Very early one day, the old man, a woodcutter by trade, went up to the mountains. He spied many fine fir and pine trees. He put down his lunchbox and got set to work. Time went quickly, as it does for us when we age. Soon it was already noon. The old man had only cut down four trees. He took his hulu gourd, sat down on a stump, and drank some water.
He looked at the four small trees he had felled and sighed.
"Four small trees," he said aloud to himself, "that's it! Just four puny trees . . . And I'm not getting any younger! Today four trees--how many this time next year or even in the next few months? I wish a strong young man could help me out. I'd marry off one of my daughters to him! Oh, well . . . "
He prepared a small camp fire and sat back when he heard a voice.
"Grandpa! What did you say just now?"
He looked up. A small magpie was fluttering its wings above him.
"Nothing, Magpie, nothing. I'm just tired . . ."
"No, Grandpa. You certainly said something, something interesting, an oath or vow."
"All right, you heard me. I offered to let a healthy strong young man who can help me in my work marry one of my daughters. What of it?"
"Ah, yes! I knew I had heard correctly! I shall be the one to help you!"
The weary old man was too tired to be annoyed so he softly chuckled.
"Oh, Magpie, you're tiny and have no arms or hands. How in the world could you chop down trees?"
"No, problem, I can do it! Fasten the ax to my tail."
"What . . . ?"
"Just do it!"
The old man sighed again, got up and tied the ax to the bird's tail.
Well, the magpie flew up to the trees and whirled around the tree trunks without chopping down a single tree! All it managed to do was to lose the ax somewhere on the ground and strip its own tail of all its feathers.
The old man looked at the magpie, flying lamely now with its bare behind, shook his head, and thought, That was mighty dumb! That old magpie surely made a great fool of itself and me too for my even bothering to listen!"
The embarrassed magpie flew off; the old man got up to look for his ax.
The next morning at dawn, the old man was once again up on the mountain.
He chopped and chopped, wiped his brow and moaned, "Aii, what will it take for me to find a strapping young man to take over for me and to wed one of my daughters!"
He heard some rustling in the bushes and then a voice ask, "Grandpa, what did you just say?"
He looked in the direction of the voice. Just beyond some bushes was a large rock. Upon it were a snake and a monkey.
"I said nothing," the old man replied.
"No, no, you distinctly said something," said the snake.
"We both heard you," said the monkey.
"All right, so you heard what I said. What of it?"
"We can help you!"
The old man first looked at the snake.
"A monkey has hands and feet which can grab pretty well," he said. "Even a magpie has two feet. How in the world could you possibly cut anything down, Snake?"
"Tie your ax to my tail and you shall see!" replied the snake.
"Very well," said the old man, tying his ax to the snake's tail. Then, turning to the monkey, he said, "I brought two axes today. I suppose you'd like to cut down a tree as well?"
"Yes, and you don't need to tie the ax to me!" said the monkey.
"All right, Snake and Monkey, hop to it . . ."
The two animals set off to cut trees!
The snake slithered by the base of each tree and with a swish of his tail, he cut down each tree, big, small and in between. Soon, a large part of the dense forest lay broadly open due to the snake's quick and skilled efforts.
"Unbelievable!" cried the old man. "Simply unbelievable!"
He turned to see what the monkey had done; the monkey had wielded the ax as long as, if not longer than, the snake and had not yet felled one tree, though not from lack of effort. He just about collapsed, drenched with sweat.
No results, thought the old man, but he certainly tried, poor fellow. No shame there. You have to respect one who tries hard.
The old man gave the two animals the boxed lunch that Ah Yi that morning had packed for him.
"Boys," said the old man, "eat up. You're both coming home with me."
The snake and the monkey followed the old man home.
Outside the front gate, the old man said, "Boys, wait here. I'll tell my two girls to come out and greet you."
He walked into his house and what did he find? His two daughters engaged in a quarrel! The hardworking Ah Yi was trying to get her lazy older sister Ah Yang to do some work around the house, such as cleaning and setting the bowls and chopsticks for dinner. Ah Yang, though, didn't feel like helping.
"Girls, girls!" said the old man. "Stop arguing! We have guests outside. Do you want them to laugh at us?" The girls immediately became silent and looked at their father. "Good. Now listen to me. I've brought two suitors home, one for each of you. They're waiting outside for you now. We shall have a wedding today, girls! Now go outside and graciously invite them into our home."
"Very good, Father. You know the custom. I'm the older sister. My wishes come first!"
Ah Yi was angry but held her tongue as Ah Yang went out the door ahead of her.
The two girls went outside to the front gate and saw no one there, just a snake and a monkey looking at them, a sight not unusual in the forest.
"Father!" shouted Ah Yang from outside. "There's nobody here! All we see are only a monkey and snake. Are you going to tell us that they are our suitors?"
"Yes!" cried the father through the window. "They are the pair."
Ah Yang and Ah Yi looked at each other and shrugged. Ah Yang figured the monkey resembled a man more than the snake did, so she chose the monkey to be her husband.
"You get the snake!" Ah Yang snickered to Ah Yi as she, Ah Yang, led the monkey by the hand into the house.
"Well, then," said Ah Yi to the snake, "how am I supposed to bring you into the house?"
"Very simple, kind Maiden," said the snake. "Get a bamboo basket--I'm sure you have one. Let me crawl in and then carry the basket inside!"
from Miaozu minjian gushi (Hmong folktales), Li Yingqiu, comp. Taipei: Mutong chubanshe, 1978; pp. 117-122.
This is the Hmong version of the Southeastern Chinese/Taiwanese folktale "The Bride of Lord Snake." This version is significantly different from the Taiwanese one in my Amazon Kindle book Taiwan Folktales. Already, in this first of three parts, we have a glimpse into an old Hmong custom: the bride leading the groom into the bride's home.