There was once a farmer who ploughed a field of dust. Each day as he raked and hoed, the dust billowed all around him until he was the colour of dust, his face, his hands, his clothes.
At night his house was filled with dust. Dust covered his table, the cupboards, the floor. Even his bed was dry with dust. Each morning as he woke, all he had dreamt was dust, fields of dust and hills of dust, barns stacked high with nothing but dust. Then he rose and shook the dust from his pillow, from his sheets, from the curtain which covered the window to block out the dusty sun.
Each night when his work was done, he sat down to eat a bowl of food. But the food was dry. It looked like dust. It tasted of dust. Beside him on the table lay a wooden flute, and when he had finished his meal, the farmer would blow the dust away and then he would sit and play. The tune was fresh and clear, sweet as water running. And the farmer would smile and gaze through the window stained with dust as if he was remembering.
But next morning he returned to the field again. The field of dust, the field where nothing grew. And he would set to ploughing and raking and hoeing and the dust would rise around him all over again.
Then one day he saw the shadow of a traveller approaching through the dust. A stranger in a long grey coat who stopped to ask the way. The farmer pointed on along the road and the traveller thanked him and was about to take his leave. But then he paused.
“Tell me, what do you grow here?” he asked.
“Nothing,” said the farmer. “Nothing grows here at all. Every year I plough the dust, I rake it and I hoe. And then I plant the seeds. But nothing ever grows. Nothing at all.”
The traveller shook his head and put his hand into his pocket. From the very depths of the lining he brought one red seed.
“I can give you this,” he said. “And I promise you it will grow. It will yield the finest crop that you have ever seen.”
“Yes, yes,” said the farmer, about to grab the seed, but the traveller closed his hand.
“Wait,” he said. “First you must give me something in return.”
“Anything,” said the farmer. “Anything at all.”
The traveller scratched his chin.
“This seed is precious to me,” he said. “So you must give me something that is precious to you in return. What can you give me?”
The farmer spread his hands in despair.
“I am only a poor farmer. My crops fail year after year. All I have is the clothes that I stand in.”
The traveller gazed at him with piercing eyes.
“Nothing at all?” He put his hand back in his pocket. “Then I will keep the seed.”
The traveller was about to make his way down the road when the farmer stopped him.
“Wait!” he said. “There is something.”
The traveller turned.
“Tell me more.”
“I have a flute…” The farmer’s words came tumbling out. “I have a flute, it sounds so clear, sweet as the wind in springtime.”
“This flute I would like to see,” said the traveller.
And so the farmer took the traveller to his house and there he showed him the flute. Then the traveller smiled and gave him the seed, tucked the flute into his bag and soon was on his way.
Next day the farmer dug a hole in the ground right in the very middle of his field, just as the traveller had told him. And then he planted the bright red seed. Covered it over with dry grey dust and sprinkled it with what little water he had. And then he waited. He waited and he waited, day after day in the dust and the sun. But nothing happened. Nothing happened at all. At night he would sit and eat his meal which tasted of dust and slept in his sheets which felt like dust and dreamt of his flute which sounded so clear, sweet as the wind in springtime. The flute which he could play no more.
Next day and next he returned to the field, but still nothing had happened. Nothing happened at all. All was grey dust, just as before. But then one day, a shoot. A tiny green shoot peeking up from the ground. The farmer was overjoyed. He rushed to his house to fetch water and when he returned the shoot had grown even more. When he saw this, the farmer danced all about the tender shoot and sang the song he once played on his flute so that the air blew sweet and cool.
Day by day the shoot grew and grew until it was a firm green stem, and then a bud sprouted at its top. One morning the farmer left his house and tramped across the field until there in the middle he saw that the bud had become a flower, the brightest flower he had ever seen! The farmer sprinkled water on its petals that glowed so red and golden. He watched as the sun rose higher in the sky and spread its rays across the field of flat grey dust. But at the moment when the sun struck the petals of the flower, to the farmer’s astonishment it burst into flames. He tried to douse them with the last of the water in his can, but to no avail. The flames licked higher, brighter and hotter so that the farmer had to move away.
