Once upon a time there was a boy who lived alone in a stone hut on the side of a mountain. The Boy had no idea where his parents had gone. One night he had awoken to the sound of thunder rolling in the distance. He looked high and low for his parents, but he could not find them. He never saw them again.
All the boy had for companions were a dog, named Harald (after the great conqueror), the cow, two pigs, the chickens, the goats, and the wind that blew through the tree of stories.
Weeks passed. Then one day another storm came. The wind blew so hard that several leaves fell from the tree of stories.
The next morning, the boy and Harald went about their rounds, feeding the animals with what food was left (the boy began to worry that with his parents gone, the feed would not last long), milking the cow, checking for eggs. That was when the boy and the dog came across the fallen leaves.
They were unlike anything the boy had ever seen.
Maybe you are saying to yourself…”Hadn’t the boy seen the leaves in the tree? Aren’t leaves just leaves?” and to a point, you’d be right. But that is not what I mean. These leaves were indeed different in a very special way.
When the boy picked them up, he would see things in his mind. Things he’d never learned about. Places he’d never been. His head would swell with sweet music and his heart would race as stories played out in his mind.
He turned and spoke to Harald. For a dog often is the best thing to talk to when no one is around (and is also often the best thing to talk to in a room full of people). The boy said, “Harald. I have an idea that may save us both.”
Harald panted back his support and excitement.
“Harald, you and I are going to the valley today, to town.”
And so the dog, who had made many trips to town with the boy’s father, led the way. And the boy followed.
That day the boy went to the inn. He knew that the tavern at the inn hosted many famous traveling musicians. When he entered the inn it was midday. Adjusting to the the dark coolness of the tavern, he saw in the dim light that a few elderly men were drinking, seated apart. Behind the bar was a very young barmaid, maybe only five years older than the boy himself.
“You’re too young to be here” she said to the boy, looking up from wiping down a glass.
“I could say the same for you my lady.” the boy replied.
From behind him one of the old men laughed and mockingly echoed “My lady. Woo boy. That is rich.”
The barmaid looked down at the bar in front of her. The boy looked at the sawdust floor. There was an awkward moment’s silence only to be broken when the girl snapped, “You be keeping a civil tongue Tom McFarlane, or me da will be kicking ya out after kickin’ your bony arse.” Turning back to the boy she said, “What is your business here boy?”
The boy, taking a seat at the bar, then explained his idea. All the while, he could not shake a case of the goosebumps that only intensified every time the girl looked at him or spoke. In the end, the two came to a deal.
That afternoon, before the evening’s main act arrived, the boy took to the stage and began to recite the story from the first leaf.
He stumbled through it. He discovered what stage fright meant. He left the stage to the sound of booing. He knew he did not deserve the food he’d negotiated for from the girl, the innkeeper’s daughter.
He went to leave without collecting his food as payment.
It was then that the girl called him into the kitchen. There, he found a table laid out with food and a tray on the the floor filled with good things for Harald.
“You need practice.” said the girl. I liked your story. Tell me, just me, another.
The Boy who on stage had merely recited the first story as he had seen in the leaf, now grabbed the leaf. And the story flowed through him.
He made funny voices.
He became the story.
The girl laughed and cried and clapped. At the end. She kissed his cheek and said, “Come back tomorrow night. You will be the main act. But if you are going to hold that leaf…if it’s the difference between the two tales I just saw, you better disguise it.”
The Boy looked at the girl, afraid, shocked.
“Do you think you are the only artist to have a story tree?” She asked. “All the good ones do.”
And so it went. For years.
The Boy became a great and famous traveling act. He more than saved the farm. He had enough to hire men to look after it while he was away. Always, he took Harald with him.
And always, every time he visited the inn in the valley, he would bring two leaves.
He would tell his tale for the public and then, at the table in back, he would tell his tale for the innkeeper’s daughter.
And in time, with her father’s retirement, she became the innkeeper. And though the boy’s fortune grew vast, she had the only real pay he wanted.
At the end of their private story she would plant a single kiss on his cheek. And the boy, now a man, would feel like the richest man alive.
And so it went, down past each year, past the birth of Harald’s son and grandson. Past the time of many a cow and chicken. Until the boy, now a man, grew old…until the time of the tree’s passing also came at last.
And the boy, now an old man, took the last leaf, went to the valley, and found the innkeeper’s daughter, now old as well, but beautiful and kind as ever.
Holding out the leaf to his beloved he said, “This, my lady, is the last story I have from the tree. But I will not tell it. All these years you and I have been the real story here. Not these tales and songs. Will you have me? Will you finish our story with me? Together? Till the end?”
“Of course.” she said. And kissing his cheek, she said, “I thought you’d never ask.”