Once upon a time there was an unbounded forest of Live Oak and Beech, and standing in the middle, where all paths had lost their way was an enormous and ancient tree. Here, the other trees that circled it round had retreated respectfully in an oval of overhanging limbs and leaves and there they formed a space of mossy glades, inviting shade and light. For centuries, countless poets, princesses, warriors and kings had journeyed to this tree with their hearts full of hope, for legend had told that if they lay very still beneath its branches, gazing through them at the sky, the enchanted tree might awaken and grant them a single wish. Through those past years countless souls had set out, intent upon attaining their heart’s desire, but as the seasons passed, and their children and grandchildren had grown too old to remember the tales of wonder and warning, for there are always warnings where wishes are concerned, the people of that land began to concern themselves less and less with things of wonder. With every generation, the creatures that inhabited those woods saw fewer and fewer seekers bound to discover the tree, and so, with elegant grace, it invisibly retreated, softly vanishing into the forest.
On the Eastern side of this forest there was a bustling and thriving Queendom. The Queen herself was so exquisitely beautiful that any man who came to court her was immediately struck dumb in her presence. He would stumble over his ill-chosen words in vain attempts to impress her. He would gloat and boast and exaggerate his accomplishments and often find himself clumsily lying to astonish her. This Queen was also deeply wise, and these bumbling fools left her melancholy and tired. All she yearned for was a true connection, some open hearted laughter – a profound conversation, and yet each strutting courtier was a greater disappointment than the last, and none of them once discovered the fragile grace that resided in her heart.
So, as the years passed, the Queen began to look upon her beauty as a curse. In each of her eyes there nestled a single tear which never fell, never betrayed the constant welling up of her passion, but cast invisible rays of melancholy which secretly defined the sweetness of her face. Her heart ached for a man who would see beyond the radiance of her flawless skin and meet her gaze with equal simplicity, but she was continually disenchanted and so began to treat each man that arrived with shorter and shorter shrift.
One morning she awoke earlier than her maids and lay still, savouring the lazy silence of the morning. She had slept deeply, dreaming of a distant, half-remembered childhood tale – the tale of the magical tree in the forest. And though there were very few now who still believed that the wishing tree was anything more than a story for children, in that moment she felt a profound knowing, that it was more than a tale. It was near. She could see it in her mind’s eye. So, drawing her softest cloak around her and making haste to slip away before any of her servants had stirred, she crept silently out of the castle.
The light blue of the misty dawn was pale upon her skin, and there, without a single glance around, the Queen disappeared into the woods.
On the other side of the forest was a magnificent Kingdom ruled over by an immensely popular King. To his subjects, he defined the very model of Kingliness. He could tell a fine wine with a single sniff, he could hypnotize his guests with richly illustrated tales of his travels and his numerous victories in battle and he was both a graceful and impeccable swordsman. However, though his lands were abundant and his subjects, for the most part, contented, he carried in his heart a subtle and formless weight, a dull ache. It was what he would call his ‘regal craving’ and it was an ever present dissatisfaction for him even at the heights of adventure. Furthermore, he could never allow anyone to notice his condition as his perfected seeming was the anchor of all his subjects’ confidence. This predicament was his to bear alone and thus it’s whispering anxieties pursued him as shadows ever follow heels.
The King, too, awoke that morning in the soft visions and half-remembered childhood tales of wishes and trees, and so before the sun was risen, his servants still slumbering, he too stole secretly out into the mist of his dawning Kingdom. He headed towards the centre of the forest, and with only the fading moon as his witness, left the castle behind.
The Queen was the first to reach the tree, stepping gently into the golden clearing at the centre of the forest. It’s great limbs seemed to loom quite suddenly out of the ever-changing light and she knew at once that this was the place she had been seeking. With natural grace, she arranged herself beneath its branches lying back on the spongy moss at its trunk and gazed up through the twisting and turning to the brightening sky beyond. As she breathed she felt a curious stirring as if the branches were faintly awake and she sank irresistibly into a luxurious trance. She was transported to nameless places in her heart – her mind invented new colours and her own tongue whispered to her, and before long, when the silvery wish hung before her, inviting her to speak her desire, she wished. She wished for a man who would love her for who she truly was, for the deep love and wisdom in her heart, not the transient beauty of her face. She wished with her eyes and her nose and her mouth and her arms and her legs. And when it was done she found herself back in the woods again, under a tree, with small twigs in her hair. She considered her breathing, her chest rising and falling in the gentleness, and gradually, as she came around she thought she could hear footsteps approaching and a cracking branch not twenty feet away. She sprang up, catapulted back into herself by the sudden intrusion, and as nimbly and her recent slumber would allow, hid herself behind another, duller tree-trunk, breathlessly brushing herself down. There she awaited the sight of the intruder.
