One Good Thing
by Jared Oliver Adams
This is a story about desire. Not anything so weak as lust or greed, but something far more powerful. It is not even about love, though many I’ve told the story to would disagree.
No, this is about the desire, the one desire, the desire that is always there no matter what other smaller desires are piled on top of it, the desire that is rooted so deep inside a heart that it cares not whether the person has the fitness to obtain it.
The story starts with a priest and a discovery. The priest’s great desire was to see the smile of the Almighty, to see God face to face and hear him say “well done good and faithful servant.”
The priest did not have the ambition to rise through the church in power and glory. That was not his desire. Instead, he labored in obscurity, in a small village at the edge of a forest. His church was small, with an earthen floor upon which he slept every night and a cross hewn from the forest by his own hand hanging above the altar.
It was the custom of this priest to walk in the woods every morn and converse with God, and on one such trip he found a baby, left upon a rock to die, blood still on him, cord still attached. He took this baby in for the sake of God’s smile, and for the sake of God’s smile he raised the child as his own, even though it was clear from that first day that the child was slack-witted.
The boy was given the name David, but he could never pronounce it through his thick lips. “Durer,” he would say, and eventually the name David was lost.
Though the priest tried to instill in Durer the same desire that defined his own life, the concept of God proved too hard for the boy to comprehend. The priest tried reading the Bible to the child, tried explaining the cross to him, or the saints, but the boy just smiled dumbly.
One day, the priest decided to try a different approach. He took nine-year-old Durer on a walk with him to his favorite clearing to show him true beauty, for God is the epitome of beauty and he thought if Durer could understand beauty then he could one day understand God. He pointed to the hazy morning light filtering through the branches, the leaves that were a perfect translucent green, and the myriad flowers heavy with dew.
“God,” the priest said triumphantly.
And Durer looked around in wonder, too overwhelmed to reply, for he saw in the pristine beauty of the woods something truly, fully, and marvelously good.
He didn’t know that this thing was created by God, but he did know something else: if he could ever do something as wonderful as that clearing, his life would be worthwhile. Just one thing would do, but it had to be completely, undeniably good. This desire stuck in Durer’s mind like few other things did. To do one good thing.
Though the priest was always kind to young Durer, the other children in the village were not. His slowness of mind showed in his features—a thick brow, bulbous eyes, a fat neck that disappeared into rounded shoulders—and the children mocked him mercilessly.
“Rock baby, Rock baby,” they’d say. “Found on a rock. Dumb as a rock. Ugly as a rock. Rock baby. Rock baby.” And they’d laugh and laugh.
To Durer though, laughter was always a thing of joy, just as tears were always a thing of sadness. And since he didn’t understand the words the other children said, he laughed with them when they made fun of him, and imagined the whole world was made of his friends. But when they tripped him or beat him, he cried, because for those moments his world was shattered. The beatings always ended though, and Durer always forgot about the cruelty of the other boys. Soon he would be laughing again.
Besides the priest, young Durer had only one other friend: the princess. Of the children, she alone had mercy on Durer. She alone spent time with him without mockery.
She was not actually a princess, you understand, but the daughter of the minor noble who governed the village where Durer lived. She wasn’t even the first daughter, hoping to marry a wealthier lord, but the fourth, who would inherit nothing. She had a name too, and she told it many times to Durer as she cleaned his wounds or walked with him in the woods, but to Durer she was always just “the princess.”
The princess possessed a compassionate heart, for her great desire was to be a saint with a statue of herself carved into the stones of a great cathedral. Nobody had told her that women could not be saints, and by the time she found this out, the desire had too great a hold on her to ever be dismissed.
Durer was her mission. She protected him when the other children attacked him, and talked to him like he was a normal person who could understand her. And when she walked or skipped along with him in the woods, she even let him hold her hand. Oftentimes they would play pretend. They would fight invisible foes with sticks, or climb trees like they were high towers and spit down at the ground to keep the enemy from coming up with their ladders.
To Durer, she was the bright light of the sun, or fresh water from the spring, or a butterfly so beautiful that you had to stop what you were doing to follow it. He indeed did not understand her words, but they were marvelous music to him nonetheless. And when she walked with him in the forest and let him touch her hand, the great desire in his heart rose with the music of her voice. To do something truly good.
