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.