The Sky-High Tree
Adapted by Gill Kirk from Gyula Illyés (1988), translation by Caroline Bodóczky (Hungarian Review)
Before we start the story, we have to explain what a “bridle” is: the straps around a horse’s head that are used to control it.
Once upon a time, there was a king who had been ill for seven years. He did everything he could think of to get better - lots of sleep, great diet, plenty of exercise - but nothing seemed to work. One day, an old woman told him that if he ate the fruit of an apple tree that grew under his window, he would be cured.
The thing was, there was no apple tree under his window. But one morning, suddenly, there was! He ran outside to investigate. He looked up and up and realised that no matter how “up” he looked, there was always more tree to see! This tree reached the sky! And it was already blossoming, and by lunch had grown baby apples, which by midnight, were ready to eat! But the next morning, when he was ready to eat a magical apple and be cured, every single one had been stolen.
The king sent a message to the four corners of the land. It said, “Anyone who climbs as high as they can bring me back a magic apple, can have half my kingdom now, and the other half when I die.”
Within hours, hundreds of people were lined up to climb the tree, grab an apple and win the kingdom. However, not one of them was fit enough and one by one, they all came back down empty handed, apple-less.
There was a pig-keeper who worked for the King, called John. He loved his pigs, but he wouldn’t mind a bit of adventure. So we went to the king and said he would need some kit to help him climb the tree and find a healing apple. He needed three iron rings to wrap around the tree like a belt, so he could climb up like a ladder; three pairs of iron boots, an axe and enough food for a week.
On the first day, he climbed so high he was out of sight by teatime. Three days later, he was still climbing without any sight of an apple, or of the land below.
Eventually, John reached the seventh branch of the tree and there he saw a staircase! Surely he was almost finished?
But after a long time climbing the staircase, he was exhausted. He thought he could go no further. Suddenly he heard a strange sound: the beating of wings. Lots of them. There, in front of him, were three magic flying horses! And they flew him to the top of the tree. Hooray! At last!
Can you remember what he was there for? Yes: to find an apple to cure the king. But he had spent so much time travelling that he had almost forgotten.
At the top of the tree was a castle. John entered and walked through massive room after room: 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10,11! In the eleventh room was a girl, and she said, “I am Etelka, a princess. How have you got here, so high up?”
I told you John had forgotten why he was there, hadn't I? Well, can you guess what he said? “I have come here to - serve you!” “That’s great. “ said Etelka. “You can stay here with me as long as you like and do anything you want and I will you give you everything you ask for BUT-” because there is always a but - “You must never, ever enter the twelfth room.” John promised and he helped Etelka in her castle and she gave him everything he asked for. After a while they fell in love and planned to get married.
One day Etelka said to John, “I’m going out - here are my keys: can you clean the 11 rooms and make my dinner for when I get home, please? But whatever you do, don’t look for the key to the twelfth room.” And out she went.
John did everything he was told. But when he’d finished, he began wondering about the twelfth room and he started to look for the key. He told himself he just wanted to give it a clean, but really, of course, he wanted to see why it was so forbidden. While he hunted for the key, he moved an old broom. And moving that broom unlocked the twelfth door - it was a hidden lever! The door opened, he went in and it slammed shut behind him.
There in front of him, nailed to the wall, was a dragon with seven heads. What a sight! “Oh, how happy I am to see you!” cried the dragon. “If you bring me a bucket of water, I’ll give you a kingdom. “There are three buckets of water in the corner. Pour half a bucket into the mouth on my first head, and half into the mouth in my seventh head.”
John bravely did what the dragon asked. “Thank you,” said the dragon, “you will get your kingdom. And if you will bring me another bucket, I will give you another kingdom. Pour half into my 2nd mouth and half into my 6th.” And John did. “Now,” said the dragon, “for a third kingdom, give me the third bucket!” John did.
“Thank you,” said the dragon. “For setting me free, you will get three kingdoms, but for the sake of setting us both free, I have one more request.
“That door is locked. But over there is a small chest. In the middle drawer is a small apple. Throw it into my middle mouth.” John found the apple, threw it into the dragon’s mouth and at once the door opened. In a flash the dragon shook himself and flew away. “We shall meet again!” he called back. John was a bit surprised but as the room was now empty, he left it and went back to his work.
