The Hornbill's Feather - Zeme Folktale

A  number of women once went down to the river to fish, and one of them  who was a little ahead of the others found a spot where a hornbill had  been killed by some bird of prey, and its feathers were scattered all  over the ground. There was one very fine tail- feather, and she quickly  damped it and made it dirty so that it looked the shabbiest of the lot.  When the others came up she cried to them: “Come, all of you, and take  the feathers home for your children. When you have had your pick I will  take what is left over.”

The others all chose the feathers they  wanted, but the tail- feather looked so dirty that nobody took it and  the woman carried it home carefully and gave it to her brother’s son,  whose name was Ngoi, and he cleaned and smoothed it and made it as good  as new. It was a magnificent feather, and as wide as the length of two  fingers. When he had cleaned the feather he put it on, and all the girls  thought they had never seen anything more handsome.

Now there  was a young wife in another village; she and Ngoi had been lovers when  she lived with her parents in his village, but she had married someone  else. Just at this time her parents performed the feast of merit called  Hekwi-ki, and they sent to call her and her husband to the celebrations.

When  the day came the girl’s husband said to her: “Get out new clothes from  the jappa. Everybody else is putting on their best clothes, and we shall  feel ashamed if we look shabby.”

“Why should we put on new  clothes?” said the girl. “When I lived there, there was not a single boy  I liked: who then should I please by putting on new clothes?” Her  husband said nothing more, and they went in their old clothes.
On the  way she said: “Don’t accept zu from anyone else; it is my father’s  house, and I will bring you everything you want,” and her husband  agreed.

When they reached the house Ngoi was standing by the  door, splendidly dressed and wearing his hornbill’s feather, and as soon  as she saw him the girl went straight in to her parents, put down the  zu she had brought to help them out with the feast, and asked them for  new clothes. They took out good new clothes and gave them to her, and  she put them on and went out to serve zu to the guests. Both her husband  and Ngoi were sitting there, but she was always pouring zu for Ngoi and  never gave any to her husband at all. The husband sat and watched this  for some time, and he began to be sore at heart. He whispered to a  friend from the same village who was sitting next to him: “I have  dropped my tobacco. Take a bamboo torch and creep about looking for it,  and when you come near Ngoi, set fire to the feather in his hair.”

The friend did as he asked, and when he passed behind Ngoi he brushed the father with the torch and set light to it.
“Oh!”  cried Ngoi, in rage and distress. “I loved that more than any other  thing!” So saying, he took the ruined feather and stripped off the ash  and swallowed it.

While his friend was searching for the tobacco  the girl’s husband had sat still, but when the feather was burnt he  flung down his cup of zu and hurried away, singing as he went: “I shall  not drag my wife away, I shall not fight because of her; let her do as  she pleases, and be the wife of whichever one of us she likes. I am  going to my own village.”
His brother-in-law came out of the village  after him, and sang in reply: “Be not angry, be not displeased, speak  not angry words; all the necklaces, all the mithan you gave, you will  have again.”

The song from this story must be sung (and  then only) at the building of a big house for the feasts of merit called  Hekwi-ki and Krreo-dung. It may not be sung at other times.

On  these occasions two men who know the song will come from a distance  towards the house, singing as they come, until they reach the porch.  They must sing the first two or three words alone and then the others,  who may be forty or fifty strong, may join in. With the next line the  two soloists must lead again, and so on. When the song is finished they  go off again and return singing something else, and they go on doing  this as long as they like.

Before this particular song can be  sung two others must be sung, and unless there is someone who knows how  to sing them the ceremony cannot be performed. If there is no one  suitable in the village, someone must be fetched from another village.

Ursula Graham’s Collection

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