This is not a new story, just a new way to tell it. This is not a fairy tale. This is a ghost story, but not the scary kind. This is a story of a man and the woman he loved. They were married young but deeply in love and they made their home on a wide lake that sat beneath a tall waterfall. The rushing river that flowed down would roar during the day like a beast, a powerful reminder of all who had died leaping from its great height into the clear waters below. At night the wind bellowed from the deep of the trees; the voices of the spirits blowing sorrowful waves across the calm lake. By the fireplace she would crawl into his arms and listen to him tell stories of love and dragons, princesses in towers, and the ghosts in the woods that surrounded the lake. When the fire died they would lie in bed in a close embrace, falling asleep in each other’s warmth with the spirits of the lake whispering through the leaves of the trees…
After a few years of living mostly alone by the lake, the young man began to grow restless. He still loved his young bride, but the bliss had gone away and the love that once excited and blinded him had dulled and lost passion. Gone were the nights by the fire. He had run out of stories to tell and could not find the enthusiasm to create new ones. He longed for adventure and sometimes, with shame, he dreamed of someone new. His beautiful wife was unaware. Her heart was forever determined and the strength of her love unwavering.
One evening, the young man decided he could stay no longer. He took his wife by the hand and confessed his feelings. Her simple nightgown wet with tears. He told her he would leave in the morning, saddle his horse and ride west to the next town. With her heart breaking, she did not sleep the whole night. The sun rose and she begged him not to go. The young man continued to pack his clothes and saddle his horse. Nothing she said could break his resolve.
As he rode away she ran after him and called for him to stop. He halted his horse and turned to her. Standing barefoot on the dirt path, her face now dry of tears, she said to him, “I know I can’t stop you now. But I still have hope that you will come back. So I’ll wait here for one week. When the sun rises on the seventh day, I will be gone. One week my love… If you don’t come back before then… you’ll never find me again.” The young man’s heart felt heavy, but he did not understand the gravity of her words. He turned from her and rode away…
The first day in the big busy town, he spent indulging in all that he gave up when he married. He found old friends and met new ones. They laughed and sang into the night, sharing stories and drinking the taverns dry. Not once did he think of the young woman he left behind on the lake just that morning. The next day he spent with several women, dancing, drinking, and diving into dirty sheets on different beds. Still the thought of his lonely bride waiting by the fireplace of their cold empty home had not crossed his inebriated mind. The rest of the week blurred together into a timeless binge of pleasure-seeking in a state of drunken deluge. He had lost track of the hours and only knew two times of day: what came after the sun rose and the night that followed its setting.
One morning he woke up, his breath foul and his lungs choked. His limbs, his bones ached from the long days of selfish and limitless revelry. But the most apparent condition was in his heart. He finally felt guilt, regret, and remorse. All he had done in the past few days had left him nothing but empty and missing his beloved. The thrills were temporary, the merriment fleeting, the vices all had sour aftertastes and had weakened his body and mind. He counted the days backwards and realized that it was the sixth day. His love would be gone by the next sunrise.
He packed his bags and readied his horse, fast like a man who had done something wrong and had too little time to right it. Without saying goodbye to anyone, he rode out of town in a fury. In a rush and still slightly intoxicated, he didn’t realize he was riding in the wrong direction…
The young man rode farther and farther away from the lake, and his home, and his lonely wife. He had forgotten the feeling of hunger. He did not know thirst or fatigue. He pushed his horse harder and faster, chasing after the hazy horizon. He could see her in the distance, a speck but shiny and growing as he pushed forward and towards the gleaming goal. He was so focused, so resolute, he did not recognize the unfamiliarity of the road beneath him, or of the woods on either side. He pushed on.
The glimmering dot gradually grew, brightening and widening. For the first time, he felt worried. He had been riding for hours and could no longer ignore the rumbling in his stomach, the dryness in his throat, and the pain climbing up his legs and onto his back. He had to stop.
As he sat on the ground, catching his breath and resting his sore limbs, he looked up at the sky and the clouds that wandered all around it. His eyes wandered from cloud to cloud until he reached the sun. He looked as long as he could then looked down with tears in his eyes— for as he stared into the sun he saw his own reflection and behind him the glimmering dot.
He now knew that he had been going the wrong way. He mourned at the revelation, searching around him for anything recognizable: a mountain range, a tree line, a tailing stream. Nothing. The sun had begun to set and he needed to ride to it, under it, before it was swallowed by the ground. He was too far away now. He knew he would not make it in time and that she would be lost to him forever. He rode on anyway…
The sun had set and the young man, heavy with regret, had made his way back through the big city. The same road that brought him there, was now leading him back to the lake. His mind was burdened, thinking mostly of all the time wasted. He counted every thump of a hoof, willing his horse faster with his boot heels. It was now nighttime and only several hours till sun’s return.
He felt no pain. He thirsted no more. The only hunger was in his heart and in his eyes, pining to see once again the young woman he abandoned hastily. Never would he leave her again. As soon as he reached her, he promised to the moon, he would always keep her by his side till death disrupts their earthly destiny.
Now only a couple hours away from her and with a whole night for him to travel, it seemed that time was on his side.
But remember that this is not a fairy tale…
He urged his horse faster and faster, the diligent beast selflessly obeying. But it could go no faster. After a long week of neglect and malnourishment, it was content to be on the move again, driving its body through cool breezes and dusty dirt. The bridle digging into its jaw and the boot heels pounding against its bruised flesh were no bother. This was its last day. With muscles spent, lungs swollen with fire, and eyes that no longer saw the endless road ahead, the loyal stallion slowed to a stop, its master unwilling but understanding. His horse would go no farther.
