In a certain country of which I know, there are two paths. One is straight and long and narrow, but the other is crooked and goes winding in and out, twisting and turning, till you cannot see the end of it.
Now one day there came to these two paths a little boy whose feet were swift as a swallow's wings. He was running and jumping and skipping along his way, but when he came to the two paths he stopped and said to himself: "Which path shall I take?"
He was running and jumping and skipping along his way.
The straight path was bright and clean. On either side of it grew trees that reached their branches toward the sky. The tiny buds of flowers peeped out of the grass, and it looked as if it might be the very same path that led by the little boy's own home.
The crooked path was full of flowers as far as the little boy could see—which was not far, you know. They hung in great clusters from the tangled vines that twined around the trees that bent their branches over the crooked path; and they looked so bright and smelled so sweet that the little boy thought he must go that way.
He could not run along the crooked path, for it twisted and turned so that he could not see straight ahead of him; and the branches of the trees hung down so low that he could not stand straight, but had to go bending and creeping under them till his back was tired. The flowers, too, were so sweet that the smell of them made him dizzy; and when he tried to hurry he stumbled over the roots of the trees that grew out of the ground.
By and by he came to a crooked house that stood by the crooked path. The chimneys were crooked, the doors were crooked, the steps were crooked, the very nails that held it together were crooked;—and well they might be, for the house belonged to a crooked man. There he was in his crooked yard walking by the aid of a crooked stick when the little boy came toiling along!
The crooked man had crept so long under the vines and branches of his crooked path that nothing he did was straight. He said crooked words and did crooked deeds, and he wouldn't look you straight in the eyes for anything, for fear you might see his crooked thoughts.
When he saw the little boy coming, he said to himself: "Here is a little boy who will be just like me some day"; and he thought he would ask him to come in.
But when the little boy saw the crooked man he scrambled through the vines away from the path, into a wood which lay on one side. There were no paths in the wood, and he did not know where to go; so he wandered about till he came to a stream of water that flowed through the grasses.
In this stream were many tiny fishes; and when the little boy saw them he forgot his troubles and stopped to watch the fishes at their play. They darted here and darted there, and when the child put his hands into the water, one swam so close that he caught it and brought it out, that he might see it better. But when the fish was out of the shining stream it was not happy. It lay still and gasped for breath.
"What is the matter?" said the child; and he threw the fish into the stream again.
"I was in the wrong place and could not swim," called the fish, as it swam off merrily.
"I am in the wrong place now," said the little boy, bursting into tears, "and I am afraid."
"Oh! don't be afraid," said the fish, "but hold up your head and look straight in front of you and walk straight ahead and nothing can harm you."
Then the little boy held up his head and walked through the wood. He did not look to the right nor the left; and if the branches hung in his way he pushed them aside.
After a while he got out of the woods and came to the straight path and ran along it with feet as swift as a swallow's wings. The sun shone, the buds were pink in the grass, the birds sang, and the little boy was glad, for he knew that he was far from the crooked man's house and very near his own home.