I received a summons from my Grand-mère this morning. The message had been conveyed by her long time companion D’anjou, a man whose disposition was always that of salt and vinegar. In a few words he told me her life was failing and to come at once. As I hung up the phone, I was filled with mixed emotions. Having spent so little time with her over the past ten years, mostly due to work, family, and life’s in-between’s that pull us in diagonal directions, made me all at once feel disappointed, both in myself and the situation.
As a man of thirty, I had imagined a magical place and time where somehow time would cease, as easily as a fold in a napkin, allowing for Grand-mère and me to renegotiate the void of years, enabling us to wash away the distance, and replace it with cherished memories. But this was the not the case. Instead, I fended off the responsibilities beckoning attention, and took the earliest train from Paris to the coastal town of Nice where she resided.
I have heard the philosophers of my country preach that time can be equated to the gathering of flowers. Sometimes you have the leisure of picking one here and one there, and other times you must grab by the handfuls, and no matter if your bouquet is one flower, or an enormous bunch, it will wither; it, like time, is impermanent. But a flower no matter how fleeting is loved and remembered. And so, granted only hours to be with Grand-mère, I wanted only to share with her all that I could of my life, my love for her, my eternal gratitude for her sunny smiles all the years of my childhood, the days before life grew more complex and involved with less important things. Above all I sought her forgiveness for journeying too long in the depths of society, and only rarely visiting her. But Grand-mère had other plans.
Grand-mère was born in Paris, during the 1920s. Her earliest memory was of eating bread fallen from a baker’s cart, dirty from the street where she lived. She did not know her parents, having dreamed instead that her father was a journalist for the Paris papers and covered the war, while her mother, she imagined, was an elegant hand model, whose picture hung in the Louvre. Growing up, Grand-mère shared many stories with me about her humble upbringing. On the day she summoned me to her bedchamber, she wanted none of my feeble regrets and need for forgiveness. She sat with her head flat on the pillow, her white hair sparse and unkempt, her voice hoarse, but gentle, and her finger pointing to a small red box on the bed-side table.
“You will listen to the story I tell, Daniel, and when it is over, you will take this box with you and carry it into the world. Where you take it and how you use it will be for you to decide.”
With this, Grand-mère bid D’anjou to feed her black coffee through a straw, and sent him away, barking at him to close the doors behind him. I sat on a creaky wicker chair on the left side of her bed. A warm summer breeze came into the window, kicking up the blue drapes. I followed Grand-mère’s gaze out the window.
“The sky,” she began, “do you see it is not a true blue today. It’s like it knows what today is.” Grand-mère was cryptic, but I didn’t ask her to explain, nor did I press her for clarity, but clarity was what she gave. “I have only seen the sky this color, the color of lavender buds, once. It was the day I received the box.” She closed her eyes and smiled. “It’s that day especially that I must tell you about, for it is the only way for you to understand the importance of what’s in the box.”
“I’m listening,” I said, leaning forward, so she could whisper.
“I didn’t live in Paris for very long.” She cleared her throat. “Food was hard to come by and there were plenty of poor mouths competing for the scraps the shop owners would throw to us orphan children. The first chance I had to get out, I took. I was no more than ten or eleven when a few of us illegally snuck onto the train going south. When it stopped, we didn’t know where we were. We walked through the lavish countryside until we reached a town. Some stayed while others, like me, continued on, and by the time I arrived in Nice, I was on my own. But I had wanted to see the ocean, and so I did.
“Those were hard times for me. I ate clams when I could find them. Sometimes I might catch a crab or two missed in one of the fisherman’s nets. Other times, if I was lucky, some rich man would drop a few coins into my hands for a hot meal. At first, Nice felt like a great escape from the hunger of Paris, but as I learned the streets, I found a different set of poor faces, with the same dirt stained clothes, holey shoes, and smell of horses and hay.
“I was known back then as la me sœur, because I was the runt of the group. Sometimes they would dress me up like a baby and peddle me around in the rich neighborhoods begging for money. I’d cry and whine, and suck my thumb. Sometimes it worked well and we’d all get a meal. Other times the police were called and detained anyone they could catch. Looking back, I don’t know how I survived. Always hungry. Always a grumble and an ache in my stomach. Even if someone had given me a whole loaf of bread and a pot of soup, it wouldn’t have satiated my hunger.
Grand-mère motioned for her coffee, and I quickly took the warm cup into my hands and offered her the straw.
