The Nine Questions
A Spanish Folk Tale
retold by by Louise Carus in The Real St. Nicholas: Tales of Generosity and Hope From Around the World
There was once a man and a woman who had a child after longing for one for many years. They were eager to have the baby baptized, but to do so, they needed a godfather. Alas, their friends were too poor to sponsor the newborn. The man searched here and there, but no one was willing.
When the father was about to give up hope, he met an old man who said, “Good morrow to you. Why do you look so sad on such a beautiful day?”
“Ah, me!” said the man, “Why shouldn’t I be sad, when I’ve been looking everywhere for a godfather and cannot find one because I am so poor.”
“Don’t worry!” said the old man. “I will gladly be the godfather and sponsor the baptism, just as a real godfather should.”
“Heaven bless you!” cried the child’s parent.
The old man kept his word, and the little one was soon baptized.
Before the godfather returned home, he told the man where he lived and said, “If you ever need anything, just come to me. I will always help you.” “Many thanks, kind sir. But 1 hardly know you. What is your name?” The old man said only, “My name is Nicholas.” Then he blessed the baby and left.
The father went back to his work at the harbor, anxious to provide for his family. But it was a bad year. The merchants who had hired him said he was no longer needed and sent him away. Soon the man and his wife had spent all of their savings. They had not even enough left to buy flour for bread. In a short time, they and their child would all starve.
Then the poor man suddenly remembered the baby’s godfather and his kind offer to help. Right away he went to where Nicholas had said he lived, but the Saint was not at home. After a few days, the man tried again, but again he did not find Nicholas. Many people needed help here and there, and the good Saint must have been busy.
Three times the man made the trip, but Nicholas was still not at home.
Now the man was truly desperate. As he stumbled down the road, weak from hunger, a stranger approached, asking, “My friend, why are you so sad?”
“Why shouldn’t I be sad? My wife and child are starving,” the man replied.
“Ah, but I can help you!” said the stranger, with a gleam in his eye. “Naturally, though, not for nothing. I propose that we play a game: I will give you this extremely large bag of gold, and your troubles will be over. All I ask in return is that you answer my nine questions correctly in a year. If at that time you do not know the answers, then all you must give me is something very small—your child.”
“My precious child?” thought the man. “How could I promise that?” His head was spinning, not knowing what to do. But then he thought: “Who knows what will happen in a year? If I don’t agree, we’ll all starve in a week. It can’t get any worse.”
“Very well,” he said finally. “You have my word on it.”
“Good! Smart fellow!” laughed the stranger, and handed him the gold. The happy man hurried home as fast as his weak legs would carry him. That night, he and his family enjoyed a full meal for the first time in many weeks.
With so much gold, the man could have supported his wife and child for much longer than a year. But soon after meeting the stranger, he also found work again. Everything began to go well.
When the year was almost over, though, the man began to worry. He feared for his child whom he had promised to the stranger.
“How could I have been so stupid? I don’t dare tell my dear wife! Whatever shall I do?” he cried to himself.
But the woman soon noticed that something was amiss. Sorrowfully, he had to tell her the whole story.
“Why don’t you go to the godfather of our child? Go to Nicholas!” his wife implored.
“He’s never at home,” the man sighed.
Once more the man took the road to where St. Nicholas lived, hardly expecting to find him. But lo and behold! This time, Nicholas was there!
“Now, my friend! How is your child? Is something the matter? Why are you so sad?” St. Nicholas asked.
“Why shouldn’t I be sad?” replied the man, and explained everything. “How foolish!” exclaimed the Saint, “That stranger is none other than a devil. But I’ll help you and my godchild. When is the year over?”
The man told him. Nicholas advised him to go home and worry no more.
Precisely one day before the year was up, St. Nicholas appeared at the man’s house, saying, “When someone knocks at the door, let me answer it. You must be as quiet as a mouse! Otherwise, you could spoil everything.”
Sure enough, just at dusk a year after the man had met the stranger, there was a loud knock on the door. Nicholas raised his hand in caution, and the man and his wife said nothing. Even the baby, awakened by the noise and hungry after a long nap, was silent.
