This is one of my favorite stories. Below is a version told by the Mbuti people of South Africa, which I first heard from Professor Harold Scheub. I’ve told it around the world (in slightly revised form), including in Washington Square Park when I first moved to the city in 1993, where I charged 25 cents per story.
There was once a poor Mbuti girl. She was crippled, and her skin was full of disease. She was only about eight years old. The Mbuti were breaking camp, and nobody was willing to carry the little cripple for fear of catching the disease. So when all the Mbuti had left the camp, the little girl was all alone, by herself. She cried, she cried and cried. And when night fell, she crawled into her empty house, and she cried herself to sleep.
At daybreak, she heard a sound-pip! pip! pip! It was the bird called the fifi bird. It had fastened a long rattan vine between two trees, and it was sitting on the vine swinging back and forth, back and forth. The little girl went to look more closely, and the bird flew away.
In the distance, there was a Bira man with his hunting trap. He saw the diseased cripple, and he came up and said, “My poor child, you have been left here all by yourself. I must kill you.” And he took his knife and lifted it to kill the girl. But the knife caught his nose and cut it, and it killed him and he fell down dead. The girl caught hold of the rattan vine, and she swung herself back and forth, back and forth.
As she was swinging on the vine, another Bira, seeing the movement, came slowly into the clearing. “What is this?” he said to himself. “Why, it is a crippled little Mbuti girl. Get off your vine swing, my child, and come over here to me.” The girl got down from her swing, and made her way over to where the Bira was standing. Then she sat down on the ground and held her withered little legs. “Come nearer, my child,” said the Bira, reaching forward.
“No, no! I can’t come any nearer!” cried the girl. “My legs hurt so much, and I am all diseased.”
“Very well, I shall kill you!” said the Bira.
“Oh, please don’t do that. I’m only a poor deserted child!”
“But why did your father leave you all alone?” asked the Bira. “No, I must certainty kill you.” And he took a piece of wood and tried to hit the crippled little Mbuti girl. But the wood flew back in his face and hit him on the nose, and the blood streamed down. With the blood still streaming down, he ran back to his village and told everyone, “There is a poor deserted Mbuti girl in the Mbuti camp. She is crippled and diseased, and she has the evil eye. She will surely kill us all!”
With some friends and relations, he hurried to the deserted camp. There was the little girl, swinging on the vine swinging herself back and forth, back and forth.
The Bira called to her, “Come here my poor child. You have killed one of our relatives, and you have wounded me. You are crippled and diseased and you have been deserted. I am going to kill you.” The little girl got down from her swing, and slowly came over to where the Bira was standing. “Come nearer little one!” said the Bira.
“Oh, please don’t kill me,” said the Mbuti girl. “I am only a deserted cripple, and I haven’t run away.” But she came closer still.
The Bira raised his knife. “Now!” he said. “Now I am going to kill you!” But the knife caught in his stomach, and he fell down, he fell down dead.
The girl went back to her swing, dragging her withered little legs along the ground. She climbed on the swing, and swung herself back and forth, back and forth.
The remaining Bira all hurried back to their village. “Come! Come! Come, all of you!” they cried. “There is a crippled little Mbuti girl in the deserted camp, and she will surely kill us all unless we kill her. Get your weapons, and come!”
All the Bira seized their weapons, and came running to the deserted camp. They all came to take their revenge and kill the deserted little Mbuti girl.
But the girl had gone.
The only sign of life was the fifi bird, and the fifi bird was sitting on the rattan vine, swinging itself back and forth, back and forth, back and forth….