Some were very weathered, they were worn and yellow and looked old enough that they may even pre-date cameras, although Steven reasoned that such a thing would be ridiculous.
Some were much newer. They looked as though they might have been taken digitally and then printed. Some were even on sheets of A4 printer paper, the jet-sprayed ink smudged by forgotten fingers.
Photos of places, streets and fields, of half-people: cut off by the frame and facing away.
Photos of the sea, dark and still on a full moon night.
A photograph of fire that seemed to belch forth from a crack in a rock.
A photograph of a woman smiling, she was very beautiful. Steven didn’t recognise her, but it was definitely not his grandmother.
A photograph of a lone tree standing by a highway.
There were seemingly hundreds of photographs.
The photos sat in a box in the cupboard by the fireplace; the box itself was an old wooden cigar box, the peeling label adorned with a brand that no longer existed.
Every visit Steven’s grandfather would wait until the two were left alone, as Steven’s parent went shopping or some such errand, then he would pull the box out of the cupboard.
He would open the box almost reverentially and spend a long while gently moving the photographs around until one caught his fancy.
When he’d found the right one he would remove it from the box and hand it to Steven to ponder over. Then he would tell a story.
“They say,” Steven’s grandfather began, “that this photograph shows the most beautiful place on earth.”
He paused as Steven held the grainy sepia-toned photo closer to his face and inspected it.
“Of course, a picture couldn’t do it any justice. This was a place you had to see to believe.” He chuckled quietly.
Steven leaned back in his chair and watched his grandfather. The man was definitely getting on in years, but Steven had always seen a spark of something mischievous behind his grandfather’s pale blue eyes.
“They say the grass was always a deep emerald green and that the flowers would bloom year round! Such colours that people didn’t even have names for them all.” Steven’s grandfather was staring off into space, as he always did when telling his stories.
"The trees bore a fruit so delicious that after you tried them even the ripest, juiciest apple you could get hold of tasted like soggy cardboard in comparison.”
Steven urged is grandfather to continue, trying not to give into the distraction as he suddenly realised he was hungry.
“This is a story about the man who tried to own the most beautiful place on Earth.” His grandfather said, tapping the photograph still clasped in Steven’s hand.
In a garden more wonderful than any in all the kingdoms of the world stood the King. He was a large man, both in frame and in stomach; his heritage had brought with it the finest foods and wine imaginable and he had taken a great liking to both from an early age.
On days without rain he would walk through his garden, painstakingly designed and maintained by an army of court-appointed landscapers, and he would look out upon the lake that was dug and filled in his honour and he would be content.
Today however he was not content. Far from it.
“Tell me again.” He asked the messenger who knelt respectfully several paces behind him, head bowed.
“One of the men from the nearby village, it is said, has visited a garden not far from Your Highness' lands that exceeds even this beauty.” The young man stammered.
This would seem to be of no consequence, were the King not fiercely proud of his garden, and assured by all of its transcendent beauty.
“I would see this place at once!” He roared, sending the messenger scampering away to organise an excursion party.
Two days and nights ride east followed, but the going was easy save for the pace that the King’s horse set, such was the fervour with which he urged it forward.
More than once his most trusted advisors had to gently prise the reins from his hands to spare the horse from injury or exhaustion.
Finally on the morning of the third day they came upon it, guided by the man who claimed to have seen it once before. A small clearing in the forest opened before them, sunlight split into golden shafts by the canopy above.
In the centre was a small pool, utterly still as though it had been painted into the world.
Around the riders of the party trees were blossoming, flowers were in bloom, and gentle birdsong drifted to them from some unseen source above.
Several of the men stepped down from their mounts and simply stared about themselves in awe. Many wept.
The King however was not so easily moved. He made for the pool in the centre of the clearing, whereupon he spied a man sitting on a rock on the shore, languidly smoking a pipe.
“You there!” He shouted. “I say, your King is calling you!”
The man on the rock glanced up then, gave a small smile and a seated approximation of a small bow before speaking.
“Begging your pardon, Majesty, but I am not a citizen of your kingdom.” He said in soft, friendly tones.
“Whose kingdom is this then?” The King demanded.
“Oh this place is in no man’s kingdom, sire.” The small man replied.
“Your name.” The King further demanded.
The small man stood then, offering a true bow with a flourish.
“I am Danille of The Glade, Majesty, or that is one of the things I am called.” He was careful not to let his pipe burn out, taking a few short draws to keep the coal lit.
The King looked about him once more, giving himself a moment to enjoy the surroundings.
“This truly is a beautiful place. I would have it.” The King proclaimed to Danille, who merely smiled.
“All are welcome, Majesty, but I would ask you how you intend to ‘have’ a place? Your royal tailors are skilled I see, but even they cannot make a pocket so large as to carry a place with you.” Danille laughed, a musical sound.
“Such impertinence! I will also have your head if need be!” He bellowed.
“There will be no spilling of blood in the Glade.” Danille’s smile was gone, and he spoke with such finality that the King took a step back from him.
As soon as his smile vanished it returned.
“It would spoil the grass, after all. Red and green? That is only for the Midwinter festival I’d say. Ha ha!” Danille laughed his musical laugh again.
