There was once a poor man who cut and sold wood in order to earn a living but no matter how hard he worked he never made enough money to buy all the food his family needed. Day after day, watching his children grow pale and thin, he became so discouraged he decided to end his life.
He went to a cave where he knew a lion lived and stood outside of it. “Lion, please come eat me.”
The lion, amazed at the request, asked, “Why do you ask such a thing of me?”
The man told him of his plight and added, “If I die, perhaps my wife will find a new husband who can take better care of her and the children.”
The lion listened, then said, “If it is only money that keeps you from wanting to live, take this gold coin.” He threw the man more money than he saw in a year. Thanking him, the woodcutter rushed to the market and bought as much food for his family in one day as he’d been able to buy in a month. Though his wife was careful, eventually they spent all the money. Once again there was not enough food to feed the family.
Once again, the woodcutter went to the lion, begging him to eat him. Once again, the lion threw him a gold coin. In time, the man’s wife said, “The lion has been so good to us. I think we should invite him to dinner to show him how grateful we are.”
The man was not so sure. “He’s a lion. We don’t know what he likes to eat. Perhaps we should think of another way to thank him.”
But his wife persuaded him. The next day the woodcutter went to the lion. “My wife and I would be very pleased if you would come to our home for dinner.”
“Thank you. I shall be delighted,” said the lion with such joy the man forgot his misgivings. The next day his wife spent all day preparing the most delicious meal she knew how to cook. The children cleaned the house. The man chopped enough wood to make a splendid fire.
At the appointed time, the lion knocked on the door and was ushered in by the family who kept telling him how grateful they were for his help. The meal was a great success and the man began to relax thinking how good it was his wife had thought to invite the lion.
As the husband was showing the lion to the door, he overheard someone say, “He’s a very nice lion but he doesn’t smell very good.” Shocked, the man hoped the lion had not heard. When the lion did not react, the man sighed with relief.
Outside, the lion said to the man, “Tomorrow, come to see me. Please bring your sharpest knife. I have a favor to ask of you.”
“With pleasure,” said the man. “After all you have done for me and my family, I am happy to help you.”
The next morning the woodcutter stood in front of the cave waiting for the lion. This time, after the lion gave him a gold coin he said to the man, “I want you to take your knife and slash my face to ribbons.”
The woodcutter recoiled in horror. “I can’t do that. You’ve been so good to me and my family. Why would I want to hurt you?”
“You promised you would do as I requested,” reminded the lion. “Are you going to go back on your word?”
With a heavy heart, the man slashed the lion’s face until his face was a bloody mess. “Now, leave me,” said the lion. “Return in two weeks.”
When the man returned the lion said to him, “My head heals. My heart still hurts.”
In former times, the Akha had letters that contained all the wisdom of the tribe, but one year, they were swallowed by the water buffalo. The Akha moved every year and when it came to move, the water buffalo's skin was too big and too heavy for the people to move. They were perplexed. Although they did not want to leave their letters and their wisdom, they could not find a way to move the weighty skin.
They went to the Head Man. He thought about the problem and then spoke. "If we cannot move the water buffalo's skin, we must eat the water buffalo's skin. This way, we will keep the letters and our wisdom inside us, forever."
And so, the water buffalo's skin was cut up into the number of people in the group. Each person swallowed a piece. Thus was wisdom kept within the tribe forever.
There was once a man who lived in a small village far away from the nearest big city. He and his wife worked hard but they often went to bed hungry in order to feed their children. One night, he woke his wife and said, “I have had the most marvelous dream. I want to tell you what it was so I don’t forget it.”
His wife said, “I have never known you to have such a dream, tell me. I am listening.”
“I dreamt that I went to the city and walked to a bridge spanning a wide river. Next to the bridge, guarded by a soldier, was a little hill and at the bottom of the hill, buried deep, was a bag of gold.”
Neither he nor his wife knew what to make of the dream, but after he dreamed it for a third time, they decided he should go to the city. Maybe there was gold buried beside the bridge. The couple saved and scrimped until the man had enough food to walk the long distance to the city.
When he arrived, tired and dirty, he saw the soldier guarding the bridge. It was all as he had seen in his dream. As he approached the side of the bridge, the soldier came up to him and said, “I have to tell someone about my amazing dream.” When the man nodded, the soldier began. “I dreamt I walked a far distance to a small village where there is a large tree shading a small house. Tangled in the roots is a bag of gold.” The more the soldier described the village, the more astounded the man was. It seemed the soldier was describing his village, the tree beside his little house. The soldier sighed. “If only I could get leave, I’d go to that village. I’d dig up the gold and no one but me would know.”
The soldier seemed to be so sure the gold was in the small village, near the house, sounding exactly like where the man lived, that the man, who was afraid of the soldier, decided to go home without digging near the bridge.
When he arrived home, he told his wife about the soldier’s dream. Together, toward dusk, when no could see them, the couple dug carefully around the tree’s roots. And there, before their incredulous eyes, was the bag of gold.
