When the forests were yet green and wide and full of life, there lived in some areas spirits of the wood who grew in ancient places and cast webs of enchantment on the hills and the valleys in spring. These spirits took the form of men and women when they wished, but usually they walked the earth invisible, and a wanderer on the trail would notice no more of their passing than a light wind and perhaps a fresh scent in the air. These were the days of magic.
Frederick collapsed to the rocky earth with a shuddering sigh. He was cold, and lost, and hungry, and above all tired, so very tired. He had not eaten for two days, and his throat was dry. The trees rose over him black and unforgiving; he hated them, as he now hated everything. Hope had nearly left him. It was dusk, and a breeze tickled his scalp with the touch of autumn.
He looked up and saw her - an old woman dressed in brown. Her gray hair was tinged with green, and the weight of her eyes spoke of many years. She gazed at him in silence.
He gave a sudden start. "Are you...you're..."
"Of the forest." Her voice was - there were no words for it. It was like listening to the sun rise. He stared at her. Silence settled on them.
"What's your name?" he asked her, hardly daring to speak.
"I am old," the woman answered. "Very old. I am too weak to use what power is left to me, so I walk through the forest and I look at the clouds. It is not a bad way to live. But they tell me I should let my power die with me. What do you think about that?" "No, my lady." He did not understand - could not understand - but there was no other possible answer to her question. She should not let her power die. It was all he could think.
"And why is that?" Her voice was level, a cool stream under the moon.
"It would be a waste, my lady."
"I am no one's lady," she said, but the words were gentle. "A waste, you say. What would you have me do, then?"
He faltered. "I don't know." His eyes fell to the ground.
"What would you do with my power, if you had it?"
Again. "I don't know." But he met her gaze a moment later and searched through his incomprehension for a better answer. "I would feed my village, my lady." It was impossible not to call her 'my lady.' "People there are always hungry. Surely with the power you have, I could...I..."
"You would feed them? If I give you my power, you must be careful not to waste it. There is only so much. It is precious; but it is a gift I am willing to give. Now look at me, and promise. You will feed them?"
"Yes." He swallowed. "I will. I'll use your gift, my lady. I promise. I..." He stared at the ground again and shuffled his feet. They ached. "I'm very tired, my lady."
For the first time that evening, she smiled. "Then rest," she whispered, and by the time his eyes were shut, she was already gone.
When Frederick awoke the next morning to the sunlight streaming through the trees, the dream was still clear as rainwater in his mind. The wind, the old woman, the voice, the gift, the sudden warmth - for a moment he could believe it had been real. But true reality, the reality of an autumn morning, set in, and it snapped the sleep from his eyes. Only a dream. He began to get up.
What was this? He was not hungry.
And there -
There on the hilltop was his house.
He sat down again, mind reeling. This could not be; such things did not happen. He lifted his hand and studied it as though he had never seen it before. Had he? What new world was this? His vision swam. It was all the same as it had been, yet different, all so different. He could not explain it.
He got up and sprinted towards the house. His vision sparkled and sang before him. Everything seemed different. He flung open the door and stared, not understanding.
"The dream! She...she gave me..."
He ran back outside and picked up a leaf. Hardly knowing what he was doing, he stared at it - stared - stared -
It was electric, like lightning in a clear sky. Flames ripped the leaf apart and its ashes sank softly to the earth.
It was the beginning.
He spent the rest of the day playing with his toy. It seemed he could do anything with the power she'd given him. He could move things by looking at them. He could rip holes in the ground just by thinking about it. He could whip the wind against the trees or summon raindrops from the sky. And he could fly. He spent over an hour doing only that, soaring for miles and miles while thunder rumbled behind him at his command. It was glorious. And then, when he landed at last, he found that he could simply stand, and let the power radiate from him, let it drain drop by drop from his body into the world around him. For that, there were no words. It was beyond ecstasy.
