A parson and his wife find a well where wishes are granted, but every wish has a price.
|The old steam engine was a cantankerous machine. Hardly a week went when it did not refuse to work at least once or twice. When that happened, all of the mechanically-inclined men in the village of Edgebury would gather and argue how best to fix it. Parson Corby had no aptitude for repairing machines of any kind, so his involvement was limited to offering a prayer for those who did and reminding them to watch their speech. The engine was in no danger of damnation, but men who called upon the Lord to subject it to that punishment were.
The steam engine powered the ancient pump that filled the village's watertower. The tower was large enough to supply the village with water for several days, so usually the engine was working again before it caused the people of Edgebury any real inconvenience. Occasionally, the repairs took so long that the watertower went dry. Then their faucets would not work and the people had to get their water another way. So it happened one warm summer evening that Parson Corby was carrying a pair of metal water buckets down the hill from the parsonage to the old stone well.
The parson's calling neither required a great deal of physical strength nor provided many opportunities to develop it. He was wide around the belly, but his legs were long, spindly and not at all suited for carrying heavy loads. He was not looking forward to tugging the pails filled with water back up the hill. The truth was his wife, Gretta, could have carried out this task easier than he could, but as her husband, the parson felt this was his responsibility.
When he reached the well, Parson Corby set the pails down, leaned on the stonework and peered down to see if there was any water in it. There had been very little rain that summer and he was afraid the well might have dried up. He could clearly see the water rippling below him. The well was near the edge of the forest that people called the Wildowood. That forest stayed thick and green even in the driest weather, so perhaps whatever springs provided it with water also filled this well.
He whispered a prayer of gratitude for the water and lowered one of the buckets into the well. While he was doing this, he heard a sweet voice sing.
"The dibble makes the hole,"
"Where the sower drops the seed."
"The ear hears the whisper,"
"To which it should take heed."
"What is planted, will be grown."
"What is secret, will be known."
"What is well spoken,"
"Will come true, indeed."
Parson Corby looked around to see who was singing, but no one was there, except a small wren perched on the edge of the well across from him. At first he thought he must be mistaken, but it seemed that the wren was singing the words he heard. He listened closely and as amazing as it seemed, he was certain the wren was actually speaking.
When the song was finished, the wren tilted her head, looked at the parson and said, "Go on. Say your wish."
It occurred to the parson that it would be a fine thing to have a wife who could sing as beautifully as this wren did. Gretta never sang except at services on the Sabbath and even then it was more a begrudged mumble than anything that deserved to be called singing. He immediately felt guilty for letting such a thought enter his head and he replied, "I won't make a bargain with a servant of the Devil."
He had not thought it was possible to frown with a beak, but somehow the bird did as she said, "I am no one's servant! And I did not ask for anything in return. I offered you a gift. That's all."
"If you're not a servant of the Lord, bird, you're working for the Devil."
"My name is Droleen, human, and I've been granting wishes at this well since long before anyone in this land ever heard of either your Lord or your Devil."
"If you want me to use your name, then you should use mine, too. I am Jacob Corby, a parson in the service of the Lord, and I'll have nothing to do with your wretched pagan practices."
Droleen shook her head. "Tsk tsk tsk. Do not condemn this opportunity so quickly, Corby. Think of the good you could do with a wish."
The parson considered what the wren had said. He could wish for rain to help the crops that were now doing so poorly. Of course, saving souls would be much better than saving crops. Now when he spoke, it was an unpleasant squawk. If he had a deep, resounding voice then he could capture his parishioners' attention and his sermons would be far more effective.
Just as he was about to make his request, Parson Corby realized he was being tempted by pride and he bowed his head. It was not his voice that would bring anyone salvation but the truth of the words he spoke. He did not give the words that power, the Lord did.
"I do not wish for anything, Droleen. The Lord will provide me with whatever I should have. I will not question the wisdom of what he has chosen for me."
The parson was certain the wren smiled at him. "If you are content with what you have, you already possess a greater gift than anything I can give you. Perhaps we shall meet again, perhaps not, but either way, live well, Corby."
The little bird flew away, back to the Wildowood. Parson Corby watched until she was out of sight, then finished filling his buckets and carried them back to the parsonage.
Gretta was scowling when Parson Corby returned from the well to the little cottage that served as the parsonage. "What took you so long, Jacob? How do you expect me to wash these dishes without water?"
The parson hesitated. He would never lie to his wife but what had happened was so unbelievable. "I'm sorry, dear wife. I was talking to someone at the well."
