Rappers on the bus

Got stuck in traffic yesterday, so badly that it took us an hour and a half to extirpate ourselves from Marseilles. Fifteen minutes after the ride started, two blokes behind me started chatting each other up. Well, chatting each other up in a ‘bro’ sort of way, I mean: becoming friends, all the while carefully mentionning their love of pretty girls just in case there was any ambiguity, in a way that reminded me of what so many women do when getting acquainted with a man–mentioning The Boyfriend as often as possible in case someone accused them of sending mixed signals after the first 94827 mentions went unnoticed.

Funny how so many men sound the same when trying to get into someone’s good graces. ‘Chatting up’ often amounts to a long, very long sales pitch. What they do now. What they’ve done. What they like. What they are like. There are questions interspersed in the middle of course, most of the times (after all, most men are reasonably competent when it comes to social interaction), but they’re not the focus of conversation. What they’re really here for is try and get out as much information about themselves as they possibly can. That’s how I learned that both these young men were rappers, that one of them MC’d for a crew with a name in the form of a disreputable pun about a famous landmark in Aix, that they both were very proud of drinking like fishes, partying like there’s no tomorrow and shagging like rabbits (but only girls, remember), that one came from the Alps and was recently back from Paris where partying had wrung him dry, that they loved travelling, especially to faraway, exotic places, that they wrote very deep shit, man, that they knew the value of keeping calm and carrying on even in the direst and most exhausting circumstances like their bus being late, and that one of them was performing this very night. I also leaned their names and the name of their crew, which I subsequently googled because I had nothing better to do (I considered adding one of them on Facebook just for giggles, but I’m not that stalkerish). They talked quite loud and, entertaining as the conversation was, I considered politely asking them to shut the fuck up at some point because I’d had a long day too, when one of them exclaimed–

‘Look! Over there! A rainbow! Crap, it’s behind the building, you’re going to miss it. No, no, it’s back! Look!’

And that’s how they started talking about how cool rainbows were and comparing the best rainbows they had seen in their lives in the most impressive locations. They still had the same teenage world-weary tones, but they were talking about rainbows. Just like that, they went from annoying to endearing. I suppose I’ve been spending too much time around teenagers…

That Internet being the wonderful thing it is, here’s what the first one’s music sounds like: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PZLt5bJIz94

Presidential

First presidential election I was aware of: 1995. France’s longest-running president, François Mitterand, is retiring. This is the time when I learn about the difference between right-wing and left-wing, about the environmentalist party (that was still a thing in France back then), and about the infamous Jean-Marie Le Pen, the man who became a big name in French politics by barking like a mad dog about how evil foreigners are and how we should re-establish the death penalty. We’ve just learned about the French Revolution in class, and I’m fascinated with politics. I put the ballot in the enveloppe myself. I’m ten years old, and a few weeks prior, after my teacher ripped off a page from my copybook for not having used the right layout, I’ve written ‘They cut off trees to make paper’ across the page before handing it to her, which left her speechless. I’m confident we’ll manage to change the world. After all, we already did, once.

Second-ever presidential election: I’m seventeen, six months shy of my majority. I can’t vote yet, but when they announce that Jean-Marie Le Pen has arrived second, and will run against Jacques Chirac for the title of president, I decide to do what I can. I go on marches and rallies against the National Front, in a purely symbolic attempt to remind everyone that most of our country is still not okay with voting for a neo-fascist. In my school, someone has printed out a picture of a mass grave in a Nazi concentration camp, plastered it to the school wall and scribbled ‘Do you really want to vote for the man who denied THIS?’ (among other things, Le Pen was a notorious Holocaust denier). In the end, Le Pen is soundly defeated, and everyone breathes out a sigh of relief.

The next elections are far less eventful. A new concept has been introduced: the ‘useful vote’. People are told that if they don’t vote for a candidate from one of the majority parties, they will scatter votes and somehow this will magically result in having a member of the Le Pen dynasty make the second round of the election again. At uni, I’m a member of the environmentalist student union. Other, bigger unions loathe us, not because they disagree with us, but because we ‘divide student votes’, according to them. They brilliantly exert democracy by ripping off our posters at election times and harassing us at meetings. Two more presidents are elected. They reach unheard-of levels of unpopularity. Everybody talks about the economic crisis, about insecurity, and later, terrorism. Of course there are still far fewer victims of terrorism and insecurity than, say, domestic violence or alcoholism (not to mention traffic accidents), but then have electoral debates ever been rational? Never mind, we vote. It’s still a democracy, or so we’re told. And there are still people who want to change the world.

