Lapene, Queen of the Birds

This is the tale of Lapene. She was the daughter of a grand and respectable lady whose name we no longer remember. Lapene was one of three daughters. But her life was blighted by having been born with a growth on the side of her belly. This growth, called tolo, was so bad that she could not walk on her own.

As the three little girls grew into young ladies, the tolo kept growing longer and longer. This disturbed Lapene’s mother who then began to devise means of moving away from the homestead to avoid difficulties that she believed would become unspeakable. As her plan took shape, she made up her mind to abandon Lapene. On the day that the family were to leave, she said to Lapene, “Lapene, remain here for a while. You see we should carry you away but we don’t have the ubenu to strap you to our backs. Let me carry on with this move and when we are done, I’ll come back for you with a sturdy ubenu and carry you on my own back.” With that they abandoned Lapene.

While Lapene waited for her family to come back to fetch her, a figure appeared in the distance. As its features became clear, she saw it was an ogre and was filled with horror. The salivating giant was eyeing her with a slobbering mouth.

Lapene struggled to climb up a tree and dropped onto the roof of a house and sat there on top of the thatch. There she waited hoping that the ogre would lose interest and leave her alone. But the ogre lay down under the tree waiting patiently knowing that a delicious morsel was up there. The ogre thought, when it tires and drops down I must eat it immediately.

When Lapene realised that the ogre was not going to budge, she started singing a song:

For want of the ubenu yee
I couldn’t leave with my Ma.
For want of the ubenu yee
I couldn’t leave with my Ma.

And the ogre would answer:

Quiet Lapene!
Quiet Lapene!

But she sang on:

Quiet Lapene Quiet?
What with your red teeth?
You want to eat me.

Just as she’d started to feel desperation creep upon her, Lapene looked to the sky from where she hoped help would come. Ujwiny flew by and she asked it if he could help her by singing her song:

For want of the ubenu yee
I couldn’t leave with my Ma.
For want of the ubenu yee
I couldn’t leave with my Ma.

The ogre would grumble from above:

Quiet Lapene!
Quiet Lapene!

But she carried on:

Quiet Lapene Quiet?
What with your red teeth?
You want to eat me.

“Go on sing.” said Lapene to Ujwiny. And so Ujwiny sang:

Chwiki chwiki
Chwiki chwiki
Chwiki chwiki

After listening to the bird, she said to it, “You don’t know the art of singing. You can be on your way now.”

She looked around and saw Ayweri and said to it, “Ayweri come over here. I’d like you to sing my song.”

“How goes the song.” asked Ayweri.

For want of the ubenu yee
I couldn’t leave with my Ma.
For want of the ubenu yee
I couldn’t leave with my Ma.

The Ogre who lay under the tree would interrupt her by mumbling:

Quiet Lapene!
Quiet Lapene!

But still Lapene continued her song:

Quiet Lapene Quiet?
What with your red teeth?
You want to eat me.

So Ayweri sang:

Kurret kurret
Kurret kurret

“Ayweri, you cannot help me,” she cried, “Be on your way.”

She looked around and saw Lakwal, and said to it, “Lakwal please come and help me.”

“What is the problem miss? How can I help you?”

“I want you to try singing a certain song of mine. If you are successful in singing it correctly, then you’ll be able to give me the help that I’m seeking otherwise the ogre will eat me.”

“Alright, sing it,” said Lakwal.

For want of the ubenu yee
I couldn’t leave with my Ma.
For want of the ubenu yee
I couldn’t leave with my Ma.

The Ogre who lay under the tree would interrupt her by mumbling:

Quiet Lapene!
Quiet Lapene!

But still Lapene continued her song:

Quiet Lapene Quiet?
What with your red teeth?
You want to eat me.

So Ayweri sang:

Kwink kwink quilu
Kwink kwink quilu

She asked the bird to fly away, for he couldn’t help. Shortly Alobolang, the grey parrot passed by. She waved it down and said to it, “Please sing my song and help me out of here.”

“How does the tune go?” asked the parrot.

So she cleared her voice and started to sing:

For want of the ubenu yee
I couldn’t leave with my Ma.
For want of the ubenu yee
I couldn’t leave with my Ma.

The Ogre who lay under the tree interrupted her by grumbling:

Quiet Lapene!
Quiet Lapene!

But Lapene continued her song:

Quiet Lapene Quiet?
What with your red teeth?
You want to eat me.

When Lapene finished her sad song, the parrot repeated her tune in a clear and exact tone. Parrot was a celebrated singer with mastery of voice and emotion, but it broke his heart to see her suffer. So he pulled out his wings and gave them to Lapene.

Lapene took his wings and whisked him onto her back. She tried out the new wings and off they flew between branches until they shot out from the canopy and into the sky.

The two flew until they saw the citadel of the birds. When they reached the court, all the birds were amazed by the appearance of a human being among birds. So they drew close to her in a mass of colour and beauty and declared her to be worthy of her quest. They declared her their Queen and she ruled over them.

Many years later, there was a great famine on earth. People were forced to scavenge in the wilderness for fruits, seeds and nuts to survive. As the queen of the birds, Lapene was also the custodian of all offerings of the trees and shrubs and bushes. One day her two sisters went foraging in a forest near Lapene’s court and came upon a creature that looked like their lost sister. They drew closer to Lapene in wonderment. When Lapene saw them, she asked, “Where have you two come from?”

The two sisters explained where they had come from and told Lapene what was happening in their homestead. She took pity on them and gave them all the fruits, nuts and berries that they cold carry. The two sisters then set off for home.

When the sisters arrived at their homestead, they proceeded straight to their mother and announced. “When we were away in the wilderness, we came upon a queen of all the birds, and she looked just like our sister, whom we abandoned – the one called Lapene.”

Their mother was very surprised and made arrangements to call on the Queen of the Birds. The party set off from the homestead and came to the spot where the sisters had found Lapene. When they saw her, they asked her about her life.

“As a child, you abandoned me at our homestead and the ogre was supposed to have eaten me. It was the birds who came to my help, and that is why I live like one now. There is no way now for me to live like you or with you ever again. What you did to me was not gracious at all. This evil doing lies on your heads.”

Lapene’s mother began to cry. She wept bitterly and pleaded with Lapene to forgive her and come back to live with them. Lapene declined to come with them, but told them that they were forgiven. She left them and went away to continue being Queen of the Birds.

This story teaches us that if you have a cripple or a weakling with you, take good care of them and persevere until the end of life.


Retold by Lagile translated from the Luo by Deyu African.