This story is from The Secret Flower, available in paperback, ebook, and as a free audiobook.
In a certain village that lay on the banks of a river in the midlands of old England, there lived three brothers. The oldest was the ferryman, the next the miller, and the third the forester of the lord’s forest, which bordered the village on the north. So they were all men of some consequence and importance, and were prosperous for those times, having plenty to eat, steady work, tidy houses, and a degree of independence. But the ferryman never sang at his work, as ferrymen are supposed to do; and the miller was not the jolly miller the songs tell us of, so that it was no pleasure to take one’s grain to be ground; and the forester tended the beautiful woods with an unseeing and uncaring heart. None had wives to cheer their days, nor dogs to keep them company, nor even a cat to purr on the hearth of a winter evening.
The lord of the fief was a just and temperate man who never taxed unfairly and who lived at peace with his neighbors. But since he was away at the king’s court most of the year, he saw to it that he had trustworthy men as bailiff and steward and warden of his lands. He knew the three brothers and trusted them each one to treat all fairly – the ferryman to charge a fair toll and guard the fishing rights on the river, the miller to keep the fair amount of grain for the lord’s granaries and to return the just amount to the people, and the forester to guard the forest well, both timber and wildlife, and to deal with poachers with firmness yet with humanity.
So the life of the village went on for a long time, and the three brothers lived from day to day and year to year; their hair grayed a bit and their shoulders grew a little stooped, but they were still hale and strong and did not feel the dampness knotting their knee joints nor their breath growing short when they worked. They never thought about the future or the past but took each day as it came. Once a week on Sundays and on feast days the forester would leave his hut and travel to the mill, and together he and the miller would go by the path along the river to the ferryman, and together the three of them would go wordlessly to church, and after that to the inn to sit in silence over venison pie and a flagon of ale; and then they would go off again, parting with the ferryman first, and then back along the river, where the forester would leave the miller and go on to his solitary, snug hut on the forest’s edge.
So it went on, and might have gone on to the end of their days. But they, all unwitting, had not been forgotten, and they, unseeking, yet were being sought for.
For there was a night toward the end of harvest one year when the great storm came. For three days the air had been heavy and dark, and strange white seabirds were seen over the inland meadows, and nights were hushed and dull, the lively crickets silent and the leaves hanging still. The boys who were accustomed to romp on the common hung about their own cottages, and the little lads and lasses clung to their mothers’ skirts in a feeling of nameless fear.
On the third night the tempest descended, first with a whirling of clouds in the upper air, and a soughing in the tree tops, so all fled indoors. And then with the dark came the full fury of wind and rain. The blackness was utter and complete, and each man, no matter how strong, felt his own puniness, and a clutch of fear before the unknown.
Now the forester, during those storm-haunted days, walked through his woods and marked in his mind the dead and dying trees that might topple in a great wind, and he noted how still the beasts were, and how hidden and silent all the birds. He noted the soundness of his little, low, snug hut huddled at the edge of the forest, and was glad that he had built it of stone; but he regretted that he had not long since felled a great dead beech that stood a hundred yards from his door.
So it was that the night the storm broke he sat within, the dim glow of the embers on his hearth and the light of one candle on the table throwing shadows that veered and flickered on the walls. He crouched in fear and dread, listening to the tumult without; and he thought of his trees, and the beasts of the forest who would find little shelter, and he thought of his brothers and how they were faring, and at length he thought of the people of his village, in their flimsy cottages, with their meager harvest unprotected. A little surge of pity crept into his heart; and in that instant he heard the child crying.
At first he did not know what it was he heard, over the howling of the wind and the pounding of the rain. But then it came again, faint and clear – the crying of a child. He rose and went to the door and stood with his hand on the latch.
“I cannot go out there,” he thought. “I would be blown away, or crushed beneath a falling limb. I am an old man. And what child would be abroad now? Have I lost my wits?”
