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Who is the nearest relative?

Narrated by Leopoldo Uichanco, a Tagalog of Calamba, Laguna.

“On my life!” exclaimed old Julian one day to his grandson Antonio, who was clinging fast to his elbows and bothering him, as usual, “you will soon become insane with stories. Now, I will tell you a story on this condition: you must answer the question I shall put at the end of the narrative. If you give the correct answer, then I will tell you some more tales; if not, why, you must be unfortunate.” Antonio nodded, and said, “Very well!” as he leaned on the table to listen to his grandfather. Then the old man began:

“There was once a young man who had completed his course of study and was to be ordained a priest. Now, whenever a man was about to be entrusted with the duty of being a minister of God, and Christ’s representative on earth, it was the custom to trace his ancestry back as far as possible, to see that there was no bad member on any branch of his family tree. Inquiries were made and information was sought regarding the young man’s relatives. Unfortunately his mother’s brother was an insurrecto. But the boy wanted very much to become a priest, so he set out for Mount Banahaw to look for his uncle.

“As he was walking along the mountain road, he came across his uncle, but neither knew the other. The uncle had a long bolo in his hand. ‘Hold!’ shouted the old man as the boy came in sight. ‘Hands up!’

“‘Mercy!’ entreated the young man. ‘I am a friend, not an enemy.’

“’What are you doing in this part of the country, then? Have you come to spy?’

“‘No,’ said the youth. ’I have come in search of my uncle named Paulino, general of the Patriots of Banahaw.’

“‘And who are you to seek for him? What is your name?’


“The uncle stared at him. ‘If that is so,’ he said, ’I am the man you are looking for. I am your uncle.’ Federico was amazed, but was very glad to have found his uncle so easily. Then the old man took his nephew to the cave where he dwelt with his soldiers.

“Weeks passed by, months elapsed, but Federico never thought of going back to his mother. So one day Federico’s father went out to seek for his son, and soon found him and his uncle. The father, too, remained there with the soldiers, and never thought of going back home.

“One day Josefa received news that the bandits of Banahaw had been caught by the government authorities. Among the prisoners were her brother Paulino, her son Federico, and her husband. The captives were to be executed at sunrise without any trial. Josefa hurried to the capitan general, and pleaded with him to release her husband, her son, and her brother. Besides, the woman presented the officer with some gifts. She pleaded so hard, that finally the capitan general was moved with pity. He consented to release one of the prisoners, but one only. Josefa did not know what to do. Whom should she select of the three, her husband, the other half of her life; her son, the fruit of her love; or her brother, that brother who came from the same womb and sucked the same milk from the same mother? To take one would mean to condemn the other two to death. She wished to save them all, but she was allowed to select only one.”

“If you, Antonio, were in her place, whom would you select?” Antonio did not speak for some moments, but with knitted eyebrows looked up to the ceiling and tried to think of the answer.

“Nonsense!” exclaimed the grandfather; “you cannot find the answer in the ceiling! You really do not know, do you? Very well. I will give you until next Tuesday to get your answer. You have one week in which to think it out. Tell me the correct answer before you go to school on that day.”

When Tuesday came, Antonio had gotten the answer to his grandfather’s puzzle-tale; but the rascally little boy deceived the old man: he had sought the information from his uncle.

“If you were in the place of the woman,” asked the playful grandfather with a smile on his face, “whom would you select?” Antonio timidlv said that he would select the brother.

“You are only guessing, aren’t you?” said old Julian doubtfully.

“Bah! No, sir!” said the boy. “I can give you a reason for my selection.”

“Very well, give your reason, then.”

“The woman would be right in selecting her brother”


“Because, what to a woman is a husband? She can marry again; she can find another.”

“That is true,” said the old man.

“And what to a woman is her son? Is it not possible to bear another one after she marries again?”

“To be sure,” said old Julian.

“But,” continued the boy, raising his voice, “is it possible for her to bring into the world another brother? Is it possible? The woman’s parents were dead. Therefore she would be right in selecting her brother instead of her husband or her son.”

“Exactly so, my boy,” returned the satisfied old man, nodding his gray head. “Since you have answered correctly, to-morrow I will tell you another story.”

This saga-like story is of peculiar literary interest because of its ancient connections. I know of no modern analogues; but there are two very old parallels, as well as two unmistakable references to the identical situation in our story which date from before the Christian era, and also a Persian Maerchen that goes back as far as the twelfth century.

