'The Rusty Cowbell' | Circle Round 73

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

Has anyone ever played a trick on you?

Sometimes, playing tricks can be harmless fun. But other times, someone’s feelings can get hurt.

We’re about to meet a man who plays a not-very-nice trick — but in the end, the joke’s on him!

Our story is called “The Rusty Cowbell.” You’ll find versions of this tale in many countries, in many parts of the world, including the Netherlands, Germany, Russia, Mexico and Indonesia.

Voices in this episode include Noah Lewis Bailey, Amy Brentano, Richard Epstein, Maurice Emmanuel Parent, Maizy Scarpa, Chris Tucci, and Lake Bell. Kids, you might recognize Lake’s voice from The Secret Life of Pets and The Secret Life of Pets 2. And grown-ups, you might know Lake from the movie In a World, as well as the ABC sitcom Bless This Mess, now in its second season.

This episode was adapted for Circle Round by Rebecca Sheir and edited by Virginia Marshall. Original music and sound design is by Eric Shimelonis. Our artist is Sabina Hahn. Laney Ruckstuhl helped adapt this story for web.

ADULTS! PRINT THIS so everyone can color while listening. We’re also keeping an album so share your picture on FacebookTwitterInstagram 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

Now, it’s your turn.

Maggie the cow wasn’t just a pet; she was Finn’s best friend! Think about a friend that you especially treasure, then find a piece of paper and draw a picture of the two of you together, doing something you love. When you’re finished, share that picture with your friend and show them how much they mean to you.

Musical Spotlight: Diatonic Accordion

The diatonic accordion is a box-shaped instrument with pleated bellows in the middle and buttons on either side. You push and pull the bellows with your arms and hands while pressing the buttons with your fingers, and when you do, the reeds inside the accordion vibrate to produce notes.

Eric Shimelonis plays the diatonic accordion. (Courtesy of Eric Shimelonis)
Circle Round composer Eric Shimelonis plays the diatonic accordion. (Courtesy of Eric Shimelonis)

But get this: with the diatonic accordion, the notes you’re playing will change depending on whether you’re pushing or pulling. This added challenge makes the diatonic accordion one of our composer Eric Shimelonis’s favorite instruments to play.

Story Transcript

NARRATOR: In a cottage way out in the country, Calliope the farmer lived with her son, Finn.

Calliope and Finn had one cow, a few chickens; they also grew vegetables on a modest plot of land. But even though mother and son worked hard, each month they struggled to pay rent to their greedy landlord.

The day before the landlord was coming over to collect the rent, Calliope called Finn to her side.

CALLIOPE: Now, darling, I’ve counted up all of our money, and there’s no way we can afford this month’s rent. I’m sending you to the marketplace to sell good old Maggie.

NARRATOR: Maggie was Calliope and Finn’s one and only cow — and Finn’s one and only friend.

FINN: Oh, Mother! Do we have to?

CALLIOPE: I’m afraid we have no choice, my dear! Maggie is a strong cow, and she gives lots of milk. So when you take her to market, please be sure to sell her for at least 300 silver coins. Do you understand, Finn?

FINN: (sadly) Yes, Mother. I am to sell Maggie for at least 300 silver coins.

NARRATOR: Calliope gazed at her frowning son.

CALLIOPE: I know this isn’t easy, Finn. I don’t want to say goodbye to Maggie any more than you do.

So how about we keep something to remember her by?

NARRATOR: Around Maggie’s neck was a rusty old cowbell. Calliope pulled the bell off of Maggie’s neck and hung it on a hook on the wall.

CALLIOPE: Here we go! From now on, every time we ring this cowbell, we can think about good old Maggie! Sound good, son?

FINN: Sounds good, Mom.

NARRATOR: Calliope and Finn’s cottage was quite a ways from the marketplace. To get there, Finn had to lead Maggie through dense forests and across grassy fields, past rushing rivers and over rocky hills.

And when they finally arrived at the bustling market, who should Finn spot in the crowd but the greedy landlord! When the man laid eyes on Finn’s cow, he marched right on over.

LANDLORD: Excuse me. How much for your cow, young man?

NARRATOR: Finn remembered what he’d promised his mother.

FINN: I’ll take 300 silver coins, sir.

NARRATOR: The landlord scrunched up his face.

LANDLORD: 300 silver coins?! Are you serious? For a creature this scrawny?

FINN: But Maggie is strong! So strong. And she gives such wonderful milk! Plus, look at her coat, sir. It’s so shiny, she practically glitters in the --

LANDLORD: “Shiny!?” Why, this cow’s coat is dull as a cloudy sky!

Listen, son. There’s no way anyone in their right mind would pay 300 silver coins for this sorry creature. But I’ll do you a favor. I’ll pay you 30.

FINN: 30 silver coins?!

NARRATOR: Finn felt his face flush.

FINN: But Mother said I should sell Maggie for at least 300 silver coins!