When Etelka came home she knew instantly what had happened. “John, what have you done? I told you not to go into the twelfth room. Now you’ve released the dragon, the moment we are married, it will carry me away! The three kingdoms the dragon promised you will be taken away from you when you try to win me back.” And they hugged, sad at what they thought would happen.
Their wedding day came and Etelka and John were nervous. During the wedding, a great storm came, and as soon as they set foot outside the church, the dragon flew down and seized Etelka. It called back to John, “Three kingdoms I have given you and three times may you visit your wife. But you will never get her back!” And with a great roar, they were gone.
John went home with the wedding guests and wondered what to do. He vowed to bring her home, even if it cost him his life. She had tried to keep them safe and by ignoring her, he had put her in danger. He went to the stables and spoke to his magic horses, “Our Etelka has been kidnapped!” he cried. “Don’t worry, John, we’ll bring her back!” they said. So John got on the first horse’s back and off they flew.
John and his horse flew for days. They went from country to country, through forests and meadows, but found no trace of Etelka anywhere. Then suddenly the horse said, “Look, there’s a woman sitting outside a house. Let’s see if it’s her.” They landed at once, and it lo and behold, it was her!
“Etelka, come on, we must leave quickly,” said John, “before the dragon gets back.”
“No,” she said, “the dragon has a horse that’s even faster than yours!”
“It’s always worth trying!” said John, and they jumped on the flying horse’s back and off they went.
When the dragon got home he saw that Etelka had escaped but he was a confident dragon and decided there was no rush. He got on his own magical horse, easily caught up with them, grabbed Etelka and said, “Sorry, John; that’s one kingdom lost!” and off he flew, taking Etelka back home.
“Don’t worry,” said John’s horse, “We’ll go and get my sister, who’s even faster than me. She will help you rescue Etelka.” So they went home and John got on the second horse and set out again. And they went so fast they found Etelka by lunchtime! There she was, furiously plotting an escape from this wicked dragon. She saw John on a new horse and smiled and said, “It’s worth trying!” and they hugged and flew off again as fast as they could go.
And just like last time, the dragon got home, was quite cross, but took his time in going after Etelka and John on his own magical horse. When he caught them, he grabbed Etelka once more. “Well, John,” he growled, “now you have lost two kingdoms!” “Oh, bother,” said the second flying horse, “We were so close this time! My other sister is even faster than me, so next time we will not fail.”
The next morning, the third magic horse carried John to Etelka. And when the dragon saw she was gone, he again took his time, and again he caught up with them, and this time he said, “Well, John, you have lost all 3 kingdoms. I said you could visit your wife 3 times. Now, if you come again, you will lose your life.”
But John DID come back the next day! And he said to Etelka, “we will escape - and it’s worth my life to try again!” Etelka didn’t want him to try this time because she didn’t want him lose his life, but she got on the horse and they flew towards home. The dragon and his horse chased them as fast as they could, caught hold of John and threw him to the ground. And leaving John for dead, the dragon picked up Etelka and flew her back home.
John’s magic horse stayed very, very still. She was determined that she would not give up. How could she bring John back to life? Just at that moment, she spotted a tiny snake with a beautiful blade of grass in its mouth.
“What are you carrying, little snake?” she asked.
“This is life-giving grass,” said the snake. “I’m going to heal my hurt child with it.”
“Could I borrow it afterwards to heal my master?” said the horse, and the snake agreed and they healed the baby snake and then touched John’s body with the blade of grass and -
“Oh, what a funny dream I just had!” said John as he woke up…And the magic horse explained everything.
“But before you say, ‘let’s go and rescue Etelka’, said the horse, “I have a cunning plan…” The horse told John her plan and he did exactly what she said.
Three days later, John and the horse approached the dragon’s house from the back, avoiding the graveyard behind his house, where he buried all the people he’d killed, who would tell the dragon whenever a stranger appeared. They waited for the dragon to go out, and then John ran to Etelka. She had thought he was dead and she was amazed to see him. Then he whispered the horse’s plan to her and she agreed…
John hid in the dragon’s house and waited for it to come home. When he did, he growled at Etelka - “Is my lunch ready yet?!” and she smiled at him and said, “Nearly!” and gave him a little kiss.
