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.

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.

Two days late: The Grandfather Who Made Trees Blossom

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.

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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.

Tell-a-fairy-tale day: The Lady and the Lion

February 26th is Tell-a-Fairy-Tale day, a fact I discovered two years ago on asakiyume‘s blog. I loved the idea, although I didn’t take part last year (I think I remembered that I wrote my story two years ago on a day of fine, warm weather, which made me think it was spring, and I completely overlooked the fact that I was in Nice at the time and fine warm weather with plenty of flowers lasts around 365 days a year).

Anyway. There was a story I liked when I was little, which has given me much thought ever since. My mother didn’t seem to like it as much as I did, and I couldn’t really understand why. After all, it was a very cool story of a girl discovering that she should stand up for herself and finding creative ways to do so, and I treasured that kind of tale at the time, as they were so rare among the stories of heroic guys and helpless, worthless girls. That’s how I saw it anyway. Years later, I learned a bit more about how people thought when that story was first told, and I came to suspect why my mum didn’t like it all that well. A girl who stands up for herself is one thing, a girl who has to take responsibility for her husband’s violence is another. Sadly enough, many stories were told to teach women that they were accountable for their husband’s behaviour, and that they should be able to change him through the power of their feminine virtue if they are dissatisfied. That’s how I discovered that a story I naively believed was about a resourceful woman was, probably, not much more than a tool to teach women their proper place in the world.

But then I wondered: does it have to be so? If this tale had such a bleak hidden meaning, how come I found it so good when I was a child? I rooted for active, resourceful heroins long before I learned the word ‘feminism’, after all. This story I read could not be all that sinister. So here is today’s story: not the one in the book, but the one that formed in my head when I read it.

The Lady and the Lion

Once upon a time, there was a woman called Halima. She was a good person who always had something in her pantry for visiting neighbours, kind words for the children and a warm meal on the stove for the beggars in the neighbourhood. She was not a saint; she got angry and swore sometimes when she had cause to, but she was patient and kind and most people loved her for it. Even people who are no saints have a right to be loved.

As far as her friends and family were concerned, Halima led a happy, eventless life and was blessed with reasonable wealth, a lovely home and a good husband. They often congratulated her and she gave them tight smiles in return, which they never seemed to notice. In truth, Halima had long given up hope that they would see the dark stain on her perfect life. Marwan, her husband, worked hard enough in the day and kept her fed and clothed, it was true. But at night, he came home with alcohol on his breath, and then the smallest thing she said was an offence that demanded punishment. Had she made something to eat just before he arrived? It was too hot, she was trying to poison him! Had she cooked in advance so it would be the right temperature? It was cold, she was such a slob! Did she greet him with a smile? She was mocking him! With a blank face? Disrespect! The slaps left red marks on her cheeks and blue marks on her body. And when they went to bed, she screwed her eyes shut and clutched at the sheets to avoid crying out in pain under him.

But she could not tell. She could not be ungrateful. After all, he bought her clothes and a pretty house, and they never wanted for food. So she told the other women at the bath house that she had been negligent and insolent and that he had hit her in justified anger, or sometimes she said nothing and she just smiled. But one day she couldn’t take it anymore. She was still sore from the beating the night before, and her pillow was wet from her crying. So she wrapped a scarf around her face and sneaked out of the town, to a mountain in the outskirts where a wise hermit was known to live.

After a long climb, she reached a cave. The inside was lined with all sorts of strange things: jars, instruments, dried animals. At the very end, an old man sat on a threadbare rug. Swallowing her fear, Halima entered and greeted the hermit. He cut her short.

‘What do you want?’ he said.

‘My husband!’ she replied, and was surprised at how easily the words cascaded out of her mouth. ‘I want my husband back. He used to be so sweet when we were married, we were in such beautiful love, but as the years went by, his patience wore so thin! Now he comes back drunk every night, and everything I do earns me a beating. I’ve tried my best with him, I swear I did. But there’s nothing to calm him when he’s in one of his moods. And he’s in always in his moods now.’

