One of the Emperors of India had five wives.
Four of them each bore him a son, but the fifth, the youngest and most beautiful of all, was childless. The other wives took every opportunity to insult her because of this, and to incite the Emperor against her, so that she might be banished. For a long time they did not succeed, because the Emperor greatly loved this wife. But in the end they harped on it so often that his resistance broke down, and he agreed to their demands. So he banished his youngest wife, and sent her from the palace alone, without providing her with any silver or gold or the least amount of food or water.
In great shame the queen left the capital of that kingdom, and walked wherever her legs carried her. In this way she came at last to a dense forest. She roamed there a whole day without food to eat or a drop of water to drink, and in the evening she began to be afraid. With the last of her strength she climbed a tall tree in order to protect herself from beasts of prey, but because of her hunger and fear she could not fall asleep. When at last the dawn appeared, she was exhausted and barely managed to climb down from the tree. She tried to walk, but after an hour she felt ill and sat down to rest. Suddenly she heard a rustling in the trees and there appeared before her an aged wanderer. The queen panicked and started to flee, but the old man said: Why are you afraid? I will not harm you. Then the queen, who had no strength left, stopped and burst into tears.
Don't cry, my daughter, said the old man. My house is not far from here. There you can rest undisturbed and eat as much as you like. I am poor, but the forest has always supplied me with all that I need. The young queen looked at the old man, and she saw that his eyes were clear and honest, and that his face had a light of its own, and she agreed to follow him. Less than an hour later they arrived at a hut which looked miserable from the outside, but inside was neat and clean. The old man quickly gave the queen water to drink and to bathe in, and then bread to eat and wine to drink. The queen ate, drank, and fell asleep. And while she slept she dreamed she was walking in a beautiful garden, where there was a lovely pool surrounding a golden tree. She gazed at the golden tree with wonder, for she had never seen anything like it in her life. The leaves were of the thinnest gold, resembling the leaves of no other tree, and the blossoms on it were clusters of diamonds that lit up the surroundings with a strong and beautiful light. While the queen gazed at the tree she noticed an old man approaching her, who wore white robes, and it was the same old man who had helped her in the forest. When he stood before her, the old man handed her a golden amulet on a chain, and that amulet was in the shape of a golden tree. Without their exchanging any words, the queen understood that the amulet was meant for her, and she took it and placed it around her neck.
Then she awoke.
The queen did not know how long she had slept, but when she opened her eyes she was astounded to find she was still wearing the amulet of the golden tree, which she had received in the dream. Then she understood that the old man, who sat in the next room praying, had been sent to guide and protect her, and she was no longer afraid.
Good morning, dear father! she said to the old man.
Good morning, he replied. Come, let us eat. The queen came to the table, which she found set with all kinds of foods of the forest. Then she ate a meal of tender greens and various nuts and berries, and she was surprised to find that each of them was as tasty as the delicacies that had been prepared in the palace, while the water of the stream had a rich taste almost like that of wine. After they had eaten, the old man asked the queen to tell him about herself. She then told him about how the other wives of the Emperor had conspired against her because she was childless, and how the king had banished her because of this. She added that it was all the more unjust because, according to the signs, she was pregnant.
Stay here until the king realizes his error and his recklessness, said the old man. And the queen agreed to stay.
So it was that she spent her days living in that hut, gathering nuts and berries with the old man, and assisting him in his work—for this old man was a great craftsman, who created beautiful objects out of gold and other precious metals, which he himself mined from a rich lode in a cave he knew of in that forest. And he purified the metals himself, and cast them into treasures of many sizes and shapes. But the most beautiful of all were those he fashioned in the shape of a golden tree, like the amulet of the queen. The queen watched the old man work with fascination, and greatly admired his creations. But she wondered how the old man sold his treasures, for she never saw him leave the forest, and why, since he was such a great craftsman, he remained so poor. At last she asked him about this, and he said: I do not create these objects to be sold. Rather, when I have finished one, I beat it down and begin again. For it is the creating that matters to me, and nothing else. At last, when the time came, the queen gave birth to a healthy and handsome son. Her joy and that of the old man, whom she called Grandfather, was great indeed. And it was on the night the child was born that the Emperor had for the first time a vivid dream in which he found himself standing beside a golden tree. And the leaves of that tree looked like beaten gold, its blossoms were clusters of diamonds, and its trunk was the purest gold he had ever seen. The Emperor caught his breath and came closer to the tree, and there in the golden trunk he saw the reflection of the queen whom he had banished from his sight. Then he was filled with remorse at having sent her away, for he understood that she had been precious to him, and he tried to take hold of the trunk. But as soon as he touched it, it disappeared, and he awoke.
