This retelling of Wise Folks from "If all the seas were ink we'd call them fish tales"

WISE FOLKS

A retelling by J. Kearns

A woman makes a very foolish deal in selling three cows. Her infuriated husband says that he shall go out and see if he can meet any who are more stupid than she, and if he does then she will pass without reprimand.


One doesn't often see people use walking sticks anymore, but I think they used to be popular because I have seen many old paintings and drawings of many different types of people who had with them walking sticks. Wealthy people used to (and some still do) have their portraits painted because they wanted how they looked to be caught in time by an artist who could paint their image on a canvas, and so in books and museums I have observed old portraits of wealthy people who had walking sticks, and many of these wealthy people weren't even very old so they didn't need the walking sticks to help them walk. Artists also draw and paint scenes of daily life that catch their interest, and as they have done this for a long time, the way things used to look has been preserved for us to see today, so, I have observed in books and museums, drawings and paintings of young travelers who had with them walking sticks, and of old peasant men and women who were completely bent over with age and they had walking sticks that they leaned on to help them get about. People don't use walking sticks much anymore, but they used to be very common. Maybe people needed walking sticks more in the old days when there were many roads that were rough to travel, and if they often went where there were only difficult paths and no roads or trails at all.

This story begins by telling us there once was a peasant and he had a hazel-stick which he used as a walking stick.

The word "peasant" sounds an awful lot like "pheasant" but a pheasant is a large bird with a long tail, whereas a peasant is a kind of person who would have been considered common, which means he didn't have a fancy title and didn't have much money and did agricultural work because he lived in the country. Peasant comes from the French word pais which means "country," as in the country-side, not the city, and this in turn comes from the Latin word for country, pagus. Whereas pheasant is distantly derived from a Greek word meaning a bird of the Phasis River, the ancient name for the Rioni River in the Republic of Georgia, and though the Phasis River is no longer, being now the Rioni, it continues to be remembered in the word pheasant, a bird which hasn't kept up with the times.

Anyway, this peasant I was telling you about took his good hazel-stick out of the corner in which he kept it, and he said to his wife, "I'm going across country and won't return for three days. While I'm gone, if a cattle-dealer should happen to call and want to buy our three cows, you may strike a bargain then and there, but not unless you get two hundred talers for them and nothing less, do you hear?"

Talers means the same thing as dollars.

The peasant woman, being very irritated with her husband, replied, "For heaven's sake, I can manage a bargain for our cows. You don't have to talk to me like I'm some imbecile."

The peasant replied, "I know what kind of a bad bargain you'd strike for our cows if I didn't tell you exactly what to do. You know you once fell on your head when you were a baby, and that affects you even now. If you do anything foolish, I'll make your back black and blue, I will, and not with paint either, but with my hazel-stick, and I'll do such a good job with it you'll be black and blue the rest of the year."

Having said that, the peasant went on his way.

The first mistake of the peasant woman is that she married a man like that. The second mistake that she made was that she didn't up and leave him, but I don't think people who got in bad marriages in that day and age were very freely able to separate or divorce.

The next morning, as it happened, a cattle-dealer came by the house. The peasant woman didn't have to waste a lot of words playing up their virtues, for after he'd spoken with her for just a little, and heard they were only two hundred dollars for the three of them, he said, "I'm quite willing to pay that for the cows. Honestly speaking, they're worth it. I like these cows so much that I think I'll take them with me right now."

The man unfastened the chains that were holding the cows, and drove them out of the byre (if you're wondering what a byre is, it's a cow shed or barn). He was getting ready to leave with the cows, but the peasant woman grabbed his sleeve and said, "Wait a minute. What do you think you're doing? You can't leave with those cows until you give me the two hundred dollars. Do you think you can just walk away with them without paying for them?"

"Well," answered the man, "you see, it's just that I forgot to buckle on my money-belt this morning. I'll tell you what. I'll let you hold something of mine as security until I bring the money back. I'll take two of these cows with me, but I'll leave the third one with you; that way you know my pledge is good that I plan to come back and pay you as soon as I get my money-belt."

