She had turned nine just a week earlier. She didn’t get any presents, not even a special meal. No one had ever given her a present, not once. She didn't have any birthday cake either. But then she never had any cake, not once in her life, not even for someone else’s birthday. In fact, she had never been to anyone’s birthday party.
The only place she had even seen a birthday cake was in a book. It had candles and icing and sweets and pretty blue flowers on it. If she closed her eyes, she could still see it whenever she wanted.
It was cold outside. It had been bitterly cold all winter. The wind howled angrily around the house. Her friend Old Mr. Pine’s longest limbs kept knocking against the edge of the house, right above her room’s tiny window. She would have said something, but her dad was a very strict man. He would not change his ways or his days to listen to a little girl’s worries. He would get angry if she mentioned it, so she just hoped that Old Mr. Pine wouldn’t hurt himself with all of that banging around.
Regimen. That is what he called it. She liked that word. It rolled off the tongue like oil, but without the bitterness that Mother’s castor oil had. She didn’t blame her dad. He always said that times were tough and their bills were too high. Maybe that was why he yelled so much.
She liked words. She knew many of them. She just didn’t have a chance to see them in books. Once she heard a new one, she savored it until she fully got its meaning and flavor. For her, words were another universe. She once looked at the dictionary at her school, but found that all the words after R were missing. She often wondered what mysteries or treasures could be found in U, V, or even W. The letter Z seemed so far away, that she couldn’t even imagine what words starting with Z were like.
There was a candle on the little table next to her bed. Her room had only the one window, a little one above her tiny drawer that held her all of her clothes. Except for the slightest corner of the barn and a little bit of sky, most of what she could see was a willow and a pine tree. Those trees and their many guests had become her best friends.
There was Mr. Robin Red Breast and Mrs. Blue Feather and that tiny little wren she called Blinky that sang to her in the Spring, even if her window was closed.
She had read all of the books in her school library, all 14 of them. She had always done her schoolwork, and while she could still walk, managed to finish each school task early. For some reason, her father was not pleased. Quite often he would come home late at night, smelling of that tavern smell and shout, “I don’t need some sick, brainy girl. I need a SON to help me in the field.” He would glare at her as if it were her fault that she were a girl, then stomp off to the meal table. After he ate, he would sit quietly, looking into his drink, until finally Mother led him to their bedroom.
Many months ago, sometimes late in the night, her father would come, and kiss her on the forehead. But that stopped as she got more ill. In the last few months, he hadn’t done it at all.
For some reason last year, her legs stopped working.
Quite suddenly, and without any warning, she could not walk anymore. Her mother tried camphor, castor oil, hot bindings, all of the old wives’ treatments, but nothing helped. She could hear her mother plead with her father to call in a Doctor, but it always ended up in a fight, with him stomping off back to the tavern.
She never had seen a real Doctor. In her mind, the Doctor would be a huge, terrible man, all dressed in white, with a mean look in his eye and an evil tube around his neck, ready to search all the way to her inner soul. He would have the most horrible needles and other strange devices.
Of course, armed like that, the Doctor could read her mind and all of her innermost dreams.
Still, as her pain got worse, maybe she really did need to go see a doctor. But last month when her mother asked again, her father refused. He began shouting, “Doctors cost money. I won’t waste my hard earned money on a little girl.”
The little girl knew that Mother could not argue against Father. If Mother tried, bad things would happen to her. Only after Father had gone to bed, Mother would come in and bring her meals and help her wash.
Her Uncle Ivan was nice, though. She wasn’t quite sure how he was an uncle. He couldn’t always make it, but when he did come visit, it was wonderful. One time, he even made it three times in a week. She felt like a little angel. And he brought the most fantastic books to read to her. She used to be able to read them herself, although she needed help with some of the big words.
But after last month, with the first snow, even Uncle Ivan’s visits seemed to fade away now. Last month, she heard Father and other voices arguing. She recognized her Mother’s voice, but after Father started yelling, she lost track of all the other voices. All she knew was that they were arguing about her, because she heard her name again and again. She felt small and sad.
Lately, she was having problems holding the books up so she could read them, so when he did visit, Uncle Ivan had to read aloud to her again. She looked out of her little window at the snow blowing through the trees. Even with all her blankets and her warmest winter night clothes, she always felt a chill.
It was still snowing out when Uncle Ivan came by for a visit. She had not seen him for many weeks. Seeing Uncle Ivan again filled her with joy. Even the snow falling outside seemed brighter.
“So my little one, how are you?” He wiped the snowflakes still clinging to his bushy grey and brown beard before kissing her on the forehead. He was large, much larger than her Father, but to her, he was as gentle as a lamb.
She always thought of cuddly, big brown bears when he visited. His cloak was glistening with snow. He shook it off and laid it on her dresser.
“Uncle Ivan! Thank you for coming! Did you see the snow? Is there much outside? Is it very pretty?” Her little round face beamed with happiness.
“Oh, yes, it is beautiful snow, and there is so much of it, my dear. Even the horses and cattle are coming inside. The snow is almost as tall as you are, my little one.”
When Uncle smiled, his whole face seemed to radiate warmth. Just then, he gave her a big one, one with a twinkle in his eye. She recognized that twinkle. Uncle Ivan had a trick up his sleeve.
“So, what shall we do tonight? May I sit on your bed?”
She nodded politely. Somehow his smile made her feel stronger. With Uncle Ivan sitting this close, she could smell his smoking pipe, made out of this milky white stone he called meercham. The pipe had this wonderful scary bird’s claw carved into the bottom. Parts of his pipe had turned a rich color from his smoke, a beautiful yellow brown that somehow looked warm. Uncle loved holding his pipe in her room, but he would never light it. This smell was much nicer than the nasty cigarettes that Father smoked.
“Today, my little one, I brought you a little something, as well as a very special book. May I read it to you in a bit? Do you think you can stay up while I read?”
“Yes, please, Uncle. I would love that.” She nodded eagerly.
Uncle Ivan sat next on her bed and nestled himself against the wall, so her candlelight could shine on the pages. He moved closer to her so she would be able to see the words as he read to her. He lit the candle, and pulled out two extra ones if this one should go out.
He pulled his rucksack from the floor and pulled out something floppy wrapped in bright red, shiny gift paper. There was a pink ribbon with a tiny bow on top. He handed it to her without a word.
She carefully opened up the paper. Inside, she saw a beautiful rag doll with orange hair made of yarn and a painted mouth and eyes. She was so surprised that she couldn’t say anything to Uncle, not even thanks. She hugged the doll as hard as she could. She had never gotten a toy before. This doll was just beautiful. Tears started running down her face. Her first present – a wonderful, beautiful rag doll, all her own.
Uncle Ivan gently smiled at her. No words in the world could explain just how she felt. With her eyes closed, she rocked back and forth with the doll held tightly in her tiny arms.
After several minutes, Uncle Ivan reached back into his rucksack and pulled out a large, old, leather-bound book.
He opened it to the very beginning. He looked over to her. She nodded at him, as though she were ready. The doll was still deeply in her grasp. Her tears were replaced with a wide-open, happy look.
He cleared his throat and began the story:
“A Winter’s Tale”
Once upon a time, deep inside the dark forest, there lived a little girl. She was named Kasha and she lived all by herself. Well, except for her brother, who didn’t count because he was such pig-head, and her parents, but they worked all day long and sometimes even long into the night. There was also Grannie Ivanov, but Grannie usually stayed near the big fireplace in the kitchen, especially in winter. The fireplace took up half the kitchen. During the winter, it was kept burning all the time. Grannie even slept near it so she would stay warm. Actually, Grannie mainly slept on TOP of the oven all winter long. Whenever it got cold, Grannie would ask Kasha and Pig-head to add the wood to the hot coals, or to take her bucket and empty it. So really, in Kasha’s mind, she lived all alone.
Last year, it had started snowing early, in the middle of October. Here it was early February, and still the snow seemed to fall straight from the sky. The snow was now much higher than Kasha, so it was not easy to go and play. One time, she dug a tunnel into the snow, but when she was inside, Pig-head stomped on the top until all the snow fell around her and she couldn’t breathe for a while.
Her father pulled her out and yelled at Pig-head, but he just stuck his tongue out at her. Later behind Father’s back, Pig-head promised that he’d get her again later.
Boys could be so bad, especially if they were older brothers.
Kasha had one friend in the whole wide world, a rag doll she named Annushka, or Anna for short. Anna was her best friend. Anna even promised Kasha that she would never to tell anyone about Kasha’s secrets, so Kasha told her everything, her dreams, her fears and even a love story she once saw in her sleep.
Her dream had a big shiny golden castle in the sky, a handsome prince and wonderful fir green and daisy yellow fairies who flew around the clouds. She was dressed all in white, except for the flowers in her hair that the fairies brought her every morning.
One time a huge, evil ogre had caught her and was about to eat her when the handsome prince jumped out of the forest and stabbed the ogre with his shining, silver sword.
The ogre screamed and ran away, dripping steaming drops of black blood. She and the prince lived happily ever after, and the prince did not have any big brothers to tease or bother them.
It was a fun dream.
Today was her first day of school. After Pig-head and she finished breakfast, they walked down through the snow, over the bridge and waited at the bottom of the hill for a cart that would carry all the other kids from nearby farms. Pig-head had started school last year.
He always told her scary stories about how the Teacher ate bad little girls. He said that because she was such a bad little girl, that she would be the first to be eaten this year.
Kasha would never admit to Pig-head that she was scared, especially of the Teacher. (But, deep down inside, she was!) The cart ride sounded exciting, even though Pig-head would be going with her. She put on her thickest coat and gloves to keep the bitter wind out. Just before they left, Grannie Ivanov called out to both of them.
“Watch out for Morozko, Old Man Winter. He loves to eat little girls and little boys for dinner. He is very hungry this season. Dress warmly.”
Their Uncle Vanya had told the story of Morozko many times, about how he froze children in their sleep, and how he tricked grown men into walking and talking on and on, even in the bitterest cold, until they became lost in the forest, and how you could never rest when Morozko was near. Old Man Winter was sneaky, mean and loved little children most of all.
Pig-head and Kasha walked down the trail, over the rushing, frosty river, and to the road. You could see the path left by many carts’ skis and where the horses had trampled down the snow and ice in between. Finally, the cart arrived and the driver helped them both up. There were four other children in the cart.
Kasha looked at the other children, but they did not look scared. She turned her face so they would not see her fear.
The ride to school took almost half of an hour. The school was a one-room wooden building with a little fireplace near the teacher’s desk. The teacher sat in the front of the class. She had a hooked nose and thick wire glasses. Teacher’s face wore a frown that seemed to be made out of stone. She was dressed in layers of black, matching her mood perfectly.
Kasha was told to sit in the front row. The other students found their seats. Pig-head sat behind Kasha.
The teacher started with the older students, asking them to open their spellers and take out their writing tablets. She started giving them grammar problems and words to write down. Kasha soon got bored and started thinking about her doll Annushka. She wondered if Anna missed her as much as she missed Anna.
