Friday, November 14, 2014

The Magic Coins

'Jimmy, Jimmy!' Tony burst into the castle library. Jimmy looked up from his books at the great table that ran the length of the enormous room with a frown.
'Do you mind?' said Jimmy. 'I'm trying to study here. We do have a very important test coming up. Or had you forgotten?' Tony, red faced and breathless from running, waved away his protests.
'The master wants to see us now. All three of us. In the great hall. Do you know where Bill is?'
'Probably down by the pond.' He stood up. 'All three of us, you say. Why does he want us?'
'He didn't say. But he told me to hurry. Do think its about the test?'
'Perhaps.' Jimmy went to the window. The ledge before it was wide and scattered with cushions and he had to crawl over them to get to the widow. Pushing it open he stuck his head out and craned it left to look towards the pond. Sure enough, there was Bill under a tree. He cupped his hands.
'Bill,' he shouted. Bill didn't move. 'BILL!' he shouted even louder. Bill looked up. Jimmy waved, beckoning him towards the castle. 'The master wants to see us. Meet us in the entrance hall. Now.' He saw Bill nod. He pulled his head in and crawled back across the cushions to Tony.
'Come on,' he said, heading for the door. Tony followed. As they walked down the sweeping stone stairs, Tony spoke.
'You don't really think it's the test do you? It's too soon. It isn't supposed to be for weeks.' He sounded nervous. Jimmy shrugged.
'Perhaps its about something else. Although to be honest, I don't really care.'
'What do you mean?'
'Well, we came here to apprentice as wizards, didn't we? And after four years what have we learned about magic? Nothing. It's all been history, and philosophy, and ethics, and stuff like that. Not one spell. Not one potion. Not even a lucky charm to help us with our studies.'
'The master says we have to learn all that first before we can be trusted to use magic.'
'Maybe. But four years of it? If he doesn't think we know enough after all this time, when will we? I'm about ready to pack this place in. I'd have learned more magic from a carnival trickster.'
'But it would be fake magic,' objected Tony.
'Who cares? As long as people paid to see it.'
They got to the bottom of the stairs. The entrance hall was huge, bigger than most people's houses. An enormous fireplace stood at either side, empty now during the summer, and the great oak door was large enough to march a troop of cavalry through. Bill came rushing through it a moment later. He skidded to a halt and looked at the other two.
'The master wants to see us all? The three of us? Do you think it's about the test?'
'Oh, be quiet,' said Jimmy. 'In here.' And he headed for the door leading to the great hall.

The great hall was the size of three barns put end to end. Big ones. There was room for a football team to play, with space enough for a couple of ping-pong tables as well. In fact in the early years, when they first arrived, the boys had often spent rainy days running and chasing in there. But not lately. They were older now and their studies took up too much time.

The master waited in a huge carved chair at the far end. As they walked towards him, Jimmy thought again how little he looked like a wizard. He was a short old man, getting a little fat, bald with a short, wispy beard. Jimmy thought he looked more like a dentist. And for all the magic he'd seen in the last four years, he might as well be. Oh, he was smart, he'd give him that. He knew all the stuff he taught them backwards. But could he really be as powerful a wizard as everyone said? He doubted it!

But of course he didn't say it, not out loud, not to anyone else. For the truth was that Jimmy was quite scared of the Master. He was very stern and strict, quick to hand out punishments for any nonsense, especially if any one showed the slightest disrespect. He was fair, Jimmy admitted; he never punished anyone if they didn't deserve it. But that didn't make it any easier to take.
'Boys,' called the master. 'Hurry up.' They trotted the rest of the way towards them. They lined up in front of him, panting.

