Once upon a time there was a child who, being a child, simply didn’t know what to make of himself. “Look,” said his mother. “I brought the sun out for you. Go out and play.”
“With the sun?”
“Why not with the sun?”
“Yes, child. Yes, dearest.”
“Am I the only child in the world?”
“Don’t be angry.”
“I’m not angry. But … honestly, the way you talk sometimes!”
The child went outside. The sun was out, as his mother had said, but there were clouds in the sky too, sullen clouds, angry clouds; the sun had better look out if it didn’t want to get eaten. One cloud, in fact, and by no means the biggest, had already bitten into a small corner of it, and others were crowding round with not very kind intent. The child shut his eyes as tightly as he could. He clenched his lips and his little fists. Such strength as he had he would gladly give to the sun, but it was no use. He opened his eyes to find it gone, swallowed.
‘You there!” cried the old man. “Come out of there! Come out I say! What are you doing here?”
The child made no answer. It was raining, a slow, steady drizzle, and he was quite wet. His hair, long, thick and black, was soaked. His clothes clung to his skin. He had evidently been out in the rain a long time. Seeing an open shed, he had made for it, but the old man had spotted him and was furious at being trespassed upon. “Are you a deaf-mute, or what? Answer me!”
Still the child remained silent, and yet it was not terror that stopped his tongue, that much was clear. He regarded the old man with mild curiosity, and the slight smile playing about his lips suggested he found him amusing rather than frightening. Even when the old man, his aged face twisted with rage, raised a hand as though to strike him, the child did not shrink and seemed quite oblivious to the danger he was in. The old man’s hand dropped. “Who are you?” he asked, his anger giving way to a kind of wounded bewilderment.
“It’s raining,” was the child’s reply.
“Yes. Yes, it is,” said the old man.
“You must be very old,” said the child.
“Yes indeed. Very old indeed. Tell me who you are and where you come from.”
“I’m a child,” said the child.
“What’s your name?”
“I don’t know.”
“You don’t know?”
“I haven’t given myself a name yet.”
“See here, my boy, if you … “
“What business is that of mine?”
“You can starve to death for all I care! Is that clear enough for you?”
“What are you doing here? Where do you come from? Answer me!”
“I come from heaven, my mummy says.”
“Well that’s where you can go back to.”
The rain was heavier now. The man turned towards the house. The child followed.
“Do you live here all alone?”
“Yes, alone. Of course, alone.”
There was a crack of thunder.
“Could I have a hot bath, do you think? I’m very wet.”
There was no help for it. You can’t send a child out into a storm like that, with night coming on. “A hot bath. His little highness wants a hot bath. His diminutive majesty desires to bathe.” Grumbling, the old man went off to prepare the bath, while the child, as though quite at home, went into the kitchen and opened the refrigerator.
“You don’t speak the accent of these parts,” said the old man. The child, bathed and refreshed, his appetite for the moment sated, looked quite comical in a white shirt of the old man’s, which hung down past his knees and was belted at the waist by one of the old man’s neck ties, but it was the best that could be done under the circumstances and the child was quite content.
“Will you teach it to me?”
“What, the accent? Yes, if you want me to, though I think yours is nicer. Where do you come from?”
“From the village.”
“The village. My daddy’s the mayor.”
“Is he, now! If you’re the mayor’s son you must know the name of the village! Or maybe” — he guffawed, his laugh scarcely distinguishable from coughing — “maybe you haven’t given it one yet! Eh?”
“Am I the only child in the world?”
“Are you the … ” The old man gaped at the child. He shook his head. “One doesn’t know quite how to take you! Do you know — this thought occurs to me now: Maybe it’s not just your accent that’s different, maybe your language is too, and though we seem to understand each other we don’t really, and words that sound the same actually have completely different meanings in your village and in mine. What do you think now, eh? Is that possible?”
“Once upon a time there was a child, and he was the only child in the world.”
“I made it up. Is this a village?”
“Of course it’s a village. What else would it be?”
“Are there any children in it?”
“How would I know? I tend my garden and mind my business. Let other people mind theirs.”
“There are no children in my village. They had to close the school.”
“That’s too bad.”
“Sleepy, are you? Well, I guess you would be, after your long journey. But where can we put you? There’s only one bed, mine. That’s always been enough. Suddenly it isn’t. Hm. Listen, won’t your people come looking for you? They’ll call the police and there’ll be no end of bother! All right, all right, here’s what we’ll do. Come. Aaagh, what a nuisance!”
