There was once a boy, poor as can be. He wore ragged clothes, slept under a bridge near the town, and stole food from proprietors in the market. His face was constantly dirty, as were his hands. To say he smelled bad would be like saying the stars only shine dimly. And yet, as much as he stood out from the crowd, no one noticed him.
It was a warm, sticky day. The market was crowded; a perfect opportunity for the hungry boy to steal food, so many hands picking at the delicious fruits to test their ripeness.
As he lifted a small orange, casually placing it in his pocket, he noticed in the distance a stand he had never seen in the market before. It was also strange that while people gathered at every other stand, nobody was at this stand, not a single soul.
He reluctantly walked toward the stand, his curiosity high. The closer he came, the more he wondered why this rickety stand was so alone.
“You seem like someone who needs what I have,” the old proprietor said as he took notice of the poor boy. “Come here, boy.”
Hesitantly, the boy approached the counter.
“Aren’t you going to ask me what I have?” the old proprietor said, gently tugging at the ends of his shirt sleeves.
After a moment of the boy staring at him, expressionless, the old proprietor leaned down to the boy, whispering, “In my possession is a seed for a very special tree.” He looked both ways suspiciously then continued, “Money grows on its branches.”
With the boy offering him a puzzled look, the old proprietor asked, “Don’t believe me, do you?” Pulling his hand from a small linen bag, he said, “Well, I’ll have to make you a believer then.”
Opening his hand, exposing the seed, he instructed, “Plant this seed in a place only you know. And be sure to give it water.”
Reluctantly, the boy swiped the seed from the old proprietor’s palm and ran away.
That night, huddled under a wet bridge to escape the pouring rain, the boy studied the seed. There was nothing special about it, he thought. It’s a seed, like any other.
Of course, the boy’s curiosity got the better of him and so the next morning he sought a place near the bridge hidden from view. He didn’t believe the old proprietor, but he also didn’t feel embarrassed for planting the seed. He had nothing to lose, after all. And maybe this tree would bear fruit he could pick from it.
Throughout the day, the boy went about his normal routine of traveling to the town, stealing food, running away, eating, and somehow always being too busy to find a river in which to bathe.
But he didn’t mind. How could he miss having a better life when he never had one in the first place?
Returning to his bridge that night, he slept with the stars in full view. Not a dismal raincloud in the sky.
The next morning he awoke and walked to the hidden place where he buried the seed the day before, where he received a shock as he discovered a fully grown tree where the seed once was. Not only that, but the tree was already bearing fruit in the shape of crinkled paper. As he delicately plucked a piece from the nearest branch, he unfurled it to see that what he was holding in his hand was, indeed, money.
Gazing up at the tree, he could see much more money attached to the branches. He was jolted with excitement and hurriedly climbed the tree to pick all of the money within reach. By the end of the afternoon, he had gathered enough money to go into the town to buy some food, new clothes, and a room at the inn to stay for the night.
He still didn’t remember to bathe, but nobody’s perfect.
The next day, he traveled back to the tree and gave it water. He then filled the empty water bucket with the money the tree had grown overnight. Going into town that evening, he bought a small house and a comfortable bed to sleep on.
As the days passed, he kept the same routine. He would travel to the tree to give it water, gather the money it had grown overnight, and head back into town to buy things.
But as the days passed, and he collected more than enough money for food each day, the things he would buy became greater and greater. So with not the space in his small house to hold all of his possessions, he bought a much bigger house with a much more comfortable bed. And he bought much nicer clothes. And he ate much nicer food.
And since he finally remembered to bathe, he was attracting young women who were attracted to his rich lifestyle; a lifestyle so rich in money and possessions and good times of drunkenness that he forgot to travel to the tree to give it water.
One day, the boy awoke to discover that he barely had enough money to afford his breakfast. And so he traveled to the hidden place where he had planted the tree, where he received a shock as he discovered a withered mass where a glorious tree, full of life, once stood.
With no money to take from the tree, he went back to town, back to the market where he met the old proprietor who gave him that special seed.
He walked up to the lonely, rickety stand and demanded the old proprietor give him another seed. But the old proprietor didn’t have another seed to give.
“There was only one,” he said. “I entrusted it to you, hoping you would take care of it. But you didn’t seem to understand that the real value of the tree was not in the riches it could give you, but in its existence.”
Angry, the boy shouted at the old proprietor, asking why he suggested the tree be hidden from everyone else; other people who would see the tree and water it.
“If everyone knew about the tree, everyone would fight over it. However, I gave you my trust that you would care for the tree. Could you not have given the same to a single person you would trust to care for the tree?”
With a fierce kick to the rickety stand, cracking its delicate balance and causing it to collapse to the ground, the boy yelled at the old proprietor, casting blame for not instructing him to hire a caretaker.
Calmly, the old proprietor replied, “You were so captivated by the money growing on the tree and what it could buy that you neglected the source of your riches, and so the tree withered and died and the riches along with it. The responsibility to care for that source was yours.”
Hoisting a dusty bag over his shoulder, the old proprietor walked away, saying, “I simply gave you the seed. What you did with it was all up to you.”