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About a Poor Man and the King of the Crows
There have always been poor people without a penny to their name, but once upon a time there lived a poor man who had a tiny house, a little plot of land and two small, black and shaggy oxen… Ah, yes, I’ve forgotten to tell you that he also had a wife and a horde of children. I really don’t know how many of those kids of his there were in his tiny house, squealing, whimpering, whining and crying for food.
Once, the poor man went to till his plot of land and took one of his sons with him. They harnessed two oxen to the plough and began ploughing. They ploughed one furrow, and as they finished ploughing the second furrow, the sky above them darkened, as though a huge black cloud had swallowed the sun. Darkness fell as it does at night. The poor man looked up, but what he saw was not a cloud but an enormous black bird, with its beak sharp as a spearhead, and huge talons as heavy as iron hooks.
The bird landed right on the poor man’s plot and covered the man, his son and the two oxen with one of his wings. The man took fright, and his fright only grew when the bird said in a human voice, “My children are very hungry and I want to bring them some food. Who do you give me, your son, or your oxen?”
“Take me instead!” cried out the poor man. “I’ve had such a wretched life and suffered enough!”
“No, I don’t want to take you. You’ve smoked too much tobacco, your flesh reeks of it, you’ve been smoked through and through, and my children will become ill if they eat you. No, give me your son or your shaggy oxen,” croaked the terrible bird.
The poor man fell to thinking what he should do. “I have many children,” he thought, “and if I give my son to this bird there will be still many others left, but I have only two oxen, and if this terrible bird takes them, I will not be able to plough my land or bring firewood, or do so many other things. How shall we live then?”
The bird said again, “Hurry up, man, think faster! So, who do you give me?” And the bird began clawing the ground. When the man saw the deep marks left by the bird’s talons on the earth, he felt great pity for his son. “No, I cannot give my son to be torn to pieces by these terrible talons. “We’ll manage somehow without oxen,” he thought to himself.
“All right,” he said sadly, “take the oxen.”
“You are in luck,” said the bird. “If you had said, “Take the son”, it would have been the end of both you and the oxen too. I’ll take the oxen anyway, but I will pay you well for them. Tell one of your sons to come to my place and I will pay him with whatever he wants to have.”
“But where is your place?” asked the poor man.
“Your son should find it beyond the mountains, across the valleys, beyond the dense forests in the center of a vast silver glade. On his way, he should be asking, “Where does the King of the Crows live?” As he said it, the bird grabbed the oxen together with the plough with his talons and flew off.
Without oxen, there was nothing else to do in the field, and the poor man went home in a very sad mood.
“What happened? Why are you back home so early? Where are your oxen?”
The man told his wife what happened and his story put her into a bad mood too.
“What will become of us now? We shall not have any bread to eat because you have not ploughed the field and have not sowed the seeds!”
“Don’t be so upset, mother!” cried the eldest son. “I’ll get on my way right now and find the Crows’ King and ask him to pay for the oxen as promised. And if I don’t come back, there’ll be one less mouth to feed.”
When the woman heard this, she began crying all the harder. “Please don’t go, my dear son! That terrible bird will kill you! No matter what, we’ll find a piece of bread for everyone!” But the son was determined to go and no pleas could stop him. Seeing this, his mother baked a loaf of bread for him, also gave him some onions to eat, and off he went.
A long way he travelled, up hill, down dale, through dense forests, looking for a silver glade with a palace in the center of it, where the Crows’ King lived. When he felt he could not go on without food anymore, he sat down on the grass under a bush, pulled the bread and onion out of his knapsack and began eating.
He did not have time to swallow his first mouthful, when he saw a black crow land right in front of him. The crow awkwardly hobbled toward him on one leg and said,
“Good luck to you.”
“Good luck to you too,” said the boy.
The crow lowered himself onto the ground by the side of the boy and looked pleadingly at the boy. “Could you give me some bread, please? I’m very hungry!”
“Can’t you find anything to eat in the forest? I’ve got a long way to go yet, and I’m very hungry too, and if I don’t eat, I’ll have no strength to get to the place where I’m headed. No, I can’t give you anything to eat.”
