Authors: John Gardner
Tags: #ebook, #book
The King of the Hummingbirds and Other Tales
Illustrations by Michael Sporn
To Francesca and wee Fred
here was once a young man who was stupider than most but had one great virtue: he could always see everything from the other person's side. The result was that he had a great many friends, and wherever he went there was usually peace and quiet, at least for a while.
One day the young man was walking in the woods, and he came upon a hummingbird lying on its back, kicking its legs and peeping as if fit to be tied.
“Perhaps it has hurt its wing,” the young man thought. “If I had a broken wing, I would want some kind stranger to pick me up and make me a splint.” But he didn't know how to make a splint, so he decided that perhaps the hummingbird was grieving because it had been disappointed in love. “In that case,” the young man thought, “I would want some kind friend to intercede for me with my beloved.” But while the young man was thinking this, a tiny voice said, “Young man, come here.” It was the hummingbird.
The young man did as he was told and knelt beside the bird. As soon as he was near he saw the truth. The bird was dying of some dread disease, or else old age, or perhaps from being shot.
“Young man,” said the bird, speaking with great difficulty, “I see you have a kindly face. I have no one else to turn to, so I must put my faith in you.”
“You can trust me,” the young man said. “I'm not clever, but it's true that I'm kindly.”
“It will have to do,” the hummingbird said. It coughed and closed its eyes for a moment, then spoke againâhoarsely, for a bird. “I am the king of the hummingbirds, and all my kingdom depends on me, but unfortunately I am dying without an heir. Since you are the only one at hand, I must ask you to take my place. Rule justly, my son. Never let the power go to your head. Take the ring from my foot. It will identify you to my flock.” Without another word, the king of the hummingbirds jerked twice and lay dead as a doornail.
The young man was astonished and grieved, though they were strangers, and he did all he knew how (which wasn't much) to revive the poor hummingbird, but to no avail. So he took the ring the bird had mentioned and hung it on a string around his neck, and then he dug a small grave and buried the bird and put a stone where its feet were. After that, the new king of the hummingbirds went home.
Now this young man, whose name was Olaf, was the lastborn son of a somewhat self-centered coppersmith who had hopes of rising in the world and becoming a knight. Olaf's two brothers were clever and gallant, so the coppersmith had sent them away to school, hoping they might learn the ins and outs of things and help him. Poor young Olaf, being hopelessly stupid and much too kindly to make even a good fisherman, was left at home to patch old kettles and copper lamps.
As soon as he stepped in the door, his father said, “Olaf, where have you been? There's kettles piled to the ceiling, and you out dawdling.”
Olaf hung his head and said, “Sorry, sir,” and hurried to the shop to work.
His mother, who loved him dearlyâpartly because she was a little slow herself, though she was pretty as a queen (yet somehow her husband didn't love her as he ought)âbrought Olaf a pickle and some milk.
“Poor Olaf,” she said, patting his shoulder. “Poor, good Olaf! What's the meaning of it all!”
“Well,” said Olaf, “it's not as bad as it might be. I may be more important than some people think.”
His mother smiled sadly, patting him again, wondering if her son might be crazy. Then she went to bed.
Olaf worked all night, as usual, but at least he was not lonely. The ants on whom he had refrained from stepping came and paraded by while he worked; the mice he'd fed cheese came and polished the copper pots by rubbing their backs against them; the owls he'd allowed to roost on the rafters flew down to him and fanned Olaf's fire with their wings; the wolves he'd allowed to hide under his bench when there were hunters about came and helped him to line up the pots when he'd finished with the mending; and the huge, burly thieves he'd allowed into the cellar when they escaped from the sheriff (who'd gotten trapped in conversation with the mayor) sang him barbershop quartets. So the work went quickly, and when he was through Olaf stretched out by the fire and wondered what he could do, now that he was king, for his people. “I wonder if I should assemble my parliament,” he mused. However, since he wasn't certain what a parliament was, he let it go and fell sound asleep. Immediately the mice began chasing the ants, and the owls began chasing the mice, the wolves began chasing the owls, and the huge, burly thieves began hitting at the wolves with their big heavy clubs. Such was the world whenever Olaf turned his back. Soon the room was completely empty, except for Olaf, and the fire had shriveled to an ash.
