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FOR weeks the boys of Ak Shehir had been itching to play a joke on their good friend, Nasr-ed-Din Hodja. They had tried plenty of times, but the Hodja had the most embarrassing way of turning jokes upside down so that the laugh would be on the boys after all. At last they had worked out a plan that could not fail - at least it could not fail unless the Hodja forgot to take a bath.

Finally, the day arrived, the day when the Hodja would go to the Turkish bath to enjoy a sociable time with his friends. Impatiently he would wait for this day when he could go for his weekly steaming and sudsing and scrubbing, and then for that delectable two hours or so of relaxing on the high board sadir, all wrapped up warm in his long burnous that Fatima had bought in the towel market. This was the club of clubs, the time of times in which to visit and listen and luxuriate. Nasr-ed-Din Hodja knew well how to do it all. So he went, his long black coat blowing out behind him as he trudged along.

Half a dozen boys joined the Hodja just before he reached the door of the public bath. They talked about this and that and the other - just not to seem too eager about their plan. Finally -

"I have an idea!" Nouri whacked Ismail on the back. "I have a wonderful idea! Let's pretend we are a flock of hens. The one who does not lay an egg in the bath will have to pay for baths for us all."

"Fine idea!" The boys were perhaps a little too quick to agree to such a strange plan. -

"So you think you can lay eggs?" asked the Hodja.

"Of course!" agreed the boys, trying hard not to giggle. "Are you joining the game?"

Surely I'll be one of your flock." The Hodja could not guess what it was all about, but he did not intend to be left out of any fun - if it was to be fun. "If I don't prove myself as good a part of your poultry flock as any of you, I'll pay for all the baths."

As they undressed, the Hodja thought the boys were more slow and awkward than usual. He was ready first and followed the hammamji into the steam chamber.

There was nothing the Hodja enjoyed more than a peaceful time in the Turkish bath. He liked the warmth, the relaxation, the friendliness. All his worries, if he had any, seemed to flow away as the hammamji brought bowl after bowl of hot water for him. He loved to sing and hear his own voice magnified in the steam-laden air under the vaulted roof. His voice seemed as trilling and magnificent as the muezzin's own. Whenever he heard himself singing in the Turkish bath, he wondered why he had not studied to be a muezzin instead of a simple Hodja. Once he had been so impressed with his bath voice that he had climbed the twisting stairs of the minaret to try it from the high balcony. Out of the bath, his fine voice had been just a squeak and a croak. The people below had laughed, and he had called down to them that they should build him a Turkish bath on the minaret and then they would hear what a really fine voice he had. He forgot all about that today as he admired his voice floating through the bath.

The boys joined him, squatting beside him on the hot stones of the bath. Each boy held; one hand closed lumpily, and did all his splashing with the other. They were very quiet, except for an occasional snort or giggle when nothing funny had happened as far the Hodja could see. The Hodja was glad they were so still, because their quiet gave him more chance to sing and talk. The hammamji brought bowl after bowl of soothing, steaming Water. Life was good - very good.

Suddenly one of the boys, squatting close to the Hodja, started a strange chant. "Cut-cut-ca-da-cut! Cut-cut-ca-da-cut!" The boy flapped his arms and jumped to his feet. He pointed to the hot stone where lay a smooth brown egg.

Before the Hodja had time to think, a second boy started the same strange chant. "Cutcut-ca-da-cut! Cut-cut-ca-da-cut!" He too flapped his arms, jumped to his feet and pointed to a smooth white egg that lay on the stone where he had been squatting.

One after another, the boys cackled, flapped their arms, and hopped up to show eggs. The Hodja remembered then how slow the boys had been to get ready for the bath so that he had been the first to leave the dressing room. The Hodja remembered too how they had each kept a hand closed lumpily as they squatted beside him. Their hands were wide open now as they hopped about in high glee.

"Your turn now, Hodja Effendi," they squealed. "Show us what a good member of our poultry flock you are, or you pay for all our baths." They were sure that, at last, they had outsmarted the Hodja.

The Hodja looked at the eggs, at the boys, at the hammamji. He looked about the steammg bath. Then he leaped onto a bench, stretched his neck as though he would try to touch the vaulted ceiling with his head, flapped his arms up and down at his sides and opened his mouth wide.

"Cock-a-doodle-doo! Cock-a-doodle-doo!" The Hodja's crowing echoed and re-echoed under the hot vaulted roof. Then Nasr-ed-Din Hodja hopped calmly down from his perch, walked back to his seat, and motioned to the hammamji to go on with his work.

"In such a fine flock of hens," mused the Hodja, "you should have at least one good rooster."

And the boys paid for their own baths.


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