"Daddy, Mommy, when we go to the beach this summer for our vacations, can I invite my friend François?"
Daddy looked at Mommy. Mommy looked at Daddy.
"Beatrice," Daddy said. "You're seven now. You're a big girl. Please try to understand. Going to the beach for a whole month like last year, that really costs a lot. We've decided it would be nice to stay home for our summer vacations this year. That way your little brother, Nicolas, can enjoy his first summer here. You can play around the neighbourhood. And you can invite François as much as you like.
"Okay," sighed the little girl.
She dropped it.
As they were talking, over at François's house the whole family was at the table having dinner.
"Daddy, Mommy, I know what I want for my birthday."
"That's great. We're listening."
"I would like to get the new video game console that I heard my friends talking about. And some games to go with it."
His parents looked at each other.
"Listen big guy," said Daddy. "You're seven now. You have to understand some things. What you're asking for is really too expensive. Your little sister Olivia is five and a half. And Amandine is three and a half. If you get a big present like that, they should too. It's only fair. We simply can't get you what you've asked for. You'll have to think of something else, buddy."
"I understand," François mumbled. "I'll think of something else."
He dropped it.
The next day, the two friends met up like they did every morning, on their way to school. They talked about what had happened.
"I can't invite you to the beach this summer. We're not going."
"Yeah, and I'm not getting that console."
"It's too bad we can't just make a wish," Beatrice sighed.
"Yeah," said François. "Let's imagine ... we could try to find a fairy ..."
"Once I read an old book that was in my grandma's attic. It said some linden trees or some oaks are nearly a thousand years old. And they're hollow. Their trucks get hollowed out by age or by being struck by lightning. If we could find one and find a way to get inside, on certain days or nights we could make a wish. But I don't know any tree that old."
"I do!" cried the boy.
"What are you talking about?" asked his friend.
"The other day I was walking in the forest with Daddy and my little sisters. We went by a big oak tree. My daddy said that it might be a thousand years old. It was hollow. Because of lighting for sure."
"We could go there. Do you remember where the oak tree was?"
"Not really far from our place. We can get there on foot from your house. Let's see if there's a wishing chest hidden inside."
"Good idea," said Beatrice. "Maybe this afternoon."
"Oh yeah," laughed François. "Okay."
The two friends left for the forest at the beginning of the afternoon. Beatrice was not allowed to go into the forest alone. Her parents had forbidden it. But François said that if he were with her, she wouldn't be alone so she could go without disobeying.
"I'm not sure if being with you counts," the little girl said. "But let's go."
After they crossed the park and a little undergrowth, they went through a grove of evergreens. It was a lot darker. The two friends kept walking in silence.
After two or three hundred yards, they got to the edge of a vast clearing filled with tall grass.
They could see the ancient old oak that François had been talking about. The tree was huge, gigantic. It was right in the middle of the clearing. It was so big that if three or four of them joined hands, they wouldn't have been able to reach around it. Its truck was split from top to bottom. And it was hollow. They both managed to slip inside the tree. There was no chest nor any magic wand to be seen.
"What do we do now?" asked François.
"We make our wishes," said Beatrice.
At that moment, they heard a gust of wind shaking the branches of the old oak. The blast of wind came from nowhere, like a sudden stormy presence. They saw a swirl of dust rise up and come towards their tree.
The two children held hands, not too sure of what was happening. They were in the middle of some strange phenomenon. The branches creaked and the sound seemed to them curiously like a voice.
"To make a wish ... come back at midnight..."
"You heard that?"
"Yes, I heard it," said François.
They climbed out of the old oak, their hearts seized with fear. They circled the tree. The wind had calmed. It had disappeared as suddenly as it had come. A light breeze made the leaves dance under the light of the sun and the birds sang. They returned home.
"What do you think?" Beatrice asked her friend.
"Let's give it a try. Let's come back at midnight! The tree's not even half an hour from our houses. If we go a bit before eleven thirty, we'll get there in time. No problem."
"Yes, okay. It won't be easy and it'll be scary. But it'll be worth it. Meet me at the little wall, in front of my front yard."