The dragon was amazed. No-one was ever nice to him. He liked it a lot. He even smiled. While they ate lunch they chatted about normal things, and to hear them you would never know that he had kidnapped her and killed her new husband.
After a while, Etelka said, “Tell me, dear dragon, where did you get your horse?” The dragon stopped smiling. “What has that to do with you?” he roared. “Why do you want to know where I got my horse?!”
“I didn’t mean to upset you,” she said. “It’s a beautiful horse; where’s it from?”
“Why do you keep asking? Leave me in peace!” roared the angry dragon.
But Etelka persisted, asking for a third time: “My sweet dragon, I’m sorry I’ve made you cross. I only wanted to know where you bought your horse?”
The dragon roared so hard that fire burped out of one of his mouths and he set the table cloth on fire. Etelka was afraid and jumped a little bit with fear. The dragon felt a bit bad and said, “Ah, you really do want to know because you’re interested in me? Just wait a little, and I will tell you. First, I need some fresh air.”
The dragon went into the graveyard he had at the bottom of his garden, and he asked the dead ones if they had seen a stranger, because he was suspicious of Etelka’s questions. “No one has come here since you killed Etelka’s husband John,” said the dead ones. That put the dragon’s mind at rest. He went back home and said to Etelka,
“Come and sit beside me. I will tell you where I got my horse, because John can’t rescue you now he’s dead, so it doesn’t matter if you know.
“By the left corner of your palace there lies a path. It leads to the shores of the Seventh Sea, where an old woman lives. In that land, a year lasts three days. Any man who serves her well gets whatever he wishes for. I got my horse from her and she has three more of them left. The best one is grey as iron, twice as strong and twice as clever as mine.”
That night, when the dragon went out, Etelka sneaked out and told John and his horse everything the dragon told her. She kissed him and he went home before the next part of the adventure.
John took the horse home. After a great night’s sleep and a big meal, he took out the piece of life-giving grass the snake had given them and set out to the shores of the Seventh Sea.
When he reached the shores of the Seventh Sea, he saw a little fish with golden scales writhing in the dust. It was burnt by the sun, but still alive, so John threw it back into the sea. The very next moment, it leapt out of the water looking twice as big as before and spoke!
“Thank you, John. For your kindness, I shall give you a scale from my side, untouched by the burning sun. If you ever run into trouble, just bend the scale and I shall come to your help.” Then it jumped in the water and disappeared.
Then, John walked through a forest, and in the middle was a lake. There he saw a beautiful wild duck, sitting on the water unable to fly, its wing wounded by a hunter’s bullet. John shouted across the water. “Little duck, come over here and I will mend your wing for you!”
“No way” called the duck. “You’ll make stew out of me!”
“I won’t,” said John, “Let me mend your wing.”
“Might as well,” quacked the duck, “My wing is broken, so I don’t care if I die!”
And it swam to the edge of the lake, where John put it in his lap. He took his life-giving grass and stroked the duck’s wounded wing. The moment the grass touched it, the wing was healed as if it had never been broken.
“Thank you! I thought you would kill me, but you saved me! Pull a glossy feather out of my left wing, the one that wasn’t broken. If you’re ever in trouble, break off the end and I will come right away. Keep it safe!” And it flew away.
John went on. At the edge of the forest he came to a spring, where he sat down to rest. He ate some food and wondered what he would ever need the scale and the feather for, but he decided to keep them all the same. He had to find the old woman, but where was she?
Then far away in the distance, he saw a little house. As he pushed his way through some bushes, a fox leapt out. It hobbled on 3 legs, dragging its fourth.
“Hey, fox!” called John. “You’ve hurt your leg. Let me mend it.” The fox turned back and said to John, “I am not stupid enough to let you break my other legs, and turn me into a coat!”
“I won’t, Fox. I’m sorry for you, that’s all. But if you don’t stop, I can’t help.”
“Well, all right,” said the fox. “I’ll let you, but if you hurt me, I’ll bite you!” So John took out the blade of life-giving grass and stroked the fox’s bad leg. It recovered so quickly that the fox began to hop about.
“Thank you! Take some hair from my tail, “said the fox, “And if you’re ever in trouble, stuff it into your pipe and smoke it, and I will come at once.” Then it ran off on all four legs into the bushes.
It was dark when John reached the house. There was an old woman at the kitchen door, her head in her hands. When she saw him, she jumped up.
