Part 5 (third story) of the author's "Gendering Tales: A Feminist Reading of Seven Wonder Tales"
There was a man who had two wives; the first had seven daughters, and the second one single son who was very spoilt.
Once the two wives had to go to the stream to wash wool. Because wool becomes very heavy once washed, they took the household's donkey with them to carry the wet wool, and tied it to a tree while they were working. A thief who was passing by saw the donkey; he cut its two ears, attached them to a branch of the tree and dragged the poor animal with him. Obviously, the two wives heard nothing, they were too busy washing their wool; besides, the two ears made them believe the donkey was just resting behind the tree.
It was already sunset when they figured out that they had been robbed. The first wife started crying in despair when the second one told her:
"There is no reason for all these tears, I have a solution: let me hit you with my belt, and step over your body seven times, just then you'll turn into a big cow. I'll carry the wool on your back, and as soon as we'll be home, I'll go over the whole operation and you'll be human again. We can't leave all that wool here!"
The first wife, who was quite credulous, let her co-wife bewitch her and transported all the wool until they reached their tent. But then, the second wife did not keep her promise; instead, she told her husband:
"Imagine what your good-for-nothing wife did to me! She ran away with the donkey and left me alone at the stream. It is by pure chance that I found that lost cow and brought the wool on her back. Otherwise, all the wool would have been lost."
The seven sisters could not believe such a lie; they knew their mother was virtuous, so they turned to the cow, which was bellowing madly, and looking at them with big imploring eyes, and guessed the whole story. But what could they do? They decided to wait till the next day. Meanwhile, the evil wife was busy scheming:
"That cow must be rabid, listen to its wild bellowing. We must kill it and distribute it before it dies or hurts anyone ."
At dawn, the cow was slaughtered, and the poor sisters had to cut and distribute their mother's flesh with their own hands. So, each time they gave the meat to someone, they begged him or her to eat the meat and keep the bones. They later collected them and buried what they felt were their mother's bones in the forest.
Some time afterwards, a miracle occured! Two sources sprang from their mother's grave, one of honey and another of melted butter ! The sisters, who visited their mother's tomb regularly, welcomed that sign of their mother's love and started feeding on the honey and butter, because they were practically starving by their cruel mother-in-law. They became so healthy that their cheeks flushed like poppies.
Naturally, their mother-in-law was driven mad with envy. She began blaming them:
"Selfish egoistical girls! That's what you are! You go out in the forest and eat I don't know what, but never bring anything to your poor little brother, who looks like a cadaver! What is it that makes you all look so fine?"
The eldest replied: "nothing special, my aunt. We feel so hungry that we go to the forest to feed on little snakes, little scorpions, beetles and the like. That's probably what nourishes us so well."
"All right. Next time you take you brother with you. I want to see him as ruddy as all of you!" the stepmother replied. The next day the seven sisters went to the forest, but not to the honey and butter springs; instead, they gathered dozens of poisonous scorpions, snakes and insects and gave them to their spoilt brother. He was struck so violently with fever that his cheeks flamed with a vivid red. Yet his mother suspected nothing; on the contrary, she congratulated the sisters:
"Now look how your brother is fine now, he is so replete that he fell sound asleep as soon as he came back from the forest!"
At dawn the boy was found dead. His mother became raving wild; she went to her husband and denounced her daughters-in-law; she even asked him to drive them out of the house. But the father did not have the courage to just throw them out like trash. He thought deeply, then went to his daughters:
"Let me take you girls to the forest of Zaarouri , you'll gather mqiqfat and mnioulat to work and play with."
The girls were so happy; they had much fun playing all kinds of games while their father was climbing up trees to get the best and most resisting twigs. Then he tied a leafy branch on the top of a tree, in order for the wind to shake it and simulate activity, and sneaked out of the forest. The girls noticed nothing. Whenever they heard the sound of the branches in the wind, they exclaimed
"La Yibba Khithkes Thifeggagin! "
At sunset, the seven sisters found out that they had been forsaken and lost in the wild. They could not spend the night in the forest where dreadful creatures of all kinds dwelt; they resolved to let providence guide them and started walking, when suddenly, the youngest sister fell in an old well. Fortunately, the well was dry, but the sisters had no ropes to lift her up; they left her and walked away, hoping that some sympathetic shepherd would rescue her in the morning.
Soon afterwards, they reached a tumultuous river. On its other border were six reapers toiling. The six sisters called them out:
"Please help us cross the river, and whoever saves a girl keeps her as his bride."
The bargain was tempting, for the six girls were young and pretty; therefore, the six men hurried to the river and carried the six girls on their backs, and every sister went with her newly found husband to his tribe.
Meanwhile, the youngest sister was still crying in her well. An a'ttar came passing by and heard her lament; he came near the well and asked:
"Are you human or Djinn?"
The little girl answered:
"We are seven sisters and our father took us the forest of Zaarouri and abandoned us."
The a'ttar, always hunting for the strange, took her out of the well, but only to imprison her in a mezoued with his merchandise. He thus compelled her to repeat the very sentence he heard from her at first; each time he arrived at a douar, he would ask her:
"Tell me more, ô Mzioued El Kheir !"
And she would reiterate the same phrase:
"We are seven sisters and our father took us to the forest of Zaarouri and abandoned us."
Life became unbearable for the poor girl captive in her mezoued when, luckily, the a'ttar reached her eldest sister's husband's douar. Once in the marketplace, he carried out the same performance again, and people gathered around him to hear that strange voice coming out of a mezoued, and eventually buy one of the eclectic goods the mischievous trader proposed. The eldest sister recognized her sister's voice; the painful story she was telling was hers too. So she resolved to save her at all costs. Her husband being absent for the night, she went to the a'ttar and invited him for dinner, convinced that the wicked man would never decline the opportunity to spend the night with a good-looking and lonely woman. Once in her tent, she gave him a delicious soup that was actually seasoned with sleeping herbs. Some minutes later, he was dead to the world. Then she ran to rescue her unfortunate sister, and hurriedly put her ferocious Slouguiya in the mezoued. After that, she wakened the a'ttar, simulating panic as if the husband was coming back home, and begged him to leave at once. In his rush, the a'ttar did not inspect his baggage. It is only when he came across another douar and asked the mezoued to speak for him that he realized he had been tricked, for, instead of the familiar reply, a fierce growl answered him. He opened the mezoued in his fury, and the angry animal jumped at his neck, killing him instantaneously. The faithful dog then ran back to its mistress again, and the two sisters lived happily with the eldest's husband and his tribe.
The bread loaves were ready. They were graceful rounds nested in the tbika , covered with a floured white cloth like babies. Once risen, they would be cooked in the clay oven. They would smell like bread cooked in a clay oven. Nothing smells or tastes like that bread.
"These bread loaves look like babies!'
Her laughter was unpredictable. She didn't laugh a lot while toiling. It was no fun.
"Bismillah Arrahmane Errahim! Don't compare babies to food! What do you think I am, Maghoula? The ogress who preys on children?"
"Tell me about her!"
"No, this is milking time. If you behave well, I'll tell you more while cooking bread."
But I was restless. The promise of a story haunted me while I was playing in the field. Was I being bewitched by my grandmother like my aunts and uncles? I ran back to the kitchen. She was churning.
"Can I help you churn?"
"No, it's too hard."
"So I might gather wood."
"There's enough of it. And you can't. You'll cut your hands."
"But I'm bored!"
I wasn't. I was just dying to hear another story. She felt that and her wrinkled face shone with a tender smile.
Last modified: 14 December 2001