the tale of the tongue cut sparrow

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The Tale of the Tongue Cut Sparrow

A RE-telling of the Chinese folk tale.


Once there was an old man and an old woman who lived together in a bamboo hut. The old man had a kind heart but the old woman had a very bad temper. The old man had always wanted a child but his wife was unable to bare children and she refused to adopt. One day a sparrow appeared on the doorstep and when the old woman tried to sweep it away with her broom the bird wouldn’t move. The old man could see that the little bird was injured so he picked the bird up and fed her and cared for her until she was in good health and able to fly again. When she recovered the sparrow was so grateful to the old man that she did not fly away but stayed to thank him with her songs.

  Every morning as the sun was just beginning to come up she would perch on the roof of the little hut and sing her songs of joy. The old woman didn’t like being woken up so early in the morning but the old man told her he thought the songs were beautiful and that it was good to be up every morning to greet the sun.

  The old man doted on the little bird, calling her Suzume San, which means Miss Sparrow. He would pet her and talk to her and teach her little tricks. He would play with her as often as he could and would save scraps from his dinner every night to feed her. Every day, as he came home from working in the fields, the sparrow would perch on top of the gate waiting for his return and would swoop down to greet him as soon as he was in sight.

  “Oh, Suzume San”, he would say, “You love me very much don’t you?” and the little bird would sing a happy song in reply.

  The more time the old man spent with the little bird the more jealous his wife became. “If only you would pay as much attention to me as you do that nasty little bird”, she would say. But her husband was used to her constant complaining and would simply ignore her. He was happy to have such a beautiful new friend and nothing she said could put him in a bad mood.

  Now the old woman’s temper was especially bad on wash days as her back would ache and her knees would hurt as she bent over the wash tub. So it happened one day that she had prepared some rice paste to starch her clothes and had set it in a little red bowl to cool. The little sparrow, who by then was used to being fed, hopped down to the edge of the bowl and began to peck at the starch. When the woman returned to her washing she found that the bowl was nearly empty.

  “Who ate my rice paste?”, the old woman cried, looking around for the sparrow who she was certain was guilty of the crime.

  The sparrow, hearing this, flew to the old woman and bowed before her spreading her wings out wide and low to the ground. “I am so sorry, dear woman,” she said, “it was I who ate your rice paste”.

  “A-ha!” the old woman exclaimed, “I knew it was you! Not only are you an annoying screechy little thing, who wakes us up much too early every morning, you are also a thief!” And in a rage she scooped up the little bird, grabbed a pair of scissors and cut the sparrows tongue out! Then she threw her into the air and the bird flew away with blood dripping from her beak.


  When the old man came home from work that day, his dear little sparrow did not come to greet him. She was not perched on the top of the gate and he could not find her in any of the usual places she would normally be. He searched everywhere for her calling out, “Suzume San, Suzume San, where could you be?”, but not even a shadow of the dear bird could be seen.

  He asked his wife if she had seen the sparrow and she told him about the stolen rice paste and what she had done to punish the bird. The old man was appalled that she would inflict such a terrible punishment for such a trifling infraction. “How could you be so cruel?” he asked her, but his wife showed no signs of remorse. After she went to bed that night he wept and wept for his poor injured friend. But then he dried his tears and told himself that he would get up the next morning and go out to try to find her.

  The next day he searched high and low but he was unable to find her.

  But he did not give up. Every day after that he would look for her on his way to work, and then again on his way home. One day a humming bird flitted down and hovered in front of his face. So he asked the Hummingbird:

  “Miss Hummingbird, have you seen my Suzume San?”

  “I think I may know where she is”, she said and she told him to take a path that would lead him to a bridge. “Cross over the bridge and you will find her on the other side”.

  The old man was so happy that he ran down the path and after running until his legs were sore he came across a lovely bridge over a little stream. He crossed the bridge and on the other side there was a field of full of beautiful flowers. He looked and looked but did not find her. She wouldn’t nest in a field anyway, he thought and he began to get discouraged, but he looked up and saw a hawk flying overhead so he waved to the hawk and called the hawk down to him.

  “Mrs. Hawk, have you seen my Suzume San?”

  “Oh, yes,” she said. “You will find her if you go deep into the woods” and she directed him to a stand of trees on the edge of the meadow.

  So on he went, walking through the woods for hours, calling out her name. But still he did not find her. He came upon a wolf roaming through the woods and he asked the wolf the same question:

  “Mr. Wolf, have you seen my Suzume San?”

  “Oh, yes” she said. “You will find her if you go through these woods and up the mountain.”

  So the old man hurried through the woods and began his trek up the mountain.

