Once upon a time, there lived a weaver who was known throughout the land for the beauty of her creations. No craftsperson could spin a finer, smoother thread. None could recreate the brilliance of her dyes – the perfect, saturated colors of her palette. No weaving ever seen carried the complexity, the intricacy, of the patterns the old weaver could invent. The cloth that emerged from her loom was prized beyond measure.
Stories about the old weaver abounded. It was told that her loom and shuttle were enchanted – magical devices that could work as no human hands ever could. It was whispered that her spinning wheel could extract thread from the morning dew. It was agreed that gray, cloudy days were the days when she prepared new dyes: when the sky gave her its clear blue, the maple trees their fiery orange, the hummingbird its brilliant green.
The house where the weaver toiled perched precariously above a river valley, clinging by some unknown means to the side of a steep hill. For the possibility of watching the weaver at work, of discovering some of the secrets she brought to her craft, people would travel for miles, even braving the dangers of the final climb. Scarcely a day went by when she did not have dozens gathered around her little cottage. However many gathered, she would welcome them with patient hospitality, giving them water to wash and drink, some little biscuits to fill their bellies. Then she would tuck herself up to begin the work of her day: the spinning, the dyeing, the weaving that so occupied her, and that brought her guests such joy. Yet, however attentively they watched, they could not quite keep up with the swift, sure movements of her hands, and her secrets remained her own. Those who had come to plumb her knowledge would wander back out, slightly dazed, the loom’s patterns still dancing before their eyes. On the hillside, they would pause, blinking in the brightness of the day, to gaze down upon the distant valley; perhaps it was the sudden brightness, perhaps the hum of the spinning wheel or the speed of the shuttle still confusing their thoughts, but the landscape of the valley seemed to shift beneath one’s gaze – fickle, uncertain. No matter how clear the air around them, the valley seemed hazy, and those who came to the old weaver’s home would leave, arguing over what they saw spread out before them.
Many times, the old weaver had been offered a small fortune in exchange for one of her creations. Each time, she would gaze steadily into the eyes of the one who sought to put cash into her hand; she would stare until finally, the would-be purchaser fell silent and turned away. Yet late at night, she would take the cloth she had woven and slip down into the towns of the valley. Making as little noise as the night itself she would wrap her weavings like blankets – light as air, soft as silk, warm as a loving embrace – around the poor, the blind, the despairing, the hungry. Before dawn she would return to her hillside, her arms empty but her heart full, to begin again her work.
One morning, a young man came to her cottage, as she sat weaving in the midst of the crowd. He was beautiful: strong and graceful, solemn and joyful. His clothes were simple, but new and of good quality. In his fitted, well-made boots the steep path had given him no trouble, and he was scarcely out of breath as he approached the loom and dropped to one knee before the weaver. His eyes were full of respect and admiration as he gazed at her, heedless of the many others who crowded the room. “Master Weaver, your work is known to me, and I honor your skill. I would love nothing more than to have one of your weavings. If you will not take money, what must I do to get what I desire?”
The old weaver looked affectionately down at the young gentleman, reached out a strong, weathered hand and touched his cheek. “Not the Master Weaver, no, not I,” she replied. “But as to having some of this cloth? Certainly I can weave for you. Where is the wool you have brought?”
The young man’s face fell, and he gasped as though she had struck him. “I have none, Madam.”
“Flax? Cotton? Silk?” she inquired gently.
“No.” His eyes welling with tears, he began to stand up.
“My son, all is not lost.” The old weaver stopped him and took his hand. “Go out and find what I have requested of you. It will not come cheap, so be prepared: you will find what you seek on the far side of the valley, as the hills begin to rise again. There you will find a pasture whose gate will be open, yet from which the sheep will not wander. There you will find wool in abundance, to bring back to me.”
Although the old weaver’s words were kind, the young man left her cottage with a heavy heart. Outside her door, the day was well advanced, and the valley glowed in the afternoon sun; but the distant hills seemed dark, wreathed in mist that blurred their shapes.
By next morning, the young man had taken everything of value from within his house, and packed it carefully into a stout cart. At the front, he hitched his ox, and then climbed up onto the seat and began his journey across the valley. The rising sun nearly blinded him, and he took that as reason to glance continually behind him, into the area where his possessions lay, carefully packed so as not to break and become useless. The glass sparkled, the silver shone, the occasional jewel winked merrily at him and he smiled, glad of the wealth that would finally serve some purpose.
About mid-morning, he entered a large village. Towards the far end, he could see a large crowd gathered; he halted his cart, tied the ox to a post, and made his way towards the group. They had gathered, it seemed, around a modest house; as he approached, the young man could smell smoke. He tapped the shoulder of the nearest person, an old woman, and asked what had happened.
“House caught fire early this morning,” the woman replied. “Managed to save most of it, but parts of the kitchen and the bedroom above were lost.” She turned away, to look at the house sadly. “Young family, they didn’t have much. We’ll all have to pitch in to help out.”
The young man slipped through the crowd to where they family stood, encircled by their neighbors. They were young, younger than he, with a little baby huddled, quiet and frightened, in his father’s arms. “All our dishes were in that corner,” he could hear the father saying. “Pot and pan, plate and cup, all gone. It wasn’t much then, but it’s nothing at all, now.”
