The wizened old man sat slumped in a wooden chair amidst a throng of fledgling writers. His very being exuded malice as his eyes roamed from face to face searching, it seemed, for any weakness that could be exploited. A grey unkempt beard partially hid rheumy eyes and lips that most resembled leeches trying to gain access to a fetid spittle-encrusted mouth. One arthritic hand held a tattered, stained two-inch binder. He clutched it to his chest possessively as if in fear that its contents would be revealed before he was prepared to address them.
The newest member of the group, a young man about twenty-five years of age, gingerly passed around copies of his work. His hands trembled. His eyes shone with hope that this, the best of his work, would be accepted with grace. It had taken him months to work up enough courage to attend this meeting and weeks to actually offer up something. He prayed it had not been a mistake.
When he handed the old man a copy he almost withdrew it. The old man smiled benignly as he gently took the paper from the younger man's hand. The young writer cringed at the deep chill that ran up his arm emanating from the other man. He gazed into the gnarled relic's eyes and saw the malignant intent beneath their surface. It took his breath away. The young man quickly withdrew his hand and stared down at his lap.
There was silence as each member read the young man's piece. Every now and then an approving comment was heard from under someone's breath. Pens made notes and circled sections. The young man strained to hear what was being whispered, trying to take in the group's mood. Whenever he heard something that sounded like approval, the shadow of a smile formed around the corners of his mouth. But for the most part he watched the old man.
Why is it that we give most of our power over to the most negative forces surrounding us? The young man silently struggled with that question as he waited. His mind wandered back to his childhood when his father, a rough-hewn man, had told him that he would never amount to anything if he continued to waste his time writing silly stories. His father had believed him to be a sissy for dreaming of being a writer. It was his father who had gathered up all of the boy's stories and poems and burned them in the fireplace. "For your own good", his father had said. After that he wrote in secret, never daring to share his poems and stories with anyone. Now here he was facing a group he prayed would accept him as a peer. It was terrifying. He waited.
The first writer to review his story was a woman named Jeena whose work was well known to the group and whose opinion was deeply respected. She started out telling the young man how much she enjoyed reading his piece. She thought it was a very strong story. She pointed out a few places where he could improve on it and made a couple of suggestions as to how he might be able to do that. The young man gratefully took the copy she returned to him and thanked her. He hoped every critique would be like hers.
As his work was discussed around the room, each writer pointed out the effective parts of the story and each made suggestions about improvements. They genuinely wanted to encourage the young man to pursue his passion. He began to relax. It was going to be all right. He was a writer. He felt it more powerfully now. Until this moment he had harbored a slew of doubts that tortured him. He needed their support more than he had understood. He straightened up in his chair, secretly feeling deep gratitude and pride.
The old man had not spoken a word.
When the wretch spoke, his words flew at the younger man like icy missiles.
"I didn't understand a word of this. Were you on drugs when you wrote this?" He threw the manuscript on the table.
The young man stuttered a quick response. "No," he whispered into his empty coffee cup. "It's supposed to be ..."
The old man cut him off. "Is it a story? A commentary? A poem? These people are being too polite to tell you what it really is, which is a feeble attempt to intellectualize something you know painfully little about."
He glowered at the young man. "Are you any good at cooking or maybe carpentry? Maybe you should consider some other outlet for your pent-up angst." He shoved the papers across the table and sneered.
One of the other writers, David, had had enough. "There were many strong points to his story, many places where it was quite moving and poignant. I think you're being unfairly critical. It has merit."
The old man turned his attention to David. Hatred filled his words as he spoke. Spittle flew from his lips and a stench permeated the room. "I am not here to coddle. I am here to see that the world is not further beset by yet another hack writer. We haven't read your work yet. Let's pray it's better than this."
He reached across the table and tried to snatch the papers in front of the writer. David grabbed them back and shot the old man a scornful smile.
The writer leaned back in his seat. "You'll get it when everyone else gets it."
Another writer spoke up. "Sir, could we possibly move on? It might be a good idea to read your story next."
The old man chuckled under his breath. He gently placed the binder on the table. His eyes scanned the writers mockingly.
"The work contained here in this binder is a masterpiece. Only the most profound minds will be able to comprehend the depths of this material. If you read it and can't understand it," he shrugged, "well, that's not my fault."
He put the binder in the middle of the table keeping his hands on it. "By the way, there's only one copy. You'll have to huddle together to read it. And forget your insipid little comments. I don't need them. I am fully aware of who I am and what I can do."
