|Chilmark Hay, 1951|
by Thomas Hart Benton
Once upon a time there was an honest peasant who was also particularly crafty, even more so than most of his kind. He took on, and beat, the devil at his own game, which was no mean feat, I can tell you.
One evening, after a hard day's work, just as the church bells rang for vespers, the peasant was making his way home to the village, when he saw a heap of steaming manure in the middle of his field. He went to investigate and, to his utter astonishment, saw a little black devil sitting in the midst of the live heap.
"You sit upon a great treasure there," said the peasant.
"Yes, indeed," said the devil, "worth more than all the gold and silver you have ever seen in your life."
"It's my field and therefore the treasure belongs to me," said the peasant. "Be off with you this instant."
"Not so fast, young man," said the devil. "I'll let you have it under one condition: give me half of everything your field produces for two years, and the treasure shall be yours at the end of it."
The peasant did some thinking. He didn't want to go telling lies but gaining the treasure was very tempting. "Wait a minute," he said to himself, "half of everything? Fair enough, there are halves and then there are halves."
"You're on", the peasant said to the devil. "Let's establish some ground rules first, though. Everything above ground shall be yours and everything below shall be mine."
The devil was satisfied with that, but when it came to harvest time, the devil was left with a pile of yellowing, useless, leaves, for the crafty peasant had sown turnips. While he made away with a wagon load of them, the devil danced about in fury, swearing he would make sure the rules were reversed the following year.
"I'm willing," the peasant said. He had been planning a change from turnips anyway, so he sowed wheat. The grain became ripe and the peasant went into the field and cut the stalks down to the ground until there was nothing left for the devil but the stubble.
Realising he had been outwitted by the simple peasant yet again, the devil, in his shame, spontaneously combusted and sizzled and fizzled down into a cleft in the earth and was never seen again. The peasant spread the manure over his field, thus making sure that his harvest would be excellent for years to come.
Last night I saw Henry IV. Part I, in which Hotspur says to his cousin:
And I can teach thee, coz, to shame the devil
By telling truth: tell truth and shame the devil.
And then there were the Brothers Grimm, elements of whose tale I may have borrowed, not quite accidentally.