The boy, who must have had a cold, hard heart, went on eating.
“And where are you headed?” asked the lame crow.
“I’m looking for a silver glade with the palace of the Crows’ King in the center of it.”
“Oh, it’s where I want to get to too! But I’m too tired and hungry, my wings won’t carry me and one of my legs is no good either! Could I perch on your shoulder? I’ll show you the way!”
“You are too heavy for me to carry, and my legs have become almost too weak to carry me alone!” replied the boy.
The crow jumped up with an effort and took wing.
“What a deceitful creature! He wanted to take a free ride on my shoulder!” cried the boy in anger. Then he put what was left of the bread back into his knapsack, picked himself up from the ground and went on in his search for the silver glade. But he could find it nowhere and got completely lost in that dense forest.
Many days and nights passed, and the poor man and his wife waited and waited but their son did not come back; neither did they know what had happened to him. Then, one day their middle son said, “Mother, bake a loaf of bread for me, put some onions into a knapsack, give me a sturdy walking stick and I’ll go search for my elder brother. Maybe I will also find that silver glade and the palace of the Crows’ King.”
“No, please, my son, don’t go anywhere!” his mother pleaded. “We’ll manage somehow even without the crow’s payment! And if your brother is destined to come back, he will, even without your searching for him!”
But she could not talk him out of leaving, and she did as he had asked her to do. With bread and onion in his knapsack, the boy bid a farewell and left.
Up hill, down dale, through dense forests the boy went and when he saw many crows circling above his head, he thought that the palace of the Crows’ King must be somewhere near. “And maybe I’ll find my brother there too!”
And he walked on, but as no silver glade nor palace were to be seen anywhere, the boy sat down on the ground, pulled his bread and onion out of the bag and opened his mouth to take a bite. And then he heard a voice that said, “Could you give me just a little piece of bread?” The boy looked around and saw a lame crow hobbling toward him.
“Your king has taken away our oxen, so go to him and ask him to feed you,” the boy said.
“I’m lame, hungry and tired and I can die in the forest if you don’t, at least, let me perch on your shoulder and stay with you for some time!”
“You’ve got your king to care for you and carry you around!” cried the boy.
The crow then jumped high into the air and took wing. The boy was surprised to see the bird fly away so suddenly, then got up from the ground and resumed his search for the silver glade. But he did not find either the glade or the palace of the Crows’ King. Instead, he got lost in the dense forest and could not find a way out of it.
The poor man and his wife had nothing to do but wait for their sons to come back. They waited and waited but the boys did not return, and nothing was ever heard of them again.
The youngest son then said, “Pack a knapsack for me, dear mother, and I’ll go look for the Crows’ King. Maybe he’ll pay me for the oxen and probably I’ll find my missing brothers.”
The poor woman burst into tears and began begging her son to stay but all was in vain. And she put a loaf of bread and onions into a knapsack and sent him forth.
Up hill, down dale, through dense forests the boy went. When he felt tired and hungry he sat down on the ground close to the same bush that his brothers had sat under, and began eating his bread and onions. As he was cutting off a second piece of bread, a crow appeared in front of him as if out of nowhere. The bird hobbled close and said, “Give me a little piece of bread!”
The boy cut off a large piece of bread and gave it to the crow, “Here you are! I have enough for two. Besides, eating alone is no fun at all.”
“And could I have some onion please?”
“Of course, you can have onion too. Why not? If it’s what you want — here you are! I’m glad you like it.”
The crow ate bread and onion and thanked the boy politely. And then the crow said, “Why are you here, boy, and where are you going? There’s no one who has ever come out alive from this forest.”
“I have to find a silver glade. In the centre of that glade stands a silver palace, and there, in that place, lives the King of the Crows. I have to see him. Also, my two brothers may be there too.”
“Put me on your shoulder, boy, because my wings are too weak, and I have only one good leg,” said the crow.
“All right. I don’t see why I should not do it. Besides, I’ve never had a crow perched on my shoulder,” said the boy with a smile and put the crow on his shoulder.
Off they went, and the crow started whispering into the boy’s ear, “Now go straight! And now turn right! Turn left!”
