Short Story: "The Wanderer and the Hermit"

The hermit’s cottage looked like it was dropped out of one of Anderson’s fairy tales. There was nothing and no one around for miles, yet his property was large enough to host a party of thousands. The entirety of his acreage was green – mature fruit, nut, and flowering trees were everywhere, but somehow, plenty of light still managed to shine through, which allowed the full bushes to flourish, the rabbits and other friendly animals to thrive, and the fish in the gently babbling brook to spawn. 

I looked up at the clear blue sky, thinking to myself how remarkable it was that there wasn’t a cloud in sight, and then turned my attention to the smoke lightly escaping the brown, brick chimney. The hermit was home.

I approached the cottage door, having narrowly avoided the plethora of garden gnomes and friendly red foxes to do so, and knocked.

I’d made the trek, a four-day ride from my last stopover, just to meet this old hermit and end his life, but it was nearly noon and the aroma of his lunch cooking was making me want to wait. Just maybe until I’d had a chance to try whatever it was that I smelled. Besides, almost falling off the third high bridge it took to get there might be worth it if whatever's cooking tasted as good as it smelled.

I looked at the hunter green door, lifted the heavy, dear-shaped door knocker, and then gently let it fall.

I heard the hermit shuffling about, and then saw his kindly face poke out through the front curtains, clearly confused at the prospect of a visitor.
   “Who is it?” he called out, endearingly pleasant.
   “My name is Periplanomena, or just Peri for short,” I replied with a smile and a chuckle, hoping to put him at ease. “I hope you don’t mind, but I’ve wandered into your loneliness and was wondering if I might interrupt it for lunch?”

The old hermit looked at me thoughtfully through the curtains for a beat, and then responded with more skepticism than I thought possible for him to give. “I live miles from the nearest village or town. No one just “wanders” here. The journey to reach me is very treacherous, and so I find myself surprised that such a young lady as you was even able to reach me in one piece. And goodness me, have you no horse to aide you?”

I looked at him blankly for a moment before replying in kind. “Aha, I was told you were a trusting, shy old man who befriends only flowers and makes enemies of only wasps. Clearly I was just as misinformed as to your character as you seem to be of mine. Horses drain your purse faster than drink, and I refuse to waste my time with such temperamental beasts when my young legs work perfectly fine. Also, you are mistaken, good sir. Wandering is what I do, and so it is perfectly plausible that I wandered onto your expansive property as I seek out my next adventure.”

   “And have you no belongings, Wanderer Peri?”
   “I have what I need,” I replied, turning slightly so that he could clearly see the dark tan, leather rucksack on my back. “I mean you no harm, Hermit, I just wish to share your meal. In return, I can share stories of places far and near.”

He regarded me with a worried look in his eyes for a moment. I began to think that this journey will have been for nothing, but then I saw the curtain drop and heard the multitude of locks on his front door begin to shift.

   “I’m in,” I said quietly to myself, but loudly enough for a nearby owl, curiously out at midday, to hear me.

   “So tell me, Peri, how did you manage to stumble upon the greatest kept secret in Berifshire?” the hermit asked me as he puttered around the small kitchen, busily making more soup and pulling down more bread for his uninvited guest.
   “Is the location of your cottage such a secret, Hermit?” I replied, sipping contentedly from a sizable mug of ale.
   He made a small grimace in my general direction before turning back to the fireplace. “Is that what they call me where you’re from?”
   “That’s what they call you where everyone’s from,” I answered, carefully setting the mug down on the sturdy, maple table. “Is that not what you would call yourself?”
Having properly stoked the fire and ensured that lunch would be served in a timely manner, he sat down at the table with some difficulty. His advanced age showed with every look of pain on his face, and I heard it with every creak and pop of his joints as he lowered himself onto the adjacent stool.
   “No, that is not what I would call myself,” he said, looking at me like I was his granddaughter instead of a complete stranger who has inserted herself into his quiet afternoon of solitude.
   “Well, people say you haven’t left this cottage in more than 50 years,” I said, leaning in just a bit so that I could clearly see the lines on his face and the blue tinge that surrounded his once brown eyes. “I think that qualifies you for the title.”
   He said nothing, but looked out the window and then back at me. 
   “I mean, you grow your own food, you make your own clothes, you have no communication system for the outside world, and you’ve settled at best a four day journey from the nearest humans. I’m no linguist, but I think that’s a textbook definition for you,” I conclude in matter of fact manner.
   “I would call myself…Jason,” he said with a small sigh. 
   “You have a name!” I exclaimed in faux surprise. “I can’t wait to get back to civilization and tell someone that the infamous Hermit of Berifshire has a name!”
   “No!” he roared, catching me off guard and almost causing me to spit out my drink. “I’m sorry, but no. There’s no need to speak to anyone of this afternoon, particularly not to reveal things that are not yours to reveal.”
   “I apologize, Jason,” I said, gently putting my cup down and looking at him seriously. “I did not realize that your name would be such a grave secret-”
   “It’s not a secret, it’s just not something that is necessary to speak of,” he said hastily, cutting me off. “How did you say you found me again?”
   “I didn’t,” I said with a chuckle. “I was just exploring the countryside when I happened upon your hollow. Happy accident.”