‘Tried your best, have you?’ the hermit snorted, a harsh, sudden sound. ‘Right. I can help you. But for that, there is one thing I will need from you.’

‘Of course. What is it?’

‘Three hairs from the mane of a living lion. Go now. Don’t come back until you have them.’

Halima ran out. Halfway down the mountain, she burst into tears. The only hope she had of getting help rested on her doing something that would get her killed. But was it worse to be killed than to live on like this? She wiped her tears and went back home, thinking.

That night, a huge lion went to drink from the stream in the valley. He was a young male looking for a pride to lead. He was a bit hungry, but otherwise very pleased with himself: he was a lion, and every animal in the country feared him. So he was not a little surprised when a furry bleating thing leapt haphazardly at him and almost landed on his face.

The lion was a pragmatic beast, however, so he promptly devoured the helpless lamb and licked his lips, contented. When he raised his eyes, however, a second surprise was waiting for him. A few steps away, a woman stood, still and trembling. He eyed her for a moment. But he was not hungry anymore, and she was of no interest to him, since she appeared to have no more lambs to toss at him.

The day after, he came back to the stream. This time again, the woman was there, and she tossed him another bleating critter before slowly walking away. Every day after that, she came back, every time standing a little closer, for a little longer. The lion didn’t mind. She was a nice woman, and she had an excellent eye for prime lambs.

Day after day, Halima’s fear of the lion diminished. At first she had been terrified, convinced that her last hour had come. But the lion had just looked at her, his wrinkled face unreadable. After a while, she stopped bringing lambs. He seemed a bit disgruntled the first time, but otherwise not overly annoyed. Then one day, she knelt beside him and put a hand on his mane. He just kept drinking. In a daze of fear and excitement, she closed two fingers on a hair and pulled.

The heavy muscles tensed under the skin. Then they relaxed.

Emboldened, she plucked a second hair. The lion shook its mane. She closed her eyes and plucked a third. Somethine warm and wet touched her arm, and she thought that this was it this time… until she opened her eyes, and found the lion licking the back of her hand, purring like a kitten.

Halima ran up the mountain, to the hermit’s cave.

‘I have them! I have three hairs from a living lion’s mane! Now please, please tell me what I should do?’

The hermit took the hairs and examined them. He nodded.

‘Indeed those are three hair from a living lion’s mane,’ he said. ‘Now tell me, Halima. You managed to tame a wild lion, a beast who terrifies the best hunters… and you’re telling me you’re unable to manage an unruly husband?’

Halima looked at him. It was her dismissal, she understood, the lesson she had been waiting for. She nodded and thanked him, and walked back down the mountain.

Once she was back home, she went to her kitchen. She prepared rich stews of veal with prunes and of pigeons in saffron sauce, made dishes from aubergines and coriander, salads from oranges and cinnamon, sweet almond cakes and pancakes dripping with honey. She put on her best clothes and waited, appeased and trusting, for Marwan to return.

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Stories don’t ever really end. They are just cut at the most convenient moment. What better moment to finish a story than a promise? ‘Happily ever after,’ ‘Tomorrow is another day’: those are just promises for new beginnings. And so does this story end: on the promise that the strength of feminine virtue and patience can tame lions and bring brutal husbands to reason. Here is the beauty of such promises: they don’t depend on anyone for their realisation but the person they are made to. If your husband still beats you and drives you to despair, this one says, then you haven’t tried hard enough. Try harder, and all will be better. Try all your life. Hope and believe, for you’ll receive help from no one but yourself.

But this is not the end of the story. For Halima at least, here is what happened afterwards:

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When Marwan came back home, the first thing he saw was his wife, dressed up and smiling in front of a princely feast.

‘Welcome, my love,’ Halima said, opening her arms. It would be better this time. It had to be better.

Marwan staggered through the door. His eyes narrowed.

