My Grandfather's Stories: The King of the Birds
This story was written in the 1950's by my grandfather, Milton Greenebaum, and was read to me throughout my childhood. As I loved this and other stories he wrote, I decided to share an edited version here. Illustrations by Nallely Chow.
A long time ago, there was a young prince who loved nature and rode out every day in search of hidden glades, lush valleys, medicinal herbs, and rare trees and flowers in the farthest reaches of his kingdom.
One day when he was going through a forest, he heard a soft voice saying “Please help me.” He looked down and saw a wood mouse with a tiny gold crown on its head whose foot was caught in some brambles. The prince got off his horse and gently released him.
Instead of running away, the mouse spoke again. First, he thanked the prince for saving his life, and then said, “As you can see, I am not an ordinary mouse. I am Suberd, the king of underground life. I rule over grubs, worms, moles, and locusts. I control the voles, field mice, beetles, and millions of other insects. We are small, but we have much power. Even people fear us, for we can destroy crops and forests and spread plagues.”
For a minute, the mouse was silent, and then looked up at the prince and said, “You have done me a great service, and I wish to reward you. Have you some desire that I might grant?”
The prince introduced himself with a low bow and a flourish of his feathered hat. I am Prince Avion of Gillisili. He thought for a while, looking up at the sky through the canopy of trees. Finally he said, “I have often wished to be a bird so that I could fly high in the air and see into far-off lands I could not otherwise visit.” In those long ago times there were no airplanes to fly to far away places; the only way the prince knew of possibly doing this was to become a bird. He did not think for a moment that the Mouse King could grant this wish, but it was nice to tell someone about it, for it had been a secret in his own heart for many years.
The mouse sighed. “I am sorry that you picked that wish. It is one that I have no power to grant. Only the King of the Birds can change a human into a bird. You must wish for something else.”
Now that the prince had thought of becoming a bird, he could think of nothing else. He urged Suberd to tell him where he could find the King of the Birds. The tiny king said, “It is a great and dangerous journey to his kingdom. You must go to the end of the world and a mile beyond. There, atop a mountain, he holds his court.”
He paused, and then said, “There is one way I can assist you. Wait here.”
With these words, he disappeared. Soon he returned and handed the Prince Avion a small gold case embossed with vines and flowers. “In this case is a magic worm. No matter how often a bird takes a worm out of it, another will appear. The King of the Birds will enjoy having it. If you present this to him, he will receive you kindly.” At that, the Mouse King bowed, wished him a good journey and vanished into the forest.
Prince Avion returned to his castle and a few weeks passed. He tried to get the notion of becoming a bird out of his mind, but it had lodged there and he could think of nothing else. Finally, he decided he would begin his quest to find the King of the Birds.
The prince journeyed many months, through dense forests, across rivers and over steep mountain passes. He traveled through fields of wheat and barley and rocky trails and rutted roads. He passed through villages and foreign cities, and though he asked many people about the mountain of the Bird King, none had ever heard of it. He continued until he was so weary that he was almost ready to give up. Still, he struggled on.
One evening, he came to a small cottage deep in the woods. He knocked on the door and when no one answered, he went in. Sitting at a loom was a tiny woman, dressed in red. She was weaving red cloth, so delicate and filmy he could barely see it. He greeted her and asked if he could rest there a while. She answered, “You are welcome here.” Then she added, “You are hungry as well as weary. Sit down and eat.”
He had not seen any table or food, but almost as soon as she spoke a table spread with a fine meal placed itself before him. After he had eaten she said, “If you want to get to the King of the Birds you will need my help.”
The prince, who had been amazed at the sudden appearance of the table and food, was even more surprised that the woman should know of his mission. Seeing his confusion she told him, “I am the Elf Mother. Suberd sent me a message through the tunnels under the Earth and told me of your quest.”
She continued, “If you want my help you must first do a favor for me.” The prince replied he would be glad to do so if it was within his power. She then told him, “Nearby there is a garden surrounded by a high wall. In the garden there is a spring. You must go to that garden and get a flask of water from the spring and bring it back to me. However, you must be careful. There is only one gate to the garden, and guarding it are two tremendous flowers. These flowers are dangerous and you must not touch them, or great harm will befall you.”
