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THE KING OF THE SPARROWS
THE Korean children are awakened every morning by the twittering of the sparrows. These little birds build their nests among the vines on the roof and along the eaves. The people plant melon, gourd, and mock orange seeds along the sunny sides of their houses in spring time. All through the summer, and until late in autumn, the walls and roofs are covered with the thick green leaves. Here, in these sheltered places, the sparrow mother lays her eggs and the father sparrow finds worms and feeds her, until the hungry birdies open their little mouths for something to eat. After this, both parents are kept busy in raising their brood and teaching them to fly.
The greatest dangers to the birdlings come from cruel snakes that live on the roof and eat up the young sparrows. Sometimes, to help them against their enemy, the parent sparrows call in the aid of larger birds that are not afraid of the reptiles. These peck at the snake until they drive him away. There is always a lively chattering over the victory.
One day, a young sparrow that had hardly learned to fly was almost seized, and might have been devoured by the roof-snake, but was saved by a big, brave bird that flew at the reptile. Although escaped from the snake's jaws, the sparrow in falling caught its legs in the curtain made of split bamboo, which hung before the verandah of the house, and its limb was put out of joint. There it lay helpless between the splints.
The owner of the house was a kind man, who loved the birds. Taking pity on the poor sparrow, he carefully lifted it up, smoothed its feathers, and quieted the little creature, while its heart kept beating so fast. Then setting its leg in place, he put some moist clay around the broken part, until it should be all right again. Meanwhile, he kept it warm, feeding the birdie until it was strong again. One day he took it in his hand and out-of-doors letting it fly away. Soon it came back and perched on the edge of the roof, twittering thanks to its kind friend. Then it spread its wings to fly to the King of the Sparrows, who lived in the city of Sparrow Capital, where it at once informed His Majesty about the good man who healed and befriended birds when they were in trouble and who had saved the young sparrow's life.
The King of Sparrow Land and all his wise counselors heard the story with great interest. Then they held a meeting and voted to reward richly so good a friend of all sparrows. So they went into the storehouse where were kept beautiful treasures which human beings love. From the collection they chose what they thought would please most their good friend, such as gold, jade, brocade, cups and saucers, rice, horses to ride on, oxen to bear heavy loads and pretty maids to wait on him, besides silk and cotton clothes of all sorts, with delicious things to eat and drink. By some magic process, they packed these into a seed and then gave it to the sparrow in its bill to carry to the good man. They charged the bird on no account to lose it and be sure to give it to no one but the right person.
So the sparrow flew out of Sparrow Land and down to the house of its kind friend. Carefully laying down the seed, it kept near the paper window-frame and made a great twittering, until the man came out to see what was the matter.
Recognizing his old acquaintance, he put out his open hand and the sparrow laid the seed in his palm, meanwhile chattering in a lively way and looking in his face as if to tell him how precious the treasure was.
But the good fellow only took it in to his wife and told her how he got it, laughed over the matter and was going to throw it away, thinking it only sparrow fun.
The wife, who was a wise woman, begged her husband to keep it and on a warm day in spring she planted it. It grew to be a luxuriant vine that clothed all one side of the house with its leaves. When one unusually fine large handsome gourd was nearly ripe, the man thought of plucking it for food; but, taking his wife's advice, he waited until full autumn had come. By this time the gourd, having absorbed the sunshine all summer, was fully ripe.
Then they took a saw to open it properly, and lo a store of riches came out of that gourd, such as neither the man nor his wife had ever dreamed of.
First issued something which spread itself out before them. It was a table of costly jade, such as an Emperor ever eats from. Next rolled forth a silver bottle of delicious wine and then the daintiest cups, that set themselves on the jade table. Soon a gold tea-caddy appeared filled with the fragrant leaf. Then rolls of silk, fine muslin, satin brocade, and a store of rich clothes, hats, shoes, girdles, and socks enough to last a lifetime appeared before their eyes. After these were rice and cooked food of all sorts ready for a feast. Looking out into the yard, they saw strong horses and fat oxen waiting to do their master's bidding. Last of all, some lovely young girls, as fair as the moon, stepped out of the gourd and proceeded to serve the good things of the feast as if they had been used to waiting on ladies and gentlemen all their lives. Following the feast, they danced, made music and gave no end of entertainment and service to the man and his wife, who were now as happy as king and queen.
In their once humble home, now made over new, with all the store of good things and plenty of loyal servants and strong animals to serve them, the old couple lived without care and traveled where they pleased.
But when a wicked man, that hated all sparrows and had often driven them away from his house, because he thought them too troublesome, heard of his neighbor's good fortune, he was envious, and wanted to get riches in the same way. So he watched his opportunity and, when a sparrow came near, he threw a stick at the bird and broke its leg. Then he bound up the limb with clay and a bit of rag. He kept the poor sparrow until its leg was well, but dreadfully crooked, and then let it fly away.
In the capital of Sparrow Land, the poor bird told about the bad man's doings. The Sparrow King at once handed out a seed to be given to the enemy of the sparrows. When the naughty man saw the little bird with the crooked legs, he ran out, got the seed and planted it at once. He could hardly wait for the gourd to ripen. Wonderful to relate, however, the vine was most luxurious, covering the whole side of the house and all the thatched roofs of the three dwellings in one, which made up his home. Altogether there was a dozen of the gourds. Finally in the autumn he plucked the fruit. Then, sitting down before the pile, with knife and saw, he began to open them.
But instead of good things, and lovely people, and the treasures that make men rich and happy, such as his kind neighbor had received, there came out, one after another, the twelve curses of Korea.
First leaped forth a party of rope dancers, who put out their hands and demanded money. They threatened to live with him and eat at his table unless they got their pay.
There was no help for it. So the cruel man had to give each dancer a long string of cash before he could get rid of the party.
No sooner had he opened the second gourd than out stepped a line of Buddhist priests, who at once began begging for the temples. He was only too glad to buy off these shaven pates.
The saw had no sooner let the light into another gourd, than forth came a band of hired mourners carrying a corpse. They began weeping, wailing and crying out loud enough to waken the dead. It required another rope of cash to get rid of these pests. By this time the cruel man was beginning to feel very poor.
Almost afraid to touch the other gourds, but still greedily hoping for riches, he sawed them open; but one after the other yielded only what took his money and threatened to make him a beggar. From the fourth gourd issued a bevy of dancing girls, who refused to leave the house until he had paid them five thousand cash. From another gourd a pair of acrobats leaped out and began a performance. But knowing that they would charge the more for their tricks, if they were allowed to finish their programme, the man bought them off as he had done the others.
Getting poorer and poorer, with no sign of wealth coming from the gourds, he yet felt he must open more, but the result was the same. The strangest people, men and women, such as loafers from the government offices, fortune-tellers, jugglers, and blind folks appeared. These last had sticks in their hands to find their way, and bells at their belts to collect alms. Finally, of all living things, a giant stood forth, that threatened to eat up both the man and his wife.
By this time there was not a coin or a cash left, and, besides being as poor as a rat, the man was hungry. When the twelfth gourd was opened it seemed to have in it all the smells of Korea. Holding their noses, the man and his wife ran out of their house. Happily for them that they did so, for just then a gale of wind blew down the house, and the thatch and timbers burst into flames from the fire that had heated the flues.
Thus stripped of all their possessions, because of the man's cruelty to the birds, the wicked fellow and his wife would have starved, except for the kindness of the good man who treated the sparrows kindly. For the rest of his days the cruel neighbor lived on his neighbor's charity.