There was once a king whose head was full of dark thoughts. All day and all night they flapped and fluttered inside his brain like a flock of ravens. He spent many hours pacing up and down his chamber, muttering to himself; and at mealtimes he drew wolves on his napkin while the food grew cold.
It had not always been so. Once he had been a happy king, fair and kind, and loved by all his subjects. But since the death of his young queen, he had become moody and suspicious. He believed everyone was plotting against him - even his dearest daughter, whom he banished to a tiny island in the middle of a lake.
Yet still the king's thoughts twisted and whirled: fearful thoughts, malicious thoughts, mean and wicked. There were times when he was even distrustful of his own shadow.
At last, fearing for his sanity, he summoned the royal physician, and pleaded with him to make up a potion that would restore his peace of mind.
The physician looked thoughtful. 'What you ask, Sire,' he said, 'is very difficult. I can, if you wish, make a herbal concoction that will send you into a deep, dreamless sleep; but when you wake your thoughts will awake too, refreshed and ready for battle.'
The king was not pleased. He fixed the physician with a cold stare. 'So you are unable to help me? Is that what you are saying?'
'No, no, not at all, Sire,' replied the physician hastily. 'There is certainly a cure, but the procedure is a radical one, and I advise caution.'
'Tell me about it,' said the king.
The physician bowed. 'Look at it this way, Sire, if you will. Thoughts beget thoughts. That is to say, for every thought that disturbs your peace of mind on waking in the morning, you can depend on it that there will be another 50 plaguing your brain by nightfall.'
'That is very true,' said the king. But privately he was thinking, 'I don't trust this fellow. He fidgets like someone with something to hide.'
'So,' continued the physician, 'the answer is to remove every single thought from your head. To do this, I would prepare a powerful potion to send you into the deepest sleep. A net would then be placed above your bed, specially woven from the finest gossamer thread, and sprinkled with certain malodorous perfumes with which to entice the thoughts away from your brain. Once they had floated up into the net, it would be sealed and removed. And on waking, Sire, your mind would be as pure and innocent as the day you were born.'
The king frowned. 'This is all very well,' he growled, 'but how can I be sure someone won't strangle me with the net while I sleep?'
The physician looked alarmed. 'That, Sire, is simply one of your dark thoughts whispering in your ear. You must trust me if you wish to be a free and happy man.'
'Oh, very well,' said the king. 'Give me the potion. But if I wake in the morning with a single bad thought, you will answer for it.'
That evening, he took the potion and immediately fell deeply asleep.
When the king woke again, it was morning, and his chamber was flooded with sunlight. It took the king a few moments to realise where he was. His mind felt very strange - empty and dry, without a single thought.' I'm afraid I'm not quite myself this morning,' he told the valet as he stumbled into his clothes.
'Perhaps you should see your physician, Sire,' said the servant.
'Should I?' said the king. 'Very well then, if you think so.'
When the physician arrived, he found the king in bed with his clothes on, staring vacantly at the ceiling. 'How are you this morning, Sire?' said the physician briskly.
'I'm not really sure,' said the king. 'My mind feels like a well run dry. I don't seem able to muster a single thought - I can't think why.'
'Well, if you remember, Sire,' said the physician, 'your thoughts had begun to trouble you like festering sores, and at your request I removed them. You are now a free man.'
The king's face puckered as if he was about to cry. 'I want my thoughts back again,' he whimpered. 'I miss them. Where are they?'
The physician looked uncomfortable. 'I'm afraid they were thrown away.'
'Thrown away?' cried the king in dismay. 'Can they not be retrieved?'
'I'm afraid that is impossible,' replied the physician. 'Thoughts are like butterflies, or moths. They fly where they will. However,' he added hopefully, 'it is possible a few of them may be hiding in some dark place not far away. Thoughts such as yours are particularly active at night; therefore, I suggest that as soon as it is dark you take a lantern and look for them.'
So that evening the king set out to look for his lost thoughts among the nooks and crannies of the palace. He poked and prodded under rocks and in hollow trees, and among some nearby ruins that rose like crumbling chimneys into the night sky.
Presently he disturbed several silvery creatures resting among the moonlit stones. But when he tried to catch them they fluttered away, and he saw that they were only moths after all. At last, footsore and tired, he went home to bed, and fell into a long, dreamless sleep.
