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.’
‘No, a little longer than that.’
‘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.
‘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.