"What! Someone was taking water from our well? We need that water."
"It is not really our well, my dear. We just use it. It belongs to the parish, like this house does."
Gretta was a plump woman, but very short, not even half as tall as her husband. In spite of her small stature, she picked up the buckets effortlessly and carried them over to the stove where she poured the water into a large metal dishpan sitting on it. "Maybe it does, but it is reserved for our use so the parishioners have no right to take our water."
The parson lit the lamp at his desk and sat down at it. "It wasn't a parishioner."
"Even worse, you let some stranger take our water! What's he doing here? Where is he from? Very far away?"
He took a pair of pince-nez glasses from his vest pocket and placed them on his long, broad nose. "No, not very far. She must already be back at her home by now."
"She? You were talking to a woman. What woman lives that close who doesn't belong to the parish?"
Parson Corby knew that telling only half the truth was really telling half a lie. Gretta might not believe it, but he would have to tell her everything that had happened to him.
"She isn't actually a woman, dear. She's a wren. Her name is Droleen."
Gretta turned around and stared at her husband. "A bird? What kind of nonsense is this?"
"I know it sounds impossible, but there really was a talking wren at the well. She's some sort of creature from the Wildowood."
Gretta pointed an accusing finger at the parson. "Don't tell me some foolish story about Wildofolk. What really happened?"
"I am telling the truth. The wren actually spoke to me. She told me if I said a wish into the well, she would make it come true." He picked up his Bible from the desk and asked, "Must I swear upon the Good Book to make you believe me?"
His wife frowned, but shook her head. "No, you don't have to do that. So, what did you wish for?"
"Nothing. I didn't make any wish."
"Why on earth not?"
"Wishes are trouble, dear. I thought it best to depend on the Lord to give us what we need."
"He hasn't been doing a very good job of that, if you ask me."
"Gretta! Never say such a terrible thing! Don't we have everything we really need? We have a home to live in, we have food on our table, we have each other.What else do you want?"
Gretta carried the dishpan over and set it in the sink. "How about a husband who cares enough about his wife to check if she wants anything before he throws away a chance to wish for it?"
The parson tried to not show how much his wife's words hurt him. He just said, "I'm very sorry." Then he bent over his desk and began preparing his sermon for the next Sabbath.
Gretta did not believe in wishing wells or talking birds. She knew her husband was not the kind of person who would lie to her, but he was gullible enough to be fooled by some prankster's trick. There were a number of boys in the parish who would be both willing and capable of doing something like this to their parson.
She was certain that was what had happened. At least, she was almost certain. It seemed unlikely, but there was a slight chance she might be wrong and that was enough to bring her to the old well early the next morning. She looked around and when she saw that she was alone, she called out, "Droleen. Droleen."
A few minutes passed and, as she expected, nothing happened. She had already turned around and started back to the parsonage when she heard, "What do you want?"
There was a little wren on the edge of the well. Gretta walked over and looked at it closely, to make sure some hidden lad was not making it move with rods or wires. "Are you Droleen?"
"I am. Who are you?"
"I'm Gretta, the parson's wife. He tells me you offered to grant him a wish."
"That's true, but he refused my offer."
"I know. If you make me the same offer, you'll find I'm not as closed-minded about such things as he is."
Droleen bobbed her head. "I can see you're not at all like your husband. Very well then, if you have a wish, say it into the well."
"And you have to give me whatever I ask for."
"If I can and if choose, then I shall. But remember, if I do grant it, whatever you wish to be, will always be."
"Couldn't I just make another wish to change things to the way they were before?"
"No, even if you make another wish, I remain bound by the first."
"Well, that won't be problem. I've thought about this and I know exactly what I'm going to wish for." Greta leaned over the edge of the well, looked down into it and said, "I wish all of the parishioners were twice as generous as usual for the collection next Sabbath."
Droleen tilted her head one way and then the other. "May I ask why you choose that and did simply wish to receive the money right now?"
"If I did that, how would I explain it to my husband? He refuses to make a wish himself, so he wouldn't be pleased to know I made one. It has to be done so he does not suspect it is a wish."
"Very well then. I will grant what you ask." The little wren then flew back to the forest and Gretta went back to the parsonage.
Edgebury was a small village, close to field and forest. Birds were a common sight, so nobody paid much attention when they saw a little wren singing. If anyone noticed feeling a little more generous than normal, they did not attribute it to the peculiar song the wren sang to them. When the Sabbath came, the heaping collection plate made it evident something had inspired them to give
like never before.
