The Basket Weaver’s Tale
by Gilli Fryzer
Long ago, in the days when there were still fish in the oceans and cars on the roads, there lived a woman in a certain land who was not afraid of governments. In fact, she was not afraid of anyone, or anything. And why should she be? Her family had always governed the country, generation after generation, and eventually she in turn became its queen. She was not afraid to rule; having never fallen into bed weak from hunger, or exhausted after a long day’s toil, she imagined that her people needed only wise governance to ensure their continued contentment. As for herself? Why, she wanted for nothing – or so she thought – and was therefore the most contented of all.
The woman dwelt in a fabulous palace of marble and gold, set, like a magnificent jewel, right in the heart of the greatest city in the land. This enormous palace held more velvet sofas than she could recline on in a month, more feather beds than she could sleep on in a year, and more gilded mirrors than she could gaze on in a lifetime, were she to admire herself each day from dawn until dusk. Its storerooms were filled with diamonds, furs and silks of every description, its kitchens overflowed with the best of meat and drink, and its marble corridors hummed all day long with servants and ministers bustling about the affairs of state. Her days were her own, to do with as she saw fit, and her nights were peaceful, untroubled by worry.
Few in living memory had ever seen inside the palace, for great iron gates guarded its entrance, and passers-by rarely stopped to peer through the bars at its elegant halls, or gaze across all that could be seen of its emerald lawns. Most people in the kingdom were too busy working to dream of indulging in such impertinence. Skilled plantsmen toiled night and day in the palace glasshouses to tend the royal collection of exotic blooms, while the breeze within the royal garden was perfumed by such an abundance of lilies and roses that it seemed the gardeners must use sorcery to conquer the seasons. Not a leaf, not a single petal, was permitted to fall to the ground, for fear that it would spoil the garden’s perfection, yet no-one apart from the woman ever enjoyed its beauty, since the garden was protected from the noise and dirt of the city by the highest of high brick walls.
It so happened that in this garden there grew an ancient tree that no longer bore leaf nor flower, yet its mighty boughs still cast the coolest of shadows across the lawns, and protected the woman from the heat of the strongest sun. Some said that long ago the people of the land had planted a sapling inside the royal gates as a symbol of gratitude for the peace and prosperity that they all enjoyed. But with each century that passed, the family became more powerful, the wall rose higher and the people grew more troubled, until the memory of happier times became the stuff of nursery tales. Now, in this age of cars and aeroplanes, the neglected trunk towered unnoticed over the garden. Certainly no one inside the palace paid the tree any attention, or cared that it had stretched ever closer to the outside world, and now cast its cool shade over the high brick wall and onto the dusty ground on the other side.
Early one morning the woman was walking in her garden when she happened to pass along a gravel path that wound its way underneath the crooked branches of the old tree. To her surprise she noticed that a boy with hair as dark as a raven’s wing sat outside the palace gates, plaiting grass from a basket at his feet.
He looked up at the woman with eyes as pale as the new day’s dawn.
‘Young man,’ said the woman. ‘You are not from around here. What are you doing?’
‘I am about to weave a basket in the shade of this tree,’ the boy replied.
‘The tree is a royal tree, and its shade belongs to me. Be off with you – you have no right to sit there.’
The basket weaver scratched his head.
‘Madam,’ he answered, ‘your government pays scant heed to me, but the shadow of your tree makes this a pleasant spot to work. Allow me to share your shade, I beg, and in return I will show you what you covet most, be it valued least of all your possessions.’
‘Nonsense,’ exclaimed the woman. ‘I already possess everything that anyone could possibly desire. What need have I for your foolishness?’
But even as she spoke, the woman felt uneasy. Perhaps this strange boy uttered more than riddles. Could it possibly be that, despite all her wealth and power, there was something still more precious that she lacked? What on earth was it, and where in the world could it be found?
‘Allow me only the dust that lies under this tree,’ replied the boy, ‘and next time we meet, you will see it.’
‘Hey ho,’ shrugged the woman. ‘Dust costs me nothing. You may take whatever lies beneath.’
Once the woman had walked on, the boy shook a seed from the basket of dried grasses and pushed it into the dirt with his toes.
The woman slept uneasily that night. The following day, she despatched her three cleverest ministers north, south, east and west around the world to discover what it was that she had yet to possess. These eminent advisers purchased machines that could do the work of a thousand men, hired armies of robots that required no rest, and ordered new systems to measure productivity so that the royal coffers could be filled more efficiently than ever before. The government ministers returned to the palace certain that their clever investment in such wonderful technology would mean that their mistress at last possessed all that her heart could desire.
