Old Man Greo was known as the best shoemaker in the country.
His shoes were light as leather and tough as steel. They were also expensive-- three times higher than anything else on the market. People who did not know his reputation were so shocked to hear what he charged they would say:
"The old man must be making his shoes for his own amusement!"
Of course, this was not the case. He had become a craftsman's apprentice at a tender age, and whenever he learned one master's skills he would move on to more talented shoemakers. Before he knew it, he found himself making shoes for the grandchildren of his earliest customers.
Greo was such a skilled craftsman, he could make any kind of shoe the customer ordered, but he was best at, and most enjoyed making, thick-soled traveling shoes.
All his customers agreed. "Once you've traveled in Old Man Greo's shoes, you can't wear anybody else's."
Some would say. "You know what it's like to wear his shoes? You don't get tired the same way. You just want to keep walking-- as long and as far as you can. You almost hate to get where you're going."
True craftsman that he was though, Old Man Greo rarely talked to his customers, and he could be downright unfriendly. Complimented on his work, he wouldn't so much as smile. Instead, he would put another piece of tanned leather on his wooden shoe last and start hammering away.
The only time the old fellow would crack even the slightest smile was when a customer visited his workshop to place an order.
Not that he was ever thrilled to get an order. What he most enjoyed was when a customer brought him a pair of shoes that had outlived its usefulness. He would stare lovingly at the worn-down soles and the disintegrating uppers, and he would actually talk to them!
"You've done some good traveling, I see..."
His regular customers would never dispose of their old shoes themselves because they knew how much he enjoyed this. Neither would they do anything so foolish as to clean the shoes before handing them over to the old man. He wanted them straight from the road--covered with dirt, oil-stained, and stinking of sweat.
"These fellows are my stand-ins." he would say, choosing an honored place for them in his storehouse.
"They take my place on the road, you know. They've done their job. I hate to throw them away just because they're no good anymore."
Proud craftsman though he was, Old Man Greo never wore his own shoes.
He couldn't have worn them even if he had wanted to.
His legs were gone from the knees down.
A terrible illness had attacked his bones when he was very young, and the legs had been amputated to save his life.
The old man had lived his long life in a wheelchair. He had never once left his native village.
This was what he meant when he said that his shoes did the traveling for him.
"Haven't seen you for a while."
Old Man Greo says without looking up from his work as Kaim steps across the threshold. His back is toward the door, but he can tell from the sound of the footsteps when a regular customer has entered his shop.
"You crossed the desert?"
The sound tells him how worn down the shoes are, and where they have been. Old Man Greo is a craftsman of the first order.
"It was a terrible trip."
Kaim says with a grim smile, setting on a chair in the corner of the shop. When old Greo is in the final stages of shoemaking, almost nothing can make him stop work, as all his regular customers know.
"Were my shoes any good on this one?"
"They were great! I couldn't have done it with anyone else's."
The old man doesn't sound the least bit pleased, which is to be expected.
Greo is especially curt when he is working. If Kaim wants to see the old man smile, he will have to wait a little until he hands Greo his old shoes during a work break.
"Here to order new ones?"
"Where to this time?"
"Up north, most likely."
"Probably walking along the shore."
Old Man Greo signals his understanding with a quick nod. He says nothing for awhile.
The only sound in the workshop comes from Greo's wooden mallet.
Kaim is moved to hear it. Like old times.
He has ordered any number of shoes here. Even before the old man took over the shop.
Kaim is one of Old Man Greo's oldest customers. In other words, he is one of the few who have survived repeated journeys.
Swinging his mallet and speaking in short snatches, the old man tells Kaim about the deaths of some of his regular customers. Some fell ill and died on the road. Others lost their lives in accidents. And not a few were killed in battle...
"It's hard when only the shoes come back."
Kaim nods in silence.
"One young fellow died a few weeks ago. He was wearing the first pair of shoes I ever made for him. The soles were hardly worn at all."
"Tell me about him."
"You know, you hear it all the time. Leaves his home town, wants to live someplace exciting, parents try to stop him but he goes anyway."
"I'm surprised he could afford shoes from you."
"The parents bought them. Sad, isn't it? They give their boy all this love and care, and he's barely out of childhood when he says he's going to leave home. They finally give up and decide to let him go. They figure they can at least give him a pair of my shoes as a going-away present. Less than a month later he comes back as a corpse. I don't know parents nowadays, they spoil their kids rotten. It's so damned stupid," Greo snarls.
Kaim knows that the old man's feelings go deeper than that. Old Man Greo is the kind of craftsman who would rush to make new shoes for the funeral of a sad young man who had breathed his last while his dream was only half-finished. He would pit them on the young man's feet in the coffin and pray that he would be able to go all the way on this final journey.
Greo falls silent again and wields his mallet.
Kaim notices how bent and shriveled the old man has become.
He has known him a long, long time. Those days will be ending soon enough, Kaim thinks with an ache in his chest.
Old Greo finally reaches a point in his work where he can turn and face his customer.
