Thursday, December 25, 2008

Belling the Cat

Long ago, the mice held a general council to consider what measures they could take to outwit their common enemy, the cat. Some said this, and some said that; but at last a young mouse got up and said he had a proposal to make, which he though would meet the case.

"You will all agree," said he, "that our chief danger consists in the sly and treacherous manner in which the enemy approaches us. Now, if we could receive some signal of her approach, we could easily escape from her. I venture, therefore, to propose that a small bell be procured, and attached by a ribbon round the neck of the cat. By this means we should always know when she was about, and could easily retire while she was in the neighborhood."

This proposal met with general applause, until an old mouse got up and said, "That is all very well, but who is to bell the cat?"

The mice looked at one another and nobody spoke. Then the old mouse said, "It is easy to propose impossible remedies."

Sunday, December 21, 2008

The Cat Who Became a Queen

"Ah me! Ah me! What availeth my marriage with all these women? Never a son has the Deity vouchsafed me. Must I die, and my name be altogether forgotten in the land?" Thus soliloquized one of the greatest monarchs that ever reigned in Kashmir, and then went to his zanána [the apartment where his wives lived], and threatened his numerous wives with banishment if they did not bear him a son within the next year.

The women prayed most earnestly to the god Shiva to help them to fulfil the king's desire, and waited most anxiously for several months, hoping against hope, till at last they knew that it was all in vain, and that they must dissemble matters if they wished to remain in the royal household.

Accordingly, on an appointed time, word was sent to the king that one of his wives was enciente, and a little while afterwards the news was spread abroad that a little princess was born. But this, as we have said, was not so. Nothing of the kind had happened. The truth was, that a cat had given birth to a lot of kittens, one of which had been appropriated by the king's wives.

When his majesty heard the news he was exceedingly glad, and ordered the child to be brought to him -- a very natural request, which the king's wives had anticipated, and therefore were quite prepared with a reply. "Go and tell the king," said they to the messenger, "that the Brahmans have declared that the child must not be seen by her father until she is married." Thus the matter was hushed for a time.

Constantly did the king inquire after his daughter, and received wonderful accounts of her beauty and cleverness; so that his joy was great. Of course he would like to have had a son, but since the Deity had not condescended to fulfil his desire, he comforted himself with the thought of marrying his daughter to some person worthy of her, and capable of ruling the country after him. Accordingly, at the proper time he commissioned his counselors to find a suitable match for his daughter. A clever, good, and handsome prince was soon found, and arrangements for the marriage were quickly concluded.

What were the king's wives to do now? It was of no use for them to attempt to carry on their deceit any longer. The bridegroom would come and would wish to see his wife, and the king, too, would expect to see her.

"Better," said they, "that we send for this prince and reveal everything to him, and take our chance of the rest. Never mind the king. Some answer can be made to satisfy him for a while."

So they sent for the prince and told him everything, having previously made him swear that he would keep the secret, and not reveal it even to his father or mother. The marriage was celebrated in grand style, as became such great and wealthy kings, and the king was easily prevailed on to allow the palanquin containing the bride to leave the palace without looking at her. The cat only was in the palanquin, which reached the prince's country in safety. The prince took great care of the animal, which he kept locked up in his own private room, and would not allow anyone, not even his mother, to enter it.

One day, however, while the prince was away, his mother thought that she would go and speak to her daughter-in-law from outside the door. "O daughter-in-law," she cried, "I am very sorry that you are shut up in this room and not permitted to see anybody. It must be very dull for you. However, I am going out today; so you can leave the room without fear of seeing anyone. Will you come out?"

The cat understood everything, and wept much, just like a human being. Oh those bitter tears! They pierced the mother's heart, so that she determined to speak very strictly to her son on the matter as soon as he should return. They also reached the ears of Párvatí [the wife of Shiva], who at once went to her lord and entreated him to have mercy on the poor helpless cat.

"Tell her," said Shiva, "to rub some oil over her fur, and she will became a beautiful woman. She will find the oil in the room where she now is."

Párvatí lost no time in disclosing this glad news to the cat, who quickly rubbed the oil over its body, and was changed into the most lovely woman that ever lived. But she left a little spot on one of her shoulders which remained covered with cat's fur, lest her husband should suspect some trickery and deny her.

In the evening the prince returned and saw his beautiful wife, and was delighted. Then all anxiety as to what he should reply to his mother's earnest solicitations fled. She had only to see the happy, smiling, beautiful bride to know that her fears were altogether needless.

In a few weeks the prince, accompanied by his wife, visited his father-in-law, who, of course, believed the princess to be his own daughter, and was glad beyond measure. His wives too rejoiced, because their prayer had been heard and their lives saved. In due time the king settled his country on the prince, who eventually ruled over both countries, his father's and his father-in-law's, and thus became the most illustrious and wealthy monarch in the world.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

The Little Nut Twig

Once upon a time there was a rich merchant whose business required him to travel abroad. Taking leave, he said to his three daughters, "Dear daughters, I would like to have something nice for you when I return. What should I bring home for you?"