The young man paused, looking more closely at the little family. Their clothes were neat, but showed wear and careful mending. The blanket round the child was frayed at the edges, but still warm. Suddenly very aware of his own nice clothes and full cart, the young man turned and made his way back. From among his possessions, he pulled copper pots and ceramic plates, and started back towards the crowd. But as he hopped down from the cart, a slight twinkle caught his eye: a set of heavy, cut-crystal glasses, purchased years earlier in a far-off land. He hesitated – he might need those, they were valuable, after all, and he didn’t know how much the wool would cost! And besides, it would be a foolish gift to give a couple with a little baby – such breakable things! He hurried off with the pots and plates, and presented them to the family. Even in their shock, they were effusive in their thanks, but the young man ducked away as soon as he could, still thinking of those glasses, and slightly ashamed. Such thanks for such little things, he thought to himself as he untied his ox and jumped back up onto the seat. But the cart had no sooner moved than a great crash sounded behind him; he reined up and turned to see the box of glasses lying in the road behind him, smashed.
Mortified, he jumped down, swept the shards hurriedly back into the box, and left it by the side of the road. His heart ached anew, and he wished that he had simply given the glasses to the family, for all the use that they would be to him now.
The young man continued across the wide valley. For several days it rained, and he wrapped himself up as well as he could against the damp and chill. Finally, one morning, the sun appeared over the distant hills, and mist rose from the fields around. Slowly, the young man’s clothes dried and the warmth began to cheer him. He glanced back into the cart, still delighting in the treasure packed so carefully away, and the greater treasure that his things would grant him. In his gladness at the warmth of the sun and the riches of his cart, he began to sing, and was soon so caught up in the song that the sudden halt of his ox startled him badly.
They had come to the river. Not the quiet, smooth, silver ribbon he had seen from the old weavers cottage, but a torrent of mud and branches, swollen and angry with the recent rain. A cluster of houses stood to one side, their silent inhabitants staring, grief-stricken, at the river. On the far shore, he could make out another cluster of houses, another group of silent watchers; between them, three stone pillars peeked out of the floodwaters.
The young man jumped down from his cart and moved to join the quiet crowd. “The bridge washed away?” he asked an old man who stood nearby.
“Yes, and our livelihood with it,” the man replied. “All that we had depended on the river and the bridge, and those who came to our villages from both sides of the valley to trade. Our marketplaces were famous; here we united the two sides of the valley. But without the bridge..” His voice trailed off, and he stared again at the wild river.
“I’m sure you can rebuild it,” the young man replied, clapping his hand on the other’s shoulder.
“We found some of the timbers,” the other responded, “But not all. And where shall we get more? Down here, trees are scarce; what we do have, we need for shade for our animals.”
The young man looked around and recognized the truth of these words. He, too, stared hopelessly at the flooded river. He would have to go many miles downstream to find another place to cross, and the plight of these villages touched him.
After a long, silent time, the villagers began to return to their homes. The old man invited the young one for supper and a place to rest, and led him to a tiny cottage at the edge of the cluster. There was not much to eat, but the old man shared what there was, and made a place for the young man to sleep before the fire.
The next morning, the young man rose early and went to hitch his ox to his cart, to continue his journey downriver. The river level had begun to fall, and the villagers were salvaging what timbers they could, and bringing them back to the road. The old man, on his way to help his neighbors, smiled sadly at his guest. “Perhaps, when you come back, we’ll have found enough wood to complete the bridge,” he said.
The young man paused, his hand on the cart. There was wood – quite a lot of it, really, in the form of the large, ox-drawn cart. He hesitated. He needed the cart to bring his things, the possessions he would need in order to get the wool for the old weaver. Yet the crash of the crystal glasses rang again in his ears. Perhaps… if he packed his things just so… Carefully, he took out everything in the cart – porcelain, silver, mother-of-pearl – and repacked it into bundles which could be laid across the ox’s back. Then he brought the cart down to where the villagers were working.
The young man stayed several days with the old man. Everyone in the two villages worked, with the old wood and the carefully-dismantled cart, to construct the rudiments of a new bridge. More wood would be required, but the structure was stable enough that the man and his ox, carrying all his possessions, were able to pass over and be on their way.
The young man could not regret the loss of his cart, when it had meant he could help the villagers. But he noticed the weight on his ox’s back; the sacks that were not meant for such use cut into the animal’s shoulders. He took some of the burden himself, but still the raw spots appeared on the ox. In every village, the young man found need aplenty; and tried to lighten the load that his animal bore. In each village, the young man left one or more of his treasures. Sometimes, he would see one of the old woman’s weavings; there, he would leave the most valuable objects, in the hopes of giving the villagers the means to buy the food or medicines they so clearly needed. Even the ox, in the end, was given to a farmer who was trying to plow his fields by hand. And the young man went on, empty-handed, with nothing but the clothes on his back. These, too, he might have given away, had they not been, by this time, so worn as to be almost worthless.
