From Perrault’s Puss in Boots, Grimm’s The Nixie in the Pond, & Christ’s Parable of the Talents
There was once a miller who decided to go on a long journey. Having no spouse or offspring, he hired three young servants to manage his affairs while he was away. He swore that if they increased his profit, they would be justly rewarded, but if they failed to do so, he would punish them ever so severely. He also placed each servant in charge of one of his most valued possessions. To the first, he entrusted his mill, to the second, his donkey, and to the third, his cat who was really quite talented, for a cat.
With the miller gone, the servants began to bellyache, each one louder than the last.
“This millstone is so crooked it takes all my might to keep it moving!” grumbled the first. “I cannot turn a profit if I cannot turn the stone.”
“Better than a stiff necked donkey who takes all my wits to keep him walking,” whined the second. “I cannot plow a field with a brute that goes against the grain.”
“At least you have gifts that earn their keep,” protested the third. “I have nothing to my name except this cat so worthless that after I eat him, I’m sure to starve to death.”
“Pardon me,” said a furry voice, brushing against their knees, “but do you think our master would be pleased upon returning to find you’ve eaten the only creature who keeps the mice out of his barn? And since that barn is bursting with grain, you should grind it before you plow and—forgive me, as I’m sure you’ve already considered this—but perhaps the miller meant for you to combine your gifts and have the donkey turn the millstone.”
The three servants let loose a hearty laugh, for the voice belonged to the master’s cat, who was so talented, in fact, that he’d taught himself the tongues of men.
“Poor Petit Lion,” mocked the first, “a beast without hands cannot turn a stone.”
They called the brindled cat Petit Lion because he had a tuft of raised fur along the nape of his neck that resembled the shaggy mane of his larger, fiercer cousin.
“A problem simply solved,” said the cat, his front legs stretched before him and his tail curled over his back. “I could build you a shift to go round his neck. Attach it to the beam and when the brute walks the stone will turn.”
“And how,” said the second, “would you convince the stubborn thing to walk?”
“You only need three things,” said the cat, “a carrot, string, and stick.”
“If it isn’t insulting enough that I should be given a cat to aid in my labor,” said the third, “I should also be given one who talks but says naught but nonsense. As if a beast should know better than a man how to run a mill.”
“I only seek to serve my master,” replied the cat, rolling on his back.
“Then stick to killing mice,” commanded the third. “And catch me one large enough to eat or I’ll skin you with a knife and roast you on a spit.”
The cat trotted off, but returned soon with a fat rat. The next day, it brought the third servant a rat for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. In fact, the cat was so talented, not a day went by in which the servant wanted for fresh meat. Meanwhile, the mill produced nothing.
Soon, the third servant grew sick of eating rodents.
“When will you bring me proper game?” he asked the cat.
“Only give me a sack and a pair of boots,” the cat replied, hopping in his lap, “then I will go into the briars and snare for you fowl and rabbits.”
“Ha!” The servant scoffed at the thought of a puss in boots and punched the cat to the ground. “Why not catch me a nice fish from the pond?”
“I dare not take from the nixie,” said the wise cat, “for her wrath is terrible.”
Now, the mill rested on a small hill and at the foot of this hill stood a pond where, as it was well known, there lived a nixie.
“However,” continued the cat, “if called upon properly, she’s been known to grant a wish to him who pleases her. Perhaps you should seek her favor that she might help you save the mill and with it your own neck.”
“How you talk!” answered the servant. “My master the miller is a respectable, God-fearing man, who believes in a hard day’s work. He would scarcely approve of entanglements with infant-eating sprites. Have you never heard of the many poor children who, wandering too near the pond, were pulled in and drowned?”
“Rumors are seldom more than half true,” said the cat, sharpening his claws against the wooden stool on which the servant sat. “Besides,
If nothing but sweet milk you pour,
Then base to brim, not one drop sour.”
“What are you yapping about?” balked the servant.
“Fill your heart with good intentions and there will remain no room for fear.”
“Off with you!” barked the man. “Or I’ll skin you with pliers and toss you in a stew.”
So the cat went to the first servant and, curling up on his toes, said to him, “Give me a sack and a pair of boots.”
After the man had a good laugh, the cat said, “then at least let me show you how to seek the blessing of the nixie in the pond.”
