The Magic Thread

Too of­ten, peo­ple want what they want (or what they think they want, which is usu­ally "hap­pi­ness" in one form or an­other) right now. The irony of their im­pa­tience is that only by learn­ing to wait, and by a will­ing­ness to ac­cept the bad with the good, do we usu­ally at­tain those things that are truly worth­while. "He that can have pa­tience, can have what he will," Ben­jamin Franklin told us, and this French tale bears him out.


Once there was a widow who had a son called Pe­ter. He was a strong, able boy, but he did not en­joy go­ing to school and he was for­ever day­dream­ing.

"Pe­ter, what are you dream­ing about this time?" his teacher would say to him.

"I'm think­ing about what I'll be when I grow up," Pe­ter replied.

"Be pa­tient. There's plenty of time for that. Be­ing grown up is­n't all fun, you know," his teacher said.

But Pe­ter found it hard to en­joy what­ever he was do­ing at the mo­ment, and was al­ways han­ker­ing af­ter the next thing. In win­ter he longed for it to be sum­mer again, and in sum­mer he looked for­ward to the skat­ing, sledg­ing, and warm fires of win­ter. At school he would long for the day to be over so that he could go home, and on Sun­day nights he would sigh, "If only the hol­i­days would come." What he en­joyed most was play­ing with his friend Liese. She was as good a com­pan­ion as any boy, and no mat­ter how im­pa­tient Pe­ter was, she never took of­fense. "When I grow up, I shall marry Liese," Pe­ter said to him­self.

Of­ten he wan­dered through the for­est, dream­ing of the fu­ture. Some­times he lay down on the soft for­est floor in the warm sun, his hands be­hind his head, star­ing up at the sky through the dis­tant tree­tops. One hot af­ter­noon as he be­gan to grow sleepy, he heard some­one call­ing his name. He opened his eyes and sat up. Stand­ing be­fore him was an old woman. In her hand she held a sil­ver ball, from which dan­gled a silken golden thread.

"See what I have got here, Pe­ter," she said, of­fer­ing the ball to him.

"What is it?" he asked cu­ri­ously, touch­ing the fine golden thread.

"This is your life thread," the old woman replied. "Do not touch it and time will pass nor­mally. But if you wish time to pass more quickly, you have only to pull the thread a lit­tle way and an hour will pass like a sec­ond. But I warn you, once the thread has been pulled out, it can­not be pushed back in again. It will dis­ap­pear like a puff of smoke. The ball is for you. But if you ac­cept my gift you must tell no one, or on that very day you shall die. Now, say, do you want it?"

Pe­ter seized the gift from her joy­fully. It was just what he wanted. He ex­am­ined the sil­ver ball. It was light and solid, made of a sin­gle piece. The only flaw in it was the tiny hole from which the bright thread hung. He put the ball in his pocket and ran home. There, mak­ing sure that his mother was out, he ex­am­ined it again. The thread seemed to be creep­ing very slowly out of the ball, so slowly that it was scarcely no­tice­able to the naked eye. He longed to give it a quick tug, but dared not do so. Not yet.

The fol­low­ing day at school, Pe­ter sat day­dream­ing about what he would do with his magic thread. The teacher scolded him for not con­cen­trat­ing on his work. If only, he thought, it was time to go home. Then he felt the sil­ver ball in his pocket. If he pulled out a tiny bit of thread, the day would be over. Very care­fully he took hold of it and tugged. Sud­denly the teacher was telling every­one to pack up their books and to leave the class­room in an or­derly fash­ion. Pe­ter was over­joyed. He ran all the way home. How easy life would be now! All his trou­bles were over. From that day forth he be­gan to pull the thread, just a lit­tle, every day.

One day, how­ever, it oc­curred to him that it was stu­pid to pull the thread just a lit­tle each day. If he gave it a harder tug, school would be over al­to­gether. Then he could start learn­ing a trade and marry Liese. So that night he gave the thread a hard tug, and in the morn­ing he awoke to find him­self ap­pren­ticed to a car­pen­ter in town. He loved his new life, clam­ber­ing about on roofs and scaf­fold­ing, lift­ing and ham­mer­ing great beams into place that still smelled of the for­est. But some­times, when pay­day seemed too far off, he gave the thread a lit­tle tug and sud­denly the week was draw­ing to a close and it was Fri­day night and he had money in his pocket.

Liese had also come to town and was liv­ing with her aunt, who taught her house­keep­ing. Pe­ter be­gan to grow im­pa­tient for the day when they would be mar­ried. It was hard to live so near and yet so far from her. He asked her when they could be mar­ried.