“The flowers sway on their stems from side to side,” she continued, “watch carefully for the moment they sway away from the gate and run quickly between them into the garden. There you will find the spring. Fill this flask with its water. Then, as you approach the flowers again, sprinkle a few drops of the water on each of them before returning through the gate.”
The prince followed the path the Elf Mother had shown him. Nearing the gate, he saw two beautiful, immense flowers standing on each side of the gateway. They had bright orange blossoms and stems as thick as young saplings.
Just as she had described, they swayed to and fro in regular time. They were so resplendent he could hardly believe such plants could be dangerous. For some time he stood still, watching the graceful beauty of the flowers. Then, just as he started toward the gate, a robin flew between them. In a flash one of the flowers reached out, its petals curling like fingers, seizing the bird and tearing it to pieces. The petals formed a terrible mouth that ate the bird, making horrid crunching sounds. The prince now realized why the Elf Mother had warned him to be so careful and he approached slowly and watchfully.
As the terrifying flowers swayed from the gateway he ran swiftly and safely between them. The garden was truly beautiful. Every type of flower, shrub and fruit tree was there, and the air was filled with their perfume. He spent some time enjoying the rare plants and eating lush fruits. Then, finding the spring, he filled the flask the Elf Mother had given him and started back. As he came to the gate he threw some of the water on the sentinel flowers as she had instructed him. He was startled to see them immediately burst into flames as the water touched them, and become nothing but blackened stumps.
He could now safely pass through the gate. He returned to the cottage and gave the flask to the Elf Mother and told her what had happened. She thanked him and told him the flowers that he had destroyed were evil ogres who had been her enemies, and tried to keep her out of her garden.
She now told the prince that if he would go to the back of the cottage he would see the mountain of the King of the Birds beyond the clouds. She then handed him a bundle of the filmy red threads she had been weaving with. “Take these,” she said. “Without them you cannot reach the mountain which is beyond the edge of the world. When you get to the edge, throw some of these threads into the air ahead of you. They will weave a bridge upon which you can cross.”
Prince Avion took the bundle, thanked the Elf Mother and went to the back of the cottage. Just as she had promised, there across a wide abyss and beyond the clouds, rose a high mountain. He went to the edge and saw that he really was at the end of the world. Except for the mountain, before him lay nothing but a great emptiness, without bottom or sides. The mountain seemed to rise up without any base, floating on air.
As he looked across the vast space that separated him from Bird Mountain, he thought it would be impossible for him to cross. He glanced at the filmy threads the Elf Mother had given him, which now seemed woefully inadequate. But, having no other options, he did as the Elf Mother had instructed him.
He threw the threads into the abyss and they immediately began to weave themselves into a footbridge toward the mountain. It looked far too delicate to support his weight, but the prince took courage and stepped onto it, and to his surprise found that he could safely walk upon it. As he walked, the footbridge built itself before him until he finally was at the bottom of the mountain, engulfed in clouds.
He was unable to see more than a few inches in front of him but he started up the mountain side. It was a long, hard climb. But at last, he broke through the clouds and soon reached the summit. Here the air was warm and balmy, not cold and windy as one would expect on the top of a high mountain. Nor was it bare rock. Instead, there were pleasant meadows and groves of trees, orchards of cherry and plums and peaches, gooseberry bushes, blackberries and many other fruits he had never seen before. Their boughs and branches bent gracefully with the weight of the ripe fruit.
Thousands of birds of all sizes and colors were feasting. As they flew about, they wove a wondrous dance of color and acrobatic grace. At the far end of this bird paradise was a platform of pure crystal that held a perch of ebony inlayed with precious gems. Upon this perch sat an extraordinary bird.
It was by far the largest bird Prince Avion had ever seen. His feathers were of the colors of all the birds: some red like the cardinal, others yellow as the goldfinch, blue as the jay, or shimmering green as the parrots he had seen in books in the royal library. On his head was a feathery crown of gold and silver which shone dazzlingly in the sunlight. White doves attended him, and birds of all kinds and colors came and went, seeming to deliver messages.