The old woman came to him that night. He saw her at the edge of the wood and ran to her, laughing. "Thank you!" he shouted. "Thank you so much! This is wonderful!"
"Are you feeding your village?"
He stopped suddenly. "I - I don't know how."
She began walking towards the empty field behind his house. "Have you tried?"
"I'm sorry. It's just so wonderful to do what I've been doing. Have you flown? You had this power before. Have you done that?"
"There is only so much for you to use," she said, still walking. "Show some wisdom in its use. When it is all gone, there is no more."
"I'm sorry," he said again. "I don't know what to do. Show me."
They reached the edge of the field, and she knelt on the broken soil. "Crops once grew here," she said. "They might again. Use what you have been given to make something grow."
"Just try," she said. And together, with her guiding him, they brought forth a cornstalk from the ground. It came with agonizing slowness, taking over three hours in all, but in the end there it was: an ear of corn where there previously had been nothing.
Frederick gave a deep sigh. "I can't do this," he said. "At this rate I might as well just plant the field by hand. What's the point? I'm exhausted."
She put a hand on his shoulder. "It comes with practice. Each time you do it, it comes more quickly and easily. In less than a year, if you keep trying, you will be able to do what you did here for an entire field in the same amount of time."
"Will there be enough for all that?"
"Plants grow on their own, without human interference. It is what they long to do. You need only encourage it; you will find it takes very little of your power to do that. Just time. And practice."
When she had gone, he spent half an hour working on another cornstalk, but it was very slow going, and the work was much more difficult without her guidance. He gave up and went to bed before the sun began to set, telling himself that he was tired and would work on it more the next day.
But the next day he spent flying. He had only meant to fly for a few minutes, but once he began it seemed impossible to stop. Always he told himself it would only be for a bit longer, but before he knew it, it was almost dark again. He came down and slept. The morning after that, he went out to work in the field again, and he made a little progress, but he kept stopping to take breaks where he would sit and let the power seep out of him. It felt so wonderful, and it was hard to stop.
A week later she came again. "What have you been doing?"
"I made another one," he said, showing her to the field. "I think you're right. It does get easier."
"It took you a week to make one more?"
"I...I've been doing other things also. But I've been working! It just takes time."
But time passed, and passed, and Frederick had little to show for it. He felt less and less inclined to go into the field. After all, he told himself, this was magic. It should be enjoyed. What was the point of magic if it was going to be just like work anyway? He spent hours devising new ways to delight himself with his power. Occasionally pangs of guilt would reach him and he would go out and practice some more, but most of the time he smothered them in pleasure.
The woman's visits came less frequently as the weeks went by, and she spoke less and less when she did come. At last she appeared before him and said only, "You are wasting it," and would speak no more after that. When she had gone, he reached out with his power and smashed a chair to bits in his anger, then retreated sullenly into his bedroom to sleep.
More weeks passed after that, and she did not come. Months came and went. There was no sign of her. He felt a sense of relief that he could at last do what he wanted without her around watching over his shoulder. He found ever more and varied ways to use the power, and he began using it more frantically, because he could feel it slowly draining away. His mind felt like a glass that was emptying. It would not last forever. But he refused, now, to go back and sit in the dirt and try to make corn grow; it seemed, somehow, that that would be admitting failure. It was unpleasant to contemplate, and after a while he stopped thinking about it. There was only the power.
And then one day, when he took to the air to fly, he knew it was the last time. When he landed once more, he could feel that there was not enough left to fly again. He stared at the empty field in silence, eyes empty, while minutes passed quietly to dust. Then at last, desperately, he ran to it. He fell to the ground and poured the tiny amount of energy still left to him into the soil. He pleaded with it to grow. And slowly, very slowly, a tiny ribbon of green appeared. Slowly - slowly - slowly -
There was no more left.
He simply sat and looked at it. It was impossible. There had to be...
