A Single Copper Coin

When I was eight (I think), I read a folklore collection that included a Central Asian folktale that I want to share with you. Since I was only eight, I no longer remember the name of the folktale, or the specific collection from whence it came (I do vividly remember the illustrations, but it is not helpful, I know).

The story went like this: two friends traveled together to a market to sell their goods. One baked potatoes, and the other made a heap of flatbreads. Since the friends were hard-working, they arrived at the marketplace early. There was nobody there yet; no buyers, and no other sellers, and both of these worthies were getting quite hungry. So the potato friend says to his buddy, “How much for one flatbread?” And the reply is, “One copper coin.” “How lucky,” the potato friend replies, “I just happen to have a coin with me!” And so the flatbread is purchased and eaten.

Now the flatbread friend is getting ravenously hungry, so he asks, “How much for a potato?” And the answer is, “One copper coin.” And so they trade with one another, paying each other fairly, until all the potatoes and flatbreads are all sold. But between them they have earned only a single copper coin.

I think it was supposed to be a lesson in economics.

I often ponder on this tale. What if they’re trading… not edibles, but say… say, little objects of art nobody else has ever wanted. And there are two friends, say, and only a single copper coin between them. So one creates a little object of art that she knows her friend would like. She is paid a coin. Then the other creates a little object of art and sells it to the first. For a coin, of course. There’s only one coin between them, but now there are two little objects of art in the world. They trade like this for a bit, and here comes the third, who has no money whatsoever but creates another little object to sell for the same copper coin. Fourth, fifth have no coins but bring a carpet to sit. The sixth brings in another coin. Seventh arrives; she looks at the goings-on and is moved to create something strange and glorious, which she is happy to sell for a coin. The first buys the glorious thing for a coin and creates another one in response. People are starting to gather around; someone tossed in a coin. Someone else joined in.

And so it goes. They are still poor – but now they have a village.