Many years ago there was a sultan who ruled with justice and kindness. This sultan’s vizier was very wise and clever, but he was also a very old man, and one day he went to the sultan and asked him to choose another vizier to take his place.
At first, the sultan refused, but as soon as they heard this people began to clamour that vizier was now too old and senile to be relied upon to make sound judgements.
Of course, the sultan was not happy to lose his friend and advisor but finally, under pressure, he agreed. He thought about whom he should choose as the next vizier for a long time. After a few weeks, he announced his decision to the court.
The next day he went to the new vizier and told him to disguise himself and wait for him outside. The vizier was very surprised but he did as he was told. Imagine his surprise when soon afterwards the sultan appeared, dressed in the style of a merchant and leading two horses.
The vizier wanted to ask what this was all about, but when the sultan offered no information, he wisely held his tongue and said nothing.
Silently the sultan led the way out of the city. They rode for a full day before they came to a group of tents.
The sultan stopped and dismounted, and the vizier followed him. Approaching the tents they saw a man bent over a small sapling, planting it in the soil.
The man was very old and did not have many years left to live but his eyes were bright with intelligence.
The sultan stopped in front of him and asked, abruptly “How long will this tree take to bear fruit, old man? “Twenty to thirty years,” the old man replied. The sultan said: “but you won’t live that long.” “I know,” the old man said “So why do you need to plant this tree?” The old man said: “As our fathers planted we ate, and as we plant, our children will eat.” The sultan smiled. “I see. And how is the night?” The old man paused in his work. “Became day,” he said, laconically.
The sultan glanced at his vizier. “Did you understand that?” The vizier shook his head in bemusement. “No, I did not understand anything.” The sultan turned back to the old man. “And the group?” “Separated.”
The sultan again looked at the vizier, as though asking him to translate. “Did you understand him?” The vizier shook his head, growing confused. The sultan turned back to the old man. “And the two?” “They became three.” For the third time, the sultan looked at his new vizier, impatiently. “Well, did you understand that, then?”
The vizier replied that he had not understood that either. By now, he was very shame-faced. It was clear to him that this was a test, and that he was going to fail it. The sultan did not seem pleased. “Hmm.” He said, and then turned back to the old man. “Well, old man, don’t sell cheaply.”
The old man grinned. “Don’t advise the wise.” And with that, the sultan left. The next day the sultan called the vizier and told him: “I need you to tell me what that old man said.” The vizier stared. “But I cannot possibly do that. I already told you I didn’t understand your conversation.”
The sultan shrugged. “You have three days to come up with the answer.” He said, and turned away dismissively.
The vizier understood that if he could not do as the sultan said within those three days he would have failed and he would no longer be the vizier. He sat andthought for a while, calculating the distance to the tents where they had met the old man, and counting up his money.
Finally, he stood up and went and disguised himself as he had done before. He took with him all the gold he had gathered and left the city in a hurry. He went in the same direction as before. He went in and laid a gold coin in front of the old man. “Old man, I have much to learn from you. I would like to know, what is the night that became day?”
The old man opened one eye, looked at the coin, and closed his eye again, settling back against the cushions. “You’ll have to do better than that, young man,” he said, complacently.
The vizier put down three more gold pieces. Then when there was no reaction, two more. The old man smiled, and removed his turban. “This.” He said, pointing to his white hair. “This was night and became day.”
The vizier understood. He gave the old man the coins, then put down another five.
The old man looked at the coins, and shook his head divisively. “You’ll have to do better than that, young man,” he said. Two more coins were reluctantly laid down, before the old man finally inclined his head in acceptance.
“What is the group that separated?” “Oh, that.” The old man grinned, widely, revealing his missing teeth. “Here is the group that separated.” He said, and scooped up the money, chuckling. The vizier had to smile at his amusement, laying down another five coins. The old man shook his head, until the vizier doubled the amount, and then agreed.
The vizier asked “What are the two that became three?” The old man glanced down at his feet, and then touched his walking stick. “This”
The vizier understood. Now there was only one question left. “And what did the sultan mean when he said “do not sell cheaply”?
At that, the old man laughed, loudly. The vizier went red with embarrassment, but persisted. “I need to know.” He handed over gave him ten coins.
The old man was still laughing. He jingled the coins in his hands. “He meant this!”