The Black Hen

Sumung was a tribal youth who everyone admired. He was a favourite of the King of Siripur, who had even offered Sumung his daughter’s hand in marriage, but Sumung had refused the honour.

Sumung’s mother could not understand her son’s attitude towards marriage. At every opportunity, she would plead with him to get married. Invariably Sumung would reply, “Not yet mother. I will not marry until I meet someone I can love and cherish.”

At this, the mother would throw up her arms in disgust and go about the place, muttering about sons who had no feelings and did not know their minds.

In the end, Sumung became fed up with his mother’s perpetual nagging over marriage, and he decided to travel throughout the kingdom to find a young woman he could love.

He set out in bold spirits but soon found himself walking endless miles on his mission. He saw plenty of attractive maidens in his wanderings, but no, not the one for him.

Towards dusk one day, he came to a small tribal village comprising only twelve huts. Apart from some cattle and goats wandering idly about, everyone must have been either sleeping or still in the fields attending to their crops. Foot-sore and weary, Sumung decided to try and find someone to provide him with food and shelter.

Glancing through the window of one of the huts, he was astonished to see a girl of breath-taking beauty, busy doing the cooking. Sumung knew this was the loveliest maiden he had ever seen and immediately thought, “If I ever get married, it must be to this maiden.”

As if his unspoken thought had been heard, the girl looked up, and as their eyes met, she gave a sharp cry and disappeared from sight.

Sumung was determined to meet this wonderful girl. He went round to the door of the hut and knocked. There was no reply, so he opened the door and went inside, but where was the girl? All he could see was a clucking black hen which flew out through the window Sumung searched every nook and cranny, but the girl had undoubtedly disappeared; all he found was the food she had cooked and what tasty food it looked.

Sumung was puzzled and decided to wait outside the hut for the girl to return. A little later, an older man and his wife came to the house.

“Good evening, ” said Sumung. “I wonder if you would give me some food and shelter for the night, for which I will pay you.”

“Certainly, and for no payment,” said the woman as she went into the hut. “Our hut is small, but you are very welcome.”

Sumung’s curiosity could wait no longer when they sat down to eat. Turning to the man, he asked. “Tell me, who was the beautiful girl I saw when I arrived ?”

The man looked puzzled. “You must be mistaken. Only my wife and I live here.”

“But I saw the girl in this room,” said Sumung.

“I tell you, sir, we know nothing of this girl you talk about,” retorted the man.

Sumung pointed to the food. Then tell me, who cooked this food?”

“That is a mystery,” the woman said. “Each morning when we get up, freshly cooked food is placed on the table. And dinner is ready to eat every evening when we come home.”

“But surely you must know who this girl, who cooks your food every morning and evening, is and where she comes from?”

The older man frowned. “All I can tell you is that a black hen flew into the hut two weeks ago. We asked our neighbours if they knew the owner, but nobody claimed the hen. It sleeps in the hut every night, and our food has been cooked since here, But I have never known a hen that could cook.”

The black hen flew in through the window, and the older woman picked it up and put it under a basket in the corner. “Come now; it is time for bed. We can talk of beautiful girls and black hens in the morning.”

Sumung decided to stay awake during the night to watch the black hen. Although he was optimistic that there must be some connection between the black hen and the girl, he could not find a suitable answer.

Just before daybreak, Sumung saw the black hen lift the basket and enter the kitchen. Careful not to make a sound, Sumung peeped through a crack in the door and had the surprise of his life, for the hen shook itself vigorously, and its body seemed to fall apart, and then, rising as if from the very ground, was the beautiful maiden.

At first, Sumung thought his eyes were playing tricks, but he was either off his head or joking. And when he told her all that had happened, she threw up her hands in despair, wondering what everyone would say to such a marriage.

Sumung’s mind was full of the girl and the hen, and he sat and patiently waited for the girl to emerge. When dusk came, the hen made its way to the kitchen and, as before, shook its feathers, and the girl appeared. Sumung rushed forward and clasped the girl in his arms.

“Tell me, who are you? And why are you in the form of a hen?”

“I am Jantri, the daughter of a king,” replied the girl, trying to break loose. A magician changed me into a black hen, and I only regained my human form for one hour at daybreak and one hour at sunset. Only when I marry will this evil spell be broken.

Sumung’s eyes moistened at the girl’s sad story. “Forget the past. I will marry you and make you happy.

Sumung’s mother overheard all this, and looking into the kitchen; she saw the carcass of the black hen on the floor. Thinking she would rid them of the hen, she snatched up the corpse and rushed out of the house. Someone had lit a bonfire close by, so Sumung’s mother threw the corpse into the fire.

Jantri suddenly screamed and fell to the floor, moaning. “I am burning; the black hen’s body must be on fire.”

Sumung discovered the black hen’s body had gone, and, dashing out of the house, he saw his mother standing over the bonfire. He quickly stamped out the fire with his feet and, picking up the slightly charred body of the hen, hurried back to Jantri, who now seemed to have recovered.

A little later, Jantri merged back into the body of the hen, and Sumung jealously guarded his precious black hen through the night.

The following day, with the black hen in his arms, Sumung went to the village elders and announced his intention to marry the hen.

Everyone laughed at such an absurdity, but the chief of the elders shook his head and sternly admonished Sumung. “Young man, if you insist on marrying this black hen, you will be banished from the tribe for life.”

“So be it, father, ” said Sumung with a smile. “Let me first marry this black hen; then you can banish me.”

At first, the elders disagreed that such a ceremony should be performed. But Sumung stood his ground, and finally, they had no other alternative but to send for the priest.

No sooner had the priest started reciting the holy texts when Jantri emerged from the body of the black hen. Every- one was astonished and marvelled at the bride’s radiant beauty.

All talk of banishment was forgotten, and the whole village rejoiced with the happy couple.

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