Gretta hoped it would not make her husband suspicious, but she could not resist asking him as they left the church, "How was the collection this week? The plate looked unusually full."
The parson nodded. "It certainly was. With the crops drying up, I thought the parishioners might be tempted to cut back on their giving, but they really surprised me. Obviously, they trust the Lord will provide for them."
His wife tried to hide her delight. "It's wonderful they are so trusting. And, of course, we can use the extra money."
Her husband looked at her uncertainly. "You know the poor always get a portion of the collection."
"Yes, but after they get their share, there'll still be more for us."
"Actually, there will be less. I was so impressed by the generosity of the parishioners, that this week I only kept half of our usual allotment."
"Yes, dear. If the parishioners trust the Lord, certainly we must do so as well."
Gretta was upset by what her husband had done with the money, but she said no more to him about it. When they got back home, she snuck out the back and hurried down the hill to the old well. There, she cried out angrily, "Droleen!"
The little wren flew over and perched on the top of the well. "What troubles you, Gretta? You do not sound pleased with your wish."
"You tricked me."
"I did just what you asked. Do you deny the collection was twice as large as usual?"
"Oh, it was, but you also enchanted my husband and I did not ask for that. He only kept half as much as he should've."
The wren shook her head. "I did nothing to the parson. If he is that generous, it is his own nature and not my influence that makes him so. You are lucky to have such a fine man as your husband."
"To have a husband who cares more for the poor than he does for me? I wish you were his wife for a day. Then we'd see how lucky you thought I was."
"I will grant what you ask."
"What! No, I didn't mean I actually wished that."
Despite Gretta's protests, the wren flew away to the forest without saying another word. She did not dare follow the bird, for in all the stories she had heard, anyone who ventured into the Wildowood never returned. All she could do was head back to the parsonage, wondering how her unintended wish would be granted.
Days passed and Gretta saw no sign of Droleen. The days became weeks. The dry spell finally ended and the withering crops were revived. Summer turned into autumn. Gretta thought less and less about the well, the wren and the wishes until she had put all of that out of her mind completely.
One crisp fall morning, Gretta was, as usual, up before the sun rose. She was going to the large bin behind the parsonage to fetch some coal for the stove when she heard a wren singing. She turned around to see the bird sitting on the porch railing and asked, "Droleen?"
The wren replied, "Good morning, Gretta. Today is the day."
"The day I become the parson's wife, of course. Have you forgotten your wish?"
"Oh that. Actually, I had forgotten it. Wouldn't it be better if you forgot it, too? Maybe you can enchant my husband into thinking a wren is his wife, but how will you do the housework? I doubt you could even pick up a broom, much less use it."
Droleen laughed. "I could do those things if I wanted, but you wished I was his wife, not his servant. This is the day of the harvest festival and I intend to accompany Corby to it."
"The festival...that's just an excuse lazy people thought up to avoid work. It's laundry day and I've no time for such nonsense."
"Perhaps not, but today it will be my choices that matter, not yours."
The wren sang an odd little tune, then looked at Gretta with a mischievous grin. Just then, the sun peeked over the hills and the first rays of dawn shone on the woman and the wren. The wren stopped grinning. It's face became an ordinary bird's face that was not capable of grinning, but the grin it had lost reappeared on the woman standing beside it.
The woman went back into the parsonage and scooped two bowls of porridge from a large pot on the stove. The parson came down the stairs from the small bedroom in the attic of the cottage and greeted her.
"Good morning, my dear. I don't suppose you've changed your mind about coming to the festival."
"I would be delighted to go with you."
The parson blinked at her response. "You would? And your housework..."
"...can wait until tomorrow. I want to spend today with my husband. Isn't that the sort of thing a wife should do?"
The parson smiled at his wife. "Yes, of course. But you've never seemed to feel that way before."
This wife tilted her head and smiled back. "Well, today I do."
After their breakfast, the two of them set out for the farms of the parish. It was the custom for the parson to visit each one and say a blessing over the crops they had gathered. As usual, Parson Corby was dressed all in black. His wife wore a simple brown dress, but they stopped in a shop in the village to buy a sash for around her waist. It was bright yellow, orange and red, like the fall leaves, and though it only cost a couple pence, the parson thought it turned the dress which had always seemed rather drab into something beautiful.
As they made their rounds, the children of the parish tagged along behind them. All of the children had wreaths of colored leaves on their heads and a couple of them made wreaths for the parson and his wife to wear. While they walked, the children sang a boisterous song.
