Dudley Kalloch and Larry Short

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nce upon a time there was a little boy. This little boy lived in a place far, far away. It would take you a long time to get there, unless you were in a hurry and took a plane. That place is called Africa.

One day the boy, whose name was Bedan, became very hungry, so he asked his mother what they were having for dinner that day.

His mother looked very sad, and said:

"I am very sorry, Bedan. But today there is no food for dinner!"

So Bedan walked out of his hut, with his stomach growling at him. He sat down on a tree stump overlooking a dry creek bed and began to think very hard about where he could find something to eat.

As Bedan sat there thinking, something shiny in the creek bed caught his eye.

"What a pretty stone!" he cried, as he bent over to get a better look at a small pebble that lay in the sand.

Most of the stones in that creek bed were white, and chalky, and rather dull; but this one was smooth, and round, with blue and green strands that swirled round about on its shiny surface.

As he ran his fingers over the stone, Bedan came upon an idea. Not too far away, in the village near where he lived, there was a marketplace. He would take the pretty stone to the marketplace and trade it for something good to eat.

Bedan ran as fast as his feet could carry him. He ran past grass thatched huts, and more dry creek beds. He kicked up the dust into little clouds with his heels as he ran. But, because he was hungry, he became quite tired and had to slow to a walk before he even reached the marketplace.

By the time he got there, the sun was beginning to go down, and most of the merchants had packed their wares and had left for home. The only one left was a bent and gnarled old trader, who was tying his tin pots and pans to his pack and was himself preparing to leave.

"Old man! Wait!" cried Bedan. "Wait until you see what I have!" Bedan ran up to the old man and showed him the pretty blue and green pebble.

"It is but a pebble!" cried the old man. "What do I want with a mere pebble?"

"But it is a very beautiful pebble," said Bedan, "don't you think? See how it shines with the colors of the deep blue ocean, many miles to the south, and of the dark green forests to the east?"

The old man held the pebble up before the falling sun, and squinted. But he only shrugged his shoulders, and gave the pebble back to Bedan. "And what use have I for pretty pebbles," he said, "to remind me of the ocean and the forest which I shall never even see?"

"Please, sir," Bedan begged. "All I wish is a little food. For I am very hungry, and I hoped to trade this stone for my dinner." Bedan tried not to cry, but a large, wet tear squeezed out of his eye and trickled down one dusty black cheek.

The old man took the stone and looked at it again, and then he looked at Bedan. Once again he gave the pebble back to the boy, then said, "If I had any food I would give it to you, boy. But these days we all go to bed hungry. I do have something here . . ." the old man groped in his bag as he talked . . . "but I'm

afraid it isn't much, merely a simple little acorn. Not very good to eat at all. But you can have it if you wish."

The old man gave the acorn to Bedan, who turned it over and looked at it. It was small, and hard, and brown. "Where does this acorn come from?" he asked the old man. "Will it grow into something good to eat if I plant it?"

"It comes from a tree they call the 'oak,'" the old man told him. "But if you were to plant it, I'm afraid it would not grow, since we have had no rain in many months. And even if it did, it would take many years, though some say the acorn meal is good to eat if it is prepared in the right manner."

The old man looked hard at Bedan, who was digging thoughtfully with his toe in the dust.

"They say, though, that the oak has wisdom above all other trees," the old man finally said, half to himself. "Perhaps if you keep both the acorn and the pebble, some good fortune will come to you."

Bedan thanked the old man, though he wasn't sure it was worth it. He was still very hungry, and it was now getting very dark. Normally, the village would be lit with dinner fires, but now there was no food to cook in the pots, and people simply sat in their huts, with their heads between their knees. The only sound to be heard were the cries of hungry babies. Bedan hurried down the path toward his own hut.

When he finally got home, it was dark indeed. Even so, on the way home, another idea had come to Bedan, and he quickly set himself to work. He found a large basket used by his mother, in better times, to carry loaves of fresh baked bread to the market. He set the basket upside down on the ground, about twenty or thirty feet from the hut. He then tied a long string to a stick, and used the stick to prop up one edge of the basket.

Bedan reached into his pocket for the acorn. His fingers closed first upon the the pebble, and he pulled it out and looked at it. It now seemed dull and colorless in the darkness. "What a useless stone!" he muttered, under his breath, and tossed the pebble over one shoulder. "A lot of good you did me!" He then fished out the acorn and set it carefully under the basket.

