The Tale of the 300 Goats

Lately I’ve been reading Don Quixote. You know, that classic Spanish book that nobody has actually read? Surprisingly, it turns out that although the book is very long and wordy and I’m sure quite a bit is lost in translation, parts of it are absolutely delightful. Witness the following excerpt. At this point in the story, it is nighttime and Don Quixote is about to take leave of his squire Sancho Panza in order to investigate an ominous sound they hear in the distance. Sancho has secretly tied up Don Quixote’s horse Rocinante and is trying to occupy him by telling him stories.

“I say then,” continued Sancho, “that in a village of Estremadura there was a goat-shepherd—that is to say, one who tended goats—which shepherd or goatherd, as my story goes, was called Lope Ruiz, and this Lope Ruiz was in love with a shepherdess called Torralva, which shepherdess called Torralva was the daughter of a rich grazier, and this rich grazier-“

“If that is the way thou tellest thy tale, Sancho,” said Don Quixote, “repeating twice all thou hast to say, thou wilt not have done these two days; go straight on with it, and tell it like a reasonable man, or else say nothing.”

“Tales are always told in my country in the very way I am telling this,” answered Sancho, “and I cannot tell it in any other, nor is it right of your worship to ask me to make new customs.”

“Tell it as thou wilt,” replied Don Quixote; “and as fate will have it that I cannot help listening to thee, go on.”

“And so, lord of my soul,” continued Sancho, as I have said, this shepherd was in love with Torralva the shepherdess, who was a wild buxom lass with something of the look of a man about her, for she had little moustaches; I fancy I see her now.”

“Then you knew her?” said Don Quixote.

“I did not know her,” said Sancho, “but he who told me the story said it was so true and certain that when I told it to another I might safely declare and swear I had seen it all myself. And so in course of time, the devil, who never sleeps and puts everything in confusion, contrived that the love the shepherd bore the shepherdess turned into hatred and ill-will, and the reason, according to evil tongues, was some little jealousy she caused him that crossed the line and trespassed on forbidden ground; and so much did the shepherd hate her from that time forward that, in order to escape from her, he determined to quit the country and go where he should never set eyes on her again. Torralva, when she found herself spurned by Lope, was immediately smitten with love for him, though she had never loved him before.”

“That is the natural way of women,” said Don Quixote, “to scorn the one that loves them, and love the one that hates them: go on, Sancho.”

“It came to pass,” said Sancho, “that the shepherd carried out his intention, and driving his goats before him took his way across the plains of Estremadura to pass over into the Kingdom of Portugal. Torralva, who knew of it, went after him, and on foot and barefoot followed him at a distance, with a pilgrim’s staff in her hand and a scrip round her neck, in which she carried, it is said, a bit of looking-glass and a piece of a comb and some little pot or other of paint for her face; but let her carry what she did, I am not going to trouble myself to prove it; all I say is, that the shepherd, they say, came with his flock to cross over the river Guadiana, which was at that time swollen and almost overflowing its banks, and at the spot he came to there was neither ferry nor boat nor anyone to carry him or his flock to the other side, at which he was much vexed, for he perceived that Torralva was approaching and would give him great annoyance with her tears and entreaties; however, he went looking about so closely that he discovered a fisherman who had alongside of him a boat so small that it could only hold one person and one goat; but for all that he spoke to him and agreed with him to carry himself and his three hundred goats across. The fisherman got into the boat and carried one goat over; he came back and carried another over; he came back again, and again brought over another—let your worship keep count of the goats the fisherman is taking across, for if one escapes the memory there will be an end of the story, and it will be impossible to tell another word of it. To proceed, I must tell you the landing place on the other side was miry and slippery, and the fisherman lost a great deal of time in going and coming; still he returned for another goat, and another, and another.”

“Take it for granted he brought them all across,” said Don Quixote, “and don’t keep going and coming in this way, or thou wilt not make an end of bringing them over this twelvemonth.”

“How many have gone across so far?” said Sancho.

“How the devil do I know?” replied Don Quixote.

“There it is,” said Sancho, “what I told you, that you must keep a good count; well then, by God, there is an end of the story, for there is no going any farther.”

“How can that be?” said Don Quixote; “is it so essential to the story to know to a nicety the goats that have crossed over, that if there be a mistake of one in the reckoning, thou canst not go on with it?”

“No, senor, not a bit,” replied Sancho; “for when I asked your worship to tell me how many goats had crossed, and you answered you did not know, at that very instant all I had to say passed away out of my memory, and, faith, there was much virtue in it, and entertainment.”

“So, then,” said Don Quixote, “the story has come to an end?”

“As much as my mother has,” said Sancho.

“In truth,” said Don Quixote, “thou hast told one of the rarest stories, tales, or histories, that anyone in the world could have imagined, and such a way of telling it and ending it was never seen nor will be in a lifetime; though I expected nothing else from thy excellent understanding. But I do not wonder, for perhaps those ceaseless strokes may have confused thy wits.”

“All that may be,” replied Sancho, “but I know that as to my story, all that can be said is that it ends there where the mistake in the count of the passage of the goats begins.”

“Let it end where it will, well and good,” said Don Quixote, “and let us see if Rocinante can go;” and again he spurred him, and again Rocinante made jumps and remained where he was, so well tied was he.