Laos: Why the Lip of the Elephant Droops

This story is part of the Laos unit. Story source: Laos Folk-Lore by Katherine Neville Fleeson, with photographs by W.A. Briggs (1899).

Why the Lip of the Elephant Droops

In the days when the earth was young, lived a poor man and his wife who had twelve daughters whom they no longer loved and no longer desired. Day after day, the father and mother planned to be free of them, and upon a day, the father made ready a basket; in the bottom he placed ashes, but on the top he spread rice. Taking this basket with him, he called his daughters to come go to the jungle to hunt for game.

When the heat of the day had come, they all sat down to eat and, after they had eaten, the father gave each daughter a bamboo joint and bade her get water for him. The joints were so made that they would not hold water, and while the maidens endeavored to make them so they would, the father returned home. In vain did the maidens try to make the joints hold the water and after a time they sought their father, but, lo, the father was gone and only the basket remained!

Examining the basket, they found rice but on the top and the bottom filled with ashes, so they knew their parents sought to be free of them by leaving them in the trackless jungle. Unable to find their way out, there they slept peacefully, for the wild beasts molest not those who fearlessly stay with them.

As the eye of day opened in the East, the forlorn maidens beheld, as they awakened, a beautiful woman standing near, and of her they sought help.

“Come with me and be companions to my little daughter. Often am I away from home and she is lonely. Come home with me, play with my daughter, and in exchange I will give you a home,” said the beautiful woman.

Gladly the maidens consented and went with the woman to her home far in the jungle. All places save one small garden were they free to enter. And upon a day, the fair woman said, “I go to the jungle and will not return until the eye of day has closed. Do not play in the small garden.” Scarcely had she gone ere she returned, but the maidens had not sought the garden.

Again, upon a day, the fair woman said, “I go to the jungle but for a short time. Go not to play in the small garden.”

Thinking she would this time be gone all day, the maidens sought the small garden, and lo, it was strewn with human bones! Then they knew the fair woman was a cannibal. Full of fear, they fled, and, as they fled they met a cow.

“Protect us,” they cried.

The cow opened its mouth and the maidens jumped in. Thus they journeyed from the cannibal’s home. As the cow returned, it met the fair woman seeking the maidens.

“Have you seen twelve maidens pass this way?” asked she.

“No,” answered the cow.

“If you do not speak the truth, I’ll kill and eat you,” cried she.

“I saw them as they made haste in that way,” replied the cow. The cannibal woman pursued that way.

After the cow left them, the maidens hastened on and as they hastened, they met an elephant and begged it to save them from the cannibal.

The elephant opened its mouth and the maidens jumped in, but so slowly did one jump that an edge of her garment hung out of the mouth. As they journeyed, the cannibal overtook them.

“Did you see twelve maidens hastening toward the city?” asked the cannibal.

“No,” answered the elephant.

“From this time forth forever the lip of thy mouth shall hang down as a garment,” cursed the cannibal, for she had seen the edge of the maiden’s garment hanging out of the elephant’s mouth and knew it was protecting the twelve maidens.

And to this day doth the lip of the elephant hang down like a garment.

(700 words)

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