The Last European. Chapter Five.
… the water which has been refused to the cry of the weary and dying, is unholy, though it had been blessed by every saint in heaven; and the water which is found in the vessel of mercy is holy, though it had been defiled with corpses."
Once upon a time there was a woodcutter who lived in the forest with his wife and three sons. The boys grew in age, as boys will do, and the oldest son came to the woodcutter and said, "Father, I don't want to chop wood all my life. I would like to go out into the world to seek my fortune."
"It is only normal that you should wish so my son. Go with my blessing. Just see that you are never cruel and that you are always honest, and you will be great, no matter what profession you choose."
So, the eldest brother went forth into the world. By and by he came upon an old man, sitting by the side of the road. The old man appeared to be starving to death.
"Please," said the old man. "Could you spare me a crust of bread or something?"
The eldest brother looked at the old man and sneered. "A crust of bread will do you little good, old man. You'll soon die anyway and I need all of my food. Goodbye, old man."
And the eldest brother went on his way. Perhaps we will hear more of him later.
Another year passed and the second eldest brother went to his father. "Father, I don't want to chop wood all of my life. It is time for me to go seek my fortune in the wide world."
"I can't blame you, my son. You have my blessing. Just be sure that you are kind and true and never cruel, and you will be great no matter what profession you take up."
The second brother then went forth. And like the first brother, he came upon the starving old man who asked him for a crust of bread.
"Sorry, old man, I need all the food for myself. You should have planned more carefully; then you wouldn't have to go around begging from other people. Good day to you."
And off to seek his fortune went the second brother. Perhaps we will hear more about him later, too.
Yet another year passed, and the woodcutter went to his third and youngest son.
"Son, you are growing up very fast. Do you want to go and seek your fortune in the great world like your brothers have?"
"No, father, I am happy here in the forest. It is here that I wish to stay."
The woodcutter was surprised, but pleased, to hear this.
"That is fine, my son. Your mother and I will be happy to still have one son at home with us."
But after another year passed, the woodcutter came again to speak to his son.
"My son, the woodcutting no longer provides much money. Perhaps you could find work in the great world for a time and then come back to the forest when there is more work here again."
The youngest son could see that his parents were in a very bad way.
"Do not despair, father. I will go out into the world and bring you and mother enough money to last you all your days."
"That is not important, son. Your mother and I have enough. Just earn enough for yourself and be kind rather than cruel and be honest rather than cunning. God bless you, my son."
And so the third and youngest brother went forth into the world. When he had walked a ways along the road, he came, as his brothers had before him, upon a starving old man.
"Could you spare a crust of bread or something, young man?"
"Certainly, my good sir. I have a whole oat pancake in my satchel and it is more than I can eat. I also have a quart of milk which is more than I can drink."
The third brother then divided up the food and sat down and ate with the old man. After the meal, the third brother told the old man that he had to be going on his way.
"Before you go, young man, I should like to give you something."
"That is not necessary, my good sir."
"Because you say it is not necessary, young man, it becomes necessary. Because you have a kind heart, I am giving you this small golden cross. Do not exchange it for money or anything else. Save it. And whenever you feel surrounded by evil and in danger of losing your life, hold this cross in your hand and say, "In the name of Him who made blind men see and crippled men walk, make this evil desist."
"I will keep this cross with me, good sir. And I thank you."
So saying, the third brother went on his way.
He soon came to a small village. The people in the village seemed to be very poor and ill fed. One man was chopping wood and doing a very poor job of it.
"This is something I can do," the third brother said to himself.
"Hello, good sir, let me do that for you. I can use some exercise."
"I thank you, young man."
The third brother finished chopping the wood in no time, and then helped the man carry the wood to his poor dwelling. Inside, the third brother saw four children, two boys and two girls, all younger than ten years of age, dressed in rags, and with the mark of starvation on their visages. The third brother's heart went out to them.
"Good sir, have you nothing to eat? Doesn't the land around the village grow food?"
"The land around here was once good land," the man replied, "but it is now under a curse. A witch has placed a curse on all the land in the kingdom of King William. And this village is in the realm of King William."
