(a Russian tale)
Once upon a time, a poor man had so many children that he didn’t know what to do. He always worried about how he was going to feed and clothe them, and at night, in bed, he prayed, “Please send me help. Let no harm come to my children.”
One night, as he was sleeping, an angel came to him and whispered these instructions:
“When you awaken, put your hand beneath your pillow. There you’ll find three things. Hide them in your shirt and go out into the woods. There you will find a stream; you must follow it until you come to a beautiful maiden bathing in the waters. She will speak to you, but you must not answer. She will ask you to comb her hair, and this you must do. And while you are combing her hair, you will see one hair that is red and coarse. Take that hair and run as fast as you can. She will chase you. As you run, drop the three things you find: the embroidered scarf, the red handkerchief and the mirror.
“When you reach the hill near your village, you will be safe. Take good care of that single hair and sell it for a fortune.”
When the man woke and put his hand under his pillow, sure enough he found an embroidered scarf, a red handkerchief and a mirror. He carefully hid them under his shirt and set off for the woods. When he came to a stream, he followed it. Before long, he found a beautiful maiden bathing.
“Good day!” she said, but the poor man remembered the angel’s warning and did not say a word. The maiden held out a golden comb. “Please, will you comb my hair?” she asked.
Still silent, the man took the comb, parted the maiden’s long, golden hair and searched until he found one red, coarse hair. He twisted it around his finger, pulled it out and ran.
The maiden wrapped herself in scarves and gave chase, but just as she was about to overtake him, he dropped the embroidered scarf. It was so beautiful that she could not help herself. She stopped and stared at it for a while, and this gave the man time to race ahead.
When she noticed how far away he was, she began to run again. She ran like a deer, and soon she was close again, but this time he dropped the red handkerchief. Seeing the flash of red, the maiden was distracted. She stopped to pick it up. Dazzled by its beauty, she stood and stared, and the man raced ahead.
But when the maiden saw the man was almost out of sight, she tossed away the handkerchief, and ran faster than ever. She was fast as a gazelle and was soon nearly upon him.
The man then dropped the mirror.
The maiden was vain and never could resist a mirror. She picked it up and spent so much time gazing at her reflection, the man reached the hill just beyond his town. With the hair wrapped around his finger, he was safe.
When he reached the market, he offered his hair to the first merchant he saw. “I’ll give you a gold coin,” one merchant said.
The other merchants overheard him, and they knew this man to be wise and careful, so they thought the hair must be worth far more, and they began to shout out bids: “I’ll give you two!” “I’ll give you 10!” “I’ll give you 50!” “A hundred!” Finally, one cried, “A thousand gold coins!”
The poor man shook his head. “That isn’t enough,” he said, and this convinced the other merchants that this hair must truly be worth a fortune. It must be magic, they whispered, and everyone began to get excited about the magic hair.
Every merchant from every town began to bid. Hearing of the bidding war, others came too, and soon no one talked of anything but the magical red hair. Some people said whoever owned the hair would be stronger than anyone in the world. Others said its owner would possess more wisdom than anyone else. Still others said the hair brought good health and great fortune to its owner.
Before long, stories of the red hair reached the tsar, and the tsar decided he must have this hair. He offered a hundred bags of golden coins.
When the man received this offer, he accepted it, and the hair was sold to the tsar, and the poor man and his family lived happily ever after.
The tsar presented the hair to his wise men. They stared at it and whispered and wondered at it, and at last they split it open and found a scroll inside. The wisest men studied the inscription inside that scroll, and they discovered all the secrets of nature. It was these secrets that helped humankind for thousands of years.
That is why the angels say that if you save one human being, you save the world, because this angel saved one man and, in doing so, helped to make the world a better place.