2017. Emmanuel Macron, a centrist-liberal who wants to change absolutely nothing to the current economic system, is elected. Nobody knows why. Most of those who voted for him did so out of the conviction that they had to ‘vote usefully’, meaning that you have to vote for the person the polls tell you will be elected, or else you’re not on the winning team or something. Apparently someone changed the definition of ‘democracy’ while everybody was sleeping. Marine Le Pen, daughter of Jean-Marie who proudly upholds the family tradition of raging fascism, gets one third of the votes. One third.

I still want to change the world, I really do. I teach my students about human rights and women’s rights and I teach them how to recognise plants on school trips so that hopefully they will learn what biodiversity means, I buy organic food, I mend my clothes, I take public transport all the time, I avoid taking planes, I’ve chosen to work part-time because I believe that excess individual wealth is a source of both social inequalities and environmental disaster, and it’s useless to have political principles if you don’t live by them yourself. I try to do my share. It’s tiny, but I’m doing what I can. I want to change the world. And I know I’m not the only one.

But for God’s sake, people. We need your help out here.

The Island Girls

I posted this story a few years ago on melimuses, a Livejournal community created after the publication of Amal El-Mohtar’s The Honey Month. One of the challenges was to write stories, in the spirit of pastiche, inspired by various sorts of honey. I thought of a rare sort of honey made from the flowers of arbutus trees, trees with clusters of white flowers and red berries that grow around the Mediterranean. Having recently come back from a holiday in the place this story references, I wanted to put it back up. It is loosely inspired by a legend about the islands in Hyères, or Golden Islands, although I have no idea how ancient this ‘legend’ actually is.

They were four maidens, swimming in the tideless sea. They were maidens, but they were turned into islands.

Pirates from Greece and Barbary often swooped on the kingdom, yet the king let his daughters swim in the high sea, alone. His warriors liked to watch them from their ships, glittering like nereids, and hoped to catch a peek of their naked breasts, yet the king let them swim. It was said that the maidens could swim so fast that their hair turned into seaweed and their arms into foam, and if you tried to catch them your hands would close on sea water, and you would only hear their laugh.

One day the king heard bells, and saw foreign sails on the horizon. He ran to the shore and heard his daughters playing. The enemy sails were approaching and he called out to them, Swim back!

They dove into the waves and darted to the shore. They were so far, the ships so close. And what king believes folk legends about seaweed and invisible girls?

So he prayed that the gods would spare his daughters’ honour. And all the time they swam, desperately. One, the fastest of all, was almost touching the shore. But her father prayed on. Soon the gods heard him: for the honour of a king’s daughters, they can be moved to act. One by one the girls froze. They swelled and rose in the waves, their bodies breaking, screaming in agony, engulfing the pirates’ ships in their death of rocks and salt. For they were dying; and the swiftest one gave one last cry to her father and clung to the shore and her arms turned to sand, and her pleading tears gathered in a bitter pool between them.

They’re maidens still, stranded in the deep sea. But they grew fruitful: like Daphne gave men her laurel leaves and Arethusa her sweet waters, their rocky limbs bore myrtles and arbutus trees. Summer or winter, they flower, green and fragrant with pines, shrub oaks and heather, and centuries have made them drowsy and appeased. Yet how could they forget how their father prayed on, when they called to him for mercy? How he gave up their lives while his warriors feasted in the port? The gods made the arbutus trees bloom with chaste white bells in their honour, every spring. But the islands couldn’t forget, and when the flowers turned to fruit, their berries were prickly, hard and tart, and bright red, like the blood the maidens never got to shed.

So the gods sent the bees and told them to turn the flowers into the whitest, sweetest honey they could make. But the bees knew how the maidens had been wronged, and thought that men shouldn’t forget. They harvested the thick white honey so the gods would be pleased, honey whose first taste was sweet on the tongue. Only after came the bitterness: a choking taste like poison, coating the throat, stinging the palate, yet mingled with such delicious softness that it is impossible not to taste it again, and again, until it is so bitter that the eyes fill with tears and the throat contracts into speechlessness, so strong is the taste of grief long forgotten, so pungent it made even the gods cry.

