“My story?” he said.
“Yes, from the beginning, whenever that was.”
“Very well,” said Ed, as though he had done this a thousand times before. “But first I’m going to make some more tea. Michael? You seem as though you might need some.”
Michael could not help but admit that more tea sounded rather comforting after his own outburst, which had shocked him somewhat. His patients and students relied on him to remain calm.
No one was more shocked at Michael than Clive. Up until that moment, Clive had viewed his brother as a mere instrument to embarrass his roommate – a simple prank. But when someone besides Clive declared the old man who was, in truth, Clive’s best friend, a madman, Clive would not stand for it.
“Yes, Ed, we’d all love to hear your story,” said Clive, while staring down his brother. “You are a person, not an experiment.”
“All in good time, all in good time,” said Ed as he refilled their tea cups from the kettle. “It’s just occurred to me that none of us has likely eaten for hours, and we’ll need refreshments ere my tale is sung. I’m going to put some pies in the oven before we begin. Why don’t we have those for an early dinner, and then we’ll begin.”
Ed prepared four small pies in porcelain dishes, one with venison, one with pork, one with lamb, and one with beef and ale.
“Light some candles, will you, Clive?” said Ed. “I may be blind, but the thought of telling a tale in the light of those fluorescent monstrosities boils my blood.”
In less than half an hour the whole apartment smelled of meat, cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, cloves, pepper, saffron and fresh pie crust. Ed sat on a stool by the stove and smoked a pipe, humming some forgotten tune to himself. Michael and Clive began chatting about when they would visit their mother next in the upstate. Alice worked on an essay while they waited. The thought of food had dispelled any disagreements. Even Michael could not help but admit in a whisper to Clive that, “He’s a likable fellow when he’s not deluding himself. I only hope we can help him.”
At last, Ed laid the pies on the table, said a brief blessing, and the four friends feasted in silence. In truth, none of them had eaten since early that morning, and the pies were, in fact, delicious.
“Where do you come to learn to make a pie like this?” said Michael through a mouthful of venison.
“Not where, but when,” said Ed with a wink. “No one makes them quite like this these days but me.”
Michael gave Ed a dark look, but Alice squeezed her father’s shoulder, so he plunged his fork in for another mouthful. Ed finished his pie first, and left the room down a hallway that led to the bedrooms.
“What’s he doing now?” said Michael while working a bit of meat out from between his teeth.
“Probably gathering his notes,” said Clive, smirking. “Hundreds of years is a lot to remember.”
“Ed! Is everything alright?” said Alice.
The apartment was silent. The three of them almost got up to see if Ed had fled somehow, his delusions exposed at last.
“That’s it!” said Michael. “We’ve made progress! He’s realized–”
A string played at a high pitch interrupted Michael. Then, another string sounded, then another and then another.
“A guitar!” said Alice, smiling.
“No, my dear,” said Ed, emerging from the darkness. “A lute!”
In his hands, he held a wooden, bowl-shaped instrument with a long, dark neck, a golden body, and a soundhole carved in the likeness of a rose.
“This is Rose Water,” he said, holding up the instrument which shimmered, glossy in the candlelight. “That’s introductions. Now, to our tale.”
He sat himself on his stool in front of the three of them and began to sing and strum a slow but gleeful melody.
Old Ed, the ever-thinker,
The man to sing with trees,
The old stream, once found, drinker,
Still walks on knobbly knees
Old Ed, the sometime singer,
Once lived in unsought isles,
To seek wisdom’s dead ringer,
The wise and all their trials
Old Ed, the–
“What on earth are you doing?” said Clive, falling out of his seat in laughter.
“I thought you wanted to hear my tale,” said Ed, frowning for the first time that day, a little hurt in his voice. He loved to sing.
“Yes, your story! Not some song!” said Clive, who continued laughing and thumped the table with his fist.
“Well you can hardly expect me to have lived ten lifetimes and not have yet set my song to verse!” said Ed, turning red. “This is how I always tell it!”
“Please just tell us in plain English,” said Michael in a dry voice.
“Suit yourselves! You’ll have the long form version,” said Ed, putting aside his lute. “But this calls for more tea, and perhaps some scones. I’ll just put some in the oven, and in no time we’ll be ready to–”
“Just say what you have to say and be done with it. We all know you’re stalling and we all know why,” said Michael.
