I am the knife grinder. And I have a tale to tell.
There was once a merchant – a merchant of happy faces. No one remembers his name, so I will just call him the merchant. Whenever he saw a sad face, he would scour the world for whatever it took to make it a happy face. He was so good at his trade that he grew exceedingly rich.
He was the richest person in town. He had the finest house in the town, too. It stood at the western end of the marketplace and had marble columns around the door, and two lions reclining atop the gateposts.
If he was the richest person in town, then who was the poorest? Without a doubt it was Rosemary the flower seller. On market day she would sit by the horse trough with her basket of flowers. The merchant made a point of buying a flower just so that he could spend a moment or two talking to her. For he could see that underneath her bonnet of unbleached wool, and her coarse clothes of homespun flax – shabby but never dirty – she was pretty indeed.
She told the merchant she lived in the heart of the woods with her ancient mother, in a tumbledown cottage that was only held together by a rambling rose. So far as anyone knew, they had always lived in that cottage: just the two of them. For whenever the old one died, the younger one would pick herself a man in the town and have a baby by him, but never marry. It was always a baby girl, and when it opened its eyes, the mother would smile into its face and say: Aha it’s you! Welcome back to the land of the living. And the mother would grow old in her turn, and die, and be reborn again by her daughter. And so the two women had carried on with each other since the world began: now as the daughter and now as the mother.
Rosemary and her mother gathered all their food in the woods, and wove the cloth to make all their own clothes. So they never had any real need to go into town. Just now and again, when they wanted to buy needles to stitch with. Or buttons, or brightly dyed ribbons, which they could have made for themselves, but chose not to. And that is why Rosemary would gather flowers in the woods on market day and come into town to sell them.
Then one day Rosemary was sitting there beside the horse trough, and she had not one basket of flowers, but two. She told the merchant that her mother had died, and she must buy a shroud to bury her in the woods, as she’d always insisted. But it wasn’t a shroud her mother would be buried in, but an exquisitely carved coffin of cedarwood, with shiny brass handles and letters of gold. And it wasn’t in the woods that her mother was buried, but in a private graveyard which used to be someone’s garden, because the priest wouldn’t let her be buried in sanctified ground.
The old woman wouldn’t have wanted that anyway.
It was the merchant who paid for these things. And after the funeral, to which the whole town was invited – and they all came (except the priest) – the merchant took Rosemary to be his wife, and she never set foot in the woods again.
Instead she became a lady, and people were amazed at how beautiful she was. They hadn’t noticed it before, when she’d sold flowers in the marketplace. The merchant dressed her in the finest silks, and gave her sparkling jewels to wear. And she went about the town visiting the poor and needy, dispensing relief on her husband’s behalf, and making sure every daughter of marriageable age had a dowry so she could marry well.
She lived in the merchant’s fine house, with its marble columns and two lions guarding the door. On the walls were priceless pictures, and brightly painted friezes beneath the sculpted ceilings. It had real glass in the windows, glass of many colours including a beautiful blue.
Behind the house was a glorious garden, with fruit trees and herb beds and flowers from far and wide, for the merchant travelled all over the world. Thus she could still pick flowers whenever she wanted, though she didn’t sell them in the marketplace any more. But she did give them away to friends. Because she, too, knew how to make happy faces, which she did on her husband’s behalf. For he was a generous man.
One day the merchant said to his wife, I must go away once more and travel the world, to keep us in the manner to which we’re accustomed. And when our child is born, it must have a fine crib to be laid in, and beautiful toys to play with.
And his wife replied: come back quickly to me, because it will not be long before I am brought to term with our baby.
A month went by, and the baby grew bigger inside her. Rosemary was no longer able to go round the town visiting the poor and needy to bring them happy faces. In the glorious garden, she was no longer able to bend over and pick the flowers. She missed the woods, and the cries of the birds, who used to greet her by name. She missed the fallow deer, who would come up to have their chins scratched. On one occasion she went with her maidservants to the edge of the wood, but the fallow deer no longer recognised her and stayed away. And the birds no longer knew who she was, but would cry quis-quis-quis to each other in alarm.
Rosemary wrote a letter to her husband, telling him these things. She begged him to come home before summer was ended, because it would soon be time to have her baby.
