By U San Shwe Bu
In an obscure village in Arakan there once lived a man and his wife with their only daughter by name Mai Htwe Yai. I cannot tell you the names of the girl’s parents; but it was the custom of the people in the country, even just it is now the present day, to avoid as much as possible the use of the real names of persons who are advanced in years, they are commonly known to the villagers as Mai Htwe Yai’s father and mother. They were simple ignorant rustic who daily earned their living by catching fish in the small stream that flowed silently past their little village. One day the worthy couple went out fishing as usual in their canoe and Mai Htwe Yai was left to look after the various household duties such as splitting firewood, filling the jars with water and pounding the necessary quantity of rice for the evening meal. Somehow on this particular ill-fated day the fishing did not prove as successful as usual. The husband got terribly annoyed, while the wife in her love and anxiety for the comfort of her daughter repeatedly kept on saying:
What shall I do
For my daughter’s dinner?
How I wish
That I might win her
Lots of fish –
‘Twere a dainty dish
For my daughter’s dinner.
Hearing this the man fiercely replied, “You seem to be only thinking of your daughter’s dinner, but what about mine you ungrateful woman?” and forthwith he struck her with the heavy oar he carried in his hand. The blow was so severe that the poor woman died outright. But when the body was thrown into the water the man was astonished to see it suddenly transformed into a turtle.
When the man returned home alone in the evening Mai Htwe Yai questioned him about her mother. As he did not wish to grieve his daughter he tried to deceive her by saying that her mother had gone on a visit to her aunt. The next day the girl went to her aunt’s house only to find that her mother was not there at all. Then her father said that he had made a mistake for, as a matter of fact, her mother was then with her grandmother. On verification this also proved to be false. Thus for several days by a succession of lies he managed to hind the real facts of her mother’s death from the young girl. But at last the day arrived when he could no longer think of a likely story, and for his own peace of mind he made a full confession of his guilt, adding, “So though you have no mother now she is not really dead for at the present moment she exists in the river in the form of a turtle”.
For a time Mai Htwe Yai was inconsolable. Grief seemed to be her only food. She neither ate nor drank several days. At night she hardly ever slept a wink because of her weeping for her dear mother. At length the father one day spoke to her thus:
O daughter mine.
Why peak and pine?
The deed is done, and tears are vain.
To weep and wail
Will not avail
To bring your mother back again
Go, take about the village
The baskets I made yesterday.
And sell them to the villagers
As shrewdly as you may.
Now in this same village here also lived a biluma or ogress with her two daughters. The elder girl’s name was Kret Chi May and so very ugly that when she walked through the village the children fled from her in terror. This ogress secretly loved Mai Htwe Yai’s father back up to that time she could not think of any plan by which she could make him her husband. So when Mai Htwe Yai came to her house with a load of baskets on her head the ogress suddenly saw her long sought for opportunity and determined to make Mai Htwe Yai’s father come to her house and make him her husband that very day. One or two baskets having been sold to the ogress the young girl put the rest on her head to return home: but when she tried to get up she could not do so because the ogress pressed her down from the top without the girl’s knowledge. She then suggested that the load was too heavy for her and that she should call her father for assistance. Believing it to be true the girl went home as directed. In the meanwhile the ogress and her daughters hastily prepared some food and set up a pot of fermented liquor in the best room of the house. When May Htwe Yai and her father arrived the ogress welcomed them effusively and persuaded the man to eat and drink, for his visit was an honour done to her. Long and merrily the meal continued till night advanced apace. By the time the feast ended the man fell into a drunken sleep making it impossible for the daughter to return home alone. She was therefore easily persuaded to pass the night there also. According to a prearranged plan the ogress’s daughter got up in the dead of night and tied together the hair of the man with that of her mother who was sleeping close by. In the morning when the man and the ogress found themselves bound together in this mysterious fashion they agreed to marry and to live together in the latter’s house.
Having now accomplished her object one would have thought that the ogress would be satisfied. This was far from being the case, for the wicked woman conceived a violet dislike for her step daughter Mai Htwe Yai whose beauty far excelled that of any other woman in the village. How much better, she thought it would be for everybody concerned if her step daughter’s life could be taken without any suspicion being directed against her. Anyhow she determined to do her worst, hoping that before long, grief and misery would bring about that death which she feared to inflict too openly.
