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All around me I heard hospital sounds. Nurses chatting, machinery beeping, footsteps in the hallway. Every few moments I tried to talk. Nothing but air came out.

It was only as sunlight streamed through the window that I realized I was not dreaming. I was wide awake, but could no longer speak.

My horse was gone.


The Cricket Who Jumped to the Moon

Once, when the world was young, there lived a cricket who dreamed of jumping to the moon. He wanted nothing more than to look down and see the earth. Night after night he jumped as high as he could, occasionally reaching the low branches of a tree, sometimes even the upper ones. But he never came close to the moon.

The other crickets who lived in his valley scoffed at his foolish notion. "The moon?" they laughed. "Ridiculous. Impossible."

Undaunted, he kept on jumping for the moon. Over time, his knees grew weak from too many hard landings. He could no longer jump, nor play his evening songs. The other crickets all told jokes about him. Still, he kept on trying, climbing slowly up the trees until the day he died.

Even after he was gone, the jokes remained. They grew longer, and in time they turned into stories. They were passed from one generation to the next and eventually woven into their songs.

To this day, you can hear them sing of his adventures. "Look!" cricket parents say to their children, "There he is! You can see his face, in the shadows of the moon, watching over us."

So it was, after many years, that his dream came true.


The Cricket Who Jumped to the Moon

MY FATHER SPENT HIS LIFE chasing dreams. Looking back now, I can see that they were both a blessing and a curse to him--a blessing because they gave him the strength to go on, despite all odds, and a curse because none of them were destined to come true.

Many were the nights he thought he'd captured one dream or another, in the form of a fantastic get-rich-quick scheme, an elixir that would restore his health, or an elaborate invention that would bring him fame, fortune, and, what he wanted most of all--happiness. Yet, time and again, he awoke to find that his hopes had slipped through his gnarled fingers. Then he would respond as he did to all the pain in his life--with a laugh.

"What can you do?" he would say. "People make plans and God laughs." As if for emphasis, he'd look toward heaven, his palms raised, and shrug. I would follow his gaze upward, then look back down at his hands. They fascinated me and terrified me, with their knuckles swollen like marbles, fingers hooked like the talons of an owl.

They hadn't always looked that way. At one time, before I was born, they had been lithe and nimble, one dancing along the neck of a violin, the other gently holding the bow. That's how they looked in the photograph I'd seen of him standing tall in his white dinner jacket and black trousers, the violin resting under his chin, on the night he debuted with the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra.

He was in his early twenties when the arthritis began to show. I imagine it was subtle at first, his fingers moving imperceptibly more slowly between the strings. He must have heard it in the music before he ever saw it in his hands. Ankylosing spondylitis, the doctors would later call it, a rare form of the disease that caused the vertebrae of his spine to fuse into a single bone. Over the two-and-a-half decades I knew him, I saw his once tall body bend and twist into the shape of a question mark.

I never heard my father play the violin; by the time I was born the instrument itself was all that remained of his once promising career. Throughout my childhood it sat in its case atop the mantelpiece in our living room. Each in turn my two older brothers and I tried to play it, but none of us had the knack. We put it back, and it lay there, gathering dust, until he died.

As a child I did not understand his disease, or why it was that, as I grew taller, he grew shorter. With each trip to the hospital, he came back less able to walk--first with the cane, then the braces, then the walker. When he did walk, he moved so slowly that it was painful to watch. But, as with every other setback in life, he answered with a laugh.

"You know, the bumblebee can't fly," he announced once when he came home from the hospital, this time with a walker. "It's true. The laws of aerodynamics have proven that his wingspan can't support the weight of his body. Good thing for the bumblebee, though, he doesn't follow those laws, and goes on flying just the same."

My father had dozens of such sayings, words of wisdom that would become the legacy he left to my brothers and me. He'd say them whenever he met with failure and then go on chasing the next dream.

After giving up the violin, he had become an inventor, pouring our family's savings into one scheme or another. During the late 1960s he invested in what he thought would be the wave of the future--glow-in-the-dark plastics and paints. Like the remnants of all his other inventions, they littered the house. But by night, they glowed. Spilled paint was everywhere, even on the ceiling, like stars in the sky. That was my father--a rich man in the world of dreams, but poor again when daylight came.

"You know what they say, don't you?" he once asked me. "People make plans ..."

"... and God laughs," I answered dutifully, handing him a brick. I sat on his bed and he sat on a folding chair in the bathroom doorway, attached to one of his inventions. It was a device that was supposed to straighten out his back, using rope slung over a chin-up bar, with a neck brace on one end and a soup pot on the other. It was my job to hand him bricks. Each time he placed another in the pot he would grimace in pain, then force himself to smile, looking for all the world like he was trying to hang himself.

"But I don't get it," I said. "You say God laughs whenever something bad happens. Why? What's so funny?"

He stopped for a moment, brick poised in midair.

"You want to know why?"

I nodded.

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The Beggar King and the Secret of Happiness

by Joel ben Izzy


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Copyright © 2003
by Joel ben Izzy
Published by
Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill