The Lazy Girl and the Butter-Yellow Pot, by Nartana Premachandra

Anonymous / African

Retold by Nartana Premachandra

Everything is finished before it has happened, everything is finished before it has happened….

The young girl in red sang to herself. Carrying a butter-yellow pot, she shielded her eyes from the blossoming sun and looked out into the graceful lavender sweep of Lake Tanganyika. The water was clear and fresh, as perfectly new, she thought, as the tears of her baby brother looking out into the world on the first day of his brand-new life.

“A brand-new life!” she cried out, whirling around, arms outstretched, swirling her sunny vessel in her right hand. Above her, a flock of pearl-gray tambourine doves cried out, flying against the blooming sun, discovering this brand-new world in their own bird-like way. 

She circled faster, the long smooth lavender lake framing her turns perfectly. She had to go get water from the lake for her mother but the beginning of the day was so exciting, for a reason she could not name, that she kept turning, and dancing, looking up at the stunning sky, while imagining the hundreds of crazily colored fish inside the lake—who didn’t know it was morning, as their world was made only of water—until she became dizzy, reeled, and fell, breaking her butter-yellow pot.

It smashed into pieces at her feet, cracking into shards of succulent gold.

She picked up a jagged pot-piece and groaned. How angry her mother would be at her carelessness! How would she carry water back home now?

A snake slithered by, greenish copper on top and blood-black at the bottom. She backed away, trembling. But then it spoke, commenting in a reflective tone, The world is beginning today.

Shocked at hearing speech from a serpent’s tongue—and even more shocked that a snake felt the same way she did—she replied, astonishment bubbling in her voice, I feel the same way. That the world is beginning today. But tell me, where do I get a new pot?

The python looked at her, hissed, and said as if she were stupid, Irresponsible girl, how would I know? What do snakes need with new pots? 

She shook her head and shrugged her shoulders. It was true, what would a snake do with a pot? The serpent slithered off.

She wanted to say, Please don’t leave me alone without anything with which to carry water back home, but at that moment a strong wind blew off the lake. She closed her eyes and knew to listen, for the wind carried within it the wisdom of water and its secret ancient sources. It seemed to tell her, Do not worry. Nothing in the world is worth worrying about.

She opened her eyes and gasped: was she really seeing what she was seeing?

A rope was hanging from the sky!

She looked around her. Was someone playing a joke on her? A little way away stood a school; she could hear the laughter of small people float through open windows. Off in the distance a farmer walked with oxen; not far from him, a woman pounded grain, and further off she could hear a motorcar. But there was no one around her right now to suspend a rope in the sky right above her head. 

And there was no one to tell her whether or not she should pull on the rope.

Well, she thought, I might as well pull this rope. Maybe a pot will appear.

She jumped up, but couldn’t reach it. She jumped up again, but still missed it.

Sighing, her heart beating, she thought, One more try—

She jumped off the earth as if the continuance of her life was contingent upon leaving this spinning rocky world. Finally, she grabbed the base of the braided brown cord. 

Looking down beneath her, she thought, Oh no, what if I fall? The earth looked a long way beneath her.

I am still a small person. My young bones would crack if I fell…if only I were a snake. Soft and squishy and unbreakable. 

There’s nothing to do but climb the rope. 

So she did, using her strong small-person muscles to grasp the twine, finding purchase with her bare feet wherever she could. Her hands were soon scrubbed raw while her feet were splayed like a yellow-billed duck’s.

Soon Lake Tanganyika looked like a long falling teardrop beneath her. 

Where am I going? she wondered.

Finally, she found land—at the exact spot where she had left.

She found herself at the shores of Lake Tanganyika—and it looked the same. She rubbed her eyes. The sun shone blossoming and new while the waters sparkled like they were crafted of just-mined violet diamond. 

Did I arrive where I left? But how can that be? I know I climbed a rope.

Looking around her, she spotted the farmer and his oxen. She ran to the farmer—only to find he was sleeping.

