them went up to the old man and asked him this: 'Old man, is there something that you're troubled by?' and the old man said back to them, 'Yes, my dears, I am troubled by something.'"
"What was he troubled by, Mr. Storyteller?" some kids were more eager than the storyteller had originally expected, and had to be hushed down lightly. He signalled to a pair of kids who were making more noise than usual to keep quiet, and continued his story.
"But the old man never told the kids what he was troubled by, so the kids were confused. What could the old man be troubled by? Was it that autumn was coming and the flowers would wilt? Was it that the house was no longer as clean as it was before? Was it that a friend of his had passed away? It could not have been any - he wasn't the kind to grow that sad over autumn, the house was as clean as ever, and the kids knew every friend of their grandfather and would've known immediately if any of them had moved on." the kids looked befuddled now. What could have kept the old man so troubled?
The storyteller smiled and continued. "So the children continued guessing as to what could have made the old man feel so sad. But no one ever came up with a good answer. so they decided to ask their parents instead. After all, the adults should know better, said the oldest of the kids, and the rest of his siblings and cousins followed. And the adults wondered what was wrong that could have made the old man feel so sad. They went to the old man, and asked, 'father, is there something wrong?', hoping he would give a different reply than with the children. But the old man said to them, 'No, my dears, there is nothing wrong.' Now both the children and the adults were confused. How could he be troubled if there were nothing wrong?" the kids looked just as troubled as the old man's grandchildren would have been, the storyteller thought to himself, and continued.
"The parents were better than their children, of course. They came up with a hypothesis as to why the old man was feeling so down." And now a few kids were raising their hands.
"Mr. Storyteller, what's a hypothesis?" Some others nodded in agreement, wanting to find out the meaning of that. The storyteller laughed, realizing his mistake.
"Haha, I'm sorry, everyone. It's kind of like guessing. Take it that way." a few hands went down, but a good number still had their hands up.
"So what was it that they guessed, Mr. Storyteller?"
"Is this the riddle, Mr. Storyteller?"
"Why was the old man so sad, Mr. Storyteller?"
"Well, I'll be getting to all of that soon, so sit back and relax." and after seeing the hands go down one by one, the storyteller continued with the story.
"The first thing they thought was, maybe it wasn't that the old man had something wrong in his life, but maybe it was that he was missing something from his life! It wasn't a problem of what he had that was bad, it was a problem of what he didn't have!" ...and a short pause to calm the gasps of the children who realized the genius in the parent's revelation.
"So the grandchildren's parents went to the old man and asked him, 'father, is there something missing in your life?' To which the old man replied, 'Yes there is, my dears'. And the parents knew they were on the right track. He was lacking something after all!" everyone looked excited. was the old man going to be happy once they find what he was missing in his life?
"But the problem only began from there. What could it have been that the old man was lacking? The parents were all confused as well. What do you kids think?"
"Maybe he didn't have enough money, Mr. Storyteller!" The storyteller just smiled back at him.
"And that was what one of the parents thought. But what could they have possibly done in that case? They were still stumped, so they thought to themselves: Perhaps there might be something else which was missing from his life." and another answer came from the audience.
"Maybe he didn't have enough friends, Mr. Storyteller!"
"And that was what another one of the parents thought. Maybe the old man wanted to have all his friends together instead of just talking to one or two of them. Maybe he wanted to see all his old friends, each and every single one of them. And then one of the grandchildren came up with a brilliant idea." the kids started to move closer, wanting to hear about the geniosity of the grandchild. The storyteller waited for a moment.
"Why not hold the largest, grandest, most majestic, most extravagant, most amazing and wonderful, most magnificent party for the old man? His birthday was coming up, and they had the money to pull off such a huge event. So on that day, the old man's children went and looked for every single person who was a friend of the old man. They brought forth the best food, the best drinks, and got the entire mansion pristine clean to the utmost degree for this very event."
One of the kids could barely control his excitement. "How was it, Mr. Storyteller? Was he happy in the end?"
"That comes soon, kid. The entire mansion was a wonderful place to be that night; after all, it was the biggest banquet in the whole town! The old man saw every friend of his come along just to celebrate his birthday. And he smiled. Everyone was happy, especially the children. The old man had finally smiled after a long time." the kids seemed happy, the storyteller thought to himself.
"But that night, after every guest had left the old man's mansion, one of the grandchildren heard the old man crying to himself at night. What went wrong? The child thought to himself. Did we make him sad by holding the party? Did we do something bad to him? Did something go wrong? What happened?" and the storyteller was sure every child there was thinking the exact same thing right then and there. He noticed that the children's faces seemed rather concerned, but he had to continue anyway.
"The child went into the old man's room and asked him directly. 'Grandpa, why are you crying? Did we do something wrong today?' and the old man smiled at the child, tears still flowing from his eyes."
"What did he say, Mr. Storyteller?"
"Well, the old man said back to the child, 'You didn't do anything wrong today, child. But as happy as I am today to see all my friends together, I realize even more that there is something that I no longer have.' The child was confused, of course. What was that something he didn't have? Was it money? Certainly not, he was as rich a man as many could only hope for. Was it friends? How could it be? Every last friend of his just came over to the mansion to celebrate today. Was it his health and well-being? He was well for someone his age, and he was pretty healthy anyway, the child thought. What do you think?" Silence from the crowd.
And no one figured out the riddle, the storyteller thought to himself, until someone raised her hand and asked.
"Mr. Storyteller, was love missing from his life?"
The storyteller chuckled to himself lightly, and replied "Perhaps it may be, lil' girl. Perhaps it may be. But the old man told the child to return to his room as he was going to sleep soon, and the child returned to his room, not understanding what it was that the old man was missing from his life." a slight murmur, before silence amongst the crowd. The storyteller waited for a moment of silence before he continued his story.
"The next day, the old man never woke up. The entire family was shocked to see him go so suddenly, especially after such a wonderful party. Everyone was in tears - the maids, the gardeners, the chefs, the butlers, the children, and the grandchildren. The child who had went into the old man's room the night before ran to the same room immediately, and in his tears wondered to himself what it was the old man was missing in his life right up till his last day." the children were resisting the urge to sob and cry, the storyteller noted. Perhaps I should wait? He thought. But the story must go on.
"Two days later, the funeral processing took place. The child stayed in his room while everyone went out for the wake - the funeral service, for those who don't know. And when the house was completely empty the child ran over to the old man's room again, and searched around. Perhaps there was a clue to what was missing, he thought, and searched high and low for anything that the old man left behind as a clue or a mark. And in the corner of the old man's treasured drawer the child found a piece of paper."
"What was on it, Mr. Storyteller? Tell us!" the storyteller waited for silence again before continuing.
"On that piece of paper were the following words:
I find myself with money, with friends, with welfare and health. Yet I find that with each passing day I have less and less of it to spare. Nothing I have can compare to the sadness I feel with each passing day for whatever I have left is slowly going away. I do not have much left" and many children raised up their hands.
"But what is it, Mr. Storyteller? I don't understand!" the rest nodded in unison.
"And that is the riddle to solve, everyone. The story has now come to a close." amidst complaints and queries the crowd slowly disappeared back as children returned back home after a long story.
In the empty, silent park, the storyteller took out his pocket-book again, and turned to the very front page. On that page lay a piece of yellowed, cracked piece of parchment with faded words on it. As the storyteller took out his pen he had a terrible cough, and covered his mouth so to make sure no one would notice. He looked at his right hand, now stained red, and stared at it for a while before he took his pen and wrote on the other side of the parchment.
"Neither do I."
That was surprisingly long and surprisingly painless to write.