(an American tale)
Once upon a time way up in the Tennessee mountains there lived a widow who had seven children. She worked all day long to keep food on the table for them, and at night she sewed their clothes, cooked their food and cleaned their house. But after that she was too tired to spend any time with her children, even though she wanted to more than anything. So they were on their own most of the time.
The youngest boy was Jack. When the eldest boy had a new shirt, he passed it down, and down again, to the next and the next. By the time the shirt was Jack’s, it usually was faded and frayed. But Jack didn’t mind. He was always happy. And even better, Jack liked to help anyone he could.
Sometimes at night, when his mother was at her spinning wheel spinning wool to make a shirt, Jack sat beside her to help. Whenever he was outdoors in the fields and spotted a sheep, he always gave that sheep extra grass and clover. Whenever he found a bird on the ground, he lifted it back into its nest. He never harmed a single creature — never swatted a fly, slapped a mosquito or squashed a spider.
One day Jack was walking through the woods when he caught his frayed and faded shirt upon the thorns of a briar bush. It was so thin and worn that it ripped to shreds and fell right off.
Jack didn’t mind. It was a summer day, and he liked the warmth of the sun on his shoulders and back. He began to whistle as he walked.
Suddenly he heard a voice calling to him, but when he turned toward the sound he saw only a sheep.
“Where’s your shirt?” the sheep asked him.
“My shirt was old and worn and the briar bush ripped it to shreds,” Jack explained. “But it’s all right. The sun feels nice.”
“Let me give you some wool,” the sheep said. Using her teeth, she pulled a long strand of fleece from her body.
“Thank you!” Jack said, taking it from her, and he began to run home to show his mother this marvelous gift.
But as he passed the briar bush, Jack heard another voice calling to him. “Where are you going, Jack?” it called.
Jack turned, but the only thing behind him was the bush. “I’m going home,” he said, cautiously. He had never known a bush could talk. “I’m going to give this fleece to my mother so she can spin a shirt for me.”
“Hand me that fleece,” the bush said.
Jack carefully did, and the bush drew that fleece right through its briars, carding it, pulling out all the imperfections until it was smooth and clean and straight, perfect for spinning.
“Thank you!” Jack beamed, and he hurried on toward home.
As he was running, he spotted a beautiful spiderweb sparkling beneath the bright sunshine. He could not help but stop to admire its intricate design, and as he stood there studying the web, he heard a voice ask, “What’s your hurry, Jack?”
The voice was coming from just beneath the web, and when he leaned over and looked more closely, he saw a spider climbing up a slender ladder of thread.
“I’m taking this home for my mother to spin,” Jack explained. “She’ll make me a new shirt. I’ve never had one!”
“Let me spin you some thread,” the spider said, and a few moments later the spider handed him a long spool of beautiful thread, enough to make a shirt.
“Thank you!” Jack said, and he continued on his way home.
Just as he was crossing a bridge over a stream, he heard a voice call out, “Where are you going?”
Jack looked down and saw a crab staring up at him from the bank of the stream.
“I’m going home to my mother,” Jack said, “to give her this and have her make me a shirt.”
He showed the crab the gifts he had collected.
“Hand it over,” said the crab, “and I’ll cut a lovely pattern.”
So Jack handed it over, and sure enough, the crab used his pincers to cut a fine pattern for a shirt. Jack thanked the crab, but when he had the pattern in his hand, he began to feel sad.
Everything was ready, but his mother would be so tired, she would never be able to stay up to make him a shirt. Thinking of his poor mother, he slowed his pace and he stopped whistling. Just then he heard a bird singing in a nearby bush.
“Where are you going, Jack my friend?” the bird sang.
Jack stopped and looked at the bird, and then he told her his whole story. Before he finished, the bird reached out and took the fleece and the thread, and Jack stared in amazement as she began to fly this way and that, this way and that, in wild and wonderful patterns.
And when the bird flew back to Jack, she was carrying one of the finest shirts he’d ever seen.
“If you wear this,” the bird told him, “you’ll be the king of the world. Why, nothing will scare you. Not even a giant!”
And that turned out to be the truth.