"Why has the witch put a curse on the land?"
"That I do not know. I only know that nothing has grown here for over a year. We have used up all of our supplies. Every day my wife goes into the city to beg for food. We are waiting for her now. Some days she comes back with a crust or two of bread and on other days she comes back with nothing."
"Do they have food in the city?"
"Yes, their storage bins have not been exhausted yet. But the men and women of the city have their own children to look after, so they are not inclined to share with people of the villages, especially when they have no idea when the witch's curse will be lifted. I fear we will be dead from starvation very soon."
Again the third young brother's heart went out to the man and his family.
"You shall not starve. I will go to this King William and find out where this witch is. Then I will go to the witch and make her break the spell she has put on the land. In the meantime, take what food I have."
After giving the family four loaves of bread and a substantial amount of cheese, the third brother hastened to the castle to see King William.
He did not have the usual trouble that one generally has when trying to see a king. This was because King William had given his guards orders that anyone offering to kill the witch of the glen was to be ushered into the Royal Presence immediately. And of course the third brother was offering to kill the witch. The King also had, as all kings must have, a beautiful daughter who was to be given in marriage to the man who could rid the kingdom of the witch.
The third brother thought the King's daughter was very beautiful, but that is not why he wanted to kill the witch. In his mind's eye, he saw the starving children and his heart bled for them.
"I will kill the witch and remove the curse. Only tell me where she lives."
The King's reply was prompt. "The witch lives in the glen twelve miles to the south. If you follow the road that passes the old mill and the abandoned blacksmith's shop, you can't miss finding the witch of the glen."
The third brother started on his way. He did not know, because the King had not told him, that over one hundred highly trained knights had been killed in the attempt to kill the Witch of the Glen. He also did not know that the beautiful daughter of the king had had her lips sealed with a special wax prior to the King's conference with the third brother. This was done because the Princess had told the last few knights who had come to do battle that over one hundred knights had lost their lives trying to kill the witch. The Princess's warning had deterred the knights, which had made the King very angry. It wasn't proper, he claimed, for a young princess to deter young men from seeking to kill a witch.
"But shouldn't they at least be warned of the danger?" the Princess had asked.
"No," the King replied, "that's implicit."
So the third brother went forth to meet the Witch of the Glen. When he came to her dwelling in the Glen, she was (as witches will do) bending over a cauldron and stirring up some hideous brew. The cauldron was only a few feet in front of her cottage, which actually was, at least from the outside, a rather pretty looking cottage.
The witch, who had known for quite some time that the third brother was coming to slay her, turned and asked the third brother what he meant by intruding on private property.
"I've come to make you remove the curse from this land."
"That shall not be. The curse can only be removed with my death, and I don't intend to die."
"I'm sorry you're so obstinate, for you leave me no choice."
With those words, the third brother rushed upon the witch. Now the third brother did not own a weapon, but he had borrowed an ax, because that is what he was familiar with, from his friend in the village.
The third brother was quite strong and quite proficient with the ax. He struck a blow that would most definitely have killed the witch had the blow landed. But the witch raised her hand in the air and erected an invisible shield around her. The axe hit the shield and shattered into a thousand pieces.
The witch then summoned two giant ravens to come and bind the third brother to a tree. Once the third brother was bound, the witch dismissed the ravens and let out a very traditional witchy cackle.
"Now, you fool, you shall die slowly. Inch by inch, I shall peel your skin off," she said as she brandished a long knife in front of the third brother's face.
The third brother was very frightened, but he resolved to meet his fate bravely and not give the witch the satisfaction of seeing that he was afraid.
"Do what you will. We all must die in the end."
"Yes, but your end will be within the next two hours after I have slowly, and oh so painfully, peeled off all your skin."
As the witch sharpened her knife for the peeling, the third brother thought of the cross the old man had given him.
"If I can just loosen these ropes a little bit, I can get a hand on the cross," the third brother thought.
It took quite an effort, but eventually, before the witch had finished sharpening the knife, which had to be extra sharp in order to peel skin, the third brother managed to get his hand around the cross in his pocket.
