It is a fact universally acknowledged that a single man not in possession of a good fortune must be in want of one.
This being the case, it should be no surprise that our Hero – let us for the sake of this narrative call him “Bill” – set off one bright Summer morning with his mule, piled high with gear; his stoutest walking boots; a few days’ rations; and a faded scrap of parchment, which he tucked inside his waistcoat.
Little by little, Bill made his way up into the hills, stopping now and then to take a few bites of bread and cut himself a corner of cheese from the kerchief-wrapped bundle riding like a proud cherry atop the mule’s canvas-frosted back. Whenever he stopped, Bill would withdraw the increasingly moist palimpsest from his shirt and squint at it intently, checking and double-checking the faint lines scrawled on its surface.
The sun climbed higher. The tweets and twitters of early-morning birds gave way to the buzzes and chirrups of grasshoppers. The cheese began to smell somewhat. So did Bill.
Around mid-afternoon, in a shady gully, beneath a gnarled sycamore, Bill called to the mule to halt. He smoothed out the crumpled parchment once again and turned it this way and that, shielding his eyes from the glare, as he stepped back and forth across the grass. Once he had found precisely the correct spot, Bill marked it with the parchment, weighed down by a rock. On one corner of the stained and messy map were scratched the words, “Heer micht youwe finde it of proffit to digge.”
The pack-cloth fell from the mule’s back with a clatter of tools and a spill of rope. Bill rummaged in the pile of tent poles and cooking pots, until he found the old, sturdy garden spade he had bought years before, just in case he should one day acquire a garden. As Bill strode back to his marker the mule, comfortably bored in the way only a beast of burden can be, ambled off to drink a little from the brook beside the sycamore.
Balancing on one leg, Bill carefully trod the tip of the spade into the ground. The thick leather of his boot warped and flexed as he bore down, and he worked the handle back and forth until the iron blade was buried to its hilt. Then slowly, mightily, Bill leant back with all the weight he could muster. His spade’s handle creaked and bowed; threatened to snap. The iron neck of it bent a little but then – then! – the soil gave way and, with a great up-rushing tear of roots, Bill found himself overbalancing; and had to stumble backwards a few paces to avoid tumbling to the warm, tussocky ground.
Smiling, almost laughing with delight, Bill bent his back and heaved up the shovelful of knotted earth. He tucked the spade-shaft under his arm and splayed his fingers beneath the flat, pitted back of the blade.
Tentatively, reverently, Bill caressed the pile of dirt. This, at last, was it! He had dug at the very spot the map had indicated. Surely, he had more than earned whatever treasure had lain hidden here for so many years?
He eased his fingertips into the heavy soil. Pinching and crumbling, he broke the lumps apart, and ground them to dust; slowly at first, but then faster and more frantically as his torn and bleeding fingernails found . . .
Bill swallowed hard. He blinked. He stared at the pile of dust on the ground. It occurred to him that he smelled somewhat like a cheese rind, and somewhat like a mule.
It occurred to him that neither of these things suited him well.
With a snort, Bill wrapped the map around the rock, and dropped it into the hole. He kicked the dirt over the top of it, and stomped off to catch his mule. That was the last time, Bill thought, that he would head out on a fool’s errand. All that way, and all that effort, and for what? He had tried following the map, reading the instructions; he had even lowered himself to actually digging, for goodness’ sakes!
Tired, dirty, and feeling a little hollow inside, Bill loaded up his mule again and they both set out for home.