The Tree stood in the middle of a great wood. Even though the wood was dense, and undergrowth fought for its place throughout the acres of forest, around The Tree, there was a small clearing. Demure grass had paved a gentle lawn around its base.
It was the one place in all the wood where the sun could find its way right down to the ground. Long golden fingers, full of warmth and life, gently caressed The Tree from top to bottom, and warmed the waiting garden in which it rested.
The clearing around The Tree made it a natural place for meetings. The monkeys loved to gather around it. They would dance and joke and eat and chatter. They planned their lives around that tree. And sometimes they pondered its purpose.
The Tree was so high – much higher than any of the others in the wood. What was it for? Why had the Creator made it? Why had He given it to them.
Jo was an adventurous monkey – probably more so than most. Even for his kind, he pushed the limits. The Tree was limit he had yet to push – and he was eager to do so. Jo’s father cautioned him to leave The Tree to its place as center of The Gathering Green. Jo’s mother prayed herself to sleep at night, begging the Creator to keep her little monkey safe.
For his part, Jo started training.
He learned to climb even higher than he ever had before (which is saying something!). He taught himself to swing across impossibly wide distances, and to grab onto tiny branches he previously imagined were beyond his reach. He discovered how to use his body’s momentum to propel himself from one branch to the next, mid-swing, with just the slightest of touches, barely disturbing the branches he passed along the way.
He grew strong, and fast, and agile.
Monkeys live to climb and play, and at first Jo had many playmates. All the younger monkeys – and even some of the older ones – enjoyed stretching their limits and expanding their skills.
But then it would be dinner time, and they’d head off to eat their fruit, and Jo would just keep going. He was determined to achieve his goal, and nothing seemed able to slow him down. Seeing how tall The Tree was, Jo realised that he’d have to take a few days to get to the top. He figured he’d get further faster if he could climb at night, as well. Sacrificing sleep, Jo trained through the night to see what it was like.
It wasn’t long before he was training alone.
After a while, when they saw he had no plans to slow down his training, some of the monkeys began to taunt him.
“You’ll never make it to the top, you silly monkey!” they yelled.
“Why not give it up – no monkey has ever been that high before!”
“You’re crazy! You’re sure to kill yourself before you’re halfway done!”
Jo ignored them all. Or at least, that’s what it looked like. In fact, their taunts spurred him on. “You’ll never make it to the top!” they said. “Just watch me,” thought Jo.
“No monkey has ever been that high before!” they jeered. “Yet,” thought Jo.
“You’ll die trying!” they assured him. “Better to die living than to live half dead, afraid to try anything,” thought Jo.
It didn’t feel like very long to Jo when he felt ready to tackle the top of The Tree. He didn’t make a fuss. He didn’t look for fan fair or acclaim. He just kissed his mother gently on the top of her head, and set off across the Gathering Green, towards the giant roots of the ancient, enormous Tree.
No climbed The Tree all of that day. When night fell, he used his training to keep going, resting only when it was dangerously foolish to go on because he was so tired. Before dawn broke the following day, he was already on his way, climbing ever higher through the thinning branches.
Towards the end of the second day, the topmost branches of the surrounding trees fell away. Jo could just peek above them, and begin to get some idea of the extent of the forest. Still he kept going. Like the night before, Jo climbed until well after midnight. This time, however, his climb was lit by the bright round moon, and a million twinkling stars. Jo was enchanted. He’d heard of the moon and the stars, of course. But he’d never seen them before except as tiny, shattered glimpses, hidden behind the branches of a thousand trees. On this night, nothing stood between Jo and the infinite sparkling sky.
The cosmic light lit the way and Jo got further that night than he’d ever imagined. He thought the lights in the night sky would keep him awake, but his hard day’s work saw to it that he got the best rest he’d ever had. Distant bird song stirred him before dawn the next day, as they did every day. Once again, he set off, climbing as high as he possibly could.