Thus the bees keep the memory of the island maidens.

Letting the desert in

I know the news may be properly shocking, but there it is: Trees are not our enemies.

Trees are not dirty. Yes, sometimes they produce pollen or fruit, and if you park a car underneath, it may get dirty. Sometimes they are even home to birds, and birds–the horror!–defecate like any other animal. Sometimes they grow roots under the asphalt and bend it a little. It’s not convenient when you carry a wheeled suitcase or pram, I’ll grant you that. Some people even call it dangerous. People could fall and everything. And there’s the shadow, too, it’s not like we can afford to waste an single sunray when we spend our days locked up in offices under artificial lighting, can we? I understand.

Recently, I’ve heard talks to:

Suggest that we destroy the shrubbery around the building we live in to create new parking space.

Suggest cutting trees that ‘threaten to fall any moment’, also around our building (I’ve yet to find out which trees that would be, as they are all perfectly healthy).

Cut off most plane trees in the city centre–as a matter of fact, I had to get up early last Wednesday to protest against their (unadvertised) destruction. The city council argues that they are hopelessly damaged by parasites and could fall off any day. When pressed to prove why trees were so dangerous, they had to produce an example of a tree falling and killing a little girl a few years ago, in a city not our own. If one death every few years makes trees dangerous, I wonder how we can still live around cars.

Cut off the main branch of a venerable pine tree that is guilty of creating a little shadow in the neighbour’s garden. Despite being planted north of said garden, at a respectable distance.

I’ve also learned that the reason why most plants have been left to die in the school yard is that they were too costly to water.

I have news. Something that kills one or two people every few years in a country as large as France cannot be considered a danger, especially since we don’t seem to consider that all the deaths from pollution and road accidents don’t represent a significant danger either. Trees make cars dirty, yes, but… seriously? Have we even paused to wonder how ridiculous we sound when putting forward such arguments? Cutting a tree because then it will be easier to have a nice shiny car, really? I mean… I’m not even sure how I could argue against this one. Unless some people live in a parallel universe where clean cars save lives, I don’t even see what this has to do in actual reality.

Here is what trees do. They provide shade. They cool down the temperature in summer, incidentally helping reduce deaths from heat waves. They provide a home to birds and insects, including pollinisers. They smell good. They make people feel less stressed. They are beautiful and they make people proud. They’re quietly working to clean up our mess by absorbing carbon dioxyde. They prevent soil erosion. They give fruit.

My mother and I recently watched a documentary about the southern end of Patagonia, where, at some point, a man from Punta Arenas thus reffered to his father: ‘He did what any man should do in his life. He planted a tree, raised a child, and took part in social activism. That’s all.’

What anyone should do with their life indeed. As for those who call to destroy trees because they disliked the sight of pollen stains on their cars, how will they make up for it?

It’s a godless world. And it’s perfect.

After coming back from Tierra del Fuego and thinking about it a lot, I realised one thing. In our culture, there are many works that describe the sudden revelation that there is a God in the universe. It’s said to be a glorious thing, finding faith, pieces coming together all at once, sudden understanding, purpose and meaning found. Even lesser spiritual experiences are described as wonderful moments.

The opposite, realising that there is no God, or starting to doubt, is almost always portrayed as a grim experience: thinking there was someone with you and realising you are alone in a cold, empty universe that doesn’t care. I’ve yet to find a book or a film where the protagonist faces the certainty that God doesn’t exist and is not instantly distressed. Yet that is exactly what happened to me over there.

All right, not exactly. I’ve never believed in God. Unlike what our culture at large seems to believe, I’ve never imagined that there was a special spot for God or spirituality in my brain. It’s not that I’ve replaced God with materialism or a blind belief in science, or that somehow, my atheism has become some kind of faith to me: it’s just that everything I believe or value fits very snugly together in my head and leaves absolutely no space for any form of religion. Actually, I don’t even think of religion much, except on the (sadly more and more numerous) occasions when the media thrust fundamentalisms of all sorts in my face. But I did think about God on the Beagle Channel, although not in the way we’re taught to expect.

