Counting Pebbles


Long ago, between the forests of India and the waves and tides of the great ocean, there lived an honored Maharaja of splendid wealth and wisdom. Men and lords of men came to him from every corner of the world to ask for his advice, for his blessing, and for his gold. His advice he gave freely, to whoever might ask, but his blessing and his gold were reserved for an honored few.

The wise and the rich came to him, fools and beggars, strong and weak, men who were cruel and men who were kind. One needed money to build a palace, another weapons to fight a war, still another jewels to win the heart of a lady. They came before the mighty Maharaja with eloquent arguments, with gifts of spices and ivory, with slaves and promises of honor and worship for his help.

He listened to them all, powerful generals and ignoble beggars, with equal patience. When the last man had been heard, he stood and bowed to them all with great courtesy and invited them to follow him. He led them through his great palace to a courtyard littered with smooth pebbles, some as large as birds’ eggs, others smaller than the coins they begged him for.

“Here you will find all that you ask me for,” he told them solemnly. “Sit here and count the pebbles, and you will receive what you need.”

The wisest were the first to complain. “What purpose could there be?” they asked him. “To play with pebbles like children in the dust!” And they left him.

The rest, too, were angry, and they asked him, “Why should we count pebbles? Ask us to fight in your armies, or mine your gold, or build you another palace! Ask us something of worth! Not to waste our time.”

But he shook his head, and said only, “Count the pebbles.”

“For how long?” they asked. “For what purpose?”

But he replied, “Count the pebbles.”

Some left him then, shaking their heads in frustration. Others shrugged their shoulders and sat to begin. For hours they stayed there, sitting in the dust. Counting the pebbles. They piled them in heaps, heaps that grew by the hour. The sun rose higher and the air became thick with the dust they stirred up. More left him, their anger and humiliation stamped clearly on their faces. “He’s mocking us,” they said as they left. “He brought us here to make fools of us.”

The Maharaja said nothing as he watched them leave. At last only one was left, a boy who had come to ask for money to buy his father’s land from his debtors. He sat alone in the corner of the courtyard, a pile of pebbles before him. The sun sank beneath the horizon, the sky grew cold, and still he worked on. Counting pebbles. The dust settled and a wind from the sea blew through the courtyard, cold as the waves it had touched, and still he stayed.

At last the moon rose, and the stars appeared in the blackened skies. The wind blew harder, and the pebbles the boy had piled up were touched with the breath of the sea and the white of the stars. A sound like shattering glass filled the courtyard, and his pebbles fell, tumbling back to the ground as gems and coins, jewels and diamonds. The boy started to his feet, amazed. The Maharaja entered the courtyard then, and smiled at the boy as he told him, “Here is what you asked for. Go buy your land.”

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