"Okay, just in front of your place. I'll wait for you there," François promised. "I'll get there at quarter past eleven. We could be lucky."
They hugged and then they each went their own way.
At about eleven that night, Beatrice, who of course couldn't sleep, got up without a sound. She changed out of her pyjamas and back into her clothes. They were where she'd left them on the chair. Her runners, her jeans, her T-shirt, her jacket. She put them on quickly. Quietly she left her room and followed the length of the dark hallway. Above all, she mustn't wake up her baby brother Nicolas.
Her parents were still in the living room. They would be staying up late tonight! Too bad. Beatrice went down the stairs silently in the dark.
She got to the middle of the stairs when, suddenly, the living-room door opened. Daddy crossed the entryway without seeing that his daughter was there. He made his way towards the kitchen and opened the fridge.
"Do you want something to drink too, my dear?"
"No thanks," heard Beatrice.
Daddy returned, crossing the hall again and closing the door to the living room. He hadn't seen anything. Whew! Our friend could feel the drops of sweat on her skin. Her heart was pounding as she descended the last few steps. She opened the front door and took the key. She closed it softly behind her and she slid the key into the back pocket of her jeans. She'd taken just three steps to the sidewalk when she saw her friend.
François had arrived just then. They moved on down the road that was lit up by the streetlights. They crossed the little park. It was very dark. They realized then that they hadn't brought a flashlight.
"It's too late. We can't go back," said François.
Going through the grove of evergreens was something else entirely. They jumped every time an owl hooted or a fox yipped. Each branch that cracked under their feet seemed like an angry monster or a creature risen from the dead to drag them underground and devour them.
They got to the clearing five minutes to midnight and stood before the giant oak. The moon had risen and it lit the trunk in a silver light.
The tree now seemed very eerie. Its high branches were black and reached into the dark sky, like a giant suddenly looming up just to frighten them. All was bathed in the ghostly light of the night.
They entered the truck of the old oak.
At the stroke of midnight, a chest appeared. Its lid opened. They lifted the lid. It was filled to the brim with the finest milky white pearls.
At that very moment, as the church bells began to ring, they heard the branches creaking in the silence of the night.
"For your wish, you must take two pearls. One is for the wish. The other is for the consequence."
"What's the consequence?" asked Beatrice.
"You will see," the voice responded.
They each took two pearls and, at the twelfth bell, the chest closed and disappeared.
They returned home as quickly as possible and, arriving in front of Beatrice's house, the two children hugged.
"See you tomorrow."
"Yes. See you."
Then they each went their own way.
Beatrice opened her door and went in. Her parents had gone up to bed. The little girl went into her daddy's office and placed the two pearls on his desk.
"There! My wish is that we can go to the beach for August. Or even for July. And I want to invite François to come the whole time."
Then she went up to her room, changed out of her dirty clothes and climbed into bed.
François returned home. He went straight up to his room. He placed the two pearls on his toy box and whispered:
"I wish for the latest video game console there is and ten - no, all the games that come with it."
Then he got out of his dirty clothes and climbed into bed.
The next day nothing had happened! The pearls were still on François's toy box.
Beatrice saw hers on the papers on her daddy's desk.
They saw each other at school.
The only one to remain in the house during the day at François's house was Oasis, his dog. From time to time, he would get up and do his rounds, inspecting everything. Around noon, he went into François's room and went by the toy chest. There was only one pearl left. He sniffed at it, opened his mouth, stuck out his tongue and licked it up.
At the same time, Beatrice's mommy, who was home to take care of the baby, Nicolas, went into Daddy's office.
"Oh, a pearl," she said in surprise.
She took it and cupped her left hand so the pearl could roll around in it. The pearl melted. The liquid was absorbed into her skin, just like that. "How odd," she thought.
In the evening, François returned home. His mommy was waiting for him.
"Hey, my little man of mystery," she said, smiling.
"What are you talking about? I'm a 'man of mystery'?"
"It seems so! You didn't tell me you'd entered a draw."
"What draw, Mommy?"
"The draw at the big toy store downtown. You won first prize: the latest video console and twenty games. Bravo!"
"Cool," shouted our friend. "Oh that's so good! It worked."
