In a far off city, there lived a boy called Birju. He longed to run and play like other children. But he had a lame leg. He found it difficult to even walk properly. Birju’s father worked as a gardener in a rich man’s garden, close to the hut in which they lived. His mother washed dishes in other people’s houses. One day, his father came home looking very pleased. “Look, Birju,” he said, “Look what I’ve got!” He held up an old wooden rocking horse. “Bibiji gave it to me.” The horse was old and battered. The paint had peeled off, the saddle was torn and one of the ears was about to fall off. But Birju was thrilled with his new toy. He had never owned anything like it before. He climbed on it at once and began to rock.

“This is fun,” he thought.” I suppose this is what riding a real horse feels like!” When he had rocked a hundred and one times, to his surprise he felt the horse lurch suddenly. Almost as if it were alive! I must be imagining it, he thought, holding on tight. But the very next moment he got a bigger surprise! Slowly, the horse lifted itself into the air… it was flying…. actually flying!

Birju and the Flying Horse
Birju and the Flying Horse [Illustrations by Subir Roy]
The wind whistled past Birju’s ears as they went up… higher… and higher… and higher. People, houses and trees were left far, far below. He got even more of a shock when he heard the horse laugh. “Fooled you, didn’t I?” said the horse. “You thought I was just an ordinary old rocking horse.”

“That I did,” said Birju. He held on tight, afraid he might fall. “How was I to know?” The horse laughed again. “I can take you anywhere in the world. Where would you like to go?” Birju thought for a moment. “Towards the east,” he said. “Where the sun rises.”

The horse flew faster than the wind. Birju was enjoying himself now. “I always wanted to run. But this is even better.”

They flew and flew till they reached a far off hill. A golden, orange mist surrounded it. So bright that it hurt his eyes. Luckily, the horse flew into a cave. Birju blinked and opened his eyes. He saw an old woman sitting there. She was spinning shiny golden threads. It looked as if she had been spinning for years. Because lots and lots of thread lay around, all tangled up in heaps.

“This is the wise woman of the east,” said the horse.

“Greetings, old mother,” Birju said.

“God bless you, my child,” said the old woman. “You look like a good boy. My thread is all mixed up, can you untangle it for me?”

“As you say, mother,” Birju said. He set to work. There were hundreds and thousands and millions of threads. They were badly knotted up. But he worked and worked and finally it was all done.

“Thank you, my child,” said the old woman. “Since you helped me, I would like to grant you a wish. What would you like?”

Birju thought and thought. Then he said, “I really wish my mother did not have to work so hard all day.” “Granted,” said the old woman. She plucked a beautiful blue flower and handed it to him. “If ever you travel west, give this to my sister who lives there.”

Thanking the old woman, Birju flew home. They had just reached when his mother returned. She hugged him as soon as she saw him. Smiling happily, she said, “What a lucky day it has been! My mistress lost her diamond necklace and I found it for her. Look what she gave me!” She held up a bag full of money. “Since you’ve been so honest,” she said, “take this and live in comfort.”

For several days Birju did not go anywhere. He was very happy to have his mother at home the whole day. Then one day he found the blue flower, lying in a corner of his hut. To his surprise, it was as fresh as ever!

He remembered the old woman of the west. And one day, when his mother had gone to the market, he took off on the flying horse.

The horse flew over cities and rivers and finally they came to a lonely, barren place where an old woman sat, even older than the other one, weaving on an immense loom. Bales of cloth lay heaped all around.

Birju greeted her politely and gave her the flower. ”Your sister sent this,” he said.

“Ah, you have met her,” she said. “Can you help me, child. My bales of cloth have all tumbled down. Can you stack them up nicely for me?”

It was a difficult task for Birju with his lame leg. But he managed it somehow. Pleased, the old woman granted him a wish.

Birju thought of his father, bent over from working in the rich man’s garden. “I wish my father had his own garden to cultivate,” he said.

“Done,” said the old woman. “Now if you happen to travel southwards, do visit my sister and please do give her this.” She produced a strange looking nut. It was neither a walnut nor a peanut, or even a coconut, but a mixture of all three.

Thanking her, Birju flew home on the horse. Luckily, his mother had not returned. Soon she did, and so did his father.

“I have good news,“ he said. “My master said, you are an honest and faithful man. There is a piece of land lying vacant. Take it and grow your own produce.” Then he said sadly, “My master’s daughter is seriously ill. All the doctors have given up on her. My master is hoping to save her life by performing charitable acts.”

Birju became sad too, thinking of the pretty little girl he had seen playing in the garden. Then he remembered the wise woman of the south.

He quietly went to the horse. “Fly south with all speed,” he whispered to the horse. It took off in a trice. Over distant seas they flew and came to an island. There they found an old woman embroidering a beautiful tapestry.

Birju greeted her and gave her the strange nut her sister had sent.

“So, you’ve met my sister,” she said. “Boy, can you help me? My thread has slipped out of the needle and I can’t thread it again.”

A strange thread it was, thick, while the eye of the needle was small. But somehow Birju managed to thread the needle.

The old woman was pleased. “Now I will give you a wish too. But think hard, child, because this will be your last wish.”

Birju thought of his lame leg. He had always longed for it to become all right. But then he thought of the little girl who was so ill.

“That my master’s daughter regain her health,” he said at once.

The old woman took out a herb and said, “Grind this into a paste and give it to her. She will be up by the morning.” Then she said, “This was your last wish. But I want you to visit my father, the old man of the north. Give him this shell and say I sent it for him.”

Birju flew home with all speed. Softly he got off his horse so his mother would not hear. He limped inside and gave her the herb. “Grind this into a paste and give it to the sick little girl,” he said. “She’ll be all right by the morning.”

“Where did you get it from?” his mother asked.

“Quick,” Birju said. “There’s no time to waste. A wise woman gave it to me.”

His mother did as he said. The rich man was ready to try anything. Sure enough, the little girl was all right by the morning. Birju’s mother was rewarded with money again. But that could hardly cure his lame leg!

One day, he decided to visit the old man of the north. “Let’s fly north,” he told his horse. The horse flew over forests and lakes and came to a cave on a big, snow-covered mountain. An old, old man was sitting at the entrance of the cave.

“Who comes here?” the old man said, ”You have to approach me on foot.”

“But I am lame,” Birju said. “I’ll slip and go tumbling down the mountain.”

“Do as I say,” said the old man sternly.

“Do that, Birju,” the horse whinnied.

Hesitantly, Birju got off the horse. He put one leg on the ground…. then another. And as he handed the old man the shell, he got the biggest surprise of his life. He was standing straight and walking…. actually walking!

“How can I thank you?” he told the old man.

“I need no thanks,” said the old man. “Go and see your parents. May you always be happy and prosperous.”

The flying horse flew back faster than ever. Birju’s parents were overwhelmed with joy when they saw him come running on his two feet. They all lived happily ever after on their little plot of land.