A Sampling of the First Chapter toCharley and the Magic Jug and Other Stories
by Larry and Rosemary Mild
Episode 1
Charley and the Magic Jug
A Short Story

Rumor had it that a mysterious cave nestled deep within the Zemplén mountain range in Hungary, not far from the tiny village of Zylék. Some thought its existence was an old wives' tale, but a select few knew better. One person in particular appeared to know just where this cave might be found. It was said that a fourteen–year–old lad, Károly Glueck, could lead you directly to the entrance, but he always refused to do so. Károly claimed that he only stumbled upon the cave once while chasing a stray goat, one of his father's herd of a dozen. The boy insisted he had long since forgotten his way there, because he merely followed the mischievous goat without paying attention to its actual path.

Most of the villagers did not believe this excuse. They accused him of being selfish. Others insisted there was no such cave. But the boy had proof, although he couldn't reveal it to anybody. It was a secret, his very own secret.

Károly preferred to be called Charley; he simply liked the playful sound of this anglicized version of his given name. He learned this new name from a British tourist hiking across the Zemplén mountain range. The Brit had accepted a half-dozen days of hospitality, for rest and nourishment, at the Glueck family home, but he couldn’t be bothered pronouncing Károly. He dubbed the teen Charley and the name stuck thereafter. The two shared the lad’s bedroom.

Early each morning Charley’s dad, Csõrö, trudged up the grassy slope to the corral. He hitched the twelve goats to a rope, one after the other, and walked from door to door through the village of Zylék. At each doorstep Csõrö would milk the goats for the ladies of the house. Though the pay for goat’s milk and cheese products was meager, the stoic dairyman was able to eke out a living for his family of four—his wife, their daughter, and son. When the tall, stocky herder of forty-seven years reached the last of his supply, he would return the goats to the grassy slope. Charley would meet him there and keep watch over the grazing flock while his father went home to farm a small patch of adjacent land. Charley routinely stayed with the goats until dusk, when he herded them into a wooden shed before returning home for chores. This ramshackle structure securely contained the goats overnight.

Built tall and solid like his father, Charley was both agile and strong. He had to be, tending the flocks in all sorts of weather over the rough and rugged terrain bordering the mountains. But, unlike his father, he had a dreamy, sensitive side, with soulful, copper-colored eyes; a round face with cheeks ruddy from the sun; and thick auburn hair that flopped over his forehead. Often, when the lad wasn’t paying enough attention, one or more goats would wander off the grasslands and up onto the rocky ledges. Discovering that the strays were gone, Charley would then have to lead the remainder of the herd into the shed and give chase to the missing ones.

Ah, yes, the cave. A year earlier, in June of 1904, one of the goats wandered off the grasslands while Charley had his nose in a book. When the lad finally looked up, he saw the stray darting from rock to rock—hesitating here and there to snack on tempting vegetation— and climbing to higher and higher elevations. The lad herded the rest of the flock into the shed and took off after the mischievous goat, who had a considerable head start.

In order to make up time, Charley took a direct yet far more dangerous route, a precarious one he had never taken before, to recover the stray. Instead of the safe, well-worn, switchback path to higher elevations, he chose to claw over rock, sand, and briar bush. The lad was an experienced climber. However, that day each section was new, with its own hazards. Keeping track of the goat while climbing added to his difficulty. At one point nearly seventy-five meters up, he slid downward a good six meters before recovering a decent foothold. Raw fingers and thorny scratches accumulated on his bare arms and legs as he again attempted to close the gap between them. He wished he’d worn cover-up clothes instead of his usual cotton britches and sleeveless shirt. Fortunately, the goat had discovered a fat, juicy bush to gnaw on and was spending considerable time there on a narrow ledge about thirty meters above him.

When Charley finally arrived on the same outcropping, he found the goat chewing and pulling at the large, healthy bush until it bent away from the rocks. As the lad came closer, he slipped a length of rope around its leather collar. The goat, still munching away, hardly noticed. But Charley saw something curious: a wide opening in the rocks beyond the bush that would normally be hiding it. He tied the opposite end of the tether around the bush’s sturdy trunk. After climbing a few more meters, he approached what appeared to be a hidden cave entrance.

