(a German folktale)
Once upon a time a tailor and a goldsmith traveled through the German countryside, seeking work. They had traveled for a long time when in the distance they heard the sound of music so beautiful that they were entranced.
They soon forgot their weary limbs and began running toward the sound.
“It sounds like bluebells tinkling in the wind,” the goldsmith said.
“Or brooks singing,” the tailor said, smiling.
Soon both men’s minds turned to their dreams. The tailor thought about the woman he soon would marry. He wished that there could be music like this at their wedding, but alas, he was too poor for such luxuries. The goldsmith thought only of some way he might sell such a sound; his true love was always money.
Finally they saw up ahead, upon a hill, a circle of small men and women holding hands and dancing. In the center stood an old man with a long, white beard.
The little men and women were singing to the man in the middle; their voices were making that beautiful music.
As the tailor and goldsmith approached, they saw the old man was beautifully dressed in clothes the tailor wished he had sewn. He wore jewelry the goldsmith wished he had fashioned.
The old man saw them and waved, motioning to the dancers to open their circle. The goldsmith walked right into the center of the circle, but the tailor held back, feeling shy. However, he could not resist those sweet voices for long, and soon he joined the circle as well.
The little people continued to sing and dance.
Suddenly the old man set about whetting a long, sharp knife. When it was gleaming bright, he quickly shaved off the goldsmith’s beard. Then he shaved off the tailor’s beard too.
The tailor shook with fear. He was certain his head would be next, but the old man smiled and said, gently, “I won’t hurt you,” and he pointed to a nearby pile of coal. “Go ahead, take some coal. Put it in your pockets. You’ll be glad you did.”
The goldsmith never turned down a gift — not even coal — and he quickly filled his pockets. But the tailor, still timid and not greedy at all, took just one handful. He did not want to be rude.
The circle opened, and the men and women became quieter, and the old man gestured to the visitors that it was time to leave.
They walked out of the circle and down the hill. As they searched for nighttime shelter, they turned many times to look toward the tiny singers and dancers in the distance and to hear that beautiful music rising into the air. The harmony was softer now and, quite possibly, even more beautiful.
The men were exhausted again, their arms and legs weary, and their cheeks felt cold without the protection of their beards. Still, they trudged on, and when they heard a distant clock atop a monastery striking 12, they turned to take one last look at the little people.
But now the hill was empty, and the people were gone, and there was no more music.
The men walked on, into the silent night, and eventually they came to an inn. The innkeeper greeted them. “So sorry, sirs, we have no rooms tonight, but you’re welcome to lie down in the dining hall.”
The tailor and the goldsmith lay down on the hard wooden dining floor, pulled their jackets over themselves for warmth, and fell asleep.
The tailor woke at dawn, but he felt as if he slept under a rock. “Wake up, my jacket is heavy as a boulder,” he said, shaking the goldsmith.
The goldsmith opened his eyes and gasped; his jacket seemed made of lead.
They reached into their pockets, and discovered the coal in their pockets had turned to gold.
“Your beard is long again,” the tailor said, and the goldsmith rubbed his chin. Sure enough, his beard was there.
“And yours,” said the goldsmith to the tailor, for now his eyes were opened.
The goldsmith was excited. “Let’s go back tonight and fill our pockets again,” he said, but the tailor shook his head. “I’m satisfied with what I have,” he said.
The goldsmith, however, was determined, and because the men were friends, the tailor agreed to wait for him at the inn. That night, as the goldsmith climbed the hill, he heard the familiar music, and his heart leapt with joy. He imagined all the gold he would have.
Once again the old man beckoned him to join the circle; once more he cut off his beard; and once more he offered him coal.
This time the goldsmith filled a huge sack as well as his pockets and hurried back to the inn. He fell asleep dreaming of the fortune he would find at dawn.
But when he woke, his jacket was not heavy. He reached into his pockets and was dismayed to find coal. He hurried to check his old store of gold, and he wept when he discovered that the gold of the day before had turned back into coal.
He woke the tailor, and the tailor was shocked to see that the goldsmith’s hair and beard were gone, and now he had a hump on his back. His face was filthy with coal dust.
“I am being punished for my greed,” the goldsmith moaned.
But the tailor’s gold had remained gold. So he said to his friend: “We have been traveling companions for a long time, and since we found the treasure together, I shall share mine with you.”
And that is exactly what he did. Because of his humility and generosity forever after, whenever the tailor closed his eyes, he heard the sound of that beautiful music.