From a small, empty home, Harver the forester led a small, empty life. Each day of chopping wood, hunting birds, and tending to his garden was much like the last, and he became so entrenched in the sameness of his life that he forgot the dangers of the forest near his house—poisonous weeds, hungry predators, and worst of all, fairies.
One might think Harver, with his carefree stride and joyless whistle, was exactly the kind of man the fairies would let be. But Harver had dreams of glory and filling his empty home with love. He had no one to tell these dreams to, but they spread from his head like an odor from the skin, and there are few scents more enticing to fairies than desire.
Harver walked the woods one evening and did not notice the fair folk’s approach. Nymphs crept close with temptation in their eyes. Goblins stalked from behind, carrying fear that makes men remember their mortality. Brownies snuck over the forest floor, carrying visions from dream-giving flowers. All wanted to play with Harver’s desires.
And then all were beaten when the weight of the world fell on his shoulders in the shape of two white, wide fairies with big bellies and bigger mouths. The others scattered, some muttering curses, others tittering, and none went too far, for even in their disappointment, they were curious to see how Harver would handle his new acquaintances.
“Not much of a whistle you have,” said the glum on Harver’s left shoulder.
“You weren’t trying very hard, I’m sure,” said the one on the right.
Harver’s whistling stopped and he glanced from side to side. “Who are you?”
“Your miserable left shoulder is graced by the glum called Bother,” said one.
“And here on your right is the great glum Nother,” said the other.
“Strange names,” Harver said.
“They’re quite fitting for friends of yours,” Bother said. “For example, why bother with a life so plain and hollow?”
“You should end it,” Nother said. “Then you might have another.”
The glums snickered and Harver turned back toward home, hoping the glums would leave his body once he left the forest. Along the way, that hope faded from his mind, plucked out piece by piece as the glums’ barbed tongues went wagging.
“I knew a man who looked like you,” Bother said. “His life was pointless too. A relative of yours?”
“If only each in the bloodline would off himself before passing it along,” Nother said. “With a face like yours, who needs enemies?”
“You have a strange idea of friendship,” Harver said.
Bother laughed. “We’re the best of friends.”
“Only true friends would tell you the truth,” Nother said.
By the time Harver reached his home, he felt absolutely wretched, and worse, the glums still clung to his shoulders. He swatted at their fat heads, but his hands moved through them like wind. He splashed scalding hot water over his back, but not a drop touched the white fairies. He even took off his shirt and took a knife to the skin of his shoulders, but he could not pierce the glums, only his own flesh.
“That won’t have much effect,” Bother said. “Aim much lower, from wrist to elbow.”
“No, no, that’s much too slow,” Nother said. “A bit to the side, under your jaw, and then from ear to ear.”
Harver gazed at the knife thoughtfully and then set it on the table. Every curse had its cure, even a curse that was fairy-borne, and he set out to find one for him. He traveled beyond the forest, where no other fairy took interest in him, and headed for the village in the nearby mountains where hopefully someone wise would tend to him.
Yet the glums would not be quiet. “In some places they call hope the noose that men tie for themselves,” Bother said.
“You want to be rid of us?” Nother asked. “Even if we left, you’d be stuck with only yourself. That’s the real problem.”
“Have you not heard the rhyme?”
“Of course not. Who would like him enough to tell him?”
Bother and Nother cleared their fat throats. “A glum to grow your gloom like a tree. A glum to eat those who die of misery. A glum to voice your every doubt and stale the taste of every breath. A glum to douse the sunshine, and weigh down your life until your death.”
By the time Harver reached the village, he no longer cared about finding a cure. Perhaps the glums were right and he was his own problem. If that was true, then he could easily be rid of himself. On the other side of the village, there waited a cliff and its bottom awaited a body. Harver tread slowly to the edge and had a look. A long drop yawned before him and not even the beautiful view of the land stretching toward the horizon could dissuade him from a quick descent. He gave a tired sigh, closed his eyes, and one foot lifted over the ledge.
“Wait!” a man’s voice shouted.
“You couldn’t even kill yourself properly?” Bother asked.