The King was livid, but this place was not something he would give up easily.
“You are Danille of The Glade. I will purchase this area from you then. Name your price, I have more gold than you could even imagine.”
Danille tapped the lip of his pipe against his own for a moment.
“It is not for sale. I couldn’t sell it to you even if it were.” He said. “I am OF the Glade, Majesty, it is not of me.”
The King’s rage was ready to boil over. His clenched hand shook.
“I will take the Glade by force then! I will march an army from my kingdom to here and conquer this place!”
Danille pondered for a moment more and then laughed again.
“Dear Majesty, but who would your army fight? The trees? Why, I would pay a goodly sum to watch your soldiers attempt to battle the air and the water in this place! What larks!” Danille doubled over with laughter, wiping a tear from his eye.
“Perhaps then,” The King began with a sly grin of his own, “I will simply have to live here. I could have my things brought. This would make a great home.”
Danille looked worried for the first time.
“Sire that would be unwise.” He stated.
The King merely tutted and began to order some of his men back to the castle, to collect what would be needed to set up a suitable abode in the Glade.
When he turned Danille was nowhere to be seen.
“He ran away? What a coward!” Steven gasped.
His grandfather gave him a disapproving look.
“Don’t interrupt. Anyway, Danille was many things, but he wasn’t a coward. Can I continue?” He asked.
“Yes, sorry granddad, please carry on.”
Six days passed, the King’s men brought canvases and floor mats, bedding, plates, a small wood stove, timber and nails, food, rope and many other things and set up a small dwelling that the King stayed in.
Another week passed before the King saw Danille once more sitting on the rock by the pool. This time he was not smiling. He took quick pensive puffs on his pipe and looked a little concerned.
“See here Danille,” the King called to him, “I have taken this place as my own! It is mine now.”
Danille simply shook his head.
“You are not the master of this place. You are simply dwelling here, being allowed to dwell here. My Lady has a proposal for you.”
The King beamed.
“So it is your Lady who owns the Glade! I would hear her proposal and see if it pleases me.”
Danille wrung his hands.
“She would accept payment to allow you to stay in the Glade.” He told the floor between his feet.
The King simply waited.
“The payment is to be tribute. Once a moon you are to send one of yours into the forest. He will feast with us, and then he will take part in the hunt.” Danille finished, still not looking the King in the eye.
“This is all!?” The King laughed. “Why I accept! I will gladly send one of my men to feast and hunt with you, perhaps he will bring home a trophy or food for the camp!”
Danille shook his head again.
“Sire you misunderstand. Your man will not return. He will join our huntt and there he will remain until the end of his days.”
The King balked a little at this.
“Also,” Danille continued, “My Lady is gracious enough that she will only take the first born of your children, when they come. After that any man will do for tribute.”
The King took a step back at this.
“Insolent knave! Tell your Lady she will see neither hide nor hair of any of my men, least of all my own blood. Be gone with you at once! Should I see you again I will take your head myself!”
Danille stepped toward the edge of the glade then he stopped and turned.
“By your refusal to the terms you have ended any joy this Glade would give you. I shall tell my Lady of your decision at once.
For a fortnight the King enjoyed the Glade as he did his own garden at home. The sights and sounds seemed every morning to bring a new surprise, as though every day in the Glade was the first time he had seen it.
Then the full moon came, and it passed.
On the first waning day the King stepped from his dwelling to find a bird in the grass outside the door. It lay, lifeless, already starting to fester. He kicked it aside and had a servant throw it into the forest.
The next day he noticed the flowers wilting.
Over the next two weeks it was as though winter had come to the Glade, though it was the middle of spring. The flowers died, the trees withered and the fruit they bore turned bitter and tough.
Soon the Glade had become a cold, grey place. Any trace of its beauty was now just a memory. The King fell into a deep depression and on a cold morning a month later he finally ordered that the dwelling be dismantled and that all should leave the Glade and return to the castle.
The King spent his days wandering his garden, but they held no joy for him now.
Twice more he visited the Glade, but it never returned to its old glory. It was a place of perpetual winter, where nothing grew or flourished.
The King never forgot about the Glade for all his days.
Steven’s grandfather took the photograph from Steven and placed it back into the box.
“That can’t be it!?” Steven asked incredulously.
“Why not?” His grandfather replied.
“Well, because there was no ending!” Steven challenged him.
“There most definitely was an ending. All stories have an ending, it happens when you stop telling them. What you want is a resolution. Sorry, there isn’t one of those.”
Steven cast about for a second, unable to correctly form any of his many questions into actual words, then he said,
“Well what happened to the King?”
“What happens to any King?” His grandfather said.
They heard a car pull to a stop outside.
“Ah, your parents are home from shopping. Be a good lad and help them carry it in.” Steven’s grandfather said, putting the box back into the cupboard to wait for another day. Another story.
“Granddad, when did you take all these photographs?” Steven asked as he stood up.
“I didn’t take any of them. Now go on and help your poor mum carry those bags.” His grandfather locked the door to the cupboard and put the key, on its glinting golden chain, back around his neck, tucking it into his jumper.