The man who was never wrong lived alone in the great Belovezhskaya forest near a tributary of the mighty Bug River in a one-room cabin. A rickety cabin with rafters so rotten that mushrooms sprouted, with wood so brittle it looked likely to crumble to dust. All day long, oak, pine and beech trees cast shadows over his dwelling. On winter nights, shivering under layers of blankets and clothing, he’d listen to the faint cries of wolves. When the cold grew unbearable, he’d carry in two or three piglets and snuggle with them so he’d feel warmer. He didn’t bathe. People visited him reluctantly and only when necessary. Especially pregnant women from the surrounding villages, who stepped the narrow, pitted path through the forest to find out if they’d give birth to boys or girls.
The man who was never wrong was about 5’11” in height. He wore a scruffy tan leather coat with fringes. His long, greasy-gray hair ended an inch or two below his neck and curled over his shoulders. He had thick, sensual lips and carried a crooked staff. Village elders said he’d been a fine dancer once, but that some disease struck him and made movement difficult. It explained why he rarely left his dwelling
Bears and wolves lurked at the edge of our village. They often carried off a stray calf or cow, occasionally even a child. The forest held a fearful influence in our minds, its trees older than memory. Some of them surely had been mature before men built homes or villages. When the women traversed its leafy paths, they carried pitchforks to stave off wild animals. The women’s eyes swept the ground for traces of wolf or wild boar and peered up into the hardwood trees to watch for bats. Fear flushed the woman’s faces, made making them feel faint. Still, they flowed to his cottage, as if swept bodily into a river.
The man who was never wrong waited for them. Face blackened and saturated with dirt, he’d offer each of the women a tin of water. He didn’t ask what they wanted. He knew, so he’d look into their eyes, take their hands in his grimy paws, and focus his mind. Afterward, he’d whisper to each woman what he’d foreseen. And he’d take a worn ledger from his pocket, write the name of the woman, the date of the consultation and his prediction of the child’s sex.
Shortly after Anna and I married, she became pregnant. She visited his forest home with another woman and returned with the news that we’d have a boy. I was overjoyed. Six months later Anna gave birth to a girl and didn’t I eat bitter weeds! I needed a son to help me run the farm when I’d grow old, to inherit it when I’d die. I didn’t even consider the possibility of failure from The man who was never wrong. Sure, he’d been challenged, but his ledger backed him up every time. I clenched my fists. My breath grew uneven, making my nostrils quiver. Damn the man, we’d paid him with a piglet.
I wanted it back.
I set out early the next day. If the morning was chilly I didn’t feel it. I saw beaver and ermine, but I didn’t slow down to catch and skin them. I didn’t stop to admire a large, white-tailed eagle that flashed by overhead. A purpose harder than flint drove me; I didn’t pause until I smelled the wood smoke and followed it to his door. As I approached his lips opened in a semblance of a smile. I could see his rotten teeth. In the very front one of his teeth was missing.
“What can I do for you?” he asked.
“Six months ago my wife came to see you. You told her she’d have a boy. You were wrong, she had a girl. You did not tell the truth rightly yet you took our piglet. I want it back. If you’ve eaten it, I want the cost of a new piglet in return for the lie.”
“Lie? I do not lie. And I am never wrong. Here, let me show you” He took out the ledger and showed me clearly, my wife’s name, the date she’d come and his prediction – a baby girl.
I shook my head. I could read a little. There it was in black and white. Evidence I couldn’t refute. I apologized for the misunderstanding, thanked him for his patience, and went back home to tell my wife. In the end, everyone agreed his predictions were accurate. Why did I doubt him? Because I’d trusted Anna. Sheer foolishness, though she was a sensible woman and I’d never known her to make such a stupid mistake. I’d never had cause to regret marrying her, but if she couldn’t be relied on to recall a simple detail, perhaps she couldn’t be trusted to raise a child.
When I came home Anna walked up and I confronted her with the truth. “How could you have been so wrong?” I barely stopped myself from shouting. “I saw it with my own eyes in the ledger he’d written. He predicted all along that it’d be a girl.”
“No,” I know what I heard and he told me nothing of the sort. Will you trust your wife or this gypsy of the forest?
“People say he’s never wrong. No one’s ever said that about you.”
“How do you know he’s never wrong? What proof is there? The words in a notebook? Did it occur to you, maybe he told me one thing and wrote down something else? If his prediction’s right, no one complains. If he’s wrong, he’s covered his tracks. Look, he’s fooled everyone in the village, even you.
I thought about it. Her explanation made as much sense as his. But it meant I had to trust the words of a woman, not a man. But then again he was a gypsy and gypsies are notorious liars.
How could I learn the truth? Finally, it came to me. I went to Radzik – he’d been disappointed like me. Radzik was the wealthiest man in town. He owned thirty acres and a team of oxen and hired workers to plow his land. He also had rights to a large pasture for cattle that he sometimes let us use, especially if we flattered him.
“Radzik, you’re the cleverest man I know. I need your help in unmasking our gypsy neighbor’s fraud.” As I talked I felt certain my wife was right.
“I understand. What do you want me to do?” he finally said.
