Fenton's father had just taken another factory, but there was talk of a strike, and some of what father fondly called his "able‑bodied bodies" were threatening to quit! Such defiance of father quite puzzled Fenton. He knew that unions had tried this sort of thing, but father was free to prohibit them. Clearly none of the house staff could ever quit ‑‑ where would they live? Yet that is precisely what these workers were threatening to do. Would they walk out on father?
It being her turn, Mother arranged a sit‑down with Fenton and told him the story of the cobblers and the elves.
"Once there was a cobbler," she began, "who lived in a little house with his wife who helped but not enough for they were dirt poor." (Fenton stifled a smile at the expression "dirt poor," reminding him as it did of the humorous discussion he and father had on this subject in which Fenton learned that it was possible to work in dirt and not be poor provided you owned the dirt ‑‑ or as father said, if you owned enough dirt. Father always chuckled greatly at that last, and Fenton had fantastical visions of owning all the dirt there was and laughing broadly at being, as father put it, "dirt rich.")
"In fact," continued mother, warming to the story, "they were so poor that they had but enough leather to make but one pair of boots and enough soup for but one bowl of soup. The cobbler sadly laid the leather on the work table and retired for the night.
"That evening, a number of elves came prancing into the shop and set to work transforming the leather into a most wondrous pair of boots. Before the cobbler (and his wife) awoke, the elves did their last merry little jig, sang their last merry little song, and scampered off to the woods.
"You can imagine the cobbler's joy when he saw the boots sparkling on the workbench! And you can imagine his feelings when a handsome nobleman purchased them at top dollar!
"'At last, old cobbler's wife,' he exalted 'we can buy leather to make more boots!'
"Without delay, he purchased more leather, and being a smart cobbler for one so poor, he laid it on the worktable, shared a full meal with his wife, and retired early to test the magic.
"Sure enough, the elves sang and danced their merry way through many beautiful boots which were snatched up by the good people of the community who could afford them. This happy circumstance continued, so the cobbler prospered and his wife insisted that they reward the elves with a full set of clothes.
"Upon seeing the clothes, the elves went into a frenzy of dancing, hugging and kissing. All at once they sang, 'Oh, since we are no longer poor, cobblers we need be no more!' Then, taking a last look 'round the shop, they raced into the woods never, ever to return.
"'Who will make the boots?' wondered the cobbler's wife to herself. 'Who will make the boots?'
This was a serious question, as the cobbler's years of labor had left him with what Father calls "Emmanual's disease" where a person's hands become bony and stiff because they can't read English. Without new boots to sell, his fortune and his friends were soon gone, and he lived out his days in sickness and poverty. So great was his anger that he never again spoke to his wife, though she spoke to him until shortly after his death when she, too, died, alone and poor."
Fenton was visibly upset by the direction the story had taken. Sometimes, he felt, it was better to dispense with uncertainty and get right to the point. But his parents liked to draw out these stories. Or so it seemed to him. Mother smiled, sensing Fenton's discomfort.
"Now down the road, another cobbler had prospered from a similar elfin visit. But he was smart—like father." Fenton beamed.
"When his meddling wife suggested that they provide a full set of clothes for the elves, he retorted that the elves 'are a proud people, who are good with their hands.'
"So he laid out just the right amount of leather and retired for the night. Upon seeing the leather, the elves fell into their wild dance until one of them realized that it was not enough to fully clothe them all.
"The next night the cobbler laid out almost enough material to make ties for the elves."
"But," broke in Fenton, "wouldn't the cobbler eventually have to lay out enough material to fully clothe all the elves?" "Of course, dear," replied his mother. "but by then the initial material would have become threadbare and worn—hardly the cloth of your independent elf. The genius of the smart cobbler was to keep just enough material dangled in front of the elves to keep them coming back."
"Did they still dance their little jigs and sing their little songs?" asked Fenton.
"No," sighed mother, ringing for help, "but they showed up nights and worked their elfin butts off."
They shared a brief smile, mother and Fenton.