Monday, March 3, 2008

The Loyal Old Servant (Ewenki)

Long, long ago there lived a very rich and powerful nobleman named Batu. At the age of fifty, Batu still did not have a child. Since his wife was already past the age of not having a child, Batu took a second wife, a lovely young woman. However, Batu was often away from home hunting, so every time he was off in the mountains or forest, he'd have his second wife enclosed in a huge mosquito net in a room in his mansion and guarded by an old servant. Batu feared younger men would steal her heart!

One day, after Batu had already been gone for several days, the second wife was taking a nap, and the old servant sat nearby guarding the mosquito net. All seemed well with the world when the servant suddenly heard a drip! drip! drip! He looked up and around but saw nothing. He then looked in the net and saw what looked like water dripping on the face of Batu's second wife, still fast asleep. Looking above, he saw a deadly forest snake on top of the net, ready to chew through the fibers of the net, slither down and bite the sleeping girl.

The old man moved quickly and hit the snake with a nearby broom handle, forcing it to escape through the open window. He then entered the net and started to wipe the snake venom from the girl's face, especially from near her mouth. She awoke as the old servant wiped her mouth and sat up, alarmed and on the verge of screaming.

Now Batu happened to enter and saw the old servant leaning over wife number two, though he hadn't a clue that a dangerous snake had just been driven away. He stormed over and grabbed the old man by the shoulders and roughly threw him against the net.

"You old devil!" Batu screamed. "I trusted you to watch over my wife, and this is what you do when I'm away!"

"But . . . but . . . ," stammered the old man.

"He started making eyes at me as soon as you left!" chimed in the second wife, fearful that she might be accused of wrong doing.

The old servant tried to tell Batu about the snake, but Batu wouldn't believe him. Instead, he struck the old man across his back with a bamboo stick.

Batu was a very wealthy man and employed several chamberlains to dispense justice to the rest of his servants when they stepped out of line.

"This is what you shall do," said Batu to the old servant. "Report at once to the first chamberlain."

"Yes, sir," replied the old one, "and then?"

"'And then?' Why, tell him what you did and so on! He'll find a suitable punishment for you! Now go!"

So the old servant went to see the first chamberlain. He found that man seated behind a great wooden desk in his quarters. The first chamberlain bade the old servant to sit and to state his business.

After hearing what the old man had to say, the first chamberlain looked at the old man with a weary but not unfriendly expression and said, "I am not a well man these days and cannot exert myself. However, I have a story that I want you to tell Batu. Now please listen.

"There was once a widow whose son was born shortly after her husband had died. As you can guess, her life was very hard without her husband, but she managed to keep her small cottage and find food for her son, herself and a cat she kept to watch over her son whenever she had to fetch food.

"Well, one day she went out and returned to find her infant son screaming. The cat was next to him, licking away blood pouring from the son's ear. She shooed the cat away and discovered part of her son's ear had been eaten!

"'Filthy treacherous creature!' she roared, and picking up a club, she beat the cat to death.

"Sometime later, after nursing her son back to health, she discovered in a corner by her oven the body of a truly huge rat with part of the infant's ear still in its mouth. The poor cat had killed this rat and then tried to stop the infant's bleeding.

"The mother tearfully picked up the dead cat and cradled it in her arms. 'Forgive me!' she cried to the dead animal. 'Please forgive me!' Of course it was a bit too late."

Having spoken, the first chamberlain told the old man to return to Batu and tell him the tale, which he thereupon did.

"Huh!" replied Batu. "Don't waste my time with stories! If the first chamberlain cannot handle your punishment, I know others who can. Go to the second chamberlain now!"

So once again the old servant was dismissed and told to report for his punishment, this time to the second chamberlain, whom he found behind his desk in his quarters. The second chamberlain told the old servant to sit, and, by and by, the old man told the reason why he had come.

Having spoken, the old man then said, "Could you now please punish me as Master Batu has ordered?"

"I cannot," replied the second chamberlain in a voice full of weary and quiet sorrow, "for I am now dealing with the death of a close family member. There is much to be done and rites to observe. However, I will tell you a story, which you may relate to our master.

