There once lived three men who were very unhappy. Every afternoon, after the day’s work had been done, they left their village and went to a nearby stream to lament their misfortunes. None of the three men told the others precisely what their trouble was, but gradually they became friends and felt a little less unhappy than they had before.
One day, dangling their feet into the warm, murky-colored water, the men noticed a small, glinting light at the bottom of the stream. They decided that the tallest of them should wade out to where it was, capture it between his palms, and bring it back to shore. This he did, and the other two men watched as he released the light onto the bank.
It did not remain a light; instead, it grew to the size of a small trout and scuttled out of the tallest man’s hands on legs that looked like matchsticks. It had tiny, pointed horns, a beard that blew with the wind, and a mouth full of bright, needle-sharp teeth. It was the spirit of the stream, and by the laws of nature and convention, it owed them each a wish.
“Oh Spirit, I am so very unhappy,” he began.
“Are you?” said the spirit, looking rather apprehensive. “Then perhaps it would be better if you did not wish. Happier men than you have had their lives destroyed by wishing for what they oughtn’t to have, you know.”
The shortest man assured him that he couldn’t possibly grow any unhappier, and the spirit gave a rattly sigh and agreed.
“Tell me your trouble, and I will do what I can,” he said. “But if you are smart, you will heed my warning.”
“I am ugly,” said the shortest man, giving a terrible moan. “The men in the village mock me, and though the women flirt with the pig farmer, they ignore every word I say. I am so ugly I am scared to leave my house, and all I want is to talk to the beautiful miller’s daughter and make her love me. Please, Spirit, make me handsome!”
The other two men looked at each other in surprise. They had never imagined that this was the source of their friends misery; they had always supposed it to be something much worse. It was true that the shortest man had a bulbous nose and ears that stuck out, but neither the tallest man nor the middle-sized man had ever thought twice about it. In fact, they didn’t think he was ugly at all.
The spirit of the stream looked soberly at the shortest man and nodded. Pointing to a rock on the other side of the water, he said, “Next to that rock grown three blades of grass. Pick the shortest, and boil it with your supper tonight. When you awaken tomorrow, you will have what you desire.”
The shortest man thanked him happily and stepped aside so that the middle-sized man could take his turn.
“Tell me your trouble, and I will do what I can,” said the spirit in his raspy voice. “But if you are smart, you will heed the warning I gave your friend.”
The middle-sized man assured him that he couldn’t possibly grow any unhappier, and the spirit shrugged his shoulders and agreed.
“I am in love with the baker,” said the middle-sized man, burying his face in his hands. “The men in the village call me strange, and the women tease me, trying to make me love them instead. Because I cannot change my affections, I worry I will die lonely and laughed-at. Please, Spirit, make me attracted to women!”
The other two men looked at each other in surprise. They had never imagined that this was the source of their friend’s misery; they had always expected it to be something much worse. It was true that the middle-sized man had always preferred men to women, but neither the shortest man nor the tallest man had ever thought twice about it. In fact, they didn’t think it was a problem at all.
The spirit of the stream looked somberly at the middle-sized man and nodded. Pointing to the rock on the other side of the water, he said, “Next to that rock grow three blades of grass. Pick the one that is neither shortest nor tallest, and boil it with your supper tonight. When you awaken tomorrow, you will have what you desire.”
The middle-sized man thanked him gladly, and stepped aside so that the tallest man could take his turn.
“Tell me your trouble, and I will do what I can,” said the spirit for the final time. “But if you are smart, you will heed the warning I gave your friends.”
The tallest man assured him that he couldn’t possibly grow any unhappier, and the spirit ran his fingers through his beard and agreed.
“I am unhappy,” said the tallest man. “I have been unhappy for many years, and I do not know why. The world seems a dark and lonely place, and I cannot make it light again. The village men seem cruel and shallow, and the women harsh and frivolous. I do not understand my purpose here, and I fear for the future. Please, Spirit, make me happy!”
The other two men looked at each other in shock. Small as their problems might seem to each other, the shortest man and the middle-sized man felt they had reasons to be unhappy. It seemed that the tallest man didn’t have a reason at all.
The spirit looked sadly at the tallest man and shook his head.
“I cannot do that,” he said. “I can grant wishes, but I cannot grant happiness. Happiness,” he said, looking thoughtful, “is something I have never quite understood.”
The tallest man desperately begged him to reconsider, but the spirit insisted that he could not grant his wish, and slowly it began to grow dark. When the sun had nearly dipped below the horizon, the spirit sighed and cleared his throat.
“I cannot give you exactly what you want,” he said. “But perhaps something else would make you happy. What have you always admired but never attained? A beautiful place to live – perhaps a manor, or a castle on a hill? Rows of sparkling diamonds, thick bars of gold, all the riches you could ever dream of? A position of power – governorship, perhaps, or even a throne? A kind and gentle spouse to stay with you all your days?”
The tallest man thought about this. He was satisfied with his little house in the village, and did not want to move. He had a wife whom he loved, and he did not want another. He had always been suspicious of power and did not want to seek it. What, then, remained that could give him happiness?
“Money,” he said, finally. “Give me wealth, and I will try to be happy.”
“Very well,” said the spirit. Pointing to the rock on the other side of the water, he said, “Next to that rock grow three blades of grass. Pick the tallest and boil it with your supper tonight. When you awaken tomorrow, you will have what you desire.”
The tallest man thanked him gratefully (for he had now begun to think the spirit’s gift might truly grant his wish), and the spirit bowed low and slipped back into the water.
In the fading twilight, the three friends waded through the stream to the opposite bank until they reached the broad stone where the grasses grew. Each of the men picked the blade the spirit had prescribed and cupped it carefully in their hands. They agreed to meet the following afternoon by the water, and then they went their separate ways.