The Poor Turkey Girl
Native American (Zuni)
Long, long ago, our ancients had neither sheep nor horses nor cattle; yet they had domestic animals of various kinds — amongst them turkeys.
In Mátsake, or the Salt City, there dwelt at this time many very wealthy families, who possessed large flocks of these birds, which it was their custom to have their slaves or the poor people of the town herd in the plains round about Thunder Mountain, below which their town stood, and on the mesas beyond.
Now, in Mátsake at this time there stood, away out near the border of the town, a little tumble-down, single-room house, wherein there lived alone a very poor girl, — so poor that her clothes were patched and tattered and dirty, and her person, on account of long neglect and ill-fare, shameful to look upon, though she herself was not ugly, but had a winning face and bright eyes; that is, if the face had been more oval and the eyes less oppressed with care.
So poor was she that she herded turkeys for a living; and little was given to her except the food she subsisted on from day to day, and perhaps now and then a piece of old, worn-out clothing.
Like the extremely poor everywhere and at all times, she was humble, and by her longing for kindness, which she never received, she was made kind even to the creatures that depended upon her, and lavished this kindness upon the turkeys she drove to and from the plains every day. Thus, the turkeys, appreciating this, were very obedient. They loved their mistress so much that at her call they would unhesitatingly come, or at her behest go whithersoever and whensoever she wished.
One day this poor girl, driving her turkeys down into the plains, passed near Old Zuni, — the Middle Ant Hill of the World, as our ancients have taught us to call our home, — and as she went along, she heard the herald-priest proclaiming from the housetop that the Dance of the Sacred Bird (which is a very blessed and welcome festival to our people, especially to the youths and maidens who are permitted to join in the dance) would take place in four days.
Now, this poor girl had never been permitted to join in or even to watch the great festivities of our people or the people in the neighboring towns, and naturally she longed very much to see this dance. But she put aside her longing, because she reflected: “It is impossible that I should watch, much less join in the Dance of the Sacred Bird, ugly and ill-clad as I am.”
And thus musing to herself, and talking to her turkeys, as was her custom, she drove them on, and at night returned them to their cages round the edges and in the plazas of the town.
Every day after that, until the day named for the dance, this poor girl, as she drove her turkeys out in the morning, saw the people busy in cleaning and preparing their garments, cooking delicacies, and otherwise making ready for the festival to which they had been duly invited by the other villagers, and heard them talking and laughing merrily at the prospect of the coming holiday. So, as she went about with her turkeys through the day, she would talk to them, though she never dreamed that they understood a word of what she was saying.
It seems that they did understand even more than she said to them, for on the fourth day, after the people of Mátsake had all departed toward Zuni, and the girl was wandering around the plains alone with her turkeys, one of the big gobblers strutted up to her, and making a fan of his tail, and skirts, as it were, of his wings, blushed with pride and puffed with importance, stretched out his neck and said: “Maiden mother, we know what your thoughts are, and truly we pity you, and wish that, like the other people of Mátsake, you might enjoy this holiday in the town below. We have said to ourselves at night, after you have placed us safely and comfortably in our cages: ‘Truly our maiden mother is as worthy to enjoy these things as any one in Mátsake, or even Zuni.’ Now, listen well, for I speak the speech of all the elders of my people: If you will drive us in early this afternoon, when the dance is most gay and the people are most happy, we will help you to make yourself so handsome and so prettily dressed that never a man, woman, or child amongst all those who are assembled at the dance will know you; but rather, especially the young men, will wonder whence you came, and long to lay hold of your hand in the circle that forms round the altar to dance. Maiden mother, would you like to go to see this dance, and even to join in it, and be merry with the best of your people?”
The poor girl was at first surprised. Then it seemed all so natural that the turkeys should talk to her as she did to them, that she sat down on a little mound, and, leaning over, looked at them and said: “My beloved turkeys, how glad I am that we may speak together! But why should you tell me of things that you full well know I so long to, but cannot by any possible means, do?”
“Trust in us,” said the old gobbler, “for I speak the speech of my people, and when we begin to call and call and gobble and gobble, and turn toward our home in Mátsake, do you follow us, and we will show you what we can do for you. Only let me tell you one thing: No one knows how much happiness and good fortune may come to you if you but enjoy temperately the pleasures we enable you to participate in. But if, in the excess of your enjoyment, you should forget us, who are your friends, yet so much depend upon you, then we will think: ‘Behold, this our maiden mother, though so humble and poor, deserves, forsooth, her hard life, because, were she more prosperous, she would be unto others as others now are unto her.'”
“Never fear, O my turkeys,” cried the maiden, — only half trusting that they could do so much for her, yet longing to try, — “never fear. In everything you direct me to do I will be obedient as you always have been to me.”
The sun had scarce begun to decline, when the turkeys of their own accord turned homeward, and the maiden followed them, light of heart. They knew their places well, and immediately ran to them. When all had entered, even their bare-legged children, the old gobbler called to the maiden, saying: “Enter our house.”
She therefore went in.
“Now, maiden, sit down,” said he, “and give to me and my companions, one by one, your articles of clothing. We will see if we cannot renew them.”
The maiden obediently drew off the ragged old mantle that covered her shoulders and cast it on the ground before the speaker. He seized it in his beak, and spread it out, and picked and picked at it; then he trod upon it, and lowering his wings, began to strut back and forth over it. Then taking it up in his beak, and continuing to strut, he puffed and puffed, and laid it down at the feet of the maiden, a beautiful white embroidered cotton mantle. Then another gobbler came forth, and she gave him another article of dress, and then another and another, until each garment the maiden had worn was new and as beautiful as any possessed by her mistresses in Mátsake.