Ed was quiet for a moment.
“Ever have I been ill at ease with men, Michael son of Jonathan!” roared Ed.
Alice jumped at the naming of her grandfather. Michael shrank into his seat. Ed stood over him leering, one foot forward, brandishing his lute in his right hand like a sword. For a moment, in the flickering light of the candles, all of the wrinkles seemed to melt from Ed’s face. To Michael, he seemed much more like some great feudal lord of the past, and not the decrepit, old mad man whom he had, in fact, studied from afar for a long time.
“Ever have I been ill at ease with men!” repeated Ed. “And now am I ill at ease with you, Michael son of Jonathan! Do not rush the telling of a tale and do not think that I do not know how you have studied me for years now, ever curious about what must be the most singular delusion you have ever encountered! An innocent question to your daughter, here, a sly word to your brother, there. All for your precious publications. Well, here you have me. Will you take me away to the psych ward to study or will you hear my story?”
Ed’s voice grew quieter and gentler as he spoke. He now sat at the table with the lute propped against his legs, sipping his tea, strumming the idle string. He was the old man again. But Michael did not look at him; he looked only into the eyes of his daughter who shook with rage.
Five years ago, when she was sixteen, Alice had one evening discovered a binder in her father’s study with her name on the spine. He almost always left the study locked, but this time, he had forgotten; for he was jubilant over the successful defense of his PhD thesis. He and his colleagues stayed out all night drinking.
“A scrapbook of memories of me, perhaps,” said Alice, flipping through the laminated pages in the moonlight. At first, she broke out in laughter. Her father seemed to be writing a movie script about the two of them. At the top of each page, there was a topic, as though the title of a scene. Beneath each topic, there was a number of lines of dialogue, each preceded by either her own name or her father’s. But as she read on, she grew silent. She began to shake.
The binder contained at least a hundred conversations between the two of them, going back to the time when she was only a little girl. On the back of each page, in her father’s own handwriting she read psychological commentary referencing various potential illnesses and relevant studies. That night, she stayed up until six in the morning to read every transcript; the binder itself was almost five inches thick. Beneath the final commentary, her father had written, Potential Thesis Title: A Ten Year Study in Severe Anxiety and Dormant Delusions.
As she read these words, her father walked in.
“Whatch are youuu dewing?” he said, slurring his speech.
When he saw the binder in her lap as she sat on the floor, his eyes went as wide as they were now in Ed’s apartment. She glared at him, her whole body shaking, and said “I’m not your experiment you crazy man! I don’t know who you are! I’m going to live with mom!”
Alice repeated these words now.
“Not an experiment!” she screamed.
“Alice,” said Michael, reaching for her hand. Alice snatched it away.
“You will sit, and you will listen,” said Alice. “And you will not say another word until Ed has told his whole life story, and you will never publish a word about him! Or I will never speak to you again. Promise!”
Clive first frowned at his brother, then turned red in embarrassment for his niece, and then turned even redder for his friend, whom he had handed over to the whole business. He stood up and said, “Shame on you brother. A daughter like that and you make the same mistake twice, and she still says she’ll speak to you. Shame on you. And shame on me, Ed,” he said, turning to his friend. “For roping you into all this. Well. I’m going to make more tea at last.”
“Never you mind, Clive,” said Ed. “I’m a cranky old man on my best days and I’m surprised you didn’t snap at me sooner. Yes, I think more tea is in order. In fact, why don’t you pour some of the whiskey for all our nerves?”
“Capital idea,” said Clive, using a favorite expression of Ed’s.
“Promise me!” said Alice, cutting through quiet, staring at her father.
“I promise,” said Michael in a small voice.
“Right, well, I think a good story is now in order,” said Clive slamming four glasses full of golden liquid down on the table. “And don’t badger me about rushing anything, Ed. If we don’t start soon, we’ll be up all night.”
“Right you are, old friend,” said Ed.
“I had better just leave,” said Michael, his face pale.
“Oh, no you don’t,” said Alice. “You’re going to sit here and listen to Ed who’s cooked us all dinner, tuned his lute, sung us a song, and prepared half the day now and part of the night to share his life with us. And you’ll listen not because you’re going to diagnose him, nor because you’re going to prescribe him a pill, but because he would listen to you. I don’t care if he’s as mad as the mad hatter or as sane as the judge that gave mom custody of me five years ago. All that matters is that Ed is heard.”