Kasha jumped with a start. The Teacher had just slammed her long wooden ruler on Kasha’s desk. “Why are you day dreaming? You cannot learn if you do not listen. You have just earned one detention.”
Kasha did not know what detention was, but it sounded bad. The Teacher continued her lessons with only one short break for lunch. Kasha managed to stay awake and alert for the rest of class, even if it was for the older children.
The Teacher passed out small pieces of paper. Each student was instructed to print his or her name on it with an ink pen. Kasha carefully filled out her name on the top, being very careful not to drip any ink on the rest of the scrap of paper. She heard something fly past her ear, and saw a wad of paper hit the front of Teacher’s desk with a bang.
The Teacher looked up, frowned even more, then walked to the front of the desk. She stooped down and picked up the wadded up paper. She unfolded it and turned to Kasha. The paper had Kasha’s name on it.
“Is this what you do with your trash? Throw it at the Teacher? Shame on you! You wicked little girl. Your detention starts tonight, right after class.”
Kasha tried to explain that it wasn’t her paper at all, but the Teacher refused to listen.
“You will go kneel in front of the class. Then you will stay after school and wash each and every tablet in the classroom.” Kasha walked to the corner the Teacher pointed at. She saw from the corner of her eye, Pig-head trying to keep from laughing. She was sure that he threw the paper with her name on it. Kasha tried to keep the tears from running down her face. She was there for the rest of the class.
Finally, class was over. Kasha’s knees hurt from all the kneeling. She started washing the writing tablets. She heard the cart approach just as she dried the last tablet.
She ran to get her coat and hat, but by the time she ran outside, the cart had already gone. She saw Pig-head whispering something to the cart driver as they left. She tried to chase the cart, but the snow was too deep. She fell face down into the snow. She saw the cart moving further away with each breath.
Kasha began to cry. She turned back to the school. The door locked behind her and everyone else had left. It was getting cold and dark outside. Kasha began to walk.
It was hard work, even if she tried to stay in the path made by the cart’s skis. Finally, she tried walking in the tracks of the horses. That was a little easier. The wind was still blowing all around her, but luckily, the snow had stopped falling.
The last bit of sunlight was now gone. A few wispy clouds moved across the night sky. Behind the clouds was a smallest sliver of the moon. It gave her a little light to see by. On and on she walked. Kasha was getting very cold and tired. Her empty tummy made loud noises to her. She could not feel her fingertips even though she wore thick, woolen mittens. The wind seemed to grow even louder and angrier.
Finally, she got to the hilly road that led to her house. She had lost track of time. Because her family always talked about how far that was, she knew that she still had two more kilometers to go.
Because of the snow and wind, the hill leading to her home was steep, icy and slippery. She heard the trees rub back and forth against each other. The wind was making them talk to each other. The clouds now covered the moon. It was all dark except for the slightest hint of light over the hill.
She thought that she heard someone behind her. Could it be Morozko? The terrible Old Man Winter, coming after her? She tried to run, but found that she could not keep her footing if she hurried. On and on she climbed the hill.
Often she would slip, and have to climb back to where she started. By the time she came to the bridge, she was sure that that someone was behind her.
As she tried to cross the icy bridge, she slipped again, but this time, she fell down the snow bank. Down and down she tumbled. Finally, she landed on the river’s ice.
She heard it cracking under her weight. The river moved so quickly that it hardly ever froze up completely. The cracking sound was horrible. It sounded as though the river wanted to eat her up.
Kasha was terrified. She heard someone calling her name, just like Morozko would do if he were after her. She was even more terrified.
Finally, she yelled back, “Hello, Morozko? Is that you? Please leave me alone. Please don’t hurt me.” She heard her name being called again. If it was Morozko, would he help or hurt her? She decided that she had no choice. The ice was cracking faster and faster. She felt it move under her.
Just then she saw Uncle Vanya hurry over the bridge.
“Wait there, little Kasha, don’t move!” She almost fell with relief. Uncle Vanya grabbed a broken tree branch and held it out to her.
“Take this, Kasha and crawl towards me slowly.” Just then the ice broke through. Kasha fell into rushing water at least knee deep. The cold was so painful that Kasha couldn’t even scream.
Uncle Vanya dropped the branch and jumped into the river to grab her before the rushing water pulled her away. He picked her up like a little doll over his shoulder and ran back to their cabin. Kasha could barely tell what was happening. Everything was getting misty, dark, and oh, so cold.
The next thing she knew, she was back at home. Mother and Grannie had taken off all her wet clothing and started to rub her with coarse linen towels. They sat her right next to the roaring fire. Grannie wrapped her with Grannie’s biggest and longest gown. Mother put Father’s thick wooly socks on her feet. They came up way above her knees. The feeling started to return to her fingers, legs and face. It tingled and hurt a lot as she warmed up.
Her mother and Grannie were still in tears. Uncle Vanya handed her a mug of hot tea. He poured in a little brandy.
The brandy made her eyes water, but she drank it down just like Mother told her.
“Oh, my little Kasha, we were so worried. Why did you not take the cart home?” asked her mother.
Kasha saw Pig-head peering around the corner, looking at her with tearful eyes. She knew that finally she could get back at Pig-head. He had been so mean to her. But, still, he was her brother. And he looked more scared than she ever was.
“Mamushka, I forgot something at school, so I thought I could hurry back and get it.” There, Kasha did it. She had lied. She had never lied to her mother before. She saw Pig-head looking at her with grateful thanks and relief.
She knew from that then on, Pig-head would never tease her again.
Only Uncle Vanya saw the looks that Pig-head and Kasha exchanged. He looked funny with his pants were off. While they dried, he was wearing a funny night gown.
Vanya grabbed his own tea, and added a lot more brandy to his mug. He decided to put a stop to any more questions.
“Come, little Kasha, it is time for you to go to bed. Let me read you a story.” Uncle Vanya picked her up in his bear-like arms and took her upstairs to her little room, but not before Mother and Father and Grannie kissed her.
Uncle Vanya pulled out a sack and sat in a chair next to her bed.
“You are a brave little girl, Kasha. You walked five kilometers at night without any help, in the deepest winter chill. That is really brave. I am so proud of you. But please don’t do it again.” He smiled at her and patted her head gently. Annushka the doll was waiting for her under the covers.
“Kasha, I can guess what your brother did. But, Kasha, you should know that he was scared when you didn’t come home. You were brave not telling on him. I think he’s learned his lesson. Let’s just keep it a secret between us.”
Kasha nodded her head, still shivering a little in her bed. She pulled all the covers over her tightly.
“Do you mind if I read to you?” Uncle Vanya had a great deep voice and she loved it when he made different animal sounds and other noises as he read. She nodded to him eagerly. Uncle Vanya pulled out a big leather book from his sack. “This is a story about another brave little girl. Her name is Haruko. She lives in Japan, a beautiful country far away. Japan is filled with magic and sorcerers and dragons. It has beautiful mountains, deep rivers and many, many secrets. She has a beautiful name, Haruko, almost as sweet as yours, little Kasha. Would you like to hear it?”
Kasha nodded between her shivers. He started reading:
“Springtime at Mount Fuji.”
Once upon a time, there was a pretty little girl named Haruko. She lived in a small stone hut at the foot of the beautiful Mount Fuji. Haruko’s father was a poor monk. Because he was so poor, he also kept a little rice farm. No matter how hard he worked, his crop never seemed to be as big as anyone else’s. Even so, her father was always very kind to everyone, especially to Haruko. He always told Haruko that she reminded him of her beautiful mother. Her mother had died so long ago that Haruko could not even remember her face.
Haruko was ten years old.
Although they were very poor, their hut was always neat and clean, with freshly washed linens blowing in the breeze behind the hut. They also had two scrawny chickens and a lame goat, but the goat didn’t seem to mind it much, and besides, he never really walked far anyway. The goat gave them a little milk each morning. The chickens were so thin that they almost never laid eggs. She also had a dog named Taro, but although the pup slept with her, he always followed her father when he left for the rice field.
If you walked to the big road that led to Mount Fuji, you could see the top of the mountain just over the hill. There was a waterfall and a river, and a dam that her father built, trying to water his small rice field.
Even from there, Mount Fuji was beautiful and magical. In winter, her father had taken her to the top of the hill and watched as the full moon caressed Mount Fuji and the clouds that seemed to get caught on it. Haruko always wondered whether Mount Fuji had invisible, secret arms that could reach out and hold the clouds against their will.
Haruko had a rich grandmother Obaba who lived on the other side of the hill. She only got to see Grandmother Obaba on very special holidays, like on Obaba’s name day. Haruko’s father was Granmother Obaba’s youngest son, (and therefore, not her favorite) so that was why he became a monk. And that was why he was a poor monk. He had to make do the best he could just to survive, because his two older brothers would inherit Grandmother's lands and her titles. Because Grandmother Obaba was extremely rich and she had royal blood, her lands included at least one mountain, and more than a few major hills, rice fields, mandarin orange groves, even a lake or two.
So it happened that Haruko's father’s two older brothers – her uncles - were rich and famous. Their huge family homes were built right next to Grandmother Obaba’s. Haruko remembered that her uncles’ houses were decorated in beautiful colors. Their paper doors had green dragons and wonderful mountain scenes painted on them. In front of the houses were bonsai trees, a lovely orange grove, and even lovelier gardens. Haruko had never been inside either house.
Grandmother Obaba’s house was the largest of the three. Her husband came from royalty, and his death many decades ago, was an honorable one in the service of the Emperor.
From Grandmother's yard, there was a beautiful clearing which looked over Mount Fuji. It was always peaceful and quiet there. Obaba called it her special place. There were bonsai plants, a small area to pray or read in, and a small flower garden with the most beautiful gardinia and peonies. You could smell the flowers when they bloomed all the way down the hill.
Haruko always had to take off her wooden slippers the few times that she went inside Obaba’s house, but then again, so did every one else. In Japan, it was impolite to wear your outside shoes indoors, unless you were a beggar and had no shoes at all.
Grandmother Obaba was having her name-day celebration. Because she was one of her many grandchildren, even Haruko was invited. She spent the past few days practicing Origami with rice paper so she could bring a proper gift to honor Grandmother Obaba.
Origami is the Japanese art of folding paper. You can make incredible animals, flying birds, even beautiful boxes out of paper. Haruko loved making Origami birds and she was very good at it. Her fingers seemed to talk to the paper as she folded.
Haruko wanted to make something special for Grandmother Obaba. She practiced hard until she made a perfect peacock. It was very hard to fold it just right, but she finally did it. Then, she worked on a crane, a swan and a sparrow, working hard until she got them just right. She chose the three best birds as a gift. She decided not to take the peacock. Then, she began to prepare her father's tea and lunch.
Late that morning, her father returned from the rice field. He was tired, covered in mud and pale. The year before there was a flood and it washed out most of his crop. Last night, the storm was at least as bad as the year before.
Once the storm started, her father worked all night to fix the dam that kept the water away from his field, but the water was too strong. Half of the dam had broken away again. If it rained any harder, his whole crop would be threatened.
