Far away in the land of Wherebewhen many years ago there lived a clan of weary farmers. The climate was cold and damp and the soil so poor and stony that it took a ton of manure and an aching back before a sprig of wheat would grow, to say nothing of a flower. The cattle were lean and hungry and, like their owners, drooped at the mouth. Life was hard and dreary for all who lived in Wherebewhen.
Years before, or so the elders claimed, the crops were somewhat better. A few flowers grew, though the land was not much richer then. In the evening, when the hard day’s labor was over, men sat by the fire and played the guitar. Young girls danced and tossed their curls. And a poet sang and cried of a life that was hard but happy. The elders swore to all this, lamentingly. Ah, for the life that had been. And it had been, though they could not remember how, try as they might, for years of toil had brought the waning of joy. It had sapped their natural strength and dulled their memories.
Lately in the village, as if there were not enough trouble, there had been awful rumors. Word had spread that on the outskirts of the village giants had been seen, or dinosaurs, or dragons. No one knew quite which, for no one in the clan actually claimed to have seen them, but it was said with all trepidation that “others” had. Now the people of Wherebewhen, already trembling with fear of life, had another threat to their existence.
At first the cynical clansmen scoffed. “Posh,” they said, “there are no giants or dinosaurs or dragons. Giants are creatures of the imagination. Dinosaurs lived thousands of years ago. Dragons exist only in fairy tales.”
But in their hearts they were afraid, like all of their credulous brothers and sisters.
As the tales continued, the people’s fears mounted. When the first cattle were slain, even the skeptics showed their fear. What would be next? What could be done? Then one day, three farmers who had taken a jaunt to the edge of the village came running back, faces pale with fear, voices trembling.
“We saw them,” said the first. “There was a giant.”
“And a dinosaur,” quaked the second.
“A-a-a-and a dragon,” sputtered the third, trying desperately to catch his breath.
“Big as a building,” cried the first.
“Teeth like white knives,” cried the second.
“Bre-bre-breathing streams of fire,” stuttered the third.
“What shall we do? What shall we do?” moaned the villagers together.
News was carried to the mayor, and, being a good and efficient politician, he declared decisively: “This calls for a town meeting.” The mayor rapped his gavel as authoritatively as his nervous hand would allow and asked for suggestions. There was silence.
“Are there no suggestions?” implored the mayor. “Surely, someone can tell us what to do.”
But then, far in the back of the room, a tiny voice was heard.
“I can help,” it said. “I can help.”
“Who’s that?” shouted the mayor.
“Who’s that?” echoed the clansmen.
The entire clan turned to see who it was who claimed to have the answer to their prayers. But to their great annoyance no one was there but a little blue-eyed, dimple-cheeked, six-and-a half-year-old boy whom they didn’t recognize.
“What?” bleated the mayor.
“You?” chanted the clan. “You’re just a little child. Too young to know of serious things such as these.” The entire clan turned to the front of the room again.
Then one of the elders raised his hand and the frustrated mayor called on him immediately, everyone forgetting all about the little boy.
“Perhaps we could get fourteen of our strongest men to take the fourteen rifles that lie in the town armory and confront these monsters in mortal combat at the edge of the village tonight before it’s too late.”
And so it was done.
That evening as the sun was setting so that the light was dim and they could not easily be seen, fourteen frightened clansmen carried fourteen rifles to the edge of the village to fight a giant, a dinosaur, and a dragon.
The monsters were there to meet them.
When the men caught the first glimpse of the creatures, they were more terrible than anyone had imagined, though in the dim light all of their hideous features were not easily discernible. There was the Giant, tall as a building; the Dinosaur, teeth like white knives; and the Dragon, breathing fire. The clansmen had not yet been seen. Now was their chance, they thought. All together, the fourteen men fired fourteen bullets at the Giant, the Dinosaur, and the Dragon in turn.
Fourteen bullets bounced from the head and arms and chest of the Giant. Fourteen bullets were caught and crunched in the teeth of the Dinosaur. Fourteen bullets melted away in the fiery mouth of the Dragon and fell in a molten puddle at his feet.
In fear, the fourteen clansmen dropped the fourteen rifles, turned, and fled to the town as fast as they could.
Spirits were low in the village as the mayor rapped his gavel again and made another call for suggestions. Again, in the back of the room, a tiny voice was heard.
“I can help,” it said. “I can help.”
Again the villagers turned to see who had spoken. It was the same blue-eyed, dimple-cheeked six-and-a half-year-old boy.