And then from the centre of the fire stepped a woman. The most beautiful woman he had ever seen. She wore a robe the colour of flame, red and golden as the flower’s petals, though the flower lay burnt and blackened now on the flat grey dust as the woman followed the farmer all the way back to his house.
They sat together at his table and the farmer asked the woman many questions, but each time she answered only with a smile, and spoke slowly in a language of another land that he did not understand. And then she sang to him, humming the tune that he had played on his harp, the tune he sang to the flower. And the woman laughed, and the farmer laughed too and every day they worked together to clean the house and tend the fields, though some nights the farmer wished he still had his flute so that he could play for her.
But then he shook his head and remembered that if the traveller had not taken the flute, then he would not have the seed. And without the seed there would have been no flower and without the flower the woman would never be here at all.
And if the woman had not been here, the seeds which they planted in the fields would never have begun to grow. For grow they did. They grew to give fine crops of corn which the farmer took to sell in the market. Every night when he returned, a sumptuous supper was set on the table and the house which once had been grey with dust now stood sparkling and clean.
But one day when the farmer came home, the woman was lying in the bed. There was no supper on the table and dust had already gathered on the shelves and across the floor.
Each day the woman grew more listless, her tired face pale against the bright red and gold of her robe. Even though the crops in the fields still grew higher, the farmer was sad. The woman no longer smiled at him, they no longer laughed together and she did not sing the song to the tune he had once played on his flute.
One morning he left her lying in bed and went down to the field to tend the crop. He hoed a little, picking out stones, but his heart was not in his task. He straightened his back and peered down the road. In the distance he saw a shadow, a figure coming closer. Not many passed this way and so the farmer waited to see who it was.
It was the traveller.
The farmer greeted him.
“I see you still have the flute,” he said, for it was sticking out from the traveller’s bag.
The traveller hauled it out.
“I still have the flute,” he nodded, “but it is useless now. The wood is cracked and no notes will come. I could never learn even one tune. But I see your fields have yielded a great crop. My seed has done its work!”
The farmer agreed. “The seed has brought me all that I wished for.”
“Then why look so sad?” the traveller exclaimed.
The farmer paused.
“I wish I had the flute again. It is no good to you, now that it is cracked. Let me take it back.”
The traveller looked at the flute and considered.
“I will give you the flute if you return the woman to me.”
The farmer dropped his hoe in surprise.
“How do you know of the woman?”
“It was I who gave you the seed, remember? And the seed has done its work…”
The farmer scratched his chin and looked at the flute, looked at his crops, then looked at the flute again.
“The woman is sick,” he said at last. “She cannot sing.”
“You should have told me,” the traveller cried. “Take me to her straight away.”
The traveller followed the farmer across the field all the way back to the house. There the woman lay in bed. She scarce raised her head when they walked in. The traveller took her hand and began to talk to her in the language the farmer did not understand. She tried to smile, but as the traveller stared into her eyes, her hands turned to fine grey dust and then her face and soon her body too.
The traveller shook his head and walked away, leaving the broken flute lying on the table. As soon as he stepped through the door, the crops in the fields all withered and died and soon the soil returned to dust.
The house filled with dust. Dust covered the tables, the cupboards, the floor. Each night the farmer slept in a bed of dust, though he knew that once the dust had been woman, had been flame, had been flower, had been seed. But now all was gone and the dust had returned and the farmer sat each day in his flat grey fields and coaxed the tune from his broken flute that once he had sung with the woman he would always remember. The woman he could never forget.
David Greygoose‘s published works include Brunt Boggart (Pushkin) and Mandrake Petals and Scattered Feathers (Hawkwood).
You can find more of David’s work here on Ink Pantry.