From the archives, written June 2015 - My grandmother reads as much as I do, and often asks for book suggestions. You can imagine the dark and dreary titles I recommend (ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror, Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, and Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms, for example). I write about depressing things, too, she says. To put my mind on cheerier topics, she recently sent me a picture of one of her sewing projects - colorful hen pincushions with white lace tails - and asked me to write a story about them. The longer explanation is that my cousin, who lives and works in Africa, is getting married this summer. She brought fabric from Nairobi, Kenya, from which my grandmother made the pincushions. As such, the story was to be about marriage and fertility and should not be sad. After doing some research on Kenya, I tried my hand at folktale writing. My first attempt at the genre is below.
Over five million years ago, a length of time we can hardly fathom, a volcano higher than the Himalaya spewed lava and ash and gas from the center of the earth. Sitting just south of the equator, this powerful volcano called Kiinyaa was more volatile and dangerous than the people had ever known. Life along the fault line was nasty, brutish, and short, and tales of death and destruction were passed down from generation to generation. Yet in the face of this dark reality, stories of courage and heroism were also inherited and passed down through the ages. It was said that during periods of quiet, when the volcano stood still, intrepid tribesmen would climb the rocky edifice in an attempt to reach the summit and peer into the dark abyss.
Many attempted and most failed, but one tribesman lived to tell his tale. He reported demons and spirits and truly horrible creatures from the deep, but the bit of his story that survived in meticulous detail involves a curious pattern of rocks interspersed between the debris at the summit. They were rocks of red and yellow and green and blue, arranged in such a way as to resemble the plumage of colorful birds. The tribesman called these multi-colored rock formations hens, because that seemed the closest approximation. They were a sign, legend has it, that life in the shadow of the volcano would continue and the sun would shine radiant again.
Eventually Kiinyaa became extinct and no longer spewed molten ash. Two periods of glaciation followed, and the peak of the great mountain was covered in an ice cap. A new generation of explorers discovered different anomalies of nature that they recorded and passed down to their children. Chief among these discoveries were the intricate crystalline patterns in the ice that looked like lattices and webs. These patterns were said to represent the delicate nature of human life, and were evidence of the existence of a greater power.
The majestic ice cap slowly eroded the mountain, and new peaks and valleys were formed. Life-giving streams began to flow down the jagged sides, and deep pools formed in the molten craters. These rivers and lakes brought new life to the region, and nourished habitation for generations to come. And quite unlike other tribes on the African continent, the people of the volcano multiplied exponentially and grew prosperous. They began to build their houses with doors and windows facing the mountain, for they attributed the blessing of abundant life to the ancient volcano and the sacrifices of their ancestors.
In the years to come, every bride of the village received a curious looking bird figurine on the day before her wedding with an instruction to tell the story of those who came before. This is what they remembered and passed on, the enduring legend of the wedding hen:
We are the brave people of the volcano who survived under its terror for decades. Intrepid explorers climbed the mountain to stare evil in the eye and to find signs of hope, and when they reached the top they found rocks of many colors, formed like hens, a sign that the sun would shine again. Then came the cold, but with it the intricate latticed patterns of ice that reminded the people of the fragility and beauty of life. Our story transcends time and place and extends to all people. These hens symbolize the warmth of the sun in their colorful plumage and the frailty and beauty of life in their lace tails. Count the number of pins in your hen. That is the number of children you will be blessed with, times two. Now you must also go and share our story.