"Long ago, there was a great hunter whose name has now been forgotten. This was a man which all animals ran before in stark terror. 'For every one hundred shots, he had a hundred bulls' eyes,' as they say. However, one day this man noticed his eyesight had seriously declined, and so he took a splendid, keen falcon with him to hunt. This hunting bird never let him down, always catching the rabbit, fox, or quail it had set its eyes on. The hunter loved this falcon, and it became his steady companion.

"One hot dry day, the hunter and falcon were at rest beneath a pine when a small shower came down. The hunter stretched out his hands and cupped them to drink, only to have the falcon land on his hands and angrily flap its wings. It then flew off when the collected water had all been lost.

"Once again the hunter cupped his hands to drink and relieve his parched throat, and once again the angry, squawking falcon stopped him.

"Perhaps it was because of the extremely hot day, or perhaps it was because the hunter was getting on in years and thus a bit cranky. In any case, the hunter was now very annoyed and slashed his falcon with his knife, killing the unfortunate creature. He then stood up and looked above him. The shower that was coming down was not rain but venom from an enormous python not more than ten feet from the man's head.

"Well, needless to say, he killed the monster, and then turning to his dead falcon, he knelt and said, 'I am very sorry for misjudging you!' His regrets came rather too late."

The second chamberlain finished his tale and ordered the old servant to return to Batu. This he did, and he then told Batu the tale of the hunter and his falcon.

This time, after hearing the story, Batu thought, These two stories--could they have been about me?

However, this thought departed from his mind as quickly as it had entered it. He pushed the old servant out the door, ordering him to report to the third chamberlain, who he was sure could administer a sound punishment.

The old servant found the third chamberlain seated behind his desk and told the man the whole story.

When asked to provide the needed punishment, the third chamberlain smiled, shook his head and said, "I cannot. My wife will give birth to a child shortly, and I must help to prepare. I will, though, tell you a story that you may in turn tell Batu.

"In ancient times there was a khan of all the birds, a master of all birds that could fly. When his wife had given birth to his heir, she said to the khan, 'You're the mighty khan! You must call an assembly of all the world's birds so they may pay homage to us and the prince, your heir.'

"So this khan of all flying birds did exactly that, and all the birds in the world save one showed up. The missing subject, a falcon, did not arrive until three days later. As you can well guess, the khan was absolutely furious and was prepared to execute the falcon right then and there.

"'What's your excuse?' fumed the khan.

"'Your Majesty! Please don't think for a moment that I planned to be late,' replied the falcon. 'I was delayed and kept from attending by the Jade Emperor himself, who required that I answer two questions before he allowed me to leave.'

"'And what were the two questions?'

"'The first question was which is longer--day or night. The second was who are there more of--men or women.'

"'How did you answer the first question?'

"'Well, Your Majesty, all the cloudy and rainy days are dark days, and added to all the nights, they see to it that nighttime lasts longer than daytime.'

"'And how did you answer the second question?'

"'Why, I said that there are more women than men!'

"'On what basis do you say so?'

"'When you take into consideration all the women who are already on earth and you add to that number all the men who do nothing but only listen to their wives, you can see then there are indeed more women than men!'

"Now," concluded the third chamberlain, "go back to our master and tell him this tale."

The old servant then went back right away to Batu and told him the third chamberlain's tale.

Batu immediately thought, Am I like the khan of all birds, all too eager to listen to just my wife? Am I like the hunter and mother in the other two stories, too eager to punish first and to reason later? No! Better to be judicious first rather than having to say sorry later!

Batu then placed his hands on the old servant's shoulders and apologized for having accused him of disloyalty and having physically maltreated him. He then made the old servant the fourth chamberlain, and he, like the other three chamberlains, became known for his fairness and sense of justice.


from Ewenke minjian gushi (Ewenki folktales) by Lu Guangtian. (Huhehaote: Neimengu renmin chubanshe, 1984; pp. 71-74.)

A frame story, like the much longer Arabian Nights, but made up of only three other stories. Two of the stories are variations of AT 178, "Killing the animal that has saved your life." (The most famous version is the very similar "Prince Llewellyn and His Dog Gellert," AT 178A.) Motifs: B331, "Helpful animal killed through misunderstanding"; B521.1., "Animal warns against poison."

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