“You again?” screeched the mayor.
“You again?” echoed the clan.
“You’re too naïve to know of such matters,” said the mayor, pointing his finger accusingly.
“Too naïve,” repeated the villagers reproachfully. And they all turned away once more.
“Our cattle are still being eaten,” said the mayor. “Who knows when we will be eaten too, if first we do not starve to death. Surely someone can tell us what to do.”
Then one villager made this suggestion: “Let us send our most eloquent spokesperson to plead our case. Perhaps there is some spark of sympathy in these beasts and they will listen to our pleas.”
And so it was done.
At the next dawn, when the light was still dim so that his fear might not be seen, the most eloquent, clear-voiced speaker in the clan departed for the edge of the village, leaving his forensic cups and debating medals behind him.
When he saw the monsters, he cautiously cleared his throat and pleaded passionately, “Gentlemen, I have come here as a humble human being to beg you to spare our lives. If you have within you one drop of the milk of…” But he got no farther than that, for in the middle of his well-prepared speech the Giant bellowed a terrific “Ha!”
The Dinosaur followed with an enormous “Ho!”
And the Dragon, who could not speak because of all the fire in its mouth, showed its disdain by spewing out a blistering blaze that singed the speaker’s nose and sent him running back to town with his pants in flames.
In the next days, the villagers tried everything they could think of, but nothing pleased or placated the beasts. Eventually, the clan lost all hope. The last of their cattle were slain and they knew that, no matter what their leaders might pretend, their fate was sealed. Still, more out of habit than hope, another clan meeting was held.
The gavel was rapped despairingly, and the mayor called for final suggestions. Again, from the back of the room, the tiny voice was heard, as bright and hopeful as ever.
“I can help,” it said in its usual liveliness. “I can help.”
But this time no one even turned around.
“Too young,” sighed one of the clansmen.
“Too innocent,” mouthed another person.
Then, unexpectedly, without even quite knowing what he was doing, the mayor gave three tremendous raps of his gavel and shouted:“No! We have tried everything else. Our hopes are gone. Let us listen to this lad. We’ve nothing to lose.”
The villagers turned to the little boy, whose blue eyes sparkled now and whose broad smile was framed by two deep dimples.
“This is what we must do,” he said. “Tomorrow at the height of noon, when the sun shines its brightest and the world is its lightest, follow me to the edge of the village.”
The next day in the brightness of noon the entire clan huddled in a single, not-too-hopeful mass and dragged itself to the edge of the village behind the six-and-a-half-year-old boy, who smiled and skipped as he went. It was a peculiar sight, like a funeral procession led by a happy fairy. When they reached the edge of the village and the creatures first came into view, the clansmen fell back in fear. The monsters were still there alright—tall as a building, teeth like white knives, breathing fire—though they were difficult to see, for the men and women had to look up at them straight into the blazing sun. As the little boy walked toward the beasts, the creatures struck their most ominous poses. The Giant roared his loudest. The Dinosaur gnashed its teeth violently. And the Dragon breathed a stream of fire as hot as the furnaces of hell. But the blue-eyed boy advanced undaunted, carrying with him for protection only a bent and rusty hoe that had been cast away in the midst of a barren field.
It was then that the first of a series of strange and miraculous events occurred, events which even those who are most ready to believe in the wonderful may doubt. The most clear-sighted of the farmers swore that it happened just as I will tell it to you, though it took place at a distance and their vision was obscured by the spectacular brightness of the noonday sun.
As the boy walked toward the monsters, instead of beginning to appear smaller and smaller as an object that recedes into the distance does, he grew larger and larger until, when he reached the feet of the beasts, he was the size of an enormous man equal in height almost to the Giant himself.
To the squinting and awestruck eyes of the farmers, the boy’s huge back and shoulders looked like a great anvil on which they might forge new hopes. He was now virtually unrecognizable, except for the familiar dimple in his cheeks and twinkle in his eyes, which for the moment were hidden from the farmers’ view.
And now as a man, he picked up his hoe and thrust it forward in the air like a sword. Without blinking, he gazed directly into the burning sun and confronted the beasts.
“Go away,” he said.
The Giant roared; the Dinosaur gnashed its teeth, and the Dragon spat fire.
“Go away,” the boy repeated. “I command you to leave this land. We are not afraid. We are not afraid.” And he at least was not.