‘Who did you make this for?’ he hissed. Then he shouted: ‘Who is he? Who are you waiting for, you whore? Tell me where he is!’

‘It’s you!’ Halima cried. ‘There’s no one but you!’ But as she cried she realised she did not look at him. Yes, she was saying the truth, but it was not her husband she was talking to. The one she had been expecting was a kind, loving, smiling young man called Marwan, who would never have raised a hand on her and who had disappeared long ago, and much as she wanted to cry when she realised it, he was never to come back.

Marwan stumbled towards her and hit her across the face. ‘You lying whore. I’ll break your bones!’

The neighbours disagree on what happened just then. Some said that a man’s scream covered Halima’s usual cries. Some said there was a terrible commotion that stopped abruptly after a few seconds. Some say that, on the contrary, there was a sudden silence. Whatever happened, a man from the neighbourhood went to their door after a moment, and knocked.

‘Come in!’ a joyful voice said.

In he came, and he found Halima alone, sitting in front of a table laden with an incredible banquet. Well, almost alone. As the neighbour was about to apologise for surprising her in her private quarters, he saw the huge head of a fearsome lion, its chin still dripping with red, rise from under the table and stretch onto Halima’s lap. Halima smiled as if there was nothing unusual, and offered him to take some food home.

‘What… what…’ the neighbour could find no adequate words for all the questions he had.

‘Oh, this,’ Halima said with a graceful wave of her hand. ‘Well, you see, it appears that the hermit was right. If you didn’t marry the right man, you can always get help from the right kind of friends.’ And she fed the purring lion some fragrant veal from her hand.

The bottle from the sea

I just read in asakiyume‘s journal that today is Tell-A-Fairy-Tale day. I’ve never heard of that before, but I love the idea. And I’ve had a long day. Fairytales are just what I need right now.

Once upon a time, there was a poor fisherman. Not only was he poor, he was unlucky: there was no one in the village with the same knack for bringing nothing home but old bones from the sea and torn nets, and what little fish he managed to catch never got enough money to pay everything he’d come to owe his neighbours, his landlord, and the local shop owners. At first he’d berated himself for being so bad at catching fish, then he got used to it–his landlord and his neighbours and the local shop owners didn’t seem too unhappy to always ask money from him, and as the interest rates soared, he soon figured that he was getting the village going at his own expense, rather than burdening it.

One day he went to the sea, feeling even less lucky than usual. He threw his net, felt something tug, drew it back up again. In the net was the broken jaw of a dead donkey. He threw it back into the sea.

“Two more like that and I’m going home,” he thought.

He felt a tug and drew his net back up. Inside was a rotten plank from a long-sunken boat.

“One more like that and I’m going home. No point in wasting a sunny day.”

He threw his net again and felt nothing for a good while, then it got heavier. He pulled it up. Inside was a rusty iron bottle.

“At least I can sell this for scrap metal,” he thought, pulling it out. It felt heavy–solid heavy, not sloshing with sea-water. He opened it.

“WHO IS IT WHO HATH PULLED ME FROM MY WATERY GRAVE?” a low voice growled.

The fisherman looked up.

And up.

And up.

There he stood, taller than the tallest building in all the village. A genie. His hair had rotten away and seaweed grown on his scalp, his nostrils sprayed out water rhythmically, his eye were liquid like beryls. The fisherman sat down and shielded his eyes from the sun with his hands. Really, this was a big genie.

Big fat luck indeed. And now he was going to die, and his wife would be left alone to pay the debts. He sat back heavily, and sighed.

“All right then, big man,” he said. “What is it this time? Drowning? Fire? Being bled like a sheep?”

The genie looked confused. The fisherman grew impatient. “You’re going to kill me, right? That’s what genies do to fishermen, so just get on with it!”

