The Fable of the Burning Branch

Once upon a time, in a lonely lit­tle village, be­neath the boughs of a for­est of burn­ing trees, there lived a boy. The branches of the burn­ing trees some­times fell, and the magic in the wood per­mit­ted only girls to carry the fallen branches of the burn­ing trees.

One day, a branch fell, and a boy was pinned be­neath. The boy saw other boys pinned by branches, res­cued by their girl friends, but he re­mained trapped be­neath his own burn­ing branch.

The fire crept closer, and the boy called out for help.

Fi­nally, a friend of his own came, but she told him that she could not free him from the burn­ing branch, be­cause she already free’d her other friend from be­neath a burn­ing branch and he would be jeal­ous if she did the same deed for any­one else. This friend left him where he lay, but she did promise to re­turn and visit.

The fire crept closer, and the boy called out for help.

A man stopped, and gave the boy the ad­vice that he’d get out from be­neath the burn­ing branch even­tu­ally if he just had faith in him­self. The boy’s re­ply was that he did have faith in him­self, yet he re­mained trapped be­neath the burn­ing branch. The man sug­gested that per­haps he did not have enough faith, and left with noth­ing more to offer.

The fire crept closer, and the boy cried out for help.

A girl came along, and said she would free the boy from be­neath the burn­ing branch.

But no, her friends said, the boy was a stranger to her, was her heroic virtue worth noth­ing? Heroic deeds ought to be born from the heart, and made beau­tiful by love, they in­sisted. Sim­ply haul­ing the branch off a boy she did not love would be mon­strously crass, and they would not want to be friends with a girl so shamed.

So the girl changed her mind and left with her friends.

The fire crept closer. It be­gan to lick at the boy’s skin. A sooth­ing warmth be­came an un­com­fortable heat. The boy mus­tered his courage and chased the fear out of his own voice. He called out, but not for help. He called out for com­pany.

A girl came along, and the boy asked if she would like to be friends. The girl’s re­ply was that she would like to be friends, but that she spent most of her time on the other side of the village, so if they were to be friends, he must be free from be­neath the burn­ing branch.

The boy sug­gested that she free him from be­neath the burn­ing branch, so that they could be friends.

The girl replied that she once free’d a boy from be­neath a burn­ing branch who also promised to be her friend, but as soon as he was free he never spoke to her again. So how could she trust the boy’s offer of friend­ship? He would say any­thing to be free.

The boy tried fran­ti­cally to con­vince her that he was sincere, that he would be grate­ful and try with all his heart to be a good friend to the girl who free’d him, but she did not be­lieve him and turned away from him and left him there to burn.

The fire crept closer and the boy whim­pered in pain and fear as it spread from wood to flesh. He cried out for help. He begged for help. “Some­body, please!”

A man and a woman came along, and the man offered ad­vice: he was once trapped be­neath a burn­ing branch for sev­eral years. The fire was magic, the pain was only an illu­sion. Per­haps it was sad that he was trapped but even so trapped the boy may lead a fulfilling life. Why, the man re­mem­bered etch­ing pic­tures into his branch, befriend­ing passers by, and mak­ing up songs.

The woman beside the man agreed, and told the boy that she hoped the right girl would come along and free him, but that he must not pre­sume that he was en­ti­tled to any girl’s heroic deed merely be­cause he was trapped be­neath a burn­ing branch.

“But do I not de­serve to be helped?” the boy pleaded, as the flames licked his skin.

“No, how wrong of you to even speak as though you do. My heroic deeds are mine to give, and to you I owe noth­ing,” he was told.

“Per­haps I don’t de­serve help from you in par­tic­u­lar, or from any­one in par­tic­u­lar, but is it not so very cruel of you to say I do not de­serve any help at all?” the boy pleaded. “Can a girl will­ing to free me from be­neath this burn­ing branch not be found and sent to my aide?”

“Of course not,” he was told, “that is ut­terly un­rea­son­able and you should be ashamed of your­self for ask­ing. It is offen­sive that you be­lieve such a girl may even ex­ist. You’ve be­come burned and ugly, who would want to save you now?”

The fire spread, and the boy cried, screamed, and begged des­per­ately for help from ev­ery passer by.

