by Erik Weiss
A chill wind blew from the valley and swept up the mountainside, causing the woman's sheer dress to flutter behind her as she stood at the mouth of her secluded cave home. The breeze was cool, high on the mountain, but she seemed unaffected. In the distance she could see the villager approaching. From this height he seemed no more than an ant crawling slowly across the picturesque landscape. A slender finger hooked a lock of golden hair behind an ear as she let out a long sigh.
As she turned away, thoughts of the past flowed back to her, images of so many others like the man making his way up the mountain. It was all so dreadfully simple, yet often turned tragic just as easily.
She paused at the rear of the cave to pull on a woolen shawl, dyed a faint blue. As she followed a narrow path down to a small pool she found herself lost in thought once more. She was a legend among the villagers, and unfortunately there was just enough truth to the tales of her mystic abilities to cause problems for those who sought her out.
Historically, a group of the more daring young men full of courage, dreams, and the need for adventure would seek her out. “Grant my wish,” they would say, and grant it she would, such was the nature of her existence. She could not deny them. If only they understood! Sure of themselves and looking for the easy way to a better future, they begged selfish wishes of strength or beauty, wealth or power. Always, by the time they paid any heed to her warning, it was too late.
She thought again of the man making his way up the mountain. Would he suffer the same fate as the others? Murdered by a jealous husband in some far-off city because his want of love drew the attentions of the wrong woman? Perhaps he would end up like the poor young man who came to her only a few years ago, so infatuated with his own good looks that he could do nothing other than admire himself the mirror, blind to the fact that he was wasting away. Even at the end he failed to realize that he had starved himself to death.
A granted wish is like a doubled-edged knife.
* * *
Lanus sat quietly on a large rock, resting his tired limbs. The walk from his small village had taken most of the afternoon and he was feeling the effects of his exertion at the higher altitudes. He drank sparingly from the water-skin hung around his neck, ran his slender fingers through his straw colored hair, and continued his journey. Normally, Lanus enjoyed walks through the wilderness; the smell of the tall pine trees mixed with the crisp mountain air made him feel alive. Now, however, with thoughts of his sick mother driving him on, he took little notice of his surroundings.
Lanus was thirty-seven years old, yet he still lived with his mother. His two younger sisters had long since left the family home, and his father had been dead for twenty-two years. He felt an obligation to his mother, felt the need to be near her and protect her. In his brief moments of clarity, Lanus was forced to admit to himself that there was nowhere else for him to go, should he wish to leave.
Since birth, he had been different from others. Being small, weak, and slow-witted he found it difficult to fit in with other kids his age. Adulthood had not been any easier. The lifelong ridicule of others followed him through his maturity, and though he did not understand most of the things his tormentors said and did to him, he knew that it hurt.
The only person in Lanus's life to show him love and affection was his mother. Now, she lay in her bed, wasting away from what the healers call the blight. He listened to them talk of the disease, and their inability to treat it. The older members of the community were certain that it was a curse of some kind, conjured by the Cave Dweller.
The Cave Dweller. Stories of the old woman living in the mountain had been told around campfires for generations. Most believed her to be a myth, but on occasion someone would blame her for some sickness, death, or disaster. Some said she was a witch, others a demon, eternal and cruel. No one, however, claimed to know her. Every few years some of the more daring young men would set off in search of The Dweller, seeking unknown riches and fame. Those few that returned were ruined versions of their former selves.
Over the years, Lanus had come to terms with the fact that he was not as smart as the other members of the village. He knew that he was neither strong nor brave, and his sisters had urged him not to venture to the mountain. Lanus refused to listen. Despite his shortcomings, he would not stand by and watch his mother die. No, he would do anything to help his mother.
Now, as the sun sank low in the west, Lanus had reached the mountain. He climbed the steep sloping bank for an hour before coming upon a small pool set in the midst of a grove of pine trees. Sitting near the edge of the water was a young woman. Her vibrant golden hair flowed down over her shoulders and framed the unflawed porcelain beauty of her face. Lanus stood, his mouth agape, and watched the woman for several moments. She was, without a doubt, the most beautiful creature he'd ever seen.
The young woman glanced up and met his gaze. He felt as if she were seeing into his soul and would know the very nature of his being. For several moments he was lost, swimming in the deep blue pools of her eyes, his every desire laid bare beneath her piercing gaze. Then, remembering his manners, Lanus realized that he was staring and quickly averted his eyes, feeling suddenly awkward and unsure of himself, his face blushing a deep crimson.
“Come Lanus, sit with me,” her voice was smooth and melodious. She beckoned the villager forward and he unthinkingly obeyed, taking a seat near her at the pool’s edge.
“I'm sorry for staring at you,” Lanus said awkwardly.
The young woman smiled and gently touched his face. “No harm was done, Lanus. Tell me, why have you come here?”
“I came to see the...” Lanus paused and met the woman's eyes. “You know my name?”
“Indeed I do. I believe that I am the one you seek.”
Lanus sat wide-eyed and confused for several moments. He saw the amusement on her face as she watched him struggle to comprehend what was happening. “You are not The Dweller. She is old and ugly.”