So poor Mai Htwe Yai was given very little to eat while at the same time she was compelled to tent cattle everyday by the river side. For a time she tried to bear up her misfortune with fortitude until one day while looking after her herd she was so overcome with hunger and grief that she fell by the river and cried bitterly:
O mother turtle, look at me,
Unhappy daughter thine –
Without a friend to comfort me.
All alone I pine,
Starved and treated cruelly.
And made to tend the kine.
No sooner were these words uttered than the turtle appeared on the surface of the water bearing a present of small fishes. These the girls silently took and going into a disused hut close by she carefully cooked them and ate them contentedly.
Thus under these new conditions when she was daily supplied with good fish by her mother turtle, life became more pleasant and tolerable, and she began to thrive both in health and strength. The ogress seeing the change in the appearance of her step daughter wondered much and could not find any satisfactory reason for it. So she secretly told her daughter Kret Chi May to try and find out what May Htwe Yai did by following her the next day in the guise of a common village dog. For the ogresses were a wonderful people. Though they usually resembled human being and lived as such, they were able also to assume any form they liked. The next day when Mai Htwe Yai went out with the cattle to her usual haunt a dog followed her from a safe distance spying upon her every movement without her being aware of its presence. As before the girl received her allowance of fish from the turtle she then cooked and ate them at the hut while the dog unable to resist the temptation of picking up a few bones approached quite near. “What a troublesome dog this is,” said May Htwe Yai and gave it a vigorous kick. Whereupon the dog ran away howling and shouted out from the distance that it would tell the ogress all about her mysterious supply of fish which she received daily from the turtle.
The next day the ogress, having learnt all she wanted, pretended to be sick. She placed dry sticks of bamboo under the mat on which she lay and groaned very loudly. When the husband returned from work he was greatly concerned about her and sent his own daughter Mai Htwe Yai to consult an astrologer as to the best way of relieving the pain. Every time the ogress turned on her side the dry sticks would snap and she would yell at the top of her voice saying that her ribs were breaking. This increased the man’s fears and he cursed his daughter for the delay. At length when she arrived she hastily prepared the medicine she brought with her and administered it to the patient. But instead of being relieved the ogress yelled all the more with pain. She even accused the girl of bringing false medicine to kill her because she hated her step mother. She therefore sent her own daughter Kret Chi Mai to consult the astrologer. Acting under previous instruction the girl returned to say that the only thing that could cure her mother was to give her the flesh of the turtle which according to the astrologer was the best remedy for so serious a disease.
The husband then made a stout bamboo coop to catch the turtle. He first set it in the river close to the right bank. When Mai Htwe Yai saw this she wept and said:
Mother turtle, have a care!
By the right bank is set a snare.
On hearing this the turtle went to the opposite side of the river. There was no catch that day and the man returned home disappointed. When on the next day the coop was set close to the left bank, Mai Htwe Yai said:
Mother turtle, have a care!
By the left bank is the snare.
On hearing this the turtle went away to the opposite side of the river and consequently it could not be caught. For the third time the man tried. He placed the coop in midstream and then he caught his daughter by the wrist and beat her severely with the thorny branch of a plum tree telling her that if he did not catch the turtle he would surely kill her that very day. The poor girl’s body was so lacerated by the thorns and the pain was so great that in her agony she cried out:
O mother turtle, pardon me,
Though into danger guided.
For oh! they are so hard on me,
I can no longer bide it:
Right in mid river is the coop-
Good mother, go inside it!
