Stories for Louise
The Necklace: A Xmas Story for Louise Hart, 1977
Once upon a time there was an island in the middle of the Ionian Sea. It was a small island, with lots of rocks and not many trees. The people of the island were poor: most of them were fishermen, but they also had gardens and kept a few goats. Their chief lived in a house at the centre of the village: it was bigger than everyone else’s, but it wasn’t very grand. He had a beautiful daughter called Annie. She did not have many friends because the other children were afraid of her father. Her constant companion was a dog called Old Cyril, who had been a part of her family since before she was born. Old Cyril was getting really old, but he was always fun to be with. Annie and he used to talk to each other and they still played together, running and dancing all over the island. Annie’s other friend was George, the son of a chief of another island nearby. She always looked forward to the times when George came with his father on visits to her house. Annie and George hoped to marry one day, but they had a problem.
Annie’s mother died soon after she was born; and, while she was dying she had asked Annie’s father to do something very strange. She had taken her favourite necklace off and gave it to him, saying “Husband, I will not be with you and our daughter long. Take this necklace and hide it under a stone somewhere on our island. Keep the hiding place a secret – never tell anyone where you hid it. One day it will be found and whoever finds it will marry Annie.” The chief was very upset, of course, but he promised his wife to do as she asked. Soon afterwards, she died and he hid the necklace under a stone far away from the village, during the night when no-one could see him. While Annie was growing up, her father used to tell her this story and she was puzzled by it. Why had her mother made him do that? More to the point, how would George ever find it? There were so many stones on the island! Sometimes the thought that no-one would ever find it made Annie cry.
Very few people ever came to the island, but, from time to time big ships sailed by pirates would call in at the village to demand fish, vegetables and milk. The pirates were foreigners and everyone was afraid of them. They had many ships and they never paid for the food that they took. The king of the pirates was very fond of Annie: he used to give her beautiful presents from faraway places. But she didn’t like him – he was a lot older than George and his body smelled of olive oil and perfume.
One day, when she was 14 years old, the pirate king came and asked her father if he could marry Annie. He brought fine cloth and gold ornaments as presents. But the chief refused, telling him of the promise he had made to his dead wife. “If you can find that necklace”, he said, “you can marry my daughter. But, if you don’t, I will ask my people to fight to the last drop of blood rather than give her to you.” The pirate king didn’t feel like fighting it out – who would fish for his sailors, if he killed all the fishermen? In any case, he had a plan. He thanked the chief for telling him about the necklace and said, “I will go away and fetch a thousand men. They will turn over every stone on this tiny island and, when they have found the necklace, I will claim your daughter’s hand.” With those words, he jumped aboard his ship and sailed away, back to the city of lakes and floating temples from which he had come.
When Annie heard of all this, she immediately sent a message to George. What were they to do? With all his people, the pirate king would be sure to find the necklace, whereas George would have to look for it on his own. He was only a boy and no-one would be foolish enough to help him on such a hopeless task. Annie was frightened and she asked her dog, Old Cyril, what they could do. “Don’t worry, dear,” said Old Cyril, “Your mother knew better than to leave you to suffer such a fate. Just make sure that George is here when the pirates come back.” Annie didn’t understand, but, sure enough, when the pirate king returned with all his men, she was able to send her servant to fetch George in a boat.
The next day the chief called a meeting in front of his house. When all the people of the village were there, he announced that he would give Annie to any man who found the necklace he had hidden 14 years ago. The pirate king came forward with all his men and said, “I will find the necklace.” Then the chief asked if anyone else wanted to try to find it. “I do”, said George and everyone laughed. How could a boy hope to compete with a thousand men? But Annie’s father was a fair man and he said, “Alright – you can look for the necklace too. I now declare the treasure hunt begun. May the best man win.” George didn’t think it was a very fair contest and he was sure that the pirate king was no better than he, when he didn’t have all those sailors to help him. But, as they all moved off turning over every stone, he too began to look in a half-hearted way – his chance seemed pretty hopeless.
Old Cyril, the dog, had been waiting for this day. He had been with Annie’s father when he hid the necklace long ago. The chief didn’t bother about Old Cyril because he thought he was just a dog. He didn’t know that the dog talked to Annie, just as he had talked to her mother when she was alive. Old Cyril had never forgotten the place and now he whispered to Annie to tell George to follow him. Off they went – the dog and the boy – far away from the village until they reached a small beach where there were lots of stones and pebbles. Old Cyril went straight for a pile of stones near the seashore and started digging around with his paws. Suddenly there it was – the necklace! It was beautiful – a silver necklace made with stones that shone green, black and blue in the light of the afternoon sun.