The genie sat down beside him. It cast a huge shadow, and suddenly, the fisherman didn’t feel so brazen. He lifted up his eyes, tentatively, hoping that the genie would make it quick and painless, and realising at the same time that “quick and painless” didn’t sound comforting at all now he was about to experience it. The genie gazed straight ahead as if he didn’t see him. He looked utterly lost.

There was a long, long silence. The fisherman held up his hand, then patted the genie’s arm, with a sinking feeling, as if he was petting a wild lion.

“I was imprisonned down there because I couldn’t pay my debts,” the genie said. “I don’t know how long it’s been. I don’t feel like killing anyone right now.”

Ah. That was unexpected. The fisherman’s mind started to work very fast. There was one other thing genies did. Three wishes. Get his wife a set of jewels? No, she’d never been that fashion-obsessed to begin with. Owning the house he lived in? Come to think of it, it was a shack. A new boat? Hell, he’d rather not work at all if given the choice. He couldn’t imagine what life was like away from the sea and the scarcity of fish, but he’d always heard it was the most desirable thing in the world. And if not for himself, at least for his wife. Maybe they’d finally manage to raise children like they’d dreamed they would.

“I know, genie,” he said. “Make me a king. No, wait, not a king. A landowner. Yes, that’s about right. Make me the owner of half of this country’s land and money and businesses. Give me so much money the interest rates will be enough to live by. I don’t want to work a single day in my life. Maybe I’ll lend people money if it pleases me, and they’ll thank me instead of insulting me, for once. Yeah, I like that. Make them thankful enough.”

The genie sucked in a breath and quivered. The fisherman looked up. There was no one there.

Then he looked down. There was someone sitting next to him, a poor fisherman, dressed in rags, with seaweed tangled in his thinning hair, looking down at his hands and bare feet with eyes big enough to swallow the sea.

“I never was good at granting wishes,” he breathed in a deep, hollow genie’s voice. Then he looked at the fisherman, too stunned for anger, it seemed. “I don’t understand, he added. I owed you a wish and I couldn’t grant it. I’m in a debt I can’t pay, again. I should be imprisonned. What am I doing here?”

Imprisonned–nobody had been imprisonned for debt in this country for… wait.

The fisherman looked at himself, his tattered clothes, his bare feet, felt his balding head. He looked at the genie, and he had to summon all the virtue in his soul to regret his misery to come, and suppress the whiff of satisfaction he’d felt at seeing one once so mighty sink so low.

“Poor devil,” he said at last. “You’ve been down there a long time, haven’t you? Nobody’s imprisonned for debt anymore. These days we’re imprisonned by debt. I’m sorry I didn’t get it any sooner. I’ve been a fool to believe a poor sod like you who’s spent centuries in a bottle could have any power left. Too bad landowners and shop keepers don’t grant wishes.”

“The prison…?” the genie said.

“You’re in it right as we speak. I’m sorry, my friend. Let’s keep each other company while we have to endure it. Here, perhaps with the two of us to lift that net, we can catch something bigger.”

And one day we will, he thought. One day there won’t be enough gold in the world to pay all these debts, and we’ll just sit by the fire and eat our fish and be glad, and they can eat their gold for all we care. Our fish won’t be for sale then. How sweet it will taste. How sweet it could taste even tonight, knowing I have a new friend to share my catch with.

Together they threw the net into the sea, and they thought of all the fallen genies that would one day come to swell their ranks.

Gandhi and the Boy with a Sweet Tooth

It sounds too good to be a real story (who knows, though), but I like it:

One day a mother came to Gandhi for advice, bringing her son with her.

‘Please,’ she said, ‘will you tell my son that he has to stop eating so many sweets? They’re not good for him, they’re making his teeth rot. I tried and tried to make him stop, but he just won’t listen. I think he’ll listen to you.’

Gandhi shook his head.

‘Come back in a month,’ he said. ‘Bring your son with you.’

One month later, the lady came back with the boy. Gandhi looked at him and said:

‘Young man, you need to stop eating all this sugar. It’s bad for your health.’

