In the Old Colony, there were many people that had the name Abe, but there was one that was more strange and curious than all the others. One day, when this Abe was fourteen years old, he left his field work early and went for a walk.
As he walked, he thought of fantastic things: what laws would he make if he was the king of Denmark? Would it be better to be an unhappy rich man or a hopeful slave?
He walked down a grassy road until he came to the bank on the river’s edge. This was on the north part of the village, where the water was the slowest. Instead of walking towards the river, like normal people do, Abe decided to walk along the bank. There was a little deer trail here, and it led all the way into a hole in the hill. And Abe was so curious that he went off of the trail and crawled into the cool shade of that hole.
Here, on a bed of pebbles, was a small wooden bed. Laying on the small bed was a man the size of a child. But he had thick fingers and his head was balding. They were both surprised to see each other.
“Don’t kill me!” yelled the small man.
“Are you a gypsy?” Abe asked. He had heard about gypsies living in dark places like this.
“No!” said the man.
“Are you a thief?” Abe asked him.
“No, I have done nothing wrong!” said the man. “But I have lived my life in hiding because some man put a curse on my mother’s womb.”
“A curse?” Abe asked.
“I have had a hard life,” the small man said, “and I don’t want to give you any trouble. Please, leave me alone. If you do, I can grant you one wish that will come to pass tomorrow.”
“One wish?” Abe asked, “anything?”
“Yes,” the small man said, “as long as you keep my home a secret.”
Abe thought for a while about the wish he wanted to make. Finally, he made up his mind.
“I wish for intelligence,” Abe said. “Make me the smartest person in all the Colony.”
“Touch me,” said the little man. Abe reached for him. “Yes. There.”
“Your wish should now be fulfilled. Please leave this place and keep to your promise.”
When Abe left the hole in the hillside, his head was suddenly filled with new thoughts. He drafted the entire constitution of Denmark before he got back to his house for evening meal.
But there were dark days ahead. It was not long before Abe thought a poisonous thought. “What if,” he wondered, “what if someone else would find the little man and ask to be the smartest person in the Colony? Then my wish would be undone, and I might die.”
When it was dark outside, Abe returned to that hole in the riverbank. He found the little man in that hole, asleep. And Abe grabbed the little man’s head and shoved him, face-first, into a potato sack. When the sack was firmly bound, Abe carried it up the slope and to a place in the middle of his family field. There, amongst the scraggly crop, was a trapdoor in the dirt. This trapdoor opened up into a wooden box, about three feet deep and six feet long. Abe opened up the sack and dumped the little man into the box, along with a loaf of bread. And it was shut tight and firmly locked.
Abe wasn’t seen very often around town after that day. His parents died a few years later, and he had the house and field to himself. Most folks knew he was there, in that place on the edge of town across from the bachelor, only by the smoke rising from the chimney. And when asked what he was doing in there, the only thing they could guess was that he was writing books.
In time, a riddle was made by the boys in town. “What has a big head, but nothing to lean it on?” The answer, of course, was Abe. “He can build a fine argument,” they said, “but can’t build a wife to argue with!”
Abe would overhear these jokes as the children played on the street near his house, and he grew furious inside. But he was a smart man, and knew that the children were right. What good did all his smarts do him here alone? But as soon as he had asked the question, an answer came to his mind. He would construct a great test for the town, and the one who did the best he would choose for his wife.
That year, Abe grew the greenest corn field in the Colony. Every stalk was ten feet high and filled with a hundred ears of corn. But the summer passed into fall, the green turned into gold, and still Abe did not harvest his crop. That got everyone in town talking about him again. “What is that strange Abe doing?” they would ask, “does he not know how to pick his corn?”
But this was all part of Abe’s plan. He stood on the back steps of his house and looked over that field of golden corn, as it stretched all the way down to the river. A whole hour he stood there, mumbling to himself and sometimes smiling.
Then he got the scythe that his father had left him. Abe began to cut a path into the corn. After he had gone ten feet in to the field, he turned his path to the left. In another ten feet, he turned to the right. He made the path fork. He cut places that led to dead ends, and places that were loops. As he was hewing, he thought of the great prize he would offer to the town: that the first person to make it to the center of the maze in the corn would win his hand in marriage. And because he wanted only the best possible companion, he kept zigging, and zagging and making the maze very complicated indeed.
It was on the third day, on the third hour after noon, when Abe realized that he was in trouble. He was somewhere near the middle of the maze, and could no longer remember the path back out. He had built a maze so clever that even he could not escape from. And so he began to cut his way through the corn, in places he had never planned for paths to go. But every new path only seemed to lead closer to the heart of the maze, and now he had another series of routes to lose himself on.
He began to starve. It is not good, children, to work so hard in the fields after months spent in the house. Do some work every day so that you have the strength when you need it. Abe grew so weak he could no longer lift his father’s scythe. Even the sharpness of his mind became dull. But he was still smart enough to realize the one escape plan that he had left.
Returning to the center of the maze, he dug around in the dirt until he struck wood. He would ask the little man for another wish, perhaps, or to undo the wish that he had granted so many years ago! If that didn’t work, he would steal the little man’s loaf of bread.
He dug until he had cleared the dirt off of the whole trapdoor. And he pulled a rusted key from his pocket and undid the lock. Shaking now, he pried up the corners of the lid, and lifted. A sound like the seal of a jar popping was heard.
At last, Abe saw the inside of the box. It contained the bones of a little man, and under its ribs, some dried out crumbs of bread.
“No! No! That can’t be all!” he cried to God above. And Abe took the little man’s ribcage and cracked it in half across his knee.