Why is a hardworking farmer sleeping in the middle of the day? She thought of waking him to ask but as he was far older than she thought better of it. It wasn’t done, waking one’s elders and asking them nonsensical questions.

So she asked one of his cows standing next to her. But, to her surprise, the sturdy beast was asleep too.

She turned around and spied the school of small people. She ran to it, and peered through the windows, expecting to see a teacher teaching and students studying. But to her bewilderment the students and teacher were all sleeping.

I’ve never heard of a school in which students sleep during the day instead of learning! And teachers doze instead of teaching!

Off in the distance she heard the short spurt of the motorcar. She ran to it; the vehicle was a beat-up olive green smothered in dust. A key was in the ignition and a man was inside; but he too was asleep. 

It’s like he turned off his car and decided to take a nap on the motorway. Behind him was another car carrying three women. She cleared dust from the windows and looked inside—they were also asleep.

She looked up at the sky, where the sun was shining like polished gold. Am I hallucinating the sun? Is it really night-time? Is that why everyone is asleep?

She found a tree with papaya, and picked one. At least you, the papaya tree, are not asleep, she declared.

How do you know I am not? the tree whispered through its leaves. Please don’t disturb me. You may pick papaya, but do not strike up a conversation while I am fast asleep.

Rich papaya juice dripped down the girl’s chin while she swallowed fragrant buttery seed-studded flesh. She turned around, walked to the shores of Lake Tanganyika, and sat down.

Slowly, the sun, having had enough of this brand-new day, descended into the dark shell of the rest of the universe.

Stars started sparkling through the unhurried vanishing of blood-orange rays of light. A fire-shaded moon began its monthly trek into the sky. Soon an especially bright star in the southern sky added its brilliance to the cascading, cradling, darkness above the lake. 

The girl couldn’t help it; in spite of the bewitching beauty around her, she was so sleepy. Her muscles were tired and aching from climbing endless rope.

She yawned loudly and curled up on the ground. Even though her head was lying on hard earth and pebbles hurt her right ear, she was fast asleep before she knew it.

So she was very surprised to hear the farmer yelling at her. Lazy girl wake up! he exclaimed. Why do you sleep at night?

The girl shook her head. Pebbles fell from her eyelashes. Was she dreaming?

But she wasn’t. The farmer’s cow’s tail struck her on the side.

She got up. What do you mean? Why do I sleep at night? Isn’t that what people do?

The farmer laughed out loud, as if he’d never heard such a ridiculous question. 

Sleep at night? Who heard of that? The cow mooed. The farmer and his beast trundled off. 

 What in the world did he mean? Haltingly—finding it hard to see in the dark—the girl tried to find someone to ask for help.

She decided to go to the school a little way away. Inside the teacher was teaching and students were studying—all in darkness. Choosing not to bother them, she noticed that outside of the school, in the village, people were singing, laughing, working, talking, as if the moon were the sun.

She spied a young mother rocking her child back and forth. As she approached the woman she realized this mother looked exactly like her mother.

She ran to her, exclaiming, Mama! Why is everyone awake at night?

Her mother looked at her oddly. My dear daughter, she said, are you feeling well? Why wouldn’t everyone be awake at night?

The girl stared at her in silence. 

And then her mother said, Where is the water I asked you to bring?

The girl hardly knew what she was saying as she mouthed the words, I broke the pot. I need a new pot.

Reckless girl! her mother exclaimed. Go to the woman over there, pounding grain. Surely she will have a pot.

 The girl ran to the woman pounding grain, not understanding a single thing. As she approached her, she could hear the woman sing, Everything is over before it has happened.

She’s singing the song I love to sing! So she told the woman very politely, That is the same song I love to sing.

The woman seemed not to notice, and kept singing.

The girl spoke very politely once more. Excuse me, but why is everyone working and talking and laughing at night?

The woman stopped pounding the grain, and looked at her deeply. The girl could feel the depth of her gaze in the cascading, cradling, darkness. 

