“Gather round,” said the old man, beckoning the little ones to come and sit by him near the fire. “Gather round and I shall tell you a story of the old time, when the forest was wide and your fathers had not been born. When the fields stretched for miles and beyond the fields were trees, and beyond them, adventure.”
The youngsters did as they were bade, settling around the old man’s chair on cushions and rugs, all of them staring into those twinkling black eyes, ready to be transported by the old man’s words. He paused for a moment, letting a hush fall over his audience. For he was a storyteller, and as any good storyteller knows, you need to let a story breathe.
“In the old time, our people were the guardians of the forest. They watched over the trees and the animals, from the smallest sapling to the mightiest oak, from the tiniest insect to the strongest bear. They were good, and they were kind, and they kept the balance of things the way it was meant to be.
“Chief amongst their tasks was the great collection. Every new year, at the midpoint of the summer, one of each animal was brought to the clearing at the very heart of the forest, to show the spirits that our people had been kind and good and that none of their children had perished whilst we watched them.
“Only the strongest men could go fetch a bear and only the smartest men could out-think the wily fox. But the bravest men, the men whose hearts were the stoutest and who would flee from no danger, they were sent to catch the butterfly.”
The children couldn’t help but laugh. “A butterfly?” they howled. “How can a butterfly need the bravest of men? They are small and they are cowardly. No man fears the butterfly.” The old man shook his head and ran a wizened hand through his great beard. “Have you finished laughing?” he said. They nodded.
“In the old time, there was but one butterfly in the forest, and she lived in one particular spot. Deep in the tangled mass of root and vine, through the dens of wolves and monsters whose names no longer mean anything. There, just past the blackest, darkest part of the forest, a single ray of sun shone through to light a single green leaf. That was where she lived, and that was why only the bravest could reach her.”
The children fell into a silence. They loved all the stories that the old man told, but the ones they loved the very best were the ones with great danger and impossible odds. They shuffled in closer, eager not to miss a word. The old man smiled at them. For he was a storyteller, and he had snared his prey.
“One year, a man named Amerek was chosen to reach the butterfly and bring her back to the clearing. Amerek was brave and he was strong and he was quick, but his heart was heavy with loss. That year his mother had passed away, and he had buried her in the forest, next to the place where his father lay.
“Normally, a butterfly hunter will call for a second, an equal to follow them into the forest. Amerek did no such thing. He was tired of death and he would not be responsible for another’s aching heart. ‘I will go alone,’ he said, ‘as all men must some day.’
“And so Amerek went, with a spear in one hand and a net in the other, deep into the bleak, black mass of the twisted forest. He did not feel fear, because he had been chosen. He was a butterfly hunter, and he would do what needed to be done.
“First, he came upon the wolf. But this was the old time, and the wolves were smarter and far more vicious than they are now. ‘How now, brother Amerek,’ said the wolf, uncurling itself from the floor. ‘You are in my place now, and if you wish to pass, you must defeat me.’
“’How now, brother wolf,’ replied Amerek, clenching his fist tighter around the handle of his spear. ‘I have no desire to hurt you, I am a guardian of this forest and I mean you no harm. I seek passage through your place to the places beyond.’
“The wolf snarled a smile, showing off his terrible, razor sharp teeth. ‘You wish to travel further than the places beyond here, I should think, brother Amerek. But where you desire to go, no man of the tribe can ever set foot.’
“Amerek felt the weight in his heart grow heavier, but he did not show it. The wolf was wise and the wolf was cruel, but the wolf was right. Where he longed to travel, the living could never go. ‘If we must fight, then let us make it quick,’ said the man. ‘I will send you to meet your children and your wives.’
“The wolf reared, and with a ferocious howl leapt towards Amerek’s throat. But Amerek was too quick and too strong and the point of his spear found purchase in the belly of the wolf. The wolf slumped to the floor and Amerek knew that he had gone.