'I'm sorry to do this to you, so close to your test,' he said. 'But I've been called away on important business. And I have to leave you three in charge of my district.'
The three glanced at each other. What could he mean?
'The lands around this castle are under my protection. I do what I can to help people, to make sure they get justice, and see to it that they come to no harm. I'm dividing it up into three sections and leaving you in charge of one each until I return.'
'But master,' burst out Tony. 'We don't know any magic! How can we protect anyone.'
Their master smiled.
'It is true that you do not yet have any magic. But you have been taught wisdom in your years here. If you have learned that, then there will be much that you can do. Especially with the help of these.'
He pulled a small bag from under his robe. It chinked as if there was something metal inside. He undid the thongs that held it closed and held the opening over his other hand. Small gold coins poured out.
'You want us to help people with money?' said Bill. The master shook his head.
'No. These are magic coins. Each one allows you to make one wish. You will not have many, so you will have to use them wisely – don't use them to wish down every cat that's stuck in a tree or every beggar you meet into a prince on horseback! You'll need to study every situation carefully, not only to see what is the right way to help, but also to decide if it is something you wish to use one of the magic coins on. Now, hold out your hands.'
Jimmy beamed. At last, magic! But his smile faded as the master began to hand out the coins.
'Bill – now let me see. The section I'm giving you is quite tricky. So I think I'll give you five coins. Tony – yours isn't too bad. I don't think you'll have too many problems. So I think two should be enough. And Jimmy – my very bright but very impatient apprentice. I think I shall give you just one. Now, your areas of responsibility are on these maps.' He handed them a piece of paper each. 'Keep a close eye on them. Now off you go. I have a lot to do before I go. Go out into your areas. Live among the people I have entrusted to you. I will send a message by the coins to you when I return and you will know to come back to the castle. And remember – use your coins wisely.'

They headed off back down the great hall. Bill and Tony chatted excitedly.
'It's a huge responsibility,' said Bill.
'He must really trust us, to give us magic coins,' said Tony. 'But what if we get things wrong?' He sounded a little nervous.
'What do you mean?' said Bill.
'Well, the master is so strict. What if we waste the wishes, use them on things that aren't important enough and then don't have any left for when they're really needed? He'll be so cross if we don't take good care of the people here while he's gone.'
'Well, I suppose that's why he gave us more than one,' said Bill. He glanced over at Jimmy. 'He must really have confidence in you to get things right.'
'What do you mean?'
'Well, he only gave you one coin. So he must be sure that you'll be able to look after your section with just one. He gave me five. He must really think I'll get things wrong and need extra.' He looked a little sad. Jimmy just grunted. He didn't see it that way at all. He was furious that the master had given the others more than him. He was better than they were. He studied harder and knew more. He was the one who should have been given more magic coins.
'Still, at least we get to try magic at last,' said Tony. They reached the entrance hall.
'I suppose we'd better go and start doing what the master ordered,' said Bill. So they went to their rooms and packed a small rucksack each and headed off into the world outside the castle. Jimmy was still fuming at what he thought was the insult of being the one to get only one coin. Even so, he laughed at how dim the others were. They thought the master was doing this because he trusted them. He had realised right away this was the great test the master had been speaking of for months. The wisdom they showed in using their coins would show him if they were ready to go further in their studies and start learning real magic. The others had more coins and had a big advantage over him, but he'd show them all. He'd make the best possible use of his single coin and prove that he was better than any of them.

He headed off on the road that led through the forest. Soon he came to a village. He was hungry and thought of going to the inn to eat. He stood in the woods just outside trying to see where it was. Just then a number of men burst out of the woods a hundred yards to his right and ran shouting at the town. Bandits! He put his hand into the pocket that held the coin. But he hesitated to use it. He had only the one – he couldn't afford to waste it. So instead he waited to see how the battle would go. There was a great number of bandits. He saw many of the villagers struck down. The bandits had swords and clubs. Surely many of the villagers were dying. But the people of the village were brave. Men and women both took up what they had to hand – pitchforks, shovels, wood axes – and turning their tools to weapons they fought back. Slowly the tide of the fight turned in their favour and they drove the bandits back. Jimmy took his hand out of his pocket. There had been no need to waste his single coin – the villagers had won, after all.