The prince stared in wordless astonishment at this splendid bird, realizing this must be the king he had been searching for. As he looked, it seemed to him the bird constantly changed appearance. At one moment he had the look and beak of a jay, then the stature of a large robin, or a finch, or some other bird. Mostly his eyes were soft and curious like those of many birds, however, at times they took on the fierce look of an eagle or falcon searching for prey. This look, it appeared to the prince, came when some bird displeased him, or brought unpleasant news. After watching him for a time, the prince gathered his courage and walked to the perch where the king sat. With his head bowed, the prince presented him with the case the wood mouse had given him. The king seemed pleased by the gift and spoke softly to him.
“I am glad that Suberd has finally sent this magic worm to me. He has long promised to do so.” Then he went on. “What is it that you want? No ordinary human would make the difficult journey to my mountain just to bring a gift.”
The prince looked up and replied, “I wish to become a bird.” At this the king laughed loudly and said, “That is a strange wish—a human wanting to become a bird. Men usually try to destroy birds. Why do you want to become one?”
The prince explained that he longed to fly over the lands and seek out beautiful woodlands and gardens and see far-off places. The king looked at him more carefully. “What kind of bird do you wish to become?”
The prince, who had thought about this often during his long and difficult journey, replied, “I would like to be a nightingale, for their song is the most beautiful I have ever heard. I would love to bring such beauty into the world.”
The king said, “Possibly that could be granted. First, however, you must accomplish a service for me.”
The prince, though he had hoped his tasks were now complete, replied that he was willing.
“There is a delegation of cuckoos coming here within a short time,” the king said. “I desire to serve them a special delicacy. For this you must go back to the human world and get me fifty red caterpillars. When you return with these, we shall see about making you into a nightingale.”
The prince agreed, and returned down the mountain unhappily, not knowing where to find red caterpillars, for in all his wanderings, he had never seen even one. However, his mind and heart were set on becoming a bird, and so he continued. When he was again on the earth he thought of the Elf Mother and resolved to ask her advice. He found her in her cottage, weaving red cloth just as before. After greeting her, he told her of the mission on which the King of the Birds had sent him.
“Ah,” she exclaimed. “That sly bird knew that I had made it possible for you to get to his kingdom. He knows that only in my garden are the right kind of red caterpillars. They spin the fine red threads for my cloth. I dislike losing any of my spinners. However, it is Elvin law that when a mortal does a favor for one of us, we are bound to help him whenever he is in need.”
She sighed and then continued. “You know the way to my garden...no, I had better go with you. I would not want to have you take my best spinners.”
So they went into the garden and the Elf Mother selected fifty red caterpillars and placed them gently in a golden case. She whispered something to them and then closing the lid, handed it to the prince.
The prince thanked her and set off without delay. He crossed the filmy bridge and climbed most of the night. He reached the summit early the next day and presented the rare caterpillars to the king. His eyes flashed with delight, and he called one of his doves. It flew off and soon returned with some purple and silver berries, which the prince was instructed to eat. Almost as soon as he had swallowed the last berry, feathers began to sprout from his skin, his bones grew light, and his human shape transformed into that of a bird. He spread his wings and found he lifted easily into the air. Overjoyed, he flew about and the most beautiful song rose from his heart and filled the air.
The king called him and he alighted near the jeweled perch. The king said, “You may now fly to wherever you please. There is a danger from eagles, hawks and falcons, who like to eat little birds. However, I shall protect you from them.” One of the doves then sprinkled a perfumed liquid on his feathers. The king told the prince nightingale that birds of prey would smell this and know he was under the protection of the king and would not harm him.
Thanking the king and bidding him farewell, the prince flew away. He flew over many lands, enjoying the sights of the countries below him, stopping in the branches of strange trees and feasting on berries and seeds such as he had never known. He rested in beautiful gardens, singing to the delight of the people, thoroughly enjoying his life as a nightingale.
One day, he alighted in a garden more delightful than any he had ever visited. Never had he seen such exquisite flowers, their rainbow hues set off against a background of fruit and shade trees. The air was sweet with the scent of flowers and fruits. Along flower-bordered paths, sculptured fountains spouted musically and cooled the air. The prince was enthralled. “Here I shall stay,” he thought.