“It hurts it hurts it hurts oh why will no one free me from be­neath this burn­ing branch?!” he wailed in de­spair. “Any­thing, any­one, please! I don’t care who frees me, I only wish for re­lease from this tor­ment!”

Many tried to ig­nore him, while oth­ers scoffed in dis­gust that he had so lit­tle re­gard for what a heroic deed ought to be. Some pitied him, and wanted to help, but could not bring them­selves to bear the so­cial cost, the loss of worth in their friends’ and fam­ily’s eyes, that would come of do­ing a heroic deed mo­ti­vated, not by love, but by some­thing lesser.

The boy burned, and wanted to die.

Another boy stepped for­ward. He went right up to the branch, and tried to lift it. The trapped boy gasped at the small re­lief from the burn­ing agony, but it was only a small re­lief, for the burn­ing branches could only be lifted by girls, and the other boy could not budge it. Though the effort was for naught, the first boy thanked him sincerely for try­ing.

The boy burned, and wanted to die. He asked to be kil­led.

He was told he had so much to live for, even if he must live be­neath a burn­ing branch. None were will­ing to end him, but per­haps they could do some­thing else to make it eas­ier for him to live be­neath the burn­ing branch? The boy could think of noth­ing. He was con­sumed by agony, and wanted only to end.

And then, one day, a party of strangers ar­rived in the village. Heroes from a village afar. Within an hour, one for­eign girl came be­fore the boy trapped be­neath the burn­ing branch and told him that she would free him if he gave her his largest nugget of gold.

Of course, the lo­cal villagers were shocked that this for­eigner would sully a heroic deed by traf­fick­ing it for mere gold.

But, the boy was too des­per­ate to be shocked, and agreed im­me­di­ately. She free’d him from be­neath the burn­ing branch, and as the mag­i­cal fire was drawn from him, he felt his burned flesh be­come re­stored and whole. He fell upon the for­eign girl and thanked her and thanked her and thanked her, cry­ing and cry­ing tears of re­lief.

Later, he asked how. He asked why. The for­eign girls ex­plained that in their village, heroic virtue was mea­sured by how much joy a hero brought, and not by how much she loved the ones she saved.

The lo­cals did not like the im­pli­ca­tion that their own way might not have been the best way, and com­plained to the chief of their village. The chief cared only about stay­ing in the good graces of the heroes of his village, and so he out­lawed the trad­ing of heroic deeds for other com­modi­ties.

The for­eign girls were chased out of the village.

And then a lo­cal girl spoke up, and spoke loud, to sway her fel­low villagers. The boy rec­og­nized her. It was his friend. The one who had promised to visit so long ago.

But she shamed the boy, for do­ing some­thing so crass as trad­ing gold for a heroic deed. She told him he should have waited for a lo­cal girl to free him from be­neath the burn­ing branch, or else grown old and died be­neath it.

To gar­ner sym­pa­thy from her au­di­ence, she sor­rowfully ad­mit­ted that she was a bad friend for let­ting the boy be tempted into some­thing so dis­gust­ing. She felt re­spon­si­ble, she claimed, and so she would fix her mis­take.

The girl picked up a burn­ing branch. See­ing what she was about to do, the boy begged and pleaded for her to re­con­sider, but she dropped the burn­ing branch upon the boy, trap­ping him once more.

The boy screamed and begged for help, but the girl told him that he was morally obli­gated to learn to live with the agony, and never again voice a com­plaint, never again ask to be free’d from be­neath the burn­ing branch.

“Ban­ish me from the village, send me away into the cold dark­ness, please! Any­thing but this again!” the boy pleaded.

“No,” he was told by his former friend, “you are bet­ter off where you are, where all is proper.”

In the last ex­treme, the boy made a grab for his former friend’s leg, hop­ing to drag her be­neath the burn­ing branch and free him­self that way, but she evaded him. In re­tal­i­a­tion for the at­tempt to defy her, she had a wall built around the boy, so that none would be able, even if one should want to free him from be­neath the burn­ing branch.

With all hope gone, the boy broke and be­came numb to all pos­si­ble joys. And thus, he died, un­mourned.