The Handsome Pilgrim: A New England Folktale

by jzornado

It was autumn in the year of our Lord 1659, and the hardworking, well-meaning villagers of New Shire feared for another lean harvest in spite of their hopes, labors, and prayers.  A summer drought had smitten their corn and withered their wheat.  Their beans were bust and their flax mere flecks, hardly specks, and not worthy of harvest and barely enough for seed.  No Indian tricks or Indian summer could raise what God would not bless, and so the earth only begrudgingly gave up its fruit that year, and then only with the parsimony of a parson’s widow.  It looked to be another hungry winter for the villagers of New Shire, and they wondered what God meant to teach them.

Even in the midst of their consternation and earnest soul-searching, yea, even as they wondered profoundly why God had smote them thusly, an unsettling rumor crept from ear to ear about the bountiful harvests happening to the north and to the south of them, and even in the wilds of the western lands.  Why not here, they wondered?  Regardless of the rumors, New Shire villagers grew only enough crops to keep their bellies from shrinking utterly.

Young Goodman Winthrop looked upon all of this and prayed for his people even as he himself began to question and to grow desperate.

“Why do others have so much!” they cried.  “And we so little?”

That sabbath day Young Goodman Winthrop went with his neighbors to church, and Parson Willowdale led his flock in what had become a most common prayer.

“Oh Lord,” he beseeched the air, “send one of your angels to come and bless our crop!  Let your light shine upon your poor servants in this wilderness!”  Young Goodman Winthrop looked at the dull buckles on his shoes as he prayed. It was too late for crops, he thought.  But perhaps a miracle might set things right.

That night, a golden Harvest Moon crept up over the tree tops as the villagers of New Shire gathered together to share the first fruits of the year’s meager harvest.  Even as they muttered and complained about their near empty larders, they heard the sound of a wagon coming up over the hill and down into the village, and they turned and saw him riding high, a yoke of draught oxen laboring hard to pull the largest wagon this side of Antwerp right into the village center.  The driver was an exceedingly fine-featured stranger, tall and straight, blond and pale, and he rode up high and fine. He cracked a whip as if to keep the time.

His dress was no different than a New Shire villager, but Young Goodman Winthrop thought this strange pilgrim wore it well.  His black trousers had the look of one of the elect, and his leather boots were supple and their buckles glinted and shone in the golden moonlight.  He sat high before them all now as they flowed out to meet and greet him.   The stranger’s broad-brimmed hat was big, black and blocked tight, and its buckle made you think of heaven’s pearly gates.  The women whispered and called him the Handsome Pilgrim.  Young Goodman Winthrop could not deny the rightness of the description.  This stranger was handsome, more handsome than any pilgrim, even the governor. 

The stranger guided his oxen with voice and whip, and he called to them.  “Hah!” he yelled. “This a-way,” he cried, and the whip cracked and dumb team labored to a halt before the villagers.  Behind the oxen followed what looked like a wagon from the Old World—but it towered over them, all woodwork and canvas stretched on high, and it rode on high red wheels, and the back end rose up and up, and when you saw it you wondered how the thing could ever stay upright it was so tall and grand.  But there it rode, as if a hand from above kept it upright and guided it on its way.

The villagers gathered around the stranger’s wagon and he stood up and smiled as if making ready to speak.

“I have seen your lives and how you suffer,” he said quietly, but his voice carried easily to Young Goodman Winthrop’s ear.  “You work hard and you deserve more, much more, but you need to make room to prepare for a much larger harvest.  You think too small.  Dream large. Only then will your harvests grow.”

“Tell us how do we do that!” Goody Cuthbert cried.  The other villagers murmured.  They knew they were lean, but they had not realized it was their own fault.

“You need a new village pot,” the Handsome Pilgrim announced, and he spread his arms wide, “large enough for a mighty harvest.”

“A village pot?” they replied, dumbfounded. Goodman Bradford spoke up:

“Friend, we have pots.  Every family in New Shire has a pot of its own.  Many of us have two pots in fact.  We are not just off the ship, you know.  No one in our village is without a pot, at least to my knowledge.  God has blessed us these many years in the wilderness.”  Goodman Bradford looked around for assent and the villagers nodded and encouraged him.  “Why do we need another village pot?” he asked.  Some turned away from the Handsome Pilgrim and headed back to the village.

