The washerman’s donkey

A Tanzanian folktale

Once upon a time there lived a shark who loved to listen to stories. In fact, he would do anything for a good long story. He often swam near the coast where grew large fruit trees. On one such tree lived a monkey, who soon became a good friend of the shark. He shared not just fruits but also many a tale his grandma had told him. One day though the shark was ordered by the Sultan of sharks to bring his friend to him as he wanted to eat a monkey’s heart. With a heavy heart, the shark went to the water’s edge near the tree and called out to his friend.

“O Monkey! You have done so much for me – given me fruits and narrated many tales to amuse me. Now it is my turn to entertain you. Do hop on to my back and I will take you to my home for dinner.” With alacrity, the monkey leaped onto to the marine creature’s back and off they sped across the deep blue sea.

After they had gone some distance from the shore, the shark cleared his throat and confessed to the trick he had played on the monkey. “Dear Monkey, I am sorry for what I have done,” he concluded with embarrassment.

The monkey was flabbergasted. He needed to come up with a plan to save himself.

“Aha ha, why didn’t you say so before we started? You see, I have left my heart up on the tree along with a book of tales with stories I have never told you. Ummm, what do you say we go back to fetch both?”

The promise of more stories was too enticing for the fish. Hence, he turned back and swam toward the shore. Once near his tree home, the monkey leaped off the shark’s back and climbed up to the highest branch of the tree and breathed in relief. He sat still for a very long time.

“Come on down fast! Let’s get going!” called out the shark impatiently.

“I am not going anywhere. What do you take me for – a washer-man’s donkey?” asked the monkey from the treetop

“What, what did you say now? A washer-man’s donkey? Hey, if that is a story, I want to hear it!” cried the story-lover. He quite forgot his Sultan’s order. The monkey then spun this tale for his friend.

Long ago there lived a washer-man who had a donkey whom he loved and cared for. But that wretched animal was willful and stubborn and extremely troublesome. One day she left the washer-man’s home and went to live in the jungle. She was happy for there was plenty of food to eat and of course, no work at all. The donkey grew fat and lazy.

One day a fox spotted her and thought what a delicious meal she would make. Since he could not kill such a big animal, he decided to get an old lion of the jungle to do the killing.

Hello, Donkey! You are truly fortunate. The Lion King wishes to marry you and has asked me to escort you to him. Come, let’s go! The King is waiting!” said the clever fox.

The donkey agreed readily and off they went to the lion’s den. The lion, being old and sick, hadn’t eaten for days. He could not wait for the donkey to come close enough. He lounged to attack the fat animal but missed. The terrified donkey took to her heels. The fox ran after her to bring her back.

“Wait, dear Donkey, the King did not mean to harm you. He was trying to put a garland of flowers around your neck. Come, do not be afraid… I will be there for you!”

The foolish donkey went back to the lion’s den. This time though the lion made sure he made no mistake. He killed the donkey with a powerful blow to the head which cracked open the animal’s skull.

“Watch over my dinner. I will be back after I take a sip of water from the river,” said the lion to the cunning fox. When the King left for the river, the fox ate the brain of the dead donkey and wiped his mouth and paws clean on a tuft of grass. The lion returned and when he found the tastiest part of the donkey missing he roared in rage.

“Where is this animal’s brain? I suspect you have eaten it!”

“I did not! Said the fox in an equally loud voice. Don’t you know that the washer-man’s donkey has no brain?  If she had any, she would not have come back to you again?”

Now, dear Shark, do you think I am a washer-man’s donkey? Do you really believe that I would go with you again?” asked the monkey as he nibbled on his favorite fruit.

Published as part of a series titled ‘Folktales of the World (Retold) ’ in Deccan Herald, Student Edition, dt. January 4, 2013

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