The next day the physician was summoned again. 'What shall I do now' asked the king.
'You must search further afield,' said the physician. 'Comb the farthest reaches of the kingdom, from the highest mountain to the deepest ravine. Leave no stone unturned.'
'Very well,' said the king, and with a weary sigh he saddled his horse and set out on his journey.
It was a bright summer's morning, and the king looked resplendent in his royal robes, riding through the streets on his white mare, lantern in hand, and with his crown set firmly on his head. People came out of their houses to stare. 'Where is the king going?' said one.
'He is fishing for sunbeams,' said another. Everyone laughed, and went back to their breakfasts, and thought no more about it.
The king travelled for two days and two nights, searching as he went, and sleeping wherever he could find shelter. On the third day the weather became very hot. Looking around for somewhere to rest and eat his lunch, he saw an ancient olive tree growing by the roadside. An old woman sat under the tree. She had long straggly hair, tied back with a strand of flowing bindweed. 'Greetings, Mother,' said the king politely. 'Do you mind if I sit beside you?'
'Not at all,' my son,' said the old woman. 'There's room for you, me and that fine horse of yours.'
So the king tethered his horse to the tree, and sat down to eat his lunch, which consisted of a hunk of bread and cheese, and some olives. The old woman glanced at him curiously. 'Would you have a little of that to spare?' she said.
'Of course! Forgive me, Mother.' The king broke off half his crust and offered it to the old woman, along with a leather flask of goat's milk he carried at his hip. ' I'm afraid I wasn't thinking.'
'Don't apologise,' said the old woman sharply. 'It wastes time. Let us eat and be thankful.' They ate for a while in silence, and then the old woman said suddenly, 'Are you on a quest, my son?'
'Yes, Mother,' replied the king. I had the misfortune to lose my thoughts, and have been trying to find them - without success, I regret to say.'
'Ah,' said the old woman. 'I may be able to help you. I suspect your thoughts have fled back to the land from whence they came, far, far away.'
'What land is that?' asked the king.
'Its name is Pensygory,' she replied. 'It is a land of mists, and forests, and dark caves, where thoughts float free.' She gave the king another curious glance. 'I see you carry a lantern,' she said. 'If you shine it in one of those caverns, you will see myriads of thoughts clinging to the roof like bats.'
'How do I find this land?' asked the king. The old woman swung around, pushing her foot out in a straight line so that her toes pointed westward.
'That a-way,' she said.
The king stared towards where her toe was pointing: a long line of misty blue hills on the horizon. 'How far away are those hills?' he asked uncertainly.
'Near or far,' said the old woman, 'what's the point of asking? Off you go, and may Heaven smile on you, my son.'
The king jumped into the saddle and set off. He travelled for many days, and at long last arrived at the foot of the Pensygorian hills. Before him he saw a misty wall of forest that looked miles thick. And on the very edge, was a large, black cave. Dismounting, he walked through the entrance, shining the lantern all around. High up on the roof he saw a cluster of luminous creatures darting and diving about. They had short, fish-like tails, and their tiny mouths kept opening and shutting like little red traps, click, clack, click, clack. And now suddenly they flipped around and came diving towards him. The king screamed and ran from the cave. Leaping onto his horse, he rode like a madman until the woods of Pensygory were far, far behind him.
Day and night the king rode, until he found himself back beside the ancient olive tree. He was surprised to see the old woman there, sitting in its shade. She stared at him curiously. 'You were quick,' she said.
The king shivered as he told her of the hideous creatures he had seen in the cave. 'If I hadn't run for my life,' said he, 'they would have swallowed me up.'
The old woman shook her head. 'You amaze me, my son. First you travel almost to the end of the earth looking for your lost thoughts, and then when at last you find some, you run from them as fast as you can. What is the meaning of this?'
The king shook his head. 'I don't really know,' he said, and wiped away a tear.
'Tell me, then,' said the old woman. 'Did you not see the beautiful little creatures that float among the treetops in the woods? All the colours of the rainbow, they are.'
'I did not,' said the king. 'I looked no further than inside one of the caves.'
'Ah,' said she. 'Why don't you look up, instead of down? It could be the answer, you know.'
