This is a folk tale, a story told to the kids before bed, which has been
handed down in our family. Perhaps there is a version of it in your family
The Eagle, the Man, and the Lions
(Based on a folk tale told by Uncle Tony Mrazek to his nephew, Julius
who in turn told it to his children. One of whom, Susan Rektorik Henley (me),
now supplements and retells the old tale for you here.)
Once upon a time, along time ago, way back in the Old Country, far across the
Atlantic Ocean, and in Europe, there lived a man. He was much like other men
of the time. He was very strong man. He was a very good man. Yet, he was
also a very, very poor man who struggled to keep his family clothed and fed.
Each day, he and his family rose before there was a hint of dawn in the dark
east sky. By the light of the fire in the hearth and, when they could afford
it, a tallow candle, they ate their breakfast of dark brown rye bread,
butter, milk, and sometimes eggs. Along with her many, many other chores,
the man's wife cooked the meals, made the bread, and saw to it that the cow
was milked, the butter churned, and the eggs picked. Everyone, from frail
and fragile Grandma down to the youngest daughter of four had chores to do,
tasks to undertake. There were eleven in all who lived together in the
small, three-room cottage on the family farm and each and every one of them
toiled long and hard from before sunrise until after sunset. There was no
stopping for a noon meal, no time to rest. Too much to do, too little time
in a day.
It was only after the sun set behind the rugged mountains, when it was too
dark to see, that the family would rest. For supper, there would be
vegetables from the garden, such as cabbage boiled with, if they had it, some
salted pork rind for added flavor and fat. And again, there were the thick
slices of dark brown rye bread slathered with butter. Sometimes there would
be a soup made with an old hen who no longer laid eggs or a stew from a
snared wild rabbit. But these special meals did not come as often as they
had in the past. In these hard times, so very much of what they raised or
made was sold at market instead of being used by the family. These were hard
There was a time when there were many wild rabbits and game birds which could
be taken, if one were sly about it and the rich landowners did not catch you.
But now those animals were scarce in the pastures and woods on the edges of
the large estates. Too many hungry people, too long of a time, too much
There was a time when it wasn't so hard to make an honest living. The money
made from the sale of livestock such as hogs, goats, and even geese, along
with the sale of crops would pay for all that the family needed. Sometimes
there was even a little left over...a new spinning wheel...a new plow. Now
however, the farmer, the weaver, the basketmaker, and all other common folk
were paying each and every year almost seventy percent of all that they had
to the evil king who ruled over and tormented from afar. This very high rate
of tax meant that for every ten goats or ten pounds of sugar beets sold, the
money from seven of the units went into the treasure chests of the foreign
king. Only three of ten was left for their food, their clothes, their shoes,
their tools...for everything! Year by year the great burden of the taxes
made the family grow poorer and poorer; and still they needed money, more and
more money, to pay new and higher taxes. These were very hard times indeed.
How could these good and honest people live? Was there no justice?
As his father had done before him, the man farmed every bit of tillable land
which belonged to the family. His grandfather, then in his forties, had been
granted land as had many others after the uprising in the 1840s. It was of
great importance and pride for a small farmer to own land in this vast
empire. For, you see, until about the middle of the eighteenth century, all
the farm land, all the pastures, all the woods were either owned by the Crown
or by the novblemen who pledged their support and their weapons to the
foreign king, Until 1848, even many of the common people, the wood cutter,
the washer woman, the sheep herd; thery were all owned by the wicked king or
those rich nobles who supported this foreign ruler. The common people, the
good people...they were chattel...they were slaves in their own land...they
were called serfs. Many were skilled artisans; the skilled basket weaver,
the blacksmith who could make the anvil ring and the iron obey, and the
carpenters. These were good men, honest men, hardworking men; they were
still property of the state. The man's grandfather had been a skilled and
gifted worker of the metals. The man's grandmother a fine cook and precise
seamstress; yet they were owned by another and forced to work long and
grueling hours for a wealthy landowner. No time, no energy left for the
children, the garden, the family. Now, at least, the man and his family
One day the man was plowing field in preparation for planting...too many
weeds, too many stones. This crop was even more important than any other for
a drought the previous growing season caused the harvest to be poor, the
proceeds low. Because the mule was old and the ground hard, progress was
slow. Tired and sweating, the man watched as an elegantly dressed gentleman
came riding towards him on a shiny, high stepping black horse. The man
looked at the highly polished silver ornaments on the saddle and the bridle
of the horse. We could eat for more than a year on what that horse wears
thought the man.
"Deep trouble comes!" thought the man. And he was right. For, you see, it
was the Sheriff who approached and he was designated to collect the taxes.
"Good morning, Sir!" greeted the man in his native tongue.
"Speak in German or you will be flogged," growled the Sheriff. "You know it
is the decree of the King that all business be conducted in German, the
language of the King!"
"I have come to collect the taxes you owe," continued the Sheriff as he
dismounted from his horse. "You owe taxes which are now due as well as ones
from last year. You are holding out on your King!" snarled the Sheriff.
"Sir," said the man. "I have tried very, very hard to pay my taxes but I do
not have the money to pay. I sold the pocket watch given to me by my father
to pay for the seed to plant this field and to buy a little food for my
family. If, by the good graces of Heaven above and by the Blessed
Sacraments, this crop makes, I will be able to pay ALL of the taxes. Please
Sir, grant me time."
The sheriff tapped his riding whip against his leg and gruffly said, "Listen,
the taxes must be paid now. The King, The Empire need the money for the
army, for more horses, for more cannons. We are at war. The Empire must
"But, gentle Sir," said the man, "I have no money. No longer to I own
anything but this land that is of value. IF you will please allow me to grow
this crop and harvest it, I will turn over ALL the proceeds to you for the
"No!" snapped the Sheriff. "You must pay the full amount or be thrown into
the great pit until you do!"
"Great and Powerful Sir," pleaded the man, "How can I earn the money if I am
in the bowels of the great pit?" Please grant me time. You know that I am a
good man, an honorable man!"
"Listen," hissed the Sheriff. "I cannot give you anymore time. There are
many others like you who also plead for time. All of you, each of you, must
pay what is owed and in full amount. The King cannot wait any longer. If
you cannot pay right here, right now then you must come with me and suffer
"But what of my family?" lamented the man. "How will they survive, how will
they live? They will not even know what has happened to me!"
"You should have thought of that before you cheated the King," harshly spoke
the Sheriff. Come along nicely now or I will beat you until you do!"
And so the man could only leave the old mule hitched to the single-row plow
as he was taken away. His hands were bound with a leather strap. One end of
a long rope was tied to his wrist bonds and the other the polished pommel of
the Sheriff's saddle. In this way, in this humbling way, the man was led
away to the nearby village. He bowed his head low as he
walked...shamed...condemned...down the main path through the village. Many a
person glances first at him and then quickly away as he passed. "Would they
be next, when would their time come...so many taxes due...so little money!"
When the Sheriff finally stopped before the great and huge pit, the man knew
that it was useless to plead for his freedom. He straightened his back. He
looked directly into the eyes of the Sheriff. He waited silently.
To be continued...
Susan Rektorik Henley