The peasant woman thought this was reasonable, and let the man go away with the cows. She thought to herself, "My husband thinks I don't know how to do anything. When he returns and hears how I sold the cows so easily, he'll have to admit how cleverly I managed that business transaction."

The woman's husband was gone three days. When he came back on the third day, he asked his wife, "Did you sell the cows?"

The peasant woman pulled herself up proudly and replied, "That I did; I sold those three cows, I did. You didn't think I would be able to do it right, but I talked those cows up so smartly, going on about how excellent they were, that the man who wanted to buy them didn't argue at all with the price. I sold them for two hundred dollars, like you told me to do. We both know they are scarcely worth so much, but that man took them without making any objection about the price at all." The peasant asked, "Where is the money?"

The peasant woman answered, "Oh, that man forgot his money belt, but he will soon bring it, and he left good security behind him in the meanwhile."

The peasant asked, "What kind of security?"

The peasant woman answered, "Well, you see, he bought all three cows. But he only took two and left one of the cows behind as security. So, you see, he won't have that cow until he pays for the other two. Wasn't that smart of me? I think I managed it all very cleverly, for I kept the smallest cow, which eats the least."

This was very silly for the woman to keep one of her own cows as security! That way the man got away with two cows without having to pay one penny for them. On top of which, he got the two best cows of the lot.

Enraged, the woman's husband lifted his walking stick to strike her, and it looked like he was going to give her the beating he had promised her, when suddenly he let the stick fall and instead said, "You are the stupidest goose that ever waddled on God's earth. You are so stupid I feel sorry for you. I'm going to go out onto the highway and wait for three days to see if I can find anyone who is even stupider than you. If I do, you shall go scot-free. I'll not beat you for being so stupid. But, if I don't find anyone stupider than you, you can believe you'll receive your well-deserved reward and without any discount either."

The peasant woman, furious, threw all their earthen dinner plates at her husband as he walked outside to go to the highway.

The peasant went out onto the highway, sat down on a stone, and waited for what would happen. He had only been waiting a little while when he saw a peasant's wagon on the highway coming toward him. A woman was standing upright in the middle of the wagon, rather than walking beside the oxen that were drawing the wagon, or leading the oxen, or even sitting on the bundle of straw which was lying beside her in the wagon. She looked very silly standing upright in the wagon like that, for every time it hit a bump she would get jostled and almost fall out of the wagon.

The peasant man thought to himself, "That looks like just the kind of silly person I'm in search of," and he jumped up and ran backwards and forwards in the road, in front of the wagon, like someone who isn't right in his mind.

The woman in the wagon called out, "What do you want, my friend?"

The peasant asked, "I will tell you if first I may ask you a question. Why do you stand up in your wagon like that?"

The woman answered, "Oh, I stand up, rather than sitting down, because it makes it so much lighter for the cattle drawing the wagon."

The peasant man thought he'd never heard anything sillier, and said, "Now I'll tell you what I need. I have fallen from heaven and don't know how to get back again. Couldn't you drive me up in your wagon?"

The woman said, "No, I can't do that. I don't know the way. But if you come from heaven then surely you can tell me how my dead husband is, who has been there some three years now. You must have seen him."

The peasant man answered, "Oh yes, I have seen him. All men don't get on well in heaven, I'm sorry to say. His job is to keep sheep, and the sheep give him a great deal of trouble. They run up in the mountains and lose their way in the wilderness, and your husband spends all his time running after them and driving them together again. His clothes are torn to pieces from running around in the mountains, and soon he won't have anything to wear at all. There's no tailor in heaven to make him new clothes, because they don't allow any tailors in heaven. The clothes you're buried in are all you've got because you can't come back and get yourself more here, and if you're unlucky enough not to get a good, soft cloud to sit on, because of some ill you've done in life, then if you should have to take care of naughty sheep and get your clothes torn up in the process, you just have to do without any clothing. No, your husband is in a sorry state. Soon he'll be as running around in nothing else but his birthday suit."