“Pretend you’re in pain. You’ve been to see doctors from as far away as Brest. They said you were healthy, but you don’t believe them. You still feel sick and want to know why. Ask the man who’s never wrong to evaluate your condition and see whether he gives you clean bill of health or not.”
“A good plan,” Radzik said, “except for one thing. What if I really am sick? Perhaps I should be examined by a few reputable physicians to be sure I’m healthy.
“You’re as healthy as any man in the village. But if you want, reassure yourself first. See some real doctors.
Radzik smiled. “I’ll return in two weeks with an answer for you.”
More than two weeks passed before I heard from Radzik. It was harvest season, so I was out in the fields nearly seventeen hours day after day. While I harvested, Anna cleaned out the stables, milked the cows and cared for our livestock. At the same time, she’d be caring for Emilia, our baby. When she finished she’d go back into our house, mend clothes and make dinner.
Each night Emilia woke up crying three times. Three times each night I rose with my wife to keep her company during the feeding. Not that Anna needed me, but I liked to watch her. She’d open up her nightgown and give Emilia to suck, with a dreamy look of contentment. Anna seemed younger than ever in the candlelight, her hair a golden river, no longer parted or hidden under a scarf, and her skin glowed. As soon as Emilia burped, Anna put her back in her little crib. We’d look at the baby together and smile. Then I’d take Anna’s hand and we’d stumble to bed. Each day, while nodding off in the field, I’d find myself wondering why I’d been disappointed by the birth of a baby girl for even an instant.
Finally Radzik did me the honor of coming to my cabin. He’d been the mayor since I was a small boy and I’d always looked up to him as he passed through town in his black carriage. Even as a child, I knew I’d never have such a carriage.
Radzik arrived after Anna had set a pot of vegetables on the open hearth. She’d set out our wooden dishes and spoons. I sat on a bench waiting to be served. Radzik sat across from me, and bragged about his health. He asked for a small beer, and even though it was too early to drink, I gave him one. He made a sour face as pulled on it. He didn’t complain, he wanted to keep the conversation friendly. But then he added, “No ice, I presume.”
“Where would I get ice? And even if I could, where would I store it?”
“The same place I do, the Modikna caves.”
“If I tried your men would kill me.”
“No doubt you’re right. I’m just pointing out that there are places where you can shelter it. And no one would blame you.”
I didn’t bother to argue. I really was tired.
“So…“Are you in?” I asked.
“Fully. I’ll tell him my symptoms; drop the names of famous doctors who’d seen me. Not that he’d know any of them. Then I’ll grumble because they didn’t find anything wrong.”
I stifled a yawn, tried to turn it into a smile. “I’ll enjoy seeing his face after he tries to sell you medicine. Guaranteed to cure whatever ails you.”
A few days later Radzik and I visited the man who was never wrong. He ignored me and fawned all over Radzik. “Please sit down your Excellency. Please have a cup of tea, your Excellency. Can I get you anything, your Excellency?”
As he handed Radzik a steaming cup of tea, he gestured with his head to a bucket and an empty can as if to say, “Water’s good enough for you.”
The talk moved to Radzik’s pretend illness, a wily adversary that randomly attacked different parts of his body.
The man who was never wrong felt sure he could help.
“How can you help when the best doctors in the entire region couldn’t?” Radzik asked.
“They couldn’t find the source of your pain because it hasn’t manifested itself to them, only to you. Its source lies deep within. Think of it this way. Imagine an invisible worm. It enters your body and swims through your blood, depositing an undetectable poison. This worm belongs to the spirit world; it’s not an actual worm. And a doctor trained only in medicine has no tools to fight it off.”
“But you do,” I said, keeping my tone even.
“Yes I can do this,” he answered confidently.
Radzik paled, took deep breaths, face and body contorted in pain as he fell to knees. “Oh, oh, there it is again.”
I bit back a laugh, but something in his voice made me pull up, an overwhelming, ache. It worried me, so I bent down and squeezed his shoulder. I stayed silent as The man who was never wrong mumbled a spell, his eyes half-closed.
Minutes later, Radzik had regained his strength. “Am I cured?” he asked.
The forest-gypsy’s manner shifted from sober to confident. “You will never be totally cured. The worm’s attached itself to your soul. If I removed it, it would kill you. But I can quiet the worm, make the pain go away.
I’d thought Radzik’s attack was part of the charade but no, I could see it in his eyes, how afraid he was, how much he relied on the healing powers of the man who was never wrong.
The man who was never wrong turned to me. He gave me a disturbing look. It was as if he saw me as someone who couldn’t possibly challenge him and was not worth fighting. I felt a chill roll down my back as I imagined the future. Neither Anna nor I would visit him again. Neither would the few villagers who believed us. Then one day he’d be gone, along with all of Radzik’s wealth, spent to prevent that terrible pain from returning. And I foresaw the day Radzik would make his way into his yard, where there was a row of oak trees, and where he’d go one by one, as is our custom, embracing the trees and crying, saying goodbye to them because he knew he would not return.
When autumn came the following year, the leaves in Radzik’s yard didn’t flutter to earth but cried like newborn infants.
- Solitary Owl Seeks…
- Parry, Riposte, Recover