There was once a stream that came to life in the highest of the high mountains, moving through dense forests, wide plains, and deep valleys until it came to a huge desert. No matter how hard the stream tried to pass through the desert, its waters always evaporated beneath the hot sands.
The stream was afraid it would disappear if it did not find a way to cross the desert yet was soon exhausted by its futile efforts. While the stream was resting, a voice whispered, “The wind crosses the desert and so can you.”
“How?” asked the stream. “I am not like the wind. I cannot fly. I make my way along and under the ground.”
“This is true,” said the voice. “But the wind can help you cross if you are willing.”
“How? I am water, not wind,” protested the stream.
“Let the wind carry you over the desert. Allow yourself to be absorbed by the wind. If you continue as you have, you will disappear forever,” answered the voice.
The stream did not like this idea. It had always been its own master. It did not want to change into something else, not even for a short time. How could the stream be sure it would find itself again, once it had traversed the desert, carried by the wind.
The stream did not believe the voice. It kept trying to cross the desert and continued to disappear. The voice whispered again, “Do not be afraid. You will once again become a stream if you let the wind carry you across the desert.”
Too tired to keep fighting the sand, the stream, which was now just a trickle, sadly agreed to be absorbed by the wind. Gently the wind cradled the stream across the desert, onto the top of a very high mountain where, as raindrops, it fell softly onto the welcoming ground and transformed itself once again into a swiftly flowing stream.
A long time ago, an Akha man saw a beautiful woman and wanted her to be his wife. However, she was not Akha, and he knew her parents would not approve. Still, he loved her very much and asked,” Will you be my wife?”
The woman loved the man and said, “Yes. But, what shall we do about my parents? They will never agree to this marriage.”
The man said, “Let us try. Perhaps they will not come to our wedding.”
But the parents came, saw their daughter in her brightly colored clothing, and took her home.
Still, the woman and man were determined to be wed. They sat and thought. The woman looked at the man and said, “I have an idea. In my village, the women wear clothes of many colors. You must ask the women in your village to wear black to our wedding. I will wear black. If my parents come, they will not know who I am.”
Once again, the parents came to the village to take their daughter home, but they could not find her. There was no woman wearing brightly colored clothes. All the women looked alike in their black clothing.
The couple were happily married.
To this day, all Akha women wear black, just to be safe.
There was once an emperor who loved the beautiful colors and graceful shape of the peacocks he saw roaming around his palace so much, he asked the court artist to paint a picture of a peacock for him. For one whole year he waited and still his request was not fulfilled. In a rage, refusing to wait any longer, the emperor stormed into the studio demanding the painting.
Frightened by the emperor’s anger, yet calm, the artist slowly brought out paper, paint and brush. In a few minutes a perfect picture of a peacock emerged.
Now the emperor was purple with outrage. “If you can paint a perfect picture of a peacock in five minutes, why did you keep me waiting for over a year?”
“Come with me.” The emperor followed the artist to the storage room. Paper was piled from the floor to the ceiling. On every sheet was a painting of a peacock.
“Your Majesty,” explained the artist, “it’s taken me more than one year to learn how to paint such a painting in five minutes.
An old woman went to visit a married daughter who lived with her husband’s mother. After the meal was over, a gust of wind blew out the lamp and the three women were left in darkness. The mother-in-law spoke. “Please sit still. I will go and light the lamp,” but as she was speaking, the daughter took the lamp and went to light it.
Thinking the mother-in-law was gone, the mother talked with her daughter about how the food wasn’t hot enough, the bed too soft, and everything else that wasn’t quite right.
When the light reappeared, she discovered to her dismay she’d been speaking to the mother-in-law, not her daughter. Horrified by her blunder, she tried to recover. “I have always had a curious peculiarity,” she said. “When light suddenly disappears, and I am in the dark, my mind wanders and I speak without knowing what I say until the light reappears.”
“Ah,” responded the mother-in-law. “I completely understand. I too have a curious peculiarity. Whenever the lamp goes out and the light disappears, I become totally deaf and only recover my hearing when the lamp is lit and light reappears.
A long time ago there was a farmer who loved horses. When his favorite mare ran away he was sad, but when villagers came to sympathize he told them, “Yes, I have lost my horse but who knows what will happen. All we can do is wait.”
A few months later, the mare returned with a stallion and his neighbors congratulated him on his good luck. “Yes, this seems like good fortune, but who knows?”
One day, while he was riding the stallion, he fell and broke his hip. People gathered round to help him, commiserating, lamenting his bad fortune. He shrugged. “No one can tell the future.”
Shortly after, the area was attacked by marauders and all able-bodied men were conscripted to serve, but the farmer’s bad hip kept him safe from the fighting. Few returned home.
In years to come, whenever someone sympathized or rejoiced with him, his only response was, “Let us see what happens. You never can tell.”
In the beginning, neither day nor night existed. No one knew about dreams. No one knew what it was like to bask in the warmth of the sun or watch the moon wax and wane. People didn’t miss what they didn’t know, yet not everyone was satisfied with the way things were.
