Wednesday, August 11, 2010

For Better or Worse

Once upon a time there lived a poor fisherman who was bitter ugly but simple of heart. He lived by the sea in a small cottage and spent his days fishing and caring for his elderly parents. Every morning when he woke up, whether the sun was shining or a storm was raging, he gave thanks to God. When he pulled in his net and found it full of fish, he gave thanks God. And when he pulled in his net and found it empty, he gave thanks to God.

If he caught some fish, he would put them in his creel and walk to the marketplace where he would sell them for whatever the townspeople were willing to pay. Whatever they offered him, he accepted with thanks, and if he sold all his fish or none, he gave thanks to God.

Eventually his parents died. He buried them and as he stood over their graves, he gave thanks to God. He continued to fish everyday, but his boat was very old and, although he had repaired it many times, it was not seaworthy. One day while he was fishing, an unexpected storm came up, and his boat sank. The fisherman barely made it to shore, and the only thing he salvaged from his boat was his creel. He picked it up and said, “For better or worse,” and gave thanks to God.

Although he had no fish to sell, he walked towards the market place out of habit. On his way he saw a rusty horseshoe by the side of the path. “For better or worse,” he said and placed it in his creel while giving thanks to God.

When he got to the marketplace, he asked a vendor for a scrap of paper and borrowing a marker wrote on it “50 pieces of gold.” Sitting on the ground in his usual place in the market, he placed the rusty horseshoe in front of him and the piece of paper next to it.

“What are you selling fisherman?” a passing townsman asked him. “A rusty horseshoe for fifty gold pieces? Surely you must be joking.”

“For better or worse, that is my price,” said the fisherman.

Soon others gathered around. Some thought it was a joke, others that the fisherman was mocking them. Still others thought that the fisherman had gone mad. Fifty gold pieces was a fortune. The entire town did not have that much gold.

To all the questions hurled at him, the fisherman would just answer, “For better or worse, buy it or not.” The crowd grew bigger and noisier, until soon all the townspeople were crowded around the fisherman.

It happened, by chance, that the king, who had been hunting in his royal forest with his guards, was riding by the town on his way back to his castle. Seeing the crowd in the marketplace, he sent one of his guards to find out the cause of the commotion. When he returned, the guard said, “Sire, they are gathered around a fisherman who is selling a rusty horseshoe for fifty gold pieces.”

“Surely it is a jest?” the king exclaimed.

“I think not, Sire,” the guard said. “He is bitter ugly, but he is no jester.”

“I must see this for myself,” said the king. “There is some mystery here.”

The king rode to the marketplace, as his guards cleared his path. Dismounting in front of the fisherman, the king saw that he was indeed bitter ugly and bitter poor as well. The fisherman's clothes, he noticed, had patches upon their patches. The king picked up the horseshoe and examined it closely. It seemed to be exactly what it appeared to be: a rusty horseshoe. Returning it to the fisherman, he asked, “What makes this horseshoe worth fifty pieces of gold?”

“One price is as good as another,” replied the fisherman.

“But one price is not the same as another,” replied the king. “This horseshoe is old and pitted with rust. It's not worth a half copper, yet you are asking fifty pieces of gold for it. Does it have magical powers?”

“Not that I know of,” said the fisherman.

“Perhaps it is a lucky talisman, and it brings its owner good fortune,” said the king.

“Not that I know of,” replied the fisherman.

“Then why ask fifty gold pieces for it?” asked the king.

“For better or worse, that's my price,” said the fisherman.

“I would say for worse,” said the king. “That answer's no better than none. Now tell me the secret of that horseshoe or I will have you hanged.” At these words a guardsman produced a rope.

“Today is as good a day to die as any,” said the fisherman.

Perplexed, the king pulled his beard. The secret of the horseshoe, he thought, must be great indeed if this man was willing to die for it. But if he hanged the fisherman, the secret would die with him. Well, if threats wouldn't work, perhaps pleasantries will.

