Monday, June 6, 2011

Fereyel and Debbo Engal the Witch

Just recently I remembered the African folktale "Fereyel and Debbo Engel the Witch" which was part of a old Caedmon recording named Spirits and Spooks for Hallowe'en Summoned up by William Conrad.  I recalled the story as best I could to my daughter but was disappointed to learn there was no copy of the text on the web.
Here it is, faithfully transcribed from the record.

+++ Fereyel and Debbo Engal the Witch +++
     A long time ago there lived a witch called Debbo Engal.  She had ten daughters who were beautiful girls whom all men sought after.  And from time to time youths would make the long journey to the house where they lived hidden away in the bush.  But none of these young men ever returned to their villages again.  Although nobody knew the reason why.          
     Debbo Engal knew, however.  When young men called to see her lovely daughters, she would pretend to be delighted to meet them, giving them palm wine to drink and serving them choice food until night fell.  
     And then she would say, "It is too late and the night is too dark for you to walk back to your homes through the bush.  Why not stay the night here and then go home at daybreak in safety?"
     The young men would gladly agree.  And Debbo Engal would tell them to lie down around the fire she kept burning in the biggest hut in the compound.  And soon all would be asleep.  The wicked witch would then sharpen her large knife, creep up to the lads, and kill them silently, one-by-one, with the skill of long practice.  Then in the morning she would -- eat them.  Debbo Engal did not feed on rice or corn or yams -- only human flesh satisfied her cruel appetite.
     Now in a village some miles away lived a woman who had ten sons.  And they heard of the beauty of Debbo Engal's daughters and wanted to visit them.  Their mother entreated the boys not to go.  
     "It is an evil compound; keep away my sons!" she begged.  "So many young men have gone never to return and I don't want to lose all my sons at once!"
     But the lads laughed at her fears and assured her that they could look after each other and that ten men would be a match for any woman.  Besides, the daughters were said to be so very beautiful that none of the young men could rest until they had seen the maidens.
     Early the next morning the ten brothers set off in high spirits, singing and laughing as they walked along the narrow paths which led to the bush to Debbo Engal's compound.  
No sooner had they left their mother then she gave birth to an eleventh son.  But what a strange looking child he was, being scarcely the size of his mother's little finger.  Then he stood upright straight away and spoke to her.  
     "Good mother," he said, his bright little black eyes gazing fixedly at her face.  "Where are my brothers?"
     "They have gone to Debbo Engal's compound," she replied in amazement, wondering how it was that he knew he had any brothers.
     At this the little boy gave a shout exclaiming, "Then I must go after them and save them!"  And he ran swiftly down the path which his brothers had taken.  
     Very soon he saw the ten lads in the distance and called after them, "Hey!  Hey, wait for me!"
     The brothers stopped and turned to see who was calling.  And when the tiny boy ran up to them they stared open-mouthed.  
     Presently, one of them managed to say, "Who are you and what do you want?"
     "My name is Fereyel and I'm your youngest brother," he replied.
     "Indeed you are not for there are only ten of us," they replied.  "Now go away and leave us in peace!"
     "I want to come with you to save you from harm," said Fereyel.
     At this the brothers were angry and began to beat him, saying, "Don't be so silly; how can you be our brother?  Now go away and leave us in peace!"
     They beat him so hard that he lay senseless on the ground.  And then the unkind brothers went on their way toward Debbo Engal's home. 
     Some time later, one of the brothers found a piece of beautiful cloth lying across the path.  
     "Look what I found!" he exclaimed.  "Some careless person has dropped this fine cloth!  This really is a lucky journey, isn't it?"
     He picked up the cloth, slung it over his shoulder, and continued on his way.  But somehow the cloth seemed to get heavier and heavier.  
     And presently, he said to the second brother, "Will you carry this for me?  It's so very heavy on my shoulder."
     The second brother laughed at him for a weakling.  But very soon he, too, found the cloth too heavy and passed it on to the third.  And so it went on until it reached the eldest of the ten brothers.  
     And when he complained about the weight, a shrill voice from inside the cloth called out, "I'm inside!  That's why you find the cloth so heavy.  It's Fereyel, your youngest brother!"
     The young men were furious.  And shaking Fereyel out of the cloth, they beat him again and again until once more they left him lying senseless beside the path.
     "Well that's the end of him," they said.  "Lying little scoundrel!"
     So they went on their way; for it was a long journey.  And they began to hurry since they had wasted some time in beating Fereyel.  
     Suddenly one of the brothers kicked his toe against a piece of metal.  And as he bent to pick it up, he saw that it was a silver ring.  
     "Heh-heh, what luck!" he exclaimed.  "Somebody has dropped a ring and now it's mine!"  And placing it on his finger, he swaggered happily along.  But after a few minutes, his hand hung heavily at his side.  It was all that he could do to walk, so weighty had the ring become.  And the same thing then happened with the ring as with the cloth -- each brother taking turns to wear it, but passing it on when it got too heavy until, at last, it reached the eldest.
     "There's something odd about this ring," he said.
     And was just taking it off his finger when Fereyel's voice piped up saying, "I'm inside!  Th-that's why it's so heavy!"  And he jumped out of the ring onto the ground.  
     Well, the brothers were about to beat him again when the eldest said, "He seems determined to follow us, and he's certainly been very cunning about it.  Leave him alone and let him follow us to Debbo Engal's place after all."

