According to Facebook, I have a birthday coming up, and it is high time for me to locate that the magic mill that I read about when I was an eight-year-old way back in Germany.
THE MAGIC MILL
Adapted from Traumereien and Einem Französischen Kamin (Dreams at the Fireside of a French Fireplace) By Richard von Volkmann-Leander / Suzanne Loebl
The magic mill was located in Apolda, a small village tucked away among the mountains of eastern Europe. It looked like a giant old-fashioned coffee grinder, except its crank was at the bottom. A large funnel crowned the building and a ramp, snaking around the outside of the entire building, connected the top to the bottom. Two strapping millhands stood in front of the mill ready to turn the handle.
Toothless, humpbacked, wrinkled women and flabby, hunched-over men journeyed to the mill from every corner of the land. Once they saw the mill they moaned and sighed. They slowly inched up the ramp, entered the chute and vanished.
The millhands turned the crank, once only. A heart-wrenching, deafening, blood-curdling, bone-chilling noise filled the air. Even before the sound had completely died down, rosy-cheeked, smiling young people sauntered out of the mill’s bottom.
When those waiting in line asked whether the procedure had hurt, they were invariably told that it was pain free.
One young girl said: “It feels like waking up, after a good night’s sleep, on a lovely spring morning. All at once you feel the warmth of the sun streaming into the room, the sound of the birds singing in the garden and the rustling of the wind in the trees. When you stretch your joints crackle a bit, and then you get up and feel fine.”
The fame of the Magic Mill had spread near and far, and reached Mother Klapproth, a very old woman. She decided to journey to Apolda and have herself re-ground.
She packed a small bag and started on her adventure. She climbed over mountains, waded through streams, braved dark forests, and endured thunder and hail. At night she slept under the star-studded sky. Her bones ached, she coughed, fretted, rested, and persevered. Finally she reached Apolda.
“My goodness, Apolda is a long way from home,” Mother Klapproth told one of the millhands who was sitting in front of the mill. The lad was obviously bored. His hands were buried deep in his pockets and his pipe was clenched between his teeth. “I want to be young again,” the old woman said.
At first the man did not respond. “I want you to re-grind me,” she repeated. Finally the millhand, stifling a big yawn, asked for her name.
“I am old Mother Klapproth,” she answered.
“Sit down,” he said, disappearing inside the mill to consult a large register. Eventually he came out again holding a long sheet of paper.
“Is that my bill, young man?” asked the old woman.
“No,” said the millhand. “The re-grinding is free, but you must sign a contract.”
“Sign a contract,” the old woman repeated. “I guess I have to sell my soul to the devil? No thanks. I won’t do that. I am a God-fearing woman and hope to go to heaven when I die.”
“No, it is not that bad,” laughed the lad. “The sheaf only lists all the dumb things you did during your entire life. Look, this is the exact record of what you did, and when. If you have yourself re-ground you must promise that you will do everything all over again, exactly as you did it the first time around, in precisely the same order, at the same time and place.”
The young man looked at the list and smiled. “I can see it is a bit much, my dear Mother Klapproth. From the age of sixteen until you were twenty-six you did one reckless thing a day, two stupidities on Sunday. Afterwards it got a bit better. But when you turned forty, you again overdid it. Towards the end your life was just ordinary, like everyone else’s.”
Poor Mother Klapproth looked at the list and sighed. “My dear child,” she said, “what is the point of having oneself reground, if you have to do the exact same thing over again?”
“You are quite right,” said the lad. “For most people it does not pay. That’s why our job has gotten to be so easy. We have seven free days a week. Last century business used to be brisk, but ever since our mill has been idle.”
The old woman stroked the cheek of the millhand. “My dear boy, let me cross out a few of the items on the list,” she said. “I only want to cross out three things. If I absolutely have to, I’ll repeat the rest.”
“Nothing doing,” said the lad. “Either you do the whole thing—or it is no-go.”
“Keep the list,” said the old woman, after she thought it over. “I lost my taste for your stupid old mill.” Then she turned on her heel and left.
She went up the mountains and down the other side, forded streams and slept in the woods. When she finally got back home her friends and neighbors looked at her with surprise.
“Mother Klapproth, you are just as old now as when you left. That mill does not work?”
The old woman coughed and answered: “Oh yes, the mill is working fine, but I was too scared. After all—being young is overrated.”
Note: The Franco-Prussian conflict of 1870-1 was one of those useless, personal interest wars provoked by Otto von Bismarck, chancellor of the kingdom of Prussia, the future Emperor Wilhelm I and Emperor Napoleon III of France. Much of northeastern France was laid to waste; it toppled the French emperor, resulted in the unification of Germany.
The author of the fairytale, Richard von Volkmann-Leander, was a German army physician and poet who was obviously horrified by the war. During the hostilities he was lodged in the houses abandoned by civilians. Volkmann dreamt of the poor displaced families whose spirits still lingered around the fireplaces of the erstwhile homes. His lovely tales are filled with moralistic thoughts about greed, love and accepting many of the unpleasant cards life deals us.
Simplistic as Volkmann’s tales were, they comforted me during the years I too hid to escape the horrors of World War II. I too fantasized and wrote to deal with reality. My heart goes out to the tens of the thousands of refugees that roam the earth today and hope that like me, they find a place they can once again call home.