The Elephant's RewardThe Elephant's Reward
A Folktale from India

In a long-abandoned village in India, a brave Mouse King and a kind Elephant King promise always to be kind and respectful to each other. Years pass in peace until a king and his men invade the village and capture the elephants. The mice save their friends, but together they bid a sad farewell to their once-peaceful home.

This tale originated in the Panachatantra, a collection of animal fables known in Europe as Kalila and Dimna or The Tables of Bidpai, narrated by an Indian sage known as Bidpai, or, in Sanskirt, Vidyapati. In 1888 in London Joseph Jacobs published an English translation. This tale may be the earliest version of the popular proverb, "a friend in need is a friend indeed."

The Story

Once upon a time there was an ancient village in India on a wide, blue lake. The people had deserted the town, and the forest had taken over. Vines and foliage grew over the crumbling walls, and the mice crept out of their hiding places and took up residence in the empty houses. For many years the mice lived undisturbed in the village, enjoying peace and prosperity.
One day as the mice were going about their daily business, they heard in the distance a rumbling sound.

"What can that be?" The tiniest mice ran to their mothers and fathers.

"What can that be?" the tiniest mice asked their mothers and fathers.

The older mice looked at each other in alarm as the sound grew closer and louder. The ground beneath their little feet began to tremble.

"It must be a storm moving toward us," one of the elder mice said, but the others shook their heads. Now they all felt the shaking earth.

"An earthquake then?" another elder asked, but again they all looked at each other and their whiskers twitched nervously.

The sound came closer, growing louder and louder. The tiniest mice shook with fear as the roar rumbled nearer and nearer. "What is it?"

But when they looked up at the sky, it was bright blue with a blazing sun and not a single cloud in sight.

"If it isn't a storm what is it?" asked the little ones, looking around in confusion.

Just then huge shapes appeared on the horizon, and a herd of mighty elephants lumbered forward. The mice cried as the elephants thundered towards them. "Watch out or they'll trample us!"

"Watch it!" "Help!" "Watch out!" "Careful…"

The herd barreled through the village, and the mice began to scatter this way and that, ducking into hiding places they had years before abandoned. As the elephants tramped towards the lake, sad to say, the greatest fear of the mice came true. Some of them were crushed underfoot in the elephants' rush.

You see, the elephants were dying of thirst. A drought had devastated the land, and when they heard there was a deserted village on the banks of a great lake, they hurried toward the water without a thought for what they might destroy in their path.

One of the mice squealed in horror as the herd plowed deep ruts in the road. "What shall we do?"

The king of the mice stepped forward. "I shall talk to the elephant king. He'll understand."

And summoning every ounce of his courage, the small mouse king scurried to the edge of the lake to seek a word with the enormous elephant king.

The mouse king looked up and up and up at the creature with the gigantic ears and wrinkly skin, with that long withered trunk and terrifying tusks. The look of the elephant king was enough to frighten anyone, but the mouse king was brave. "Sire, I have come to ask you to be kind to the mice."

The elephant king squinted down at the sound he heard beneath him. It took him a while to notice the little speck at his large feet. "Is that you talking?" He lowered his head so that he might see the little mouse king.

"It is I! And I've come to ask you not to trample my people on your way to the lake. We have plenty of water to share, but you must take care not to crush our homes and harm our children. Your people must watch where they step or we'll have to ask you to leave."

Now the elephant king was a noble creature, and when he realized that he and his fellows had harmed the inhabitants of this town, his heart ached. "Please forgive us. From now on we shall walk the long way round to the lake, and we'll take care not to hurt your people. If I had known, we never would have marched through the center of town. This will never happen again."

The mouse king bowed. "I thank you and yours, and we shall never forget your kindness. If we can ever help you, we'll be happy to."

The elephant king smiled. He did not say it out loud, but he could not imagine how such a tiny fellow could help the large, strong elephants. Still, he was glad to live in peace with all his fellow animals.

And so for many years the mice and elephants lived in friendship. They shared the bounties of the lake and the surrounding countryside, and then, one year, as the elephants were gathering for their monthly meeting, they heard distant thunder.

They felt the ground beneath their feet trembling. They looked around at each other as the sound grew louder and louder.

"What is that?" "Who?" "What?" "Where?"

Then they saw clouds of dust rising in the distance as a king and his army of men galloped into town on powerful steeds. The men drew their swords and held their bows ready, and they began to chase the elephants. One by one they captured the largest and strongest, and these they wrestled to the ground. They tied those enormous feet together with thick ropes.

Then the men, exhausted from their long day's work, said, "Tomorrow we shall return to retrieve the tusks and meat."

As the dust settled and the sound of hooves retreated into the distance, the great elephants lay upon the ground, helpless, groaning and weeping and trumpeting their despair.

The sun was setting, and as it did, the elephants heard another sound. This time it was a light pattering upon the ground as hundreds of mice crept out of their hiding spots. They scampered as fast as they could towards the helpless giants, and the mice went to work, gnawing at the ropes that bound their friends.

By midnight all the elephants were free again, and that night the mice and elephants celebrated together, vowing forever to help each other. And then, sadly, they bade farewell to their beloved village and walked together into the forest, leaving behind the dangers human beings had brought into their world.