He sat down, muddy, tired, sore and sad.
“Oh, my dear Haruko. You look so pretty today. Are you ready to see your Grandmother Obaba?”
“Yes, father. May I pour you some tea?” Without waiting for an answer, she pulled his favorite teacup from the small cupboard and filled it with a deep green, steaming hot tea. Her father sipped at it and closed his eyes. His head started to nod and he seemed to fall asleep. Finally, he shook his head and began to talk again.
“Haruko, the dam is in trouble again. Most of our rice field might wash away. If it does, it will be a hard season for us. I have to go back to save what I can. So, I cannot walk you to Grandmother Obaba’s house. Can you walk alone there? Do you remember the path?”
“Yes, honorable father. I’m a big girl now.”
Her father smiled at her words. “Yes, yes, you are a big beautiful girl. A big nine year old girl. Will you show me what you made for her, please?”
She smiled as she told herself, no, I am ten, dearest father. But she did not try to correct him. He had enough to worry about.
Haruko brought the paper envelope she had folded and took out three small birds. The largest was no bigger than her small hand. It was a purple and yellow crane, folded just right. The second bird was an owl, red and black with the folds making eyes that seemed to follow you around the room. It was smaller than the monk’s little finger. The last bird was the smallest. It was a green and golden sparrow. As small as it was, it was perfectly folded. Her father smiled at her.
“These are lovely, Haruko. I am sure that Grandmother will be pleased.” He sighed, then got to his feet. He opened his special box where he kept his few coins and other valuables.
“Haruko, let me tell you a story before we go. I've never told you about the old witch Yamamba before. She is a very old lady who eats children, even big nine year old girls like you. She lives deep in the forest, she comes out only at night and she particularly likes to wander on the hill between here and Grandmother’s house.
“Yamamba can be stopped, but you have to be brave and very sure of yourself. And, you have to be armed properly. Better yet, always come home before it gets dark, and you can be safe.”
He kept searching through his little box. “There is a secret about Yamamba. As evil as she is, she can never attack you, but only if you don’t let her. You have to be a brave girl to stop her. Your own fear can cause your death.”
“What must one do, father?” Haruko asked.
Her father still could not find what he was looking for. Then he turned and saw his monk’s robe, hanging near the door. He reached over to it, and pulled out a small silk bag. Inside were three small charms, each one of them hardly larger than a small seed. “These are magical symbols and charms. If you are about to be attacked, you must take one, and only one, and throw it behind you. Then, run like the wind away from her. You must chant, ‘I won’t see you, I won’t see you.’ over and over again.”
The monk looked at her sternly. “If the last one is gone, all you can do is chant, over and over again, until you get home. Don’t forget to chant. Without chanting, the charms won’t work. If you keep chanting, even if you used the last charm, you will be safe.
“Now, don’t forget, please tell your grandmother that I am trying to save my crop and that it saddens me to no end that I could not go to her name day party.”
The monk kissed his daughter on her forehead, finished off his tea, and went off back to work on his failing dam.
Once again, Haruko made sure that her clothes were clean and neat. She packed her gift box in old silk and tied it to her back. Haruko began walking through the forest to her Grandmother Obaba’s house.
She was careful to avoid all of the puddles left by the rainstorm, but no matter how hard she tried, she still ended up with mud on her clothes. When she finally got to her Grandmother’s house, three servants quickly whisked her to a side door, where two other servants rushed to clean her clothing before being admitted to Grandmother Obaba. In their rush, her hand-made paper gift box was smashed, and the envelope inside was crushed and torn. Haruko began to cry silently.
The servants chided her to keep quiet, but at least they got her clean. Finally, they let her dress again, and gave her back her gift.
Haruko took the torn envelope and entered the Tea Room, where all important ceremonies took place. She was introduced and after being granted the right to enter, she bowed to Grandmother and wished her a happy holiday. She meekly handed over the torn envelope and explained that the trip here caused her gift a great hardship.
All of the guests tittered and laughed, knowing that nothing this poor child could do could ever please Grandmother. Their Grandmother Obaba was too well versed in proper behavior, and how could this silly young girl ever learn it? What, with her father being nothing more than a useless monk and a worse father and husband?
“Hardship. Ha! What could a monk’s daughter know about life or hardship? Ha!” Grandmother's voice was shrill and angry.
Grandmother Obaba picked open the dirty, crushed envelope and found the owl and the peacock smashed, dirty and torn into bits. She searched further and pulled out the tiny paper sparrow, still perfectly intact. She looked and looked and looked, and after the longest time, she smiled.
Everyone in the room expected Grandmother to banish Haruko to the servants’ chambers until the party was over. Just then, Grandmother Obaba surprised them all.
“It’s Haruko, isn’t it? You are my youngest son’s daughter? This sparrow is lovely. How sweet of you to think of my favorite bird.”
Grandmother’s reaction surprised everyone in the Tea Room. Haruko was invited to sit at the feet of Grandmother and have her tea. This seat of honor was rarely given to any grandchild, and rarely, even to her favorite sons.
After all little girls and boys were served with tea (and all the adults were served with Saki, a hot rice drink for adults), Grandmother asked Haruko a question.
“Haruko, if I gave you some paper, could you make another bird for me? To replace those two torn birds.”
Haruko bowed deeply and said, “Honorable Grandmother Obaba, if it would please you, I would be honored to make a whole flock of birds for you.”
Grandmother Obaba laughed, not just because Haruko used to proper form of address, but because in her youth she, too, loved making Origami animals. Grandmother clapped her hands, and a servant came in with paper and a small table. The small table was placed in front of Haruko.
Haruko's eyes opened wide as she looked at all the fine paper before her. She had never seen or imagined such wonderful paper or such colors. She searched to find the cheapest, smallest one, so Grandmother would not be angry if she made a mistake. There it was. A square piece of cheap, black rice paper. Haruko began to fold. As soon as her fingers touched the paper, she forgot about everything else. She ignored the snickers, the stares and her cousins, aunts and uncles. Her fingers flew and drew, pinched and bended, caressed, and finally creased and folded the small paper. When she was done, she handed the finished owl to Grandmother Obaba.
Everyone in the room could tell that Grandmother was not pleased. Her famous frown was clearly visible to everyone as she examined black owl closely. It grew deeper as she examined the owl over and over again.
“Why did you pick that paper, Haruko? It was the ugliest paper on the table. Was this to be an insult to your grandmother? If so, then shame on you, little girl. Your father has not taught you well at all.”
The entire room was quiet as they watched the growing spectacle. A few secretly exchanged glances as though they were sure what would happen next. Grandmother Obaba was famous for being a fierce lady if anyone insulted her. Her face was turning red. Everyone expected her to chase Haruko out of her home in shame. If that happened, Haruko would never be asked back to visit ever again.
Haruko knelt down in front of her grandmother and bowed very deeply. Without looking up she answered in a very meek and quiet voice.
“Oh, no, Honorable Grandmother. If I had torn your bird while making it, I would have wasted your beautiful paper. I did not dare to tear something so special. But If I made something nice from the poor, ugly paper, it wouldn’t be ugly anymore.” She bowed her head again.
Grandmother Obaba was quiet for a moment, and then started to laugh. “My dear little girl, it seems as that worthless son of mine has done something right. You are polite and apparently wise beyond your years. Come stand up and give Grandmother a kiss.”
Haruko obeyed at once. Grandmother Obaba looked at the bird again. Haruko really did take a piece of ugly paper and made it into something beautiful. Very beautiful.
Soon the party was over. Grandmother Obaba got another round of bows and kisses, as her large family and friends withdrew.
Just as she bowed for the last time before leaving, a maid grabbed Haruko’s arm and motioned for her to be quiet. When the last of the guests had left, Haruko was led into a small room, filled with scrolls, artwork and several drawing tables. On them were handwritten poems, art work, pens and ink. Grandmother Obaba sat cross-legged at a small table in the center of the room.
She motioned Haruko in and pointed her where to sit.
“Come in, little one. This is my favorite room. I never show it to anyone.” As she talked, she was working and folding a very thin piece of rice paper. It was so thin, you could almost see through it. Yet, Grandmother never looked down at her own hands. They seemed to move on their own.
“Little Haruko, tell me. Did you see that the paper folding was a test? If you had picked the rarest, best paper, it would have told me something about your character. By taking the ugliest paper and making something beautiful out of it, you showed your true self. Your father has done well with you, little one. However, I think you will have to pass one more test, probably the most important one you can imagine.”
Grandmother Obaba continued to work the incredibly thin paper, not even glancing at it once. After a few moments, she sighed, then made one last fold. Only then did she look at her work, then handed it to her granddaughter. It was a dragon, with sharp claws on each leg, two horns and a wicked tail, all from one piece of paper. It was the most incredible thing that Haruko had ever seen. Grandmother Obaba was clearly a master of Origami. Grandmother finally spoke.
“Because of your love of paper, I am thinking that you might be welcome back here again. That is, if you pass a test that I will create for you. You will tell your father that. And, also tell him he will be welcome, but only if you pass this test. Better yet, tell him that I insist that he come as well, if you pass.” She looked stern as she said the last words.
Haruko then explained why he could not come on her name day, and that she had no chance to explain on his behalf earlier. She timidly asked what the test would be.
Grandmother sat back and stared out the window for a bit. She looked back at Haruko, “It will be a surprise.”
Grandmother nodded to herself and removed a rag from the floor. Beneath it, she lifted up a floor board that fit perfectly into the floor. Underneath it sat a small, shiny black, wooden box. She handed the box over to Haruko.
“Here, my little one. This is a gift for you. My grandmother gave this to me when I started doing Origami. I have filled it with some paper for you. Use it wisely. But remember one thing. There will be a test that I will prepare for you. It will be a very important test.”
Bowing again, Haruko took the box from her.
“Now, what are you going to do?” She asked Haruko. In response, Haruko again bowed deeply.
“Honorable Grandmother Obaba-san, this unworthy one deeply thanks you for a lovely party and for letting me stay with you. But I must go back. My father will be coming home and he will want his supper and tea. There is no one else who takes care of him. I am very honored to be here, but I beg you to please let me go back to my duties.”
The Grandmother Obaba smiled at her and nodded for her to go home.
Haruko carefully wrapped the box in her sack, tied it to her obi sash that went around her waist and started up the side of the hill between Obaba's home and her father's hut. It was getting quite late in the afternoon. As she walked, Haruko loved listening to the last few lovely birds singing as the sun began to set.
Haruko approached the dark forest in the valley, just as a menacing dark storm cloud passed over the low sun. As it blocked out the sun, darkness seemed to crawl out and surround everything, including Haruko. It was as though the trees themselves were oozing darkness.
Soon, there was heavy thunder around her, but Haruko could see no lightning. All of a sudden it became so dark, that Haruko had problems keeping to the path. Just then, she saw a strange, ghostly light ahead of her. It seemed to be floating through the trees without form. The light reflected off the trees, but Haruko could see no person around the light.