And he would return to the church, the one he called home, and try to make something wonderful out of wood, but he always failed. Or he would try to put stones one atop another to make a palace for the princess, but they always fell down. And when they fell down he would cry and the priest would come to him and put his arm around him and tell him it was all right, even though it wasn’t.
Durer grew to adulthood, yet his mind did not. Even so, his desire never left him. To do one good thing. He learned words, five of them, and he was sure that they would help him in his task. The words were Princess, Durer, love, help, and good.
And he dreamed, too. And in his dreams he could speak and understand words like everyone else. Many words. More than five. And he was strong, and he had a wonderful sword. He would fight evil creatures in the woods with his sword, and when they chased him up a tree he would spit down at them and his saliva would burn their bodies. And then the princess would be in trouble, so he would save her. And she would smile and hold his hand and he would know that he had done his one good thing.
The princess, however, had been told so many times that her great desire to be a saint was futile, that she started to pretend the desire was not there at all. “Be practical,” everyone said. “A woman is only as good as the husband she acquires.” And she believed them, even though the desire to be a saint was still there, buried underneath all her broken dreams.
So the princess started to court men, but Durer did not understand. He tried to follow her and tried to hold her hand like they used to, and became an embarrassment to her.
He delighted especially to tell her his five words. He hoped that if she heard his words, she would be able to know his dreams, and then she could help him with his one good thing, but it was not so.
“Durer,” he would say. “Love.” But she would stop him before he went further, for she thought he was about to say “Durer love princess,” when in actuality he had been about to say “Durer love good.”
The men she was with mocked him just as they always had as children, and the princess found herself doing it too, even though she hated herself for it. “He cannot understand my words anyway,” she told herself over and over, but still every time she mocked him, a part of her withered and died. She always stopped those with her from doing physical harm, however, so Durer never knew that his friend had turned against him. All he knew was that someone else got to hold her hand now and maybe he would have a turn later.
Eventually, the princess became engaged to the blacksmith’s son, a handsome, muscular, and intelligent fellow whose trade would support them both comfortably. The blacksmith’s son had a deep desire too, to have a family of his own, to raise his children to be strong and handsome and intelligent like he was.
He loved the princess very much, for she would help him achieve his desire, and he eagerly looked forward to the day when they would be wed.
Two days before the wedding, however, the princess went into the woods and didn’t come back.
A great search for her was mounted, and Durer went along, thinking it was nothing more than a marvelous game in the woods with the entire village. A few days later, though, he looked all afternoon for the princess and didn’t find her and then he had his dream again, the one where he saved her, and when he awoke the next morning he realized that the princess was in trouble. Suddenly the game in the woods made sense.
He took a stick as his sword, and went into the woods after her.
Usually, Durer was easily distracted. He often helped the women with their washing down by the river, and it was not uncommon for him to walk halfway there and then follow a frog off the path so that he never arrived. Now, though, he was focused. Many frogs jumped over his path, but he did not follow them. A snake wriggled by once and coiled up, but he did not try to catch it. He even saw a brightly-colored salamander on a tree, but he didn’t care because his heart was on his one good thing, on helping the princess.
Other people of the village were out in the woods as well, and they saw him and asked him what he was doing, and though he didn’t understand their words completely, he knew enough to say “princess” and “help,” and they let him be.
Eventually, though, the forest grew dark and he stopped seeing people. Durer was scared of the dark and he huddled by the base of a tree and clenched his eyes shut and clutched his stick-sword. He cried a little too, because there was the great pain of doubt in his heart, doubt that he would ever be able to fulfill his great desire, ever be able to do his one good thing.
And it grew darker, and as it grew darker, terrible noises came, chirpings and howlings and scratchings and breathings. Durer was so frightened that he lost control of his bladder and ran. He careened into trees, stumbled over bushes. He scraped himself and banged himself. And it hurt so bad that he just wanted to go home, but he knew if he stopped that a monster would eat him and then he’d never do his one good thing, not ever.
At first the idea of a monster chasing him was just his frightened imagination, but then he passed into a certain section of the forest—a part that was alive in a unique and terrible way—and his imagination reverberated among the trees and became reality. This section of forest was never in the same place twice, but people had stumbled upon it before. “The Wandering Wilderness” they called it, a place where dreams gained form. A dangerous place.
