I told this series of stories when I was invited to a storytelling evening on cable TV in Marin County: Filmmaker Peter Adair came to pick my brains one day in the middle of the Cold War. He was making a pilot for a TV series on storytelling and wanted each episode to focus on stories, old and new, that illuminated a pressing modern problem. Secrecy, for instance, which was one of the factors getting in the way of nuclear disarmament. “Romeo and Juliet” was the first story that came to mind for both of us. Another problem he planned to address was our love of technology—our penchant for doing things because we can do them, whether doing them is a good idea or not. “Have I got a story for you!” I said, and told him about a story from the Panchatantra, a collection compiled around the year 800 for the education of the princes of India. Peter said it was just what he was looking for. I couldnt tell him the story then, because I hadnt learned it yet, but as soon as I thought about it in this context, I knew I had to learn it and tell it.
Four men grew up together in a little village in India. Three of the men were scholars, but the fourth man never studied anything. In fact, he had never read a book in his life. He just got along as best he could on his own common sense. But the four men had been friends as children, and they remained friends despite their differences.
One day, the four friends were sitting under the trees talking of this and that when one of the scholars said, “Something has been bothering me. I have spent all my life studying, and I know many things, but I know them only from books. I dont know if my knowledge works, out in the world.”
“You know,” said another of the scholars, “the same thing has been bothering me! But somehow, this little village doesnt seem to offer the scope for me to try out my vast knowledge.”
“Clearly,” said the third scholar, “we must travel out into the world and try out our knowledge there.” The other scholars agreed, but then there was their friend. They had always done everything together, share and share alike, but suppose...suppose they found some lost treasure by using their knowledge? Suppose they solved a problem for a rajah and he rewarded them with gold and jewels? They had studied late into the night to prepare themselves for this work, and their friend had done nothing. He had only common sense, and what rajah would be impressed with that? They argued this back and forth, as they so enjoyed doing, but finally they decided to do as they had always done, share and share alike.
And so they started on their journey. They walked along for many days, and one day they saw some bones scattered by the path. One of the scholars said, “I can tell from my studies that these bones are the bones of a lion. Now it happens that I have learned how to arrange the bones as they would be in a living lion.”
“Really?” said the second scholar, that is interesting—for it happens that from my studies I know how to clothe the bones with flesh and blood and skin and fur.”
“Indeed?” said the third scholar. “How curious. It happens that I know the next step. Once the animal is formed, I know how to breathe the breath of life into it. Clearly, this is the place where we should try out our knowledge to see if it works in the world.” The others agreed.
The fourth man, the one who wasnt a scholar, was simply struck dumb by this display of learning and didnt say anything at all.
So the first scholar stepped forward and arranged the bones as they would be in a living lion. Then he stepped back, and the second scholar stepped forward and clothed the bones with flesh, and blood, and skin, and fur. Then he stepped back, and the third scholar stepped forward, about to breathe the breath of life into the animal, when the fourth man said “Wait! Thats a lion! Thats a lion you are about to bring to life. It could eat us up! Stop! Think what youre doing!”
“We know what were doing,” said the scholars. “We have studied this all our lives. Dont worry. Just leave everything to us.”
“Well, all right,” said their friend, “but...could you wait till I climb a tree?” “Certainly,” said the scholars, and they waited till their friend had climbed a convenient tree. Then the third scholar went back to the procedure of breathing the breath of life into the animal. And sure enough, the lion started breathing, opened its eyes, looked at the three scholars, sprang upon them, and ate them up.
After the lion had gone away, the fourth man, the one who wasnt a scholar, climbed down from the tree and made his way back to the village, taking with him no great treasure of gold and jewels, but only his own common sense.
So I was telling the story in Cincinnati and a local storyteller came up afterwards to say that he had had the pleasure of telling a version of the story at a hearing of the Ohio Atomic Energy Commission. “When I came to the punch line,” he said, “all the commissioners started to laugh, and then suddenly stopped and looked around as if to say, 'Whos laughing? Im not laughing!'”
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MY CAT RUNS MY LIFE
© 2000 by Nancy Schimmel
My cat runs my life. I dont mean that I arrange my life for the convenience of my cat, as you may do. I mean my cat decides what I should wear, where I should live, even who I should marry.
Why do I allow this? Well, thats the question, isnt it?
I was raised in comfortable circumstances. My father was a miller, and I the youngest of his three sons. It was all share and share alike with us until my father died. He left my two brothers the mill, the house, everything. He left me the cat.
What does he expect me to do? I thought, meaning my father. But it was the cat that had the expectations.
I wasnt all that surprised when the cat started talking. Every cat looks like it has some great secret to hoard and be smug about. This cats secret was that he could talk. What surprised me was how convincing he was. He talked me out of my clothes and into the river, crying help help as instructed. He told the king that I was drowning, that my clothes had been stolen, and that I was the marquis de Caberras, and the king believed...a cat!
I let myself be rescued and dressed and handed into the carriage. There I saw the princess, and I didnt see anything else for a while. Then the king ordered the carriage stopped, and we looked out to see some people working in a field. The king asked them whose land they worked. They said it belonged to the Marquis de Caberras. This was news to me. I suspected the cat had set this up, and indeed he had.
When we arrived at the castle that guarded these lands, there was Puss, bowing us in, saying “Welcome to the home of my lord the marquis!” as though he did it every day. I finally got him aside and found that he had talked the former resident, an ogre, into changing into a mouse, and had eaten him.
When I proposed to the princess, I told her everything. I dont know if she believed it; she said I was as eloquent as Puss, which I dont believe for a minute. She also said that she wasnt taking orders from a cat, no matter how talented. And, indeed, the cat seems to believe his work is done. He has put away his boots, and is even now asleep in a pool of sunshine on the floor of the great hall.