But even as he whispered to himself, the cry came again; and after it there was a great crash, the long, thundering roar of a tree falling, and he knew the great beech had gone. He waited, frozen, straining his ears, but no further cry came. Then he waited no longer, but flung open the door, pulling it to behind him, and plunged into the tempest in the direction of the fallen tree; through the raging dark he went, gasping and struggling, until he ran into the sprawling branches. Then on his knees he crawled, feeling with his hands along the ground, under the great prostrate trunk, and calling, “Little one, little one! Where are you? I am here to help! Little one, answer me!”
After an agony of searching, his hands felt a small, wet face, and his palm felt the fluttering beat of a small heart. The child lay pinned under a limb. He began to pull and tug at the limb, and taking his knife from his belt he began to hack away, gently easing the little body free as he worked. It was as if a strange glow surrounded him, for he could see in the dark; and as he slid the little one free and gathered him up in his arms, the path lay clear before him, and the wind seemed to still and the rain to slacken before his feet.
So he carried the child home in safety, and once within doors, he laid him by the hearth, hastening to blow on the embers and freshen the fire. He stripped the wet boy, wrapped him in his cloak, and he chafed his cold hands and feet. He looked him all over tenderly for any broken bones, and carefully wiped the blood away from a long scratch that lay across his brow. At length the child sighed and woke; he stirred and looked about him, and then smiled into the face of the forester. And with that smile the wind seemed to die away, the drumming of the rain ceased, and a peace fell on the world.
Then the child turned over and snuggled on his side in the old cloak, and fell asleep. The forester watched by him, gazing on the small, still face, the tangled hair, and the little brown hands, until in exhaustion of body and soul he too slumbered.
He awoke to a blaze of sunlight and the singing of birds; his door was flung wide and the cool morning wind flowed in. The hearth was empty, save for his old cloak and the bloodstained rag. The little tattered clothes that had been hung to dry were gone, and the child had vanished. He rushed to the door, calling out into the new morning: “Little one, little one! Where are you?” But it was the birds that answered, and the squirrels running about on the fallen trees, and the rabbits leaping in the grass.
Then he looked on the devastation of his forest, and he thought of his brothers and the people of his village, and a great pity surged into his heart, and a joy that he was still alive to help them. And he rushed off down the path.
Now the miller had worked in a fever during those dark days to gather in the grain, till all the lord's harvest was stored safely in the great stone mill. The night the storm descended he climbed into his bed early, pulled the cover over his head to shut out the noise of the tempest and the raging river, prayed that the tiles would not fly off his roof, and sank into a restless slumber. Then he dreamed he was a boy again, playing in the meadow with his brothers, and he dreamed that in anger he struck his younger brother and flung him in the grass, where he lay in a heap and cried pitifully. And in his dream he felt in his heart a tinge of remorse for the loveless blow he had dealt his small brother. And in that instant he awoke, and heard indeed a child crying, over the tumult of the storm.
He lay huddled in his warm bed listening, and a tumult arose in his heart. What was he, an old man, to do? Risk his limbs in such a storm? And what child would be abroad in such a night? Had he lost his wits? But then the crying came again, pitiful and weak, and smote his heart anew. So he rose and rushed to his door. The wind buffeted against it and the rain poured in torrents, but he pushed it open nd let it slam to behind him. Then in the wild dark he listened for the cry, and it came again, down the path; and on his knees so that he could feel his way he crawled, calling out, “Little one, little one, I am coming! Do not fear. I am coming.” And at length, when his knees were torn and aching and his hands bruised, and his voice hoarse with calling, he found a rock by the path and clinging to it a little huddled form, sobbing and sobbing. At the touch of his hands the small arms went around him, the wet wild head was on his shoulder, and he felt the sobs that shook the pitiful frame. “Never fear, little one, you are safe,” he crooned, and rose to his feet, for the path was strangely clear now, and the wind and rain ceased to buffet him. So he carried the boy safely home, and once in, laid him tenderly on his bed, stripped off his wet clothes, and wrapped him in his blanket. He carefully wiped the blood from a long thorn-scratch that lay across the little boy’s brow, then he brought him broth to sip. The child sat with his head against the miller’s shoulder. Gradually his sobs ceased and his breath that had come in shuddering gasps came evenly again. Then he looked into the miller's face and smiled, and with that smile the sound of the wind died away, and the rain passed, and a peace fell on the world. Then the child lay down, and snuggled in the blanket to sleep. The miller watched by his side for a long time, and then lay down on his own hearth, with his cloak rolled up under his head, and slept, out of exhaustion of body and soul.
