Roland knocks on the door of the small hut and takes a step back. After a few moments, the door opens slowly and face cautiously peers out from the darkness. The face is embedded in a wild nest of gray hair sprouting in all directions and the suspicious eyes lighten into pleasure when Roland is recognized.
“So wonderful to see you, Martin. It has been too long.”
Martin comes out from behind the door smiling broadly and greets his friend in a fierce embrace. He gestures towards the rough table beside the house.
“Sit, I will bring out some refreshments.”
Roland eases himself onto a log with a flat surface cut onto the top and sighs as he leans back against the table. He closes his eyes and enjoys the afternoon sun filtering through the trees on his face. The wind carries the smells of late spring and the noise of animal life industriously doing what they must at this time of year. For a few minutes, he is alone in his reverie and then is joined by Martin, bringing out a plate of food and 2 large cups.
“What brings you out to my isolated corner of the world,” Martin asks.
“I am only here a few moments and I regret how little I come to visit. Every time I come back, I am reminded why you avoid the chaos of town living.”
Martin nods and replies, “The only thing worse than the noise of the town is the smell.”
Roland smiles. The two continue to banter and eat and drink until the plate is empty and the cups are refilled. The sun begins to set on the horizon of rolling hills and Martin sets a small fire in the circle of stones. Once the fire is stable, he returns to the table and they continue to talk.
“It took me a while to find you. The last time I was here, you were living in the large stone house a short walk to the north. Not much left of it now.”
Martin gives a dismissive shrug, “It was too big. As long as I have a roof to keep the rain off of me, I am happy. I spend most of my time outside, anyway. Anything larger than this,” He gestures towards the hut, “is showing off.”
“You always have appreciated what nature provides.”
Martin’s eyes crinkle and he smiles, but it is hard to make out. Roland wonders how long it has been since Martin trimmed the hair on his face and head.
Roland continues, “It truly is beautiful out here. As soon as I saw the hut in the valley, I knew it had to be yours because there is not a more perfect spot.”
Martin responds, “If you are quiet enough, I swear you can hear the ants moving among the blades of grass. When you are completely still, nature assumes you belong here and pays you no mind. You can watch life move on without you.”
Roland nods, “There is truly no comparison, nothing made by man or magic can compete. Even so, with all there is to see and hear out here in the woods and fields, there was one treasure that I recall you had that was truly amazing. The harp of yours that would play itself and sing the most beautiful, haunting songs. To hear that harp play would be the perfect end to a wonderful day. Would you bring it out? I would love to hear it.”
Martin looks around them with a slight smile on his face.
“Do you hear that?”
Roland cocks his head and listens. At first he hears nothing, then he smiles as he realizes that Roland is drawing his attention to the night noises of the woods. The chirps, warbles and clicks of the various nocturnal animals creating a multi-layered song that he has not heard since he began living in the city.
“Yes, that is beautiful.” Roland concedes.
“More beautiful,” Martin insists.
“I think you are probably correct, but I would like to compare the sound of nature in the evening to the songs of your magic harp, if it is not too inconvenient.”
Martin replies, “Oh, I cannot remember where I put it. It has been so long since I listened to it, the harp is probably buried under old sacks in a corner. If you stick around, I will pull it out for you, tomorrow.” Changing subjects, “I haven’t seen you in,” Martin’s eyes turn upward as he mentally calculates.
“Forty harvests have come and gone. You had a lot less gray the last time I saw you,” says Roland
“And you were a lot thinner,” Martin snorts.
“Town living and all that,” Roland looks slightly embarrassed. “But, there are advantages to life in the town.”
Martin looks doubtful.
“Truly. They may not outweigh the beauty here, but there are some things that one cannot find here.”
“Such as,” Martin asks.
“People, for one, “ Roland replies.
“I thought you said that there are advantages to town living?” Martin says with obvious disdain.
“Well, sure, if you give them enough time people will begin to show you many of their less desirable traits, but they also have decent qualities. For example, some are quite capable storytellers.” Roland says defensively. He continues, “In fact, I heard quite the story the other day and I thought of you.”
Martin does not look convinced.
Roland says, “There is a man that came to town some years ago. No one is sure where he came from, but upon arrival he quickly established himself as a man of means. With the assets he had and with a shrewd sense of business, he grew in wealth and status. A few merchants complain about his methods, they claim that he lacks scruples and that he would steal from a child if it served him. But I have no head for such things so I do not know if their complaints are warranted or if they are motivated by envy.”