A creature coalesced behind Durer, right where his imagination put it. Its shoulders were bear shoulders, corded with muscle under thick fur, but its teeth were a wolf’s teeth, dagger-like. Its eyes glowed orange in the dark and in its mouth was a red light.
The beast gained.
And even in Durer’s shallow, slow mind he knew that the beast would catch him and kill him. He remembered his stick-sword then, and he decided to fight the beast, to kill it like he killed all those monsters in his dreams. So he turned as the beast rumbled towards him, towering taller than he, and he waved his sword.
And though his mind was too weak to perceive this, his weapon was not a stick-sword anymore, but a real, metal sword. He thrashed at the beast without skill, and though he hit it a few times and wounded one of its great legs, the beast eventually grabbed the blade with its horrible teeth and swung the sword off into the woods behind it.
That had never happened in Durer’s dreams.
He did the only thing he could think of. He darted up a tree, just like he used to do with the princess when they were little and playing pretend. The wolf-bear-beast tried to follow, but it couldn’t. Durer took some deep breaths. His stomach hurt from running and his pants were all wet and his body was sweaty. And the doubt was bigger than ever, eating at his stomach.
The creature milled below, and Durer thought maybe it would go away, but it didn’t. Instead, it started taking great bites out of the tree. When the tree started to shudder at every bite, Durer thought of the men who felled trees with axes. The wolf-beast was trying to cut him down.
But Durer remembered his dream then, how his spit hurt the evil creatures trying to get up the tree, and when the beast came in again for another massive bite, Durer spat at it. The spittle hit one of the beast’s orange eyes, and the creature howled horribly as the eye smoked and went out.
Just like his dream.
Durer spat again and again. And again and again the beast howled and smoked. The smell of burnt hair drifted up the tree with the howls, and eventually the beast collapsed.
Durer sat in the tree branches for a long time before he ventured down. On the ground, the creature that had chased him was a huge stinking heap. Its grey tongue lolled out of its mouth, the red light that had been there before now gone.
Durer felt sad for it and he cried a little. But then he went on, because his good thing was still undone. He had to help the princess.
He passed through a forest populated with all manner of strange beasts from his dreams and from the minds of others who had passed through, but they left him alone, because they’d seen what he had done to the wolf-beast. It was still dark, but here and there moonlight peaked through the leaves above, and Durer could see in grays and silvers and blacks.
The hours went by and his legs grew tired, but he did not stop. Only when he came to a stream did he pause, for his mouth was dry from so much spitting. He bent down and lapped it like a dog, and then dipped his entire head in, feeling the cool water rush over his face, babble into his ears. When he sat back up, the water ran all over his back and shoulders.
“What are you doing here?” asked a voice as he got to his feet. It was a scary voice, deep, shimmering, with multiple pitches all at once, like a hundred hundred voices speaking at the same time.
Durer lurched back, astonished. He understood the words. Understood them clearly. Just like in his dreams. “Princess,” he said. “Help.”
“There is no princess here,” said the voice. “Just a girl.” Durer looked around to see the speaker, but there was nothing but the trees and the stream. A smarter man would have passed right by the obvious conclusion, but Durer was not smart.
The trees were talking to him.
“Help Durer,” he pleaded to the trees. “Princess.”
“Yes,” said the dark, silvery trees. “You want that don’t you? You want it deep down inside, want it so bad you could die.”
And Durer didn’t know the word for “yes,” so he just said “Mmmm,” but the trees knew. They knew. A wind passed through them and the leaves rustled all around Durer.
“The girl, your princess, she has a great dream too. To be a saint in a church. Follow the wind and you will see. She has attained her wish.”
Durer understood all the words that the trees spoke to him. He followed the wind into a copse of trees whose branches interlaced together overhead in an intricate arch. The trunks of the trees were so close together that they formed walls, and along the walls, huge fireflies rested in organized rows, shedding light like candles. There were lines of stools too, for kneeling, and a row between them to the front of the copse.
