Once upon a time a carpenter decided leave his dull old town and journey to a distant city. Though his kinfolk tried their best to dissuade him, once the idea came into his head, nothing else would do. His uncles told him stories of men who met horrible deaths on the road. His aunts reminded him of every pretty girl in the town and country. His cousins, one by one, said (in their own words): “You’ve a good life here. Why find trouble in a far-off place where no one cares about your fate?”
“I’ve hammered every bit of wood in this town and sawed every plank in the country around. It’s past time and tide to find something that I’ve not yet tried,” was the young carpenter’s only response. His old mother and father, knowing their only son’s stubborn heart well, said nothing, but helped him pack his things and blessed him at the door.
“Be kind when you can,” his father said.
“Be careful when you can’t,” his mother added. They kissed him and sent him on his way.
He set out walking. He walked all day and late into the night. Even though the dark around held who-knows-what, he pressed on down the road. The thought of distant sights and smells and sounds made his footsteps light.
“Besides,” he thought, “the full moon makes the way as bright as day. I’d be in more danger in the forest back home.”
Up ahead of him, just over a low rise in the road, the carpenter heard two voices arguing.
“You dropped it, you fetch it,” growled a gruff man.
“I wouldn’t have dropped it if you hadn’t startled me,” said a stern woman, “barking orders so loud.”
“He won’t have his dinner if you don’t nip down there and clip it out.”
“And you’ll be the one to tell him that, and it will go the worse for you,” the woman shot back.
They fell to squabbling on and on, around the same two points – he, insisting that she fetch what she dropped, she refusing. No progress was made, nor any seemed likely to the carpenter, listening to this bickering.
The carpenter remembered what his father had told him. He strode up and over the rise with a smile on his face, ready to help smooth out the argument.
When he crested the hill, he stopped dead in his tracks. Floating in the sky – no, standing, on a landing made of shimmering solid moonlight – were a cook and a butler. Behind them, the carpenter could see the solid white light rose in shimmering stairs all the way to the face of the moon. Beneath them was a crossroads, with a well set right at the center.
The cook was frowning the stubbornest frown you’d ever want to see. She was dusted from head to toe in flour. The butler wore a blue velvet coat with silver buttons. He had the head of a wolf, with a snarling lip and haughty air. The carpenter had never seen any such sight in his short life.
“I say,” he cried, “this is why I left that dull old town.”
The cook and butler looked down.
“You there!” the cook said. She pointed to the well with her dusty ladle. “Climb down and fetch the silver bucket at the bottom there. It fell from me and I want it back before the moon sets.”
“You shouldn’t send a groundling to fix your mistake,” the wolf-butler said. She turned back to him with a glare, and they were off and arguing again. The carpenter watched them until the amusement grew weary. Then he whistled a whistle that carried a country mile.
“My father told me to be kind when I can,” he said, “so I’ll climb down quick as can be and get your bucket.”
“Thank you,” said the cook. “Don’t drink from it, no matter what.”
“It’s filled with the Moon King’s wine,” added the butler. “One drop and a groundling like you will fly off forever into the darkness between the stars.”
With that admonishment ringing in his ears, the carpenter swung one leg over the edge of the well. To his surprise, he found a ladder of glowing moon-rungs all down the side, as far as he could see.
“That’ll do nicely,” he said, and began to climb.
He climbed for a very, very, very, very long time. His arms burned and sweat stung his eyes. A time or two, he nearly slipped, so tired he was from all the climbing. It seemed that all he had ever done was climb down that well, one moon-rung at a time. After so long, all he could pay attention to was the rungs in his hands and the rungs beneath his feet and the next ones down.
That was how, without noticing how it happened, he found himself climbing out of another well-top. He brushed himself off, caught his breath, and looked around.
“I must have climbed clear through to the other side of the world!” he exclaimed.
He stood in the middle of a strange garden, filled with plants he had never seen. The sun shone bright and high. The air was warm and filled with a dozen smells he could not find names for – sweet and odd and sharp and new. Even the heavy hornets, drifting from flower to flower, were gold in hue and looked like no hornets from back home.
“This is why I left that dull old town,” the carpenter said. “I wonder which way I ought to go?”
He was not sure, for the well stood at the center of a crossing of two garden paths, leaving him four choices. The sun was at its peak, and he could not guess the directions.
Just then, he heard the most beautiful music he had ever heard. Strings from an instrument he could not name plucked out a simple five-note song that floated over the garden. The flowers seemed to shiver as the music touched them, and the sleepy buzz of the hornets kept time with the tune.
The carpenter stepped off towards the sound. As he did so, he almost kicked over a silver bucket, filled with shimmering wine. Remembering his task, he picked it up. He looked down the well at the endless moonlight ladder.
“Perhaps a bit of rest wouldn’t be amiss,” he thought. “I am sure they can wait a moment or two while I recover my strength for the climb back.”
