One day, the river through the land stopped flowing. Over the past few month, it had run slower at times, but it had never stopped. No one was prepared. The crops went dry, and the people of the cities and towns grew thirsty.
The leaders of the community gathered. They knew they must send an expedition to the river's source to discover what had happened.
The journey would be treacherous. Whoever took it would have to make their way along the empty riverbed into the thick forests. It would be difficult because the trees hung low, and many predators would be ravenous from their thirst. Once past the woods, there were mountains, some of the tallest in the land. They had jagged, dangerous cliffs and vast chasms. No one who'd climbed them had ever returned.
The healthiest members of the community were called and offered enough riches that their family would live comfortably for two generations if they could get the river flowing again.
They gave five people water and supplies from the storeroom and sent them into the forest. After five days, the river didn't return, so they gave five more people water and supplies and sent them into the forest. Again, after five days, no water.
The water reserves were running low, and the people of the cities and towns suffered from fatigue, headaches, and nausea. The leaders only had enough supplies for three people and sent them into the forest.
Still, the river never ran.
One man, Garan, a husband and father, could no longer sit in his home and watch his family suffer. He kissed them all goodbye and said he'd go on his own to find what had happened to the water. He left with only a small flask of water and enough berries to last him three days and hoped he'd find more supplies along the way.
Garan's journey was arduous. The river bed was dry, and he couldn't find even a puddle of water to drink. He was constantly followed by animals that waited for him to rest so they could feast on his flesh. Occasionally, he'd cross the remnants of camps made by those who'd left before him. There were no signs of survivors.
The mountains were treacherous; many times, the rocks crumbled beneath him, and it was only luck that his climbing rope kept him safe. Not everyone who'd climbed these cliffs was as fortunate. He'd find the bodies of people from his community who had fallen to their death.
By the time Garan had reached the top, five days had gone by, and he was delirious with thirst. He looked down from the mountain at the cities and towns below and knew they'd all be suffering. Many people had probably died, and he hoped his wife and children were not among them.
The dry riverbed wound its way through a lush valley, and with every bend, it narrowed in width until it eventually came to a rocky basin at the base of a hill. Protruding out of the hill was a large boulder split up the center.
Above the boulder and halfway up the hill was another rock crest, where a small cabin sat. Garan climbed up and noticed a small rock well beside it. He peered inside but found it empty.
He knocked on the door of the cabin.
"Enter..." said a feeble voice from inside.
He opened the door and found a frail man lying in a cot in the corner. Garan knew this man was close to death.
"You must be thirsty. Drink from that pitcher," the man said.
Garan lost his manners and quickly took the clay jug and gulped the water down.
"Have you come about the river?" the man asked.
"I wish I could show you, but now I don't think I can leave this bed."
"Show me what?"
The frail man pointed his finger to a bucket in the corner. "At the top of the hill is a lake. If you fill that bucket and pour it down the well, the river will flow again."
"What do you mean?"
"Don't ask me how it works; I've never been able to figure it out. But sixty years ago, when the river ran dry, I was sent on a journey like you, and met an old man like me, who told me the same story."
"Are you saying you are the source of the river?"
"I'm saying that for the past sixty years, I've poured water from the lake down the well every day, and every day the river has run more than I poured in."
The old man's story was unbelievable, but if it could save his community it was worth a try.
The old man wheezed. "As you can see, those days are behind me. I can no longer carry the bucket or climb the hill. I need someone to do it for me. It's what I told the others."
"Others? You saw people from my community?"
"I did indeed, but they weren't willing to help."
The old man's face grew sad. "Once you pick up that bucket, you make a promise to do the job until you can do it no more."
"What do you mean?"
"The river only flows when the well is filled each day. The moment you stop, the river stops as well."
Garan quickly understood. Once he picked up the bucket, he could never quit without harming the cities, the towns, the people, and all the animals that relied on the river to flow.
But if he didn't pick it up, they would surely die—including his wife and children.
"It's not an easy choice. It's a thankless job and no one will know what you do for them. Even worse, it's far too dangerous to venture up this mountain, so you'll never see the people you love again."
Garan wanted to ask the old man why he did it all those years—but he already knew the answer.
He picked up the bucket and stepped out of the cabin. He followed the path up the hill. At the top was a luscious wild garden surrounding a crystal clear lake. He'd never seen such a beautiful sight.
He dipped the bucket in the fresh waters and resisted the urge to taste it. He walked it down the hill and poured it down the well. It didn't take long for him to hear the sounds of splashing water from the crack in the boulder.
He raced down the hill and dove into the pool of water that gathered below. Quickly it spilled over its edges and into the empty riverbed. What started as a trickle soon formed into a swift-flowing river. Garan knew it wouldn't take long for it to make its way down the mountain and to the people desperately waiting for it.
He walked up the hill and entered the cabin, unsurprised to find the man had passed away. Later that day, Garan buried him in a quiet spot in the garden.
Garan remained at the cabin, committed to filling the well every day. He greatly missed his wife and children, but when he felt most lonely, he reminded himself that they wouldn’t have survived if he'd never taken on the responsibility of the well.
It wasn't until sixty years had passed and he too grew old and frail that he couldn't climb the hill and fill the bucket. He waited for many days, hoping that soon someone would come to replace him.
It wasn't until the fourteenth day that there was a knock at the door.
A young woman opened the door.
"You must be thirsty,” Garan said. “Drink from that pitcher."
The woman was more controlled than he had ever been and poured it into a cup before drinking it.
"Have you come about the river?"
Although Garan couldn't climb the hill, he could still get himself out of bed to show the woman what needed to be done. He picked up the bucket and carried it outside. She followed.
"At the top of the hill is a lake. If you fill that bucket and pour it down the well, the river will flow again."
He expected her to have questions, but she didn't speak and only stared at him.
He continued, "Don't ask me how it works—"
"Is this what you've been doing all this time?" the woman asked.
"Are you the reason the river flows?"
"Have you been doing this for sixty years?"
He nodded again.
She moved closer. "The elders of the community told us when the river had gone dry before. They said the strongest, healthiest people had been sent out and none of them had survived. After the water was flowing again, they sent out search parties and found all the cowards and all the bodies—except for one."
Garan stared at her. There was something familiar about her eyes.
"My grandfather Garan had left, not for money or reward, but to help his wife and children, and because of him, I'm here now."
Garan embraced his granddaughter and cried with joy. She told him that his wife and children never stopped loving him and believed long before anyone's search parties had gone out that he was the reason for the river waters to return.
She also had one more gift for him.
"I'm not alone. I was scouting ahead when I found you. More are on their way."
Later that day, the others joined his granddaughter, and he showed them the lake and the well. They organized and carried the load together and sent someone down the mountain for more help. Over the next few weeks, others arrived, and a small community grew around the cabin to keep the river flowing.
Garan lived his last days on the mountain, revered by the community's young people and cared for by his granddaughter until he passed away.