John greeted her very politely. “Good evening, madam,” he said.
“Good evening to you too! I’m glad you called me ‘Madam’, she said. “Ninety-nine men have been buried in my garden already, and you would have been the one hundredth, if you’d forgotten your manners. So tell me, what are you doing, so far from home?”
“Oh, I’m looking for work,” replied John.
“I will give you work,” the old woman said, “and we will agree payment at the end. Here’s what you must do. Look after my three horses, bring them home every night and make sure they don’t run away.”
She showed him the horses - and they were beautiful! She fed him and asked him lots and lots about himself and then they went to bed.
The next morning the old woman gave John instructions about the horses and a bag of food. All he had to do was guard the horses in the field. They grazed on the grass while he sat beneath a big tree. It was very easy. But around noon, John felt sleepy….When he woke up, it was hours later - the horses were gone!
He remembered the scale the fish had given him and its promise of help. He bent the scale and in a flash the little fish appeared before him. “How can I help?” asked the fish.
“Oh please, little fish,” begged John, “tell me where my horses are!”
“They are with my family in the sea!” said the fish. “Here’s what you must do. When the sea begins to churn, three large spiky fish will swim towards the shore. All three are black and they are your horses. But take care! Hold the middle fish’s bridle firmly in your hand when it reaches land and hit it with all your might: that will turn them back into horses.”
In the twinkling of an eye, John was by the sea. He watched as the sea began to churn and three black fish came swimming to the shore. He gripped the bridle of the middle one and struck it so hard that it was stunned. In the very same moment, John found himself back in the pasture with the horses. He saddled them up, leapt on the iron-grey one, and galloped home. “Good evening, Madam!” he cried. “You’re back!” said the old woman with a look of surprise. “What fine horses you have! They graze beautifully,” said John.
While John was having dinner, the old woman went to her three horses and spoke to them roughly: “You were supposed to hide from him! Try better tomorrow!” And she went inside and carried on chatting with John as if nothing had happened.
The next morning, the old lady gave John an even bigger - sleepier-making-lunch than before and put some sleeping potion into his drink. John took the horses to the meadow, let them go, and sat under the tree to watch them. And just like before, he fell asleep.
This time, it was almost night when he woke up. Sure enough his horses had gone - again. He was about to have a panic, when he remembered how the fish had helped him. So he went into his pocket and took out the glossy feather and snapped off the end. There was a swish in the air, and the duck appeared. “How can I help?” quacked the duck.
“Can you help me find my horses?” asked John.
“Easy: three white ravens have appeared in my flock this afternoon! We’ll make them fly towards you at the bank of the stream. But take care! Look out for the middle one and grab its bridle, and hit it hard. That will turn them back into horses, just like before.”
And so it happened. John went with the duck to the bank of the stream. When he looked up he saw a great cloud of wild ducks driving the three white ravens right to him. He gripped the middle raven’s bridle, and hit it hard. And suddenly, the horses were back in the meadow, grazing. He saddled them up and they galloped home and he greeted the old lady cheerfully.
“Good evening, Madam!”
“Ah. You’re back,” she said.“Were the horses good?”
“Indeed they were, they didn’t stray at all!” he laughed.
“Well,” said the witch, “you have your supper, I’ll water the horses.”
And just like before, she scolded the horses while John ate.
“Could you not find a better hiding place? You wait ’til tomorrow! You’ll be right here in the kitchen, tucked away in the dough basket! Eggs under the hen, that’s what you’ll be!” she muttered. And she turned on her heels and went indoors, then chatted merrily with John and they went to bed.
The next morning, everything happened just as before. They went to the meadow, he sat and watched, he fell asleep, the horses vanished. John wondered what to do next. He remembered the fox. He took out the fox hair, stuffed it into his pipe and began to smoke it.
As if by magic, the fox appeared. “What’s up, friend? How can I help?”
“Fox, I’ve lost my horses,” sighed John.
“Hm,” said the fox, “I have a cunning plan…”
John listened and did what the fox advised.
John and the fox crept slowly towards the old lady’s house. The fox sneaked up to where all the hens and the old lady’s cockerel were scratching about. Fox leapt out of the bushes, grabbed the cockerel and ran off with it between his teeth. The cockerel made such a noise that the old woman hurried outside. “Stop, fox, stop! How dare you come here again? Last time I broke your leg, this time, it’ll be your back! Just you wait!” She chased the fox and the cockerel but the fox ran like the wind on his four good legs.