The late afternoon sun cast sufficient light into the entrance for Charley to see his way inside. The cave extended inward about twenty meters. A physical jolt of excitement gripped him. He ducked into the opening. Once past the neck of the cave, he was astonished to find that he could easily stand. He whirled about in each direction, taking in all there was to see. As his eyes grew accustomed to the deep shadows, the lad was stunned to see something beyond the works of nature in this rocky structure. Three pottery jugs, maybe four liters each in size, stood on a flat, smooth rock. Each one was a different color: one rose red; one cobalt blue; and one a dull earthen tone with mustard-colored decoration.

Charley saw an inscription on the flat table rock and moved close enough to decipher what it had to say. The letters and language, Csángó or Moldavian, were local and familiar, and the message was quite clear. "Take only one and prosper, but choose wisely, for the choice is offered only once."

The lad knew of nothing on which to base a wise choice. He thought for a moment. The light would soon be gone, so he needed to be quick about his decision. Two of the jugs were attractive in color, and one was plain.Perhaps the contents will tell me more. I’ll sample all three.

Charley tilted the cobalt blue jug first and poured a clear liquid into the palm of his hand. Lapping it up, he discovered pure mountain stream water. The rose jug yielded a light, sweet rosé wine of the region at the perfect temperature. The plain earthen jug surrendered goat’s milk: cool, nutritious, and refreshing.

Charley pursed his full lips and squinted as he pondered, knowing the right choice was critical. Water is plentiful in our village with so many mountain streams, so it would be hard to sell. And such a quantity of perfect wine, I’d be accused of stealing. Ah, the milk would be a welcome addition to my father’s trade. He would be able to expand the number of customers he now serves. I’ll take the earthen jug.

Charley lifted the heavy jug, tucked it in the crook of his left arm, and crawled through the neck of the cave to the outside ledge. The goat had eaten its fill and now slept nearby. Dusk had settled over the sharp ledge, and darkness would cover them soon, making it too dangerous to descend until morning. The lad curled up in the neck of the cave for warmth with one arm hugging the precious jug, and didn’t wake until the first crack of dawn. Then, with the tether rope in one hand and the earthen jug under the opposite arm, he started down the much easier switchback path to the grazing land below. Hurrying, it still took him more than two hours to descend to the greener level.

Arriving on the grassy slope, he discovered that his father had already strung the remaining eleven goats together in a train and was ready to head to the village. Csõrö had been ready to scold his son for being out all night and for leaving him with only a herd of eleven, but when he saw all the scratches and bruises on the boy’s arms and legs, his displeasure turned to compassion. The son explained his adventure to his father, and Csõrö suspiciously sampled the jug’s contents. He was soon convinced of their good fortune.

Charley followed him from village door to village door that day. When the last goat gave her most, his father turned to Charley’s jug so he could continue to sell milk to new customers. Those who were skeptical of the milk’s freshness were given a free sample. The lad and his dad continued the arrangement for a few days, fully expecting the jug to exhaust its supply at any time. It never did, so on the following morning, Charley stuck a straw down into the mouth of the jug to see how much was really left. He was surprised to find that it was nearly full, pure and sweet, with that good strong goaty flavor. Thereafter, he tested the jug every day with the same result—to his amazement a seemingly bottomless gift.

As one season followed another, the jug gradually took on a reddish, maroon tint, transforming the formerly drab earthenware into the rich colors of a glowing sunset.

It was not long before the Glueck family income tripled, and they were able to afford a few luxuries. They were even generous to their neighbors, who never questioned the family’s newfound cash flow. Their generosity extended to strangers, who were never turned away. Presently, the British hiker came back to stay with them. The glib young traveler brought with him a sense of humor and stories from the outside world that fascinated the whole family.

The blond, blue-eyed Brit was handsome and athletic and fresh out of Cambridge University. His full name was Brandon Bakersfield III. Sharing a huge featherbed with Charley each night, Brandon had the opportunity to observe his young host, the lad he’d dubbed Charley. Before retiring for the night, Charley would sit on his bed in his pajamas with the large maroon jug under one arm and recite his prayers aloud. The lad was extremely possessive of this jug and even slept with it next to his bed. By day, it was always close to him, especially when he and his father went out to sell their milk. Brandon was puzzled. Although the jug was moderately attractive, he assumed it would bring only a few coins at market.

So why is it so darned precious?? he wondered. And why is this family of a mere herder and farmer able to afford so much?

