The Old Man and the Fairy
Once upon a time there lived a man whose bones were withered with age. This was not due to any course of nature. Rather, it was because he had found himself on the wrong side of an argument with a fairy. She had welled with rage and cast her spell. But that had been a long time ago. For though he was now cursed with the detriments of age, he had been blessed with unnatural long life since birth. And now, bent, wrinkled, and alone, he spent his days in slow simmering anger.
Yet, what could he do? He could not find the fairy who had done this to him. She had abandoned him to his fate. As for remedies, he had long ago ceased his search—there was nothing to avail him. And so, it was this thought that kept him company: if he came across her again, he would make her pay.
He had made himself a home of logs in the midst of a thick wood, shunning all the world. For youth taunted him and age made a mockery of him—thus there was no company to keep. He wallowed in loneliness and rage, bearing a grudge worthy of great proportions and thinking of all the ways he would do the fairy harm, if he could only come across her again.
And the world turned, mocking him in its nature that was slow to change.
To be alone had been his choice; who would have wanted to spend time with one who looked as though he had been hollowed out by the sands of time? He could not fathom it. And yet, truth be told, it was a more accurate image. For he had already been older than one who had reached the end of a normal life long ago. But he hated this body that was not supposed to be his. He had been blessed to live far longer in a youthful image. And the longing for how his life should have been caused him to curse his gnarled fingers and creaking hips that told him when the wind blew. And so he crafted a life solitude.
Routine became his refuge. And on a day where the sunlight filtered down in trickled rays through the high leaves down to low branches, the man took his daily walk only to come across a heap of ragged fabric that had not been there the day before.
Taken by surprise, he peered closer at the bundle of rags. It moved gently up and down, as though it were breathing.
He caught the end of his walking stick along the loose fabric and moved it slightly. His eyes went wide, for he had revealed a woman, fast asleep on the forest floor. He peered at her. Her hair was gray-white. The wrinkles that ran down her cheeks creased her face like dents. Lines fanned out from the corner of her eye. And the hand that curled around her chin had knots about each knuckle.
She was old.
There was a time when he would have recoiled. A time before his own affliction. But he could not fish in a lake for his dinner without seeing, from time to time, a reflection of his face. This woman was the feminine image of himself. And, besides, there was something soft, something childlike in the way she slept. Something…
An eye flicked open, she caught him staring. It was a curious eye. A vivid violet. Now, where had he seen such an eye before?
It was only a second before the woman sat up, her body hunched away from him.
‘Apologies, sir. I thought this wood abandoned.’
He had come to the same conclusion himself, many years ago.
He cleared his throat. ‘Are you hungry?’ he asked. Now why had he asked that?
The old woman blinked her violet eyes as though to contain something.
‘Yes,’ she said, and her voice choked on the word. Now that he saw her more clearly, he saw the outline of her lined face was far too thin and that her skin hung off her bones as though there were nothing between them. She had been starving.
‘Come with me,’ he said, filled with a tenderness he hadn’t felt in years, and still not understanding what had come over him.
When they had eaten a simple meal of soup and bread that he had kneaded with his aching hands and baked that day, the silence that had lasted long between them grew thick.
As one, they spoke.
‘I’ll not trouble you…’
‘Tell me about yourself…’
It was he who had asked her to speak. And he wondered why he would do so? What could he want with her story?
‘I…’ she started, then fidgeted with her hands. She looked like a young girl, sitting there for all her lines and swollen joints.
‘If it is a hard tale, you need not share,’ he said with a gentleness he was sure he had never before possessed. ‘But if you do, I’ll not judge.’ Would he not? And he knew then that he wouldn’t.
She fastened her violet eyes on his and began her tale.
‘I came across a man once. Many years ago,’ her voice was low and rasped slightly with age. As did his own. He could not explain the sudden comfort it was to see himself reflected. ‘We quarreled. I cast an unexpected old age upon him.’
Suddenly his eyes hardened. His jaw clenched. And he felt an intake of air suck through his lips. The eyes. The fairy’s eyes.
‘It was a spell I could not undo. But I watched him. I watched as he spent his time trying to undo the enchantment. I watched him shut away the world. I watched him build a solitary life for himself. And in observing him, I came to love him.’
His body had no more tension to offer him, but this he did not expect. Still, he said not a word.
‘Then, I sought his antidote. For years, I tried but failed to find a way to reverse it. And when I had searched the world end to end, I took my penance and cast a spell of long mortality upon myself in an aging body. And then for some time on, I saw the world was cruel to an aging woman. Why, I did not know, for I was possessed of greater wit, of ready skill, and a memory almost as long as the world. But I was not interested in the world. I was interested in what grew in it. And that was when I discovered that it was the children, their beautiful eager faces, who did not reject me. The opposite was true—in them there was need. To grow, to learn. And they loved me. For my gray-white hair. And my wrinkled face. And my stories. So, I gathered them to me, those who had been abandoned, and made a life of my own. And when I had set it in motion, I came to find you, my love. To take you to them. If you will have them. And me.’
Her tale had finished. Her request had been offered. And now she stared into his eyes without flinching. His anger had risen. Indeed, his hands had itched to wring her neck, so long had he plotted his revenge. But then it had ebbed. She had taken on the penalty herself. And the world had not been kind. He could read it in her face. Her punishment had been worse than his own. A tenderness, a relief, had rooted within him. And the choice was clear. A long life of bitterness, or one of responding to great need. One of loneliness, or one where he need not be alone again.
It was only a moment. A moment of forgiveness. A moment of sorrow. A moment of acceptance. A moment of grace. It only took a moment. He opened his heart to this woman who was a reflection of himself. And all at once he felt for the first time the glorious delights that came with age.