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Long ago in Denmark a kind farmer lived with his wife. You’ve never met such generous, sweet-natured folks. They never spoke against and always told the truth, and because of their generosity and goodness, they became very successful.
One day the farmer bought a big, healthy red ox. He named the creature Peter, for he liked that name. Peter seemed to the farmer to be particularly smart. He believed that Peter understood every word he said. In fact, he came to like the ox so well that he thought of him almost as a son.
One morning he said to his wife, “I believe our ox could learn to speak and read and write. Once he’s done that, we can make him our son and heir. When we’re gone, he can manage our farm.”
“That’s a good idea,” his wife said, for she loved Peter too. And so they decided to send the ox to town to the town clerk who was, they agreed, the cleverest man in town and the most likely to teach their ox well.
That afternoon the farmer went to see the clerk. Now this clerk was a sly man. As he listened to the farmer’s request, he came up with a scheme. He stroked his beard and then looked around to make sure no one else was listening. “I am sure that I can teach your ox to speak,” the clerk whispered, “but this must be our secret since it is against the law to teach an animal to speak.”
The farmer agreed to tell no one, and the clerk explained he must have his fee in advance. “I must purchase special books,” the clerk said. The farmer agreed to bring Peter to him that night, along with his gold coins for payment. This he did.
A month passed, and the clerk called on the farmer. “Your ox is learning quickly,” he said, “but I need more gold, for I must buy three more books for my young student.” The farmer, filled with joy, paid the clerk all that he wanted.
Another month passed, and the farmer went to inquire after Peter. “Can Peter speak?” the farmer asked.
“Oh yes,” said the clerk. “He says ‘meh, meh.'”
“He’s asking for mead,” the farmer said. “You must give him some.” And he paid the clerk still more gold for the special feed.
The clerk cared for the red ox. He fed him special grains, and so Peter grew fat. At the end of three months, the clerk slaughtered the ox and put the meat in storage to sell that autumn. Then the clerk dressed himself up in his finest clothes and went to visit the farmer.
“Good day,” he said. “Were you pleased with Peter’s conversation when he came home?”
“What?” the farmer cried. “Peter hasn’t come home. I assumed he was with you.”
“Oh no,” the clerk exclaimed. “After all my trouble and time, Peter would surely not be so inconsiderate. I always found him to be so polite. This morning he told me he longed to visit you. I decided that was a fine idea. I intended to accompany him, but I left him at the gate while I when back for my walking stick. When I came back to the gate, Peter was gone. I assumed he’d come straight to your home.”
Well, the farmer and his wife were terribly distressed, for they believed their Peter must have run away. The clerk pretended he was sorrowful too, and went away.
Many months passed. One day the farmer heard news of a merchant named Peter Ox who had recently moved to town. The farmer went to see him, and when he looked at the man’s face, he was certain he saw a likeness to his own beloved ox. This Peter Ox, you see, was redheaded and wore a certain kind of smile. He did seem very like the fine red ox.
The farmer showered Peter Ox with money and affection. Peter Ox was mystified, but he accepted the farmer’s attention. He began to visit regularly with the farmer and his wife. Peter Ox had no family, and he loved the kindness the farmer and his wife showed him. Soon they were as close as family.
When the clerk heard of these strange happenings, even he was pleased to see that despite his deception, the tale had ended happily for the farmer. After that, he changed his ways, for he was never quite certain that Peter Ox was not, in fact, the fine red ox, come back to haunt him.
Story by Amy Friedman and Meredith Johnson