Once, long ago in China, a travelling musician visited a small kingdom near the Kuang Lu mountains. Every day he set up his stall in the market-place and astonished the people with his feats of magic.
When the king of the land heard what was going on, he summoned the magician to perform before his court. ‘I am a man who is easily bored with life,’ he told the magician. ‘If you keep me amused, you will be rewarded with many precious gifts. But if you cause me to yawn, even once, I will have you executed. Is that understood?’
The magician bowed. ‘Perfectly, Sire,’ he murmured. ‘It’s a fair bargain.’ But secretly he was thinking, This is no joke! If I come out of this alive, it’ll be a miracle.
The next day the magician set up his stall outside the palace, and entertained the king and his court with a display the like of which had never been seen before. Each trick was more spectacular, more glittering, than the last. At the end of it all, the whole court sat spellbound with wonder. They were hardly aware of who they were, or whether the space around them was on earth or in heaven. But presently the king stirred himself and clapped for attention. ‘I must thank you,’ he said to the magician, ‘for a truly remarkable performance.’
The magician bowed. ‘I am honoured,’ he said.
‘However,’ added the king, frowning, ‘I have to confess I was disappointed not to see the Chinese Rope Trick. Surely no performance worthy of the name is complete without it?’ And he sighed heavily, as if about to yawn.
‘Wait, Sire!’ said the magician quickly. ‘With respect, the show isn’t over yet. I always keep the best till last ...’
Then he threw a rope at the king’s feet and made a coaxing gesture with his hand. At once the rope stood up in the air, swaying from side to side like a snake. The magician gestured again, and the rope thickened into the trunk of a tree. Then, as everyone watched in astonishment, the tree began to grow quickly upwards, sprouting leaves and branches, until at last its crown touched the edge of the clouds.
The magician bowed low. ‘Behold, Sire,’ said he. ‘My tree is at your disposal. If you climb to the top, you will find yourself in the orchards of heaven.’ He fluttered his fingers, and small steps appeared in the trunk, each with a railing of polished gold.
The king beamed with delight. ‘Now this is impressive!’ he said warmly. ‘I shall see that you are rewarded.’ Then he clapped his hands, and everyone began scrambling up the tree, shouting and jostling each other in their eagerness to reach the orchards of heaven.
It took a long, long time to climb the tree, but finally they reached the top and looked out on a great meadow, white as milk, stretching as far as the eye could see. Thickets of ancient apricot trees grew in the meadow, their branches bowed low with fruit. And everywhere the dew sparkled like drifts of flowers, red, blue and silver.
The king stepped onto the meadow, and found it feathery-soft yet firm underfoot. With a shout of delight he raced to the nearest grove of apricot trees and began greedily devouring the delicious fruit. Close on his heels ran the queen, followed by the lords and ladies. They ran around in all directions vigorously shaking the branches until the fruit came tumbling down. But no sooner had the apricots fallen, than they replaced themselves, so that the boughs were always laden.
The whole court stood around gorging themselves until at last everyone grew drowsy and one by one dropped asleep under the apricot trees.
Meanwhile, in the palace courtyard, the magician waited and waited.
‘Whatever are they doing up there?’ he muttered. ‘At this rate it’ll be nightfall before I get to the next town. Better pack up, I suppose.’ He waved his hand, and at once the tree turned back into a rope and fell at his feet. The magician rolled it up and stuffed it in his sack. Then he shouldered the sack and strode briskly out through the palace gates.
And still the king and his court slept on. It was evening before they began to wake up. The king glanced up at the apricots glowing like lamps among the dusky leaves, and frowned. ‘I am tired of this place,’ he growled. ‘It is dreadfully dull.’ And he gave a great shuddering yawn. ‘Look at that!’ shouted the king. ‘I’m bored again already. Just wait till I get back. Someone is going to pay for this!’
Then the king and the queen and all the court rushed to climb down the tree, but when they reached the spot where it had stood, they discovered their meadow was floating in empty space. Far, far below, they saw the palace perched tiny as a child’s toy among its gardens and woods. The king trembled with rage. ‘What is the meaning of this?’ he roared. ‘Where is the magician? Arrest him! Arrest him!’
In his anger, he snatched a fistful of apricots and hurled them down at the palace. ‘Arrest the magician!’ he shouted to the people who had begun to gather in the marketplace far below. ‘Tell him he’ll be executed if he doesn’t bring us our ladder back!’ And then the queen and all the lords and ladies rushed to the edge of the meadow with armfuls of apricots and hurled them down. ‘Execute him!’ they shouted.
A short way down the road the magician looked up and saw that the sky was raining apricots. ‘There must be a storm blowing in the orchards of heaven,’ he said to himself. ‘Better keep moving.’ Then, taking an umbrella out of the sack, he hoisted it over his head, and hurried on his way.