“Hear, hear,” said Clive, raising his glass.
“Hear, hear,” repeated Ed, raising his, and the four of them, even Michael, toasted Ed’s health.
“Now, Ed,” said Alice. “Begin.”
Ed cleared his throat and said, “Ever was I ill at ease with men as a boy. Ever was I the friend of the beasts and trees. Night and day, I spent by the side of a horse or the trunk of an oak. Night and day, I collected the trinkets of the forest, the leaves and the mushrooms, the apples and the acorns. On stormy afternoons, when I had no hope of conspiring with my best friend Rosco, my father’s horse, I read whatever book or bit of parchment I could get my hands on, as if in homage to the animals that gave up their lives for the vellum therein.
I most liked to read histories of ancient things, and when I lacked a book, I would summon up my courage to sit by the roaring fire in the great hall where old men told tales of the battles they fought when they were young. But still, the faces of these men were like so many suns to me, a creature of the night! How I longed to hold on to the blowing, white mane of Rosco, even in a terrible gale, and find out every forest path or fall in the trying to my doom.
Some nights my father would join the men at the fire in the great hall, and tell his own tales. I did not shrink from his face which seemed more like a wrinkled, pockmarked moon of sorrow than a blinding star of indifferent light. He too loved the wooded valleys and the gurgling streams of the forest to the east, though not as much as I. On occasion, he would walk beneath the oaks with me, and teach me of the herbs and the roots and the beasts.
One night by the fire, after a bout of drinking with his men, my father told a tale I had never heard before.
‘Once long ago one of the old widows who live in the huts on the east end of the village prophesied of a great storm,’ he said. ‘A storm after which nothing would remain as it was – every branch bent, every wall leveled, every mother sundered from her son. Every time a squall would rise to the strength of a gale, the people would jest, “‘Tis the storm that steals sons! Hide your children!” The widow would spit at their feet and reply, “Not yet, but perhaps the storm shall come sooner than you expect.” And she grew so tired of their jeering that she began to seek a way to kidnap a child of the village. “They know my face too well, and if I am caught I shall be hung,” she told herself. Yet still she desired vindication. In older days, the villagers had esteemed her gift of prophecy; for she had warned them of a raid from the north. But many years passed since she foretold the storm, and no storm came. To all the people of the village, she became an outsider, a crazy woman preaching the end times before they were due. Even her own children ceased to call on her. And the woman grew bitter with the years.
‘So the old widow left the village and the minds of the villagers, forgotten, save in tales told to children of the mad woman of the apocalypse who would get them if they did not come inside when it rained. But it was said among the guards that, on stormy nights, a hunched figure with but a few strands of white hair still attached to her head could be seen wandering the edge of the forest, perhaps in search of some beggar’s hovel from which she might wrest a child.
‘Then, one night, the great storm came. Houses crumpled, infants screamed, and the villagers huddled in this very hall, as their homes fell. A day and night passed without any break in the lightning, thunder, and rain that smote the castle like some great warrior of the north beating upon the shields of the south. But on the morning of the second day, all was quiet, save a light tapping on the great doors that lead hither. The captain of the guard commanded the doors be opened. There, before all the village stood the old widow. A single wisp of hair lay on her head; her skin was wrinkled as dried leaves; and the rags that she wore smelled of foul beasts. But in her arms, she bore a babe that looked wide-eyed in wonder at the captain.
‘“The storm has come,” she whispered. “From his mother this child was sundered. I return him to her now, though sorely am I tempted to cast him away in revenge. But I remain a woman of God. God will judge you for the years you taunted a tired, old woman.”
‘Without another word, the woman walked down the lane and was never seen again. Had she remained, she may have been surprised to learn that, upon checking, the villagers found none of their own children missing. “A child of the storm,” said the captain, who now held the infant in his arms. “I shall raise him.”’
As my father spoke these words, he looked deep into my eyes across the circle of men huddled around the fire in the great hall. Then, I knew that he spoke of me and our own village. For my father was the captain of the guard.
