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In Madagascar, a poor boy seeks music and magic for his village

A long time ago, a poor boy named Alex lived in a village in Madagascar. His days were filled with boredom, as there was no music where he lived. His life was limited within the boundaries of the village. Only the local storyteller, Mr. Loan, would occupy Alex and the other children with his continuous legends. Every day, his mother would send him to the market to buy fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds. The sellers from other towns arrived with various musical instruments, but none of the villagers could afford to buy them.

One day, as Alex was hiking back from the market, he overheard Mr. Loan telling the children about a harp, gravely: “According to the ancient scripts, a magical harp with the sweetest music of all lies in the beautiful forest of Ambato Atsinanana. If the harp thinks that you have a kind and bold heart, it can develop a kind of bond. You will be able to command it to do anything as long as it only results in something good. Only one who is brave and intelligent can return with it.”

At this point Alex dropped all his baskets and raced to Mr. Loan’s story circle in excitement. “A musical instrument, you say! How do I get to Ambato Atsinanana?” he asked eagerly.

Mr. Loan glared at him. “It is too risky for a young twelve-year-old boy to recover it! However, I trust you to be very cautious about this as it will be a very dangerous journey.”

“Tell me! Pray tell me!” the curious boy pleaded, jumping up and down.

Mr. Loan sighed. “All right! Calm down! I will give you a map.” Mr. Loan handed him a little carving drawn on a piece of wood with an X at the end. The magical harp must lie there, Alex thought. He quickly piled up his goods in his baskets. Grasping the map with one hand, he hurried home.

“Careful!” Mr. Loan called. “Do not go on this adventure without older company. It will be a treacherous undertaking!” But he was already out of earshot.

Early morning the next day, when the sky was still dark and everyone was sleeping soundly, Alex stepped stealthily out of the house. He glanced at the precious wood carving. It would be quite a trek to even reach the entrance of Ambato Atsinanana! So, he hiked through the farms and trekked through the corn mazes.

Vines curled in every direction. Leaves in all shades of green covered the treetops.

Finally, after two exhausting hours of tromping through boggy marshes, just as he thought he would never reach the legendary Ambato Atsinanana, he smelled a pleasant aroma of lavender, fresh leaves, and sweet orchids. Enchanted by the heavenly fragrance, he stumbled into the dazzling entrance of Ambato Atsinanana.

Vines curled in every direction. Leaves in all shades of green covered the treetops. The branches seemed to form a maze, cutting through the trail. And most beautiful of all, flowers in pink, purple, yellow, orange, red, and more amazing colors dominated every gap of the entrance to the beautiful forest. Alex was amazed with the beauty of Ambato Atsinanana.

Even if Mr. Loan’s legend was not real, he would still have thanked him for giving him the thrill of this adventure. Though the forest looked magnificent, Mr. Loan had warned of dangers. Alex, the harp seeker, was bright enough to know that he should listen to the old storyteller. After all, Mr. Loan was the oldest and had more experience than anyone else in the village! As the sun began to rise, Alex began his journey in search of the magical harp.

As Alex tromped through the crunching leaves, he kept stopping at least once every ten minutes to check the map. After hours of continuous hiking, he finally reached a fast-flowing river with at least ten branches of water. There were some rocks, but they looked very slippery. How do I cross this river? he contemplated. It looks powerful, like it can sweep anyone away from this very spot. He remembered Mr. Loan’s words that finding the harp would need intelligence and courage. He checked Mr. Loan’s wood carving. This was definitely the first landmark marked on the map. He sat down and thought about accessible materials until an idea struck him like a thunderbolt! It must work, or he could be sent flailing downstream.

Alex had brought a very thin and short rope with him. He started breaking vines with a small pocketknife and twisted and turned them around it, connecting them just like his grandma had taught him. It was just about long enough to reach the other side of the river. He made a loop at one end that was big enough to attach to a rock. It took him a few tries, but soon he managed to hook it to a granite stone at the other end.

Slowly and hesitantly, he began to walk on the slippery rocks, holding on to the rope, praying it wouldn’t detach from the rock. He slipped a few times, but each time he slipped, he managed to hold on to it. Fifteen minutes later, he reached the other side successfully. He wearily grabbed it from the rock and untied it. Stuffing it in his backpack, Alex gathered some clean leaves from the tall maple trees and created a bed. He lay down, preparing for a good afternoon nap.

*          *          *

When Alex woke up, the sun was high in the sky, reflecting off the thick canopy. “I must have slept for hours,” he muttered. As he was stretching, he heard a loud rumbling noise and jumped. The noise seemed to be coming from his belly! He hadn’t eaten since early morning when he had been able to steal some fruits from his mom’s cupboard.

As the twelve-year-old boy was thinking about his next strategy, an orange fruit plopped on his head. “Apricots!” he exclaimed. He glanced up at the apricot tree towering above him. He would have to do some serious climbing. Taking off his slippers, he began to climb. The bark was very rough, and Alex couldn’t help but fall a couple of times. On his third try, though, he finally made it to the apricots. He gathered as many as he could and settled on a thick branch where he could enjoy them peacefully.

When his tummy was satisfied, he retrieved his carry bag from under the tree and began to climb again. Trying not to look down, he collected just enough apricots for a five-hour hike. After stowing the pouch in his pocket, he continued his adventure for the magical harp.

As the sun began to set, Alex trudged along the path marked in the map. At last, he reached the cave that was marked in the wood carving. Suddenly a lion emerged from it! “Aaaaaaaaaaaah!” Alex screamed.

The lion smiled, revealing his razor-sharp teeth. Alex began to tremble uncontrollably. “Who a-are y-you?” he stammered.