     So on they went until at last they reached the compound they were seeking.  And Debbo Engal came out to greet them.
     "Welcome!" she cried.  "Welcome to our home!  Come and meet my daughters."
     The ten girls were very lovely and the brothers could scarcely take their eyes away from them.  They were led away to the largest hut, and Debbo Engal brought them delicious food and drink.  
     At first, she did not see Fereyel for he was hidden behind the eldest brother's foot.  
     But suddenly she caught sight of him, picked him up, and exclaimed, "What a charming little fellow you are!  Come with me to my hut and I will see that you are properly looked after.  Never have I seen anyone so tiny - you must stay with me and be mine!"
     The brothers were surprised when Fereyel allowed himself to be led away without protest.  But they soon forgot all about him as they feasted and drank and danced with the ten beautiful girls.  

     Night came.  And the brothers talked about going home.  But Debbo Engal persuaded them to stay where they were.  
     "There is no moon," she said, "and you might lose your way.  There are many snakes and wild animals about at this season, too.  So stay with us and return to home by daylight tomorrow."
     The lads needed little persuasion and soon began another dance, while Debbo Engal brought more palm wine to refresh them.  At last, however, the ten boys and girls had to admit that they were too tired to stay awake any longer.  And Debbo Engal lent the brothers some mats and pillows on which to rest in the large hut, where the girls were already almost asleep.  The wicked witch went back to her hut and gave Fereyel a comfortable mat to sleep on and a specially soft pillow for his head.  
     "There you are!" she said.  "Go to sleep now and do not wake until the morning.  I shall sleep on the mat beside you, my little man, so you'll be quite safe."
     So saying, she lay down and closed her eyes.  And soon the compound was wrapped in silence.  
     Presently, Debbo Engal sat up and bent over Fereyel to see if he was asleep.  He closed his eyes and kept perfectly still.  She stoop up, went to the corner where she kept her big knife, but just as she was taking hold of it, Fereyel called out, "What are you doing?!"
     Hastily replacing the knife, Debbo Engal said sweetly, "Aren't you asleep yet, little man?  Let me smooth your pillow for you."  
     And she tidied his bed and shook up the pillow and begged him to sleep in peace.  
     Once again she lay down beside him and once again Fereyel pretended to sleep.  So that after an hour, the wicked witch got up for the second time and took out her knife, ready to sharpen it.
     "What are you doing?!" called Fereyel again.  
     So making some excuse, Debbo Engal came back to her bed and told him to go to sleep again.  For a long time after that, all was quiet.  But Fereyel did not sleep.  He waited until the steady breathing of the woman on the mat beside him told him she was asleep.  And then silently, he crept out of the hut, and made his way to where his brothers and the ten beautiful maidens were.  Gently and silently, he changed all their clothes, putting the white gowns the boys wore over the girls.  And covering his brothers in the blue robes of the women.  Then he returned to Debbo Engal's hut, lay down again and waited.  
     Sure enough, Debbo Engal soon woke with a start.  And for the third time, she crept to the corner of her hut, seized her knife, and began to sharpen it.  Fereyel did not interrupt her this time, and she slipped out of the door, holding the gleaming blade in her hand.  
     Stealthily, she entered the young people's hut, bent over the ten sleeping forms wrapped in white clothes, and cut their throats with practiced skill.  
