Retold by Kevin Strauss, M.S. Ed.
Once, in old Japan, an old woman was gathering firewood in the forest when she saw a sparrow hopping around on the ground. It was almost as if the sparrow couldn’t fly. The woman put down her firewood and slowly walked up to the bird.
“Don’t worry, little friend,” she whispered. “I won’t hurt you. Just let me have a look at what seems to be wrong.”
She broke up a piece of the rice cake she brought for her lunch and let the sparrow peck at the rice. As the sparrow ate, the woman examined the bird and she saw that it had a broken wing.
“Poor thing,” she said. “Come home with me. I’ll take care of you.”
The woman carefully picked up the sparrow and brought it home. She made a warm nest for it with silk cloth in a basket. She wrapped the bird’s wing in a bandage, so it would heal properly. And every day she brought it grains of rice to eat and cool, fresh water to drink. As the days went by and the weeks went by and finally, the bird was able to move its injured wing and make short hops and flights across the small house. A few weeks later, it could fly with ease.
Finally one day, when the woman opened the window shutters, the bird flew out.
“Goodbye,” called the woman. But the bird was already gone. She figured that she would never see that sparrow again. But she was wrong.
The next day, when she opened her shutters, the sparrow flew into the house and “clink” dropped a silver coin on the table. The woman used the coin to buy some food. The next day the bird returned with another coin and another and another. Each day it brought her another coin. Soon the woman was wealthy, but she always shared her wealth with those around her.
The woman’s neighbor couldn’t help but notice the old woman’s newfound prosperity. That made her curious. Finally one day, she visited the woman and wheedled the story out of her. “Huh, helping a hurt sparrow. Two can play at that game,” she thought as walked home.
The next day, the neighbor woman went into the woods looking for an injured bird. When she couldn’t find one right away, she decided, “I can always make one be injured.” The neighbor took a stone and knocked a sparrow off a branch, breaking its wing. Then she walked up to it. “Come here you little bird. You’re worth a lot of money to me.”
She picked up the bird and took it home. She threw it in a cage. Every once in a while, she fed it some crumbs form the floor and water from the puddles after it rained.
“Hurry up and heal,” the neighbor screeched. “I want my money!”
It took a long, long time, but eventually, the sparrow could move its wing and flap in its cage. The neighbor was overjoyed. “Now I’ll get my money.” She picked up the bird and threw it out her window. “Now come back right away! I want my reward.”
The sparrow didn’t come back the first day or the second or the third. But on the fourth day, it did come back. The neighbor danced with excitement, but instead of hearing the “clink” of a coin, she herd the “thump” of a beetle. She grabbed her brook and chased the beetle out the door. But every day, and sometimes twice a day, the sparrow brought the neighbor beetles and spiders and centipedes and worms.
Finally, the woman couldn’t take it any more. And the last anyone saw of her, she was running down the road, chased by a cloud of beetles and spiders and centipedes and worms.
Jablow, Alta and Withers. The Man In the Moon: Sky Tales From Many Lands (Holt, Rinehart and Winston)
Stotter, Ruth. The Golden Ax ( Stotter Press)
Wyndham, Lee. Folk Tales of China (Bobbs-Merrill)
I use the story in several ways. I use it to talk about decision-making and kindness. I also contrast this story with it’s “magical” solution, with a fact-tale, like the story of wolf reintroduction in Yellowstone. The message is that when we “do the right thing” then we often get multiple benefits. When we help nature to “heal,” we receive several different kinds of “treasure” in the end. Sometimes I modify the story to have the sparrow’s benefit to be a beautiful song. The song attracts neighbors who then buy the old woman’s twig brooms, so the “gold” in this case, comes from the old woman caring for nature and that action leading to more sales of her projects. Jealousy over this success leads the neighbor to try to “get” her own pretty singing bird.
Kevin Strauss – After completing a Bachelors Degree in Environmental Biology/Creative Writing at Beloit College in Wisconsin and a Masters Degree in Curriculum and Instruction at Northern Illinois University, Kevin taught at several nature centers, including a stint as Executive Director at the innovative Prairie Ecology Bus Center in Lakefield, Minnesota, where the “center” is a mobile classroom nature center on a bus. But in 1998, Kevin decided that rather than being a naturalist who tells stories, he wanted to be a storyteller full time and he’s done that ever since.