LANDLORD: (scoff) Trust me, boy. I’ve seen thousands of cows in my time — millions, even! And this one’s worth 30 silver coins, tops. You can stand in this market all day, but you won’t get a better offer than that.

NARRATOR: Finn peered at Maggie. The cow looked strong and hearty to him but the landlord really sounded like he knew his stuff! So, Finn extended his palm, and took the 30 silver coins.

As the landlord led Maggie away, Finn could have sworn he heard the man chuckling to himself, but maybe it was his imagination. Or...

CALLIOPE: You what?!

NARRATOR: ...maybe it wasn’t!

CALLIOPE: You’re telling me you sold Maggie for 30 silver coins?

NARRATOR: Back at home, Finn told Calliope the whole story.

FINN: But Mother, the landlord said Maggie was too dull and scrawny to fetch a better price! He said --

CALLIOPE: I know what he said, Finn. But I also know the landlord is a selfish, penny-pinching man who will do anything to trick people out of their money!

NARRATOR: Calliope reached out and squeezed her son’s hand.

CALLIOPE: Listen, my boy. The landlord may have fooled you, but now…

NARRATOR: Her lips curved into a sly grin.

CALLIOPE: it’s our turn to fool him! Give me those 30 silver coins, dear. I’ll be back tonight!

NARRATOR: Calliope dropped the coins into her pocket, gave Finn a hug, then set off for the marketplace.

When she got there, she walked over to the butcher’s stall and placed 10 of her 30 silver coins on the counter.

CALLIOPE: Good day, sir. These 10 silver coins are for you. Consider them a pre-payment. Tomorrow, I’ll come back to buy 10 coins’ worth of beef and chicken. And when I do, please don’t forget that I’ve already paid!

NARRATOR: The butcher was puzzled, but…

BUTCHER: Alright then — it’s a deal! See you tomorrow.

NARRATOR: Now, Calliope had 20 silver coins left. She took them to the baker’s stall, handed 10 of them to the baker, and made the same deal.

CALLIOPE: ...and when I come back tomorrow, I’ll buy 10 coins’ worth of breads and sweets. But please don’t forget that I’ve already paid!

NARRATOR: Like the butcher, the baker was confused, but…

BAKER: Consider it done! I’ll see you tomorrow.

NARRATOR: Now, remember: Calliope started with 30 silver coins. She gave 10 to the butcher and 10 to the baker. So how many coins did Calliope have left?

That’s right — 10!

And she carried those 10 coins to the cheesemaker’s stall, gave them to the cheesemaker, and made the same deal, yet again!

CALLIOPE: tomorrow, I’ll be back to buy 10 coins’ worth of cheese. And when I do, please don’t forget that I’ve already paid.

NARRATOR: Like the butcher and the baker, the cheesemaker was perplexed, but…

CHEESEMAKER: Whatever you say! See you tomorrow.

NARRATOR: By now, it was getting late. As the sun inched down toward the horizon, Calliope headed home with a gleam in her eye and a spring in her step.

CALLIOPE: (laughing to herself) Now that that’s done, my plan is ready to go. When the landlord comes for the rent tomorrow morning, he has no idea what he’s in for.

NARRATOR: How about you? Do you have an idea what the landlord’s in for?

We’ll find out what clever Calliope’s planning, after a quick break.


NARRATOR: Welcome back to Circle Round. I’m Rebecca Sheir. Today our story is called “The Rusty Cowbell.”

When we left off, the landlord had tricked Calliope’s son, Finn, into selling Maggie the cow for far less than she was worth — for 30 silver coins instead of 300! And now, clever Calliope was hoping to teach the greedy, selfish man a lesson.

Calliope went to the marketplace and gave 10 of the silver coins to the butcher, 10 to the baker and 10 to the cheesemaker. She promised each vendor she’d come back the next day and spend the money she’d already paid.

The next morning, Calliope woke up early and kissed her son goodbye.

CALLIOPE: Alright, Finn. I’m going to the market. Remember — when the landlord arrives, tell him he can find me at the butcher’s stall.

NARRATOR: Then she lifted Maggie’s rusty cowbell from the hook on the wall, dropped the bell in her purse and went on her way.

An hour later, the landlord came by. He rolled his eyes when Finn answered the door.

LANDLORD: Oh! It’s you, the boy who sold me that pathetic cow. You know, you should be grateful I gave you 30 whole coins for that bag of bones! But speaking of coins, I’m here to collect the rent.

NARRATOR: Finn shrugged his shoulders.

FINN: I’m sorry, sir, but you’ll need to talk with my mother, and she had to go to the marketplace this morning. She said you could find her at the butcher’s stall.

LANDLORD: Wait a minute — she’s all the way over at the marketplace? Fine. I want my money, and if I have to trek miles and miles to get it, so be it!

NARRATOR: So the landlord traveled through dense forests and across grassy fields, past rushing rivers and over rocky hills. When he arrived at the marketplace, sure enough, he found Calliope at the butcher’s stall. She gave him a sheepish look.

