Ooooooh fresh figs! Some years ago I planted a Brown Turkey fig tree just so I could celebrate February with this tangy, moist fruit. Right now, the tree’s laden with more figs than ever, which darken as they ripen. I’ve been giving figs away to neighbours.
Once, a long time ago, an old man was planting a young fig tree when the king of that country rode by. He reined in his horse and asked why all the youngsters in his family weren’t doing such heavy work, planting trees. “After all,” he added. “They are the ones who will eat the fruits?”
The old man bowed and explained that he’d learned about growing trees from his father, and his father’s father. “Now it’s my turn to plant trees so my grandchildren will enjoy them.”
The king agreed that figs were a most delicious food and thanked him for his work. As he turned to ride on, the ruler suggested the old man might bring some to to the palace, if the trees bore well.
It was some years, after careful pruning and tending, that the trees flourished and yielded a crop of ripe brown, pungent globes of fruit. While his doubting wife shook her head, old grandfather filled a small basket and set off for the palace.
The guards refused to believe that their king had asked for this crazy old man’s figs. When he pulled back the cloth and lifted the fruit to their noses, explaining, “Just say, that the old man he saw planting the fig tree comes bearing the fruit of his labours,” he was brought before the king.
The monarch remembered their meeting and so enjoyed eating those figs that he had his Royal Treasurer fill the basket with gold coins. Beaming, the old man bowed in thanks and wandered home with a full heart. On the way, a nosy neighbour spotted a shiny coin as it fell from the basket. He rushed over and held it up to him. Aghast at the old man’s good fortune, he quickly invited him in for tea. There, he learned of the king’s fondness for figs.
Just after dawn next day, the man had his wife fill her biggest basket with figs from their garden. When it was full, he staggered off to the palace gate and demanded to see the king. The shouting that ensued attracted not only a motley crowd but also the king, who was about to ride out. The Gate-Keepers stood smartly to attention, and a hush fell over the curious. All listened to the fig bearer and their king, with shocked faces moving from each in turn. When king realised that the man wanted a reward for his figs, he drew in a deep breath, shook his head and gathered up the reins.
“No,’ he said, turning away from the demanding citizen. Then he declared, “Unlike you, the old man gave to me wholeheartedly, expecting no reward. Guards! Let him have his figs. Stand him against the wall and have the people throw them at him!” With that, he and his retinue galloped off, leaving the crowd scrabbling for their fruity missiles.
The greedy neighbour returned home a sad, sticky, splattered mess. His wife giggled helplessly at the sight of him, saying that all he gotten for his figs, was figs!
“Enough of this, wife,” he muttered as he sat down. “I’ve been a fool … but a lucky fool… lucky because it was soft figs they threw at me … not beetroots.”
Within the week, his story had spread through the city. His wife, meanwhile, boiled what figs they had left with sugar and made jam. As she spooned it thickly on her bread one morning, she sighed and looked husband up and down.
“Ah yes, dear husband,” she mused. “The taste of fig jam will always remind me of what a glorious mess you got yourself into!”
Adapted from “The Figs” in Schram, Penninah. The Hungry clothes and other Jewish folktales. New York, Sterling, 2008: 22-4
All text and photos © Meg Philp
Story Twigs the Imagination! by Meg Philp is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Non Commercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.