Herodotus (iii, 119) first tells the story of a Persian woman who chooses rather to save the life of her brother than of her husband and children.

“When all the conspirators against Darius had been seized [i.e., Intaphernes, his children, and his family], and had been put in chains as malefactors condemned to death, the wife of Intaphernes came and stood continually at the palace-gates, weeping and wailing. So Darius after a while, seeing that she never ceased to stand and weep, was touched with pity for her, and bade a messenger go to her and say, ’Lady, King Darius gives thee as a boon the life of one of thy kinsmen; choose which thou wilt of the prisoners.’ Then she pondered a while before she answered, ’If the king grants the life of one alone, I make choice of my brother.’ Darius, when he heard the reply, was astonished, and sent again, saying, ’Lady, the king bids thee tell him why it is that thou passest by thy husband and thy children, and preferrest to have the life of thy brother spared. He is not so near to thee as thy children, not so dear as thy husband.’ She answered, ’O king! if the gods will, I may have another husband and other children when these are gone; but, as my father and mother are no more, it is impossible that I should have another brother. That was my thought when I asked to have my brother spared.’ The woman appeared to Darius to have spoken well, and he granted to her the one that she asked and her eldest son, he was so pleased with her. All the rest he put to death.”

This story from the Greek historian clearly supplied not merely the thought but also the form of the reference in lines 909-912 of Sophocles’ “Antigone.” In Campbell’s English translation of the Greek play, the passage, which is put into the mouth of the heroine, runs thus:

“A husband lost might be replaced; a son,
If son were lost to me, might yet be born;
But with both parents hidden in the tomb,
No brother may arise to comfort me.”

Chronologically, the next two occurrences of the story are Indian. In the “Ucchanga-jataka” (Fausboell, N, of uncertain date, but possibly going back to the third century B.C.) we are told

“Three husbandmen were by mistake arrested on a charge of robbery, and imprisoned. The wife of one came to the King of Kosala, in whose realm the event took place, and entreated him to set her husband at liberty. The king asked her what relation each of the three was to her. She answered, ’One is my husband, another my brother, and the third is my son.’ The king said, ’I am pleased with you, and I will give you one of the three; which do you choose?’ The woman answered, ’Sire, if I live, I can get another husband and another son; but, as my parents are dead, I can never get another brother. So give me my brother, sire.’ Pleased with the woman, the king set all three men at liberty.”

In the Cambridge translation of this “Jataka,” the verse reply of the woman is rendered thus:

“A son’s an easy find; of husbands too
An ample choice throngs public ways. But where
With all my pains another brother find?”

In the “Ramayana,” the most celebrated art epic of India, we are told how, in the battle about Lanka, Lakshmana, the favorite brother and inseparable companion of the hero Rama, is to all appearances killed. Rama laments over him in these words: “Anywhere at all I could get a wife, a son, and all other relatives; but I know of no place where I might be able to acquire a brother. The teaching of the Veda is true, that Parjanya rains down everything; but also is the proverb true that he does not rain down brothers.” (Ed. Gorresio, 6 : 24, 7-8.) This parallel was pointed out by R. Pischel in “Hermes,” 28 (1893) : 465.

The Persian Maerchen alluded to above is cited by Th. Noeldeke in “Hermes,” 29 : 155.

In this story the wife, when she is given the opportunity to choose which she will save of her three nearest relatives, i.e., her husband, her son, and her brother, who have been selected to be the food for the man-eating snake that grows from the devil-prince Dahak’s shoulder, says, “I am still a young woman. I can get another husband, and it may happen that I might have another child by him: so that the fire of separation I can quench somewhat with the water of hope, and for the poison of the death of a husband find a cure in the antidote of the survival of a son; but it is not possible, since my father and mother are dead, for me to get another brother; therefore I bestow my love on him [i.e., she chooses the brother].” The Dahak is moved to pity, and spares her the lives of all three.

The riddle form in which our story is cast is possibly an invention of the narrator; but folk-tales ending thus are common (see notes to N. Again, our story fails to state whether or not all three men were pardoned. The implication is that they were not. The localization of the events seems to point either to a long existence of the story in La Laguna province or to exceptional adaptive skill on the part of the narrator.