So it flew up higher still—so high that the earth shone like one of the other stars.
‘How much of you will be left if you fall from here?’ asked the bird.
‘If I die, I die,’ said the boy, ‘but I will not leave you.’
The Swahili fairy tale, “The Nunda, Eater of People,” is the story of a boy and figs, and a sultan, and a bird. It also contains, perhaps, the most extreme of what Max Lüthi, preeminent fairy-tale scholar and critic, would call a “blind motif”: an element not made use of, narratively, once it is introduced. An element whose purpose is only disappear. Think of a protagonist and their two older brothers, who are never referred to after their introduction, and yet are not removed by the author—the blind motif is the anti-Chekhov’s gun, a red herring gone amok. In “The Nunda,” our protagonist holds onto the bird until it relents and offers one of its feathers; in an emergency, the boy can burn the feather, and the bird will rescue him.
At the moment of transaction, the story is only halfway done: the latter half revolves around a murderous cat and our protagonist’s mission to kill it, with no more mention of the feather. The story seems to laugh in the face of expectations, the call and response. The idea of what goes up must come down. We enter the realm of the dreaded vague: For all we know, the feather has fallen out of the youngest’s pocket, been blown by the wind into some forgotten corner of his abode. For all we know, the feather has been pickpocketed by a neighboring child and put beneath a pillow to be forgotten. For all we know, the feather is kept until the boy becomes an old man who has never saw reason to flee anything.
That we do not dwell on how this bird carries the boy into space is beautiful. That in the quote above the bird asks not about dying in the fall, but having only a remainder of a body, is beautiful. That none of this is explained is beautiful. Can we truly not accept a gun that does not fire by the curtain’s fall? Are we really that against the motif that blinds, or refuses to be congruous? The sultan was mentioned in the first sentence here and never did return. Was he missed, or was his being forgotten something better?
“The Nunda,” as with all stories, could have offered us an answer as to the boy and his feather, but isn’t it better that we can leave ourselves with just one of a thousand better visions? For all we know, the boy burns his feather a decade after killing the Nunda, and only because he feels like taking a wing-borne joyride over Nalubaale and all its freshwater, the source of the thing many others call the Nile.
This Editor’s Note was written by Fairy Tale Review Prose and Managing Editor and Tiny Donkey Editor Joel Hans.