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'Plowing the Road' | Ep. 153

(Sabina Hahn for WBUR)
(Sabina Hahn for WBUR)

Do you have a special elder in your life?

Maybe it’s a grandparent who makes a mean pancake breakfast or tells the best bedtime stories. Perhaps it’s an uncle, aunt or neighbor who always makes you laugh with tales from their youth.

A Chinese proverb says “the family with an old person in it possesses a jewel.” And in today’s story, we’ll meet a woman who’s determined to keep that ‘jewel’ safe!

Story continues below

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    Our story is called “Plowing the Road.” It’s inspired by tales told in many places, including Japan, Laos, Mongolia, Haiti, Russia, the Balkans, and the ancient kingdom of Macedonia!

    Voices in this episode include: Feodor Chin, Thais Harris, Anthony Palmini, Erika Rose, Nick Sholley, Mike Smith, Alexia Trainor, and Kimiko Glenn. Grown-ups, you can see Kimiko Glenn in Liza on Demand on YouTube Premium and Orange is the New Black on Netflix. And kids, you can hear Kimiko in Baby Shark's Big Show on Nick Jr., Dogs in Space on Netflix, and the animated fantasy film, My Little Pony: A New Generation.

    This episode was adapted for Circle Round by Rebecca Sheir. It was edited by Amory Sivertson. Original music and sound design is by Eric Shimelonis. Our artist is Sabina Hahn.

    Coloring Page

    (Sabina Hahn for WBUR)
    (Sabina Hahn for WBUR)

    ADULTS! PRINT THIS so everyone can color while listening. We’re also keeping an album so share your picture on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and tag it with #CircleRound. We'd love to see it! To access all the coloring pages for past episodes, click HERE. Our resident artist is Sabina Hahn and you can learn more about her HERE.

    Things To Think About After Listening

    What’s something you enjoy doing with an older person in your life? Do you bake cookies with a grandparent? Do crafts with an aunt, uncle, or family friend?

    Get some paper and draw a picture of the two of you having fun. Then, either mail the picture to your elder, or have a grown-up help you send it digitally. Either way, I’ll bet it’ll warm your elder’s heart to see it!

    Musical Spotlight: The Balalaika

    The contrabass balalaika is so big, it has a leg that rests on the floor to help the player hold it up! (courtesy of Tomislav Medak)
    The contrabass balalaika is so big, it has a leg that rests on the floor to help the player hold it up! (courtesy of Tomislav Medak)

    This folk instrument is sometimes called a “Russian three-string guitar”: it has a wooden, triangle-shaped body, and a neck with three strings. It was developed in the 18th century from the dombra or domra: a round-bodied, long-necked three-stringed lute played in Russia and Central Asia.

    The contemporary balalaika comes in a number of sizes, from the highest-pitched (and smallest) to the lowest-pitched (and largest): the piccolo, prima, secunda, alto, bass, and contrabass. Other than the rare piccolo balalaika, which you play using a pick (or “plectrum”), you play the smaller balalaika sizes with your fingers. You play the larger ones – which are so big they have legs that rest on the floor – with a pick, traditionally made from leather.


    NARRATOR: There once lived a King and Queen who ruled their land with reason, compassion, and wisdom.

    The royal couple never had any children. But somehow, when the monarchs were old enough to have heads full of gray hairs and faces full of wrinkles, they received the unexpected news that a baby was on the way! And sure enough, some months later, the Queen gave birth to a beautiful, healthy boy.

    The King and Queen adored their new prince, and he adored them. But as he grew bigger, he became more aware of his parents’ age. He noticed how the Queen, for instance, had trouble keeping up during their games of tag.

    PRINCE: Come on, Mother! Chase me!

    OLD QUEEN: (older, tired, but trying to be game) I’m trying, son! I’m trying!

    NARRATOR: And when the prince snuggled up with his father for a bedtime story…

    OLD KING: (older, growing more and more sleepy as he reads) “Stella the farmer walked all day long. When she came to the hills where the sheep grazed, the sheep started baaaa-ing and running away…”

    NARRATOR: … the King often fell asleep mid-sentence!