Martin looks bored and Roland hurries on.
“The magic is weak in him, so he ages at a rapid rate. He is now in the decline of life and is fond of telling stories of his youth. He is the one that told the story I mentioned, the one that I thought you would be interested in hearing.”
Martin continues to stare silently at Roland and he takes that as a sign to continue.
Roland begins to tell the story, “His mother was a kind, old widow who did the best she could. Jack had the disregard of a young man and did not make his mother’s life easy. After a particularly difficult spell, their one cow had to be sold and Jack was given the task. He was innocent in the ways of men and was taken advantage of, he traded the cow for a few magic beans. Remember that magic was more common at that time and so it was not an entirely foolish trade, but it was not going to put food on the table. In frustration, his mother threw the beans out the window and went to bed. As we all know, magic beans are activated by the full moon and it happened to be such a moon that night and so in the morning, the boy discovered that the beans has sprouted and grew to such a height that the top could not be seen.
Martin is not very interested in the story, and comments, “Seems to me that the boy deserved a good thrashing for being such a fool. Is this a story about the foolishness of children today? You are not going to get an argument from me!”
Roland continues, “With hopes that he would find a few pods growing on the vine, Jack climbed up. Instead of finding food, as he passed through the clouds he discovered a desolate land. It was barren and dreary. He wanders off. Perhaps it was the hunger, perhaps it was magic, but he suddenly found himself before an imposing house. He knocked on the door and a brutish woman answered. She attempted to dismiss him and send him off, but he had no where to go and desperation made him stubborn. He convinced her to feed him. She urged speed upon him as her husband was expected home soon and he was a giant, not kindly disposed toward people. In fact, he had been known to eat the odd boy, when in the mood.”
Martin snorts, “A giant you say! Haven’t seen one of them in quite awhile. Does this giant have a herd of unicorns that he tends to? This is a lovely fantasy that Jack has created.”
Roland does not respond, but continues with the story.
“Jack did not leave soon enough and was in the house when the giant returned. The old woman hid him and Jack was trapped. Fortunately he is able to observe the giant empty a large sack of gold on the table and count the contents. Feeling satisfied with the number, the giant fell asleep. Jack crept out, took a handful of gold and ran back to the beanstalk and climbed home. Knowing that stealing is a sinful, he was able to justify his actions, for he was stealing from a beast that ate boys and his mother was in desperate need.
Martin rolls his eyes, “Did they all live happily ever after? I thought you said he was a capable story teller.”
Unperturbed, Roland continues, “The gold did not last long for they had many debts to be satisfied. Soon after, Jack felt compelled to return up the beanstalk and to the giant’s house. Confidently, he rapped on the door and the old woman was not excited to see him. It seemed that the giant noticed the bag was a few gold pieces lighter when he counted it in the morning and blamed his wife. He beat her quite severely and not only once. Jack feigned innocence and sympathized with her treatment. He charmed his way back into the kitchen and tried to determine where the gold was stored. Before he could figure it out, the giant returned home.
“The giant was a paranoid sort and was convinced that someone was in the home. Jack was nearly discovered, but by quick thinking and clever maneuvering was able to avoid detection.”
Martin interjects, “Why don’t story tellers ever focus on their idiotic blunders or suspect decision-making? Always on about their heroic deeds.”
Not distracted, Roland picks up the story. “Waiting and watching, hoping he would have another opportunity at the giant’s gold. He was quite surprised to see that the giant did not bring out a sack of gold, but instead a hen that, upon command would lay a golden egg. Once the giant fell asleep, the boy stole out and made off with the hen. Apparently this theft did not weight heavily on his conscience and this hen became the source of his wealth.”
Martin has taken a sudden interest in the story. “A hen that lays golden eggs? What did you say this fellow’s name was?”
Roland does not respond but continues on, “Of course, we all know that such an enchantment will take a toll on animals, so the riches are short lived. Soon after, Jack is back up the beanstalk. He knows better that to try and fool the old woman, so he sneaks in. He hides in the kitchen and waits for the giant. When he returns, Jack is nearly discovered as the giant is again convinced he is not alone. When the giant settles in for the evening, he brings out a magic harp that plays and sings beautiful and haunting songs until the giant falls asleep. Jack makes his way over and carefully relieves the giant of the harp. As Jack is sneaking out, the harp calls out loudly and wakes the giant. A chase ensues and Jack is nearly captured. Jack is able to make his way down the beanstalk and chops it down. As the beanstalk falls, so does the giant. And that is how Jack became known as the giant killer. At least that is what he says.”