Harukos started walking faster down the path. She was probably still fifteen minutes from her home, and the safety of her father's arms. As the wind picked up even more, the first drops of rain began to fall. It made her wooden sandals (because all good little Japanese girls wear wooden sandals) slip and slide in the soil.
The strange light began to get closer to her. Haruko hurried even more. As it approached, she heard a low moaning coming from the light, as though it were alive. Haruko began to run as fast as her little feet could carry her.
KABOOOM! Just then, a huge bold of lightning hit so close to Haruko, that it knocked her to the ground. She could feel the weird feeling in the air, as though it were alive. Her ears and eyes ached horrible from the lightning strike. Haruko was incredibly scared. She had never felt such a horrible feeling. Again it became totally black, but Haruko still saw the lighting bolt in her eyes, like when she stared at the sun for too long.
Just then, the skies opened up and the rain fell harder than she had ever felt it.
As Haruko tried to stand up, she could not remember which way she was heading. In the rain that now fell, the ground showed no signs of her footprints.
Again, another KABOOM, this time with twin lightning bolts. That short flash was enough to give her a hint as to her path, but in the darkness that fell again, she could no be sure. She started walking anyway. Just to be sure, she pulled out one of her father's sacred charms, and threw it to the ground, chanting “I won't see you, I won't see you!”
She walked and stumbled and fell and walked for so long that she realized that she was not on the path anymore. Huge thorn-bushes, the kind she had never seen on the path, surrounded her. They began to scratch at her arms and legs, and were ripping her wet kimono.
As she turned around, looking for a way out, she saw the ghostly light, this time following her. Haruko turned back and forced her way through the thorns, finding some space beyond the bushes.
Luckily, the lightning was moving off, and was now just providing some light, although the strikes were still very loud and very scary.
Haruko pulled out the second charm and threw it behind her. She looked back, the charm seemed to glow in the dark, and as it did, the ghostly light seemed to get smaller and not so bright.
Haruko knew that at some point if she kept going downhill, she would reach the river. If she reached it above her father's dam, the river would be very fast, noisy and rocky. She could follow the stream to their little farm and then to her home. If she reached it down stream of her home, the slow waters would guide her in the other direction. Either way, she knew that she would get home, but much later than she had planned.
Just then, she heard the moaning again, and saw the ghostly light, but this time, it was really close. She threw the third charm and ran in what she hoped was the right direction.
All of a sudden, she felt herself grabbed from behind. She saw an old, wrinkled lady, carrying a long pole with a waxed paper candle box hanging from the end. She was so scared that she could not even scream, although with the storm, no one was there to hear her.
The old lady started to laugh as she saw Haruko's face. She grabbed her arm and pulled her towards the hill. Just there, Haruko saw a cave with some light coming from inside. The old lady pushed her toward it. Just then, the rain picked up again and the wind blew more fiercely than ever before.
It was easy for Haruko to go into the cave, despite being scared that this old lady was the dreaded Yamamba. Just then, Haruko realized her mistake. She had forgotten to chant her protecting chant, “I won't see you.” She could not even remember if she chanted correctly with the first charm. She shivered, partly because she was completely soaked, and partly because this old, wrinkled lady was looking at her with dark, dark eyes. On the other hand, there was a nice fire going, and she was out of the rain.
“So, my little one, you are Haruko, no?”
“Haruko, yes, ma'am,” she answered. Haruko knew that being polite was never a mistake.
“So, 'Haruko-yes-ma'am', why were you out in the rain so long?”
Slowly and timidly, she explained about the party, and how her grandmother asked her to stay on later. Too late, actually. She then reached around to show her the box grandmother gave her, only to find that it had been washed away in the rain, or had fallen off in the thorn bushes. Perhaps, it fell off one of the many times that she had fallen. Losing that special box, with all the special papers inside made her very sad.
Finally, she found enough courage to ask, “Are you Yamamba?”
The old lady began to laugh so hard that she started coughing and almost fell to the ground. As she stood up, still laughing, she reached for a pot from the fire and poured two cups of tea. She handed one to Haruko, who politely bowed. As thirsty, cold and tired as she was, she did not dare sip that drink.
“And what if I were? What if I poisoned your tea so that I could eat you? What if you dead already, and in the grasp of an endless nightmare? What would you say to that, my little one?” She grabbed Haruko's tea cup, poured its tea into her own cup and swallowed it all in one gulp. Cackling again, she poured both of them another cup. This time, Haruko timidly sipped the cup. It tasted so good, and was so hot, that she found herself drinking it all.
After a few moments, Haruko firmly pinched her own arm, hard enough to make the skin sore. Now, she was sure that she was awake, and not under any spell.
“Well, maybe you are not Yamamba,” she said in a tone much braver than she felt. Inside, she was still scared and worried.
The old lady started laughing even harder. After pouring more tea for the both of them, the old lady started questioning Haruko again.
“What happened to your gift box?”
“I . . . I . . . I don't know,” Haruko stuttered. “It was a wonderful gift, and now it is gone. I feel terrible that I lost it.”
Haruko wondered again if the tea was poisoned. In the flickering light from the fireplace, the old lady seem to be extremely old one moment, then she seemed to be a very beautiful young lady the very next moment. Haruko shook her head and when she looked again, the old lady was there in front of her.
“Well, child, let us say that I am Yamamba, but that I am not very hungry at the moment. If I were, that would make me a powerful witch. If I could grant you one wish, what would that wish be?” She cackled some more as she waited for Haruko to answer.
Haruko was still very unsure of this old woman, but as time passed, she did not think that she was about to be poisoned or eaten, at least no right away. But, she was still scared, and tired, and wet, and hungry, and lost. Worst of all, she was late and her father would worry. Then it came to her – the answer to the old lady's question.
“I would want my father's dam fixed.”
“What? You don't want Obaba's gift back? You realize that you are insulting her by losing it?” the old lady asked. Again she looked young and beautiful. It had to be a trick of light from the fire.
Haruko was quiet for a bit. Finally, she looked up, saw that it was the old lady again, and said, “It is not an insult that the wind, the rain, and the forest took something from me. And, although I lost something beautiful, it is not an insult to my wonderful grandmother. If I have one wish, and only one wish, then I wish that my father's dam could be fixed, so our crop would not wash away again this season.”
The old lady stared at Haruko with the strangest look. Again she seemed to shift from old to young back to old. Haruko was getting dizzy looking at her, so she turned to stare at the embers in the fireplace, red, black, shifting colors, and so much heat, wonderful heat coming from the flame. As she stared at the embers, she realized that she missed her father, very, very much. And her puppy. Her mood was as dark as the evening sky, even though the storm had finally passed. For Haruko, everything had gone wrong.
The old lady poured herself another tea, and then sat next to Haruko. She took Haruko's hand, and gently caressed it.
“Little Haruko, it is time for you to leave. I think there is a dog down the hill, someone you know. Why don't you greet him? He misses you badly.”
Haruko almost jumped from her seat. A dog? Looking for her? That had to be Taro. She bowed deeply to the old lady, and ran out of the cave, forgetting to thank her for the tea. As she stepped out of the cave, she was almost blinded by the midday sun. Haruko had only been in the cave for an hour the night before, yet, there was the sun high in the sky.
As Haruko took a few steps down the hill, she recognized Taro's voice. Taro ran up to her, barking and jumping. After a face-full of licks and paws, she turned around to wave good bye and thank you to the old lady. But the cave had disappeared, in fact the whole rocky hill had gone away. In its place stood a grassy rise, with birch and fir trees.
Suddenly, Haruko knew exactly where she was. She had played in this field many times, and she knew that there was no cave here. She realized that her home was just around the bend of the path, no more that five minutes away. By now, nothing could shock Haruko anymore.
Haruko and her puppy ran into her home, where she saw her father, muddy, exhausted and sleeping with his head resting on their table. He did not stir when Haruko entered, not until the puppy nipped at his leg.
Haruko's father finally stirred, and noticed his daughter. He stood up, shook himself awake, and hugged her .
“Haruko, I was so worried. What happened? Why did you not come home last night?”
Haruko explained what happened at the party, then grandmother Obaba's meeting in her drawing room, and finally, her trek back through the storm, and all about the old lady. She told him that as the sun set, the storm arrived and how she was in a cave for a short time.
Her father nodded thoughtfully. “There is some powerful magic indeed.” He yawned and stretched again. “Haruko, if you aren't too tired, can you bring tea and hot water with me? I must try one last time to fix our dam.”
Haruko was surprised that she did not feel tired at all. Seeing her father lifted her spirits wonderfully. As they made their way to his rice field and the broken dam, Haruko told her father everything else that had happened. As they approached the falls, her father stopped, as though he were struck by lightning.
There, in the place of his little broken leaking dam, stood a beautiful, strong dam. Powerful magic, indeed. Her father inspected the dam with Haruko. It was better and stronger than ever before.
Haruko and her father walked back to their hut. As they entered, Haruko's mouth dropped open in surprise. There on the table was Grandmother Obaba's beautiful black box. Next to it was a fine paper scroll. Her father opened it and began to read out loud.
“Dear son and dearest Haruko. Little Haruko passed her final test. It was my personal sorceress who met you last night. (Every important Japanese household had a personal sorceress) She told me of your wish and granted it. Little Haruko is welcome to visit anytime she wants. When she comes next time, I will tell her my most favorite fairy tale. This afternoon would be wonderful.”
Haruko looked anxiously at her father, who nodded permission for her to go.
When Haruko arrived at her grandmother's, she was allowed in the front door. A maid took her to the small room again where she sat and waited. Her grandmother came in with an ancient scroll. She unrolled it and nodded to the bowing Haruko.
“Hello again, little one. I am pleased that you came. This story is about a son of a prince and an evil cave, much different than the one you saw. It is also the story of the desert, far away from here.”
She began to read to Haruko.
The Searing Summer Sun
As with every Persian Fairy Tale, there is only one way to begin the story:
There was being and non-being, there was none but God, who had three sons: Prince Jamshid, Prince Q-mars, and the youngest, Prince Khorshid (who controlled the Sun, light, divine wisdom, and was the only son who was self-born, without a mother). He was the King's favorite because he was the bravest, strongest and wisest of all the King's sons.
In the King's garden there grew a huge pomegranate tree.
Despite the tree's size, it grew fruit only once, and even then, it grew only three fruits. When these fruits grew and became ripe, they turned into three beautiful girls who grew up and married the three Princes.
After their marriages, the Princes promised to guard the tree as though it were more precious than all the gems and rubies in Persia. The pomegranate tree grew taller each year, but no buds or fruit grew on any of its limbs. The Princes all had children of their own. Prince Khorshid himself fathered three daughters, but only one son named Ali.
This is the story of Ali.
It was a hot summer. (Actually, all summers in Persia are hot.) At long last, the great King died in his sleep of old age. All over Persia, people mourned his passing. A wise, fair and gentle leader to his people, but a fierce warrior to his enemies. The King was greatly missed.
Prince Khorshid was proud of his son Ali, a tall, strong, but willful lad. Ali's 13th birthday was only a month away. In Persia, the number 13 is not unlucky. (other numbers are far worse.) As birthdays go, this was an important day, especially for the son of a prince. He had to prove himself to his father, his family, and most importantly to himself by taking a terrible journey.
