Everyone in the small, quiet village knew Old Winters, the Last Wizard. His house was old, far older than the others in the village. Its roof sagged, its wooden walls weathered by storms long-since past. Its windows were covered in cobwebs, blocking any light that may have reached inside. Mr. Longfellow, the mayor, warned the visitors personally about the house, and that it was not representative of the town as a whole. Indeed, the citizens of Brookshire were united in this effort, so much so that many a visitor was forced to ask, “Why are you all so concerned about an old man in an old house?”
To which, as if by some script, they would reply, “Because that’s the home of the Last Wizard.”
A chill wind always seemed to blow at those words, causing the visitor to shudder. A wizard? Alive? Here? How could that be? The wizards are a myth, some would say. There never were any wizards. Others, more knowledgeable about recent history, would simply shake their heads in disbelief. “There are no more wizards,” they would say. “He cannot be a wizard.”
“Well, believe what you want,” Mr. Longfellow would say. “But mark my words: stay far away from Old Winters’ house. Strange goings-on are apt to happen there, I tell you.”
For the most part, these warnings would be enough. Visitors would go about their business, staying as far away from the old house as they reasonably could, and leave as sound as they had come. On occasion, a more daring stranger would attempt to approach the house, even going so far as to touch the front door. As they would reach for the handle, thunder would clap above, despite any lack of inclement weather, and a stiff wind would draw their eyes away from the house. they would return to the town proper, and never speak of what might have happened.
Once every month, Old Winters would come into town. He wore an old, weathered, brown coat, covering his shoulders and back and flowing down to his ankles. Beaten-down black boots stepped precariously down the road, supported by a gnarled branch of a walking stick. His hair was silver and gray, wiry and thin. His eyes were a deep gray as well, full of answers to questions the villagers refused to ask. His beard matched his hair, flowing down to his hips.
On these days, Mr. Longfellow would look at him, shake his head, and say, “Here he comes again.” Word spread quickly through the town. Streets filled with the sounds of children playing would become barren, with only those too foolish to know better than follow the others. Old Winters’ course never deviated: first, a stop at the cafe for tea and a look at the newspaper (no one would deliver to his house). Then, a stroll through the public park, stopping to feed the birds (“Where did he find seed?” “It must be magic!”). Then, finally, he would go to the market next to the park, and purchase a bag of fruits of whatever was in season at the time.
Aditha Windsom was never sure what to expect when Old Winters came to her stand to buy his fruit. Despite his routine, a piece of her mind was always nervous that he would try to hypnotize her, and take her away for god knows what at his home. Her father, who passed away when she was 12, had warned her about the Last Wizard. “Don’t speak to him. Don’t make eye contact. Not ever.” Her mother, who had died of fever on her 18th birthday, almost five years ago, had insisted on her deathbed, “Promise me, Aditha, never to go near that man.”
Aditha had promised, of course. Everyone in Brookshire knew to avoid him; why wouldn’t she? But the next month, as she had started to sell the fruit grown in her family’s garden, he came up to her stand. “Good morning,” he said, his gravelly voice scraping the words out.
“Good morning,” she repeated, unsure what to say. Already, she had broken her promise to her father, may his spirit forgive her. At least, she thought, he had approached her.
“What are you selling?” he asked, despite the obvious wares of her stand.
“Apples,” she said, gesturing to them, her eyes locked on his face. Her heart beat faster with every moment, such was her anxiety as his presence. Old Winters picked one up, examining it for a moment. Then, he smiled. “I’ll take them,” he said, and produced from beneath his leather coat a small pouch. As Aditha took it, the coins within jangling against each other. She almost refused, but knew even as the thought came into her mind that it was wrong.
The old man produced a hemp bag from his coat, then carefully picked up each apple, one at a time, and placed it gently inside the bag. He then smiled, a sight Aditha had never seen. “Thank you,” he said, and nodded graciously. Before she could say anything, Old Winters had left, walking down the empty road towards his home, his bag of apples in one hand, and his walking stick in the other.
