Tell-a-Fairy-Tale Day was two days ago, but due to having to stay late in Marseilles for work, I didn’t get around to it. Let’s make it Tell-a-Fairy-Tale Sunday instead, then.
I had plenty of story books when I grew up. Some of the stories stuck with mefor longer than others, sometimes for reasons I didn’t realise at the time. The grandfather who made trees bloom is a very simple tale, but underneath the surface, there is so much going on–about grief, moving on, happiness and happy endings–that I couldn’t resist expanding on it a little bit. You can probably see at which point the story becomes mine. That’s the part of the story that played in my head between the lines, as soon as I was old enough to realise why this story intrigued me so much.
The Grandfather Who Made Trees Blossom
Once upon a time there lived a grandfather and a grandmother. Well, ‘Grandfather’ and ‘Grandmother’ is what the people affectionately called them, because they had no children. This was their only regret in life; as for the rest, they were quite satisfied, even if there wasn’t always much food on the table and the roof was leaky sometimes.
One winter day the grandfather went into the forest to cut some firewood. It was a cold winter, so there was very little usable wood left, and he wasn’t strong enough to fell a whole tree by himself. In the end he decided to cut chips from an old tree stump. But as soon as the axe hit the stump, it parted into, and out of it leapt a tiny white dog. The puppy slipped on the snowy ground, fumbled around and ran to the old man, wagging its tail and making big happy eyes at him. The grandfather’s heart melted at once. He took the little dog in his arms to protect him against the cold (he instinctively knew that it was him, not it) and ran back home before the little critter got hungry.
Seeing him come back with no firewood, the grandmother was unhappy at first. But when she saw the puppy, tears welled in her eyes.
‘How beautiful he is! Grandfather, we never had a son. Let him be our sons, to give us warmth for our old days.’
The grandfather could not agree more, and it was plain that the puppy agreed, too. So they kept him with them. Through the winter, the puppy grew bigger and stronger, and in a few months he had become a large, healthy white dog, who was always well-behaved, never barked unduly at neighbours and always brought the grandfather safely home when he had to stay in the forest after dark. They were very happy.
The next winter, however, food grew even scarcer than usual. Throwing out the dog and letting him fend for himself was out of the question, so the grandmother just sighed whenever her stomach rumbled as she had to divide the food into three portions. But one day, when the grandfather called the dog for their daily trip to the forest, the dog replied:
‘Grandfather, don’t take your axe today. Take a shovel and ask Grandmother to pack some food for you. We’re going to the mountain.’
The grandfather was a bit puzzled.
‘You can talk?’
‘Of course I can talk. Haven’t I always?’
The grandfather had never thought about it. But of course it was right: had they not always understood each other perfectly, with nothing more than a hello, a little wag of the tale, a pat between the ears? He beamed at the dog.
‘All right then. Let’s go to the mountain!’
Up then went, and up and up and up. It was not long before the grandfather was the one who panted hardest. So the dog stopped and told him:
‘Grandfather, get on my back, I’ll carry you the rest of the way.’
‘Out of the question! I’m old and heavy and…’
‘And I’m young and strang and you weight no more than a feather. Come, grandfather. On my back!’
So the grandfather rode on the dog’s back all the way to the top. When they arrived, he split the grandmother’s victuals and they shared a scant feast. Then the dog told him to get his shovel and dig. One, two, three, and the fourth time the shovel hit the dirt, it clanked against something hard. The grandfather bent and was astonished to retrieve from the earth a antique golden plate, a very heavy one.
‘Well, this will see us through winter! Oh, my dog, how can I thank you?’
‘Why would you thank me? You keep me fed and warm and I’m very happy with you, because I love you two. Come on, let’s go tell grandmother!’
The grandmother was overjoyed. In the city, they would be able to sell the plate for a good price, and then they wouldn’t have to worry for the rest of the winter. In fact, the plate impressed a local merchant so much that he gave them enough money to buy food and fix their leaky roof. They celebrated that night, eating lovely rice balls and drinking fine rice wine, and the sounds of their laughter and joy was so much that their neighbour wondered what was going on and came down to see for himself.
Unlike the grandfather and the grandmother, this neighbour was not a good man. He was well-off, but never offered any help to anyone, and more than once he had teased the grandfather and grandmother who chose to feed a useless dog when they should have cast him out long ago. How surprised was he when he discovered that they were eating fine food inside their newly-thatched house! He put on his best smile and offered congratulations. The grandfather welcomed him and offered him some wine.
‘It’s all thanks to the dog, you know! Such a clever lad. Who knows how he knew about it, but he led me to a treasure in the mountain. Now we have enough food to last us all winter! Isn’t that wonderful?’
‘Oh yes, yes it is,’ the neighbour said. He kept smiling, but the smile strained his face and his stomach curled with envy. ‘Say, grandfather, wouldn’t you let me borrow your dog, just once? I need to to get some firewood, and you know the forest is not safe after dark.’
