On his way to the big city for the first time, a farmer stopped by the side of the road for a drink of water from his pouch. He wiped his mouth and turned to spit, when he saw a glint of something colourful shining in the bushes.
Mindful that it might be a snake, he proceeded with caution. There he found, to his surprise, a pile of of rubies the size of hen’s eggs, and amid them a human skull, the jaw still hanging beneath it.
“Help yourself,” said the skull, before the farmer could so much exclaim in surprise, “there’s not much I can do with them now.”
“Good grief, a talking skull,” said the farmer, who was noted for his observational prowess. “How on earth did you get there?”
“I got here by talking, my friend,” said the skull.
Taking the skull at its word, the farmer began to scoop the rubies into his pockets with great excitement, for with them he could buy many cows, and land, and his farm was sure to flourish.
On his way into the city the guards stopped and searched him as they had stopped and searched each man entering the city (it took a very long time); when they came upon the rubies they called for the Captain of the guard.
“How did you come by these rubies?” asked the Captain, angry and shaking his spear. “These are the rubies of the prince. They were stolen last year. How have you these rubies and what do you mean by walking so brazenly back into the city with them?”
“Oh my,” said the farmer, who had been brought up to be an honest man, “I only found them by the side of the road a mile back, under a talking skull. It said I should take them.”
“A talking skull?” said the Captain of the guard. “This is either lying, or witchcraft. For the lie you shall be put to death, for the witchcraft you shall be imprisoned and exorcised. Where is this skull, liar-witch?”
“I can take you to it!” cried the farmer. “I am not a liar, and I am not a witch.”
When the Captain of the guard came to the skull with the farmer, he said, “This is just an old skull.”
“I tell you it talked,” said the farmer, quite distressed. He picked up the skull, crying, “Talk! Talk I say! Tell them I am not a liar!”
But the skull did not speak.
“Perhaps you have no authority,” said the Captain of the guard with a smirk. “Here, you. Skull. Say something, else your accomplice will lose his head.”
“Hey, I am not his accomplice,” the farmer said, “I am just a farmer.”
But the skull did not speak, and dangled as dead as any skull from the hand of the Captain of the guard.
“It seems your fate is sealed, thief,” said the Captain of the guard. “You steal the prince’s rubies and then you lie to the Captain of the city guard! You shall lose your head for this.”
As he said so the guard-of-the-axe knocked the farmer to his knees, and pressed his face to the dirt. He placed the edge of his axe along the farmer’s neck, and lifted up his axe.
“One last time,” said the Captain of the guard. “SKull, in the name of the prince, I command you to speak.”
But the skull did not speak.
The guard-of-the-axe brought his axe down THUNK, and the farmer’s head rolled into the bushes. With a shrug the Captain of the guard tossed aside the skull, and he went back to the city with the prince’s rubies, to a fine reward.
Presently, the skull, upside-down in the bushes, said, “Well hello, how on earth did you get there?”
And the severed head of the unfortunate farmer replied, “I got here by talking, my friend.”
If memory serves, I first learnt a version of this story when I was six or so, at one of the many festivals and workshops my mother used to take me along to because she couldn’t afford childcare. I’ve heard, read, and told many variations but the central theme and the refrain “I got here by talking, my friend” is always the same. I am not sure where the story originally hails from – the person who told it to me first said “Africa”, which is unnecessarily nebulous, and I have had no further advances on this beyond “West Africa, possibly”. At any rate, it is a fine parable, and one which deserves retelling.