The boy kept walking, following the directions that the crow was giving him, for two days and two nights. The forests they walked through were as dense and dark as ever, but then, all of a sudden the boy saw light ahead of him and soon they reached a vast clearing. As they came closer, the boy saw that everything in that magic place was silver — grass, flowers and even stones.
In the middle of this dell rose an immense rock, also of silver, and on this rock stood a silver palace.
The boy stood riveted to the spot, spellbound. Never had he seen such beauty, even in his dreams. The boy sat down on the ground at the edge of the clearing and shared with the crow all the food that was left in his knapsack.
Then said the crow, “There, on that rock stands the palace of my king. You can find a way to get there without my help. You have been kind to me and I’ll give you another piece of advice. When the king asks what kind of payment you want for those oxen of yours, ask only for one thing — tell him, I want that thing that you put under your head when you go to sleep.”
And a moment later, the crow disappeared.
The boy began climbing the rock. When he got to the top, he saw a path that took him right to the silver throne on which sat the King of the Crows.
“How did you find a way to get here?” asked the king.
“Someone was good enough to show me the way,” said the boy. He, not to betray the helpful bird, did not want to tell the king it was a lame crow that gave him advice and directions.
“Now that you are here I have to keep my word. Have a good look around here and tell me what you like best. And then you can have it.”
For three days and three nights the boy wandered round the rooms of the royal palace, but still he saw only a tenth of what was there. Then he returned to the throne room and said to the King of the Crows, “You have a wonderful palace, king, and I have seen a lot of things that I liked. But what can I do with all these riches? I will not go on looking at all this splendour any more but I ask you to give me that thing which you put under your head when you go to bed.”
When he heard this request, the King of the Crows flew into a great rage. He ordered to have the heads of all those crows that were showing the boy around the palace chopped off.
“Why, what have they done wrong?” asked the boy.
“Someone betrayed me by advising you to ask me to give you what I keep under my head when I go to sleep!”
And then the king began imploring the boy to change his mind and ask for anything else, but the boy insisted that he wanted to have that thing and nothing else.
“I’ll give you many oxen and as much gold as the wagon they pull can carry!”
“No, I do not want anything but that thing that you put under your head when you go to bed,” insisted the boy.
“I’ll give everything you see in my palace!”
But no offers of the king could persuade the boy to change his mind and the boy firmly stood his ground.
The king had to keep his royal word and there was nothing left for him to do but to give the boy what he wanted.
And he pulled from under the pillow a small coffee mill of the kind that is used in rich homes for grinding coffee beans, and gave it to the boy.
“Now take this — and off with you! Get out of my sight before I peck you to death!” shouted the enraged king.
The frightened boy grabbed the coffee grinder, stuffed it into his knapsack and ran away. He never stopped running until he was deep in the forest. There, he sat down to rest. He rummaged through his knapsack, hoping to find anything to eat, but except for the coffee mill there was nothing in it, not a single crumb.
“It was a bad piece of advice that the lame crow gave me,” thought the boy. “It would have been much better if I had taken any of those things that the king offered me.”
As there was nothing else for him to do, the boy decided to take a better look at the hand mill. He was not even sure what use that thing could be put to, and wondered why the king wanted to give him so much treasure instead of the grinder. The boy turned the handle of the unpretentious looking mill, thinking, “I’ll die of hunger in this forest. I wish there would be a table laden with food and drinks standing here, right in front of me…”
And lo and behold — there was a table, covered with a rich cloth with many dishes full of food and chalices full of drink on it.
“Aha! Now I understand what this little thing can do!” cried out the boy. But a moment later his joy gave way to sadness. “How can I eat all this when at home, my father, my mother and my sisters are hungry, without food!” he thought.
And then he turned the handle once again, saying, “I wish that all my brothers and sisters and my parents be here this instant!”
And there they were, all of them standing in front of the boy — his parents, his sisters and his brothers.
They ate all the food that was on the table and went home. They lived well ever after — whatever they wished the turn of the handle of the mill gave them.
If you don’t believe me, you can go to their place and ask whether it’s true or not. If they like you, they will tell you their story and will even treat you to a nice dinner.
Art by Oleksandr MELNYK