A Story for Alexander

Once upon a time there was a little refugee boy. His father and mother had both been put in prison, although they had not done anything wrong, and he was sent away with some other children to another country across the sea a long way away from home. He felt terribly lonely and used to get very very miserable, especially at night. He had to sleep with a number of other children in a large bare room. The other children were not unkind to him though they sometimes teased him a bit, but he felt lonely because his mother and father were not there.

One night he lay awake a very long time, crying. He had felt unhappy before but this time it was worse than it had ever been. He felt as if a great wave of loneliness and sorrow had broken over him like a wave of the sea, and that it was going to drown him altogether. At last, when he could bear it no longer, he cried out aloud. “Oh, who is making me so unhappy?” At the same moment, to his surprise the door opened and a lady came in, and sat down by his bed. She had on a blue cloak, spangled all over with stars and underneath it a plain white dress with a golden girdle round it. He did not feel the least bit frightened, because he liked looking at her face so much. She looked like the very nicest matron you could imagine, but also rather like his own mother—except that her cloak reminded him of some pictures he had seen of Mary. At last, after they had sat for a little while looking at one another the lady smiled and said “I was.”

“You were what?” said the little boy.

“It was I who was making you so unhappy,” she said, “by magic.”

“Oh,” said the little boy. “I can’t believe that.”

“Why not!”

“Because you are a kind person.”

“How do you know that?”

“Because I can see your face.”

“It was because I wanted you to be able to see me that I made you unhappy. It is the only way it can be done. Do you feel unhappy now?”

“No, not while you are here. At least not if my father and mother are all right.”

“They are all right,” said the lady. “You will see them again before very long.”

Then the little boy was very glad. But he was puzzled. He said: “How do you mean, you made me unhappy by magic because you wanted me to see you?”

“Well,” said the lady, “no-one else here can see me.”

The little boy looked round the room. To his surprise he saw that the other children were not all asleep, as he had thought but some of them were sitting up—some of them talking to one another and none of them taking any notice of him just as if there were no stranger in the room at all.

“One magic grows out of another,” said the lady. “You have to have a special sort of eyes to be able to see me—magic ones.”

“Have I got the magic eyes already then?”

“You are just beginning to get them,” said the lady.

“But what has being unhappy got to do with it?” he asked. “I don’t see what it could have to do with it.”

“Listen,” said the lady. “I will tell you a story.”

So she began to tell him a story. As this is a story itself, the story she told him was a story in a story. As if, as some people say, your life and mine are also a kind of story, then this story too is a story in a story; and the story the lady told to the little boy is a story in a story! If you think too long about this, you will get muddled and begin to wonder where you are. So don’t. Anyway this is the story the lady told.

A long time ago the people on the earth had not got any eyes. They all went about in darkness and had to get along as best they could by hearing and touching things. They could not see the light of the sun or the trees or the green grass or the sea or anything. In the place where our eyes are today, they just had two soft patches. At last a time came when some few people, who thought they were unluckier than the others, began to feel very sore in their soft patches—especially when the sun was shining on them. Soon the soreness grew to quite a sharp pain and the pain became worse and worse. Then one day one of them, who felt the pain worst of all, got so bad that he just did not know what to do. He walked up and down, up and down because he could not keep still for the pain and at last he cried out in his misery “Oh who is making my soft patches so sore?” Immediately he thought he heard a voice answer, “I am!” and at the same moment the pain suddenly ceased, the skin in the middle of the soft patches which had worn very thin with the soreness, broke open and the man found he could see. His soft patches had been turning into eyes. That was why they had been hurting so much! And now that he really could see, instead of having to learn everything by hearing, as he had had to do before, he understood that it was not really a voice that had said “I am,” but the strong light of the sun flooding into his eyes for the first time. After a while he grew more used to it, but just at first the light was such a marvellous thing to him that it seemed to be alive and speaking. Of course the first thing the man did was to hurry round and tell all the other people who were suffering from the soreness what had happened to him, and how it would soon be happening to them too. And all those who believed him found their soreness a good deal easier to bear now that they knew what it was all about and that they only had to wait patiently.

This is the end of the story the lady told. Now we go back to the real story.

The lady stayed with the little boy a good long time after she had finished the story; then at last she said she would have to be going.

“When will you come again?” asked the little boy at once.

“That depends on you” said the lady. “I may come quite soon, or on the other hand it may not be till after you are grown up.”

“But you will come, if I feel miserable again?” said the little boy.

“Oh yes,” said the lady. And then she told him something rather surprising. She said that, if he was crying very hard and was trying very hard to keep himself from crying, so he was to shut his eyes, take a deep breath, and say over to himself two times from a prayer he had once learned—like this:

From my heart to my hands
God’s own breath do I feel

Then she would be able to help him one way or another.

After that the lady went away and the little boy turned over and went to sleep quite happily.

As it turned out, it was a long time before the little boy’s father and mother were able to come over to him and he did sometimes feel homesick again. But he never felt anything like so bad as he had done that night. Perhaps that is why the lady never actually came back and saw him again. Or perhaps this was because, as she had said, he was only beginning to get the magic eyes. Still, when he did begin to get homesick he always did what she had told him and said the prayer to himself, and this used to make him feel that the lady was quite near and might come in at any moment. Which was about as good as if she really had come in. At any rate it was so good that he liked it better than not feeling homesick at all.

Years afterwards, when he was quite grown up, and his magic eyes seemed to have grown stronger, he did see the blue lady again at a time when he needed her very badly. But that is another story.

Owen Barfield