So often the story begins with one of us, the wretched of the earth. There once was a poor woodcutter. There was once a poor fisherman. A widow, an orphan, a blind man. A peasant. You can imagine their hands are as rough as your own. You can imagine their swollen joints and bad teeth. You can imagine any one of them waiting bundled at the bus stop after a double shift, exact change in pocket, no more.
The story is about a low person. But because the girl was beautiful. But because the boy was brave. Because they are smart enough, good enough. Because they deserve it, they are lifted up. They marry the handsome prince who sits upon a saddle, or they win the hand of the Tsar’s daughter. The prole becomes rich.
We are taught that a happy ending is an ending with glittering gold pieces, perfumes, roasted birds. Wealth. The word itself almost fills your belly. A happy ending would be if you were driving that sweet Lexus idling at the stop light, if you were dressed like the people in big houses on the television screens, if you shopped at Whole Foods or didn’t have to scrub your own toilet. If only you deserved it.
Subvertere, Latin: To turn from below.
Now is the time for us to look for endings that subvert the paradigm of happiness we’ve been taught to seek. Now, because we are waking; now because in our disaster collectivism, we are discovering our power. We must be ready for reimagining, and rebuilding. I offer you a story with a different kind of happy ending. It’s not the perfect radical story; we’re not meant to question the idea of the benevolent monarch, or the assumption that people need be governed at all. But “The Rusty Plate” gives us an ending in which high is brought low; it’s a tale in which we learn to wish for a joy rooted not in becoming that which oppresses us, but in a world in which equality can be realized.
The story comes to us from the oral folklore of the Jews of Egypt:
There once was a poor man who wanted to bring a fine gift to the king for his birthday. His rich neighbor laughed at him and belittled him, saying, “What thing of worth could you possibly have? You may as well take this rusty old plate from your yard!” The poor man examined the broken plate, and thought, “Yes. Surely it is a very special gift, a gift from my very own yard.” He wrapped the plate in clean cloth and set off for the city. When he appeared before the king and unwrapped his gift, the sun shined just so upon its broken edges and it sparkled with all the colors of the rainbow. The rusty spots glittered like diamonds in the light. The king was delighted and amazed. He thanked the poor Jew profusely, and sent him off with a gift in return, a small pouch of gold.
But this is not our happy ending. Our happy ending comes not with gold, but with justice:
The poor man returns to his village, and his wealthy neighbor sees what the king has given him. “Imagine,” says the rich man, “If the king gives this fool coins for worthless junk, how much more will he reward me for a gift of real value?” So he sells his nice house, his land and goats and embroideries, to buy a plate of solid gold. The bourgeois man sets out for the city, thinking smugly that he will find such favor with the king that he will become a very rich, very powerful man indeed. And it’s true that the king is stunned by the beauty of the man’s gift. He exclaims “How can I ever thank you? Yes, I know! I will give you my finest and most prized possession!”
This is our happy ending, a happy ending for a new world:
The rich man looks into the pouch the king has given him, and he finds his neighbor’s rusty plate.
This editor’s note was written by Tiny Donkey editor Anna Lea Jancewicz