This is the final section.
The next morning was a difficult one for the tallest man. It was all he could do simply to rouse himself: the heavy layer of melancholy he had been living in seemed to have thickened overnight, leaving a leaden weight somewhere inside his chest. Nevertheless, he got up and had breakfast, loitering in his bedroom for a few minutes in hopes of figuring out a plan.
His wife surprised him by sitting up in bed.
The tallest man had barely spoken to her for weeks, and he was no longer used to it. He looked down and said nothing.
(Continued after the jump.)
“Were you with another woman last night?” she said. “Or a man?”
He still said nothing.
“Is that the cure for your unhappiness?” she said, growing quieter. “An affair? After spending days in this room, too absorbed in your feelings to speak to me even once?”
“It might have been,” said the tallest man, “if I had thought it would help.” He looked at her face and remembered how much he had loved it, and still did, past the leaden weight in his chest. “No. No, it wasn’t.”
“Tell me, then,” said his wife. “Tell me where you were.”
And he did, although words were still hard to form, and they came out jagged and awkward. He told her of meeting the spirit at the spring, and the inkling that his friends were unhappier than they appeared, and his total lack of feeling for the luxury they were living in. She nodded and listened in all the right places, and when he was done, clapped her hands and said, “Well, we must make this right.”
“They despise me,” said the tallest man. “We can never make it right.”
“Nonsense,” said his wife. “We will go to the baker and the miller’s daughter and ask their opinions. For they love the shortest man and the middle-sized man too, and might be of some help.”
They dressed, with the gold key to the tallest man’s safe stored securely in his shirt pocket, and set out towards the village bakery.
As it had been on the first morning of the wish, the baker and the miller’s daughter were the only people inside. They did not look as miserable as they had on that day – the tallest man supposed they had grown used to their dejectedness in a way he himself had never managed to do – but they also didn’t seem happy, and looked at him with a firm question in their eyes as he approached.
He whispered to his wife that she should tell them the story, but she stopped him.
“It did you good to tell me,” she said. “Already you have more energy than you did before. Perhaps it will help you to tell them, too.”
So the tallest man sat down at a table and once again told the tale of the two previous nights. This time he added the meeting at the stream at which his friends had failed to turn up, and his descent into melancholy afterwards. His wife held his hand and listened again, and the baker and the miller’s daughter looked thoughtful when he had finished.
“We shall have to think of something,” said the miller’s daughter.
“Most definitely,” agreed the baker.
The tallest man’s wife was right: he did feel lighter.
They spent the rest of the day thinking up the most persuasive arguments for giving up wishes they could. While not an easy task, it seemed easier with four people at the job, and as dusk began to fall, they worked out a plan for midnight.
“When we see that the magic has begun, we will link hands, so that we are assured of staying together,” said the miller’s daughter. “And when we reach the stream and see our friends, we will put our arguments to work and see what fruit they bear.”
They returned to the tallest man’s home in time for a delicious supper made by the servants, despite the fact that they were all too nervous to eat very much. They spent the rest of the evening swapping tales of trials they had struggled against and overcome, in hopes that this one would prove no different.
Finally, the clock struck midnight.
“Take my hand,” whispered the tallest man, and it was a good thing he did, for no sooner had he done so than his body turned completely invisible. Listening to the cries of those who had seen him disappear, he understood how he had managed to get to the stream unseen by men or animals.
His knees twitched, and their chain of four moved out of the house and down the path.
From a distance, the tallest man saw the silhouettes of the shortest and middle-sized men. He knew that they, too, would be invisible to their guests, though he himself could see them, as he had the night before. The shortest man was fingering his moustache. The middle-sized man had his hand over his heart.
“We have arrived,” said the tallest man, and their feet touched the shore.
For the third night in a row, he watched the gleaming light of the water spirit blossom above the stream. He climbed onto his usual rock and gazed out at them.
“Ah,” he said, “you have brought friends.”
The shortest man and the middle-sized man twisted around to look at the tallest man’s company, then turned back again as though they hadn’t seen them at all. If the tallest man hadn’t noticed the very slight quivering of their shoulders, he might have believed they were unperturbed, but he knew they weren’t, and it gave him hope.
“Welcome, guests,” said the spirit of the stream. “You cannot see me, but you can hear me, and you will be involved in everything that happens here tonight. For it is your presence that makes this evening’s meeting different from yesterday’s – and that is in itself an enormous responsibility. Do you understand?”
The miller’s daughter, the baker, and the tallest man’s wife thanked the spirit and said that they did.
“You may now speak among themselves,” said the spirit of the stream. “I will give you one hour to reach a decision. I would use words wisely, if I were you.”
And he stretched out on the rock and closed his eyes.
The tallest man and his friends turned to the shortest and middle-sized men, their heads full of the arguments they had prepared. They had agreed that the tallest man was to deliver them, and he did, stumbling over his words as he tried to sound confident.
“Wishes such as ours go against the natural order of things,” he said, his voice growing stronger. “I do not know if there is a God or not, but if there is, I am sure He would not want us to influence our lives by magic. Anyway, our wishes were just a silly attempt to get away from the monotony of our lives. It is time to grow up and return to the real world. It is time to take responsibility for the things we have been shirking all these years…”
There was a moment of silence.
“Those are the worst arguments I have ever heard,” said the middle-sized man coldly. “I do not imagine for a second that you even believe them yourself. Your arguments must match your cause, and yours do not. We will be keeping our wishes, thank you very much.”
“Yes,” said the shortest man. “We are happy in our new lives, and it does not matter to us that you are not. It matters little what we were before.”
The tallest man looked at the miller’s daughter. Her face had turned very pale.
