the artist: a fairytale

Once upon a time, high in the mountains, there was a small village of simple people. They lived in adobe houses nestled right up against a cliff. Clear cold water came out of an opening in the rock wall and eagles nested on the peaks above. In the winter and in the summer the peaks were covered in snow.

If you walked the path a mile downhill you came to a little plateau where the soil was good and the villagers grew millet and corn. If you walked up the path a mile you came to little plateau where the soil was bad and only grass grew. Here the villagers would graze their goats and llamas and sheep.

They wore tunics of undyed wool and kept blankets over their shoulders in winter. They used stone axes to cut their corn-stalks and stone knives to serve their sheep. They needed to work all day to make sure they would have food and tools and shelter. Everyone helped, from the children who picked millet to the old and toothless who shucked corn to the women who spun wool to the men who herded the sheep.

Sometimes people would trade jobs. There was one old woman who sharpened stone so well that all the men brought their knives to her. There was one young man who was good with spinning wheels and they always called him when one needed work. These people had to give up the time to do these things for their friends, so that their friends could spend more time doing their work. So the friends would trade them for their troubles, giving them the dried meat or corn beer that they were too busy to get themselves.

The people lived in the village for years and years. Babies were born and old people laid to rest. One day a boy was born in the village. He was very quiet and very serious, even when he was small. He had brothers and sisters but he didn’t play with them or with the other boys and girls. He liked to take a corn-stalk and use it to draw pictures in the dirt, or he would take berries and mash them in his hands and paint designs onto pieces of cloth.

It was hard to get him to do his work, to help with the washing or the harvesting. Sometimes his mother would have to send his brothers or sisters out looking for him to drag him to work. Sometimes he would disappear all day and so she would send him to sleep with no dinner. He hadn’t earned his food, so he didn’t eat. The boy understood, and went to sleep without complaint.

When he grew a little older, the things he made became more and more beautiful. He would take blankets and draw designs onto them with berry-juice and ground up moss, designs like the villagers had never seen before. He would take charred cornhusks from the fire and draw on the walls of people’s houses, pictures of the tall mountains and majestic eagles and of things that neither he nor they had ever seen. He made figures out of adobe and hardened them in the fire, people dancing or little animals running or flowers that he would color to look almost real. Anything you brought him, he could make it more beautiful.

But he didn’t have much time for his talents. He still had to go help with the harvest and with the herding, or else there wouldn’t be enough food for him to eat. And if everyone was like him, then nobody in the village would have been able to eat. Oftentimes he would skip his work, but then he would have to skip his evening meal too. If he did this too much he would be too weak the next day for the fields or for his own work. It was a bad place to be for a boy who liked to make art.

It was one of his sisters who first hit upon a way to let him work. She loved the things he made, all of them, especially the little figures of sheep and rams and his little delicate eagles. And they only took him an hour to make! So she offered to spend an extra two hours in the fields if he would make her an eagle to keep. At the end of the day she brought him two big handfuls of wild barley and he gave her the most beautiful statue he’d ever made. He went to bed with a full belly and she went to bed with her eagle on the ground next to her, and they were both happy.

The next day one of her friends saw the eagle and his sister sent her out to the fields early. She came back with a reed basket full of fresh blackberries and, in return, she got a clay figurine of a mountain goat, fired hard in the coals of the hearth.

Soon people from all over the village were coming to the boy for the things he made. Some just wanted a little something and didn’t care what it was. Some were very specific: they wanted a wooden mountain lion, a tunic with an image of the setting sun, they wanted the handle of their axe carved with shapes, they wanted their likeness sketched on the walls of their house for their grandchildren to remember them by. But they all brought things with them to trade: a bit of meat, a brace of oats, ears of corn, barley to run through their fingers.

Everyone in the village loved his work. They had never seen anything like it before. They lined up outside his hut in the morning to make their request. Soon he was working longer hours than any farmer or herder in the village, twelve, fourteen hours a day just to fill all the requests. Soon he would have to tell people to come back the next day, or the day after that. He started to have extra food at the end of the day, and he stored it in a corner of his mother’s hut. He was bringing in more food than anyone else in his family!

People in the village started to grow impatient. They didn’t want to have to wait in lines, they didn’t want to have to wait days for the things the boy would make them. So they started to offer him more food, trying to offer more than the other villagers were. They brought him legs of lamb and fish from the high mountain streams, bunches of fresh pears, apples baked in the fire, and horn of good strong beer. Only those people who were willing to work four, five, six hours more every day to bring in this extra food would get to have an artwork of their own. Some would even sell things between themselves, things that the boy had already made them.

The village was working harder than it ever had before. They were taking in more of their crops, they were foraging better in the forests down below and hunting better in the mountains up above. They even got together and raised a new hut for the boy to live in, a little one at the edge of the village all for himself. It wasn’t long before it was filled wonderful things to eat and drink. It would be a long time before the boy would be hungry again.

It was not long before everyone in the village had something of the boy’s to call their own. Some had many things, things all around them. Some had things tucked away to give as a gift and some had things that they bought just so they could trade them later on. People began to not want the boy’s work anymore. So they started offering him less and less for his work, until they would not even give him a handful of barley or a little basket of berries anymore.

He didn’t care. He liked to work, to make things with his hands. So he kept making things, even though he had nobody to give them to. After a while there were more clay goats in his hut than there was goat-meat, and more pictures of corn on the walls than there was real corn. After a while, there was no food at all.

He could have just gone back to working in the fields, but he liked making things beautiful, not hunting or harvesting. He could have tried to find something else to make that people in the town would like, but he liked making these things. He knew the situation he was in. He knew what would happen. But he decided that he liked making beautiful things, and so that is what he would do.

He didn’t eat, but he hardly even noticed, so busy was he at his work. Until one day he just stopped working, and though he left the  world, he left behind a little part of it filled with things of beauty.

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~ by davekov on 3 June 2009.

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