The King's Advice
- The Caribbean, Dominican Republic
- Folk Tale
One afternoon, I found myself sitting in Soledi´s kitchen, watching her boil green bananas for breakfast the next day. We were waiting for the rain to stop so we could continue work on her latrine. We had nailed together the wood and placed the frame on top of the concrete floor just as the rain started. Almost an hour later, having exhausted many conversation topics, we sat staring out between the palm boards at the pouring rain.
"Soledi, do you know any old stories?" I asked the old woman who was warming herself next to the fire. Anything but more rain, I thought. She turned and glared at me. I thought I had said something wrong, demanding too much. But her mind was churning, and her face began to soften.
"Once there was an unhappy man who married an unhappy woman," she began, and smiled as I leaned back in my chair and gathered my arms in my lap. "When the woman got pregnant, the man decided to go to look for work so they could provide for the child. He walked into town and asked an old man, "Do you have any work for me?" The old man looked at the young man and replied, "No, I'm sorry, I don't have any work for you." But he felt sorry for the young man and told him, "Take this road until you reach the king. He will have work for you."
The young man thanked him and went to find the king. When he arrived, he asked the king for work, and the king said, "Yes, I have work for you, but I cannot pay you until you complete 20 years." The young man sighed. He did not want to wait 20 years, but there was no other work to be found.
"OK," said the young man, "I will work for you." The next day the young man woke up and went to the king. The king told him to eat breakfast with him first, and then he would show the man his work. They ate and talked. The young man told the king about his young, pregnant wife and his village far away. After a while the king brought the man out to his fields and instructed him to take a horse and keep watch over his land.
In the evenings, the king invited the young man to dine with him, and after many years they became good friends. The young man realized that he was the king's closest companion, and wondered what would happen after 20 years.
Eventually the day arrived. The man, no longer young, woke up, packed his bags and joined the king for breakfast. After a while, the man finally said to the king, "My king, today I complete my 20 years." The king looked at him surprised. "Do you really plan to go back to your wife and child after 20 years?"
"My king, I promised I would return," he replied. The king stood up and walked to the next room. When he returned, he said, "Then here is the payment for 20 years that I promised." But he hesitated. "Now you can take this and go on your way, or you can take my four pieces of advice." The man sighed. He did not want to refuse the money, but he had learned much over the years, and finally said, "OK, my king, I will take the four pieces of advice."
The king sat down and said to him: "The first piece of advice is, never hang your hammock over a place where there once ran water. The second is, never involve yourself in what you don't know anything about. The third is, always take the real path. The last is, never believe the first thing you hear." The man listened carefully to the king, and when he was done he nodded, thanked the king, and gathered his things. The king stood and said, "If you find your wife and child living and well, give them this loaf of bread." The man took the bread and left for his home.
He walked until dusk and finally decided to camp for the night. He found a tree and began to hang his hammock. But as he was tying the second rope he looked down and said to himself, "My king told me never to hang my hammock over where there once ran water, and there was water here before." He untied his hammock and walked up to a hilltop to tie it in another place. In the morning when he packed up his things and walked down the hill, he could see that the place where he had almost hung his hammock was completely washed away. The man reflected on the first piece of advice: "My king's advice has saved my life." He continued walking, happy he had chosen the advice.
That evening he came upon a house where an old man lived. He knocked and the old man invited him in. The visitor asked the old man if he could spend the night there, and the old man said yes. He brought him coffee and said, "Sit for a while and talk with me, but when you are tired, just tell me and I will tell you where you can sleep for the night."
So they sat by the fire and drank coffee and talked, and after a while the man said, "OK, I'm tired. Where can I sleep for the night?"