“After all,” continued the shortest man, “nobody cared for me when I looked like this.”
At that, the miller’s daughter’s face hardened. She leapt out of her place beside the baker, ran blindly to the place where she had heard his voice, and lifted a hesitant hand to what she seemed to hope was his cheek. Her fingers brushed his chin, and the tallest man saw astonishment cross the shortest man’s face.
“But I did!” she said, her face filled with yearning. “You were kinder than any in the village I knew, and you helped my father carry his grain on days when his back was bad. You smiled whenever you saw me, and I always smiled back. I knew you were too shy to speak to me, so I tried to speak to you, but we never managed to speak to each other. I hoped that, one day, you would forget your self-consciousness, and we would talk until the sun came up.”
The shortest man seemed unable to speak. If he’d been given a few more seconds, he might have tried, but he only had time to entwine his invisible fingers with the miller’s daughter’s before the baker rushed out, too.
“I feel the same!” he said, running to the place he thought the middle-sized man might be. “Did you really not miss me at all? Was I truly worth throwing away for a hastily-made wish?”
He put a hand on the middle-sized man’s invisible shoulder, a touch that first made the middle-sized man recoil. Then he relaxed, and the same look of astonishment crossed his face.
“I have loved you for so many years,” said the baker, sitting down beside him. “Every afternoon you 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 you worried about village gossip, so I tried to put your mind at ease, but nothing I said seemed enough. I hoped that, one day, you would lose your shame and we could spend the rest of our lives together.”
Quietly, and as though it cost him a great effort, the middle-sized man slipped his hand into the baker’s. Side-by-side, the shortest man and the middle-sized man gazed at the tallest man, looking shocked, defeated and weary.
“Is this reason enough to reverse your wish?” asked the tallest man’s wife. “Might you be happier, possibly, with the people who have loved you all along?”
The shortest and middle-sized men glanced at each other, legs shaking.
“Might you consider the things we have said?” said the baker.
“Do your wishes truly, truly make you happy?” sighed the miller’s daughter.
The two men spoke at the same time.
“But we do not think we can return to the way we were,” said the middle-sized man.
“At least we have fooled ourselves into believing we are happy – and after some time, that began to feel like happiness itself,” said the shortest man. “And we have what we once lacked, even if that means we must lose other things in the bargain.”
“There is only so much misery one can bear,” said the middle-sized man, bowing his head.
“We would like to go back,” said the shortest man, “but we cannot.”
The tallest man looked at the miller’s daughter and the baker, trying to identify the expressions on their faces. He could only imagine what it felt like, to hear these disembodied voices bleeding out of the dark, detached from their owners, saying things that were sure to make the deepest parts of their friends’ chests ache. As it was, the tallest man’s heart seemed to be caught somewhere inside his throat.
“You say you have what you once lacked,” he found himself saying. “What was it that you lacked?”
Neither man answered, and the tallest man knew this was because they thought the answers were obvious. To the tallest man, however, they were not obvious at all.
“I lacked happiness,” said the tallest man, “and I lack it even more now. What I did not lack in the old days was love. I am lucky to have the love of my wife, and the baker and the miller’s daughter, but the lack of our friendship –” And he found he could not go on.
But two people stepped forward.
And from his place on the rock, the spirit of the stream seemed to stretch slightly in his sleep.
“The lack of our friendship,” said the tallest man, shakily reclaiming his voice, “made me more miserable than I could ever have imagined.”
He could see, within the shortest man’s and the middle-sized man’s faces, that they understood what he meant. Something he had said had loosened a knot inside them, a knot that had begun to be untied with the presence of the baker and the miller’s daughter. And somewhere inside the tallest man himself, he felt the same knot begin to come blessedly undone.
“Yes,” said the shortest man.
“I know,” said his middle-sized friend.
And the leaden weight inside the tallest man’s chest started to lessen.
“Abandoning our friendship was the thread that undid us,” said the shortest man. “We could have made better wishes; cleverer wishes, if we had not been so selfish.”
“Your wish only made you worse,” said the middle-sized man, beckoning to the tallest man. “And ours made us far worse than that. I do not truly love the shepherdesses, you see. They are beautiful, to be sure, but not beautiful enough. I was a fool.”
“The milkmaids do not truly love me,” said the shortest man. “They care only for flattering remarks and a fine chin. I was also a fool.”
And again, the spirit stirred.
“Will you go back, then?” said the tallest man’s wife. “Will you take back your wish?”
“Please,” said the miller’s daughter to the shortest man.
“Please,” said the baker to the middle-sized man.
“Please,” said the tallest man, pleadingly, to both.
“Yes,” they said at last, and found the thing they had been lacking all along.
They never did see the spirit get up, but when they saw him poised on the rock, skin radiating with a gleam that would have challenged a hundred full moons, not one of them was surprised.
“The entire stream is pulsing with magic tonight,” he said. “One sip will be enough for each of you. You will become visible again, and you will have to make the journey back from the stream yourself.”
They agreed, and began to approach the stream.
“Will we be happy, Spirit?” said the shortest man, trying not to hesitate.
“I have told you before that happiness is something I have never quite understood,” the spirit answered. “That still stands true. But you will not be as you once were. I could not make it so if I tried, and I would not want to. You have changed, and so you will be different. How, I could not say.”
And so the three men stepped forward, bent down towards the glassy swirl of the stream, and cupped the water in their hands. Smiling at the people waiting for them on the bank, they drank slowly and thirstily.
“I require a token,” said the spirit in the tallest man’s ear.
He slipped the small golden key from his pocket, held it out, and turned back towards land.