From a cupboard in the hall the old man took down some bath towels, which he carried to a corner of the kitchen and arranged as best he could into a kind of bed. “Will this do? I’m sure your little highness is used to better, but … here, you can use this towel as a pillow, and this one as a blanket. First thing tomorrow we’ll have to … ” He broke off; the child was already sound asleep.
Dusk deepened slowly into night. The child slept on, but it was otherwise with the old man. For the first time ever there was an alien presence in his house, and though that presence was a mere child, sound asleep in another room and therefore invisible to him, his solitude had been invaded; he felt it; it disturbed him and kept him awake. The driving rain of a few hours before had eased; its pounding on the roof was less urgent, almost musical; he might have enjoyed it, perhaps, under other circumstances. “What do I have to do with children? And such a strange child! ‘Am I the only child in the world?’ How old would he be, I wonder? Five? Six? He’s missing a front tooth. Imagine, a little mite of six wandering off all by himself … his parents will be frantic! His father the mayor of the village!” He tensed suddenly. An unfamiliar noise — police sirens? He imagined police cars converging on his house in force, lights flashing, sirens blaring … They’d snatch the child and arrest him, the old man, as a child thief; they’d throw him in prison and laugh as he protested his innocence! “How can you be innocent?” they’d say. “You’ve been arrested, haven’t you?”
Should he contact the police himself? Maybe that was the thing to do. He’d report that a child had turned up in his shed in the storm, that he’d fed the child and sheltered him out of pity, that he didn’t know who he was, and so on. That way there’d be no concealment, or apparent concealment; there’d be nothing to suspect him of, and the child would be returned immediately and safely — the sooner the better — to his people, to his worship the mayor of whatever village it was, and that would be that. Yes, that was the thing to do, that was the wisest course.
What time would it be? There were no watches or clocks in the house; no calendar either. What need had he of them? The sun told him everything he needed to know — when to sleep, when to rise, when to plant his seeds, when to harvest. The nights he slept through, so the question of whether it was 2 o’clock in the morning or 4 o’clock never arose. Still, the outside world, he knew, ran on clock time; in dealing with it you needed to know what day and hour and minute of what month and year it was.
Besides, it was raining. He had no telephone of course, nor an umbrella, and to show up drenched and bedraggled at the police station in the dead of night … wouldn’t that in itself be suspicious? He wasn’t even sure where the police station was.
The child woke to bright sunshine streaming in through a small window. He squinted and rubbed his eyes. Such a bright sun he had never seen; it didn’t shine like this in his village. “Maybe in the next village it will be even brighter,” he thought. He flung off the towel that covered him and sprang to his feet. “En garde!” With his mother he’d been reading a child’s version of “The Three Musketeers,” and he had learned the French phrase. Unsheathing an imaginary sword, he leapt to the attack, but the ungainly attire he still wore — he’d fallen asleep without undressing — hampered his movements, and looked funny besides. He laughed. What had the old man done with his clothes? They should be dry by now — but no, there they lay in a heap on the floor, hardly less wet than when he’d taken them off. He gathered them up and went outside. That sun would dry them in no time. Its brightness was still painful. His mother had told him about places far, far away where the sun was so hot you couldn’t stand it unless you were born and grew up there. Could this be one of those places? Could he have come as far as that? Near the shed he’d been about to crawl into yesterday stood a giant tree with numerous branches. At home it would have been called an oak tree, but this one, though as large as an oak, was somehow different, he was not sure exactly how. Standing on tiptoes and stretching to the very limit of his strength, he managed, just barely, to reach the lowest branch, and to hang his clothes on it.
Were there any children about? Venturing forth, he looked around him as best he could. Even with eyes half shut he could not raise them much above ground level. His impression was of a village rather larger than his own. There were houses, stores and other buildings. They cast large shadows. They must be very tall. Retreating to the shade of the giant tree, he opened his eyes wide, but everything he saw seemed somehow mysterious and beyond his comprehension. He had been right about the buildings, they were very tall, almost frighteningly so. His mother had told him the story of Don Quixote battling the windmills; now he imagined himself, dressed no less comically than Don Quixote, charging the buildings as if they were giants. They were giants — but even odder than their size was the fact that there was not a soul in sight. His own village at this hour would be bustling with people going about their business. “Maybe the people here are invisible,” he thought. He imagined the buildings, sidewalks and roads, deserted to his sun-dazzled eyes, swarming with invisible people — could they see him? Maybe they could, and were crowding around him, demanding to know who he was and what he was doing there, growing angry at his failure to answer, perhaps shouting at him and preparing to beat him. “I can’t hear you!” he cried. Did they believe him? He waited, tensed against an assault that did not come — or maybe it had come; “maybe they’re beating me now, only I can’t feel it. En garde!” he shouted, and laughed. “If people here were invisible, then that funny old man would be too, wouldn’t he?”