"In an­other year," she said. "Then I will have learned how to be a ca­pa­ble wife."

Pe­ter fin­gered the sil­ver ball in his pocket.

"Well, the time will pass quickly enough," he said, know­ingly.

That night Pe­ter could not sleep. He tossed and turned rest­lessly. He took the magic ball from un­der his pil­low. For a mo­ment he hes­i­tated; then his im­pa­tience got the bet­ter of him, and he tugged at the golden thread. In the morn­ing he awoke to find that the year was over and that Liese had at last agreed to marry him. Now Pe­ter felt truly happy.

But be­fore their wed­ding could take place, Pe­ter re­ceived an of­fi­cial-look­ing let­ter. He opened it in trep­i­da­tion and read that he was ex­pected to re­port at the army bar­racks the fol­low­ing week for two years' mil­i­tary ser­vice. He showed the let­ter to Liese in de­spair.

"Well," she said, "there is noth­ing for it, we shall just have to wait. But the time will pass quickly, you'll see. There are so many things to do in prepa­ra­tion for our life to­gether."

Pe­ter smiled bravely, know­ing that two years would seem a life­time to him.

Once Pe­ter had set­tled into life at the bar­racks, how­ever, he be­gan to feel that it was­n't so bad af­ter all. He quite en­joyed be­ing with all the other young men, and their du­ties were not very ar­du­ous at first. He re­mem­bered the old wom­an's warn­ing to use the thread wisely and for a while re­frained from pulling it. But in time he grew rest­less again. Army life bored him with its rou­tine du­ties and harsh dis­ci­pline. He be­gan pulling the thread to make the week go faster so that it would be Sun­day again, or to speed up the time un­til he was due for leave. And so the two years passed al­most as if they had been a dream.

Back home, Pe­ter de­ter­mined not to pull the thread again un­til it was ab­solutely nec­es­sary. Af­ter all, this was the best time of his life, as every­one told him. He did not want it to be over too quickly. He did, how­ever, give the thread one or two very small tugs, just to speed along the day of his mar­riage. He longed to tell Liese his se­cret, but he knew that if he did he would die.

On the day of his wed­ding, every­one, in­clud­ing Pe­ter, was happy. He could hardly wait to show Liese the house he had built for her. At the wed­ding feast he glanced over at his mother. He no­ticed for the first time how gray her hair had grown re­cently. She seemed to be ag­ing so quickly. Pe­ter felt a pang of guilt that he had pulled the thread so of­ten. Hence­for­ward he would be much more spar­ing with it and only use it when it was strictly nec­es­sary.

A few months later Liese an­nounced that she was go­ing to have a child. Pe­ter was over­joyed and could hardly wait. When the child was born, he felt that he could never want for any­thing again. But when­ever the child was ill or cried through the sleep­less night, he gave the thread a lit­tle tug, just so that the baby might be well and happy again.

Times were hard. Busi­ness was bad and a gov­ern­ment had come to power that squeezed the peo­ple dry with taxes and would tol­er­ate no op­po­si­tion. Any­one who be­came known as a trou­ble­maker was thrown into prison with­out trial and ru­mor was enough to con­demn a man. Pe­ter had al­ways been known as one who spoke his mind, and very soon he was ar­rested and cast into jail. Luck­ily he had his magic ball with him and he tugged very hard at the thread. The prison walls dis­solved be­fore him and his en­e­mies were scat­tered in the huge ex­plo­sion that burst forth like thun­der. It was the war that had been threat­en­ing, but it was over as quickly as a sum­mer storm, leav­ing be­hind it an ex­hausted peace. Pe­ter found him­self back home with his fam­ily. But now he was a mid­dle-aged man.

For a time things went well and Pe­ter lived in rel­a­tive con­tent­ment. One day he looked at his magic ball and saw to his sur­prise that the thread had turned from gold to sil­ver. He looked in the mir­ror. His hair was start­ing to turn gray and his face was lined where be­fore there had not been a wrin­kle to be seen. He sud­denly felt afraid and de­ter­mined to use the thread even more care­fully than be­fore. Liese bore him more chil­dren and he seemed happy as the head of his grow­ing house­hold. His stately man­ner of­ten made peo­ple think of him as some sort of benev­o­lent ruler. He had an air of au­thor­ity as if he held the fate of oth­ers in his hands. He kept his magic ball in a well-hid­den place, safe from the cu­ri­ous eyes of his chil­dren, know­ing that if any­one were to dis­cover it, it would be fa­tal.