When he awoke, the door stood wide and the sunlight of all the world streamed in; the birds sang in the fresh, new-made morning. The miller leaped up and rushed to the bed, but the child had vanished; the little garments hung up to dry were gone; there was nothing but the imprint of his form on the bed, and a bloodstained rag, and an empty cup. Then he ran to the door and cried, “Little one, little one, where are you?” But the only answer was the song of the bird. Then he saw the devastation of the storm, and he thought of the flattened and ruined grain of the villagers, and the fat harvest that had been gathered safe in his mill, and a great pity filled his heart. And he saw the path before him, the path to the village, and he set off at a run, with strong hands and a newly beating heart.
The ferryman had grumbled for days. The river had been running wild and sullen and dark, almost at flood crest, and he had pulled his ferry far up the bank and lashed it to the stoutest trees. Then for no amount of money would he take any across. He sat on his doorstep and studied the sky and counted his losses and felt sour and discontent. The night the storm descended, he went indoors early, bolted the heavy shutters, and sat over a flagon of beer, listening to the roar of the river and the wild wind, and the beating of the rain.
He thought of his brothers and wondered how they were faring, if they were safe as he. Then he thought of the village and the peasants with their little fields now being beaten and pummeled. And he remembered the man and his wife who had stood on the far bank but yesterday and called to him to fetch them across, for they had been to the town to a wedding, and now wished to get home to their children before the foul weather broke. But he in hardheartedness had not heeded them and had gone inside, and at length they had gone away, up river. With a pang he wondered where they were, and how their children fared; in his heart he felt a stir of remorse that he had been so cold and hard and careful for his own skin. And in that instant he heard a child crying.
He set his flagon down and listened, straining his ears, and again the cry came. He leaped to his feet in terror then, for indeed the cry came, not from near at hand, but borne by the wind from across the water, from the far bank. He stood rooted to his floor thinking, “What cry is this? What child is abroad on such a night? Am I, an old man, to risk all, crossing the river on such a night? Impossible! I cannot! I would be out of my wits!” But the cry came again, desperate and clear. He stood, in his heart a battleground, then he pounded with his fist on the table and shouted, "Fool that I am!" and rushed out into the wild and roaring dark.
In the swirl and tumult he pressed his way to the bank and stood waiting for the cry again, and when it came he judged its source – down river near the bend; it came thin and clear and lost. He strained his eyes staring into the pitchy dark, and then, as if the moon glowed for an instant through the flying clouds, he caught the faintest glimmer of a small form, downstream, clinging to the overhanging willow near the bend.
“Blessed God,” he gasped, “the little one will be drowned if I do not hasten.”
Up the bank he plunged then, to where the ferry was securely tied. In the dark his fingers struggled with the ropes and freed them one by one, then he dragged the ferry down the bank, pushing it into the raging river and leaping aboard, pole in hand. Down the rushing torrent he was borne, thrusting in his pole to ease the tossing craft across the river if he could; as he poled he gave thanks each time he felt the sturdy pole strike the bottom, and he shouted, “Little one, hold on! Little one, I am coming!” His shoulders ached, his chest burned, and his breath came in gasps; he struggled to keep on his feet, and to keep the pole in his hands. But he would not give up, and a final lunge took him against the far bank, where the ferry caught in a snag and swung round beneath the willow; he caught the body of the child; the little arms let go and the child dropped down fainting. The ferryman sat on the slippery, rocking deck of his ferry with the rescued boy in his arms and he wept, for joy and relief and exhaustion. The weeping hurt him, so unaccustomed was it to him, who had not wept since childhood; the tears rained down on the little white face that lay against his breast, and the child stirred and woke from his swoon. He looked up in amazement, and then he smiled into the eyes of the ferryman. And with that smile the wild wind died away, and the rain ceased, faint stars shone through the clouds, and the ferry rested peacefully on a quiet river.
