The Three Sneezes
by Roger Duvoisin
Jean-Marie the Farmer climbed up a tree to cut some wood for his stove. His donkey, standing below, closed his eyes and went to sleep.
Just then a stranger on horseback happened to pass by. “Heh, there,” cried the stranger, “have you ever sawed wood before?”
“Why, if all the wood I have sawed in my life was gathered together it would make a fine forest,” Jean-Marie shouted back.
“One wouldn’t think so,” said the stranger.
“Why not?” demanded Jean-Marie.
“Because when you have sawed through that branch on which you are sitting, both you and the branch will fall to the ground.”
“Be off with you, stranger,” said Jean-Marie. “I can see that you know nothing about sawing wood.”
So the stranger went off, and Jean-Marie went on sawing. Presently there was a terrible crash, and both he and the branch fell to the ground.
Jean-Marie picked himself up, and when he had rubbed all his bruises and found that his back was not broken, he bethought himself of the stranger’s words. “Surely that was a wonderful man,” he thought, “for he told me that the branch and I would fall to the ground, and so we did. He must know the future. I will go after him, and ask him a thing or two.”
So Jean-Marie got on his donkey, and away they went after the stranger. Presently they came to a turn in the road, and there was the stranger, ambling along on his horse as though nothing had happened.
“Ho, there!” cried Jean-Marie.
“What is it?” said the stranger, stopping his horse.
“I see that you can read the future, so I want to ask you a thing or two.”
“What makes you think I can read the future?”
“You said that when I had sawed through the branch, both of us would fall to the ground, and so we did.”
“Oh,” said the stranger, smiling, “I see. Well, ask me your questions, but I warn you I can only answer one of them.”
“Very well,” said Jean-Marie, “just answer me this. When am I going to die?”
“That’s easy,” said the stranger. “You will die when your donkey has sneezed three times.” And with that he rode away.
“My donkey never sneezes,” thought Jean-Marie, “so I shall live a long time.” And he started for home feeling very happy.
Now donkeys are very stubborn, and they always do just the very thing they should not. When they should walk, they will not budge, and when they should keep still they are always walking away. So it was not very long before the donkey opened his mouth and…
“Aatshoum!” he sneezed, loud and long.
Jean-Marie was aghast. All his happiness was changed to terror. He jumped down and pressed both hands against the donkey’s nose to stop the next sneeze (for everybody knows one always sneezes more than once). When the danger seemed past, he resumed his trip, but now he did not dare to ride. Instead, he walked beside the donkey so as to prevent any more sneezes.
Presently they came to a freshly plowed field, and there Jean-Marie paused to admire the rich brown earth. What a fine crop of wheat would grow there next summer. Forgetting all about the sneezes, he bent down to feel it with his hands, and…
“Aaatshoum!” sneezed the donkey for the second time.
Jean-Marie snatched his hat and put it over the donkey’s nose and held it tight.
“Two sneezes already! Two horrible sneezes!” he lamented. “I am only one single sneeze from death, one miserable donkey sneeze. Surely I am the most unhappy man alive. I am sure that stranger must have been the devil. He not only told the future, he is making my donkey sneeze. He bewitched my donkey!”
But he was holding the hat too tightly over the donkey’s nose, and the donkey, finding he could not breathe, reared up and kicked Jean-Marie very severely.
“Some other remedy must be found,” said Jean-Marie. “For if my donkey sneezes again I am a dead man.”
Then he had an idea. He picked up two round stones and placed them in the donkey’s nostrils, like corks in a bottle. “There, just let him try to sneeze that out,” he thought. But he had reckoned without the contrariness of donkeys.
The stones flew out like bullets from a gun. They hit Jean-Marie in the face.
“Ah! Ah!” said Jean-Marie. “I am dead. Very, very dead.”
And he lay down in the road, for it is not right for a dead man to stand up.