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"The Three Fish" by Coleman Barks

from The Essential Rumi. Harper Collins, 1995.

This is the story of the lake and the three big fish
that were in it, one of them intelligent,
another half-intelligent,
                 and the third, stupid.

Some fishermen came to the edge of the lake
with their nets. The three fish saw them.

The intelligent fish decided at once to leave,
to make the long, difficult trip to the ocean.

He thought,
                 "I won't consult with these two on this.
They will only weaken my resolve, because they love
this place so. They call it home. Their ignorance
will keep them here."

When you're traveling, ask a traveler for advice,
not someone whose lameness keeps him in one place.

Muhammad says,
                 "Love of one's country
is part of the faith."
                                  But don't take that literally!
Your real "country" is where you're heading,
not where you are.
Don't misread that hadith.

In the ritual ablutions, according to tradition,
there's a separate prayer for each body part.
When you snuff water up your nose to cleanse it,
beg for the scent of the spirit. The proper prayer is,
"Lord, wash me. My hand has washed this part of me,
but my hand can't wash my spirit.
                 I can wash this skin,
but you must wash me."

A certain man used to say the wrong prayer
for the wrong hole. He'd say the nose-prayer
when he splashed his behind. Can the odor of heaven
come from our rumps? Don't be humble with fools.
Don't take pride into the presence of a master.

It's right to love your home place, but first ask,
"Where is that, really?"

The wise fish saw the men and their nets and said,
"I'm leaving."

Ali was told a secret doctrine by Muhammad
and told not to tell it, so he whispered it down
the mouth of a well. Sometimes there's no one to talk to>
You must just set out on your own.

So the intelligent fish made its whole length
a moving footprint and, like a deer the dogs chase,
suffered greatly on its way, but finally made it
to the edgeless safety of the sea.

The half-intelligent fish thought,
                 "My guide
has gone. I ought to have gone with him,
but I didn't, and now I've lost my chance
to escape.
                 I wish I'd gone with him."
Don't regret what's happened. If it's in the past,
let it go. Don't even remember it!

A certain man caught a bird in a trap.
The bird says, "Sir, you have eaten many cows and sheep
in your life, and you're still hungry. The little bit
of meat on my bones won't satisfy you either.
If you let me go, I'll give you three pieces of wisdom.
One I'll say standing on your hand. One on your roof.
And one I'll speak from the limb of that tree."

The man was interested. He freed the bird and let it stand
on his hand.
                 "Number One: Do not believe an absurdity,
no matter who says it."

The bird flew and lit on the man's roof. "Number Two:
Do not grieve over what is past. It's over.
Never regret what has happened."

"By the way," the bird continued, "in my body there's a huge
pearl weighing as much as ten copper coins. It was meant
to be the inheritance of you and your children,
but now you've lost it. You could have owned
the largest pearl in existence, but evidently
it was not meant to be."

The man started wailing like a woman in childbirth.
The bird said: "Didn't I just say, Don't grieve
for what's in the past?
And also: Don't believe
an absurdity?
My entire body doesn't weight
as much as ten copper coins. How could I have
a pearl that heavy inside me?"

The man came to his senses. "All right.
Tell me Number Three."

"Yes. You've made such good use of the first two!"

Don't give advice to someone who's groggy
and falling asleep. Don't throw seeds on the sand.
Some torn places cannot be patched.

Back to the second fish,
                 the half-intelligent one.
He mourns the absence of his guide for a while,
and then thinks, "What can I do to save myself
form these men and their nets? Perhaps if pretend
to be already dead!
                 I'll belly up on the surface
and float like weeds float, just giving myself totally
to the water. To die before I die, as Muhammad
said to."
                 So he did that.

He bobbed up and down, helpless,
within arm's reach of the fishermen.

"Look at this! The best and biggest fish
is dead."
                 One of the men lifted him by the tail,
spat on him, and threw him up on the ground.

He rolled over and over and slid secretly near
the water, and then, back in.

                 Meanwhile,
the third fish, the dumb one, was agitatedly
jumping about, trying to escape with his agility
and cleverness.
                 The net, of course, finally closed
around him, and as he lay in the terrible
frying-pan bed, he thought,
                 "If I get out of this,
I'll never live again in the limits of a lake.
Next time, the ocean! I'll make
the infinite my home."


University of Oklahoma logo

Modern Languages / Anthropology 3043: Folklore & Myth.
Laura Gibbs, Ph.D. 2002.  laura-gibbs@ou.edu.
Page last updated: February 9, 2003 9:21 PM

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