And at the front, right behind an earthen alter, rose a fat oak tree festooned with fireflies. In the oak tree was a life-size carving of the princess. It stuck out of the bark in perfect detail, her legs together and her arms held out at the shoulder so that it looked like she was on a cross. Durer reached out and touched one of the hands, because he dared touch no other part.
“We gave her the desire of her heart,” said the trees. “And we delight in it.”
But though Durer understood the words, he could not explain how the princess didn’t belong here in the woods stuck in a tree. She belonged back in the village with her blacksmith friend and the people who loved her.
“Help Princess,” said Durer, and he tugged at her hand, but it was just like bark and it didn’t budge.
“But, you see, she has her greatest desire.”
“Mmmm,” said Durer, and this time he meant “no.”
The wind gusted through the copse then, making the fireflies float off the tree a little and then settle back down. “You would take away the desire of her heart?”
But Durer knew that this was not the desire of her heart, to be in this tree. The forest was wrong.
“But close enough,” said the trees, reading his mind. “Close enough to her desire that we can feed on it and stay alive. Close enough that we can take it into ourselves and rejoice in it.”
And Durer knew then what his good thing would be, knew exactly. It was clear and light and beautiful like smiles on the princess’ face, like the clearing the priest had shown to him all those years ago.
“Durer,” he said, and he clapped a hand on his chest, and then pressed it to the tree. “Princess,” he said and he pointed out of the copse, out of the forest, back home to the village and her blacksmith friend.
The wind picked up. It roared around him. The fireflies danced in it, swirled in it. “Yes,” said the trees. “Yes. That is it. That is a true desire. A real desire. We taste its pureness. For this girl we could only offer a shadow of her desire, but for you we can offer the fullness of it. Your joy will be a banquet for us. We accept.”
And the bark sloughed away so that the princess could step out. She looked dazed at Durer.
“What is this?” she said, bewildered.
“Good,” said Durer, and he laughed with joy as he walked into the embrace of the tree, laughed as the bark hardened over his skin. He laughed because to him laughter was always a thing of joy, and joy was bursting from his heart. He was doing his one good thing and it was just as beautiful as he had imagined it, just as wonderful.
And at the last moment, the princess grasped for Durer’s hand, tears in her eyes. “No,” she said. But it was already done.
For a time she sat there on the ground in front of the tree that had encased Durer. And Durer’s joy was squelched at seeing her so sad, even though his heart still raced from his good thing.
The princess stroked the bark over Durer’s face, and he saw it from a hundred different angles, saw it through the eyes of the forest. She whispered his name over and over again, and then, after a long time staring up at the tree, she went back to the village.
“It is good,” said the forest.
“Good,” Durer agreed, and he basked in the truth of his statement, basked in the beauty of what he had done.
And though the wandering wilderness moved of its own accord, it fed off of Durer’s joy, his desire fulfilled, so it made sure to come back near the village often so Durer could see the results of his actions.
The princess had an orphanage built, right beside the church. The unwanted babies for several villages over were cared for here, the broken, the dumb, the unfortunate.
And one day, while Durer watched, a dirty-faced girl hugged the princess’ leg and looked up into her face and said “you’re just like a saint.” A tearful smile broke out on the princess’ face, and Durer rejoiced over that smile.
Another day, many years later, Durer watched the priest in his clearing, praying. The priest was an old man now, and his heart gave out as he prayed. As his heart faltered, a voice came into the clearing. “Well done good and faithful servant,” said the voice, and Durer knew it was the voice of God. He understood God now. He understood many things.
Most of all he understood desires. And as the priest’s life ebbed away, he knew the priest’s desire had been met.
Durer laughed and laughed, and the forest laughed with him. You can still hear the laughter sometimes, too, if you hold your desire close. To some it sounds like wind rustling through the leaves, or the trill of a bird, or the sound of a branch shaking as a squirrel jumps onto it.
To Durer, it sounds simply like joy.
Jared Oliver Adams resides in Tempe, Arizona, where he is a professional elementary school teacher, a semi-professional writer, and an amateur urban explorer. He holds two degrees in music, and is incapable of passing a doorway without checking to see if it leads to Narnia. More work by Jared can be found in Orson Scott Card’s online magazine Intergalactic Medicine Show, and at www.jaredoliveradams.com.