Encore: 'Cow Wells And Cow Bells'

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(Sabina Hahn for WBUR)
(Sabina Hahn for WBUR)

You know the story of Pinocchio?

A wooden puppet comes to life. And every time he doesn’t tell the truth… his nose gets longer and longer.

Telling lies may not actually make our noses grow. But they can lead to other not-so-nice things… like hurting another person.

And as we’ll hear in today’s story, when a greedy merchant tells a whopper of a lie? He learns a very important lesson.

Today our tale is called, “Cow Wells and Cow Bells.” Versions of this folktale come from Ethiopia and Eritrea, in East Africa.

Some really great people came together to bring you our story, including Billy Porter, and Joshua Boone. Find Joshua on the Netflix series, Seven Seconds. and catch Tony-Award winner Billy Porter from Kinky Boots on Broadway on the FX series, Pose.  He was also just nominated for a Golden Globe award! (Congrats, Billy!) Other talented voices featured in this episode include: Delores King Williams, Lynette Rathnam, Jacob Yeh, and Richard Epstein.

This story was adapted for Circle Round by Rebecca Sheir and edited by Jessica Alpert. Original music and sound design by Eric Shimelonis. Our artist is Sabina Hahn.

ADULTS! Print THIS PICTURE so everyone can color while listening. We’re also keeping an album so share your picture on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or Pinterest, and tag it with #CircleRound. We'd love to see it! To access all the coloring pages for past episodes click HERE. Our resident artist is Sabina Hahn and you can learn more about her HERE.

Things To Think About After Listening
Pretend you’re the mayor of the Farmer and Merchant’s town. Can you come up with another creative way for the Farmer to get his camels and grain back and for the Merchant to learn a lesson about what can happen when you let greed get the better of you?

Think about it, then pick some friends or family members to play the Farmer and Merchant. Next, act out a scene where you — the wise Mayor — make everything right again.

Musical Spotlight: The Mbira

(Courtesy of Eric Shimelonis)
(Courtesy of Eric Shimelonis)

The mbira is an African instrument consisting of a small wooden board, with a bunch of thin metal pieces attached to the top. The pieces are all of different sizes and different notes. You hold the wooden board in your hands and then pluck the metal pieces with your thumbs. Experts say the mbira goes back 3,000 years. Only back then the keys weren’t made of metal; they were made of wood or bamboo. We chose the mbira for this story because of its African origins, and because its pure, clear tones almost sound like drops of water as they plunk, plunk, plunk down the inside of a well!

To learn more about the mbira, you can hear composer Eric Shimelonis talk all about it in “What Am I Hearing?”: our special music episode of Circle Round.

Story Transcript

NARRATOR: There once lived a successful merchant. The one thing the merchant cared for more than anything in the world wasn’t family… or friends… or having healthy food to eat and fresh water to drink.


The one thing the merchant cared for most… was money.

No matter how many bright, shiny coins he brought home from the market each day, it was never enough! He was always looking for new ways to make his coin purse jingle.

One hot, summer afternoon, the merchant decided to take a different route home from the marketplace. Instead of walking down the big, bustling avenues of the city, he wound his way through little side streets.

While meandering down an especially quiet road, he heard... a strange sound. It was coming from… an old, abandoned well!

[young cow mooing in bottom of well]

MERCHANT: Is that - is that… a cow?!?

NARRATOR: The merchant sprinted to the dried-up well and peered inside. Sure enough… sitting in the bucket at the bottom of the well... what did he see but a cute little cow!


MERCHANT: Well, whuddya know! He must have fallen in while searching for a drink! Hey... I’ll bet I can fetch a pretty penny for this little fella.

NARRATOR: So the merchant began tugging the well’s rope to bring up the bucket… and the cow.

He’d pulled the cow nearly all the way out of the well when he felt a tap on his shoulder.

FARMER: Excuse me, sir! Sir?

NARRATOR: The merchant turned around and saw... a farmer.

The farmer was leading three camels, each one loaded with sacks of grain. All of the camels were white as a calla lily.

FARMER: Hi there! Listen, may I have a drink of water from your well? It’s such a hot day and my camels and I are parched!.

NARRATOR: The merchant eyed the three camels. It wasn’t every day you saw a white camel - and with such strong legs! And those bags bursting with precious grain? They were mighty enticing, too.

