In winter’s darkness, King Sejong sips barley tea. He shivers despite the wood heaped on the fire. In his haste to be warm, he scalds his tongue. The king opens his mouth to receive the ice his servant brings from the pond and thinks, moving his wounded tongue from ice to teeth to palette. Quiet, he thinks for a long time, then commands invention of a new alphabet.
Scholars scurry to form characters, each shorthand for how the body forms sound. The alphabet mimics mouths, tongues, throats in their work of making language. The king thanks his wise men. He hides the beautiful alphabet in his royal palace. He eats scallion pancakes, lets the steam of barley tea warm his face, waits for spring. He does not order his subjects to use the new alphabet; he knows they will not obey. He does not call the executioner with his chains and long sword; instead, come spring, the king orders a flask of sugar water. With a brush he traces his characters on the new green leaves of trees.
Caterpillars crawl to his graffiti and eat away pieces of green. Soon his alphabet hangs in the trees. His subjects look up and point to strange forms nibbled into the leaves and the king says, “Look at this divine new language.” The people praise god, pluck the alphabet from the trees, and begin writing.
--first appeared in Verse Wisconsin