The lion replied proudly, “I am the guardian of the sacred, magical harp. If you wish to take it, you must answer three impossible riddles. If you fail one of the riddles, then—”

“Then what?” Alex interrupted.

“Then I will eat you! But don’t worry, I will make it a fast death.”

“What if I answer the riddle correctly?” Alex questioned. “Then I will give you a key made out of pure gold.”

Alex gasped.

“Are you ready to answer my three riddles, or do you want to turn back?” the lion growled.

He gulped. “I’m . . . I’m ready.”

The lion smiled menacingly. “Then I will begin. What walks on four feet in the morning, walks on two feet in the afternoon, and walks on three feet in the evening?”

Alex thought hard and long. What was the answer?

“I can’t wait all day!” the lion roared.

Finally, he settled on an answer. The answer was correct—it had to be. “A man. That’s it, isn’t it? Man crawls on four legs in the morning of his life when he is a baby, walks on two legs in the afternoon of his life, and needs a stick to support him with his legs in the evening of his life.”

The lion was shocked! Never had anyone answered the Egyptian riddle correctly in over a century. “Correct! Now to the next question. What occurs once in a minute, twice in a moment, and never in a decade?”

The harp seeker thought this might be the hardest riddle in the world. What is common between a minute and a moment? he thought. After repeating the words, he started to wonder why it was so easy to transition from minute to moment, even though he’d started to say ‘minumomin.’ Then he got it! They both contained an m! The difference was that there was only one m in minute and two ms in moment!

Five columns of hard stone stood in front of another wall. Each one had a different picture on it.

“I got it!” Alex screamed so loud that the lion had to cover his ears. “It’s the letter m!”

The lion could not believe it! All the adults had failed his riddles, and now a twelve-year-old boy was answering them correctly! “Well done,” he said rather grumpily. “Now on to the next riddle. What belongs to you but is used by everyone you meet?”

What could it be? He tried to think logically. He was usually generous and would share his belongings with anyone in need. However, sometimes he got into trouble with his mom for doing so. He remembered how he had shared his expensive blue bicycle helmet with Bob Piddle! Bob broke it on the very first day, and Alex was grounded by his mom. She had shouted his name so loudly that even his friend who lived five houses away had heard it!

Just then he felt he had hit the jackpot. Name! It belongs to you but is used by everyone you meet! Silently, he thanked his mom.

“Names! It must be, right?” he asked hopefully.

The lion roared his loudest roar. “You are the first human being in a century to have passed my extremely hard riddles. You will be the first human to hold . . . the golden key!” When the lion shouted “key,” Alex thought his ears were going to burst and he was going to be injured because the ground was trembling as hard as an earthquake.

“Goodbye!” the lion bellowed, slapping the precious key into his palm. “Just go straight through the tunnel to resume your journey!”

Alex dashed through the tunnel, grateful that he had survived the lion.

*          *          *

As Alex reached the end of the cave, a beam of sunlight hit him, and he was relieved to be out of darkness! He had been walking nonstop since he had escaped the lion. It had been nearly an hour since that event. Though the sun was still illuminating the sky, he was desperate to find shelter to sleep. Nearby, he found a small clearing of grass. It was nearing sunset, and he decided to have a good night’s sleep, sans haunting lions.

When Alex began to stir awake, the sun had already risen. He remembered that he hadn’t eaten dinner last night and began to pick cherries, plums, and apples from the surrounding trees. After he finished eating the hearty meal, he set back on the trail to continue the quest for the magical harp.

Soon, Alex reached a huge wall. He placed the key in the keylock, exactly like the lion had advised him. Slowly and surely, the wall began to split open. Five columns of hard stone stood in front of another wall. Each one had a different picture on it. The first one had a river carved on it, while the others had different pictures, such as a meadow, a wall, a lion, a cave, and last but not least, an apricot tree.

He tried to absorb what he was seeing. Each picture had a button right below it. After much deliberation, he realized that the buttons were to be clicked in the same order that he had encountered those objects on his journey. Alex pressed the buttons in the correct order: river, apricot tree, cave, lion, meadow, and finally the wall. At last, the mysterious wall split open to make a doorway, and he stepped through it.

My Favorite Instrument

Almost as soon as Alex walked through the entrance, he gasped. The magical harp lay right in front of him. So, it’s true, he thought. It’s really true. Alex took the harp with his shaking hand and started to play random notes. He couldn’t believe that he had found the harp. It wasn’t a legend. Neither was it a myth. The harp was real! And he of all people was holding it. Enchanted by the sweet music, he began his way home, playing a harp. And not any harp—a magical harp that could play the sweetest music in the entire world.

On his way home, Alex passed the lion and all the other obstacles he had met. Surprisingly, as he neared the river, playing music, the river opened a path for him through it. Alex was sure that this had something to do with the music. After another one-and-a-half days of hiking and playing the harp, he finally could see the village: home sweet home.

His mother and Mr. Loan immediately ran out of their huts to greet them. “What’s this?” she asked, staring at the harp. “And oh, how happy I am that you are back safe and sound. Tell me everything, Alex, including the part where you decided to be a foolhardy boy and leave the village alone! You could have at least informed me! We were so worried!”

So Alex apologized to his mother and narrated the story of his quest for the harp to her and Mr. Loan. Other village folks stopped by to listen too. “Sounds like you’ve had quite an adventure.” Mr. Loan chuckled. “Why don’t you play that harp for all of us?”

And so he played. He was no longer bored. He played the harp, a magical harp. Every day, he would command it to go to every hut in the village and play any song they requested. The village was never spiritless again; the music enlightened them all forever!