In the land of Kunus, there is a story that everyone knows, and everyone must know.
This story supposedly tells the history of Kunus in days long past. Maybe that is true, maybe not—it doesn't matter. The people of Kunus treat it as such.
Parents use it to warn their misbehaving children, politicians use it as a rhetorical tool, and comedians avoid it at all costs. No matter the context, a mere mention of it is enough to make a rowdy room serious.
Each year, this legend is passed down to the youngest generation, to ensure that the people of Kunus never forget its gravity. All the town gathers in the central square for a performance put on by the Legend Committee, who dress up in costumes and act out the story. Being named a Committee member is considered one of the highest honors a Kunusian can receive, and nearly every prime-aged citizen covets the job.
Accordingly, Legend Day is considered the most important holiday of the year, albeit not a festive one. Businesses are closed, children have no school, and candles are lit in somber observance.
The mood is quiet, solemn, and slightly apprehensive, and for two hours, an entire people's attention is given to the actors on stage.
This is how the story goes:
A long time ago, a man and a woman gleefully announced the arrival of their son. He was a beautiful boy: round cheeks, big eyes, and a warm smile.
He was a kind boy, too. In school, he was known for assisting his classmates, even at personal cost to himself. His parents instilled in him the value of helping others, and he embraced the role of doing so.
As he continued exploring his place in the world, the range of his beneficence grew wider, and his parents continued rewarding this behavior with praise—so his desire to be beneficent grew, too. He volunteered much of his time to public service, learning more and more about the problems that his neighbors faced.
By the time he came of age, he was well aware that a lack of resources was severely constraining his town's potential. Many people were so poor that they couldn't afford food, and there wasn't enough funding to dedicate to scientific and agricultural endeavors that could liberate Kunus from this condition. He saw the individual horrors of hunger every day, and could only begin to comprehend the vast scale of this suffering, multiplied over the tens of thousands of Kunusian residents who lived in poverty.
It became his mission to make Kunus wealthy, so that its people could develop the knowledge and technology they needed to flourish.
And what better way to become wealthy than to find gold? The elders spoke of buried mines in the mountains from long before, that nobody had yet rediscovered—so he set out in search of this treasure. He was very unsure that this plan would work—in fact, it seemed to have a very low probability of success, but the rewards would be so high that it was worth doing anyway.
He obtained maps from the historians and spent a month roaming the wilderness, digging for three days straight at each marked site. At times, he became very close to giving up; he could try to find wealth to share in another way, perhaps by becoming a businessman or politician. But he persisted.
On his thirty-first day, he finally struck gold. Seven cubits below the ground, there was a pile of shimmering yellow metal, already smelted and processed into bars by the inhabitants of past times. He quickly got to work loading this gold into his cart, and promptly dragged it back to town.
This gold was able to provide seven thousand Kunusians with food and shelter a year.
But it wasn't enough. Seven thousand was barely ten percent of Kunus' population, and he wanted to help more.
He recruited a crew to help him seek and distribute more wealth. Month after month, he and his crew would scour the Kunusian backlands for hints of metal, and every so often they would come back to town with carts full of gold. This gold provided more sustenance for more people, until eventually there was no more poverty in Kunus. The local population was elated, and so was he.
They almost had enough money to begin a program of farm experimentation, so that the drought-prone Kunus could grow its own food in abundance. But before they could begin this program, the luck of the gold faltered. The goldseeking crew returned less and less frequently, and their hauls were smaller and smaller, until eventually they could find no more gold. Their leader was determined to ensure Kunus' welfare, and he scrambled to find another way to do so.
Eventually, he arrived at an idea. The largest known deposit of gold on the planet was located in a neighboring kingdom. That kingdom was a thriving, prosperous society, and had developed sophisticated systems of philosophy and government. They considered the gold deposit a sacred part of their cultural heritage, and had not extracted it.
