Once, long ago, a young man was walking down an old road on his way to the New Capital. Ancient trees leaned in on both sides and cast shadows that dappled his way. This young man was very ambitious. His father was a farmer, but he wanted to be a writer. He wanted to see everything and try everything, and he was in a hurry to get started.
The young writer came to a short stone bridge that crossed a narrow river. There was an old woman reclining at the base of the bridge.
“A coin for the poor?” she croaked as he passed. He said nothing and kept walking. “Just a kind word, then?” she called after him. Again, he said nothing, and picked up his pace.
“STOP!” she called out—her voice very different. He turned. The old woman was standing, pointing at him with a long, pale finger. “If you are in such a hurry, then by rock and by ice, I curse you. For every step you take along your path, you will age one year. And then you will die.”
The young writer rolled his eyes. This was not the first time he’d been cursed by a vagabond. He turned and continued across the bridge. But suddenly the air smelled like a thunderstorm, and with every step, he felt something inside of him coarsening and thickening. His heart hammered in his chest.
He reached the other side of the bridge, and there he fell. He crawled on hands and knees to the river’s edge—his body twisting and tightening with every movement—and there, reflected in the water, he saw not the face of a young man, but one twenty years older.
He lifted his head, looked back across the bridge. A glossy black crow screamed and wheeled above the trees. The old woman was gone.
The young writer’s first instinct was to run, to outrace the old woman’s words, to put this hallucination behind him.
But it was no hallucination.
He stared at the face in the river. He felt sick and dizzy. He thought of all the things he wanted to do, all the places he wanted to see. It had all been laid out before him, like some great feast! Twenty steps ago, life had seemed like an improbable blessing. Had such a small unkindness really destroyed it all? He cursed the old woman—the witch—and he cursed himself. He pulled himself into a ball, clenched his eyes tight, made strangled sounds of pain, and wept.
He lie there, rolled up like a bug. A step in any direction was suicide. The sun set and he surrendered to fitful sleep. In the night, cold rain fell, and it soaked him through.
In the morning, he woke and ate some of the bread he’d brought for the journey. There wasn’t much. He stretched his arms and legs, which ached more than they’d ever ached before. The young writer was no longer young.
A woodcutter came across the bridge leading an ox-cart. He slowed in front of the sprawled writer. “Are you hurt?” he asked.
The writer began “A witch…”—but then he caught himself. Did he want to confess to his curse? Or would he be better served by some other story? Beside him, the river was running fast and dark.
Once told, a story takes on a life of its own.
“I am a pilgrim from far away,” he lied, “and I have come to spend my life in prayer and meditation here, in this spot, where the river meets the road.”
The woodcutter frowned and glanced around. “It’s not much of a spot, is it?”
“It is more important than you realize!” bellowed the writer. “There is a spirit in this river, a very dangerous one.” He gestured toward the bridge. “You are lucky it did not snatch your soul as you crossed.”
The woodcutter looked dubious.
“But I have placed myself here as watchman. As long as I sit in this spot, it will not move against travelers such as yourself. Will you lend me some branches to make a shelter?”
The woodcutter’s cart was piled high, and the story was settling in. “I can spare some cuttings,” he said. “I’ll nail them together for you.”
So he built the writer a simple, sloping roof.
“Good luck to you, pilgrim,” the woodcutter said when he returned to the road. “And thank you.”
The days that followed were very difficult. The writer ate every scrap of marginally edible matter in the radius of his reach. Stretching towards the water, he tried, and failed, to catch a fish with his bare hands. He choked down slimy snails. He begged for food from passing travelers, but there weren’t many of them, and most passed him as silently as he’d passed the witch.
With patience, things improved.
When a fisherman came whistling across the bridge, the writer began to beg for food, then thought better of it and asked for a hook and line instead. Later that morning, he caught his first fish. He ate it raw, ripping slivers of pale flesh from its shimmering flank.
He honed his begging. His survival depended on it, with so few people on the old road. The story of the river-spirit grew more elaborate. Now, the dark malevolence could rise up and go hunting through the forest. It could creep into houses, lift sleeping children out of their beds, and carry them back to the river to drown them. It could—but it would not. Not as long as the writer was watching.
The story spread. One day, two monks from a forest temple emerged from the trees, each carrying a tall basket. They eyed him up and down, and then—satisfied—they bowed and left the baskets, one loaded with fruit, the other with vegetables. The writer ate so much, so fast, that he threw it all up again, there where the river met the road, just beyond the bridge. But there was more, and he began to eat again, more cautiously this time.
