Once upon a time a boy lived. One boy, amongst many boys who have lived.
Do you suppose this boy was special? Well, of course he was special to his mum and dad and friends and family. But was he the stuff of fairy tales like this? He was not. He was no prince, no goblin, no knight, and neither was there an enchantment placed upon him at birth, or a wicked someone-or-other waiting for his 18th birthday to carry out some deadly deed.
So, you may ask, and you’d be right to do so, why am I telling a tale of this boy? Why am I telling his story to you, blissfully snuggled at home in your cosy bed, wearing your nightclothes, with your furry animals keeping company?
Well, I am telling a tale of the boy named Fern because many years ago this boy, who was small, red-haired and not at all brave, decided that he was going to grow a plant. I wonder how many of you listening to and reading this story are disappointed in his decision? Fighting a dragon or crossing an ocean or becoming a prince and marrying a princess – they are usually considered to be bigger and better dreams. They are ambitions and actions that are far more worthy of fairy tales being written.
But this boy did not have big dreams. His dreams were basic. All he wanted was to make a space in the ground, to dig a little to loosen the soil, then to plant a seed, water it sometimes, then watch and wait and see it grow. He wanted more than anything to grow a pea plant, to watch it shoot to the sky, to nip off the stray shoots as they appeared, and to crunch them in his mouth, green and juicy and delicious. Pea plants grow magnificent and tall. Taller than Fern. They need supporting with canes and net and string and twist their tendrils as they grow to support themselves. That’s what he wanted.
Fern had watched his mother grow beans and cabbages, onions, potatoes and carrots. He’d been with his father to collect elderberries and apples and blackberries but that wasn’t enough. Now, and more than anything else in the world, he wanted to grow his own plant. But Fern came from a different time and place to you and I. Seeds were not easy to get for eight year old boys, so when his friend told him he had some to swap, Fern was happy. These seeds were valuable so Fern was delighted to swap a shiny, gold pebble and a dried seven-leafed clover for five pea seeds. He went home delighted and began to prepare the ground in a corner of their garden.
The month was April, late April, and the weather was warming, but still it was tough for Fern to dig the ground with his sticks. He tried though, and cleared a big enough patch, loosened the soil and made five holes. He lined each with moss and soggy autumn leaves and a little sheep’s wool found within the hedge, just as he’d seen his mother do when planting her own seeds. Fern carefully placed each pea seed in a hole and covered each with the loosened soil. He marked the places with sticks, he watered with clear, clean liquid from their own well, and made occasional visits to check. After a fortnight, the ground was disturbed and the pea shoots were breaking though, just a very little bit. Excited, Fern returned the following day and the day after too.
But when the shoots emerged fully, Fern was shocked to realise that they were not pea shoots at all. These shoots were furred and brown, and more like spider legs than fresh green seedlings. Fern called his mother to look and together they dug under the ground a little to find what they thought might be the husk from one of the peas. But no. Something was different. The brown furred shoots were growing from marbled eggs, grown themselves from the moss and leaves and pea seeds and sheep wool, from some form of magic. It truly was a diabolical trick. Boy plants peas. Boy waits. Boy grows spiders… Spiders which came from eggs as large as a hen’s, but darker and far more frightening.
Fern and his mother looked towards the remainder of the seedlings. All five pea seeds had grown spider legs. Not one was a real pea plant at all. Shocked, they fell upon the plant spiders and began crushing them and covering each with a layer of stones and then rocks, small at first, then larger and larger to cover each of the monstrosities. Fern and his mother were soon finished and left, relieved.
Fern vowed to speak to his former friend and demand his own items back. What use was a pea plant that grew no peas, but grew only spiders? He would definitely rather have a seven-leafed-clover.
Fern didn’t visit the growing patch the following day as he was busy with household tasks and assisting his father in jobs around their smallholding, but, of course, he hadn’t forgotten about the newly laid stones and rocks covering the spiders, and a few days later went to check on his handiwork, only to be met with something bizarre. Something he couldn’t possibly have imagined when he saw the first spidery shoots.
Growing out of the ground, the stones and the rocks, were five things. You might expect these things to be spiders, or even pea plants if you remember the beginning of our story, and like to believe in happy endings. But you would be wrong.
These were no spiders; they were creatures the size of rabbits and shape of scorpions, with long, hairy, shoot-like stinging tails. Fern cried and screamed and brought both father and mother running, the first with hands glittering from butter churning, and the second with hands of oil from greasing the agricultural tools. Both father and mother had reached for the nearest weapons available – a broom and a spade – and both clobbered the bizarre animals back into the ground. Each plant-animal returned to the earth with a crack and with a shriek.
When the final one had gone, and the earth was still, parents and child were silent. Fern stared towards the ground, half expecting another creature to emerge.
‘What form of seeds were they?’ he asked his bewildered father, who shook his head. ‘I don’t know,’ was all that Fern could say. He turned expectantly to his mother but she shook her head also. ‘I have never seen plants of that form before,’ his mother said.
And the three, the father, the mother and the son, sat and said the smallest of prayers over the patches where the seeds had been planted and the rabbit scorpions had erupted. And they tried to forget the damp and dark area where Fern had once tried to grow peas.
Time went by, perhaps another twelvemonths or so, before Fern returned to that very patch.
And on his return he found the land to be overtaken, not by pea plants or strange rabbit scorpion creatures, but by feathery green laced and patchy leaves, with curling scorpion tails of furred spider legs at their bases. Green shoots expanding into glorious lush green canopies. Ferns, the boy said. Ferns that grew and ferns that spread and ferns that provided homes for spiders and small animals and snakes.
And, as Fern himself grew, he would sit and patiently watch many a scorpion frond uncurl to its own special beauty and splendour, and he was very, very glad.
So, do you think this boy was special? And not only special to the mother and father who loved and protected him, but special because of who he was and what his unknowing magic helped to create? I think we all have it in ourselves to create, discover or unfold something special of our own, just as Fern did.