My grandfather once asked me, “Would you rather hear an amazing story from a mediocre storyteller, or a mediocre story from an amazing storyteller?” I was very young at the time, so I kept my mouth shut and looked at him expectantly. That was what I usually did whenever my grandfather talked to me, and it is probably the wisest thing that I have ever done in my life. He was one of those men that never spoke unless there was a deeper meaning to it. Even his wild and fantastic stories had a philosophical edge to them. I was lucky, then, because most of his words were spoken to me.
Grandfather smiled kindly at my inability to form coherent thoughts. He bent down until we were at eye level. Grabbing my shoulder lightly, he said, “You know, most people would choose a mediocre story from an amazing storyteller. Do you know why that is? It’s because most people nowadays are more concerned about being entertained than learning something. Besides, what would anyone today do with an amazing story?” He chuckled as he said this, amused by something that was hidden to me. Then, he picked me up and carried me to the wooden rocking chair in the corner of the room. Our discussions were nearly always in the study of his house. It was a very crowded room, full of heavyset books and foreign artifacts, but the corner with the rocking chair was never cluttered. It gave my grandfather room to think, and so that was where all of his best stories began.
As Grandfather looked at me with his calm, golden-green eyes, I could see an idea forming in his brain. I don’t mean to brag, but I’ve always had a gift for being able to see a person’s idea before they actually verbalize it. There are certainly a few limitations involved with this talent, but it can be hauntingly accurate. When I searched my grandfather’s face for a clue, past his circular, old-fashioned glasses, I saw a scary story in the making. My entire body, tiny as it was at the time, tensed in fear. He had a knack for telling some of the most terrifying stories.
If grandfather noticed my fear, he ignored it. He began to rhythmically move the rocking chair, and once he was comfortable with the tempo, he spoke again. “I don’t think that I’m like most people. That’s a good thing and a bad thing, I suppose. A good thing for other people, because it allows me to shed light on some things that might not make much sense otherwise, but a bad thing for me, because it’s very unlikely that I will find someone like me in my lifetime. They’re out there, but the number is too few for a chance meeting.”
He paused and lit his wood pipe as he collected his thoughts. “You see, I would want to hear an amazing story from a mediocre storyteller. Even if I couldn’t use the story myself, I could still take what I learned and apply it. I think that’s the answer that an amazing storyteller would give.” He looked down at me, remembering that I was still sitting patiently on his lap. “Am I an amazing storyteller?” he asked. The question was not conceited; he was only curious to hear my answer. I nodded my head vigorously. “Would you like to hear a story?” This time, I hesitated. Normally, I would have shouted, “Yes!” without a second thought. However, my rare ability had already given away the nature of the story, and my mind could only imagine the horrors that awaited me if my response was positive. Despite my trepidation, though, I most of all did not want to offend my grandfather. I gave a feeble nod, giving my permission and sealing my fate.
Grandfather nodded his head in approval. He tilted his head back until it was resting peacefully on the top of the rocking chair. Once he was fully comfortable, the happy parts of his face began to sag into a terrible shape. His eyes were now portals into darkness, and a sinister smile played at his lips. This was the part that I always hated most about his scary stories, because I could no longer recognize my kind and loving grandfather.
With his transformation completed, grandfather lowered his voice into a rumbling whisper and began his story. “In the darkest corner of the Willow Woods, beyond the trickling streams and the clusters of wild mushrooms, lived an old and very lonely man named Samuel Drake. His home was a rotting log cabin. He had not made the cabin, for he had no skills in carpentry, but had instead found it abandoned many years ago. You see, Samuel was a lonely soul. His futile search to find someone like him had nearly driven him to madness.”
“Grandpa?” I interrupted.
This is a sad story for Samuel, isn’t it?”
Grandfather stopped and considered the question. “He wasn’t always sad. In his eighteenth year, he had met an angel named Hazel. Not a real angel, mind you, but about as close to an angel as anyone can get. Within a week of meeting her, he proposed to her, and she had gladly accepted. He bought a magnificent house for her in the town that they lived. Never before had two people been more reliant on one another. Not even your old Papa and Mama,” grandfather added, breaking his persona for a second to wink at me. However, no sooner had it broken then the seriousness came back stronger and more intense than before. “But in a world as cruel as this, some people are made to be alone. On a bitterly cold night, a hoodlum attacked Hazel while she was taking a stroll. She tried to fight back, so the hoodlum beat her. Then, he threw her over a nearby bridge. Between her injuries and the icy water of the river, she could not swim to the shore. She died in that river.”
I squeezed his arm. At that age, death was a very strange and foreign thing to me. Even in stories, I did not enjoy hearing about it. Grandfather could see my discomfort, so he rustled my hair lightly and said, “You might be a little young for this story, huh?”
“No!” I shrieked. My grandfather jumped at the surge of enthusiasm, so I lowered my voice. “I want to hear it. I won’t be scared.”
“It doesn’t have a happy ending for a five-year old,” he warned.
“I want to hear it,” I repeated.
Grandfather shrugged. “Well, I guess the decision is yours to make. And if you regret it, then that on its own will serve as a lesson.” He took off his glasses and set them carefully on the floor. When he resumed the story, he spoke in a normal voice out of pity for my obvious fright. “Samuel snapped when he learned of her death. She was the only thing that he had ever really loved, and her life had been stolen just as easily as if it were abandoned money. Samuel was a good man, though. He knew that revenge would do no good for anyone, so he packed up his belongings and moved away from the town. He wandered through Willow Woods until he stumbled across an empty cabin. He moved in and began to live off of the land. He hunted and fished only when he needed sustenance, and he happily shared his garden with the creatures of the forest. However, he was still very alone. And as always, he missed Hazel.”