One day at noon the woman went for a stroll in the palace gardens, and found herself again upon the winding gravel path that led past the old tree. To her astonishment, she saw that its gnarled branches were thick with glossy leaves, and that a single ear of grass now trembled in in the gentle breeze that stirred the dust beyond the gate. In the shade of the overhanging tree sat the boy with hair as dark as a raven’s wing. He looked up at the woman with eyes as bright as the midday skies.
‘Young man,’ said the woman, ‘What are you doing?’
‘I am weaving the base of a basket,’ he replied.
‘You promised to show me what I covet most,’ she said, ‘ but I see nothing. Be off with you.’
The basket weaver scratched his head.
‘It is true your ministers would prefer to master me,’ he said, ‘but my freedom has produced this single stalk. Have I not created something beautiful?’
‘Beauty can be found in the four corners of the world,’ replied the woman. ‘What need have I of such small gifts as this? Show me instead my heart’s desire.’
‘Allow me only the air that moves through these branches,’ said the boy, ‘and next time we meet, you will see it.’
‘Hey ho,’ shrugged the woman. ‘The air costs me nothing. You may keep whatever moves.’
When the woman had walked on, the boy brushed his fingers against the ear of grass, and watched as the wind winnowed its grains.
The woman slept fitfully that night. The next day she despatched her three greatest scientists north, south, east and west around the world to unearth the secret of its beauty. The scientists watched as the smallest beetles were crushed to enhance a regal blush, and mountains were blown apart for the dust that would paint a complexion with captured light; they stood by as children mined mica to make the royal eyelids glimmer like morning dew on an unfurling leaf. Finally, the scientists returned to the palace, certain that such wonderful discoveries would make their mistress forever the most beautiful woman in the land.
And so there came another day when the woman strolled across the palace lawns and followed the winding gravel path towards the old tree. To her amazement, she saw that its boughs were heavy with blossom, while a carpet of green now softened the barren earth beyond the palace wall. In the shadow of the old tree sat the boy with hair as dark as a raven’s wing. He looked up at her with eyes as sombre as a clouded afternoon.
‘Young man,’ she said. ‘What are you doing?’
‘I am weaving the sides of a basket,’ he replied.
‘You promised to show me what I covet most,’ she said, ‘but still I see nothing. Be off with you now.’
The basket weaver scratched his head.
‘It is true that your scientists disguise my handiwork,’ he said, ‘but look how one small blade has become many. They are young, but they will multiply.’
‘Youth can be brought from the four corners of the world,’ replied the woman. ‘What need have I of childish tricks? Keep your promise. Show me instead my heart’s desire.’
‘Allow me only the light that falls through these leaves,’ said the boy, ‘and next time we meet, you will certainly see it.’
‘Hey ho,’ shrugged the woman. ‘The light costs me nothing. You may take whatever falls.’
When the woman had walked on the boy tapped the leaves, and motes of sunlight danced at his feet.
That night the woman tossed and turned under her silken sheets. The next day she dispatched her three bravest explorers north, south, east and west around the world to capture the secret of youth. The explorers climbed the highest peaks to dig up sweet-scented saxifrage and alpine moss, trawled the oceans for barrels of plankton oil and baskets of opalescent pearls, and hacked through rainforests to capture nuts and seeds, all to make the finest face creams and unguents that had ever been prepared. Finally, the explorers returned to the palace with the new potions, certain that they had unearthed all that was left of any value in the wide, wild world. Surely, they congratulated themselves; surely the queen must now possess nothing less than the key to eternal youth.
Late one day, the woman set out for her usual stroll in the palace gardens, and happened upon the little gravel path that wound down towards the ancient tree. To her consternation, she saw that heaps of wilted blossom now lay scattered across the lawn. Beyond the palace gates, millions of ripened grass heads rolled like a golden tide in the setting sun, while the boy with hair as dark as a raven’s wing still sat in the dust under the tree, and his fingers flashed as he worked. He looked up at the woman with eyes as shadowed as the evening hills.
‘Young man,’ she said. ‘What are you doing?’
‘I am weaving the rim of a basket,’ he replied.
‘You promised to show me what I covet most,’ she said, ‘ but there is nothing to see. Be off with you at last.’
The basket weaver scratched his head.
‘It is true that your explorers sought to defeat me,’ he replied. ‘But see what I can provide; see how my harvest can nourish all.’
‘The finest food is sourced from the four corners of the world,’ replied the woman. ‘What need have I of simple harvests such as yours? Show me instead my heart’s desire.’
‘Allow me to finish my basket,’ said the boy, ‘and when we meet next, what you seek will lie within.’
‘Hey ho,’ shrugged the woman. ‘To wait costs me nothing. You may finish what you started.’
