There was once a kingdom ruled by a wise but very mysterious wizard who lived reclusively in a very high tower set at the edge of a beautiful and productive valley. The wizard was a generous hearted ruler and quite concerned for the welfare of all the people living there but, alas, the tower had no entryway allowing any person access, either to it ─ or to the wizard who lived there. Perhaps that last statement is not strictly true. Many years before the present time there had been one small doorway leading to a spiral staircase inside the tower, but this vital portal had long been lost; buried under a great landslide. So many ages had passed since the disaster that even the general location of that ancient portal had long faded from men’s memories.
While this situation presented no particular obstacle to the wizard, who was able to come and go as he pleased, he was content to leave things as they were, partly as a reminder to the people of the valley. For the fact is that their fathers, who at one time had enjoyed the company of the powerful wizard, had been incited by the dragon into a disastrous attempt to overthrow their rightful ruler. That rebellion came to naught of course, but in the process of besieging the tower the dragon had fomented a tremendous flood hoping to undermine the tower’s foundations. But the wizard had constructed his tower on deep foundations too solid to be shaken, and the ensuing flood managed to sluice away a massive quantity of mud and rock from the surrounding mountains. That mass of released fluvium thoroughly buried the base of the tower but otherwise inflicted little damage except for sealing off the former portal at ground level. Ever since then communication with the wizard had been cut off for the valley dwellers, and all due to their own subversions. And so things have remained ever since.
Now the wizard also had a beautiful daughter named Luneia who lived high in the tower keep, overlooking the fertile valley below. Every morning, just as dawn peaked over the horizon, Luneia would sit near the single window opening singing as she combed her flaxen hair, which appeared as spun gold in the sunlight. So great was her beauty that the mere sight of her would madden mortal men. Luneia had been but a child when the rebellion broke out, partly instigated by her charms even at that tender young age. It seems that the leaders of that mutiny had in mind to steal the child away from the wizard, which is why they had conspired with the dragon in the first place. For that reason the wizard preferred to keep access to the tower sealed after the deluge.
Although, in the lives of men, the uprising had happened three or four generations earlier, time did not pass so quickly in the tower keep. Luneia now appeared to be a youthful maiden of perhaps 18 years; unsurpassed in beauty or grace. Uncontrollable passions would undoubtedly be roused, even in the most stoic heart, if men were to see her now. But Luneia herself was not afraid. She had always kept a kind spot in her heart for the people in the valley and longed for their company once again. As it was, her melodic song wafted daily across the valley captivating the heart of any ear it might happen to fall upon. Though her face was little more visible than a speck from the ground, the men of the valley came to bitterly regret the great insurrection of their fathers of old which now denied them access to the wizard and his enchanting daughter, Luneia. Every morning at precisely the third hour of daylight, Luneia would finish braiding her golden coif and disappear into the inner recesses of the keep. But at night, when the sky had darkened her velvet voice could sometimes be heard echoing among the tree branches, as she prepared herself for bed.
About this time there lived a plucky carpenter named Jack who had been captivated by Luneia’s songs (one had to be very quiet and still to make them out as they fluttered on the soft breeze). Inspired to become better acquainted with this mysterious princess he came up with an idea. Out of ordinary wood Jack fabricated a new device which he called a ladder. It was a clever invention which Jack had originally intended for pilfering robin’s eggs, for which he had acquired a special taste. Nor did it take long for others to realize the practical value of this handy new device. In time Jack became quite wealthy building ladders, first of all for immediate neighbors, but soon for everyone in the valley. Everybody simply needed his own ladder it seemed.
One morning another bright idea occurred to Jack as he sat silent and wistful listening to Luneia’s sonorous melody resonate in his melancholic ears. How he longed to meet the purveyor of such sweet song face to face. Impulsively, Jack grabbed his best ladder and propped it squarely against the stone wall of the tower. From her vantage point on high Luneia glanced down and smiled sweetly at this endearing yet futile gesture. Jack scrambled to the topmost rung of his ladder and sat there pensively, listening to her songs. How much better he could make out the tunes from here! Even so, there seemed to be a mile or more of stark forbidding wall between his outstretched figure and the petite window where Luneia was perched like a nightingale. But for Jack the great expanse between them made little difference. He saw himself as being that much closer to his heart’s desire and besides, his puny perch still seemed to bring her radiant features and euphonic songs so much nearer than they had ever been.