When we sailed between glaciers on the channel, everything was pure alien splendor. Everything existed quietly, outside the sphere of human activities, and we could have tried as hard as we wanted, there was nothing there that told us humans had any reason to be the centre of the world. It was a world for dolphins and albatrosses and tiny rayaditos fluttering on the shore, not people. And that was fine. A bit unsettling at the very first, but you get used to it, very quickly. And in that place so perfect by itself, how could one believe that there could be a God? How could one believe that one being could have orchestrated something so complete it didn’t need anything from humans? The idea of God seems trite when petrels whirl around you. A petrel doesn’t need a god. It doesn’t need an explanation, or an origin story. It is too perfect for anything that could be imagined by humans.

And that was fine. Being more certain than ever that we have no creator and we’re just going our merry way in a universe that doesn’t care felt comforting, not distressing. Who needs meaning when you can have perfection? I’ve been struggling to write although I would love to write pages upon pages about this place, simply because it’s a place that exists beyond words, a place where you don’t need words. The world is so much more precious when you’ve seen what perfection it could contain. The idea that it is a mere creation would taint it. I couldn’t doubt now that God doesn’t exist, and that is fine. It’s great.

It’s perfect.

From the Beagle Channel

As I mentioned, I recently visited my brother on his ship, in Tierra del Fuego. In nearly a year, I had talked to him very little, technology being much less helpful than we sometimes imagine. Inside Sonate, it smelled the same as on the day of their departure, a mixture of tar, iron and coffee, although it was considerably tidier than I remembered. According to everyone on board, leaving your dishes in the sink for the next day is a mistake you only make once on a ship. Finding food scraps and plates scattered everywhere after a rough night out at sea is the sort of thing that teaches you about cleanliness, and fast.

We met in Punta Arenas, on Magellan Straits, in the middle of the lanyrinthine pattern of channels and islands that makes up the south of the Chilean archipelago. My brother rode eleven hours on a bus just to welcome us, and then we rode back together, he and my mother and I, towards Ushuaia, or, Not The Southernmost City In The World as we found out. This honour belongs to Puerto Williams, a tiny little town cobbled together from corrugated iron on Navarino Island, where horses and dogs roam the streets freely and the customs occasionally open late if there was a party the night before. Going through the customs when you arrived on a sailing ship takes ages, but that’s just one of a million things you don’t ever realise if you’ve never spent time on a ship.

Sailing on the Beagle Channel is the sort of experience that is hard to put into words. After a few hours, there are no traces of human passage at all, anywhere. Have you ever been to a place with not a single pigeon in sight? Not a dandelion? Absolutely nothing brought there by travellers? That’s what it looks like over there. Of course, it wasn’t always like that. Extermination of the Fuegian people did not happen so long ago, and it’s a bit unnerving, in fact, to see so many pictures of them in Ushuaia, people clad in fur seals and staring at the camera with a blank expression, probably unaware of the fact that their genocide would be turned into a tourist attraction decades later, once all their land had been turned into pasture.

Now the channel is home to legions of birds, more than I had seen yet on any sea I’d visited, and cetaceans too. Dolphins followed us at times for brief moments, and we spied the blows of whales in the distance — or very close, on one occasion, when a humpback whale emerged right in front of the ship and sank under the hull, leaving everyone on board baffled and squealing.

We’re not the centre of the universe. Many places can thrive without us, and it’s a strange feeling to arrive in the middle of a land that is doing very well without humans and where everything, the cold, the gigantic ice fields, the forest growing in steep bogs where every step costs more than usual, tells you that you’re not quite welcome here. It’s even stranger to realise that the only reason that you cn be there at all is that you were part of the few people wealthy and lucky enough to make the trip in the first place, so I won’t pretend that this was some sort of humbling spiritual experience. I’ll just put it in coarse words because subtler ones have been failing me since: sailing in the Beagle Channel slapped me in the face with the fact that I didn’t deserve any of this beauty. Entire people were slaughtered there because other humans wanted more unnecessary meat to eat; whales were slaughtered all so that we could have whale oil to grease machinery and light our cities with, and now we seek contact with a lost natural wonderland as if it was a nurturing experience for our souls, when in fact our souls are the very last thing that matter there. We don’t matter. We should just thank the universe for being randomly born in it.

