Saturday, 22 June 2013

The Boy Who Ate Trees

After revisiting fairy tales from the Brothers Grimm in Philip Pullman’s wonderful collection FAIRY TALES FROM THE BROTHERS GRIMM A New English Version, I was inspired to write a tale of my own.

I didn’t realize just how hard it would be to write a simple fairy tale. Because that’s the funny thing about fairy tales, they appear simple on the surface, but there is just so much complexity woven into them. Fairy tales are also un-PC, sexist and violent. These were very hard things to incorporate into my tale, because I am non of these things (okay, well, I can be a little un-PC at times).

For all of you writers out there, writing a Grimm-style fairy tale is a great creative exercise and I can’t recommend it enough. Out of this, I am left wondering, what would the Brothers Grimm have thought of my tale? Would they have laughed at the thought of including my tale in one of their anthologies or would they...

The Boy Who Ate Trees 
A Tale by Christopher Milllin

Once there was a boy who ate trees. Oak trees, maple trees, firs or pines... it didn’t matter what type of tree it was, he ate them all. Every morning he would sneak into the forest behind his family’s cottage and using his pocket knife he would cut out a small chunk from each tree he passed. He would chew chew chew the chunk of tree until it was paste in his mouth, and then he would swallow it down no differently than he swallowed down a bite of oatmeal.

One day when he was cutting a chunk out of a spruce tree, a burly woodsman stepped out of the trees and up next to him. The woodsman was carrying a large axe over his shoulder. The boy had never seen such a large axe and asked, “Is that for cutting down trees or giants?”

The woodsman laughed and said, “This axe has been used for both that is true, but as powerful as this axe is, it can not get through the trunk of a magical tree three-hour’s walk from here. I believe that it is the tree that will give you what you are looking for. But be warned, the tree is quite ornery. Start walking north and stay in as straight a course as possible and you can’t miss it.”   

The boy wanted to ask the woodsman how he knew so much and what ornery meant, but before he could ask, the woodsman let out a high-pitched scream, which startled all the birds from all the trees in the forest. The boy looked up at the birds flying away. When he returned his attention to the woodsman, the woodsman was gone.

The boy was not prepared for such a hike into the forest, so he cut a deep X into the spruce and made plans to search out the magical tree the next morning.

When he returned home his mother said, “Son, If you stop eating trees I will prepare you whatever meal you like whenever you like,” as she said every time he returned home from the forest. “I will grow a garden so lush and keep a barn so full, your belly will delight in new adventures in taste every day. Son, if you stop eating trees, I will take you to the king’s confectioner and give you free reign of his shop.”

“But I will not stop,” the boy said, as he always said, “because you and I both know your promises bear no weight. Trees are the biggest, strongest things in all the land, and I am quite the opposite. If I eat a tree, I will surely grow up to be as big and strong as a tree.”

Just then the cottage door swung open and his stepfather and two stepbrothers came in. They were covered in dirt and grime from a hard morning digging the moat around the king’s castle. “Ahhh, but you are a twig compared to the trees,” said one of his stepbrothers, having heard the boy’s last few words. His other stepbrother laughed and punched the boy so hard in the shoulder, the boy dropped to his knees and began to weep. “And like a twig,” this stepbrother said, “you are easy to break.”

“Get up off the floor and fetch us our dinner, boy,” his stepfather said. “A hard morning’s work deserves a hearty lunch. Because you are a lazy, little boy, who only works to disappoint, you deserve only what is left on our plates after we are full.”

And after they had filled themselves, not a morsel was left on their plates, or even on the floor. But the boy did not mind. He was full of spruce. And he was full of hope that the woodsman’s words were true.

The next morning the boy stuffed a slice of cheese in his pocket, because he loved the taste of cheese with trees. Then he snuck out of the cottage and into the woods where he soon found the spruce tree he had marked the day before. He walked north from the tree in as straight a line as he could keep, but an hour into his walk, he was stopped by a creek that cut the forest in half. A man in tattered clothes was kneeling next to the creek, swaying his hands back and forth under the water. “Excuse me, sir,” the boy said. “I am looking for the magic tree that is on the other side of this creek.”

“And I am a poor, starving vagrant looking for a dead fish to nibble on,” the man said.

“Do you know a safe way to get to the other side?” the boy asked. “I cannot swim.”

“If there is no other way around the creek, will you still try to cross it?” the vagrant asked.

The boy did not think about it for even a second. “Yes, I will,” he replied. “The magic tree may be able to give me something I have wanted for a long long time. I want it so badly, I taste it every day. And I am willing to risk my life to get it.”