Now when the Emperor awoke from this dream he was filled with grief—both at the loss of his queen and at the loss of the golden tree. The dream continued to haunt him all that day, and that night the dream recurred, and once again he sought to grasp the golden tree in which he saw the reflection of the banished queen, but at the instant he touched it, it vanished, and he was never able to take hold of it, although the dream continued to haunt him every night. At last the Emperor called in his vizier, and ordered him to call together all of the dream interpreters in the kingdom, so that he might know what this dream meant. But when the Emperor met with the dream interpreters, he found they were divided as to the meaning of the dream.
Some of them thought the dream revealed how much the Emperor longed for his banished wife, and they suggested that he send messengers throughout the kingdom to search for her and to bring her back, for in this way the dream would surely stop haunting him.
But others among the dream interpreters felt that the king need only command his goldsmith to recreate the golden tree of his dreams, so that he might make it his own, and in this way he would be freed from the recurring dream.
Finally, there were those among the dream interpreters who insisted that no such simple solution would suffice, and that the Emperor must set out alone in search of that golden tree and find it for himself, for until then the dream would continue to recur.
Now the Emperor hoped that he might succeed in finding his banished queen, for he greatly longed for her, and was deeply ashamed of what he had done. Therefore he sent messengers throughout the kingdom who announced that he was seeking her, and that she was welcome to return. But these messengers failed to find the queen, and returned empty-handed, and the king began to fear that the queen might have starved or otherwise met her death, and he was filled with grief. Meanwhile the dream of the golden tree in which he saw the reflection of the queen continued to torment him every night, so that he woke up shaking and covered with sweat. For every time he approached that golden tree it vanished, and always continued to elude him.
Then the king ordered the gold to be brought from his treasury, and the golden bracelets of his wives collected as well—for he was angry with his wives for having convinced him to expel the youngest queen. He had all of this gold melted down, and had his goldsmith attempt to create a golden sculpture like that of the golden tree. And even though this goldsmith was known to be the greatest in the kingdom, the tree he created failed to resemble that of the Emperor's dream, and he ordered that it be melted down, and that the goldsmith begin again. When this was repeated three times, without success, the Emperor concluded that the goldsmith could not duplicate the golden tree of his dreams, nor did his creations cause the nightmare—for that is how he had come to think of it—to end.
At last, out of desperation, the Emperor announced that he would give half of his kingdom to whoever could help him find that golden tree. Many days passed, and no one was able to help him, for none knew of such a golden tree. Then the Emperor fell ill because of his bitterness, and he finally concluded that he must undertake the quest to find the golden tree himself, as the last group of dream interpreters had advised him. His sons, the princes, offered to undertake the search for him, but he reminded them that the dream interpreters had insisted he alone undertake the quest. And that is what the Emperor did—leaving the eldest prince in charge of the kingdom until he returned, and disguising himself as a beggar, so as not to attract robbers, he set off on the long journey by himself. For he knew he would have no peace until he had seen the golden tree for himself, and held it in his grasp.
So it was that the Emperor traveled throughout the kingdom, and everywhere he went he asked if anyone knew of such a tree.
But no one had ever even heard of it, and all his efforts were in vain. After many months had passed, he despaired of ever finding the golden tree, and thought of returning home, resigned to being cursed with the recurring dream until the end of his days.
Then, as he traveled through the forest, he saw an aged wayfarer, and decided to ask him if perhaps he had ever heard of the golden tree. The old man nodded in reply, and said: First come home with me, to rest from your journey. Then shall we speak of the blessed golden tree. Now in the hut of the old man the Emperor saw a woman, whose face was hidden behind a veil (which also hid the amulet of the golden tree that she wore), and with her was a young child, but he did not recognize them as the queen and his son, although he did think to himself that the child was unusually beautiful. Of course, the queen recognized her husband, even though he was disguised as a beggar, but she did not reveal herself, nor their son. The Emperor joined them for a meal, and afterward the old man said: The golden tree you are seeking can be found only in this vast forest. To reach it you must continue to walk in the forest until you come to a large stream, deep and wide. Follow that stream until it becomes a river, and its waters grow warm. Then keep following it until you reach its source, and there you will find the golden tree. But take heed— as you come closer to the source, the waters of that river will grow turbulent and boiling hot, for they emerge from a great fountain that has its source deep within the earth. And the golden tree grows within that fountain, surrounded by it on all sides.
