(a Central Asian folktale)
Once upon a time there lived a gardener’s son who wished to marry the king’s daughter. She loved him, too, but the king was unhappy, for he wanted his daughter to marry the son of his prime minister.
The king’s wise men suggested a plan. “Send both suitors to a distant country. The man who first returns shall win the princess’s hand.”
The king agreed to the contest, but he gave the prime minister’s son a strong young horse and a purse full of gold, and he gave the gardener’s son a lame old horse and some copper coins.
“Off you go,” the king said. “Whichever man returns first shall marry the princess.”
“Be brave, and remember I love you,” the princess told the gardener’s son. “Come back quickly.”
The prime minister’s son galloped away and soon reached a fountain where a beggar woman called, “Good day, sir. Please help me. I’m dying of hunger.”
“Leave me alone,” said the prime minister’s son, and he and his horse pranced off.
That night the gardener’s son and the old horse reached the same fountain. When the beggar asked for help, he said, “Climb up behind me and come with me. I shall help you find food.”
Together they rode to a faraway kingdom. The prime minister’s son was there already, staying in a grand inn. The gardener and the old woman found shelter in a tumbledown shack.
In the morning the gardener’s son heard the local king’s heralds blowing their horns and crying, “Our king is ill and will reward anyone who returns the strength of youth to him.”
The old woman whispered instructions to the gardener’s son, and by following these to the letter, the gardener’s son cured the king. In return, just as the beggar woman had instructed, the gardener’s son asked for the king’s bronze ring. This was a ring with the power to give its owner anything he wanted.
The king did not want to give up his ring, but he had promised, and so the gardener’s son took his ring and wished himself, just as the beggar had instructed, a handsome ship of gold with silver masts and silken sails.
On this ship he sailed back home. The king was so impressed by the gardener’s son’s grandeur that he agreed to let him marry the princess.
For a long time everyone but the prime minister’s son was glad. But in that same city there lived an old man who had studied the black arts of magic. When he learned about the powers of the bronze ring, he longed to have it, and he began to plot.
One day, the gardener’s son set off on his golden ship to sail to a nearby island. That same day the old magician caught some beautiful red fish. He stood outside the palace, offering the fish for sale.
“I must have those!” said the princess when she saw the fish.
The old magician agreed to sell them, but in return he insisted she give him the bronze ring.
The princess, not knowing the power of the ring, gave it away, and as soon as the old magician had it in his hand, he said, “Bronze ring, turn the golden ship to rickety wood, the crew to sickly men, and the cargo to black cats!”
The genii of the ring obeyed, and a moment later the gardener’s son was adrift on a rickety wooden boat with a sickly crew and a cargo of cats.
He knew his ring had been stolen, but he was helpless, and for months he drifted from island to island with nothing to sell and no way home. At long last he reached an island inhabited by mice.
The queen of the mice, seeing the black cats, called a meeting, and she sent her mice ministers to beg the ship’s captain to leave the island.
The gardener’s son saw an opportunity here. “I shall,” he said, “on the condition you bring back a certain bronze ring stolen from me.”
Now it happened that three mice from a faraway country — one blind, one lame and one with cropped ears — knew precisely who had the ring and how to rescue it.
They prepared a boat and sailed to the old magician’s land. The lame mouse and the mouse with cropped ears went stealthily to the old magician’s house, leaving the blind mouse behind to guard their ship.
The wicked old magician was asleep with the bronze ring in his mouth for safekeeping, but the mouse with cropped ears carried a lamp of oil and a bottle of pepper. She dipped her tail in the oil and then in the pepper and held this to the old magician’s nose.
He sneezed and the bronze ring jumped out of his mouth. The lame mouse caught it and carried it to the ship. The three mice set sail in a favorable wind.
“Who shall take credit for rescuing the ring?” they asked as they sailed.
“I shall,” said the blind mouse. “Without my watch our boat would have drifted to sea.” But the mouse with cropped ears said, “I caused the ring to jump out of the sorcerer’s mouth.” And the lame one cried, “I ran off with the ring!”
They began to fight, and as they fought, the ring fell overboard, just as their ship approached a faraway shore.
The mice landed and walked sadly along the shore, mourning their loss. When they came upon a dead fish, the blind mouse began to eat it, for she was hungry. She bit into something hard and cried, “It’s the bronze ring!”
The three mice joyfully boarded their boat and sailed to their island. When the gardener’s son saw the bronze ring, he cried, “Let my ship appear as it was!”
The gardener’s son’s vessel again turned into a wonderful golden ship with a strong, brave crew. They and the mice all set sail for home where they lived happily ever after.