Now Jack yearned all the more to be even nearer to his beloved princess so he built a larger ladder, stretching it as long as it could be reasonably extended. The next morning at dawn he leaned this improved version against the forbidding wall and scaled it up to new heights. The view of trees and valley from here was absolutely exhilarating, but Jack hardly noticed so entranced was he by the closeness he could feel to Luneia. He could now make out a few soft features in her face. As the princess gazed down at Jack she suddenly blew him a kiss, which nearly toppled Jack from his none-too-steady perch. For the next three hours Jack balanced himself precariously on that upper rung, dreamily absorbing every note flowing like honey from Luneia’s ruby lips. Every glance from her penetrating cobalt eyes seared itself into Jack’s heart, for he was now experiencing Luneia’s charms as no person in the valley ever had. Limited as their exchange might be, for Jack it was an intoxicating experience.
By now other neighbors were noticing Jack’s peculiar behavior. A few shook their heads wisely but sadly while others began to taunt him for such foolishness. From the ground it was evident that he was still hopelessly removed from that solitary window, but for Jack that seemed not to matter. He simply wanted to be as close to Luneia as humanly possible. Something wonderful had stirred in Jack’s heart. Even had she been sitting on the moon itself, Jack would have willingly scaled the highest mountain just to be that much closer to Luneia. It wasn’t a matter of practicality, it was something that stirred in his heart and Jack knew that he must follow wherever that desire led him.
Meanwhile the other valley residents were starting to weigh in with ideas of their own. One school of thought held that the whole ladder business had gone too far. This group openly ridiculed Jack as an unpractical dreamer who had entirely lost touch with reality. These were the “practical men” who considered wizards, songs, and princesses as so much distraction, even child’s play, when weighed against more important things. Their reality was the day to day affairs of the valley: trade, planting, harvesting, and acquiring wealth above all.
Jack, of course, had made a small fortune with his ladders but now he only seemed interested in dissipating everything he had earned pursuing some fool errand. The businessmen resented him all the more because he had once been one of their own. Now it seems he had deserted the cause. This represented an unforgivable sin and so they jeered and mocked Jack at every opportunity. Some even went so far as to deny that the wizard or his daughter even existed, explaining that the morning songs were little more than the wind rustling through the trees. They insisted that the tower was a remnant from some long-lost civilization; a stately ruin but little more.
Others were not quite so sure. Jack wasn’t the sort of person to get caught up in fantasies or idle visions. He truly seemed to be seeing something real up in that remote tower keep. Perhaps he was able to recognize something from his rung-top roost that otherwise gets lost in the hubbub and clatter on the ground. If one could gain a little separation from the noise and distractions of everyday life, then perhaps one might also get a glimpse of that exotic vision Jack so passionately hailed. True, they could all see something high above in that tiny window, but whether it was a real princess or the sun’s reflection no one could say with absolute certainty. But Jack’s effusive descriptions of her beautiful face and sweet intoxicating music pricked the curiosity of a good many people.
Slowly, other ladders began appearing propped up against the wall or placed wherever they could be supported by whatever means. As others began to ascend their own ladders they too began to experience the peace and joy that Jack had been describing. They might see the outline of a beautiful face in the window and hear the lyrical strains of music floating down from the tower. The hardened skeptics only scoffed and tittered as they passed by these precarious contraptions everywhere poking skyward. “There is never any shortage of gullible dupes,” was the way they rationalized their own disbelief.
Now sitting atop a ladder for hours on end is not an easy thing for any person. It takes good balance, a strong constitution, and tremendous perseverance. Some would make it a few rungs up the ladder before looking down and feeling dizzy or afraid. Many others got discouraged after staring up at the tower for a few hours from a ladder. Even if it was an appreciably closer and less obstructed a view than from the ground, the tower keep still appeared to be a hopelessly imperceptible object. One would have needed wings, not some clumsy ladder, to ever have any prospect of approaching the princess within. It was simply no use expending time and effort in such a useless quest. The wizard’s private sanctum and Luneia herself, no matter how desirable or marvelous, would forever remain beyond ordinary mortal reach, so they reasoned.
One day a brash young mountaineer showed up from a distant valley, boasting that he could scale the tower and enter the princess’ keep directly. Hearing this daring plan by such a handsome stranger, all the young women swooned while the young men secretly admired his courage. On the day chosen to make the ascent the entire village gathered to witness this courageous yet unprecedented feat. For the first hour or so the climber worked his way tenaciously up the base of the wall, stone by stone. He seemed to have magical powers of adhesion. But as he approached a line just above the highest treetops the rough ashlar stone gradually gave way to smooth blocks of polished block as slick as wet glass.
At 200 feet the climber’s progress slowed to a near standstill. As he searched in vain for the next handhold a daunting thundercloud moved in, darkening the entire valley. Raindrops now began to pelt everything in sight just as the crowd gasped in unison. The climber had lost his grip and began careening down the tower’s side. A strategically placed piton broke the fall momentarily but left him dangling helplessly between heaven and earth. As the downpour intensified, the critical piton unexpectedly failed; followed by another, and finally a third. At that moment the brave mountaineer fell to his death. The drenched crowd gasped again, then shuddered, and quickly fled for cover from the storm.
The following day dawned bright, beautiful, and dry but very few ladders could be seen in the valley. That gallant climber’s death had demoralized many of the residents and by now the authorities had seen and heard enough. Stung by the tragedy they were prepared to outlaw ladders and the scaling of walls altogether. The council debated long and hard whether the tower should be declared off limits and fenced off entirely. A more progressive element came forward with a counter proposal, however. They argued that what was truly needed was a more systematic and corporate approach to the problem. By pooling resources the entire community would be able to build a sort of super-ladder, in reality a siege tower tall enough to provide direct access to the wizard’s keep. That way the people could finally meet the wizard, and on their own terms. Although Jack did not think this to be a good idea at all, the council members seemed to be intrigued by the possibilities.
At first the skeptics and business interests balked to this proposal, that is until they observed Jack’s vehement protest. Jack argued that it would be tantamount to an invasion by force of the wizard’s rightful domain. He had learned a great deal about the nature of the tower keep by now through the songs that Luneia had been singing daily. In fact, she was secretly instructing all those patient souls on their ladders about the many wonderful treasures in her father’s domain. For one thing it was a place far vaster than what they could have imagined: countless room upon room was luxuriously appointed as befitting a royal palace. Other ladder sitters also testified to the alleged opulence hidden within the bare walls of the tower.
Privately, Jack also feared for the safety of Princess Luneia should a cohort of raiders, for that is what they would effectively be, suddenly burst into the unguarded keep. This was a sacred space, after all, not some prize or booty waiting to be seized by force. It would be most impious to break in like burglars, he argued. Besides, Luneia had already revealed, to him at least, that meekness and gentleness were the keys that would one day grant admittance to the keep. This was the wizard’s ultimate plan, as she had implied, which was for the people to live there permanently one day.
When the skeptics listened to Jack’s reasoning they were doubly certain that he had descended completely into delusional fantasies. A closer look into the keep would disprove such fables once and for all. Unlike the skeptics, however, the businessmen were not total disbelievers. The businessmen complained that useless ladders propped up all over the valley were becoming a hindrance to trade, and for what? Many citizens were wasting their most productive hours in some futile attempt to communicate with a wizard nobody present had ever really seen. They had also listened to testimony about ebony inlaid walls; gold and silver furniture encrusted in precious stones of every kind. It may be pure hearsay of course, but in their greedy hearts even the remote possibility of such wealth excited them to action. They therefore joined the skeptics in pressing the council to approve a plan to build a siege tower to seize the wizard’s keep.
When this plan of action was finally approved Jack, and a handful of fellow ladder sitters, left the hall greatly disappointed for they knew such a foolhardy plan could never succeed. The wizard and Luneia were too wise to be taken by surprise.
For months the valley had been abuzz with nonstop activity: planning, designing, and building a siege tower that would defeat the wizard’s attempts to keep them out. This all went on in secret, well out of view of Luneia’s keep. The thing was designed as a sort of telescoping affair that could be pushed upward, section by section, from the interior. The engineers calculated the height of that tiny sole tower window to be five tall tree-lengths above the valley floor. They therefore built the siege tower in eleven sections, each one spanning a half tree-length. This allowed for a half tree-length (about 60 feet) of play in the actual height needed to access the opening. A cantilevered bridge could then be extended outward to meet the window sill once the correct height had been attained. Over this wooden causeway a hundred men or more would rush into the keep itself and take possession. On the night before the attack, the siege tower would be quietly rolled into its final position on logs. This would be the trickiest part of the operation.
