Three Bowmen: A Fable by Avery Johnson


A short fable celebrating those who are prepared to be flexible and embrace the unexpected.

The king called for a great archery contest and all the archers in the land came, hoping to participate in it. When they gathered around to hear more about the contest, the king announced that there would be some special conditions imposed: The bows and arrows used would not be the ones familiar to the contestants but would be supplied to them from the arsenal of the king’s bowmaker. Furthermore, there would be only one day to practice and prepare for the event.

Just one day! No one could learn to use a new bow in one day! Many of the archers shook their heads and withdrew from the list. When those who still wanted to compete went to the arsenal to make their selections from the new and unfamiliar equipment, they saw that there was a great variety to choose from in the design of the bows and that all were very different from anything that they had ever seen or used before. This would indeed be a challenge. More archers now turned away and there were but three remaining.

One of the best in the land was named Xakto and he stepped forward to choose a bow. Xakto was known for his precise and methodical approach to everything he did. Naturally he selected a bow which had on it every kind of sighting aid and leveling and counterbalancing gadget one could possibly imagine. There also came with it a very complete operator’s manual. Xakto headed for the practice range with a bunch of arrows and a target that was simply a small black 

spot on an otherwise unmarked surface.

The second contestant to step forward was Striver, whose approach was more sporting. He chose a simpler bow with a counterweight for comfort and a small, fixed sighting arrangement on it so that he could at least be consistent in where he thought he was aiming. Along with his bow and arrows, he took with him a target that was the usual bull’s eye. 

The entire target was large enough so that he thought he ought to be able to land an arrow on it somewhere with even his earliest shots. Off he went, to begin practicing.

Last came Zendor, a strongly built youth from somewhere in the countryside. He was smiling and relaxed as he called for one of the children who were watching the proceedings to come forward to make his selection for him. “Choose the bow that pleases your eye and your hand the most, then let me find out if it also pleases mine. Take all the time you need.” The child looked at the bows and felt them all and finally she picked up the one that she had found herself going back to look at and to touch again because it had a peculiarly pleasing wood grain and shape and smoothness. When she handed it to Zendor, he smiled and readily agreed that that was the one for him. He picked up a handful of arrows and started for the practice range, whereupon the king asked “Aren’t you going to select a target to practice with?”

“Oh,” said Zendor, “it doesn’t really much matter what I shoot at. I’ll use this large rug that I carry around with me. Its colors and patterns are pleasing to me and I can drape it over a fence or a wall or the branch of a tree. It will do for me quite well, thank you.”

When they reached the practice range, Xacto was already making ready to quit for the day. He looked somewhat tired and cross. His body was tensed from having stood rigidly for so long with each shot, waiting until all the sight-lines and levels and gauges were in their right places before releasing the arrow. He had done this several times, making adjustments in the bow’s instrument after each shot. On his target there were a number of arrows at various distances from the center spot and just one arrow in that spot—his last shot. He considered himself ready and on the following day he would win by reason of his invincible precision, along with his ability to stand like a rock until every instrument settled into its proper reading.

Striver was still practicing. Every time he would shoot an arrow and it landed in one of the target’s rings, he would groan and comment miserably on the amount by which he had missed the center spot. A few of the arrows had landed there and Striver had left those in place to remind himself that success was possible, if not yet very frequent. He knew that he must try and try and try and that eventually all of his suffering and bad shooting would diminish as he gained proficiency with this new bow. He was totally immersed in the agony of trying. Each time he did manage to hit the bull’s eye his pain gave way to optimism, but only until the next shot. He found it difficult to figure out what combination of corrections was working right for him when he did strike the center, but he hoped to be able to master it before tomorrow.

Zendor looked around for a good place to practice so that he would also be able to enjoy the surrounding view and so that the spectators would be comfortable and not have the sun in their eyes. He found a suitable tree branch for spreading his rug upon and everyone saw that it was a tapestry decorated with a lovely mixture of geometrical patterns and flowers and leaves and vines. There certainly didn’t appear to be any “center” to it but it was enjoyable just to let one’s eyes wander over it and come to rest here and there as one pleased.

Zendor picked up the bow and an arrow, looked at them care-fully, and felt them all over. He seemed to pay scant attention to his target but looked instead at the crowd and smiled. He gazed at the view and at the clouds and at the grasses waving in the breeze. He stretched himself a little and then, almost in one motion, he nocked the arrow, drew back the bow, and let fly. Heaven knows where his eyes were at that moment! It didn’t seem to matter to him. After the arrow landed he looked at where it was sticking into his rug and said aloud “Aha! That’s where I was aiming!” Again he went through the same relaxed procedure but somehow not quite in the same way, and again looked at where the arrow had gone and exclaimed “Well, well, that’s where I was aiming that time.”

And so it went. Zendor appeared to be enjoying himself as much as anyone and kept up the practicing for hours while talking to the bystanders about the contest and the weather and about their own lives and troubles It was difficult to guess whether Zendor was gaining proficiency with his new bow but it didn’t seem to matter to him. He was so relaxed about what he was doing that it was hard to imagine that he was practicing anything. The only noticeable change was that toward the end of the day he took a little longer between the drawing back of the bowstring and the release of the arrow. On the last few dozen shots his smile was broader than it had been earlier and he finished up the day with the placement of six arrows in a neat pattern around one of the leaves pictured on the rug. it was a surprising gesture.

One lad, Stochastos, who had been watching, was curious to know what kind of practicing this was that Zendor had been doing and he offered to carry Zendor’s rug so that he could walk along with him and ask about it.

“Well,” said Zendor scratching his chin, “at first I just don’t pay much attention to where the arrows go. How can I know all of the many thousands of factors that go into each shot? That’s too much for my poor head to handle. I’d much rather enjoy the day and the people around me.”

“But,” asked Stochastos, “surely in the contest tomorrow you aren’t going to shoot your arrows just anywhere?”

“No, no,” said Zendor. “They’ll go where I want them to go. You see, after I’ve been shooting awhile, I can begin to guess where each arrow is going to land and, as time goes on, my guesses have a feeling more like knowing. By the end of the day, I find I can choose a new point on the rug each time and I wait with the bow drawn until a feeling comes to me that says ’Now!’ and I release the arrow. It’s the best way I know not to get in the way of whatever it is that I’m learning. It’s funny how ’trying hard’ is like failing. It’s something you want to get rid of. I’d rather work with something that grows. Now this bow is like a part of me and I also know that the same feeling of ’Now! will return to me tomorrow during the contest”

On the next day the three bowmen and a great crowd of spectators arrived at the archery range in eager anticipation of the event. The king stood up and announced that he had one more set of conditions to impose upon the contestants. He apologized for not having been able to announce these conditions on the previous day but to do so would have defeated their purpose. “Above all else,” he said, “what I want is to reward the ability to be flexible and to respond to novelty. The circumstances of this contest have to be new and unexpected.

“Each of you,” the king continued, “will shoot three arrows and each one of them in a different way. The first you may shoot in a manner of your own choosing and taking as much time as you desire.”

All three bowmen nodded and the king went on. “Just before you are handed your second arrow, a bag will be dropped over your head so you can no longer see the target. Take the arrow and shoot as soon thereafter as you can.”

At this new and bizarre development Xakto turned pale then flushed and walked away shaking his head. Never had he heard of such an unreasonable condition! He would not compete in this strange contest

For the third shot,” said the king, “the target will be caused to swing on a giant pendulum, but you may shoot when and as you please.”

At this point Striver wanted to drop out too but his friends urged him to give it his usual Grand Try—there was nothing to lose by it.

The outcome?

Zendor knew that he had hit the mark without even having to look.