He was hungry, and wandered back to the house. In the garden he came upon the old man, digging a hole with a shovel.
“Are you burying somebody?” asked the child.
“I’ll bury you,” grumbled the old man. He had not slept all night and was bedraggled, disheveled and irritable.
Paying no attention, the old man dumped the contents of a paper bag into the hole and began covering it up.
“What’s that?” the child asked.
“What are you burying fish bones for?”
“To make a fish tree.”
“From apple seeds come apple trees. From pear seeds come pear trees. From fish bones come fish trees.”
“You’re joking, right?”
“Do I look like I’m joking?”
“Is that a fish tree?” asked the child, pointing to the giant tree by the shed.
“I’m in no mood for joking. We have to get you back to your people. Today. Now. I can’t be responsible for you. I’m too old, and you’re too …”
“Too young — yes, too young!” he exploded, as though the child had said something intolerably provoking. “What did you come to me for? Why to me, of all the people in the world? Eh? Well? Answer!”
Not at all frightened or disconcerted, the child replied calmly, “I didn’t come to you. I just came.”
“Well, now you can just go. I wash my hands of you. Go! Get off my property!”
“Can I have something to eat first?”
The child shrugged and sauntered off. The old man watched in silence as the child turned into the main road and grew smaller and smaller. Soon he was lost to view altogether.
The old man picked up his shovel as though to resume his digging, but instead stood lost in thought, staring vacantly in front of him, not even noticing when the shovel fell from his hands and landed on the ground with a thud. After a time he roused himself. Leaving the shovel where it lay he made his way to the shed he’d caught the child creeping into. He was stooping to go inside when he noticed, hanging from the lowest branch and swaying rather wildly in the stiffening breeze, the child’s clothes. He paused in bewilderment. Had the child forgotten them? Left them there on purpose? Surely he wouldn’t go far dressed as he was, in that white shirt hanging down to his knees and belted with a tie? What kind of bizarre child was he, anyway? “Am I the only child in the world?” “Mummy said I come from heaven.” No, that was no ordinary child. “And I chased him away, I let him go off alone and hungry; he’ll die on the road, or be murdered, and here are his clothes, on my property, with my fingerprints all over them, evidence … evidence of what? Well, evidence. Evidence is evidence! Should I burn them? What good will that do? He’s wearing my shirt, confound him!”
As day followed day and nothing happened, the old man began to wonder if the child had been a figment of his imagination. “Living alone like this unhinges a man, you get to the point where you can’t tell fantasy from reality …” There were the clothes, of course — “why didn’t I burn them? I will burn them.” But he couldn’t bring himself to do it, or even to approach the shed where he had tossed them after taking them down from the tree. Had he in fact tossed them there? Did they exist? He could settle the question once and for all by simply going to the shed and glancing inside. Either they were there or they were not. If they were, the child was real; if not, he was not. But a kind of terror seized him at the thought of pursuing the matter. He could not account for it. He was prey lately to all sorts of vague terrors. In his younger days he’d been afraid of nothing, had hardly known what fear was. Now he was afraid of everything.
“Well, I’ll just forget it,” he decided. “He’s nothing to me. I wash my hands of him. What do I care if he’s real or not?”
The villagers all gathered in the square to greet their returning mayor. His tour abroad had been a triumph, and he was feted accordingly. The contracts he had secured would assure prosperity for generations to come. As the chairman of the welcoming committee put it in his speech, “You, sir, have put our village on the map!”
Fresh from the festivities, the mayor went home and got a surprise. His child had left home and had been missing for a day and a half before being found on a remote road and brought back.
“He imagined,” said his wife, “that he’s the only child in the world, and set off to look for other children.”
“It’s those stories you’re always telling him.”
“Fairy tales, fantasies.”
“Is it wrong to tell a child fairy tales?”
“Well, you see what they do to him! He’s lost all sense of reality!”
“Reality, my dear, is not what you think it is.”
“Not what I think it is! What is it, then?”
“A child’s reality is different, but no less real.”
“Why grow up then? Why not remain children forever?”
“It would be best, if it were possible.”
“But it’s not possible! That’s the point!” The mayor grew thoughtful. “Anyway, he’ll start school in April. He’ll get some of the nonsense knocked out of him there, I’m sure.”