So once more the king set off for the far blue hills. He travelled for many days, and when he arrived at last, the woods were shrouded in mist. He could hear things rustling in the treetops, and once, when the mist parted, he saw a gleam of blue and silver, like wings flashing in the sun. But though he called and coaxed, the thought-birds stayed aloft in the trees. 'It is hopeless,' said the king in despair, and wearily mounting his horse, he turned his back for a second time on the woods of Pensygory.
After much travelling he spied the olive tree again. The old woman was dozing in its shade. He sat down beside her and began eating from a grimy hunk of cheese. Suddenly the old woman was awake. 'Have you a piece of that to share?' said she.
'Surely,' said the king, and gave her half his cheese. As he did so, a large tear splashed onto it. The old woman brushed the cheese with an olive leaf and took a bite. 'You still have a problem, my son?' she said, after a long silence.
The king gave a shuddering sigh. 'It is true,' he said. 'Those faraway woods are full of small winged creatures; I saw them flashing like threads of silver in and out of the treetops, but alas, none would come to my call. What am I to do?' And he wiped away another tear.
'No one said it was going to be easy,' shrugged the old woman. 'You have to coax the little beauties down from their perches. Try singing to them, my son.'
'Sing?' echoed the king in dismay. 'But I don't know any songs. I've never sung in my life. How should I begin?'
But there was no reply from the old woman. She had fallen asleep.
And so, for the third time the king wearily turned his horse's mane towards the blue faraway hills of Pensygory.
As he rode slowly along, the king tried to think of a beautiful song with which to charm the elusive little thought-birds down from the treetops; but he could think of nothing at all.
One evening, towards the end of his journey, he camped beside a clump of tall cypress trees. As he lay under the trees waiting for sleep to come, he listened to the sounds of the night, longing to hear a song that he could learn to sing. He heard the wind sighing through the branches high above his head, but it was not a song he could understand. He listened to the stream chanting to itself as it bubbled over the stones; but it was a secret song that he could not fathom. At last, he fell asleep.
The king was wakened at dawn next morning by a thrush singing in the topmost branch of one of the cypress trees. It sang many songs, each following on from the other. Some were short, others long and flowing, but all were different, all beautiful. The king listened for a long time in wonder; and because his mind was like an empty chamber, the songs dropped into it, echoing around and around. When at last he set off again on his journey, the song was in his head, bubbling up like water in a well. Soon it became so familiar to him that he knew the whole sequence by heart. He could even whistle it under his breath, note by note, trill by trill. At last he reached the faraway hills of Pensygory. The sun was setting as he entered the woods. 'Come, little thought-birds,' called the king, and whistled the thrush's song, over and over. All around he could hear a rustling and fluttering of wings, and in the darkening foliage above his head he saw luminous lights darting about like fireflies. Again and again he called; and then, because he was tired after his long journey, and night was coming on, he lay down under the trees and slept.
Early next morning, the king woke, astonished. His mind was brimming with thoughts: slow, dreamy thoughts, dancing thoughts, warm, loving thoughts. He thought about his wife, the queen, and of the happy times they had had together; and then a dark blue thought floated up, filling him with sadness, as he remembered his daughter, accused of treason and banished by a stroke of the pen to that cold, windswept island. How could he have done such evil to that sweet girl whom he loved more than his own kingdom? 'I must undo this treachery!' he cried, and leaping on his horse, he rode as swiftly as the mad north wind itself towards his own land.
At long last the king arrived at the lake. Here he was told by the villagers that the physician had seized power during his long absence, and was ruling the kingdom with a cruel hand. 'It shall be attended to,' replied the king. 'The people shall choose between us. But in the meantime I have more important work to do.' He hired a fisherman to row him out to the island, where he found his daughter crouched in a cave, her lovely hair hanging like matted seaweed around her shoulders. They embraced with many tears.
On the long ride back to the palace, people began to come out of their houses to look at the king and the princess, waving and throwing flowers in their path. Hearing that the king was coming, the physician ran out onto the tower balcony to look. When he saw the king and his daughter approaching, festooned with flowers, and followed by a cheering and dancing crowd stretching as far as the eye could see, he fled away in terror through the back alleys of the city, and was never seen again.
As for the king, he ruled wisely for many years and was loved by everyone.
© Anthony Holcroft
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