Long ago and far away there was a farmer. He toiled and times were plenty enough. A strong house, a soft bed, a good wife and honey for their bread. The farmer woke one late summer morn befogged. Gray was the day and gray were the days for near two weeks past. As he loaded his cart, the farmer’s skin pricked with sweat and the flies buzzed and bit. His tools were heavy that day and three times up the hill he stopped for the mule.
The days you cannot see the sun are the longest and the farmer tired in the heat. “There is always more work to do. Will the work never end?” thought he and as he said it, he swung his scythe into a stone and broke the blade right off the handle.
He cursed the heavens and the earth and his humble tools, which only cost him a copper, and his clumsy hands and sat beneath the walnut tree to rest although it offered no relief from the haze.
The farmer clenched his jaw, unrolled his sack and spread out his lunch, as he thought of what to do, but before he could bite into his first apple he saw a traveler rising over the ridge.
The traveler wore a tall black hat and was draped in black cloth so long that it covered his body and limb such that he hardly seemed to walk at all much as float along the road. So dark a figure did he cut that as he neared he seemed to be a growing tear in the landscape itself. As he approached the farmer he could see the traveler was blind, a black linen wrapped across his eyes. The farmer sighed a little relief even as the traveler arrived and stood above him.
“Goodly farmer may I share in your vittles? I have travelled far, and long has it been since I supped on fruit and bread.”
“You are welcome to what I have,” said the farmer.
He sat and he helped himself generously to the farmer’s larder. Reaching stiffly with long black gloves.
The farmer scowled as he watched the traveler eat the best portions of the cheese and bread, but subtly of that kind is lost on the blind. “Have you had enough to eat, traveler, or shall I go back to the house for more?”
The traveler sat silently for too long before he said, “please forgive me, but you see, this was the most delicious apple I have ever eaten and never have I tasted bread so soft. You must be as able a farmer as I’ve ever encountered. May I ask why are you so dismayed?”
“I may be an able farmer, but I’ve broken my scythe and I have not the means to fix it nor the money to replace it. This kind of thing always happens to me and it is the reason I will never have more than this humble land and this incessant toil,” complained the farmer.
“No farmer who could produce such an apple and grain for such bread should worry to farm his land. I know the merchants in these parts and if you will continue to feed a lonely traveler from your supply and lend him your ear, I will take this broken scythe and return with a cut befitting your immense skill.”
“If I give you my blade, how do I know you will return?” asked the farmer.
The traveler assured him that “you are the all-seeing farmer. He who reads the seasons and speaks the land. You possess the unflappable wisdom of the common man. I know you would not enter an agreement unless you knew it to be sound and not foul.”
The farmer agreed and the traveller was on his way.
The next day the traveler returned with a new cutter that was much lighter and stronger than the old, with an edge as sharp as a feather. Although it was a bit too long for the farmers reach and it made his shoulder ache, he held it proudly as he felt it befit a man of great means. And so he continued to feed the traveler, who listened as he learned about the farmer’s thoughts and fears, all the while praising his skill, nobility, and character as man. The two took to each other like kin to kin, cow to bull, wolf to sheep. When the farmer’s wife would scold him for taking so much of their stores to field each day, the farmer would tell it to the traveler and be assured that he who plows the land is entitled to his produce.
As the summer waned, one day the farmer’s wife was particularly cross. The farmer blew onto his fields that day like a storm and when the traveler met him they spoke, the farmer pouring his rage upon the traveler by the bucket.
“My wife is angry. She speaks of the neglect of my homely duties and tells me I spend my time only in the fields now” the farmer lamented. “Winter is coming soon and I cannot stand the disharmony. Tell me what to do.” For the farmer had come to rely on the traveler for his sagely advice.
“Nothing would please me more than to help you in this matter, my dear farmer, but what would a blind traveler know of the ways of farm and family? My wisdom lies only in what’s unseen.”
“Is there nothing you can tell me?” the farmer pleaded.
“You have an iron will and determination, farmer,” spoke the traveler. “Perchance if you shared your eyes with me, we could find a solution, for when looking for answers, two heads are always better than one if they have the eyes to see them.”
The farmer was desperate for a return to favor with his wife though he would not admit it and so he agreed. He plucked out his left eye with the long black scythe and held it out to the traveler. The eye was tidily received and not a moment later, the traveler gazed upon the farmer for the first time with his own eye. His blindfold pushed up to one side made the traveler look more like an owl, his brow slanted high, scrutinizing. His eye watered as it beheld the farmer, frozen still.
“Ah, now I see,” said the traveler and whispered into the farmer’s ear what words to give his wife. The next day when the traveler arrived to his work the traveler was already waiting, standing by the walnut tree. Still as a cloak on a rack or a scarecrow.
The farmer told of how he could not remember the words in the presence of his wife. “When I am here I feel strong, wise and able, but before her I feel small and that I disappoint. She always seeks to make me feel that way.”
“Perhaps if I were there, you would feel more confident in your words,” spoke the traveler.
The farmer agreed.
That evening the farmer brought the traveler home to sup. But their meal did not go as the farmer had hoped and he sat silently across from his wife, who looked not once at the traveler and only once at her husband, with sadness in her eyes. The farmer looked toward the traveler, who sat at his side stoic and watching with his own eye, offering no words kind or other, and for the first time with the traveler he felt small.
The following day the traveler did not come and did not return for three days. When he did, the farmer pleaded. “Where have you been? Why did you not help me with my wife? It could not have gone worse!”
The traveler raised his owlish brow, “Mind your tone, farmer. I found it to be a perfectly peaceful and pleasant evening free of the bleating and blathering that I usually receive in your company.”
The farmer was taken aback and could think of no reply so he stood in silent agreement.