Suddenly, the merchant had an idea.

MERCHANT: I’m so sorry, man. I wish I could give you a drink... but I'm afraid this isn't a water well.

NARRATOR: The farmer was intrigued.

FARMER: What kind of well is it, then?

NARRATOR: The merchant smiled.

MERCHANT: Why, it's a cow well, of course!

FARMER: A cow well?!?

MERCHANT: Yes! Every night I take a cowbell and drop it into the well. Then the next morning, voila! There’s a cow, just waiting to be taken out. See...?

NARRATOR: The merchant motioned to the young cow in the bucket. The farmers eyes widened.

FARMER: (totally buying it) Wow! I’ve never heard of a cow well before!

MERCHANT: That’s because they’re very rare!

NARRATOR: The farmer thought for a moment.

FARMER: You know, I’ve been trying to raise cattle on my farm. My family and I have chickens, a couple of donkeys... and these white camels, of course. But our two cows haven’t given us one new calf. Not a one!

MERCHANT: (laying it on thick) Ah! Then this well would be perfect for you! I tell you what: as a merchant, I am all about making my customers happy. So… name your price.

NARRATOR: The farmer was surprised.

FARMER: Oh! The cow well is for sale...? Well… I’m not a rich man… but I’ll pay you three bags of grain for it.

NARRATOR: The merchant scoffed.

MERCHANT: Three bags of grain? That wouldn’t pay for many cows! Think about it: this well gives you a brand new cow every day! That’s 365 cows a year!

NARRATOR: The farmer shrugged.

FARMER: Six bags?


FARMER: Twelve?


FARMER: Twenty-four bags! That’s all the bags my camels are carrying!

NARRATOR: The merchant arched his eyebrows.

MERCHANT: Tell you what: I’ll take your twenty-four bags… if you throw in the camels, too.

NARRATOR: The farmer took a deep breath. Then he threw out his arms and gave the merchant a hug.

FARMER: It’s a deal! Thank you, good man! This cow well is going to change my life. May nothing but good fortune come your way!

NARRATOR: The merchant smiled.

MERCHANT: (under his breath) Looks like it already has!

NARRATOR: The merchant pulled the cow out of the well and gave it to the farmer. Then the merchant collected the twenty-four bags of grain… grabbed the reins of his new white camels… and began to head home.

He hadn’t taken more than three steps when he heard the farmer call out.

FARMER: Hey! Before you go... I never asked your name! What is it?

NARRATOR: The merchant’s mind raced.

MERCHANT: My name? Well… I should tell you, it’s rather uncommon. People call me… Where-I-Should-Dance. Farewell, friend. Enjoy the well!

NARRATOR: That night, the farmer did as the merchant instructed. He dropped a cowbell into the well…

FARMER: Here goes…!

NARRATOR: ...and scurried back to his farm.

When the sun rose the next morning, he rushed back to the well and looked inside.

FARMER: Hey! Wait a minute! I don’t see any cow! Just the same cow bell I dropped in last night!  Hmmm. Maybe I didn’t throw it in hard enough. I’ll try again tonight.

NARRATOR: So, he did. Every night for a week he dropped a cowbell into the well… but no cow appeared.

At last the farmer realized… he’d been duped.

FARMER: Ohhh, that Where-I-Should-Dance! He’s cheated me out of my grain… and my three white camels!

NARRATOR: Without missing a beat, the farmer ran straight to the marketplace, to track down the trickster.

[theme music in]

Will the farmer will find the greedy merchant?

We’ll find out… after a quick break.

[theme music out]


[theme music in]

NARRATOR: I’m Rebecca Sheir; welcome back to Circle Round. Today our story is called “Cow Wells and Cow Bells.”

[theme music out]

When we left off, a farmer realized he’d been tricked by a greedy merchant. The merchant told the farmer he could buy a magic well that produced cows. In exchange, the farmer gave the merchant twenty-four bags of grain, and three white camels.

The merchant had told the farmer his name was “Where-I-Should-Dance.” So the farmer raced to the marketplace to find him.

Running from kiosk to kiosk, he asked the vendors:

FARMER: Hey! Does anyone know Where-I-Should-Dance?

NARRATOR: …and they’d answer:

VENDOR 1: You want to know ‘where you should dance’?

