There were two brothers traveling together in a forest. The forest was very dark and dense, and as such was very disorienting. When they thought they were going north, they were really going south. And what they felt certain was west was actually east. But none of this really mattered anyways, as they had no idea where their destination was or should have been or even could have been.
All they knew was that they never seemed to really get any nearer to anything save perhaps killing one another.
Indeed, these two brothers squabbled relentlessly. They bickered and fought and argued, exchanging unkind words and angry blows and shifting blame from one to the other for their perilous predicament.
“I told you we should have gone left at that elm tree!” said the Elder.
“They’re all fucking elm trees!’ replied the Younger. “And besides, it would have been a right anyways.”
Needless to say, they couldn’t seem to get anywhere, and neither could say how long they’d been at their misguided meanderings, either.
“I can’t take this anymore! We’ve been going around in circles for years. Decades, maybe–who can say for sure? There’s no time in here, and yet there’s all the time in the world. My hair is turning silver, for heaven’s sake! I’ll be an old man by the time we get out of here! If we get out of here.” The Elder tore at his hair (which was indeed turning prematurely silver) in exasperation.
“Will you shut up? It hasn’t even been that long! We’ve only been walking a few days, tops. And your stupid hair is just a genetic mishap, that’s all.” The Younger slapped his brother upside the head, as he was wont to do.
The two brothers continued on aimlessly, devoid of any conception of things like day and night, minutes and hours, weeks and years. It was all just walking and trees and arguing and fighting.
But then the brothers stopped and looked at one another.
“Do you hear that?” Asked the Elder.
“Yes, I think I do hear something. It sounds likes drumming,” replied the Younger.
“That’s not drumming, you idiot! It’s clearly bombing. We are being bombed and the world is ending. All because you wouldn’t take a left at that god damn elm tree!” The Elder grabbed his brother by the shirt angrily.
The sound was, of course, neither drums nor bombs, but something far more exotic and menacing.
The brothers could not remember the last time they had seen anything aside from trees, and now there was such a sight before them that it defied all reason: A herd of pink elephants was stampeding towards them, leaving nothing save splintered trunks and broken branches and a thick cloud of dust behind them.
It was the first thing in a very long while that both brothers were in agreement upon.
So they ran and they ran from the trampling pink maelstrom at their heels until they happened upon a cave. This was a strange sight, indeed, for up until the very recent and unexpected arrival of those pink elephants, there had been nothing but forest. Without another moment’s thought, the brothers ran into the cave, which they thought would be safe because the opening was far too small for an elephant (even a pink one) to pass through.
They hid in the dark, huddling close together, and listened as the sound of trampling feet trailed off into silence.
“Do you think it’s safe out there?” asked the Younger.
“I don’t know,” answered the Elder.
“Well, we can’t stay in here forever,” said the Younger.
“And why not?” replied the Elder.
“Because we must make it out of the forest,” said the Younger.
After they made certain the coast was clear and mustered up the requisite amount of courage, they emerged from the cave. The trail of wreckage laid by the herd of pink elephants was well evident, but it still didn’t help them in regards to which direction they should go. In fact, the forest somehow looked even more confusing and impenetrable than before. Lost in thought, it took them a moment to realize that they were not alone.
An old man stood before them, hobbled with age, draped in rags, his chin housing many decades’ worth of white growth. The brothers looked at each other in astonishment.
“Who are you?” asked the Elder.
“Do you know a way out of this forest?” asked the Younger.
The old man looked at them with blank, reddened eyes, as if he had been weeping for all eternity:
“I am merely another misguided wanderer who was foolish enough to get lost in this forest. As for a way out, there are two, however I am not brave enough to try either. So here I stand, fearfully, rooted to this very spot forever. I have seen many lose their way in this forest, but very few, once lost, make it out again.”
“Tell us!” implored the Younger.
“For heaven’s sake, show us the way out of here!” begged the Elder.