As the num­ber of his chil­dren grew, so his house be­came more over­crowded. He would have to ex­tend it, but for that he needed money. He had other wor­ries too. His mother was look­ing older and more tired every day. It was of no use to pull the magic thread be­cause that would only has­ten her ap­proach­ing death. All too soon she died, and as Pe­ter stood at her grave­side, he won­dered how it was that life passed so quickly, even with­out pulling the magic thread.

One night as he lay in bed, kept awake by his wor­ries, he thought how much eas­ier life would be if all his chil­dren were grown up and launched upon their ca­reers in life. He gave the thread a mighty tug, and the fol­low­ing day he awoke to find that his chil­dren had all left home for jobs in dif­fer­ent parts of the coun­try, and that he and his wife were alone. His hair was al­most white now and of­ten his back and limbs ached as he climbed the lad­der or lifted a heavy beam into place. Liese too was get­ting old and she was of­ten ill. He could­n't bear to see her suf­fer, so that more and more he re­sorted to pulling at the magic thread. But as soon as one trou­ble was solved, an­other seemed to grow in its place. Per­haps life would be eas­ier if he re­tired, Pe­ter thought. Then he would no longer have to clam­ber about on drafty, half-com­pleted build­ings and he could look af­ter Liese when she was ill. The trou­ble was that he did­n't have enough money to live on. He picked up his magic ball and looked at it. To his dis­may he saw that the thread was no longer sil­ver but gray and lus­ter­less. He de­cided to go for a walk in the for­est to think things over.

It was a long time since he had been in that part of the for­est. The small saplings had all grown into tall fir trees, and it was hard to find the path he had once known. Even­tu­ally he came to a bench in a clear­ing. He sat down to rest and fell into a light doze. He was woken by some­one call­ing his name, "Pe­ter! Pe­ter!"

He looked up and saw the old woman he had met so many years ago when she had given him the magic sil­ver ball with its golden thread. She looked just as she had on that day, not a day older. She smiled at him.

"So, Pe­ter, have you had a good life?" she asked.

"I'm not sure," Pe­ter said. "Your magic ball is a won­der­ful thing. I have never had to suf­fer or wait for any­thing in my life. And yet it has all passed so quickly. I feel that I have had no time to take in what has hap­pened to me, nei­ther the good things nor the bad. Now there is so lit­tle time left. I dare not pull the thread again for it will only bring me to my death. I do not think your gift has brought me luck."

"How un­grate­ful you are!" the old woman said. "In what way would you have wished things to be dif­fer­ent?"

"Per­haps if you had given me a dif­fer­ent ball, one where I could have pushed the thread back in as well as pulling it out. Then I could have re­lived the things that went badly."

The old woman laughed. "You ask a great deal! Do you think that God al­lows us to live our lives twice over? But I can grant you one fi­nal wish, you fool­ish, de­mand­ing man."

"What is that?" Pe­ter asked.

"Choose," the old woman said. Pe­ter thought hard.

At length he said, "I should like to live my life again as if for the first time, but with­out your magic ball. Then I will ex­pe­ri­ence the bad things as well as the good with­out cut­ting them short, and at least my life will not pass as swiftly and mean­ing­lessly as a day­dream."

"So be it," said the old woman. "Give me back my ball."

She stretched out her hand and Pe­ter placed the sil­ver ball in it. Then he sat back and closed his eyes with ex­haus­tion.

When he awoke he was in his own bed. His youth­ful mother was bend­ing over him, shak­ing him gen­tly.

"Wake up, Pe­ter. You will be late for school. You were sleep­ing like the dead!"

He looked up at her in sur­prise and re­lief.

"I've had a ter­ri­ble dream, Mother. I dreamed that I was old and sick and that my life had passed like the blink­ing of an eye with noth­ing to show for it. Not even any mem­o­ries."

His mother laughed and shook her head.

"That will never hap­pen," she said. "Mem­o­ries are the one thing we all have, even when we are old. Now hurry and get dressed. Liese is wait­ing for you and you will be late for school."

As Pe­ter walked to school with Liese, he no­ticed what a bright sum­mer morn­ing it was, the kind of morn­ing when it felt good to be alive. Soon he would see his friends and class­mates, and even the prospect of lessons did­n't seem so bad. In fact he could hardly wait.


Writ­ten by Anony­mous

Ex­cerpted from The Book of Virtues.

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