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St. Ives

“As I was going to St. Ives…”

That’s my go-to puzzle when I’m trying to mystify children.

Perhaps it because it’s the only puzzle I know.

Maybe it’s because I’m getting older, maybe it’s because I’ve spent the last nine months trapped on my farm without having any conversations with people outside of my immediate family, but for whatever reason, my mind has been roaming back in time more than it usually does. That’s odd, because I have a lot of stuff I want to accomplish yet in my life, so I usually spend much of my time living in the future. But every now and then…

I was pretty young – maybe seven or eight. My dad was transitioning out of milking cows for a living, a choice I’ve always been grateful for, because dairy farming has always looked like a lot of work to me.

Our old barn consisted of the main structure and a lean-to that was added later which had room for about eight stanchions. All but a couple of the cows were gone. I don’t know if Dad was waiting for them to dry up before selling them or if he couldn’t stand the thought of paying money for milk at the grocery store. Anyway, twice a day he’d milk them by hand and sometimes I’d tag along. Once I tried to help and did a reasonably good job of milking, but I forgot the part about washing the mud and manure off the udder before you begin. The cats were very well fed that day and I went back to being a spectator.

It was kind of fun, at least for me. I’ve always liked animals and barns, although not as much in the summer when the flies and smells are a little intense. But peering out a dirty window and watching snow swirl by while inside it’s warm and moist, with the soft sounds of animals eating and the smells of life all around is a very fond memory. A barn in its most basic sense is shelter against an uncertain world.

One night, no doubt in an effort to stem my incessant chattering, my father asked me this riddle.

“As I was going to St. Ives, I met a man with seven wives. Each wife had seven sacks, each sack had seven cats, each cat had seven kits. Kits, cats, sacks, and wives, how many were going to St. Ives?”

I spent a lot of time quietly doing the math in my head, which was no doubt the intention. After a while, I was up to 16,000 and something. I don’t know how big the road to St. Ives is, but I believe we’re clearly in traffic jam territory. That was when my dad told me the correct answer.

“One.”

Boom. Mind blown.

I’ve noticed that over the years when I tell this riddle, it’s become less mind blowing. Maybe because it feels like a trick, maybe because kids are just smarter these days.

I still like to tell it, though. There’s a wonderful flashback that’s evoked with the telling, of being a small boy puzzled by an unfriendly world, but at that moment sheltered someplace warm and safe, with good smells and good sounds, relaxed conversation and useful work.

I’ve never been to St. Ives. Some quick research told me it’s a seaside village in Cornwall. I’d like to visit someday.

Maybe look for all those cats.

Copyright 2020 Brent Olson

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