The young man stepped on to the ground as his dying friend knelt, surrendering to the blue glow of the moon. He listened as it breathed in deep, exhale, and then silence. He was now on his own.
But there was no time to mourn. His wife waited.
He ran a great distance, counting each step and willing himself to run faster. He was too far on foot, but could not concede. He had to make it.
Slowly the flat grasslands on either side of the path sprouted up into tall trees. Still running, he found himself surrounded by familiar woods. He rode for hours past these woods just days earlier. The straight path would eventually curve around them and towards the lake on the other side. He knew for certain now that he would never make it. The road was too long. He slowed down and continued to walk… defeated.
An hour of walking, cursing his mistakes, and praying to the blackened sky above him, the young man had all but yielded when suddenly he saw to the right of him a trail that split off of the main path and into the woods. He stopped and stood staring at the gaping hole. It was pitch black and a cold wind was blowing from it, but he saw not too far on the trail, a yellow-orange dot; a hopeful flame in the dark deep.
It didn’t take long to reach it. The trail ended in a small clearing, and across were two more trails that lead further into the woods. The dot was revealed to be a campfire and close to it, soaking in its warmth, sat an old man cloaked in furs, like a hunter. On his face he bore cavernous wrinkles, the scars of a long life spent, and a wise beard. He didn’t startle when the young man appeared before him; a dirty, haggard figure cast out of the dark trail. He looked up as the young man began to speak.
“Old one, there’s a lake on the other side of these woods and I must get there before sunrise. Will either of these trails lead me there?”
“Both ways will bring you to the lake. The one on the left will bring you there sooner than the other, but the one on the right is safer and easier to follow, though it’ll take longer.”
“I don’t have time. I’ll go to the left. Lend me your lantern.”
“But it is too dark and the trial has many turns. Even with a lantern you’re bound to get lost. You can stay here till the morning then I’ll take you through.”
“Can you not hear, old man?! I’ve no time! You will lead me through the trail on the left, now!”
The old man stood up, leaning on a tall staff. He picked up a lantern and lit it.
“You are stubborn… and your haste will be your death. But let us go.”
And so they left the fire and comfort of the clearing. The old man leading the young man, the lantern held high before them.
The ground was rough. The young man tripped several times. The lantern was barely enough to light their way, though the old man traveled with ease, barely leaning on his walking staff. He had not lied. There were many turns and at times the young man felt they had passed the same tree twice, or that he tripped on the same rock before, walked into the same low-hanging branch. He cursed at the old man, doubting his knowledge of the trial. The old man was not bothered.
The sky faded, from black to a dark blue. They no longer needed the lantern, they could see far ahead of them. The young man began to panic. Soon the sky would burn hues of red and orange. Time was running out.
He implored the old man to hurry. Urging him on like he did his horse. He didn’t notice that the trail had straightened out and that less than a mile away was the exit out of the woods.
When he did notice, he started to weep. His long odyssey almost over, he took off running, leaving the old man behind. He would thank him after he reclaimed his beloved.
His sore feet pounded against the gravelly ground. Little bits of blue light found cracks through the trees that shaded the narrow trail, lighting his way. He could smell the lake as he got closer; the smell of wood and leaves, fresh water and mist that filled the house every morning. He longed to see the house. He ran faster.
As he got even closer, he heard the roar of the waterfall calling to him. He could see the exit, just yards away. He could see the water.
He pushed the last few feet and was finally out of the woods…
The young man was frozen on his feet. The blue sky streaked with amber rays. He felt one side of his body warming, the other left in the cold. All around him were crickets and birds, concerting as they changed guards. But he could only hear one thing: the old man’s words in the clearing, “your haste will be your death.”
The water before him was not the lake. It was the thunderous river, rolling violently to what appeared to be the edge of the world. The young man walked towards it and fell to his knees. He was atop the waterfall. The peaceful waters of the lake, the house that once was his home, he could see down below.
He turned and saw the old man standing behind him. He no longer had the walking staff or the lantern.
“I thought you told me this trail led to the lake!” He stood up and confronted the old man.
“Can you not see young man? There is the lake down below.” He pointed over the edge. “There is your house… and there is your wife.”
The young man turned quickly in the direction he was pointing. There she was standing beside the house, facing the door. He saw only her back, but in his mind he thought of her beautiful face and the long brown locks that framed it. But his thoughts were soon interrupted. He remembered the clearing.
“I didn’t mention my house… or my wife…” He heard no reply and turned to look at the old man.
He felt the warmth on his back as he stared into the cold empty where the old man was just standing. He saw no one.
Suddenly, all he could hear was the deafening thunder of the waterfall. He remembered the stories. The indigenous warriors, the sullen outcasts, and the hopeless brokenhearted. All of them stood on the same spot. All of them leaped to their death, their bodies beaten against the rock face and shattered against the hard surface of the lake’s water.
He looked down at his wife, still standing with her back to the waterfall. He waved his arms high above his head, but she never turned. He yelled her name as loud as he could, but he was too far and the river too loud for her to hear.
He stared longingly at her while he thought of his choices. He could turn back, find the clearing, and take the other trail. Maybe she would wait longer. If not, he would look everywhere for her, never giving up until they were reunited. Or he could jump. He might survive, though death would be akin to a life without her.
At the edge he stood, never taking his eyes off of her as she waited by the road. His heart burdened with the dilemma, he wished in vain that he had never left her.
Suddenly the sun lifted its head from beneath the ground, the blinding beams shooting all around. The bright light shined, without mercy, onto the young man, straight into his eyes. And as it became harder to see her, his choice became more clear…