It was the King. And he too noticed the tree with inward certainty as soon as he came upon it. At once, eagerly relieving himself of his cloak and sword, the King arranged himself beneath its branches to receive its bounty.
A breath away, quite hidden, the Queen’s eyes were growing wide with the savouring of this commanding stranger. He was indeed handsome and all the more so from the glow of the long morning’s walk. She dared to wonder fleetingly if this could be the tree’s instant answer to her wish and then immediately banished the notion from her mind with an invisible shake of the head.
The King too gazed up at the sky through the twisting and the turning and as the Queen had done before him, sank into a luxurious trance. However, there was a difference. For though the Queen had been sure in her heart what it was that she desired, the King, being a man, had not. All he knew was that something was missing though what precisely that could be remained a mystery to him, something indistinct just beyond the corners of his eyes. So when it was time for him to make his wish he simply wished for the closest thing he could imagine as an antidote to his regal craving.
“I wish,” he said aloud “for an infinite Kingdom. I wish for my Kingdom to stretch as far as my eyes can see!”
And with that he awoke on the spongy ground feeling refreshed and confident, unaware of his regal witness and the recklessness of his wish.
The Queen was by this time beside herself with excitement. She had convinced herself that of course he must be the one she had summoned and was surprised to feel such sudden and unexpected waves of emotion that the everlasting tears which nestled there in her eyes almost brimmed over and fell. She caught her breath as it rose. ‘He must be!’ she heard herself whisper and silently withdrew, skipping gaily back to her Queendom with her heart thudding in anticipation.
Having sauntered back to his own kingdom, the King’s reborn contentment reigned for a while. His regal craving seemed to have all but vanished and he was regularly to be seen striding purposefully throughout his lands with a renewed sense of personal power. And as he strode, so did his subjects, confidently. He threw great, raucous parties and made merry until dawn. He told outrageous tales and danced daring steps with the ladies, and for a brief time enjoyed the perfection of his great fortune in life. But as with all perfection, before long a subtle flaw had to make itself known. For though the King was descended from exquisite stock, his line was not entirely perfect. There was a family trait which had appeared in the eyes of every generation before him: short-sightedness. His ancestors had each been afflicted with gradually deteriorating eyesight which slowly but surely would envelope its subject in lonely darkness. His father, the former King, had spent his last years being carried through his gardens on a platform of cushions. He had invented a maze of herbs and flowers where anyone who wished to enter would first have to be blindfolded. Only then would they be allowed to attempt negotiation of the avenues and cul de sacs therein. It was smell alone which led the seeker. Our King had played there as a child and could navigate its pathways backwards if asked. In his more mischievous moments he would lead unsuspecting playmates among the flowerbeds only to abandon them and silently giggle at their distress. Now his own turn had come, and all the worse for his wish. The other Kings before him had merely had to contend with the short-sightedness, but our sad hero had indeed wished recklessly, and so every week that passed left him shorter of sight and smaller of Kingdom for as his sight gradually failed his domain shrank steadily around him.
The King’s mysterious predicament rendered him fearful and bewildered and before long his loyal subjects began to unconsciously reflect his tainted humour. Fear seeped into their homes and hearts and gradually there evolved an all-pervading lack of trust among them. No one believed in their neighbour’s honesty and suddenly mundane negotiations became lengthy and cynical. No one walked straight ahead without, every few paces, casting a suspicious glance over their shoulder which made the simplest journeys take forever. It was a bad time and worsening with every lunar month. His Kingdom was descending into wariness and doubt. His mood was dark. And his subjects were lost in constant tiffs and quarrels.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the forest, the Queendom was bedecked in flowers. Since her return from the wishing tree, immersed in love’s promises, her subjects had been infected with romance and starry-eyed tenderness. One couldn’t round a street corner without picking up the strains of a wooing melody or a poem of eternal devotion. Garlands of roses hung at doorways and windows and the young ladies glanced coquettishly sideways whenever gentlemen were near.