This garden belonged to a powerful sultan. He had a daughter who was known far and wide for both her beauty and intelligence. She spoke seven languages and her father had decided she would inherit and rule his kingdom. Even so, he wanted her to marry a prince who would serve at her side. The princess, however, had no interest in the any of the suitors who courted her. She much preferred to be in the gardens with the company of rabbits and butterflies and birds who seemed to love her as much as she loved them.
One evening at dusk, she heard the song of a nightingale who had never been there before. She walked quietly and sat on a bench under the tree where he was perched. His song was full of all the wonders he had seen in the world and the princess was moved to tears. She seemed to understand his song and spoke to him in a voice that sounded as a musical as a gentle waterfall.
“Oh nightingale,” she said, “never have I heard such a beautiful song. I wish I could travel to the places you sing of. How I wish I could see all that you have seen. I have never left this garden. Please sing to me every day of all the wondrous beauty of the world.” The nightingale prince was amazed that the beautiful princess seemed to understand his song and fell in love with her then and there.
He flew even closer and poured out his sweetest songs and told her more of all that he had seen. The princess smiled the most radiant smile the prince had ever seen and he sang more joyously than ever. Then, to the delight of the princess, he flew down and perched on her shoulder. Thereafter, she came every evening to the garden, where the bird-prince would land gently on her shoulder or on her outstretched palm, and sing sweetly of all that he had seen that day and of his great love for her. She stroked the bird gently, and told him she didn’t want to marry any of her suitors. None of them moved her as he did or offered anything other than a boring life. And, if she married them, they would keep her in their castle and never allow her to see the world. Tears glistened in her eyes as she said. I wish I could be a nightingale and marry you, but that, of course, can never happen.
The prince’s joy fled from his heart. He longed to be a man again so that he could be with the princess in his real human form. His songs became melancholy. One evening the princess said, “Dear nightingale, your songs are still beautiful, but you no longer tell me of wondrous places, but only of loneliness and grief. How I wish you could tell me what troubles you.”
But the prince could only answer by singing another sad song. At last, he felt that he could not go on this way. So, he decided to fly to the King of the Birds and ask him to change him back into a man.
He flew swiftly over the lands he had once delighted in, determined to reach the abyss at the end of the world and reach Bird Mountain. He finally landed and went to see the king who welcomed him and asked why he had returned. The prince replied that he wanted to become a man again. Hearing this, the king’s eyes grew dark with anger, but soon they became mild again and he laughed. “So now you don’t like being a bird. That you tire of being one so quickly is a poor return for my favor. But men are never satisfied.”
The prince told him of his love for the princess who was the reason he wanted to regain his human form. The king spoke kindly and said, “Unfortunately, I can do nothing. Once I have changed a human into a bird, I have no power to change him back.”
The prince begged him to tell him if there was some way that this change could be brought about. The king answered that there was a way, but he was forbidden by the laws of magic to reveal it. Thereupon the disappointed prince flew sadly back to the garden.
When the princess came into the rose garden that evening, he greeted her with a bittersweet song. She cried, “Oh nightingale, I am so glad that you have returned. I have missed you greatly.” He flew down to alight as usual on her shoulder. As she reached out to caress the him, her hand grazed one of the thorns of a rose bush and a drop of blood fell upon the nightingale prince. As it did, his feathers fell away and he stood before the princess in human form, dressed as he was at the time he had been changed into a bird.
The princess was shocked to see a handsome young man suddenly standing before her, her beloved nightingale’s feathers falling to the ground around him. But he spoke to her in the gentlest of voices and told her his strange story. Then he dropped to one knee and told her he loved her and asked if she would be his wife. The amazed princess said she loved him too, but would not marry him unless he promised to take her out to see the world.
When the sultan heard the story of the prince who had been a nightingale, and found that he came from a proper royal family, he agreed that the prince and the princess could be married. In fact, he was quite relieved. For their wedding gift, he gave them two fine horses and enough money to travel the world to their hearts’ content. They, in turn, promised they would return and unite their two domains and rule as equals together. They committed to one another to lead with kindness and respect for all the people and that they would always cherish the great wonder and beauty of the world.