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Robert Elsie
Albanian Literature

Oral Literature  |  Folktales

 

   
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The Tale of the Youth who
Understood the Language of the Animals

     Once upon a time there was a youth who was neither poor nor rich. He owned a team of oxen and a herd of sheep and had a garden with many different fruit trees growing in it. Whenever the young man was in his garden and people passed by, he would invite them in and allow them to pick and eat whatever fruit they liked.

One day, when the young man was in his garden, a monk came by, so the young man invited him in, saying, "Won't you come in and have something to eat?" The monk entered the garden and ate all he wanted. As the monk was about to leave, the young man said, "Take some fruit with you so you'll have something to eat on your way." The monk replied, "I am full. I don't need anything more, but I would like you to tell me your wishes so that I can give you something too." The young man retorted, "What could you give me?" "Whatever you want," said the monk, "I can make you very rich. I can make you king. Or do you want the trees and stones to talk to you? I can give you honours, or would you like to learn the language of the birds and the animals? Which of these things would you like? Tell me and I will give it to you." The young man answered that he would like to learn the language of the animals. The monk replied, "Then you will be able to understand their language, but don't tell anyone or you will die." The young man agreed, saying, "I won't tell anyone. Please teach it to me!" All the monk then said was, "May you know it!" On hearing these words, the young man could suddenly understand what the animals were saying. He got up, went home and could now understand everything the birds and animals were talking about.

One evening he went out for a walk with his wife. They passed by the stable where the oxen, a mare, a donkey and other animals were kept. As they passed by, he overheard an ox talking to the donkey. The ox said to the donkey, "You don't have any problems. You eat the same grass as I do and they leave you alone. As for me, the master yokes me to the plough and I have to pull it all day long. They don't give me any food either. I have to forage for myself. They leave you alone and bring you food." The donkey replied, "The humans are right when they say that oxen are stupid. God has given you horns instead of brains." "Well, let me ask you a question," said the ox, "if you are so clever. Tell me what I can do so that I won't have to work." "Tomorrow morning," replied the donkey, "when the stable boy comes to take you out to the field, pretend you're sick. Drool and don't eat any grass this evening and the stable boy will think you really are sick. Then he'll leave you alone."

Thus spoke the donkey and the master heard everything from outside where he was sitting and listening. The wife asked him what he was listening to. "I'm only looking to see if the oxen are all right," the man replied, and they went back into the house. The next morning the stable boy went out to get the oxen and take them to the field, and found that one ox was sick. He ran to his master right away and reported what had happened. The master replied, "Let the ox be sick. Leave him alone today. Take the donkey instead and yoke him to the plough with the other oxen." So the stable boy went back, took the donkey and yoked him to the plough. The donkey had to work all day long until the sun set. He was so exhausted from his work that he could hardly walk. When he got back and they put him in the stable, the master went out to hear what the donkey would say to the ox. The donkey asked the ox, "Are you all right?" "I did what you told me," replied the ox. "Well, get up quickly," stated the donkey, "and eat your grass. You'll have to be in good health by the time the stable boy gets back. Our master has been talking to the butcher, and if you're still sick, they're going to slaughter you tomorrow."

When the ox heard this, he got up and began eating. He gobbled up the grass in front of him all at once. When the master, standing outside the stable, heard the nonsense the donkey had told the ox and saw how the ox was eating everything up, he had to laugh. His wife noticed him laughing and said, "What are you laughing about all by yourself like an idiot?" "Oh, I was just thinking of something," said the man. But she would not give up and said, "No, you're not thinking about anything. I think you can understand the language of the animals." "No I can't," he replied, "I just had to laugh."

A few days later, the lambs were to be separated from the mother sheep and taken up to the mountain pastures according to custom. And so the young man, his wife and their little son set off. The wife was pregnant again. Before they set off, she packed all sorts of things onto a mare which the man mounted, setting his son in front of him. When they had gone a ways, the wife said, "Let me ride too. I am getting tired." So she mounted the mare too, although it was in foal. When they had gone a bit further, the mare's foal, plodding along at its mother's side, said to its mother, "Pull me. I'm getting tired." The mare replied, "You're walking all by yourself and you say you're tired? I have four humans and a lot of baggage to lug and I'm carrying another foal. I can't allow myself to get tired. I can't wait for you any longer. Keep up with me if you want or fall behind."