“One day, Daniel, everything changed.” She spread her hand out over the quilted blanket. “First, it was the sky, lavender from one side of the horizon to the other. The sun, too, had changed. It went from orange to a pinkish blue. I recall a man of science sitting at the Café de Rose, puffing his pipe, mystified by the sight of it. The third anomaly showed itself in the form of a falling star. It was so close I thought I could run and touch it. Young and old, rich and poor gathered in doorways and street corners to watch the heavens. For an entire day it felt neither night or day, but a rare paradis sur terre.”
Grand-mère reached over to the table and took the red, square box in her hands and rested it on her lap. “As the sky darkened to a purple haze, beautiful music could be heard from the boulevard, not too far from the abandoned building where I slept. Along with two boys and another young girl, we ran as fast as we could, to see who was playing. Crowds of people gathered. Being the runt, I couldn’t see a thing. I could only hear the oohs and the aahs of the spectators, and the marvelous music. Soon the gang left me on the fringe of the circle, as they squeezed in the crevices of intertwined bodies. I tried to follow, but was pushed back. I was nearly trampled. Finally, I spotted a low brick wall to stand on, giving me a better vantage point, but still I couldn’t fully see.”
“What was it, grand-mère?” I asked, interested.
“All I could see was a pointed, purple hat with ancient symbols etched in gold. Then I heard a voice, a wise, old voice. Sometimes when the crowd shifted and swayed, I would get a better glimpse of his long white beard, which went up and down like an accordion when he laughed, or his deep purple robes, also spun with gold symbols.” Grand-mère smiled recalling the details. “He called himself the Wizard of Peillon. Back then Peillon seemed like a continent away, even though it was only twenty kilometers north of Nice. If you remember your studies, you’ll know the village is steeped in medieval lore. As the Wizard strummed a lyre, he told the story of how Peillon was built. High into the rocky crags, the infamous grey, stone houses, each stacked together like blocks of wood, were erected on the back of a great and noble dragon, slain by an evil knight.” Grand-mère’s eyes widened. “Bright green and white light filled the boulevard as a baby dragon, no bigger than a large dog appeared, and flapped its wings. Next, a dark knight with a black sword appeared, and his counterpart a white knight with a white sword started to duel. And just like in the story, the white knight was easily defeated, leaving the baby dragon defenseless.
“The crowd was awed by the Wizard’s magic show, and stood silent in perfect attention. I must’ve anticipated what would come next, that the dark knight would take the life of the innocent dragon. Already, it had been wounded, and could no longer fly. As the dark knight raised his sword to deliver the deathblow, I cried out. It was a blood-curdling scream, ordering the dark night to stop. The crowd parted. Everyone’s eyes turned to me. Coming towards me was the Wizard. His eyes looked like two grey whirlpools, and his small mouth surrounded by his beard parted into a frown.
‘Do you dare to take the place of the white knight, risking your life to save the dragon?’ The Wizard stood tall before me, eye level, from my place on the wall.
“Don’t let him kill the dragon,’ I said. The crowd of onlookers must have thought this was part of the show, and cheered for me.
‘What is your name, child?’ he asked.
‘La petite sœur,’ I said, nervously. My legs shook from underneath me.
‘Well, ma petite sœur,” the Wizard began, “the dark knight accepts your challenge.’
“No sooner did he finish his words than a white, glowing sword appeared in my small hands. It was so heavy, plus with my shaky legs, I started to lose my balance. I looked up and in the next instance the dark knight was charging at me, his sword aimed at my head. I screamed and slipped over the edge. The last thing I heard was the sound of metal hitting the ground.” Grand-mère cleared her throat and pointed to her coffee.
As she slurped the liquid, wetting her throat, I asked her what happened next.
“I woke and it was the next day. The sky was still lavender, the sun still pink and blue. I was lying on a potato sack stuffed with paper and hay in an abandoned house. The room was quiet. None of the other children were there. Sitting beside my bed, much the way you are, was the Wizard of Peillon. He was even more exotic up close. I could feel a great pull of energy coming from him, as if I was sitting next to a life-sized magnet. My head hurt with headache and my hands were bruised from where I fell. I finally got the courage to ask him what happened. He told me that I killed the dark knight in a single stroke.
‘Impossible,’ I said. ‘I have no skill with a sword, nor could I even hold it.’
‘No matter,’ he said, matter-of-factly. ‘Hundreds of people saw you. You’ve changed history. Now when I tell my story, I shall say that Peillon was built on the back of the dark knight, and the cave of a small dragon that still lives.’
