Once upon a time a wise woman married a foolish man. In due course, they had a child, whom she named Jack, not John like his father. Unfortunately, soon after Jack was born, his father sought the kisses of another woman, and deserted both wife and child. Marrying him was arguably the greatest folly of her life.
Unlike so many in her situation, she did not abandon her young son to make a fresh start, nor did she place him in the care of another while she worked. This was certainly the third most foolish thing she ever did, for Jack had inherited his father’s foolishness.
Life in a cozy woodland cabin was idyllic, but Jack’s absent father hadn’t finished paying for it, and they were soon dispossessed. Mother and son lived in a kind farmer’s woodshed. Wood dried better outside, he explained with a wry smile. It was also away from the manure pile, which he didn’t say; and free from drafts, which went without saying at all. The hidden charity of his wisdom was not lost on the woman, however.
She toiled at home, earning a living by laundering and repairing the clothes of others; living well by raising Jack herself. Jack grew quickly, playing with the farmer’s three sons and, too frequently, catching their foolishnesses. One day, he tore his coat. His mother fixed it. She had a special thread, a gift from a grateful patron, a filament of pure gold. With this, she stitched Jack’s coat.
Not long after, Jack lost the coat. The dawn was cool, and his mother had dressed him warmly. But as he piled firewood, Jack grew warm and took his coat off. He completely forgot about it until evening shivers made it hard for him to eat dinner. Ashamed, he pretended to be sick and went to bed early. But his mother knew better. As she tucked him into bed, she asked, very gently, where his coat was. He confessed the loss in a whisper; she removed her shawl and covered him with it.
The following morning, she took his hand in hers and they searched for the missing coat. None of the farmer’s family had seen it, and it was gone. But Jack remembered his mother’s covert nighttime tremors, and silently vowed to take more care. And he watched, as she fashioned another coat from scraps of discarded clothes.
He did not know about the gold thread. His wise mother did, but she did not mention it. And when, a year later, another client tipped her half a spool of the gold fiber, she hesitated not at all to sew Jack’s pants with it. She made such tiny, cunning stitches that he exclaimed the pants had never been ripped at all. Of the gold thread, there was not the slightest glint.
The woman resolved then to mend Jack’s clothes always with that thread. When a bramble tore a hole in his shirt, she affixed a patch with the gold thread. And when he split the seat of his pants, she secured the seam with a sturdy double strand. As he grew, she resized his clothes, all connected with cleverly hidden filaments. One might question her wisdom in this, but Jack’s clothes never tore in the same place twice.
Jack’s tailoring needs were great practice; her skills improved. Soon her reputation for tiny, delicate stitches spread beyond her distinction in wisdom, and those who knew her to be wise were amazed that she could also sew. Those for whom she stitched were likewise baffled; but those who knew her well, merely smiled. From her seamstress work, she afforded food on the table; for her wisdom, she charged but a single strand of gold thread.
When Jack was ten, the farmer sent him to town to sell a cow. Jack came back with two large sacks of grain, as instructed. However, he had been tempted to trade the cow for three magic beans. He might well have succumbed, had not the farmer’s youngest son been with him. Indeed, that was exactly why the farmer sent his son.
But Jack learned his lesson the easy way, with a closed mouth and open eyes.
When he was twelve, the villagers took up a collection to sponsor his education. He went to school. Jack learned there that cleverness was not the same as wisdom. The smartest kids pulled off a series of increasingly dangerous stunts, and Jack joined them. And learned folly with them. And regretted, alone.
To repay his debt to society, Jack was compelled to stock shelves for the local grocer. He was fortunate; in times less generous, he would have joined a road crew. But the grocer was wise (although not as wise as the farmer), and he taught Jack the value of things bought and sold.
Thus Jack grew, often learning the hard way; but increasingly, the gentle way. And when he related the news and events of the day to his mother, she asked him to consider what they meant. Frequently he did not understand, but she merely smiled and stitched his clothes. And so they prospered.
