From the first day his family arrived at their new village, Jack knew that a wizard lived in the big dark house on the other side of the square.
For one thing, tight ranks of enormous trees grew on all four sides of the place like some kind of living fence, pierced only by a single wrought-iron gate with a lightening bolt marked in the middle. For another thing, Jack had actually seen the man on that very first night, slipping out of the gate just as darkness fell, wearing a hood that covered his face but not the long grey beard that fell from his chin. The man had been carrying some sort of rod with a metal tip, probably a wand or magic staff, but in the darkness, Jack hadn’t been able to make out the particulars.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” said Jack’s father the next day as they set up the tools in the new blacksmith shop. “There are no such thing as wizards.”
“But his gate has a lightening bolt right on it,” Jack argued. “Did you see it?”
“I did,” said his father. “It was a very fine gate, high quality materials and workmanship. Rich folk like fancy decorations of that sort, and if this neighbor is as rich as he seems, I expect he’ll be a regular customer, so see to it that you don’t say anything impertinent.”
“He’s just an old man, out for his evening walk,” said Jack’s mother when he tried the subject again with her after dinner.
“But he had a hood and a wand and a beard longer than Opa’s!” said Jack stubbornly.
“Lots of old men have beards and most lean on staffs, too. And as for the hood, it’s getting chilly enough these nights, it’s about time you brought out your own winter cloak.”
Jack hated his winter cloak, made of a scratchy wool that itched his neck, so he quickly dropped the subject.
He didn’t stop thinking of it, though, or keeping his eyes open for another glimpse of his new neighbor. Through constant vigilance, he was able to discover that the old man went out his gate each night at the exact moment the light disappeared from the sky. Jack tried several times to stay up late enough to see the man return, but he always fell asleep without seeing a thing.
It wasn’t until his father asked him to come into the blacksmith shop early one day to help that Jack finally saw why he had been missing the old man’s return. Jack’s mother had woken him up while it was still dark, and he was standing by his window splashing water on his sleepy face just as the sun peeked up over the horizon. Just then, he saw his neighbor, hood still drawn approach the lightening bolt gate. Something sparked from his hand and the gates opened. Jack’s jaw dropped and water dripped off his chin. Had he just seen a spell being cast? Quickly he rubbed his eyes, and when he looked again, the old man disappeared behind the trees. The gate was closed again.
He couldn’t help but mention it to his father later as he pumped the bellows for the roaring fire.
“Like as not he was just out for a morning walk and not all night as your imagination is telling you,” said his father between blows of the enormous hammer onto the anvil in front of him. “And even if he was, it’s no business of ours. You’re best served focusing on your work and learning your trade. There’s no good goggling at every oddity you see, for you’ll find that life is full of them and it takes no magic to make it so.”
Jack did focus on his work. He loved the smithy, with its roaring fire radiating heat and the sparks flying up from his father’s hammer. He wanted to be just like his father, to have strong arms and skilled hands. Jack already knew how to fashion simple things like nails. He was eager to learn more.
Still, he didn’t stop watching the wizard’s house closely. He was sure something mysterious and wonderful was going on there, and he wanted to know more. He worked hard but his mind wandered to that shadowed place across the street. Of course he would finish his apprenticeship, but he would not let this mystery go unsolved. He didn’t see any reason why he couldn’t do both.
Jack started waking up early in the morning. From his bedroom window, he saw his neighbor return home each morning just as the sun came up. Always that little flash caused the gate to open, but Jack could never see what caused the little flash. Finally, one day he determined to get a closer look.
Just before sunrise, Jack crept across the town square and found a convenient shrub to hide behind. He pushed deep into the leaves to be sure he couldn’t be seen. Then he waited. It didn’t take long.
Soon the old man came up the street, carrying his dark staff. He paused as he approached the lightening bolt gates and took a large silver key out of his robes. The sun peeked over the horizon just as he slipped the key into the lock. The light reflected off the silver, flaming out for just a second, and then the old man tucked the key away again into some inner pocket.
Jack was disappointed. There was no magic here after all. Just a key glimmering in the sunlight. His mother and father had been right. He had let his imagination run away with him.
Just as he was about to turn and creep home, though, something caught Jack’s eye. The old man had now stepped through the gate and was passing under the trees down a path that presumeably led to his front door. As he walked past, each tree bent its trunk, leaning forward in a most unnatural manner, as if bowing to their returning master.
A spurt of excitement coursed through Jack. The trees were enchanted! The old man truly must be a wizard!
Over the course of the next week, Jack couldn’t stop thinking about the wizard and his magical trees. Jack’s father kept him so busy at the smithy that he couldn’t stay awake at night or get up early enough in the morning to continue his spying, but that didn’t stop Jack from imagining what other wonders might be inside that house or from dreaming at night of walking through the gate and having those forbidding trees bow in greeting.
At last, Jack could take it no longer. He asked his father for a day off from the smithy to go fishing, and his father, pleased at how hard Jack had been working, agreed. Jack rose early the next day, gathered his fishing gear and slipped out of the house. It didn’t take long to find a good spot in the square for hiding his fishing pole, and then Jack slipped across the road and approached the lightening bolt gates.
Cautiously, he reached out a hand and touched the iron lightening bolt. Nothing happened.
