Once there were three brothers who never seemed able to agree about anything. On any given subject, if there appeared to be two viewpoints, they were positively creative about finding a third alternative. They were Republican, Democrat, and Independent; Chrysler, Ford, and General Motors; chocolate, strawberry, and vanilla. Ask them, What is the color of that automobile? and you were likely to get mauve, plum, and “looks more like puce to me.”

Their mother used to listen to them and shake her head and marvel to herself: How in the world can these three sons of ours—all born and brought up in the same home—have turned out to be so different from one another? At times it was kind of fun. But usually it was exasperating!

One day, early in their adult lives, Mauve, Plum, and Puce set out to seek their fortunes. It was time, their father advised them, that they establish their own homes. In preparing to do so, they had explored just about every resource that they could find about how to go about establishing one’s home. They consulted experts, checked the Internet, researched the library, even prayed about it.

To offer yet another alternative, their mother, in her quiet, humble way, suggested that they should give consideration to a timeless, traditional story about two men, one who built his house on a rock and another who built his house on the sand. The interpretation of this tale had always been rather clear because the teller of it had come right out himself and made the explicit application to life. It appeared that there was really only one prudent choice, and the mother hoped against hope that in this case, at least, the three brothers would agree.

Alas, not so. As in everything else, Mauve, Plum, and Puce read the tale of the two houses from entirely different viewpoints. While the poor mother wrung her hands and considered that maybe referring to the two houses had been a mistake, her sons set off. With four points on the compass, this allowed for the three brothers to go predictably in different directions, even with one direction left over.

Mauve, ever the sturdy, sensible one, embraced the teller’s own original interpretation of the story. After an exhaustive survey of all the land available to him, he began to lay the foundation for his home on the most solid bedrock he could find. “No question what the story means,” he declared with an air of complete confidence.

Plum scoffed. “That’s a story from so long ago that it no longer applies,” he said. “Today we have such advancements in engineering and construction that we can build anywhere we please.” So he employed a contractor to begin immediate construction on a fine new home right down on the beach.

Puce had always considered himself of a superior intellect to the other two. “The story of the two houses does still apply,” he said, “but you have to read between the lines. We’re supposed to use our heads. If you want to extract the ultimate truth from that story, you have to consider the time in which it was told, the audience at whom it was aimed, the milieu.” He liked the word milieu because it always confused his brothers. He thought that using so sophisticated a word showed his superiority over them.

The result of Puce’s reading of the story of the two houses was that he decided to build his home on the water! What better protection against rain and flood, he reasoned, than to build your home so that it would rise and lower with the water level? The folly of building on the sand was obvious to anyone; to build on rock meant the house would stand but what about the clean-up if a flood did come along? Who needed that?

No, to build on the water—a house boat—that had to be the answer. No such thing existed, of course, when the storyteller had first narrated the tale of the two houses. But modern thinking had provided an innovative solution to this rains-and-floods thing. “We’re supposed to keep up with the times,” Puce argued. “What’s the use of scholarship unless we’re prepared to apply it to everyday life?”

So the brothers built their dream houses, each in the location that suited him best. The three homes aroused a great deal of admiration in the community, for each was unique. The real estate section of the local newspaper ran a very readable article, complete with many photographs, featuring the human- interest angle of the construction of the three homes. It began, “Once there were three brothers who never seemed able to agree about anything…”

Suddenly contractors and agents all over the area sensed a real estate boom. Clients began to describe what they were looking for in terms of the styles of homes that the three brothers had built: “I’ve been looking for a ‘mauvelike’ home”; “Don’t you think that a ‘plum’ would look good in that location?”; “My wife just loves a ‘puce place.’ Can you find one for us?”

There was such a new interest in real estate that no one noticed the first light gusts and the first few drops of what later came to be called, “The Perfect Storm.” At first it appeared that it was just going to be another bit of bad weather, the kind of thing that makes one joke, “Those weather people never know what they’re talking about.”

But this time the storm grew ever stronger, seeming to build up in its fury. In the words of the old, familiar song, “The rains came down and the floods came up.” It was just that simple, just that fearful. When the water level neared their homes, Mauve and Plum had to clear out and head for higher ground. Puce, however, smugly watched the gathering storm from his living room window. “I guess,” he said, “this will prove who is the wisest of us all!”

After an unexpectedly long season of furious, howling weather, the storm of the millennium subsided at last. Mauve returned to his home, found it still intact, and began the work of cleaning up. Plum’s house simply no longer existed, so he decided after all to rebuild in a safer location. And when rescuers went to see how Puce had fared, they found nothing whatsoever. His home had lost its moorings completely and been swept away in the angry storm, never to be seen again.

As a newspaper article stated, “It appears that there are only two choices after all.”

Gary Swanson is the editor of CQ, the former The Collegiate Quarterly, and the author of many articles.