An Italian Folk Tale
Retold by Louise Carus from The Real St. Nicholas: Tales of Generosity and Hope From Around the World
St. Nicholas has long been known as the patron saint of millers. Interestingly, the other stories in this collection that feature a miller—"The Nicholas Ship" and "St. Nicholas's Donkey"—also portray him as being rich. Because the miller's was the only mechanized profession in an agricultural society, he was usually wealthier than the neighboring farmers, and so disliked. Perhaps that explains why, at least since the time of the medieval English poet Chaucer, millers have been the object of humor in stories of various cultures. This Italian folktale is no exception. —LC
Many years ago there was a poor woman whose husband had died. She and her two children were all alone in the world and did not know where their next meal would come from. Indeed, the whole country was starving, and the woman was desperate because her neighbors had so little for themselves they could not help her.
Weak though they were, the widow led her children by the hand to church. Over their cries, while she was praying she heard a voice from the next altar: "Go to the windmill. There you will find bread and shelter."
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Strange! The woman had thought the church was empty. She looked in the direction of the sound, but saw no one. All she could see was that the altar next to where she was kneeling was dedicated to St. Nicholas. Feeling foolish for talking to the air, the woman said quietly, "Yes, but the miller is the stingiest man for miles around. He won't give us anything."
"We shall see," the voice seemed to say. "Just go."
The woman was too desperate to argue. immediately she rose and led her children to the windmill. A cold rain had begun to fall, causing the children in their misery to cry even louder. By the time they arrived at the mill, all three of them were soaked through and through. The woman knocked loudly, but they had to wait outside, shivering in the chill air a long time until the door opened.
"What do you want?" the miller bellowed.
"As a gift of God if you please, sir, a piece of bread and shelter until the rain lets up."
"This is not a restaurant, you foolish woman! And we don't provide 'gifts of God.' Pay or get out!"
"But you can see that the children are freezing. I would pay if I could, but I have no money. Please, have mercy on us."
"Go away, or I'll let the dogs loose!"
Just at that moment, an old man appeared from nowhere and stepped through the open door out of the rain. He did not say a word, but touched the miller with his staff. In an instant, the stingy miller fell forward on all fours and began to change.
First the miller's face grew long, his teeth bucked out, and his ears became tall and pointed. Next his clothes dropped off, revealing the sturdy back of an animal and a straggly tail ending in a tuft of wiry gray hair. The widow couldn't believe it, but the miller had become a donkey!
"EEEWAGH," he cried in outrage.
"Now, good woman," said the old man, whom she suddenly recognized as St. Nicholas, "take the children inside. You'll find a warm meal on the table and comfortable beds for all of you. From now on, you will be in charge here."
"But, my lord," the woman said, "I know nothing about the mill!"
"Never mind," said St. Nicholas. "Tomorrow I'll send you a helper who will do everything. All you need to do is take care of the customers. Just charge a price that is fair. Everything else will be done. And you can rent out the donkey. I'll return in a year to make sure you are well."
With that, St. Nicholas harnessed the miller-turned-donkey and led him, still braying in loud dismay, to the barn. Then the Saint disappeared.
The woman did not know what to think. But who could think at all with such tempting aromas tickling her nose? She and her children ran to the kitchen. Much to their amazement, they found a wonderful meal already cooked and on the table—thick pasta with rich red sauce, big rounds of creamy cheese, freshly baked bread, and new greens, even though the season was late! The starving family said a hasty prayer and sat down to the feast. They hadn't eaten so well for a very long time. Then, tired after their full meal, they found three soft beds waiting for them, and they slept more soundly than they ever had in their lives.
The next morning, a young man appeared at the door. "This must be the helper St. Nicholas promised," the woman thought to herself.
"Good morrow!" the young man greeted her. "I'm supposed to run the mill for my food and wages."
As soon as he spoke, the woman sensed the young man was trustworthy. She knew that St. Nicholas was behind it all, and she was happy to have help in running the mill. But what about the miller? That he was now a donkey in his stall—that was the part she did not understand!
And so her new life began. Together, the woman and the young man ran the mill. Every day, the young man would harness the donkey and keep him hard at work. Many people brought their grain to be ground. Because the woman charged only modest prices, she had more and more customers. And every evening, the little household would gather around the table for a fine meal.
A year later, there was a knock on the door. Opening it, the widow recognized the old man who had helped her.
"Now we'll see how things are," St. Nicholas said. "Come to the barn."
They went to the stall where the donkey was tied up. "EEEWAGH," the beast cried. Then Nicholas touched him lightly with his staff. In an instant, the donkey was transformed back into the miller—except that now he had slightly longer ears, slightly protruding teeth, and a little tuft of wiry gray hair on his balding head.
St. Nicholas eyed him sternly. "Well, now! What should we do? Can you be respectful and hire this woman as your assistant? Or would you rather be a donkey?"
"Yes—I mean, no!" the miller said with a sincere heart. "I realize that I was wrong. I will be glad to have the woman's help, and I won't turn poor people away from my door ever again."
"Excellent! But remember, I don't live far from here. If necessary, I can easily return."
But it wasn't ever necessary for St. Nicholas to come back. The miller had indeed learned his lesson. From then on, he made sure that the woman and her children were well treated. Later, he even gave the mill to the little family. As he grew older, he became known far and wide as one of the kindest men around—and one of the most pleasant looking, too, in spite of his odd little tuft of wiry gray hair!
Excerpt from The Real St. Nicholas: Tales of Generosity and Hope From Around the World, by Louise Carus, editor and translator, copyright © 2002. Reprinted by permission of Quest Books/The Theosophical Publishing House, Wheaton, Illinois.
This delightful collection of thirty St. Nicholas stories includes many folktales that are not well-known. One story may be read each day during Advent or one or two could be selected for St. Nicholas Day. Other information and recipes are also included. Purchase from amazon.com, amazon.ca or amazon.uk.
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