“Your will’s so weak that a single word could distract you,” Nother said. “Pathetic.”
“It’s too late,” Harver told the old man who approached him. “My mind is made up.”
“Oh, certainly,” the man said. “By all means, if you want to kill yourself, have at it. But if you’re set on throwing your life away, at least put it to good use in the meantime. The king passed through the village only the other day in search of a brave soul. A dragon has nested in a cave not far from here and eaten all the king’s knights. The king says he needs a hero to slay the beast before it kills anyone else. I say he needs a loon. You could be that loon!” The old man smiled. “Or die trying.”
“Yes, I could easily die by dragon.” Harver nodded. “Point me in the right direction.”
The old man pointed and Harver started off. Word spread swiftly through the mountain village of the lonely forester who was willing to fight the dragon, and then word flew through the mountains and beyond. Village after village and town after town spread the word along, in all directions, and in a short time it reached mayors, then nobles, and finally the king himself. Crowds gathered by the dragon’s cave, bearing banners of triumph, oblivious to how easily both banners and bearers could be eaten. Armor and sword were prepared and the king had two speeches penned for when the forester appeared—one of victory, and one as a eulogy.
Yet words spread between Harver’s shoulders and ears as he traveled to the cave.
“A cliff will let you walk away,” Bother said. “No dragon will give you that privilege.”
“He wants to be certain he can’t fail again,” Nother said. “He wants the last thing he does in his life to be done right.”
By the time Harver reached the cave, he didn’t feel up for slaying any dragon. The crowds cheered and servants dressed him in armor, but Harver only trudged on without caring, his shoulders slumped and his head hung low. Even when the king delivered a sword into his hands, he took it without interest and stumbled into the blackness of the cave as if it was his grave.
“Poor lad,” some folk whispered. “He must know he hasn’t a chance. What courage, to march in there just the same.”
Illustration by Darryl Fabia.
The cave was brief and ended in a wide chamber where the dragon covered most of the ground. His wings and jaws stretched open in a great yawn when he spotted Harver. “What have we here?” the dragon asked. “Another knight sent to slay me? You know, I have a collection of your kind.” His leathery belly lifted from the rocks, revealing a great hoard of singed suits of armor and crushed helmets.
“I’m no knight,” Harver said. “I’m a forester.”
“You’re not much of either,” Bother added.
“A forester.” The dragon rumbled with laughter. “This king is a desperate one. I’ll have to begin a new pile if he’s sending commoners to kill me.”
“I’m not here to kill you,” Harver said. “You will kill me.”
Nother chuckled. “Truer words were never spoken.”
The dragon lifted his head and leaned close to Harver. “Are you a madman?”
“I’m a man who doesn’t want to live. Why else would I come here?” Harver shifted on his feet, impatient that he wasn’t dead already. “Go on. Eat me.”
“This must be a trick.”
“No trick. Eat me.”
“You must be poisoned. That is how the king will kill me.”
“You’re so pointless that a dragon won’t waste his breath on you,” Bother said.
Harver’s tone grew terse. “Then squash me under your big belly! Burn me up! Hit me with a rock!”
The dragon shook his head. “You’re not right. There is some mischief here.”
“Leave the poor thing be,” Nother said. “Haven’t you ruined his day enough with your presence?”
“You’re angering me!” Harver lifted his sword. “Put an end to me now!”
“I won’t!” the dragon shouted, shaking the cave. “I won’t be tricked. Tell me what’s wrong with you.”
“What’s wrong with you?” Harver roared, running after the monster. “You’re a dragon who won’t kill a man! What good are you?”
The sword swung upward, the dragon shuddered, and Harver was so beside himself with rage that he didn’t realize what he had done until the beast flopped over dead.
“Amazing,” Bother said. “I have never seen someone so terrible at getting himself killed.”
“They should give you a medal for it,” Nother added. “Here they come to do so.”
At the dragon’s fall, the cave filled with the cheering crowd. Men wanted to buy Harver a drink, women wanted to name their boys after him, and the king said he would have as much gold and land as he pleased. The people in the cave were so busy boasting over the dragon’s defeat that they hardly noticed their hero slinking away.