This is an interesting and unusual story. It starts off as something we feel familiar with, but the ending is a real surprise. we often talk about how our own folk tales have been sweetened for the Nursery since the Brother’s Grimm – but this sort of thing makes me wonder if the Grimm’s didn’t make the steories they heard a little more palatable for 19C tastes as well …
Unlike many of the stories told to me by street children, this one has something at the end that was almost always there with stories told to me by people in families – the lesson at the end. “What can we learn from this?” was a phrase I heard so often, and then the story would be plundered for lessons. I think people often tried to find as many lessons in the story as they possibly could – I could imagine a competition for who could find the most at storytime. Perhaps that’s why many of them read so much like fables.
Many thanks to Henoch, who passed this story on to me.
A boy and his mother were walking in the woods, collecting food to sell in the market, when they were attacked by a lions. The boy bravely fought the lion and managed to scare it away, but as he did so another lion came from behind and seized his mother in its jaws. He turned and ran at it, and scarred that one away too – but it was too late. His mother was already dead.
Sadly, he took her body away and buried her. Now he had nothing in the world except his own self.
After the funeral, he went to visit her grave. “Mother,” he said. “Without you I have nothing. I can’t even get any money from working in the woods any more because I don’t have your skills.”
A voice from the grave spoke to him.
“In the desert there is a dead tree. You must find that tree and dig in the sand underneath. You will find buried under the sand some cups, a great many of them, some very fine and grand, some very poor. But one cup and one cup only will have a mosquito flying around it. You must take that cup and bring it home. That will help you on your way in life.”
The boy knew that tree; he and his mother used to pass by it sometimes on their way to the city to sell the berries and grubs they collected in the wood. He went straight there and dug under the tree, deeper and deeper, until at last he began to uncover the cups. He dusted the sand off them with his hands, and at once, from one of the cups, a tiny little insect flew; the mosquito his mother had told him about. It flew round and round the cup it had been buried with, an old cup, chipped and dirty and made out of cheap pottery.
The boy was disappointed. He wondered why on earth he had to take such a cheap cup when there were so many other better cups about. He would get hardly any money for that one – he wasn’t even sure he wanted to drink out of it himself, with that mosquito buzzing around it all the time. He told himself that surely his mother must have made a mistake – dead people can get it wrong too. So he took another cup instead, a big, fine, two handled cup that he was sure he could sell for a lot of money.
He picked the cup up – but inside it, something was crawling. With a shout of surprise he dropped it, and as he watched, a small tawny creature crawled out. As it came out of the cup it grew bigger, and bigger and bigger, until before him stood a ferocious lion. The boy jumped away adndclimbed up to the top of the dead tree just in time to save his life. The lion spent hours prowling around the bottom of the tree before it got tired of waiting for him and left.
The boy climbed down the tree and ran home as fast as he could. That night, his mother’s ghost appeared to him in a dream.
“Stupid boy! What did I tell you? You never listed while I was alive and now you don’t listen while I am dead; but this time you must listen. Go back and this time take the cup with the mosquito, like I said!”
The ghost disappeared. The next day, very frightened and even more foolish, the boy went back to the dead tree, and this time he did as he was told, and took the cracked dirty cup with the mosquito buzzing around. That mosquito followed him all the way home, until he was fed up with it buzzing round; but he didn’t dare squash it. Back at home he looked at the cup – and saw that it was full of money. The cup wasn’t very big, but there was enough money in there for the boy to buy himself some pigs. He looked after his pigs carefully, breed them and sold them on and increased his herd until at last, after a number of years, he became rich.
Nw that he had his fortune, the boy began to think about other things in life. He went back to his mother’s grave and told her he wanted to find himself a wife. At once, the ghost of his mother was by his side, looking sadly at him.
“In Kinshasa there is a good wife, and I shall help you find her. Go home; I will come to you in a dream and tell you what to do.”
The boy, a young man now, went home and did as his mother told him. And just as she had said, she came to him in a dream, looking beautiful and young, just as he remembered her in life.
Go to Kinshasa, go to the river and walk upstream. As you leave the city behind you will come to place on the river where there are coffins floating, many coffins, some rich, some poor. If you see a grand coffin, do not take it; but if you see one with a mosquito flying around it, you must take that one. Inside, you will find your wife.”
This was even more scary than the dead tree; and the boy was not so sure about finding a wife inside a coffin. But his mother had looked after him when he was a boy, and when he was a man so perhaps she would look after just as well now that he was ready to marry. He went to Kinshasa and walked upstream, and soon he came to the place his mother had told him about. There were dozens of coffins floating on the water, jostling about and rattling together. The boy was terrified and wanted to run away, but he heard his mother’s ghost whisper in his ear; “Be strong.” So he tightened up his courage, and went up to the coffins to look among them for the mosque.
Some of them were very grand; but this time the boy had learn his lesson, and he searched carefully until he had found the one with a mosquito bussing around it. He dragged that coffin, a very poor one, out of the water. On the shore, he broke the coffin open – and out stepped a beautiful young woman, who at once threw her arms around him and vowed to be his forever, because he had rescued her
Well, the young man was pretty worried about all this. She was beautiful all right, but she came out of a coffin. He asked her how she got there, but she shook her head and wouldn’t say. But his mother had looked after him all his life, even from beyond the grave, so he took her home and looked after her. He soon found out that the beautiful lady knew everything about him – what he liked and what he didn’t like, what sort of food he enjoyed, what made him laugh, what made him happy. He couldn’t imagine getting anyone better for himself. Soon, her thanking his mother everyday for finding such a wife for him, and soon enough he asked her to marry him.
The time for the ceremony came. Dressed so fine, the beautiful girl and he went to the church; but when they arrive there, she would not go inside.
“I want to be married outside,” she said. “What is wrong with that?”
The priest was not happy about it, but he agreed and went ahead with the ceremony; but something dreadful happened when he began to pray. The bride began to writhe and moan. The more he prayed, the louder her cries became. The young man begged the priest to stop, but the priest did not stop. If she couldn’t bear to hear a prayer, what did that mean? On he went, and by the time he arched the Amen, the beautiful girl drooped to the floor – stone dead. Now that she was dead she began to change back to her own shape. Her beautiful face grew old and then decayed, her body withered and her flesh shrank away from her bones, until all that was left was just bones and clothes. But the boy knew those clothes – they were the clothes his mother had been buried in.
His mother had loved him dearly, and helped him in his life after her death; but she could not face him marrying, because she thought that another woman would mistreat her son.
What can we learn from this story? Many things. That a mother’s love is good for some things but not others; that a mother can love her son but still be bad for him; that she can overstep her place in her children’s lives. We learn that the dead are not always as sensible as the living; and of course, that a mother will love her children even beyond the grave.