The turtle obeyed, and it was caught and carried home in triumph. That very evening it was cut up into bits and carefully prepared for dinner. As soon as the ogress ate the turtle curry she got out of her bed and pretended to be quite well again. But since a great deal of the curry was still left, poor Mai Htwe Yai was sent to distribute it among the village folk. With a heavy heart she set out her errand and as she stopped at each house to give the curry she requested the good people to eat flesh but the bones for her. The people invariably laughed and said, “What a funny request to make! since you have given us that curry you cannot stop us from eating everything, bones and all, if we are so minded.” But an old couple taking pity on the poor thing promised to oblige her. The next morning when she called on the kind old people she was given two bones which they preserved for her. She then went into a large public garden and planted the bones side by side in the ground and uttered the following invocation, “Oh ye nats who preside over the four quarters of the earth give ear unto my prayer. If I be virtuous and if I have suffered great misery, undeservedly, may these two bones which I have planted spring up into two trees, one of gold and the other of silver. Let no man be successful in his efforts to dig them up. May all the implements the employs be snapped in twain. But should I so desire it let me accomplish the feat by the merest turn of my finger nail.”
Hardly were the words out of her mouth when the two trees burst form from the ground in all their resplendent beauty. The girl, however, went home secure in the belief that no one could cut them down or remove them. Soon the news of magic trees spread all over the country. Men came to see it from all directions. The king of the country being unable to suppress his curiosity any longer went to the spot in the state because all his previous efforts to remove them to his palace completely failed. When he actually saw the beautiful trees he offered a handsome rewards to anyone who could dig them up and carry them away to his palace garden. Men toiled all day in the hope of winning the prize; but all their efforts were useless for the trees refused to be shifted from their position. The king then asked the people as to how the trees came to be there, and when they informed him that a young girl called May Htwe Yai was responsible for their growth he ordered her to be brought to the spot. On her arrival the king said, “I command you to dig up the trees at once. If you are successful I will make you my queen, but if not your life shall be the forfeit.” Hearing these words the girl sent up an inward prayer to the Nats to assist her and in fear and trembling she touched the trees. To the surprise of everybody the trees were easily uprooted. The king marveled much but spoke no work at all. At a sign from him the ministers placed the trees in the chariot and after mounting the girl on a richly caparisoned horse the whole party returned to the palace. In due course Mai Htwe Yai – the poor persecuted maiden became the queen of the country.
Some time after this event the ogress and her two daughters heard about Mai Htwe Yai’s good fortune. They could neither eat nor drink for they were very jealous. So for many days they discussed the details of a plan by which they hoped Mai Htwe Yai could be killed. At last the long sought for opportunity arrived, for the ogress’s husband the queen’s father, had to undertake a long journey to a foreign land. When the man departed the ogress sent words to the palace requesting the queen to visit her father who was very ill. “Is my father still capable of eating a little rice and drinking a little water?” asked the queen to the messenger. “Yes! He can still do that,” replied the latter. “Then,” said the queen, “you may return. I am certain that my father will not die yet.”
After a few days another message was sent to the palace. This time it stated that the queen’s father was on the point of death and that if she did not hurry she would be too late to speak to him. Before setting out alone from the palace the queen ordered her servants to fetch her in the evening from the house of the ogress. When the queen arrived at the house of her step mother she found the whole household in tears around a bed on which some object was covered up by a blanket. Thinking that her father had died she went up to the bad and tried to remove the blanket from his head in order to have a last look at him who was once her parent. But the wily ogress prevented her from doing so on the plea that the face was so distorted that it was unfit for any one to see. So the poor queen could do nothing else but sit with the rest and give way to tears. Presently Kret Chi Mai her elder step sister began admiring the jewels and other ornaments which the queen was then wearing and said to her, “Dear sister you must indeed be very happy in your present condition. What magnificent jewels you have on! Can you please allow me to wear your bangles just for a moment to see what I look like?” At first the queen refused and rebuked her sister for her frivolous thoughts especially at a time when they should be in the deepest grief. But Kret Chi Mai laughed and still persisting in her request she at length got her own way.
