(Haven’t had time lately to engage in the self-mockery that is Libby Drawing Pictures, so today’s segment will have a lovely photograph of autumn here instead. Pretend the leaves are by the stream. Or just pretend that I will re-post later and put a real picture in. :)
The next morning, the tallest man’s wife was shocked to see her husband climbing out of bed, and more shocked still to see him wolfing down breakfast as though he hadn’t eaten in days (which, unfortunately, was close to the truth.) She started to ask him what had caused such a sudden change in his spirits, but he had dressed, washed and raced out the door before she could finish her sentence.
The baker and the miller’s daughter had kept the tallest man up-to-date as to his friends’ whereabouts, and so he knew where he could expect to find them. He decided to seek the shortest man first, and headed for the town square, where he saw him almost at once.
The shortest man was stretched out on a smooth stone bench, surrounded by giggling milkmaids. He seemed to be telling some grand, heroic story, and as the tallest man grew closer, he realized it was about the shortest man himself, and also that it was not true. A milkmaid with a dimple in her chin sat in his lap, while a milkmaid with a rounder shape and corkscrew curls wound her fingers through his hair. He did not shift his gaze as the tallest man approached.
“I have a message for you,” said the tallest man, feeling his knees quake from beneath him. He could see nothing of his old friend in the man that sat before him now, and he did not know how he would respond.
The shortest man tore his gaze from the milkmaids and stopped smiling abruptly.
“It is a message from the spirit of the stream,” continued the tallest man. “He asks that we meet him by the water this evening. He will transport us to the stream at the stroke of midnight, for he wants to ask us a question.”
(Continued after the jump.)
“What could the spirit possibly want to ask us?” said the shortest man, in a voice that suggested the tallest man had come there to annoy him. “I have everything I have ever wanted. I certainly hope he does not want to take our gifts away.”
“I feel the same,” said the tallest man, feeling it was best to lie in this situation. “But tell me, are you truly happy? Would you say you were happier than you were before? Do you ever wish that you – well, that you had not wished?”
The milkmaids snorted and tittered rudely. The shortest man made no effort to hush them.
“Never,” he said. “Wealth must have dulled your intelligence, to ask such a stupid question.”
The tallest man sighed and decided he would try again at midnight.
Trying to feel hopeful, he left the village and approached the hills, lost in thought until the rising wispy green flattened out into the shepherdesses’ pastures. Perhaps, he thought, the middle-sized man would be more sympathetic to his cause. Perhaps he would be glad of an offer to take his gift away.
He looked out across the fields and spotted the middle-sized man beneath a willow tree, surrounded by a group of idle, jostling shepherdesses. One shepherdess was lying across the middle-sized man’s knees, while another had her head on his shoulder, her eyelashes brushing his cheek. As the tallest man drew nearer, the middle-sized man looked between the two women and smirked, giving not so much as a greeting to his friend.
“I have a message for you,” said the tallest man, feeling his mouth go dry. He could see nothing of his old friend in the man who sat before him now, and he did not know how he would respond.
The middle-sized man held the shepherdesses’ hands tightly and gave the tallest man a cool, terse glance.
“It is a message from the spirit of the stream,” the tallest man went on. “He asks that we meet him by the water this evening. He will transport us to the stream on the stroke of midnight, for he wants to ask us a question.”
“What could the spirit possibly want to ask us?” he said, in a voice that suggested the tallest man was quite ridiculous for mentioning it. “I have everything I have ever wanted. I certainly hope he does not want to take our gifts away.”
“I feel the same,” lied the tallest man. “But tell me, are you truly happy? Would you say you are happier than you were before? Do you ever wish that you – well, that you had not wished?”
The shepherdesses crowed and cackled rudely. The middle-sized man made no effort to quiet them; on the contrary, he joined in.
“Never,” he laughed. “Wealth must have dulled your intelligence, to ask such a stupid question.”
The tallest man’s heart grew very heavy after that, and he returned to his bed to await the toll of midnight.
Like the previous night, the tallest man awoke to find his legs beckoning him outside, striding with swift, sure movements as he left his suddenly duller and dirtier house. This time, however, his feet did not lead him to the spring. Instead he trod softly down the village paths in his dressing-gown. He knew, somehow, that he would meet no others on his journey there, nor would any animals try to harm him.
He reached the stream and scanned the water for signs of the spirit. Movements on both sides of him told him that the shortest and middle-sized men had arrived too, but when he turned to look at them, they glared, and then avoided his eyes. A light glinted, and the spirit rose up out of the water, clambering onto a rock.
“Spirit,” said the shortest man angrily, “you have taken my gift away. I caught a glance at myself in the mirror as I left, and I daresay I am even uglier than I was before. I demand that you return my good looks immediately.”
“Yes,” snapped the middle-sized man, with equal vehemence. “I found myself thinking of the baker as I walked out the door. Please put a stop to it at once.”
“As I told your friend, it is only temporary,” said the spirit, looking irritated. “Three nights a year, we spirits celebrate the elements and the changing of seasons, and on those nights, every spell must break. Your gifts will be restored in the morning.”
The shortest and middle-sized men looked murderous at this, and the tallest man felt his heart sinking. He realized that the time had come to speak up again.
“Are you absolutely certain you want to keep the spirit’s gift?” he tried. “Try to remember how you felt on that day at the stream, when we met the spirit for the first time. Do you not feel that you have lost something of yourself since you made your wishes? Do you not feel wearier, perhaps, or more foolish? Are you only trying to convince yourself that you are happy?”
They arched their shoulders and turned away.
“Are you sure?” cried the tallest man, heaving with desperation and disappointment. “Are you absolutely certain?”
“My life is better than it ever was,” growled the shortest man, still facing the village paths. “I will not hear another word about it.”
“The spirit put an end to years of unhappiness,” said the middle-sized man. “Why on earth should we be dragged down by your misery?”
“They have spoken,” said the spirit of the stream, now facing the tallest man alone. “Your task has failed tonight. I will bring you here again tomorrow, but know that if you fail then, you have failed forever. You will keep your wealth, and your former friends will keep their gifts, and such will be your life. You may grow more or less miserable than you are now; only time can tell that. But there will be no more chances.”
“You require a trinket,” said the tallest man, and he gritted his teeth as he spoke, so as to keep his voice from cracking. “I brought a gold coin.”
“Sufficient for tonight,” said the spirit, grasping for its weight. “But tomorrow it must be still more valuable.”
“Good-bye,” said the tallest man as his legs began to carry him down the slender village lanes once more. Although it was dark, he did not miss the looks of loathing his former friends sent him before they too were moved by magic into civilization.