  Suddenly he spotted his old friend Sparrow who flew down from a branch to greet him. The old man was so happy to see her. He apologized for his wife’s wicked actions and asked how she was doing. Sparrow told him that she had recovered completely, and told him that she rarely thinks of that terrible day, that it is all in the past and long forgotten. She asked the old man to follow him and she led him to a modest little house in a bamboo grove.

  She invited him to come in and he found that the simple little house was quite lovely inside, built of the finest woods, the floors covered in beautiful cream colored mats and cushions of the finest silk. She invited the old man to sit down and a great feast was spread out before him. He met sparrow’s husband and her beautiful children and they told stories and sang songs and the children performed a wonderful dance which they called Suzume Odori or the dance of the sparrow.

  The old man was so happy to see that his dear friend was doing well, he drank and ate his fill and couldn’t remember the last time he had enjoyed himself so much. But soon the sun began to set and he told his host that he must be going, as he had a long walk home and he knew that his wife would already be angry by now.

  Sparrow begged him to stay, telling him that it would be much easier to make the trip back in the daylight but the old man said that his wife would be even angrier if he came home the next day and insisted that he must be on his way. As he was getting ready to leave, Sparrow said that he must take a gift with him to remember their visit and she brought out two baskets, one large and one small and she urged him to take them home with him. The old man did not feel he could accept a gift from her after an evening of such gracious hospitality but he did not want to offend her so he said, “ I am an old man, far too weak to carry such a large basket. I will just take this small one and be on my way”. So he took the small basket, said his goodbyes, thanking her for a wonderful evening, and headed home.

  When he got back he found his wife waiting for him, even angrier than she usually was. She hollered at him at the top of her lungs, saying, “Where have you been all this time and why have you come home so late?’’

  The old man explained that he had run into his old friend Sparrow. He told her that she was doing well, had a wonderful husband and beautiful children, and he told her about the lavish feast and the wonderful evening he had. None of this helped in any way to pacify his angry old wife but the old man didn’t give her time to grumble and he showed her the basket that Sparrow had given him as he left, telling her that she had been generous enough to offer an even larger basket which he felt he couldn’t accept.

  “Now let us see what dear Sparrow has given us”, he said, and they both sat down and opened the basket.

  To their astonishment the basket was filled with gold and silver coins, precious gems and rolls of fine silk, enough treasure for them to live comfortably for the rest of their lives.

  Suddenly the old woman was no longer angry and her eyes lit up at the sight of so much wealth, the angry scowl that she always wore turned to a smile of greedy joy. ”Oh, how I misjudged dear Sparrow!”, she said, and she told  her husband that he must tell her where Sparrow lived so that she could go to her and apologize for her actions and thank her for her generosity.

  The old man, thinking that his wife had truly had a change of heart told her where Sparrow lived. As she drifted off to sleep she muttered to herself, “How stupid my old husband is! To think of all the wealth we would have if he had only taken the larger basket!”


  The next day, following her husband’s directions, she went over the bridge, through the field, into the woods and up the mountain where she found Sparrow’s modest little house and she knocked on the door. Sparrow was quite surprised to see her but invited her in. Though the old woman had expected a large feast and an evening of entertainment she was offered only a cup of tea and was never introduced to Sparrow’s family. The two of them sat quietly for a while until the old woman announced that it was time for her to head back home. As she got ready to go she stood in the doorway waiting to be offered her parting gift but none was offered. But since this was the true purpose of her visit she was not so easily dissuaded, so she boldly asked Sparrow if she had intended to offer her a gift as she left.

  “Oh, certainly” Sparrow said, and with that she brought out two baskets, one large and one small. The old woman could hardly contain her excitement and she grabbed the large basket, hoisted it onto her shoulder and scurried away without so much as a goodbye or a thank you.

Now, this basket was very heavy and seemed to shift from side to side as she carried it. She could barely walk with it, let alone run as she wanted to do, for she could scarcely wait to get it home so see all the treasure that would surely be inside. She was tempted to set it down and rest but the thought of mounds of gold coins and endless bolts of beautiful silk kept her trudging onward.

  Finally she got home and called to her husband to come see what wonderful gifts the sparrow had given her. As her husband came out of the door to see, she opened the basket. To her great surprise it was not filled with treasure but horrible beasts and demons of every shape and size. One after another they sprung out the basket and began to torment the old woman biting her and stinging her and pulling at her hair. She tried to escape but they grabbed her and held her with their sharp talons. Her husband watched with horror as the hideous flying creatures lifted her up and carried her away into a great black cloud. He never saw her or heard her screeching voice again!

Not long after that he adopted a son, and he lived out the rest of his life happy to have just what he needed and no more.

Created: Jan 10, 2011


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