(a German folktale)
Till Eulenspiegel was a cunning fellow. The son of a peasant, people say he was born in Brunswick, Germany, and they tell tales of the day of his birth. It was clear from the start, people say, that Till would be a mischief maker. After all, he had three baptisms. First he was baptized in the church, but on his way home, one of his godmothers fell, baptizing him with a shower of mud. When he reached home, his mother washed him clean, his third baptism. And that was the way throughout Till’s life. Everything was always a little bit bigger, a little different, and usually there was a trick involved somewhere.
Like many fellows, as he grew older, Till was always looking for ways to earn a few more coins, but unlike most, he usually wanted to trick others out of their money. It was that way on the beautiful spring day when he arrived in the city of Nurnberg in Bavaria. For weeks he had been hatching his plan, and as soon as he stepped into town, he began to post signs on the town hall and church doors.
“Famous Doctor Will Cure Any Disease,” he wrote, and people flocked to read the news. “A new doctor?” they chattered among themselves. “How can he cure everything?”
In those days the hospital of Nurnberg was overflowing with patients — no one seemed to get better, and each day someone new arrived. The doctors were beside themselves with worry. How would they take care of all these patients? How would they cure everyone?
Presently they heard about these promises from a newcomer, a man named Till.
One of the doctors decided he must see this fellow for himself, and so he went in search of Till. When he found him, he was suspicious, for Till didn’t look much like a doctor. “I have many sick patients,” the doctor said. “Far too many to care for. Can you honestly help?”
“Of course I can!” Till said, and he flashed that charming smile of his, bowing to show respect, and he invited the doctor to join him for a drink to discuss this matter.
The two men sat down, and Till began. “I promise you I can cure everyone in your hospital,” he said. “And quickly, too. I’ve learned the methods of the ancients. These hands are magical …”
The doctor studied Till’s hands. They looked normal to him. “I see,” the doctor said. “And what will you ask for your services?”
Till smiled and thought this over. “How many patients?” he asked.
“One hundred or more,” said the doctor.
“Two hundred guilders, then,” Till answered.
“And when do you demand your pay?” the doctor asked.
“Oh, sir — not until I cure every one. I promise, if I do not make them well enough to leave the hospital, you need not pay me a single coin.”
This pleased the doctor. Who would make such an offer? Till must be an honest man, so he led him to the hospital.
Till insisted he have some privacy. “I need to speak with each patient alone,” he explained. “It’s vital that I pay close attention, that I study every symptom, every move.”
“Of course,” the doctor said, and so Till began to make the rounds.
One by one he went to the patients’ beds and drew the curtains around them; then he examined each person thoroughly. He listened to their heartbeats. He felt their foreheads. He studied their eyes, their ears, their limbs. And then, just before he was finished, he leaned in close to the patients. “Listen to me,” he whispered carefully.
The patient, of course, did so.
“What I am about to reveal to you,” he said, “is a secret, and you must promise to tell no one.”
“Of course, doctor,” the patients always said. Till seemed trustworthy. After all, he had promised them health.
“If I am to help bring you back to health, there is just one solution,” he said. “I must burn whoever is sickest among you. I must burn that person until he or she is mere powder, and then I shall make a potion that the rest of you shall drink. Whoever cannot walk out of here will be the one I choose and so in a few days will come the test …”
In this way he went, from one bed to the next, whispering the secret of the powder.
When the day came that Till had promised he stood at the hospital door, holding a megaphone. “Listen one and all!” he cried. “Whoever is not sick in this place, come outside now …”
Every single patient — the sickest and the weakest, those with canes, those with crutches, those holding themselves in pain — rose from their beds and shuffled toward the door. No one wanted to be burned to powder, and even some who had not been out of their beds for a decade rose. Before long every bed in that hospital was empty. Not a single patient remained.
The doctors approached Till. “You’re a miracle worker,” they said, and they paid him his 200 guilders — plus a little more, for they were exceedingly grateful.
Then Till left town.
Of course a few days later, one by one, the sick people returned. They groaned, they limped, they wept with pain.
“What’s this?” the doctors asked. “A master physician helped you to walk out of here on your own? What has happened to you?”
Eventually one young girl could not keep Till’s secret, and once she let the cat out of the bag the others joined in. Then the doctors understood. Like so many others before them, they had been tricked, but Till was long gone, and he never did return to Nurnberg.