But the merchant wrote back and said: there is such a need for happy faces in the world that I cannot come back just yet. But I’m making lots of money, and when I come home I will buy you a linnet in a cage to sing to you. And I will buy you a pony to live in the garden. And come to you whenever you call, to have its chin scratched.
Another month went by and Rosemary could feel the baby kicking inside her. Again she wrote to her husband saying: The summer is gone and the leaves have turned yellow. The fruit is growing big on the trees, and my baby is growing big inside me. Come back to me soon – don’t let the autumn fade away like the summer.
But the merchant wrote back and said: there are still lands I must visit before I come home. Then I will bring you fruits from foreign parts in costly jars. And wonderful toys for our baby, the likes of which have never been seen in the town before.
Now the autumn was turning to mists and rains, and the first frost laid its deathly fingers on the flowers in the garden. Once more Rosemary wrote to her husband saying: our baby is due any day now, and I do miss you so. Come back to me soon, before the winter is upon us. For then the seas will grow rough and your life will be in danger.
When the merchant received this letter, he knew that he’d stayed away too long. It was high time he hastened home before the winter set in. But he had left it too late, and stormy seas delayed his departure for weeks.
On the first day of winter, as the sun was setting in a frowning bank of cloud, the merchant rode into town in his coach-and-four, and came straight to his house at the end of the marketplace. Up he strode between the two lions, and past the pillars to his front door. But a heavy chain had been nailed across it, and though he knocked at the door again and again, there was no answer. In growing dread he turned and ran to the private graveyard, for maybe his darling wife was there, tending her mother’s grave.
But there was no one. Instead he saw two fresh graves with earth piled high upon them: a tiny grave and a bigger one. The graves were too fresh for gravestones to be erected, but at the head of the bigger grave there was a plank of deal, on which had been written: Rosemary.
Come morning, the merchant awoke, chilled through and wet with dew. He had slept all night at the graveside, hugging the plank of deal. Rising to his feet he staggered back to his front door and gave orders for the chain to be broken. Then he went inside and gathered up all the money he had. He put it in a big tub and had it carried to the horse trough in the marketplace. There he stood all day, giving handfuls of gold coins to whoever came by. Soon he had a cluster of people around him, which grew to a crowd. He made them form a queue. There would be enough for all, he said.
And so it went on all that day, the queue getting longer and the gold in the tub getting lower, but there was indeed enough for all. At last everyone had received a handful of gold, and some had received two. At the bottom of the tub just one gold coin remained. The merchant took it up and dropped it down the well beside the horse trough, as his offering to the Earth. Then he walked out of the town and never set foot in it again.
But he didn’t disappear. Oh no. He became a well-known figure up and down the country, appearing in each village on its market day. A grey, gaunt figure, standing beside the village pump till nightfall. To everyone who came by, he offered them a sprig of herb with the words:
Rosemary for Remembrance.
I knew the old man well (it is the knife grinder speaking). For a while we travelled the road together. We’d arrive at a village on market day. I would set up my grinding wheel and he would take up his position beside the village pump. He wasn’t choosey – he’d eat any food the people gave him. If they gave him money it came straight to me. In all that time he never spoke to me.
Except on one occasion each day. He’d be up before dawn, scouring the woods for the herb he was to hand out in the marketplace. Then he would make a fire and put on a pot of water to boil. And then he’ll wake me, offering me a sprig of the herb with the words:
Rosemary for Remembrance.
It was all he ever said.
I forget how we parted, or why. I think I woke one morning and he wasn’t there. After that I didn’t see him for years. But I knew he was still alive, because people would tell me they’d seen him in such and such a village, a week or two before.
Then, on the first day of winter, I saw him again. It had snowed in the night, and more snow was on the way. I was hurrying as fast as I could over the pass to the village beyond, where I planned to stay the night at the inn. Threatening clouds covered the sky, but as it set, the sun peeped under the cloud canopy, tinting the snow rose-pink. Everywhere except in the dimples, where the snow reflected the bruised blue-grey of the sky.
Then I saw the old man.
He was sitting in a virgin field of snow, no footsteps leading either to him or away. I left the road and struck out across the snowy waste, and as I approached I could see there were icicles in his beard.
His lips were frozen shut and his eyes were lumps of ice. And his face was the face of a man who had laid down a heavy burden.
