An adaptation of a Hmong folklore
A long time ago, Sky Mother watched over the creatures of earth. One day, news of her passing spread throughout the world, and one of every creature in existence journeyed to attend her funeral on behalf of their kind.
On the way to the home of Sky Mother, which was a floating paradise in the clouds, a great hornbill with its bright yellow and black casque on top of its massive bill, spotted a brownish-green turtle traveling on a rocky path carved into a high mountain. If it weren’t for its wrinkled skin folding in places at the limbs with every step, the turtle could have been mistaken for a moving rock. The great hornbill’s shadow covered the slow-moving turtle and upon seeing the yellow-beaked bird, the turtle shouted up, “If you carry me to Sky Mother’s funeral, I’ll teach you what to say while mourning her.”
The great hornbill swooped down and lowered its head to the small, wrinkled turtle. The poor turtle couldn’t hold on to the large bird’s feathers with its short claws, so instead, the turtle gathered a few black feathers between its beak-like mouth and held on tightly at the back of the hornbill.
As the great hornbill took flight, a human with a woven basket saw them and was confused by the sight of these two creatures together in such a strange manner. The human wondered out loud, “Why is that hornbill carrying a turtle?”
In wanting to further confuse the human, the turtle managed to speak to the great hornbill through its stuffed mouth, “You tell the human that the turtle is carrying the hornbill.” But on the last words, the turtle lost its hold on the feathers and fell to earth, landing in a ditch along the path.
The great hornbill was far away before noticing the turtle was no longer on its back.
Soon, the human had reached the path where the turtle was still struggling to climb out of the ditch.
The turtle quickly called out, “Human, carry me!” The shame from the turtle’s foolishness earlier made the already small creature feel even smaller, but it was determined to see Sky Mother one last time.
The human was slightly surprised by the small voice coming from the ditch, and even more so when the little wrinkling creature looked like the same turtle that the great hornbill was carrying. However, most turtles looked alike; short lizards with saggy skin.
“Carry me to Sky Mother’s funeral and I’ll teach you what to say while mourning her. If you know how to mourn her well, she will bless you well.”
It sounded like a good deal to the human who answered, “Yes.” The human picked up the turtle with both hands and placed the small reptile into the basket.
After what seemed like a long steep climb, they finally arrived on the floating paradise. The turtle peaked from the rim of the basket to see thousands of creatures gathering to honor Sky Mother. They were patiently awaiting among the long line of guests to be let into a private room where Sky Mother laid.
The turtle whispered to the human, “When it’s our turn to see Sky Mother, and however I mourn her, you must repeat the same words I say.”
“Yes, I’ll do that,” replied the human.
When the time came for their turn, the human and the turtle were led into a peculiar room where the moon hung at one end and the sun shined at the other. Sky Mother laid on a bed of feathers, flowers, and stars. Her glowing eyes were closed letting just the thinnest line of light through her lashes, her cheeks blushed pink like her lips, and her long black hair shimmered with star dust. Even in death, Sky Mother’s beauty remained.
“Sky Mother, while alive, you were so kindhearted and generous. That is why we all ate well and lived well,” mourned the turtle.
The human repeated the turtle’s words, which sounded sincere and well spoken.
“What will we do now that you are gone? With your death, we will all fall into despair. We might go hungry. We might become slaves to others.”
Again, the human spoke as the turtle did; word for word.
The turtle cried, “We want Sky Mother to be with us. Sky Mother who is kindhearted and generous, so that we may continue to live well. We want Sky Mother alive and well.”
Suddenly, Sky Mother raised from the bed of feathers, flowers, and stars. Her eyes opened, glowing like the first morning light. “Human and turtle are kind.”
The shock of Sky Mother’s miraculous recovery from death quickly settled and turned into joy for both the human and turtle.
Sky Mother explained that she sent out false news of her death and funeral to test the creatures on earth in order to bless them accordingly, and that her words would manifest into reality for each of them when they returned home. Having overheard everything, Sky Mother knew that the recent loving words of mourning originated from the turtle. So, she created a shell to cover the turtle, and she called it a forever home for the gentle creature; a place where the turtle could always retrieve into and shelter from the sun, rain, cold, and danger. The turtle was overjoyed to be able to carry this new home wherever it would go.
Then, Sky Mother said to the human, “As you return to earth, may humans grow old and shed their skin, while snakes grow old and die.”
The human graciously accepted the blessing, which was extending the lifespan of men. Shortly after leaving Sky Mother’s home, the human and turtle parted ways. Both filled with honor and glee, repeating their blessings out loud so the words would manifest when they reached home.
On the journey back to earth, the human was met with a crossroad where they saw a stripped tiger approaching from another direction. The closer the tiger grew, the larger it appeared with its golden fur and black stripes. Long, pearly fangs poked out from the tiger’s wide mouth as it spoke loudly, “Nine cubs in one year.” The tiger then proudly repeated, “Nine cubs in one year,” nearly letting out a roar of excitement.
Terrified, the human said, “How could the tiger have nine cubs in one year? Tigers are dangerous beasts. Nine in one year? There will be so many of them, and they’ll eat all of our livestock. What if they attack us? What will we do?” Overwhelmed with worry, the human panicked, “What should I do?”
A bird flapped into the human’s path at the opportune moment. This bird was smaller than a chicken and couldn’t fully take flight into the air, only leaping from rock to rock; it was known as a land bird. “I can help you,” sang the land bird.
“How can you help me?” asked the human, surprised by the small land bird’s swift offer.
“I’ll hide and scare the tiger once it approaches,” twitted the land bird, appearing clever with a confident posture.
The human nodded to the land bird with gratitude, and then they went their separate ways.
As the tiger continued on the path to its home on earth, it repeated the blessing from Sky Mother, “Nine in one year. Nine in one year. Nine in one year,” carefree and oblivious to anything else.
The land bird flapped into the tiger’s face in a noisy chaotic way that scared the large cat onto its back. Both creatures briefly looked at one another with blank expressions.
The tiger considered the small land bird to be of no threat. “What was I saying?” asked the tiger, suddenly remembering that there was something quite important, but unable to recall what exactly it was.
“You were saying, one in nine years.” The land bird sang, “One in nine years. One in nine years.”
The tiger got up on all four paws and said, “One in nine years,” the beast thought that sounded right and then went on its way repeating, “One in nine years.”
Meanwhile, the human was on a separate path on earth and cheerfully singing, “Humans grow old and shed their skin, while snakes grow old and die.”
The snake king was nearby and overheard the troubling words from the human. “Snakes grow old and die?” feared the snake king.
As the human drew closer to the giant rocks along the path, the snake king stayed hidden and shouted with a mighty voice, “Snakes grow old and shed their skin, while humans grow old and die.”
Rattled, the human lost all train of thought. “I don’t remember what I was saying.” The human wondered, “Was that my echo? Did I say, snakes grow old and shed their skin, while humans grow old and die?” Onward, the human walked.
As the snake king snuck away, the human caught sight of the giant, scaly creature, but didn’t give it a second thought.
Once the human finally made their way home, the old humans were dying. The human knew this was not the original blessing from Sky Mother and became furious. It must have been the work of the devious snake king that the human spotted on the way home. Humans learned of this truth and were filled with so much anger that man became enemies with the snake king and its slithering kind. Upon seeing snakes, humans would attack them, fearing the snakes would harm them first. If a human and a snake crossed paths, there would always be a conflict. And if the snake lives, the sly creature would later return with vengeance to find and destroy the human.
Henceforth, snakes were considered dangerous and evil.
Art by Bao Xiong