Aditha looked down at the bag in her hand, and began to count the coins. To her amazement, there were thirty of them, all solid gold, emblazoned with the crown’s seal. The old man must be senile, she thought. This was much more than even all her apples were worth! The next time she saw him, she decided, she would return the money.
The next month, he came to her stand again. “Good morning,” he said, his voice somehow less gravelly than she remembered. “Your apples were delicious.”
“I’m sorry?” she asked, unsure what to say.
“Your apples,” he repeated, smiling. “They were delicious.”
“Oh. Thank you,” she responded, blushing.
“What are you selling today?” he asked, even as his hands moved across the batch of freshly picked apples sitting before him.
“More apples,” she answered shyly. The old man nodded, then retrieved another pouch from his coat. “I’ll take them, he said. Once again, he emptied her basket, and filled his bag with her apples, each placed as delicately as possible on top of the last. This time, Aditha counted the money before he could leave. Her eyes went wide.
“Sir,” she said, stopping him mid-motion. His eyes fixed on her; his features almost seemed hurt. “There are forty golden crowns in this bag.”
The man smiled. “You are correct.” He returned to his task of gathering up his purchase. “I’m relieved that you counted them for me. I was worried that I had not paid you enough.”
Enough? “This is far more than I am charging,” she tried to say, but he waved his hand towards her.
“Nonsense. These are, by far, Brookshire’s finest produce. I will not pay any less than what they are worth.” With that, Aditha was silenced, bewildered at his words. When he was finished, he smiled again, and said, “Thank you.” With a nod, he turned down the road for home. Aditha swore that she could hear him humming, some foreign tune from a distant land.
That night, she took the forty gold coins home, and placed them together with the thirty from the month prior. Next month, she resolved, she would return the money. It was only right.
And so it continued for years. Every month, Old Winters would come, thank her for the last month’s purchase, then pay far too much for his next order. And every month, Aditha would swear she would refuse the money, and return what was not hers. But when the time came, she would become paralyzed, and would take the money without complaint.
One month, on the anticipated day of Old Winters’ coming into town, Aditha prepared her stall for the day’s sales. Strawberries and blueberries made up the bulk of her stall. Hidden beneath sat a small basket of oranges saved from the last crop. She knew the old man enjoyed them more than the other fruits, and had made sure to keep a few for his visit.
The people of Brookshire came and went, buying from her as they did. A few who knew what day it was gave her sympathetic glances, knowing that the Last Wizard would be interacting with her. But that was Aditha’s cross to bear, not theirs. She waved them off, told them not to worry. She’d be fine.
The day went on, and Aditha continued to work. Soon, whispers began to circulate, too distant from her to hear. At last, Mr. Longfellow came to her stall, hands in his fine suit pockets. “Good afternoon, Aditha.”
Aditha frowned. Afternoon already? “Good afternoon, Mayor Longfellow.”
The man picked up a blueberry, stuck it in his mouth. He smiled. “This is a fine crop. How much for them?” Aditha told him the price. The man pulled out his coinpurse, retrieved the amount, and handed it to her. “You must be relieved,” he added, as he picked up his carton of blueberries.
“That Old Winters isn’t coming to town today, of course.” He ate a few more blueberries, staining his fingers. “Didn’t anyone tell you?”
“No,” she replied. A cool wind seemed to blow through the stall. Mr. Longfellow shivered vigorously.
“Hm. Well, in any case, your worst customer won’t be coming today. That should make your month, I’d suppose. Good day.” He turned and left, leaving Aditha alone.
Not coming to town? For the last five years, Old Winters had come on schedule every day. What could be preventing him today? Would he come tomorrow? Aditha wasn’t sure what to do, or whether even to do anything. The rest of her day was spent in a fog of sorts, her mind drifting back to where the old man could be. As the sun set, she packed up what was left, including her basket of oranges, and headed for home.
