— Oral tradition delivers life lessons

‘Bellbird and fox’ is but one of culture’s tales. By Sara Hayden. Published in the Half Moon Bay Review on December 13th, 2017.

There was no electricity, but on Tekakwitha M. Pernambuco-Wise’s grandparents’ ranch in British Guiana, dark nights burned bright with candles and fireside chats. This was how her elders imparted life lessons. The Sea Crest head of school comes from the Wapishana tribe among whom stories and language are not written but spoken.

Some were pithy and poignant. “Hard work never killed anyone,” stands out in her memory, as does, “Today is a new day. Whatever mistakes I made yesterday are in the past,” which she shares with the students who end up in her office. Others are lengthy and illustrative, filled with twists, turns and colorful characters — often tricksters. All have a nugget of wisdom to glean.

“These are entertaining stories about how you can get through life, and they’re done in a very child-centered way,” Pernambuco-Wise said.

Here is a retelling of a classic tale from her family. She first heard it from her grandfather, and now her father relays it to his grandchildren.

“He is a gifted storyteller and makes many sound effects … and so we never tire of his stories,” Pernambuco-Wise said.

She recently shared it by memory, adding that there’s a lesson in it fit for a contemporary audience.

“I think about the internet and influences children have in their lives today,” Pernambuco-Wise said. “The message really of (this) story is not to be easily lured or easily fooled.”

You’ll have to help us out with our attempt to retell it here. We’ll do our best to share the spirit of the story in the newspaper, but we can’t quite capture the sound effects, voices and gestures that accompany an oral tradition, or even the intimate feeling of sharing a story in person. Feel free to add these details yourself.

“Why the Pigeon Lays Only One Egg and the Bellbird Lives in the Bush Instead of in the Savannah”

(As told to the Half Moon Bay Review by Tekakwitha M. Pernambuco-Wise. Story has been edited for clarity.)

One day, the fox was walking through the savannah when he spotted a pigeon. She was home high up in a tree, protecting the eggs she sat on.

Now, the fox is a very cunning animal. Hungry, he hatched a plan. He straightened his tail until it looked like a cutlass and then shouted to get the pigeon’s attention.

“Drop down one of your eggs because, if you don’t, I’m going to use my cutlass to cut down your tree!” he warned.

The pigeon cowered at the sight of the cutlass and considered her options. If the fox cut down the tree, she would lose all of her eggs. She heeded the fox’s threat and dropped down just one of her eggs. Egg in mouth, the fox proudly skulked away.

This happened again and again and again.

“Drop down one of your eggs because if you don’t, I’m going to use my cutlass to cut down your tree!” the fox would shout.

Soon, only the pigeon’s last egg remained.

The mother pigeon started to cry. A “wacucu” — bellbird — flew by and took notice of her.

“Why are you crying?” the bellbird asked.

The pigeon sniffled. “This fox came by. He has this instrument, this knife — a cutlass. And he said if I don’t give him my eggs he’ll cut down my tree with it.”

The bellbird, who was brilliant and smart, shook her head. She’d seen that fox scamper away, no weapon in sight. “You silly bird! He has no such instrument as a cutlass!” she exclaimed. “Next time he comes, tell him exactly what I tell you — but don’t tell him I told you this …”

The bellbird divulged her plan, and the pigeon agreed to follow through with it.

Sure enough, the fox returned.

“Drop down one of your eggs because if you don’t, I’m going to use my cutlass to cut down your tree!” he warned.

The pigeon was unruffled and laughed. “I won’t give you my only egg,” she declared, following the bellbird’s plan. “You don’t have a cutlass … Only a fluffy tail.”

The fox’s tail fell. “Who told you this?” he snarled.

“Nobody told me this. I thought of this myself,” the pigeon replied, as the bellbird had instructed.

This couldn’t possibly be true — the pigeon was not clever enough to figure this out on her own. The fox could tell she was lying. With a gleam in his eye, he decided to try another tack. He had his suspicions. “It was the bellbird, wasn’t it?” he said.

“Yes,” said the pigeon, taken aback.

“Aha!” The fox ran fast in search of his new prey, leaving the pigeon alone with her last egg.

The bellbird loves to bathe, so the fox knew where he’d find her. At the river running through the savannah, he grabbed her in his mouth to eat her.

“Wait, Mr. Fox,” the bellbird quickly said. “When my feathers are wet, I’m poisonous. Wait until I’m dry.”

The fox obliged and the bellbird hopped over to the river’s bank under the trees and frantically flapped her wings.

“What are you doing?” the fox asked.

“I’m flapping to help my feathers dry,” the pigeon explained. “Then you can eat me.”

But, of course, as soon as the bellbird’s wings were dry, she flew away.

Now the fox was really mad. How had the cunning fox been fooled?

It was only a matter of time before the bellbird came down from her tree to bathe at the river again. This time, the fox knew that her feathers weren’t poisonous, and had no hesitation in catching her once more.

“This time I’m really going to eat you,” the fox mumbled through his full jaws.

“Wait, Mr. Fox,” the bellbird cut in. “Parade through the village first. There will be many children who will be excited to see you’ve caught a bellbird.”

The fox was a prideful creature and so he agreed.

The children screamed in excitement as the bellbird had promised.

“Look at the fox, look at the fox! He has a bellbird in his mouth!” they cried.

“Oh, yeah!” the fox shouted proudly. The fox, so full of himself, realized too late that his jaws were suddenly empty. His mouth had opened wide to gloat, freeing the bellbird.

This time, she flew far from the savannah and headed directly to the bush. She knew the fox would never follow because he feared the predators, bigger than he, who lurked there.

The brilliant bellbird had outsmarted the cunning fox, once and for all.

And that is why the pigeon lays only one egg, and the bellbird lives in the bush instead of in the savannah.

 

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