Friday, August 5, 2011

The Quick-Witted Bald Man (Kirghiz)

There was once a not particularly good-looking man with a shiny, round, hairless head. What he lacked in appearance, however, he more than made up with keen wisdom. In fact, in time, he became well known for his judgment. When he was of age, he married a lovely young woman, and they lived happily.

Now the Khan of those parts was a tyrant whose words were absolute law. His son, the Prince, was an equally unsavory character who always got his way because his father was the local monarch. One day the Prince spied the bald man's wife and decided he would have her for himself.

One afternoon, he sought out the bald man's wife when her husband was at work. He pestered and pestered her, demanding here and threatening there, and she felt deep shame. He only left just before the bald man returned home. Tearfully, the wife explained to her husband what had just happened.

"All right, this is what you must do should he appear again," said the bald man. "Tell him, 'My husband is home. Return tomorrow evening because by then he shall be on a long trip.'"

Well, not surprisingly, the Prince did return, and the wife did exactly as she had been instructed.

"My man's here!" she whispered to the Prince. "Come back tomorrow night when he's away on caravan!"

"Done!" whispered the Prince back, smiling and rubbing his hands.

Later the next evening, the Prince returned as had been expected. Striding into the yurt without looking about, he reached out to embrace the young wife. However, from out of the shadows, the bald man pounced upon the Prince and throttled him on the spot.

"Husband!" cried the wife. "You killed him! You just killed the Prince! You know there's no justice in this land. We're done for . . ."

"I know what to do," he replied. "You may go to sleep if you like."

Shouldering the dead prince, the bald man then headed into the night. He made his way to the yurt of the daughter of the Ba'yi, the great landowner. She lived alone and had remained fiercely jealous of the bald man's wife. The bald man stood the corpse of the Prince up and left it leaning against the opening of the yurt.

The Ba'yi's daughter heard some commotion outside her yurt and awoke.

"Who is it?" she screeched.

"The Prince," answered the bald man, hiding nearby.

"What do you want?"

"I love you!"

"Oh!" she fumed. "You disgusting, shameless creature! Be gone!"

"Shut up! I'm the Khan's son, and all I have to do is snap my fingers and your head will be on a platter. Now let me in!"

"If I want to marry," she responded, "my father will go through a matchmaker. I'm not interested in some chicken-and-dog thief who shows up at midnight!"

"Don't flatter yourself. I'm away from my yurt and too tired to go back to my wives. You'll do in a pinch."

Enraged, she picked up a long dagger, stepped over to the opening flap of the yurt where the shape of someone leaning against the fabric could be seen, and plunged the knife into the figure, the already dead Prince propped up there. When she opened the flaps of the yurt and saw what she had done, she ran in a panic to her father, the Ba'yi.

The Ba'yi heard about how the Prince had grossly insulted his daughter and could find no grounds on which to punish her for her act. Yet, she had just apparently murdered the Khan's son!

"Don't worry," he told her. I know someone who can help us." He then went to the yurt of the bald man, who was fast asleep.

"It is said that when one's father is dead, the dead man's friend becomes his father," said the anxious landowner to the bald man. "In truth, your late father was my very best friend. Son, on this night I need your help!"

"Speak, Ba'yi, and I shall do what I can," said the bald man.

The Ba'yi told the bald man everything. "I don't want to die!" he then added.

"Fear not," the bald man replied. "Now listen: what I am about to do is no small thing. It shall be very dangerous for me. How do you intend to reward me?"

"If I don't give you enough gold to fill a horse's head, may my own head roll under the blue sky!" answered the Ba'yi.

"Gold would be acceptable," said the bald man.

"I promise," said the Ba'yi. "If I break my promise, may heaven and earth punish me!"

"So be it," said the bald man, who then went to the yurt of the Ba'yi's daughter to retrieve the corpse of the dead Prince. Once again shouldering the dead Prince, the bald man headed into the darkness, this time on the road to the Khan's treasury.