Watching them from the woods as they bandaged up their wounded and wept over their dead he decided it probably wasn't the pleasantest of places to stop for food just then, so he journeyed on. A couple of miles on there was a sudden violent storm; luckily he spotted a nearby cave and was able to take shelter. It soon passed and he was able to continue.

Some miles further he heard a roaring and a crashing coming from the forest. Curious, he left the path and crept closer. Coming to a clearing, he peeped out from behind the safety of a mighty oak tree. What a sight met his eyes! There before him was an enormous dragon, beating giant wings and blazing fire from his nostrils. Before him was a knight in armour, sheltering behind a shield. On the ground near the knight was a young woman. The dragon must have stolen her away to feast on her, thought Jimmy, and the knight had come to rescue her. Seeing how huge was the dragon and how fierce the flames he breathed out, Jimmy thought there was no way the knight could win. His hand touched the pocket with the coin. But he shook his head without putting his hand in. He couldn't waste it just to save a couple of people. What if he came across some greater disaster, involving hundreds of lives? Slowly he backed away from the clearing. He felt sorry for the girl of course; it wasn't her fault a dragon had grabbed her. But it had been the knight's own choice to try and save her. So if he was killed it was his own fault. Really, he was right not to use the coin just to save one girl.

As he walked back to the road he heard a great roar from the dragon, followed by a thunderous crash which shook the ground, followed by silence. Jimmy paused. What had happened? The silence was broken by a woman's voice.
'My hero,' she said. After that came the sound of weeping. Jimmy smiled. See, he had been proved right in his decision not to use the coin.

Further on he came to a bridge crossing a ravine over a wide river. As he walked along he glanced down. There was a great ship in the water, with dozens of people clinging to the rails. It's mast was broken off. The man at the wheel spun it back and forth furiously, trying to get some control over the ship, but there was no response from the rudder – it must be broken too, thought Jimmy. They must have been caught in that storm earlier and been damaged. He looked further down the river. In the centre were great jagged rocks, the waters churning around them furiously. On either side was clear water, two safe channels. But the ship was heading straight for the rocks. He thought of the coin in his pocket. He decided to wait. Perhaps the current would take the ship to one side in time? He could wait until the last moment to use the coin. If he used it. After all, everyone who traveled by water knew the risks.

He saw with interest one man take up a rope and a grappling hook. He swung the hook wildly round his head. Jimmy smiled. Foolish man, he thought. No one could throw a hook from the ship all the way to the shore. Even if they could, the chances it would catch on anything strong enough to hold the ship were remote. And even if it did, the thin line couldn't possibly take the weight of the ship. He thought of the coin again, but shook his head. No. He had but one coin, one wish, one chance to impress the master. He had to wait for something really big. One ship with a few people on board just wasn't enough.
The man threw the hook. It sailed through the air, the rope trailing after it. To Jimmy's amazement it struck the shore. As it dragged along it caught on a huge boulder. Quickly the man wrapped the end still on the ship around the stump of the mast. The rope went taut. Jimmy waited for it to snap. But it didn't, not for a while at least. For several second it held, the ship swinging closer to the shore as it did. Then the rope did snap, but it had held long enough. The ship's course had changed enough to miss the rocks. The people on board cheered as their vessel drifted past them and then a few hundred yards further on beached itself gently on the shore.

I was right, thought Jimmy. They didn't need me after all.

And so it went in the days that followed. Many times he came across situations where he thought of using the coin. But every time he decided not to risk wasting it. He was surprised at how easy it became to decide not to use it. I must be growing in wisdom he thought. I'll know the right moment when it comes.

But before that moment came, the coin began to vibrate in his pocket and he knew that the master had returned to the castle and was calling his apprentices home. He was not worried that he had not used the coin. The master will be pleased that I was wise enough not to waste it and that I can return it to him.