Her house was empty, as it always was. Her siblings had long moved into homes of their own, leaving Aditha to inherit their parents’ home as mother’s passing. Much of it was empty, save for her bedroom. The small acreage surrounding it was filled with plants of every kind. First planted by her mother as a hobby, now they were her livelihood. By some miracle, they had remained healthy and fruitful ever since, despite Aditha’s lack of time to tend for them. Birds nested in her trees, providing her with eggs that didn’t require keeping animals.
She entered her home, bringing it the baskets from her wagon. She placed them in the living room, then, as she closed the door, she glanced at the oranges again. She sighed. It had been a long day, and yet Aditha knew what she had to do. She moved the oranges into a manageable bag, put on a warmer coat, and started down the road towards the home of Old Winters.
Nobody asked what she was doing as she went down the road. That was probably for the best; Aditha wasn’t sure she could have given them a good answer. She could hardly believe what she was doing. And yet, by the time she was truly doubting her decision, there say Old Winters’ house before her.
The sky had grown dark, evening setting in over the landscape. Fireflies began to dance in the grass, and the sounds of owls echoed in the nearby trees. Aditha took a deep breath, and stepped up to the door. As she reached for the door handle, she froze, waiting. No thunder. No stiff breeze. She grabbed the handle. Still nothing. Taking another breath, she turned the handle, and the door swung open, shrieking as it did. Aditha jumped, but, still standing, she called into the dark house, “Hello? Old Winters?”
A rasping cough came from inside the house. “Who’s there?” a voice much weaker than Old Winters’ asked from somewhere inside.
“Aditha, from the market.” When he didn’t respond, she added, “I brought you oranges.”
The man half laughed, half coughed. “Well, bring them in.” One tentative step after another, Aditha walked into the house. “I’m in the bedroom.” She followed the voice, and there found the old man. His leather jacket hung on a nearby hook, his staff leaning against the bedframe. Blankets covered him from head to toe, but Aditha knew he didn’t look well.
“What’s the matter?” she asked, not sure what to say.
Old Winters smiled. “I’m dying,” he said simply. “That’s all. No need to panic.”
Dying? “Are you in pain? Is there anything I can do?”
The man closed his eyes. “No, no pain. I’m just tired, that’s all. So very tired.”
Aditha moved to his bed. Kneeling beside him, she watched his chest move up and down in rhythm. He opened his eyes, looking to her in surprise. Calmly, he asked, “Is something wrong?”
Flustered, Aditha tried to express a series of thoughts at once. Yes, you’re dying, of course something is wrong! Why didn’t you tell me? Is there anything you need? Do you want me to peel an orange? How could you be dying?
Over the flurry of words, Old Winters rose his wrinkled hand, placing it over Aditha’s. “Slow down,” he said, his voice filled with peace. “I may be dying, but not in the next five minutes.” Aditha started to apologize, but he cut her off again, “Please, don’t worry. How about we share an orange.”
A pair of oranges were produced from the basket. Aditha pealed them in silence, tears welling in her eyes. Old Winters pulled himself into a sitting position, then she handed him one of the oranges. They ate together in silence. The moment felt strange to Aditha. Trying to take her mind off the situation at hand, she looked around at the room. “This isn’t what I imagined your room looking like,” she commented.
The room was plain, with smooth wooden walls. A small painting adorned one of the walls, a window looked out over the side yard from another. Old Winters smiled. “What did you expect? Rows of ancient books, filled with the spellcraft of ages? Dust-ridden vials of forbidden potions?” When she didn’t respond, he chuckled. “I suppose I didn’t host that many guests in my time here.”
The silence took hold again. When Aditha finished her orange, she looked back on the man. The man whom everyone despised, avoided, ignored. Whom the entire town wished would just disappear. And now he was. But why? What had he ever done to deserve such treatment?
As Old Winters finished his own orange, Aditha blurted her thoughts, “Why does everyone dislike you?” She blushed the moment the words left her mouth, but there they were; no way to get them back now.
