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70. Tree Trunk for a Boat

A boatman made a living by ferrying passengers across a river. Once he ferried a group from one bank to the other. He waited for passengers for the return trip, but no one turned up. After a long wait, he got into his boat and was paddling back alone when he ran into a flood that came at him from upstream. Before he could say “Ha!” both banks overflowed. He could not hold the boat to its course. The current carried the boat with it. He managed to save his life by jumping off and swimming to the bank. So he lost his boat to the flood, and from that day on he had no way of feeding his family. Being an active man, he planned on making another boat and went to the forest looking for a big tree with a large trunk.

Though he looked for a long time, he could not find a trunk that was suitable for a boat. Some were thin, some had knots. He searched all day and all evening till night fell and it was dark. Clouds gathered, and it looked like rain. He walked towards home with long strides, but it got darker and he was caught in a big rain. He couldn't see his way. He got drenched. Wet and hungry, having eaten nothing since morning, he stepped suspiciously through the underbrush till at last he saw a light in a house. He walked towards it.

It was a hut. He knocked on the door. A wrinkled old man opened the door. The boatman said, “Grandpa, I came to the forest looking for a tree to make a boat with. It got dark and I got caught in the rain. Can I stay the night and go home in the morning?”

The old man nodded. “Come in. We dying men don't carry our houses on our backs. Do come in and stay.”

He went in. The old man had an old woman with him. There was nothing else in the hut. They didn't seem to have cows or calves, dogs or children. The boatman was a bit surprised. “These two stay alone in this forest. It takes guts,” he thought. His stomach was drumming for food. The old couple didn't offer him any. “Why not ask?” he thought, and asked, “Grandpa, would you have a piece of bread? I'm very hungry.”

The old man said, “Just sleep for a while. We'll wake you up when food is ready.”

So the boatman lay down. But, with hunger drumming in his belly, how could he sleep? A few minutes later, he heard movements. Then he saw the old man open the lid of a box, take a leather cap from it, put it on his head, and say, “Go, go!” At once, the old man disappeared. The old woman was right behind him and put on another leather cap. She too said, “Go, go!” and she too disappeared. The boatman's mouth went dry. “Is this real, or is it a dream?” he asked himself and pinched himself. He sat up, baffled. Then, slowly recovering from his astonishment, he got up and went close to the box. He saw two more leather caps in it. He put one on and said, “Go, go.” There was a swishing noise and he felt he was flying through the air. Before he could blink, he had descended and arrived in the kitchen of a king's palace. All the dishes for a grand dinner were ready in large vessels. The cooks and servants had gone out of the kitchen after cooking and washing up. Suddenly, in the middle of it all, he saw the old man and old woman he had seen in the hut. They were gobbling up whatever they fancied and stuffing the gold plates and dishes into their satchels. When they saw the boatman enter, they hurriedly put on their caps and said, “Back to the hut, back!” And they were gone in a trice. The boatman said to himself, “Ha, now I know why they don't cook at home!” and began to eat the food prepared for the king's dinner. He feasted on the king's meat and swilled the king's wine, many cups of it, till he got drunk. He forgot his leather cap and lay happily besotted on the floor, his legs stretched wide.

When it was the king's dinnertime, the cooks and servants came in and saw the mess in the kitchen. The dishes were half-eaten, spilled on the floor, plates were missing, pots were empty. The boatman lay in a corner. They hauled him up and thrashed him. The blows woke him from his drunken stupor. They tied him up and took him to the king.

“Your Majesty, here, we've caught him. This is the fellow who has been stealing gold and silver and food from the kitchen these many nights,” they said.

The king was furious. “You scoundrel, you son of a whore!” he screamed. “Tie him to a tree and set fire to him. Cremate him alive!” he ordered.

The servants walked him to a huge dried-up tree and tied him to its trunk. They piled firewood all around him. The boatman looked around and a thought occurred to him: “If I had only found this tree trunk earlier, all this wouldn't have happened. What shall I do now?”

Before they lit the fire, they asked him the customary question, “What's your last wish?”

The boatman's allotted life span wasn't yet at an end, obviously. He suddenly remembered the leather cap.

“Masters, masters, I left my leather cap in the palace kitchen. My last wish is just to wear it. I'd like to die in it. Please.”

A lackey ran in and brought him the cap. Before he put it on his head, he said to them, “Light your fires!” They lit the firewood and he put on the cap and said, “Back home, back home!” He vanished into the air at once. Everyone there cried out in one voice, “Magic, what magic!”

The boatman descended outside his own hut with the tree tied to his back. The tree was upright, the ropes were intact. His wife ran out, untied the knots, and released him, and asked, “What's all this?”

He said, “Nothing much. You remember we needed a proper tree trunk for our boat. God himself tied me to this tree and sent me here.”

He carved a beautiful strong boat out of the tree trunk and lived happily with his wife, plying his boat as before.


[NKTT, but cf. Motif F 841.1.11, Boat made of tree trunk; and Motif D 1067.2, Magic cap.]

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