As Roland tells the story, Martin transforms from attentive to fidgety to animated to agitated. He begins pacing up and down the clearing in front of the glowing fire. When Roland stops speaking, Martin returns to the table and leans in towards Roland.
“That miserable wretch! He is a thief and a liar!” Martin pushes off of the table and returns to pacing. “He has turned me into a boorish giant and all of this,” gesturing around, “into a desolate landscape!”
“I thought as much. It seemed quite the coincidence that there was another enchanted harp. But how did he come by it?” Roland asks.
Martin is quite for a bit, fuming and ruminating. Roland patiently waits and after a bit, Martin begins to speak.
“I don’t know where he came from. He claimed he was an orphan. He may have been, but I learned he is a very capable liar. When he showed up on my door, he was closer to death than life. I fed him and gave him shelter. As he regained strength he showed an attentiveness and aptitude that I appreciated. So as I nourished him, I also fed him bits of knowledge and he devoured those as readily as he ate the food I put before him
“The world is changing and magic is dying. To have an apprentice again inspired me to return to the arts. There are few left like us that understand the subtle energies of the world. That can read the fairy messages in spider webs or speak with the hive queen, and my enthusiasm to share was matched by his hunger.
“If I am honest, I could have been more careful with the knowledge that I imparted to him. In my defense, I had been alone for a long, long time and that may have contributed to my trust in him. I believed his words of gratitude and thought his desire for knowledge was pure. He was more than a student and in retrospect that should have served as a warning. He served me well. He had been with me for years, and I do not know how long he plotted, but if his plan was spontaneous then he was very lucky.
“If you recall, there was a natural clearing in the woods, not far from the house. On warm nights, I would often go there and sit with my thoughts and listen to the forest grow. Many times, I would fall asleep in that spot. One day, in the middle of a particularly warm summer, the sun was setting. The day was completely free of clouds and it was obvious that it was going to a clear night. It did not take much convincing, but Jack encouraged me to go to the clearing. I lay on the moss, watching the stars slowly swirl across the sky, framed by the silhouettes of the trees above. It was no surprise that I fell asleep in that spot. As it turns out, it was also a full moon.
“When I woke up, I was bewildered and confused for I did not see a single tree near me. In fact, I could not see a thing. No house, no grass, no bird or squirrel. I was surrounded by blue sky, except for a cluster of entwined vine beneath me. Waking from sleep in a strange place can be bewildering enough, but when you see nothing familiar, it can take quite a while to regain one’s bearings. Eventually, I realized that I was atop a beanstalk. It took a very long time to climb down. It was days before I reached the ground and by the time I did the damage had been done.
“Of course, Jack was gone and what he did not take, he destroyed. The fire that took my beautiful old house had gone cold long before I returned. I do not recall telling him of the magic beans, but I told him of many things so I am sure that was among them. The treasures, I do not miss, what use did I have for gold or precious stones? What pained me most was the loss of the books. I am sure that he did not value those, so I am confident that he destroyed them with the house. The knowledge they contained is gone forever. That pain has subsided over time, for pain always does. It still hurts a bit to think about the loss. but not like it once did.
“Ah, well. So be it. All things must end, eventually. Good or bad, it all ends.”
Martin sat and fell silent and stared into the embers that remained of the fire. Roland took a deep breath and surprised himself when the breath caught in his throat. He noticed that his cheeks were wet.
Martin spoke quietly, “Did you ever try to find Jack? Seek retribution? Or revenge?”
“No. No point. What is done cannot be undone. Such an act would have been an attempt to satisfy my own selfish need. To put the blame on someone. If Jack had not stopped the transmission of the knowledge it would have been someone else. It has been a long, long time since anyone has knocked at my door. Even without a human agent, the knowledge was preparing to whither and die with me. The loss was inevitable. Instead of worrying about what could have been or trying to punish the agents of destiny, I will spend my remaining days enjoying this.” Martin gestures broadly, vaguely around.
Roland couldn’t be sure because it was so dark, but it sounds as if Martin is smiling as he speaks the last sentence. While he can’t be sure of Martin’s expression, he knows that he says it with complete sincerity.