The Easy Life
This is a story from a part of Spain called Catalonia. But a young Polish friend told me a very similar story this week, which suggests it's a tale well travelled and much loved. It’s called The Water of Life, but I've renamed it The Easy Life (see if you can spot why at the end).
It originally comes from a book called Cuentos Populars Catalans, written in 1885 by Dr. D. Francisco de S. Maspous y Labros, which was translated into English by Leonora Blanche Alleyne, and then published by her husband, a Scottish writer called Andrew Lang, 121 years ago, in the Pink Fairy Book.
But this is my version, so you must blame me for all the bits you don't like.
Once upon a time there were two sisters and two brothers. They lived very happily in a tiny cottage, and they all loved each other very much. Life was great. The kind of great that I hope you all have: lots of laughter, the odd squabble from time to time, but with plenty of playing, kindness and hugs.
The siblings were all very different from each other. The oldest brother had never been famous for his hard work, for example. But one day, he turned to the others and said, "Let's all start working really well and really hard, so we can save up enough money to build ourselves a palace."
His brothers and sister were a bit surprised, but they thought this sounded like a great idea: working hard and then making something with the result of their hard work - awesome! So they all high-fived and said, "Yes, let’s do it!"
Everyone picked a job they liked and put all their imagination, thoughtfulness, determination and effort into it. When it got tough, they carried on. When it got complicated, they stopped to think but never gave up. When they did something tricky that had worried them, they remembered to take a break and congratulate themselves on a job very well done.
Eventually, the family's hard work paid off and they had saved up enough money to build themselves a beautiful palace. People came from all over the country and even over the seas to see it and say how wonderful it was. They said it was creative, attractive, pretty, imaginative, handsome, awe-inspiring, magnificent - what other positive words might they have used?
The point is, no-one had a bad word to say about the palace. Until, that is -
One day, an old woman who had been walking through the palace in the crowd, said, "Hmmmm. Yes, it is great. But - but - but - “
"But?” gasped the crowd.
"But!” said the old lady.
Everyone was staring at her. No-one had thought there should be a BUT! How could this palace possibly get any better?!
The old lady screwed up her face, deep in thought. Then - aha! - it came to her, her face brightened with the idea she had had and her eyes shone bright.
"It needs - "
"Yes?" gasped the crowd.
"it needs - " said the old lady, enjoying the suspense - "a - CHURCH!”
"A church! A church! The palace needs a church!” repeated the crowd over and over again. And the call went up all around the city that the magnificent palace had to have a church.
When the sisters and the brothers heard this they stopped what they were doing. “You know, they have a point,” said the youngest sister, and her siblings all agreed. They worked hard again to raise more money and designed and then built a church suitable for their beautiful palace.
When the church was built, even more people came to visit the palace, its gardens (I hadn't mentioned them before but they had always been there) and the marvellous church.
But one day, as the siblings were showing round a crowd, an old man held up his hand as said, while rubbing his chin thoughtfully,
“Yes, I really like what you've done here, but I can’t help thinking there's something lacking.”
“Something lacking?!” gasped the crowd. “What, what, what?”
The siblings leant in to hear the old man's idea. They’d learnt from building the church that the palace no longer belonged to just them any more - everyone cared about it and everyone had ideas - and some of them were very good indeed.
What was the old man going to suggest? A post office? A dance hall? An art gallery? What would you add to your ideal palace?
Everyone learnt forward as the old man's screwed-up thinking face grew bright as an idea formed in his mind. He knew what the palace needed and he opened his mouth to tell everyone.
“What the palace needs is just three things:
1. a jug full of the water of beauty,
2. a branch of the tree whose flower-smell gives eternal beauty, and lastly,
3. the talking bird."
This wasn't what anyone had expected. Not a swimming pool. Not a cinema. Not an olympic training ground. The water of beauty, an eternal-beauty-giving tree branch with flowers, and not “a” but “the” talking bird.
The siblings looked at each other. And at the old man. And at the crowd. And the sister said, “Where can we find all those?"