He looked confused and apprehensive as he went to fill two bowls with lentil soup. I quickly forgot why I came when he set the soup bowl in front of me, along with bread and butter and more ale. I happily dug in, famished from the long journey, and highly anticipating the slowly roasting pheasant that was still rotating over the open flames of the fireplace.

   “I can’t thank you enough for your generosity,” I said through bites of bread. “It’s not just anyone who would open their door to a complete stranger and offer to share their meal, much less when this much care and time has gone into the preparation of that meal.”
   “Well, what are we but a thread in the great tapestry that connects us to all humanity?” he quipped with a small smile as he dug into his soup.

Just as we reached the bottoms of our bowls, the little owl, the notoriously elusive Athene noctua, appeared on the windowsill nearest us. 

We both noticed her at the same time, turning slowly to where Athena, my favorite pet since I was nine, sat patiently waiting for my next message. 


   “How curious,” I said with a dismissive laugh, turning deliberately back towards my nearly empty bowl. 
   “Curious, indeed,” he said, staring at me with growing suspicion in his eyes. “So tell me, how did you come to be a wanderer? A lovely young woman like you, I’d think you’d be married by now with a nice house in the city, maybe even a quiet home in the country as well.”
   “Ah, well, I was due to be married to a Duke when I was 14, but I found that life at court wasn’t for me,” I said jovially, happy to be chatting about something besides the distrustful owl. “Instead, I worked with my parents to master arts I found to be much more useful than pouring tea and looking nice in a ball gown.”
   “And what arts would those be?”
   “Nothing of much importance, I’m afraid.”
   He regarded me with a hint of apprehension and I realized I was in danger of being found out. 
   “I mean, just the usual things: reading, writing, languages, that sort of thing,” I said nonchalantly. “It’s helped me barter passage on ships to new lands, hitch rides with caravans across impressive landscapes, and has helped me find more than a meal or two,” I finished with a wink.

   He relaxed at this and finished his soup.
   “Well then, you’ve lied to me,” he said with a smile and a twinkle in his eyes.
   I remained outwardly calm, but just the slightest sensation of panic crept in at this statement from him. I exhaled shortly and gave an indifferent laugh.
   “What do you mean?” 
   “You said you weren’t a linguist,” he said with a smile as he got up to clear the table and prepare for the next course. “Yet here you are, a master of languages, able to talk your way onto ships and carriages all across the world!”
   I laughed loudly, a bit too loudly, at this declaration.
   “Ah, yes! I s’pose you’re right about that. Dishonest I was, but never shall I be again,” I said, clutching my right side from laughing so hard.
   “Yes, indeed,” he said with an uneasy chuckle, unsure of why I found his words to be so hilarious. “Well, pheasant?”
   “Yes, please,” I said earnestly, excited to try the combination of herbs and spices he’d peppered the fowl with.

   “When was the last time you had a home cooked meal?” he asked me good-naturedly. “You seem starved!”
   “Well, in my line of work, you eat whatever is least likely to give you hives at the local pub,” I said with a grin as I tidied up my place setting.
   “And ah, what exactly is your line of work, my dear?” he asked cautiously as he cut off tender pieces of meat. The smells coming off the slow roasted bird were tantalizing, almost intoxicating, or maybe that was the ale.

   “Uh, I’m a consultant of sorts,” I said while scratching my head. 
   He brought over a plate of boiled potatoes and the delicious meat, so I began eating immediately, happy for the distraction from this pleasant old man. “Why have you chosen a life of such complete solitude?”
   “Why not?” he asked with a shrug.
   “Well, you never wanted a wife or kids or anything like that?” I asked between bites, curious to know more about the man I’d been sent to murder.

. . . 

Jason looked out the window for a moment, his fork dangling in place, ready to fulfill its purpose. “I’ve had enough of families, my dear,” he said, finally putting the fork to his lips after his last word.

