An Ending and a Beginning
One late summer day, perhaps fifteen score of years ago, there was a man. This man lived in a house by the side of a wood, and on the other side of the wood there was a field. Every day for twenty years the man walked into town to work at the blacksmith's shop. And every day for twenty years he walked through the field and through the woods to get to his house after a long day's work. Each day when he got near his home, his wife would greet him from the edge of the forest, calling him by name and pronouncing the type of pie that she had made that day. And each day the man answered her shout with a response of his own. He said it didn't matter, so long as she made it.
For twenty years they lived like this, and not until the twenty-first did anything change. A daughter was born. Only a quarter stone when she was born, no one believed that she would live to be a toddler. But she did. And when she was four, she was still small and underweight, and no one believed that she would live to be a teenager. But still she survived. But still she was weak and pale-faced. No one but her parents believed that she would live to marry. And she didn't.
One day when the now-old man was walking home, taking the same path that he had for thirty-five years, he noticed something different. On the edge of the field before the wood, he saw a black-briar patch, with berries ripening on the stem. "Oh," he thought to himself. "That would make a fine pie. I will have to tell my wife of it." And on he walked.
Once he had entered the forest, he heard something he had never heard in the forest before. A black bird's voice rang through the glade. The man figured that the call had come from a mother bird in its nest, and tilted his head to look up the side of the towering black oak where he thought the nest might be. However, he could not see anything of interest.
When he was halfway through the forest, another new experience greeted him. It was a smell that he had never smelled at his house, but many times at work. He wondered if his wife had burnt the pies, or if his son was starting a fire. He continued walking, and thought nothing of the smoke.
When he reached the edge of the wood, he was again greeted by something new. But this something new was not something he could see, like the black-briars, or something he could hear, like the raven. Because he could not hear his wife telling him about the pies. And he could not see his house standing by the wood. None of it was there. All that remained of his house were charred black beams and coal-dark soot. It was gone.
The man dropped his bag, and looked at his land. He stood looking at it for almost three hours, never noticing the temperature dropping or the sky darkening into a moonless night. Finally, he began to speak.
"I will find a man," he said, "a man who is young, and strong, and bold, and I will talk to him. I will find that man, and as I talk to him, if he is good of heart, if he hates evil and malice as a good man truly does, if he has a heart that is made of gold, I will know. And I will bring him back with me, to see that this never happens again. Not to me, and not to anyone." And as he said this, that man once more became aware of what was around him. He saw the stars that filled the sky, and he felt the large snowflakes that brushed his skin. He left his house behind him that night, and began his quest.
First he went to Sheffield. Once there, he went to a festival of nobles that was being held. He questioned all the young men who were so as to see what their heart was made of. Some of them were drunk, and spit in the man's face. Some of them paid no heed to him, and simply ignored him. And some were quite uncomprehending as to his plan. Out of all the men there, none passed his test.
After Sheffield the man moved on to Oxford, to speak to the scholars who called that place home. He met with many hundreds of young men, all young and wise. But none had the courage he was looking for. None of them were good enough.
Finally, the old man arrived in London, the greatest city that he knew. He spent not a day looking at the marvelous sites, but began searching for his man. Eventually he arrived at the court of the King, and was permitted to see the knights. One by one they came to him, each one noble and honorable, and one by one they left him, all rejected. Some knights scoffed at the lack of glory the old man's plan suggested. Some denied his requests because they did not wish to leave the life at court. Whatever the reason, none of the King's knights passed the old man's test.
Distraught, the old man began to work his way to where his home once was. He slept in many a tavern, and ate at many a bar. And he continued searching, at least halfheartedly, for quite some time. But eventually, he gave up.
He arrived at his town two years to the day after he had left. He walked through the forest to where his house had once been. He found it as he had left it, never having been rebuilt. The lumber was still there, and the ground was still scorched. Nothing had changed since the last time he had seen that place.
Seeing nothing left for him, the man, now nearly sixty-five years of age, walked back to town to find a place to stay. The only place that was open, however, was an old decrepit inn called the White Birch. The man walked inside, and asked the bartender for a room and a drink. When he had been accommodated, he sat down in a booth in the corner of the bar, and looked at all the people whom he saw.
During his travels, the old man had met many men, and by this stage in his life he could tell what kind of person a man was simply by the way they talked and acted. And to amuse himself, that is what he did. He would watch a man, and then question him as to what he did. Every time the old man tried this, he was rewarded by being correct. A doctor, a student, a horseman, the old man succeeded every time.
However, after doing this for several hours, the old man began to grow tired. He looked for one last man to try his skills on, and his eyes came across a young man sitting in a booth similar to his. The young man was dressed entirely in white, and his face was unusually red. The old man watched this boy for quite some time, but try as he might, he could not figure out what the younger man was. Eventually, the old man walked to him.
"Young man, pardon an old beggar for prying, but I have just returned from a journey across this country, and I judge that I have seen nearly everything that one man might. But try as I did, I don't believe I've seen anyone like you before. Who are you, and what do you do?"
The young man sat, regarding his elder before he spoke. Finally, when he did speak, he spoke calmly and confidently, with much respect to the old man. "My name is Richard," he said. "And I watch."
"Watch?" said the old man, "Watch what?"
"Everything," replied the younger. "I watch the lanterns that hang from the ceiling. I watch the drunken men stagger around the bar. I watch the stables through that window. I watch everything that I can."
"Why do you do this thing you do?" asked the old man.
"I do it so no one gets hurt. I watch the lantern so no fire starts. I watch the drunks so no fights occur. I watch the stables so no thieves succeed. I watch to protect those who I can."
And when the boy said these words, the old man knew his search was finally over. He talked to the young man for a while more, and the next day introduced him to the town.
"This boy is young, this boy is strong. He is good of heart and sound of will. Everyone here knows what happened to my house. Everyone here knows what happened to my wife and daughter. This boy is here to watch, and to serve. He will make sure that nothing like that ever happens again. That is his destiny." And with those words out of his mouth, the old man fell dead, his quest completed.
Upon the old man's death, many people mourned. But many also cheered, because while the old man's life was at an end, his quest had launched a new beginning. Where the nobles, the scholars, and the knights had failed, one man had succeeded. The first fireman was born.