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The Five Strange Brothers

AN old woman had five grown-up sons that looked just alike. The eldest could gulp up the ocean at a mouthful; the second was hard enough to nick steel; the third had extensible legs; the fourth was unaffected by fire; the fifth lived without breathing. They all concealed their peculiar traits, and their neighbors did not know they were different.

The eldest supported the family by fishing, going alone to the sea, and bringing back loads of spoil. The neighbors often besought him to teach their sons how to fish, and he at last let all their boys go with him, one day, to learn his art. On reaching the shore he sucked the sea into his mouth, and sent the boys to the dry bottom to collect the fish. When he was tired of holding the water, he beckoned to the boys to return, but they were playing among strange objects and paid no heed to him. When he could contain the sea no longer, he had to let it flow back into its former basin, and all the boys were drowned.

As he went homeward, he passed the doom of the parents, who inquired how many fish their sons had caught and how long they would be in coming back. He told them the facts, but they would not excuse him. They dragged him before the magistrate to account for the loss of their children. He defended himself by saying he had not invited the boys to go with him, and had consented to their going only when the parents had repeatedly urged him; that after the boys were on the ocean bed, he had done his utmost to induce them to come ashore; that he had held the water as long as he could, and had then put it in the sea basin solely because nothing else would contain it.

Notwithstanding this defense the judges decided that since he took the boys away and did not bring them back, he was guilty of murder and sentenced him to be beheaded.

He entreated leave to pay, before his execution, one visit to his aged mother, and this was granted.

He went alone and told his brothers of his doom, and the second brother returned in his stead to the judge, thanked him for having given him permission to perform a duty required by filial piety, and said he was then ready to die.

He knelt with bowed head and the headsman brought the knife down across the back of his neck, but the knife was nicked and the neck was left unharmed.

A second knife and a third of finer steel were brought and tried by headsmen who were accustomed to sever heads clean off at one stroke. Having spoiled their best blades without so much as scratching his neck, they took him back to prison and informed the judge that the sentence could not be executed.

The judge accordingly decreed that he should be dropped into the sea which covered his victims.

When the old woman's son heard this decision he said that he took leave of his mother supposing that his head was to be cut off, and that if he was to be drowned he must go to her and make known his fate and get her blessing anew.

Permission being given, he went and told his brothers what had happened. The third brother took the place of the second and presented himself before the judge as the criminal that was to be sunk in the sea. He was carried far from shore and thrown overboard, but he stretched his legs till his feet touched bottom, and he stood with his head in the air. They hauled him aboard and took him farther from land, but still his extensible legs supported him above the waters. Then they sailed to mid-ocean and cast him into its greatest depths, but his legs still lengthened so that he was not drowned. They brought him back to the judge, reported what had been done, and said that some other method of destroying him must be followed.

On hearing this the judge condemned him to death by being boiled in oil. While the caldron was being heated he begged and obtained permission to go and tell his mother of the way he had survived from the attempt to drown him, and of the manner in which he was soon to be taken off.

His brothers having heard the latest judgment, the fourth one went to bear the penalty of the law and was lowered into the kettle of boiling oil. In this he disported himself as if in a tepid bath, and he even asked his executioners to stir up the fire a little to increase the warmth. Finding that he could not be fried, he was remanded to prison.

At this the populace, the bereaved parents, and the magistrate joined in an effort to invent a sure method of putting him to death. Water, fire, and sword all having failed, they finally fixed upon smothering him in a vast cream cake.

The whole country round made contributions of flour for the pastry, of sugar for the filling, and of bricks for a huge oven; and it was made and baked on a plain outside the city walls.

Meanwhile the prisoner was allowed to go and bid his mother farewell, and the fifth brother secretly became his substitute.

When the cake was done, a multitude of people with oxen, horses, and ropes dragged it to the execution ground, and within it the culprit was interred.

As he was able to exist without air he rested peacefully till the next midnight, and then safely crawled forth, returned to his home, and dwelt there happily for many years with his remarkable brothers.


By Adele M. Fielde

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