The Locksmith of Pomerania
(A Christmas Tale)
by Daniel W. Davison
ONCE UPON A CHRISTMAS EVE, a miserly old Prince lay dying in the depths of a castle high over a town in Pomerania, where tall-masted ships plying the cold sluggish waters of the north, converged to sell their wares. The Prince was so tightfisted that even now on his deathbed the only luxury he afforded himself was an earthenware cup filled with hot water. The Prince’s son had grown grey waiting for his father to die. Yet patiently he attended the old man, calmly standing by the canopied bed whose sheets and coverlet were moth-eaten and frayed.
“I doubt you’ll know what to do with your inheritance,” the old Prince said with a sardonic grin. It was so cold in the room that miser’s breath could be seen. His black teeth chattered. “But the treasure is all yours now, by right and by law.” With frail trembling fingers, he handed his son a heavy iron key. Then he turned away from his son and died.
The son—now himself the Prince!—looked curiously at the key, whose filigreed handle was shaped like a padlock. Without so much as saying a prayer over the body of his father, he walked briskly from the room and sped down the spiral staircase. He passed through corridors and galleries hung with tattered curtains and tapestries until he reached the vaulted Hall of Fortune, where the great iron-banded door leading into the treasury stood.
The riches of the realm were his!
He inserted the key and turned it. There was a click; then another. A hundred latches tumbled into life. The iron studs and fixtures decorating the door moved kaleidoscopically. A medallion directly in front of the Prince opened like parting eyelids, revealing a tin grey iris whose pupil was a keyhole. The eye followed the Prince’s movements.
The door groaned on its hinges and opened inward. The Prince removed the key from the keyhole—he would keep it with him!—and entered. His retainers followed, torches blazing.
All throughout the room were strongboxes, stacked in columns and piled in heaps. Some look like long coffins; others were small and square like wine casks. All were locked. The Prince bent down to the closest one and fitted the key into the keyhole. The wards and tumblers moved. There was a click. He lifted the lid but found it filled to the brim with iron padlocks, all with tiny keyholes; but his special key would not fit in any of them. The Prince went to another chest and opened it. More padlocks! All throughout the night he opened each and every box. But all they contained were locks.
In a rage, he fled from the treasury into the Hall of Fortune. He ran to the balcony overlooking the town below, regarding it with a malevolent sneer. And as the cathedral bells rang out on Christmas day, the Prince lifted his voice and said: “If the citizens of this wealthy town think so little of their Prince as to keep him in ragged shame, neglect, and penury, then this Prince shall revenge himself upon them. I will share my inheritance with this ungrateful folk. Hear my curse and may it be borne upon the winds and over the misty seas: Let the town be shut and closed! Let it be fastened up into immobility.” Then he folded his hands across his chest and cried out: “The head sets its locks upon the heart!”
The Prince’s men poured forth from the castle’s lofty gates and made their way down the hill and into the city, pulling carts filled with locks and bolts behind them.
They drew a chain across the mouth of the bay and locked it to a harbor post. They locked the ships to the docks, battened down their hatches and bolted them shut. They locked up the doors of the Waaghaus where the goods were weighed and the warehouses along the docks where they were stored. They locked up the belfry of the red-brick cathedral; and, to the astonishment of the clergy, they locked up the entrance to the cathedral too.
The Prince’s men even dragged the sick, the infirmed, the orphans, and the widows from the many-gabled House of Charity, shot through the bolt and sealed the door shut with a great iron padlock—a padlock adorned with a grinning devil’s mouth. And there was no key that could open it.
They sealed up all the houses of the town, along with houses’ windows and the chimney pots. Then the Prince and his young, beautiful daughter withdrew into the castle; and the castle too was closed and shut as well, so that there was not a single aperture looking out over the town.
He locked up all the gates to town.
He locked up all the shops.
He even locked the cellars,
Where the brewers kept the hops.
“You’ve all heard the rhyme,” the man in the fur-trimmed coat and stovepipe hat said to the group of children standing round him in the town square under the flickering oil lamplight. Snow fell on the cobbles. The bells of the cathedral rang out.
“The Prince’s father may have been stingy, but his son was wicked . . . Why, he was so cruel that he even locked up all the kennels and dog houses, so that the poor little doggies had nowhere to sleep.”
“Oh no!” a little girl exclaimed, as the Pomeranian pup at her ankle, sensing her distress, looked up at her and whimpered.”
“But those locks are gone now,” a sullen, red-headed boy said, as he glanced up over his shoulder at the castle on the hill. “So, something must’ve happened to change all that.”
“Patience, my boy, patience. I’m coming to that,” the man said.
All that year the townsfolk lived in great discomfort and misery. They slept under tents in the streets. No ships came to harbor. No peddlers came to sell their wares. No one could get into the town. And the Prince, weighed down by the wickedness of his ways, aged rapidly and was stricken with a palsy. Even the locks seemed to age with him! They grew suddenly rusty, and strangely swollen.
