I have told this story many ways...often localizing it to a landmark bridge. This version is a bit of my own and bit of "embroidery" by the SELA stoytellers of Louisiana where I did a writing workshop. I used many of their ideas in the reconstruction of this ancient tale.
A lonely old peddler lived several miles out of town at a crossroads. But, oh that house had seen better days. Its cracked facade, decaying porch, and musty air reflected the life of the peddler. Neither sounds of laughter nor shouts of anger penetrated his thick wall of complacency. The sound of his own shallow breathing was his only company.
Thank goodness winter was almost over. In just a few weeks, he’d be back on the highways and byways with his peddler’s pack slung over his shoulder. He smiled as thought of the children crying out with joy, “The Peddler Man!” The Peddler Man is coming!” And, the country folks would drop whatever they were doing to see what he had hidden away in the folds of his pack. He was a modest salesman, a peddler of special goods, traveling the countryside offering bargains… a bolt of calico for mama, a pretty ribbon for Mary’s hair, some tonic for papa, or a new knife for Jack. But, the most special time of all was the fall, when his sack was filled with red, shiny apples.
Ah, those apples. His neighbors said there must be some magic for that tree to grow such delicious apples. The peddler harvested the apples so others could make pies and cakes and apple-cinnamon candy. As he sold his apples, the children gathered around, for he told them stories about the hidden star deep at the heart of each and every apple. He pressed those apples to make a good strong cider. The men folk like to sit around his table and toast to happier days as they sipped the cider to keep him warm on cold winter nights
The apple tree was a constant source of pleasure - in the spring tiny, white flowers burst forth and filled his home with a delicious scent of apple blossoms; in the summer its shade gave him a cool place to rest; in the fall its branches hung low with the ripe red apples. When a cool breeze blew across the freshly picked apples, it never failed to invoke a dream the peddler had. In his dream he was a rich man. And, when he awoke, he smiled and thought…Ah twas, but a dream!
Yes, that apple tree was always a treasure ready of the picking! But, now it was winter, and its skeletal arms lay barren - no blossoms, no shade, no apples – just some initials of broken promises carved into its trunk.
As the tree had grown old, so had the peddler. His back was bent over from years of carrying that sack. His face was etched with deep craggy lines and his feet were as gnarly as the roots of the old tree.
One cold, winter evening, the peddler found a jar of cider hidden away in the cellar. He started a fire and poured himself a goodly portion of the cider. As he sipped the cup of the hot spicy drink, his head nodded, and he fell into a deep sleep.
When he awoke, he remembered he had a dream – a vivid dream. He found himself in the middle of a rickety, wooden bridge that led into town. He had been there many times in his youth, but this time he was just standing there like he was waiting for someone. Then, a stranger came up to him, and they started to talk. Just as the man was ready to tell him something very important, he awoke.
He probably would have forgotten about that dream, but the next evening the very same thing happened. He sipped some cider and fell into a deep sleep. Again he met the stranger on the bridge. This time the stranger told him about a treasure, but, when he was about to ask about what kind of treasure, he awoke.
Then, on the third night, he had the dream again. This time the stranger was just about to tell him where to find the treasure, when he felt himself being pulled away from the bridge and into his chair in front of the fire. The peddler man was sure that this was not just a dream. Perhaps, he should make that long journey into town and stand at the very bridge.
A fortnight later he arrived at the bridge. He saw many strangers, but none who talked to him. If truth be known, they averted their eyes and walked a little faster as they passed him on the bridge. They thought…who is this strange man and what is doing here…just standing and waiting….waiting for what! And, they hurriedly walked on.
Now, unbeknownst to the peddler, there was someone watching him. At the other end of the bridge there was an inn. The innkeeper was an observant man who couldn’t help but notice an old man standing on the bridge. He was there in the morning, when he opened up, and still there, when he locked up for the night. Why, it seemed as if this man didn’t leave his post. Being a seeker, a collector of information, he decided to go and find out what this man of odd habit was about.
So, on the third day, his curiosity got the best of him. He tired of waiting and watching and went to get some answers, “Old man, I’ve been working at the pub for the past three days. I couldn’t help but notice that you’ve been standing in the same place - like you were waiting for something or someone. What, pray tell, are you doin’ here?”
The peddler just smiled, “Ah, it was but a dream I had - for three nights in a row! It was the same dream, I tell ya.’ And, in this dream, I was told to come here, and I’d meet a stranger, and that stranger would tell me where some treasure was hidden.”
With that the innkeeper threw back his head and laughed and laughed, “Are you daft, man?” he chortled. “ Why I myself had a dream – for three nights in a row… I went traveling down this very road that leads out of town. Oh, in my dream, I traveled a far piece, I tell ya’ that.. I stopped at a crossroads for a spot of cider. As I was leaving, I saw a shovel leaning up against the trunk of an apple tree. I took that shovel and, for some reason, I dug and dug. Oh, I found a treasure all right and, do want to know what the treasure was? Gold! But, I knew it was fool’s gold for only a fool would go off on some wild goose chase to follow one’s dreams!”
The peddler just smiled and said, “You know…you’re right. What was I thinking? I’m just a fool – and an old fool to boot.”
But as the peddler made his way back home he mused…it was no accident, the coincidences of today. The wise man, he thought, learns from the things that happen to him. Wisdom comes to those who slow down and pay close attention.
He went over the dream of the innkeeper – the tree, the shovel…the treasure. Could it be that the treasure was there all the time – in his own backyard? And then, it was like a candle was lit inside him. He knew before he picked up the shovel, that the treasure wasn’t what was inside a dirt-encrusted, metal box. It was the treasure that the tree had shared for so many years. It was smell of apples and cinnamon; it was the look in the children’s eyes as he told them stories; it was the camaraderie of old friends. And for the first time, the peddler realized that the tree had made his dream come true – for he was truly a rich man indeed.