WHY THE FISH LAUGHED
By Joseph Jacobs
As 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
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 behavior 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
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 mouths, on pain of death. The vizier
promised to do his best, though he felt almost certain of failure. For
live months he labored indefatigably to find a reason for the laughter
of the fish. He sought everywhere and from everyone. 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 Kismet 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 yon 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 travelers 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 tying 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
They walked about the bazaar 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 chupatties and kulchas to
Passers-by, in the name of their beloved dead. They beckoned to the
two travelers 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 where it is light." However, he kept his thoughts to
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 off
his shoes and pajamas and crossed over; but the young man waded through
it with his shoes and pajamas 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. "
The old farmer left him in despair, and entered his house laughing.
"There is a man in yonder field," he said, after returning their
greetings. "He 'has come the greater part of the way with me, and I
wanted him to put up here as long as he had to stay in this village.
But the fellow is such a fool that I cannot make anything out of him.
He wants to know if the beam of this house is all right. The man must
be mad!" and saying this he burst into a fit of laughter.
"Father," said the farmer's daughter, who was a very sharp and wise
girl, "this man, whosoever he is, is no fool, as you deem him. He only
wishes to know if you can afford to entertain him."
"Oh! of course," replied the farmer. "I see. Well perhaps you can
help me to solve some of his other mysteries. While we were walking
together he asked whether he should carry me or I should carry him, as
he thought that would be a pleasanter mode of proceeding."
"Most assuredly," said the girl. "He meant that one of you should tell
a story to beguile the time."
"Oh, yes. Well, we were passing through a cornfield, when he asked me
whether it was eaten or not."
"And didn't you know the meaning of this, father? He simply wished to
know if the man was in debt or not; because if the owner of the field
was in debt, then the produce of the field was as good as eaten to him;
that is, it would have to go to his creditors."
"Yes, yes, yes; of course! Then, on entering a certain village, he
bade me take his clasp knife and get two horses with it, and bring back
the knife again to him."
"Are not two stout sticks as good as two horses for helping one along
on the road? He only asked you to cut a couple of sticks and be
careful not to lose his knife."
"I see," said time farmer. "While we were walking over the city we did
not see anybody that we knew, and not a soul gave us a scrap of
anything to eat, till we were passing the cemetery; but there some
people called to us and put into our hands some chupatties and kulchas;
so my companion called the city a cemetery, and the cemetery a city."
"This also is to be understood, father, if one thinks of the city as
the place where everything is to be obtained, and of inhospitable
people as worse than the dead. The city, though crowded with people,
was as if dead, as far as you were concerned; while, in the cemetery,
which is crowded with time dead, you were saluted by kind friends and
provided with bread."
"True, true!" said the astonished farmer. "Then, just now, when we
were crossing the stream, he waded through it without taking off his
shoes and pajamas.''
"I admire his wisdom," replied time girl. "I have often thought how
stupid people were to venture into that swiftly flowing stream and over
those sharp stones with bare feet. The slightest stumble and they
would fall, and be wetted from head to foot. This friend of yours is a
most wise man. I should like to see him and speak to him."
"Very well," said time farmer; "I will go and find him, and bring him
"Tell him, father, that our beams are strong enough, and then he will
come in. I'll send on ahead a present to the man, to show him that we
can afford to have him for our guest."
Accordingly she called a servant and sent him to the young man with a
present of a basin of ghee, twelve chupatties, and a jar of milk, and
the following message: "O friend, time moon is full; twelve months make
a year, and the sea is overflowing with water."
Half-way the bearer of this present and message met his little son,
who, seeing what was in the basket, begged his father to give him some
of the food. His father foolishly complied. Presently he saw the
young man, and gave him the rest of the present and the message.
"Give your mistress my salaam," he replied, "and tell her that the moon
is new, and that I can only find eleven mouths in the year, and the sea
is by no means full."
Not understanding the meaning of these words, the servant repeated them
word for word, as he had heard them, to his mistress; and thus his
theft was discovered, and he was severely punished. After a little
while the young man appeared with the old farmer. Great attention was
shown to him, and he was treated in every way as it he were the son of
a great man, although his humble host knew nothing of his origin. At
length be told them everything-about the laughing of the fish, his
father's threatened execution, and his own banishment-and asked their
advice as to what he should do.
"The laughing of the fish,'' said the girl "which seems to have been
the cause of all this trouble, indicates that there is a man in the
palace who is plotting against the king's life."
"Joy, joy!" exclaimed the vizier's son. "There is yet time for me to
return and save my father from an ignominious and unjust death, and the
king from danger."
The following day he hastened back to his own country, taking with him
the farmer's daughter. Immediately on arrival he ran to the palace and
informed his father of what he had heard. The poor vizier, now almost
dead from the expectation of death, was at once carried to the king, to
whom he repeated the news that his son had just brought.
"Never!" said the king.
"But it must be so, Your Majesty," replied the vizier; "and in order to
prove the truth of what I have heard, I pray you call together all the
maids in your palace, and order them to jump over a pit, which must be
dug. We'll soon find out whether there is any man there."
The king had time pit dug, and commanded all the maids belonging to the
palace to try to jump it. All of them tried, but only one succeeded.
That one was found to be a man!
Thus was the queen satisfied, and the faithful old vizier saved.
Afterward, as soon as could be, the vizier's son married the old
farmer's daughter; and a most happy marriage it was.