“With a wave of his hand the small, red dragon, with purple splotches, appeared at the side of the bed. Right here,” she tapped the bed. “A magnificent creature, at first shy, and then brave. From its claws came a red box. This red box,” she held it up. “See the dragon’s mark on the lid?”
I looked closer to see a black print, shaped like a dragon’s claw and talons, etched on the glass lid.
She continued. “The Wizard winked at me. He said, ‘for your valor this dragon can bestow upon you your heart’s desire. Anything that you ask for can and will be yours. You must simply ask for it. What do you want more than anything in the world?’
“My head ached and so did my stomach, and for the mind of a child, I could only think of one thing. I asked to be fed. I wanted to never go hungry again. The Wizard looked at me and said that in the box I would find a dragon’s seed. ‘Plant it, and you’ll never know hunger. From it will spring a garden that will always endure until the earth and the sun and stars are no more.”
Grand-mère sat up. I helped her get comfortable, as her strength waned. She held the box up and gestured for me to open it. I pried the lid open with my fingers. Inside was a red seed the size of a stone. I poured it out into my palm and smelled it. It had the scent of a summer rain.
“This is my legacy that I leave to you, Daniel, so that you may never hunger.”
“I don’t understand, Grand-mère,” I said, holding the seed, feeling its rough texture in my palm. “Why didn’t you ever use it? You were poor and needed it most of all.”
“That day, after the box was given over to me,” she began, “I fell into a deep slumber overcome with fever and chills. When I awoke, I was in the house of a hotel merchant, one that sought out la petite sœur to make sure she was alive and safe, having born witness to my nasty fall. Overnight word spread about the Wizard and the duel of the two knights, and the brave girl that saved the dragon. I became famous, a sensation, and my rich benefactor used it to his advantage to attract visitors and foreigners alike to his business. As time went on, the story of the Wizard changed, and what appeared to hundreds of people as real magic, soon became nothing more than a fancy magic trick. Even the legend of the little sister soon faded. But by that point, I had already found my footing in the world. I was given a job in the hotel, where I eventually met your grand-père. It was like the Wizard said. I never hungered. The seed was only an assurance, and I never needed more.”
Grand-mère squeezed my hand. “This world will always be rough. It will always steer us where we wish not to be. Let this box be your little assurance that even in the darkest times, a little light can go a long way. A smile from a stranger, a kind word from a friend, a meal when you’re hungry.”
I held her hand as the afternoon light dimmed in the sky, and soon, in the quietude and peacefulness I fell into sleep, only waking upon hearing a young girl’s laughter. When I opened my eyes, I saw a wondrous green and purple light fill the room, and a tall, white bearded man that fit Grand-mère’s description of the Wizard. He held out his hand to a small girl waiting at the end of the bed.
“Come, ma petite sœur,” he said, and together they disappeared before my eyes.
In the days to follow, as my Grand-mère was laid to rest, I spent some time in the gardens surrounding her house. A wild extravaganza of flowers surrounded me, reds, yellows, white and oranges. I picked one and sat with it, smelling its distinct fragrance. Suddenly, I felt like I had all the time in the world to enjoy my surrounding. I thought about the dragon’s seed and wondered what kind of garden, if any, would spring up. Grand-mère had said it was mine to carry into the world. I tried to guess when the time would come when I would find it necessary to use it.
At the train station the next morning, I sat with my luggage and the red box on the seat beside me. I noticed a young boy, of no more than twelve, eyeing my belongings— especially the red box. I opened the newspaper and pretended to read, watching the boy from the corner of my eye, as he made his charge. He snatched the box and started to run.
In an instant, I was off the bench dashing after him. I caught up to him, and grabbed him by the shirt collar. He wriggled in my grasp. I carried him back to the bench, threatening to call the police if he wasn’t still. As I sat him beside me, I noticed the sky turn lavender, and the sky turn pink and blue. I thought for a moment I could see a shooting star fall from the heavens. “Paradise on earth,” I whispered. Suddenly, everything came together in my head, and without thought or word, I placed the red box in the boy’s hands, and said, “Have you ever heard the story of the Wizard of Peillon?”
The boy wiped his tears, and shook his head. I pulled out the lunch I was saving for the train, and handed it to him. “The story is an old, old one, but a true story none-the-less. It all started one day, when the sky turned purple, just like it is today…”