The Persian deserts are wild and beautiful. They have snow topped mountains, huge rock cliffs, (which hid Bedouin tribes, not all of whom were friendly) beautiful rivers, and of course, sand. Endless seas of sand, with giant sand dunes that sang and whistled in the wind, and hidden sand drums that could collapse and bury a man and his camel in a single swallow.
The Persian desert also has great magic and dangers. Some dangers, like the Bedouins, are well known. These nomads could be your best friend one day, and your worst enemy the next. When angered, the fastest mountain lion could not run fast enough to escape them. The Bedouins have a famous saying: "I against my brothers; I and my brothers against my cousins; I and my brothers and my cousins against the world". That is how the Bedouin explain what is important to them.
Ali was not worried about the Bedouin. He knew of other dangers hidden in the desert, but Ali did not worry about them either. In fact, Ali was not worried about anything. He was the Prince's son, and his journey was going to be easy. Life was easy for Ali, and everything he wished for, Ali always got. Woe to the servant that refused a request by Ali.
Ali's childhood was filled with toys, sweets, and animals. Unfortunately, even with the best sweets, he demanded more, with the best animals, he found fault, and the best toys were quickly broken or abandoned.
His tutors agreed that Ali was very bright, but they worried about him. Ali was too cocky, too proud, and much too lazy. They hinted to the Prince that the boy needed a stronger hand, but Prince Khorshid would not hear such talk.
As the time for his journey came near, his tutors tried even harder to teach him. But Ali got bored with these old men and their tales and did not listen. What did he care about genies, flying carpets, deadly vipers, or scorpions? What did it matter how much forage a horse needed each day? Who cared about how to find your direction in the midday sun? When he was Prince, Ali would hire the best guides to lead him. Why should he learn how to care for a camel to keep him from going lame? After all, he was Ali, the only son of the Prince.
The Prince was a good and just man, but where his son was concerned, his love blinded him. There was no question about it. The Prince's son was a spoiled brat.
A week before the birthday, the Prince called in his son, the tutors and his top men to prepare for the journey.
“Ali, my son, are you ready for your journey?”
“Dearest father, I am always ready.”
The Prince smiled. “Good. Tomorrow before dawn we leave. We ride out to the great desert. That will take all day. We shall camp with you for one night. At that camp you will choose. After the next morning, you shall find your way back here alone. You will be tested many times on your travels, my son, so you must be prepared.”
“After I choose? Choose what, dear father? What do I choose?”
“Son, you are permitted one choice. A camel or a horse. Everything else has been arranged. Everything else is all ready for you.”
“Excuse me, dear father. Did you say alone?”
The Prince smiled and nodded again. Ali's mouth dropped open. Just then, it all became clear. This journey was going to be a real test, a struggle against the desert, and all alone. When he barely heard his tutors' lessons, he always thought his “journey” would be just like all his other trips, with dozens of camels and ponies, with servants, with endless food, sweets and water. He never thought that he would go alone. No pack camels, no servants, not even a guide?
Ali was shocked into total quiet. (His tutors thought that his sudden silence was no bad thing.)
Finally, Ali realized that all those lessons were important. He should have listened to them instead of sleeping, or playing backgammon or chess. Ali felt like a little boy again, scared, unsure and very worried.
Ali could not sleep a wink that night.
They left before the sun rose. For a full day and night, they rode harder than he ever did before. When they got to their camp, it was dark. A tutor lit a fire, and they were soon drinking hot tea, and chewing dried goat meat. It was their first meal of the day.
The Prince sipped his tea and nodded to a tutor. He brought out two animals, a huge white stallion, with a flowing mane, and a dusty, grungy, matted, sorry-looking camel, with two small humps.
Ali loved horses. Even at his age, he could tell that this was a noble creature. Strong, fast, and powerful. With a horse like this, he could cross a desert in one day when it would take three days by camel. The stallion carried a beautiful golden and leather saddle, trimmed with rubies and silver tassels. This was a royal horse, meant for a Prince, or better yet, his son.
Ali examined the steed closely. The more he looked, the more he fell in love with this animal. This was an easy choice. Only then did Ali notice that every single person was watching his every move. Suddenly, he realized that this was a test. He could barely recall when a tutor compared horses and camels, saying each had its use. In war, a horse was swift, powerful and easily controlled. In a desert, a camel could walk forever, and never complain.
Ah hah! That was it. The stallion was a trap, a beautiful trap, but still a trap. Horses in the shade needed 6 buckets of water a day. In the desert sun, they needed twice as much. Unless he found an oasis, his horse would die of thirst.
They did not pass any oases that he noticed.
He looked at the horse one last time, then turned to the mangy camel. It was dusty with sand. The saddle was ugly. Yet, it could live for week in the desert.
With great regret, Ali chose the camel.
Every person, even his father, stood up and cheered. Ali was stunned. He passed the first test. No one had ever cheered him before. As the moon rose, everyone soon went to sleep.
When Ali woke up the next morning, the camp was totally deserted. There was a large pile of food, three goat's bladders filled with water, and the sorry-looking camel munching on some scrub. Everyone left without waking him.
Ali rubbed the sleep from his eyes and after stretching, he climbed the nearest dune. The sun was already hot, even this early in the morning. He saw nothing but empty sand. No trail, no dust, nothing but endless seas of unmarked sand.
After a life filled with luxury and servants, Ali was alone for the first time in his life. He did not notice what direction they took to get here. That meant he did not know the way back. There was no hint of which way to go and no map or compass for him to follow.
As he slid down the dune, back to his supplies, tears began to form in his eyes.
Ali sat down on the hot sand and began to cry. He felt a nudge from the camel. Ali pushed the mangy beast away. His troubles were more important than some dirty animal.
What if he simply stayed? He didn't have to move at all. He had food and water, and after a few days, his father would surely search for him. After all, he was the son of the Prince, the only son.
As his tears dried up, he looked for a tent to protect him from the sun. There was no tent. The sun burned hot in the sky. Ali sat back on the hot sand.
Ali heard a squawk far away. He looked up and saw what looked like a giant bird. As it got closer, Ali saw that it was no bird at all, but something much stranger. Finally, as it circled around him, he saw that it was a flying carpet, with a strangely dressed, bearded man sitting in the middle. The man had a huge hawk sitting on his shoulder. Ali could not tell whether the hawk or the strange man was squawking.
Like all Persian children, Ali had heard of flying carpets in fairy tales, but he did not believe that they really existed.
Yet, here was one in front of his eyes.
The carpet stopped in mid-air, next to Ali's camel. The camel calmly eyed the strange man and kept chewing on the scrub. The man jumped off the carpet and walked to the camel. The hawk flew off his shoulder and began circling lazily overhead.
“So, are you Ali, my mangy friend?” he asked the camel, as he scratched the camel's ears. The camel did not answer, but if he had, Ali could not be more shocked.
“No? You are not Ali? What a shame.”
The strange man turned around and looked surprise to see Ali sitting on the sand. “So, that just leaves you. Are you Ali?”
Ali nodded with his mouth open.
The man was not impressed. He frowned, as though Ali was no better than a sharp stone in his shoe. The camel moved closer to the man and nudged him with his nose. The man took out a honey candy from his pocket and gave it to the camel.
“Well, I suppose you will have to do. I am the Djin of the Desert, and I have been looking for you. Some call me Des.” (Djin are male Genies.)
Not knowing what to say, but remembering how his father always treated guests, Ali stood up and walked to his supplies. He pulled out as large goat's bladder of water and turned back to the strange man.
“Sir Djin, would you like to share my water?”
The Djin looked surprised. He took out another sweet, but this time stuffed it into his own mouth. (Djins were famous for their sweet tooth.) He muttered, “Maybe there is hope, despite all I heard.”
The Djin grabbed the large bladder of water (which was taller and wider than the Djin) and drained it all in one huge gulp. He burped loudly. Ali had just seen one third of his water disappear. Ali picked up the second, even larger, bladder. He timidly held it out, and asked,
“Do you need more, sir?”
“Perhaps I had better. Carpet flying is hot, dry work. I sit much closer to the sun, you know.”
The Djin grabbed the second bladder, and emptied that as fast as the first one. This burp was twice as long as his earlier one. The Djin almost smiled. As he glanced at Ali's supplies, Ali became worried. He only had one last goat's bladder of water left. The rest of it had just disappeared like magic. The Djin saw his expression and began to laugh. (A Djin's laughter could be very terrifying)
“No, Ali, I will gladly share your water, but I will not take it all from you. That last water bladder is yours to keep. But some food would be good. Just a small bite for a small Djin.”
Ali brought out the falafels, the humus and the dried goat's meat. As small as the Djin was (shorter than Ali, and a bit thinner), he ate like a giant who had been kept unfed for a month of Sundays. Soon, Ali's large pile of supplies looked like there was barely enough left for one day. And still, the Djin showed no sign of slowing down. Ali looked in amazement. The Djin did not seem to take the time to chew.
Finally, with one last burp, (this one at least a minute long), the Djin grinned and laid down on the sand.
“Now, there's a meal fit for a prince, or his son, or most importantly, their Djin. Ah, I have not eaten that well for quite some time. Thanks to you, Ali. You surprise me, for I did not expect you to have any manners. I was told that you were a spoiled child who cared for nothing but himself. Yet, you treat me like a guest. I am in your debt.”
“Sir, I . . . ah. . . er . . .” Ali stammered without knowing what to say.
“Let me guess, Ali. You had planned to stay and hope that your father would come looking for you. Am I right?”
Ali nodded the smallest of nods, as his face turned red.
“That won't happen, Ali. Your father finds himself busy with a war. The Bedouin have attacked your kingdom. Much has happened in the last few days, and none of it is good. The war is not going well, and your father may not survive. This is the first MAJOR TRUTH that I give you, in thanks for your water.
“A Bedouin war party is heading here from the west. If they find you, they will take your fine camel and what little water you have left, and leave you with a smiling throat.” He drew his finger across his neck like a knife. “That is the second MAJOR TRUTH, in thanks for your food. If you wish to live, you better leave now.”
Ali realized that the Djin was repaying his hospitality with news. A Bedouin war party? He nervously looked around him. He saw nothing but sand. He did not even know which way was west.
“Finally, and only because your father the Prince asked me to come, I will answer one question and one question only. What do you wish to know?”
Ali thought hard. All he could think of was to escape the Bedouins.
“Will you take me on your carpet and return me to my palace,” he asked?
The Djin shook his head sadly.
“So, they were right. There is little hope for you. Foolish boy, can't you see that this is a one man carpet? Do I look like a carpet taxi driver? Ha!” he snorted.
“You have tests that you can only take. If you fail, you die. If you succeed, and I can't see how, you become a man. That was the wrong question, Ali, and therefore, I have no more answers for you.”
The Djin stood up, hugged the camel and took out yet another honey candy and gave it to the beast, muttering as he stood. “Fine animal, a truly fine animal. That kid does not know how lucky he is. What a shame. What a waste.”