"Muddy earth and cloudy sky."
"Horse hair makes the clean shoe glow"
"We heat your worms in our pot."
"Open our mouths so our tooth will show."
His wife smiled at the parson. "I know that song."
"Of course you do, dear. We sang it when we were children."
"But the words are wrong."
"It's just a nonsense rhyme. The words don't matter."
"They did matter, once. I think it went like this."
It was the same melody, but she sang it differently, soft yet strong, like a hymn.
"Mother Earth and Father Sky,"
"Whose care makes the green shoot grow."
"We heed your words in our heart."
"Open our minds so your truth we'll know."
The parson had never heard his wife sing like that before. He thought it was beautiful, but the words troubled him.
"Where did you learn that, dear?"
"I don't remember. I just heard it sometime, long ago."
"I don't think you should say it."
The short woman looked up at her taller husband with pleading eyes. "Don't you like to hear me sing?"
His first impulse was to say she sung so beautifully he would love to hear her sing anything she wanted. Instead, he looked away and said, "I do, but not that. That's a heathen prayer."
"Heathen or not, it's still a prayer. Can a prayer be evil?"
Parson Corby looked at his wife. If what she had said was not blasphemy, it was very close to it. For the sake of her soul, he should reprimand her, but he could not. Instead, he whispered, "I suppose not."
His wife reached up and grasped his hand. He looked down at their clasped hands with a surprised look. He could not remember how long it had been since she held his hand like this. She smiled at him and asked, "Isn't that the sort of thing a wife should do?" He smiled back and they walked on, holding hands.
At midday, the people of Edgebury gathered in the public square. The parson lead them in a prayer of thanksgiving, then they shared a great feast. There was a whole roast pig, steaming bowls of various vegetables and a multitude of pies and cakes.
When most of the people had finished their meal, they heard a shrill voice calling, "Crumbs! Who'll spare me a few crumbs?"
The parson's wife gave her husband a puzzled look, but he reassured her, "Don't worry, dear. This happens every year."
On the edge of the square was an odd-looking man. There were large feathers sewn all over this clothes and his face was hidden behind a gaudy bird mask. He carried a long pole with an empty bowl fastened to one end. He walked among the tables, holding out his bowl, but everyone pushed it away.
"Please, kind friends, won't you share a scrap of food with a hungry stranger?"
The parson's wife asked, "Aren't you going to give him something?"
Her husband shook his head. "This is all part of the festival. That's the Birdfellow. Watch what happens."
He had no sooner said this than a crowd of children gathered around the Birdfellow, waving switches and shouting. The Birdfellow made an exaggerated show of being afraid and ran away, stumbling and tumbling as he did. The laughing children followed him to the edge of the village.
"Don't you remember, dear, how we did that when we were children?"
"Oh, uh, yes, of course we did."
The parson sighed, "It's been a long time since you've come to the festival. Every year I'd hope you'd come."
His wife smiled gently. "And this year, I did, so don't spend it looking so glum."
The parson smiled back at her. "You're right, my dear."
Their conversation was interrupted by a loud honk. The Birdfellow had returned and now he had an odd assortment of horns strapped to his body.
"Perhaps a little music, my friends? Isn't that worth a bite to eat?"
The Birdfellow pretended to try to play a song, but what he actually did was make an awful racket. Once again, the children gathered, this time banging on pots and pans, and chased him away.
"That's really Samuel Lambert, the tailor. If I didn't know that, I'd never suspect he was the one pretending to be the Birdfellow. He's normally such a quiet man."
His wife gave the parson a mischievous grin. "Or maybe this is what he's really like and he just pretends to be quiet the rest of the year. You never know. People will surprise you."
"Yes, dear, they certainly do."
The Birdfellow was back, with a cage of doves in each hand.
"If you've nothing for me, how about my little ones. Winter is coming and they are hungry. Have pity on the little ones, good people."
The children of Edgebury were back, too, but now they were carrying bowls and baskets filled with grain, seeds and berries. Some musicians began to play and the Birdfellow danced around with the children following him. Then he opened the cages to release the doves and the children started spreading the food they were carrying on the ground. Immediately, flocks of birds, who had been waiting on every building and tree, flew down and began pecking at it.
His wife clasped the parson's hands excitedly. "Now, I remember this! It seems so long ago and not quite the same, but I do remember it." The musicians continued to play and a number of couples had already gotten up and began to dance. "Come, let's join them!"
"You want to dance, dear?"
