Once long ago in a far-away land, a wizard came to live on a mountaintop. In a single night, he conjured a fabulous palace and, to conceal his great age and ugliness, he made himself to look like a handsome young prince.
From the beginning, some people in the village below the mountain saw the dark wizard’s twisted smile and malevolent eyes behind the Princely charm. But most villagers welcomed the Prince. Their sons wanted to become knights. Their daughters dreamed of becoming princesses.
But when they sent their happy children to visit the Prince’s palace, the children all returned in fear. It was as if the Prince had stolen all the love and joy from their lives.
So instead of sending children, the villagers sent offerings: sacks of gold and silver from whatever they could sell, food from their gardens, fresh game, fine horses, and the best of their crafts. For years they worked in his vineyards, plowed his fields, prepared his food, did whatever the wizard requested.
Then one day, the wizard demanded that all the young daughters and sons be sent to him. The villagers overcame their fear and angrily stormed the mountain.
To their great surprise, the Prince, the palace and guards, walls, weapons, and sinister beasts withered before them, rising and blowing away like the morning mist. Where once the palace stood, they found only a low altar and a small box of black wood carved with magical symbols. They found no sign of the gold or gifts they’d given.
The villagers destroyed the altar and took the box, not daring to open it. For it was said the long-dead wizard lived only in his illusion, bound to the dry, taut-skinned skeleton folded within the box.
They appointed a watchman to keep the box. Years passed. The wizard was lost in legend and the box misplaced.
Many years later, a poor woman and her son came to live in a run-down cottage at the foot of the mountain. The boy’s father, a woodcutter, had died years earlier and left them penniless. The woman worked, sewing and mending clothes for the village and caring for her son. The boy tended their small garden and patched the roof of their cottage. Times were hard, food ran short, and the woman grew too sick to keep up with her mending.
The boy was clever and ambitious but feared to leave his sick mother alone. One day, he went to the garden and found only two radishes and a turnip. Not wanting to see his mother cry, he went in search of food.
A stream flowed from the mountain and ran past their village down into a dark wood. Villagers took water from the stream but never fished or lingered, for it was said to have an ancient curse. Those who tarried along its banks heard voices in the splashing water, and several said they’d seen a handsome Prince bathing.
But the stream was also known to have many fish, and boy and his mother had not eaten a full meal for many days. The boy took a pole, and worms and grubs he’d dug from the garden, and went to the stream. No sooner had he sat on the bank than he heard a call.
“Greetings.” The pleasant male voice flowed from an eddy swirling behind a smooth stone. “You look tired, my son. Perhaps a drink might refresh you, and a bath cool your feet.”
“Thank you, Sir,” said the boy, looking warily for anyone lurking along the bank. “But I must hurry along after I’ve taken a few fish, if that is permitted.” While they spoke, the boy pulled up one good-sized trout after another.
“You are welcome, my son. I am generous and have many fish to share.” A splash curled back into the flow. “But if you must go so soon, let me give you something to go with your fish.”
The grass beside the boy grew tall and weaved a basket. Round stones became loaves of warm brown bread, red apples and tomatoes, and pebbles turned into scallions.
The boy put the four fish he’d caught along with the bread and vegetables into the basket and quickly headed home. As he walked away, the stream crashed its banks. “Come tomorrow,” it said. “You’ll see I have much more for you.”
By the time the boy reached home, the sun had gone down and the cottage was dark. He put the fish in a bucket of water, set the basket of food on the table, and fetched wood for the stove. His mother had gone to bed early, so he decided to wait to surprise her with a meal.
The following morning the boy found his four fish ready to clean and cook, but the basket had become a mat of dead grass piled with stones. The boy prepared the fish for breakfast and decided not to tell his mother about his strange encounter. That afternoon he went back.
The stream called warmly as he approached, “How did you and your mother enjoy the food?” The boy cast his fishing rod and instantly felt a fish on his line. When he removed it, he felt another then another, as fast as he could cast.
“Those were fine gifts,” the boy answered, “and my mother thanks you.”
As they spoke, a young girl walked to the stream with two jugs slung on a pole across her shoulders. The boy watched as she filled the jugs but did not speak. She was the mayor’s beautiful daughter, a delight to the eyes in her blue, white polka-dotted dress and with a smile that outshone sunshine. As she left, she glanced at the boy, and he saw a shy beam of her smile.
“She can be yours, my son,” gurgled the stream. “You deserve her. I can make her come to you and anything else you want. See the glitter in my banks?”
A gold coin shone in the silt and beside it another. Scooping his hand, the boy came up with several coins, gold and silver, bearing images from a kingdom long ago. Forgetting his fear, he followed the coin path down toward the water and filled his pockets.
The boy heard a splash further out and, looking up, saw the mayor’s daughter wadding in the stream. She held her polka dot dress high, keeping it from the rushing water and revealing her long-tapered legs. The boy noticed the water flowing past her legs had no wake or eddy, and her steps made no splash.
He stumbled back onto the bank, collected his fish, and ran for home.
“Come again tomorrow,” called the stream with a gurgled laugh. “I have much more to give you.”
When he got home, he showed the coins to his mother. She turned them over in her hands. Then she told him the legend of the treasure that had never been found, and how a wizard used illusions and false promises to lure his young victims. She forbade him ever to go back.
Next morning, he slipped out early before dawn. He found the stream surging violently when he arrived. “Are you angry, Sir?” he asked. “Perhaps I should not have come.”
“Not at all, my dear boy,” said the stream, its waters becoming suddenly still.
“With your approval then, I’ve come to fish once more.”
“Please do take some of my fish. I am feeling much better now that you have come. I want to give you riches and favors beyond anything you can imagine. Want more gold … see here on my bank.” The boy again filled his pockets, but this time was careful not to enter the water.
“Your gifts are very fine, Sir,” the boy said, willing calm into his voice. “But what more could I wish from your generosity?”
The stream quickened but remained unruffled. “To the one I choose I can give wealth and power, glory and fame. You will live in a palace. All men will envy you, and every girl you see will wish to be in your company. But I cannot do these things here in this place in this form. I must first be restored to my real self.”
The boy cocked his head, eyes wide. “Alas, I am a only a simple country boy with no great powers.”
“Do not worry,” my son. “If you release me, I will give you everything and all power. You can remake the world as you wish. But first you must release me.” As it spoke, a wave swept across the bank revealing the corner of a small black box carved with symbols. The box was covered with silt and water-stained, but when boy lifted it from the bank, it glowed as if newly lacquered and polished.
“Take the box home and open it,” the stream said sternly. “Then I will keep my promise, and you will live happily forever after.”
The boy nodded, tucked the box under his arm, and headed home.
As he neared the cottage, he heard his mother singing and smelled stew boiling on the stove.
Inside he found the mayor’s beautiful daughter standing on a small stool, her arm raised as his mother fit her in a new dress. The girl smiled and lowered her eyes. His heart melted. He touched the girl’s arm, and she touched him back and giggled.
“Keep still,” said his mother through teeth clamped tightly on straight pins.
The boy looked at the black box in his hands then at the boiling stew pot on the roaring wood stove.
Two frail, boney hands reached out, grabbing at his wrists. The boy quickly slid the box into the mouth of the stove. As he pushed the box back with a poker, the boy saw an ancient face scream silently, and watched tongues of fire hungrily claim it.
He turned back to the room, fearful of what he might not see, and sighed with relief. His mother, the mayor’s beautiful daughter, the gold, and the fish he caught remained in sight. They were real.