Today, though, Jo saw the sunrise for the very first time in his life. The inky indigo velvet night glowed like golden fire at its base; purple and peach swept up the canvas of night and dissolved into opalescent morning. The day yawned a sleepy hello before bursting into life around him.
Never in his life had Jo seen anything so magnificent. He stopped in his tracks, his breath caught fast in awe-struck lungs. As he watched the day unfold all around him, kissing awake the nighttime world with life and colour, tears rolled down his face. He could barely grasp so much beauty. And he couldn’t imagine that, for so long, he had missed it all.
There was so much more to see than he could ever have guessed.
At last, day was there and life was living itself, and Jo got on with his work of climbing. He wasn’t far from the top now, and he happily plunged onward, aiming for the tuft of leaves crowning the top of the tree. He couldn’t wait to see what he would see from the far side of those leaves.
Soon, he was there. He plunged into the leaves and found himself surrounded by ripe red berries. Nervous at first, he sniffed at one of the berries. It smelled good! Jo picked the berry and ventured a tiny nibble. It tasted good, too! In a flash, he ate the berry up. It was great! He grabbed a few more and gobbled them, too. Delicious! He had never tasted anything as good in all his life.
Feeling comfortably fed, Jo pressed on, pushing his head through the leaves at the top of The Tree. From there, he could see forever. The forest stretched on as far as he could see, banked by tall grey mountains away to the west. Over in the east, right at the edge of how far he could see, something flat and infinite glinted and flashed in shades of blue and green. He could not imagine what it was – it was unlike anything he’d ever seen before.
Jo spent all day at the top of The Tree. When evening came, Jo saw his first sunset. The sky darkened with a mellow slowness that made it hard to notice the changes at first. As it got darker, the pale blue deepened to sapphire and cobalt and indigo, glowing deeply purple and then orange as the horizon caught fire with the dying sun. And then it was gone. Darkness blanketed the mountains and the distant flashing flatness and the trees in the forest and The Tree Jo had climbed and even Jo himself. He crawled back into the clump of leaves at its zenith, closed his eyes, and slept more deeply than he ever had before.
The next day, Jo was saddened to find that he had slept through that magical morning moment when night becomes day. He ate some more delicious berries, and tried to decide what he should do next.
He had achieved his goal, and the high of the day before had given way to a flatness he couldn’t explain. What next? he wondered.
Jo considered his journey so far. He remembered the training and the taunting that came with it. He thought about the changes he had experienced as his body grew strong enough for the challenge. He pondered all that he now knew about the world, which he had never dreamed of before. He knew he could never go back to the way he was before. He could never forget how much more there was to life …
And then he knew – he would show the others! He had figured it out. He had conquered his goal. He had climbed The Tree. He now knew it could be done – and how to do it. He would show them, and let them share the wonders of the great wide world with him. Jo could hardly wait to get back to the troupe and tell them all about it. His newfound purpose (and a bit of gravity!) propelled him down The Tree at lightning speed. Before the end of the following evening, Jo was back in the woods, climbing quietly into the Gathering Green so that he wouldn’t wake his sleeping friends.
As soon as the troupe woke up the next day, they realised Jo was back. His mother gave a shout of joy, while his father patted him proudly on the back. The little monkeys mobbed him, eager for tales of all he’d seen and done. Even the older monkeys looked grudgingly impressed that he’d made it back at all. When they heard that he’d been all the way to the top, and saw and tasted the delicious berries he’d brought back, a cheer went up from them all.
One little monkey hung back, timid and nervous. Jo sensed she had something on her mind, so he asked her kindly, “Kiki, is something the matter?”
“Oh no!” she stammered. “It’s just … umm … could you show me how to go to the top of The Tree?”
A hush of shock silenced the crowd and they all stared at her as if she’d just eaten the last cranberry without sharing.
“Yes!” Jo exulted. “That’s why I came back! I want to show you all how to get to the top. It’s amazing up there, and I want to share it with everyone.”