He was going to do so. If he could retrieve that gold, Kunus's security and well-being would be guaranteed for a thousand years to come. He resolved to find a way to persuade the other kingdom to let him mine that deposit.
He first tried approaching their king with a friendly message: let us mine your gold, and we will share it with you. The king refused, explaining that the cultural value of the deposit was worth far more than its market exchange rate.
He then tried pleading on humanitarian grounds: Kunus needed that gold. Unlike the king's country, Kunus was poor and needed capital to invest in developing better farms. Again, the king refused.
He even considered threatening war, but he knew that the king's army was the most powerful in the world.
But then he remembered that the inhabitants of that kingdom deeply revered the callingbirds that inhabited the forests of Kunus. While Kunusians saw these birds as pests to be exterminated, the neighboring population viewed them as sentient creatures, equal in moral standing to any human.
He threatened to kill all the callingbirds in Kunus—a public service to Kunusians, but a genocide to their neighbors. Maybe the king would finally budge.
Instead, the king scoffed at him. Not for a moment did the king believe that he would actually kill the birds; not only did it sound ridiculous, but Kunus didn't even have the capacity to hunt ten birds, let alone a whole forest. The king sent him away.
Returning home, the goldseeker hatched a plan to make the king believe him. Instead of merely killing the callingbirds, he would make them suffer—and instead of hunting them, he would breed them. He designed a cage large enough to trap one million callingbirds, and built it with logs. He captured as many birds as he could find, and encouraged them to lay eggs. And lay eggs they did; soon he had one hundred caged callingbirds. Soon after that, one thousand. Eventually, he had one million callingbirds, all stuffed into a tight cage. It was all the same to him and his fellow Kunusians—they couldn't care less what happened to the callingbirds.
Traditionally, the Kunusians used an herbal extract to keep callingbirds off their crops; nobody knew what it made the birds feel, but it was obviously bad enough to repel the birds from ever nearing a Kunusian farm. According to the neighboring kingdom, it made the birds burn.
The goldseeker distilled a vat of this extract, and designed a mechanism to shower it onto the cage. Once the flow began, it could not stop.
When his setup was complete, he journeyed to the neighboring king's court once more.
He presented his cage, and told the king that he would start the unstoppable flow of burning extract if the gold deposit was not released to Kunus. He didn't think he would have to follow through with his threat; he figured that the king would be afraid enough to instantly comply with his demands.
But the king still refused to give in to the goldseeker's demands. The king thought that this whole setup was a ruse—the Kunusians would never be so immoral as to burn one million callingbirds.
But the goldseeker wanted to make sure that the king believed him, not just this time, but in all future encounters, too. He wanted a reputation that his words were credible; if he threatened something, he would do it.
So he started the shower of burning extract onto the callingbird cage. And it could not stop. The kingdom was filled with the sounds of one million callingbirds crying in excruciating pain, one million beings experiencing the worst form of suffering imaginable.
Ten minutes later, the noise stopped. The callingbirds had pecked out their own throats, killed themselves to stop the pain. Death was the least painful option.
As before, the goldseeker and his fellow Kunusians did not care. For them, the callingbirds' suffering was easily negligible, just like insects.
But the king was horrified, and so were his people. He immediately commanded his army to punish Kunus.
The army razed every building in the land, and lit all crops on fire. The chaos ensured for two weeks, until Kunus was nothing but haze and rubble. While the army refrained from slaughtering Kunusians, they made sure that Kunus would never see prosperity again.
Seven years later, a bright young naturalist deciphered the callingbird screeches. He found that they communicated about far more than just food and mating. They had calls for joy, love, sadness, frustration, guilt, and unique sounds for their family. And most of all, humans could learn to speak this rudimentary language. The naturalist's book became very popular, and people across the planet—including in Kunus—began to converse with the callingbirds, to understand their trials and tribulations, and to love them as friends.
And at that final note, the performers exit the stage, and everyone returns to their normal activity with a renewed sense of humility, contemplation, and collective responsibility.