Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Heart of Paradise: A Fairy Tale

Once upon a time there was a boy who was born by a river. His world was small and the river was life. It's muddy banks, swirling waters, and raucous roar marked his daily existence. But his imagination, which was great, always dreamed of the course beyond the bend, and though he never ventured onto the river, he often waded downstream until his feet no longer touched bottom.

But the river wasn't his only source of happiness. Across it, high atop a strong beautiful mountain, stood a white tower that ascended into the clouds. Emerald ivy grew along its contours and a wall protected it from outsiders. The boy sometimes went there and played in the garden within the wall. He told others of his discovery, but though he had always found the door in the wall open, they would call him a liar with a look. The door was always locked to them.

As the boy grew, he came to spend more time in the garden. The flowers, he recognized over time, were too beautiful to grow on their own, and the more he saw of the garden, the more he suspected that someone kept it. At first he saw little but the outside of the tower, but on the day he turned seven, he found the tower door open and he entered in with not a little trepidation. Before him rose a staircase, the most beautiful staircase ever eye saw, carved with gold lions, white horses, red dragons, brown bears, and even a monstrous blue whale, or something like it. It had no railings, but it spiraled upwards, turning in an ever changing arc of glory that finally vanished into the light of the sun. As time went on, the light at the top of the tower glowed brighter than the sun, and he wondered if the light did not belong to something greater than the monarch of the skies. Sometimes, in flashes of pure joy, he thought he could discern battlements and high hills, endless seas, and eastern palaces in its shining brilliance, but the visions only lasted a moment, and he wondered afterward if they had been real.

You might wonder why he did not try to reach the top. The truth is he tried many times, but the staircase, by some hidden mechanism or powerful enchantment, could never be ascended. Though he strove to conquer it, the stair seemed to vanish beneath his feet like quicksand. A few times, he thought, with pride in his heart, that he had gone higher than before, and whenever that entered his mind, he would think of how low were others that had not found the garden or the tower or even ascended more than a little way up its steps. And when he thought such things, he would fall from the steps and tumble into the dust. His bottom hurt from these falls.

After a while, he didn't try to ascend the stairs but satisfied himself with the garden and the little paths that led him down familiar ways. On his eighteenth birthday, he was doing this very thing when a startling sight stopped him cold. An elderly man was leaning over the flowers, tending them in just the way he had always imagined they must be tended. The old man looked up and smiled at him, but the boy (who was now a young man) had a feeling that he had known he was there for a long time.

"Welcome to my garden," said the gardener, for that was who he was.

"Don't you mean my garden?" replied the young man, a little irked at the gardener. "I have spent a great deal of time here."

The gardener said nothing to this, but it occurred to the young man that such an old gardener must have been doing his job for a long time. But he was too proud to fix his mistake.

"Do you like my flowers?" said the gardener.

"I do, very much," replied the youth.

"And do you like the tower?"

"I would like it more if it led somewhere," said the youth.

"And who said it did not lead somewhere?" asked the gardener.

"I have tried many times to go up the staircase, and have never met with anything but shame."

"Staircases are special things. Everyone can go down, but only a few can go up."

"And who can ascend this stair?"

"Only those with a whole heart."

The youth pondered this for a moment, and then said, "How does one stop being half hearted?"

"You would do better to ask how someone becomes whole hearted."

"But where is the other half of my heart?"

"Far from here," said the gardener.

"And could you tell me how I might find it?" asked the youth.

The gardener motioned to the youth and bent close to the green grass. "Listen," he said, "do you hear that whispering?"

The boy heard no such thing, but he nodded all the same.

"That is the River that flows far underground. It's waters are special, not like the muddy one you've grown close to. The life it carries is so potent that it keeps this garden alive at every time of year."

"Does it ever come into the open?" asked the youth.

"It is a very long way, but it is one you must travel if you would be whole of heart."

The youth listened to his words, and doubt crept through the door of his mind. "But I am still very young," he said, "and I have never known anything but the old river and this garden. And this living river is hard to hear. How am I to follow it so far?"

The gardener smiled. "I will take you there. I always take those who desire wholeness to the holy waters."

The youth thanked the gardener with great animation and together they set off along a western road, following the whispers of the holy river. The first night they made camp, the youth was surprised that the gardener, who moved so swiftly that he was sometimes hard to see, refused to sleep. "I will rest, but sleep is not my way," he would say humorously.

