ONCE UPON A TIME:
Once upon a time there was a village by a river which flowed through a valley just south of the forest where Snow White’s dwarfs lived. This is not, however, a story about the dwarfs.
Well, perhaps it is, but indirectly. You see those dwarfs were miners, and for years they had pulled beautiful rubies and emeralds from the hills that overlooked their forest. As the village mentioned earlier was the closest habitation to them, the dwarfs would bring their treasures to the village for trade. A prosperous business of trading gemstones boomed in the village, and prosperity reigned.
However, as must always happen eventually, the mine ran out of gemstones, and the dwarfs found that there was much less interest in a trade in limestone and basalt. So, virtually overnight, the economy of the village fell apart.
As most people would be who had gone from abundance to poverty, the people of the village were sad. Saddest of all, however was a jewel merchant named Portwilly. Portwilly had only just opened a shop in the village the year before. His wife had died in childbirth the previous month, leaving a set of newborn triplets that he had virtually no way to feed. He did have gout as well, which also made him sad, but it was mostly the poverty and near starvation of his family which led to his melancholy.
Now in addition to the three triplets, Portwilly had a son and a daughter, both about fifteen years old. Porthos, the son, was a slight young lad, but keen-eyed and sharp-witted. Portia, the daughter, was as hale and hearty as a nearly starving girl could be, and could out-race any of the boys in the village. These two young people approached their father after supper one night.
“Father,” said Porthos, “we have decided that a single snow pea cut six ways really cannot be considered to be a supper. We would like your permission to go and see the world and see if we may make our fortunes there.”
“Father,” said Portia, “with your permission we will leave in the morning. Then tomorrow night, you will only have to share the green bean you’ve been saving with the triplets.”
Now, as has been said, Portwilly was a man of virtually no means, but he insisted on presenting his brave an resourceful children with at least something to take on their journey. To Porthos, he gave a shovel. To Portia, he gave a ball of twine. Now it should be mentioned that in stories such as this gifts given by a parent to children undertaking a journey will generally turn out to be magical in one way or another. This may well turn out to be the case later in the story, but if it is, it should be noted that Portwilly had no knowledge of this whatsoever. This is important in case any of you were wondering why the old man did not simply sell the magical items at a considerable profit.
And so, morning came, and P0rthos and Portia left their home and family behind.
Where did they go, you ask?
Chosen: They went to the village library to ask the strange librarian there what way they should take to leave the town.
It was Porthos who came up with the idea first. “Portia,” said he, “it is all well and fine to wander about and seek our fortunes, but methinks we should have better success if we first decide where we will go. Let us then go to the wisest person we know, the librarian. She may tell us what path we might take which gives us the best chance to find our fortunes. What do you say?”
“I say,” replied his sister, “that you have had a crush on the librarian for years, and I am not surprised that you want to see her once again. I have no objection, brother, but why not go seek the wise-woman who lives in the cave?”
“Because, dear sister, I must question the wisdom of any person who chooses to live in a cave. If she knew where to find our fortunes, why would she not have found at least enough for herself to buy a proper house?”
Portia agreed, and the two went to the library. Now this was not a library like you or I might know. Books were too valuable to let people take home for weeks at a time for no payment. Instead, this was a repository where the books were kept and could be perused by those who could afford to look at them.
They knocked at the door, and the librarian, a pretty little woman with apple cheeks, smiled at them, particularly at Porthos. It was perhaps for that reason that Portia spoke first.
“Good librarian, we are leaving this town to go and seek our fortunes. With all the books you have read, you must know many things. Can you tell us where we may go and have the best chance to find them?”
This brought a frown to the face of the librarian. “You go to seek your fortune? And naught between you but a shovel and that ball of twine? One thing I have certainly read is that the roads are dangerous. You two could not survive such a journey. Come inside, dear ones. There are journeys to be found inside the cover of a book which you may safely pass through.”
Porthos was sore tempted , but instead he said, “Alas, good lady, would that we could. However, such journeys will bring us no fortune to bring home to our starving father.”
“And three starving babies,” Portia pointed out.
“Do not be so sure,” said the librarian. “There are books, and then there are books.” So she took them to a back room in her library.
And what do you suppose happened there?
Chosen: She showed them a magical atlas which would take them to any place where they wished to go.
The librarian locked the door of the back room behind them and then pulled from the shelf a book so large it nearly dwarfed her. With a thud, the book was on the table, and it opened to a page in the middle. The colors were so lush and verdant that Porthos and Portia thought they might step straight through and be in the beautiful meadow on the page.
“I can smell the grass,” Portia said in wonder.
“We all can,” said the librarian. “Were you to reach through the picture, you could feel it too. You could even step straight through and be in this beautiful meadow.”
“I thought as much,” said Porthos.
“That is the magic of this atlas. Step through it, and you shall be where it shows you.” She gave them a long look. “Now all you two must determine is where you shall go and how you shall get back.”
It was late in the morning before they had made their decisions, but they were wise ones indeed. With no beanstalks, the atlas was the only way left to get to the cloud kingdom where a boy named Jack had made such a name for himself. Surely there was some treasure left there. And as for getting back, Portia tied the end of her twine to the leg of the table on which the atlas sat.
Walking on clouds is not an experience which can be related in the written word, but Porthos did not enjoy it nearly as much as his sister. They traveled miles and miles as they made their way to the dead giant’s castle, but the thread never ran out.
When they knocked at the door, the giant’s widow looked out with a smile, for she was quite lonely. “Ah, you have come seeking your fortunes? Well, my mother taught me I should never give to a beggar, but I will hire you to do a job for me. Go and turn the earth in my garden before nightfall, and I shall give you each a gold coin.”
Now her garden was a dozen acres in each direction, and if two gold coins does not seem like much pay for that work, it might help you to know that the coins were each the size of tabletops.
Porthos took his shovel and thrust it into the clouds. Perhaps his shovel was magic, or perhaps digging in clouds is a very easy, but for every time he thrust his shovel down, half an acre of cloud would turn over. Soon his work was done, and the giant’s widow was as good as her word.
She begged them to return often and visit, and they said they would. It was a hard job rolling the coins back to their home as they followed the twine back. Still they were motivated.
When they returned, they gave one of the coins to the librarian, and returned home to their father and baby siblings. Wealth is not the same as happiness, but from that day forward they had both.