“Who is there?” St. Nicholas asked from behind the door.
“Your lender,” came the voice of the devil. “Are you ready to answer my questions?”
“Yes, my friend. Go ahead and ask me!”
“Then tell me, Man, if you can,” the devil said, “what is the meaning of the number one?”
“God is one. He is not more or less. My answer’s done.”
“Good, Man, that’s true! Now tell me, What is two?”
“Two are Adam and Eve, ancestors of us all.”
“You stand tall!” said the devil. “Now tell me, What is three?”
“Jesus, Joseph, and Marie.”
“Man, you know a lot, I do believe. Now tell me, What is four?”
“Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Four evangelists and no more.”
“Right again! Now tell me, What is five?”
“The five wounds of Christ: two on his hands, two on his feet, and one on his side.”
“You are a smart fellow!” the devil cried. “But what about the number six?”
“Six points on the bright new star that led to the Babe in the manger.”
“You’re too smart!” whined the stranger. “But you may not know the number seven!”
“Seven candles in the temple in Jerusalem, by heaven!”
“Well, yes, I must agree. You’re no simpleton, I see!” The voice lowered, cold with hate. “Now tell me, What is eight?”
“The number of blessings Christ announced on the mountain.”
“Your wisdom is truly a fountain!” sneered the devil. “Until this last question of mine: What is nine?”
“Nine numbers the choirs of angels in heaven. But their songs are not where you belong!” laughed St. Nicholas. “Now, turnabout is fair play. Can you answer a question for me today?”
“Sure, Man! You know a few things, it’s true, but I know much more than you. Ask me anything!”
“Tell me, friend, what is thirteen?”
For a moment, there was silence. Then: “Uh, thirteen? I don’t know that, and neither do you! There is no thirteen.” The voice was flat.
“Oh, yes there is, my friend the fiend!” Nicholas chuckled. “You, yourself, are the number thirteen for stirring up trouble, just like a devil. Now disappear and leave my godchild in peace. Otherwise, I’ll throw you down to where you deserve to be!”
“ARRRRRGGHHH!” The defeated devil bellowed in rage. Then, in a flash, he was gone.
Hugging the child close, the man and his wife turned to St. Nicholas with tears of gratitude.
“He won’t come again.” Nicholas assured the couple. “Don’t be afraid! And from now on, my good man, I beg you, do be more careful about making a deal with a stranger.”
And from then on, the good man was more careful, for the rest of his life.
Since ancient times, thirteen has been considered a number foreboding evil. The Babylonians, for instance, believed thirteen was the number of the Underworld and of the destruction of perfection. The Kabbala refers to thirteen evil spirits, and in the New Testament, it was Judas, the thirteenth guest at the Last Supper, who betrayed Jesus. Groups of twelve-plus-one often occur in folktales: Think of the thirteenth fairy who puts the curse on Sleeping Beauty.
People are still superstitious about the number thirteen, even today. We have all heard about “Friday the thirteenth.” Many hotels skip the number between the twelfth and fourteenth levels because no one would to stay on the thirteenth floor, and many hostesses still do not invite thirteen guests.
But the number thirteen can also be the number for positive change, as it is in this story (and in “The Baker’s Dozen”). In Greek mythology, the king of the gods, Zeus, was sometimes thought of as the thirteenth in a circle of twelve chief gods. Zeus was famous for bringing about changes in the form of having children, many of whom became important gods and goddesses themselves. In the New Testament, Jesus himself can be thought of as the “thirteenth” in relation to his twelve disciples. And in the fairy tale, how would the prince have ever found Sleeping Beauty, after all, if the thirteenth fairy hadn’t put her to sleep?! —LC
Excerpt from The Real St. Nicholas: Tales of Generosity and Hope From Around the World, by Louise Carus, editor and translator, copyright © 2002. Reprinted by permission of Quest Books/The Theosophical Publishing House, Wheaton, Illinois.
This delightful collection of thirty St. Nicholas stories includes many folktales that are not well-known. One story may be read each day during Advent or one or two could be selected for St. Nicholas Day. Other information and recipes are also included. Purchase from amazon.com, amazon.ca or amazon.uk.