Not long ago, when I was at a dinner,
I heard a toast - and here I write it down.
"I had a dream" the speaker said to us
"That I had died, and yet I was not dead
And there before me lay a final road
On which I walked, with neither food nor fire.
An empty plain stretched out in all directions
With crouching hills, whose tops held up the sky.
I walked all day, and yet all day saw nothing -
No smoke, no house, no turning right or left.
Beside the road there stood, in place of milestones,
Some rough-hewn slabs which marked successive graves.
I read the worn inscriptions that were on them
It seemed that babies had been buried there
At two weeks old from birth, at three perhaps,
They died, when they had scarcely yet been born.
Then as it came to midnight, I encountered
An ancient man, his hair as white as snow.
He sat beside the road and from a horn
Drank strong black wine and nibbled pungent cheese.
'Tell me, old man' I put to him a question,
'You chew your cheese, you from a horn drink wine.
How have you reached so great a length of living
Here, where no others live a single year?'
He said 'You are mistaken, passing stranger.
Here people live into the depths of age.
Here in these graves lie men as old as I am.
You have misread the funerary inscriptions.
We do not count the passing years as you do.
We reckon, when we measure length of living,
Not years that we have lived, but hours of friendship.'"
At that the speaker stood up from the table -
"My friends, now let us drink to years of friendship!"
But we were silent. If life's reckoned thus,
Perhaps not all of us would live a year!
© 2019-23 Mike Munford