   “I’ve always wanted a family,” I said earnestly, unsure of why I shared this with him. “But my parents were killed when I was very young – the fever – and I never had any siblings. I’m alone in this world.”
   “Oh, sweet pea,” he said with a hearty laugh. “You’re young and beautiful; I’m sure you meet tons of people as a consultant! You’ll soon have a family, one that’s big enough to fill the void in your lush life, I’m sure.”
   I looked at him thoughtfully, wondering if he was right, before pressing my luck, “And you have a brother, don’t you?”
   He looked at me in shock, dropping his fork with a clatter before answering, “Who told you that?”
   “Oh,” I stammered. “Well, you just look like someone who has siblings! Plus, you said you’re sick of families, and that sounds like sibling trouble to me, haha.”

   He looked at me with suspicion, but didn't press the matter of my uncanny knowledge further. “Yes, I have a brother, Pelias, but we haven’t spoken in some years.” 

I let the silence hang between us as I finished eating. I knew I should stop asking questions, that I should just do the job that was assigned to me and leave, but I felt drawn to the hermit, and he’d shown me such kindness.

   “Pelias? He wouldn’t be Prince Pelias, would he? Prince of Iolcus?” I ask, already well aware of the answer.
   “One and the same,” he replied with a sigh as he got up to clear away the dishes. “I no longer speak to him and he does not know where I live. He is a large part of the reason I prefer seclusion to life at court, actually. I fear what he might do if he were to find me.”

   “Oh, let me help you with that,” I said, rising to my feet to help clean, not wanting to let on that his brother had already found him, albeit with great difficulty.
   “Nonsense,” Jason said quickly, taking the dishes out of my hands with a smile. “You’re my guest.”
   “Your uninvited guest,” I said with a laugh. “The least I can do is help you wash up. It was such a lovely meal for this weary traveler. I don’t know how to repay your kindness.”

My voice cracked on the last bit and I couldn't look at him. His back was turned and he was cheerfully washing dishes as a doe peeked through the window, curious about the happenings inside the small home.

   “I really thought this was going to be easy,” I said, sniffling. “I thought this would be one of the easiest jobs I’ve ever done. An old, lonely hermit, miles from the nearest village? Simple as pie. But now that I’ve met you, talked with you, I don’t know if I can do it. I don’t know how your brother could have sent me here and wanted me to do it.”
   “My brother?” he questioned, turning back to face me and simultaneously abandoning the dishes in their places. “Sent you here to do what?”
   “I am so sorry,” I said, truly remorseful.
   “Sorry for what, my dear?”
   “Oh, please, just stop, don’t say another word, please,” I said, a rogue tear falling down my cheek. I tasted how salty it was and make a mental note to drink some water later.
“Your brother is a coward, and not half the king you would be if you would just come out of this self-imposed isolation!” I screamed at him, suddenly angry with him for burying his nose in the sand.
   “You don’t know anything about me or my brother,” he said calmly, turning ever so slightly to look out the window again. A calm hare, now perched on the windowsill next to my owl, had replaced the doe.
   “He’s afraid of you, do you know that?”
   “Pelias isn’t afraid of anything except failure.”
   “And being replaced; being forgotten,” I said, halfway pleading with him to listen to me.
   “This has nothing to do with me anymore, sweetheart! He can have it all, I just want to be left alone,” he said holding his hands out to me. I wanted to reach out and take them, to hold his hands and tell him that I wouldn't speak a word of where his hollow was or how to find it, but I knew my words would be empty, and so I stared at his hands but didn’t take them, and he eventually let them fall to his sides.
   “I really am sorry, Jason.”
I moved towards him as if to hug him, and to my shame, he came towards me gladly, arms extended, smile on his face, ready to receive his first hug in more than a decade.
I cried in earnest when I plunged the dagger his brother gave to me into his stomach, and I let out an audible sob when I heard him gasp, and then saw blood drip out of his mouth and dye his snow-white hair a sickening red.

   “I’m so, so sorry, Jason,” I cried as I helped him fall to the ground. I could tell that he’s only seconds from the Gates of St. Peter, so I decided to stay with him until he went. He looked at me with such shock that I started crying all over again.

. . . 

Night soon fell and I knew that I couldn't stay. I moved his lifeless head from my lap to the floor and wrapped a blanket around him. He was already cold and I foolishly wanted to prevent him from getting any colder.

As I grabbed my bag and looked around the small kitchen, I wondered how long it would be before someone found his body.

I looked to the window and saw that Athena was still there, patiently awaiting instructions.
“It’s done,” I wrote on a spare bit of paper I found next to the door. I reached down to where my new friend lay motionless and gently touched a bit of blood that was still wet. I then smeared the crimson liquid across the note and attached it to her leg with one short, clear command, “Go.” 

I watched her fly away into the night to find Pelias. I tried to imagine how he would feel when he received the note and knew that he had successfully killed his own brother, but I couldn’t fathom how such a man would feel.
I took one last look around, whispered a final goodbye to a good man, and then closed the door after myself.