The oldest one said, "Father dear, a beautiful pearl necklace for me!"

The second one said, "I would like a finger ring with a diamond stone."

The youngest one cuddled up to her father and whispered, "Daddy, a pretty green nut twig for me."

"Good, my dear daughters," said the merchant, "I will remember. Farewell."

The merchant traveled far and purchased many goods, but he also faithfully remembered his daughters' wishes. To please his eldest he had packed a costly pearl necklace into his baggage, and he had also purchased an equally valuable diamond ring for the middle daughter. But, however much he tried, he could not find a green nut twig. For this reason he went on foot a good distance on his homeward journey. His way led him in large part through the woods, and he hoped thus finally to find a nut twig. However, he did not succeed, and the good father became very depressed that he had not been able to fulfill the harmless request of his youngest and dearest child.

Finally, as he was sadly making his way down a path that led through a dark forest and next to a dense thicket, his hat rubbed against a twig, and it made a sound like hailstones falling on it. Looking up he saw that it was a pretty green nut twig, from which was hanging a cluster of golden nuts. The man was delighted. He reached his hand up and plucked the magnificent twig. But in that same instant, a wild bear shot out from the thicket and stood up on his back paws, growling fiercely, as though he were about to tear the merchant to pieces.

With a terrible voice he bellowed, "Why did you pick my nut twig, you? Why? I will eat you up!"

Shaking and trembling with fear the merchant said, "Dear bear, don't eat me. Let me go on my way with the little nut twig. I'll give you a large ham and many sausages for it!"

But the bear bellowed again, "Keep your ham and your sausages! I will not eat you, only if you will promise to give me the first thing that meets you upon your arrival home."

The merchant gladly agreed to this, for he recalled how his poodle usually ran out to greet him, and he would gladly sacrifice the poodle in order to save his own life.

Following a crude handshake the bear lumbered back into the thicket. The merchant, breathing a sigh of relief, went hurriedly and happily on his way.

The golden nut twig decorated the merchant's had splendidly as he hurried homeward. Filled with joy, the youngest girl ran to greet her dear father. The poodle followed her with bold leaps. The oldest daughters and the mother were not quite so fast to step out the door and greet home-comer.

The merchant was horrified to see that the first one to greet him was his youngest daughter. Concerned and saddened, he withdrew from the happy child's embrace, and -- following the initial greetings -- told them all that had happened with the nut twig.

They all cried and were very sad, but the youngest daughter showed the most courage, and she resolved to fulfill her father's promise.

The mother soon thought up a good plan. She said, "Dear ones, let's not be afraid. If the bear should come to hold you to your promise, dear husband, instead of giving him our youngest daughter, let's give him the herdsman's daughter. He will be satisfied with her."

This proposal was accepted. The daughters were happy once again, and they were very pleased with their beautiful presents. The youngest one always kept her nut twig with her, and she soon forgot the bear and her father's promise.

But one day a dark carriage rattled through the street and up to the front of the merchant's house. The ugly bear climbed out and walked into the house growling. He went up to the startled man and asked that his promise be fulfilled. Quickly and secretly they fetched the herdsman's daughter, who was very ugly, dressed her in good clothes, and put her in the bear's carriage.

The journey began. Once outside the town, the bear laid his wild shaggy head in the shepherd girl's lap and growled,

Tussle me, scuffle me
Soft and gentle, behind my ears,
Or I will eat you, skin and bone

The girl began to do so, but she did not do it the way the bear wanted her to, and he realized that he had been deceived. He was about to eat the disguised shepherd girl, but in her fright she quickly fled from the carriage.

Then the bear rode back to the merchant's house and, with terrible threats, demanded the right bride. So the dear maiden had to come forward, and -- following a bitterly sorrowful farewell -- she rode away with the ugly bridegroom.

Once outside the town, he laid his coarse head in the girl's lap and growled again,

Tussle me, scuffle me
Soft and gentle, behind my ears,
Or I will eat you, skin and bone

And the girl did just that, and she did it so softly that it pacified him, and his terrible bearish expression became friendly. Gradually the bear's poor bride began to gain some trust toward him. The journey did not last long, for the carriage traveled extremely fast, like a windstorm through the air. They soon came to a very dark forest, and the carriage suddenly stopped in front of a dark and yawning cave. This was where the bear lived. Oh, how the girl trembled!

The bear embraced her with his claw-arms and said to her with a friendly growl, "This is where you will live, my little bride; and you will be happy, as long as you behave yourself here, otherwise my wild animals will tear you apart."