     "Heh-heh!  They'll make me a splendid meal tomorrow!" she muttered to herself as she lay down contentedly and fell asleep again.
     As soon as he was sure Debbo Engal would not wake, Fereyel hurried into the big hut and shook each of his brothers by their shoulders.
     "Get up!  Get up!" he whispered.  "Debbo Engal meant to kill you all and had I not changed over your clothes she would have done so.  Look...!"
     And he pointed to the ten girls who lay with their throats cut.
     "The old witch thinks it is you she has killed!"
     The brothers needed no second bidding, but tumbled hastily out of the door, and began their journey home through the bush, anxious to get as far away from Debbo Engal as soon as possible before she woke up again.  But it was no use.
     As soon as the witch woke and discovered that Fereyel was no longer by her side, she rushed into her daughter's hut and saw that she had killed them by mistake in the darkness.  Uttering a fearful cry she called up the wind, mounted on its back, and flew towards the brothers who were as of yet scarcely half-way home.
Fereyel saw her coming.  "Look out!" he shouted to his brothers.  "Here come the old witch!"
     The brothers were panic stricken but Fereyel knew what to do.  Seizing a hen's egg from under a bush, he dashed it on the ground between them and Debbo Engal.  The egg immediately turned into a wide, deep river.  And the young men were able to continue on their way.  

     Debbo Engal was furious and turned about at once, and made for home.  But the brothers had not got rid of her so easily.  For she came back with her magic calabash and began to empty out all the water from the swiftly flowing river.  Soon there was not a drop left and she was able to continue her journey once more.  
     Fereyel saw her coming and shouted, "Look out!  Here comes the old witch again!" while he seized a large stone, flung it in her path.  Immediately it changed into a high mountain, and the brothers continued on their journey, certain that Debbo Engal could not get to them now.  
     But the witch was not defeated yet.  She went back to her home on another puff of wind and fetched her magic axe.  And then she hacked and chopped and chopped and hacked until at last the whole mountain disappeared, and she was able to continue on her way.  
     But she was too late.  Just then, Fereyel saw her coming again and gave his brothers a warning shout.  
     "Look out!" he cried as they saw their village ahead.  
     And with one final effort, they reached their house.  Debbo Engal knew that she could not touch them there, and went away defeated, muttering fearful curses under her breath.  
     But Debbo Engal did not let the matter rest there.  She was determined to get hold of the young men and kill them.  Even though she had mistakenly killed her own daughters.  So she lay in hiding and waited her chance. 

     Early next morning, the village headman told the brothers to go into the bush and collect logs.  Somewhat fearfully, they went, keeping close together, and glancing over their shoulders from time-to-time in case the witch turned up again.  They did not see her, however, for the very good reason that she had heard the headman's instructions and had immediately turned herself into a log of wood.  As the lads collected the logs, they stacked them beside the path.  
     "Come on!" one of the called to Fereyel.  "Don't be so lazy!  Why are you standing still while we do all the work?"
     "Because Debbo Engal has turned herself into a log and I do not want to be the one who picks her up," he explained.
     On hearing this, the brothers threw down the logs they were carrying and raced for home.  Debbo Engal, who was furious that she had not yet been picked up, changed herself back into a witch, and hid in the bush still longing for revenge.  

