Choral Tales Project
The Happy Man’s Shirt
(Europe - Scotland/UK)
As Re-told by Shirin Sabri
Watch the Choral Tales Video of this story here.
There once was a kingdom high in the forested hills, with lakes like clear blue gemstones set in the green valleys, and a fine castle standing proudly at the very top of the very highest hill. In that castle there lived a king, but the king was always unhappy. He had a beautiful queen who loved him for his own self, and two sweet, loving daughters, his darling little princesses, but still the king was unhappy.
All day long his servants ran to and fro at the queen’s command, trying to find something that would make the king happy. They brought him roasted meats and tender baked cakes, but nothing pleased him. They brought him new robes of velvet and fur to wear and clever toys to intrigue him, but the king only glanced at them and then turned away, bored.
The king was unhappy and so the kingdom was unhappy. People came day after day to see the king, to bring petitions, to ask for help, to report successes, but the king would not see them, because he was unhappy. Ambassadors came from far off lands with letters from other kings, but no reply was ever made, because the king was unhappy.
At last the queen decided that enough was enough. She sent for a wise man and she asked him, ‘What can I do? I want to make the king happy!’
The wise man rubbed his moustache. ‘There’s little enough you can do,’ he said mournfully.
‘There must be something,’ the queen insisted, ‘There must be something that would make him happy.’
‘Your majesty,’ sighed the wise man, ‘There’s only one thing that might make your king happy – he must find a happy man in this kingdom of his – a truly happy man – and wear the happy man’s shirt for a night and a day.’
‘It shall be done!’ the queen announced, with new energy in her voice, and she sent out riders that very day with orders to search the kingdom and bring her back a happy man.
So the days passed and the weeks passed and the months passed and the riders came trailing back one by one, defeated and miserable. They had searched, they had asked, they had coaxed and questioned, but nowhere had they found a truly happy man. When the last of the riders came back with nothing, the queen called the wise man again.
‘We have searched!’ she told the wise man in exasperation, ‘we have searched high and we have searched low, but we cannot find a truly happy man anywhere in the kingdom!’
‘The kingdom is unhappy because the king is unhappy,’ observed the wise man gloomily.
‘I do not know what to do!’ the queen exclaimed, ‘I sent all my best riders out to search for this happy man, and they found no-one!’
‘There is one other person you could send,’ remarked the wise man, and he paused as the queen looked at him doubtfully. ‘You could send the king out to look for himself.’
So the king (who did try to do things to please his queen, when she asked him nicely) set off the very next day to search his kingdom for a happy man. He went alone, as the wise man said he must, he wore simple clothes and took only a few pennies with him, he kept his royal seal hidden in his pocket, and he promised that he would not come back until he had found a truly happy man.
The king travelled on through his kingdom, getting a little work here and begging a bit of food there. Everywhere he went he talked to people, trying to find someone who was happy. He talked to farmers and hunters, to woodcutters and shepherds, to potters and crofters and an old woman sitting by the road, but none of them were happy. All of them wanted to tell him how things in his kingdom ought to be better, and none of them were content.
Then one day, as the king trudged down the road in his worn out shoes, he heard someone playing a merry song on a little tin whistle. The music came from a campsite by the brook at the bottom of the hill. Attracted by the song, the king scrambled down the hillside, and there by the brook he found an old fisherman brewing tea in a can over a small fire, trilling cheerfully on his whistle. A couple of fat trout were lying in the grass beside him ready to cook.
‘Good morning,’ says the king, eyeing the trout.
‘Good morning!’ says the fisherman, putting down his whistle. ‘Would you care for one of these trout?’
Licking his lips hungrily, the king agreed that he would, very much. The fisherman found another cup somewhere in his pack, gave it a wipe and served them both tea from the can.
‘There’s no sugar,’ he explained, beaming, ‘but we must make do. The tea’s fine and hot, and it’s what we have.’ The fisherman slurped down a good mouthful of his tea and said ‘Ahh, now, that’s wonderful!’
The king took a bit of a sip, and it was bitter strong tea without any sugar in it, but the king smiled, grateful for the warmth of the drink and the company.
Soon the trout were impaled on sticks, grilling on the fire, and an appetizing smell filled the air. When they were done, the fisherman handed the bigger of the two fish to the king, and started eating, stuffing his mouth with delight. The king took a few mouthfuls, and that fish did taste good, even though there was no salt. When they were finished, and cleaning their hands in the brook, the king asked the fisherman, rather hesitantly, ‘Do you think you are a happy man?’
‘Me?’ laughed the fisherman, ‘Why, I’m the happiest man in the world! Isn’t it grand to be alive on a beautiful day like this?’ He laughed again, and before the king knew it he was laughing too.
The king sat there by the brook and told the fisherman who he was. The fisherman looked at the king in his raggedy pants and his shoes with the toes flapping and he couldn’t help it, he started to giggle. Then the king looked down at himself, and he started to giggle, and before long the two of them could not speak, they were laughing so hard. Then the king dragged his royal seal out of his torn pocket and showed the fisherman that he truly was the king, but that just made the two of them laugh even harder.
At last the king managed to explain what he was doing, and how much he needed a happy man’s shirt. The fisherman answered immediately, ‘You could have it,’ he said, unbuttoning his shabby coat, ‘You could have it for sure, but you see, your majesty, I haven’t got a shirt!’
And the two of them laughed all the way, they laughed and they joked all the long way walking back to the king’s castle, for the king told the fisherman that the queen would surely want to meet him and shake him by the hand.
Shirin Sabir © 2014
Drawing, Eva Tuman © 2014