by Hans Christian Andersen
"Something" A Fable by Hans Christian Andersen
"I want to become something!" declared the oldest of five brothers. "I want to do something useful in this world. It does not matter whether I reach a high position, so long as the work that I have done has been done well. I want to make bricks—the world can't get along without them—and then I can say I have done something!"
"But much too little," said the second brother. "The work you want to do is nothing; it is unskilled, the kind of work a machine could do just as well. No, it is better to become a mason, that's what I shall become. That is a trade. Masons have their own guild and are honorable citizens of the town; they have their own banner and a guildhall where they meet. Maybe I can become a master mason and have other masons work for me; and my wife will be able to wear a silk dress on weekdays."
"That is nothing!" declared the third brother. "You will belong to the lower middle class at best. There are many classes in our society and most of them are above a master mason's. You will still belong to what is called the 'common people.' No, I want to become something better than that! I want to be a builder, construct houses; be concerned about art and beauty, and belong to the intellectuals. I know I have to start from the bottom. I might as well face it: I have to learn carpentry first, and that means I shall have to be an apprentice, wear a cap on my head instead of a silk hat, and run errands for the journeymen—and they are not polite. But I will just make believe that I am taking part in a masquerade, for you gain freedom by wearing a mask. Then when I have finished my apprenticeship I shall forget those simple fellows and their insults. I shall attend the academy and learn to draw, and then I shall become an architect. And that, I know, is something! I can become respectable and be entitled to be called 'Sir.' I shall build houses like our fathers did, solid an dsturdy buildings. That is something!"
"If that is something, then I don't care for it!" said the fourth brother. "I don't want to sail in the wake of other ships, copy what others have already made. I want to be a genius! I want to be cleverer than all the rest of you put together! I will invent a new style, make buildings that fit our climate. I shall use new materials, give expression to our national spirit and the new age! On the very top of my largest building I shall put an extra story, just to prove my own genius."
"But what if neither the style nor the materials are any good?" asked the fifth brother. "That wouldn't do, would it? As for the national spirit, that is affectation. A new age! Bah! What does that mean? Progress is as often as not a runaway horse, just like youth. I see that none of you will ever become something, even though you all think you will. But you can do whatever you want to, it is no concern of mine. I shan't copy you. I want to stand apart. I will contemplate and criticize what you do. There is always something wrong with anything man makes. I shall point it out so all can see it. That is something!"
He did exactly what he had said he would do, and everyone said about the fifth brother: "He is really something. He has got a good head on his shoulders and can make something into nothing." It was especially the latter than made him "something."
That was a very short story; and yet it will never end before the world does.
But what happened to the five brothers? After all, what we have heard wasn't everything. Well, listen and I will tell you more, it is almost a fairy tale.
The oldest brother made bricks and every finished brick brought him a little copper coin. It wasn't worth much, but if you added them up they became a silver coin, and if you knock on the door of the butcher, the baker, or the tailor with such a coin, then their doors open right away. As a matter of fact, there is hardly a door in the whole world that a silver coin can't open; it is the very best key. The bricks gave him what we call a living and that is not so poor a reward; some of them were cracked or had split in two, but even the broken bricks could be used.
There was a poor woman called Mother Margrethe—"Mother" was the title that poor people used to give to old women of whom they were fond. Well, Mother Margrethe wanted to build a house for herself down at the shore, on the dike. She got all the broken bricks free from the oldest brother, who had a kind heart, even though he never rose above being a brickmaker. The poor woman built her house herself. Narrow it was, the window was crooked, the door was low, and the thatch on the roof could have been laid better; but still it was a house; and it kept out wind and weather, even when the storms came and the waves broke against the dike, sending showers of salt water up over the house. When the brickmaker died, it was still standing.
The second brother—the one who became a mason—knew his craft well. As soon as he had finished his apprenticeship he packed his knapsack and set out to see how life was led in foreign lands. When he returned, he set himself up as a master mason and built a whole street full of houses; then all the houses, in turn, built a small house for him. But how can houses build a house? If you ask them, they won't answer; so ask instead the people in any town and they will tell you how it is done. It was a small house with an earthen floor, but when the master mason swung his bride in a dance across it, it got polished. Every stone in the wall seemed to the mason and his wife as pretty as a flower, and they thought that whitewash was as beautiful as the finest wallpaper. It was a lovely little house and a happy couple who lived there. The banner of the guild hung outside, and on their wedding day the apprentices and journeymen had shouted, "Hurrah!" Yes, that was something. Finally he died; and that was something too.
Now we come to the architect, the third brother—the one who first had to be a carpenter's apprentice, wear a cap, and run errands. He graduated from the academy and became a master builder. Now the houses on the street that had built a small house for the brother who had become a mason built a big one, the largest in the street, for the architect; and not only that, but the street itself bore his name. That was something and he had become something. He had a title both in front and behind his name; his children were called "children of good family" and when he died his widow became " a widow of good family." That is something!