The old man smiled. Anyone would think these things grew on trees, his smile suggested it was so easy.
The old man smiled and then he explained. "Go to the mountain that is far off yonder, and you will find what you seek."
“Is that it?” asked one of the brothers.
“That's it,” said the old man. “Easy.”
“Easy,” said the sister with one eyebrow raised, because she didn't believe this was going to be easy at all, or everyone would be doing it. But the good things was, she and her sister and brothers were very, very good at hard work, at overcoming problems, at keeping going even when it felt it would be easier to give up. She knew they could do it. They all knew they could do it.
The old man shuffled off, pleased to have given his feedback and made a contribution to the wonderful palace. Now it would be really good. The siblings looked at each other and smiled.
“Righty-ho,” said the biggest sister. “I’ll head off then, and go and get these things.”
“But what if something bad happens to you?" asked the biggest brother. "How will we know that you’re in trouble?"
“Hang on,” said the younger sister. “Let’s ask the old man.”
So they ran after the old man and the younger brother asked the old man how they would know if anything horrible happened to his big sister on her quest.
The old man smiled. These were lovely siblings, he thought. They worked hard, cared for each other and thought ahead. They would surely do well.
The old man took a knife from his pocket and gave it to them, saying, “Look after this knife while your sister is on your quest. As long as the blade shines bright, she is alright. But if blood appears on it, then you will know that something baaaaad has happened.”
The siblings shivered a little bit because obviously, this was a little spooky. Then they all remembered their manners and said thank you, and went back to the palace to make a plan. Together, they put together everything they thought their biggest sister would need for her quest to find the water of beauty, the eternal-beauty-branch and the talking bird. They gave her a great big meal, hugged her goodbye and watched her head to the mountain far yonder.
She walked, and walked, and walked until she had gone a great way, and there she met a giant.
“Hello, giant,” she said very politely. “I’m trying to get to that mountain yonder. Can you tell me how much further it is?"
The giant looked all around him to see where this little voice came from.
“I’m down here!” she said. And the giant bent down.
“You’re tiny!” he said. "And why do you want to go to the mountain yonder?"
“I'm seeking the water of beauty, the talking bird, and a branch of the tree of beauty."
"Many have sought those treasures, but none has ever come back,” said the giant, in his best voice of doom. “And if you don’t listen very carefully to what I tell you, you will never come back either!”
The biggest sister opened her eyers very wide, and her ears even wider. She made her brain concentrate the hardest it had ever concentrated and she listened to the giant’s every word.
“Follow this path, and when you reach yonder mountain you will find it covered with stones. Do not stop to look at them - just keep on your way.
“As you pass, you will hear rude laughter behind you; it will be the stones being rude about you but ignore them! Whatever you do, do not turn round or look at them - because if you do, you will become one of them. Just keep walking til you get to the top, and then you can take everything you came for.”
“That sounds easy,” said the girl.
The giant just looked at her and said, “Everyone says it sounds easy. But no-one ever comes back.”
The girl nodded, very seriously. She knew already that some things sounded very easy to do, but when it came to doing them (like brushing your teeth before playing with your toys), it wasn’t as simple as it seemed.
The big sister thanked the giant for his advice and guidance and carried on walking. Eventually, sure enough, she reached the mountain and saw all the stones. Immediately, she lifted her eyes so she wasn’t looking at them. And as she walked on and upwards, she could hear what sounded like people laughing at her, saying rude things, jeering, scoffing, making fart-noises and muttering horribly. “Ignore them, ignore them, ignore them,” she told herself.
The stones said the most nasty, rude, horrible things and the jeering just got louder and louder. Finally, she got so cross that she bent down, picked up a stone to throw at them to shut them up - and - oh, no! That’s right. She turned into a stone.
The next morning, the remaining sister and two brothers checked to see how their sister was by looking at the knife. Oh, no! While before it had been shiny, now it was as red as blood. “I’ll go and find her,” said the biggest brother. And off he went.