Oh no, the woman said, Sweet child. It’s been a long time since I’ve come across one of you.

The girl asked in a quizzical tone, One of me? What do you mean?

You climbed the rope didn’t you?

The girl nodded, although she didn’t think the old lady could see her in the darkness.

But the old woman could see her. She heaved a great sigh as big as the universe. And said, as if she were divulging a secret she didn’t want to reveal, You are from the world of the living. Now, you are in the world of the dead.

The young girl stepped back. What? she asked. What does that mean?

The old woman kept pounding the grain while she spoke. Our world is exactly like yours, but upside down. Here we live in the darkness and sleep in sunlight.

The girl tried to follow this logic. Suddenly a snake slid by her feet.

And, as she knew it would, the sinuous spooky beast spoke to her. We snakes though, no one knows our upside from our downside if we close our eyes. So we go back and forth between worlds all the time. 

The girl simply said Kind of you to explain, for she did not know what else to say.

As the viper slithered off, it declared, Don’t forget to ask her for a pot.

The girl said, That’s right! She looked up at the woman pounding grain, and asked her, May I have a pot for water?

The woman found a pot somewhere, and gave it to her. The girl couldn’t see its color in the darkness but said, Thank you. And if I understand you correctly, from your point of view, the world of the dead is right-side up, and the world of the living upside-down?

You could say that, replied the woman, rhythmically pounding sheaves of what the girl thought was wheat.

The girl thought for a minute before asking, What should I do now?

The woman said, Open your palm. 

The girl did. The woman placed a small something in her palm and closed it.

Now, she said, Go get your water.

In the ripe opacity of midnight nothing existed aside from the girl, Lake Tanganyika, and the singularly brilliant star. She filled her pot with water while keeping the small something the woman pounding grain gave her in a pocket in her red dress. 

Her pot sloshing with water, she sat on the shores of the lake and took the small something out of her pocket. 

In the starlight she saw it was a seed.

Suddenly, behind her, she heard a familiar voice. The farmer. Arrogant girl! That seed does not belong to you. It belongs to everyone. The dead and the living. Before you know it, it will get too heavy for you to carry.

The girl’s heart started beating quickly for she realized the farmer was right. Quickly her palm started hurting, the seed was getting heavier and heavier….

What do I do? She said, I’m going to drop it any second.

Send it back into the sky, near the beaming star, the farmer said.

But how? she asked, It’s too heavy for me to throw.

Blow, he said, mimicking a blow of his breath for the girl.

So the girl did. She blew the seed back into the cosmos. In the absolute darkness, she saw the seed begin to shyly circle the gleaming single star.

Lazy girl finally did something right, the farmer said, as he drove his oxen off.

The next morning, in a honeyed-mango sky, the rope appeared.

The girl hadn’t slept a wink. She’d kept watching the stars all night.

I guess it’s time for me to return, she said to no one but herself, as everyone was sleeping.

She slid down the rope—descending was much easier than ascending—holding her pot tightly, trying her best not to let water fall out of the vessel.

She landed on the ground with a thump, but didn’t lose much water. She noticed her new pot shone silver.

The farmer walked by with his oxen. Your mother’s waiting sleepy girl. Hurry up.

Yes sir, she said, I will.

The coppery blood-black serpent slithered by and said mysteriously, Your water is so ancient it’s fossil water. You’ve brought it from the land of the dead. Be careful when you drink.

The girl’s heart beat wildly. In the distance, she heard the woman pounding grain, who sang, 

Nothing has happened until it’s over.

And everything begins once it’s finished.

The girl cupped her hands inside the pot, scooped up the relic of water, and drank. ◆

This tale combines elements from the Dogon people of Mali, the Bantu people living along Lake Tanganyika, and the Thonga people of Mozambique. For the Dogon, the seed represents the star Sirius B.

This piece is excerpted from the Summer 2023 issue of Parabola, 
THE COSMOS. You can find the full issue on our online store