Many have tried to reach it, but all have failed and drowned in the boiling waters. But if you take my shoes, and wear them when you enter the waters, the heat of the waters will have no effect. Then you may succeed where others have failed, but if you do, be certain to return my shoes, for if you do not the golden tree will be lost to you once more. Then the old man took off his shoes and gave them to the Emperor, who thanked the old man many times, and promised to return the shoes as soon as his mission was complete. Then he tied the shoes to his waist, to wear only when he reached the source of the river, and he set out to continue his quest.
Before he had traveled very far, the Emperor came upon the stream the old man had described, and he followed it from there on, noticing that as it widened the waters grew warmer and more wild. And at the same time the forest grew more dense, and the ground became warm beneath his feet as he made his way through the thicket that covered the banks of the river. But even though he had to struggle to make his way, he did not think of turning back.
At last the Emperor reached the river's source, where the waters rose up as high as a house, and gave off great clouds of steam, which covered the entire area in a thick fog. And when he saw how wild the waters were, he lost heart, for he was certain they could never be crossed. Still, he held out hope that the sandals the old man had given him might make it possible to reach the golden tree, which could faintly be seen through the heavy fog as a bright light glowing from within the fountain.
So it was that the Emperor put on the old man's sandals and stepped into the waters. Then, instead of being hot, the waters were cool to his touch, and the fog disappeared. Now, too, he saw the golden tree revealed before him, in the very center of the fountain, even more beautiful than it had appeared in his dreams. And when he slipped into the waters, he found that he could not sink in them below his waist, and in this way he floated to the fountain, carried by the currents, until at last he was swept into the fountain itself, where he found a circular rock on which to stand, surrounded by a wall of gushing water.
There, in that sacred circle, the Emperor saw the golden tree face to face, as had happened so often in his dreams. But now he was astounded to discover that the golden tree was not a motionless object created out of gold, but was itself a golden fountain that sprang up in that place, with molten gold that formed the shape of a golden tree. And with a strange certainty, an intuition that came to him from nowhere, the Emperor reached out and grasped the molten trunk of the golden fountain, and it did not burn his hands, nor did it disappear. Instead, a portion of it solid ified at his touch, as long as his outstretched arm. Then, with the golden tree firmly in his grasp, the Emperor stepped out of the fountain, and slipped back into the currents, where he found the gold to be weightless, so that it floated like a log. Then, as he floated away, he looked back and saw for the last time the golden glow formed from the light of the molten tree, and he understood that the golden fountain never stopped flowing, but that it formed another golden tree every instant. And all of those trees were different, but at the same time they all had the same essential form, and he marveled at the infinite shapes that a golden tree could take. Then he returned his gaze to the golden tree that carried him through those waters, and he saw that it too had retained the essential form of the molten tree, even though the gold had hardened, and he knew that he had finally resolved the unfinished dream that had haunted him for so long.
At last, when the Emperor emerged from the fog with the golden tree in his hand, it took on its proper weight. Exhausted, he sat down on the bank of the river and examined his treasure.
Then it happened, to his amazement, that he saw in it the reflection of the banished queen, and once again he was grieved at her loss. Finally he arose and used all of his strength to carry the golden tree back downstream, until he reached the hut of the old man. For he did not doubt that if he failed to return the shoes of the old man the golden tree would be lost to him again, this time for good. And when he entered the hut, bearing the wondrous treasure in his hands, the old man and the boy marveled at it, and even the queen examined it through her veil.
Then the Emperor thanked the old man for all he had done for him, and out of his remaining grief over what he had done to his queen, he confessed to the old man about how he had banished her, and how he rued the day he had given in to his wicked wives. It was then that the queen removed her veil, and the Emperor found himself face to face with his youngest wife again at last, and he also saw the amulet of the golden tree that she wore.
Then he prostrated himself at her feet, and begged for her forgiveness, and for her to return with him to the palace. And when the queen saw how bitterly he regretted banishing her, she accepted his apologies. Then she introduced him to the child, their son, about whom he had never known. The king was overwhelmed at his good fortune, for all that he had sought after had been given to him at the same time.
The next morning the Emperor and the queen and their child took their leave of the old man with many fond farewells, and set off to return to the palace. And when the Emperor went to pick up the golden tree, he discovered that it had become almost weightless, and that he could carry it without effort. When they had returned, the Emperor wasted no time, but quickly divorced his other wives, and treated the queen with the greatest love and respect for all the rest of their days. As for the golden tree, he planted it in the royal garden outside their window, where the child often played.