A Zemi Folktale collected by Ursula Graham

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.”

NOTE.
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.