From my newseltter post, The Young Servant on June 23, 2020.
Long ago there lived a king who was famed for his grasp of wisdom and gossip, seeming to know all manner of secret things and far-away news before anyone else in the kingdom. He also had a strange habit: After lunch, when guests were gone and plates were cleared, his most trusted servant would bring him a final dish. The dish was always covered, so even the servant did not know what the King would eat.
Alas, the thought of this peculiar meal became too much for the young servant. One day while returning the dish to the cellar, the youth was overcome with curiosity, and decided instead to bring it to his room. Carefully he lifted the lid and found on the plate a small white snake. The servant could not resist taking a small bite. As soon as he ate a piece, he heard little voices outside his window. Quickly he closed the dish and went to see who was outside, but no one was in sight. As he stood by the window and continued listening, he realized it was the sparrows themselves speaking, as if in a tongue he understood, about all manner of things that happened in the woods and the world that day.
That very day it so happened that the Queen lost her most cherished ring. Since the Queen had hardly left her bed that day, and eating only bread and honey in her chamber for lunch, she could not have misplaced it elsewhere, and suspected foul play. When she told the King, he summoned the young servant and accused him of taking it, since he was the only servant who had keys to all the chambers. The servant protested, for he had committed no such deed, but the King was unmoved. The King declared that if he could not produce the ring or a thief by tomorrow, the servant would be considered guilty, and put to death.
The poor servant left in a daze. Slowly he wandered into the castle courtyard to sit and ponder his fate. Two ducks swam by in the pond, and as they did he overheard one declare ruefully to the other: “Oh woe, oh doom! I fear when we were eating the toast crumbs that lay under the Queen’s window, I swallowed something else, and now it lays heavy in my stomach.” At this the servant dashed into the pond, seizing the duck by the neck. The servant ran with squishing boots and dripping clothes, and hurried the duck into the kitchen. “Prepare this duck at once,” he announced to the startled chef. And so as the duck was being prepared for the spit, they found the Queens’ ring inside.
The servant now went to the King to prove his innocence. The King was embarrassed and distraught that he had accused his trusted servant so quickly. To make amends, he offered the servant any favor he could: Riches, feasts, even a position in the noble court. The servant refused all this, saying his only wish was a horse and enough money to travel, for he was still young, and had a mind to see the world a little. The King of course accepted. The next morning, before leaving on his journey, the servant slipped into the cellar to take one last bite of the white snake.
~ ~ ~
As the servant set out on his way, he traveled across a great river, beside which lay three salmon flopping among dry reeds. Though it is said that fishes can’t speak, he heard them lamenting. In fact they were wailing so miserably that his heart was moved, and he got off his horse and helped them back into the water. They leaped about with joy, and sang to him, “We will remember you, and someday repay this kind deed!”
As he slowly rode on, he came across some tiny voices, almost whispers, that made him halt his horse for a moment. It was an ant-king, complaining: “The careless humes! Their careless beasts! Why can’t they cease their terrible and clumsy trampling of my people?” At this the servant turned his horse off the path for a while, to avoid crushing the ants. As he passed he heard the ant-king shouting towards him, “Thank you for treading carefully. We will remember your considerate ways!”
The servant continued along the path, which crossed into a deep wood. There he came across two old ravens, standing aside their nest, casting out their young. “Begone now, children! You have stayed long enough and must learn to fly and find food for yourselves.” On the forest floor three little ravens wept: “Oh woe, oh doom! We are not yet strong enough to fly.” Taking pity on the small birds, the servant crumbled the last of his bread and gave it to them. “Thank you,” peeped the young ravens, “some day perhaps we can repay your kindness!”
After roaming for some time, the servant finally came upon a large city. There was a great commotion by the city gates when he entered, where a man on horseback was making an announcement: “The King’s daughter desires to marry, but whatever suitor seeks her hand must accomplish a truly difficult task. All who ask for her hand and fail at this task shall be put to death.” The crowd murmured, for many had made the attempt and failed, but as soon as the servant laid eyes on the beautiful princess he made up his mind. The next morning the servant rode to the castle and declared himself a suitor. The King laughed, as he always did when a new suitor appeared, and sent the servant away with the King’s royal guards to attempt the task.
The guards brought the servant to the seashore. One of them showed him a golden ring, and then threw it into the wide open sea. “The task is to retrieve the ring by midnight.” they stated simply, and rode away without another word. The servant’s heart sank, and the townspeople who followed to look on grieved that such a fine youth should have to die, for there was no way a mortal could collect the ring from the bottom of the sea.
As the servant sat on the shore, wondering what to do, three salmon appeared on the shore, and one of them held a mussel in his mouth, laying it before the servant. The servant opened the mussel, and inside was the golden ring. Rejoicing, the servant rode back to the castle, expecting to claim his reward.
The King was greatly impressed, but the proud princess was still ashamed that the servant was not born a nobleman, so she declared that he must pass another test. She brought him to the gardens, and with the help of her own servants, spilled ten sacks of rice, strewing the grains all around. She said, “By sunrise tomorrow, these must be in their sacks, only then will I marry you.”
The servant sat in the garden, pondering how to accomplish the impossible task, but eventually succumbed to the exhaustion of the strange day. When he woke it was just before dawn, and he woke to the humming sound of thousands of ants, carefully placing each grain back into the rice sacks. By dawn the work was complete.
This time even the princess was impressed by young servant, but she was still beset by her proud heart, and so she declared, “Even though you have accomplished both tasks, you shall not be my husband until you bring me an apple from the Tree of Life.”
This was a truly perplexing task, for no one alive had seen the Tree of Life, which was in fact only fabled to exist, and not all fables are true. Though the servant had no guide or clear thoughts of how to find it, he mounted his horse and rode into the country in search of such a tree.
Many weeks passed, and the servant spent his days roaming while talking to strangers, hoping to for clues of the Tree of Life’s whereabouts, but to mortals the knowledge was hidden or lost, and when villagers guessed for him a road to search, they always guessed ones in different directions.
One day the servant laid to rest under a tree, when suddenly a golden apple fell into his lap. He looked upwards, and in the tree branches perched three grown ravens. Though he had long lost the ability to hear animals, they spoke to him in his own tongue: “Hello old friend. We have heard that you were seeking the Tree of Life, which no mortal can know of. But we know of it, and flew to the place where the winds themselves begin, to fetch the fruit for you.”
The servant, full of joy, took the golden apple to the King’s daughter. The princess was intrigued, and so they split the apple in two and ate it together, which made their hearts surge with love and tenderness for each other. The King announced a wedding the very next day. All the people rejoiced at the celebration, and they lived in happiness until a great age.