In a different time and a different place, a king and queen lived in a beautiful kingdom. They had a son, who had grown into a fine young man, but in her heart, the queen wanted a daughter of her own.
So one day, when the cherry trees were blooming, she went to the palace gardens where a beautiful cherry tree grew, and picked a twig covered in blossom. That night she slept with the cherry blossom under her pillow. In due time, a baby girl was born, all pink and white, the prettiest baby ever seen in the kingdom. They called her Cherry.
In one day the baby grew into a strong, healthy child, and in a week, she was a beautiful young girl. But then she began to grow pale and weaken. She was put to bed and the king and queen called every person wise in the skills of healing to tell them what was wrong with their daughter. None of them could tell why the princess was fading, but they all agreed that she was dying.
When the young prince, Hendl, heard this, he was angry and deeply upset. “No! She cannot die! I will do anything to save her!” He searched the kingdom for doctors and healing herbs and new medicines, but none of them were able to help the princess. Finally the prince went and sat under the cherry tree with his head in his hands, mourning his young sister.
Presently the Head Gardener approached him and said, “Why do you sit here, groaning and weeping, while your sister lies close to death?”
Prince Hendl lifted his head and said, “How can I help her? Who am I to save her from dying?”
The Head Gardener retorted, “If not you, then who else? After all, you are a cherry blossom child yourself.”
“What?” said Hendl. “How can that be? Look, I have lived for eighteen years, and never been sick a single day!”
The Head Gardener shrugged. “I don’t know why it is so. But you of all people should be able to listen to the cherry tree and understand what is needed. But waste no time. When the last blossom falls from the tree, the princess will die.”
The prince sat hour by hour under the tree, listening with every fibre of his mind and spirit. Then he got up and collected a great basket full of blossoms. He took his knife and cut a piece of bark from the trunk of the tree, and he snapped off a green twig. Then he gathered some of the fallen branches and took them to the river bank where he used them to build a fire. When the flames were at their highest, he tipped the cherry blossoms onto the fire, but a sudden gust of wind swept them up and away from the flames, like a cloud of pink and white, and carried them away.
Angry, the prince took the piece of bark he had cut from the trunk of the tree and went to throw it into the fire, but a big, black crow swooped down out of nowhere and seized the bark in its beak and flew off, cackling. The prince shook his fist at the crow, but it was soon out of sight.
Determined this time not to lose his last chance, the prince grasped the green twig firmly in his hand and thrust it deep into the heart of the burning fire. At once the flames flared up and burned Hendl’s hand with a pain more terrible than he had ever known. He pulled his hand out of the fire and thrust it into the cold, flowing waters of the river.
When he turned back to the fire, it had burned down to a mere heap of ashes. The last wisps of smoke rising from the ashes seemed to Hendl to form the shape of a doorway. Holding the burnt twig in his hand like the key to a lock, he stepped through the doorway.
He found himself in a chamber, so large that its furthest corners were hidden in shadows. He crossed it and passed through a second doorway into an even larger chamber. It was lit by great candles on stands, and filled with silence. At its farthest end was another doorway, protected by huge iron gates. As Hendl approached, armed guards stepped in front of the gates, barring the way. Peering past them, he cried out to see his sister, lying pale and motionless on a bed inside. He went to grasp the gates and drag them open, but the guards drew their swords and held him away at sword-point.
Then a tall figure wrapped in a long, hooded robe appeared on the other side of the gates. “I am the Keeper,” she said. “Only one who has the Key, the Word and the Sign may enter.”
Hendl was filled with anguish. How was he to find these things and save his sister?
The Keeper looked at him, and said in a voice as soft as a petal falling, “I see you have the Key.” Hendl followed her gaze down to the burnt twig which he was still grasping.
“The Key!” he said.
“Do you have the Word?” the Keeper said.
Hendl thought, and then he said, “My name is Hendl. I am a cherry blossom child.”
The Keeper nodded. “Do you have the Sign?” she asked.
Hendl tore his hair in frustration. He held out his empty hands for the Keeper to see. She drew in her breath sharply, and pointed to the raw, red scars of burning on his hands. “The Sign!” she said. She bowed, and opened the gates, while the guards stood aside. Hendl entered, and went to his sister’s side. He took her hand, saying her name, and at once they were both standing in her room in the castle, and Cherry was laughing, as beautiful as she had ever been, her face rosy with good health and happiness.
Together they went to the king and queen, who were overcome with joy. The celebrations and rejoicing went on across the whole kingdom, until long after the last blossoms had fallen from the cherry tree.