Before the maiden donned all these garments, the turkeys circled about her, singing and singing, and clucking and clucking, and brushing her with their wings, until her person was as clean and her skin as smooth and bright as that of the fairest maiden of the wealthiest home in Mátsake. Her hair was soft and wavy, instead of being an ugly, sun-burnt shock; her cheeks were full and dimpled, and her eyes dancing with smiles, — for she now saw how true had been the words of the turkeys.
Finally, one old turkey came forward and said: “Only the rich ornaments worn by those who have many possessions are lacking to thee, O maiden mother. Wait a moment. We have keen eyes, and have gathered many valuable things, — as such things, being small, though precious, are apt to be lost from time to time by men and maidens.”
Spreading his wings, he trod round and round upon the ground, throwing his head back, and laying his wattled beard on his neck; and, presently beginning to cough, he produced in his beak a beautiful necklace; another turkey brought forth earrings, and so on, until all the proper ornaments appeared, befitting a well-clad maiden of the olden days, and were laid at the feet of the poor turkey girl.
With these beautiful things she decorated herself, and, thanking the turkeys over and over, she started to go, and they called out: “O maiden mother, leave open the wicket, for who knows whether you will remember your turkeys or not when your fortunes are changed, and if you will not grow ashamed that you have been the maiden mother of turkeys? But we love you, and would bring you to good fortune. Therefore, remember our words of advice, and do not tarry too long.”
“I will surely remember, O my Turkeys!” answered the maiden.
Hastily she sped away down the river path to ward Zuni. When she arrived there, she went in at the western side of the town and through one of the long covered ways that lead into the dance court. When she came just inside of the court, behold, everyone began to look at her, and many murmurs ran through the crowd, — murmurs of astonishment at her beauty and the richness of her dress, – and the people were all asking one another, “Whence comes this beautiful maiden?”
Not long did she stand there neglected. The chiefs of the dance, all gorgeous in their holiday attire, hastily came to her, and, with apologies for the incompleteness of their arrangements, — though these arrangements were as complete as they possibly could be, — invited her to join the youths and maidens dancing round the musicians and the altar in the center of the plaza. With a blush and a smile and a toss of her hair over her eyes, the maiden stepped into the circle, and the finest youths among the dancers vied with one another for her hand. Her heart became light and her feet merry, and the music sped her breath to rapid coming and going, and the warmth swept over her face, and she danced and danced until the sun sank low in the west.
But, alas! In the excess of her enjoyment, she thought not of her turkeys, or, if she thought of them, she said to herself, “How is this, that I should go away from the most precious consideration to my flock of gobbling turkeys? I will stay a while longer, and just before the sun sets I will run back to them, that these people may not see who I am, and that I may have the joy of hearing them talk day after day and wonder who the girl was who joined in their dance.”
So the time sped on, and another dance was called, and another, and never a moment did the people let her rest; but they would have her in every dance as they moved around the musicians and the altar in the center of the plaza.
At last the sun set, and the dance was well-nigh over, when, suddenly breaking away, the girl ran out, and, being swift of foot, — more so than most of the people of her village, — she sped up the river path before any one could follow the course she had taken.
Meantime, as it grew late, the turkeys began to wonder and wonder that their maiden mother did not return to them. At last a gray old gobbler mournfully exclaimed, “It is as we might have expected. She has forgotten us; therefore is she not worthy of better things than those she has been accustomed to. Let us go forth to the mountains and endure no more of this irksome captivity, inasmuch as we may no longer think our maiden mother as good and true as once we thought her.”
So, calling and calling to one another in loud voices, they trooped out of their cage and ran up toward the Canyon of the Cottonwoods, and then round behind Thunder Mountain, through the Gateway of Zuni, and so on up the valley.
All breathless, the maiden arrived at the open wicket and looked in. Behold, not a turkey was there! Trailing them, she ran and she ran up the valley to overtake them; but they were far ahead, and it was only after a long time that she came within the sound of their voices, and then, redoubling her speed, well-nigh overtook them, when she heard them singing this song :
Up the river, to! to!
Up the river, to! to!
Sing ye ye!
Up the river, to! to!
Up the river, to! to!
Sing yee huli huli!
Oh, our maiden mother
To the Middle Place
To dance went away;
Therefore as she lingers,
To the Canyon Mesa
And the plains above it
We all run away!
Sing ye yee huli huli,
Tot-tot, tot-tot, tot-tot,
Tot-tot, tot-tot, tot-tot,
Hearing this, the maiden called to her turkeys; called and called in vain. They only quickened their steps, spreading their wings to help them along, singing the song over and over until, indeed, they came to the base of the Canyon Mesa, at the borders of the Zuni Mountains. Then singing once more their song in full chorus, they spread wide their wings, and thlakwa-a-a, thlakwa-a-a, they fluttered away over the plains above.
The poor turkey girl threw her hands up and looked down at her dress. With dust and sweat, behold! it was changed to what it had been, and she was the same poor turkey girl that she was be fore. Weary, grieving, and despairing, she returned to Mátsake.
Thus it was in the days of the ancients. Therefore, where you see the rocks leading up to the top of Canyon Mesa (Shoya-k’oskwi), there are the tracks of turkeys and other figures to be seen. The latter are the song that the turkeys sang, graven in the rocks; and all over the plains along the borders of Zuni Mountains since that day turkeys have been more abundant than in any other place.
After all, the gods dispose of men according as men are fitted; and if the poor be poor in heart and spirit as well as in appearance, how will they be aught but poor to the end of their days?
Thus shortens my story.
Source: Frank Hamilton Cushing, Zuni Folk Tales (New York and London: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1901), pp. 54-64.