Once there was a grandfather, who lived by himself in a little house on an island. There were troubles in the world and he wasn’t able to go to his job, so he stayed at home and worked in the garden, and every day he climbed to the top of the hill behind his house to look down to the harbour and see if the big boats were sailing again. But the harbour was always empty, except for a couple of fishing boats tied up to the pier.
Down at the bottom of the garden the grandfather had an orchard of apple trees, white with blossom, and in the middle of the orchard was a pond, perfectly round, and very, very deep. When the air was calm and the trees were still it was like a mirror, and the grandfather liked to look into the pond because sometimes it showed him, not reflections of himself and his trees, but glimpses of the world outside. He looked seldom, because often the news the mirror showed him was sad or troubling.
But one day he looked into the pond and saw his grand-daughter, who lived with her mother in a flat in the city, far away across the water. She was crying. “Oh my darling,” said the grandfather, “What are you crying about?”
And as if by magic (for this is how magic mirrors work) the little girl spoke, just as though she was answering his question. “I miss my grandfather so much,” she said. “I wish I could go to visit him and give him my best hug, but the big boats aren’t running and mama says we have to stay at home, and only go to play in the courtyard on top of our building.”
A tear ran down the grandfather’s face and dripped into the water, making tiny ripples that washed the reflection away, so that now he could only see the sky and the apple trees reflected in the pond. He walked slowly back up the garden, thinking fiercely. As he passed the herb garden he plucked a leaf from the bay tree that grew in a pot beside the path and took it into the house.
Inside he put the leaf on the dining room table. He made himself a big pot of coffee and sat down with a piece of paper and his box of colouring pencils and set to work. By the end of the afternoon the coffee was cold, and half the pencils needed sharpening, but he had finished. On the paper stood a tiny version of himself, with kindly face and greying hair, and arms outstretched ready for a hug. He took a pair of scissors and carefully cut out the paper grandfather, then folded it and rolled it, ever so carefully, into a tiny scroll of paper. He picked up the bay leaf and folded over the stem so that it pierced the centre of the leaf and stuck there, making a little leaf boat with a pointed bow, a stem-mast, and a rolled-over stern.
The little rolled up grandfather fitted into the space between the mast and the stern, as snugly as cargo fitted into the holds of the big boats that travelled between the island and the mainland, in less troubled times. The grandfather shook the leaf boat but the scroll of paper remained securely wedged.
The grandfather carried the little leaf boat down to the pond and dropped it in. The wind blew and the trees shook. A shower of white petals fell onto the water, and it began to rise, flooding over the side of the little round pond and washing the leaf boat away. It sailed on the flood down to the stream that ran below the garden and followed the water down towards the sea.
The grandfather went back to his house but the little leaf boat sailed on, bobbing over stones and swerving round fallen trees, until the stream joined a river. It sailed on past the mill and the farms, and the animals coming down to drink the water. It sailed through the town, where it was nearly caught by a naughty boy who’d snuck out of his house to play down at the quayside, but dodged his fingers and was washed out into the bay. The outflow from the river carried it far away from land, and it bobbed merrily on the tops of the waves until… bloop. Suddenly it disappeared!
The little leaf boat with its cargo of tightly rolled up paper – the picture of himself the grandfather had cut out to send to his grand-daughter – dipped deep beneath the surface of the sea, pulled there by a big fish that was rising, looking for food. The fish gulped down the leaf-boat just as if it was a fly or a moth that had been caught by the waves.
The fish dived again and swam on, part of a school that was crossing the wide sound which parted the island from the mainland. The school of fish neared the big harbour of the city, but veered away before they came to its entrance. The fish felt a disturbance in the water, many air bubbles rising, and it rose too, trying to escape them. As it reached the surface a gannet swooped down and grabbed it, jerking it out of the sea and up into the air.
As the fish rose in the gannet’s mouth it spat out the little leaf boat, slightly slimy but no worse for wear. The bird swooped away, and the air currents buffeted the little boat this way and that, as other birds dived around it. Then a swirling thermal caught it and whisked it high into the sky, where the afternoon wind drove it towards the land.
The streets and houses of the city grew nearer and nearer. The little leaf boat sailed right over the funnels of the big boats, at anchor in the bay. It sank lower and lower, as the houses came closer, until at last the wind dropped it right on top of a tall apartment building halfway up the hill. There were tubs of flowers in the corners of the courtyard, and a child’s swing, and games marked out in chalk on the black tarmac of the rooftop garden.
The little girl who was playing there picked up the leaf, and took it to her mother. The mother looked at it carefully, and observed the tiny scrap of rolled-up paper jammed between the mast and stern. The two of them, for it was the old man’s daughter and grand-daughter, took the leaf boat inside and the little girl pulled out the scrap of folded paper.
No sooner did she do so than it began to unroll. It opened – and stretched – and opened – and stretched, until a paper figure stood there, as thin as the sheet of paper from which it was made, but just a little taller than the girl herself. It stood for a moment, swaying in the draught from the open door, then folded to the ground with a sigh.
The mother picked it up and held it open. The little girl peered into the figure’s kindly face. “What are you?” she demanded.
“I am your tiny grandfather, come to bring you a hug from the island far away across the water.”
The little girl hesitated, but the figure spoke again. “Don’t be afraid. Your grandfather sent me to comfort you, and your mother is here. Will you allow me to give you your grandfather’s gift?”
The mother held up the tiny grandfather as the little girl moved closer, and the paper figure wrapped its thin paper arms around her and held her in a tiny hug. The little girl cried tears of joy. Afterwards the mother stuck the paper figure to the wall, so that the little girl go could to it any time she liked for another hug from her distant grandfather. Then the grand-daughter lay down on the floor, on a big piece of paper, and her mother traced around her small head with its plait of brown hair, her body, and her arms, stretched out wide on either side, ready for a hug.
The little girl carried her picture up to the rooftop and painted it to look just like herself – hair the right colour, eyes the right colour, wearing her favourite striped red and brown and orange scarf. Her mother helped to cut it out, and they folded it, and rolled it, over and over again until it was as small and firm as the paper grandfather had been. They tucked it into the leaf boat, between the mast and the stern, just like the cargoes the big boats would carry to the island one day when times were better. Then they took the leaf boat down to the street.
A rain storm had washed across the town, filling the gutters with water, and the little girl dropped the leaf boat in and watched it skitter away down the street towards the sea. The mother and the girl walked back to their house, but the little leaf boat carried on, ducking past stones and bits of rubbish, heading ever downwards towards the sea until… bloop. It disappeared down a drain.
Oh dear! I wonder if the little leaf boat made its way back to grandfather with the little girl’s hug safe on board? Perhaps you would like to imagine the journey it made, and the adventures it had along the way?
Or perhaps you could lie down on a big piece of paper while somebody draws around you, and colour or paint it to look like yourself. Then you could fold it up and post it to someone you love, to give them a hug from you to keep them going until the troubles are over and you can visit them again.
Yvonne Marjot was born in England, raised in New Zealand, and now lives on a Scottish island. She has been making up stories and poems for as long as she can remember. Her first volume of poetry, The Knitted Curiosity Cabinet, won the Brit Writers Award for poetry in 2012. She has published four novels and a book of short stories. Yvonne on Twitter.