He walked and walked ’til he also met the giant, who said, “Yes, I am afraid I warned your sister, but as she hasn't returned, I am afraid she couldn’t resist the taunting stones and must have been bewitched into one of them.”
“How can I remove the spell and find the water, the branch and the bird?” asked the biggest brother. The giant gave him the same advice he had given his sister:
“Follow this path, and when you reach yonder mountain you will find it covered with stones. Do not stop to look at them - just keep on your way. As you pass, you will hear rude laughter behind you; it will be the stones being rude but ignore them! Whatever you do, do not turn round - because if you do, you will turn into one of them. Just keep walking til you get to the top, and then, you can take everything you came for.” And he added, “Yes, it sounds easy…”
The young man set off, saying thanks to the giant, and sure enough, before too long, he reached the rude stones. They almost deafened him with their taunts and jeers. He reached the place that his sister had got to and then thought he could hear HER voice amongst the jeering! He looked down to see if he could see a stone that might be her - and - Uh-oh! Yes: looking at the stones turned him into one of them…
Back at home in the palace, the younger sister and younger brother were looking at the knife every few seconds to see how their big brother was getting on. And of course, one night, it went from shiny bright to horrible red. Oh no! The sister stood up. “My turn,” she said and handed the youngest brother the knife to look after.
She followed in her siblings’ footsteps and eventually met the giant. “Have you met my sister and brother?” And the giant told her everything that he told her siblings. She listened as hard as she could to the warning and off she went. She reached the stones and they were truly horrible. She reached where her sister and brother had been turned into stones and she turned to see them and - yep - she became a stone.
You wouldn’t want to be this last brother, would you? You’ve watched all your big siblings head bravely off and now you’re left all alone. They’ve maybe protected you all your life and now you have to go out there to the thing - whatever it is - that has taken them, and try to complete this insane quest. But you will. Because you love them and they love you. So off he went.
He walked, he met the giant, the giant warned him, he thanked the giant and he went on his way. He reached the stones. They screamed at him with all kinds of cruelties and nastiness. Every stone sounded alive. But he kept saying the giant’s words to himself again and again and stared ahead, walking onwards as fast as he could. The top of the mountain was getting closer and closer. Then he heard the voices of his sisters and brother but he STILL stared straight ahead at the mountain top and got past that spot as quickly as he could. At last, he reached the top. It was amazing.
He looked around. There, in front of him, was a pool of the water of life. He took a jug from his bag and filled it to the brim. By the side of the pool grew the tree of beauty, and the talking bird was perched on a branch. He took out a cage from his bag and the bird hopped in. A branch fell from the tree and he put it in with the bird.
It was easy, this bit; yes, this was the easy bit. He sat for a moment and then stood up to go home, sad and thoughtful. These things were great and would make the palace even more wonderful but he had lost all his family, and they had lost their lives in trying to get these objects. Was it really worth it?
He climbed down the mountain and because he was tired, he slipped a little and spilt a few drops of the water on the stones. As the water touched a few of the stones, they transformed from pebbles into young women and men, freed from the terrible spell! Aha - this is how he could free his sisters and brother! He gently sprinkled every single stone until not one was left—just a great parade of joyous people who followed him down the mountain. The family was reunited and had thousands of people to celebrate with.
When everyone reached the palace, the family planted the branch of the tree of beauty and they watered it with what they had left of the water of life. The branch transformed into a fully-grown tree, covered in flowers, and they took the talking bird out of the cage and it nestled in the branches.
The palace became even more famous, but not for its architecture or its church, but because here was a place where a family’s love turned to hard work, and the hard work turned into a palace that welcomed ideas, and the ideas turned into adventures that tested a family and grew their spirits, and their new-found strengths won a quest and the quest saved thousands of lives and changed everyone’s worlds forever.
And all because someone once said to the people he loved, “let’s build something together.”
And they all - all - lived happily ever after.
How did the family get their palace?
Do you think they should have listened to the people’s suggestions on how to improve the palace?
If people are rude to you and try to get your attention, what will you do?
Was it more important to own the magical objects, or to go through the experience of getting them?