The vagrant stood up and pulled on the hair growing from his chin. Under all the dirt, the boy saw that the man’s face was as pale as freshly fallen snow. The vagrant said, “I will carry you across the creek on my back. All I ask in return is for something to eat. Anything will do. If I do not get something in my stomach soon I will surely die.”   

The boy reached in his pocket and pulled out the slice of cheese. “All I have is this cheese,” he said.

The vagrant took the cheese and ate it in one bite. Instantly, a touch of colour returned to his face. When he was done savouring the cheese, he kneeled down and said, “You have come through more than I ever could have wished. Now it is my turn to come through for you. Hop on.”

And the vagrant did as he had promised and carried the boy across the creek on his back. When they reached the other side, the vagrant let the boy down and fell to the ground panting. Much of the colour that had come back to his face when he had eaten the cheese was now draining away with the water pouring off of him.

“Thank you,” the boy said. “I can see how much discomfort that has caused you. If I should happen across any food on my walk, I will give it to you when I return this way.”

“And I shall try to stay alive till then,” the vagrant said. “But if I should perish, know that I die a happy man, for that cheese was the tastiest thing I have eaten in ten years.”

The boy said farewell and continued walking north. Two hours later he came upon the strangest, largest tree he had ever seen. Its trunk was as thick as a hundred men squished together and was as black as coal. Its gnarled branches touched the clouds. The tree was impossible to miss, just as the woodsman had said it would be.

“I have been told you are a magic tree,” the boy said.

“And who, might I ask, told you that?” the tree asked back.

“A woodsman with an axe as big as a horse.”

“Ah yes, the woodsman,” the tree said and laughed. “The only thing he broke that day was a sweat. I had never heard such vulgar words. I had never seen such useless determination. Boy, bigger isn’t always better. And he proved it. He swung that axe of his over and over again, but left little more than a scratch in my skin. Silly woodsman.”

“The woodsman told me that you can give me what I’m looking for,” the boy said.

“And what might you be looking for?”

“Strength, size and patience,” the boy said. “I want to tower over the land and be impossible to pushover, like a tree. And if I am pushed over, I want the world to feel it when I fall.”

“Sounds like an awful lot to give,” the tree said. “And I’ve never given anything away in my life. Not that folks haven’t tried to get things from me. They’ve travelled here from all over the world expecting me to give them great wealth and power and they have all left with nothing but disappointment. So what makes you think you are so special? What makes you think I am going to give you what you want?”

After all the torment the boy had received at the hands of his stepfather and stepbrothers, he felt he was owed a better life, but he knew this was not the answer the tree was looking for, so instead of pleading with the tree, he gave up. This time, he would only be a disappointment to himself. But it was a long trip back and he was hungry. So before he departed he pulled out his little pocket knife and cut a tiny piece out of the magic tree’s trunk. Surprisingly, the knife slid through the bark and into the wood, like it was sliding through butter.

“As I said,” said the tree, “bigger isn’t necessarily better. Now what, may I ask, do you plan to do with that piece of me?”

The boy popped the piece of tree in his mouth and chewed it until it was mushy. Then he swallowed it down. When the piece of chewed-up tree landed in his stomach the magic tree began to laugh. “I’ve always believed that if you want something bad enough, you have to taste it,” the tree said when its laughing died down. “And your want is undeniable. A thousand people have stood in front of me wanting things, but their want appeared superficial. I figured them all liars, narcissists and heathens. I did not believe they were worthy because I did not believe them. You, boy, are truly, the first worthy person I have ever met. And for that, I will give you one thing and one thing only. So what will it be?”

He knew exactly what it would be, because he had been thinking about it ever since his mother remarried. He opened his mouth to speak, but before the first word came out, an image of the poor vagrant flashed through his mind. The vagrant, who risked his life to carry a boy he did not know across a creek, had nothing, and risked so much for so very little. On the other hand, the boy had a roof over his head. He had food, if he really wanted it. He had the love of a mother. He knew then that his turmoil was temporary, whereas the vagrant’s was forever. His want was no more superficial than all of those who had come before him. And without another thought to it, the boy said, “I want the poor man, who helped me at the creek, to never worry about being hungry again.”

“You came looking for strength, size and patience,” the tree said. “But it was always inside of you, wasn’t it? Now leave me alone.”

When the boy returned to the creek, the vagrant was still there, but now he was holding a stick with a fish pierced through the end of it over a small fire. He no longer looked like a vagrant, because he was wearing clean clothes and all the dirt had been washed off his face. On the sand next to him was a fishing rod, a bow and arrows, pieces of flint and a small collection of tools. When the vagrant spotted the boy he smiled and said, “I thought I was in heaven until I saw you standing there. Would you like a lift across the creek? I’ve been back and forth a dozen times now. Suddenly, I have the strength of ten men.”