    OLD KING: (continuing, getting sleepier) “...Stella looked to see what the sheep were running from, and over the top of the hill what did she see but the giant, green draaaaaaagon...” (snores as he falls asleep)

    PRINCE: (annoyed) Dad! Wake up!

    NARRATOR: Now, mind you, the King and Queen still ruled their people with reason, compassion, and wisdom. In fact, their many years of experience made them more reasonable, compassionate, and wise than ever!

    But the prince couldn’t see any of that. He just saw two creaky old folks who were getting greyer in the hair and longer in the tooth. So when his parents passed away and he assumed the throne, the new king made a decision.

    KING: I hereby decree that every single old person in this kingdom will be banished! Sent away! I want only vibrant, youthful people in my land! Not a bunch of old fogies with shuffling walks and stooped backs!

    NARRATOR: As you can imagine, the people of the kingdom were aghast!

    But they knew they must obey their king. So they bid farewell to their mothers and fathers, their grandmothers and grandfathers, and with tearful eyes and heavy hearts, they watched as their beloved elders traveled off to another land.

    Now… in the middle of the kingdom there lay a village. And in the middle of the village – on a dirt road near the town marketplace – lived two farmers: a young woman and her grandfather. But unlike everyone else in the kingdom, the young farmer refused to let her beloved elder go.

    GRANDFATHER: Come now, granddaughter! The King says I have to go! I don’t want to leave you, of course, but a royal decree is a royal decree.

    FARMER: But I love you! And I need you! How could I possibly run our farm without you? I mean, you’ve been a farmer since, well, forever! You’ve learned everything there is to know about farming!

    GRANDFATHER: Well, probably not everything… But according to our king, this dog is too old to learn new tricks!

    FARMER: I don’t care what the king says! I’m determined to keep you with me. Even if it means digging out a secret cellar beneath the house for you to hide in! (realizing) Which… come to think of it… isn’t a half-bad idea!

    GRANDFATHER: Come now, granddaughter! You’re not saying you’re actually going to…?

    FARMER: That’s exactly what I’m saying, Grandfather! Listen. I have a ton of crops to cart over to the marketplace today. Once I’m done selling everything, I’ll hurry home, grab the shovel, and get to work!

    NARRATOR: And that’s exactly what the Farmer did. She loaded her cart with beans and peas, oats and wheat, barley and rye…

    NARRATOR: …then joined the procession of other farmers wheeling their goods down the dirt road to the marketplace. Some were selling chickens…

    NARRATOR: Some were selling pigs…

    NARRATOR: But most of them, like our intrepid heroine, were selling crops like beans and peas, oats and wheat, barley and rye…plus radishes, turnips, and lettuce.

    At the end of the day, when the young Farmer came home, she got to work digging a secret cellar for her grandfather.

    NARRATOR: She dug and she dug. And when she was done…

    FARMER: (putting the finishing touches on the cellar) There we go!  Whaddya think, Grandfather?

    GRANDFATHER: Well, to be honest, I can’t exactly say that it’s “home, sweet home”... but it’s definitely “home, safe home”!

    FARMER: Exactly! I’ll stock the cellar with food, and a mattress, and I’ll check on you as often as I can. I’m sorry it has to be this way, but I just can’t bear to see you go!

    GRANDFATHER: I understand, Granddaughter. And I thank you.

    NARRATOR: A week went by, and much to the Farmer’s relief, her secret remained a secret. The royal guards did make a few sweeps of the kingdom, to see if any elders had been left behind. But when they came to the Farmer’s village and galloped their horses down the dirt road to her house…

    [loud, aggressive banging/knocking on door, door opens]

    FARMER: Hello?

    NARRATOR: …her cellar was so well-hidden, they didn’t suspect a thing!

    FARMER: Thanks for stopping by, fellas! Good luck with your search!

    NARRATOR: Over the months that followed, the Farmer visited Grandfather in the cellar every morning. She brought him food, books, she told him the latest news in town. Then she loaded up her cart and wheeled her crops to the market.

    NARRATOR: It wasn’t a perfect arrangement – far from it! It was tough not having Grandfather by her side all day.

    But little did she know... things were about to get even tougher.