“He removed his spear and knelt by the dead body of the thing that was the wolf. ‘I envy you your journey, old friend,’ he whispered into an ear that could no longer hear. And the thing that was the body of the thing that was the wolf returned to the ground and became a new life. Maybe one of yours.
The children gasped, like children do, then begged the old man to go on. He smiled at them and put his hands on his lap and puffed out his cheeks, pretending to be tired, which made them clamour all the more. For he was a storyteller, and he knew there was more to the story than the way it was woven. “Go on then,” he said, “I’ll tell a little more.”
“After the Wolf, Amerek came upon the spider. But this was the old time, and the spider and her daughters were bigger than men. ‘How now, brother Amerek,’ whispered the Spider in tones of silk and venom, ‘you are in my place now, and my place is full of webs and eyes. You cannot pass unless you know the way.’ And then the Spider smiled, because it was the old time, and spiders could smile. ‘But you do not know the way, do you?’
“Amerek glanced about, tightening his grip on his spear. Around him red eyes flashed through the darkness, and long, spindly legs skittered around the dead wood of the forest floor. ‘How now sister Spider. You are right, I do not know the way. But you will tell me or you will die.’
“The spider hissed, and Amerek could tell it was laughing. ‘But you are so sick of death, brave warrior. Your heart is heavy with it, and my daughters can smell it. They taste it on the air. You raise your spear, but the strength in your arm has failed. You cannot kill us.’”
The children sat rapt, hanging on the old man’s every word. And so he paused, took off his glasses, and wiped them gently on the sleeve of his shirt. “But what happened next?” they begged, “How did Amerek get past the spiders!?!”
The old man rubbed the bridge of his nose and sighed, then slowly slipped his glasses back on. “This next part is a little frightening,” he said in a low voice, “and I would hate to give you nightmares…”
“But we are brave!” shouted the children as one. “We are not afraid of spiders.” And the old man looked them over, smiling. For he was a storyteller, and he knew that the story lived in those who heard it as well as those who told it. “Very well,” he said, “If you’re sure.
“Amerek knew the spider was right. Though his grip was true and his eyes were steady, he had no will to fight. But there was another way past the spiders to the places beyond, and though it filled his stomach with dread, he knew he must take it.
“‘So be it, sister spider, if you will not show me the way, I will see as you do.” He took a cup from his pouch, and held it towards spider. She lowered her head, with its many unblinking eyes, and from her fangs let out a single drop of venom.
“‘You know the rules brother Amerek. Drink too much and you will belong to me. Drink too little and you will be cursed to wander the forest forever. Or until you stumble into one of our webs.’
“Amerek did not reply. He put the cup to his lips and drank deep. The venom burnt his throat and scorched his lips. It was fire and ice, boiling and freezing as it slipped down into his stomach.
“The cup slipped from his fingers, falling with a thud and spilling the rest of the poison onto the damp floor. ‘I drank half, sister spider,’ gasped Amerek as the foul liquid twisted his insides. ‘Neither lost nor devoured. We are the balance, and the balance lies in the centre of all things.’
“Sister spider hissed, but this time she was not laughing. And though his eyes were blurred with tears and his skin felt like it was bursting in sores, Amerek saw the path ahead of him. ‘Goodbye sister spider,’ he said, though his tongue was swollen, ‘may your webs grow thick and catch many things.’
“As he followed the path before him, Amerek started to feel better. The coolness of the forest soothed his skin, and his insides settled a little more with each step. He walked for an hour, two, maybe even more. Deeper and deeper into the forest, following his feet to find the darkest heart of the trees.
“Finally, Amerek came to the lair of forgotten things. I will not tell you their names, for their names no longer mean what they once did. Let us instead call them Fear, Despair and Dread, for that is what they were. Black things that held no shape but every shape was theirs to make. They ate nothing but their namesakes, and could live only where the forest closed in and all light was squeezed away.
