Random Writing for July – The Harp, inspired by Harris Burdick

This month’s Random Writing piece is a short 900-word story I wrote called The Harp, as an assignment in my Children’s Literature class back in October 2013.  I’ve taken the time to do quite a bit of rewriting and polishing of this story in the last week, and I’m pretty happy with it now.

I was inspired to share this piece after coming across the website of children’s book illustrator Thao Lam.  I read her review of another children’s book called The Paper Dragon, and then noticed she had also reviewed the Harris Burdick books that inspired my story.  You can check out Thao Lam’s adorable papercraft artwork and other book reviews at her website, and she has a new wordless picture book of her own just released called Skunk on a String that looks really cute.

So, the assignment all those years ago (and a common exercise across creative writing programs) was to write a short tale inspired by one of the images from the mysterious The Mysteries of Harris Burdick, an art book by Chris Van Allsburg with an intriguing backstory, as succinctly explained by Thao Lam in her 2011 review:

Chris Van Allsburg first came across Harris Burdick’s drawings while visiting his friend Peter Wenders. Mr. Wenders is a retired children’s book editor and years ago a man name Harris Burdick brought him fourteen drawings, one from each story he had written. Mr. Wenders was intrigued by what he [saw], and wanted to read … the stories.

With a promise to bring the … manuscripts in the next morning, Harris Burdick left Mr. Wenders with the fourteen drawings, but he did not return the next day or the day after that. Harris Burdick was never heard from again. Many have tried to solve the mystery of Harris Burdick and what happened to him. With all the rumors and speculations over the years, Harris Burdick still remains an enigma to this day.

With hopes of finally solving the mystery of Harris Burdick, Chris Van Allsburg reproduced and published the fourteen drawings [in The Mysteries of Harris Burdick].

In my Children’s Lit class, we read the sequel to Mysteries, called The Chronicles of Harris Burdick: Fourteen Amazing Authors Tell the Tales, a compilation of short stories, one for each image in the original book.  Thao Lam helpfully listed each famous author with links to their websites in her 2012 review of Chronicles:

Authors in The Chronicles of Harris Burdick:

Sherman Alexie, M.T. Anderson, Kate DiCamillo, Cory Doctorow, Jules Feiffer, Stephen King, Tabitha King, Lois Lowry, Gregory Maguire, Walter Dean MyersLinda Sue Park, Louis Sachar, Jon Scieszka, Lemony Snicket, and Chris Van Allsburg.

Linda Sue Park wrote the version of The Harp in Chronicles, which is a much different story than mine, of course.  The image below was my inspiration, and we were also tasked with using the text with the image in our story.  This is an early example of the adventurous feeling I’d like to convey in my novel, Finding Dragons, the idea for which really started to crystallize for me during this Children’s Lit class, in fact.

Okay, without further ado, here is my story based on The Harp.  Enjoy, and stay creative all!

Harris Burdick - The Harp

The Prince had come to the end of his long journey when the most expected, yet unexpected, thing happened.

He had left the bustling castle behind him and ridden past acre upon acre of his kingdom’s farmland; he had traveled across the windy plains where the roads ended; he had carefully guided his horse through the yellow scrubland and into the rocky foothills, where he finally dismounted and continued on foot, letting his mount run free towards home; then he had scaled the imposing Mountains at the End of the World, and crossed the icy glaciers he found at their summit.  The Prince had seen what no other person in his kingdom had ever seen before, as he searched for his heart’s desire.

So it’s true, he thought, it’s really true.  His perilous journey had not been in vain — there was another land beyond the Mountains at the End of the World, which were certainly not the end of the world any longer.

It got steadily warmer as the Prince came out of the frozen heights and made his way down the far side of the Mountains.  He sheltered overnight in a shallow cave, and struck out again at dawn, travelling all day through the unfamiliar territory.  The stony mountain face slowly gave way to dense pine forest, and the Prince breathed in the evergreen scent.  He marveled at the strange birds calling all around him, and caught glimpses of small rodents amongst the brush beneath the ancient trees.  He picked his way carefully down a game trail carpeted with fallen pine needles before coming upon a bubbling spring, the headwaters of a stream that lead further down the mountain through the trees.

He followed the stream, which soon joined other streams and eventually became a narrow river with rocky banks. He was glad of the chance to refresh himself, then continued following the river as the landscape changed again, the evergreens giving way to more and more broadleaf trees as the river widened.  Now the underbrush became tangled and harder to make a path through, so he tested his footing in the riverbed and found he could easily walk along the shallows at the edge, and his boots kept his feet dry.

The river widened further and began to meander, sweeping curves left and right that hid what was to come, bubbling around corners where the Prince had to duck under overhanging trees and step carefully through fast rushing currents.  Still walking in the water, he rounded the next bend and saw a most peculiar sight.

On a rocky outcrop on the inside curve of the next river bend stood a beautiful gilded harp, looking as if it had always been there, the most natural thing in the world.

The Prince stopped in his tracks and searched the surrounding area for signs of other people, but darkness was falling and he heard nothing but the natural world settling in for the night.  He was alone.  He decided to camp nearby for the night and investigate more in the morning, wedging himself in the sturdy fork of a tree on the bank, and soon he dozed off.

Faint, gentle harp music began to invade the Prince’s dreams.  The music gradually became louder and louder, until the Prince snapped awake, almost falling out of his tree in the process.

He could only see part of the opposite bank of the river from his high vantage point, so the Prince climbed down the tree and crept towards the sound.  The splashing of the river covered any noise he made, but he could still hear the beautiful music coming from the harp, and the Prince found he was eager to meet the musician who could draw such sweet melodies from those strings.

As the Prince worked his way around the trees that were still blocking his view, he wondered if the player would be a Princess that he might sweep off her feet.  They could fall in love, and he could meet her parents, the King and Queen of this land, and they would live happily ever after, just like all the story books said.

The music was enchanting.  Whoever was playing this mysterious harp by the river had mastered their craft and was playing with such emotion that the Prince was surprised the water in the river itself hadn’t altered its flow to the music.  The birdsong had certainly changed to accompany the beautiful notes filling the air, and the Prince became more anxious to meet the musician with every step.

Suddenly clear of the trees, the Prince froze on the edge of the river to observe the harp, and now the harpist as well.

A young man, the same age as the Prince, with flaxen-colored hair and wide blue eyes, sat playing the gilded harp.  He wore a thin circlet of gold around his brow that flashed in the dappled sunlight, and the Prince thought he had never seen someone so beautiful.  His heart skipped a beat.

Across the span of the river, the young man looked up and their eyes met.  He stopped playing as he and the Prince simply looked at each other for a long moment.

Then the far-travelled Prince smiled, and a thrill of wonder went through him when his smile was returned.


This post is copyright © 2013-2016 Jamie Lyn Weigt.  All rights reserved.  Please do not share without credit and a direct link back to this post and my site, writingdragonsblog.com.

Image credit:
The Harp by Chris Van Allsburg, from The Chronicles of Harris Burdick: Fourteen Amazing Authors Tell the Tales, photo by me; full citation:
Van Allsburg, Chris.  (1996).  The Mysteries of Harris Burdick (Portfolio Edition).  Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Books for Children.

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