Every day, the youth would awaken to find breakfast cooked, the water ready, and fresh clothes laid out for him to wear. At first, he saw the gardener often, but whenever he became too caught up with eating or reaching his destination, he would lose sight of the gardener and often walk for hours without noticing him. Over time, the youth began to wonder why the gardener vanished the way he did, and he began to suspect that the gardener might have some secret business that kept him from being his constant companion. He never thought to look behind him.

The road they had taken was a good one and its way, though long, was pleasant to the feet. Early on, the gardener had warned the youth that he must always take the right road when a fork presented itself. The youth had done this for many days, but two months into his journey, after having lost sight of the gardener for a full week, he came to a new fork in the road.

On the right, the western way continued, but it was covered by wet wood and far ahead stormy clouds blocked the sun. Farther still, he could just discern a brilliant glow that reminded him of the light at the top of the tower. To his left, another road struck off, surrounded by beautiful fruit trees and gentle leaves, and on the left of it ran the old river he had known as a boy.

Feeling tired, he decided that the opportunity for pleasure and rest was something he could not pass by. "After all," he thought to himself "I will never pass this way again. Why not seek its end?" And he left the western road.

At first, there were many delightful things to see. The trees were fine and the fruit tasted good, though his stomach churned a little from his eating too much. But the more beauty his eyes beheld, the more critical they became until he began to crave for greater beauty and tastier fruit, fruit that would give his stomach the familiar edge of bitterness.

It was in this way that he came to the center of the garden, for it was a garden he had entered. It was difficult to recognize it as one at first because there were no walls around this garden, and whoever kept it, unlike the gardener of the tower, was careful to make it seem as if everything had grown so beautiful without any help at all.

A bush grew in the center of the garden. It was the biggest bush the youth had ever seen and the most beautiful. Its branches coiled in every direction and soft fuzzy leaves released sweet aromas into the air that made the sunlight hazy with sleepiness.

Beyond the bush, the boy could see a city in the distance and with its tall battlements and lofty spires he knew it was the same city as the vision in the tower, only here the vision seemed more like a sunset than a sunrise. But the road was blocked because the bush had grown so enormous, and the youth saw there was no making it through to the other side on his own. Looking down, however, he spied a silver sword lying upon the ground, one keen as steel and cold as the stars.

Now ever since he had entered the garden, the youth had grown sleepier, and when he had seen the bush, he had very much wanted to lay down in its gentle embrace and sleep a great long while. But another part of him, the more critical part that had grown so strong after he left the western way, prodded him onward to the city in the distance. This seemed such a better way to that paradise, the voice said, than the winding road of the gardener that went on without end. Why not raise the silver sword and cut a way through the bush and to the holy city beyond?

This seemed a very good idea to the youth and his pride, never far from his heart, roused itself. He fought the desire to sleep, and with a grim eye, he raised the sword aloft to catch the sunlight, but strangely it remained quite dull and never reflected anything but the bush. He charged and hacked at every limb that presented itself, and many did. In fact, so many presented themselves that he began to wonder if the bush were not growing the more he cut it down. Of course, being so close to the bush, he could not see what anyone from a distance would have, which was that every time he cut a branch from the bush, five more grew in another place. In this way, the bush grew bigger and began to surround the youth, for he still refused to look behind him. The sunlight began to glimmer and then vanished altogether and the youth was lost in the darkness of the bush.

The branches were pulling him every way now and their strength was greater than before. As for the sword, he could hardly feel it anymore, and for some reason it seemed like every time he lashed out with it, he cut himself instead of the bush. Finally, with a snap, the sword broke in his hands, and the youth, exhausted by his efforts, threw himself into the bush, and let every branch wrap itself around him as tightly as it wished.

And there he lay, helpless and without hope, caught in the snare set for him, and for everyone who goes along that way. For the witch who kept the unwalled garden had planted that very bush in its center to block the path of travelers and capture them. In order that she might ensnare even those who would have turned away rather than sleep in her aromatic bush (she was a very crafty witch), she had placed a stolen sword by its side so that they might try their hand at cutting through.

Countless travelers had been caught in her snare, and every so often (no one could say when), her giant, who had an enormous mouth and a still bigger belly, would come and devour the captives and take their half hearts to the witch so she might place them with their twins in her vast collection. For this witch possessed the other half of every heart but one, and her one great desire was to see those hearts completed in the prison of her lair.

For a long time, the youth saw and heard nothing, but the more entwined he became with the bush, the more he mourned the gardener and the forgotten road to the holy river. It was with a thrill of fear that he heard the heavy footsteps of the giant and guessed that his time of sleepy pleasure had come to an end.