Time and Tim

I missed Tell A Fairy Tale Day this year, being away at the time, but there was a story I did want to include here. This is a tale my father used to tell us when we were children, and his birthday seemed like a good opportunity to publish it here (or at least, publish what I remember of it!). So, happy birthday, dad.

I have no idea where this story came from, if he made it up or drew the inspiration from somewhere. It’s a story about trees, about growing up, and learning to wait for what you want; but most of all, in a world where we pour concrete over fertile ground to park cars and then uproot century-old olive trees to decorate condominiums and skyscraper lobbies, I think it’s a story many grown-ups still need to hear.

 

Time and Tim

 

Once upon a time, there was a kingdom renowned for the fertility of its land and the depth of its forests. Beeches, willows and hazels sheltered myriads of birds and deer, birches swayed their branches between neatly-tilled fields, and the most prized possession a farmer could boast was a centuries-old oak tree. It was a country that never knew hunger, because even when wheat ran out, there would always be acorns and chestnuts to harvest. People there loved trees, and the king most of all.

The king was a kind man, whose only regret had been his inability to father a child. But even that blessing came in the end, and after half a century, he became the proud father of a baby boy. Prince Tim grew up as one of the most beloved boys in the kingdom. There were some who said that the king’s kind-hearted nature was doing him a disservice, and that he doted a little too much on his only child. Indeed, the boy soon became known for throwing tantrums if his every whim was not immediately obeyed, and the king never ceased to invent ways to satisfy him. It was a shame, some people said, that such a lovely prince should turn into a spoiled child.

One thing Tim loved most of all was to go on long rides with his father across the forests surrounding the castle. He loved hearing birds sing and watch the play of light through the leaves. One day, when he was six, Tim told his father:

‘I want a tree of my own! Right before my bedroom window! Will you give me a tree, Dad?’

His father was overjoyed that his son had inherited his love of trees. He rode through the forest until he found a tall, strong oak tree which bore many acorns. He picked a handful of the fullest, heaviest ones, and took his son to the park by the palace. There, he dug a hole in the ground, right under the bedroom window.

‘Here is your tree,’ he said, laying the acorns into the ground. ‘It will be the most beautiful in the kingdom, you’ll see.’

Tim squealed with happiness. He went to bed dancing, and all night, he dreamed that he was playing in the branches of a tall, majestic oak tree.

When morning came, he opened his window and looked down. There was no tree in sight. Tim ran to his father, crying and screaming.

‘You promised me a tree! You promised, you promised!’

‘Of course you will have a tree!’ his father replied, astonished. ‘But first you have to water the spot where we put the acorns yesterday, and then wait for the sapling to grow, and…’

‘When will that be? Tomorrow?’

The king shook his head and smiled.

‘Ah, it will take a little longer, my son.’

‘Next week?’

‘No, a little longer than that.’

‘Next month?’

‘Well, Tim, you see…’

Tim stamped his feet and shouted:

‘That’s too long! I want a tree now!’

It would have been a good time for the king to realise that his little boy still had many things to learn. But he could not stand to see his lip trembling, his eyes welling up. So he took Tim in his lap, soothed him, and said:

‘I just forgot. This is a special tree that grows very fast. Who knows, it may even grow during the night!’

At last, Tim stopped crying. His father sighed and sent for his best gardeners. As soon as Tim was in bed, a team was dispatched to the beautiful oak tree he had taken the acorns from. They dug it from the ground and planted it under Tim’s window, as silently as they could, leaving a big black gap in the forest where the tree should have been.

When Tim woke up, he threw the shutters open and squealed in delight. All day, he played at being a forest elf, shooting arrows from the branches of his new oak tree. He did not thank his father, but the king did not mind: seeing his little boy’s happiness was thanks enough. The gardeners shook their heads and went on with their work.

Tim was happy playing with his tree for a while. Then one day, as he rode through the park with his father, he saw an orchard and delightedly picked an apple from an old, convoluted apple tree.

‘Father, I want a tree that gives fruit!’

His father took him in his arms and said:

‘Tim, you are seven now. There are some things about trees that I should explain…’

But Tim started sniffing.

‘I want an apple tree! I want a big apple tree just like this one!’

The king sighed, but there was no distracting Tim from this new obsession. So at night, he went back to the orchard with a team of gardeners, paid off the farmer and uprooted the apple tree to plant it under Tim’s window. It pained him to see the sad look on the farmer’s face when his tree was taken away, but his son’s happiness soon made him forget about it.

