I first heard this story as El monstruo de la olla in Spanish; its most famous English title is The Hedley Cow --a bit unfamiliar, for there is NOT a cow in the pot in this story. Flora Annie Steel has gathered the tale with the far more appropriate title The Bogey-Beast, a term which recalls the notorious Boogieman (and his counterparts across cultures) that haunts the childhoods of most of us.
Still, it's worth considering. For instance, the gold-silver-bronze-iron sequence that vertebrates most of the tale is found in both the Classical Myth of Ages and the dream of Nebuchadnezzar II in the Book of Daniel, in both of which this devaluation represents decadence. In the Greco-Roman myths, after iron comes stone; in the Daniel prophecy, after iron comes clay; what comes after iron here you will discover at the end of this tale!
the thing in the pot
a fairytale of the supernatural
retold by sandra dermark
on the 8th of february mmxvii
So there's this old maid (and already in your twenties or thirties, if you remained spouseless in those days, you were an old maid and an outsider, and the more positive term "bachelorette" was not even thought of!) who lives all alone and makes a living by running various errands for the other village women. In spite of the fact that these are not the best of times and she struggles to make ends meet, our humble heroine puts on a brave face and weathers whatever storm misfortune may throw at her.
One late summer evening, while returning home at twilight on foot as usual, she finds an old cast-iron pot, covered with a lid, in the roadside ditch.
There's no one else around who may be its rightful owner, so she thinks: finders keepers! This discarded old iron pot might make a great flower pot indeed...
Still, she is as curious as most of us are, and thus she cannot resist the temptation to peek into the pot, lifting the lid, like Pandora once did long ago...
IT'S FULL OF GOLDEN PIECES OF EIGHT!
(Insert The Scream emoji here)
So she has to pull her ears to wake up if it is a dream... but this is reality (even though it's actually the reality within a short fairytale).
And she thinks: Oh my Jove, I'm loaded! Really, she cannot think of anything more, so dazzled she is by the glittering golden gleam.
So, after putting the lid back... for want of a wheelbarrow, she ties one end of the shawl to the pot handle and decides to drag it along all the way home like a pet dog on a leash.
And on she marches jauntily, pulling her pot and with her chest puffed up like an alpha hen. Left right left right left right, looking over her shoulder every now and then. Thinking she'll live, if not like Queen Victoria herself, in a grand estate of her own with an arbour in the garden for afternoon tea, friends in high places, champagne on ice in mid-summer. And a burglar-proof treasury for safety's sake, of course.
Then, weary from so much trudging despite her high spirits and rêveries, she has to stop for a rest for a while. And thus, turning around, she wonders if any of the gold has fallen out or been stolen along the way. So she lifts the lid of the pot and finds out that...
IT'S FULL OF SILVER ONE-POUND COINS!
Well, I could have sworn it was gold, but at last I'm still loaded, she says to herself as she pops the lid back in its place. Left right left right left right, looking over her shoulder every now and then. Still the same delusions of grandeur, until, weary and thirsty, she stops by the frog pond for a drink and a rest, and, once more, to verify, she lifts the lid for the third time...
IT'S FULL OF VERDIGRISED PENCE OF SOME COPPER ALLOY!
But still, she thinks as she lays back the lid and drinks from the pond in her cupped hands, such a vast quantity of sixpence and fourpence and twopence and onepence is still a fortune at the end of the day. And how many thieves would dare to steal such worthless verdigrised pence coins? If anyone dare touch them, the worse for them: verdigris is poison. So much safer. And off she trots again, left right left right left right, looking over her shoulder every now and then.
At her fourth resting stop, even though she is sure that few would dare to lay their dirty fingertips on her unassuming-looking hoard, our old maid --custom is a tyrant indeed-- lifts the lid and peeks into the pot for the fourth time, now that it's become a reflex action:
IT'S FULL OF RUSTY IRON NAILS!
Nevermind, she says when she's laid the lid back in its place and resumed her journey, as the first stars appear in the evening sky. I'll sell them at the ironmonger's and make a small fortune anyway. Left right left right left right, looking over her shoulder every now and then. Now she can see her thatched cottage in the darkening horizon and Orion just overhead. Just in time. As she crosses the threshold, she places the pot on the doorstep as a doorstop to see what it will look like, tying her shawl around the handle, and then she automatically --without even thinking of it-- uncovers the cast-iron pot and...
SOMETHING POPS OUT LIKE A JACK IN THE BOX!
IT'S GOT EYES, IT'S GOT LEGS, IT'S GOT POINTY EARS,
IT'S EVEN GOT A SERPENT TAIL!
AND IT SAUNTERS OFF, SQUEALING FOR JOY AND SKIPPING LIKE A NAUGHTY CHILD THAT HAS JUST HEARD THE SCHOOL BELL RING!
While the old maid, laughing and shedding tears of joy, watches astonished how the monster... the goblin... the thing in the pot gleefully waltzes away until it disappears behind the horizon.
"Well, I'm the luckiest one in the shire, right? No gold, no silver, no pence, no iron... but I saw that thing all by myself, with my very own eyes, and I swear I was sober and wide awake!"
So she went into her cottage and straight into bed, lulling herself to sleep with thoughts of her good luck.