Long ago an old woman, called Wisdom by all who knew her, lived in a forest not far from a great city by the sea.
Because Wisdom was also kind many of the citizens were in the habit of running to visit her cottage for every problem, great or small. The path to her door was wide and beaten down, her garden trampled, her home invaded. The line of seekers never ceased night or day.
They saw her miraculous healing powers as an easy resource in case their foolishness ended badly, and returned all the more often for their failure to learn from their mistakes. Eventually she realized that this would not do at all. It seemed the citizens always took unnecessary risks, knowing they could turn to her for advice and healing potions. In fact, they seemed to become more foolish and susceptible to injury every day.
And so it was that one day when a crowd of citizens knocked on Wisdom’s door, there was no answer. A note on the door simply said, “I’ll be away for a time.”
Still, they knocked again and waited all day and night before eventually breaking the lock, having convinced themselves that she must be ill, since she had never before left home for so long. But Wisdom was nowhere to be found. She had gone to visit her friend the shadow-maker to collaborate on a solution.
As the day went on the crowd milled around the cottage garden, some taking the opportunity to explore her tiny rooms, dirtying the bedclothes and breaking her best teapot in the process. After several days the crowd thinned and some joined the search parties that were now pushing through the woods in search of their healer’s body.
Eventually a day came when nobody visited Wisdom’s door. That was the day the shadows arrived.
The first hint of change came the next morning as a search party began to assemble on the path to the cottage. As usual, one of the party was sent to see whether Wisdom had returned as the group leaned back against the trees while enjoying jovial conversation and sharing their favorite brews.
Before the first jokes had been properly completed, a terrified scream startled them. Their friend charged down the path, eyes wide with fear. Even when he tripped over a root and fell, he didn’t pause his cries long enough to inform them of what he had seen, but stumbled back to his feet and ran toward the city with all his strength.
The group split in three. Several headed into the city in concern for their friend, a few ran up the path toward the cottage, and the rest milled around asking each other confused questions without any answers.
And so it was that the remnants of the search party were the last citizens to speak with Wisdom before the great change became final. There was much indignation in the city when they returned with a strange riddle and a warning that the forest was no longer friendly to casual intruders. Yet in spite of all their disagreement, it quickly became apparent that monstrous shadows had invaded Wisdom’s forest, except the very borders where the trees were scattered thin.
Some said it served everyone right for failing to pay the wise woman. If she had been paid, they felt, then she would not have taken revenge upon the city who had endlessly sought her services without reward. One went so far as to build a dedicated studio with a waiting room and a vault where the wise woman could manage her clients in comfort, should she ever emerge from the woods again. In the meantime, he set up his own offices in the space, eventually forgetting their original purpose.
Others claimed the woman had lost her skills and this was her way of preserving her reputation. None but a crazy woman would set monsters loose in the woods, they proclaimed, and they created a debate group to preserve the best of the wisdom the woman had shared, or at least the parts that they felt hadn’t been tainted by her descent into insanity. These groups eventually split into warring sects, each convinced they were right and the others wrong.
The wise woman’s self-proclaimed friends listened to the messengers and sighed or nodded with various levels of understanding. Some headed into the forest in an attempt to discuss her choices with her directly. The most honorable of them soon realized that even they might not find it so easy to reach her cabin, while the rest ran in fear as soon as the shadows arrived.
And so the path through the forest gradually narrowed then vanished beneath new shrubbery as the citizens resorted to practicing and preserving the knowledge she had given so freely before. New wise women and men came to reputation among them, each one helping in their own way, though some caused greater harm than good. Many debates and divisions arose over the nature of true wisdom as a result.
Only a few suggested they accept the riddled challenge Wisdom had left to them, claiming that her insight was richer, fuller, and more useful than any of the knowledge cascading around the city. They were mocked because rumor claimed that none them were willing to follow their own advice.
And so it was that only a few dared to enter the forest. Since some who took on the challenge failed to return frightening rumors gathered until few dared to even look toward the trees without a shudder.
One day a young man whose life had been saved by Wisdom when he was an infant decided that he would investigate the riddle she had shared on the borders of the forest on the day of the great change. He longed to become a healer, and informed his family that he intended to seek the best guidance he could find.
Ignoring his parents’ protests, he gave the evidence of his healthy life as proof that Wisdom had not been so terrifying, mad, or wicked as everyone seemed to assume. To everyone who attempted to hold him back, he listed the helpful advice and generous healing Wisdom had performed over the years.
His friends and family mourned his foolishness and wondered if they might have to give him up for dead. “What a waste!” They sighed to each other on the day he waved goodbye and hiked through the overgrown fields toward the encroaching tree line.
