THE SYMBOLIC LIFE (Winter 2019)
In the beginning of the world, there was no sun in the sky. Everyone was falling into holes, bumping into one another, and picking a lot of fights. Lion called a meeting of all the people. They jostled and bickered with one another for a long time before Crocodile finally got their attention.
“Listen, people!!” said Crocodile. “If we’re going to solve our problems, we’ve got to admit that despite our differences, we’re all in this together.” Antelope broke the sober silence that followed Crocodile’s words.
“Harambee (Swahili for “pull together”), she said. “We’ve got to pull together.” Then Leopard began the problem solving.
“Sometimes when it rains,” he suggested, “the sky cracks open. You know how you can see a blaze of light on the other side of the crack? If only we could get to the other side of the sky and get some of that light for ourselves!”
Hyena laughed. “How are we supposed to get up there?” she asked.
“Even if we could get up there, we’re too big to get through the crack,” Elephant pointed out.
Mouse nudged Spider and tapped Fly’s wing. “We’re not too big,” she whispered. Then in a loud voice she offered, “Spider, Fly, and I will try.”
The big animals cheered. “And we’ll stay right here and make music for you until you return,” announced Lion.
Spider spun a silver ladder to the top of the sky. Mouse and Fly climbed carefully after her. With her sharp little teeth, Mouse gnawed a hole in the sky at the end of the ladder and the three small animals squeezed themselves through to the land of the Sky People. The Sky People questioned their strange visitors and then took Mouse, Fly, and Spider to their king. Now the king of the Sky People did not want to give these strangers light. But he also did not wish to appear stingy.
“This is not a small matter,” he said. “I must call a meeting.” Spider, Mouse, and Fly watched as the Sky People gathered behind the folds of a big tent. Fly winked at his companions, then flew toward the secret council. The people inside never noticed Fly, who had taken a place very quietly on the wall.
“We can’t give these people light,” said the king. “We’ll give them a test instead. They won’t be able to pass it—and then I can have them killed.”
Fly flew quickly to Spider and Mouse. “He’s going to try to kill us,” Fly whispered.
“Friends,” said the king to the three small animals. “My people need grass for their roofs. You may have light if––and only if––you cut down all the grass in this field by morning.” The king smiled smugly.
Mouse smiled back. “Thank you for your generosity, oh King. We will do it.”
“What do you mean, ‘we’ll do it’?” cried, Fly, when the king had gone away. “We’re never going to be able to cut all that grass.”
Mouse thought for a moment. “Yes!” she said. “Harambee! I’ll be right back. Soon she returned in the company of the Ants. “Harambee!” yelled the queen of the Ants, and by morning not a single stalk of grass stood in the field.
“Ah,” the king said. “Yes. Well, I see you’ve passed the first test. But now, of course, you must pass another. I will kill a cow. And you must eat all the meat by morning.” The Sky People brought basket after basket of freshly roasted meat.
“Thank you for your generosity, good people,” said Spider. Fly buzzed with anticipation.
“But even I can’t eat all that,” he said sadly, when the Sky People had gone away.
“The big animals could in a second,” said Mouse.
“Yeah, but how are they supposed to get up here?” asked Spider.
“Hey! I’ve got an idea!” said Mouse. Mouse dug long tunnels in the ground. Fly and Spider helped Mouse bury the meat in the tunnels. In the morning, not one scrap of meat lay in the baskets. Fly, Spider, and Mouse thanked the king for the delicious feast.
The king did not look happy, but he managed to smile.
“Congratulations,” he said. “since you’ve passed the second test, I must call another meeting.”
Spider and Mouse waited outside while Fly once again took his silent place on the wall.
The king was furious. “These little people are strong,” he fumed. “I can see we’re going to have to give them light. But I’m going to make it hard for them”
Fly buzzed back and told his friends the king’s plan. “He’s got two boxes,” explained Fly. “The black one has darkness in it. The red box has light. He’s going to make us pick.”
Just then, the king burst through the curtain with the two boxes.
“You must choose,” he said.
Mouse pretended to think. “Hmmm,” she said. Then, quickly, before the king could change his mind, she grabbed the red box and raced for the hole in the sky. Mouse, Spider, and Fly plunged down the silver ladder into the waiting, music-making crowd below.
“We’ve pulled together––all of us,” Mouse said in her loudest voice. “And we’ve brought you light––in this box!”
But out of the box came not light at all. Instead, Rooster jumped out of the box. Mouse felt her cheeks grow hot. Rooster was not light! She had been tricked by the Sky King! The people began to protest. At that moment, Rooster threw back his head.
“Ha-ha-ha-ram-beeeee!” he called out. “Ha-ha-ha-ram-beeeee!” At once the eastern sky filled with color. Pink and yellow it glowed, and then the sun popped fiery red into the sky.
That’s how it was on that very first golden, pull-together morning. And Rooster has been calling up the sun for all of us ever since––“Ha-ha-ha-ram-beeeee!”
Adapted from “The Pull-Together Morning” story from the Sukuma in Tanzania told in The Return of the Light: Twelves Tales from Around the World for the Winter Solstice by Carolyn McVickar Edwards.
Editor: Steve Galipeau