VENDOR 2: How about right here?

VENDOR 3: We love dancing!

NARRATOR: Next thing the farmer knew, everyone at the marketplace was singing and clapping and urging him to dance.

FARMER: (above the ruckus) No, no, you don’t understand! I don’t want to dance! I want to see if anyone knows Where-I-Should-Dance?

VENDOR 2: Like we said: dance right here, friend!

VENDOR 3: We’ll all join in!

NARRATOR: By now, an impromptu dance party had busted out, right there in the street. The farmer tried breaking away, but it was no use; people were whirling, twirling and shimmying all around him. He could barely move!

Then... suddenly:

MAYOR: What is going on here!

NARRATOR: The dancing came to a halt as the mayor of the city stepped forward.

MAYOR: What is this nonsense? Why is everyone dancing in the street?

VENDOR 1: It’s simple, Madam Mayor!

VENDOR 3: This fellow came by…

VENDOR 2: ...asking ‘where he should dance’…

VENDOR 1: ...and we told him he should dance right here!

NARRATOR: The mayor narrowed her eyes at the farmer.

MAYOR: Young man. Is this true?

FARMER: It is, Madam Mayor.

NARRATOR: ...and… sheepishly… he told her the whole story. How he’d been tricked into buying the “cow well” from a merchant who said his name was, “Where-I-Should-Dance.”

FARMER: … and now, I’m left with this useless, dry well, while the merchant roams free with my twenty-four bags of grain, and my three white camels!

NARRATOR: The Mayor’s eyes lit up.

MAYOR: Three white camels, you say? White camels aren’t very common, are they?

FARMER: No. Mine were a wedding gift from my parents.

MAYOR: (almost as if scratching her chin) Interesting… Because just last week, I was in the town hall, looking out the window, when what did I see but three white camels walking down the street! They were loaded with bags, and being led by a man. I ran out to ask him where he got the camels. He told me they were for sale: (imitating the merchant) “If anyone wants to buy them, I live in the big red house at the edge of town. Come visit any time!” he said.  Today, he’ll get that visit.

NARRATOR: The mayor scribbled something on a piece of paper and handed it to one of the vendors.

MAYOR: Take this note to the merchant in the red house. Tell him it’s from the mayor.

NARRATOR: When the vendor reached the big red house, she handed the paper to the merchant. He began to read.

MERCHANT: (unfolding, then slowly reading the note out loud) “There is a man waiting for you at the Mayor’s office. His name is What-I-Should-Do, and he wants to know about the camels. The mayor wishes you to come at once.” Ha ha! The mayor wishes to see me! Maybe today’s the day I’ll sell those three white camels. Oooooh… I’m going to make a fortune!

NARRATOR: The merchant put on his best coat, ran to the town hall, and knocked on the mayor’s door.

MAYOR: (answering door) Yes? What can I do for you?

MERCHANT: Hello, Madam Mayor. I’m here about the camels. I got a note that someone was interested…?

MAYOR:  Oh, yes! And do you have the name of the person you were supposed to see...?

MERCHANT: In fact, I do!

NARRATOR: The merchant reached into his pocket and pulled out the note.

MERCHANT: I am here to see (reading, slowly) What-I-Should-Do.

NARRATOR: The mayor’s eyes twinkled.

MAYOR: Well, it just so happens I know what you should do! You should give back the three white camels and twenty-four bags of grain you swindled from the farmer!

NARRATOR: The merchant’s cheeks turned bright red. He realized how wrong he’d been to pull a fast one on the farmer… and on everyone he’d taken advantage of through the years!

He vowed right then and there he would never again let greed get the better of him… or of anyone else.

As for the farmer, now that he had his three white camels back, he walked them to his barn… along with twenty-three bags of grain. He used the twenty-fourth to buy some new cows at the marketplace. As he led the cattle away, he heard some of the vendors shout out to him.

VENDOR 1: Hey!

VENDOR 2: It’s you again!

VENDOR 3: Dance here!

VENDOR 1: (agreeing) Yeah! Dance here!

NARRATOR: And this time, the farmer was so overjoyed about how things had turned out, that he couldn’t help but dance!

Headshot of Rebecca Sheir

Rebecca Sheir Host, Circle Round
Rebecca Sheir is the host "Circle Round," WBUR's kids storytelling podcast.



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