The young writer who had suffered so greatly at the hands of this man slipped the binder from under the old man's fingers. He studied the cover before he attempted to open it. He wanted very much to tear this "masterpiece" to shreds and leave the old man shivering in his seat possibly wetting himself. He still stung from the verbal beating he had taken. The young man smiled wanly at the troll in front of him. "This would be a pleasure," he thought.
Everyone's attention was on the young man as he slowly, deliberately cracked open the binder. He looked inside. The pages it contained were yellowed and spotted. They looked like they might turn to dust if he touched them. The old man cackled.
"Read it, son. Read it and try your very, very best to glean a shred of wisdom from its true and accurate text." He wiped at his mouth with his blue-veined fingers. They came away brown.
The young writer looked down at the page. Tears flowed from his eyes. The room was dead silent. What was this young man reading? They each thought this truly must be a great work of art. Each writer stole surreptitious glances at the bitter figure in their midst. The young man wept openly. He fist was clutched to his mouth and a trickle of blood ran onto his chin, such was the pressure he exerted. For ten minutes his eyes never left the binder as he rapidly turned the pages. At last he looked up into the old man's face.
"These are the most vile, contemptuous, disgusting words I have ever read. It breaks my heart that someone would condemn to paper such evil thoughts. You, sir, have the blackest of souls, the cruelest of intentions."
The old man giggled into his hand. "I told you. I told you. Learn, you little bastard. Learn from someone who is truly a genius."
The young man held up his hand. "Wait," he said. "I'm not finished."
He looked around the table at the other writers. He saw fear and incomprehension in their faces and he longed to put their minds at rest. But he couldn't. They hadn't seen what he had seen. He stared at his own work laid out before him, the copy the old man had marked up with so much violence that the paper was shredded. The others had said his piece was poignant, beautiful. His hand reached out for his story. He held it in front of the old man.
"This," he shook the pages at the old man. "This is a story about love and compassion. This is a story about humanity. You're right, my story doesn't begin to compare to yours. It doesn't even share the same realm as yours!" He shook the pages again then let them flutter down upon the table. "My story needs work, it's true, but in the end I will have written something that has the potential to inspire hope and trust. Your story could only cause misery and pain. Or worse, depravity."
The old man giggled again. "But you see how well written my story is, don't you? You see how your scribbling could never compare to my brilliance. I have you hooked. I have your full attention when you read mine. You can't take that away. You must admit that." He put his hand to his mouth and coughed. "You see the futility of your efforts." His eyes gleamed viciously. "You know it. I can see it. It's written all over your face."
Jeena reached out for the binder. "May I?" she inquired.
The young man shot out his hand and thrust the binder to his chest. "Don't read it! It will destroy you."
He turned to the old man. "Your work is truly inspiring. It inspires me to refute everything in these pages. I could let this consume me, but I won't. I refuse to. For every evil word you have written I will write ten words of compassion and strength. For every depraved thought you put forth I will bring ten thoughts of love and beauty. I am a humble man, but I know, I know to the depths of my soul, that I can conquer the worst you have to offer."
Jeena touched the young man's arm and looked him squarely in the eyes. "Let me have the binder," she said softly.
The young man released the binder to her. "Careful. Be careful," he pleaded.
Jeena opened the binder and looked down at the page. There were no words. There was not a single drop of ink on the page. She looked first at the young man, then at the old man in bewilderment.
"What is this?" She looked back at the page. "There is nothing, nothing. It is only old tattered paper. I don't understand."
The old man snatched the binder from the Jeena's hands. "See, I told you, I told you." He threw his head back and laughed. "You can't comprehend it. But he does. And why? Because as good and pure as he pretends to be, as virtuous as he would have you believe, he is secretly black of heart. He will do anything; write anything, just to be noticed, to be accepted by you."
The old man pulled himself up out of his seat. He gathered his few things into his arms and in his clumsiness spilled the remainder of his coffee all over the young writer's pages. He ignored it and left the table.
Half way to the door the old man stopped and slowly turned back to the group. He pointed a twisted stick of a finger at the young man. "He will be widely read someday. People will tremble at his words. They will cry and moan and lose all that they had of hope and all because of what I taught him here today. Because I," he laughed and coughed. "captured his soul. He sees a clear path now." He turned and walked out the door.
The young writer smiled inwardly. He knew the old man was right. He might not end up writing about truth and compassion, but he would be famous. His father would be wrong.