“Take this fisherman and his horseshoe back to the castle,” he ordered his guardsmen, “Have the royal barber give him a haircut. Find him suitable clothing. He will dine with me tonight.”

That evening the fisherman, dressed in white silk and with his hair trimmed, was brought to the king's table. He has a manly build, the king thought, but in truth he is bitter ugly.
The fisherman was given a seat on the king's right, and the king noticed that before he ate, he gave thanks to God for the food and drink before him. The king motioned to his servant to have the fisherman's wine goblet refilled whenever it was empty. The fisherman, the king noticed, drank much, but talked little. However, the fisherman was a good listener, and soon the king was telling him of the difficulties and dangers that the ruler of a kingdom faced. The fisherman asked shrewd questions, and the king, in searching for answers, found the solution to several of his most vexing problems.

The weeks passed, and with the fisherman's permission, the king had the horseshoe mounted on an oak plaque and placed on the wall in the great hall where it could be seen by all-servants as well as nobles. Many times the king would steer the subject of their conversation to the horseshoe, but the fisherman would only say, “For better or worse, it's nothing but a rusty horseshoe.”

Visiting dignitaries and ambassadors from other kingdoms noted the fisherman and his closeness to the king. They were not sure of his status. Some of the King's courtiers said he was only a fisherman, but the visitors didn't believe that. True, he was bitter ugly, but he sat next to the king when he dined, so he could not be a commoner. Perhaps he was the king's magician or advisor. If so, then he was a person of influence and power. To be on the safe side, they sent him gifts: silk robes, jeweled rings, and rare perfumes.  The fisherman gave thanks to God for each gift he received. He sold each gift he received and distributed the money to the poor.

The king had a daughter of rare beauty. Suitors came from far and wide to woo her. All were wealthy and of high rank; many were heir to the throne of their kingdom, but she rejected them all. Some she found too vain, some too boastful, some too arrogant, and some too condescending. Her father-the king-wanted an heir to his throne, but he could not bring himself to force her to marry against her will. He wanted his daughter to be happy, and he sensed a melancholy in her that he had not the power to disperse.

Months passed, and the king was at his wit's end. He was sure that there was a deep and powerful secret concerning the rusty horseshoe, but no matter how he approached the subject, the fisherman would not reveal it. He would only say, “For better or worse, it is only a rusty horseshoe.”  Wine, the king thought, does not loosen his tongue, but perhaps a woman will. He summoned his daughter, asked her to spend time with the fisherman, and to find the secret of the horseshoe.

Henceforth, she spent every afternoon walking in the royal gardens with the fisherman, and several times-in disguise-accompanied him as he distributed alms to the poor, sick, and crippled in the town. That he was bitter ugly there was no doubt, but soon she didn't notice his ugliness and found him a very comfortable companion. He spoke little but listened much. And when he did speak, his words were insightful and helped her see things in a new way. After a while, she found herself talking about her hopes and fears and felt her melancholy lifting. From time to time, she asked him about the horseshoe, but he always answered, “For better or worse, it's only a rusty horseshoe.”

The king summoned his daughter. “It has been several months, and I have been told that you spend most of your time with the fisherman. Have you found the secret of the horseshoe?”

“I have not,” the princess answered, “but no matter. I wish to marry this fisherman.”

“And is he willing to marry you?” asked the king,

“Yes,” the princess answered. “He said he would 'for better or worse' and then he gave thanks to God.”

“A pious man,” said the king, “though he is bitter ugly. He is only a fisherman, but an heir who is a son of a fisherman is better than no heir at all.”

So it came to pass that the princess and the fisherman were married.

When the old king died, the fisherman became king. He ruled wisely and was dearly beloved by his people, although they admitted that he was bitter ugly.

After many years, his wife begged him to tell her the secret of the horseshoe. The fisherman answered: “For better or worse, it is only a rusty horseshoe.” And he thanked God.