But a second sound, louder than the dull rumble of the giant, met his ears. A beam of light broke through the brambles, and a gentle but powerful hand gripped him. It began to pull him free and the more the hand pulled, the harder the branches pulled back, until the youth thought he would be torn to bits. But with his hands he grabbed hold of the arm of his rescuer, and with a snap the vines loosened, and he came out of the bush.

In front of him stood the gardener. Behind him, was the enormous giant, its mouth full of teeth and its eyes red with rage.

"Run!" cried the gardener with a commanding shout, and the youth, full of terror did as he commanded. The giant pursued him, but the gardener blocked the monster's path, and in a moment of horror, the youth saw the giant grasp the gardener and swallow him whole. The next minute he had plunged into the thicket of fruit trees. Now that he was within them, he saw that their beauty had hidden a world of thorns and it was only his grief that saw him through to the other side. When the last thorn had ripped through his cloak, and he found himself outside the garden, he collapsed in a heap upon the ground. The sacrifice of the gardener sliced his heart more deeply than the cuts of the silver blade and he wept long and hard.

As the tears rolled down his eyes and splashed upon the soil, he heard a strange sound. It was a whispering, and he recognized for the first time in his life the rippling of the holy river. He placed his hands on the ground, and beneath his fingers felt the steady trickle of a clear cool stream. There was too little there for him to drink, but wiping his eyes, he followed the whispering and the glittering trickle until the river grew louder and the stream stronger.

And there before him rose a white wall more beautiful than the tower he had known as a boy. He followed the river right up to the foot of the wall, and with a cry of surprise, he saw a small opening into the interior. Down he crawled onto his hands and feet, and entered through the opening.

He was in a garden more lush than any he had ever known. Where the tower garden had been orderly and pristine and the garden of the bush wild and unruly, this garden blazed like a southern paradise of colored birds and fiery willows. In its heart grew a tree, one whose branches bore fruit as clear as glass, more dazzling than diamonds, and whose sweetness swept away every care. He ate from the tree and his stomach, once bitter, grew warm.

All around him, the holy river flowed, its pure water like flashing light. Looking over, he saw something beneath its waves. He crept beside the blessed banks. There beneath the water was the image of the gardener. His eyes were closed in death, but his face and body looked younger and more healthy than ever before. An aura of indefinable glory crowned his golden hair, and a sword made of light itself lay across his chest.

The youth was amazed at the vision in the water and with his hand, he reached to touch the gardener's face, but the river was far swifter than he had imagined, and his whole body was pulled into the vision and beneath the current. The sword of light transfixed his heart, and he knew nothing until he awoke on the grass beside the stream. At his feet glowed the sword and half a heart dripped on its end.

Crawling to see if the vision had been disturbed by his fall, he peered over the bank, but instead of his own familiar reflection, he saw a different face, one like the gardener, and yet like himself. From his chest, a heart glowed, more palpable and powerful than the half one he saw transfixed upon the sword. For the first time, the life of new blood coursed in living fire through his veins and he wondered how he had ever lived with only half a heart. Rising, he picked up the sword, removed the half heart, and placed it in his satchel.

Now he knew that the gardener had never sought to give him the other half of his heart that lay in the hands of the witch. Instead, the gardener had given him a new heart, one that would see him to the top of the tower stair. But the youth remembered the many who still lay in the grip of the witch, and he purposed in his heart that he would free every heart from her snare.

He followed the river back to the fork in the road and then traveled along the way he had taken before. Now the fruit trees and the soft leaves did not look pleasant, but sickly sweet and too bright to be believed. The bush looked black to him, with little drops of green paint that tried to hide its inner darkness.

The swaying of the trees could not conceal from him the cries of helpless souls within, and he drew the sword of light. It sprang with fire more bright than the sun and with a mighty cry, he struck the black hearted bush.

The wood caught fire and the whole bush, enormous as it was, burned like a bonfire. The pain of the plant was so great that the branches that had once bound every captive came loose and the horde of those who had fallen into the witches snare stood like blinking owls as the fire came closer.

The youth told them in a loud voice to run to safety. Some did, but many clung to the bush and were consumed by the same fire as itself.

A great rumble came from behind the youth, and he turned to see the red eyed giant coming toward him. It had snatched up the silver sword, and with a great blow, it swung the blade down upon his head. The sword of light came up to meet it, and a crack of lightning lit the sky. The silver sword shattered, and with a great cry, the youth, his face more like the gardener than ever before, drove his blade of light into the breast of the giant. The monster shuddered as every tooth in his foul head came out, and as the youth removed the sword, he saw that the giant had no heart.

