The wisdom of the solitary ascetic is a delight. The quest to obtain it occasions the travels of many tourists every year. These ascetics, as anyone who has encountered them will tell you, are a peculiar lot, and the tales about them are enough to dissuade most from seeking their wisdom. Here and there, you will encounter evil wizards posing as hermits who engage in deceitful magic, sending you off on dangerous missions to far-off lands, ordering you to slay elusive creatures no one has ever even heard of. Still, meeting these borderline madmen can be enchanting when cognizant of whom to seek and whom not to seek.
Basil of Hippo
If one can brave a journey across the scorching sands west of Alexandria, evade the marauding bands of Berbers, and stand the company of uncommunicative guides and disagreeable camels, you will find a small old man meditating atop a crumbling Roman fort.
Basil informed me that, for the past three years, he had been doing little other than tending a small garden and meditating. He implored me for news of the outside world and was nothing short of devastated when he learned I had brought no reading materials other than some ancient Egyptian pornography I’d purchased in Alexandria. Nevertheless, he accepted it as a gift and placed it in his crumbling library.
Basil could not have found a more stark and mystifyingly beautiful place to hide out in. He instructed me that a simple diet of chickpeas and meditation was the footpath to enlightenment. Luckily, I had the foresight to bring my own supplies and lived comfortably for the duration. Basil abstained from sampling my feasts, but I was aware of his longing stares at the array of food I’d brought and the barrels of wine I drained while he supped on his meager chickpea rations. My loud voice, numerous complaints, and tendency to throw random things off the fort’s parapets seemed to have genuinely irritated the holy man, and he pretended to be in a deep meditative trance no amount of shouting or shaking could pull him out of when I made my departure.
Hyrgus the Charmer
In the wild marshes and forests of eastern Prussia, a lonely shack is the only sign of humanity for many a lonely mile. Hyrgus and his woodland friends have carved themselves out a delightful existence in what to most would be a deathtrap. Hyrgus has the uncanny ability to speak with and befriend animals. The entire time I spent there, Hyrgus was flanked by fawns, trailed by field mice and squirrels, and encircled by all sorts of bird life. He preached a philosophy of love and understanding, and his eyes beamed with rays of goodwill.
At breakfast, he was as tolerant as one could be when a squirrel immerses its head in the gruel you’re eating. Nevertheless, his distaste was palpable. Even he would not deny that they are filthy creatures.
Yekaris of Cappadocia
The moonscape lands of Cappadocia, once the solitary lands of Orthodoxy, have recently fallen to the depredations of invading Turks and Tartars. Still, the underground settlements contain life. One in particular contains an old, wizened hermit. A dark, winding subterranean path with many booby-trapped detours and sudden 100-foot drops deters uninvited guests from making it to the lair of Yekaris.
I found him sitting in a large well-lit cave that housed several buildings and an array of fountains. When he saw me, he must have perceived the aftereffects of abject terror on my face, for he correctly guessed that I had made a wrong turn and had nearly fallen into a pit filled with crocodiles.
Yekaris told me that he had taken on the life of a mystic when, as a boy, he had dreamed that a great fortune awaited him, buried under a crooked palm tree in Abyssinia. When he got to the place in his dream, he dug and found nothing. His faith in his dream remained, but not his faith in his memory. Now, as an old man, he continues to meditate in the hope of recalling exactly where the dream said the treasure would be, occasionally setting out and continually finding nothing.
When I asked if this was just some kind of exercise to achieve clarity, he paused and slapped me in the side of the head. “There’s some clarity for you,” he said. “I have to worry all day about nomads bursting in here, and you think I’d pine about clarity?” He went on to explain that, when he finally found the money, he planned on traveling widely, never returning to Cappadocia, spending lavishly in the pursuit of pleasure, and getting as far away as possible from the roving Tartars. I had to admit, he had some kind of plan.
Nebislav of Nantes
In the passes of the Pyrenees Mountains, a strange old mystic lives in a Byzantine naval ship, which, peculiarly, must have been in the process of being transported across the mountains when it was suddenly abandoned.
On meeting me, Nebislav asked if I would like to hear my fortune. I eagerly agreed. “You will continue to believe every stupid thing you hear,” he said as he stared at my hand. “A slave to every absurdity in the world until you grow a goddamned brain.” Still, Nebislav was glad to have my company. He seemed to have been going stir-crazy without anyone to talk to for so long. During the days, he took me out to visit the mountain passes. We hid in the pines and threw things at passersby. It amused him to no end.
He was fond of pranks and enjoyed getting under my skin by constantly addressing me by an incorrect name. He would allow dogs to sniff and lick our food while he prepared it. By throwing his voice, he convinced me that the Byzantine ship was haunted, and kept me petrified of the miserable skiff for the entirety of my stay there.
As I departed, I could not have been happier. I felt I had attained, through exasperation, the most thoughtful wisdom. But I had to be careful, for Nebislav was throwing things at me from the bushes, laughing uproariously with malicious glee.