“The shadows are mere mystery,” he mumbled to himself, trying to believe the message he had reassembled by asking many of the original witnesses what they remembered and checking the records where possible. He was grateful Wisdom’s message had been formed as a rhyme, making it easy to remember. “Every shadow hides a truth, a treasure in the light.”
He reached the first of the trees, still mumbling the words to himself. “Find the lie within your fear and set the truth inside. For only eyes that seek to find the meaning in this task can hope to hold the wisdom that will clarify the path.”
Over his head the leaves rustled a warning and he looked up. “I love the sound of wind in the trees,” he said, and a looming shadow he hadn’t even seen vanished into the flicker of sunlight through the leaves.
“How beautiful!” he whispered, and another unseen shadow melted away beneath his feet. With every step, he discovered yet another amazing aspect of the forest he had avoided his whole life. And with every glance of appreciation, with every smile and laugh, the shadows melted away to reform elsewhere and await eyes that were less clear and full of light.
Soon he found himself entering a small clearing with a cottage at the center, and it was there in the open sunlight that he encountered the first shadow. “Wasn’t this too easy?” he asked himself, and dark tendrils crept from beneath the sunlit flowers to lash around his boots.
“Every shadow hides a truth!” he yelped, falling to his knees. “A truth. A truth?” He gasped as the flowers shifted around him and the shadow spiraled up his leg, intangible yet somehow substantial. An eerie weight filled the moment in contrast to the sunlight warming his spine.
What truth could possibly be hidden in a shadow that could still exist in the light?
“Find the lie within your heart …” he mumbled, lifting the latch over the knife he had strapped to his hip at his parents’ concerned demand. “Within my … my heart?” He slashed at the shadows to no effect. Realizing it was a pointless effort, he tried to figure out where he’d gone wrong.
Finally it occurred to him that even though he had always spoken against those who said that the shadows were a terrible threat, he had come to believe in the danger himself and had expected to fight them off in a heroic feat of strength and willpower.
Why had the lack of resistance along the way disappointed him? What had he expected to find? He sighed. In spite of all his words to the contrary he had seen himself as a hero and better than everyone else.
“And I think we all misunderstood where you come from,” he whispered to the shadow as it melted away. “I wonder what I will find at the cottage?”
As he approached, the door creaked open and writhing tendrils of darkness emerged, creeping along the ground, spiraling through the air.
“So this is what was hidden all this time?” He felt the tears rise up as his knees shook and he dropped to the ground.
He looked upon the heart of the mystery within the forest and saw that he had secretly begun to worry that Wisdom had gone mad. Why had he believed he could convince her to return to her old ways or fix her problems for her? Did she even have any problems he could solve? How could he assume who she was or what she needed?
“I don’t know what to do!” he called out, hopelessly, feeling the tears rising up as they hadn’t done since he was a small child caught stealing a coin from his mother, a coin he had felt he deserved until she pointed out that she hadn’t given it to him. “Is there any way to find the truth?”
Wisdom emerged from the clinging shadows with a gentle smile. “Why don’t we get to know each other?” she said, carrying a tray of tea and cookies to a smooth stump on the edge of the garden.
He felt the shadows looming over him as he sat in the soft grass and watched her pour the tea. The simple gestures felt both threatening and kind as she glanced his way for approval before adding cream and honey.
“I remember you, you know,” she said, handing him the cup. “You were unconscious with fever, so you might not recognize me. I never forget the spirit of those who come to me in need. It’s good to see you’ve grown up so well.”
He watched as she returned the honey and cream to the tray and lifted her own cup to her lips. “Tell me about the city. How are my old friends?”
As he began to describe the changes in the city and anything he knew of the families she mentioned, or at least those whose names he recognized, the angry shadows silently faded and the sun shone down on the clearing, the garden, himself, and Wisdom who he knew without a doubt had saved many thousands of lives throughout the years.
“I can’t be the first one who has come to visit!” he finally burst out.
She glanced at him and smiled. “Of course not! I have many friends, and there are a few who find their way to me in the face of all their fears. Did you believe the truth is so difficult to find?” She shook her head.
“My friends respect my request not to make it too easy for those who search for me, though they do offer guidance from time to time. I have learned what it takes for wisdom and healing to take root in the heart. It is not something I can give, but something that is found. I gave away too much before, so they came to me for easy solutions instead of nurturing their own growth and abilities.”
He looked toward the cottage with a gasp of surprised realization that the shadow had vanished completely. Talking to her had erased the last of his doubts as to her character.
“You discovered a new seed of truth today, didn’t you?” She offered him the last cookie and nodded when he blushed at the memory of his imagined heroics. “What you do with this realization is up to you. Feel free to come and visit whenever you wish, my friend. I’ll teach you what you are capable of learning.”
And so the Wisdom’s apprentice began his search for truth, though whether he succeeded is another story.
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