Three Brazilian Folk Tales

This special feature arrives indebted to writer and Litro contributor Laura Nelson (check out her Litro-published short stories here and here). Laura responded to the shout-out for Brazilian folk tales by sending in two little gems she’d heard while travelling in Brazil, and sharing this great New York Times article about the Cordel, Brazil’s folk literature-on-a-string. Laura also as a story, set in Brazil, coming up in Decongested Tales.

Without further ado, here are the three stories, the first two thanks to Laura and the third a tale I’ve come upon myself—a Brazilian take on The Tortoise and the Hare, in which outwitting your enemies, not relying on them to take a nap mid-race, is the key to victory. Better advice than Aesop’s, I’d say.

The Tale of the Water Lily

The Vitoria Regia is a beautiful aquatic flower, typical of the Amazon river.  The Indians tell the legend of how it came into existence…

Naia was a thoughtful young girl who believed that a handsome warrior god lived on the moon.  She fell in love with the moon and tried to reach out to it, but she never could.  One night, Naia left her bed and went to the river and saw the moon, large and beautiful, reflected in the water.  She threw herself into the pool and drowned.  The moon felt sorry for Naia and decided to immortalise her on earth, transforming her into a star of the fresh flowing waters of the Amazon river.

The Creation of the Night

Once upon a time, there was only day and no night. The Big Cobra guarded the night at the bottom of the river.  One day, the cobra’s daughter asked her husband if she could see the night. So the husband sent some warriors to the cobra’s house. When they got there, the cobra gave them a coconut and warned them not to open it.  On the way back, the warriors heard strange noises coming from the coconut. Full of curiosity, they opened it, and they were plunged into darkness. The daughter said she would separate the day and night like strands of her hair. She pulled out a hair, the sky turned red and the night was born.

The Tortoise and the Stag

On a very hot day, a stag walking through the jungle came upon a tortoise basking in the sunshine.  When the stag’s shadow fell across the tortoise, interrupting its sunbathing, the tortoise slowly opened its eyes and greeted the stag with a challenge.  ‘You and I should race,’ it said, ‘and whoever wins shall have the right to kill the loser.’

‘Hah!’ scoffed the stag.  ‘Challenge accepted!  Make your peace, tortoise, for you’ll be worm food as soon as this contest is over.’

The tortoise shrugged its blunt limbs.  ‘Whatever you say.  Let’s race in three days time.  When the midday sun strikes the lightning-burned tree on the edge of the jungle, that’s our starting whistle.  The first to cross the great clearing beyond the tree line is the winner.’

‘Done!’ proclaimed the stag, and sauntered away.

When the tortoise had finished its sunbathing, it called together all of its brothers and sisters, nephews and nieces, cousins and in-laws from throughout the jungle.  It found each of them a hiding place, under leaf or fern, along the course of the racetrack.  When all were in place it was time to start the contest.  The stag arrived punctually at the lightning-burned tree and, the instant the first ray of midday sun hit the trunk, shot away and left the tortoise trailing behind.

When the stag had been racing for a minute, he shouted over his shoulder, ‘How are you getting on?  I’m way ahead of you.’

‘No you’re not,’ said a voice from up ahead.  And there was the tortoise, a little further along the race course.

Shocked, the stag spurred onwards and overtook the tortoise.  When he had covered some more distance, he yelled again over his shoulder, ‘How are you getting on?  I’m way ahead of you.’

‘No you’re not,’ said a voice from up ahead.  And there was the tortoise, a little further along the race course.

The stag put his head down and willed his legs to sprint faster than they had ever sprinted.  But it was no use.  Every time he called out ‘How are you getting on?’, there would be the tortoise maintaining its lead.  The stag forced his hooves to hammer the ground harder, his muscles to strain all the stronger, and in this fashion he pushed his body so hard that his heart burst, and he dropped down dead on the race course.

And whenever the tortoise looks back on that race, it brings a warm smile to its face.

Ali Shaw is the author of the novels The Man who Rained and The Girl with Glass Feet, which won the Desmond Elliot Prize and was shortlisted for the Costa First Book Award. He is currently at work on his third novel.


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