Today we tell two stories that come from Rootabaga Pigeons, a book for children by American writer Carl Sandburg.
Sandburg won three Pulitzer Prizes, two for his poetry and another for a history of President Abraham Lincoln.
His most famous poems are about Chicago where he worked as a reporter for a time.
Rootabaga Pigeons was published in 1923. The stories make liberal use of repetition and nonsense words. These tales use a mixture of poetic words and language linked to rural parts of America. Such words include oyster, the name of an ocean animal; ax, a tool used to split wood and timber, wood that is used in building.
Sandburg wrote three stories about how the letter “x” got into the alphabet. Today we present two of them.
Here is Mario Ritter, Jr. with the stories Pig Wisps and Kiss Me by Carl Sandburg.
There was an oyster king far in the south who knew how to open oysters and pick out the pearls.
He grew rich and all kinds of money came rolling in on him because he was a great oyster opener and knew how to pick out the pearls.
The son of this oyster king was named Shovel Ears. And it was hard for him to remember.
“He knows how to open oysters, but he forgets to pick out the pearls,” said the father of Shovel Ears.
“He is learning to remember worse and worse and to forget better and better,” said the father of Shovel Ears.
Now in that same place was a little girl with two braids of hair twisted down her back, making a playful face and saying, “Here we come – where from?”
And her mother called her Pig Wisps.
Twice a week, Pig Wisps ran to the butcher shop for a soup bone. Before starting, she crossed her fingers and then the whole way to the butcher shop kept her fingers crossed.
If she saw playmates who asked her to a game like cross-tag or jackstones or all-around-the-mulberry-bush, she told them, “My fingers are crossed, and I am running to the butcher shop for a soup bone.”
One morning running to the butcher shop she bumped into a big, strange boy and knocked him flat on the sidewalk.
“Did you look where you were running?” she asked him.
“I forgot again,” said Shovel Ears. “I remember worse and worse. I forget better and better.”
“Cross your fingers like this,” said Pig Wisps, showing him how.
He ran to the butcher shop with her, watching her keep her fingers crossed until the butcher gave her the soup bone.
“After I get it then the soup bone reminds me to go home with it,” she told him. “But until I get the soup bone, I keep my fingers crossed.”
Shovel Ears went to his father and began helping his father open oysters. Shovel Ears kept his fingers crossed to make him remember to pick out the pearls.
He picked a hundred buckets of pearls the first day and brought his father the longest slippery, shining rope of pearls ever seen in that oyster country.
“How do you do it?” his father asked.
“It is the crossed fingers—like this,” said Shovel Ears, crossing his fingers like the letter X. “This is the way to remember better and forget worse.”
It was then the oyster king went and told the people who change the alphabets just what happened.
When the people who change the alphabets heard, they decided to put in a new letter, the letter X, near the end of the alphabet, the sign of the crossed fingers.
On the day Pig Wisps and Shovel Ears were to marry, the people who change the alphabets all came to the ceremony with their fingers crossed.
Pig Wisps and Shovel Ears stood up at the ceremony. They crossed their fingers. They told each other they would remember their promises.
And Pig Wisps had two ropes of pearls twisted down her back, making a playful face and saying, “Here we come – where from?”
Many years ago, when pigs climbed chimneys and chased cats up into the trees, there was a lumber king who lived in a river city with many wildcats in the timber nearby.
The lumber king said, “I am losing my hair and my teeth, and I am tired of many things; my only joy is a daughter who is a dancing shaft of light on the ax handles of morning.”
She was quick and wild, the lumber king’s daughter. She had never kissed. Not her mother nor father nor any sweetheart ever. Proud she was. They called her Kiss Me.
She did not like that name, Kiss Me. They never called her that when she was listening. If she happened to be listening, they called her Find Me, Lose Me, Get Me. They never spoke of kisses because they knew she would run away.
But, when she was not listening, they asked, “Where is Kiss Me to-day?” Or they would say, “Every morning Kiss Me gets more beautiful—I wonder if she will ever get a kiss from a man good enough to kiss her.”
One day Kiss Me was lost. She went out on a horse with a gun to hunt wildcats in the forest. She was gone all day. All night she was out in a snowstorm with a horse and a gun hunting wildcats. The blowing snow was worse on the second day.
It was then the lumber king called in a long, loose, young man with a leather face and hay in his hair. The king said, “Flax Eyes, you are the laziest, most careless man in the river lumber country—go out in the snowstorm now, among the wildcats, where Kiss Me is fighting for her life—and save her.”
“I am the hero. I am the man who knows how. I am the man who has been waiting for this chance,” said Flax Eyes.
On a horse, with a gun, out into the snowstorm Flax Eyes rode that day. Far away he rode to where Kiss Me, the quick wild Kiss Me, was standing with her back against a big rock fighting off the wildcats.
In that country the snowstorms make the wildcats wilder—and Kiss Me was tired of shooting wildcats, tired of fighting in the snow, and almost ready to let the wildcats have her.
Then Flax Eyes came. The wildcats jumped at him, and he threw them off. More wildcats came, jumping straight at his face. He took hold of those wildcats by the necks and threw them over the big rock, up into the trees, away into the snow and the wind.
At last, he took all the wildcats one by one and threw them so far, they could not return. He put Kiss Me on her horse, rode back to the lumber king and said lazy and careless, “This is us.”
The lumber king saw the face of Flax Eyes was all covered with cross marks like the letter X. And the lumber king saw the wildcats had torn the shirt off Flax Eyes and on the skin of his chest, shoulders, arms, were the cross marks of the wildcats’ claws, cross marks like the letter X.
So, the king went to the people who change the alphabets and they put the cross marks of the wildcats’ claws, the letter X, near the end of the alphabet.
At the wedding of Kiss Me and Flax Eyes, the people who change the alphabets came with wildcat claws crossed just like the letter X.
Carl Sandburg published “Pig Wisps” and “Kiss Me” in the book Rootabaga Pigeons in 1923. Mario Ritter, Jr. adapted the stories for VOA Learning English.
Download a lesson plan with activities for this story below.
Words in This Story
alphabet – n. the letters of a language arranged in their usual order
pearl – n. a dense smooth shiny gem formed as an abnormal growth in the body of a mollusk usually around something foreign (such as a grain of sand) that enters its shell
braid – n. a length of cord, ribbon, or hair formed of three or more strands woven together
twist – v. to unite by winding one thread, strand, or wire around another
butcher shop – n. a store where meat is specially cut and sold
soup – n. a liquid food with a meat, fish, or vegetable stock as a base and often containing pieces of solid food
bump – v. to strike or knock with force or violence
ax - n. a tool used for cutting wood
knock –v. (with down) to push toward the ground; to push someone off their feet
lazy – adj. not willing to act or work; willing to move little or not at all
claw – n. a sharp usually slender and curved nail on the toe of an animal (as a cat or bird)
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