    What do you think will happen next?

    We’ll find out, after a quick break.


    NARRATOR: Welcome back to Circle Round. I’m Rebecca Sheir. Today our story is called “Plowing the Road.”

    Before the break, a foolish king banished all the elders from the kingdom.

    But one Farmer defied the king’s orders. She built her beloved grandfather a secret cellar beneath the house, and checked on him every day before heading down the dirt road to sell her crops at the market.

    When summer rolled around, it was especially hot and dry. The rain rarely fell, and when it did, it was so brief that the thirsty earth could hardly take a drink!

    As you can imagine, this was not good news for our Farmer, whose crops shriveled and withered in the heat. But she wasn’t alone! Across the kingdom everyone’s crops were failing – and the King was sick with worry. So he summoned his royal advisers.

    KING: Listen, people. As you know, a great portion of this kingdom is devoted to farmland! And now that all the crops are on the verge of ruin, we are on the verge of ruin! So I ask you – what should be done?

    NARRATOR: Before the advisers answer, something you should know.

    When the King banished old people from the land, he also banished his original team of advisers – the wise elders who had faithfully served his parents for years and years! Those advisers all had silvery hair and wrinkles, and, well, you know how the new King felt about that…

    So his new team was very young, very fresh, and didn't have a whole lot of experience.

    KING: Well, people? I asked you a question! How do we get the kingdom’s crops to grow again?!?

    NARRATOR: The king’s new advisers furrowed their brows and scratched their heads as they racked their brains for an idea.

    ADVISER 1: I know! What if we try summoning the rain… with songs?!? You know, like (to the tune of “Rain, rain, go away) “Rain, rain, come today, come make this drought go away!”?!??

    ADVISER 2: (getting excited) Or, we fertilize the land with scraps from the royal kitchen? By my calculation, it’ll only take five-thousand horses pulling five-thousand carts to do the job!

    ADVISER 3: (getting even more excited) Or, we try reciting a spell! Like, “Alakazam, alakazoe! Make it so these crops will grow!”

    ADVISER 4: (getting even more excited) Or, we try taking all the –

    KING: (interrupting) Enough! Clearly you people won’t do much good, so

    how about this? I will issue a royal decree! Whoever finds a way to grow crops during this detestable drought may have whatever their heart desires! Money, jewels, furs, the fanciest of foods – they could even have my royal robes, for all I care. Just so long as they can save this kingdom!

    NARRATOR: Word of the king’s royal decree spread like wildfire. And when the news reached the Farmer’s village… and she went to the secret cellar to tell Grandfather the news…

    FARMER: The King says whoever can get crops to grow in this drought will get whatever their heart desires!

    NARRATOR: …she was astounded by his response.

    GRANDFATHER: Well, the answer is simple, my dear!

    FARMER: Wait, what?!? I don’t think you understand, Grandfather. You haven’t been out to our fields lately! The soil is all crumbly and dusty… The plants are all droopy and dry… There's no hope of bringing our crops back to life!

    GRANDFATHER: (mischievous/cooking up a plan) Well… I never said anything about ‘bringing our crops back to life’!

    FARMER: I’m sorry, Grandfather… but you’ve totally lost me!

    NARRATOR: Grandfather wrapped the Farmer’s hand in his wrinkled, weathered fingers and gave it a squeeze.

    GRANDFATHER: Listen, my dear. Here is what I want you to do. I want you to take your plow, and bring it in front of our house.

    FARMER: But, the fields are behind our house, Grandfather, not in front of it –

    GRANDFATHER: (interrupting, as if holding up a hand to quiet her down) Aaaaaand, once you’ve brought the plow to the front of the house, I want you to plow the dirt road.

    FARMER: You want me to what?!?

    GRANDFATHER: You heard me! I want you to plow the dirt road. After that… we wait!

    FARMER: For… what?!?

    GRANDFATHER: For the crops to grow, silly! Then you can go to the king, and he’ll give you whatever your heart desires. Trust me on this one, child. (with a smile) This old dog still knows a few tricks!

    NARRATOR: The Farmer was perplexed by her grandfather’s instructions, but she did as he asked. She brought the plow to the front of the house and plowed the dirt road.

