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The Writer & the Witch

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, cast­ing shad­ows that dap­pled his way. This young man was 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. He took a step; his guts twisted. Another step; his legs were knot­ted with cramps. Another step; his heart ham­mered in his chest.

He reached the other side of the bridge where he fell to his hands and knees and crawled to the river’s edge — his body still 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 looked back across the bridge’s breadth, all twenty paces of it. A glossy crow screamed and wheeled above the trees. The old woman was gone.


The young writer’s first instinct was to run, out­race the old woman’s words, put this hal­lu­ci­na­tion behind him.

But it was no hal­lu­ci­na­tion.

He stared at the face reflected 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 tri­fling unkind­ness really ruined 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? At his side, the river was run­ning fast and dark.

Once told, a story takes on a life of its own.

“I am a stu­dent of an ancient faith,” 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,” the writer said — enjoying him­self now — “I have placed myself here as watchman. As long as I sit in this spot, the spirit will not dare to harm trav­el­ers such as yourself. Will you lend me some branches to make a shel­ter?”

The wood­cut­ter’s cart was piled high, and his eyes were wider now. 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, stu­dent,” 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, and most offered him the same silence he’d given the witch.

With patience, things improved.

When a fish­er­man came whistling across the bridge, the writer thought bet­ter of beg­ging for food. He 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 slippery 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 broad 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 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.

His father.


Years passed.

The writer was trans­formed utterly. Every day, he lifted heavy river rocks every day and bal­anced on one foot with them. His body was lean and strong. He ate a carefully-metered diet of fish, nuts, and vegetables. His eyes were sharp and clear. He combed his beard carefully with a Y-shaped stick, care­fully chosen. His beard was enormous.

He had also trans­formed the space around him. His shel­ter was still very small (what use did he have for space?) but it had walls now, clev­erly engi­neered by the wood­cut­ter’s son — a carpenter — so they could lift up like awnings, then shut tight at night. The wall fac­ing the road also 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 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 and lis­ten 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 con­ver­sa­tion and counsel. He had estab­lished both a rep­u­ta­tion and a home, 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 bags of sweets and bun­dles of books. One day, she came alone, and she told the writer that his father had col­lapsed in the field.

His father.

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 aged not 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, motionless. 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 — an architect — the writer built a library into the wide trees that bowed in around his house. It was an incon­gru­ous 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 entirely unforseen 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 met him there. It coiled itself around his waist and squeezed. He top­pled backward, then strug­gled to his feet again, grasp­ing at the ser­pent’s body. 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.

The ser­pent died and almost instantly it melted into slime and bones, as if it had died and decom­posed long ago and only been held together by — what? In another moment it was noth­ing but a dark, stink­ing slick being drawn away by the river’s current.

The witch had com­ing run­ning at her son’s cries and now 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 laid her head against his chest. She could barely make words. “My curse … ”

“No, no,” he said.

His voice was very quiet.

“All blessings.”


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 all wildflowers, 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.

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