Jack spent those same months on his ladder listening at every opportunity to Luneia. He wanted to warn her of the impending danger. He tried using hand signals, flags, even shouting from the top rung but she seemed not to hear or understand what he was so desperately trying to tell her. She seemed more interested in describing to him the inner workings of her father’s palace keep, but most of all about her father, the wizard. All of her songs of late focused on this mysterious master of tower and keep.
If either father or daughter were aware of any danger afoot they were completely unconcerned by it. All Jack could do was to balance on his ladder each morning and absorb Luneia’s moving narrative in song. Despite the doubts in his own heart caused by the warlike rumblings of the human forces bent on seizing a place they could not hope to understand, Jack was consoled by her daily antiphonal consolations.
Even Jack was surprised by the stealth which the men of the valley had managed to place their new siege weapon in position. He woke early that fateful morning, fully intending to arrive where he had positioned his ladder of late and commune as usual in his own way with the princess. Instead he was shocked to find the space in front of the tower full of men and horses and machines. His own ladder had been unceremoniously swept aside and snapped like a twig in the process. The day of siege had arrived! Even before the sun could peak over the eastern horizon they had started winching the awful thing skyward. As each section reached its desired position it was locked tightly into place as the next section began its elevation.
Jack was distraught. Would he ever again hear Luneia’s sweet voice whispering melodically into his ear? The harsh sounds of shouted orders, winches, and restless horses stomping on the ground shattered the silence this dreary morn. Jack ran back to his own house. Driven by impulse he set to work building another ladder, this one taller than any he had ever attempted. In fact it was dangerously tall and perhaps too quickly assembled. There was little time to spare if he wanted to see his beloved Luneia one last time. He figured that he might not hear her in the din but he could at least witness her last moments of freedom.
Jack got as close as possible to the tower under the circumstances, which meant an old abandoned mill a hundred yards or so across the green. He propped his flimsy contraption against the crumbling wall and watched it sway uneasily under its own weight. He gulped deeply and began scaling it slowly, rung by rung. It bent and vibrated under his weight. Pause, let it settle, and take another step. Jack was sweating in fear by the time he was two thirds of the way up. Would it even hold? He prayed that Luneia might spot him before the townsmen with swords and pikes could breach her window sill.
A cacophonous din now filled the air as the siege machine groaned and squealed, jutting its enormous frame into the atmosphere. Glancing from his ladder Jack could count seven exposed sections already marching skyward like some mechanical pyramid. All now seemed hopeless. Jack gingerly tested the next and final rung on his ladder, praying fervently that it would hold steady. He had never gone this high before and the azure sky appeared bluer than ever before. The machine was fast approaching the level of Luneia’s window which was still clearly visible from Jack’s position.
Above the pandemonium Jack cried out Luneia’s name as loudly as he could. He desperately longed to see her and hear her golden throated voice one last time as a free creature, not as some bird in captivity. But no figure stirred this morning in the window. Once again he sang out in her direction. Then, ever so briefly he beheld her face in the window, her golden hair shimmering. Never had he seen her so plainly and distinctly or realized how beautiful the contours of her face truly were. She said nothing but smiled lovingly in his direction. Before he could utter another word she was gone!
Just at that moment another figure appeared in the window, a very tall but jolly looking man wrapped in a golden cloak emblazoned with diamonds and clasped by brilliant red rubies the size of walnuts. The wizard was an impressive sight to behold, even from this distance. He began to laugh jovially, a laugh which turned into a low rumble like distant thunder. But instead of dying out it continued to amplify itself until the whole earth shook. Gradually the enormous siege machine began to shake violently. The sharp sounds of cracking could then be heard as whole beams snapped like toothpicks. Panic seized every man on or beneath the beastly machine as it began to collapse upon itself in a tumultuous roar of destruction.