As soon as they had gone a few steps inside the dark cave, he unlocked an iron door and stepped with his bride into a room that was filled with poisonous worms. They hissed at them rapaciously. The bear growled into his little bride's ear,

Do not look around!
Neither right nor left,
Straight ahead, and you'll be safe!

Then the girl did indeed walk through the room without looking around, and all the while not a single worm stirred or moved. And in this manner they went through ten more rooms, and the last one was filled with the most terrible creatures: dragons and snakes, toads swollen with poison, basilisks and lindorms. And in each room the bear growled,

Do not look around!
Neither right nor left,
Straight ahead, and you'll be safe!

The girl trembled and quaked with fear, like the leaves of an aspen, but she remained steadfast and did not look around, neither right nor left. When the door to the twelfth room opened up, a glistening stream of light shone toward the two of them. The most beautiful music sounded from within, and everywhere there were cries of joy.

Before the bride could comprehend this -- she was still trembling from seeing such horrible things, and now this surprising loveliness -- there was a terrible clap of thunder, and she thought that earth and heaven were breaking apart.

It was soon quiet once again. The forest, the cave, the poisonous animals, and the bear had all disappeared. In their place stood a splendid castle with rooms decorated in gold and with beautifully dressed servants. And the bear had been transformed into a handsome young man. He was the prince of this magnificent castle, and he pressed his little bride to his heart, thanking her a thousand times that she had redeemed him and his servants -- the wild animals -- from their enchantment.

She was now a high and wealthy princess, but she always wore the beautiful nut twig on her breast. It never wilted, and she especially liked to wear it, because it had been the key to her good fortune.

Her parents and sisters were soon informed of this happy turn of events. The bear prince had them brought to the castle, where they lived in splendid happiness forever after.

Monday, December 8, 2008

The Kind Stepdaughter and the Frog

There was a stepmother who was very unkind to her stepdaughter and very kind to her own daughter; and used to send her stepdaughter to do all the dirty work. One day she sent her to the pump for some water when a little frog came up through the sink and asked her not to pour dirty water down, as his drawing room was there. So she did not; and as a reward, he said pearls and diamonds should drop from her mouth when she spoke.

When she returned home it happened as he said; and the stepmother, learning how it had come about, sent her own daughter to the pump. When she got there the little frog spoke to her and asked her not to throw dirty water down, and she replied, "Oh! you nasty, dirty little thing, I won't do as you ask me."

Then the frog said, "Whenever you speak, frogs, and toads, and snakes shall drop from your mouth."

She went home and it happened as the frog had said. At night when they were sitting at the table a little voice was heard singing outside:

Come bring me my supper,
My own sweet, sweet one.

When the stepdaughter went to the door, there was the little frog. She brought him in in spite of her stepmother, took him on her knee, and fed him with bits from her plate. After a while he sang:

Come, let us go to bed,
My own sweet, sweet one.

So, unknown to her stepmother, she laid him at the foot of her bed, as she said he was a poor, harmless thing. Then she fell asleep and forgot all about him.

Next morning there stood a beautiful prince, who said he had been enchanted by a wicked fairy and was to be a frog till a girl would let him sleep with her. They were married, and lived happily in his beautiful castle ever after.

This is one of the few folk stories I have been able to collect from the lips of a living storyteller in England.

Monday, December 1, 2008

The Shadow Puppets

Once upon a time, a long time ago, in Han times, the favorite wife of the emperor became ill and died. Her husband, the emperor, loved his wife very much. He missed her company. He missed hearing stories about her day. He missed hearing stories of their life together. Everyone in the land thought time would heal his heavy heart. But as time went on, the emperor cared less and less about the activities of the court and of his people.

Everyone wanted to help the emperor, but nothing seemed to work.

One day, a priest in the palace passed some children playing with dolls. The dolls made shadows on the floor, shadows that seemed to dance as the children played. The dancing shadows gave the priest an idea. He hurried away to work on his idea.

First, he made a puppet from cotton balls. He painted the puppet to look somewhat like the emperor's wife. When his puppet was ready, he invited the emperor to a special puppet show.

The emperor appreciated all the things his court had done to cheer him up, but really, all the emperor wanted was to be left alone. He knew the priest would be insistent. The priest was a old friend. With a sigh, a very deep sigh, the emperor agreed to attend the show.

That evening, the priest placed a light behind a curtain, along with himself and his puppet. As he moved the puppet behind the curtain, it cast a dancing shadow. The priest told stories of the emperor's wife. They were wonderful stories, wonderful memories. Even though the priest was there, and the puppet was there, it seemed as if the shadow was telling the story.

The emperor was delighted. He clapped his hands in joy. Every night, after a busy day of taking care of the business of being emperor, the emperor looked forward to hearing "shadow stories" about his wife, and her day, and of their life together.

And that, according to legend, is how shadow puppets were born.