“That would be kind of you,” the boy said, feeling bigger and stronger than he had ever felt before.

And so the boy returned home and continued to be tormented by his stepbrothers and stepfather. But it no longer bothered him. He ate the scraps they left behind and he ate the meals his mother cooked him in secret. Never did he complain or fight back and never again did he eat a tree.

Many years later a great battle broke out and the king ordered all the young men in his kingdom to stand behind him and fight. The battle raged on for months and thousands were killed. And every day, the enemy got closer and closer to the king’s castle. When only a handful of soldiers remained and the enemy was about to take the castle, the king did something he thought he’d never have to do. He enlisted the remaining peasants in his kingdom to take up bows and ready themselves, and he offered his only daughter’s hand in marriage, and whatever remained of his kingdom, to any man who could hold back the enemy long enough for his small army to make a surprise attack.

One of the boy’s stepbrothers was the first to step forward and accept the challenge. “I fear no man,” he said and planted himself in front of the castle’s raised drawbridge with only his sword and shield for protection. A while later a wave of men on horses ascended towards the castle. When the soldier on the lead horse reached the stepbrother, the soldier swung his sword with very little effort and lopped the stepbrother’s head off. A third of the castle’s land was destroyed before the remaining army was able fight off the enemy and prepare for the next onslaught.   

The next day the other stepbrother stepped forward. “I have revenge on my conscience now,” he said. “No army can get through a man filled with this kind of motivator.” And like his brother, he planted himself in front of the raised drawbridge, ready to take on whatever came his way. The enemy was swift and merciless. Once again, the soldier on the lead horse swung his sword with very little effort and took the stepbrother’s head clean off. Another third of the castle and its land was destroyed in the ensuing battle.

On the third day after the king’s declaration, the boy (who was now much more a man) stepped forward and said, “Two thirds of the castle is now destroyed. We will be defeated if they return today and breach the wall. I will stand in front of the castle and do what I can to hold them off, but we all know I will make about as much difference as my stepbrothers. Say your prayers and prepare yourself for the inevitable.” The truth was inescapable as death.

The boy planted himself in front of the drawbridge, which was now stuck in an open position. He held up his shield and sword in front of him. He had no fear. Soon all he heard was the sound of hooves pounding against the earth. The enemy appeared and ascended towards him at lightning speed. The closer they got to the boy, the stranger the boy began to feel.

Suddenly, roots sprouted from the soles of his feet and tore through the thick soles of his boots. The roots dug themselves into the ground below him. His legs thickened and bulked out. The clouds got closer as he began to grow grow grow towards them. His arms bulked out, and more limbs sprouted from his chest, his back and his sides. A thick bark grew over his skin. Soon, he was bigger than everything else in the land. The enemy’s horses halted and the enemy stared in wonder as the boy slowly became the biggest, gnarliest tree they had ever seen. The tree completely blocked the entrance to the castle. The tree was immovable. And indestructible. A few enemy soldiers swung their swords at the tree’s trunk, but it was so strong, it snapped their swords in half.

The king took advantage of the enemy’s distracted state and from behind the castle’s walls fired ten-thousand flaming arrows at them. When the last of the enemy soldiers fell off his horse dead, the boy who became a tree became a boy once more.

He never became a tree again, but his legend grew and grew like a sapling into a massive tree. And on the day he was to wed the princess, a hundred thousand people had travelled from far and wide to witness the nuptials. In the crowd, the boy spotted a recognizable face. It was the vagrant from all those years ago. A beautiful woman was standing next to him holding one of his hands. A beautiful little girl was holding his other hand.

The boy embraced the man and said, “Do you know who I am?”

“Of course I do,” said the man. “You are the boy who gave me life.”

“And how did you know I was to be wed today?”

“Because I heard the legends and I knew my wish had come true,” said the man. “You see, many years after we crossed paths I found the magic tree you had been searching for. I always felt you had something to do with my change in fortune and I vowed to pay you back. The tree told me everything, but did not care about my wish until I had remembered something you had said. Something about wanting it so badly, you tasted it. So I cut a small piece out of the tree and ate it. In return, he gave me my wish. And I wished for you to be as big and as strong as that old tree itself.”

The boy and the princess were married and lived happily together, ruling over their kingdom until they both died peacefully in their sleep many many years later. And when the boy died, he was remembered as the greatest king who had ever lived. His having once turned into a tree never came up in the many reasons why he was so great.

Copyright Christopher Millin 2013