Weeks passed. The writer was minimally nourished, but he wasn’t using his muscles, and so they were withering. He began a regimen of stretching, squatting, and running in place. Early on, as he stood pumping his legs, he imagined leaning forward and falling into a run. He could race down the riverbank, grow old, and die. It would be so easy. No! Instead, he threw himself down onto his haunches and dug his fingers into the soil. He gritted his teeth and tightened his grip, as if clinging to the back of some great galloping beast.
Its circumference was tiny, but he had a life, and he would not give it up.
The writer became adept at not only begging, but trading, too. A passing cart would clatter to a stop, and he would offer one of his finest possessions—a smooth rock he’d snagged from the river, a long band woven from grass—in exchange for some material to improve his shelter. In this way, he acquired tattered canvas flaps to keep the rain out and a tiny cooking pan to set above his shallow fire-pit.
Finally, he paid a passing merchant to take word to his father. His father, who had warned him about his ambition. His father, who hadn’t come in from the fields to say goodbye on the day the writer left home.
His father, who came running down the road days later. His father, out of breath, hauling a sack full of seeds: tomato and cucumber, potato and kale, mint and rosemary. His father, who sat down there beside him and used his fingers to rake furrows in the black earth. His father, who explained the seeds he’d brought, one by one, and showed him how to grow a garden in that little disc of dirt.
His father, who took his face in his hands and said, “You look like me.”
His father, who slept there with him, in his little shelter made of junk. Who, even as he returned to the road, was saying: “Don’t forget to rotate your crops, or you’ll wear out the soil. Treat it right, and it’s all you need.” Who crossed the short stone bridge, than ran back to warn his son about some fact of farming he’d forgotten. Who did this twice more.
It was morning, months later.
The writer woke to find his garden ravaged, all his food and small treasures plundered. There were footprints in the wet ground. His heart sank. Almost a year of work, all gone, and it had been so easy. They’d taken everything while he slept, there where the river met the road, out in the open, with no walls to protect him.
The writer stood and brushed off his knees. He crouched in a sprinter’s stance, fingers stretched down to the ground. He flexed his muscles—and lifted a tiny trap-door. It was his secret cache: always secure, because he was always sitting on it. There wasn’t much in the shallow pit, but it was enough to begin again. He knelt and massaged the soil, made it ready for new seeds.
The writer was transformed utterly. He had a thick, black beard. He had improved his regimen; now he lifted heavy river-rocks every day and balanced on one foot with them. He ate a carefully-metered diet of fish, nuts, and vegetables. His body was lean and strong. His eyes were sharp and clear.
He had transformed the space around him. His shelter had become a house. It was very small—what use did he have for space?—but it had walls, cleverly engineered with the help of the woodcutter’s son, a carpenter. They could lift up like awnings, then shut tight at night. The wall facing the road even had a door, so he could invite travelers into his home and offer them some measure of hospitality. He slept not on bare ground but on a thick straw mat that he rolled up and put aside when he woke.
The leafy trees that bowed in around his house were festooned with banners and garlands. The monks from the forest temple made regular visits now, along with people from nearby villages. They offered gifts in exchange for blessings.
The road was busier. The New Capital was growing fast, and all of its tributaries swelled with traffic. Benedictions were not the writer’s only trade; he also sold information. He knew who came and went, carrying what, and when. Merchants paid him to tally their rivals’ shipments. The secret police in the New Capital paid him to watch for men with northern accents, leading covered carts, traveling by night.
The writer was never lonely. He had many friends, monks and merchants alike, forged over years of long conversation and counsel. He also had companionship from time to time: liaisons arranged by those merchant friends. Women he paid in gold.
He had carved out a strange little kingdom, there where the river met the road, just beyond the bridge.
His father came every year, sometimes several times a year, and his mother too. She brought him fresh-baked bread and bundles of books. One day, she came alone, and she told the writer that his father had collapsed in the field.
She didn’t return after that, and soon the writer learned that she, too, had died. His father and mother had lived to be very old. The writer’s refusal to walk even a single step had halted the witch’s curse; that, he knew. Now, he understood that his stationary existence had also unlocked the curse’s strange corollary, because in all the years that had passed since taking up his position, the writer had not aged a day.
Ninety-nine years rushed under the short stone bridge, and the writer’s life and legend grew together.
The monks sent novices to sit beside him for days at a time so that they might learn patience and stillness. Without fail, each novice would grow bored and restless. He would rise to dip his toes in the river. The writer would make him gather firewood or send him on errands into the New Capital. When the novice’s master returned, the writer would report: Oh yes, your student sat beside me. His mental endurance is astonishing for one so young.