     A few days later, the brothers went off into the bush to collect wild plums.  At first, they only found trees with somewhat withered fruit.  But suddenly they came upon a bush with bright, green leaves, and luscious, juicy plums hanging from its branches.  
     "Look at this; what luck!" exclaimed the eldest brother, reaching out his hand to pluck the fruit.
     "Stop!" commanded Fereyel.  "Don't you realize it's a magic tree and Debbo Engal is inside it?  If you fill your calabashes with fruit, she'll soon have you under her spell." 
     The brothers dropped their calabashes and ran home with haste.  And once again, Debbo Engal's plans were frustrated.  

     The next morning when the brothers came out of their compound, they saw a grey donkey grazing on the communal grass at the edge of the village.  It seemed to belong to no one and the brothers thought it must have strayed from a nearby village.  
     "What luck!" said the eldest.  "Let's all have a donkey ride!"
     And one-by-one, they climbed onto the donkey's back, until all ten of them were perched up there precariously.  
     And then they turned to Fereyel standing beside them and called, "Room for one more -- jump on!"
     "There's no room at all," replied Fereyel.  "Even I, as small as I am, could not get on that donkey's back now."
     Immediately, the strangest thing happened.  The donkey began to grow longer and there was plenty of room for Fereyel.  
     "Hah hah!" he shouted.  "You won't catch me climbing on the back of such an elongated donkey!"
     Then much to everyone's surprise, the donkey shrank back to its normal size.  
     Fereyel laughed.  "You have all been tricked again!" he said.  "Donkeys don't usually understand what human beings are saying, but this one does, so it must be Debbo Engal again.  Get off if you value your lives!"
     The brothers tumbled off the donkey's back and the animal went braying back to the bush where it changed into Debbo Engal.  

     And now the witch was desperate.  She had tried all her magic tricks, save one.  And she was determined to make this a success.  
     "If I can only catch Fereyel, I shall be sure of the others," she said to herself, and sat in deep contemplation planning another wicked scheme.

     The next morning, a beautiful maiden walked into the village.  The villagers crowded round her and asked, why she had come?
     "I want to see Fereyel," she replied in a clear, bell-like voice.  "Will you lead me to his house?"
     Fereyel was amazed to see such an attractive girl and asked her to come into the visitor's hut.  And then he went out and killed a young goat and told his mother to cook the meat for his beautiful guest.  All day long her entertained the maiden, giving her delicious food to eat and talking to her all the while.  The villagers, who had never seen such beauty before, came peeping into the hut from time-to-time, and went away exclaiming loudly at the wonderful sight.  

     When evening came, the maiden said she must go back to her home.   
     "Will you lead me through the bush, Fereyel?" she asked.  "It is too dark for me to go alone."
     Fereyel willingly agreed and the whole village turned out to bid them goodbye.  
     It was very dark.  And Fereyel led the way along the little winding path that the maiden had told him led to her home.  And then suddenly, she disappeared behind a thick tree trunk and was completely hidden.  Fereyel stood still, alert and waiting, straining his eyes in the dark.  And then, out slithered a horrible fat python which made straight for Fereyel and would have coiled itself round him and crushed him to death had he not been waiting for this moment.  
     "Hah-hah!  Debbo Engal!" he laughed, and changed himself into a roaring fire.  
     The python had no time to turn around.  It could not stop its huge rippling body from dashing straight into the fire where it immediately perished.  

     Great was the joy in Fereyel's village when he went home and told his brothers the tale.  
     And great was the feasting and dancing they had that night to celebrate the death of the wicked witch, Debbo Engal.

1 comment:

Chisanga said...

Thanks for the story. I read it several years ago from Kathleen Arnott's African myths and legends. It felt good reading it again.Thank you:)