The old man’s eyes stared at her, filled to overflowing with emotion. He closed them, tears dripping down his face in silent sorrow. At last, he opened them again, and said, “Let me tell you a story about a young boy with wild ambitions.”
Day after day, Aditha came to visit Old Winters, and every visit Old Winters shared another part of his life. How he grew up in a faraway city, and learned the ways of the wizards from another of its order. His ascendance in the order, learning ancient secrets about the world known only to the most wise in the land. Many of the secrets he told her as well, the hidden ways of the world, now known only to him. And then the darkness that came after a scant few of them were revealed to men seeking power above all else.
The wars, oh the wars! The devastation they caused to the land, and crippled the order of wizards to the point of no return. Then, the rebuilding, when the wizards were shunned and forced into hiding, until only Old Winters was left. How bitterly alone he had been for the past decades, and the joy he found in his friendship with Aditha over apples and oranges.
But it could not last forever. One day, Aditha came by, and Old Winters could not sit upright, nor share in the meal she had prepared. He grabbed Aditha’s hands, and said, “I need you to do something for me when I’m gone.”
Aditha hesitated, but nodded. What was he going to ask? Old Winters explained his request. Tears welled up in his fading eyes, mirrored in Aditha’s. “Of course I will,” she said simply.
Old Winters nodded. “Thank you,” he said. He closed his eyes one last time. Aditha waiting in the silence, watching the wizard breath slower and slower, until he breathed no more. He hands dropped from hers, their energy spent. As his hands fell, so did Aditha’s tears, and she wept.
No one saw Aditha for some time afterwards. Mr. Longfellow began to spread the rumor that she had been possessed as Old Winter’s body withered, and he had fled within her body so as to not be discovered. Others thought she had been killed as some last sacrifice by the wizard, in an attempt to stay alive. The police chief found no evidence of either explanation; only a basket filled with oranges sat next to Old Winters’ bed. Curiously, his staff had gone missing, as had his leather coat.
Weeks turned into months, and at last Aditha returned. She still wore the old leather coat, borrowed for her long journey. Mr. Longfellow nearly had a heart attack when he saw her walking calmly down the highway into the city. “My dear, where have you been? We thought the worst had happened to you!”
Aditha smiled, in a way Mr. Longfellow thought was far too similar to that of Old Winters. “I’m fine,” she said, extending her arms outward. “There was something I had to do for Old Winters.”
Mr. Longfellow humphed. “The old wizard? He’s dead, you know.”
Aditha nodded. “I know.” Before he could ask again, she moved past the mayor, until she reached her house. Whispers of the townsfolk followed her, amazed at her presence.
She strolled through her gardens, admiring anew the plants that grew there. Fruits and vegetables of every kind, planted by the loving hands of her mother, continued to grow, despite her absence. She brushed a hand against the oldest of the apple trees, feeling the rough bark beneath her fingertips. It dawned on her, in that moment, how much Old Winters had cared about the town, even when the townsfolk didn’t care at all for him. How much more had he done for them that they would never know?
She closed her eyes. “Thank you,” she said, wishing that she had spoken those words years ago. When they could have warmed an old man’s heart. How could she repay him for all this now?
A bluebird landed softly on her shoulder, its cry a soft whistle in her ear. Aditha started at the suddenness of it, but the bird remained in its place, as if waiting for something. Smiling, Aditha reached into the pocket of the old jacket, and withdrew a small number of seeds. The bird jumped to her arm, ate the seeds from her palm, then flew back into the branches of the tree.
She never told anyone of her journey, or what she did. When asked, all she would say is that she had to do something for the old, mad wizard (as they saw it). As the years went by, and his memory was forgotten, Aditha never forgot. She began to stroll through Brookshire more often, and could be seen feeding seeds to the birds. Nobody asked why she did it; they knew she wouldn’t answer. Over time, rumors began to spread that she had become a witch. Nobody asked about that, either.
Yet no one could ever explain how her garden remained so fruitful when she spent so little time in it.