Once there was an old woman. There have been many old women in stories over the years and many more in life outside of stories, but this one was special. This one was Harold’s grandmother.
Harold did not see his grandmother very often. She lived quite far away…Harold was never really sure where…and she only came once each year to visit. Visits from grandmothers are always rather wonderful, but visits from Harold’s grandmother were something even more extraordinary. She always brought her bulging yellow carpetbag and, as is often the case with grandmothers’ luggage, it always contained presents for Harold. Presents from Harold’s grandmother were never exactly what you would expect. She never brought toys or books or new clothes or anything like that. She only brought magical things. One year there was a magical ball of string, which looked depressingly ordinary until you unrolled it and discovered all the things that it could do and that you had already been playing with it for hours before you even thought to ask the time. Another year there were magic bottle caps which made beautiful music and played jumping games and turned into pirate gold when you put them under your pillow at night.
However many magical presents the yellow carpetbag contained, there was always room for one more thing inside. This was the thing that Harold loved best. It was always kept at the very bottom and taken out on the very last day of the visit. It was a wooden box. The box was just the right size to sit in Harold’s two hands and its plain wooden lid was attached by plain brass hinges and held tightly shut by a plain iron lock. Harold’s grandmother said that the box contained the world’s most wonderful treasure, but Harold had never seen what was inside. He was allowed to hold it, to feel its weight in his hand, to wonder and wonder what the treasure could be until his wondering was just about to burst out of his ears and he must ask once again if he could open the box. “Not this year,” his grandmother always said. “Perhaps when you are older.” But even though Harold was older every year, he was never given the key. Often throughout the year, Harold would find himself thinking about the wooden box, and in his dreams it opened, but somehow he always woke up just before he got a look inside.
The year that Harold was eight, his grandmother came later than usual. Her back was perhaps a little more bent than Harold remembered and her voice a little quieter, but her yellow carpetbag bulged as much as ever and the presents inside had all the usual magic. Harold waited patiently for the last day of the visit, and when it finally came and the wooden box was placed in his hands, he breathed a huge sigh of happiness. The box felt heavy. Was there more treasure than before? Slowly, Harold lifted it up until it was right in front of his eyes. Then he saw it. The lock. It was open. Harold looked questioningly at his grandmother, and she nodded. Trembling now, Harold set the box on the table between them and slowly, slowly opened the lid.
It was full of small things, full right to the top, but none of the things looked like treasure to Harold. An old key. A dried rose. Two black buttons. An acorn. A feather. A shiny piece of glass. Some withered leaves. Where was the treasure? Was the glass really a precious jewel? Did the key perhaps open a larger chest filled with gold? Harold felt all empty inside, like a bubble that is just about to be popped.
Harold looked steadily at the box, not wanting to lift his face and let his grandmother see what he was thinking. He breathed slowly once. Then twice. Then a gnarled, wrinkled hand came into view as his grandmother plucked the tiny acorn from the box. Harold couldn’t help but look up. The acorn sat in his grandmother’s hand, held up right before her eye.
“What-?” Harold started to ask.
“Listen,” his grandmother said.
Harold listened. He couldn’t hear anything.
Harold listened. He leaned forward to listen better. He strained his ears. But no matter what he did, he couldn’t hear anything.
After a few minutes, Harold’s grandmother leaned over and pressed the acorn into his hand. “Each and every thing in this box is a story waiting to be heard. Those stories are the greatest treasure you’ll ever find. Listen well.”
Harold held the acorn tight in his hand as he said goodbye to his grandmother. Watching her walk slowly down the path away from his house, he vowed to himself that he would uncover every bit of treasure in that box. He would listen like no one in the world had ever listened before.
And that is what he did. He set the acorn next to him in the morning while he ate his breakfast. He carried it with him as he quietly walked to school. He slept with the acorn under his pillow at night. Days went by. Then weeks.
And then one day, sitting under a tree with the acorn in his hand, he heard it. The acorn’s story was right there, just as his grandmother had said. Without warning, the story seemed to pick him up and carry him away to another place.
And when he came back, he had inside him a shining treasure.
So it was that Harold spent his days listening. Listening to keys and pressed flowers. Listening to tarnished rings and broken combs and tiny pebbles. And the treasure inside him grew and grew until it filled him up completely and he knew he needed to share it. So he began to look for others who wanted treasure, and he passed on what heard. And then he listed some more.
And Harold was happy.