That same master having grown bored and restless himself twenty years before.
Pilgrims came from far away, carrying offerings for the Patient Watcher. They were surprised when the writer smiled and offered them tea. They expected a mossy statue of a man—maybe even literally just a mossy statue. Instead, they found a wiry interlocutor who peppered them with questions about the places they came from.
Some pilgrims brought books as offerings, and the writer read, and read, and read. Over the years, he changed his story. The river-spirit is hungry for knowledge, he told the pilgrims! Bring me your books and tell me your stories. I will recount them to the spirit when it threatens to rise.
With the help of the woodcutter’s great-grandson, who was an architect, the writer built a library into the wide trees that bowed in around his house. It was a strange sight: green leaves, rainbow banners, and shelves built across the branches, packed full of books.
Finally, the writer did what writers do. He wrote, and wrote, and wrote. He made significant contributions to the new science of naturalism, observing in astonishing detail the habits of birds and bugs in his little world. He compiled histories of nearby villages. He wrote fantastic tales, honed through telling after telling, there where the river met the road, just beyond the bridge, where travelers gathered and gasped in the light of his fire.
He hadn’t moved one step, but he was healthy, famous, at the height of his powers.
And then she returned.
It was on a cold afternoon that a glossy black carriage pulled by a glossy black horse careened across the bridge and clattered to a halt in front of the writer’s house. The driver, a tiny shambling toad of a man, flung open the carriage door, and a woman emerged. Her skin was pale and her hair was glossy black. She was young; she was beautiful; and she was angry.
She glared down at the writer, and her voice was sharp: “Who are you?”
The writer said nothing, only gazed up at her. She looked so different. Of course, so did he.
Her lips drew tight. “Do you realize,” she said, “that in a thousand years of curses, no one has ever dared to do this?”
The writer was terrified. He knew the witch could snap her fingers and bring his curse to a sudden close. Alternatively, she could cast a new one. She could transform him into a fish or a fern. But, even so, he rose to his feet, and he bowed low. Time had taught him a few things.
“Thank you, kind witch,” he said. “I did not realize, a hundred years ago, that your curse was a blessing. Without it, I would be long dead, and I would not have lived as I have lived.” He spoke with trembling conviction, because he spoke the truth. “I owe you a great debt.”
The witch was a woman who had lived as long as the trees, who was born of rock and ice on a far-off mountaintop, who was filled with the same power that lit the stars. She had criss-crossed the world, by carriage and by crow’s wing. She had ensorcelled rulers and cursed whole kingdoms… but something inside of her was still jagged, unsmoothed by time. She felt herself always on the edge of rage and tears. She had, quite literally, seen it all, and all of it had disappointed her.
But now, before her stood something entirely unexpected.
The witch was silent. The tiny toad of a driver sniffled. The horse stamped and snorted on the narrow road.
Finally, the witch said, “I am glad you discerned my true intent.”
The writer sat. “I ask travelers on this road to tell me their stories,” he said, “and I imagine you have the best stories of all. Would you sit, and tell me a little of what you’ve seen?”
The witch’s lip curled. The air smelled like a thunderstorm.
With a crack her horse and carriage disappeared—two dragonflies buzzing meekly across the grass. Her driver croaked and hopped into the river.
The witch sat, and the writer poured some tea.
Now, this would be a strange enough story if it ended here: the tale of two long-lived foes who found a quiet reconciliation, there where the river met the road, just beyond the bridge.
But the story isn’t over yet.
The writer and the witch talked, and talked, and talked. The sun set and the moon rose.
He told her the tale of the river-spirit and how he’d invented it on the spot a hundred years ago. She leaned her head back and laughed—more of a cackle, really.
She told him about her apprenticeship in the sweltering swamps, how she had learned to make potions and poisons and honed her talent for transformation.
He told her about the books he’d collected, and about his favorite writer, an ancient poet from the north. He even recited one of his poems.
She told him about the time she led an army defending the Old Capital, clad in glossy black armor and a billowing cape of crow’s feathers, throwing lightning bolts left and right.
He told her about his friends the monks and the merchants, and the dinner he’d once organized for all of them together. It had been a disaster.
She told him about her time in the court of the Old King, where art and music flourished. She told him about meeting the poet from the north in person. “He was entirely full of himself,” she said, cackling.
The witch was beautiful when she cackled. And even in this young form, there was a depth to her eyes: fine crow’s feet that betrayed all the places she’d seen, all the things she’d done. The writer was sharp and attentive, and he held court like a king in his tiny house. Something very strange happened that night, there where the river met the road, just beyond the bridge.