Noise exploded through the Gathering Green as every monkey voiced his or her opinions all at once.
“It can’t be done!” “He’s lying” “He never went to the top!” “I want to go!” “I want to see the stars and the moon whole!” “I want to witness the dawn!” “I want to know what a sunset is like!”
“Kiki, let me show you how it’s done,” Jo said quietly. Together, they set off up The Tree. Jo showed Kiki what he had learned, and allowed her to take her time. It was hard going for Kiki. She was smaller and younger than Jo, and she’d had none of his training before setting off.
At first, Kiki could barely get to the first low branches. She tried, but she fell time and again. She was so afraid of failing, that she could not keep hold of the trunk of The Tree. She curled in a heap in a space between the roots, and sobbed.
Jo climbed down, too. He sat next to her, and wondered where he’d gone wrong. He was a good climber, it was a true. A natural, his dad always said. He had trained hard to reach the top – and he’d had the chance to do so. Kiki was a busy monkey with a lot to do each day. Finding time for this adventure had cost her more than it cost him.
It also didn’t bother Jo what the others thought and it never had. He did things his own way. Their taunts rolled off him, but they bothered Kiki. Her compassionate spirit meant she really cared about the others – and about what they thought of her.
As Jo considered Kiki’s situation, he felt guilty. He had had so much more opportunity than she had. It was unfair that he could get to the top of The Tree and she couldn’t. Perhaps it would be better for everyone if he stayed on the forest floor with her and the rest of the troupe, instead of entertaining dreams of grandeur.
“Jo,” Kiki looked at him through the mist of tears staining her eyes and cheeks. “Don’t give up on my account. It’s hard for me. But knowing you can do it gives me the faith to believe that maybe I could do it, too. Show me again how you got started … and show me how much you love to climb.”
Jo realised he’d been about to give up his dreams – maybe forever. He remembered the thrill of mastering climbing, and how much effort he had put into his goal. He finally understood that Kiki’s lack of opportunity had not been his fault, but that he was her opportunity, here and now, as long as he didn’t give up on either of them.
Kiki was small, and young, and inexperienced. “She’ll need a lot of guidance,” Jo thought. “But this is what The Tree is for – to show us the world. And this is what I am for: to show them The Tree. If I give up – if I play small – I am not being my best self. I am not doing what I was created to do. In fact, all I am doing is giving everyone else the permission to give up on their dreams, too.”
“Kiki,” said Jo. “It’s not going to be easy. But it is going to be worth it. You have a lot to learn – and you’re little – but we can do this if we just don’t give up.”
The little monkey looked at Jo. “Do you really think so?” she asked.
“I know it,” he replied.
Kiki stood up, dusted herself off, and took hold of the trunk of The Tree one more time.
Now, what she lacked in strength and stature, she more than made up for in determination. She learned fast. She was agile. And she really, really wanted to reach the top.
By the end of the next week, she did. Like Jo, Kiki’s first sunrise brought her to tears. She was entranced by the sunset, and stared into the west for many hours after the sun had played his lullaby. At night, Kiki and Jo entertained each other by trying to count the stars. Jo discovered ho much easier the journey was when he shared it with someone. And he discovered how much richer it is to teach than to learn alone.
Jo and Kiki spent a week in the leaves at the top of The Tree. Finally Kiki turned to Jo and said, “You’re right. We must show the others. This magic does not belong to us, and it’s wrong not to share it.” They made their way back that very day.
When they got home it was evening, but this time everyone was waiting for them. The disbelief that had greeted Jo was replaced by skeptical interest. And when Kiki shared her stash of berries, every young monkey in the troupe begged to join.
Over the weeks and months that lay ahead, Jo and Kiki trained dozens of monkeys great and small to climb The Tree. Soon almost everyone had been to the top. They knew so much more, now. They had seen so much further.
Nothing could go back to the way it was before.