Once upon a time in Holland there was a city known as Stavoren, where the people had always been poor. But after they built a great shrine, people came from near and far to see it. As time passed, the city grew richer, for ships also came bringing more and more trade.
Before long, the people began to call this "the age of gold." The people of Stavoren became so wealthy that they started making everything in gold. Some even paved their floors in Spanish gold. Many wore gold jewelry on every limb. Doors, locks, bolts and keys were made of gold.
One merchant and his wife grew very wealthy as time passed. The merchant was a kind fellow who worked hard and was pleased by everything -- whether it was by a sandwich, a sunset or a song. He treated his captains and sailors with respect, and they were pleased to work hard for him.
But the merchant's wife was never satisfied with anything. If her husband bought her a necklace, she demanded the bracelet too. If he bought her a roast, she asked for a second. If he bought her a dress, she wanted bags and coats to match. No matter what she had, she wanted something else.
In his efforts to please his wife, the merchant always charged his captains with bringing home something exquisite. And this they did. They brought carvings, paintings, silk, lace, tapestries, jewels and spices. Some brought beautiful birds or baskets of fruit, cartons of cheese and boxes of meat. But nothing pleased her.
The merchant blamed himself for her unhappiness. He thought her disappointment must mean something was amiss with him, and so he swore he would find a way to please her.
One day when one of his captains was about to set sail, the merchant asked his wife what she would like from the journey.
"I want the best thing in the world, and I won't be happy until I have it," she said.
Full of excitement, the merchant told his captain he must bring back the best thing in the world.
The captain set sail, puzzling over this mission. But at last, using his wits, he understood what he must bring. Wheat makes bread, he thought. And bread feeds everyone, so it must be the thing most desired. His sailors agreed, and so they purchased a ship full of wheat and turned homeward.
When he returned, the captain told the merchant he had brought home the best thing in the world. The merchant was overjoyed to hear that it was wheat.
"You're right, of course!" he cried.
The merchant ran to tell his wife he had a surprise. "Come with me to the ship," he told her. So they walked together to the harbor and boarded the ship, and there they saw sacks and sacks of the precious grain.
The merchant's wife flew into a rage and ran off the ship. "You have deceived me! This is no gift. Throw it into the sea!"
The merchant followed his wife back to the harbor and begged her to calm down. As he was pleading, some nearby beggars heard their voices.
They fell to their knees and begged, "Please give us some wheat! We are starving."
"You see," the merchant told his wife, "there are still many people in Stavoren who are starving. If you distribute this wheat among the needy, everyone will sing your praises!"
But she would not calm down. "Throw it in the sea!" she directed the sailors onboard, and so they did.
The merchant was furious. "I'll never try to please you again!" he shouted. "The hungry will curse you, and you shall suffer and starve yourself!"
In a rage, she ripped off her wedding ring and tossed it into the sea, crying, "Hear me now, you fool! I shall go hungry only when that ring returns to me!"
She ran home to greet the guests she had invited to a feast, where she had intended to show off her precious new gifts. While she had no gifts to show, she still invited everyone to sit down and called to the servants to bring a feast.
The servants went to work at once, and as the guests were eating their soup, the butler whispered to his mistress, "A miracle has happened, ma'am. The cook has discovered a rare and exciting thing inside the mouth of a fish."
"Wonderful!" the woman cried. "Bring it to me!"
The chef appeared with a golden platter, and there on the platter was an enormous gold ring.
The merchant's wife became very pale. This was her wedding ring, the one she had tossed into the sea.
That very night, the merchant died of his fury and his grief. The next day, a great storm blew down from the north. Soon, news came that all the merchant's ships had been destroyed at sea.
The day after, the merchant's creditors appeared at his widow's door. To pay her debts, she had to sell the mansion and everything inside. Eventually she had to pawn her ring to buy bread, so that she would not starve.
When she was poor, her rich friends ignored her, and she was forced to beg on the streets for her food. But no one wished to help a woman who had once tossed wheat overboard, and so she died and was buried in a potter's field.
Even then, the curse lived on. A sandbar developed in the harbor, preventing ships from coming to Stavoren. One day at low tide, some fishermen saw a green field beneath the surface of the harbor. They discovered that the wheat thrown overboard years before had taken root and grown wild, good for nothing but holding the sandbar.
Stavoren's fame and wealth faded away, as if it had always been a dream. People soon moved away. Floods ruined the farmers' fields, so they had to build dykes to protect what was left. The ocean eventually rolled in and wiped out Stavoren's farms, monasteries, warehouses and wharves.
To this day, the place known as Stavoren is called "Vrouwen Zand," or Lady's Sand. That marvelous wheat ruined a city because of one woman's greed.
"Tell Me a Story 3: Women of Wonder," the third CD in the audiobook series, is now available. For more information, please visit www.mythsandtales.com.