S A CERTAIN fisherwoman passed by a palace crying her fish, the queen appeared at one of the windows and beckoned her to come near and show what she had. At that moment a very big fish jumped about in the bottom of the basket.
"Is it a he or a she?" inquired the queen. "I wish to purchase a she fish."
On hearing this the fish laughed aloud.
"It's a he," replied the fisherwoman, and proceeded on her rounds.
The queen returned to her room in a great rage; and on coming to see her in the evening, the king noticed that something had disturbed her.
"Are you indisposed?" he said.
"No; but I am very much annoyed at the strange behaviour of a fish. A woman brought me one to-day, and on my inquiring whether it was a male or female, the fish laughed most rudely."
"A fish laugh! Impossible! You must be dreaming."
"I am not a fool. I speak of what I have seen with my own eyes and have heard with my own ears."
"Passing strange! Be it so. I will inquire concerning it."
On the morrow the king repeated to his vizier what his wife had told him, and bade him investigate the matter, and be ready with a satisfactory answer within six months, on pain of death. The vizier promised to do his best, though he felt almost certain of failure. For five months he laboured indefatigably to find a reason for the laughter of the fish. He sought everywhere and from every one. The wise and learned, and they who were skilled in magic and in all manner of trickery, were consulted. Nobody, however, could explain the matter; and so he returned broken-hearted to his house, and began to arrange his affairs in prospect of certain death, for he had had sufficient experience of the king to know that His Majesty would not go back from his threat. Amongst other things, he advised his son to travel for a time, until the king's anger should have somewhat cooled.
The young fellow, who was both clever and handsome, started off whithersoever Kismat might lead him. He had been gone some days, when he fell in with an old farmer, who also was on a journey to a certain village. Finding the old man very pleasant, he asked him if he might accompany him, professing to be on a visit to the same place. The old farmer agreed, and they walked along together. The day was hot, and the way was long and weary.
"Don't you think it would be pleasanter if you and I sometimes gave one another a lift?" said the youth.
"What a fool the man is!" thought the old farmer.
Presently they passed through a field of corn ready for the sickle, and looking like a sea of gold as it waved to and fro in the breeze.
"Is this eaten or not?" said the young man.
Not understanding his meaning, the old man replied, "I don't know."
After a little while the two travellers arrived at a big village, where the young man gave his companion a clasp-knife, and said, "Take this, friend, and get two horses with it; but mind and bring it back, for it is very precious."
The old man, looking half amused and half angry, pushed back the knife, muttering something to the effect that his friend was either a fool himself or else trying to play the fool with him. The young man pretended not to notice his reply, and remained almost silent till they reached the city, a short distance outside which was the old farmer's house. They walked about the bazar and went to the mosque, but nobody saluted them or invited them to come in and rest.
"What a large cemetery!" exclaimed the young man.
"What does the man mean," thought the old farmer, "calling this largely populated city a cemetery?"
On leaving the city their way led through a cemetery where a few people were praying beside a grave and distributing chapatis and kulchas to passers-by, in the name of their beloved dead. They beckoned to the two travellers and gave them as much as they would.
"What a splendid city this is!" said the young man.
"Now, the man must surely be demented!" thought the old farmer. "I wonder what he will do next? He will be calling the land water, and the water land; and be speaking of light where there is darkness, and of darkness when it is light." However, he kept his thoughts to himself.
Presently they had to wade through a stream that ran along the edge of the cemetery. The water was rather deep, so the old farmer took of his shoes and paijamas and crossed over; but the young man waded through it with his shoes and paijamas on.
"Well! I never did see such a perfect fool, both in word and in deed," said the old man to himself.
However, he liked the fellow; and thinking that he would amuse his wife and daughter, he invited him to come and stay at his house as long as he had occasion to remain in the village.
"Thank you very much," the young man replied; "but let me first inquire, if you please, whether the beam of your house is strong."