“One day Truth, quite naked, as she is wont to be when going about the world, appeared before the throne of a king. And hardly had they learned who she was and what she wanted to say, when the courtiers covered her with villainous abuse, and the king, more incensed than the rest, ordered his guards to kick the shameless hussy immediately out of the palace.
“Then Truth went to see Phantasy.
“When she found her, she borrowed a beautiful dress woven with gold and studded with gems. Thus attired, she returned to the court of the king, and, smiling her best, told what she had to say; and the king, this time, listened to her serenely. Thereupon, the king cleared his court of a good many crooks, and became desirous of ascertaining for himself the evils that afflicted his kingdom. And he was blessed by the people, and his name became famous all over the earth.”
Thus the Russian fabulist Ismailov, in a graceful little fable, explains the origins of fables and the reason for their existence. And he could not have done it in a better way.
“But do you believe that such should still be the purpose of a fable?” the horrified reader will shout, opening his eyes wide. “And have you written your own fables in that belief? … Do you think that the kings of today – the few that remain – are like the kings of Egypt, or the tyrants of Greece, or the Roman Emperors? … Nowadays kings do not read fables when they want to know the truth! They have broken the iron barrier of courtiers which used to separate them from their people, and now they boast of liberal ideas and of being in everything equal to us! … “
Listen: even I had noticed that since the time of Rameses many centuries have passed, and that from then till now things have changed somewhat. But in my enormous ignorance of the philosophy of history, observing very carefully both our fellow beings and our kings, I have come to the strange conclusion that modern equality sprang, not from the fact (as you imagine) that kings have lowered themselves to our level, but that we (so to speak) have risen to the level of kings. That is to say, because we have become so many little kings overloaded with arrogance and other royal sins, perpetually deluded as to our own strength both in the battles of the soul and in the struggle for life, always preoccupied with those things that change, rather than with those that are eternally mutable; tightly bound by the iron ring of our prejudices, which are our faithful courtiers; and each of us has his grand word or his infallible sentence to whisper into an ear or to pompously declaim publicly in the hour of doubt. Now, following precisely my own lay imaginings, I thought that, as the number of kings and courts has grown in such an extraordinary fashion, the need of fables would be greater in the world today than in the time of Aesop.
And so, as God willed it, I set myself to writing a few, and then a few more, and again some more.
And now that, well or ill, I have written them, would you have me throw them away?
Courage and Fear
A rooster was boasting of having scared many a lion into flight by the simple process of crowing in front of him. I seized the rooster then, and placed him in front of a stuffed lion I had in my house. Hardly had I set him on the floor when he stretched his neck and crowed to burst his gullet; but as soon as he discovered that the lion was staring at him without flinching, he squeezed between my legs and ran away, and I never saw him again in the hencoop.
However great may be the courage of a lion, that of a stuffed lion is always immensely greater!
Knowledge and Ignorance
“Do you know whom you are carrying?” gravely enquired an enormous doctor of the ass that was carrying him.
“No,” answered the ass, “but I can tell you that you weigh a great deal more than the load of manure I usually carry.”
“That’s why you will eternally remain as the symbol of ignorance,” exclaimed the doctor, “because you gauge the world with your back and not with your brains. You are carrying a very wise man, perhaps the greatest scientist living, and instead of glorifying thereat you are complaining of my weight! . . . “
As they came to a point where the path bordered a field, the voluminous doctor turned the ass aside and made him go diagonally across the field, saying:
“Seemingly you have never noticed, the thousands of times you have passed by this spot, that this field is square and that the path follows two of its sides. And don’t you see that by crossing the field diagonally we travel from one side of a triangle, which, by one of the immutable laws of the divine Euclid, must always be shorter than the sum of the other two? . . . “
“Well, well!” exclaimed the ass, “I had never thought of it.”
Hardly had those honest words left his lips when the ground gave way. In the batting of an eyelash ass and scientist found themselves at the bottom of a new-dug well which had been covered by some green branches.
With their heads sticking above the muddy water and their backs broken, they looked at each other for awhile; then at last, their forces giving way, they plunged down, clinging tightly to each other, heaving up a geyser of mud . . . just as they would have done had they been a couple of asses.
As two drops of March rain were falling from the sky, one said to the other:
“They have told me that men, when they want to emphasize the resemblance between two things, say that they are as much alike as two drops of water. And they are perfectly right in saying so, for where in the world would you find two things more similar than ourselves? We truly deserve to be upon earth the symbol of divine Equality.”
A gust of wind separated the two drops. One of them met with a radiant end among the silken hair of my lady. The other fell in the middle of a field and died quenching the thirst of a steaming dung heap.
The onion, poor dear, must have a wonderfully kind heart; but she must have hardly any brains! The other day I was cutting one up very carefully – to me a salad without onions is like a sky without stars – when, seeing me in tears, like a Madonna, the good onion heaved a tenuous sigh through her pallid lips and said to me very sadly:
“How sweet it is for one’s soul to die regretted!”
Poor onion! She had not noticed that while my eyes were shedding tears my own hands were cutting her to pieces.
But I ought to be thankful to that poor wretch, for from now on I’ll carefully look at the hands of those who bewail my misfortunes.
It seemed as if the wind were entirely dead, for the overloaded ship had been at the equatorial line during five days as steady as a house. The sun was setting, and I was busy writing at the stern. Now and then we looked at each other – the sun and I – like old friends, without saying a word to each other. Suddenly I noticed a cuttlefish swimming on the surface and looking me straight in the eye.
“How goes it with you?” I asked, for I never want to be discourteous to anyone.
“Oh,” he answered, “I am bored to death!”
“Why don’t you also write,” I said with a laugh, “You have an ink-pot.”
But the cuttlefish didn’t laugh at all and answered me with great solemnity:
“I was just watching how you do it, to see if I could learn.”
“I’ve got it now!” he shouted suddenly. “How easy it is to write! Instead of squirting out all the ink at once, as I usually do, all you have to do is to let it out a little at a time. Isn’t that right?”
“Absolutely!” I said.
And that was enough for him. right away he began to swim around emptying himself of his ink drop by drop, extremely well satisfied at having mastered the art of writing so quickly.
Translated from the Italian by Mariano Joaquin Lorente