What Was He to Do? – a folktale — storytelling

a traditional tale retold by Christopher Agostino ©2011

While traveling from one town to another on business, two merchants were stranded when the bus they were on broke down. The bus driver stayed with his vehicle hoping someone would come by to help, but the men knew it was a very lonely road and thought they would walk on to the next town instead. After walking for several hours they hadn’t seen a soul, and they began to feel tired and hungry. They started looking for a good place to bed down for the night and wished they had something to eat. Then they saw a peasant with a pack on his back coming towards them from the other direction.

The two merchants stopped the peasant and asked him if he had any food to sell. All the peasant had was a cup of dried beans he was saving to cook for his breakfast. Really only enough food for one, but he probably would have shared it with the two men except that they asked if they could buy it, so what was he to do?

The peasant asked them how much money they had. The two merchants conferred, and it turned out they only had 10 centavos between them, as they didn’t carry much money when they went out into the countryside for fear of being robbed. Since they were business men dealing with a peasant they only offered 5 centavos for the beans. It wasn’t a lot of money for the peasant’s only meal, but money was money and he could always use a little more of it, so what was he to do? The peasant agreed and they made the exchange.

Since the beans were dry, the merchants needed water to soak them before cooking, and asked the peasant if knew where there was any. He told them he had passed a stream a few miles back, but the merchants were too tired to walk any further. Instead they conferred again and offered the peasant their last 5 centavos if he would go and fetch the water for them. Well, he probably would have gotten them the water anyway, but since they offered to pay him for it, what was he to do? He took their money and set off for the water.

He came back with the water and all the men had a drink, then the merchants wanted to get the beans soaking so they would be ready to cook for their breakfast in the morning. But then they realized they needed a pot in which to soak and cook the beans. Now, the peasant had just such a pot in his pack, as he often had to cook for himself as he made his way through the countryside, and he told the two merchants. With no more money in their pockets, the only thing the merchants could think of doing was offering the peasant a share of the beans in exchange for the use of his pot. So the peasant took the beans back from them and set them to soak, what was he to do?

Later, the peasant went off to get some wood for a fire. Left to talk, the two merchants decided that one cup of beans was not enough to share amongst three, so they devised a way to trick the peasant out of his share. When the peasant came back they said that since there was so little food it would really only be right if the worthiest among them was the one to get to eat. And when the peasant asked how they should decide who was so worthy the two merchants said they should let God decide. They would each go to sleep, and let God come to them in their dreams, and whoever had the holiest of dreams should be the one to eat the beans. Well, since they were two to his one, what was he to do? The peasant agreed.

It wasn’t the best of nights for the merchants sleeping on the hard ground with their stomachs rumbling from hunger, but they looked forward to the meal in the morning and trusted in their plan to fool the peasant out of his share. They woke to see the peasant already up and dressed. The two hungry merchants set about right away to tell of their dreams.

The first merchant said, “I saw the three of us standing by the side of the road when an angel came down and looked at me. He saw how worthy I was and put a silver cloak upon my shoulders, then the angel lifted me up and I rose on silver wings to be with God in heaven.”

The second merchant spoke next and said, “I saw the three of us standing by the side of the road when an angel came down and looked at me. He saw how worthy I was and put a golden cloak upon my shoulders, then the angel lifted me up and I rose on golden wings to be with God in heaven.”

Then the two merchants turned to look at the peasant, who said, “This is most remarkable. It is as if we all had the same dream. For I also dreamed that the three of us were standing by the side of the road. And I could hardly believe it when two angels came down from the sky and put a cloak on each of your shoulders. Then as I watched both of you rose right up into the sky and disappeared. God had decided you both were worthy, and there was I, left all alone by the side of the road. So I cooked the beans and ate them, what was I to do?”

I wrote this after reading “The Three Dreams” in Latin American Folktales, edited by John Bierhorst, Pantheon Press. That version is credited to Luis Arturo Hernandez Castaneda of Guatemala (but the notes don’t say whether it is from a book by him or a story he told that someone else recorded) and has the tale as two students in a city trying to outsmart an Indian, by pooling their money with his to buy some rice with the plan to trick him out of it via a dream. Two upper class people trying to trick a lower class person via a dream is a motif in folktales from various cultures, identified as motif type: “AT 1626 Dream Bread”

I retained only the basic structure for my version here, changing the characters, the setting and the sequence of events.

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