(an Indian folktale)
Once upon a time there lived a barber who was a nice man, and handsome, too, but he was terribly lazy. Whenever he set off to work in the village, his wife bid him farewell and said, “Don’t forget to work today.” But every day the barber spent his time in the village gossiping and telling tales, and most nights he returned home without having earned a single coin.
At long last the barber’s wife had had enough of her husband’s idle ways. She loved him well enough, but she understood that it was she who was the clever one, and if they were to eat, she would have to use her wits.
“Husband,” she said, “it’s plain to me you’ll never earn a living at an honest trade. There is a wedding today at the palace, and since you cannot work, you’ll have to beg. Go to the palace and ask the king for something. He cannot refuse you today or bad luck will reign down upon him.”
The barber knew his wife was clever, and so he agreed to her plan, and off he went to the palace to beg for something from the king.
But when at last he was before the king, all thoughts fled his foolish mind, and so he said simply, “Give me something.”
The king was confused. “Something?” he asked. “What is it you wish?”
The barber had no idea what to ask for, and so he simply repeated, “Something.”
The king shook his head. “Very well,” he said, “I shall give you a piece of land.”
“That would be fine indeed!” the barber said happily, and the king turned to his servants. “Give him a piece of wasteland at the edge of the village,” he instructed.
When the barber returned home and gave the news to his clever wife, she shook her head. “Dear me, what will we do with a plot of wasteland when we haven’t even an ox or a plough to work the land?”
But she knew it was no use fussing and stewing, so she sat and thought until at last she came up with a plan. “Follow me,” she told her husband, “and whatever I do, you must simply do the same. Understand?”
“I do!” the barber said brightly.
When they reached the plot of land, the clever wife began to walk around the plot, peering closely at the land, bending low, touching the earth, and shaking her head. Her husband mimicked her.
Now it happened that a band of seven thieves was hiding nearby, watching the barber and his wife. “Strange behavior indeed,” one of the thieves whispered.
They watched the couple’s odd behavior for a while, but in the end, curiosity overcame them. The head thief walked into the field and greeted the barber’s wife. “What are you doing?” he asked.
“Ah,” she said, “nothing at all, nothing at all,” and she lowered her eyes, as if she were keeping a secret.
“Please, tell me, you seem troubled,” he said.
“Well,” the clever wife whispered, “promise me you’ll tell no one?”
“Of course!” the thief said. “I am a great keeper of secrets.”
And so the clever wife put her lips to close to his ear and whispered, “This land belonged to my grandfather, and he buried five pots of gold in the earth. We’re searching for the spots to dig.”
“Ah,” said the thief, “very interesting.” He returned and gave this news to his fellow thieves.
Of course, as soon as the barber and his clever wife returned home that evening, the thieves began to dig in the field, searching for the gold. They dug all night, turning up every inch of that earth, seven times over. Naturally they did not find a thing, and when the sun began to rise, they gave up and went away.
Later that morning, the barber and his wife returned, and finding their earth so nicely ploughed, the clever wife went to the village to borrow seeds to plant. She promised the grain seller she would pay him back at harvest.
Sure enough, the crop was so successful, the clever wife paid back her debt, and now they had plenty to eat and a great bag of gold.
The thieves had been watching all this time, and when they saw the clever wife carrying her bag of gold, they followed her home.
The head thief knocked on the door. “I dug up that whole field for you!” he said. “You owe me your gold!”
The clever wife simply laughed in his face. “I owe nothing to a thief!” she said, slamming the door.
But she knew she was not finished with the thieves, for she was, after all, a clever woman. That night she lay awake listening and, sure enough, she heard the thieves creep into the house and hide in the closet.
She sat up in her bed and said, in a loud voice, as if she were talking to her husband, “Oh my, I hope no one finds that bag of gold I hid in the tree outside, high up in the branches.”
The thieves chuckled softly to themselves, and when the barber and his wife were apparently fast asleep again, they crept outside. Sure enough, high up in the tree, they saw what they were certain was a package containing the gold.
One by one they climbed the tree, each reaching out to grasp the package of gold.
But it was a hornets’ nest, and the moment those thieves disturbed that nest, the hornets flew out and began to sting. From her bed, the clever wife could hear their cries.
The next day the thieves were in the hospital. The barber and his clever wife knew those thieves would never give up, but they knew something else.
“You are a clever woman, beloved wife,” the barber said, “and cleverness is worth all the gold in the world.”