The first servant had also heard the rumors of the nixie’s taste for local children, but since his greed outweighed his caution, he agreed.
“Beneath the full moon,” explained the cat, “prick your finger and drip a drop of blood into the water’s edge. Then, she will appear. But upon your life, do not call her without a gift or she will be offended and her wrath is terrible.”
“I am only a poor servant,” said the man. “What can I bring her?”
“I’ll make you a comb of reeds for her silver hair,” offered the cat, licking his paw.
On the next full moon, the first servant did everything according to the cat’s instruction and the nixie emerged from the pond. He offered her the comb of reeds and as she brushed her flowing streams of hair, they glistened in the moonlight. Pleased, she promised to grant him one wish.
The cat, who was there with him, warned him, saying:
“The cat who strikes the horse with paw,
Knows hunger sharper than his claw.”
“Why settle for a slice when I can have the cake?” countered the servant. Then, remembering the barn was full of grain, he said to the nixie, “Grant that my mill might grind my grain into gold.”
The first servant woke the others and told the others all that had passed, not once mentioning the cat’s contribution. Immediately, they all set to work building a shift for the donkey and fetching sacks of grain from the barn. When all was ready, they placed the shift on the donkey, but no matter how they pushed and pulled, it would not budge. When they berated the cat for their own ignorance, the little lion leapt on the poor brute and sank ten sharp claws into its hindquarters. With a loud bray, the donkey began to walk, the mill began to turn, and the three servants waited to see if the nixie’s word was true.
They did not wait long before out fell a shining pebble of gold. Testing it and seeing it was real, the servants danced a jig as gold began to spill forth from the mill, like the river from the rock that Moses struck. However, before their dance was done, there began a terrible cracking and crunching as the mill ground to a halt, for the precious metal had flattened its furrows and gummed its grooves. But all was not lost, for the first servant gathered up ten bags of gold.
“Good sir,” said the little lion, grooming his mane, “Would it not please our master to spend this gold on a new mill, as well as mules and workers to sow the fields?”
“No, Master Cat,” said the first servant, “I have gained my master ten bags of gold, but lost him his mill which, though crooked, was as dear to him as his home. Therefore, I will hide this treasure until he returns, for such decisions are for wiser minds than mine.”
Not long after, the cat went to the second servant and, nuzzling his hand, said, “Give me a sack and a pair of boots.”
“Am I like that rat-eating fellow to depend upon a cat for my livelihood?” answered the second servant. “Rather, show me how to please the nixie, for I know that other fool had your help, and I will make my own way in this world.”
So on the next full moon, the second servant did everything according to the cat’s instruction and the nixie emerged from the pond. He played for her a song upon a reed pipe the cat had made and as she swayed to the tune, it sent ripples across her shimmering skirt. Pleased, she promised to grant him one wish.
The cat, who was there with him, warned:
“Tread lightly through the Misses’ room,
Where former cats have felt her broom.”
“Am I a cat or a man?” said the servant. Then, believing that his ass was good for nothing but consuming large amounts of straw and producing even larger amounts of waste, he said to the nixie, “I desire that my donkey might drop diamonds instead of dung.”
Early the next morning, the second servant fed his donkey straw by the bucket. When it could eat no more, he sat down by its rear end with a bag and waited.
He did not wait long before the donkey began to hee and haw as if in excruciating pain. Then, the poor brute shat out a bloody diamond the size of an apple and dropped dead, for the sharp rock had ripped through its innards like Joshua had ripped his robes before the Ark of the Covenant. But all was not lost, for the second servant went to market and sold the diamond for two bags of gold.
“Good sir,” said the little lion, with a yawn, “Would it not please our master to purchase with this gold a new mill and a new donkey?”
“No, Master Cat,” said the servant, “I have gained my master two bags of gold, but lost him his donkey which, though fat and stubborn, was as dear to him as a child. Therefore, I will hide this treasure until he returns, for such decisions are for humbler hearts than mine.”
Not long after, the brindled cat went back to the third servant, sat on his haunches, looked him in the eye, and asked, “Will you now call upon the nixie in the pond?”
“I’ll make no deals with deceitful devils,” replied the man. “I’ve seen how she misled my fellow servants. And now you would have me share in their humiliation.”
“You would share in happiness,” hissed the cat, “if you would but wish for your master’s and not your own.”