He stealthily approached the great walls of the treasury. During the changing of the guard, he stuffed the dead Prince through an opening and allowed the body to drop to the ground with a loud clump. The bald man then scurried back to his yurt as fast as his legs could carry him. Naturally the guards had heard the noise and turned their direction to the intruder. They shot dozens of arrows at the dark figure lying on the ground below. The guards then rushed over to see who the brazen prowler was. When they saw the Prince's face, they were stunned, the breath knocked out of each one of them.

By and by they recovered from their shock. One of them had the sense to say, "Quick! We must act now. One of us must head over to that bald fellow and ask him for help. He'll know what to do!"

And so one of them did go there. Soon the bald man himself had arrived back at the treasury compound.

"How may I be of service?" asked the bald man.

The frightened guards immediately told him that the Prince himself had raided the treasury's forbidden compound and had been shot on sight.

"Help us, please!" the guards begged the bald man.

"Hmm, . . . ," said the bald man. "This is going to be tricky and personally very dangerous for me. If I help you, what will you do for me?"

"We'll serve you till the end of our days!" one said.

"Ha! Don't make me laugh. Here's what I want: as much gold as will fill the empty head of a horse."

The guards looked at each other.

"Come, now," said the bald man. "We are standing inside a treasury, are we not?"

What could the guards do? They agreed. The bald man told them to leave the Prince's body where it lay. He then left. Meanwhile, the guards then took out as much gold as would fill a horse's head and buried it in a spot designated by the bald man.

Early that morning, the bald man strode into the Khan's palace and requested an audience with the Khan. The Khan was already upon his throne that morning and curtly bade the the bald man to enter.

The bald man removed his battered hat and bowed before the Khan.

"Hurry up and state your concern," said the Khan. "I don't have all day for you."

"Great Khan, forgive my intrusion," said the bald man. "I am merely here as a loyal subject to gather a little information. Is it true that your word is law, that whatever you say can never be disregarded or ignored?"

"My words are rivets in steel," said the Khan. "There are no if's, but's, or and's when it comes to my orders. They are carried out as I have ordered, or else the offender's head is to be displayed. There are no exceptions. Now, bald man, why do you ask?"

"Great Khan, earlier this morning your guards killed a man who had dared to enter the treasury compound . . ."

"Have them bring the offender's head to me immediately!" thundered the Khan.

Shortly afterward, a guard brought in the head of the Prince. The Khan climbed down from his throne and saw that it was his very own son. And what could he say, he who had so many times said his orders here iron law? He ran out of the palace and all the way to the treasury, where the guards stood at attention, their knees knocking.

There on the ground lay the headless corpse of the Prince. The Khan thought back to one of his unbreakable edicts: Whoever enters the grounds of the treasury without permission is to be put to death on the spot! He gnashed his teeth, bowed his head and slowly walked back to his palace. No one was to be punished; his orders, after all, had been obeyed.

When it was wise to do so, the bald man dug up the rest of his gold. With his new riches, he constructed an even grander yurt for his wife. In time, he took the Ba'yi's daughter as his second wife, and she had to draw water, chop wood, and cook for the first wife.

The bald man thus ended his days respected by all, deeply satisfied and very happy.


from Xinjiang minjian gushiji, Chen Qinghao & Wang Qiugui, eds. pp. 35-42. (See 2/26/08 for full citation.)

There are folktales from around the world which present roguish, unattractive but virile and extremely resourceful male protagonists. Two come to mind: the Mongolian/Yugur "One-Inch Two-Inch Man" (see 12/30/07) and the Metis "Little-Man-With-Hair-All-Over," from American Indian Myths and Legends (Richard Erdoes & Alfonso Ortiz, eds; Pantheon, 1985, pp. 185-191). These heroes seem to have a lot in common with the roles traditionally accorded to dwarfs in folklore: their small stature suggests a budding libido as well as a closeness to the earth, making them crafty chthonic beings, appreciated for their innate wisdom derived from their contact with the secrets below the surface. The physical stature of the bald man in this story, however, is not emphasized; rather, his unattractiveness and sharp mind are stressed.

This folktale is a variation of the Indo-European series of tales "Disposing of the Corpse" and "Killing a Corpse" (AT 1536A and B and 1537).

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