Africa: The Heart of a Monkey

This marvelous Swahili story shows signs of Arabic cultural contact, as the story you will read here has its origin in India, being one of the Buddhist jataka tales. You can read a Buddhist version of the story in the Jataka Tales unit in this class; it features a crocodile instead of a shark as the villain of the story.

At the end of the story, you will see a "story within a story" technique as one of the characters in this story — the monkey – turns into a storyteller, telling the story of "The Washerman's Donkey" in order to teach the shark a lesson; you will read that story on the following two pages, and then you will return to the monkey and the shark after the monkey finishes up his story.

[Notes by LKG]

This story is part of the African Stories (Lang) unit. Story source: The Lilac Fairy Book by Andrew Lang and illustrated by H. J. Ford (1910).


The Heart of a Monkey

A long time ago a little town made up of a collection of low huts stood in a tiny green valley at the foot of a cliff. Of course the people had taken great care to build their houses out of reach of the highest tide which might be driven on shore by a west wind, but on the very edge of the town there had sprung up a tree so large that half its boughs hung over the huts and the other half over the deep sea right under the cliff where sharks loved to come and splash in the clear water.

The branches of the tree itself were laden with fruit, and every day at sunrise a big grey monkey might have been seen sitting in the topmost branches having his breakfast and chattering to himself with delight.

After he had eaten all the fruit on the town side of the tree, the monkey swung himself along the branches to the part which hung over the water. While he was looking out for a nice shady place where he might perch comfortably he noticed a shark watching him from below with greedy eyes.

'Can I do anything for you, my friend?' asked the monkey politely.

'Oh! if you only would thrown me down some of those delicious things, I should be so grateful,' answered the shark. 'After you have lived on fish for fifty years you begin to feel you would like a change. And I am so very, very tired of the taste of salt.'

'Well, I don't like salt myself,' said the monkey, 'so if you will open your mouth I will throw this beautiful juicy kuyu into it,' and, as he spoke, he pulled one off the branch just over his head. But it was not so easy to hit the shark's mouth as he supposed, even when the creature had turned on his back, and the first kuyu only struck one of his teeth and rolled into the water. However, the second time the monkey had better luck, and the fruit fell right in.

'Ah, how good!' cried the shark. 'Send me another, please.' And the monkey grew tired of picking the kuyu long before the shark was tired of eating them.

'It is getting late, and I must be going home to my children,' he said, at length, 'but if you are here at the same time tomorrow I will give you another treat.'

'Thank you, thank you,' said the shark, showing all his great ugly teeth as he grinned with delight; 'you can't guess how happy you have made me,' and he swam away into the shadow, hoping to sleep away the time till the monkey came again.

For weeks the monkey and the shark breakfasted together, and it was a wonder that the tree had any fruit left for them. They became fast friends and told each other about their homes and their children, and how to teach them all they ought to know. By and by the monkey became rather discontented with his green house in a grove of palms beyond the town and longed to see the strange things under the sea which he had heard of from the shark. The shark perceived this very clearly and described greater marvels, and the monkey as he listened grew more and more gloomy.

Matters were in this state when one day the shark said: 'I really hardly know how to thank you for all your kindness to me during these weeks. Here I have nothing of my own to offer you, but if you would only consent to come home with me, how gladly would I give you anything that might happen to take your fancy.'

'I should like nothing better,' cried the monkey, his teeth chattering, as they always did when he was pleased. 'But how could I get there? Not by water. Ugh! It makes me ill to think of it!'

'Oh! don't let that trouble you,' replied the shark; 'you have only to sit on my back and I will undertake that not a drop of water shall touch you.'

So it was arranged, and directly after breakfast next morning the shark swam close up under the tree and the monkey dropped neatly on his back, without even a splash. After a few minutes--for at first he felt a little frightened at his strange position--the monkey began to enjoy himself vastly and asked the shark a thousand questions about the fish and the sea-weeds and the oddly-shaped things that floated past them, and as the shark always gave him some sort of answer, the monkey never guessed that many of the objects they saw were as new to his guide as to himself.

The sun had risen and set six times when the shark suddenly said, 'My friend, we have now performed half our journey, and it is time that I should tell you something.'

'What is it?' asked the monkey. 'Nothing unpleasant, I hope, for you sound rather grave?'

'Oh, no! Nothing at all. It is only that shortly before we left I heard that the sultan of my country is very ill and that the only thing to cure him is a monkey's heart.'

'Poor man, I am very sorry for him,' replied the monkey, 'but you were unwise not to tell me till we had started.'

'What do you mean?' asked the shark, but the monkey, who now understood the whole plot, did not answer at once for he was considering what he should say.

'Why are you so silent?' inquired the shark again.

'I was thinking what a pity it was you did not tell me while I was still on land, and then I would have brought my heart with me.'

'Your heart! Why, isn't your heart here?' said the shark, with a puzzled expression.

'Oh, no! Of course not. Is it possible you don't know that when we leave home, we always hang up our hearts on trees to prevent their being troublesome? However, perhaps you won't believe that and will just think I have invented it because I am afraid, so let us go on to your country as fast as we can, and when we arrive, you can look for my heart, and if you find it, you can kill me.'

The monkey spoke in such a calm, indifferent way that the shark was quite deceived and began to wish he had not been in such a hurry.

'But there is no use going on if your heart is not with you,' he said at last. 'We had better turn back to the town and then you can fetch it.'

Of course, this was just what the monkey wanted, but he was careful not to seem too pleased.

'Well, I don't know,' he remarked carelessly, 'it is such a long way, but you may be right.'

'I am sure I am,' answered the shark, 'and I will swim as quickly as I can,' and so he did, and in three days they caught sight of the kuyu tree hanging over the water.

With a sigh of relief, the monkey caught hold of the nearest branch and swung himself up.

'Wait for me here,' he called out to the shark. 'I am so hungry I must have a little breakfast, and then I will go and look for my heart,' and he went further and further into the branches so that the shark could not see him. Then he curled himself up and went to sleep.

'Are you there?' cried the shark, who was soon tired of swimming about under the cliff and was in haste to be gone.

The monkey awoke with a start, but did not answer.

'Are you there?' called the shark again, louder than before, and in a very cross voice.

'Oh, yes. I am here,' replied the monkey. 'but I wish you had not wakened me up. I was having such a nice nap.'

'Have you got it?' asked the shark. 'It is time we were going.'

'Going where?' inquired the monkey.

'Why, to my country, of course, with your heart. You CAN'T have forgotten!'

'My dear friend,' answered the monkey, with a chuckle, 'I think you must be going a little mad. Do you take me for a washerman's donkey?'

'Don't talk nonsense,' exclaimed the shark, who did not like being laughed at. 'What do you mean about a washerman's donkey? And I wish you would be quick, or we may be too late to save the sultan.'

'Did you really never hear of the washerman's donkey?' asked the monkey, who was enjoying himself immensely. 'Why, he is the beast who has no heart. And as I am not feeling very well and am afraid to start while the sun is so high lest I should get a sunstroke, if you like, I will come a little nearer and tell you his story.'

'Very well,' said the shark sulkily, 'if you won't come, I suppose I may as well listen to that as do nothing.'

So the monkey began.


(1400 words)





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