Part 3: “The Tallest Man”

Part 1 can be found here.

Part 2 can be found here.

***

The tallest man awoke the morning after the meeting with the water spirit feeling excited and hopeful. Wealth, he knew, could take many forms, and he was eager to see which ones the water spirit had chosen for him. When he opened his eyes to an ornate ceiling, covered in gold-plated curlicues beset with silver, he leapt out of bed and shook his wife awake.

Although he had told her all about the events of the previous day, she was just as surprised as he was when she saw how their bedroom had changed. Overnight, it had tripled in size, and a velvet canopy had appeared on the bed, which was now much bigger and softer than it had been. Looking down at himself, he saw that his nightclothes had been changed into silk, and a satin dressing gown had been hung up on the shining gold curtain rod. Two servants waited at the door, carrying an enormous silver platter, on which a steaming, mouth-watering breakfast was laden.

After the tallest and his wife had finished eating, two servants entered the room and helped their new master dress. The tallest man’s usual clothes had been replaced by countless sets of stiff-looking suits, with a row of smart-looking ties folded neatly inside the wardrobe. Two more servants entered the room and polished the tallest man’s shoes until they gleamed. Then the servant to his left slipped a tiny gold key into his pocket.

(Continued after the jump.)

“What’s this?” said the tallest man, taking it out and looking at it.

“The key to your safe, master,” said the servant, and bowed.

It occurred to the tallest man that the water spirit had given him every form of wealth it was possible to have.

After a while, he decided to go into the village and take a walk. He stood agog for several minutes when he saw what the house looked like from the outside – it was even more impressive than the changes that had been made to his bedroom, and he could scarcely believe it was his. His neighbors gawked as they passed him on their way to work, and inclined their heads respectfully when they caught his eye.

Eventually he made his way to the town square. As he did so, he caught sight of the shortest man, who looked so different from his former self that it took the tallest man several minutes to be sure it was him. The shortest man seemed deep in conversation with two milkmaids, and the tallest man didn’t want to disturb him, so he simply waved instead of shouting out a greeting. But although the shortest man was looking in the tallest man’s direction, he gave no sign that he had seen his friend. The tallest man sighed and walked on, feeling a little worse than before.

A few minutes later, he spotted the middle-sized man, who was moving toward the fields, a purposeful look on his face. Encouraged, the tallest man ran toward him and waved as he had done with his other friend. But although the middle-sized man should have seen the tallest man, he showed no hint of recognition, and continued his steady progress up the hill. The tallest man sighed heavily and walked on, feeling worse than he had before he had seen either of his friends.

Finally he arrived at the village bakery, where he liked to take a cup of coffee before starting the day’s work. He knew that the gold key in his pocket meant the end of his labors for the rest of his life, but after seeing his friends, he wanted the comfort of something familiar, and so he went inside.

Including the baker, there was only one other person there when the tallest man opened the door. The miller’s daughter was sitting alone at a table, eating a frosted bun while tears glistened in her eyes. The tallest man thought that the baker also looked rather dejected, for he hid his face until the tallest man walked up to the counter.

Instantly, both the baker and the miller’s daughter jumped up and swept him a low bow. When the baker asked the tallest man what he would like to have, his face took on an expression that looked almost frightened. And when the tallest man gave him his order, the miller’s daughter ran from her place at the table and helped the baker pour him his drink.

“What’s all this?” said the tallest man, frowning at such strange behavior.

“We heard about your wish, sir,” said the miller’s daughter. “And you cannot deny that wealth demands respect. We were talking about it just before you came in.”

The tallest man thought about this for a moment. “Please treat me as you always have,” he said. “I made the best wish I could, but I fear it was not enough, and special treatment will not help.”

And although neither the baker nor the miller’s daughter understood what he meant, they agreed to behave as though the tallest man had never received the tiny gold key in his pocket.

The tallest man then took note of their tear-stained faces. “What has happened to make you so miserable?” he asked. “Tell me, and I promise to do what I can.”

The miller’s daughter and the baker looked at each other, then nodded.

“You may not understand, being so fortunate a man,” said the baker, “but we will do our best to explain. Each of us has loved and lost, and we may never recover our happiness.”

“I have loved your shortest friend for many months,” began the miller’s daughter, her eyes beset by shadows. “He was kinder than any in the village I know, and helped my father carry sacks of grain on days when his back was bad. He smiled whenever he saw me, and I always smiled back. I knew he was too shy to speak to me, so I tried to speak to him, but we never managed to speak to each other. I always hoped that, one day, he would forget his self-consciousness, and we would talk until the sun came up.”

“Has he truly been taken from you?” said the tallest man. “Certainly his appearance has changed, but perhaps things between you will be as they always were.”

“No,” said the miller’s daughter, shaking her head. “He cares more for his pride than for me now. Although he once worried what the village thought of him, I did not mind, for everyone worries what people will think. Now he cares only about himself and the ways he can be flattered, and though I cannot help but love him still, I will have no part in it.”

She wept a little, and the tallest man found he was disappointed in his friend.

“My story is much the same,” said the baker, looking at his hands. “I loved your next-to-tallest friend very dearly. Every afternoon he came to visit me, and I knew I could love no other. We spoke of sharing a home someday, and I always believed that we would. I knew he worried about village gossip, so I tried to put his mind at ease, but nothing I said seemed enough. I hoped that, one day, he would lose his shame and we could spend the rest of our lives together.”

“Has he truly been taken from you?” said the tallest man. “Certainly his affections have changed, but perhaps he will still come to see you.”

“No,” said the baker, swallowing hard. “Mere friendship would not be enough. Although he once worried what the village thought of him, I did not mind, for everyone worries what people will think. Now he cares only about himself and the ways he can avoid being vulnerable, and I will have no part in it.”

He cried a little, and the tallest man found he was disappointed in the middle-sized man, too.

They were silent for a few moments, and the tallest man thought about all he had seen and heard that morning. Hesitantly he examined his mind, and was not surprised to find that the questions that had plagued him for so long, and the dark feelings he had described to the spirit, were as present as ever.

“I myself am not as happy as you suspect,” he said at last. “Despite my new wealth, my unhappiness has remained. It is a different breed from yours – mine seems without a cause, and nevertheless clings to me all my waking hours – but perhaps our troubles can form a bond between us.”

The miller’s daughter and the baker agreed, and they spoke for several hours more, until the tallest man realized the time had come to meet his friends at the stream. He pulled on his coat, bade his farewells, and set out.

*

© 2012

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