Some time ago, in the middle of the New Forest near Brockenhurst, there lived two brothers. They lived in a little cottage on the edge of the woods. Now the brothers weren’t very well off - in fact they were quite poor. They earned what money they could, by going out into the woodlands to collect fallen branches from the old trees, to sell as firewood at Lymington Market each Saturday.
One day the younger brother was walking through the woods when he came across a tree that just made him stand and stare. It was a huge old oak tree – but he was sure it hadn’t been there the day before – he knew these woods so well.
‘Wow’ he thought, ‘ It must be a magic tree. It must have been put there for me to cut down and sell – because if it wasn’t there yesterday, no one will miss it tomorrow. If I could cut it down and take it to market, I’d make lots of money.’
Now the younger brother was partly right – it was indeed a magic tree. But – it hadn’t been put there for him to cut down – it had been put there to be the home of a very special animal - the King of the Mice – who had just moved in to the hollow under the roots of the tree.
The King of the Mice knew what the younger brother was thinking. Out he ran and shouted up to the man standing above him:
‘Oi! How dare you even think about cutting this tree down! It’s my home and I need it to live in. Go away!’
Well, the younger brother was most surprised to be talked to like this, especially by a mouse. However, he explained to the mouse that he needed to take some wood to market to sell, so he would have some money to buy food.
The mouse thought about this, and after a while replied:
‘ OK, I’ll make you a deal. If you promise not to cut down my tree, you can come back here this evening and I will leave you a solid silver coin by the roots of my tree. In fact if you leave my tree alone, I will leave you a silver coin every evening.’
Well, this sounded like a pretty good deal to the younger brother, so he agreed, and went off home through the woods, whistling happily to himself.
Later that evening the younger brother returned to the great oak tree, looked by the roots, and there it was! Just as the mouse had promised - a solid silver coin shining up at him. He came back the next night, and the next, and every evening after that the mouse left him another silver coin.
Well, it wasn’t very long before the two brothers started to become quite wealthy - and the older brother started to wonder where all the money was coming from. His younger brother didn’t really want to tell him all about the magic oak tree and the talking mouse, so he said:
‘Don’t worry where it came from - just share it with me and enjoy it – its ours.’
That wasn’t enough for the older brother - who always wanted to know everything. He grew angry and in the end he said:
‘If you don’t tell me where that money came from I’ll tell everyone in the village that you’re a thief and you stole it!
Well that wasn’t true - but what could the younger brother do – he had to tell his older brother the whole story. As he listened, the older brother started to shake his head, and in the end he burst out:
‘You must be so stupid! Why, I bet that mouse has got a pile of silver coins beneath that tree - that’s why he doesn’t want you to cut it down! We should go and cut it down right now!’
Now the younger brother didn’t want to break his promise to the King of the Mice, but he always had to do what his older brother said. So the two brothers took their axes and went out into the woodlands to where the great oak stood. Chip chop! Chip chop! Down came the tree.
They looked beneath the roots of the tree and you know what they found?? .... soil, and plenty of it - but not a silver coin in sight.
But - whilst the brothers were out in the woods, the king of the mice crept into their cottage, and took back all the silver coins they had been given. And so it was that the two brothers went back to being as poor as they ever had been - and they never did see the King of the Mice ever again.
(Adapted by Paul Hibberd from a traditional Cambodian story )