The Djin jumped on to his carpet, sat cross-legged in the middle and began to rise slowly. When the carpet was a hundred feet in the air, the Djin called down to him.
“Ali, you young fool, what was your first desert lesson? This is the third MAJOR TRUTH, and this one is for free. And that's only because I like your father.”
With those words, the carpet seemed to gather itself together, like a horse ready to gallop, and then it shot forward like an arrow. As the carpet sped away, the Djin turned around and shouted, “TRUST. . .. YOUR . . . CAMEL!” With those words, the Djin and his magic carpet quickly disappeared into the only cloud in the sky. A moment later, the cloud itself disappeared.
Dear reader, a Djin's MAJOR TRUTHS are tricky things. Djins are famous liars, and their stories are a strange mix of lies and truth. But, as the fables say, when a Genie told you a MAJOR TRUTH, it was completely true. Or just maybe, a part of it was true. Then again, depending on the Djin, only a very small part of the TRUTH might be true.
To be fair to fable writers, none of them had ever heard a Djin actually tell a MAJOR TRUTH, so none of them could say how much truth a MAJOR TRUTH actually had, if any.
Some Djin were very bad, while others were just trouble makers. The wisest man could not tell which Djin was which. Even so, if a Djin had warned of war and of the Bedouin tribe heading his way, Ali had to move quickly.
The sun burned high in the sky.
After feeding and watering the Djin, there was not much left to pack. As he loaded his food, he thought about leaving the empty water bladders. It never hurt to have an extra water container, even empty. He reached for the his last full water bag, only to see that it was split on top. Had he lifted it, he would have poured out the last of his water. In the desert, a lack of water was a death sentence.
Ali wondered how that last bladder became damaged. When he first saw it, it was perfect. Perhaps the Djin caused his bag to tear? Hmmm, he thought. If so, he must be a bad Djin. Or this could be another test.
Ali did his best to pour the water from the torn bag into another one. As careful as he was, he still spilled almost a quarter of his precious water on the the sand. He watched the dry sand suck up the water like it had never existed. Ali closed up the good bladder and packed it on his camel. The rest of the water he started to lick out of the bag.
Ali thought for a bit, then he turned to the camel and let him dry out the torn bag.
The camel stuck out his huge tongue, and licked and licked until the bag was completely dry.
The sun burned even higher in the sky.
Ali got on the camel and sat for a while, wondering which way to go. Finally, he let the camel choose the path. Camels could smell water far away, so if there was an oasis anywhere nearby, he would find it. If Ali wanted to live, he needed more water. Maybe that was what the Djin meant about trusting his camel.
They began to ride. The camel slowly climbed one dune, and slowly went down the next. This went on for hour after hour. Every dune looked exactly alike. There was no telling where he was. At first, Ali worried about their direction. He recalled that a good camel always knew the way home. Not for the first nor the last time, he wished that he paid attention to his tutors. He hoped that he was not heading towards the Bedouins.
The sun burned still higher in the sky.
Hour after hour, Ali rode on. He wanted to make sure the camel went slowly, so as not to hurt himself. The camel kept a steady pace, never hurrying, never slowing.
Another sand dune, and then another, and yet another. And always the sun raged on, with incredible heat. The air was boiling with heat waves, pounding him, punishing him and drying his sweat before it even formed. Even the Bedouins would avoid riding in this heat.
When he began this ride, Ali searched all around him. He thought that if he spotted the Bedouins before they noticed him, maybe he could hide or escape.
That was hours ago. Now, he didn't even bother to turn around. Even looking up to the horizon was becoming too much work.
The heat was horrible. It felt as though it were strangling him. Finally, when he could take no more, he stopped by a tall rock outcropping. It gave the tiniest bit of shade.
He got off the camel and grabbed the water bladder. The bladder was hot to the touch. Half full and hot as fresh tea. Even so, he took a massive gulp. Ali thought that if he let himself, he could easily swallow all of the water just like the Djin.
The camel nudged him. Then again. Finally, Ali took the water bladder and pointed the open end into the camel's mouth he squirted a good amount into the camel's mouth. As bad as he felt from the heat, Ali realized that the camel must feel the same way. Ali was amazed that the camel did not allow one drop to spill.
Ali saw nothing but dunes in each direction. This rock outcropping seemed to be the only one around. The camel moved over to the small shade and laid down. Even camels need to rest. If the camel felt anything like he did, then he was exhausted, too.
It was too hot to sleep. The sun was still too high in the sky. Not a cloud in the sky. No birds, not sound, just heat, endless heat.
Even in that heat, Ali began to doze.
The sun burned even hotter in the sky.
Suddenly, Ali woke up with a start. He heard a strange sound. Bedouins? Oh no! There was nowhere to hide or run.
Ali jumped up, and looked around. In one direction lay the setting sun. In the other, he saw his camel's footprints, and behind that, a huge wall of dust. It seemed to be getting larger and larger. At first, he thought this was the Bedouin tribe attacking him. But he could see no camels or horses.
If Ali had been more alert, he would have known at once what it was. A huge sandstorm was heading directly for him. Already the wind was beginning to push at him.
As Ali watched, he saw the wind erase his camel's footprints. He turned to the camel who was already standing and alert. The camel was watching the storm's approach just as carefully as Ali was.
The camel bent down on his front knees, and let Ali climb up. The very instant that Ali got on, the camel took off at a complete run. Ali had never been on a camel galloping so fast. Ali had raced ponies, even small horses, and the fastest of them would have had trouble keeping up with this camel.
On and on they sped, reaching larger dunes, and longer valleys. By now, Ali was better balanced and could turn around. The storm was following their path as though it was doing so on purpose. Ali had never heard of a camel running so long or so hard. And still the camel ran on. In the distance, Ali began to see a long rocky hill. Perhaps they might find a cave there. Any shelter would help.
He turned around and saw that the sandstorm was directly behind them, and would soon take them over. If they were caught in this storm, there would be no way to even find a cave. If any cave existed.
Sandstorms could be mild and dusty, or they could be horrible. The worst storms would tear away your skin and leave nothing but your bones to dry in the sun. This storm looked even worse. Ali had never heard of so huge a storm that now followed him. He urged the camel to go faster, if that were even possible.
The camel was straining with each step, yet he still responded. But the storm was moving twice as fast, and it was getting very close. The swirling sands began to surround them. It was hard to see, and harder to breath.
Suddenly, the camel made a sharp turn to the left. Had Ali been one hair less talented as a rider, he would have been thrown off and lost for good in the sandstorm. Ali managed to hang on. Then he saw why the camel turned so suddenly. A huge cliff seemed to drop down forever. Had his camel not seen it, both of them would have fallen to their deaths.
Just as the full fury of the storm hit, the camel turned again, and slowed, inching his way forward. Ali could see nothing at all, and tried to hide from the brutal wind. The wind screeched and blew, the sand attacked his skin. Ali could no longer breath.
Just as suddenly, the camel made a sharp turn into a cave, and like magic, the storm stopped at the edge of a cave. Ali got off the camel, took off the water bag. This time he offered a drink to the camel first.
The camel was gasping as hard as Ali was. The camel took a long sip, again, not spilling a drop. Ali saw that the camel left some for him. Ali finished it off quickly. Even those last few drops felt like heaven.
Finally, Ali took a look around. He was in a long cave, one that twisted and turned like a snake. Beyond the first curve, he could hear the wild sandstorm outside. It seemed as though the storm was angry for not catching Ali. It shrieked and screamed with a fury Ali had never seen before.
There was a light coming from the other end of the cave.
“So, camel, here we are. Thank you. I don't know why I am talking to you, but still, I thank you. You were wonderful in that storm.”
The camel moved closer and Ali scratched him behind his ears.
“Shall we go on, or shall we wait out the storm here”
The camel seemed to point with his head down into the cave. That made the choice easy. They started walking deeper into the cave. The further they walked, the lighter it got. By now, they could hear nothing of the raging storm. Soon, Ali could only hear the sound of his feet and the light clops of the camel's feet.
Deeper in the cave, Ali began to hear something else. A quiet, steady dripping sound. That could only mean one thing. Water.
For no reason, the camel suddenly stopped in his tracks. Ali did the same thing. Clearly, this camel knew quite a bit about things. If the camel was worried enough to stop, he might as well stop, too.
They found themselves in a large cavern, filled with dark shadows. Ali was sure that that the camel was as thirsty as he, maybe even more so. Yet, the camel refused to move from his spot. They both stood there for what seemed like an eternity.
“Patience, they show, don't they? Especially the camel. A smart animal, that.” Ali heard an ancient woman's voice cackling like an old hen.
“Who is there? Who are you? Show yourself, please,” said Ali.
“Who I am is unimportant. The question is, who are you?”
“I am Ali. I was on a journey when the storm hit, and I looked for shelter.”
“So. You are Ali and you were on a journey and you looked for shelter. Are you sure that it was you looking, or your camel?”
“Well, honestly, both of us were looking, but I think my camel was better at finding it,” Ali said, surprised at his own truthfulness and his tone. Just a day earlier, he would have been shouting orders and demanding his rights as the prince's son. Now, all he wanted was to sleep and to have a sip of water.
“Honesty, about an animal? You show promise, despite what I hear about you.” The voice cackled some more. Whoever she was, she seemed very, very old.
“Ma'am, may I water my camel? He has run hard, and I have none left.”
“Oh, that's good, Ali, that is very good. You think of your camel first? Very good. Very well, your camel may go, but you MUST STAY.”
The instant that she spoke those words, every muscle in Ali's body froze. The camel trotted to the cave wall and began to lap up water. It seemed like an eternity, and still the camel drank and drank and drank. Even if he tried to disobey, he could not move an inch.
Thirsty camels can drink 20 gallons of water in a few minutes. His camel drank at least that much. He reminded Ali of how the Djin drank his water.
Finally, the camel stopped drinking, licked his lips, shook himself, and headed to the darkest part of the cave, from where that old voice came.
“Ah, you are a fine animal. Really? Do you think so? Why, thank you, and the same to you,” said the scratchy voice.
Try as he might, all Ali could see was the camel coming back, settling down right next to Ali, and falling asleep.
“Oh, well, Ali. Go water yourself too,” the voice said.
Ali ran to the water hole and drank handful after handful. Never had water tasted so sweet and lovely. Ali was ready to fill a water bladder, when he stopped. This was the old lady's cave, and therefore, it was her water.
He bowed deeply, and said, “Thank you two times, first for my camel, and then for me. May I fill a bag with your water? We have a long way to go.”
The voice cackled loudly. “Polite for a second time? Oh very well, but shouldn't you pick a water bag that is whole, not ripped?”
Ali looked down and saw that he grabbed the torn one. He found a good bag and filled it to the brim. How did this old woman know about the tear?
Ali bowed deeply, and and thanked her again. As he turned to leave, he realized that his camel was still asleep. Ali thought about waking him, but then, he sat next to him, leaned against him, and in the blink of an eye, Ali fell into a deep, dreamless sleep.