Since the man understood what the mare had said to her foal, he had his wife dismount. But his wife was still tired and was unwilling to get off. Indeed she got very angry. Finally they arrived at the mountain hut. The shepherds were busy catching a little lamb to slaughter and eat when they saw the man coming. The little lamb bleated, crying to its mother, "They're going to get me, they're going to slaughter me!" The sheep replied, "Alas, what can I do about it, my son? There's nothing I can do! The jackals devour some of us and the humans eat the rest. Now they've got you too and the master is going to eat you. Just let them do what they want. We are in their hands." The master said to one of the shepherds, "Let that little lamb go, and catch another one." So they let it go and caught another lamb. But the second one began to cry too, calling for help from its mother, who answered, "May the master spare you! They've killed all the other lambs I've given birth to. And now they've got you, and will get me and all the other sheep too. There's nothing I can do about it. The master does as he wishes." The man told the shepherds to let the second lamb go, so they caught a third one which began to cry. Its mother replied, "I still have all the five lambs I've given birth to. The master hasn't eaten any of mine. One of them will have to be sacrificed." The master then told the shepherds they could roast the lamb. And so the shepherds slaughtered it, roasted and ate it. Afterwards they separated the little lambs from the mother sheep. The master remained in the mountain pastures, sleeping in a hut with his wife.

In the night, jackals and wolves appeared, surrounding the sheep and howling. They said to the dogs, "Stay where you are. We're coming to get meat, but we'll leave some for you." The man owned two young dogs whom the shepherds cared for with love and affection and fed well. They got everything they wanted to eat. He also owned an old dog who had only two teeth left. All the others had fallen out. Sometimes they only gave the poor old dog a slice of bread, other times they gave him nothing at all. When the jackals and wolves ordered the dogs to stay put, the two young dogs replied, "We will bark, but we won't come near you. Leave a sheep here near us tomorrow so we will have something to eat." But the old dog said to the wild animals, "I am going to drive you away. I have two teeth left, and I'm going to sink them into your hides. My master has just arrived and I would be ashamed of myself if I didn't. I have been living off his bread."

The master understood what the two young dogs and the old one had said. The next morning he got up early to return home. On departing he said to the shepherds, "Call the dogs!" They assembled the dogs and the masters gave orders, saying, "Kill the two young dogs and give the old one some meat and milk." The shepherds thought they had heard wrong and asked him, "We are to kill the young dogs and let the old one live?" The master replied, "Do as I have told you. Kill them right away in my presence." So whether they wanted to or not, the shepherds had to kill the two young dogs and let the old one live.

When they had been home for some time, the wife began to weep and lament. Every time the husband gave her a chore she would groan and refuse to do it. Finally he asked her what was wrong. She replied, "What do you mean? I can see that you don't love me the way other men love their wives." "What kind of love do you mean?" asked the man, "I love you. We eat together, we drink together, we sleep together. What more do you want?" "If you really loved me," she retorted, "you would tell me everything you know." "What do you mean?" he inquired, and she said, "You were out two nights at the stable listening and laughing to yourself. Then, when we went up to the mountain hut, I had to get off the mare when it started neighing with its foal. Up in the pastures you only let them slaughter the third lamb. Yesterday morning, you had the two young dogs killed and let the old one live. You know something you're not telling me about."

Finally, the man said to her, "All right, I'll tell you, though I'll suffer greatly for it, because it will be the death of me." The wife replied, "Go ahead and tell me, then you can die as far as I'm concerned." The man said, "Get some bread and porridge ready, because I know I shall die as soon as I've told you." While he talked, she got the food ready. She baked a loaf of bread, cooked the porridge, waiting impatiently for her husband to tell her everything, and was quite willing to let him die.

There was a dog in the house who understood what was happening and began to whimper. The man also had a lot of hens, and with them was a rooster. While the dog was whining, the rooster called the hens to him and beat his wings proudly so that the hens began to tremble and ducked down, pecking at the ground. The rooster gathered all the hens around him and then took his pleasure with them. The dog said to the rooster, "Aren't you ashamed of yourself, rooster? Don't you feel sorry for our master? He is about to die and you have no sense of shame. You are crowing and taking your pleasure with the hens!" The rooster replied, "For heaven's sake! I love our master because he gives grain to me and my wives. I have forty wives and only have to beat my wings for them to tremble. But he has only one wife and this wife has persuaded him to reveal his secret. And now he is to die! He should do something!" "What should he do?" asked the dog. The rooster replied, "If our master would listen to me, he would take his wife and lock her up. Then he would take a club of young hornbeam and beat her black and blue. That's what he should do!"

The master understood what the rooster had said and did just that. He called his wife but instead of telling her his secret, he gave her a sound thrashing, threw her out and found himself another wife.

 

[Source: Holgar Pedersen, Albanesische Texte mit Glossar. Abhandlungen der philologisch-historischen Classe der Königl. Sächsischen Gesellschaft der Wissenschaften. Vol. 15 (Leipzig: Hirzel 1895), reprinted in Folklor shqiptar 1, Proza popullore (Tirana 1963). Translated from the Albanian by Robert Elsie.]

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