In one village, there lived a chief who heard that somewhere in the distance there was a man who kept the light. Deciding on a plan, the chief said to his oldest daughter, “Find the man who keeps the light and bring some light back to me. He blew on her face so that the hebus of the bush, water, and sky would help keep her safe.
The young woman packed a small sack and left. When she came to a place of many roads she didn’t know which road to take, nor did she know how to choose, She walked down a road with many trees and came to the house of Deer who greeted her warmly. She stayed with him, enjoying their time together, but she remembered her father’s request and soon went home. She told her father she had not found the Lightkeeper.
The chief decided to send his younger daughter. “Find the man who keeps the light and bring some light back to me.” He blew the hebus on her face and played his flute, wishing her well.
The younger daughter soon left, and, like her older sister, came to a place of many roads. She stopped, not knowing which one to take, In the distance, she thought she heard the sounds of her father’s flute. As she listened, she began to have feelings about the roads, as if they had faces. She chose the one that seemed strong and old. After walking for a long time, she came to the house of the Light keeper.
He was as young as the road seemed old, and just as strong. “Who are you?” asked the Lightkeeper.
“I am the younger daughter of a village chief. I have come to get some light from you.”
“I have been waiting for you,” he replied. “Now that you have come, please stay with me for a while and I will show you the box of light. He picked up a box woven of itiriti leaves. Carefully, he opened it so that the dreams inside would not spill out.
The young woman, seeing light for the first time, was awed by its brilliance. The light keeper then closed the box and offered her a meal.
For many days, the Lightkeeper opened the box made of itiriti leaves so they could enjoy themselves, but in time the young woman remembered her promise to bring back some light from the Lightkeeper’s box. As a present, he gave her the itiriti box filled with light and dreams.
Taking great care of the box, the chief’s younger daughter traveled home to a joyful welcome from her sister and father. After showing them the dreams and light contained in the box their father decided it should be shared and hung the box from the highest roof beam.
People from nearby villages heard that a family near the river had light and came to see it. At first, they were welcomed and fed and given places to sleep, but in time, the chief and his daughters grew tired of the throngs of people who gathered in and around their house. They decided everyone everywhere had a right to the light. The chief flung the box of woven itiriti leaves into the sky. The body of light flew to the East and became Sun. The box tumbled to the West.
Thus, were light and dreams brought to the world for people to enjoy them.
The day began like any other in the small village. People worked, ate, talked to their neighbors, but they were not too busy to noticed the arrival of a beautiful bird no one had seen before. Then, life changed quickly. Whatever people planted during the day was gone the next morning. Each day there were fewer chickens, goats, and sheep. Even during the day, the huge bird found its way into the storehouses and ate its fill of grains. Would there be anything left for people to eat in the winter? Now no one and nothing was safe.
The villagers were shocked. Stunned. Afraid. No one knew what to do. The bird was so quick it evaded arrows and stones and traps. The headman of the village told the strongest and wisest men, “Sharpen your axes and machetes. Go cut down the tree on which the huge bird perches.” At first all went well. The sharp blades cut into the tree. It began to shake. Suddenly the bird emerged, almost too beautiful to look at, and began singing a song so sweet, so full of stories about places the men had never been and would never go, they fell to their knees, enchanted and bewitched.
The men’s hands could no longer hold their axes and machetes. They lost their urge to kill the bird. When the sun went down, they returned to the headman and told him they could not harm a bird that sang so beautifully.
The headman was furious. He gathered the young men together. “Go and do what the stronger and wiser men could not. Surely you are brave enough to outwit this bird that is devastating our village.”
The young men set out, pleased to be asked to do what their elders could not. At first, their axes and machetes bit deeply into the trunk of the tree. Then, as if by magic, the bird appeared, more beautiful than the day before, singing a song of love and courage, of the wondrous adventures the young men could have. As before, entranced by the bird’s song, the young men’s hands became weak, their axes and machetes fell from their hands. When the sun went down, they too returned to the headman, embarrassed and ashamed.
The headman was beside himself with fury and worry and fear. Now who could he send? Certainly not the women—they would marvel at the beauty of the bird, the wonder of its song. They would feel sorry for the tree. This left only the children. He would have to send them. Perhaps if they worked together they could defeat the bird.
Early the next morning, the headman took the children to the forest to the tree where the bird lived. He told them to shut their ears, not look up, and pay attention, to do what he told them to do. The children lifted the heavy axes and machetes and went to work. When the beautiful bird emerged from the leaves the headman heard its song and his hands grew too weak to hold his ax.
Intent on what they were doing, and proud to be asked to do what the wisest and strongest men could not, what the brave younger men could not, the children did not look at the bird, nor did they listen to its song as they chopped away.
When the tree fell to the ground the bird crashed with it, crushed by the weight of the branches. People heard what the children had accomplished and rushed to the forest. A great feast was held to honor them. In years to come, people told stories about the children who saved the village when the wisest and strongest and bravest could not.
Wit and wisdom from around the world and through the ages. Tales by Nancy King.