He quickly turned to the monsters and touched them each softly with the hoe, as though it were now not a sword but a wand. Having been touched, the creatures began to change form. The unbelieving eyes of the clansmen grew wide with amazement as they watched the Dragon shrink and shrivel and alter his identity until there was nothing left where he had been but a worn and broken ploughshare, bent and useless as the boy’s hoe had appeared to be a moment before. The fate of the Dinosaur and the Giant was much the same. They too shriveled and changed until there was nothing left of their former selves. In the Dinosaur’s place was but a single sheath of pale and dying wheat. The spot where the Giant had been was the strangest of all. There appeared for an instant the figure of an old and frightened farmer who grasped feebly at the ploughshare and collapsed in a heap. None of the farmers could quite identify the man in the brief time he was visible, but each felt, darkly, that he was one of them. Then, as if it had all been a dream, the sprig of wheat, the ploughshare, and the frightened farmer vanished. As quickly as the scene had appeared, it was gone. When the blue-eyed boy resumed his former appearance, the farmers realized that monsters were never to be seen again.
There was a moment of silence and then wild, happy, ecstatic pandemonium broke loose. Everyone shouted and threw their hats in the air. Long-standing enemies embraced one another, there were tears of joy and the whole village broke into song.
Hours later, when the clansmen had settled down a bit, the mayor raised his hand and said, “And now, good people, now that our troubles are over and there is room for a little joy in our hearts again, it is only right and proper that we honor the person responsible for all this.” With a smile in their hearts, everyone looked around for the little boy so that they might carry him on their shoulders and pay homage to him. But he was nowhere to be found.
In the next days, the citizens searched the land of Wherebewhen from corner to corner and even beyond its borders. But the little boy was gone. In all the confusion, he had picked himself up and left, taking his blue eyes, his dimpled cheeks and his six and a half years right with him.
From then on once every season the clan had a festival to honor the little boy. At the end of the festival, to keep the memory of the miraculous event alive, the elders told their children the story of how he had conquered the monsters. As time passed the children told the story to their children just as it had been told to them. And this is what they did for many years.
Finally, someone said, “We must write this story down to preserve it for the generations.” So the clan historian was called and asked to commit the legend to print. But, being a rational and sober-minded man who had a passion for literal truth, the historian asked:
“Is it possible that a little boy of six-and-a-half years could frighten away a giant, a dinosaur, and a dragon? Surely it is not. If I were to write this down, I would certainly not be writing down the truth. It must have been the fourteen mighty clansmen with their fourteen mighty rifles that defeated the beasts.”
This is the way he recorded the story. This is the way it was read to the next generation. In time, the text on which the legend was written again grew old and worn. When the letters became difficult to read, someone in the village declared, “This book is about to fall apart. Let us call our learned psychologist to transcribe it onto new parchment so we may preserve the memory of our fourteen bravest ancestors.”
But when the psychologist was called, he read the story, shook his head skeptically, and asked, “Is it possible that fourteen men, however brave and strong, could defeat a giant, a dinosaur, and a dragon with only rifles? Any fool knows that the bullets would bounce right off of the giant, would be caught and crunched in the teeth of the dinosaur, and would melt in the mouth of the dragon. I think our people must have imagined it all. Yes, that’s it. They must have had a mass hallucination. But that’s a wondrous thing in itself and I shall write it down to pass on to the generations.”
And so he did. Years later, when this parchment too became old and the writing on it hazy and blurred, someone said, “This text has faded badly. We need a wise person to transcribe it yet again. Call the village philosopher to interpret the words and write them down more clearly so we may continue to read to our young the tale of the marvelous vision our people had long ago.”
Thus the philosopher in all his wisdom was called. But when he sat down to transcribe the tale, he too shook his head in disbelief and sighed, “Is it possible that an entire village should have a mass hallucination—that all of them at once should see the same thing when nothing at all was there? This is so unlikely as to be beyond belief. Never could there be such a breach of nature. If I were to record this, no one would believe me and all who read it would call me a fool.”
So he merely smiled benignly at the simple faith of his people and put his pen aside.
In this way, the legend of the little boy was at first altered, then transformed in its very nature and finally forgotten. Today, far away from here in the land of Wherebewhen, a few of the descendants of the original clan still survive. There is no yearly festival nor is there a telling of the tale of the little boy who saved the village. Life is still hard for the people, as it was many years before in the time of the blue-eyed boy. The climate is still cold and damp and the land poor and stony. But here and there a flower grows. In the evening when the hard day’s labor is over, the men sit by the fire and play the guitar. The young girls dance and toss their curls. And a poet sings and cries of a life that is hard but happy.