Whatever Makes You Happy — storytelling

There is a classic folktale motif of saving the life of a magic animal that can grant wishes and then asking it for more and more and more until finally the magic animal says that you have asked for too much and you end up with nothing. The one I’ve seen most often is about a fisherman and his greedy wife. Reading a similar tale from Bolivia called “The Mouse King” (in the Pantheon Press book “Latin American Folktales” edited by John Bierhorst), I wanted to re-tell it with a girl who is not greedy, but who is working from the cultural understanding that the only way to be happy is to have more.

Once a young Farmgirl sat idly, day-dreaming, looking out on a beautiful morning from the window of her family’s old barn at an hour when she should have been milking the family cow. Just as she began to think about whether she should get up and begin her chores, she heard little scampering feet, followed by the “wrowl” of a cat and the squeal of a mouse. As the mouse kept squealing she called out to her cat, “Let’s see what you’ve caught, Old Tom.” And she followed the sound to the sight of a big tabby sitting amongst the sacks of grain, swishing its own tail as it held a little mouse by the tail in its teeth. What a cute little mouse, thought the girl, all bright white except for a circle of golden fur upon its head. What a nice pet it would make.

So she hissed at the cat and spooked it into dropping the little mouse and running off. The mouse lay exhausted and shivering, too tired to move as the girl scooped it up into the milking can she had with her. What a cute little mouse, she thought again, as it squealed again and ran in circles around the inside of the can.

Then the mouse stopped running, sat quite still at the bottom of the can and looked up at the girl. “Thank you, thank you, for saving my life,” said the little white mouse, “but please let me go now.”  The girl was dumbfounded, blinking her eyes she placed the milking can on the floor of the barn. “What did you say?” she asked the mouse.

“I am so very grateful that you have saved me,” said the mouse, “now please let me go back home to my family and I will be sure to reward you.”

“You are a clever little mouse to be sure, and I don’t quite know how you have come to talk, but what reward could a mouse offer me?” asked the girl.

“You have but to wish for whatever makes you happy and it will be yours, for I am the King of the Mice and I am in your debt.”

“Well, little king,” said the girl, “I know what I will wish for, for often I think how fine it would be if I didn’t have to work so hard each day to keep this old farm running. Make this farm prosperous and new, with farmhands to do my chores.”

“Whatever makes you happy,” said the Mouse King.

And the world spun around twice and when it had stopped the barn looked like new. The girl saw stalls for a fine team of horses filled with fresh straw, and a row of fat cows being milked by the farmhands. This is wonderful, she thought, and ran out of the barn to see fields of green all around her, and she turned back to see her mother calling to her from a quaint little farm house nestled amongst the growing fields, telling her that the boy from the next farm over had come to call on her.

But oh, then she thought, I am still on a farm and always will be, and there is so much more in the world that a girl would like to do and see. Why didn’t I ask for a castle?

And she ran back into the barn to find the little mouse there still trapped within the milking can. “Little mouse, little mouse,” she said, “I asked for a farm when I should have asked for a castle, with wealthy parents who are the lord and lady of a big estate. Can I ask for this as reward for saving your life?”

“Whatever makes you happy,” said the Mouse King.

And the world flipped over to the left and the right, and once it had settled down again the girl stood inside the stables of a grand castle with carriages coming to and fro, full of elegant men and women, and her father, the Lord, calling for her to meet the young men who had come to see her, seeking a wife. But oh, then she thought, why should I  settle for being just another lord’s wife when there is so much more a girl can do and be.

Again she returned to the mouse in the milking can. “What I really want is to be a royal princess, to live in the palace of a great king and queen, with visitors from all over the world, and ladies in waiting to serve me.”

“Whatever makes you happy,” said the Mouse King.

And so the world shrank down to a tiny little pinprick and blew itself back up great and grand, and when it was finished the girl found herself wearing a diamond tiara and a beautiful long gown with servants holding the train behind as she floated down a long staircase to a magnificent hall full of lords and ladies bowing at her approach. Before her, calling to her, were her parents, the king and the queen, standing beside princes that had come from far off lands to ask for her hand in marriage. No, no, no, she thought, still this is not all that I can wish for. Even a princess serves the man that she marries, as even a queen serves her king. Perhaps if I were an empress with no man above me? But that life would be a lonely one, and still my life would not truly be my own, for I would have to serve my people, to care for them and lead them. Where, then, where shall I find my own happiness?

So she ran from that great hall, leaving the royal family flummoxed and all the courtiers in a tizzy, and called and called to the little mouse. She found him again, once she’d reached the royal stables, sitting still in the milking can. “Little mouse, little mouse,” she cried, “I am so confused and don’t know what to ask for. So many things I have thought that I wanted, but none will bring me happiness. Glad I am to have saved you, but unless you can grant me happiness itself, I do not know what reward to take.”

“Kind girl,” said the Mouse King, “it is your happiness that I also wish for.”

And, in the very blink of her eye, closed and then open, the Farmgirl found herself sitting by the window of her family’s old barn, enjoying the sun rising over a beautiful day. Just then she heard little scampering feet, the “wrowl” of a cat and the squeal of a mouse. Finding the farm’s tabby sitting there with a cute little mouse caught by the tail, she shooed the cat away and rescued the mouse. Poor little thing, she thought, sitting there shivering and afraid. I am sure it only came into the barn this morning because it was hungry. So she picked out some loose grains of wheat from a sack sitting there and held out her hand to the mouse. The mouse stepped onto her hand to eat the wheat, and she thought it was a funny little thing, grey on the back and white on its belly with a curious black patch at the corners of its mouth that made it look like it was smiling. So the girl smiled, too.

“I think I’ll call you ‘Lucky’,” said the girl.

Just then the family cow mooed, growing impatient. She put her new friend into her apron pocket with some more grains of wheat as she picked up her milking pail and set off to make the cow happy and start her day.

© 2011 Christopher Agostino

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