The woman slapped her cheeks in astonishment, and cried out, "Who would have thought it? That explains why the Egyptians go off to meet their makers with all their possessions in life gathered around them, and more besides if they were wealthy enough. I'll tell you what, I'll go home right now and fetch my husband's Sunday coat which is still hanging in the cupboard. He can wear that and look respectable again, if you'll be so kind as to take it back up to heaven with you."

The peasant said, "No, ma'am. That won't do very well. You know the old saying, you can't take it with you? Well, if you're an Egyptian and believe that you can take all your earthly possessions with you, there's a place in heaven made just for people like that. But the heaven your husband is in is where all us peasant folk go who have been taught that you can't take it with you so you may as well not gather it up, and that we might as well spend the little of what we've got on the huge rents we pay to the landowners since our money and things won't do us any good after we're dead."

The woman argued, "Oh, no. We should be thrifty in life and save everything for the rainy day that could come next week. I've been pinching away my money for years just for that rainy day. If you party today, you'll live to regret it."

The peasant replied, "Tell you what, it sounds like you believe just like those Egyptians believe, so that's just the kind of heaven you're going to end up in, the one where you can take it with you."

The woman clapped her hands together. "Oh, good," she said. "I have been so very worried about someone stealing my savings from me, but here is the answer for that. I'm going to go get my purse in which I keep all my savings, and when you get back to heaven, if you'd give it to my husband to keep for us to live on up there, I'd be ever so grateful. There aren't any thieves in heaven, there?"

The peasant answered, "If I hide the purse in my pocket, no one will know I've even got it."

The woman immediately went home for the purse, and then returned in a great hurry and with her own hands put it in his pocket, and gave him a few pennies besides for his trouble in helping her. She thanked him a thousand times for his courtesy then went away home again.

When the woman got home, she found her son coming in from the field and told him all about what had happened. She said, "I'm so fortunate to have spoken to that man and learned about what heaven is actually like. Who would ever have imagined, from what we've been told our whole lives, that anyone could be suffering for want of anything up there."

The son was astonished that his mother had met a man who fell from heaven. "Mother," he said, "it's not every day that a man falls from heaven in this way. I must go immediately, and see if he is still to be found. Think of all the things he could tell me! He could tell me all heaven's secrets, and I could get someone to write a book about it for me, and think of all the money we'd earn."

The son saddled his horse and rode off with all speed to look for the man who had fallen from heaven. When he had gone a little way, he passed by the peasant who was sitting under a willow tree, counting the money in the woman's purse. The peasant was still thinking about what a pure talent for folly that woman had when her son stopped his horse in front of him and called out, "Man! Have you seen the one who has fallen down from heaven?"

"That I have," answered the peasant. "He went past that hill over there, saying if he went there he would be just that much closer to heaven, and it would be a better place for him to start out from on his way back up. If you ride fast, you might be able to still catch him."

The youth wiped his brow and replied, "Alas. I've been doing tiring work all day, and the ride here has already completely worn me out. As you know the man I'm looking for, be so kind as to get on my horse, will you, and go persuade him to come here."

The peasant man said, "Certainly."

Then the youth got off the horse, and the peasant man got on it, and rode off home at a quick trot.

The youth remained sitting there until night fell, but the peasant never came back. He thought, "The man from heaven must have already made it a good way back, and the peasant has had to follow him all that long way to chase him down for me." The youth waited a while longer and then concluded that the man must have chased the peasant all the way to heaven, and now that he was in heaven, he wasn't permitted to come back. "Poor peasant," he thought to himself, and got up and walked home.

When the peasant got home, he put the horse in the stable beside the cow which his wife had kept as a pledge for the other two cows. Then he went and found his wife.

The peasant said to his wife, "As luck would have it, I found two who were even sillier fools than you. Had you not given away those two cows, I would not now have a sleek horse in the barn and a purse full of money. If stupidity always brought in as much as that, I would be quite willing to hold it in honor."

The wife shouted back, "Hah! Aren't you sorry you don't get to beat me. I know you wanted to, so you should have stayed at home."

That is how it is with some people; they can't win for losing. I sincerely doubt that the peasant man and woman lived happily ever after so I won't lie to you and say that they did.

Retelling by j. Kearns from the Brothers Grimm version of the tale.

Copyright 1999 j Kearns