A Story From: Myanmar (Burma)
Read Time: 6 to 10 mins.
For Ages: 8 to 14yrs.
Once upon a time, there was an old man whose daughter was married to a handsome young lad. The young couple led a happy life, except for one problem: the new husband spent all his time dreaming of a way to turn dirt into gold. In those days people who did this were known as alchemists. Soon enough, he ran through all of his inheritance, and the young wife had to struggle to buy food each day. Desperate, she begged her husband to find a job.
“But I am on the verge of a breakthrough!” he insisted. “When I succeed in turning dirt into gold, we’ll be rich beyond our wildest dreams!”
Finally the young wife went to her father about the problem. He was surprised to learn that his son-in-law was an alchemist, but he promised to help his daughter and he asked to see the young man the next day. The young man arrived reluctantly, expecting a scolding. To his surprise, his father-in-law confided in him, “When I was young I, too, was an alchemist!”
The father-in-law asked about the young man’s work, and the two of them spent the whole afternoon in animated conversation. Finally the old man cried, “Why, you have done everything I did when I was your age! You are surely on the verge of a breakthrough. But you need one more ingredient in order to change dirt into gold, and I have only recently discovered this secret.” The old man paused. “I am too old to undertake the task,” he confessed. “It requires too much work.”
“I can do it, dear father!” cried the young man.
“Hmm, perhaps you can,” said the old man. He leaned over and whispered, “The secret ingredient is a silver powder that grows on the back of banana leaves. You must plant the bananas yourself because it’s important that you cast certain spells on the seeds. Then when the plant grows, the powder on the leaves will become magical.”
“How much powder do we need?” the young man asked.
“Two pounds,” the old man replied.
The son-in-law thought out loud. “Why, that would require hundreds of banana plants!”
“Yes,” sighed the old man, “and that is why I cannot complete the work myself.”
“Do not fear!” said the young man, “I will!” And so the old man taught his son-in-law the magic spells and loaned him enough money to start the project.
The next day, the young man bought some land and cleared it. He planted the banana seeds just as the old man had told him to do and murmured over them the magic spells. Each day he examined the seedlings, keeping weeds and pests away. When the plants bore fruit he gently brushed the silver powder from the banana leaves, but there was scarcely any powder on each plant so the young man had to buy more land and cultivate more bananas. It took several years, but finally the young man collected two pounds of the magic dust. He rushed to his father-in-law’s house.
“I have the magic powder!” he cried with excitement.
“Wonderful!” rejoiced the old man. “Now I can show you how to turn dirt into gold! But first you must bring your wife here. We need her presence.”
The young man was puzzled, but obeyed. When his wife appeared, the old man asked his daughter, “While your husband was collecting the banana powder, what did you do with the bananas?”
“Why I sold them,” the daughter said, “and that’s how we’ve earned a living.”
“Did you save any money?” asked the father.
“Yes,” she replied.
“May I see it?” asked the old man. So his daughter hurried home and returned with several bags. The old man opened them, saw that they were full of gold, and poured the coins on the floor. Then he took a handful of dirt, and put it next to the gold.
“You see,” he said, turning to his son-in-law, “you have changed dirt into gold!”
The story "The Old Alchemist" is based on a story of the same name from In the Ever After: Fairy Tales and the Second Half of Life, by Alan B. Chinen (Chiron Publications: Illinois, 1989) pp. 31-33.
Retold by Elaine Lindy. ©2000. All rights reserved. Posted with the kind permission of the copyright holders, Chiron Publications.
About the name of the country - Burma vs. Myanmar
Burma, the largest country in southeast asia, gained its independence from Britain in 1948. The civilian government was overthrown by a military coup in 1962 and again in 1988. The English-speaking name of the country was renamed Myanmar in 1989 by the military regime. However this proved politically controversial because the military government had not been legitimately elected and some governments contended that it did not have the authority to officially change the name in English. For example, the BBC and The Wall Street Journal use "Burma," and CNN and The New York Times use "Myanmar."