“Now to get thee home, little one,” breathed the ferryman. “The river is at peace, by some miracle, and there is such a glow in the sky that I can see the way easily.” He laid the child gently on the deck and seized the pole again, thrusting the craft off from the shore and pushing with sure strokes across stream till they lodged on the bank. Then he stooped and gathered up the wet and shivering child, hurried up the bank, and carried the light body home.
There he laid him on a pallet by the fire and stripped him of his wet clothes, wrapped him in his warm cloak, and tenderly wiped away the streak of blood from a long scratch across his brow. The child slept quietly then, and the ferryman knelt by his side for a long while, gazing into his face. Then at length he sighed and became aware of his own aching weariness; he sank down on his cot, and slept.
When he woke, the door stood open wide, the sunlight of a new morning flooded in. He heard the kingfisher calling over the river and the singing of a lark. He leaped up then and ran to the hearth, but the child had vanished. By the pallet lay the bloodstained rag with which he had cleaned the wound. The little garments that had been hung to dry were gone. He ran to the doorway then and cried aloud to the new day, “Little one, little one, where are you?” But nothing answered. The ducks paddled peaceably in a little backwater by the shore, and the kingfisher on the far bank rattled. He stood looking at the devastation of the storm, his ruined garden, the broken trees. He thought then of his brothers, if they were still alive, and of the stricken village, and his heart ached for them all. But he looked at his hands, hard and strong and able, and he thanked God for them; then he set off down the path to the village. And as he went he looked up, to see his brothers coming, such a light on their faces as he had never seen before.
On the path they met and stood looking at one another. Wordlessly they clasped hands. The forester was the first to speak. “In the night, brother, I heard a child crying, and I found him.”
And the miller broke in, “And I also, brother.”
And the ferryman cried aloud, “And I also, my brothers. On the far bank he was, nearly to drown, but I reached him in time…and when he smiled the tempest died…and this morning he was gone.”
“Even so it was with us,” the miller said. And the three stood silent, filled with wonder. After a long while the forester spoke. “And now the world is newly made.” Then together they turned and went off to the village.
The great storm had indeed left ruin in its wake, and death to man and beast. Three had died, one a little girl who had strayed seeking her lost kitten, one an old man whose heart had stopped from fear, and one a young husband who had been killed by a falling tree. Houses were broken, fruit trees down, flocks and herds scattered, fields laid waste. But wherever the brothers went sorrow was eased, a new hope came, warmth crept into the heart. At length they all rallied; what little was left was shared freely. Together they mourned and buried their dead, together they began to rebuild.
The three went to the lord of the fief and laid before him their need.
“There is grain in the mill but none for the villagers,” said the miller.
“There is firewood and game aplenty in the forest, but cold hearths and no food in the cottages,” said the forester.
“There are plenty of fish in the river, but not to be had by right,” said the ferryman.
And the lord of the fief could not withstand the light in their faces. “The forest, the river, and the mill belong to the village now,” he said. “I have no need of them.”
So they all lived through the first hard winter, which was indeed the most joyful they had ever known.
And thenceforth the miller sang at his work, and the children begged to be allowed to carry the grain to the mill. The forester always had a child at his side as he walked through his woods and together they discovered the nests of the birds, and the dens of the foxes, and the thickets where the shy deer hid, and each tree became a friend. And the ferryman took children back and forth across the river all day for the price of a song, so that the river rang with their music and their laughter. And all people shared what they had; none went hungry or cold or suffered loneliness and fear. This they did out of their new joy, and because it was like a new morning.
And strangers coming to that village were puzzled, feeling something had been won in that place; for it was different from all other places they had seen. And the villagers could only say, “It was the Great Storm, when we suffered so much. Then this joy came to us, and the world was new made.”
And the brothers kept the Child in their hearts.
Artwork by Don Alexander