Is Life Fair? – a traditional tale re-told

by Christopher Agostino

 

Once upon a time there was a man who was a farmer. He had worked a long, hard day in the fields and he was walking home when he heard a voice: “Ssssaaaave meeee.”

He looked around and didn’t see anyone, so he started walking when he heard the voice again: “Ssssssaaaaave meee, pleeeaaaassse!” He realized the sound was coming from the ground, so he looked down, and there, trapped under a large rock, was a long, dangerous looking snake.  The snake had been trapped for so long that it looked weak from hunger, ready to die.

The farmer did not like snakes, most farmers don’t, but he hated to see an animal suffering like that, so he moved the rock and saved the snake’s life. Right away the snake jumped up and said, “Thank you for ssssaving my life.”

“You’re welcome,” said the man.

“Now I’m going to eat you,” said the snake, and he grabbed the farmer by the neck.

“Wait a minute,” said the farmer, “I just saved your life. Is it fair that you should eat me?”

“Life is not fair,” said the snake, “and I’m hungry.”

So they ended up with the snake still wrapped around the farmer’s neck. This led to a discussion, the farmer asking, “if life is not fair then what is the point of living?” to which the snake replied, “if you’ve lived long enough you’d know, life is not fair.” But the snake said he would give the farmer a chance, since the farmer had saved his life. They would ask three animals that question, “Is life fair?”, and if any of them said it was, the snake would let the farmer go.

So the farmer, with the snake wrapped around his neck, set off across the fields to find three animals. And the first animal they came to was a cow. The farmer looked at the cow and asked, “Is life fair?”

“Wwwwwwell,” said the cow, “ you always let me eat your grass, and it’s very goooood. But don’t I have to give you mmmmmilk every day? And when I’m old and tired and can’t give mmmmmilk every day, will you still feed me? Noooooo, it’s off to the hamburger factory with me. Life is not fair,” said the cow.

“Oh no,” said the farmer.

“Heh, heh, heh,” said the snake.

So the farmer with the snake wrapped around his neck, and with the cow following along behind, set off to find the second animal. And they walked across the fields until they came to a horse. The farmer looked at the horse and asked, “Is life fair?”

“Weeeeeell,” said the horse, “you always let me eat your oats and sleep in your barn, and that’s very goooooood. But don’t I have to pull your plow? Don’t I have to carry you on my back? Hhrruuummmphh. And when I’m old and tired and can’t carry you anymore, will you still feed me? Nnnnnnnnooo, it’s off to the glue factory with me. Life is not faaaaair,” said the horse.

“Oh no,” said the farmer.

“Heh, heh, heh,” said the snake, “one more to go.”

So the farmer with the snake wrapped around his neck, with the cow and the horse following along behind, set off to find the third animal, the final animal. And they walked across the field until they came to a bunny rabbit. The farmer bent down and looked at the bunny rabbit. He put his hands together and cleared his throat. Then he asked, “Is life fair?”

“Hmmm,” said the rabbit, “what an interesting question. Why do you ask?”

The farmer explained that he had saved the snake’s life, and the snake explained that he was going to eat the farmer.

“Oooh,” said the rabbit to the man, “you saved his life? That’s very nice of you,” and the rabbit said to the snake, “And you’re going to eat him? I don’t know about that. Now as to your question: ‘Is life fair?’ Well, I’m just a bunny, I don’t know why you’d ask me. But I did ask my mother this same question once when I was little, and you know what she said? You know what she said? She said, ‘Whether life’s fair, or whether it’s not, the least we can do is dance!’”

“Dance?” asked the farmer.

“Dansssssse?” asked the snake.

“Dance!” said the rabbit. And the rabbit began to dance:  Hip hip hip, hop hop hop, hip hip hip hip hip, hop hop hop!

This was such a silly sight that it got the horse dancing: Hruum hruum hruum; hruum hruum hruum; raaaaahhhuuum raaaaahhhuuum, hruum hruum hruum!

Which  got the cow dancing: Ba-dum ba-dum ba-dum; ba-dum ba-dum ba-dum; ba-da-da-dum, ba-da-da-dum; ba-dum, ba-dum ba-dum!

Which got the farmer dancing: boop-be-doop-be; boop-be-doop-ba; boop-be-doop-be; boop-be-doop-ba!

Which got the snake dancing: Cha cha cha, ssssssssss! Cha cha cha, sssssssssss! Cha, cha, cha,sssssssssssss!

And while the snake was dancing, the rabbit took the farmer by the hand and they snuck off, back to the safety of the farm house.

Now I don’t know about you, but I agree with that rabbit: Whether life’s fair, or whether it’s not, the least we can do is dance!

Is Life Fair?  – a traditional folktale re-told

©2004 Christopher Agostino

This has been a favorite tale of mine to perform over the years, and I do it the “old-fashioned way” without any facepainting. For a number of years it was the story I’d end my shows with, and I’ve just started telling this tale again as part of a special thematic version of my Transformations — Storytelling show for libraries this summer. The library Summer Reading Club theme is “One World — Many Stories”, so I’ve put together a collection of tales that allow me to talk to these family audiences about the reason why we tell stories. 

When I first found it, I wasn’t looking for it. I was sitting in the reference section of  my local library looking through regional folktale collections to find a story about animals for a show I was writing. In every book I looked through there seemed to be a tale of a farmer who saves a snake that then wants to eat him. Often the farmer said that it wasn’t fair to be eaten by someone he had saved, to which the snake replied that life isn’t fair. In all the stories except one, the farmer turned the tables on the snake by tricking him back under the rock (or into a hat or a sack) and then justified his trickery by agreeing  that life isn’t fair and it’s every man for himself. A happy ending for the farmer perhaps, but not for the snake.

Only one version I found left everybody dancing. As best as I can recall, this version came from a collection of tales from Mexico, which has a tradition of tricky rabbits, but I am not sure. It wasn’t a tale I wanted to use for the show I was then writing, so I took no notes and have been unable to find it again. I began telling it a few years later just from what I remembered, which is my favorite way to begin to tell a tale. For then the story grows by itself, with the help of each audience that hears it.

I open the story by asking the audience that question, “Is life fair?”, and most often get a chorus of young voices answering, ”No!” That may be why I love to tell this tale to audiences today. That may be why stories like this survive for so long. We need our stories to help us understand the world in more ways than the obvious ones, because we know there will be days when the world doesn’t seem fair and the only thing we can do is keep dancing. 

This story is yours now. Tell it to someone else.

2 comments on “Is Life Fair? – a traditional tale re-told

  1. gostei do conto,mais a vida para ser justa depende de nois,de como nos gostamos de vivir ela,eu tenho duas faces da minha vida,antes e depois de uma cirugia de tumor cerebral,agora a vida e muito legal …………

  2. […] hit in the Acton studio my children have come home with the predictable: “but it’s not fair.” This old story helps unravel such thinking and is a fun tale […]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *