Sunday, 20 August 2017

The Wise Child

There was once a village. The village sat on a road, and there was much traffic through the village as people travelled along that road. This brought wealth, as travellers stayed at the inn, and sometimes a traveller would decide to stay in the village longer, setting up a home and establishing a livelihood. Most of the villagers came from families who had lived in the village for generations, or who had married in from nearby villages.
In one of these families, there was a child. The family, and the child, were walking through the village one summer's day, greeting other families as they passed them in the street or walked past their houses. They passed the house of the local minister, and exchanged pleasantries as they were working on their garden. They passed the cottage of the teacher in the village school as they were hanging laundry, and complimented them on their work. They passed an elderly couple who were taking a similar walk, and respectfully exchanged greeting. They stopped at a village shop, and bought bread and cheese and fruit for lunch, and stone bottles of various drinks, and packed them in a basket they had brought, with a brightly coloured cloth they used for picnics; and the parents bought their child a wooden toy, and they exchanged news and gossip with the shopkeeper.
Then they passed a dyer's house, with great tubs in the yard, and the family stirring the cloth to be dyed, and they said nothing. The child asked, “why do we not greet them, as we go about our business and they go about theirs, and compliment them on the vivid colours and patterns they make on cloth?” The father replied, “that family came here from far away, and they are not like us; they do not worship as we do, and we cannot trust them.”
The child thought for a moment, and took out the cloth from the picnic basket. “Did they not dye this cloth, that we bought and use on days such as these? Do they not drink the same water we do, and also use it in their work?” The parents could not think how to respond, so the child took the cloth and turned to the dyer's family, held it up and said, “see this cloth you dyed; we will be using it today when we have our lunch, and it is wonderful to be able to picnic on such bright, happy cloth. I am glad that we could get such pretty cloth.” The dyer's family smiled, and thanked the child for their praise.
Then they passed a house belonging to a cheesemaker and their family, where children were playing in the yard, and they said nothing. The child asked, “why do we not greet them, and ask after their parents?” The mother replied, “that family came here from far away, and they are not like us; they do not send their children to our school, and they speak strangely.”
The child thought for a moment and said, “did we not buy cheese they had made, that we will enjoy for lunch today? Do their children not play in the sun, just as I play with my friends? Perhaps they would come to school with us if they were welcomed.” With that, the child went to the garden where the children played, and gave them the toy the parents had bought that day, smiling and wishing them well.
Then they passed a poor cottage, the home of an old lady who lived alone. Her husband had been a blacksmith, but their son had moved away to a city where there was more interesting work and new skills to learn, and when her husband died, a new blacksmith had come and moved in to the blacksmith's house, and a new blacksmith's wife helped keep the forge and shoe the horses. The child asked, “why do we never greet that woman, who has lived here longer than I have?” The father replied, “the old blacksmith met her when he was a journeyman, travelling to learn his trade; her ways are still strange to us, and she has no family here. With her husband gone, we are not sure of her.”
The child thought for a moment and said, “did people not come to know her while her husband lived? She was often with him in his shop and his forge, and helped shoe the horses. Did she not bring tea to those who waited for her husband, as the blacksmith's wife does now? How can someone become a stranger simply because their family die or move away?” Then the child walked over to a nearby flowered bank, and gathered up a collection of flowers in many colours. Taking a sniff of the bouquet, the child walked up to the door of the cottage, and left the flowers upon the step.
Then they passed a large, well-appointed house. The walls were smoothly plastered, with clean paint on the walls and window-frames. An older man sat on a chair under a porch, reading a book. The child asked, “why do we not greet this man, who sits at leisure as the world passes by?” The mother answered, “he came here from the city, where they say he was a scholar. He bought this house, and hired men to make it bigger and smarter, and like they say houses look in the city. It is even said he has more money than any in the village, except perhaps the innkeeper. We do not know him, and we do not understand him.”
The child thought a moment and said, “how can we understand him without getting to know him, and how can we get to know him without talking to him?” Just so, the child walk up the well-kept path through the well-kept lawn, and made introductions to the well-kept man, asking what he was reading, and how his day was. The parents waited, worried, but after a few minutes the child returned to them, smiling, and they continued on their way.
As they came towards the village church, they passed a small cottage, poorly kept, where strange-looking young men sat on stools in the yard, mending furniture, and a strange-looking young woman sat mending clothes. Their own clothes were strange, and they looked thin and unhappy, but they had clever hands and eyes, though they watched those passing warily. The child asked, “why do we not speak to these, who do such neat work mending, and who seem so afraid?” The father explained, “these people come from very far away, where there is war and famine. The church houses them out of charity, as is proper, and helps them find some work fixing and mending, but they mostly live on the goodwill of the church. They are so different and strange; we do not know what to make of them, we cannot trust them, and we look down on them as they cannot provide for themselves.”