A few months later, Tim decided that he wanted a weeping willow by the brook that ran near the palace. Then he wanted two rows of elderly cypresses to bring shade to the alley he liked playing in. Then he asked his father for a grove of orange trees, then almond trees to blossom before winter was over, then cherry trees to blossom in the spring. Then he wanted rowans and elders because he liked to watch the birds feeding on the shiny berries. Then he wanted pine trees and cedars, to fill his lungs with their scent in summer.

The king did try to take him to the forest more often, to teach him to enjoy trees where they stood. But this was not enough for Tim. Soon enough, the forest itself was depleted of its finest trees, and even the king found it too depressing to go there and stare at the trenches and muddy gaps his gardeners had torn into the ground.

When Tim turned eighteen, the king’s advisors suggested that playing in the enchanted park the king had made for his son was all well and good, but the prince was grown up now, and it was time to send him out into the world. Tim jumped up and down at the idea.

‘Please, father, give me a horse! I want to see the kingdom! Everybody says it’s so beautiful, and we have all the prettiest trees in the world!’

Reluctant as the king was to admit that his little boy was turning into a man, he had to admit that for once, what he asked was reasonable enough. He gave him the best horse in the stables, a team of servants to ride with, and sent him on his way with a bag full of gold.

So Tim rode out of the park for the first time in years. He felt like the happiest man in the world, and could not understand why the servants around him looked so glum and said so little. He sang songs to cheer them up, but they only sang a few lines with him, unconvinced. Annoyed, he decided to ride ahead on his own.

Soon he came to a spot where a dirty hole gaped in the ground, full of rotting roots and gravel. He frowned. The park around the palace was so well-kept! He made a mental note to ask his father to send gardeners to that unsightly place. An hour later, his horse almost stumbled into another ugly trench. Really, was that how his father’s subject treated their land? And not a tree in sight, only brambles and sickly saplings!

As he rode on, he was first perplexed, then dismayed. The land looked the same everywhere. Where were the venerable trees the country was famous for? It was not a paradise, it was a wasteland! Had he been lied to all these years? The servants did not seem surprised, but they only muttered vague answers when he asked. How could they not be distressed? Was he the only one to see?

After a whole day of wandering, he glimpsed dark branches swaying in the setting sun behind a hilltop. He spurred his horse. Just as the night fell, he arrived at a small, secluded farm. There at last, over the thatched roof, hung the branches of a magnificent poplar tree.

Tim dismounted and called out. A woman opened the door and frowned at them, holding a lantern high.

‘Who are you?’ she said. ‘Do you come from the palace?’

‘We do,’ Tim said. ‘Would you be so kind as to lend us hospitality for the night? We can pay you well.’

‘Keep your money,’ the woman said. ‘You can sleep in the barn if you like, but I will not sell you anything. And tell the king I’m keeping my tree.’

‘Of course you are, my good woman!’ Tim exclaimed, surprised. ‘We thank you for your hospitality. We will pay you nonetheless.’

At his words, the woman raised an eyebrow.

‘You are not here to buy my tree?’

‘Obviously not,’ Tim said. ‘What a strange idea! It’s a magnificent tree, by the way. Shame there is only one.’

The woman pursed her lips and nodded.

‘I must have taken you for someone else. Apologies, my lord. The barn is this way, and there is fresh straw in the stable. You’re welcome to it.’

As she showed them the way, Tim noticed a hole in the ground that had recently been filled with scraps of wood and straw.

‘Why do you have a hole in the ground?’ he said.

‘Ah, this,’ the woman replied, frowning again. ‘It’s that cursed prince Tim again, and no offence, my lord. We had a beautiful birch growing here, but his men took it away. Not forcibly, no!’ she hastily added, seeing the shock on Tim’s face. ‘They paid us well. My husband took their money, fool that he is. He’s not hearing the end of it, but what good will it do now? It will take decades to grow a tree like this one, we will be lucky if our grandchildren see it!’

What sort of tree takes decades to grow? Tim almost asked, but a little voice told him to keep quiet. A slow, horrible realisation started dawn on him.

‘Prince Tim can’t have done that,’ he said with trembling voice. ‘He loves trees. He would never damage one!’

