The Plate and the Cane

This story is from Naomie, one of the girls who used the Santa Famillie open center in Kinshasa. This one is like a number of stories I’ve heard from Europe, but it’s not the sort of thing we might might tell our children these days. And once again, unlike many of the European stories I’ve heard, there’s a lot of humour in it.

Sharing a meal at the Sainte famille open center for street chidlren in Kinshasa. I wonder how many of these tots had been chased out of their homes for witchcraft? 80%, the center director said. A more unlikley bunch of witches I never saw!

A wife and a husband lived together by a lake, where they caught fish for a living. One day, out on the lake with his nets, the husband pulled in huge plate. What to do with it? They had no use for it, it wasn’t a particularly nice place … so they threw it back. As soon as it hit the water, the plate called out to them.

“Don’t throw me away – ask me!”

The fisherman was amazed, and scared – but fascinated. “Ask you what?” he demanded.

“Just ask me.”

The fisherman was troubled. What if the plate was trying to trick him? But then – what it was doing him a favour? In the end, he decided that this was something he just couldn’t miss. So he took the plate home, and he said to his wife, “You’ll never guess what I caught today …”

That evening they both sat and looked at the plate. It seemed impossible to imagine that it had ever talked. “What shall we ask it?” said the man.

The wife thought for a mount, then she said, “Let’s ask it for food. We never really get enough to eat. Asking for food should be quite safe.”

The husband agreed. “Plate, feed us. Please,” he added. At once, a wonderful feast was spread out before them – plates of meat,which they almost never had, wonderful fruit, everything they could hope for. And it wasn’t just food that the plate could serve up. Money, clothes, anything they asked for, the plate produced. After that, they never needed for anything.

Now, that couple had a son who loved football. One day, this son went to play a game against a rich kid. This rich kid was boastful, a bully, disrespectful to his parents and always expected his own way. He boasted so much about what a great player he was, that the fisher’s son grew angry with him, and an argument broke out. In the end they had a bet – who was the best football player? The rich kid bet a fine new football. “And what about you?” demanded the rich kid. “I’m always hearing abut this famous plate of yours. If you’re so sure of yourself, why don’t you bet that?”

The fisher’s son was so angry, he stupidly agreed to bet the plate. They played the game, the fisher’s son was outclassed. That rich kid may have been boastful and irritating, but he was a great football player. So now what? Too ashamed to back down, the fisher’s son crept him, stole the plate and gave it to the rich kid.

When he got back home and his parent’s discovered what he’d done, they were furious. They beat him for his stupidity and went straight round to the rich man’s house to ask for their plate back. But of course, the rich man said no. “Why should I?” he asked. “It was won fair and square. You should teach your son to behave with more respect to you.”

“That’s rich, coming from you,” said the fisherman, “when everyone knows how rude your son is.”

“That may be so, but the plate is still mine,” said the rich man. “But I’ll tell you this – I’ll make a bet with you. if you can find a way to make my son behave, I’ll let you have it back.”

The fisherman went home feeling miserable. His son had given away their only bit of good fortune they’d ever had. “And there’s no way on earth anyone could make that boy behave himself,” he told his wife. “Everyone knows he’s the rudest, most unpleasant kid in the village.”

There was nothing for it but to get back to the fishing.

A few days later, the fisherman was out on his boat with his son, and he found caught in the net a cane. “This is no good to anyone,” said the father. “Although I could find a use for it if I thought about it,” he added, looking sideways at his son and swishing the cane. The son looked ashamed, and the father threw the cane back into the water.

But as soon as it hit the water, the cane shouted out. “Don’t throw me away. Tell me, tell me!” The father was delighted – but still a bit suspicious. Just because you have one piece of good luck, it does’t mean you;re going to have a second.

“Tell you what?” he asked.

“Just tell me,” said the cane. The fisherman pulled back the cane into the boat. “Now then – what shall I ask it?” he said aloud. “I know! Cane, beat my stupid son.” The cane set to work with gusto, gave the unfortunate son a beating of his life. It whipped him all the way back to shore and all the way back home, and still carried on when they got home.

“This is the life!” said the fisherman, lying back and watching, while his son hopped and howled. Every time he tried to escape out of the door, the cane would whip him back in.

“But this is perfect,” said his wife. “Now we have a way of teaching the rich man’s son his manners, and we can get our plate back.”

The next day, the man and his wife went to see the rich man, and explained to him that they were ready to take up the bet.

The rich man called his son to him. “Now – show me what you can do,” he said.

“Cane, beat this boy,” exclaimed the fisherman. As once the cane started work. The boy whooped and yelped and ran and twisted this way and that, but no matter where he went and what he did, the cane was there behind him, whipping merrily away. “This is perfect,” exclaim the rich man. “I’m far to busy to make sure my son behaves himself, but now I don’t need to, because this fine thin fellow will do all the work for me.”

So the deal was made – the cane for the plate. And everyone was happy – the fisherfolk because now they had all they could ask for; the rich man because he already had enough, but now he could keep his son in check; and the fisher’s son, because he had no need to worry about that troublesome cane any more. Only the rich boy had any need to feel sorry for himself – and that just serves him right.

That’s the end of the story.  Caning – not the sort of thing we do nowadays in Europe. I guess some of these children in the Congo aren’t so lucky, but I was a child, canings were a common place in books and in comics – half the stories in the Beano ended with an child bending over and getting six of the best from a jubilant teacher.  I remember a folk story I read as a child, one of a collection from the Czech republic, in which a group of rude princesses ended up being caned for three, six and nine days! Not only that, but the illustration showed them in their underwear – long frillies; and with a little crown on their heads. Not something I;d recommend for 11 year old boys today, although as a means of dealing the Royals, it has something to recommend it.

This lady told me all about the child witches she met in the market, and how she had a special gift from God to spot witches. Funny thing was, I have a special gift to spot self deceivers myself, and God was pointing right at her.

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