Once there was a Prince who maintained certain childish inclinations well past the “rightful” age of maturity – not unlike our dear Hamlet. Yet none took any mind, for his Mother had long been dead and his Father, the King, had much to keep him occupied. And of course, the youth was a Prince, entitled to almost anything he liked.
Their royal estate was impressive, and though it contained acres upon acres of land for the Prince to explore, he favoured one spot only, a spot with a large oak tall enough to reach any part of the world the Prince could imagine. He would go there before breakfast and after lessons, before his bath and – sometimes – after it. Sad or happy, his tree had an answer, was a sanctuary, was a friend.
Though every leaf was different, the Prince knew every one, and would race them as they finally danced to the ground in fall. He had memorised every inch of bark, every stem, every branch, and on every one of them, he had many adventures. Sometimes he was a knight, sometimes a peasant. Sometimes he even imagined he could reach the stars and take a few of them home to keep in his room. He would lay along the Oak’s uppermost branches for hours, until someone came and made him come down.
On one bitter March morning, even the lingering snow could not keep him from the tree, especially on that of all days, for it was only that morning his father had passed, leaving him as the single heir to a kingdom. He stayed there, in the chill, until the sun went down and the moon was high in the sky. When his feet again touched the ground, he felt different, older, and determined to make his dead father proud.
As happens with many other kings in many other stories, this young King soon became overwhelmed by the duties of his position and no longer had the time to visit his old friend, though he wished to do so very dearly. One evening, in a fit of stressful sleep, he had a terrible dream about the tree burning to the ground. To keep the tree from such a fate, he woke up and rang the bell, ordering some of the servants to melt down enough of his fortune to plate the tree in gold, so nothing might harm it. The deed done, the King stared upon the gilded Oak with pride, knowing it would remain there perfectly until he had time to climb it again.
What the King could not have known, however, was that – though beautiful in its new wealth – the tree was without sun and so withered away under its casing.
As the years passed by, and with the Oak supposedly safe, the King was able to immerse himself completely in his work, and rarely thought of the tree. Soon he was betrothed and the new Queen bore a son. The little Prince was the spitting image of his father, and the King loved the boy dearly, though he hardly had time to spend with him. On his seventh birthday, the King bought the boy his first horse, and after a few weeks of training, he was allowed to explore the grounds as he pleased, with the horse as his consort.
It did not take long for the young Prince to stumble upon the glowing shell of the Oak’s golden perfection. The boy fell in love with the tree almost immediately, and sat on the ground gazing at it for many hours, believing it to be a magical tree. Finally, he got up the courage to climb the thing, no longer afraid that the tree might be under an evil spell, but when he attempted to ascend the first limb, it cracked and crumbled to dust under his weight. As the boy and his horse stood by, the crack spread up the trunk to the tallest branch before the entire tree crumbled into fragments of gold dust at his feet.
For fear of his great trouble, he saved a single shining leaf and brought it to his father, afraid of his retribution at ruining such a perfect thing. Though he was in a debate with a neighboring monarch, as soon as the King saw what his son held in his palm, his face fell into a peaceful kind of remembrance. He remembered this leaf was near the very top of the tree, that he had often pushed it aside to reveal a perfect view of the lake he now owned.
Excited by the memory, he apologized to the other monarch before demanding that his son bring him to the tree. Too afraid to tell his father the truth, he brought the King to an empty meadow.
“Where’s my tree?”
But the words were barely out of his mouth before he realized the truth. His son looked on in fear, but saw that his father was not angry; rather, he was truly sad. The golden dust had all blown away by then, and the only relic he had left of his childhood hideaway was the single golden leaf in his hand. But even this did not console him, for the leaf bore the mark of what was to him his greatest, and most selfish, mistake. He pocketed the small leaf, and allowed a single tear to run down his face before kneeling by his son and looking him in the eye:
“If only I had known . . . but now, Son, it is time to teach you something: you see, we cannot buy our memories, as we cannot buy love. Only in the appreciation of our pasts are we truly rich. Do not be afraid to lose something which is perhaps meant to be lost, for it will return to you one day, and for that you must be grateful.”
They stood before the absence of the tree for a great while longer, as the King remembered the view of a glorious sun coming up over the hills in the East.