"Yes, isn't that the sort of thing a wife should do?"
The parson nodded. "Yes, I would say it is."
They made ungainly dancing partners. The parson was so much taller than his wife that he had to bend over while he danced, while his wife stretched up as far as she could. The sight of them caused quite a few people to break into laughter, but when they did, the parson and his wife just joined them.
They spent most of the afternoon dancing together, only pausing now and then to catch their breath. The sun was already rather low in the sky when the parson's wife tugged on his sleeve and said, "I think it's time we ought to go."
"So soon? The festival is not over yet."
"But I can't stay much longer. Please, come."
The two of them walked back to the parsonage, which was glowing in the light of the setting sun as they approached. They stopped outside, then the woman pulled the man's arms down and as he leaned over her, she stood up on the tips of her toes and gently kissed him.
The parson looked puzzled and his wife asked, again, "Isn't that the sort of thing a wife should do?"
He stared at her and asked, "Who are you?"
"I'm your wife. Don't you recognize me."
"You're not Gretta. Not the Gretta I've been married to these last ten years."
The woman hesitated, wondering what she should reveal to him. Then she said, "Droleen."
"From the well?"
"I never spoke that wish. I never said it out loud. I tried to not even think it, to banish it from my mind."
Now the woman looked surprized. "This is Gretta's wish, not yours."
"She wished you'd take her place?"
"Only for one day, no more. When the sun sets, my day with you will be over." Droleen was not sure if she saw relief or disappointment on the parson's face. She added, "But when the wind and rain have ground the hills around us to dust and new hills have risen in their place, I'll still remember this day and treasure it."
"But where has Gretta been?"
"With you. This is still her body. I was just borrowing it. Like I borrowed the body of the wren. The Wildofolk have no bodies of our own, so that's what we do."
The last ray of sunlight fell on the woman's face. Droleen smiled at Parson Corby and said, "Remember, I haven't done anything today that Gretta couldn't do if she choose." Then the sunlight and the smile were gone.
The parson stared at his wife. "Gretta?"
She looked back at him sternly. "I saw everything. I heard everything. Is that what you want? For me to be like her?"
The parson said hopefully, "You could change. We both could."
"I'm not like that. I don't want to become like that." She gave her husband a look that told him she did not want to talk about it.
They said very little to each other for the next week. The parson made several trips each day to the well and even though he called out Droleen's name, he never saw her.
Finally, he announced to his wife, "I'm going into the Wildowood."
"Do you think you'll find her there?"
"I have to try."
"Then do what you must."
Gretta cooked a supper for one that night. She knew the stories. Those who entered the Wildowood did not come back out.
A year passed and Gretta was again at the old well. She was about to lower her bucket when she heard wings flapping and looked up. It was a crow, not a wren, but if that thing could become a woman, it certainly could become a different kind of bird.
"If that's you Droleen, I've come for water, not wishes. The pump is broken and with the harvest festival going on, nobody will be fixing it today."
The crow shook his head. "No, it's me, dear."
Gretta could not mistake the voice of her husband. "Jacob?"
"Yes, but they just call me Corby now."
"What have they done to you?"
"I'm one of them now, one of the Wildofolk. It was the only way I could be with Droleen."
"You were a man, Jacob, a husband, a parson. Is that Droleen really worth all you've lost for her?"
"She is, but I've gained more than just her." The crow stared silently at the woman for a few moments. "I never wanted to hurt you. You must believe that."
"You've done me more good by breaking your vow than ever could've by honoring it."
"Then you're happy, dear?"
"Happier than I was. The new parson has no wife, so he's hired me as his housekeeper. I cook and clean and he wants no more of me than that. He can't afford to pay me very much, but what I do earn is mine to spend as I choose. I suppose that is as much as I can expect in this life."
"There's no joy in this world that isn't touched with sorrow. I know it's imperfect, but still I've chosen it over the pure joy of Heaven."
A wren fluttered down next to the crow and said, "Let's go, Corby. We don't want to miss the Birdfellow." Looking at the woman, she asked, "Will you join us at the festival, Gretta?"
The woman shook her head. "I've work to do. That's what I'm paid for."
Corby said to Droleen. "I suppose we should be going."
Gretta looked at the two birds perched on top of the well. "I wish you find together whatever happiness this world has to offer you."
Both birds smiled at her and Droleen said, "I will grant what you ask."
The wren and the crow flew off to join the other birds waiting for the food that would be scattered for them. Gretta watched them go, then filled the bucket with water for her cleaning.