“Furthermore, I have solved your problem with your wife.” revealed the traveler. “As you have said, you work too hard for one man. Even one as industrious as yourself. You must have assistance with your work.”
He removed his long black glove to reveal what was a false hand. “If you share with me your sure, strong hands, I will share in your toil, for in work two bodies are better than one as long as the hand is able.”
The farmer was hesitant as he had always prided himself on the strong hands of the common man, got from his father. As he looked down at his hands, the traveler continued, “A man worth his vessel plows his land and has a happy wife and a well-kept house. You have asked for a reduction in your work and here you have it.” With this the farmer could not disagree and so with the long black scythe, he removed his left hand, which fit stitch for stitch into the glove of the traveler.
Over the coming weeks, the farmer slaved in his fields and in the wood, with the stock and on the roof of his house, preparing for the coming winter. The traveler proved to be a willing and eager hand at first, quick to notice short cuts and ways to save on them on labor, which made the farmer and his aching shoulder glad.
But before long the traveler began to arrive late for his work and sometimes not at all. He would only work when someone was watching from the road or at the market and even then with such dispassion that it often made things even more difficult for the farmer than if were he alone.
This did not bother the farmer as much as you might think. It was a price worth paying, as misery loves more than anything good company. The farmer looked weary as he drove his mule cart back from town, the traveler at his side, tall, black and still. “The thing,” the farmer said “that is making me grow thin is my wife. I have fixed our house and chopped our wood and filled our grain yet still she chafes.”
“You are the best farmer in this country, but you now nothing of womankind. As I have the words to assure you, dear farmer, so do I have words befitting a good farmer’s wife to make her sing your praises once more. If you would but invite me into your home to stay for the winter, I will settle this matter. The nights grow cold and I tire of sleeping on the ground.”
When the farmer took pause, the traveler continued. “I am entitled to my share of your produce as I had more than some hand in the harvest of it.”
At this the farmer began to protest but was swiftly denied the chance. “You are a crippled farmer who has grown old and weary and thin this year. You can not farm this land and maintain your home without me.”
The farmer could not help but agree, so he said nothing. He knew there may not be stores enough for three but he could not find the courage to say it on his own.
The traveler saw the farmer’s trepidation as, to his own eye, he was as clear as a crystal stream. “Here, a gift for your wife.” The traveler reached into his mouth and removed a lump of silver the size of a skipping stone. “When next she takes her aim, you show her this.” It was more than the farmer had ever seen of silver, jewel, or gold and of such luster as he had only seen inlaid in the noblemens’ carriages. “She will have no further correction with regard to your stature.”
That evening the traveler sat at the farmer’s table once more for supper and afterward took the farmer’s padded chair by the fire as he sipped from the farmer’s dram.
Winter fell and the farmer persevered. The traveler kept to himself at home, mostly sitting by the fire where he often blended in with the shadows scattered by the flickering hearth. The wife hardly took any notice of his presence at all. The farmer and his wife spoke little but lived together harmoniously in the tending of the home through the season. The farmer felt content enough most days and when he did not he held his lump of silver as if the heat from his hand would draw more from beyond. When it grew especially cold and the woodpile grew low, the farmer would often put the silver on the table in view of his wife and it seemed to him to soothe her. The farmer never spoke against the traveler and found a new place by the fire to sit. The smell of ash only bothered him a little and it was actually closer to the fire so he was likely the warmer of the two, he fancied.
When spring was late to come and their wares grew thin, the farmer held the silver even more tightly, as he began to casually skip his own supper twice a week.
He touched the silver piece in his pocket as he soothed his wife of her concerns, although he knew that if it came to it he could never sell the silver piece and bare to be only a poor farmer again. He lay beside his wife at night and he could feel the weight of the silver piece and hear the light steps and heavy breath of the traveler on the other side of the bedroom door.
In the end the seasons were fair and the frost broke on budding flowers. The winter had been hard and long but the farmer’s wife was healthy and the traveler sated in his position. Only the farmer seemed older and bent in the middle.
He clung more tightly than ever to the piece of silver in anticipation of the traveler’s goodbye. The winter was done and their agreement fulfilled. He had resolved to work harder than ever this planting and to do so without the help of the traveler.
On the first of spring, he woke with hopes high to break the news, but he was stopped on his way to field by his wife who smiled as if she were young. It was a smile that saddened the farmer, a reminder that joy was a stranger to him. “I am with child,” she said. But all the farmer could think was that he with one hand and only one eye and no man in the field could not another mouth feed.
The farmer and the traveler were silent as ghosts as they walked up the hill to field. The farmer reached to the bottom of his pouch and touched his piece of silver.
Finally the traveler spoke. “You are a desperate old farmer with only one hand and only one eye, who, without me, cannot farm your fields nor tend your mule, nor please your wife. You will not hock your silver bauble because it is the only thing in your wretched life that can soothe you as a man. I have grown comfortable in your home and wish to stay. You will not refuse me.”
In that moment the farmer felt like a bug on his back, for no eye can see the true size of a man but his own. He did not refuse.
As time flowed, the farmer changed his shape. He added a cushion of hay to his spot by the hearth and grew used to smoke and ash, though it often made him cough. The traveler did as he would then, while the farmer toiled. The traveler came no more to field at all and the farmer was glad for the quiet. On one of those days, as the farmer passed his kitchen window, he looked upon his wife at the basin and witnessed the traveler standing behind her, watching, still, black, and hungry as an open grave.
At home, the farmer grew into the shadows of his house and would creep into the corner of his bedroom at night, so as not to disturb the peace. He watched silently while the traveler would glide in and lay in his soft bed, at the side of his wife, pressed against her back with his hand on her ripe belly. The farmer’s hand. For now he had a home. He had a child. He was a traveler no more.