Part 1 can be found here.
Part 2 can be found here.
Part 3 can be found here.
(Today’s drawing was produced by my brilliant artist friend Dana. Isn’t it wonderful?! I hope to enlist her again.)
When the tallest man reached the stream and saw that neither the shortest nor the middle-sized man was there, he thought at first that they must be late. He took off his boots and slid his feet into the warm, dark water, darting glances behind him every few seconds. After a while he shifted his gaze to the bottom of the stream. A small, bright light winked at him from beside a rock, and after a moment it rose up and turned into the water spirit.
“I’m afraid that they will not be coming,” he said. “I knew from the very beginning that they would not. This often happens with wishes. I tried to warn you, but you did not listen. Those men are shadows of who they once were. Your friendship no longer matters to them.”
“I’m sure I could speak to them,” said the tallest man, whose heart was beating painfully in his chest. “Perhaps they will meet me here tomorrow.”
“They will not,” said the spirit of the stream. “They are no longer the men that you knew. Go home, enjoy your wealth, and try to forget.”
(Continued after the jump.)
As the tallest man made his way up the shore in what seemed a deep, dense fog, the spirit stopped him with a wave of his hand.
“The next time you speak to me, I shall require a token to take back to the water,” he said. “And I will warn you now that the more we talk, the more precious my token must become. I will let you off today, for you did not know you would find me here, but next time you must remember these terms.”
The tallest man promised that he would, although he privately felt that he would never seek out the spirit again. Then the spirit slipped back into the stream, and the tallest man left for home.
What followed was a period of terrible blackness for the tallest man and all who knew him. The loss of his two friends hurt him deeper than he could ever have imagined, adding to the peculiar unhappiness even the spirit had not been able to solve. Robbed of his two kindred souls, the tallest man ate little, spoke less, and began to spend his days lying blankly in his bedroom, staring at the opulently-decorated ceiling.
At first his wife tried to help him, as she had tried since his melancholy days had begun, but when he stopped responding to her attempts and gazed more at the walls than at her, she became sad in her own way and began to spend most of her time away from the house. The baker and the miller’s daughter made occasional visits, but the tallest man did not so much as greet them. Despite all this, it might be said that the presence of his wife and his newfound friends helped the tallest man all the same. For if he had lacked them, he might have done something very dire indeed.
One night, long after the day he had caught the spirit of the stream, the tallest man was jolted awake by a feeling he did not recognize. Although he had spent most of the previous day in bed, he was seized with the conviction that he must leave it, and soon found himself wandering dazedly into the hall.
His legs seemed to be leading him outside, to a tiny spring that lay at the edge of his wife’s garden, so he struck a candle to better find his way. The flickering candlelight illuminated the space in front of the tallest man, and for a moment he merely blinked, wondering if he was dreaming. The upstairs hall was no longer golden and airy; his red embroidered curtains no longer fringed the windows; and the walls were no longer etched with lustrous, elaborate designs. It had returned to its former dusty narrowness, and the tallest man could not believe his eyes.
The strange feeling took hold of him again and he stumbled out of the house, his heartbeat fluttering. He gazed up at the place where he had once lived, noting places he ought to have repainted and the odd look the front door had of having been bashed in. Then he made his way to the spring.
He had hardly been there a minute when a bright light appeared in the water, casting a faint glow across the stretch where flowers would grow in the summer. The glow began to spread, and suddenly the tallest man’s candle began to smoke, as though he had snuffed it out. The light twisted and changed, and finally scuttled out onto dry land, watching the tallest man warily.
“Your friends sleep on,” said the spirit of the stream. “They believe they are happy.” His eyes dropped. “My gift has not been enough for you. I suspected it would not.”
“You suspected it?” cried the tallest man, and was surprised at how hoarse his voice came out; he had not used it in days. “Why did you not tell me? I could have wished for something else, something that would have made me happy at last! Now you have taken even my wealth away, and I am left as I once was, but a hundred times more miserable.”
“It is not a permanent change,” said the spirit, “and I warned each of you in turn. To you I explained that I cannot grant happiness; I can only help people on their quest to find it. If such a quest fails, that is no fault of mine.”
“Why has my wish stopped working tonight?” asked the tallest man, half-wishing some night creature would appear and eat the spirit up. “When will my wealth return? If my wife awakens and it is gone, I do not know how I will explain it to her.”
“All will be restored in the morning,” said the spirit. “Feel in your pocket: the gold key to your safe is still there. Beginning tonight, it is a time of great celebration for us river folk. The moon is bright, and all enchantments must break while the festivities last. Your wealth will return with the dawn.”
The tallest man’s heart sank further. He realized, a little shamefully, that part of him had hoped the spirit would say something else.
“My friends,” he said. “You say they are happy. This is true?”
“I said that they believe they are happy,” said the spirit. “That is something entirely different. It has happened before that beliefs like theirs have turned out not to be true, and I have seen signs… but it is not my place to say. They must live out their own lives. As you must live out yours.”
“But I am not living it,” said the tallest man. “And neither are they, if they are unhappy.” He hesitated. “Are they truly unhappy? Are you sure?”
There came a tiny twitch of the water spirit’s shoulder, but the tallest man knew what it meant. For the first time in months, he smiled.
“Is there anything that can be done?” he asked.
“Perhaps,” answered the spirit, curling his fingers into the airy wisp of his beard. “But they must want it too, you know. Simply being unhappy does not mean one believes it is so.”
“What must I do?” said the tallest man.
“That is up to you,” said the spirit of the stream. “But know that tomorrow at midnight, I will transport you and your fellow wish-makers to the stream. Our festivities are three days long, and this is the first night. You will have two chances to convince them. After that, no more can be done.”
The tallest man thanked him gratefully, and the spirit bowed low and turned back to the water.
“As I told you the last time we met, I require a token to take back with me,” he said, poised on the edge of the spring. “As this is only the second time we have spoken, any trinket will do. But you must give it.”
The tallest man remembered this condition and snapped a button off the cuff of his dressing-gown.
“Thank you,” said the spirit, enclosing it in his tiny, veined hand. He slid back into the water and left the tallest man alone to stumble back to bed in the dark.