“You shouldn’t have closed our school.”
“I shouldn’t have! Is it my fault? Didn’t I do everything in my power to save it? It’s not a fairy tale world, my dear. There are economic realities, political realities, demographic realities. You can’t wish them away! When people have fewer children, enrollment falls; when enrollment falls, schools close. I think under the circumstances I made the best arrangements possible. Our local children will be bussed to the school in the next village — a perfectly good school, I know the headmaster personally.”
“You know everybody personally.”
“Once upon a time parents disciplined their children. Now we leave it up to the schools.”
“There’s a man he met who put him up for the night. He gave him food and dry clothes — rather strange clothes” — she could not help smiling at the thought. “We must go and thank him.”
“Hm. Is the bath ready?” Judging from where the boy was found, the man would not have been a local voter. The mayor’s consequent lack of interest in him was instinctive rather than calculated, and his wife by now understood this well enough to sigh where once she might have remonstrated. “Foreign countries,” said the mayor, “are all very well, but when it comes to bathing, we could teach them a thing or two, I think! Yes indeed!”
“There is no such thing, my little man, as a fish tree.”
“There is!” the child insisted hotly. “I saw it.”
Usually it was his mother who put him to bed, and he was a little surprised to see his father stride into the room instead. “Isn’t mummy going to tell me a story?”
“I thought,” said the mayor, “that you and I would have a little talk. About ‘fish trees,’ about ‘the only child in the world’ … You see, my boy, you’ll be starting school soon, and it’s time you learned that some things are real and some things are not. And those things that are not you must put out of your mind. Because in school, you see — “
“The fish tree is real! The old man grows fish trees with fish bones. There was this tree, this huge tree; I said, ‘What kind of tree is it?’ and he said” — deepening his voice to a comic imitation of geriatric hoarseness — ‘It’s a fish tree, my little man.’ “
The mayor smiled. “Did he really say, ‘My little man’? “
The child reddened. That was his father’s pet name for him, and he’d stupidly put it in the old man’s mouth. His father would think he was making it up. How would he ever convince him now?
“And what’s this about being the only child in the world? Eh?”
The child lowered his eyes and said nothing.
“There are children all over the place. I can name every child in this village. Can you?”
The mayor waited. Still the child did not speak.
“I thought not. How do you think it looks to my constituents when my own child refuses to play with other children? Eh?”
“All of them?” But the mayor hesitated to insist. It was true. They certainly were less bright than his “little man.” Some day the boy would learn that intelligence imposed a responsibility, a destiny. He must serve mankind, not withdraw from it into a world of fantasy. But that was a subject for another time.
“You’re sleepy now.” The mayor stood up. “You think over what I’ve said. We’ll talk again in the morning. Or rather … no, first thing tomorrow morning I’m giving a speech at the Chamber of Commerce.” He bent down and kissed the boy lightly on the forehead. “Goodnight, little man. Oh, and see here. No more wandering off like that, eh? — without a word to your mother, leaving her to worry. Understood?”
All this, of course, happened a very long time ago. The mayor was returned to office again and again; he died in office and his son took over; the son governs to this day and is himself getting on in years; he has hinted more than once at retirement, but the people will not hear of it; they gather in the streets in such numbers to demand he carry on that he yields, fearing chaos if he does not. These are unstable times. The village became a town under his father’s government, and a city under his; many of the surrounding villages have been incorporated into it. The mayor’s mother is still alive. She is very old but still hale and healthy. Rather than move in with the mayor and his family, as he has repeatedly urged her to do, she insists on living alone and independently. Rumor has it that she is not as proud of her son as his achievements and his popular adulation would entitle her to be; there are those who say she nurses a secret sorrow at seeing the boy take so thoroughly after his father. But people will say anything about public figures who capture their imagination. They will say anything about anything. The mayor in fact has spoken of legislation to make the utterance of falsehood a punishable criminal offense. He says only enemies of truth would oppose him. His opponents argue that you can’t kill falsehood without killing truth, to which the mayor retorts, “That’s just a fish tree.” Few recall any more where the expression comes from, though everyone among us immediately understands it to mean patent nonsense. The opponents, few in number, are soon drowned out by popular clamor. This is a measure of the mayor’s gifts. All he has to do is speak and his words carry the day — not so much his words as his voice. If he does retire, or — God forbid — dies, who could possibly replace him?
Michael Hoffman’s latest novel, just out, is “The Naked Ear” (VBW / Blackcover Books, 2012).