The Fable of the Hedge

from Forty Fables

A simple peasant was foraging for berries in a hedge one morning when he was approached by a second peasant – who was not quite so simple.

“Nice berries?” asked this second peasant.

“Aye,” agreed the first.

“I’m not surprised,” said the other. “It’s my hedge.”

The simple peasant was rather impressed – never before had he encountered a peasant who had his own hedge.

“I tell you what – ” said this second peasant – “you can take as many of my berries as you wish, so long as you pick the same amount for me.”

The simple peasant was happy to oblige – he thought he knew a good arrangement when he heard one; and he thought that the second peasant owned the hedge. (Of course, he didn’t, the second peasant was merely a lazy peasant, with an instinctive ability to fool and mislead the innocent.)

For the rest of that week the simple peasant picked berries every day – and the lazy peasant called to collect his share. In fact, the simple peasant felt so welcome that he moved into the district – and spent his nights sleeping in the nearest ditch.

“Ah . . . ” said the lazy peasant – finding him there one morning. “You realise that this is my ditch as well?”

The simple peasant simply couldn’t believe it.

“Well, you’re quite welcome to it,” the lazy peasant assured him. “But it’ll cost you a few extra berries.”

The simple peasant considered the matter carefully:

As ditches went is was rather a good one, and very convenient for the hedge; and, apart from the berries, there were birds’ eggs and hedgehogs. It seemed to be an excellent arrangement.

So the simple peasant, simply, picked an extra half as many berries – two equal shares, and a share for the use of the ditch. And although this meant he had to spend a bit more time picking the berries for himself, he could always get up earlier, or eat less.

The lazy peasant was, of course, rather pleased about this – particularly as he didn’t like berries and was, thus, able to trade the whole lot. In no time he had a coat, boots, a rather splendid hovel – and a number of simple peasants working for him in other areas.

Winter came. Snow covered the land. The hedge ceased to bear berries. The simple peasant shivered in his ditch.

“I’ll tell you what – ” said the lazy peasant. “You can pay me for the use of the ditch next year. In the meantime, you may eat as many hedgehogs as you wish.”

So the simple peasant simply stayed where he was – after all, he had a hedge fixed up in advance, and he still thought he knew a good arrangement when he heard one.

Spring came. The lazy peasant returned from a comfortable winter in his hovel, where he had enjoyed a selection of vegetables, meats and dairy produce. And the simple peasant climbed out of his ditch, a little the worse for wear but still alive despite the frostbite and the prickles.

“You’d better get started then!” the lazy peasant told him.

“But there’s no berries!” the simple peasant complained.

“Then you must wait for them,” the lazy peasant advised him. “You must wait for the hedge to recover.”

So the simple peasant waited – for several months. – while the lazy peasant assured him that the berries were coming soon. But by the time they arrived he would be entangled in a conundrum:

For he owed the lazy peasant an equal amount to the number of berries that he wanted, plus as many again for the use of the ditch – so he had to pick three times as many as he wanted, whatever. But he also owed a great many berries for the months when the hedge was bare – for the ditch – which complicated matters rather seriously.

Even if the simple peasant decided that he didn’t want any more berries (which, frankly, he had half a mind to do) the payments for the winter had been based upon the previous summer’s consumption – which had been considerable by any standards.

“Lorks,” thought the simple peasant. “No wonder some peasants opt for a nomadic existence.”

Summer arrived. The berries appeared. The peasant got picking.

“Well, it’s a start,” said the lazy peasant. “But I think you’d better put in some extra time.”

All day he picked. All night he picked. He picked at the hedge continuously.

“And remember – ” said the lazy peasant – “you still owe me for all those hedgehogs!”

The only way the simple peasant could increase his yield was to not eat any berries himself – which was ridiculous, as that was the reason he was there in the first place. Even so, that’s what he did, and he survived on a diet of raw birds’ eggs, filched from the nests the lazy peasant was too lazy to find out about.

Then one morning a wise old peasant was passing by, and he noticed the simple peasant at work.

“How can anybody eat that much?” the wise old peasant asked him.

The simple peasant told him the whole wretched story – even the bit about the birds’ eggs. And the wise old peasant was absolutely furious.

“This is an outrage!” he exclaimed. “Nobody should be made to work such hours. Worse still, you have probably interfered with the ecological balance of the hedge!”

The simple peasant was terribly dismayed – he thought he’d done everything right. So dismayed that he bashed in the wise old peasant’s head.

“Oh, well done!” said the lazy peasant, when he found out what had happened. “I know him . . . I reckon he was after our berries.”

Moral: Life’s a ditch.

© Adam Acidophilus 1995