The stranger folded his arms, smiled gently and shook his head as if he were gazing upon ignorant children.

“You see?” said the Handsome Pilgrim.  “I say to you that you are overrun with pots in this village.  Look here: you each have a pot to cook in, a pot to piss in, a pot to wash in, a pot for the morning water and a pot for the evening water. You have small pots, large pots, and all sizes in between. This I have seen.”

“Indeed we do,” Goodman Bradford called back.  The truth be told, Young Goodman Winthrop knew his neighbors were each prideful of their pot collection, but the Handsome Pilgrim turned a cold, dark look upon them and Young Goodman Winthrop felt a chill run up his spine.

“You are ignorant,” cried the stranger, and his voice cracked like a whip, but before it could sting he went on and his voice seemed to sooth at once.  “But you were born that way, so I do not judge you for it.  From the beginning of time our Father in heaven has made it . . . thusly.  But let me ask you this:  do you wish to remain in the dark your whole lives?  Look here:  other villages all around you have changed their ways for they have seen the light and so received God’s blessing.  Do you want not want you and your children to experience the miracle they have felt in their bones?”

“Of course we do.  We live only for our children.  Tell us what to do,” cried Goody Cuthbert.

The Handsome Pilgrim smiled and opened his arms once again as if to embrace them all.  “New Shire needs one giant pot,” he declared simply.

One pot?” they asked, confused.

“One giant pot,” the Handsome Pilgrim corrected them.  “The progress of the saints means one giant pot, and it belongs in the middle of the village where everyone can reach it.  Right here in the center.”

“In front of the church?” Goodman Smithy asked.

“Right in front of the church,” replied the Handsome Pilgrim.

“In front of the village meeting house?” asked Goodman Cooper.

“Right in front of the village meeting house,” replied the Handsome Pilgrim.

“In front of the cemetery?” Goody Clowy crooned.

“That’s right,” said the Handsome Pilgrim snappily.  “I speak of a great pot—I am talking about a great, blessed pot. A great pot fit for an entire village, a pot full of blessing, of wonder, of God’s chosen people.”  Young Goodman Winthrop thought this last part sounded dangerously close to blasphemy, or worse, but the Handsome Pilgrim’s words had the villagers enthralled and they let it pass.  “Just think of it,” the stranger went on.  “In this one giant pot you can put everything.  If you throw in your dirty trousers, out comes a clean wardrobe.  If you throw in your muddied hats, and out comes a hat like mine!  Put in last year’s roots and out comes this week’s stew.  And if you throw in this autumn’s harvest–even a lean harvest, mind you, leaner even than yours—you will be blessed.  Others have enjoyed this miracle.  Why not you?”

The villagers murmured amongst themselves.  It sounded good to their hungry and benighted ears.

Now the Handsome Pilgrim crouched down and he spoke with an oily voice as if they were all his kin.  “I offer peace, cousins.  Lay your burdens down.  Come and help me forge a pot that will fill even the hungriest belly.   Let there be an end to your suffering.”

Some of the older folks doubted the stranger when they heard him make his promises, for they knew life was anything but secure, and that God taught them through suffering, but still, the Handsome Pilgrim was so thoroughly handsome that even the skeptics were won over.

“We want a giant pot!” they cried.

The Handsome Pilgrim nodded a serious nod, rose to his full height, raised his arms and spoke in a loud, commanding voice.

“Bring to me your little pots and from the confusion, and I will fashion one ever-blessed great pot.”  And the villagers of New Shire did as they were beseeched to do, for they were an ignorant, superstitious and foolish people, easily swayed by flashing buckles and blocked hats.

And so in the following days the villagers brought to the Handsome Pilgrim their various pots of all sizes, and his wagon swallowed them up and blazed hot during the day and glowed red through the night, and the figure inside labored not in vain, for on the morning of the third day, the day of the year’s first snow fall, a massive, smoking black globe tumbled out of the back of the gypsy wagon, hissing and spitting as it came to rest on the snow covered earth.  Young Goodman Winthrop stood in awe even as it nearly bowled him over.  It was, well, giant, thirty feet high if an inch, and many times that across and around.  The pot was many times larger than the wagon from which it came, such was the miraculous nature of that giant pot.