Once the woman had walked away, the boy plaited grass after grass into the rim of the basket. Even as the light faded he worked on, twisting the basket from time to time so that its pattern of stars span like tiny galaxies around his nimble fingers.
That night the woman moved from bed to bed around the palace but she could not fall asleep in any of them. The next day she ordered the three most talented chefs in the land to travel north, south, east and west around the world to find its scarcest and most valuable foods. Each chef sought to outperform the next; one plucked rare berries from rainforest and swamp, yet another trekked across mountain grasslands to harvest fungi from caterpillars, while a third trapped bees in their hives and brushed golden grains of pollen from each tiny leg. Eventually, the trio of chefs returned to the palace with dishes so vibrant and concoctions so powerful that it was rumoured they had captured the elixir of life itself, and cooked it for the queen.
A few nights later still a great wind whipped up, and the darkest of tempests stormed across the land. The woman huddled beneath the covers of feather bed number three hundred and sixty-six, but she couldn’t sleep a wink for the rain that knocked against the palace windows like hundreds of weary hands demanding access, and the gale that howled along the corridors like thousands of hungry voices calling for justice, and which sent draughts so piercing that the servants were kept busy all night trying to relight the storm lanterns and keep the tumult at bay. But eventually, all fell quiet, and the palace slept, although the woman did not.
Towards dawn, she looked out of her bedroom window. The storm had eased, and the moon had lifted her silver face from behind the thunderclouds.
To the woman’s horror, she realised that the great tree had been uprooted, and its colossal trunk lay splintered amongst the shattered ruins of the garden wall. The moonlight shone on the boy with hair as black as a raven’s wing as he sat on a pile of tumbled bricks. Beside him stood a large basket made of grass, almost as tall as the basket weaver himself. He looked up at the woman, and she saw that his eyes were as empty and dark as a night without stars.
‘Young man,’ she said as she reached the gate. ‘What are you doing?’
‘I have made a lid for the basket, and now it is finished.’ he answered.
The woman stared at the silent landscape beyond the remnants of her palace wall. The mighty city her forefathers built had crumbled into ruin. Grass now smothered the avenues that had growled with traffic all day long; tangled weeds choked the empty squares where crowds once gathered. Coarse tufts already covered the rubble of the garden wall, and as she glanced behind, she saw that tiny blades of green had begun to spring from the cracks and crevices of what was once her palace of marble and gold.
‘What has happened?’ she cried. ‘Where is my city and my country? Where are my people, the good and faithful workers that I have governed for so long?’
‘That time has come and gone,’ said the boy, as he jumped down from the rubble. ‘I promised to show you what you coveted most. Behold its power. You quarried the earth for the means to disguise it, emptied the oceans for protection from it and destroyed the rainforests to extend your store of it, yet you have failed to outrun it. Now only grass remains.’
‘I see nothing but ruin. I am tired of your riddles,’ the woman answered. ‘Show me what you mean.’
The boy scratched his head, and pointed at the finished basket, its sides neatly embroidered with tiny stars and intricately linked planets that disappeared around its gentle curves.
‘All you seek is contained within,’ he said.
The woman snatched at the basket, but tug as she might, she could not lift it from the ground.
‘Tell me what it holds,’ she demanded, and millions of green spikes pushed up between her toes as she spoke. ‘ It must be very valuable, for the basket is so full that I cannot move it.’
‘A treasure that you already possessed in abundance, and still demanded from the poor,’ replied the boy. ‘Yet squandered or hoarded, each new day brought you only as much as the portion it gave to your humblest subject.’
‘And have you brought me more?’ exclaimed the woman, grasping the rim of the basket and peering into its shadows. Tiny pinpricks of light danced far, far below, as though the planets and stars that once span above the city had been teased from the universe and plaited into the basket.
‘All that has ever existed,’ said the boy.
The scent of fresh young grass wafted upwards, and stirred in the woman a fleeting memory of childish laughter, of escaping from her nurse across new-mown lawns. She pushed her head into the violet depths of the basket.
‘Young man,’ she said, as her shoulders began to follow her head over the rim, ‘Remind me, for my memory is playing tricks.’ Her voice rebounded gently from the basket’s soft-woven sides. ‘Was I once young?’
‘As a meadow in springtime,’ the boy answered.
‘Ah. I must have forgotten. Was I once beautiful?’ The fading words drifted upwards, like the faintest of echos on the breeze.
‘As the ripening corn,’ came the reply.
‘And tell me, did I endure?’ The last sigh scattered like dust in the wind.
The basket weaver stretched out his hand and placed a lid over the mouth of the basket.
‘As a stalk stands before the scythe,’ he said, ‘For a moment.’
And after that there was nothing to hear but the whisper of grass as it grew.