Tell Me a Story by Amy Friedman and Meredith Johnson

THE BELL OF ATRI (a tale from Italy)

Long ago there was a king in Italy who was known for his goodness and wisdom. King John of Atri believed in justice, and so one day he purchased a great bell to hang in a tower in the village square.

From the bell King John hung a long, thick rope that reached to the ground so that everyone -- even the littlest child -- could ring that bell.

Then the king called all the villagers to the square to tell them the purpose of the bell of Atri.

They gathered round, admiring the shimmer of the silver bell beneath the sunlight. "Oh, it will sound lovely, don't you think?" the villagers exclaimed as they waited to hear the sound of that beautiful bell.

But then the king stepped forward. "People," he announced, "this is your bell!"

The people cheered.

"But listen closely," the king went on. "You must ring this bell only when you have been wronged. When you ring it, our judges will gather in this square to hear your case."

"Children too?" one young boy called.

"Children too," said the king. "Rich and poor, young or old, male or female, all of you deserve justice."

For many years King John's planned worked perfectly. Whenever the judges heard the bell, they gathered in the square to hear the case. The judges quickly punished those who did wrong, and they instructed the wrongs to be righted.

After a while, whenever people thought to steal or lie or otherwise oppress someone, the memory of the sound of that bell and the justice that followed would change their mind. As time went by, the bell rang less and less often, for the people became more honest and generous, more upright and truthful and kind.

Eventually the rope that hung from the silver bell began to fray. The rope was too high for the children to reach, and the judges gathered to repair it. But they had no hemp, and as they discussed what they might do, a young man from the village offered to help. "I have a bundle of hay. It could be braided into a rope," he said, and this they did.

A few days later, on a lazy afternoon, most of the townspeople were resting peacefully, enjoying the warm breezes wafting through the village and inhaling the sweet scents of spring. Suddenly the bell began to ring and ring, shattering the peace and startling the villagers out of their siesta.

Everyone rushed to the town square to see who could be in such trouble. But in the square they were stunned to see only a poor old horse, lame and bony, nearly blind. He was trying to eat the hay that hung from the bell rope, and in struggling to do this, he was ringing the bell.

Naturally the judges came, too, and when they saw the crowd gathered around, the first judge bellowed, "Who's horse is this?"

"And why is he here?" thundered the second judge.

"The owner must step forward at once," the third judge growled.

Everyone looked around, and one by one they shook their heads, for the horse belonged to no one standing there, though they all knew who the owner was. He was the miserly man who lived in the mansion beyond the olive grove above town. He had been a brave soldier until his love of money turned his desires inward. Now he stayed at home to count his gold.

At last a young man stepped shyly forward. "This horse belongs to the old soldier who lives on the hill. He carried his master into battle, but his master has no use for him now."

When the judges heard this, their faces grew red with anger, and they sent at once for the old soldier to appear before them.

When the fellow appeared, the first judge asked, "Is it true you let this faithful creature go because he no longer serves you?"

The old soldier lowered his head. He loved his money and no longer wished to pay to feed the horse. But he could not say that, not out loud.

"Aren't you ashamed of your behavior?" the second judge roared.

Still the old soldier said nothing in his own defense, but looking now at his poor, starving horse, even his miserly heart began to hurt.

"Our judgment is this," said the third judge. "You will spend half your money to pay for his food and shelter. You will give him a large green pasture where he may graze for the rest of his days. At night you will keep him in a large, warm stall to give him comfort. And you will not forgot to include hay, for everyone deserves justice, even our animals."

The miser nodded. "Yes, I will," he said.

"And one more thing," the first judge said. "You will pay for a new rope for our bell."

The old soldier led the horse back home, and he lived there for the rest of his days, feasting on grass and hay, and sleeping with his belly full and his heart mended. He was loved by one and all who came to visit and to thank him for proving that the bell of Atri would always offer justice to all.

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