The writer and the witch fell in love.
The witch moved in, which strained their relationship at first, as it usually does, but even more so in this case given the size of the writer’s house. He felt self-conscious about his strangeness, which is to say, he felt young again. With gold he had saved over the years, he paid the woodcutter’s great-grandson to build a sprawling addition, with space for a closet, a kitchen, and a witch’s workshop.
The witch was not always beautiful. Some days, she was the young queen. Some days, she was the old crone. Some days, she inhabited a spectral in-between space, and the air smelled like a thunderstorm, and her glossy black hair floated up over her shoulders as if she was underwater. She would go wandering up and down the banks of the river on those days, and she would scare people, because they thought she was the river-spirit come to steal their children away.
One morning, the writer finally spoke the long-awaited question. “Might I… go walking again?”
The witch looked away. Softly, she said, “I cursed you with rock and ice. It cannot be undone.”
The writer and the witch were happy together. He taught her patience, compassion, and how to balance on one foot while lifting heavy river-rocks. She told him more stories—stories far stranger than the ones he’d heard that first night, stories you would never believe if it wasn’t a witch telling them by the light of the moon, curled up next to you on your thick straw mat.
She made the writer realize he had been much lonelier than he’d been willing to admit, there where the river met the road, just beyond the bridge.
They had a baby.
The writer’s son was playing with snails on the bank of the river, within sight of the house. The boy was very small, not even two years old.
The writer was watching him fondly—that’s what he did most of the time, watched his son fondly—and daydreaming about all the places the boy could see, all the things he could try. It was all laid out before him, like some great feast.
There was a dark shape in the river. At first, the writer thought it was a fish, but it didn’t move like a fish. It was angling straight for his son. The writer called out to him, but the boy didn’t hear. The air was thick with the smell of decay.
The shape was closer now, and it lifted up out of the water to show a leering serpent’s head, with glossy black pits for eyes.
It is important that you know the writer did not pause to think. He did not calculate the number of steps it would take to reach his son. He simply leapt to his feet and raced along the riverbank. They were the first steps he’d taken in a century, and each one was a gallop.
Every stride carried the weight of years and fell across his back like a hammer-stroke. He left his house a middle-aged man and by the time he reached his son, his beard was white. He splashed into the water, cutting between the boy and the serpent, and the monster caught him there. It was huge and vile; it whipped itself around his body and squeezed. He toppled backward, then struggled to his feet again, grasping at the serpent’s sleek skin. With each stumbling step, another year jolted through him. His heart pounded in his ears.
In the thick muck of the riverbank, he got his hands around the serpent’s neck. It was a shocking sight: the monster’s mouth, yawning wide with rows and rows of glossy black teeth, and below it, the writer’s hands, white as paper, thin as bones. He could smell the serpent’s breath, like garbage left to rot for a hundred years. Using the last shreds of his strength, he leaned and swung and bashed its head against the river-rocks. He did it again. And again. And again.
And the serpent was dead.
The witch was there. She bent low over the writer, who had become very, very old.
“My love,” she wailed.
Softly, the writer said, “So there was a river-spirit after all. That monster was probably as old as I am.”
“You saved our son,” the witch said. She squeezed his hand. She could barely make words. “But my curse…”
“No, no,” he said.
His voice was very quiet.
If you pass that spot now, where the river meets the road, just beyond the bridge, you will see that that the tiny house is still there. The additions have fallen away, and the garden is no more, but the main structure still stands, and so do the shelves in the trees that bow in around it. They’re filled with books, which people borrow or steal. Sometimes they leave new ones, too.
In one of those books, you’ll find the story of a boy, the son of a powerful sorceress, who grew up in the court of the New King. He went on to roam the world, charting the rocky northern reaches and sailing the warm southern sea. He was an explorer, a pirate, a diplomat, and a poet. He had one of the all-time great lives.
Inside the house there is a statue of a man sitting—yes, it really is a statue now, covered with moss. His form is lean, and across his face there is carved the suggestion of a beard. His eyes are closed, and there is a smile playing on his lips.
Pilgrims still come from far away to seek his blessing. He is the keeper of traveler’s tales, patron of the patient, and protector of small children.
All who pass know they must slow and say hello.
Here, no one hurries along the path.
August 2010, San Francisco
Really, the main thing to do here is sign up for my email newsletter. I try to make it feel like a note from a friend, and it’s very easy to unsubscribe. Plus, there are occasionally… SECRETS