CALLIOPE: Thank you for meeting me here, sir! I know you traveled an awfully long way. In exchange for your trouble, may I buy you some chicken and beef?

NARRATOR: The landlord was such a money-grubber, he never said no to free food. So Calliope ordered some meat from the butcher. Then, she reached into her purse and took out Maggie’s rusty old cowbell! Gently, Calliope rang the bell.

NARRATOR: ...then leaned in toward the butcher.

CALLIOPE: So, how much do I owe you?

NARRATOR: The butcher tilted his head.

BUTCHER: Nothing, ma’am! You don’t owe me anything!

CALLIOPE: Oh! In that case, we’ll be on our way.

NARRATOR: The landlord was surprised that Calliope didn’t have to pay for the chicken and beef. But as he opened his mouth to ask her about it, Calliope laid a hand on his shoulder.

CALLIOPE: Listen, sir. I still feel bad for making you travel all the way over here. I’d like to buy you something else. Something from the bakery, perhaps?

NARRATOR: The covetous landlord licked his lips and nodded. He followed Calliope to the baker’s stall, where she ordered an assortment of breads, muffins and cakes. Then she reached into her purse and took out the cowbell again. She lightly rang it, then nodded at the baker.

CALLIOPE: Well? How much do I owe you?

NARRATOR: The baker smiled.

BAKER: Oh, we’re good! It’s all taken care of.

CALLIOPE: Ah! Well then, we’ll be on our way.

NARRATOR: Once more, the landlord was astonished. Every time Calliope rang that rusty old cowbell, she seemed to get something for free! But just as he was going to ask her about it, she interrupted.

CALLIOPE: Really, thank you again for being so understanding, sir. But to truly show my appreciation, I’d like to buy you one more thing. Tell me, do you like cheese?

NARRATOR: In fact, the landlord did like cheese. So he followed Calliope to the cheesemaker’s stall, where she ordered several wheels of cheddar, Colby and Camembert.

Then, she reached into her purse and took out — you guessed it — Maggie’s cowbell! Gingerly, Calliope rang the bell, then gazed at the cheesemaker.

CALLIOPE: OK, how much do I owe you?

NARRATOR: The cheesemaker waved a hand in the air.

CHEESEMAKER: Not a cent! Take the cheese, and enjoy.

CALLIOPE: Thank you! We’ll be on our way then.

NARRATOR: The landlord began imagining all the magnificent things he could get if that cowbell were his. Free food, free drinks, not to mention free clothing, free jewels and countless other treasures. He decided he must have it.

LANDLORD: (buttering her up) So, Calliope, that cowbell of yours — how much do you want for it?

NARRATOR: Calliope blinked.

CALLIOPE: (totally playing him) What, this little thing? I don’t know. It may not look like much, but it means a lot to me.

LANDLORD: I’m sure it does! I tell you what — if you give me that bell, you can forget all about this month’s rent.

CALLIOPE: (totally playing him) Well…

LANDLORD: ...And next month’s rent!

CALLIOPE: I don’t know…

LANDLORD: Fine! Give me that bell, and you can forget about rent for an entire year! No — two years!

CALLIOPE: My son and I won’t have to pay rent for two years?

NARRATOR: Calliope held out the bell.

CALLIOPE: You have yourself a deal!

NARRATOR: Then she went back home, chuckling to herself.

The landlord trembled with anticipation as he clutched the rusty cowbell in his hands. His eyes darted from stall to stall, as he wondered where to begin.

LANDLORD: (to himself) Fish! I’ll buy some fish! Or, get it for free, rather!

NARRATOR: The landlord raced to the fishmonger’s stall and ordered every single variety of fish and seafood. Then, just as Calliope had, he gently rang the cowbell.

LANDLORD: So? How much do I owe you?

NARRATOR: The fishmonger began counting on his fingers.

FISHMONGER: Well, it’s 10 silver coins for the mackerel, five silver coins for the carp, 15 silver coins for the salmon --


NARRATOR: The landlord furrowed his brow.

LANDLORD: Clearly there’s been a mistake!

NARRATOR: Again, he rang the cowbell, more vigorously this time.

LANDLORD: I said, how much do I owe you?

NARRATOR: The fishmonger stared at the bell, then at the landlord.

FISHMONGER: I heard you the first time, sir! With all the fish you ordered — and you ordered a lot — the total comes to 200 silver coins.

NARRATOR: The landlord couldn’t understand what had gone wrong. Why wasn’t the cowbell working? So he left the fish with the fishmonger and began dashing from stall to stall, ordering everything from nuts to oils to jewelry. But no matter how forcefully he rang that cowbell, every single vendor insisted he owed them money!

The landlord spent the rest of the day running around the marketplace, ringing that rusty cowbell. Some say he came back and did the same thing the next day, and the next. Until finally, he understood what Calliope had done, and realized that when you play a trick on someone, it isn’t always a treat.

That much was clear — as a bell.

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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