All the time this had been going on, John had sneaked into the kitchen. Just as the fox had said he would, he found a horse bridle laid next to three eggs on the kitchen table. He smashed the eggs with the bridle and suddenly, he was back in the meadow with the three horses. He saddled them up, leapt on the iron-grey one and galloped home.
But on the way home the iron-grey horse began to speak to him. “Dear John, I know you want to take me as your payment, but tomorrow I will be hidden again, this time as a donkey. The witch will promise you all kinds of things, she’ll even offer you the other two horses, but stick to your choice, and take me, even if you have to carry me on your back.
When they got back to the old lady’s house, John called out politely, “Good evening, Madam!” and she smiled as if nothing had happened. Just like before, she told off the horses while John ate his dinner, then went back to the table.
The next morning, at breakfast, the old lady acted like nothing had happened. She said to John, “Well, John, you have served me very honestly, so tell me what you want! I will give you whatever you ask for!”
“All I ask for, Madam, is a rusty sword you keep in your bedroom, your old bridle, the dirty old saddle and the donkey that’s braying by the dung-heap,” said John.
The old woman frowned, “They wouldn’t even do for junk! And that old donkey?! You’d have to carry it!” she scoffed.
“I’m not greedy; I like a challenge,” smiled John.
“No: I’ll give you gold and silver, as much as you can carry. You’ll never have to work again!” said the witch.
“Thank you, Madam, but I’ll be happy with what I’ve asked for,” he said.
“If that’s what you want, that’s what you’ll get! But I warn you,” said the witch, “You’ll have to carry the donkey all the way to the edge of my land!”
So John tied the rusty sword to his belt, took the filthy donkey, the bridle and saddle and then lifted the donkey to carry it home. “God bless you, Madam,” said John to the old lady, “And thanks for the work!”
John carried the horse right to the border of the old woman’s land. Three times on the way he had to put it down, but three times he picked it up again. When he had crossed the border of the witch’s lands, the horse said, “You can put me down now, and I will carry you.” The donkey jumped to its feet, and changed into a beautiful iron-grey horse with a flowing golden mane. John had never seen anything like it. Then he looked down at himself and could hardly believe his eyes! His sword, his clothes and boots shone and glittered as never before. He was not even quite certain if he was really himself.
“Come on, master, get on my back!” said the horse. “And tell me, do you wish to go as fast as the wind or as swift as a passing thought?”
“Either way,” answered John, “Let’s go and find Etelka!”
“In the twinkling of an eye,” the horse replied. “I know where she is, she is with my uncle!” For indeed, the dragon’s horse was this horse’s uncle!
John barely had time to blink before they were at the dragon’s house. As John appeared on his iron-grey steed, Etelka was getting water from the well. She climbed up on the horse with him, and they set off for home.
No sooner had they gone through the gate than the dragon came home. “Etelka has gone,” said the dragon’s horse, “but you will never catch her now.” The dragon was livid and he chased Etelka and John as fast as his poor horse could go. But as hard as he tried, he could not catch them and eventually, he gave up.
Many months later, John was back at home in Etelka’s castle and he saw an apple growing on the tree outside. “Oh, how silly of me! I forgot what I came here for!” he said, “I need an apple for the sickly king!”
He finally told Etelka the real reason he had climbed the tree, how he had once been a pig-keeper and how the king had needed an apple to make him better. Etelka and John gathered all the apples they could find, and with the 3 flying horses and John’s iron-grey, they flew to the kingdom at the bottom of the tree. This time, it only took 3 days to travel.
It had been a very long time and the king thought John had forgotten him. He ate one of the apples and immediately he was well again.
Etelka and John stayed with the king for a month, telling all of their adventures - and more - before inviting him up the Sky High Tree any time they wanted to visit. And everyone lived happily ever after.
Seeing the dragon tied up in the forbidden 12th room, was John wise to give it what it asked for - the water and apple?
Why were the fox and duck so sure that John was lying when he said he wanted to help them?
Why do you think the old lady was nice to John’s face when she was really very horrible to him?
Was John a pig-keeper, a hero, an adventurer, a kind man, a fool - what was he?