The second paper assignment in freshman Humanomics is to write a short story, a type of homage to Washington Irving’s “The Devil and Tom Walker” but from the point of view of Matt Ridley’s The Rational Optimist. The story below is by Will Nutter and is posted with his permission.

In the depths of a marshland somewhere a few miles from the coast of the Atlantic resided a mysterious man who was rarely seen, and was rumored to be the keeper of a long lost treasure of unknown origin. He was a man of little reputation; close friends only of those who have sought him out and learned the secret to finding him among the jungle of trees. Those who were able to venture into the muck and find him hiding in the dark were rumored to be afforded the knowledge of where, and how to find the treasure that he kept hidden.

In a not too distant town whose footholds were rooted in the coast, and whose sustenance came from the sea, lived a fisherman. He was of simple nature and took advantage of his good fortune in living near the ocean and made his living harvesting its goods. The fisherman took pride in his craftsmanship and made it a point to see the process of fishing through from beginning to end as his father had taught him, and his father before him. He bound together stringy plant matter from nearby trees to form his nets and carved rocks and shells for use as hooks–all of which had to be completed multiple times a week to keep up with the needs of his family.

Most early mornings the fisherman would embark on his usual run through the marshy forest on the search for supplies for the full day of work ahead. He would walk along fallen trees and hop from mossy boulder to the next in attempt to avoid falling into the muck and being claimed by the earth.

Out of the corner of the fisherman’s eye was a figure holding a large sack across his back.

The fisherman froze and yelled out, “Who’s there? Who’s standing over there?”

It quickly answered by a warm and charismatic “Whoa there traveler, I am just like you. I have walked these forests all my life.”

The unknown figure seemed to ponder for a moment then motioned to the bag on his shoulder and calmly said, “You see this here knapsack? I got more gold in here than any common man seen in his lifetime; certainly more than you’ve seen.” He then smiles and waves the fisherman over and says “come on over and take a look.”

The fisherman stares in awe at the sum of gold that the stranger holds in his possession and eagerly asks “Say, would you mind parting with some of that? I spend all of my time gathering supplies and fishing. Day in and day out, that is all I do.”

Sage-like and knowingly the figure smiles and says, “Do not look to me for loans. For that you will have to see a man named Tom. I believe he lives in the same town as you. Go to him and get yourself a loan and use that money to make yourself a little operation. Instead of spending your time catching fish, make yourself a sack full of nets and hooks. You have the skill but you have got to get yourself some proper equipment to make them. Maybe that way you wont have to spend all your day out fishing. I have seen you, and you are better at making nets and hooks anyway. Do that and maybe, one day, you might have a sack full of gold of your own and you can come back and return the favor for this advice.”

Bewildered and confused, the fisherman continued on his path, leaving the figure where he stood. The next day on his way to the coast he passed the local lenders office, where a sign hung labeled, “Tom Walker’s Lending”. The fisherman withdrew a sizeable sum from Mr. Walker, unsure what he would do or how this little endeavor would end. He followed the figure’s advice and used the money to buy carving tools to craft hooks and some higher quality fiber to make his nets out of.

He made nets and hooks of a quality that the town had never seen. He sold to the entire lot of fisherman, and was out of the fishing game for good. Within the first few months of establishing his hook and net producing business he was free of the debt that Tom had bestowed upon him. He even thanked good old Tom for the opportunity. From then on a typical day in the life of the fisherman consisted of crafting, selling, and a newfound allotment of free time.

The fisherman went back to find the man in the woods and thank him for his advice, and brought with him a sack full of money to repay him. He waited and waited for the mysterious man but to no avail. Then came along a man who yelled out “Who’s there? Who’s standing over there?”