The old man led him to the door and said, "Do you see that old shed up there? Go in there and you can hang your hammock wherever you find a place." The visitor thanked the old man and walked up to the shed. But when he got there he found a small door, half the size of a man. Next to the small door was a large door with a huge, chained guard dog. The dog stared at the man. The man thought to himself, "My king told me never to involve myself in what I don't know anything about, and I don't know what this guard dog is here for, so I'm not going to move him." The man squeezed through the small door and hung his hammock and slept peacefully. The next morning he went down to the old man's house and was greeted with breakfast. After they ate, the old man asked him, "Did you take a look around the shed this morning?"
"No, I left right at dawn," the visitor said.
"Do me a favor and go to the shed and look around. Then come and tell me what you see," the old man said. So the man walked up to the shed and peered through the small doorway, the guard dog still standing in the large doorway. When he came back down to the old man, he told him, "The shed is full of people's bones."
The old man laughed and told him they were the bones of people who tried to move the guard dog. The visitor said goodbye quickly and left, thinking how his king's advice had saved him once again.
As he continued walking, he came upon an old woman, and he stopped to ask her for directions. "Do you know where this town is?" he asked her. "I'm looking for Fulana."
"Yes," she replied, "but if you continue on this path, you will not reach that town until tomorrow. You should walk this way, through the forest," she said, pointing, "and when you get to the bottom of this hill, turn right, and you will be there by nightfall." He thanked her and she continued on her way.
The man took one step and thought, "My king told me only to take the real path." He continued on the path and found a place to rest for the night. In the morning he followed the path, until he saw a dead goat and recognized the slope he had looked down the previous day. He saw that the shortcut he was going to take was full of thorny bushes and muddy earth. The goat had gotten tangled in the thorns and lost its footing in the mud. The man continued on the path, thinking again about the wonderful advice his king had given him.
In the evening he came upon a town, which he knew was his town, although it looked very different. As the man walked, another man came up to him and said, "Aren't you Fulano?"
The man nodded and asked the local man about his wife and child. "When you left and didn't come back, they thought you were dead. They even had a funeral. Your wife has remarried and your son has his own family. They have forgotten about you."
The man looked down, and felt sad, but remembered the last piece of advice, "Never believe the first thing you hear." He decided to go to find out for himself.
He walked down the street and finally asked a woman where Fulana lived. She motioned to the house in front of hers. He walked over to the house and saw a man reading a newspaper on the porch, who, without looking up, called inside the house, "There's someone here to see you."
When a woman appeared at the door, the returning man said to her, "Excuse me, but I have been traveling for several days and I need a place to stay for the night." She said he could come in and that she was just cooking dinner, and that he could bathe outside when he wanted to.
He sat for a bit and looked around. The house was nicely furnished. The woman served him coffee and the other man came in to join him. They chatted a bit and then the returning man asked the man from the porch, "Is that your wife?"
The man answered that it was his mother, and showed him where to bathe. When the man came back inside, the table was set and the man and woman were seated at the table. He joined them and they all ate in silence for a while. Then the returning man asked the woman, "Excuse me, I don't mean to be nosy, but what happened to your husband?"
The woman sighed and answered, "My husband left shortly after we married and after I got pregnant. He went to look for work. He never came back, and I eventually looked to the community to help me. I started a little business and paid for my son to go to school."
He asked her, "But you never remarried?"
"No, nor will I," she said. Then she stood and said; "I will always know my husband, because he was born with a birthmark on his chest in the shape of a star."
The man stood up and said, "Does it look like this?" and opened his shirt.
She screamed, "My son, your father has returned!" and embraced her husband.
After a moment, they sat and he began to tell them about the past 20 years. He told them he was going to bring back money, but took the four pieces of advice instead, and how they had saved his life. "My king told me if I found my wife and son alive and healthy to give them this," he said, as he brought out the loaf of bread. The woman placed it on the table and said they should each eat a little, to celebrate the husband's homecoming.
But as the woman broke the bread she found it full of gold.
Soledi stared at me suddenly, grinning, and I laughed leaning back in my chair. I had been listening so intently to the story, I hadn't noticed that it had stopped raining. After a minute, I thanked her, and turned toward the door to return to work.