Stories and fairy tales have the power to shed light on life, illuminating things that might be happening right in front of us but that we are, for whatever reason, unable to see. In marriage and intimate relationships, it is particularly easy to become mired in set roles and daily routines, so much so that it takes a complete role reversal to instigate any positive change in the relationship. This is the insight of "Stubborn Husband, Stubborn Wife," a Muslim story that fairy tale expert Allan B. Chinen heard told by an old woman in Iran. Perhaps it can shed light on a relationship close to you.
Excerpted from "Sacred Stories: A Celebration of the Power of Story to Transform and Heal."
Once upon a time, there lived a husband and wife in a far away country. Every morning, the husband would wake up, get dressed, eat breakfast, and sit on a bench outside his house. Then he would watch the world go by all day long.
Meanwhile, his wife would wake up, fetch water, chop wood, light the fire, cook breakfast, sweep the floor, and wash their clothes. As you can imagine, the two quarreled constantly about this.
"Why do you sit there like a bump on a log doing nothing?" the wife would ask.
The husband would say, "I am thinking deep thoughts."
"As deep as a pig's tail is long!" she would cry out.
The two would argue back and forth. One day, their calf broke out of the barn as the husband was sitting on the bench and the wife was rushing around doing chores. The wife turned to the husband and asked, "Why don't you water the calf? You should at least do that. That's man's work."
The husband replied, "I inherited a flock of sheep from my father. A shepherd takes care of them and gives us cheese, milk, and wool. That's enough for us to live on. So that's enough work for me. Besides, the ancient prophets say that when a man speaks, a woman should obey. I say you should take care of the calf."
"A woman will obey when a real man speaks," she exclaimed. "Not donkey droppings like you."
They argued all morning and all afternoon. Then they both had the same idea. They turned to each other and said, "I know. The first one who speaks will have to take care of the calf from now on." They nodded in agreement and went to bed without speaking.
"I'm too smart for her tricks."
The next morning, the husband woke up. He went out and sat on his bench as usual. His wife arose, chopped wood, lit the fire, and washed the clothes. She realized that if she stayed home any longer, watching her husband doing nothing, she would have to speak. So she quickly finished all her chores, put on her veil, and went to visit a friend.
"This is strange," the husband thought to himself. "My wife never leaves home this early. She must be up to something."
A little later, a beggar came by, saw the husband, and asked for food and money. The husband was about to say something when he caught himself. "Ah, ha," he thought, "my wife has sent this man to make me talk. But I'm too smart for her tricks. No matter what happens, I won't speak."
The beggar asked several times, then decided that the man must be a deaf-mute. He went into the house and saw that is was full of cheese and bread. He ate everything and left. The husband was furious but would not allow himself to say a word.
While he was fuming, a barber came by and offered to trim his beard. The husband was about to say yes when he caught himself. "My wife is trying another trick," he thought. "but if heaven should fall to earth, I will not speak."
The barber asked again, then decided that the man must be a deaf-mute. But because the husband's beard really did need trimming, the barber went ahead and trimmed his beard. Then the barber motioned for money. The husband was silent. The barber became angry and said, "If you don't pay me, I'll shave off your beard and cut your hair so you look like a woman." The husband still did not speak or offer money. So the barber shaved off the husband's beard and cut his hair like a woman's. Then he left in a huff.
The husband was furious. He thought about all the different ways he would punish his wife. He vowed that he was going to win their bet no matter what.
A little while later, an old woman came up, selling cosmetics and beauty treatments. She was nearsighted and mistook the husband for a woman. So she hurried up and said, "Dear lady, what are you doing sitting outside without a veil? Have you no father or husband to take care of you?" The husband thought his wife must be very desperate to try all these tricks.
The old woman repeated her question, then decided that the woman must be a deaf-mute. "My goodness, how sad," she thought. "A deaf-mute and so ugly, too. Well, at least I know how to make women beautiful." She took out rouge, lipstick, and powder and put it on the husband's face. Then she motioned for money. But the husband still refused to say anything. So the old woman reached into his pockets, took all the money he had, and left.
While the husband was sitting there, thinking of how he would punish his wife for these tricks, a thief came by. He thought it strange that a young woman should be sitting in public without a veil, especially an ugly woman. So he went to her and said, "Dear lady, what are you doing sitting out here without a veil? Have you no father or husband to take care of you?