Braver now, Jack grabbed hold of the bars. He only had a few minutes before the sun would come up and the old man would return with his shining key. Jack intended to be inside the gate before then. With a burst of terrified energy, Jack scrambled up the bars and threw himself over the top and onto the path on the other side.
He landed with a crunch of dried leaves and looked around. The giant trees that lined the fence also stretched in long rows up toward to the house. Jack stepped forward on the path, holding his breath.
The trees bent. Their tops dipped toward the earth.
They were bowing!
But instead of bending low and then straightening again, the tree tops ducked down and and down. The branches stretched out. They reached Jack and wrapped around him. Jack struggled in terror as they lifted him off the ground, completely enmeshed in their limbs and suspended him high in the air. No amount of writhing could free Jack. He was well and truly trapped.
A glimmer of light and a clanging of metal. The crunch of footsteps. Jack stopped his struggling and looked down into the upturned face of the old man on the path below.
“Hello, neighbor,” said the man.
“Help me, please!” Jack squeaked. “Make them put me down! I’m sorry I sneaked in! I’ll never do it again!”
“I will help you, of course,” the old man said calmly, “but I’m afraid I cannot make the trees to do anything they don’t wish to do.”
“But you’re a wizard!” Jack cried. “They bow down to you!”
The old man smiled. “I’m no wizard,” he said. “And as for the bowing, if they do it is only from common courtesy. After all, I live here. This is where I belong, and even trees know a man deserves courtesy in his own home.” He raised his eyebrows at where Jack hung tangled. “You, on the other hand, are not where you belong.”
Jack nodded miserably. “I’m sorry,” he said again. “I was just curious, and my curiosity got the better of me.”
The old man smiled. “Curiosity can do that. It’s always wise to get the better of our curiosity before it leads us into trouble. I confess, though, I have often been unwise in this myself.”
The trees slowly began to lower Jack toward the ground.
“And as you can see,” said the old man, “trees also understand curiosity. I don’t think they’ll hold your discourtesy against you this one time. But you might want to be on your best manners from here on out.”
Jack gasped with relief as his feet touched the ground and the branches slowly pulled away and left him free.
The old man cleared his throat and nodded significantly upward.
Jack turned red. “Thank you for letting me go,” he said very politely to the trees. “I’m sorry I broke in so rudely.”
The treetops rustled gently. Jack couldn’t help but feel that his apology had been accepted.
“Well done!” said the old man. “And now, as your curiosity has brought you here, perhaps it might also induce you to come inside and share my morning cup of tea.”
Jack followed his neighbor up the path, each tree bowing to its master as he passed. From up close, the house did not look so forbidding. Large, of course, and shaded by many branches, but also very clean and with many flowers growing in baskets and barrels.
The old man boiled water in an ordinary kitchen and made tea in a simple white teapot. He served it to Jack with little raisin buns on the back porch looking out at the lawn. It was all so unmagical that Jack began to be rather disappointed, even though the raisin buns were delicious.
After tea, the old man yawned, and Jack realized that after being out all night, he must be ready to sleep now. Jack wanted to ask what the man did all night, but now that he had seen the consequences of rudeness, he worried it might be impolite to ask.
“It’s nearly time for my morning nap,” the old man said.
Jack swallowed his questions and nodded. “Thank you for the breakfast,” he said. “I can find my own way out.”
Jack shook the old man’s hand and turned to go.
“You’ve learned your lesson well,” the old man said.
Jack turned around with a question on his face.
“You’ve mastered your curiosity and remembered your manners. I think that deserves a small reward.”
Jack’s heart began to beat as the old man drew out his metal-tipped staff.
“You are a wizard,” he said before he could stop himself.
The old man laughed. “No, at least not in the sense that you mean it. I am only a man with as much curiosity as a boy. Come with me.”
The man led the way into the house and up several flights of stairs to a locked door. He unlocked it with his shining silver key and opened it up to a tiny attic room.
Inside was giant telescope, pointed up through a window in the roof toward the sky.
“You won’t be able to see as much in the light of the sun,” said the man, “but perhaps it will be enough to be worth the effort.”
He fitted the metal tip of his staff into a hole in the telescope and began to make adjustments. “Come look,” he said when he had finished.
Jack stepped forward and put his eye to the tiny hole.
What he saw, dimly, through a slight haze of sunlight, was a star. A star in all its glory, brought close enough that he could almost touch it.
Jack lifted his head in wonder.
The old many’s eyes twinkled at him. “Not magic, but perhaps just as good?”
Jack pressed his eye to the glass again. The universe within reach. He didn’t care what the old man said, this was magic and the man was a wizard.
“Your next lesson must be in the night,” said the wizard as Jack left. “Bring your father. I’m in need of new fittings for my telescope.”
So Jack did. He and his father and his mother went often to the old wizards house, sometimes to drink tea and sometimes to work and more often to look at the universe beyond. Jack’s father showed him how to use a smith’s tools to make delicate instruments and the wizard showed Jack what those intruments could do.
Jack was very careful to always knock politely at the gates, though, and wait to be let in. He was very careful to whisper a thank-you to the trees each time he left.
And in time, when Jack had spent so many hours at the wizard’s house that he, too, belonged, there came a day when he received his own silver key. It glinted in the sunlight as he unlocked the gate and went in all alone..
And the trees bowed to greet him.