"In the name of Him who gave sight to the blind and made the lame to walk, I order the evil to desist."
Suddenly a huge bear leapt from the forest and pounced on the witch. Before she could do anything to protect herself, the bear killed her. Then the bear came up to the third brother and with his sharp claws, cut the ropes that bound him. As the ropes fell off, the bear was transformed into the old man with whom the third brother had shared his food on the road.
"More than mere thanks I owe to you, kind and generous sir. You have saved my life and the lives of the starving people of the kingdom."
"No, I have not saved their lives, young man. You have. For you must know by now that I am an angel. And angels cannot act, on this earth, except through human beings. We travel only on invisible streams of charity. If there is no charity in human hearts, we cannot act. Your act of charity has allowed me to intervene in your life. So it is through you that the villagers will be saved from starvation. Now go and tell them that the witch is dead. But do not tell them about me. Tell them -- and it is not a lie -- that through you the witch met her death. And remember the cross you possess, and beware of treachery. Devils work through humans, too, and they have more success, numerically at least, than angels such as I. We need streams of charity and they need rivers of sin."
The whole kingdom rejoiced at the news of the witch's death. The beautiful Princess, who had never been that impressed with the swaggering knights, was smitten with the humble woodcutter's son and quite ready to marry him. But the King was not impressed with the third brother.
"It is not right that a mere woodcutter's son should marry my daughter," he said to himself.
To the third brother he said, "You have done well. My people are once again able to grow food on the land. But marriage to my daughter is out of the question for the moment. You see, I have a cousin who is king of the land bordering this kingdom. His kingdom provides us with access to the sea. If some other king, less friendly to us, would take over my cousin's kingdom, we would no longer have access to the sea, which would be a very bad thing. You can see that, can't you?"
"Yes, I can, but why is your cousin's kingdom in danger?"
"Ah, I'm glad you asked that. His kingdom is in danger of falling to the giants from the North. Every two months or so, they come down from the mountains and attack my cousin's castle. He has managed to beat them off thus far, but he has lost many knights in battle against them. And many more knights are deserting rather than face the giants every two months. If my cousin's kingdom falls to the giants it will really be impossible for us to send out our merchant ships or to receive goods from other ships that land on the coast of what is now my cousin's kingdom."
"That is indeed a serious situation. I will go forth and make the giants stop raiding your cousin's kingdom."
"Good, good," said the King, who was really thinking as he was saying 'Good, good,' 'What an idiot this woodcutter is.'
So again the woodcutter went forth till he came to the kingdom of the giants. He went boldly up to the largest giant, who was also the leader, and told the giant that he had to stop the raids on the neighboring kingdom. The giant just laughed and reached out to crush the third brother in his hand. But the third brother was not so easily subdued. He quickly lifted his ax and cut off two of the giant's fingers. Now the giant was truly enraged. He ordered five of his best giants to surround the third brother. Then, even though he strove to fight them off with his ax, the five giants overcame the third brother. They then tied him to a spit and started roasting him.
However, the third young brother managed once again to get his hand on the golden cross. "In the name of Him who makes the blind see and the lame walk, I command this evil to desist."
Suddenly there was a great storm, with thunder, lightning, and great torrents of rain. The giants were terrified (thunder and lightning is particularly terrifying for giants because they are so high above the ground), and they started running hither and thither looking for shelter. But they could not escape their fate. Every single giant was truck by lightning. They all perished.
The rain, of course, put out the fire that the third brother was being roasted over. And the little old man -- yes it was he -- came and took the third brother off the spit.
"I seem to cause you a great deal of trouble," the third brother said apologetically.
"No trouble, young man. You are a rare gem in this world."
"I have done nothing that is so wonderful."
"Ah, because you think that is why you are so rare. But my young friend, I again must warn you to beware of treachery, not all in this world are like you."
After thanking the old man profusely, the third brother started back to King William's kingdom.
Now, unbeknownst to the third brother, his two older brothers had been working in King William's kitchen. They had not fared so well after snubbing the old man. Near starving, they had both ended up taking work washing dishes and mopping floors. Often they would say to each other, "This is worse than woodcutting." And they thought of going home. But one thing stopped them. The eldest brother said, "Working in the King's kitchen we hear many palace rumors and secrets. Maybe someday we can turn this to our advantage." The second brother agreed with that bit of wisdom.
