The Magic Cloth

There once lived a merchant, bad-tempered and mean, with never a kind word for anyone. Unfortunately, his wife was no better. Perhaps they would have had a more friendly attitude if they had been blessed with children.

Naturally, they had no friends, and no one would ever dream of asking them a favour. If a needy person came begging at their door, the wife would shout at the poor beggar in no uncertain terms, and if he didn’t go away fast enough, she would pick up a stick and chase him out of the compound.

One poor girl, Vanita, had to bear the brunt of their evil tempers from morning till night. She was their only servant whom they had obtained from an orphanage, which saved money. Vanita had to do all the work in the house, cleaning, cooking, washing, and if ever in her tiredness she sat down to rest her weary body, they would scold her and call her rather horrible names.

At night poor Vanita would crawl into bed and could not control the tears as she pondered on the hopelessness of her life. O! if only I were beautiful, or even just attractive, she would sadly dream then some young man might take pity and marry me. But this was just a dream because, unfortunately, she was plain as plain could be.

Then one day, when the master and mistress happened to be out and Vanita was busy cooking dinner; she heard a feeble voice calling her from the kitchen door.

When she opened the door, there stood a significantly older man dressed in rags and partially blind. “Good woman,” he whimpered, “I am dying of hunger. Please spare me something to eat.”

How Vanita longed to help the beggar. But she dared not give him any food from the house, for that would bring down the wrath of her employers if they found out. Then she remembered that she did have some food that be- longed for her, and this was about a pound of unhusked rice, which she had painstakingly collected over the months, out of the straw she used for lighting the fire.

Asking the beggar to sit down, Vanita quickly cleaned her rice store and cooked it on the fire. When she put the bowl of rice in front of the beggar, his face lit up with a grateful smile, and fumbling in his pocket, he brought out a piece of cloth, which he offered to Vanita. “Whenever you wash, dry yourself with this cloth, and fortune will come your way.”

As luck would have it, before the old beggar had finished eating the rice, the master and mistress walked into the kitchen.

“What is this dirty beggar doing in the house?” screamed the woman. “And eating our food.”

“It is not your food,” pluck- ily replied Vanita.

“Do not lie to me,” shouted the woman and grabbed the bowl the old beggar was eating from. But before their very eyes, the older man and the bowl disappeared.

This made the master and mistress angrier than ever to think an old beggar could vanish without a trace, and before Vanita could explain anything, they shouted and beat her, then sent her to bed without any food.

From that day onwards, whenever Vanita washed, she dried herself with the cloth the beggar had given her. And day by day, her features gradually changed to radiant beauty.

Such a transformation did not escape the notice of her employers, and their curiosity was certainly aroused when Vanita refused to answer their many questions. Ultimately, they lost their tempers and beat the poor girl until she was forced to tell them about the beggar and the magic cloth.

The merchant and his wife made Vanita give them the cloth, and then, like conspirators, they sat up halfway through the night, building castles in the air. First, they would use the fabric until they were both young and beautiful. Then they would hire the cloth at fantastic prices and make a large fortune.

So next morning, they were up before dawn and, having bathed, rubbed each other vigorously with the cloth, then rushed to the mirror to gloat over their coming beauty. But to their horror, they saw they had been changed into monkeys!

Now, sadder but wiser, they realised no one would ever believe their story, and the only thing to do was to leave the house and their possessions to Vanita and steal away into the nearby hills and live like her- mits.

Not long afterwards, the now beautiful Vanita. Married and in her new and happy life, Vanita always looked after the poor and needy. She never forgot the old beggar who had taught her and her old employers that, in giving, one finds happiness, and unkindness to others never pays.

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