The Serpent And The Bell

Long ago, when the people and the animals conversed, the emperor gathered everyone together in the town square to discuss justice.

“How shall we make sure everyone is good to everyone else?” the emperor asked his people. The people loved their emperor, for he was generous and kind, and they did not care that he was blind.

For days the people and the animals discussed the matter of justice. Finally, they decided to hang a giant silver bell in the center of the town.

“Whenever someone wrongs another,” the animals and people agreed, “the wronged person will ring the bell. We shall gather and listen to both sides, and with our emperor’s blessing, a verdict will be announced.”

And so they raised the bell of justice, for that was what they called their bell, and for many years everyone was fair to everyone else. Whenever people quarreled, they looked at the bell and quickly settled their quarrels. When animals argued, they glanced at the bell and easily reached an agreement. The bell stood still and silent for years. Moss grew upon it and vines entangled it, but no one was bothered by that.

“We are just and fair,” the people and animals agreed.

And then one hot day, a serpent was crawling home after a long day’s hunt. When she returned, she spotted from afar a strange sight. “Someone is sitting in my nest,” she said, and she gathered speed, slithering as fast as she could back to her nest.

There, right in the center of the serpent’s nest, sat an enormous green toad.

“You’re sitting on my eggs,” the serpent said to the toad. “You must not have noticed, but now I must ask you to leave.”

The toad was silent for a while, but then turned his head to face the serpent and smiled a haughty smile. “These are my eggs now, Serpent. Shoo. Go away,” he said, and he closed his heavily lidded eyes.

“You can’t steal my eggs,” the serpent said. “That’s a crime.”

“They’re in my possession,” said the toad, “and possession is the law as far as I’m concerned. These are my eggs, and I will do with the tiny serpents whatever I wish!”

“You can’t mean what you’re saying,” the serpent cried. “Be fair. Be just. Be reasonable.”

The toad just laughed. “Fairness? Justice? Reasonableness? What could be fairer than this? You left your eggs behind, and I found them. Now I am the rightful owner of this nest and these eggs.”

“But I built that nest. I’ve guarded my eggs for weeks now. You can’t mean what you’re saying, Toad. Please, be fair.”

She argued on in this manner for many hours, pleading and arguing for justice. But the toad ignored her. He simply chanted, “Mine, mine, mine, mine, mine. My nest now. My eggs, my eggs, my eggs.”

At long last, the serpent, at her wit’s end, slithered to town and began to ring the great bell. Within moments the people and animals gathered, amazed to hear the bell of justice ringing. They gathered with open mouths and surrounded the serpent. “What can be wrong?” they cried. “What can have happened? No one has needed our bell for all these years? What could be wrong?”

“Serpent,” the emperor said, hushing the crowd. “Tell us, please, why you have called us to gather.”

And the serpent told her tale. “I left my nest for one day. I went out to hunt, and I fell asleep in the hot sun, but when I returned, Toad was there. He refused to leave my nest. He claims it is his. I fear for the lives of my babies, for I know he will not care for them.”

“Send for the toad,” the emperor cried, and off ran the rabbits and deer to fetch the toad. They soon returned with him.

“The serpent accuses you of stealing her nest,” the emperor said. “It seems this is her nest, but tell us, Toad, what will you do with these serpent eggs?”

“I’ll do whatever I wish,” answered the toad. “I may eat the baby serpents, or I may leave them. I may watch over them. I haven’t decided. They’re mine now and I’ll do what I wish.”

The emperor called to the deer: “Take away this toad! The nest belongs to the serpent. He has proven he is not a fit caretaker for the serpent eggs.”

The deer gathered around the toad. “Away with him,” the emperor cried. “Take him far away, for anyone who is not just will not live among us.”

The serpent was overjoyed with the judgment. “I can thank you in only one way,” she told the gathered crowd, and from her nest, she plucked a glimmering gem. She carried it in her mouth to the emperor, and she bowed before him. “This is to be yours,” she said. “I have saved it all these years to give to the proper owner.”

And when the emperor took the jewel from the serpent’s mouth, he cried out with delight, for he could see. His blindness was cured.

And everyone celebrated in the village square that night. They celebrated justice and vision, and their bell hung silent once again.

The bell of justice appears in many different tales around the world. This story, based on an ancient Roman fable, also borrows some remnants from such stories as the Italian “The Bell of Atri” in which a discarded horse calls his cruel master to justice.