Outside the storm raged on like never before.
Sometime later, Ali woke up. He had no idea how much time had passed. He found himself laying flat on the ground, but with a blanket over him. The cave was cool and comfortable, but Ali ached all over. He looked around and saw his camel drinking again at the fountain.
“Hello? Is anyone there? Hello?” Ali asked. No answer. He joined the camel and drank more water, making sure that the water bags were full.
His stomach growled. He realized that the last time he ate was with his father. When the Djin ate most of his food yesterday, Ali did not even have as a bite. It had been at least a day since he had tasted any food.
Ali had learned an important lesson. Water was everything in the desert. He took the camel's reins, and headed for the cave entrance. It was daylight now. As he walked, he felt strange pains in his knees and back. He rubbed his face, and jumped in shock. His face had a full beard. His hands had long nails, and his hair had grown past his shoulders. He looked at his hair, and it was gray. Worst of all, Ali felt old. Yet, his camel looked as young as before. This was serious magic. Ali did not like it at all.
He heard the cackling voice again, this time right from the mouth of the cave.
“Ali, now you know how I feel.”
“What have you done to me?”
“It was not me. It was the cave, the Djin, the water, and the storm.”
“What? What do you mean?”
“That Djin cast a spell that brought the storm. That storm brought you near to me in this cave. The water made you comfortable, but it made you sleep, and this cursed cave has made you old the instant that you sleep. If you sleep but for a moment, you are cursed with age. This cave is filled with ancient magic, old, and evil magic. There is only one cure, and for that I need your help.”
“What do you mean,” Ali asked.
“You have a pomegranate tree at your palace. We need the fruit of it, you and I, prepared in a special way. I cannot leave here without it.”
“But that pomegranate tree has no fruit.”
“Then, Ali, you and I will die.” The wrinkled, ancient woman stepped out of the darkness and hobbled with a cane towards Ali. She looked at him curiously.
“I am a young Genie, Ali, only 16, yet I have been here for a year. See what this cave has done to me. Without the fruit, we are doomed.”
As they sat at the entrance, the Genie, who called herself Atusah, taught him of many possible ways to coax fruit from the tree. Although he could not cast a Genie's spells, she taught him as best as she could. As he prepared to leave, Atusah called to him.
“Ali, one more thing. For each night you spent here, five years passed outside. You slept for 3 straight days, so at least sixteen years have passed outside since you went on your journey.”
After Djins, Genies, flying carpets, and magic caves, Ali was sure that nothing could surprise him anymore. Still, he slept for three straight days? It felt like hours. Sixteen years had passed? That was as strange as his becoming an old man. What kind of cursed cave was this?
The Genie continued, “Ali, follow this ridge to your right, or north, then turn right and head east. In a few short hours, you will see your palace. Good luck, and hurry back.”
Ali began to ride. If sixteen years had passed, this family probably thought him dead. Worse yet, he looked and felt like an old man, wrinkled, dirty and with creaking bones. He wondered if he could get inside the gate. If no soldier recognized him, he would be turned away or arrested. With the Bedouin war going on, they might just kill him.
Just as Atusah described, the mountain ridge came to an end. He turned east and began to cross the last bit of the desert before he would find his home.
Two hours later, he recognized his father's palace. Things had changed. There were many more guards at the gate, and several new towers had been built. Still, he could see his room and even saw the pomegranate tree that held the key to his future. Maybe.
“STOP, OLD MAN. Remove yourself from this place. You have no business here,” said one of the guards at the gate. Each of them had a sharp sword out and ready.
“Wait, I am Ali, and I have been cursed. Please call my father, the Prince.”
The men laughed at his words. They pulled him off his camel, and dragged him across the ground to the prison cells.
“We can have fun with this old man. Ali indeed! How dare you profane the name of our Prince's dead son?” With those words, they kicked him into a dark cell.
Ali did not know what to do. Sixteen years was a long time. He looked like an old man, wrinkled, long hair and a long beard. No wonder no one believed him.
For three days and nights, he waited. Except for a little water each day, he heard and saw nothing. The guards ignored him. It was better than being beaten.
On the fourth day, as he dozed, his cell was opened and he was pulled roughly to his feet. Two guards dragged him outside. There he saw his old tutor standing with the leader of his father's guard.
The tutor glared at Ali. “Where did you steal this camel, old man? Speak now, or I shall have your tongue cut out! Speak!”
“Master Tutor, it is I, Ali. You gave me this camel yourself.”
“SILENCE, YOU FOOL! How dare you lie to me?”
“Master Tutor, you gave me a choice of a beautiful horse and this camel. You even clapped when I chose the camel.”
This time, the tutor started like he was slapped in the face.
“What say you? Describe this horse.”
Ali went into detail, describing the saddle, the horse and the beautiful flowing mane. Then he described meeting with the Djin, the storm and the cursed cave he found.
When he finished, the tutor was still not convinced.
“You are Ali? Liar! Prove it. What did I teach you?”
“Master Tutor, you did not teach me anything. But that was no fault of yours, but of mine. I wanted to play games rather than learn. For that I owe you an apology.”
“You speak the truth, but the young Ali I knew would never have apologized. I do not believe you, old man. Your words are lies.”
“Master Tutor, you talked about the desert, about how much a horse eats and drinks, and how camels can cross great deserts. You tried hard to teach me, but my mind was as barren as the pomegranate tree in our garden.
With those words, the tutor finally believed Ali. Soon, water and food were brought out, and the tutor and Ali sat in the shade, eating and drinking. Once again, Ali told his story, this time, with great detail. Finally, Ali asked about his father.
“Ali, your father is off warring against the Bedouins. His army have been gone for two years. We hear reports from nomads and scouts, but only very rarely. Ali, your two uncles died in battles past. You are alone here. Yet again, it seems as your camel saved you, Ali. But for the camel you would be dead.”
After the meal, Ali and the tutor began to work with the pomegranate tree. For a full month they tried everything they knew. Nothing seemed to work. None of the Genie's instructions had any impact. The tree stayed barren.
Finally, Ali thought of something. The cave water was as blessed as that cave was cursed. He found the camel's bags, but to his regret, he saw that the water bags were empty. He opened one, and saw just a few drops of water left. He took the bag to the tree, then squeezed those few drops onto an open tree root. Then he waited.
That night a full moon appeared, hanging low in the sky.
Ali tried to stay awake, but he was much too tired. He dreamed of djins, genies and flying carpets.
When the rooster greeted the morning sun, Ali woke up.
Directly above him was the most perfect pomegranate fruit he had ever seen. He gathered some thin gold foil, then wrapped the fruit carefully in it.
He thanked the tutor and loaded his camel. He took the same path to find the Genie and give her the fruit. But even though he traveled on the same path as before, there was no mountain ridge. He rode for four hours, then six, then eight. The entire rocky ridge had disappeared, taking that cursed cave with it.
At nightfall, he stopped, and set up camp. He fed and watered his camel, then set up a small tent. Once he had a small fire going, Ali prepared some figs and humus. Before he could take a bite, Ali heard a familiar squawk far away. He added more fuel to the fire. Soon, he saw the carpet and the Djin in the moonlight. Ali waved. The Djin waved back. He landed his carpet close to the fire.
Without asking, Ali handed him a bag of water, and handed him a plate of figs and humus. The Djin snorted loudly between bites and gulps.
“Ali, I heard that you had changed, but I could not imagine how much.”
“Dear Djin, you have not changed at all, except that you eat slower these days.”
The Djin snorted again. “So what brings you here, Ali?”
“I search for the Genie Atusah, but her cruel cave seems to have disappeared.”
“And why do you seek Atusah, Ali?”
Ali told him of his troubles, the pomegranate tree and the fruit he carried to her. The Djin picked up the fruit, unwrapped it, and examined it closely.
“It is beautiful, and certainly a worthy gift to me.”
“Master Djin, I cannot share this with you. It is for Atusah only, and therefore not mine to share.” He bravely reached for the fruit. As he did, the Djin disappeared and magically appeared behind him.
“Behind you, Ali,” as he tapped Ali on the shoulder.
Ali jumped and turned around quickly. Again he reached for the fruit, and yet again the Djin disappeared, re-appearing where he first sat.
Ali kept his hand out and waited. Finally, the Djin gave him back the fruit. Ali carefully rewrapped the fruit and sat down with the fire between him and the Djin.
“Why cannot you not find this cave, Ali?” the Djin asked.
“Perhaps you know, Djin, but I do not. I rode the same path that brought me home.”
The Djin finished the food on his plate, grabbed Ali's plate, and finished that, and swallowed the last of Ali's water. After a long burp, he sat back and smiled. “I must say, Ali, you always treated me right. Tomorrow morning, when you leave your tent, close your eyes tightly and turn around three times.”
With those words, the Djin hopped back on his carpet. As he rose into the moonlight, Ali called out to him.
“But Djin, what do I do after that?”
As the Djin flew off into the distance, Ali heard the Djin's answer fading into the moonlight.
“Then, you open your eyes, you fool!”
To his surprise, sleep came easily. He dreamed of the cave, of the old lady and of his father.
The next morning, he crawled out of his tent, and remembered the Djin's instructions. He closed his eyes tightly, and turned around three times. When he opened them, he found himself directly in front of the cave. He was sure this mountain range was not here when he arrived the night before. “More Djin magic,” he thought to himself.
He grabbed his pomegranate and walked into the cave. The camel followed him closely.
When he got to the fountain, his camel immediately took to drinking. Ali wanted to find the Genie first. Finally, in the deepest, darkest corner, he found her. She was even older than before, and she was fast asleep. He could not rouse her.
Ali picked her up and took her to the cave's fountain. He fed her water with his hands, then unwrapped the fruit for her. She woke up and looked at him, as though he were a stranger. Finally, her cloudy eyes recognized him.
“Ali, is that you? I fear you are too late.”
“No, Genie, I brought the fruit. Tell me what to do. Let me help you.”
Atusah dozed some more. Finally, she pulled out a ruby and gold knife, and told Ali how to cut it open.
“Be careful, and if you prick even on segment of fruit, we are lost. Take only the skin.”
As carefully as he could, he followed her instructions. For what seemed like forever, they worked on the fruit, mixing in spices, taking out seeds, and using bits of skin. Ali did most of the work, for the Genie was much too weak.
In the end, instead of lovely, tasty pomegranate juice, the mixture looked muddy and smelled horrible.
“Drink three sips, and don't spill a drop, Ali.”
Ali did so. It tasted horrible. His body wanted to spit it out, but using all his effort, he swallowed the three sips. He saw the Genie do the same.
“Now, we wait. We cannot have anything else, especially water for the next three hours. Now, we wait.” With those words, the Genie put her head down and slept.
At first, Ali felt the slightest itch in his throat. He tried to ignore it. But soon, it felt like his tongue was on fire. Soon, his whole throat was burning. Twice, he stopped himself from going to the fountain, but just barely. He did not think he would stop himself the third time.
The pain grew worse. His whole body was on fire.
