I’m on vacation this week with loads of plans to keep myself busy, but I did have enough idle time to write this “folktale.” I hope everyone enjoys it!
A couple of hundred years ago, in a small town you never heard of, a tiny house no bigger than an ordinary tool shed appeared one morning on the common. When everyone had gone to bed the night before all there had been was a scrubby, nondescript public common, just a place to allow your cow or sheep to graze; yet that morning, as if by magic, an entire small house had evidently sprung up overnight. It was painted in seven or eight bright, fantastic colors which accentuated the intricate wooden scrollwork that danced along its eaves and the many panels of its door. Walking around the little house, you could see it had no windows. As odd a sight as that was, stranger still was the carefully manicured shrubbery that encompassed the colorful structure as if the house had always been there, despite the certainty that it could only have been in that spot for a matter of a few hours.
The widow Marbury, who was always in the habit of waking early and going for long strolls before the rest of the town was up, was the first to discover it. As you can imagine, the tiny house was quite eye-catching, so she had no trouble noticing it. The widow walked right up to the house’s front and read the sign tacked neatly to its door:Things of value that fit through this door
Carry them in to set on the floor
Dawn will show it worth the trouble
When what you brought has now come double
The old woman wasn’t long in rousing her nephew, Tom, who in turn went straightaway to the mayor’s house and banged on the honorable man’s door perhaps a bit too loudly for the hour. The mayor, still in his nightshirt, listened rather grumpily to what Tom had to say about the mysterious structure, but was finally prevailed upon to dress to come see for himself.
“What can this mean?” asked the mayor, indicating the sign on the door when he and Tom reached the site.
“Why, I think it means what it says, that whatever things of value you place in there will be doubled come morn,” replied Tom.
The mayor took a slow walk around the house, taking in the perfectly new condition, the outlandish colors, and the neatly clipped hedges rooted firmly in the ground. “But Tom, where did all of this come from?”
“Aunt?” inquired Tom of the widow Marbury who was standing nearby. “You saw it first. Have you any idea?”
“Not really, Tom, but there was quite a bit of talk of spirits in the wood when I was a girl. Perhaps it was they who brought it here.”
“Now Hester,” said the mayor reprovingly, “we’ve all heard those stories. But that’s what they are — stories!” Yet, even as the mayor told her that, there was a trace of doubt in his own expression. As we all know, in the face of the unexplained, it’s an easy thing to become susceptible to wild theories.
“Maybe we should ask some of the tradesmen for their opinion?” Tom suggested.
“Good idea, Tom. I’ll wake the carpenter and you rouse the blacksmith and the gardener.”
Tom and the mayor went on their respective errands and returned with the persons whose expert advice might help unravel the mystery. First the blacksmith approached the house and inspected the door hinges and latch. “They are of the finest quality,” he pronounced. “I could do no better myself, and I am the best around.” Next the carpenter took a long, careful scrutiny of the entire structure from the outside. “The craftsmanship is first rate,” he said. “I know of no one — excepting myself of course — capable of producing such work.” Meanwhile the gardener, crawling on his hands and knees, felt the roots of the shrubs. “I’ll be dashed if I can explain it,” he said finally. “I would swear these plants have been here for five or six years!”
“Well,” remarked the mayor, “this exercise has only served to deepen the mystery, not clear it.”
By this hour, most of the town’s inhabitants were up and starting their daily business. Naturally, the sight of the gaily-colored house attracted everyone’s attention and by 9:00 nearly the entire town had gathered around the structure. After the initial shock of seeing such a strange house set in the middle of the common had worn off, what excited the most speculation was the meaning of the sign.
“I understand what the first part means,” said a farmer with a grey beard, “but what’s that bit about three days?”
“Maybe the offer’s only good for that long,” hazarded the dairyman.
“I don’t trust it!” cried the butcher. “We don’t know where it came from or how it got here!”
“Auntie here thinks it came from magical folk,” put in Tom. “She says the woods are full of ’em.”
This shut the butcher up, because he just that moment remembered a two-headed pig he saw as a boy. It would be like magic to happen at odd times like this. A soft murmur went through the crowd. Many others remembered incidences of magic, too. Trudy, the dairymaid, knew that with some cows you have to softly recite the Lord’s Prayer into their ears to make them give milk. Mrs. Slater once saw her dead uncle reading the Bible in her sitting room one night, just as if he were still alive. Even the constable, a sober, cynical man, thought of the rowboat that continued to ply the pond for three nights after its owner, Mr. Marbury, the widow’s husband, died from drowning. His body was never found. It was exactly as if the boat couldn’t rest until it discovered its owner. Finally Marbury’s nephew, Tom, had to capture the boat himself and tow it back in to tie up.
