As there were no longer any records, the Hmong could
not even tell when they actually misplaced their history.
The event had deleted itself. But the oral legend that was
passed on unreliably like a whisper from China would
have them believe the following:
The elders of the Hmong tribes had gathered to lead the great exodus. For countless centuries, their people had been victimized by the mandarins. With no more will to fight, the time had come to flee. Traditional nomads, the Hmong had few valuable possessions to carry. They would lead their animals and build new homes when they reached the promised lands to the south. But there was one artifact that belonged to all the Hmong. It was the sacred scroll that contained their written language, legends, and myths of ancestors in a sunless, ice-covered land, and, most importantly, the map of how to reach their nirvana: the Land of the Dead in the Otherworld.
With great ceremony, the scroll was removed from its hiding place, wrapped in goat hide, and given the position of honor at the head of the caravan. The Hmong walked for a hundred days and a hundred nights and on the hundred and first night they were lashed by a monsoon that drenched them all before they could find shelter. Cold and wet, they sat shivering in a cave until the sun rose. The keeper of the scroll was distraught to discover that the rain had soaked through the goat hide and dampened the sacred document. Chanting the appropriate mantras, they unrolled the text and laid it on the grass to dry beneath the hot morning sun. And the followers, exhausted from their sleepless night, found shade under the trees and fell into a deep sleep.
While they slumbered, a herd of cattle found its way up to the mountain pass and discovered both the sleeping Hmong and the hemp scroll inscribed with vegetable dyes. And, starved of new culinary experiences, they set about eating this delicious breakfast with vigor. The Hmong awoke to find their sacred scroll chewed to pieces. They chased off the cattle and collected the surviving segments. These they entrusted to a shaman who stayed awake with them and kept them safe and dry for the next hundred days and hundred nights. But on the hundred and first day, the clouds finally parted and the sun shone and the Hmong found themselves in a deserted village. Not one to ignore the lessons of experience, the shaman laid out the segments in the loft of the longhouse. Certain the remnants of the scroll wouldnt be attacked by cattle or goats or birds there, he finally joined his brothers and sisters in a well-earned sleep. But he hadnt taken the rats into account. Halfstarved and desperate, the rats set about the hemp and devoured it in a frenzy. Unsated, but with the memory of food now implanted in their minds, they then turned upon one another. When the Hmong finally climbed into the loft, all they found were several ratty corpses and a few unreadable shreds of their culture. This, according to the legend, was how the Hmong lost their history and their written language.
The spirit of the first-ever Hmong shaman, See Yee, looked up from the Otherworld and was mightily pissed that his people could be so careless. He stewed over this for a lifetime or two before he could find it in his heart to forgive them. But he didnt send them a new scroll or a new script, for that really would have been tempting fate. Instead, he taught six earthly brothers how to play six music pipes of different lengths. By playing together, this sextet found they were able to guide the dead to the Otherworld without the map. But, as they got older and found themselves with more personal commitments, it wasnt always easy to get them together to perform. So See Yee taught mankind how to put the six pipes together and play them with six fingers as one instrument. Thus, the kwee was born.
Excerpted from The Curse of the Pogo Stick by Colin Cotterill Copyright © 2008 by Colin Cotterill . Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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