But how is it that the lightning did it?
I will tell you what the sparrow told me, and the sparrow heard it from an aged willow which stood—and still stands for that matter—close to the field of buckwheat.
This willow is tall and venerable, though old and crippled. Its trunk is split clear through the middle, and grass and blackberry tendrils creep out through the cleft. The tree bends forward, and its branches droop like long, green hair.
In the fields around the willow grew rye, wheat, and oats—beautiful oats that, when ripe, looked like little yellow canary birds sitting on a branch. The harvest had been blessed, and the fuller the ears of grain the lower they bowed their heads in reverent humility.
There was also a field of buckwheat lying just in front of the old willow. The buckwheat did not bow its head, like the rest of the grain, but stood erect in stiff-necked pride.
“I am quite as rich as the oats,” it said; “and, moreover, I am much more sightly. My flowers are as pretty as apple blossoms. It is a treat to look at me and my companions. Old willow, do you know anything more beautiful than we?”
The willow nodded his head, as much as to say, “Indeed I do!” But the buckwheat was so puffed with pride that it only said: “The stupid tree! He is so old that grass is growing out of his body.”
Now there came on a dreadful storm, and the flowers of the field folded their leaves or bent their heads as it passed over them. The buckwheat flower alone stood erect in all its pride.
“Bow your heads, as we do,” called the flowers.
“There is no need for me to do that,” answered the buckwheat.
“Bow your head as we do,” said the grain. “The angel of storms comes flying hither. He has wings that reach from the clouds to the earth; he will smite you before you have time to beg for mercy.”
“But I do not choose to bow down,” said the buckwheat.
“Close your flowers and fold your leaves,” said the old willow. “Do not look at the lightning when the cloud breaks. Even human beings dare not do that, for in the midst of the lightning one may look straight into God’s heaven. The sight strikes human beings blind, so dazzling is it. What would not happen to us, mere plants of the field, who are so much humbler, if we should dare do so?”
“So much humbler! Indeed! If there is a chance, I shall look right into God’s heaven.” And in its pride and haughtiness it did so. The flashes of lightning were so awful that it seemed as if the whole world were in flames.
When the tempest was over, both the grain and the flowers, greatly refreshed by the rain, again stood erect in the pure, quiet air. But the buckwheat had been burned as black as a cinder by the lightning and stood in the field like a dead, useless weed.
The old willow waved his branches to and fro in the wind, and large drops of water fell from his green leaves, as if he were shedding tears. The sparrows asked: “Why are you weeping when all around seems blest? Do you not smell the sweet perfume of flowers and bushes? The sun shines, and the clouds have passed from the sky. Why do you weep, old tree?”
Then the willow told them of the buckwheat’s stubborn pride and of the punishment which followed.
I, who tell this tale, heard it from the sparrows. They told it to me one evening when I had asked them for a story.