“So what should we do about the house?” someone in the crowd asked. “Should we test what the sign says?”
“Absolutely not!” retorted someone else. “It’s a trick!” A general murmur of assent followed that statement.
On hearing this, the widow Marbury returned to her house, opened the strongbox she kept under a loose floorboard beneath her bed, and extracted from it 60 gold pieces. Before the crowd could disperse she arrived with the gold, showed it to the mayor, and went to open the door of the small house.
“Auntie, don’t!” exclaimed Tom. “That’s just about all you have!”
“Hester!” implored the mayor. “Think about what you’re doing!”
“If what that sign says is true,” said Widow Marbury, “then doubling these coins will give ease and comfort to my old age. I’m willing to take the risk if no one else will.” With that, she threw open the door to reveal a perfectly bare, wooden cabin. She knelt down and placed the gold pieces on the floor as the sign directed. Then she closed the door.
Just as she started to leave, Tom rushed past her and grasped the door handle. “I won’t let you do this, Aunt!” he said. He jerked at the door but it wouldn’t open. “Someone help me!” he entreated after several tries, glancing specifically at the blacksmith as he said it. The brawny smithy strode up, expertly worked the latch and gave the door several good tugs. It was immovable. “I’m sorry, lad, but it will take an axe to get in there now. Are you sure you want to break the door down?”
“Tom,” insisted his aunt, “let me have my way, please!”
So that was how matters stood for the rest of the day. Come daybreak the following morning, a small crowd was seen assembled in front of the house as the first rays of sunlight illumined its bizarre, multicolored front door. Widow Marbury was there, along with Tom, the mayor, the blacksmith, and several other townsfolk. Sounds of astonishment accompanied the discovery of an amendment to the sign revealed by the gathering light — it now read “TWO DAYS!” instead of three.
“It’s witchcraft, plain and simple,” someone said in an awestruck voice.
After a moment’s pause, the mayor said, “It’s sunrise, Hester. Time to give it a try.”
Widow Marbury grasped the handle and the door opened with ease. With the mayor right behind her, she bent down and scooped up a collection of gold coins that lay on the floor, which she then poured into a small sack the mayor had ready for her.
“Let’s go to my office and count them there,” said the mayor, striking off at once to the center of the little town with the crowd following him.
To everyone’s amazement, the neatly arranged stacks of coins on the mayor’s desk tallied to exactly 120, precisely double what the widow placed in the house the preceding day!
News of what happened swept instantly through the little town. Nearly half the inhabitants were ready at that moment to gather anything they possessed of worth to place in the little house on the expectation of doubling their wealth. Yet there were many who suspected a trick of some sort. Most of the people of this second group were older and better educated. Among them were the parson, the judge, and several prosperous merchants.
“You know the old saying,” cautioned the judge to the dairyman, “of how things that appear too good to be true are often just that. Are you willing to risk all you’ve saved and worked for only to lose it all to an elaborate deception?”
The mayor called a special town meeting. First he described to everyone what had happened with the widow Marbury’s gold coins. Then he told them that it appeared the door to the little house could be opened and closed only one time on a given day, so whatever they decided, their actions needed to be well-considered. Finally he drove home the point that their time had dwindled from three days to two.
After the mayor came the parson. He read to the assemblage several passages from the Bible warning of the devil’s deceitful works. He called the little house, appearing as it did in so fanciful and innocuous a way, as a test of faith and righteousness. He exhorted them to not give way to base materialism in the quest of ill-gained riches.
Next spoke the wealthiest merchant in town. He described for the audience every devious trick he and his other brothers in commerce had heard of and fell prey to. “You develop an instinct for these things,” he warned. “Something here isn’t right — I can just smell it! After all, all anyone needed to do was add 60 gold coins to what was in there at the start.”
After the merchant, several other worthies got up before the people and spoke their words of wisdom and admonishment. Finally Tom stood before the crowd.
“What they all say sounds reasonable and true,” he said a bit timorously, being unused to speaking before crowds. “I have an idea. The sign gives us three days. We’ve used one and we have today and tomorrow. Let’s use today to test the house and see what it does.”
“What do you propose, Tom?” asked someone.