“That way,” the old man pointed with his right hand, “there lives a dragon. If you can catch him, he will lead you out of this forest. And that way, “the old man pointed with his left hand, “there dwells a demon. If you can best him, then he will show you the way out.”
The brothers looked at each other.
“We must catch this dragon!” said the Younger.
“No! It is the demon we must confront in order to be free of this infernal forest!” said the Elder.
“I am not much of a fighter, but I have been running my whole life. I know that I can catch this dragon.” said the Younger.
“I am tired of running,” said the Elder. “I will defeat this demon or die trying!”
“You are a fool!” cried the Younger. “What match are you for a demon?”
“You are the fool!” retorted the Elder. “What chance have you against a dragon?”
Unable to agree, they decided to part ways. Neither would budge an inch and each was unwilling to compromise. While they were complete opposites in nearly every regard, the two brothers did share one important thing in common: unflinching stubbornness.
As they left in opposite directions, neither looked back upon the other. They were both convinced of the soundness of their respective decisions, and each thought the other an utter fool.
The Elder walked on until he came to the demon. The grotesque creature had crooked horns, scaly wings of black, the body of a man, the legs of a horse, and the face of a serpent. The Elder was terrified, but he was driven by the promise of escaping the terrible forest once and for all.
The demon, seeing him approach, spoke.
“I know the way out of this forest. I will show you if you can answer my riddles. If you answer incorrectly, then I will devour you. Do you understand?”
The Elder was very frightened, but he drew himself up squarely, looked the demon in the eyes, and replied, “Yes.”
“Very well.” The demon smiled and began.
“The man who has it can’t give it away. The man who takes it, doesn’t have it. The man who needs it, can’t seek it. What is it?”
The Elder thought for a moment before making his reply.
The demon smiled. “Very good. Next riddle.”
“I can not be weighed in pounds or ounces, but rather in deeds and chances. The strongest man can not hold onto me for long without doing himself in, and the quickest can not catch me once I am gone. What am I?”
The Elder thought a bit longer this time.
The demon smiled even wider. “Indeed. This is the final riddle. If you answer it correctly, then you will be free. If not, well…” The demon smiled ever wider.
“I can be cracked, I can be made. I can be told, I can be played. What am I?”
Now it was the Elder’s turn to smile, for he knew the correct answer.
“You’re a joke.”
The demon’s smile faded. It looked at the Elder and sighed.
“That is correct. I am a joke. However, most do not see that, and therefore end up as my supper. But alas, today is not, so it seems, my lucky day, but rather yours. Follow me.”
The demon galloped off on his horse hooves and the Elder followed. Before he knew it, he was standing in a sunny clearing, the forest behind him. He looked at the demon.
“I’m free! I am finally and truly free!” His joy was incomparable and unbounded, to the point where he had to stop himself from embracing the diabolical riddler. But then he remembered his brother, and a look of concern painted his face.
“But what about my brother? I went right, and he went left. He thought he could catch the dragon and make his way out of the forest. What has become of him?”
The demon spoke. “Your brother’s fate is his own doing. See for yourself.”
The demon pointed towards the forest, except now it didn’t look so big or dark. In fact, it wasn’t really much of a forest at all, rather just a few trees. But amongst those few trees, he could see his brother. The Younger was running around in circles, flailing his arms about his head and screaming like a man possessed. He had grown frail and maddened, barely recognizable compared to the brother he remembered. The Younger kept going round and round, only stopping every so often when he would blindly run into a tree, falling to the ground and rolling about in an incoherent frenzy. He repeated the same words over and over again:
“The dragon! I’m going to catch it! It’s going to save me from this forest!”
The Elder watched his brother carrying on like this until the tears clouded his eyes and he couldn’t bear the sight any longer. He turned his back to the forest and began to walk away, not noticing that the demon had disappeared, as his brother’s cries grew fainter and fainter behind him.
“The dragon! I’m going to catch it! It’s going to save me…”