‘If my husband loved me the way your prince Tim loves trees, I would be locked up in the attic and beaten up every time I tried to go out,’ the woman answered with stony calm. ‘Have a good rest, my lords.’

But Tim sat through the night, unable to close his eyes. Every time he blinked, the ghastly vision of the torn-up and desolate countryside flashed in his mind.

Of course the woman told the truth. How could he have imagined that a tree as big as a house could appear in a night? So that was how his father had tried to please him: by uprooting every beautiful tree in the kingdom to plant near the palace! And he had taken it all for granted, and played in the park without realising the hurt he had caused!

Tim could not bear it. Before the sun rose, he saddled his horse and took of on his own, leaving the whole bag of gold before the woman’s front door. He rode and rode, seeking the remotest, most overgrown paths, the ones where his father’s men had not yet gone to look for new trees to give him. Little by little, the path grew steeper and wilder. Now the forests were whole again, and they were dark, full of dead wood and treacherous roots. The horse stumbled several times, until Tim took pity of him and tied him to a hard gnarled trunk. He carried on on foot.

Hours later, he thought he was lost for good. Suddenly he stumbled upon a clearing, and he almost fell to his knees with wonder. There stood the tallest, widest, most magnificent oak tree he had ever seen. Its roots had to sink to the centre of the earth. The ground underneath was mossy and soft, cooler than the coolest shade in the park around the palace.

Next to the tree there was a cave, and as he gazed on in wonder, an old man with a long white beard came out and greeted him.

‘How old is that tree?’ Tim asked.

‘Oh, a thousand years old at least. My great-grand-father used to play in the hollow of the trunk when he was a child. Do you like it?’

A thousand years old. Tim felt tears sting his eyes and fought them down. Even if he wanted to, he would never be able to see a tree like this one in his park. Not unless he called a whole team of workers to uproot it and plant it under his window.

‘A thousand years,’ he repeated, his mind wavering between awe and distress.

‘Well yes, it takes time, Tim,’ the old man replied.

Tim started.

‘How do you know who I am?’

The old man smiled.

‘I’ve never seen anyone gaze at my tree with such wonder. You must truly love trees.’

Tim nodded. He understood the man’s words, but most of all he understood the words he didn’t speak.

‘Can I stay here for a little while? I won’t touch your tree. I just want to admire it.’

‘Stay all you want. It seems that you need some time by yourself.’

Time. Yes, Tim needed more time than he would ever have. So he sat down under the tree and stopped thinking, only gazed at the light playing in the branches for hours and hours and hours.

When he finally left, the old man stopped him.

‘I have something for you,’ he said.

He handed him a little bag full of acorns.

‘All you need is a little soil, and water. And time, Tim. It takes time.’

Tim thanked him and walked back to his horse, and rode all the way back to the castle. There, his father waited in anguish. The servants had told him they could not find his son anywhere. Seeing Tim’s disquiet, his face fell, as if he braced himself for another tantrum. Tim threw his arms around him and hugged him without a word, for a long, long time.

Then he searched the park for a spot with just enough sun and the right sort of soil. There, he buried a handful of acorns, poured a little water, and made a circle of stones to mark the place. His father walked up to him and asked him what he was doing.

‘I’ve met an old man who lived under the most incredible tree,’ he replied. ‘No, I don’t want you to get it for me,’ he added, seeing apprehension on his father’s face. ‘I just want to see if I can ever grow one.’

His father sighed with relief.

‘That’s a great idea. But it will take time, Tim.’

‘I know it will. I’ll wait.’

And the two of them went back to the palace arm in arm.

 

Today Tim is an old man with a white beard of his own. Whenever he finds the time, he takes long rides through the kingdom, planting seeds and talking with farmers about the best ways to graft a sapling, or prune an apple-tree without hurting it. He is a beloved king and a doting grandfather. But the thing he likes most of all is to sit in the shade of a tall oak tree that grows in a corner of the park around his palace. It is neither the biggest nor the oldest tree there, and Tim knows that although it may live to a thousand years, he will never see it. But it does not matter to him. Every day, he takes his grandchildren there with him, and they sit together in the shade of the tree, and he tells them stories of the birds that nest there and the squirrels that squabble in the branches.

And he is the happiest man in the world.