Then there was the fourth brother, the genius, who wanted to build something new and different, with an extra story. Well, it fell down; and so did he, and broke his neck. But he got a splendid funeral, with both guild banners and music in the funeral procession, and flowers on the coffin, as well as in the newspaper. Three funeral sermons were held over him, one longer than the other, and that would have made him happy, for he loved to be talked about. He got a monument on his grave; it was only one story, but still it was something.
Now four of the brothers had died, the only surviving one was the critic. He had the last work, and that was very important to him. He had a good head on his shoulders, as everybody said; but at last he too died and was on his way to heaven.
Now people always enter heaven in pairs, that is the custom. And that's how the fifth brother happened to be standing before the heavenly gate with another soul, who hoped to be able to enter paradise. And who should that be but old Mother Margrethe, who had built her little house down on the dike.
"I suppose it is for the sake of the contrast that this poor miserable soul and I have to wait here together," thought the critic. "Who are you? Poor thing, do you want to enter too?" he asked.
The old lady curtsied as well as she knew how. She thought that St. Peter himself was speaking to her. "I am just a poor old woman without any family: old Margrethe from the house down by the dike."
"Hm, and what have you accomplished down there?"
"Accomplished? Nothing, I guess," answered old Mother Margrethe, "nothing that can open this portal for me. It will only be because of God's grace if I am allowed in."
"And why did you have to leave the world?" asked the critic just to make conversation; he was bored with waiting.
"Exactly why I don't know," answered the woman. "I have been ill for the last two years; and I guess the cold and the frost killed me, while I lay outside, after I had climbed out of my bed. It was a heard winter this year; but now I don't feel any pains at all. You remember, sir, the two bitterly cold days we had. Not a wind moved and the sea froze as far as you could see, Everyone from town came down to look at it, and they skated on the ice. I think they danced, too, for I could hear music. They were selling beer out there. I could hear all the rumpus right up in my room, where I lay in my bed. It was toward evening; the full moon was out, but it was kind of pale and weak yet. My bed stood right by the window and I could look down on the beach and out on the ice. suddenly I noticed that out where the sky and the sea met there was a strange white cloud. I was lying there watching it and I noticed that a little black point in the center of it kept rowing bigger and bigger. And I knew what that meant.
"I have lived a long time and experienced much, but it is not often that you see such a cloud. I knew what it meant and it filled me with horror. Twice before in my life had I seen the same sign in the sky. I knew that it forewarned a storm, and that the spring tide would be coming. It would catch all the poor people out there on the ice by surprise, in the midst of their gaiety and drinking. The young and the old, it looked like the whole town were out there. How could they be warned? I think none of them knew what that white cloud with the black center meant even if they had seen it. I was so frightened that some of my strength came back to me. I got to the window and managed to open it, and then I could do no more. I could see all the people on the ice. Some of them had gone out far. The booth that sold beer had little flags around it and all the children were screaming and shouting, and the young men and girls were singing. It was a gay scene, but behind them rose the white cloud with the black spot looking like a big bag inside it.
"I shouted as loud as I could; but no on heard me, they were too far away. Soon the storm would come, the ice would break, and everyone out there would drown; not one of them would be saved. They could not hear me, and I had not the strength to walk even as far as the beach. How could I manage to get them to shore? Then God gave me the idea that I could set fire to the straw in my bed; it was better that my poor house should burn than that all those people should die. I lit a candle and set the straw on fire. A great red flame shot up and I managed to get outside the house, but then I fell. The flame followed me out the door and caught hold of the thatch. The people out on the ice saw it and they all came running to help me, for they thought that I might be inside the burning house. Not one of them stayed behind. I heard them running, and I heard the storm coming, too; it made such a great stir in the air. Then came the terrible sound of the ice breaking: it was like great cannons shooting. The spring tide lifted the ice and broke it into splinters. But everyone had got ashore. People were running up on the dike, where I lay amid the parks from the fire. They were safe, but I think the fright and the cold must have been too much for me. And here I am at the gate of heaven. They say that it also opens for the wretched, like me. And now I don't have a house any more; not that that would help me gain admittance here."
Just at that moment the gates of heaven opened and an angel came out ot lead the poor old woman inside. A straw from her bed, the one she had set fire to in order to save the people out on the ice, fell from her skirt. It was immediately changed into the purest gold; and the golden straw grew and became the prettiest piece of art work.
"Look at what the poor woman brought," said the angel to the critic. "What have you brought? I know you never have accomplished anything, you have never even made a brick. If you only could go back and fetch one, and then bring it as a gift. Oh, I know it would be badly made, but if you had done the best you could, it would at least be something. But you can't return and I can't do anything for you!"
The poor old woman, Margrethe from the little house on the dike, pleaded for him. "His brother gave me all his broken bricks so that I could build my house. Those broken pieces meant an awful lot to me then. Can't they count now as one whole brick, for his sake? It would be a merciful act and this is the home of mercy."
"Your brother, the one whom you deemed the poorest among you," said the angel, "he whose honest work you considered low, gives you now a beggar's coin. You shall not be turned away, you shall be allowed to stand here outside and think about your life down on earth. But enter you cannot until you have done one good deed—at least something!
"I could have expressed that better," thought the critic, but he didn't say it out loud and that was already something.