"It's good to have you back, Kaim."
His face is covered with wrinkles. Kaim realizes anew how old he has become.
"Where did you say you were traveling?"
"Right. I think you told me that before."
Kaim shakes his head. The old man seems to lose his powers of concentration when he isn't working, and his memory is shaky sometimes.
Little by little--but unmistakably--old Greo is spending more time drifting in the space between dream and reality. People grow old and die. The truth of this all-too-obvious destiny strikes Kaim with special force whenever he completes a long journey.
"So, you survived this one, too, I see."
Kaim looks at him with a strained smile.
"Have you forgotten? I can't die."
"Oh, I guess I knew that..."
"And I never get old. I look just like I did the first time you met me, don't I?"
The old man looks momentarily stunned. "Oh, I guess I knew that, too..." he says, nodding uncertainly.
"Sure, you were a kid then. You had just had that sickness and lost your legs and were crying all day long."
"That's right... I remember..."
"You used to call me Big Brother Kaim and play with my old shoes. Do you remember?"
"Yes, of course."
Greo speaks with certainty now. Either the fog has cleared or the distant memory has come back with special clarity because it comes from so long ago.
"The soles were worn down, there were holes here and there, and they had a sour stink of mud and sweat.
To other people, they must have looked like plain old shoes ready for the garbage, but to me they were a treasure.
I remember running my finger through the coat of road dust that covered them and trying to imagine where they had been. I enjoyed them so much! I really enjoyed them!"
Kaim's shoes were what got old Greo started as a shoemaker.
"It was all thanks to you, Kaim. If I hadn't met you, I would have spent my life cursing my fate. Instead, I've been happy. I'm happy now. Even if I can't leave this workshop, my sons can travel for me. I've had a happy life."
He pauses. "Well, now, will you listen to me talking up a storm!" Greo says with an embarrassed smile. He extends a thick hand to Kaim.
"All right now, give me my sons," he says, and Kaim hands him the worn-out old shoes he has brought with him.
The old man strokes them fondly and says with a sigh. "You've been through many a battle."
"I was a mercenary, too, for a time."
"I know that," says Greo. "I can smell the blood.
All the shoes that travel with you are like this."
"Are you angry?"
"Not at all. I'm just glad you came back from this latest trip in one piece."
"I'll be leaving again as soon as you make me new ones."
"Another once of those trips? To war?"
"And when that journey ends, you'll leave on another one?"
"How long can you keep it up?"
Kaim's only answer is a grim smile. Forever. This is not a word to speak lightly in the presence of someone who has lived what little time he has to the fullest.
"Oh, well, never mind," the old man says, turning his back on Kaim to continue his work.
"Wait three days. You can leave the morning of the fourth day."
"That will be fine."
"When will me meet next after that?"
"Two years, maybe. Three? It could be a little longer."
"Really? Well, then, this could be the last pair of shoes I ever make for you."
Kaim believes it will be. The old man is not likely to last three more years. Kaim fervently wishes it were not so, but wishing by itself can do nothing.
Only those who possess eternal life know that this is precisely why the time a person lives is so irreplaceably precious.
"Mind if I make a second pair of shoes out of the same piece of leather to match your new ones?"
They will be for himself, he explains, to be placed in his coffin for his life's final journey.
"I'd like that," answers Kaim. The old man swings his mallet instead of thanking him. The sound is far sadder and lonelier than usual.
"Come to think of it, though, Kaim, be sure to come back to this town even after I'm dead. Offer up your old shoes at my grave."
"I'd like to say I'll be going to heaven a step ahead of you and waiting for you there, but in your case it doesn't work."
"What's it like, an endless journey? Happy? Unhappy?"
"Probably unhappy." Kaim replies, but his voice is drowned out in the rising sound of Greo's mallet until it is lost even to his own ears.
Old man Greo reached the end of his full span of years soon after Kaim's visit to his shop.
Because Greo had no family, his grave in the cemetery at the edge of town was cared for by his many sons. In accordance with his wishes, his regular customers offered up their old shoes at his grave.
Kaim's shoes were among them.
The words inscribed on his gravestone were chosen by Greo himself.
He explained his choice to Kaim this way: "I would say the words to each new pair of shoes before I handed them to the customer. I always said them to the customer, too. I never once had the experience, though, of hearing someone say the words to me.
That's why I want them on my gravestone.
These are the words I want to be seen off with on my journey to heaven."
Several decades flow by.
Not only Old Man Greo but all the customers who knew him have long since departed the world.
The only one who still comes to pay his respects is Kaim.
He no longer wears shoes that were crafted by the old man. Like the life of man, the life of a pair of shoes cannot be eternal.
Still, Kaim comes to the town at the beginning of every journey, touching his forehead to the ground at the old man's grave.
The gravestone is covered with moss, but the words engraved on it, strangely enough, are still clearly legible.
"May your journey be a good one!"
These were the words the old man always spoke.
Coming from his mouth they could be brusque, but they were always charged with feeling.