The Handsome Pilgrim leapt down after the pot and grinned.  He looked strong in his black-smithy leather, and he was strong.  His arms were shining with sweat and his muscles were lean and cut.  He had no trouble pushing the giant pot to the middle of the village with one hand while in the other he held a great, blackened hammer.

Some villagers marveled and murmured miracle.

“It’s awfully large,” whispered one villager.

“It is giant,” the Handsome Pilgrim corrected him.

“Ay, that it is,” said another, and some were troubled because every window around the village center now gave way to a black view of the cast iron pot.

“You may thank me now with a feast,” cried the Handsome Pilgrim, and he said it in such a way that the people, many of them hungrier than they had ever been, and with the winter just coming on, found it difficult at first to give up what they had laid aside for the coming season, yet finally they did because they believed.  Once they poured in all that they had, ten-fold would fill the pot, and so they threw corn and tomatoes and lettuces, they threw small bushels of grain and whatever else they had hidden away for the worst moments of hunger yet to come, sand they waited for the miracle that would transform their meager sacrifices into a horn of plenty.

A freezing rain began to fall as the last of the villagers threw in what harvest they had.  The pot swallowed it all even as it began to hiss and steam as the cold rain fell.  Some mistook this for the beginning of the miracle, but a boy—Goodman Smithy’s son–climbed high in a tree in order to look down into the pot.

“What do you see?” they cried to the boy.

“Just a small pile of beans and roots and corn soaking in the water, way at the bottom.  How we gonna get to it now?”

Some of the villagers intended to ask the Handsome Pilgrim this pressing question but when they turned to ask him, he was gone.

“What will we do now?” the village cried.

“Let’s go to Parson Willowdale.  He knows,” Goody Cuthbert cried, and so the villagers marched around the giant black pot and headed for the church and there, on the front steps, stood Parson Willowdale.

“Where is the bounty that we were promised?” they asked the parson.

The parson wrung his hands and shook his head.  “Perhaps the Lord is testing our faith,” he said.  “Be patient.  Have faith.  Do not be greedy now.  Perhaps there is still more to throw into the pot.  Come now. Give with two hands.”   So the villagers did as they were told, but soon they found that they had nothing to eat and they were hungry.

“We will starve!” they cried.  “What do we do now?”

“Let us beseech the governor!” they cried, and so they marched around the giant pot to the town meeting house and there was the governor standing on the front steps.  “What do we do?” the villagers cried.

“We need to be practical at a time like this.  Ladders, men. Let us climb into the pot and get what we can, just enough until the miracle begins. Perhaps the miracle has already began.  Let us go and see for ourselves.”

“He is wise,” the villagers cried, and one by one, over a series of days, the hungriest climbed into the pot first, and then the rest, all to take back a morsel of food for themselves and their hungry children. Those at the bottom of the pot realized that once they climbed into the pot, they could not climb back out, but this was of no immediate concern, because they had plenty to eat.  Unfortunately they had no pot to piss in.

Even Young Goodman Winthrop and the Smithy boy finally climbed into the pot, so curious about what had happened to their neighbors, and so hungry.  Only when the last of the villagers had climbed in did the Handsome Pilgrim return to the village even as a hard rain began to fall.   Slowly the giant pot filled with water and the villagers cried in terror as the waters rose about them.  Those that could tread water did while others sank.  Some prayed.  Some waited for the miracle to begin while others began to worry that no miracle was forthcoming.  When the rain finally broke and the clouds parted, a bright autumn sky shone above New Shire.  That was when the Handsome Pilgrim began to gather and stack wood all around the giant pot–a massive effort to say the least–and he kindled a mighty, smoky fire that turned the sky black for miles around.  It took many long days, but finally that pot came to a roiling boil and the Handsome Pilgrim–hungrier than all of God’s creation put together–sat himself down in the village center of New Shire and he ate Pilgrim Stew for a year, some say two.

However long it took him, the Handsome Pilgrim was thorough.  Slowly but surely, he ate it all and only when the pot was drained to the lees did he finally move on, and it’s said that even then he was not yet satisfied.  But it was no matter, for no one ever heard of New Shire again, or if they did, they chose not to believe such an old wives’ tale.  That giant pot, though, well, some say that you can still find it deep in the woods of New England, somewhere west of the last homely village, and there it sits right where the Handsome Pilgrim left it, hissing and spitting on a smoking bed of coals that never cools.