The two elder brothers heard all that went on between King William and their brother. They had expected him to be slain by the Witch of the Glen. They were astonished when he came back alive and victorious. So when King William sent the third brother to fight the giants, his two older brothers followed him. They saw him being roasted alive and they saw by what means he was delivered.
"Why should that idiot get all the glory just because he gave a few crusts of bread to that old man? We would have given the old man some bread if had known who he was. Angels shouldn't go around pretending to be starving old men. It's dishonest," the brothers said.
As the third brother ventured back to King William's castle after his encounter with the giants, his two older brothers greeted him. He was delighted to see them. Naturally, the two elder brothers did not tell their younger brother that they had been willing to stand by and watch him roasted on a spit.
After much hugging and rejoicing, the brothers settled down to eat a meal together. When the meal was over, it was too dark to travel any further so the three brothers went to sleep under the stars of heaven.
During the night, the two elder brothers rose up and beat their youngest brother with stout cudgels. Not knowing or caring whether he was dead or alive, they took the golden cross from him and went back to the castle.
Once before the King, they told him of the great battle they had fought against the giants. They had killed them all, they said, after the third brother had broken down and cried, too frightened to fight.
No sooner had the elder brother told their tale than a messenger came from the King's cousin telling the King that all the giants had been destroyed. King William then ordered a great feast to be prepared with the two elder brothers attending as guests of honor.
But although King William was quite willing to give a feast for the two older brothers, he certainly did not want to have either of them in his family. So he resolved to get rid of them by giving them an impossible task. When the feast was over he invited the two elder brothers back to his private chambers where he told them of his problem.
"Long ago a great warrior of our nation subdued a ferocious dragon that had been ravaging the country. He chained the dragon to the walls of a cave that lies on the very edge of our kingdom. Word has reached me that the dragon is about to burst loose from his chains. I want you to go and kill the dragon. It should be easy for two such brave fellows as you."
Now, I should point out that the King had not had a report about the dragon breaking his chains. He simply made it up to get rid of the two elder brothers.
The two brothers talked the matter over between themselves. "We know the magic words and we have the magic cross. Let's go and kill the dragon. There should be a big reward and beautiful princesses in the deal."
So it was agreed. The King promised one third of this kingdom and the hand of his eldest daughter in marriage to the eldest brother. And he promised one third of his kingdom and the hand of his younger daughter in marriage to the second brother. (The King actually had only one daughter, but since he didn't expect either brother to come back alive, he said to himself, 'What the heck, promises are cheap.')
The two brothers set forth then to kill the dragon. After a journey of five days, they came to the dragon's cave. Even though the dragon was not about to burst his chains, he was still a danger to anyone foolish enough to get within fire-spitting range of him. The two brothers cautiously approached the dragon.
"How far can a dragon spit fire?" the second brother asked the first brother.
"I don't know," the first brother replied.
They both had crossbows, so they shot a few arrows into the dragon, but the arrows had very little effect on the dragon. He just looked irritated.
"Let's use the cross," the eldest brother said.
Taking the cross in his hand, the eldest brother said the words he had heard his brother use while being roasted on the spit by the giants. Nothing happened. Actually, something did happen, but it was not what the two brothers expected. The dragon spat fire, and his flaming breath made contact with the eldest brother, who was burned to ashes. In terror the second brother started to run from the cave. But the dragon spat fire at him as well. He felt the flames engulfing him and gave himself up for lost. "Curse that younger brother of mine and the stupid old man," he said, as the flames surrounded him.
But suddenly he felt himself drenched with water and free from the stifling heat of the dragon's flaming breath. Standing before him was the third brother. He had put out the fire by rerouting, with his shield, a stream that flowed through the cave.
"So it's you. Well, I think you should know that you killed our eldest brother with your stupid cross."
"I'm sorry I did not get here soon enough to save him."
"Well, he is dead. Enough about him. Let's get out of here."
