a version of a tale by Ruth Sawyer ©1970
Once there was and was not a Spanish peasant. He usually had a little to eat — today yes, tomorrow no — but on this day it was no. And a storm came in the night, with rain pelting down at winter’s end, turning all the trails to mud. As it rained he heard a knock on the door of his hut.
He whispered, “I hope the wayfarer is not hungry. My cupboard is empty.”
Standing at the door was a man wrapped up in a long cape. He entered and spread out his cape before the hearth to dry. He was cold.
“Sit down at the fire,” said the peasant. The man began to warm himself, and the peasant made a foolish grand gesture, as if there were soup, tortillas, rice, fish, sausage — everything in his cupboard. “Caballero, what can I bring you to eat?”
The man at the fire looked up. “Bring whatever you have. It will be enough.”
The peasant now had to face his empty cupboard. He went to it, opened it and looked — looked. In a corner was a quarter of a loaf of hard bread. He had not seen it there. It had not been there. He put the bread in a basket and, along with a cup of water, brought it to the man. Blushing and bowing at this simple fare, he said, “Let the food be blessed.”
The man waved his hand over the bread. “It is blessed.”
At that moment there was another knock. “Holy Mother!” The peasant grew nervous. “Master, this bread may stay your hunger until morning, but who else may be served?”
The man replied. “Where one is fed a hundred may dine. Open your door.”
There entered two men in long capes. They greeted the man at the fire.
“Sit down,” he said, and they spread out their capes to dry. Then he spoke to the peasant. “Bring two more cups of water, and do you not have the smallest bit of fish?”
“Caballero, I have only the tail of one from yesterday. It is not fit to eat.”
So the peasant brought the tail on a plate and two more cups of water. With his chin on his chest and his eyes downcast, he said, “Let the food be blessed.”
With a wave of his hand the man said, “It is blessed.”
There came another knock at the door. The peasant was ashamed. “Master, do not bid me open the door. Please let no one see the bareness of my cupboard.”
“Where one is fed a hundred may dine. Open it.”
Two more in long capes entered. The peasant pulled up a bench from the wall. He did not say a word. He brought water for these men. But the man at the fire said, “Have you not one egg — or perhaps the shell of an egg?”
The peasant shook his head. But then he remembered that the swallow’s nest outside might have some shell left from last summer. He went out, and sure enough in the mud were blown by the wind little bits of shell from the nest in the eave. He gathered into a bowl these bits of swallow’s egg shell and served them to the men sitting on the bench. “Let the food be blessed.”
“It is blessed.”
There came another knock at the door. Two more entered. Capes were spread on the floor around the hearth and at the bench, where there had been nothing but eggshells from the swallows, now there was a pile of chicken eggs.
“Take these,” said the man at the fire. “Make tortillas for us all.”
By now the peasant was not surprised to find flour in his cupboard. He made tortillas and as he did so there was more knocking at the door. Soon the hut was holding thirteen men in all, and with the tortillas everyone ate their fill. Afterward there was bread, fish, eggs and tortillas to feed the peasant for days.
Each man slept wrapped in his cape before the fire. In the morning the first man spoke to the peasant. “Ask. Whatever you ask, it shall be granted you.”
The peasant thought for some time. “I ask that I shall win at whatever game I play.”
“Granted.” Then the thirteen took to the trail. The peasant watched them tramp along east toward the rising sun, as if they were walking right into the dawn. From then on the peasant did well in life. He lived kindly and shared with his neighbors. And finally at the end of his days he took his way up to heaven. On the path he saw the Devil, who was waiting there for a rich and wicked man to die.
“What are you doing?” asked the peasant.
“Waiting to carry away this black soul with me.”
“While you wait I want to play a game with you. Whoever wins shall take this soul with him. Agreed?”
They played. Was it cards or dice or sticks? The peasant won. The rich man died, and the peasant took his black soul upon his back and carried him all the way up to heaven. There at heaven’s gate stood Saint Peter. The peasant recognized him.
“Enter,” Peter said, but then he raised his hand. “Wait! What are you carrying?” The peasant showed him. “You can’t bring that black soul into heaven. Let it go. Let it fall down to the place meant for it.”
Then the peasant looked at Peter. “Remember the rainy night you slept and ate in my hut? Remember what the master said, again and again? Where one is fed a hundred may dine?”
“You remember that?” said Peter.
“I remember,” said the peasant.
Then Saint Peter turned from the peasant and walked away from heaven’s gate. He looked off into the distance. And the peasant hurried inside, and on his back he carried in the black soul of the man who had been rich and wicked.