The entire kingdom got wealthier. The farmer, though he fretted and worried until he’d repaid every penny, took out a loan and bought a new plow so he could till the land more efficiently. The grocer borrowed and expanded his store. People saw wonderful things they could buy and desired them. Still, theirs was only a tiny village, for the rest of the kingdom increased more.
Yet this fortune did not last. Easy money made peoples’ eyes large, and easy credit extended their fingers beyond what their arms could carry. Thus, when creditors came collecting, people were undone. The farmer, never a debtor at ease, cut his losses quickly by selling his third wagon. The grocer’s store was repossessed by lenders, and he stocked the shelves for another. Jack, having long since repaid his debt, was released to work for the farmer. His mother had never accumulated debt, after turning down a loan where she calculated the interest alone would double its size every five years. They were among the fortunate ones, for not everyone had been so wise.
By the time Jack turned twenty-one, the kingdom had reached such a level of indebtedness that the king sent for the wise woman’s advice. His messenger, not wanting to be seen visiting peasants, arrived at night. However, he dug deep into a secret pocket and retrieved a palace treasure hidden from the kingdom’s creditors: a spool of gold thread.
The wise woman was sewing Jack’s clothes when the messenger arrived. She listened to his words. When she had put the last stitch in place, she folded her hands and considered his story. As dawn brightened the sky, she rendered her advice. “This beast consumes us all. To defeat it, the king wields three swords. With the first, he must chop off its head, so it cannot grow. With the second, he should trim its fat, so to cripple it. He can then arm our countrymen with the last, so they can drive the beast away. Do you understand this?”
When he nodded, she continued. “I trust the king to act wisely.” She deposited the golden spool in his hand. His eyes widened, for she was first to rise to the kingdom’s defense. Thanking her profusely, he backed out of the room, bowing all the while. Then he turned and returned to the king, not caring who saw him.
* * *
The kingdom’s liability deepened. Many individuals struggled free of personal debt, only to face oppressive taxes financing the kingdom’s obligations. Finally Jack’s mother called to her son and took their savings from the place where she hid it. There were several copper coins, a lot of tin ones, and a couple of worn silvers. She bound the entire lot in a cloth so they wouldn’t clink, and put it into his hands. This, some would argue, was the second most foolish thing she ever did.
Others contended it was the most unwise.
“The kingdom is in dire trouble,” she told him. “Take this to the capitol and see if you can buy some of the debt, that we might all get some relief.” She kissed him on the forehead–he ducked so she could reach–and wished him a safe journey. He kissed her on the cheek, and then on the palm of each hand. Then, quickly so she wouldn’t see his hands shake, he turned and left the woodshed he’d always known as home.
When he told the farmer of his mission, the older man saw fear in Jack’s eye. “Wait a moment,” he instructed. He retrieved twelve gold coins and a handful of silver ones from his house. All these he added to Jack’s treasure. Then he clapped Jack on the shoulder and wished him success.
The grocer had no coins of his own, but pulled his boots off. “They are comfortable, and the road is long,” he explained.
In the next town, an innkeeper, hearing his tale, refused any payment Jack offered for a night’s rest. The other patrons contributed as they were able and, the next morning, two of them accompanied Jack to the capitol so he wouldn’t be robbed.
The wise woman’s reputation preceded him. Word of her champion spread rapidly, and people came out to meet him on his journey. Another farmer offered them a ride and, hearing Jack’s tale, dug in his pockets for the few coppers he owned. His wife, exchanging an understanding glance with her husband, removed a silver wedding necklace and added that.
Later, a merchant donated sixteen silver coins and a bolt of silk.
A tailor fashioned a large carry-pack so Jack could bear the treasure on his back.
A wagon caught up with them. The driver brought a chest of coins that his neighbors had filled.
The foolish people saw what was happening and rejoiced. The wiser folk added to his burden. And by the time Jack’s worn-out boots strode through the gates of the capitol, word had traveled back to his mother.