Finally, one day, the road began to climb up out of the valley. Hills rose around the young man, so close that they blocked the sun until mid-morning. After several hours, a curve in the road brought the sight of a large, fenced-in pasture, where a flock of sheep grazed quietly. And what sheep! Beautiful, almost glowing in the afternoon light, with soft fleece so thick it looked like you could sink your arm in to the elbow. The young man stood, transfixed, in awe at the beauty of the enclosure: velvety green grass underfoot, perfectly pruned fruit trees, their branches laden, bowing over the back wall, and the sheep – straight out of a children’s storybook. He stepped forward, as though in a dream… and stumbled, falling headfirst into a perfectly clear stream that burbled and sang its way to a little pond, not far from the gate. The water flowed around him, smooth as crystal, and he bowed his head and wept for the broken glasses that he had been too selfish to give away.
“Why are you crying?” A child stood over him, staring curiously.
“Because I kept the glasses for myself, and they broke, and it doesn’t matter now anyway because I have nothing.” The young man’s bitter tears ran down his face into the stream. He knew his words could make no sense to the child, but it didn’t seem to matter.
“It’s okay. I have a cup. Take a drink, the water is good.” Out of nowhere, it seemed, the child produced a little wooden cup and dipped it into the water. Obediently, the man drank; the water, though cold, warmed him through as nothing had ever done. He stood, and handed the cup back.
“I’m here to see about getting some wool,” he began, uncertain.
The child nodded. “There are shears on the hook in the wall, there. Take as much as you need.”
The man paused. “As much as I need? Do you have no need of the wool, yourself? I don’t want to take this, and leave you wanting.”
The child laughed. “We do use it for our own garments, yes. But when there is need, there is enough. There is always enough.”
The young man looked up, and for the first time noticed that the child was just one of many, running around in the pasture, playing among the sheep and eating the fruit. The one who had given him the cup now took his hand, and pulled him towards the shears. “Wait,” the young man said, “I have nothing to pay you.”
The child laughed again, a joyful, contagious laugh. “What it costs you, it has cost you already.” And without another word, the child helped the young man to shear several nearby sheep. Soon, he had as much wool as he thought he could carry, although it seemed that he had barely sheared any of the animals who were grazing nearby. He thanked the child, who laughed again and ran off to play. Bundling up the wool, he turned slowly and started back up the long road to the old weaver.
One morning, just as the first glimmers of dawn lit the distant hills, the old weaver started up the path to her cottage. Her arms were empty, but her heart was full, and she was ready for another day at her loom. But standing before her cottage was a young man, weary and stooped, tired and confused. The old woman ushered him inside and sat him before the fire, gving him milk to drink and bread and honey to eat.
“I’m sorry,” he said, finally. “I thought I was returning to my house, but I seem to have lost my way. I ended up here, instead.” He buried his face in his hands. “I lost all that I had. Even the wool… the birds, you see. And the squirrels, and the chipmunks. They needed it to keep their nests warm…”
Gentle fingers touched his cheek, and then a warm blanket was wrapped around his shoulders – light as air, soft as silk, warm as a loving embrace. Slowly he raised his head, to see the most beautiful weaving he’d ever imagined. Intricate patterns meandered throughout, creating shapes that seemed almost to move in the first rays of the sun; birds in their nests, a flock of sheep grazing near laden fruit trees, and ox with a plow, glints of silver and mother-of-pearl by outstreched hands, a swirling river carrying away a cart. Towards the bottom, the young man glimpsed the sparkles of broken crystal, and tears again filled his eyes.
“Those,” said a voice, “we put among the tiles of our hearth, so that we might never forget to welcome the stranger.”
The young man looked up, suddenly, into the face of the young father whose house had burnt, and who now gazed at him, smiling. “See? Right here.” And so indeed they were, shards and fragments of crystal, glittering and winking back at him in the light of the fire. The young man started, and stared around him. He had thought himself alone with the old weaver in her tiny, precarious cottage. But as he looked, he became aware of noises from other rooms he’d not seen before, voices familiar to him – the young family, villagers from near the bridge, from villages where he had given what he could to meet the neverending need. From beside the window, a bird sang; its nest lined in the softest wool imaginable.
The young man turned to the old weaver. He touched the blanket lightly and murmured, “But, I didn’t bring back any wool…”
She smiled. “That which keeps you warm is of your own spinning, and the pattern is of your own choosing. Now come, my son, you need to rest. For you did not lose your way, but are home now, with your family around you.”
She led him into a small chamber, where a soft bed awaited him. From it, he had a beautiful view of the hazy valley below. But now the haze had lifted, and the colors of the valley glowed brightly before him, each village clear and sharp. In the distance, sheep grazed; bright against the soft green of their pasture. The man closed his eyes and pulled the weaving close around him, feeling its softness through the many holes in his once-fine shirt. And he fell asleep, the richest man in the world.
Jesus said, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of the needle, than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” The disciples were greatly astounded and said to one another, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus looked at them and said, “For God all things are possible.”
*Inspired by “The Quiltmaker’s Gift” by Jeff Brombaugh and “The Chronicles of Prydain” by Lloyd Alexander