    After that… she waited.

    As it happens, a brief rain shower fell while she was waiting…


    NARRATOR: And a few days later, when the Farmer woke up and went outside…

    FARMER: Goodness gracious!

    NARRATOR: …she couldn’t believe her eyes!

    Because sprouting out of the dirt road were all kinds… of crops! Tiny, healthy shoots of beans and peas, oats and wheat, barley and rye… plus eensy little radish plants, turnips, and lettuce!

    The Farmer immediately raced down to the secret cellar.

    FARMER: Grandfather! There are crops! In the dirt road! Real, honest-to-goodness crops! Beans and peas and oats and wheat and –

    GRANDFATHER: …Aaaand, let me guess…? Barley and rye…? Plus eensy little radish plants, turnips and lettuce?

    FARMER: How did you know?!

    GRANDFATHER: It’s like I said the other day, my dear: it’s simple! Look. In all my years working as a farmer, how many crops do you think I’ve hauled to the marketplace?

    FARMER: Gosh, you’ve had so many years of experience, I couldn’t even count!

    GRANDFATHER: Exactly! I’ve hauled countless crops down that dirt road! And each and every time, I’ve noticed that as farmers like me wheel our carts toward the marketplace, we accidentally drop a few things. A couple of pea pods, a stalk of wheat or two. Those things get trodden into the earth by cartwheels, footsteps…. and they stay there! Unless… they get a nice plowing, and a bit of watering, and then…

    FARMER: (a-ha moment) (gasp) …Up they come!

    NARRATOR: The Farmer flung her arms around Grandfather and gave his weathered cheek a kiss.

    FARMER: You are amazing, Grandfather! Seriously! You are the wisest, most –

    [loud, aggressive banging/knocking on door, upstairs from cellar]

    NARRATOR: The Farmer froze.

    FARMER: Who’s that, do you think? The last time I heard someone banging that hard on our door, it was the king’s guards! And they were looking for you!

    GRANDFATHER: Don’t worry, Granddaughter. Everything will be alright. Go upstairs and let them in.

    NARRATOR: When the Farmer opened the door, her stomach tied in a knot. Because standing before her was, indeed, a team of the king’s guards. And they were accompanied by the king himself!

    KING: You!!!! Are you the one who grew those crops out in the road? The beans and peas and oats and whatnot?

    NARRATOR: The Farmer was so nervous, she could barely speak.

    FARMER: (nervous) Um, yes, Your Majesty! I - I guess you could say it was me!

    KING: But… how?!? How did you manage to grow crops in this drought? When everyone else’s crops have withered away? And how did you do it in the middle of a dirt road?!??

    NARRATOR: So the Farmer took a deep breath and told the King how she did it. When she finished explaining, the monarch held out his bejeweled fingers, took the Farmer's hand, and gave it a firm shake.

    KING: Congratulations, Farmer! You managed to grow crops when all seemed lost! And now you may have whatever your heart desires! So! What’ll it be? Money? Jewels? Furs? Name it - it’s yours.

    FARMER: Actually, Your Majesty… I don’t want any of those things.

    KING: You don’t…? Then what do you want?

    FARMER: I want all the beloved elders of this land to return to this kingdom! Although… I shouldn’t say “all.” Because the truth is… one of those elders never left!

    GRANDFATHER: …And it was his idea to grow crops on the dirt road!

    NARRATOR: The King gasped as Grandfather appeared at the door.

    GRANDFATHER:  You see, Your Highness, countless carts drop their seeds and grains on the road every day! I learned that through years of farming. More years than you can possibly imagine. And thanks to those years, I have reason. Compassion. Wisdom. Three traits your parents had, too, before they passed on.

    NARRATOR: The King hung his head. For suddenly he saw the foolishness of his ways, and straightaway issued a decree inviting all the beloved elders of the land to come back.

    Well… after that, the King lived to be very, very old… with a head full of grey hairs and a face full of wrinkles. But now he also had a heart full of reason, compassion, and wisdom.

    Rebecca Sheir Host, Circle Round
    Rebecca Sheir is the host "Circle Round," WBUR's kids storytelling podcast.



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