Pee Bee Yaw

There once lived a young pair of orphans, brother and sister, whose parents had left them only four annas in silver. Because they were orphans, they were despised and belittled. Finally they were driven out of the village by their neighbors, lest the misfortune of orphan hood should prove contagious...

They maintained a precarious existence by the most laborious toil, living in a little hut at some distance from the clan to which they belonged. A famine arose in the land and the clansmen were obliged to go to a neighboring country to replenish their slender stock of grain. When the supply of paddy of Po Khai - the orphan boy, was exhausted, his sister brought  out the cherished piece of silver their parents had left them and asked him a despairing mood, he said, ‘What is the use? Four annas…’ worth of rice will prolong our miserable lives but a few hours. As starvation is inevitable, let us meet our fate at once. His sister pleaded that, unhappy as their lives were, they had entered the world with great pain, trouble and care to their parents so they should not leave it till every means to prolong existence had been exhausted. To please his sister Po Khai went, following the clan at a distance as he would not be allowed to mix with their party. When the party returned, they saw in the depths of the jungle by the side of the road an old woman, her body up to her neck completely covered with creepers, which had wound themselves firmly around her body.”

“As the party approached, the old woman screamed, ‘Cut me loose, cut me loose.’ The clansmen declined, as the old woman would want to go home with them, and would eat them out of house and home. After the whole party had passed, Po Khai came along.”

 “The old woman redoubled her cries as there was but one left from whom she could hope for release. Po Khai thought to himself, ‘I must die, and even if the old woman goes home with me, it can make but a few hours’ difference.’ So he cut away the creepers and the old lady slipped dancing out on the road, saying, ‘Hurry up, grandson, for grandmother is perishing with hunger.’ The old woman was really Pee Bee Yaw, which means’ Grandmother with the bound waist.’ When the sister saw her brother returning, she thought, ‘My brother must be mad to invite guests to dinner when four annas’ worth of rice bought at famine prices are all or store.’ Her brother, seeing her frowns, hastily ran up into the house and begged his sister not to refuse the hospitality universally shown by the Karen. He reminded her how their parents never sent anyone hungry away, and begged his sister to keep up the ancestral custom, even though they were in the very jaws of death. The old woman at once slipped into the kitchen and called the young girl to cook in haste, as she was very hungry. With a heavy heart the young girl was just pouring into the pot all the rice her brother had brought home when the old woman checked her sharply, ‘What a wasteful child! Seven grains of rice are quite enough.’ ‘Grandmother,’ replied the girl, ‘I know how to cook a pot of rice, but I don’t know how to cook only seven grains of rice.’ The old woman spoke up sharply, ‘Obey orders when your elders command you, and ask no questions.’ Abashed at the sharp tone of the old woman, the girl counted out seven kernels, and the old woman approached the pot with mystic passes and the pot became full. At seven grains to a meal, Po Khai saw that the rice he had purchased was amply sufficient for his wants, and knew that a good power had stepped in to save him.

When the news of the daily miracle reached the clan, they assembled and claimed Pee Bee Yaw refused to go either it, reminding them that they had forfeited their right as the first finders by their refusal to cut her loose from the creepers. Of course, this refusal laid the foundation of much hatred towards Po Khai and his sister. When the time came to cut the Khu (hill garden) Pee Bee Yaw told Po Khai to clear the jungle from seven hills and prepare them for planting. ‘How can I clear seven hills?’ asked Po Khai. ‘Ask no questions when your elders order you,’ was the old lady’s sharp reply. Just as he was leaving the house, Pee Bee Yaw gave him a machete with orders to try it. When he reached the chosen spot, Po Khai raised his against a huge tree. It fell without even waiting for the blow. ‘Well, that’s the sharpest machete I ever used,’ blurted out Po Khai, as he watched the crash of the huge tree. Of course, the seven hills were all cleared off before breakfast.”

“Po Khai wondered how this huge field was ever to be planted and reaped and the grain threshed, but he dared ask no questions, as Pee Bee Yaw always rebuked so harshly. He went on in blind faith in the old woman’s power. At the sowing season, Pee Bee Yaw danced over the whole field, and a perfect shower of paddy started from her fingers and toes and from every fold of her clothing, and so the field was well filled with grain, the crop prospered splendidly, and soon the bending eats, over a foot in length and filled to the very extremity with golden grain, gave promise of such a bountiful harvest as had never been known before.”

“Po Khai wondered how this grain could ever be harvested, but still dared not to ask. The clansmen, wild with rage at the boundless wealth which they had just missed, and which had gone to Po Khai, now summoned all the clans within a day’s march to join them in stealing Po Khai’s paddy. Men, women and even children joined the raid. Some reaped, others carried the bundles. Some threshed and winnowed, while others carried home the paddy. After a most laborious night’s work of many hundreds, all of Po Khai’s grain was carried off. Fancy the looks of Po Khai when he found nothing but trampled stubble where he had left waving grain!”

“Following the trial of the thieves, he picked up seven sheaves dropped by the way. On reporting to Pee Bee Yaw that there seven bundles were all that was left of their crop, she coolly told him to build seven huge paddy bins. Po Khai did so with the unquestioning obedience which had become a habit with him. When the bins were completed, but not roofed, a sheaf was put in each, and Pee Bee Yaw commenced dancing among the bins and singing a call to the grain wherever it was to return to its proper owner. At once the paddy came flying through the air, and fell in a perfect shower, till not a single grain was left with the thieves.”

“A solemn council of all the clans was held, and their indignation knew no bounds. ‘ We thought to ruin Po Khai, and we have been made nothing but his coolies, and even worse! Nothing is left us even for our wages.’ So they arranged to steal the paddy again from the bins this time. They even plotted to kill both Po Khai and Pee Bee Yaw.”

“Po Khai spent the day, by Pee Bee Yaw’s orders, in cutting a huge pile of clubs and making a large number of cords. When they went home in the evening, Pee Bee Yaw said ‘Ropes tie and sticks beat…’ When the clansmen came to steal the paddy, the ropes bound each to a tree and the clubs began to beat a rat-rat-too on their backs. To entreat the deaf cords and club was, of course, useless. Next morning, Po Khai found his tormentors in his power and half dead with the terrible beating they had received.”

“They readily took the oath, considered by hill men to be inviolable, never to molest him more. Pee Bee Yaw then said she must return to her abode in the skies, to wash down her house there as the hens had surely filled it with dust. To enable her to do so, she told Po Khai to raise the two shafts by which the native plough or harrow is dragged, into a perpendicular position. She then took the form of a cricket, crept up to the yoke and flew away.”           

(The custom of raising the yoke in the air and placing a cricket on the perpendicular poles that support it, is still followed by the Karens. It is considered a very good omen if the cricket crawls upwards and takes flight from the top.)

The story of Pee Bee Yaw is the combination of moral instructions to the Karen generations. Even though it sounded like a fairy tale, it disclosed the beauties of simple life and the blessings of obedience that made Karens. Po Khai was Karen personified hero in many folklores with diverse version. The stories of Po Khai will soon be on these pages.  

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