The Wanderer

There once was a woman who loved a wanderer. He would come to her house and bring her pretty but useless things: interesting stones with faces carved on them, strings of glass beads, pieces of parchment decorated with verses or pictures or bright knotwork designs, an arrowhead the length of her little finger etched with miniscule hunting scenes, seeds that produced exotic flowers or inedible vegetables, preserved butterflies with wingspans the size of her two open palms, feathers from birds she had never seen, packets of powders that turned the flames in her fireplace brilliant colors, a bronze horseshoe he said would bring her luck if she hung it over her door, intricately knotted lace, an invitation to a noble's fancy-dress ball, written in gold ink on fine paper and decorated with swirls and vines and stylized flowers and protected by an embossed green leather cover. He brought her fancy buttons, carved and gilded and painted and covered in cloth; he brought her impractically-sized pieces of fabric too beautiful for the little village where she lived. He brought her painted glass bottles, and a block of perfumed soap carved into a long-necked swan, and a folder of carefully pressed and preserved leaves all the colors of autumn, and hairpins and combs and an enamel-backed hand mirror, and a jar of what he swore was powdered unicorn horn, and a dragon's tooth.

"What am I to do with a dragon's tooth?" she asked him, laughing.

"Hollow it out into a cup and serve wine in it," he answered jauntily, tilting his hat on his head and walking off towards another adventure.

The older people in the village shook their heads at the woman and her wandering love; she was a pretty girl, they said, too good to be wasting her life waiting for him to stop his wandering ways. But when he came to the village, to see her and wash the dust of the road from his feet and his clothes, he would sit in the tavern and spin tales of his travels, and people would leave their own houses and hearths to sit and listen and ask him questions about the places he'd been and the things he'd seen. And the woman he loved would sit beside him and smile because she knew the villagers liked him only because of his tales, and for all their talk of how he should settle down and she should marry someone stable, he and she would become ordinary if they became what everyone wanted, and the villagers would no longer care about them.

He might stay a few days, or weeks, or even several months, but then the road would call to him and it would be time for him to go. He would kiss her goodbye and stand on her doorstep and implore her to come with him, to see what he saw and travel where he traveled and meet the people he met, and she would smile, and shake her head, and tell him no.

"You bring the world to my door," she would say, "and however far you go, the world sends you back to me, and that is a fair trade. I do not need to see the things you see and travel the roads you travel, for when you return to me you bring them with you. And you always return." And she would pack food for his journey, and he would kiss her again and turn down the road towards the next adventure.

It went on like this for several years, and while her friends and cousins married and produced children and raised families, the woman watched for her wanderer on the road. Men came to court her; she turned them down. Old women came to give her advice; she listened politely but ignored them. Her friends and cousins came to scold her for turning down the men they sent; she shut her door in their faces. She had a lover, and despite his wandering, what she told him was true - no matter where he went, or how far it was, he always returned.

And then came a season when a stranger arrived at her door, bearing an elaborately carved key on a chain and a message for her. The wanderer was gone, dead of the plague in a far southern town, and his last breath had been spent describing how to find her and her house, his last gift the key on its chain, his last thought of her. The woman's heart cracked - her lover would never again appear on her step, bringing his self and his stories and his strange, pretty presents. Now she would adopt his life, and thus keep him close to her. She hung the key around her neck, packed food and some clothes, closed her house, and walked off down the road, to wander where it led.