When he arrived he found the others already standing before the master's great chair. He heard Bill talking excitedly.
'On the first day as I was journeying to my section, I came across a village under attack by bandits. I knew I had to help them. So I used a wish and the bandits were driven back. I was only sorry I hadn't gotten there sooner, before they had been able to hurt or kill anyone.'
'It was the same with me.' said Tony As I was travelling through the forest, I heard the sound of some great battle. I ran and ran until I came to where a knight was fighting a huge dragon, trying to save a young woman. He fought valiantly, but it was clear he stood no chance. The dragon knocked him down and was about to bite him in two, so I at once made a wish and the knight was suddenly able to fling his sword through the air right into the dragons heart.'
'Later that day,' went on Bill, 'as I was climbing over a mountain, I looked down and saw a ship in trouble in a mighty river. Their only hope was a man trying to throw a hook to the shore – an impossible task given the distance. But with the help of one of my coins, he succeeded.'
'Well done,' said the master smiling. 'So how many wishes did you make altogether, Bill?'
'Five,' said Bill. And then he laughed, plunged his hand into his pocket and pulled out a handful of coins. 'And I discovered that for every wish I made, the coin I had used was replaced by two more in my pocket. So here are your five coins back master – and five more to go with them!'
'You are an excellent apprentice – and you will make a fine wizard. Come stand next to me, while we see how your fellows have done.'
'What do you mean?' said Bill.
'I mean, that was the test I have been warning you about. And you have done well. Come, join your master.' And Bill, with a huge smile on his face, went and stood next to him.
'Tony,' said the master. 'What have you to tell me?'
'It was the same for me,' said Tony. 'When I used a coin, it was replaced with two more. So here are the two you gave me with two more.'
'Excellently done,' said the master. 'You also come and join me.' And beaming Tony went to stand on the other side of his chair. They all turned their eyes on Jimmy.
'And you, Jimmy,' said the master, 'the brightest of them all; what have you to tell me.'
For an answer, Jimmy slowly reached his hand into his pocket, took out his coin, and dropped in on the floor in from of them.
'I have nothing to tell you,' he said. 'You gave me only the one coin. And I guessed that this was your test. So I waited for just the right moment. And I waited and waited and … '
'And you did nothing. You helped no one.'
'No one needed my help!' said Jimmy.
'Because others helped them instead,' said the master.
'I didn't know that. I thought they didn't need my help. I was waiting to see if the really needed because I didn't want to waste your precious coin. You're a hard man, master. I didn't want to disappoint you.'
'I am a hard man,' said the master. 'But that is not why you didn't use the coin. You didn't use it because you wanted to wait for the time when making a wish would be to your greatest advantage, when you thought it would impress me most. You didn't use it because you were thinking of yourself, not others.'
'At least I brought the coin back.'
'Yes,' said the master. With a flick of his finger it rose into the air and shot into his hand. 'Here, Bill,' he said. 'You might as well have this.' He handed it to him. 'And now, Bill and Tony, come with me. It is time for you to learn some real magic. You have proved you have the wisdom to use it.' He rose and began to lead the two chosen apprentices towards a door behind the great carved chair.

'And what of me?' said Jimmy. The master paused.

'Indeed. What of you? You have failed my test. And as you have said, I am a hard man. You do not have the wisdom to be a wizard; but I think you are smart enough to answer your own question. Good bye, Jimmy. Truly, you were the brightest of them all. I am disappointed that you did not prove yourself worthy.' He went with Tony and Bill through the door, closing it behind them. Jimmy was left alone in the great hall. For a long time he stood staring at the door they had left through. He wished he could go through it; but he knew it would not open to him. Not now, not ever. He turned and very slowly he began to walk down the length of the great hall. About halfway down he wiped his face and was surprised to find that he was crying.

(C) Fr Levi 2014
I told this to the children in school today. Some felt sorry for Jimmy, but felt that it was own choices that caused him to miss out. No prizes for guessing what parable the story is based on, by the way!

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