This week’s weird fiction is not very weird at all.
Occasionally, the Deep Ones discussion group over at LibraryThing will throw one of these up in the voting process.
Review: “Old Pipes and the Dryad”, Frank R. Stockton, 1885.
Frank R. Stockton’s name is probably familiar to very few readers younger than me, and he’s mostly remembered for one title: “The Lady or the Tiger?”. I have reviewed one story by him before, an early time travel paradox story called “The Philosophy of Relative Existences”.
“Old Pipes and the Dryad” has the cadence and setting of a fairy tale with moral lessons about duty.
In a mountain village, Old Pipes gets his name by playing his pipes and every evening calling home the cattle that have been grazing in the mountain pastures.
However, Old Pipes is getting old. He’s seventy years old and, in fact, his breath has failed to the point where the cattle no longer hear his pipes. However, in appreciation for all his work through the years, the villagers don’t tell him this. They keep paying his salary as always and quietly send three children out every evening to gather the cattle in. Old Pipes keeps up his routine and lives with his mother still.
One evening, encountering the children, Old Pipes inadvertently learns the truth from one of the children.
Being honorable, Old Pipes tells his mother the truth. She doesn’t believe it and is worried how they will live without his salary. Nonetheless, Old Pipes sets out for the village to return the money he now knows is charity and not wages.
On the way there, he hears sounds from a tree, a “Dryad-tree”. He finds the key and frees the Dryad.
She is very grateful and glad to be free from her prison. She kisses him on both cheeks and asks what she can do for him. He only asks, now aware of his age and lack of energy, that she walk the rest of the way to the village and return the money to the Chief Villager.
Knowing she would disapprove, Old Pipes doesn’t tell his mother that he met a Dryad. He only tells her gave the money to a person to deliver to the village. His mother is aghast at his trust and is still worried how they will live without his wages.
The next day Old Pipes gets up to cut wood. He feels strong and vigorous. He doesn’t connect that to the Dryad’s kisses. He has forgotten that each kiss of a Dryad reverses aging by ten years.
For her part, the Dryad doesn’t return the money. She is sure the village would not take money away from a man who has served them so long and faithfully. In fact, she secretly put the money back in Old Pipes’ pocket where he finds it later on.
That evening, full of his new energy, Old Pipes plays just for his own amusement. The music is even better than before. Below, in the valley, the villagers are pleased and surprised to hear the pipes though they don’t think it’s Old Pipes playing.
On the way down to the village, Old Pipes meets the Dryad who explains how she has rejuvenated him and why she returned the money. Still, Old Pipes continues to the village to return the money. There he’s told they are very happy to hear his playing and that he certainly, now, will be earning his money.
However, there is one individual not pleased with all this: an “Echo-dwarf”.
In the valley, each Echo-dwarf is assigned a sound to echo; indeed, they are compelled by their nature to do so. This Echo-dwarf is the one who mimicked the sound of Old Pipes playing. He’s gotten rather used to not having to do his job, of having his entire day devoted to sloth, even though Old Pipes, at his prime, only played for a half an hour a day.
The Echo-dwarf encounters the Dryad and learns the reason for his reversal of pleasure, and he begins to scheme. He wants the Dryad back in the tree.
He meets Old Pipes one day. Old Pipes is looking for the Dryad. Now younger himself, he realizes just how frail his mother is, and he wants the Dryad’s kisses to make her younger too. That’s a fine idea, says Echo-dwarf. There’s just one problem. That only works when the Dryad kisses someone who freed her from a tree. She needs to be locked up again to be freed by Old Pipes’ mother. Echo-dwarf plans on breaking the key to the tree once the Dryad is in it again and imprison her for good.
Old Pipes finds the Dryad and states his desire with Echo-dwarf in tow but hiding from the Dryad. She doesn’t fall for the trick, and Echo-dwarf ends up locked in the tree.
The Dryad secretly kisses Old Pipes’ mother, secretly because the mother thinks Dryads are evil. The local children don’t fall for Echo-dwarf’s claim to be an imprisoned Dryad – though its presence in the tree means the sound of Old Pipes’ playing echoes from an odd spot in the valley.
So, taken by the sight of their new bliss, the Dryad bestows more kisses on Old Pipes and his mother, eventually making them 20 and 60, respectively
The Dryad even frees Echo-dwarf who has learned his lesson and is just happy to return to his old life.
The story ends with the Dryad going back into her tree for the winter, confident that Old Pipes will free her in the spring.
But that doesn’t happen. The story, which ends so well for everybody, doesn’t end well for the Dryad. Old Pipes show up in the spring to free her from the tree and finds it has been destroyed in a storm. The story concludes “And what became of the Dryad no one ever knew”.
So dutiful Old Pipes and his mother are blessed by the Dryad, a joyous figure who is grateful. But the story ends badly for the one character who made all this happiness possible. Not weirdness, but certainly that’s unexpected in this modern fairy tale.