Now as luck would have it, the king of the kingdom where Olaf lived had one great passion, and that was walking in the garden with his daughter the princess. Everything was all right until one day when, as he closed the garden gate, the thorn of a rose got caught in the lock in just such a way that not even wizardry could open it. As the thorn got stiffer and stiffer, for lack of moisture, the lock got more and more difficult to open. And the more days that passed with the gate unopened, the more the blowing sand sealed up the crack. The more the sand sealed up the crack, the darker that part of the wall became, and the more the honeybees who lived in the garden began to build their hives there. That wouldn't have been so bad, but the more the honeybees built hives on that wall, the more the bears from the surrounding woods began to climb over the wall for the honey. The king tried everything, but nothing worked. The wall was too high for a man to climb and also too covered with honeybees; the gate wouldn't budge, and any excessive commotion would stir up the bears into a dangerous wrath. It was bad enough that the king could no longer walk in his garden, but that was not the worst of it. He had inadvertently closed the gate before the princess was out. She was therefore still in there, and she was deathly afraid of bears.
The king sent out a proclamation that whoever could open the garden gate would have half the kingdom and his daughter's hand in marriage.
Everyone came from miles around, from knights to cobblers, but no one had any luck. At last the coppersmith sent his two eldest sons. This, he thought, would be his big chance. If one of his sons became a king, he himself would become, surely, at least a knight. Olaf, however, he refused to allow to go. Olaf hung his head, understanding exactly how his father felt. But he muttered to his mother in privacy, “Just the same, I may be more important than some people think.” His mother smiled sadly and patted him on the shoulder and felt depressed.
“Your Majesty,” said the eldest son of the coppersmith when he got to the castle, “I've come to unlock that gate.”
“Talk's cheap,” said the king. He waved the young man off in the general direction of the garden, and he did not even bother to go with him. He'd seen many a failure these past few weeks, and he was losing interest.
Now the coppersmith's eldest son had one great virtue, which was that he always saw through to the heart of a problem. And so he did in this case. He packed dynamite all around the gate and unwound the fuse till he could place the plunger in the middle of the castle yard, a hundred feet away. Then he called out, “Stand back, princess.” But at the sound of his voice, a huge bear came over the wall and began to chase him, just as he'd chased off a hundred before him. And so the eldest son failed and was humiliated and left his equipment there and never again dared show his face in public. Then it was the second eldest's turn.
The second eldest had a different virtue. He always did everything in style, for, as he sometimes explained, “People don't remember a man so much for
he does. They remember him for the flourish with which he does it.” (Which is true.) So the first thing the second eldest did was tie his majestic white horse to a tree, and the second thing he did was cover the garden gate with orchids. Then, calling, “Stand back, princess!” he picked up a huge golden battering ram and began to hurl himself at the gate. But halfway there he changed his mind, for the orchids had attracted the attention of the bears and two of them were coming straight at him, and it wasn't worth the candle. So the second son failed as the first had failed, and he left his equipment and dropped out of public view.
“Ruined!” said the coppersmith.
“There's still Olaf,” said his wife.
The coppersmith scoffed, having no respect for his wife's opinions; but then, on second thought, he told Olaf to go over to the castle and work on that gate.
“Yes sir,” Olaf said, understanding how his mother and father felt and seeing that whichever way he turned his case was hopeless. Nevertheless he combed his hair, and his mother packed him a lunch, and, followed by his ants, mice, owls, and wolves, he set out. Part way to the castle he met the band of huge, burly thieves he'd done a favor once, and since he had no plan worked out yet and knew that sometimes a man could use helpers, he asked if they'd go to the castle with him, and for old times' sake they said yes.
When they'd gone a little ways, they met the king's sheriff, who'd been after that band of huge, burly thieves for years, and Olaf asked timidly, “Could I borrow your horse, sheriff?” For the sheriff was his friend, and he didn't want to be tired and sweaty when he broke down the garden gate and rescued the princess, in case he should.
“Well, all right,” said the sheriff, because Olaf was his friend and because it would be handy, he thought, to know exactly where those thieves were. The sheriff got down and walked with the thieves, and Olaf rode ahead on the palomino.