When evening came the queen asked for the return of her bangles; but Kret Chi Mai, pretending to be terribly angry with her for worrying her so soon, threw them through a crack in the floor on to the ground beneath the house. Whereupon the ogress her mother said, “What a naughty girl you are Kret Chi Mai! Instead of being grateful for being permitted to wear the bangles even for so short a time, you have even thrown them away. Go, pick them up at once and offer an apology to your sister.” “That will I never do,” said the offender, “If she wants her bangles she may pick them up herself.” The queen was in a hurry to get back to the palace and as she knew that her servants would be almost on their way to fetch her she did not want to waste any more time arguing the matter out. So she went down beneath the house to pick up her jewels. Just as she stooped the ogress and her daughter hastily brought a large pot of boiling water which they had previously prepared and emptied its contents on the unfortunate queen. Death was instantaneous but her body was immediately converted to that of a beautiful egret. Quickly the ogress’s daughter Kret Chi Mai adorned herself with the discarded clothes and jewels of the late queen and calmly awaited the coming of the palace servants.
Meanwhile Shwe Kya the young prince began to get anxious about her mother who had absented herself for hours. He went to his father the king and told him about his fears. So the father and son waited patiently strolling about in the palace grounds. As darkness came on they heard the sound of trumpets and the trampling of many feet. The father said to the son, “I think that is your mother. Though she is certainly late I do not think you need worry yourself any more for she has assuredly returned.” Shortly after this the long expected party arrived. The pretended queen came down from palfrey and smilingly advanced to the father and son who were watching her with unfeigned surprise. “My dear,” said the king, “if you are my wife you have certain changed a great deal in your appearance. You left the palace this morning a very beautiful woman, but you have now returned very ugly. What in heaven’s name can be the reason of this remarkable transformation? The queen then replied, “Dear husband, you know that I went to the death bed of my father. When I saw him lying dead I was so overcome with grief that I cried very much and struck my face so insistently that I have become very ugly now. But prince Shwe Kya stoutly refused to be embraced by his supposed mother for he felt sure that she was some one other then what she represented herself to be.
It so happened that when Mai Htwe Yai the real queen died she left behind an unfinished piece of cloth she was then weaving. In order to carry on the pretence completely Kret Chi Mai the supposed queen went to the loom every day and tried to continue the work of weaving. But to her chagrin she found she could not do so easily as the pattern of the cloth was too intricate for her. Whenever she found herself in a difficulty the egret, which was then living in the palace as a general pet, would go up to the loom and by means of its beak indicate what should really be done. For a time the false queen put up with it but when this interference became too frequent she became so annoyed that she struck the bird with heavy shuttle and killed it outright.
She then sent it down to the kitchen with orders to have it served up for dinner. But when the king found that his dinner consisted of the palace egret he refused to touch it and gave orders to have the curry thrown away. The servant immediately bore the dish out of the room and threw the contents close to the royal gardener’s house. The next morning to the great surprise of the gardener and his wife they found a fully grown bilva tree (Bengla quince) bearing a single fruit of extraordinary size – One remarkable thing about the fruit was that whenever the old lady (gardener’s wife) passed by under the tree the fruit used to touch her head, until, at last, she was so annoyed that she plucked it and kept it in a basket in the house.
One day the old lady went out to work in the garden and left her husband to look after the house. But the worthy man fell asleep, and as he did so the bilva fruit mysteriously opened and a most beautiful girl emerged out of it. Then without any hesitation what so ever she began to bathe, dress and besmear her face with Thanetka (a paste obtained by rubbing a certain kind of bark on the smooth surface of a flat stone). After going through her toilet most carefully – I cannot explain minutely the intricate phases of a young lady’s toilet – she prepared some rice and cooked some food. When this was done she passed some very severe remarks on the old man who was sleeping soundly and then she addressed the cock that was scratching for food at the foot of their backstairs:
Good Mr. Cock!
I prithee tell
The old lady.
When she comes back,
There is no lack,
Let her eat well,
Let her drink well,
I prithee tell
So saying she entered the bilva fruit. When the old lady returned home she was much surprised to find that some one had mysteriously cooked her dinner and blamed her husband for sleeping instead of keeping proper watch. Just as she finished her scolding the cock spoke:
But the cook
Had unclean hands.
Fling it afar,
Do, grand mamma!