“They felt the weight in Amerek’s heart as he approached, his longing for his mother and his father, and they knew that brother wolf and sister spider had done their job. “How now, brother Amerek,” they whispered in their ancient, forked tongues. ‘You have come into our place, though perhaps you have been here for many days.’
“Amerek felt the cold cling at him. The sun had never seen this place, never called out the names of the things that lived here to warm their bones and still the anger in their breast. This was a place without life, because life needed warmth and warmth never found its way into the gloomiest parts of the forest.
“’Brothers Fear, Despair and Dread,’ said Amerek, his voice steady and calm, ‘I have come to your place to seek passage to the place that lies beyond.’ The three that were one smiled, or would have done if they were not made out of darkness. ‘You seek the light then, that which warms sister butterfly and makes her pretty and strong?’ ‘Or perhaps,’ said another of the three, though which one it is impossible to tell, because they are all the same, ‘you seek a light further even than that?’
“Amerek once again felt the weight on his heart grow heavy. Perhaps the loss was too much, he thought, perhaps it would be better to seek out the furthest light and find his mother and his father. ‘Yesssss,’ said a fourth voice, further away than the others. ‘Come to me, and together we shall find your parents and learn about the light that has no name.’
“The man started. ‘Who is there?’ he said, raising his spear. ‘Who is there and talks to me in the place of the three?’ ‘I am the fourth,’ hissed the voice, ‘and you may call me death,’ Amerek froze. There had only ever been the three, as long as the legends of the great collection had been told. ‘You are here to tempt me then?’ asked the man.
“’You brought me here,’ purred death, ‘because of the weight that lays so heavy on your heart.’ A tear welled in Amerek’s eye. He had been strong, he had been quick, but now, at the end, he needed to be brave. He clutched his spear and his net, and spoke with all the might that remained in his lungs.
“’My name is Amerek, and I am a butterfly hunter. I have defeated wolves and traversed the darkness. I have drunk from the fangs of spiders and followed the old path. I shall not be afraid, I shall not be cowed and I shall not give in to the weight that sits so heavy on my chest. Death is new life, and my parent’s live in me as they do in each and every thing that walks in this forest. Loose your tentacles death, for they shall not ensnare me.’
“Then, with all of his might, Amerek, the butterfly hunter, swung his spear. It cracked through rotten branches, tore up roots, mangled the canopy that held the three’s place forever in darkness. He hacked and thrashed with all of his strength, all of his courage, until there was no darkness, no three to block his path. And in front of him, he saw her. The butterfly.
“She was more beautiful than any creature Amerek had ever seen. Her wings were like delicate lace, patterned with blue ice that caught the light so perfectly that it made the whole clearing sparkle. She fluttered her wings and the light danced and Amerek felt the weight in his heart start to lessen. He lay a finger on her wings and it felt like the softest velvet he had ever touched.
“’You are brave, you are strong and you are quick, brother Amerek,’ said the butterfly. ‘But you are also wise, and that is a prize above all others. Take me back to the clearing, show the spirits that I am safe and that the forest will be protected for another year.’
“’Before I do,’ asked the butterfly hunter, ‘might I ask you one wish?’ ‘I cannot bring back the dead, brother Amerek,’ replied the butterfly, sadly. ‘That is not what I would ask. All I ask is that you remain beautiful, that you search out the light and chase away the gloom.’ The butterfly smiled, because this was the old time and butterflies could smile, and agreed.
“After that day, the forest was full of butterflies, because wise Amerek had chased away the darkness. He lived on for many years, until he was the only one who remembered the old time. And every mid-year, he would return to the butterfly, and they would talk and laugh and sing and everything would be right in the world.
“And that, my little ones, is the story of the butterfly hunter,” said the old man, a single wet tear in the corner of his eye. And they leapt to their feet, cheering and whooping, sprinting out of the door to fetch their nets and head out into the forest.
They would prove they were brave, strong and quick. And perhaps, old Amerek thought to himself, a few of them would prove that they were wise. For he was a storyteller, and storytellers always kept the best secrets for themselves.