The boy who became a Hornbill – Zeme Folktale

ONCE THERE was a boy whose parents had died, and he lived in the house of some relatives, but the man and his wife constantly ill-treated him. When he went with the other young people to work in the fields the woman used to give him food to take with him; but she mixed rats’ dung with the rice and gave him a porcupine’s quill to take so that he could pick out what grains he could from the mess.

Every day the young men and girls used to gather in the field- house and eat together, but the boy was ashamed to let them see what his food was like, and always ate by himself, at a distance. One day he went to wash his hands and mouth before eating, and two of the girls, both of whom were fond of him, said to each other; “Why does he never eat with us? Let us go and look and see what food he has.” They went very quietly and unpacked his parcel of food, and found the rice all filthy and mixed with rats’ dung.

“Oh!” they said. “So that is why he would not eat with us! Let us throw it away.” They threw it away, and each contributed a little from her own food and made it up into a parcel as before. They looked in his zu-gourd, but there was only water, so they threw that away, and each contributed zao kasang from her own gourd.

When the boy came back and opened his food he found good rice instead of what had been there before, and he said to the others: “Who does this belong to? It isn’t mine. Mine is not like this.” They all said: “It must be yours. Look, every one of us has his own.” Still he insisted that it was not his, and they said it cannot be, but he refused to eat or drink any of it.

For several days this happened, the girls waiting till he had gone to wash and then supplying good rice and zu from their own store, but every time he declared it was not his and would not touch it, for he guessed what had happened and was ashamed.

One day he said to the girl he liked the best: “Which do you love most, me or your clothes?”
She answered: “I love you the best.”

“Then will you give me your skirt?” he asked.
“Yes,” she said, and gave it to him.

“And will you give me your breast-cloth?”
“Yes,” said the girl, and she took off her black breast-cloth and gave it to him, and he put the two cloths on.

“How do I look?” he said.
“Oh, very fine,” said the girl.

“Will you give me the neck of your zu-gourd?” he said.
“Yes,” she said, and broke it off and gave it to him.

He put it to his mouth like a beak, and said: “Now I’ll get up on the field house and see how I look from there.”

When he had scrambled up on the roof he called to her: “How do I look now?”
“Oh, very fine indeed,” she said.

“Very well,” said the boy. “If it looks all right from here, then I’ll go up higher into a tree.” He climbed up into a tree and sat there and became a hornbill, and cried out harshly, as hornbills do. When the girl saw what had happened she began to weep and cried out: “You look very handsome, but come down and let us go to the village. Come down, and let us go!” But he was a hornbill, and was ready to fly away.

“After a long while I will return,” he said to her. “When you hear the sound of hornbills’ wings overhead, come out of your house and sit outside; I shall be the last bird in the flight, and I will let fall the very best of my tail-feathers for you.”

So he flew away, and the girl went weeping back to the village.

A long time later, after the girl had married, she heard the sound of hornbills’ wings overhead, and she left the house and sat outside. As she looked up at the last hornbill in the flight, the bird let fall the finest of its tail-feathers, and it floated down and landed between the girl’s breasts.

The boy’s adoptive mother was also watching, and when she saw this she called out: “Oh, give me something too!” but all that came down were the bird’s droppings, and they landed right in her eyes and blinded her. The girl kept the feather and treasured it, and she and her husband had great good fortune and had splendid crops and became rich.

Ursula Graham’s Collection

Also read | Lambu, the sugarcane juice man of Lamphel

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