The husband refused to answer. "My wife still won't give up!" the thought. So the thief decided that the woman must be a deaf-mute. He went into the house and saw that it was full of costly carpets, vases, and clothes. He packed everything he could into a bag and left, waving to the husband.
The husband almost rolled over with laughter, thinking of how desperate his wife must be to win the wager. "No matter what my wife does," he thought, "I will not lose this bet."
By then it was midday. The poor calf had not had any food or water. So it broke out of the barn and ran around the village square, making a ruckus. The wife heard the noise from their friend's and came running to see what was the matter. "How did the calf break loose?" she wondered. "My husband must be up to something."
She grabbed the calf and went back to her home, but stopped at the sight of a strange woman sitting in front of her house. "I've been gone only a few hours," she thought, "and my husband takes another wife!"
She went up to the husband and said, "Who are you, you shameless woman sitting in front of my house?" The husband sprang up and said, "Ha, you spoke first. You have to take care of the calf from now on."
The wife exclaimed, "You shaved off your beard and put on makeup just to win our wager?"
The husband replied, "I did no such thing. It was all those people you hired to get me to talk." "What are you taking about?" the wife said. "I did no such thing." She stormed into the house. A minute later she stormed out. "Where are all our belongings?"
The husband explained that the man she hired to act as a thief had stolen everything. "What are you taking about?" she demanded.
The husband said, "You cannot fool me. You lost the wager, so you have to take care of the calf from now on."
The wife cried out, "Foolish man! You lost your face and your fortune, all for the sake of a wager. I will take care of the calf from now on because I am leaving you and taking the calf with me. I do not want a husband as dumb and stubborn as you." With that she walked off with the calf.
"Something must have happened."
She went to the village square and asked the children there if they had seen a man carrying a large bag. The children pointed to the desert. There in the distance, she saw a man hurrying away, a big sack on his back.
The wife pulled her veil tight and went after the man, pulling her calf behind her. While she walked, she came up with a plan.
When she caught up with the thief at an oasis, she sat a little ways away from him, sighed, and batted her eyelashes. The thief, who was not married, was flattered that an attractive woman would pay attention to him.
He said, "Dear lady, what are you doing in the middle of the desert with only a calf? Have you no father or husband to take care of you?" She said, "If I did, would I be in the middle of the desert with only my calf?"
The two of them started walking together and talking. The thief thought, "She seems like a strong, resourceful person. I should marry her." So he proposed to her. The wife said, "If we get married, how will you support us?"
The thief explained, "In this bag I have enough loot to last us a long while."
The wife said, "Let me see."
The thief replied, "No, you have to wait until we are married."
The two agreed to stop at the next village and have the chief marry them. The wife knew, however, that it was too late in the day to have a wedding. When they arrived at the village, the chief said as much. "Certainly," the chief told them, "I can marry you tomorrow. It's too late today for a wedding. You can stay in my house until tomorrow."
He put them up, the wife in one room and the thief in another. That night, the wife waited until everyone was asleep. Then she crept into the thief's room, peeked into his bag, and found everything she owned--carpets, clothes, vases, and money. She closed the bag, loaded it quietly on her calf, and was about to walk away from the house when she stopped. She went to the kitchen, mixed flour and water together, and cooked the paste over a candle. She poured the dough into the thief's shoes and into the shoes of the village chief. Then she left with her calf.
The next morning, the thief woke up to find that his bag and his bride-to-be were both gone. In the distance, he could see his fiancée hurrying away with his loot loaded on her calf. He ran to fetch his shoes but could not put them on because the dough had hardened like rock. So he grabbed the chief's shoes, but they were also ruined. Finally, he ran outside barefoot. By then, the sun had risen, and the desert sand was burning hot. In just a few steps, the thief's feet were burned and blistered. He had to give up the chase.
The woman started back to her village, and while she was walking she thought about her husband. When she returned to her house, her husband's bench was empty. "Something must have happened," she thought. She rushed into the house, but nobody was there. Yet the wood had been chopped, the fire was going, and something was cooking on the stove.
She found her husband in the courtyard hanging the laundry. When the two of them saw each other, they ran together and embraced. The husband confessed, "While you were gone, I realized how foolish and stubborn I was. I lost my face, my fortune, and my wife!"
The woman said, "I realized how nagging I was and how awful I was to be around." The two of them came to an agreement. From then on, every day, they both woke up early and worked hard all day. Then, when evening came, they sat on the bench together, thinking deep thoughts.