(a tale of the British Isles)
One night, Ian visited his Aunt Elizabeth and Uncle Toby’s house. They lived down near the marshes, and Ian liked to see them regularly. It was a cool autumn evening, and the three of them were enjoying it. Elizabeth prepared a small feast, and afterward they told tales and laughed.
Ian planned to leave early — before dark fell — but he was having too much fun, so he stayed. By the time he was ready to walk home, it was nearing midnight and pitch dark outside but for a sky full of stars.
“Stay the night,” Uncle Toby said. “You never know what trouble there’ll be out there near the marshes.”
Ian just laughed and said, “Don’t be silly. I’ll be just fine. What trouble could there be?”
Aunt Elizabeth shook her head and said, “Toby, tell him about Will the blacksmith.”
Uncle Toby nodded, “Yes. It’s a terrible tale, that one. Sit down and let me tell it to you. It will serve as a warning.”
Ian loved his uncle’s stories, so he sat down again.
Toby began: “William Smith was a blacksmith, and a mean fellow he was.”
“Oh, mean as a snake,” Elizabeth added. “Bitter as gall. Bold as brass.”
“That he was,” Toby agreed. “When William died, he was headed for the gates of hell. But upon his arrival, St. Peter offered him a second chance.”
“Right as rain, that’s what he offered that blacksmith,” Elizabeth nodded. “What a saint that Peter is!”
“But there was a condition, you see,” Toby said. “William had to lead a wholesome life, or he would return straight to those gates.”
“Naturally,” Elizabeth said. “That’s only fair.”
“And did he live a good life?” Ian asked. He was certain this story did not have a happy ending because Uncle Toby’s stories seldom did, but he knew he was expected to ask.
Uncle Toby shook his head and said, “Not at all. He was no more generous or kind or good than ever he was, that William Smith.”
“Cheap as dirt he was,” Elizabeth said. “That man had a heart as dark as death and as cold as steel.”
“So St. Peter punished him?” Ian asked.
“He did indeed,” said Uncle Toby. “William Smith was doomed to wander the earth, in purgatory forever, but St. Peter gave him one grace: A hot piece of coal to warm him in the chilly months and to light his way through the marshes.”
“And that’s what he does to this day,” Elizabeth said. “That cold-hearted blacksmith is out there haunting the marshes. So Ian, you must watch for the light and stay away!”
“He’s the Will o’ the Wisp,” Toby said. “You’ve heard of him, of course.”
Ian had indeed heard of him. People always told tales of the Will o’ the Wisp. Some said he guarded great treasures and led those brave enough to follow him to certain riches.
“I have heard of him,” Ian said. “And if I see this Will o’ the Wisp, perhaps he’ll lead me to a treasure, don’t you think?”
“Not a chance,” said Uncle Toby, shaking his head.
Aunt Elizabeth grabbed the young man’s hands and pleaded, “Don’t go, Ian. Please don’t go.”
But Ian only laughed. “I’ll be just fine. That’s only a story,” he said. “And now I shall be on my way.”
He set off into the misty evening.
Ian was whistling, enjoying the cool night, when suddenly he saw a bright light traveling before him. This time he thought of his uncle’s tall tales, and he laughed again. He squinted to see if he could tell who was carrying the light, and he was sure he recognized one of Uncle Toby’s neighbors. He thought the man was headed to the village, and figured it would be fine to have a light to lead him along. Besides, it might be nice to have the company, he thought.
He called out, “Hello there. It’s Ian here. May I join you?”
There was no answer, so Ian kept walking, faster and faster, and occasionally he called out to the man. He was grateful for the light leading his way, but no matter how much he picked up his pace, the little fellow stayed ahead.
Soon Ian thought they had walked a little too far, and he wondered if he’d taken a wrong turn. He shook his head. Surely the fellow with the light was headed to the village. After all, there was no other place along this road to go.
So he kept following the man with the light, but suddenly, without warning, Ian heard the sound of rushing water, and when he looked down, he discovered he was standing at the edge of a precipice. Beneath him was a rushing waterfall, a waterfall he had never seen.
“Where am I?” he cried to the stars.
Then he called out to the stranger, “Hello there! Are you there?” He no longer saw him and wondered where he could have gone.
And just as he wondered that, he saw the lantern carrier leap across the chasm, the light raised high over his head. Before Ian could say another word, the fellow howled a malicious and terrifying laugh.
Ian was afraid. He could not move, and he watched in terror as the fellow ahead blew out his light. That’s when Ian realized he was miles from home, standing in a night as dark as ink at the edge of a steep precipice, and he understood why he should never have questioned his uncle’s stories. Surely this was the Will o’ the Wisp, and Ian did not think there was a treasure to be found.
He turned around and ran and ran, but some say Ian was never seen again.