‘Of course, he won’t mind at all! Come here tomorrow and he’ll go with you.’
The dog looked a the grandfather for a long time, but he said nothing. He was a good dog. He would help the neighbour, even if he had a bad, bad feeling about this man.
The next day, the neighbour came to fetch the dog. But instead of going to the forest, he headed straight for the mountain. When he got ther, he jumped on the dog’s back and slapped his sides hard. The dog yelped in pain, but the man shouted:
‘Faster, you stupid beast! Lead me to the treasure, I don’t have all day!’
The dog had no choice but move ahead. After a while he stopped. The neighbour took out his lunch and wolfed it down without leaving a single scrap for the dog. Then he barked:
‘Where is the treasure?’
The dog stubbornly sat on his hind quarters and said nothing. Irritated, the neighbour started digging. He dug and dug and dug, but all he could find was an old pot full of rubbish. Enraged, he threw it, as hard as he could, at the dog’s head. Then he went back home on foot, alone. He never looked back twice. He never cared a bit that out there in the mountain, the dog lay still and never followed him.
When the grandfather saw him come back alone, he ran to him, worried sick.
‘What happened? Why isn’t the dog with you?’
‘Oh, that useless animal? He made a fool of me. There was no treasure up there. Well, if he hasn’t come back, it means I killed him, I suppose. Good riddance.’
The grandfather’s heart broke. He ran to the mountain and called for hours, until he found the poor dog lying with his head broken. He wept, but it was too late. All he could do was bring him nack and bury him next to the house.
They were very sad, the grandmother and him, but what could they do? There was wood to cut and a home to tend to. When the spring came back a tree grew on the dog’s grave, and their hearts lightened a bit, because they had a reminder of their beloved dog, the only child they ever had to ease their old age.
The grandfather loved to take naps under the tree. Sometimes he dreamed of the dog, and in the dreams, the dog stirred as he carried him down from the mountain and it always seemed that the wound on his head was not so serious after all. The dreams broke his heart a little every time. And then he had to get up and carry on cutting wood and talking about little things with the grandmother. After all, they had managed all this time, poor and childless. They could manage a bit longer.
Winter came again. They had long spend the money from the treasure, and food was hard to come by again. One chilly day, the grandfather sat under the tree, and he fell asleep. In his dreams, as usual, the dog came to him. But this was no ordinary dream. The dog looked at him and spoke clearly:
‘Grandfather, the tree is big enough now. You need to cut it and make a mortar and pestle from the biggest part of the trunk. Trust me.’
The grandfather woke with his heart racing. What vision was this? He knew, he was certain that he could trust his dog. He took his axe, and worked all day, carving a beaufitul mortar and pestle from the wood.
The grandmother gaped at him when she saw what he had done. But she didn’t discuss the dog’s instructions. She took the mortar and started pounding a little leftover rice. But as soon as the pestle hit, there was twice as much rice in the mortar, and when she pounded again, the mortar overflowed. Soon she had to stop pounding, or the kitchen would have been smothered under a tide of delicious, fragrant rice!
She called the grandfather and they gave tearful thanks to the memory of their dog. Now they wouldn’t have to worry for the rest of the winter.
But their neighbour walked past their house again, and heard them feast and rejoice. He didn’t like hearing people rejoice. It was unnatural to him, and he always wondered what reason they had to be happy that he didn’t have. So he greeted them with his best-looking smile. The grandmother showed him the mortar, and explained that the dog was still helping them from beyond the grave.
‘Oh, what a beautiful mortar!’ the neighbour said. ‘Might I borrow it? My wife always complains that her mortar is cracked.’
The heart of good people is a beautiful thing, always big enough for love, always too small for rancour. They hadn’t forgotten what had happened to their dog, but they assumed it must have been an accident–if people can die for the most mundane reasons, why wouldn’t dogs? So they gave him the mortar. The neighbour thanked them casually, but deep inside he started counting the fortune he would make selling all the rice the mortar would create. He stormed home and barked at his wife to start pounding some rice, and fast. But as soon as the pestle hit, suddenly there was only have as much rice in the mortar as before. She pounded again, and half the rice disappeared. If she hadn’t stopped, soon there wouldn’t have been a single grain left.
The neighbour was enraged. He tossed the mortar into the fire. Soon there was nothing left but ashes. When the grandfather came to ask for his mortar back, he told him:
‘It was a bad mortar and it deceived me. I burned it. Good riddance.’
The grandfather was sad to have lost his last memory of his loyal dog, but what could he do? He went home and told the grandmother that the mortar had broken–what use was it to discuss the neighbour’s bad temper anyway?
But when night came, the dog came to him again in his dream.
‘Grandfather, go get some of the ashes from the mortar and prepare for a trip to the city. Sprinkle some ashes on the trees near the princes’ palace. You’ll see what happens!’
