Once, long ago, in a country far away, in a big house with a beautiful garden, there lived a little girl. The little girl had many toys to play with, and all of the big house and the beautiful garden to play in. But all day long, she would play in the road that ran in front of her house.
Sometimes the little girl would play with other children, sometimes she would play with the stray dogs that lived on the pavement - but mostly, she would play alone.
Her favourite game was marbles: she loved the cold, smooth feel of the little glass balls in her palm, their bright colours that shimmered and shone in the sun, and the soft clicking noise they made when they bumped into one another.
She could play marbles all her life if she were allowed to - and mostly she was allowed to, except that she had to do boring things like wash and eat and go to school sometimes. The little girl was better at marbles than any other child on that street - in fact, she was better than any other child in that town.
Till one day a little boy moved into the empty house across the road from her big house. He was a strange child, this little boy. He wouldn't laugh or talk, but just stand silently by himself and watch the other children. He especially liked to watch the little girl play her game of marbles.
The little boy would watch her slender fingers, and the light bouncing off the coloured glass, and hear the soft clicking of one marble against another, and soon he too fell in love with the game.
So the little girl found a friend, a real friend, at last.
The two children would spend hours together, playing with the little girl's marbles, not saying a word to each other, just listening to the clicking of the little glass spheres. Which of the two was better at the game, no one could say, and really, the little boy and the little girl didn't care. All they cared about was their game, and being together.
The little girl and the little boy grew older. They still did not say much to each other, but the marbles were no longer enough. The boy and the girl began going off together for hours, away from all the other boys and girls who still played on that road.
No one knew where they went, or what they did. But some people said they had seen them walking, walking over the cliffs and across the rocks, to the narrow strip of sandy beach by the sea. Sometimes they would return, the girl's apron full of seashells, the boy's pockets full of coloured pebbles. The girl and the boy were happy.
One day the world decided that the girl had walked enough with the boy. So it took her away and married her to a rich man in another country.
The boy was left alone, even more silent than before.
The boy, who was now a man, found solace only in innocence - in the laughter of little children, in the soaring flight of birds, and in the song of the wind. The children loved him, wild birds would fly down to perch on his shoulder, and even the wildest wind would blow softer when he held out his hands to it.
So the years passed. Nothing changed.
One day, as the man stood at his window looking out on to the road, a little girl came out of the big house across the way. She walked into the middle of the street, and squatting on the ground, drew out a fistful of marbles from her pocket, and began to play.
The man watched.
The child played.
The whole day passed.
The very same thing happened the next day, and the next, and the next. The man no longer went for long solitary walks by the seashore. He spent all his time at his window, watching the little girl playing with her marbles.
One morning, the child did not come.
The man waited.
Maybe she was still asleep?
Maybe she had forgotten?
Maybe she was bored of playing marbles all day long?
But he could not get rid of his unease.
At last he could bear it no longer. He opened his door and ran across the street to the big house, and banged on the door. The child's grandmother opened it.
'Where is she?' he asked.
The old woman pointed silently at a door inside the house. 'She's been asking for you,' she said.
He pushed past her into the house, and into the little room at which the old woman had pointed. The child lay in bed, ill, with a high fever, her eyes closed. She heard him come in and held out her arms to him. He gathered her up and held her. She wrapped her arms around his neck and wouldn't let go.
The doctor said it was better to let her be.
The man and the child stayed that way all day, and by evening her fever had broken and she was better. After that, he would come every day to sit by her side, and she would smile and be content.
Later, when she was completely well again, the man and the child spent long hours together. They would laugh and joke and tell each other stories, and go for long walks by the sea where he would show her the best places for seashells and coloured pebbles. And they would play marbles together, and laugh at the soft clicking sound the little spheres made as they bumped into each other.
One day the little child grew up into a young woman. Now she had to go away - but not permanently, not forever. She was only going to the University to study and become a lawyer. She flung her arms around her friend and hugged him. 'I'll be back every holiday, and I'll write every day, you'll see,' she promised.
She kept her promises. Every holiday she would be home, and then the man and the young woman would laugh and tell each other stories and go for long walks by the sea and play marbles. When she was away he would wait for her letters, and there would be one every day for him.
One summer she came home with a young man. The young man was tall and happy and free, and looked at the young woman as though she held his soul in her delicate hands. The young woman looked at the young man with stars in her eyes.
And the man, who was now old, put away his bag of marbles. He knew he would not need them any more. He was at peace.