The Queen, however, was beginning to tire of waiting for her knight in shining armour to appear. She had been home for months and had fully expected him to come jubilantly parading into her life within a week. Now several moons had passed and there was still no sign of the handsome King. What could he be waiting for? With each passing day that he failed to appear, her mind turned the quandary over and over until she had convinced herself it was time to take matters into her own hands, and as lovers swooned beneath balconies all around her, she set about hatching a foolproof plan to ensure her own imminent love’s initiation. Summoning the first servant who passed by, a gentle page, she instructed him to make his way to the Castle on the other side of the forest and deliver an invitation to the King. She told the young page to invite the King’s whole court to a lavish banquet in the middle of the forest which would be held at the next full moon. She bode him return with their answer and not to forget to wrap some cheese and bread for his journey.
It was quite a revelation for the untravelled, young squire to see a new Kingdom on his first ever expedition from home. As he came over the brow of a hill, there before him rose up towers and flags and chimneys and roofs spread across the horizon like a warning. He could feel his heart beating in his chest as he approached. From the familiarity of the trees and shrubs which had hitherto surrounded him, suddenly this was an unknown realm full of foreboding shapes and sounds. Occasional passers-by on the road eyed him suspiciously as he proceeded towards the castle gates. Most curtains were drawn along the way and he perceived hidden eyes inspecting him from within but he walked on undaunted and soon found himself rapping soundly on the oaken doors of the palace.
While he waited for a response he turned and gazed back along the way he had come. Beyond the smoky lanes he could see the forest and hills and felt a yearning to be back there. He thought of his mother and how she’d now be laying the fire as his sisters prepared the evening meal. He could almost smell the broth upon the stove and taste the sweet and heavy bread his mother baked. But before long he was jarred from his reverie by the grinding clank of the door behind him and an unfriendly, gravely voice demanding who he was and what was his business and, before he had a chance to answer, to be quick about it. He took a deep breath and with a rehearsed and courteous sweep of his feathered cap lyrically recited the Queen’s invitation. Anyone on the other side of the forest would have burst into applause at the end of his brief and hitchless performance as it was so wonderfully executed but this sullen guard was clearly none too impressed.
“Wait here.” He ordered and slamming the huge doors behind him, the guard disappeared into the castle leaving only his retreating footsteps for the young lad to mark his progress.
Now, had it been any other kingdom, the invitation would most likely have been received as an exciting and welcome event and been accepted with at least a generous compliment or two but through their King’s misery this had become no ordinary Kingdom, and so fearful were they here that by the time the invitation had passed from the mouth of the guard to the ears of his chief and from the mouth of the chief to the ears of the Grand Vizier, and from his cynical lips to the mistrustful ears of the King, the message had been so twisted that it sounded like a battle challenge. “They say they want to meet us in the forest.” Hissed the kings advisor and at this the King sat upright on his throne, newly invigorated, and in a manner that to any intuitive eye (though there were none present) would have betrayed his deep insecurity, accepted the challenge.
His acceptance was delivered to the young servant waiting at the castle’s entrance with a kick in the backside for good measure and the young page set off on his way back home again gratefully, though confused at the peculiarly discourteous customs of this strange Kingdom.
Throughout the days and nights that followed, both Kingdoms diligently prepared for the elected day. Within the King’s furnaces burned steel for hammered swords and impatient horses were shoed beside them. Soldiers were put through their paces and provisions were packed in leather sacks for the coming battle.
On the other side of the forest the ovens were stoked and piled with magnificent pies and fruit was gathered and chopped and squeezed for delicate cakes and sweet drinks to be consumed at the coming feast. Garlands of flowers were artfully woven into the young ladies’ hair and perfumes were concocted from ancient recipes. Finally, when all was ready, the two parties set out from their opposite sides of the forest and made their separate ways towards the magical wishing tree.
By some strange or invisibly fated chance, both the King’s and Queen’s processions entered the clearing where the wishing tree stood at the exact same moment, and there they stood, rooted to the spot in confusion and embarrassment. They remained there frozen for some minutes before the Queen’s resolute and unwavering voice was heard among the confusion.