Then, all at once, the pain was gone. He wiped the tears from his face and looked over to the Genie, and saw the most beautiful young girl sleeping there. He tried to wake her but could not. He did not know if enough time had passed. He turned to his camel.
“Well? Has it been three hours?” The camel did not answer. “I think she needs water more than me. I will try it.”
Ali cupped water into his hands, and gently trickled it into her mouth. Her eyes opened immediately. She grabbed his hands and drank greedily.
“Thank you, young Ali. We must leave this cave now, while the curse is pushed aside. Hurry, Ali, hurry.” As they ran, he saw that his hair was black, and his nails were short. He felt young and strong again. They ran out of the cave, with the camel following close at their heels.
And just then . . . .
The Fall Cometh
The little girl loved Uncle Ivan's voice. It was so calm, so gentle, yet strong and deep. The story he was reading must have had some magical power, because for the first time in a year, she felt no pain in her legs. She could even move her legs.
As quiet as a mouse, so as not to disturb Uncle Ivan, she moved to the edge of the bed. She stretched down and tried to stand up. What a wonderful feeling to be standing again. She noticed that Uncle Ivan did not see her move. He continued to read that wonderful story about Persia.
She so wanted to go outside, even for a minute. It had been so long. Besides, it would only be for a few minutes. As she walked down the stairs and went outside, she noticed that all of the snow was gone. Instead, it was a beautiful fall day, with every tree exploding in color. The smell in the air was so strong, so clean, that she decided to walk for a bit.
As she walked into the forest, she saw the her friend Blinky flying overhead. It seemed as though Blinky was happy to see her. She reached a clearing and saw that she was not alone. Two lovers were kissing near the bank of a lake. They noticed her and motioned for her to come closer.
“Hello, little girl. You will be the first to know. I am Ali, the son of a Prince, and I am the luckiest man alive. This wonderful woman just agreed to marry me.”
He went on to explain that Des, the Djin, was Atusah's father. It would be his task to let him marry his daughter.
Just then there was a poof, and a flying carpet appeared above them. On it sat a strange, bearded man. Even the little girl knew that this was the Djin, who some people called Des.
The Djin looked at Ali and Atusah, standing arm in arm. He jumped off the carpet and stomped towards Ali with an evil look in his eye.
“Release my daughter, Ali, or I shall be angry.”
“Sir Djin, I will not release her for I have not captured her. Instead, it is she who has captured my heart.”
The Djin thought for a bit. He turned back to the carpet and pulled off a huge golden chest.
“Ali, within this chest, I have a fortune greater than all the riches in Persia. If you reject my daughter, and let her go, these riches are yours.”
Ali shook his head. He turned to Atusah and looked closely into her eyes. “Sir Djin, you could offer me the world, the moon and the sun, and none of it would make me as happy as Atusah. If you really wish to reward me, reward me with your permission to marry her.”
The Djin looked at the couple and saw that his daughter was indeed happy. The Djin looked at the little girl. “What do you think?” he asked.
“If love is true, then it should be allowed to blossom,” she replied.
“I think you are right, little one. Very well, I give my blessing, Ali. And with Atusah's help you will become a great and beloved ruler. Persia will rejoice when you return. Let us go.”
He invited Ali and Atusah to join him on his carpet. As the carpet began to rise, all three waved good-bye to the little girl. In a blink of the eye, the carpet was gone.
The little girl walked along the lake until she reached another hill. From the top of the hill, she could see what could only be Mount Fuji. It was a grand mountain. It reminded the little girl of the word “Regal”, another word that she loved. Mount Fuji had snow at the very top. It was beautiful. She saw a little stone hut near the path she was on. A Japanese girl about her age came out to feed the lame goat tied in front.
“Hello!” she called to her.
“Hello, yourself. I am Haruko.” Haruko answered with a friendly smile.
“I am pleased to meet you.”
“I am about to have tea. Would you care to join me,” Haruko asked?
“Yes, please, I would like that. I have never had Japanese tea. I usually have milk with my tea.”
Haruko explained that green tea was drunk without milk, and besides, the goat had already given all its milk that morning. “He is a good goat, though.”
“He? How does a he give milk,” the little girl asked?
“We call all goats he, and all cows she, although I think the bulls don't like that much.” Haruko answered.
Haruko showed her where to sit, and brought out two small tea cups. She poured steaming water into a teapot and let it steep for a bit.
“With green tea, you have to let it rest for while, but not too long. You don't want to bruise the tea leaves,” Haruko explained. “Do you know what Origami is? That goes well with tea.”
The little girl shook her head. Haruko brought out the most beautiful black wooden box. She opened it and pulled out some square pieces of paper. Haruko handed several sheets to her.
“Origami is the art of folding paper. You can make incredible animals and birds and more just by folding it. Here, let me show you a few.” Haruko pulled out some examples of dragons, fish, and a lovely pink peacock.
The little girl loved touching them. “These are lovely. I can't believe that paper can turn into this.”
Haruko poured the tea into their cups.
“May I show you how to make a crane? Have you ever seen a real flying crane? Cranes are the best birds. They have loads of magic, you know. If you make 1,000 cranes, you will have luck forever. Come, I will show you how.”
With that, Haruko taught her how to make a crane. Soon, they were making bird after bird, until the pile was falling off the table. The two girls giggled and laughed, and told stories to each other as they made even more cranes.
There must have been some magic in Haruko's home, for every time they picked up a piece of paper, a new piece of rice paper appeared in its place. After making many birds, they decided to count.
“. . . 998, 999, 1000! Haruko, we did it! We made a thousand cranes!” the little girl shouted, clapping her hands. “That was so much fun.”
“Aren't they all beautiful?” said Haruko. “Say, why don't we go visit my Grandmother Obaba? She loves Origami and I am sure she would love to meet you.”
The little girl nodded.
“Why don't you take this path, and I will follow you shortly. I need to leave a note for my father.”
Haruko bowed to the little girl, who bowed back. She went out and began to climb the hill. The path was easy and straight, so easy she almost forgot that she had not walked for a whole year. Walking again, even up a hill, made her feel wonderful. What a perfect day! She started to skip and sing to herself quietly.
As she got to the top, she spotted a small girl walking hand in hand with an older bearded man. From far away, he looked like her Uncle Ivan. As she got closer, she realized that she had been mistaken. He still looked like an uncle, though.
The three of them met on the bridge and greeted each other.
“Hello!” the little girl said.
“Hello. I am Kasha and this is my Uncle Vanya.”
“Hello, little one. I am very pleased to meet you,” said the bear-like man. “We are heading to the river. Would you like to walk with us?”
“I would love to. Thank you.”
Kasha and her Uncle Vanya talked to her about their forest, giving each plant and tree its own name. They pointed out different birds and flowers, the frogs, and even a baby deer that watched them as they went past.
Uncle Vanya suddenly stopped. He knelt down and looked very closely at the ground. He shook his head and looked again.
“Amazing. This is simply amazing. Here is a magical mushroom that has the most incredible powers. I can't believe I found one. People have searched all their lives for a mushroom like this, and never found it.”
“How is it magical?” the little girl asked.
“This is the mushroom of dreams and fairies, of magic and clouds,” Uncle Vanya explained. “The person who carries this mushroom with her has the most amazing powers and can see the most amazing things. I cannot believe it, because these mushrooms only appear in a full moon. Amazing! We are so lucky.”
Kasha pulled on her uncle's sleeve and whispered in his ear. Uncle Vanya thought for a bit and whispered back to her. Kasha and he looked at the little girl, then back at each other. Kasha nodded and whispered one last time.
Uncle Vanya gently grabbed the mushroom and removed it from the ground. He took out a fine silk handkerchief from his vest and even more gently wrapped the mushroom inside. He looked at Kasha one more time, who nodded at him again. They both turned to the little girl and offered her the mushroom.
“Keep this in your hand and it will bring the most incredible luck. Be careful not to crush it.”
The little girl bowed and thanked them both. Kasha and Uncle Vanya waved good-bye, then crossed back over the bridge.
The little girl sat down, so happy at everything that had happened. As she held the silk kerchief, something strange began to happen. She felt wings grow on her back. As they grew longer and stronger, another amazing thing happened. The knight of her dreams came out of the forest, still cleaning off the black blood off of his gleaming sword. He, too, was growing wings.
He came up to her, bowed deeply, and offered her his arm. She took it gladly and stood up. With the barest effort, they flew into the sky and headed towards the pure white clouds, very high in the sky. On her left, she saw fir green fairies flying with them. In front of her there were gold fairies and even red fairies, dropping rose petals like rain drops. On her right was her prince, with his silver armor shining in the sun, and his powerful wings beating in the air silently.
The little girl was never happier, except, perhaps when Uncle Ivan gave her that wonderful rag doll. They headed into the first cloud, and before her eyes, she saw the most beautiful air castle, with gardens, and fountains, and glitter everywhere.
- - -
Uncle Ivan stopped reading and stared at the little girl closely. He put his story book away and again looked sadly at the cute round face, almost covered in a bed sheet. Then he noticed something strange.
He reached over to her and picked up a pure white silken handkerchief. He could have sworn that it wasn't there before. In fact, never had he seen such a beautiful handkerchief.
He unfolded it, and inside, he found a strange, yet beautiful mushroom, a kind he had never seen before.
As he looked at the little girl again, a tear started forming in the corner of his eye. He stood up and called down to the little girl's mother and father. Very quietly, they joined him in her room. All three of them had tears in their eyes.
Uncle Ivan remembered the silk kerchief. “Is this yours? I never saw it before.”
Neither the mother or the father remembered having such a beautiful handkerchief.
Uncle Ivan leaned over and gently put it back in the little girl's cold hand.
- - -
The little girl loved that castle. Everyone was so nice, and everything was so beautiful. But she missed one thing – her rag doll that her uncle gave her that day. After saying thank you to every single person there, including the wonderful knight, she stepped out of the cloud, and flew back to her house. She landed right by the front door.
There was no one in the kitchen. She snuck up the stairs and was surprised to see Uncle and her mother and father in her room. They were all crying. Only then did she notice that her wings had disappeared the instant that she landed.
No one seemed to notice her as she came into the room. She crawled back into her bed, then noticed the silk handkerchief. She grabbed it gently.
“Hello Uncle, Mother, Father.”
All three of them jumped. Her mother grabbed her and hugged her very hard.
“My little one, we were so worried,” her Uncle said. “We thought that you had left us.”
“I am sorry, Uncle. I should have said something when I left.”
The three adults looked at each other strangely.
“You left this room?” asked her mother.
“Yes, and I met Ali and Kasha and Haruko, and I even got this magic mushroom.” She opened her hand and showed them the handkerchief. “I can even walk again.”
She got out of bed and showed them that she could
She could not understand why her mother and father were crying so hard. She was never happier. They agreed to go downstairs, and make dinner while the little girl got dressed.
Her uncle stopped at the door, and turned around.
“My little one. You said you met Kasha, and Haruko, and Ali?”
“Yes, uncle. That is how I got this mushroom.”
“I think, my dear, that I will want to hear the whole story.”
THE END (or is it?)