I’ve only been able to find unattributed versions of this story posted throughout the web. I confess that I added the final movement, which both recognizes the input of others and leaves the determination of the ring’s ultimate value to its owner.
Spoiler Alert: This is one of the stories found in When It Matters Most.
The young man sits across from the old woman, tears welling in his eyes. The words leave his lips as a confession, ‘I’m worthless.’
She pours out two cups of tea, careful to first waken the dry leaves with a splash of hot water before allowing them to steep. They open to the warmth of the liquid, now infused with a pale green. Each cup receiving precise attention, time passes before she speaks.
‘Who has told you this?’
‘My father and mother. I’m not following the path they would have me walk.’
The woman places one of the cups before the young man and gestures that he drink. His hands tremble as he blows across the cup before taking a quick sip. The old woman smiles. She takes her cup, wrapping both hands around its warmth. She brings it to her face. Instead of exhaling, she draws in a long, slow breath through her nostrils, savoring the aroma. Without drinking, she sets down her cup.
‘And their opinion leaves you without value?’
Her pace influences his own. The young man takes a whiff of the tea before sipping. The torrent of emotion lessens, ‘They are my parents. They have done so much for me and I love them.’ He pauses, ‘But this time I cannot do what they ask of me.’
She nods. Her eyes hold no judgement, neither agreeing nor disagreeing. The young man relaxes. Taking the cup in her hands, raising it to her face, the woman again draws in the aroma, then drinks. She repeats the process a second time before returning her cup to the table.
Pulling a simple ring from her weathered finger, she hands it to the young man, ‘Take this ring to the merchants in the marketplace. See what they offer for it, then return to me.’
Uncertain, but not wanting to offend, the young man leaves the woman to her tea and makes his way to the marketplace. He first approaches the bread maker, who feels the weight of the ring in his hand and makes an offer. Next, he seeks out the butcher, who holds the ring so that it catches the light and reveals its sheen before she makes a bid. From merchant to merchant he travels, until finally he reaches the knife maker, who checks the inside of the ring for markings and names a price.
Returning to the old woman, he retakes his seat. She asks, ‘Do you know the value of my ring?’ The young man recounts his conversations with the merchants in the market and the range of their offers. ‘Now,’ the woman responds, ‘please take my ring to the jeweler at the edge of town.’
Again, wanting to assist the old woman, the young man walks to the outskirts of town. The jeweler opens his door and takes the ring into his shop. Affixing his loupe, he inspects the ring and places it on a scale. He says that it’s a rare find, that he’s only seen two that were similar. He names a price ten times the highest bid of the merchants.
Soon the young man sits again with the old woman, who asks, ‘Now do you know the value of my ring?’ He places the ring into her outstretched palm and relates the words of the jeweler, along with the price.
The woman responds by setting the ring on the table between them and prepares two fresh cups of tea. She awakens the leaves, lets them steep, and finally pours. Taking the cups in their hands, they both inhale and savor.
‘You see,’ said the old woman, ‘the value of my ring varies according to whom you ask. If you let the baker determine its value, it would be low indeed. If you believe the jeweler, its worth is high.’ She sips her tea and repeats, ‘So, do you know the value of my ring?’
‘The jeweler best knows its worth.’
The old woman nods, ‘It’s true that I should listen closely to what the jeweler has to say. It’s also true that I should consider what the merchants tell me.’ She picks up the ring. ‘Yet, these people cannot determine the value this ring holds for me.’
As she holds the ring in her palm, the young man notices the worn mark on the finger where it usually rested. ‘Ultimately, I determine its worth,’ she gently nods as she speaks, ‘just as I must determine my own.’
They finish their tea, unrushed.