Books - Magdalena Wagnerová A Grain of Sand

LÉTO 2011 Ostatní English
obálka čísla

This story of an experienced and popular writer of fairy tales and legends almost did not have to be shortened; after the first paragraph we left out the list of sold items. There is a short and unnumbered list of them near the end of the excerpt. The unusual title of the book will be explained on the next page.

A Grain of Sand In China
In a small village there lived an old widow with two children. The son’s name was Chang and the daughter’s name was Maj. The son was a strapping and handsome young man. He planned to marry a rich girl from a village far away and the wedding was to take place in a few weeks’ time. The daughter was almost twenty years old. First it was necessary to arrange everything so that the son’s wedding would be properly conducted. Mother and daughter collected all their possessions of any value, put them on a wagon and took them to town to be sold at a market.

Then they organized a great wedding for the son. After the wedding the son moved away. Mother and daughter stayed alone in their cottage. At first they believed that the daughter would also marry well and so they were not very worried. However, as soon as people found out that nothing of value was left in their cottage except a worn kimono decorated with a picture of a turtle, and that there was no dowry, suitors started to avoid Maj.

The only one who continued to hang around Maj and to follow her around like a shadow was Li, a boy from the neighborhood who loved her ever since he first met her. But Maj was not interested. After all, it was only Li, ordinary Li who would always hang around the fence or hide in the bushes. If they met accidentally, Li would divert his eyes and run away. And if he could not disappear he was unable to utter anything except one sentence. Every time he would ask the same question: ”How are you, Maj?” It was as though nothing else had any meaning for him at all. Actually nothing else really mattered to him. Li thought about Maj from morning till night. His dreams were only about Maj. He was happiest on those days when he met or saw Maj at least once.

Life went on like water in the river and Li’s bashfulness grew each day. He had reached marrying age. His father realized that the boy needed a helping hand so that he would not remain single. Therefore one day he visited the widow - his neighbor and asked her for Maj’s hand for his son.

The widow just sighed and called her daughter. When Maj found out what the neighbor wanted, she just laughed at him. She had other ideas about her possible future husband. The widow sighed again and the neighbor went home disappointed. And life went on as the water in the river.

One day the widow realized that her daughter was beginning to look ill. She seemed paler and paler in her face, her cheeks were sunken and she started to look somewhat transparent. When the widow asked her daughter what the matter was, the daughter started to cry and ran away. Some time later the daughter seemed to be half her size and the widow became desperate.

Every mother will do everything she can for her child and so the widow started to visit all her friends to see whether she could find help somewhere. She covered the whole village but no one had any answers. Eventually she also came to the cottage where Li lived with his parents. Li’s father yelled at her angrily:” When I had asked you for the hand of your daughter, you laughed at me. So now find help wherever you want and leave us alone.”

The widow went home sadly and disappointed. Suddenly she heard quiet steps behind her. When she turned around, she saw that it was Li.—“I would like to try to talk to Maj” said the boy shyly and again diverted his eyes. The widow smiled, nodded in agreement and they both went back to her cottage. There she invited the boy to sit down and when she heard her daughter coming down the steps, she stepped outside the house.

What those two actually talked about no one will ever know. But it must have been something important because the next day Li came again and brought a needle threaded with a very long thread. He told Maj to hide the needle under her pillow when she went to bed. At night a scorpion crawled in through a crevice between the doors. It got up on the bed where Maj slept and started to suck her blood. At that moment Maj grabbed the needle and stuck it courageously into the scorpion. It scared it so much that it ran out through the crevice again and disappeared. The thread in the needle followed it.

Li came to visit her in the morning and set out to follow the thread. It produced a zigzag course over mountains and valleys until it came to a desert. And it kept on going further and further. Li followed it for another whole day until he came to a place where the scorpion was sunning itself on hot sand. At night it sucked human blood and slept during the day. Next to the scorpion there was a tiny grain of sand which slept at night. During the day the grain of sand waited for the scorpion to wake up in the hope that the scorpion would tell it that it was the most beautiful grain of all. Unfortunately the little grain would always fall asleep before the scorpion woke up.

Li — on the other hand — did not wait for the scorpion to wake up. He pulled out a knife and stuck it into the scorpion. The grain of sand saw that once again it had waited in vain and it started to look around for some wind; it was high time to move somewhere else!

Li went back to the village to find Maj and to tell her that she has been saved. He did not ask for any reward. Yet Maj finally understood that if she waited for a suitor that existed only in her dreams, she might wait forever. And why should she wait when there was someone near her who did not hesitate to offer his life to save hers? Someone who did not care that Maj did not have varnished chop sticks, a metal sculpture of a laughing dragon, a picture of a heron in the rushes, a teakettle from which the last emperor’s nurse supposedly drank, a plaque with the inscription “Rice is the most expensive grain in the world”, two bowls for rice, which is the most expensive grain in the world, three meters of blue Chinese silk, a worn kimono with a picture of a turtle and the brush with which the picture of the heron in the rushes had been painted? (All those objects had been sold so that Maj’s brother could marry a rich bride.)

It did not take long and the widow and her daughter came knocking on their neighbor’s cottage. Li’s father looked out and when he saw who was coming he became very angry. But Maj started to speak: She asked for his forgiveness. Then the widow approached and asked for the hand of his son for her daughter.

And then they got married — even without the three meters of Chinese silk or the kimono with the picture of the turtle. And the little grain of sand, which lived so many days in the middle of a desert with the dangerous scorpion without ever exchanging a word with it, had been already blown away who knows where…

A GRAIN OF SANDPraha, Published by Plot 2006, 110 pages, 24x17 cm. Cover and illustrations by Pavel Sivko. First edition, hard-covered, recom. price 189 Kč; ISBN: 80-86523-72-1, http//

It is not accidental that this book has been published in the series Treasures. The fifteen stories contained in it shine forth like jewels strung on a piece of twine, each having been found in a different place. The stories appear so credible, as though they actually happened a long time ago and Magdalena Wagnerova just collected them at different corners of the world. We who might perhaps be reading them to our children will get to know with them much about various foreign places, manners and traditions depending on to where the wind had blown us. Are you wondering why we talk about the wind?

The string that connects all the various myths and stories is actually a tiny and ordinary grain of sand. Nobody wanted to listen to it in the South American Atakama desert when it turned arrogant and vain and wanted others to admire it and tell it that it was the most beautiful grain of all, even though it looked exactly the same as all its other countless humble companions.

The conceited grain of sand which desired to be admired let itself be blown by wind over oceans, seas and continents; it flew all over the world, staying at times in one place, but it never received any admiration and – moreover – it did not get any wiser. Yet we can be grateful to it because it helped us to learn about so many various kinds of deserts and countries and to enrich us with so many new stories. We will learn a lot about customs or just about fragrances of various cultures which are different from ours. For example: that the Mexican Indians prepare healing salves from the thick agave’s leaves, or about the long courting period required for marrying the beautiful daughter of a North American Indian chief, or about the suffering of elephants under a ruthless vizier and his own agony when they carried heavy loads through the Iraqi desert, or what one magical stone can accomplish in the Mongolian Gobi desert, and much more.

You will find out that even a beautiful young girl can change into a bloodthirsty monster, and that a golden gate pictured on a book cover can be only a mirage which fulfilled a dream of a man who wanted to get to the end of the world, and many other stories.

The charm of the book is enhanced also by the illustrations of the painter Pavel Sivko (1948).

Selected excerpt and following
texts by Jarmila Lakosilova

Translated by Marie Dolanska

Vydavatelem Českého dialogu je Mezinárodní český klub

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