Thus assured of his own good intentions, and carrying the bucket at his side, the carpenter walked through the perfumed garden towards the source of the beautiful, exotic music.
In no time at all, he stepped through a break in a hedge and saw a wide dais, made of gold bricks. On it, he saw a woman of his own age playing an empty tortoise shell that had been strung with five bright iron wires. She wore silk robes whose patterns dazzled his eyes. He rubbed them clear of tears.
“This,” he said, “is why I left that dull old town.”
The woman looked right into his eyes. Her eyes were black as the darkest night, but their corners crinkled with mischief. She winked at him and nodded her head to her left and to her right, without a break in her beautiful playing.
To the musician’s left, a squat young man in rich, but spotted, robes lolled on a reclining chair. He dug bright yellow wax out of his ears with one long fingernail, then flicked it across the dais. He seemed to the carpenter to be bored by the music, the garden, and the world at large, to be bored by everything around him except the waxy gold from his hairy ears.
To the musician’s right, a ways away from her on the dais, the carpenter saw a burly man and sour woman, who each wore the largest crowns he could have imagined. They sat across from each other at a table made of gleaming alabaster. Behind each of them stood a retinue of servile bureaucrats, too many for the carpenter to count. When one of them would say something, the servants behind them would murmur approvingly, while the servants behind the other monarch would hiss and tisk and carry on.
The carpenter ducked behind the hedgerow and peered through. After spying for some time, the story became clear to him. The woman playing the beautiful music was the Garden Emperor’s daughter, while the waxy man was the Hornet Empress’ son. The two parents were, as parent will, planning their children’s future as husband and wife – as well as the unification of their two empires as a result of this wedding.
The negotiations showed no signs of ending. The music continued. The Garden Princess stared the carpenter square in the eyes, and he knew exactly what she wanted.
“This was why I left that dull old town,” he reminded himself. Thus emboldened, he leapt onto the dais. Taking her hand in his, they ran together into the garden. For the briefest time, it seemed that they might get a good head start, but the unpleasant Hornet Prince emitted a great loud whine as he saw his bride-to-be being stolen by a stranger. In a trice, pursuit was organized. Hornets and Gardeners hot on their heels, the carpenter led the princess back to the well.
“It’ll never work,” she said. Her voice was every bit as filled with mischief as her eyes, and every bit as pleasantly strange as her music. “Look!”
The carpenter could see they were surrounded. He threw one leg over the well and cried, “Come on!”
Unfortunately, at that moment, he saw he had dallied too long in the garden at the other end of the world. The moon had set back over his own country road, and taken with it the shimmering rungs.
“Doom!” cried the carpenter as the army rushed down.
Fortunately, the Garden Princess had studied many things and, at once, recognized the silver bucket of the Moon King’s wine, and knew exactly what it could do. She seized it from the quailing carpenter and took a swift sip. Quick as light, she flew up into the sky, past the sun itself and out to the darkness between the stars.
The carpenter took one look at the flashing sharp tools of the Garden Emperor’s minions and the sharp stabbing stingers of the Hornet Empress’ soldiers and followed the Princess’ lead. He quaffed a great draft from the bucket. It was just in time too, for two dozen rakes and two dozen stingers pierced the side of the well where he had stood but a blink before.
Together, the Garden Princess and the carpenter wandered the darkness between the stars for many lives of men, until the Garden Empire and Hornet Empire had both crumbled to dust and been forgotten. After more sand had passed through the world’s hourglasses than there are stars in the sky, they came to the Moon King’s palace, shimmering and bright against the night. They knocked at the door.
The wolf-headed butler answered. “We thought you would never arrive,” he said.
“I—” the carpenter started to apologize.
“He wasn’t talking to you,” shouted the flour-dusty cook through the kitchen door.
The Garden Princess kissed the butler on both cheeks. “Isengrim,” she said, for that was his name, “so good to see you again.”
Confused, the carpenter let himself be led in from the dark. He was not confused long, for the Moon King himself swept down the majestic silver staircase and embraced the Garden Princess, lifting her in his great arms and swinging her around.
“Daughter, my daughter!” he cried. “I thought you had died!”
As the father and daughter exchanged tender words of reunion, Isengrim explained to the carpenter that, though the Garden Emperor had claimed the princess was his own, he had, in fact, found her by the well in the garden one morning. She had strayed too far from the Palace of the Moon and lost the ladder home. Eager for prestige, and knowing he could command any dowry for such a bride, the Emperor hid her in the sun and pretended she was his own.
“Until you climbed down the well and saved her,” the cook added.
After all their time together in the darkness between the stars, the carpenter and the princess had, quite naturally, fallen very much in love. His daughter restored, the Moon King could see no objection to their being married, then and there.
As they danced along the shimmering floor of solid light, to a perfect five-note tune, the carpenter whispered in his new bride’s ear, “This was why I left that dull old town.”