“Welcome One and All to our merry Banquet! Please, do enjoy these offerings and take your fill of everything you see.”
The King raised his head and gazed at the blurry and colourful crowd before him. Take your fill? Enjoy these offerings? What was this? The Grand Vizier leant over to the King’s ear to describe the scene before them in his contemptuous and distrustful tone.
“We will not eat.” Commanded the King presently. “This smells of trickery to me. We’ll not be bamboozled and betrayed by flowery dresses and delicious tastes. Make camp men while we consider this new state of affairs.”
The Queen’s party, hungry and bemused, looked at her expectantly hoping to be allowed to tuck in to the feast, but she had a command of her own.
“Our guests shall eat first. It would be impolite to proceed without them. Erect the marquees and let the minstrels play.”
It was then that both parties began to notice a chill creeping into the air. Everyone went about their duties, disappointed and glum. No one knew when or if they would eat. They sang songs but without the heart to which they were accustomed and sat around in groups with their bellies rumbling. Brief squabbles broke out even among the Queen’s subjects. The clouds were swirling silently overhead seeming to approach with spirits of foreboding. Distant thunder was growling and as the nameless and indistinct fear rose equally around them all, the King felt the last shards of light disappearing from his eyes and gripped the Viziers arm in panic. Suddenly, fright like lightning shot through those waiting outside his tents and spread to everyone around as the sky cracked with a roar and a shriek echoed through the camp.
“The King is blind! The King is blind!”
It seemed to everyone groping in the darkness and rain that a battle had begun and the King’s men dashed to arm themselves, glancing feverishly left and right to protect themselves from attack. The Queen’s party were overcome with despair, unused as they were to such atmospheres. From every direction there was shouting and running and yet in her stillness the Queen observed the scene. Her mind transported her back to that day so long ago when she had stood on this very spot. She remembered the breeze and the birds. She remembered the tree and the sky, but above all she remembered the King’s wish and there, suspended in the memory, there arose an idea.
As the soldiers raced in all directions, groping wildly in the deepening darkness, she approached the King’s tent newly dressed as a servant girl. There, meeting the eyes of the young guard at the entrance with her level gaze, she slipped silently past as he stared in a hypnotised stupor at her unfathomable beauty. Once inside, she knelt at the King’s feet and tentatively at first, began to softly wash them in warm water and wrap them in silken cloths, skilfully easing his undisguised trembling with her deft fingers. He offered no resistance, silently welcoming the comfort of her touch and gradually detected a small part of himself relaxing as the chaos whirled around and about his tent. The Queen, as she felt his relaxation deepen, began to speak.
“My Lord,” she began, “I know I am not usually permitted to speak to you directly as I’m just a poor servant girl and you are a great King, but being so poor, I have never travelled. I am afraid and don’t know whether we will live this night or die here in the forest. Won’t you please tell me what it looked like from atop the Great Mountain when you scaled it in years past?”
The King also knew that she wasn’t really permitted to talk to him so directly but something in her tone had softened his heart and so he began to describe that panoramic view over the lands and rivers of his Kingdom, and as he illustrated the scene, he felt something inside him expand imperceptibly and with it a sense of relief the like of which he had never known. The Queen sensed this and pressing him further asked:
“And what of the Blue Lakes to the East, You have travelled there, have you not, my Lord?”
“Yes” he replied, and continued aloud in his picturing. With every word he uttered his heart became easier as if a tight grip he had endured forever was loosening. And as he spoke of the meadows and rivers and the creatures that inhabited them something else transformed itself within him. He suddenly saw it all so vividly within his imagination and at once realized the true infinity of his Kingdom. His heart surged and tears poured from his newly darkened eyes as his wish for an infinite Kingdom was finally so fully granted and with that, he fell deeply and eternally in love with this strange servant girl kneeling before him. Of course, in so doing he granted the Queen’s own dearest wish too; to be loved for the depths of her heart, and the wisdom of her spirit, not the transient beauty of her face, and in that moment, her own passionate welling arose once more from the very centre of her longing and as they both swam in the ecstasy of receiving their hearts’ desires and swore themselves to each other forever, falling gently into a blessed and grateful kiss, those two everlasting tears dropped silently from her eyes into his, restoring his sight with renewed and eternal clarity to behold true beauty for the first time.