"Not yet. I must go back and get the cross."
"Are you crazy? The cross doesn't work. Our brother said the words and held the cross and the dragon burned him up."
"Perhaps our brother did not have the right things in his heart when he said the words and held the cross."
"That doesn't make any difference," the second brother insisted. "He said the words and he held the cross just like we saw you do. It should have worked."
"But I must tell you, my brother, that the angel who gave that cross to me places great importance on what is in a man's heart."
"And I tell you, brother," the second brother was in a towering rage now, "that my heart and our older brother's heart is the same as yours. The old man was just using you to trick us. Or maybe you were in on it with the old man. I wouldn't put it past you. But whether you were in it or not, I know that old man is no angel. He is a devil."
"The old man is good. Now I must go back and get the cross."
The third brother went back and found the cross among the ashes. He wept to see the ashes of his brother. "I must bury him," he said to himself.
When he stopped to bury him, however, the dragon lashed out with his tail and wrapped the third brother up in it, gradually choking the life from him. Now you might be wondering, as I did when I first heard this story, why the dragon didn't just burn the third brother up. Well, he didn't because he was temporarily out of fire. A dragon needs an hour or two, after a large expenditure of flame, before he can spit fire again.
As the dragon was choking the life from him, the third brother grasped the cross and gasped out the words the old man had told him to use. He then felt a great surge of strength shoot through his body. He broke free from the coiled tail of the dragon, leapt to his feet, grabbed his ax from the ground, and before the dragon could clamp his jaws on him, he chopped off the dragon's head.
When the second brother saw the third brother dragging the dragon's head out of the cave, he thought to himself, 'I must figure out a way to steal that dragon's head. Then I can claim the Princess and one-third of the kingdom – or maybe two-thirds since my brother is dead.'
But much to the second brother's surprise, the third brother gave the dragon's head to him.
"You take this head and claim the reward. I have some money which the King gave to me for killing the witch. I will take that money back to our parents and go back to being a woodcutter. My heart is sad because I have buried our brother here in the cave. I am weary and want to go home."
"Yes, you do that. It will be good for you," the second brother said with a delight that he could barely conceal.
So the brothers parted at the crossroads, the one going home to be with his parents, and the other going to the palace to claim a kingdom and a princess.
"Tell Mother and Father I'll send them a letter someday. Bye, bye." To himself he said, 'What a stupid fool that kid is.'
The King gave the second brother a great celebration. And he told him that his daughter (fortunately for the King, one of the brothers was dead, for as we know he had only one daughter) and one-third of the kingdom was his reward. But secretly the King had decided to kill the second brother.
'A dishwasher is worse than a woodcutter for a son-in-law,' the King said to himself.
Now, at the big royal party were acrobats, jugglers, dancing girls, and a magician. The magician did magic tricks, of course, but he also told fortunes. The King thought it would be fun to have his fortune told. The old magician first looked into the King's eyes and then he looked at his palm.
"This is what I see in your future, oh King. I see a deep pit. I see snakes. The snakes are entwined around a man's body. I see a red man commanding the snakes to squeeze harder. The red man is laughing."
"What kind of fortune teller are you, you disgusting old man. Fortune tellers are supposed to tell people good things, especially when they are being paid quite well for their services. So explain yourself before I get very angry with you."
"I do not fear your anger, King William. It is you that should be afraid, for you are the man I see entwined by snakes, and Satan is the laughing man of red."
"Seize that old man and throw him off a cliff," ordered the King.
"Stop," said the old man, throwing off his magician's robes and revealing the garb and person of the starving old man.
The soldiers who were making to seize the old man were stopped in their tracks by bolts of lightning emanating from the old man's hands. When the King saw this, he threw himself on the floor and begged the old man to spare his life.
"Please don't kill me, please don't! And tell me, what can I do to avoid that pit of snakes?"
The old man looked at King William sternly and said, "You must take murderous thoughts from your heart and truly repent. Give up vain glory. I want you to go to the woodcutter's hut. Then I want you to offer him your whole kingdom and your daughter in marriage. But mind you, it must be done with a good heart. Good words, even holy words, when spoken with an evil heart will bring disaster upon the man who speaks them. Remember that."
