Very few stories are unique unto themselves. The vast majority have found their current form based on the accumulated alterations of prior versions. After originally finding “The Pomegranate Seed” in Peninnah Schram’s excellent anthology, The Hungry Clothes and Other Jewish Folktales, I have switched the perspective from third to second person (emphasizing personal impact), altered the gender of the thief (balancing out the usual gender mix of these old tales), rewrote the Sultan as a King (steering away from the stereotype that Sultans are always lopping heads), clarified that the King never really believed in a ‘magical’ seed (protecting the king from being portrayed as a dimwit), and changed the reward from a bag of money to actual, substantive input (underlying the need for ongoing application beyond a one-off experience). If I’ve done this well, the story’s intent has remained intact, while becoming more relevant to my audience. Enjoy.
The Treasurer and the Thief
Truth be told, I was anticipating a little fun at the thief’s expense as we gathered that morning. Perhaps it explains why I let my guard down. Sometimes we only wake up to see ourselves when life catches us napping.
It started the day before with a meeting between the King, his Advisor and me, his Treasurer. A soldier interrupted our deliberations.
A thief had been caught in the marketplace after stealing a loaf of bread. That the soldier seemed unsure as to how to proceed came as a surprise. The King was nothing other than consistent with this type of ruling.
“Did she steal the bread?”
“Yes, my liege.”
“Is she of sound mind?”
“Yes, my liege.”
“Then you know what to do. There’s no place in this kingdom for those who wantonly break the law. Go and put her to death.”
“Yes, my liege,” the soldier spoke but didn’t move.
“Is there something else?”
“Well, there is, my King,” he stammered. “As we took her from the market, she talked about having a pomegranate seed.” The soldier was clearly uncomfortable and hesitated before adding, “A magical one. A seed that has been in her family for generations. She says that it grows into a mature tree overnight and that each of those seeds can grow its own tree. I thought this might interest you.”
The King smiled, “Of course I’m interested in a magical pomegranate seed!” He then offered a quite aside for our ears, “If only for a laugh,” before ordering the soldier, “Bring her to us.”
She looked the part of a common thief. Her clothes were ragged and dirty. Her hair was a mass of tangles. Even her voice carried the bleating twang of her sort.
She produced a tiny red seed from her pocket and confirmed that when planted according to the instructions handed down from her ancestors, it would grow as the soldier described.
The King smiled slightly and said, “You will spent tonight in the prison. Tomorrow morning you will come to the gardens and plant the seed. The next day, there will either be a fully grown tree in its place and you’ll leave with one of the fruits and your freedom.” He paused, “Or, there will be no tree and we’ll fill the hole with your head.”
Intrigued by why the thief would attempt such a flawed ruse, the King pulled his soldier aside and instructed him to report what he could learn of the woman before she returned.
Later that evening, the soldier faithfully returned and reported that the woman was a cobbler, who took up the trade after her husband’s death. She was known to work hard, but was unable to fully provide for her children. Still, she cared and clothed them as best she could, though she denied herself the same. That she stole a loaf of bread came as a surprise to her neighbours.
The next morning, the King, his Advisor, and I discussed these findings at length and wondered aloud about her wild story of the pomegranate seed. We were standing in the royal garden when she arrived. Tools and water awaited her at the planting site.
A night in prison had left the woman more bedraggled than the previous day. Yet, the thief carefully prepared the ground, digging a small hole and loosening the soil around it. She worked in enough water to leave the spot moist, but not drenched. She took the seed, held it in her hand for some time, then lowered it into the hole – only to retrieve it at once.
“I am so sorry,” she said. “I forgot one of the instructions from my ancestors. The seed will only germinate if it’s planted by someone who is honest. Because I stole a loaf of bread yesterday, it cannot be me.”
She stood up and stretched out her hand to the Advisor, “Everything else is ready, you have only to plant the seed.”
The Advisor started to reach for the seed and then lowered his arm, “It cannot be me. I was told an excellent piece of advice to offer you, my King. I did pass it along, but I didn’t credit the person who shared it with me. I stole from her.”
The thief then turned to me and lifted her hand again.
I looked at the seed in her palm and shook my head. “My King, neither can it be me. I made an investment with a partner. When it came time to split the profit, I decided I deserved the most credit, so I took more than half, but never let my partner know my decision.”
She turned to the King, who laughed.
“Having planted a seed in our minds, you should be permitted to watch it grow. For now, go home to your children. Come the morning, return and join in our work.”
From that day, her life changed. By working for the King, she was able to repay the baker and care for her family.
Our lives also changed, perhaps more so. Over the coming years we were able to better serve our people because with humour and skill she continuously opened our eyes so that we could see others and ourselves more clearly.