A great cloud of smoke and dust swirled violently engulfing Jack, who clung tightly to the shaky rails of his ladder. Momentarily blinded he cried out to Luneia for help. In the midst of the dust and chaos however Jack became aware of a peaceful presence which seemed to enfold him in safety. He no longer had any sensation of being on a ladder at all. Rather he seemed to be floating in space, or rather being lifted up by invisible arms. As all anxiety flowed out from his body he felt relaxed, safe, and assured. A familiar soothing voice told him that his prayer had been answered. When finally the air had cleared Jack looked around his surroundings. He seemed to know this place even though he was certain that he had never been here before.
Jack found himself sitting on a floor, smack in the center of the tower keep. Rich wood paneling and plush carpets gave it a glowing, intimate atmosphere; nothing like the cold, drafty enclosure one would expect to find high in a tower. Halfway across the room was the little window he had been observing for months now. But from this side it was anything but small. Instead it provided an expansive portal onto the world, encompassing a sweeping view of the entire valley below. He had no idea how such a small opening had the ability to create such a panoramic effect. Standing near the window was the wizard himself, chuckling to himself at the little figures below scurrying like wet rats, this way and that, away from the smoldering ruins of their grand experiment.
“I guess that will teach them a bit of humility ─ at least for a short while, until the lesson is forgotten again by their sons,” he mused, though Jack thought a bit forlornly.
Jack was just getting ready to speak but before he could form the words he realized that the wizard was no longer there. He had not really vanished but seemed to gradually dissolve until one could no longer be sure whether he was really present or not. Jack then noticed a little hummingbird which hovered near the window for a few seconds and then departed in the direction of the field of chaos below. “Could it be?” he thought, but quickly put the idea out of his head.
Sitting on a beautifully carved chair, almost like a throne to his left sat a stunningly beautiful maiden with ruby lips and hair like spun gold. It was not until after the wizard’s uncanny departure that Jack became aware of another presence in the room. He turned his head and caught sight of Luneia wearing a mystical smile. Peering into her cobalt eyes, which shone with a frightening intensity that instinctively made him want to cower, Jack could think of no appropriate words to address this transcendent being. Observing his reticence, Luneia spoke softly as though reading his mind.
“You have many questions in your mind, Jack. Do not trouble yourself but simply know that you are safe here, and so very welcome. My father has heard your unspoken prayers and so I came to lift you up here, where no man can enter under his own power.
“Prayer is a ladder, you see. It contains the power to raise one up above earthly and mundane things. On your ladder you could hear my song far more clearly than on the ground. That was the first vital step. But no machine or ladder of itself is sufficient to gain entry to my father’s keep. Yet I say, simply lift your hands to heaven, and heaven will pull you in by its own power. No one can storm heaven on his own, but heaven can possess whomever it pleases.”
Now the whole thing became crystal clear in Jack’s mind. All those hours balanced uncomfortably on his ladder had allowed Luneia to speak directly to him through her beautiful songs. It was not he who had been praying, rather it was she who had been praying within him all along! Nor would it have been possible to enter the tower keep no matter how many ladders he improvised. The ladder was merely a vehicle that permitted Luneia to speak to him more directly and fluently. In the end it had allowed her to draw him to herself completely.
Jack recalled how some of the other ladder sitters had spent all their time trying to devise higher, more efficient ladders. In the end their efforts proved futile however because they had put all their faith in ladders while forgetting what the ladders were meant for. They had confused the means for the ends. Once one reached the tower keep, in the abiding presence of Princess Luneia, he had no more use for ladders. His every hope and desire had been attained. Jack gazed out upon the loveliness of the valley stretched out below panoramically. Here he could enjoy all its luxuriant majesty and smell its fragrant pine scents effortlessly.
A few bruised and straggling skeptics were shaking their fists angrily towards the tower which brought a chagrined smile to Jack’s face. How could they not see that the only thing standing between them and access to this marvelous keep was not the failure of their siege machine but their own skepticism? Already a group of businessmen were huddled around another fellow who seemed to be experimenting with what looked like giant silk wings, flapping them up and down. Jack now understood that no one would ever storm the tower keep that way either. Even ladders only functioned as a demonstration of one’s faith and desire. They could raise you off the ground a bit, but no ladder could transport you entirely into the keep. Luneia alone was capable of stretching out her arms and bringing one home, into the safety and warmth of her own sacred keep, where one would never again have to strive or toil or weep.
Francis J. Pierson +a.m.d.g.
A Happy 2017 to you!