“Well, the only thing I have of value is my pig. Everyone knows it — it’s a roan with a big patch of white on its right eye. There’s no other pig like it. I say we put my pig in the house. If two roans come out tomorrow morning, then I think we’ve got something.”
There was general agreement to what Tom said. Many admired him for taking the risk for the sake of the whole town, as everyone knew what an investment a pig was. Nearly every household had one, and sometimes a family would put up with mild privations — or more — for the sake of their pig, knowing what a profit it could bring.
Late that afternoon, Tom laid fresh hay and feed in the house and then led his pig into it. After shutting the door, he checked to see if it would open again, but, as what happened the day before, it wouldn’t budge. The pig was locked in for the night.
Come the following day, a crowd twice the size as that of the previous morning waited in front of the little house for daybreak to arrive. As expected, the sign on the door now read “ONE DAY!” when dawn grew bright enough to read it.
“I think you can open the door now, Tom,” said the mayor.
The door opened with no effort and immediately Tom’s pig came trotting out, grunting and squealing peevishly. A half a minute went by. “Well, where’s the other pig?” asked someone in the crowd. Tom looked hesitantly at the mayor and then, just as he moved to step into the house, another pig, identical to the first, burst out between his legs!
The event caused an absolute furor in the town. Wherever this strange, enchanted house came from, whether from heaven or hell, made by men or crafted by fairies, people were now convinced that what the sign said was true. Everyone dashed home to gather up all their valuables: money, jewelry, things made from precious metals, anything they could get their hands on. The mayor, as excited as the rest but thinking of the public good, had the presence of mind to station four armed guards at the front of the house and, after consulting with the blacksmith and the carpenter, called for another special town meeting to be held at two o’clock that afternoon.
The tenor of this meeting was completely different from that of the preceding day. There were no more words of caution to be heard; the only purpose was to devise a fair and equitable way for all the households in the town to have access to the magical house. After a few opening words, the mayor ceded the floor to the carpenter and blacksmith, who late that morning had spent an hour or so measuring the interior of the house and consulting with each other.
“Obviously,” began the carpenter, “we can only fill half the house. That stands to reason. So here’s the plan the blacksmith and I have devised to fill it. After careful measurement and calculations, we have determined that each household has a right to exactly one cubic foot of space — no more, no less. At this moment, we’re having all our apprentices construct containers for everyone to exactly those dimensions. Each home will get exactly one box to fill as they please. Then, at six o’clock this evening, we’ll systematically load them all into the house, completing the job before sunset. Are we all agreed?”
The carpenter’s and blacksmith’s proposal was carried with unanimous enthusiasm.
As you can imagine, some families in the town were wealthier than others, and, for those people, some hard choices had to be made. Then there were those like the music instructor who had the misfortune of owning valuables too large to fit in her box, such as her piano and harp. And then there were the poor families who had nothing of value to place in their boxes. The richer people went around making deals with the unlucky and the poor to fill the extra space in their boxes, promising them half of their doubled capital. The activity and dealmaking went on at an incredible, frenzied pace. Never had the little town been in such an uproar.
At last six o’clock arrived. The entire population turned out with their boxes laden with valuables. All of the various gems and precious metals were represented; long silver candlesticks were carefully broken in two so they’d fit in the box to be mended later, and gilt picture frames were dismantled so they could go into their boxes. Someone managed to stuff two laying hens in his box. Widow Marbury and Tom agreed to share a box because they had already profited from the little house; even so, they still had space left over for the mayor’s gold cufflinks and and his wife’s silver napkin rings. Perhaps the most common items were small silver eating utensils and hard currency, which used the box space most efficiently. One by one, each box was placed into the house until precisely half of its capacity was filled just as the sun was beginning to set.
“Close it up,” ordered the mayor, and the door to the magical house was sealed and confirmed by the blacksmith to be perfectly locked.
Naturally an armed watch was stationed for the night. At midnight, the guard was relieved by the next shift. The widow Marbury thoughtfully appeared at that time with a tray of tea to aid the men in their wakefulness. And so the long hours of the night wore on.
At daybreak, the townspeople were dismayed to see the all four members of the watch fast asleep at their posts. Some found it a bit disconcerting that the sign which trumpeted the little house’s magical properties no longer hung on its door. The blacksmith tried the latch but it was locked against him despite the sun having risen by this time. Finally the order was given to break the door down.
The carpenter and the mayor were the first to step inside. What they saw was quickly transmitted to the crowd outside. Everything was gone! All the town’s wealth had disappeared!
And so had the widow Marbury and her nephew Tom.