He realized the woman was watching him. She was far away, standing by a tree at the other end of the field, but he could see her clearly. She did not say anything, only watched him sadly, in silence. Then he looked away, and when he looked back she was gone. He knew he would never see her again.
He collapsed and began weeping feebly as the stars came out over the forest.
The next morning he awoke feeling numb and sick. He tried to stand, but he could not make himself care enough to do it. Fury poured through him, and sorrow, and loathing; more than anything else in the world he hated himself. It was all gone.
Finally he made himself stumble up the path to his house, where he fell once more onto his bed. He beat at it, hitting it over and over until his fingers ached, and then he hit it still more. At last he was still.
He made his way into the kitchen and found a knife.
Again and again he passed the blade over his wrists, his heart, his throat, each time wondering why he did not end it then, each time steeling himself to feel the sharp metal against his skin; but he never did it. Eventually he set the knife back down again.
He mumbled the word 'coward' and went back to bed to be alone with his misery.
But the days continued to pass, as they always do, and he did not lie there forever. Gradually, like a vine growing towards the sun, he found a purpose. Frederick began to farm the field outside. He learned the technique and the art of farming, he bought equipment, and by himself he grew a small crop of corn. Some of it he ate himself, but most he gave to people in town. It was a beginning. Time passed.
He did the same thing every year. He planted enough for one man to harvest by himself, and when the weather did not destroy it, he took it into the market and gave it away. It was pathetic, he knew. For an entire town, the crop was nothing - not enough to make a difference - but he could not stop doing it. It was all he had left. The years passed silently, on, and on, and on. He began to get old. He grew weaker with age, and the crop grew smaller and smaller accordingly. More years passed. At last it was little more than a garden in his back yard. He was very, very old.
One day, as he hobbled outside, he saw in his garden a very beautiful young woman. She was dressed in brown, and her hair was a vibrant green. She watched him as he came to her, breath laboring. His own hair was thin and white.
He gazed at her in wonder. She was lovely. "Who are you?" he asked. "Are you...? You can't be..."
"She was my mother." The sound of her words was starlight on an evening flower.
"She's dead now."
He did not know what to say. He felt empty. She spoke again.
"I forgive you," she said simply.
For a moment his eyes widened in wonder, but he looked down again. "I don't deserve that. I don't deserve to see you. You should be punishing me."
"You have punished yourself."
"I should suffer."
"You have suffered already."
He looked up at her again, uncertain how to go on. She stepped forward. "I'm so sorry," he said. "I am so, so sorry. I'm sorry. I'm sorry."
"I know." She reached out her arms and held him, like a mother cradling a small child. He began sobbing, thin tears running down his mottled face. His body shook. He buried his face in her hair.
At last he stood back, still crying. He managed to choke out the words.
"I'm very tired, my lady."
For the first time that morning, she smiled.
"Then rest," she whispered.
By the time his eyes were shut, she was already gone.
|10 Jun 2003|| Anonymous|
This story was awesome. i really did like it. it gave a strong sense of moral. what goes around comes around kind of thing. i like that. Brian Buckley
replies: "Thank you. I'm glad you were able to get something out of it."
|20 Jan 2005|| Tyson G. N. Jewell|
I want to say "Bah! I would never do that! I WOULD have fed the village." I want to believe it. I would want to do it... but after reading that story... could I? Even after reading it, knowing the danger or failing and always feeling worthless, could I resist? I say yes for now, but I'd never thought of it that way before. Always before when I dreamed of untold power for myself it was to do exactly what he'd done. Revel in the power, fly, create... destroy.
A very powerful story. Thank you for it, it'd good to see a window into one's self sometimes, to realize that we're all capable of lying to ourselves, and to give us a reason not to. Brian Buckley
replies: "This is probably my favorite of my own stories, because it is personal to me. I often feel bad about wasting something - usually time, in my case, rather than magic. Call it an outlet for guilt, I guess. I'm glad you liked it."