George was very excited – he took the necklace and ran all the way back to the village, waving it in the air as he passed the pirate king’s men who were still turning over stone after stone. When he reached the chief’s house, Annie’s father took the necklace and put it round her neck, saying “George, who found this necklace, will be your husband.” You can imagine how happy they were. The pirate king was furious. For a time he thought about burning down the village as a punishment, but then he calmed down a bit, took a few more goats and fish than usual and sailed away, back to the city of lakes and floating temples from which he had come.
The Story of a Tree Called Fred
Once upon a time, long ago, there lived a little boy and a little girl. Their names were George and Annie. They lived in a cave in the forest and they didn’t know many people. In fact their only friends were the animals and the trees – and not all of them were all that friendly. Some of the animals were big and dangerous, so George and Annie usually tried to keep out of their way. Some of the animals were plentiful and good to eat, so George would sometimes go out and catch one for their supper.
Annie’s best friends were the trees and her very best friend was a tree called Fred. You have to be smart to survive as a tree in the forest. He used to leave a sugary juice in his trunk near the ground. The ants would swarm around him to drink the juice, because it was sweet; and then, when the squirrels and rabbits came to eat his berries and strip the bark off his trunk, the ants would bite them and force them to run away. Annie didn’t eat the berries on Fred either, because they tasted bitter and she thought they might be poisonous. In any case, she liked nuts and fruits better.
Most of the time Annie grew her own vegetables on a little patch of ground near the cave. Fred gave her some of his dead twigs to build a fence round the vegetable patch – to keep off the squirrels and rabbits of course. The birds were a problem, but they were easily frightened away and Annie kept a cat who didn’t like birds and that seemed to do the trick. Annie was sorry that the birds didn’t often stay to talk with her, but she was glad that they didn’t eat her vegetables. And birds aren’t as intelligent as trees.
Life was pretty boring in the forest. George and Annie would light a fire at night and watch the flames make flickering patterns on the leafy branches of the trees outside their cave. They told each other stories and, when the wind was blowing hard, Fred the tree would sing a song to cheer them up – wooooh, wooooh. There wasn’t much to do: George sometimes painted pictures of animals on the walls of their cave; and Annie liked to play a flute, which she had carved from a piece of wood.
One day something exciting happened. George and Annie heard the trees whispering to each other and the birds sang louder than usual. The squirrels and the rabbits ran into their holes and disappeared. The whole forest was disturbed. Fred the tree was very tall and he could see further than George and Annie. Suddenly he cried out – “There’s somebody coming!” George and Annie were frightened, so they climbed up high into Fred’s branches where they could hide and wait to see who was coming. Before long the sound of cracking twigs grew louder and with a CRASH a man came stumbling into the clearing outside the cave. He was big and hairy: he wore a huge bearskin coat, a helmet with cows horns on it and shoes made from squirrel skins. He carried a stick and a sword: he looked terribly fierce and, even from where they were sitting, they could smell his breath, which was just awful. George and Annie were terrified. What could they do?
They had left their lunch cooking on the fire. When the man saw the pot bubbling on the fire outside the cave, he stopped and called out: “Anybody home?” George and Annie kept quiet. The man sat down; he soon grew tired of waiting and decided to eat their lunch, slurping the soup and meat down his throat without taking it out of the pan. Apparently this filled him up and he fell asleep next to the fire, snoring loudly. George and Annie thought about trying to capture him while he was asleep, but what if he woke up? They were so small and he was so big. Fred had a better idea.
Do you remember the sugar juice which he kept at the bottom of his trunk for the ants? The time of the year was just right for the juice to be oozing out of the bark. Fred told George and Annie to creep into the cave and fetch a large jar. Since the strange man was still fast asleep, they were able to slip in and out without waking him up. Then Fred told them to collect some of his juice and drip it out on the ground, making a trail all the way to the sleeping man. Finally they poured what was left in the jar over his legs and ran back to hide up in the tree.
What do you think happened next? The ants, who were always ready to drink more of the juice, followed the trail left by George and Annie until they arrived at the sleeping man. Then they swarmed all over his legs and underneath his coat. They bit him, like they bit the squirrels and rabbits when they came to eat Fred’s bark. He woke up with a scream, beating himself to try to get the ants off him. And then, with a great roar, he ran off into the forest until they could hear him no more. He was gone.
When they were sure they were safe, George and Annie climbed down out of Fred, thankful that they had been rescued by their wise tree friend. As I said before, you’ve got to be smart to survive as a tree in the forest. So, the next time you go out in the garden, why don’t you make friends with the trees? One of them, like Fred, might be able to do you a good turn some day.
28 November 1977