"Come on, let's go pick up the prize. It's waiting for you."
Mommy loaded up his little sisters, Olivia and Amandine, and our friend in the car. They went downtown. There, François received his game. The people at the toy store made a big fuss over him, congratulating him and taking a lot of photographs.
When they returned to the house, the boy noticed that his dog was moaning in his bed. He had thrown up in the kitchen. François took him in his arms and petted him. He couldn't help wondering if this sudden sickness were the consequence ...
Just then, at Beatrice's her daddy said he had some good news at dinner. He explained that his director had called him into his office that afternoon. He'd congratulated Daddy for his ten years of work at the company. He'd also given him a raise and a bonus.
"So," Daddy promised, "this August, we'll spend our vacations at the beach. And, Beatrice, you can invite your friend François whenever you like."
"Hurray," she cried. "It worked. Can I tell François?"
She called her friend, who also gave her his good news. He'd gotten the console he'd been dreaming about.
"And what about the consequence?" asked François.
"What consequence?" asked Beatrice, surprised.
"But, you know, there were two pearls."
"Ah, yes," our friend said as she remembered. "I'd forgotten about that."
"My dog is sick. I hope it's not because of this."
"I hope not."
"And at your place?"
"Here," said Beatrice, "nothing special's happening. We'll see."
The next morning, Mommy work her daughter up very early. It was still dark.
"Get dressed quickly, my dear. I need you to help me before going to school. I want you to take care of Nicolas. You can give him his bath. Daddy has already left for work."
"Yes, Mommy. What happened?"
"Look at my hand."
Her mommy's left hand had swollen and taken on a strange reddish-blue colour. She couldn't move it and it tingled.
"My goodness," said Beatrice, more than a little frightened. "What happened?"
"I don't know," said Mommy. "I have no idea. If it doesn't get better by this evening, I'll go to the doctor. I'll wait for you to get back from school so you can take care of Nicolas."
When François came back from school at four o'clock, his dog was very sick. He had thrown up again. He was lying on the living room carpet, panting. His fur was damp and falling out in clumps. His eyes shone in a funny way. His nose was hot. He was very sick.
François, Olivia and Amandine went to the vet with their mommy.
"Your dog has signs of a serious poisoning. Sadly, I cannot do anything for him. I'm sorry. He is going to die tomorrow."
Our friend immediately thought of the second pearl, the pearl of consequence. When they got home, he took his dog in his arms.
"Oasis, I don't want you to die," he said with tears in his eyes. "It's too bad about the console but I prefer my dog. He's my best friend."
He asked permission to call Beatrice.
In the meantime, our other friend had gotten back home from school and seen her mother's red swollen hand. It was really hurting.
"Come on Beatrice. We're going to drive to the hospital. I can drive but I need you to look after Nicolas.
The big sister took her little brother in her arms, attached him in his car seat and sat next to him in the backseat. They drove to the hospital. Our friend had a heavy heart and didn't dare say anything. She was thinking of the consequence.
At the hospital, a surgeon looked at her mommy's hand.
"Ma'am, I've never seen such swelling. The inflammation could well extend to the elbow and the shoulder. It could go as far as the heart. I think we should consider amputating the arm. You must have touched something that contained an incredibly strong poison."
Mommy was very scared and said that she'd go home and talk to her husband. And that she'd return the next day. They returned home.
Beatrice still didn't dare say anything. She thought of the consequence, the terrible consequence of her wish. Her mommy could lose her hand and her arm. In this case, she didn't want to go to the beach in August anymore. She would stay and play in their yard with her little brother and François.
At just that moment, the telephone rang. She picked it up. She heard her friend's voice.
"My dog is going to die."
"Oh my goodness! And my mommy's hand has ballooned up. They have to maybe operate on it and cut off her arm. It must be the consequence."
"Oh for sure," sighed François. "What should we do?"
"I've thought about it," said Beatrice. "Tonight, at quarter past eleven, let's meet in front of my house. We'll go back to the oak of wishes. We'll take two pearls and we'll ask that the two of them are healed."
"There's going to be another consequence."
"Yes, but it can't be worse than this. And we can try to avoid it."