The mother was quite surprised to hear this. ‘But, Bapuji, couldn’t you tell him this last month? Surely you didn’t need a month to think about it?’

‘No, I couldn’t,’ Gandhi said. ‘Last month, I too was eating far too many sweets.’

Why Cthulhu and Darth Vader didn’t have cats

Last time someone was sitting with a cat on their lap, I thought of the tale of the Goldcrest and the Eagle. Ever heard it? I’m not sure, as it works much better in French. Here it is, in case you haven’t.

In French, goldcrests are called “roitelets”, which means “little kings”; “little” because they are tiny birds, and “king”… well, you’ll see why.

Once upon a time the lion was crowned King of Animals. But the birds were not satisfied. Their own kingdom was the sky, where no lion has ever been able to go. And sure enough, the Lion didn’t care all that much about the skies, so he agreed and asked them who would be their king.

“I’ll be the King!” the crow cawed, “because I’m the cleverest of birds!”

“Brains without wisdom are useless,” said the albatross, “and as I live longest of all birds, I’ll be wiser than any one of you. I should be King.”

“And why not choose a king that can speak, and parley with other kings? Why not choose me?” said the mynah bird.

The debate got heated very quickly, until the Lion roared in annoyance: “ENOUGH! I am the King of Animals, remember? I’ll choose my own vassal. But since I am just and wise, I’ll give the title to the most deserving. Let all the birds fly as high as they can into the sky. The one that can touch the sun will receive a crown!”

The birds all agreed to this with vocal enthusiasm, even ostriches and hens and kiwis, which proves that the Lion’s reign was just and democratic and satisfied everyone. The next day, they assembled before the Lion’s palace. The Lion had a gun in one hand and binoculars in the other. He fired, and the birds all soared to the sky.

The sun was very high and very hot. One by one, the birds slowed down, and flew down to the ground. Only the Eagle carried on and on. The Lion followed him with his binoculars and a smile on his face. Now it must be said that what cows and gazelles have been gossiping about, that the Lion and the Eagle had always been good friends and that both privately agreed that only predators should be kings, is a completely false accusation, and they even apologised publicly before being served at the Lion’s table, which is the best proof you need. A couple of chimpanzees had taken out their binoculars too, and watched as the Eagle slowed down, silhouetted against the sun. Then, just as the Eagle started his descent, they glimpsed a tiny silhouette that took off from the Eagle’s head and soared, just a little bit higher, just as the Eagle was too exhausted to catch up.

“Holy cow!” cried the Lion, and the chimpanzees who had seen everything.

When the Eagle was back on the ground again, exhausted, a tiny silhouette hopped from his head. It was the Goldcrest, who, it turned out, had been hidden among his feathers all along, and only had to take off at the last moment. But the chimpanzees were unanimous: the Goldcrest had reached higher than the Eagle. He was the one who should be King of Birds. And before the Lion could say anything, the little bird, puffing with pride and still no bigger than a nut, received a tiny golden crown.

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Centuries later, the chimps started to walk on hind legs and call themselves humans, and decided that being hairless and thin-skinned and bipedal was more relevant than brains or wisdom or strength when it came to choose a King for all the Animals, and so they crowned themselves. But they hadn’t counted on a simple truth of the universe: you can be as big, strong, clever, cheeky, hairless or loud as you like, there will always be someone to thwart your plans for world domination. This time the challenger came in the form of a small, furry, long-eared and damnably cute mammal. They called him the Cat. He was the chimps’ undoing.

Now it is established that humans can be as powerful as they like, when they come home to their cats, they will still be reduced to the pitiful state of pillows, tin openers, and personal grooms. No matter their power and their wealth, they are nothing when chided by a dignified mewing cat. The only way they can escape is by not allowing one into their house. Once it gets there, the most evil plans for world domination are doomed. You will always be second to a miawing furry thing.

And this is why Cthulhu and Darth Vader never wanted anything to do with cats.