On the following Christmas Eve, the Prince lay on the same threadbare deathbed that his father had expired on the year before . . . Now, as I mentioned, the Prince had a young daughter. Oh, she was so lovely, and as different from her father in spirit and temperament as the darkness is from the light. She stood at his bedside and spoon-fed him from a bowl of chicken broth that she herself had brewed.
“I doubt you will know what to do with your inheritance,” the Prince said, peevishly, weakly. “But it is yours by right and by law.” He handed her the same iron key that his father had given him. Then he turned away from her and died.
The Princess went to the treasure room and surveyed the wooden chests, now cracked, broken, upended and thrown pell-mell on the uncarpeted stone floor. They were empty—all of them. She closed the door to the treasure room, locked it up again with a sigh, and watched as the iron medallion that looked like an eye closed its lids again, and a small iron stud sank vertically from the medallion like a tear.
The Princess wept for her father, because despite his wickedness, she had still loved him dearly and he had never dealt with her ill . . . But the Princess also wept for the unfortunate townsfolk, her subjects, for she had seen their suffering—
“How had she seen it?” the red-headed boy asked.
“What?” the man said.
“If the windows of the castle were bolted shut, how had she seen the people’s suffering?”
“Why. . . I’m not sure.” the man said and touched his chin with a gloved hand. “Oh—now I recall. She’d peered through the gaps of the closed window shutters.”
The boy seemed to accept this answer and nodded.
The storyteller nodded too. “That’s exactly what she had done.”
She had seen their suffering, but there was nothing she could do to help them. The key her father had given her was useless. It would not open the locks in the town. And so, she paced through the castle, or, at least, through the few rooms that remained open to her.
The following year, on Christmas Day, a journeyman locksmith came to town.
“If the gates to the town were locked, how did he get in?”
“O, Matthias,” said little Ilse, as she knelt to pick up her puppy. “Shut up and let him tell the story!”
But the man in the stovepipe hat was all smiles. “The frost of the previous winter had caused a rift to form in the town wall. And it was through that gap that the young man entered.”
Well, the locksmith was shocked and bewildered by the spectacle that confronted him. The people looked at him with sad, defeated eyes. But when the baker saw him wearing the badge of his trade and recognized the tools sticking out from his rucksack, he cried aloud: “It’s a locksmith! He can help us!”
“I’m only a journeyman apprentice,” the boy said. “But I’ll help you if I can. What is the problem?”
The townsfolk conducted him up the broad steps to the threshold of the many-gabled House of Charity. The locksmith’s apprentice bent over and studied the deadbolt with the devil’s head. Then he turned to the townsfolk and scratched his head with a look of utter perplexity. Without so much as using a single lock-picking tool, the young man shattered the lock with his bare fist and it crumbled to the ground. It was gingerbread! Then he crossed the town square to the cathedral and did the same to the lock on the cathedral’s tall doors.
When the townsfolk saw this, they cheered and, emboldened by what they had just witnessed, fanned out through the town, breaking the locks one by one in the selfsame way. (They even ate a few of the locks, since the gingerbread was quite tasty.) The chain across the harbor was drawn into its winch, the gates of the town were opened wide.
As the bells of the cathedral rang out on Christmas morning, the castle’s tall gates unfolded. The courtiers embraced one another in sheer joy. A sleigh drawn by sixteen milk-white deer descended the path leading down into the city.
When it arrived at the town square, the citizens bowed their heads in reverence. The locksmith stood embarrassed with his hands folded in front of him, not knowing what to do.
The Princess alighted from the sleigh. She placed her hand to her breast and begged her subjects to rise. When the community informed her how the locksmith had worked his miracle, she turned to him and smiled. She praised him for the skill and ingenuity by which he had saved the town.
“How did you do it?” she asked and blushed. For in truth the locksmith was a handsome lad.
“I used neither ingenuity nor skill.” he said quietly and shrugged. “I’m only a locksmith. I work with iron bolts and locks . . . But when the head sets its locks upon the heart, the locks work only so long as the heart believes in them.”
With wild acclaim, the Locksmith of Pomerania was hoisted onto the shoulders of the burghers and tradesmen and paraded through the streets of the town. And on the following Easter the Princess and the young man were married . . . And they lived happily ever after.
“And that,” said the man, pointing to the town’s crest carved over the Rathaus door, “is why our town’s coat-of-arms is a heart with a keyhole. And it is also why our town is famed for its gingerbread cookies made each year at Christmas time—cookies which are always shaped like padlocks, hearts and keys.”
Then the man, who also happened to be the head of the Right Honorable Guild of Locksmiths, led the children to a vendor’s hut at the edge of the Christkindlmarkt where an old woman selling marzipan and gingerbread cookies welcomed them. The man gave her a shiny thaler, and handed a cookie to each and every one of the children, including that red-headed rapscallion Mathias, who thanked him and laughed . . . And there were even a few crumbs that fell in the way of the Pomeranian pup, who yapped and wheeled at the children’s feet.