(an Eastern Indian tale)
Once upon a time, there lived a king who understood the language of the beasts and the birds and the insects. When he was very young, his fairy godmother gave him the power. But she also warned him: “Don’t tell anyone your secret, or they’ll call you mad.”
The king listened, and he was careful all his life never to tell anyone — not even his wife. And so time passed.
One evening, the king and queen were eating supper in their tent by the riverbank. It was a hot summer night, but a light breeze blew, and the king felt happy. He smiled at his wife.
“Why are you smiling?” she asked.
“I’m pleased with our food, and with this evening wind, and with your lovely face,” he said.
Just then, an ant beneath their feet discovered a grain of rice that had fallen from the table. The ant grabbed the rice, but just as he was carrying it off, another ant crossed his path.
“Please,” said the second ant, “give me that grain of rice and find another for yourself. I have dirty feet and cannot go into the king’s tent.”
“If you want some rice,” said the first ant, “go find your own. I can’t carry rice for everyone, and the king won’t mind your muddy feet.”
The king could not help overhearing this conversation, and it struck him as so funny that he began to laugh.
“Why are you laughing?” asked the queen.
The king blushed. “Laughing?” he asked, stalling for time. “Am I laughing?”
“Yes, indeed,” said the queen. “Are you laughing at me?”
“Certainly not,” the king said hurriedly.
“Well then, why are you laughing?”
The king shook his head. “I’m sorry, my love, I cannot tell you.”
“You must!” the queen said. “If you laugh about nothing at all, you must be mad. And if you’re mad, you can’t be king.”
Once again the king shook his head and meekly replied, “I cannot say.”
The queen would not stop badgering him. “Why did you laugh?” she kept questioning, and he kept refusing to answer.
Her questions continued through the night. And in the morning she asked again: “Why did you laugh?”
She could not bear the idea that her husband was laughing at her, and the king could not bear to tell his wife his long-held secret.
After four days of this argument, the king at last decided he must tell the truth. Better to be ridiculed than to keep lying. He knew he would no longer be permitted to be king. He would be banished to solitude, and his wife would leave him. But then he would retire to a quiet spot somewhere far away, and he would live the rest of his days in peace and quiet, with no one to pester him with questions.
As he pondered this idea, he walked along the riverbank. How would he let out his secret? Who would he tell first? And when? And where?
So the next morning he asked his wife to take a ride with him on their horses. “It’s hot outside,” he said, “let’s ride to the river.”
And as they rode, she could not help herself. “Why were you laughing the other night?” she asked again.
“Be patient and you will soon know,” he said. “Let’s stop here and sit and cool ourselves by the water, and we shall talk.”
His wife agreed, and they sat down on the riverbank and dipped their feet into the water.
Just at that moment, a billy goat and his wife happened past. The nanny walked to the river’s edge, and out in the center of the river she spotted some tender shoots rising out of the water.
She called to her husband: “See those shoots out there? I’m sure they’re delicious. Go get them for me.”
The billy goat sauntered over, but when he saw the shoots, he shook his head and said, “How do you expect me to get those shoots? You know I’m a poor swimmer. I would drown!”
“Oh, please. If you love me you will!” the nanny goat begged.
The billy goat shook his head. “There are fools in this world, but I am not one. You see that king on the riverbank? He is a fool because he has decided to throw away his life — all his friends and his position and everything he loves because he is a fool.
“But I am not, and I say this to you. I love you, wife, but if I drowned, there would be nobody here to love you! Use your head!”
The nanny goat thought about this, and she said, “You’re right. We must be grateful for the things we have, and I have you!”
Hearing this, the king began to smile, and the smile became a laugh.
The queen grimaced at him and scowled, “Laughing at nothing again?”
“I am laughing at my joys,” said the king, “but if you prefer we both be sad, I can make that happen easily.”
“Why would we be sad?” the queen asked. “Don’t be a fool! All you have to do is tell me why you laughed.”
“I’ll tell you this,” the king said, “a fool is one who does not know how to leave well enough alone. I laughed because I laughed, and that is my final answer. If you need me to tell you more, you shall never see me again.”
The queen looked carefully at her husband, and she saw that he was serious, and suddenly her heart swelled with sorrow. “But I love you,” she said.
“And I love you,” said the king, and after that they both were quiet. Soon the argument faded away, and after that they lived happily ever after.