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The Wise Little Girl


Once upon a time in the immense Russian steppe, lay a little village where nearly all the inhabitants bred horses. It was the month of October, when a big livestock market was held yearly in the main town. Two brothers, one rich and the other one poor, set off for market. The rich man rode a stallion, and the poor brother a young mare.

It was a foal, to which the mare had given birth during the night. Soon it had the strength to struggle to its feet, and after a drink of its mother's milk, the foal staggered its first few steps. The stallion greeted it with a cheerful whinny, and when the two brothers set eyes on it for the first time, the foal was standing beside the stallion.


The brothers started to quarrel, then they decided to go to town and bring the matter before the judges. Still arguing, they headed for the big square where the courtroom stood.

The brothers were ushered into his presence, and they told him all about the dispute.


The Emperor knew perfectly well who was the owner of the foal. He was on the point of proclaiming in favour of the poor brother, when suddenly Ivan developed an unfortunate twitch in his eye.

After listening to both sides of the story, he declared it was difficult, indeed impossible, to say exactly who was the foal’s rightful owner.


Being in the mood for a spot of fun, and since he loved posing riddles and solving them as well, to the amusement of his counsellors, he exclaimed, “I can’t judge which of you should have the foal, so it will be awarded to whichever of you solves the following four riddles:

  1. What is the fastest thing in the world?
  2. What is the fattest thing in the world?
  3. What is the softest thing in the world?
  4. What is the most precious thing in the world?

I command you to return to the palace in a week’s time with your answers.”


Dimitri started to puzzle over the answers as soon as he left the courtroom. When he reached home, however, he realized he had nobody to help him; ‘Well, I will just have to seek help, because if I cannot solve these riddles, I will lose the foal.”

Since she had a reputation for being quick-witted, but also very astute, he decided to ask her advice, in exchange for cancelling part of her debt. The woman was not slow to show how astute she really was, and promptly demanded that the whole debt be wiped out in exchange for the answers.


“The fastest thing in the world is my husband’s bay horse” she said “Nothing can beat it.”

“The softest thing in the world is the quilt I made for the bed, using my own goose’s feathers. It’s the envy of all my friends.”

“The most precious thing in the world is my three-month old nephew. There isn’t a more handsome child. I wouldn’t exchange him for all the gold on earth, and that makes him the most precious thing on earth.”


Dimitri was rather doubtful about the woman’s answers being correct. On the other hand, he had to take some kind of solution back to the Emperor. He guessed, quite rightly, that if he did not, he would be punished.

The poor man took the little girl into his confidence, because like his brother, he knew he would never be able to find the answers by himself.


The child sat in silence for a moment, then firmly said. “Tell the Emperor that…

“The fattest thing in the world is the soil in our fields whose crops give life to men and animals alike.”

“The softest thing in the world is a child’s caress.”

“The most precious thing in the world is honesty”.


The day came when the two brothers were to return before the Emperor. They were led into his presence. The Emperor was curious to hear what they had to say, but he roared with laughter at Dimitri's foolish answers.

The Emperor knew perfectly well that he had been dishonest in his dealings with the poor brother, because he had denied him justice, but he could not bear to admit it in front of his own counsellors, so he angrily demanded, “Who gave you these answers?”


Ivan told the Emperor that it was his small daughter. Still annoyed, the great man said, “You shall be rewarded for having such a wise and clever daughter. You shall be awarded the foal that your brother claimed, together with a hundred silver ducats...

“But... but...” the Emperor winked at his counsellors. “You will come before me in seven days time, bringing your daughter.

“Since she’s so clever, she must appear before me neither naked nor dressed, neither on foot nor on horseback, neither bearing gifts nor empty-handed. If she does this, you will have your reward. If not, you’ll have your head chopped off for your impudence.”


The onlookers began to laugh, knowing that the poor man would never to able to fulfil the Emperor’s conditions.

Ivan did as his daughter said. He had no idea what the two creatures were for, but he trusted in his daughter’s wisdom.


On the day of the audience with the Emperor, the palace was thronged with bystanders, waiting for Ivan and his small daughter to arrive.

Scowling, the Emperor told her, “I said neither bearing gifts nor empty-handed.” At these words, the little girl held out the partridge. The Emperor stretched out his hand to grasp it, but the bird fluttered into the air. The third condition had been fulfilled.


In spite of himself, the Emperor could not help admiring the little girl who had so cleverly passed such a test, and in a gentler voice he said, “Is your father terribly poor, and does he desperately need the foal.”

“Aha” cried the Emperor triumphantly. “So you are not as clever as you seem to be. Whoever heard of hares in the river, and fish in the trees.”


To which the little girl swiftly replied, “And whoever heard of a stallion having a foal?”

Ivan was immediately given his hundred silver ducats and the foal, and the Emperor proclaimed, “Only in my kingdom could such a wise little girl be born.”

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