“Samuel lived this way for decades. When he was fifty-four, he had his first human visitor. Samuel heard a knock on his door. Puzzled, he put down his meal and opened the front door. A middle-aged woman was sitting on the doorstep. He recognized her face, and his stomach constricted with fear. She was a well-known and widely feared witch, a practio of the damned arts. He started to close the door, but she blocked it with her hand. The witch grabbed Samuel’s arm, and he shuddered as she spoke to him in her ghastly voice. She told Samuel that she was just as sad and alone as he was. She had also been married, but like Samuel, her lover had also been taken from her. By chance or by fate, the murderer was the very same hoodlum that had taken his wife’s life. The witch offered a deal. If Samuel would kill the hoodlum, who was now an old man as well, and bring back his eyes as proof, she would bring back Samuel’s wife. The witch would have killed the hoodlum herself, but in her childhood, an uncontrolled spell caused her to slaughter an entire village. From that day, she vowed to never take a life willingly. With her message delivered, she left the cabin without another word.”
“Samuel didn’t say yes, did he?” I asked with wide eyes. My voice was shaking, but I couldn’t stop it. “He’s a good guy, and good guys don’t kill people.”
“Samuel knew that killing another man was wrong, but you have to understand that Samuel missed Hazel very, very much. He tried with all of his might to resist the temptation. Days after the witch’s visit, he could no longer bear it. He set off towards the town where he and Hazel had once lived. After a day’s journey, he reached his destination. Samuel camped on the edge of town, and for a fortnight, he listened to rumors and talked to the people in the market. At long last, a trader said that he had bartered with the hoodlum only a day before in Capatellum, the neighboring town, so Samuel went there. The following evening, Samuel found the hoodlum drinking in a tavern. The hoodlum was weak from his drunkenness, so Samuel dragged him into the wilderness with little effort. There, Samuel beat the man savagely. He pulled out a knife and stabbed every part of the man’s body and cut out his eyes. Samuel left the body unburied and carried the hoodlum’s eyes to the witch’s house.”
“The witch was sitting on a tree stump in her yard, waiting for Samuel. She ran forward and grabbed the eyeballs from Samuel’s hands. Satisfied that they belonged to the hoodlum, she walked back to her house and threw them into a steaming pot. The contents of the pot made a murky stew. The witch began to hiss an incantation. It was slow and methodical, a mesmerizing flow of garbled sounds. It lasted for more than an hour; Samuel was becoming impatient, and he was about to interrupt the witch until something stirred in the pot. A hand began to rise, and it gripped the edge. A human form, dripping froth, stood up and looked at Samuel. As it began to clear, he was astonished to see Hazel standing before him.”
“Samuel was ecstatic and overwhelmed. Never in his life, even when Hazel had agreed to marry him, had he felt so happy. He ran forward to greet her with a hug, but her hand shot forward with inhuman speed and grabbed his wrist. She pulled him close, and Samuel felt an unnatural fear growing in his heart. She looked like Hazel, but where Hazel had been loving and charming, this thing seemed cold and distant. The Hazel-thing looked at Samuel with dead eyes and asked, “Why? Why did you bring me back to this Hell?” Samuel tried to tell her that he just needed to see her again, but fear had paralyzed his jaw and rendered him speechless. He tried to move away, but he realized with panic that the creature’s hand was locked onto his wrist. Samuel struggled desperately to escape, but all of his efforts were in vain. Hazel, or what was left of her, said to Samuel, “You did something unforgivable, and it was for nothing. Our time together ended long ago. Now, find peace before it is too late.” The creature began to sink back into the pot, and Samuel screamed for help. The only person who was within earshot was the witch, and she was wise enough not to intervene. He struggled and squirmed, but it was obvious that it was futile. A minute later, the witch was alone in the room. The only sound came from the pot, which boiled in contentment.”
“The townspeople talked for a few days about the strange man that had come from nowhere and asked about the hoodlum, but there was nothing more to it than that. A week was all that it took for them to forget him completely. Not a soul on earth mourned the passing of Samuel Drake.”
Grandfather clasped his hands and bowed his head, which was always his signal that he had reached the conclusion. I wasn’t satisfied. “That isn’t the ending, is it, grandpa? What happens after that?” I searched his face for an answer.
Grandfather raised an eyebrow. “That is the ending. What loose end is there to tie?” He sighed at my lack of understanding. “Did you learn anything from the story?”
I started to cry. I didn’t know why I was crying, so I just allowed the tears to flow. Grandfather held me tighter and, with compassion, said, “I’m sorry. It wasn’t my wish to leave you in the dark. I know that I expect too much from you sometimes. Would a hint be helpful?” He wiped my tears with the sleeve of his flannel shirt, and I nodded feebly. “Well, I won’t say too much, because the best part about stories is that each person can interpret them differently. I will say this, though: I think that the only way to appreciate our life is to embrace that which we have instead of wishing for that which we don’t. Does that make any sense?”
I shook my head sadly, unable to lie to my grandfather. Against my will, I let out a short yawn. Instead of being upset, grandfather smiled and carried me out of the study. He walked until we were in the spare bedroom. Then, he laid me down on the bed and pulled the covers to my chin. “We can talk about this some more tomorrow,” he said softly. “For now, let your mind be free, so that you can sooner enjoy the dancing hills, sparkling rainbows, and forgotten memories that await you. And as always, I love you.” After a kiss on my forehead, grandfather turned off the light and shut the door.
I was restless that night. Now, almost twenty years later, I face another restless night. We will be burying my grandfather in the morning. I find myself missing him more than I wish to confess on paper. He was the epitome of grandfathers, a shining spectacle for all others to admire and emulate. The more that I think about it, though, the less bad I feel. In fact, I think my grandfather would be proud to know that I feel a certain peace whenever I remember his words and, of course, his stories.