“Lanus, sweet, simple Lanus. Do you think that a being that has been alive for thousands of years will age the same as a mortal?” She shook her head in mock disgust and made a ticking noise with her tongue as if to scold him. “Do not believe everything you are told, Lanus. Now, why is it that you have come to see me?”
Lanus sat in silence, frantically trying to bring some order to his thoughts. The Dweller sat quietly beside him with a look of patience on her face. When he finally spoke, his voice was shaking and there were tears in his eyes. “My... my ma, she's sick. The healer said it was The Dweller who brought the sickness on her. Please, ma'am, make my ma well again.”
“Ah, so it is always some higher power who brings sickness to the world of men. Is that what you believe, Lanus?”
The villager did not respond, he sat watching her, not quite grasping the note of sarcasm in her voice.
“You do not know what you ask for Lanus, go home to your mother and be with her at the end.”
“But... but she's dying. You have you help!”
“It is not as simple as that, Lanus,” she explained, “I can't just make something go away. If I were to remove the disease from your mother there is no way of knowing what might happen next.”
“Please,” Lanus cried, “help her!”
The Dweller took a deep breath and exhaled slowly, gazing off in the direction of the village. “All actions have repercussions, Lanus. However, a wish made selflessly is one that I must grant, for that is the oath by which I am bound. Very well, I will do what I can. Now leave me.”
Gazing into the smooth mirror-like surface of the pool, Lanus heard her words as if through a fog. Elation filled him and he opened his mouth to thank her but stopped short when he looked up. The Cave Dweller was gone.
* * *
A month rolled by and Lanus watched as his mother's good health returned, the plaguing sickness gone. Lanus was overjoyed, and he related his tale of meeting the Cave Dweller to many of the villagers. Though no one, including his mother, gave credit to his story, Lanus went on, oblivious to the mocking looks and barely concealed laughter, content in the knowledge that he had saved his mother.
As time rolled by and the winter solstice approached, there were many changes in the community. Many of the villagers, including Lanus's youngest sister, had fallen ill. By the time the village healers realized that it was the same dreadful sickness that had consumed his mother, more than half of the village had succumbed to the wasting disease.
Lanus was distraught, and did not understand why this was happening to the normally peaceful community. Was it the Cave Dweller — as the village elders claimed — who was creating such a dreadful hardship? Lanus didn't think so, the woman he'd met was kind and beautiful, not the type of monster that wreaked havoc as he'd heard in the stories.
In the face of his doubts, he found himself drawn back to the mountain, and found The Dweller sitting peacefully beside the pool, just as he'd found her the last time he made the journey.
“Sweet Lanus, come and sit with me,” she said, her voice soft and her eyes compassionate. “How is your dear mother doing?”
“She is well,” Lanus replied, “but, the others, they are sick. Many have died.”
“I warned you, Lanus, that all actions have repercussions. I cannot destroy, only manipulate. The disease had to go somewhere.” Though Lanus didn't fully understand the importance of her words, he saw the sorrow in her eyes.
“Can you make them better?” he asked, his voice unsteady. The very thought of his actions causing so much pain was more than he could bear.
“Please Lanus, you are not able to understand such things. Be satisfied with your mother being well.” Concern had entered the woman's voice, though Lanus failed to realize the significance.
Tears welled in the man's eyes as he listened to her words. “Please help them,” he begged, his voice breaking with emotion. “I didn't know that they would be sick, I only wanted to help!”
The Dweller's eyes were filled with sadness as she gazed at the simple man before her. “I cannot deny you, though I fear what harm your good intentions will cause,” she said with a resigned sigh. “Go now, Lanus. Leave me.”
* * *
Lanus returned to his village, his heart broken by the thought of so many suffering people. Another month passed and to Lanus's surprise, there were no more deaths among his people. Those who were stricken with the terrible disease began to recover and return to their normal lives.
By the time spring reached its full bloom all signs of sickness were gone from the small village. Lanus was ecstatic. The wrongs caused by his visit to the woman on the mountain had been set right. He returned to the mountain, full of joy. The lady deserved his thanks, and though no one believed his tale, he would extend the thanks of his village as well.
The Dweller sat by the edge of the pool, violent racking sobs causing her body to shake. Lanus hurried beside her, worry filling his soul. The sight of the mysterious and magical woman in such a state brought him near to panic. “What is it lady, how may I help?”
She looked into his eyes, and he saw true sorrow there. “It is terrible, Lanus. So many people.”
“How can I help you?”
“It is too late, it has spread too far,” she said, and then waved a slender hand across the still surface of the small pool. Lanus watched intently as an image began to form. At first he was excited, to witness magic was a rare thing. His excitement quickly vanished as the scene became clearer. The images shifted constantly, but in every one there was a common theme... suffering. People dying, their passing slow and painful.
“What is it Lady? What is wrong with all those people?”
She met his eyes and in that moment, Lanus viewed the scene with clarity. Her words and the images in the pool made it through the mist of his normally muddled mind. “I could not destroy it, Lanus. The sickness had to move. It now travels through the air,” she paused, attacked by another bout of body-shaking sobs. “I can do no more Lanus, thousands, perhaps millions will die. They call it the Black Plague.”
The Dweller took Lanus’ hand, and together they sat by the pool and wept.
Copyright © 2006 by Erik Weiss