My version builds on elements contained in two separate stories. Several renditions of “The Pond of Milk” suggest that the tale’s origins are Islamic. Similar in theme, “The Communal Wine,” centers on a tribal people deep in a jungle. Neither provide definitive word on origins.

Spoiler Alert: This is one of the stories found in When It Matters Most.

Long ago, there lived a Matriarch who ruled over a vast realm. When she began her reign, the region was quite poor and the people suffered from hunger and the cold winter winds.

Out of their need, they turned to each other for comfort, whether it be a warm meal or encouraging word. Under the Matriarch’s guidance, the people found that together they could improve their lot. Over time, their stomachs grew fuller and their homes sturdier. They were proud of the life they created side-by-side.

But as time rolled forward, the people become comfortable in their wealth. They no longer needed to rely on each other. Even when some fell back into the experience of hunger and cold, others saw little reason to disturb their own lives. Instead, the people of the realm were seized with the idea of scarcity; they needed to protect what was theirs. At this point, the people began again to suffer, not from the poverty of hunger or cold, but from a poverty of heart and spirit. Perhaps most sadly of all, the people did not see what they had become.

Fortunately, the Matriarch understood the danger and decided to act.

She sent her couriers to the corners of the realm, inviting all of her citizens to join in a banquet, hosted in the city square. They told of a gathering with great food and music and dance. The only entrance requirement was a bottle of the region’s wine to be poured into a communal bowl and then distributed and consumed together. The food and entertainment would be a gift from the Matriarch.

As the date of the banquet approached, excitement grew. The citizens speculated about what rare treats would be served, what music would be played. Perhaps there would be fireworks or magic acts. As the day approached, cellars opened and bottles of wine were readied.

Entering the packed square, all was beyond expectation. Their senses were greeted by music and magic. In the center stood an immense bowl. Into this font, each citizen poured a bottle of wine.

After a marvelous dinner, the crowd was silenced by a spray of fireworks.

The Matriarch called for everyone to fill their goblets from the font. With the last glass charged, they raised them together, saluted their land, and sipped the wine.

Silence. Then murmurs. The wine was awful. Undrinkable.

The Matriarch called to the crowd, ‘My people, I give you the taste of who we have become. You must decide who we will be.’

With these words, she left.

The people were dumbfounded. Why would the Matriarch taint the wine they brought? What did she mean by it being the taste of who they’d become?

It started with an old man, who stood in front of the crowd, ‘I thought with so many people contributing wine, I didn’t need to bring my best. I brought a lesser bottle. The fault for the taste is mine.’ The man’s honesty freed others to admit that they did the same. Still others confessed that under similar reasoning, they topped up half of their bottles with water. A few shared that they didn’t bother putting any wine in their bottles, a little juice to add some color – that is all. The people talked into the night and the weeks that followed.

Five months later, the Matriarch reissued the invitation. It was identical to the first. She would supply the food and the entertainment. All each citizen needed to do was contribute a bottle of wine to the font. As the day approached, excitement grew. When the Matriarch called for their goblets to be filled, the people were silent.

The wine barely touched their lips before the people raised their voice in a cheer. The wine was splendid.

More than the wine, though, their lives were splendid. In the months that followed the first gathering, neighbors had continued the conversation and turned to each other, offering and receiving assistance. Those who stumbled were helped back to their feet. Thoughts of scarcity were gradually supplanted by acts of generosity.

It wasn’t that the people were perfect, just as no pour of wine is perfect. And, of course, there were still a few who watered down their offering, but they were such a minority, it no longer impacted the quality of their life together.

They had decided who they would be. And the taste was superb.