Jack’s carry-pack, stacked over his head, bulged with coins, gems, and various cloths. He held a weighty chest under each arm. But the first thing Jack noticed about the palace was the shameless opulence of it all. A parade of over-sized statues encircled massive walls carved in great detail, interrupted only once by an overwrought gilt iron gate. Individually, they were beautifully made; together, they burdened the eye. Even the steps were covered in not one, but three, layers of carpeting.
The second thing Jack noticed was a group of men dressed not in royal colors; they carried drawn swords. They sneered at Jack’s grimy clothes and his two companions as he approached. They demanded to know his business. He peaceably told them of his quest to buy the kingdom’s debt. Then they examined him once more, noting both the heap of treasure he carried and his humble bearing, and they roared with laughter.
Apparently, the king had promised his daughter’s hand in marriage to whoever saved the kingdom.
They did allow him to enter, for he had wealth; they refused his companions, who were armed. One of the ruffians escorted Jack inside, through highly decorated hallways and past rooms full of stuff–all looted of their best content–to the crowded throne room. At his escort’s prompting, the crowd reluctantly parted and permitted Jack access to the king and his lead creditor.
The two men sat at opposite ends of a stout oak table, negotiating. The king had a guard on either side, each standing at attention, both unarmed. Three advisors half-hid behind his chair. The lead creditor was flanked likewise by advisors, but his underlings crowded the table, calling out their own demands. The two men eyed Jack’s threadbare and dirty apparel with identical scorn, but when his escort presented Jack, the king’s eyes lit with faint hope, whereas the creditor’s eyes grew large with greed.
Then Jack unburdened himself. He put the two chests on the table between the king and his creditors and opened them. Across these, he put the bolt of silk. He emptied his pack, removing handful after handful of gems, jewelry, and coins. The pile grew bigger, and bigger, until the lead creditor could no longer see the king. And still Jack added to the pile, until all of the creditors’ eyes bulged with avarice.
It was a treasure, a dragon’s hoard, literally a king’s ransom that Jack offered. Yet the lead creditor jumped to his feet, crying, “It is not enough! This may pay what your little kingdom owes, but I had to hire men to collect and carry it. It would take this much again to pay them. Where will you come up with that money? Where!”
Leaning forward, he shoved at Jack. The king’s guards tried to intervene, but they were helpless against so many. One of the underlings struck Jack on the shoulder. Another man kicked behind his knee, and Jack went down. Then they set upon him, kicking and punching, as they could reach.
Abruptly they all fell back, crying out in unison. The lead creditor stood up to see what had happened. The king, who had risen when Jack went down, sagged to his chair in astonishment. Yet no one was more surprised than Jack himself, and his amazement sparked dread in those around him.
His clothes, so worn and threadbare, had disintegrated under assault. As they crumbled, they exposed not Jack’s nakedness, but the beautiful garments that had been stitched through them. The tailoring alone was worth a fortune, yet doubly so because the clothes were made of pure gold.
Then too, Jack understood what his mother had done with all those golden threads. Ignoring his bruises, he got to his feet. The men around him shrank back in deepening fear.
“You wanted more treasure?” He demanded. “I have more. Will you take these golden clothes and leave this place forever?” The creditor, himself fearing this peasant so radically transformed, nodded. Jack undressed in front of them, removing the gleaming raiment as he would everyday garments. The men around him waited, their gaze descending to the floor and a flush rising on their cheeks. When Jack handed his clothes over, the creditor took them without a word. Then he and his men left, silent, wealthy, and ashamed.
They thought they had gotten the better bargain. They had taken all of the gold and all of the gems and all of the kingdom’s artwork. Yet the creditor grew to despise those golden clothes, and on his deathbed finally realized his folly.
Jack did not impose on the princess, though the king had given his word. The princess, after Jack had wisely agreed to both a bath and new clothes, found him to be as intelligent as herself, and forced the king to honor his word. And Jack’s mother? The wise woman was not forgotten, for they invited her to live with them. And how could the kingdom do anything but prosper, with three such wise people leading it?