Now this was not exactly what the girl from the bilva fruit told the cock to say. But being a cunning bird who appreciated a good dinner as well as any one else be rightly thought that by misinforming the old lady she would act on his instructions. As anticipated the dinner was flung out with curses and the wily cock had a good feed thereof. This sort of thing continued for several days until the old lady losing her patience determined to keep watch herself. She sent her husband away to do some work in the garden while she lay down on her bed and pretended to be asleep. After a while the girl, as usual, issued from the fruit and in the midst of her preparations for dinner the old lady quietly got up and threw a large bamboo cage over her.
The old people then adopted the girl who was forbidden to leave the house but was only permitted to weave and spin. It so happened that the boys of the town, including the young prince, were in the habit of playing everyday near this house. When ever an opportunity occurred the girl would call the prince and ask him to assist her in her work. At last interruptions in his play became so frequent that he lost every day. His father the king one day seeing his son sad and dejected asked him what the cause was. The boy replied that a certain beautiful girl living in the old couple’s house frequently made him to do some work for her and would not allow to play his game properly. It was on this account that he returned home a loser everyday.
On the following morning the king rode away on a visit to the old people determined to see for himself who the girl was and after halting in front of the house he called out loudly for a cup of water. The old man brought him one but he refused it by flinging away the cup. Then the old woman brought him out another cup. This also be angrily flung away saying., “I have not come here to accept any hospitality from fools like you. I will only drink from the cup tendered by the young lady who is now an inmate of your house. Go and bring her out at once if you do not wish to incur my extreme displeasure.” In fear and trembling the old woman complied and when the king saw the lovely girl he was at once struck by the resemblance she bore to his dear wife Mai Htwe Yai. So without saying a word he placed her on his horse and returned to the palace.
On their arrival the lady informed the king that she was no other than his real wife, the mother of the young prince and at the same time she related to him without any reservation whatsoever the story of her persecution by the wicked ogress and her elder daughter who was now living as his rightful queen. The king greatly rejoiced to hear this but being a very just monarch he summoned the imposter and asked her for an explanation. Nothing daunted the false queen indignantly repudiated the allegations against her and stated that the girl whom he had brought was none other than an adventuress trying to bring about her ruin.
The king sat down and thought very hard for a long time. But at length he resolved to allow the two claimants to settle their dispute by a personal combat. He therefore ordered two swords to be brought. The false queen quickly selected the sharper one of the two while, the other, relying upon the justness of her case, took up the blunter weapon without any murmur. Then the fight began. By some mysterious cause the assaults of the false queen made no impression whatever on her opponent. On the other hand a well directed blow from the true queen pierced the breast of the ogress’s daughter and killed her outright. Thus was the king convinced that she who survived the terrible ordeal was his true wife and with due ceremony she was once again installed as his rightful queen.
When the day’s festivities were over the king ordered the body of the false queen to be cut up into bits. The pieces were then preserved in a large jar of fermented liquor. After a few days the jar was sealed and then sent to the ogress with the compliments from the king. When the former received it she was highly pleased and openly boasted to her neighbors on the advantages of having a king for a son-in-law. When the hour for dinner came she opened the jar and took out a piece to eat with her curry. But her observant younger daughter quickly remarked in alarm. “Oh mother! Just look at it carefully. Doesn’t it resemble the finger of my sister?” “Nonsense child, you must be dreaming. What absurd ideas do get into your head!” so saying she calmly went on with her dinner. When another piece was brought out the young girl again exclaimed, “Do look mother this is surely my sister’s foot. I well remember the position of this is peculiar scar she had on it.” Again the mother scolded her for her fancies and ordered her to be silent. On the third occasion the preserve being very tasty, a large piece was brought out. This time the girl jumped up and cried, “Oh mother this is surely my sister’s head. See the arrangement of the hair and earrings she always wore while with us.” Hearing these words the ogress became dumb with astonishment. She knew it to be a human head but owing to the presence of other ingredients she could not quite distinguish the features at first. She hastily brought some water and watched the face. Then she became convinced that the face she was looking at was none other than that of Kret Chi Mai her own daughter. Need I tell what happened the ogress after that? What does every mother feel when a beloved child of her dies? Even so the wicked ogress felt; but in her case the grief and shock was so great that she died in a very short time. Thus was virtue rewarded while sin and wickedness met the just punishment which always pursues those who are its votaries.
(Verse by G.H. Luce)