"Agreed," promised the boy. "See you tonight. In front of your place."
At quarter past eleven that evening, the two children meet in front of Beatrice's house. They each brought a flashlight this time.
They left her house and ran towards the woods. They arrived at the oak tree just when the church bell was chiming the first stroke of midnight. They climbed into the trunk.
The wind was already shaking the branches. The swirl of dust had already circled the tree. The chest of pearls opened. They each took two pearls. Then Beatrice looked to the top of the oak where the voice had come from. She begged:
"Oh Great Oak, what can be done to avoid the consequence?"
"To avoid suffering the consequence," the oak creaked, "you must hide one of the pearls where no living soul could ever come across it or touch it."
The chest closed. The twelve strokes of midnight had sounded. The storm subsided and calm returned to the odd little clearing.
They followed their path back to their houses and stopped a moment in front of Beatrice's to hug. Then they each went home.
As soon as he got into his room, François placed one of the pearls in his pencil case. After putting on his pyjamas, he went down to the living room.
He went up to his dog, opened Oasis's mouth and put the other pearl on his tongue. He closed his dog's mouth, forcing him to swallow the second pearl.
"I am making the wish that you get better. Too bad if my video game console disappears."
The boy went back up to sleep.
Beatrice returned to her house and entered her room. She also put on her pyjamas. She too put one of the pearls in her pencil case.
Without a sound, she then entered her parents' room. Mommy was sleeping. Her hand, already green and very swollen, was draped outside of the covers. She placed the pearl in her mommy's palm. The pearl melted as it had before and the little girl whispered quietly:
"I wish that you are healed and that your hand is completely better. Too bad if we can't go to the beach.
And she went to bed.
The next morning, when Beatrice woke up, she offered to help give the baby a bath but her mommy's hand had completely healed.
"I can't believe the doctors wanted to cut my arm off. It's a good thing I didn't let them. I'll take care of Nicolas, my dear."
"Oh, that's good," said our little friend, smiling. "I'm really happy that everything's okay, Mommy."
At that very moment, François woke up. His dog jumped up on his bed. In excellent health. He didn't see the video console anymore, or the games that came with it.
"Oh well," said the boy, hugging his dog. "I prefer you to my games."
The two children met at school. They smiled, happy to know that the first consequences had vanished.
Now, what should they do with the second pearls? They ran through all kinds of ideas. Set them on fire. They wouldn't likely burn. Smash them with a hammer. The hammer would break. They even played with the idea of going to a nearby building site and putting them in wet cement. But they wouldn't be allowed in. Throw them down the sewer. A rat could touch them. Seal them in a box. And what if someone finds them one day ...
All of a sudden, Beatrice came up with the idea that would save the day.
"We have to return to the wishing oak, a third time. And at midnight, when the chest opens, we'll throw the pearls inside. It'll close. We'll know that no one will ever touch them again. We'll put dirt and leaves on the chest and no one will ever find it."
They did just what they said.
That night, for the third time, the two children left for the oak of wishes, each with a pearl in their hands. At the first stroke of midnight, they got in place and the chest opened. They waited and counted the bells. At the eleventh bell, they threw the pearls into the chest. It closed at the stroke of midnight and disappeared.
For the last time, they heard the deep voice of the oak, or else the wind in the branches.
"Never come back to ask for anything here. The chest will remain trapped underground forever after what you have done. This tree is no longer an oak of wishes."
The two children returned home, with a lot to think about.
The next morning, Beatrice was at breakfast with her parents.
"I guess, as far as the beach goes, that you've thought about it again. We're not going?"
"We've told you, my dear," said Daddy. "This year, we're not going away for our vacation." "We just can't afford it."
"Yes, I understand," said Beatrice with a smile. "It doesn't matter. I talked to François about it. This summer, we'll play with his little sisters, Olivia and Amandine. And with Nicolas. He'll be the daddy and I'll be the mommy. They'll be our living dolls. We'll have lots of fun. We'll be very happy."
"You're a good little girl," said her parents approvingly.
They would never know about the secret of the oak of wishes.
Translation : Andrew Gordon Middleton