A Sense of TheftA Sense of Theft
A Folktale told around the World

Once upon a time a poor young woman named Zena lived opposite a baker's shop. Everyone in the village loved Zena, for she was kind and generous. She had a marvelous laugh and a beautiful voice, and in the evening when she sang, people would gather around her windows to listen.

But Zena was terribly poor, and to pay for her tiny house and her food, she cleaned peoples' homes and mended their clothes.

The baker's name was Mordecai. Everyone loved Mordecai's cakes and cookies, his breads and his pies and his cakes. Mordecai seemed to have a special touch with baked goods, but otherwise he was a terrible man. He was greedy and unpleasant, and he never had a kind word to offer. And still people flocked to the bakery because once they had tasted even one of Mordecai's breads, they had to have more.

Zena and Mordecai seldom spoke, but Zena loved the smells that wafted out of the shop across the street from her house. Every morning just before dawn, while Mordecai was baking, Zena walked to her window and threw it wide open. She leaned out and inhaled the mouth-watering scents.

"Ahh, so delicious," she would sigh, "how I wish I could afford to buy Mordecai's breads and cakes…"

But alas, Zena could not afford such luxuries.

One day two women, Rachel and Sarah, were standing in the bakery waiting to purchase fresh challahs for their Sabbath meal when suddenly Rachel burst out laughing.

"What's so funny?" Mordecai asked grumpily.

"Oh I was just thinking of poor, sweet Zena," Rachel said. "She says she doesn't need to eat your cakes and pies."

"And why not?" demanded Mordecai.

"She feasts on the smells," Sophie said. "So she says.

"What?" Mordecai fumed. He was furious. "She feasts on the smell of my baked goods? Why for that she'll have to pay!" and before Rachel or Sophie could say another word, Mordecai tore off his apron and stormed out of the shop.

He stomped down the road.

He rushed directly to the courthouse and there he pushed past clerks and stormed into the judge's chambers. "I have a case!" he said to the startled judge. "I demand you call Zena to court. She owes me money. She's stolen from me."

And then he presented his case.

The judge listened thoughtfully to Mordecai's tale. Then he sent the clerks to summon Zena. "Tell her she must appear in court, and she must bring with her all her money for the baker is charging her with theft of a smell."

When the clerk told Zena of the charges, she wept. All the women of the village gathered around her to comfort her.

"Nonsense," they said. "Utter nonsense. No one can steal a smell. The judge is mad even to consider such a case."

And as word spread through the village of the case of Mordecai against Zena, the arguments began. Some said Mordecai was a greedy fool—surely the judge would see that, they said.

But others whispered, "Zena has indeed stolen. She ought to pay if she is feasting on the smells Mordecai makes."

Soon everyone was talking about the famous case of Mordecai the baker and Zena the thief of smells, and on the day the judge was to announce his verdict, the whole village gathered at the courthouse.

Holding her bag of coins, Zena hurried up the courthouse steps and appeared before the judge. "I have brought all my money just as you asked," she said softly.

The judge eyed her closely. "Zena, tell me this. Have you been smelling the baker's cakes and pies and cookies and breads?"

Zena bowed her head. "I have. In the morning I open my windows and sniff all those wonderful scents. They rise up and float out the baker's window and through the air and into my window. And yes, I inhale."

"And does this give you pleasure, Zena?" asked the judge.

"It does," Zena said. "I confess it does."

"And have you said to others that sometimes you feel almost full when you inhale those smells, Zena?" the judge went on.

"I have. I told Rachel that sometimes I feel as if I've eaten a whole loaf when I smell that warm, buttery scent."

"And tell me, Zena, what's in that bag you are carrying?"

Zena looked down at her bag. "Why this is all the money I have in the world. I've brought it just as you demanded, sir."

The judge fell quiet. The courtroom did too. It was so quiet and still in that room, it seemed as if no one even breathed. Everyone knew the judge liked to think in silence. Everyone knew he would need time to settle this most unusual case.

The only sound in that courtroom was the occasional tinkling of the coins in Zena's bag.

At long last the judge stood. "I have reached a verdict, Zena. I find you guilty as charged. You are guilty of stealing the baker's smells."

The crowd gasped, and a tear dropped from Zena's eye as the judge went on. "Now, walk to your accuser, Zena."

Zena walked to Mordecai and blushed with shame.

"And now," said the judge, "Zena, you will shake your bag."

"Your honor? I don't understand."

The judge's voice boomed. "Shake the bag of coins. I order you!"

Quaking with fear, Zena began to shake her bag, and those coins began to clink and rattle, and in the great silent courthouse, the echoes of those tinkling coins filled the room.

The judge turned to face Mordecai. "Baker, do you hear the sound of those coins clinking and tinkling and rattling?"

"Yes, I do indeed," Mordecai said.

"Is that a lovely sound to you?" asked the judge.

"Lovely indeed," he said as he imagined the feel of those coins in his hand.

"Good then," said the judge. "The case is closed. Zena stole a smell and now she has repaid you with the sound of her money. All's fair. Zena, you are free to go home, with your coins."

The crowd applauded wildly, pleased to discover their judge was wise and fair.