On the third day of his stay, Brandon decided to follow Csõrö and Charley on their daily rounds with the goats and the jug. He observed nothing unusual until he saw Charley filling containers provided by the customers at successive doorsteps. On and on, door to door, the lad kept pouring. Brandon couldn’t remember seeing the boy ever fill the jug. Where and how did he fill the jug when the goats were giving their all on the village trek? he wondered. Where was the milk coming from?

On days four and five, Brandon followed them again with the same result—seemingly endless milk. During all that time, his eyes never left the vibrantly colored red jug. Now he was convinced that it had magical powers. While Charley slept, Brandon even watched through the darkness of those last two nights, so there was no way the jug got filled without him seeing it.

There had always been a seed of greed lurking inside the family’s guest, and Brandon could almost feel it growing inside him. If I can just manage to get the jug back to England, I can start a dairy with hardly any financial outlay—an endless supply, and little or no overhead. The Gluecks are nice people, but they really don’t know to run a business. The jug is wasted on them. Besides, there aren’t enough customers out here in the sticks. I need to steal the magic jug. But how? The jug and the boy were always inseparable. Nighttime seemed to afford the most plausible opportunity, as the hard-working lad usually slept deeply and untroubled.

On the sixth and last day of Brandon’s visit, he packed up his belongings. Everyone knew he had planned to leave the following morning. He had given no one any reason to suspect his intent. He planned to take advantage of the boy that last night. The Brit’s plan also included stealing Charley’s bicycle as a getaway vehicle. The main road was only 150 meters down the lane. From there he would have smooth sailing. Best of all, the village had no telephone service.

Nightfall seemed slower than usual to Brandon that night, and the lad’s prayers seemed excessively long. Charley usually snored when he lay on his back, but tonight he lay on his left side with his right hand wrapped around the mouth of the jug.

Brandon waited two hours, hoping the lad would shift to his back. At last he heard the snoring. The Brit slipped out of his side of the bed and pulled on his clothes. He stole around the bed to find Charley asleep on his back with his left hand gripping the jug. They might as well be attached, Brandon thought. He had an idea: The chair with the lad’s clothes draped across the back is just the right height. Brandon silently moved the chair adjacent to the jug. Gently, he pried the boy’s fingers off the jug. Then, lifting the lad’s arm by the pajama sleeve, he transferred it to the chair cushion and let it rest there. The boy slept on, and he crept out of the house.

Before Brandon climbed onto the bicycle, he tilted the jug and splashed a tiny puddle of milk into his palm to taste the contents and prove that the jug would work for him as well. It tasted fresh, and cool, too. He stowed his nefarious prize in the bicycle basket and rode off down the lane to the main road. Still in darkness, then half the next day, he peddled all the way to the first big city that had a railroad station. There he bought a train ticket to a coastal port, where he knew he could board a passenger ship.

Three days later Brandon landed back in Sussex, England. Spending the last of his inheritance, he rented a store, purchased refrigeration machinery, acquired several milk delivery trucks, bought thousands of suitable bottles, and hired three employees. As the days of preparing to launch his new business passed, he kept sampling the milk to see if the jug was still working for him. It passed every test.

But what he failed to notice was that the jug itself was slowly reversing color—from vibrant maroon to reddish brown to ocher to the original plain earthen hue.

With great fanfare, the momentous day arrived to launch his dairy business. Early in the morning, one of his assistants began to pour from the jug—only the neck of it clogged. He called Brandon over and told him of the difficulty. Using a long, thin mixing rod, they managed to break up the clog.

What flowed out was sour, curdled, and spoiled goat’s milk. Brandon decided to wash out the jug and delay the launch of his dairy venture for another day, hoping the jug would again produce a cool, clean batch. Of course, the jug denied him the next day and the one after that. On the third day the earthenware jug transformed itself into a mere pile of sandstone dust.

Brandon finally acknowledged that he had committed a great crime and would pay for it in financial ruin.

Meanwhile, back in the Glueck household, Csõrö despaired over the theft of their precious jug—and Charley’s bicycle. How could their guest have so betrayed the family’s hospitality?

Nevertheless, Csõrö continued to ply his trade with the purchase of four additional goats. Charley often thought about returning to the cave to obtain the rose-colored jug, but didn’t because he remembered the warning: “Take only one and prosper, but choose wisely, for the choice is offered only once.”

If chance can happen once, it can happen again. One sleepy day as Charley tended the herd, another wandering goat led him to the very same cave. Expecting to find only the two remaining jugs, the lad was surprised to find three. This time his choice was easy.