Taking one end of the string, he found his way back to the hut, lay down in the doorway, and waited.

The pebble landed in the sand near the side of the path. Now, even though the little boy thought the pebble was useless, in reality it was a very special pebble. It could see, and feel, and think, a lot like you and I -- even though you couldn't tell by looking at it.

As the pebble sat in the sand, it was very sad. It had tried so very hard to help Bedan find something to eat. It had seen the hungry boy sitting by the side of the creek bed, and although it looked white and chalky and dull like all the other stones in the creek, it had wished so hard that it turned green and blue and shiny.

But even though it had tried so hard, it hadn't helped the boy at all. Now the pebble sat in the sand by the side of the road, and it felt so sad that it turned all white and chalky and dull again. This made the pebble feel even sadder, and it would have cried, but everyone knows stones can't shed tears.

Suddenly, while the pebble was thinking these things, a big, fat, black something came waddling up behind it. The pebble was about to look and see what it was, when the big, fat, black something reached down with its long crooked neck and took him in its sharp beak. It was about to gobble him down, when the pebble cried, "Wait!"

"What do you want?" asked the fat, black thing. "You cannot eat me!" said the pebble. "For I am a stone. And I am a very special stone. Once I was blue and green and shiny."

"Hah!" said the fat, black thing. "You are only an ugly, plain stone. You are not special to anyone -- you are the same as all the other chalky, white, dull stones in the creekbed. I have swallowed many such pebbles before, and I will swallow you, too!"

The pebble was about to say something else, when the fat black thing closed its beak and gulped him down with a funny noise that sounded something like this -- "QVACK!"

The pebble didn't know what to think about this. All the sudden it was completely dark, even darker than the night had been outside as it sat by the side of the road. It seemed to be trapped in a sort of wet, spongy tunnel, and it felt that it was moving, to and fro, to and fro.

Soon there came another loud "QVACK," and down next to the pebble in the darkness plopped the small brown acorn which the boy had put under the basket.

"Hullo!" said the pebble.

"So it's you again," the acorn replied. The two had met briefly while they rode along in Bedan's pocket on the way back from the marketplace.

"Yes! And look at the fix we are in now," said the pebble.

"You sound very sad," the acorn observed. "What is the matter?"

"I am sad because I thought I could help the hungry boy to find something to eat. I wished very hard, and I turned blue and green and shiny so someone might think I was something valuable and give the boy some dinner. But look at me now! The fat, black thing was right. I am not important. Neither of us are important."

The acorn got a very wise expression on his face as it thought about the pebble's words. As soon as the pebble was all done complaining, the acorn spoke.

"First of all," it said, "this fat, black thing which has eaten us up is a duck. As he came to eat me up, he had to stand under the basket where the boy had set me. He did not know the basket was a trap. Doubtless the little boy has by now pulled the string and the basket has closed in upon the duck. Soon, the duck will be roasting on the little boy's fire, and he will have the best dinner he has ever had. So, you see that you are not so useless after all."

The pebble looked very surprised when the acorn told him this. He had never imagined, after the boy threw him to one side, that he would be of any use to anyone again.

"I can see how you were very useful to the boy," said the pebble. "For it was you who sat in the trap, and helped the boy to catch the duck. But as for me, what good am I? And why did the duck even bother to eat me, a mere, ugly pebble?"

"This brings me to my second point," said the wise acorn, matter-of-factly. "If you could look around you in this darkness, you would see that there were many other pebbles such as yourself. Perhaps you can feel them bumping up against you even now. Didn't you know that ducks eat pebbles in order to help them grind up their food? Without you, an acorn such as myself would be no nourishment whatsoever to the duck. And without nourishment, the duck would never grow to be big and fat, and the hungry boy would not have anything to roast over his fire."

While the pebble thought about this, the acorn continued. "So you see that we are both important after all. No matter how small you are, how plain or ugly, there is a very important reason that you are you."

The pebble smiled as he realized that the wise acorn was right. He was important. All of the sudden, he was very happy. And if he could have seen himself in the darkness, deep inside the fat, black duck as it roasted on Bedan's campfire, he would have seen that he had turned once again a beautiful blue and green, and even shinier than before.

Copyright 1999 Larry Short