He woke up brutally and sprang to his feet, almost laughing out loud. His dog was still with him! Even though the tree was cut and the mortar was burned, he still talked to him! He could barely wait until dawn. At first light, he went to his neighbour’s house. He said he needed to get some ashes from the mortar and braced himself for the mocking remarks that inevitably came. The old man had bothered himself with a disloyal dog, a tree that had threatened to throw down the house and a ridiculous mortar, if he now wanted to treasure some ashes, it was his own problem! The grandfather thanked him anyway and went to town. Once he was near the prince’s palace, he sprinkled the ashes into the wind.
What a wonderful sight! As soon as the ashes touched the trees, myriad of lovely pink flowers blossomed. Passers-by stopped and gaped, and the grandfather himself couldn’t close his mouth. But the most surprising was yet to come! A voice called him from the castle, and ordered him in the presence of the prince. The grandfather was so scared he barely dared to move. Perhaps the prince didn’t like flowers? But the servants smiled and some even bowed to him. They brought him where he had never imagined he would ever go, inside the castle and into the prince’s own presence.
The prince looked at him curiously.
‘So you can make trees blossom in the middle of winter? What a strange thing, what a wonder. I do love flowers and my wife does too. I want to thank you for what you did.’
He clapped his hands and servants appeared. They bore a set of silk robes of the kind worn in court, cut in fabric so delicate it seemed that fairies had made it.
‘A small token of my gratitude. Now this talent of yours will be veru useful. You see, I am preparing for war, and no soldiers like to fight in the middle of winter. But if they see the trees blossom before them, think about how they will feel! They will see that even the order of nature bows to my claim! They will march for me and crush our ennemies by surprise! What a boon, what a blessing! Now you will become part of my court. You will come with me to war as my herald. What a great idea. We should march tomorrow.’
The grandfather’s heart went still. He bowed very deeply.
‘My lord, I am undeserving of such an honour. I barely dare to lay my request at your feet. My wife doesn’t know I am here, she is just a poor grandmother from the mountain. She will never imagine that you have done me such a favour. She will be terrified if I don’t come back home. May I go home and tell her?’
The prince dismissed him with a wave of his hand.
‘Go. Take the robes with you. I’ll expect you tomorrow at dawn.’
The grandfather practically ran out of the city. In his hands he held the beautiful robes. What had he done? War! There would be a terrible war, and all that was because of him! Couldn’t he be content with the parting gifts his dog had given him already? What would he do now? Surely the prince would be terribly angry if he didn’t show up in the morning, and he would go to war anyway! What was he to do?
He went to bed, praying for a dream that would advise him. He had trouble finding sleep, but in the end the exhaustion got the better of him. He slept uneasily, but at last, the dog appeared to him.
‘You are here! Thank the gods! Please, my friend, tell me what I must do!’
The dog looked at him with big, loving eyes, wagging his tail. He said nothing.
‘I beg you, I need your help. Please, help me out of this!’
The dog still said nothing. And that was when the grandfather understood. His dog wouldn’t speak to him, because he was dead and buried. You should never try to bring the dead back. Only misery will come from it. And now they saw each other one last time across the veil of death, he understood that at last.
With tears in his eyes, he held out his hands, but he did not touch him. One should not touch the spirit of the dead.
‘Thank you, my friend, my only son. Thank you for all you’ve done for us. For what little life I haveleft, I will never forget it.’
It was just a dream, but the tears were real. When he woke up, there was already a little light on the horizon. He knew ewactly what he should do.
The grandfather put on the heavy, majestic robes the prince had given him and stolled outside. When he arrived in front of his neighbour’s house, he said out loud:
‘Ah, what a lovely day! How happy I am!’
Soon the neighbour was outside and staring at his new outfit with ill-concealed envy. The grandfather greeted him and said:
‘See what the prince gave me, all because I sprinkled some ashes from the mortar beneath his window. I hear the princess loves flowers even more!’
He went back home and took off the robes. Now he looked at them more closely, he realised that there was enough fabric there to make a new kimono for the grandmother, too. It was a good gift, after all.
As for the neighbour, he ran straight to the city and to the princess’s palace, loudly shouting that he could make trees blossom. Out came the princess, who had heard of the miracle. But when he threw the ashes, nothing happened at all. Worst, a little fleck flew into the princess’s eye. She cried out in pain and her servants covered their mouths in horror. When she recovered from her shock, she was still so angry that she ordered to have the man tossed in jail, and she decreed that if anyone came near the palace claiming they could make trees blossom, they would suffer the same fate, war or not.
Thus the war never happened, and the grandfather and the grandmother went on with their lives, often recalling the memories of their dog with fond smiles. As for the neighbour, I don’t know what became of him. If nobody remembered about him, perhaps he is still in jail.