I turned and struggled back to the road. Flecks of snow were blowing in my eyes, and there was no time to waste if I was to reach the inn before dark. In the morning, collecting together a party of men, I set out for the place I had come across him, and we brought him back down to the village.
They sent out investigators, north, east, south and west, making enquiries about the old man as they went. And this is what they found out…
He lived nowhere.
He owned nothing.
He had nobody.
But everybody knew him. They knew him… and his bleak message.
The villagers set up a subscription, and soon collected enough for a full-sized statue of the old man in the centre of the village. There it stands to this day – a grey, gaunt figure, holding out a sprig of herb. Nobody could learn his name, so there is no writing on the memorial. Except for these words engraved around the base:
Rosemary for Remembrance.
I often think of the old man. And here’s how I used to think of him.
What a waste! What a waste of a life!
And then it occurred to me. In the depths of his grief and loss, the merchant had stumbled upon the very heart of things.
The very heart of things! Imagine it!
Imagine if you or I had come upon the heart of things. Think of the books we’d write, or have ghosted for us; the money we’d make, the royalties flowing in for the rest of our lives. Think of the lecture tours, the public speeches, the TV interviews, the honours heaped upon us: the honorary degrees and doctorates, even a knighthood perhaps! Imagine the hands of power we’d get to shake. The levers of power we’d be allowed to move. The personal influence we would wield.
Imagine the lunches with beautiful people, the invitations to wonderful homes and luxury yachts. The crowds of people in the streets worshipping us. Folk would start new religions in our name – hundreds of them. Adulation would follow us to the end of our days. And when we died, we’d be remembered with fondness and love for years… for decades… for centuries – perhaps forever. They would reckon the years from the year of our birth.
And what had the old man earned for himself, by stumbling upon the heart of things? A comfortless life – and a lonely death on a snowy hillside.
So what is it: this “heart of things”? Simply this: Remembrance.
What if we all chose to remember past misfortunes, not to forget them?
Nobody would build on floodplains, because they would remember the misery of being flooded out when the river overflowed its banks. Not if – but when.
Nobody would build cities in earthquake zones, because they would remember the dreadful devastation an earthquake brings. Buildings collapsing on people. Buildings cracked up past repair. Homelessness, disease and major loss of life.
Nobody would let a poor man starve. If they saw him wasting away in the gutter they would give him food to sustain his life – if not a morsel more. And if they saw him freezing outside in the cold and the frost, they would give him a blanket to cover his back – if not a stitch more. For the man who eats enough to sustain his life, and no more, is a healthy man. And the man with a blanket to cover his back, and no more, is a hardy man. But the man with neither of these is a sickly man, prone to disease – and the rich would remember that they too can catch the diseases of the poor.
Nor would the rich despise the poor, nor would they oppress them. For it is not unknown for a poor man to become rich. And the rich would remember that such a one will not forget the days of his poverty, but will spend the rest of his life demolishing the pillars of the rich man’s wealth.
Nobody would oppress the stranger in their midst, because they would remember the terrible power of Remembrance: how the memory of oppression will be passed down from generation to generation, until the children of the oppressed can take ample revenge on the children of the oppressors.
Ah…! What an avalanche of sorrows would be spared hapless mankind, if only… we’d… REMEMBER !!
I often find myself at close of day in an English market town. (It is the knife grinder speaking.) The sun sets on a bright horizon, peering for a minute beneath a blanket of clouds. And as it grows darker, lights come on in the windows ringing the marketplace, and soon those lights are brighter than the sky. The cobblestones grow moist with dew, and glint with gold in the streetlights, and the doors of the inns open onto the orange glow of warmth and good cheer within.
I pick myself a bar in which to pass the evening. Not a pub full of old men, nodding forgetfully over their pints. I seek out the bar in which the young folk gather – there is always one such. And it is always crowded.
The young men stand around moodily, eyeing the girls. And the girls sit in tight little groups, chatting about the boys. And so, with people talking over my shoulder, above my head or behind my back, I take out my pipe and light it.
The bar lady comes over. Excuse me sir, she says. But may I ask what it is you are smoking in your pipe?
I laugh. It’s all right, I say – it’s not a banned substance. Why, you’ve got some in your kitchen.
She looks surprised at that. I hold out my pipe, inviting her to take a sniff. And I say: It’s rosemary…
Rosemary for Remembrance.