The King vowed to do as the old man commanded. The old man then turned his attention to the second brother who was trying to sneak out of the palace.
"And you, cringing in the corner, if you want to avoid the pit of snakes, you must go and ask forgiveness of your brother. He will surely grant it, for he has a good heart. But if you do not truly crave pardon, I suggest you say nothing at all. Now go."
The King and the second brother started on their journey to the woodcutter's hut that very night. They traveled all night, and by morning they arrived at the hut.
All night the King had been thinking. 'I really have been a disgrace as a king and as a man. My father did not rule by treachery and deceit. And my mother never taught me to send men to their death rather than keep my promises to them. I have been a scoundrel. I deserve to go to the Pit.'
And he sweated great rivers as he thought of the Pit. He also thought of the cross he had seen in the hand of the third brother. He got off his horse and fell to his knees.
"May He who made the blind to see and the lame walk have mercy on me and forgive me, even though I do not deserve mercy or forgiveness."
After his prayer, the King got back on his horse and continued on his journey. He was still somewhat frightened but he also felt a certain peace that he had not felt since his childhood.
Meanwhile the second brother was also thinking. 'That old man has always been against me. You would think an angel, or whatever he is, could think of something better to do than to act the part of a starving man and deceive poor travelers. I hate him. And I hate my brother too, for plotting against me with that old man. I'll ask for forgiveness now, because they have me over a barrel. But I'll bide my time. When that old man makes a slip, I'll get even with everyone. What's that stupid excuse for a King doing now, groveling on the ground like that? What a stupid ass he is.'
As morning dawned on the woodcutter's hut, it dawned on an unusual sight. The King was on his knees outside the hut, as was the second brother. The third brother came out of the hut, but his parents stayed inside. The old man had visited the cottage during the night and asked the parents to stay in the cottage until their son came to get them.
"I have sinned against God and against you," the King said. "Please forgive me and come and rule the kingdom with my daughter as your wife."
"I will come and rule the kingdom, as my good angel has told me I should. And I will gladly, if she'll have me, take your daughter in marriage. But you mustn't kneel to me. I forgive you with all my heart."
Now it was the second brother's turn, "Dear brother, I have sinned against God and against you. Please forgive me."
As the third brother stepped forward to embrace his brother and forgive him, the ground opened up and swallowed the second brother.
The third brother was overwrought. "Why has this happened?" he sobbed. Suddenly on top of the cottage roof, the old man appeared. But he no longer looked wizened and starved. He looked majestic, with a long white beard and a long white robe.
"Your brother has gone where only the prayers of others can help him. His hate-filled heart would not allow him to truly repent."
"But what shall I tell my good parents?" the third brother asked.
"Tell them nothing now. Later, when the time is right, and you'll know when that time is, you can tell them all."
"Is there hope for any of us?" King William asked.
"Yes, there is hope for all. And more people could see that hope if we had more people like that young woodcutter in the world." Then turning to the woodcutter, "God bless you, my son, rule well."
And then the old man disappeared.
The woodcutter's son did rule well. He kept faith with his heart and with His heart. As for the two elder brothers? Well, we know their earthly fate, but what of their eternal fate? There is always hope.
Mrs. Fitzgerald enjoyed the tale. She had one question, however.
"I want to be clear on this. Why, when the third brother confronted the giants, didn't he use the cross to start with? I can understand why he didn't use it initially against the witch – he didn't know at that point if it would work. But why didn't he use it right away against the giants rather than waiting till he was being roasted alive?"
"Because in the ethics of fairy land, the mortal must initiate the action before the angel can aid him…"
"And let those invisible streams of charity flow?"
We stayed on well into the night talking about big things and little things and everything else in between. It was a wonderful night. As I walked back to the Fitzgeralds' house in the darkness, I thought of what Prince Knana had called Bulkington, "a man of the shadows." Well, maybe he was a shadow to the modern world, but to me he was a knightly John the Baptist who bore witness to the Light.
Continue to Chapter Six
Labels: The Last European