The Riddle of Four Wives

Once upon a time three poor brothers lived at the edge of a forest in poverty and want. Their land was sour and would not yield a crop, and no animals or fruits could be found inside the forest. One day the youngest brother said:

“Let us go to the Chief and ask if he will agree to give us anything we want for five days, and in return we will give our lives to him on the sixth day.”

The three brothers all agreed to do this; for at least five days of their lives they would know happiness. The went to the Chief, and he agreed to give each brother any single thing for five days, on condition that they would give him their lives on the sixth day.

The eldest brother chose wine. For five days he drank wine, and when his life was taken there was little of it left.

The second brother chose food. For five days he stuffed himself, and when his life was taken there was little of it left.

The youngest brother chose cloth. He was a handsome man, and when dressed in rich robes and raiment he was very handsome indeed, and all the young maidens fell in love with him. Now, the Chief had a very lovely daughter who was too beautiful for ordinary men to look upon, and he kept her shut inside a tall fence.

The young man, whose name was Talwa, bribed the guards with bundles and bales of the richest cloths, and on the fifth night he crept inside the fence. He found the daughter of the Chief in bed, and Talwa was so handsome she fell in love with him at once: and she was so desirable he made love to her without delay.

After a time they began planning their escape. They gathered riches and fine cloths and put them in a box, then crept away in the shadows of the night of the forest. They walked to a distant place, then beyond and even further, and here there was no food. Such hunger came upon them that they feared to die, until they met a maiden with a hamper full of rice.

“O maiden, give us rice to eat,” said Talwa, and offered her some gold. But she looked at him, so tall and brave and handsome, and she said:

“I want no gold. Take my rice and eat, and let me be your wife, or I will die.”

Talwa took her as his wife; and the three of them ate and traveled on. they wandered far into a swamp and lost their way, and they were nearly dead when they chanced to meet a maiden who followed a secret path.

“O Maiden, lead us from the swamp,” said Talwa, and offered her fine cloth. But she gazed at him with love and longing in her eyes, and answered:

“I want no cloth. I will lead you from the swamp, but you must take me as your wife, or I will die.”

She led them from the swamp; and now Talwa had three wives.

They came to a certain town and there they slept. the Chief of this town did not like strangers, and any man who came was obliged to pass a test; if he could not, he was killed. The Chief had a hundred boxes of gold, and the test was in choosing which one of the boxes the Chief had owned in his youth.

The daughter of the Chief fell in love with Talwa, and during the night he took her as his wife. She told him which of the boxes her father had owned in his youth. Next morning Talwa was hailed before the Chief and shown the hundred boxes.

“Choose the box I owned in my youth,” the Chief commanded, “or your head will be cut off, and you will die.”

Talwa walked among the boxes pretending to make magic signs, and at length he pointed to a box and said:

“This is the one. I am right, I am not wrong, I know it is the one. It is the box you owned when you were young.”

The old Chief was astonished, for Talwa was correct. He summoned his council and said:

“My people, he will marry my daughter and share my lands.”

And thus it was; Talwa abided in that land with all of his four wives.

The first had abandoned her family for love of him.

The second had saved him from starving to death.

The third had saved him from dying in the swamps.

The fourth had saved him from having his head cut off.

What order would these wives take in Talwa’s household?