After that, I began to yearn for the forest as I never had before, as if the fire by which my father told the tale smoldered on in my heart. On clear, starry nights, I would stare out my window to the east. I fancied that I could hear beautiful voices singing in the woods, unlike any of the singers in the village. The chirp of the crickets, the rustling of the leaves, and the babbling of the brooks rose into one great song. At moments, I told myself that I was only imagining the symphony, but then the song would crescendo to a new height, and I would hum along.
‘Do you hear it too, then?’ said my father on one such night. I had not heard him enter.
‘Hear what?’ I said, embarrassed to admit I had stayed up all night listening to trees sing.
‘The fair folk,’ he said. “That pass by our village every spring, singing the legends of old, walking whither no one knows.”
‘Who are the fair folk?’ I said.
His eyes glittered and he placed a hand on my shoulder.
‘Ever have you been ill at ease with men,’ he said. ‘And have you not spent more time sheltered beneath the boughs of a tree than the beams of a roof?’
“But who are the fair folk?” I asked again.
‘Those who hide from men for the greatness of their craft,’ he said. ‘Those who die once in a thousand years, if then.’
At this, he squeezed my shoulder and left the room. The first rays of orange light pierced through the trees. I looked away, and the song ceased.
The following night, the song returned, but softer, as if those who sang were further away. The next night, the voices were further still. A great panic rose up in my heart, like that of a little child who has lost sight of his mother in a crowded market.
‘I am one of the fair folk,’ I muttered to myself. Without knowing what I said, or why I moved so, I put on my cloak. I fetched as much salted meat and bread from the buttery as I could fit in my bag. As I saddled Rosco in the stables, a familiar voice from the shadows said, ‘Forgot not your father. Forgot not the old man that raised you. From the woods you came and to the woods you will go. You are not mine. I knew this day would come. And it has my blessing. But forget not the man that raised you.’
My father’s eyes gleamed from the corner of the stable, and I embraced him long. He placed a dagger sheathed in leather in my hands. The hilt was carved in the shape of a lion and it’s like I had not seen among the guards of the village.
‘I found this at the base of an oak in the east forest the night after you came to us,’ he said. ‘May it aid you in your quest for your kin.’ His hands were wet to my touch. I could see that he wept in the dark.
‘I will return,’ I said, squeezing his hands.
‘Perhaps yes. Perhaps no,’ he said. ‘The currents of fate do not bend so easily to the will of man, or even of elf. Good bye, my boy.’
I embraced my father a final time, and galloped into the night.
Thus began the quest that consumed my early life and forms the heart of this tale. You might be tempted to think that, after I rounded the first hill outside of the village, a band of merry, singing elves – if that’s what you prefer to call us, though we have never so named ourselves – might hop out from behind a tree and carry me home to my mother. I might have cherished such hopes too. But I had yet to learn the greed of men.
You must understand, that if ever there were a people gifted with extraordinary length of life, they would not reveal themselves in our age of science, to be poked and prodded under the microscope. The only mention of such people would come down to us in folktales from long ago before the world became a petri dish. And even back then, when the root of such tales yet grew green in new songs sung in the halls of wise kings, the fair folk would only reveal themselves at the greatest need. For, if men have not always sought a scientific explanation for every anomaly, they have with surety always sought to live forever.
And so even in that day and age of my youth, some twelve hundred years ago, my people were so scarce as to hide themselves from one of their own sons.”
“Were you not afraid?” said Alice, who as a girl had quite liked fantasy stories and was rather swept up in Ed’s tale.
“Of what?” said Ed.
“Of trolls! And giants! And, oh! What did Tolkien write about? Orcs! Were you not afraid of orcs finding you out in the woods all by yourself?”
“Orcs? Trolls? Giants?” said Ed, breaking out into laughter. “Why, even in the golden age of the fair folk, when every forest, hill, or mountain concealed a city of ours so great as to dwarf the beauty of the greatest of those of men, trolls were just a fairy tale that we told our children. If ever they did exist, they were defeated long ago. You can be sure of that. As for giants and orcs, don’t go believing everything Mr. Tolkien wrote; he got a great many things wrong as do most human authors. Please try to be a realist in all of this, Alice; I’m trying to give you the facts. Trolls!”
Alice turned bright red, but said nothing; she was determined to do the old man the kindness of hearing his tale, however insufferable the telling was.