February 02, 2013: The Cut-Tongue Sparrow

February 2, 2013

Cut_Tongue_Sparrow[I grew up loving fables of all sorts. I think I picked up more of correct behavior and morals from Aesop than I ever did from my years of attending church. The trouble with fables is that they attempt to teach our children the way the world should be, not how it actually is. I do like the correct sense of justice of  the Japanese fable, “The Cut-Tongue Sparrow.” I like to believe that kindness and going out of our way for that which we love is ultimately rewarded, as well that cruel and greedy behavior is punished. I’m just not entirely convinced  it always works out that way outside fiction. A true East-meets-West story, this fable is from Lafcadio Hearn’s “Japanese Fairy Tales” (1924) Hearn was a Greek-Irish American that adopted Japan as his country.]

‘Tis said that once upon a time a cross old woman laid some starch in a basin intending to put it in the clothes in her wash-tub; but a sparrow that a woman, her neighbor, kept as a pet ate it up. Seeing this, the cross old woman seized the sparrow and saying, “You hateful thing!” cut its tongue and let it go.

When the neighbor woman heard that her pet sparrow had got its tongue cut for its offense, she was greatly grieved, and set out with her husband over mountains and plains to find where it had gone, crying, “Where does the cut-tongue sparrow stay? Where does the cut-tongue sparrow stay?”

Kikugawa Eizan Japanese (1787 - 1867) Old Man Conversing with Two Sparrows

Kikugawa Eizan Japanese (1787 – 1867)
Old Man Conversing with Two Sparrows
(Courtesy of Arthur M. Sackler Museum)

At last they found its home. When the sparrow saw that its old master and mistress had come to see it, it rejoiced and brought them into its house and thanked them for their kindness in old times and spread a table for them, and loaded it with sake and fish till there was no more room, and made its wife and children and grandchildren all serve the table. At last, throwing away its drinking-cup, it danced a jig called the sparrows dance. Thus they spent the day. When it began to grow dark, and they began to talk of going home, the sparrow brought out two wicker baskets and said: “Will you take the heavy one or shall I give you the lighter one?” The old people replied: “We are old, so give us the light one. It will be easier to carry it.” The sparrow then gave them the lighter basket and they returned with it to their home. “Let us open and see what is in it,” they said. And when they opened it they found gold and silver and jewels and rolls of silks.They never expected anything like this. The more they took out the more they found inside. The supply was inexhaustible. So that the household at once became rich and prosperous.

When the cross old woman who had cut the sparrow’s tongue saw this, she was filled with envy, and went and asked her neighbors where the sparrow lived, and all about the way. “I will go too,” she said, and at once set out on her search. Again the sparrow brought to wicker baskets and asked as before,”Will you take the heavy one, or shall I give you the light one?”

Lafcadio Hearn

Lafcadio Hearn

Thinking the treasure would be great in proportion to the weight of the basket, the old woman replied, “Let me have the heavy one.” Receiving this, she started home with it on her back; the sparrow laughing at her as she went. It was heavy as a stone and hard to carry, but at last she got it back to her house.

Then when she took off the lid and looked in, a whole troop of frightful demons came bouncing out from the inside and at once tore the old woman to pieces.


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