“And what should I wish for him? A grand castle in which to dwell and a beautiful princess to marry?”
“Only a new donkey and a working mill. With my good counsel and the work of your hands, we may yet regain what was lost.”
“And what shall I offer this trixie nixie? I own nothing but a saucy cat.”
“I will build you a spinning wheel and gather you enough flax to spin for her a linen shroud, for she has no shade to shield her from the sun’s harsh rays.”
“Heaven save me!” lamented the servant, “Am I a widow or an old maid that I should spend my days spinning at the wheel? What have I done to be cursed with a cat who speaks more words and less sense than any wife ever could?”
“Then, give me a sack and a pair of boots,” repeated the little lion.
“Stop your chattering,” said the man, “and go fetch me a rat for my supper or I’ll skin you with my bare hands and feed you to that ghoul in the pond.”
The cat obliged, but on the next full moon, he called upon the nixie himself and offered her a linen shroud with which to shield her from the sun’s hot rays. The nixie bent low and kissed the noble cat on his pink nose.
The next day, the third servant spotted the brindled cat asleep in the barn, wearing a pair of shiny new boots and lying next to a lumpy sack. Seeking to teach the vain and impudent creature a lesson, the servant grabbed the lumpy sack and turned it upside down. Two rabbits and a partridge fell dead at his feet. He kicked them aside, snatched up the cat in the sack, and tied it shut. Then, he went off and dug a hole to bury his master’s cat.
But while the servant was digging, the clever cat used his sharp claws to cut a hole and climb out of the bag. He filled the sack with the dead rabbits, saving the partridge for his lunch, then sewed up the hole through which he had escaped. When the servant returned to fetch the sack, the cat hid. He made the most miserable meows and moans, but he threw his voice so that it seemed to be coming from inside the sack. Once it was buried, he snuck away to live in the brambles until the day his true master should return.
On many a night that followed, the third servant could not sleep for the mournful meows floating on the breeze and the occasional silhouette of a cat passing outside his window.
Not long after, the miller returned and called his servants to himself in order to settle accounts with them. The first servant showed him ten bags of gold, but showed him also the broken mill. The second showed him two bags of gold, but showed him also the dead donkey. The third had nothing to show save an empty stomach and empty hands.
“And where,” asked the miller, “is the good gift I gave to you?”
The third servant dug up the sack, brought it to his master, and dropped it at his feet.
“Here are the bones of your cat,” said the servant. “He vexed me, so I buried him.”
“You wicked and foolish servant!” declared the miller. “I gave you bread to eat and you took it for a stone. I gave you a fish and you treated it as a serpent.”
“Wicked and foolish indeed!” said the brindled cat, leaping down from a tree and purring uncontrollably at his master’s presence.
All stood amazed, for the cat was alive and out of the bag.
Then, the Petit Lion recounted to the miller all that had passed since the day he left on his journey. Meanwhile, the third servant listened in silence, his tongue seized by the sight of the cat alive and winsome in his shiny boots.
When the cat finished, the miller asked the third servant what he had to say for himself.
“I was afraid,” he pleaded, “for I knew you to be a respectable, God-fearing man, one who values hard work over shortcuts and pacts with double-dealing devils.”
“If you truly knew me,” responded the miller, “then you would have trusted the counsel of the one I entrusted to you. But you are more crooked than the mill and more stubborn than the donkey. Therefore, you shall be punished accordingly.”
So with the help of his two good servants, they dressed the wicked servant in the donkey skin, tied a rope around his neck, and tied the other end to the millstone. When they tipped the millstone off its base, it rolled out of the millhouse and down the hill, dragging the third servant behind, until it crashed into the pond. The last sight he saw was the sunken eyes and gaping jaws of the nixie waiting to greet him in the depths.
The miller gave his brindled cat to the first servant, who he placed in charge of all his affairs, and made the second assistant to the first. With the cat’s wisdom and a dozen bags of gold, they restored the mill, purchased new donkeys, and hired workers. In time, the miller found a loving wife who bore him many children. He grew so rich that he built a mansion where he lived together with his family, his cat, and his two servants. As long as they lived, they wanted for nothing and shared in their master’s happiness. For whoever has much will be given an abundance, but whoever has little, even what he has will be taken from him.
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