The monster fell. As he collapsed a hundred castles made of stone collapsed with him, and the rumble of their ruin roared from one end of earth to another. The garden, once so beautiful, turned to dust, and a barren wasteland was all that remained.

A little distance from where they stood, a castle could be seen, only it was ruinous and seemed on the brink of falling. It was here that the youth directed his steps. The door was broken in, and as he entered the torch lit hall, he saw the countless broken hearts that filled the witch's lair. She herself, the old hag, was seated on a throne at the end of the hall. Her chair seemed much too small for her. The witch looked beautiful in the light of the torches, but as the sword of light cast its aura, the youth shuddered to see her true form revealed by its gleam.

"What have you come for, boy?" she asked.

"The hearts you have taken."

"Those whose full hearts are with me are mine forever. No one can take them from me."

"Then I would have the half hearts."

"I will give them to you, and many more besides, if you will bow before me and swear allegiance to my throne."

"I cannot give you what is not my own. My heart is kept by a greater power."

"But your old heart does not. It is in your purse at this moment."

"And you think I would betray the one who gave me my heart by giving you what remains of the one I had?"

"You could serve us both," said the witch with a smile.

"I serve only the one who you fear above all others. This sword is his, and you will feel its burn unless you give me what I seek."

With a cry, the witch cowered back. The youth advanced and suddenly a thousand vases filled with a thousand half hearts shattered with the witch's scream. "They are yours! They are yours! Take them and be gone with you!" she cried. But the youth came toward her with a relentless gaze and though she fled from the castle with him in pursuit, he had shorn her black hair before the chase was done.

Afterwards, he called those who had fled from the burning bush to himself. Each one was given back the other half of his heart, and told the way to the living river and of the tower and its gardener, and of the stair that awaited them all. And leaving them in that place, the youth, who was no longer a youth, but a man, set out for the tower.

Along the way, he found many fruits and soft places to sustain his strength and give him rest. He wondered if it was not the gardener who had done these things for his benefit in advance. Long days passed, and at last, the man could discern the white tower in the distance.

He passed by the home of his birth, and though he recognized the place, it seemed different now, changed by the passage of time to be small and rather uninteresting. The banks were more muddy than he remembered, and it was with great difficulty that he crossed the river without ruining his belongings.

The door of the tower was open as always. Within, the flowers gleamed with a beauty more heartbreaking than he had remembered, and he had just glanced behind him when he spied the gardener at his back. He rushed to embrace him with a cry of joy.

The gardener looked younger now, about his own age in fact, yet older and wiser than words could express. "Give me your heart," he said, and with shaking hands, the man brought forth his old, completed heart. "This is what I have always wanted," the gardener said, "I grew you like one of my trees and now you have brought forth the fruit I longed for." Taking the heart that beat no more, he placed it on an altar and the sweet smell of the burnt offering raised its wings to heavens. Then the gardener led him into the tower and pointed to the top. From below, the man could see the city of light clearly defined against the sun, and from his position he could even perceive the flocks of birds that flew like clouds of glory among the spires.

"I go now, but later you shall follow, and when you follow, you must leave someone behind you, someone who I shall prepare to protect the garden and keep the tower."

The man swallowed hard. "And may I not go with you now?"

"Not yet, Holy Heart. Kneel." And with those words, the gardener knighted the man with the sword he had given him, and left all that he possessed in his keeping, from the staircase to the garden of the living river. And the people he had saved from the witch became his followers, and he led them on many crusades across the land, for there were many ruined castles that still stood from the reign of the evil witch. Years passed, and the knight grew old, and when his men had carried him at his own request to the tower, he lay on the green grass on the point of death. Motioning to a man whose eyes were blue, and whose soul was like the summer wind, he blessed him and knighted him as the new Protector of all that the Gardener had given. Handing him the sword of light, the knight crawled through the door of the tower as his followers looked on.

There stood the stair, unchanged as the day he first saw it when he was only seven years of age. The gold lions, white horses, red dragons, brown bears, and blue whale seemed to move in a circle of unending glory before his eyes. With aging fingers, he grasped the first step and pulled himself up. Hand by hand, stair by stair, he climbed, and the farther he climbed, the younger he became until his beard had turned from white to silver, and silver to gold, and his brow, so furrowed by battle, cleared like the sky after a storm. His eyes blazed with the light of the sword he had wielded, and before long, his crawling had turned to walking and his walking to running, and his running to flying until his form was like a beam of light, too swift for the men below to see. And his laugh, clear and careless, full of love and life, rang down from the depths of heaven, and the knight passed into unapproachable light.

1 comment:

  1. I really needed this today. Such a blessing. Thank you.