The child thought a moment and said, “do they not eat, and sleep, and breathe the air and drink the water? Were we driven from our homes, would we not hope to see not only charity from those that took us in, but welcome and friendship? And see the clever way she mends those clothes, and the neat way they mend that furniture; I'm sure they could do much more with those hands, if they had the chance.” So the child took some of the stone bottles, and part of the bread, and gave it to the people working in the yard, and said to them “we have more than we need, and I am glad to share it with you. We're going to picnic on the green, and you could join us if you like.” The people took the food, startled and not knowing how to react, and the child returned to the parents with contentment, and they went on their way.
And so they reached the green, and settled their cloth upon the ground, and laid out their bread, and cheese, and fruit, and the stone bottles, and began to eat, while the child smiled and thought, and the parents dwelt on the things that had been said and done on their way to the green.
Not long later, while they had barely begun their meal, the blacksmith's widow approached them, holding a basket of her own, with the bunch of wild flowers visible. She approached the child, and asked, “was it you, who left these by my door?” The child stood, smiled, and said “yes; did you like them?” The widow smiled as well, and nodded; bringing the flowers out of the basket, she set them on the ground and brought out a cake. “I used to make this cake for my husband's customers. They said they hadn't seen cake like it before. It is common where I come from, but they always seemed to enjoy the novelty of it. I still make it, though I have no-one to share it with; I would be glad to share it with you.” The child offered her empty space on the cloth, and invited her to join them.
Before the parents could react, the cheesemaker's family came to the green. They thanked the child for the gift of the toy to their children, and said, “we saw that you were coming here to picnic, and thought you might care to try something different.” Strange though their speech was, it was still easy enough to understand. “The cheese we sell to the shop is made in the way cheese has always been made here, but we also make some as it is made where we come from; perhaps you might like to try some?” So they offered a cloth bundle containing the strange cheese, and the child took it, and unwrapped it, and put it with the other cheese. The child thanked them, and offered them to join them, though there was no more cloth on which to sit.
Just then the dyer's family came to the green, carrying baskets of brightly coloured cloth. “We are glad you like our cloth”, they said, “and we saw more people coming to the green, and thought perhaps you could use more cloth to sit on.” They laid some of their cloth on the ground, and then set out earthenware dishes that they uncovered to reveal spiced cooked meats, and rich fruit-breads. “Yesterday was a feast day in our faith,” they explained, “and we thought you might like to share some of the foods we have left.”
Seeing the growing group on the green, the young men and young women from the church cottage came up, with some spare lengths of wood and twine from their work. “It is very sunny,” said one of the young men, “and we know that some do not like to sit in the bright sun for very long.” The young men took the wood and twine, and some of the spare cloth the dyers had brought, and built an awning to cover part of the green, setting another cloth beneath it near to the growing pile of food. The young woman said, “thank you for the gift of your bread and your drink. Please allow us to share ours with you.” She then brought out a plate of simple flat bread that she had made, and a jug of a cool herbal tea. “This is what we drink on sunny days where we come from, or as near as we can make it with what we can find here. The bread is a sort my mother taught me to make. We hope you will like it.” The child gestured to everyone to sit, and sat under the awning.
Before the parents could react to the growing crowd, the scholar walked up and said to them, “I hope you don't mind, but I was thinking about what your child said to me, and it occurred to me that I had some books that might be of interest. By the time I'd found them, I saw the crowd gathering here, and thought maybe I should bring along something to share as well.” The scholar then brought out of a bag bottles of beer, and cider, and ginger beer, and chocolate. “I'm afraid I don't cook very well, but I have a stock of nice things I have bought, and I'm very happy to share.” The scholar added them to the growing selection, and then brought out a book to show the child. The child took it with interest, and listened as the scholar described it.
By now the parents were astonished, and worried what their friends and neighbours would think, seeing them at the centre of this crowd of outsiders. But then another family came, and another, bringing their own food, and cloths, saying, “what a good idea! A big party for everyone is a marvellous way to spend such a sunny day.” Tables and chairs arrived, and the innkeeper set up a stall, and the various musicians of the village went to get their instruments. Very soon you could not tell that the crowd had begun with the people the villagers didn't speak to, and everyone spoke to one another, and shared the products of their work or their wealth. The musicians learned new tunes, and the cooks learned new recipes, and for that day at least, there were no outsiders.
Written August 2017
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